Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On cooking

I know it's been slow around Red Ramekin lately - fitting, perhaps, for the slow kind of feeling that the end of summer seems to bring.

And really, I have plenty of excuses for avoiding the kitchen. I've been working later, and Jonathan is out of town, meaning that dinners are sometimes had standing by the counter, picking at the odds and ends in the fridge and the pantry. And in true New England fashion, the heat of summer is at its peak. It's been the kind of hot that sits you down and makes you listen.

But the truth is, I haven't been avoiding the kitchen at all. Despite the heat and my temporary solitude, I've found just as many reasons to stand stirring by the stove; to bake frantically at odd hours of the night; to spend hours slicing and mixing and chopping.

I'm not sure I can put my finger on it, exactly, but lately I've been wanting to cook, plain and simple. And I'm not cooking to blog, or to impress, or even to eat, necessarily. Sure, as long as I'm standing by the stove I'll make a quick dinner, but dinner doesn't seem to be the goal, just an incidental output.

I love the quiet isolation of my kitchen; the thick heat of it and the utter silence in which I find myself there. I love coming home and shedding my baggage like a scaly skin, only to find a new energy in whatever project lies ahead. Baking granola, canning peaches, putting away the clean dishes - whatever the task I am ready to tackle it, sleeves rolled and shoes strewn. My day begins again as I heat the oil in the pan. I love the hours spent without speaking, syncing my thoughts to the breath of the knife.

And, though I love the physical demands of my silent kitchen, I am sorry too, that I'm compelled more to do than to write these days. I can't explain my addiction to sweating over pots and burners; to staying planted on my feet until I can feel my pulse in my ankles. But it's there, and its hungry, so I have no choice but to cook.

Last night before coming home, I stopped to pick up another dozen canning jars, inspired by the recipes in this week's New York Times Magazine for brandied peaches. Within minutes, I had three burners going at once; two for the peaches, one for the lentils that served as dinner, eaten in big bites from the wooden spoon. Before I had a chance even to change out of the workday's dress, it was 11pm, and the two peach-filled jars were cooling on the counter, seals stuck and tight.

I managed to snap a few shots of the finished product this morning, before heading out and starting the day. No pictures of marking the fruit with shallow Xs, of blanching it in the big brown pot. No pictures of peeling the skin with scorched fingers and digging into the flesh to dislodge the pits. No pictures of boiling the syrup, simmering the fruits, or processing the cans.

There was no time, after all. I was too busy cooking.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

When Life Hands You Tart Cherries

One thing I love about the culinary blogosphere is the way in which seasonal cooking - something so earthly, tangible, and local - manifests itself on the collective blogging menu. With fall comes the onslaught of butternut squash and apple crisps, winter fills my reader with hearty stews, spring comes bursting forth with waves of shelling peas and asparagus, and by mid-summer, I've read about so many zucchini breads that I'm compelled to make a few loaves myself, despite my non-existent garden surplus (which arrives, without fail, from my nonexistent garden).

Aside from the sheer uncanniness of this phenomenon, though, I love it because it teaches me some wonderful things about food and cooking. Until I started Red Ramekin, I had no idea what a garlic scape was, for example. Fava beans? Meyer lemons? Cavolo nero? Sure, I'd heard the names tossed around here and there, but it was blogging that brought them into my kitchen.

And so it was with the latest of the obscure fruits and vegetables to have entered my world of cooking: tart cherries. I know, it doesn't sound all that exotic, but tart cherries are really quite a find. Unlike ubiquitous bings and worth-their-weight-in-gold Rainiers, tart cherries are not meant for casual snacking. In fact, they are tart enough that there really is nothing you can do with them but bake. Or preserve. Or anything else, I suppose that introduces a whole lot of sugar into the mix.

But back to how a quart of tart cherries ended up in my kitchen: I've been reading about plenty of cherry pies, cherry bars, cherry cobblers, etc., lately, but hadn't felt overly compelled to get my hands on any of the fruit myself. The thing is, I'm not really a pie person, and that seems to be the most common tart cherry application. I have nothing against pie, really, but it's just never appealed to me all that much. I'd much rather have a crisp or a crumble, or for that matter, a fat slice of chocolate cake.

But, I was on my weekly Trader Joe's excursion on Saturday when I saw a shelf full of quart-baskets of tart cherries. For $3.99 each. Now, I'm no tart cherry expert, but that seemed pretty cheap (especially since I've seen Rainiers at Whole Foods for $12.99/lb.). And since they were right there, and I didn't even have to go to some specialty store to get them, and since I could always use an extra excuse to bake something, I bought them.

Upon arrival at my apartment, I popped one into my mouth to see what I had been missing out on all these years. Hrmm. Not much: it was tart, yes, but lacked the bright pop of a lemon or the deep flavor of a kumquat. It tasted a little watery, actually, which was a bit disappointing. In fact, when I was tasked with making dessert for a small crowd that evening, I opted for a brownie/blondie duo instead of the obvious cherry pie.

Come Sunday, it was time to use up the cherries, but I most certainly did not want to have a whole pie sitting around the apartment. Instead, after spending a good chunk of the day hunting for a cherry pitter (success came at Williams-Sonoma, haven of all things unnecessary, where I snagged the VERY LAST ONE in stock), I wound up making a wee little batch of tart cherry jam.

Let me first note that, when pitting tart cherries, a cherry pitter is wholly unnecessary. At least I'll be prepared for the next time I make a pie. But back to the jam: I followed a loose recipe from David Lebovitz, who claimed that tart cherries would make my jam extra delectable. And, once I finally got those slimy suckers onto the stove, I began to understand why.

Tart cherries are the cherry of canned pie fillings, pastries, and other vaguely cherry-flavored things. The smell of them cooking on the stove is really quite lovely, and the prospect of jam became more attractive as my cherries cooked down into a concentrated, chunky cherry sludge. Gotta love that cherry sludge.

A mere 40 minutes after starting my jam, I was pouring the finished product into one perfect jar. After a rest in the fridge, I couldn't wait to give it a try.

So I did. And, to my dismay, I found that I had overcooked my jam. Yes, indeed. Overcooked my singular quart's worth of (probably) the season's last crop of lovely tart cherries. I didn't even know that it was possible to overcook jam. The finished product was a sad, sad hybrid of jam and botched pate de fruit; too thick and stiff to spread on toast, and too sticky to do much of anything but eat it straight from the jar. Luckily, the flavor is still wonderful, so this isn't as hefty a burden as it seems. So no, not a total loss - still tasty and edible, if not photo-worthy - but I'm rather bitter that I'll have to wait until next year to give my jam another go.

On the bright side, I've found something new to add to my list of seasonal goodies. I encourage you to do the same, keeping in mind the all-too-important lesson that I learned this weekend: when life hands you tart cherries, it's best to keep an eye on the stove.