Friday, May 20, 2011

Like the beginning of summer

Something must have happened yesterday. Was it the way the air felt on my arms while I ran on the edge of town? Perhaps. It was also, likely, how I could actually see the air, all misty in the early light. The morning was cool and shocking but there was this inner warmth, like the whole day already knew how hot it was going to be.

Then there was that walk with Cedar under the cottonwood trees. The leaves waved like so many small hands. Cedar held onto my hand and we walked the greenbelt, slowly. His hands, I noticed, were slightly plump, and he held on just tightly enough to keep it from slipping from my grip.

Something indeed did happen. There was something oddly blissful in the morning and that walk, something dreamlike and hopeful, like the beginning of summer. Yes, that was the beginning.

I know it's a little early. Just last week I was celebrating spring. Today I even have more of a mid-spring recipe to share. But summer comes early in the Central Valley, and if I am wrong, I'm probably only a week or two off.

Besides, I don't mind starting early. It is a special year, and thus permissible to a little giddy. This year, I have actually looked forward to summer. I mean, I always like the fruit and veggies. I love the excuse to get out the gin and tonic. What I mean is, I have looked forward to more than the product of summer. I am interested now in the season itself as a force--the heat, the sun, and the land's response to it. I must have gotten cold enough this winter, finally, or, I maybe I acclimated, because for once in my life I want to meet the heat head on all summer long. I want to understand it, let the sun shoot through my own soul, and get my head around what it means to call this hotter-than-hell Valley "home."

This is a very big deal.

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would live in this area again by choice I would have given them a glass of something strong and sat them down on my couch for a long chat. Because obviously they'd lost their mind. If someone had told me a year ago that I'd be craving the bone-parching heat, I'd run for my life. That is just not me.

But here we are. By choice. And here I am, looking forward to the dry heat of midsummer, when all I want to consume is cold cucumbers and iced mint tea. If I am going to live here, if this is the land in those parched bones, if this is the land I am claiming as my own, I want to love it. If there is any time of year for me to make peace with, any landscape I know too well and loathed too long, it is the valley summer. So here I go.

Meanwhile, today, the rest of the continent is not so warm. My beloved Vancouver is a little rainy and tonight will drop into 40's. So, northern climes, before the spring drys out, before it gets too warm to bake, try this crisp.

Recipes abound for rhubarb-strawberry concoctions. Plenty of them call for orange rind. I did not find any that called for the rind to be candied. I had a jar of leftover candied orange peel in the refrigerator from my Christmas cakes (Panforte, Black Cake, and Fruitcake). I didn't want them to go to waste. So now I know, the orange rind will last 5 months at least. Good. My Black cake is still doing well too--mellowing quite nicely in fact.

I think the candied orange is fabulous in this, and it really doesn't take long to prepare. So do yourself a favor: just try it. The combination is revolutionary for me, as I have been a dedicated raspberry-rhubarb enthusiast until I made this. I usually find the strawberry- rhubarb combination too sweet or just too boring to satisfy. In fact, strawberry and orange or rhubarb and orange is revolutionary, as I always opt out of the orange peel, thinking it would taste awkward. But the combination of the sweet, fragrant strawberry, the tart, straightforward rhubarb, and the bitter, pungent orange creates a complete, rounded flavor that feels like an epiphany. But don't let me convince you.

Rhubarb-Strawberry Crisp adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit

This looks long, and I've made a few notes, but really, it's crisp. This is as basic as dessert gets.


4 cups rhubarb
4 cups strawberries
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup candied orange peel, preferably homemade*

Wash and cut the rhubarb into 1 inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Halve or quarter the strawberries depending on size (or leave whole, if they are very small). Add them to the rhubarb along with the sugar, flour, and candied peel. Toss to coat evenly. Set aside.

Crisp Topping:

1 1/4 all purpose flour
6 tablespoons brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2/3 cup ground pecans
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

Stir together the flour, sugars, salt, cinnamon, and pecans in a mixing bowl, Cut the butter into small pieces and work it into the flour mixture with your fingers or and electric mixer, mixing until the topping starts to come together and has a crumbly but not sandy texture. Set aside half the topping recipe for another use. The topping can be made ahead and refrigerated for a week or so or frozen for several weeks.

Assembly and Baking:

Preheat oven to Butter a large gratin dish or an enameled cast iron pot, something just big enough to handle all that fruit with it mounded in the center. Spread the fruit mixture evenly in the bottom, then sprinkle on the topping, pressing down lightly to form a crust and leaving no fruit exposed. Put the dish on a baking sheet to catch any overflowing juices.

Place in the center of the oven and bake for about an hour, rotating the dish once after 30 minutes for even coloring. When the crust is a deep golden brown and the juices have begun to bubble up the sides, remove the crisp from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Serve warm with vanilla or pecan ice cream.

*Candied Orange Zest:
original recipe from the first Tartine cookbook, via Louisa

3 large, unblemished oranges
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar

1. Remove the zest from the oranges: Run a zester from the top to bottom of the orange, cutting the zest into thin strips (avoid the pith). Repeat with the remaining fruit. Reserve fruit for another use. (Amanda's note: I apparently need kitchen tool lessons, because I learned in the process of making these orange strips that on my 'zester' there is the fine zesting end, with its little holes, and then there is the odd protrusion below the holes, like this, that allows for large, perfect strips of peel. Revelation! If your don't have one of these, simply slice off wide strips of peel and julienne.)

2. In a medium, heavy saucepan, cook the water and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the zest, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook at a gentle simmer until the zest strips become tender and semi-translucent, about 30 minutes.

3. Remove from the heat and pour into a heat-proof container. Cool completely, then store the zest in the cooking syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month (or, like me, 5 months!). You should have about one-half cup (3 ounces) of candied zest. (I had huge oranges, so I think I must have come up with more like 1 cup. This worked fine.)


  1. I just had the best serenditipitous moment! You'd left a comment on my blog (about the 21-day cleanse) and I clicked on your link to see if you had one, too. Simultaneously, I was thinking as soon as I was done checkin' out your site, I was gonna go thru some cookbooks to find a good rhubarb recipe. Lo! 2 for the price of one! So, I'm heading out to the garden & will cut myself some stalks o' rhubarb and follow your crisp recipe. Thanks so much for reading my mind :)

  2. Yeah! So glad this worked so well! Let me know how it turns out!