Sunday, 26 July 2009

On and Up

Here I am to talk about moving (again).

For now, my time in San Francisco is over. The house on 17th, with its white tiles, great light, and inexplicably beautiful backyard will be cleaned out for someone else's use.

No longer will I be chopping on warped plastic cutting boards, flicking olive oil all over the white walls, or slamming the cupboard doors for the 70th time because they never quite shut right. No longer will I walk down the street to the farmer's market on 9th avenue to find the ingredients for lunch or dinner, getting distracted along the way by Arizmendi's currant scones or Park Chow's stellar breakfast potatoes. Like many things in life: good and bad, exciting and frightening.

This rare sunny morning I walked down the hill to the market and found myself some tomatoes. They were big tomatoes. Thoroughly red. Yielding to pressure. Piled next to mountains of peaches and nectarines, as if they were meant to be eaten by the biteful, straight from the wooden crates.

Instead I brought them home. On the bent cutting board I sliced them all in half. Into a pan with melted butter, the juices hit the heat of the metal with a hiss and shot instant aroma into the air. For a few minutes, the heat released more juices, then a quick flip turned the cut sides up, each burnished a bit golden with heat and fat. A sprinkling of salt, a few more turns, and I had tomatoes stewing in their own juices, sitting happily on the stove as the fog rolled back in. A generous splash of cream swirled around the cooked halves, mixing with the red tomato juices and mingling with the tiny beads of melted butter. Another dash of salt, and the dish was finished.

Simple and warm, heady with the flavor of a perfectly ripe summer tomato and also something deeper, something more natural and right than a refined and precise dish. Pierced with a fork, the juices of the red fruit continued to flow as I soaked them up with good bread. 

It was messy and delicious and warm. Comforting, you could say. Comforting that a plan wasn't needed to find something great: it can all end up in front of you in messy glory and still be delicious in all its inprecision.

Tomatoes à la crême
inspired by Gourmet

Find those ripe, juicy, beautiful tomatoes that are too delicate to transport from a faraway place. Choose one, maybe two per person. Slice them in half, along the equator if you remember (I didn't).

Melt some butter in a pan, enough to cover the bottom with a thin layer. Add the tomatoes, cut side down. Cook for about five minutes, listening: the heat can't be too hot or the butter and juices will burn, but listen for a light sizzle.

Flip tomatoes, sprinkle them with some coarse salt, and let cook another ten minutes or so. Again, watch the heat.

Flip again, cook some more. There should be plenty of juices in the pan. Taste them, if you like. Maybe add a bit more salt. Flip them again so the cut side is up, and add some cream. About a tablespoon per half tomato should do it. Swirl the pan so the juices and cream and butter all mix together.

If you are feeling festive, sprinkle some fresh basil on top of the hot tomatoes. Serve immediately, with crusty bread.

Monday, 20 July 2009

that which is strange, that which is sweet

When I was 19, as part of a one year escape from the world of college in San Diego, I spent a week in Vinsobres. A tiny village in the south of France, Vinosbres is mostly fields and vineyards, with a few stone buildings thrown in. I stayed with the Monier family in an apartment above their wine cooperative, where all day and night the heady aroma of fermenting grapes wafted through the hot air.

Being harvest time, I was left to my own devices for most days. I took walks at first, but there didn't really seem to be anywhere to go. Next, I dove into the French translation of The Great Gatsby. Then after a few days of becoming very intimate and very bored with my travel dictionary, I found the refrigerator.

A refrigerator full of leftovers (pigeon legs, carrot mousse, pig trotters), cheeses that smelled of stagnant swamps, and several bottles of Martini in a variety of colors. I would take breaks from Gatsby, nibbling here and there, taking tiny sips of Martini Rouge, and foraging in the box of chocolate biscuits that always sat on the counter.

The foods were all new (except the chocolate cookies), and I always surprised myself by wanting more. The scarier it looked the curiouser I was. The stranger the taste the more I craved another bite.

This summer, my family is hosting a girl, Louma, from this same village. And although our refrigerator contains plenty of recognizable cheese, olives, and meats for her to sift through, I'm sure there are a lot of oddities as well.

It's easy to forget how strange the simple things are. Yes, we eat pizza and pasta and salad and grilled chicken, all fairly ubiquitous in both the US and France. Both we also have tacos, frozen yogurt, and eggs for breakfast. We have wasabi peas, corn on the cob and blackberry pie. The list goes on, and I'm sure there are plenty of foods tucked into the corners of our cupboards or fridges that for Louma, are entirely bizarre.

For instance, granola.

This weekend Louma tasted her first granola. Of course they have cereal in France, even oatmeal. But granola only comes in the form of müesli, it's untoasted cousin. Raw oats, dried fruits and nuts, all make their appearance in müesli, just like granola, but with the addition of oil and heat, it's a whole different game.

The granola Louma tasted was an adaptation from Melissa Clark's recipe that appeared in The New York Times this week.

Sweet and salty, tangy and spicy, this concoction of fruit and nuts is so addictive I ate it for three meals, that is three additional meals to my normal food day. I just couldn't stop.

I'm sure I fueled all those stereotypes about the never-ending appetites of Americans, but with the cardamom and the apricots, the olive oil and the coconut, the maple syrup and the pistachios, how could I stop myself?

I've talked about my obsession with salt and olive oil before, particulary when combined in sweet dishes. There is something about that savory quality of good olive oil that marries so well with sweet and salty. And the excuse to have this combo every morning? It's almost more than I can handle. In fact, it was. I made a half batch, thinking that the full 9 cups that Melissa Clark's recipe was slotted to make was a little overboard.

But in two days my granola was gone, polished off sprinkled hot from the oven over vanilla ice cream, then the next morning with peaches and yogurt, and then eaten the rest of the afternoon into the next morning by the handful. My Dad (not usually a granola-head) and Louma both had a big bowlful.

I'm telling you, it's dangerous stuff. But if you feel like you can handle the temptation, by all means, make the full batch. Make it and see if you can leave it only for the early hours of the day. Make it and think of all the delicious foods to be made and discovered, for yourself and for traveling French girls.

Melissa Clark's Olive Oil Granola
tweaked from The New York Times

makes 9 cups!

3 cups of your favorite oats
1 1/2 cups cups raw pistachios, hulled
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 cup unsweetened coconut chips
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots (I used Blenheim, my favorite)

1) Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

2) Mix all ingredients, except apricots, in a large bowl.

3) Spread mixture on a baking sheet. Bake 35-45 minutes stirring every ten minutes. (Mine only took 35 minutes because I made a half batch. Adjust accordingly.)

4) Let cool. Mix in apricots. Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

breaking into it

The first time I remember eating cauliflower I was somewhere around five years old. It was summer, and I was at Linda's house. Linda took care of my sister and me, along with a slew of other neighborhood kids (as much as you can call the woods a neighborhood). She was a redhead who wore a lot of bright pink, and her partner, John, used to be a ballet dancer. There were posters of them together on the wall, young and dancing. I remember thinking it was so strange that people could have lived in any other way than they were right in that moment. How could they not always have lived in this house, taking care of these children?

I remember John would sit in a sunny nook and devour entire pints of Haagen Daz. As kids, we were so jealous. The only explanation we were even given was that he was a grownup: perhaps this is where stems my perpetual delight in eating as much ice cream as I want or can, straight from the carton - it's become the official stamp that I've met adulthood.

Instead of ice cream, Linda fed us endless rice crackers, Little Soldier chocolate cookies, and almonds; but most importantly, she let us run wild in her garden.

Looking back, I'm not sure I would have wanted ten hungry children running rampant through a fruit and vegetable garden; we were hippie kids after all, we liked vegetables, and didn't leave much in our wake.

Her cauliflower patch was huge that summer. The snap peas and raspberries had been polished off, but us kids were wary of the large, bulbous creatures wrapped in green leaves like garden bouquets.

And then Linda broke into one. She snapped it off at the stem, shaking off the dark dirt that clung to the lower leaves. One by one, she broke off little florets and passed them around to everyone. And that was it, the patch was no longer huge, it was demolished. Perhaps one of my first binge moments, I ate so much cauliflower I was literally sick of it for years. From love to quick boredom (after eating a quantitiy bordering somewhere around four heads), I was ruined for years.

Thankfully, I'm no longer five years old. And although I may still have my food bingeing moments, cauliflower has come full circle for me.

This weekend I found a head of purple cauliflower that had my name on it. Cut up, browned with olive oil and anchovies, and then tossed with pasta and cheese, the cauliflower was a world apart from fresh and raw straight from the garden. The anchovy fillets brought a salty richness to the dish, elevating the humble cruficer to something a bit more adult than a plain pasta and cheese combination.

It wouldn't call this dish elegant or fancy, just a few ingredients brought together through heat and time to create something finished and satisfying in its simplicity. Something rich and warm, yet as simple as a quick stir-fry and the boiling of pasta, I love finding dishes like this: full of memory and flavor.

Pasta with Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets (I chose purple cauliflower merely for looks, any color would work here)
4 or 5 anchovy fillets, packed in olive oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound pasta of your choice
dry jack cheese, grated, a good handful per person
salt and pepper

1) Heat the pasta water. When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook until al dente.

2) Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Add anchovy fillets (they will sizzle), breaking them up with a spoon. Throw in the cauliflower, tossing to coat with oil mixture. Cook about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is softened and browned in places.

3) Drain pasta, add to cauliflower. Stir everything together, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, passing the grated cheese, adding generous amounts to each plate.

Serves two generously

Monday, 6 July 2009

simple, with freckles

I've been thinking about simplicity a lot lately.

Just as a concept, really. What it means to different people, how it affects people's lives, how we can cultivate it as we move through the world...maybe I've been thinking about it so much that paradoxically, it's become complicated.

It's kind of the same idea as living in the moment. My mom knows all about this: whenever she forgets something (frequently), she just claims she's "in the now." Clever, yet somehow annoying that she can get away with that excuse.

But finding those moments, the simplest of moments, and acknowledging them as real and important, is beyond valuable.

Take the apricot, for instance. A perfectly ripe apricot, delicately orange with a pink blush and little brown freckles, so juicy when broken open that the pit slides right out into your palm - that is simplicity at its best.

As many times in the past, my inspiration came from Molly of Orangette. She had written about an apricot tart years ago that she had tasted at Zuni Café here in San Francisco. A tart that consisted of pastry, apricots, and no extra frills beyond the delicious caramelized juices released as the apricots warmed in the oven.

When I read the post, I was in Scotland - it was winter, and it was raining. A fresh apricot (that wasn't imported from the West Bank or from South Africa) sounded like heaven to me, and the thought of an apricot tart was enough to send my mind reeling off the deep end.

And now, here we are: apricot season.

My family always gets our apricots from The Apricot Lady at the Healdsburg farmer's market. That's not really her name, but just what we've always called the woman who wears big floppy hats loves to feed us samples of her amazing apricot jam. And we always get the Blenheim apricots. Yes, they have the cute little freckles, but they also have a rounder flavor than her other types of apricots - a bit more floral, a bit less syrupy. Smaller than other, more commercial apricots, they are also incredibly delicate when ripe (making them hard to transport and thereby only sold by fabulous commited people like The Apricot Lady).

Baked into a simple pastry crust that came together the night before to be ready for the morning's breakfast, the apricots were the epitome of simple beauty and deliciousness.

Here's to the cultivation.

Simple Apricot Tart

found on Orangette, adapted from The Zuni Café

Prepare the Crust:

4 tbsp ice water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups white flour
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
9 tbsp cold butter, cut into small cubes (I used salted, unsalted works too)

In a small bowl combine water and vinegar.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, sugar and salt (or in a food processor). With a food processor or with a pastry cutter pulse or cut until the butter is pea-sized. Slowly add the liquid, pulsing/cutting as you go. You may need to add an extra teaspoon of water if the dough looks dry.

Turn the dough onto a clean surface. Press and shape into a disk about 1 1/2 inches thick, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours, or overnight.

Prepare the Apricots:

1 pound apricots (the best you can find)
1/3 cup sugar
3 pinches salt

Cut the apricots in quarters, removing pits as you go. Gently toss fruit with salt and sugar. Set aside.

Bake it:

Preheat oven to 375.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. My crust fell apart because I was impatient with my rolling, but it tasted great in the end anyway, so don't worry it it looks a bit shaggy. Press tart into a large pie pan. Don't worry if the dough extends over the edge, just fold the extra back over to make a thicker more supportive crust.

Arrange fruit in tart shell, however looks pretty to you. Make sure to pour all the extra juices and sugar over the fruit, even if it seems like a lot (this is where the caramelization comes in).

Bake the tart at least 45 minutes, until the crust is golden and the apricots are browning nicely along their edges. Darkness is goodness. Let cool, so the juices can thicken into a glaze over the fruit.

Serve, and embrace the simplicity.