A DAY IN THE SWAMPS
There we were, 2 couples, old friends, feet stuffed into mud-caked rubber boots, slogging through the swamp grass, scooting under jerry-rigged barbed wire fences on the seats of our mud-spattered jeans off for a Sunday picnic, a tradition whenever we get together. Bundled up in thick, padded coats against the cold, what hair wasn’t tucked up inside a cap or hat whipped around our heads, into our eyes by the wild wind. Marty ear-deep in reeds bouncing up and down more out of the desire to lift his frozen little paws out of the inches of chilly water than the excitement engendered by finding himself on his first outdoor adventure since last Autumn. The picnic merely an excuse to come out and see the stork families who nest in these swamplands outside of Nantes.
Nature-lovers like my husband, we’ve spent 22 years of get-togethers exploring, trekking, picnicking, days spent standing on wind-whipped beaches, the sand in our eyes, watching the crashing waves and tossing sticks to the dog or picking through the stones and rocks for treasures. Or canoeing off the coast of Brest, see-sawing up and down among the ocean waves, on our way to explore abandoned islands, inhabited only by what Mother Nature decreed, the birds playing among the rocks, the tall grass blown gently by the breeze. Or watching the children (when they were children) building innumerable forts with branches, stones, palm fronds and their imaginations, pirates setting seaward on seafaring Viking adventures, their voices raised in excitement, the dog always first mate or quite possibly the evil enemy, but always part of the game. Or cowboys and Indians, taking refuge in their Alamo, armed with make-believe bows and arrows, storming the enemy camp. Taking to the outdoors in their happy-go-lucky, children-of-the-earth way, always thrilled to be running along the beach, climbing on rocks, hearing their laughter coming back to them on the wind, digging up bugs and breathing in the fragrant fresh air.
Nature adventures, spring, summer or autumn, good weather or bad, come hell or high water, it would be unthinkable to spend a weekend together shut up inside, inconceivable to spend a holiday together without stuffing backpacks, grabbing boots, maps and guidebooks and heading off for that ramble in the woods or hike to the seaside, that bird-watching expedition, that trip out into the country. Binoculars always in hand, the three of them, our two friends and my husband, searching out birds or animals, always knowing their names, plant life and trees, pointing out insects or flowers, discussing ecosystems, migratory patterns, life cycles, ecology-related laws. No simple picnic in the park for these avid adventurers! And I trudge behind them, invariably tugging my hat down further over my ears as the wind chill factor rises and the wind notches it up one, popping a chocolate in my mouth from my certain secret stash to stave off my mounting hunger until the only moment of this nature walk that really truly interests me finally drags around: picnic time.
This time around, they were on our home turf, Nantes, rather than chilly Brest, that city surrounded by rocky coastline and wild seas. JP had promised a sighting of the famed storks who come to nest in the swampland around our delightful city. A sight to behold, these tall, elegant birds could be seen perched high atop slender poles, standing proudly and protectively over their young snuggled deeply in a tuft of hay and grass. What had promised to be a gorgeous, warm sunny day overnight has turned into the tail end of the harsh winter we thought had passed. Plans were made the day before in the glow of a warm sun beating onto the kitchen floor through the French window. Temperatures had risen to springtime and Mother Nature beckoned us to join her for a picnic. So the men were packed off to the market to fill their basket with picnic fare: cold meats and cheeses, fresh bread and fruit. A bottle of white was pushed into the freezer to cool down quickly, tablecloths chosen and folded and tucked alongside the plastic plates and forks, the pocket knives lined up and counted, a bowl for Marty dug up from places of vacations past. But the once beautiful sky was now tinted gray and the men blew in from their market excursion with red-tipped noses and news from the great outdoors: it may be just a tad chillier today than yesterday but sunny enough for that picnic nonetheless! So off we went.
Wind-blown as we were, rambling joyously through the water-logged fields, excitedly pointing binoculars in the direction of the graceful storks, Mother Nature offering us the additional gift of flocks of beautiful, unusual black and white ibises and dainty egrets, it did indeed turn out to be a wonderful day. The sun was ours, shining on our upturned faces, and though the air was brisk, closer to winter than spring, we still succeeded in pinning down the picnic cloth, spreading out the food and enjoying every mouthful, chatting and laughing like old friends do. The wine had been forgotten a bit too long in the freezer and was one chunk of ice so we all stuck to water, but we were tipsy on friendship and memories of times together over the long years.
That evening, cozy in the warm apartment again, fresh from our naps, JP poached a wild sea bass in lemon juice, white wine, parsley and garlic in our new fish poacher (that should have been an ice cream machine), a delicacy to savor, tender and moist, served simply with buttered parsley potatoes. And the now-defrosted white wine. And for dessert, I served warm Rhubarb-Berry Crumble with fresh whipped cream. Heavenly. This is what friends are for, the moments to savor.
The recipe for this delightful, fantastic, flavorful crumble, jam-packed with fruit sweet and tangy nestled under a perfect crumb topping, is from my good friend, a delight herself, Kerrin of My Kugelhopf. Kerrin, a talented cook, baker and writer, a sister separated at birth (we have too much in common not to be!), a wonderful friend shared this recipe on her blog recently and it looked too delicious for me not to try it out myself. And a success it was. I used frozen rhubarb, raspberries and blueberries along with some fresh Gariguette strawberries, as she suggested, and it was perfect! Knowing that this crumble was this good using frozen fruit means that it can be made in the blink of an eye all year round. But with summer quickly upon us, I cannot wait to try this using all fresh fruit.
Kerrin will be joining Jeanne of Cooksister! and me this June at Food Blogger Connect in London to speak about Finding Your Voice and Writing Style, lessons for the food blogger. A panel of talented, beautiful Chicas (if I may say so myself) worth coming to listen to!
(very slightly altered from Kerrin’s version)
3 cups frozen (or fresh) rhubarb chunks, sliced into bite-sized pieces if too large
1 cup frozen (or fresh) raspberries
1 cup frozen (or fresh) blueberries
6 – 8 medium to large ripe strawberries, hulled and cut into 2 or 4 pieces depending on the size of the berries
4 Tbs cornstarch
3 Tbs freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup (130 g) flour
2 big pinches fleur de sel
Big pinch (1/4 – ½ tsp) ground cinnamon
½ tsp baking powder
¼ cup (50 g) granulated white sugar
¼ cup (55 g) packed light brown sugar
½ cup (115 g) cold butter, cubed
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Place 6 individual ramekins on a baking sheet and set aside.
Prepare the fruit filling:
Place all your fruit in a large mixing bowl – frozen fruit does NOT need to be defrosted first! Sprinkle the fruit with the cornstarch and then add the orange juice. Toss everything together until all of the ingredients are well distributed and the cornstarch lightly covers all the fruit. I found that the easiest method was simply pushing up my sleeves and using my hands. Spoon the prepared fruit into the waiting ramekins making sure that it is evenly divided and there are fresh strawberries in every cup.
Prepare the crumble topping:
Combine all of the ingredients except for the butter in a large mixing bowl. Toss until well combined. Add the cubes of cold butter and, using your fingertips, rub or work the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is evenly distributed, there are no more chunks of butter and the mixture resembles rough sand or crumbs.
Divide the crumble mixture evenly between the ramekins, spooning it generously on top of the fruit. Make sure that none of the fruit is exposed. Gently press the crumble topping down onto the fruit.
Bake the ramekins on the baking sheet for 35 – 40 minutes until the crumble puffs up and turns a deep golden color and the fruit bubbles up around the edges of the crumble. It may even begin to dribble down the sides of the ramekins but all the prettier!
Remove the crumbles from the oven and allow to cool a bit before serving. The crumbles are fabulous served hot (though WATCH OUT for boiling fruit! It will burn!), warm or room temperature. Serve with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
If you don’t serve them right away (and keep them in the refrigerator), simply preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and reheat the crumbles for 5 – 10 minutes. They can also be popped into the microwave on full heat for 30 seconds right before serving.
Or you can simply grab one straight from the fridge and enjoy it cold!