Weekend Bites

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Behind the colorful scenes…

An article in the Washington City Paper online talks about the artists employed by Whole Foods Market. Known as signmakers, these folks create beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces on chalkboards throughout the store (as well as all the signage). In WFM’s move towards standardization and expansion, it’s great to see that the practice of hand art is still thriving. Please don’t ever get rid of it!

What I find extremely interesting is that these coveted in-store graphic design positions are often springboards to other careers in advertising and art. Full disclosure: I got my start as a signmaker at Whole Foods. Who knew?

To all the WFM sign folks, I raise my mouse/chalk/pen to you!

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Whoever left the bars here I thank you. Oh wait…

Coming back to a pile of work I found two chocolate bars on my desk without a note, which isn’t all that unusual considering I taste and write about stuff for work.  However, the bars were from NewTree, who bill themselves as “Gourmet Belgian Chocolate” with a focus on fun and creating an all-natural  product free of additives and preservatives. Ok, so far so good. But what I find unusual was the mystery gift-giver’s choice of bars.

A bar called “Forgiveness”, made with 73% cocoa content and lemon and the the other called “Tranquility”, made with lavender. 

What are you trying to say? Whoever you are, you are peacefully forgiven.

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Bishop’s Finger Ale, No Comment From Me.

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Polenta should be soft and mealy, not apples. I’ll pass.

From the NY Times:

Officials of the manufacturer, AgroFresh, as well as apple wholesalers, say that 55 to 60 percent of the apples sold in the United States are treated with SmartFresh, a synthetic gas introduced in 2002. The cost to growers is about a penny for every pound of apples, and the treatment is most likely harmless to humans, according to pesticide experts.

The gas blocks the ripening effect of ethylene, a natural plant hormone that makes fruit ripen and eventually decay. A six-month-old Jonagold treated with SmartFresh is as firm as one stored for two months under traditional methods, and a Red Delicious stays crunchy for three weeks after storage, instead of one, according to James Mattheis, a postharvest physiologist for the federal Agriculture Department in Wenatchee, Wash.

Since the 1960’s growers have kept apples firm in warehouses by reducing oxygen and raising carbon dioxide levels in what is called controlled atmosphere storage. That has allowed some varieties to be sold all year, although they don’t keep their full flavor and can go soft and mealy in stores and homes.


Thanks to my friend Gabriel for being silly for me and letting me snap his picture.

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Hi, everyone!

Can I just stop for one second and say how glad I am that I started blogging? It’s connected me with new friends, caught me up with past acquaintances, and opened a whole new world. To those who have taken the time to write to me and asked my opinion on matters from food magazines to photography to careers in advertising, I thank you. You make me so happy! And yep, I actually do write back.

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Everybody’s Talking About Her…

Rachael Ray has been the topic of conversation lately, with the gist going something like this: She exists, people love her, she’s not the fanciest, get over it and quit bashing her.  I’ve never publicly taken her to task here on my blog (Sandra Lee is another story), but if you’re ever over my house you’ll hear me say an earful. So I am agreeing to let go and move on, the post really made sense to me.

But let me say this: I do not enjoy the fact that her magazine is part of my regular required work reading. I cringe. Nuff said.

If You’re Ever In Texas…

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Pardon my spotty postings as of late. I just spent the past week back home in Austin, celebrating and eating and visiting with friends and family. It was my dad’s big 70th birthday party, and it could not have been more fun. I’m still playing catch up with life’s daily duties, but I wanted to jot down a few things I’m just so thankful for:

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1. My Friends

Who else has friends who throw a cocktail party in your honor when you visit? A delightful evening, hosted by my friends Bobby and Steve, brought my old gang together for one night only, and what a night it was. And Bobby, if you’re reading, your spread could rival anyone’s, hands down!  If you’re in Austin, make sure you stop by and say hello to Bobby at the San Jose Hotel and Steve at their most amazing shop Mercury Design Studio.


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2. My Family

It’s rare that we’re all in the same place at the same time, but celebrating my father’s 70th Birthday brought us all together. It’s even rarer to hear someone say how much they love their siblings, nieces, nephews, and the whole gang.  but that’s me. My best friends ever.

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3. Barbacoa Tacos from Arandas Taqueria

My days always begin the same way in Austin: tacos de barbacoa. I’ve mentioned these before and always seem to get the same reaction (yes, it is the meat from a cow’s head), but until you’ve tasted how marvelous and perfect barbacoa tacos are you just cannot comprehend it.. Tender, seasoned beef with just the right amount of fat is topped with diced onions and cilantro and wrapped in a warm fresh flour tortilla. They can be found all over town, but my personal favorites come from Taqueria Arandas. Arandas can be found all over Austin, but a word of warning: if you go on a Sunday morning for your traditional barbacoa tacos be prepared to wait. These folks know a good thing when they taste one.

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4. Jo’s Burger

My friend Bobby told me I couldn’t visit  without a stop at the new Jo’s in downtown. Jo’s coffeeshop has been around for years serving coffee and fried pies but recently expanded their menu when they opened  a restaurant in the new hip shopping area of 2nd street. Like many places in Austin, a great deal of attention is paid to food and where it comes from (this is the green  town that gave birth to Whole Foods, after all), and I gotta hand it to Bobby–he was right. While nothing out of the ordinary, my Jo’s burger was sublime. The housemade potato chips rocked my world, and had I not had a food agenda I probably would have returned again. And again. And again.

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5. P & K Grocery

I’m a big fan of small, neighborhood markets, and P & K Grocery is one of the best. Located in South Austin, this small shop not only offers amazing sandwiches and great coffee but groceries, amazing gifts, design books and assorted nice little pretty things that you don’t need but really really want. It’s very Austin, very unique, very hip – and full of friendly service.

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6. Brisket

You wanna know what happiness is? It’s a piece of slow cooked tender brisket, prepared with love by your cousin who clearly knows what he’s doing. Devoured Texas-style with sliced onions and white bread. The only way.

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7. Iron Works Beef Ribs

Let’s not get into a fight here, people. We can agree to disagree. But Iron Works is one of my personal favorites when I want barbeque in Austin. Yes, there are tons of great bbq joints all over the place, but I never miss an opportunity to eat there.


8. Whataburger.

What more can I say?

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9. Big Red.

The only time I’ll ever drink soda is when I’m in Texas, and it must be Big Red. I wish I could say what flavor it is, but honestly I have no idea. It’s a disgustingly sweet red drink that smells like bubble gum and tastes like no other. Thank god I only visit a few times a year.

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10. Ben & Helen Armendariz

My parents, who always show me what true love is all about and how being kind and loving to another human being always makes the world a better place.

 

Happy birthday, dad!

The Best! So Perfect!

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Let the superlatives begin.

Every year, without fail, the newstands and grocery racks are filled with the big food magazines’ take on America’s biggest food holiday–Thanksgiving. I’ll admit it, I do get that warm tingle inside when I think of sitting down to a table of great food that’s shared with friends and family, and yes, it’s a perfect opportunity to slow down and give thanks for so much that we have. I’m fine with that.

So what’s my problem?

It’s that perfect Thanksgiving.

Just like fashion glossies showcasing unattainable beauty, America’s editors seem to be fixated on achieving perfection during the month of November. They promise pages and pages of culinary perfection that will impress guests with your endless kitchen prowess if you only fork over $4.50 or so.

I mean, really–what gives? Will my guests speak poorly of me if I serve them imperfect mashed potatoes? Must I serve "show off dishes" when I’ve been in the kitchen since 6:30am and all I can honestly care about is making it through the day without running out of pinot noir and strangling myself?

Let me let you in on a little secret: there’s no such thing.

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Quit promising that this year you’ve discovered "5 perfect feasts" – if they were so good why didn’t you tell me about them last year? And if you’ve just discovered Thanksgiving’s "Five Best New Recipes" does that mean you won’t have an issue next year? If you claim "the absolute best method (it’s also the easiest)" does that mean you and your staff will show up on my doorstep and prepare it for me? Now that would be the easiest. You share tips and tricks on helping me achieve a "perfect piecrust", but what good will it be with my sad, imperfect filling? And lastly, you promise me, the reader, a "perfect thanksgiving", but does that include the recipe testers and stylists and art directors who helped make yours just so damn perfect, I ask?

Unless you’re our pal martha or a superhero, you’d find it just a wee bit difficult to create a perfect thanksgiving each and every year. It’s tedious, expensive, fraught with a comedy of endless errors and slight timing snafus. And guess what? That’s exactly how I like it. I don’t need my day to be perfect; I find it just dandy being imperfect. Because if it’s true what they say about life being lived in the details, I want memories that will make me laugh and smile, and not gloss over my Thanksgiving because it was, well, picture perfect and without flaw.

How boring.

Justin Quek

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My copy of Justin Quek, Passion & inspiration has been sitting on my desk next to my computer ever since it was mailed to me a few weeks ago.  I have come to know a bit about Chef Justin Quek’s history through Chubby Hubby, but I felt a bit of intimidation as I eyed the gorgeous cover day after day. Adam devoured the book the day it arrived, asking me daily “Have you read it yet? You must read this book.”  Of course I had every intention, it’s not every day a package arrives from one of my personal heroes halfway across the planet. But why my hesitation? It was two-fold: I felt unequipped to comprehend and review a chef whose personal praises come from both Charlie Trotter and Ferran Adria themselves, and Chef Justin’s world of French cuisine with his own touch only magnifies what little knowledge I possess about French cooking.

And then I read it.

It only took a few pages into the book, if that, to realize there’s no intimidation necessary when you’re dealing with someone so passionate and real about their art. Part cookbook, part memoir, Justin’s book tells his experiences that begin as a young merchant ship cook that eventually led him to some of France’s top kitchens to learn, train and hone his skill. It’s a remarkable story, but what sticks with me most is his desire to learn and the accessibility in his voice. It simply has to be one of the most real, inviting, and down-to-earth cookbooks I have read in such a long time – exactly the opposite thing I initially expected from such a star chef in a culinary hot spot like Singapore.

And the recipes? Unlike cookbooks from restaurants, let alone famous chefs, Justin’s passion shines through, and the simplicity is simply astonishing. That’s not to say they’re not rich in flavor – this book does have its roots in French cooking, after all – but Justin’s influence brings an Asian sensibility to them in the most glorious and unique fashion. For once I am reading a book that inspires me to create everything from cover to cover, with Justin’s warm spirit coming through every recipe. I’ve never met the man, but one can’t help adore someone who is as passionate and artistic as he is.

And big giant kudos to Amoris Wang, the photographer who crafted such beautiful food images that had me licking the page. Full confession: I had to get up and go to the kitchen twice while reading this book, I can’t remember a cookbook that made me so insanely hungry.

I plan on cooking from this book in the next few weeks, after I track down a few pounds of John Dory (one of my faves) for one of Justin’s recipes. And if I can’t find any it won’t be a problem – there are dozens of other recipes that I can’t wait to try.

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Cross your fingers and hope that you can purchase Justin Quek, Passion & Inspiration here in the US. Chubby Hubby says on his website that it’s currently only available in Asia. Call a friend, hop on a plane, do whatever it takes to get a copy of this book (which was written by the talented Tan Su-Lyn and edited by the incomparable Aun Koh, my hero!)

A Funny Commercial

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A couple sits in a car outside Sonic, a fast-food drive-in chain.

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Him: This strawberry cheesecake shake is amazing!

Her: I love the real strawberries and the pie crusts bits.

Him: I think I’ll put a little something on my blog about this. All my fans are going to be very interested in my experience of having this shake.

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Her: You mean your mom?

Him: (defensively) Well, yea, well, um, she’s one of the readers.

Her: I think she’s THE reader.

Him: Well, no, she promised to tell her neighbor about it, so…

Her: (sarcastically) Oh! Your Mom’s Neighbor!

Him: Yea.

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Great Grenadine!

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If you’re like me, the grenadine you grew up adding to cocktails and Shirley Temples is nothing like the real deal. Thinking I was resigned to the artificially colored and flavored brand-that-shall-remain-nameless, I usually skipped over any type of drink that called for grenadine, opting for drinks that weren’t as sweet and syrupy.

This all changed when I actually discovered what grenadine was and how truly simple it is to make.

I could fill up an entire blog about the historial importance of pomegranates, but I wouldn’t know where to start. Suffice it to say that one of the oldest fruits on earth make the absolute best syrup–a taste that lives between tart and sweet, not unlike citrus.

And the recipe? Extract the juice of a pomegranate, add sugar and reduce over heat. That’s it.

(Well, it sounds easy, but wait till you have a case of pomegranates and you’re up to your eyeballs in exploding arils and your forearms are stained hot pink. It takes effort. Now it makes sense why the French and Spanish called it “grenadier” and “Grenada”, and where the world “grenade” came from.)

You can find the juice already bottled, but I swear it just doesn’t taste the same as freshly squeezed/abused/fought-over/pressed/stepped on pomegranate juice. Sure, you’ll save yourself some headache, but you’ll deny yourself pretty pink fingers.
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Basic Grenadine Recipe
Because I like the tartness of pomegranates I usually go easy on the sugar, or I omit the sugar completely when making a reduction. This allows me to use my syrup not only in cocktails but as a dressing or marinade for savory recipes. It can also be made with honey.

2 cups pomegranate juice
1 cup sugar (or less if you prefer it not so sweet)

Bring juice to a simmer over medium heat and cook until reduced by half. Reduce heat and add sugar, stirring constantly until it dissolves, about 2 or 3 minutes. Allow liquid to cool completely and then refrigerate. It should last about 1 week.

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Footnote: Because I still have pomegranates I will experiment with different juice extraction methods like a food processor and boiling the arils – I’ll post the results shortly. It will no doubt be cleaner and neater than by hand but will deny me the opportunity to run through the house covered in pom juice screaming as if I have been injured. This drama queen seizes every opportunity for flamboyance.

Pear Madness

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret:  I go overboard.

Being born with an obsessive compulsive fanatical impassioned gene isn’t really all that bad, though. It allows me to focus on things so acutely and really dive into subjects that might otherwise not have interested me. It allowed me to learn how to rollerskate in the 70s, leaving all the other kids biting my dust (or maybe it was my purple satin shorts, which for a 7-year old boy is probably the fast track to neighborhood ridicule, but so what, I ask?) It’s kept me interested in my job for this long, helped me wrangle and eat my own snails, and allowed me to learn how to play a handful of musical instruments.

It’s also the reason I have found myself up to my eyeballs in pears.

Now, a pear isn’t something you always have around like an onion or a lemon. They’re a truly seasonal fruit and best enjoyed when mother nature tells us they’re ready. And because of this I don’t really think of pears throughout the year. It’s not like I find myself grilling in the middle of July and then suddenly scream out “OH MY GOD THIS RIB SOOOOOOOO NEEDS A PEAR RIGHT NOW!”  If anything I’ll scream out because my cocktail is empty. But that’s a whole ‘nuther blog.  But my point is this: when I taste that first early fall pear I know I’m on a collision course with that powerful strange facet of my personality.

Could you blame me? Each pear has its own flavor, ranging from tart to sweet and syrupy. And then there’s that texture, so soft and buttery. If I’m looking for a crunch I’ll go after Asian pears, but you’ll never hear me complain about the softer fruit. They’re just like candy. I’ll happily eat 2 or 3 at a time and never get tired of them. Obviously.

This past week has particularly crazy for me. Stacks of gorgeous pears have begun to arrive at the market and like a zombie from the Thriller video I shuffle over and pick up half of dozen every time. And then I eat them instantly, racking up the pear count to a whopping 40-something over the past week alone. One track mind, I tell ya.

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At least I’m getting my fiber, nutrients and a whole mess of vitamin C and potassium. Which is good, because once they’re gone I can rest easily knowing I made my health quota for the year. Wait, it doesn’t work that way, does it?

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When I’m not stuffing pears into my face and trying to catch pear juice dripping down my arms and onto my desk I actually like to cook with them. Baked, poached, sauteed, sliced, I’ll never turn down a pear anything.

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Pears poached in red wine

6 pears, peeled and sprinkled with the lemon juice to prevent browning
1 lemon, squeezed for juice
peel of 1 orange
2/3 cup sugar
2-1/4 cups of water
1 bottle of red wine
1 stick of cinnamon
1 peppercorn
1 pinch of salt

1. Stand the pears in a pan, not touching each other.

2. Sprinkle with the sugar. Add the salt and wine. Then add the orange peel, cinnamon, and peppercorn.

3. Bring the pears to a boil over high heat.

4. Gently lift the pears from the syrup with a slotted spoon, place on a serving platter or bowl and set aside.

5. Boil the juice down until it is reduced by half. Set aside to cool.

To serve: When the syrup has cooled, spoon it over the pears and chill until ready to serve.

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Pear Tart

My pal Melinda calls this a Pear Pizza. Why? Because it’s round. But I can’t bring myself to call it that. It’s not a pizza. And knowing me I’d probably put pears on my pizza. With blue cheese. But I digress.

1 sheet puff pastry
about 6 ripe pears
1/4 cup sliced or slivered almonds
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon, ground cinnamon]
1/4 teaspoon, freshly grated nutmeg
2 to 3 tablespoons, unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and set rack on the middle level.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the thawed pastry into a 12 1/2-inch square. Then, using a 12-inch plate (or other circle) as a guide, trace around the plate with a sharp knife – to cut a 12-inch round of pastry. Carefully transfer the round to an ungreased pizza pan or baking sheet, at least 12 inches wide. With a fork, prick the dough all over, except for a border (about 3/4 inch wide) all around the edges. Freeze the uncovered pastry round on its pan for at least 10 minutes – or up to an hour or two.

When the dough is frozen, transfer it, on its pan, directly into the preheated oven, and bake for 8 minutes or until dough is slightly puffed and lightly colored. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool the pastry crust, andgently flatten the pastry inside the border with a spatula.

Peel and halve the pears. Remove the cores of each pear half with a melon baller. Cut each half into three or four lengthwise slices. Arrange the slices on the crust. Evenly sprinkle the almonds over and around the pear slices.

In a small bowl, mix together the sugar and spices. Brush the pears and almonds with the melted butter and evenly sprinkle over the sugar mixture.

Place the pizza back into the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes or until the crust is a golden brown, and most of the pear juices are cooked off. Cool the pizza slightly, on its pan, on a wire rack. Slice with a sharp knife or pizza wheel and serve very warm – alone, or with creme fraiche, ice cream or whipped cream.

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Pear and Salad

There’s really no recipe here,  as you can add just about anything to mixed greens and it will taste good. We love this salad, which includes sliced pears, crunchy candied walnuts and raspberries with a drizzle of dressing.

4 tablespoons hazelnut or walnut oil
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small garlic clove
pinch of sea salt
fresh cracked pepper

Mix it all up. Yum.

Recipe credit: D. Weber, poached pears  and Melinda Lee, Pear, um, Pizza. Yea.

Hello, Margo

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The big, exciting, high stakes world of supermarket retailing has kept me away from blogging, and I offer my sincerest apologies to those who read this site regularly. My days have been filled with writing gift basket copy, designing catalogues, photographing last minute pick up shots and going back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco, all while trying to plan some photography for a show I may have in the Spring. It will all be over soon enough, and then I’ll return to my drained, lifeless old self who stares at a computer monitor all day and asks “Hey, what’s for dinner?” twelve times a day.

An Apple Epiphany

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For almost twenty years in the food and grocery business I’ve peddled my share of apples. As one of the best-selling fruits (next to bananas), I’ve piled them, displayed them, photographed them, wrote about them, encouraged people to buy more, to make more, to cook more, all in the name of apples.

And I hate apples.

Let me backtrack just a second. I should say I hated apples, as I was a bit too familiar with their history. Many apples we buy are held in a process called Controlled Atmosphere Storage. Apples go into a man-made hibernation where the temperature and gases are controlled, allowing them to “rest” –and not rot-– so that they can be enjoyed all year long. This is no secret and it’s not some nefarious process, per se, but I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that an apple I’m eating is 5 months old. Cheeses, yes. Apples? I’ll pass.

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That’s not to say I wouldn’t throw an apple into my lunchbag now and then. Because of my relationship with growers and my produce guys I knew what was recently picked and that’s where I’d shop. And it’s another reason why shopping at Farmers’ Markets is ideal.

Last year a feature in the LA Times on California apples from Oak Glen piqued my interest in local apples. Oak Glen is a small town about an hour north of Los Angeles, located in the mountains. Its mile-high climate is ideal for growing apples, and Oak Glen has become someone of a cutesy, tourist town. While I was intrigued, the idea of picking apples, making applesauce and buying old-fashioned Americana gifts isn’t really my cup of tea. All that gingham and cinnamon makes me ill. It’s all so, well, sanitized. And crafted. And fake-homey. But hey, this is Southern California after all, so I decided to just go with it and plan a day trip to Oak Glen.

Say what you will about Los Angeles, lord knows I’d probably agree with you. But to live in a metropolis that is so easily escapable is a thing of beauty. A short drive east and up into the clouds and we were in Oak Glen. The sun, air and light was already different. And it was suddenly Fall. Orchard after orchard, tree after tree, I felt transformed and slowly started shedding off my urban funk. Would I be returning home with jars of apple butter, cider, and stuffed granny dolls that sat on shelves and smelled like spice?

Well, two out of three, for sure.

As we ran around eating apple fritters and strolling through shops while navigating our way around crazy mothers with splatter paint sweatshirts and kamikaze strollers, I was eventually persuaded to put my disdain for apples aside.

“Samples! Samples! Have you tried this apple?” asked the cute granny-lady behind the counter. “Just picked and fresh!”

Hey – she said fresh. F-R-E-S-H. Have I even tasted a really fresh apple, I thought? I sauntered over, knocked over some tourist, and picked up a slice of a Vasquez apple.

Oh. My. God.

Crisp, tart, crunchy, a glorious balance of tang and sweet, without the mealy texture that I have accepted from many unfortunate apples.

I grabbed another sample. This time a Williams Pride. And then an Ozark Gold. I couldn’t stop. What the hell had I been eating up until now? Why did these actually taste good, even if they were blemished and not the most beautiful apples?

Was I having an apple epiphany?  Yes, I most certainly was. It was a Fresh Apple Epiphany.

After being told to settle down (if you only had any idea how many times in my life I’ve heard that), I regained composure and began to slowly inspect all the varieties of apples that were available. I felt as if I wanted to make up for all those years of self-imposed apple censure, I wanted to bake/stuff/chop/juice/puree/dehydrate/rehydrate every single apple I could get my hands on. Luckily Adam was with me and kept me rational. I ended up leaving with only 4 gallons of fresh cider from a single apple variety (something I’ve never had), a bag of dried apple chips, 3 jars of apple butter,  three fritters and 2 bags of Vasquez apples. Thank god I didn’t go overboard!

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The day trip to Oak Glen was fun, amusing, and it opened my eyes to what a good, fresh apple can taste like, and not one that’s lived in a giant fridge for a season. One of these days I’ll make it to Washington state and experience Fresh Apple Nirvana Part 2, but in the meantime I’m going to do my best to be nice to those other apples, seek out the good ones, try to eat the new crop apples and enjoy them in things other than apple martinis and calvados.