One of my favorite stalls at the farmers market is run by two young women who always have friendly greetings and interesting offerings. They have bunches of several varieties of basil along with many other herbs. Earlier in the season they had garlic scapes, fava beans, and a wide variety of Asian vegetables. They have bins and bins of tomatoes. But they also have an amazing selection of eggplants: not just the big purple tear drops that my grandmother grew but also white, variegated, Japanese, Italian, long, and green varieties. On my last visit I found eggplants that I had never seen. They were labeled as “Indian”, but their distinctive characteristic was that they were only about the size of a hen’s egg. They looked so cute that I bought them, although I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. You could stuff them with shrimp, Cajun-style, for individual servings. You could make an eggplant tapenade, but that would subvert the whole idea of miniature vegetables. I guess you could steam them and serve them by themselves. Of course, if you think of eggplant you think of ratatouille, so I bought some tomatoes, squash, peppers and onions as well.
I have long thought of ratatouille as a dish that is delicious but labor-intensive. That’s because the first time I ever prepared it years ago I followed Julia Child’s recipe exactly. Each vegetable was cooked separately and slowly to maintain its shape and color before combining with all of the other ingredients and then simmered gently to meld the flavors. In short, Julia’s version is not a dish that you start when you get home from work. The mystique has even been amplified by the wonderful Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille. In the movie, the signature dish prepared by the rat was an elaborate layering of slices of eggplant, squash, tomato and pepper. Beautiful to behold. And if you go to the web these days there are several versions of the recipe that use a similar artful arrangement of vegetables. Again, not something you would whip together before the evening news.
I think of a farm family sitting at their dinner table in Provence. I suspect they enjoy a good ratatouille but I doubt that it is in delicate layers. For that matter, a good shakshuka in Israel or bibimbap (add some beef and rice) in Korea may employ the same or similar ingredients without a lot of fanfare in their preparation. In other words, ratatouille should be easy to make and still be wonderfully delicious. This recipe just tosses the vegetables together, uses mushrooms, and adds a poached egg – definitely not authentic ratatouille, but a good way to use miniature Indian eggplants.
Salted zucchini rounds
Vegetable mix ready for braising
Not Exactly Ratatouille with poached eggs
Not Exactly Ratatouille
- 6 small Indian eggplants
- 2 small zucchini
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 small white onions
- 6 medium mushrooms
- 4 small ripe tomatoes (about 4-5 inches in diameter), halved
- 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and slice into ¼ inch thick rings
- 1 small can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
- ½ cup dry white wine (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon ground thyme to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 eggs, poached
- Trim the tops of the eggplants and slice them in half lengthwise. Do not peel. Slice zucchini in ¾ inch rounds. Sprinkle the cut vegetables generously with Kosher salt and place in a large sieve over a bowl for 30 minutes to draw out water, Blot dry with paper towels. Over a high flame, grill the vegetables for a few minutes until lightly browned with grill marks (if desired). Remove from the grill and set aside until ready for assembly.
- Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or lidded oven-proof vessel over medium heat. Add the grilled eggplant and zucchini along with the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, green pepper, tomato sauce, wine and seasonings.
- Cover the Dutch oven and transfer to the middle of an oven preheated to 300°F. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables are fragrant and tender. If there is too much liquid, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce. Adjust the seasoning and serve, topped with 2 poached eggs for each serving.
Our local cherry season is over. At its height, I had promised my grandson a Black Forest cake. But one thing led to another and the promise just never got kept. Not to worry! Cherry season in the Northwest is still going strong, so I bought the cherries from the grocery store. Now, authentic recipes for Black Forest cake call for canned or preserved cherries, but to my mind fresh is always better. If you use fresh, just be sure to pit them. Authentic recipes also describe the chocolate cake as a “chocolate génoise”, but that is beyond my baking skills and requires more time than I had allotted to the project. Instead, I used my mother’s favorite recipe for chocolate cake.
There could not be an easier cake to bake nor a tastier one. You dump all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix them up with an electric beater, You can sift the dry ingredients to prevent tiny lumps of unbaked flour, but that added step still falls within my bounds for easy. I’m not certain where my mother got the recipe. Perhaps it was from a cookbook of the Great Depression, a newspaper clipping, or even a conference for school cafeteria workers. My mother was a “lunch lady” complete with hair net. Every week she turned out schoolhouse spaghetti, mac and cheese made from giant blocks of USDA surplus commodity cheese, and other hot lunches that the kids loved. On Fridays she always baked a batch of her wonderful pan rolls that the kids fought over and the teachers begged for. My mother also specialized in desserts – especially chocolate cake. I suspect she used this recipe.
Finally, I used whipped cream for the filling and canned whipped topping for the decorations on the top. Some recipes call for a more elaborate sauce based on crème anglaise. And canned whipped topping would be unheard of. In short, this was not an honest-to-goodness Black Forest cake and it was definitely not suitable for a cover shot for Bon Appetit, but it was close enough and good enough for both me and my grandson. He deemed it “delicious” and asked for a second slice.
Basting the cake layers with Kirsch syrup
Whipped cream to stiff peaks
Layer on the whipped cream
Next the pitted cherries
Building the cake
Great Grandma’s Chocolate Cake
- 2 cups flour
- 2 cups sugar
- ½ cup cocoa
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1¾ teaspoons baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- ¾ cup neutral vegetable oil
- 1 cup hot water
- 2 eggs
- Sift the dry ingredients, flour, sugar, cocoa, salt and baking soda, into a large mixing bowl.
- Add the buttermilk, oil. hot water, and eggs. With an electric beater, either a stand mixer or hand-held, beat the mixture until well combined and smooth. Do not overbeat.
- Distribute the batter equally among three 8-inch cake pans that have been greased and floured. Bake for 20 minutes in the middle of an oven preheated to 375°F. Test for doneness with a toothpick, and when done , remove to a cooling rack. After 10 minutes, remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on the cooling rack.
Black Forest Cake
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup Kirsch
- chocolate cake baked in three layers (see above)
- 2 pounds (about) fresh Bing cherries, pitted
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 pounds (about) fresh Bing cherries, pitted
- canned whipped topping
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to the boil until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the Kirsch. Cool.
- With a pastry brush, brush the Kirsch syrup generously on the tops of the three cake layers.
- Whip the cream and sugar until the mixture forms stiff peaks.
- Arrange one of the cake layers on a serving plate. Spread generously with half of the whipped cream. Arrange pitted cherries on the whipped cream. Top with one of the remaining cake layers and repeat the whipped cream and cherries.
- Top with the remaining layer. Decorate with whipped cream rosettes using the canned whipped topping. Decorate with cherries. Chill until ready to serve.
Cook’s Note: The cake recipe can also be used for two 9-inch layers, cupcakes or sheet cake. Use a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan for the sheet cake and increase the baking time to 30 minutes.
Our local farmers market is moving into high season. The market is just a couple of paths in a high school parking lot lined with a couple of dozen or so stalls. It is modest compared with the vibrant green market in New York City’s Union Square or the wondrous carnival at the Ferry Building in San Francisco; it pales next to the huge market in nearby Torrance. But visiting the various stalls and merchants has become a Sunday ritual for our family. By this time of season, green peas are gone, and asparagus is just hanging on as the weather gets warmer. Sweet cherries have given their last gasp. Plump ears of corn are on limited display. Tomatoes have made a tentative appearance; it’s still too early for the big, juicy specimens of late summer. Right now, the stars of the market are berries of all sorts and stone fruit of every variety.
This last week, the family met at the market in search of ingredients for our Sunday meal – all, that is, except the recent high school graduate who has taken to sleeping late and enjoying the days of summer before she heads off to college. The plan was for her mother to find some fruit for a fruit sauce so that on our return the graduate would arise and prepare pancakes for all of the exhausted shoppers. That plan served a secondary purpose: a crash course in basic cooking skills before the fledging leaves the nest. Everything worked as planned, and we enjoyed a delicious late breakfast. In fact, I liked them so much that I made my own batch a few days later and topped the pancakes with maple syrup that Peter and René had brought to us a gift from their recent trip to Montreal.
Lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry sauce
Whipped egg whites
Lemon ricotta pancakes
Lemon ricotta pancakes with Canadian maple syrup
Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
- 1½ cups flour
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- juice of 1 lemon, strained + zest from the lemon
- In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- Separate the eggs and set aside the whites.
- In a larger bowl, beat together the egg yolks, ricotta, buttermilk, butter, lemon juice, and zest.
- Stir the dry ingredients into the liquids, making sure they are well combined but taking care not to over-beat
- Whip the reserved egg whites to form stiff peaks. Then by thirds, gently fold them into the batter mixture.
- Let the batter rest for about 15 minutes while you heat a griddle over medium heat.
- Pour ½ cup of batter onto the griddle for individual pancakes. Do not crowd, and work in batches. Turn the pancakes when bubbles have formed on the surface and the edges are golden brown. When both sides are browned to your liking, serve immediately or transfer to a warm oven until all the pancakes have been prepared.
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons lemon juice
- 1½ teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 cups fresh blueberries (strawberries would also work)
- Or, you can make it 2 cups of your favorite fruit
- In a small sauce pan combine the water, sugar, lemon juice and cornstarch, stirring to make sure the sugar is dissolved and the corn starch is completely dispersed. Place the pan over medium-low heat and, stirring frequently, bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to simmer. Add the fruit and cook until the mixture has thickened and the fruit has begun to release its juices, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and serve over the ricotta pancakes.
Since our move to Los Angeles, Sunday dinner with the family has become a tradition that we all enjoy and do all we can to avoid missing. The dinner was originally Carol’s suggestion, and her rules were very simple: We would rotate between our house and her house. The host was responsible for the main meal and the visitor was responsible for an appetizer with drinks along with dessert. The rules were modified when, as is our wont in this competitive family, the appetizers grew ever-more complex and caloric. They were tasty, but it became clear that our bathroom scales could not sustain the weekly onslaught to our “diets”. Thus, the appetizers were downsized to crudités or nuts. Even with this revision, there is plenty to eat, and the food is always thoughtfully planned, cooked and anticipated. Every week, my grandson begins to ask around Tuesday or Wednesday what’s planned for Sunday. The pressure is definitely on.
Even though the food is always excellent, for me – and I think for others – the highlight of the evening is the conversation. Everyone brings us up to date on their activities and news of the past week. Then we review activities of the week ahead so that schedules don’t conflict and duties are assigned. What follows is a lively, free-ranging conversation in which everyone contributes. We steer clear of politics, not because of differences but because we’re mostly politicked-out by the weekend. New movies and music are popular topics, especially with the teenagers. Current events and community activities are also included in the discussions. This last Sunday was a little melancholy. We were still enjoying the excitement of high school graduation and the anticipation of the next chapter in a young life. But the euphoria was tempered by the realization that our granddaughter would not be part of the conversation in a couple of months. She would be clear across the country, engaged with new challenges and new friends. Perhaps that made the conversation this last Sunday even livelier than usual. Still, we’ll have the rest of the summer to enjoy our granddaughter before she is off.
Frederick, South Dakota ca. 1920
Frederick, South Dakota, ca. 2000
Carol made a delicious meal: roasted pork, glazed carrots from a recipe by Ina Garten, a savory rice pilaf, and a salad that included watercress, fresh cherries, and strawberries all from the farmers market that morning. It was my turn for dessert. Cherries are just about finished for the season, so I thought of Black Forest cake, but some of the family doesn’t like cake. Stone fruits are just beginning to reach their peak at the farmers market; there were apricots, peaches, many varieties of plums, pluots, and nectarines – no lack of choices for a juicy pie. Everyone likes pie, so the basic choice was made. Looking for ideas, I turned to the beautiful cookbook, Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, written by the two sisters, Emily Elsen and Melissa Elsen, who left successful New York City careers to start their famous pie shop in Brooklyn, now with at least three outlets in the city. The sisters hail from Hecla, South Dakota (population 227) just down the road from Frederick (population 199) where my mother grew up. That makes their terrific pie recipes (and images) more neighborly and not so “big city”. I chose their version of nectarine and blueberry pie. I found both the nectarines and blueberries at one of our family’s favorite stands at the farmers market. I made a few changes in the recipe (of course) but this is essentially the recipe from Emily and Melissa.
Salad with watercress, strawberries, cherries
Nectarine and Blueberry Pie
- 3 cups sliced nectarines (about 3-4 fruit)
- 3 cups blueberries
- zest from ½ lemon
- juice from ½ lemon, strained
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- dash Angostura bitters
- two rounds of pie pastry for a nine-inch pie (I used prepared pie crust from the frozen food section of the grocery store)
- 1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water and pinch of salt for egg wash
- turbinado sugar
- In a large bowl, combine the nectarines, blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and bitters. Mix gently and set aside while you prepare the pie crust.
- Roll the pastry dough if necessary to fill a 9-inch pie pan. Arrange one of the rounds in the pan and chill for 15 minutes in the refrigerator. Then add the fruit mixture to the chilled pie shell.
- Top the filling with the remaining pastry round or you may cut the round into strips to make a lattice top. Crimp the edges of the pie and, if you are using the whole round, cut several vents near the center.
- Using a pastry brush,, paint the top crust with the egg wash and sprinkle generously with turbinado sugar. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes
- In the meantime, arrange the racks in the oven so that one is at the lowest level and one is in the middle of the oven. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack and preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Place the pie in the middle of the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Then lower the oven temperature to 375°F, transfer the pie and the baking sheet to the middle rack, and bake for an additional 30 minutes.
- When the pie is golden brown, remove from the oven, transfer the baked pie to a cooking rack, and cool completely.
- Serve warm or at room temperature. Add a scoop of ice cream if you wish.
Things just seem to come together at the farmers market. Vegetables and fruits that complement one another seem to ripen together. Maybe not, but there are combinations that work, like strawberries and rhubarb or squash and corn. Another great combination is dill and favas. They both peak in the spring and trail off in the summer. A while back at my favorite market stall I found some beautiful fronds of dill tied up in bundles along with a big bin of favas ready to be scooped up. I was mindful of the effort that lay ahead of me, but the earthy taste of fresh green favas compensates for the work involved to prepare them. Although favas can be used in many ways once they are shelled, a simple preparation highlights their flavor. Nothing could be easier than this way to serve fava beans.
Fava beans out of the shell
Fava beans with outer shell removed
Fresh dill fronds
Dilled fava beans in sour cream
Dilled Fava Beans in Sour Cream
- 3 pounds (about) unshelled fresh fava beans
- ½ cup finely chopped fresh dill fronds
- ½ cup sour cream
- juice of ½ lemon
- salt and pepper
- Shell the beans by pressing the seam of the pod between your fingers and popping the beans into a container.
- Blanch the beans by adding them to a large pot of boiling salted water. Return to the boil after adding the beans and boil for one minute. Drain and chill immediately in ice water.
- With your thumbnail, pop the thick bean coating open and squeeze out the bean to a waiting container.
- When you have finished shelling all of the beans, combine them with chopped dill, sour cream and lemon juice. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Chill until ready to serve.
Family Sunday dinner was off this week because Carol, her husband, and their daughter had an important school event. Susan and I spent the evening with our grandson, so I decided to fix one of his favorite meals, shrimp and grits. That Southern classic clearly needed a traditional Southern dessert to go with it. I thought about banana pudding ringed with vanilla wafers. What Southern cafeteria or Southern school lunchroom doesn’t have their own version? That led me to cream pie – in particular, banana cream pie – and as I was free-associating, bananas Foster. I know that shrimp and grits is very much part of the Low Country of South Carolina and Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina while bananas Foster is quintessential New Orleans and Brennan’s. Cream pie is more or less middle ground and definitely Southern, but traditional banana cream pie dressed up a bit with the flavors of bananas Foster might be tasty. This is my spin.
The topping is Swiss meringue, but you could top it with whipped cream. You could even set it ablaze with some added heated brandy like a baked Alaska. Then you would wind up with an even more authentic bananas Foster.
Bananas Foster Cream Pie
- ¾ cup dark brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 cups milk
- 5 egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons banana liqueur
- 2 tablespoons dark rum
- 1 9-inch baked pie shell in a pie pan
- 2 bananas
- In a heavy bottomed saucepan, combine brown sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Stir to combine evenly. Gradually whisk in milk to form a smooth mixture. Whisk in the egg yolks until they are completely incorporated.
- Place the pan over medium-low heat and stir constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and continue to stir for several minutes until the mixture is thickened and smooth.
- Remove from the heat. Stir in the cinnamon, banana liqueur and rum.
- Let the mixture cool for 15 minutes while you prepare the bananas.
- Peel the bananas and cut into ¼-inch slices, spreading the slices across the bottom of the baked pie shell.
- Pour the cooled filling over the banana slices. Chill the pie while you prepare meringue.
- 5 egg whites
- 8 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt in a bowl that can be set over – not in – a saucepan of simmering water. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch. Remove the bowl from the water bath and beat with an electric mixer at high speed for 5 minutes or until the mixture forms stiff peaks.
- Remove the pie from the refrigerator. Spread the meringue over the pie being careful to completely cover the filling.
- Place the pie with topping under a preheated broiler for only a moment or two until the meringue is lightly browned. At this point it is very easy to burn unless you are paying constant attention.
- Remove the pie from under the broiler. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.