The Persimmon Situation

Last month, I bought the most beautiful Hachiya persimmon at H-Mart, the magical Asian grocery store in Burlington. I let it ripen on the counter for more than a week, because an unripe persimmon is absolutely dreadful, astringent and foul. I ate it greedily by myself, skin and all, devouring it like a piece of candy. It was delicious.

It was such a wonderful persimmon that I devised a salad with Fuyu persimmons — the spherical, squat kind, that need to be peeled and sliced up like an apple — escarole, hazelnuts, feta and a shallot lemon vinaigrette. I set the persimmons on the counter to ripen, and told Rich about my exciting salad.

“I won’t eat that,” he said firmly. “They look like unripe tomatoes.”

That Friday, I called my parents as I do every week to wish them a Good Shabbos. My mom picked up. “How was your week?” I asked her.

“Well, let’s see. I had book club on Tuesday, lunch with Bette on Thursday. Oh, and I had the most scrumptious persimmon.”

Now, to some, this might sound a bit strange, but it was completely normal to me. My sister and I have been known to call each other mid-bite about a perfect plum.

I sighed. “Mom. There’s a persimmon situation.”

“A persimmon situation?”

“Yes. Rich won’t eat persimmons.”

“I don’t understand,” she replied, confused. “Why won’t he eat a persimmon? They’re delicious, wonderful, luscious bites of sunshine during this season. You know, when your grandparents were in France, their farm was covered in persimmon trees.”

(I should explain: My grandparents, German Jews, spent the war hiding in Provence. As a result, my grandmother’s cooking was more French countryside than shetl, a trait passed down to my mother, and on to me and my sister. From what I understand, there were many, many, many sweet potatoes. And persimmons.)

“Don’t worry Mom,” I assured her. “The persimmon situation is under control.”

My plan was simple: Add sugar, eggs and dairy, and make it so unbelievably delicious that one would have to be a fool not to devour it. My plan worked — perhaps a little too well. Rich ate about eight servings of persimmon pudding; I had two. Every night for a week, he would settle in with his serving of persimmon pudding, reheated for about 30 seconds in the microwave, and whisper “Mmm, persimmon pudding.”

The persimmon situation really got me thinking. Some people shun a strange fruit or vegetable or unusual cut of meat, just because it’s unfamiliar. If you see a strange vegetable or foreign piece of fruit, give it a shot. I guarantee there are directions on how to clean it and prepare it on the Internet somewhere. It never hurts to try something new.

The recipe I have here is from Deborah Madison’s The Vegetarian Table: America. It calls for a food mill, but you can accomplish the same thing with a blender. That said, my mom always remarks that she used a food mill constantly when I was a baby. Whatever they ate, I ate, persimmons included. There were no grown-up foods and kids’ foods, just food. I’m a better eater, and cook, as a result.

Persimmon Pudding

As Madison writes: The large acorn-shaped Hachiya persimmon are ideal for this dessert. They should be dead ripe, the consistency of jam. If you’re planning to make this for a specific day, buy your persimmons a week or even two ahead of time to allow for ripening. Persimmon pulp can also be frozen until needed. The pudding is especially wonderful when served with cold cream poured from a pitcher, or with softly whipped and sweetened cream.

3 or 4 soft, ripe Hachiya persimmons

1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

3 eggs, beaten

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground clove

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2 1/2-to 3-quart baking dish or souffle dish.

Using your hands, break up the persimmons then pass them through a food mill, skins and all. If you don’t have a food mill, squeeze the pulp out of the skins, remove the seeds, and then puree the pulp in a blender. There should be 2 cups.

In a bowl, mix the pulp with the brown sugar, eggs, milk, baking soda, melted butter and vanilla. In a second bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Gradually stir the flour mixture into the persimmon mixture to make a smooth batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and bake until well-browned and set, about 1 hour. The pudding should be firm to the touch but still a bit wobbly in the center. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly (the pudding will fall as it cools). Serve warm.

mmm...persimmon pudding

Cold Day, Hot Soup

I love soup — not only warm, thick soups to heat me up in the winter but cold soups like gazpacho and cucumber yogurt to cool me down in the summertime. I keep a spoon and bowl at my desk at work. I eat it for breakfast. I own more than one soup cookbook. So when I read that January is National Soup Month, and the 22nd is National Soup Swap Day, I got excited.

The soup I have here is not for everyone, including my mother and Julia Child. It’s a sweet potato cilantro soup with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. If the thought of putting cilantro into anything makes you cringe, you’re not the only one, and it’s not your fault. As food scientist Harold McGee writes, some people actually have a genetic disposition to hating the herb, but that it can be improved over time.

But I love this soup. It’s got a bit of a kick, so feel free to cut down on the chipotle peppers, or even leave them out. The marriage of sweet potato and cilantro might be enough for some, but if you love a little heat, go for it! I make this soup in a pressure cooker, so it takes about 7 minutes to cook. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, it’ll just take a bit longer. I also have an immersion blender, so I puree it directly in the pot. If you use a regular blender or food processor, do it in small batches and be very careful. Put a towel over the top of the machine to prevent any of the hot soup from spraying out. If you are concerned about processing the hot liquid, allow the soup to cool beforehand.

The potatoes don’t need to be diced perfectly, but make them around the same size so they all cook at the same time. I keep the peppers in their can in the fridge, with a lid of tin foil. As long as the cilantro isn’t super gritty, I use the Rachael Ray method (no judgment!): swirl it around in a bowl with cold water.

Sweet Potato and Cilantro Soup with Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce

4 medium shallots, peeled and chopped

2 chipotle peppers and about a teaspoon of their adobo sauce, chopped

6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium red potatoes, peeled and quartered

4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, halved and cut into thirds

1 quart stock (a box of stock works perfectly)

A hearty handful of cilantro

Pinch of salt

Directions

Over medium heat, saute the shallots (with a dash of salt) and the peppers in their sauce in olive oil for about 7 minutes, until the shallots are wilted but have not started to brown. Add the garlic and cook about two minutes longer. Stir in the potatoes and sweet potatoes, and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add the stock and cook in pressure cooker for 7 minutes (double check your pressure cooker instructions for exact times on cooking potatoes), or reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, until the veggies are fork-tender, approximately 25 minutes. Add the cilantro and puree the soup. If the soup is too thick, add some extra stock or water. Check the soup for salt and pepper and serve.

Beyond Bubbe’s Kitchen

My grandmother’s brisket was epic. Her cheese blintzes were so remarkable, I can never bring myself to buy the frozen kind. So when I found out about Beyond Bubbe’s Kitchen, where 15 of the Boston area’s most talented chefs put a new twist on traditional Jewish dishes, I took note. The event is put on by Prism, the New Center for Arts & Culture’s program for Jewish young professionals.

Here’s the entire menu for you to peruse. I can’t wait to try Julio de Haro of Estragon’s take on brisket, which will be braised in pomegranate juice, and served with pomegranate seeds and onion confit. Or Erwin Ramos of Ole’s blintzes: tamales de chocolate with sweet fruit topping.

The event will be hosted by Michael Schlow of Radius. Several chefs will provide short demonstrations. All guests will receive a booklet of recipes for the dishes prepared that evening; last year’s included Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger’s East-West Brisket Potstickers.

Plus, my personal Jewish cookbook hero, Joan Nathan, is the guest speaker.

Tickets are an amazingly reasonable $36 if you’re 39 or younger, or $136 for 40+.

Beyond Bubbe’s Kitchen will take place on Sunday January 30th at 5:30 PM at the Moakley Courthouse, 1 Courthouse Way, South Boston.  For more information call 617-531-4610 or go to NewCenterBoston.org.

A Taste of Date-Honey

Rich and I have been together for a few years now, so when I say things like, “Wow, this would be perfect for Tu BiShvat,” as I did last month, he just smiles and takes another serving.

Tu BiShvat, or the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat, is the new year for the trees. It falls on January 20th this year. It’s a holiday with a practical origin. Ancient Israelites were required to tithe from fruit trees three years of age or older, and Tu BiShvat was used as the official cut-off date.

Today, Tu BiShvat marks the beginning of springtime in Israel, and Jews celebrate it by hosting kabbalah-inspired seders and eating the seven fruits and grains named in Deuteronomy as the main produce of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. (I also remember gnawing on pieces of dried carob, or buksur, when I was a little girl. I had no idea why, but if you’re interested, I found this very helpful.)

I hadn’t set out to make a dish for the holiday. What happened was this: I became totally enamored with the rutabaga, aka golden turnip, last month. I would steam one and eat it for breakfast. Underneath its sharpness I could taste a sweetness that’s almost floral. Wanting to draw out that flavor, I headed to the dried fruit section of my pantry. (Yes, dried fruit: an unsung hero of the pantry. A handful of raisins or cranberries can really brighten any dish.)

After a  little digging, I decided on the date. Looking back, I realize I must have been inspired by a grilled turnip and dates dish I had at the Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia this past summer. The tasting menu was an incredibly reasonable $36, an unbelievably low price considering the amount and quality of the food. If you have seen a tasting menu at a lower price, please please please let me know. I must emphasize that this restaurant is Israeli but not kosher. They do serve meat, but dairy eaters and vegetarians will still walk away with a very full belly.

Anyhow, my guess was right, as the date really enhances the fruitiness of rutabagas, while the bit of thyme here plays up its floral quality. The soft medjool dates are used here as they are in biblical texts, cooked down to make a kind of date-honey.

Rutabaga with Dates and Thyme

One rutabaga, peeled and diced

One small onion, peeled, halved and sliced thin

Four dates, pitted and chopped

Five sprigs of thyme

1/2 cup of stock

2 tablespoons butter

Salt to taste

Directions

Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan on a medium-low heat. Sweat the onions with a few pinches of salt until they’re soft and near translucent, about nine minutes. Add the chopped dates and stir until they have melted down and coated the onions. Stir in the rutabaga. Add the half cup of stock, give a stir, and cover for about 50 minutes, until the rutabaga’s flesh is easily pierced with a fork. Stir in the leaves of thyme, cook for a minute or two longer and serve. 


From Waterbury with love… and garlic

There’s an unassuming Italian joint off of I-84 in Waterbury, Connecticut, called Nino’s Trattoria. It’s actually attached to a Super 8 Motel, so it’s not surprising if you’ve zipped by it a million times and never stopped. But it just happens to be  about half-way between my parents’ place in Western Mass. and my aunt and uncle’s in New York, so a few times a year, we would climb in the car and head out to Nino’s.

They make the most amazing homemade gnocchi primavera I’ve ever had, and calzones so large and bursting with goodies that they take up an entire pizza platter. But our favorite dish on the menu has to be the escarole and beans. Any trace of the escarole’s bitterness has been softened by butter, garlic and creamy white beans.  It comes on a raft of crusty Italian bread to sop up the magical juices for a bonus round of deliciousness.

When Rich and I visit friends in New York City, we ignore the GPS’s advice to stick to the Merritt Parkway so we can fill up on escarole and beans. We made it into the city for a quick visit over New Year’s, but our plans were cut short by a fast and furious bug. We missed our trip to Nino’s, but our hunger for the dish remained.

This is actually one of Rich’s all-time favorite dishes. Sometimes I make it with anchovies, and sometimes I don’t. The pile of garlic, however, is really what makes this dish, so even though the amount I suggest here might be off-putting to some, it’s really what makes the dish delicious. I’ve found that stock adds to the beans’ creaminess, but it doesn’t have to be a meat-based stock.

Escarole and Beans

Enough olive oil to cover a large heavy pan with a lid

1/3 cup garlic  (no, really) — thinly sliced

2 anchovies (optional)

Pinch of red pepper flakes

One head of escarole

16 oz. can of cannellini beans, drained in a colander and given a good rinse. (Or, 1 cup of dried beans, soaked overnight. They should take around 11 minutes in a pressure cooker.)

1/2 cup of chicken or vegetable broth or stock (about four cubes worth, if you’re using frozen stock)

Salt to taste

Crusty bread for sopping

Directions

Clean the escarole leaves under cold water. This step actually takes the longest because escarole gets pretty dirty — it is, after all, grown in dirt — so I wash each piece individually. Give them a quick ride in a salad spinner to get off some of the water, but the leaves needn’t be perfectly dried.

Heat the olive oil in the pan. If you’re using anchovies, toss those in the pan and break them down with the back of a wooden spoon.  Then add the garlic and pinch of red pepper flakes and cook for about a minute and a half. You basically want to perfume the oil with the garlic without browning it. Bitter garlic is never fun.

Once the smell of garlic perfumes your kitchen, add the escarole, a pinch of salt and give it a stir. The leaves should still have drops of water on them from their cleaning, which will help with the inevitable shrinkage that always happens to leafy greens (Don’t even get me started on spinach). Cover the pan for about five minutes, during which time the leaves will shrink down.

Remove lid and gently stir the beans into the garlic (anchovies) and escarole. After about five minutes, add the half cup stock.  Cook for another five minutes or so. The beans should kind of melt into the dish, giving it a creamy texture.

Serve over crusty bread in a low-rimmed dish.

The L-Words

A few years ago, I bought three pounds of green lentils for about $3.50 at Arax Market, one of the Armenian shops on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. All of the markets on that block are wonderful resources for dirt cheap spices — think half a pound of saffron threads for under $5 — nuts, candies, baked goods and freshly prepared Middle Eastern specialties.

Not long after, I won my trusty pressure cooker as a door prize at a bridal event at Macy’s, and the lentils got set aside in the pantry as I explored the world of long-cooking beans: cranberry, black, kidney, Northern white, chickpeas and the like. So my lentils sat in the pantry, untouched for more than three years, until this past fall when I was scrambling for recipes to use up the pounds of leeks in my CSA box.

Leeks are a really great mild allium that can hang out in the fridge for a few weeks. But they can also be really filthy, and require a tad more prep than their round cousins. The ones I got in the CSA were some of the dirtiest I’d ever seen; I had to wipe down my counter several times prepping them. When cleaning a leek, the first thing to do is get rid of the tough exterior layers. Cut off some of the really tough dark green parts at the top as well, then slice the leeks in half lengthwise on your cutting board. Take the leek half to the sink and run water over it, running your fingers through each layer to remove hidden dirt. After this rinsing, you can slice them up for your recipe.

The recipe I have here is from Darra Goldstein’s The Vegetarian Hearth: Recipes and Reflections for the Cold Season. (Darra is the editor of the amazing food studies periodical Gastronomicaand the author of a number of great cookbooks.) It’s a great pantry dish, made of stuff you should just have around the house. Give the lentils a good rinse in a colander before you start cooking with them. You might have to cook them a little longer if they’re on the older side, but don’t worry; age does not affect its taste.

And here’s a tip for the tablespoon of tomato paste: You can buy a really great tube of tomato paste at high-end grocery stores. It comes with a screw top, so you can take what you want and put it away until the next time. It should cost less than $10. However, you can get a can of tomato paste for about .75 at any grocery store. To save the rest of the can, empty the contents into a plastic baggy, squish it flat and toss it in the freezer. The next time a recipe calls for tomato paste, just take the baggie out and break yourself off the correct amount.

I love this dish so much that my three pounds of lentils are just about down to two cups. We ate this all fall long and into the winter. I like to add Brussels sprouts, adding them right at the beginning, with the leeks and carrots. It’s not necessary, but it just tastes really great.

Lentils and Leeks The Vegetarian Hearthby Darra Goldstein

2 pounds leeks, well-rinsed and sliced 1/2 inch thick

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick

1/4 cup olive oil

2 1/2 cups water

1 cup green lentils

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon sugar

1 1/4 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan toss the leek and carrot slices with the olive oil. Cook over medium heat for 8 minutes, until the vegetables are lightly browned, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover the pan and simmer the mixture for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. To keep the leek slices intact, do not stir. Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish, 2 to 4 as a main dish.

She cooks with the fishes

Oh my. Is it possible to devour a head of lettuce?

Winter in New England is tough. But slipping on black ice or climbing over a snow drift to get to a sidewalk isn’t what frustrates me the most about this season.  It’s the fresh vegetable situation. Oh, how I long for August and its ripe tomatoes and corn straight from the cob. I’ve been hungering for salads recently, and have been contemplating persimmons and escarole. But for now, a Caesar salad will do quite nicely.

It’s been a few years since I realized I could make Caesar salad at home. The recipe base I use is from an ancient Cook’s Illustrated, but I do wander away from it after a certain point. (Eight grindings of fresh black pepper? Really?) They suggest coddling the egg, as does The New York Times Cookbook, although Zuni Cafe, which sells more Caesar salad than anything else on their menu, does not. Neither use Worcestershire sauce, although I do, and I really do think it brings it to the next level. It is not key, however.

The key to Caesar salad is anchovies. Anchovies, you might be thinking to yourself, are NOT vegetarian. But here’s the thing:I called this blog “mostly vegetarian” so I could sneak around the anchovy issue. If you’re a fish eater but are squeamish about anchovies, please give them a shot. Anchovies are the cheapest flavor packets I can think of. Ancient Romans doused everything in garum, and many Asian cuisines wouldn’t be the same without fish sauce. When I bite into something with an anchovy in it, I am always struck by all the complex layers of flavor they add.

In most scenarios, you won’t even have to touch them. If you’re cooking with them, beat them in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. You can get a can of anchovies for less than $3 at any grocery store. Ocean State Job Lot used to have glass jars of anchovies that were really special but hasn’t had them for a while. I toss the remaining anchovies, can and all, into a plastic bag in the fridge. Let them sit for a few minutes at room temperature and the oil will return to form. But please be warned: anchovies are incredibly ugly. I took numerous shots of mine and realize there was no way to make them look pretty. None.

I've gussied up these anchovies with some garlic. Not as ugly now.

Another thing that I love most about this dish is that it is a quintessential pantry recipe. You should have all these things on hand, so when you start to miss out-of-season veggies, you can whip this up in minutes.  It’s even quicker if you don’t insist on the croutons.

Caesar Salad Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated September/October 1997

Garlic Croutons

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and pressed through a garlic press

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups 1/2-inch white bread cubes (from a baguette or country loaf)

Caesar Salad

1 large egg

Juice of one lemon

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Pinch of salt

A few grindings of fresh black pepper

2 small garlic cloves, pressed

3 or 4 flat anchovy fillets, minced (I do mine in a mortar and pestle with the garlic at the same time)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium heads romaine lettuce or 2 large romaine hearts, washed, dried and torn into 1 1/2-inch pieces (about 10 cups, lightly packed)

1/3 cup grated Parmasean cheese

1. For the croutons: Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix garlic, salt and oil in a small bowl; set aside for 20 minutes. Spread bread cubes out over small baking sheet. Drizzle oil onto bread; toss to coat. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes. Cool on baking sheet to room temperature. (Croutons can be stored in airtight container for up to 1 day.)

2. For the dressing: Bring water to boil in small saucepan over high heat. Carefully lower whole egg into water; cook for 1 minute. Remove with slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, crack egg into small bowl with all other dressing ingredients except oil; whisk until smooth. Add oil in slow, steady stream, whisking constantly until smooth. Adjust for seasoning. (Dressing may be refrigerated in airtight container for 1 day; shake before using.)

3. Place lettuce in large bowl; drizzle with half of dressing, then toss to coat lightly. Sprinkle with cheese, remaining dressing, and croutons; toss to coat well. Serve immediately.