Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snowy day food

The blizzard came and went and spoiled plans. Christmas was Christmassy, with all of us gathered at Ben’s parents house out in Sag Harbor, the usual happy blur of candles, presents, turkey, and wine. Our collective pack of dogs kept things interesting, all five of them running in and out of the house, alternately sparring with one another and storming the table.
And the next morning, we awoke to a sweet garnish of flurries. Except those flurries began to thicken and whip about in earnest as the wind picked up, and when accumulation became a reality we thought to check the forecast–and the status of our flight to Denver the next day. By noon our flight and all others were nonexistent, with nothing else until the 30th. Nothing. Not even working airports, as it turned out. Our visions of gliding through powder in the Rockies vanished.

Down with an awful cold, I watched the blizzard beat against the window as the day wore on. I watched as Ben made the best of it, rallying the girls to roll a snowman out in the front yard, their heads bowed against the gales howling off the Long Island sound, giggles rising above it all as they poked in walnuts for eyes. From inside, the din from those winds crescendoed to a high whistling whine in the nighttime hours, as though we were holed up inside a medieval fortress.

The snowstorm was shaping up to be the Grinch of Christmas 2010…except, like the Grinch, the snowstorm’s heart grew a few sizes and decided to give something back. Because the next day, when we returned–and oh, what a return–we got to experience New York at its New Yorkiest, New York in the hush and beauty and excitement of a big new snow. There’s really nothing like it. Except we relied too confidently on memories of past snowstorms and swift plowings, and we didn't quite realize there was twice as much snow where we were going than where we had been. Our neighborhood, buried under a 20-inch blanket of white, had become a maze of heaped streets and more than a handful of abandoned vehicles–including multiple ambulances and taxis wedged sideways in the middle of major throughways.

We drove around searching in vain for clear passages, feeling the fools for motoring at all, especially in a car lacking four wheel drive. People were using main streets as sidewalks, as cross-country ski trails, as snowshoe paths; they were the wise ones. Eventually we did find a way to our front door, barreling the wrong direction up our one-way street, which was blocked at the other end by a stranded van. Then, just as we squeezed ourselves out of the car, our friends Lauren and Jon happened along and sprang into action, helping us unload all our luggage and loot while their son distracted our daughters from their catfight of the moment. We didn’t even have to ask–they were just there. That’s our neighborhood for you.

Later, the car safe in a garage (street parking is not happening for anyone, for a while), we went out into the deserted streets, feeling like pioneers in a new landscape. In the yellowy light we walked up Henry, past a paralyzed taxi, past the school, past ghostly Christmas decorations and twinkling strings of lights. The unmanned vehicles, buttressed by wind-chiseled drifts, created a sense of suspended animation that could have been an elaborate art installation. Our daughters dove into the best playscape ever: snow heaps to scale and slide, pristine drifts to destroy, smooth planes offering the perfect canvases for snow angels. My four-year-old reclined blissfully into the banks, experiencing the sensation of simultaneous floating and sinking.  On Amity, an ambulance that had been left for dead attempted to extricate itself from a headlock with a parked SUV, in the process grinding headlights and crunching metal. Further up, a van spun its wheels until some guys with Vermont plates offered to push it out of its rut with their own car.

We tumbled gratefully into our good Japanese restaurant up the street, peeling off layers of ski gear and absorbing the indoor heat, ordering miso soup and hot edamame. Then came eel and yellowtail for the grownups, avocado and cucumber rolls and sticky rice for the little ones. We nearly had the place to ourselves, the moody globe lamps and cheery Japanese waitresses and French chanteuses on the stereo. Chopsticks for all, the children's rigged with beginner hinges. And for dessert: green tea ice cream four ways and cups of roasted barley tea, then back on with the gear and back out into the streets, where the occasional drama of dig-outs continued. And as we fell asleep, our windows admitted that unique glow that happens when millions of icy crystals refract the street lights into our rooms.

What did we miss? Good skiing, Fat Tire, time with my family and with friends I only see out there these days. Colorado and is another home to me. It's where I spent my Christmases ages 14 through 26. But New York truly is home now, in the realest sense, and it took a massive snowstorm to remind me of that. A snowstorm that recalled some of my earliest winter days in the City, during the honeymoon phase, when I was initiated into that sense of benign anarchy only a New York snowstorm can create (we all know, in the end, that the able army of plows will save us, so we enjoy it while we can). It's also when you come face to face with your neighbors, who are grumbling but secretly cheerful as they shovel their sidewalks in their bomber hats. We're all in it together.
The next morning, the spell was broken as more roads got cleared and people took matters in their own hands, digging out portions of streets themselves and carving parking spaces along the sides. Cars moved through. Salt uncovered more of the sidewalks and the less-white blanket began to reveal just how filthy the city really is: soot, garbage, dog pee, and grease streaking from restaurants' back doors stained it as the day went on. Out of the melting piles hidden bikes will emerge and lost mittens will materialize. In our house the cautionary towels and piles of soggy boots will remain by the front door for a while, and hearty, sustaining fare will simmer away on our stove well into March. We will be more carnivorous than in warmer months. 

Yesterday, I hadn't made it to the store since our return, and as it happened I didn't need to: in October I had picked up gorgeous, grass-fed beef shanks from Grazin' Angus Acres, at the tiny but excellent Carroll Street greenmarket. They awaited in the freezer for just such an occasion as being snowbound, and I had the other necessary components as well: root vegetables from our CSA, frozen homemade stocks, frozen tomato puree from our winter CSA, and a splash of leftover wine. I even managed to uncover some chilly but fragrant rosemary from our herb "garden." 
What resulted could barely be called an osso buco, as that traditional Milanese dish is made from veal. Even though I know of sources for humanely-raised veal, I still can't bring myself to eat it (and although we eat more meat in winter, I always source it from responsible farms). But it's the same cut–a shank bone–just a more rustic and improvised preparation: beef stew with the drama of a marrow bone. Since it's a muscular (hence flavorful) cut of meat, a long braising time is needed, and to that I tack on a resting period; overnight is best, but if that's not possible the dish can be cooked in morning, rested for the remainder of the day, then re-heated for dinner. Traditionally the Milanese serve their osso buco with risotto, but since this was a bastardized version of the classic, and I had all those roots on hand, I made Mario Batali's "turnip risotto", from Simple Italian Food. It's a lot of meat, so whatever we can't finish gets thrown back into the braising liquid and saved as a beef stew that's even better the next day.

Beef Shank "Osso Buco" for two
  • 2 beef shanks, cut crosswise about 2 inches thick
  • Kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped 
  • 1 cup (give or take) wine, red or white
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
  • 2 tsp. thyme leaves, chopped
  • 16 oz. tomato puree, or whole, peeled tomatoes 
Salt and pepper the shanks. Heat a dutch oven (Le Creuset style, with lid) that will comfortably fit shanks, add oil and brown the shanks on all sides. Remove and pour off any excess oil. Add onions to the pan and sauté for a few minutes, then add garlic, carrots, and celery and sauté for a few minutes more. Remove from pan and set aside. 

Deglaze plan with wine, simmer a few minutes, and add shanks back in along with the herbs. Cover with the stock and enough water to submerge completely, bring back up to a simmer and allow to simmer gently for about an hour, uncovered. After an hour, add tomatoes and vegetables and simmer these for 2 more hours, or until meat is falling off the bone and tender. Skim off any grease, and taste and add more salt, if needed. Allow to rest overnight or for a few hours, and serve with gremolata (below) sprinkled on top. Serve with risotto, mashed potatoes, or turnip "risotto" below.

  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced 
Stir ingredients together and sprinkle on top of shanks. All that garlic, I imagine, is good for fighting winter colds.

Turnip "Risotto"
Adapted from Mario Batali, Simple Italian Food
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced fine
2 large turnips, cut as evenly as possible into 1/8-inch dice
2 cups hot chicken stock
salt and pepper
1/3 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

In a large skillet, melt butter and gently sauté shallots until softened. Add turnips and cook a couple minutes, stirring so they cook evenly, without browning. Add chicken stock a ladleful at a time, and stir until stock is absorbed. Repeat with remaining stock until turnips are tender and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in grated cheese (and more butter, if you wish), about 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

London calling

Most people have their family reunions in summer–at least that’s what I’ve always believed, since the ones I attended growing up centered around rivers or feral lawns, and my bare knees always emerged pink and scuffed from the festivities. But the family that Ben and I have created is a little backwards, and we try to get it all in during coat season. Virginia is for Thanksgiving, New York and Colorado are for Christmas, and we’ve taken to visiting England in between, in order to see the brigade of aunties, uncles, cousins–and most importantly Ben’s Granny, who doesn’t travel any more. I suppose we could accomplish this over summer vacation without pulling our kids from school, but then we would miss out on London’s sparkly pre-Christmas vibe, and the fun of taking the girls to see dignified “Father Christmas” instead of the more clownish American Santa (FYI: Father Christmas requests mince pies and sherry for Christmas Eve sustenance). Another reason for enjoying London in December is the typically mild weather, conducive to getting out and strolling the festive streets at night. Except this time around things were a little…backwards.
We arrived to a shell-shocked London, a snowstorm having just whipped through and shut down Gatwick airport for two days. The Brits were complaining bitterly about the minus-two (Celsius) temperatures, newspapers proclaiming things like “England is in the grips of once-in-a-lifetime deep freeze.” Scotland was especially hard hit. There were stories of people falling through ice after attempting to rescue marooned pets (“If your dog falls into freezing water”, one article counseled, “resist the temptation to go after it.”). My amusement over all this panic wore off as soon as I realized that most of the places we went did not have boilers designed to keep up with the sub freezing temps, so even though we like to think we're winter warriors, we found ourselves shivering along with the rest of them. It was an inverted version of the summer we spent in London, in 2003, when I had packed raincoats and sweaters, only to be socked with a record heat wave and no A.C. (meanwhile, a damp, gray, London-like summer was playing out back home in New York, where my sundresses hung).
London is a comfortable city, aside from the over-the-top prices. The first time I visited, I felt like I had lived there in a former life, the buildings and streets and sounds already familiar. It’s not a city that grabs me like Paris can, but it feels happy and genuinely fun. I'm thrilled by its history and eclectic architecture, and tickled by its quirks. Here are a few highlights from the trip:

Winter Wonderland: Who knew that the European, wintertime equivalent of one of our beloved country fairs would be waiting in Hyde Park, just steps from our hotel? A dusting of snow made the whole setting deserve its name and also seemed to scare off the crowds. Bleary from jet lag, we stumbled into a blazing and blipping carnival world of rides, bavarian-themed food booths, and games of skill and chance; archery with real live arrows was one, and I gave it a whirl without any success. 
Top Tea: As we walked out of the park my 6-year-old was silent for a moment then asked “are we going to have top tea now?” It took us a second to realize she meant High Tea, which I don’t know if anyone under the age of 70 takes anymore, so we humored her and went to Ladurée for macarons. It wasn’t very English apart from being adjacent to Harrods, where we had just stood in line waiting to see Father Christmas only to be told he was “all booked up.” The sweets softened the disappointment, and both girls fell asleep on our laps, in a dreamy haze of jet lag and pastries.

Double-Decks: My four-year old, from the moment we landed, demanded we ride on a "double deck" (bus, that is).  She didn't care where we went, she just wanted to climb aboard and look down on London from dizzying heights. Finally, on our last day, her wish was granted and she and her sister snagged the front seat up top.
Plumbing curiosities: I didn't consider waterworks much when I spent time in London before kids, but this time around I couldn't escape them, mainly because of all the questions I had to answer each time we visited a new loo. Traveling with children is funny like that: you're more acutely entertained by things you would have barely noticed before. Like English lavatories, where you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Flushers may need to be held down or may have to be pumped vigorously a couple of times to get things going. Or, there might be a rope dangling from a water tank above the loo. My daughters were endlessly confused and amused. At the sink, you more often than not get separate taps for hot and cold. I’m perplexed by the fact that the British can engineer state-of-the-art green skyscrapers but can’t figure out how to mix hot and cold water together–so you end up freezing one hand and scalding the other. And when you're finished, the now ubiquitous Dyson Airblade awaits. It resembles a modern cross between stocks and a guillotine, and once you work up the courage to insert your hands inside, the blower lets out a deafening, high-pitched roar that never failed to set both my daughters howling.

Those Phone booths: they're so delightfully British and I hope they never get phased out, even in a future where land lines become obsolete. But I've never once seen anyone making a call in them. They seem to function solely as strange, free-standing galleries for X-rated flyers.

Museum of London: Ben's cousins suggested we all meet up there, since it would be deserted on a Saturday (it's in the City, the equivalent of NYC's financial district). We had the whole place to ourselves! The exhibits were perfectly portioned for the kids, who got to learn about Black Death, the Great Fire of 1666, and other things that kept them awake and terrified later that night. 

Family and Friends: Ben's relatives are delightful, and any gathering with them memorable. They really know the art of a good, lingering, chatty meal, and the little cousins always entertain each other, as well. The night before we left London, I also got to see the fantastic Langseth sisters, my dear friends who have lived all over the world but have landed in London for the time being. We hunkered around the back table of a restaurant in Kensington and laughed, drank red wine, laughed some more, and as the place emptied out, contemplated the possibility of getting forgotten and locked in–which would afford us the opportunity for more laughter and wine. Of course, that didn't happen. London shuts early at night.
St. John Restaurant had been on my to-do list for years, and I finally got to drag the whole family there for Sunday lunch. Founder Fergus Henderson was at the forefront of the current nose-to-tail eating movement, and his menus offer innards aplenty (Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it his "favorite restaurant in the world"). His cookbooks, The Whole Beast and Beyond Nose to Tail are little gems, both for their recipes and their pithy descriptions. If you're interested in venturing beyond steak and chicken breasts and delving into the rest of the animal (honoring it, actually, by not wasting anything), I highly recommend these cookbooks–and it's not too late to order them as Christmas gifts. In the back, a recipe for a hair of the dog remedy is called, simply, A Miracle and bears a warning: "Be careful: this is so effective you can find yourself turning to its miraculous powers with increasing regularity. Do not let the cure become the cause."
My in-laws were more than happy to try out a new place, and this was English cooking at its finest. Homely, flavorful, resourceful, and warming. And it wasn't just offal: there were sparkling fresh langoustines and mayonnaise, and Ben and his Dad ordered the smoke haddock and potatoes as their main course. I started with cured beef with beets and pickled walnuts, then Ben's mom and I split a pheasant and trotter pie, which was, with its marrow bone chimney and suet crust, the badass answer to the pot pies of my youth. The Whole Beast contains a recipe for it, with the header "This is a most rich and steadying pie."
The Countryside: We drove out into the country to visit Gran and the other half of Ben's family, in Essex. His aunt and uncle are bakers (literally–they own a bakery), so we enjoyed fresh loaves every morning. They put on an early Christmas dinner for us, complete with crackers and roast chicken with all the trimmings, and homemade Christmas pudding for dessert. Ben's mom and her sister got into an intense discussion about what makes a proper Christmas pudding, and it was settled that Guinness and a very long steaming are the way to pudding heaven. Since it wasn't truly Christmas yet, though, we didn't set it on fire and run around the table. 

Frost: As we explored the countryside, I was captivated by the subtle varieties of frost on everything. Hoar frost, rime frost, feather frost. None of it like the timid Connecticut frost I'm used to, which vanishes as soon as the sun comes up. In damp Britain, it lingers all day, waxing and waning, coating every surface with a silvery sheen and crazy textured patterns.
Peacocks that like sticky cake: Need I say more? The owner of the muddy wellies held a cigarette in one hand, peacock bait in the other, to the delight of my daughters.
So there you have it. I really would like to reprise one of the St. John recipes, preferably the pheasant and trotter pie if one of my hunter friends will send some pheasant my way–but I've been up to my elbows in cookie dough since our return–so it'll have to wait until January or February. Here's the recipe for the "overindulgence" remedy, which I hope none of us will need this holiday season…but just in case: 

A Miracle
Adapted from The Whole Beast
1 part Creme de Menthe
2 parts Fernet Branca (Italian bitters)

Mix together and drink

Happy Holidays!  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This year's pie

This pumpkin’s journey began in a scenic field beside the Housatonic in Connecticut and will end on our Thanksgiving table in Virginia. It weighed nearly 20 pounds, and my Disney-addled daughters eyed it expectantly, as though it might blossom into a full-sized princess coach, throwing off neon sparks as it morphed. I was sorry to inform them that the transformation wouldn’t be quite so magical–but it would be delicious.

For a year I’ve been looking forward to reprising last year’s dessert success at the Thanksgiving stove…except, after holding onto this pumpkin for two months and feeling its particular heft, and watching the light play on its waxy skin, I realized the thought of hacking it apart was causing me pain, and that I had grown way too attached to a vegetable.

So I dispatched with the unpleasant task swiftly, aiming my biggest knife through its heart and feeling, as I yanked downward, that special resonance
very large pumpkins give off when split. It was a juicy one this year, full of dense, ropey pulp and fat seeds, and shocking tangerine-colored flesh. A long way from the vine, yes, but still somehow coursing with life. I actually felt the same mixture of resolve and regret that had gripped me on my first fly fishing excursion, on a stream high in the Rockies, when faced with the sickening moment when I had to put a brook trout out of its misery.

As with the trout, I offered up a silent "thanks" to Mother Nature and vowed to do the pumpkin justice–to make an even better pie than last year's, which managed to turn the pumpkin pie naysayers among us into yaysayers.

I’ve always been a pumpkin pie person, but for the longest time I labored under the delusion, shared by many, that only canned puree will do–because somehow it’s smoother or sweeter or cures during its stay in the can. But it turns out that an even better pie–lighter and brighter and more subtle tasting–is to be had from a freshly made puree, and why shouldn’t that be the case? It’s all about choosing the right pumpkin, but even then, I've heard, quality can be uneven among single varieties. I will say I’ve found that anything bearing a resemblance to a Halloween pumpkin is disappointing in flavor–and that the sugar pumpkins I’ve tried have been anything but sweet, and fibrous to boot. The variety I’ve been using these past two years is a Long Island cheese pumpkin, so named for its squat, round, wheel of cheese shape. Its faded-looking tan exterior conceals a brilliant flesh that cooks down sweet and even-textured. 
Some other varieties you might try are anything labeled a "pie pumpkin," as well as Cinderella, Rouge Vif d'Etampes, Jarrahdale, hubbard squash or even butternut squash–which is actually what's in those cans, and is a close relative to the cheese pumpkin. Turning a large pumpkin like the one above into pulp can be a laborious process, what with all the hacking, roasting, and whirring, but if you make a lot the pulp freezes beautifully for plenty of soups, bread, baby food, and–yes–pie filling to last you the winter. 
As for the pie recipe, it's the pumpkin that makes it, and the crust is a nice buttery, flaky one. But the crystallized ginger garnish is really the secret weapon here–the crunchy bursts of sweet spiciness add nice little bits of texture and heat, so don't skip that part. 
After I navigate the Jersey Turnpike and the quirks of my parents' kitchen (including my mom's electric mixer, which was a wedding gift in 1968), I'll offer up a couple of these pies as my contribution, since we'll be making merry with a large gathering of family and friends, all of whom will bring something to the table (my daughters, I hope, will not be bringing the germs this year). There are hunters among us, so we'll enjoy whatever roasted game birds they've bagged. I'm told many dozen Chesapeake bay oysters have been ordered by our hostess, Perry, to get us started–and all of this is on top of the traditional fare. Thankful? Yes, but I'm already hurting just thinking about the feast that lies ahead.
Happy Thanksgiving, readers! Be grateful, be well. 
Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie
Ingredients for the puree:

  • 1 large pumpkin, such as cheese, Cinderella, hubbard, Rouge Vif d’Etampes

Instructions for the puree:
Preheat oven to 375º. Cut pumpkin into chunks roughly 2”–leave skin on. Arrange them in casserole dish(es) so there’s space in between, cover with foil and poke holes in foil. Roast for about a half hour, then remove foil and continue roasting, about a half hour more, until any liquid has evaporated from bottom of pan and pumpkin is very soft. Cool, cut off skin, and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. If the puree seems watery, place it in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl, for an hour or so, to drain off excess liquid.

Ingredients for the crust: 

Makes 2 crusts–you may double pie recipe or freeze the extra 
Adapted from David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour (about 1 ½ lbs, or 350 grams)  
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 6-8 tablespoons ice water
Instructions for crust: In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, and salt to combine. Add butter and pulse a few times until butter pieces are broken up and incorporated. Continue pulsing as you dribble in a little water at a time, until mixture just begins to come together–you don’t want dough to be too wet. Remove from machine and divide into two pieces, press into disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Have a 9” pie pan ready. Remove dough from refrigerator and allow to soften at room temperature for 10 minutes or so. On a floured surface, roll dough out into an even circle about 12" in diameter, then carefully drape over pan and press dough onto the surface. Trim the dough around the outside rim, then either crimp edges or press onto rim with your fingertips. Prick bottom with the tines of a fork, and freeze for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375º, to pre-bake the pie shell. Take pie pan from freezer, line with foil, and pour in dried beans, rice, or coins to weight. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until crust begins to turn golden. Remove foil and weights and back uncovered for about 10 more minutes, until bottom is beginning to color lightly. Cool.

Ingredients for the filling:
  • 1 ¾ cups pumpkin puree  
  • 3 large eggs  
  • ½ cups heavy cream
  •  ½ cup light brown sugar  
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon  
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger  
  • ¼ teaspoon ground allspice  
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg  
  • Crystallized ginger to top
Instructions for filling:  
Using an electric mixer, beat together all ingredients until combined and smooth.

Assembling pie:
Preheat oven to 350º. Spread filling into pie crust and bake for about an hour, checking just before then, until center is just set. Remove and cool. Just before serving, sprinkle with chopped crystallized ginger and serve with whipped cream. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pear and Honey Cake

This time of November, on colorless days when a certain kind of wind whips a mist off the river and rips the leaves from the plane trees, I find myself swept back to a place very different from Brooklyn, New York. It could be the special cocktail of weather that does it, or maybe it’s the rootless feeling such gusts can conjure, but suddenly, for a second, I’m 23 again and in the Camargue.

At the end of my post-college gap year (which was closer to two), my Mom flew over so we could take one last little trip together–and the month being November, we were celebrating our respective birthdays, even though neither one was of any consequence. I had been living in Paris, dodging real responsibility as a not-so-legal worker there, a cigar box my bank. Earlier fall had seen me kneeling in vineyards, picking grapes (and drinking) in Burgundy–the logical conclusion to a year pouring (and drinking) in a wine bar. Now it was time for me to head back to the States and start sculpting something of a grown-up existence out of my dissipated youth. My mother, upon landing, appraised my sparse collection of tired black t-shirts, gypsy skirts, and the inevitable array of scarves, sighed, and concluded: “I think we need to get you some decent clothes.” She whisked me off to buy my first interview suit and a presentable pair of heels, because soon I would be scraping together my resume and begging people in New York City
to interview me.

Beyond the trauma of staring at a pinstriped version of myself in a shop mirror, it was a cocoon-like pause in my life, a happy distraction from the reality of leaving a place I loved and leaping into the unknown. Truffle season had begun, and after a few decadent dinners in Paris and Lyon, my Mom and I set off for the Camargue, that marshy area at the bottom of France where the Rhone empties into the Mediterranean. It’s a wild little corner just south of Arles, untouched by the Côte d’Azur glitz, a world apart even from the quaint hill towns of Provence. The region is famous for its red rice, bulls, mosquitoes, and, further south, the salt flats where fleur de sel blooms and flamingoes fan out overhead. The horses are all white and the bulls all black. It’s desolate compared to the sunny, intimately-stacked villages nearby, but there’s stark beauty in the expanses of flat, scrubby grassland and windswept trees.

the only surviving photo from the trip
We stayed at the Mas de Peint, a dignified and comfortable farmhouse with a handful of rooms, owned by a family–the Bons–whose patriarch (now deceased) was a swashbuckling character with a bushy white moustache and black cowboy hat. A cattle rancher born and raised, he was always dressed the part, and impeccably. He and his wife, Lucille, were warm and charming hosts, treating us like long lost friends as we took our meals in their kitchen and delighted in whatever was on offer that evening; it was always delicious. And since the sky outside dripped and blustered for most of our trip, the kitchen was the place to be, as close to the stove as possible, huddled over a soupe de potiron (pumpkin soup), a daube of the region's flavorful beef, and always expertly prepared vegetables from their garden. The one night we ventured out in the gloom, we lost ourselves on the meandering roads but eventually, on a tiny back lane, found the table d'hôte we had been seeking–literally, a small table in someone's modest kitchen, where that someone and her daughter prepared and served the meal, and fawned over us to make sure we were happy. I'm pretty sure their dog was roaming the kitchen, too, which we didn't mind at all. If memory serves, that dog even brought us our check at the end of the dinner. We ate some of the freshest and most delicious whole-cooked fish I had ever tasted, a vegetable gratin, maybe, and a homey dessert–and for the first time I realized how transcendent very simple food can be.

The sun emerged a few times and we rode white horses through the marshlands, drove down to see the salt flats and flamingos, and got lost a few more times before it was all over. It restored me to see an unfamiliar landscape, to smell new air. I felt warm and coddled. And the good, wholesome food, all straight out of the region we were exploring, built me up for the next adventure. I don't remember any of the desserts, just that they were simple, with fresh fruits (I'm sure Mom has it all written down somewhere); it would have been the time for pears. This dessert may have nothing to do with the ones we sampled there, but it reminds me of something we would have, that combination of flavorful pears and honey, suspended in a delicate cake. The recipe is adapted from one in the lovely Ducasse: Flavors of France, which was written around the same time of our trip, and given to me for Christmas by my parents the following year. If you make this–and you should–try to find lavender honey…it will complete the feeling. Enjoy it as breakfast or dessert on a blustery day.
Pear and Honey Cake
Ingredients for cake batter:
  • 1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar (powdered sugar) 
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • pinch sea salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted 
For the pears
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 1/4 pounds pears, such as Bartlett (not Bosc)–about 4 large pears
  • 2 tablespoons delicately flavored honey, such as wildflower or lavender
  • 1/4 cup pear liqueur (eau-de-vie)
For cake batter: 
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth. Beat in the baking powder and salt. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the flour and mix thoroughly, until smooth. Cover the bowl and let rest at room temperature for an hour. 
For the pears: 
Preheat oven to 400º. Butter and flour a large loaf pan (9x5" or 10x5") 

In a large skillet, melt half the butter over medium heat, and add half the pears. Cook for a few minutes, turning occasionally, until lightly caramelized on the outside. Add half the honey and turn to coat, then add half of liqueur. Cook for a couple more minutes, then transfer pears to a large bowl to cool. Repeat with remaining pears.

Once pears are cool, fold them gently into batter. Spoon pears and batter into prepared loaf pan and bake at the center of the oven for about 10 minutes, or until a crust forms on top. Using a sharp knife, cut a slash down the center of the cake. Lower oven temperature to 325º and continue baking for approx. another hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. 

Allow to cook for about 10 minutes before removing from pan, then cool on a rack or plate completely before cutting into it.  


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Q is for Quince

I am a Scrabble geek and have lately–I’ll admit it–allowed hours to spiral away into a certain black hole called Words with Friends. It's an iphone app with which you can carry on simultaneous scrabblesque games with similarly afflicted buddies, making moves at your leisure and drawing out tournaments over a matter of days–or weeks. There’s a cheater app too, but what’s the fun in that? I like the challenge of a Z or a Q, and I happen to know that quince can be a game-changer if you’re lucky enough to have the tiles and location for it (if you don't, qi does in a pinch).  

I don’t know why this has stuck with me, but remember the scene in White Men Can’t Jump, when Rosie Perez's character, Gloria, triumphs on Jeopardy! ? She nails the Daily Double, supplying “what is a quince?” to answer: “according to legend, this was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden”. She shortly thereafter ditches the gambling-addicted Woody Harrelson character, who then rekindles his bromance with Wesley Snipes and goes off to find another game. No matter…the takeaway is that quince (and maybe Gloria) is the real winner.

I probably tasted the fruit for the first time in the form of sweet, chewy membrillo, or quince paste, during one of my many binges at Murray’s cheese shop (the original), which lay in wait around the corner from my old apartment. I think they were giving out samples one evening with some excellent manchego, and I was sold. On a tangential note, Ben and I once looked at an apartment directly above that Murray’s and decided it could never, ever be–less because the space smelled like a locker room on a hot day than because the downstairs temptations would be too fierce. Forbidden fruit, indeed.

I finally got around to cooking with quinces a few years back, after I quite literally stumbled upon a paper bag of them–one of those cute orchard bags printed with cheery baskets of apples–at Averill Farm. I had no idea what to do with those strange, hard and bulbous yellow fruits, but that was beside the point once I inhaled their citrusy-floral fragrance. If nothing else, I could perfume my kitchen with them. I ended up baking them in a pie along with the apples we'd picked that day, and their complex, nearly tropical aroma bumped the evening's dessert up to a whole new level. I've returned each year to buy more quinces, and I've noticed the proprietors have taken to hiding them–you have to be in the know, have to want them badly enough to ask. I've heard of other vendors, such as Red Jacket Orchards, hoarding their precious quinces in much the same way–as closely as Scrabble players guard their Q's.
I have since tried my hand at making membrillo, a staple in Spain and certain South American countries. The pale-fleshed quince cooks down magically to a brilliant, saturated shade of russet, and once firm can be cut into shapes to serve alongside cheese, or tossed in sugar to fashion grownup gumdrops. My next project will be quince syrup, to keep handy for fall cocktails. For other quince ideas and links, check out this informative article from Simply Recipes

But our favorite fall quince staple is not a sweet one at all. Despite the fact that a quince is a fruit, it contains much less sugar than its orchard cousins apples and pears, and is so hard and tart when raw as to be inedible. When braised together with meat, as is commonly done in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, it imparts an interesting fruity tartness without the cloying sweetness. As long as you don't overcook quinces, their texture holds up well, too. The recipe, from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Fruit, hails from Morocco–hence the inclusion of saffron, ginger and cinnamon, which play subtly together with the quince, against the slight gaminess of the lamb. If you are expecting a spicy dish, please don't be disappointed–this is more of a delicate, comforting one. Claudia Roden features a very similar recipe in her cookbook The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, and also suggests that chicken can be substituted for lamb–or tart apples or pears in place of quince. A word about saffron, which is notoriously expensive: yes, it is expensive by weight, but considering you are only using a very small amount, it's a minor splurge. If the cost of saffron in your local store falls beyond your budget, Roden includes a Lebanese variation of the recipe below: swap 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds for the spices listed.
Lamb Tajine with Quinces  
Adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit 
Serves 4 
  • 3 pounds lamb stew meat (such as shoulder), cut into 2-inch cubes, excess fat removed  
  • salt and pepper  
  • olive or canola oil  
  • 2 largish onions, peeled and grated (use coarse side of grater over a bowl)  
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter  
  • 1 cinnamon stick  
  • 2 teaspoons grated, fresh ginger  
  • ½ teaspoon crumbled saffron  
  • 2 pounds quinces  
  • 2 tablespoons honey  
  • juice of ½ lemon
  1. Make sure lamb is trimmed of thick fat and silverskin (the tough, shiny connective tissue), and sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a large dutch oven, stew pot or wide, high-sided skillet over medium-high, and brown the meat lightly on all sides. You probably want to do this in batches, so as not to crowd meat—remove pieces to a plate as they brown. Once you’ve finished browning the meat, turn down heat and pour off oil.
  2. Add butter, onions, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron, and sauté them, stirring occasionally and scraping up any brown bits from the bottom, for about 5 minutes. Stir meat back into pot, and pour in just enough water to cover meat. This is important—add too much water, and the delicate flavors will get diluted. Bring stew back up to a simmer, cover, and cook at a low temperature until meat is tender, about 1 ½ hours. 
  3. Meanwhile, wash the quinces, rubbing any fuzz off the skins. Cut each quince into eight wedges, and cut away the pithy cores. Do not peel, as the skin adds flavor and body to the stew. Put the wedges into lightly acidulated (with lemon juice or cider vinegar) water to keep them from turning brown. When the lamb is tender, add quinces, honey, and lemon juice, and simmer for another 15-30 minutes, until the quince wedges are tender but not mushy. Taste stew and add salt if needed. Serve over pearl couscous or basmati rice.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Butter beans, fall surprises

Sometimes life's little, day-to-day surprises are what add up to the greatest delight. I’m not talking reality-altering here, like new babies or lotto wins–though those are pretty terrific. I’m thinking more along the lines of three gorgeous fall days aligning in a single, long weekend, with good friends nearby…and having my hard-working husband take Monday off, after all…and my friend Kamila showing up for dinner bearing a stunning rendition of the very apple cake I posted here–with apples picked from her family’s tree, no less. 

And then there was the alpaca shawl and the country fair right around the corner–with a vintage tractor pull thrown in for good measure.

Surprise finds in a farmer’s market can hoist your day pretty far above ordinary, too, if you’re anything like I am. This time of year, that might take the form of stumbling upon tomatoes or corn, when you thought they'd given up the ghost. Or discovering a secret stash of fragrant quinces, as I did, tucked into a dark corner of the apple orchard's shop. Or take, for instance, going to the Kent farmer’s market on Saturday and seeing these shell beans, all heaped high in a wooden crate.
Ordinarily, fresh shell beans in and of themselves are enough to brighten my day. “Lima beans?” I inquired, even though the pods looked runtier than the ones I'd been getting all summer.

“Actually, those are Southern butter beans,” she replied, and my heart did a little pirouette. It's not just that finding butter beans in a market up north is akin to spotting a yeti (please correct me if I'm wrong, readers). You see, my Mom has elevated butter beans to pretty darn near mythical status, and their lore is somehow tied up with that of bantam chickens and swimming in quarries and heading out to the turnip patch on summer mornings with a salt shaker–and other rural pleasures I've never gotten to experience. 

It all has to do with Juju, my great-grandmother, who raised six children in DeWitt, VA (modern-day population: 1,528). I knew Juju (short for Julia) during my very early years, since she lived to the age of 96, but my memory of her is faint and probably collaged together from photographs and family stories. She was kind and gentle and, by necessity, more patient than I could ever hope to be. She tended her legendary garden until she was 90, and the vegetables that grew there nourished her children and grandchildren, and became the centerpiece of sprawling Sunday dinners. Pixie-like bantam chickens pecked around her yard and became, according to my Mom, the best fried chicken you could ever imagine. And as for the butter beans, she picked them when the pods were barely mature, the beans inside scarcely the size of a child's pinky nail. She had to have been setting herself up for a tremendous amount of labor, but she wouldn't have it any other way, and nor would my Mom, who never once served us regular old lima beans–insulting, as they were, to the memory of Juju's feasts. And Mom never could find butter beans in Northern Virginia, where she and my Dad moved before I was born.

So here I was, a New England transplant, sitting down to shell the very beans my great-grandmother used to tend in Virginia, and which I never had the chance to try in their purest form, since the opportunity for pinky-sized butterbeans apparently passed along with her and her garden. Except, as I set about the task of shelling the beans, another surprise awaited: after liberating a few of the small, celadon half-moons from their pods, I came upon these riotously-splotched specimens below.
Could those butter beans be dressing up for Halloween already? Perhaps masquerading as Pinto beans? I thought this was the case, until I had shelled all the beans, and here was the net result:
Cooked, they were creamy and sweet, with a hint of metallic sharpness. They yielded a rich broth–almost a soup in itself. A frenzy of internet research revealed that these speckled butter beans were just that: Florida speckled butter beans. They are, apparently, another variation of a lima bean (you can find the seeds here), but most likely not the one Juju raised–she probably grew sievas, or even, perhaps, dwarf butter beans. In any case, butter beans are first in my fantasy line-up for when I get the garden back together, whenever that may be. In the mean time if anyone spots the tiny variety in a market up north, please…surprise me.

Juju's butter beans: 
Put the shelled beans in a sturdy pot, pour water over them just to cover, add a pinch of salt, lots of ground black pepper, and good butter to taste. Simmer over low heat until very tender; this may take anywhere from 10 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on size and freshness of the beans.They should be creamy inside, and the cooking liquid will have turned into a thick broth. Add more salt if needed, and serve them in little bowls with their broth. 

*Note: this recipe can also be used for lima beans–just cook on the longer end. 

Shell bean notes: 
Lima beans require shorter cooking time than other shell beans, such as cranberry beans. The latter, once freed from their pods, may require closer to 30 minutes' cooking time, and should be simmered in lightly salted water until al dente. They may then be sauteed with other vegetables, bacon, or pancetta for flavor. They're also great in vegetable soups.