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Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Humble Pie: Gooseberry...

I readily admit the worst pie I ever made had a gooseberry filling. Unpalatable it was, to say the least. Just one bite and into the garbage with it...a total waste of my time and one perfectly good man crust. But you capitalize on past mistakes, right? Thus my next gooseberry pie, if not the best pastry I ever made, was certainly the most exotic, a gustatory treat down to the very last mouthful. Here's how the tale of the two pies unfolded.

When you have an horticultural bent and one slim acre with which to play, you may be inclined to try a little of this, some of that. I like to think of our place as "the Valley Sampler," and in keeping with that moniker I've added gooseberries to the backyard garden.

Just how the cultivar came to be called the "gooseberry" I have yet to discover. In fact, one plus of the gooseberry is, unlike our other berry crops, birds avoid it; the bushes require no protective netting. When I tell them I grow the fruit, most people ask for an explanation; not only have they never seen a gooseberry but mere mention of the plant is usually a first for them.

The gooseberry is native to Europe (Ribes uva-crispa) and put to a variety of uses there, primarily in preserves, jams, jellies, and conserves. I cultivate two bushes: the Old World variety and the North American strain Ribes hirtellium. The former fruits a green berry that ripens to a yellowish color; the latter, a larger fruit, purple when ripe.

I was excited for my first crop, anxious to make a batch of jelly. Although the fruit is uncommon here in the U.S., I had no trouble finding a jelly recipe. In fact I found recipes for jam, preserves, conserves, and something the English call a "gooseberry fool," a dessert concoction of stewed gooseberries in sweet custard. All recipes gave precise proportions of sugar and juice, cooking times, processing and storage guidelines, which was all well and good...but not a one told you WHEN THE GOOSEBERRIES WERE RIPE. I picked the berries at the "pucker" stage of ripeness, the point at which my grandson, whose four-year old palate craves sour things, screwed his face into a Shar Pei's likeness when he crunched down on the green orb.
The jelly turned out so-so...certainly sweet enough (after all, jams and jellies are nothing more than fruit flavored sugar) but had very little flavor.

Then came the pie fiasco. And you know how that turned out. More research needed: how to tell when a gooseberry is ripe. This is what I learned--post pie disaster unfortunately. First, there's the "squeeze" test. Take a berry between the thumb and index finger and squeeze, If the result is like pinching a marble, save the berry for my grandson; however, if the fruit "gives," is sponge-like, it's pie-ready. The pie maker can double check by the "taste" test. The berry should have a sweet-sour quality: the flesh sweet; the skin tart.

After climbing to those heights on the gooseberry learning curve, I attempted pie number two, a recipe I found for "Old-Fashioned Gooseberry Pie," the ingredients of which complement the unique flavor of the fruit. The ingredients follow:

5 cups gooseberries, blossom ends and stems removed
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
Juice and zest of one orange
1/3 cup instant tapioca
4 Tbsp butter (set aside for later)

Combine all ingredients except butter in a large sauce pan and place over medium heat. Cover until gooseberries start to soften and burst (about 5 minutes). Then uncover and keep barely simmering on medium-low heat for about ten minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

The crust: one Man Crust (top and bottom). Form bottom crust in a nine inch pie plate, fluting the rim of crust. Weight with pie weights and bake at 375 degrees for ten minutes or until golden brown. Ladle in filling, spread butter in dollops evenly throughout the filling.

Top crust: using the rim of a small glass or cookie cutter, fashion circles from the pastry and layer them in a concentric circle pattern, leaving a hole in the middle and an inch to an inch and a half space between rim and outer ring of pastry. Whisk together one egg and a Tbsp of milk and brush the pastry circles with the egg wash.

Bake at 375 degrees for 35-50 minutes until vigorously bubbling. (Suggestion: set pie on a metal sheet or pizza pan; filling will bubble over.)

Approximate time to prepare: 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Note: Much longer if you have to pick the gooseberries. Longer yet if you have to grow them. Good luck.


Monday, June 13, 2016

A Bother of Wasps...

KATHERINE: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

PETRUCHIO: My remedy then is to pull it out.

KATHERINE: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.

PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting.
                        In his tail.

        Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew

The collective noun for wasps is "pladge" as in a "pladge" of wasps. That may be but considering the waspish invasion that's descended upon our property, I much prefer the collective a "bother"of wasps. On any given warm spring day they are everywhere, drifting along on the breeze, legs dangling like tails of a kite. A fog of them cascades from the shake roof. I find their nests in the strangest places: an empty flower pot, inside my little greenhouse cloche, under a piece of scrap lumber. Just the other day I removed three small nests from inside the chicken coop. Nests hang from the soffits, the carport, the eaves of the shed.
The woodshed is a favorite nesting place for them. Before I remove a stick of firewood from the stack, I inspect the underside of the roof for their telltale gray cones. Many's the time I've gingerly removed a stick from beneath a nest bristling with the bothersome things, each posturing for assault. Their numbers seem to grow each year, their nests more plentiful, the airspace filled with more and more. Our swallow nest box has remained vacant for two or three years because, I'm fairly certain, they tired of the wasps' incessant pestering to gain access. For years a pair of violet-green swallows nested in our roof gable, but the hordes of wasps living under the cedar shakes proved too much competition for them. If the day's a warm one and I leave the truck windows down for ventilation, I'm certain to have a couple of wasps riding shotgun with me when I run my next errand.

In the two story ranch house, my home as a boy, every fall wasps would build nests in the attic above the knotty pine plank that covered the ceiling pitch of my bedroom. In the warm autumn afternoons they would ooze from the hot attic and cluster around the light fixture in clumps of forty or fifty. I learned from experience that at anytime one was likely to drop on me or an unsuspecting visitor and sting upon impact. At bedtime you'd be well advised to inspect the bed clothes before you slipped under them.

It became my ritual those Indian Summer afternoons of clumping wasps to sanitize my sleeping space. Home from school I'd rush upstairs to assess the day's battleground and find a clump or two clinging from the ceiling. Next out came the folding card table which I'd set up to one side beneath the enemy. Laying a fly swatter close by, I'd prepare the necessary ordnance for the assault: projectiles fashioned from newspaper, each with a fold in the middle so I could get a firm purchase with thumb and forefinger. I knew an all out attack would be a mistake: swatting a clump of fifty or sixty wasps was likely to cause painful retribution. (Unlike honeybees that are armed only with a single shot because of their barbed sting, a wasp is--or can be, should it wish--a repeat offender and do a stinging dance up and down a bare arm. Snicker snak....) Strategy was to even the odds: take out a number of the enemy, trim their numbers, until one or two swats could dispatch the remainder.

I began the offensive by slipping a stout rubber band over my fore and middle fingers, hooking a paper missile between the strands, and taking careful aim at the nest, let fly, and dash under the card table when a direct hit would tumble six or eight to the floor where they lay momentarily stunned. I'd rush out and whale away with the swatter, make short work of them. The battle would continue until only a half dozen remained. First making sure my shirtsleeves were rolled to the wrist, the rest I'd take on mano e mano. The wasp wars lasted until the October frosts dispatched my ceiling foes.

These pesky fellows are paper or "umbrella" wasps, genus polistes, a commonplace North American wasp: "umbrella" because of their nests of open faced hexagonal cells (unlike the archetypal football-shaped nest of their hornet cousins), housing for developing larvae. Wasps attach the nests with a thread-like pillar or "petiole" around the base of which they secrete an ant repellent.

If you're a reader of The Ripple, you know I'm hypersensitive concerning the subject of bees and quickly come to their defense whenever someone confuses any bug that flies in his face or buzzes in his ear as a "bee." Most likely the culprit is a wasp or hornet--and of those two, I'm putting my money on the latter. Not only do wasps and hornets differ in appearance, so do their flight patterns.
Wasps are drifters in flight. Long legs trailing behind, they laze through the air seemingly without purpose. Hornets bullet along as if they were high on amphetamines, darting here and there like insect hummingbirds. If an obnoxious, supercharged bug tries to appropriate your piece of barbecued chicken at the picnic table,
you can bet the party crasher is not a bee but a hungry hornet.

Although bothersome, I admit, wasps serve the gardener by pollinating his crops, berries in particular. These little paper sculptors are seldom aggressive and if you're uncomfortable with their presence, instead of dosing their nests with a noxious chemical, encourage them elsewhere by removing their nests with a swift swish of a broom. A word to the wise: just don't surprise a nest of them as Kelly Bolles did the other day. I stopped to chat with Kelly and he showed me his swollen right hand, puffed up by protective wasps when he accidentally laid hands on their hidden nest while cleaning his gutters.