Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious and Healthy

glass bowl filled with cranberry compote

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It’s also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line—the checkout lane—with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be that person who holds up the grocery line.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to confess I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Nutritional Superfood

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

… And Pancake Topping!

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe adapted from the Cranberry Orange Compote in “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I have in the past split the difference and used half sugar, half Splenda. These days I’d probably go with half sugar, half stevia.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup water
1/2 cup granular sugar substitute OR 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

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Cooking Up a Major Mess of Collard Greens

Over the weekend I took advantage of a sunny and unscheduled Saturday afternoon and did what I should do every week, which is go to a nearby farmers market to stock up on fresh vegetables. I went without a list, hoping I would find something there to inspire meals for the next few days. This is the ideal, cheffy way to do it, but recent weeks have been so busy that I’ve been making grocery lists based on a few favorite quick-and-easy meals, grabbing the ingredients from the grocery store and bypassing the farmers market altogether.

Strolling through the familiar, busy aisles in the farmers market section of the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market, I was reminded why it’s worth going a bit out of my way to shop there for produce. While vendors at this market do ship in some foreign items, in case you just have to have asparagus in November, there is also a nice variety of ever-changing local, seasonal produce. Though I’ll often check the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “What’s in Season Now” shopping list before I go, there are usually some surprises. This week, it was a handwritten sign touting locally grown collard greens.

The collard greens were piled high, still on their stalks, tied together in bundles the size of shrubs. I pointed out to the vendor that I live with a Northerner and a 6-year-old, so it was likely that only one out of three family members would eat collards, but she was apparently not going to take pity on me and break up a bunch. They cook way down, she pointed out. I knew that, but cooking down three truckloads of greens into one truckload is still a truckload of greens. I have storage issues.

But I really wanted those collard greens. I’d just read in a story by Elizabeth Brown, M.S., R.D., in the November issue of Oxygen magazine that they are the top leafy green when it comes to lowering cholesterol, a particular concern in our family. They’re also known cancer fighters and are rich in the B vitamin folate, which supports heart health. It has also been a while since I’d challenged my husband to try a new vegetable. It would be a challenge for me, too, since I’d never tried to cook collards before. The vendor put them in a large plastic bag (they were too big to fit in my reusable bag) and I was on my way to cookin’ up a mess of greens.

cooked collard greens with bacon on a red plate with apples in the background

Collard greens are a nutritional powerhouse. Find them at farmers markets to enjoy now, and freeze some for later.

Oxygen had offered a recipe for Collard Greens with Root Veggies and Salmon, a “clean eating” way to include some of the greens in a healthy diet by steaming them in parchment with the fish and vegetables. But their recipe called for only 6 leaves and I had at least 10 times that. Besides, having grown up eating greens in Arkansas, my natural instincts were telling me there should be pork involved, and my preference was bacon.

A quick search online led me to a recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon at SimplyRecipes.com. Scanning the ingredient list, I knew I had a winner: bacon, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar and, for my husband, a little hot sauce. Another plus was that the recipe called for simmering the greens in a skillet with the other ingredients just until wilted rather than stewing them for hours. We’re used to eating a lot of steamed and sauteed vegetables and appreciate a little more crunch. In the case of collards, this turned out to be more of a nice chewiness.

If you’d like a vegetarian option, this recipe for Collards Braised in Red Wine, adapted from chef Michael Lomonako, appeared in the Mark Bittman‘s Diner’s Journal in the New York Times. Using a similar technique, it contains olive oil rather than bacon fat, and red wine instead of apple cider vinegar. I plan to try this one next.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d be dealing with, so I decided to tackle the collards as soon as I got home rather than wait until dinnertime. This turned out to be a good plan. After removing the leaves from the stems and washing them, I had enough leaves piled on my kitchen counter to fill a large trash bag. This was an interesting situation. I decided to go ahead and cook the recipe, which would probably cook down a third of the greens. I didn’t, however, have enough ingredients on hand to cook three batches.

I noticed when I sliced the greens into strips for the recipe they took up much less space, so I decided to slice them all into strips. Could I freeze them? Yes, it turns out, you can freeze fresh collards after blanching them first. Here’s how:

The recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon turned out to be delicious. One bite and I was suddenly transported back to my mother’s kitchen, watching her stir a big pot of greens on the stove. To go with them, I decided to make whole-wheat-panko-crusted catfish and sweet potato fries. Now, I am a Southern girl, so I know the catfish should have been coated in seasoned cornmeal and fried, and there should have been cornbread or at least  hush puppies with those greens, but I’m a health-conscious Southern girl and am married to a guy who really loves sweet potato fries. Life is full of compromises. However, though we may have compromised on tradition, we didn’t miss a thing when it came to taste.

Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

wedcake10001

Judging by this image from “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating,” less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your overly competitive mommy!”

Wilton doll cake circa 1954

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and up to armpits of scary doll with obscene amounts of buttercream.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds—they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

clowncake20001

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections—a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.

SeaWorld shark dive not so scary

 “Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…” — Quint, “Jaws”

Laurie Sterbens in the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando

This photo was taken by a SeaWorld Orlando employee from inside the Sharks Grill Restaurant during my Sharks Deep Dive in 2006. In the cage behind the flashed-out reef sharks, I'm the headless black smudge wearing a white helmet on the left.

Commercials on Discovery Channel this week are putting a toothy spin on an old Christmas song by touting Shark Week as “the most wonderful time of the year.” I love Christmas, but I have to admit that I really do look forward to Shark Week all year long.

Coincidentally, it was a Christmas gift that led me to my closest encounter with sharks so far. My husband, Scott, presented me with a gift certificate for the Sharks Deep Dive at SeaWorld Orlando. With the wrong kind of husband, this kind of gift might send you through the house looking for new insurance policies, but Scott is a good guy who just accepts the fact that he has chosen to spend his life with a serious shark geek.

I’ve always loved sharks despite spending most of my life in landlocked Arkansas. Oddly, my career path in newspapers led me to Daytona Beach, Fla., area, which you may have heard described as Shark Bite Capital of the World. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that this could be either a gift from God or a clear sign that I am hurtling toward some bloody underwater destiny.

Actually, this Shark Bite Capital of the World business is a lot of nonsense. As big a fan as I am of Shark Week, it’s a little irritating to see an area hyped as super-dangerous when the truth is a lot of “attacks” are because an inlet that is a nursery for baby sharks is also a popular surf spot. Juvenile sharks mistake surfers’ feet for fish, which sometimes results in a bite wound that might get a bandage but doesn’t keep the surfers out of the water for long.

There have been more serious attacks in the past, of course, but honestly, I see a lot of tourists doing things that increase their risk — swimming in the early morning or evening, getting in water full of baitfish, swimming out too far. Years ago, before I lived in Florida, I visited Fort Walton Beach with a friend and she remarked one day, “I don’t go out past the sandbar. That’s where the big fish swim.” That stuck in my mind as a sensible policy.

Shark Soup by Laurie Sterbens for the Daytona Beach News-Journal

I wrote about my shark dive experience for The Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2006. Illustration by Marianne Koch.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve never even seen a shark here. Thus the desire to get into the tank at SeaWorld, where their Sharks Deep Dive was my best chance for seeing sharks close-up without having a scuba certification.

Despite having never been in the water with live sharks, my many years of shark geekdom and Discovery Channel addiction had left me slightly jaded. Aquariums are always full of nurse sharks, which seem like big catfish. (Although I’ve been watching a lot of “River Monsters” and I’m not sure I’d be all that comfortable in the water with a 10-foot catfish, either.) Another aquarium favorite is the sand tiger, which has a mouthful of menacing-looking teeth but seems kind of slow and guppylike to me.

I checked the International Shark Attack file before my dive and learned that the sand tiger was credited with 76 attacks on humans, 30 unprovoked and two fatal, between 1580 and 2005 and that the nurse shark was credited with 47 attacks — 10 unprovoked and none fatal. However, it was noted that shark attack figures are skewed to easily identifiable species, meaning that lesser-known sharks could be going around biting people and letting sand tigers take the blame. So, guppies and catfish or toothy terrors? I’d soon find out.

When I arrived at the Shark Encounter, I was taken into a brief orientation where I learned that the Shark Encounter tank included more than 50 sharks (the website now says 30) of various species, including of course, nurse sharks and sand tigers, but also blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, saw sharks and Australian leopard sharks. Blacktips!, I thought. Now we’re talking! They’re not “Jaws” but they at least had “Open Water” cred.

After the orientation I donned a wetsuit and boots and entered what looked like a kiddie pool, where I was put into a white helmet, kind of a cross between old-fashioned deep-sea diver and Storm Trooper. This would allow me to breathe underwater and communicate with the SeaWorld staff member operating the cage or the staff member going into the cage with me.

I jumped down into the cage and there I was, surrounded by sharks. The cage isn’t like the shark cages you see on TV; the viewing area is clear plastic so you can’t stick your arm out like I probably would have done. The cage is attached to a track across the rear of the tank and slowly moves from one end of the tank to the other and back.

On the floor of the tank in front of me, I could see a tunnel where Scott was waving at me and trying desperately to take a photo with both me and a shark in it while navigating the moving sidewalk and trying not to knock people over. This was so amusing I was momentarily distracted from the sharks and just watched Scott. Later I saw him standing behind the window of Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant, where he was allowed to take photos alongside the SeaWorld photographer. None of the photos turned out that great, as you can see from the one I’ve included in this post. That was the official photo that we purchased.

As the cage moved slowly across the 125-foot tank, a 10-foot sawfish swam up to and over the cage, and large nurse and sand tiger sharks swam near the cage as well. The blacktip reef sharks and blacktips stayed farther away but did venture closer a couple of times, while the whitetip reef sharks napped on the bottom of the tank.

Despite being surrounded by large carnivorous predators, I found watching the gracefully swimming fish while listening to the aquarium sounds to be relaxing. The effect on me was less thrilling wild animal encounter than spa treatment, but that’s a good thing, too.

Gardening Disaster: I Am an Army of One

Earlier this month I posed the question, “Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?” Because it seemed to me that everyone in America suddenly had the natural ability to effortlessly grow bushels of organic fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, I planted two 1×4-foot container gardens and was immediately battling worms, fungus and some unknown kind of squash cancer. Is it really that easy for everyone else, I wondered, or were there other gardening failures out there, shamefully tending backyard brown patches of doom?

Cherry tomatoes by Laurie Sterbens

These fell off into my hand as I was tying up my cherry tomato plants, so they were either ripe or suicidal.

Nope. Apparently I am the only one. I posted on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and the overwhelming response was: … (crickets).

So, a gardening-impaired army of one, I keep fighting. I’m seeing signs that I might eventually beat this crop-failure thing, but I am also puzzled by new bits of agricultural weirdness. And I continue to find pests sneaking around under the leaves.

The other morning I went out to find a small black worm on a tomato plant and promptly flicked him into outer space. I then found a big green caterpillar trying to hide under a leaf. It didn’t look like a giant, evil hornworm; it was more of a cuddly cartoon caterpillar, and my son immediately fell in love with it. It also had much grabbier feet than the black worms, so instead of being flicked into outer space, it was humanely delivered to one of the shrubs in the front yard that I wish something would eat.

Healthy minature bell bepper plant below failed version of same plant, a twig.

Life is a party for this miniature bell pepper plant, which has sprouted a new round of tiny blossoms. Now check out the leafless, emaciated stick just north of it. This was the pepper plant’s identical twin, treated exactly the same way. Crazy plants.

My two cherry tomato plants lost most of their lower leaves to fungus, but the top halves are doing quite well and in fact seemed to grow a foot overnight. I never thought they’d get big enough to have to tie to stakes, but they were beginning to flop over, so I recruited an ornamental trellis from another part of the yard (that I hadn’t gotten around to putting an actual plant on) and tied the plants to it. While I was doing this, four ripe tomatoes fell off into my hands, so I took that to mean they were ripe though they might have just been suicidal. They weren’t quite as red as the storebought cherry tomatoes I had in the kitchen, but they were red enough. In a taste test, they weren’t as sweet as the professional tomatoes, but they tasted fresh and homegrown. I’m going to count this as a success. So far I’ve harvested two miniature bell peppers and four cherry tomatoes, bringing my vegetable cost per unit down to $10!

There was another miniature bell pepper that made it to a beautiful bright orange — and then the plant died. Meanwhile, its identical twin, purchased at the same time from the same store and treated exactly the same way, is growing beautifully and has sprouted a new round of blossoms. Go figure.

The most success I’ve had with anything has been with the marigolds that I planted too many of in hopes of repelling insects, along with one my son grew from a seed in kindergarten. With one failed pepper plant and an ailing squash plant, I began to wonder if the marigolds were crowding out my vegetables. So I moved them into separate containers and stationed them near the other plants so they can still stand guard.

I then moved the squash plant into a squash intensive care unit, which may end up being a squash hospice. It’s been three days and it seems slightly happier, but that could be my overly optimistic imagination.

Speaking of overly optimistic, I’ve just approached my builder neighbor about putting together a couple of raised beds. I may be an army of one, but if I fail I’m going to go out in a blaze of … um, dirt.

A Berry Good Apple Pie

Rustic apple pie with blueberries in a glass pie plate

Fresh blueberries add a seasonal twist to this apple pie.

Though we’re still berry-pie season, yesterday I decided to make an apple pie. I don’t usually start thinking about apple pie until fall, but there were a few contributing factors. I’d been to church that morning and then worked in the garden. Baking a pie would complete my total transformation into Aunt Bea.

There were apples sitting in a bowl on the kitchen table, looking at me plaintively and whining about being ignored. I’d bought them last week as an alternative to all the berries and bananas we’d been eating. I thought I’d eat them as snacks, convert my son to homemade “apple dippers” and my husband could take them to work. As it turns out, apparently I will only eat raw apples in an office setting, my son prefers his apples corporately cut and packaged, and my husband won’t eat them at all as he is a devout bananavore.

My son also has recently had a mild fixation with cinnamon and loves to help me cook, so I thought this would be a fun Sunday-afternoon project for us. He cheerfully abandoned me, however, when the neighbors offered to take him fishing, so I was left to bake on my own, Aunt Bea minus Opie.

I’ve been making pretty much the same apple pie forever, though I’ve tweaked the recipe here and there. It’s based on an old Martha Stewart recipe for “Old-Fashioned Bottom-Crust Apple Pie.” How old? It appeared in “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook” by Robin Leach, released in 1992. This was one of my first cookbooks and I’m amazed I still have it. Most of the couples featured have since divorced.

Anyway, it’s a good pie, and quick and simple to make. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, using whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose. Martha’s version called for serving with a dusting of powdered sugar and topping with whipped cream. I skipped that. The original recipe calls for a pinch of mace, which I never seem to have in my cabinet so it never gets in the pie. I also switched up the procedural order a bit to accommodate my slightly obsessive-compulsive desire to have the sugar and spices mixed together thoroughly and evenly before putting them into the pie.

I added a half cup of blueberries because we’ve been eating blueberries in everything lately. It made the pie filling a little juicier, and it was perfect served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Apple-Blueberry Pie

Crust:
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup whole grain white flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 teaspoons ice water
Filling:
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch ground nutmeg
3-4 tart apples (such as Granny Smith), peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced into 5-6 pieces
Vanilla ice cream
Combine the butter, flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Gradually add the ice water until the dough forms a solid mass.
Transfer the dough to a floured surface. Roll into a ball, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl and stir to blend. Roll dough to a circle approximately 12 inches in diameter and place in an 8-inch pie plate. Fill the crust with half the apples, half the blueberries and sprinkle with half the sugar mixture. Repeat with remaining fruit and sugar mixture. Dot with butter. Fold pastry edges over fruit.
Bake for 45 minutes, until the filling is bubbly and the crust is golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

The Picnic Backpack: Blue Spring State Park

For the first five summers of my son’s life, summer wasn’t much different from the rest of the year. He was dropped off by his father or me at daycare, preschool and then kindergarten for most of the year, and in the summer he was dropped off someplace else; a day camp or daycare.

This year was different. Mommy got downsized. So, while pondering options for a future outside of the downsizing-prone newspaper business, I decided to take full advantage of what could be a one-time opportunity for a summer at home with my son, now 6.

Except we’re not home a lot. As often as possible, we like to fill up the picnic backpack and head out for an “adventure.” Last week we decided to have our picnic lunch at Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, Fla. I’d been to the park twice before, but both times were to see the manatees that spend the winter in the 72-degree spring run. I’d never been to the park in the summer, and snorkeling in the crystal-clear water with some of the fish I’d seen there previously sounded like fun. Trevor had recently learned how to use his new mask, snorkel and fins, so I hoped he’d join me.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

I snapped this view of the spring run at Blue Spring State Park during our recent summer visit.

We arrived at the park just before lunchtime and it was already filled with families picnicing, swimming, canoeing and floating. We managed to find a picnic table, at Trevor’s request, near the playground, and unpacked our lunch. Trevor devoured his peanut butter and jelly sandwich as quickly as possible and made a new friend on the swings, giving me an opportunity to enjoy my salad slowly and study the map of the park to come up with a plan.

I ruled out canoeing since I’d be doing all the paddling, and Trevor isn’t a kayaker yet. Scenic boat tours on the St. John’s River were available, but we were in budget mode. Though the park’s website listed the short, boarded nature walk as the park’s hiking option, there is also a 4-mile half loop that begins at the main parking lot and ends at a primitive campsite. Hikers have to return by the same route, meaning I could end up having to carry a 50-pound kid for 6 to 8 miles. If that primitive campsite had a real fountain of youth, maybe. Otherwise, we’d pass on the hiking trail. (Incidentally, this trail isn’t mentioned on the park website but is on the map provided by the ranger station.)

Trevor was ready to swim, but a walk-through of the swimming area revealed that the water was over his head and there was no shallow area near the bank where he could play. Our solution: We rented a small inner tube ($5 the first hour) and I donned a mask, snorkel and fins and pulled him up the spring run. The area in front of the swimming platform was noisy and crowded with people jumping into the water and kicking up sand, but we crossed to the other side and soon I was able to point out a couple of gar and a few smaller fish as we made our way toward the mouth of the spring.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A boarded nature walk runs alongside the spring run, from the mouth of Blue Spring to the St. Johns River. This photo was taken during the winter manatee season. In the summer, the boardwalk is filled with swimmers carrying inner tubes.

Fortunately for me, we only made it halfway to the mouth of the spring before Trevor decided it was time to turn around. Floating downstream, as you can imagine, was much easier than going up and the only difficulty was navigating around the other inner tubes and swimmers as we made our way back to the platform. When we got out, Trevor said he wanted to try to get in with his mask and snorkel, but the stairs leading into the water were so crowded with people going in and out that it was impossible for a little guy to get into the water at his own speed, so we gave up and decided to follow the boarded nature walk to the mouth of the spring.

During my winter visits, Blue Spring was peaceful and pristine, with only manatees in the spring run or a couple of scuba divers exploring the bottom of the spring. This time we passed two pairs of divers on the boardwalk, and they were not looking overly cheerful. This could have been partly due to the fact that scuba tanks are heavy and it was a long walk back to the parking lot. But when we got to the spring I could see another reason they may have been dismayed — it was wall-to-wall screaming, splashing swimmers.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A manatee makes its way down the spring run at Blue Spring State Park.

On the way back to the car, we decided to explore the Thursby House, a two-story home built in 1872 by settler Louis Thursby. The house is filled with artifacts and displays that describe the life of the Thursby family, who grew vegetables, raised hogs and caught fish, alligators and other animals in the wilderness surrounding their home. This was about the extent of the information I was able to absorb between answering calls of “Mom! Mom! Look at this!” from every other room in the house, but I was fascinated, imagining what it must have been like to live in such spectacular natural beauty when it was still undiscovered and private.

You have to hand it to Florida State Parks. They’ve done a wonderful job of keeping Blue Spring in a mostly natural and fully beautiful state despite herds of trampling visitors year after year.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

From Nov. 15 to March 1, Blue Spring is closed to swimmers to provide a haven for the West Indian manatee. Park visitors can get a close-up view of the creatures from the steps of the swimming platforms.

I’ll probably visit again in the summer, and maybe will be able to get Trevor all the way up the spring run next time. But if it’s your first visit to Blue Spring, I’d suggest going during the manatee season, Nov. 15 through March 1. Blue Spring is a designated refuge for the West Indian manatee, and swimming, diving and snorkeling aren’t allowed while the manatees are there. This provides a peaceful setting to view the manatees, turtles, numerous fish and even an occasional alligator napping in the Florida sun.

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