Friday, July 27, 2012

Dairy: Disappearing Delights

To the extent that they have not disappeared altogether—and many have, as a drive through New England or New York State’s back roads will attest—dairy farms that survive today are likely to be part of a cooperative into which they sell their milk, whether to be bottled or made into cheese. And like most food products today, milk has increasingly been produced in a manner to make it highly shelf-stable and hardy under a range of transportation conditions. It is ultrapasteurized and ultrahomogenized, as is the cream that has been separated from it at the time of milking.

So the existence of an independent dairy whose cows are pastured and feed on good stuff is a treasure to be thankful for—and to patronize.  If you find one, they may even let you buy raw milk direct from the farm (it is illegal to bottle and sell it in most states, but you may be able to get some informally). But even if not, a really good dairy will have superior milk, buttermilk, and heavy cream that has a higher percentage of fat than that from a large producer and, if you are lucky, that has been pasteurized to the legal requirement only, and not homogenized at all.
Here in Rhode Island, we are lucky to have such cream. It’s from Arruda’s Dairy in Tiverton, and I have written about its virtues before. Heavy cream like this is highly perishable: it is a fresh product, for immediate consumption. Be forewarned, the expiration date means what it says. You may be able to blithely keep commercial heavy cream for months beyond expiration, but if Arruda’s says “June 24th” it means June 24th; the next day it will be sour. Don’t push your luck.

This makes the product all the more special than its inherent thick richness already makes it. Somehow, its ephemeral nature—it’s fragile perfection at its peak—and its erratic availability lend a little carpe diem excitement, as well as a little reverence for the simple, to its use and consumption. It whips phenomenally, but even that can feel disrespectful or ungrateful. Pour it on. 

Jonnycake Cake

This is still plain, but more of a cake than a cornbread, suitable for a simple dessert. It is very good. Serves 6-8.

2 eggs
1 ½ c whole milk
¼ cup thick heavy cream
1 T vanilla
5 T unsalted butter, softened
½ c flour
6 T, generous, sugar
2 T bp

Heavy cream
Berries, apples, peaches, or other fruit

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and sugar a 9” square pan.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the milk, cream, and vanilla. Beat in the butter. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour into the prepared pan and bake 20-25 minutes, until lightly colored and just-firm to the touch in the center; it will be starting to pull away from the sides. Do not either over- or under-bake so cake will be moist but cooked. Serve warm or cooled with fruit—sautéed, cooked with sugar into a simple sauce, fresh—with plain or whipped heavy cream, or both.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bounteous Blueberries

In contrast to the small and stingy raspberries, the blueberries this year are particularly good. They are big, spicy as I like them, bounteous, and, of course, true blue. That’s worth pointing out, because some years they are not quite the right shade. Weather, it seems, affects everything.

I have already eaten lots of blueberries—with Karla’s peaches and a little brown sugar; in the standby, addictive fruit buckle; in pancakes; and in pies. It’s great to see so many of them lined up at the farm stand, some safely snuggled in their little snoods, some brazenly risking a spill on the way home, day after glorious day.  Enough to freeze for inventory; don’t forget!

As with sour cherries, I usually make a blueberry lattice pie, but had a craving for crumbs. Having grown up in an area, and in a household, heavily influenced by all things Pennsylvania German, I am a major fan of crumbs. There is, first and foremost, the quintessential crumb bun of my youth, the standard to which all things crumbed are held, and a ridiculously difficult thing (considering a crumb bun is simplicity itself) to replicate in all its soft, sunken-crumb perfection. I’ve been trying for years. I will make these for the blog some time. Then there are various streusel coffeecakes, such as the popular sour cream coffee cake you see lots of places, and the wide range of possible crumb pies, apple and blueberry being among the finest.

Last week, when my son was here, we had a dinner at my friend Anne’s house. Wonderful Mediterranean meal of grilled shrimp, little grilled lamb chops, hummus, tzatziki, tomatoes, pita, corn to start (how could we not? It’s July, and the corn was early and good), etc. Anne made a plain white sheet cake (it had been my son’s birthday the previous week, and there were candles), and I made a blueberry crumb pie. Anne’s father took and produced the final pie photo.  

Blueberry Crumb Pie

4 cups blueberries (1 qt)
¾ c sugar
½ tea cinnamon
¼ tea nutmeg
2 T melted butter
3 T flour
1 tea lemon juice (squeeze a ¼ of a lemon

Roll out the crust, fit it into the pie plate, and chill. Combine all filling ingredients gently and place into the shell. Make the crumbs as below and distribute over pie.

Bake at 375F for 35-40 min, or until crumbs are brown and juices are bubbling through. Check midway through and protect the crumbs and crust with foil if needed so that they do not burn. Cool completely before cutting.

Crumb Topping

1 ½ c a-p flour
1/3 c white sugar
¾ c lt brown sugar
¼ tea cinnamon
Big pinch salt
6 oz unsalted butter, cool room temperature
6 oz unsalted butter, melted

Blend dry ingredients and combine with cool better, crumbling with your hands. Add melted butter and blend, squeezing to form clumps. Finish the pie as directed above.

Photo by Frank Parker

Gather Ye Raspberries While Ye May

Raspberries are one of the sweet and fleeting pleasures of summer, and never more so than when they are wild, picked from a patch out back. Here in Little Compton, the fruit lady cultivates very good raspberries, as close to wild as you can get, full of flavor, red, yellow, and black. But I have a patch, and it is with a little thrill of hopeful anticipation tinged with dread that I approach the patch on my return to LC each year to see what the season will, or will not, bring.

It is not a good year for raspberries, at least for the early run. The fruit lady told me on my first day here, before I’d checked my own more native crop, that the raspberries were sparse this year, and small. The early warmth followed by a cool and wet June were good for some things—everything is coming in early, much to the farmers’, and to some of our, chagrin—but not for the raspberries.

Walking out to my own little raspberry bushes, I find the same situation: small fruit, sparsely scattered across the briar.  Expecting as much, I have brought a little bowl, and proceed to try to fill it. Picking raspberries is always a challenge. Raspberries like to hide beneath leaves, and the ripest ones delight in hiding deep inside the patch. You have to really get into it—literally—and plunge into the thorny  mass, lifting the tangled branches, pricking your fingers and catching your clothes with each step. Vigilance, and a swiveling gaze are essential.  And you must circle the patch multiple times, as that section you are sure you have stripped of every berry invariably has yet another or two; I feel sure, sometimes, that these berries have ripened red in the few minutes that I was on the other side.

All this work produced perhaps a large cupful of berries and many scratches around the ankles and on the forearms. I pick them over for the occasional bug or tiny hairlike white worm. There are not enough to do anything other than eat them (the raspberries, not the worms), which is, perhaps, their highest calling. So I do—harking these words, with apologies to Robert Herrick for paraphrasing “To the Virgins, to make much of Time.”

Gather ye raspberries while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sour Cherry Season

The sour cherries, like everything else, were early this year. They were good, but I thought they were just a tad dry. Interesting, because it was a rainy June. But the weather freshened a few weeks before they came in, and they don’t seem the worse for the rain in the sense that they were not, as they were last year, waterlogged, and neither were they rotted and spotted, as they can also get from the rain. So, good on balance, considering the reverse-spring of 2012, warm and sunny early, wet and cool late.

I did make a pie, as you see, using the old New England standby of throwing some fruit in a rolled-out pastry and pouring over some sour cream and sugar.  This is the first time I’d made this pie with cherries, and I confess that I wasn’t a huge fan. I mean, it was fine. But I like it better with something like blackberries or apples.  In fact, apple-sour cream pie is an old favorite. I first had it when I was in college at the Red Rooster Tavern in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. At the time it was a very good restaurant, run by the locally famous Normand Leclair, that served traditional but slightly sophisticated (for the time) New England food like roast pork, fresh local seafood, and pie.  I used to go there just to have that pie, which was topped with a streusel (optional, but really good). That restaurant is gone, replaced, I think, by a bar.  But I have fond memories of the place, where my parents would take me when they came to visit.

I can be a creature of habit (aren't we all?), and making this sour cream pie with cherries was, in part, a feeling that I should do something different than the usual cherry pie with lattice crust. Perhaps I will do something different again next season, but an argument can be made that, when you only have one or two shots--the brief few weeks to get those true, old Montmerencies--you should stick with what you love best. Of course, cherries are great in cakes and preserves. But when it comes to pies, classics are classic for a reason.

Sour Cherry-Sour Cream Pie

Pastry for a 9” pie (butter/lard or all butter)

1 qt sour cherries, blackberries, apples, or other fruit
1 tea lemon juice
1 c sour cream
½ c brown or white sugar
½ tea vanilla
1 T flour
1 egg

Line pie plate with pastry and chill. Mix cream, sugar, vanilla, and flour. Stir in lightly beaten egg and set aside.  Pit cherries and toss with lemon juice. Use a slotted spoon to lift the cherries into the pie plate.
Pour the sour cream mixture over. Bake at 425F for 10 min; reduce to 325 and bake 30-40 min more til juicy and bubbling. 

You can top  this pie with a traditional crumb mixture if you want; sprinkle it over after you reduce the heat.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Crazy for Currants

Of all the currant varieties—red, white, and black—I love the red the best. And I love that the fruit lady sells them for $1.50 an overflowing half-pint.  Since most people don’t want them (thankfully, most people are fools), she practically gives them away. They are always waiting patiently for someone to, please, take them home.  They are like little orphans who are left behind while all the other kids (the raspberries, in this case) get adopted.

The someone who finally takes them is, of course, me, and my charges are eager to please:  bright, shiny, glistening, and bobbing on their slender stems. When I have enough to make a currant pie, a rare old-fashioned treat, that is what I usually do. This time, however, I had only two generous containers—a healthy pint. I still have some pickled currants from last year, but I was clean out of currant jelly. Currant jelly is a necessity. It is ideal for glazing tarts, for adding fruity richness to sauces, and for spreading on an English muffin. Because of the scarcity of the fruit, it is hard to find it commercially anymore, and when you do, it is pricey and never as fresh-tasting as you would like. So it’s a special product to make at home, and to give as a gift to a fellow baker or heirloom fruit aficionado.

Those of you who have been with me for a long time know that when it comes to preserving, I have strong opinions. I do not use pectin. Currants have natural pectin, lots of it, and when your fruit is perfect, you really don’t need it to obtain a gel.  I happen to like my jams and jellies soft, somewhat fluid. Another reason to eschew pectin, especially for things like strawberry jam where you want the berries suspended in a nice gelatinous pool.  I also use less sugar that is conventional, which allows for a more fruit-forward product as well as contributes to the softer texture. And in this particular case, I use a lazy-woman’s method of my own that is a hybrid of the traditional jam and jelly methods. It works.

Spicy Currant Jelly

For a change of pace, I decided to spice it up with cinnamon and my adored Aleppo pepper (really, I need to do an entire post on the stuff); the jelly has a nice hot edge to it.  The directions are general. Makes about 1 pint.

1 generous pint currants, stems removed
1 ¾ c sugar
Wedge (1/4) lemon
3” fresh cinnamon stick
¼ tea Aleppo pepper

In a 2 qt saucepan, mix the currants, sugar, and pepper. Squeeze the lemon wedge and stir in the juice; drop in the squeezed lemon rind and the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the currants have broken down into a mush and the liquid coats a spoon, about 5-10 minutes. Place a double thickness of cheesecloth in a strainer and set it over a bowl. Pour the mixture through the strainer; the liquid will collect in the bowl. Press gently on the currants but do not mash or your jelly will be cloudy. Discard the currants. Pour the liquid, which should be setting nicely, into jars and seal. If you want a little stronger gel, return it to the saucepan and boil until it sheets from a spoon. Do not overcook.

You do not need pectin to get a perfect gel!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Pics as Promised: The AZ Peach-Raspberry Tart

To think these colors actually occur in nature! Taste as vibrant as it looks.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rhode Island Cornmeal Competition: And the winner is. . .

Well, I am back in Little Compton and, after all the strange detours, from prickly pear to cocktails (I have received a few funny emails on the latter), it seemed appropriate to re-immerse myself in all things Rhode Island as quickly as possible. For a few years I’ve been meaning to do a side-by-side comparison of the three local, indeed native, stone-ground cornmeals we are lucky enough to have in our little state, Little Rhody.  These are, for the not-from-heres reading this, those from Carpenter’s Grist Mill in Perryville (near Moonstone Beach), Gray’s Grist Mill in Adamsville Village (Little Compton, on the Westport, MA line), and Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaugh (West Kingston). 

I hope you note that I listed those alphabetically. Everyone here knows that venturing into cornmeal territory is venturing into blind and irrational loyalties as potentially tempestuous as the waters between Point Judith and Block Island. In fact, it’s plunging the battle between thick and thin johnnycakes deeper, to its raw—literally—core. So I approach this three-way throwdown with not a little trepidation—and a huge sense of responsibility. Because I must be, of course, objective.

Much as I adore johnnycakes and they are the ultimate use for this marvelous grain, I knew it would be hard to eat them without maple syrup. I settled on something as old, and as plain: corn pone. These I could eat out of hand, taking bites first from one, then another, without the syrup’s perfect compatibility intruding on corny purity.

The first order of this serious business was comparing the meals themselves. I examined my conscience before beginning, as two are West of Bay products, and one is, like Little Compton, East of Bay. Fortunately I have lived on both sides of the bay and can say, truly, that my loyalties are divided, which in this case seems to be all for the good as I am simply like a boat in the middle of the bay, familiar with each shore and indifferent to where I put up.  I am neutral, like Switzerland in any similar war.

I poured ¼ cup out on an old, honey-colored board. As you can see, the Kenyon’s was visibly different:  whiter, finer. While the color of Carpenter’s and Gray’s look similar, looked at closely the Gray’s was more variegated looking, with little dots of yellow and black as if a blend of some sort, and its texture—all were tested by rubbing between my fingers—was finer; not as fine as Kenyon’s, but markedly more so than Carpenter’s.  In fact, it seemed a little dusty or powdery whereas Kenyon’s was fine but still definitely a grain. Carpenter’s rougher look was, in that sense and compared to Gray’s, more integral to the product. 

I did taste them raw. Let’s just say that cornmeal is meant to be cooked with moisture and preferably salt, much like flour: it is just as dry and carboardy on the tongue.  But there were was at least one discernible difference: Carpenter’s was sweeter. Kenyon’s and Gray’s, despite looking different, tasted quite similar—dull and a little bitter. 

Game of me to try (I thought), but tasting raw was not a fair test, and I quickly moved on; the proof is in the pudding, as they say. I made very plain corn pone according to the recipe below—three batches using the three different cornmeals. I shaped it into traditional little round cakes and baked them (these are a version of an old-fashioned “journey cake,” sturdy and sustaining), and I also fried one of each in butter (which reminded me of these gorditas a little).

I had little trouble deciding among them: they were quite distinct. The Kenyon’s was blander, blonder, creamier-textured but not as interesting. It stood alone to one side. The Carpenter’s had a strong corn flavor with the combination bitter-sweet edge that a good johnnycake has. It also had the most attractive color and surface texture. The Gray’s fell in between—more interesting than the Kenyon’s, but short in appearance, texture, and taste to the Carpenter’s.

I want to go on record saying that all of these stoneground cornmeals are quality products. But Carpenter’s was the clear winner. There may be a good reason: it is also the only one of the three that is still made from 100% Rhode Island whitecap flint cornmeal, the original Indian variety that has dwindled in availability because it is somewhat difficult to grow and has lower yields than other white corns.  I remember when Gray’s stopped using it, and Kenyon’s, a large operation, switched before them. Carpenter’s is, in that sense, the last remaining mill to provide the authentic johnnycake meal. Try some while you still can.

Corn Pone

4 c RI stoneground white cornmeal
½ c lard
½ tea baking soda
1 ½ tea salt
1-1 ½ c boiling water
Buttermilk as needed, up to 1 c

Preheat the oven to 350F. Work the lard into the cornmeal with your fingers as you would for pastry.  Dissolve the baking soda and salt into the boiling water and add it gradually to the cornmeal mixture, stirring until it is well-moistened. Add enough buttermilk to make a stiff but moist dough.  Shape the dough into flat rounds about 3” in diameter. Bake for 30-35 minutes; they will be brown on the bottom, very lightly colored and, depending on the cornmeal you use, may crack on top. Serve warm or cold (they will store relatively well), plain, with butter, sprinkled with sugar, or yes, with maple syrup.