Thursday, September 28, 2006

Simple Skillet Cornbread

Let your inner Southern granny shine through with my favorite recipe for cornbread. There are no frills like diced jalepenos or chipotle peppers here. This is simple, delicious food that depends on good quality, stone ground cornmeal and buttermilk for its moist, yet crumbly texture. The technique of adding melted butter from your oven-heated cast iron skillet to the batter is genius. You then pour the surprisingly light batter into the hot, butter-coated skillet and watch it sizzle as a crisp, brown crust immediately begins to form. I do have to recommend that you use a heavy, NOT nonstick skillet such as an old-fashioned cast iron pan, in order to form that lovely crust. If your pan is smaller or larger than my 9-inch skillet, just add or subtract a bit of baking time and tent the cornbread with foil if the top browns too quickly.

Whether you are eating this cornbread with Southern barbecue like we did in my previous post, or with another homey dish such as chili or fish stew, it will become a favorite in your repertoire. You can easily whip up the batter in 5 minutes and bake it while you prepare the rest of the meal. It's quite healthy in its simplicity, and I guarantee you will start looking for reasons to bake this bread (hint: it is also amazing topped with a runny fried egg for breakfast)!

Skillet Cornbread
Adapted from Hodgson Mill (on the back of the cornmeal bag)

1 c. stone ground cornmeal (132 g)
1 c. whole wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour (125 g)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tblsp. honey
1 egg
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 1/2 tblsp. butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, baking powder, soda and salt. Add the honey. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg with the buttermilk. Add the egg mixture to the cornmeal mixture and stir to combine with your whisk or a wooden spoon. Meanwhile, put the butter in a 9-inch cast iron skillet and place it in the oven until the butter melts completely. Pour the hot butter into the batter and combine. Immediately pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake in the center of the oven for 23-26 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve immediately or keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week. This bread reheats very well in the microwave on low power.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Best Barbecue in Fort Lauderdale

You know you’re a food snob when you insist on baking your own corn bread to go with takeout. But I am not talking about just any takeout, hastily ordered and picked up at the end of a long day. I’m talking about Southern barbecue, as in smoked spareribs with homemade sauce and pulled pork sandwiches, from some of the best barbecue joints in South Florida. Mike and I finally got tired of driving by these long-running bastions of barbecue, slowing our car to a crawl to inhale the aroma of meat cooking in their outdoor smokers. I guess we always hesitated to try them for ourselves because we feared the disappointment that might come after planning our feast, bringing it home and finding that South Florida barbecue doesn’t live up to the hype. Fort Lauderdale isn’t really “the South,” after all.

To avoid the emotional trauma of bad barbecue, we decided to approach our pork-laden dining experiences with cold, hard empiricism. We would methodically sample the goods at three of the most celebrated BBQ joints within easy “takeout radius” of our condo, treating each meal as an opportunity for culinary observation. At the conclusion of this research period, we would rest assured knowing that we left no rib un-sucked, or failed to consider any top-secret family recipe for barbecue sauce. We could bring home barbecue from our favorite dive with confidence, certain that we were chowing down on the best baby back ribs that our sunny little beach city has to offer.

Like I said, this is no ordinary takeout, and the setting in which you eat good Southern barbecue is very important to your enjoyment of the food, itself. We planned our pork project to coincide with the first three Saturdays of the college football season. After our typical lazy weekend morning and trip to the gym, Mike would go for the takeout at one of the three restaurants on our list, returning around noon when the first football match-up had just gotten underway. I would stay behind making cornbread and arranging stacks of paper towels on the table. Having created the perfect ambience in which to enjoy our barbecue, we had to have the perfect beverage to wash down bites of tender pork coated in smoky, sweet or spicy sauce. In our opinion, tall cans of Budweiser have the right light body, crisp finish and hoppy, yet neutral, quality typical of the best American lagers. It complemented the food from all three barbecue joints nicely. I’ll give you the recipe for the corn bread next time, but here is what we found out over the course of three delicious and intense weeks of feasting on South Florida barbecue:

Baby back ribs at Tom Jenkins are smoky and juicy. Dip them in the fantastic sauce, and you'll be hooked.

1) Tom Jenkins Bar-B-Q - 1236 S. Federal Hwy, Fort Lauderdale 33316; 954-522-5046

If you live in Fort Lauderdale, you have to know this place. Located on US 1, south of Las Olas, Tom’s has probably never spent a dime on advertising. The deep, smoky aroma of their meat comes on like a Siren song in whichever direction the wind is blowing, pulling people into an abyss of the most complex, so-good-you-could-drink-it, barbecue sauce. Tom’s serves our favorite, baby back ribs, while only the larger spareribs were available at the other two restaurants. Tom’s meat and the addictive sauce were so good that we were tempted to end our research there. The little ribs had the right balance of tender meat and sticky, slightly chewy edges. The flavor of the pork was not overtaken by the wonderfully aromatic, woodsy taste of the smoke. I know I have used the word, “smoky” too many times already in this post, but that is also the best way to describe the medium-thin, savory sauce. The delicate smoke was balanced by a deeply flavorful, not tongue-searing, peppery spice. Tom’s should not have bothered with the bun on their pork sandwich. It was little more than a vessel to hold the most tender, lean and delicious pieces of chopped pork loin you’ll ever find. If for some reason, you lack the energy to pull the meat off the ribs with your teeth, just order the sandwich and toss the bun.

Barbecue spareribs from Georgia Pig have a nice texture, and the thin, peppery sauce is good for barbecue fans who prefer spice over sweetness.

1) Georgia Pig Barbeque & Restaurant - 1285 S. State Rd. 7, Davie 33317; 954-587-4420

Just south of the intersection of Davie Road and State Road 7, the Pig is the greatest distance from our home, but the restaurant’s reputation demanded a visit. It has been in business and run by the same family for over 30 years, during which they’ve managed to accumulate hundreds of pig-themed tchotchkes that adorn the walls of this shabby country diner. Having more modernist tastes, I prefer the fiddlin’ neon pig in the front window. Despite being known for traditional Southern barbecue, the pig had the least traditional menu selection of the three. People sat at the counter eating hamburgers and there was no array of standard sides like baked beans and cornbread, not that I would have ordered it anyway. The well made pork sandwich at the Pig consisted of finely chopped smoked pork, lightly sauced and spilling out of a small, unseeded bun. With its spicy, flavorful meat in perfect balance with the fresh bread, it was the best pork sandwich of the three. The sparerib platter came with a superfluous side of fries and half a hoagie roll, toasted and buttered. The ribs were pleasingly chewy on the inside and sticky on the outside, but they lacked the complex smokiness of Tom’s. The sauce at the Pig looked homemade, yet reminded me of thinner, less spicy Tabasco in color and flavor. It was very peppery, but lacked the depth of the smoky brew at Tom’s.

Even a liberal dunking in the sweet, flat-tasting barbecue sauce at Jack's could not add any flavor to these flaccid, though meaty, spareribs.

1) Jack’s BBQ Smokehouse - 500 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Oakland Park; 954-567-9595

On Oakland Park Blvd., the smoking grills outside Jack’s have caught our eye many a time. Since this restaurant is the closest to home, we had our fingers crossed when we did our tasting. Unfortunately, this place made the least authentic and, more importantly, least delicious barbecue. Unlike the other two restaurants, Jack’s serves alcohol, so we knew something strange was up. They offer a selection of southern sides, but I’m willing to bet that those things lack as much soul as Jack’s barbecue sauce. It tasted like a supermarket brand to me, a bit sweet and not at all complex, though slightly thinner than your standard bottle of Bull’s Eye. The pork sandwich looked a lot like the one at the Pig, but the bun was so large and fluffy (and also a bit stale) that it overtook the meat which was too tough and fatty. The huge order of spareribs, while very meaty, just did not have much flavor. I kept dipping them in the ho-hum sauce, but that was a futile hope. Though the meat was tender, it was missing that toothsome, chewy quality and crisp surface that comes with slow, Southern smoking. The ribs tasted as if they had merely been boiled and coated with sauce.

In the end, we got exactly what we wanted: a place to satisfy our occasional craving for barbecue, and the knowledge that we would be indulging in what we think is truly the best in town. While the Georgia Pig will certainly do the job, especially if you love a great pork sandwich, Tom Jenkins is where we’ll be going for the smokiest, tastiest ribs in Fort Lauderdale. That is unless we run across any other barbecue places that compel us to reevaluate the findings of our research. If you want to weigh in your favorite barbecue place, I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Sautéed Gnocchi with Fava Beans

Gnocchi scare me a little. I don’t mean the part about mixing the delicate dough and cooking them just right. I mean actually eating them. Gnocchi, when boiled and then sautéed the way I prefer, have everything going for them. What could be bad about little thumb-sized nubs of fresh dough, crisp and buttery on the outside and soft and light within? Whether served with fresh vegetables, brown butter or tomato sauce, the attraction is strong when I read a menu description, but I am rarely able to close the deal and order a gnocchi dish in restaurants. I am just too scared that they will be (if only I could put this more delicately) …awful. One or two experiences involving heavy, chewy gnocchi that taste of little more than raw dough would make anyone shy away. The really terrible part of this sad story is that gnocchi have such potential! Have you eaten truly wonderful gnocchi? Think about biting into that feathery, flavorful specimen. It hints at the elements of a miniature fritter or savory pancake with its appearance and texture, but the actual substance is Italian pasta dough expanded to greater volume by the shape of the gnocchi.

I am not going to pretend I know how to create the transcendent gnocchi experience that I’m describing here. I wish I had a technique and a treasured recipe that brought shining results every time. It might take years to work that out, but in the meantime I have a delicious and easy alternative. I picked up some Gia Russa fresh Whole Wheat Gnocchi made with sweet potatoes one day at my local supermarket as an impulse buy. I get very excited when I see quality whole wheat products, and the gnocchi really surprised me. My best hope was that the Gia Russa would be a tasty alternative to my usual whole wheat spaghetti or penne, but I did not imagine that it would be comparable to good, traditional white flour gnocchi. I put the package in the back of my pantry cupboard where it sat for ages until last week. Thinking about some fabulous gnocchi that I had recently eaten at a restaurant and inspired by Heidi’s post titled, Golden Crispy Gnocchi, on 101 Cookbooks, I decided to give the store-bought whole wheat ones a whirl. I also had acquired more fresh fava beans from the market, and was dreaming up a mix of favas and sautéed fresh veggies mixed with crisp gnocchi, pan-fried in a little olive oil and butter. All the sweet, bright flavors of the vegetables are brought together with the barest hint of cream, an idea I got from Heidi’s recipe.

I still can’t believe how much this dish surpassed my expectations! Mike and I had to barter over the leftovers (he got the gnocchi since I got our spaghetti with swiss chard, olives and pine nuts). The veggies I chose had the right combination of sweet flavors and varying textures. The gnocchi outshined everything, even the favas, although my newfound love affair with these beautiful beans continues. Though rather large in size, the gnocchi had a soft, spongy texture on the inside. I liked that they were made with sweet potatoes for nutrition, but the flavor and color of the bright orange root was undetectable. There was no specific wheat-like flavor, yet they had more complexity than many bland, white flour pastas. I do not understand why many chefs who should be able to achieve the kind of wonderful results I got with my store-bought gnocchi are still serving up bits of dough as heavy as a bocce ball. I suggest they sample Gia Russa’s version (they also make a white flour gnocchi in both regular and miniature size). This meal renewed my faith in gnocchi, and I am glad I found a cooking method that I like too. If you share my old fear of this delicious Italian dish, it is time to explore your market, Italian grocery or gourmet food store and start experimenting. You’ll be rewarded with a healthy dish that comes together in a flash. If you can’t find Gia Russa in your market (their products are also available here from, try another brand and let me know what you think!

The extra (quick) step of sauteeing the gnocchi is worthwhile--it completely transforms them.

All it needs is a touch of cream to bind all those fresh, sweet flavors.

Sautéed Gnocchi with Fresh Fava Beans
Serves 3

1 ¼ to 1 ½ lb. fresh fava beans, shelled (or substitute about 1 c. frozen, shelled favas)
½ to 1 tblsp. butter
2-3 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. gnocchi (I used Gia Russa whole wheat gnocchi)
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small onion, chopped
8 oz. sliced mushrooms (I used baby bellas)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
kernels from 2 fresh ears of corn (or substitute frozen)
2-3 tblsp. half & half or cream
¼ c. fresh, chopped basil
Parmigiano Reggiano, for serving

To remove the skin from the fava beans, boil in a large pot for 2 minutes, drain, then soak in ice water to stop the cooking. Slip the tough outer skin from each bean and set aside until ready to use. This may be done up to 1 day in advance.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt, then add the gnocchi and boil for 2 ½ minutes, or according to package directions. I wanted to undercook mine just slightly. Drain in a colander.

Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and add ½ tblsp. of the butter and 1 tblsp. of olive oil. To avoid crowding the gnocchi, you may have to do this in two batches. In that case, use the remaining tblsp. of butter and another tblsp. of the oil. Add the gnocchi to the hot butter and oil, season lightly with salt and pepper and cook undisturbed for 1 to 2 minutes or until lightly browned and crisp. Flip the gnocchi around and cook for an additional minute until the other side is browned. Remove gnocchi to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tblsp. of olive oil in another skillet over medium heat and add the onions and mushrooms. Cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes just begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the corn and reserved fava beans, stirring to combine and cook until them are warmed through. Season to taste with salt and pepper and lower the heat. Add the cream. It should be just enough to pick up all the flavorful juices in the pan and bring everything together. Add most of the basil and remove from heat. Divide the gnocchi among 3 serving plates, top with the vegetables, freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and the remaining basil.

With only a small amount of butter and half & half in the whole dish, this gnocchi makes a healthy weeknight meal!

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Twist on Eastern Mediterranean Food

I am so taken with Ana Sortun’s new cookbook, Spice. In some ways, I feel like this book was written just for me. The culinary focus is on the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily Turkey, but also incorporates the flavors of the Middle East. These are some of my favorite food regions because of the emphasis on healthy fare like legumes, grains and vegetables, the plethora of mezze, or casual finger food, and the emphasis on spices to add flavor and depth to a dish. As is evident by the title, spice is everything to Sortun who divides the recipes in the book based on the spice or blend of spices central to their flavor. For example there are chapters on “cumin, coriander and cardamom” and “curry powder, turmeric and fenugreek” that each include appetizers, spice mixes, main courses and sweets. I enjoyed this system because it helped me to think about when and why different spices might be used together and to see the rhyme and reason behind the origin of certain dishes and styles of cooking.

I was excited to discover this book because even though Sortun just won the James Beard Award for Best New Chef Northeast in 2005, I have been hearing about her restaurant, Oleanna in Cambridge, MA, for years. Boston is a wonderful restaurant city where I was lucky to live for seven years during and post-college. It turns out that Sortun was chef at Casablanca, a well established Mediterranean restaurant in Cambridge before opening Oleanna on her own. The owner of Casablanca sent her to his native Turkey where Sortun discovered that there were ways of reaching the heights of gastronomic elegance other than what she had learned in her classical French training. The New York Times did a great three part profile on Sortun with more on her background and a few recipes from the book. After reading the first part, I went straight to buy it. I also had another motive for rushing to get the book. For my birthday at the end of October, Mike is taking me to Boston for a long weekend. We are anxious to spend time in our old hometown and eat at our favorite places. Now that I have sampled Sortun’s amazing lentil kofte and parsnip hummus, I have decided that fitting in a dinner at Oleanna is an absolute must!

Of all the recipes in Spice that I flagged to try, there was no doubt that I would make Sortun’s humble Lentil Kofte first. Kofte is a mixture of bulgar and ground meat, lentils, squash or potatoes, formed into shapes, sometimes stuffed, and then fried, baked or eaten raw. I have most often seen it referred to as “kibbeh,” its Arabic name. I love kibbeh. The first time I had it was at a Mediterranean restaurant in Puerto Rico of all places, and now I’m hooked, sampling the wildly different versions of this dish at restaurants every chance I get. Perhaps I should have tried Claudia Roden’s more traditional bulgar and ground lamb kibbeh from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food first, but Sortun’s innovative version, accompanied by fresh pomegranate salsa, won out. In a way, Spice makes an excellent companion to the Roden book. It is interesting to compare Sortun’s bright, stylish dishes with Roden’s equally delicious but historically-minded and well-researched recipes that are meant to educate about the cuisine while preserving its traditions.

I will definitely try Roden’s kibbeh recipe soon, but Sortun’s kofte were so delicious and so different from anything else I have ever had. Light, but satisfying, very nutritious yet full of hearty flavor, they are a vegetarian dish to please the stomach as well as the eye, decked out with the colorful salsa, sparkling with pomegranate jewels. One curious thing about this recipe is that Sortun would have you serve these “raw,” as opposed to baking or frying them to create a crisp crust and hot center. As she writes in the headnotes, kofte are served all three ways, but I found that lightly frying them in a skillet with a thin coating of butter and olive oil produced the most irresistible results. Baking was nice too, but you can’t beat the brown, crispy edges of pan frying.

Spread the lentil mixture out on a baking sheet so it can cool, then form it into patties.

Pan frying produced the most crisp, golden crust, with a light, soft center.

Mike picked the seeds out by hand, and I don't think he damaged a single one.

Sortun's Parsnip Hummus takes a moment of getting used to because your tongue will be expecting the familiar flavor of chickpeas. The word, “hummus” in fact, means “chickpea” in Arabic. Once you adjust, you will not be able to stop scooping up this dip with toasted pita bread. The boiled and pureed parsnips create a similar consistency to chickpeas, but this root vegetable has a sugar-sweet, earthy flavor that is a total departure from the norm. I love how Sortun is creative enough to take perhaps the most recognizable dish from this cuisine and tweak it to utilize a vegetable that is traditional in New England cooking. Served with the thick, cumin-scented tahini dressing, all the other elements of traditional hummus remain intact, yet the finished product is a total surprise. I have a feeling that cooking out of this book will be as much of a treat as actually eating at Sortun’s restaurant!

The parsnip hummus and tahini sauce kind of looks like mashed potatoes and gravy, but the taste is amazing.

Red Lentil Köfte
Adapted from Spice by Ana Sortun

After cooking the patties both ways, we preferred them pan fried. To bake, put them in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Sortun calls for finely ground bulgar which can be found at Not wanting to wait to receive my bulgar by mail, I ground dry, regular coarse bulgar in my spice grinder, and it worked very well.
Makes about 32 small patties

2 tblsp. butter
1 medium onion, minced
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 tblsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. paprika
pinch cayenne pepper
1 c. red lentils
4 c. hot water
1 c. finely ground bulgar
¼ c. extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
Additional butter and olive oil for frying

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, until softened. Add the tomato paste, paprika and cayenne and quickly stir to combine. Add the lentils, stirring to coat with the spices, then add the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer for 8 minutes. Add the bulgar and olive oil, stir and remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the bulgar is softened.

Turn the lentil mixture out onto a rimmed baking sheet and spread it out to the edges. Let it rest until cool enough to handle. Take about 2 tablespoons of the mixture and form it into a little patty, roughly 1/2 inch thick, using your hands. Continue with the remaining lentil mixture. At this point, you can refrigerate the patties for 4-5 days or until ready to eat.

In a cast iron or nonstick skillet, heat a pat of butter and 1 tblspn. of olive oil together over medium heat. Add the patties to the skillet, making sure they are not touching. You will probably have to do this in batches, but they really are best straight from the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the bottom side is browned. Flip and cook on the opposite for 2 minutes more, or until browned to your liking. Remove to a paper towel, then plate the kofte with the salsa and serve immediately.

Pomegranate Salsa
Adapted from Spice by Ana Sortun
Pomegranate molasses gives unique, tart flavor to the dressing, while the jewel-like seeds add an extra snap to the salsa. This tastes even better a day or two after you make it.

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 medium English cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and finely chopped
1 small green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
¼ c. parsley, chopped
seeds of 1 pomegranate
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ tblsp. lemon juice
1 tblsp. pomegranate molasses

In a large container, combine the onion, cucumber, bell pepper, tomatoes, parsley and pomegranate seeds. Season with salt and pepper. In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the olive oil, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses. Shake vigorously to emulsify. The salsa and the dressing may be stored in the refrigerator separately for up to 3 days. Just before serving, toss the salsa with the dressing.

These recipes made enough kofte and salsa for a few meals, and it just kept tasting better and better!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Peanut Butter, Chocolate, Salt

For me, that title says it all. Individually, peanut butter, chocolate and salt are three very tasty things. Together, they make one blissed-out dessert. Of course, all of this is thanks to our new ice cream maker. I promise not to inundate you with endless shots of freshly made ice cream melting slowly down the sides of a martini glass, but indulge me once more for this one.

Mike and I LOVE peanut butter and chocolate. The good people at Reese’s made us their #1 fans by starting to sell a multitude of variations on their classic peanut butter cups a couple years ago (read a detailed review here on Candy Blog). Those white chocolate peanut butter cups (just so-so) are in every grocery store checkout aisle now, but did you catch the limited edition Inside Out Reese’s, the Fudge Reese’s, the Double Chocolate, or the most fabulous of all, the Extra Smooth & Creamy? I would make special trips to a particular drug store or mini-mart that had them in stock and buy a dozen at a time, always feeling like I should have just taken the entire contents of the display. Why pretend restraint?

Once he saw how well the fig gelato turned out, Mike decided that we had to make peanut butter ice cream. I happily agreed, but immediately began dreaming up ways to incorporate it into a more elaborate dessert. This month’s Bon Appetit (the one with the utterly decadent flourless chocolate cake on the cover) has a swoon-worthy dessert story that includes Peanut Butter Shortbread with Peanut Butter Ice Cream and Peanut Crunch from Veil restaurant in Seattle. I was inspired enough to attempt this multiple-component peanut butter fantasy, but then I realized that I would have to special order certain ingredients like cocoa nibs. Still, this dessert got me thinking about what I truly love about peanut butter and what flavors it is connected with in my gastronomic memory. The Reese’s line gave me some ideas, but I had to figure out how to translate that into a homemade ice cream dessert.

Peanut butter already has a nice salty element which would be toned down a bit by the cream. Of course, chocolate immediately came to mind. Unlike the Bon Appetit recipe, I did not want to add other peanut elements, or make peanut butter cookies and take the ice cream sandwich route. Then I thought of my chocolate-covered pretzels. These are one of my little holiday specialties that I like to do every Christmas. As it goes with so many homemade foods, they taste worlds better than the store-bought varieties, and I prefer them over the ones you can buy in chocolate shops, as well. I believe it all has to do with the salt. I use the standard Rold Gold thin pretzel twists and usually a mix of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. The combination of the hard salt crystals on the pretzels with the dark chocolate is the ideal marriage of salty and sweet. I do not think the pretzels used for commercial brands of chocolate-covered pretzels get this ample coating of little salt rocks and, therefore, cannot compete with the homemade version.

Dipping the pretzels--a bit tedious, but so worth it!

For the ice cream itself, I compared several different recipes that came up in a google search. There were versions with eggs, with corn syrup, with butter. Not wanting anything to get in the way of the peanut butter flavor, we chose the simplest, perhaps purest, one. Mike, however, knew instinctively that whatever amount of Creamy Jif any recipe called for would not be enough to satisfy his constant peanut butter craving. He decided to raise the quantity from ¾ cup to a “generous” full cup.

Tempted to just buy a nice pint of peanut butter ice cream from your grocer’s freezer? Try this recipe, and you will know this ice cream is homemade. It uses half & half plus a bit of milk, but the texture is so incredibly smooth and full of strong peanut butter flavor, made luxurious by the richness of the cream. Texture like this cannot be bought at the supermarket. The ice cream is great on its own, but if you would like to make your own chocolate-covered pretzels, the recipe is below. You could also do a deconstructed version by topping the ice cream with good quality dark chocolate sauce and either some salty roasted peanuts, mini pretzel sticks or a sprinkling of fleur de sel. This may actually be better than the Limited Edition Smooth & Creamy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Peanut Butter Ice Cream
Adapted from Blue Ridge Mountain Ice Cream Maker Store
Makes 1 quart

2 c. half & half
½ c. milk (I used 2%)
½ c. nonfat dry milk
1 c. smooth peanut butter (I used Jif)
¾ c. sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan, combine the half & half, milk, and dry milk and cook over medium-low heat until the dry milk dissolves. Add the peanut butter and cook, stirring often, until smooth. Add the sugar and continue simmering until dissolved. Remove from heat and add the vanilla. Cover and chill in the refrigerator until cool, 1-2 hours. Add mixture to ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions.

Chocolate-Covered Pretzels
My Aunt Joan makes all sorts of chocolates for the holidays, but it is her pretzels that my family started making ourselves years ago. The ones she sent as gifts just weren’t enough!

1 bag of Rold Gold pretzel twists (you won’t use the whole bag)
2 cups chocolate chips or chocolate pieces (I use a mix of bittersweet and semisweet, but use any kind you like)

Line 3 baking sheets with wax paper. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave. I use the microwave, running it on medium power for 1 minute, stirring, then running it for 30 second intervals thereafter, stirring after each one. Chocolate can burn easily, so be vigilant. You want the chocolate to be smooth, glossy and easy to stir. Using a fork, dip the pretzels in the melted chocolate, shake off the excess, and set on the wax paper. Place the baking sheets in the refrigerator for the pretzels to set for at least 3 hours. Transfer pretzels to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes 3-4 dozen.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Swiss Chard, Red Onions and Pine Nuts

If it has been awhile since a variety of tasty vegetables has passed your lips, or if you are just looking for a way to enjoy some fresh produce from your garden or market, try my favorite vegetable pasta dish. It is the one we fall back on when we want to eat something really delicious that we know won’t weight us down, so to speak. This often gets made to balance out another meal that is rather lacking in vegetable and fiber content. Take this Saturday. For a relaxing lunch while watching some college football, Mike and I made a quick run to one of South Florida’s beloved barbecue dives. In the interest of research, we are pitting some of the best-known BBQ pits against one another to determine which, in our opinion, serves the best barbecue in town. More on that in the future.

Since the ribs, cornbread and pork sandwich were not exactly high on the nutritional scale, we decided to make up for it at dinner with this pasta. Don’t start thinking that this is the sort of diet meal that will leave you feeling like you are missing something. The sautéed red onions together with the mushrooms, tomatoes and parmigiano reggiano (Do not skip the cheese!) are so full of sweet, rich flavor, you’ll keep trying to figure out exactly what it is that tastes so good. The swiss chard, a green with a bit more bitterness than spinach, as well as a firmer bite, balances the sweetness. There is plenty of healthy fat from the cheese, olive oil, olives and pine nuts. A small amount of each of these strongly-flavored additions goes a long way.

There are two things that I think you must do to make this dish the best it can be: toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet (not nonstick) until lightly browned, and use whole wheat spaghetti. Toasting the pine nuts does wonders to bring out their flavor. I like to use Whole Foods 365 brand of whole wheat pasta because it has a strong, yet pleasantly nutty taste that complements this earthy-sweet blend of vegetables beautifully. Some of the other whole wheat brands that I like, such as Barilla, taste just like regular spaghetti, so I reserve them for dishes when I do not want a strong wheat flavor, like carbonara. If you did not start your day with a rack of ribs like us, serve this pasta with crisp, buttery garlic bread or your favorite fresh loaf dipped in extra virgin olive oil. One thing that helps make this recipe so nutritious is that the proportion of vegetables to pasta is nearly equal. Since eating well and enjoying food is all about balance, it helps to have a veggie-centric dish like this in your arsenal.

I like to cut the chard leaves in half while removing the stems. I then stack the leaf halves on top of each other and chop them.

The veggies have just finished cooking. It is good for some liquid to remain in the skillet. The pasta will soak it up when you combine them.

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Swiss Chard, Red Onions and Pine Nuts
I am calling for one large bunch of swiss chard here, but you can never have too much. Like spinach, it cooks down considerably. I adapted this recipe from Giada De Laurentiis' Show, Everyday Italian.
Serves 3-4

3-4 tblsp. pine nuts
8-10 oz. whole wheat spaghetti
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tblsp. olive oil
1 large red onion, sliced into half moons
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
1 large bunch swiss chard, thick stems and spines removed and chopped
Pinch of nutmeg
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 can diced tomatoes with their juice (I used the kind with Italian seasonings added)
1/3 c. pitted and chopped olives (I used mixed Mediterranean ones)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Heat a large stainless steel or cast iron skillet over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast, tossing occasionally, until lightly browned. Remove from skillet and set aside. Add the oil to the skillet and turn the heat up to medium. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until mushrooms are soft and just beginning to brown. Add the swiss chard, in batches if necessary, and cook until the greens are reduced in volume and incorporated with the other vegetables, about 4 minutes. If the skillet is too dry, add a small amount of hot water. Add the nutmeg (it is a wonderful compliment to greens). Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes. Simmer for about 4 minutes to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt and cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain in a colander and return pasta to the pot, off of the heat. Add the vegetable mixture to the pasta along with the olives and combine. Divide evenly among 3 or 4 bowls. Top with toasted pine nuts and grated parmigiano.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fig Gelato

I try to be very selective about which gadgets make it into my tiny kitchen. Ideally, every last one, from the little toys in the utensil drawer to the substantial appliances hogging the cupboard space, would be something that I use to death. If I ever meet a cook who manages to truly conform to this rule, it will probably be in my dreams.

Even though I only use my mini loaf pans once a year to make pumpkin bread for Christmas, they are perfect for baking adorable gift-size loaves. I may only pull out my utterly space-sucking glass cake dome a couple times a year for birthdays, but nothing else would do justice to a lovingly homemade layer cake. I have faced the fact that there is a slew of kitchen stuff that, though seldom used, is essential nonetheless.

One kitchen gadget that I never thought I would succumb to is the ice cream maker. I have entertained the notion of buying one many times as I flipped through a glossy food magazine and saw mouthwatering desserts involving pomegranate ice cream or pistachio gelato. The problem is that I have never been… how do I say it? An ice cream person. I like ice cream. In fact, give me a scoop of cookies and cream on a sugar cone and I like it a lot. I can even say that I love to eat those esoterically flavored ice creams created by amazing pastry chefs in great restaurants. Green tea sorbet and black pepper ice cream are always welcome on my plate. Still, if I ever have to choose between cake/cookies/tarts and ice cream, the ice cream rarely stands a chance.

There is only one thing that could make a non-ice cream person like me add a bulky (yet sleekly designed) Cuisinart ice cream maker to her bursting-at-the-seams cabinet. That thing is glorious, in-season, fresh figs. Did you read last week’s article in the Los Angeles Times by Russ Parsons titled, Seduction by Fig? Seduction, indeed, my friends. Go read it now, then come back and read my blog some more. If you do, you’ll learn some fascinating things. For example, did you realize that when you eat a fig, you are eating a cluster of inside-out flowers? This fascinating and ancient fruit is slowly becoming more widely available, as growers realize greater profits from the sale of fresh figs than from the same amount of dried fig paste that they could sell to certain cookie manufacturers.

Yet another gratuitous fig shot on this blog...gorgeous!

Accompanying the article are three very tempting fig recipes, but the one that caught my eye and sent me off to purchase my new gadget was Fig-Honey Gelato. Actually, it was the picture that did it: A beautiful pinky-purple colored frozen concoction, bespeckled with fig seeds and laden with chunks of frozen fruit. I had to have it.

It turned out that the ice cream maker was a fantastic purchase. Making the gelato couldn’t have been easier, and it was so much fun to watch the machine turn our liquid, fig-y brew into something that would delight any gelato lover. The difference between gelato and ice cream is that gelato does not contain cream. This recipe calls for milk (I assumed whole milk was the way to go) and mascarpone cheese, but no cream. I have fond memories of eating gelato in Rome and Venice, but I never go for it here in the states. I imagine it could never be the same. Our fig gelato was thick and creamy, had just the right level of sweetness and was full of the lush flavor of fresh figs. I would recommend cutting the figs into smaller chunks than the recipe suggests, as the larger pieces stay extremely cold, and have to be eaten very slowly, warming up in your mouth. It has been so long since I ate gelato in Italy that I can’t make a true comparison, but this gelato is a treat.

Mike has dictated that our next project will be peanut butter ice cream. I have a feeling the new machine will be getting more attention than I thought.

Stirring the mascarpone cheese into the fig-sugar-honey mixture.

Just pour the milky fig liquid into your machine, and 25 minutes later you'll have absolutely dreamy fig gelato.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Moroccan Vegetable Sauté with Garbanzo Beans

“I love beans,” said Mike as he pilfered a few garbanzos from the colander and popped them in his mouth. I told him not to eat them all before I could add them to the cinnamon and curry-scented vegetables I was sautéing, but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. Mike has always been partial to black beans, as they make such good burritos. I brought white beans into our repertoire after an Italian cooking class several years ago, and both of us have been eating loads of garbanzos these days in salads, as hummus and in dishes like this Moroccan Vegetable Sauté. One of our favorite formulas for a fast, healthy dinner is beans combined with sautéed vegetables served over a whole grain. This kind of meal is totally virtuous (perfect when you need to detox after a weekend of food indulgences), yet filling and full of whatever flavors you choose as accents. By the way, it is vegetarian, but you may not even notice the absence of meat.

You could take our formula and try white beans with sautéed tomatoes, summer squash and red onions flavored with a pinch of dried oregano and fresh basil over barley. How about black beans with spinach, red bell peppers and corn over quinoa? I love the pop-in-your-mouth textural combination of corn with quinoa, and you could use chili powder, diced jalapeno, lime and cilantro for a southwestern-style dish. For a bit more richness, add cheese (chunks of salty feta go with almost anything) or toasted nuts to any of these combinations. Mike joked that we should just put lists of every grain, vegetable, and bean we like up on the refrigerator door and create our meals by making new combinations from the three categories.

The Moroccan-themed dish we made here is seasoned with curry, cumin and chili powder, but the distinct taste of the cinnamon, not overly sweet, but in balance with the spice and mild heat, makes the flavor complex and distinctly Moroccan. After enjoying the veggies and garbanzos over couscous, I told Mike that he just had a vegan meal. I was then treated to a speech about how he could never give up cheese (not to mention meat). Still, we both think that vegetarians, vegans and carnivores can all enjoy this. Maybe beans can unite us all…

Moroccan Vegetable Sauté with Garbanzo Beans
Adapted from Vegetarian Times. Feel free to use fresh tomatoes instead of canned or substitute any of the vegetables for what you have on hand. The quantities of spices given here are completely negotiable. Taste as you go and add more of this or that. I added the garam masala because I had some in the cupboard that I wanted to experiment with, but with the cumin, curry and coriander, it is a bit redundant (garam masala is a spice blend that can include all three of these), so leave it out if you like. I think this would also be delicious with lentils instead of garbanzos.
Serves 4

1 ½ tblsp. olive oil, divided1 medium onion, chopped1 ½ tsp. curry powder, or to taste
½ tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
¼ tsp. of garam masala½ tsp. ground cinnamon2-3 cloves garlic minced
2 medium zucchini, chopped
1 ½ c. shredded carrots
15-oz.can diced tomatoes with juice2 (15 oz.) cans garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
¼ to ½ c. water
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste½ cup chopped cilantro
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1 ¼ c. whole wheat couscous

In your largest skillet, heat 1 tblsp. of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until onion is soft and just beginning to brown. Add the remaining oil and quickly add the spices, stirring constantly and coating the onions well. Add the garlic, zucchini and carrots, and cook until the zucchini begin to soften and reduce in volume. Add the tomatoes with their juice, the garbanzos and the water, starting with ¼ of a cup and adding a bit more if the skillet is too dry. Allow the mixture to simmer, stirring occasionally, until only a small amount of liquid remains in the skillet. Taste and adjust the spices and add some salt and fresh ground pepper if you like. Add the lemon zest and juice and all but a couple tablespoons of cilantro. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, prepare the couscous according to package directions. I used vegetable broth, but water is fine too. I also did not bother to add butter or olive oil, as the couscous eventually gets mixed with the flavorful veggies. Serve the vegetable-garbanzo mixture over the fluffy bed of couscous and garnish with cilantro.

Simmering the veggies and garbanzos. This is the time to taste and fiddle with the spices as much as you want.

Virtuous and tasty!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fresh Fava Bean Risotto with Pancetta

I still have a recipe that I tore out of the April 2004 issue of Bon Appetit magazine for Fricasee of Beef and Fava Beans. At that point, I had never eaten a fresh fava bean, and I began a long vigil waiting for a sort of culinary cosmic alignment to occur. An opportunity to serve a special, labor-intensive meal needed to coincide with the availability of fava beans, which turn up only occasionally in markets in the late summer.

Every so often, I would come across that recipe and hope favas would appear at the store, but secretly, in my heart of hearts, I was kind of glad. Somewhere along the way, it had been imprinted on my consciousness that shelling fava beans was the most tedious, time-sucking, miserable job in the kitchen--worse than cutting the spines out of lettuce leaves or peeling apples. Not only do fava beans need to be removed from the furry lining of their large, thick pods, but then the tender, edible beans have to be somehow freed of their outer shells, ONE BY ONE. That fricasee recipe calls for 5 pounds of beans, and surely I would be shelling for ages, pressing on even after my fingers had grown numb. Suffice it to say that the triangulation of ample time, readily available produce and culinary desire never happened for me.

Fast forward to summer 2006. That is when the signs began. In late July, I saw fresh fava pods in my supermarket for the first time. "In South Florida, of all places," I thought. "Maybe I should make that fava fricasee recipe?" Once I knew I could get the favas, I started noticing other recipes using the broad, vivid beans. There was fava and corn succotash in a magazine; fava bean puree on the internet; and gnocchi with fava beans and delicate chanterelle mushrooms at one of my favorite restaurants, Rioja in Denver. If all these people were cooking with fava beans, how bad could it be?

Last week, fava beans showed up again at the supermarket, and this time, I snapped them up from their bin. Inspired by the meal I had eaten at Rioja over a year ago, I conjured up a risotto dish to show off the beautiful beans. I would serve it as an accompaniment to roast cornish game hens, so I would not need to shell an inordinate amount of beans. I told Mike my plans, and we went off to buy some Italian wine for the occasion. Chianti, you ask? No, but one of the grapes used to make it that is less expensive without the D.O.C. classification, Sangiovese.

And when it came time to finally do the loathsome deed? I had not entirely abandoned my fava phobia, so I started dinner hours early. Within five minutes, I had plucked the beans from their pods. After that, it was a minute and a half in boiling water, a quick dip in an ice bath, and with Mike's help, the favas were shelled in no time. It was only a pound of beans, but I would gladly do five times that quantity. This risotto recipe serves 4 as a first course or an accompaniment, with plenty of beans to go around.

Fresh Fava Bean Risotto with Pancetta
Use real pancetta if you can get it, otherwise use best-quality bacon. The fat of this Italian salt-cured pork belly brings wonderful flavor to the dish that complements the favas. Buy whole baby portabella or buttom mushrooms and stem and thinly slice them yourself. I did not skimp on the butter and olive oil in this recipe because it makes the mushrooms soft and flavorful, and it also acts as part of the flavor base for the risotto. The lemon zest and juice is essential to lighten the richness of the pork fat. I like to buy arborio rice that is imported from Italy because I think it is creamier than other domestic brands that I have tried, but experiment to find a brand you like.

1 1/2 tblsp. unsalted butter, divided
2 tblsp. olive oil, divided
8-10 baby portabella or button mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced
8 slices pancetta, large pieces of fat removed and cut into bite-size strips (you can also use a couple thick slices of pancetta, cut into small cubes)
1 lb. fava beans, shelled
fresh ground pepper
pinch of salt, optional
zest and juice of half a lemon
4-6 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (I use chicken broth from low-sodium bouillion)
1/2 small onion or 1 shallot, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. arborio rice (risotto)
parmesan cheese, for garnish

Heat 1/2 tblsp. butter and 1 tblsp. olive oil in a nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the pancetta and cook stirring often, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the heat to low and add the fava beans. Cook just until warmed through. Season with fresh ground pepper and a pinch of salt, if desired (the pancetta will add quite a lot of salt on its own). Squeeze the lemon over all and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat 6 cups of chicken broth and keep warm over low heat. You may not need to use all the broth, but 6 cups will have you covered.

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven, heat the remaining butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly.

Add the rice and toast until the grains are opaque, about 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Keep everything moving so the rice and the garlic do not burn. (At this point, you could also add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of white wine, if you like. Cook until wine is almost completely reduced, then proceed).

Add about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of broth to the rice. Bring the liquid to a steady simmer and cook, stirring very often, until all the liquid is almost totally absorbed. Add 1/2 cup of broth (or more if you have a larger pot) and cook until the liquid is almost totally absorbed. Continue adding broth in 1/2 c. increments, letting each addition absorb almost completely, until the grains are al dente, or as tender as you like them. Taste often; they will soften quickly. The whole process should take 22 to 28 minutes. You should stand over the pot, stirring for nearly the entire time. I find this aspect of making risotto fairly undemanding and relaxing, and I hope you will too!

When the risotto is done, stir in the fava bean mixture, including any luscious pancetta fat in the skillet. Stir in the lemon zest and serve immediately with freshly grated parmesan cheese on top.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Shock of the New

When is the last time you tried food that was completely foreign to you? If it was when you were six and had broccoli for the first time, your tastebuds are overdue for a shock. Even if you are an adventurous eater who would embrace cod cheeks and mangosteens with open arms, you may find that you can still treat yourself to new experiences.

That is what happened to me and Mike a few days ago. I had the pleasure of spending the Labor Day weekend in Toronto because Mike was there for the consulting project he's been doing. On my last trip to this cosmopolitan city, we were met with so many more wonderful gastronomic options than we had time to enjoy. So, I was thrilled to go back for another chance to taste Toronto.

The highlight of this food-filled weekend was undoubtedly the dim sum at Sam Woo Seafood. Toronto has a large Chinatown section and the traffic jams to go along with it, but we found our dim sum palace in the suburb of Scarborough, about 15 minutes out of the city. This area is full of Asian restaurants of every nationality, Asian groceries and other businesses catering to the area's large asian population. An article on the internet tipped us off that the best Chinese food was not necessarily found downtown, but in the outlying areas where most of Toronto's Chinese community actually lives. This same article directed us straight to Sam Woo. Unfortunately, it did not specify that we should look for Sam Woo Seafood, as opposed to Sam Woo Barbecue. After an embarrassing scene in Sam's Barbecue, we were directed to the opposite end of the strip mall where we found Sam Woo Seafood. All was right with the world when we were seated in the bustling, circular dining room with windows all along the outside wall, ornate fixtures and pink linen tablecloths. Sam Woo is actually a small chain with restaurants in the Los Angeles area, as well as Las Vegas. Since we were the only two people in the restaurant who were not speaking Chinese, this chain was good enough for us.

We soon discovered that Sam Woo does not serve its dim sum from a cart. I had been hoping for this visual aid for my first ever dim sum experience. Instead, we got a menu and a pencil to mark our selections. Sam Woo is kind, offering descriptions in Chinese and English, but we still had no idea what our selections would look like when they arrived at the table. It may have taken a minute to deduce which item was which, but all of it was freshly made, steaming hot and bursting with exotic sweet, sour or spicy flavors. It is hard to believe that both Mike and I have lived this long without eating dim sum. It is like tapas, except it is Chinese, and it is for breakfast! Sure, we could have gone all out and ordered the fried duck feet, but even the simplest dishes were totally new to us in their flavor and presentation. Here are our favorites:

A moist, steamed rice patty with vegetables and meat, wrapped in a lotus leaf.

I thought we mistakenly ordered a strange Chinese version of creme brulee, but it turned out to be our steamed turnip cake. It was soft, gelatinous and incredibly comforting with its wonderfully bland flavor.

Shrimp and scallop dumplings in pretty green wrappers.

The simplest was my favorite: Juicy pork meatball dumplings with a sour dipping sauce.

I almost hesitated to write about Tutti Matti, an Italian restaurant right on the fringe of Toronto's Chinatown. It's another Italian restaurant in a city full of exemplary Italian restaurants. Still, the fact is that the food at Tutti Matti is excellent. It is a small place on a quiet side street with a long, narrow dining room, open kitchen and dim candlelight. Ducking into this lively, welcoming space on a cold, rainy night (thank you, Tropical Storm Ernesto), we were instantly enveloped with the warmth of this little neighborhood restaurant. It felt like we happened upon an undiscovered gem.

Tutti Matti is real Italian food by my definition, meaning fresh pasta, deeply flavored meats and light, creative dishes. One of bite of our appetizer of seasonal veggies with cheese and truffle pate in a chickpea flour crepe told us that we were going to enjoy this meal very much. Although the menu made choosing extremely difficult, Mike and I both ordered pasta dishes. All the pasta is handmade, so it is thick and rustic in appearance. My long hand-rolled noodles, much like thick spaghetti, could have used a bit more salt. They lacked the chewy bite of dried pasta, but the soft strings of dough were light and so different from dried spaghetti, that they fall into a class of their own.

My hand-rolled spaghetti with wild mushroom ragu and artisanal sausage. I enjoyed the dish, but could not distinguish enough strong, individual flavors of mushrooms and sausage. Mike's penne with duck ragu had a more dominant meaty flavor that we both preferred.

A trip to Tutti Matti is worth it for their amazing tiramisu. The mascarpone topping is lightened with cream and the soft lady fingers are flavored with just enough espresso so there is not a hint of sogginess. We have eaten enough mediocre tiramisu to be quite jaded, but this simple, single-layer, homemade version was the best one we have ever had.

Good Italian food is hard to beat, but try to find a restaurant or type of cuisine that throws you for a loop once in awhile. Now that I am hooked on dim sum (you could eat it every day, and never have exactly the same things--the combinations are endless!), I will have to remember to follow this advice myself.

Sam Woo Seafood
325 Bamburgh Circle
Scarborough, ON M1W 3Y1
(416) 502-2888

Tutti Matti
364 Adelaide St. W.
(416) 597 8839

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pure Abundance: Fig Preserves

Things you can never have too much of:

Sunny Days
Fresh Figs

You may have noticed that one of these is not like the others. Who doesn’t yearn for an extra week (or four) of vacation, or more time to work on their everyday to-do lists? And surely we can agree that even when filled to overflowing, our hearts can make room for all the love that comes our way.

You may not put fresh figs in the same league as Love, Hope and precious Time. Figs don’t stay fresh for long, and how many can a person eat before the intensely sweet, ruby flesh just ceases to thrill? I admit that I encountered this problem last week when figs, some literally bursting with ripeness, were two pounds for the price of one at my supermarket. Usually set off to the side, often unnoticed by the casual shopper, the figs now composed one of the central displays in the produce section. Every kind I’ve ever seen was represented including my favorite, Black Mission Figs from California. Despite the fact that I would be out of town over the holiday weekend instead of at home where I could laze about popping figs into my mouth all day like bonbons, I bought them. Then I went back the next day and bought more. Honestly, it pained me that I could justify the purchase of only four pounds of figs. What if the other shoppers let this bounty go to waste?

I tried to let go of my sadness for the unclaimed figs and focus on what to do with the ones I had. There was no time to eat them one by one with little chunks of salty feta as I like best. I had no one else to cook for and enough fruit to produce multiple fig pizzas plus a few tarts. I started to feel over-burdened, and then I caught myself. When it comes to figs, you can never have too much. That is how I decided to make my very first batch of preserves. I cannot describe how immensely satisfying it was to put up my three finished jars of homemade fig preserves, knowing that I would be able to experience the abundance of my favorite summer fruit when the days of 2-for-1 are over and figs have been replaced by fresh cranberries, pears and clementines.

Although it requires your full attention, the preserving process is easy. Having no dedicated canning equipment, I used the simplest method possible. I figured out my ratio of sugar to fruit based on Maki’s recipe for apricot preserves in this post from her blog, Just Hungry. I also adopted her relaxed attitude about home preserving and did not bother with pectin. The amount of sugar I used is far less than I have seen in many other preserve recipes, but I just could not imagine adding more than two cups of sugar to this already lusciously sweet fruit. Of course, sugar acts as the actual preserving agent, and the National Center for Home Food Preservation might disagree with what I’ve done here. That is my official disclaimer. The amount of sugar I used was sufficient to cook the figs and achieve a honey-like thickness. I sterilized and filled my jars using the method described here which does not require a water bath. From reading all I could about making simple preserves at I home, I have realized that there are various ways to achieve the same end result, and instructions will differ based on the quirks and experience of the writer. In other words, the right way to make preserves is the way your mother or grandmother made them. I also added one little twist. After I filled the first jar with the figs that had only been flavored with lemon juice, I added the zest of a Valencia orange to the remaining fruit. I then tipped in a shot of orange liqueur and continued to simmer for a minute or two before filling the remaining jars.

If you would rather not worry about the finer points of the canning process, you can do everything I did here with any kind of jars, and your preserves will keep in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. This works very well if you are making a small batch, so I would recommend doing half of this recipe. Here are the ingredients and steps I used:

Fig Preserves, Two Ways
Makes 2-1 pint canning jars plus extra for immediate consumption.

2-1 pint canning jars (I used Ball brand jars that come with rims and lids with a built in seal)
4 lbs fresh figs, washed, trimmed and cut into quarters or eigths (if figs are very large)
2 cups granulated sugar
½ cup water
4 tblsp. lemon juice

To make Orange-Fig Preserves:
Zest of one orange
1 tsp. orange liqueur (triple sec or Cointreau)

For the jars: Clean the jars and lids in the dishwasher or submerge them in a large pot of boiling water. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees and place a baking sheet on the middle rack. Place the jars and lids on the baking sheet and "cook" them for about 20 minutes while the figs are simmering. Remove the jars and lids with clean tongs right before you are ready to fill them.

Begin cutting the figs into small chunks while you bring the sugar and water to a simmer in a heavy stainless steel or other non-reactive pot. Cook on low until the sugar dissolves completely and the liquid appears clear. Watch carefully and stir often so the sugar does not burn.

Add half the chopped figs to the sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook for 30 minutes or until figs are very soft and falling apart. Then add the remaining chopped figs and continue to cook for 30-40 minutes more or until the mixture reaches your desired thickness. Add the lemon juice in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Do not leave the pot unattended for more than a few minutes. Stir often to prevent the figs from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Remove a jar from the oven with a pair of tongs and fill it with figs to the very top. Carefully remove a lid from the oven and cover the jar opening. Set the rim over the lid and twist tightly, using towels to protect your hands. Turn the jar upside down for 5 minutes. Turn right side up and let the jar cool completely. When filling the jar, do not touch the inside of the jar, the threads of the jar or the inside of the lid. Do not wipe any spills around the edge of the rim; just leave it. You do not want to introduce any bacteria from your hands or a towel. I used a large spoon to fill the jars and had minimal mess.

Tips for Making Preserves:
1) When simmering the fruit, keep a close eye on things and stir often to prevent sticking.
2) Use tongs to grip hot jars and lids. When you have to handle them, only touch the outsides and protect your hands with towels or heat-proof mitts.
3) Use a spoon to fill the jars. This is slower, but causes fewer spills than pouring the fruit straight from the pot.
4) After an hour, you can check the seals on the jars. The lids should be curved slightly inwards and will not pop back and forth when you press down on them.
5) If a jar does not seal, you can put the fruit back in the pot, boil for a few minutes and start again with a clean, sterilized jar. Alternatively, you can refrigerate the preserves. They will keep for 3 weeks.
6) To make the orange flavored fig preserves, fill one jar, then add the zest and liqueur to the remaining fruit. Simmer for 2 minutes and fill the other jar.
7) Do not try to seal a jar that is partially filled. Refrigerate any leftovers in an airtight container or sample your handiwork right away!

To show off my fig preserves, I made a batch of simple scones. Slightly sweet with a hint of vanilla, they turn these preserves into a special breakfast or snack. I used this recipe from the very tempting website, Joy of Baking, which has a good selection of scones. I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for one cup of the AP flour and mixed the dough in my food processor instead of by hand.

Your sweet's never too much.