Spring (though it’s actually starting to feel more like summer here in NC) has officially begun. It seems like the trees were, just moments ago, blossoming in delicate flowers and poking little green buds into the cool air, but they are suddenly enrobed in lush, green leaves still blinking in their new-found sunshine. The daffodils and tulips have come and gone, and the light lingers a few moments more every evening.
But just in case there was any doubt:
The berries have arrived.
Glistening, ruby-red, and more photogenic than any berry I know, strawberries are the first fruit of the season to reach the farmers market in Durham. They’re the first float of the summer produce parade; it’s definitely cause for celebration.
And what better way to celebrate than with a classic, fresh, and simple strawberry shortcake?
Okay, okay, I know you might be skeptical about my use of the word “simple” when discussing a six-layer cake, but I promise, it’s really rather easy AND is so totally worth it once you have your first bite.
Most of my choices of meals to make revolve around what I want for dinner, what features a local ingredient at the peak of its season, or what has been leering at me the strongest from my list of recipes to try.
But sometimes I just want to make cake. Unnecessary, frivolous, decadent, indulgent, cake.
I don’t often make desserts, partially because we rarely have more than the two of us at dinner. But when I threw my pizza party a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make something fancy.
Both the recipes and the inspiration for this cake came from a blog I recently stumbled across (and have subsequently become obsessed with) called Sweetapolita. These cakes are something. else. Miracles of butter and sugar. They are simple yet stunning, classic yet unique.
And the best part? This particular chocolate cake recipe is, hands down, the easiest cake recipe I have ever made. Many cakes recipes have intricate patterns of adding dry ingredients, folding in damp ones, carefully mixing until consistency is just so… not this one.
Some days, there is time to make fresh pasta. Fancy desserts. Elaborate multi-course meals.
Most days though, it’s all I can do to get out the door in the morning toting a breakfast and lunch, and on show days, dinner, so that I can avoid the oh-so-tempting bounties of college food available at work. Especially in January, when fresh food is somewhat difficult to come by and most of my cravings are for something warm and filling.
But I’ve found an answer. An answer to the winter blues, the I-don’t-feel-like-cooking doldrums, and the whoa-we-have-so-much-leftover-turkey-from-the-holidays reality in my freezer.
Sierra’s turkey salad.
I know I’m probably way late catching this train. I’ve never really been a fan of chicken salads and won’t come within ten feet of tuna salads, so I suppose I thought turkey salad would be equally unpleasant. I. Was. Wrong.
I brought home about 45 pounds of them and have hardly mentioned them since?
Yeah, those apples.
I’ll be honest, my favorite way to eat apples is whole and raw, so I don’t actually use them in many “recipes”. But I decided this year that, in order to ensure none went to waste, I would cook some down to make something I could use as a breakfast, a snack, a side, or a gift: applesauce!
Pomegranate is one of my all-time favorite fruits of winter. It is something I buy as a special treat, one of the rare produce items I do not (and as far as I know, cannot) buy locally. So once a year, I buys a few of these beautiful fruits and savor each and every kernel.
To see whole, pomegranates do not look particularly appealing. They are ruddy and lumpy and have a somewhat awkward outie-belly-button looking thing at the top. They’re hard to peel and bruising on the outside can easily damage the inside. As with most good things, however, if you can get past the outward appearance and the time-consuming peeling, the fruit cracks open to reveal a stunning display.
I haven’t really addressed the food-elephant in the room of this time of year.
This year, the gathering around our Thanksgiving table was rather small, just little old Brad and me, in fact. But that didn’t stop us from preparing a full-scale Thanksgiving feast. There was cornbread stuffing (well, dressing), broccoli casserole, warm cream biscuits, mashed potatoes, a three-legged turkey with no wings, smooth brown gravy, mini pumpkin cream pies…
and cranberry sauce.
For me, cranberry sauce as a kid was one of two things: a can-shaped block of cranberry plopped on a small serving dish, or my grandma’s favorite cranberry salad. I was never a particularly big fan of either. But as usual, Deb over at Smitten Kitchen piqued my curiosity to try a homemade, incredibly simple cranberry sauce, and I doubt I’ll ever go back. It’s tart and lovely and full of little orange peel surprises all the way through.
Cranberry and orange are two of my favorite holiday flavors, and when combined, they only improve one another. So instead of making a teeny tiny batch for our teeny tiny guest list, I opted for the full batch so that I could play with the leftovers.
And now, for something completely out of the blue, a fresh berry jam.
No, I’m not so far behind that I’m posting recipes I made this summer.
Seriously. I went to the farmers market last week, and nestled between the butternut squash and dark, leafy greens sat some of the most fabulous raspberries I have ever seen.
I talked a lot about strawberries when I started this blog, just as they were ripening here. One might assume from so much strawberry talk that they held the highest honor in my berry kingdom.
Be still, my heart.
Luscious, tart, and totally worth the seeds that will get stuck in your teeth.
There is little to complain about with the North Carolina growing season. It’s long, it allows for multiple plantings of cool weather plants, and an enormous variety of fruits and vegetables grow here quite happily. But I have been stymied ALL SUMMER, waiting for baskets of brilliant red raspberries that would never arrive.
Until November, apparently.
Grown under passive tunnels that gather warmth without requiring electricity (as greenhouses typically do), these gorgeous gems of fruit are coming into their own when most other berries have long since disappeared from the market stands.
After a few weeks of rather slim pickings of fruit at the farmers market, I’m happy to say I am now set for months, with a fridge full of the fresh, juicy apples. For breakfasts, for lunches, for sauce, for pie, for crisp, for… everything!
Obtaining these apples is so much more fun than the grocery store, or even my other pick-your-own adventures. Rather than making an early morning solo march into a strawberry field or a blueberry patch, I worked a drive to a Maryland apple orchard into my whirlwind trip to DC to visit friends.
And it’s actually becoming a bit of a tradition. For three years running, anywhere from two to four of us have made our way out to Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Maryland for apple picking.
And we could not have asked for a more perfect day! Blue skies, pleasant sunshine, and a cool autumn breeze set the scene as we arrived.
In a moment, I’ll show you how to make this tasty dessert. It’s easy. It’s delicious. It’s summer in a ramekin. I’m horrified that I’ve never made it before.
But first, a public service announcement.
Don’t be scared of ugly fruit.
A blemish, a torn bit of skin, or an asymmetrical shape do not a bad fruit make. Just like a frizzy hair day (read: every day I spend in the South) doesn’t make me a bad person. Contrary to what grocery stores would have you believe, not all squash produce pops out of the ground coated in wax and uniform in shape and size. Embrace variety.
“Seconds”, as you’ll see and hear them called, can provide an extremely economical way to buy fresh, local produce in bulk. While Grade A (code for pretty freakin’ perfect) produce is usually sold at the farmers market by the quart, pint, or pound, seconds are usually sold in bulk for a very low price so the farmer can avoid trucking home boxes of excess, super-ripe produce.The first batch of peaches I bought this season (about a month ago, amazingly… NC peaches ripened in mid-May) were seconds, and instead of paying $5 a quart, I paid $2 for an entire bagful that is now mostly sliced and in the freezer. This week was even better: the peach lady only had seconds available by the time I made it to the market, asked me how many I wanted, and wouldn’t let me pay her a dime for the eight peaches she placed gently in a bag.
Not too shabby, right?
If you frequent farmers markets or buy directly from farm stands, keep your eye out for seconds. Some vendors will have a seconds section, others keep them to the side until the Grade A produce is sold. If you don’t see any, ask! Chances are you’ll get a sweet deal.