Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spiced Plum & Fig Frangipane Tart - A Ghost Story

The garden behind our house in Scotland seemed endless, though it wasn’t, of course, when I snuck back in a few years ago as an adult. It sat in the center of a small fishing village, after all, and the land stretched back towards the old graveyard. There were high stone walls, small apple orchards, a rose garden, gooseberry bushes, a great lawn that no one ever mowed so shortly as to stop its being comfortable to lie on, beds of bluebells that squeaked under your wellie boots in the spring, and a pergola, overgrown with ancient, prolific grapes and plums, that dropped heavy, purple fruit down onto the mossy flagstones below in the early autumn.

In the northeastern corner of the garden, just where the two banks of pergola met and the grapes and plums merged, was a dark, dank place inhabited by ghosts. I mean that quite literally, and I can think of several people who spent a significant amount of time in the garden and can corroborate. But even those who didn't see anything, who had no inclination to believe in beings so unscientific, could not refute that the corner was unsettling. A chill that wouldn't lift even on the sunniest of days, a certainty that one was being watched. We all felt it. Even the youngest of children would point to that shadowy place and name their fear. "A fox!" I remember one person almost too small to talk crying out.

The ghosts didn’t stop our friends from coming to play in droves, though, and to gorge themselves on our plums while the season lasted. The more friends that came, the more windfallen fruit was eaten, and the further towards this forbidding corner it was necessary to edge in the collection of the wine-dark, egg-shaped plums - daring just a few feet closer to the shadows, seizing as many as one could grasp before kicking out, bolting back to the safety of the central lawn. Many years later, an unrelated search through the village records revealed that the same part of our garden had once been encompassed by the 12th Century parish church's graveyard. A mass grave for criminals.

All this is to tell how entirely the scent of ripe plum flesh; a whiff of wood smoke on the air as my father burned great piles of prunings; icy, chill-blained feet (I was inevitably barefoot in the bitter sea air, on those cold, damp stones); and a growing whisper of fear as the safe, sunny stretches of walk were picked clean of sweet, bloom-dusted, gently bruised fruit - these will always be autumn to me.

And autumn it is. Needless to say, this tart is not nearly so sinister, but rather undeniably comforting, warming and irresistible as the harvest reaches its height and the days draw in. Ginger and star anise both set off plums and figs, enhancing their perfume in a smoky way I find evocative of and perfect for autumn. Success depends on the ripeness of the fruit you use. The sugar content in plums is at its peak around here right now, and you can tell figs are ripe when the tiny opening at their blossom end starts to weep a drop or two of syrupy liquid.

Serves 8

7 oz (200g) flour
pinch of kosher salt
1 stick (4 oz, 100g) unsalted butter, diced
1 egg yolk
a little ice water

3 ½ oz (100g) unsalted butter
4 oz (125g) granulated sugar
2 oz (60g) flour
1 tsp ginger
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground star anise
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 oz (125g) ground blanched almonds
½ lb (200g) smallish plums
½ lb (200g) ripe figs

Dry beans for baking blind

Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch tart tin that’s at least 1 ½ inches deep.

In a food processor, pulse together the flour, salt and butter until the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. (Alternately, you may use your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients). Add the egg yolk and pulse quickly, then only just enough ice water to bring the dough together – too much will cause your tart shell to shrink as it bakes.

Turn the dough onto a cool, lightly floured surface and roll out just large enough to line the tart tin. Gently press into the tin and trim to make sure the sides are an even height. Chill in the fridge for half an hour or cover with plastic wrap and chill longer if needed.

Place a baking sheet in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 400F (200C, gas mark 6)

Remove the plastic wrap, prick the dough in several places with the tip of a sharp knife, line the tart shell with aluminum foil or baking parchment, fill with dry beans, and place onto the hot baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, remove from the oven, and carefully remove the beans along with their parchment or foil. Return to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes until dry to the touch.

Meanwhile, use a kitchen mixer to beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time and then the vanilla. Meanwhile sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. Remove the bowl from the food processor and use a spatula to gently fold in the ground almonds and flour. Spoon the frangipane filling into the tart shell and smooth with the back of a spoon.

Cut the plums in half lengthwise and remove the stones. Trim the stems from the figs and cut crosses into the tops. Gently squeeze the bases of the figs to open the “petals” you’ve created. Arrange over the almond filling, plums cut-side down and figs cut-end up in whatever pattern or lack thereof that you like. Gently place the tart onto the hot baking sheet and bake for 40 – 50 minutes or until the frangipane is risen, golden, and just set in the middle. Remove from the oven and cool at least 15 – 20 minutes before serving.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fresh Figs with Fleur de Sel, Aged Balsamic & Hazelnuts

Nursery school just began, and I am proving even less adept at the transition than previous evidence had suggested I might be. I have a few things in the works, but in the meantime, can I just say that the figs are magnificent this year? Nary a tannic, dry disappointment in sight. I've been making this dish a lot - tonight actually as dinner in its entirety, along with a fresh wedge of Cantalet and a glass of Malbec. It was soul-restoring perfection.

Although Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought figs to the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, the fruit wasn’t really grown in Northeastern U.S. until the 1800s when Mediterranean families moving to the States nursed cuttings all the way across the Atlantic to plant in their new gardens. These days locally grown fruit is available for a small window each year, though it’s still rare to see figs at a farmer’s market here. The harvest tends to come a little later than in the northern Mediterranean – it usually starts towards the end of August or in early September.

I like my fresh figs with as little done to them as possible. In fact, I far prefer them raw to cooked. Though I’m often tempted to try new fig recipes, I have yet to be convinced that there is any way to improve on the light sweetness of a perfectly ripe fruit – perhaps slightly split by its own fecundity and often weeping a little honeyed nectar from its blossom end. Ferociously pink and very nearly liquid within, and with a floral fragrance reminiscent of both blossoms and earth, tree-ripened figs are something I dream of all year. And I can’t see why I’d want to mask their perfection with cooking.

Of course, when celebrating such a short and longed-for harvest, it’s only human nature to feel an urge to adorn. So I’ve come up with a number of preparations that make a platter of fresh figs seem more of an event – why isn’t this country more comfortable with serving a bowl of perfectly ripe seasonal fruit at the end of a meal? Why doesn’t it seem like enough to most of us?

I’m not sure, but this is my compromise. The syrupy twang of good aged balsamic vinegar and the gently floral flavor of fleur de sel meld with the juicy interior of the opened figs. And the toasted hazelnuts layer a faint autumnal smokiness over the whole thing. It’s one of my favorite late-summer/early-autumn desserts and a lovely way to end a meal.

Serves 4

¼ cup hazelnuts
1 lb ripe figs (I like to use green figs here, such as Calimyrna), rinsed and patted dry
good quality aged balsamic vinegar – should be thick and sweet
fleur de sel or other good sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F.

Spread the hazelnuts in a small baking tray or dish and roast for 15 – 20 minutes until lightly browned and fragrant. Be very careful not to burn them. Once slightly cooled, chop the hazelnuts or pulse them a few times in the food processor.

Trim any stems from the figs. With a sharp knife, gently score an “X” on the top of each fig, being careful not to cut more than ¾ of the way down the fruit. Press your fingers into the base of the fruit until the 4 “petals” you have created open to expose the pink center.

Arrange the figs on a platter. Drizzle with a little aged balsamic, sprinkle with a little fleur de sel, and finish by showering with some of the toasted hazelnuts – you may not need them all. Serve immediately.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fennel Sausages Roasted with Herbs & Cherry Tomatoes

It never ceases to amaze me how, towards the end of summer, my entire being seems to change course. I dream longingly of crisp mornings. I churn out baked goods at an irrational pace. I shop for corduroy. And most of all I hanker after richer flavors, ones that would never have appealed even a few weeks before. The market is filling with brassy, saturated colors, the flavors of harvest time, and unquestioningly my appetite follows suit.

This recipe - something I first had in the Arezzo province of Tuscany – is a perfect way to harness the more robust herbs and tomatoes of late summer. It offers up that jammy savor I’m suddenly craving, but with crops that are utterly of the moment.

The sausages in Tuscany tend to be bold, seasoned with garlic and plenty of the region’s wild fennel. Back in New York, I use the fennel sausages from Faicco’s Pork Store in the West Village for this dish. They’re sweet, flecked with earthy fennel seed, and are unfailingly fresh – one of the best deals in the city.

I like my sausages burnished brown, even crisp on the outside. If you prefer yours less well-done, remove them from the oven after 45 minutes and test to be sure they’re cooked through – they should be fine. These are lovely over some swiss chard or spinach that’s been sautéed in olive oil. The clean mineral quality of both leaves makes a pleasant note against the sticky, caramelized sausages and a twangy-sweet drizzle of aged balsamic added just before serving, but on nights when you’re in need of more sustenance, some white shell beans dressed in fruity olive oil are authentic and very good too. Drink with a Sangiovese to enjoy this as I did the first time. Last week I had it with a nice Ruffino, and the pairing was perfect.

Serves 4

12 sweet Italian sausages
2 cups ripe cherry, grape, or other small, sweet tomatoes
1 – 2 heads garlic, preferably rocambole, cloves separated but unpeeled
big handful fresh basil leaves
12 stems fresh thyme
1 tbsp fennel seeds
extra virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
aged balsamic vinegar or balsamic reduction (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C, gas mark 7)

Prick the sausages in a couple of places on both sides and place in a roasting pan (no need to separate if they’re still linked), with the tomatoes, separated garlic cloves, basil leaves, thyme stems, and fennel seeds. Drizzle generously with olive oil and a healthy splash of balsamic vinegar. Season well with salt and pepper and then toss all the ingredients with your hands to combine. Rearrange in a single layer and roast on a rack in the upper third of the oven for 30 minutes. Turn the sausages over and then roast for another 30 minutes until the sausages are deeply golden and the garlic is soft inside its paper.

Serve hot over wilted greens and/or white beans with another drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or even better something more aged and syrupy.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The September Harvest Calendar

An earthquake. A hurricane. Now what?

Hopefully autumn. A deepening of flavors, a richness to the light, a peaceful drawing in of days. It's not that I wish summer away, and we've had a lovely one without too much of the punishing heat the city usually musters, but I do look forward to autumn all year.

Most of September still belongs to summer, but the crops are bolder now, the colors and flavors a little brash in their intensity.

Think tomatoes.


And peppers, peppers everywhere.

The herbs are at their sturdiest.

The rocambole garlic cured but still temptingly juicy.

And the fruit couldn't be more evocative of late summer. Blueberries, cantaloupes, peaches, and watermelon.

Apples are suddenly fresh, crisp, and early-season-tart rather than sickly and mealy from cold storage. And there are even a few pears about.

Other new harvests this month will include shell beans, brussels sprouts, lima beans, pumpkins and grapes. Plus the second pea and raspberry harvests are underway. Be sure to take advantage of beet greens, cucumbers, radishes, scallions, blueberries, cantaloupes, peaches, plums and prunes. This is the last month they’ll be available from the field.

Crop notes are available in the sidebar harvest calendar over there on the right all month. The information comes from a guide published by the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. To familiarize yourself with what's in season where you live, I advise a visit to your own farmer's markets at least every couple of weeks. And ask lots of questions – no one knows which crops are at their peak quite like the people who grow them. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy summer and happy September!

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