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Posts Tagged ‘pears’

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Christmas stollen.

On a bit of a Dickens kick right now, especially with that marginally famous Christmas book he wrote about the clashing of spirits and humans, light and dark, and plenty and impoverished.

To compare, I’m thinking of last Christmas, when Hurricane Sandy had just taken away possessions, houses, electric, gas, water and a sense of security and left behind a lot of numb. We learned what was a luxury and what wasn’t, and we learned it pretty quick. Since no gas stations had power either, all of us were worried about driving and running out of gas. Instead, those of us who still had homes stayed in them, froze, mourned, and climbed the walls a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to get gas, finally. I remember driving away feeling like someone had handed me a million dollars. For filling up my gas tank!

It’s not always the big, or cliche, or obvious things that foster a sense of abundance. Here are the Cadillacs in my own dreams.

1) Special foods. You knew I was going here, and I can’t think of a worthier co-pilot than Dickens. His descriptions of holiday foods in Stave Three, mugged up by the Ghost of Christmas Present, are nothing short of glorious. And poignant: his father was jailed for unpaid debts, and he himself was deep into debt, and hungry, when he wrote the book. Those who know hunger describe food in mesmerizing detail, and those who used to be hungry never forget what it feels like. This was Dickens; and here he chooses words that, when spoken aloud, give the reader’s mouth a workout and make it water.* Try it:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

It’s also striking, and essential, to note that when Dickens later illustrates the Cratchits’ Christmas meal, he gives just as much heart to writing it as he does the above. They had very little—their pudding was the size of a musket ball and had to feed seven. Do they complain? No—they’re thrilled. And they feel genuinely full, and genuinely grateful, after the meal. His point: Appreciating abundance is about perspective.

Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done.

As for me, I have crystallized ginger standing by for gingerbread, Saigon cinnamon for my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, and nearly a dozen Meyer lemons in the fridge about to become lemon curd, a religious conversion if there ever was one. I also bought organic chicken legs for a song this week at Trader Joe’s. Americans have never gone for dark meat the way the rest of the world has, and I’m grateful to get the spoils.

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Meyers.

Since I’m on a happy roll, right now my freezer contains four kinds of flour, my own tomato sauce, my mom’s cranberry bread, my sister’s cuccidati, the remnants of my fruitcake, and three bottles of my homemade Limoncello. I am very wealthy squirrel.

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Cinnamon-chocolate sour cream cake.

2) Quiet. Today my fire alarm started chirping, loudly, indicating it had a low battery. Very no big deal, except for the fact that my ceilings are 9′ high, and even with my stepladder trying to reach it was a bad joke. No ladders in the basement. Plan B had me moving my mid-century dining room table into the hallway, stacking the Chicago Manual of Style, Home Comforts, and Little Women on it, and standing on them. I pulled it down, then became horrified when it kept chirping. Messages to my building manager came to nothing, and by afternoon I was wondering whether sleeping in the car would really be as uncomfortable as it sounded. Then it occurred to me that the chirping might be coming from my CO detector. It was. I yanked out the batteries and promptly took a nap. Wrapped myself in swaddling clothes—okay, a throw blanket from Target—and drank in the abundance of quiet like a hot buttered rum.

3) The beauty in everywhere. This Navajo blessing will sink in, whether you’re inhaling the salt air at the beach or if you’re alone in a park that’s all stark winter gorgeousness. But the crazy thing is it will sink in no matter where you are. It just takes a clear eye and an open heart.

Really—give it a whirl right now, no matter where you’re reading this. Take in the details, the stuff you didn’t notice before, and let yourself fill up.

With beauty before me I walk/With beauty behind me I walk/With beauty above me I walk/With beauty around me I walk.

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I took the below shot awhile back, in a nearby park. The air was very still and cold, and although I was in the middle of such vastness, it wasn’t intimidating; it was comfortable, and filling.

I love this ancient sycamore against the miles beyond it.

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And then there’s another kind of tree, and view. It’s a lot smaller, but it does the job of filling me up pretty well, too.

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*This is a literary device that has a name, and since I’m a couple of decades out of college I can’t remember what it’s called. Please tell me if you know. Yes, I tried Google. It can be overrated.

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October’s the Nigella Lawson of the year, an earth mother clad in warm colors, exuberant with life and heart, and eager to feed everybody. In temperate climates, farm stands overflow with the last of Summer’s tomatoes propped next to Fall’s butternuts. Apples, pears and figs hang heavy from trees, and the lustrous bloom on grapes foreshadows the frost soon to come.

With such abundance, it’s the best time of year to appreciate terroir—that ancient notion of place, and the confluence of elements from sky and soil that makes whatever that place produces unique.

In Italy in particular, each region takes enormous pride in the food that grew from its own soil, nourished by the peculiarities of the climate and the conditions of the land there. The pride of ownership comes from knowing that that patch of soil has its own character and what grows there can’t really be reproduced anywhere else.

What’s more, bringing together the produce of a region creates a unique harmony of flavor. Pasta made from local wheat, a sauce made from tomatoes from the garden, wine from the vineyard down the road, and ground beef from your sister-in-law’s farm—together they sing in their own distinctive way.

Calimyrna fig, a couple of days shy from ripeness.

Think about what your region produces. Is it known for specific types of fruits and vegetables? Unusual varieties, stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere? Or does it just grow the basics really, really well?

I live in New Jersey, which comes with its requisite jokes. But no one quibbles with our produce. Say what you will about us—we produce a damn good tomato. And peach, and apple, and blueberry, for that matter.

‘Liberty’ apple tree.

New Jersey’s beef, lamb, pork, poultry and cheese have a purity of flavor unmatched by those not eaten at the source. Beef stock made from local, pasture-fed cows won’t smell tinny or salty like canned stock. It will smell fresh and clean—like the grass that created it.

All of the produce in the photos here were taken at Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ, an organic farm about which I could rhapsodize for hours. They do it right, from their philosophy (sustainability), to their work ethic (hard) to their exceptional produce (authentic flavors). They live terroir.

‘Pink Banana’ winter squash.

Now’s the time to get it all in—flavor, pleasure, pride.

Find out what’s growing around you right now and seek it out. Wherever you are, there’s something growing nearby; and whatever it is, since it’s in season, it doesn’t need much to make it taste the best it can. It might need nothing at all.

Take a bite. What you’re eating won’t taste like THIS anywhere else on the planet.  Do you taste it, the sweet conspiracy of sun and rain and wind on your little bit of the earth?

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I love pumpkin pie as much as the next chick, really I do. But October has this treat written all over it.

Cider syrup does not come in a jar or a bottle (not that I know of, anyway; and even if it was, this version is probably better just because it’s homemade in your own cute little cucina). You can cook it up in about 20 minutes, your house will smell incredible, and your family will think you’ve been sneaking away for private lessons with the Barefoot Contessa.

Take out a small saucepan and put in 1/2 c sugar, 2 tbsp cornstarch, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp nutmeg.* Mix it up.

Next add 2 c apple cider, and if you can get it with nothing added, all the better, because the flavor will be more intense.**

Add a couple of apples, peeled and sliced as thickly or as thinly as you like. Use different varieties, if you can get them. Any will do except maybe Macintosh, which tends to plotz in the pan. Hang onto those for applesauce.

Boil, stirring, for one minute. Take it off the heat and add a pat of butter for richness. Stir. Done.

The syrup should be goopy and gorgeously aromatic. It’s great hot over pancakes or waffles, which is how I grew up eating it (Dad would make pancakes with apples in the batter and then we’d spoon this stuff over it). Put a square of hot gingerbread or hot pumpkin bread in a shallow bowl and dump some of this, cold, on top, for breakfast, and you’ll feel like you have nothing to do all day but putter around the bed-and-breakfast wearing Ugg slippers and reading House Beautiful. Or do what I do: put the syrup in a Tupperware, stick it in the fridge until it gets good and cold, then take a spoon to it. Sometimes I feel guilty doing this, knowing full well how many other worthwhile ways I could be enjoying this, but it doesn’t last long.

I just bought little local, organic Bartlett pears from the farmers’ market and am going to try them in a riff off this recipe, with cardamom, my current obsession, substituted for the cinnamon, and pear brandy, steaming hot over vanilla ice cream.  Brown sugar instead of regular granulated sugar would be good too. Any other riffs you can think of? I’m all eyes.

*Saigon cinnamon, available in my local supermarket and possibly in yours, makes such a difference in pungency and fragrance that I don’t bother using any other kind of cinnamon in any of my baking. Same goes for using nutmeg in its original seed form. It’s about the size of a hazelnut, and again, can be found fairly easily. Just grab a cheese grater, or better, one of those neato microplane graters, and grate some right into your bowl. Don’t fret too much about measuring. Yes, you can use ordinary cinnamon and ground nutmeg and get decent results. But only decent.

** NJ shore residents: Don’t fool around and just head straight to Delicious Orchards.

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These days sleep is at a premium, and mornings are more hectic than ever. All the more reason to give in when the spirit, and appetite, cry out for the familiar, the homey, and the soothing.

The French call this recipe a clafouti, but don’t let it intimidate you (as anything with a Gallic slant can, and has, for so many of us ordinary home cooks). It’s just a custard with stewed fruit added. In France it’s usually made with cherries* and is technically a dessert, served warm, but I love it for breakfast. The eggs in it add a great punch of protein, which we can all use in the morning, no matter who we are or what’s on the docket for the day.

The clafouti is a staple in my house because it’s so delicious, so versatile, and so quick to throw together—you can take it from ingredients in the fridge to a pan in the oven in about half an hour. Kids don’t tend to argue with anything that’s sweet, creamy and fruity, either.

You can make it with any single fruit, really, or combine a few. Two of my favorite combinations are pineapples and mangoes with rum and apples and pears with apple brandy. Don’t worry about the alcohol; most of it burns off, leaving the custard with just a delicate fragrance.

After Hurricane Irene slammed us at the Jersey Shore, many of us lost power for days and with it, much of what we’d stashed for the winter in the freezer. I had picked mulberries from local trees in June and gorgeous organic blueberries in July. Berries are fragile—they take well to freezing once, but not twice—so I combined them for this. It was lovely, mellowly sweet.**

Take out an 8×8″ brownie pan and grease very well with canola oil or butter. In a medium bowl, combine 3 eggs, 1 c milk (any kind) or cream, 2/3 c all-purpose flour, a couple of tablespoons of melted butter, and 1 tsp pure vanilla extract. I use a 2 c glass liquid measuring jug as my bowl and then stir with a fork. Easier.

Take out a wide, flat skillet, put it on medium heat, add another pat of butter, let it melt a bit, then add your fruit. Any kind will do, about 4 c total. Put in 1/2 c sugar or honey and stir. If you’re using fall or winter fruits like pears, apples, or cranberries, brown sugar is awesome. Add a little booze, maybe a 1/4 c, or more if you’re feeding adults who are cranky in the mornings. Grand Marnier is an orange liqueur and is wonderful with most fruits; tropical fruits take well to their neighbor, rum; Amaretto, an almond liqueur, pairs well with any fruit in its family, like peaches, nectarines or apricots. Or just add extra vanilla extract, which is just vanilla steeped in alcohol. It’s kind of fun messing around with different combinations.

Cook the fruit until it’s a little soft and it’s hot, then pour it into your pan. Give the egg mixture one more quick stir, then pour that over the fruit. If you want, top the whole shebang with a little bit of cinnamon sugar—that’s maybe 1/4 c sugar mixed with 1-2 tsp cinnamon.

Put the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment or foil (to catch any spillage). Bake in a 375 oven for 20 minutes if you want your clafouti soft and a bit loose, up to 30 minutes if you like it set.

I shot the clafouti photo above in a beautiful little milk glass bowl, but that’s false advertising. My favorite way to eat it is as the heathen I am, with a spoon and the entire pan in front of me. No, I don’t eat the whole thing. But Lord knows I could. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve come close.

*with the stones left in them. The French think they lend flavor to the dish. At least that’s what they say, and I’ve decided to believe them. I’d hate to think a nation that produced a smile button like Jacques Torres would be malicious at heart.

**It’s fun to say mellowly.

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