Monday, May 28, 2007

Clafoutis, a showcase for summer fruit

[Updated with details on the ideal type of baking dish for this dessert and additional sugar sprinkling]

A lot of cooking magazines go onto the shelf or into the recycling bin never to appear again. But the May/June 1998 Saveur has been a phenomenal exception. Two of the recipes have become mainstays in my kitchen. The first, a large savory pie with olive-oil crust and a filling of chard, potato and feta cheese is a year-round favorite. But the other one, clafoutis, makes a brief appearance during the short overlap of cherry and apricot season in California.

Clafoutis is essentially a very thick vanilla custard studded with fruit and baked in a hot oven so that a golden crust forms on the outside. The time in the oven softens and intensifies the fruit's flavors and probably promotes some carmelization. The Saveur recipe uses only cherries as the fruit, but since I'm a big fan of fresh apricots and so I use half cherry, half apricot.

An aside about apricots: They are not the most popular fruit among farmers these days. Last year the SF Chronicle ran a story about farmers ripping up apricot orchards in California: "California still produces 98 percent of all apricots commercially grown in the United States. Most of the crop comes from Stanislaus County, home of the Patterson variety....About 90 percent of California farmers who grew apricots 10 years ago have either yanked their trees or reduced their acreage."

Back to the recipe. The Saveur article claims that the recipe dates from the 1860s. The name derives from the word clafir, which means "to fill" in a regional dialect. The term "fill" doesn't refer to the form of the dessert--nothing is stuffed into anything else--but instead that the dessert is hearty and filling.

Before I present the recipe, a few factoids about apricots from The Oxford Companion to Food:
  • The apricot is thought to have originated in China, with first cultivation by humans around 2000 BCE. The fruit spread west along the Silk Road, reaching Iran, Greece and Rome by the 1st century BCE.
  • The Greeks believed that the fruit originated in Armenia, and that mistake carried into its botanical name of Prunus armeniaca.
  • The name apricot derives from the Latin praecocium, meaning precocious, a reference to the fruit's early ripening.
  • In the "great apricot belt" from Turkey to Turkistan, you can find a dazzling variety of apricots: "white, black, grey, and pink apricots, from pea to peach sized, with flavours equally varied."
  • The route from China to California included the Spanish, who brought the fruit to Mexico after their conquest of the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples. It eventually was brought to the California territory.
  • Apricots have been crossed with plums in various ways to create apriums, pluots, and plumcots, as detailed by Shuna at Bay Area Bites.

Adapted from "Not Cherry Pie," by Corinne Trang, Saveur, May/June 1998

A blender for making the batter (a food processor would probably work fine)
A shallow container is important so that the dessert is cooked through before the crust becomes too dark. A cast iron skillet is the traditional container, but since I don't have one I use a ceramic dish that is 8" x 10" by 2" in dimension.

Butter for the skillet or baking dish
1 T. vanilla extract
6 eggs
6 T. sugar
1 1/4 c. milk
2 T. kirsch or other appropriate liqueur (amaretto, brandy, apricot brandy)
A pinch of salt
3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups pitted cherries
1 1/2 cups pitted fresh apricots
Powdered sugar for dusting

(Unit conversion page)

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F (215 C).
  2. Butter a skillet or baking dish. Optional: sprinkle some sugar onto the butter, which will caramelize during baking.
  3. Cut the fruit into bite-size pieces: cherries in half or quarters, apricots in quarters or eighths.
  4. Put the vanilla extract, eggs, sugar, milk, liqueur, and salt into a blender. Blend for a few seconds. Add the flour and then blend until the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute.
  5. Pour batter into skillet, place fruit into batter. Optional: sprinkle the top with a coarse sugar like Demerara for extra caramelization effects.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean and the top is golden brown.
  7. Sprinkle the top with powdered sugar, if desired.

  • Try this dish with all cherries, another stone fruit (nectarines and peaches might be good), or prunes soaked overnight in Armagnac.
  • A recipe for apple clafouti from Saveur

Random link from the archive: Preserving Summer - The Sin Pot

Technorati tags: Baking : Fruit : Food

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Visit Me at Ethicurean

eth•i•cu•re•an n. (also adj.) Someone who seeks out tasty things that are also sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical — SOLE food, for short.

This announcement is long overdue, and therefore is probably not news to some Mental Masala readers. A few months ago I joined the team at the Ethicurean blog under the nome de blog of Mental Masala. The Ethicurean is "...dedicated to thinking about food. Not just thinking about how to prepare it, or how it tastes — although those things are very important to us — but to pondering where and how it was grown and by whom, the distance that it traveled to our plate, and the less obvious effects of our consuming it."

Mental Masala will continue to be my outlet for home cooking and the usual mix of other topics; Ethicurean is where I will explore issues related to SOLE food and also rant about current news in the food world, especially goings on in Washington, D.C. In case you've been living in a cave and haven't heard about the "Food and Farm Bill," the U.S. Congress is preparing to pass a new Food and Farm Bill this year. It touches nearly all aspects of life in the U.S. (school lunches, food stamps, what farmers grow) and also around the world (e.g., subsidies for U.S. cotton farmers bankrupt African cotton farmer, corn subsidies lead to overproduction in the U.S. and a flooding of the Mexican market). That topic will be occupying much of my time until the bill is signed by the President in the Fall. The Ethicurean Farm Bill category has some background, as does this post I wrote last year at Eat Local Challenge.

Since joining Ethicurean, some have my posts have been an energy comparison of local and imported rice, how organic agriculture research is being shortchanged, funny math on trans fat labels, and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini's visit to San Francisco. My complete list is here.

The Ethicurean is chock full of great writing, revelations of outrageous practices in the food industry, lively debate, and plenty of examples of positive changes in our food system, so check it out sometime (or subscribe to the RSS feed).

Random link from the archive: Dinner at Medicine with Elizabeth Andoh

Technorati tags: Food

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Urban Gardening to Connect People and Cool the City

An article from Reuters reporter Gillian Murdoch entitled Asia's high-rise gardeners unearth key to cooler cities explains how the hobby of gardening is improving lives, building community networks, and also cooling urban areas. The story starts in Singapore, where most the population lives in government-owned apartment complexes. Some have taken up gardening, either on their balcony or in community gardens around their apartment.

The rapid post-sixties rise of the urban tower block saw Asia's low-level landed properties demolished for mass housing projects; and made backyards the domain of the minority who can afford detached homes.

It also created a unique urban gardening culture which is starting to flower as new voices popularize the idea.

Setting himself the goal of "bring gardening to the masses" Singaporean Wilson Wong, 28, started the Green Culture website in September 2004.

With no gardening shows on television and plant nursery staff often puzzled about how to advise apartment gardeners, the forum has attracted hundreds of active high-rise gardeners, keen to swap ideas and plant cuttings.

"I thought I was the only one -- the only odd nut, the only crazy person interested in growing vegetables" said Wong, whose balcony-less flat houses 80 African violets, South American bromeliads and pitcher plants.

"Now people get to know each other. They exchange plants, they meet, they make nursery trips together. It makes gardening so much less painful".


"From the scientific point of view, every plant produces a cooling effect," said Professor Nyuk Hien Wong, of the Department of Building at the National University of Singapore, who designs the green walls.

"The rule of thumb is one degree less is a five percent (energy) saving".

Against this backdrop, Asia's apartment gardeners are taking a small, but important, step in the right direction, he said.

"If you look at it as one individual unit doing that, it may not be that significant. But if everybody is doing it, there may be a very big impact".

The Case of the Purloined Papaya
When I visited Singapore last year, I saw some fruit and vegetable gardens next to apartment blocks such as the one pictured to the right. The sky was exceptionally gray that day because of intentionally set forest fires in Indonesia. The smoke drifts across Southeast Asia, creating gray skies, a smoky aroma, and unhappy lungs.

One of the residents had planted a papaya tree and covered the growing papayas with cloth to protect them (from birds? from insects?). The cloth alone, however, wasn't enough. The grower needed a sign to deter potential purloiners of the prized papaya. The first photo below shows the covered papayas; the second photo shows a closeup of the sign.

The English portion of the sign reads "I appreciate you like the small papaya. Please do not pluck it. You can buy it at the nearby market. Thank you!"

Random link from the archive: Curry Leaves

Technorati tags: Singapore : Gardening : Travel

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Technique for Pressing Tofu

Barbara of Tigers & Strawberries pointed out the importance of pressing tofu in her helpful post about using tofu in stir-fries. Pressing the tofu removes water and leads to firmer and more resilient tofu.

When making tofu squares with miso, I like to press the tofu for a few hours (or just 20 minutes, after a work day) before broiling it in my toaster oven.

For a long time I used the two-part roasting kit that came with my toaster oven. It consists of a lightly perforated upper pan with shallow ridges that fits into a bottom pan. I placed the blocks of tofu on the perforated pan, set a small cutting board on the tofu, applied some weight, and then tipped it slightly. Liquid would be pressed out of the tofu, onto the pan and into the holes. A decent system, to be sure, but the holes were too few and far between.

Recently, I have found an ally in strawberries. Actually, it is the light green berry basket that I use. Although I try to bring empty 32 oz. yogurt containers to the Farmers Market in which to bring home my strawberries (the containers protect the berries during transport and keep them fresh in the refrigerator for days), now and then I forget the containers. One day I realized that these containers would be excellent for tofu pressing.

To use this technique you'll need a berry basket, a small container (like a Rubbermaid sandwich box), a flat plate, and some weight (like a ceramic bowl). First, slice the tofu into slabs of the desired thickness. Place the berry basket in a container with the opening facing down, then set the tofu on the berry container as shown in the photo below.

Put a plate on top and extra weight upon the plate as desired, as shown in the photo below. For some reason (probably surface tension), water tends to form bridges across the holes in the mesh, so the tofu pieces should be turned over a few times during the pressing.

Random link from the archive: From My Rasoi - Winter (December 2005)

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"All right, Mr. Amana, I'm ready for my close-up": refrigerator unedited

(click on the photo to visit an annotated version at Flickr)

Sam of Becks and Posh spontaneously took a picture of her refrigerator and invited others to join in. My refrigerator, in all its unposed chaos, is pictured above. The refrigerator in the photo above is a little less crowded than usual, so the annotation wasn't too complicated.

Some highlights: three kinds of miso (red, barley and white); homemade soy-sauce concentrate and ponzu sauce (the concentrate + lemon zest + dashi) from the Washoku cookbook; delicious strawberries from Lucero Farm (I eat them 3-4 times a day); a new way for me to use zucchini (the fritter recipe in Chez Panisse Vegetables); superb yogurt from Straus Family Farms in Marin County (local, organic, and thin).

Fortunately Sam didn't request the door (where there are at least 50 little bottles and jars, probably enough to cause Flickr's note tool to crash) or the freezer (where I can't identify a significant fraction of the items).

The title of the post is a reference to the final scene in Sunset Blvd. It doesn't fit perfectly with the idea of the unedited, unposed refrigerator, but I like it anyway.

Random link from the archive: Two Vegetarian Restaurants in Tokyo

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Joys of Spring Dancing on Snow

The vegetables of Spring have shaken me up and caused some unusual behavior. For my big weekend cooking night, I actually cooked the same main course two weeks in a row. That's virtually unheard of in my kitchen. But it was so good and so seasonal that I could not resist.

The dish poetically described above is essentially a bed of rice with a vegetable topping. It combines Spring's best flavors--asparagus, sugar snap peas, fava beans--with the richness of soft goat cheese and heartiness of rice. A bit of lemon zest in the rice adds some bright contrast.

Soon after I made the first batch and long before I started writing the post, Tea (of Tea & Cookies) wrote about a similar dish in a beautiful and useful post about hana-mi, the Japanese tradition of flower viewing. Her post has a recipe for chirashi-zushi, a traditional Japanese dish in which seafood and vegetables are scattered across a surface of seasoned rice. Since my recipe is somewhat similar, I've taken the term chirashi-zushi for this treatment.

I used a pilaf/risotto method for the rice to infuse it with flavor and keep the grains separated during cooking. This method involves sauteing aromatics (onion or leek, perhaps some herbs) until soft, adding the dry rice, stirring for a minute so that the grains are lightly covered with oil, and then adding the water. The first time I used an Italian long-grain rice and cooked it without a cover. The second time I was trying to stay local and so I used a California short-grain white rice. The long-grain rice provided a better, less gummy, result.

The scattered sushi concept can be adapted to provide deliciousness throughout the year. In the summer, the rice could be infused with some rosemary and basil, then topped with pieces of tomato, roasted eggplant, and other summer vegetables, with dollaps of ricotta cheese on top. In winter, perhaps a sage-infused rice with pieces of roasted squash, roasted carrot and a hearty cheese.

California-style Spring Chirashi-Zushi
"The joys of spring dancing on snow"

1 1/2 cups rice
1-2 small leeks, minced
1 cup asparagus, cut on the diagonal in 1" lengths
1 cup snow peas or sugar snap peas, cut in half
1 cup carrot sticks
1 cup fava beans, removed from their shells and skins (i.e., 20-30 fava bean pods)
1 T. lemon zest
Soft goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish with chopped chives

The first two groups of tasks can be performed more or less simultaneously.

Blanch the vegetables
Set a medium-sized pot of salted water over high heat.

Fill a small bowls and a large bowl with ice water (they will be used to cool the vegetables).

When the water comes to a boil, cook the vegetables by type so as to obtain the ideal doneness. For example, I dropped carrot sticks into the water, let them cook for one minute, added the asparagus and sugar snap peas and waited another minute, then scooped the vegetables into the large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. The fava beans were already cooked as part of their two-step shelling procedure.

Cook the rice
Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. When the oil is not, add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally until they are soft. Add the rice. Stir for a minute or so to coat the grains of rice with oil. Pour in 3 cups of water and some salt. Stir a few times, then cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Cook until the rice is done.

Assemble the dish
When the rice is done, carefully fold in the lemon zest.

There are two ways of assembling the dish. The first is to mix the cooked vegetables into the rice just before serving. The second is more in line with the idea of "scattered sushi," in which the cooked vegetables are reheated and then scattered on top of a bed of rice.

Serve topped with a few small spoonfuls of goat cheese and extra salt and pepper if needed.

  • Green garlic might be a good addition to the sauteeing leeks.

  • Other spring vegetables could work: shelled English peas, snow peas, spinach

  • Meyer lemon zest would be divine instead of regular lemon zest

  • The vegetables could be cooked in the rice pot by putting them on top of the rice at the right time to ensure proper cooking.

Random link from the archive: Tropical Triangles - Coconut Sticky Rice and Mango

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Friday, May 04, 2007

A long way from American ideals

A brief detour from my normal subject matter...

A year ago, the public radio program This American Life broadcast an extraordinary episode about the Guantanamo prison camp and the writ of habeas corpus. I listened to it via a podcast soon after the broadcast and was stunned by what I heard.

Recently, the episode -- called Habeas Schmabeas -- won the prestigious Peabody award. In light of this event, the This American Life staff updated the episode and rebroadcast it in late April. For a limited time you can download an MP3 version of the program at the This American Life website. After the MP3 offer has expired, it will be available for streaming. Here's part of the blurb for the show:
The right of habeas corpus has been a part of our country's legal tradition longer than we've actually been a country. It means that our government has to explain why it's holding a person in custody. But now, the War on Terror has nixed many of the rules we used to think of as fundamental. At Guantanamo Bay, our government initially claimed that prisoners should not be covered by habeas—or even by the Geneva Conventions—because they're the most fearsome enemies we have. But is that true? Is it a camp full of terrorists, or a camp full of our mistakes?

Disturbing, but highly recommended.