Monday, September 28, 2009

22 Skidoo!

It’s always funny when an annual landmark comes around in your life, be it a holiday, birthday, anniversary, etc. It’s always slowly anticipated, but never fails to come up quickly, and you find yourself having no idea how a year could have gone by so fast. And even though in day-to-day life not a lot seems to have changed, I, at least, always seem to feel the change of a year within myself when I really look back. I always ask the question: If I could go back in time exactly one year and tell myself the exact thing I would be doing on this day, would I even believe my own words? The answer is almost always no in my case; there’s just no way of predicting what a year can bring to a person. And this year, for my annual landmark of September 23rd, my 22nd birthday was no exception.

It all started on a greyhound bus. Pretty exciting already, huh? Well, after a few bumps in my initial plan of my fall out West, I finally reconfigured my schedule and it just so happened the best day to get to my new destination, Paonia, Colorado, was Wednesday September 23rd, my 22nd birthday. Well, no better way to start on a clean slate, I thought. After saying goodbye to Charlotte at the bus station in Denver, I walked my bags through the terminal to load them on the bus that would eventually lead me to another Colorado city called Grand Junction. This route would take me almost all the way across the northern portion of the state, as Grand Junction stands not too far from the border with Utah. From there I would eventually find my way south to Paonia, but many hours and miles stood between my final destination and where I was then.

The five hour ride across the mountainous landscape was easy and eventless. I dozed off in the first half hour or so since it was still pretty early, only to wake up looking at a snow covered landscape! Breckenridge is just that much higher in elevation than Denver, and the chilly evening after a warm couple of days brought precipitation in rain form down below and in snow form up above. Very cool to see in September to say the least. There were a few other stops along the way - Frisco, Vail, Glenwood Springs – where I was able to enjoy nice views, bathroom and stretch breaks, and an early self bought birthday gift of a pack of Rolos and Winterfresh gum. Who said your 22nd couldn’t be as wild as your 21st?

When we finally pulled into Grand Junction, I unloaded my stuff and walked into the small bus station where my connection bus to Delta, CO was to arrive 2 ½ hours later. Huh, 2 ½ hours…what to do. There was a snack bar, a broken TV, a microwave, a few dirty cafĂ© tables…I guess I could buy a candy bar, see if it blows up when microwaved, while looking at my reflection in the TV screen? Although tempting, I knew it wouldn’t do. The expected rainy raw weather turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, and I couldn’t accept sitting inside of the station watching it go by for the interim. I finally asked one of the guys at the desk if there was a place for me to put my luggage for a bit. Zach looked unsure at first and then divulged that he had a secure closet that he could stash them away for the time being. I gave him my many thanks as I walked out the door onto the sunny sidewalk.

Grand Junction, I have no idea what to expect of you, I said to myself as I passed by the first few stores. From the pickings in the bus station it seemed like no matter what the only way I could really go was up. With the first couple of side-streets not looking too promising, I suddenly found myself crossing a street that reminded me a whole lot of Church St in Burlington, Vermont; a pedestrian type street lined with different stores and restaurants full of people bustling about in their everyday business. Right in front of me on the corner of the sidewalk was a store with a big sign reading ‘ALIDA’s Fruits’ in big bold letters. I like fruit, I said, and that’s all it took for me to open the door and go inside.

“Well HELLO there!” the man behind the cash register bellowed with his arms open as I passed through the doorway. “Welcome! Come on in, how are you today?” I couldn’t help but smile at this jubilant, middle aged man with his white mustache and circular framed reading glasses. We introduced ourselves and got to talking, mostly about the area and what brought me to these parts of Colorado. It turns out I had found myself in a fruit growing mecca of the state, which this store had taken advantage of with its shelves of canned sauces, salsas, syrups, preserves, and candies all made from local fruit – apples, peaches, cherries and grapes especially. Tom showed me around the different parts of the store and stopped at the final destination of the fudge counter. “Now do you like sugar?” he asked. I think the look on my face and my burst of laughter answered his question adequately. He laughed along with me as he cut a piece of their homemade fresh peach fudge. He looked both ways as if he was smuggling me the newest imported drug from out of the country, “Our best fudge here, made fresh with our proud peaches!” I tasted it and instantly realized why he was so proud of it – deliciously sweet, with the classic fudge texture…that all took the backseat to the killer punch of fresh peach flavor you cannot get from any imitation flavor additive. “Tom, you’ve got some special fudge here” I told him, and his beaming smile back told me he knew he did too.

Tom tended to other customers and I took my time looking at all of the different preserves, sighing after each one knowing that there’s no way I have more room in my suitcase to fit such precious – and breakable – gems. After I finally realized I shouldn’t tease myself anymore, I thanked Tom again and started my way towards the door. “Wait!” he said, as he held out a small package wrapped in poster board type paper, “a little something for you.” Did I forget something? I took what he gave me from his hand only to look down to see a small bag of homemade peach jelly beans wrapped in a note bearing the message: Happy Birthday! Earlier when he had asked me how old I was, I said I was actually exactly 22, not knowing that he had really taken this into account. “I know it’s hard to be traveling and without family and friends on your birthday, so I thought some of our peach jellybeans would at least hold you over until you can celebrate with them another time.” The smallest act of kindness could not have made me feel more touched. I stood there for a few moments of without saying a word, thinking about how grateful and surprised I was for the gift this person had given me after knowing him for about 45 minutes of my life. Finally I said “Tom, thank you so much, you’ll never know how much this means to me!” We shook hands and wished each other the best. “Now is there anywhere else I shouldn’t miss on the strip as I browse around?” I asked. “Oh yeah, that gelateria down to the left you’ve got to go to, that is if you like gelato.” I gave him the same look and laugh as I did with the fudge and told him that I think I could somehow find a way to fit it in my schedule.

I happily walked down the street with a new spring in my step. A lot of people don’t realize how special a nice conversation and something as simple as a bag of jellybeans can make you feel. I leisurely walked by the different restaurants and shops along the road just to get a feel of what this center had to offer. And just as I decided the ballpark of what type of gelato flavors I wanted to get, a sign claiming “Fresh local microbrews served here!” caught my eye. Seriously? I was all excited for gelato and now you have to come at me with fresh, on-location brewed beer. Fiiiine, I decided, since it is literally impossible to walk by this pub and not enter, I guess I’ll force myself to drink a delicious fresh draft and my cone would just have to wait a bit longer. Talk about sacrifices.

As I nestled into my seat along the bar, the bartender and I discussed the styles of all the different brews on tap. Did I feel like an amber? A porter? An IPA? It’s sad how much I struggle with these decisions. Luckily, Kyle didn’t think there was any reason to be that unsure, and offered me a healthy sample of almost every flavor. I finally decided on my go-to wheat beer of what they called the ‘Widowmaker Wheat’ and I embarrassingly called the ‘Windowmaker Wheat’. How much beer was in those samples again? Either way, it was deliciously crisp, carbonated, and fresh – just what I was in the mood for. Kyle finally looked at my ID and the fact that it was my birthday was quickly overturned by the fact that I was from Massachusetts. “You like football?” he asked. I proudly confessed my love for the Patriots as I took another sip. He looked at me with a sly grin, only to step back and get some space to act out and recite those retched four letters: “J-E-T-S JETS! JETS! JETS!” “Ohhh nooo,” I gasped, wide-eyed. “Ohhh yes!” he replied, with the same chesire cat-like smirk. He proudly ranted about the Jets recent 16-9 victory over the Pats that broke their 9 game losing streak with the franchise. “Yeah, yeah, whatever” I said as we were both laughing. “Great way to earn your tip Kyle” his boss said as he walked by.

The discussion of the NFL went on while other people seated at the bar chimed in. A couple from Wisconsin sat next to me and I learned that they were there visiting their son who had just recently moved to Grand Junction. When I told them about my WWOOFing goals for my own trip, Todd the husband instantly lit up and started explaining every aspect of his garden he started up this summer. “You should’ve seen it, cucumbers and zucchinis growing like weeds! And the tomatoes…little pieces of heaven!” They fully supported the motives and aspirations of my adventure, and made me promise that I would take what I learned with me and make sure to share that knowledge later on. I told them I would do my best to make sure of it. I finally said my goodbyes and denied my invitation to become a member of the Mug Club for the last time (where you can hang your own mug in the bar with your name engraved that comes with bonus’ like free beer and discounted meals) and found my way to the sidewalk once more.

I looked down at my watch. Nice! There was still time for gelato. Even though I was pretty full at that point, why not continue on with the plan? It seemed to have been working out so far. Quicker than I expected I was already at the front door of the little gelato shop. I had to stop and tell myself that I couldn’t expect much from this place, since the last time I had homemade gelato was in Rome where I swear the owners make gold into ice cream form – it’s that good. I entered with caution and approached the glass case.

Well what do we have here? Does that really say Avocado? Sweet corn? Pumpkin? I think I started fidgeting I was so excited. A stout woman with grey hair was bustling around in the back room and finally saw me standing there. “Oh my! I’m sorry I didn’t see you there – would you like to try something dear?” she asked. Again with the obvious questions. Before I knew it I had at least 8 sample spoons in my hand. If I even slightly glanced at a flavor, I instantly had a sample of it ready for me to taste. You could immediately tell every flavor was homemade in small batches. The texture was luxuriously creamy, and the flavor was undeniably true to its title. In the midst of our discussion of each flavor, I learned that Paula has been making homemade gelato and ice cream for over four years in her retirement with her husband. As she ran her finger down the lists of flavors in her store brochure, she assured me that if I was craving any specific flavor that I can call her the night before and she could have a batch waiting for me the next morning. I assured her that if I lived in the area it’s almost certain that her number would be on my speed-dial.

“Now what brings you to get some gelato today?” she asked while cleaning her scooper. “Well I figured I should have some sort of sweet treat on my birthday and this looked like the place to go. Tom down the street told me…” Before I even finished my sentence her hands were up in the air “It’s your birthday?! Oh why didn’t you tell me dear!” She shook her head and filled a cone with a scoop of pumpkin underneath a scoop of their fresh local peach. “You enjoy your cone, and get on with the rest of your day!” I again couldn’t believe what had just been placed in my hand from a complete stranger that was even more excited than I was that I was turning a new age. I couldn’t get enough Thank You’s out before she shooed me away and had to finally talk with the other customers. Where do these people come from? I thought. I happily licked my gelato and found myself on the sidewalk once again.

I swear if someone had video taped me walking down the street at this point you could have mistaken me for an 8 year old girl who had just gotten a special ice cream treat after a little league game or something. My only regret is that I didn’t have someone to share all of these moments with. But then I remembered that all I needed to do was really soak in what was happening and try to remember the most of what I could, so I would be able to share this day with others at least through the story I could tell. I had just enough time to finish my ice cream while continuing my stroll when I suddenly stumbled upon yet another store I could not resist. ‘Cookies by Design’ is what the hanging sign told me outside the small store’s door. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I exclaimed out loud while I stopped in my tracks. How can they seriously fit all of my favorite things on one strip? At that point it would be silly not to enter, so for the sake of consistency I bit the bait and entered the bakery.

The front part of the bakery was no bigger than a 12x12 room that was full of different gift baskets and designs all made out of cookies - cookie pies, cookie lollipops, cookie bouquets – and of course there was the glass case that held all of the freshly baked cookies for the day. A woman came out from the back room and asked me how I was and if I had decided what I would like to try. I learned that Joanne had been baking for about 20 years but had been with the store since 2000. I told her she had a great venue and that the smell alone could lure in customers by itself. She laughed and said thank you, and asked me about my story as well. I began to tell her about my afternoon and how impressed I was with this whole community, and again, before I knew it, my top pick of a cookie – The Trail Blazer – was placed on a napkin in front of my on the counter. “You should’ve said something in the first place! Enjoy your cookie and don’t miss your bus,” she ordered with a smile. I looked down at my watch and realized she was right, time had surely passed quickly and 3:15 was not far away. “Thank you Joanne! Keep baking, your treats are delicious!” I yelled over my shoulder as I jogged out the door.

I hustled down the street juggling my backpack and purse and warm cookie. Again, if someone had had a video camera… But I made it safely back to the station with even five minutes to spare. Without even asking or seeing him, all of sudden Zach appeared with both of my bags over his shoulders and placed them next to me. “All safe and sound,” he said with an assuring nod. I again couldn’t get enough Thank You’s in, and forced a piece of my cookie into his hand to try to make up for it. The bus arrived and I walked on and picked a nice window seat. I sat down and nibbled away at my awesomely oaty, chocolatey, and nutty cookie, and watched the scenery go by. I started laughing to myself as I thought back to what I had originally thought my afternoon would have turned out to be – 2 ½ hours stuck inside a bus station on a rainy day – to how it actually unraveled. Never would have believed myself with that one! Of that I was absolutely sure.

When I finally arrived in Delta, Elane, one of the orchard owners, was there to pick me up with her horse Nick in the trailer behind her truck. We had a delightful ride back to Paonia, which I quickly realized is undoubtedly one of the best kept secrets of the state, even the country. We arrived at the orchard and I settled into my new home placed in the middle of rows and rows of apple, pear, peach, cherry, apricot, and plum trees. I did a 360 standing outside my door in one of the fields and all I could see were mountains and long mesas, with an array of orchards and pastures down below in the valley. Where am I and how is this in the state of Colorado? I ran around some of the fields with their four guard dogs Lwee, Zoe, Miko, and Sizzle until dinner time. Elane and Paul, her husband, took me to a local joint downtown where we enjoyed a delicious pizza with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and sweet sausage, and a nicely flavored red ale made from the brewery right down the road. We chatted about their history with the farm, the community, organic growing practices, the future of our food system, and everything in between. I thanked them for a wonderful dinner as we pulled into the driveway, only to have Paul reply that it was the best place to go to celebrate a birthday dinner. I told him I couldn’t have agreed more.

I went to bed that night in the nice, warm, clean sheets in my new bed and thought to myself how I still couldn’t believe all that had happened to me that day. It amazed me how perfect strangers made my day that much brighter and exceptional, especially when it had the ability to turn into a wasted day of traveling and waiting around aimlessly. Although I have no way of guaranteeing I will ever see those people in Grand Junction again in my life to tell them exactly how thankful I am, I know that I can at least do them justice by passing on their acts of kindness towards other people and at least sharing their story. That’s what brings me here now, and I only hope that you can be inspired by their actions too. That day I learned that even something as small as a jelly bean, a pint of beer, a cone of gelato, or a homemade cookie, can make a difference as big as the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


PB&J. If you grew up in the United States and are presented with this acronym, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you know what these three letters stand for: Peanut Butter and Jelly. In fact, we eat and refer to this sandwich combo so often that the creation of an acronym was needed (it takes a lot of effort to say full words sometimes). It’s just such a simple idea for a sandwich. Two spreadable fillings; one salty, one sweet, easily transportable, no need for refrigeration…and even though it’s associated with little kids, it is absolutely still enjoyed by adults alike.

I openly confess to being such an adult (…young adult). Although I like to mix up my daily eating menus, peanut butter and jellies often appear in the line-up probably more consistently than any other item. As I’ve said before, it’s one of the best traveling snacks (disregarding the squishable factor and soaked bread issue which can be avoided with smart construction). In fact, this simple snack (or meal) sustained me for most of my travels abroad this summer when we were on-the-go or when a true sit down meal wasn’t possible. They were eaten so often that preparing them and eating them wasn’t just that – it was promoted to a ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly Party’. It is still unsure if this title was created to celebrate the sandwich or to make the disappointing reality that we were going to eat a PB&J for yet another snack/meal a little more tolerable. I’d like to think of it as the former. Needless to say I’ve had my experience with this American food staple.

I don’t remember the first time I ever ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m sure I was young, and I’m sure it was on white bread with Skippy or Jiff on one side, and good old Concord grape jelly on the other. Nowadays we have a plethora of other options ranging from all different types of bread, jams, jellies, preserves, and even peanut butter spreads (Crunchy? Smooth? No Salt? Organic? Natural? No stir? Grind your own?? Decisions, decisions!) So the other day when my friend David and I started to pack our lunch for our afternoon of sightseeing in the Colorado Springs area, we suddenly became inspired by this surplus of options…and took it to the next level.

We took out the strawberry and raspberry jams and grape jelly from the fridge and sat them on the counter. We couldn’t decide which one to choose for our lunch. ‘How about we do all of them and see which one we like best?’ David suggested. A food taste-test game?! I’m sure my eyes started sparkling. ‘I’ve done something like this before!’ I said, as I remembered sending my friend Charlie off on a road trip with two PB&J’s made with different J’s in each. ‘When you eat them try to see if you can guess which is which, and then call me to tell me how it went!’ Sometimes I wonder how my friends put up with me and my food antics, bless their hearts.

Of course I instantly supported David’s idea. I’m not sure how it all progressed after this since it happened so quickly, but we somehow realized that the taste test had to go beyond the bounds of jams and jellies. Before we knew it every condiment was coming out of the refrigerator. We started conservatively with honey, brown sugar, craisins…and then we threw our cautions to the wind and out came the carrots, barbeque sauce, mustard, and red pepper flakes. There was no stopping us now! We found ourselves in the middle of a true test kitchen science experiment, and we couldn’t have been more excited to be the scientists.

We decided on using one type of peanut butter (natural and crunchy…the only way to go in my book. My friend Charlotte, another PB&J aficionado, agrees) and one type of multigrain bread for the base of our creations. We did end up using sundried tomato and basil tortillas for four of the pairings though, mostly because we were curious about a different vehicle for the ingredients (…and we ran out of the bread). Here were the finalists for the ‘PB&…’ pairings that were made on the bread:

1) Strawberry Jam
2) Grape Jelly
3) Raspberry Jam
4) Honey
5) Brown Sugar
6) Life cereal
7) Spicy Brown Mustard
8) Stubb’s Barbecue Sauce
9) Feta cheese
10) Cream cheese

These last four were made on the tortillas:

11) Carrot
12) Celery
13) Red Pepper Flakes
14) Orange flavored Craisins

After our sandwich making was complete, I realized we still had one butt (or heal) of the bread left. It was obvious that it had to be used creatively. It had to involve some sort of ingredient(s) we hadn’t used yet, which made it a bonus. We decided that we would each make a concoction (limited to two ingredients in addition to the peanut butter) without the other person’s knowledge, who would then have to guess what the new ingredients were upon eating it. Hence the mystery part…which made it that much more of a bonus.

We decided to call it the:

15) Bread-butt Mystery Bonus Round (x2)

Each combination was placed inside a plastic baggy along with a piece of paper labeled with what ingredient pairing was included with the PB in the sandwich. We filled our water bottles and grabbed the half gallon of freshly pressed apple cider I had recently gotten from the farmer’s market in Salida, CO…a perfect palate cleanser between tastings, we thought. Now all we had to do was find the perfect eating venue.

After hiking up to Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Park, our stomachs were officially grumbling as we drove to the Garden of the Gods. We parked the car and walked towards the gigantic red rocks jutting out of the ground that stood before us. Mounted against the green of the scattered trees, the bright blue sky, and the white clouds, these rock formations were more than impressive. Our chosen picnic area was next to one of the rock walls where the formation of the rock had made a nice bench-like place for us to sit. David spread the test subjects out along one of the rock edges while I got my pen and notebook ready for data collection. It was time to eat.

These are the notes that I took as we munched and discussed:

1) Strawberry Jam: slight bread soakage – added not too much but the right amount of moisture in the bread. No distinctive strawberry taste though, just a sweetness against the salty PB

2) Grape Jelly: ‘a classic for a reason’, definite jelly texture as opposed to thicker and opaque jams, more of a sugary corn syrup taste

3) Raspberry Jam: great raspberry taste - compliments the PB perfectly and still holds is own flavor – two distinct tastes that go together well

4) Honey: not much moisture = some major mouth stickage, brings out nuttiness of the PB, good pairing but would be even better with another flavor to bounce off of (banana, raisins…etc)

5) Brown Sugar: became slightly liquidy when came in contact with the PB which was enjoyable, but still a bit dry. Not all was absorbed, so the brown sugar withheld the grainy sugar texture which made a satisfying chew (reminded you there was something more than just peanut butter texture in the sandwich) ‘It’s kind of tastes like a cookie, but it’s a sandwich!’

6) Life cereal: the added crunch was a definite benefit, downfall was the dryness factor. ‘All I need is a glass of milk and I’d be set’ Flavor of the cereal didn’t hold up well against the overpowering PB

7) Spicy Brown Mustard: totally dominant flavor! Attributed it to the pungent vinegar and turmeric in the mustard. Crazy texture – feels like you’re eating a mustard sandwich made with a really thick mustard because of the PB consistency

8) Stubb’s Barbecue Sauce: similar experience to the mustard as the sauce’s flavors were dominant, but not as overpowering over the flavor of the PB as the mustard – can actually taste PB slightly and pairs with the chile powder, paprika, and other spices well. Pretty yummy!

9) Feta cheese: (silence while chewing…) ‘I have no idea what to say…its just straight up strange’. The feta doesn’t taste like feta, the peanut butter tastes more…briney? We’re stumped.

10) Cream cheese: complete melding! No one flavor overpowers the other, but they combine to create a completely new flavor – nuttiness from the PB with the tanginess of the cream cheese. Completely new texture too, the cream cheese makes the PB a little less thick, right in the middle of the consistency of both spreads. Crazy!

Transition to tortillas:

Some of my most important PB&J parties would not have been possible without a leatherman knife.

11) Carrot: wow! Saltiness of the PB brings out sweetness of the carrot –freshness of the carrot good contrast with pastiness of the PB. Since carrots were shaved with veggie peeler, the flatness of the carrots with flatness of the tortilla gives uniformity to your bite. All flavors paired well with the herbiness of the tortilla

12) Celery: definite satisfying crunch. Was expecting a fun ‘ants on a log’ alteration flavor, but celery just overpowered all. PB flavor almost completely drowned out – only added a thick texture to the sandwich

13) Red Pepper Flake: two totally separate sensations: just heat in background of the throat and a PB taste, didn’t heighten flavor of the PB. Good building block though, just needed something else to bring them together (salty soy sauce, garlic or ginger…peanut sauce anyone?)

14) Orange flavored Craisins: craisins had a strong flavor (especially from added orange), you get the sweetness of a jam from the craisin, but it makes you want that liquid texture and mouthfeel that jams have and craisins lack.

15) Bread-butt Mystery Bonus Round:

a. David’s creation: dried ground thyme and white pepper! Got the white pepper right away, knew the second ingredient was a dried herb, but didn’t pinpoint it as thyme until the third guess. No melding of flavors here, – just herby, peppery peanut butter – pretty muddy. Again, needed another (sweet?) ingredient to bring them all together.

b. Lizzy’s creation: Honey smoked turkey with chipotle salsa! The turkey was pretty easily decipherable due to aesthetics, but David did well knowing that it was a salsa that was the tomato flavor, specifically the chipotle salsa. ‘pretty salty, strong chipotle flavor, overall not too bad’

After our last bite of mystery concoctions, we sat back and looked at all of the empty plastic baggies strewn before us. ‘Those were a lot of sandwiches…eaten very quickly.’ We rationalized our uncomfortably full stomachs for the sake of science. Finally we were able to sit and digest our thoughts and our food at the same time…we were so full that it was a welcomed time for reflection. Here is what we came up with:

Our Conclusions:

Best Classic Combination: Raspberry Jam. By a landslide really. Mainly because the actual raspberry taste held up against the peanut butter – it wasn’t just a sweet taste whose fruitiness was lost against the nutty peanut butter, which was the case for the rest of the classic combo options.

Best Savory Combination: Barbecue sauce. It was so surprisingly tasty that it convinced me to add a bit of peanut butter to my next homemade BBQ sauce batch since it would not only add a bit of thickness to sauce, but a nice complimentary background flavor. Why not?

Biggest Disappointment: Red Pepper Flakes. I guess we expected some more ‘wow!’ factor with this one, but it just fell flat since the flavors stayed completely separate. Maybe a hot sauce or a spicy chili sauce would be better instead, since the vinegar in them could help wake up your tongue and bring all of the flavors together.

Biggest Surprise: Cream Cheese. We knew the dairy section of the experiment would be an interesting one. The feta was just plain weird, but the cream cheese and PB turned out to be nicely compatible, who knew? I guess if you think about it, with a few more ingredients (powdered sugar, vanilla, butter…) you’d be on your way to a peanut butter type of frosting. I think overall just experiencing both the transformation of taste and texture of these two ingredients made this one really fun to try.

And there we had it, our first official ‘Peanut Butter &… Adventure’ (as we liked to refer to it) was complete. I’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know or thought you would ever read about Peanut Butter and Jellies, but there’s a lot to learn here. Although the acronym limits you to virtually three ingredients (peanut butter, jelly, and the assumed sandwich bread) now you know that these are not limitations, but mere starting points of where you could take these ingredients.

So the next time you feel a craving come along for that classic childhood comfort food, only to find that someone has left a measly knife-scrape of jam left in the jar in the fridge, don’t give up yet. Or, if you run out of mayo, mustard or any other type of staple condiment, don’t overlook that jar of peanut butter as a possible stand-in. As David and I learned that day, there are a myriad of other pairings that can go along with that trusty jar of peanut butter than just jelly, and it doesn’t need to be between two pieces of bread. All you need is a creative mind and a confident leap into the unfamiliar, because you never know, your standard PB&J may be waiting for its next new acronym.

The Other Side of the Table

Ever since the first time I had ever gone to a farmer’s market, I have thought that they were one of the more exciting events to go to, no matter where you are or what you’re looking for. It is a gathering of people from the same community that share a common goal: showcase the pride and the best of the local, through farming, artistry, design, or whatever craft it may be. You will never find two stands that are alike no matter where you go, therefore blowing the standard aisles of the grocery store out of the water. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to pick up a head of lettuce in a grocery store and look up and talk directly to the people who created my prospective purchase. In the past, I had loved (and still love) being on the browsing side of the market. Last Saturday, I felt what it was like to be on the other side of the display table, and will say that it’s an equally or even more satisfying experience.

The day before, Friday, I had spent four hours harvesting potatoes followed by four hours picking cherry tomatoes. I can say for certain that I will never look at another pint of cherry tomatoes and not think about whose back, knees, and hands worked tirelessly to pick all of these small, low to the ground marvels. They are delicious, yes, but man are they quite a chore to pick bushel after bushel of them. I must say, though, my work with them never took away their beauty, and I could not have been more proud to place them on our display table early that morning. In fact, it was the most satisfying task to put together all of our display tables since I could look at every item and say I know where and who it came from (Friday was a busy harvest day to say the least…)

As people started to bustle into the park area where the market was being held, they browsed our table and the purchases began. With every basketful of potatoes or pint of cherry tomatoes sold, I felt like I wanted to send them away with a note: “Wait! Before you devour, know that this vegetable was harvested right from the ground yesterday with my own hands. I took care of it so that it could get to you in its purest form, and I hope and know you will treat it wisely as you prepare to consume it. That’s the flavor of TLC baby!”

Well, maybe not those exact words, but you get the picture. One old woman stood at the potato baskets for a while searching for her perfect spud. She spotted an oddly shaped one and held it up “It looks like a woman who’s lost her bra!” We all burst laughing together because a) old woman comments like that are always funny and b) she was spot on. But besides the hilarity of this Gramma’s observation, it was even funnier because Sarah and I came to the exact same conclusion as the potato slid off her shovel after it was unearthed the day before. Little did we know that someone else would have the same feeling, and that the odd potato would provide us with yet another laugh.

Off Gramma went with her purchase, and I couldn’t help but think about how that potato connected us to that woman, who was then going to connect with other people with it through whatever dish she was going to make of it later on. I guess it was just a great experience for me to see those connections take place. Just like many other items we purchase, this potato already had a story behind it before it even reached the woman’s kitchen. It just goes to show that it’s more likely than not that something you buy, especially when it comes to food, always has more to it than meets the eye.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I came home after my first official full day on the farm with a bag of cherry tomatoes (plus 4 plums), two mini heads of garlic, purple majesty potatoes, sprigs of slightly dried rosemary, two sweet light yellow peppers, one mild green, and half of a freshly baked loaf of onion bread Sarah and I split after the Westcliffe farmer’s market. Due to my lack of cooking oil in the house (a trip to the grocery store was needed in the near future) I figured I would save roasting the potatoes until later on in the week. After tasting them in Beki’s delicious ham and vegetable soup the night before they were absolutely worth the wait, especially with that rosemary…woah mama! I was excited. Anyway, that meant that tomatoes and peppers were on the menu since no heat was going to be involved in this meal. Well, sort of. My mind immediately went to a bruschetta, only I would have to make due with no cheese or basil. Even still, I had tomatoes, peppers, and garlic that I could dice up, and salt to bring out the natural juices of the tomatoes which I could then soup up with toasted slices of my fresh onion bread. It was the perfect bread for bruschetta; that crunchy crust and chewy but soft interior you would get from a french baguette only in round loaf form, already pre-sliced! I was in business.

After I put the bread in the toaster oven, I tasted my tomato mixture to see how I did with the salt. It tasted good, but not great. The salt brought out the flavors of the vegetables, but it was missing that alternative flavor that would curve the strict saltiness and brighten the whole dish. Of course I knew what it was that was missing: acidity. There was a hint of it from the tomato juice, but not enough. The only problem was just that I didn’t know if the kitchen had any other contenders. I love acids of all kinds because they take every dish it’s added to to the next level flavor-wise (more than one note, if you will). I love acidity so much that my vinaigrettes completely surpass the standard 3:1 ratio of oil to acid (vinegar, etc), almost enough to reverse the proportion. My roommate Molly tried one of my salads once with my homemade vinaigrette and her face contortion after the first bite said enough. I can’t help it! I just love it. Especially in citrus form (I mean, I did dress up as a lime last Halloween…still not sure if I should be embarrassed of that or not, since I’m not really). And what was I to find mere minutes later in the kitchen? A lemon! It was meant to be. In it went into the mixture and life was better. Now we had a well rounded dish.

The smell of the toast told me it was done, and the next thing it knew it was soaking in delicious tomato/garlic/lemon juice from the spoonfuls of my mixture being placed on top of its warm toasty surface. I took my first bite and had the sweet, satisfying experience of the perfect toast crrrrrunch (although, the surface was getting slightly soggy from the juice, and made it that much more enjoyable to munch). My first personal farm food meal was a success, and every main ingredient was from a 2 mile radius of where it was being eaten. Plus it was eaten within mere days of the main ingredients’ production or harvesting. Not too bad I thought, not too bad at all.

Soup du Farm

For those of you who don’t know, I am spending my fall in a few different states out west. My adventure officially started last Wednesday, September 9th, when my plane took off from Boston. My first stop is Colorado, and I started with doing volunteer work through the program WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where WWOOFers work on and learn the functions of the farm, both in the field and at farmer’s markets – something I have been wanting to do for some time now. I was looking forward to doing all of these things involved in the program of course, but let’s be honest, I was the most excited about all of the unlimited fresh food I would be eating.

I had always wondered what my first dinner would be when I arrived in Colorado. That Wednesday morning in Boston I had packed some Maine picked apples (yes, from my and my Dad’s 44 pound picking spree) and a bag of my homemade granola. I almost never travel without these two things if I can help it (peanut butter and jelly’s also make their appearances) and had enjoyed these two things throughout my afternoon. Once the farm coordinator, Beki, picked me up and showed me around the area, we went back to her house to have some dinner. She took out her royal blue, trusty le crusset dutch oven pot out of the fridge and explained to me that the day before she had baked a ham and still had the bones, liquid, and some meat left. ‘How about a soup?’ she suggested. I was on board to say the least.

After she sliced off and diced the remaining pieces of meat, she put the pot on a simmer. Then came the vegetable fest. She stood at her cutting board and kept pulling out vegetable after vegetable out of a bag next to her, all freshly harvested from the farm. It was like a magician’s hat from farm-fresh heaven; you never knew what she was going to pull out next. First came purple majesty potatoes – one of my new favorite things on the planet - followed by bright red tomatoes, then onions and garlic, plus pinto beans and lentils were added to the pot. She diced a good looking yellow summer squash and left it on the cutting board. ‘Did you want to add those too?’ I asked, assuming she forgot the last veggie addition. She explained she likes to save them for the end so they don’t get overcooked. I recognized some strategic cooking going on here and I liked it. The house filled with that wonderful, hearty, soup-simmering-on-a-stove smell, and we were ready to ladle.

After a quick 60 seconds of stirring around the final addition of summer squash, we tore off fresh leaves of kale and put them on the bottom of our bowls. I had always put kale in my soups during the simmering process since I always had the idea that they needed some time to soften and cook. Now I know there is no such need - the heat of the broth alone cooked the kale perfectly. The leaves instantly turned a bright green and any raw taste did not linger at all. Instead of having every vegetable being that same sort of cooked/simmered texture and heat, there were now different levels of both, with the more cooked root veggies and legumes, slightly cooked squash, and essentially blanched kale. Beki had baked the ham with a honey glaze, so the soup broth had a nice sweetness in the background that toned down the saltiness of the ham nicely. With a few turns of crack pepper and some broken crackers, I had my first bite. I fell in love instantly. How could you not? It was a pot full of love for goodness sake. Every vegetable had such a distinctive flavor, but still melded so well together. I was especially impressed with the purple majesty potatoes – they had an earthiness and depth of flavor to them that I have never tasted before in any other potato.

The first bowlful was gone before I knew it, and the second one was created without hesitation. I couldn’t have asked for a better meal after a day of travel, let alone as a welcoming dinner to a very new place and experience. I could only imagine what other concoctions could be made with such ingredients. And yes, that’s what I thought about as I fell asleep that night on a very full and happy stomach.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

From Blueberries to Apples

Ah, Labor Day. It’s a weekend that comes every year with the most bittersweet sentiments. On the one hand we never believe that our precious months of summer have already passed us by. Schools are back in session, summer toys are put away for the season, and tank tops are swapped out for cozy sweatshirts. How long do tans last again?

On the other hand, there is the excitement of fall on the horizon, which can be one of the most pleasant and beautiful seasons of the year, especially in New England. From the picturesque landscapes of foliage to the excitement of rooting on your favorite NFL team, there are more ways than one to tell that the seasonal transition is underway. Today though, I especially felt this transition through one of the most powerful dictators of change in the calendar year (at least in my opinion): food. Today, a muffin and a crisp turned out to be more than a sum of their ingredients.

As I pulled out the bag of frozen blueberries from our freezer this morning, I couldn’t help but pop a few of them in my mouth before I folded them into the muffin batter. They slowly melted away and the sweetness you get only from summer picked Maine blueberries overtook my taste buds. I remembered the day Nini, Lina, and I went out to pick them clearly. It was the biggest triple-H week of the summer; a Hot Hazy and Humid that made the air thick and my hair a lovely ball of frizz. It didn’t stop us from picking over 15 pounds of blueberries though. The plump berries were dripping off of their branches just as the sweat dripped from our brows, trying to find some way to bear the summer sun. We survived the elements though, and drove home happy with our bushels of blue gems. Some were eaten immediately and some we packed away in the freezer so we could savor the fruits of our labor for as long as possible.

Right after our picking session I made these ‘Sunny Morning Muffins’ for the first time, mainly because I could easily add blueberries into the recipe. They were received with approving nods from the judgment panel of aunties and cousins during our annual sleepover in Rockport. Part of their success is that they encapsulate the tastes of summer so well from the pieces of strawberries and blueberries…and paired with mashed banana and toasted walnuts, they make one heck of an addition to the breakfast line-up. Seeing that now it was Labor Day weekend and a big crew was up for the holiday, I woke up today and thought that these would be a nice treat to have around. I could feel their warmth from the oven as I balanced half of the muffins down to the dock in my arms. We sat next to the water and enjoyed each and every tasty, whole-grain crumb. The sun was hot, the sky was clear, we were sprawled on the dock…but something was different. No one was swimming, the air was dry, there was talk of taking boats out of the water…a scene you would not find in the typical Maine day in, say, the middle of July, when this snack was first inspired.

The afternoon unfolded casually with relaxing boat rides and small chores around the house. There was a window of about two hours between the end of a boat ride and the beginning of the Big H barbeque at Terry and Sue’s, and I found myself wondering what I should do to fill my time. Kayak? Swim? Read? Then I remembered: apple picking! The orchard up the street had just opened for the season and I knew I had to get there before I left to go out west for the fall. I turned to my dad and asked if he had any interest. I'm not even sure why I bothered asking - without hesitation we hopped right in the truck and down Chipmunk Run we went.

My Dad and I both appreciate the quality of freshly picked summer produce. We both say that if we could eat summer corn and tomatoes every night for dinner, we would have no complaints. So, letting us go alone and unsupervised to the orchard was like letting two alcoholics loose in a liquor store (as my mom likes to call me when entering any food related venue). We walked along the rows of trees and ate and picked and ate and picked. The sky was still sunny and cloudless, and my favorite afternoon sun was making every apple and peach (bonus crop!) look like a piece of art. “Elizabeth, I think you’ve taken more pictures of the fruit than picked them.”
44 pounds later…(!), we drove back to camp with Cortlands, Macintosh, early Honey Crisp, and peaches for all to enjoy.

I walked in the door of the log cabin to see the crisp topping already in the process of being put together by my mom. I chose a few of the best Macs and Corts to wash and dice up. Once they were in the pan (which was big enough to hold a necessary double batch) they were smothered with oats, flour, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a dash of clove.

When dinner time finally arrived, we sat and ate our burgers, hot dogs, sausages, beans, salad, and orzo salad (we wonder why we never starve up here...) as the sun set. We couldn’t believe the chill that had crept through the air. There was no need for a thermometer to tell us the lake temperature was dropping – the steam that slowly drifted off the water surface said enough. We quickly gravitated into the house upstairs where the apple crisp was minutes away from being done. “Smell that crisp!” everyone said as they entered the room. It seemed as though the smell of those spices played an equal role to the warming of our bodies as the heat of the house. Once the crisp had time to cool off a bit, I cracked through the crispy crust to the soft apple interior and divvied out dessert to everyone, with Lina as my ice cream assistant. Everyone sat and enjoyed their bowlful, continuously commenting on how good it tasted. Although they probably didn’t fully realize it, I knew that it didn’t have to do with the mixture of butter and sugar and apples that lay before them (at least not fully). I knew that even though they probably couldn’t pin point the last time they had eaten a crisp, it wasn’t recent, and the certain taste in their mouths was telling their bodies that it was finally time to accept fall as the current season. It was a taste they were realizing they had missed – a taste that only really comes around during a certain time of year. Not only did it affirm that dishes taste better when they are made with fresh and seasonal ingredients, but also that that is the sole reason of why we only save particular foods and recipes for specific times of the year. When we return to experiencing those tastes, we know for certain that a new chapter is beginning.

So there it was – my day turned out to be one of those days that you truly realize that change you had anticipated was finally coming. With a goodbye to summer through its last frozen blueberries, fall was graciously received with its first apple harvest. And even though there were hints of change from other parts of life, I found out from the simplest things, this time blueberries and apples, that the food around me can be one of the most power indicators of them all.