Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Can she bake a cherry pie?

Nothing breaks my heart like learning I've missed the narrow window opening of tart cherry season. When I heard the news that cherries were done I nearly wept. Fortunately last weekend a heroic farmer brought enough flats of tart cherries to St. Paul's Market to sooth my pain, and we celebrated with pie.

Tart Cherry Pie
1 (2 crust) pie pastry (from your favorite recipe)
5 cups pitted sour cherries
1 1/3 cups sugar1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch or quick-cooking tapioca
1 teaspoon Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into small pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt

Mix up pie pastry for 2-crust pie. Push bottom pastry into pie plate and set aside.

Combine sour cherries, sugar, cornstarch, bitters, almond extract, and salt and let stand 15 minutes.

Pour in fruit mixture into bottom crust and dot with butter pieces. Cover with top crust, seal the edge, trim and flute. If using a closed-top crust, cut steam vents. Sprinkle a bit of sugar over top pie crust.

Bake pie for 10 minutes in preheated 450 degree F oven. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees F and bake until thick juices bubble through vents, 40 minutes more. Let cool completely on a rack before serving.

Serve with 1 cup heavy whipped cream beaten until stiff with 1/4 cup sour cream, a few tablespoons powdered sugar, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract.

Adapted from "Joy of Cooking" Sour Cherry Pie recipe.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amusing radish pizza

It's still July right? As I calculate things, we've got months of grilling left. That means lots of experimentation with pizza toppings.

My lean pocketbook doesn't allow me to dine at The Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis as often as I'd like. When you can't take the girl to the restaurant, take the restaurant to the girl (or at least, take some of the restaurant's ideas to the girl).

This weekend our grilled pizza was in honor of TBF's radish, butter, and crispbread amuse. We dotted the dough with Love Tree Farmstead herb sheep cheese, skinny slices of radish, grilled zucchini, and fresh basil. This combination is now my favorite pizza of the summer. Next time I'll add a bit of rye flour to the pizza dough and roll the crust paper thin for a good crispy snap.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Everyday grillers

"I think it is weird that T and I are the only ones in our neighborhood that grill every night," I told my friend Tiffany. It seems to me, I told her, that there are two kinds of people: those who grill every day, and those who grill infrequently or not at all.

I knew Tiff would understand. She and her boyfriend are fellow grillers, although they use propane and we are charcoal and briquettes people. Recently Tiff's boyfriend acquired an egg-shaped smoker and he's busy drumming up recipes for the weekends when they've got hours to prep for dinner. We fellow grillers understand one another in a way that nongrillers just don't grasp. It is A Calling. We are drawn to warmth, the outdoors, and cooking with fire. In the summer, we've got a second kitchen and it is outside.

"Some people are special occasion grillers. Those are the people who say, 'Let's grill on Saturday!' As if grilling is an elaborate event to be saved for holidays and weekends," Tiffany said.

I'd never thought of it like the before. She's on to something. 

Sometimes, on beautiful warm nights when we've got plans to eat out I can't help but feel disappointment that there aren't backyard flames in my immediate future. I don't want to waste a single opportunity to light that fire. Our entire spring-summer-fall menu spins around what's fresh, and what can be grilled.

While special occasion grillers save their grills for big events and holidays, perhaps we everyday grillers actually think of everyday as a special event.

If you've got a rainy day on your calendar and zucchini spilling out of the garden, head over to Called to the Table for a chocolate zucchini bread recipe. I'm thinking it would be delicious sliced thick and grilled over hot coals and then topped with whipped cream and fresh berries...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day tripping in Northfield: What book are you reading?

This year summer has been about finally reading those books that have spent too many months untouched on the shelf, evenings and weekends spent at the grill, and glorious warm, slow, sunny moments strung together with day trips to great places within a few hours drive of the Twin Cities. We hike for a few hours, grab a cone or a root beer float, and come home feeling like we've taken Thoreau's advice to live deliberately and deep, and to suck out all of the marrow (and ice cream) of life.

Last month T spent a week at Carleton College in Northfield. It was a good excuse for me grab one of those forgotten books on my dusty shelves and spend a day wandering the streets along the river of this southeastern Minnesota Town. Northfield is known for its private colleges, the Cannon River, Malt-O-Meal, and a botched Jesse James robbery (not necessarily in that order).

As I walked toward my breakfast destination, The Tavern on Division Street, folks along my path greeted one another with friendly waves and chitchat. "Julie! How are you today? Is Jim feeling better?" "Good morning, Tony! Ready for the weekend?" Apparently I'd landed in some weird utopian Mayberry, and I was happy to be there.

Inside The Tavern I sat at a booth surrounded by wood paneling and historic photos of college life. My coffee mug advertised local establishments, a cross-promotion that I also observed at another restaurant on their pint glasses. (I also observed cottage cheese on every menu, and decor displaying either collegiate activities or Jesse James. If you've got a winning theme, go with it.) One strawberry waffle and side of bacon later, I took the back exit and found myself on the Cannon River.

Under a sign asking visitors not to feed the wildlife, an older couple tossed breadcrumbs at the ducks. I found a bench, opened my book, and enjoyed the cool breeze coming from the river. It was a hot and humid day, and along the river temps were easily ten degrees cooler than along the main street of Northfield.

"What are you reading?" a friendly voice questioned me. Two young policemen approached me with smiles. I showed them the cover of the memoir in my lap, and we traded small talk for a bit.

(Obligatory confession regarding my summer reading: I am immersed in a heavy curriculum of trashy celebrity memoirs. From Rob Lowe to Mackenzie Phillips, Jason Priestly to Tina Faye, and a Katharine Graham chaser, I am frolicking on the wild side. However, on that particular day I forgot that I was visiting an academic capital and probably should have chosen a less pornographic text than Brandi Glanville's "Drinking and Tweeting." Had I known that every police officer, store clerk, and child I met that day would inquire about my book I would have, at the very least, hidden the cover beneath a generic wrapper.)

I walked into the Northfield Historical Society Museum just as a tour was beginning. Four bucks bought me entrance to the bank where the infamous thwarted robbery attempt by Jesse James and his gang took place. A teen actor recited the details of the robbery and escorted our group through the bank and museum. After the tour, I collected one of the free historical street maps that the museum distributes and spent an hour locating each building and site on the map.

I popped into the kitchen store and several antique shops, collecting souvenirs along the way, until I came to the end of Division Street at the pub where I decided to eat lunch. J. Grundy's Rueb 'N' Stein claims that their Reuben is one of the best around. The sandwich was generous and came with super salty fries that made my cold beer taste even better. Was it one of the best I've ever had? It was pretty good, but I could have eaten an entire bowl of just the sauerkraut. J. Grundy's doesn't advertise that their sauerkraut is made in-house, but they should.

The afternoon was heating up, so I headed back toward the river to cool off. With a full tummy and a comfortable bench, I kicked off my Chuckies and laid back for a nap.

"Excuse me. Excuse me!" A little voice woke me. A cute kid I'd spotted earlier skateboarding down Division Street stood over me. "Are you OK?" he asked.

Apparently it is uncommon for adults to nap barefoot on benches in Northfield, and the poor kid thought I was either a vagrant or in need of an ambulance.

"I'm fine," I assured him. "Just napping."

"Mind if I sit down next to you for awhile?" he asked. Being a city girl I became suspicious that this 10-year old was about to try and scam me.

I sat up and made room for the kid. We made our introductions and he asked me what book I was reading. I tried to hide the cover from him and changed the subject. "Um, just a memoir." Once he was satisfied that I wasn't a stroke victim (or a vagrant), he hopped on his bike and peddled away.

It was almost time to meet T back on campus. One of the clerks in town told me I had to try the wedding cake bakery Cakewalk before leaving Northfield. Cakewalk is a modern bakery with fun cupcake flavors and the most exquisite Rice Krispie Brownies a few dollars can buy. Thankfully, the servers were too busy with customers to ask what book I was reading.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pea season

My favorite tomato farmer told me that by the second week in July she is usually picking 100 baskets of tomatoes each day. This week she had to make due with 30 or 40. A late spring, an even later summer, and cool wet weather has stunted her crop.

I am not sure how this weather translates to pea production. As soon as sweet plump English peas hit the market I spend an hour each weekend shelling them, and pop them like green candy. To shake up our menu just a bit I pureed peas with basil and mint, and spread the pesto over grilled bread with ricotta. These crostini might just hold their own next to a perfect tomato sandwich.

Recipes for pea-basil pesto (as well as for basil lemonade) can be had at Called to the Table today.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Consider the ape

As a kid, weekends meant hanging at my dad's apartment. Most Saturdays were spent watching old movies on TV. When "Planet of the Apes" or any of its manifestations played, I sidled up to the black and white set with a bowl of chips and a bottle of strawberry Pop Shoppe, happy to share the afternoon with Charlton and Roddy. I've always loved a good ape movie.

Once again I've got apes on the mind. A recent story on NPR retold the adventures of Fu Manchu, the orangutang who learned to pick locks with a piece of wire he kept hidden in his mouth. Then I heard about Julie, the chimp who adorned herself with grass earrings. Her friends imitated the grass blade ornamentation even after Julie's death.

Last week, just as the most recent "Planet of the Apes" installment was being released, three bachelor gorillas hatched a great Como Zoo escape and found their way into the toys and treats closet. I used to look for the treats closet when I was a teenager babysitting kids who finally went down for a nap. Oh Virgil, you are an ape after my own heart.

In honor of Virgil, Fu, Julie, and all of the apes that so delight us, T and I spent our weekend with them. Rather than mope about in the Saturday afternoon rain, we headed to the theater for a matinee showing of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (It was fantastic, by the way. The perfect antidote for this summer's dull movie schedule.) Sunday, under warm sun and blue skies, we wandered through Como Park Zoo for a peek at Virgil and his buddies as they munched on romaine lettuce and ignored the crowds that beckoned to them.

Humans have always been fascinated with apes and monkeys. We cage them and observe their reactions to imprisonment, as if being caged is a natural state for any being. We experiment on them, hoping their similarities to us will enable us to cure and discover. We look to them for evidence that we are the smarter cousins, and find that evidence a lot less frequently than we believe. Although I do wonder if Virgil's lettuce would be tastier if he dipped it in a honey mustard vinaigrette.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Skillet biscuits and strawberry coconut ice cream

While Minnesotans, so far, are experiencing a mild summer, rising temps are sure to follow these perfect sunny days. When it is too hot to turn on the oven and too sticky to stand over the grill, I turn to the stove top and pull out a cast iron skillet. Things that I'd normally bake or grill are surprisingly easy to make in a pan. It is amazing what a little surface heat can do to everything from pizza and cobbler, to toast and biscuits.

We've adjusted quickly to our new ice cream machine and I've been cranking out the occasional quart of cool flavors. This weekend I bought a precious pint of fresh local strawberries and knew T would request strawberry ice cream, while I was in the mood for shortcake. Why not combine the two?

With no cream in the fridge I reached for a can of coconut cream for the ice cream, and rather than turn on the oven I made skillet biscuits. Half of the strawberries went into the cream, the other half I macerated in balsamic vinegar, vanilla extract, and maple syrup.

The recipe for Strawberry Coconut Ice Cream is at Called to the Table today. For the biscuits, use your favorite recipe and place biscuits in skillet over medium heat; cover. Check bottom of biscuits to make sure they don't burn. As bottoms begin to turn golden, flip and continue cooking. Adjust heat as needed.