Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Harvest Fatigue

I have a few reasons for falling behind two weeks in posting. One, I've been busy. Just getting by feels busy enough, but home improvement projects have legitimately consumed my free time. Two, I've been dealing with what I've diagnosed as acid reflux or GERD, the result of stress and a predilection for everything that causes GERD: coffee, alcohol, dairy, spicy and acidic foods. Sigh. Over the last week I've been re-calibrating my diet and portions so that I don't have to spend the rest of my life on Prilosec, and thankfully, it seems to be working. That I cannot eat and drink like a 24 year old man is an acceptance I'm getting closer to, slowly.

While posting about rogue stomach acids and a diet of boiled chicken may indeed be blog-worthy, the combination of avoiding thinking about food, and the over-abundance of vegetables from my CSA crowding my fridge has recently given me too much pause to make sense of this bounty. I'm calling it Harvest Fatigue, and it is a real condition.

Let me first assure my audience (hey) that I love my CSA. It's a full share from Gathering Together Farm, meant to feed a family of four. The only produce I have bought in the last 3 months have been lemons, limes, knobs of ginger and the occasional head of garlic. And until recently, between freezing or preserving the excess, I've managed my load pretty well. I've only thrown away a total of 3 zucchini and 4 tomatoes that sadly rotted before their time.

Back in June, I was starved for phytonutrients and beta carotene, etc... Here it is October, my nutrient supply is at its peak, and I long for a dinner of noodles and butter. Or, to cook one meal based on a whim and not what needs to be cleaned out of the refrigerator. Currently, I'm harboring winter squash, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, carrots, cilantro, peppers, tomato, zucchini, beets, celery root and lettuce. And what I'm really craving is a slice of pizza, not homemade.

Understand that I am conditioned to complain about things, even when they're not really problems. Even factoring in the cost of the CSA (around $450 for 25 or so weeks), I spend a lot less money on food. Yes, managing my larder based on a supply of produce meant for a family of four is something of a burden. But I prefer to have this burden rather than, say, feeding a family of four from the Safeway on 82nd Ave. So I'll shut up now and come March I'll be counting the days before the kickoff of the new CSA season like it was the season premiere of Lost.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Summer is always time to for discovery and awakenings. Long hot days for learning how make back-flips in a neighbors pool. Clear hot nights for learning how to french kiss to a symphony of crickets. Or, in my case, unencumbered weekends for learning how to make preserves. After you've put up a couple batches of preserves you start to go a little preserve-mad and see everything through the lens of a fruit-to-sugar ratio and a sale prices on Kerr jars at the market. Here's what I've canned so far this year, minus 10 or so jars that have already made it into the hands of some lucky friends:
Earlier this summer, I put up strawberry, raspberry, sour cherry, boysenberry and blueberry from fruit that for the most part, I've been lucky enough to harvest myself at my favorite U-pick farm out in Oregon City. The cherries came courtesy of my good friend Laura Ohm who basically let me keep all the cherries I could pit from a mess she lucked into one week. Sour cherries are increasingly the panda bear of the fruit world, with very few cherry farmers taking the time to maintain their disease-prone trees or shepherd the heat-sensitive fruit from farm to farmstand. It's such a shame because while Raniers or Bings make fine eating-out-of-the-bowl-of-life-cherries, they can't hold a candle to a fresh sour cherries in a pie.

About a month or so ago I noticed, for the first time in awhile, my poorly tended to fig tree that was producing a bumper crop of turkey figs: large, soft and in varying stages of ripeness. My now-former boyfriend planted a fig tree shortly after we moved into my house and among the things that were left contentious between us was the flora that thrived as a result of his labor and despite my indifference towards most of the landscaping. In the 15 months since he's left, I've managed to keep most things (barely) alive but without much of any tending at all, that fig tree has thrived. The figs themselves weren't as obscenely sweet and juicy as ones you'd pay a premium for in at a reliable market, so I probably wouldn't serve them crudo with Serrano ham and a sherry-vinegar syrup, but they were fragrant
and meaty and would make do for cooking down into a jam for some homemade fig newtons.

By then I had acquired 2 books on canning and preserving though neither one of them offered recipes for fresh fig jam. I did a quick internet search that didn't provide any enlightening recipes. But then, by now, didn't I have the tools to know what should go into a fig jam? Fruit. Enough Sugar. Some Acid. That's about it. I picked enough under ripe figs that I figured I'd have the pectin covered. One internet recipe entitled "Drunken Fig Jam", which called for brandy, which I didn't have, inspired me to look to my dusty collection of liqueurs. Having all the necessary ingredients on hand, and without the pressure to get my money's worth out of some expensive or toiled-over fruit, I felt free enough to screw up a batch of figs. If nothing else, I'd be fortifying the compost.

Fig Jam a la Rosenberg
3lb Fresh figs (preferably turkey)
3 C Sugar
Zest of one lemon
juice of one lemon
1/3 cup creme de cassis

Quarter figs and place in a heavy-bottomed pot that holds at least 4 quarts. Add remaining ingredients and cook under low heat until the figs begin to tender. Use a potato masher to continue to break up the figs, and increase heat so that the jam takes on a rolling boil. You may heat this to the recommended gelling stage (117-120F) but the jam will probably take on a thick consistency sooner than that. All told, you're going to be boiling the jam for 20-40 minutes, until it's thick and the consistency is even. You may prepare your jars at this point (4 half pints should do it), and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes, using ins
tructions from a reliable source about home canning (Ball Book of Home Preserving is pretty thorough).

So far, I have enjoyed these preserves 2 ways: a dollop over a smear of chevre on a nice cracker, and straight out of the jar with a nice teaspoon. God willing, I will have a new crop before the end of the winter. I may experiment with adding slightly less sugar, only because I am fine to mess with perfection.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Bare Minimum

Wow, what a crappy week. My job left me feeling both over-worked and completely ineffectual. I got a ticket for 'speeding' in a school zone, a $180 bill for a pap smear (with insurance?), the dog I've been sitting for ate a hole through my fence and the clarinet piece that I'm supposed to play tomorrow night I learned in the wrong key. WAH.

Whining over, I'm posting because I should and because this blog is a reminder, to myself, of what turns me on: food. The CSA supply and my desire to prepare food are on opposite trajectories these days, but I did manage to pull this pretty salad out of my ass. Thank you, Fitness Magazine, for being the unlikely inspiration for tonight's menu: Salad of blanched green beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and wild shrimp with chevre and a roasted pepper vinaigrette. Thank you, also, Dawn Weeman, for scoring me a free subscription to Fitness: a generally useless monthly with impossible-to-follow exercises and recycled health and beauty advice.

Also, please not the mis en place not of the salad but of my table: the corner of a laptop, the mobile, the sketchbook and my coveted post-it book tabs. Life is better when I am bookmarking something.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When Life Gives You Plums, Part I

For my birthday last week, my friend Rudy gave me a brown shopping bag half full of Italian Prunes (plums) from his backyard tree. I'm guessing, based weight-training class, that the bag came in at about 15 lbs--it was far heavier than anything I have worked my way up to. It was my birthday, and I was already committed to canning 20 lbs of tomatoes, but I laid out all the plums on baking sheets and discarded the already overripe ones. Slowly and surely, the challenge of using these plums has taken over my every waking moment. It's friday night, I'm moving into a 3 day weekend, and all I can think about is getting to these plums before decomposition does.

A week or so back, Rudy brought in a smaller sampling for me. The fruit was extremely tart and even ripe I don't think they make the best eating plum. But after a few days of sitting on my counter and eventually attracting fruit flies, I decided to do something low impact: Plum Butter. Fruit butters essentially consist of cooking fruit, along with a little water, down to a pulp, straining it, adding sugar, and slowly cooking it until it is thick and unctuous. Having been on a canning and preserving kick since June, I figured I would tackle some apple or pear butter in the fall but the plums came to me first:

This didn't even make enough to fill an 8 oz jar, so I didn't bother processing it. I figure, nevertheless, it will last a spell in the fridge. And that's a good thing, because I have about 3 other jars of homemade preserves opened, and tens of tens patiently waiting their turn on my "canning shelf." Have I mentioned I prefer savory foods? Which got me to thinking...

Since my Grand Central days, I have been obsessed with fruit in sandwiches. Back when I was working the sandwich bar there we made a chicken and chutney sandwich (and though I created such classics as The Jawbreaker, this was not my recipe). It was sliced deli chicken, havarti, lettuce and a cranberry apple chutney, more Yankee than Indian. Still: Delicious. From there I just felt like sandwiches tasted better than fruit. I even went through a phase, while working in another restaurant, of putting raspberry jam on my turkey sandwiches (the ones I made for myself) because their turkey was too dry. When I opened Half & Half, one of my first stalwart sandwiches was the William Tell: Turkey, thinly sliced granny smith apple, red onion, lettuce, swiss and sharp dijon (and Best Foods Mayo, of course). From there, I loved to play with seasonal ingredients: peach chutney in the late summer, kumquats in the winter, strawberries and chevre in June. Now that I eat a lot less sandwiches than I used to, I don't get the chance to play with sweet and savory as much. But while sampling the plum butter and thinking about a pork loin sandwich, my mind drifted to an all-pork meatloaf with a plum butter glaze...and then things started to get really crazy.

If plum butter could be eaten with something savory, and tomatoes could be preserved into sweets, why couldn't I combine the two to compliment something herby and fatty and porky, like meatballs. I've always been morbidly fascinated by midwestern classic of crock pot meatballs in grape jelly, and learning that that sauce generally consists of equal parts grape jelly and chili sauce, I knew combining tomatoes with sour plums and some sugar would produce a similar, though surely more refined, effect. The thought crossed my mind a few days before the plums actually found me, so I spent some time testing out the idea on friend. Explaining my grape-jelly theory to people did not make the plum and tomato experiment necessarily seem like a noble undertaking, but I was, at this point, totally obsessed with "Italian plum-tomato" glazed meatballs. So my birthday bounty would become my muse.

The meatballs themselves were based on ingredients I had on hand. A pound of pork, half a red onion softened in olive oil and a followed by a good measure of garlic, lots of fresh sage, salt, pepper, dry bread crumbs soaked in milk, one egg. I combined a day ahead, fried off a smidgen to make sure the flavors were balanced, formed into ping-pong sized balls and chilled longer. Meanwhile (actually, previously), I combined equal portions of pitted Italian plums and
quartered plum tomatoes in a sauce pan with enough water to get things going. Under a fairly low heat the plums and tomatoes softened to a pulp. I ran this through a food mill, and replaced a seed-and-skin free version back to the pot, along with some sugar.
I would say to 1 qt of fruit I added about 2/3 cup of sugar. And then continued to let this cook until thick enough to both coat the back of a spoon and gurgle dangerous hot bubbles of molten plummy lava everywhere. Without being complex, the finished sauce was bright, clean, and tasted both of plums and tomatoes but not distinctively of either. Though when it comes to my own concoctions I am often the mom who is so blinded by love that she can't see the flaws in her children, I know in my heart I found something special in this combination.

The next step was to put it all together. I flash-fried the meatballs in some cheap Lebanese olive oil, drained them on paper towels, and then arranged them in a chafing dish. On top of this I ladled my sauce, all 1 1/2 reduced cups of it (which was probably too much, but I could not bear to have another condiment begging for a second life in my fridge. They baked, in a 400 oven, for about 15 minutes covered and an additional 15 uncovered. This is what they looked like, lacquered and bronzed, like a cheap Hollywood starlet:

The result: porky, fruity, savory, cocktail-meatbally delicious. Another pound of plums down, 14 more to go. Stay tuned for the next installment to find out what I've done with the other 14 pounds. I'm curious myself.