The Gleeful Gourmand: October 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Doughnuts At The Ashland Berry Farm

I love family traditions, and one of ours has always been heading out in October to our favorite pumpkin patch at The Ashland Berry Farm to pick pumpkins, have some fun, and eat doughnuts.

A working farm since the mid 1800s, The Ashland Berry Farm is nestled in a traditionally beautiful Virginia landscape, complete with rolling hills and an old silo. I've been going there since I was a little girl, and it always seemed like an adventure for me to leave suburbia and truly be out on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

Daddy and daughters in search of the perfect pumpkin.

Back then, we would hop on a tractor-pulled cart filled with hay and bump down the dusty lane towards extensive fields filled with pumpkins. We'd hoof it as long as we could until we found the perfect looking pumpkin, and then head back to roast hot dogs over a large fire pit, drink hot apple cider, and eat the most perfect doughnuts we'd ever tasted.

So close to "donut" nirvana at The Ashland Berry Farm.

It's pretty gratifying that more than 30 years later, we can basically still do the exact same thing. Except we have to do with a multitude of people so vast that getting on the hayride on a weekend requires a near 45 minute wait. They also don't let you roast your own hot dogs anymore, probably for liability reasons.

But the overall feeling of wonder is still there for our kids, along with the fun, and the doughnuts. Oh, yes, the doughnuts are still there. To my discerning tastebuds, the recipe hasn't changed much - if at all - over the years. They still have one machine doing all the work to churn out those piping hot, fresh rounds of pure joy; and their success is evident: The line for the doughnuts is nearly as long as the line for the hayride.

It's not October, or Halloween, until I've had one of those doughnuts. They're uncomplicated, coming in just four flavors: Plain, Chocolate Glazed, Glazed, and Powdered Sugar, but what they lack in creativity, they more than make up in taste: So fresh, slightly crunchy on the top, and pillowy soft on the inside. I really believe that the fact that they haven't changed their recipe or strategy for churning them out over the decades is what makes them so very special.

It's not really Halloween until we've had doughnuts from The Ashland Berry Farm.

We laugh and joke as we bump along out to the pumpkin patch. The kids shriek in joy as they exclaim that they've found the perfect pumpkin, and after what seems like an unreasonably long wait, the powdered sugar and chocolate coats their little faces as they dig into a Richmond tradition.

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Epic Highchair Journey

Last weekend we finally rid ourselves of two things so vexing to us that we considered it a major personal triumph to remove them from our house.

If you and I are friends outside this blog, I'm sure you'll know exactly what I speak of with such contempt: The girls' highchairs.

Our relationship with their highchairs can be summed up in one word: contentious. I remember clearly picking out the highchairs, thinking how great it was that they were foldable, and that they converted into booster seats. With space becoming quickly limited in our home thanks to our two baby girls' arrival, they seemed like a great bargain. I'm sure my husband and I both said in our best Yiddish impressions: "Such a deal!"

Their first time in the chairs of doom. Notice the trays. They look evil, don't they?

They weren't. I'm not sure when it started, but the highchairs started to fight back. At first it was small things: They were incredibly hard to clean. Although the covers came off and were washable, the straps that buckled them in were not. Of course, those were the things that got the dirtiest. Food that dripped onto the plastic sides seemed to become inexplicably soldered on, and no amount of scrubbing helped.

Then, to add injury to insult, the highchairs literally began to injure us. The chairs had trays that were 2-in-1s: A larger tray snapped onto a smaller tray meant to be used eventually for the booster seat setup. The whole tray then slid together onto the arms of the chair and its distance on the arms to the child in the seat was adjustable. The only problem with this is that if you pulled out the tray just a hairs' breadth, a mere whisper, past a certain point, the tray would rocket off the end and crash spectacularly onto your waiting feet below.

Miraculously, the trays would always clear the girls' feet, but we were not so lucky. Our feet bear the scars and memories of searing pain. The girls were introduced to curse words their unsullied ears had never heard. Sometimes there were tears. It didn't help that the girls' kicking legs could also hit it at a perfect angle to have it shoot off the end of the chairs, too.

So when we finally decided that the girls were ready to sit in real booster seats at the table with us, the decision was unanimous. The highchairs had to go, no matter that they already had booster seats built into them. They were no longer welcome in our home. I washed, scrubbed, and cleaned them to the best of my ability, and they were loaded into the car.

That Saturday was beastly hot for October in Virginia, with temperatures in the mid 90s. I set off on an expedition to rid myself of the chairs, already having been rejected once by Goodwill (apparently there's a new law that prohibits them receiving anything children can sit in). I went to my nearest children's consignment store. They said it would take them about 30 minutes. I drove off and made it to the light when they called to tell me to come back. They couldn't accept them - the straps were too stained. Damn you non-removable straps! The lady at the counter told me kindly that I could put the high chairs in the drop-off charity box at the back of the parking lot.

"Oh, you mean the box that has the worlds smallest opening and a sign that says not to put anything on the ground beside it? Put these two clunky, huge, highchairs in there? Good idea!"

30 minutes later and I was back across town, and had been recently rejected by a thrift store the guy at Goodwill had suggested. He said they took anything. He lied. That was it. It was time to chuck those suckers in the nearest landfill.

My glee at finally being able to rid myself of them, coupled with the remorse of not being able to help out a family in need made for an interesting mix of emotions as I rolled back across town to the landfill. Suddenly, I was filled with sadness as a deeper understanding of what getting rid of the highchairs really meant.

I would never have to deal with clunky highchairs again. I would never have a baby again. And while this was a decision my husband and I made with enthusiasm shortly after I gave birth to the girls, and I have never regretted it (3 kids is just enough for me), I felt strangely sad. This was it, I thought. Next the cribs will go and babyhood will be truly over. I should have been thrilled, and for the most part I was, but still. There was an undercurrent of something like loss. All this growing up stuff really was happening so fast. I only had to look at my son, almost 6, to realize how much he had changed since the days of his toddlerhood. How much I had changed.

Happier together.

And then I got to the dump, and had an equally frustrating experience with the lady at the booth taking money. I dropped coins in the road while she chatted on her cell phone and cars lined up behind me. I finally got to the trash receptacles, seething.

I chucked the first piece of one of the chairs: the legs. I heaved it with force, letting go of all my frustrations. If there hadn't been people everywhere, I probably would have screamed while doing it. I felt a supreme satisfaction watching them land with a loud clang. With each piece chucked over the side, I felt better. My arms, legs, and back all felt the weight being lifted.

I saved the trays for last.

And smiled all the way home.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Autumn Pear Salad

That most glorious of seasons is finally here! Fall is everywhere you look: The leaves are slowly beginning to change, Pumpkin Spice Lattes are being consumed in vast quantities, Halloween and Autumn decorations are up, and a nip is in the air!

Wait, scratch that last one. A nip is most definitely not in the air. Make that temperatures in the upper 80s, and that's our beginning to October right now. Here in Virginia we're experiencing a really hot Indian Summer. Everything is as dry as can be, and I'm sitting here in shorts. After an unseasonably cool and wet summer, it seems strange now that summer would suddenly show up at our door in October. It's hard to want to drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte when you're sweating profusely. But here we are, with myriad promises of abundant rain and colder weather on its way next week.

Despite the heat, Fall is still putting on its pretty show.

The Beauty Berries in our backyard strutting their stuff.

But what to do when one wants to experience the flavors of Autumn, but it's too dang hot for chili, pumpkin pie, and roasted butternut squash soup? It's Autumn Pear Salad time.

A few weeks ago my Mom treated me to lunch at Brio Tuscan Grille, and I had their fabulous Tuscan Harvest Salad. Filled with all sorts of delicious things like mushrooms, roasted chicken, cranberries, apple slices, bacon, gorgonzola cheese, and almonds; it was one of the best salads I'd had in a long time. The crunch of the apples was particularly inviting. It got me thinking about how to recreate it at home.

Gratuitous bacon shot.

Here's where I ran into a problem: My husband is allergic to apples, and both he and my son are allergic to tree nuts. What to do for that sweet component and necessary crunch? Asian Pears. It's the perfect solution: slightly sweet, and crunchy all at the same time, with nary an itchy mouth or upset stomach from its consumption. I fooled around with the rest of the ingredients, and settled on a slightly different take, but the beauty of this salad is that you could literally add or subtract whatever you wanted from the recipe to make it your own. I also did some research on making an Italian vinaigrette, and came up with a pretty good substitute to the bottled stuff - though if that's what you have on hand, I say use what works! The best part about this salad: It's so easy. Thanks to an herbed rotisserie chicken, it's a quick assembly. Fresh, light, yet hearty enough for a meal.

Autumn Pear Salad.

Paired with a fresh, crusty baguette, and a cold glass of Chardonnay, it's the perfect Indian Summer meal. Here's what I ended up using:

Autumn Pear Salad

2 heads of crisp romaine lettuce
1 small package of cherry tomatoes, halved
2 ribs of celery, diced
2 Asian Pears, sliced thinly (wash, but do not peel)
Half a package of frozen corn, prepared to your liking*
5 slices of crispy bacon, chopped
1 herbed rotisserie chicken diced, or sliced thinly
Crumbled Gorgonzola Cheese (slight dusting, a little goes a very long way)

Assemble salad. I bake my bacon in the oven to drain off the grease, but you can make it however you see fit. *A note on corn: The first time I made the salad, I roasted the corn with some olive oil and pepper in the oven, and the second time I steamed it quickly and tossed it with a bit of butter and black pepper. Both ways were perfectly fine.

Italian Vinaigrette

1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. honey (to your taste)
Pinch of Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. Italian Seasoning (or more, to taste)
1 cup olive oil

Whisk all ingredients vigorously. Drizzle over salad until salad is just moist. Toss to mix.

Here are some things you could add to your salad if you want to mix it up a little bit: Cranberries, Almonds, Pecans, Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, Thinly Sliced Jicama, Mushrooms.