Chickens Coming Home to Roost

As a summer-lover, sun-worshiper, and heat-seeker, I never thought I’d be so grateful to say goodbye. I’ve also never experienced a year with nearly 70 days at or above 100 degrees before. When you can’t go for a walk midday without burning to a crisp, or using your car for anything but baking cookies, it shifts the script significantly. There’s still a lot to love, from ripe heirloom tomatoes to warm late night swims, but for the first time ever, I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to embrace fall with open arms.

To that end, I’m diving head-first into cozy comfort foods. Bring on the pasta drowned in browned butter, the sautéed mushrooms dancing in white wine. It’s the season of wild mushrooms, flourishing in cool, damp weather. Nestled at the base of oak trees or hidden beneath fallen leaves, they cluster together like a bouquet of flowers, blooming in earthy shades of browns and greys. Springing up where you’d least expect it, luck is often a more important factor than skill when it comes to foraging.

This is my favorite type of backyard chicken. Hen of the woods mushrooms get their name from those feathery, frilled caps, said to look like a sitting hen. Given that they can grow into masses upwards of 50 pounds, I’d like that think there are no barnyard animals that can really measure up.

What makes hen of the woods mushrooms so great?

Also known as maitake mushrooms, they’ve long been touted for their medicinal properties, such as:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Reducing cancer risks
  • Stabilizing blood sugar
  • Helping regulate blood pressure

What I’m most interested in, however, is their culinary value.

What do hen of the woods mushrooms taste like?

Both subtly nuanced and boldly earthy, delicate yet peppery and assertive, hen of the woods mushrooms are a brilliant bundle of contradictions. One moment they’re soft and tender, buttery and supple, the next they’re almost audibly crunchy, chewy and crisp. There’s no alternative that exactly replicates such a unique eating experience.

Pair that with a luscious blanket of caramelized onions, slowly browned over low heat, with a cascading sauce of nutty browned butter, spiked with a splash of dry white wine. Vegan tortellini tumble and tangle within the wilted mushroom fronds, springs of curly kale sprouting wildly like an overgrown forest floor. It’s a rustic, untamed, and understated plating for a powerhouse of flavor. Toasted pecans rain down like a gentle shower, ending with a clean, clear crunch.

While it’s a dish that could exist in any season given greater accessibility to farmed mushrooms and imported produce, the heart and soul of it can only exist in autumn. In the growing darkness and increasing cold, let it envelop you in warmth. Take comfort knowing that there’s so much good to come of this new season.

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Cucumber Confessional

I love cucumbers. Full stop. People profess their love to many types of foods, saying they could eat them everyday and never get bored. I actually do; everyday, I’ll eat at least one whole cucumber, sprinkled with just salt and pepper, or dipped in hummus, or chopped up in salad. Tiny Persian cucumbers, large English cucumbers, plain pickling cucumbers- I love them all.

Why hasn’t this obvious obsession factored more clearly into my writing or recipes? It’s not interesting, quite frankly. I’m not doing anything exciting with them, just eating them in mass quantities. Even this idea that I’m here sharing today is far from earth-shaking. Barely the tiniest twist on a time-honored classic, surely it’s been done before. However, it’s good enough that it bears repeating: Make shirazi salad while summer produce is at its peak, but replace the tomatoes with watermelon.

That’s it, that’s the whole recipe. Adding a whole recipe card with formal measurements is really overkill when so much of the dish is based on the produce itself and personal taste. If I can be honest and break down that fourth wall for a minute, the recipe card is for Google. For you, I trust you can figure it out.

Consider the chopping an opportunity to practice your knife skills, to meditate, or simply revel in the aroma of summer. The minute you slice into a cucumber or watermelon, that aroma floods the air, setting the mood like candles for a romantic evening, only with notes of whimsy, sunshine, and a cooling breeze.

To anyone complaining about the amount of liquid leftover at the bottom of the bowl: Congratulations! You completely missed the point. That heavenly elixir, my friend, is a beautiful meeting of the worlds, the best parts of fruits and vegetables, sweet and savory, existing in harmony as one. Don’t you dare dump it out. When you pick up the mostly empty bowl, the only option is to bring it to your lips and drink every last drop.

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Jam Session

Tomatoes are the calling card of summer. Plump, red orbs growing heavier on their vines with every passing day, they tease in shades of green and yellow as they slowly ripen. Gradually darkening like rubies glistening in the sun, suddenly, they’re all ready for harvest at once. It’s now or never; grab them by the fistful or regret your mistake for another year. If you don’t take advantage, hungry critters stalking your garden surely will.

That’s how even a modest plot of land can drown a single person in tomatoes. Big or small, standard or heirloom, it’s sheer bliss for the first few days. Then, after a couple rounds of tomato salads, tomato soups, tomato sauces, and tomato juice, tomatoes may begin to lose their shine.

Don’t let it get to that stage. Take your tomatoes while they’re still new and fresh, concentrate them down to a rich, umami-packed tomato jam and you’ll never grow tired. Burning through two whole pounds right off the bat may feel like a sacrifice, but it’s a wise strategy in the long run. There’s going to be plenty more to come to enjoy every which way, without ever reaching your upper limit of enjoyment.

What Does Tomato Jam Taste Like?

A little bit sweet, a little bit savory, I do use sugar in my recipe but not nearly as much as with berry or other fruit jams. It should be just enough to balance and heighten the other inherent flavors. A touch of jalapeño adds a subtly spicy bite, which you could omit or double, depending on your heat-seeking sensibilities.

How To Make Tomato Jam Your Own

  • Use half or all tomatillos instead of tomatoes
  • Increase the garlic; there’s no such thing as too much
  • Instead of jalapeño, use sriracha, smoked paprika, gochujang, or harissa to spice things up
  • Swap the apple cider vinegar for balsamic or red wine vinegar

What Can I Use Tomato Jam On?

The only limiting factor is your creativity! A few of my favorite uses include:

  • Avocado toast
  • Sandwiches or wraps
  • Hot pasta or pasta salads
  • Swirled into creamy soups
  • On a cheeseboard
  • As a burger topping
  • Used for dipping alongside or on top of hummus

How Long Will Tomato Jam Keep?

While this jam isn’t properly canned and thus not shelf stable, you can preserve the harvest by storing it in your freezer for up to 6 months.

You don’t actually need to grow your own tomatoes to make tomato jam, by the way. Store-bought tomatoes taste just as sweet- And savory.

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Endless Summer

Blinded by the midday sun, slung high above sparse, pillowy clouds, I close my eyes and throw my head back in submission. Ice clinks against the glass in my hand as it slowly melts, shape-shifting into smaller and smaller fragments before giving up on maintaining solid form altogether. Cicadas buzz and sizzle in the heat, flooding the air with their electric symphony. All extraneous details quickly fade away; this could be anywhere in space, at any point in time.

Just like that, days turn into weeks, trickling by without particular notice, blending into one another to create the fabled “endless summer.” Undoubtedly, the heat will persist well beyond the calendar’s seasonal boundaries, strengthening that illusion with every subsequent sunny forecast. Unfortunately, that magic never lasts, choosing to suddenly disappear for its final trick. With it goes the bounty of luscious summer produce. Goodbye to the watermelon and blueberries, so long tomatoes and cucumbers; we know you’ll come visit again, but a year feels like forever away.

We can’t make summer stay, but we can preserve some of that magic. Pickling is one of the easiest ways to save these seasonal gems while injecting some extra flavor. Inspired by the classic cocktail featuring gin and lime juice, gimlet pickles transform simple seedless cucumbers into savory snacks elegant enough to act as a garnish, but without being so fussy as to stand out in a sandwich or served on a charcuterie plate.

Gin contributes a uniquely woodsy flavor, imparted by juniper berries, that reminds me of pine needles with a touch of lemon. Since that can be a bit polarizing, a popular variation on the mix uses vodka instead. Taking a page from that traditional twist, feel free to play around with any distilled spirit you prefer.

Whatever you do, don’t let summer slip away. It may feel limitless right now, but in an instant, it could be swept away by cold winds and dark days. Drink in every savory moment while you still can.

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Supernatural Supper

Night slowly descended and glowing orange lights flickered on as the witching hour drew nearer. We donned capes and pointed hats, impractically sloped heels and brittle broom sticks, preparing to take the town by storm. It was Halloween night, better than Christmas Eve in my young mind’s eye, and it was almost time for the show to begin. Untold treasures awaited at every turn, the thrill of the hunt pushing caravans of candy-crazed children deeper into the bowels of the city, seeking a sugar high that comes but once a year. Oversized empty bags at hand, we were ready to cause mayhem.

But then the doorbell rang. It wasn’t an early batch of trick-or-treaters beating us to the chase, but the pizza man. One can’t plunder on an empty stomach, after all.

Equally important to the ritual and tradition, my family always ordered pizza before embarking on the annual Halloween candy crawl. Turns out I wasn’t alone; the busiest night of the year for pizza delivery and takeout is Halloween, beating out even Super Bowl Sunday.

Like ordering Chinese takeout on Christmas Day, I thought it was something quirky and unique to my family, but it turns out everyone else was hip to the trend all along. Of course, these old school pies were nothing special; just your average cheese and/or pepperoni options. Maybe it would have been more remarkable if there was a more thematic meal to suit the moonlit masquerade ahead.

Something with a mysterious, mischievous black crust, dark as night, perfumed with a hint of smoke enhanced by a lightly charred surface. Thin, crisp, yet structurally sound, it has no trouble bearing the weight of abundant autumnal toppings. Classic red sauce can take the night off when pumpkin steps up to the plate. Spread richly over the surface, that creamy, garlicky sauce combines the natural sweetness of everyone’s favorite orange squash with the savory flavors of nutritional yeast. Tender sweet potato slices seal the deal, contrasted with sharp red onion slivers and a touch of hot red pepper flakes for a devilish finish.

Before you send your little ghouls and goblins off to collect their sugary plunder, don’t forget to fill them up with something a bit more satiating. The witching hour will come to pass in the blink of an eye, but the memories of the time leading up to it will last a lifetime.

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