Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Berry Picking (On Nana's Farm, Part I) ...

In the hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the sweetest joys of summer is perennially the juicy ripeness of the blackberry. Luckily for me, my mom's got about one of the best blackberry patches in these parts. Every year, I anxiously await the arrival of this fruit. And when they are ready, you are on blackberry time. There's no waiting around a few days until you can find time in your schedule to mosey on out to the patch. You either pick them when they're ripe, or the entire harvest withers and goes to seed, browning from the bottom of the branch up. An over-ripe blackberry will make your mouth pucker like Minnie Pearl's.  

This, my friends, is just one little plant, mid-plucking, in an entire field of blackberry bushes.
I thought I had died and gone to blackberry heaven. 
You see, the blackberry plant is kind of a little bitch - the mean girl of the garden. She produces one of the most beautiful fruits on the planet, but she's a prickly thing; she harbors midst the protection of her thorns snakes, poison ivy, and sweat bees. Not to mention the fact that contact with her leaves makes your skin itch.

Proper blackberry picking attire includes a bandanna, old t-shirt and long sleeve
that you don't mind snagging on said cranky plant, long pants, and sunglasses. 
Furthermore, there's a science to plucking the best berry. Each little bulb on the blackberry should be glossy and plump (a good berry seems like it has the sun bursting out from under its delicate skin), and when you pinch the fruit from the branch, you must do so with the gentlest of hand, between the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers. There is also no "storing" of blackberries, in my opinion. The minute the berry hits the basket, it begins to disintegrate, staining everything in sight. Frozen blackberries are a travesty.  You either eat them raw, or you bake them up into a proper pie (see below).

I call this one "Toes in the Kubota":  I got my toes in the Kubota, ass in the dirt,
not a worry in the world, ....
I should mention, by the way, that we cheat a little. My mom drives the Kubota through the field, and Miss Mags and I hang over the edges of the bed and pick as many berries as we can reach. Hey, it beats getting poison ivy. Also, I should mention that I think I need to re-read Mags the story The Little Red Hen. Very little picking and a lot of eating;). 
Our chauffers. 
Last night, I made a pie using Marilyn Batali's Blackberry Pie Recipe. There's nothing better than a blackberry pie chilled in the "icebox." I don't like it warm. No, thank you. Cold, with a big dollop of old-fashioned vanilla ice cream from the Spring House. It doesn't get much better than that.

Tomorrow, more from Nana's farm, this time in the garden. ~Alice (aka jess)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rain Day ...

Today, July 29th, is known in these parts as "Rain Day." On this date in Waynesburg, PA, people crowd the streets to celebrate the possibility of rain falling from the sky, the residents betting on whether or not the drops will fall. Here's a little history from the Festival's website: 
"Rain Day got its beginning in the Daly & Spraggs Drug Store, located in the center of Waynesburg. Legend has it that one day a farmer was in the drugstore and mentioned to Byron Daly that it would rain the next day, July 29. Mr. Daly asked him how he knew and he replied that it was his birthday and that it always rained on his birthday. He had a journal for several years in which he recorded the weather and always had noted rain on July 29th. Mr. Daly thought this was too sure a thing to let pass, so he started betting salesmen who came into his drugstore that it would rain in Waynesburg on July 29. The bet was usually a new hat, which of course he would win." Rain Day Festival: History
We weren't planning on venturing out to Rain Day this morning. At all. But today is Aunt Rita's birthday, and she's really special, and she wanted to go, and there we were. For the rain, by the way. At approximately 3:42 this afternoon, a few drops of rain fell on the streets of Waynesburg and made Aunt Rita's day.

A few of my favorite pics:
The side view of the Waynesburg theater.
I love the lines of other old buildings etched into the wall. 
Kitschy stuff for sale. 
Oh the joys of sand art. 
She's very serious about her face painting. 
These dresses made of tank tops and bandannas were super cute!!
The Rain Day statue. 
A good old-fashioned Main Street USA festival, and a good time was had by all. Oh, and humongous funnel cakes for $3.00. $3.00 people:)! And, it has rained 114 of the last 139 years, as of July 29, 2013. ~Alice (aka jess)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blood, Bones, and Butter ...

One more food post this week. That's it. I promise. But it's also kind of about a book.

First, many of you asked me to post the recipe for the Summer Squash Lemon-Ricotta pie that I Instagrammed the other night. My pie was adapted from this recipe, which appeared in the latest Better Homes and Gardens. I used a frozen pie shell, because that's what I had on hand, but I think it would be much better with pie dough formed into a galette, as in the recipe, if I'm being honest. However, I also added some leftover pesto that I had in the fridge to the ricotta, as well as some halved grape tomatoes, both of which enhanced the brightness of the pie greatly, in my opinion. Try it out. My husband ate almost the whole thing in one sitting (which makes up somewhat for the week he ate package after package of Uncle Ben's rice while the girls and I were on our dance vacation, losing six pounds in the process ... I hate men).

Second, a friend just asked me to recommend some of my favorite memoirs, which suddenly made me realize how many of them are written by chefs, foodies, etc. One of my absolute favorites is Blood, Bones, and Butter, a book by Gabrielle Hamilton that traces her evolution as a chef. The first chapter in this book is entrancing. It makes you want to press your nose into the spine of the book so that you can experience the smells she describes, the very aura of the place. I don't want to give too much away; it's a book you should set foot into for yourself.

Until tomorrow. ~Alice (aka jess)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cookin' with the Cousins ...

I've been cooking a great deal over the last two weeks. When I'm working on a major project, everything goes to hell, including the quality of our daily bread. When the project is over, however, I wallow in every corner of my kitchen, savoring the simple pleasures of putting together a good meal.

Today, when I was mulling over which recipes to try next, I pulled off the shelves a little cookbook that my husband's grandmother, Doris, gave us for our wedding shower. Doris (whose middle name was Delilah; the two names together always struck me as a unique combination) was a card, one of the most interesting women I have ever known. An avid reader. A whiz at puzzles. Unafraid of stating her opinion (once I bought her a book by J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts, and she returned it to me with the note, "Terrible book"). Refused to buy anything not made in America. Oh, and she also decided, somewhere in her late 80s-early 90s to paint a mural on the side of her house, which was already flamingo pink. In short, I always admired Doris's spirit, her quick wit, her toughness - and her baking ability. The woman could make some truly excellent cookies.

The recipes in the cookbook she gave me, which was put together by the descendants of her husband's family (many of the contributions from Doris's own daughters), take me back to my childhood, the days when my own grandmother would spend hours upon hours making halushki and halupki. One of the following recipes I share in honor of Doris. The other, well, it's just pretty damned funny.

I think Ms. Rebecca Schlenkerman, Daughter of Teresa, has the right idea. Oh, and Doris, I hope you're painting some fine morals up there in heaven. ~Alice (aka jess)

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Fruits of Summer (Brown-Butter Apricots + Dulce de Leche Ice Cream = Deliciousness) ...

Confession: I am a terrible baker. There have been many dessert disasters over the years when I try to approach anything concerning flour, measuring cups, and the oven. I'm a darn good cook, but desserts are just not my forte, probably because they require specific proportions and I am (a) too impatient and (b) too lazy to ensure the accuracy of my ingredients. I prefer to cook like Rachel Ray, who uses her palm as a measuring spoon. During the lush months of summer, however, I actually tackle desserts, mainly because the sweet fruits offered up by nature during this time ensure that making something delicious is almost effortless.

This past Friday evening, we had my in-laws over for pizzas on the porch (margherita, heirloom tomato, and pesto-n-prosciutto, all simple to make). For dessert, I made apricots cooked in a brown-butter sauce (mainly because I had a basket of overripe apricots hanging out in the fridge), taking a page out of Martha Stewart's June 2013 issue (the recipe below is adapted from Martha's):

Brown-Butter Apricots, served with Dulce de Leche Ice Cream:

1. Gently toss apricots (pitted and sliced into 1-inch-thick wedges) with 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and a dash of cinnamon (I opted for brown sugar instead of white, because I like the way it caramelizes).
2. In a pan over medium-high heat, cook four tablespoons of butter, swirling often, until the butter is golden brown and smells nutty (be careful, because the butter can go from nutty to burnt in a flash. Stay on top of the butter while it is in the pan).
3. Add apricots and a pinch of salt (I used cracked sea salt, which added little bursts of savoriness to the dessert when completed), swirling the pan again to coat the fruit in the butter. They only need to be on the heat for about a minute, because you don't want the apricots to break down too much.

4. Remove pan from heat, let cool slightly (I made mine ahead of time, and then reheated them slightly just before dessert). Choose a pretty dish, scoop in as much ice cream as you like, and top with the apricots and sauce, along with a few fresh blackberries or raspberries (see above). Our guests raved about this dessert, especially the kids, whom I had to keep out of the kitchen until it was time for dessert because when the frying of the apricots filled the house with their sweet aroma, they all came running.

I also found it goes surprisingly well with beer, especially Sam Adams's Porch Rocker, included in the Sam Adams Summer Sampler. I highly recommend trying this dessert, even if you are as inept as me in the sweets department. It won't disappoint. ~Alice (aka jess)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Determination of Spiders ...

Little Miss Muffet
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on her tuffet
Eating her curds and whey. 
Along came a spider,
who sat down beside her, 
and frightened Miss Muffet away. 

Two days ago, I spent the majority of my day cleaning in and around the kitchen, a rather nasty task if you ask me (Why, for instance, does the Tupperware always end up a huge f*@!ing mess in the cabinets? And why does the refrigerator always wind up a No Man's Land for half-used condiments?). I scrubbed the entire place ceiling to floor, even the inside of the microwave, which is also not a job for sissies. One of the other things I tackled during my kitchen-cleaning tenure was the spider's web that had been so carefully woven in the space between the screen and glass in my kitchen window. I had grown tired of staring at the mass of insect carnage that had cropped up at eye level seemingly overnight, the poor moths, junebugs, and flies no match for the menacing insect who lay in wait in the middle of her web.

Just before my broom descended on her domicile, I felt a little bad for destroying with one swift swipe of the bristles all that she had worked so hard to build. Then, I shrugged my shoulders and said to myself, "Life is kind of like that, you know. One day you think you have everything in order, food stocked up in the larder for the lean times to come, and then the forces above (or below) come along with one swift swipe of fate (or karma) and you're left with nothing. Besides that, the bitch shouldn't have built her insect morgue/pantry in my sight-line." And then, I lowered the boom.

Well, wouldn't you know it, I woke up bright and early the next morning (OK, actually around 10:00) and there she was again, sitting in the middle of a newly woven web, waiting for her next victims ... in the exact same spot. You've got to give it to her, she is one determined little insect. It seems to me, however, she should have learned her lesson. If I swept her web away once, I most likely will do it again. I just can't take watching the circle of life unwinding before my eyes every morning while I make my morning coffee.

Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly. ~Alice (aka jess)

There she is. I've nicknamed her Miss Muffet. Out of spite. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Quotation Marks ...

Because the best quotations seem to sink into our blood in the most vital of places. Via
A few favorite quotes today. I've been deep-cleaning the house one room at a time, and my mind has been turning the pages of my favorites as I muddle along.
"If you take a book with you on a journey," Mo said when he put the first one in her box, "an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while reading it ... yes, books are like flypaper - memories cling to the printed page better than anything else." Cornelia Funke, Inkheart
"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wild World," said the rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or to me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all." Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small, but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds could make it flicker because it would not give up. Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter
There is this weird thing that happens, when you stop worrying so much about what other people think of you ... you suddenly start seeing what you think of you. Adam Gidwitz, In a Glass Grimmly
And last, but certainly not least,
We're all mad here. The Cheshire Cat
Until tomorrow. ~Alice (aka jess)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Abandoned Books ...

This morning, I came across this very interesting post about the books we abandon by Casee Marie over at Literary Inklings. Her theory is that we tend to put down those books that have been recommended to us by hashtags, the ones that everybody else has read and enjoyed, so we think we most likely will enjoy them also. And then we don't.

So, I thought I would make a list of the books I have up and stopped reading over the years. I rarely give up on books; I usually give them at least a fighting chance. However, when I do abandon them, I do it with abandon;). Here they are:

  1.  The Time Traveler's Wife: This book utterly failed to capture my attention. At all. I found the main character rather insipid, and just a tad creepy for "stalking" the child version of his wife. A no go on all counts for me. 
  2. The Fountainhead: I really couldn't stomach Rand's philosophy in this book. And when Robbie the Creep recommended the book to Baby in Dirty Dancing, well, that was it. 
  3. The Making of Americans (Gertrude Stein): This book is really long. This   book    is    really    long. This.book.is.really.long. Thisbookisreallylong. Thislongbookisreally not very good. I stopped about 50 pages in. Even if it was on my Major Field Exam. There, I said it. 
  4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series: Slow. Slooooooooooow. Also, very few likable characters. Lisbeth Salander somewhat. But just barely. 
  5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: I hate to admit it, but this book deserves an honorary mention on this list, because I picked it up and failed to finish it, at least 10 times. I did finally finish the book by listening to the audio version in my car, and I still can't quite put my finger on it's inability to captivate my imagination. I usually like books of this sort. 
Those are my top five. I do want to say, however, that I did finish Moby Dick. All of it. Which is one of the most abandoned books of all time. Which books have you picked up only to put back down? ~Alice (aka jess)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Home again, Home again ...

Well, we're back from our week in Cape May. Part of me is glad to be back; I'm ready to get this house back in order after I neglected it for nearly a month while wrapping up the book. Part of me longs to return to the beach, the rhythm of the waves and the days - wake up, go to beach, eat a humongous dinner, drink wine, eat fudge. Rinse. Repeat.

Here are a few of my favorite pics from the week. Now, back to reality. Reality bites. ~Alice (aka jess)

Day 1: Sophia's first time at the beach, and she's acting like a pro. "So this humongous beach, that I've never seen before, no big deal. I got this s*&^ handled." 

Miss Mags rocks the house and brings home a first-place overall trophy at her Dance Nationals. No biggie;).
The journey of a thousand miles ... (to steal a caption from my brother-in-law)
Dinner at A Ca Mia, in Cape May. We ate here twice, partly because we adored our waitress from the first night,
but then she wasn't working the second time. The experience is never the same:(.
If it comes in a flask, of course I will. 
One of my beach purchases. It. is. awesome.
One of my other beach purchases. This sailor bracelet reminds of seventh grade, sneaking beer,
and boys. That about sums up why I had to buy it. 
You've got to make the best of rainy days. And it more than rained. It poured buckets. Right on our heads. 
Say hello to our new friends Hoots and Trixie. Trixie makes a really annoying sound btw. Which is awesome. 
My mom makes her first appearance on the blog. Drinking wine. Which is also awesome.
(She will hate this btw and probably call me yelling at me in, oh, about an hour). 
Kohr Bros. = Happiness. 
Harassing seagulls. That about sums it up.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Night time is the right time ...

A short favorite of mine from the Huxtables to make you smile before you rocket into the long weekend. Oh. And you must check out today's Google header (note the apple).

~Alice (aka jess)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Monster at the End of This Book

When I was a kid, I absolutely adored The Monster at the End of This Book, published in 1971 by Little Golden Books.  In the book, now a perennial childhood favorite (it was voted one of the top 100 picture books of all time in 2012 by School Library Journal), the main character, Grover, is terrified of turning the page because he believes there will be a terrorizing monster on the very last one; as a result, he repeatedly tries to get the reader to collude with him in closing the book, and eventually resorts to constructing various barriers to keep the reader from moving forward (all of which are torn down by the child as he or she progresses in his or her reading). Grover discovers, however, along with the reader, that the monster at the end of this book is really himself, learning that he, all along, has been afraid of his own shadow. As they turn the pages, the children reading internalize the desire to get to the end of the story, savoring the suspense that builds each time they turn the page, while also learning that their worst fears are actually sometimes entirely in their imaginations.

So, yesterday, when I was digging around on the internet and discovered that there was an app devoted to The Monster at the End of This Book, I decided I had to check it out. At $4.99, it is rather pricey, but the cost is worth the benefits. The app really brings the experience of reading the book to life; Grover sounds just like you imagine he would sound, the effects of the brick walls, ropes, etc. are a lot of fun. I downloaded it at 2:30, gave it to Sophie, and at 3:30 she was still going strong, giggling away at Grover's fear.

This app is well worth your $5.00. Put it and this book in your parenting arsenal. ~Alice (aka jess)

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Tourist in My Own City: The Lavender Festival

Last weekend, during a brief sunny respite from this rainy June we've been having, the girls and I took off for the Destiny Hill Farm Lavender Festival. Sophia was most excited about riding a school bus (we had to be bused into the property because of local ordinances), and Maggie was interested in trying out the arts and crafts stations designed for kids.

The farm itself was lovely. The huge barn, doors flung open to the breeze, housed music, artisans, and food vendors (each selling their own brand of lavender-flavored goodies).

Seriously the best decorated festival I have been to in a long while, and I've been to a few. 
In order, Blueberry-Lavender Gelato (just a hint of lavender, not at all overpowering), Lavender fruit salad, and Lavender Lemonade (click for a recipe), which I absolutely loved and plan to make at home on a regular basis. 
Around the outskirts of the building, more vendors, lavender wines, horseback rides, and the lavender itself, in all its royal lusciousness.

Maggie decided to make Lavender Wands, a rather complicated, but excellent craft for girls about her age (7-9 years old). I've included a snapshot of the directions below, just in case you decide you would like to give it a whirl. We bought our very own lavender plant at the festival, and hope to harvest enough lavender to make another sometime soon.

I find lavender such a simple, but extravagant plant - sachets, flowers on your salad. The Destiny Hill Lavender festival showed this flower at its finest. If you live in the Pittsburgh area, put this on your Summer Bucket list for 2014. Until next time! ~Alice

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