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8.30.2005

Five childhood food memories, or the good, the bad, and the ugly

Yes, dear reader, it happened to me too. I’ve been tagged* to write about five food memories from my childhood, and frankly, I can’t resist. Though I’m ambivalent about memes in general—they trigger in me a sort of unspent, pent-up teenage rebellion; I won’t do what you tell me to!—this one presents an all-too-tempting opportunity to revisit a few of the greatest hits, some now thankfully out of rotation, from my family’s kitchen. What follows is a mish-mash of the good, the bad, and the ugly: I’ll let you decide which is which.

1. Bologna Roll-Ups

My mother was staunchly anti-“junk food”: no Cheetos, which she distainfully dubbed “Styrofoam peanuts”; no Hostess Twinkies, except for the occasional pack smuggled in by a kindly babysitter; and no sugared cereals, save for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch I’d filch from my best friend Jennifer’s pantry. Somehow, however, certain anomalous items escaped my mother’s sanctions, most notably Oscar Meyer beef bologna. In fact, I’m quite nearly made of the stuff: in the first several years of my life, I ate enough flabby, pale pink, processed lunch meat to probably permanently alter my cellular makeup. But I’m not talking bologna sandwiches. Most of the time, I asked instead for what my mother called the “bologna roll-up,” a slippery creation she’d herself invented. It consisted of a slab of bologna smeared with Hellman’s mayonnaise, rolled into a thin cigar shape, and eaten out of hand. Though perhaps best described as an experience rather than an edible item, at the time I loved it—fatty, smooth, saltylicious. Really, sometimes mother does know best.

2. My raspberries-and-cream-cheese birthday cake

In 1984, the Oklahoma City Junior League published a cookbook optimistically titled Superlatives. My mother, ever wise, bought a first-edition copy, and sometime thereafter I began celebrating my birthdays with its raspberries-and-cream-cheese layer cake. Among other things, the recipe calls for a box of white cake mix and half a box of raspberry Jello (still in powder form). The cake layers, tall and rosy, were cloaked in a cream cheese frosting dyed carnation pink with the other half of the raspberry Jello powder. Lest you have doubts, let me assure you that it was delicious: sweet, moist, and tangy with berries—or facsimiles thereof. In fact, the recipe was so well-loved—even by our (now dearly departed) dog Sasha, who once ate a still-warm cake layer right off the kitchen counter—that the page is covered with day-glo splatters of dried frosting. Actually, writing this gives me an oddly powerful urge to crack the spine of Superlatives and resurrect the cake in all its pink glory for my birthday next month. Mea culpa.

3. “Breakfast for dinner”

Sometime during her aerobics phase, my mother did a stint on Weight Watchers. Though its meal suggestions were not exactly the stuff of dreams, we stumbled upon one that would stay on our kitchen table long after the diet had gone: steamed spinach topped with an over-easy egg and shredded sharp cheddar cheese. We called it “breakfast for dinner,” and for many years, it was a weekly regular on the household menu. Though today I’d generally opt for sautéed spinach, a poached egg, and a finer cheddar than the orange block we used to buy, when I want an easy dinner, something comforting yet clean, I still make “breakfast.”

4. Beluga caviar in the bathroom

Despite my early love for bologna and items flavored with raspberry Jello powder, I knew a good thing when I ate it. To a large degree, I owe that to my father, who proudly introduced me to beluga caviar well before I even owned a training bra. He’d have it shipped in on special occasions from faraway places, and we’d scoop up the tiny, grey-black eggs with delicate mother-of-pearl spoons. For my parents’ anniversary, there was almost always caviar, and for my mother’s 40th birthday, my father delivered a tin of beluga and a bottle of champagne, both on ice, to their bathroom, where she was dressing to go out for dinner. And I remember several caviar-filled New Year’s Eves spent down the street at the home of family friends the Fretwells, where we’d crowd around the coffee table in the living room to eat caviar with homemade toast points, sieved egg, sour cream, and diced red onions. And then, the deathly expensive fish eggs devoured, their daughter Leslie and I would revert to normal activities, such as hiding in the closet, prank-calling, and pretending to be Harriet the Spy. Needless to say, my New Year’s Eves as an adult haven’t yet been able to measure up.

5. My father’s Saturday lunch

Now, item #5 isn’t something I used to consume myself, but rather a memory of a ritual that took place in our kitchen nearly every Saturday morning: my father’s post-garage-sale lunch. Without fail, it featured two ingredients: eggs and beer. Often it was an omelet, made in a heavy pan with a blue rubber handle and filled with (too much) sharp cheddar cheese, feta, or sautéed mushrooms. If it wasn’t an omelet, it was egg salad, a chunky improvised mixture of hard-boiled eggs, (too much) mayonnaise, diced celery, curry powder, salt, and pepper, mashed together in a red-and-white enamel bowl. On the side, he’d toast an English muffin or a slice of whatever bread happened to lurk by the toaster, and he’d wash it all down with a foamy ale, sipped from a thick stem glass with grapes and grapevines in relief around its sides. I can still picture him sitting there at the table, reading The Daily Oklahoman or a copy of The New Yorker, his beer glass ringing against the marble-topped table each time he set it down. I’m not sure why I haven’t tried to recreate the scene myself, here at my steel-topped table in Seattle, but something tells me it’s only a matter of time.


*Thanks, Kate, for offering the incentive to take this proverbial trip down memory lane.

8.25.2005

“…days that are the good flesh continuing”...on through to dessert

I am firmly of the belief that a meal has not officially ended until one has eaten something sweet. I’m not the alone, certainly, in holding this belief, and in fact, I’d venture that it’s more widely and faithfully subscribed to than many major religions. Now, dessert can take many shapes—for the restrained, a piece of ripe fruit; for the refined, a glass of port; for me on an average night, well, graham crackers dunked in milk and a few squares of dark chocolate—but the sweet tooth must be fed. So, knowing this much, you don’t really think I’d have left the lamb roast without a swipe at the dessert table, do you?

I didn’t think so.
The theme of the day may have been meat, but truth be told, I kept a closer eye on the sweets.

Prior to last year’s lamb roast, I’d never been a great admirer of baklava—so often dry, sticky, cloyingly sweet—but the Knight family’s rendition is another thing entirely.


Preparing for the inevitable raid that occurs when it hits the table, this year they’d made four pans of the stuff, half walnuts and half almonds, sweet with cloves and cinnamon, and soaked in a syrup that ran down my fingers when I took a bite.



Their neighbor Elfie, my fantasy of a Swiss grandmother made real, arrived with a tray of plum pudding, a thin, custard-topped cake dotted with soft, sweet-tart Italian plums, and a platter of puff-pastry twists for dipping into a deep glass bowl of peach compote.

Nicho’s mother Martha arrived with a small, square basket with a flip-back top—a rustic cake box, if you will—from which she pulled one of her ethereally flaky pies, dark and jammy with blackberries from the backyard, and a delicious threat to a white tablecloth.


And of course, there were also cookies, cobblers, and a linzer tart from Macrina Bakery, but I selfishly saved room for my own contribution, a few creamy-crackly, melty mouthfuls of chocolate masquerading under the humble name “brownie.”

Be not fooled, dear reader: this is nobody’s Betty Crocker box recipe, nobody’s innocent kindergarten snack-time fare. With two sticks of butter and six ounces of chocolate for an 8-inch pan, it’s not the sort of thing you want to be left alone with. But there’s safety in numbers, so thank goodness for lamb roasts, for friends that become family and entire families that become friends, for paper plates sturdy enough to stand up to a table’s worth of sweets.


The Archetypal Brownie,
or, as the book calls them, Best-Ever Brownies
Adapted slightly from Baking with Julia; contributing baker: Rick Katz

My father gave me Baking with Julia for my “un-birthday,” as he inscribed it, in 1997. It lives on my kitchen counter with my favorite go-to cookbooks, and it’s the one I reach for, without fail, when I think brownies.

These dark, deeply chocolatey, oozy things aren’t your typical specimens: they’re what brownies on sad party tables everywhere aspire to be. All too often, “brownies” are just so-so: oddly black, dry around the edges, super-sweet, or—the horror!—spongy, like cake. Not these: they’re crackly on top with a soft, gooey interior, fudgy and rich, buttery and serious and very, very sophisticated. If you’re of the cakey-brownie persuasion, these aren’t for you. But if you like a brownie that melts on your tongue with a flood of buttery chocolate, read on.

1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter
4 ounces best-quality unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs

Center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt; set aside.

Melt the butter and the chocolate together in the top of a double boiler over—but not touching—simmering water (or in a metal bowl over a saucepan of simmering water), stirring frequently. When the chocolate and butter are both melted and smooth, add 1 cup of the sugar to the mixture, and stir it for 30 seconds; then remove the mixture from the heat, and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the mixture into a large bowl.

Put the remaining 1 cup sugar and the eggs into a medium bowl, and whisk by hand to combine. Little by little, pour half of the sugar and eggs into the chocolate mixture, stirring gently but constantly with a rubber spatula so that the eggs don’t scramble from the heat. Beat the remaining sugar and eggs on medium speed until they are thick, pale, and doubled in volume, about 3 minutes. Using the rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped eggs and sugar into the chocolate mixture. When the eggs are almost completely incorporated, gently fold in the dry ingredients.

Pour and scrape the batter into an unbuttered 8-inch square pan (I’ve found a heavy nonstick metal brownie pan to be ideal, although the original recipe recommends ceramic or glass). Bake the brownies for 25-28 minutes, during which time they will rise a bit and the top will turn dry and a bit crackly. After 23 minutes, stick a knife or toothpick into the center to see how they are progressing. They should be just barely set—not too raw, but still fairly gooey (mine generally take the full 28 minutes, if not a touch more). Cool the brownies in the pan on a rack. When they’re completely cool, cut them into rectangular bars to serve.

Note: These brownies will keep, at room temperature or refrigerated, for 2-3 days. They also freeze beautifully, although they never freeze solid—a bonus (or horrible danger) if you, like me, are known to consider eating them straight from the freezer.

Yield: 18 fantastically rich brownies

8.22.2005

"...days that are the good flesh continuing."

Seattle may spend eight months out of twelve under cloudy skies, but come summer, it puts on its sunscreen and pulls out all the stops. There are countless concerts and block parties and festivals here and there, including the seemingly never-ending SeaFair, with its deafening air shows, hydroplane races, and—because every port city needs a few—professional pirates. That said, however, the only local summer event that gets a dedicated slot on my calendar is—all apologies, dear reader—invitation-only. But if you drive around a certain part of western Washington on a certain Sunday and happen to spot a homemade sign featuring a cotton-ball-clad lamb, well, follow the arrow, and you’ll too find yourself at the Knight family lamb roast.

It was a good thing that Kate and I had recently relieved her family’s garden of some of its burden, because it would soon fill again with an onslaught of edibles, this time including a homegrown lamb on a spit, platters full of dolmas, four pans of baklava, three coolers of beer, two bottles of ouzo, and a few dozen assorted friends and family.

I arrived a little after one with an armload of my own, balancing a tourte de brandade and two plates of brownies*. It was still quiet—no one would arrive until after three—and walking in from the street felt like descending into another element, with the garden spilling out at my side, chickens clucking somewhere around the corner, and at the end of the driveway, the house tucked deep under the trees. The yard was in full bloom, with tomatoes of every shape and size, lettuces, Romano beans, herbs, potatoes, corn, and carrots, not to mention a gnarly swath of raspberry bushes, beds of dahlias and daisies, and pear, plum, and apple trees. And between a trellis of beans and the garage, the lamb, aptly dubbed “Briquette,” spun quietly over the coals in time to twangy country music playing from a nearby radio.

With the smell of so much meat in the air, it wouldn’t be quiet for long. Guests trickled in, bearing swim suits and bowls full of food, and while Briquette bronzed, they worked up an appetite in the lake, splashing around on surfboards and in sailboats. Meanwhile, I whet my own with a few sips of ouzo—and began planting the seeds for a slow but steady movement toward the groaning buffet tables.
There, under the shade by the side of the house, bowls of pasta salad jostled with pickled vegetables, which butted up against roasted beets with fresh herbs, noodles, heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, hummus, olives, Vietnamese pancakes filled with ground meat and bean sprouts, baskets full of litchis, pies, plum puddings, compotes, and cookies. And then, of course, there was the lamb, rich and earthy and ringed with fat from seven months of grazing on lush local grass.


We dispersed ourselves around the yard, sitting on the ground or leaning here and there, balancing paper plates on our knees and fending off the chickens, who’d been, much to their delight, liberated from the hen house to root in the loose dirt of the garden. And there was more ouzo, and soon that happy stupor that follows anticipation. There’s a strange, delicious limbo zone one enters after this kind of feasting, when the mind and the senses are both quieted and sharpened, slow but nimble.

Down by the water, Kate slid the sailboat out for one more go before nightfall, and before anyone could wake to the end of summer, I snuck away with my dirty plates, my skin still warm from the sun.

*Recipe forthcoming.

[And special thanks to Robert Hass for the cribbed title of this post, which comes from one of my favorite poems, "Meditation at Lagunitas."]



Tourte de Brandade, or Salt Cod Tart
Adapted from Saveur


When I announced that I’d be bringing a Provençal salt cod tart, Kate responded with resounding approval—that’s my girl!—even though she’d never tasted brandade, or a mousse of salt cod, olive oil, garlic, and cream. True, it may sound a bit odd—off-putting, even—but once tasted, you won’t think twice. Brandade is rich, garlicky stuff, creamy and savory, the flavor of the cod having been tempered and soothed by salting and drying. The mousse is spread atop a layer of slow-simmered tomato sauce inside a puff-pastry shell, and when baked, it puffs lightly and turns a gorgeous shade of gold. Best served when still warm, it is also perfectly delectable at room temperature—terrific picnic, or lamb roast, fare.

1 ½ Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, plus ¾ cup, warm
1 small yellow onion, peeled and minced
3 medium tomatoes, cored and chopped
Leaves of 2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
A pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
¾ lb boneless, skinless dried salt cod, soaked overnight in abundant water, drained, rinsed, and cubed
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 ½ Tbs heavy cream
Salt
3 Tbs crème fraîche
1 large egg
1 sheet puff pastry, such as Dufour

Heat 1 ½ Tbs olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook until soft. Add half the garlic and the tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer the sauce until it is as thick as a paste, about 40-45 minutes. Discard the bay leaf, and set the sauce aside.

While the tomato sauce cooks, bring a medium pot of water to a boil; remove it from the heat, and add the cod. Cover the pot, and let it rest for 7 minutes. Drain the cod into a colander or sieve; then transfer it to a food processor. Add the remaining garlic, and process to combine. With the motor still running, gradually add ¾ cup warm olive oil through the feed tube in the processor lid; then add the cream. Adjust the seasonings with salt. Transfer the mousse to a bowl, and stir in the crème fraîche and the egg. Set it aside.

Put a pizza stone on the middle rack of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll the puff pastry out on a floured surface to a large, 1/16”-thick round. Fit the pastry into a removable bottom tart pan (the original recipe calls for an 11” pan, but I used a 9” with no problems), and trim the edges. Prick the pastry all over with a fork; cover it with plastic wrap; and chill it for 30 minutes.

Remove the tart shell from the fridge, and spread the tomato sauce in a thin but thorough layer over the bottom (you may have some sauce left over); then cover it with the salt cod mixture. Bake the tart on the pizza stone until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Serve warm.

Yield: One 9- to 11-inch tart

8.20.2005

On experimentation, and an unexpected ice cream float

Experimentation is not my strong suit. On the one hand, this means that I’m every D.A.R.E. mom’s dream child, but when it comes to the kitchen, it means that I’m, well, often not so daring.

In my defense, I come by it naturally. Not only was I an oddly fearful kid—you wouldn’t find me within a 10-foot radius of a worm, much less eating one—but I’m also a baker by nature, precise, obedient, and fiercely devoted to my digital scale. Nurture plays in too: my mother taught me from an early age that a recipe should always be followed faithfully the first time through.* You give it an honest try once, and then you can tinker to your heart’s content—if, of course, you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve been known to throw in an extra handful of candied ginger, yes, or substitute blackberries for blue, but generally, I find a deep and dependable satisfaction in following directions.

This concept is a source of perpetual amusement for Brandon, who may have never—had I not come along—completed a recipe without at least a tweaking or two. I’m the one hunched over the cookbook; he’s got his fingers in the pot. I’m reaching for the calculator; he’s sniffing at spice jars. I make a pretty soufflé, damn it, but he can spin tamarind, roasted garlic, and Parmigiano Reggiano into a brilliant Italy-meets-India chutney. If I get a gold star for reading comprehension, he gets detention—and then a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. It’s all well and good, dear reader: we’re a perfect pair and so on and so forth, blah blah blah. But let’s not fool ourselves: deep down, no one really likes a teacher’s pet, including the pet herself, and slavishly following directions only feels sexy if you’re cooking in your underwear.

So I’ve been working on it. With Brandon back in New York, I have plenty of room—roughly three thousand miles’ worth—for honing my experimentation skills. And with less than two weeks to go before my next visit east, I’m happy to report that I’ve made quite a bit of progress. You can well imagine my delight when I called him to report that I’d tried a new cookie recipe—and that I’d tweaked it on the very first go.

Really? What did you change?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, the recipe called for two cups of rolled oats, but instead, I used 1 ½ cups rolled oats and ½ cup quick-cook!” I announced triumphantly. “And I used muscovado sugar instead of regular light brown!”

Needless to say, he’s still chuckling to himself.

But last night, dear reader, I gave the genius reason to be jealous.
It was simple, really. A few weeks ago, we’d picked up a bottle of Black Boss Porter, which had since been languishing in my fridge. A big, dark, roasty beer that coats the tongue with a wash of coffee, caramel, malt, molasses, and maple syrup, it’s delicious—but not exactly a prime dinner companion. So it waited, and I wondered. And then I got thirsty, as I’ve been known to do—for dessert. Running with a vague recollection of something strange I’d once read in a restaurant review, I took down a drinking glass and my trusty spring-loaded ice cream scoop. I stacked three golf-ball-size scoops of vanilla bean ice cream in the glass, popped open the porter, and poured. It fizzed; it foamed; it had all the trappings of a real experiment.


The first spoonful was luscious, like an alcoholic affogato. It was an ice cream float gone guileful, a schoolmarm with a swagger. I dug the spoon in deeper: it was complex, sophisticated, even sultry—but also strangely bitter, peppery, unpleasantly zingy with carbonation. Scooping out the last melting bites of beer-slicked ice cream, I called Brandon to confer—and, of course, to gloat. It was nobody’s unmitigated success, but with a little experimentation, it has potential.

And if I may be so daring, I think the same can be said of this teacher’s pet.


(Not Root-) Beer Float

Fittingly enough, this recipe—or rather, rough formula—needs no real directions. Begin by considering your pairings: you’ll need a dark or amber beer with a full, toasty-sweet flavor, and good-quality ice cream. For this first go, I used a bottle of Black Boss Porter, a Baltic porter from Poland, and Ben and Jerry’s basic organic vanilla—compelling enough, but a little unbalanced. Next time I think I’ll opt for a coffee or espresso ice cream to better complement the beer’s deep coffee flavors. If we’re tinkering and tweaking on the beer end of the equation, I’d recommend trying ice cream floats with any variety of porter or stout—maybe even a toasty amber or Belgian ale—or, for more tender palates, a fruit lambic, such as Lindemans. When it comes to proportions, I found that I liked a high ratio of ice cream to beer—think hot-fudge sundae with beer instead of fudge.

Whatever you do, scoop, pour, and eat. And tweak accordingly.



*Bless you, Mom. Next weekend, wanna get crazy and put the measuring cups down the garbage disposal? Don’t worry; we can buy new ones afterwards.

8.12.2005

On picking, prattling on, and preserving

“Forget our walk; I’ve got a better idea,” Kate announced with a little squeal. “There are blackberries everywhere. Why don’t you come over and we’ll go berry-picking? We’ll be like those hunter-gatherer women in National Geographic, stooped over in the bushes, foraging, chatting—but with clothes! I’ll even lend you a sunhat.”

Some women join quilting circles; others stitch ‘n bitch. Some walk together; some run together; and a few gossip over golf. Others meet for cocktails, or there’s tea and twittering. But as for me, if given the option, I prefer to prattle with fellow females over something a bit more old-school, or rather, primeval. The trappings of modernity are nice, but when the call comes, sign me up for an afternoon of foraging and flitting about the garden with a good girlfriend and a thicket of blackberry bushes to tear at our hands.


So it was that a few days ago I slipped on a pair of dirty jeans, sped fifteen minutes east of Seattle, and joined Kate in laying waste to her parents’ backyard. She greeted me at the door and, being the master of all things fishnets to frump, quickly outfitted me for the task at hand. Offering me an empty plastic yogurt tub, she instructed me to hang it from my neck by a kitchen-twine yoke, and then she led me to the family’s communal hat-rack, where she handed me a floppy blue sun-hat two sizes too small. Needless to say, I was nobody’s centerfold, but minutes later, in the bushes down by the water, telling juicy stories through the leaves, with the sun hot on my back, blackberry juice under my fingernails, and my wrists red and bramble-bitten, I couldn’t have been happier. We dished our way through to the blueberry bushes, pausing only for a quick shriek or two when I nearly fell into a hard-to-see hole, but no matter—I didn’t spill a berry. In fact, there were plenty left for Kate to steal—sneaking them into her bucket in mid-sentence—and for carrying home later and stewing into a silky purple jam.

I suppose we could opt next time for something a bit more dainty, perhaps sans sunscreen, sun-hats, and stains. Tea and scones sounds a lot more tempting, anyway, now that I’ve got a cupboard full of blackberry jam. But something tells me that a few days will find the berry bushes again full and heavy, the green vines dripping with beans, the plums nearly falling from their stems, and the two of us babbling over full buckets.


Italian Family Jam
Adapted from Bruna and Margot


A few years ago, Kate’s older sister Margot spent a year and a half in Italy, where she befriended—and was all but adopted by—a local couple. Aside from finding a good bicycling partner in the husband, she also found a very skilled kitchen companion in his wife Bruna, who offered up this classic recipe for plain-and-simple Italian country jam. Margot has since sent myriad different fruits through its formula—apricots to peaches, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries—all with tooth-achingly good results. On an average weekend morning when the whole family is at home, they’ll go through a good jar of the stuff on toast, waffles, pancakes, or eager fingers.

These days, it seems as though fancy jams are everywhere, with a new herb or spice thrown in every day. I love the idea of so much nuance and complexity, but in all honesty, I don’t often find myself itching to try the stuff. When it comes to jam, I want nothing fancy—just fruit, a squeeze of lemon, and enough sugar to set the jar sparkling. I want a clean, concentrated flavor, the essence of the fruit heightened, undisguised. And luckily, this sort of jam is astoundingly easy to make at home—no fussing with packets of pectin, no cheesecloth, no enormous pots and fears of contamination. Bruna’s method is quick and confidence-inspiring, a process that’s both immensely sensual and appealing practical. The same goes for the finished product. Dress it up or play it down, however you choose: spoon it over homemade ice cream, dot it daintily on a scone, or give it a British accent by layering it into a trifle; pair it with nut butter on homemade bread, fold it into plain yogurt, or hide it inside a cake. But first, call your girlfriends, and gather ye berries while ye may.

1 kg (2.2 pounds) fresh fruit, preferably berries or stone fruits (if using the latter, pit and cut into chunks, and if using peaches or nectarines, peel them as well)
½ kg (1 pound) granulated sugar, or to taste (if fruit is perfectly ripe, you may need a bit less)
Juice of ½ lemon

Combine the fruit, sugar, and lemon juice in a large pot or Dutch oven, and let macerate at room temperature for two hours, stirring occasionally.

While the fruit is resting, prepare the jars. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and wash a half-dozen 8-ounce jam jars (the type with two-part sealable lids: a flat disk and a ring) under hot, soapy water. Place the jars—but not the lids—in the oven. Wash the lids under hot, soapy water, and place them on a clean dish towel to dry. The jars will need to stay in the oven for at least 20 minutes.

Place the pot containing the fruit over medium-high heat, and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil the jam for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. As it cooks, the jam will give off a pale-colored foam that will rise to the surface. Use a wooden spoon to skim off as much of the foam as possible (and save it, if you like; it’s wonderful with plain yogurt). If you leave the foam in the pot, your finished jam will be cloudy.

After 30 minutes, remove the pot from the heat. Using tongs, remove each jar from the oven, and using a ladle to scoop the hot jam from the pot, fill the jars to within ¼ inch of the top. Wipe off the rims of the jars with a clean, dry paper towel to remove any errant drips. Place the lids on top of the jars, and screw them down finger-tight (firmly, but not too tight). A batch of jam should fill anywhere between 4 and 6 jars, depending on the fruit, water content, etc.

Fill a large, deep pot with water, and bring it to a boil; it should be large enough to hold all of the jam jars, and the water will need to be deep enough to reach up to half an inch below their rims, or higher. When the water is boiling, use tongs to carefully place each of the jars, standing upright, in the boiling pot. Boil for 15 minutes; then turn off the heat. Allow to sit for a minute; then remove the jars with the tongs and allow them to cool completely on a dish towel. When they are cool, press each lid lightly to make sure it has sucked down and sealed. If necessary, tighten the lids. Store in a cool, dry place.

Yield: 4-6 8-ounce jars

8.07.2005

Cue the clafoutis

Summer sneaks up on us. It tiptoes in with the first 5:30 sunrise sometime in late spring, and it lies in wait with the green tomatoes, scrappy and promising. It doesn’t make a fuss; there’s no ruckus or fanfare. But slowly—so easy, instinctive, almost imperceptible—it takes over. With the first tentative jump of the thermometer, we slip off our long sleeves, our socks, our boots and pullovers and wool pants. The windows fall open; the blankets throw themselves back; and everything, whether by reason or reflex, warms and awakens. The onset of summer is, to hijack a (completely unrelated) quote by former U.S poet laureate Stanley Kunitz, “like stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from that of the air. You scarcely know, until you feel the undertow tug at you, that you have entered into another element.” Whether by way of a juice-heavy tomato; a flawless spicy-sweet peach; or maybe a black plum, shimmering darkly on a shady table, looking eerily like a sparkly lure at the end of a fishing line—when it comes to summer, we’re all an easy catch.

But between summer and me, it’s not so much a matter of luring and trapping: it’s more a mad embrace, half-hunger, half-hysteria. I may not be the quickest to feel the season’s tug, but when it comes, I throw myself at summer, and shamelessly so. I spit the pits out the window, lick avocado from the knife; I snare corn between my teeth and snag my fingers on the blackberry bush. I hold on tight while I can, because after all, I’m working with a finite deadline: just as quietly as it came, summer will go. It’s a system of catch and release, if you will. And if the calendar is to be believed, the release will come awfully soon.

To make the most of what little time we have, I cue the clafoutis, a classic country-French custard with a texture that straddles soufflé, popover, and flan. Its eggy, lightly sweet base is a perfect catch-all for summer fruits, especially those of the soft, fleshy variety. Whatever fruits you send its way, a clafoutis receives them gracefully, and fifty minutes later, it releases them transformed, bettered—soft, melting, resting lightly in their own sweet-tart juices.


Traditional clafoutis are made with cherries, preferably unpitted, but I’ve been known to veer more apricot, myself, especially when they’re at their rosy peak. That said, if pressed to play favorites, I’d likely fall into the pro-plum camp—at least this week. But the oven is preheated and the fork is on the table, and I won’t let summer sneak away without another clafoutis or two.


Black Plum Clafoutis
Adapted from Christopher Kimball at The New York Daily News

The Daily News version of this recipe calls for blueberries, but you should feel free to substitute any fruit you like, as I have. I’ve been known to use cherries, as per the classic recipe, but I’ve found myself more intrigued by the less strictly traditional: apricots, blackberries, Italian prune plums, or black plums, as I use here. In the fall and winter, thin slices or chunks of apple or pear work nicely, and I’ve heard tell of a prune clafoutis as well, for which the pitted dried fruits are first marinated overnight in armagnac. When it comes to serving, a clafoutis is delicious when still slightly warm from the oven, but I’ll freely admit to eating it straight from the fridge on the second day. It makes a luscious breakfast too, warm or cold.

3 medium black plums, pitted and cut into eight wedges each
3 large eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
A pinch of salt
½ cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
Powdered sugar, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and lightly butter a 9-inch pie dish*. Arrange the plum wedges, skin side down, in a decorative pattern on the bottom of the dish.

Whisk the eggs and sugar in a medium bowl until pale yellow, about 1 minute. Add the milk, vanilla, and salt, and whisk to combine.

Sprinkle the flour over the batter, and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter gently over the plums, trying to disturb them as little as possible (some will float and move around no matter how gentle you are). Bake the clafoutis until puffed and nicely golden around the edges, about 45-50 minutes. Remove the clafoutis from the oven, and allow it to cool for a half hour or so, during which time you’ll see it deflate and settle a bit. Serve it warm or at room temperature, dusted with powdered sugar.

Yield: 6-8 servings

* I used a 9-inch silicone tart mold.

8.04.2005

Better living through slow-roasting

The word “happiness” has many definitions, but I’m quite convinced that if you looked it up in one of those nifty visual dictionaries, what you’d see is a pan of slow-roasted tomatoes. I only exaggerate slightly.


I first tasted these one summer in Oklahoma, when a glut of tomatoes from my parents’ garden sent us running for the cookbook shelf. Searching every index, poring over flashy photographs, and scanning recipes from aspic to ziti, we stumbled upon Molly O’Neill’s A Well-Seasoned Appetite, a sturdy, sensuous book that’s a bit heavy on the prose, a bit thin on the photos, but just right when it comes to tomatoes. For ours, still sun-warm and very sweet, we wanted something simple—no terrines or towers. So, loosely following O'Neill's guidance, we sent sheet pans full of halved tomatoes into a low oven, and six hours later, we retrieved them to find their edges crinkled like thick fabric and their juices concentrated and syrupy. They were fleshy, with veins that rose to the surface under the heat, and when we bit into them, they shot thick vermilion juice onto the tabletop.


They may take six hours to reach fruition, but straight from the oven, a slow-roasted tomato is instant gratification. It’s almost impossible to keep stray fingers out of them; they’re like rubies in fruit form. And though they are delicious plain, their sweet acidity also plays remarkably well with other flavors, especially those dishes at the rich, robust end of the spectrum: a creamy cheese soufflé, maybe, or a plate of trofie al pesto. Paired with fresh chèvre, peppery arugula, and pesto, they make for a luscious, drippy sandwich, and fanned over the top of a burger, they’re ketchup for the adult set. Even the tried-and-tired Caprese salad becomes an entirely new thing with slow-roasted tomatoes in place of raw. Brandon has his sights set on trying them in a pizza sauce, but in the meantime, I love to slice a handful of them into a bowl with slivered basil, capers, sea salt, and splashes of balsamic and olive oil: an improvised sauce for whatever pasta happens to land in the boiling pot. And on nights when the stove is too much to consider, few things make for a happier picnic—on the floor or in the grass—than a hunk of crusty bread, a fat wedge of bleu d’Auvergne, and slow-roasted tomatoes.

With a little foresight, you can arrange to have them always in your fridge, ready and waiting. I’ve never been one to believe, anyway, that happiness can’t be planned.



Slow-Roasted Tomatoes with Sea Salt and Ground Coriander

I’ve played enough with O’Neill’s formula that I think it’s now safe to claim it as my own—and anyway, it’s loose enough to hardly be called a recipe at all. I’ve tried sprinkling various herbs and spices onto the tomatoes; I’ve baked them for four hours sometimes and six hours others*; I’ve roasted 10 one day and 28 the next. I’ve even carried my experimentation into winter—seasonal blasphemy, I know—and with almost summery results. Unlike their more delicate cousins, decent Roma tomatoes can be found almost year-round, and after a few hours in the oven, they make a fine rebuttal to a cold January night. In fact, for this preparation, I now choose almost exclusively Romas, even in the summertime. Dusted with a little salt and ground coriander—the (now not-so-)secret weapon that makes this recipe a keeper—they take on a full, almost winey flavor, and they hold their shape beautifully. Don’t hesitate to roast a lot at a time; they keep well in the fridge, sealed up tight, for several days.


Ripe tomatoes, preferably Roma
Olive oil
Sea salt
Ground coriander

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wash the tomatoes, cut off the stem end, and halve them lengthwise. Pour a bit of olive oil into a small bowl, dip a pastry brush into it, and brush the tomato halves lightly with oil. Place them, skin side down, on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle them with sea salt and ground coriander—about a pinch of each for every four to six tomato halves.

Bake the tomatoes until they shrink to about 1/3 of their original size but are still soft and juicy, 4 to 6 hours. [I usually let mine go for the maximum time.] Remove the baking sheet from the oven, and allow the tomatoes to cool to room temperature. Place them in an airtight container, and store them in the refrigerator.


*If the thought of leaving the oven on for 4-6 hours in the summertime makes you overheat on the spot, consider starting a batch first thing in the morning. By the time the day’s heat kicks into full throttle, they’ll be finished, and so will your oven.

8.01.2005

Trofie al pesto, with drama and a departure

I may be a crybaby, complete with a mortal fear of needles and a dread of loud noises, but I’m nobody’s drama queen. I like to think of myself as remarkably rational, finely calibrated to operate at a nice, even keel. That’s not to say, though, that I don’t like to spice things up every now and then with, say, a little spontaneous weepiness on public transportation, or maybe a good bout of psychosomatic something. For instance, after my graduation from college, I spent the entire three-day drive from San Francisco to Oklahoma City propped stiffly in the front seat, wracked with heartburn, able to think of nothing but the glorious life I was leaving behind and of the certain doom that lurked in the land of my birth, that place of horrifying humidity and 3.2%-alcohol beer. Obviously, I’d developed some rare and deadly new form of acid-reflux disease. I was dying; there was no other possible answer. You can imagine my delight, then, when I found that my heartburn, along with my anxiety, quickly dissolved into a glass of wine and disappeared into the blessedly powerful air-conditioning vents of my childhood bedroom.

So given my uneasy relationship with drama, I wasn’t entirely surprised to notice that, in the hours after Brandon boarded a plane to return to New York after a miraculous five-week West Coast visit, a strange lump formed in my throat. This was no mere soreness; it was physically hard to swallow. How unoriginal of me, I thought, a little disappointed. I could have aimed for a less clichéd psychosomatic ailment, or at least something that wouldn’t hamper my food consumption. What I really needed was a sudden knock from a New Yorker at my door, but short of that, I would settle for another forkful of trofie al pesto, rustic, homemade, pesto-slicked noodles that go down easy, no matter how big the lump in your throat, real or imagined.


The night before, Brandon and I had hovered together over a flour-dusted counter, turning tiny lumps of pasta dough into rough, nubby spirals. It was activity tailor-made for stretching a moment into slow motion, for cold beer in retro Champagne glasses, for saying goodbye to the curly-haired boy standing next to me in his underwear, an improvised outfit for a warm night in a hot apartment. We churned fresh basil into a lush, nutty paste and blanched slender green beans until steamy; then we coaxed the noodles into the boiling pot; and, sitting down at the table, we pulled the plates up under our chins, trapping noodles and beans between the tines of our forks, sighing our way to the bottom of the bowl and through to the other side, where there waited morning, a jet engine, and that strange tightness that settled around my throat.

Never mind the fact that it turned out to be a simple swollen lymph node—a perfectly rational response, you will note, to a dry Seattle summer’s high pollen count. Somewhere between the last bite of trofie and the next ticket to New York, I’m still a certified crybaby.


Handmade Trofie al Pesto
Adapted from Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian*

Trofie, otherwise known as Ligurian gnocchi, might not be the simplest, quickest pasta shape to make—allow plenty of time, preferably with a glass of something alcoholic and a handsome partner—but they certainly are among the loveliest to eat. In all honesty, ours looked nothing like the picture-perfect corkscrews on the pages of the book, but they were beautiful in their own right, delicate, rustic, and with a good, al dente chew.


We tossed them with green beans, which appealingly mimic the pasta’s shape, size, and texture, but skinny asparagus, lightly blanched, would also be delicious. The original recipe also calls for thinly sliced boiled potatoes to be tossed into the finished dish, but for the sake of summery lightness, we left them out. And just for the record, this is the most delicious, well-balanced basil pesto I’ve ever eaten. Until trying this recipe, I’d been a devoted fan of James Beard’s formula, but well, sorry, big guy.

For the pesto:
2 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
2 heaping Tbs pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Coarse salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, tightly packed, plus more for serving

For the trofie:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra to work with
1 tsp salt
Water

For finishing:
½ lb haricots verts or small green beans, trimmed (we may have actually used closer to ¾ lb—it’s hard to refrain from gluttony when it comes to sweet summer beans)

For the pesto, place the basil leaves in a tall, thick, narrow glass. Using a citrus reamer, muddle the leaves until they are dark green and pasty; the total volume should reduce by about half, and they should have released quite a bit of liquid. Set aside.

Place the pine nuts, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment, and blend them to a paste. Add the basil and its juices, drizzle in the oil, and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, and stir in the Parmigiano.

For the trofie, sift the flour and salt together into a mound on a clean, dry surface. Use your hand to make a well in the center; then pour in about ¾ cup water. Using a fork, gradually incorporate flour from the inside edge of the well into the water. As you stir, add another ½ cup water. When the dough becomes too stiff to work with the fork, flour your hands, and knead until the dough is soft and no longer sticky. [You may find that you need a bit more flour; we added about 2 Tbs.] Push the dough to one side, clean your work surface and your hands, then flour both again, and knead dough until very smooth, about 2-3 minutes more. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel, and set it aside for half an hour.

Clean and flour your hands and the surface again. Pinch off a pea- to chickpea-sized piece of dough, and roll it between your palms to form a fat matchstick. Place it on the floured surface. With your palm facing down, turn your hand up to a 45-degree angle, so that the edge of the pinky-finger side of your palm is resting on one end of the matchstick. Gently but firmly, roll the matchstick back toward you to form a thin spiral. Repeat to use all the dough. This will take practice and time, but be patient. Don't worry if the trofie are a bit more like worms than like corkscrews: as long as they are all roughly the same thickness and shape, they will be fine. As the trofie are made, transfer them to a lightly floured parchment- or wax paper-lined baking sheet.

Cook the green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat until tender, about 3-5 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon, and cut them into 2-inch lengths. Transfer them to a large serving bowl.

Cook trofie in the same water over high heat until they float to the surface, 3-4 minutes. Reserve a small cupful of the cooking water, and then drain the trofie into a colander and transfer them to the large bowl with the green beans. Add pesto to taste, and splash on a bit of cooking water to obtain a nice, slippery, lightly sauce-like consistency. Taste for salt, and serve, passing a little bowl of grated Parmigiano.

[Note: You will have leftover pesto, but don’t worry: it keeps well, with a thin film of olive oil over its surface, in an airtight container in the fridge, and it freezes fine too. And for further convenience, note that the pasta dough will keep for a day or two in a plastic baggie in the fridge, should you want to split the recipe and enjoy fresh pasta over two nights.]

Serves 6 as a first course, or 4 as a main course.


*Special thanks to B, of Culinary Fool, for helping me to procure this beauty of a book.