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Visions of sugar plums

August 10, 2011

The sugar plums that ripen in late summer aren’t the ones that sweeten children’s dreams in Moore’s poem about the night before Christmas. Those sugar plums are candies made of dried fruit, sugar and spices–and for most people they’ve become mythical. 

What tantalizes me, though, is the European plums of the same name. These are no myth. Their oval shape and delicate flavor take me back to fruit-gathering expeditions in my French grandmother’s garden. And this summer, they’ve inspired Italian plum cake and visions of tarts.

The main plum varieties in America are descendants of an Asian species. The classic American plum has maroon skin so dark it’s almost black. But cousins of the same plum can look like an autumn leaf caught in slow motion: pale yellow, orangy-red, deep ruby. Pluots, plum-apricot hybrids, add even more color variations, including the speckled pink and white of a Dappled Dandy. All of these plums share one thing in common, though: their cute, round shape.

Not so in Europe. Yes, there are round yellow mirabelles, so tiny they look like toy fruit. And there are round green Reine Claudes. But the most common plums of the European species are oval. Their skin is deep purple, their flesh pale lime-yellow.

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Lobster adventures

August 2, 2011

 All alone at home last night, I steamed a lobster at 11pm. It’s the kind of thing you do when lobster is on sale for $6.99 a pound for one day only and you realize this just before closing time. I’d never brought home a lobster before, skittering in its paper bag on the back seat of the car. I’ve plunged handfuls of lobsters into boiling water as a cooking-class assistant. But never cooked one like this—just me and the lobster in the nighttime. I could feel the faint stirrings of a detective novel.

There is a bit of a mystery tied to the creature. I discovered this while doing research for my book on French cuisine in America. The case in question involves lobster à l’americaine.

Things aren’t quite what they seem with this dish. With its tomato-based sauce infused with shallots, tarragon and cream and then flamed with cognac, the dish, in its flavors and ingredients, would seem impeccably and unmistakably French. But then why the name?

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Picnic on the Mediterranean with tabbouli

July 13, 2011

Yes, the spelling is a little tricky (“tabbouleh,” “tabouli”); and, yes, bulgur sounds like one of those esoteric grains that are impossible to track down. But no one cares about the spelling, bulgur is just wheat, and tabbouli is an ideal summer salad. Easy to make, full of freshness and flavor, tabbouli comes out of a tradition of simple, tapas-like dishes meant to be shared with family and friends—perfect picnic food.

Tabbouli belongs to the ancient tradition of mezze dishes that spread throughout the Near East and North Africa as morsels to accompany wine and everyday gossip. The word mezze comes from the Persian maza, meaning “taste” or “relish”; the first mezze were fruits served as a counterpoint to the slightly bitter taste of young wine. Over time, the range of mezze expanded.

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Summer pavlova for a grand finale

June 8, 2011

At the end of a summer meal, I crave something that matches the season—something light and fun; refreshing as a dash through sprinklers; and, like any good summer mystery novel, imbued with a touch of drama. Is that too much to ask from a single dessert? Not if that dessert is what I’ve decided to call the summer pavlova.

Australians might find me a little cheeky, taking liberties with their creation. In my defense, I think I’ve stayed faithful to the spirit of the dish. With its layers of billowy meringue, whipped cream, and fruit, a pavlova is ethereal and dramatic. It’s fitting that it was named in honor of a prima ballerina.

The drama in a pavlova comes from the play of textures. Traditionally, it’s whipped cream that offers a counterpoint to meringue. Chasing the summer muse, I decided to try ice cream instead. What I ended up with was an even more dramatic texture contrast, and the extra satisfaction of something frozen. The crispy-chewy, light-as-air meringue shattered with a satisfying crunch when we cut down into it with our spoons. The vanilla ice cream on top was cool and smooth. This was a summer pavlova.

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Strawberry cupcakes flush with pride

May 4, 2011

Strawberry cupcakes are easily misunderstood. Bright pink cakes topped with swirls of bubblegum-pink frosting can seem too absurdly pink for serious, self-respecting people. They’re like gaudy prom dresses, decorative lawn flamingos, and Barbie’s feather boa. We blush when we order them at the gourmet cupcake shop down the street. But, secretly, we love them.

Strawberry cupcakes don’t have to be shameful indulgences, though. Ditch the food coloring and artificial extract, and you’re left with the simple goodness of fresh berries. At the peak of strawberry season, cupcakes made with fresh berries are irresistibly pretty; they blush with the naturalness of spring.

The key is using real fruit. Forget the gummy pink gunk. Macerate fresh or frozen strawberries in sugar and then whirl them in a blender with their own juice. This elixir becomes your magic ingredient. Fold it into a plain buttermilk batter and the whole batch turns shades of pink and lavender. Pockets of berry remind you that you’re just one step away from biting into whole fruit. Whip the mixture into simple cream cheese frosting and all of a sudden you’re eating berries and cream.

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Sweet & easy: fresh berry tartlets

April 14, 2011

When berries crop up at their sweetest and most succulent, I want nothing more than to eat big bowlfuls of them plain. This is the simplest of spring pleasures. That said, I’m not a fierce berry purist. When I want a classy way to show berries off without too much fuss, I turn to fresh berry tartlets.

The word “tartlet” throws people off. Put anything in little pastry shells and it sounds suspiciously like petits fours. All of a sudden, you’ve entered the realm of high-class patisserie, where miniature eclairs, tuiles and ladyfingers simper and preen and demand to be plated with silver tongs.

Banish these thoughts. It’s already reassuring to know that petit four simply comes from the French for “small oven”: These little confections were baked at the end of the day, when fading brick-oven fires emitted a low, even heat. And fresh berry tartlets are the least high-maintenance of the bunch. Less, in fact, than the familiar pie.

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Leeks as solo artists in spring

March 9, 2011

With all the fuss about shamrocks and leprechauns, we could easily forget that St. Patrick was a Welsh boy, who first set foot in Ireland because he was kidnapped by Irish pirates. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m thinking about leeks, the Welsh national vegetable. There’s as much magic in them as in any leprechaun, especially if you know when to seek them out. Spring leeks are a revelation in their tenderness and delicate flavor.

For anyone used to the thicker, tougher specimens of fall and winter, leeks may seem as ordinary as their close relative, the onion. But I have a soft spot for spring leeks and the way they shine in simple dishes. Maybe it’s because of the time I’ve spent in France, where simmered leeks vinaigrette are served as a cold starter in the spring, when they’re newly in season. I was taught to hunt for the best leeks at springtime markets, the ones that are tender and slim, with a nice length of white stem. They need very little trimming before they’re simmered whole in a shallow pan of water, sometimes with a touch of white wine. It takes a little patience, but the texture is magically silky, the flavor is subtle and mellow, and the vinaigrette adds the perfect zing of acidity.

Leeks make another stunning solo performance in leek tart, called flamiche in Northern France, where it’s a specialty. (The word flamiche actually comes from the Flemish word for “cake.”)

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