Schmendrick was Right

No, really: he was.

About three years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Schmendrick, and it happened to come up that I had never eaten a kumquat.  I don’t remember what on earth we were talking about, but kumquats naturally followed from the topic of conversation.

Schmendrick was extremely surprised, but, given his laid-back nature, didn’t react with shock and horror.  In spite of such caution, his monosyllabic replies managed to indicate that the houris had barred me from the celestial gardens and that I was doomed to spend eternity wandering the shadows without even Virgil to guide me.  (To squash about 70 works of literature into one sentence, that is).

Somehow, even with the threat of unending and tedious torment sans a member of the blessed heathen to break up the monotony, I didn’t get around to trying kumquats for three more years.  And I didn’t pick them up with Schmendrick’s endorsement ringing in my ears–I picked them up because of a recipe. 

For the past month, my grocery store has been shelving little clamshells of kumquats next to enormous bags of local cranberries.  I had already begun associating the two in my mind, and when I saw a recipe for a kumquat-cranberry compote, everything snapped into focus.

Naturally, the day that I went to the market intending to buy kumquats, they had none on display.  I had to beg the produce clerk to go check in the back, and even though his acquiescence was reluctant, he brought back an entire flat of the things.  (Is there some flunky in the back scooping kumquats into clamshells?  What’s up with that?)

The clerk left me alone with the kumquats, which meant that I was able to individually select each one by hand.  (I don’t actually know what the characteristics of a ripe kumquat are, but I assume that they’re the same as for any other citrus fruit–skin with no traces of green, feels heavy for its size, isn’t dried out, etc). 

I took 12 oz of the kumquats home, along with a bag of cranberries.  The compote was simple enough to make: I put the kumquats, quartered lengthwise, an equal weight of cranberries and 3/4 cup of simple syrup in a saucepan, brought it to a boil, then simmered it until the berries popped, the kumquats were slightly soft and the whole mixture had thickened.

It was when I was quartering the kumquats that I had my revelation.  It was near lunchtime and I was hungry, so I threw a big one into my mouth, while I quartered the remainder. 

<SPROING!> 

I have heard kumquats described in many appetizing ways, but no one has ever described them in the way that lept to mind when I first tasted them:  they taste like already-candied orange peel.  Without the sand-sugar coating, I admit, but still–candied orange peel!  It was all I could do not to eat the rest of the fruits whole, leaving none for the compote.

I did manage to hold back, and put the rest of the kumquats into the saucepan.  Twenty minutes later I had a ruby-red compote of whole pieces of fruit suspended in thick, clear, jewel-toned juices.  The sweet, almost spicy citrus flavor of the kumquats was an even better match for the tart cranberries than the usual orange, and the kumquat skins added a fabulous chunky texture.  I ate the compote for breakfast every day this week and never once got tired of the sparky, invigorating flavors.

As much as I liked the combination of kumquats and cranberries, I’ve had another kumquat idea in my head for the entirety of the week.  If thinly slivered and made into a compote on their own, would the result not resemble a kind of marmalade?  This I must try. 

Published in: on December 22, 2007 at 9:25 am  Comments (1)  

Sweet Fennel

Fennel desserts are taking over the world.

More and more often, lately, I’ve been seeing recipes for cakes with chopped fennel, fruit salad with fennel fronds, or plain (if you can call it that) candied fennel. Cakes flavored with fennel seeds are quite traditional in some parts of the world, but using fennel bulb in desserts seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. (At least, it is within my relatively circumscribed reading experience. I don’t actually know what I’m talking about). Already feeling dangerously uninspired by the fruits of winter (supermarket apples! They only taste of sweet or sour! Nothing in between! And certainly not in combination!), I decided to take a cue from a recipe I’d seen in a forgotten cookbook, and add fennel to an apple-rhubarb crisp.

As mentioned, it was a forgotten cookbook, meaning that had I no recipe, just the title: “Rhubarb-Apple-Fennel Crisp, with Nutmeg and Star Anise.” But it turned out that I had no star anise. Also, I had no ingredients for the top layer–the part that makes a crisp actually crisp. I was bereft of staples.

I suppose it would have made sense to stop there, at the discovery that I lacked most of the ingredients necessary for the creation of this dish that I didn’t know the formulation for anyway. I had, however, become rather set on the idea of the combination of fruits/vegetables (rhubarb is a vegetable, after all), so I decided to throw everything I had together and see what happened.

I salvaged two lumpy, bruised and ugly Winesap seconds left from Saturday’s farmer’s marke trip, and chopped them into 1-inch pieces, unpeeled. I did the same to a bulb of fennel equal in size to a single apple. I dug out one of my bags of frozen rhubarb (indecently pink, and about a pound in total weight), and dumped it into the big bowl where the apples and fennel already lay. I sweetened them slightly (I don’t like my rhubarb too sweet), then sweetened them a bit more (help! fennel! how much do I sweeten it?!), and grated over an absolutely ungodly amount of fresh nutmeg. I tipped the whole mixture into a greased 9*13 pan, covered it with foil, and put it into the oven.

Unfortunately, I forgot about it. I’d meant to leave it in for 30 minutes, but somehow left it in for 60. When I pulled it out, the ingredients were definitely cooked–they were all the way to mushy, and had released copious amounts of liquid. The rhubarb, in particular, had disintegrated into (delicious) pink threads. I threw up my hands, but I didn’t give up.

Instead of leaving the mixture in the pan, as I’d planned to, I ladled it out into small ramekins, giving each section a gentle stir as I did so. The agitation of stirring and transfer merged all of the ingredients into a kind of chunky rhubarb-fennel-applesauce, with a rough texture and pale pinkish color. I covered the ramekins and put them into the fridge to cool down.

And how did it taste? Surprisingly excellent. The apples and the rhubarb went together very well, as was expected, but the fennel wasn’t just a strange addition–it made the dish better. The fennel had become sweet, as braised fennel–and this was essentially braised–usually does, and it made both the tangy Winesaps and the sour rhubarb taste sweeter. Additionally, it added an unsurprising whiff of anise flavor in the background, just enough to be tantalizing, but not enough to be unpalatable to the licorice-haters of the world.

It was different, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 10:29 am  Comments (1)  

Out of Season but Inspired

Yet again, I’m late to the party. 

For at least a couple of years, now, I’ve been hearing fleeting mentions of recipes involving pea shoots–not peas themselves, but leaves and tendrils clipped from the vines of a pea plant.  The recipes always sounded interesting, but heaven knows I’d never seen a pea shoot for sale in the grocery store.  It was an ingredient that interested me, but which I ultimately decided that I’d have to taste in a future-indeterminate meal at a fancy restaurant.  In the spring.

Last week I checked out a new cookbook (Molly Katzen’s latest: Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without) and discovered yet another recipe for pea shoots–this time simply sauteed with lots of fresh garlic and a little salt.  I would never have remarked it more than usual, but for one thing: I found pea shoots.

Saturday morning Teacherman and I went to one of the special winter farmer’s markets, intending to buy root vegetables, and maybe some apples.  (The apples may be old and ugly at this time of year, but they’re still miles better than the best store-bought, even at fancy organic stores).  We ended up spending scads more than we expected, on organic lamb and pork (and a Christmas ornament, but that wasn’t my fault), and it seemed like we had barely enough cash left over to cover our vegtabular bounty. 

At the very last stall, Teacherman was some parsnips when I spied a basket of tangled green somethings.  A tiny lightbulb lit up in my brain.

“Are those pea shoots?” I asked the stallholder.

“Nope, those are sunflower shoots,” she said.  “But we have a basket of pea shoots right here!” and she pulled a big basket of nearly identical tangled green things out from under the counter.  (And honestly, who has ever heard of sunflower shoots?)

After a rapid consultation about the state of our wallets, Teacherman and I scraped together enough loose change to cover a quarter of a pound of pea shoots, then whisked them home to eat for lunch.

I followed Katzen’s recipe almost exactly: I threw the pea shoots and a large quantity of chopped garlic into a blazing hot saute pan filmed with oil.  I added a big pinch of salt and then tossed the whole mixture until it was bright green and wilted.  (Katzen’s book suggests 5 minutes for this, but it only took me 2). 

We served the little garlicky tangles with Thai salmon cakes and sweet-and-sour red cabbage with cranberries (another Katzen recipe), but the pea shoots were unquestionably the star of the meal.  It’s hard to explain why this is–we weren’t ravished and moaning, and the flavor couldn’t be described as anything remotely intense, but its very simplicity was compelling.  Every time one of us took a bite there would be a quiet “Wow.”   

In trying to come up with a way to describe the flavor, all I can say is: it’s like spinach, except. 

Except it doesn’t have that awful metallic taste that so many people object to.  Except it isn’t heavy and compacted together.  Except that there’s an elusive extra flavor–like the breath of an almost-forgotten rememberance of peas.  I know that this sounds hyperbolic, but the flavor actually made me happy

I don’t know when I’ll get to eat pea shoots again–they’re usually a spring specialty, and I’ve wondered if my finding them at the farmer’s market was a fluke–but the next time I see them, I’ll definitely buy them. 

Published in: on December 3, 2007 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment