This Is Just To Say

I talk a good game about loving my CSA and avoiding bananas because they’re shipped in from god knows where, but I’m a complete pushover when it comes to a sale on summer fruit. I would love to say I find all my berries at my local farmer’s market, but the truth is, when I swing by Star Market on the way home for milk, I always stop off in the produce section to see what’s on sale. Most women admit to a weakness for shoe sales; for me, it’s all about berries and stone fruit.

So it shouldn’t be such a surprise that last week I found myself on a lunch break at the Asian market Super 88, piling up on plums for a quarter and apricots that were three for a dollar. And I should know better. Given my Food Studies background, I know full well about the plight of the migrant worker making pennies an hour picking my fruit. In fact, I’m currently reading The American Way of Eating,Terrie McMillan’s journalistic exposé on how Americans eat.

I actually debated posting this recipe because the fruit was so inexpensive. I hemmed and hawed. I waited another day. I ate more cake. I conferenced with Sylvie this afternoon, asking her if she would be a disappointed Cheap Beets reader if I posted this recipe. As she succinctly put it: “I am never disappointed by cake recipes.” So onward we go!

When I discovered we had leftover buttermilk in the house from a cake that Rich baked for his office – a real humdinger of a birthday cake, the Dorie Greenspan one with lemon and layers of raspberry filling, all fluffed up with coconut – I decided to bake something. I found this recipe in Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day cookbook. It used up my plums and the buttermilk, and it called for whole wheat flour, so of course it’s healthy, right?

Although the recipe calls for fine-grain natural cane sugar, I used the white stuff in my pantry. To make it fine-grain, I whirled it in my food processor for about 15 seconds. I used zests from two lemons, instead of three, only because I couldn’t find a third in my crisper.

I should also make it clear that while this is a tasty plum cake, this in no way measures up to Marion Barros’ plum torte, the platonic ideal of a plum cake recipe. Rich wanted me to make that clear. He also said that my cheap Asian market plums probably weren’t even picked in this country, and that they were probably loaded with heavy metals. But we’re just going to ignore that…

I was a little nervous about removing this one from the oven before it was fully baked. It looked a little loose in places, but Heidi notes, “You don’t want to overbake this cake in particular. It will end up on the dry side, more like a scone if you’re not careful.” She goes on to suggest serving it with a “floppy dollop of maple-sweetened whipped cream.” That sure does sound nice, but maple seems so fall to me.

In terms of prepping the plums: “Some plums can be difficult. With a sharp knife, slice off two lobes as close to the pit as you can get. Cut each lobe into 4 pieces, eight total. Now slice off the two lobes remaining on the pit.”

Buttermilk Plum Cake

Ingredients

2 ½ cups/11 oz/310 g whole wheat pastry flour

1 Tablespoon aluminum-free baking powder

½ cup/2.5 oz/70 g fine-grain natural cane sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 ½ cups/355 ml buttermilk

¼ cup/2 oz/60 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled a little

Grated zest of 3 lemons

8 to 10 plums (ripe, but not overly ripe), thinly sliced

3 Tablespoons large-grain raw sugar or turbinado sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400F/205C with a rack in the top third of the oven. Butter and flour an 11-inch (28cm) round tart/quiche pan, or line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Alternately, you can make this cake in a 9 by 13-inch (23 by 33cm) rectangular baking dish; just keep a close eye on it near the end of the baking time.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, fine-grain sugar, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk. Whisk in the melted (but not hot) butter and the lemon zest. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and stir briefly, until just combined.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it out toward the edges a bit. Scatter the plums across the stop, then sprinkle with the large-grain sugar.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake has set. A toothpick to the center should come out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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MC CSA

Our summer CSA started last week. While some people complain that receiving a box of predetermined vegetables every week is too limiting, I’ve really grown to love working with ours. I’m really at my happiest with our magic box of tricks on the counter. Rich jokes that if I was a rapper, my name would be MC CSA.

So far this week, the arugula has been made into a garlicky pasta topped with golden raisins. The leaves have also made their way into a salad of roasted beets (also from the box) and stinky blue cheese. Last night, we had an outstanding miso soup featuring steamed mizuna (a Japanese lettuce) and carrots, both from the CSA. To the pot I added a few pantry goodies, dried shiitake mushrooms, some absolutely ancient seaweed, and fresh matchsticks of ginger. I filled the bottom of each bowl with a ladleful of barley (pressure cooker, ‘natch) and tied it altogether with another CSA goodie, spring onion.

Which brings me to the main event. This past weekend I made spring onion and cheddar biscuits. It was Rich’s birthday, and I promised him weeks in advance I wouldn’t plan a thing. It worked out for the best because our neighbors had a BBQ featuring hours-smoked ribs. For my husband, any birthday involving pork is a good one. Given the menu, these biscuits just seemed to make sense. (I also brought the mighty bean salad.)

I did a bit of digging around for a green onion and cheddar biscuit recipe, but couldn’t come up with something that pleased me. Or, as I lamented to Aleza, “Why is there bacon in every one of these biscuit recipes?!?” She comforted me with the knowledge that people are stupid when it comes to pig, and suggested I find a biscuit recipe, add the cheese to the dry ingredients, and then add the onion when I added the cream. Simple enough. I found the recipe in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook — about as American as you can get. It’s a James Beard recipe, which to me makes perfect sense: leave it to a Southern gourmand to have a perfect biscuit recipe.

Spring Onion and Cheddar Biscuits adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons sugar

1 cup cheddar, shredded

1 – 1 ½ cups heavy cream

½ cup chopped green onion

6 Tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

Preheat oven to 425F. Use an ungreased baking sheet.

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and cheese in a mixing bowl. Stir the dry ingredients with a fork to blend and lighten. Slowly add 1 cup of the cream to the mixture, stirring constantly. Halfway through adding the cream, add the green onions. Stir constantly.

Gather the dough together; when it holds together and feels tender, it is ready to knead. But if it seems shaggy and pieces are dry and falling away, then slowly add enough additional cream to make the dough hold together. Place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead the dough for 1 minute.

Pat the dough into a square about ½ inch thick. Cut into twelve squares and dip each into the melted butter so all sides are coated. Place the biscuits 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes or until they are lightly browned. Serve hot.

The Fourth Quarter

My father, who is originally from London and who now lives in Jerusalem, was once given advice on how to act more American: start drinking coffee instead of tea and watch the Celtics. Granted, this was 30 years ago, when I was little and the Big Three were Bird, McHale and Parish. Even though the coffee suggestion was a bit ludicrous, watching the Celtics seemed like sound advice, and I’ve been a Celtics fan my whole life.

Sure, I’m sad the season is over, but if you told me in January that it would have lasted until the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, well, I wouldn’t have believed it. I don’t think anyone believed in the Celtics more than Doc Rivers, and I’m so happy he knew we were all wrong.

We hosted nearly every game in this post-season, and I always had something out for our guests to enjoy. Man cannot live on nachos alone, and truthfully, I’m much more likely to slap together a Mediterranean mezzes platter than to order a pizza. And so this eggplant dip found its way onto a platter last week.

I wonder what Ottolenghi, an Israeli now living in London, would have to say about his eggplant dip being eaten with gusto in front of such a uniquely American sporting event, but I won’t wonder too long. There’s dip to eat, people!

This might have been the easiest thing I’ve ever done to an eggplant. The day before, I placed it, whole, on a foil-coated pan, coated it with oil and roasted it for 3 hours, or until it turned mushy and caved in on itself. Once the foil had cooled off enough to handle, I folded it around the eggplant, dropped it in a bowl, and put that in the fridge overnight. The next day, I scraped the meat from the blackened, blistered skin, and made this dip in less than seven minutes.

Sure, our basketball season is over for now, but with about 17 hours of Euro 2012 on the DVR and the Olympics coming next month, I have no doubt this dip will be made again and again.

Burnt Eggplant with Tahini from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

Ingredients

1 large eggplant

1/3 cup tahini paste

¼ cup water

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

1 garlic clove, crushed

3 Tablespoons chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

A little olive oil to finish

Directions

First, burn the eggplant. (I was very lazy with mine and simply roasted the eggplant in a 400 degree oven for about 3 hours, keeping a close eye on it after the second hour.) Ottolenghi suggests (and I fully support) lining the area around the stove burners with foil to protect them, and starting the eggplants on the stovetop by putting the eggplant directly on two moderate flames and roasting for 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently with metal tongs, until the flesh is soft and smoky and the skin is burnt all over. Keep an eye on them the whole time so they don’t catch fire. For an electric stove, pierce the eggplant with a sharp knife in a few places. Put them foil-lined tray and place directly under a hot broiler for 1 hour, turning them a few times. The eggplants need to deflate completely and their skin should burn and break.

When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh into a colander, avoiding blackened skin. Leave to drain for at least 30 minutes.

Chop the eggplant flesh roughly and transfer to a medium mixing bowl. Add the tahini, water, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and some salt and pepper; mix well with a whisk. Taste and adjust the season, adding more garlic, lemon juice or molasses if needed. You want the salad to have a robust sour/slightly sweet flavor.

I served the eggplant with lots of cut up crunchy vegetables and triangles of whole wheat pita. Ottolenghi suggests sprinkling fresh pomegranate seeds on it and tossing it with sliced mini cucumbers and cherry tomatoes and making it more of a salad. It’s up to you, really.

A Remembrance of Things Past

Most people talk about eating three squares a day — unless you’re a Brit, in which case there’s also tea, or a hobbit (second breakfast, elevensies) or a stoner (Taco Bell’s Fourth Meal). For the Jews, that somewhere-in-between meal is called kiddush.

Following Shabbat services, Jews gather, ritually sanctify wine – the root of the word kiddush – and have a bite to eat. In some congregations, that bite might be a crunchy cookie called kichel and a piece of gefilte fish or herring on a toothpick, all washed down with a shot of schnaps. Or, it could be a sit-down luncheon where the group breaks bread together (its own extremely important ritual), and then eats kugel, salads and maybe some bagels.

Sylvie actually texted me about one she went to on Saturday morning which involved a veggie cholent, sable, whitefish salad and several whiskeys — all at 10:30AM. Some congregations have an early start – think 7:30AM on a Saturday – which means they get out early, before 11. (Yes, our prayers take about three hours to complete. I’m always amazed that Mass takes an hour, homily included.)

Syl’s kiddush report reminded me of the kiddush of my childhood. It’s strange now that I think about it, because, due to merger and attrition, neither my mom and stepdad’s congregation nor my father’s exist anymore. But on Saturday morning, if I wasn’t in services, I’d be helping prep platters of cookies and visiting with the kitchen crew, many of whom, like the congregations themselves, have also passed on.

At my mom’s shul, Ruthie ran things. When Syl started talking about the kiddush, I remembered Ruthie’s broccoli salad. It was crunchy and sweet, with the perfect touch of bite from red onion. About 20 years ago the congregation put together a cookbook of Ruthie’s dishes. I called my mom for the recipe but quickly realized that I would need to adjust the measurements of things. (A cup of mayo? Ick.)

I recreated Ruthie’s Broccoli Salad for dinner tonight. Rich was at a meeting, and I had the perfect amount of broccoli in the fridge for one serving. My stomach is not a fan of raw broccoli, so I steamed mine, but only for a minute or two. This salad calls for a crunch. The recipe here serves one, but obviously, it can be doubled, tripled, quadrupled — enough for a whole congregation.

Ruthie’s Broccoli Salad

Ingredients

1 ½  cups broccoli, cleaned

2 teaspoons red onion, finely chopped

3 teaspoons golden raisins

Dressing

1 Tablespoon mayonnaise

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons white vinegar

Whisk together the dressing ingredients. Pour over broccoli, onions and raisins. Refrigerate for several hours.