Crabapple Jelly

October 23, 2009

My grandparents had a crabapple tree in their back yard and I used to love to climb it when I was little. It was small like me and the branches were low enough to grab easily but not high enough to frighten my mother. I especially liked climbing it in the fall when I could shake some of the little hard crabapples loose so they’d rain down on my little sister, dutifully watching from below. But the fruit itself was disappointing. They were too sour and dry to be good eating and my sister always cried when I pretended to be a World War II fighter pilot dropping crabapple bombs on her.

Grandma used to make jelly from those too-tart crabapples and I imagined it must have taken some sort of magic. My parents frowned on sugar and sweets so we only really got to have it when we visited my grandparents. But I loved it. I especially loved its spicy-sweet tang with peanut butter on Pepperidge Farm white sandwich bread – something else my parents frowned upon.

I stumbled upon these beauties at the local Farmers’ Market and instantly knew what I had to do. I had to make crabapple jelly.

Crabapples

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Fish, Sichuan Style

July 8, 2008

My day job doesn’t pay much – it’s safe to say I’ll never be a rich man. But I do get to travel a couple times a year for work to various parts of the world and that’s pretty darn cool. I visited China in March and ate some extraordinary food during my trip, largely thanks to the fact that my co-workers in Shanghai are foodies too. I also ate a few questionable meals, the details of which are probably best left to your imagination. But there was one dish that I’ve been dying to make since I got back.

I had several variations of a Sichuanese fish dish made with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. The best was at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Shanghai. The recipe below is based on one from Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent Sichuanese cookbook, Land of Plenty, but with a few modifications (I’ve added peanuts, celery and bean sprouts). This recipe isn’t very spicy at all, so if you’re up for it, adjust the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns accordingly.
Sichuan Fish

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Heresy

January 11, 2008

Go ahead. Alert Torquemada. I am about to commit heresy. As wise and omnipresent and probably kindly as she may be, Alice Waters is not God.

T and I had lunch at the Chez Panisse Café over the Christmas break and I have to say, it wasn’t great. It was okay, but it wasn’t great. Right off the bat the bread they served us while we considered the menu was crap – baked in a too-hot oven so the crust was burnt and then, apparently, refrigerated. And of course, it was sourdough so the interior flattened into a cold, slightly damp spongy bread-wad under the weight of the butter knife. The butter, at least, was good – sweet and fresh.

I’d had a bottle of the Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale earlier in the week and loved it. And so when I saw that Chez Panisse had it on tap I didn’t even bother to consider anything else. It’s good beer. GOOD beer. Hoppy, sharp and clean with a gorgeous red-amber color and light sweet finish. T ordered a glass of the Chez Panisse Zinfandel (2005) which was surprisingly good. We toasted to each other, to Alice Waters, to California, to our dog Beau, and to a happy, prosperous and healthy and did we mention prosperous? New Year.

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Ridiculously Good

January 3, 2008

Here’s a picture of the ridiculously good lemon tart from Mustards Grill (taken on T’s iPhone).

Lemon Tart

Resolutions

January 1, 2008

I don’t usually do this. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. But I picked up a card at Chez Panisse last week because it seemed a sort of road map for my own food journey. It’s a promotional piece for Alice Waters’ new book, The Art of Simple Food, and it serves as a perfect statement for my hopes and aspirations for the new year. It states:

“Eat locally and sustainably.
Eat seasonally.
Shop at farmers’ markets.
Plant a garden.
Conserve, compost, and recycle.
Cook simply.
Cook together.
Eat together.
Remember food is precious.”

Of course, it’s easy to resolve to eat seasonally and shop regularly at farmers’ markets in California. Not so easy here in Maine. I’ve no doubt it could be done, but the effort would seem too much like the Calvinist/Yankee macrobiotic diet I grew up with (and am still working through in therapy). There may be salvation in suffering through five months of root vegetables and whole grains, but I’m simply not that holy (or masochistic, which may amount to the same thing). But I will try, and try harder.

And I would modify the last line a bit. Instead I would simply say “Remember food.” Remember where your food comes from; who grew it and how. Think about whose hands have cared for, carried and crafted your food – from the farm to the market to the table. Honor the lives of the plants and animals you eat by cooking them perfectly and by limiting waste. Make memorable meals and share them.

These are my resolutions.


Back Again

January 1, 2008

I’ve been in a funk these last several months. You might have noticed. My baking and blogging confidence was shaken back in March. I’d read something from the San Francisco Chronicle which was very critical of food bloggers and I got spooked. What have I got to say that professional food critics, food writers and trained chefs haven’t already said, and with more authority? Nothing really. Right?

And there were distractions. I was promoted to a new position in the spring which I love, but which has required more of my time and attention. And we adopted a dog – a big lovable boy named Beau. And so instead of sitting at my laptop musing about food and baking while I drink my tea, my early mornings are now spent taking long walks in the nearby woods with the dog.

But now that I’ve reached 39 (last exit before OLD by almost anyone’s road map) I’ve decided I can no longer tell myself – whether for comfort or as an excuse – ‘you have your whole life ahead of you.’ Damn. How did that happen? Where has the time gone? And so I’ve been gazing into the crystal ball these last few months. And into my belly button on more than one occasion, into more than a few glasses of wine, and even the tea leaves at the bottom of my morning cup. Where am I going? Where have I been? I’m not sure.

T and I spent the Christmas holiday with my sister, brother-in-law and nephew Finn in California this year. Among other adventures, we took a couple days to explore Napa, just the two of us. We wanted a little getaway and I wanted to show T the CIA campus where I’d studied and a few of the special spots I’d found while I was there.

We ate lunch at Mustards Grill in Yountville on the first day and it turned out to be the culinary highlight of our whole trip. Everything was perfect. We started with a salad of chiogga beets and fresh local greens which was light and delicious (and perfectly dressed) and an appetizer of calamari (perfectly fried) with curried coleslaw – a combination I would never have thought of but which turned out to be the perfect foil for the sweet and tender calamari. I’d been to Mustards the last time I was in Napa two years ago and was dying for another wild mushroom “burger.” Thank the gods (and Cindy Pawlcyn) it was still on the menu. T had a grilled chicken sandwich with cheddar and guacamole which he pronounced the best chicken sandwich he’s ever had – which is saying something.

But dessert changed everything. Neither of us were sure we had the room for it, but decided we had to do it. I’d been in contact with Anne Baker, the pastry chef at Mustards, after my last visit to the CIA when I was considering the 30-week baking and pastry certificate program at Greystone. She’d also made the switch from accounting to pastry and offered some excellent advice and I looked forward to trying some of her desserts. I chose the lemon-lime tart with “ridiculously tall brown sugar meringue” and T picked the daily special, an apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. Both were amazing. The cinnamon she used in the ice cream was the sweetest and spiciest cinnamon I’ve ever tasted. Was it Vietnamese? I’ll have to find out. And the brown sugar meringue was an inspiration. I’d never heard of such a thing. I was enchanted. Immediately after my first bite I began imagining how I might pair it with nut genoise and brown butter cakes and chocolate and poached fruits and… I couldn’t believe it. The fire was relit. I wanted to bake again.

And so I’m back. I have some meyer lemons and cara cara oranges I bought at the Oakland farmers’ market which I have plans for and a stack of new cookbooks for inspiration and ideas. But more than that I have the passion again. I’m not a food critic or a food writer. And I’ve chosen not to be a food professional. But I am passionate. I love food, and more than that, I love sharing good food with friends and loved ones. I may not have made all the right decisions in my life so far, but I can say that I have eaten well. If this is the measure of life, than I have also lived well. And to the Chronicle critic I say this: never mind me, no one reads this blog anyway. Have a slice of Anne Baker’s ridiculously good lemon-lime tart with the ridiculously tall brown sugar meringue. It’ll change your mind too.


In Defense of Cupcakes

September 27, 2007

Yes, cupcakes are all the rage these days and this is both a blessing and a curse. All those chic and cutesy little cupcake-only bake shops sprouting up here and there (though not yet in Maine, to my knowledge) have delivered the discriminating among us from those boxed cake-mix confections our well-intentioned co-workers offer up on holidays and birthdays or worse (shudder), those spongey, fakey grocery store yuck-bombs that, admit it, we’ve ALL resorted to at least once in an emergency.

And yet, just as it is with any popular bandwagon you might unwittingly find yourself riding, the cupcake’s swooning popularity feels a bit sour. Here come the passionless opportunists churning out cheap knock-offs, cloaked in fancy packaging with bright colors. Here come the big brands with their over-marketed offerings, direct from the factory farm to the factory baking facility to the supermarket. Here come the legions of semi-homemade suburban mom’s who dutifully do and seek out and consume whatever it is they see on TV. “Yummo!”

Yucko.

Quite a lot has been written about cupcakes lately – from fans and detractors alike. I was aware of it, the way I’m aware of the bickering of crows on my early morning walks with the dog. It was just so much ugly noise. And then I found a recent article in the New York Times about cupcakes and I couldn’t ignore the din any more. I had to add my own voice.

After a bit of background on the fight in some school districts to ban cupcakes over concerns about the amount of sugar and fat in the diets of American children, the author observes that all this cultural agonizing over cupcakes, “has led some to wonder whether emotional value, on occasion, might legitimately outweigh nutritional value.”

Yes.

When you serve cupcakes, everyone is special. A cupcake is a gift, neatly and deliciously wrapped. And everyone at the party gets one. You don’t share a cupcake (unless you’re weird). And you don’t have to wait awkwardly while uneven and imperfect slices are passed around the table (“I only want a little sliver!” “No, no. I couldn’t possibly eat that much!”). Cupcakes are democratic. They’re the sort of simple indulgence that still feels decadent. This is why I love cupcakes.

My parents were macro-biotics when I was growing up. And I hated it – something in me knew better. I remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her make dinner and asking why she and my grandfather didn’t eat the way we did. Her response has stuck with me ever since. She said, “your grandfather and I believe that everything is okay, in moderation.”

Even cupcakes.


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