Strawberry jam with balsamic and black pepper

Strawberry jam

Can I make a shocking confession? I don’t love strawberries. I mean, I don’t hate them (it’s not like they’re oranges or anything); I like them fine. I just don’t swoon for them in the way that so many others do, particularly at this time of year.

But I have gained a newfound respect for them after a recent visit to a strawberry farm down in Watsonville. The good folks over at Foodista let me write it up for them, so go check it out. 

Ever since that visit, I’ve had berries on the brain. I can’t ignore them as I walk through the markets. For someone who doesn’t love them, I sure seem to have some kind of crush on them. If I were a schoolgirl, I’d be writing “Strawberries” over and over again in my Trapper Keeper. (Do kids still have Trapper Keepers? Am I dating myself? Though you have to admit, iPads do sort of look like a Star Trek — TNG, not original — interpretation of Trapper Keepers.)

Consequently, we’ve had a lot of strawberries in the house of late. Mostly, they find their way into our morning yogurt, perhaps alongside some banana and certainly with homemade granola, staving off scurvy for yet another day. But there isn’t enough yogurt in the world to complement the bounty of strawberriness upon us. And so, as is my wont, I’ve been jamming.

But you know me, right? I’m just not content to let well enough be. There’s no shortage of people in the world, or even in this condo, who are happy to eat just plain strawberry jam, but I’m not one of them. No, I just have to screw with it, just a little.

I already planned to add a little black pepper, as I adore the combination of berries and pepper, but then a Twitter friend recommended balsamic, and that appealed to my sensibilities very much indeed. And so a plan was hatched.

With one batch, I kept it just plain for the first half, then added some balsamic and pepper for the latter half, so I could compare apples to apples … er, strawberries to strawberries. The regular strawberry jam was good: Bright, undeniably strawberry. But the adulterated batch was strawberry plus. Still strawberry, no mistaking, but with lingering and haunting notes that gave it a layer of sophistication.

Perhaps I can grow to love strawberries after all.

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Stuffed artichokes, revisited

Stuffed Artichokes

Whoever first looked at a spiny orb at the end of a fibrous stem protruding from a large plant with pronged leaves as sharp as sabers and thought, "Yum, I'm gonna have me some of that" must have been very hungry indeed. By now, we of course have conquered the artichoke, learned how to tame its talons and soften its hard flesh. 

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event for the afternoon. At the Grand Tasting, I nibbled on offerings from a variety of high-profile chefs. Not everything was great, but highlights included Hosea Rosenberg's seared beef tenderloin with ancho sauce on some delicious cheesy grits; a delightfully balanced canapé of pate, foie, crisp-fried lotus root and some kind of sweet relish from Hudson Valley Foie Gras; and a too-small but still memorable bite of crispy lamb's tongue from Seattle's Tom Douglas.

On the drive home, I passed through Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world, where 75% of the US supply of artichokes are grown. Driving alongside fields with rows and rows of shaggy thickets with green globes popping up, the siren song was too strong, and I pulled over at The Thistle Hut to buy some. There, for a mere dollar, I picked up three mighty, head-sized round buds with a good two inches of stalk still attached.

A few years ago, I wrote about my mother's stuffed artichokes, which is pretty much the only way I had ever had them until I moved to California in my 20s. When it comes to big globes like these, it's still my preferred way to eat them. However, the recipe is no longer in step with the way we stock our pantry. We don't have store-bought bread crumbs, for example, nor garlic salt, nor parm in a can. But these are all convenience ingredients, and the inconvenience in recreating them from fresh ingredients is, in my opinion, negligible. And hence today I present my updated version.

I made one other adaptation. My mother always makes these for special occasions, and therefore in large quantities. I had just three chokes, so instead of using a big roasting pan, I used my largest enamelized Dutch oven. Making them in smaller quantity and in a better-sealed cooking vessel had two effects: It shortened the overall cooking time, and created more of a steam oven. The leaves were less wizened, but the bread crumbs still crisped nicely on top.

When the chokes are in and plentiful, there's no reason to save this for a special occasion. We normally ate them after the main meal on a holiday, just before or sometimes alongside dessert. I enjoyed these three as three consecutive days of lunch; I also think they'd make a pleasant surprise as a brunch entrée. They're fine warm or room temperature, but I like them best cold, right from the fridge, especially when you finally reach the ultimate quarry, the cool, creamy heart.

Stuffed artichoke aftermath

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Winter Salad

Winter salad

This is my favorite season for salad. I love the sturdy, bitter greens of winter, and am eager to consume as many persimmons and pomegranates before their time ends, all too soon.

This salad was inspired by Food Blogga’s riotously colored salad of dandelion greens, persimmons and medjool dates, but of course we couldn’t let well enough alone. We definitely wanted persimmon arils in there, for their tart-sweet bursts of zing. Fresh fuyu persimmon and toasted pecans added sweetness and crunch. We also wanted to offset the dandelion greens with another green that would temper the bitterness and add some lift; the dandelion greens are so flat, they are sometimes difficult to get on the fork. Some lovely chioggia chickory did just the trick, the flecks of red mirroring the red dandelion stems and bright pomegranate pips.


But the biggest diversion was by replacing dates with hoshigaki. To the uninitiated, as I was just a year ago, hoshigaki are hachiya persimmons that have been peeled, then hung to dry. (In Japanese, hoshi=dried and kaki=persimmon; when words that begin with a “k” sound are merged with words that end with a vowel sound, the “k” converts to a hard “g.”) During the drying process, they are gently massaged. During this process, sugars bloom to the surface, resulting in a fine, powdery coating. This lengthy and meticulous process has earned them the nickname of the Kobe beef of persimmons.

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The great tomato canning of 2008

Yes, kittens, it’s that time again. Time when the bounty of summer comes tumbling down all around us, when we must work like hell to preserve produce at its peak of perfection lest it slip through our fingers for yet another year.

We’ve not done as much canning this year as we have in years past. In 2006 in particular we frenetically canned everything that wasn’t nailed down. But based on last year’s successful tomato canning venture, we knew we had to do it again.

Last year, working with our friends Nick and Russ, we processed and canned 80 pounds of luscious heirloom tomatoes, netting six gallons of bright marinara sauce. This year, we upped the ante and went for 100 pounds. Gluttons for punishment, we are.

While we once again worked with ripe, organic heirlooms (luckily more ripe than our friends’ quarry), Nick this year opted for a variety that was largely based on beefsteak. This not only resulted in a richer color, but a sauce with more body as well.

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Heirloom tomato sauce


Summer is a time of simplicity.

I’ve been trying to simplify on multiple fronts lately — cutting away unnecessary complications. Somehow, though, every time I trim away one complicating factor in life, at least one other springs forth whence it came. Life is a complex garden to tend.

Food, on the other hand, does genuinely get simpler during the summer months. The bounty of the season serves up a riot of colors and flavors that need only a gentle hand to bring forth their already robust offerings.

I adore the heirloom tomatoes we get here in the Bay Area. I won’t get into the seemingly neverending dialog about whether our tomatoes are better or worse than those back east — like corn, my memories are of richly-flavored vegetables that I have yet to parallel out here — but rather suggest that these are an entirely different creature, worthy in their own way and on their own merits.

While maybe not as burstingly flavorful as New Jersey romas (to say nothing of genuine San Marzanos from the slopes of Vesuvius), they do have a wonderful, bright acidity and, of course, a particularly charming appearance. I love their gnarled, bulbous shapes and pastel colors. especially the ones that seem to bleed from a cheery yellow to dusky sunset pink. Skyblue-pink, my grandmother used to call that color.

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Jane’s (sorta) Homemade Sweet Pickles

Jane’s (sorta) homemade sweet pickles

Sweet pickles are a staple at the Southern table, particularly the lightly sweet bread-and-butter variety. The recipe for these pickles came from my mother-in-law, Jane. During our last trip, she had a jar of these out on the table during one of our lunches. Ascertaining they were homemade, I asked how she made them. As it turns out, these homemade sweet pickles started out as a whole other creature: Store-bought dill pickles.

Jane explained how to take whole dill pickles, slice them down and immerse them in a vinegar syrup to create an instant version of bread-and-butter pickles. Of course the first question that flashed through my mind was, "why not just buy sweet pickles?" Then I tasted them.

I happen to like sweet pickles, but I know many people who do not. For some, the sweetness itself is the problem; they are too cloying and sugary. For others, it’s a texture violation, as sweet pickles tend to be mushier and sometimes even mealy. By starting out with crisp, sour dills, this quick recipe turns out refreshingly balanced sweet-sour and crunchy pickles. My friend Matthew, who is among the clan of sweet-pickle haters, asked, "why would you ruin a perfectly good dill pickle?" Ultimately, he capitulated and said that these were the best sweet pickles ever.

Jane quick-cans these by simply putting heated lids on the jars. I’m a little paranoid about such things, so I did the full-on canning thing, ten minutes in a boiling water bath and all, just to be safe. But she’s been doing it her way for decades, and no one has reported any problems so far, so I may cave in just yet. I imagine the high acidity of the vinegar as well as the high sugar content will keep most pathogens at bay.

Simple though this recipe is, and using store-bought foods besides, it has actually been handed down a couple of generations so far, and anything that has stood the test of time that long is good enough for me. And anyway, they’re your pickles in your jars, so that fully qualifies as homemade. Sorta.

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All Choked Up

All choked up

How I’m loving the newfound explosion of spring vegetables at the market — eensy heads of lettuce, demure little bulbs of fennel — but most exciting are the mounds of baby artichokes. (As opposed to the bad boys pictured above, from last month’s visit to San Diego’s Hillcrest Farmer’s Market.)

Seems everyone’s been jumping on the artichoke bandwagon lately. Ilva’s whipped up some delicious-looking (and of course gorgeously photographed) oven-baked artichokes with sausage, lemon and breadcrumbs; single chef Ben pairs them with shrimp for a springy salad; Gluten-Free Girl Shauna enjoys them in a creamy risotto; and Sam revisits her artichoke panzanella, making “the best thing she ever did” even better.

Matt goes to the source, getting chokes (and more stunning images) directly from the field. He prefers his steamed, straight up with butter and aioli. Who can argue with that? I also seem to have read a recommendation of serving them with hummus, which sounds both tasty and somewhat less artery-clogging.

The batch of babies I purchased at the market got two treatments: First, I pared them down and split them, then browned the cut sides and braised them in a little chicken stock, lemon, garlic and red pepper flake. Then, inspired by a salad I had at Incanto recently, I shaved them raw, thinly, directly into a salad of baby fennel and shredded romaine hearts with a light lemon vinaigrette. Raw, they had a bright, grassy flavor and a strong perfume.

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Limoncello di Hillsborough


While the state of California was in the grip of the worst freeze in recent history, and citrus producers up and down the valley were suffering catastrophic losses, I enjoyed a bumper crop. Our friends Donna and Dennis had recently moved into a gorgeous house in Hillsborough, complete with a petite but prolific lemon tree in the back yard. One night, they brought us a paper shopping bag full of them.

Some were ready for use right away; others were still on the hard side and would benefit from a little quiet time in the corner, extending our enjoyment. Over the next couple of months, I made spaghetti al limone, chicken with fennel and lemon, a monster batch of preserved lemons and lord only knows how many vodka tonics. And we still had a mountain of the things left over.

I practically had to make limoncello.

I’ve been meaning to do so for quite some time. I’ve often been inspired to do so by my good friend Anita, a fine ‘cellist in her own right. She’s made not only limoncello but a seriously heady bergamocello, an ethereally perfumed Buddhacello (from a Buddha’s hand citron) and a difficult-to-name bloodorangecello, as well as any number of other interesting concoctions (such as a seriously complex nocino that I am still enjoying precious sips of, sparingly, two years later).

At its most basic definition, limoncello is simply the combination of a lemon-infused neutral liquor mixed with simple syrup. It’s less a recipe than a technique or, as I often think of such things, an equation. Algebra.


To wit: Limoncello is the product of lemon zest and vodka of a given proof, left together for a quantity of time, after which you strain out the zest; to which you then add a simple syrup of sugar and water and let it rest again for a period of time to mellow and blend. How much of each of those variables is what drives your final product.

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Hillcrest farmer’s market

Thursday I made an unscheduled trip to San Diego to be with my mother after an equally unscheduled surgery. She’s fine, but I was glad to come down to be with her and help her out around the house while she recoups.

But as long as I’m down here, I couldn’t turn up the opportunity to check out a farmer’s market. Some quick research indicated that the best of the bunch is the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market on Sundays. To find the foodiest market in the gayest neighborhood was an unexpected treat.

A quick jaunt down the 163 dropped us within blocks of the DMV parking lot that houses the market, where we also found parking without too much fuss. Dorothy, I’m not in San Francisco anymore!

I of course expected to see different things at this market. While the Bay Area is just waking up from the grip of winter’s chill, SoCal enjoys a robust growing season pretty much year round. While we’re scraping to get creative with root vegetables and dark leafy greens, San Diegans are enjoying artichokes the size of your head, billowing cumulus clouds of cauliflower and tomatoes fer chrissakes. And while we’re just now seeing tulips and daffodils, they have long-stem roses, orchids and tuberoses.

Perhaps the biggest difference was in the presence of diverse and beautiful exotic fruits, such as mangoes, bananas, passion fruit and more than one vendor selling cherimoyas. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to try some of these unusual treats.

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