Posts tagged ‘blackberry’
Pulled pork tacos. Mexican cokes in slim, tapered glass. A bowl of kumquats, gem-like, straight from tree to counter. And food trucks selling $21 foie gras PB & J sandwiches – welcome to LA!
It’s not my first time in the city of angels. I came at 15 with a couple friends, but the trip was forgettable. We stuck to downtown, mostly malls, and the Sunset strip. We tried to find celebrities and instead lost the chance to really dig into LA. Where were the farmer’s markets and neighborhood dives? Where were the local vendors? Where was the character? It’s no wonder the state left a bland taste on my tongue. California, that colorless word.
As a result, I spent the last four years telling people, “Oh, I don’t really like LA.” When pressed for reasons, I said the city was superficial, and for good measure, “I like seasons.” But I couldn’t resist when C-, an LA-based friend from college, invited me to stay and visit. I resolved to make this trip different, if I had to eat my way across California to do it.
I admitted defeat two days later, the car parked on a ridge overlooking all of LA. The sun had dipped past the horizon. The palm trees I thought looked so silly became unexpectedly beautiful against the blackening sky. As night fell, millions of lights edged the foothills, the city actually shimmering like a mirage. “Okay,” I told C-, who had known all along that I’d be easy to break. “I kind of love this.”
Maybe it’s naïve to think there’s a “real LA” to discover, but I’ve felt it everywhere. I waited in line for cheap, cheap tacos piled with cheddar in Culver City. In Santa Monica, I fell in love with a fashion designer’s tiny house, decorated with lime green plastic couches and funky glass lights. C- and I had dinner in a Hollywood club with a full jazz/swing orchestra. Unbelievable.
It’s hard to call California bland while you sip watermelon-rosemary lemonade, nibbling the last bit of salted caramel macaron.
When C- goes to work, I take advantage of California produce. His parents graciously opened the whole house to me, saying that every ingredient and kitchen counter was available. When I opened the fridge and saw quality coconut milk, spice flecked pumpkin butter, fresh avocado and more cherries than I could eat, my fingertips began to itch. I found their food processor, pulsed the butter, and had a tart crust chilling in the fridge in a heartbeat.
While I was in school, I bookmarked hundreds of recipes I wanted to try but couldn’t make. No tools, time, or ingredients there – but here the afternoon was mine. Right away I knew I wanted to tackle a white balsamic custard tart, topped with a mosaic of fresh berries.
C-’s kitchen is a lot bigger than mine. I opened almost every cabinet and drawer trying to find white balsamic vinegar. I felt vaguely like I was robbing the house, but they’d specifically said I could look around. Finally, tucked in the corner of a slim cabinet, I found a raspberry blush white balsamic vinegar. It was even better than I could have expected.
A few turns of the whisk, some gentle heat on the stove, and a yolk-colored custard came together. Opening the plastic cartons of raspberries honestly felt like unwrapping rubies. I snuggled the berries around the perimeter of the crust, circling the custard, one plump blackberry topping the center.
I was worried the balsamic vinegar would be too sour, but instead, the custard’s flavor is tangy and elusive. If I hadn’t baked it myself, I’d have no explanations for the mystery ingredient. Not citrusy enough to be lemon or sweet enough to be yogurt, but unusually pleasant. Paired with the fresh berries and buttery crust, the tart didn’t disappoint.
There’s a little less than half the tart remaining, and a full seven days to spend in California. Will there be any leftovers after my trip to the Hollywood farmer’s market? When I get back from Disneyland? Who knows, but I don’t mind. More raspberries magically appeared in C-’s fridge this morning. I can’t wait to see what else LA offers.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know it’s been a while. A long while. I’m sorry that I’ve stopped sending daily photos – it’s because I don’t have any photos to send. And I know I haven’t called in weeks. Every day is a jumble of classes, radio, clubs, essays, work, and somehow the things I used to be so passionate about have been pushed aside in the struggle. But I also know how much I care about you, and more importantly, you know it too. Four days until I fly home.
Dad, it was so good to see you over Thanksgiving. I opened the car door and saw you standing in the garage. You just looked at me like you were seeing sunlight for the first time in months. I had just woken up; I didn’t care that you were in work clothes and covered in dust when I fell into that hug. I love that it didn’t take more than ten minutes for one of your smart aleck comments to get on my nerves. You probably missed the way I roll my eyes.
I missed your cooking. I was glad you remembered I like my spaghetti swimming (drowning) in tomato sauce, even though I knew you wouldn’t forget. Did you see how quickly I shoveled that potato-celery root puree down? Yes, I was hungry, and no, they don’t cook food like that in our dining hall. But what really made it good was the way it tasted like twilight on the patio, too many dishes on the counter, the warmth of a dog under the table. Even though I slept for two days straight that week, it was good to be home.
Also, it was fun kicking your butt in Wii boxing.
Mom. I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since August. When we parted, our red currants were still in season and it was so hot in Boston, I almost passed out that afternoon at the T station. Now, the metal spokes of my umbrella are mangled from wind and my rubber rain boots have split along the sides. We’ve had little flurries of snow, but I still stubbornly wear sundresses to class. You’d throw a fit if you saw me walk out like that. I’d point to my tights, and you’d tell me to put on another coat. (You’d be right.)
I always think about the last time I saw you. We were sitting in Neptune Oyster, having our last dinner together. I had finished eating a while ago, but I kept watching you pick at your calamari. I couldn’t bring myself to get up and leave because I knew I would be gone for good. There was no chance of me saying it aloud, but I was terrified. I remember our last hug, and rushing to leave before it overwhelmed me. The last thing I remember is your face – so conflicted.
I know you stress. I hear it in your voice when we talk on the phone, even though you try not to mention your anxieties. You’re worried I’m not eating right, not sleeping enough, working too hard. Maybe. But I hope you know I’m happy despite everything. I’ve grown up a lot in a semester, in most ways for the better. I can’t wait to make you proud with what I’ve accomplished.
The first half of my freshman year went by in a blink. The other day I got in an elevator with the director of undergraduate admissions. He recognized me, and he was seriously interested: was the school a good fit? Was I finding a good balance between challenge and creativity? I told him I was. When I visited in April, I was uncertain. Today, I am sure.
Dad, when we flew out six months ago to check this place out, you remember how much I liked the radio station and the internship opportunities. I was impressed with the students I met and the professors I spoke with. But sometimes I think the decision really came down to… nougat.
It was spring, and cherry blossoms lined the North End like pale pink bridesmaids. We were walking down the brick streets when we saw a huge group of people standing outside Modern Pastry. We’d never heard of it, but we figured we couldn’t argue with a wait like that. When we finally got into the bakery, we bought a bar of nougat – simple, unassuming, and a little out of our comfort zone.
The first bite. Sticky sugar on our fingers and the way every piece melted in our mouths. I thought I’d never had anything so good before. We fought over the last bite. I can’t remember who let who have it. I don’t go into the North End as often as I’d like, but I never forget that nougat.
I tried to recreate it myself, a version with orange blossom water and pistachios. It was, well, utterly inedible. Recipes involving candy thermometers are my weakness, so the nougat never came together. Even after I stuck it in the fridge, it was a sticky disaster, caught between solid and liquid, and a total waste of nuts. It did make me laugh.
But I still had half a bag of pistachios, so I split their shells and poured whole milk into a saucepan. A good fit for another Italian dessert, gelato. Elegant, subtle, and a buttery green, it captured the spirit of my favorite nut perfectly. I also had a bag of frozen blackberries – remember how we picked them over the summer? – so I thought I’d make a blackberry creamsicle sherbet too. It turns out, blackberry and pistachio go beautifully together, the nuttiness of one balancing the sweetness of the other.
Maybe I’ll try the nougat again when I’m home. But most likely not. I’ll spend every day with you two, Mom and Dad, and with Grandma (I’m studying hard and having fun) and Tilly and Otis. I’ll gorge myself on some real food, catch up on a lot of sleep, and find that new balance between child and adult I’m still discovering.
I know how obsessively you two check 17 and Baking, so you’ll read this before I’m home, probably within hours of its posting. I’m not going to say how much I love you, because that’s the kind of thing you do in person. Four days, Mom and Dad.
It’s August, and that means it’s blackberry season in the pacific northwest.
The blackberry bushes here are inescapable, weeds even. I pass the thorny plants growing along our neighborhood, behind my school, and against the sidewalks. We had some in our backyard when we first bought the house, until my mother hacked the branches away in a fit of determination. Every year, when I spot the fat berries hanging low on their vines, like clusters of black beads, it feels more like summer than anything.
I’ve been seeing them all month, but I haven’t been craving them… Until a few days ago. I was sitting at the dinner table, thumbing through the pile of cookbooks that live there permanently. It’s my habit when I’m bored. I flip back to the dessert section and try to make myself hungry. That day, I saw a marionberry tart, but for some reason it made me want blackberries.
Because they’re so expensive, I didn’t eat a lot of berries growing up. Even today, in my mind they’re exotic. Raspberries, blueberries, marionberries – they should be reserved for special occasions, like a birthday or celebration. But blackberries are so plentiful here, and so easy to get.
When I was in elementary school, my mom and I liked to visit a park by our old condo. I’d never seen so many blackberry bushes before. They towered high over my head like a maze, and the air between them seemed to buzz with insects and filtered sunlight and the sweetness of sugar. It all came back to me in a rush as I sat there with the cookbook in my hands.
I couldn’t get blackberries out of my mind. When I decide I want something, I just can’t avoid it. I mentioned the berries over and over to my parents. My mom said she remembered where the park was, so after breakfast we headed out. We were nearly there when my dad pulled the car onto a fence-lined stretch of gravel in a rare patch of shade.
“This isn’t the park,” I protested, but he pointed along the side of the road.
“They’re everywhere,” he said, pointing at the blackberry brambles twisting in and out of the barbed wire.
I was doubtful as I opened the trunk and passed out bowls to my parents. This didn’t seem as nostalgic and serene as my memories at the park. Even in the shade we couldn’t escape the hazy swelter of the afternoon sun, like hot breath on our backs. Spiders dangled from leaves and cars sped behind us in a whirr.
We spaced ourselves several meters apart from each other. I reached for the darkest, plumpest berries on the highest vines, straining on my tiptoes and stretching up. As gentle as I tried to be, they burst out of their skins when I dropped them into my bowl. Before long my hands were perfumed with juice, which stained the ridges of my fingerprints purple-red and smelled like August.
The whole way home, I breathed the fragrance in and dreamed of dessert.
And I got it. The blackberries are truly the star of this blackberry, peach, and ginger crumble.
The peaches are really delicious too. I like peaches, but I can’t say that I love them. I don’t think I’ve ever had a perfect peach, or even a really good one. The rest of my family has – every year my grandma wistfully describes fresh peach ice cream and lattice peach pie. Or better – fresh and still sun warmed, eaten off the tree. But me? I’m satisfied to cut them into rough chunks and toss them with berries in a crumble.
And the ginger was almost an afterthought, but such a good one. I loved dicing the crystallized ginger into tiny cubes, because it left big sugar crystals and the sharpness of ginger all over my cutting board. You only get a little in each bite, but you know it when you find it.
The original recipe calls this dessert a crisp, but I substituted some cream cheese into the oat topping. I had some leftover to use up, and the result was delicious. I could taste a subtle tang, and it made the topping a little soft and chewy. I’m not sure what makes a crumble a crumble, but somehow “crisp” didn’t seem right. All I know is that I shamelessly dug into whatever-you-call-it straight out of the pan, hot or chilled, for breakfast or for dessert in the warm twilight.
I was almost fooled by the week of sunny weather Seattle’s seen, but the rain has finally begun to pour.
Just last week, the cherry blossom trees stretched over my head in airy, arching bloom, but these days I have to duck to avoid the low branches laden with water. Rain streaks down the windows, bathing everything in a steely blue glow. Umbrellas pop open like strange flowers when I walk outside. In the mornings I wear red rain boots to class, and in the evenings I fall asleep with the sound of rain in my hair.
I usually like this kind of weather, but right now, I can’t stand it. I’m impatient for summer. Impatient for dusty sidewalk chalk and melting Creamsicles, but mostly for everything summer represents – freedom, relaxation. No stress. There are only two months to go, but I don’t think I can make myself wait.
I am tired of being patient.
I was patient all through Christmas break, through the slush of February and the bitter chill of March. Four months to go until college letters… now two months… one month to go… Every day I switched between cheery confidence and desperate doubt. It was like picking petals off a daisy – they’ll accept me, they’ll accept me not…
After months of waiting, I finally received the last of my college decisions yesterday. Of the eight schools I applied to, I was accepted at five. I was waitlisted at two very good universities. But the only school I really wanted to go to, the only school that could stir any passion in me at all, was the last one to send out decisions.
The whole day was simply killing time. I came home early and found that I had nothing to do. I ate a banana. I checked the mailbox (it was empty.) I read a book of short stories without understanding any of them. When the decision was available online, my brain staggered. I fumbled my way to the website and watched the page load with agonizing slowness.
I skimmed the first line and immediately knew. The letter was brief, polite, encouraging. It was brutal.
I read it, read it again, read it a third time with burning eyes. Emotions passed through me like images on a strip of film – horror, confusion, anger, pain, exhaustion, heartache, sorrow – until I couldn’t feel anything and laid face down on my bed, overwhelmed. Then I cried until my skin was as taut and my body was as hollow as a drum.
Have you ever felt like you’ve been waiting patiently your whole life for something? Something to validate all the work you’ve done? That’s how I felt. I’m just so disappointed in myself and I can’t help but feel wounded and unsure. I curse the thought that my only outright rejection is the only one I can’t take. I keep thinking about what I could have done, how I could have been better. I know it’s useless, but you aren’t rational when your heart is breaking.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve moved on, that the rain has cleared and I can smell summer around the bend and life is good. Not yet. It hasn’t hit me, but I know it will.
I didn’t break down today, as miserable as I felt every time I had to answer with that sad little smile, “Yep… rejected.” When I came home I wanted to be in the kitchen. And more than anything, I wanted to write. Typing out this post has been as good as Tylenol so far.
So much of my future is a mystery, but there are some things I can be certain of. Family, good food, and good company. I can be sure of ice cold lemonade in the summer to come and spiced pumpkin pie in the autumn to follow. I can be sure that luck will be with me wherever I go, though it may not always seem like luck at first, and that I will always have the patience to weather the wait.
These bars come together and bake in no time at all. Instant gratification, no patience required. For now, I can be grateful for that.
[PS: Happy birthday Grandma. Love you.]