Friday, July 28, 2006

A Pot of Basil

When someone gives you a big bag of basil, you are honour bound to make pesto. And even if honour has no sway over you (I confess that I am, more often than not, cloth-eared to its calls), the fragrance of the plucked basil will imperiously demand it anyway. The task is weighty, because if you are going to make pesto, you need to make it right. You are not imitating the thick sludge that you can buy in overpriced food stores. No. You are aiming for an ambrosial sauce – “oh for a beaker of the warm south!” No half measures, no cutting of corners. I tried that once and I will here share the story of my foolishness in the hope that it might hop up and down, flapping its wings, warning you from venturing down that path.

When I was living in Ohio I made a friend named George. Ohio provided one of the many small-college settings for scenes of my Uncertain Future, and it required an adventurous spirit if one wished to winkle out gustatory goodness. Food shopping had to be done at huge supermarkets that smelled of stale bleach (not a contradiction, it turns out) and were called Giant Eagles. They scared me. My food friendship with George was formed over the formica counter of that existence, and someone should have given us A for effort. Left alone for a week or so – our partners had both and separately taken off for forgotten reasons – the friendship blossomed into a full-blown folie à deux. Strapped into his bronze Toyota, a car that felt as flimsy as a tin pie pan, we hurtled across the wheat fields in search of edibles. George had, I should mention, only learned to drive a few weeks before, which added considerable novelty and thrill to the ride. And we found all sorts of good things.

We found ice-cream shacks sporting their original 1950s décor. In the summer evenings, couples drove up in their prized vintage open-top cars that had sat in garages all winter long, meticulously restored and waiting for these outings. We found Polish sausages – thick, juicy sausages that could slay your average hot-dog in a trice. There was the Middle Eastern restaurant that introduced me to fattoush, and spurred the first of my many pashes on bread salads. And one town over, a town that closed its last steel mill while we were there, I first tasted the delights of Puerto Rican cooking. Rushing to corner stores before they closed at 6pm, we’d get early dinners of salty, meaty, fried deliciousness that made me curl my toes with pleasure.

But our biggest coup, without a doubt, was the discovery of the dented can emporium. As I write it now, I can hardly believe that this place existed. Maybe it was a fourth dimension, a worm hole into one of Ohio’s other galaxies. It was in a low-rise, stand-alone windowless building that looked more like a meth lab than a grocery store. A battered yellow plastic sign waved you into the parking lot and you entered round back. The first time we went there the electricity was out and we had to wander through the dim maze of aisles led only by our fierce taste for bounty. There were dented cans aplenty. Rows and pyramids and stacks of them. At some point it dawned on us both that these creased and dimpled cans were pretty much exclusively cans of shellfish and “shellfish product.” This realisation merely added salt to our stew and we cackled over our good fortune, cavorting midst the botulism. We finally arrived at the treasure we knew we’d find: shelves of imported Italian tomatoes canned with basil leaves. Nothing of this caliber could be found at the loathed Big Bird supermarkets. We picked out the least compromised tins and piled them into our cart. As the odd gentleman who seemed to own the place was doing the sums with a stubby pencil on a notepad illuminated by a flashlight, he offered us a frequent buyer card and a raffle ticket for a Grand Prize Food Basket. George insisted on being led to inspect the Grand Prize Food Basket, and pointing the flashlight down through the many mummifying layers of budget plastic wrap, we observed that it was comprised solely of soda crackers and something called “Smooth Move” tea: a senna leaf preparation for the relief of occasional constipation. Now positively maniac with the glory of the trove, George and I agreed that our odyssey to the dented can store was, in fact, the ultimate definition of a Smooth Move.

But the scrape of note – the scrape that must stand as a warning to all prospective pesto-makers – came about when George turned up on my doorstep with a bushel of basil. I had never seen a bushel of basil before. Nor, it turned out, had George when he called to order “some basil” from a local farmer. A bushel had sounded a suitable unit – rustic, alliterative - so he’d agreed to it. Let me explain, young grasshopper, so that when you are offered a bushel of basil, you will know what awaits you. A US bushel is a little more than 9 US gallons. An Imperial bushel is 8 Imperial gallons. I am not clear on whether our bushel was of the Imperial or US orientation, but I do know that when I answered my doorbell that day, I could see not much of George, just a lot of basil. “Pesto!” he declared from behind the portable forest.

Soon my kitchen was like the eye of a basil storm. Neither George nor I was at the stage of life in which we owned the right equipment for anything. We also didn’t have key reference texts, or an internet connection. What we had was bags of get up and go. Before long, my cranky blender was chewing up pine nuts and basil leaves, and bowls of hacked up foliage were littering the kitchen. One bushel of herb is a lot for one yard-sale blender, and we resorted to operating the machine with its lid off, jabbing a wooden spoon into the fray whenever we felt brave. The riskiness of this endeavour took all of our concentration, which may be why we didn’t notice that our many bowls of churned basil were turning black and malevolent – entirely ruined.

Basil is a noble herb. Many different cultures revere it. Some varieties are known as “Holy Basil” and are planted outside Hindu temples. The ancient Greeks believed it was the king’s plant, that only the king himself should harvest the leaves, and only with the use of a golden sickle. Perhaps this mandate was made in forethought of blender-armed philistines such as George and me. Golden moon-blades may be fine, but basil leaves and blades are otherwise not a happy combination. Not even the blades of the swish food processor I now own. Cutting the leaves cauterizes the veins, inhibiting the release of their flavour and any machine will produce some heat, which oxidizes and dulls the aromatic oils. The name “pesto” comes from the Italian word pestare meaning to pound or bruise, and we should learn the lesson of the etymology. The bold, sweet fragrance of basil is best released through the poundings of a mortar and pestle.

The first pesto I made with a mortar and pestle, following the recipe for Genovese pesto in Clifford A. Wright’s remarkable tome, A Mediterranean Feast, was entirely different from any pesto I had made before - harsh tasting mashes, stiff with too much cheese and nuts, and burning with too much garlic. Following Wright’s measured, philosophical recipe made me understand pesto as a sauce; liquid and leafy. The bruised basil is suspended in oil, happy to give up its essence. The pounding it requires is muscular, but the rest of the preparation is calm, and begins with a cleansing and drying that feels like a ritual. The basil must be washed and then thoroughly dried - laid out on kitchen towels until not even the suspicion of damp adheres to them. The olive oil must be the best, cold-press virgin oil and the freshest you can find. Do not be tempted to supplement the seemingly scant quantities of garlic, pine nuts and cheese in his recipe - these should be mild companion flavours in the sauce. When the ingredients join together in your large mortar, use the pestle to push them closer together, pressing against the sides of the bowl. A firm, gentle push and a slight turning motion. Once they begin to blend into a paste, then you start to pound. The result is one of those benevolent dwellers of the fridge - a jar of lively green sauce that can be stored for many months so long as you replenish the film of olive oil on its surface.

Now we grow basil in our small city garden. Ours is a container garden and we could not help ourselves: we felt compelled to re-create the grisly remnant in Boccacio’s tale of love and decapitation. The Decameron tale recounts how three brothers, puffed with wealth and cruelty, kill and bury their sister’s lover, Lorenzo. Lorenzo’s corpse appears to the bereft Lisabetta in a dream, giving her careful directions to his grave. In Keats' retelling of the story, Lorenzo describes the spot as crowded by fruit and vegetables – more like a salad bowl than a tomb. Lisabetta (Keats calls her ‘Isabella’) digs up his head, wraps it in some fancy cloth and replants it in a posh flowerpot. She then, according to Boccacio, “planted several sprigs of the finest Salernitan basil, and never watered them except with essence of roses or orange-blossom, or with her own teardrops.” The rotten brothers steal even the pampered pot of basil and Lisabetta dies from grief redoubled. No pesto for her. In Keats' poem, he carefully notes that the brothers took their revenge on Lorenzo with “duller steel than the Persèan sword.” So perhaps in memory of the great basil massacre with George and the Persèan blender, perhaps because there can surely be nothing better than a mouldering head to produce a feisty crop of sweet basil (Salome, an epicurean lass, also hid John the Baptist's head in basil), we knew what we had to do when we saw a pile of ceramic dolls' heads and limbs for sale at a flea market. Before planting our basil this year, we tucked a blandly smiling, apple cheeked head deep into the pot, and lo! It did the trick – our basil plants have never been lusher. The head came with two slender ceramic hands – the seller was quite formidable about only selling complete sets, as if she feared seamstresses who might make differently abled dollies – so I arranged them sticking out of the top of the soil, to give pause to any golden-sickeled or fraternally vengeful thieves.

adapted from Clifford A. Wright

1 bunch fresh basil (80 medium sized leaves), washed and thoroughly dried. I actually weighed 80 leaves, since I was making more than one batch; by my mathematics, 80 medium sized basil leaves weigh about 1.5 ounces.
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
1 cup extra virgin olive oil.

Pound the basil, garlic, salt and pine nuts together in the mortar until they are a paste. Slowly add the cheeses, about a tablespoon at a time, keeping on pounding. Once you have a paste, scrape it into a bowl and begin slowly adding the olive oil, stirring constantly. It will seem to you that you have too much olive oil – it will not resemble the thick stuff you buy in the supermarkets at all. But that olive oil carries the flavor and also preserves it. Wright says you can keep this pesto in the fridge up to six months, as long as you keep topping up the oil.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fun with Squash Blossoms

Sometimes you do things in the kitchen that make you wonder at yourself. In my college days I remember being very taken by a Francis Bacon painting of meat and his remarks in the gallery catalogue about how contemplating the food on our plate was to study the magnificent violence of life. I spent college in the company of vegans, and since I had joined the cause of cruelty-free food but found I could not repress my omnivorous tendencies, I was quite persuaded by Bacon's idea that instead of avoiding brutality we could confront it. Since this vision included recommencing eating ham and eggs, I was doubly persuaded. Several joyful non-vegan years later, I came across Bacon's description of stealing images from other artists - "rather like people who eat from other people's plates" - and I knew I'd hopped onto the right lunch-truck. An artist with shades of that famed sausage-stealer Helen Keller is the artist for me.

And so it was that yesterday I found myself in my kitchen with a pair of tweezers in one hand, a delicate squash blossom in the other. As I peeled open the tendrils of the blossom's petals, which were veined and entwined like the fingers of a neurotic, I thought about how fleshly and even ominous flowers can be, and remembered that what Francis Bacon did for sides of beef, Georgia O'Keefe did for posies. I reached my tweezers inside and grabbed the fleshy pistil growing out of the base of the blossom. My steel angles pinching the yellow-bobbled organ, I twisted and pulled - it took a surprising amount of force. Soon I had eleven de-sexed blossoms, their remnant parts piled beside them. Eleven: the sorry inverse of a baker's dozen. I thought I had asked for a "dozen" but some distortion somewhere - of brain or tongue - resulted in eleven. Maybe the blossoms themselves, freakish orange carapaces, conspired against me; in any case, my evening of inverted, distorted and accidentally rude cooking had begun.

Having severed the flowers from their pistils, I proceeded to intrude on their now-roomier chambers with a prosthetic in the form of a piping nozzle. I had mixed together a cup of fresh chevre, some minced summer garlic, a handful of fresh herbs - tarragon, thyme and chives - and an eggcup-full of red spring onion, cut into minute dice. A little salt, a little black pepper, then I loaded it into an icing bag. Squash blossoms are narrow, with long cavities, and no spoon I owned would have done the job without splitting them open. Besides, I find piping so agreeable. The extruded chevre filled up the blossoms, I twisted the flowers shut again and lodged them in the fridge so that they could chill and firm until our guests arrived.

B, who had watched the squash blossom massacre of the innocents with a jaundiced eye, was set to work shucking corn. She is from the farm country of Western Massachusetts, and is a snob about sweet corn. She will only eat it in season, and only on the day that it is picked. She was excited about this batch from our farm share, and was chattering away about kernel size and color as she shucked, musing on the differences between varieties with curious womanly names like "Silver Queen" and "Calico Belle" . . . then I heard her laugh. I turned, and she held up a pale ear, its silk still hanging from the kernels. There, attached to the base of the big ear, was another, miniature ear, valiant in its somewhat obscene deformity. "There's your number twelve," B said, smiling puckishly.

Another puckish smile soon arrived. Max is four and three quarters, and possessed of a devilish sideways grin - there's something magically Danny Kaye about him. He is also fond of concocting in the kitchen, and tonight he wanted to devise his own cocktail, a pink one with maraschino cherries. Sadly, I had no cherries in the house, but together we rummaged around in the sideboard and unearthed some grenadine and an unopened packet of colourful cocktail sticks. While the rest of us made ourselves a delightfully dizzy drink of half sake, half plum wine and a lot of ice, Max and one of his mommies, Patty, set about perking up his lemonade to his taste. Some grenadine, some ice, a little mint that Max harvested from the garden, and one of the plastic cocktail sticks. "Look Maxie," I heard Patty say. "It's a frog." The remainder of the adult crew started carrying things out to the garden. "It's not a frog," I heard Max's little voice assert behind me, "They're humans."

I stuck my head back into the kitchen to find that the unplanned theme of the evening was continuing apace. Patty held up the green cocktail stick, observing, "Yes, copulating humans." I dropped my dish of tomatoes and seized the exhibit. Close inspection revealed that it was indeed a detailed and garishly green plastic representation of a gentleman and a lady having some acrobatic fun together. Patty and I reviewed the box and it turned out to contain many - impressively varied - versions of the same. B and I tried to remember who had given us these, and how many years ago, and whether we had paid sufficient attention to them and/or had an appropriately gratifying response at the time? Had they always looked like palm trees and giraffes to us? Did some forgotten wag of a friend leave and never return, sad that their gift had fallen flat?

Shoving the cocktail sticks back into the depths of the sideboard, where I'm sure they will bide their time until I have forgotten about them again, I began frying our blossoms. First they bathed luxuriantly in egg and milk, then I dredged them in some seasoned masa harina, which several recipes had assured me would give a crisper blossom than flour or cornmeal. A quick, rolling dip into the hot oil, a short rest on paper towels, and the eleven little delicacies were borne to the table. These were the first squash blossoms I had made, and they browned and crisped most compliantly. Accompanied by the corn, Patty’s homemade pickles and a salad made of her tomatoes and basil, it was a light and charming meal, positively G rated in its bucolic pleasures. Biting the blossom open revealed a flutter of yellow and the creamy white cheese, dashed through with the purple and green hints of onion and herbs. There was a bit of a Helen Kellerish tussle over the uneven numbers - eleven does not divide nicely - but the corn was abundant and filled all the corners, so no one went hungry. We finished the meal with a strawberry and rhubarb pie, while Max treated us to a vigorous rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" on the piano, producing curious and delightful chords that not even Danny Kaye could have extracted from the instrument, his little legs a-swinging.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Leeks, Cucumbers and Folly

Today is the morning after. Last night the temperature here in Philadelphia stopped just shy of 100 degrees. It was the hottest evening this summer has seen, and what did I do? I spent it hovering over a hotter yet grill. I cannot say why. I am, perhaps, a little touched. Or if I wasn’t before last night, I am now, since crucial bits of me got sauteed. I recently read an account from the 1930s of a traveller on a transatlantic cruise who died of heat stroke and had to be buried at sea. It struck me that there were some enticing symmetries to the extremities of that ending: death from sunning on a deck chair, resolutely wearing one’s blazer, followed by a headlong slip into a deep cool everlasting blue.

But last night large amounts of New Jersey stood between me and the sea, so there was no counter-balance to my headfirst encounter with heat and more heat. I embraced it. Became one with my environment. Dripped sweat into my grill. I was driven to it by gluttony, of course. A while ago I had been served, at a local tapas restaurant, grilled green onions with romesco sauce and I was entirely smitten by the dish. I loved the almondy heft of the sauce and its substantial, but not occluding flavours of fresh garlic and smoky chile. It was a sauce that had a smoldering, laid back attitude and I was hooked. Giddy to try it again, I looked up recipes. My friend Rosi fed my crush with tales of eating this Catalan dish in Spain, the diners dangling the romesco-slathered green onions high above their upturned mouths, devouring their sweet char vertically.

I turned to Rosi to help me translate and track down the “pimenton” called for by my most trustworthy recipe. I had thought that if I couldn’t find pimenton, I could use some of the Hungarian smoked paprika that I already had in my pantry. A trail around our local spice store, however, led us to something called “Spanish Paprika” and Rosi looked hopeful: we wafted its sweet smokiness under our noses and knew at once that it was the right ingredient. I also bought a bag of suave-looking dried Ancho chiles – the other big player in the sauce.

Back home I set the Anchos soaking in a bowl of water to rehydrate them. I also needed two slices of bread so I fished out the dried up ends of one of my sourdough loaves from the depths of my bread bag. I was sure that these, too, could be un-desiccated. Such salvage in the kitchen makes me feel satisfied with my lot. Smug even. These slices went into a skillet with some olive oil and were soon crispily revived.

At this point I started hopping between two recipes. The trustworthy one that had bothered to name and differentiate its chile peppers called only for canned tomatoes. But another recipe, more slapdash on the chile front, called for canned plum tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes too. Another chance for culinary rescue! Just the other day I had decided to purge the freezer part of my fridge-freezer of everything that wasn’t an ice-cube tray or gin, vodka or limoncello. Since the (oh happy day) installation of a big freezer in the basement, the idea had been to banish everything else to Down Below. I had never quite got round to effecting this lofty aim, but the other day the mood fell on me. Out came the tubs of – I don’t deny it - goose fat and duck fat and chicken fat. Out came the stock bag with asparagus ends and vegetable trimmings. The package of emergency bacon. Dragging all of this flotsam and jetsam out of the mini-freezer revealed that we still had a couple of containers of last year’s semi-dried tomatoes. A while back my friends Jen and Larry had introduced me to the marvelous business of slow, semi-drying tomatoes in a low oven. Brushed with some olive oil and salt and pepper and cooked for hours, they take on a full, bright caramelised flavour – as Jen said, “like tomato jam.” They are now a much-cherished part of our diet not only because of their innate goodness, but because my beloved has always had a beef with the sun-dried tomatoes you get in jars. She thinks they’re loud and pushy and aggressively oily. These half-dried tomatoes – or sun-blush, as I’ve seen them called – are less brash and nicer to be with.

So the remainder of our store of tomatoes would fill out our romesco – completing the arc from last summer to this. The bread, the tomatoes, the chiles and the toasted almonds went into the food processor, were mixed to a paste and thinned to taste. The Anchos had softened obligingly, and I had to de-seed and chop them. One of them, the cad, spewed rivulets of brown seedy liquor all over my counter, dripping down into the cabinets and leaving its traces on my baking pans, but otherwise the sauce came together with ease.

The rest of our menu we had fetched from the market. Chicken thighs and . . . leeks. I’m not sure why I came back with leeks, not green onions. But I love a leek, I loved the idea of a young leek, its tender fleshyness swathed with the romesco, and there they were at the Fair Foods stand, looking fresh, svelte and lovely. Once I’d returned home, I realised that lovely though they were, they were perhaps not as slender or young as they might have been. I have never had much truck with those particular attributes – being something of a ripe voluptuary myself - but now I was requiring slim youth of my leeks? My fixation on cooking this dish had ignored the fact that leeks in early July have done some living: if a dog’s year is a human’s decade, what is a leek’s week? Should I turn back? Make something else out of my middle aged veggies? Of course not. True foolishness, I find, generally takes refuge in further foolishness – and so it was last night: I ignored the signs in front of me and instead waded deeper in.

I did, however, administer some reason to the situation. It was fiendishly hot, I was well on my way to being poached in my own kitchen, and my leeks were too old and fat – clearly we all needed some gin. I opened the door to the newly appointed freezer and basked in the twin mists of Freon cool and the satisfaction of having actually cleaned something. There were my gins. Yesss, ginsss. Some Bombay, some Tanqueray Ten and a new cutie-pie: a small squat blue glass bottle of Hendricks. This gin is infused with cucumber and rose-petals and when I first bought it, stashing it unopened in the freezer, I started dreaming about it. I dreamed that there was a gin that was infused with cucumber and rose-petals and I would wake up, amazed at the whimsy of the dream world. Then half way through the morning I would remember that there IS a gin infused with cucumber and rose-petals and it was in my freezer. A week or so ago I stopped hoarding it untasted and opened the bottle. We drank some straight up, convinced we should listen attentively for the whisper of these flavours. Frankly, the whispers eluded us. But tonight was no time for such calibrated living anyway, and I sloshed it into glasses with tonic and a slice of cucumber. As glazed with heat as I was, it was clear that this G&T with its mirage of green and pink was far beyond the ordinary. Somehow the tonic made the delicate hints of rose and cucumber audible. We sipped, happy for a moratorium on the madness.

Though truth be told, the leeks were not half bad. I charred them thoroughly and prodded them to make sure they were soft. Then I piled them into a mound to soften them more as they rested. We peeled back their blackened jackets and dipped the limp white hearts into the sauce. It is true that they took some chewing and more than their jackets got tossed away. But we were playing Marianne Faithfull as we ate, and in her gorgeously ruined, smoky old voice she sang us that Noel Coward song, “Mad About the Boy.” I gnawed on my leek and listened as she let her posh accent fade into a cockney lament: “It seems a little silly for a girl of my age and weight to walk down Piccadilly in a haze of love. It ought to take a good deal more to get a bad girl down . . .” There was a dark hot evening sky way above us, we were canopied by our ominously gnarled ornamental orange tree and the twinkling fairy lights we’d strung between its long thorns, and we agreed that it’s just fine to be an old leek in love, tarted up with a Spanish sauce. “Will it ever cloy,” Marianne rasped, “this odd diversity of misery and joy?” I sucked the romesco from my singed fingertips. I hope not. There is such a thing as necessary folly.


1/4 cup olive oil plus more for frying
2 small slices sourdough bread
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
1/2 cup almonds, toasted
2 large dried ancho chiles, soaked 6-8 hrs, seeded and roughly chopped
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, liquid reserved
1/2 cup sun-blush or sun-dried tomatoes
1 tbsp pimenton or any smoked paprika
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 lemon, juiced

Heat half an inch of olive oil in sauté pan and fry bread, browning both sides.
In a food processor, grind garlic, almonds and bread. Process until fine.
Add the anchos, tomatoes and pimenton. Puree until smooth.
Add vinegar and lemon juice and puree. While blending, drizzle in the olive oil.
If texture isn’t loose enough, add some of the reserved tomato juice, or additional lemon juice. Season with salt.

Eat with grilled vegetables such as green onions, asparagus or leeks, and grilled fish or chicken.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Summer Pudding

I love the sniff of a new season around the corner, the stretch of the one you’re in, the memory of the one gone before. Those changes cheer and comfort me, and I love being bustled along by them. Moved into the next season. Even the one I’m not very good at: summer. Summer in steamy Philadelphia, at least. I wilt easily, go too pink, and am constantly asking my beloved if she thinks I have a fever. I ask this with one of my own damp paws raised to my forehead, my eyebrows hoiked high, fishing for sympathy. Exasperated, she tells me for the twelve hundredth time that you can’t perceive your own fever with another of your own identically temperatured body parts. A friend recently informed me that even another person’s hand is a prejudiced gauge and that the best way of checking someone’s temperature is to kiss their forehead. This I like and I make it my next request.

More often than not (all right, always), my ailment turns out to be feebleness in the face of humidity. This does not dent my love of the pleasures peculiar to summer – vampy tomatoes, soft fruits, lemony sorrel and snappy new garlic. Many dishes can only be made in the summer, but there is one that claims centre table to the season, and is indeed named for it: Summer Pudding. Summer Pudding is a delicacy that makes you nod your head in the deep appreciative realisation: this really is summer. You remembered it tasting this way. You had forgotten, but now you remember.

It’s also a recipe that has to remind you why it’s good, because it certainly sounds strange. And it’s deeply, eccentrically English. Describing it to Americans gets me those you-crazy-foreigner-from-the-land-of-bad-food looks. Observe: Summer Pudding is a mix of stewed summer fruits encased in mould of white bread. See? It sounds grotesque. It even looks grotesque as it emerges from its pudding basin, its clammy white jacket blotched with bloody seams.

Here’s how you make it:
First, you must go and live somewhere with a good supply of red and blackcurrants. This is not easy in this country. It took years of me living in various (mostly small college with big retirement home) towns before I landed on my lucky little feet here in Philadelphia, and this is the first place outside of England to show me such fruit. Once again the lovely ladies at the Fair Foods stand at Reading Terminal Market tempted me with their organic, local wares: quarts of not only the elusive red and blackcurrants, but handsome red and black raspberries too, the other essential berry for Summer Pudding. Once you have moved to the right currant supplying location, you need to gather your patience. Currant preparation takes time. The redcurrants come on lime-green stringy stalks, and you pull the small translucent berries off by dragging a fork down the stem. Very satisfying. But then you must check through to see if any tiny green sub-stems remain. Blackcurrants also have to be denuded of both their small stems and their substantial tails that look like crumpled brown-papery crowns. And the only way to do this is by hand – a modest amount of fingernail is useful for such plucking.

The currants picked and tumbled together with the raspberries, the fruit sits, or is “put up” with some sugar overnight, while you make some bread. The bread for this pudding must be just right. Nothing chewy and full of holes, but instead yeasty, very white and soft. So Mother (my sourdough starter) stays in the fridge, and out comes the yeast for what I would call a Crusty Bloomer. Hmm. This does take a lot of explaining. To name a loaf after an undergarment is one thing, to name it after a crusty undergarment is simply pushing everyone’s envelope. But a “bloomer” is a bloomer because it’s voluminous – billowy, rollicking even, vaudeville good. Then it has this wonderful crust that shatters under your knife. And when you make it for Summer Pudding, the crust has to come off, so you make the loaf and then you cut off this lovely crispness and you are forced to daub these trimmings with butter and jam and dispose of them right there and then. Forced, I tell you.

The cook thus furnished, the pudding basin must be lined. The crustless slices of bread get fitted into the bowl, bits trimmed and squished into any gaps. To make the pieces stay in place, poke and press away with your fingers, because pressing is the key – practically the only – cooking process that turns these ingredients into pudding. Your bowl lined, the fruit goes into a pan with some sugar to be very lightly stewed. All you need to do is dissolve the sugar and nudge the fruits into giving up their juices – five minutes tops. Watch as the berries turn from a sugar-frosted mound into a vivacious slew. Once they’ve done this, reserve about a cup of their juice – tuck it away in the fridge, you won’t be using it for a few days yet. Turn half of the berries into the bread-lined pudding basin. This half way pause allows you to implement a trick I learned from Jane Grigson’s Summer Pudding recipe: place an extra slice of bread on top of the first half of the fruit, then continue filling with the rest. This extra, middle slice does not appear in most other recipes, but does an excellent job of securing the architecture of the pudding when you cut into it. Now the pudding needs a cap of bread; cut one to entirely cover the fruit, meeting the edges. Place a saucer on top of it all and a pile of weights on top of the saucer. I use the old weights from my beloved “Viking” scales, which I winkled out of the Age Concern Charity Shop on the Magdalen Roundabout in Oxford, but a big can of tomatoes would do well too. This is the pressing of what I spoke. PRESS YOUR PUDDING! It must be popped into the fridge and pressed and pressed some more. Leave the whole thing in the fridge until a worthy friend happens to come round. A day, two, or maybe three. All of this is Good Pressing Time. You cannot rush a Summer Pudding.

Then when the worthy friend appears at your door (and wonder of wonders, ours arrived with two Tupperwares of “wineberries” she’d picked on the bike trail), slide a palette knife between the basin and the bread jacket, bending the blade down and around to reach under the bottom-soon-to-be-top of the pudding. Invert the basin onto a plate, and merrily conceal any rips by simply cascading the saved juice over the entire affair. It should look mostly scarlet, with just hints of white. A rose geranium leaf set atop, a jug of thick cream (not whipped) beside it, and you can carry the vibrant escutcheon of the season to your garden table. Sliced, this pudding reveals some marvelous, heretical transubstantiations: the bread tastes like cake, the fruit has become winey and the whole thing starts to look like a defiantly pagan, oppositely solsticed version of the traditional holly-topped Christmas Pudding. Blood red, bone white and green, this is the stuff that ballads are made of. And if the worthy friend never turns up, well, it will just have to be you and the pudding. Seasonal eating at its best.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Le Sandwich

Today, we celebrated Amelie Mauresmo’s winning of the Wimbledon 2006 Ladies’ Championship title . . . with a most excellent sandwich. I suppose I should admit that we would have used the same sandwich to commiserate her loss: I have been planning this sandwich for a while now. When still living in Vermont, I was overtaken one summer afternoon by a French ham sandwich in a small café in Norwich. The taste of this sandwich has stayed with me over the years and I vowed to try and reproduce it. The arresting loveliness of the sandwich was due in part to my realization that it had been ages since I had tasted anything other than smoked ham. This ham was delicate, tender and very, very pink. Lightly cured, instead of chest-beatingly smoked, it nestled in its baguette in a sort of unnervingly pubescent, French kind of way. But it was not alone – pas du tout! It was accompanied by the most heavenly of butters which flung open the patio doors of my imagination. I have made herb butters in my time, even fig and tomato butters, but this (good, French) butter was mixed with aged Asiago cheese, garlic . . . and finely chopped almonds. It was a revelation.

If my reassembly of this revelation was to be anything other than Frankenstinian, I needed to track down all the perfect parts. That luscious cured pink ham with the white fat. A bread of sufficient nobility. An Asiago to match. And so Time Passed. I caught a glimpse of my dream sandwich in the ham that a friend brought me from a Polish delicatessen in North Philadelphia. As I enjoyed it with other superb Polish fare like white country cheese and beetroot horseradish, I quietly plotted to restock, smuggle it into my sandwich and pass it off as jambon. But still there was the question of the bread. Although the original sandwich had been on a baguette, I felt that a rustic white loaf with large holes and a robust crust would do just as well, perhaps even better. The story of my apprenticeship to the craft of sourdough breads will be told later, but suffice it to say that for the last 10 months I have been baking breads from a sourdough starter (a starter which I have named Mother), and they have begun to be presentable. I do not mean sourdough in the good-grief-that’s-tangy kind of way. I mean bread that doesn’t immediately strike you as a sourdough, but holds sacks of flavour in the chew – an alluring bread. I have been making bread with these ambitions, rising the loaves in willow baskets that give them floury spiral tracks on their dark crusts.

Then the other day I was buying cheese from the excellent cheese people in the Reading Terminal Market when I spotted in their cases BOTH a good-looking Asiago AND something they called “jambon Francais.” Due to bake two loaves later that afternoon, I breathlessly ordered the ham and the cheese and raced home to the dual delights of sandwiches and tennis. Now do not mistake me: I have maybe never raised a tennis racket, let alone served and volleyed in my life. My addiction to Wimbledon is two-fold, but has nothing to do with any actual relation to the sport of tennis. First, I was born in Wimbledon, at St Theresa’s Maternity Hospital, so I feel I have some peculiar rights to the sod of that genteel London suburb (this despite the fact we didn’t live there and directly after birth I was whisked away to grow up in the less salubrious suburb of Orpington - famed only for its chickens and active nudist colony). Second, the two weeks of Wimbledon fell right after the yearly batch of exams at secondary school: and watching the tournament on television was my reward - me on my tummy, the biscuit tin within arm’s reach. I have watched the tournament every year ever since. This year has been particularly exciting because of Amelie’s shot at the title. Not only is she a ripping girl herself, but it's been 81 years since a Frenchwoman won Wimbledon, and the sports programs showed charming footage of that French flapper girl jete-ing towards the net, all orange-blossom and wooden racquets. This year was an appropriate year for le sandwich.

In my fridge I discovered I still had a tangle of garlic scapes left over from my farm share. I had been tossing diced scapes in all sorts of things all week, and it struck me that they would be even more perfect than regular old adult garlic in the butter. Not only do they have a fresh, light garlic taste, but I fancied having their specks of green in the palette. Alors, en avant! I toasted about half a cup of almonds in my skillet and let them cool. Then I ground them medium-fine – enough to tame the crunch, but not so much as to render them marzipan. Then into the food processor went about 4oz of soft butter, a handful of chopped garlic scapes and a chunk of finely grated Asiago. A couple of pulses later, a taste, an adjustment for salt, and my butter was ready.

We tried the sandwich two ways: open, with just butter and ham, and then closed, with a leaf of lettuce. Both gained high scores, the winner with a line call being the one with the lettuce. I half wished I’d picked up a butter lettuce, or better still, some black seeded simpson – but I should be patient to perfect le sandwich. After all, if Amelie Mauresmo cellared a 1937 Chateau d’Yquem for seven years, waiting for her first Grand Slam title, I can potter about looking for the right little lettuce.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Digestives: A Quest

Tonight, a holidayish night - one before July 4th – I made digestive biscuits. Another attempt to cull the culinary delights of the nation of my birth, and replicate them here in the nation of my adulthood.

The digestive biscuit has always occupied a comfy armchair in the kitchen of my heart. If that’s too difficult to imagine, here is a picture of my actual kitchen armchair. I feel that the digestive is sturdy of character, proffering just enough sweetness to make you feel treated, but a sweetness that is backed up by its ruggedly whole grain (before whole grains were fashionable) constitution.

It is excellent with a cup of tea after or during the workday, but also valiant as a crust to princessy toppings made of sour cream and cream cheese and summer fruits and the like. It is always there for you. It’s the biscuit that doesn’t get stolen first from the biscuit tin by furtive children and others. The biscuit I love to have brought to me by people returning from visits to the UK. My favoured brand is not actually the most popular brand, McVities, but rather Marks and Spencers. Marks & Sparks make a digestive that is crisper than others and its top has the quiet sparkle of extra sugar. On her last trip here, my mother brought me a packet (well, truth be told, three quarters of a packet) of chocolate orange digestives. These were so astrally good that they form a category of their own. My humble aim this evening was to bake me a basic digestive.

I found a recipe on the web that was only wholemeal flour and butter and sugar etc. This did not promise satisfaction. I felt that an essential ingredient must be wheatgerm, and I was also looking for some odd sort of ingredient that only factory production uses, the things you see on labels and don’t understand, but know they must contribute to the addictive yumminess of the store-made goody. When I found a recipe that included milk powder, I felt that was pretty close to such an ingredient. But I also remembered studying the packet of aforementioned chocolate orange digestives and noting “malt” as a component. My milk powder recipe had no malt, but I reckoned I could add an amount of the barley malt syrup sitting on my pantry shelves without getting into trouble. It got me thinking about malted milk powder and whether that would be better yet. But malt syrup I had to hand, so it would feature in this first draft.

The recipe was easy enough, though ends with that moment of having to add enough water to make the dough clump together. How is that when I cook such recipes they always end up requiring twice the water specified? I know it has something to do with humidity and the obstreperously, variously humectant activities of flour, but somehow I feel it has more to do with me. Can you have a dehydrated personality? The remedy to any such train of thought is, of course, a digestive biscuit, a cup of tea and a sit down. So – onward.

The dough cut out to mimic the store-bought size, B and I set about stabbing the raw biscuits with forks. She crafted our initials, “B” and “K,” while I more conservatively (dehydratedly?), poked out three rows of four tine-holes. Twenty minutes in the oven, and out came perfectly crisp brown biscuits.

They took seconds to cool and samplings of the offcuts were judged by us to be quite delicious. Less short, and less sweet too than shop ones, but honest and pleasing biscuits. Good with tea, but gooder with a plate of local (well, one state over) blueberries and some sheep's milk yogurt laced with brown sugar.


11oz plain whole-wheat flour
4 tablespoons wheatgerm
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons milk powder (I used full-fat organic goat milk powder)
4 tablespoons sugar
4 1/2 oz butter
5 tablespoons cold water
1/2 tsp malt syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla

Makes about 34 biscuits if cut to about 3” diameter

Combine the dry ingredients, then cut in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Combine the water, malt syrup and vanilla and drizzle over the dry mix.
Mix until the dough can be squeezed and it holds together. If necessary, add more water in small amounts.
Roll out either between two sheets of waxed paper, or – better – place the dough on a Silpat and then top it with a sheet of wax paper. Roll out to a thickness of 3mm/ 1/8” and then stamp out shapes. Peel away trimmings, then prick with fork.

Bake at 170C/325F/Gas Mark 3 for 20-25 minutes, taking care that they don’t over-brown.
When cool, store in air-tight container.

This recipe is not too sweet, so these would be good with cheese too.
If you want additional sweetness, try sprinkling the top of the dough with Turbinado sugar as you roll it out.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

No Small Trifle

This past weekend, it turns out, was the perfect trifle weekend. All the necessary fruits came ripe together. It was, in fact, a bit goblin markety. When I teach that poem I always point out that it is sinister that all those different fruits of many lands are magically "All ripe together," but my Perfect Trifle Weekend may have proved me wrong. Either that, or trifle is simply a deliciously sinister business.

I had peaches from Georgia, and organic cherries, strawberries and raspberries from right here in Eastern Pennsylvania. The lovely ladies at the Reading Terminal Market Fair Foods farm stand gallantly offered me the cheaper, non-organic raspberries, but less gallantly invited me to taste them both first -- there was no way I was going to walk away from those organic raspberries. Pricier they may have been, but they were a deeper, more velvet red than the others, and the bigger, punchier flavour did a polka on my tongue.

I staggered out of there carrying a huge cardboard box of fruits, and a full gallon of raw Jersey cream because I had TWO trifles to make.

I have big ambitions for perfecting the craft of the trifle. This is probably the 5th year in my trifle-making career, but the truth is that you only get to make a couple of trifles each year, because it's so seasonal. This time round I had a plan: to scent the custard with rose geranium leaves that we'd been growing in our small city garden. I made the custard using the delicious raw Jersey cream, into which I had steeped a shredded handful of the rose geranium leaves, and some local eggs with deep saffron-coloured yolks. It was a delicious custard. B and I kept testing it, with soup spoons. Rapturous testing session!

I'd also made some lady-fingers. A friend from my days in Vermont had visited St John, the restaurant of nose-to-tail dining fame in London. She'd returned with a delightful present for me: Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating. He includes a recipe for cherry trifle, which I didn't use that closely, but I did take his point that there is no point in laboriously piping out lady-fingers which are going to be buried in a trifle. So I made the lady-fingers by spreading the batter out on cookie sheets and baking them into folios which I then sliced into fingers once they'd cooled. He also suggested that if one wanted to be extravagant, one could use Marsala instead of sherry. Ever eager to be extravagant in the kitchen, I dug out a musty bottle of Marsala from the side-board, along with the bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream and set up a quick taste test. The sherry won: the Marsala was thin and edgy tasting. I wasn't inclined to doubt Mr Nose to Tail, but it occurred to me that I had probably bought the Marsala back when my salary was a bit on the thin side too. A check of the label confirmed this: something that calls itself "American Marsala Wine" from New York State is most likely not a fair contestant. So this particular detail of trifle construction remains open to investigation: next year I will try some good Marsala.

Having laid down and sogged my lady-fingers with 3 times the amount of booze anyone with any sense recommends, I put them aside and started halving cherries and strawberries, and skinning and slicing up the peaches. The peaches were so outrageously, Lolita-ly sexy, I had to take a photo. Look at the slick blush on it!

Once I had my fruits prepared and in separate bowls to prevent pre-trifle mingling, I set about layering. First went the cherries, then the strawberries. I privileged the edges of the bowl, so that the lusciousness of the different fruits catered to the trifle voyeur, and scattered them more lightly in the middle. Next came the raspberries, whose soft, matte and whiskery flesh contrasts so perfectly with the easy sleekness of cut peaches. The peaches topped it all off and their big, flat slices formed my custard-catching platform. I am very fussy, perhaps even neurotic, about the mobility of my trifle custard. I want it to be stiff enough to drip just a little, but not entirely. I want to see the fruits from the outside, naked and not peering through a downpour of thin custard. But there are definite logistical problems with this: a classic custard is pretty thin, no matter how long you stand and stir it, fretting over the immanent splitting you are risking. A more pedestrian, Delia Smithly custard recipe would urge you to use cornflour to prevent the curdling -- but even if you are brave of heart and scoff at such safe-players, the truth is that cornflour a stiffer custard makes. What to do? Since the trifles of my English youth were made with packet jelly and packet custard, and the trifle is after all a retro delight, I decided that cornflour has a role to play in my trifles. It alludes to the Birds Eye custard powder of yore, and also gives me that artful, seized drip I seek.

So on went the custard. Then the crushed Amaretti biscuits. I love buying the huge red bags of those, wrapped in their pretty papers. Then I whipped up more of that excellent cream, adding a few slurps of Courvoisier just to perk it up. Since I tend to the prissy, I have always dallied with the idea of piping the cream, but my beloved weighed in on the topic, pointing out that trifle is a trollopy, slumpy creature, who would be offended to be topped with the equivalent of a pill-box hat. She is right. So the cream goes on in big spoonfuls, blowsy and unconstrained.

Much fun was had with the two trifles. The rose-geranium custard was utterly lost in the mix: such a delicate scent couldn't stand up to the trumpeting flavours of the Amaretti and the sherry. So I will return to vanilla-bean custards for future trifles and save rose geranium custard-making for when I want ice-cream. Subtlety may have no place in the trifle bowl, but once the helpings and second-helpings of trifle are consumed, we always follow them with a performance of extreme delicacy: we roll the saved Amaretti papers into tubes, turn out the lights and set fire to their top edge. They dissolve into a column of lacy blue and green flames and finally, just when you think it's through, they lift gently and certainly into the air like a wisp of singed nothingness. So magical is it, your most stolid of guests may cry out with the delight of a small child.

Makes one large trifle. Large = a bowl that is about 10" in diameter, and about 5" high.


2/3 cup / 2.5oz / 70g sifted cake flour
3 large eggs, separated, room temp
1/2 cup / 3.5oz / 100g plus 1 tblsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch salt

Makes enough for 2 trifles.
Can be made in advance.

Line two cookie sheets with Silpat/baking parchment/butter and flour

Preheat oven to 300F / 150C

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg yolks with the 1/2 cup of the sugar and the vanilla, until the mixture is thick and light-coloured and forms a flat ribbon falling back upon itself. Once or twice, stop the mixer and scrape down the sides.

With a clean bowl and beater, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until foamy. Add remaining 1tblsp of sugar and whip until the whites are stiff but not dry. This stage is signaled when you can turn the bowl upside down and the whites stay put.

Using a rubber spatula, scoop 1/4 of the whites into the yolk mixture and fold them lightly together. Don’t overmix – streaks of the whites should remain. Sift about 1/4 of the flour over the whipped batter, fold the mix over itself a couple of times, then add another 1/4 of the whites and fold gently. Repeat, until all flour and whites are used and you can still see those streaks.

This is the point at which you would get out your piping bag for regular lady-fingers. If you want to do that, pipe fingers that are 3-3.5” long and 1” apart. Then sift them with confectioner’s/icing sugar. For trifle, simply evenly divide the mixture between the two cookie sheets and gently spread into thin sheets. Dust with the icing sugar and bake for about 15-20 minutes until lightly golden.

Remove from oven, cool and then slice into fingers.


Makes enough for 1 large trifle
Best made a day in advance to give it time to cool.

450ml / 2 cups full-fat milk
450ml / 2 cups double/heavy cream
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways scraped
6 egg yolks
175g / 6oz / scant cup of caster/granulated sugar
2 tblsp cornflour/cornstarch

Place milk, cream and vanilla pod/seeds into a saucepan and bring to the boil.
In a large bowl, whisk the yolks with the sugar and cornflour until smooth and pale.
Pour the boiled cream/milk/vanilla mixture over the egg yolks, trickling at first, whisking all the time to temper the eggs.
Return the mix to the saucepan (some people think you should rinse it first), then cook over a gentle heat, whisking or stirring with a wooden spoon until it thickens sufficiently to coat the back of a spoon. Do not boil your custard – it will split. If it looks suspiciously curdle-y, lift it off the heat and whisk firmly.
Pass through a fine sieve and cool thoroughly in the fridge.


Cut up large quantities of the best soft fruits available. I like strawberries, raspberries, peaches and cherries best. But blueberries are also very good. Strawberries and cherries should be halved, raspberries and blueberries left whole, and peaches should be skinned and sliced. Skin peaches by slashing the skin a couple of times, then dunking briefly in boiling hot water. Lift out, rinse under cold water and slip off the skins.

Layer lady-fingers in the bottom of your trifle bowl. Douse them with as much sherry or Marsala as you see fit. They really should be moist, not dry.
Then start layering your fruits.
After the last layer of fruit, spread over the custard. I prefer to not spread it completely to the edges – leave about 1/4” and it will spread itself perfectly.
Now unwrap and crush about 12 Amaretti cookies. Save those papers! Spread the crumbs evenly over the custard. Again, I tend to stop short of about 1/4” from the edge of the custard – so that the Amaretti crumbs don’t fall down the sides of the trifle bowl.

Now whip about 1.5 cups/ 350ml of double/heavy cream. You can add a little brandy if you like. Spread over the entire affair. Some people like to decorate their trifle with toasted sliced almonds. You could also use a handful of left-over whole fruit. Or – just leave plain. As soon as you dig into the trifle, and serve it up, it will all collapse anyway – there is no such thing as an elegant serving of trifle. For that, you would need to make individual trifles, which some restaurants do, but it definitely detracts from the debauchery.

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