My Julia Child Moment

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Being a child of the Sixties, I have vivid memories of watching Julia Child as The French Chef, on a tiny black and white television in the kitchen with my mother.

I don’t remember her ever cooking one of Julia’s recipes, and my parents didn’t entertain much. I’m pretty sure that as much as we loved to watch Julia, the food she cooked seemed unapproachable and fussy to my mother, not to mention calling for ingredients way over her weekly grocery budget.

My mother prepared dinner every night for our family of five, economical favorites like Sloppy Joes, American Chop Suey, and baked chicken with my favortite seasoning, Shake n’ Bake; pretty typical fare in our working class New England neighborhood.

Watching Julia fling a duck onto her counter as she readied it for Canard à l’Orange might have had the same effect on us as watching Iron Chef Morimoto disembowel a blowfish would today – totally bizarre, impractical and kind of eccentric.

When I was much older, living on my own and seriously considering a career working in restaurant kitchens, I met Julia at a professional conference in Miami.

She was just finishing up her hour of book signing when I hurried over with my newly purchased copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I already owned an old, beat-up copy of the book, but I’d forgotten to bring it. I figured having the chance of getting close enough to a living culinary legend like Julia Child was worth spending the extra bucks for a crisp, new book; so unlike the worn, musty-smelling one I had at home.

As I smiled and approached her with my book, she stood up and shook her head. She said something like “I was just on my way up to my room for a siesta – I’ll have to sign your book another time. Oh, it’s been such a long day”.

I don’t remember exactly what I replied, but somehow my tragic disappointment must have been writ large on my face, since she did finally make her way bake to her seat to sign my book.

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So, I add my Julia Child moment to the list. If you have a moment inspired by Julia, leave me a note in the comments – I want to hear about it!

Wild Purslane Salad with Cucumber and Summer Tomatoes

A bowl full of fresh weeds!

A bowl full of fresh weeds!

I wonder if you would un-invite yourself to dinner at my house if I told you that I was pulling a few weeds from the backyard and tossing them into a salad. Well? Still coming?

I became curious about purslane, also known as portulaca, porcellana and verdolaga, when I first read about it in Honey from a Weed - one of my most inspiring cookbooks.

During the Sixties the author, Patience Gray, accompanied her partner – a sculptor with “an appetite for marble” – on a quest throughout the Mediterranean; from the Greek Islands, through Tuscany and on to the Italian boot heel, Apulia. They lived in some pretty rugged circumstances, meeting the locals and eating lots of simple, rustic food. Her book is more like a memoir-travelogue with recipes, and reading it never fails to make me hungry.

In the Edible Weeds chapter, Gray describe how in springtime she would observe people foraging for certain tender weeds and herbs like wild fennel, chervil, mustard, dandelion and arugula, and tossing them with oil and lemon juice before devouring them as if they were bowls of vegetable spaghetti.

This is the origin of Mesclun, once a seasonal, wild mix of greens and now a ubiquitous prewashed plastic package of salad shipped from one coast to the other. Don’t get me wrong – those bags and boxes are a huge improvement over heads of boring iceberg lettuce and my life wouldn’t be the same without them, but there’s also something calculated and manufactured about their consistent allotment of salad; just so many pieces of radicchio, twiggy sticks of curly frisee and pieces of baby romaine. There’s not much wild in there.

Which leads me to my foraging experiment. Here I am in mid-summer with a yard full of weeds in their prime: crabgrass, hairy vetch, pokeweed, common spurge (often confused with purslane, but actually poisonous!) and purslane.

I admit I had some trepidation about eating a weed that I normally yank out from between the bricks of my front walk and throw into the yard waste pile, but felt better after I reminded myself that I was eating a wild food from my own yard. That’s pretty darn local.

It turns out that my weedy purslane is fleshy and succulent, with a mild flavor like bean sprouts.  I didn’t find the texture to be at all “mucilaginous” – another word often used to describe its texture – thank goodness. I’m not a fan of slimy greens. I like that it’s crunchy and sweetly juicy when you eat a bite.

Purslane is also a mega source of precious Omega-3 fatty acids – more than any other green vegetable.

Along with some pea sprouts from Claverach Farm, I had a few little garden-grown yellow pear tomatoes and a cucumber from my friend Jenn, which I added to a bowl.  I sprinkled everything with some lemon juice, really good extra-virgin olive oil, some sea salt and pepper. A salad was born!

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Blueberry Oat Muffins

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Super easy summer morning muffins, with a sparkle top

We’ve settled into a comfortable summer routine, everyone sleeping in beyond my dog Poppy’s internal alarm clock, which seems to be stubbornly set at around 6:30 a.m.

Poppy spends most nights on a tattered upholstered chair in our bedroom, blissfully asleep for the most part. Every once in a while she’ll emit a muffled little dream-bark, no doubt enacting a heart stopping, squirrel-chase scene.

She likes to start the awakening process with a good long head shake – tags rattling –  which gets my eyes to open – unwillingly – a tiny sliver. Then she hops down out of the chair and transfers herself to my bed, whereupon she begins licking any exposed body parts she can find peeking out from under the sheet. That usually leads to her submitting to a five minute head scratch; my snooze button. Finally, impatience for her morning bowl of kibble wins over, and she treats me to a low, throaty growl. Okay, then! We’re up!

I have to admit I’ve been enjoying my peaceful mornings with the dog, before every one else gets up. It’s so unlike days during the school year, when the kitchen seems crowded and people are demanding and cranky.

I can make a pot of tea at my leisure rather than scurrying around filling lunch sacks, pouring cups of orange juice and bowls of cereal. Instead,  I can pull out a few ingredients to make a quick batch of homemade muffins. By the time feet start pattering down the stairs, the blueberry muffins are done; warm and ready to eat.

My favorite aunt gave me this recipe for blueberry muffins, and it’s become a benchmark.  I even tweaked it a bit a few years ago for a Quaker Oats recipe contest, resulting in my Italian Orange-Almond Muffins (and two thousand prize dollars – how nice is that?). Over the years, I’ve made the recipe even more wholesome and healthy by using whole-wheat pastry flour in place of regular all-purpose flour.

This recipe is simple, full of blueberry flavor and everything gets mixed in one bowl – all good. But the best part of these muffins might be the crunchy, sparkling shards of turbinado sugar sprinkled on top.

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Blueberry Oat Muffins

1/ 2 cup whole rolled oats (quick-cooking works too)
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup cane sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup canola oil (I like to use organic canola oil since most non-organic canola is genetically modified)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup fresh blueberries, or 8 ounces frozen, thawed and drained
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine oats and juice. Let sit 10 minutes. Add flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, oil and egg and mix well. Gently stir in berries.
Spoon into 12 paper baking cups or oiled muffin tin.  Sprinkle the sugar over the tops. Bake 18-22 minutes until lightly golden.
Let muffins cool in the pan 10 minutes before turning them out.

Yield: 12 muffins