Articles in Cooking
Piedmont means pasta. It’s also a signifier for truffles and Barolo, but those will be for another time. And pasta is one of my own personal passions. Admittedly, I don’t pursue my passion with quite the same single-minded dedication as Bill Buford — described vividly in his book “Heat” — but it’s high on my list of go-to foods.
When in Italy I’m drawn to different, unusual types of pasta as a jackdaw to jewelry. At home I love making it, saucing it and, of course, eating it. So when, on a recent visit to Piedmont, Italy, with a group of friends, an invitation arrived from pasta-meister Mauro Musso of La Casa dei Tajarin in Alba to observe him at work, followed by a degustazione of four or five different pastas, each teamed up with its own sauce and wines to match, I accepted without a moment’s hesitation.
Musso comes from a farming family. In 1994, when the farm was flooded out in a particularly vicious spell of Piedmont weather, the family was forced to abandon the land and move to Alba. Musso, by his own admission, was down and out. He looked for employment and wound up working for a supermarket. “Not my thing,” he admits, adding, “I stuck it for a bit, then decided I’d rather be my own boss.” His experience of working with large-scale food production and retailing led him in quite the opposite direction. His plan was to make pasta on an artisan scale from specialist, organic flours and sell directly to the public.
Three years ago, he carved out a tiny workspace (he calls it his laboratorio) on the ground floor of the family home. He produces two different shapes of pasta: the classic Piedmontese tajarin, after which the business is named (called tagliolini or taglierini in other parts of Italy), slender strands of egg-based pasta that melt on cooking into a state of gently yielding deliciousness and which lend themselves to all kinds of saucery; and casarecce, a more robust, egg-less type that demands correspondingly feisty accompaniments.
Variety of grains lend themselves to dozens of types of pasta
Within these two categories — fine and egg-based, chunky and egg-less — he makes 25 distinct kinds of pasta; the difference lies in the flours used.
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Why so many different kinds of flour? Musso is well aware of the rise in wheat allergies and intolerances in recent years, from the severe medical condition of celiac disease to the less serious but nonetheless genuinely felt discomforts grouped under the heading of gluten intolerance. His theory is that most of us have been raised on a diet of highly refined flour from a restricted range of wheats that have been selected over centuries, principally for their yields and resistance to disease. This limited range, he claims, could help to explain these digestive problems.
Rather than restrict himself to the classic white flour types used in industrial pastas, he experiments with flours milled from ancient varieties of wheat and rye, or from grains and cereals with little or no gluten such as millet, teff, quinoa, amaranth and carob.
The day of our visit, Musso’s mamma showed us into the laboratorio, where he was absorbed in the task of making casarecce from rye flour with the help of his trusty assistant, his dad. First the flour went into the hopper at the top of the pasta machine and water was dribbled in through a funnel. This was mixed to a loose, breadcrumb-like texture. Finally, as if by magic, this dry, unpromising-looking mixture emerged from the extruder as silken ropes of pasta, which Musso patiently snipped into short lengths wielding a huge pair of scissors, rather like Struwwelpeter. The cut pasta was laid on large, flat, sieve-like trays and transferred to walk-in drying rooms, where it would spend 15 hours. E basta!
We settled down in the small dining room adjoining the kitchen, a bottle of Carica l’Asino (a fragrant white from a long-lost Piedmontese variety) was uncorked and we tucked into our first taste of rye flour tajarin. The characteristic earthy flavor of rye was matched with perfect simplicity by ribbons of sage (“from the herb garden”) and lashings of lightly salted butter (“from Normandy — it’s the best!”). Casarecce came next, made from a blend of emmer wheat and rye (gorgeous, chunky texture and taste), which met their match with Musso’s homemade pesto loaded with basil, garlic, lightly toasted local hazelnuts and olive oil. The wine, similarly characterful, was a deep, golden Muntà, a blend of Cortese and little-known local variety Favorita from biodynamic grower Andrea Tirelli.
Delicate strands of tajarin from durum wheat wound themselves around tomato-infused mussels for our next dish, and the wine, an outstanding, mineral-infused Riesling “K” from Paul Kubler, took me straight back home to Alsace. By now we were beginning to flag. With the promise (or maybe the threat) of Musso’s homemade bunet (chocolate flan) hanging in the air, we negotiated a deal with our pasta-meister and skipped (with reluctance) a planned dish of whole-wheat casarecce with a meat sugo in favor of yet more silken tajarin with mushrooms, accompanied by a sprightly Dolcetto d’Alba from Rivella Serafino.
More than a demo, more than instructions on which pasta works best with which sauce, more even than a memorable meal, it turned out to be a lesson in the importance of valuing and using what grows locally to make flavorsome, healthy foods and wines of simple distinction.
The lesson is being learned and word is getting around about this pasta iconoclast — he’s one of the so-called “heretics” in a recent short film titled “Storie di eretici nell’Italia dei capannoni,” a lament for an Italy increasingly overrun by factories and warehouses. On Saturday mornings, customers stop by on their way home from the market in Alba to stock up on his pastas, and Musso is also building up a loyal following among local chefs. It’s an irresistible story of a fine artisan product from a passionate individualist rooted in his beloved Piedmont.
At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?
And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable. Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”
Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”
‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits
But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.
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They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.
They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.
They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.
The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.
They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.
They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.
Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).
Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed. They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.
Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.
They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.
In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.
I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.
Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison
The non-descript bar was the perfect refuge for a rainy spring afternoon. Seated at a small Formica table that would have been at home in a 1950s kitchen, with small plates and a fat tumbler of Havana Gold 7-year-old rum in front of me, I discovered the new love of my culinary life: anchovies.
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In Bar Pozano, a narrow workingman’s hangout across the river from the Burgos Cathedral in northern Spain, half a dozen older men sat talking and ignoring a soccer game on mute on a flat-screen TV high on the wall near the front door. In the narrow refrigerated display case on the bar were the tapas of the day. Plates were displayed with Spanish omelets (tortillas de palatas), Iberian ham sandwiches (bocadillos) and skewered octopus bits seasoned with olive oil and pimentón. With all those delicious tapas inviting attention, it was the anchovies gathered around hard boiled eggs, pickles, pitted green olives, poached tuna and mussels that won my heart.
Anchovies are part of the ocean’s bounty. Found in great abundance all over the planet, the tiny fish, like goldilocks, prefer temperate waters that are not too hot, not too cold. Available in some areas fresh as filets with the silvery skin on one side, anchovies are usually sold as skinless filets in jars and flat tins.
I left my heart in Spain but brought home the anchovies
The thing about anchovies is that people either love them or hate them. With these delicate fish there is no middle ground. For those diners who enjoy them, anchovies have an umami flavor similar to that of shiitake mushrooms but with a deeply nuanced saltiness and feather-light raspiness on the tongue.
The Spanish get the best out of anchovies by applying them liberally on tapas and pinxtos, Basque open-faced sandwiches. Italians know that skinless anchovy filets will dissolve in heated butter or olive oil, creating an exquisite sauce that adds a depth of flavor to braising sauces and pastas.
Part of the beauty of anchovies is that they are easy to use. To have a delicious snack, just open a jar or tin, drag out a couple with a fork, lay the filets over a piece of grilled bread with slices of Manchego cheese, drizzle with olive oil, dust with pimentón and serve with ice cold beer or a light white wine.
For an entrée, only a little more work is required. Dissolve four or five anchovies in heated oil, toss with cooked pasta, sprinkle with finely chopped Italian parsley and freshly grated Parmesan cheese and the main course is finished in less than 10 minutes.
To have a thoroughly enjoyable evening with anchovies as the centerpiece, all that’s needed is a group of like-minded diners who regard the anchovy as one of nature’s best treats.
Anchovies With Hard-Boiled Eggs
Infinitely variable, the basics are the salty anchovy filets, which contrast with the dry and creamy hard-boiled eggs. In Spain, a condiment made with finely chopped, charred red and green peppers and onions is used as a topping on neutral tasting products like poached tuna filets or mussels. That topping goes beautifully with the hard-boiled eggs and anchovies.
I am indebted to Katie Goodman who described her method for hard-boiling eggs to facilitate easy shell removal.
4 farmers market fresh large eggs, washed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ red pepper, washed and seeded
¼ green pepper, washed and seeded
¼ medium yellow onion, washed and peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 anchovy filets packed in olive oil
4 mini-dill pickles, cut in half longwise
8 mussels, canned or freshly steamed, debearded and shelled
Pimentón (optional) or cayenne
8 long toothpicks or short bamboo skewers 3 or 4 inches in length
1. Cover the eggs in a pot of water. Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a vigorous boil and cook uncovered for three minutes.
Remove from the flame, cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
Pour off the hot water and soak the eggs in cold water. Allow to cool, then remove the shells. Dry and refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.
2. On a hot barbecue grill or on a stovetop gas burner with the flame turned on high, place the green and red peppers and the onion on the flame. Allow the outer skin to lightly char. Turn once with tongs and remove.
Once the peppers and onions are cool to the touch, use a sharp chef’s knife to finely chop the vegetables and place in a small, lidded container. Cover with the olive oil, seal and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. Assemble just before serving. First, carefully slice each hard-boiled egg from top to bottom using a very sharp paring knife. Slide the skewer through one anchovy, then through the side of one half of the hard boiled egg, then the pickle half and the mussel. Add one more anchovy on the other end if desired.
Top with an espresso-sized teaspoon of the marinated peppers and onions and a little olive oil. Season as desired with sea salt, black pepper and pimentón.
- Instead of the mussel, place a slab of canned tuna fish filet, preferably a good quality tuna from Spain.
- Instead of the mini-dill pickle, use a pitted green olive.
- Instead of the mini-dill pickle, use crisp and vinegary, pickled Basque guindilla peppers, available from Spain in jars.
- In addition to the marinated charred peppers and onion topping, dust the hard boiled egg with finely chopped fresh Italian parsley.
Top photo: A Spanish tapas made at home with anchovy, mussels, hard-boiled egg, marinated chopped peppers and onions and pickle on a skewer. Credit: David Latt
Extolled for its large leaves, colorful stems and ruggedness, both as a plant and as a vegetable, Swiss chard surprisingly remains intimidating to some home cooks.
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Swiss chard is botanically related to beets. It grows well in sandy soil, and it originated on the coasts of the Mediterranean. In fact, the Andalusian seaport of Málaga offers a delightful Swiss chard recipe for acelgas a la Malagueña that utilizes the golden raisins and paprika from the region. The Spanish word for Swiss chard, acelgas, comes from the Arabic word al-silq, meaning Swiss chard or beet greens. Although the coastal port of Málaga is known for its seafood, the local cooking is also favored with some appetizing vegetable preparations such as this.
As large leafy greens are famously nutritious, Swiss chard is an excellent vegetable to cook with for nutritional reasons, culinary reasons and palatable reasons. The following is the recipe I usually use when I teach classes on leafy green vegetables and want to introduce a vegetable. Many people know what Swiss chard is, but few have cooked it. Here’s your chance and you won’t be unhappy.
Acelgas a la Malagueña
2 pounds Swiss chard, heavy central stem ribs removed, washed well several times and drained
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1. Place the Swiss chard in a large steamer and wilt, covered, over high heat with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain and chop coarsely.
2. In a large sauté pan, put the Swiss chard, olive oil, garlic, raisins, paprika, salt, pepper and vinegar and turn the heat to medium-high. Cook until it begins to sizzle, about 3 minutes, reduce the heat to low and cook until the mixture is well coated and blended, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Red Swiss chard. Credit: Aspen Rock/iStockphoto
As a kid, I’d follow close on my dad’s heels when he went to the local fishing hole, where he’d spend the day reeling in crappie and bluegill. We’d share peanut butter sandwiches and catch crawdaddies and garter snakes while waiting for the fish to bite. At some point in the day, we’d always hunt for wild asparagus, which also grew around the pond.
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My father will tell anyone who will listen that the asparagus doesn’t grow until the thunder shakes it from the ground. He has a full head of white hair now, and people sit in rapture of his wisdom. Me? I’m not so sure. I picked my first asparagus this year between snowstorms. It made its debut almost seven weeks later than last year.
That might sound frustrating, but it is actually part of the appeal. I only eat wild asparagus, which grows during a narrow window in the spring.
For me, store-bought asparagus will never do. I don’t ever want to see it on my plate at the end of summer, or at Thanksgiving. The fact that it only appears once a year, and in a way that is highly variable, only adds to its charm. When the asparagus finally arrives, it is a herald of the season, and it is marked with a feast. Part of the joy of foraging is only eating foods during the short window of time that they are in season. It makes for an endless series of celebrations.
The wild asparagus I forage, Asparagus officinalis, is the same that Euell Gibbons made famous in his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It is also the same species as the one sold commercially. This means that once you know how to find it in the wild, it is readily recognized.
The surest way to find asparagus is to find the overgrown fern-like mature plants from the previous year. For the most part, it grows in the same place from year to year. Old, dried asparagus has a distinctive orange-yellow tone that stands out against the new green growth of spring. Wild asparagus seems to really love fence lines, railroads and drainage ditches, but don’t be surprised to see it growing in the middle of a field.
Some people will try to tell you that only thin asparagus is good. Don’t believe them. Thick or thin, wild asparagus tastes the same. I prefer the thicker ones simply because they provide a more substantial bite of asparagus goodness. The most important factor in picking wild asparagus is to choose stalks that still have tightly closed heads, no matter how tall or thick they should grow.
Wild Asparagus Bites
I prefer to serve these gluten-free nibbles at room temperature, but they are equally delicious eaten hot or cold.
12 spears wild asparagus
1 shallot, sliced into half moons
½ cup ricotta cheese
2 ounces goat cheese chevre
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Clean the wild asparagus and prepare them by snapping off the tough ends.
3. Toss the asparagus and shallots with olive oil, salt and pepper, making certain the asparagus and shallots are coated with oil.
4. Place the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, or until the thickest asparagus spear can easily be pierced with a knife. After removing the asparagus and shallots, reduce the oven temperature to 300 F.
5 While the asparagus is roasting, prepare the cheesy base. Mix together the ricotta, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg, cornstarch, salt and pepper until they are evenly combined.
6. Carefully cut off the tips of the roasted asparagus and set them aside.
7. Chop the remaining asparagus and shallots. You can do this roughly with a knife. Just make certain the pieces end up at least a quarter-inch thick or smaller.
8. Stir the chopped asparagus and shallots into the egg and cheese mixture.
9. Fill 12 greased mini muffin cups three-quarters full with the asparagus mixture. Place an asparagus tip atop each filled cup.
10. Bake the wild asparagus bites at 300 F for 20 minutes.
Wild asparagus bites. Credit: Wendy Petty
I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
It’s spring in Southern California, and our backyard fruit trees have run riot. Golden yellow loquats the size of my child’s fist hang heavily from two trees, and oranges left over from the winter crop spectacularly cover a 30-foot tree shading my daughter’s playhouse. Our yard looks like a postcard trumpeting the glories of Los Angeles suburbia, circa 1923.
But as with any paradise there’s a dark side. This year, the dark side comes from the loquats. I don’t know what to do with them.
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There are so many loquats that our yard has become a hazard. Fully-ripe loquats drop from our trees every five minutes, and as my daughters play in the yard, they grind the soft yellow orbs messily into the lawn and walkway. Still more are up there, some as high as 40 feet, way beyond the reach of our ladder and picking tool. They’ve become a feast for the flocks of squawking, screaming wild parrots in our neighborhood.
These are another holdover from the 1920’s “California is Paradise” meme. Some of the wild parrots are said to be runaways from the estate of Lucky Baldwin, and the creatures tear the loquats to bits, scattering the seeds and skins across our back yard to mix with the rotting ones.
We have two loquat trees that dominate our backyard, each with slightly different variety of fruit. When we first moved to this house, I had no idea what loquats were and wasn’t even sure they were edible. For several weeks we raked them into huge messy piles and shoved them into the recycling bin. But I couldn’t stand to see this bounty left to rot, so I started asking questions about this small, fleshy yellow fruit. I discovered that loquats are not only edible, they’re downright delicious. My youngest daughter became obsessed with loquats when she was just a year old and ate her weight in loquats that first season.
Don’t sweat the seeds
Over the past few years, I have turned our loquats into loquat cobbler, loquat butter and loquat leather, with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem with loquats is their incredible seed-to-flesh ratio. Each loquat contains one to six large seeds, which means that you get almost as much seed as you do edible flesh in each loquat.
When I first starting researching loquats, I’d read that the seeds were poisonous. Filled with arsenic, and possibly cyanide. The websites were not clear. But like any paranoid mother, I worried that my children might eat them and fall into a temporary coma, just like an unnamed child I’d read about online. Although we’d been eating loquats for several years without incident, I decided to put my fears to rest once and for all by checking with an expert.
I put in a call to professor Jules Janick, director of the Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products at Purdue University. He’s not only the co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts,” he is also a kind and understanding voice of reason. Janick told me that loquat seeds are indeed toxic, but then so are the seeds of apples and pears. To put things into perspective, Janick said, “If you ate 3 pounds of them, then it might be a problem.” He also reminded me that the bitterness of the seeds would stop someone from eating them pretty quickly. I realized that my daughter was at far greater risk for choking on a loquat seed than being poisoned by its chemical components.
Backyard loquat adventure
With this in mind, on an April afternoon, I took my loquat-loving youngest daughter to the back yard to begin Loquat Harvest 2013. We planned to fill my daughter’s toy wagon with enough fruit to make loquat leather, but we were quickly distracted by the fun of the collection process. We examined huge spider webs woven between the tree’s broad leaves. We ducked our heads from a torrent of loquat hail that rained down on us as I used our fruit picker to reach an especially high cluster of fruit. But we stopped in our tracks when we discovered a tiny hummingbird’s nest attached to a small wavering branch of our loquat tree. All thoughts of loquat leather disappeared and we marveled at this tiny treasure.
Our loquat tree was not only a source of food for humans and birds alike, it was a home. Our loquat trees now feel like an integral part of our own home, one that we happily share with our feathered friends.
I’m still experimenting with new ways to use the backyard bounty, without creating more work than necessary. The simplest approach is to just eat the fruit straight from the tree, spitting out the seeds, of course. But that’s a LOT of loquats to eat.
Our future is sure to be full of new loquat-laced dishes including loquat jelly, loquat chutney and loquat-chicken tagine. Maybe even a batch of loquat ice cream. But even as my family members stuff themselves with loquats, I think that the bounty of Southern California may simply be too much to keep up with.
I may have to ignore much of the fruit of the loquat this year.
And the real beneficiaries, the screaming, squawking, fat and happy parrots.
8 cups seeded loquat halves (approximately 9 to 10 cups of whole, ripe fruit depending on size)
2 cups applesauce (store-bought is fine)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Wash loquats and remove any blemishes and remaining brown bits from stem and blossom ends. Be sure to use ripe loquats, which are softer, sweeter and less acidic than unripe loquats.
2. Cut loquats in half. Scoop out the seeds and white membrane inside the pulpy yellow flesh. Don’t bother to peel them.
3. Make two batches of loquat-apple purée by adding 4 cups of loquat halves, 1 cup of applesauce and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into blender or food processor. Process until smooth. (The blender does a slightly better job on breaking down the peels than the food processor, but either will work.) Repeat with second half of ingredients.
4. Place a solid tray liner, usually called a fruit roll sheet or non-stick dehydrator sheet, on top of your dehydrator tray.
5. Spread a layer of loquat-apple purée, about ¼-inch thick, onto the solid tray liner. The fruit leather will have a more uniform thickness if you spread the puree slightly thicker around the edges. Be sure to follow instructions for your dehydrator. Some suggest brushing the tray with a thin layer of vegetable oil to the tray liner before adding fruit purée.
6. Place the tray (or multiple trays if you have them) into the dehydrator and dehydrate at 135 F for 4 to 8 hours, until the fruit leather is translucent and can be easily peeled from the tray without falling apart. It may still feel a bit sticky to the touch, especially in the middle.
7. Cut into strips and roll. Keep in a closed container or bag until ready to eat.
Picking loquats. Credit: Susan Lutz
For me, nothing marks the passage of time so much as the disappearance of favorite restaurants. The pang for lost restaurants hit me recently when reading from my favorite of Julia Child’s books, “From Julia Child’s Kitchen,” where she comments on a place in Monte Carlo that she and her husband Paul had enjoyed in the post-war period through the 1950s.
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She confesses to “almost weeping over the end-of-an-era elegance of the room, with its string orchestra hidden in a balcony, its marble columns, its gilt encrustations everywhere, its flocks of frock-coated waiters, and its diners in evening dress.” When she returned some years later, the historic restaurant had been replaced by a rooftop eatery lacking in atmosphere. Because she avoided sentimentality and was inclined to focus on the present rather than the past, Julia accepted the loss of that restaurant stoically, saying, “it is useless to cry over lost loves.”
While I admire her for being so philosophical about the disappearance of a memorable eating place, I, on the other hand, tend to mope when my favorite restaurants are gone. I miss those vanished places that held great memories for me or simply were convenient and enjoyable spots where I mingled with friends. Everyone, I guess, feels the loss of favorite places, but for me the bygone restaurants in Harvard Square have had the greatest impact. The ordinary passage of time leads to change, so restaurants close because owners cannot meet the costs of rising rents or they simply retire and move on. Picturesque haunts where students and locals mingled, sometimes for many decades, are often replaced by generic and boring chain restaurants.
When I first started working near Harvard Square, I used to go to a place where for a couple of dollars I could get poached eggs on a muffin (or, in the New England vernacular, “dropped eggs”). They came with corned beef hash and a large cup of coffee. And later in the day one could get corned beef and cabbage (aka “New England boiled dinner”) or liver and onions. The worn-out linoleum floor made clear that this was a humble place for hungry people who might be Harvard students, faculty, staff, or the janitors who eased everyone’s lives. The place couldn’t last and it didn’t.
Gone, but not forgotten
The most recent victim of high rents is the Casablanca Restaurant, for years the Harvard Square go-to place to meet friends for drinks and perhaps a mezze plate loaded with hummus, olives, salads, and slices of flatbread. Its Mediterranean theme was carried out not only by a menu of deep-flavored dishes filled with Middle Eastern spices and olive oil, but on walls filled with murals depicting characters from the much-loved film, “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. That film is shown annually at a local theater, a tradition with a following so cult-like that famous lines in the film are recited in unison by the audience. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” we say along with Bogart when he catches sight of Bergman, with whom he has a past, entering his establishment. These days, former denizens of the Casablanca Restaurant are missing that joint terribly.
The Wurst Haus is another place that had a long history. It was a German restaurant with an extensive beer menu, and as one online wag put it, “The great thing about the Wurst Haus was that everyone could wear a plaid jacket, horn-rimmed glasses, smoke a pipe and not get beat up.” Harvard professors, pseudo-intellectuals and plain old beer-lovers mingled in an atmosphere of dark-paneled walls and sloping floors in the false security that what had been around for decades would always be around. But, in the 1990s, meat-laden and sometimes greasy German food had given way to the lighter menus expected by a more health-conscious public, thus dooming the Wurst Haus.
This change in public taste may explain the disappearance of Jack and Marion’s, a beloved delicatessen in Brookline, Mass., that gave pleasure to many with its huge menu filled with every single Eastern European Jewish dish in existence, not to mention oversized desserts. Though it closed in 1971, people are still talking about it. They shake their heads sadly, and compare it to other delis in the area that have since moved in, but none can measure up to a place that has assumed mythic qualities.
Sentimental for ice cream
Children are also affected by the disappearance of favorite places. Boston-area kids used to go to a place called Chadwick’s, an old-timey ice cream parlor best known for birthday celebrations. Waiters would ring bells, bang drums and sing loudly to honor the birthday boy or girl who would receive free ice cream that day. And apart from its birthday ceremonies, Chadwick’s was known for its “Belly Buster” sundaes, a mammoth bowl filled with 18 scoops of ice cream that would be delivered to your table on a stretcher.
And speaking of long-gone ice cream parlors, I still think about Bailey’s, a combination ice cream parlor and candy store, where sundaes were served in old-fashioned silver dishes set on silver plates. An abundance of hot fudge was poured on so that it would spill onto the plates, putting you into a quandary as to where to first put your spoon. Bailey’s was close to my office, so I could drop by on days when someone had been mean to me and find solace in a hot fudge sundae. In truth, I was known to show up even when everyone had been nice. The demise of Bailey’s is a painful loss, and to console myself I have tried to recreate its hot fudge sauce, attempting several recipes said to be the real thing, and this is the one that works for me.
Hot Fudge Sauce
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup cocoa
¾ cup sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1. Melt chocolate and butter in small saucepan over low heat.
2. Sift cocoa into pan, add sugar and thoroughly mix.
3. Add evaporated milk, vanilla and salt and stir constantly. Sauce will thicken quickly, usually after just 3 minutes of stirring.
If not used immediately, the sauce stores well in the refrigerator and should be warmed up before pouring over ice cream.
Top photo: A sundae with hot fudge sauce recreated from Bailey’s. Credit: Barbara Haber