Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bring on the Figs!

Summer turning into Fall is Fig Season on my calendar. As part of a composed salad, as an appetizer paired with Gorgonzola and walnuts on a crispy crostini or blended with sugar and port and simmered into sublime jamminess, figs are an autumn treat. And unfortunately, one that sometimes gets a bad rap. How many of us growing up were given those “healthy” cookies, Nabisco's Fig Newtons, by guilty moms, forever making figs a food to be avoided? I don’t know about you, and I think my kids once thought the same way, but healthy was synonymous with “Tastes lousy!”

Like a number of the foods I now consider absolutes in my pantry or on my table, figs have been an acquired taste. Maybe they are meant to be enjoyed by adults who have ascended many culinary heights, and finally find their palates leaning toward a more subtle earthiness; a flavor that, though divine on its own, can be enhanced by the creaminess of Manchego cheese, the saline accent of olives or the vibrancy of aged balsamic vinegar. Fresh figs offer a simplicity and versatility comparable to tomatoes with an unfortunate shorter growing season and shelf life.

California’s own Central Valley – Fresno and its environs, to be exact – is the major fig producing region in the US, with Texas coming in a close second. Though I am a partial to fresh figs this time of year, it is the 28 million pounds of dried figs produced annually in California that keeps us figged up throughout the year. Many recipes that call for fresh figs can be successfully executed with the dried version; just be sure to hydrate them first. Gently boiled in water mixed with some brandy or wine, if desired, should do the trick.

Her are some fig facts, thanks to the California Fig Advisory Board:

- The fig is the hot topic fruit in the Bible, and mentioned in Babylonian text as early as 2000 BC. Fig leaves, of course, were also the clothing of choice for Adam and Eve and there is some debate that the “forbidden fruit” may have been a fig rather than an apple. Whew…that may ease a few apple growers’ consciences’! Figs have represented fertility, abundance and new life in many different references throughout history and in both Biblical and mythological texts.

- In ancient Greece, figs were so highly valued that “Solon, the ruler of Attica {639-559 BC} actually made it illegal to export figs out of Greece, reserving them solely for his citizens.”

- Pliny the Elder, whose quote about artichokes I’ve included in a previous entry, liked figs a bit more, writing, “Figs are restorative. They increase the strength of young people, preserve the elderly and make them look younger with fewer wrinkles.” Figs, the wonder fruit, compliments of Pliny!

- Charlemagne, in about 812 AD, tried but could not get figs to grow in the Netherlands. Too cold and damp, perhaps?

-Captain Bligh, of mutiny infamy, planted the first fig tree in Tasmania in 1792.

As for nutrients, fiber, iron, calcium and potassium are all a part of a ¼ cup serving of dried figs, with no fat, no sodium and no cholesterol.

So enough with the facts, enjoy figs for what they bring to your taste buds – happiness!

There was on Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier

He danced hornpipes and jigs,
And ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia
- Edward Lear, English artist and limerick writer, 1812-1888

Fresh Fig Jam

Enjoy straight out of out of the bowl by the spoonful, or if you just have to be more sophisticated, serve as a relish with roasted rack of lamb or on a crostini with Gorgonzola or Manchego cheese. Thanks to Sara Nelson of The Kitchen Elves Personal Chef Service, Durham NC

8 oz ripe figs, Black Mission preferred, but any varietal will work well
½ cup fruity wine - I like Kastania Vineyards Pinot Noir

¼ cup sugar
1 tsp grated orange zest

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Trim off stems of figs and finely chop. Place in a saucepan and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low and cook for approximately 25 minutes or until '"jammy" in texture, stirring approximately every 5 minutes. Watch carefully and adjust heat as necessary - the mixture can burn easily!

Transfer to a bowl, cool and serve. The jam will keep refrigerate for 3-5 days, but I dare you not to eat it all at once!

Oven Roasted Rack of Lamb with Fresh Fig Jam, Couscous-Stuffed
 Heirloom Tomatoes & Sauteed Basil Summer Squash

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Orb of Joy!

Spring is in the air, which means it's the beginning of artichoke season here in Northern California. YES!Referred to by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) as "one of the earth's monstrosities", artichokes, those funky-looking, prickly tipped greens globes, are one of the culinary world’s wonders. Few delectables look more foreboding than an artichoke; even fewer reveal such a subtle, sweet-smoke flavor, accentuated by citrus notes and earthy undertones. It’s not easy to eat an artichoke and that seems to be by nature’s design – you have to work for something this sublime and delicious.

I was first served an artichoke in college and couldn’t have been more put off by the steamed green orbs placed on the dinner table. A sorority sister’s family grew them on their ranch in the Central Coast area and the house was the recipient of a recent crop. 100% of the United States' artichoke crop is grown in California, largely concentrated in Monterey County, and also throughout the coastal areas between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, where warm days, foggy mornings and cool evenings make for a perfect ‘choke growing climate. Not being too adventurous in the fresh veggie eating category – I was one of the canned vegetable generation growing up, unfortunately – I was a bit put off by having to politely pull the leaves off this steamed green thing in front of me and then dip it in either mayonnaise or melted butter – both anathema to a college girl watching her weight. But sorority politeness was to be the rule of the day and once I navigated the cumbersome outer leaves and began dipping the tender insides, especially the luscious heart, into mayo, I discovered a flavor sensation my rather naive palate had never experienced. Subtle, sweet yet smoky, and creamy – I never thought a pile of leaves could bring such satisfaction and contentment! As a college grad, living on a limited budget, an artichoke or two, when in season, sustained me for dinner. And today, at prices ranging from $.89 - $1.00 each, they’re still an economical, easy, nutritious and filling lunch or dinner. My sons love them, and the time it takes to peel and eat the leaves adds extra time to the family dinner table – much needed time when one has teens and wants to chat with them!
Italians had long savored this peculiar flower-cum-vegetable – our friend Pliny the Elder and his colleagues enjoyed them as far back as 77 AD and so did many other Romans over the years. We have Catherine de Medici to thank for introducing artichokes to France when she married Henry II in the 16th century. They have been a culinary staple ever since. French immigrants brought the plant with them to colonial Louisiana but with mixed results; though briefly cultivated in the Bayou State, nothing remains today of artichoke farming in the Southern United States.

Once again, it was up to the Italians to spread the love. Italian immigrants in the post-Gold Rush era introduced artichokes, along with broccoli and garlic, to Northern California and created the coastal communities that now grow these plants in abundance. Thank you!! What would mayonnaise be without an artichoke heart to dip it in?

"These things are just plain annoying. After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual "food" out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps. Have the shrimp cocktail instead." - Miss Piggy

Oh, just ignore Miss Piggy! She just doesn’t appreciate the effort needed to enjoy an artichoke. But, I’ll compromise with her – add a shrimp cocktail to a steamed artichoke and enjoy the magic!

I have the good fortune to live just over the hill from the charming village of Pescadero. Orignally part of the Mission Santa Cruz pasture land, Juan Jose Gonzalez was given a Mexican land grant in 1833. Not far from the Pacific's cool breezes, with rich, fertile soil, Gonzalez began raising livestock and farming, laying the foundation for Pescadero's agricultural future. 19th century poineer Alexander Moore came to the Pescadero Valley in 1853, establishing the first American presence in the area. By the 1860's, the village's ideal climate and convenient location to shipping made it a center for both farming and the lumber industry that harvested redwood strands in the mountians to the east.

A local gem, Pescadero today is a favorite destination for cyclists, bikers and drivers reveling in the beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains between the San Mateo County coast and Silicon Valley. Dramatic views of the rugged coastline are accentuated by a visit to Pigeon Point Lighthouse & Hostel and hiking the many trails of  Butano State Park  reveal ancient redwoods and creeks. Pescadero State Beach is the perfect spot for beachcombing and the Pescadero Marsh Preserve across Highway 1 provides excellent bird watching.

For anyone visiting Coastside, a day trip is not complete without savoring a bowl of artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern in "downtown" Pescadero. Old school does not begin to describe to ambience of this landmark bar, coffee shop, restuarant and bakery. A recipent of the James Beard Foundation's Coca-Cola America's Classic Award in 2003, Duarte's has been serving generations of locals, thousands of tourists and anyone who really enjoys great food for over 60 years. The artichoke soup is a must and the array of local delicacies - cioppino, abalone, dungeness crab - are the perfect follow up to this luscious starter (combine it with the Red Pepper Soup for an even better experience!). AN a meal is not complete without a slice of Oallieberry Pie, a classic recipe created by founder Emma Duarte in the 1930's. A contented drive or ride home will be the capper to an exhilierating and satisfying day at the Coast.

I haven't altered Duarte's Artichoke Soup recipe, really. I just added the Crème Fraiche and the gremolata. Sort of like gilding the lily. Garnish or not, this soup is a spoonful at a time of smokey-sweet artichoke flavor, only without all the work. Miss Piggy would like that!

Creamy Artichoke Soup

Inspired by Duarte's Tavern,
Pescadero, California

8 artichoke hearts and surrounding tender leaves, with choke removed
Juice of 1 lemon added to a bowl of cold water
1 onion, diced
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
For Gremolata:
One large shallot, minced
4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
Sour cream or crème Fraiche for garnish

To prepare artichokes - add the juice of one lemon to a bowl of water; remove outer leaves by pulling down on them toward the stem; repeat until you have reached the tender light green/white leaves surrounding the heart. Slice the artichoke in half and remove the feathery "choke" and purplish leaves with a pairing knife and/or a melon baller. Immediately submerge in the lemon water. Repeat with remaining artichokes. Once all artichokes are readied, place in a steamer basket within a large stock pot with 1-2 cups of water; add the bay leaf and the garlic cloves to the basket with the artichokes. Cover, bring the water to a boil and steam the artichokes until they are tender to a knife - approximately 20 minutes. Adjust the heat accordingly. Do not over steam.

While the artichokes steam, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan and add the diced onions. Lower the heat, cover the pan and let the onion "sweat" until soft, about 10-15 minutes. Do not let them brown as this will add a distinctive onion flavor to the soup.

Once the artichokes are cooked through, remove from the heat and let them cool until you can handle them easily. Remove leaves from the heart - this should be very easy with fresh artichokes - and using a pairing knife, scrap off any "meat" from the leaves. Place the hearts, scrapped "meat" and the steamed garlic in a blender. Reserved the bay leaf. Add one cup of the chicken broth and puree until smooth, adding more chicken broth if necessary.
Pour artichoke puree into a large saucepan, add the cream, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste and the reserved bay leaf. Bring to a gentle boil and then simmer for 12-20 minutes for flavors to blend.
While the soup is simmering, make the gremolata: combine the lemon zest, the minced parsley and the minced shallot in a small bowl.

To serve, remove the bay leaf, ladle warm soup into bowls, add a dollop of sour cream or crème Fraiche and sprinkle to soup with the gremolata.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Black Eyed Peas

I had fun preparing Black Eyed Peas for the first time. I had some help from my friend and fellow Personal Chef Sandy Hall of Denton, Texas.

Sandy says, "I moved to TX at the tender age of 23, so I'm not a native Southerner. But we have Black Eyed Peas to honor my husband's traditions (he's from Alabama) and also because I've finally learned a way to cook them so they taste great and aren't simply overcooked pots of mush. I keep the preparation on the "clean" side, any meat is served on the side normally, and it's a nice way to move past the excesses of the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays and start a new year on a heart healthy note."

Thanks, Sandy! I've replicated the Basic Black Eyed Peas recipe from Fine Cooking magazine. As a BEP virgin, I'm pleased the results, but see note following the recipe.

2 Bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 cups dried black eyed peas, sorted through and rinsed
1 tsp kosher salt

Measure the beans, sort and rinse

Wrap the bay leaves, garlic and thyme in cheesecloth and tie with twine.

Cover by 2 inches of water, about 2 quarts, add the herb bundle and bring to a boil.

Lower heat to maintain a very gentle simmer, cover and cook until the beans are tender but not splitting and falling apart, about 1- 1 1/2 hours Add more water if needed. When done, discard herb bundle and serve.

I tried to do Sandy proud but I think I may have overcooked the peas just a bit. They weren't complete mush but probably mushier than would be acceptable in Denton, Texas. I like 'em, though! There's an earthy aroma and nutty flavor that makes these peas a keeper!

Thanks, Sandy! And Uncle Arthur!

Sherman's March Past The Peas

I always remember relatives long gone as the year turns and one whom I conjured this past week was my Uncle Arthur. He was a true Kentucky gentleman, with a sonorous drawl, an extraordinary palate and a marvelous affinity for bourbon. Uncle Arthur got me thinking about traditions – he was big on those, especially when it came to how he drank his bourbon (that’s another post), and also how important food was when planning “occasions”, as he called them, and that’s a drawn-out long O, with a lot of drawl-infused affectation. Though he never prepared them for me, I heard some family lore about Arthur and black eyed peas, and that in his household, New Year’s Day was not New Year’s Day without them. That was in St. Matthews, KY circa 1950.
Our story now takes us to California, and the suburban track home of the Reilly’s…
A Midwesterner by birth and sister-in-law of the afore mentioned Kentucky gentleman, my mother was not a cook. She spent a lot of time at her sister’s home in St. Matthews prior to her marriage, and was no doubt the happy recipient of many an Arthur-prepared menu. But Mom never brought any time-honored cooking into her Southern California home; the Southern in California being the closest she would ever get to the South after 1957. There were to be no black eyed peas in the Reilly home on New Year’s Day.
We were Rose Bowl people – Mom a Michigan State grad, Dad a Stanford Indian (yes, that’s what they were called back in the day) – so the January 1st tussle between the Pac-10 and the Big-10 became our NYD tradition. Fortunately, the Spartans and the Cardinal never played one another during my parents marriage so we were always safe rooting for the Pac-10, unless USC was playing, in which case we’d cheer for the Big-10, unless it was Michigan. If the Trojans and the Wolverines were the contenders, we’d watch re-runs of the Rose Parade instead of the game. There’s only so much rivalry one family can handle.
Fast forward 30-plus years…

As a cook and one especially interested in culinary history and traditions, I was aware of this custom in the southern United States of making black eyed peas to welcome in the coming year. A friend from Oklahoma has actually prepared them for me several times, but I didn’t understand their significance. Determined to expand my own culinary knowledge, I did a little internet research and Googled “Black Eyed Peas”. Yes, I could still get tickets to their concert with Lady Gaga and Phish, but I digress…

The Black Eyed Pea is a modest legume, but also one of sustenance and a harbinger of good luck, ( And here’s where the luck part comes in:
It’s 1864 and the Civil War is raging. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman of the United States Army is cutting a brutal swath across the South. His troops pillage the farms and plantations they come across, taking farm animals, crops in the fields, anything that resembles food. What the Federals leave in their wake is the unassuming black eyed pea. Produced as fodder for livestock and grown by slaves for their own use, Sherman’s men ignore this lowly plant, oblivious of its high protein content and nutritional value. The humble black eyed pea becomes the sustenance Southerners, black and white, rely upon in the tumultuous post-Sherman times. The deliverance it provided as never been forgotten. It is a lucky bean indeed!
We are now a decade into this new millennium and good luck is still as important a wish as it was in 1864. I wish you many things in 2010: always, good food and exceptional people to share it with; finding a hidden treasure that makes a difference in your life; a special memory. Here’s to you, Uncle Arthur, I don’t usually drink bourbon, but I love the black eyed peas! We’ve had an Occasion today.
Happy New Year!
And in case you were wondering, GO DUCKS!!!