Friday, July 26, 2013

Something enduring

Cherry Preserves with Plums
I know, I know, another batch of preserves--what gives? I've been asking that of myself a lot lately, and I still don't have much of an answer. I've just found myself this summer making jam feverishly--and not only that but thinking a lot about it (also feverishly)--about what went well and what didn't with past batches, about how to squeeze in another session soon, about what to make next. It's all gotten, I admit, just a little bit obsessive. And before this, if you can believe it, jam wasn't something that really held my interest. Butter, I thought, is all a girl really needs. Why complicate matters?
Plums and cherries Macerating fruit Ready to cook
Why, indeed, complicate matters? That was, for a long time, my attitude towards summer fruit. Berries, peaches, and plums--why fuss with them when they're good as they are? On a sticky July day, you can't do much better for yourself than eating a cold plum over the kitchen sink, juices running down your arms. So why trouble yourself with more? But then twice last week I found myself in the kitchen sweating it out over a pot of bubbling fruit and sugar, glass jars close at hand waiting to be filled. So obviously, at some point, I'd undergone a change of mind.
It had a lot to do with the process, I think. Making preserves is very physical, very absorbing--pulling apart cherries one by one and plucking out their pits or slicing up a mound of plums. You give more attention to the fruit than you might just sticking it in your mouth, and it feels good. And the transformation that takes place, because it happens in an open pan, and because you're there the whole time, stirring, stirring, stirring, is one you get to see all the way through. You get to see the fruit slump and soften. You get to see the sugar disappear into the juices, and the juices bubble up wildly and thicken. It's dramatic and beautiful. You get a different appreciation of the fruit. And you feel like you're tapping into something old, elemental, deeply human.
This, anyway, is the feeling I'm left with, having recently read and swooned over much of Kevin West's Saving the Season. The book is a bit unusual for a cookbook. West provides plenty of clear instruction and assurance on pickles, jams, jellies, and the like. But he also contextualizes preservation as a practice. Between recipes, he draws on a mixture of history, literature, and personal narrative to give us a better sense of the fruits, vegetables, and processes to follow. You get the feeling reading it that you're being given an heirloom, something enduring to hold on to. I'm pretty sure that I'll be turning to the book season after season, year after year, for a long time. (Before the book, West wrote a blog by the same name. I suggest you check on his post on quince, if you want to get the flavour of his work. It's heady.)
Preserves on toast
This latest batch is from the book, a mixture of early plums and sweet cherries, finished with a splash of bourbon. I didn't make it quite as intended. I was supposed to use inky-dark Bing cherries, but in a moment of absentmindedness at the market, I ended up with a brighter, less assertive variety. So my preserves don't quite have the depth and colour they're supposed to. But I don't really mind. Instead, they have a sort of all-round, stone-fruit sunniness to them, something I know I'll appreciate come January. My favourite spoonfuls are the ones that include a slice of plum. The fruit is velvety, yielding in the best way. And with the bourbon, it is made luxurious, buttery even.

Cherry Preserves with Plums
From Kevin West's Saving the Season
NOTE: Fruit obviously varies in sweetness. The measurements provided for both sugar and lemon juice are therefore guidelines only. West encourages you to taste your fruit at every stage of the process--out of hand, once macerated, and during reduction (after a minute on one of those chilled plates). Adjust with more sugar or lemon juice as you see fit. West also advises starting out with a little less (up to a 1/2 cup less) sugar, depending on the plum varieties available to you. You can always add more sugar towards the end, if you don't think the preserves are sweet enough.

2 pounds black cherries, such as Bing
2 pounds firm, yellow-fleshed plums, such as Red Beauty (the tarter, the better)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1/4 cup bourbon or brandy

Wash and drain the fruit. Pit the cherries. (West isn't one for cherry-pitters. His method is to grab each cherry, one thumb on either side of the stem, and pull it apart. It should split lengthwise along its seam. Then you can just dig out the pit. This works best, I've found, with soft, ripe cherries. It makes less of a mess than a pitter.) Slice the plums away from their pits in sections. Stir together the fruit, lemon juice, and sugar. Set aside to macerate for at least 15 minutes. (If you plan to macerate for longer, e.g. overnight, press a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap close to the fruit to prevent oxidation.)
Set a few small plates in the freezer. Warm 5 clean half-pint jars and lids in the oven set at 200 degrees F.
Turn the fruit-sugar mixture into a preserving pan or other large, wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Reduce over high heat, stirring frequently. Once it comes to a full rolling boil, it should take 10-12 more minutes to fully reduce. Test the preserves. Turn off the heat and spoon about a teaspoon's worth onto one of the chilled plates. Return it to the freezer for 1 minute. If the surface wrinkles when you push your finger through it, it's ready. If not, continue reducing for a couple minutes more and test the consistency again. Once fully reduced, add the brandy or bourbon and continue to cook, stirring well, for 1 minute longer.
Ladle the hot preserves into the five half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the jars' rims clean and put on their lids and bands (screwed only finger-tight).
Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes (count 10 minutes from when the water returns to a boil). Remove the jars from the water and let cool. Check to see if a proper seal has formed by removing each jar's band and holding the jar by its lid. The lid should hold firm. If it doesn't, store the jar in the fridge and eat its contents promptly.
Makes about 5 1/2-pint jars

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

So I'll just say this

Heat here in the Midwest is a sticky, unrelenting thing. It hangs heavy in the air and clings to you. It leaves you feeling muddled and slow, thick as the air around you. On some days, by early afternoon, it is hard to string together sentences. You are reduced to a hot, sticky puddle of yourself. Kind of like today.
Pitted Stewed
So I'll just say this. I am glad, so glad, that I churned out this batch of sour cherry frozen yogurt a few days ago (a rare moment of foresight on my part). A few spoons (or more!) snuck from the freezer at midday--clean, bright, and cold sliding down your throat--are utterly restorative. And best of all, the taste vividly recalls forkfuls of leftover sour cherry pie, eaten cold from the fridge for breakfast (an indulgent breakfast of the best kind, if you ask me).
And even if this finds you already a hot, sticky, muddled mess, not to worry. This frozen yogurt only calls for three ingredients, really--sour cherries, sugar, and yogurt. And the cherries, once pitted, need only a scant few minutes' cooking, just until they yield. Then, all you have to do is blend the cherries and yogurt together and get them a-churnin'. Relief--cold, sour, and electrically pink--is not far off.
Sour cherry frozen yogurt

Sour Cherry Frozen Yogurt
Adapted, just a little, from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop
Note: This frozen yogurt's consistency is best the day it's made, but that shouldn't stop you from having it around for a little longer.

450 g / 1 pound fresh sour cherries (about 3 cups before pitting)
150 g / 3/4 cup sugar
240 g / 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (Greek-style, if you'd like)
A splash of brandy or 2 drops almond extract (optional)

Stem and pit the cherries. Put them in a medium saucepan with the sugar and brandy, if using. Cover, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently to encourage the juices to flow. The cherries are ready when tender and cooked through. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
Purée the cooked cherries and any liquid with the yogurt and almond extract, if using, in a blender or food processor until smooth. 
Chill for 2 hours, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Makes about 3 cups.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What was missing

Awhile ago, I finally picked up Luisa Weiss' memoir, My Berlin Kitchen. And, friends, if you don't already know firsthand, it is lovely through and through. Most of us at some point, I think, find ourselves struggling to figure out where it is we really belong, and Luisa gives clear and heartfelt expression to this in telling her story--the pull of your roots, your history can be hard, but it takes serious courage to leave one life for another, to really listen to yourself for once. 
The bits of the book that I like best are by far the ones that take place in Berlin. These for the most part are little vignettes of everyday life--birthday parties, dinners with old friends, summer picnics--but they sparkle in a certain way. You can really tell that this is where Luisa feels most at home. And you get glimpses of Berlin that you can't just by visiting. I was there for a bit last summer and tried to take in as much as I could. I walked and walked and ate and ate, and though I loved almost every bit of it, I never really felt as though I quite got what Berlin was about. And maybe it's just that I wasn't there for long enough, that I didn't see quite enough of it, but my guess now is that what was missing from it all was a kitchen to cook in. You really get the sense from Luisa that Berlin's soul is in its kitchens, with its women and men tending to bubbling pots and deep bowls. How better, after all, could you get to know a city than by taking a trip to an overgrown orchard at its outskirts--probably given up during the Cold War--and picking plums for Pflaumenmus? Or by gathering up bunches of white asparagus at its markets and making sharp, bright salads? Or by snipping the sprays of elderflowers that bloom in its parks and bringing them home to make syrup? I can't really think of any.
Snipped elderflowers Flowers steeping Elderflower cordial
In Chicago, you definitely can't expect to find elderflowers just anywhere. (And even if you do happen upon some in the city, I wouldn't advise cooking with them. Some of the soil around here is pretty seriously lead-laced. This NPR article on lead and urban gardening advises against eating roots and greens growing in contaminated soil but suggests that fruit and flowers might be safe to eat. Maybe you can just harvest elderflowers if you find them in your neighbourhood after all? I don't know. I'd have to do more research.) But Luisa's description of her first drink of elderflower syrup--a couple of fingers' worth poured in a glass filled with cold water, evocative of Berlin's spring and all that was missing in her life at the time--was enough to send me looking for some blooms around here. And I happened to be in luck. Elderflowers' short season in the Midwest falls between late June and early July. So, I was able to arrange with Seedling Farm to have some sprays ready for pick-up at the market. (The blooms are too delicate to survive much shuttling back and forth, so you have to contact the farm ahead of time.) Finding elderflowers is definitely the most troublesome part of making this syrup. The rest is just a matter of snipping the blooms from their stems and steeping them in a sugar syrup, along with a little lemon and citric acid. In a few days' time, the golden syrup is ready for bottling and drinking.
So far, my friends and I have been enjoying it mixed with sparkling water and lemon, sometimes a little good gin too. Yesterday, I tried adding a bit of muddled basil, which I quite liked. Luisa recommends a mix of Prosecco, muddled mint, sparkling water, and lemon. She also says that elderflower, while refreshing in the summer, is an entirely different thing in the dark of winter, that it really tastes of spring and even joy then. I am doing my best to save a little, but I can already tell that it's going to be hard.

Elderflower Syrup
From Luisa Weiss' My Berlin Kitchen
NOTE: You can find citric acid at Indian grocery stores, where it is labelled as "lemon salt" or "sour salt." As usual, I found mine at the Spice House.
UPDATE, 2013-12-09: A couple of months in, I noticed that my syrup had started fermenting a little. When I opened the bottle, there was a noticeable pop. I am not sure what to attribute this to. Perhaps I was not as thorough as I could have been with cleaning out my bottles. In any case, I didn't think too much of it until today when I opened my fridge to find that the fermentation had caused the glass bottle to explode (I hadn't opened it for awhile, and the bottle was stoppered with a wire-bail mechanism, so it was too secure to let any gas escape). Anyway, take this as a lesson--mind your fermentation.

20 to 25 large elderflower sprays
3 to 4 organic lemons, washed and sliced paper-thin, seeds removed
3 1/2 tablespoons citric acid
3 pounds and 6 ounces sugar

Clean and dry an opaque vessel large enough to hold about 5 quarts.
Hold each elderflower spray over the vessel and snip the tiny blossoms away from the stem and let them fall into the crock, taking care not to lose any of the pale yellow pollen. (Keep an eye out for tiny insects in among the blossoms. One or two are probably unavoidable. I found an itty bitty caterpillar. Shake them out or nudge them along towards the stem so that they don't end up in your syrup.) Add the sliced lemons to the vessel and sprinkle in the citric acid.
In a medium pot over medium heat, combine the sugar and 1 1/2 quarts of water. Stirring occasionally, melt the sugar and bring the mixture to a boil. Then remove it from heat and let the syrup sit until lukewarm.
Pour the syrup over the lemon and elderflowers and mix well. Cover the vessel with plastic wrap and let it stand in a cool corner of your home for 3 days, stirring once a day.
On the final day, uncover the crock and pour the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into clean glass bottles. Discard the lemon slices and elderflowers. Store in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark cellar for up to a year.
Makes about 2 litres.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Effort well spent

Kohlrabi, Fennel, and Blueberry Salad
Summer is easy on us home cooks. There's hardly any need to fuss at the stove, to coax sweetness and colour onto our plates. There's plenty to be had already. That's the thing about summer. The produce doesn't need much help from us--a few seconds' blanching, a pinch of flaky salt, maybe. But that's it. The rest we can just put in our mouths, and it is good just as it is. How crazy is that?
So, lately, and especially when headed out to the farmers' market, I haven't been thinking too hard about what dinner or the next day's lunch will look like. I've taken to wandering the stretch of stands and going home with just whatever catches my eye. No lists, no set ideas. I figure that things will sort themselves out. And usually they do. Paper-thin slices of radish find their way into a tangle of chilled soba noodles, baby mustard greens into a sharp, garlicky salad. So things have been a little more laid-back around here. (Outside the the market season, I always head out with a list, sometimes two.) 
Kohlrabi A mess of mint
But I did make an exception this past weekend at the market. I made sure to pick up what I needed for this kohlrabi salad. I first had it at a friend's late last year. And at the time, admittedly, I wasn't expecting much. Kohlrabi was that one member of the cabbage family I just didn't get. Dark, bitter greens--yes. Creamy, starchy roots--still good. But that strange, saw-toothed bulb? It wasn't something that I'd yet come to terms with. This salad, though, changed that. All evening, I kept coming back for more. (And to be clear, there was competition--these pommes Anna and a sumptuous venison roast.) It was hard not to when it had so much going for it--toasted almonds, slivers of fennel, blueberries, salty goat's cheese, mint, and a serious gingery kick. But make no mistake, the kohlrabi, with its earthy sweetness, its addictive crunch, was at the centre of it all. And I got it.
So though it's been good just eating whatever comes my way, having hardly done a thing to it, the little bit of extra effort for this salad is effort well spent. Some things, like a good bulb or two of kohlrabi, are just worth seeking out.

Kohlrabi, Fennel, and Blueberry Salad
From Stephanie Izard via Food & Wine
NOTE: Choosing kohlrabi. Try to find bulbs on the smaller side, about the size of a tennis ball. They'll be sweeter and not so fibrous. The mandoline. I've never actually used a mandoline for this salad. I've always sliced everything by hand. Things might turn out prettier with a mandoline, but I like the extra crunch of the slightly thicker kohlrabi slices. I also just tend to avoid using more kitchen tools than I really have to.

2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
1/4 cup grapeseed oil

1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 1/4 pounds kohlrabi, peeled and very thinly sliced on a mandoline
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced on a mandoline
2 ounces semifirm goat cheese, such as Evalon, Garrotxa or Manchester, shaved
1 cup blueberries or pitted, halved sweet cherries
2 tablespoons torn mint leaves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast for 8-10 minutes, until deeply golden. Let cool. 
In a blender, combine the ginger, shallot, vinegar, mayonnaise, mustard, soy sauce, and maple syrup and puree. With the blender on, add the grapeseed oil in a thin stream and blend until creamy. Season the dressing with salt and pepper. 
In a large bowl, toss the kohlrabi with the fennel, cheese, toasted almonds and dressing. Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Add the blueberries and mint and toss gently. Serve right away.
Serves 4-6.