Tag Archives: fruit

A fresh summer jam session

I’m in love with fruit, and summer is a great celebration of it.

The other day I went to a you-pick farm “out in the county” and picked eight pounds of strawberries in hardly any time at all, while Steve took a nap in the car.  We ate a lot of fresh strawberries over the next few days, and gave some to friends and put them in our yogurt and granola and in our salads too.

But I still had plenty left over to make a small batch of fresh summer jam.

Anybody who’s made jam knows that it takes an appalling amount of sugar. Even the low-sugar jams require a significant amount, needed to preserve them.

But if you plan to eat it right up, you can make a nice loose summer jam — between a sauce and a jam — with just a little bit of sugar. I was inspired by Nigel Slater’s marvelous book, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard.

So, I crushed about a pound-and-a-half of strawberries in a good size pot, added a quarter-cup of sugar (you can add more to your taste — Slater uses 1/2 cup) and a couple squeezes of fresh lemon juice.  I cooked it over medium heat for 15 or 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and skimming off the pink foamy stuff. When it thickened up (it doesn’t really set like regular jam) it was ready.  It kept well in the fridge for a few days, but I liked bringing it to room temperature or even warming it up to serve.

I swirled this crimson strawberry jam into vanilla yogurt for dessert (it would be lovely with whipped cream or ice cream as well) and served it on buttered toasted baguette to our friends.  I put a little jar of it in the freezer to see if I could thaw out a taste of summer sometime in November.

Now there was just enough jam left for breakfast this morning.

That jam seemed to call on me to make a batch of biscuits.

A Sunday morning in summer, with biscuits and fresh strawberry jam. Yum.

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Filed under breakfast, dessert, fruit, Praise for other cooks, summer, Uncategorized

In praise of pears

A few weeks ago, a box of pears arrived on my doorstep. My friends, Scott and Maggie McManus, own a pear and apple orchard near Cashmere, Washington, and they’d sent the box as a birthday present.

And what a delight it was to have all those delicious little Seckel pears.

Seckels are the smallest commercially grown pears and you don’t often see them in the store. It’s said that a Pennsylvania trapper discovered this type of pear on a seedling tree on a  piece of woodland he bought in 1765. He later sold the land to a farmer named Seckel who introduced the pears to the public.

Those pears were inspiring. I tried drawing them, even though my drawing didn’t quite capture the lovely shades of color and light.

Since I had so many pears, at first I thought I would use some of them in cooking. But aside from a few that billowed into over-ripeness, I never did.  I just ate them (and shared some of them too) as they ripened, sweet, spicy and firm.  I ate sliced pears on my morning’s steel-cut oats, added them to a salad with toasted walnuts, served them with cheese and crackers.

But mostly, I just plucked them out of the bowl and ate them, one or two at a time for a snack or dessert.

Seckel pears are one of more than 5,000 varieties of pears grown in the world.

The secret is in the ripening.  You really have pay attention to pears to know just when they’re ripe. I once wrote an essay about this called Life lessons plucked from pears, which was published in The Christian Science Monitor.  Here’s an excerpt from that:

A perfectly ripened pear is a delight to the palate, with a delicate, aromatic flavor and a tender, smooth texture. The pear suggests a European sensibility, a luxuriant, refined appreciation for the finer things in life.

But the pear resists ease of enjoyment. As with so many luxuries, the perfectly ripened pear seems always just out of reach, maddeningly elusive.

Its ripening habits are confounding: Not only must pears be picked before they are ripe, but the picked fruit ripens from the inside to the outside. When a pear is soft to the touch, it is usually rotten at its core. And, except for Bartletts, pears don’t change color to indicate ripeness. A grass-green pear can be ripe – or not.

All these ripening quirks have caused many people I know to abandon pears, or nearly so. They’ve cut into hard pears with undeveloped flavor or grainy texture, and they’ve thrown away pears that had gone rotten, their flesh brown and mushy beneath a deceptively unchanging skin.

A friend told me that, in 30 years of eating Anjou pears, he’d eaten only three ripe ones. And a pear grower confided that “a ripe Anjou is a freak of nature.”

Press a pear gently near the base of the stem; if it yields slightly, it's ripe.

British food writer Jane Grigson contends that “most people have never eaten a decent pear in their lives.”  That elusive moment of ripeness is fleeting –hence, an old saying that one must stay awake all night to eat a pear at that perfect moment.

But–ah! — when you do catch that ripe moment, it’s a real delight. You can see why Homer called pears “the gift of the gods” and Louix XIV (who loved all sorts of fruits) named the pear as one of his favorites. And that was  before pears really became the wonderful fruit we know today.

The French learned how to grow pears and peaches on espaliered trees, and in the 18th century, starting with Nicolas Hardenpont in 1730, Belgians bred buttery soft juicy varieties that made pears even more delectable. Belgians developed such an obsession about pears and pear-breeding that it’s been compared to Holland’s tulip craze.

In the 19th century, this great enthusiasm for pears also took hold of New England, a phenomenon so extraordinary it has been called “pear mania.”

Just imagine what a treat it was to eat a sweet juicy pear in mid-winter, in the days before one could buy transported or imported fruit in the grocery store.

The holiday season, with all its rich sweets, is a great time to pause and appreciate the fruit’s combined gift of nature and science (fruit breeding)–and to practice the patience and attention needed to produce a perfectly ripe pear.

If by chance your pears do over-ripen, cut out any brown portions and put them in your compost; then cook the rest, with a bit of water, down to a tasty puree, with or without spices. Recently, I waited too long to eat some Comice pears, but the pear mash I made from them was delicious. I’ve used such a mash or puree just like applesauce, or added it for a subtly sweet flavor to a  butternut-squash soup. You could even keep cooking it until you have pear butter to spread on your toast.

If, on the other hand, you have been paying attention to your pears and have a number of them that ripen at once, you could use them to make a nice dessert. I really like Boscs for baking, but I recently had a fabulous Bartlett pear tart with a rich almond crust (Steve, unfortunately, is allergic to almonds, so I won’t be making this.)

Marcella Hazan has an uncharacteristically simple recipe for a “Farm Wife’s Fresh Pear Tart.” (She says the cake has been described as being “so simple that only an active campaign of sabotage could ruin it.”). It’s a tender fruity cake studded with cloves and it’s quite tasty. Russ Parsons suggests making a pear clafouti with Bartletts, and that sounds good too.

My favorite pear dessert is a pear version of Tarte Tatin: you caramelize the pears in a skillet, lay a puff pastry atop, and pop the skillet in the oven.  After baking you turn the skillet upside down so the pastry is on the bottom and the pears are on top. It’s quite delicious and lovely.

Firm Bosc pears are best for this as they retain their shape.

Caramelized Pear Tart

  • 4 medium-large Bosc pears (about 2 pounds), firm-ripe
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ginger
  • 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed
  1. Peel, halve, and core pears.
  2. Heat the butter in a 10-inch cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet over moderate heat, until foam subsides.   Stir in sugar (the mixture will be thick) and arrange pears, cut sides up, in the skillet (if you prefer, you can cut pears into quarters or eighths, and arrange in concentric circles).  Sprinkle the pears with cinnamon and ginger. (You could add a little lemon zest too.)
  3. Cook without stirring until the sugar mixture is a deep golden caramel.  This will take from 15-25 minutes. Watch carefully, as the mixture can burn if left on the heat too long.   Cool pears completely in skillet.
  4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  5. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry sheet and trim to form an 11-inch circle.  Arrange over the pears, tucking the edges under the pears.  Bake in the center of the oven until the pastry is golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.

This time I used phyllo dough instead of puff pastry on top

6.  While the tart is baking, take out a serving plate slightly larger than the skillet.  As soon as the tart has finished baking, and wearing oven mitts, press the plate over the skillet, and immediately invert the plate and skillet, keeping them firmly pressed together.  When you lift the skillet, you’ll see a beautiful, glossy tart, with the crust now on the bottom.

Serve the tart slightly warm or at room temperature.

Granted, it’s a little scary the first time or two that you have to flip the pan over onto the plate or platter (and a cast iron skillet is heavy, though it works great). Don’t worry that the pears will stick to the skillet–they will release from the pan unless you’ve let it cool too long. If any little bit sticks, you can just scrape it out.

If the whole idea makes you  nervous, you might want to start with making a half version of the recipe, using a small skillet.

Gingerbread with caramelized pears

Using the same method (pouring the cake batter over the pears), I’ve also made gingerbread with caramelized pears.

This pear season, though, I haven’t made any of these pear desserts.

Instead, I’ve just been contemplating pears, waiting for them to ripen to perfection, and enjoying the look and the taste of them.

Aren’t they beautiful?


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Filed under breakfast, dessert, fall, fruit, musings, Praise for other cooks, salad, Uncategorized, winter

End of summer……..

"Peaches in a White Ceramic Basket," Fede Galizia, c. 1600-1605

Well, summer is nearly officially over, a poignant marker. There’s something a little sad about the turning of seasons. Goodbye to summer’s great bounty, to all those things you didn’t do or wish you could do again….

I never wrote “Summer Fruit, part two” which was supposed to be about peaches, plums, nectarines, more blackberries, and such. I never made a peach pie, which is rather shocking (though I am still eating fresh peaches, and with all the peach varieties, you can eat peaches from mid-summer to early autumn).

But I did eat rhubarb well into August and  I did make some of those nice dill pickles in brine, with fresh dill. I had a good summer kitchen day with Aviva: She made canned pickles and the two of us made a nice big batch of blackberry jam.

Aviva surveys results of the pickle-and-jam marathon

Grey days and rainy weather are setting in again, and there never were enough warm sunny days here this summer — but I just returned from the Midwest, where people were complaining about too many hot days!

Mario's Lemonade, Chicago

In Chicago, we went to Mario’s Lemonade on Taylor Street,  just before the stand closed for the season– how’s that for marking the end of the summer? And we talked to Mario, who has never used a computer or a credit card, and still sells a small iced lemonade for only $1.

Delicious icy lemonade, complete with rind

Back home, on a cool day, and still thinking about lemons, I made a simple supper of roast chicken, bulgur pilaf and green salad.

The roast chicken with lemon is one of the many slow-roast dishes I make in cool weather (that’s most of the year here): You set the oven to 300 degrees, stuff one or two lemons (pricked all over with a fork, to let the juices out) into the cavity, put a little olive oil over the chicken and sprinkle salt and pepper and paprika on the top, then let it roast for 2 1/2 or 3 hours.  You can baste a lot, or not, turn the chicken over halfway through or not — the long slow cooking will make it tender and juicy. Let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes before you cut it, and squeeze the lemon juice over it.

And the salad of course, had a simple olive oil-lemon-salt dressing….

For dessert? Now, the blackberries have sadly come to an end, but before they were gone, I discovered an easy dessert with some leftover pie dough I had: mini pies in ramekins.

I just mixed the berries with a little sugar and lemon juice and a bit of cornstarch to thicken, then cut a couple circles of dough with my biscuit cutter and laid them on top, brushed with a little milk and sprinkled sugar on top.  I turned the oven to 400 degrees and baked till the tops were golden. I bet this would work with frozen berries too.

"Apples and grapes" Claude Monet, 1880

Now it’s time to welcome those fruits of fall!

The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkos is just around the corner, and one of its primary symbols is the citron, or esrog (or etrog), the ancestor of the lemon. It’s considered a sacred fruit, and does indeed smell divine, but is not too good to eat….

What I always want to make and eat around this time of year is a simple yeast dough covered in delicious and beautiful Italian plums. Soon I will be making Zwetchgenkuchen!

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Filed under baked goods, dessert, fall, fruit, summer, supper time, Uncategorized

Keeping it simple

It’s hot here — finally. I know the rest of the country has been baking, but it’s taken till mid-August for it to feel like summer around here. It’s not the best time to be turning on the oven, and we don’t own a grill, so besides making the usual bulgur salads, I’m cooking a little less and keeping things simple.

Who says you can’t have a meal of mostly vegetables along with a good slice of bread? (I love carbs). Corn on the cob, new potatoes, fresh string beans with a little lemon zest….to me, that’s a great summer supper.

This was my idea of a buffet lunch: crackers and cheese, marinated artichokes and olives, melon and blackberries, and a little salad of green beans and garbanzo beans with red pepper and lemon and olive oil dressing.

About the most complicated (i.e. not very) dish I made recently was a lemon-basil recipe that I adapted from Nigel Slater.

I love what Slater writes about lemons:

“Few sights lift the spirits like a crate of lemons with their glossy leaves intact. Lemons are as much a part of the kitchen as pepper and salt.”

I didn’t have linguine so I made it with fettucine in the photo above. Delicious, but the linguine is even better at soaking up the sauce — I tried it later. I’m still adjusting the recipe proportions, so if you try it and think it needs a little more or less of something, please let me know.

Lemon and Basil Linguine (serves 2)

  • 1/2 pound of linguine
  • grated zest and juice of one large lemon
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmeggiano or Pecorino cheese
  • handful of basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • salt and pepper

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil and cook the linguine until done (7 or 8 minutes).

Meanwhile, put the lemon juice, olive oil and zest in a warm bowl and whisk till emulsified; then add the torn basil and the cheese and whisk again. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the linguine, and toss together with the sauce until each strand is coated evenly with the sauce. Serve immediately.

I made this version without the cheese, and added some sauteed chicken pieces and cherry tomatoes

Pasta cooks quickly so it’s a good choice for a summer evening, and this is also a nice way to use fresh basil especially when those fresh tomatoes are in short supply….

One could finish such a supper with the best summer dessert of all: fresh fruit (with or without vanilla ice cream).

Bowl with Peaches and Plums, Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)

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Filed under fruit, summer, supper time, Uncategorized, vegetables