Monday, August 6, 2012
Past Prime: Versatile Syrups
When all the fruit is coming in like runners in the Olympic torch-bearing relay, it is hard to keep up with the hand-offs. No matter how much time you spend in your too-hot, too-humid summer kitchen (not, as we know, the ideal weather for jam and jelly making), you are bound to be left with miscellaneous bits of fruit that is no longer—perhaps never was—quite perfect. In my waste-not, want-not world, which I believe is the world of all true and natural cooks, it’s not possible to throw it out. It is not merely frugality that leads us to resist, although that is part of it. It is challenge: what can I do with this? If cooking is transformation, what can I make of this? What can I turn it into? The humblest transformations are, in the end, a combination of austerity and creativity.
As Anthony Bourdain pointed out in his Les Halles Cookbook, the French were masters of turning questionable ingredients and odds and ends into good things to eat. From cutting meat creatively to cooking tough pieces for a very long time with flavorful aromatics, they not only made do with what they had, they made things that have become soul-satisfying classics. One thing you might notice about this, though, is that there was, at the same time, a recognition that you don’t slave and fuss over these less-than-stellar ingredients, or try to make something of them that no amount of attention is going to produce. If nothing else, a good cook is pragmatic, and knows you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But you can make a very good braised sow’s ear.
It’s the same with fruit past its prime. No pies, no plump preserves or clear jellies, no decorating cakes and tortes, certainly no eating out of hand. But they do make very good syrups and sauces, flavored iced teas and shrubs—anything where the flavor is extracted (usually through heat) and the less-than-perfect fruit strained out, and where you don’t need much if any pectin, which is lost as fruit becomes old or overripe.
I really like to have syrups on hand (two of my favorites are rosehip and rosemary) —and not just for cocktails, although of course they are great for that. Syrups have many endearing qualities. They last forever. They can be used as an ingredient—in drinks, salad dressings, sauces, frostings and glazes—or as an embellishment—drizzled over cheese, fresh fruit, grilled meats. You can utilize other marginal items in making them—shriveling herbs, fading whole spices, a single slice of lemon or squeezed peels. They make you feel virtuous because, of course, you did not throw anything out.
You can use any combination that you have, or fancy. For one of these, I used about half blueberries and half sour cherries (for this purpose, you needn’t bother to pit your fruit); I had some leftover, drying mint. This made a deeply flavorful and refreshing syrup. For another, I used Karla’s imperfect peaches—half the price of her perfect ones—slightly bruised and overripe, but still juicy and flavorful and not too far gone. My friend Trina loves bellinis, so I made the peach syrup with her in mind, and with the inspiration of Katie Loeb. A Bellini made with this is much better than, well, a Bellini.
Measure your fruit. Put it in an aluminum or other nonreactive pan with an equal amount of sugar and an equal amount of water. If you have a small wedge of lemon or orange, squeeze it and then drop it in. Bring to a boil and cook at a moderate bubble for 5 minutes or so, until your fruit has softened, popped, or otherwise begun to break down and release their color and juice. It is not necessary to skim. Remove from the heat. Toss in your herbs and/or spices, stir, and cover. Let steep until cool, or until it is as intense as you like (taste it from time to time). Strain through a fine strainer or cheesecloth into jars; you have my permission to press gently, enough to encourage the fruit to drain, not so much that you force it through as a puree. Cool completely and store in the refrigerator or freezer. Reboil briefly before using after three months or so if you keep it refrigerated rather than frozen.