Monday, August 18, 2014

Leek


Take a Leek

 Fuzzy tops like military crew cuts, great hulking greens spiking out, lush and savage and almost superfluous, fanning out in an attempt at elegance yet somehow, no matter what, retaining that something rustic. The poor country mouse cousin of slender green onions and much desired garlic.

 The hardy leek is a mainstay of every French potager. Grandpas and young city folk head home with bundles of leeks piled in an old rusty wheelbarrow or tucked under an arm, trailing speckles of black earth behind them; leeks stick out from the top of shopping baskets like baseball bats, nowhere to hide. Leeks brought home from the market.

 Leeks in the summer, leeks in the winter, leeks are a staple of every French kitchen.

 Long white cylinders, a sheath of leaves, sliced into coins, cut into slivers and long thin strips. Steamed or braised whole until falling apart, shredding, floating in threads like Ophelia's hair on the surface of the lake, drained and lined up on a serving platter and smothered in tangy mustard vinaigrette, classic. Soups and tarts, stews and braised au gratin


 My mother-in-law, was a simple, homey, old-fashioned woman. Set in her ways and always answering the expectations of those around her, her life was a series of habits and a schedule set in stone. Mealtime was very important to her, the dishes she prepared only important as they fed the family who gathered around her table, sustenance more necessary than gustatory satisfaction. The food she prepared was simple, homey and old fashioned, hardy and good.

 Wrapped in a colorful cotton housedress-style apron buttoned up from knee to neck over her clothing, sensible crepe-soled shoes on her feet, heavy cotton stockings peeping out from between ankle and knee, she spent the greatest part of her days in the kitchen chopping, stirring, cooking, baking. She would prepare delicious, heavy, perfectly orchestrated meals for us, her children and grandchildren, as she had done for all those decades of her life, for her parents, siblings and her husband and children and now us.

 The heavy meal was served at noon, the blanquette, the ragout, the roasted meats, the courses of sauced, braised and simmered. Evening was souper, a light supper of leftovers and cold foods. But always, always, this nightly repast would begin with a bowl of carrot and leek soup. Every single night, consistently, unflinchingly, unfailingly carrot and leek soup. Carrots roughly peeled with a paring knife and cut crudely into thick coins, leeks washed, the greens lopped off and tossed away, the white sliced and added to the pot. Salt, pepper, lots of tap water and then simmered until the vegetables, the carrots and leeks were beyond fork tender, floating in a watery grave. Then out came the emulsion blender and the whole would be liquefied, reheated and served steaming in the same bowls used for coffee in the morning.

 A watery, weak soup, more water than vegetable, more water than flavor, but my mother-in-law's carrot and leek soup quickly became a much-expected habit, a cozy enjoyment, a comforting end to the day, hot and relaxing. Float a plain, crispy biscuit, une biscotte, in it until it just begins to soften and, with the spoon, break off bits, scooping up a piece of biscuit in a puddle of soup and eat. Uncomplicated, homey, familiar, the expected end to a day that otherwise might have been filled with the unexpected, a soothing end to a day that might otherwise have been harried. Carrot and leek soup.


 One day, he came to me and announced, "I am going to make you a real leek and potato soup!" And as he placed a soup plate in front of me a short time later, I realized that once again something so beautiful, something so flavorful, something seen from the outside as the height of elegant and sophisticated dining, emblematic of French cuisine, was inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make.

 Cousin to the cock-a-leekie soup, and vichyssoise, less rustic than the one, less elegant and suave as the other, his real leek and potato soup is both bare bones and luxurious. Leeks, potatoes, onions and garlic, staples of every Frenchman and woman's kitchen garden, the inexpensive standbys of every French market, a bit of bacon or lardons and broth is what makes this soup. Chop, slice, simmer.

 Isn't it funny that even the simplest of foods: a pot of steamed mussels, a roasted chicken, a pan-fried steak and a bowl of fries or an omelet is raised up to some dizzying height of sumptuousness as the magical veil of "French" is thrown over it. Even as it is inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make. Leek and potato soup.


  Frittata is a true lifesaver when you don't know what to make for lunch or dinner! My favourite is spinach and potato frittata but this leek and bacon frittata is sneaking up as a close number two. I have periods when I use leeks a lot and then I forget about them so I was very happy to rediscover my old friend for this Plated Stories post; I have so many leeks lying around now and I just know what I will be cooking, this and the potato and leek soup Jamie writes about! You don't have to make them in muffin tins or cupcake cups, it works perfectly well the traditional way as well. 

ILVA'S SMALL LEEK AND BACON FRITTATAS
6 small frittatas

4 eggs
4-5 tbs freshly grated parmesan cheese
freshly grated black pepper
100 g/ 3,5 oz bacon cut into small strips
1 small leek

   Start cooking the bacon in a small non-stick pan without any fat, slice the leek and add it to the bacon. keep on cooking on medium heat until the leek is soft and the bacon is crisp.

   With a fork whisk egg, parmesan cheese and pepper quickly and then add the leek and bacon, mix it well.

   Spoon the frittata batter into cupcake cups or into a non-stick muffin tin and bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F). For 10-15 minutes. Ease the frittatas out of the forms and serve!

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Knife


 A pocketknife, as I have discovered and of which he always has one tucked away in a pocket or the car's glove compartment, is quite a useful thing to have on hand. An improvised picnic, slicing cheese or a roasted chicken, popping open a bottle of wine (always have a corkscrew attachment!) or peeling fruit. Opening oysters or cracking the shell of a crab, digging out the meat, slicing a baguette into equal portions and smearing with a bit of butter, a hunk of pâté. Cutting off chunks of salty, fatty saucisson sec. And who needs a fork when one has the blade of a pocketknife?

 String and rope, sticks and stones, a pocketknife is always a must on a father-son adventure, a boys' day out in the wild. Digging holes in the dirt for spikes or searching for worms, cleaning a fish on an expedition. Cutting branches for whips or improvised fishing poles or pirate swords, slicing one's way through the wilds of the Amazon forest, riding high on the imagination of a child. Whittling a tiny toy, a dog or a person, placed into the upturned hands of his son.


 My husband has a thing for knives. I know I should be worried. He pauses outside each coutellerie, each knife shop of which France is resplendent with, a country luxuriating in the abundance of kitchen, carving, hunting, fishing, camping knives, daggers and pocketknives on proud display in vitrines on every other street, he pauses and I see the longing in his eyes as he peruses the offerings. "Would you like one?" I ask, loving wife that I am, acknowledging that he rarely splurges on himself. I am also somewhat astonished at my own fascination with the knives on display, attracted to the smooth, elegant beauty, the cunning mechanics and design of what I see. "No…." he shakes his head and pulls himself away from the window like a kid resisting the urge to grab at an offering of candy.

 Our kitchen knife drawer, rather small considering his passion for the things, contains our meager collection of Wüsthof knives (the entire selection purchased in one shot with a bonus he earned from work), several others I have received as gifts, a motley assembly of our old, cheap, dull knives, of which I am loathe to part with, from our poor-as-church-mice days. And his collection of pocketknives in a variety of material, lovely and soft, red, black and metallic.


 We have roamed through many an old World War battlefield, trenches, woods, in and out of bunkers in the north of France. We have come across rusted old forks, broken bits of metal, the odd thing lost in the dirt, lost in history. Nothing much of interest to scavenge. But fascinating all the same as we stood for several minutes and pondered the lives of the men who once were on this very spot.

 We found an old armoire, if one can call it that, a pieced together, homemade, shabby old wardrobe made from the crude, raw wood of packing crates, in my in-laws' attic. We dragged it home, back to our very first, tiny little home in the Paris suburbs because we needed furniture and hadn't the money to purchase anything much at all. Upon opening it up to give it a clean in preparation for filling it with clothes, we saw the stamp of the US Army. These, as it turned out, as my father-in-law recounted, were made from crates that held ammunition for the US Army during World War II, crates left behind once emptied, grabbed up by the local inhabitants and turned into furniture.

 An old knife, shiny silver steel, on which the letters U.S. and the year 1917 are etched deep and clear, an old knife found at a flea market, picked up for a few euros. An old stainless steel knife, the blade tarnished and dull, a soldier's ID number etched on the flip side of the handle, a knife issue and packed in an American soldier's kit.

 Wars fought, lives come and gone, objects held in awe and reverence, a fork, an armoire, a knife.


 Superstition. To the French, it is bad luck to offer a knife to someone as a gift. No carving knife at a wedding, no pocketknife for a birthday, no hunting knife at Christmas. It is bad luck. One must always buy one's knives for oneself, therefore if you do want to offer someone a knife, a friend or family member, parent, child, sibling, that person must buy it from you, offering at least one penny, one cent if not more, for that knife. Sold not offered, bought not received.


 I have a set of six steak knives in my dining room buffet, a set of six steak knives in a white box no longer white, yellowed and stained, the edges ripped away, torn and frayed. The red and pink rose drawn onto the box is faded but it stirs up so many memories of steak dinners in our home during my childhood. "Regent Sheffield The Greatest Name in Cutlery Steak Knife Set" written in elegant font in the same red and pink followed by the reassuring, the alluring Stainless Blades Forever Sharp. Serrated stainless blades and tapered plastic faux stag antlers, which always stirred up images of Ye Olde Merry England and dark paneled pubs where weary travelers gathered for refreshment. A set of six steak knives purloined from my mother's kitchen drawer ad brought back to France and still used when meat is served at my table. Served with steak knives and memories.

 I brought the steak knives – so American – he brought the cheese knives – so French.


 A beautiful, creamy ricotta spread makes a summery sweet bruschetta when smoothed onto a slice of baguette, your favorite country loaf, pound cake or muffin and topped with fresh or cooked fruit or jam. The addition of goat cheese tempers the cheesy taste of the ricotta while adding just a bit of tang, the honey adding the perfect sweetness. So simple and quick to make – it whips up in no time – and is a really tasty way to serve the sweetest peaches, nectarines or plums of summer. A cool and surprising addition to a light summer meal, an elegant dessert or even a light meal all by itself.

Jamie's Ricotta, Goat Cheese and Honey Spread

5.3 oz (150 g) fresh ricotta cheese, drained if needed
1.8 oz (50 grams) fresh goat cheese, drained if needed
2 tsps runny honey (or to taste - JP found it a bit sweet, I did not)
½ tsp olive oil
1 Tbs finely chopped fresh mint

 Using a fork or a spoon, whip together all of the ingredients until well blended, light and creamy. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Prepare the spread and then add more or less of each ingredient to taste if desired.

 Spread on slices of baguette (my preference), your favorite country loaf or even pound cake, muffins or scone and top with slices of fresh or cooked fruit or jam.

 Try replacing the chopped mint with minced fresh chives, drizzling a bit more olive oil and a tiny grinding of pepper atop the spread before serving. The addition of crumbled gorgonzola will be wonderful topped with slices juicy, sweet autumn pears. Play with it as you like.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dry


 Dry pasta, dry rice, boxes of dry cereal. My husband refers to them as staples, a word he learned from me, and I guess they are. Such an old-fashioned word. Dry goods. Such an old-fashioned concept. A once-a-week shopping trip fills our cupboard with edible necessities that can be grabbed when fresh ingredients and inspiration are lacking. Boxes, bags and cans of sundry items crammed in the small, dark spaces of my kitchen, vying for elbowroom in fear of being lost in the netherworld of the bottomless pit that is my cupboard.

 To be left high and dry.

 But we all have a dry spell when we have no morning to spend at the market, when we haven't the spirit to head out in the rain or when no one wants to shop. Coming home from vacation. Or when the well has simply run dry. Shops are shut, energy low, stomachs are growling. Fling open the pantry doors and hunt among the dry for something, anything that tempts. A large pot of water, rolling, bubbling, a handful of coarse salt and a shower of dry pasta, dry rice, dry anything will do. And watch it come to life, watch it become a meal.


 Dry wit, dry humor, deadpan delivery, poker face.

 Do you get it or not?

 Double take.

 You might want to do a dry run before attempting it if not your usual mode of banter.

 ----

 Like watching paint dry.

 Not knowing exactly when to take the cake out of the oven when the oven is wonky. I keep my nose pressed to the glass and stare at the surface expecting it to signal me when it is done to perfection, just set. Little elfin arms waving, tiny voice calling "take me out now!"

 I have a horror of dry cake. Undercooked is not ideal but can be dealt with by calling it a fondant or a moelleux, serving it with a spoon. Smothered under clouds of whipped cream. But overcooked turns a cake into ash, dry as dust. A mouthful is impossible to choke down until quickly washed down with cold milk. I stare forlornly at a dry and wasted cake, what was once potentially a beautiful dessert has become fodder for jokes and teasing, with nothing left to do but push it into the trash.

 Dry cake.

 Dry ingredients moistened with wet, eggs and milk, juice and booze. Dry ingredients whipped up into something thick and luscious not deserving to be abandoned in the heat of the oven under the glaring light like an interrogation.

 But dry cake? No thank you, ma'am. What's a girl to do? Crumble it up over top juicy fruit compote, tossed with slivered almonds; slice it in chunks or wedges and soak it in boozy syrup or strong coffee or spiked juice and layer it with something rich and creamy for an improvised Eton Mess, a Tiramisu or an English Trifle. Zuppa Ingelese. Whiz it up in the robot then add melted butter, press it all into a tart pan, cover with whipped mascarpone cream and fruit. Or simply slice and toast under the grill, spoon on jelly, dunk into coffee and enjoy a quiet breakfast.

 Home and dry.


 My mother was the queen of dry food. She would place plump, glistening white snapper filets in a baking pan layered with slices of white onion, dust it generously with chopped fresh parsley, salt and pepper and possibly drizzle with lemon juice. To pop it in the oven and bake the poor fish….for much too long.

 Her fish gave flakey a whole new meaning. Bone dry. Swallow mouthfuls of that fish with gulps of cold milk to wash it down.

 Her pan-fried liver was saved by the tasty fried-until-caramelized onion rounds she made as a condiment for she cooked that liver until it was twice dead, the texture of shoe leather. Bone dry. Smother it in ketchup and push it down as quickly as possible. If possible at all.

 She once, at our urging, asked her own mother (from whom she learned to cook) why she overcooked her meat until it was as dry as desert dry and her mother explained: she cooked meat the way her husband, my own mother's father, demanded it be cooked: so burnt, charred and carbonized that any possible deadly germ or unknown toxic horror living within that piece of meat be killed. This was the way they cooked and ate their meat on the shtetl, the ghetto village in Russia when he was a child, before he immigrated. He grew up being suspicious of the food he ate.

 Maybe my love for crudo and tartare, meat cured, smoked or raw, barely seared to bloody comes from this. I have a horror of dry. Pass the ketchup and pour me a glass of milk, please.


 Dry heat. I had never experienced dry heat of summer, arid, thirsty heat, until the summer of my seventeenth year, which I spent in Israel. Temperatures reached dizzying heights, triple digits Fahrenheit yet the intense humidity I knew from Florida didn't exist. This was the heat of a desert country. Dry.

 And I discovered that dry heat is much more comfortable than humid heat, the moisture of humid seemingly sucking one dry, sucking the life out of me, muggy, oppressive. Dry heat is tolerable, just this side of bearable, even as the mercury inches its scarlet self up and up to a place that it never reached in my hometown outside of an airless high school classroom.

 A trek through the Negev, up to the top of Mount Masada, wandering the streets of Jerusalem to the Old City. A bottle of Coca Cola in hand, condensation slithering down the glass, rubbed across my forehead.


  Dry herbs, tomatoes, grapes to dried.

 We spent our honeymoon in Cyprus tucked away in tiny, out-of-the way auberges, sitting on rocks along the cool, clear water, dipping our feet, dry to wet, wandering ruins and popping into noisy, sweltering cafés bustling with locals (to wet our whistle). We loved to wander through the winding, tiny cobbled streets, a hidden, circuitous route through the afternoon silence in the dry heat of September as people stayed indoors in cool shuttered homes, naptime. Large mesh grills would be stretched out the length of porches, the frames perched atop chairs and tables. Halves of tomatoes would be lined up and down those mesh grills, hundreds of tiny purple grapes picked from bunches and spread out in single layers. Left out in the sun to dry. Shrunken and withered. The water from the fruit evaporated in the dry heat of the day, juices concentrated, flavors intensified. Dry to dried.

 Bunches of grapes that hung above our head on our terrace in Milan, swags of vines offering cool respite and a welcoming touch of green to our city life. The rare bunches of grapes were too precious to pick and so we left them dangling above our heads, picturesque, a kiss of rusticity, a feeling of being close to the land as the city traffic buzzed below. As the summer waned, those grapes would shrivel in the heat and light and dry. Seemingly all skin, once tasted their hidden beauty would appear, juices concentrated, flavors intensified. Dry to dried.

 Herbs enveloped in paper towels and placed in the microwave or spread out on baking sheets and pushed into the oven to dry. Desiccated, brittle but stirred into soup, kneaded into bread, tossed into sauces, dusted over marinating meat, crushed to a fine powder between the fingers, the flavor bursts forth infusing whatever the dry herb is added to with gusto.


Panzanella is a typical Tuscan summer dish, a salad made of dry or stale bread and raw vegetables. Although I'm sure there is an official version of it, I have never eaten two alike because the ingredients vary from province to province, from town to town, from home to home. That is the charm of Italy, a profound respect for the tradition and the basic ingredients but openness to what is in season and the flavours at hand. I made it with what I had at hand: the base ingredients of Tuscan bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumber and basil, to which I added tender celery stalks, zucchini and a little fresh chili peppers. You can add thin slices of sweet onions, radishes or peppers, but I would avoid adding olives and such because that would take away the freshness of this summery salad.

ILVA'S TUSCAN PANZANELLA

No measures are given as it really is up to you how much you want of each ingredient.

stale rustic bread, I suggest Tuscan bread which is unsalted because it has the perfect texture when humid, but you can of course do it with salted bread instead
tomatoes, cut into pieces
cucumber, thinly sliced
small and firm zucchini, thinly sliced
tender celery stalks, sliced
fresh chili pepper, without seeds and chopped
fresh basil
salt
extra-virgin olive oil

   Cut the bread into cubes and put these in a bowl with water and vinegar, say 250 ml/1 cup of water with 1 tablespoon vinegar, but you can use more or less vinegar according to taste. Leave the bread to soak while you prepare the vegetables.

   Put the sliced and chopped vegetables in a bowl, add salt and olive oil and mix well.

   Squeeze the bread of most of the water; the bread should not be wet but just humid. Crumble it a bit so you have both smaller and bigger chunks and pieces. When you are ready, add the bread to the vegetables, tear a few basil leaves into pieces and mix it well. Ready to serve.





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Thursday, July 10, 2014



We will be taking a July vacation as Jamie heads to Florida and Ilva to Sweden. This will be the perfect time for you to catch up on old Plated Stories posts you might have missed. And don't forget to register for the October Plated Stories Workshop - honing you photo & writing skills, developing your voice and finding new inspiration. Small, intimate, intense and very hands on.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Roll




I'm on a roll.

 Jellyroll, Tootsie Roll, Rock n' Roll.

 Scoops of meat, seasoned, squished between fingers, pressed gently between the palms. Roll. Perfect rounds. Tossed lightly in seething oil, rolled around in the pan, nudged along until browned. Dunked in red sauce. Tucked inside a roll, lined up, tiny, fragrant orbs.

 Felafel, chocolate truffles, meatballs, chocolate chip cookie dough.

 Hand rolled. 


 Roll through childhood.

 Bicycle wheels, somersaults, cartwheels, sleeping bags (bedrolls), hot dog rolls. A little matchbox car pushed across the floor, watch it roll. Childhood pleasures.

 Tears that roll down cheeks at the loss of a game, or teasing, crossed eyes and a baiting remark meant to inflict pain, an arrow to the heart. Roll with the punches.

 Marbles, basketballs, softballs, a roll of the dice.

 Roll call. 


Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll; charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul. - Alexander Pope

 They roll their eyes quite a lot. At me. Because of me. For me. Sarcasm personalized, sarcasm quiet, understated but oh so loud and clear. Nothing charming about an eye roll.

 One woman, three men. Maybe it's a gender thing, a cultural thing. That eye roll. Have I said something ridiculous? Something to merit that eye roll, that smirk?


Roll up your sleeves.

 Sushi, cinnamon buns, pinwheel cookies, egg roll. The perfect jellyroll, ethereal, fragile sponge cake spread with whipped cream, pastry cream, chocolate ganache, a favorite jam, the edge lifted and tucked up into itself, press forward, softly, lightly, and roll. Sweet dough, buttered and dusted with brown sugar and ground cinnamon with a generous hand, dotted with chocolate chips, strewn with coarsely chopped pecans, the edge lifted and tucked up into itself, press forward, softly, lightly, and roll. Nori, black, sleek, shiny, sticky rice fragrant with sugar and rice wine vinegar, pressed, gooey, all the way to the edges of that sheet of seaweed, black as night. Strips of smoked salmon, strips of tender avocado, strips of crisp, cool cucumber, the edge lifted and tucked up into itself, press forward, softly, tightly, and roll. Black and white, or, more correctly, brown and beige, a large, flat square of chocolate cookie dough, a large, flat square of vanilla cookie dough. Align and press, one atop the other, the double edge then lifted and tucked up into itself, press forward, softly, tightly, and roll.

 The beautiful, intricate, swirl of a roll.

 Let the Good Times Roll


The Story of a Rolling Pin

 She had always been the taker, I the giver. As different as night and day, she had money and played poor, I was poor and played with a generous hand. I was bunking down in the Paris apartment she shared with a man, her future husband, her future ex, the first but not the last. And she decided that she wanted to be a cook, a caterer. Which required, of course, a battery of new kitchen utensils, equipment, appliances and gadgets, poor little rich girl. 

 Together we visited Dehillerin, that famed Parisian Mecca for all things kitchen. A wonderland of cooking and baking tools. "I need a rolling pin!" she exclaimed in delight as she lifted one of the long, thick professional rolling pins from a box, weighing the heft of the thing, gliding her hand up and down the smooth, silken wood the color of chocolate. "I don't have my wallet with me," she cried in mock surprise, as she rarely seemed to have money with her, I should have known better. "Will you buy it and I promise to pay you back?" I reached into my meager cache, my few francs in reserve, all I had left to my name, and pulled out the weathered, flimsy bills and handed them over, knowing that I would never see the color of thirty-three francs again.

 A year later, she and her man packed up, picked up and moved to the States. "Can you keep some of my stuff for me, just until we move back?" she asked. Cookbooks and baking pans, whisks, wooden spoons and yes that rolling pin, anything but generous as she counted absolutely on coming back and reclaiming it all. But she never did. And today, I still roll out dough in my own kitchen in France with that rolling pin, the very same that I paid for on my first trip to Paris. And I love it, my rolling pin.

 Roll out a nearly perfect round of dough, pie crust. Roll the dough up around the rolling pin, lift and carefully unroll across the pie plate. Lift and press into the dish.

 Roll me over in the clover, roll me over lay me down and do it again.


I began making chocolate truffles when I was in college, preparing them for Valentine's Day gifts for friends and as part of the candy and sweet platter I would make with my mother for her office Christmas party each year. Chocolate truffles were, and still are, considered the height of elegance, fancy, special confections, yet they are incredibly, deceptively simple to make, just a chocolate ganache with a bit of butter and flavorings. The only requirement is very high quality ingredients and very clean hands.

JAMIE'S DARK CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES
Makes about 30 truffles

8 oz (225 g) high quality bittersweet or half bittersweet/half semisweet chocolate, 70% cocoa solids
½ cup (125 ml) heavy whipping cream
2 Tbs (30 g) butter *
2 Tbs flavoring of your choice **
½ tsp vanilla extract

30 jarred cherries or so in syrup, drained and soaked or poached in cherry liqueur or rum, optional

Unsweetened cocoa powder, shredded coconut, lightly toasted or not, finely chopped nuts of your choice, sprinkles, chocolate or colored, crushed hard candies such as candy canes…. For coating the chocolate truffles. Your choice.

* Use unsalted butter when adding an alcohol flavoring, but try using salted butter with an extra tiny pinch of fleur de sel for a caramelly, slightly salty taste, if you so desire.

** Grand Marnier or Cointreau, Amaretto, dark rum, prepared coffee, bourbon, etc Finely chop the chocolate and place in a medium-sized heatproof bowl.

 In a small saucepan over a low flame, heat the heavy cream and butter just until boiling point (you will see tiny bubbles form around the edges and the cream will begin to steam); stir to blend. Pour the hot cream and butter over the chopped chocolate, let sit for a minute and then stir or whisk gently (so as not to splatter) until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the flavorings, the liqueur and the vanilla. Allow the ganache to cool and set, either on the counter or in the refrigerator. This could take several hours but if setting in the fridge, remove the bowl from the cold before it becomes to hard – if it does, simply let it come back to room temperature.

 Using a melon baller (I do not) or a teaspoon, scoop out a small round of ganache (the size of a large marble) and, working very quickly and lightly so as not to melt the chocolate, roll the chocolate between the palms of your hands until round and line them up on a parchment-lined baking tray.

 Quickly and lightly roll each chocolate truffle in the coating of your choice. Place each truffle in a tiny paper casing, if offering them as gifts.

 For an extra special treat and surprise, omit the liqueur from the ganache and instead soak or poach cherries (jarred cherries in syrup) in cherry liqueur or rum and roll one cherry inside each truffle.


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Monday, June 23, 2014

Cherry


With a Cherry on Top

 Bits and tangles of tin foil fluttering in the breeze, flicking rays of sun around the garden like daylight fireflies. Scintillating. Like tinsel on a Christmas tree.

 Or plastic bags and bits of cloth like those wish trees we saw on our honeymoon in Cyprus.

 Fat magpies and ravens, with just a touch of violence, and tiny little sparrows, graceful and light, swoop down irreverently ignoring the quivering, flapping, ruffling beat, the dance of the foil, the plastic, the bits of cloth tied to the branches of the cherry tree explicitly to chase them away.

 But who could blame them? Plump, shiny bright, deep red cherries dot the tree, swinging gently with the sway of the branches in the breeze. The promise of something sweet and juicy.

 Early morning and we wander barefoot through the dew-damp grass and peer excitedly upwards, the sun filters through the lush green and we search out the ripe fruit as we plan an afternoon picking, thinking of what we will bake with the harvest, all that won't be eaten straight from the tree. Yet the cherries are gone. What remains has been pecked, leaving gaping wounds bleeding cherry juice, now rotted and inedible. For all our effort, those birds refused to heed the warning and have eaten all of the cherries.


Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?

 Cherry pies, apple and blueberry pies. And pumpkin at Thanksgiving. The freezer would be well stocked with ready-made pie shells, the cupboard flush with cans of filling in every fruit – and pumpkin – flavor. Open and bake, cut a thick wedge for each one of us, and top with a lavish dollop of Cool Whip. Every night was a fête.

 Cherry was always my favorite.

 I baked my first cherry pie in a house in the suburbs of Paris. An American cherry pie for a French family. Fresh cherries bought at the tiny little primeurs near the train station. The double crust was so yellow, the bright yellow of French egg yolks, the very yellow of French butter. Rolled out clumsily, dough pushed and pinched together, cherries pitted by hand with a paring knife and tossed with sugar and cornstarch. A lovely lattice crust.

 A French family who couldn't fathom the joy and comfort of a home baked cherry pie.


Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries

 My husband's parents retired to a tiny little village, barely 300 souls, in the middle of nowhere. A tangle of tiny streets were lined with old stone houses, abodes of poor farmers in former days and some still, the village being surrounded as it were with apple orchards and fields of cows, rapeseed and beets. Their house was one of the newfangled modern things that was appendaged onto the old part huddled around the medieval church and old village well, a new house in unbecoming beige cement and dull chocolate brown shutters perched ungraciously and oh so inconveniently upon a hill.

 In the center of their yard stood a magnificent cherry tree, tall and stately, branches spread every which way, leaves lush, cherries abundant all summer long. As soon as the cherries burst forth around the middle of July, branches groaning under the weight of the fat, red fruit, we would gather under that cherry tree and, staring up, discuss our strategy. For, you see, the cherries were very high requiring a ladder to reach above even the bottom row of branches yet the ground under and around that tree was anything but sure. One side sloped making a ladder or chair perilous, indeed. And the big, chunky roots splayed out in a dangerous web, making a ladder downright impossible. But those cherries were so good, so flavorful we were determined to pick them all.

 And an entire Saturday of July was devoted to picking cherries. Scrambling up in the branches, or taking turns spotting the ladder for the other, which leaned falteringly against the trunk. Standing on old plastic garden chairs hanging on for dear life with one hand, the other grabbing cherries, my mother-in-law's battered old aluminum colander wedged between two branches to catch the harvest. All the best cherries seemed to be just out of reach for of course there was only so high we could go. 

 Exhausted, we finally give in and give up, loathe to leave the beauties still hanging, grabbing one, two, three more pairs one second I'm coming, I'm stopping now I promise just one more! The rest sacrificed to the birds who come to the feast during the wee hours of the morning while we sleep, before we wake, before we have the chance to gather up a second wind and attempt to pick the rest on the Sunday before heading home.

 In the cherry blossom's shade, there's no such thing as a stranger. – Kobayashi Issa 


Cherry Pickers

 Little maraschino cherries, glistening like bright jewels, tempting. They are so pretty. Plopped into a Tom Collins or an Old Fashioned, drinks for the parents. Or pushed into a swirl of whipped cream sitting atop a double scoop of ice cream, banana split, dotted with chocolate sprinkles. Sparkling. So feminine. To like or not to like a maraschino cherry, that is truly the question. Some years yes, some years no. There has been and always will be something so adult, a tad bit decadent, about popping a maraschino cherry into one's mouth, the hint of alcohol, the sweet whipped cream. There is something so 1960's about them, cruise ships and cocktail parties.

 I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees. - Pablo Neruda


Le Temps des Cerises

 Clafoutis. What is cherry season without clafoutis? Big black cherries (pitted or no?) tumbled into a baking dish and blanketed under a smooth batter (flan or crêpe?) smelling of milk and vanilla. Big black cherries peeping through the creamed preparation as if just keeping their heads above water. Baked, the shivering, wobbly flan hugs those big black cherries that seemingly haven't budged a whistle but oh a mouthful reveals the truth. Cherries gently poached in batter burst in an explosion of pulp, sweet cherries even sweeter, juicy cherries even juicier. Cherry season, le temps des cerises, means clafoutis to every Frenchman and woman.

 A pair of cherries joined at the stem top, suspended, drooping gently. Hung over a lover's ear, a child's ear, pendant. Perfect summer wear, a pair draped over each ear.

 A cherry year, a merry year.


Cherry season isn't complete without a warm cherry clafoutis. My cherry clafoutis is not like a traditional French one because here the cherries are caramelized before being added to the egg batter, leaving a sweet syrup to pour over the top.

ILVA'S CARAMELIZED CHERRY CLAFOUTIS
4 servings

200-300 g/ 7-10.5 oz pitted and divided cherries
a knob of butter
3-4 tbsp sugar
1/2-1 tsp cinnamon
4 eggs
75 g/ 2,65 oz flour
150 ml/ 0,63 cup fresh cream
200 ml/ 0,85 milk
4 tblsp sugar
1 pinch salt
1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
butter

   Melt the butter in a small skillet, add cherries, cinnamon and sugar and cook slowly until caramelized. Stir or shake the skillet now and then. Put aside.

    Whisk eggs and flour quickly until smooth, then add cream and milk together with sugar, pinch of salt and lemon zest and mix it well.
Butter an oven-proof form and pour the batter into it. Distribute the caramelized cherries over it all  (but reserve the sauce for serving) and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 25-30 minutes or until the cream has set and is slightly golden. Be careful not to bake it too long as it easily goes a bit dry.
   
   Drizzle the sauce over the clafoutis before serving.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Prop



 My mother collected collectibles, bibs and bobs, gewgaws and tchotchkes, pretty little things that were placed in elegant wood and glass cabinets to be admired. Never used, simply admired. Lovely cake forks and teaspoons in sterling silver, many charmingly molded and etched, decorated with roses. Beautiful teacups and cake plates, candy dishes and serving platters.

 And when her mother, my grandmother, passed away she brought back a tiny treasure trove of silver spoons and enamel cups once drunken out of by her uncles when they were mere tots, and other nice things. All to be placed next to crystal wine carafes (never filled with wine), porcelain vases (never filled with flowers) and souvenirs of Caribbean Cruises, stuck in time behind those glass paned doors. 

 Curios.

 Yet I peep into those cabinets and don't see collectibles, nor do I see memories. I see props. Through the eyes of a food blogger I see a fabulous choice of props at my fingertips if I only dare pull open those door, slowly, gently, and lift out, much like pick-up-sticks, mikados, a teaspoon here, a cake knife there, sugar tongs and miniature silver candy trays from amongst the breakables. Wrap each in cloth, t-shirts and socks, and slide them into a waiting suitcase to be carried across the ocean and home.

 Props.


 It may have been the hardest day of my life and surely the saddest. My heart had been wrenched out of my chest, grief-stricken, and I risked being swallowed up whole, pulled into that black space of pain and sadness. Blinded by my tears. My son, young and insouciant, or so it seemed, saw my distress and came to me, put his arm around me and propped me up. He supported me like a crutch, holding my weight as I leaned heavily into him, propped me up and walked me slowly towards the gravesite under the hot September sun where we would bury someone I loved more than all the world.


 Chin propped in my cupped hands, I listened to him utter the words, barely perceptible, words weaving in and out through the sounds of a wine bar, the clatter of knives and forks, the clinking of glasses, the bustle of bodies, screeching of chairs across tile, the buzz of voices. His own finally reached my ears, murmurs between unimportant obstacles of noise. I focused, listening to the generosity of his language, taking in the light from his eyes and the rest was forgotten, the flow of noise around me merely a prop.

 Propped up on one elbow, lying stretched out on his bed, the early morning sun spread across the sheets in a haze. He reiterated his declaration, hesitant but deliberate. His words mere props, like diamonds and roses, his look, his body language said it all. Propped up against the cushions watching tv in our ninth home together, I stare at the man who sat across the tiny table in that wine bar so many years ago. Our home is a mishmash of memories and objects, framed paintings by our toddler sons propped against one wall, camera tripod, umbrellas and brooms propped against another, mere props of the play that is our life.

 I have become his prop, or so he teases me, his trophy wife. Yet I know that in truth I prop him up as he needs, prop him up when he stumbles, support him when he doubts, carry him along whether or no he asks. I prop him up as he does me.


 We moved into this apartment with twice as many objects, books, things, a collection of props as we had room for. And boxes of props, dishes and platters, cutlery for an army, tea sets and pitchers than rarely saw the light of day except as props. Packets of plastic straws and wooden forks, Christmas balls and decorations (although we do not celebrate), antique spoons I, frankly, would be afraid to eat with, curious things I no longer remember where they came from. You understand. Props.

 I am well propped.

 "You can easily get rid of half of that stuff!" he exclaimed, hands propped up on his hips. "Do you really need it all? There is no room!" And so I found room, sacrificing non-props, claiming cabinet space inch by inch, adding shelves to the living room wall unit and squeezing it all in. My photo props. 

 Curiously, I use less and less of these props when I shoot. I am uncomfortable with props as if trying to shoot too many people or dress myself in someone else's clothes, someone else's life. But I do peep into the cabinets and stare at, ogle, coddle my props on a regular basis. I love them.


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