Articles in Fruit
My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.
But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.
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With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”
Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”
“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla, faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.
Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.
Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.
“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.
Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness
The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.
Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.
My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.
The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico. By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.
I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.
Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman
Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.
How to select and use frozen berries
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1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.
What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.
2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’ flavor and health protective components.”
3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.
Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off. She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.
4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.
5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.
Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.
6. How to select and use dried berries.
Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.
The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.
Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.
Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.
That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?
Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute
Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
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Myth and legend of dried figs
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett
A winter stroll through Athens is a joy. The cool, breezy air is filled with an exquisitely heady perfume from the hundreds of citrus trees shading the city’s squares, gardens and boulevards. Dusty, heat-wilted summer foliage is long gone. In its place are lush, deep-green canopies of scented leaves, waxy-white flowers and beautiful oranges.
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Throughout Greece’s grim economic crisis of the past five years, these lovely trees have produced their annual bounty for the beleaguered people, with bursts of sunshine in the gloom. So why are the oranges left mostly ungathered, in a country where cooks are well known for their imaginative frugality and their ability to create feasts from foraged foods?
The bitter orange
The highly aromatic bitter orange (citrus aurantium, or Seville orange) that provides Greece’s city landscapes with such color and beauty can’t be eaten without some preparation. Native to Southeast Asia, the bitter orange (nerantzi, in Greek) is a hybrid, a cross between the pomelo (citrus maxima) and the mandarin (citrus reticula), and is thought to have arrived in Europe in the late 16th century. The tree was a favorite of the medieval Italian courts, so it’s possible that it was brought to Greece by the Venetians, who made fortunes exporting Greek fruits, honey and wine. Or perhaps later by the Ottomans, who also appreciated the bitter orange’s perfume and prettiness.
Medieval Greece was no stranger to aromatic oils, fruit-based sweetmeats and the taste of sour. In classical antiquity and later in Byzantium, the citron (citrus medica, native to Persia) provided both. But the bitter orange, with its thinner skin and greater beauty, soon replaced the incongruous-looking citron. It had the advantage too of a reputation as a folk remedy for fevers, an antiseptic and an aid to digestion, and could more successfully cope with colder temperatures than the less-hardy sweet orange.
The powerful fragrance of the tree’s leaves and flowers were, and still are, highly valued in aromatology and the fruits’ peel in confectionery. When dried or candied, it flavors sweets, pies, savories and salads. Best of all, it is turned into a delicious γλυκό του κουταλιού (literally, “spoon sweet”), and offered to guests as a way of saying “welcome, it’s good to see you.”
Tasting a crisis
Artists Persefoni Myrtsou and Ino Varvariti — spurred by their city sensibilities and personal experience with the economic crisis — decided to explore the connection between these plentiful urban citrus trees and the changing landscapes of peoples’ lives. Early in 2013, they collected oranges from trees in locations to which the Greek people feel emotionally linked.
In Athens, they chose Syntagma (the central square); Plaka (the old quarter, below the Acropolis); Mitropoleous (the old market neighborhood); a new, but now-closed shopping mall; and a neighborhood recently settled by immigrants. In Thessaloniki, they gathered the fruits from Ano Poli, or “Upper Town,” the old, Ottoman-era city. Then they prepared a glyko (sweet) from each harvest.
Myrtsou and Varvariti took the sweetmeats to an art exhibition in Berlin and to a gastronomy symposium on the island of Crete, and invited everyone to sample them. The artists found that, although the rituals and symbolism for the Greeks of glyko had to be explained in Germany, this opened a dialogue on both the economic crisis and Greek food culture. In Crete, a relatively wealthy region of Greece, the interest was in the varying flavors and the plight of the city neighborhoods.
Glyko: a sweet hello
Did the sweets taste different from one another? Yes, they did. But the differences were subtle, and reflected only the bitter orange tree’s admirable hardiness (it fruits even in poor soil, and without much care) and ability to change itself (when planted near another citrus variety).
City dwellers are, with good reason, nervous about locally foraged foods, and Athens’ car pollution is notorious. But this alone can’t be the reason the oranges are being left to rot, when so many people are hungry, and need a feeling of community more than ever. For Myrtsou and Varvariti, their work has created new relationships, as the offering of such beautiful sweet treats to others never fails to do, and has given them new avenues to explore in their quest for the taste of the crisis.
Bitter Orange Sweet
Serve nerantzi glyko in a small bowl on a tray, with glasses of water and small cups of Greek coffee. Each guest takes a spoon and a scoop of the sweet and syrup and wishes the host “happiness and good fortune.”
There are plenty of modern uses for these lovely sweets too. Serve them with a classic Greek almond or walnut cake, madeira cake, rice pudding or ice cream, or as a pick-me-up at the end of the afternoon. You can substitute other oranges, tangerines, lemons or small grapefruits for the bitter oranges.
Makes 32 single-piece servings
4 large, organic bitter (Seville) oranges, or other suitable citrus fruits
Sugar, the same weight as the peel
Strained juice of half a lemon
1. With a hand grater, gently grate the oranges. This removes some of the bitterness of their peel.
2. Cut the peel of each orange into 8 vertical segments. If there is a large amount of white pith, scrape off some of it with a small knife or spoon.
3. Weigh the peel and measure out an equal quantity of sugar; set aside.
4. Transfer the strips of peel to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat the process. Drain, cover with cold water and set aside 2 hours. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
5. Roll up each strip of peel and secure with a toothpick.*
6. In a heavy saucepan or syrup pan, add the sugar and ¾ of its volume of water and slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the rolls of peel.
7. Simmer uncovered for 45 of 60 minutes, or until a needle will easily pierce a roll.
8. Remove the peels from the syrup, shaking excess syrup back into the pan. Let cool and discard the toothpicks (the peels won’t unravel).
9. Add the lemon juice to the syrup and boil until it just reaches the light thread stage (220 C) on a sugar thermometer, or coats the back of a spoon.
10. Transfer the rolls of peel to a clean glass jar, or several jars, just large enough to hold them and cover with the syrup. Tightly cover the jar(s).
* If you make a larger quantity of sweets, they take up less room in the pan if threaded on a string. Thread a large needle with thin kitchen string and tie a large knot at one end. Roll up each peel segment and thread onto the string, passing the needle through the roll so it won’t unravel. Thread no more than 16 rolls onto the string, and tie the ends together to make a garland. Simmer until cooked in the syrup, then carefully pull out the string. The rolls will remain intact.
Top photo: Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron
In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each. The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.
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The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.
But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.
Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.
Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round. If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.
The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.
Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed
1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)
2 cups water
1½ to 2 cups raw sugar
1 cup honey
1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)
Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)
1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.
2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.
3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.
4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.
5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.
6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.
7. Turn the flame to low.
8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.
9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.
10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.
11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.
Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee
This is the time of year for hot drinks such as buttered rum. Here’s one from the 18th century that fits right in. The drink called bishop is like mulled wine crossed with sangria with a dash of triple sec and a rich and intriguing flavor we rarely use, baked orange peel. It would move pretty fast at a holiday party, and it could even be served cold in summer.
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I don’t really know why it’s called bishop, though some people say it was served when a bishop came to visit, and one Maryland recipe collection reportedly says to add brandy “according to the capacity of the bishop.”
The idea of flavoring wine goes back to the Romans, who liked to put spices and fenugreek leaves in it. From the Middle Ages down to the 17th century, monks and doctors made liqueurs with secret herb mixtures while laypeople were whipping up concoctions with names such as ypocras and metheglin. These were all medicinal beverages, or so people told themselves.
In India, the English finally learned to mix drinks for purely recreational purposes. The toddy, from a Hindi word for palm wine, was essentially whiskey, sugar and hot water. The name punch comes from the Hindi word panch, which means “five,” because it originally had five ingredients. Finally, shrub, which comes from the Arabic word sharab, or “beverage,” seems to have been punch with fewer ingredients.
Most of these punches were basically booze mixed with sugar and lemon or lime juice. In the modern world, punch, apart from children’s birthday punches and the wedding champagne punch, has evolved into a cocktail. Most often it is essentially a miniature, single-serve punch mixed to order. And when making cocktails, bartenders still go through a lot of lime juice and Collins mix. Another thing old-time punches and cocktails had in common was that they were often sprinkled with nutmeg, which doesn’t go on anything but eggnog today.
Once they got the idea, the English started running with it. Negus was essentially strong lemonade mixed with wine, perhaps topped off with some brandy. And then there was bishop, which was wine mixed with orange juice. (When bishop was born, it was a showoffy drink because oranges were expensive imported delicacies.)
I’ve followed the recipe in Mrs. Lettice Bryant’s “The Kentucky Housewife” (1839) except for baking the oranges rather than roasting them before the hearth fire. “Serve either warm or cold,” the recipe says, “in glasses, and grate nutmeg thickly over the tops.” Cheers, reverend sir.
Serves 6 to 8
6 oranges, preferably Valencias
1½ cups sugar
1 bottle red wine, divided
Freshly ground nutmeg
1. Bake the oranges at 350 F until the peels soften, about 25 minutes. The peels will look a little puffy and shiny and have a piney aroma. Don’t worry about a few browned spots. Let the oranges cool, slice them into a large mixing bowl and stir with the sugar and half of the wine.
2. Cover overnight.
3. At serving time, squeeze the oranges and stir up the mixture to make sure the sugar is dissolved. In a saucepan, heat the rest of the bottle of wine to just under the boiling point and strain the orange-wine mixture into it. Serve sprinkled with nutmeg.
Top photo: Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called bishop. Credit: Charles Perry
Christmas in Kerala, that sunny tropical strip of southern India along the Arabian Sea, is a somber festival with more faith and religious fervor than mere celebrations. It is observed as a religious holiday and Kerala Christians all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in the music or food or spirits.
Churches are decorated with candles and flowers, and service is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christian families of all denominations, often dressed in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with family and friends.
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Rituals vary by region so the menu for the Christmas feast differs by village and household. Even though the feast often includes roast duck and mincemeat dishes, palappam, which is made with rice and coconut and served with meat or chicken stew, is also popular. Sweets such as rose cookies and diamond cuts are usually homemade like cookies in Western countries.
Christmas dinner, especially among Kerala Catholics, is not complete without a glass of homemade sweet grape wine and a piece of plum cake — a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices.
In old times the ritual of making wine at home would begin in October. Though tropical Kerala does not have the ideal weather for winemaking, it is a longstanding tradition for Christmas. These days, many depend on store-bought wines and Christmas cakes, but a few still make wine at home.
These wines are very sweet, and most often spiced, and belong to the dessert wine category. Traditionally, wine is made in a pale brown ceramic jar called cheena bharani or simply bharani, which is a remnant of the ancient Indian Ocean trade with China.
The recipe for sweet grape wine is a typical wine recipe, but the fermentation is much briefer. The process is stopped before all the sugar turns into alcohol. The recipe also uses equal amounts of grapes and sugar, resulting is a very sweet wine.
Grapes aren’t grown in Kerala, but winemakers can get Bangalore Blue, Anab-e-Shahi, Gulabi and Bhokri variety grapes from neighboring regions in India. The variety isn’t particularly important, however, as any dark red grape will do.
The red color of this wine is from the red pigment in the grape skin. Grapes give the flavor, sugar adds sweetness, yeast is for fermentation and spices impart aroma. The strength of the wine depends on the amount of wheat or barley used, which also acts as a clarifying agent. Egg white is used to make the wine clear.
It is essential to begin with a sanitary environment and absolutely clean equipment before starting the process of making wine. Used bottles, in particular, should be sterilized before they are used again.
Homemade Kerala Christmas Wine
Makes 16 cups
2¼ pounds sweet dark grapes, washed and stalks removed and wiped dry
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2¼ pounds sugar
18 cups water, boiled and cooled to room temperature
¼ cup wheat kernels
1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed
1 egg white
1. Clean and dry a glass or ceramic jar.
2. Crush the grapes thoroughly and place them in the jar.
3. Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 to15 minutes. Then add the proofed yeast, sugar, water, wheat and spices to the crushed grapes. Stir well, until the sugar is completely dissolved.
4. The contents should fill only ¾ of the jar. During fermentation carbon dioxide is formed and released. It is ideal to cover the jar with a piece of clean cheese cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine. Keep it in cool dark place to ferment.
5. For the next two to three weeks open the jar once a day and stir the contents well using a clean dry wooden spoon. Initially the crushed grapes would be floating in the liquid, but after a couple of weeks these will begin to settle at the bottom of the jar.
By the end of the third week, the mixture would stop foaming. Depending on the weather conditions, it may take more or less days for the fermentation process to stop.
6. When the fermentation stops, strain the liquid through a clean cheese cloth into another clean jar and discard sediments. Keep the wine in a glass container for two or three days, closed and undisturbed for the finer sediments to settle down. Drain the clear wine to another bottle and discard the remaining sediments.
7. Mix the egg white into the wine and leave it in the container. Keep the container closed for a few more days. The wine will become clear. Drain the wine once more to remove any remaining sediments.
8. Bottle in dark bottles and store in a cool, dark place.
Top photo: Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
I have long been a devotee of cranberries as much for their history and lore as for their happy association with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. And they deserve to be an essential part of this totally American feast day because they are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, that are native to North America.
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We have evidence that long before Europeans settled in what was to become the United States, indigenous people used cranberries extensively both in their diet and as medicine. Pemmican, a preserved food, was made from crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. As well as lasting through a harsh New England winter, pemmican was portable, a benefit for people on the move. As for cranberry’s medicinal properties, the Indians were said to make cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, but as far as I know, there has been no research done to measure the efficacy of this.
What we do know, however, is that cranberries contain a high level of vitamin C, and that in earlier times American sailors took them on voyages to avoid scurvy, just as the British took along limes for this purpose. We also know that cranberry juice is often recommended to people suffering from an urinary tract infection, so this fruit has a good reputation among the health conscious.
The healthy and the sweet
But it seems to me that the cranberry’s greatest triumph has to do with its crucial place at the table as a delectable accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. Just as holiday cooks vary as to how they prepare sweet potatoes, so do they differ in their preferred cranberry sauces and relishes. The easiest version, and perhaps the one with the most dubious reputation, is the canned jellied sauce that slithers out of its container with a long scar along its side, the imprint from the inside of the can, ready to be sliced and served.
Another canned sauce is similar to what we cook at home from fresh cranberries. Berries are left whole and cooked with plenty of sugar until a jellied sauce is formed. Raw cranberries bear the distinction of being both sour and bitter and must be tempered by sweeteners to be edible. (I recently came across the sobering fact that sugar has such a huge capacity for dissolving in liquid that one pound of water can easily absorb two pounds of sugar.)
Home cooks have been adventurous in their approach to cranberry sauce with recipes that embellish the simple mode of throwing the fruit into a pot with a little water and lots of sugar. Some introduce other fruits to the mix, especially oranges that give great flavor and an inviting complexity to the dish. Other cooks cast wider nets and add raisins, currants, blueberries and pecans or other nuts.
Then we get into the realm of spices. My preference is for a sauce made with cranberries and sugar, just a touch of orange zest, maybe a stick of cinnamon and nothing else. But I have come across recipes that call not only for cinnamon, but nutmeg, ginger, cloves and even allspice. To my mind, harsh spices take away from the tangy and unique flavor of a cranberry sauce whose fruity purity strikes me as the perfect companion to turkey with a rich gravy.
Getting creative with cranberries
But canned or cooked cranberry dishes are not the end of how this Thanksgiving side dish is approached. Enter the world of relishes. What with the availability of meat grinders and food processors, home cooks have been busily grinding up fresh cranberries along with apples, oranges, even pineapple in mixtures that can include such flavored liqueurs as Grand Marnier to pep up the dish. And if such mixtures are not lively enough, white pepper, fresh ginger and even jalapeno peppers can be added, thus taking an innocent cranberry relish into the realm of south-of-the-border salsas.
National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg has received lots of attention for a cranberry relish recipe that includes an onion, sour cream and red horseradish, resulting in a shocking pink dish she admits looks like Pepto-Bismol.
This never-ending pursuit of novelty is displayed every fall when food magazines can be counted on to scramble up traditional Thanksgiving dishes. One magazine this year is offering holiday relish recipes that omit cranberries altogether in exchange for pomegranate seeds or kumquats.
For innovation, I would rather direct my attention to the cranberry industry, which has successfully attracted us to its products all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry drinks now occupy vast grocery shelves and are available in mixtures that include the juices of other fruits, and of course in diet form.
And dried sweetened cranberries are pushing aside the long-held monopoly enjoyed by raisins in such baked favorites as cookies and muffins. I have made the switch in my own baking, and am happy to encounter the bright flavor of cranberries in May or June and not just at the end of the year.
Dried Cranberry Muffins
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1½ cups sweetened dried cranberries
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin muffin tin.
2. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl to be sure the butter is thoroughly mixed. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix thoroughly.
4. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing at low speed until batter is smooth. When all ingredients are mixed, add the cranberries and walnuts by gently folding them into the batter.
5. Using ¼ cup measuring cup, scoop batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
They are delicious served warm and freeze beautifully for reheating later.
Top photo: Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett