Foodie Tuesday: Buried in Berries

Photo: Raspberry BonanzaOne of the joys of the warmer seasons is the abundance of fresh produce, not least of all, those little jewels the berries and close cousins like the aggregate fruits. Having grown up in a region known for fabulous berries, in a valley renowned, in fact, for farming them in its fertile volcanic soil in the Evergreen state, I know well enough the labor that it takes to successfully farm, pick, process and sell them, never mind shipping them intact anywhere, given their tender sensitivity and fleeting prime. But I certainly found my way past the sweaty, low wage, arm-aching, thorn-scratched, and slug-tormented frustrations of a short-time field hand to renew my love of fresh berries.

I have long since confessed to you that, despite their being among the easiest to farm and to pick, blueberries remain my most hated fruit, and I dislike pretty equally their flavor, smell and texture despite all attempts to convince me they are Superfood and worthy of desire. I am not a big fan, in fact, of any of the round, popping sorts of berries that are similar in my mind to blueberries in any way—currants, gooseberries, huckleberries, and so forth. I’m not that egalitarian. But the berries that I do enjoy, I gladly indulge in enjoying in quantity when they’re at their peak. I seldom tire of strawberries or of those magnificent rose relatives, the blackberries, raspberries, salmonberries, black raspberries and all of their delicious ilk. Ahhh, berry good!Photo: Blackberry Burst

One of the nicest things about really fine, fresh produce, of course, is that it tastes so good whether you do anything to or with it, or not. Straight out of the field, straight into my mouth. Bright, juicy, flavorful little pieces of heaven. Much as I happily enjoyed that dessert combination of my youth, angel food cake with berries and whipped cream, I think I might consider the berries the angel food part more than the cake. Berries in cream, whipped or not, are also a spectacular treat when I can get my hands on a dish, with or without a cake foundation.

The berries are marvelous as individual sorts or in happy combinations. Whole or mashed, sliced or diced. Superb in jams and sauces or salsas. Fabulous in smoothies. Outstanding when added to salads. Unbeatable in pies. One of the most delicious accompaniments to savory foods, especially something like some magnificent wild salmon or game, whether processed in some recipe or just eaten fresh alongside the fish or meat. Sweet and bright.

Oh, and berries make dandy liqueurs. Berries, sugar, vodka. In that order, in declining quantities, in a sealed jar or bottle. Bunch of weeks or months, shaking it up gently from time to time, while keeping it in a nice cool, dark spot between stirrings until the time seems right; strain the niceness and enjoy. Of course, it works fine without booze, too. Berries, some nice sparkling water and some sweetening.

These little gems are delicate. They are so fine in their pristine state that it would be wrong to over-process them. Don’t be a killjoy. There’s really no recipe here for success; in fact, the best so-called recipes for using fresh berries mostly leave them unsullied by cooking and doing much of anything other than stirring them in with other good things. What are you waiting for? If the season’s on, get thee to the nearest farmer’s market and stock up on glorious fresh berries. If they’re not in season, I apologize for your sorrow, but I must encourage you to make the most of preserves and frozen berries. Yep, they freeze well when properly treated. But my friends, do not slouch. Run, quickly, and get some berries. You can thank me later.

Photo: All Sorts of Berries

In the Shadow of The Mountain

Perhaps this is true of other places, but I only know my hometown’s version of it: in Seattle, or pretty much anywhere in southwest Washington, Mount Rainier is frequently known simply as The Mountain. Yes, we call it by its full name, or by its ‘patrinomial’ ID of Rainier, and sometimes even by its graceful older name Tahoma. But its dominance of the skyline when visible, and of the ethos–the spirit–of western Washington thanks to its potent influences on geography and geological and meteorological character, not to mention the power it has to wipe out half the state should it decide to wake from its long dormancy, all mean that whether in plain view or not it has a hold on the hearts and minds of the locals like no other single force, natural or otherwise.photoSometimes when flying in to SeaTac airport the mountain is not only clearly visible but brilliantly etched and jutting boldly through the clouds, if any. SeaTac International Airport sits between Seattle and Tacoma, and the zone so called for its equidistance was finally officially given that insipid and cheap-sounding name some years ago–don’t get me started on it–but it’s well worth flying to a place with any ridiculous name you could conjure if and when you get the right weather, enough sunlight, and an accommodating pilot who appreciates Mt. Rainier’s beauty enough to tip a wing to the mountain’s flank and give the passengers a clearer view.photoTruth be told, we’ve seen precious little of the mountain on our current visit. It’s been pretty overcast much of the time, including when we flew in, so yes, the photos here are from other times. I’ve known of visitors who left disbelieving we even have a Mount Rainier, never having glimpsed that big white heap of sugar in weeks and weeks of waiting. The fabled wet weather of the Northwest can indeed curtain off our magnificent totem from view for seemingly interminable times and make us long to be reminded ourselves that it wasn’t all an hallucination or a passion-fueled fantasy. Even when visible, Rainier very often sports a ‘hat’ or veil that keeps a little mystery close by; being large enough to create its own weather, this geological behemoth seems to be quite often crowned with a companion cloud that rarely moves very far off or disappears entirely.photoDespite all of this hide-and-seek, the imminent danger we all know quite well as natives makes us bolt, strap, glue and otherwise thoughtfully position many of our tall or breakable belongings as though to protect them from a petulant child, because we’ve been through enough minor earthquake shakers in our lives to know preparedness pays. Still, while rainy Washington makes floods a real and frequent possibility, if that dormant volcano in our midst gives the really big belch geologists tell us is historically overdue, whatever isn’t swept off in the violent and instantaneous post-blast lahars [pyroclastic mudflows] that will likely submerge the surrounding valleys (the primary lahar channel of which was home to my family for most of my youth) will be treated pretty much like a snow-globe being handled by a curious Godzilla. Game over.photoSo we have a certain amount of respect for The Mountain, never mind it being such a fixture in our existence. No, I don’t know anyone who’s ever grown jaded about seeing it, no matter how long he or she has lived in its shade. This is not your typical mountain, looking pretty but losing its allure gradually as you realize you’re rather close and it’s stopped looming higher. It’s set in a fairly impressive range of mountains yet is so much bigger and more prominent than the rest that once the sky clears you just plain can’t miss it, and that sight quickly makes its mark on you. In snow-time, its blue-white flanks rise up to pierce the sky and look so sharply delineated you think you could stick your hand out and grab a fistful of super-vanilla ice cream from just behind that house over there across the street. As the snow melts, streaks made of billions of evergreens and a few exposed rocky prominences reflect sun and sky and passing clouds’ shadows in a changing array of colors that tease you with seeming first as near as your own breath and then suddenly as far distant as a too-sweet dream. Driving there can nearly drive you mad: you look to your left and it’s sitting right across the closest pasture; round the curve and it has shot away as far as the moon; over the next hill, in an instant it almost seems you’ll crash into the bank of snow just ahead of your front bumper.photoEventually you get onto the foot of Mount Rainier, yes you do, and you realize it’s so huge that you can still have a view of the peak that seems remarkably like the distant view of the whole that you had from an hour and a half’s drive away. The flora and fauna of this glorious bump on the earth have changed relatively little in millennia, and just being in their midst for an afternoon’s traipse along the trails makes you think both that your own sort might go on forever and that if the mountain is really going to blow, perhaps its taking you along for the ride in instant smithereens might not be altogether the worst thing. That’s how magical The Mountain is, even after all of these years of living at its foot. It might kill me, but if it does it will have fed my spirits incredibly well for a very long time indeed. That mountain there, she may keep her chapeau of a cloud-let coquettishly low on her brow for long periods of time, but when she finally does doff it, Holy Mother of Gleaming Glaciers, she’s a beauty.