Blueberry Pie, round two.

I saw my first blueberries at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market last Saturday. I didn’t buy any for this week — we have friends in town, and there are 6 kids between us, the oldest two being six-years old. Between the chaos of 6 little people, and the fact that my cooking-brain has been a bit challenged since we moved, outside of sourdough pancakes on the griddle as I type, and the planned sour-cherry rustic tart for dessert tonight, I’m not doing much to feed them (see what you get when you come visit me?).

But the image of those blueberries stuck with me, and it’s got me thinking about pie. Since I made my first blueberry pie a couple years ago, and it was a raging success, I thought I’d share it again — mainly to remind myself that I did cook, on occasion, before three weeks ago.

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This was my very first blueberry pie. Isn’t it lovely?

(Anecdotal note: I was chastised, in jest, a while back, for claiming that something I prepared leaned heavily toward deserving the adjective delicious. But I’ve never had a problem saying that something I make is good. Likewise, I don’t hesitate to bring out such negative descriptors as bad, disappointing, or even disastrous. I suppose I, in some way, place a comfortable distance between myself and what I make — usually, because it’s not my original recipe, so I’m not to thank. Or, it’s entirely due to the quality of ingredients, which I didn’t create. I will allow, that in some cases, claiming the success of a food before your guests try it could set you up for failure. And maybe, in those cases, I should keep my mouth shut. But at the moment of note, I was declaring the utter fantastic-ness of mango sorbet and toasted coconut ice creams served together — and, on this note, I must claim complete objectivity. If anyone were to taste the combo and disagree, I would have to write off their tastebuds as insufficient.)

So, the pie. We picked blueberries a couple of weekends ago, the kids and I. On this adventure, I learned a few things:

  1. Picking a gallon of blueberries is nowhere near as easy as picking a gallon of strawberries.
  2. Two-year olds are not much help. And are, rather, a hindrance. Especially when they decide to eat a white-pink blueberry.
  3. Blueberry bushes are at exactly the wrong height for extended reaching when your body is clearly showing the signs of having entered your third trimester of pregnancy.
  4. There is a reason that the memory of picking blueberries at my grandmother’s house as a child has always included the tinge of general grumpiness.

Thanks to the help of a friend and her older children, we finally filled our bucket. I ended up with a few quart bags of frozen berries, and saved enough fresh to make a cobbler and this pie. I was (of course) inspired by the last issue of Cook’s Illustrated; if I was going to use 6 cups of hard-won fresh blueberries to make a pie, it was going to be this one.

And I think that it was near-perfect (ahem… if I do say so myself). A hefty dose of zest and juice gave it a wonderful lemony aroma and flavor, which kept it from being too sweet and one-dimensional. And the texture — made by using grated apple in place of part of the traditional measure of tapioca — held together enough to cut stable slices while not being close to gummy or gelatinous.

The crust, though. It was both flaky and tender. But the war that was waged in my kitchen for that crust — I don’t know if I can do it again. The recipe called for the ironically-named “Fool-proof pie dough” that Cook’s has published before. This was the first time I’d made it, and I guess that if this recipe is an official measure, I must now be called a fool. The process flies in the face of all pie-dough-making knowledge that I’ve acquired to this point. It was kind of like trying to drive backwards, or write with your left hand (if you are, like me, right-handed). The dough was made in a food processor, and that I’ve done before. But you actually allow the fat and flour to become fully, unapologetically incorporated. No pea-sized clumps here — this was a mass of cookie dough. And then, you stir in enough water and vodka to form a wet, soggy dough (the vodka keeps the dough from becoming tough, which is what you’re avoiding by overmixing when making a traditional crust). I kept repressing my doubt and confusion, trusting the author. But when it came time to roll out the dough, both my confidence and the expletives started to fly. It was impossible to roll and get into the pie pan without it falling apart. So I resorted to actually rolling both crusts twice each — which normally makes a pie crust turn into a thin hockey puck. I stuck it in the oven, cursed one last time for good measure, and hoped for the best.

And, I mean look at it. That crust gave me the bird. Outside of having the slightest hint of that shortening flavor (I prefer the flavor, while not the texture, of all-butter crusts), it was really right-on. The ideal encasement for 6 cups of freshly-baked blueberries. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.

What to do with two gallons of tart cherries, part two: freeze the juice.

When I spent a couple of hours earlier this month pitting tart cherries, I worked over a colander nestled in a bowl. I didn’t want to lose a single drop of the prized juice (in reality I lost many drops, as is evident from the blood-like splatters I’ve wiped from my kitchen walls since then).

I was saving the juice, and didn’t even know why. It just looked so… red. It had to be high in something, some sort of anti-oxidant or super-food nutrient. Things that color are either really bad or really good, and something told me this was good.

A google search revealed that the stuff sells for a dollar an ounce in a certain chain of vitamin/supplement stores — a fact that warranted further reading. Turns out, tart cherries and their juice are high in all sorts of anti-inflammatory compounds, such as phenolics — little enzyme-blockers that work in a similar way as over-the-counter pain meds. The alternative medicine site I landed on listed a few things that could be helped by the juice: arthritis, neurodegenerative diseases, and gout (what is that, anyway?).

But the vitamin stores sell it for weightlifters — some studies showed that the juice prevents strength loss and damage resulting from exercise.

Stating the obvious if you know me, but: I can’t think of a person more opposite on the spectrum of people than myself from a group of persons who consider themselves weightlifters. I think I can now do a single push-up, but only after years of trying.

Maybe I should’ve been drinking tart cherry juice. It’s all that strength-loss — the reason for my unabashed wimpiness.

When I kept the juice, I did what I do with just about everything pureed or liquid: froze it in ice cube trays. I now have a bag of tart-cherry-juice-cubes, ready to be thrown into smoothies and other frozen summer drinks. This is not the syrup that resulted from sweetening my dried cherries, but the straight juice from pitting. So it’s still quite tart. Meaning: sweetener is in order, unless you’re dying for a lip-puckering shot of wake-up.

This was an experiment, and it worked. I’m back on my usual summer-sparkling-water kick, for a mid-afternoon treat — so I went for a soda drink rather than a smoothie. Of course, I drank it after lifting nothing more than a chunky 20-month old — but I can say with honesty that after carrying her around for a year and a half, I’m quite sure I’ve got some muscles, somewhere, that need some help.

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Sour Cherry Tonic

  • 2 Tbsp tart cherry juice (fresh or frozen in 1 Tbsp cubes)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar (or less to taste)
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • sparkling water

Place the cherry juice (frozen cubes are ok), sugar, and lime juice in a blender, and blend until the sugar is dissolved. Pour over ice in a small glass, and fill the rest with sparkling water. Enjoy while your muscles recover from whatever strenuous work you’ve been tackling.

The Easiest Scones

A broken record, I am: Father’s Day really snuck up on me this year. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time at all, you might well-deduce that I’m not a very good planner when it comes to token relational holidays. While quite gifted at the arts of over-committing, under-estimating, and getting distracted, I’ve never figured out how to use those traits for good and not evil. If you know me personally, and have a birthday, you might notice that I will never give you a card or gift. If you happen to be married to me, you are not immune to this bad habit, it will just seem even more thoughtless and — dare I say it — man-like than if you were just a random friend. My own children, of course, are completely excluded from the phenomenon — but not enough so that I’m not usually icing their birthday cake as the first celebratory guests arrive.

So, like many years past, I woke up on Father’s Day, wondering what in the world I could throw together for breakfast so that the father of my children would find it believable that I’m very happy he exists. My eldest daughter was trying to help me think while I waited for coffee to steep — but all our ideas were thwarted. His favorite muffins? No blueberries. Pancakes? He makes them himself almost every weekend. But we had fresh apricots, and I wanted to whip up something that Tim — the weekend-breakfast king-of-our-house — never makes himself. Scones it would be (are you surprised?).

Cream scones are the easiest scones to make. Because they don’t contain butter — meaning nothing to “cut in until the mixture looks like meal with no clumps larger than peas” — the only technique that must be mastered is not over-mixing. And to do that, all you have to do is show a little restraint; the dough will look rough, but it’s ok. If you’re a scone virgin, or looking to improve your skills, then when the dough just — and I mean just comes together, put the spatula down and WALK AWAY. Take a deep breath or two and get a pep talk if necessary before walking back to shape your dough. Then, when shaping, handle the dough almost like a hot potato — this is not like kneading bread, it’s like handling a delicate photograph that you want to touch as little as possible.

You can substitute dried apricots, but the fresh ones make very different scones, and since they’re coming into season I use them often this time of year. I used natural cane sugar to sweeten the scones, which is obvious from the tiny brown specs in the photograph — but white sugar or turbinado is fine in equal amounts. Feel free to use all whole-grain or sprouted flour, with a slightly heavier texture as an end result.

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Fresh Apricot Scones
(adapted from a recipe in Joy of Cooking)

  • 1 cup whole wheat or sprouted flour
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup natural cane sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh apricots (from 2-3 apricots, unpeeled)
  • zest of 1/2 orange
  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream (plus another Tbsp for brushing)

Preheat oven to 425º with rack in center of oven.

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the apricots and orange zest, tossing well to combine and coat the apricot pieces with flour.

Pour in the cream, all at once. Using a rubber spatula, stir and fold gently, until the dough just comes together. Turn out onto a floured surface, gently patting the dough and any extra pieces into an 8″ round, about 3/4″ thick. Cut into 8 wedges. Brush the tops with extra cream, and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet or baking stone for about 15 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes on a rack before serving warm or at room temperature.

If a green salad is a summer wardrobe, this dressing is a ribbed cotton tank.

I don’t know about you, but as I’ve grown closer to middle-age, my wardrobe has become more and more predictable. I could probably draw a mathematical curve, illustrating the inverse relationship between my age and the number of exciting choices available to me in my closet. This has a little to do with a tight budget and five bodies to clothe, but more to do with a black hole that sucks all available shopping and/or morning-decision-making time into its void.

My solution to clothing myself is pretty simple: in the winter, I wear long-sleeved t-shirts; in the summer, I wear sleeveless cotton shirts or tank tops. At some point after the arrival of motherhood, I figured out that the easiest way to get myself dressed before noon was to fill my drawer with unassuming, similarly-toned cotton things. That way, I just grab anything from my shirt drawer, then pull a random skirt off my hanging rack (nothing will cover my arms or lower legs in the heat of summer), and I’m good to go.

Now, of course, there are times when this uniform just won’t do. Conveniently, though, since I have the social life of a typical 30-something with three young children, those times are few and far between.

My favorite summer salad dressing is not unlike my summer wardrobe: it’s simple, unassuming, and inexpensive. No, it won’t wow your friends at a fancy dinner party — but given the right accessories, it can be gussied up a bit. I can use this dressing on my salad almost daily for the length of summer and not grow tired of it until the very end. It can be whipped up in a flash, and you probably already have the necessary ingredients on hand (there are only three).

We no longer keep store-bought dressings in our refrigerator. Not that you can’t find good ones (who hasn’t been addicted to Annie’s Goddess Dressing at one point?). But I found that we never finished a bottle before it got gunky, and we usually ended up throwing out a good bit. Tired of this waste, and empowered by the ease of making a simple vinaigrette, I decided to stop buying the pre-made stuff, and rely on my own acids, oils, herbs and jars. Sure, those days when I’m in a hurry and realize we’re out of dressing, I feel a small setback in my urgency to get lunch. But then I remember that it literally takes less than a minute to make — the recipe is so simple it’s easy to memorize — and it’s always a minute well-spent.

If you want to dress it up, add any variety of summer herbs, or substitute your favorite vinegar for some or all of the lemon juice. The summer makes me crave the light, fresh acidity of the lemon, so that’s what I reach for most of the time. This recipe uses more salt than is typical in a vinaigrette, because I love salt with lemon. I buy organic lemons in a 2-pound bag and keep them in the fruit drawer of my frig — they last a few weeks, and I’m always sure to have what I need for my salad. After you juice them, you can throw the used rind in the freezer (in a ziplock bag) and use it for zest in baking recipes (zest the lemon while still frozen).

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Simple Lemon Vinaigrette

  • 1 1/2 – 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (from one lemon)
  • 4-5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Close lid tightly and shake well.

Store dressing in the refrigerator. At cool temperatures, olive oil can solidify — just run the bottle under hot tap water and shake gently to restore the dressing to its desired consistency.

What to do with two gallons of tart cherries, part one: dry them.

Imagine my utter delight when I realized that one of my long-time obsessions — tart dried cherries — could be created in my very own home, with free cherries (free if I consider my own time and labor to be such, which I guess it is; and if it’s not, I should start demanding a paycheck).

But then imagine my dismay when, after laboriously picking, pitting, sweetening, and drying  a quart of fresh sour cherries, I ended up with a measly cup and a half of those tart and sweet morsels of pure love.

Let’s just say I’ll never again complain about the cost of an 8-oz bag of dried montmorency cherries from Trader Joe’s.

While I was a little disappointed in the yield, I do not count it a waste of time. For one, doing something and then chalking it as a new experience is never a waste of time in my book — that’s the only way to think about kitchen experimentation and not go mad from successive failures.  For another thing, I got a lot more than just dried cherries in the end — I had precious pure sour cherry juice, sugar-and-cherry-infused cooking water, and cherry pits. Each of those by-products of the cherry-drying process has further use in the kitchen.

I was going for the same flavor as my beloved Trader Joe’s cherries, and got close. My cherries ended up darker, with a slight caramelized flavor — this was from my use of dehydrated cane juice (Sucanat or Rapadura) instead of white sugar. Also, my cherries were mostly halved when I pitted them — they were one of the lasts harvests from the tree, and by that point many cherries had been attacked by tiny worms. So I took to splitting each cherry apart, and getting a good look around the inside for any unwanted critters before proceeding. This makes for a dryer texture, since the halved cherries have less flesh in each bite.

If you have access to free cherries, and a food dehydrator, this is worth doing. But I wouldn’t buy them just for drying — it’s not cost-effective, certainly when you count the time investment. There are many easier things to do with fresh sour cherries (don’t worry, we’ll cover that later).

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Tart Dried Cherries

  • 4 cups fresh sour cherries, washed and pitted (see this post for a great, inexpensive cherry stoner)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar* (white or natural cane sugar)

In a small saucepan, bring water, cherries, and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.

Drain cherries (reserve the cooking liquid*). Spread on trays in food dehydrator set to about 125º. Depending on size, and whether the cherries are whole or halved, drying time can vary. Begin checking after 6 hours — halved cherries took 6-8 hours in my dehydrator.

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* Fear not: the sugar doesn’t all end up in the cherries — most of it is left in the cooking water. Which is why, when you reserve the water, you can boil it down for another 20 minutes or so, until it reduces by half. You end up with a delicious cherry syrup — a decadent treat that can be used for everything from topping pancakes to sweetening plain yogurt for desert. Place the syrup in a glass jar in your refrigerator, and it will keep for several weeks.

My new kitchen tool crush

Remember my recent moratorium on purchasing more gadgets? And how I even considered getting rid of some?

Yeah, well, nevermind.

On Tuesday, I came home with almost four quarts of sour cherries. I had them in a large container, and unfortunately let them sit out on the counter for quite a few hours before deciding they should probably be in the refrigerator. It wasn’t until Wednesday, as I enthusiastically shared my cherry-picking adventure with yet another captive listener, that I pulled the evidence out of the frig, only to notice pockets of mold in the cherries.

What is it, with me and mold?

In emergency mode, on a routine trip to Target, I wrestled one of those be-damned tanks-of-a-shopping-cart known to my kids as a “car cart” down the kitchen aisles in an assumed-vain search for a cherry pitter. My eyes miraculously landed on the one pictured above (photo stolen from Amazon) — OXO comes through again (and no they don’t — but I wish they would — sponsor me). It was $10 — that’s two bucks cheaper than Amazon — which felt like a bit of a splurge. But I figured I could always return it if it didn’t make the task I was facing a good bit easier.

It was a champion of pitting — a stallion of stoning. Pushed those little seeds right out, with only the occasional seed getting hung up on some fruit. After painstakingly removing the molded cherries (I lost over 1/4 of them), I pitted the rest in about half an hour. And in those thirty minutes, I continuously marveled at the ingeniousness of a cherry stoner. Seriously — every time I pitted, I thought This is so cool (load another cherry) This is so cool (repeat a few hundred times).

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it doesn’t take much.

And since it handily pits olives as well, I can defend its place in (one of my) my utensil drawer(s) by claiming it has multiple uses.

Unpacking, unschmacking.

Our house is walled chaos, and I’m not exaggerating.

That being said, we are making tiny, microscopic-organism-steps of progress. Like yesterday, when I unpacked that one box of books.

Every day I have a goal — and ne’er a single day has passed when my goal has been accomplished. For a few days, this bothered me intensely. Tim came home one day late last week, and was met at the back door with an odor of wifely discontent so foul that he immediately went into Spousal Fireman mode, working feverishly to talk me down off my ledge of insanity. But then something happened over the weekend, and I’ve somehow now embraced the disorder. I might never unpack. What’s the point?

My reaching this point of apathy zen with my current surroundings might have something to do with why, when my friend Shannon told me this weekend that she’d discovered a cherry tree in the yard of their new house, and that the cherries were ready right now, I decided to load up the kids and head over for a morning of picking. I’ve got nothing better to do, right?

But come on, people — cherries. On a real-live tree. I don’t know if I’ve ever even seen one (she had to point it out to me when I got to her house), since those aren’t the things of the deep south. She handed me a ladder, I set the kids up on a blanket with plenty of snacks, and I got to climbing. The cherries aren’t hard to pick — they come right off their stems (should I have kept the stems?), and within 45 minutes or so I’d filled a 4-quart bucket. The hardest part is getting to the cherries, since the ladder could only skirt the edges, and the lower branches had already been cleaned. It became amply clear to me why there’s such a thing as a cherry-picker.

And, I have to say: while it would be idyllic in its own sense to be enjoying this activity in an orchard amidst rolling hills, I was mildly thrilled by the fact that I was picking beautiful fruit from a tree located in the heart of the inner-city. This part of town isn’t known for its Starbucks on every corner, and I basked a little in the rough beauty of the scene. The cherries are sour — I think a bit fittingly — and will need to be baked into cobblers, candied, sweetened and dried, and the like. I’ve mentioned before my obsession with dried tart cherries, so that’s my first attempt —  cooking cherries in sugar-water as I type.

As I type — sighstill sitting on the toilet. I suppose reality will set back in soon, probably for the eventual good of our household. But it was a good escape for at least one morning, with the promise of cherry-laden distractions ahead.

This post is part of Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust & Lipstick.