Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Last-of-the-Blackberries Cobbler

Last-of-the-Blackberries Cobbler

Now that she has absolutely no idea who I am, my 92-year-old grandmother likes me just fine.

Whenever I stop by her nursing home she greets me with a grin and the same question: "Should I know who you are?"

Nope, I always assure her, you don't know me at all.  I'll offer her my arm and for a few minutes we will toddle around the yard, making polite chat about the weather and the relative cleanliness of any cars in the lot. Back at the door of her building, she'll thank me for the outing. If she's had a good morning at bingo, she might even press a mini KitKat or a few peanut M&Ms into my hand.

It wasn't always like this. Although reportedly thrilled to welcome her first grandchild, her enthusiasm for me waned from then on, bottoming out around the time I learned to talk. Decades of holiday phone calls went exactly like this: "Hiya, kid!" she'd cry, then, "Now, pass the phone back to your dad." 

It's an odd thing to have a grandparent who dislikes you; after all, liking grandkids is the main item in their job description. It's odder still when you have a lot in common with that grandparent. My grandma did a lot of things that, even as a kid, I considered cool. She traveled extensively, sewed stylish clothes and knitted complicated sweaters, and always had some screwball craft project on the go, usually involving repurposed rhinestone jewelry and/or googly eyes.  We shared a lot, but only indirectly. We never traveled together. I took sewing lessons at a yarn barn, and learned to knit from a friend.  I started my own stockpile of rhinestones and googly eyes from scratch.

It was only when it came to cooking that I felt some traction. When we visited she'd pass around gooey sandwiches and rich casseroles and I'd think to myself, Surely this is something remotely like love. 

Cobbler was one of her classics. She made it with whatever fruit was in season or in the deepfreeze--most often foraged blackberries or marionberries, a testament to her thrift and persistence.  Sometimes she'd tell me and my parents that the cobbler on the table had been made with the last of the frozen berries, and I'd read into that that she was really happy to see us.  

Cobbler was one of the last things she made before she and my step-grandfather left their home for a assisted living facility.  She'd already slipped pretty far, and her last cobbler was not, alas, her best, but more importantly,  she invited my dad and me over for the making of it, to train us in the way of cobbler.  Better late than never. 

My grandmother was in my thoughts when I set out to gather enough late-season blackberries for one last cobbler.   Along with her craftiness I inherited some more dubious tendencies, most notably stubbornness and irrational thrift.  The latter drove me out into the alley for one last forage, despite the bounty already in the freezer; the former spurred me to stretch to my full tip-toed height, determined to reach a juicy cluster dangling overhead.  I inevitably overbalanced and took a comical spill into the brambles, emerging snagged, scratched, juice-spattered and laughing, recalling a story about my grandma's first week in the locked memory-care unit.  

Finding herself unable to roam freely and unable to understand the reasons for her confinement, Grandma took action.  When the coast was clear she pushed a planter against the wall of the patio; my 5-foot grandma clambered over the 7-foot wall and tumbled onto the grass on the other side.  She brushed herself off and walked around to the front of the building where she was seen and apprehended as she tried to totter out towards the main road (surely one of the slowest-speed chases on record).  

When my dad heard the story he asked her if she was scared trying to climb down from that high wall.  

"Oh, no," she insisted, "when I was a kid I used to do things like that all the time."

"But Mom," my dad pointed out, "that was eighty years ago."

So maybe I'll also inherit her selective regard for the passage of time.  I used the berries I gathered to make the summer last just a little bit longer.  Although the recipe I use is neither my grandma's (which calls for shortening, a non-presence in my kitchen) nor my mother's (Bisquick, same story), the cobbler turned out pretty well.  I would have liked to share it with Grandma, to see if she'd have anything nice to say about a total stranger's cooking.  

Cornmeal Cobbler

2 lbs fruit or berries, fresh or frozen (but preferably free!)
up to 1 c sugar
2 Tbs cornstarch
3 Tbs sugar
1 c cornmeal
1 c flour
2 tsp bp
¼ tsp salt
1 c buttermilk
½ tsp almond extract
1 beaten egg
4 Tbs melted, cooled butter

Mix the fruit and the sugar (to taste) and spread in a shallow baking dish. Whisk together the starch, 3 Tbs sugar, cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix the almond extract, buttermilk, egg, and butter, and stir into the dry ingredients. Top the fruit with large spoonfuls of batter. Bake 30-35 minutes at 375.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Xoi Nep Than

Xoi Nep Than
Mekong Grocery, $1.65

I recently took a joyride on Seattle's new light-rail train, which currently runs from downtown to almost Seatac airport (the airport terminal is due to open soon, followed by more northern stations). It was a great ride--smooth enough for my creaky bones, but bumpy enough to delight David, a talkative 12-year-old fellow joyrider seated across the aisle (he was so adorably excited to take his first train trip that he high-fived the ticket inspectors).

Somehow rocketing along either far above or far below ground level messes with my internal map, so it wasn't until the trip back towards town that I realized the Mount Baker station is mere blocks from one of my favorite Asian shops, the Mekong Rainier Grocery. When I was housesitting in the neighborhood several years ago I made almost daily trips for single-serving portions of spongy duck egg custard, cut in thick golden slabs and laid across a little bed of black sticky rice cooked with coconut milk.

Alas, things have changed. The Mekong is bigger and more bustling, but the slabs of custard are no more. The salesgirl I asked said that it just didn't sell well enough (starting the moment my housesitting gig ended, presumably). So I had a pack of xoi nep than instead; the same mass of coconut black rice, but topped with a schmear of sweetened mung bean paste and sprinkled with flaked coconut. Not quite as luscious as custard, but good enough fuel for a train trip.

Mekong Rainier Grocery
3400 Rainier Ave S
Seattle, WA

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Homemade Amazake

Aspergillus oryzae is practically the stem cell of Japanese cuisine.  A benefical mold, aspergillus plays a key role in foods and beverages as diverse as miso, soy sauce, pickles, rice vinegar, shōchū, and sake.  Perhaps one of the most surprising uses of this protean spore is in making a sweet, creamy pudding called amazake.  When added to cooked grain, the aspergillus enzymes digest the complex carbohydrates, rendering them into mouth-watering simple sugars.  

For the home cook, the most convenient form of aspergillus is kōji, rice deliberately infected with the mold.  In Japan, groceries sell kōji in refrigerated plastic packets that look like long-forgotten leftovers:  kernels of rice bound together by a furry blankets of pure white mold.  In Seattle I was able to buy freeze-dried kōji (Cold Mountain brand, $6.99/20oz.), tiny white pellets that look oddly sanitary and keep for up to a year in the fridge.  

Instead of following the instructions that came with my kōji, I used Sandor Ellix Katz's recipe.  Although the recipe appears complicated and strict, I made nearly every possible blunder and still ended up with edible amazake.  

The most common base for amazake is sweet rice but I opted to use millet instead, cooking the grain very soft and allowing it to cool somewhat before mixing in the kōji.  I didn't have the gallon jar Katz calls for, so I doled my batch out into three pre-heated quart jars, then put them in an insulated bag and poured in hot tap water.  

Overnight the bag popped open and the water temperature dropped much lower than it should have.  The amazake was sweet but not intensely so, so I added more hot water.  A mere hour later I could see white fur and small puddles of alcohol starting to form:  uh-oh.  I quickly brought the whole batch to a boil to stop the fermentation.  

I ended up with about 2 1/2 quarts--plenty to share around.  Although amazake is certainly not to everyone's liking, I've found that it quickly grows (no pun intended) on anyone willing to give it a chance. Because the bran on the millet was intact, my amazake is much chewier than versions made from white rice; if I had a food processor, I would probably run it through for a creamier texture.  Amazake can be eaten hot or cold, or diluted and drunk as a hot or cold drink.  Katz recommends vanilla, ginger, espresso, or slivered almonds as seasonings, or nutmeg and rum for ersatz eggnog; I enjoyed a warm cup with several spoonfuls of cocoa powder.  Amazake is also recommended as a sweetener for baking, and my friend Margaret used part of her share to make pancakes.  

Check out more travel-related treats at WanderFood Wednesday...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Ice Cream Cruise

Chocolate Root Beer Float
Sunday Ice Cream Cruise, $4

Preconditioned by the high-end ice cream parlors springing up all over Seattle, I boarded the
Sunday Ice Cream Cruise with unrealistic expectations.  I figured on having to choose between, say, salted caramel and blackberry-zinfandel sorbet; in reality, it was a toss-up between an ice cream sandwich and a root beer float.  

To be fair, the Ice Cream Cruise is only nominally about ice cream.  After launching from Lake Union Park at the south end of the lake, the vintage ferry chugs past some spectacular sights--the Center for Wooden Boats, Gasworks Park, the new high-rise marina, Ivar's, and countless coming-and-going seaplanes.  At the helm is Captain Larry, an entertaining old salt whose loudspeaker spiel namedrops luminaries ranging from John Wayne to Dale Chihuly.  As the ferry passes the clusters of floating houses on either side of the lake, Larry steers in close for a fantastically voyeuristic view.   Among the houses on the east side is a floating shack that then-teenaged Captain Larry had the opportunity to buy for $600; he passed and it's now worth $600,000.  

The 50-minute Ice Cream Cruise departs hourly, 11-5, almost every Sunday of the year.  Adult fare is $11, with lower rates for seniors and kids.  The downstairs galley supplies coffee, soft drinks, and a limited range of ice cream treats--including a "world exclusive" chocolate root beer float.  

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tokaragashi II

Tokaragashi, $10/3

It's a lovely coincidence that Tokara's monthly "open house" and my birthday both happen on the 10th.  This year, instead of the usual chocolate-on-chocolate cake, I enjoyed a small box of three of Tokara's high summer sweets.  

Gourd (above) has a core of matcha-flavored smooth bean paste encased in cast kanten (agar jelly) with domyoji (crushed rice) for extra texture and a suggestion of snow flurries.

Summer Shade (below) is a single adzuki bean nestled on white bean paste, wrapped in a shimmering skin of gold-tinted kanten:  no need for candles when your birthday treat generates its own glow!

Gourd and Summer Shade are still available through the retail outlets listed on Tokara's website.  Tokara's next touryanse happens September 10th.  Call ahead to reserve a box of seasonal sweets as beautiful as they are delicious. 

6208 Phinney Avenue North
Seattle WA 98103

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dried Apricotsicles

On my trip to Japan last year, I spent quite a lot of time shopping for budget souvenirs at 100-yen ($1) shops.  Among my haul were four individual popsicle molds made of (packable) silicon rubber.  I have them in pretty much constant rotation right now and every time I pop out a perfectly formed sicle it occurs to me that good design is a real pleasure.  The popsicles are short and fat, but not overly large; each mold has a strap that wraps over the top to hold the stick in place and little feet that keep it stable in the freezer.  

The fact that the molds are separate instead of conjoined encourages experimentation; I can make one or two on a whim, or fill one mold with ingredients that would make a unappetizing mess should they happen to slop over into another.  

My first attempt at making apricot sauce for anzu kori    If it seems odd to be using dried apricots at a time of year when fresh ones are widely available, consider that drying intesifies the fruit's natural sugars. If, like me, you are taking a break from sugar, this is one of those magical treats that is satisfyingly sweet without the help of any added

Two of the popsicles in the group shot below are made from my first attempt at apricot syrup for anzu kori.  I used unsulphured dried apricots and a recipe for stewed fruit compote.  Although I omitted the most overtly Christmasy spices, I've really been enjoying spicy foods this summer, so I decided to throw in a little cinnamon and both powdered and grated fresh ginger.  While a lot of homemade popsicles come out hard and icy, thanks to the fruit pulp these are tender and velvety.  

1/2 lb dried apricots
3 c water
1/4-1/3 c sugar (optional--the fruit is pretty sweet on its own)
1 Tbs mixed spices (eg ginger, cinnamon)
1 Tbs lemon juice

Rinse the apricots in cold water and let them soak for 2-3 hours in a saucepan covered in 3 cups clean, cold water.  Don't drain!  Bring the apricots and water to a boil and lower the heat.  Cover and simmer gently until tender (20-25 min).  The apricots should be falling apart, but mash them a little; the texture should be like a chunky applesauce.  Stir in sugar (if using) and quickly take off the heat.  Stir in spices and lemon juice.  Cool to room temperature.  Fill popsicle molds and freeze 4-6 hours.  Refrigerate the remainder of the fruit. 

Friday, August 7, 2009

Anzu Kori

Today's sweet is brought to you by poor planning and wishful thinking. 

While teaching English in Japan in 2000 I read about Ki no Zen, kanmi dokoro (old-fashioned parlor serving tea and sweets) located near Iidabashi station at the the bottom of the Kagurazaka slope, one of Tokyo's historic geisha districts. Of the countless versions of kakigori (shaved ice with various sweet toppings) that make Japanese summers bearable, Ki no Zen specializes in anzu kori, ice topped with sweet-tart apricot syrup. The article described Ki no Zen's anzu kori as so popular that on hot afternoons a telltale line of waiting OLs (young "office ladies") spills out the unremarkable front door and into the street.

I longed to join them, but for some reason (possibly my days off coincided with Ki no Zen's?) I never made it. When I went back to Tokyo last summer Ki no Zen was near the top of my list of spots to visit. But there were so many distractions; I put it off a little longer, a little longer, until finally I made it there too late. It was the end of September and still sweltering, but Ki no Zen's menu is based on the calendar rather than the thermometer, and they had long since served the last anzu kori of the year.

As Seattle began to heat up earlier this month, my thoughts returned to anzu kori and I resolved to try making my own version based on the descriptions I'd read.  One article mentioned dried apricots (which seemed a little odd given that summer is the season for fresh ones) so I started with a modified stewed fruit recipe.  The result was tasty but not at all what I had in mind--dark brown, nearly opaque, and totally lacking the tang of fresh apricots:  essentially, highbrow baby food.

So back to fresh apricots, then.  While I don't in any way claim that it's in the same ballpark as Ki no Zen's, my homemade anzu kori was simple, pleasant to look at, and quite refreshing.  I added only a touch of sweetness and a squirt of lemon juice to underline the apricots' natural tartness and protect their glowing color.  

Freestyle Anzu Kori

1 lb fresh, just-ripe apricots
3/4 c water
2 tsp lemon juice
1-3 Tbs honey
shaved ice

Dice the apricots and remove the pits.  Bring the apricots and water to boil in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the apricots are soft and their skins are totally indistinguishable from the pulp (15-20 min).  Remove from heat.  Mash the apricots further with a fork or potato masher; leave some small chunks for texture.  Stir in lemon juice and honey to taste.  Chill and serve over bowls of unsweetened shaved ice.  

(As I mentioned in Montezuma's Reward, I'm currently sans food processor, so for my shaved ice I froze 2 Tbs of vodka in 2 1/2 cups of water, then used a fork to grate the soft-set ice.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Back Alley Blackberry Brown Betty

How's this for locavore?  A brown betty made with wheat-cider bread from the Macrina Bakery a few blocks away, and huge, juicy blackberries from the alley out back.  (All other ingredients courtesy of the neighborhood Trader Joe's.)  I believe that the original recipe came from a Whole Foods' flyer a few years ago.  

Blackberries have me under their spell these days.  I can't go anywhere without scanning the scenery for unplundered patches, or gazing impotently at those enormous jet-lack clusters that flirt from just beyond my reach.  I carry a plastic baggie at all times and am always scratched up like the loser in a girl fight.  I marvel at the fact that members of the same cluster ripen at different rates, making it possible for me to get a good crop from the same bush that my neighbors harvested only the day before. The 4 cups of berries called for by this recipe took me all of 10 minutes to collect.  

Blackberry Pecan Brown Betty

4 Tbs melted butter 

½ c sugar 

8 oz bread in ½" cubes

4 c blackberries

½ c pecans

¼ c lemon juice

Coat a 1 1/2 quart baking dish with butter and sugar.  In a big bowl, pour the melted butter over the cubed bread and toss to coat.  Add the berries, pecans, sugar, and lemon juice, and mix gently.  Transfer to the dish and sprinkle the top with sugar.  Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes at 375.  Remove the foil and back another 10-15 minutes.  Let cool for 10 minutes and serve with whipped cream or ice cream. 

Check out more delicious blog posts at Wanderfood Wednesday...