Articles in Fruit
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
I once held a tasting of my jams and marmalades at a gourmet food store in Los Angeles, and a skinny kid wearing a softball uniform walked in with his father. I asked the kid if he’d like to taste some apricot jam, and his father steered him away from me with a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, “Oh, no, he doesn’t eat that stuff. He only eats healthy.” The dad presumably meant that my jam — made with local, organic, heirloom Blenheim apricots — is unhealthy because it contains sugar, which is a bit like saying that a plate of prosciutto and melon is unhealthy because prosciutto contains salt.
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» In celebration of sugar
As a preserver, cookbook author and teacher, I try to accommodate most points of view when it comes to food. Dietary choices are shaped by upbringing, by cultural bias, by the requirements of health and by the quirks of personal taste. But I have to admit that I get my hackles up when a sugar scold starts shaking his finger at my jars. That sort of prim judgment suggests to me a lack of basic perspective on eating and health, as well as an ignorance of the history and science of commonplace foods.
Sweetness and sugar are related, but they are not the same thing. Sweetness is a subjective measure; the correct amount is debatable. It is a sensation, a taste and often a pleasure, but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Sweetness is a powerful inducement from our evolutionary past, and our biological selves respond to sweetness because it has been associated across the eons of human existence with sustenance and satisfaction.
Our first experience of sweetness comes with the natural sugars in mother’s milk, and sweetness cues us to crave fruit and certain vegetables in which sugars and essential nutrition coexist. (Blueberries and beets, both sweet in their way, are among the healthiest foods we can eat.) Sweetness is also an emotional treat, a reward, a satisfaction. It is a trigger for well-being, an on-switch for good memories and calming thoughts.
It is not too much to say that sweetness lies near to happiness in the realm of the senses and the imagination. Nature gives us sweetness in many forms, the most concentrated being in honey and fruit, but sweetness derives from natural plant sugars that occur in the complex ecosystems of the world’s great ecologies.
Sugar, as in granulated sugar, is an ingredient that is today often politicized, sometimes demonized, and not coincidentally everywhere consumed in vast quantities. Sugar also comes from a plant — a large grass, sugarcane — that concentrates sweetness in its sap, and the ancient Arabs discovered the technology for refining granules from sugarcane juice. Ever since, sugar has been a part of our omnivore’s diet, although until about 150 years ago, sugar was scarce, and sugary foods such as candied fruit, marmalade and preserves were delicacies for the rich.
Now sugar is an inexpensive kitchen staple and a cornerstone of the prepared food and fast-food industries. Supersized sugary drinks represent an unwise allotment of one’s daily caloric intake of sugar, but the ingredient itself — granules refined from the sap of a large grass — hasn’t essentially changed since the ancient Arabs. Along with alcohol, meat, salt and grains, sugar is a timeless food that has today been linked to modern health issues because it is commonly consumed in gross excess.
Preserving with sugar
One remarkable characteristic of sugar that has been appreciated since ancient times is its preservative effect. Sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat. If you take a fresh pork leg and set it on the counter, it rots. But if you take that pork leg, rub it with salt, press it, and hang it to dry, what you get is prosciutto.
In a like manner, sugar preserves fruit. Cooking fruit and sugar together evaporates excess water; the result is a sweet preserve, and its many variations include jam, marmalade, chutney, jelly, candied fruit and syrups. In both prosciutto and sweet preserves, the salt and sugar play the same role. They lower so-called water activity by “locking up” water molecules and thereby preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and other spoilers that require “free” water for metabolic function.
Many or even most preserved foods are essentially condiments, used in small quantities for their deliciously intense flavors. Prosciutto, olives, pickles, relishes, fish sauce and cheese all have high salt levels, but then who ever ate an entire prosciutto at one sitting? The sweet preserves are no different. Half a cup of my jam, eight servings, has about the same amount of sugar as a can of soda, except that you’d probably eat the jam over the course of a week’s worth of breakfasts as a condiment for toast or yogurt. Incidentally, that same serving of jam has less sugar than many ostensibly healthy foods such as cereal, granola bars and bran muffins.
I’ll acknowledge that I do share one goal with the sugar scolds. I make an effort to reduce unwanted or unintentional sugar from my diet by avoiding all processed and pre-made foods and by skipping bottled soft drinks of every stripe. But it’s not because I think sugar is inherently bad. It’s because I want to eat it purposefully, in the form of local, organic fruit preserved from spoilage with the proper quantity of sugar. A serving of homemade sweet preserves is a joy to eat, and what the sugar scolds might well remember is that pleasure is also an essential part of any healthy diet.
Yields 2 pints
Sweetened with apple cider — no added sugar! — and very lightly spiced, this apple butter is mahogany brown and intensely flavored. I use a mixed bag of apples, a third of which are acidic varieties such as Granny Smith, to get the proper sweet-tart balance. Unlike the other fruit butters in this book ["Saving the Season"], this one does not have the apples puréed at any point in the cooking. The texture is better if you begin with sliced, unpeeled apples, and then allow the long cooking and frequent stirring to break them down naturally. Also unlike many apple butter recipes, this one has the spices added in tiny quantities toward the end of cooking. As I say elsewhere, you can always add more spice if you like, but you can’t take any out.
During cooking, the ingredients will reduce to about one-third of their initial volume. Stick a bamboo skewer straight down into the pot at the start of cooking to gauge the depth of the ingredients. Mark the level with a pencil, and keep the skewer handy as a guide. Given the hours-long cooking time, a slow cooker, its cover lifted by two chopsticks laid across the pot, would be convenient for this recipe.
5 pounds mixed apple varieties, including ⅓ tart
½ gallon unfiltered apple cider
2 allspice berries
20 fresh gratings of cinnamon
10 fresh gratings of nutmeg
1. Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into ⅝-inch slices. (Leave the peels on.) Put the slices in a deep ovenproof pot, and cover them with the apple cider. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
2. At the end of that time, most of the liquid will have evaporated, and the apples will look like chunky applesauce. Grind the allspice in a mortar and add it to the pot. Use a Microplane grater to rasp off the suggested amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Transfer the pot to a 300 F oven to finish reducing. Stir every 10 minutes. The butter is done when it’s stiff, mahogany brown, and reduced to about one-third of its initial volume, after about 90 minutes in the oven. In the cold-saucer test, a teaspoon chilled in the freezer for 1 minute shouldn’t leak liquid at the edges. Taste and adjust the flavor with more spice if you like.
3. Pack the hot apple butter into four prepared wide-mouth ½-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge to release any air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: Sealed jars will keep for a year, but because there is no added sugar, apple butter will mold fairly quickly once opened. Refrigerate open jars and plan to use them within 10 days.
Excerpted from “Saving the Season” by Kevin West. © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Top photo: Author Kevin West. Credit: Josh Norris
The end of summer is prime time for preserving fresh food in jars. With fall fruits coming into market and late summer fruits still on hand, I sought out Deluxe Foods founder Rebecca Staffel to answer my burning questions about pectin, canning methods and the best jam jars.
Rebecca Staffel's favorite preserving books:
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A former cookbook editor at Amazon, literary agent and Microsoft executive, Staffel turned her penchant for preserves into Deluxe Foods in 2010. She sources all her fruit from local farms and uses Old World techniques to boil them into jams, chutneys, jellies and conserves, all in a tiny commercial kitchen in Seattle. In 2001, her gingered rhubarb jam won a Good Food Award and in 2012 her jeweled strawberry preserves were a finalist. Full of humor and generous tips, Staffel describes herself as “jam passionate.” Here are her responses to our questions:
A lot of people are trying canning for the first time, so I want to ask you about the thickening process where fruit becomes jam.
It starts with the fruit, because depending on what fruit you pick that’s going to have its own pectin content. Less ripe fruit has more pectin but less flavor. Riper fruit has more flavor, less pectin. Personally, I don’t mind it dolloping. My bias is for peak-of-the-season fruit, which might make for a slighter looser preserve but it’s going to have maximum flavor.
What about pectin you buy in a package?
I don’t use commercial pectin. We just rely on the pectins in the fruit with lemon juice and sugar. We do a lot of work with maceration. So, we let it [fruit and sugar] sit overnight. The sugar pulls the water out of the fruit, and basically starts candying the fruit while it sits there overnight. That lets us cook the preserve for a shorter period, which I like.
What is commercial pectin and why don’t you use it?
Commercial pectin is completely natural. It’s not evil. Pectin is fruit based, generally citrus. I don’t use it because I don’t care for the gummy texture.
I’m like you, I like a looser jam, but my daughters don’t like it dripping out of their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What do you do to test your set?
I cook to temperature, to 220 F, with a couple of exceptions. Apple butter, pear butter, we cook until a spatula stands up in it [laughs] — so that’s kind of fun. Plum, it’s hard to get Italian prune plums past 218 F. It’s hard to get apricots to go past 218 F without overcooking them, so I just give in and have a soft set with apricot, but with plum you’ll get a firm set.
When I first started canning jam it was blackberry, a good beginner jam, and the woman I was canning with filled the jars, put on the lids and turned them upside down. Other cookbooks do the oven method, while the USDA only approves of the boiling water canning method. What’s the deal?
There is no way you can kill someone with a jar of jam unless you throw it at their head. The botulinum spores do not grow in the high-sugar and high-acid environment of the jam. There are no invisible killers in jam. If you get white or blue fuzz, do not eat that jam. If it’s in the fridge and it starts to crystallize, it’s bad quality. Life is short, don’t eat bad quality jam.
What’s the difference between the rolling water boil method and the oven method?
The rolling water boil method is the USDA-approved method for home canning. You can do oven canning in a commercial kitchen that’s inspected [by the government]. At Deluxe Foods we do oven canning. My feeling is that while my oven may be different than your oven, there are no two ways about boiling water. It is always 212 F. Maybe we mess with elevation, but there is not a 50-degree swing in the rolling water boil. Also, when you start to branch out to pickles or canning fruit, you’re going to have to do the rolling water boil, so you might as well learn how to do it.
Do you have a jam jar you prefer?
Funny you should ask. I have been evolving in my jar choice. I used to use the regular mouth and I liked those crystal jars just because they’re pretty.
Recently, I have switched to wide mouth. I prefer the half pint. Twelve ounces is too much jam.
I have to say two more things about jars. When you have finished jarring up your jam, let it sit for 24 hours. Don’t touch it, don’t move it because that is the time when your set is happening. Once the 24 hours is over, and you’re bored of jam and you can’t believe you even started on this project, you just throw it in the cupboard and forget about it. Don’t do that! Always take the time to label what it is, the date, and, as a bonus, who made it.
Do you have any reflections on the pure labor of love jam-making entails?
I urge people to make small batch because it’s the right amount of labor. You get out of the jam what you put into it. So if you were feeling attentive and loving of the fruit, that’s going to come through in the jam. Not so much that it fills you with wrath because you’re sick of look at rhubarb or sick of looking at apricot. Should you use a processor if this fruit’s been sitting for a week? Of course! It’s more of a sin to waste the fruit. You don’t have to have communion with your food every time. Sometimes you just gotta get it done. It’s OK [laughs], but I like to be with the fruit.
Top photo: Rebecca Staffel. Credit: Hayley Young
Wandering through an open-air farmers market in Texas’ Collin County, I recently chanced upon Kathy Neumuller’s Jellies, Jams & Butters booth, where she was selling bottles artisanal jams and preserves. It was a happy coincidence because she goes to different farmers markets in the Dallas area on weekends. A small jar of Meyer lemon and lime marmalade caught my eye. I love the flavor and taste of lemon. I brought one and when I spread it on a piece of bread, it tasted amazingly fresh and far less sweet than most marmalades.
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To make excellent jams and preserves, you need only a few key ingredients, including a sweetener, an acid and a good, ripe seasonal fruit, according to Rick Field and Rebecca Courchesne in their book “The Art of Preserving.”
At JJ&B, Neumuller brings together her passion for locally grown produce, homemade preserves and ingenious flavor combinations, which results in delicious products.
When cooking fruits such as strawberries and rhubarb, which are naturally low in pectin, she uses pectin. By cooking in small batches she has good control over heat levels, and fruits cook fast and retain their fresh flavor. Some of her products, such as toasted pecan-pepper jam, white Zinfandel jelly, sweet onion jam and Cabernet Sauvignon jelly are available year round. Others made with briefly available berries, figs, pears, peaches and plums are strictly seasonal offerings. Along with individual bottles, she also offers gift crates with combinations of 4-ounce jars and holiday gift baskets. JJ&B products are sold locally in Dallas at some stores and farmers markets, and through the company’s website.
Neumuller began making jams while living in California. She discovered she enjoyed creating jams and preserves from the abundance of fresh fruit that she and her children picked from local pick-your-own farms and orchards. When a career move brought her family to north Texas, she discovered the Longhorn state is also home to a wide range of indigenous fruits, including peaches, plums, pears, nectarines, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, figs and a variety of melons and citrus fruits. Most of these fruits are sold at local farmers markets, by the roadside, or at stores. She soon started making jams and preserves with this local bounty and entered her products in competitions at the Texas state fair, where she won 13 blue ribbons.
Her homemade jams were a huge hit with her friends and they coaxed her to start a small business. In 2010 she rented an old commercial kitchen and started making jams and jellies to sell at local farmers markets. The kitchen was slated for demolition, but was spared when a Dallas restaurant, La Duni, invited Neumuller to prepare its house marmalades. The restaurant’s owner, Espartaco Borga, also offered her space in La Duni’s kitchen to make her own jams.
On most evenings you find Neumuller in La Duni’s kitchen in North Park bustling around crates of fresh fruit, and chopping and blending fruits with spices and cane sugar, while batches of fragrant jams and marmalades simmer on stove tops.
She buys fruits from farmers mostly within 100 miles of Dallas with whom she has developed a relationship.
“Larken farms grow organically, and I buy much of my fruit from them,” Neumuller said. She prefers their peaches for her peaches and honey jam. For her blueberry jam and marmalade with a deep color and a rich blueberry-citrus flavor, she buys berries from Comeback Creek Farm. For fig and walnut jam and rosemary and port fig jam she sources figs from Lightsey Farm. Strawberries for her strawberry-rhubarb jam with a touch of sweet ginger come from The Berry Patch. Other flavors include mango-butter with a hint of citrus, cranberry-cherry conserve and raspberry-rhubarb jam.
Along with making jam, Neumuller holds a full-time job as a consultant. All the sourcing, cooking, bottling and selling are done by her alone, which isn’t easy.
“Sleep is optional in my life now!” Neumuller said.
So far JJ&B has remained a one-woman small business. With increased demand for her products, she hopes to expand into a commercial operation.
Top photo: Fresh ingredients and preserves from Jellies, Jams & Butters. Credit: R.V.Ramachandran
Summer in Scandinavia is a season of berries, and they are enjoyed in many different ways, both sweet and savory. The abundance of daylight hours combined with the not-too-warm weather make the berries thrive. They do not grow big but instead stay small and very tasty.
Strawberries can be in season all summer if the weather allows it, or they can be available for only three weeks. Therefore, as soon as the season starts, you become greedy and eat them every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner: in the mornings on yogurt, for lunch on rye bread and in the evening with cream or boiled with sugar as fruit porridge.
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Raspberries are in season in Scandinavia in July. Pick them when they are warm, dark and ruby red and eat them straight away or save some for a morning treat on raw grain flakes with cold milk. I also like to make jam and save some for Christmas, serving them in December with small doughnuts known as æbleskiver. Both raspberries and strawberries are also often accompanied by cold custard in the traditional Danish summer layer cake.
Other summer favorites are red currants shaken in sugar — a classic recipe in Scandinavia. Take 2 pounds of red currants, rinse and take off the sprigs, then mix gently with 1 pound of sugar; leave for three days at room temperature and shake now and then until the sugar has dissolved. It will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. Serve in the mornings on porridge or yogurt and also for dinner with roast chicken or lamb as well as with butter pan-fried fish or on vanilla ice cream.
Black currants are ideal for sorbet, cordial and jam. Jam is eaten in Scandinavia in the morning with cheese, butter and bread. Therefore, it really makes sense to stock up with jam so you have enough to last through the winter.
In addition to strawberries and raspberries, Scandinavians also enjoy their famous blueberries. They are picked in late July and all through August. Blueberries are best plucked wild, when they are smaller and tastier. The wild berries are also the really healthy superberries. If traveling to Sweden, where the blueberries grow, I definitely recommend packing a lunch box and spending a day in the calm, shadowy pine woods picking blueberries, then finding a spot at a small freshwater lake to take a lovely lunch break. Blueberries should be eaten soon after picking; blueberry tarts and pancakes are excellent ways to use them.
Growing up in Scandinavia, berry season was a treat as a child, primarily because the grown-ups would take us to pick them and while we were doing so, we were allowed to eat as many as our stomachs could handle. This was before candy and sodas became part of the 24/7 offerings.
Summer berries bring back sweet memories
All through the summer my grandmother would use berries in cooking and baking. A lot of preserving would be going on in her kitchen. Later on, my mother kept the tradition alive, and over the years I have together with my mother developed a range of recipes for jam, jellies, vinegars and cordials.
We did not pick most of the berries wild but rather in fruit orchards or private gardens, where people grow more berries than they can eat themselves. In my childhood we were always invited to Mrs. Carlsen’s garden to pick red currants, black currants and gooseberries. In exchange, my grandmother would give Mrs. Carlsen jars of jam from our summer production.
There are still plenty of fruit bushes around in private gardens. They were planted many years ago to guarantee supplies. But times have changed, and homemade jams and cordials are not part of people’s busy, everyday lives. Birds probably eat the majority of the berries instead. Denmark’s land is highly cultivated and, therefore, does not have vast forests with a lot of wild blueberries. To find that, you’ll have to go to Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Gooseberry time is late July and August. There are green and red varieties; the green one — the more tart of the two — is perfect for gooseberry compote.
Scandinavia’s seasons can vary month to month. Awareness about the region’s turbulent weather patterns is growing, and preserving is becoming popular even in the urban environment. You do not need to preserve 10 pounds of berries to make a cordial or a jam. Just 1 pound and a cup of sugar will do, and you can make one jar at a time. It’s actually easy and can be done while cooking dinner.
Crêpes With Gooseberry Compote
Serves 4 to 6
For the compote:
1 vanilla bean
1 pound unripe gooseberries, trimmed
1 cup superfine sugar
For the crêpes:
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup light beer
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean
1¼ cups whole milk
Butter for cooking
1. Make the compote by halving the vanilla bean lengthwise and placing it in a pan with the gooseberries and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Pour the hot compote into sterilized preserving jars and seal tightly. When cool, store in the refrigerator.
2. Start making the crêpe batter by beating the eggs together in a large mixing bowl. Add the buttermilk and the beer and beat again.
3. Sift the flour, sugar and salt together, then add to the egg mixture and beat until smooth.
4. Slit the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife. Stir in the milk and vanilla seeds.
5. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes before cooking the crêpes.
6. Melt a little butter in a skillet. When hot, add 5 tablespoons of batter to the skillet, twisting the handle gently to make a large, thin crêpe. Cook until golden on each side — it takes about 2 minutes. Set aside and repeat with the remaining batter. Stack the crêpes on a plate; they will stay warm like this for some time but if you prefer, you can put them in an oven set on low heat.
7. When the crêpes are all done, serve with the gooseberry compote.
Top photo: Crêpes with gooseberry compote. Credit: Columbus Leth
Blame it on the cheap, tinny fruit cocktail that my elementary school cafeteria doled out, but until recently, I was a holdout on peaches. As a kid, I knew them as the bland, stringy, yellow cubes that floated in a bowl of cloyingly sweet syrup or that cascaded down a mound of flavorless cottage cheese.
Fresh, sliced peaches proved no better. Fuzzy on the outside, they had a tough, red strip at the center of every piece. Someone had done a lousy paring job, one that had scarred me for quite a while. It took a chance encounter with the flattened, white-fleshed, freestone Saturn to change my mind about this stone fruit.
Saturn peaches have more sugar, less fuzz
Taste, fragrance, texture and ease of eating were what won my heart. Smaller, sweeter and more aromatic than other varieties, the Saturn peach possesses everything that the fruit of my childhood did not: juicy, luscious flesh; an abundance of peachy flavor with just a hint of almond; and a bold, floral scent. Bite into this ambrosial gem and you experience the best that peaches have to offer.
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You can, in fact, sink your teeth right into an unpeeled Saturn. Its thin skin has little to no fuzz so you don’t have to remove the outer layer before consuming. If you hate peeling peaches and getting sticky juice all over your hands, arms, clothes and countertop, this is a huge selling point.
Additionally, you won’t need to wrench out or cut around a large pit. Its small, spherical pit doesn’t cling to the flesh and can be removed easily. Just cut the fruit in half, twist the halves to separate and pop out the pit.
Saturn peaches get their name from their bagel-like shape, which many believe resembles the rings of Saturn. Their squashed appearance has also earned them the monikers of doughnut, saucer and galaxy peaches. The pale yellow-fleshed version has been dubbed, fittingly enough, “Sweet Bagel.”
Although its form may be unusual, the origin of its shape is not. It arose out of a natural genetic mutation that produced a flattened, rather than globular, peach. Emerging in South China at least 200 years ago, it was known as pan tao, or “flat peach,” and was reputed to be the preferred fruit of emperors. Centuries later it’s winning fans in the United States.
Saturns thrive at Pennsylvania farm
An hour northwest of Philadelphia, in Boyertown, Pa., family-owned Frecon Farms has been harvesting Saturns for close to 20 years. During that time, these growers have watched customers tentatively sample the traditional, round peaches and then ultimately fall for the extremely sweet, flat variety. Steve Frecon points to the higher brix count of these peaches as a reason for their popularity; brix refers to the amount of sugar present in the fruit.
Although Frecon favors eating Saturns right out of his hand, he also advises using them as a replacement for Mandarin oranges in salads and dressing them with a bit of vinaigrette.
“Because of their low acidity and high sugar count, which burns off during cooking, these peaches aren’t as good for baking or preserving. They are best fresh,” he says. Yellow peaches, he adds, are better for cooking.
Should you opt to feature Saturns in a salad or pair them with other foods, keep in mind that they go nicely with almonds, apricots, honey, pistachios, pork, plums, walnuts, white and red wine, and champagne.
In spite of all its wonders, the Saturn does have its downsides. More fragile than other varieties, it bruises easily. When gathering Saturns at Frecon Farms, the peaches must be placed in shallow, half-bushel containers to prevent indentations in the fruit. Additionally, if they aren’t carefully plucked from the tree limbs, the peaches’ skin may tear at the stem.
Once picked, they should be quickly consumed. These guys don’t have a long shelf life and soon start to over-soften. However, with peaches this delicious, they won’t linger on your kitchen counter for long.
Saturn peaches are in season from July to late August, so gobble them up while you can.
If you can’t track down apricot liqueur, you can always omit it. This will leave you with a classic Bellini.
2 Saturn peaches, pits removed and cut into chunks
1½ ounces apricot liqueur, divided
Place the peach chunks and apricot liqueur in a blender and purée. Pour the mixture into two glasses and top with chilled champagne.
Top photo: Saturn peaches: Credit: Kathy Hunt
Strawberries! How do I love ye? Let me count the ways: strawberry shortcake, strawberry jam, strawberry pie, strawberry ice cream, strawberries and cream, strawberries and prosecco, strawberries and genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, or just a little handful of fresh-from-the-garden strawberries sliced over the morning granola
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There are so many reasons to love a strawberry, do you really need more? If so, turn to nutritionist Rosie Schwartz, who points out the health impact of strawberries on her Enlightened Eater blog:
- They have a powerful anti-inflammatory impact
- They improve insulin sensitivity
- They offer a whole range of heart healthy benefits
- They guard against cancer
- They protect against cognitive decline.
Swartz offers state-of-the-art scientific evidence for these advantages.
Aside from their evident nutritional benefits, who could deny the sheer pleasure of this most remarkable fruit? When experts talk about fruity flavors in olive oil or in wine, the fruit that comes to mind, at least for me, is almost always strawberries. To me, the intense, pervasive flavor and aroma of ripe strawberries is the very definition of fruitiness, and it is irresistible.
We have strawberries in the supermarket produce section almost all year round, but they come from industrial farms in California and they are often raised with an eye to their visual impact rather than flavor. For taste, however, nothing beats strawberries grown in a cool northern climate, where the intensity of sunlight around the solstice ripens them quickly and the cool temperatures give them an intensity southern-grown berries lack. Best of all, of course, are the wild strawberries found on the forest floor, but they are so few and so difficult to transport that they are best consumed sitting right down by a woodland path and eating them by the handful.
Competition from the critters
I have strawberries in my garden in Maine, but it’s an annual contest with the local chipmunks as to who gets there first. Most mornings I find a few discards lying on the garden path, a bite taken out and then the berry tossed aside. Why? I hate to think the chipmunk is more discriminating than I am. Perhaps he was disturbed by the neighbor’s cat.
So I rely on a farmstand nearby. Mrs. Beveridge’s strawberries are dark red, big, luscious, full of flavor. And aroma — just passing the stand in the car, with the windows down, I am drawn into their seductive web.
Strawberry shortcake is an all-time American favorite, of course. Who doesn’t love it? Here in New England, the shortcake comes as a baking powder biscuit, with more than the usual sugar added, that is split in half, buttered, piled with strawberries, dolloped with sweetened whipped cream, and topped with a final garnish of the most perfect strawberry from the bunch. That’s all well and good, but I’ve also discovered that ricotta pancakes, perhaps sweetened slightly more than you would want at breakfast, make an equally grand dessert when mounded with deep red strawberries and a fluff of white whipped cream with just a drop or two of vanilla added.
Here’s the recipe, and I’m guessing it’s going to be handy in a few weeks when blueberry season rolls around again:
Makes about 12 pancakes, 6 servings
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 cup well-drained ricotta
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup whole milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil or unsalted butter for the griddle
2 cups partially crushed strawberries, plus whole berries for garnish
Whipped cream flavored with a little sugar and ¼ teaspoon vanilla
1. Toss together with a fork the flours, 2 to 3 of the tablespoons of sugar, the baking powder and the salt.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, milk, lemon zest and vanilla, and beat to mix thoroughly. Fold into the flour mixture.
3. In a separate bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff, adding 1 tablespoon of sugar about halfway through. Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the batter.
4. Heat the griddle or skillet and smear with about a teaspoon of oil or butter. Drop the pancake batter by ⅓-cup measures onto the hot griddle. Cook until done and golden brown on each side, turning once.
5. Serve each pancake topped with crushed berries and a dollop of whipped cream plus a couple of whole berries on top.
Top photo: Fresh strawberries. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
For a refreshing, raw Mexican table salsa, try this jade green marvel you can whirl up in a blender faster than it takes to hum a verse of “La Bamba.”
One of the most versatile cooked sauces in the Mexican repertoire is citrusy salsa verde, or green sauce. The primary ingredient is Mexico’s native tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) — or Mexico’s small, wild variety (Physalis philadelphica) — a vegetable-like fruit many people think are green tomatoes but are nightshades related to the cape gooseberry. Common names are tomate verde and miltomate (Oaxaca), Mexican jam berry and husk tomato.
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The resemblance to smaller gooseberries is immediate as soon as you pick up a tomatillo and touch the inedible, tissue-thin, papery husk surrounding smooth, green (sometimes with hints of purple) fruit that is ranges from the size of pingpong ball to golf balls. Some say smaller fruit is tastier; I love the sweet-tart flavor of tiny, cherry-tomato-sized purple fruit and look for them in farmers markets every summer. Whichever color, husks should be green to light brown (sometimes with hints of purple); a good indication of ripeness is husks that are not dry and shriveled to the point they are dropping off the fruit. When husking, you’ll feel stickiness covering the firm fruit — a natural stickiness that can’t be rinsed away and does not affect texture or flavor. The creamy white-colored fruit is denser and meatier than a tomato. One more thing: Never peel tomatillo skin because it’s so delicate you’ll be peeling away fruit with it.
If you are not going to use tomatillos within a few days, keep the husks intact and refrigerate, but not in plastic bags or they quickly become mushy. You can successfully freeze them in airtight containers, cleaned, husked and left whole or chopped. Frozen tomatillos are great alternatives when fresh are not available. Don’t waste your money with canned.
Unlike cooked green sauce, this raw version doesn’t have a whiff of cumin or toasted garlic’s richness so popular in central/northern Mexican states — it’s all about bright green herbal freshness.
Fresh Tomatillo Table Salsa
Just about any Mexican food tastes better with a squirt of lime juice. Uncooked Fresh Tomatillo Table Salsa works the same way because of tomatillo’s innate citrus tang.
Makes about 1 cup
8 green tomatillos, ranging in size from pingpong balls to golf balls
1 medium (3 inches) white onion
2 green jalapeño chiles
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
¼ cup coarsely chopped mint leaves
1 teaspoon sugar (or more depending on taste)
½ teaspoon sea or kosher salt (or more depending on taste)
1. Remove and discard the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse off any soil stuck to the naturally sticky fruit. Cut each tomatillo in half and put in a blender jar.
2. Peel and cut the onion into large chunks. Stem one chile and coarsely chop (include half to all the seeds depending on how spicy you like salsas). Add both to the blender with the cilantro, mint, sugar and salt. Purée until smooth and foamy, scraping down the blender sides if necessary, at least 30 seconds and up to 1 minute.
3. Adjust the salt and sweetness to your taste. If you like spicy table salsa (Mexican table salsa should be spicy!), this is the time to add more finely chopped chile and re-blend another 30 seconds.
4. Serve immediately at room temperature while the salsa is a fresh, citrusy masterpiece.
Top photo: Tiny purple-tinged tomatillos at the Sunday market in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky