Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Bible of berries

The Berry Bible
by Janie Hilber
William Morrow 2004

This may be the best single-subject cookbook I own. Not only does it have delicious, reliable, and inventive recipes, it also offers comprehensive information on 41 types of berries, including history of cultivation, culinary uses, picking and storing information and a color supplement of identification photos. 

Hilber explores so many types of berries it can be torture to read this book in winter. I highly recommend perusing it in early summer; it will help you plan your summer. And maybe your vacation. And what you will grow in your garden.

Even though I have loved this book since I got it (one of my rare full-priced brand-new purchases) I forget how much good stuff is in it. I just noticed her handy table that converts ounces to cups of berries and a table of puree yields for different types of berries.

I thought I knew my berries, but it turns out I, and most likely you Dear Reader, are woefully ignorant of the bounty that is out there. Here are just some I have never heard of: arbutus, buffalo berry, jostaberry, ohelo berry, and salal. Others I have only read about, such as cloud berries and salmon berries, as they are both highly regional and highly perishable.

Interspersed through the text are sidebars on Native American ways with berries, quotes on berries from literature and history, as well as remembrances from foragers, cooks, and eaters.

Beautiful and delicious
In short, this book makes me happy. And the recipes are excellent. They include drinks, salads, soups and entrees as well as the expected baked goods, desserts, and preserves. Her Raspberry Buttermilk Muffins are my standard now. They have excellent balance between sweet and tart.

Things I want to try this summer: Staghorn Sumac Lemonade (I haven't had this since summer camp), Black Currant Conserve, Boysenberry Honey, and Boccone Dolce (chocolate coated meringue disks topped with whipped cream and strawberries).

I may try her Perfect Strawberry Shortcake. I am sure it is good. It calls for a scratch baked biscuit, strawberries, sugar and cream. Nothing weird nor any attempt to gussy up what is, when done right, perfection. But I am wedded to my own version, which is my mother's, which was her mother's version.

It too is made with a biscuit. While strawberry shortcake does have the word cake in its title it MUST be made with a biscuit. Strawberries on cake with cream is also a lovely dessert but it is not the same thing. And those of you who have only had strawberry shortcake using those pre-packaged spongy rounds from the grocery store, well…I just feel sorry for you.

Strawberry Shortcake for a day in June

whipping cream
confectioner's sugar

While it is still cool in the morning make your biscuits. Unless it is very humid; they won't hold well, so make them later. You do this early so that the kitchen will be cool when you eat this for supper. Yes supper. It is wonderful as a dessert, but for a pure summer moment, have shortcake for dinner.

I use Christopher Kimball's' recipe from the Yellow Farmhouse Kitchen cookbook. I like the texture--short but not too crumbly and the addition of vanilla rounds out the flavor. One recipe will serve 4 for dessert, and 2 for supper.

You, of course, may use whatever biscuit recipe is your favorite. Even Bisquick or Jiffy Mix works, though both are saltier than a homemade biscuit. You'll have to adjust the sugar accordingly. You want to make drop biscuits; their rough texture and browned bits is more appealing for this than a rolled biscuit.

While the biscuits bake, or at least an hour (two is better) before serving, slice the strawberries. You need a good pound, pound and a half for 4 people. Better to be too generous than skimpy. And you can always have any leftovers for breakfast.

Hull and slice the berries into a bowl. Add sugar. This is where it gets tricky. I admit I do this by eye and by taste. It is slightly different each time, because berries vary so much. I start with a quarter cup--it may take up to ½ a cup. Put in a smaller amount first and let the berries macerate until they release their juices, 30 minutes or so. Mash about half the berries in the bowl--you don't need to separate or measure out half. Just press down with a potato masher, or if you are among the fortunate, your grandmother's strawberry masher. Let sit another 30 minutes or so until you have a beautiful jewel-like blend of syrup and strawberries.

When it is time to eat, whip a cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Add a smidge of confectioner's sugar--1-2 Tbs for the whole batch. You want the rich cream to contrast with the sweetness of the berries, not override them.

Do not add liquor to the berries or the cream. Do not try using fancy turbinado or maple sugar for the white sugar with the berries. You think it will enhance; it doesn't; it just muddles the berry flavor. I know, because I have tried. Herbage in the cream or the berries can be nice--but then it becomes something other than strawberry shortcake.

Split the biscuits, place half in a bowl, generously cover with strawberries and syrup. Splodge a lot or a little of the whipped cream, per your constitution. Top with the other half of the biscuit. Try to squish it down into the berry mixture a bit so it, too, can soak up some of the juices. Serve with any extra berry mixture and cream. This way you can adjust for the proper ratio as you eat. Ponder the fleeting nature of summer as you eat with joy.

If there are leftovers (and if you are canny you will squirrel away some extras from your guests; any amount put on the table tends to get eaten) this makes a sublime breakfast.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

There's gold in them there hills!

I've never been lucky with mushroom hunting. Like all Michiganders I am familiar with morels and the lore around them. I keep a sharp eye out when walking in the spring and have gone out once or twice to find some but to no avail.

Always prized and usually elusive, morels are the stuff of legend--the serendipitous glade full of morels found while walking; the secret spots that produce year after year; injunctions about preferred habitats and neighbors: dead oaks, old apple orchards, burn patches. In fact there is no logic--just luck. In this way, morel stories remind of me of fish stories---"and it was THIS big."

Over 14 ounces!
But in recent years, my mother has found one or two each spring in her yard and this May we hit the mother lode! We were positively giddy as we picked them--carefully leaving a few to spore out and hopefully come back again next year.

But what to do with them? While always good simply sautéed in butter with salt and pepper, this seemed to call for a greater effort. But it's actually hard to find a good recipe that celebrates the morel without overwhelming them. In fact, it's hard to find recipes at all. Some of my upper Midwest books mentioned them, but most recipes used dried mushrooms. Others were less than forthcoming with details about cooking them. The consensus was simpler is better. In fact, the morel entry in the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery from 1966 basically implied it was insane to do anything but sauté them.

I did check out Kitchen Magic with Mushrooms from the Mycological Society of San Francisco, but the recipes just didn't appeal. But I do like this book. It is utterly charming with little line drawings in the margins and half sheets illustrating each genus. The cover drew my eye at a book sale because it reminds me of the Florentine papers used in book binding. The recipes, which cover many types of mushrooms, run the gamut from simple to complex. Some are a little convoluted as a way to use up mushrooms and justify the hunt, such as Maramisus Cookies, which combines chocolate chip cookie dough, maraschino cherries and fairy-ring mushrooms. Ugh. Others seem quite palatable, including Puffball French Fries.

I must say that the book has not inspired me to go mushrooming beyond the easily identifiable morel and puffball. The book is quite clear that it is not an identification guide, but reading caution after caution, makes me…well…cautious. Not to mention all those British murder mysteries that employ mushrooms.

In the end, I went with a simple and delicious recipe from Molly O'Neill's A Well-Seasoned Appetite: Recipes from an American Kitchen that mixes sautéed morels with cream, pasta and a little cheese. It was magnificent! This book deserves it own entry, so look for that in the future.

Fettuccine with Morels

1 Tbs butter
3 Tbs chopped shallots
½ pound of fresh morels
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbs cognac (I used brandy)
¼ c. heavy cream
2 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound dried fettuccine
3 Tbs chopped Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the morels and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the cognac or brandy and let cook off a bit. Add the cream and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Longer won't hurt and may be better as long as you keep the heat low--you want to infuse the cream with all the good morel flavor.

Meanwhile, get the pasta water boiling. Cook fettuccine until al dente. Drain, reserving some liquid, and mix with the morels and cream. Add the cheese and parley, pepper, and salt if needed. Add ¼ to ½ cup of pasta liquid to loosen sauce as needed. Like all pastas--eat it while it is hot and fresh. I finally realized that one of the reasons pasta is traditionally served as a first course is because larger portions cool and congeal too quickly. Serves 4 as a main course.


I'll close with something I noticed on a trip to New Orleans at the beginning of Carnival season. In making conversation with locals, it seemed natural to ask them where they liked to view parades but I got a weird vibe after asking this. After noticing the hemming and hawing along with the vagueness of the answers I realized, "Oh! That's like asking someone at home where they find their morels. It's simply not done." In fact, even after people move in Michigan they still don't tell their spots (you know who you are!)