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Archive for the ‘Fruit’ Category

Science has shown that you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Sometimes kitchen arts can do that too. It worked, this week, for me.

Beloved Spouse had innocently brought home a new variety of bread to try – a large baguette-style loaf listed by our usually reliable market as Italian Bread. It looked reasonable, though it felt a bit hefty. When sliced into, it proved to be essentially commercial white bread: The dense, fine, slightly sweet crumb had to have been due to more ingredients than the flour, yeast, and salt that a proper Italian loaf uses.

loaf

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When we want white bread in our house I make the White Bread Plus recipe from Joy of Cooking, and it’s a very different animal. So this travesty was going to be useless unless I found something decent to do with it. Resourcefully (she modestly said), I did: Bread pudding.

From a few unfortunate restaurant experiences, I know it’s possible to produce a boring bread pudding, but all the ones I’ve ever made are wonderful simple desserts – easy enough for everyday use, interesting enough to serve to guests. So I set to work on this one, using only ingredients that I had on hand.

My bespoke knife man (a big bread pudding fan) cheerfully reduced the loaf of bread to cubes. It made almost six cups’ worth.

cubed

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The next thing I needed was two cups of milk. I didn’t have any fresh, so I made up some with nonfat dry milk powder, boosting its butterfat with a leftover half cup of heavy cream. I scalded that liquid, melted in half a stick of butter, stirred in ⅓ cup of sugar, poured it over the bread, and left it for 15 minutes to be absorbed.

Then I considered fruit for the filling. My fruit bowl contained several bananas, a pear, and an apple. Any of them would have been good. I chose the apple, peeled and chopped it, and added ¼ cup of raisins to it.

fruit

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When the bread was thoroughly moistened, I mixed in the fruit, along with two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

mixture

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The pudding mixture went into a heavily buttered baking dish and then into a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the top was lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

baked

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It was a delight, as always – warm and fragrant, lightly fruit-sweet, moist enough not to need a sauce (though it never objects to a ladleful of crème anglaise). Of course, there was far more than two of us could eat at a sitting, but one of the beauties of bread pudding is its resilience. It keeps well, reheats well – even freezes well, though mine rarely lasts long enough for that.

served

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Best of all, in any of its homely or elegant variations, bread pudding is a thoroughly comforting thing to eat. And given the way things have gone this fall, we all need as much comfort as we can get. Beloved Spouse and I may eat a lot of bread pudding this winter.

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bowlful

Cherries! – among the earliest of the full-summer fruits. When they arrive in the Greenmarket, what I most often make with them is clafoutis. I’ve written here about what I consider the world’s best clafoutis recipe, and I’ll certainly be making it at least once before cherry season is over. But this year I wanted to start with something different.

Joy In that great resource, Joy of Cooking, I found a simple cherry dessert recipe, which Irma Rombauer calls Fresh Fruit Crisp or Paradise. It’s given as an apple dish, but she says you can use any fruit you like, mentioning cherries specifically. I’d also been considering a cherry cobbler recipe, but the topping on this crisp is thin and crunchy – lighter than the thick biscuit topping that’s usual on a cobbler.

The only effortful part of making the cherry crisp is pitting the fruit. This batch decidedly did not want to give up its stones: My pitter, which works pretty well on olives, would punch a neat hole through the middle of a cherry, but the pit would have slid aside and have to be dug out with fingernails, squirting cherry juice as far as it could reach. Maddening!

pitting

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Once that job was done, I spread my four cups of cherries in a pie dish, moistened them with two teaspoons of kirsch, and let them think about it while I prepared the topping.

cherries in dish

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(This was actually a rash experiment, in a small way. The topping is simply a crumbly mixture of flour, butter, and brown sugar. Recipes always call for packed brown sugar, which is fine if you have a fresh, moist supply. But it doesn’t take long for an opened box of brown sugar to turn into a solid brick, and mine had been in the pantry since Christmas. So instead of trying to re-soften my sugar rock, I ground it into powder, using my Kitchen-Aid’s rotary shredding attachment.

I had no idea how the change of state would affect the quantity of sugar I should be using, nor the way it would behave in the cooking. Moist packed sugar would bulk more than dry ground sugar, so should I use less? But pulverized old sugar might have lost some of its potency, so should I use more? I settled for taking just the recipe’s quantity.)
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End of digression; back to my crisp. After stirring together half a cup each of flour and brown sugar I cut in four ounces of cold butter, worked the mixture into crumbs (adding a few drops of water to compensate for the dryness of the sugar), spread them over the cherries, and put the dish into a moderate oven for half an hour.

raw and baked

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It came out very well, as so many of Rombauer’s simple, old-fashioned recipes do. The cherries were tart-sweet and meltingly soft but had held their shape and freshness; there was an intriguing faint aroma of the kirsch; and the crumbs were nut-sweet and pleasantly crunchy. As far as I could tell, the brown sugar did exactly what it was supposed to do.

serving

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Now I’m eager to try the recipe with peaches, as soon as they come into their season of full ripeness, and, after I’ve indulged us in a fabulous clafoutis, I might even make another cherry crisp if their season lasts long enough. If I do, I might skip pitting the cherries. As it is with watermelon seeds, discreet spitting of pits would be permissible.

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Apple Crumble

Apple Crumble is not a dessert that has ever been in my repertoire. If I thought about it at all, I’d probably have assumed it was something one would learn in a Girl Scout troop’s cooking class. But I recently came across a recipe for it in a novel I was reading on my Kindle called Lord James Harrington and the Winter Mystery.

Lord James HarringtonI didn’t really like the book: It’s one of the “cosy” variety, and I found the writing pedestrian and several of the characters ridiculous. A lot of eating and drinking goes on in it, which I generally approve of, but with far too many sweets being served and glasses of cream sherry taken as aperitifs. When, however, Lord James makes his grandmother’s famous apple crumble for a village fête, I was mildly interested, and when I found the recipe printed at the end of the book, I decided to try it.

I’m glad I did: It’s a nice little dessert. I almost said “easy as pie,” but it’s actually much easier than pie. I’ve now made it a few times, always successfully. Here’s what it takes for two to four servings.

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You peel, core, and chop up two apples, put them in an unbuttered baking dish, and top it with two tablespoons of sugar, one clove, and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

apples 1

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Rub together three ounces of flour and three tablespoons of butter to make crumbs; stir in two more tablespoons of sugar; spread that mixture over the apples, and sprinkle on more cinnamon.

apples 2

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Bake at 400° for 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

apples 3

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I rate this apple crumble highly on the pleasure-produced to work-involved ratio. With minimal ingredients it produces classic apple dessert flavors. You can use any kind of apple, throw the ingredients together, let the dish sit until needed, bake it in advance and reheat it later. Once cooked, it even keeps well in the refrigerator for a day or two. Leftovers make a nice breakfast. This is as close as one gets to a culinary no-brainer.

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Tom and I are back from the birding trip to Costa Rica that I mentioned in my last post. Our very modest expectations for its gastronomical aspects were right on target: The food was fresh and flavorful, but there was a very narrow range of both ingredients and preparations.

Unexpectedly, breakfast was the meal we most enjoyed. At home, our breakfasts tend to be minimal (except on Sundays), but after arising at 5 am to spend the first hours of daylight out looking at birds, the prospect of coming in to a hearty breakfast is mighty attractive. As I said last week, the rice-and-bean dish called gallo pinto is an inescapable part of a Costa Rican breakfast. Here are a few that we had:

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

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Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

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Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

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For lunches on the road in rustic country restaurants, we always received casado, the archetypical Costa Rican mixed plate of rice, beans, plantains, and another vegetable or salad, surrounding a piece of protein – usually a choice of fish or chicken. The fish was often trout, sometimes tilapia, both of which are extensively farmed in the fast-running streams of the rain forests. Chicken seems to be the de facto national bird of Costa Rica (which, officially, is the clay-colored thrush). Though it was always good, I came to believe that most Costa Rican chickens were born legless – a disappointment to this dark-meat fancier. Dinners at the lodges where our birding group stayed were buffet-style, with only minor day-to-day variations on the same or similar food choices. (Tom has made me swear not to serve him chicken for at least the next month.) Some examples:

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Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

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Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

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Chicken berast, plantains, rice, beans, tomatoes, vegetable frittata, tortilla

Chicken breast, plantains, rice, beans, tomato salad, vegetable frittata, arepa

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So, all in all, the food on our trip was sustaining rather than exciting. But exciting the birding definitely was. In one week we saw nearly 200 species, including quetzals, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, aracaris, oropendolas, cotingas, manakins, honeycreepers, flower-piercers, and 23 different kinds of hummingbirds. Here we are at the end of an aerial tram ride through the rain forest. Quite a change from our usual urban life!

Aerial tram 1

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Banana Tarte Tatin

In my house, we love bananas – but we’re fussy about them. We’re convinced that Costa Rica produces the best bananas in the Western Hemisphere. Next best are those from other Central American countries, and least interesting to us are South American bananas. (We’ve eaten most of those in their homes, as well as ours, so our preferences are based on tasting, not politics.) Inevitably, however, the most common varieties in our local stores are from Colombia and Ecuador; next most common from Honduras and Guatemala; and only very occasionally are there Costa Ricans.

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When there are, we tend to buy too many, and it’s a race to see if we can consume them before they consume themselves with overripeness. Sometimes, we even have to put a few in the refrigerator, despite the prohibition ingrained in me from my youth by the song that Chiquita Banana used to sing on the radio.

To help get through my latest too-big batch, I thought I’d try a banana dessert. With the Chiquita song burbling in my brain, I looked up the company’s website. It had 74 banana dessert recipes – many that I found absurdly overelaborated and way too sweet. But one fairly simple one appealed: a Tarte Tatin made with bananas instead of apples.

???????????????????????????????It was quite an easy variation on this classic dessert. Instead of creating the caramel syrup in the cast-iron skillet that’s then used for the baking, I was able to blend and brown my butter and sugar in a nonstick frying pan, flavor the caramel with cinnamon and nutmeg, and just pour it into a clean rectangular baking dish.

???????????????????????????????Slicing the bananas was the only tricky part. The recipe called for long diagonal slices. Try that with a typical comma-shaped banana without wondering how it’s supposed to be done. But I persevered by not taking it over-literally. Then I sprinkled lemon juice over my quasi-diagonally sliced bananas, spread them in the dish . . .

???????????????????????????????. . . and tucked a pastry cover over and around them all. The recipe called for puff pastry, but I didn’t have any on hand and didn’t want to make it for as small a quantity as I needed, so I substituted sweet short pastry (a quick, reliable pâte sablée recipe from Simca’s Cuisine by Simone Beck).

The tart baked nicely in about half an hour in a hot oven. When, at my request, Tom bravely took the responsibility for turning it upside down onto a serving plate, it slipped out neatly and looked just fine, with a rich, almost mahogany color.

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When we tasted it, I thought it the weirdest fruit tart I’ve ever had: insidiously sweet and mildly spicy, but those flavors somehow balanced by the savoriness of the pastry crust – not using puff pastry turned out to be a wise move. We almost wouldn’t have been able to tell that the fruit was banana until we’d chewed through a mouthful. So, in a way, that was disappointing: Clearly, I could have used lesser varieties of banana than my Costa Rican lovelies to achieve the same result. But, interestingly, when we ate leftover slices the next day, the good banana flavor came up more strongly, as did the spices. A most unusual, and in the upshot quite enjoyable, dessert. Thank you, Chiquita.

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To round off a plain weekday dinner, I wanted a small sweet taste – something that would be no trouble to make. There were two apples in the fruit bowl. A tiny tart? No, it was too late in the day to defrost a piece of pastry, and making it fresh was more than I felt like doing. How about just baking them?

There’s a very good baked apple recipe in our second cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but the preparation is fairly elaborate. The question became: What’s the minimum I can do to achieve decent baked apples? Joy of Cooking has a pretty simple recipe, but the winner was my mother’s ancient America’s Cook Book (which she received as a wedding present from her new grandparents-in-law in 1938).

three cookbooks

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The recipe doesn’t even require peeling the apples. Just core them, not cutting through the bottoms; fill the cavities with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg; and top with a pat of butter.

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I put them in a deep baking dish, poured a little boiling water in the bottom of the dish, covered it and baked at 375° for half an hour. In the evening we ate them at room temperature, without even the recommended accompaniment of cream. During their baking, the skin of the apples pulled itself nicely away from the flesh, which absorbed good flavors from the fillings.

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They were very pleasant: soft, mildly sweet, and above all easy – just what the doctor ordered!

 

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???????????????????????????????I’ve been having fun making recipes from a new book this week: Michele Scicolone’s latest, The Italian Vegetable Cookbook. (Full disclosure: Michele’s a friend, and she gave me the copy.) It’s a handsome book, with lots of mouth-watering photographs of both familiar and novel dishes.

I had quite a time deciding what to try. Here are my first choices.

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Sausage-Stuffed Zucchini Boats

I’d just bought some early zucchini at my Greenmarket, so I was drawn to this recipe. A small problem was that the recipe calls for carving out halved “medium” zucchini, leaving hulls ½-inch thick. My slender ridged ones – a Costata Romanesco type called Gadzooks – were barely more than an inch thick to begin with. I had to make the walls much thinner and worried that they might collapse in the oven.

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I parboiled the hulls and let them drain while I made the stuffing. There’s almost no limit to the number of good things zucchini boats can be filled with. This recipe’s mixture seemed like a very tasty combination – and so it proved to be.

In olive oil I sautéed chopped onion, a crumbled Italian sweet sausage, the zucchini pulp, and a chopped tomato; added a little broth and cooked until the liquid evaporated. Once the mixture had cooled, I stirred in breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, parsley and beaten egg. Though I was making a careful half recipe’s worth (just two portions), it seemed like a lot of filling for my slender boats to accommodate. Happily, they accepted it all – heaped high.

A sprinkling of more parmigiano and into the oven they went for about 20 minutes. The boats didn’t collapse, the stuffing stayed where it had been put, the flavors blended very well, and we were happy with the balance between the savory stuffing and the tender little zucchini. They made an excellent first course for dinner.

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Pasta with Spicy Escarole, Tomatoes, and Olives

Another day, another Greenmarket serendipity. I’d bought a big handsome head of escarole, and here was this handy pasta recipe.

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It turned out to be an archetypical peasant dish from the south of Italy: totally simple, totally meatless, totally satisfying. You just warm sliced garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper in olive oil; add halved cherry tomatoes, chopped black olives, and chopped blanched escarole; sauté everything briefly; then stir in the cooked pasta, some grated pecorino Romano, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. It sounds like nothing much, but – take my word for this – it’s delicious.

escarole pasta

The escarole absorbed some of every single flavor from the other ingredients and made the whole dish surprisingly rich and tantalizing on the palate, given how humble a concoction it was.

I have to say I took a few small liberties with the recipe. It called for whole wheat fusilli, but I had a lot of ordinary penne rigati in my pantry, so I used that instead. After my garlic had been in the pan for a while, it started to darken too much, so I fished it out instead of leaving it in until the end. (No problem: it had left its mark on the dish, as had the crushed red pepper.) Also, we felt it needed a little salt (the recipe has none at all), and we would have liked a few more cherry tomatoes in the sauce mix, just because they were such tasty little morsels.

As we ate, we felt that countless generations of Italian contadini must have eaten countless bushels of pasta prepared very like this, and we were pleased to be continuing such a fine tradition.

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Polenta Berry Cake

OK, blueberries and raspberries aren’t exactly vegetables, so why, you may ask, is this recipe in the book?  Well, since berries aren’t animal or mineral, I guess they count as vegetable.

The sweet cake batter, made with only 1 cup of flour and ⅓ cup of cornmeal (there: some actual vegetable) is rich with butter and eggs. The eggs go in whole, which is easier than adding just the yolks and then having to beat the whites and fold them in separately. The finished batter was very thick – also very finger-licking good.

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The batter gets spread in a buttered and floured break-away pan, the berries are strewn on top and sprinkled with a little more sugar, and the cake bakes for 45 minutes.

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I served the cake to dinner guests, and it was a big hit. The cornmeal had given the crumb a slightly coarse consistency – pleasantly toothsome and not overly sweet. The berries provided just enough moisture and fruit sweetness in each mouthful, and the crunchy edges made a nice contrast for the palate. I foresee that this is going to become a favorite in our household, to be tried with a variety of different fruits as the season progresses.

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So: Three dishes, three winners. That’s a good introduction to a new cookbook.

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