Deer Devastation

After being away from home for a week, I couldn’t wait to see what was growing in my garden. Before I left, I was picking about four or five cucumbers every couple days from the two hills I planted, and had half a dozen or so tiny ones that I knew would be ready to pick when I got back. I also harvest some of the outer leaves of the swiss chard that was rebounding from the last time the deer sampled it. The tomato plants were full of green tomatoes and the peppers were just coming on. The peas I planted for the fall were up and starting to trellis us the chain link fence I planted them in front of.

The sight I saw when I came back was pretty much heartbreaking. It was just about all gone.

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The sad skeleton of a tomato plant.

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Not only did the eat the swiss chard down to the roots, they tromped through the beds smashing what they didn’t eat.

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What’s left of the hills of cucumbers.

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The stems and stalks of an eggplant plant.

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The only things that they didn’t really eat were the tatsoi, and Asian green. It’s probably only a matter of time before those are gone, too, though.

 

 

 

I’m not giving up. It’s still early enough to replant those peas and more swiss chard, maybe. I just need to look into more deterrent than marigolds. They are clearly not working…

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Tatsoi seems unharmed. As of now.

 

Eats and Drinks from the Twin Cities

Last week, I was in Minneapolis for work. I was attending meetings during the day, but in my off time, I was on the search for local food and drinks. It’s my favorite way to take in a new place and culture, through my tastebuds.

One of the first full days I was there, I ventured near the conference for lunch to an Irish pub I’d scouted on Yelp.  When in Rome… so I got the fish and chips–typical pub food. The fish was gigantic, but it was really awesome. Often, the biggest downfall with fish and chips (which makes me a little gun-shy to order) it is that it’s too greasy, but this wasn’t at all. A Guiness would have made this absolutely perfect and classic Irish Pub food.

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One of the consistent things I noticed about Minneapolis is how much folks there seem to enjoy summer. I think it’s probably because the winters are so brutal.  The Local had plenty of empty tables outside on the sidewalk at 11:20, but by 11:45 it was packed.  Nicolett Mall was the neatest place. It’s a mostly pedestrian street lined with bars, cafes and shops that stretches for several blocks right through downtown. It only has two lanes, one each way, but nice wide sidewalks with plenty of street-side cafe seating. Although I was staying a block off Nicolett, I liked walking along it to and from the conference. One day, there was a farmers market, and the street was lined with pop-up tents selling the most beautiful selection of fresh fruit and veggies and stunning bouquets of fresh flowers. For crazy cheap. Seriously, the bouquets rivaled something you’d see in a florist shop and they were $5.

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NIcolett Mall at lunchtime.

I couldn’t help but think of my friend Samantha, who has an awesome blog about running and cities. Nicolett Mall is something she would love. A vibrant downtown area full of foot traffic for eating, shopping and drinking. It was such a magnet. I couldn’t help making it a part of my route as a moved around town.

The conference wrapped up in the early afternoon later in the week, so I had the rest of the afternoon free. I ventured over to see the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. It’s currently being rennovated, so the outside was a bit of an eyesore with all the scaffolding and baracades, but inside there was plenty to see inside. I got pics of both chambers and the gorgeous atrium and skylight. After getting some pics I went to the nearby Tin Whiskers microbrewery to refresh with a flight of beer. It was only a couple blocks away. They had a pretty impressive offering of dark beers, which I love, but my favorite was the wheat beer. I thought it tasted like pineapple juice, but I later learned from a couple “off the clock” employees that it was actually made with chamomile tea. It is a great summertime beer. Nice and refreshing!

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That  evening, I wanted to take in a Twins game since they were in town and tickets were surprisingly affordable. I  had scouted a dinner place on Yelp (of course)  near the ball park. I  actually read about it on Andrew Zimmern’s blog  about restaurants not to be missed near the ballpark. It’s known for meat, obviously, but more  specifically cured meats.

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In the interest of being healthy,  I started with  a salad–a wedge salad. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t one wedge, but four, like a whole baby head of iceberg. With bacon that seemed  like someone made it in the back, and maybe they did. With perfect blue cheese crumbles like the classic version, and red  pepper strips and tomato glaze.

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Next came the charcuterie platter, with a sample of four of the  offerings from the menu: turkey pate, ox  tail terrine,  and head cheese. Yes, I tried head cheese for the first time and it was amazing. Perfect for a recommendation from Mr. Bizarre Foods himself. The turkey pate was my second favorite behind the head cheese. It was  a little salty, but absolutely divine on a rustic cracker served with the platter.  The terrine was my least favorite, as I found it a little bland, but not terrible.

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Next, it was time for the game, so I walked a few short blocks with what felt like everyone else int the city, but not before stopping by the only self-serve beer station at the ballpark in the country. It was a neat novelty, but definitely not as convenient as getting it from the concession stand. The way it works is that you buy a pre-loaded card of either $15 or $30 after showing your I.D. at the cashier. The area is roped off so folks can’t just walk up to the machines. Your I.D. is verified again, and then you’re free to pick your poison. An attendant is available to help you pour your beer since there is a trick to getting it from a tap without all foam. You hold up your card to the sensor to detect the amount available, and then the tap is activated. The cost was 40 cents per ounce, which actually was about $15 for two beers. Not too bad!

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The next day, I was flying out, but it was an afternoon flight, so I got to get lunch one last place before I left. Another restaurant I scoped out was Lotus, a Vietnamese place near by hotel. I’m not really familiar with Vietnamese food, but I love pho. This place had about six different kinds you could order. I started with a shrimp spring roll with peanut dipping sauce. Very classic.
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The pho was pretty awesome, too. I got a large (way too much), and even though it’s a broth-based soup it’s pretty hearty. I got tofu and seafood. Pho seems pretty straightforward, but the flavors are so complex and layered. The play between the hot peppers and basil is awesome, and the bean sprouts add crunchy texture.

097Finally, this post could only be ended with a shot of the statue on Nicolett Mall of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air just as she did at the end of the opening credits for her show, which took place in Minneapolis. I thought it would only be fitting.
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* I am having difficulty getting links embedded. Below are the ones I wanted to include.

My friend Samantha’s blog about cities and running: http://www.irunthesetowns.blogspot.com

The Local Irish pub: http://www.the-local.com

The Butcher And the Boar: http://www.butcherandboar.com

 

Chunky Garden Minestrone

It never fails with vegetable gardens that they seem to explode all at once. One day you’re just hoping for the first tomato to turn red or the first yellow squash to finally grow long enough to pick. Next thing you know, you’re faced with tons and tons of vegetables, and are running out of creative ways to cook them just to manage the onslaught.

Soup is probably the easiest way to clean out your fridge of all those vegetables that have been building up over the past few days. Especially when you make a gigantic pot to take in your lunch all week long (and part of the next week…) That’s what happened when I started throwing this soup together. It just kept growing and growing until I had way too much. No worries, though. I love vegetable soup, especially minestrone.

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I love, love, love minestrone. Probably because I love fresh vegetables. While this isn’t a traditional minestrone recipe, it makes them the star of this soup. It’s like late summer in a bowl. Actually, minestrone didn’t have a set recipe to begin with anyway. It was a peasant dish that was just a way of using up what was growing fresh in the garden, mixed with some beans and pasta to round it out. In that sense, I guess this really is a traditional recipe.

Chunky Garden Minestrone (8-10 generous servings)

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 Tb extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 small sweet pepper, chopped
  • 1 small summer squash, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes
  • 2 handfuls of kale, chopped
  • 2 quarts of vegetable or chicken stock (I used 1 of each)
  • 1 cup dried small pasta such as macaroni or orecchiette
  • 1 cup dried lentils
  • 1 large potato
  • 2 Tb fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium heat and add the onion and carrots. Saute for a few minutes until the onion softens and begins to turn translucent. Add the garlic and peppers and saute a few minutes longer. Add the squash, diced tomatoes and kale, and give it a good stir to mix everything together. Add the stock, parsley and thyme, and bring the pot up to a simmer. Add the lentils and potato. Stir well, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the pasta. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then check the doneness of the pasta, lentils and potato.  The pasta may need just a couple minutes longer, but don’t cook it completely to al dente. It will continue to cook for a few minutes in the hot stock. Remove from heat. Garnish with more parsley or freshly grated parmesan.

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This is one of those soups that the flavor seems to get better after it is leftover. It makes a huge pot, but it’s so healthy, it’s okay to have a big ol’ bowl of it. I used lentils instead of the the more traditional kidney beans or white beans for minestrone, mostly because that’s what I had handy, and they cook much quicker. You would have to cook it over a few hours if you used dried cannellini beans. Lentils are done in 20 minutes or so. And it would be a shame to cook this soup to mush with all these fresh veggies. It’s actually a great way to get your daily allowance of vegetables, and the lentils add some protein and fiber to keep you full. It’s a tasty way to use all those vegetables that are piling up for your brown bag lunch.

Strange and beautiful mushrooms from my backyard

Earlier this week, I found three clumps of these mushrooms growing in my backyard near where the grass ends and the brushy part starts.

They are absolutely stunning. Bright, sunny yellow and in clumps about six inches across. They look like something straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

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I was excited to try my hand at mushroom identification with the book I got last Christmas, Wild Edible Mushrooms by Hope Miller. I flipped through the book, and there were only  two described that it could have been. One only slightly resembled these, and the description didn’t sound like it it at all. The description for Velvet Foot, (Winter Mushrooms) seemed to fit the bill exactly, except that it stated that these favored cool weather. It hasn’t been what I’d call cool recently, so that was my only hang-up with that i.d.

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Velvet Foot mushrooms are edible and choice, if that is in fact what these were. Luckily, I had the good sense to post the pics on Facebook to see if anyone had any thoughts before I took a bite. A coworker is part of the in the West Virginia Mushroom Club‘s Facebook group, and shared my pics with the group.

Wow! What a wealth of information these folks are! Since some mushrooms are poisonous, and even deadly, it’s always best to be absolutely certain when trying to i.d. wild mushrooms. It’s nice to have access to a group of folks who are experienced in West Virginia mushrooms, and which you can eat, and which to avoid.

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I have been fascinated with mushrooms for years, especially wild ones. When I was young, my dad took us mushroom hunting for morels in early spring. There is nothing quite like that first skillet of fried morels of the year. They are truly a delicacy, selling for at least $8 for just a few ounces at the grocery store. Every spring the Hubs and I try to find them. Even if you are unsuccessful, it’s fun to be in the woods at that time of year when things are barely beginning to turn green.

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I’d love to find some other kinds than morels that are edible in the woods sometime. I love mushrooms. They have such a unique taste that really adds an element to dishes like stir-fry or stews that seem to be missing something without them. You can’t really put your finger on what’s missing, but something is. At least with the West Virginia Mushroom Club, I know I can ask questions about my finds until I get comfortable i.d.-ing them on my own.

The consensus on these were that they were poisonous jack o’lantern mushrooms, which are not in my book. They are not deadly, but do cause a good bit of sickness. For now, I’m going to stick to cultivating mushrooms in my backyard, rather than foraging there. I hope to start growing oyster mushrooms in coffee grounds, like I learned at the West Virginia Urban Agriculture Conference this spring. I’ll have a steady supply for all my soups and stir-fries then.

Missing the Blossom Dairy’s Smoked Fish Salad

There used to be a great restaurant here in Charleston called the Blossom Dairy. It was an institution. It had been open for decades. Walking in was like walking back in time. It used to be an old school soda fountain shop, and still had the counter that ran most of the length of the place down one side. And the walls were all chrome or something like the 1950s. It’s a shame it’s closed. It’s one of those places that I always ordered the same thing every time I went because it was so freakin’ good. I always ordered the smoked fish salad. I don’t know what kind of fish it was,  but it came in a big generous scoop, all creamy and salty and smoky on a bed of salad greens with some red onion and grape tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette on the side. I haven’t had smoked fish salad quite like that since it closed.

We had  a package of pike and a package of walleye that the Hubs caught in Canada last summer that really needed used. Just in case they were a bit freezer burnt, I decided to smoke them in my father-in-law’s smoker and make smoked fish salad with it. Just like I used to get at the Blossom Dairy.

Actually, a couple years ago, we went in with my sister-in-law and her family to get my father-in-law a smoker. Best present we ever bought him, hands down. We’ve been reaping the benefits ever since; smoked turkey breast, smoked chicken, smoked pork butt.  Anyway, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at smoked fish (and actually smoked cheese…) since we gave it to him. It’s pretty easy. According to the booklet that came with it, fish should be smoked about two hours. You basically soak some wood chips, add them and some water, and turn the sucker on. My mother-in-law had it all ready for me when I got there.

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The pike is bigger than the walleye, and the walleye was a bit overcooked after two hours, but the pike was perfect. The fish flaked apart easily, which was good since pike is full of annoying “y” shaped bones.  When I first tried it, I was kinda disappointed because the smoke flavor wasn’t that strong. But, after I mixed it up, it was pretty tasty. After I left the salad sit a day… wow. Amazing. Worth the wait.

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Smoked Fish Salad (makes about 6 cups)

  • 2 1/2 pounds smoked white fish
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup finely minced onion
  • 1 tsp garlic salt
  • salt and pepper to taste

Take the skin off the fish and remove the bones, if not already. Mash the fish up with the mayo, sour cream, onion and garlic salt. Mix well until completely incorporated. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Enjoy.

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While, it’s not as good as the Blossom Dairy’s was, it’s not bad. Especially after it’s leftover. I wish I had their recipe, but it could be lost forever. In the meantime, this will have to do. And it’s pretty darn good.

Middle Eastern Squash and Lentil Pasta Salad

You guys know how I like to take soup in my “brown bag” lunch, but in the summer, with so many fresh veggies, I was ready for a change-up. Pasta salad is pretty much a summertime staple.

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By way of vegetables, I had yellow squash, sweet peppers, swiss chard and onions to throw in. I wanted to add some fiber and protein so this pasta salad would be filling for lunch, so I decided to take this recipe to the Middle East and use lentils and feta cheese. Middle Eastern food is so full of fresh veggies and bold flavors, and although pasta salad isn’t a traditional dish, it made the perfect blank canvas for an easy Middle Eastern lunch.

Middle Eastern Squash and Lentil Pasta Salad (6 generous servings)

  • 1 Tb extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 small sweet peppers, diced
  • 1 medium squash, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch of swiss chard, leaves and stems cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 c. uncooked lentils
  • 8 oz. uncooked penne pasta
  • 6 oz. feta cheese
  • 1/3 c. red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tb dijon mustard
  • 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 can of whole black olives, cut in half
  • 1/4 c. parsley, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tb. za’taar

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, pepper and garlic, and stir well. Cook until the onion begins to soften, stirring often to keep the garlic from burning. Add the squash and the stems from the swiss chard. Continue cooking, stirring often, until the squash and stems are a little soft. Add the swiss chard leaves and stir well. Turn off the heat. Meanwhile, bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium sauce an and add the lentils. Cook about 15 minutes until tender. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the penne and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Add the red wine vinegar to a large bowl, then add the dijon mustard. Slowly drizzle in the 1/4 olive oil while whisking to emulsify the mixture. Add the pasta to the oil mixture, then add the rest of the ingredients except salt and pepper. Stir well. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.

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Look at this gorgeous purple pepper!

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Za’taar is an Arabic spice blend made from oregano, thyme, sesame seeds and a bunch of other stuff. You can find it in international food stores, and well-stocked grocery stores. I got mine from a friend who ordered a huge amount from Amazon. It doesn’t look like it’s available right now.

This gets better after it sits for a few hours. With the lentils, vegetables and cheese, it’s pretty much a total package for lunch. You could even use whole wheat pasta to up the fiber if that’s you’re thing. Even without, it’s a healthy, filling and especially tasty lunch channeling the flavors of the Middle East.

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National Ice Cream Sandwich Day

Saturday morning, I was scanning my twitter feed, and I saw it was National Ice Cream Sandwich Day. So, I decided to make some. Just like that.

I have an ice cream maker that I hardly ever use. I always say I should use it more. So, here was my chance.  I flipped through the booklet the came with it. I knew I wanted to do something a little different. Not just the classic.

How about Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwiches? Mexican chocolate has cinnamon and cayenne in it. A little edgy and dangerous.

I actually found a recipe for ice cream sandwiches in the booklet that came with my ice cream maker. But, I decided to change it up a little to suit my taste. Here’s what I made:

Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream Sandiwches (makes 10 sandwiches) Adapted from Cuisinart

For the cookies:

  • 1/3 c. cocoa powder
  • 1 1/3 c. cake flour
  • 3/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp .salt
  • 1 tsp. espresso powder
  • 8 Tb (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 large egg

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, salt and espresso powder in a small bowl. Put the butter in the the bowl of a stand mixer and cream the sugar into the butter with the paddle attachment on medium speed. Mix until smooth and pale yellow. Add the egg and mix until fully incorporated. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the mixture, and mix until combined. The dough will be very dry.

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Scoop about two tbsp. of dough per cookie onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper.  Flatten each cookie with a cup into a flat circle about 3 inches in diameter.

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Bake for about 20 minutes. The cookies will still be soft to the touch. Let the cookies cool completely.

For the ice cream:

  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 2/3 c. sugar, divided
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 2 ounces 100% cacao chocolate

Combine the milk, cream, spices and half the sugar in a medium sauce pan on medium heat. Whisk and bring to a simmer. Combine the yolks and remaining sugar in a stand mixer, and mix until pale yellow and thick. Chop the chocolate into small chunks and place in a medium bowl.

I hate chopping chocolate. It seems to always make a huge mess.

I hate chopping chocolate. It seems to always make a huge mess.

Whisk about 1/3 cup of the milk mixture into the yolk mixture. Add about another 1/3 cup of the milk mixture and beat until smooth.  Then, add all of the yolk mixture to the milk mixture in the saucepan.

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Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon. This should only take a few minutes. Do not bring to a boil or the eggs will begin to set.

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Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer onto the chopped chocolate. Whisk until completely mixed. Refrigerate two hours. Pour mixture into an ice cream maker. Process about twenty minutes until the mixture thickens and begins to set. Pour into a container and freezer for two hours.

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Once the ice cream is set, scoop about 1/2 cup of the ice cream onto a cookie and press the other cookie down on top. Wrap each sandwich in plastic wrap and freeze about 20 minutes to refreeze the ice cream. Enjoy!

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Wow, these were good. Like way better than I figured they would be. Addictive good. The only thing that kept me from devouring them was that I didn’t make all them into sandwiches. I only made three to start. It’s a good thing.

You could make this without the ice cream machine, but the consistency of your ice cream might be a little more dense. That would make it hard to scoop. This is already pretty hard to scoop, as it is a custard style ice cream. Yes, ice cream machines are kinda a specialized piece of kitchen equipment that will take up space in your cabinet. But, I say, you just have to find excuses to use it, like National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.

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The Last of the Blackberry Harvest

Earlier this week, the Hubs and I took my mom to pick blackberries. The Hubs has a great spot in an area where he hunts that has more blackberries than I’ve ever seen, year in and year out. I’m not telling anyone where it is.  Actually, I don’t think I could tell you how to get there if I wanted to.

At any rate, the berries started getting ripe and ready to pick right around the middle of July. We picked them then, and got almost three gallons in a little over an hour. My father-in-law likes to get up early Saturday mornings and head into the woods to walk around and see what he can find. In July, when the berries were ripe, he must’ve picked more than ten gallons. One day alone he picked seven gallons. Most of them he gives away. That’s way more berries than anyone person could eat anyway.

So, we decided to make one last run at this year’s blackberries. My mom wanted some fresh berries, and I had frozen almost all of what I had already picked.

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Mainly, what was left were the berries that were in the shade. Mostly, they were pretty big and ripe and sweet. There were a few puny ones here and there. Overall, there wasn’t much left at all. Each of the three of us got a quart in about ten minutes, right as it started to rain. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to wait a year for another batch of fresh berries.

In the meantime, I have several quarts frozen, and I shared with my mom. I also made a batch of blackberry jam with what I picked before. That will have to do us until next year. And, the blueberries at my mom’s house are starting to be ready to pick. So, we’re not going to be without fresh berries.

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