blackberries and basil

By on Jul 29, 2012 in baking, dessert, dinner, experimenting, fruit | 0 comments

I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to know exactly what they want. Is it what they want right then? What they think they are supposed to want? What they wanted ten years ago but never got and are still telling themselves they want it? Does it take into account the myriad situations life throws at you that might make you reconsider everything you know? And if you achieve exactly what you want… what next? And what do you do if you can’t get what you want? Do you listen to the Rolling Stones, who sing that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need? In the fluidity of our everyday existence, there is always uncertainty. And uncertainty is an excellent pairing for food. Yesterday morning I found myself finally with the time and means to go to the farmer’s market proper (a big one with multiple vendors, not the single farmer that shows up on Sunday mornings a few blocks away who is always appreciated but somewhat lacking). This is my candy store, and I have sorely missed it this summer. I wandered slowly through the aisles, drinking in the sight of piles of fruits and vegetables, hunks of cheese, the giant paint buckets filled with brilliant flowers. I made a lap, even being so lucky as to encounter a dear friend I had not seen in a while, and we made another lap, chatting and soaking in the rarely beautiful summer morning. I had come in search of peaches, one of my favorite summertime finds. I craved the soft orange fruit, the fresh ones off the tree so juicy you have to eat them leaning over a sink. And then my eyes lit upon the darkly glistening rows of blackberries, softly sleeping in their little boxes. At the urging of the farmer, I tried one. You know those moments where something dramatic happens in a movie and there is a quick cut or zoom in to the eye where you see the pupil contract in this act of awe and wonder? It was like that. One bite through the subtly sweet and tart pillow of juiciness that was that blackberry, and I was done. I close my eyes briefly to enjoy and raised up two fingers. “I’ll take two boxes of those, please.” I had recently read this article on NPR and was intrigued. The idea of a foccacia with these coquettish berries was appealing. But of course I couldn’t follow the recipe exactly. So I wandered around the market until I found a few flavors I thought would work with it, and excitedly went home. Sadly, after a triumphant return from the market, laden with summer-warm fruit, that day was still filled with more work, frustration with technology surrounding work, and the nagging sensation of nauseating uncertainty that has been a part of my daily existence as of late. I sat down and perused the NPR recipe again. The dough had to be made the day before. I almost called it off. It almost never happened. But good things can arise from patience, and the part of my brain that is made giddy by the sight of rising dough kicked through the rubble of angst and demanded that I give it a try. And so at 11 o’clock at night, I made the simple slack dough, exactly as prescribed, and shut it away to slowly rise and ferment in the refrigerator. Then the morning came. There were other distractions to be had, like a glorious french press of coffee, and the making of a large quantity of dill pickles (another consequence of wild abandon at the market and a markedly good stress reliever), but eventually it returned to the foccacia. It was made during a time of day that doesn’t know if it should be early or late afternoon, it was uncertain of whether or not it was lunch or a substantial afternoon snack. And then there were the ingredients in question. The article had called for blackberries and rosemary, creating a dish that was neither sweet nor savory. I wanted more. I wanted something that couldn’t decide if it was sweet or savory, and demanded that you listen to its conundrum. Out went the rosemary. In went the basil and goat cheese. It made no sense. Fruit and herbs are not a foreign combination, and that article even had a gin drink using blackberries and basil, but goat cheese? I will eat it on anything, but blackberries? Really? I shut my eyes, breathed in the imagined flavors, and there was a flicker of “well maybe…” and so I tried it. Foccacia born of uncertainty. If worse came to worse, I could pick the toppings off and devour the airy dough. And there it was, a savory golden pillow of foccacia dough pocked with air pockets, gently laiden with fruity olive oil, the sweet yet tart blackberries, heady basil, and gently salty goat cheese. Salt and sugar topped the whole bit off. It was delightful. I sat quietly, enjoying the quiet sourness of a dough risen long and slow, the complex fruity song of the blackberry, the hit of basil that always seems to sneak up into my sinuses, and the welcome creamy salt of the goat cheese. I tried to listen to it, but I...

a jam of the evening

By on Jul 9, 2012 in fruit, love, preserving | 2 comments

9 o’clock in the evening is a perfectly reasonable time to make jam. A reward, say, for having spent 2 1/2 hours in meditation over a never-ending line of fresh strawberries nestled in quart boxes, their uniquely sweet and floral scent gently floating up, reminding you yet again that your Strawberry Shortcake doll from the 80s never smelled anything like this. 2 1/2 hours standing quietly over a sink, one hand deftly wielding a small knife, the other guiding the unsuspecting strawberries to the sharp point that would soon relieve them of their stems. One by one, quart by quart, the pile of hulled strawberries mounts in the sink. Who was I to resist their lure? Surely I did not really need to make all 8 quarts into jam. A few berries here and there, just for quality purposes, were tested. On the day of meditation I made five jars of jam. And then looked at the other giant pile of strawberries, glowing in their own rich redness, and decided that maybe I could freeze the rest. Which leads to the night in question. The night during which 9 o’clock seemed a perfectly rational time to make jam. It was really an act of necessity. I do not have a full-sized refrigerator, and the freezer was jammed to the hilt with berries. There was nary a space to stash an ice cube tray to chill my occasional tipple of bourbon. So I emptied the freezer of the strawberries, added some water that would soon become ice cubes, and proceeded to pull out my canning gear. I dumped the strawberries into a 4 qt. stock pot. You would be amazed at how long it takes 12 cups of frozen strawberries to defrost. The canning kettle was slowly heating with a vast quantity of water. I slid the frozen stock pot towards it, hoping the heat would help expedite the thawing process. I began to question whether or not 9 o’clock really was a reasonable time to bust out and make jam. Then I ignored that part of my brain and turned on the burner under the strawberries. The magical thing about heat is that it thaws. I stood patiently above the pot, stirring the frozen berries around, much like you would poke at the embers of a fire to help stoke it. Blissfully, the berries began to thaw and then collapse. Soon all sense of time slipped away as I merrily mashed the berries and threw in the sugar and pectin. The heavenly summery scent was not obscene enough, so in went a touch of balsamic vinegar, the distinct tang melting into the strawberry scent and intensifying it, sending my brain into a fluid state that stopped looking at the clock slowly ticking on above the oven. A spoon was dipped into the sweet lava and held high above to assess the readiness of the jam, relying on growing instinct to tell me when it is done rather than calculated numbers. Jars were filled, a finger dipped into boiling hot water to clear the rim, hot lids and bands thrown on, and the jars lowered into simmering water to seal in that crimson glory. The short dance went on for a while, in the end making six jars of jam. Brow beaded with sweat, I glanced at the clock. It was after 11. I heard the soft ping of one of the jars sealing as it sat on the cooling rack. Then another, and another. Soft musical notes playing into the quiet night of my kitchen. And I smiled. 9 o’clock really is a perfectly reasonable time to make jam. Strawberry Jam note: Do not fear the canning. Everyone freaks out, convinced you will die if you do one thing wrong. Just keep your jars clean and hot, and keep everything you work with clean and hot, and you will be FINE. Also, this recipe is using one very specific type of pectin, so this will NOT translate to other kinds. And this is not the usual Sure-Jell you find in the supermarket. This is very specifically using Pomona’s Universal Pectin, carried in most Whole Foods and likely other natural food stores. It is less chemically based, and allows you to use WAY less sugar than traditional jams while setting just as well. This recipe is probably the seventh iteration of jam I have made using this, starting with their precise instructions and then meandering into my own experimentation. I think I may have finally gotten it right. But try it for yourself. Or try their way for yourself. Worse comes to worse, you have some really tasty strawberry sauce for ice cream. Just try it. I dare you. 12 c. hulled strawberries, preferably fresh 3 c. sugar 5 tsp. pectin powder from Pomona’s Universal Pectin 10 tsp. calcium water from Pomona’s Universal Pectin 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar 6 pint jars with absolutely no nicks or cracks on the rim, 6 new lids, and six bands, fully washed a jar funnel (just a funnel with a wide opening for jars) Jar grabbers A potato masher or something similar Fill a canning kettle or other large pot that can hold your jars without touching and allow the water to rise an inch above the lids. You may have to do the jars in batches (I always do, my old kettle only...