Each of These Things is Not Like The Other

Et Voila: the difference between an antique apple (to the right) and a modern cultivar of the same variety of apple (to the left). 

The modern apple is still quite tasty (though not as wild-tasting as the antique, if I had to break it down that far), but it does seem rather bizarre that most modern apples are so ENORMOUS.  I’m always very happy when I can find tiny antique apples, just because their size fits my appetite.  Unless an apple is the main point of my meal, anything larger than my fist seems excessive.  Even then: a softball sized baked apple for breakfast would be a bit overwhelming. 

Tinier apples are perfect for snacks, for dessert in a packed lunch, for baking along-side roasted meats, etc.  The only applications I don’t prefer them for are things like pies, cobblers, or applesauce, where cutting out the myriad miniscule cores gets a little fiddly. 

These tiny apples are the last of the “Wealthy”s, purchased at the Madison market lo these many weeks agone.  For lunch today I cored them (very carefully) and baked them to serve alongside pork confit and mashed celery root. 

The day might have been warm, but the sky was a sky of autumn, and the meal matched nicely.

Published in: on September 30, 2007 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Plum Crazy

It is definitely fall.  The air is colder, the trees are turning, and at 3pm the world suddenly explodes with school children. 

At this time of year, everyone starts thinking about apples.  I love apples, and have probably eaten a bushel already, but I am not yet fully in Apple Mode.  Lurking in plain sight, displayed in all the farmer’s markets, and, indeed, grocery stores, is a fruit that you may not have noticed.  Might I draw your attention to The Plum?

Plums are a fruit that doesn’t engender much fervor.  In spring, everyone is excited about strawberries, in high summer, it’s peaches, and in the fall, apples.  Every now and then I’ll see a magazine spread on plums, but too often the text and recipes have an air of desperation.  The background suggestion is: “No one wants to read about regular plums, only write recipes for pluots!” or “We’d better make this interesting–make all the recipes savory!”

In my opinion, plums are neither too exotic nor too plebian to have a place in the house of someone who loves good food.  I have tried every variety available at the farmer’s market, from damsons, to greengages, to Italian plums to common red and purple plums.  I love them all, and wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the more familiar varieties are somehow inferior or less worthy than the unusual.

The big, juicy, fleshy, red and purple plums are no longer in season, but damsons and Italian plums are still going strong, and I bought satisfying quantities of each at the most recent farmer’s market. 

Damsons are tiny, tart, little orbs, only slightly bigger than a cherry.  The first few pints I bought this year were sweeter than usual, and I ended up eating them out of hand as the perfect, bite-sized filler of that one last corner of an almost-full stomach.  This last week, though, the damsons were so tart that they made my mouth pucker (and I eat unadulterated lemons sometimes).  I didn’t have enough of them to make into jam, so I fell back on my most recent kick: infused vodka.  I washed the plums, poked each one with a knife a few times, then tossed them into a canning jar.  I covered one pint of damsons with about 4 cups of vodka, capped and shook up the jar, then put it on the shelf with my other aging infusions.  I’ll leave it there for a few months, then strain it, sweeten it, and let it age until Christmas.  It seems like an appropriate libation to serve alongside plum pudding. 

The prize of the week, though, wasn’t the damsons.  At my favorite fruit stall I got 4 pints of Italian plums for $10.  I’ve heard some say that these “prune” plums are boring in flavor and texture when eaten raw, but I disagree.  These plums are firm, never mealy, and in possession of a complex first-sweet-then-tart flavor that surprises and delights at the same time. 

In spite of my love of the raw fruit, though, I did cook half of my bounty–I made a plum crumble.  Two pints of the pointed, oval-shaped fruits were cut into halves, pitted, then into halves again, and tossed in a buttered pan with a little amaretto–no sweetener or lemon juice was necessary, given their aforementioned complexity.  I let the fruit sit for a few minutes, while I preheated the oven and made the crumbly topping.

I put a cup of almonds into the food processor, then pulsed them until they became a fine meal.  I added a little sweetener, a few tablespoons of butter, a shake of dried ginger, and a pinch of salt, then pulsed again, until everything was pebbly and sandy.   I crumbled (naturally) the mixture over the top of the plums, patting it down a little, and then slid the pan into the oven for about an hour, until the crumbs were nicely golden and the plums bubbling. 

Although it was slightly torturous, I did not eat any of the plum crumble until the following day–I made the glorious thing to eat for breakfast before work all week.  It was lovely.  The firmer texture of the Italian plums allowed the fruit to be juicy, but not runny or mushy, in spite of having entirely absorbed the amaretto.  The almonds in the topping and the amaretto in the filling were the perfect foil for the plums–each has a richness that played off the tanginess of the plums, and all three had a level of sweetness that combined to create something new. 

It was my favorite breakfast of the new season, and with those second two pints of plums frozen for the future, I can look forward to having it in the next season as well.

Published in: on September 28, 2007 at 8:24 pm  Comments (1)  

Transparency

My slip is showing. Well, my lack of creativity, anyway. I solicited all these ideas for using up my plethora of mint, and did I use any of them? One single one? Nope, not at all. I fell back on my own idea–mint ice cream.

Admittedly, I used twice as much mint as most recipes called for, and I steeped it in the cream for about 48 times as long, but still: not the most innovative thing I could have come up with.

Last Friday morning I cut almost all of the chocolate mint off of my plant (fear not: it’s been less than a week and it’s already almost entirely back), stripped the leaves off the stems, washed them lightly, spun them dry, crushed them slightly with my fingers, and put them into a 1-quart glass measuring cup. (A note about the washing–I didn’t really plan to wash the leaves, but who knew that mint plants were where flies went to die? At least 25% of my mint leaves went into the garbage because there was a dessicated housefly carcass stuck to the other side. No pithy comments on this situation, just: Eeew).

I covered the crushed leaves with 1 cup of heavy cream and 1 cup of milk, then brought the liquids just barely to a boil in the microwave. The boiling probably would have been a bit more controlled on the stove-top, but I was using all 3 of my working burners at the time, and didn’t want to wait.

I let the mint mixture steep for 1 hour at room temperature, the amount of time that almost every recipe calls for. At that point, I tasted the cream; it barely tasted like mint at all. As most home-churners know, cold dulls flavors. If an ice cream base isn’t shockingly intense, when frozen the flavor will barely register. (Sometimes, admittedly, this is what you want, but I felt that if I was going to use practically an entire mint plant, the ice cream should be noticeably minty). Instead of straining the mint out of the cream before I chilled it, I just covered the measuring cup with plastic wrap and slid the whole thing into the fridge.

It was over two days later when I finally got around to churning it up. By that point the mint leaves had given up almost all of their oils, and the cream was translucently white–the same white that you see in roses, when they’re really a green so pale that you can’t even identify it. I strained the mixture through a sieve (and then ended up squeezing the thickened cream from the mint leaves with my hands), added another cup of cream, and indeterminate amount of simple syrup (maybe 1/3 cup), and 1/4 cup cacao nibs.

I’d asked Teacherman if he wanted plain mint ice cream, or chocolate-mint ice cream, and he came down decidedly in favor of “plain.” He was attracted to the idea of its clean, bracing flavors, and I can’t say I wasn’t equally enthused. I did want to involve chocolate in SOME way, though, to play off of the chocolately background of the mint itself, and I thought the slight bitterness of the cacao nibs would be a nice contrast to the sweetness of the cream (and a reference to a childhood favorite: mint chocolate chip ice cream).

We poured it into the freezer bowl and churned away. The finished product was thinner than other ice creams we’ve made in the past. With air whipped in, the ice cream was even more translucent and delicately, unidentifiably green, but the flavor could knock out a full-grown man. The mint was assertive without being aggressive, and never crossed the line into the medicinal, toothpaste-i-ness of so many desserts made with fresh lime leaves. The almost unadulterated cream tamed and rounded the flavors of the mint, but never overwhelmed it, as an egg-custard base might have.

We got several substantial servings from just the one batch, and have been enjoying it, unadulterated by chocolate sauce or toppings–all week long, having our summer fun while the warm weather lasts.

Published in: on September 25, 2007 at 8:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Celeriac Waldorf

I think I encountered Waldorf salad for the first time when I was 17.  Oddly, given that the dish is traditionally American, this encounter took place in Scotland, where I was visiting a friend.  Helen had a potluck party for me, and one of her friends (really the friend’s mother) contributed Waldorf salad, since of COURSE an American would want American food when abroad! 

I’d never eaten Waldorf salad before, and I must admit that I was horrified at the idea.  It’s only within the last several years that I’ve cottoned to the idea of fruit in savory dishes, and only a few years  before that did I finally accept that celery was a food and not a stringy, bitter poison.  (A lot of that had to do with discovering good celery, but I’m still not the biggest fan thereof).

I loved apples and walnuts, but the addition of celery took it beyond the pale, and mayonnaise?  With APPLES?  My gorge rose at the very thought.  I had, however, been Raised Right, and so I ate a portion, smiled and said thank you.  (I still horrified all of Helen’s friends, much to my sorrow, with my bizarre American manners, and inability to remember that in Britain, the word ‘pants’ does not mean ‘trousers,’ but ‘underwear’).  I don’t think that anyone ate more than a bite of that salad, and the next morning Helen surreptitiously tossed the leftovers in the garbage.

That one encounter catapaulted Waldorf Salad into my mind’s Revulsion Hall of Fame.  Every time I saw a recipe for it, I shuddered.  I blame its infamy for the length of time it took me to finally enjoy fruit in salads. 

Sometime, in these last eleven years, I discovered celeriac (also known as celery root).  I don’t know what possessed me to buy it for the first time–it’s so craggy and gnarled that it could almost be mummified, and on top of that, it has the word CELERY in its name. 

In any case, I did buy it, and, surprisingly, loved it.  Celeriac does taste like celery, but milder, sweeter, and with none of the stringy, hard texture that I found so objectionable in the latter.  I ate it in every possible way–mashed, steamed, made in hash browns, into gratins, and, most traditionally, into celeriac remoulade, wherein raw, grated celery root is mixed into a mixture of highly seasoned, usually homemade mayonnaise and a little cream, then eaten as a salad.

Last week, however, I was reading a new vegetable cookbook and noticed a title in the table of contents: Celeriac Waldorf Salad.  First I was shocked, and then I was intrigued.  The idea wasn’t as bizarre as my reaction had indicated.  As aforementioned, celery root DOES taste like celery.  And celeriac remoulade dresses the vegetable with mayonnaise.  And once I think I made that mayonnaise with walnut oil.  Hmm. 

After some considerable contemplation, I overcame my prejudices and made the recipe.  I peeled and grated a medium-sized celery root.  I peeled an apple (one of the Wealthies that I brought back from Wisconsin).  I tossed the shreds of both items with lemon juice, then salt and pepper, then mayonniase, some herbs, a little white wine vinegar.  I spooned the salad into a bowl and topped it with some dark-toasted walnuts. 

Huh.  It was pretty fabulous.  The mild sweetness of the celery root and the tartness of the apple contrasted nicely, and the lemon perked them both up (as lemon usually does).  The background was full of the grassiness of the herbs and the deep warmth of the nuts, while the creaminess of the mayonnaise tied everything together.

I do not think this alchemy could have been achieved in a Waldorf made with regular celery.  Aside from the aggressiveness of the flavor, in a Waldorf salad, both the celery and the apples are cut into cubes, making it almost impossible for the flavors to blend, and rendering the experience a bit like trying to eat a mouthful of pebbles.

Unlike most lunches, which I eat at lightning speed, so as to be off doing more pressing things, this one I savored, enjoying each nuanced bite. 

Published in: on September 23, 2007 at 6:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Ca N’est Pas une Cerise


That is not a cherry.
In point of fact, it’s a crabapple.

About a month ago, I was at the Lincoln Park farmer’s market, in a stall I frequent mostly for their enormous, basketball-sized puffball mushrooms, when I discovered a true treasure: one lone quart container of tiny pink crabapples. 

I had never before in my life eaten a crabapple (my youhtful response to a neighbor’s overladen tree was to use them as missiles in a 2-hour war against my best friend), but cookbooks from Britain had incited my interest, and I had been searching for them for years.  Even at farmer’s markets I had never had any luck.  There, however, they were, and I swooped in to buy them in front of an actual chef and wouldn’t back down even when she gave me The Eye. 

When I got them home, I cautiously tasted one, remembering stories of how mouth-puckeringly tart they are supposed to be.  Hmm.  These were tart (and utterly UTTERLY delicious), but nothing that couldn’t be handled raw.  I did a little research and discovered that there are many modern crabapple hybrids, intentionally bred to be sweeter and palatable without added sugar.  I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t have the kind of crabapples I’d always read about, but I didn’t really mind: they were still delicious. 

I had eaten about half of the little basket by the time the next farmer’s market rolled around.  I headed immediately for that same stand, hoping to buy even more crabapples, only to discover an absolute dearth of any such thing.

“Oh, yeah,” said the teenager at the scale, “That was a one-time thing.  I don’t know where he got them, anyway.”

Boo!  Hiss!  Bereft of crabapples!  Why had I been so profligate with what I had?

Forced to consider a coming autumn with no more crabapples, I did the only thing I could up with the rectify the situation.  When I got home from the market, I carefully washed all of the little gems, cut off all the leaves, and then pickled them.

No, I did not stuff them into a jar with garlic and onions and dill–pickles can be sweet as well as savory, and though I abhor sweet cucumber pickles, pickled fruit is one of my greatest joys.  Not only does pickled fruit preserve a perishable fruit until long after its season has ended, but the spices and vinegar one chooses as the pickling medium add their own tang to the finished product. 

To anyone who is unconvinced: think of it as poaching, but with a difference.  The fruit is cooked in liquid with spices.  In poaching, this liquid is usually wine or juice; in pickling, the liquid is still about vinegar, but cut with that same wine or juice, or even just water.  In both cases, the fruit is sweetened and spiced to taste, but in the case of the pickles, a little more heavily, to hold firm against the strength of the vinegar.

I poached my crabapples in a mixture of apple cider vinegar and simple syrup, with a big, broken cinnamon stick, some allspice berries and some whole cloves.  I took the ingredients from a recipe in The Joy of Pickling, but changed the proportions to suit the quantity of crabapples, and my own taste.  When the crabapples skins started to split (something which the recipe claimed would not happen, but didn’t concern me overly much when it did), I turned off the heat, packed them into a quart-sized mason jar, and poured the liquid over, making sure to wedge in all of the spices.  I capped the jar, screwed the ring on halfway, and then let it cool slightly on the countertop before I put it into the fridge. 

That’s right–I didn’t actually can them.  I didn’t process the jar in a big vat of water or any of that, so it wouldn’t be safe to store it at room temperature.  I would not, indeed, have any place to PUT shelf-stable pickles in my kitchen–cupboard space is annoyingly limited–so a refrigerator pickle isn’t a bad compromise.

Believe it or not, within a day or two, the pickles were shoved to the back of the fridge and forgotten.  It wasn’t until this past weekend when I discovered them again, hidden behind the eggs on a lower shelf, still luminous and jewel-toned.  I siezed them immediately, already constructing an entire meal around them. 

I served the crabapples with a warm-spiced pork terrine and roased Brussels sprouts.  Some us preferred them as a savory accompaniment the pork, some of us drizzled the juices over the sprouts, and some of us horded each one until the meal was over, as a kind of dessert. 

We ate half of the jar, though we could have eaten all of it, and I have no doubt that I’ll have finished them within the week, eating them one by one, each time I pass the refrigerator.  I’m sad that I dont’ have an unending supply, but their sweet tanginess and current soft texture seems like a good transition to full-on autumn, like the stepping-stone between stone fruits and pomme fruits. 

Also, there is an unexpected benefit: the sweet, syrupy, but still vinegary pickling juices make an excellent shrub syrup.  One or two tablespoons of the liquid mixed into a glass of sparkling water makes a better soda than anything a store could come up with, and tastes like liquid fall. 

Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 5:18 pm  Comments (1)  

A Massivity of Mint

What, exactly, does one do with a terrifyingly overgrown pot of mint?  This isn’t a lead-in to a clever recipe, I really want to know. 

I have an enormous, overflowing terracotta pot of mint out in the backyard, sending creeping tendrils of ginger-mint and chocolate mint out to colonize the neighboring pots of parsley and chervil, and I can’t think of a blessed thing to do with it before the snow flies. 

Correction: I can think of two unfortunately small things to do with it.  I can make mint (or chocolate-mint) ice cream, but that will take a cup or two of leaves at most, which would be less than 1/16th of my bounty.  I could make mint liqueur (or at least, I could try: all of the recipes seem to include copious amounts of glycerine and other strange additives, which a friend of mine with brewing expertise says are necessary, even though he can’t tell me why).  Why can’t I infuse vodka with mint if I can infuse it with rose geraniums or lemon verbena?  I do not know.  I’ll probably try it even with those warnings ringing in my ears.

But still: that will use up another cup or two of leaves.  What do I do with the rest of it?  One can’t exactly use chocolate mint in a savory application (and I’m none too fond of mint in savory dishes anyway), but the ginger could work in such a capacity; I just don’t have any ideas for it.

What should I do, make the world’s weirdest mojito?  Just go garnish-crasy?  Suggestions?  Suggestions? 

Published in: on September 18, 2007 at 6:27 pm  Comments (2)  

Dinner for Breakfast

Teacherman and I spent Saturday up in Madison, WI, attending their absolutely amazing farmer’s market.  We have a tradition of going up once a year, in the fall, and stocking up on every variety of apple that appeals to us.  There are lovely apple varieties available down here, but there’s a particular orchard that sends produce to the Madison market, and for the most part we can’t get their exciting, antique varieties anywhere else.   As you can see, we bought quite a few varieties (Wealthy, Hudson, Russian Raspberry, Cox’s Orange Pippin [my favorite] and one that I can’t remember the name of).

Our trip was fruitful (har har), and we came back home with two big coolers full of produce, cheese and meat.  We usually forgo meat at the farmer’s market (we’d love to buy it, but the price is a little steep for our budget, even though we realize that it’s just) but we found two farms selling beautiful, free-range, natural meats for prices that were well within our range.  We bought beef and pork and chicken and rabbit, and would have bought more if we’d had the cash on hand. 

Of course, Madison being the capital of Wisconsin, there was cheese available, and since we’re us, we brought home more cheese than we did meat.  Though we concentrated mostly on varieties of cheddar, we also found a producer making delicious blue cheese.  It was hard to decide between the four available varieties, but in the end we went with Tilston Point, the most medium of the four–it wasn’t overly pungent, but it wasn’t too creamy and mild, either. 

We didn’t purchase the cheese with any use in mind, but when later in the morning I bought a big basket of Concord grapes and a tiny bag of black walnuts, the three items locked together in my mind and I knew I had a meal. 

One might expect that we ate those lovely things for a light dinner (especially since we ended up eating our dinner in a park, preparatory to watching a free opera benefit concert), but in fact we ate it for breakfast the following morning.  I sometimes find blue cheese too intense on the palate that early in the morning, but in this case I was too excited about trying the combination of flavors to pay it much mind. 

I toasted the walnuts while Teacherman made coffee, then arranged equal portions of the grapes, nuts and cheese on each plate. 

The combination of flavors really was wonderful.  Some might not care for Concord grapes as a table grape, having been overexposed to fake, Concord-esque grape juices as a child.  I don’t think I’ve had grape juice of any variety for 15 years, though, and I don’t find the Concords unpleasant at all.  They are very sweet, but I find that syrupy fruitiness contrasts well with the bitter walnut skins and the butteriness of the cheese–exactly why grapes, nuts and blue cheese are such a classic combination. 

Published in: on September 14, 2007 at 7:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Bountiful Berries

Voila!  A tart!  A tart with very little indication that it had been attacked by a crust-crazed feline!  (Forgive the blurriness).

This was a lightning-fast dessert to prepare, once the crust was made (and repaired, but that only happens to me).  I mixed mascarpone cheese with a splash of rum, about a lemon’s-worth of zest, and just enough sweetener to tame the overly cheesey nature of this particular brand of mascarpone.  (I wish I could tell you that I made the mascarpone myself, but this was not the case.  Mascarpone is the one cheese that I have tried numerous times, and failed to come close to each time.  Someday I will prevail, but I’m still working on it). 

I spread the cheese mixture into the tart crust, then topped it with two pints of enormous, thumb-sized blackberries, purchased last weekend at the farmer’s market, and then two or three handfuls of white currants, frozen since June.  I didn’t bother to defrost the currants, since they were so small that the travel time to the party would be sufficient to do just that, and currants don’t tend to get too horribly juicy when frozen and thawed. 

The finished tart was no trouble to carry to the party (I put it inside an upturned box lid, and though it did slide around, it didn’t crack or slop), and beautiful to present once there.  All of the guests loved it, and had no idea that the crust was cat-nibbled; I did still take the repaired, hole-y piece for my own, though, just to be safe.

Perversely, though the tart was very well received, I’m a little reluctant to make it again.  It’s easy and delicious and beautiful, but I’d rather not make anything that requires posting a guard on it for the entirety of its cooling time. 

Published in: on September 12, 2007 at 6:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Chicago Raspberry-Nappers

This morning when Teacherman went out to walk the dog, he discovered that someone had torn open the mesh fruit cage we have in our front yard, dug up and removed our healthiest raspberry bush, and taken it away with them.  I am kind of stunned by this.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to steal someone’s raspberry plant–it was the nicest one we had, it’s true, but it was still awfully small.  They took the metal stake we were training it around, as well. 

Weeeeellllll.  Unless our remaining bush really pulls it together, we probably won’t have any raspberries next year.  Which is sad.

Published in: on September 10, 2007 at 7:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Back to the Drawing Board

This is a very cranky morning.

My second batch of bacon using the new recipe failed miserably.  Well, I should qualify: it’s not inedible.  What I have are very nice, crispy strips of seasoned pork.  But it’s not bacon: the belly completely failed to cure.  Grr.  It’s my own fault for trying to use the same recipe on a two pound piece of pork belly instead of a one pound piece.  I did proportionately multiply up all of the curing agents, and let it sit in the fridge for proportionately longer, but it obviously doesn’t work in so simple and straightforward a way. 

Also, I just finished making a tart crust for a going-away party that Teacherman and I will be attending tomorrow night.  I baked it a little too long, yes, but that only results in a more crispy-cookie-like crust.  The problem?  Less than 5 minutes after I took it out of the oven, the cat lept up onto the stove (where she NEVER goes, because she knows it’s almost always on), tore a piece out of the side of the crust and took off across the house.  Good grief.  She is possessed.  And now I have a tart crust with a hole in the side.  I can file off the edges of the hole, so it’s fit for human consumption, but it will look pretty ridiculous.  And the cat is under the sofa, gnawing on a piece of crust.  (It doesn’t even have butter in it!  It’s made of nuts!  What’s going ON?!)

The red-wine mustard is a conundrum: it tastes excellent.  But I just blended it up today.  I’ve never made mustard that didn’t take a few weeks to mellow, and now I’m afraid that this mustard–so fruity and round-flavored and only pleasantly sharp–will be bland and gloppy by the 15th, when I need it.  (Yes, I know that this isn’t anything like a unmitigated disaster, but it’s feeding into the rest of my mood).

It is with great dubiousness that I approach the making of my own lunch.  Cast iron grill pans are involved.  Be very afraid.

Published in: on September 5, 2007 at 8:40 am  Comments (1)