The unpredictability of harvests causes me to marvel at the steadfast dedication of farmers. One season to the next, they never know how well or poorly a crop will do, despite all care and meticulous planning. And, under the same weather conditions, one planting will thrive, while another fizzles.
In 2010, Gigi had a bumper crop of figs. In the two years that followed, her trees bore meager fruit. It had us worried—was 2010 a fluke? Last week, that notion was dispelled when Gigi called me with this report:
“We need to pick figs. Now!”
Her trees were–and still are—covered. Plump ripe knobs, some royal purple, others streaked greenish-brown, are ready to be plucked and relished. The next morning, I met Gigi at the garden. We picked a fast 100, and two days later, I returned to gather another basketful.
Joy. The figs are back, with the promise of so many more to come. Time to enjoy them now, and preserve them for the future.
My plan was two-fold. I could envision delectable figs roasted to sweetness, tucked in lettuce leaves with goat cheese, chives, and bacon for a summer meal. (almonds for my vegetarians!) What I didn’t use in the salad, I’d put up in mason jars. Roasted Figs in Syrup!
I began by halving the figs and arranging them on a baking sheet scattered with thin lemon wedges. After I dusted them with sugar and a spritz of white balsamic vinegar, I placed them into the hot oven.
I had forgotten how effective and deeply delicious this method is. Very quickly the sugar melts as the figs release their juices. The lemon and vinegar meld into the mix, enhancing the figgy taste, while balancing the sweetness. A gorgeous caramel-ruby syrup results, glazing the fruit in the pan. And that tangy syrup becomes the perfect medium to drizzle into the lettuce cups, the salad’s dressing really.
As for the rest, well, I have a few ideas. I love them baked on flatbread with prosciutto, leeks, and soft gorgonzola. The figs in syrup are sublime with mascarpone on a slice of crusty toasted baguette. Check out Cooking Light’s Guide to Figs for other tips and recipes. I am always open to new recipes with this ancient, treasured fruit, and would love to have your recommendations, too.
Of course, we fig lovers know that there is nothing quite like that one, sun-warmed and ripe right off the tree, sticky to the touch and honeyed to the bite.
ROASTED FIG-GOAT CHEESE-BUTTER LETTUCE CUPS
25 leaves butter (or Boston) lettuce, washed and spun dry
1 11 ounce log plain goat cheese
8-10 strips thick slab cut bacon cooked crisp and crumbled -OR-
1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds
1 1/2 cups roasted figs in syrup (recipe follows)
coarse ground black pepper
Arrange butter lettuce leaves on a platter. Cut the goat cheese log into small slices or pieces, placing a piece into each lettuce cup.
Sprinkle the goat cheese with chives.
Sprinkle cooked bacon or toasted almonds into the cups.
Place a fig half over the goat cheese.
Drizzle with figgy syrup and season with coarse ground black pepper.
Makes 25 appetizers or 10-12 mains.
ROASTED FIGS IN SYRUP
15 ripe figs, washed, dried and cut in half lengthwise
1 lemon, sliced into 10 wedges
1/4 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place the fig halves on a baking sheet. Scatter the lemon wedges around the figs.
Sprinkle the sugar over the figs. Sprinkle the vinegar over the sugared figs.
Place into the oven and roast for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan after the halfway (5-6 minutes) mark.
Cook until the figs become puffed and release their juices.
The juices will meld with the melted sugar and vinegar to make a luscious syrup.
Remove from the oven and cool. Place the fig and lemon pieces into a medium bowl or 12 ounce jar. Scrape the accumulated juices-syrup from the pan over the figs.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Note: You may double the batch and preserve the figs and syrup in 3-8 ounce jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.
It was early one Saturday morning last summer, before the day heated up to its usual steamy 90s, when I first discovered The Peach Truck.
I was on my way to tend the garden behind my brother’s office. I barreled down 12 South, and had to immediately double-back. Parked in the lot of a one-time gas station turned designer jean shop was an old green pick up truck. A young man was working out of the back of the truck, filling and setting out brown paper sacks. A sandwich board sign placed on the sidewalk had been painted in bold letters: FRESH GEORGIA PEACHES.
Georgia Peaches? Really? The ones that I had come across over the years at our markets never lived up to their stellar reputation. Still, there had to be an element of truth in the assertion that the best peaches hail from GA. I had to check ‘em out.
I opened a bag and inhaled its aromatics. Sweet-scented, peachy and floral. I gingerly handled a couple–they had the right heft and supple give. Then, the young man, who introduced himself as Stephen Rose, cut a wedge out of one for me to sample.
Mercy. It was firm, yet gushed sweet juices. It might have been the best bite of peach I’d ever had. SOLD!
Chagrined by the lack of true Georgia peaches in Nashville, Stephen set out to change all that. He started trucking in the harvest from his aunt and uncle’s farm in Crawford Georgia. That Saturday morning, I was one of his first sales. It didn’t take long for word to get out. People all over the city, chefs from scores of restaurants, were all clamoring for the peaches brought by the man in the 1964 Jeep Gladiator. Over a five week run last summer, Nashvillians had purchased 10 tons of these remarkable fruits.
Summer is back, and so is The Peach Truck. This year, Stephen and his wife Jessica have made it their mission to spread the Georgia peach gospel. From now until the end of August, you can find these blushing beauties any day of the week in Nashville, at numerous locations.
I’ve made terrific peach salsa, not to mention peach cobbler. Mornings have been brightened with fresh slices over Greek yogurt and cereal. And, here’s this show-stopped recipe I made for our latest potluck supper: rosemary, sage, chives and The Peach Truck’s finest stuffed, rolled and roasted into pork loin.
Without question, all sorts of fruit make luscious partners for pork, (think apples, pears, pineapple…) their natural sweetness enhances the meat while tempering its inherent richness. Fresh herbs and juicy peaches transform a simple pork loin into an elegant, succulent roast that slices into pretty pinwheels.
The trickiest part is in butterflying the meat. Keep slicing horizontally down and into the round of meat, unrolling it as you continue your cuts. This does not need to be smooth. You can see where I started and stopped, with some gashes into the meat. No worries. It’s very forgiving, this recipe. You’ll be filling the interior of the meat, covering all this up.
After you’ve layered the interior with abundant chopped herbs (sage, rosemary, strips of chives) and red tinged slices of peach, you’ll be ready to roll it back to its somewhat original form, and secure it with twine.
I prepared two such roasts for our potluck crowd. Wonderful. It was a night for peaches and The Peach Truck. Someone brought a peach salad, another an almond-peach crisp. And Rick churned a batch of Peaches-and-Cream.
PEACHES-N-HERBS PORK ROULADE
3 lb. boneless pork loin
1 bundle fresh sage
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
3-4 fresh ripe peaches, pitted and sliced ¼” thick
coarse ground black pepper
kitchen twine—cut into 4 14” pieces
Butterfly the pork loin: place clean, dried roast onto cutting board. With a sharp knife, begin slicing horizontally into the roast, about 1 inch from the bottom. As you continue slicing the length of the roast, pull back the meat, effectively unrolling it.
Press the meat flat. Liberally sprinkle the interior first with salt and black pepper, followed by chopped rosemary and sage. Arrange the peach slices to cover the
Roll the loin back into its original shape.
Slide the pieces of twine underneath the loin. Secure the roll by tying each one. Place in roasting pan, fat side up, seam side down. Sprinkle the top of the meat with kosher salt and black pepper.
Place roast into a preheated 425 degree oven. Bake uncovered for 15 minutes, then reduce oven heat to 350 degrees for another 25-30 minutes. When the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees, remove from oven.
Allow the meat to rest 15 minutes before slicing. Meanwhile, add water to roasting pan and deglaze the juices and cooked-on bits. Remove the twine and slice the roast into ½” thick rounds. Arrange slices on a platter and pour deglazed juices over the meat.
These cool September mornings have me thinking about transitions. Soon, the fall harvests, and bushels of apples picked from area orchards will be arriving at the markets. Red and Golden Delicious, Pink Ladys and Granny Smiths, Winesaps and Arkansas Blacks. Beautiful varieties, each with a distinct taste and culinary use.
I welcome this time of year. It ushers in another wave of foods and festivities that bring people together.
From my office perch looking out into the backyard, I see signs of a season in shift. Leaves getting tinged with yellow. Persimmons ripening on the rugged tree by the alley. Hummingbirds gorging on nectar before making their migration further south. I’ve lived in middle Tennessee for a long time, lived out many long hot summers. Autumn always invigorates me with its crisp clear air and blaze of color. I relish the changes of the seasons. Although anything can happen, I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
A sense of place. That gets entwined with many things, especially in a transient society. Where we were born, where we grew up, where we went to school, where we work, all play a part in grounding us, informing that deepest part of us about where we belong. We all have the right place to be.
It’s a potent and poignant theme that Luisa Weiss explores in her food memoir, My Berlin Kitchen. Known to many as The Wednesday Chef, Luisa tells her story of finding that sense of place. A confluence of cultures is at the heart of her journey.
In 1977, she was born to an Italian mother and an American father in West Berlin. At age three, her parents divorced and she moved to Boston with her father. She grew up, traveling back and forth, straddling two homes, two worlds. Her divided life, in a way, paralleled Berlin of the Cold War.
As a young adult living in New York, Luisa worked as a cookbook editor. A touchstone to memory, an anchor for comfort, food and cooking became central in her life. In 2005, she launched her blog, initially as a way to plow through the scads of recipes she’d clipped and saved. The Wednesday Chef became more than a food blog; readers worldwide followed her journal as she came to grips with the feeling that her life in New York, ideal as it appeared with a terrific job, fiance, and circle of friends, was not where she belonged.
My Berlin Kitchen chronicles that larger arc of self-discovery, and courage to make bold change. It is a love story, sprinkled with delectable recipes, gleaned from her world travels. Many have an intriguing, decidedly Berliner bent. Roast goose, braised red cabbage, poppyseed whirligig buns, white asparagus salad, spiced plum butter…
I enjoyed reading her story, and found real inspiration in her recipes. Today, I made her Apple Tart.
I call it a Perfect Apple Tart, for it truly honors the apple, in all its crisp sweet-tart glory. In Luisa’s words, ” This tart is about the pure, clear taste of apples, sugar, and a little bit of butter. There are no spices to muddle the flavors.”
And, its crust—the crust could be reason alone to make the tart: thin and golden, immeasurably buttery and flaky.
She credits her recipe to four culinary luminaries: Jacques Pepin, who originally conceived it; Alice Waters, who has kept it a constant offering at Chez Panisse; Deb Perelman, who brought it out into the wide world through her blog, Smitten Kitchen; and Melissa Clark, whose New York Times pastry-making video showed that leaving the butter in larger, lima bean (rather than pea) sized pieces in the dough insured a richer, flakier crust.
Of course, your tart will only be as wonderful as your apples. Select firm ones. Luisa recommends Golden Delicious. I chose Ginger Golds, an early harvest variety with a spicy-tart finish. They are good to eat out of hand, and bake into pies or cakes.
As we come into apple season, you’ll no doubt find other varieties that will appeal to you.
Here’s the tart’s magic. You peel and core the apples before slicing them. Then, you immerse those trimmings in water with sugar, and cook them down. After straining, you reduce the apple-infused liquid to a marvelous syrupy glaze.
After baking and cooling, you brush the tart–apples and crust– with apple syrup. Oh, my!
Apple-Apple-Apple! The tart is all about the apples, not-too-sweet, baked tender in a butter-crisp rustic crust:
From Jacques Pepin to Alice Waters, Deb Perelman to Melissa Clarke, from Luisa Weiss to me, and now to you.
Wishing you contentment wherever you are, Nancy
A PERFECT APPLE TART from My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss
1 cup All-Purpose Flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon Sugar
1/8 teaspoon Salt
6 tablespoons well-chilled unsalted Butter, cut into 1″ pieces
3 1/2 tablespoons icy water
food processor fitted with pastry cutter
Place flour, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter. Pulse until the butter is broken down into lima bean shaped pieces. Pulse in water, a spoonful at a time, until dough comes together.
Dump out onto lightly floured work surface and gather it together, flattening into 4″ wide disc. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate the dough for a minimum of 30 minutes. (or up to 3 days)
The Apple Filling
2 lbs. crisp firm Apples (I used Ginger Gold) peeled, cored. and thinly sliced–Save the peels and cores
2 tablespoons unsalted Butter, melted
3-5 tablespoons Sugar (I used 4 tablespoons)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees (375 degrees, if using a convection oven).
Remove pastry dough from the refrigerator. Unwrap and roll out onto a flour-dusted work counter.
Rolling and rotating the dough, dust with more flour to prevent sticking. Continue rolling until you’ve made a 14″-16″ thin round.
Line a baking sheet with parchment and place the rolled dough round on it.
Place the apple slices in overlapping circles on the dough, leaving a 2″ border. Crowd as many apple slices as possible.
They will cook down in the oven.
Fold the edges of the crust over the tart, creating a rustic look, leaving the center of the tart exposed.
Brush melted butter over the apples and onto the crust. Sprinkle the sugar over the crust and apples as well.
Bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes, rotating the tart after 20-22 minutes.
The crust will become golden brown, as will the edges of the apples.
While the tart bakes, make the apple syrup. (recipe below)
Remove the baked tart and let it cool for 15 minutes before brushing the apples and crust with apple syrup.
Serve warm or room temperature. Makes 8 servings.
The Apple Syrup
Reserved Apple Cores and Peels
1/2 cup Sugar
Put cores and peels into a saucepan along with sugar. Pour in water–enough to cover.
Bring to a boil, them simmer for 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid; discard the apple trimmings, and return liquid to saucepan.
Reduce on low heat for another 10-15 minutes, until it becomes thickened and syrupy.
A recipe can be deceiving. We’ve all experienced a seemingly daunting one with scrolls of ingredients, only to find that we can whip it up with panache. Conversely, there’s that recipe with, say, three ingredients that you’d think would be a breeze. And yet, it’s those simple ones that can be trickiest–and require practice. Like making pillowy-light gnocchi, or fluffy biscuits. Or creamy ricotta cheese.
I’d been wanting to make ricotta for a long time. Maggie and I researched and learned that it is, essentially, Whole Milk-Salt-Acid. Sometimes the milk is enriched with cream. The acid can be lemon juice, white vinegar or buttermilk, which is added to the milk-salt mixture after it is simmered to 180 degrees.
For our first foray into cheesemaking, we chose vinegar, as it is the most neutral in taste. We purchased a gallon of whole milk at our local Hatcher Dairy Farm.
Low and slow, the milk came up to a froth at 180 degrees. We added the vinegar, and almost immediately, the curds formed in big clumps, separating from the whey. I scooped them out and let them drain in Maggie’s floursack-lined colander.
The yield: 4 cups of cheese and 3 quarts of whey! (We saved the whey, which Maggie has since used in her breadbaking–with astonishing results. The flavors are enhanced Tenfold.)
Shortly thereafter, we spread the cheese onto toast topped with slices of Maggie’s garden tomatoes. The ricotta was a bit firmer than I had expected, but delicious nonetheless. It reminded us more of Paneer, that Indian cheese.
However, it became almost rubbery in texture, as it cooled. Had we overcooked it somehow?
I decided to experiment again, this time–a smaller batch, with added cream, and lemon juice as the acidifier.
As luck would have it, I had been asked to review a cookbook scheduled for release next month, JAM ON The Craft of Canning Fruit by Laena McCarthy. McCarthy is the founder of Anarchy in a Jar, making delectable, creative, and wildly popular artisanal jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves.
It’s a beautiful book. The photographs are stunning. Moreover, it is clear in guidance for novice and seasoned canners, and replete with fruit recipes in gorgeous combinations.
Tucked among her recipes for Grapefruit and Smoked Salt Marmalade, and Rhubarb Hibiscus Jam, I found her recipe for Homemade Ricotta. It was just as I had imagined: a small batch, made with whole milk and cream, salt, lemon juice. A-Ha!
I followed her recipe, and to my surprise, the result was almost the opposite of our previous trial. Curds were slower to form, tiny in size. McCarthy writes that this can occur with organic milk that has been ultra-homogenized. (I didn’t use my local milk this time, but Organic Valley brand.)
I let my cooked-and-curdled pot sit and cool to allow the curds to better separate. Then, I poured into my cheesecloth lined strainer. It would take some time–about a half hour—for the whey to drain off.
But what remained was lush ricotta cheese.
I cannot overstate the wonder of its texture and taste–like no other ricotta I have ever had. Rich and smooth, spreadable yet scoopable, as you can see on the spiced peach salad plate.
HOMEMADE RICOTTA from JAM ON by Laena McCarthy
3 cups Whole Milk
1 cup Heavy Cream
1/2 t. Sea Salt
3 T. fresh squeezed Lemon Juice (about 1 1/2 lemons)
non-reactive pan, candy thermometer
cheesecloth or floursack cloth, strainer or colander
In your non-reactive pan set on medium heat, bring milk, cream, and salt to a slow simmer. Stir so that the milk does not scorch or cook on the bottom. The temperature reading should be about 180 degrees F. Stir in lemon juice and reduce heat. Stir for about two minutes while cooking. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
When the mixture is cooled, you’ll notice a thickening. Pour into cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl to catch the whey. Let this drain for about an hour. Place ricotta into a clean container and refrigerate. Makes about one pint. Use within a few days.
There will be about 2 cups of whey, (much better ratio of cheese to whey than our first trial!) which some people discard. But it is terrific in breadbaking and soup making.
SIMPLE SPICED PEACHES
1 c. Cider Vinegar
1 c. Turbinado Sugar
1 inch length Cinnamon Stick
Strip of fresh Ginger
2-3 whole Allspice
3-4 whole Cloves
1/2 t. Kosher Salt
3 or more Fresh, Ripe but Firm Peaches–cut in half, pit removed
Bowl of Ice Water
Place all ingredients into a nonreactive saucepan set on medium heat. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Bring to a simmer.
Place peaches into mixture and allow to poach for about 4 minutes.
Remove peaches and plunge into ice water. The skins will come off very easily.
Drain peaches and refrigerate.
Continue cooking spiced vinegar solution until reduced by almost half. It will be syrupy.
Pour into a bowl and cool.
Place peach halves into syrup. Over the next several hours, refrigerated, they will absorb more of the sweet-sour taste. If you can wait, and let them soak overnight, they will taste even better!
(You could also make this in large quantities, put spiced peaches and syrup into mason jars and process in a hot water bath to preserve them.)
SPICED PEACH-RICOTTA SALAD (makes 4 individual salads)
4 oz. Fresh Arugula
4 oz. (or more!) fresh Ricotta
4 Spiced Peach Halves and syrup
handful of Marcona Almonds
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Mound arugula on plates.
Scoop ricotta and place onto plates.
Slice each peach halve and arrange on plate, encircling the ricotta.
Drizzle syrup over the peaches, greens, and ricotta.
Scatter almonds over the salad
Season with black pepper.
Serve with a sliced of toasted crusty bread, if you like.
Good morning, Friends!
As I write this post, squirrels and birds are finishing off the last of the plums on our little backyard tree. A frenzy, you can believe it. I don’t mind. In my kitchen, there’s a huge pot filled with simmering fruit, a pantry stashed with fresh preserves, and a table covered with bowls of the plucked, all in varying shades of red violet, awaiting their destiny.
So many plums. Too many to count!
Conditions must have been beyond ideal this year. A mild, wet winter and a warm, almost summerlike spring–our tree blossomed 2 weeks early, dazzling in its fleecy whites. Over time, its limbs became vertical, dragging the ground, overladen with ripening fruit.
In years past, I’ve been forced to act quickly, snatching plums as soon as they showed that first rosy blush, in order to garner any before my backyard menagerie decimated the crop. This year, no problem: there’s been a gracious plenty for all.
Now, what to do with them?
Friend Maggie likes to make plum jelly: long-simmer the fruit and skillfully strain it for all its juices to make a pretty, ruby-clear spread for toast.
I’m more of a jam-preserves kind of girl. I’ve been cooking down the plums in a bit of sugar, allowing their skins to dissolve into the mix. The plums are juicy and tart; I cook them with just enough sugar to bolster their flavor, while still honoring that tartness. As they soften and release their juices, I fish out the pits. (Sometimes I run the cooked plums through the food mill to accomplish that.)
I pour the preserves into sterile jars and process them in a hot water bath for 5 minutes. I also keep some handy, in sterilized, but unprocessed jars, tucked in my fridge. (This freezes well, too–for those of you leery of canning.)
This way, I have plums in a plain yet versatile form, ready to slather on crusty bread with goat cheese, ladle over ice cream, blend into a marinade for grilled chicken, or whisk into a vinaigrette. Add ginger, garlic, hoisin, and the plums take on an Asian flair. Lemon and cinnamon for an Italian plum-good cake.
In crisps or crumbles: whole ripe plums lend themselves nicely for this kind of dessert. I’ve concocted a gluten-free version that uses oatmeal and ground toasted almonds that I think you’ll enjoy. I look forward to learning your ideas, too.
Here’s a round-up of my plum goodies.
BASIC PLUM PRESERVES/SAUCE
10-12 c. whole plums, washed
2 c. Sugar
large heavy-duty stockpot, canning tongs, clean jars, lids, seals
Place plums into your large pot on medium heat. Pour in the sugar. Cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so. Uncover. Spoon off the foam collected on the top. Stir and continue to simmer, uncovered for another 15 minutes or so.
When the skins seem to have melted into the liquid, and the flesh of the fruit gives way, you can begin straining the plum pits. Some you will see floating in the red sea–just spoon them out. For the rest, set a strainer over a large bowl, and begin pour the cooked plum and juices through. Press with the back of a wooden spoon to crush the fruit and release the pits. Or, run the plum-mix through a food mill set with the largest openings. You’ll get a lush puree. And the color, a knock-out!
Return the puree to the pot and cook for another 5 minutes.
Pour into sterile mason jars, seal and process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.
Makes 6 half pints.
PLUM VINAIGRETTE/GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD
3 T. White Wine Vinegar
6 T. Plum Preserves
1/2 t. Black Pepper
1/2 t. Salt
1/2 c. fruity Olive Oil
Place all the ingredients except for the olive oil into a bowl. Whisk (or use a hand-held immersion blender) until combined. The plum preserve acts as an emulsifier. Slowly add the olive oil while blending. Makes a thick creamy vinaigrette.
For the Grilled Chicken Salad:
2 boneless Chicken Breasts
1 bunch of mixed lettuces
1/4 lb. Sugar Snap Peas
2 Green Onions
2-3 Nasturtium flowers
Slather a couple of tablespoons of the plum vinaigrette onto boneless chicken breasts and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours.
Grill char the sugar snaps and green onions.
Grill the chicken breasts. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing onto salad.
Compose Salad: bed of lettuces, charred sugar snaps and green onions. Sprinkle with nasturtium leaves for color and peppery bite.
Place sliced grilled chicken on top and dress with plum vinaigrette.
GLUTEN-FREE PLUM CRUMBLE
1/2 c. Oatmeal
1/2 c. Almonds, toasted and finely ground
1/3 c. Turbinado Sugar
4 T. melted Butter
2 c. sliced ripe Plums (about a dozen)
9″ pie dish
Toast almonds in the oven and cool. Place into the food processor fitted with a swivel blade and pulse until the nuts achieve a powdery form.
Mix ground almonds, oats, brown sugar and melted butter. Add a pinch of cinnamon, if you like.
Take half of the mixture and press it onto the bottom and sides of a 9″ pie pan.
Slice plums and arrange in overlapping concentric rings on top of the crust. Continue until the dish is well filled. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and dot with butter.
Take remaining almond-oatmeal crust and press over the top.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
Delicious served warm with vanilla or ginger ice cream. Garnish with some plum sauce. Serves 6-8
My friend Allison confessed that she was becoming a hoarder. Not in the Crazy Reality TV way–thank goodness. More like in the Fill the Pantry with Good Food way. She had been buying big crates of citrus–Cara Cara oranges, and organic lemons—and making batches of marmalades, limoncello, lemon curd, preserved lemons, and the like. And, she still hadn’t made much of a dent in her purchase. So I was very happy to be the recipient of a bag of these luscious fruits, along with a pretty jar of her Cara Cara marmalade.
There’s nothing to match the power and versatility of the mighty lemon, whose juice and fragrant zest elevate all manner of sweet and savory things. And, as my initial foray into 2012 has been marked with a little slump in the kitchen, a gaze at the cooktop and cutting board with a world-weary eye, I recognized Allison’s kind gift as more than a bag of excess citrus trying find a home. No.
It was lemons to the rescue.
Just seeing them in the welcome sunlight this afternoon was a lift alone.
Lemons for Dinner? You bet.
My cousin Cathy and her husband John are both avid cooks. Whenever we get together, we love to share recipes and cook. Last visit, Cathy brought a lemon-based pasta recipe from her collection to prepare. “Capelli d’Angelo Olio e Limone” or Olive Oil and Lemon Angel Hair, from the 1997 cookbook Pastissima! Pasta the Italian Way was simple–deceptively so. There were few ingredients—a sauce comprised of onion cooked in a fair amount of olive oil, mixed with a lot of lemon juice, tossed throughout pasta, and dusted with parmesan.
It took mere minutes to make—and was truly delicious.
The lemons today inspired my to recreate the dish—with a few modifications. Rather than using onion, I substituted a leek. Lemon and leek are terrific together, and the strips of light green tangled throughout the pasta bring welcome color.
Other change-ups include red pepper flakes for bite, over black pepper, and pecorino-romano for pungency, over parmesan.
Without question, this pasta would be a fine foundation for a plank of grilled fish, a tender fillet of trout, even a scatter of lump crabmeat. But solo, it is exceptional, light yet rich, with a pleasant tang. It’s the kind of toss that accentuates the angel hair, rather than masking it with a complex sauce. So use your best here–DeCecco’s Capellini No.9 has been a constant favorite.
This romaine salad is one that I refer to as a “Mock Caesar”—it lacks the depth that anchovies bring to the traditional version, but is just right for the Vegetarian in my household.
Here lemon juice, roasted garlic cloves, and extra virgin olive oil cream up together into a vibrant dressing, generously tossed on chopped romaine leaves mixed with some finely sliced red cabbage.
Again, simple ingredients—simply assembled. It’s more a matter of using your best. Roasting the garlic brings out an inherent sweetness, and the softened cloves act as an emulsifier in the lemon-forward dressing. A crusty piece of ciabatta transforms readily into croutons. Sprinkle some fresh thyme over the cubed bread before toasting for an welcome herbal note.
With this salad and pasta, you can let the lemony sunshine in.
CAPELLINI WITH LEMON, LEEKS, AND OLIVE OIL (adapted from Pastissima! Pasta the Italian Way by Leonardo Castellucci
1 Leek, finely sliced
1/3 cup Olive Oil
Juice of 1 1/2 large Lemons
Red Pepper Flakes
1/2 cup shedded Pecorino-Romano
6 ounces Capellini (DeCecco is excellent)
Heat olive oil on medium in a skillet or cast-iron pot. Add the leeks, and cook for about 5 minutes, until they become soft. Cook the capellini according to package directions–about 2 minutes in a large pot of salted boiling water. Drain well.
Place pasta in the pot with the leeks and olive oil. Sprinkle with sea salt, red pepper flakes (a couple of pinches) and pour lemon juice over all. Add most of the shredded cheese, reserving some to garnish the top of the pasta after it is served. Toss well, so that the lemon, olive oil, and leeks coat all the strands of pasta.
Serve in warm bowls. Dust with more pecorino. Enjoy!
Makes 2 generous servings.
ROMAINE SALAD WITH ROASTED GARLIC-LEMON DRESSING
1 head Romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and chopped
1 cup Red Cabbage, very finely sliced
2 cups homemade Croutons (cubed from a good crusty loaf, tossed in olive oil, seasoned with salt, black pepper, fresh thyme–toasted in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned)
1 cup shredded Pecorino-Romano
Juice from 1/2 large Lemon
3 Garlic Cloves, oven-roasted
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Cracked Black Pepper
In a salad bowl, assemble romaine, red cabbage, croutons and shredded pecorino.
In a measuring cup or small mixing bowl, place lemon juice, roasted garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Using the immersion blender, begin mixing. The garlic will cream into the lemon juice. Add the olive oil slowly, and continue blending. Taste for seasoning.
Pour over salad greens and toss well. Serves 4
Serendipity and A Tale of Quinces
I had never seen a quince, let alone eaten one, but the benevolent forces aligned last week…
It started the morning I read Rachel’s latest blogpost, “Quincing My Words.” Her description of this odd but intriguing fruit drew me right in: Illusive. Ancient. Properly Sensual.
Picture, if you will, a bulbous cross between an apple and a pear, with a heady fragrance both floral and citric.
My mind whirled, imagining its heft and scent, a fruit both exotic and seductive. (Perhaps these were the love apples of Venus?) I could envision bowls of quinces perfuming kitchens of antiquity, and prized trees laden with great yellow-green knobs planted outside Persian homes.
Rachel made the quince sound paradisaical, something from a dream. I doubted that I’d ever have the chance to taste this fruit, but enjoyed the read, and went about my day. My cousin Cathy was soon arriving to visit, and speak at the Southern Festival of Books.
That night we went to Anatolia’s, our favorite Turkish restaurant, and Cathy inquired about dessert.
“We have a special tonight,” our waiter said. “Baked quince. It is stuffed with walnuts and pistachios and we top it with cream. It is beautiful dessert, only here for a few weeks.”
He presented the confection, half an oblong fruit baked firm but spoon-supple, its center filled with a mixture of finely chopped nuts, cinnamon, and sugar. The pastry chef had garnished it with sweetened whipped cream and a scatter of pomegranate seeds.
The quince was like nothing else I’d ever eaten. Its texture much firmer than apples or pears–but smooth, not grainy–and its sweet-tart taste embodying a bit of both, but with layers of lemon and rose.
The whipped cream indeed gilded the lily, and the pomegranate seeds were little tangy firecracker bursts in each bite. Sublime!
And so was born our mission to seek them out, and recreate the dish.
The next day, Cathy and I began our quince quest. First stop: Whole Foods, as recommended by the waiter at Anatolia’s. No luck. We drove across town to a large global market, again to no avail. And then Cathy made this observation, “This is a Middle Eastern dessert. We need to shop at a Middle Eastern market. Do you have one?”
Of course! We motored from the west side of town to the southside, out Nolensville Road, Nashville’s diverse global corridor for shopping and dining. A sign with distinctive script advertising fruits, vegetables, and Halal meats held promise but its owner had sad news; he had sold out a couple of days ago. “I have a friend. He may have some at his store.” He made the call, turned to us and said, “Only two pieces.”
Sold. Two would be all we needed.
Blocks away, there they were, awaiting us, in a small market that held other delicacies worth exploring.
You’ll notice a light downy fuzz covering the quince that you’ll need to rinse off. And, until cooked, they remain devilishly hard. The yellower the quince, the riper. But, the oven-poach will transform even a green quince into a wondrous thing.
At the Turkish restaurant, they may have baked the quince in some rosewater–a splendid idea. We chose pear nectar and lemon, which imparted lovely notes to the poach, and its resulting caramel-like sauce.
When Cathy visits, she likes to bring recipes for me to try. The wedge you’ve seen plated with our quince is Oat Pudding, a simple rustic dessert from the Friuli region of Italy that Cathy had been making recently. We knew that this pudding would be an ideal accompaniment to the fruit.
OVEN-POACHED QUINCES, STUFFED WITH WALNUTS AND PISTACHIOS
2 Quinces, cut in half, and cored
1/4 c. Pistachios, finely chopped
1/4 c. Walnuts, finely chopped
3 T. Sugar
1/2 t. Cinnamon
2 T. Butter
1 1/2 cups Pear Nectar (or juice)
1 1/2 cups Water
1 Lemon, cut into strips
Optional: Pomegranate seeds (taken from a quarter section)
lightly sweetened Whipped Cream
You’ll need a good sharp knife for this. The quinces are hard-hard, but will remarkably soften and yield their marvelous flavor in a long oven-poach.
Mix water and pear nectar in a deep casserole dish. Add lemon strips.
Mix nuts, sugar, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Press nut mixture into the center core of each quince half. Dot with butter.
Place each half, facing up, into the pear-water bath. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated 325 degree oven. Bake for an hour and uncover. Baste the quinces. Bake uncovered for another 20-30 minutes.
Serve warm, and drizzle the caramelized juices over the quince.
2 Quince=4 large half-size servings, or 8 nice wedges to eat with Oat Pudding.
adapted from Recipes from an Italian Farmhouse by Valentina Harris
1 1/4 c. Oatmeal
2 1/2 c. Milk
4 Egg Yolks
7 T. Sugar
2 T. Pear Nectar
Spread oatmeal on a baking sheet and toast in a 225 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.
Bring milk to a boil. Sprinkle in oatmeal, lower the heat, and stir constantly for about 10 minutes. Add more milk if the mixture seems too stiff. Remove from heat.
For a smooth pudding: puree oatmeal in a blender. For heartier texture, leave the mixture as is.
Beat egg yolks until fluffy and light lemon colored. Add sugar and beat for at least 5 minutes longer. Fold into oatmeal mixture and cook on low heat for 7 minutes, stirring until thickened and custardy.
Coat the bottom of a small mixing bowl with pear nectar. Pour in oat pudding mixture. Chill for at least 4 hours. Turn out and serve.
What good meal could you make for under five dollars?
Slow Food USA initiated this cooking challenge, one which meshed nicely with our Third Thursday Community Potluck this month. In a rough economy, and an ever-widening “food gap,” knowing how to prepare tasty, nutritious food at an affordable price is a crucial survival tool.
Calling it “The $5 Challenge,” Slow Food encouraged potluck gatherings to share “true value meals.” Last Saturday, 30,000 people allover the country came together to dine on these good dishes, all made with fresh ingredients, and costing less, per person, than an Abe Lincoln. Recipes from these events will be amassed and shared.
Informally, our Third-Thursday group did the same, although we kept our potluck on its given day, rather than the Saturday, as suggested by Slow Food. In the quest for community—and tasty affordable food—we didn’t think a couple of days mattered. It’s part of our monthly pursuit anyway.
And, serendipity, we had already chosen a “Breakfast for Dinner” theme. That meal provides plenty of hearty, nutritious, and inexpensive dishes: Omelettes, vegetable frittatas, mock souffles, noodle kugels, cheese grits casseroles, and the like.
We know that cooking seasonally, using of-the-moment produce, is far more cost-effective.
In Nashville, fall is in air. Bushels of apples and potatoes are plentiful at the market. With that in mind, I chose to make a batch of fresh applesauce, and my crispy potato pancakes. Both are ridiculously simple, and “cheap” recipes–short on ingredients, but long on satisfaction.
I hadn’t considered applesauce in a long time, although it’s something that I associate, in a pleasant way, with childhood. It was one of the acceptable things that this super-picky eater would deign to let past her lips.
We always had jars of Mott’s Applesauce on the shelf, something my beleaguered mother could count on to spoon onto my plate, and not be met with eyes of abject horror or disgust.
But nothing could be easier than making a pot a fresh applesauce. Core and rough-chop the apples–leave their peels on. Cook them down with a little lemon, brown sugar, and cinnamon–that’s really it. (This could be adapted to a slow-cooker–throw everything into the pot, and let it go all day, while you work.)
The peels mostly dissolve as the apples soften into a chunky sauce, providing flavor, nutrients, and needed pectin to thicken. If you want a smoother sauce, you can run the cooked mixture through the food mill.
Ginger Gold Apples, with their pale green skins tinged with rosy blush, proved to be a good choice. They have a bright, pleasing balance of sweet and tart.
Pommes-de-terre, Aardappelen, Potatoes are indeed the Apples of the Earth! We love potatoes in all iterations.
My potato pancake, or latkes, recipe is gluten-free. Years ago I would add flour, but learned later that there was no need; there’s enough natural starch in the potato to accommodate. Eggs add a little protein, and help bind the crispy shreds together.
What’s not to love about these little potato nests? Crunchy golden brown goodness, with a hint of sweet onion in the mix…they make terrific accompaniments to any meal, breakfast or not.
What I must note about the $5 challenge: it’s an easier one to meet, if you are cooking for a group. (And, likewise, if that group is sharing dishes, in the potluck spirit!)
My big batch of potato pancakes cost just about $5, and fed a crowd. Making 30, that’s almost 17 cents a cake. The applesauce cost less, around $4, and was delicious in its own right, or dolloped onto the potatoes.
But I think that we would all be hard-pressed to consistently create well-rounded meals for under $5 a person, especially if cooking for one or two. And many today have less than that to work with.
I lead a charmed life, and I am grateful for it. I am generally frugal, but have the where-with-all to buy, cook, and enjoy more expensive foods. And that’s fine. But access to basic, affordable good food should be a right, not a privilege. It’s important to share our knowledge, so that people can cook delicious meals using fresh food for themselves and their families.
Have you got a favorite inexpensive dish to share?
6 large tart green apples, such as Ginger Golds
1/2 cup Demerara Sugar
1 Cinnamon Stick
1 Lemon, quartered
Core and rough-chop apples. Place into a large saucepan on gentle heat. Add brown sugar, lemon quarters, and cinnamon stick. Cover and allow apples to cook on slow medium heat, for about thirty minutes. Stir occasionally. Covered, the natural juices will release, condense, and fall back into the apple mixture. The peels will mostly dissolve and add their natural pectin.
Remove cinnamon stick, lemon peels. Serve warm or cold.
Makes about 4 cups of applesauce.
POTATO PANCAKES (gluten-free)
4 lbs. Yukon Gold Potatoes
1 large Yellow Onion
4 large Eggs
2 t. Sea Salt
1 t. Cracked Black Pepper
2 t. Paprika
canola oil for frying
1 T. butter to season the oil (optional)
Shred potatoes (I used the food processor with the shredder attachment.) and place into a large mixing bowl. Finely dice the onion and toss in with the potatoes.
In a separate bowl, whip eggs, sea salt, black pepper, and paprika together. Pour over potato-onion mix. Toss well so that everything is well coated.
Heat a skillet and pour in canola oil, about 1/2″. Melt in a tablespoon of butter, if you’d like to flavor this neutral a bit.
With a slotted spoon, scoop up a small mound of shredded potato mix and place in hot oil. Repeat until the skillet is filled but take care not to crowd. (I fit 4 at a time.) Cook for about 3 minutes—look for crispy brown edges. Wait for the right “brown-ness” before flipping with a spatula.
Rotate in the pan, as needed, so that the ‘cakes brown evenly.
Place cooked potato cakes onto a metal grid to drain, (or paper towels).
Note: As the mixture sits, some of the water from the potatoes will release into the mixture. This is not a problem. Continually stir, lifting out each mound with the slotted spoon, leaving some of that liquid behind.
Makes about 30 crispy potato pancakes
Next month, I will be one of several chefs involved in a fundraising dinner for our food bank. To a group of 80 guests, we’ll be serving a multi-coursed Tasting Menu. Much fun, this allows for a wide swath of creativity on diminutive plates. I had been asked to prepare something salad-like, something to follow a soup course.
What to make?
I knew, of course, that it would be a seasonal dish. And, I wanted it to be meatless. Many of the chefs had picked a protein— beef, pork, tuna, duck, lamb, bison–for their centerpiece, so I wanted a departure from that. I also had a sense, with the wealth of good food ideas that I am connected to through blogging, that my inspiration was close at hand.
When I came upon this Pear and Walnut Crema Tart on Joyti’s splendid site Darjeeling Dreams, I got excited. Walnut crema! Her description of its taste and simplicity of execution sold me. Alone, the crema seemed incredible, but her presentation–layered with pears, thyme, mascarpone in a savory crust, would be nothing short of sublime.
I could envision a delectable sliver on a small plate, served alongside a ruffle of arugula, sheerly dressed. A drizzle of floral honey, perhaps, over the tart, or, better yet–a lemon-honey infused vinaigrette.
It was time to get to work, test out the recipe, and see how it would work for a large dinner party.
Following Joyti’s direction, I made the walnut crema first. I didn’t have shallots on hand, as her recipe lists, only garlic, which I cooked in the pot with the walnuts. While the walnuts were simmering to tenderness, I made my pastry dough. Both crema and dough can be made a day in advance—and actually benefit from an overnight stay in the refrigerator.
The crema took on the look and texture of hummus, and the walnut flavor, surprisingly deepened in the simmer, had nothing sharp or acrid. This is the sort of sauce, or pesto, that would be quite delicious tossed over pasta or served over roasted vegetables, like asparagus.
1 cup Walnuts
2 small cloves Garlic
4 T. Olive Oil
Place ingredients into a 2 qt. saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and let simmer for 12-15 minutes. Drain, reserving a little “walnut water.”
Place into a food processor fitted with the swivel blade and pulse until chopped finely. Add olive oil and process until smooth, adding a tablespoon or 2 of the walnut water as well, so that the walnut crema will have the look and texture of hummus. Taste for salt.
Refrigerate tightly wrapped for at least overnight so that flavors will develop well. Keeps about a week, wrapped and refrigerated.
The following day, I gathered my ingredients. I peeled the pears–these were tough-skinned, from the country—but the pears that you use might have a delicate skin that will bake nicely. Use your judgement about that.
I made a few adaptations along the way.
Joyti’s recipe calls for mascarpone or cream cheese. I had a log of mild, tangy goat cheese that I thought could work well. (Use whatcha got!) I had no lemon thyme, but lemon and thyme.
I also compressed her recipe steps, somewhat. She calls for blind-baking the pastry shell, then filling it, and broiling it. For my large dinner group, I decided that it would be better for me to bake the shell and its filling all together.
It didn’t take long to assemble this appealing tart.
Before I placed it in the oven, I brushed some melted butter across the slices, to insure some glazy browning. Happy-Happy with the results.
The tart had a lovely crispened shell–sides and bottom. Walnut bits toasted across the pear-laden top. It cut easily, retaining integrity of layers, even when sliced into delicate pieces.
You’ll notice an inherent sweetness from the pears and bit of lemon, balanced by the tangy chevre, and anchored by the walnut crema.
It’s a simple, beautiful dish in all aspects–you could serve it as appetizer course, a fruit/cheese course in lieu of dessert. And, when paired with winter greens and honey vinaigrette, will be a stunning plate for the special fundraising dinner.
SAVORY PEAR-WALNUT CREMA TART
adapted from Darjeeling Dreams, with thanks to Joyti
1 recipe My Basic Pie Crust (click here )
1 batch of Walnut Crema
4-5 oz Goat Cheese
2-3 ripe Pears (could be Bosc, Anjou, Bartlett–I used a rustic country pear of unknown name from Maggie’s tree!)
Lemon–for zest (1 T.) and Juice (to squeeze over sliced pears)
1 T. melted Butter
a few sprigs fresh Thyme
a few Walnut halves and pieces
10″ pie pan or quiche/tart pan
Roll out pastry dough, place into pan and crimp edges. Spread walnut crema over the bottom, and follow with crumbled goat cheese. Peel and core pears, and slice thinly.
Lay out the slices, one slightly overlapping the other, in concentric circles, pressing the pieces gently into the layer of crema and cheese.
Squeeze a little lemon juice over the slices, and sprinkle the zest. Finish with a sprinkle of thyme leaves and walnut bits.
Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 25 minutes.
Makes 8 generous servings, or 16 cocktail “tasting plate” servings.
When Gigi planted a fig tree on the border of her urban garden four years ago, she had no idea that it would take to the place with such ardor. But the tree settled right in to its new home, rapidly spreading upward and outward: a sprawl of great leafed branches ultimately producing hundreds of honeyed knobs of fruit. “It seems very happy here,” we both observed. “This could be the year of the fig.”
Throughout July and August, I’d get calls from Gigi, field reports you might say, about the status of the figs.
“If these all ripen, well, this is one rockin’ fig tree,” was one update.
“Thousands of figs! I picked two 5lb. baskets in less than an hour.” was another.
Over weeks, and as the summer heat became more severe, Gigi cultivated a relationship with the beloved tree; to me, it was really a reverence:
“It’s unbearably hot, and I keep telling her how wonderful she is, making all this fruit.” She set up a special watering system, “I told her I’d take care of her. I know she’s thirsty.”
To date, She has produced enough figs to make 100 pints of preserves. One hundred pints from a four-year-old tree! It seems unimaginable—
but true! Despite temperatures stuck in the nineties and rainfall spare, Gigi’s mighty fig tree became so laden with plump fruit you could easily pick a basketful in no time at all.
Which, given the intense heat and the sticky milky mess that you get allover your hands and arms from picking, was a very good thing.
Gigi set up a system of ladders and planks within the inner sanctum of the tree, cloaked under the leafy branches. It was with childlike glee that I clambered up and around the limbs, concealed from the outer world, immersed in the heady enclave of fig leaves and fruit.
And, soon, I had picked a large bowlful of figs, most dark purple, some yellow-green with a flush of rouge, all exquisite, ripe, and beautiful.
It was time to try something new with my fig bounty. Last year, I made luscious preserves with Maggie. Gigi had already been playing with different recipes: cutting back on the sugar, adding ginger to some batches, orange juice in another, and white balsamic vinegar in yet another. All methods were cooked on the stovetop. While each batch was delicious, none had the figgy caramel syrup she was seeking.
Then, one afternoon, I got a text: “Roasting is the way.”
Why, of course! But wait, another text followed–
“No olive oil. Sugar and white balsamic vinegar only. 425 degrees.”
A-ha! (Love the economy of a texted recipe.)
After carefully rinsing my figs, I placed them on a baking sheetpan, along with a few wedges of lemon–my addition. Then, I dusted with sugar, sprinkled white balsamic vinegar over the batch, and put them into that hot oven to roast. It didn’t take long—ten minutes or so—and the figs got puffed and charred, coated in a rich caramel created from melting of the sugar, vinegar, and natural fig juices. It was amazing.
After scraping into jars, I processed some in a hot water bath, as I had with Maggie’s figs, but kept one jar in the fridge–ready for this pizza I’ve been dreaming about since we first made it last year, about this time.
Covered with roasted figs, shaved gorgonzola, leeks, and ripples of prosciutto, this is one dreamy pizza. And, don’t forget–A few sprigs of rosemary, and drizzle of the figgy syrup takes the dream to wonderland.
ROASTED FIG-PROSCIUTTO-GORGONZOLA PIZZA
1 pkg. Dry Active Yeast (2 t.)
1 c. warm Water
1 3/4 c. Unbleached All Purpose Flour
1/2 c. Rye Flour
2 t. Sea Salt
1 T. Olive Oil
Sprinkle yeast into bowl of water, stir well, and let stand for 5 minutes to activate the yeast. Combine yeast water in a mixing bowl with flours, salt, olive oil. Mix until it forms into a ball. It will be moist, but not sticky. Cover and allow to rise for one hour.
Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface. Divide into two and form into balls. Cover and refrigerate, if you are not going to use immediately.
Otherwise, let stand out for 30 minutes, then roll out into whatever pizza shape—round, oblong, rectangle—suits you. Use additional flour, as needed, to prevent sticking.
Cover with toppings, and bake in a very hot oven–450 degrees–until browned and bubbly–10 minutes.
Roasted Figs and their syrup
Shaved (or crumbled) Gorgonzola Cheese