Monday, July 30, 2007

Soup for Many

This past weekend found me and the kids traveling to a family reunion in southwestern Pennsylvania. The reunion is for the descendants of my great grandfather. He had eleven children, of whom only the youngest is still living. She's pushing ninety, but she seems to be pretty spry for her age and she made corncob jelly to sell at this year's family auction.

Anyway, the families of each of my great grandfather's children (or at least the ones who made it to adulthood and had kids) take it in turn to organize the reunion, and this year was the year for my grandfather's family. In the past, my parents have taken a more active role, but this year, some of my cousins took the lead. My mother was responsible for one meal, and she asked my sister and I to take charge of reheating what she'd made and adding some more food. There is really no great skill involved in reheating sloppy joes or opening bags of chips or smiling while members of the extended family prepare their cole slaw or cucumber salad or whatever. By the way, if your sloppy joes are a bit on the runny side, the easiest way to handle the situation is to open up your bun and dump the beef mixture on both halves. If you then top it with cole slaw, you will understand the true meaning of "guilty pleasure." You probably won't want to do this too often, however.

Anyway, in addition to reheating Saturday lunch, I was asked to make my leek-potato soup for Friday dinner. I had made it the last time my family was in charge of the food, and people still remembered it and wanted it again. I think I did a better job this time, probably because I brought my immersion blender with me. Alas, I also appear to have left my immersion blender behind in the huge kitchen at the camp where we had the reunion. My parents said that they'd try to reclaim it, but in any case, stick blenders are not terribly expensive.

My leek-potato soup is really just the Joy of Cooking's vichyssoise. I don't call it vichyssoise because I tend to think of vichyssoise as a cold soup, and I like it much better when it's hot. (Fortunately, the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania were nice and cool this weekend, especially after the rain, but for most people and purposes, you are better off making this soup in the winter.) Also, a lot of people omit the final consonant sound when they say "vichyssoise," and that puts me in a bad mood. Joy of Cooking has something amusing to say about this mispronunciation, but I can't quote it verbatim, so I won't try. I also can't reproduce its recipe exactly because I haven't looked at it in years. I knew that I had to make a whole lot of soup, so I picked up what I thought I'd need at the supermarket and took it with me to the camp, and the soup came out splendidly. If you don't want to make 2.5 or 3 gallons, you might want to check out Joy of Cooking for a reduced recipe.

I did want to make rather a large batch. It wasn't the only sort of soup we had Friday, and I was expecting leftovers, but it all got eaten. L., who is not known for her love of non-ramen soups, absolutely raved about the leek-potato soup. She told me that I should be making it at home, frequently.

Leek-Potato Soup

3 bunches leeks
1 very large white onion
12 ounces butter
6 large baking potatoes
4 quarts chicken broth
1 quart heavy cream

Wash the leeks well. Trim off the roots and remove the thick green leaves at the top. You don't need to remove the light green part nearer the base unless you want to. Cut halfway through the leeks, leaving the very base intact and wash again to make sure you have no sand in your leeks. Slice the leeks crosswise, about a quarter inch thick. Peel and dice the onion.

In the bottom of a very large, heavy pot, melt the butter. Add the leeks and onions, stir well, cover, and cook on low heat for about fifteen minutes, or until everything is nice and soft. You don't want anything to brown, however.

Peel your potatoes and slice them finely. Then when the alliums are nice and soft, add the potatoes and the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover again, and let cook until the potatoes are very tender. This should only take about twenty minutes, but you can cook them for a while longer without hurting anything. You're just going to blend the whole mess, anyway.

Put your immersion blender in the pot and blend the whole mess until it's as smooth as possible. Stir in the cream, taste, and add salt if necessary. Serve hot.

I think the soup is pretty much perfect if you leave it right there, but if you feel like it needs some white pepper, have at it. Also, you can snip some chives over the top if you have an aversion to white foods. If, however, you see that everyone else going through the dinner line is taking a normal soup bowl full of the soup and enjoying it the way it's meant to be enjoyed, please refrain from grabbing a serving bowl, filling it up with the soup, and then adding a large handful of grated cheddar cheese to it. One of my cousins actually did that. Right in front of me. I can only suppose that it was payback for something I did to him when we were both ten.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Yet Another Reason I Deserve Apricot Trees

Eight days after picking the underripe apricots, most of them were still underripe. (On the plus side, none of them rotted.) Perhaps I should have kept them in a warmer place. Because of the vagaries of V.'s air conditioning, in order for the upstairs to be habitable, the main floor needs to be on the cool side. Regardless, a week in a brown paper bag should have done the trick and didn't. Since Mother Nature was not forthcoming with a transformation, it fell to me.

The most difficult part of making apricot preserves is selecting a recipe. I'm sure there's a fabulous recipe in Mes Confitures, but it has still not chosen to re-appear. I had great success with the cherry jam recipe/method from the SureJell package, but I didn't like the recipe they had for apricot jam. It had about as high a proportion of sugar as the tart cherry recipe had, but apricots are, obviously a great deal sweeter than tart cherries. Plus, I thought it would be fun to try something without added pectin.

Unsurprisingly, the more I make preserves, the easier and more enjoyable I find it. I no longer fear the process, really. I think that using Christine Ferber's oven sterilization method has been the key for me. I really don't like having to fish empty jars out of boiling water. Instead, I wash the jars, lids, and rings in very hot soapy water, rinse them thoroughly, put them in the oven, set the oven to 250, and after half an hour or so, turn it to 225 until I'm ready to use the jars.

One problem I do have is that a lot of recipes for preserves aren't terribly forthcoming about how much they make. Consequently, I usually end up with significantly more jars than I need. For example, today's recipe ended up making seven cups, which I put in four jars (three pints and one half-pint; I rather despise the term "half-pint" because it's really a cup, but the people who make jams and jellies seem to think that "half-pint" is preferable, so whatever), but I had ten jars (four pints and six of those jars that are half as big as a pint and hold a cup) ready to go. Oh well. I wish I could have filled all the jars, but that would have been rather an expensive amount of apricots. Hence the title of this post. If I had a couple of apricot trees, I could put up enough preserves for myself and all my friends and family over a couple of weekends in July. Truly, the universe is an unfair place.

Anyway, my travels around the net found this post and recipe, which I doubled and adapted slightly for my own purposes. I liked the idea of the small amount of sugar. The writer says that it's "just a bit less sweet" than commercial apricot preserves. Maybe where she is, but preserves in the U.S. are much, much sweeter than her recipe. In fact, I slightly increased the amount of sugar, and I think I still used less than half of the amount of sugar the SureJell recipe calls for.

The results are outstanding. It has none of the cloying sweetness that is so typical of commercial and most homemade preserves. In fact, the taste reminds me of something like marmalade. Of course, I was tasting the couple of ounces that were left over when I'd finished filling my jars, so the taste may be slightly tamer after the hot water processing and some time on the shelf, but I have to believe they'll still be fantastic. I do think that you could add a bit more sugar and they would still be very, very good; in fact, if I can get more apricots next year, I may up the sugar by a small amount. But maybe not. Hey, I have a year to decide, right?

This is not a recipe that you want to rush. You should count on spending at least two (and perhaps three) hours in the kitchen from the time that you start washing your apricots until the time that you pull the finished preserves from the boiling water bath and set them aside to await the ping of the finishing seal. It's a very good thing to do when you have other chores in or near the kitchen to attend to. During the time the apricots were cooking, I'd set my timer to three minutes, turn it on, do some other things, and come back to stir the pot when the timer went off. I got a lot of other stuff done that way. While the preserves are cooking, you want them to be at a very low boil. The cooking phase itself will probably take at least an hour. Your patience will be rewarded. Try to enjoy the aroma during that time. Try to be in a frame of mind where you are enjoying the process rather than hurrying toward the result. If all else fails, grab a good book and a glass of wine. Or send an e-mail to a friend. You can get quite a lot accomplished in three minutes.

I'm not sure how much they add to the unique and superlative flavor of the preserves, but I did put in the kernels of some of the apricots. I'd say about eight, but I'm not quite sure because they were in pieces. Breaking open the apricot pit is not an exercise for the timid. The original recipe recommends wrapping them in cloth before hitting them with a hammer. I kind of forgot the cloth part, so I had pits and parts of pits ricocheting around the kitchen. The original recipe also recommends wrapping the pits in cheesecloth and then removing them. I fished out one or two of the pits, but mostly I just left them in chunks in the preserves. Apricot kernels do contain cyanide but in very small quantities. You would not want to eat a handful of raw kernels, but half a kernel in a jar of jam shouldn't hurt anybody, and they're pretty easy to work around when you open the jar, I reckon. I didn't bother to go down to the basement and root through my toolbox, but if you have a c-clamp handy, I suspect that using it on the pit will enable you to extract the kernels in one piece and without the dangers of pit shrapnel.

Anyway, the recipe:

Apricot Preserves

About 4.5 lbs ripe (and/or semi-ripe) apricots
1/2 cup water
3 cups granulated sugar
4 T. fresh lemon juice

Wash and drain the apricots. Pull them in half with your fingers and remove the pits. Cut apricots into chunks (eight chunks per apricot) until you have about eight cups of chunks. Cut the remainder of the apricots in wedges or slices (eight wedges per apricot). Break open about eight of the seeds and reserve the kernels.

Prepare your jars.

In a large, heavy stockpot, Combine the water and sugar. Stir as well as you can. A heat-resistant silicon spatula will be very useful hear and throughout the process. Put the sugar and water over medium-low heat and cover. Heat, stirring if necessary, until the mixture is clear and comes to a boil. Do your best to avoid crystallization on the sides of the pot, but don't fret over a little bit: when the apricots go in, it'll be easy to pull any crystallized sugar off the side and into the preserves.

Add the apricot chunks to the boiling syrup. Return to a simmer/slow boil and cook, uncovered, until the chunks are mostly disintegrated. Stir thoroughly every few minutes during the cooking to avoid scorching. This phase of cooking will likely take at least half an hour.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil on the stove. Keep at a simmer. You will use this for processing later.

Add the apricot wedges/slices to the pot and continue cooking with regular, thorough stirring, until the wedges are largely dissolved but some pieces remain, another half hour or so. The mixture should be very thick at this point. Stir in the lemon juice and simmer for another five minutes.

Ladle the preserves into the prepared jars, put the lids on, and screw the rings down. Process in the boiling water bath for fifteen minutes. Remove from the water and set aside to cool and to complete the seals.

I don't have any real reason for putting this picture here. I made the last two cherry pies about a week ago. I gave one of them away to a friend, and we kept the other one. The filling was terrific, but the crust was tough. Good flavor, but really tough. Clearly I overhandled it, even though I thought I'd taken precautions. The little crust flowers on top weren't tough, and my friend said that the crust of the pie I'd given him wasn't tough, so who knows? I'll be more careful next time. Clearly, I haven't been making enough pie, and that's a situation I really shouldn't allow to continue.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Alas, Alack

I have probably gone on (at great length: always a safe bet around here) before about my desire to pick ripe apricots from the tree. Preferably in my own back yard, but, really, I'm not that particular, I just want the beautiful apricots. So it was with no inconsiderable glee that I opened last week's email from my favorite orchard (to whom I am currently not linking in a fit of pique) saying that the apricots would be ready for picking. They were to be ready this past Saturday, and the email warned that a) there would not be many, b) they would likely not last until Sunday, and c) I should call before venturing out.

The orchard in question (where I also pick my tart cherries and various other fruits) opens at 9 am, and I'd originally made plans to get there right at 9. Camping out the night before seemed not altogether extreme, but of dubious legality. In any case, I overslept slightly, and after making the call to hear their recorded message (which promised "a few" apricots), I left home, arriving at the orchard before 9:30.

Too late, readers, too late! There were still a very few perfectly ripe apricots available, particularly if I stretched on my tippy toes, but most of the apricots were beautiful on one side but green on the shady side. Oh, the humanity.

I was already in something of a state before I arrived to find such slim pickings. I had in mind taking some beautiful apricots and making the fruits confits from Mireille Johnston's The Cuisine of the Sun. I had planned to take my beautiful apricots, make a slice in them, extract the seeds, and slip in a beautiful Marcona almond (which are now available at Costco) before embarking on the long, painstaking process that results in fruits that are too pretty to eat. But not, one supposes, too pretty to give away. And I was going to do it right. I was, in fact, all set to order a hydrometer one evening last week when I thought that I had better check the book to make sure I was ordering an instrument that measured the right range of specific gravities.

I could not find the book.

Now, in between all the cursing and fuming, I realized that I'd had trouble finding the book before, but I reasoned that I simply must not have looked hard enough. I looked hard. I had nothing. I decided to bite the bullet and buy a second copy. After all, I reasoned, The Cuisine of the Sun is one of the best cookbooks I own, and not owning it is not an option. If I bought a second and found the first, then I'd have two copies to someday bequeath to my daughters. And, after all, I do own two (okay, three) copies of Joy of Cooking, so it's not like I have a philosophical objection to the redundancy of essential texts.

I figured that I would pick up a copy at Borders on Friday night, when I was meeting friends to see a movie. I went directly from work, I arrived early, I walked into Borders, and I picked up a copy. Except I didn't because BORDERS DIDN'T HAVE A COPY OF THE CUISINE OF THE SUN. They didn't have a copy in general cooking, they didn't have a copy in Mediterranean cooking, and they didn't have a copy in French cooking. I assumed this was some sort of horrible mistake or that perhaps there'd just been an unexpected run, but when I went to the terminal that tracks their books, they helpfully told me that I could order the book and have it in eight days or so.

I'm just going to say it: a world where The Cuisine of the Sun is not considered an essential cookbook is a world that needs to be fixed. Borders would have had no trouble providing me with the entire oeuvres of any number of people who have shows on the Food Network, but they don't stock The Cuisine of the Sun as a matter of course.

I was apoplectic. Not only was I angry at this grave injustice (I am not really exaggerating here), but suddenly I was faced with having a large quantity of perfect apricots the next morning and not knowing how to turn them into fruits confits. After a few moments of sheer panic, I decided upon a course of action, and I felt a bit better. When I got home, I would e-mail lindy and ask her to summarize for me the first few days' worth of the fruits confits process. This would give me time to procure a replacement copy of the cookbook. I was worried that lindy might be away or not get the email soon enough, but I reasoned that I could stall the apricots for a day or so. I was sure, given the urgency of the situation, that she would help me out. And that she would know, at any given moment, exactly where to lay her hands on her own copy of The Cuisine of the Sun. Thank God somebody's responsible.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. As it happens, Amazon (perhaps because I'm a prime member, but perhaps not) has a searchable version of The Cuisine of the Sun on its site, and I was able to look at the .pdf of the book itself and determine what I needed to do. And which sugar hydrometer to order. As it happens, I had to order two to cover the entire range of specific gravities that the recipe calls for, but I figured that surely at some point in time, I would be in a situation where being able to boast that I had two hydrometers would result in either sex or chocolate.

Anyway, all of that sturm und drang was pretty much rendered unnecessary by the state of the apricots.

I still picked some, of course. I mean, I'm standing there in an orchard with a bag in my hand and a bunch of half-ripe apricots, and I'm going to just put the bag down and walk away? I'm only human, people. Now I have about eight pounds of mostly ripe apricots in a brown paper bag next to the kitchen. They don't appear to be in any hurry to ripen, and tossing an overripe banana in the bag didn't seem to do much. At this point, I'm figuring that fruits confits aren't worth the effort if I can't get outrageously perfect fruit, but I'm sure that I'll still get some delicious preserves out of the bargain. I'm looking forward to cracking open a few of the seeds and simmering the kernels with the preserves to give an almond flavor. (You only use a few of the kernels because they contain small amounts of cyanide, and if you eat too many of them, you'll poison yourself. A few won't hurt, though.) It's really not much solace in the face of having to live in such a flawed world, but I reckon it'll just have to do.

Monday, July 02, 2007


Some ingredients really do cry out for the simplest possible treatments. Last week's tart cherries, for example. After I'd made the (very simple) cherry jam, I made two very simple cherry pies. I'm not going to post the recipe because I just used the recipe from the tapioca box. The only adjustments I made is that where the recipe calls for 1.5 cups of sugar, I used one cup. And I did put the tapioca and the sugar (as is usually the case with baked goods, I used whey low in place of ordinary granulated sugar) in the food processor and whirl them together for a bit to make sure the tapioca pieces were as small as possible. But, still, it's basically the tapioca box recipe. And so, so, so very good. I do think using the lesser amount of sugar allows me to appreciate the tartness of the cherries. Others thought the pie a bit too tart, but there is an easy remedy for that: vanilla ice cream. Some people have gone so far as to suggest that I make the pie less sweet so that I'll have an excuse to put vanilla ice cream with the pie. Such accusations, I'm sure you'll agree, are so scurrilous that they merit no response.

I still have some cherries left. Actually, I have more cherries. This past weekend, I put the girls in the car, and we went back to Larriland Farms and picked another four or so pounds of cherries. It only took about twenty minutes, but at that point, the girls felt that they'd had enough picking, so they opted to stay in the car and read while I picked some black raspberries. I picked for about half an hour, which I figured was the limit of their patience. Besides, later in the summer, I'll go off for a couple of hours of wild blackberry picking, and that'll be the real haul.

The cultivated black raspberries, however, are undeniably easier to pick, and they're tasty, if a bit bland when compared to the wild blackberries. I wasn't up to straining them for jam, so I decided to make a simple fruit crisp. And it really is a very simple recipe. You can have the finished product in about an hour from when you start, assuming that your oven preheats fairly rapidly.

Black Raspberry Crisp

For the filling:
6 cups black raspberries
1/3 c. sugar
3 T. quick cooking tapioca
Grated zest of one lemon
Juice of one-half lemon

For the topping:
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
4 T. butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9" square baking dish.

Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl. Stir well and let sit while you make the topping.

Mix together the oats, sugar, and cinnamon. Add the softened butter and mix together until well combined.

Turn the filling into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the filling. Bake at 350 degrees for about fifty minutes, or until the filling makes large bubbles and the topping is nicely browned.

It is very important to cook the crisp for long enough. If the topping isn't browned properly, it won't be nearly as nice, and if the filling doesn't cook for long enough, it'll be a bit on the runny side. Mind you, it'll still taste delicious, but not as delicious.

I would imagine that there are many people for whom the recipe as written has too much lemon juice and too little sugar. I much prefer it as written, but feel free to make your own adjustments. Also feel free to change the sugar in the topping from white sugar to brown sugar, something I wish that I'd done, though I am in no way unhappy with the result that I got.

As with the cherry pie, the black raspberry crisp cries out for vanilla ice cream. I add a scoop of Edy's Vanilla Bean Light No Sugar Added. (It's made with Splenda.) If you eat the ice cream plain, you can certainly tell the difference between it and regular vanilla ice cream, but if you're eating it with either a piece of cherry pie or a bowl of fruit crisp that you've reheated, I'm not sure the difference is apparent. In any case, it's very good when it's melting into the rest of the dessert.

I'm looking forward to more trips to the pick your own this summer. The proprietors have promised a few (a very few, nonconsecutive) days of apricot picking this year. I'm supposed to get an email letting me know what those days will be. Since last year when I candied my own tart cherries, I've been praying for a local orchard to offer pick-your-own apricots so that I could at least try to make my own glacéed apricots. Maybe this will be the year.