A Tart Return to Basics

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in: Cooking

What do cupcakes and Julia Child have in common? Until recently, thankfully, not very much. But we’ve been hit hard by the cupcake craze (it is a glorified muffin with some icing slapped on top, people). And, of course, these days we are fortunate to have the “Julie & Julia” movie in full swing (Meryl Streep’s mug, rather than Julia’s, will now be on the cover of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for who knows how many decades).

Hype may sell in food courts and movie theaters, but in our home kitchens, it’s time to get back to basics. The cookbook “Chez Panisse Fruit” (named after Alice Waters’ Berkeley, Calif., restaurant) is a good place to start. Seven years after it was published, the most recent volume in the Chez Panisse series is a venerable classic. At my house, that means hoisting the book to the kitchen counter with a delicate hand to keep the tattered pages intact. But, really, I can’t think of a better compliment for a book than a broken spine. Think of it as the recipe equivalent of all this cupcake and movie success, only without all the perky sprinkles and crying over broken hollandaise.

And what a great book it is. It’s peppered with lyrical discussions of mulberries and gorgeous watercolor paintings of figs by illustrator Patricia Curtan. But it’s the dozens of inspired recipes such as roast pork with apple-onion marmalade and tangerine sorbet-laced crepes suzette that will have you coming back for more. That, and the book’s brilliantly simple organization.

“Chez Panisse Fruit” is laid out as more of a useful glossary of ingredients rather than a politely unfolding dinner party (the typical appetizers, mains and dessert sections). You’ll find all of those recipes here, you simply start with an ingredient first. You could even do a full-out ingredient theme party, say, mango salsa for starters, mango salad with shrimp and avocado as a main, and mangos in Sauternes for the grand finale. Crazy, these fruit-obsessed cooks.

You’ll soon find that this is the only logical way to shop and cook. Spending hours culling through recipes and heading to the store with a meticulously crafted checklist is hardly the way our lives ebb and flow these days. We pick up a little of this and that in quick bursts, when and where we can. Come to think of it, the one redeeming quality of a cupcake may be its portable, instant sugar rush for those moments of waning enthusiasm for grocery shopping.

Say you spy some sour cherries for a steal at the farmers market but aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Buy them anyway. When you’re back in your kitchen, flip to the section in “Chez Panisse Fruit” about cherries. Waters describes the various types and when each is in season (but you already know that because you just bought some), as well as useful storage and preparation tips. You haven’t gotten around to picking up a cherry pitter at a garage sale? Me neither. Waters suggests using the tip of a small knife or the end of an unbent paper clip instead (note: a knife is rather laborious but works fine; the paper clip has not been tested, but do report if you give it a try).

After sharing enlightening vignettes on the second life of office supplies, Waters offers a handful of relatively simple-to-prepare recipes. Translation: If you know how to make a pie crust, the recipes will be a cinch; if you are well versed on where to find instant mashed potatoes (next to the soup mix or in the pasta aisle?), it might be wise to brush up on basic cooking techniques first.

There are just enough recipes in each section, usually four or five, to always find something you want to make. And if you don’t have quite the right type of fruit, don’t worry. Waters suggests substitutions. For instance, she notes that sweet cherries work well in a pureed cherry soup or spooned over whole roasted duck, while sour cherries are fantastic in cherry pies or pickled. But you could swap out the sweets for the sours in any recipe simply by adjusting the amount of sugar. And because many of the recipes call for pantry staples – no foie gras, live lobster or obscure cuts of beef – “Cooking at Home” with Alice is old-fashioned, cupcake-free style that’s actually fun.

Julia Child would surely approve.

Brandied Cherries

To make brandied cherries, all you need is sugar and whatever good brandy you have on hand and you’ll be spooning cherries over pork loin and ice cream all winter. “And by all means,” Waters writes, “drink the brandy, which gets better and better….”

From “Chez Panisse Fruit,” by Alice Waters

Note: Do not use soft or overripe fruit because they will lose their shape. For more of a maraschino cherry flavor, you may substitute a flavored cherry brandy such as Kirsch for standard brandy. Whole cherries will have the best flavor, but you may want to pit the cherries if you plan to use them for ice cream and desserts. Waters recommends saving the pits and placing them at the bottom of the jar for the best flavor.

Ingredients:

2 pounds firm sweet or sour cherries

1/2 cup sugar for sweet cherries, 3/4 cup if you are using sour

2 cups of brandy or kirsch

Directions:

  1. Rinse and dry the cherries. Cut the stems down to about ½-inch long if you are leaving them pitted. Alternatively, stem and pit the cherries, saving the pits.
  2. Put the cherries into a large quart-sized jar with a tight-fitting lid. If you are using pitted cherries, sprinkle the pits on the bottom of the jar first.
  3. Mix the sugar and the brandy or kirsch together well and pour over the cherries. Cover tightly.
  4. Store the cherries in a cool part of the kitchen or in a basement for 1 month before using. During the first week, shake the jar and turn it upside down daily to help dissolve the sugar.
  5. After the cherries have soaked for 1 month, refrigerate the jar. The cherries will keep for several months.

Photo: Cherries. Credit: Jenn Garbee

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