Monday, 21 December 2009

comfort me with pate feuillete

When it stops raining, it's beautiful out here.

But when it resumes, in this temperate rainforest, the best option is to hunker down and build up a barrier: by blanket, scarf, or butterfat. I thought I wouldn't torture you with more teasers about what you can't have....but I can't get over this puff pastry. I finished the block from the freezer last week, rolling out what was left into a thin sheet and then carefully slicing it into even squares.

I opened a jar of tart cherries that Laila had canned over the summer when working at a farm in New Mexico. I drained the sweetened and subtly spiced juice the cherries had been soaking in, saving it with the idea that I would cook it down into a thick syrup to pour over ice cream or yogurt (a good idea, except when a lively conversation with a visitor about iris bulbs distracts you, and suddenly the syrup is bubbling madly and condensing into something hard and beautiful that resembles a sort of misshapen jolly rancher candy).

Gently, I spooned the fruit in a small mound in a corner of the square piece of dough; next was a light brushing of beaten egg along the seams, and finally, a pressing to acheive a fruit pocket slightly resembling a large, raw, wonton. Turnovers.

The other day I was listening to the radio - something about needle sharing programs - and a man was describing the first moment he shot up. Although his descriptions did not turn me on to intravenous drugs, they did make me think about those happy, sublime moments. Moments that keep you from thinking, sucking you in with pure focus towards either heroin or perfect, flaky pastry baked into a beautifully risen pocket around tangy, brutally delicious cherries.

Biting into these puppies was blindingly addictive - even after three (!) my mouth was watering at the thought of more (although the rest of my body was not quite as eager).

For some reason, the photos do not capture the perfect crispy, flaky, just-out-of-the-oven-and-so-hot-the-cherries-will-burn-your-lips-ness of it all. Here's a nice photo I took in a coffee shop to make up for it.

Again, I apologize. I will do my best to branch out in my eatings from these labor intensive activities. Perhaps I should share more often the dinners in our house that consist solely of eggs (it's wondrous what you can do with them, really). Or the meal I had yesterday of a chunk of raw purple cabbage, some rice candies, and a chunk of yellowing brie. Balance, as they say.

But really, part of the satisfaction does come from knowing that my sister picked, spiced, and canned the cherries; that I had a (small) hand in preparing the pastry; and in the end, that it all came together as a product of personal labor, rather than something bought off the shelf. The turnovers had personality, practically. A roundedness of character, a supple sweetness, and flirty tartness. Warming to the core, as quickly as they came together, they were gone.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

So much of my life is built around dealing with uncertainty.

I try not to overthink things, but generally I do. And then I often overcompensate by leaping blindly into something that could be either stupid or pleasant depending on chance and circumstance.

The trick is always turning around and having a pie or a salad or a lamb stew that is solid and there and unquestionably worth my time and focus. I can chew and relax and here I equate myself to a goat or perhaps even a voracious child in our mutual attention towards filling our stomachs.

Perhaps it's unhealthy, imagining food, and its preparation, as a kind of meditation. Perhaps it's merely a mechanism to find some kind of control when other parts of our (my) lives (life) seem to be looping into the netherlands of insanity.

Regardless, I often ground myself with food. Last week, I needed something to bring thoughts of stress of uncertainty and perhaps you could even call it general malaise to the back of my brain, and so I disconnected by way of molasses, ginger and apples.

There are few things that I can imagine to be as comforting as a spiced apple cake in fall. Warm, dripping with molasses infused caramel syrup, and full of the bold flavors of ginger and cinnamon, this cake was cockle-warming (as they say), and was hefty enough to spill over the edges of even our largest plate.

It took time to chop the apples, although they still were haphazardly shaped and by no means of equal thickness. It took a moment of concentration to level the flour in the measuring cup, to scrape the molasses out of it's cozy jar, to level the spices against one another.

When out of the oven, the cake was a dark as my mood had been earlier in the day. But the aroma quickly won me over: thick with that sharp ginger and baked apple, tempered by the heady molasses, I could almost see tendrils of scent creeping towards my nostrils in a cartoon seduction dance.

It oozed with cakey-confidence, knowing it could take up as much space as it wanted in this world. Because after all, cakes are lovable from all angles, and very much certain about where they stand relative to goats, children, and me: perpetually irresistible.

Apple Upside-Down Cake with Ginger and Molasses
from The New York Times

1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp butter
1 cup brown sugar
3-4 apples (weighing about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs) peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4 inch wedges
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup dark molasses
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
whipped cream (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and grease the rim only of a 10 inch cake pan with 1 tbsp butter, then drop the rest of the butter in the pan and set it over a very low flame. Add the brown sugar and swirl to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with the apple slices in any pattern you like, overlapping the edges of the apples (I didn't use all of mine). Chop extra apple pieces to fill in any holes.

2) Beat the remaining butter and the sugar until fluffy. In a separate bowl, whisk egg, molasses, and buttermilk. In a third bowl, whisk or sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices.

3) Alternate beating the dry and wet mixture into the butter until all is incorporated. Pour batter into pan and bake for 45-55 minutes. Let cool about 15 minutes, then turn it over onto a large platter, being careful not to burn yourself with hot syrup.

4) Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream if you like.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


This week, it snowed in the vineyards. And today, this blog celebrates its first year of existence.

The changes in my life in the past year have been rather, well, profound; but I suppose the events of one year, taken from any person's life, would seem as such.

When I wrote the first post, I was unemployed, living in Scotland with my boyfriend of the time, and writing a "novel." Funnily enough, I believe it was, at the time, snowing.

And here I am today, thoroughly employed, thoroughly single, and thoroughly not glancing at that "novel" for another five years (at least).

But: the ovens work the same on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, even if marked with different numbers. Even with a paycheck in pocket, I have yet to master the art of poaching an egg. And single or not, I love me some tuscan kale.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Puff me with butter. Ply me with flour.

The profundity of butter is a difficult thing to express. Especially when combined with other elemental ingredients: flour, water, salt.

In the past, I've made pastry. Pie, tarte, quiche...they all work. But puff pastry - this is a different beast. This is more that a few turns of the fork in cold butter, more than a few dribbles of ice water, and more than a simple roll of the pin.

In fact, the process of making puff pastry is a veritable marthon of steps, all ensuring the integrity of the endless and growing numbers of layers. It's about building, re-rolling, and pushing forward. An unincorporated blob of butter, though not ideal, can't be faulted for not forming a perfect layer between its neighboring perfect layers of dough, but it can be coerced.

Another light sprinkling of flour, another fold, another roll across the table, hour after hour, can only produce something spectacular, especially in considering the short list of ingredients.

And though I don't claim to have learned the techniques through and through, I can say I was an excellent observer, and did my best with the camera on my cell phone to capture the following:

It began with a small amount of butter cut into a mountain of flour.

The flour was then shaped into a moat, and filled with salty water.

Gentle nudges, and a paste began to form.

Paste became a sticky dough, clinging to fingers and wrists and every half-touched object in the kitchen.

The dough base was finished, and then came the butter.

Unwrapping cube after cube, quickly so the temperature didn't rise, like eager children shedding wrappers of Christmas chocolates.

And then, the chopping.

A fine dice of cold butter, incorporated with a small amount of flour, and then reformed into a slab of butter that could rival any impressive cheese wheel in form and brawn.

The dough was pressed to a square, just large enough to wrap comfortably around the butter block.

Folded together with the precision of a crisp envelope, we patted away flour and pulled the stretchy dough for just the right fit.

Edges neatly sealed, the package was ready to be rolled.

Time lapse: several hours, in which four times the rolling to the length of the table took place, with a double fold over to achieve those 447 layers of perfect flakiness.

Cut into 1 pound blocks, the finished puff pastry was carefully wrapped and stored, with just enough left out to finish the evening with a few palmiers.

Cut from a thin slice of rolled out dough, the palmiers couldn't have been simpler.

A quick foldover, a bit of beaten egg for sealing, and a sprinkling of sugar was all it took before they slid into the oven.

With heat, they puffed and spread, cozying up to their neighbors as the melting butter carmelized with the small sprinkling of sugar.

Small, crisp, even dainty, I say with confidence that the palmiers were mind blowing. Warm from the oven, with a texture that melted from shards of flaky pastry to the sweet taste of caramel, the small plate only left me wanting more.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Earlier, again.

Earlier in the season, when I was canning like a good Southern wife, Susanna lent me a cookbook.

We had been sitting on the tractor together all morning and into the afternoon, tossing green grapes and raisins out of the endless ton-bins resting on the red tractors. We talked about traveling, languages, and fruit - and kept circling back to pectin. I was disappointed that my first batch of pinot noir jelly (made from the very fruit we were sorting through) had been more of a syrup than something spreadable. The next day, Susanna brought me the solution: ten pounds of sour apples from her backyard.

She also brought me a cookbook. From the 50's, the previously red cover had faded to the pinkish brown of dying roses. The pages cracked as I turned them, revealing other small pieces of paper that Susanna had tucked in as notes to herself.

Although I was focused on pectin, of course I looked through the rest of the recipes: watermelon rind pickles, quince chutneys, citrus marmelades, spiced meat concoctions.

A few of my favorites:

Honey Rose Petal Preserve -
Pick the petals from fresh sweet roses gathered after the dew has dried off...


Tongue in Fat -
Cook tongue by any recipe. Pack in fat. Store in a crock or large glass jar.

The book was obviously assuming a level of expertise concerning the proper treatment of tongue that I was unfamiliar with, but regardless, it was great. If only I had a calf's foot, and I could have experimented with Calf's Foot Jelly.

Alas, I had apples and herbs. Rose Geranium, to be precise. An herb also included in certain special absinthe recipes that I'm known to be rather fond of.

So instead of plucking pink rose petals, I sliced sour apples, boiled them down with their cores and stems, and arrived at a final few cups of apple juice. Mixed with sugar, boiled down to a thick jelly, and then with a final infusion of fresh rose geranium leaves swirled into the sugar substance, I had a rose geranium jelly. Slightly tart, with an herbacious yet still floral, and yes, rose-like quality, the jelly spread across our morning toast quite nicely, and even held it's appropriate jelly form.

If you stumble upon a calf's foot or a loose tongue, feel free to share the knowledge.

Rose Geranium Jelly
note: can be made with any number of herbs. lemon verbena would be delicious, or you could lean towards something to go with more savory fare, like rosemary, mint, or thyme.

sour apples

Take your apples. You may have five pounds, you may have ten. Chop them roughly, taking no care to remove cores. In fact, cores are essential.

Put them in a large pot over medium heat. Cover. Let cook down for about an hour. The apples should be completely broken down.

Strain. Reserve solids (minus seeds) for applesauce, if you like. Measure juice.

Return juice to stove. In a ratio of 2:1, juice to sugar, add sugar. Boil gently until mixture sheets off the back of a spoon. Turn off heat.

Add herbs to heated juice. Swirl for 30 seconds to five minutes, depending on how strong you want the flavor. Taste. Return to heat, return to boil.

Pour into prepared jars, seal, and process in a hot water bath.

Monday, 16 November 2009

fruit, meat, and eating it all.

There is something about trading "have you eaten stories" that will never cease to tire me. Listed like battle scars, or better yet, victories, these stories vary in their level of what I would call obvious excitement, but always hold something important for the teller of the story. For instance, there was the friend who was so proud to have finally eaten fish off the bone instead of fishsticks - not mind-blowing for all of us, but for her, a step in the right direction. And then their was the other friend who couldn't get enough roasted chicken feet to satisfy.

It's all relative.

Generally, it's the more exotic stories that I like to hear: alligator stews, rattlesnake bbq, yak yogurt, salted the end, it seems like flavors are the, but the question of taste is secondary to the excitement of that daring moment of consumption.

My own roster of exciting foods has grown over the years, beginning with my first chicken livers tossed into a French salad, and most recently ending with a spoonful of lamb brains.

But I'll come back to that. First, I wanted to mention Peru.

A few years ago, I spent a goodly chunk of time tramping around the jungle, teaching English, testing kids for malaria, planning reforestation projects, and visiting local health clinics with an organization called APECA that operated out of a few small boats running up and down tributaries of the Amazon River. I wrote lengthy emails home that were circulate among family and friends, and instead of rehashing, I thought I would share a bit of one here. It concerns masato, a drink made from fermented fruit-flavored saliva, and also delves into some of the other jungle excitement I got myself into.

This particular day, we had spent the afternoon on a lake, the entrance to which had been allowed to seal with tree branch growth to keep out the larger boats of commercial fishermen. In our small four person motorboat, we spent over an hour hacking at branches and vines with machetes to clear a path to the lake. APECA was planning a rainfall catchment project there, and while Pablo, an Amazonian native, talked details with high-ranking villagers, I was fed snacks by one of the families. The following are two short unedited excerpts from my 19 year old mind:

In exchange for a few soles, we were served a grape nut like substance made from ground yucca, the woody fruit pihuayu to be skinned and dipped into a pile of salt, and also big bowls of pihuayu masato. Yes, masato, the spit drink. I tried it, finally or unfortunately or thankfully I have no idea, but I had to! This grandma had made it. I have a very clear picture in my mind of her sitting on the edge of her rocky porch in the afternoon sun, swatting bugs and chewing the bright yellow fruit for hours, spitting whenever she has a good glob in her cheek of saliva, then shoving some more fruit in to keep the fountain going. There was a huge bucket of this thick yellow liquid, which, in this case, had been boiled.
Pablo seemed to think that since it was boiled, no problem! That solves every qualm, apparently. But it is still a bowlful of spit that I drank from, cautiously but curiously. Well, it didn’t taste like much, it hadn’t been fermented for very long so it had yet to turn very alcoholic, and was mostly like a salty fruit juice.
As I downed yellow spit and chewed on Amazon grapenuts, there was action going on around me. Pablo was looking over a gutted armadillo, which was sitting in a big plastic bowl on the porch next to where the babies were playing. Intestines all attached but hanging strangely, its trunk long and bent around its jellied body. Dinner....

...Returning, we found a fish waiting for us. Earlier in the morning Pablo had bought a live giant catfish, pregnant with a full belly of eggs, to be put into one of the ponds. A new fish colony. While we were gone, somehow it didn’t get into the water soon enough, and it died before it even hit the pond’s surface. Nothing left to do but cut it up for dinner. Chicle, the compound caretaker, brought up the fish, hanging from his shoulder to his knees, presenting it tragically but eagerly (thinking maybe he’d get some). Two of his kids followed him up, excited for the action.
Whiskers like half cooked spaghetti, a pristine white belly, black spots fading to a dark gray back. Smack it down on the counter, get out the biggest knife, plunge it into its middle, sawing straight through for circular chunks of bleeding fish flesh. I watched, fascinated and totally nauseated. I could never even watch the dissections of worms in middle school, so as I stood in the hot little El Fundo kitchen I was proud of myself that not only were my eyes glued to this atrocious sight, but I wasn’t vomiting all over myself. Red fish blood leaked all over Pablo’s hands, and splattered against the walls and the small machete was brought up into the air, then swiftly down to break the thick spine. Slicing through the juicy skin, sawing through the cracking bones, and cutting through the delicate egg sacks. The children were rewarded with a large piece of meat, the twelve year old boy having helped hold the fish steady as the hacking took place. The fish showed up in every meal we ate from then on.
Chilicano for breakfast (a thin, simple fish soup that is easy and popular), fried fish for lunch, grilled in a bijao leaf for dinner. Even the boney head showed up one night, bigger than a plate, overflowing with rice off the edges. I just wondered where the whiskers had gone.

Of course, not every meal in Peru was like this. Plenty of boiled plantains and plain white rice graced our plates, and there were also things that I refused to eat, like turtle eggs and the infamous monkey soup. But it was eye opening, in the sense that if something showed up on my plate, and we were sitting with a group of villagers, our meal lit dimly by a fading sun, the mosquitoes beginning to swarm around my painfully pale skin, there was never the question about whether I should eat it or not. There was no asking the timid question: um, can you tell me about this food please?

Once I tried. We had been eating a salty meat for days on end. No recognizable body parts showed themselves, just chewy meat and chewier gristle clinging to chunks of bone. When I asked for some kind of an idea as to what animal I was eating, the closest description I could extract from anyone was "jungle beast."

Which brings me back to another primal experience I had this past weekend, in a place much closer to that which I call home. A meat festival in Napa county, and lamb brains. Scooped from the head. The head sitting close to its neighbors, charring nicely on an open flame. The eyeballs, intact yet jellified, staring at me from above the bony jawline filled with teeth.

Imagine a custard. A pot de creme, perhaps. Make it savory. A bit salty, almost. A delicate meatiness to it. And a squirt of lemon to cut through a slightly cloying richness. That is my newest story of a lamb brain scooped straight from the scull. Frighteningly delicious.

Monday, 2 November 2009

artemisia absinthium and the green fairie

A green brew that clouds as cool water swirls through...a drink that has been said to rot the mind, be the cause of wife-killing, and birth small flying muses...the subject of innumerable French paintings...Absinthe is elusive, delicious, and time consuming, both in the time it takes to prepare and the time it invites to enjoy in its layers of complex herbal flavors.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness and partake in the distillation of absinthe with a neighbor who produces small quantities from her garden with the help of a beautiful portugese still.

It began with hyssop, lemon balm, and wormwood (above), the three predominant herbs in the concoction. The herbs had been macerating (below) for five weeks, stewing in an organic grape alcohol as the cooling fall weather descended.

After tasting a bit of the pre-stilled liquid, the herbs and liquid alike we stuffed into the basin of the copper still.

Fitted with a fanciful hat and attached to a coil of tubes twisted through tepid water, the still was set above a bright flame.

Star anise, coriander seed, and anise seed disappeared into the still, mingling with the wormwood, lemon balm, and hyssop as the flame rose around the edges of the swollen basin.

We watched as the first drops left the copper tube, slowly at first, then faster as they spilled into a clear jar with a steady rhythm.

Before long, several jars were filled with a pristine liquid that burned the nostrils at first scent, and then, with only a drop or two, swept through the mouth, spreading like a bitter green cloud, clinging to the back of the tongue and tingling the insides of our cheeks.

Kathmandu, a black kitty with a keen sense of herbal balance, surveyed our progress.

As the new absinthe trickled into the jar, we read about wormwood: how it soothes the nerves, stimulates digestion and appetite, and is said to aid with depression, arthritis, and restlessness. And then, we surveyed the second maceration from a previous batch.

After the absinthe is distilled, is it divided between different jars, each of which is individually infused with a different herb. Above was a small amount soaking in dried anise seed. Lemon verbena and rose geranium also made appearances, lending their floral, bitter flavors and vibrant green color to different stages of infusions, before the final blending.

We also tasted a finished batch from earlier in the summer. Clean and refreshing, with a green bitter quality that tastes almost medicinal, while still maintaining a deliciousness that can only come from something prepared with attention to layers of flavor and aroma and quality.

Cool from ice water, brightening, and uplifting, we drank without the oft-employed sugar cube dissolved through a slotted silver spoon. Instead, we delighted in the herbal bitters and toasted the green fairie.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Let's have it at orange

There was a long period of time when I decidedly disliked pumpkin pie. Rather, I was extremely bored by it. At holidays, it just kind of sat there, sad and dull colored. A blob of whipped cream rarely helped the matter.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that pumpkin was very healthy. Vitamins and whatnot - or so the Superfoods book told us. I tried my hand at an easy pumpkin pudding a few times, but again, something was lacking. Perhaps it was just too healthy. Or maybe the lack of crust and interesting texture had something to do with it. Then there was the time I made the pudding and forgot to add the sugar (my aunt's kitchen, Cardiff by the Sea, cooking with my cousins...I wish I could remember the details of that afternoon and what distracted me so much that I forgot this key ingredient).

Danny, Joanna (my cousins) and I all pushed huge spoonfuls of the stuff into our mouths and then quickly spit it back out again. It was awful. I believe the dog enjoyed it though.

This ruined me for a while. My pumpkin senses were so tainted the desire was completely gone for anything orange or Cinderella related.

Since then, I've regrown a soft spot in my heart for the pumpkin cupcake with cream cheese frosting. But that's easy to love. It was last night's pumpkin pie that won back the game for good.

The triumph was three-fold: fresh pumpkin, spectacular crust, and grated nutmeg.

I split a bright orange pumpkin from our garden, rained on and slightly scarred but still perfectly eligible, down the center. Scooped of their innards, the two sides sat, rounded like little full bellies, on a roasting pan, sagging as the minutes ticked on and the orange flesh softened into something scoopable.

The crust was born with Inez. My go-to crust for sweet and savory, it's forgiving and doesn't mind being torn apart and patched back together haphazardly. In fact, I think this makes the crust better than one of those perfectly smooth options - there are more corners and crags and nubs to turn golden and crisp in the oven.

And the nutmeg: who would have thought that the grating of this little brown seed would be so much more potent than the stuff found in a jar? Who would have thought that the scent would ride through the room on the heat waves emanating from the pie, torturing us as we waited?

Out of the oven, the pie taunted us (we are five in the house at the moment) as we ate dinner. It radiated heat as we did the dishes. It screamed as we tried to satisfy ourselves with figs and grapes to let the pie cool a bit longer.

After Laila had planted herself next to the pie for a long enough time, staring at it willfully, I gave in. Sliced, it held the perfect amount of warmth. Soft like a fluffy custard, spicy but not too sweet, the pumpkin balanced perfectly with the crispy, flakey crust.

With my marmalade and now the pumpkin pie, along with a few steps in between that haven't made it here, the month of October seems to be turning as orange as all those candy wrappers and horrible decorations showing in the stores right now. It's funny how that works.

Spiced Pumpkin Pie
adapted from Bon Appetit magazine
note: BA used a phyllo crust in their recipe. I'm sure it would be delicious, but alas, I had no phyllo. If you are a phyllo fan, they may have the recipe listed on their website.

for the filling:
1 2lb sugar pumpkin, halved and seeded (my pumpkin was bordering 3 lbs. also, the recipe suggests using butternut squash - this intrigues me.)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup loosely packed brown sugar
3 eggs
6 tbsps canned evaporated skim milk
1 1/2 tbsp heavy cream or half and half
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt

for the crust:
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick butter, cold, cut into smallish pieces
1/4 ice water

1) Preheat oven to 375. Place pumpkins cut side down on roasting pan and bake until very soft and easily pierced with a fork, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cool slightly.

2) Meanwhile, make the crust. Stir together flour, sugar, and salt. With a pastry cutter, cut in butter until pieces are the size of peas or smaller. Dribble in ice water, stirring gently. You may need a bit less or a bit more. When you press a handful together, it should stick to itself but not be so sticky that it sticks to you. Wrap loosely in wax paper, then press into a disk. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

3) When pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and put in a blender. Puree till smooth. Add cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Puree. Add sugar, eggs, milk, cream, cornstarch, vanilla, and salt. Puree.

4) Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Roll out pie crust. Don't worry if it's not perfect. Patch it and love it. Fit crust into a 9 inch pie pan, taking overhanging pieces and adding it to the top edges to make them thicker. Pour filling into crust.

5) Bake for ten minutes, then reduce temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 40-45 minutes, until filling has set. Cool at least twenty minutes (!), then grate nutmeg over it and serve warm.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

in the name of rotting fruit, eat it!

I was waiting to talk about figs. How much I love them, how we buy them by the flat in my family, how every fig season I gorge myself by the fistful and never look back....

I experimented with figs this year - pickles, sweets, etc. It was all good, but nothing was, well, extraordinary. Nothing was as good as a fresh fig, so ripe the pink seeds inside are coated with that sticky syrupy goodness. I've tried, and this year, I've decided: fresh is best for the fig.

So what to do?

I went to Fresno.

I've never found a reason to go to Fresno in my life, and honestly, I don't know if I'll ever find a reason to go back again. But my college pal Jayme is staying there for a while with her family, so I thought I'd escape for a weekend and discover what Central Valley farmland was all about.

Jayme's dad grows grapes and citrus, amongst other things. Ironically, her family doesn't really eat any fruit, or many vegetables for that matter, I suppose since after seeing something every day in the fields one doesn't really want to go home and see it on the kitchen counter or on the dinner plate.

I was fine with all this. I've come to understand (after the trials of Scotland) that everyone has their own style of eating, and it isn't necessary kale-focused. What I wasn't fine with were the kumquats beginning to rot on the tree in their backyard.

In fact, I was practically traumitized. Free! Beautiful! Fruit! Growing in your backyard! But none of the six immediate family members were remotely interested, and even made faces when I suggested the consumption of these little colorful gems.

I picked every single one I could salvage, climbing through the spider webs and showing that tree more love than it had seen in a while.

Jayme's 94 year old grandmother was eating marmalade that morning. And, shabam, it came to me: I would make kumquat marmalade.

Minus a few refreshing citrus bursts on the 5+ hour ride home (what made me think it was three hours?) plus a google search later and I had found my perfect recipe: sugar, fruit, and a little something special in the name of Earl Grey tea.

Since the tea is often scented with bergamot, a type of asian citrus, the kumquat and Earl Grey seemed a serendipitous match. And the results? Amazing. Spectacular. Thin ribbons of tangy peel suspended in the tea scented syrup was almost too much to bear. Maybe even better than a ripe fig?

Wonderfully sour and sweet, with a hint of something unusual as the tea lingers on the tongue, this stuff is good. And that doesn't even address the color: a brilliant orange that is so optimistic in those little glass jars it's hard to wonder why I'm enjoying the preserving process so much.

Kumquat Marmalade with Earl Grey
adapted from The Gothamist

1 1/2 lbs kumquats, sliced thinly, seeds reserved
4 cups water
3 1/2 cups sugar
two bags of Earl Grey tea

Tie the seeds in a piece of cheesecloth (this will be your pectin). Put sliced kumquats, seeds, and water in a large pot, cover, and let soak overnight or for 24 hours.

The next day, add the tea bags to the mixture, then bring to a boil (do not remove seeds). Let boil gently for 35-45 minutes, until quite thick, removing the tea bags after 5-10 minutes, depending on how strong you like it. Then, stirring constantly, pour in the sugar. When sugar is all stirred in, cook another 10-20 minutes, until mixture sheets off the back of a spoon.

Pour into sterilized jars and refrigerate, or process in a boiling water bath.

Fills 5 8-ounce jars, with a little extra to taste

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Hagebuttensirup: how to fall in love through syrup

I promised to tell you about syrups. First, I want to tell you about Lena and her boyfriends.

Last year, I escaped my traveling itinerary and companions and went to Berlin for a week by myself. Well, almost by myself. I stayed with Lena, a six foot tall Berliner with blond hair flowing down her back. Walking next to her, it was hard not to feel like something akin to a reptilian dwarf.

Lena is a law student and friend from college, and is one of those amazing people who can tell everyone that she loves them, and mean it. She would give out hugs and kisses like no one else I've met, managing to charm pretty much everyone up and down the block of student apartments we lived in.

Lena was my mother hen, in many ways. Almost five years older than me with ten years of relationship experience, we talked about boys and boyfriends, wondering at the unexpected choices people make in the name of love.

I met Lena at the tail-end of a five year relationship. She wanted someone stronger, she would say. Someone who she could get into a fighting match with. Someone who wasn't so infuriatingly nice...This boyfriend of hers - from Germany to San Diego he would send her little jars of roasted red pepper pesto he had made for her. When she returned home to Berlin, he would dress up in a suit, go to his lawyer job, promise marriage and comfort, and come home and cook her dinner.

"I want someone who is, you know, kind of an asshole," Lena would say.

So she found someone else.

When I arrived in Berlin, it was smack dab in the middle of what you might call the "transition." Both of Lena's significant others were still around and both were making their own attempts at wooing her.

Her apartment was in the East side of Berlin. Inexpensive rent, but airy with tall windows and a little kitchen facing into a courtyard, it was a wonderful apartment in a developing artist neighborhood. Her refrigerator was filled with vegetable from the organic co-op down the street, as well as with homemade condiments from various sets of loving hands.

There were several sauces and spreads, including the pesto, all made by boyfriend 1, which we ate smeared slices from the dark, heavy loaves of bread sold in every German market.

And then there was a large jar of a syrupy liquid, wrapped in a carefully positioned gold ribbon, made by boyfriend 2. Deep orangey-pink, almost the color of Mexican papaya with a scent that was sweet and floral, it was utterly intriguing. I was afraid to touch it though - it looked so special, so thought out. I didn't want to interfere with anyone's little love gifts.

One night we had vanilla ice cream, and Lena pulled out the jar. Swirled with the melting ice cream, I still had no clue what this stuff was. There was no trace of fruitiness, and yet something about it was totally addictive. I wasn't evening paying attention to the ice cream anymore (and that takes a lot).

Although Lena's English is as impeccable as any well-schooled German citizen, she couldn't think of the translation. But she described the process to me: her new boyfriend had gone out to the woods near his parent's home in the country and clipped the fruit, then boiled it and made it into a syrup for her. It had taken him all day, she explained, because he had to be very careful of the spines.

I looked at her and laughed. "You want a tough guy, and yet here you are with a new love who slaves over the stove all day to make you a sweet pink syrup!"

She slapped herself on the forehead, as if she were just realizing it. "What I am doing!" she said. And then she brought out her favorite word again: "But I really love him..."

It was rosehip syrup, and Lena had fallen in love with the same person in a different body.

I started seeing the German word for rosehip (hägenmark) all over the place. In juices, soda, and jams. The jam was especially spectacular. I had never seen anything like it in the states, and I wondered why no one had tapped into this amazing flavor.

This was one of many lessons on the German treatment of food - care. From what I saw in Berlin, people really cared about food, about how to deal with food waste, about how to grow food that was healthy for the ground and healthy for the people. And it was affordable too: I've never been to a city before with such fresh, inexpensive food, both in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, big supermarkets, and tiny fruitstands. Of course there were still potatoes and sausages and beer, but even these people took more care with them. The beer was differentiated by what village it came from. Each spice that went into the sausages was thought out, and even the pototoes seemed creamier, and dare I say healthier?

Everything seemed to have that little extra effort put in, that little extra care that made the city appear more conscientious and maybe even a little more evolved.

And so we get back to Cazadero, and my canning extravaganza schmorgasboord that has been happening the past weeks. With a handful of rosehips from a little rose garden in Healdsburg, and another handful from a sprawling bush located conveniently off the dirt road I use to drive to work every day, I attempted to recreate Berlin in a jar of rosehip syrup (hagebuttensirup, for those interested).

And it did bring me back. Poured all over my morning toast, dripping all over my fingers and down my chin, I thought about Lena's East Berlin apartment and the smell of rosehips on that dense, dark bread...and I thought about the care that prods not only one guy tredge out into the woods for a crop of rosehips, but a whole country that devotes the thought and time to nourish its people, not just feed them.

Wild Rosehip Syrup

Syrups may be my new favorite thing. Rose geranium syrup and lavender syrup have also been stirred up, all in the same process.

Swirled into tap water, bubbly water, or iced tea makes a lively drink. Poured over yogurt in the morning or ice cream at any hour of the day is also delicious. And of course the standard pancakes and waffles.

Don't let the thorns scare you - if you see rosehips growing somewhere, snap them off and hoard them. They are worth a thorn or two in your finger.

4 cups rosehips, trimmed of stems and cut in half
2 cups water
1 cup sugar

Boil rosehips and water for 20 minutes. Strain.

Add sugar, boil five minutes until slightly thickened.

Refrigerate for up to two weeks.

For longer storage, pour hot syrup into sterilized jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.

Monday, 14 September 2009

pausing with a grape or two

Things have been totally backwards recently. I've been getting up before the sun, riding tractors, eating lunches out of a sac, and nursing a farmer's tan. And I haven't given this humble little blog a glance in weeks...

Harvest in the vineyards may bring sleep deprivation and adventures with the Spanish language, but it also brings one obvious thing: fruit. And the fruit brings me back here, looking for recipes, flavors, and combinations to throw around.

The sorting process in the vineyards leaves many sad bunches of grapes behind. Little lost soldiers as the workers tear through the vines with their shears snipping each cluster into the plastic bins. So later in the day, with the sun bearing down on the fallen fruit and turning it fast into raisins, I've been returning to the field with an empty bucket.

Pounds of grapes have passed through the kitchen, manicured to rid them of green or rainsinated berries. A good crush with a potato masher, some sugar and some heat, and those lofty grapes, usually aged for a year or two or twelve into cellar-worthy bottles of pinot noir, become something much simpler. A juice, a syrup, a jelly.

It's the world of canning, and I've been diving in. I'll tell you about my other adventures later (involving lavender and wild fennel pollen, among other delights), but this week was all about the grape.

The juice was, well, juice. Sweet and puckery, with something that reminded us of watermelon and strawberries. The syrup swirled wonderfully with some bubbly water. Made by boiling up the stems along with the fruit, a little spoonful of the sweet, deep purple stuff revealed a flavor much more powerful and complex than your average grape.

And finally, the jelly.

I'd never made jelly before. I'd tried my hand at jam, and it seems that dumb luck in that situation delivered me a delcious and well-jelled product. These grapes, lacking a significant amount of pectin, were a different species.

A neighbor delivered the answer in the form of a huge box of tart, firm apples from her tree. Natural pectin had arrived.

Using this recipe, I whipped up three pots of sticky, sputtering syrup, crossing my fingers it would come together.

The swirl of rosemary before canning was a beautiful addition, one that inspired me to set a little of the hot liquid aside and add some fresh lemon verbena leaves for a different sort of infusion.

Once cooled, the grape and rosemary flavors nestled into one another, melding just enough for a little question mark to go off in your head when it hits the tongue. And although plenty sweet, the rosemary begs for something savory. Spread on salty foccaccia would be lovely (fritos work in a pinch), and we have also been thinking about making a glaze for a roasted meat, perhaps lamb.

The thing about these cans though - I can only open one at a time. For my eat-it-all-at-once nature, this is a lesson in patience as we dig deeper into the first jar and I force myself to wait to taste the grape with lemon verbena.

There is something about this wait, something about the preservation itself, that seems to slow things down. Days disappear, and then you are stirring hot syrup over the stove and the moment takes a pause. Time isn't filled by the normal chaos. Somehow it passes more gently.