Berry Time

On the left in the picture are domestic Jewel Black raspberries grown in my garden, and on the right wild blackberries, which I was pleasantly surprised to find growing in my back yard this year (we didn't bush-hog last year, and they bear on second-year canes). What's the difference, and what (besides devouring them while you pick them) are they good for?

The two are not the same; the easiest way to tell the difference is that raspberries have a hollow core and when you pick them they leave a white cone on the plant.  Blackberries are a solid cluster.  You can see that the raspberries are just a little bit more reddish than the blackberries.  Taste test wise, the raspberries are a little sweeter and the blackberries more tart. 

Both of these plants are ripening really early this year; usually the blackberries happen around the end of June/early July here in Tennessee, and the raspberries a few weeks earlier.  The winter was so mild that pretty much everything is coming early this year.  Both start out red and turn black.  You can tell the black raspberries are ripe because they pull off the plant pretty easily; if it gives you a lot of resistance, it's not ready.  To a lesser degree this is true for the blackberries as well.

The blackberries are juuuust starting to turn black, so if you know a spot where wild blackberries grow you might want to get out there in the next week or two.  If you want to make your goodies (whether preserves, or cobbler, or whatever) seedless, you'll need a food mill and someone with a good arm.  Recipe here.

For the black raspberries you'll most likely need to plant your own.  You can do so in the fall.  Pick a place where they can freely re-seed and in a few years you'll have plenty of berries.  If you're a want it now kind of person, I highly recommend checking your local farmer's market, or if you're in Tennessee try

Most of the black raspberry recipes I came across called for black raspberry jam or preserves, so you might have to whip up a batch of that.  It's worth it to make some of the awesome recipes I found though, besides the awesomeness of black raspberry jam on its own.  Here's an awesome summer cookout dessert.

Black Raspberry Cream Pie

1 9" graham cracker pie crust
1 egg white, beaten
1 cup whipping cream
8 oz cream cheese, softened
10 oz  black raspberry spread (seedless preferred)
fresh raspberries and mint leaves for garnish

Preheat oven 375 degrees.  Brush pie shell with egg white and bake 5 minutes.  Cool on rack.
In mixing bowl beat whipping cream with an electric mixer on medium-high until stiff peaks form.  Set aside.  In another bowl beat cream cheese until smooth.  Beat in raspberry spread on low speed just until combined.  Fold in whipped cream.  Spoon into pie shell , cover and freeze 4-24 hours or until firm.  Garnish with raspberries and mint leaves.  Makes 8 servings.

If you've got the berries, try this with ice cream:

Triple Berry Crisp

1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries
1 1/2 cups fresh raspberries
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
4 Tablespoons white sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups butter

Preheat oven to 350.  Gently toss berries together in a bowl with the sugar.  Set aside.  In a separate bowl combine flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.  press half of mixture into a 9 x 13 pan, cover with berries, then top with the other half of the mixture.  Bake in preheated oven 30 to 40 minutes or until bubbly and golden.

Trust me, you'll need the ice cream.  Yum.  If you don't have all of those berries, I'm sure it'd be just as good with only one or two of them.

And if you pick enough blackberries, you might want to try blackberry wine, which I'm hoping to do this year.

Here's an article on foraging for blackberries in case you don't know how to identify them.  My tips are:  be wary of poison ivy, ticks and chiggers ( the bugs are particularly bad this year), and expect to get some scratches (and purple fingers!).  If none of that's for you, again, you're likely to find some brave soul at the farmer's market who has gone to the trouble for you.

Made of Awesome

    I've wanted to be a part of a CSA for several years now.  The food is great.  This week (and it's early in the season) we got squash, zucchini, beets, kale, peas, cucumber, bread and killer awesome cookies, and more.  But for me it's only partly about the food.  For me it's just as important to be buying local, organic, responsibly and sustainably grown food.  It's about supporting someone local.  So, I'd have joined a CSA even if the people who were farming were only moderately awesome.

    That's not the case, though... my farmers, Roger and Mary Payne of Miracle Mountain Farms, convince me a little more every week that they're made of awesome.  Here's only one reason.

    When I dropped by the farm today and got my basket o' goodies, Mary asked me would I take some cushaw melon seeds and plant them, and save them, and share them for free?  Please?  Then she gave me a handout all about this unusual melon from Slow Food's Ark of Taste website. 

    So what is Ark of Taste?  According to their website:

     "The Ark of Taste travels the world collecting small-scale quality productions threatened by industrial agriculture, environmental degradation and homogenization.
      The Ark of Taste searches out, catalogues and describes forgotten flavors from all around the planet: products at risk of extinction but surviving, that could be rediscovered and returned to the market."

     Basically, monoculture is destroying our food heritage.  There are four or five varieties of tomatoes in your average supermarket - the ones that have the best shelf life, NOT the ones that taste the best or anything that is prized for any other quality (although, heirloom varieties are finding their way into some supermarkets, thankfully).  So there are strains of long-cherished varieties of plants that are vanishing.  Ark of Taste - and Miracle Mountain Farms - seek to preserve them, share them.  And urge you to grow them.

     The Paynes are all about building community, preserving our heritage, through food and agriculture, and they are doing SO MUCH in that vein.  You should look them up on Facebook, and if you're local, definitely pay them a visit either at their farm or Cookeville Farmer's Market on weekends.  Because they're made of awesome.

   And, by the way, I will be planting some cushaw melons in my little garden this year, along with mostly heirloom varieties of tons of other veggies.  

    I would really like to see more of a Slow Food movement in this area, and I'm willing to spearhead it if there's enough interest.  To that end I'm hoping to 1) Start a little local food newsletter and 2) Maybe eventually open a Slow Food chapter here.  So if you're interested in being a part of that, do drop me a line at 

    "Ask not what you can do for your country.  Ask what's for lunch."  -- Orson Welles

What's In Season: Strawberries

We are proud members of a CSA this year, Miracle Mountain Farms.  For my fellow shareholders and anyone else who wants to eat local produce in season I thought I'd share some recipes for the goodies we're getting from Miracle Mountain, so follow this blog if you're interested in what's cooking.

For starters, my amazing homemade waffle recipe that you can top with fresh strawberries from your CSA, local farm or farmer's market.  If you're in Tennessee, check Pick TN Products for somewhere to get them locally, and if not, try Local Harvest

Belgian Waffles with Strawberry Topping

2 egg yolks
5 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
2 3/4 cups self-rising flour
2 cups warm milk
2 egg whites

Beat together yolks and sugar, then butter, vanilla and salt.  Alternately mix in flour and milk until the mixture is smooth.

In a separate bowl beat egg whites until they form soft peaks, then gently fold into batter.  Let stand 40 minutes to rise - it's a long wait but it's worth it, they're so fluffy!

Cook on your waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions.

Strawberry Topping for Waffles

1/2 cup sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch or potato starch
1/4 cup orange juice concentrate
4 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large saucepan combine sugar and cornstarch.  Stir in OJ until smooth, then add strawberries.  Bring to a boil and stir for 2 minutes until thickened.  Remove from heat, stir in vanilla, and let cool slightly.  Store in the fridge.

Of course, whipped cream is necessary in our house. I really recommend you either whip your own or at the very least use Redi-Whip, not Cool Whip.


Tomato Legacy

My grandfather's garden was a strip of ground along the fence on each side of his yard, maybe 2 feet wide and 15 feet long each. It was a tiny yard just barely outside Cleveland, Ohio city limits. But from this tiny amount of land he coaxed tomatoes, cucumbers and various other produce that for me, was the taste of summer. This magical place also contained a giant, graceful cherry tree bifurcated only about 2 feet off the ground, perfect for a little kid to climb into and daydream, whose fruit found its way into the fantastic wine he made, a process he had down to a science in a mystical bubbling lab in the basement of the little house.

He made his own sausage, and cooked old world food. I recall taking my then husband to his house one day. Grandpa, a machinist, had rigged up a sausage grinder to a machine he'd made to automate the process of making sausage, because the meat was on sale. My husband was amazed. John Soldacki knew how to enjoy fine things in life because of his own skill, not because he was a rich man.

I recall him proudly showing his garden to a family friend, asking if he'd like some "Polish tomatoes." The friend joked, "What are those, the seeds on the outside?" Not exactly. This was an open-pollinated, potato-leaf, indeterminate variety whose seeds his mother had brought over from Krakow, Poland, and showed him how to raise, and propagate. They are huge (up to a pound), meaty, pink -- in my mind, the ultimate sandwich and hamburger tomato. And always grown organically.

Much later, when I was a teenager, he brought over a book, 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden by Carolyn J. Male. Apparently he'd been talking garden shop with someone who was a seed saver, and shared some seeds of his Polish tomatoes with them. I don't know the tale of the intervening journey they made, but apparently a coworker gave them to Carolyn, and then they found their way to Seed Savers Exchange. There on a full page of her book was a big picture of his humble "Soldacki" tomatoes (they are not pretty... they're lumpy and huge and prone to cracking but they are SO good). It was a signed copy.

This was the first time I'd heard of "heirloom" tomatoes, and I thought it was weird. It wasn't until more years later, when I had a piece of land I could actually call my own, that I got interested in gardening, and feeding myself, and I now prefer heirloom varieties over any others. At the time, Grandpa was 85 and in poor health. He had had someone coming over to help him plant his tomatoes but he got anxious and decided to start by himself, then fell on the concrete and broke his hip. His health took continual downturns from there.

Mom gave him regular updates on my gardening efforts (and of course I was growing Soldacki tomatoes). He was pretty excited to have someone actually in the family growing and saving his seeds. Last year she told me he was doing quite poorly so I made the trip back to Cleveland mainly to see him. I got him on a good day and he was in great spirits, and I was pretty excited to be able to talk gardening with him... for me it was like going to see the guru on the mountain, so I still laugh when I think about asking him questions and his sage answers: "Sure, try it... get a book!"

It's been just about a year since we lost him. I am fairly sure this time of year I will always, always be thinking of him, and of the skills he possessed that are lost to subsequent generations, who so often depend on food that comes out of a box, a bag, or a window. It is such a loss not to know what it means to feed yourself out of the green earth, to sit down to a meal that is made of things that are real and a part of you... the work of your hands.

I hope that, like me, my son will ultimately decide that he should be a gardener, when he has a home and a family of his own. Whether he does or not I am so very thankful that my grandfather's seeds have found their way into the hands of people interested in preserving pieces of family heritage like the Soldacki tomato. And for my part, it's my hope to rediscover some of the lost skills of previous generations, and perhaps to have some part in helping the generations after me to do the same.

If you'd like to try growing Soldacki tomatoes, you can get them at Seed Savers Exchange.