Posts Tagged ‘figs’

what is

This is a lemonade-out-of-lemons thing. Well, technically I got a pie out of it. And it concerns figs, not lemons. But saddle up and let’s ride this the metaphor out.

A couple of weeks ago, after a hard and surprising first frost, I wandered out to the fig trees at the farm to do triage. Most customers don’t know the trees exist, which I’ll admit to you is a fairly greedy thrill, and those who do aren’t thinking about them in November; plus the girl behind the counter said anything I happened to find was mine for the taking. Take not lightly an ambitious woman with a berry basket.

The figs were small, but I was excited to discover many were soft. So! These could be a pie. These, after being sliced and hit with a drizzle of butter and honey, and sizzled around a little in a pan, could be a pie. A drizzle + a sizzle = redemption. I cleared out every last fig.

One of my biggest challenges* these days is looking at reality head-on and working with it as is. Wishing and wanting aside, and it’s bloody hard to do that, we’re left with the truth in its stocking feet. A big surprise is how often the final product is improved when we create without the benefit of inherent bells and whistles. A bigger surprise is how much pressure falls away when we’re left to retool on our own, and how sometimes we kind of impress ourselves.

They made a pretty nifty pie.

*or irks, depending on the day.


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It’s Fall, and come Fall, I start wanting to melt stuff until it’s goopy and eat it with the shades pulled. Chocolate is a big draw, and so is cheese.* I started thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches and issued myself a challenge to come up with new combinations.

A half-hour’s trip to Whole Foods provided a beautiful crusty loaf of levain**. They bring in some of their bread from Balthazar, and this was one of them. Pullman shaped, it was perfect for sandwiches. Then I bought two kinds of cheese, and then I went to the farm and picked things.

The first sandwich! This is sliced figs (of the six hard-won ripe ones I found in the trees at my favorite farm, but worth the rain in my hair to dig for them), Canadian bacon that I crisped up in olive oil, little tiny caramelized red onions, mascarpone cheese, a little balsamic vinegar, and lots of black pepper. Cooked the whole thing in the same pan that I used to crisp the Canadian bacon. I call it ‘Pigs & Figs.’


Second! I made Marcella Hazan’s luminous pasta arrabbiata sauce and left out the pasta. It calls for really ripe tomatoes, four cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, and one hot stuffed cherry pepper. I toasted it up with some oozy Monterey Jack. It was a stunner, and I named it ‘Hot Stuff.’ I think I’ll make it again tomorrow for breakfast.


One more sandwich to go, with lovely Macoun apples from the farm and more Monterey Jack. I haven’t even made it yet, but I’ve already named it ‘Applejack.’

* And sometimes chocolate and cheese together. I once reviewed a fancy-pants macaroni and cheese place that had a French-trained chef, and he made me grilled chocolate and Brie. It was completely out of control. I still dream about it.

** Not for long. With a proper counter and a dishwasher to boot, soon I’ll be rekindling my affair with the yeast stored in my freezer. It could use a spark.

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Lanterns, carried to the barn to do the milking before sunup and after sundown.

It’s one of my contentions, delusional or not, that objects can be charged with power. I’ve written before about where I will and won’t forage, and when I visited an antiques store after Hurricane Sandy. In both cases, it’s choosing a setting that’s calming and positive. (Of course that choice is totally subjective; there are those who find the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas comforting, and would find my pastures and creaking wooden floors about as appealing as watching paint dry. To each his own.)


Enormous scale, decorated with a sprig of bittersweet.

A farm store loaded with antique tools, now—this is a place of great power for me. Native nations here in the US wore the pelt or teeth of a specific animal to take on the powers of that animal. Much in the same way, when I see and touch an old utensil, I like to think I can take on the power of its maker and owners.


Pan, griddle, mill, and other antique heavy kitchen tools, along with the triangle that called everyone to supper.

There’s a grey dustiness to everything here, but it is all still useful. These tools weren’t meant to snap in half, lose their handles after 27 uses, and be replaced with something just as poorly made. I like to think the tools are sitting there quietly, smugly, knowing they have it over everything comparable in the Home & Bath section at Target.


Another scale and a stuffed tenant.

Very little of the stuff in my kitchen was purchased new. Muffin tins, brownie spatulas, Pyrex bowls and pans, prep bowls, my hand mixer—all were found secondhand at antique shops or at garage sales. Sometimes they were cheaper, but that’s not why I bought them. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s because new stuff has no power.


Not a tool, but still way cool. Wooden cream cheese and egg boxes.

Give me the potato masher that could have fed dozens of hungry farmhands in the fifties. I want the wooden-handled cookie cutters that were used to make Christmas cookies during wartime, and cheered everyone up for a little while. I’ll pass on the brand new bowl in favor of the cracked wooden one from Vermont, the one that has proofed hundreds of loaves of bread. It can proof mine now.


Third scale. The handwritten sign on it reads, ‘Please use very gently. I’m very old. No watermelons.”

Antique tools combine the history of our forefathers and mothers, their thrift and ingenuity, their resilience. I want all of that. Who wants to be alone in the kitchen when you can have company?


Cast-iron food mill and grinder.

And there’s more. Recently I wrote an article that mentioned a small-town baker of 50 years who wanted to retire. He passed up the tattoo artist and all of the other retailers looking to rent his space, refused to rent it to anyone but another baker. He said, very simply and very adamantly, that he was tired of everything changing.

I feel the same way about my kitchen. I’m not insane (maybe delusional, but not insane); my suped-up Cuisinart makes very quick work of marzipan, and I can’t imagine my world without parchment paper and my Silpat. But for the most part I like the idea of filling my drawers with equipment that outlasted its owners and will last for generations more. Stability: another power.


The cast-iron stove and more heavy tools of the housewife’s trade. She must have been ripped. Kettle at top left, with a handle that could be suspended over a fire; flatiron at top right. I love the detail on the front of the oven, and its little handle.

Now then. Out of the store, onto the grounds (of unfathomable power), and into the kitchen again. Figs in the forecast.


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Today on Facebook I posted about the times last summer when my buddy would write to me, having just opened his box from his CSA*, and ask what in the name of all that is holy were these short green fuzzy things. He’d include a photo. (They were okra.)


These are lumpy yellowish-greenish appley pear things. (Quince.)

Another time he told me about a whitish greenish vegetable with ferny things growing out of the top of it. I told him to slice off a tiny bit, then asked if it tasted like licorice. He did, and it did, and he was so excited to report back. (Fennel.)


Smells a little like mint. (Because it is—wild mint.)

I find this kind of conversation very enjoyable, so today I extended my identifying services to everyone I know on Facebook. More and more people are buying into CSAs and their spectacularly fresh, local vegetables, but don’t always know what they’re looking at, let alone how to prepare it.


Sort of squishy streaky purplish things. (Figs.)

In the case of the okra, I suggested he fry them, or make a stew and let them goop themselves out. You cannot thwart the okra when it comes to goop. As I must write, and take pictures of broken things I find on the side of the road, so they must goop. Might as well let it thicken your stew.


Um, they’re long and covered with dirt. (Fresh horseradish.)

For the fennel, I suggested he shave it thinly with a mandoline and use it in salads. If I recall, he found success with both vegetables, though decided not to try the okra on his two young boys. Ate it up himself. I’m still not entirely sold on it myself. Maybe another year.


Fat zucchini? (Close enough. Summer squash covers it. I used to know the name, but can’t find it!)

As I posted to my friends, I love the prospect of playing Julie McCoy and introducing someone to a new vegetable. I love helping people to give in to curiosity, and a new way to think, and a new way to cook.

But mostly I love feeling as though I’m giving people accessibility to what the earth gives. I’m such a nerd, I know, but I find it incredibly exciting to come across a new fruit or vegetable, especially if it’s local. And I know at least one other person who feels the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so jaded, with information powering at us from all sides, all day and night, and feel as though there’s nothing new to see.

I know digital information can and does make our world bigger, but to me…it’s almost always more rewarding to make it bigger not by looking at a screen, but down at the fertile ground.

*CSA: Community-Supported Agriculture—a great idea. People buy shares in a local farm, and get the spoils of that farm, all season long, as ripe and delicious as can be.

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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

darker asparagus

Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?


Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***


Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.


Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.


Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.



Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

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No preliminaries from Little Miss Chatterbox this time. Let’s go:

1) Be skeptical of any dessert served with an amorphous heap on top—whipped cream, raspberry sauce, spark plugs, whatever. It usually means the kitchen is trying to distract you. Remember: if the dessert could stand on its own, it would.

2) Smile at your restaurant server even if he or she doesn’t smile back.

3) If you loved your meal, send your thanks to the kitchen. It’s not pretentious or old-fashioned; expressing appreciation will never be thus.

4) If your Filipino friend invites you to an authentic Filipino meal made by her mom, say yes.


Lumpiang shanghai—homemade spring rolls filled with ground pork, carrots, and onions. Piping hot and crisp. I couldn’t stop eating them, which was rude because my hosts and friends kept trying to engage me in conversation, but I got a little delirious with these.


This is is monggo, and lovely comfort food. Beans, broth, shrimp, and vegetables. Again, I needed to exercise better portion control and likely didn’t.

5) If a friend who grew up in Wisconsin tells you that a local ice cream place is fantastic, go.

6) Never refuse a cookie made from scratch.

7) When in a burger joint or chain restaurant, don’t order the pasta. Doesn’t matter if the place has an Italian-sounding name.

8) It’s okay to hate marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs. Get in line with me. We’ll hang out.

9) Always pull over to buy lemonade from kids selling it in front of their houses.

10) When trying an exotic dish for the first time, make sure the people preparing it know it like they know how to inhale and exhale.

11) Own a copy of The Joy of Cooking. Every single standard dish is in there, and it’s plainly written.

12) Eat fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and you’ll find out how they’re really supposed to taste. Watermelon delivered to New Jersey in March is, for example, a disgrace. In August, purchased locally, it’s celestial.


Organic Sugar Baby.

13) Shop at farmers’ markets. Ask questions. The guy behind the fold-out table most likely grew those sweet grilling peppers himself and loves talking about them.

14) Recognize that your tastes can change. Something you used to hate might taste very differently to you today—or you simply might learn that you hate broccoli when roasted, but love it when steamed.

15) Put your hands in soft bread dough at least once. Making bread is easy. Really really.


Babka dough…on the rise.

16) Just because a recipe looks difficult to make doesn’t mean it is, or that you won’t enjoy every second of making it.

17) When traveling, eat where the locals eat for the best value and flavor. If you want fancy, ask a local butcher where to eat; he or she will know which restaurants buy the best cuts. If you want simple and hearty, ask a policeman where to eat.

18) Along the same lines, try foods that the place is known for. Taste an artichoke in Rome, heather honey in Scotland, flying fish on Barbados, sharp white cheddar in Vermont.

19) Go strawberry picking. Go anything picking. Wear decent shoes. Flip flops aren’t.


20) Own a proper set of knives. They should be weighted evenly, with the metal running straight through the handle. I firmly maintain that if you own cooking equipment that you don’t have to fight, you’ll enjoy cooking far more.

21) On the other hand, don’t spend much for ordinary things. An aluminum muffin tin has a design that’s hard to foul up. I bought a few sets for something like $7 at an ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale in 2006. I also bought a hand mixer for five bucks. Both were at least 10 years old when I got them and they’re still chugging along fine.

22) Try different ingredients together, different textures together. If you don’t like it, so what? You can always chuck it if it doesn’t work out. Or you might come up with something wildly groovy.


This was a weirdo idea I had for a breakfast sandwich: roasted local peaches with my fresh ricotta, basil leaves, and a drizzle of honey. It was too sweet. Next time I’m going to try balsamic vinegar instead of the honey.


My honeysuckle syrup. One to one with plain vodka over ice was OUT of this world.

23) Eat with your hands. Not at a posh spot with your district manager, but as often as you can. It will taste differently. It’s grounding.

24) Find out what’s growing wild in your backyard, research it, and be clear on it. I’d bet there’s something edible there you can throw into your salad.

25) Eat good-quality chocolate, pure maple syrup (Grade B!), fresh garlic. Spread Irish butter on your English muffin. (Sure, they’ll be fighting in spirit, but in your mouth it’ll be divine.)

26) Try making pumpkin muffins with fresh-baked pumpkin at least once.


Above: Cinderella pumpkins; below, cheese pumpkins. Highly recommended.

27) When at a Jewish deli, order the hot pastrami sandwich.

28) If you ever come across a cold bottle of sarsaparilla, try it.

29) Ditto for homemade hot chocolate. Ix-nay on the blue packets.

30) Adding a little sprinkle of sea salt to the top of homemade brownies, truffles, chocolate-dipped figs, and peanut butter fudge gives them a happy little punch.


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The following account details a situation I should have handled like an adult and, head bowed, I regret I did not. Or maybe, okay, that entire sentence was a total head fake.

So it’s fig season, running a little late since it was a cool summer. I am lucky enough to know a farmer who grows them, and luckier still that a fair amount of customers don’t even know it. The clear upshot of this is that I end up with a shameless amount of figs, and eat most of their fat gorgeous selves on the way home.* Locally grown figs aren’t all that easy to come by, and for that reason I include them with Italian white truffles, or patience on the New Jersey Turnpike, in their rarity and in the hushed tones in which I speak of them. I love them, and while normally I am a kind and sharing person, I leave that person in the back of my Honda with my yuppie canvas shopping bags during fig season, to come back out again at Thanksgiving time and thrive just until the stuffing is served.

I was at the farm last week, and asked the girl at the counter if I could please go fig slinging. I leaned. I whispered. She and the farmer discussed it, during which another woman overheard and squealed. ‘Oh, you have figs? I love figs! Where are they?’

Did I wail to the heavens? Did I go all Jeff Gillooly? No. I took down a couple of baskets and offered to walk the nice lady out to the trees.


Quite obviously not figs but dried thistle flowers, or possibly artichokes (they’re in the same family) that grow alongside the fig trees. Coolness.

That totally smacks of Snow White and the hunter, but you can relax. Much wile can be applied under the guise of nice, as any Thin-Mints-quota-driven Girl Scout can tell you. As we walked, the woman asked how to tell if a fig is ripe. I told her it’s been a cool year, and that goodness me, it has been tough to find a ripe fig; and we’re likely to have the same situation that cool and drippy day.

She went on one side of the row of trees and I went on the other. She’s chatting and sharing fig recipes, I’m chatting and marvelling that not everyone eats them all on the way home, and she’s saying, ‘Are you getting many? Wow—you’re right. There just aren’t that many to be had,’ while I am making agreeable tut-tut-it’s-a-shame noises while slipping fig after ripe fig into my coat pockets. Well, I couldn’t put them into the basket or she’d see how many I was picking. And…I was wearing decades-old, secondhand shoes, and I don’t have any problem at all with ducking under leaves to look for hidden fruit. This very nice woman, on the other hand, looked like she was going straight from the farm to Ann Taylor Loft, with her skinny jeans tucked into smart leather booties, and hair combed and everything.

She went to pay (she told me she found five figs) and I stayed on. I live a half hour away, and she told me she lives three houses away. She’s going to end up getting more figs as long as she thinks to visit more often than I do. But then again, maybe not. She’d have to wear crap shoes like me and be willing to brush spiderwebs out of her nose. She really didn’t seem the type.

I did well, as the title reveals. And I’ll be back this week.

*I do have recipes, but due to my above weakness they don’t usually see the light of day.

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