Sunday, August 30, 2009

Apples: Fall’s Favor, Local Flavor


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         If summer must end, and end it must, at least we can face Labor Day with the comfort of pie for breakfast. The apples are coming in, and we can look forward to fresh, not storage, apples, for two months or more, if all goes well. I’ve written before about Lodis and Yellow Transparents, very nice apples for a simple tart or for sauce, but another fine early apple is the Mutsu, a dead ringer for a Granny Smith, but actually a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Japanese variety, the Indo—the apple, in fact, is Japanese in origin. I’m not a fan of the Golden Delicious—to put it nicely—and the Mutsu is not my favorite—for that honor, I still hold the Gravenstein, Stayman Winesap, Cortland, and Jonathan and Baldwin dear—but it is good, juicy, crisp, and tart-sweet—and here now. You may know it as a “Crispin,” another, apt name for it. Use whatever tart, juicy apple you can find, as they will be superior, even if not as cosmetically unreal, as apples from the store. As the great Joni Mitchell sang, “give me spots on my apples"; these Mitsus were beautifully imperfect.

The Mutsu makes good sauce, but I’ve had a hankering for apple pie with store cheese since earlier this summer. Talking one day about food, a new friend and I discovered that the hands-down favorite breakfast of both of us was apple pie. Old New Englander that he was, from a pioneering farm family whose family has lived in Little Compton for hundreds of years, his fondness was for pie with melted cheddar cheese on top; this was the way it had been served to him from childhood. I had grown up eating it with heavy cream or ice cream (yes, even for breakfast), and had not had it with cheese until I came to Rhode Island for college. But I had never had it with melted cheese, only accompanied with a wedge of cheese on the side. I knew apples and cheese were a popular combination for pies in New England—I’d even had cheddar cheese baked inside them, and cheddar crusts. But the idea of cheese melted on the crust was news to me.

So of course I had to try it. There’s an old saying, “An apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze.” See what you think. Me, I quite liked the savory-sweet-spicy combination of the fruit pie and cheese. But it would probably have been even better with a little ice cream, too.

Apple Pie with Store Cheese

My friend says his mother always used yellow cheddar, but I used the ultra-sharp store cheese, which I almost always have on hand.

Pastry for a double-crust pie

Use any crust recipe you like—homemade, please—or my usual butter-lard crust or all-lard crust. Make according to directions, pat into two discs, and chill, wrapped in wax paper, in the refrigerator. Remove when you start the pie so pastry is still cold and firm but not hard when you are ready to roll.

The pie

8 large apples
¾ cup sugar
1 ¼ tea best, fresh ground cinnamon
¼ tea ground cardamom
pinch salt
3-4 T flour
2 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 375 F. Use a 9” pie plate, preferably glass and deep dish.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Place the sugar and spices in a large bowl. Using a small sharp paring knife, peel and quarter apples lengthwise; starting at the stem end (which helps prevent   breaking), core the apple quarters—the cores generally pop out. Slice each quarter into 4 or 5 slices right into the bowl, tossing briefly with the sugar after each apple to prevent browning. (Lemon juice, by the way, is unnecessary with fresh apples, which contain a lot of pectin, and I don’t particularly like the added  taste). Add the flour and toss; I use the full ¼ cup flour for very juicy apples, 3 T for less juicy ones.

On a floured board, roll out your dough into a circle 2-3” larger than your overturned pie plate—I use a deep dish plate, so that implies the larger circumference. Loosen the pastry and fold it lightly in half, lift, and unfold into the plate, fitting and smoothing it in gently along the bottom and letting the edges hang over. Pile the apples into the plate, pushing some down into edges; pour over any remaining juices; and dot OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         with the butter. Roll out the second round of pastry, roll it loosely around your pin to lift it up, and unroll it over the top of the  apples. Tuck both crusts under along the rim of the plate, crimp, and prick around the edge and in the center with a fork. I do not glaze my pie. Bake in the center of the oven until golden; the syrupy juices begin to ooze out; and a skewer enters and removes easily from the apples. Turn once during baking; if the edges get too brown before the pie is done, cover the rim with foil or one of those handy pie protectors (an aluminum ring that sits on the edge). Total baking time will be about 40-50 minutes, depending on your apples.

Cool completely or to nearly room temperature before cutting. To serve with cheese, grate store cheese over the top and broil briefly until melted and the cheese begins to brown.



Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bunches of Basil, Pecks of Potatoes


The appearance of the sun so late in summer means that one herb that did poorly during the heavy rains, beloved basil, has recovered sufficiently to be available in big bunches alongside a late summer treat, local potatoes. The aromatic basil is often called the king of herbs, and it’s hard to argue with that. It’s not the most versatile in the world, but it certainly behaves like a king. It dominates the summer table, reigning supreme over tomatoes and corn, infusing cream sauces, mayonnaise dressing, vinaigrettes, butters, and other fatty mediums for garnishing or marinating vegetables. (Or meat or fish, for that matter.) It is powerful—use sparingly—and as with all power, fleeting and fragile—use fresh, at the last minute, and don’t subject to high heat.

New potatoes and parsley are a classic, an old favorite of New Englanders and anyone who has ever had access to creamy new potatoes and knows that, as with all perfect ingredients, plain is best. Our grandmothers, unless they were Italian, didn’t have or even know about fresh basil as a rule, but if they had, I am sure that new potatoes and basil would have been just as popular. Before summer ends, I always put some pesto, minus any cheese, into the freezer against that inevitable point in winter when you just cannot face one more meal of roast chicken and steamed broccoli or you will go out of your mind. A dish of pasta with the incredibly fresh spark of pesto, miraculously preserved by that gift to all eaters, the freezer, is a wonderfully restorative thing. Put some by, and come February, spring will seem a real possibility, a memory-turned-hope. And for now, treat yourself to the luxury of new potatoes with a little pesto dressing.

Roasted Pine-Nut Pesto for the Freezer

This makes a little over a cup. Use the remaining few tablespoons for pasta (adding parmesan cheese), with new potatoes (with or without cheese), or mixed into chopped tomatoes for crostini. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
½ tea, generous, kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cups, firmly packed, fresh whole basil leaves (a big bunch or two)
½ cup good olive oil
¼ tea, generous, freshly ground pepper

In a small skillet, lightly toast the pine nuts with the salt.

Peel, without smashing, the garlic and put in the food processor. Add the pine nuts and salt, the basil, the olive oil, and pepper. Process until it is a smooth puree, stopping occasionally to push the mixture down with a rubber spatula. Taste for salt and pepper.

Put into a ½ pt canning jar; cover the top with plastic wrap, pressing it down on the surface; and top the jar with its lid and ring. Freeze.



Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summertime, and the cream is good


It’s odd to think I have a lot in common with a dairy cow, but the truth is, I do. We both like to laze the day away in a nice field, grazing from time to time if we get hungry. And we both are at our absolute best in the long, warm days of summer. Despite any appearance to the contrary, which you might gather from glimpsing either one of us lying on the grass from a passing car, we are amazingly productive when the weather is good. We feel great, and work hard.

So it is that at this time of year, local dairy products are a precious gift of high-fat milk and cream. It is, in fact, all that rumination and grazing in the grass that is responsible for dairy’s productivity and high fat content in the summer months. If you are able to buy local milk and cream right about now, and it is not homogenized, you are truly lucky. I currently can buy nearly 50% heavy cream and light cream that is in the high 30s. In glass bottles, too: I make a $1.00 deposit on the bottle, credited next time when the bottle is returned.

When good cream is available, it should be used simply. For heavy cream, whipped, of course, (unhomogenized cream beats lightning OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         fast, and is amazingly good); poured straight over a fruit pie or a cake, crisp, or buckle; frozen into a mousse or ice cream; as a base for salad dressing; or made into a simple sauce for pasta. Light cream is good for most of these uses, too, and is my choice for summer soups  and chowders, which I prefer on the thin side.

Thinking about my affinity with cows, I could mention a few other things that we have in common. For example, we both have brown eyes, and, umm, large udders. We both wear a lot of black and white or brown and white. I am getting old enough to be called an “old cow,” if only behind my back. But I won’t mention these things, lest you think I am a bit strange. But really, it can’t just be coincidence that cream and I are such good friends.

Summer Garden Soup

I often say that in the summer I could live on corn and tomatoes. Neither is very good in Rhode Island because of the rain this year, but what there is can be turned into a simple summer soup—a kind of light vegetable chowder.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2 T butter
1/3 cup onion, finely chopped
6 medium plum tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 ears corn, shucked
1 ½ cups corn stock
1 small bay leaf
½-3/4 tea salt
few twists of the pepper mill
1 cup cream

½ cucumber, skin on, chopped fine
few sprigs parsley, chopped fine

Cut the corn from the cobs.

Melt the butter in a 3-qt chef’s pan. Sauté the onion in the butter until translucent, about 2-3 minutes, then add the corn and sauté another 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato, ½ tea salt, pepper, and bay leaf, toss for a minute, then add the corn stock. Bring to a low boil, reduce to a moderate simmer, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft but still hold their shape.

Remove from the heat and let cool down just a bit. Remove the bay leaf and discard. Stir in the cream and taste for salt and pepper; you may want another ¼ tea of salt and a little more pepper. Serve warm, not hot, or cold, garnished with the chopped cucumber and parsley.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Blueberries Abound


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         My first blueberries of the season were from my friend Linda’s husband’s blueberry bushes. They were very large and perfect-looking, and quite juicy, though a bit sour. Since then, blueberries have been busting out all over, and it seems as if they are having a long season. They are still a bit on the sour side—and I do mean sour, not tart—and not as naturally spicy as a really fine blueberry can be. Fortunately, blueberries are one of those fruits for which sugar, lemon, and a little spice bring out its best. While this year’s berries may not be the best for eating out of hand, they are big and juicy, worth freezing, and good for most cooking and baking.

So far this summer I have made blueberry sauce, some of which I mixed with mustard as a dipping sauce for grilled OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         chicken chorizo; some blueberry jam; blueberry fritters; and several of the following old-fashioned buckles, some all-blueberry, some half-blueberry, half-currant. This is one of those addictive recipes that you cannot get enough of. And it’s so simple to make, why should you?

Blueberry Buckle

This is excellent for breakfast or dessert, a kissing cousin to my favorite blueberry breakfast cake.

1 cup a-p flour
1 cup sugar
2 tea baking powder
½ tea salt
½ tea cardamom and cinnamon, mixed, or spice of your choice
2/3 cup whole milk
2 cups blueberries or half blueberries and half some other berry

heavy cream, preferably unhomogenized

Place the butter in an 8” square pan or 1 ½ qt casserole dish. Turn the oven on to 350F, and put the dish into the oven to melt the butter. When you hear it begin to sizzle, remove it—do not allow it to brown.

Sift the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and spices into a small bowl. Whisk in the milk until just combined. Pour into the melted butter; do not stir. Pour the berries over all. Bake at 350 F for about 35-40 minutes, until golden and bubbling with juice.

Let cool on a rack at least 10-15 minutes. Serve warm with heavy cream poured over. In the unlikely event that there is any left over, this reheats nicely in the microwave.