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Archive for the ‘Fruit’ Category

Figs will always be associated with some of the happiest times in my life, and with the geographical locations of this happiness. I think of the black mission figs rolling down the steep sidewalks of the Berkeley hills, too plentiful to collect before the early autumn sun softened them too much. Homeowners guarded their Meyer lemons fiercely up there, but the fig trees, with their too-high boughs too heavily laden, invited urban foragers to find a perfect fallen fruit.

As a grad student and a poetry lecturer, we were ridiculously lucky in the location of our home: the top floor of a run-down building on a prominent curve of Euclid Avenue. Our front windows looked out over the San Francisco Bay. We became aesthetically immune to spectacular sunsets and the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny morning. This storm caught our attention, though.


This was where we lived when Jack was born, and I used to walk with him in the Baby Bjorn or Ergo all around the hills, picking up a fig here and there. I’ve been thinking about this time a lot lately because I’m trying to remember what it’s like to have a baby. Our second one will arrive in about two weeks…

Was my big boy ever this small?

The other happy fig-associated time in a Mediterranean climate that I think about is of course our year in Rome. How many fresh figs drizzled with honey did I eat? Mmmm… too many to count.

Cool shade of the fig canopy:


The other day I bought a tray of California figs at Trader Joe’s, knowing full well that they’d turn to mush in a few days. But I wanted them! And this weekend we have the perfect excuse for me to go through a pile of figs: a dinner party for which I volunteered to bring dessert. Ever since I tried the fig tart at Patisserie 46, I’ve been wanting to recreate it. I’m fairly sure the figs were nestled in frangipane—that transcendent almond filling—so I looked in all of my cookbooks for a fig or fig frangipane tart recipe, but didn’t find one. (I could have looked online, but my cookbooks have been suffering neglect.) I did find, in a Williams-Sonoma Pie & Tart cookbook that my sister gave me for Christmas one year a recipe for a pear and frangipane tart. I decided to use this one, modifying for figs, and substituting my favorite crust recipe, from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from La Brea Bakery.

Sweet Pastry Dough
2 3/4 c. unbleached pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into half-inch cubes
2 extra-large egg yolks
1/4 c. heavy cream

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour and sugar and pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter, and pulse on and off or mix on low until it’s the consistency of a fine meal.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cream. Add to the butter mixture and pulse a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Dip the heel of your hand in flour and, working with small sections, smear the dough away from you to blend it together. When the dough has been all smeared out, using a metal scraper or spatula, scrape and gather it together. Divide the dough in half and gently knead each half to gather into a ball. Flatten into discs and wrap in plastic to chill at least 2 hours, until firm. Freeze for longer storage.

Since this tart calls only for a bottom crust, I used the other half of the dough to make sugar cookies in the shapes of pumpkins and ghosts. Jack will help me decorate them later.

Fig and Frangipane Tart (based on Pear and Frangipane Tart in Williams-Sonoma’s Pie & Tart book)

Filling:
2 tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 c. raw, whole almonds, finely ground
2/3 c. sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbs. rum (or lemonade)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
10-12 ripe figs
honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

When butter has cooled, mix it with the almonds, sugar, eggs, extracts, rum, salt, and zest. Spread mixture evenly in the tart shell. Slice each fig in half and arrange in the tart

Bake until the filling is firm to the touch in the center and golden, about 45 minutes. Drizzle with honey. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

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Today was the first day that really felt like fall. It was in the 50s when we ventured outside this morning to water the plants, and the clouds overhead were rushing by. Because of these early signs, I got it into my head that apple picking would be the perfect thing to do. It’s a little early, but there are some varieties ripening or ripe by now.

In the early afternoon, we made our way through the suburbs and exurbs of the Twin Cities to Aamodt’s Apple Farm in Stillwater, MN. We had read online that kids who colored in a printable map of the farm would get a free cider doughnut, so Jack had come prepared with a diligently colored map. When we got there, we went first to the Apple Barn and where he was given his free doughnut. I have a special nostalgia-enhanced weakness for cider doughnuts, so I had to get one, too. (The last time I was pregnant, with Jack, we lived in Berkeley, CA, and I had my mom overnight me some cider doughnuts when the season rolled around.)

Then we went picking. Because it’s only September 3rd, we were too early for Macintosh or Honeycrisp. We were limited to Paula Reds, but that was fine with us. It was just the experience we were after, and a serviceable apple for crisp.

For dinner tonight on this cool evening, we had a perfect peasant meal. I made a rustic frittata with thinly sliced potatoes and onions and two sprigs of thyme, and, of course, an apple dessert.

Apple Crumble (adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion)

Filling:
3 lbs. apples (I used 8 Paula Reds)
1/4 c. rum or apple cider (I used lemonade)
2 tbs. butter, melted
3/4 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3 tbs. flour
1/4 tsp. salt

Streusel Topping:
1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. oats
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 stick butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Filling: Peel, core, and cube the apples. Stir together with other filling ingredients. Spoon apple mixture into a 9 x 9-inch baking pan.

Topping: Stir together flour, oats, salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, and baking powder. Chop up the butter and blend it in with your fingers until crumbly. Sprinkle topping over filling

Bake for 1 1/4 hours, or until it’s bubbly and a deep, golden brown.

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These sweet little heirlooms are from Luna Bleu Farm in South Royalton, Vermont. This was one of the farms that got me hooked on supporting local organic farmers. I was in college, taking a journalism course, and the assignment was to write a profile, so I interviewed the owner, Suzanne Long. Her dedication to living off of the land, and to biodynamic farming in particular, was inspiring to this twenty-year-old. One of my high school friends who apprenticed at Luna Bleu is now an organic farmer herself, in Guilford, Vermont.

Anyway, Caprese salad and tomato tart season is here! The tomatoes above were at the Hanover Farmers’ Market, held on the green every Wednesday afternoon. We also picked up some locally produced beer brats from Hogwash Farm, and Jack enjoyed a very large snack.

My last day in Vermont was a relaxing and delicious one.  In the morning, my mom and I drove out to Woodstock to check out a new cafe owned by a young couple, Mon Vert Cafe.

We each had a cappuccino, and I also had a piece of coffee cake that looked like your basic cinnamon-swirled bundt but that turned out to be swirled with spices much more interesting: nutmeg and clove hints laced through the cinnamon, and the crumb was as moist and dense as an olive oil cake. I enjoyed reading their irony-touched wine list, too:

Another fruit of summer that I love, although I’m not getting them locally, is the cherry. Since my mom and I weren’t getting enough help in making the huge bowl of them disappear, I decided to make a clafoutis. I used the recipe in Chez Panisse Fruit, which calls for cooking the cherries in a skillet first. The end product was a bit wet on the bottom, but there’s nothing like warm poached cherry juice, so that was fine with me. The cake part had a souffle-like lightness with a hint of almond. This will be my new go-to dessert: so easy, and yet so impressive.

Now we’re back in Minneapolis, and there’s a bowl of cherries in the fridge….

Before I end with the recipe, I’ll just drop a news tidbit. I’ve launched a new website! Please check it out at: english-thyme.com

And now, here’s a jotted-down version of the recipe:

Clafoutis

2tbs. butter
1/3 plus 3tbs. sugar
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. lemon zest
2 eggs, separated
3tbs. flour
1tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 pinch saltIn a skillet over medium heat, foam the butter, add cherries and sugar, cinnamon, zest. Cook for 7-10 minutes until cherries are tender and juice thickens.  Arrange cherries in a 9-inch dish.
Preheat oven to 375.
Beat egg yolks and 3 tbs. sugar. until light and thickened. Beat in flour, vanilla, almond extract, and cream.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites with salt until soft peaks form. Fold into yolks and pour batter over fruit.
Bake 20 minutes.

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hot oranges

Remember when M.F.K. Fisher warmed tangerines on the radiator?  Well, less elegantly and inadvertently, I just invented a new snack for myself: hot orange.  I decided this morning to make that  orange-scented olive oil cake again, and, attempting to multitask, I popped an orange in the microwave to take the chill off and proceeded to quarter three oranges, forgetting that 10 seconds goes by in a flash.  Oops! 30 seconds later, I heard the beep and took out a hot, sweating, fragrant orange.  The peel came right off, the sections were steaming, and the flavor was intense! I’m going to do this more often….


The cake, then. It is a perfect cake: crumbly, moist, full of flavor, and, in fact, healthy!  The only fat in it is olive oil (and egg), the sugar is not too high.  And it’s an any-occasion cake: dinner-party dessert, breakfast, tea-time, or mid-morning little smackerel of something.

(It would be good with honey.)

I also love the process of it.  First, three successive boilings of the orange quarters to temper the acidity, then a slow simmer of orange in simple syrup.  The drained oranges are then pureed and mixed into the dry ingredients with eggs and olive oil.  The cake is finished with an orangey glaze that soaks into the crumb structure through the top and the bottom edges where the glaze puddles.  The process also fills the house with the most wonderful aroma of tropical warmth.

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My dissertation, that is, is done.  Sadly, so is our packing.

We’ve been saying goodbyes to good good friends here in Rome, and will leave on Thursday.  It’s an anticipated sadness and loss, so it’s one that ebbs and flows, comes and goes at unexpected moments.  Life goes on, too, as do the food and wine discoveries. Why did it take 9 months for me to learn about this vino vivace I’m sipping right now?  Monsupello, an off-white slightly fizzy wine made with Pinot Nero grapes (skins taken out), from the Pavia region in the north of Italy.  The reason I didn’t know about it sooner is that Jeannie and Valeria, friends and moms of Jack’s friends, discovered it at our local enoteca—wine shop—and bought it all up.  But with the new season, new caseloads have come in, and we’re all drinking it.  I had it first on Jeannie’s balcony in Trastevere while Jack and Nico “went fishing” with coat hangers over the edge.  Then I had it two nights later at Valeria & Andreas’ apartment.  Two Roman veterinarians, they told us about their dreams of opening a restaurant in London or Berlin that serves good basic Roman cuisine.

Late, too, I found out about Necci, a wonderful little cafe that does everything from breakfast pastries to toy-swaps for the kids with aperitivi for the parents.  Jeannie, Sarah, and I went to Pigneto, a Roman neighborhood outside of the city center, last week, on a mission to taste the artisanal cornetti (Italian croissants).  The chef, a British guy named Ben, is one of those admirable chefs who uses only local and seasonal ingredients and who is reviving old ways of making things.  Jeannie and I had chocolate cornetti and agreed that they were the best we’d tasted in years.  Light crunch to the pastry flakes—dark, warm chocolate within.

Necci is a fun place with great deck seating, kid-friendliness, a sense of humor, and delicious food.  Some pictures.

Jeannie & Sarah

banana flush pull

After a long, leisurely hour and two cappuccini at Necci, we walked down a central neighborhood street that has an open air market during the morning.  I bought a melon, a bagful of cherries, and susine plums.

Then we wandered with our fruit-heavy bags back to Sarah’s car, stopping in little shops along the way.  One of them was a funky second-hand store, with everything from a vintage Singer sewing machine—from the 1910s—to Pokemon cards.  Now, if I had known then what I know now, I would have bought a huge handful of those cards.  For the past few days of goodbyes Jack has been cathecting all of his mixed emotions onto his carte di Pokemon.  I buy a pack for him (and they’re exploitatively expensive!) and he gives them all away as regali.  Or his more cunning friends convince him to trade 4 for 1.  I tell him I won’t buy him anymore, and he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school or see his friends again.  I say, “I know you’re sad that we’re leaving. Let’s talk about what you like about Rome” and he’ll say, “I like the buses and the carte di Pokemon.”  It’s been a sad time for him, because he’s had such a wonderful year.  He learned Italian and finally feels comfortable with his Italian friends and teachers. He loves his school.  He loves life here at the Academy where there are always friends available right next door. So he channels his emotions into the things he can grasp at and consume until we go away (friends are too complicated for these operations): Gormiti (little Italian elemental action figures), Pokemon cards (which, he doesn’t know, are everywhere), and ciambellini (the mini doughnuts they make at the Kosher cafe we stop in almost every morning before school).  We all do it.  I’m drinking more coffee because I know I won’t taste coffee like this in the New World.  I’m putting one more slice of mozzarella on my plate because it might be my last for years. I’m getting a cup of pistachio gelato even if Jack doesn’t want any.  We’re trying to squeeze in one more coffee-date, playdate, late-night conversation with the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  And I’m trying to drink in the views and sounds of Rome so that I won’t forget any of it, so that it won’t become muted and hazy when we get back to “real life.”

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At a junction of thoughts that represents some substance of my life right now: a chapter in Moby Dick; a talk about food in high art given by Leonard Barkan; the local-food-movement mantra know your food, know your farmer; swimming, during which activity my thoughts form folds with each lap and the thought that my son loves swimming connects to the porpoises on Planet Earth and in Moby Dick, which leads to another branch of my family, those Nantucket whalemen ancestors, who probably dined on whale at some point, and one of whom carved an incredibly intricate scrimshaw fan during those endless hours of calm water.

http://www.artunframed.com/images/boucher3/Are_They_Thinking_About_the_Grape.jpg

Leonard’s talk, “Thinking of the Grapes” (which refers to this painting by François Boucher) was about how food has an ambiguous status in high art, in particular (in this lecture) Renaissance and Baroque painting.  Food is both vividly, sensuously present in all of its particularity of detail, and is officially secondary to the main subject.  Gastronomy falls far below philosophy, theology, astronomy, or love, and yet it obtrudes itself into the artist’s imagination and into the picture and takes on significance as the too-muchness of what we desire and fear of appetite.  It is suppressed, Leonard suggests, because it is just too consuming.

Food enters art more or less smoothly or subversively depending on the culture, the age, the medium, the genre.  Novels—omnivorous gluttons of the details of everyday life that they are—might be expected to contain more food.  Moby Dick has none of the delicacy of Boucher’s lovers feeding each other grapes, and contains a smorgasbord of greasy, glistening, animal food and its bestial eaters.  But the discussion of eating in the chapter “The Whale as a Dish” is not simply a display of macho engorgement.  It has as much ethical, psychological, cultural, socioeconomical, and philosophical penetration as the best thinking about food today, and combines all of these elements in prose more musical, serio-satirical, and strange than anything I’ve read recently.

Here is the chapter.

“The Whale as a Dish”

That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say; this seems so outlandish a thing that one must needs go a little into the history and philosophy of it.

It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the Right Whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France, and commanded large prices there.  Also, that in Henry VIIIth’s time, a certain cook of the court obtained a handsome reward for inventing an admirable sauce to be eaten with barbecued porpoises, which, you remember, are a species of whale.  Porpoises, indeed, are to this day considered fine eating.  The meat is made into balls about the size of billiard balls, and being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls.  The old monks of Dunfermline were very fond of them.  They had a great porpoise grant from the crown.

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite.  Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious.  We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil.  Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants, as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing.  And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the mould scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber.  Among the Dutch whalemen these scraps are called “fritters”; which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ doughnuts or oly-cooks, when fresh.  They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish, is his exceeding richness.  He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good.  Look at his hump which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat.  But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is; like the transparent, half-jellied white meat of a cocoa-nut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter.  Nevertheless, many whalemen have a method of absorbing it into some other substance, and then partaking of it.  In the long try watches of the night it is a common thing for a seaman to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile.  Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the case of a small sperm whale the brains are accounted a fine dish.  The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavour somewhat resembling calves’ head, which is quite a dish among some epicures; and every one knows that some young bucks among the epicures, by continually dining upon calves’ brains, by and by get to have a little brains of their own, so as to be able to tell a calf’s head from their own heads; which, indeed, requires uncommon discrimination.  And that is the reason why a young buck with an intelligent looking calf’s head before him, is somehow one of the saddest sights you can see.  The head looks a sort of reproachfully at him, with an “Et tu Brute!” expression.

It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned, i.e., that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.  But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does.   Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds.  Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw?  Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?  I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.

But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it?  Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? And what do you pick your teeth with, after devouring that fat goose?  With a feather of the same fowl.  And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formally indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronize nothing but steel pens.

Moby Dick (1851)
Herman Melville

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The gelaterias are opening their doors.  Puddles in the cobblestones sparkle in the sunlight. Rainstorms are rushing through, and leaving in their wake warm spots and green buds.

During one of these post-rain spells yesterday, Jack and I walked down to Trastevere to buy a birthday present for Agnese, whose party is today.  Our favorite destination for toy and art-supply shopping is Piazza San Cosimato, which has an open air market, a playground, great scootering terrain, and three toy stores.  After picking out a magic wand and a set of stamps complete with ink-pad and pouch, we went to the playground.

After bouncing and climbing and swinging and staring at the winos, Jack was ready for our next stop: Fior di Luna gelateria, where all of the ingredients are organic, local, and/or fair trade, and the gelato tastes intensely of its few flavorful parts—whether those are pistachios, vanilla beans, or blood oranges.  This gelateria also uses only seasonal ingredients, so the flavors that dominate now are citrus, nuts, and chocolate.

Spring is on the way, though.  Look at the flowers popping up in the Bass Garden!

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