Peach and raspberry streusel cake

The reality of how little time we have left is starting to hit us now that Month 7 is upon us.

I have not been making much food at home because suddenly there is urgency to experiencing every patio and new restaurant, or to savouring the experience of doing absolutely nothing which mostly involves take-out or huge containers of fresh berries and ice cream and marathon sessions of 30 Rock. The laundry piles up and the bathtub stays grubby. But that seems to be the case regardless of the distraction.

There have been bursts of productivity in spite of us both, and everything seems to be coming up Emily. We were despairing the lack of reasonably priced but not disgusting two-bedroom apartments in the city while the walls in our current apartment began to close in on us when a spacious, many-windowed two-bedroom opened up in our own building, just across the hall. We move in October 1, so for the first time we don’t have to rush to pack, and we even have time to paint the new place to our liking.

At long last, we’re having ourselves a summer, but not a painfully hot one – outside the temperature has seldom exceeded 27 degrees (Celsius). Which has meant long afternoons in the sun, eating cherries and watching the barges in Burrard Inlet or feeding the birds tasty bites of fresh doughnut on the boardwalk at Granville Island, or cool evenings picnicking on Jericho Beach or walking to Cambie Street for the good tacos (and some lecherous staring at the beautiful blue-eyed taco man).

The sun is bright but the breeze is comfortable, and this does not feel like the same city I dream about running away from in the winter after 40 consecutive days of rain.

And, most importantly, still no stretch marks. I am so slick with lotion and cocoa butter that I’d be lethal on a Slip ‘n Slide. You keep your fingers crossed good and tight for me.

All this going and doing and lotion application has kept me out of the kitchen most of the time, and I can’t say that I mind. We eat a lot of 10-minutes-or-less dinners, a lot of berries in cream, and a refreshing number of salads. I like to think that summer’s slacking is an excuse to go out and make the stories we tell all winter, that somewhere in the season’s casual outdoor feasts there is something important, or, at the very least, something to dream on.

Like pink wine and sunshine in Grace’s wine glasses: important.

The aroma of a trout Paul that caught as it cooks with lemon and dill on the barbecue: important.

The chewy texture of oatmeal sourdough made by Grace from a starter with natural yeast: important.

A simple meal shared on a blanket on the beach: important.

People you are fond of in good moods and summer clothes: important.

Eating dessert outside at sunset: important.

Cake and peaches and raspberries and brown sugar topping: important.

You can make this now, and eat it on the beach as the sweet finale to a picnic, or you can use whatever fruit you’ve frozen and make in the winter when you’re cold and missing the smell of the ocean and that flattering summer evening light. I made this with peaches and raspberries, but it’s based on a recipe that calls for blueberries. It would be beautiful with blackberries.

Peach and raspberry streusel cake

(Adapted from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book)

Cake

  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice (this is wonderful with Meyer lemon if you can get one)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 cup diced peaches
  • 1 cup raspberries

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup butter, cold
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 1 1/2-quart baking dish.

Beat butter and sugar until thoroughly combined, then add egg, vanilla, lemon zest and juice. Mix.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture with milk, and beat until smooth. Spread evenly in baking dish.

Top batter with fruit.

In another bowl (so many dishes! Fun!), mix sugar and flour. Add butter and vanilla, and squish between your fingers until a dry, crumbly crumb has formed. Sprinkle over fruit.

Bake for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Serve warm.

 

Strawberries.

In France when Grace and I were there, it was strawberry season. At the market in Lyon, I could barely choose from three or four different kinds, and eventually settled on a container of tiny fraise du bois, which smell like those sparkly red strawberry marshmallows from the penny candy bin and taste like the concentrated musk of spring, like dew and flower petals and the nectar sucked off clover tips, and like deep, dirty red – if a colour can have a taste, those thumbnail-sized ruddy berries were vermillion.

Before we left, Grace plotted out the best places for us to eat, and I nodded happily along as she prattled off the names of places we would go to in the France that belongs to David Lebovitz, Dorie Greenspan, and Clotilde Dusoulier. We followed them all over Paris and Lyon to markets and bistros and crêperies, devouring as much as we could.

In many of those places, there were strawberries, and wherever there were strawberries a meal felt French, like a postcard picture of how France has always been in some memory you may or may not have but know just the same. I wish my story could begin with some treacly revelation about how “I found myself in Paris,” but myself and I have been familiar far longer than is noteworthy; you might not be impressed, but I’ve been this way all along. It’s truer and far more romantic to say that “I found strawberries in Paris.”

The best place for strawberries was a restaurant called Spring. It’s an expensive little restaurant, and Grace made a reservation online before we left and then never heard back from them, and she worried that we would not have a table for lunch. She attempted to confirm the reservation, in French, which proved inconclusive. We decided to meet there at the scheduled hour after wandering separately in the morning as we had disparate destinations (mine involved the purchase of seeds to one day grow fraise du bois of my own), and though my inability to read a map pulled me the opposite direction a long way down Rue de Rivoli, we were both able to make it in time.

At Spring we had a perfect meal – cool tuna belly with chilled asparagus, sorrel, and tonnato sauce; cold white wine; crisp fried anchovies; masterfully seared filet of acorn-fed, bushy-banged black pork with grilled wild fennel; five cheeses, tiny bites but more than enough to know everything important about – or at least to imagine in detail – five different terroirs; chocolate sorbet with cocoa nibs and white pepper; pistachio cream stuffed between two homemade chocolate wafers. And strawberries, orangey red and topped with a dome of sweetened crème fraîche and dusted with ground pistachios and sugar. They could have served it in a bucket and I still wouldn’t have had enough, and I’ve been dreaming of those berries ever since.

When we returned to Vancouver, almost nothing was in season yet. I’d have to wait a month, at least, for the first berries of summer. More than six weeks have passed since we’ve been back, and finally this past weekend I got my fix. Tracy and I made a date and drove to Westham Island, to Bissett Farms, and picked as many strawberries we could in one afternoon.

It’s been chilly for an unseasonably long time on the coast, so the berries are more tart than I was expecting. This year you may want to sweeten your crème fraîche more than you might otherwise. To recreate my dish, select as many small strawberries as you can fit into four handfuls. Wash and hull the berries, and put them into four ramekins or parfait cups. Stack them jauntily. This is important.

Sweeten one cup of crème fraîche with one to two tablespoons of honey and a drop of orange flower water, if you’ve got it. Grind freshly roasted pistachios, about 1/3 cup, with a heaping tablespoon of sugar in a food processor. Spoon crème fraîche over strawberries, then sprinkle each serving with as much pistachio sugar as you feel like. Imagine Paris.

 

 

How is it New Year’s Eve again?

It’s December 31 again, and I distinctly remember digging through my photo archives this same time last year to find a photo where we looked cool and I didn’t look fat, and I spent most of the day fretting over what I was going to wear because we were going to a bar with a dress code and it was cold and all my dresses make me look slutty. It was a fretful day, and at the end we did our best to hold on until midnight and left immediately after, rushing the hell out of that downtown club because what each of us really wanted all along was to be comfortable, to be able to talk to each other, and to not have to pay inflated bar prices for cheap rum and watery Coke.

Tonight we’re going to a smaller party, at our friend Paul’s apartment. Paul is getting oysters and carving some of the salmon he caught this year into thin strips of perfect sashimi. Grace will be there, and Laraine – the whole team from our clam-digging expedition this past September. Paul’s girlfriend will be there, and who knows who else. It will be small, relatively quiet, and there will be so much food. And wine, which we’ve already paid for, and which we can drink without first buying over-priced tickets. And I won’t have to wait all night long to hear that one song I like, only to have the fifteen-year-old DJ mash it up lamely with that one song I really don’t like.

I’m glad that we get to celebrate the new year with the people we spent the best parts of the past year with. It will be an appropriate conclusion to 2010, which was notable because largely absent from it was the tumult of previous years, which for the past many have been filled with hasty moves to new apartments, panicking over debt and employment and graduation, and getting engaged and then married and then adjusting to being married so quickly. We hit our stride this year, both finding ourselves in jobs we really like, going on vacation, paying down that always present debt, and settling into an apartment that is mostly pretty awesome. And we got Molly Waffles, who we treat like a child, which we do not feel the least bit weird about.

It’s been a good year, and I have no complaints. And I am looking forward to this evening, and to the food. And to tomorrow, and all the days after it, and all the meals that will go with them. The photos in this post are from a party Grace hosted a few weeks ago, an oyster feast filled with lusty foods and sparkling wines and Rhianna songs; I expect this evening will proceed in much the same way, with sharp implements and soft shellfish and sriracha and dancing in slipper-socks on a makeshift dance floor in the living room and too much wine (and too many incriminating photos).

Happy New Year. I hope that the next 365 days are filled with wonder and opportunity and quiet moments in amidst the madness, and that you get to do something you really love. Writing here is the thing that I really love, and I hope you’ll continue to visit, and to every so often say hello. I wish you all the best in 2011!

Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne.

It’s our anniversary! Our second one, but Mondays are boring and also our laundry day, and for some reason I was awake at 4:00 this morning, so to celebrate we did a load of towels, had a nap, and Nick brought me orange flowers, and we went for sushi, which was delicious, though convenient.

But last night I wanted to do something kind of special, because we spent our first anniversary pushing Paul’s car across the border, which was as romantic as pushing a Honda Civic across the Canadian border in the dark and then standing under an orange street light for an hour waiting for a tow truck on the other side in November after frost has fallen and taking public transit back to the city can be.To make up for last year, this year I brought my A-game. Sometimes I like making food that takes all day, and I wanted to do something distinct to mark Sunday as separate from the rest of the weekend, during which we also celebrated Nick’s birthday. I invited Grace and Paul over to celebrate our anniversary with us, and we had so much food. Come to think of it, it makes sense now that I was up at 4:00 a.m.; there is only so much pork that one can cram into her maw and still expect to sleep through the night.

The recipe that follows is based on Jeffrey Steingarten’s recipe for Choucroute Garnie à L’Alsacienne, from his book The Man Who Ate Everything. Because I am paid considerably less than Mr. Steingarten and am routinely accosted by Nick over how much I spend on special-occasion meals (not much, by the way, but he feels that all the dollars I spend on fancy ingredients could be spent far more enjoyably on beer), there are some adjustments. Much as it saddens me, I simply do not have an elaborate collection of specialty meats on hand. One day. Perhaps with the next husband?

Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne

(Serves six, generously)

  • 2 smoked pig’s feet
  • 3.5 lbs. sauerkraut
  • 2 lb. bratwurst
  • 1 lb. kielbasa
  • 2 lb. other sausage (such as pork and apple)
  • 1/2 lb. bacon
  • 3/4 cup gin
  • 2 tbsp. butter or duck fat
  • 2 lbs. onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 lbs. apples, grated
  • 1 1/2 cup dry Riesling (preferably from Alsace)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 25 black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 4 branches fresh thyme
  • 6 sprigs parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt

Place pig’s feet in a medium-size pot, and cover with water to about an inch above the feet. Simmer for one hour, then remove feet, and reduce until about two cups remain, an additional 15 minutes. Set aside.

Drain sauerkraut in a large strainer, squeezing out liquid periodically. Rinse, then continue to drain, about an hour.

Cook all three sausages and bacon. Set aside.

Simmer gin in a small pot until reduced by about two thirds. Set aside.

In a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, melt butter, then cook onions until softened but not golden, about ten minutes. Add apples and sauerkraut. Stir to combine. Add gin reduction and bay leaves.

Add reserved stock, and Riesling, and two cups of cold water. In a piece of twice- or thrice-folded cheesecloth, combine peppercorns, caraway, cloves, thyme, and parsley. Tie tightly with kitchen twine and let sit in sauerkraut mixture.

Place meat on top of mixture, then scatter garlic over top, and then sprinkle salt over top. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium low. Cover, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring approximately every 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 250°F. When choucroute has finished cooking, remove meat to a plate and let rest, covered in tin foil, in a warm oven. Let choucroute rest, covered and off the heat, for 30 minutes.

To serve, drain choucroute and place in the centre of a platter. Place meat on top, and scatter side dishes around, such as spaetzle or fried potatoes. Serve with sweet mustard, sour cream, and cornichons. To eat, ensure you are wearing something with an elastic waistband.

A Clambush at Desolation Sound.

On Friday, Grace, Laraine, Paul, Nick, and I hopped a couple of ferries and headed to Powell River for what shall henceforth and forever be known as The Ultimate Seafood Feast. Grace planned the whole thing (and included handouts), and it was lovely.

We stayed about 30 minutes out of Powell River, near Desolation Sound. There was nothing desolate about it, and not a sound except for a woodpecker and a few chirpy little red squirrels in the trees.

The point of the trip was clam-digging, though a secondary benefit was certainly relaxation. I read MFK Fisher’s Serve it Forth, Paul made sashimi of the sockeye he had caught the night before we left, and we played Scrabble and drank cocktails and cheap beer and were very civilized out there in our cabin in the woods. Nick had five naps. We were there two nights.

On Saturday morning, our eyes still glued mostly shut after our first feast night and its requisite debauchery, we wandered out to the shore to dig for clams at low tide.

It was all very thrilling. Every so often, Grace would squeal and announce that “I found the biggest one!” or skip over with a particularly lovely clam and declare that it would become earrings, a garland, or a fridge magnet stuck with googly eyes. Paul and Nick wandered off to pick mussels and oysters, and soon we had an embarrassment of edible riches.

When we got home, we all took naps, and then considered the oysters.

And then we had naps again.

And when we woke up, Laraine and I read in the living room while Nick and Paul played a game and Grace poured wine and did dishes and then when we told her not to she said “But I’m having fun!” so we let her have the kitchen.

We let the clams soak in salted water for a few hours so that they’d release any grit they might be holding onto, and Paul de-bearded some mussels. I don’t think I have ever had better clams than we had that evening – Grace made her Dad’s recipe. She poured a bit of sake, a few chopped scallions, and some garlic into the pan and steamed the clams until they burst open. They were perfect, and needed no salt. The mussels were steamed in beer and cream with fennel, and were also very elegant.

We ate dinner huddled around the stove, with Grace steaming batch after batch of clams, each of us forking bites out of the pan and dipping Laraine’s homemade sourdough into the broth. From now on, this is the only way I will serve shellfish for company.

It was so delicious, and we ate throughout the evening, into the night. And at the end of it, we sipped sparkling wine and made fun of Nick and then had cheesecake and then warmed dates stuffed with Roquefort, and there has never been anything better in the whole history of the world.

It was so hard to leave! Fortunately, we were each able to bring a few cooked clams home, so we’ll be able to enjoy a feast more each. How fresh and wonderful it all was! And how impossible to forget!

If you’re going to tart up your veggies with cheese sauce, do it with this cheese sauce.

Important news: Paul is back.

Last night, the team (Grace, Paul, Nick, and I) reconvened for our first dinner since Paul returned from Montreal, and we pretty much picked up where we left off.  Though it’s probably a fairly normal thing for most people, I thought we’d do something novel and have a dinner of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable – I called it a Dad meal, because it reminds me of the kind of meal you’d serve to a Dad, yours or otherwise.

It’s hard to have this many things for dinner when it’s just me and Nick, but with Grace and Paul in attendance, there were fewer leftovers and it was like a family dinner that didn’t involve any actual relatives. I made Hank Shaw’s Easy Duck Confit, a big dish of fluffy mashed potatoes, and broccoflower – straight out of 1992 – covered in cheese sauce.

As we’re heading into fall now, the temptation to cover everything in cheese is probably growing for you too. As hardier veggies start popping up in markets, I suggest bringing them home and covering them in this sauce. The sauce is most conducive to broccoli or cauliflower (or the weird genetic hybrid that is broccoflower), but you could put this over carrots, asparagus, spinach – whatever you’ve got. Also, this is pretty much the base I use when I make baked macaroni and cheese – obviously you’d add more cheese to that (obviously), but there you go. Look how versatile!

Cheese sauce

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups half and half (or cereal cream – aim for about 10% milk fat)
  • 1 tsp. grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp. white pepper
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 1 cup shredded Gruyere, sharp Cheddar, or other delicious, bold-tasting cheese (lightly packed – not pressed into a wad)
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat until it foams. Add garlic, then add flour, and whisk until the three ingredients form a paste.

Whisk in wine, then half and half, then mustard, pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat to medium, and whisk frequently until thickened, about three to five minutes.

Add cheese and Worcestershire sauce, and taste at this point. Is it good? Does it need salt? Add salt if you need to. Is it too thick for your liking? Add more wine or dairy. You get the idea. Whisk in the parsley right before you’re done.

Pour into a pitcher and then serve, dousing your veggies as much as you like. It will be just like you remember, only better, because now you can have as much sauce as you want. 

Enjoy, and may the cheese-sauce season bring you warmth and please you.

Savoury strawberry salad: More awesome than alliteration!

I could not get out of bed fast enough on Saturday – it was strawberry day! And maybe I was a little too excited, because it was only the first day of the u-pick season, and there were frustrating turns of events. It all worked out in the end but the berry farm we meant to go to, Krause Berry Farms? Apparently that’s where everyone goes because they have pie and there were more cars parked there than I’d seen in a long time and three people told us we probably wouldn’t get any berries because all the ripe ones were gone. But just across the street, there was a berry farm and almost no cars, and lots and lots of berries. You win, other berry farm.

Grace, Corinne, and I set out among the rows to pluck berries, only mildly irritated that we’d have been wiser to wait a week, and collected as many berries as we could.

I ended up buying some, because we got whole buckets but decided to quit there because the day had not met our expectations of magic and grandeur, which actually happens less than you’d think. It’s possible that we’re easily pleased.

And then we went home, because some of us had jams and ice creams to make.

But before that, I desperately wanted a salad. Caprese-inspired, I wanted a heap of strawberries and burrata and basil and pepper and oil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Use burrata cheese if you can find it, or if you’ve got the time and inclination to make it. If not, use the freshest softest mozzarella you can find. This is another case where I don’t have a recipe for you, but a list of ingredients, and you can play with it until it’s to your liking, or until you have enough to serve everyone who’s eating with you.

Strawberry salad

  • Fresh, local strawberries (room temperature)
  • Burrata or fresh mozzarella
  • Basil, cut into thin strips (chiffonade)
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar (a splash)
  • Salt, if needed, and to taste

Chop everything choppable. Assemble on a plate. Sprinkle with pepper, and drizzle oil and vinegar to taste. Serve.

I love using fruit in savoury applications, because it’s not as desserty as you’d think. Strawberries can substitute nicely for sweet summer tomatoes, especially since they mimic the meaty texture of tomatoes, and because they’re as tart as they are sweet and play so nicely with the creamy cheese and citrusy basil. Try this dish with peaches, or nectarines, or plums later in the season. I promise, it will not be weird, and you will love it forever. I wouldn’t raise and then dash your expectations of magic and grandeur on purpose.