The Fat of the Land

Month: June, 2015

Apricot Jam

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Though I grew up eating it, I never thought much of jam. Unaware that there was anything else, most of the jam I’d eaten until I was seventeen was the store-bought variety—overly jelled, painfully sweet—and I stuck almost exclusively to raspberry, on toast or a peanut butter sandwich. The summer before my senior year of high school, my parents took me to Europe. Our first stop was Paris, a city of which I was instantly enamored and where I first fell in love with jam.

The store was Fauchon, a luxury grocer whose shelves were lined with finely crafted sundries. We had come for the tea (my mom was a tea fanatic and had read about their legendary selection), but as I wandered the sparklingly exotic aisles, I found myself in front of a wall of jam jars displayed like fine crystal. A rainbow of jewel-tones, their labels read off flavors I’d never dreamed of: strawberry with rose petals, raspberry and litchi, bergamot marmalade, apricot and vanilla bean.

My mom found the jam, too, and picked up a number of jars to take home. I chose apricot and vanilla bean for our hotel breakfasts and picnics in the park. When trying a jam for the first time, you could do worse than to spread it on a Parisian croissant, as we did with that apricot jam. The texture was plump and saucy, not stiff as I was used to, and it dribbled into the folds of my croissant like honey. It tasted of sunshine, the sort that radiates from a field turned late-summer gold, vanilla’s woody nectar giving legs to the fruit’s buoyant acidity, all of which faded into honeysuckle sweetness that lingered in my mouth with the aroma of warmth and hay.

Each of the Fauchon jams we tasted were this way, like a story in a bottle whose prose we savored until we’d scraped every last bit from the side of the jar. I make my own jams now, but I had never come close to a Fauchon jam until this one. As I stirred its bubbling sauce for the first time, I found the fragrance vaguely familiar; and when I tasted a spoonful, I knew why. I was there again, sitting on the fire-escape balcony of a tiny Parisian hotel, experiencing a world outside of my own for the first time, bombarded by its sounds and smells and strangeness, completely mesmerized by its jam.

Apricot and Vanilla-Bean Preserves

From Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff

Makes about 5 Half-Pint Jars

3 pounds ripe apricots, halved and pitted (no need to peel)

½ cup rosé or white wine, or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1½ cups sugar

2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise

  • Prepare for water-bath canning*: Sterilize the jars and keep them hot in the canning pot, put a small plate in the freezer, and put the flat lids in a heat-proof bowl.
  • Cut the apricots into ¼-inch slices. Put the apricots, wine, sugar, and vanilla beans in a wide, 6- to 8-quart pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, then continue to cook until the juices are just deep enough to cover the apricots, about 5 minutes.
  • Pour the mixture into a colander set over a large bowl and stir the apricots gently to drain off the juices. Return the liquid to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring occasionally, until the syrup is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Return the apricots and vanilla beans and any accumulated juices to the pan and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring frequently, until a small dab of the jam spooned onto the chilled plate and returned to the freezer for a minute becomes somewhat firm (it will not gel), 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and gently stir for a few seconds to distribute the fruit in the liquid.
  • Ladle boiling water from the canning pot into the bowl with the lids. Using a jar lifter, remove the sterilized jars from the canning pot, carefully pouring the water from each one back into the pot, and place them upright on a folded towel. Drain the water off the jar lids.
  • Remove the vanilla-bean pods and ladle the hot jam into the jars, leaving a ¼-inch headspace at the top. Slide a piece of vanilla-bean pod into each jar so that it’s visible from the outside. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the rims of the jars, then put a flat lid and ring on each jar, adjusting the ring so that it’s just finger-tight. Return the jars to the water in the canning pot, making sure the water covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes to process. Remove the jars to a folded towel and do not disturb for 12 hours. After 1 hour, check that the lids have sealed by pressing down on the center of each; if it can be pushed down, it hasn’t sealed, and the jar should be refrigerated immediately.

* This recipe may also be bottled without water-bath canning for storage in the refrigerator (it will keep for about 4 weeks) or freezer (it will keep for a year).

Simple Food

grilled Romaine

Yesterday I spent three hours making beet burger mix. The said mix currently waits in my refrigerator for a busy evening when it will feel deliciously effortless to throw a couple patties in the hot skillet and sit down to a satisfying meal minutes later. What I know at this point is that those six patties took an average of thirty laborious minutes each: simmering the dry beans, cooking the brown rice just so, roasting then peeling then shredding then squeezing the beets, pulverizing oats to a fine flour, caramelizing then deglazing onions, processing some but not all of the beans, mixing the lot together in a bowl where it must sit (must!) for at least twenty-four hours before its burger magic can be activated. And although they come with many glowing recommendations, I don’t yet know how they’ll taste.

It was about the time that my hand was stained past my wrist in crimson beet juice, as I worked to release as much moisture as the recipe implored, that I had the thought of a simple hamburger (I am not vegetarian, though I do have a fanatical love of beets). My mind conjured the beefy kind of burger that has only salt and pepper mixed into its ground, maybe a few snippets of chives, then onto the grill it goes, onto the grilled buttered bun a few minutes later, a squeeze of mustard and a smear of mayonnaise, maybe a slice of tomato or onion, though all I really must have on my burger is pickles and a crisp lettuce leaf. How much better than that, I thought, could these beet burgers be?

It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. For a vegetarian who likes beets, the appeal is obvious. For those who enjoy a grilled patty of ground beef, three hours of work to create an approximation, even for a beet lover, does seem to beg the question: why bother? Why not throw a few slices of lightly oiled and salted, market-fresh beets onto the grill, let their sugars caramelize in the smoky heat, and call it a night?

Without a doubt, I love elaborate cooking. I do not flinch at a recipe, such as my sister and I tackled last Thanksgiving, that requires many hours of peeling and processing roasted chestnuts just to make a little wisp of a cake that is devoured in less than thirty minutes. I love cooking all day, making it all from scratch, watching the minutiae of an extravagant meal unfold and relishing each step like the lines of an exhilarating book.

But summer makes me sluggish in the kitchen. It’s a good thing that hot weather and vegetable bounty come hand-in-hand, because even the thought of a simple soup has me hesitating, weighing the costs of discomfort against the gains of pleasurable flavor. Summer’s mostly sweltering kitchen (you may have already deduced that my house has no AC) adds to the cost, and the plethora of fresh, flavorful produce detracts from any benefit complex cooking may offer.

So it is with simple food that I while away my summer. Nearly half of our cooking takes place on the grill, our summer oven where we roast every kind of vegetable, cook flatbreads and pizzas, sear peaches or pork chops, and occasionally throw down a patty of ground beef, all without raising the temperature in which we must attempt to sleep.

Indoor cooking amounts to variations in chopping, tossing salads, simmering grains, steaming spuds, or briefly sautéing sweet chunks of summer squash and fresh onions. Summer’s flavors are uncomplicated and light. Too much flame or fuss makes their perky crunch go soft. My goal in the kitchen is not to transform, but to preserve—with the judicious use of salt and pepper, citrus or vinegar, and aromatics from the herb patch—all the delicate, inimitable flavors that the sun and soil and farmhands have already cooked up.

Simple Technique: Here’s a roundup of recipes to help you perfect the basics of simple summer cooking.

Grilling – Become a meatless grill-master with this A-to-Z guide to grilling vegetables

Chopping – Cook with your knife to make this refreshing Chopped Salad with Feta, Lime, and Mint

Steaming – Make a Summer Aoli Feast to celebrate the lightly steamed flavors of peak-season market veggies.

Sautéing – Master the art of the simple sauté with this easy to follow guide.

Pickling – Employ brine, your refrigerator, and time to soften and season your favorite summer vegetables. Check out this simple method of making fridge pickles without a recipe.

Raw – Stick with the flavors nature’s made, then ribbon, rice, puree, or toss using this basic guide to raw cooking.

(For those who’d like that beet burger recipe anyway, you can find it here.)