the promise of summer

On a recent breezy afternoon, the boys and I were outside in the backyard. They were excited to be geared up in lightweight jackets and puddle stompers instead of arctic wear, and were sloshing about in the mud in the shady back corner, the one where we've given up trying to grow grass and have handed over to them and their digging activities. The mud was the kind that kids delight in the most, soft and slimy and deep. The kind that slowly pulls you in the longer you stand in one place, so that Wylie had to repeatedly call for help after finding his feet firmly suctioned into the goo, unable to move.

Mud season.

Mud season is well-known in Maine. In fact, many people will refer to it as an official season, dropping "spring" from the lineup in favor of this much more accurate moniker. There are still enough dirt roads in the state that almost everyone has a story to tell about that time their car got stuck in 8 inches of muck, or was sliding precariously around the road, the deep ruts seeming to take over navigation responsibilities, pulling the car this way and that with no regard for such things as lanes. Some of us have many, many of those stories.

And even if your street is paved, the ground around it is not, and yards all over the state become giant, oozing, ultra-saturated mudflats. It's infuriating if you're an adult, exhilarating if you're a child. To step out onto what looks like a piece of solid ground, covered with a thick, matted coat of last year's lawn, only to have the earth move under you and your foot sink in, with a bit of a sideways slide as your weight shifts to balance you against the unexpected motion, means that walking suddenly becomes a much more deliberate, mindful act, as you choose each step carefully, looking in vain for the path of most resistance as you try to make the short trip from your front door around the corner to the picket fence gate in the backyard. To the kids, the ground has never been more thrilling.

Each mud season always feels more epic than the last, but this year's, based on length alone, is already one for the record books. We've been suffering through it since January, thanks to the continent's bizarrely mild winter and early spring. It hasn't been a constant presence for three months, since we've had enough cold snaps to make it more of a freeze/thaw/freeze/thaw cycle, but the deep ruts and wide patches of sod churned up by the dog's paws each time she chases a squirrel or cat across the yard are enough to make me wonder if we will even have a lawn come summertime. Last summer, our eighth in this house, Josh's eighth of deliberate, intense efforts to get a lawn to grow, was the first time our backyard looked truly filled in with green, and was soft enough and thick enough to feel good under bare feet. But now? I fear our hard-won turf, smashed and broken and shredded as it is, will be just another victim of the Mud Season of 2012.

There will be one patch of color out there, however, if only briefly. As I was gingerly picking my way along the fence line, looking for higher ground, I saw little spikes poking out of the ground. Bright green, sliding out of white sheaths, a shocking shot of newness against the drab of the defeated earth.

The crocuses are back.

Some previous occupant of our house must have optimistically planted them, along with some equally tenacious tulips, before realizing that our low-lying land can't sustain much in the way of traditional landscaping. And every year they emerge, to cradle the early honeybees that so entrance my boys, basking in the brief window of warming sunlight before the towering maples overhead leaf-out and swathe our yard in thick shade for another season.

Seeing those emerging shoots catapulted me right through spring and into summer, and for just a moment I could imagine a sun warm enough to make my hair hot to the touch, and a breeze that was refreshing instead of being something to bundle up against. After so much mud, and so much still to come, I could feel the promise of summer.

I've always thought that Mainers crave the warm seasons so intensely because winter lasts so long, and is so frigid and snowy white. And most years, I think it's true. But this winter? We haven't had much in the way of white stuff on the ground, and the typical deep freeze has been largely absent, as well. But still, everyone I know has reached their own personal breaking point and is ready for spring, right now. So I've been thinking that maybe it's not so much winter that puts a damper on our spirits (because snow we can deal with, even enjoy), but the knowledge that even after winter is exhausted we still have mud season to slop through before we can again feel good about our surroundings.

And so there I was, mud practically up to my ankles, craving summer. As is so often the case with me, my craving quickly manifested itself through what I felt like eating. Fresh salads, crisp and crunchy and lively in my mouth, anything grilled and smoky that suggested it was cooked outside, and swollen berries that popped with tart sweetness. And I wanted to eat it all outside, in the newly-returned early evening light.

The thing is, it's not summer, nor even really spring yet. The only fresh produce available is of the imported, grocery store variety, mostly bland and insipid compared to the local specimens that will be arriving in a couple of  months. The ends of even the most unseasonably warm days are still cool enough that they leave my fingers cramped from the chill, shoulders hunched as I hustle the boys and their cold-induced crankiness inside. I don't want to eat dinner out there.

But the lovely, if bittersweet, consequence of 21st century agricultural practices and commerce routes means that if I need a completely impractical, unseasonal (and unfortunately probably fairly unsustainable) fruit fix in mid-March, I can have it. Immediately, in fact. I bought raspberries on a whim on my next shopping trip, and Wylie and I could barely wait until we were past the automatic doors before popping a few into our mouths. Such a deep, magenta concentration of flavor in a soft, yielding bundle of velvety flesh, pushing a rush of childhood memories to the forefront of my mind. It felt like the cruelest thing I'd done in a long time, not letting Wylie eat the entire pint right then. But I had plans for those berries, something that came to me in the split second after I decided that I needed to buy them.

Raspberry bars. But not the raspberry bars of my youth, where the "raspberry" is in fact a sticky, tacky raspberry jam baked onto a crust. I wanted my bars to feature raspberries, in all their squishy, intensely tart, baked glory. And I wanted a very tender crust, like the butteriest of shortbreads, and a crumble on top that furthered my warm-weather yearnings with notes of tropical coconut.

I love it when my mind latches onto an idea, and then it turns out that the execution of it is painless, easy even. Because easy these bars are, and fortunately exactly what I needed to give me a quick shot of the flavors of summer, especially since a day later a fast-moving system plowed through and left us with a dusting of snow that hung around for a day before finally giving up the ghost. I try to keep in mind my carbon footprint when I eat, and raspberries from Mexico, even organic ones, don't usually make the cut of what I'll allow myself to buy. But sometimes, the reminder that berries can be had year-round is much appreciated when one is in the throes of mud season. Sometimes, I have no problem at all making an exception.

Coconut Raspberry Bars
Yields one 9x13 pan

146 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour
146 grams almond flour
¾ teaspoon psyllium husk powder
170 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
75 grams granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

100 grams certified gluten-free rolled oats
60 grams light brown sugar
50 grams unsweetened shredded coconut
15 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour
80 grams unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
1 pint (about 120 grams) fresh raspberries

Make the crust:
Butter a 9x13 baking pan and line it with parchment, allowing enough parchment to hand over two sides of the pan (this will help you remove the bars later).

Whisk together the gluten-free flour, almond flour, and psyllium husk powder in a mixing bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and salt and mix well, then add the flour mixture and mix until thoroughly blended. Press and spread the dough into the prepared pan (it will be very sticky; an offset spatula is a good tool to use here). Chill the dough for 1 hour, or until firm.

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Prick the crust all over with a fork and bake it for 45 minutes, or until it turns lightly golden brown. Cool to room temperature. (Keep the oven on, if yours is like mine and takes a long time to preheat. Otherwise, go ahead and turn it off for a while.)

Make the topping:
In a mixing bowl, combine the oats, coconut, brown sugar and gluten-free flour. Using your fingers, blend in the butter pieces until the topping consists of soft crumbles, with no large pieces of butter visible, and all the oats and coconut incorporated.

Preheat the oven to 325ºF if it's not already on.

Arrange the raspberries over the cooled crust and spread the topping over them. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the crumble topping has turned golden brown. Cool to room temperature.

The bars may be cut from the baking pan, or you can use the overhanging parchment as handles, and life the whole bar out of the pan and onto a board. Either way, the bars will be crumbly and tender, in a deliciously butter-induced way. Bars keep, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to 4 days.

Special thanks to Driscoll's® and The Baddish Group, for sending me coupons for the berries in this dish. I was not compensated for this post, and the recipe and opinions herein are my own.


breakfast crêpes

When I was in high school, my friend Jill came over one afternoon and taught me how to make crêpes.

This seemed like a pretty big deal to me, although it was clearly run-of-the-mill for her. She came from a large family, being one of something like seven or nine kids, and obviously had lots of experience whipping up after-school snacks for many hungry mouths. My sisters and I, though, did not cook when we got home from school. Usually we munched on a bag of whatever flavor potato chips we had miraculously convinced Dad to buy for us, or maybe we had graham crackers and peanut butter. But that was it. The afternoons were for kicking back and relaxing, avoiding homework and housework both, not launching some big project like learning to make a classic French food.

But for Jill, it was not a big project at all. She didn't even need a recipe, her easy, intuitive actions implying once more that this was a common occurrence at her house. Our kitchen, which always seemed quite devoid of inspiration to me, had everything she needed for the crêpes, including, incredibly, a cast iron crêpe pan that we unearthed from the back of a cupboard. Clearly, a long-forgotten wedding present.

This impromptu culinary lesson was merely one of many things about Jill that impressed me. She had curly brown hair, first of all. My whole life, I have coveted curly brown hair. Hers was the really wonderful kind that always insisted on being in unruly, tight little ringlets, with random corkscrews that would spring out at endearing angles whenever it was pulled back into a ponytail. To me, hair like that was surely a sign of a slightly wild spirit, an artist, a mysterious, playful soul who would always be interesting, never shallow. Jill's hair didn't disappoint.

I don't know about where you went to high school, but in my neck of the woods, in the mid 1990s, that made Jill fairly unusual. She didn't conform enough to the "in" crowd's standards of beauty or fashion or frivolity or cattiness, and consequently was never "in." And to her benefit, in my opinion. Jill was universally kind to everyone, as if blind or oblivious to the strict social stratification governing the flow of interactions within our high school. She never seemed to worry about what opinion others might have of her, and had the kind of upbeat, positive attitude that made her seem far more adult than the rest of us. She was the kind of teenager who, looking back on her twenty years later, seemed headed for a very fabulous adulthood.

But in our kitchen that afternoon, she was just my friend, beating together flour and milk and eggs and sugar, showing me how to tip and swirl the pan so that the batter flowed evenly across it, accumulating a stack of crêpes next to the stove that would have easily fed her own family and mine.

We found a jar of raspberry jam in the fridge. Every crêpe was spread with a dollop of jam, rolled up, and dusted with powdered sugar. We weren't the only ones home at the time, so my mother or sisters probably snagged one or two. But it couldn't have been too many, as my memory of those crêpes includes feeling really full after Jill and I ate almost the entire batch. They were probably no better for me than all those potato chips, really, not the least because they were chock full of gluten, but at the same time I think they were so, so much better.

They were a lesson in the goodness that comes from doing something a little different, from making something yourself, from choosing your own path instead of mindlessly following the drum of the mainstream. They were also a lesson in what you make when you make food: connections, memories, shared experiences, friends.

I don't make crêpes very often, but every single time I do, I think of that afternoon, and I think of Jill.

Today a lot of us are thinking about crêpes, thanks to T.R., our wonderful host for this month's Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. Please be sure to check out his delicious crêpe creations over at No One Likes Crumbley Cookies, then continue on your inspirational journey by visiting all of the Rally's entries. It's a virtual crêperie! 

Adina of Gluten Free Travelette ~ Breakfast Crepes Three Ways
Angela of Angela's Kitchen ~ Savory Buckwheat Crepes with Sweet Potato, Mushroom and Kale Filling
Caitlin of {Gluten-Free} Nom Nom Nom ~ Buckwheat Crepes
Caleigh of Gluten Free[k] ~ Banana Cinnamon Crepes
Caneel of Mama Me Gluten Free ~ Slightly Sweet Crepes with Caramelized Bananas and Nutella Sauce
Charissa of Zest Bakery ~ Black Pepper Crepes with Chicken Tikka Masala
Claire of My Gluten Free Home ~ Victory Crepe Cake
Erin of The Sensitive Epicure ~ Socca with Za'atar & Sumac (Garbanzo Flour Crepes)
Ginger of Fresh Ginger ~ Sweet 'n Savory
gretchen of kumquat ~ nutella crepe cake
Heather of Discovering the Extraordinary ~ "Southwestern" Crepes
Jenn of Jenn Cuisine ~ Braised Duck, Fennel and Chestnut Crêpes
Jonathan of The Canary Files ~ Vegan Crepes for Filipino Spring Rolls
Karen of Cooking Gluten-Free! ~ Gluten Free Crepes Savory or Sweet
Mary Fran of FrannyCakes ~ Gluten-free Peanut Butter Crepe Cake
Mary Fran of FrannyCakes ~ Gluten-Free Vanilla Bean Crêpes Sucrées
Monika of Chew on This! ~ Dessert crepes with caramelized plantains, toasted coconut and chocolate sauce
Morri of Meals with Morri ~ Russian Blini for Two
Mrs. R of Honey From Flinty Rocks ~ Crepes - Spinach & Dessert
Pete and Kelli of No Gluten, No Problem ~ Key Lime Crepes
Rachel of The Crispy Cook ~ Raspberries and Cream Crepes
Shauna of gluten-free girl ~ Gluten Free Buckwheat Crepes
T.R. of No One Likes Crumbley Cookies ~ Brownie Crepes with Strawberry Wine sauce
T.R. of No One Likes Crumbley Cookies ~ Basil Tomato and Feta Crepes
T.R. of No One Likes Crumbley Cookies ~ Fresh Fruit Crepe

Breakfast Crêpes with Eggs and Kale
Yields a baker's dozen (13) crêpes; filling yields four servings

The ratio for this crêpe recipe is 1 part liquid:1 part egg:½ part flour, assuming an average large egg weight of 56 grams

For the crêpes:
71 grams light buckwheat flour
47 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour blend
22 grams teff flour
280 grams (about 5) eggs
280 grams whole milk
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
42 grams (about 3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Whisk together the flours in a small bowl and set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the eggs, milk and salt (I like to use an immersion blender for this, but you can use a whisk, too). Vigorously mix in the flour until no lumps remain, then mix in the cooled, melted butter. Allow batter to sit, uncovered, on the kitchen counter for 30 minutes.

Heat a crêpe pan or 9-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Briefly stir the crêpe batter to make sure its consistency is even. Brush the pan lightly with canola oil (I like to use a paper towel to rub just a sheen of oil across the pan), and pour in 2 ounces (¼ cup) of batter, tipping and swirling the pan as you do to spread the batter evenly in the pan. Cook until set, then use an offset spatula (or even a butter knife) to help you gently lift the crêpe and flip it over, briefly cooking the other side. Remove to a wire cooling rack, and repeat with remaining batter. Depending on how well-seasoned your pan is, you probably won't need to re-oil more than every three or four crêpes. Crêpes can be stacked once cool while they wait to be filled, and any leftovers can be tightly wrapped and kept at room temperature for up to two days.

For the filling:
1 large bunch of kale, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
sriracha, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil, for sautéing
2-3 fluid ounces chicken stock/broth
9 large eggs
salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Sauté the chopped kale and minced garlic in olive oil over medium heat until the kale has wilted. Stir in sriracha, if desired. Add the chicken stock and simmer until it is mostly evaporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

Whisk the eggs with salt and pepper, and scramble them however you like best. In our family, we add just a bit of sriracha, and cook them over very low heat in a cast iron pan greased with unsalted butter, stirring constantly with a spatula or fork, breaking up the curds as they form. We take the pan off the heat when the eggs are just gently set, but not dry.

Assemble the crêpes:
Pile scrambled eggs and sautéed kale onto one quadrant of each of eight crêpes, garnishing with additional sriracha, if desired. (You should.) Fold the crêpe in half, then in half again to form a triangle. Serve crêpes in pairs, while the filling is still warm.
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