All Trees Have Roots

A search for individual, cultural and ecological sustainability through food, farming, permaculture and yoga.


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The Watermelon Ritual

2melon

Chores, labor, monotony, routine, physical. All describe my life here at the ranch. Each morning we rise just before seven (a comfortable hour – yes: I know and am thankful) to feed the horses, sheep, and chickens. We clean out paddocks, change straw bedding, scrub water tubs – all before breakfast. As each day’s work comes to a close, again – time for chores. Before dinner, of course.

Some days are harder and longer than others, but all are built on and around the schedule that our charges demand. The animals and plants in our care depend upon this continued and regular attention, and it forms the backbone of our life here.

Often, words like “chores,” “monotony,” “labor” and “routine” enliven a host of negative connotations among disciples of the so-called modern day, eliciting responses as mild as “simple” and as harsh as “PEASANT.” It’s why you probably never heard your high school guidance councilor suggest that you explore farming as a creditable career. But what many suit-wearing, cultured sophisticates don’t understand is that within the confines of a life devoted to physical routine, there lies an invaluable opportunity.

And that is: watermelon.

Every day here, Emily (my housemate, colleague, and companion) and I get up together, do chores together, make breakfast together, ride together, clean together, study Spanish together. And each day, after a laborious and yes – monotonous – morning and early afternoon, at an hour that varies slightly from day to day, our keen awareness of the day’s progression indicates to our sixth sugary sense that it is time. We descend upon our little outdoor kitchen. One silently opens our modest, gas-powered refrigerator. The other reaches past the spiders for our single cutting board and only chefs knife. And together, we butcher four thick dripping triangles of crispy red watery goodness from the godly green egg of mother melon.

This is the power (or at least one of the powers) of routine. Because when routine becomes a lifestyle – not just a “workout” or “diet” or “happy hour” – it is transformed into ritual. And rituals have meaning.

Any myopic belittlement of the agrarian lifestyle on the part of academics, paper-pushers, suburbanites, or politicos does nothing more than belie any commitment to meaningful pursuits they’ve signed for in student debt, contracts, mortgage payments, or oaths of office. To claim one understands meaning in a human life without understanding the things that make that life possible – how a well-pump works, when to plant tomatoes, or what to do with a dead chicken, to name a few – is poo-diddly-doo.

Don’t get me wrong here – there are certainly many other non-farm-related routines that have the power to become sacred. But there’s something really especially powerful about a ritual that is so fundamentally entrenched in, well, fundamentals. Food, water, shelter. The true necessities of life.

It makes the watermelon all that much sweeter.

watermelon ritual

Full Disclosure: I’m not only living and working on a ranch, but reading Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.” Hence the bitterness.


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Bugs on Bug Terms are Better than Bugs on People Terms

bees

The short of it:

Spiders are my friends because spiders eat flies. And flies suck.

The long of it:

When I was growing up, if a bee even so much as drifted within eyeshot I would alternately shut down completely or launch into a panic attack. Don’t ask me why – I’ve never even been stung or even near stung. Spiders? They’ve always made me sick to my stomach. I’m not a total weenie when it comes to creepies and crawlies, but I’m certainly a bit of city kid.

hornets

Fast forward to my current seat…suctioned to a white plastic arm chair by the inevitable build up of sweat beneath my thighs as I attempt to enjoy the still and sweltering evening while bats circle the patio at a right tear…and those days of radical emoting seem quite distant.

Here, the diversity and quantity of insect life is astounding. No mosquitos – thank god – but more spiders, bees, hornets, flies, ants, moths, scorpions, tarantula hawks (look that one up for a good time), cockroaches, and daddy longlegs than you could shake a stick at. Outside, inside, in between. They’re everywhere.

ant

And you know what? Of all those terrifying insects from deadly to creepy to invasive to downright disgusting the worst of them is one that I previously had no qualms with: the fly. Hands down.

Not something I would have guessed prior to this immersion course in the living with insects.

It really all came together for me when Emily (my Australian roommate and domestic partner here at the ranch) and I had endured nearly an hour of constant “zzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzz” from three incredibly obnoxious flies making desperate laps of our room nonstop since after dinner. A dinner which was half spent eating, half spent trying to get flies off of us and out of our food and drink. We made the decision that they had to go.

Easier said than done. After another thirty minutes fruitlessly beating the walls with rolled up newspaper, we stood on our beds facing each other, speechless and defeated, as the endless drone continued to taunt us.

I reached up to make one last swat at a passing shithead, when suddenly “ZZ—-“ – all went quiet. One of the eight or so spiders dotting the ceiling had yoinked the fly right out of the air and began digesting it silently overhead.

Finally. A moment in peace thanks to my previously least favorite bug.

spider

Spiders, well, they kill flies and the rest of the time they generally mind their own business. Scorpions are rather slow, and don’t often venture far from their hiding spots. Cockroaches are scardy cats – and hey, at the end of the day they’re harmless. Ants (well, most) don’t bother anyone. Daddy longlegs you can toss around like it ain’t no thing. Bees have no interest in wasting their stinger on you, and here they have plenty of other things to keep them occupied. Tarantula hawks just wish they could fly better.

But flies.

They’re a menace.

Who knew?

Sometimes, more of a bad thing (along with other bad things) is actually a good thing because it puts all the bad things in perspective.

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The End of a Hard Day’s Work or Snot’s True Purpose

patio

There is nothing as satisfying as standing limp under a lukewarm outdoor shower in the early evening after a brutal day of physical labor in the hot, still Mexican air watching daddy longlegs run from the flowing water while scraping brown and black gobs of goo out from the deepest darkest crevices of your sinuses knowing that what comes next is a cold can of Modelo. Ah.

Unless it’s a Pacifico. Which was the case after a long day of paddleboarding in Los Barriles over the best shrimp tacos I’ve ever had:

tacos


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Ideas that Come at the End of the Dry Season in the Desert

water in desert

The desert really is a different animal. Living here is far and away unlike living in an environment blessed with abundant water supply. If a plant or animal (or person for that matter) doesn’t have the capacity to survive on its own, it will die. Unless a human decides to invest very large sums of time, money, effort, and resources (often imported) in its survival. Note “survival.” “Success” takes a whole lot more.

It takes huge amounts of water to keep this ranch going. Water drawn from a well supplied by an aquifer that is being abused up and down the Baja peninsula. Every non-native plant (even many of those native to the area but usually found growing only along arroyos) needs to be soaked thoroughly twice a week. Any edibles need to be soaked twice daily. Each of nine horses drinks ten to fifteen gallons a day. Ten or so sheep drink a few more. The chickens, maybe two or three. Then there’s the water used to wash and shower and drink. Approximately zero percent of that water is rainwater. Chronic drought means the aquifer we’re drawing from has not been properly restored in years. It will rain here, but the few torrential downpours aren’t enough to keep things moist year-round.

All I can think is: what and who are really meant to be here?

For some reason I’m beginning to think a bunch of expats with resource-heavy hobbies and a swimming pool might not be it.

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I’m not saying my hosts are irresponsible, by any means. In fact, they are very mindful stewards of their land and the resources available to them, making a commendable effort to minimize their impact and promote the health of the ecosystem.

All I’m saying is I’m not sure the desert is a great place to do anything but live a desert life.

And that life is one that is dictated by the availability of water. Perhaps there’s a reason Mexicans tend to treat plants and animals with what appears to be disregard and (to some) cruelty, especially when it comes to food and water. Because here, it’s every living thing’s own responsibility to do what it’s gotta do to survive. In the desert, the luxury of manipulating flora and fauna to suit one’s own needs just doesn’t exist.

And I think I believe that this fundamental scarcity is at the root of Mexican culture – and all cultures borne of an arid landscape, I’d imagine. Being dependent on a resource that is seasonal and often unpredictable keeps people here cognizant of nature’s power. It puts people in their place, I guess. Which is at the mercy of mother earth and father space-time. In the US, we’re big-headed assholes who think water comes from pipes and weather is controlled by a busty bimbo on network TV. Generalization, yes. Untrue? No.

It makes me think of how difficult it is to get people at home to appreciate the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. How about we take away your water for nine months out of the year and then see what you learn about patience and thankfulness and reality?

Us water folk have a lot we could learn from the desert.

water


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Roots on the Road

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As some of you may know, I’ve up and skipped town for a summer sojourn out west. While I’m a bit belated – by three weeks or thereabouts – in posting news of my departure (or really anything for that matter), I’ve decided that the lessons learned thus far and those still-to-be-acquired on this short trip are still worth sharing.

The plan is/was as follows:

  • San Diego, CA – 1 week
  • San Jose del Cabo, Mexico – 3 days
  • Rancho La Venta, Baja Sur, Mexico – 1 month ← I am here
  • Love Apple Farm, Santa Cruz, CA – 2+ months
  • Monterrey/Big Sur, CA – 1 week
  • Utah – 1-2 weeks

To experienced travellers I imagine this sounds like a quick vacay, no biggie – but alas I do not yet qualify as particularly “well-travelled” and as such consider this more of an “epic self-led quarter life crisis summer camp adventure.”

Why now, though? Why here? What even is Rancho La Venta? Aren’t there farms near Philadelphia? Don’t you have a great boyfriend and a great apartment…not to mention plenty of potential jobs and educational programs to pursue? Why any of it?

All good questions. All questions I’m hoping to have a better answer for afterwards.

All I know now is that I needed to go.

After twenty-six years living in Philadelphia, things were finally beginning to become unbearable. Environmental stagnancy, reappearing (and newly emerging) bad habits, and an ever-increasing awareness that a whole lot of my values and goals were going to be quite tough to pursue from a third-floor apartment in the thick of the concrete jungle of South Philly built up like a short shake and a bottle of kombucha to get my ass moving.

This sudden restlessness made me more keenly aware of a frustration that’s also been building over the year and a half since I started exploring careers in food, food systems, and the like a year and a half ago. Shackled by my urban locale and inconvenient resume of administrative strengths, my attempts to get more intimately acquainted with the source of my food were met with many hours hunched over a computer screen instead of the intended crouched in a chicken coop.

I hate cubicles. I told my mom that after my first desk job after high school. I told her I would never work in a place where I had to dress like that and sit in a fucking box (well, at the time just “box”) every day.

And somehow I had ended up back in one.

Screw this. That’s basically where I got to.

After a quick inventory of all the things I know I love in life (a good shower after a hard day’s work in the dirt, cooking a meal for friends and family, a good canter past a tree-lined river bank, shopping the farmers market with no more plan than spend the cash and fill the basket, a fine glass of artisanal beer – or cider or wine – paired with the perfect bite, being a know-it-all about something I actually know it all about, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables unadorned, a drink (or two or three) with good friends, the feeling of sweat dripping down my sternum, an impeccably casual tasteful tablescape…you get the gist) I started my research.

Anyway. Many hours of interneting, emailing, Skyping, and booking later, here I am. In Mexico. On a hobby ranch. With no contact to the outside world except in the five foot radius around a router from 2004.

I’m here to work (hard). I’m here to learn (anything I can). I’m here to ride (horses, paddleboards, boats, pick-ups, you name it). I’m here to eat (yes, I do love tacos). I’m here to think (and not think). I’m here to go (with the flow). I’m here to figure (it out). I’m here to search (yeah sorry: my soul). I’m here to live.

And hopefully, when I return, I’ll have a better idea about where the real me wants to go next.

I can’t promise anything, but I’m going to try to find the time, energy, and internet to post a bit about the things I’ve been doing, the thoughts I’ve been thinking, and the lessons I’ve been learning. Stay tuned.

colville bay


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Today’s Moment of Gratitute: Openness

In an effort to identify one thing each day that I have gratitude for: today I’m grateful for openness.

If your everyday practice is open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that – then that will take you are far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught. -Pema Chödrön

It was during a conversation with a close friend who has a strong aversion to experience that I started thinking about just how lucky I am to have been graced with some degree of natural openness from birth.  Without this, how many things that I love in my life (be it oysters, yoga, south africa, my boyfriend…) would I not have right now because I was too worried or indolent or anxious or frightened or some combination thereof to experience them that first time?  Probably a lot.  And I love the things that I love, so today, I am grateful for all those first moments of openness, when I set aside the bull shit and said “Let’s do it. I’ll give it a try. What do I have to lose?”

Because the only thing I ever stood to lose was ignorance.

summer bounty


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Zucchini INXS: Summertime Fun “Lasagna”

When the final surge of summer’s bounty bestows upon you big fat enormous zucchinis so mindbogglingly huge it’s almost mentally insurmountable, what do you do?

Think of things to do with zucchini.

This is one of the things I thought of.  My Aunt, whose garden is now overrun with the soon-to-be pumpkin harvest of the century, basically forced us to take on a haul of some of the gigantic zucchini hiding under the tangle of melon and squash vines.  So with squash out the wazoo, it seemed clear that zucchini needed to take a much more prominent role in the kitchen.  How about temporarily taking over where pasta once was?

Boom: summertime “lasagna.”  This beautifully simple concoction is simply summertime treat layered over summertime treat layered over even more summertime treats.  The garden offered me zucchini, tomato and basil, so that’s what I cooked.

While there are definitely some kinks in my zucchini noodle technique, which is currently quite primitive (any gluten-free/raw foodists out there with advice?!), this messy bake was actually delightfully delicious anyway.  So I’m going to share the recipe with you with the addendum that this is not a recipe box recipe.  This is a jumping off point for some summertime kitchen fun by no means meant to be followed.  I mean, have you seen it?  Sloppy, Emily:

Summertime Fun “Lasagna”

vegan, gluten-free, healthy healthy!

serves 2 if you’re starving, but really more like 3 or 4

  • 1/4 yellow or white onion, half mooned — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced into rounds — Green Aisle Grocery
  • large zucchini, very very thinly sliced (lucky you if you have a nice enough mandolin to handle the challenge of an enormous zucchini) — Aunt’s garden!
  • a few nice tomatoes, sliced — Aunt’s garden!
  • 1/2 cup chopped olives (you could use capers too!) — Whole Foods
  • around a cup oil-free basil “pesto”the recipe from Oh She Glows here is awesome…so tasty!
  • nutritional yeast — Whole Foods
  • extra basil leaves — my garden!
  1. Preheat: how about 375 degrees?
  2. Take care of topping: saute onions with nonstick spray until soft, add garlic until fragrant and then let sit
  3. Prep pan: coat 9×5 baking pan (note you can double recipe and use a normal size baking pan!) with nonstick spray, just in case
  4. Layer: tomato, zucchini, pesto, olives, optionally a little of the onion, tomato, zucchini, pesto, olives, optionally a little more of the onion, tomato, zucchini, remaining pesto
  5. Top: with remaining onions and basil leaves
  6. Bake: cover with foil and bake 20-25 minutes, uncover and then cook 10 minutes more
  7. Serve: with crusty bread and a fresh ground pepper

IMPORTANT NOTE: See how runny the above soup-agna turned out?  Next time I’m going to, and I suggest you might as well, salt the zucchini first.  Sprinkle kosher salt over your zucchini slices, let sit draining for 10 minutes, then dry off with towels.  Lessen the moisture!  You could seed some of the tomatoes, but tomato “jelly” is filled with delicious umami and wonderful nutrition, so I’d advice against it.  But whatever you do, have fun. THAT is a rule.

soupoukandia


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Slimy Superfoods: West African Okra & Fish Stew

I love okra a lot.  I almost constantly crave the seductively silky slime that oozes between the bright bubble-like seeds of the tender pod.  There’s really nothing else like the texture of good, young, fresh, homegrown okra.  So when I saw it for $3.50 a pound at Greensgrow’s Saturday market (try $8 at some other farm standsI was all over it.  Nice combo of pretty green and purple varietals with dainty pods, which is good when you’re talking okra.  The longer the pod, the more likely it has grown woody.  These, though, looked perfect.

If my description of okra’s many fine qualities has you grimacing with disgust, keep in mind that it also happens to be a nutritional powerhouse, especially when it comes to healthy digestion.  The mucilaginous fiber contained in the pods is like compost for your poop.  It bulks, greases, detoxes, feeds your healthy probiotic gut bacteria…intestine heaven.  Look out for a blast of vitamin C, folate (a B vitamin that your red blood cells love), calcium and potassium too.  And with almost no accompanying calories, fat or cholesterol, this superfood is a golden ticket to health, weight loss, happiness, and, at $3.50 a pound, a fatter wallet too.

What better way to enjoy a superfood than with roots.  And those aren’t hard to come by for this little “finger” food.  Okra is a dietary staple from West Africa through the Sahara and across Asia to Japan.  It’s been part of local cultures for centuries…defining textural tastes (neba neba!)…thickening traditional dishes (gumbo’s got roots too)…supposedly even keeping Cleopatra’s skin free and clear of any unsightly acne.  Cool.

When it came time to turn my okra into dinner, I was so exhausted from lugging 40 lb bags of mushroom poop up three flights of stairs to my third story garden that all I could possibly take on was something relatively fast and super simple.  West Africa fit that bill.  Across this largely tropical coast, history and ecology have produced rich and entirely unique cuisines that also happen to rely on very few available resources and ingredients.  Simple food.  And sometimes fast.

Born was this uncomplicated and somehow deeply flavorful stew roughly based on the many varieties of ancestral gumbo cooked throughout West Africa, especially Senegal and Nigeria.  It was claimed that this may have been the best thing I have cooked in the past six months.  And not by me.  A great home for a great fruit.

NOTE: I would seriously encourage you to orchestrate some homemade stock into this dish.  As with all simple cooking, it’s the quality of the ingredients that truly matters.

West African Okra & Fish Stew

so easy, very healthy

serves 2 as a meal, 4 as not really a meal

  • shrimp stock (or any other stock) — homemade
  • pint or so okra, sliced into rounds — Greensgrow
  • kale (or any hearty green), roughly chopped — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • white or yellow onion. roughly diced — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • white stock fish (I used tilapia cause it’s what they had, but red snapper or mackerel might be better), rinsed and cubed — Whole Foods
  • peanut butter — Trader Joes
  • bay leaf — Whole Foods
  • cayenne (or red pepper flakes) — homeground
  • lime — El Zarape Grocery Store
  • large yam — Whole Foods
  1. Get started: in large soup/stock pot bring 4 cups stock, onion, bay leaf and okra to boil and let simmer for 10 minutes or until okra is softened but not mushy
  2. Meanwhile: boil yam until soft and then mash, with skin on
  3. Add other stuff: add 2ish tbs of peanut butter, a light dash of cayenne or red pepper and chopped greens
  4. Add fish: once greens are wilted and soft after about 5 minutes add fish cubes and continue to cook until just opaque, about 3 minutes
  5. Serve: squeeze lime over soup, serve with mash yam
corncakesalmon


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Time & Place: Summer in Acadia with Maple Salmon, Sweet Corn, Pickled Blueberries, Crispy Corn Cake

After an epic trip from Philadelphia to Prince Edward Island earlier this month (which I shall chronicle in brief, perhaps, later on), I found myself inundated with an unabashedly excessive quantity of wild Maine blueberries.  How can one resist those quiet green baskets so reminiscent of a season?  Especially in the throes of ones last moments in a place so blessed with gifts of wild fleshy ovaries?  Every vacation season needs a coattail…

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Facing excess and reminiscing on summertime in Maine and the maritime stretching north, I decided to give these wild blueberries an end fitting of their birth.  They would have a dish in homage to their season and their home.  And as I happened to have a rapidly-freezer-burning Atlantic salmon filet and some freshly arrived sweet corn from here in our own uniquely endowed region on hand, an Acadian theme came together quite naturally.

Acadia was a seventeenth century French colony that stretched from Prince Edward Island down through the maritime provinces of Canada and into Maine.  Nowadays, we’re talking culture.  Acadia isn’t so much a region as a way of life that was borne of a place and a time.  Unfortunate victims of European political conflict grappling with the combination of French blood and illiteracy while they struggled to learn as much as possible from the local native populations, Acadians were a pridefully self-sufficient people living simply from their land and no one else’s.  Begrudgingly happy, I’d like to believe.

So I had some fun thinking about what might have made it to the table on a balmy mid-summer night in coastal Acadia.  I already had the blueberries.  And salmon.  And summer sweet corn (a secondary crop for most Acadian farmers).  Why not add a little maple?  And for some French flair, why not pickle those blueberries (side note: I don’t actually think pickling blueberries is French, it’s just always something I’ve wanted to do)?

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Out of nowhere, a delicious and almost wholly locally purchased meal emerged.  From the “French” tang of the pickled blueberry to the “three sisters” grit of a good corn meal cake to the richly traditional sweetness of the maple and the historical significance of the salmon, this hearty meal was reminiscent of a time and place I’d like to know better.

A note: I’ve decided that I want to feature WHERE all this tasty looking food comes from – because that’s just as if not more important than where it ends up.  I’ll be as honest as I can, integrity as a local food enthusiast to the wind.  So check out the ingredient list, and I’ll think you’ll find that it’s easier than it seems to live at least mostly off of your own land…or at least land that’s being respected elsewhere.

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Maple Salmon, Sweet Corn, Pickled Blueberries, Crispy Corn Cake

Serves 2

  • salmon filet (skin-on) — Whole Foods
  • real dark maple syrup — purchased in Vermont
  • balsamic vinegar — my mother’s pantry…
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced — Savoie Organic Farm at Headhouse Farmers’ Market
  • an orange — Acme
  • mayonnaise (or vegan sub) — Whole Foods
  • 2 ears of corn — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • 1 egg, separated — Fair Food Farmstand
  • milk (of any variety) — Whole Foods
  • yellow corn meal — Whole Foods
  • a few chives, finely chopped — my roof!
  • pickled blueberries *see below — purchased in Maine
  • baby arugula — Whole Foods (but soon will come from my roof!)
  • fresh goat cheese — Di Bruno Bros.
  1. Preheat oven: 400 degrees
  2. Whisk glaze: 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/2 the minced garlic, and zest from 1/2 an orange or so
  3. Prep salmon: place skin-side down in baking-safe dish, coat with layer of glaze, squeeze juice from 1/2 orange over
  4. Reduce glaze: begin heating the remaining glaze over low heat until thickened slightly and caramelized (you can pull from here to baste salmon while baking)
  5. Strip corn: standing the ears on end in bowls, scrape the goodness off the sides with a sharp knife, retaining the juices/pulp (set aside 1/2 cup pretty kernels)
  6. Bake salmon: place in oven and cook 10-15 minutes, basting two or three times
  7. Assemble batter: place 1/2 cup corn kernels in large mixing bowl (for texture), chop remaining kernels either by hand or in food processor until well macerated then add to bowl as well. add remaining garlic, 3 tbs corn meal, a few pinches good salt, 1 tbs milk and egg yolk. mix. beat egg white until fluffy (a stiff foam will form and your hand will hurt), then fold into mixture
  8. Cook cakes: in greased skillet (using non-stick spray or a small amount of vegetable/canola oil) form “pancakes” about 3-4 inches in diameter and cook until crisp on the outside but still soft on the inside and drain on towel
  9. Pull salmon: when salmon is cooked through, but not dry, and rested for a moment or two, use a fork to flake the filet. add mayonnaise and more glaze as needed to keep quite juicy and moist.
  10. Plate: lay corn cakes on or next to arugula, top with pulled salmon, sprinkle reserved corn kernels, pickled blueberries* and goat cheese (crumbled), top with snipped chives and drizzled reduced glaze.

*Pickled Blueberries

  • white vinegar – Acme
  • brown sugar – Whole Foods
  • honey — Green Aisle
  • kosher salt — Acme
  • blueberries — purchased in Maine
  • red onion — Culton Organics at Headhouse Farmers’ Market
  1. Whisk 2 tbs vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp brown sugar, few swizzles of honey…pour over 1 cup blueberries and how ever much thinly sliced red onion you’d like…let refrigerate overnight.
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