Borei Pie HaGafen

For many American Jews, the Concord grape is synonymous with our traditions and holidays; a local ice cream chain, JP Licks, even sells a Manischewitz grape sorbet during April to celebrate Passover. In fact, when Rich and I were first dating, his Nana Parr – one of the best bakers I’ve ever met; I have the sugar cookie recipe, and will post it, promise – thoughtfully gave me a bottle of the sweet wine for the holidays. Granted, my parents were never big Concord grape wine fans – they’d be much more likely to serve a newly discovered gem from the Golan or perhaps something from Napa – but the flavor reminds me of grape juice, which was always the kiddie option at our table. The irony, of course, is that this Jewish flavor is also the most American taste out there. The grape was developed only a couple of miles from where I’m writing this, about 150 years ago.

All this is to explain why I choose to forgo bringing last year’s perfect plum cake to my parents’ for Rosh Hashana this year, and why I instead brought this Concord grape pie, made with the white grapes from my CSA. Deborah Madison writes, “This pie is truly America’s own, made from our native Concords in the northeast and Midwest, or Muscadines in the south.”

Before you scroll down to the recipe and say, “No thank you, that looks like way too much effort,” hear me out. This recipe doesn’t need to be made all at once. In fact, you’re better off doing it in separate steps. I made the ridiculously simple crust, which requires refrigeration, on Monday night, and then made the pie on Tuesday. And that part about separating the grape skins? Rich came and helped me with that step, and we were done in less than 10 minutes. And the food mill, which I know I’ve made the case for in the past, once again serves its purpose in getting rid of those pesky seeds.

We ate this pie for dessert on the second night of Rosh Hashana, after enjoying a dairy meal which was washed down with our pomegranate cocktails. My mom had the great idea to serve it with a scoop of ice cream and sprinkle berries on top. I doubt our purchase of Friendly’s granola and honey frozen yogurt is going to save the company from bankruptcy, but the flavor worked perfectly for this dish. This pie, as my friend Audrey exclaimed while enjoying the final slice, tastes like the good parts of Passover. Obviously, this recipe won’t work Pesach, let alone you’d be hard pressed to find ripe Concord grapes in April, but you can certainly make this for Succot later this month.

Concord Grape Pie from Deborah Madison’s America: The Vegetarian Table

Makes one 9-inch double crust pie; serves 6 to 8

Pie Crust

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

12 Tablespoons ( ¾ cup ) unsalted chilled butter, cut into small pieces

6 to 7 Tablespoons ice water

Filling

2 ½ pounds purple or white Concord grapes

½ to ¾ cup sugar

4 to 6 Tablespoons all-purpose flour, or 1 Tablespoon quick-cooking tapioca

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 to 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice, to taste

1 egg, beaten with 2 Tablespoons heavy cream or milk

Directions

To make the pie crust, stir together the flour and salt in a bowl. If you have a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Without a pastry blender, using two knives or your fingers, cut the butter until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Using a fork, stir in the water one tablespoon at a time, adding only enough for the pastry to hold together when pressed. Gather the dough into a ball and divide into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To make the filling, pluck the grapes off their stems. You should have about four cups. Pinch them out of their skins, putting the insides into a saucepan and the skins into a bowl. Put the pan over medium heat, add ½ cup sugar, and cook until the grapes turn white, about three minutes. Pass them through a food mill placed over a bowl to rid them of their seeds, then add the skins to the pulp. Taste and, if it seems sour, add the remaining sugar while the pulp is still hot. Whisk in the flour or tapioca (use the larger amount of flour if the grapes were watery) and add the lemon zest and lemon juice. Let the mixture stand while you roll out the pie.

Preheat an oven to 450 degrees F. On a lightly floured board, roll the larger piece of dough into an 11-inch round. Ease it into a 9-inch pie pan and press it gently against the sides. Add the filling and brush the edges with water. Roll the second piece into a 9-inch round, set it over the filling, and crimp the edges. Make two slashes on the top for vents, and brush with the egg mixture.

Set the pie on a baking sheet in the center of the oven. After 10 minutes, lower the heat to 350 degrees F and bake until the crust is nicely browned, about 25 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool. Serve warm.

Stew Tube

One of the amazing benefits of working at Boston University — besides getting to ride my bicycle to my office along the Charles River when things aren’t covered in snow — is the tuition remission. For the past several years, I have been working, slowly but surely, on a Master’s in Gastronomy and Food Studies. This isn’t a culinary degree, although the program offers one. This is a liberal arts degree, and I get to study things like the history of food and the meaning of meat. This past fall, I took a class called Food and the Visual Arts, studying the depiction of food in film, television and advertisements. (Netflix cue alert: Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, Delicatessen, Babette’s Feast, Our Daily Bread, Food Inc. and Mostly Martha)

As often happens in humanities classes, gender emerged as a theme. We read and discussed the differences between chefs and cooks, and why it seems that men tend to be thought of as the former and women the latter. For the television part of the class, we started with the grande dame, Julia Child — ask yourself, is she a chef or just a really good home cook? — then worked our way through to the burgeoning Food Network of the mid-nineties, and finally, to the televised present. We watched Emeril bam his way through the nineties, Jamie Oliver tool around on his Vespa, and read A LOT of Rachael Ray-bashing.

The Food Network, once the ugly stepchild of cable television, is now a $1.5 billion powerhouse. And as the Food Network grew in size and power, a funny thing happened to their hosts: They went from portly male restaurant chefs to attractive women, wearing what seems like an endless supply of tight brightly-colored v-neck sweaters.

I don’t watch a lot of Food Network anymore, especially now that the prime time line up is all reality-inspired competition shows. But the one show of theirs I still watch is Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. It is a traditional how-to cooking show starring Anne Burrell, the titular restaurant chef previously best-known to viewers as Mario Batali’s amazing sous chef on Iron Chef America. Since the show is about using restaurant tricks at home, Anne has traded her kitchen whites for… brightly-colored v-neck sweaters. It’s as if the producers are trying to fit her into the Giada/Nigella mold, but it doesn’t quite take. Anne Burrell looks like she cooks for a living, and her enthusiasm for food is infectious. Most importantly, her food make me want to eat it. And cook it.

When I saw her make this cauliflower stew a few years back, I knew it was a winner. It appeals to me on several levels: It is vegan; it uses a food mill; and it’s a pantry raid: one fresh vegetable and your well-stocked pantry, and you’re good to go. Also, it tastes better the next day; in fact, I don’t even bother eating it the day I make it. The ingredients need some time to get to know each other.

Anne Burrell makes this to be served with grilled striped bass and parsley salad, which I am sure is wonderful, but I eat it as is. Here’s a cauliflower tip: If you see a few brown spots on the white florets, just use your microplane — which you’ll already have out for zesting the lemon — to rub them away. Everything underneath it is perfectly good to eat; waste not, want not. If you don’t have cauliflower, the tomato sauce alone is extremely delicious. You can stop the recipe there, maybe saute a few mushrooms or wilt some spinach, then toss it all together with some pasta and you’re done. So, so good.

Cauliflower Stew

Ingredients

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced

Kosher salt

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, passed through a food mill (If you don’t have a food mill, use a box of Pomi. Or BUY A FOOD MILL.)

Water

1 large head cauliflower, coarsely chopped

1 lemon, zested

1/4 cup slivered Gaeta or kalamata olives

1/4 cup sliced caperberries, cut into thin rounds (or one tablespoon capers)

Directions

Coat a large saucepan with olive oil. Add the onions and bring to a medium heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and a small pinch of crushed red pepper. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the onions look wilted and cooked but do not have any color. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and 3/4 of a can of water, and season with salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste; it should taste good.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium heat and season generously with salt; it should taste like the ocean. Add the cauliflower, let the water come to a rolling boil and cook for additional 5 to 7 minutes. The cauliflower should be really soft and almost falling apart. Strain the cauliflower and add it to the tomato mixture. Cook the cauliflower in the tomato sauce until the cauliflower has completely broken up and the sauce clings to the cauliflower, about 20 to 30 minutes. Taste to see if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. Stir in the lemon zest, olives and caperberries. If you can, wait until the next day to enjoy.

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