A plum welcome to summer

plumsontowel

I HAVE WRITTEN BEFORE about the marvelous Santa Rosa plums of early summer, and my gratitude to Luther Burbank for developing them. But again I feel the need to praise these plums. If I were to have just one fruit tree, it might have to be a Santa Rosa plum, not only for their deliciousness at the start of summer, but also because they are so hard to find in the market.

I had enough, briefly, to eat plenty of plums au naturel and to make British cookbook writer Nigel Slater’s brilliant plum tabbouleh. (I did substitute a pinch of crushed red pepper for the small red chile he calls for). I even made some plum crumble with a topping of butter, brown sugar, flour and hazelnuts.

plumtabbouleh

The plum tabbouleh drew me back to one of my favorite books, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, and to Nigel Slater’s lovely homage to plums.

“When I find the perfect plum, jelly-fleshed and incandescently ripe, its golden skin flashed with crimson freckles, I make a great fuss of it,” he writes. “I have even been known to get out a small plate and a napkin. I eat slowly, imagining time stopped. More usually, I come across such a fruit without warning, having little alternative but to eat it from the hand, spitting the pit into the long grass below.”

And why are these plums so hard to find? Although Slater is speaking of Britain and not of Santa Rosa plums, I think his sentiments could apply to the U.S. as well.

“It breaks my heart to think of the plum orchards we have lost in the last two decades,” he writes, “but what else can a farmer do when the crop is no longer profitable, consumers have more interest in peaches and nectarines, and the stores continue to sell imports even during our own brief season? I salute the British plum grower.”

Well, I salute all plum growers, and in particular my friends John and Cathy who gave me the pleasure of a few days full of plums from their Santa Rosa plum tree. What a happy welcome to summer!

plateofplums

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Taste of Sicilia

sicilia insalata_0001As we’re getting ready for a trip to Sicily, I was reading through a little travel journal I kept from a visit there eight years ago, when I went to research lemons. I came across this page with a tuna-lemon-olive oil salad with artichoke hearts and green beans that I made in a lemon orchard agriturismo above Sicily’s Lemon Riviera, on the eastern side of the island (we are going there again!). We usually had a kitchen in Sicily, so we could shop in the markets, and we ate some variation of this salad nearly every day we were there — and with tuna so good and produce so fresh and delicious, we never tired of it.

This salad (with variations) became a standard once we were home, too. You may have to substitute Meyer lemons or preserved lemons for the Sicilian lemon if you want to eat the lemon peel, but otherwise –except for the gorgeous views of Mount Etna and the Mediterranean — it translates well, especially in the spring.

tuna insalata

I’m sure we always had bread or breadsticks with “My Sicilian lemon insalata (good for il prazo–lunch–or antipasta). The bottom line reads: “good with Etna red or white, iced tea or lemonade.”

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Celebrating with lemon tart

dad on st patsIN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK’S DAY, I’m including the photo above of my father celebrating the occasion as the anniversary of the day he arrived in America in 1939 — and was welcomed by a band and a parade! (See last year’s post for more of the story.)

My family always celebrates the day, and I’ve come to think of it as a kind of holiday to celebrate immigration. It has never meant more to me than this year, because last fall I went to Mannheim, Germany, the city where my father and his family lived, and attended a commemoration of the deportation of Jews from the southwestern region of Germany (Baden) to a concentration camp in France on October 22, 1940. Fortunately my father had the foresight to get out of Germany before it was too late, and the great luck to come to America — and that is something to celebrate.

So what would I make (besides more of those filo pastries) to go with a bubbly beverage or two?

I am not a great fan of the “traditional” corned beef and cabbage (my father had corned beef on rye, which was much better!).

Since I hadn’t made a pie for last Saturday’s PI Day I decided to make a lemon tart. It’s so rich that I rarely make it. . . but what better occasion than this? Now, if I just can find something green to decorate it. . .

lemon tart

For more on lemons and lemon recipes, see https://tobysonneman.wordpress.com/

FRENCH LEMON TART

First you make the lemon curd. This is not a traditional method of making lemon curd, but it is foolproof — as long as you keep stirring and don’t let it boil.

Ingredients

1 cup sugar
9 Tablespoons butter, softened
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 Tablespoon grated lemon zest

1. Cream the sugar and butter together with an electric mixer until smooth, then add eggs and egg yolks and beat again.
2. Mix in the lemon juice. The mixture will look curdled, but don’t worry — it will come back together when heated.
3. Put the mixture in a medium saucepan and heat over moderately low heat, stirring constantly. Do not let the mixture boil.
4. Cook until thickened — when the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. This will take about 10 to 15  minutes (or maybe a little less).
5. Take the mixture off the heat, and stir in the lemon zest. Let the curd cool, stirring every once in awhile to prevent a skin from forming. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

This pastry shell for the tart is an easy pat-in-the-pan version.

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • ¼ teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • ¼ cup confectioners sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter sides and bottom of a tart pan
  2. In a medium bowl, combine butter, vanilla, confectioners sugar and salt
  3. Add enough flour to form a smooth, soft dough.
  4. Place dough in center of tart pan and press evenly on bottom and sides.
  5. Place tart pan in the center of the oven and bake until dough is firm and lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool at least 10 minutes before filling.

Put the two together for your lemon tart:

Fill the tart with cooled lemon curd (you may have a little leftover, which is nice for other things, and will keep well in the freezer). Put tart in the middle of an oven preheated to 325 degrees. Bake 15 minutes. Remove to a wire rack and let cool. Refrigerate well before serving. If you have fresh berries, they’re nice for decoration.

https://tobysonneman.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/lemon-tart.jpg?w=566&h=481

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Börek? Not really.

Claudia Turgut’s blog, A Seasonal Cook in Turkey, is often an inspiration, and it especially called out to me last week, when I wanted to make a special appetizer to share at Jennifer’s house while we watched the Oscars together. I was considering the luscious looking savory pastry called  börek that Claudia made with various fillings and served at teatime.

But I was not in Istanbul, so how could I possibly make börek?

It wasn’t the filling that was the problem; it was the lack of yufka, that special dough that comes in big round sheets. You can easily buy yufka fresh in Turkey, it seems — but not so here. The closest you can come (unless perhaps you are near a Turkish market) is frozen filo dough, but that is thinner and smaller and rectangular — and just not the same.

The answer? I couldn’t make genuine börek, but I could make my own approximation of it — and as soon as everyone tasted it, no one seemed to care if it was genuine or not.

Claudia’s recipe called for a filling of sauteed onion and parsley, but since I didn’t have parsley, I  added some spinach and crumbled feta cheese to a lot of sauteed onions, and a little salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.

The filling

I unwrapped a couple sheets of thawed filo dough, brushed them with a mixture of melted butter and oil. After my first attempt, I decided that two sheets of filo was still too thin, so I added a third sheet, with another light brush of the butter/oil mix. Then I scattered the filling across the sheets of dough.

making borek

Then I rolled it up the long way, and cut it into pieces.

borekroll

borekbeforebaking

The pastries on a cookie sheet just before baking

I mixed an egg yolk with a few drops of water and brushed them on the pieces, then sprinkled them with sesame seeds, the usual ones and black ones  (poppy seeds are good too) before popping into a 350 degree oven. They took about 20 minutes or so before they were golden brown and smelling delicious. I took some of them out just a bit early so I could reheat them at Jennifer’s house that evening.

borekonplate2

Mmmmm……they weren’t real börek, it’s true — but they were irresistible!

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Mandarin love

mandarinsWHAT COULD BE MORE APPEALING in winter than the brightly glowing, highly fragrant little orange globes called mandarins? They come in various sizes, some with seeds and some without, some noted for their juiciness and others for their easy-to-peel “zipper” skins — and the best of them with a vivacious flavor and lively balance of tart and sweet.

If you are lucky enough to be in California during mandarin season, you can sample many different varieties — and buy them very fresh, from a farmers’ market or fruit stand. Otherwise, though you may have a smaller number of varieties to choose from, you can usually find good mandarins at the grocery to brighten your table and your winter diet.

Kishu mandarin

Kishu mandarins are tiny, seedless mandarins which peel easily, making it extraordinarily easy to eat half a dozen or so before you know it. These come from Churchill Orchard in Ojai.

So what’s the difference between mandarins and tangerines?

Citrus expert Tracy Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside, had this to say about the subject:

“Mandarins refer to a group of cultivars and includes Clementine and Satsuma and many other mandarins. . . .  The word tangerine is often used interchangeably with the word mandarin but actually the term tangerine was coined for brightly colored sweet mandarins that were originally shipped out of the port of Tangiers, Morocco, to Florida in the late 1800s and the term stuck.  Another interesting thing about mandarins is that we now know that there were three basic citrus types (mandarin, citron and pummelo) and that others that we think of as basic types or species (sweet oranges, sour oranges, grapefruits) are actually ancient hybrids or backcrosses of these. Also, many of the cultivars that we think of as mandarins or tangerines may in fact not be true mandarins, but actually mandarin hybrids.”

Mandarin-gin cocktails

Page mandarin cocktails and Kishu mandarins in the bowl.      Photo by S. L. Sanger

Whatever you call them, they’re marvelous!

Steve and I had the good fortune to go to Anna Thomas’s home in Ojai for lunch the other day (last year I wrote about lunch at Anna’s here), and it turned into a mandarin appreciation day. Along with a great soup-and-salad lunch,  Anna made refreshing mandarin-gin cocktails, using Page mandarins–a vibrant juicy variety.  For dessert, she offered a big bowlful of the exceptional Kishu mandarins with dark chocolate. Then we all drove off to nearby Churchill Orchard to buy a big box of Kishu mandarins to share!

The cocktail recipe Anna used is from Henry of Ventura Spirits, and features the company’s Wilder gin, made with local botanicals including sage and mandarin peel. If you have trouble finding this gin or Page mandarins, make substitutions as necessary.

Henry’s Wilder Gin and Page Mandarin Cocktail:

For each drink, mix:

1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. fresh Page mandarin juice
½ oz. agave nectar (Henry uses ½ maple syrup+ ½ water)
1 ½ oz. Wilder gin
pour over ice, add splash of seltzer or soda or mineral water, and enjoy.

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Shortcut salad

 

shortcutsaladI had a head of cauliflower that was calling out to be roasted, so I took out a cookie sheet, set the oven to 400 degrees and cut off the woody parts of the vegetable. Then I broke and cut the cauliflower florets into small pieces, mixed them with a bit of olive oil and salt and spread them on the sheet, roasting until they were browning and a little crispy on the edges. That brings out and mellows the flavor of the cauliflower.

It would be easy to gobble up a whole head of cauliflower that way, but I resisted as I needed those tasty florets to go a little further.  I had in mind using them to make a nice healthy salad that I could put in the fridge so we could eat it for lunch or a snack.

Hmmm, wouldn’t it be good to have some chewy nutty farro as a base? –and some roasted peppers for color and flavor? Farro, an ancient strain of hard wheat, isn’t difficult to cook, but it does take a bit of time, and I just happened to have Trader Joe’s 10-minute farro on hand, as well as a jar of roasted yellow and red peppers.

shortcut2I am usually reluctant to admit that I use some shortcuts, but that is pretty silly. Why not use shortcuts if the ingredients are healthy and they make your life a little easier?

shortcut3The finished salad also had chopped green onion, parsley and mint and a dressing made of my favorite trio: lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

Variations? Of course! You could add beans, a different grain, a different vegetable, other herbs, vinegar in place of lemon, etc. etc. In fact, I had some leftover salad and I added sliced Kalamata olives, some pickled beets (also from a jar) and more lemon juice to freshen it up — and the second variation was good too.

I just wish I always had a vegetable-based salad or soup in the fridge for the best healthy fast food. It’ll probably never happen, but if shortcuts help me toward that goal, I’m all for them!

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Another tip from the checkout counter

upside down pineapple

Pineapple upside down. No, do not add “cake” on the end of that phrase. I’m talking about the whole fruit.

That’s the tip I got at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter last week, when I was buying an extra-nice (heavy for its size and golden colored) and quite inexpensive pineapple.

The clerk said she’d lived in Hawaii, and the trick to a juicy pineapple was to cut part of the top so it is more-or-less level and leave it upside down on the counter for a few days.

Okay! I went home with our pineapple and followed instructions.

juicy sweet pineapple

And yes. It was sweet and juicy and very delicious.

But would it have been as sweet and juicy if I hadn’t turned it upside down? (Remember, I’m getting pretty skilled at judging good pineapples.) Steve was convinced that the upside-down treatment was effective. But really,  there was no way of knowing or testing this out.

Regardless, pineapple is so refreshing this time of year, a wonderful antidote to all the rich sweets of the holiday season — I highly recommend it!

For more on pineapples, see A Passion for Pineapples and A Passion for Pineapples, part 2

Pineapples in Istanbul

Cutting pineapples in Istanbul

p.s.  This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten a helpful food idea at the checkout counter. There was this tip, from my local grocery, for roasted brussels sprouts.

Have you received any good hints from the checkout counter, produce section, etc.? Let me know!

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December 18, 2014 · 5:02 am

Thanksgiving’s simpler sides

As usual this year, I am making cranberry chutney as well as a basic cranberry sauce with orange zest to take to the Thanksgiving feast. And green beans, perhaps with some toasted pecans or caramelized lemons (or both?). And rolls — not that anyone needs or even wants more carbs, but these are yet another Thanksgiving tradition (and there are so many).

Really, one day is not enough to appreciate all the side dishes of Thanksgiving tradition, and one doesn’t always have leftovers, so I decided to make a meal of some classic sides before Thanksgiving. When you’re just making a couple of dishes, of course it’s much simpler, and this meal was so good I may do another variation or two of side dishes after the big feast.

brussels

Roasted brussels sprouts were on my menu

I made a wild rice-brown rice pilaf with onions and mushrooms, topped with toasted pecans — the cranberry chutney on the side (I’d made extra) really perked up this dish. And I had just bought a bag of nice little brussels sprouts from the farmers’ market, so those were roasted, with a little pomegranate vinegar on top.

TdaysidesAnd of course, there were baked sweet potatoes.

Maybe it wasn’t the most beautiful or original supper plate we ever had, but it was very satisfying to give full attention to some of Thanksgiving’s less glamorous sidekicks!

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Good morning, granola

bowl o granola

In case you haven’t heard yet, homemade granola is sooooo much better than most of what you’ll find in stores (that is, unless you want to pay a small fortune).

I’ve been making granola for years now, but until recently I just kept fiddling with the recipe and it never seemed quite right. The really delicious granola was too full of fat and sugar and calories to qualify as a breakfast food. When I tried to keep it somewhat healthful and modest in calories, it was little more than toasted oats and not too enticing.

Eventually, I adopted some guidelines for tasty and pretty-good-for-you granola:

  • Use applesauce and a little water for moisture and sweetness
  • Stay in control of the nuts — they’re delicious and healthy but highly caloric!
  • Don’t turn the granola for the first half hour if you want some clumps in the mixture
  • Skip the dried fruit (if you do use it, put it in after the granola is done baking); fresh fruit is lower in calories and delicious

Probably most important, if you don’t want  your breakfast granola to make you fat, use it as a topping rather than serving yourself a big bowl of it! I love having it atop yogurt and fresh fruit — just a few tablespoons adds crunch and interest.

goodmorn granola

Plus, using it only as a topping means your precious jar of granola will last longer.

granolaandfruit Usually I have fruit and yogurt and granola all summer long, and switch to steel cut oats when the weather turns cooler. But this fall, I just haven’t been able to give up my granola! The fruit is not as varied as above, but I defrost some of the berries I froze during the summer, and sometimes add some apple or pear.

So, here’s the recipe below — and I know some of you will want to add dried coconut so go ahead — if you must!! (I don’t like it).  Variations are limited only by one’s taste and imagination!

granola jar

Good Morning Granola

  • 3 cups rolled oats, regular or thick (not instant)
  • 1/3 cups nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans — whatever you like), coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon flax seeds (and sometimes I add another tablespoon of sesame seeds)
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon oil (olive, canola, sunflower, etc.)
  • 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 -2 teaspoons spices or to taste (your choice: cinnamon and/or ginger are good; I sometimes like garam masala)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Warm up the applesauce, water, oil, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, spices and salt and stir the mixture together in a big bowl.
  3. Add the oats, nuts and seeds to the liquid mixture and stir until the oats are well coated.
  4. Spread the oat mixture out on a cookie sheet and bake on an upper rack for 30 minutes.
  5. Open the oven and gently (so as not to break up the clumps) turn the granola, moving the darker pieces along the edges to the middle.
  6. Bake another 8 to 10 minutes, then check to see if it is dark enough. It should be a dark golden color. If it needs to bake more, check it every few minutes so it doesn’t burn. The granola will get crisper as it cools.
  7. Take out the cookie sheet and put it on a baking rack to cool completely before you put it in a jar.

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Al fresco

zuccflowersIt’s well into August and the farmer’s market is bursting with pretty much everything. We finally got some rain here last week, which made the farmers really happy.

farmersmktEverything is fresh, beautiful and tasty!

newpotatoes

salmonsaladWith all these fresh selections, I’ve still been mostly in the salad mode, which has the great advantage of using little or no heat.

capresesaladI’ve  even had enough Sun Gold cherry tomatoes and basil from my own teeny garden to make a Caprese salad (with fresh mozzarella).

pizzaAnd occasionally I have turned on the stove or the oven, to make pasta with roasted or sauteed tomatoes and basil — or pizza with those same ingredients. (Mmmm, it had been such a long time since I had pizza.) And green salad alongside, of course.

springrollskin

Another great way to eat your salad is in a fresh spring roll — also called summer roll or salad roll.

springrollwrapI’d never made these before but it turns out to be pretty simple — just a lot of chopped salad ingredients (plus some thin Asian noodles — I used brown rice ones), some shrimp or chicken or tofu if you like, and the spring roll skins, which are briefly soaked in hot water, then rolled around the filling like a burrito. You can find instructions here and many other places on the Web, and adapt them as you see fit. And make or buy a nice sauce to dip them in.

alfruit dessertAlso,  all the marvelous fresh fruit this time of year makes it easier to eat a little lighter than usual. We’ve really been enjoying a simple dessert lately: a bowl of fruit with a nice dollop of maple-sweetened yogurt. Sitting outside on a warm evening with a slab of watermelon or a juicy fresh peach is appealing too.

bbbcakeBut I really couldn’t let August go by without baking at least one Blueberry Boy Bait! I made it when we had some company coming, and it was a fitting afternoon treat.

Freddie and Val sample the Blueberry Boy Bait

Freddie and Val sample the Blueberry Boy Bait

And what better way to enjoy it, as with so many of these meals and snacks,  than al fresco — the perfect summer way to dine!

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