The Joys of Picking Your Own Fruit

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For the last 5 years or so, I’ve made a pilgrimage of sorts. I’m not a religious person, and to imply that I might be seems almost laughable, but going down to Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, CA is a sublime experience that satisfies me to a degree that surprises me every time I go. Andy Mariani is a fruit grower extraordinaire, with a beautiful orchard just over 20 miles south of San Jose. It’s a long drive for me, coming from Oakland, but it’s so worth it. Every year, Andy hosts a few tasting events – generally, one in June, one in July, and one in August, to offer the public an opportunity to sample the abundance of his orchard, and his hard work developing, preserving, and evangelizing rare, precious, and fragile stone fruit varieties. (Stone fruit is anything with a pit: cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, and so on.) The August tasting always has a wide array of the larger, later-season fruits – peaches, plums, nectarines, and hybrids. This year, I’m sure we tasted at least 25 or 30, and if we’d been intrepid enough, could’ve tasted through at least 25 more.

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After you walk down row after row of sliced, delicately flavored and complex fruit, you get the opportunity to trek through the orchard with a box or a bucket, picking however much of whatever fruit you’d like to take home. This is a test of discipline and will for me. I am, after all, the crazy girl who has a peach tattoo, and setting me loose in an all-you-can-pick orchard is a dangerous proposition. This year, I walked away with only 25 pounds of fruit that I split with A, who joined me. We picked 3 primary varieties – the  Kit Donnell and Baby Crawford peaches, and the Silk Road nectarine. Types you’ll surely never see in stores because they’re so delicious, but so delicate and fragile that they didn’t even make the trip from the  tree to my house unscathed, let alone from tree to distributor to store to display to cart to trunk to your kitchen shelf. They last so few days once home, that consumers would never tolerate it. But trust me – the flavor, texture, and joy is totally worth the experience.

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If you’ve never picked a tree-ripened summer fruit from a branch, noticing that the sun has warmed its – and your – skin, you’re truly missing out. I recommend this experience to everyone. Being able to pull a piece off a tree and bite into it to tell what it is, and whether you like it or not, is something unmatched by even going to the farmers market. This is as close as I can get to my food, and for me, it makes it taste all the better. A and I agreed that the Silk Road may be the best stone fruit we’ve ever eaten. I decided to turn it into sorbet to preserve the beautiful deep goldenrod color, and the creamy, dense texture.

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Oh, so what did I do with those 25 pounds of fruit? Y’all know I like pie, right? Like I’m kind of obsessed? It’s still delicious two days later, even. We also made some peach brandy (hopefully I can tell you about it when it’s done, but that might be a few months,) peach ice cream, the aforementioned nectarine sorbet, and ate many out of hand – the best way to enjoy them.

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This event was the last one at Andy’s Orchard for 2013, but if you’re jealous, you can order some of Andy’s fruit and have it delivered to you in a foam-cushioned box. So, have you ever visited a you-pick orchard? There are tons! What did you do with your treasure?

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Pastry Perfection, or; What I Did with All Those Sour Cherries

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Were you as crazy for pop tarts and toaster strudel as I was as a kid? I swear I ate them every day for years. Maybe that’s where my love of flaky, crispy pastry started – but I’m actually pretty sure it started with my grandmother making apple pie for me. Anyway, those little toaster pastries filled with jam-like fruit were the first thing that came to mind when I was assembling what came to be known as The World’s Largest Pop Tart for Tala’s birthday party last month.

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This pastry, a riff on Smitten Kitchen’s Sour Cherry Slab Pie, was, as Deb says, the perfect ratio of crust to filling. Tons of crust, some filling – pastry perfection. That giant sheet of pastry up there is the largest single piece I have ever rolled. And not to toot my own horn, but I have rolled a lot of pastry in my life. This is actually the only challenge the entire recipe. I used a double recipe of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Favorite Flaky and Tender Pie Crust, and split it into two even pieces to rest overnight. I SWEAR BY this recipe, but as I heard once, just use the pastry recipe that works for you. You’ll need double the amount as for a regular double-crust pie, and store bought would be just fine. Roll it into a rectangle that fills any sheet pan that you have.

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The filling is about 4 pounds of sour cherries from that batch we pitted and froze a while back. This is exactly why I did so much – I knew this would be Tala’s birthday treat and I needed a lot of cherries. My pan was 18″ x 13″. Honestly and truly, all that’s in this filling is the freshest sour cherries, the juice of a half a lemon, 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of corn starch, and a half teaspoon of salt. I suggest mixing the cherries, the lemon juice and sugar together, then tasting the cherries to see if they’re sweet enough for you. If not, add more sugar to taste. Stir it, pour it, top it, bake it, ice it. This bakes in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes. You’ll probably have a beautiful rustic crack appear, through which you can tell if the juices are boiling or not. All you really need is bubbly filling and golden brown pastry, so once you have both those visual indicators, you can take it out of the oven. Start checking at 30 minutes.

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Rolling the top pastry is a little easier because it can be a bit smaller than the bottom one. The bottom piece has to fold up and over the edge of the top to seal, and that extra 1.5″ may cause you to tear your hair out. It’s true, there may have been a near pie-pocalypse in the baking of my own World’s Largest Pop Tart, but I was able to rescue it. My only advice is this – make sure your pastry’s edges are quite thin, or they may melt off the rim of your baking sheet while in the oven.

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The last touch is a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze. I poured it in a lattice pattern to make it seem even more like a breakfast pastry. The glaze amps up the visual appeal of the entire thing. I just can’t get over the contrast of those magenta cherries and the golden brown crust. They still manage to have that beautiful glow even when baked. But if you’re looking at this and thinking you hate me because you can’t find sour cherries, this recipe is very adaptable. You can easily use about the same amount (4 lbs) of any other fruit. Great variations could be blueberries, apples, peaches, blackberries… Lots of options here. So, did you get any sour cherries this summer? How did you use them? Let us know in the comments!

How To Store Fresh Herbs

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One of the greatest boons to my cooking skills was the discovery of fresh herbs. Thyme, tarragon, sage, rosemary, chives, oregano, cilantro and parsley just to name a few. They pack so much flavor, add a lovely green kick to any dish you are making and can elevate a meal from average to ethereal. The problem with them is that they are hard to keep fresh… if you don’t know the secrets. If you throw a bunch of fresh tarragon in the fridge, wrapped in a damp paper towel like many people will suggest, it will turn into a bruised, blackened, slimy mess in just a day or two. The tarragon in the photo above is nearly a week old and it never saw a day of refrigeration. In this post I will share with you some tips and tricks to keep your herbs fresher for longer, which will save you money and thyme.

In my experience, every herb prefers to be stored in a slightly different way. Below I will name some common herbs and how I choose to store them.

Parsley: This very common but often overlooked herb is one of Ina Garten’s favorites. Most people don’t know that it not only lends a beautiful visual element to a dish, but it also packs a ton of flavor when it’s fresh. It’s the primary ingredient in Argentinian chimichuri sauce and is even used to flavor soup stocks, beans and other brothy things.
To store fresh parsley, cut a few millimeters of the ends off under running water like you would a bunch of fresh flowers and then put into a glass with water that goes an inch or two up the stems (but not any higher because it will start to rot). Keep this bouquet of parsley on your kitchen counter, away from direct sun, for up to a week. Trim the stems again a few days later, change the water & clean the glass every other day and it will stay fresher longer.

Thyme: This herb’s aroma reminds me so much of Thanksgiving. Hard winter squash, mushrooms, game birds, pork roasts, chicken stock and stuffing all benefit from a hearty helping of thyme. The greatest thing about thyme is that it can stand up to extended periods of cooking without damaging the flavor. You can add it directly to a dish cooking on the stovetop, use it in your braising liquids, or even deep-fry it for a lovely, flavorful, crunchy garnish.
To store fresh thyme, put it in a small glass of water filled to just above the bottom of the stems. I find that trimming thyme ends doesn’t do much for it, but it can’t hurt. You can store this either on the counter or in the fridge. It should keep for a little less than a week before it starts to dry out naturally. You should also change the water and clean the glass every other day to prevent bacteria from growing. Once it starts to go, take it out of the glass, cut off any parts that are turning bad, and lay it flat or hang to dry. Thyme keeps much of it’s flavor once it’s dry. The best way to store thyme, though, is by growing it in a pot. Grow it in partial sun, water it occasionally and take cuttings often to promote new growth.

Tarragon: This herb is one of the most delicious and hardest to find fresh. I have walked through many high-end farmer’s markets only to find that nobody has any. I do occasionally find some, usually when things like fresh fish are in season, which tarragon is a lovely compliment to. It has a unique almost anise-like aroma, but I like it much more than anise. It pairs well with many flavors such as lemon, asparagus, fennel bulb, tomatoes, beets, eggs, carrots and grapefruit. It also pairs terribly with some flavors, such as basil, oregano, sage and rosemary. Needless to say, it’s an herb best used by itself without any other herbs.
To store fresh tarragon, treat it just as you would parsley. Trim the ends under running water and keep in a glass with a little water which should be changed regularly. You will find that your tarragon will continue to grow in the glass of water, getting bigger and bushier before it finally bites the dust. Another great way to store tarragon that’s on it’s way out is by chopping it and mixing it with some soft butter, then freezing it. You can use this butter in various dishes and sauces throughout the year.

Cilantro: Also known as Coriander, this is one of the most polarizing herbs. Most love it, quite a few hate it. I’ve heard that genetics have a lot to do with cilantro intolerance but I am lucky to not have any issues with it. I LOVE cilantro. I add it to anything I cook that is Mexican or Thai inspired. It has such an interesting depth of flavor and is best used fresh, not cooked. Roughly chop the leaves (you can eat the stems, too, unlike it’s cousin parsley) and add it at the last minute to your dishes.
To store fresh cilantro, trim the ends of a fresh bunch and put in a glass of water much like you do with parsley and tarragon. Keep your cilantro in the fridge and it should last for several weeks this way. Change out the water occasionally  although you don’t need to do it as often as the refrigeration seems to thwart bacterial growth in the water. You will find, however, that it loses some of it’s punch over time so it’s best to use it up quickly even if it still looks nice.

Chives: Chives are extremely versatile and delicious, much like it’s cousin the Onion. They are fresh, pungent and lovely when thinly sliced and scattered over a dish. They are more delicate than a regular onion and are best used fresh, not added to a dish and then cooked. I like to mix them with softened butter and serve a little scoop over a nice filet mignon. If you’ve never had chive butter on a steak, you should get on that.
To store fresh chives, wrap them in a small plastic sandwich bag and keep in your refrigerator. You can chop as much as you need off the end of the whole bunch, then put it back into the bag and return to the refrigerator. They should keep a week or longer this way.

Basil: There is no greater indication that summer is in full swing than fresh basil at the market. This classic Italian (or Thai) herb has a powerful, pleasing aroma that is an excellent compliment to many other flavors. The classic pairing is with tomatoes, although you can use it in a zillion other ways. It’s also great with fish, mozzarella, eggs and zucchini. Basil is notoriously hard to grow, for me at least. It turns black within 2 days of being outside and I can only assume we don’t have the right climate for it here. Basil should be added fresh to dishes at the end of cooking, or used in cold dishes and salads with a healthy pour of olive oil and vinegar.
To store fresh basil, keep it in a glass on the counter like you would with parsley or tarragon. Do not put it in the refrigerator as it is sensitive to cold temperatures (maybe that’s why I can’t grow it). If you can find fresh basil with the roots still attached, it’s even better and will keep for up to 2 weeks on your counter top if you change the water regularly.

Rosemary: This woody, weedy, showy herb has a lovely, strong and unique flavor due to it’s high oil content. It’s best used during cooking and I can’t imagine using it fresh outside of a cocktail flavoring in full sprig format. It pairs well with all sorts of flavors, such as blackberry, other italian herbs, duck, garlic, pork, potatoes, beans, carrots, eggplant and lamb.
To store fresh rosemary, trim the ends and put in a glass of water like cilantro and store in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can store it in a plastic bag as this herb is pretty hearty and won’t bruise or rot too easily. My favorite way to store rosemary, however, is in a pot of dirt, growing in my back yard. It’s very easy to grow and can quickly get out of control, so be sure to cut it back and use it often.

These storage methods are purely based on my own experience, so please feel free to chime in below in the comments and let us know if you have any tips or additions of your own.

Seasonal Foods: Sour Cherries

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This past Saturday – with Tala’s help – we did something crazy. We pitted 20 pounds of sour cherries. What? These don’t look like the cherries you find in the grocery store, or even the farmers market? It’s true. These cherries are a different variety, and a different animal altogether. Sour cherries are extremely rare and hard to come by out here on the west coast, but if you’re from the midwest, or even the northeast, you may have had a tree in your yard or neighborhood growing up. Most likely, although we’re not 100% certain, our cherries were Montmorency Cherries – a variety widely available in Europe and scattered throughout the US. They need frost to thrive, you see, and that’s one of the only times I can think of that our amazing Bay Area weather prohibits us from access to a particular produce item. You can’t have everything, I guess.

Anyway, sour cherries are THE pie cherry. Their tart acidity and depth of cherry flavor is what really makes the cherry pie you’re used to what it is. And getting them, pitting them, and making it yourself produces THE BEST cherry pie filling. Trust me. These cherries are also what should be used to make maraschino cherries – or brandied, bourbon, or any other liquor-infused cherry you prefer. I think Tala plans to put some up this way this year, while I’ll be making her a Slab Pie for her birthday with mine. (More about that later.) Just don’t pop one in your mouth expecting to love it – even if you promise me you love sour things! These cherries will make you pucker, though I do recommend trying one just so you understand their raw flavor.

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Miraculously, pitting all 20 lbs only took about 2 hours worth of work, but we did make an assembly line system out of it, which helped. My utensil of choice is a paperclip, but a bobby pin will work as well. You can’t use a pitter on these cherries, because it’ll destroy their delicate, juicy interiors. The pit isn’t as attached to the flesh in these cherries as it is in sweet cherries, it more, well, floats around inside and just needs to be scooped out. You pluck the stem off the top, poke the end of an unfolded paperclip into the stem end, and scoop out the pit. Pretty simple! So what are we going to do with 10 lbs each? Too – late – we already froze them! In that first photo, you can see them in their luminescent glory, all spread out on sheet pans and waiting to be popped into the freezer. Once they’re solid, you can store them in canning jars or ziploc bags. They’ll keep for about a year this way – and it maintains their pure flavor and color very effectively.

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Now that we’ve inspired you, we hope you can find these lovely orbs for yourself! Maybe you can make a pie or turnovers? Some true maraschino cherries for your old fashioneds? These cherries are only available for a few weeks in June, and most certainly the farmers markets are already sold out. You might have some luck at Whole Foods or Berkeley Bowl, or maybe BiRite will have them. Just for reference, you’ll need around 2 or 3 pounds to make anything like a pie or other pastry, so scoop them up if you see them. A handful won’t do it.

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And because this is a wine blog, after all, let’s talk about the wine that accompanied our pitting extravaganza. The 2011 Robert Sinskey Muscat à Petits Grains tastes like flowers in your mouth. It’s fresh, delicate, and crisp. A wonderful and versatile complement to our indoor-picnic lunch of fresh chevre, castelvetrano olives (our fave!), oven roasted tomatoes from last year’s crop, smoked oysters, and Oakland’s own Firebrand Bakery bread. Tala and I both loved it – though she preferred the 2010. This wine is made in very small quantities, so ask for it very nicely if you’re ever at the Sinskey tasting room, and they might sell you a bottle. No promises.

Recipe: Easy Fluffy Blueberry Pancakes

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It’s officially the middle of June. Spring sprung a while ago and now the days are getting longer and warmer. One of the most lovely seasonal ingredients you can find around here this time of year is fresh blueberries. They are delicious! Tart, flavorful, juicy and bite-sized. Blueberries are extremely versatile; you can add them to your oatmeal or pancakes, enjoy them with fresh ricotta cheese or hide them inside of cornmeal muffins for a delectable surprise. To top it all off, they are my favorite color – blue!

I get my blueberries from a family farm at the Alemany Farmer’s Market called Hooverville Orchards. This vendor is only at the market for the summer, fall & winter seasons. They grow apples, pears, citrus, peaches, sweet cherries, sour cherries, blueberries and various other fruits. You can find them at the Alemany market from early June through February. Because they grow sour cherries, I find myself coming here starting in late May, hoping to find them on their first weekend back at the market to ask when their sour cherries will be in (more on that later).

For now, we have settled for blueberries. Since Father’s Day is upon us, I thought it would be nice to cover a pancake recipe. Dads love pancakes, it’s a well-known fact. My own father used to make pancakes for us every Saturday morning while we watched the Smurfs. He wasn’t much of a cook so he used Bisquick instead of making them from scratch. I always assumed that since my father never made them from scratch then they must just be too complicated to make without a mix. How wrong I was! Pancakes are very easy to make, you just have to use a light hand, butter and medium-low heat. Anybody could make these, even kids.

Fluffy Blueberry Pancakes
(adapted from allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
2 tbsp. white vinegar
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tbsp. white sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
2 tbsp. butter, melted
3/4 cup fresh blueberries
Additional butter for cooking

Method:
In a medium bowl, add the vinegar to the milk and let stand for 5 minutes while it sours. Melt the 2 tbsp. butter on the stovetop or in the microwave. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda & salt in a medium bowl. Whisk the egg & melted butter into the soured milk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until just barely incorporated – there should still be some small and medium lumps in the batter (this will ensure tender, fluffy pancakes!). Gently fold in the fresh blueberries.

Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat. Melt enough butter to just cover the bottom of the pan. Pour batter 1/4 cup at a time onto the skillet and cook until you start to see bubbles on the surface of the pancake and the edges begin to dry. Flip the pancake and cook on the other side for 2-3 minutes, or until golden brown.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar & fresh blueberries for garnish, and serve with syrup of your choice.

Happy Father’s Day everyone!