On a typical weeknight Chris and I like to watch Jeopardy and then, once I’ve finished kicking Chris’s ass, Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Such is the exciting life of nerds. Truth be told, I only beat him at Jeopardy about half the time and Chris only tolerates Good Eats because AB occasionally talks about bacon. We mostly watch because I kind of have a thing for Alton Brown, what with his geeky culinary evangelism and his cheesy impersonations of historical figures. But the other night instead of Good Eats we caught a very old rerun of the first ever episode of Feasting on Asphalt, in which AB meanders through Georgia and the Carolinas sampling collards and pinto beans, fried chicken and pickled pigs’ feet, and cornbread and biscuits.
It was the biscuits that got me.
You know those furrowed-brow-type people you see in the grocery store picking up packages of this or that, frowning at labels and then returning the offending products to the shelf with a disgusted little shake of their heads? I am one of those people. I like to think I’m not the only one of those people, but it stands to reason that if there were more of us the labels wouldn’t be quite so full of unpronounceable bullshit. Which brings me to the puff pastry.
Unless you live near a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods (I don’t) and are comfortable spending six or seven dollars on a sixteen ounce package of crap-free frozen puff pastry (I’m not), your choices are limited: Pepperidge Farm in all of its partially hydrogenated glory or nothing at all. I’ve generally gone with the nothing at all option, but after years of rejecting scads of perfectly delicious-sounding tart recipes, I had a puff pastry epiphany. “How hard can it be?” I thought, and set about gathering the necessary ingredients.
Last Sunday, after recommending cooking and gardening books at my favorite local independent bookstore’s holiday soiree, I returned home to find a hungry Chris. The soiree had involved wine and books and food and, well, conversations about wine and books and food, so naturally I’d lost track of time. I had not, however, lost track of the leftover muffins I’d baked in order to charm people into buying Jamie Oliver’s new cookbook, and I kindly offered one to hungry Chris. “What kind of muffins are they,” Chris scoffed, “squash?”
First of all, Chris may be the only (hungry) person I know who can conceive of an ingredient one might normally put in muffins that he would be unwilling to eat. I mean, unless the muffins are filled with pickles they’re likely to at least be edible. But second of all — and more importantly — the muffins in question were, in fact, made from squash.
“I think squash is your new zucchini,” Chris decided, at which point he was treated not just to a muffin but also to a fairly lengthy and very interesting oration on the differences between summer squash and winter squash.
He’s right though: we have been eating a lot of squash. The winter kind, because it’s winter. And by winter I mean that until today, when it reached a balmy 36°F, there was about two and a half feet of snow on the ground. Regardless of what the calendar says about the upcoming solstice, it already feels pretty damn wintry. Locally grown produce consists of squash, potatoes and — through some sort of lovely greenhouse magic — leafy greens. While I adore leafy greens in the abstract, I rarely know what to do with them once I’ve gotten them home, so I’ve been stocking up on squash. It’s wonderfully versatile, keeps well and, as it turns out, makes an awful yummy muffin.
I live in the sort of place where a casual mention of your fondness for rhubarb is likely to land you in somebody’s brother-in-law’s mother’s field with an armload of rhubarb stalks and an abiding gratitude for midwestern neighborliness, which is how I came to have several quarts of diced rhubarb in my freezer. Naturally, I would have preferred the rhubarb to end up in a pie rather than in the freezer, but Chris can conceive of few things more repulsive than cooked fruit and I can’t eat a whole pie by myself.
I can, as it turns out, eat quite a lot of hand pies by myself, and I can eat them in the car on the way to work. For breakfast.
Although there are still a few days left before the Autumnal Equinox officially ushers in fall — with its crisp days and crunchy leaves, summer has been quietly fading for weeks now. The days have grown increasingly shorter, the sunlight itself seems softer, and the smell of wood smoke from neighbors’ fireplaces has replaced the quintessentially summertime scent of sunscreen. All of which leaves me feeling restless and wistful.
I begin to realize that afternoons squandered in tidying up the house or running errands might have been better spent lounging on the beach, and to regret those nights I succumbed to the siren song of takeout pizza rather than avail myself of summer’s abundant and delicious fresh produce. I’m disappointed to discover that I did not pack enough summer into my summer.
So when my favorite corn farmer warned me last weekend that we could expect only three more weeks of corn, I might have been just a teensy bit overzealous in my purchasing. (sensing a theme here?) Not to worry. Corn freezes beautifully and easily, plus I’d recently run across a piece by a corn-obsessed columnist in The New York Times and was itching to try her cornbread.
I have a tendency to cling to summer, soaking up late afternoon sun on the beach, scowling at reddening leaves, and refusing to wear shoes despite my cold toes. Eventually though, I give in, and one sure sign of this acceptance of fall has traditionally been the replacement of my evening gin & tonic with a bourbon & ginger. While I’m nowhere near ready to make the annual gin to bourbon transition, the other night I did have a dream about bourbon.
More specifically, I dreamt of a dessert my friend Jess and I once shared — a chocolaty, bourbony dessert that, as I recall, was ridiculously good. So good that we talked about it for weeks afterward and actually considered holding happy hour at a restaurant with no happy hour specials simply so that we might order dessert to go. So good that one slice shared two years ago now sends visions of chocolate and bourbon dancing in my head. So good that since awakening from said visions, I’ve been able to think of little else. And so good that despite there being a nearly-full bottle of gin in the freezer and a solid month of gin-drinking weather to go, I broke down and bought a bottle of bourbon.
Just for the chocolate though. Well, and the pecans. But not for me. It is, after all, still summer. Just so we’re clear.