Friday, May 13, 2011

Alice, the Mulberries, and the Loquats

I've been addicted to Alice Water's Chez Panisse Fruit lately. The drawings are beautiful, her descriptions exquisite, and her recipes simple and elegant. I love this book.

It is not new to the world but it is somewhat new to me. I bought it in January in an Amazon buying frenzy on whim. All I knew when I started was that I wanted something from Alice Waters and something from Deborah Madisson. But I didn't know where to start, and when I finally got done checking out, I'd already forgotten what I bought, and why.

I received the package in the mail a couple weeks later and was disappointed. I had started with fruit. Why on earth would I decide to buy a cookbook on fruit? Why would I buy said fruit book as my first from Ms. Waters and Chez Panisse? The restaurant and the woman behind it have a sort of low-key culinary genius. They have a lot of insight and inspiration to offer.

I already know how to deal with fruit. I needed her Simple Food, or Vegetables, you know, something to actually help me with daily life. I did not need her fruit book.

This is how I thought until last weekend when I came home with an entire flat of strawberries. I had no intention of making jam, but had gotten caught up in the moment, in a hurry to decide how much and just so happy to see fruit at the market that I lost all self control. So I bought the strawberries. And when I got home, I picked up Chez Panisse Fruit.

To my delightful surprise, it was completely inspiring. I know I had flipped through it when I got the book in January, but I must have been in a winter fruit funk, because I was not entirely impressed. Seeing it again with the fragrant (strawberry) truth that spring is here and summer on her way made the chapters that much more exciting. I mean, I am really done with apples. I was done with apples in January. So done. When those strawberries showed up last week I got weak in the knees, and when I read about silly, simple ways of having a strawberry dessert, like slicing fresh strawberries into your leftover glass of wine after a meal, I was really ready to give Ms. Waters another chance.

She does normal things to fruit--nothing so out-of-the-ordinary (ice cream, pies, tarts, cobblers, and so on), but the feel of her writing and cooking perspective is so refreshing. It is small-townish, homey, but absolutely professional. She knows food.

On the local food front, as if the strawberries weren't enough at the market, someone brought early-ripening apricots from a farm two hours south of here. I nearly fainted. I've been eying Molly's Pistachio-Apricot Cake (from her book) for the last year, so you can be expecting that. But what is most important, most delightful, most absolutely sigh-inducing, is that this weekend, I am thrilled to announce: I bought the season's first basket of mulberries. So. Excited.

I was so excited, I almost kissed the man. They were snuggled up next to some equally gorgeous loquats and I had just enough money to buy two baskets of each. After questioning, the man assured me the trees would all be producing for a while to come, so I shouldn't worry or rush.

So let me slow down and ask: do you know about mulberries?

Mulberries grow on trees not bushes or vines. The trees are fabulous for shade, are drought and dust resistant, and thus grow very well here in the Sacramento Valley. Most mulberry trees you'll find are the non-fruiting variety. But the fruiting ones are out there, with either dark, nearly black berries about an inch or two long, or they might be red, or even white. I have seen photographs of one variety, the Pakistan mulberry, whose berries grow to several inches long.

My mother-in-law thinks they taste like 'nothing'. If you have not tasted a mulberry, this should give the first great insight into their elusive, dark, tree-grown berry power. The mulberry looks like a blackberry, only with less supple seed pods. So you may be tempted to expect the mouth-burst of intensity that a blackberry provides. Don't succumb. Think delicate. Think musky. Think old fashioned. I place the mulberry in the same haunting flavor category as the quince, ground cherry, and loquat. Not that they taste similar, but they all share a musky elusiveness.

At their best, mulberries are slightly sweet, never tart, and they taste like a warm summer day in the shade feels.

Got it?

Ms. Waters has a tempting recipe for mulberry ice cream, which I am aching to try. But there is a cold front coming through now and while last week the weather made me pull out my shorts, today ice cream sounds suddenly ludicrous.

No matter. When I got home and lined up the loquat and mulberry baskets together on the counter, I saw their fate. They look so pretty together--like apricots and blackberries, they belong together. Only, these mulberries and loquats had actually ripened at the same time and in the same soil. One has a nice floral brightness and the other the mild musky depth. Oh yes, they do belong together. In pie.

Loquat Mulberry Pie (inspired, for reasons I am not quite sure, by Alice Waters)

The photographs show a smaller free-form pie with too many mulberries per loquat (2:1 ratio). I suggest here, instead, a 1:1 ratio of loquats to mulberries and normal pie size, for convenience. The pie juice tasted amazing, but because they leaked all over the pan, there just wasn't enough--not disastrous, but definitely a small disappointment. I suggest you make your free form pie in a pie plate to minimize leakage.

1 recipe chilled pie dough

2 cups loquats
2 cups mulberries, rinsed and stems clipped
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
juice of 1/2 lemon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Peel and seed the loquats, cutting into eigths or quarters depending on size, and toss them with the lemon juice in a large bowl to keep them from browning too badly. Combine the other ingredients-- the mulberries, sugar, flour, and cream--with the lemon and loquat mixture. Set aside.

Lightly butter the pie plate and set aside. Roll out the pie dough to a diameter a little wider than your pie plate, and, without tearing, transfer to the pie plate. Press into the corners and let the excess hang over the sides. Fill with the prepared fruit mixture, fold the excess over the center, and immediately place in the preheated oven. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbly and the crust in golden brown.

Let cool at least a little (we ate it slightly warm) before you whip up a cup of heavy whipping cream (by hand! try it! the texture is like silk on the tongue) with a teaspoon or two of sugar. Enjoy!

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