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Posts Tagged ‘plums’

Grain of Salt: May the Odds Be Ever in your Flavor

I apologize if this post comes out a little incoherent, but if it does, you can blame it on Suzanne Collins and how I haven’t been sleeping. On the suggestion of absolutely everyone, I finally started reading the Hunger Games books a few weeks ago and several sleepless nights later I had finished the first one. And when I finished and began deeply reflecting, I realized that Suzanne’s ultimate goal must have been to make her readers hungry. I was hungry for more book, because my sister was harboring the other two in Connecticut, I was hungry for a visual, since the movie had not yet come out, and most of all, I was hungry for the Lamb Stew with Dried Plums that Katniss waves in our faces at least ten times over the course of the book. The Capitol (bad guys) may be the epitome of evil, but it would appear they really know how to eat.

 

why the ball jars you ask? i wish i could tell you, but then i'd have to kill you.

 

I would know, because I’ve had that stew, or at least my mom’s perfect rendition, a million times before. It’s my family’s resident Jewish Holiday Meal – we make it every Passover and Rosh Hashannah and then some. There’s a reason that, even when she has chance, Katniss consistently picks this – if the Capitol version is anything like mom’s, it doesn’t pay to be creative. You just can’t do better. My craving was sadly unappeased by the otherwise excellent movie, which ignored the culinary scene altogether. So when I called home last Wednesday to plan my upcoming weekend in Connecticut, I could only think of the one thing vital to my survival.* With three extremely important holidays (Easter, Passover, My Birthday) to observe in three extremely short days, I was terrified that maybe we’d had to abandon our tradition in favor of simpler options. So when mom affirmed that we were, indeed, having Lamb Stew for Friday night dinner all I wanted to do was sing it to the world. “Ah ha!” I thought. “The movie is still relatively new and buzzworthy… I’m going to capitalize on this to the max.” And so, dear readers, I would like to ask that you get very excited right about now, because I am about to change your life forever. This stew, which actually hails from somewhere in North Africa, is succulent, savory and satisfying. The sweet tartness of the plums make it perfect for autumn, the substantialness of it makes it amazing in winter, and the tenderness of the lamb makes it sing all the way through late Spring. It is great for any day, though we like to save this one for Holidays, since it’s perfect for Easter, for Passover and, of course, for any extremely important birthday. I certainly ate some of it every day this weekend. And the recipe is below, right before your very eyes!

 

Consider our gift to you, for whatever holiday (or lack thereof) you celebrated last weekend. If you’re Christian I hope the Easter Bunny brought you as much chocolate as he brought Francesca, if you’re Jewish I hope you remember that butter and honey make Matzah palatable, if you’re a half-and-half like me, I hope you’re a bit less confused than I am, and whoever you are I hope you celebrated my birthday in style. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

 

 

*I would not last long in the Hunger Games

Sweet Dreams: Explosive Plum Cakes

One of the hardest things, but perhaps the most exciting, about living in an apartment rather than a dorm or at home, is having to deal with all the stuff there is to figure out. Last year, if I wanted cake, I went down to the dining hall and picked some up. At home, if I want cake, I know everything I need to bake one is in the kitchen… somewhere. But here, as well as we try to plan things, there is always the chance that, for example we’ll only having baking powder and we’ll be halfway through a recipe that calls for baking soda.

But, as everyone knows (or ought to) these situations are great for testing our creativity, or else for leading us to super awesome mishaps. Our pantry is now mostly stocked, but two weeks ago, we were very much still trying to find our way. So when Theresa, my extremely talented baker friend, was baking plum cakes soon after we arrived, we did in fact realize that we’d forgotten to buy baking soda. We may live in an extremely safe neighborhood, but we’re still 6 nineteen-year-old girls in a big city, so it’s far too easy to pull the “I’ll get murdered if I leave the house now!” card when we need an ingredient past midnight and we’re just too lazy to leave the house. Anyway, I had just read an article in Fine Cooking about the relationship between baking powder and baking soda, and as far as I could remember, baking powder needed liquid to be activated. Sure there was some sort of volume difference, and the two were definitely not substitutes for each other, but ‘Whatever,’ I thought, ‘there’s liquid in this batter, we’ll make do with what we have.’

Half way through baking, Theresa calls me over, and shows me the most beautiful blobs of misshapen explosiveness I’ve ever seen. And now I am proud to say that between her baking expertise and my utter cluelessness, we have invented Explosive Plum Cakes. October is a great plum month, so now’s the time to make them. They’re light, airy, moist, fruity and fantastic. And they’re not too sweet… but not too healthy either ;) Let us know if yours come out like ours, or if you have even more exciting mishaps.

And as always, sweet dreams!

Fall at its Finest

I love autumn for so many reasons – the soft lighting, the crisp air, and the beautiful foliage – but somehow things always come back to food for us. Even when I was a little girl, great food superseded all other experiences. Sure, I was excited to go back to school and for Halloween, but what I really loved were the comfort foods my mother made in the fall. She used to make these wonderful Austrian plum dumplings called Zwetschgenknoedel. These cozy and rich Austrian potato dumplings are filled with Italian plums and have just enough sugar and cinnamon to be called dessert.

When I went to college, I had Zwetschgenknoedel withdrawal every fall, and for years afterward I would beg my mother for the recipe. Like so many great cooks of her generation, she said there was no recipe and she would add a little of this and that each time. But in recent years, Gabrielle and Isabella got so tired of hearing about these special dumplings they begged their Oma to try to write it down. Fortunately, it was much easier to do than she predicted. They’re actually quite easy to make, and they’re spectacularly delicious.

Most Americans have never had these delectable dumplings before. I’ve never seen them on a menu or sold anywhere. In Germany and Austria, they are as common as apple pie and it’s easy to see why. There is nothing better than one or two of these dumplings with a cup of tea after a light lunch or dinner. Help me spread the word and share this link with all of your foodie friends. I assure you, they will be grateful.

Zwetschgenknoedel (Plum Dumplings)

2 Russet potatoes
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons butter
Pinch of Salt
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
About 12 Italian Plums (sometimes called prunes) or damson plums
¾ cup sugar1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup bread crumbs

1. Boil 2 russet potatoes until soft (at least ½ hour).
2. Peel off skin and add 1/3 stick butter sliced. Mash potatoes and butter until smooth.
3. Add a dash of salt and mix again. Let cool.
4. Melt 1/2 cup butter in a 12 inch saucepan.
5. Add sugar, cinnamon, and bread crumbs and heat until breadcrumbs are slightly browned. Set aside and cool.
6. Mix one whole egg and one yolk into the potatoes, along with one cup of flour.
7. Mix well and knead until dough is smooth (you may need a little more flour).
8. Shape the dough into a 4 inch by 6 inch rectangle
9. Wash and dry plums
10. Cut approximately 1/2 inch of dough (depending on the size of the plums) and flatten into round shape in the palm of your hand (dough should be about an 1/8 of an inch thick when flattened out).
11. Wrap dough around the plum, making sure to cover it completely.
12. Repeat until all the plums are wrapped.
13. Fill a 6 quart pot two-thirds of the way with lightly salted water.
14. Place the dumplings  gently in the water and let come to a boil again.
15. Reduce to a simmer and cook until you can see the juice “bleeding” inside the dumplings.
16. Remove with a slotted spoon and roll into the bread crumb mixture.
17. Let cool 15 minutes and serve.

 

 

Lazy Days in Chestertown

 

We are still in the middle of cornfields, which, oddly, I love. My husband, Mark, and I always describe ourselves as the Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert pair from the 1960s oldie-but-goodie television show, “Green Acres” (remember that?). For those of you too young to know this gem, Oliver opens with:

Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin’ is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

To which his wife, Lisa, responds:

New York is where I’d rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hay.
I just adore a penthouse view.
Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue….

These lyrics sum up our differences on urban life, but when I’m in Chestertown on the Eastern shore of Maryland and we make a right on to Route 290 and head into the cornfields, this feeling of complete relaxation comes over me. I also somehow stop worrying about things like whether we’ll have a leaky roof when we get home, or whether I forgot to pay the gas bill (which, come to think of it, I probably did!).

 

Part of the joy of coming here is staying with our favorite American innkeepers. We love Tracy and Jim Stone of The Inn at Mitchell House in nearby Tolchester. Their house is immaculate but has that wonderful old house smell.

Tracy makes the most scrumptious and hearty country breakfasts, such as homemade waffles with local blueberries and thick French toast with strawberries and perfectly crisp bacon. They are truly living an envious country life, with a balance of wit and hard work.  I often wish I could be Tracy mowing all 12 acres singlehandedly, or Jim who enjoys fixing the tree swing for the millionth time after working all day as captain of a skipjack at the Echo Hill Outdoor School in nearby Worton.

We love going to the Dixon Furniture auction in Crumpton on Wednesdays, eating delicious crab dishes, playing croquet, and buying trinkets at Twigs and Teacups in town. But I what I really like the most about Maryland’s Eastern Shore is that I don’t feel like I have to do anything and that clears my head to do some of the things I love, like looking through my favorite magazines. We have piles of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit and Saveur on – I hate to admit it – the staircase leading to the second floor at home. I sometimes clear the deck for company and they get shoved in a lonely pile in the attic. I feel defeated every time I see them; the only time I can justify this kind of pure joy is here in Chestertown.

 

I also started a new indulgence when I opened the Fig Cooking School – Cookbooks.  I love taking brightly colored stickies and marking pages of recipe inspirations for classes. The girls always run to get a glimpse of a newly acquired cookbook before it gets “mom-afied” – the point in a book’s life where it has so many post-its, the page perimeters looks like they’ve grown feathers. Over the course of the week, Mitchell House becomes my Mom-ification workshop.

The girls and Mark are ready to be picked up from kayaking. I’m sure they’re feeling baked from the sun and ready for lunch at the Fish Whistle, a great local place that overlooks the Chesapeake Bay. I’ll be back soon… In the meantime, enjoy these end-of-summer images from our trip.

 

 

 

 

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