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blueberries in the summer rain

July 25th, 2010 | 7 Comments »

I’ve been picking blueberries at John and Terry Cuddy’s Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, WI for about 5 years now. And in doing so have encountered all sorts of weather on the chosen days that I make the long and gorgeous drive to their beautiful farm. Most days I am lucky to enjoy ample sunshine that dazzles through the trees along Wisconsin’s Interstate 35, a picturesque road that winds, dips and turns along the mighty Mississsippi River, before dumping itself into stunning Lake Pepin. The scenery along the way is one of the reasons I don’t mind the 75-minute trip, each way. I can’t imagine a more beautiful route to take in order to pick the Cuddy’s delicious and gorgeous berries.

But this year was the first year that I picked my standard two boxes full of fruit in the rain.

I really didn’t have much choice. It was either take the chance and go, or possibly miss out. I took a day off work, a Thursday, which is the first of the four-day weekend when the farm is open for picking. It’s also the best day to go since the bushes are usually bursting with fruit, all begging to be picked. But gray cloud cover greeted me when I woke up, and I thought my plans were dashed. But I looked over the radar, and spoke to John, who assured me that if I did indeed come to pick I would be amply rewarded with a bountiful harvest. Finally I decided ‘What the hell….’. I changed into some grubby clothes and hit the road.

The rain was so heavy around the Cottage Grove area, and further South that I really began to wonder just how crazy I was. But as if by magic, when I drove over the old steel lift bridge across the Mississippi into Prescott, WI, the rain just stopped. Just like that. The sky seemed to brighten just a little and my hopes lifted. I soldiered on.

Rain creates it’s own beauty that summons a unique kind of appreciation. Most people find rainy days to inspire little else but languid activity and relaxation. But driving through the cliffs around that area of Wisconsin, seeing the huge plumes of mist high above me that formed from the rain and the low clouds that scuttled across the sky, almost it seemed, right at the top of the towering hills, it gave me a sense of awe at how lovely the world can be even when it’s soaking wet. And in the midst of a lush July with plenty of rainfall, the area was so richly green that it felt like I’d been dropped in the middle of a rainforest. The Cuddy’s farm, with it’s extensive gardens and 9 acres of blueberry bushes atop a high cliff above Lake Pepin was stunning in it’s own right. Low clouds obscured some of the hills and the foliage was laden with water. It wasn’t long after I started picking that I too was soaked to the skin. Although it wasn’t really raining, a fine and constant mist filled the air. Bent low over the bushes, and only intent on filling my baskets with the bounty in front of me, I really paid no attention to how wet I was getting.

After several hours that seemed to pass very quickly, I had what I wanted.

The views at the mouth of Lake Pepin weren’t as stunning as I’d seen on previous trips, but it’s beauty can’t be denied even when clouded over and heavily misting.

The tiny towns along WI I-35 range from the unincorporated Diamond Bluff, to the 97 folks in Stockholm (with the most amazing kitchen supply store, The Palate, that I’ve seen in ages)  and, further down the road, the town of Pepin, coming in with a whopping 937 population, and home to the most famous Harbor View Cafe. Although I did not venture into Harbor View once in Pepin, I did manage to find a great sandwich and cup of coffee at Great River Cafe and Coffee Roasters. It satiated my hunger enough to get me back on the road, heading home with the sweet smell of blueberries filling my every pore.

The only downfall to picking the berries wet is that they’ll begin to break down much quicker, so utilizing my bounty was the first order of business. For the most part, I freeze the berries in baggies, mostly in 2-cup increments. This makes them perfect for any manner of muffin, pancake, smoothie, buckle or tart that I can dream up to create. And I make syrup too, because there’s just nothing better than a spoonful of fresh blueberry syrup. So now my freezer is full and the winter will be that much sweeter with the bounty available.

Rush River Produce- If you go, they are open for picking Thurs-Sun. 8AM-2PM but always call first to check on availability! Sometimes the crowds pick them out before the weekend is over. The Cuddy’s are superbly friendly and it’s a great adventure for kids and grown-ups alike. One of the best parts of my day in the rain was hearing the delightful shrieks of the kids around me as they hunted for their treasures.

And how about some great syrup to have for your pancakes, french toast and waffles?

Kate’s Fresh Blueberry Syrup

4 c. fresh blueberries, unwashed
1/2 c. water
2 T. cornstarch
1/4 c. honey

Stir all ingredients together in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to a simmer and allow to thicken slightly, about 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator.

grilled guacamole

July 23rd, 2010 | 11 Comments »

No, that isn’t a misprint. I made guacamole on the grill.

See?

The idea came from The Minimalist’s 101 Grilling ideas column in the New York Times Dining section, and since we’re huge fans of Guacamole in this house, it wasn’t long before the desire to create it, and the assembled ingredients were ready for my initial attempt.

I’m no stranger to grilling onions or tomatoes. In previous summers, I’ve made a topping for bruschetta with grilled tomato and sweet onions that I’ve devoured shamelessly, and this summer for some reason, the desire for grilled onions on any number of dishes has been almost an obsession. I’m finding more and more to like about onions, whether they’re roasted, caramelized in a pan or like this, charred and slightly smoky from the grill.

There’s no technique to making this Guacamole at all. The key is mostly in preparing the items for the grill. Tomato and avocado should be ripe, but not too ripe due to the fact that they soften intensely on the grill. My avocados were more firm than I would have chosen for a standard preparation, but they worked beautifully in the intense heat of the grill. Carve them in half and remove the pit, then brush a little oil over them. Halve your tomatoes, and slice the onions into thick rounds so they are easy to handle. Give those a smear of oil too.  And be sure not to forget the limes! They become a sweeter version of their usual tart self from the heat of the flames.

Place all the items face down on the grill. And here’s where your personal preference will come in. Do you like a lightly toasted taste? Or do you prefer a nice grill-marked char? Do be careful about the tomato; if you overdo it, it will collapse into the fire. I prefer to put the tomato on the hottest part of the grill and watch it carefully until I notice the edges beginning to soften just a little, becoming dark where it touches the grill. I flip it over and let it cook for a few more minutes, then remove it to a pan to rest. The skin usually comes off.

For the rest of the items, leave them in place until they are nicely marked and beginning to soften. Turn the avocado over so the peel side is down on the grate and cook them until they become soft and compliant. Flip over the lime halves too so the rind is down, and watch for the pulp to almost collapse. At this point, you’re not going to get juice from the limes, but you will get a deliciously smoky lime pulp for your Guacamole that gives it that familiar and tangy ‘Zing!’ that only a good lime can offer. And those onions can be cooked to any degree you wish.

Once you’ve got all the grilling done, allow everything to cool off. Chop the tomato and onion, scoop out the avocado and squeeze the limes into a bowl. Do be cautious of the amount of lime you put in; remember that the pulp will become more intense from being heated, and you may not need as much as you think. Add in whatever seasonings you prefer.

There was no photo of the finished version of this Guacamole because, well…. Guacamole all mixed up isn’t exactly photogenic. It didn’t look any different than what you would make normally, but the flavor was stunning. Smoky and rich, it had depth that I wouldn’t have imagined Guacamole could have. Everything became sweeter, and deeply flavorful from the heat and flames of the grill. Our love for Guacamole was definitely enhanced by this version. It didn’t last long at all and I can’t wait to make it again.

summer speaks

July 6th, 2010 | 6 Comments »

This summer is no usual summer for me. At least not like the past five or so years when the span between May and September often found me barefoot, my head in the breezes and most likely staring down a day with little to no agenda. No, my friends, this summer is much different. There won’t be any tan lines, probably no exhilarating rides around the lake atop a kneeboard and it’s quite possible that my swimsuit will stay tucked away in the drawer. Which is kind of sad- I really like that suit.

I’m working a lot- as expected, and surprisingly, when I’m deep in my work, and not partaking in the forays into summertime that are going on around me, I don’t find myself wistfully gazing off into space, my knife in hand, fighting off an emotional tugging at my heart over what I’m missing. The moment that white coat goes on and I pick up my knife case, heading up to the kitchen with an armload of towels, my hair twisted at the nape of my neck, the rest of the world falls away and my passion takes over. I don’t miss out on anything because I am right where I want to be. Often I catch a glance out the back door of the kitchen, when someone opens it to toss out the cardboard boxes, and I see the blue sky above the tree line, sometimes peppered with fleecy cloud, but there isn’t an urge to drop what I’m doing and step out into the warmth. In fact, when I do go outside at meal time and gaze off over the lake, I have a moment of appreciation for the glorious summer weather, but I shrug it off and head back inside to do what needs to get done.

And no one is more surprised by this than I am. I’ve discovered a great deal about myself in the past two months at this job. Where I used to think that I could never spend another summer indoors, chained to a time clock, slogging through task after task, what I never realized before is that when you’re deep in a profession that you feel you were created to do, the hours slip away and the rest of the world ceases to matter until the day is done. If I struggled before to get through my work day, it’s because I hated what I was doing. There was no passion involved in the work. I may have been skilled, capable and good at what I was doing for 8 hours a day, but my heart didn’t swell with anticipation each time I stepped up to the plate. I cared enough to do what needed to get done, but it never stirred me. Now I’m being stirred each day, loving what I do and eager to go above and beyond to get done what needs to get done. I’ve discovered what it means to truly, truly love your job. And I’m so grateful for that.

And summertime, the sweetest months in Minnesota, are moving past me at the usual rapid rate and really, I’m fine with it. Still, the time that I do have to enjoy the sunshine has been more sweet and appreciated, simply because I know that it’s limited and I need to get out there, even if it means just taking a walk through my garden. In there, the summer is in full swing, strong and vocal and clamoring to be heard. With being so busy, I find myself living much more in the moment than I have in a very long time. For there’s no fretting about the future these days, there’s no financial stress or concern about wearing ourselves out tugging so hard at life to make it’s ends meet. And while I do know that this will come to an end, I can’t think about that. There’s still so much ahead, so much to learn, to do and to experience and many, many more days of work before it’s time to stop, to rest and to re-focus. For now, it’s nice to just ‘be’

My favorite time in the garden has arrived- it’s Hollyhock time!!

Every year I allow the Hollyhocks to take free range over wherever they decide to grow and am always amply rewarded with towering stalks and gigantic buttons of eye-popping color. These deep red ones on the left are a standard, jutting out against the pale backdrop of the house, offering a rich haven for lazy droning Bumblebees. The lovely pale yellow also come up each year.

This year’s surprise color is this gorgeous pink.


Almost every season brings a new color, one that’s morphed from a previous plant. This pink is so stunning, light and delicate around the edges with deep magenta accents in the center and along a few petals. The first bloom of this took my breath away.

Another surprise color this year is this lovely salmon.

I’ve gotten full on pink flowers in previous years, but this one shows more orange, giving it a nicer and richer color than just plain pink. The stalk of these bloomed so profusely that it fell over after a few days, so thick with blossoms. That’s the one drawback of the Hollyhock. It collapses under the weight of it’s own beauty.

This super delicate pink comes up every year. The center is a lovely rose color.

Here’s another return visitor each summer. The golden petals are set off by a deeper pink center that almost looks orange.

A brighter yellow made an appearance this year too.

And on top of it being prime Hollyhock time, the Echinacea are in bloom

One variety of DayLily managed to bloom this year. The others set their buds, which then dried up. Mysterious, huh? This one of my favorite though. It’s so exotic and beautiful.

The very delicate and lacey Scabiosa have also started blooming.

These lovely flowers, waving from atop a thin but sturdy stem are wholly dependent on sunshine to unravel their frilly petals one at a time. One day I will look and see a few swollen buds, then over a few sunny days, the tiny petals unfurl like tentative sails until they are all gloriously open and blowing in the breeze. I have three Scabiosa plants that should have a variety of colors. So far, all that’s opened has been white, but the others are now blooming and I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised soon.

The Bee Balm has opened it’s thin petals, much to the delight of the roaming Bumblebees.

The Phlox stands tall and proud with deep pink fists of color.

And rounding out the current events in the garden is the ever cheerful and sunny Coreopsis.

The funnest part about the Coreopsis is that the petals sort of resemble duck feet.

Summer is also speaking warmly from the vegetable patch, with tiny tomatoes and peppers, abundant Thyme and Oregano. The wily resident rabbit has been fenced out of foraging on my vegetable plants, and I still see him, gazing wistfully through the barrier at the bounty he can no longer destroy. I don’t mind if he wants to gobble up all the sunflower sprouts, but he won’t be making a salad bar out of my food, thank you.

And another loud exclamation of summer? A sunny morning, complete with fresh cherries in a homemade bowl on faded redwood steps.

I hope your summer is happily bending your ear with it’s tales of sunshine and play, that there’s glorious fruits and vegetables filling your lives and tummies. Any surprises at your end? Please share them so we can all find the joy in this exquisite and fleeting time.