Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What we eat in the land of plenty

Right after college I moved to the Boston area (Somerville, pronounced by the locals Sumaville) sheerly for lack of better options. While it might have been better to be armed with a little more purpose and direction, it turned out well. As a California beach girl (you'd never know it now) who graduated from Beach High only to attend Beach University, recently dubbed one of the sexiest colleges in the country, a New England urban environment was instructive.

I went from here

to here. It was really weird.

I rode a subway. Took taxis to the dentist. Learned that you don't have to be in the Middle East for people to be very concerned about your religion. Realized that California really is the Land of Food. Especially when it comes to produce. Not that other parts of the country do not have good produce some of the time (relatives in Utah grew the best summer corn ever in their garden), but we have really good produce almost all of the time.

Imagine my shock then when fresh off the plane in the late fall (why waste a perfectly good summer of southern California beach weather to grow up?) I marched up to the produce manager at the local Star Market (pronounced to my delight Stah Mahket) and demanded the location of the zucchini. What zucchini, he wanted to know. It was the wrong season. Huh? I knew peaches had a season, but zucchini? That was sort of like hearing that lettuce was not available. In California, you can have zucchini from not too far away all year round. And so I eat it all year round.

Usually I eat it like this: roasted. I toss it with things like pine nuts, capers, fresh herb, grated cheese. It's like tofu—good with just about anything. Sometimes I shred it up and pretend I'm making hash browns, except they're green.

But now I'm also eating it like this, which you can do without cooking a thing. For all the hot weather the rest of the country's been getting and I am expecting now that it's officially fall, that can be a good thing.

A plain old vegetable peeler makes nice long strips. I toss the core because it's mostly just seeds and water.

Tossed with a lemony dressing and then topped with pine nuts, cheese, and fresh herbs, this tasty and pretty side to almost anything.

Shaved Zucchini Salad with Parmesan and Pine Nuts
Adapted from Bon Appetit, August 2010

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds medium zucchini, trimmed
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
Small wedge of Parmesan cheese

Whisk oil, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in small bowl to blend. Set dressing aside.

Using vegetable peeler, slice zucchini into ribbons, turning the squash as you go. Discard the core of each squash.

Place ribbons in large bowl. Add dressing; toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Using vegetable peeler, shave strips from Parmesan wedge over salad. Top with basil and nuts.

A lot of people have tastes associated with places. I have a lack of taste associated with New England: standing in that market, wanting zucchini, and being told there was none. Don't tell my family I came back to California for the squash. Don't tell the avocados either.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The perfect fall dessert: A fresh fig tart

Sophie recently started school, and as part of the reconnecting with school families, we often faced the question "How was your summer?" I always answered with two words: short and cold. Short enough to leave many home-improvement projects planned for our stay-cation summer incomplete on our list and cold enough to stifle motivation to garden, grill, and swim in lakes.

And, sadly, much to cold to ripen the figs on our either of our two trees. We're now moving into fall coolness—taking stock of firewood and ski equipment—and our figs are still tiny hard babies. We'll most likely prune them back in a month or so and call it a fruitless season. I may have enjoyed our blustery summer fog, but this Mediterranean fruit did not.

But I did not have the heart to let Husband go without one of his favorite seasonal desserts. I know . . . in spite of my spectacular pie defeat, I'm baking again and back into using seasonal ingredients. Oh, well. I've said I was or was not going to do lots of things before. I think at one point I said I was going to take on a household organizing project every weekend. Ha ha. Besides, several people have asked for the recipe.

Besides, who can resist this combination of flavors?

Especially when put together like this? Thank goodness for a good produce market and the fact that when it's cold and foggy here, it's blazing hot somewhere inland.

A few things to note:

The recipe is serious when it specifies cornmeal that is not stone ground. In other words, you cannot get away with using what you have on hand for polenta. I tried that once, and the crust was too gritty.

A little limoncello really gooses up the filling flavor: A tablespoon mixed in, a few more over ice for the cook.

Fresh Fig Tart with Rosemary Cornmeal Crust and Lemon Mascarpone Cream
Adapted from Gourmet July 2003

For crust
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal (not stone-ground)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
For filling
1/3 cup sour cream
1 cup mascarpone cheese, room temperature (8 oz)
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons red-currant jelly
1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 lb fresh figs
Make crust:
Pulse together flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Add butter and rosemary and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-size) butter lumps. Drizzle evenly with 4 tablespoons ice water and pulse until just incorporated.

Gently squeeze a small handful: If it doesn't hold together, add more water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition and continuing to test.

Press dough evenly onto bottom and up sides of a 10-inch round fluted tart pan with a removable bottom with floured fingers. Smooth dough with a small offset metal spatula or back of a spoon (floured if necessary), then roll a rolling pin over top of pan to trim dough flush with rim. Chill crust until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Bake crust in middle of oven until center and edges are golden, 25 to 30 minutes (don't worry if bottom of crust cracks), then cool in pan on a rack.
Prepare filling and assemble tart:
Whisk together sour cream, mascarpone, sugar, zest, and salt in a bowl.

Heat jelly and honey in a small saucepan over moderately low heat, whisking, until jelly is melted, about 4 minutes, then cool glaze slightly.

Remove side of tart pan and spread mascarpone cream in shell. Cut figs lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange decoratively over cream. Brush figs with honey glaze.
Crust can be made 1 day ahead and kept, covered, at room temperature. Mascarpone mixture can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Tart can be assembled 1 hour ahead and kept, loosely covered, at room temperature.

So while we didn't have a summer of sitting beneath our fig trees sipping a glass of chilled white wine and feeding each other what some consider the sexiest fruit on earth, this tart of luscious oozy figs made the evening breeze feel if not Mediterranean just a little warmer.

An afterthought: If the summer was cold and short, do you think the winter will be warm and long? I'd like to put in my request for cold and long and wet. We've got some skiing to do.

Friday, September 3, 2010

I may bake no more forever

Jeez. Do I ever know how Chief Joseph felt. I am demoralized, beaten down. I had my ass kicked almost a month ago, and I can only now discuss it. What happened is this.

I was DEFEATED at our annual company picnic dessert baking contest for the SECOND TIME IN A ROW. I walked away with second prize both times, but I DID NOT WIN. That's right. DID NOT WIN.

Here's how it went down. Both times I made this absolutely kick-ass mixed berry pie (organic blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries) with an all-butter lattice crust. The first year I was beat out by a mixed fruit pinwheel type of tart. I have to admit, it was lovely, although several people told me later that my pie actually tasted better. Humphf.

This year I was the only fruit dessert. Surely, I thought, I have it in the bag. The only threat I saw were chocolate desserts, because some people are just that way about chocolate. And I was slightly worried when I saw this.

It did not win.

You will never believe this. I was beat out by a CARROT SHEET CAKE. In a pan. Seriously. It may have been a good carrot cake, but CARROT CAKE IS NOT A SEASONAL DESSERT. And the pan? Really?

Maybe I lost because I am just such a catty bitch. There were several consolations though. Both times announcement of my second-place win was greeted by audible groans of disappointment. You'd think I would have felt badly for the winners, especially when people threw up their hands in disbelief and came over the hug me. And maybe I did. Just a little bit. They are both nice people, and I'm sure their desserts were adequate. But this year Mailroom Mike told me I had nailed it though. That's meant a lot.

But moving on. You heard it here. I no longer bake. I make ice cream. And enough already with the seasonal business. I'm doing chocolate and vanilla.

But that does not mean I need throw in the creative towel. I wanted to make flavors that were different from those offered in the supermarket freezer case. Last Sunday's dinner had a Mexican theme, featuring my fried cheese salsa appetizer, green chicken enchiladas, cilantro rice, and grilled corn salad. Dessert needed to be light, and ice cream sounded like just the ticket.

I dug out a recipe snipped years ago from a newspaper for Mexican chocolate ice cream and modified it slightly.

If this isn't thumbing my nose at seasonal flavor, I don't know what is. This Mexican chocolate (bought several times over when I forget we already had some) has been in my cupboard for over a year. Packaged in plastic, it seems to have fared just fine.

For the vanilla, I took inspiration from the famous Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco, which features two flavors of ice cream a day—all fancy things like balsamic strawberry, salted caramel (which we know I can make), and . . . malted vanilla. Ever since my grandmother chose to decorate her living room coffee table with an endlessly refilling cut glass bowl of Whopper's Malt Balls, I've been a sucker for malt. You could have licked the chocolate off one, handed me the naked ball, and I would have been happy.

But these flavors together prove that it's possible to have it all.

These two recipes have different techniques: The chocolate doesn't require cooking a custard; the vanilla does. Both turned out insanely good.


1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/3 cup malt drink powder

4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup whipping cream

In a large saucepan, heat milk and malt powder until the malt powder is dissolved and the mix simmers. Remove from heat.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until pale and smooth.

Pour the milk into the yolk and sugar mix, whisking constantly. Return the entire mix to the saucepan over the lowest heat setting.

Whisk constantly and do not let mixture boil. Cook until mixture coats the back of a spoon.

Strain the mixture into a large bowl and let it cool for about 10 minutes.

Whisk in cream and vanilla extract. Cool and chill overnight.
Process according to your ice cream maker.


2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar

4 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 cup whipping cream
1 cup whole milk

In a large mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until pale and smooth.

Melt chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water. Add to egg mixture and mix thoroughly. Whisk in cream, then stir in milk a little at a time.

Cool and chill overnight.
Process according to your ice cream maker.

Cheater alter: If you're too impatient or not sufficiently ahead on your dessert plans, a few hours in the freezer rather than overnight in the fridge will to do chill the mixture.

So next year my office will probably have this competition again. And I will NOT enter a pie. Husband, who howled with despair when he saw his favorite dessert heading out the door, has decreed that every pie I make for him will be declared a winner but only at the comfort of our kitchen table. And anyway, how pathetic would it be to show up for a third year with a losing dessert? I have this really great recipe for a fresh fig tart, with a cornmeal rosemary crust, lemon-scented marscapone cream filling, and a lavender glaze . . . but. Never mind.