Fifteen years ago, my husband, Ed, and I toasted the start of our life together. Our glasses–and thirty others–were filled with Banfi’s Rosa Regale sparkling red; the color not only matched my wine-colored calla lilies, but also, as those glasses were raised, served to offset the stark white walls of the museum where we held our reception.
After putting dishes away the other day, I pulled down two of those infamous champagne glasses and gently clinked them together to reminisce. As I listened to the sound of the crystal reverberating, it made me think of my son, Everett, and what he would be drinking as Ed and I toasted our anniversary this week–he always feels left out when we have a grown-up drink. (Typically, as a consolation, we allow him to have something special and bubbly along with us: root beer and ginger beer are his favorites.) I set the glasses down and noticed that sitting right in front of me was the bowl full of Florida cranberries that I picked up at the market the day before. The cogs started turning…
My brain is always veering off from one tangent to the next: it’s pretty much how I function. So, follow me, won’t you, as I take you along my thought path from our wedding champagne memory through to my latest creation: hibiscus syrup.
My family and I always seem to be eating our way through some city or another. Our summer trip to North Carolina was a bit different. Because this was our longest road trip to date with our 8 year-old son, Everett, the car was full of snacks and food packed for on-the-go; there was no stop every two hours for food. We stayed in the Franklin, North Carolina mountains, about 20 minutes out of town; instead of a hotel, we rented a cabin. Cooking in our cozy digs for the week made us feel more like residents than tourists. As a result of not eating out five times per day, we did not do our usual whirlwind culinary tour of town–however, we did do some drinking.
Living in St. Petersburg has spoiled us; we have coffee places and local breweries around every corner. When we venture out of our little town, those are the top two things on our radar. Rule number one: no coffee shop chains that we have at home–sorry, Starbucks. Rule number two: local craft beers only–no imports. With the current craft beer boom, we had no problem sticking with number two. To get the full mountain-town experience and to search for proper beverages, we ventured out to several of the other cities within a sixty-mile radius of Franklin: Bryson City, Sylva, Highlands, and Cashiers. On the route home, we drove through Greenville, SC and Savannah, GA all on the same quest. Here were our favorite drink stops along the way:
Green rhubarb pies. It’s one of the fond food memories I have from living in Pittsburgh as a kid. My friend’s mom would pay a visit to her garden and later resurface with a sweet-tart pie that made me pucker with every bite. Since rhubarb was a foreign ingredient in my family’s kitchen, her green pies were all I knew. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties before I discovered that rhubarb is most commonly red. About five years ago, I introduced that red rhubarb into my kitchen.
I noticed during today’s weekly grocery trip that the landscape of the produce section is changing. Squash and apples and citrus were more abundant than usual. Summer berries are in scant supply. Potato bins were filled to the gills with russet, red, yellow and sweet potatoes. Fall is approaching; I wish the Florida weather would follow suit.
Old habits die hard; therefore, my first dish of the fall season is always my butternut squash soup. I feel inclined to go a different direction this year. Don’t worry, you’ll still want to cozy up and eat it in a big bowl while on the couch. The only difference is that I’m reaching across the globe for this fall’s inspiration: African peanut stew.
Leftovers and I are not friends. I’ve given them multiple chances, but we just don’t click. Sure, the food is fun the first time around, but by the next day, they just become a nuisance. Besides hanging around–and stinking up–my fridge, leftovers take up precious space for other things like produce and all of the craft beer that we never seem to have enough room for. Despite my best attempts at being friendly, I typically end up showing them the door–of the trashcan. Every once in a while, I will come across a leftover that is extra special and feel the need to keep it around for one extra meal. I need to be more accommodating to my fridge-dwelling acquaintances; I want us to be friends. The only way that’s going to happen is if I disguise them as something else. Something new. Something different.
Slimy: the first word that always came to mind when I thought about okra. My relationship with that funky pod is a fairly new one. I used to think you could only eat okra fried or use it in gumbo. The fried are tasty–but often greasy–and after one bad gumbo experience, that slime memory was all that I needed to cross okra off my list. Except for the occasional piece of fried okra that my mom will put on my plate at Cracker Barrel, this stuff was never on my radar. It took one meal to change my mind…
Ok, so maybe a bunch of blueberries: maybe even a truckload. Since it pretty much feels like varying degrees of summer all year ’round in Florida, I rely on produce to tell me when summer has officially arrived: corn, cherries, melons, and stone fruit are in abundance. Best of all, it’s finally time when organic berries don’t cost an arm and a leg for a half-pint. Florida’s strawberry season comes sometime between December and February, but summer is when blackberries, raspberries and blueberries come into their own here. Last month, I found an entire pint of blueberries for $3.99…I bought two. I should have bought four. I went back to Publix a couple of weeks after and they were $3.00…I bought six. Six pints of blueberries; that’s about 14 cups! I laughed as they practically filled an entire shelf in my fridge. I was feeling so ambitious, I didn’t want to freeze a single one. And so the baking commenced!