Summer’s Last Bounty

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Come September, some people love the thought that winter is on its way and look forward to the onset of fuzzy socks, glowing fireplaces, snow sports and rib-sticking stews. For me, however, September always brings ineffable pangs of sadness. The light grows weaker, the winds grow colder, and everything green starts to look pale and exhausted; summer still officially reigns but winter is beating down the door. Although having a marine climate means we don’t face the fierce cold of many places, our excruciatingly short days and ceaseless rain and wind make winter a similarly unpleasant prospect. What brings me even more despair is the knowledge that my beautiful, seasonal bounty of fruits and vegetables is nearly finished; soon, anything fresh in the markets will inevitably be arriving from some far-off hemisphere where they grow things without taste. Although I appreciate that the seasons must change in order for summer’s offerings to be so glorious, honestly, if I had my way the skies would be blue and the trees laden with fruit year round. Unfortunately for me, that’s never going to happen; luckily for me, before summer departs entirely I still have a bumper crop of figs to enjoy.

When I was a kid I ate figs only in Fig Newtons, which for those of you who didn’t grow up in the States, is kind of like having your first encounter with oranges through Jaffa Cakes. I can’t even remember when I tasted a fresh fig the first time, but chances are I didn’t even realize I was dealing with the same fruit. Real figs are one of nature’s truly stunning creations – I have heard people gasp in amazement upon seeing figs cut open for the first time, such is their mesmerizing beauty. The contrast between the dark indigo or the light green of the exterior and the vibrant purpley red of the interior is like witnessing impressionist art in the making, and the taste – something like a cross between honey and raisins and sherry and plums – is just as exquisitely breathtaking. Figs have been impressing people for a good while, too, revered as symbols of abundance, knowledge and fertility by ancient cultures across the Mediterranean and Middle East. The Romans were convinced they carried medicinal qualities, while the ancient Greeks accorded them such value that their export was forbidden. Today they are still considered one of the most sensual and aphrodisiacal of all foods.

What I love most about figs, however, is their versatility. Figs, with their deep exotic flavor and meaty texture can go as equally well with sweet as they can with savory, and no matter what the context create dishes of astonishing beauty and refinement. You can do something as simple as roasting them with honey and serving them with yogurt, or you can pair them with meats, vegetables and wine and watch them stand up for themselves just as well. With the arrival of the season’s first affordable figs from Turkey, I decided to tackle a dish I had bookmarked long ago in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and which I was reminded of recently when I ran across this article about it in the NY Times (you can even watch Judy Rodgers prepare it in the accompanying video). Meaty, succulent chicken legs are braised with figs, onions, honey, and vinegar – a simple combination, but one that is utterly, utterly delicious.

This is beautiful, assaulting-all-your-senses food. With things like this on your plate it’s easy to forget that this time of the year should bring with it anything but delight.

 
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The Zuni Cafe’s Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey and Vinegar

Source: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
Yield: Serves 4
Notes: When choosing ripe figs, go for feel over appearance – they might be wrinkled and blemished, but if they are heavy and soft they will probably be perfect. Also, feel free to experiment with the quantities of vinegar and honey in the sauce – after putting in the specified amounts I felt it was still a bit too subtle, so I upped the amounts of both and loved the result. I used an apple balsamic vinegar in the sauce and thought it was delicious, and I think a normal balsamic would work wonderfully as well.

4 free-range chicken legs (thigh plus drumstick)
salt
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into eight wedges
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons dry white vermouth
about 1/2 cup strong chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
a few crushed black peppercorns
about 2 tablespoons cider vinegar (I used apple balsamic)
about 1 tablespoon honey (I used a bit more)
8 to 10 ripe fresh figs – any kind you like

Wash and dry the chicken legs. Season evenly all over with salt (using about 3/4 teaspoon per pound) and refrigerate covered until ready to use (for best results do this step 12 to 24 hours in advance).

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Pat the legs dry. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, then add the legs skin-side down. The oil should sizzle, not pop explosively. Cook until the skin is golden brown and crispy, not moving the chicken, for 8-10 minutes. Turn the legs over and color only slightly on the other side, about 4 minutes. Pour off the fat.

Transfer the chicken skin-side up to a shallow flameproof roasting/braising dish (or leave in the skillet if it is ovenproof), arrange the onion wedges in the spaces between the legs. Add the wine, vermouth and enough stock to come up to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Bring to a simmer on the stove and add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black pepper.

Place uncovered in the oven and cook until the meat is completely tender but not falling off the bone, about 40 minutes. The exposed skin will have turned golden and crispy; the liquid ought to have reduced by half. Remove from the oven and set on a slight tilt so the fat will collect on one side of the pan. Spoon off as much as you can.

Set the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and swirl as you reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. Distribute the figs evenly among the chicken and onions, add the vinegar and honey, and swirl again to avoid smashing the tender fruit. Continue boiling until the sauce is syrupy and glossy; its taste should be rich and vibrantly sweet and sour. Add more salt, honey or vinegar to taste.

Serve each chicken leg with 2 wedges of onion and 4 or 5 fig halves, bathed in a few spoonfuls of sauce. This is good with a chewy bread to soak up the delicious sauce.

 

New Orleans

We’ve all been watching the news for a week. We’ve witnessed the disaster, the destruction, the desperation and chaos; we’ve felt sympathy, horror and revulsion. One week ago today Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast – nobody imagined it would be this bad, but at the same time everybody knew it very well could be.

The news of the sheer scale of the destruction hit me like a ton of bricks, surprising me with the powerful mix of conflicting emotions that it brought to the surface. While I sat glued to the television watching the first reports of the crisis, I couldn’t help but project myself backwards in time to analyze my own reactions when a very similar crisis threatened. Just about exactly seven years ago an identical scenario was on the brink of playing itself out: a major hurricane was threatening the Gulf Coast, its projected path was taking it right over New Orleans, and voices from every corner were warning about the potential catastrophic damage a powerful storm surge would cause. The only difference was that I was living there, and like many other residents, I didn’t take the warnings too seriously. I was a poor student at the time, far away from any family and lacking transportation and money to put myself up in a hotel somewhere, so I hunkered down and decided to ride it out. My housemates were staying too, and between us we came up with many rationalizations as to why it wasn’t necessary to evacuate: the city had been through hurricanes before, our house was old and sturdy and likewise had survived previous storms, if it was really necessary for everyone to evacuate they would have made sure we all had a way out… My housemates and I boarded up the windows and bought some canned food (enough cold beans and clam chowder for about three days) and filled the bathtub with water. Then we just sat and waited. The power went out as the winds picked up, we went to bed with candles and our mattresses pushed as far from the windows as possible, and hoped we would be able to sleep when the storm hit in the dead of night. But it never did – we all woke up to sunny skies, the hurricane having made a last-minute turn eastward and hitting the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama instead. We breathed a sigh of relief, patted ourselves on the back for having decided to stick it out, and went back to our normal lives. I berate myself now for having been so foolish to stay, but we, like the tens of thousands of lower-income people in the city, didn’t really have another option, and anyway we assumed the city would have relief on hand should we need it. Luckily we didn’t have the chance to find out if that was true. Unfortunately this time people weren’t so lucky.

The aftermath of the hurricane that finally hit has in many ways been worse than even the most dire forecasts. The meteorologists and engineers could concoct as many scenarios as they liked about water levels rising, levees breaking and whole neighborhoods drowning. What they couldn’t predict was the human element: the lawlessness and anarchy, the misery and desperation, the complete lack of coordination and the snail’s pace of relief that has undoubtedly caused far more trauma and death than there need have been. The worse the reports get, the more difficulty I have swallowing them. I try to picture the streets I know so well, leafy boulevards lined with stately homes and neighborhoods of aging shotgun houses that always had someone friendly sitting on the porch, and I absolutely can’t imagine what they look like today. What does my own former street look like half-submerged in fetid water, the sounds of gunshots piercing the background as armed gangs run unbridled through the streets, looting and terrorizing? What do downtown and the French Quarter look like ransacked and empty, like some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare? I absolutely can’t imagine it, nor can I imagine what a living hell it must have been for those who were there, whether they stayed home or sought shelter in places like the woefully underequipped Superdome. No one should have had to endure these things even if they did choose to stay – and it was only the luck of the draw that this was the storm for which all the worst-case scenarios came true.

Now that the cleanup and damage assessment has begun, the thing that I find the most distressing are the speculations from various sources that New Orleans might not survive this disaster – that the South’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan city should be abandoned and forgotten instead of rebuilt. I know how difficult restoring the city will be, but I simply cannot accept that this might be allowed to happen. Despite the precarious environmental situation that surrounds it, and despite the often difficult conditions locals have to endure to live there, New Orleans is a city that is so fiercely loved by residents and visitors alike, and has so much to offer in terms of ideas, culture and cuisine that it deserves the right to be rebuilt – whatever the cost. Of course careful planning must go into its reconstruction, and comprehensive plans must be made for evacuating and responding to future hurricanes (the lack of which strongly contributed to the human tragedy of this one), but there’s no reason that shouldn’t be possible. After all, generations more people deserve to have the experience of sitting on an Uptown balcony in the soft humid night air surrounded by the sweet scent of night-blooming jasmine; they deserve to be able to catch Mardi Gras beads and have crawfish boils and spend lazy spring days listening to world-class music at Jazzfest. And certainly the phenomenal cuisine – many say the country’s best – that has been refined over centuries by the many cultures to inhabit New Orleans, deserves the right to continue thriving on its native soil.

So while we donate and pray that people find their loved ones and manage to pull their lives back together, I’ll leave you with a recipe reminder of just how sweet and delicious life can be in New Orleans. For those of you who have been there or live there, hopefully it will bring back a memory or two of wonderful meals and happier times. And for all of you who have never been to the Big Easy, consider it a preview of all the amazing things you will taste when one day you make it to this magnificent city.

If you haven’t already, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross or America’s Second Harvest. You can see a tally of all the funds raised by bloggers over this past weekend as part of the Blog for Relief Weekend by clicking here. Also, don’t forget to prepare yourself for a potential disaster, as Louisa wisely reminds us.

Bananas Foster
Source: inspired by Emeril’s recipe here (The original Bananas Foster comes from Brennan’s Restaurant)
Serves: 4 

4 tablespoons butter (unsalted is traditional, I like salted)
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 cup banana liqueur (such as crème de banane)
4 ripe bananas, cut lengthwise into quarters
1/2 cup dark rum
1 pint premium vanilla ice cream 

Heat a frying pan over m
edium heat. Add the butter, and when it melts completely stir in the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Let it cook for a moment, then stir in the banana liqueur. Add the bananas in a single layer, shaking the pan so that they’re basted with the sauce. Stir in the rum and very carefully (keeping your face, clothing and cupboards at a safe distance) ignite with a match. When the flames die down continue shaking the pan until the sauce has reduced to a thick glaze and the bananas are soft. Remove from the heat and serve on top of vanilla ice cream.

 

The Well-Salted Tart

 

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Chocolate and Salted Caramel Tart

 

If you thought that the deepest and most irreconcilable divide among cooks around the world exists between those who use butter and those who use olive oil, or maybe those who bathe their barbecue in sauce and those who use a dry rub, or perhaps even those who eat salad before the main course and those who eat it after, you’re wrong. In fact, the biggest culinary divide is far more fundamental. In fact it’s so fundamental that many of you reading this may have never even noticed there is a divide. Basically, it all comes down to this: do you like salt in your desserts, or don’t you?

Growing up in the US, which tends to be rather salt-heavy in its sweet things (just try to find recipes for brownies, chocolate chip cookies or pecan pie that don’t call for salt), I’ve always taken for granted that desserts of all kinds benefit from a pinch of salt. A pinch of salt in ice cream, a pinch of salt in custards, and a big pinch in cakes, cookies, and crusts; a small amount seems to deepen and round out flavors without making them actually taste of salt. Of course there are desserts that everyone agrees shouldn’t have salt, mostly fruit-based desserts that rely on the delicate interplay between sweet and sour for their appeal, but anytime things like cream, chocolate, nuts or caramel are concerned, I reach for the salt even without thinking. It was when I found myself altering nearly every non-American recipe I came across to include that crucial pinch of salt that I started realizing not everyone sees dessert through a curtain of savory undertones, and I began to think about where my persistent preference for slightly salty sweets comes from.

What it really boils down to, I realized, is simple cultural conditioning. In many European countries, particularly France, Germany, Italy and the UK, people are accustomed to nothing interfering with the pure, sweet taste of sugar. Many cakes, custards, and pastries are made without any added salt at all, and can take some getting used to for us saltophiles. I’ve heard many Americans complain that they just don’t like European-style cakes and confections that much; to incite normally rational people to make such sweeping generalizations about the combined sugary output of an entire continent, I’m guessing it must be the influence of the insidious salt divide at work. Looking further afield, however, you realize it’s not just the Europeans who eschew salt in their sweets. Just about everybody from the shores of North Africa through the deserts of the Middle East and beyond would never dream of salting their sugary creations. And apparently, for people unaccustomed to salt in their sweets, the flavor can be just as jarring as a lack of salt is for me. I deeply offended a Middle Eastern friend of mine once by altering a semolina cake recipe he had given me to include my customary pinch of salt. He very nearly couldn’t eat the results, shaking his head and muttering that it tasted nothing like it should. Likewise, I’ll never forget the near-collapse my dessert ego suffered the day Manuel confessed to me that his mother, an accomplished cook herself, had complained about a sugary confection I had made for her in Germany. "Why does she make her desserts so salty?" she asked him. This was highly disconcerting indeed, that something I believed to be so delicious could be perceived so differently by other people. And naturally the fact that sweet things represent the category of food we hold most dear in terms of comfort and memory doesn’t help to bridge that gap – everybody thinks their way is the right way. To this day I still worry before serving a non-American something sweet I have made (unless of course they’re Norwegian, in which case I worry I haven’t made it salty enough!).

But thankfully tastes are fluid, and the tides may be turning in my favor. Salt is actually appearing as a flavor in its own right on sophisticated European dessert menus, though naturally under more glamorous noms de plume than just ‘salt’, and there seems to be one guise it’s showing up in more than any other. My informants tell me that caramel au beurre salé (which for those of you who studied Spanish in high school, means caramel with salted butter) is one of the hottest phrases in Parisian dessert circles right now, and the mere mention of it in everything from macarons to glace guarantees a best-seller. Obviously to Europeans this salty-sweet sauce is quite a revelation, which does make me wonder what else they might like if only given the chance. Though it’s clearly still too early to say whether this love affair with salted caramel is indicative of a comprehensive change in dessert mentality, it is, from my perspective, a most welcome beginning.

And what about you? If you’re unsure where you stand on the salt issue, just conduct a little experiment. Make this luscious salted caramel tart from the famed Parisian chocolate house La Maison du Chocolat, and see how many pieces you go back for. I’m not promising that I’ll win you over to my way of thinking (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I did), but at least you’ll know for yourself which side of the salted-dessert divide you fall on. In the meantime, you’ll find me here trying to retrain my tastebuds to appreciate all those desserts with less salt, you know, just to be fair.

Which I’ll get back to after just one more slice of tart.

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Tart
Serves: 12
Notes: I discovered that rock salts vary considerably in their ‘saltiness’, so to avoid over-salting the caramel mixture I recommend starting with the smaller amount and adding more only after tasting. Also, I tested the recipe with whipping cream (as opposed to double cream) since many people do not have access to the latter and discovered that it results in a slightly more liquid caramel (which you can see oozing out the sides of the tart in the above photo!). If you don’t have access to double cream (a very thick cream with 48% butterfat) and want your caramel more solid, I would recommend reducing the cream by maybe 3 tablespoons and substituting it with a couple tablespoons of additional butter.

For the crust:
2 3/4 cups/350g all-purpose flour
1/2 cup/75g powdered sugar, unsifted
1 stick/125g unsalted butter, cold
pinch salt
2 eggs

For the caramel:
3 tablespoons/50g glucose or corn syrup
1 1/2 cups/275g superfine/caster sugar
2/3 cup/150ml double or heavy cream
3/4 – 1 teaspoon (level) rock salt or coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons/25g unsalted butter, diced 

For the ganache:
1 1/2 cups/350ml double or heavy cream
4 tablespoons honey (I used a little more)
10 oz/300g bitt
ersweet chocolate, chopped
1 stick/125g unsalted butter, diced 

For the crust, sift together the flour, powdered sugar and salt and cut the butter into chunks. Place in a food processor and process, adding the eggs at the end, until a dough has formed. Roll out the dough into a circle and fit into an 11-inch (29cm) removable bottom tart pan. Chill for at least half an hour. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Blind-bake the crust by lining it with baking parchment, filling it with baking beans and baking for about 15-20 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and continue to cook the case for a further 10 minutes or until it is a light golden color. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.  

To make the caramel, pour the glucose syrup into a large saucepan and bring it to a boil. Gradually add the sugar, stir and continue to cook until the sugar has started to caramelize and turn golden brown. At the same time, in a separate saucepan, bring the cream and salt to a boil. Remove the caramel from the heat and very carefully add the cream – be careful as the mixture can rise rapidly in the pan. Stir carefully over a low heat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Remove from the heat, add the diced butter, and stir again until smooth. Pour into the cooled crust and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

To make the ganache, bring the cream and honey just to a boil and pour over the chopped chocolate. Let it sit for a minute or two then stir until everything is smooth. Add more honey if it is too bitter. Once the mixture has cooled a little add the butter and stir gently until the mixture is smooth. Pour in an even layer on top of the cooled caramel, return to the refrigerator, and chill for 4-6 hours before eating.