July 31, 2012

In praise of figs

I feel like I hit the jackpot this summer. Not the kind of jackpot that would make me rich, but I honestly think I am just as happy, if not more, with the one I've won: I've come into a windfall of figs. And not only are they gorgeous and exotic, delicious and hard to come by, but they happen to be my favorite fruit to cook and bake with.

We bought a rental property --a major fixer-upper--one year ago and we've been rehab-ing it all year so we could rent it for extra income. It was a huge project and D. has worked so hard and it is finally (almost) complete. It will all be worth it eventually, when we start to recoup our investment in the form of rent. But for now, I feel like we've gotten the biggest return on our investment in the form of sweet, juicy figs. You see, the property has two huge, old fig trees on it --so big their thick roots are almost fused together and the canopy reaches into the sky and down to the ground, laden with plump, juicy figs, ripe for the picking.

Last year we owned the property but had not started working on it in earnest when the figs started coming in. On top of that, the house had been empty for several years prior and in much need of some attention. The day I went over to harvest all the figs I was met with an empty tree--someone had brought in equipment overnight and harvested every single one of them. Thieves of the worst kind! So this year not only do we have renters in one of the units already, but I put up a no trespassing sign and placed this intimidating security guard on duty.

We have been harvesting them almost every day for over a week now. There are more than we can pick with only a ladder to get to the top of the tree. But it's been so much fun to go over there with June and show her how good just-picked fruit can be. We pick and eat until our grocery bags are full or the mosquitoes start to eat us alive, whichever comes first. Then I get to work on canning, freezing, baking and otherwise trying to preserve these beauties as best I can.

I have an Italian friend, Elisabetta, who is from Rome and I've known her for 15 years. Her mom, Ignazia Mancini is one of my culinary inspirations and makes the most delicious "marmellata di fichi" (fig jam) I've ever tasted (in Italy fig trees grow rampantly throughout the Southern regions).  She always gives me some of her jam when I go visit her and it's been a while since I've had that tasty treat in my fridge. Last summer, upon purchasing the property and discovering the figs, I asked Betty for her mom's recipe. This summer I finally got the chance to make it. It is a wonderful combination of figs with a little dark cocoa thrown in to give it that extra depth of flavor and dark color. (Recipe below).

I've made two batches so far and gave some away to friends and stashed a couple of jars for us for the winter.

Last weekend I made a beautiful fig tart that I plan on making for the open house at Lockeland Table next Monday night. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in for some yummy apps and a bite-sized version of this super-local (as in 14th street y'all) fresh fruit tart.

And for a dinner party on Sunday with friends, I stuffed fresh figs with bits of smoky bleu cheese and drizzled them with honey and a sprinkle of sea salt. To.die.for.

Call me crazy, but I can't get enough of this amazing fruit! If you know of any other great fig recipes or ideas, please send them my way. I've even tried freezing some by laying them on a baking sheet to harden and then packing them into a plastic freezer bag and sucking out all the air with a straw. I've never tried freezing fruit, but it will be interesting to see what shape they're in when I pull them out in January or February for a little taste of summer.

Marmellata di fichi (recipe courtesy of Ignazia Mancini) 

about 1.5 lbs of figs (750 grams)
1 and a 1/2 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
juice of half a lemon (optional)

Wash and remove the stems of the figs then put in a large stockpot on med. heat and cook, stirring frequently so they don't burn, for about 30-45 min.  Remove them to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Put back into the pot and add the sugar. Cook on low, stirring occasionally, until thickened and the consistency of jam (about 45-1 hour). Add the cocoa powder and lemon juice (if desired--I always add a bit of citrus to any jam to bring out the flavor of the fruit and add acidity) and stir until blended. Turn off the heat and prepare your jars according to most canning recipes. Fill jars and process using the boiling water method for at least 15 min. Place on a towel to cool and let the tops seal. If any do not seal, place in the fridge and eat within two weeks. Processed jars will be good for at least one year.

July 20, 2012

OMG a new beginning!

Connor and June, buds  *shout out to Kate and Ashley and their awesome store, Oldmadegood for letting me use their sign.

Some things I know about myself are 1) I love a good challenge. 2) I like to change careers (often). And 3) I need to be surrounded by people whom I esteem and respect. If the above things are not true for me, we are dead in the water.

This little list is relevant because I am happy to announce I will be starting a new job as the pastry chef at Lockeland Table, the neighborhood restaurant just a few blocks from my house that is eagerly anticipated by East Nashville and beyond. This job will get me back in a kitchen doing something I love to do, which is baking. I think it will be a good fit for me because the backbone of the restaurant's philosophy is local, seasonal and unpretentious food in a neighborhood setting open to all. It will be a family-run business that will also appeal to families, as the partners in this venture are long-time colleagues from Eastland Cafe (another great East Nashville mainstay) and have young children of their own. I believe they'll take that experience of caring for and feeding their own families and translate it to feeding the neighborhood. What better place for me to be?

The desserts I would love to make are ones in which seasonal fruit features prominently, things like handmade tarts, pies, gelato and other simple Italian-inspired baked goods that let the ingredients speak for themselves. I am super excited to be embarking on this new professional phase for myself, and to play a small part of Chef Hal's and Cara's dream.

Here is a rustic peach and blueberry crostata that I hope will be featured on the opening, late-summer menu. As long as peaches are still available, I'm making this. It is so simple served room temperature, alongside a scoop of vanilla bean gelato and cup of good, strong coffee. It's my favorite breakfast actually (minus the gelato).

And this zucchini-olive oil cake with lemon glaze I tested out recently (from Babbo's Gina de Palma's cookbook), and it was loved by all who tried it. It's moist without being too rich but with complex flavors of olive oil mixed with lemon and spices. It would be a great late summer-early Fall dessert when zucchinis are plentiful.

Last Sunday I attended a charity dinner at the Hermitage Hotel benefiting the national organization Share Our Strength.  They work to end childhood hunger and one of their big fundraisers is a traveling dinner / live auction with local and regional chefs where patrons bid lots of money for, among other things, a chance to have Tandy Wilson or Tyler Brown cook dinner for 12 in the winner's home. My favorite dishes were Brown's first course of heirloom beets, green olive vinaigrette, biscuit crumble and Cruze Dairy ricotta salata; and the "community plate" --a collaboration of all the chefs (chef Hal was one of them) that really spoke volumes about the honest, meaty, Southern-inspired and fresh food these chefs are serving now.

 Then, Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta (where I recently enjoyed a fabulous farm-to-table dinner with friends) made this blackberry cobbler with Cruze buttermilk ice cream. Love that miniature skillet, but the blackberries made all the guests' teeth purple! (note to self: look up the science behind this and find out if there is anything to be done about it).

It has been a fruit-filled and fruitful summer for me. And as the temperatures and the oppressive humidity rise alongside each other, making us all move a little slower and long for the crisp, cool days of fall, I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead. For me, August always brings change and a new beginning and this one is no exception.

July 3, 2012

Peaches are perfection

There is nothing that, to me, says summer more than a perfect peach. I live in the South and I thought when I first moved here that peaches would be abundant in summer, but it turns out they have a rather short growing season. And all peaches are not created equal. 

I grew up loving peaches as they came from the only fruit tree that miraculously grew in the desert --or at least it did at my house. Growing up in a place like Las Vegas, there was not much we could grow and eat from our backyard but I do remember picking pomegranates from a neighbor's tree and seeing fig trees all over the place. Though what people did with them remained a mystery. Now I love figs and peaches and there are so many wonderful things to do with both. But my mom somehow managed to make a peach tree grow on the side of our house and with those peaches she made the most delicious pies and homemade ice cream in summer.

Here in the South we start seeing peaches at the farmer's market in late June-early July but things are all a bit off this year and fruit is showing up earlier. I bought my first batch from the downtown farmer's market (pictured above) the day before Father's day. They were from South Carolina, and while beautifully displayed in their baskets, they were not that great to eat. I made a peach-blueberry pie (left) with them for Daniel's father day dinner and they were fine for cooking. But I crave a peach that is slightly firm and juicy, not mealy in the slightest and just drips with sweetness so that you need nothing to go with it. It's perfect just the way it is.

The Peach Truck peaches

This is what I finally found in the Georgia peaches being sold in Nashville by the cute little operation called The Peach Truck. A husband and wife team whose family owns a farm in GA, the kids go out in a green vintage pick-up truck selling their peaches out of the back for $6 a bag. I first saw them at my friends' coffee shop, Crema, and almost got in an accident, I pulled over so fast. The guy and girl selling them were both so friendly and cute and their logo so well done that I thought, "I sure hope these peaches taste good because these people have a great idea and it's all just so inviting."

Sure enough, after tasting one bite, I bought two bags and June and I were on our way, peach juice dripping down our chins as we drove away.

I got home and after raving about the peaches on social media (what? who does that?) I started making stuff.

I made this peach tart for a dinner party.
 But mainly we just ate them. We ate them alone, with peaches n' cream ice cream, over cereal, for a snack, late at night. We can't stop eating them. And I hear from the peach folks that peach season is over in only 2 more weeks! Say it isn't so. I need to stock up and I strongly encourage you all to do so as long as that cute green truck is hopping around town. But just don't buy them all because I still have lots of things to make.
I didn't make this peach cake. My friend Tom at Marche did and it's delicious.

The Peach Truck