Articles in Fruit

The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

“Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago. For non-British readers, let me explain: Mince is what you folks the other side of the pond call “ground.” Not that “Grind around the World” would be much better.

Christmas mince pies would, of course, would be a feature in such a volume, although the beef that was once an essential component of the pastry has long been jettisoned from the ingredients list. In Britain, “mince” means ground meat, and “mincemeat” refers to dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum, chopped into a mixture that is used as a filling for small, round covered pies.

The latter word did originally mean finely shredded beef — indeed they commonly “made mincemeat” of unlucky knaves back in the 17th century — and it was general practice from the Middle Ages onward to add spice and fruit to meat. In her brilliantly researched “Great British Bakes,” Mary-Anne Boermans notes that Esther Copley in 1838 included five different recipes for mincemeat in her cookbook, the main ingredients being beef, tripe, neat’s tongue, eggs and oranges.

The meat content gradually died out over the centuries, especially with the advent of refrigeration, which took away the need to preserve meat by other means. The tradition survived longest in the sheep-rearing districts of northern England, where lamb or mutton was preferred to beef. The last vestige is the use of beef suet, although today’s mincemeat is increasingly vegetarian-friendly. Not that this is entirely new either — Hannah Glasse (1747) gives a recipe for Lenten mincemeat that has neither sugar nor suet, although it does include hard-boiled eggs.

Christmas tradition of mince pies

The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is still strong in British homes from the first rendition of “White Christmas” until you break your January diet. In 1662, Samuel Pepys celebrated “Twelfth Night with a dish of 18 “mince pies” (aka “Christmas pies”).

It is still common practice to have a standby tin of pies ready to offer passing mailmen, window cleaners and garbage disposal executives. In Yorkshire, they used to say if you didn’t accept a mince pie when offered, you risked a run of bad luck. There was also an old country belief there that the original mincemeat consisted of 13 ingredients representing the 12 apostles and Christ himself. Another old Yorkshire tradition, quoted in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” was that it is incorrect to eat mince pies before Christmas, but to eat one in a different house if possible on each of the 12 days of the season of Christmas — in order to bring 12 happy months.

Alas, I have to break it to you that unless you have been frightfully well-organized and have remembered to make your mincemeat far enough in advance for the flavor to mature, it is now too late for homemade. Still, there are good ready-made brands in the shops — but hurry, because you won’t be the only one who has just thought about it. Likewise with the pastry. There are various schools of thought as to whether this should be shortcrust, puff or flaky. The choice is yours, as is the decision whether to make your own or use ready-rolled.

For many families, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a plate of mince pies on hand. Even if you hate them or no one ever eats them, you’ve simply got to have them. It’s the law. Santa says so.

mince7

mince7
Picture 1 of 5

Mincemeat refers to a mixture of dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Classic Mince Pies

When using ready-made mincemeat, you can always perk it up with a splash of rum or brandy and/or some extra citrus zest. This recipe is based on one by Annie Bell in her triple-tested “Baking Bible.”

Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: About 24 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter, chilled and diced

1/2 cup lard, chilled and diced

1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

A little milk

Superfine sugar, for dusting

About 2 cups mincemeat

Directions

1. Briefly process the flour, butter and lard so it becomes crumb-like.

2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and pulse again.

3. Add the egg yolk and enough milk to bring the dough together in a ball.

4. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour.

5. Preheat the oven to about 375 F (190 C).

6. Grease two 12-hole shallow tart tins (or use nonstick).

7. Thinly roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a lightly floured work surface. Use a 3-inch fluted pastry cutter to cut circles. Place in the trays and fill with a generous spoonful of mincemeat.

8. Roll out the trimmings and remaining pastry and cut circles with a 2 ½-inch fluted cutter. Brush the rim of the pies lightly with milk, lay the lids on the tops and gently press the edges together.

9. Dust with the superfine sugar and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t go much beyond the pale gold stage or the rims will start to harden and burn.

Tip: They can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. They can also be frozen.

Main photo: The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Read More
Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

As you’re simmering your cranberries with sweetness this holiday season, you can thank Mother Nature for their astringent qualities.

The compounds that produce the cranberry’s bite — their proanthocyanins (PACs) — not only ward off enemies such as small animals and insects but provide possible health benefits for us human predators.

PACs in cranberries have extremely strong chemical bonds, says Amy Howell, Ph.D., a research scientist at Rutgers University. Instead of being broken down and absorbed into the blood, they appear to travel intact and take their benefits with them, to various parts of your body.

While cranberry juice’s ability to efficiently fight infections has been called into question, Jeffrey Blumberg has done research to identify why there may be conflicting results, and Howell is among those who suggest potential health benefits in areas such as these:

  • Stomach and bladder: You may already be familiar with how cranberries are reported to benefit these organs. PACs bind to harmful bacteria that cause ulcers and urinary tract infections and thus keep those bugs from adhering to the stomach lining and bladder walls. If the bacteria can’t stick, then they can’t multiply and cause damage, Howell says. “Thus, they harmlessly leave the body.”
  • Mouth: The same action happens here. PACs can help bind bacteria that contribute to decay and gum disease.
  • Intestines: But it’s new research on how cranberry’s PACs behave in the gut of model animals that’s getting berry scientists  excited. PACs can improve the bacteria in the colon,  Howell says, and compounds produced by those bacteria have far-reaching effects on your health.

“A top story on cranberry right now, just published in a very prestigious journal [Gut], is beautiful evidence for how compounds in cranberries — PACs in particular — act in the gut,” says Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University.

Fermentable fiber and your health

When it comes to fiber, “fermentable” is the latest buzzword. Once foods have been digested in the small intestine, the parts that aren’t digestible — their fiber — then travel to the large intestine. There, healthy bacteria feed on certain plant fibers and ferment them into important fatty acids. In turn, those fatty acids get absorbed into the blood and help control blood sugar, appetite and inflammation. They also help enrich your gut lining, which acts as a barrier to keep harmful particles from leaking out or in.

Some plants provide the raw materials for producing those good bacteria. They’re called “prebiotic” because they are prequels to healthy probiotic bugs.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender

And that’s where cranberries come in. “The fiber in cranberry skins serves as a prebiotic to help establish colonies of probiotic bacteria,”  Howell says. In addition, she is researching the possibility that cranberry’s PACs may help keep harmful bacteria such as E coli from invading the gut.

“This is very, very, very exciting stuff,” Lila says. “The cranberry PACs were able to create a healthy population of gut bacteria in those animals and protect against obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation caused by a poor diet,” she says.

In addition to PACs, cranberries have about 150 healthy compounds, as identified in research led by Jonathan Bock and Howell on esophageal and pharyngeal cancer — vitamins C and E; anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants and give them their vivid color; quercetin and myricetin, which bind minerals (iron and copper) that promote oxidation. Howell suggests that many of the compounds in cranberries may protect DNA from damage caused by oxidation and help guard against inflammation in body tissues beyond the colon.

  • Cardiovascular system: Research suggests that regularly consuming cranberry products “can reduce key risk factors for heart disease,” says Howell, by reducing inflammation and oxidation of harmful LDL cholesterol and by increasing good HDL cholesterol and the flexibility of arteries.
  • Brain: Scientists think that some of these anti-inflammatory compounds may also protect the brain against damage caused by stroke or aging, Howell says.
  • Cancer: Preliminary studies, all done in lab animals and cell cultures, suggest that cranberry’s compounds have the potential to inhibit tumor growth of some types of cancer, but much research remains to be done, suggests Howell.

If you’re still stirring those cranberries, you may be wondering whether all that cooking will destroy their healthy benefits. Howell suggests that “cranberry PACs are not seriously damaged by cooking or processing.” But other health-promoting compounds may be damaged by heat, and the effects of cooking on foods “is an area that needs considerably more research,” says Ron Prior, a research chemist at the University of Arkansas. In general, harsh cooking methods will result in degradation.

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

With all the scientists out there investigating berries, the dream is that there will be a verdict on cranberries by next season’s holidays. For this year, however, we’re sticking to a quick cooking method — in hopes of pleasing some hungry guts. Should we tell them about the microbes?

Quick Cranberry Sauce, with healthy bugs

Courtesy of Reveena Rothman-Rudnicki/ Raveena’s Kitchen

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings, 1/2 cup each

Ingredients

4 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup water

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 teaspoon grated ginger

4 to 6 tablespoons maple syrup

Handful pecans

Directions

1. Put cranberries and water in a medium saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Take off heat. Add cinnamon, orange juice and zest, ginger and maple syrup. Sprinkle pecans on top.

3. Cranberries have no sugar, so you do have to sweeten them. Start with 4 tablespoons, let the dish sit for a while, then decide whether you want more.

Main photo: Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Read More
Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock

Now is the season of quinces: Fruit that is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes, is easily preserved, and one that enhances a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance. Just two years ago, quinces seemed to be the forgotten fruit: They were difficult to buy, considered hard to cook, and few people grew the trees. Happily, at least in Britain, this seems to be changing.

Although still not common, quinces are now reasonably easy to buy in season and nurseries are seeing increased interest in the trees. For many hundreds of years in Britain, quinces were more popular than apples because cooked fruit, in general, was regarded as safer to eat. This was because the glut at harvest time led people to overindulge and become ill.

Quinces may never recover their place at the top of the table, but they do deserve to be more widely used. (This piece’s co-author, Jane McMorland Hunter, co-wrote “Quinces, Growing and Cooking,”  just published by Prospect Books.)

The best way to ensure a supply of quinces is to grow your own. The trees are attractive, with beautiful blossoms in spring, and compact enough to fit in most gardens. Failing that, the fruit can be bought from greengrocers, farmers’ markets and even the better supermarkets. Quinces’ appearance can vary wildly, from huge immaculate fruits from the Middle East to small, misshapen and blemished specimens. The latter may not look so appealing, but they will probably have come from a local grower and the flavor could be even better. You should avoid fruit that is obviously bruised, but a few blemishes on the skin rarely matter.

A secret weapon for stewed meats

Quinces usually need to be cooked before they are eaten. The raw fruits tend to be rock solid and sharp tasting, but cooking softens the flesh and gives it a pinkish hue. The natural acidity is easily tempered and is actually an advantage in many dishes.

Quinces and a bottle of homemade ratafia.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Quinces and a bottle of homemade ratafia. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

It counteracts the greasiness found in fatty meats, game in particular; quinces can be served in slices with the meat or as an accompanying sauce. In Britain, quinces were traditionally served with partridge, and in Germany and South Africa, quince sauce is served with pork and mutton instead of apple or mint. The fruit complements Middle Eastern tagines and stews and also goes well with cheese — not just as the well-known combination with Manchego, but blue cheeses and the sharper goat’s cheeses too. Membrillo, or quince paste, is the most widespread preserve, but quince jam, jelly and even curd is delicious.

In puddings or cakes, they can be used to replace or supplement apples or pears in almost any recipe, bringing a deliciously different taste. Equally, if you don’t have enough quinces for a recipe you can always make up the difference with apples. The quince’s sharpness means you can make wonderfully rich desserts with no danger of the sweetness becoming cloying.

There is a surprising amount of juice in the fruits, and drinks made from quinces range from delicious cordials to potent liqueurs and even wine. You can round off any meal with quince confections. They can be made into delicate, subtle chocolates or rich, gooey sweets.

Finally, a word of warning before you start cooking. Quince seeds, like apple seeds, are poisonous, containing tiny amounts of cyanide. You would need to eat an awful lot to actually do yourself any harm, but you should remove them at some stage in cooking.

Ratafia

Look in almost any reference book and you will find a different definition of ratafia: a spirit infused with almonds or fruit used to toast a deal or bargain, a 19th century English biscuit or a French aperitif made from grape juice and brandy. It frequently appears in Georgette Heyer’s original Regency romance novels, where it is a drink enjoyed by the ladies, but scorned by the gentlemen of the time.

Even the origins of the word are obscure, attributed variously to French Creole or Latin. The definition we like best is that it was the liqueur drunk at the ceremonies ratifying European treaties from the 15th century onward. The name could come from the Latin rata fiat (let the deal be settled). The liqueur usually consisted of fruit juices, kernels or nuts soaked in a sweetened brandy base, with almond flavoring being particularly popular. The recipe below is based on one in “The Modern Cook,” written by Vincent la Chapelle in 1733.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes, plus cooling and steeping time

Yield: 750 milliliters

Ingredients

2 large, ripe quinces (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup caster sugar

Pinch of cinnamon

1 whole clove

1 whole white or black peppercorn

1 1/2 cups brandy

1/2 cup almonds, blanched for 2 minutes and skinned

Directions

1. Cut the quinces into quarters or eighths lengthwise, depending on their size, and put through a juicer. The original recipe suggests that you grate the fruit, put it in a cloth and “squeese it with all your Might,” but this is extremely hard work. If you end up with much less, or much more, than 1 1/2 cups of juice, simply adjust the other ingredients in proportion.

2. Put the juice in a pan, bring to the boil and then remove from the heat and allow to cool.

3. Put the sugar, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn into a pan with ¼ cup water and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

4. Pour the juice, brandy and sugar solution into a bowl and stir so that the three combine. Add the almonds, if using. Pour into a jar, seal and leave in a cool, dark place for two to three months.

5. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth. Do not squeeze the cloth, as you want the liqueur to be as clear as possible. Finally, decant into a bottle and seal; as Vincent la Chapelle puts it, “bottles stopped very close” will keep almost indefinitely.

Main photo: Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock

Read More
Mushroom galette. Credit: Dreamstime

Fall is apple and late-peach season, and I’m lucky enough to live in New England, where you’re just as likely to find this late-season bounty while bumping up against a laden fruit tree in someone’s yard than you are in the supermarket.

At our house, most of this fruit is destined for pies or, more often, Tarte Tatin, leading me, each fall, to begin my driven pursuit of the perfect crust recipe.

This year I think I’ve found it, and it’s neither pie nor tatin at all: It’s the galette.

I’m happy to be reacquainted with this old friend from my culinary school days. The hallmark of a galette, a classic French short pastry, is a buttery, crispy crust that is far superior way to combine pastry and filling in perfect proportions.

Galettes, also called crostate in Italian, also offer freedom to experiment, because the crust is not sweetened, which makes it versatile enough to encase in sweet or savory fillings. The free-form butter crust is rolled out into a round shape, mounded with fruit or other ingredients and then folded up around the filling.

Keeping a galette dry

In addition to apples and peaches, berries, plums, quince and pears all work equally well in a fruit galette. To retain the flakiness of the crust, I like to dust the filling generously with cornstarch to thicken the liquid released while cooking — liquid that will turn the beautifully crisp galette crust into a soggy mess. This is a good method for most fillings.

Another foolproof way to keep the tart in top shape is to sprinkle a mixture of ground almonds and sugar on the rolled-out dough before adding a sweet filling or a grated hard cheese mixture for savory fillings.

Roll and freeze

As impressive as a finished galette looks, it’s easy enough to make ahead. Rolled-out galette pastry freezes well and can be defrosted in the refrigerator.

Simply roll out the dough between two pieces of waxed paper to the desired circumference — usually about 18 inches around, depending on how far you’d like to fold the dough over the filling — then fold gently in half and place in a gallon-sized zip-top bag and freeze.

All-Purpose Galette Crust

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 crust

Ingredients

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1½ sticks of cold butter, cut into small cubes

¼ to ⅓ cup ice water

Directions

1. Place the flour and salt into the bowl of a food processor outfitted with a metal blade and pulse once or twice to combine.

2. Add the butter and continue pulsing in short bursts until the mixture is coarse and the butter chunks resemble small peas. Alternatively, you may whisk the flour and salt together in a medium bowl and use a pastry cutter or fork to crumble in the butter.

3. Add half the water and pulse in a few more short bursts, until it comes together in a ball. Add more water as necessary to achieve this. If mixing the dough in a bowl, gradually add the water while mixing lightly with a wooden spoon until the dough just comes together in a ball.

4. Remove the dough from the bowl and place onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper that has been lightly dusted with flour. Dust the top of the dough ball with flour as well.

5. Roll out the dough to a circle about 18 inches wide. Place the rolled-out dough into the refrigerator for 10 minutes before filling.

6. If freezing for use later, place another piece of parchment or waxed paper on top of the dough and gently fold it over. Place into a gallon-sized zip-top bag and freeze for later use. Defrost in the refrigerator before filling and folding. You may have to gently press together the dough if it has cracked along the fold.

Fruit Galette

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 30 to 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

Fruit galette. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

Fruit galette. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

6 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced into 6 pieces; or 6 medium peaches or plums, halved, pitted and sliced into 6 pieces; or 2 cups mixed raspberries and blackberries

⅓ cup white sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ cup almonds

¼ cup white sugar, plus more for garnishing pastry

2 tablespoons flour

1 rolled-out galette dough (see recipe above)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the cut-up fruit, sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix well. Set aside.

3. In a food processor outfitted with the metal blade, combine the almonds, sugar, and flour. Pulse to a fine powder.

4. Sprinkle the almond and sugar mixture in the center of the rolled-out galette dough. Leave a 2- to 3-inch border of plain dough.

5. Arrange the fruit in concentric circles in the middle of the dough, on top of the almond mixture, working your way outward. Or  gently spread the fruit in the middle of the dough, on top of the almond mixture. Leave a 2- to 3-inch border of plain dough.

6. Fold the dough forward, pleating it as necessary so it lies flat. Most of the fruit will be exposed once the dough is folded.

7. Sprinkle the edges of the galette pastry with sugar and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden and crispy. Cool slightly and serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if desired.

Tomato Galette

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 30 to 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

Tomato galette. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

Tomato galette. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

2 cups grape tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise

½ teaspoon fresh oregano

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

2 teaspoons cornstarch

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnishing pastry

2 tablespoons flour

1 rolled-out galette dough (see recipe above)

Leaves from two sprigs fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F

2. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, salt, pepper and cornstarch. Mix well and set aside.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the Parmesan cheese and flour and set aside.

4. Sprinkle the Parmesan and flour mixture in the center of the rolled-out galette dough. Leave a 2- to 3-inch border of plain dough.

5. Arrange the tomato mixture in the middle of the dough, on top of the Parmesan mixture. Leave a 2- to 3-inch border of plain dough.

6. Fold the dough forward, pleating it as necessary so it lies flat. Most of the tomatoes will be exposed. Garnish the pastry with extra Parmesan cheese

7. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden and crispy. Garnish with thyme leaves and parsley. Serve warm

Mushroom Herb Galette

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 30 to 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

4 cups assorted mushrooms, chopped roughly

½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

2 teaspoons cornstarch

¼ cup grated Asiago cheese, plus extra for garnishing pastry

2 tablespoons flour

1 rolled-out galette dough (see recipe above)

Leaves from two sprigs fresh thyme

1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F

2. In a medium bowl, combine the mushrooms, thyme, olive oil, salt, pepper and cornstarch. Mix well and set aside.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the Asiago cheese and flour and set aside.

4. Sprinkle the Parmesan and flour mixture in the center of the rolled-out galette dough. Leave a 2- to 3-inch border of plain dough.

5. Arrange the mushroom mixture in the middle of the dough, on top of the Asiago cheese mixture. Leave a 2- to 3-inch border of plain dough.

6. Fold the dough forward, pleating it as necessary so it lies flat. Most of the mushrooms will be exposed. Garnish the pastry with extra Asiago cheese

7. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden and crispy. Garnish with thyme and parsley. Serve warm.

Main photo: Mushroom galette. Credit: Dreamstime

Read More
Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec

Wild mountain huckleberries are everything store-bought blueberries dreamed they could be.

The flavor of the two is similar, but concentrated in huckleberries and balanced with a slight acidity. It’s hard to imagine that the huckleberry, only a fraction of the size of a pea, could possess such intense flavor. But you know what they say about small packages. This particular small package delivers the apex of summer to me, for it ripens only after the mountains have seen their peak heat.

I remember how angry I was when I realized that the scrubby little plant that had been at my ankles at every hike of my childhood was actually loaded with tasty huckleberries. I likely would have had a distinct advantage in picking them as a child too because the fruit dangles delicately below the plants’ foliage, often completely disguised from above.

In my small region of the Rocky Mountains, there are several species of the genus Vaccinium, with berries ranging in color from red to blue to black. Some would argue that it is most appropriate to refer to them as blueberries, and you might also hear them called billberries, grouseberries or whortleberries.

I learned them as huckleberries, and the fun-to-say name has stuck with me. It often happens that common names for plants vary from region to region. A plant known for generations to one household as pigweed may be a plant from an entirely different genus to someone in a different part of the world. This is why foragers need to refer to Latin binomials when specifying a plant.

Huckleberry plants are usually tall enough to get your boots wet, but rarely tall enough to get your calves wet. I find the pale green of their leaves to be distinctive, and instantly recognize the carpets of huckleberry plants rolled out on the moist soil beneath conifer or mixed conifer and aspen trees. Huckleberry plants are branched and shrubby, with alternating leaves that I’ve most often observed to be less than an inch long.

The fruit are slightly different in appearance from the blueberries most people recognize from the store. In addition to being smaller than a pencil eraser, they have what looks almost like a belly button at their growing end.

Huckleberry bushes. Credit:  Erica Marciniec

Huckleberry bushes. Credit: Erica Marciniec

For me, the only complication comes in the fact that huckleberries ripen at the same time porcini burst forth on the mountain. To collect enough of the tiny fruit to use in a recipe takes a serious amount of time and effort, and I’m often torn as to whether to use my time to hunt mushrooms or huckleberries. Some years, I’ve merely enjoyed them as trail snacks. In the end, I’ve never regretted picking enough to use in a recipe.

It is a natural to preserve huckleberries as a jam, though I’ve never collected enough to make more than two tiny 4-ounce jars. A few years back, after noticing that my wild syrups sat in the pantry without being used, I discovered that I much prefer making shrubs, which are like syrups made with a healthy dose of vinegar. Most often flavored with fruit, shrubs are, to my mind, the grown-up answer to syrups. Shrub can be used in many of the same places as syrup, such as in fizzy water and cocktails, or to dress fruit salads, but the vinegar used to make shrub gives it a perfect punch of sour meets sweet.

If you prefer to enjoy your huckleberries right away, they are a great addition to all manner of baked goods. You might want to try them in a straight-up blueberry muffin recipe. I recommend using a recipe that calls for sour cream, which I’ve found reliably makes superior blueberry muffins. I really enjoy scones, and think that huckleberries make them only better.

The only trouble with making scones is that the dough is a bit stiff, which can make adding delicate huckleberries a challenge. I’ve gotten around this to a large extent by freezing the berries before they are incorporated into the recipe. The scones recipe I use is adapted from one of my grandmother’s old community church cookbooks, and was attributed to a woman named Edith Hibbard.

Huckleberry Shrub

There are some shrubs that I prefer to make with fruit that has never been cooked, only macerated with sugar. However, I think it is easier to maximize the flavor and amount of juice in huckleberries by making a cooked syrup.

Preparation time: 2 hours

Ingredients

1 part fruit (all parts by volume, not weight)

3 parts sugar

1 part water

Rice vinegar or other light clear vinegar, equal in measure to the amount of huckleberry syrup

Directions

1. In a pot, lightly crush the huckleberries together with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour.

2. Add the water, and bring the huckleberries to a boil. Being such small berries, this is all they need to cook. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the huckleberries cool to room temperature.

3. Strain out the solids from the huckleberry syrup, and be certain to save them to put atop ice cream or your morning toast.

4. Measure the syrup, and combine it with an equal amount of rice vinegar. Stir gently to combine. Pour the shrub into mason jars, and store them in a very cold pantry or refrigerator for at least six months before serving. Once aged, the sharp edges of the vinegar will soften and become the perfect balance for the fruit.

Huckleberry Cream Scones

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon cream

1 egg, beaten

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 cup huckleberries, frozen

1 tablespoon coarse sugar

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.

2. Add in the cubes of butter, and gently toss them with a fork to coat them with flour. Then use the back of the fork to crush the pieces of butter into smaller and smaller pieces as they combine with the flour. Stop when most of the butter is unrecognizable.

3. Make a hole in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Add the ¾ cup cream, egg and vanilla to the depression and use the fork to gently beat them together before gently combining them with the flour and butter. Just before the dough comes together, add the huckleberries. As gently as possible, continue stirring, just until the dough holds together.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and press the dough into a circle 1½ inches thick. Use a butter knife to cut the circle into six wedges. Gently separate the wedges so that they are at least 2 inches apart, and blunt the pointy end with your finger.

5. Brush the top of each with the extra tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle on some of the coarse sugar.

6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and tops of the scones are lightly brown.

Main photo: Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec

Read More
A peach salad with strawberries, burrata, Thai basil and mint. Credit: Brooke Jackson

With skin as soft as a horse’s muzzle, the bins of peaches beg to be caressed. Their heady perfume is as fragrant as a warm July afternoon and their presence indicates we are deep in summer. Varieties with names such as Gold Dust and Honey Babe conjure visions of romance, even though referring to a mere fruit. But I guess that’s the beauty of a good peach — consumers wax poetic on what makes one perfect and get downright opinionated about their favorites.

The season for juicy, sweet peaches is upon us, but it won’t last long. How to get more of these fuzzy, addictive orbs into your life was a question I pondered recently. When you get tired of eating them out of hand as your daily fruit, consider trying some of the following ideas.

Peach salads

By now, everyone has had their fill of Caprese salad, so mix it up by using peaches and strawberries in place of tomatoes. Halve and pit 4 barely soft peaches then cut each half into ¼-inch thick slices. Thickly slice 1 pint of strawberries. Arrange the peach slices on a large platter and scatter the strawberries over them. Put 2 burrata balls in the center, and shower the salad with chopped Thai basil and mint. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. As you plate each serving, pull the burrata balls apart and distribute pieces evenly among the plates. Serves 6 to 8.

Another peach salad idea would be to halve and pit 3 peaches and stuff the cavities with a chunk of goat cheese. Wrap each peach half with a thin slice of prosciutto and secure with a toothpick. Dab with a little honey. Grill over a medium-hot flame until the prosciutto is crisp and the cheese is melty. Serve each half on a bed of dressed salad greens or eat alongside a grilled pork chop, sausage or barbecued chicken thigh.

To serve with main courses

Make a salsa using 1 cup firm peeled, pitted and diced peaches; 1 teaspoon jalapeno; 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro; juice of ½ lime; kernels from one ear of corn; and a pinch of salt. Mix and set aside. Serve a big scoop with grilled or roasted halibut or swordfish.

peach3

peach3
Picture 1 of 4

Peach halves stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped with prosciutto. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Cook up a chutney by combining 1½ cups peeled, pitted and chopped peaches; 1 cup peeled, pitted and chopped plums; ¼ cup raisins; a 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced; 2 minced garlic cloves; ½ cup chopped sweet onion; ½ teaspoon allspice; ½ teaspoon cloves; 1/8 teaspoon cayenne; ½ cup brown sugar; and ½ cup cider vinegar in a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 45 minutes. Serve alongside grilled tandoori chicken or pork tenderloin. Leftover chutney will last in the fridge for one week.

Cocktail

The Bellini is a marvelous invention of the Venetians. Traditionally using white peaches and Prosecco, it is the perfect summertime refresher. It’s easy to make — first peel and pit 3 to 4 white peaches. Puree them in the blender — you need ½ cup puree — with juice from ½ a lemon, then strain (or not if you like your cocktails with texture). Divide between 2 champagne flutes then stir 1 ounce of peach brandy into each glass and fill with Prosecco. Garnish with a fresh raspberry and mint sprig.

Desserts

At this point in the summer, we’ve all had peach pie and cobbler and maybe even shortcake. Here are a couple of easier takes on peach desserts:

Slice a ripe, juicy peach into a long-stemmed wine or compote glass. Splash some Chambord over the peach, top with a dollop of mascarpone and sprinkle on some chopped, toasted pistachios.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Halve and pit 2 peaches and set in a baking dish. Crush 10 amaretti cookies into coarse crumbs. Combine with 1 tablespoon softened butter; ½ teaspoon almond extract; 1 tablespoon toasted, slivered almonds; ¼ teaspoon cinnamon; and a pinch of salt. Mound the crumb mixture into each peach cavity and roast in the oven for 20 minutes until peaches are tender and juicy and crumb mixture is golden brown. Put each half in a bowl and top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

How to peel peaches

My mother would always dip peaches in boiling water for 10 seconds to loosen their skins. These days I use a sharp serrated or paring knife to do the job, which is easier and keeps the peach fresh and firm.

How to buy peaches

Choose peaches with no blemishes or soft spots and buy them on the firm side. Leave on your counter for a day or two for soft ripeness or use when they are still a little hard for the salsa and grilled recipes.

At this time in the season, the sugars are high and the fruit doesn’t last long, so keep an eye on your supply and use or refrigerate ones with soft spots to deter mold growth and fruit flies.

While peaches will be around another month or so (with any luck), they are at the height of their sweet juiciness right now. Savor the rest of their season with a few of these delicious recipe ideas.

Main photo: A peach salad with strawberries, burrata, Thai basil and mint. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Read More
Using best beginner canning tips yields, from left, homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes, and green beans even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.

With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.

5 best canning tricks for beginners

1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.

Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.

2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.

I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a  selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.

You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.

3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.

If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.

4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.

It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.

5. Conduct a test run.

I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.

Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

Read More
Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Fig season is here! Farmers markets and grocery stores have baskets of plump, juicy figs, drops of sweet sugary nectar often found oozing from them. Living in California has many advantages, including the ability to have fruit trees in your yard. Fig trees are scattered everywhere in my city. Many people just ignore the fruit, leaving it to the birds and squirrels. That means a lot of fat, happy birds and squirrels.

My introduction to figs was, naturally, a Fig Newton. I learned to love the taste and texture of a cooked fig from that cookie. My mother enjoyed fresh figs, and soon I loved fresh figs too. But I really loved the cookies.

As I got older and began to go to fine dining restaurants, I would often find unique and appealing fig dishes on the menu. There were sweet desserts, savory entrées and interesting appetizers. I realized the flavor of a fig complements so many other flavors: aged and fresh cheeses, salty cured meats, dessert wines and many nuts.

Fresh figs can be roasted, grilled, stuffed, used as a pizza topping, wrapped in salty cured meat, tossed with a salad or pasta, cooked down into a sweet sauce or baked in a tart or cake. I have even sampled a fig cocktail. But don’t forget you can eat them as nature made them, sweet and plump and juicy. If nothing else, figs are versatile little fruits that have been enjoyed for thousands of years.

Types of figs

My fig of choice is the California Mission fig, with its purple-black skin and deep red flesh. The Mission fig gets its name from the Spanish missionaries who planted them as they traveled up the California coast from Mexico.

Depending on your location, there may be different varieties of figs at your local market:

  • Brown Turkey figs are large and pear shaped, with brown skin.
  • Calimyrna figs are rather round and green skinned. They are often found dried, but when fresh they are honey sweet.
  • Kadota figs are green skinned, with luscious amber-colored flesh when ripe.
  • Black Mission figs are black skinned with amazingly deep red flesh.

Lee_1a.FigPorkChopIngredients_2584

Lee_1a.FigPorkChopIngredients_2584
Picture 1 of 5

Figs, Cambozola cheese and pork chops. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Fig and Cheese Stuffed Pork Chops

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 bone-in pork loin chops, about 1-inch thick
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 to 6 fresh figs, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup Cambozola cheese, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten with about a teaspoon of water
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 F. With a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the chop starting from the end farthest from the bone. Cut carefully through the middle of the chop, almost to the bone. Repeat with the remaining chops.
  2. Season the chops with salt and pepper on both sides and inside the pocket.
  3. Place a small amount of figs into the pockets of the pork chops.
  4. Cover the figs with a good amount of cheese, pressing it down into the figs.
  5. Close the top flap of the pocket over the figs and cheese, adjusting as needed to seal the seam.
  6. Place the flour, egg and panko bread crumbs each into a separate shallow dish or plate.
  7. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
  8. Coat each chop with flour, patting to remove any excess.
  9. Dip each chop into the egg mixture, making sure to coat them evenly.
  10. Place the chops into the panko breading, pressing lightly and turning them to cover the chops completely. Make sure the seam is well coated with panko to prevent the cheese from oozing out while cooking.
  11. Place the chops onto the prepared baking sheet.
  12. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear.

Fig-Stuffed Panko Pork Chops. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Fig and Cheese Stuffed Pork Chops. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Main photo: Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Read More