Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jewelry on the Vine

            I brake for berries. Whether atop a mountain bike, hiking in the woods or driving country roads, the sight of succulent, soft vine or cane fruits brings me to a screeching halt.

            It’s because of my childhood. Blackberries grew wild in the Ohio fields, and my father cultivated red raspberries and Boysenberries. Mom never had to ask me to forage the former – a bucket full meant pie for dessert, and what can beat blackberry pie? – while the latter represented pocket change. One of my summer chores was harvesting and pedaling raspberries through the neighborhood.

            But more than that – berries taste sublime – period. So I brake for them.

            Ripe now in New Jersey are a species of wild raspberries called Wineberries.  These gorgeous, beryl-colored fruits look like jewelry. They’re not my favorite; the fruits are waxy and often very tart, but more to the point, they remind me of an unfortunate summer 4 years ago when I fell ill with sepsis. The day I realized I had a fever I was in the midst of a wineberry patch. Still, paired with stone fruit, wineberries make superb pies and tarts.

            Three days ago when I drove past what I now call “Sepsis Hill” my eyes tracked right and there they were. A few seconds of braking later and I was in the patch. “Just enough,” I promised myself, “for one pie.”

            I had to exercise restraint. Bags of chanterelles and black trumpets filled the back seat, and I had to get them home before they became overheated. Also, I’d planned meals for the week to come and there wasn’t space in the calorie column for pie. In fact there wasn’t supposed to be dessert at all. But we were soon to barbeque with my in-laws – perhaps there’d be opportunity …..

            My next stop was a farm market run by a former student, Devin Race. To my immense pleasure she had a bin filled with fresh-picked apricots.

            Ingredients in hand I had only to figure out how to use them. BBQ’d tart was a tempting thought. I’ve been trying to expand my public grill repertoire with desserts. I’d recently purchased a cast iron tray – I forget what its purpose is supposed to be – but covered with a sheet of thick aluminum foil it makes a reasonably good ersatz smoker-oven. So far I’d used it on ribs. But why not bake in it?

            At this point laziness kicked in and I decided to eschew a classic tart crust, as well as precise technique. “Make it easy” is a perfect summer mantra. I threw about 3/4 cup of almonds into the food processor, added about 1/4 cup roasted Brazil nuts, a short teaspoon of cinnamon and about 2 teaspoons of brown sugar. Processed to coarse flour the nut blend tasted great. 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter (more or less) pulsed with the nut flour a half dozen times and I had “dough”.

            At the picnic grounds I pressed the dough into 4 small tart pans, lined the edges with quartered apricots and filled the center with a blend of apricots and wineberries, mixed with @ 1/4 cup sugar. The tart pans had to be layered in my “smoker” – they did not all fit side-by-side. I sat the smoker atop a small charcoal fire, and while Leslie and her parents toured the lake club, I tended the flame (don’t feel bad for me – I’d swum before they got there). Occasionally I got close enough for a good sniff and once or twice I peeled back the aluminum foil to see how things were progressing. It took about an hour – enough time for the day to cool and the swimmers to return to my table. 

            The tarts weren’t bad, in the long run, though the bottom layer were burnt. I’m giving myself a “C”, with a self-reminder that baked goods can’t rest directly on the smoker oven floor. Next time I’ll make a wineberry buckle and put a heat source inside the contraption, like I’ve done with ribs. A few lumps of untreated charcoal should do the trick.

            Oh, you want to know what else we ate? Salad, a “bum pack” of sweet potatoes, sweet onions, bacon and brown suga,r and salmon crusted with black trumpet mushrooms. And, yes, we do eat like that all the time.

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