I wanted to write a blog about the joy of summer gardening and the pleasure of bringing in fresh fruits and vegetables to savor and share with friends. I wanted to write a blog about the bushels of plums we plucked from our trees that now sit jammed, jellied, and frozen. I wanted to sing the praises of the pears that we pulled from our Anjou tree and had in pies, cakes, strudels, and tarts. And I hoped to write a completely separate blog to share about the wonderful things we’re doing with our tomatoes, peppers, corn, and cucumbers.
Yes, I wanted to write that blog, but as I sit here looking out my window I’m confronted by a sadly familiar site. Two squirrels are chasing each other up one of our trees after having made the daring leap from the garage roof. As I squint, I can see the green tube-like object one of them holds in its teeth. It is, of course, one of our pickling cucumbers. Until just moments ago, this very same cuke was hanging on its vine next to the tall dill plants that were to join it in the vinegar and spice bath that is our dill pickle recipe.
A friend told me recently that during times of drought squirrels will eat whatever they can get their little paws on in order to obtain water. They weren’t eating our fruits and veggies, they were drinking them. Apparently, the Verano yard has been the watering hole for a number of parched creatures. By our count, the thirst has struck several species. Deer, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and even the lowly (I mean that in terms of closeness to the ground and with no disrespect) turtle, has gotten in on the act.
Of course, we could have done a better job of protecting our precious bounty. It seems that row cover and netting are not enough during these times. Perhaps an electric fence or a moat would have deterred the would-be poachers. Alas, when it comes to the maintenance of our garden, my wife and I take the “less is more” approach; the less we work on it the more energy we have for thinking about how to make next years’ garden critter-proof.
It is during these dog days of summer, when squirrels sit big-bellied in the trees, tomato juice dripping off their whiskers, that we feel blessed to have Off the Vine in our lives. We are grateful for their farmers who grow produce (as in, “Look what we’ve produced!”) that we can actually eat. Because of their dedication we are able to quench our hunger for the savory spoils of the season.
We try not to be bitter. We honestly believe there’s good karma in feeding Earth’s smaller inhabitants. I have even taken to naming the squirrels that no longer even bother to scurry away when I drive up to the house. They sit there, twitching their little squirrel noses, holding what’s left of the last of our cucumbers as if to say, “You got any salt to go with this?” Yes, they all have names now; but decency, decorum, and Internet blog etiquette don’t allow me to share those names with you at this time.
In honor of the season, and the fine folks who make up the Off the Vine community, I offer one of the simplest and tastiest ways to enjoy summer berries. This cake puts the “Mmm” in moist, and the batter also makes excellent muffins.
Mixed Berry Cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 cup fresh berries (about 5 ounces)
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in vanilla. Add egg and beat well.
At low-speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.
Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter berries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.
Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.