the perfect avocado
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I’m Marcy, a graphic designer and photographer with a passion for gardening and home-grown food. A Connecticut native, I grew up “east of the river”, in a quintessential New England small town bordering a very rural part of the state. My childhood home backed up to a farm that had been in the same family since the 1700’s, and there were cows up the street (perhaps this explains my lifelong love of black and white Holsteins). Both of my parents were lifelong gardeners, and my mom was probably the first person in my neighborhood to have a compost pile. And certainly the only one to have an asparagus patch. My sister and I were each given our own small garden plots in elementary school, so I learned how to grow tomatoes long before I learned how to cook.
I now garden at my home in Westport, Connecticut, which can be challenging, as the deer and the rabbits consider my garden the local salad bar. I live and work in a farmhouse which dates to the 1930’s, and the gardens and pond on my property are some of my favorite subjects to photograph. Although most of my career has been spent as a graphic designer, I began photographing with a minor in grad school. With the availability of high quality digital DSLR’s, I returned to more serious photography, first as a fine art photographer, and more recently, shooting food for several of my design clients. So now, many of my passions have converged - gardening, food, cooking, design, and photography... and yes, writing, too. (I was the editor of both my elementary school and high school newspapers.) It doesn’t get much better than that, being able to do what you love.
So, why “the perfect avocado”? I have a mixed culinary heritage. My mom was from Connecticut, but “mah daddy” was from Houston. I’ve been eating avocados since the ‘50s, when most of Connecticut had no idea what a ripe avocado looked like. And at a recent family reunion, I accompanied my aunt and several of my father’s cousins for lunch, where we were served guacamole made tableside, and my relatives spent most of lunch discussing “the perfect avocado”. Yes, that’s my family.
Dorrie Greenspan (dorriegreenspan.com)
David Lebovitz (davidlebovitz.com)
Ruth Reichl (ruthreichl.com)
The Bojon Gourmet (bojongournet.com)
Adventures in Cooking (adventures-in-cooking.com)
Lobster Squad (lobstersquadblogspot.com)
Smitten Kitchen (smittenkitchen.com)
Food Stories (helengraves.co.uk)
eat this poem (eatthispoem.com)
101 cookbooks (101cookbooks.com)
I grew up in Connecticut, the oldest child of a Connecticut-born mother and a Texan father. My grandparents in Hartford and Houston figured prominently in my family’s food. Although both of my grandmothers were of Russian Jewish origin, their cooking styles could not have been more different - Nany was known for her cheese blintzes, and Grammie excelled in enchiladas. Although each had a profound influence on my later culinary development, I’ll start here by talking about Nany, and save the discussion of Grammie and her food for another post.
We lived in a suburb of Hartford, ten miles from Nany and Papa, and all major holidays were celebrated at their home, where Nany held forth in the kitchen. She was known in the family as a great cook, and an exceptionally good baker. (And although I never met her father, as he died before I was born, his records from Ellis Island say that he was a baker.) Most of Nany’s specialties were the classics of eastern European Jewish cooking - noodle kugels, blintzes, kasha, chicken soup with kneidlach (matzah balls), beet borscht. She made wonderful sour dill pickles, and one of my lasting regrets is that I never asked for her pickle recipe.
Although I can still visualize Nany’a kitchen, I don’t actually remember watching her cook. Somehow, the food just magically materialized on the table. Years later, I would write to her from college and request recipes for my favorites, and they would appear, carefully written out in Papa’s beautiful handwriting. Although my mother was an excellent cook, she made few of Nany’s dishes. So the legacy of Nany’s recipes is mine, as my mother did not seem to ask for them.
When I was in college, Nany and Papa, who were then in their seventies, took the train to visit me in Providence. Nany came bearing a carefully foil-wrapped package of her frozen cheese blintzes, accompanied by her recipe. I remember my mother sighing that she did not get gift packages like this, but then again, I’m not sure that she would have asked. Nany’s cheese blintz recipe is one of my treasures, and when my daughter Sara wanted to learn to cook, it was one of the first recipes that I taught her.
Nany typically made these blintzes (thin crepes), with a filling of farmer cheese or cottage cheese. I prefer a lighter version, using ricotta cheese, and I’ve added lemon zest (Nany used cinnamon). Traditionally, blintzes are topped with sour cream and applesauce. I often use fresh blueberries or strawberries, or if I’m feeling more elaborate, a tart sauce of strawberry rhubarb is a nice foil to the sweet cheese filling. As I’m a major rhubarb fan, this is always a favorite.
This recipe makes approximately 12 blintzes
1 lb farmer cheese or large curd whole milk cottage cheese (or whole milk ricotta cheese)
1 large egg
1 T sugar
1 tsp grated lemon zest
pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cup water
Unsalted butter for frying
Sour cream and applesauce for topping (or alternate topping of strawberry-rhubarb compote and crème fraîche.
1. To make the blintz batter, mix the flour, salt and sugar together.
2. Beat the eggs, then add the water, then the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Put the batter in the refrigerator to rest while making the filling.
3. To make the filling, mix the farmer or cottage cheese (or ricotta), egg, lemon zest, sugar, cinnamon and salt together. Refrigerate the mixture.
4. Melt a small amount of butter in a 6 inch non-stick skillet or omelet pan over medium-high heat. Pour in 2 T of the batter, and tilt the pan and swirl until the bottom of the pan is covered with the batter. Let it brown on one side (do not turn), then remove to a plate, uncooked side down.
5. Repeat until all of the batter is used up, stacking the blintzes, all uncooked side down so that they do not stick to one another.
6. To fill, take one of the blintzes, uncooked side down, and spread one heaping tablespoon of the cheese filling on the lower half of the blintz. Fold the bottom of the blintz up over the filling, and then fold both sides to the center. Finish by folding the top down, as if it was the top flap of an envelope.
7. Fry the filled blintzes in butter, starting with the flap side down, on both sides until golden brown.
8. Serve the blintzes hot, topped with sour cream and applesauce.
I’ve grown rhubarb in my garden ever since I moved to Westport. I love the tart stalks, and over the years, I’ve collected rhubarb recipes and developed my own variations. Although strawberry-rhubarb pie is ubiquitous, and probably the best known culinary use for rhubarb, I’m delighted to see that recently it seems to be getting more attention, with appearances on spring menus and in craft cocktails, where it is incorporated in simple syrups and shrubs.
The following topping, strawberries and rhubarb simmered with sugar and lemon, makes about 4 cups, which is more than you need for the blintzes. The extra can be served over yogurt, or on its own, topped with a dollop of creme fraiche.
1 lb strawberries, hulled and sliced in half
1 lb rhubarb, cut into 3/4” chunks
3/4 cup sugar
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1. Reserve 1 cup of sliced strawberries.
2. Combine the remaining sliced strawberries with the rhubarb, sugar, 1 tsp of lemon zest and 1 T of lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Bring it to a small boil over medium-high heat, and cook for 4 minutes, stirring gently to dissolve the sugar and release the berries’ juices. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes more until the rhubarb is soft. Add the remaining berries, stirring until they are heated through, then remove the pan from the heat and cool the mixture. Refrigerate in a covered container.
Growing up in Manchester, I was fortunate to live only seven miles from Coventry, the home of the legendary American herbalist and author Adelma Grenier Simmons and her farm, Caprilands. The farm was magical - a 50 acre landsacape sprinkled with 18th century buildings which her family had acquired in 1929 and restored over the years. Initially the family raised goats (hence the name Caprilands, after the Latin root capri, for goat), and vegetables. But in 1940, with the failure of her vegetable crop, Adelma focused on raising herbs, selling them as live plants and in dried form. I find it fascinating that a personal gardening disaster should lead to a lifelong pursuit which had a such a dramatic impact on the use of herbs in America’s kitchens.
In 1963, Adelma published Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, filled with information on growing herbs, plans for herbal gardens, detailed descriptions and uses for many of the herbs she grew at Caprilands, as well as her own seasonal herbal recipes. The book established her reputation, and she was called “the first lady of herbs” by the International Herb Association. At Caprilands, she was known for her famous lectures/luncheons in her rambling colonial home. My mother and I attended these on several occasions, and were welcomed by Adelma, as she was a family friend and frequent customer at my father’s store, buying ribbons for her herbal wreaths and decorations. Since Caprilands did not have a restaurant license, she got around this issue by giving herbal lectures, with an accompanying selection of food to demonstrate how herbs could be incorporated in the kitchen. I vividly remember the unique tastes of many of the dishes, and was exceptionally impressed with a beautiful bowl of salad graced by edible flowers, something I had never seen before.
Touring her gardens at Caprilands was a revelation, and probably the first time that I had seen such an extensive and decorative use of herbs in the garden. She had over thirty themed gardens on the property, and would stroll through them followed by her visitors, clad in her signature cape and hat and expounding on medicinal herbs, or the herbs of Shakespeare. I particularly loved her silver garden, filled with plants bearing silver foliage.
Adelma’s interest in herbs influenced many chefs, most notably David Bouley, who grew up in nearby Willimantic and rode his bicycle to the farm in high school. Her New York Times obituary in 1997 mentions that he returned annually to the farm to cook a five course dinner with his friends and staff. A recent visit to Bouley’s website shows his continuing interest in herbs, with the creation of Bouley Botanical, and event space which features “400+ edible species of plants growing in vertical window gardens, supported by the largest bio-dynamic green house in New England”. A further look at his website includes a video of the chef in the botanical space, clearly showing herbs with their markers from Gilberties, the beloved herb farm based in Westport. So it all comes full circle, as I know from several of my conversations with Sal Gilbertie that he regards Adelma as one of his mentors.
On yesterday’s visit, I spied Salad Burnet, a cucumber-flavored herb which is a main ingredient in Adelma’s recipe for Spring Green Spread, part of her May Day Party in Herb Gardening in Five Seasons. Although the book is no longer in print, it is often available from used book sellers. As the weather here in Connecticut has finally warmed up enough to plant some herbs outdoors, I picked up a put of burnet to put in my kitchen garden... according to Adelma, it can winter over, but I can’t vouch for that, as I’ve never tried it.
3 ox. cream cheese
4T finely chopped Burnet leaves
2T chopped chives
1/4 cup chopped lettuce
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 T dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1. Blend all ingredients well. This is best if made a day ahead, as the cucumber flavor of the burnet becomes more pronounced if it rests overnight.