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Terra Brockman

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Henry's Farm, Illinois

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The Seasons on Henry's Farm

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Terra Brockman is an author and speaker on a variety of food and farm topics. She has written extensively on food and agriculture, especially as it affects the environment. A member of a remarkable farming family, Terra is a nuanced observer of, fierce advocate for, and gifted writer and speaker about sustainable agriculture. She comes at her subject from unexpected angles, combining her experience growing up as one of the 4th generation of an Illinois farm family with expertise in biology, ecology, literature, philosophy and history.

Brockman’s most recent book, The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, was a finalist for the 2010 James Beard Award in writing/literature. The book takes the reader through the many “micro-seasons” on Terra’s brother Henry’s extremely diverse (655 varieties at last count) vegetable farm in central Illinois. Excerpts from the book have appeared in Orion Magazine (“Corn Porn,” August/Sept., 2009), and The Wildbranch Anthology (“Bean by Bean,” Univ. of Utah Press, 2010).

Brockman is also the founder of The Land Connection, an educational nonprofit she started when the disconnect between good land use, good meals, and good health became so dire that the situation demanded action on the ground. Today, The Land Connection is furthering the organization’s mission of preserving farmland, training new farmers, and empowering consumers.

Through her writing, speaking, and advocacy work, Brockman continues to work for healthy farmland, healthy foods, and healthy communities by elucidating the food chain that links the American eater to the American land. Her website is www.terrabrockman.com.

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4 Fresh Ideas To Make – Or Grill – For The Fourth of July Image

Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.

While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.

Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!

If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.

mint soda

Make a cool mint soda for hot summer days. Credit: Cara Cummings

Cool Mint Soda

Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped

Mint sprigs for garnishing

Sparkling water

Directions

1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.

2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.

3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.

Grilled stuffed peppers

Grilled stuffed peppers are a quick Fourth of July favorite. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Stuffed Peppers

Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 sweet peppers, halved

8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)

1 large tomato, chopped

6 sprigs basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive Oil

Directions

1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.

2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.

3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.

Pesto-flavored potatoes

Use pesto to add a light, summer flavor to potatoes. Credit: Cara Cummings

Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled

Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves

1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)

¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated

¼ cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt, to taste

1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)

Directions

1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.

2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.

3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.

Peaches for the Fourth of July

Make a quick, easy, and delicious dessert using fresh peaches. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries

While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 peaches

1 cup tart cherries, pitted

½ cup honey

Olive oil

Directions

1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!

2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.

3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.

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Red, White & Blue: The Art Of Summer Berry Tart Image

There’s only one thing better than eating berries straight from the bush, and that’s putting them into a buttery pâte sucrée crust. Here are just a few of the blissful berries that can go into your summer berry tart.

Aronia berries: Aronia is in the apple family, and the clusters of dark fruits have an intense tannic flavor that dissipates when they are cooked. Native to North America, aronia is popular in Poland and Russia, where it is used to make juices, jam, syrups and flavored spirits. It is high in vitamin C and has many times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries and pomegranate.

Blackberries: New varieties of blackberries are larger and sweeter than older varieties, but all are high in vitamins and antioxidants.

Raspberries: In addition to red raspberries, there are golden ones that are also high in vitamins C and K.

Blueberries: Great in pancakes and muffins, blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants.

Red, white or black currants: Very high in vitamin C, currants are used in jams, pies, ice creams and tarts. Black currants have more intense flavors than the red or white currants, and are packed with iron, potassium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin B5.

Gooseberries: These small berries can be red, green and purple and are good in tarts, pies, puddings and fruit salads. Gooseberries are high in vitamins C and A, potassium and manganese.

Strawberries: Go for whichever strawberries have the strongest aroma and you won’t be disappointed. They contain high vitamin C, manganese and folic acid levels.

Mulberries: These soft fruits have zero shelf life, but you can often find them growing wild at the edges of woods or parking lots. If you do, eat them right away or put them in a pie or tart.

All these berries are nutritional powerhouses, offering many phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin and catechins, that provide deep colors, rich flavors and disease-fighting attributes.

You can double, triple or quadruple the tart crust recipe below, portion it into one-tart amounts, then freeze it for up to two months. As each new berry comes into season, thaw and roll out the dough for that week’s tart. By the end of the season, you will be a pro at making berry tarts, and you will most likely have a lot of new friends!

Summer Berry Tart is a perfect choice for summer. Credit: Terra Brockman

Berry Tart is a popular choice for summer. Credit: Terra Brockman

The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ Santa Rosa Plum Tart in “Chez Panisse Fruit.”

Summer Berry Tart

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

  • Summer berries of your choice, about one quart (I use a mix of blueberries, raspberries, aronia berries and red currants)
  • 1 pre-baked 10-inch pâte sucrée tart shell (recipe below)
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons of plum brandy, grappa or kirsch
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
  2. Put the berries in a single layer in the tart shell, or arrange them in concentric circles.
  3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it bubble gently and cook until the milk solids turn light brown. Remove the butter from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside.
  4. Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is thick and forms a ribbon when dropped from the beaters, about five minutes. Add the butter, brandy, vanilla, salt, flour and cream. Stir just until mixed. Gently pour the mixture over the berries, filling the shell, and just barely covering the berries.
  5. Bake in the top third of the oven until the top is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature

The baked Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

The baked Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

 

The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” If you’ve never made a tart before, read her section on tarts, where she walks you through the process step by step.

Pâte Sucrée Tart Crust

Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 4 hours chill time

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes (4 hours 35 minutes including chill time)

Yield: 1 (10-inch) tart crust

Ingredients

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

⅓ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

1¼ cups flour

Directions

1. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in the salt, vanilla and egg yolk. Add the flour, stir and fold in gently until there are no dry patches. The dough will be soft and sticky. Gather it up into a ball and wrap in plastic. Flatten into a disk, and chill for at least 4 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

3. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. If it is very hard, let it sit 10 to 20 minutes to soften. Roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or parchment paper until it is about ⅛-inch thick and about 12 inches in diameter.

4. Put the dough into the tart pan and press gently into the sides. Trim any excess dough, and lightly prick all over with a fork. Bake for 5 minutes at 425 F, and then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes or until light gold.

Main photo: The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart before baking. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Seductive Strawberry Variety Is A New Favorite Image

Superfood status aside, there is nothing more seductive than the sweet and spicy scent of the first gold-spangled ruby-red strawberries of the season. The uninitiated may wonder what on earth I’m talking about, since the fruit section of most grocery stores is as aroma-free as the canned goods section. But every Saturday in June, I watch a stream of savvy shoppers make a beeline to certain local farm stands where perfume still pervades the air.

The strawberries at a farmers market are generally not the largest, nor the longest-lasting, nor the most perfectly shaped. But there is a reason customers are standing six-deep, waiting their turn: When you bite into the soft flesh, juices and flavors ricochet around your mouth and your brain until you are in a delirium of pleasure. “This,” I hear people say again and again, “is what strawberries used to taste like!”

Indeed, this is how they tasted, before they were bred for color, size and shelf-life, before synthetic chemical fertilizers, fumigants, insecticides and herbicides. Contrary to industrial belief, there are simple ways to control pests in the strawberry patch, the most time-tested being organic straw mulch (hence the straw in strawberries), which obviates the need for a host of chemicals. Straw keeps the berries off the moist ground (no need for fungicides), prevents weed seeds from germinating (no need for herbicides), and adds nutrients to the soil as the straw decomposes (no need for chemical fertilizers) — all the while enhancing the diversity of soil microorganisms that keep the farm ecosystem on an even keel.

Mara des Bois strawberries are the result of cross-breeding four old European varieties, Korona, Red Gauntlet, Gento, and Ostara. Credit: Terra Brockman

Mara des Bois strawberries are the result of cross-breeding four old European varieties, Korona, Red Gauntlet, Gento and Ostara. Credit: Terra Brockman

Even in our hot and humid Illinois summers, delicious strawberry varieties such as Jewel, Honey-oye, and Earliglo do very well. But my new favorite is Mara des Bois. It is a small, somewhat elongated berry, with an intoxicating fragrance, unusual red-orange color, and deep, complex and varied flavors. In fact, different berries, even from the same plant, can have remarkably different flavors. This may be because it is a combination of four heirloom varieties that the French strawberry breeder Jacques Marionnet crossed to get the Mara des Bois. Each variety contributes a layer of flavor and in some berries, one or another flavor predominates, with some sweeter, some more citrusy, some more perfumey.

I confirmed my suspicion of the berry-to-berry variations when I brought over a big bowl of them as a treat for friends, and each one brought a different accolade, from “tangerine!” to “Kool-Aid!” to “strawberry ice cream!” And so another and another disappeared until the bowl was empty.

And these bright bursts of flavor contain potent packages of nutrition. An average strawberry has only 4 calories, but packed in those few calories are 11% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. This means that eight to 10 strawberries give you more vitamin C than an orange. In addition, strawberries are high in fiber and antioxidants, and a good source of potassium and manganese.

While nothing says “welcome to summer” like strawberry shortcake, there are many other ways to use strawberries — if you can manage to get them home without eating them all on the way.  This easy salad combines the best of the rich flavors of early summer — spicy arugula with sweet/tart strawberries.

Arugula Salad with Aged Balsamic and Fresh Strawberries

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 4 cups torn arugula leaves
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries
  • 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved and crumbled into small pieces (½ cup)
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Toast walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large salad bowl; let cool for 5 minutes.
  2. Add arugula, strawberries, Parmesan, pepper and salt. Sprinkle vinegar and oil over the salad; toss gently and serve at once.

 Smaller and softer than commercial strawberries, the Mara des Bois pack a flavor punch. Credit: Terra Brockman

Smaller and softer than commercial strawberries, the Mara des Bois pack a flavor punch. Credit: Terra Brockman

Main photo: The carmine-orange color and alluring aroma of wild strawberries (fraises des bois) are clues that this is a Mara des Bois. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Flat-Leaf Asian Chives: Sweet And Versatile Image

On the canvas of seasonal eating, in between the greens of spring and the reds of summer, there is a largely white space filled by the pungent members of the onion family. They are planted around the same time as the fast-growing salad greens, but they grow slowly until the first hot days cause them to bulk up almost overnight. Suddenly, gardens and farmers markets overflow with big bunches of regular onions (red, white, yellow and Walla Walla), baby cipolline onions, shallots, leeks, scallions and chives — regular and Asian.

While everyone knows what to do with most of these members of the allium family, the Asian chives are often overlooked, perhaps because they look like something that grows in a lawn. They are easily distinguished from the more common hollow-leaved chives by their flat leaves, garlicky aroma and sweetness. They are also a much more substantial and versatile vegetable than regular chives — excellent in any egg dish, Asian stir-fry or salad. And while regular chives peter out by early June, the Asian chives keep on going all season long under as many names as there are Asian languages, including nira, jiu tsai, gau tsoi, he, kui chaai and kutsay.

Asian chives have been cultivated in China for more than 2,000 years and are used extensively in Chinese and other Asian cuisines, especially in potstickers, spring rolls, noodle dishes and stir-fries. They also pack a major nutritional punch — especially for a mere 30 calories per 100 grams. Low in fat and high in dietary fiber and protein, they contain high amounts of calcium, carotene, and Vitamins C, B1 and B2. In Chinese medicine, Asian chives are considered to be a yang, or warming, food that will give you energy.

Don’t be shy about adding a cup or more of Asian chives to any dish. They cook down like a leafy vegetable, and add a sweet, fresh taste. They are absolutely wonderful in eggs, whether scrambled or in a quiche, but I have come to love them most in the classic Japanese dish, nira tamago, in which delicately cooked eggs (tamago) nestle in the quickly cooked Asian chives (nira), and in the Korean savory chive pancakes known as pa jeon.

 

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Asian chives with eggs. Credit: Terra Brockman

Nira Tamago (Soft-Cooked Egg in a Nest of Garlic Chives)

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 eggs

2 bunches of garlic chives

a pinch, plus ½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons, plus 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Directions

1. Rinse the chives, and cut into 1- or 2-inch lengths.

2. Put the eggs in a small bowl and mix gently with a fork. Add the water and a sprinkle of salt. Mix well.

3. Put a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil. When it’s hot, add the egg mixture. Let it cook for a few seconds, and then gently fold it in on itself a few times with a spatula. When the egg is cooked, but still soft and moist, remove it from the pan and set aside. Cover to keep warm.

4. Wipe the pan clean with a paper towel and put over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons oil. When the oil is very hot, add the chives. Stir fry very quickly and after about 15 seconds, add the half teaspoon salt. Stir fry another 20 to 30 seconds. Transfer the chives to a shallow bowl and hollow out the center. Put the egg in its “nest” and enjoy.  (This is also good with a bowl of rice or a slice of toast.)

Vegetarian Korean Pancakes

Serves 2

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”

Ingredients

For pa jeon:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup rice flour

2 eggs, lightly beaten (optional)

1½ cups cold unflavored seltzer water (or plain water)

1 tablespoon canola oil, plus extra for the pan

1 cup garlic chives, sliced in 2-inch lengths

For vinegar dipping sauce:

¼ cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons rice vinegar (unseasoned)

¼ teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons minced or grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

Directions

1. To prepare the dipping sauce, stir first four ingredients in a bowl until sugar dissolves. Add ginger and stir, then let sit while you make the pancakes. Stir in the sesame seeds when you’re ready to serve.

2. For the chive pancakes, in a large bowl, gently mix flours, eggs, seltzer, and oil until smooth. Let rest a few minutes while you cut the chives into 2-inch lengths.

3. Stir the chives into the batter, tossing to coat.

4. Heat a large seasoned cast iron pan or nonstick frying pan over medium heat and coat with a little oil.  When the pan is hot, drop batter with a ladle to form 4 or 5 pancakes. Spread the batter out so it’s no more than a half-inch thick. Turn heat down to medium-low. Cook about 4 minutes on each side. Pancake should be crispy and brown. Remove to a plate. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve hot with the dipping sauce

Main photo: Ingredients for Nira Tamago, Asian chives and eggs. Credit: Terra Brockman

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How To Grow The Best Herbs At Home Image

Herbs look good, smell good and do you good. They also instantly elevate any meal from quotidian to sensational, transforming the simplest sandwich or salad into a gourmet occasion. Best of all, anyone can grow them. No green thumb or backyard required.

Because most herbs are not far removed from their wild ancestors, they don’t need to be coddled and will do just fine in a pot on a windowsill or porch, as long as you give them a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine.

Five Easy Tips For Growing Your Own

What herbs should I plant? Choose the ones you like and will indulge in often. Many people go for parsley, basil and thyme, but you may also want oregano for your tomato salads, mint for your mojitos and lemon verbena just to brush your fingers against for a hit of aromatherapy. Whatever you decide to plant, you’ll soon find that your homegrown herbs are better than any store-bought ones because there’s no time for the volatile oils to disappear between the time you pick the herbs and the time you eat them.

Seeds or starts? Seeds are very economical, particularly if you’re going to grow and use a lot of herbs. But seeds can take a couple of weeks just to germinate, so you may have to wait a few months from the time you plant to the time you begin to harvest. If you need only a few herb plants, and want to start enjoying them sooner than later, it’s best to buy starts.

Where should I get my starts? Although home and garden centers often carry herb starts, you generally don’t know much about them, including whether the variety will do well in your area, whether the plants were hardened off or what chemicals may have been used on them.

When you buy your starts from local farmers, you can ask about their practices and about the specific varieties. A local farmer tends to choose varieties that are hardy, tasty and suited to your soils and climate, and can help you choose what you want. Summer or winter savory? Lemon or Thai basil? Chocolate or mojito mint? They also can give you tips about how to plant, nurture and harvest what you buy.

Speaking of harvesting, too many websites tell you to pluck individual leaves of basil or snip chives a few inches above the ground. Any farmer will tell you that if you want fresh basil leaves all summer long, you should cut a whole branch, leaving a few leaves at the base where new branches will come out. Chives should be cut just under the surface of the soil, so that tender new leaves will emerge. When treated right, the more you take from herb plants, the more they give back.

Where should I plant my herbs? Most herbs will do well indoors, but they tend to be more productive when grown outdoors, either in a pot or in the ground. Whether you choose indoors or outdoors, be sure they have lots of sunshine and a well-drained soil, and plant them close to your kitchen so you’ll get into the habit of using them every day.

What if I have more than I can use? Rejoice! Dry any extra and put it in a tight-lidded jar to use all winter long or to give as gifts. Or make a fresh herb bouquet for yourself or your friends and neighbors. Herbs will last longer than flowers, give off wonderful aromas and you can graze the bouquet every time you walk by.

 

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Britton shiso. Credit: Terra Brockman

An herb a day

Most people naturally think about the kitchen uses for herbs, but long before they were culinary, herbs were medicinal and their healing properties are what people have valued throughout most of human history. Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines had been used and passed down orally for thousands of years before they were finally written down.

In Western cultures, herbal medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, whose gentle treatments were based on the healing power of nature. Famous herbalists who followed Hippocrates’ famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” include Avicenna from Persia, Galen from Rome, Paracelsus from Germany and Culpepper from England. Most of the first modern pharmaceuticals came from herbs, and even today about a quarter of our drugs have botanical origins.

When you grow your own herbs, you get all the medicinal and culinary properties for mere pennies. So forget the poor substitute of dried basil, forgo the last-minute dash to the supermarket for overpriced basil and reach over to snip a stem from your very own plant. It’ll be good for your body, your budget and your taste buds.

Quick and Easy Herb Vinaigrette

This flexible dressing can be used on a lettuce or spinach salad, potatoes, green beans, pasta or as a dip for bread. Feel free to substitute whatever herbs you have on hand, in any amount you like.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice (favorites include thyme, tarragon, chervil, chives and/or parsley)

Directions

Whisk the vinegar and salt, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir in the herbs and use immediately.

Main photo: Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman

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What You Don’t Know About Delicious Cherimoya Image

My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.

But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.

With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”

Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”

“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla,  faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.

Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.

Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.

“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.

Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness

The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.

My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.

The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico.  By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.

I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.

Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

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