Saturday, September 10, 2016

Life with food, and cookbooks

The pantry

September's book club topic is food, but rather than read a book about food, I thought I'd just really pay close attention to the experience of food in my life, and write about it.

Like everyone, I experience food every day, several times a day. For the most part, I love food. I've got the time now to really enjoy planning menus, going to the market, creating, serving and eating beautiful soups, stews, salads, breads, casseroles, cookies, cakes, jams, shrubs and anything else that I think up to make.
My very-
pared-down cookbook nook

And that's where books come in. I almost always consult cookbooks as an integral part of this life with food, unless I already have a recipe written down and saved on paper or ... unless I have a recipe saved on the Internet.

The stash of often-used
slips of paper with jotted-down recipes

If I don't have a recipe already written down, and I don't think any of my cookbooks contains a recipe for something I want to make, I Google it. Et voila! My other cookbook, the Internet.

People have posted recipes for just about everything you can imagine, and so, it's no exaggeration to suggest that there might not really be a need for anymore cookbooks, and yet I don't know a single cook who's given them up, or stopped buying them. And according to some publishers, well-curated collections illustrated with eye-catching photos, and authored by celebrity chefs, innovative cooks and well-known food bloggers are doing very well indeed.

Well, I'm agnostic about it all. I just use whatever makes the most sense for whatever it is I want to make. Here are some of the sources I've consulted and things I've made this month.

Grand City granola

Grand City granola
This one has as its source a melange of real-life experience as inspiration (a divine smell), a borrowed photocopy of a page from an out-of-print cookbook as the how-to, and my own variations on the theme.

It started with a stay at the Briar Rose, a B&B in Boulder Colorado. I walked into the kitchen there one afternoon, drawn by the most heavenly smell. It turned out to be the next day's granola, baking. I was hooked.

My tweaked version of
Grand City Granola

When I got home, I mentioned my newfound motivation to make my own granola to my friend, Emily, and she shared a recipe with me from a Starbucks cookbook, A Passion for Coffee, that looked great. I tweaked it a bit to suit my own nut and seed-centric preferences, and I've never gone back. Haven't bought granola in years. It's fabulous -- it tastes just as good as it smells!

Avocado-quinoa breakfast bowl

This one was pure Internet search. I was craving something totally different for breakfast, balanced, not the usual, and I don't recall how I phrased the search, but the online photos of this breakfast drew me in, totally.
Avocado quinoa breakfast bowl

It had everything I was looking for, I had all the ingredients already on hand, and it was completely unlike anything I typically have for breakfast. Sometimes I just want new and different. And another plus: it makes up in about 15-20 minutes, the time it takes to cook the quinoa and boil an egg. And with avocado and feta cheese, how can you go wrong?

Deb Perelman's mom's and
Jane's and the NYT's apple cake
Apple cake

I saw this recipe in Deb Perelman's cookbook, Smitten Kitchen, and it reminded me of a recipe I hadn't made in decades, one I came by in the early 1970's from Jane, an old friend of my first hubby, John. I found my copy of her recipe and compared hers and Deb's and they were indeed the same basic recipe. In fact, I went online to look up other examples of this kind of cake and found that there had been one published in the New York Times in 1973, still available online in the Times' archive. Same recipe. For my attempt, I cut the recipe to 1/3 and used a 7" spring-form pan.

1970's era apple muffins

My apologies to Deb, her mom, Jane, and the NYT, but this didn't turn out all that great. It takes forever to bake so the outside is a bit overdone, it was a tad too sweet for me, and the recommendation to use Macintosh apples was, for me, a miscue. It's probably just me and my weird tastes, but really I am much more the apple muffin type -- think about making them on a moment's notice and 30 minutes later you're eating one hot out of the oven. I'm sure I've got that 1970's era recipe in my file too. Oh, yes, here it is. And you just throw all the liquid ingredients, including peeled and cored apples, into the blender and whiz for a few seconds. Too easy!

Heirloom tomato and berry salad

This one came to me just 2 days ago (Sept. 7), on the recommendation of a colleague from the University of Texas Libraries, now retired, Robert Foster. He sends me things to read all the time, including links to recipes like this one, from The Guardian. I saved it right away and have been looking for an excuse to make it since. Today I prepared it for lunch for me and Dennis, along with a BLT on honey whole-wheat sourdough (below). The recipe is Nuno Mendes' and it's super-simple: you just slice and chunk a couple of heirloom tomatoes into a bowl, and toss in some berries (whatever you've got), sprinkle some of your garden herbs on top, again, whatever you've got, and top with a tossed-together dressing of 1 part tamari, 2 parts balsamic vinegar, and 3-4 parts olive oil. Scatter toasted breadcrumbs over the top just before serving.

Tomatoes, blackberries and a BLT
The breadcrumbs were genius: pulse a couple of slices of, in my case, homemade bread in the food processor, turn them into a hot frying pan and toss a little every few minutes until they start to brown, then add 1 T of butter and continue stirring/tossing every few minutes as they continue to toast up nicely. Turn off the heat, salt and pepper to taste, and let them cool. Wow, what a nice crunchy touch on the tomatoes and berries!
Toasting breadcrumbs for the
tomato/berry salad

Honey whole-wheat sourdough bread
Honey whole-wheat sourdough

This recipe came from Bon Appétit, originally, "Country-Style Sourdough," but I found it on the Internet. It's one of Alton Brown's, and I've got it printed out and it's in my stack of frequently-used recipes, covered with my own variations on the original, including this honey whole-wheat sourdough.

Actually, I owe this variation to an old, old friend, Beverly Leathers, who introduced me to sourdough 45 years ago when we were both in college at UT. I still have her recipe for making 4 loaves in 24 hours, but I adapted it to Alton's quicker loaves (and only 2 at a time), well, not quicker by much, but a little. We use this bread for sandwiches, morning toast, french toast, and even breadcrumbs, like the ones that topped the tomato and berry salad, above.

Beverly's sourdough bread, front of card

And, the sourdough starter I used for these loaves is the Mexican plum sourdough I made earlier this summer, from the plums that fall to the sidewalk in front of our house in late July. I wrote about that in Camp Plum, in August.

Blueberry ricotta pancakes with lemon-butter and maple syrup

One morning for breakfast, Dennis asked for pancakes. I happily obliged with a batch inspired by a local restaurant, Cafe No Se, at the South Congress Hotel. We love this place and eat there often. Their pastry chef, Amanda Rockman, makes the fabulous croissants and kouing amann that are our go-to french viennoiserie when we want a Paris fix. But the Cafe also offers ricotta pancakes, which are heavenly, served with pecan butter, bananas and maple syrup.

I didn't have a recipe for these, so I Googled them, read a few for comparisons, and decided on my own variation, which I wrote out on a slip of paper. Really, you can use your favorite pancake recipe and just adapt it with these suggestions:

Blueberry ricotta pancakes with
berries, bananas, lemon-butter and maple syrup
Ricotta pancakes have an interesting distinction, from my butter-loving perspective: they have no added fat in the recipe. I used whole-milk ricotta (1/2 c) and whole milk (1 c), so they're not fat-free by any means, but still. Well, it gives me a good excuse to insist on butter on the finished pancake, which I'd normally forego if there's butter in the pancake. This is just fine in this recipe, because lemon and ricotta seem to be happy together. i just grated some zest into softened butter and stirred it a bit. Perfect.

The other thing about these is their lightness. They've got two eggs (to a cup of flour), but the whites are separated from the yolks and whipped to stiff peaks and folded in at the end, right before baking on the griddle. The resulting pancakes practically float off the plate.

I noted on my recipe that these were fabulous, so I'd remember as the years go by. I've got lots of slips of paper with pancake variations on them. These, and biscuits, are some of my favorite things to make. In fact, I'd have to say that breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. So bright and cheerful a way to greet your brand-new 24 hours!

And while we're on the subject of breakfast, I couldn't omit a reference to my waffle iron. This one's got a nice story to it too.

Pecan waffles

Long, long time ago, I had a friend named Jim Sherrill. He had a place way out in the country, a very rustic little cabin sort of thing, built inside a barn-like structure, all of which he'd made himself. I used to go out to visit him and hang out for a few days at a time. That's where I first saw his waffle iron, sitting on top of his wood-burning stove.
The Jøtul waffle iron

He said he'd used it, but that "it didn't make good waffles" because the batter would run out the sides. Well, I figured there was an easy fix for that problem -- a thicker batter. And you know, I was right. It wasn't the waffle iron at all. You just had to warm it up, medium heat, a few minutes on one side and then a few minutes on the other, and back and forth like that until it's just barely starting to smoke a bit (oh, and it's been buttered and stayed seasoned forever -- you never wash it). Open it up, pour in about 1/2 c batter and close it down and a few minutes later you've got one very yummy waffle. Repeat.

Well, a short time later I was shopping at Le Cadeau, a fantastic gift shop we used to have here in Austin, filled to the rafters with cool imported kitchen stuff. Searching through Le Cadeau's treasures, I found some of my most favorite possessions, among them, my Sabatier carbon-steel knives, and a Jøtul waffle iron, just like Jim's. I found it shortly after seeing his, snapped that baby up, and I've been making heart-shaped waffles ever since. These days, they're all over the place, grace à l'Internet.

The 1989, 'first computer' version of my
basic pancake recipe, marked up way
more than makes sense anymore
The recipe I use has its origin in my earliest teen-aged cooking. I'm guessing I learned it from my grandma, but I'm not really sure anymore. She always made me honey buckwheat's. This recipe makes a really great pancake, and it's amenable to infinite variations, of course.

For waffles, it's simple. You just increase the eggs to 2, and decrease the milk a bit (2/3-3/4 c). A thick batter. But, if you want to use buttermilk instead of sweet milk in your pecan waffles, the amounts of milk in the original pancake recipe and the tweaked waffle recipe are the same (but you want to decrease the baking powder a bit and add in some baking soda). Somehow or another, buttermilk makes a thicker batter. Oh, and add some cinnamon, a little vanilla, and 1/3 c. chopped up pecans.

Heaven on a plate.

And then there are biscuits and scones

As I mentioned above, biscuits are one of my favorite things to bake. So quick and easy, infinitely variable, and always sooooo delicious, hot out of the oven. I usually bake them at least once each week. This week's batch was a take-off on a scone recipe I got from Cook's Illustrated. This is a really special recipe, because the author incorporates a few steps borrowed from the process for making croissants: 1) keeping the butter and other liquids and the dough itself ice-cold (by, among other things, freezing the butter and grating it into the dry ingredients), and 2) rolling out the dough, folding it into thirds (twice), popping it in the refrigerator before the next rolling and folding and then cutting for the final shape.
Breakfast biscuits

I decided to use the recipe to make plain biscuits, following all the special steps except that I used all plain whole milk yogurt instead of the sour cream and milk, and, of course, I didn't include the blueberries and lemon zest. Since I didn't have those to roll my dough around for the final shaping step, I just repeated the layering from the first step after I'd let the dough rest in the freezer 5 minutes as directed, and then patted the dough to a size from which I could cut the biscuits. These were fabulous! The layers that the extra-cold butter and the rolling out and folding give the finished biscuit really distinguish them, but then, most biscuits are fabulous to a biscuit lover.


Deb Perelman's
meatball meatloaves
Meatloaf was one of my mother's comfort foods when I was growing up. She taught me how to make it when I was a kid, and I've made it the same way ever since. But for this month's focus on books, I used Deb Pereleman's meatloaf recipe. She makes large meatballs instead of making an actual loaf, as she explains in her recipe prelude. Though her recipe isn't all that simple -- it's not my mom's 1-bowl recipe -- it's well worth the effort. It requires sautéing some finely processed veggies, making breadcrumbs and simmering the sauce for the top. All of these enhance the flavor. We loved the brown-butter mashed potatoes she serves her "meatballs" on as well.

Roast Chicken

Deb Perelman's roast chicken
with olives, shallots and grapes
Using another of Deb Perelman's recipes, I roasted chicken this week to make dinner two nights: Roast chicken with wild rice and a salad, and chicken tacos. I've had her cookbook, Smitten Kitchen, for a couple of years actually, but really didn't get into it until this month's book club's focus on food. I'm really enjoying her sense of humor, the context she provides for her recipes, and the often-serendipitous way she ends up creating what becomes a family favorite. I like that. That seems to be what happens with me too. Things just seem to come together in interesting ways. That's what she says happened to create the roast chicken recipe.

Well, all I can say is that it was wonderful. We loved it. And the leftovers made a great excuse for tacos a few nights later.

Homemade corn tortillas

Homemade corn tortillas
I learned to make flour tortillas ages ago, but corn tortillas seemed too hard, until I really set my mind to it, and I bought a tortilla press. Oh, and I asked people who made them all the time how they did it, and I got them to show me how. This is magic. Really.

There isn't a recipe, a photo, even a video that can really replace being in the same place at the same time with someone who knows what they're doing and who's showing you how to do it. There were some key points about making corn tortillas that you have to feel, like the consistency of the dough, the amount of pressure to apply with the press, how hot to have the griddle. I have two wonderful women to thank, Maria Solis and La Señora del Taco Bar at Güero's. And that griddle! Another "old Austin" find -- 1970's, Davis Hardware, which used to be on Congress Avenue, around 3rd street, if memory serves.

And then I practiced. A lot. We now have tacos once a week, just so I can practice making corn tortillas. I've finally gotten good enough at it that they puff up on their own! And, they are delicious.

Grilled salmon and pear salad

I finished out the month with a salad from a cookbook I bought on one of my trips to Boulder, Colorado, when I was studying at Naropa. Colorado Colore was published by the Junior League of Denver, Co. Filled with great recipes, it really does try to convey something essential about Colorado cuisine. I'm not sure it succeeds, but I've found that whatever I've chosen from the book to try always turns out good.
Colorado Colore - Salmon
Pear Salad

This week I bought Concorde Pears and Coho Salmon and put together this beautiful, quick and easy salad that we just gobbled up. The dressing, the pears and the salmon seemed like they were just made for each other. Truly delicious.

All the other things...

This recollection of a month of focusing on books about food only describes a fraction of what I read, cooked, baked and discovered. Among the other old favorites and new discoveries were Joy of Cooking's Pecan Puffs ("rich and devastating" the authors accurately describe them),  a couple of lasagnes with homemade sauce from The Figs Table, a Fruited Chicken Salad from California Cooking, several batches of Spiced Caramel Pear Jam from recipes I found on the Internet, my favorite of which was Southern Cooking's, Corn and Cheddar Chowder from Vegetarian Epicure, Book One, and 'Pie Apple' Scones, made from the recipe I described above for Blueberry Lemon Scones. Nice month!

And I'm already into October: I'm taking on croissants and pain au chocolat this month -- after reading extensively about them online, watching videos, and practicing the basic technique with rough puff pastry (the french version of pie crust), I've got my recipe figured out and I start on them tonight. They take 3 days to make...

Friday, September 09, 2016

Amazing august

Inca Doves: No hope; no hope; no hope.
CC*BY J. Labrador

Normally one of our driest and hottest months, August usually brings to mind the mournful cry of the Inca Dove: "no hope; no hope; no hope."

But not this year!

It was cooler than usual and rainy (rain! in August!), so gardens that normally do no more than simply hang on until Fall thrived. We experienced a magnificent renaissance of branches, leaves and blooms. September has been a bit dryer, but still unusually cool, so the exuberance of August continues. No doubt we'll pay for this later on, somehow, but for now, we're celebrating.

One day a week or so ago I counted no fewer than 35 different kinds of flowers blooming in my relatively wild garden. This very nearly rivals the peak of spring bloom here. Just amazing.
Schoolhouse lilies

Mornings are cool and shady, easy to enjoy in the garden, whether just sitting and marveling at the abundance, or puttering around with the typical garden chores, snipping something here, propping up something there, watering a parched pot, cutting some flowers for the kitchen table.

Hibiscus Cecelia with Tritonia
Even from inside the house, the views out the windows to the garden are a delight with the sunshine lighting up the reds of the caladiums, magnifying the intensity of the different greens of the understory foliage plants, or dappling the deck or the paths through the overgrown borders.

Front porch pot
Now to a lot of folks, this will seem like much ado about nothing, but either those folks don't care much for gardens, or they're probably used to beautiful luxuriant gardens in August. It's all relative, I know. And here in Texas in August, this August is special.

Rock rose

Rock roses, begonias, torenia, Mexican petunias, impatiens, tritonia, turk's cap, bind weed, lantana, widow's tears, wadelia, all putting on a show...

Begonias and torenia

Well, I could go on, but I'm sure you've got the point. I just want to remember it. August, 2016.

Monday, September 05, 2016

65 turns around the sun

Birthday at Amy's: Mexican
Vanilla, Dark Chocolate,
and Whipped Cream
For me, birthdays are getting less and less exciting. But, still, it's a birthday, and though the celebration might not be exuberant, or widely announced, I'm still celebrating. This year, Dennis and I went to San Francisco for a long weekend. We thought we'd be escaping Austin's typically hot, humid and dry August, but actually, August has been a real delight this year. But, it's no San Francisco!

It would have been really hard not to be excited about, and happy to be in San Francisco. We lived there briefly, towards the end of the time during which I worked for Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro as a brand new attorney. It's always a nostalgia thing to visit again. But this time, it was like a whole new experience, because things have just changed a whole lot! Us and San Francisco.

Streetcar 1040, J Line, from Telstar Logistics

We stayed on Nob Hill, so every single trip anywhere included as a free bonus, a super-uphill climb to get back to our hotel. Nice! Oh, admittedly, we got Metro passes as soon as we could and took a Cable Car or a bus a lot of the time, but not every time. And then there was that nice long ride on the F Line Streetcar!

San Francisco has a fantastic collection of 1930's and 40's streetcars from all over the country, and even from Mexico and Canada. All of them are refurbished and look almost like new, but they're not. They're the real deal!

Dennis planned and executed the whole trip, as his present for me, so I just got to sit back, relax, and be amused! Naturally, we ate at wonderful restaurants and had great cocktails.

Boulevard's interior, with Bay Bridge
lights through the windows
Our first night, we visited Boulevard, which calls a Belle Epoch building, perfectly refurbished with gorgeous period aplomb, its home. Abe, our bartender, made us absolutely perfect drinks, and dinner was a delight. Off to a great start.

Boulevard is right down by the water, across the street from Ferry Plaza. The Oakland Bay bridge starts its span across the Bay right there, and through the front windows of the restaurant I could see a light show the bridge puts on throughout our dinner. So, after dinner, we walked across to the water and watched for awhile. With a full moon above, quite a scene.

The next morning, we returned to Ferry Plaza, but this time to visit the Farmer's Market. There's no mistaking where you are inside this market's covered section (Rancho Gordo, Blue Bottle, etc.), and outside, you're right along the Bay of course. I could have spent the whole day there.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market

Dinner Saturday night was totally different. We ate at Al's Place. It was a bit like Odd Duck, in Austin, but with a Michelin star, so wow! Lots of small plates to share, all fantastic. It was in the far south of the Mission District, and sort of like a NY hipster place. Well, we knew it was San Francisco hipster when our waitress told us that the chef suggested we eat our salad with our fingers. We did, of course, and you should have seen the look on the guy's face who sat at the table next to ours. He'd already confided in us that he was totally out of his element, that he was actually from New York, just not the hipster New York...

Sunday morning we hiked a few blocks down the hill to Taylor Street Coffee Shop for breakfast. This place always has a line, but we were lucky to arrive at a time when it didn't extend outside the very tight entry-way. Our wait was only about 15 minutes.

Taylor Street Coffee Shop, Roy Gregorio, Google Maps

The cafe seats about 20 people, and it couldn't be any more than about 12-15' wide, about the width of taco truck, and not a whole lot longer. Apparently run by a family of food stylists, Taylor Street turns out all the typical breakfast dishes you'd expect, tout suite, but presents them as gorgeously as if they were being offered on the cover of Bon Appetit. And they were just as delicious as they were gorgeous. Dennis went back the next morning, while I had a rendez-vous with my friend, Sandee, whom I'd met in April in Paris, where we both were studying French. More on that meeting, at Tartine, in a minute.

We spent the afternoon in Golden Gate Park, walking most of its length, visiting among other things the sweet little Japanese Garden. We came upon a delightful celebration of Hungary's 1000th anniversary as a country at a bandstand, and felt mysteriously compelled to eat hot dogs and ice cream while we watched the performances. And then there were the roller-skating folks with the capes flying. Not something I've seen lately in Austin. But, I haven't looked for it. Who knows?

Japanese Garden
Sunday nite we were back at Ferry Plaza, for another drink at Boulevard (Abe graciously obliged us) and dinner at Slanted Door, a sort of nouveau Thai place that really impressed! Totally modern, upscale interior, attentive waiters, and gorgeous appetizers and entrees. Unfortunately, we were too totally satisfied to try dessert. They're known for a gingery cotton candy affair.

Monday Sandee picked me up at the hotel and we drove down to Tartine for brunch, and to speak french for awhile. We've been meeting virtually to chat in french each week since we returned from France. Helps us keep up at least some of what we learned while we were there.

Tartine is famous for its artisanal loaves, as well as croissants, tarts, pizza and quiche. It's another place that seems always to have a line.

Tartine, photo from Shared Appetite, where Chris Cockren
posted a really nice piece about his visit to Tartine
This one was long when we got there, and only got longer during the time were were there. It was, as everyone says, well worth it. Perfect croissants. And a lot closer than Paris. Well, not close enough though. I doubt I'll ever have another. At least I've got No Se in Austin. Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman totally nails the Paris croissant, to say nothing of her fabulous Kouign Amann!

Monday evening, we headed to the airport and returned home on the red-eye. Nice trip! Nice birthday! Thanks Dennis.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Camp Plum!

Mexican plum tree, early August
As a kid, I loved summer. It was everything good and nothing bad: endless hours of doing whatever I wanted, staying with my grandparents, playing with the neighborhood (or nearby farm) kids, exploring, discovering. Just nonstop fun, fun, fun.

Jack & me, at Grandma Bobb's
for the summer
Heat? Wasn't bothered by it.

Only one thing was missing. I always hoped I'd get to go to summer camp one summer, but that just didn't happen. Truth was, my grandparents' houses were close enough to summer camp, but I didn't realize that at the time. As I got older and summers began to mean summer jobs instead of summer fun, and then after college summer just disappeared into the normal work year, that heat became the only thing summer meant anymore, heat and humidity. Summer certainly lost its appeal.

A lifetime of working for a living later...

Camp Plum's gardens and Kitty Girl

I've been in summer camp all summer this year! Camp Plum this week. The name changes as my interests drift from one thing to another. This camp lets you do whatever you want, and there are no schedules other than the ones you set for yourself!

It's been a birding camp; lots of magic in the kitchen camp; French camp; meditation camp; reading mysteries camp; gardening camp. Whatever!

So, Camp Plum. 

Mexican plums
I've got a Mexican Plum tree in the front yard that always produces loads of beautiful little plums, but they're mostly pit and skin and little flesh, and way more trouble than they're worth, or so I used to think. But last year I read about how chef Jesse Griffiths at Dai Due, who is totally local everything, made the sourdough starter that the restaurant uses for all its baked goods from the wild Mustang grapes that he found growing on the alley across his street. Local flavors, indeed. I'd tried making a sourdough starter from apple peels myself, some years ago, and it was good, but I'd used organic apples from... who knows where? Not here though. So I decided to try making one with these plums, even though I'd have to wait until late summer.

Once the plums started falling, late July, I thought about jam too and it turns out, they need very little processing to go from fruit on the sidewalk (warm and incredibly fragrant) to jam in the fridge. About 30 minutes But there's a lot of room for experimenting, which I love. How long to cook them the first boil? How much sugar? How long to boil the juice and sugar? Pulp or no pulp? A rolling boil or a gentle simmer? Lid on or lid off? A few skins in the juice for color? How much pectin is in the plums? Do I need to add any? How much ripe versus underripe fruit? All these things make a difference, and so there's room to play with this for at least a week. And the plums keep coming. Small batches! Perfect for experimenting.

Yesterday these two experiments came together in fresh, hot 'plum sourdough' bread, right out of the oven, tartiné with butter and homemade plum jam. Incredibly delicious, both of them.

Here are the results of the experiments.
First, the jam:

Finished jam (first experiment)

I made very small batches because I only collected the fruit that fell on the sidewalk, and after a couple of days I'd have at most a cup or two of plums. That will make a small amount of jam. Good size for an experiment.

You pit the plums (I used a cherry pitter I'd bought earlier in the season to make Cherry balsamic shrub), cut them in half to remove any flesh that's insect damaged or over-ripe (a lot of people apparently skip this step entirely, but ewww!), then put them in a small saucepan just covering them with water (filtered or spring). Bring to a boil and boil for 5 or so minutes.

First boil
This first boil makes the next step easier: Pour the water through a sieve into a measuring cup, and use the back of a spoon to press the flesh against the sieve, so that some of the flesh goes through, as much as you want (no flesh and you'd be making jelly; some flesh and you get jam). You can throw into the juice/flesh mix a few bits of the plum peel if you want. It's supposed to deepen the shade of rose the jam becomes as it cooks.

Notice how much juice/flesh mix you've got in your measuring cup and add an equal amount of sugar. These plums are not sweet. They are really yummy, but quite tart. You'll have to be your own judge on the amount of sugar. From what I understand, it can affect the jell, but this stuff jells so quickly that I'm not sure normal guidelines for assuring jell are all that helpful.

Stir to blend the sugar in with the juice/flesh mixture, and return it all to your saucepan. There's a lot of pectin in the skins of these plums, and the less ripe they are, the more there is. So, depending on what you started with, whether you have the lid on or off, and how rapid a boil you've got, this step might take only a few minutes. Bring the mix to a boil and let it continue to boil for 10 - 15 minutes or so.

Or so...

Jam is not rocket science, but everyone's tastes are different and what's just right for me might be too firm or too runny for you. There are tried and true tests for jelling. First is 220 degrees. Believe me, this jam does not need to go that high. It's way too firm after that much boiling. Better to try the more subjective tests, for example, coating a spoon with the boiling jell and seeing if, when you run something (maybe not your finger! this stuff can be hot!) through the jell on the back of the spoon, the gully you make stays there. Does it stay? Enough boiling. Does it go right back together? Not enough boiling. Another test: drop a little on a saucer you've been keeping in the freezer. Does it stiffen up within a few seconds? It's done.

For a medium kind of jam, I found that you could get away with very little cooking at all, 10 - 15 minutes, at a medium boil, lid on some times, off others (I was testing a lot!). But there are so many variables. It's really best to use one of the "has it jelled yet" tests until you know your fruit, your stove and all that.

Now, for the sourdough:

This one is the opposite of the jam in terms of time. It takes 5 - 6 days to get a well-developed sourdough from the yeast that lives naturally on the peels of wild fruit. I used about 6 plums for this. All you have to do is lightly rinse your fruit and trim some of the peel with some flesh attached into a small bowl. Cover with water and add a tablespoon of all purpose flour (AP), a tablespoon of whole wheat or a multigrain flour and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Stir it up. It ought to be a very watery mix.
Watery mix, day one

Cover lightly and forget about it. Actually that part is hard to do. I found myself checking on it constantly. You so want to see it start bubbling and telling you that this is going to work. But it doesn't do that for awhile. So you have to be patient.

Day two, three, four and five, add another 2 tablespoons of flour (your choice about the amounts of each) and another 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. The mix ought to be getting a little thicker each day, but still be pretty wet. I began to see clear signs of bubbling by about the fourth day.

Last day, mix at normal
sourdough consistency
On the sixth day, remove the fruit skins and bring the mix up to normal sourdough consistency (like nut-bread or muffin batter) by adding AP flour and perhaps a little more water, and another 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. For me, after about 4 hours, this mixture was acting just like my regular sourdough would have. Success! I decided to save out half of it (into a glass jar, and into the fridge) and make a test loaf with the other half to be sure it didn't have any off flavors.
Toast with jam

The results were really wonderful. Local flavor for sure!

And up next -- Plum orange shrub. As soon as I collect another cup or two of plums...

Plum orange shrub

And the shrub

Well, that didn't take long. The tree hit its stride, and I got a windfall all of a sudden. Gayle Engels, who has since moved to Oregon, introduced me to a few shrub recipes last summer and I'm a true believer now. So far though, I'd only used organic produce from the grocery store. Since these plums worked so well for jam and sourdough, I thought they'd probably make a nice shrub too, and they did not disappoint!

I won't go into details about the process, since you can read all about it and the recipe under the link above, but here's the result, all bottled up and ready to go. I will definitely let it age a few more days before I serve it on ice with Topo Chico. We've got plenty of hot summer days still to go here in Austin.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The wandering

As the final weeks of our sejour commenced, what I really wanted most to do was just to really be here, to see, to hear, to smell, touch and taste "here." So I set off wandering around in the afternoons, after my class, a nice lunch and a little homework.

Dennis' daily hikes filled his head with ideas for places for us to go together -- not the monuments, museums and architecture one usually "must see," but things like someone's private Japanese garden,
Japanese garden

a rose that actually smells like a rose,
My favorite
a row of birches shimmering in the breeze coming off the Seine,
Birches along the Seine

and the taste of an apple crepe ordered at a window and carried off down the street.

There's a bridge that attracts musicians. We wandered across it, enjoying a piano tune. The player was perhaps performing something that might well have been his own composition. We don't know. Notice the bride and groom who stroll across the bridge behind him. Anything can happen. It was Saturday.

One of the oh-so-many King's palaces had a rose garden. Think about this. Roses, dozens and dozens of them, some of them bound to be the poster plants for "antique roses" being perhaps centuries old ... Varieties created way before looks and carefree cultivation were all that mattered. Smell these roses. Go ahead. They don't mind. Every one of them has a unique scent. Ahhhh. All my time in this garden I spent bent over, my nose in some rose or another.
Like a bee, drawn to the flower

One doesn't hear horns honking much in Paris, with two exceptions: marriages being celebrated by everyone who was invited to participate, as they drive apparently all over town hanging out of their windows and yelling and honking; and police convoys (and they always seem to travel in packs). So traffic has a bit of a different ring to it. It's more of a hum.

And there are all these little unique shops with their windows full of different kinds of things. If you see something that interests you, you'd better just stop right there and go inside and check it out. You won't remember where you saw it, and you won't see it anywhere else. No going back!

There was a hunt for the best yogurt. Yes, yum. My favorite was actually a fromage blanc with granola, served up at Telescope, near my school. Makes me want to start making yogurt again when I get home. Bread, granola, yogurt, fresh berries. Best breakfast in the world.
Telescope's fromage blanc
 et granole; Credit: Farfalue

A lizard, fish, crawfish-looking fountain? Well, why not?

Sea-themed fountain

Off to the side somewhere hidden, a courtyard with an old massive port that once opened to let in coaches, once blue, now with the paint very nearly completely peeled off. Oh, and a pot of yellow pansies beside it. Someone must have thought that one through.
The blue door

Things in the market that I've never seen before:

The roots of a celery plant.
Celery root

Apples that are sort of shriveled up, each box labeled with the variety. I wonder what one does with them? One of the stories in the Premiere Gorgee de Biere was about going down to the cellar and smelling these apples, and what a treat that was. Indeed.

Pommes ratatinees

And outside a shoe store, for no good reason, an antique pitcher filled with a colorful mix of tulips in full bloom -- it's being what I'd call late winter here and all...
Tulips on the sidewalk

So, this will go on for the next several days until the sun sets for the last time on our trip, we put away our things, fold everything up, compact it all into the couple of cubic feet we're allowed for luggage, and head for home!

Sunset from 7 Quai Voltaire