I have many fond memories of growing up in New Jersey.
Now, before you begin to trash-talk the Garden State (believe me, I’ve heard it all), let me be perfectly clear: We lived in one of the gorgeous parts of New Jersey, in a little town called Changewater. I would even have to say that it could have been called a hamlet, because I recall few homes, loads of open spaces and plenty of trees to climb.
You know how as you get older your mind sometimes plays tricks on you? Songs of the past sing loud in your head. Feelings of those first loves and losses seem to creep in when you see something vaguely familiar. A certain smell will take you back to that favorite meal at your family’s dinner table. I guess it’s called nostalgia. And, as I approach my 57th birthday, being born in the same year (1957), I find myself thinking back about my life much more these days — reminiscing about the “good old days.”
Images of living and playing in rural New Jersey still flicker in my head. To this little girl, the old pillars of a railroad track that used to across the Musconetcong River near the old graphite factory were fascinating and beautiful. I loved walking across the little one-way bridge with my brothers, Tim and Jeff, to the little general store that sold penny candy just up from those towering stone pillars.
We lived in an old stone house that was built in 1710 that had an old wine cellar built into the hill literally feet behind our house. Every Sunday, my folks would invite their friends over to play guitar and sing folk songs. During the colder months, Dad would light a fire in the tremendous fireplace with the huge brown wooden hearth that matched the beams in the living room’s ceilings. I would crawl up on the window sill that literally engulfed me (I think it was 2 feet deep) and just watch all these neat folks strum and sing to the likes of Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and, of course, Peter, Paul and Mary. Simon and Garfunkel would come about a little later in the time line.
I remember, vividly, the time my mom tried to cut my long hair that was always in my face under a baseball cap. She had threatened to do so if I didn’t pay more attention to brushing my locks. It was early one Sunday morning. She took out her kitchen shears and said something like: “Let’s give you a pixie, Mandy.” She didn’t get far until she abruptly stopped, put down the scissors and started to cry. More like an embarrassing whimper. I remember how she collected herself and walked over to the olive rotary phone, dialed our local beautician and requested that she open her salon and fix her botched job. Her friend did, and I have never had long hair since, although I wear a hat to this day. (The morning wasn’t a complete disaster; it turned out great, with Mom and me baking chocolate chip cookies, during which I kept running to the bathroom mirror to look at my new hairdo!)
My parents were fabulous cooks, and I have tried many times to replicate my favorite dishes they concocted together as they sipped on a gin and tonic with lime, talking about their respective days and what was in store for the next. I loved watching their teamwork — they had so much chemistry. From Mom’s shepherd’s pie with ground lamb to Dad’s stir-fried dishes, I lived a good culinary life. But the gift of cooking has never been my thing. Quite simply, I am terrible in the kitchen.
Except, I can make a mean chili and an awesome fruit compote dessert with a crumbled topping. The chili is my own concoction. It’s funny: During the winter months I make a big crock-pot full for Chef Phoebe and me. (She loves it.)
The dessert is a variation of my Granny’s dish she used to make at her home and bring over to Changewater whenever Mom made pork chops — usually on the menu in the winter months at our household. I loved Granny’s curried fruit compote and, often, would have seconds and thirds. It was a warm baked dish of a plethora of fruit: apples, grapes, peaches, pineapple, pears and apricots. She would toss the fruit with a burnt orange powder (that I later learned was curry), brown and white sugars and her secret ingredient — an ingredient so secret that it baffles me to this day, for she refused to spill the beans. Lastly came pats of butter placed randomly on top of the mixture, and into the oven it would go.
I just loved this side dish. It complemented Mom’s pork chops and green beans with sautéed pecans!
So how does all this fit in at The Paddle? Well, a couple years back, I found myself a bit melancholy about the fall season. My mom, who passed away at age 44 due to lung cancer, loved the season, and I often would come home from elementary school to her strumming her old Martin guitar to the classic ballad “Try to Remember.” She had a lovely voice and a simple but effective way of picking her guitar. I was really missing her one day at our restaurant, so I announced to Chef Phoebe that I wanted to make something special.
I told her I certainly wasn’t going to try my hand at any serious culinary creation but wanted to attempt a dessert — for our Paddle crew, I added. So I made my Granny’s curried fruit compote as best I could recall (remember, it had been years and years), adding a few extra fruits, and topped it with a walnut butter crumble. When our staff arrived, I gave them all a sample, served over Island Homemade vanilla ice cream, and they devoured their desserts.
I was on cloud nine, beaming from ear to ear.
And you know what? Chef Phoebe suggested we serve it that evening for a special dessert and, lo and behold, it was a hit. Who would’ve thought?
Now, I make the dessert every fall to honor my granny, Augusta; to remember my mother, Mercy; and to embrace my autumnal blues.
Mandy Hotchkiss and Phoebe Bright are co-owners of the Blue Paddle Bistro in South Hero.
The Paddle Curried Fruit Crisp
2 cups pears (cut in large chunks)
2 cups peaches (cut in large chunks)
2 cups blueberries (whole)
2 cups pineapple (cut in large chunks)
2 cups mandarin oranges (whole)
2 cups green grapes (cut in half)
2 cups red grapes (cut in half)
2 cups black grapes (cut in half)
4 apples (peeled and sliced)
¾ cups brown sugar
¾ cups granulated sugar
2-3 tablespoons curry (depending upon your love of curry)
Mix all ingredients well; fill deep baking dish; top randomly with butter pats to cover the fruit.
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups chopped walnuts
2 cups granola
10 tablespoons butter (cut in small chunks)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Mix well until butter is well-blended with all the ingredients; spread topping evenly over filling.
Bake at 375 degrees for 60 minutes minutes or until bubbly and golden brown.
Serve over vanilla ice cream!