Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sour Cherries

Now is the time for sour cherries in the green markets of New York, but blink and they'll be gone: they last scarcely longer than a solstice. I spied some at the Wilklow Orchards booth at Borough Hall on Tuesday and greedily loaded up, actually capsizing the stroller in the process (and I dug out that stroller for the sole purpose of hauling fruit). The guy said next week will see the last of them, so if you live around here, carpe diem!
Cherries of any variety are great American crowd pleasers, but the sour ones, petite and luminescent, pack an extra punch that brightens up just about any baked good they grace: we love 'em in clafoutis and pies, tarts and financiers. Once you add sugar, some kind of alchemy happens, and you create tangy, sweet magic. I hesitate to admit this, but I think the reason I go so wild for the flavor is that it so strongly evokes Jolly Ranchers, a childhood favorite. Today, the mercury's headed up into the 90's, so I'm making a sour cherry granita. Here's my easy non-recipe: just throw a bunch of pitted and stemmed cherries into a blender with a little water, some sugar, and a few drops of kirsch. Whir on the highest setting for a long, long time, stopping to scrape down the sides occasionally. Taste and play, adding sugar bit by bit until the flavors fall into balance. Just don't pour in too much water–it's better to hold back and add it as needed. Ditto with the kirsch, which should not announce itself. Once cherries are pureed smooth, choose a small tray or casserole dish and pour them in to just cover the bottom. Lay the tray in a flat, stable place in your freezer and let it do its thing. But you must do your part, too: rake a fork across the puree every 30 minutes to break up large crystals and ice floes. After about 4 or 5 hours you should get an icy, sorbet-like consistency. It's perfection with sweetened, whipped cream.
More than anything, I just want to hold onto this time of cherries
and sugersnaps, treasure it, and never let it go. So I decided to put up a bunch of these tart little rubies for the winter, when we'll be needing their warmth and sparkle. I love the phrase "putting up," so redolent of homeliness, ritual, and optimism. I realize, though, that in going through the motions of preserving I'm actually admitting the unthinkable: that summer will end and we'll soon be bled by the New York City winter. Something stronger than mere jam will be needed to cope with that reality, so this year I've brandied and squirreled away some sour cherries–a surprisingly easy process, much simpler than the necessary tedium of full-on water canning, which has always struck me as a bit obsessive-compulsive. Since such a high quantity of booze is involved here, you can bet any microbe that even thought of setting up camp in your jars will flee in terror. I adapted my recipe from those featured in Judy Rodgers' Zuni Café Cookbook and Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Fruit. They are similar; both specify leaving the cherries whole, pits left in for flavor–but Rodgers advises using a good-quality, inexpensive brandy, while Waters insists on "the best brandy you can afford". I took the middle road and, after much hand-wringing at the liquor store, purchased the bottle above. It set me back about $16, and I still have a ton left over for whatever other fruits I want to drown in it as summer shines on. 
Even though neither recipe calls for it, I always sterilize my jars, just in case. I'm mildly obsessed with these pretty Italian vessels; the brand is Quattro Stagioni and each holds about 5 fluid ounces; the recipe below filled five of them. Be choosy with your fruit and, er, cherry pick at the market so your jars glow with only bruise- and blemish-free beauties.

Update: We enjoyed these the whole year through, and now it's time to put by some more! They are very potent. Over the winter, we filled pretty little bowls with the "cherry bombs" and offered them during holiday celebrations, with ample warning beforehand; they disappeared quickly. They also made a delicious foundation for a pan sauce with sauteed duck breasts, and heated up with some butter for serving over ice cream. The alcohol never quite cooks out of them, though, so don't think of this as a G-rated dessert.

Tipsy sour cherries
Adapted from Zuni Café Cookbook and Chez Panisse Fruits

  • 1 pound ripe but firm sour cherries, washed, stems ends trimmed
  • 3/4 cup granulated, fine sugar (I use the natural kind, which takes longer to dissolve)
  • 2 cups good quality but not too expensive brandy 
  • water

Sterilize jars: boil gently in a large pot of water for a few minutes, then set out on a clean towel to dry. Simmer lids to soften rubber seals. Once jars are cooled and relatively dry, pack cherries into them carefully, filling to just below "shoulders" of jars. Dissolve sugar into brandy by heating gently in a pot on the stove, dribbling in a little bit of water. Whisk together. Using a spouted measuring cup or pitcher, pour brandy into jars until it just covers the cherries (should reach just to bottom of rim). Tap each one to release air bubbles, then screw lids on tightly. Put in a cool, dark place, occasionally turning jars upside down to re-distribute any sugar crystals that settle out. Leave them there for about a month to allow the flavors to meld, then refrigerate for up to a year.

To enjoy, Rodgers recommends leaving cherries out for a bit to disperse alcohol, if you are serving them raw. Or, pit and stem them and cook, sautéing or roasting briefly for game dishes (picture these with duck in the fall), or sautéing in butter with a bit of their syrup and serving over ice cream. They would be dreamy with creme brûlée and other custard desserts, equally nice with cheese or pâ–or as grown-up maraschino cherries. You probably want to hide these from the kids.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Retro Strawberries

This box sat in the back of the post office for nearly a month before I finally rescued it. Those of you who happen to live on the north end of zip code 11231, as I do, are nodding your heads knowingly right now, because you’re aware that fetching missed packages equals either a hop in the car or a not too pleasant walk. It involves the smoggy BQE underpass, crevasse-like potholes, and hunting for parking in the projects. And usually, at the end of it all, a snaking line. I would rather go to the dentist, honestly, but on this day the journey and the wait weren’t so bad, and I only wish I had gotten up the gumption sooner.

Turns out, the mystery package was a box stuffed with a passel of letters and notes, sent to me by my dear aunt Katie (thanks, Katie!). The owner of all these yellowing, crumpled papers had been my grandmother, who departed this earth going on 20 years ago. Mimi, as we called her, was not just a cool grandmother, who let us rummage through her sewing kit and use her scary kitchen scissors to make jigsaw puzzles…and spackle her powder room walls with soap suds and watercolors (OK, maybe we didn’t have permission for that one), but she was also a prolific food writer–back when Julia Child was first bursting onto the scene. Mimi wrote columns for The Richmond News Leader in Virginia for 30 years, starting right after WWII. I have a manila envelope full of her newspaper clippings, cured to a soft amber hue after 50-odd years of oxidation. For the most part, she wrote recipes–traditional southern ones like Sally Lunn bread, as well as stuff that in the ‘50’s and 60’s would have been considered pretty soigné, like Kahlua Soufflé and Artichoke Vegetable Melange. She also profiled Virginia families leading exotic ex-pat lives overseas. And, one article details the renovation of her own kitchen, in 1964. The black and white doesn't do justice to the avocado green accents, but you can use your imagination:
She was helping along a generation of southern ladies who, like their mothers, had always relied on their cooks; things were changing after the war and household help was in shorter supply (or perhaps just too expensive). Many of the readers would have grown up without family cooking traditions, so they needed someone to hold their hands and talk them through dinner prep. The happy by-product of my grandmother's labors was that my Dad inherited a passion for cooking and impressive kitchen skills, and I grew up against a backdrop of ever-bubbling pots on the stove.

Although she traveled constantly and collected recipes from afar (my grandfather was a drama professor, so they had their summers) and touted the use of certain "convenience foods", she wrote in her farewell column in 1976: "Though the foreign dishes are always conversation pieces, vegetables picked from our farm's garden and cooked within minutes are the greatest favorites…That is real feasting."
I remember the farm fondly from my earliest years, and I remember most the just-picked strawberries that stained my chin on late spring afternoons. So, as I ripped through cardboard and tape some 30 years later, I mentally willed there to be some really killer strawberry recipes in there; buckets have been coming in with our CSA, and they’re delicate, old-style fruits that fade by the minute. As luck would have it, the length of the box didn’t allow for the whole alphabet to be filed, and somehow “S” had gotten strewn across the top: a pile of papers origamied into angular packets. Apparently, these once jammed every drawer of Mimi’s home office, which I picture so clearly for its chaos as much as for her state-of-the-art electric typewriter–in the 70’s it must have been quite something. My sister and I never could resist sneaking in and test-driving it when she wasn’t looking.
But the strawberry recipes I found, scrawled in various hands, weren’t my grandmother’s work at all. In fact, little in the box actually is. Mostly they are reader letters–and what an unexpected and delightful twist to find so many voices from the past crowded into that compact box, clamoring to get out. Until that moment, I hadn't really considered her relationship with her audience, nor the ongoing conversation she was kindling. These papers are a window into how correspondence used to work in a slower, politer time. 

Mimi crowd-sourced to get to the authentically Virginian, sometimes country recipes. When she put out a call for strawberry shortcake recipes, letters poured in the snail way, from Richmond proper and more distant corners of Virginia. The recipes are well-worn, some reaching back into the 1800's, with measurements given as “a teacup” or baking temperature as “in a quick oven”. It takes some imagination and guesswork to cobble them back together, but I had to give it a go. One letter, a long, chatty one written in 1953, captured my attention over the others. The writer, G. Herrmann Zank, passes along his or her mother's recipe, supplying vivid detail of technique–but no actual measurements. His/her mother used pure lard in the unsweetened biscuit dough and baked the single huge biscuit in a pie pan, rather than cutting individual ones (which (s)he asserted were more "modern"). The truth of the matter is, the writer of this letter had me at lard. Even my rural-dwelling great-grandmother used Fluffo (a "golden" version of Crisco) as her go-to baking fat, and the revisionist in me wishes it had been something more quaint and natural. And it so happens I had lard on hand, left over from our winter pork CSA, so I jumped at the chance to use it. 
The biscuit came out light and wonderfully crisp, but I've decided I prefer lard in fall and winter preparations–those featuring apples, pears, or nuts–since to me lard has a heartier, faintly savory note. In the future, I'll reserve it for my fall desserts, just as I'll treasure this recipe for that fleeting space between spring and full summer, when strawberries are as sweet and tender as memories.
Old-fashioned Strawberry Shortcake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter cut in small pieces or 4 ounces leaf lard
  • 1/2 cup cold milk
  • 1 quart strawberries, stemmed and halved, quartered if larger
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
  • confectioner's sugar (optional), for dusting

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease a 9" pie pan. In a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter, your hands, or a food processor, work quickly to cut the butter or lard into the flour, until mixture resembles coarse sand. Do not overwork. Stir in milk until mixture comes together, then press into a ball and turn out onto a well-floured surface. Roll gently into an even disk, then transfer to the pie pan and press to evenly fill the pan.
Put into the oven and bake 25-30 minutes (more, if needed), checking occasionally, until pale golden brown.

Meanwhile, sprinkle 1/8 cup sugar onto the cut strawberries and gently stir. Allow berries to macerate at room temperature while biscuit cooks. Whip cream with the other 1/8 cup sugar until it forms soft peaks. 

Allow biscuit to cool, then carefully unmold onto a flat surface. Run a long, serrated knife through the equator of the biscuit to cut into two even halves. Put the bottom one on a plate. Using a slotted spoon, transfer strawberries onto biscuit half, distributing evenly (reserve liquid in bowl), then spread cream over berries. Lay the top half of biscuit over it all, then sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. You can use the delicious leftover strawberry juice to drizzle on the plate.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Les Sardines

I've been truant from this space, but it's not for lack of eating, cooking, or writing. Perhaps too much of everything has kept me away. Our CSA season has kicked off and we're drowning in strawberries and rhubarb. The markets are spilling over and I can barely keep pace with all the asparagus and young onions and tarragon. And then there was Paris. Paris? Mais, oui! The Mr. and I got to escape for a bit, sans enfants, to one of my most favorite places on earth–a place that, some time ago, I called home. These days, I return as an unabashedly giddy tourist, navigating the streets more confidently than I did when I landed there after college: a vegan with a backpack full of too-colorful clothes, trying my best to blend, ignoring with all my might the lovely charcuterie and oozy cheeses laid out fetchingly everywhere I turned (in case you're wondering, I didn't hold out long). I know exactly what I want to eat now, and it's everything, and exactly the spots I need to head to, and they are usually markets (it's a good thing Ben, my husband, is a good sport). The Sunday organic market on the Rue de Raspail overflowed with the most amazing wispy wild asparagus and tiny strawberries, fat bulbs of purple garlic and more exotic things, like softball-sized melons from further south.
Saturday, a massive collective yard sale spread across Les Halles–an inflated version of the stoop sales that dot our Brooklyn neighborhood on sunny weekends; very briefly, I felt homesick. I can never miss the Marché aux Puces (flea market) at St. Ouen, because there's a fix for every collector junkie out there, whether the poison of choice is beads, records, vintage dolls' eyes, or old earthenware pitchers.
Of course, there are those luminous nights. 
And the food! Pain au chocolate and café serré in the mornings, draughts of wine at lunch after so much walking, a big tureen of creamy cucumber gazpacho at Les Papilles, salted caramels, and, of course, macarons. So where does the wretched sardine fit in with all this glamour? First of all, let's get something straight, in case you think you're not a fan of these glittering little fishes. Maybe you have something against tinned seafood, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the fresh version: different beasts altogether, with their quicksilver skins and heads still intact (fish heads aren't your thing? Then off with them!). Their flavor is clean and full, defying their small size, and their texture denser and more sprightly than that of canned ones. Before I hopped the plane, I had them on the brain, and I had been, before I ran out of time, planning a post on them. I boarded, promptly forgot about this blog, and then: wham! Our first meal on the other side featured the most ethereal marinated sardine fillets, artfully combined with lemongrass and citrus, tomato marmalade and olive tapenade–definitely the most dressed-up sardines I've ever tasted.
My introduction to fresh sardines occurred in Paris, so many years ago, at the wine bar where I worked during my stay there. They would come in from the market at Rungis on unpredictable Saturdays, sparkling and smelling of nothing but sea water, and they needed very little fussing. Not that the kitchen would have had space for that. They were simply slid under the salamander with heads still on, splashed with olive oil and coarse salt, and left to sizzle and pop for a couple of minutes on each side. The skin would crisp toasty brown around the edges, then a generous squeeze of lemon would supply the crowning touch–nothing else needed. Maybe some mustard, if you were so inclined.
Sardines, I've found, do fancy and basic with equal ease–and I've had them both ways in Paris. Here at home, fresh sardines are simultaneously one of the cheapest and (I think) most delicious things our fish store carries. They are sustainable, packed full of Omega-3's, and reassuringly low on the aquatic food chain–so you needn't worry about mercury contamination. You can cook them the wine bar way, under a broiler (just don't let them burn), or check out the recipe below, one I've returned to again and again, in which the fish are briefly sautéed and then marinated in an acidic mixture. Though many similar recipes call for fillets, I leave the fish whole; I suppose this is partially out of laziness, partly from a belief that cooking things on the bone enhances their flavor. The recipe works either way. The taste is vinegary, citrusy and a little spicy, and the onions pickle in there–an added bonus. There is a few hours' wait time between cooking and serving, but that makes this a great dish to prepare ahead and return to after a busy summer afternoon outside. Serve with a warm potato salad. The next day, you can fillet the sardines and serve them over heaps of arugula, along with those tangy, aromatic onions, atop crusty bread. 
Escabeche of Sardines
Adapted from Rick Stein, BBC Food
serves 2

  • 6-8 whole sardines (depending on size), gutted and scaled or fillets with skin still on
  • all-purpose flour for dredging
  • sea salt and ground pepper to taste
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 pinch sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • fresh fennel fronds (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon orange or lemon zest
  • 1 dried chili pepper, slitted (or, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes)
  • 1 small sprig thyme
  • 1 small sprig rosemary
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves, chopped
Mix together flour and a bit of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Rinse sardines and pat dry. Dredge them in the flour mixture and shake off excess. Meanwhile, heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat, add a couple tablespoons of oil, and fry the fish about a minute or two on each side (a little more if they are especially large). 
Transfer cooked sardines to a casserole dish that will fit them snugly. Add remaining ingredients–except for olive oil and parsley–to skillet and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, then remove from heat and whisk in remaining oil and parsley. Pour over sardines and allow to marinate this way for 4-6 hours, refrigerated (up to 24 hours), before eating. To serve, bring to room temperature and fillet each side by working a small knife along the rib bones, from head to tail, then removing flesh from bones.