The Fresh Flavors of Summer

I have an obsession with fresh seasonal fruit. To me the ideal dessert is a summer peach, that’s it!

Summer is quickly ripening fruits and vegetables. Julia Child said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces-just good food from fresh ingredients.” Fruit stands and farmers markets are buzzing with fresh flavors. It’s hot in Texas and we need something to quench and refresh us.

Certain flavors and spices come to mind during this season abundant with smell. My favorites are: cinnamon, blueberries, tomatoes, avocados, cherries, and lemons (to name a few).

I am reminded of summer by one of my favorite songs. Corinne Bailey Rae sings, “Summer came like cinnamon… So sweet, Little girls double-dutch on the concrete.” School is out and I find myself in the kitchen hungrier than ever, I’ve been starving for summer!

Cinnamon is my favorite spice. Did you know it’s a small tree? It grows in India, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Brazil. Cinnamon is one of the oldest most deliciously known spices. It also has great health benefits. It can be used for that dreadful cold, improve to enhance energy, and help with digestion.

There are endless ways to use it! Some of my summer favorites include sprinkling it on peaches and cream, iced chai tea, and cinnamon ice cream. This is one of my favorite treats during those long HOT Texas summers.

Ashley’s Summer Time Cinnamon Ice Cream:

6 large eggs
1 large vanilla bean
1 3-inch cinnamon stick or ½ t ground cinnamon
1 ½ C whole milk
1 ½ C heavy crème
¾ sugar

Separate the eggs in a bowl. Split vanilla bean, add milk, 1 cup of crème, and sugar to a saucepan with the vanilla bean. Add remaining ½ C crème to the bowl with the egg yolks (I like to save the egg whites for breakfast). Whisk the yolks and crème. Temper the egg yolks (add about ¼ C of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture so they don’t scramble). Then add it all to the milk mixture. Stir on medium low heat until the back of a wooden spoon is coated. Add cinnamon. Strain custard and discard cinnamon stick and vanilla bean. Cool, chill, then churn.

Another summer favorite is the avocado. Did you know it’s considered the world’s healthiest fruit? Get your potassium and regulate your blood pressure with an avocado a day to keep the doctor away!!

I recommend chef, Craig Alderson’s award winning recipe for Guacamole:
4 ripe avocados
Cilantro (handful chopped)
1/4 red onion finely diced
2 Serrano chilies minced
2 limes
garlic (2 cloves minced, and into paste)
2 tomatoes (Roma) diced/seeded
salt and pepper to taste with a dash of tabasco

Cut avocados in half, and scoop out flesh into mixing bowl. Squeeze two limes into mixing bowl to prevent oxidation of avocados.
Chop tomatoes, onion into medium dice add to bowl.
Add chopped cilantro
Add minced Serrano chile peppers
Add garlic
Mash avocados to your desired texture. Cover with plastic wrap until ready to serve chilled.

When I was little, I watched the movie The Jewel of the Nile over and over again. I consider the blueberry to be like the precious “Jewel of the Nile!”

The highest antioxidant capacity of all fresh fruit is the blueberry. Blueberries are: immune builders, age fighting, cancer fighting, heart healthy, good for vision, and also an anti depressant. Yes, it’s a super food!

I’ll never forget the summer I was fifteen and went to spend a week with my friend Jen’s grandmother in Tyler, Texas. We picked buckets of blueberries and froze them. They tasted like sweet cold candy! We couldn’t get enough of them and my children are the same way.

My favorite way to use blueberries is with a coffee cake.

Ashley’s Blueberry Coffee Cake:
stick of softened butter
tub of mascarpone cream cheese
cup of sugar
2 eggs
1 C flour
1t baking soda
¼ salt
1T vanilla
Container of blueberries (or as many as you like)
2 T Cinnamon sugar (just mix the two)

Beat softened butter and cheese at medium speed of an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugar beating well. Add eggs. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir into butter mixer. Stir in vanilla and fold in berries. Pour into a 9-inch round cake pan coated with cooking spray or butter. Top with sprinkled cinnamon sugar. Bake at 350 for 1 hour.

I am a magnet for cherries! They might be my most favorite thing to eat! I prefer them straight from the bag, no baking necessary; just a bowl to catch the pits! Cherries are loaded with fiber (I craved them when I was pregnant). Like blueberries, cherries help with heart disease, fighting cancer and are loaded with antioxidants.

For summer birthday parties and showers I love to make little cherry tea cakes.
Ashley’s Cherry Tea Cakes:
1 ¼ sticks unsalted softened butter
1 C flour
1 ¼ C ground toasted almonds (or hazelnuts)
1 C sugar
1 t salt
5 egg whites
4 t cherry brandy
1 T vanilla
30 sweet cherries

Preheat oven to 400. Spray with Pam with flour. Melt butter. Whisk together flour, ground almonds (or hazelnuts), sugar, and salt in a bowl. Beat egg whites in a seperate bowl, and whisk until fluffy with an electric mixer. Stir in cherry brandy and vanilla. Pour in butter, and whisk to combine. Then combine the wet mixture to the dry and let stand for 20 minutes. Use a mini ice cream scoop to pour batter into each muffin tin, filling about half way. Push a cherry into each, keeping the stem up. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean and cakes are golden brown, 12 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes. Run a knife around edges to loosen, and unmold. Cakes can be frozen or stored in airtight containers at room temperature overnight.

It’s not summer without enjoying the many varieties of tomatoes the markets have to offer. We need our lycopene! No other fruit or vegetable has the concentration of lycopene as the tomato. There are more health benefits eating a tomato than you can imagine: preventing cancer, heart disease as well as high cholesterol.
Ashley’s Summer Tomato Pasta:
8-10 roma tomatoes (peeled and seeded)
1 lb farfalle (butterfly in Italian) pasta
Fresh grated black pepper
4 cloves minced garlic
1 C chopped basil
2 t mint
2 t salt
1 t red pepper flakes
½ C extra virgin olive oil
½ fresh parmesan
1 C fontina cheese (diced)
½ fresh mozzarella (torn)
1 C kalamata olives

Peel, seed, and chop tomatoes. Mix ingredients and let sit at least 2/3 hours or overnight. Boil pasta. Add cheeses and tomato mixture while warm. Top with grated Parmesan.

Photo: Ravello, Italy overlooking lemons galore!

You know the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” Well, I think that’s because lemons are known to lift your spirits. Maybe it’s the color yellow, or that the smell is rejuvenating and calming. Whatever the reason, it’s always nice to have an abundance of lemons in your kitchen. I’m crazy about meyer lemons and like to make lemoncello from them. When in Ravello, Italy my husband and I had never seen so many lemons before. Miles and miles of gorgeous yellow that smelled heavenly. I suggest a summer spritzer of lemoncello, Pellegrino, and perhaps some chocolate mint.When in Italy, one of our favorite things to eat is linguine and clams. It has such a delicate flavor and adding lemon makes it fresh. My husband and I like to make this one together. He grew up in Rhode Island where he used to hand pick little neck clams right by his house. Can you imagine growing up in Rhode Island and having clam bakes?!?

Derek’s Linguine with Clams
1 lb spaghetti
½ C extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 lb little neck clams, scrubbed
½ C dry white wine
½ C chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ salt
½ pepper
2 T butter
1 T fresh lemon juice
Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt (a lot). Add linguine and cook until al dente. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium high and add shallots and sauté until soft (about 3 minutes). Then add garlic and sauté until golden. Add clams, wine, lemon juice, ¼ of the parsley, and salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until most of the clams have opened, about six minutes. It is important that you discard any clams that do not open. Whisk in butter to thicken the sauce. Drain pasta (save about 1/3 cup for the sauce. Toss pasta with clam mixture and add reserved pasta water to moisten. Sprinkle with lemon zest and garnish with remaining parsley. Serve immediately.
Marcel Proust said, “The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment…” Now is the time to reap the benefits of summer.

Knitting cookies, baking sweaters


The happiest people are those who do things for others. Just put a bit of yourself in a homemade gift. Making something, anything, is one of the very best ways to show your love for family and friends. Children love to do for others if given the opportunity.

I don’t knit, but I appreciate the love that goes into the creation just like baking. I think knitting and baking are similar in the way that both take concentration in putting it all together, but there’s also something very therapeutic and meditative about each process.

I’ve always heard people who practice yoga are some of the happiest people on earth. I think it’s that quiet meditation found in yoga, but it can be found in other activities like baking and knitting, too. It’s that pure creative process that gives off an inner peace. I find that same peace when my hand touches the ballet bar for plies, practicing Pilates and hearing just the sound of my breath, and again when I’m baking and making the house smell good. What makes knitting and baking different from other activities is that it’s a gift. You are creating for someone else, something made from love.

Baking is a great way to get the kids involved in the kitchen and they get to help with a gift for someone they care about. Children can be taught to knit, too. I remember my grandmother teaching me something simple; I made headbands in all different colors for my family. I see knitting and baking as a great activity for children because it can help with fine motor skills.

My grandmother knitted sweaters, Christmas stockings, and blankets for all the grandchildren. They are all little treasures to our family. What better time to think of knitting than with new babies and holiday gifts. I was very lucky to have my friend from ballet knit a baby blanket for my daughter and my friend’s mother from Austria knit a baby sweater for my son. The feel of the blanket and sweater is plush and soft. You can see and sense the work that goes into knitting.

It seems like knitting was becoming a lost art for a while. A knitted gift has such a long lifespan that continued appreciation for them far exceeds feelings for anything “store-bought.” I think of my little red and green stop and go mittens my grandmother made for me that my children now wear. It’s like they are wearing hugs on each hand.

Don’t have a granny or friend who can knit you something? There are websites that let you pick out your own granny to knit a hat or scarf. When you look at the grannies’ faces you can tell the result will make you smile. How could you not love something someone made for you? You may not just see grannies knitting anymore now that Kate Hudson has made knitting hip and young people have taken it up again. There are many books and magazines that have made knitting chic and not just for babies. There was a gorgeous hat Carrie Bradshaw wore in Sex and the City when she was in Paris. I would love to make something like that someday.

Where I am in my life, working with small children, I can’t bring myself to add a “new” activity like knitting right now. If there were only eight days a week, ah the things I would do. I have to pick what to do with my windows and what makes me a happy person is doing ballet and baking. That’s what I have time for now. One day I’ll make room for learning how to knit, until then I will appreciate what others can do.

Click on these links for more knitting information:

Please enjoy a family favorite that my mother, daughter, and I love to bake during the holidays.

Spiced Cardamom Cookies
5 ¾ C flour
1t baking soda
1T salt
1T ground cardamom
1t ground allspice
¼ t ground pepper
¼ ground cloves
8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 C dark brown sugar
½ C sugar
½ C dark corn syrup
¼ C water
¼ C heavy cream
1 large egg
2 t vanilla

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cardamom, allspice, pepper, and cloves in a large bowl. Place butter in a mixer bowl. Bring sugars, corn syrup, and water to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour hot sugar mixture over butter, and then beat on low speed until combined. Beat cream egg, and vanilla in a bowl, then add to butter mixture, Beat on medium speed until well combined. Reduce speed to low, and add flour mixture, beating until just incorporated. Divide dough into thirds, and flatten each into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 350. Roll out 1 disk between lightly floured parchment to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut out shapes with holiday cookie cutters. Spacing them1 inch apart on cookie sheet. Bake cookies until edges are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. If small start checking after 8 minutes.