11 June 2009

When life gives you cherries...

With Karen globetrotting again this week, I was set for another dinner destination cycling trip. Those trips take a lot planning: there's a wealth of worthy destinations within a 100-mile radius of Paris, and a wealth of possible routes for each, and I have to spend days scoping out the restaurant websites, needing a bib for me and a drool cup to protect my keyboard while comparing menus. It's hell, I tell you. But this week's trip was scrapped before it started, thanks to a new knee pain that's developed over the last 2 weeks. So there'll be no pictures of Fancy food to share this week. Instead, I was left here to wrestle with the excesses of food shopping in Paris.

It's not uncommon in Paris that I come home from the market with a lot more of something than I planned. When we first got here, that was because I had a hard time figuring out how much of something I needed. Not because I'm a metric-retard, but because I buy more foods by weight here than at home, and my guesses on portions were sometimes comically inaccurate. How much arugula do I need for 2 people for 2 nights? Considerably less than 500 grams. How many squid come in a kilo? More than 1 person could possibly need. Between calibrating my mass estimator and learning phrases for approximate amounts (a small bag, a handful), that doesn't happen (so) much, anymore.

These days, I come home with too much because I just get seduced by what I find, particularly fruit. Anybody with ears has heard me rant about the bitter letdown of bad fruit. But for those without, here it is for eyes. A main purpose of the succulent flesh of many fruits is purely seduction: to entice some creature otherwise minding its own business to take it and transport the seed(s) inside some distance from the parent plant. These fruits should be so bright, fragrant, and sweetly delicious as to be irresistible. Of course, most fruit is picked well short of ripeness, gassed for color, and shipped halfway around the world where it qualifies culinarily as colored styrofoam. Not to mention as an insult to nature. Ripe fruit, though, is always a treat.

You don't need to be a genius to figure out what the good fruit is. You just look for truck loads of it at reasonable prices at every market. Ignoring for a moment that they're pseudo-fruits botanically, the fraises (strawberries) and gariguettes (also strawberries; a variety grown mostly in southern France) have been abundant and (more) affordable lately. But cherries are the fruit of this moment, and the good ones are jammin'. Huge mounds of dark red, almost black, shiny fruit are everywhere, and just as nature intended, I can't help but buy loads of them.

So it was that I found myself with more time on my hands than I'd expected, and about a kilogram more ripe cherries in the refrigerator than I could gorge myself with before they spoiled. What to do? I'd already pickled a bunch of them a couple of weeks ago, and though a nice accompaniment for savory foods, there's only so much of that you can eat.

A collection of round foods: pan-seared cote-du-porc with baby potatoes, super-sweet early peas, and "pickled" cherries.

Cherry tart? Just made a rhubarb tart (with an almond pastry cream) last week to use up last week's impulse buy. How about something like a cherry polenta pudding? It wouldn't keep long enough for me to get through it; or more accurately, I shouldn't be eating as much of it as would be necessary to get through it. Don't have an ice cream maker, or I'd have been all over that. Chilled cherry soup (maybe with red wine, a little thyme, and crème fraiche?) would have been great, but again too much for 1 person to eat before spoiling. I needed to make something that would keep awhile. Chewing on a piece of one of Eric Kayser's amazing baguettes smeared with a little raw-milk churned butter, I reached for the jar of bitter orange preserves in the fridge to find it almost empty. I got halfway through writing “jam” on the grocery list before I realized I'd finally found my use for the jammin' cherries.

Now, I'm no baker, and I'm even less a confiturer (confiturist?), so I don't have a recipe for making jam. But really, how hard can it be? Cook fruit, add sugar, and cook until thickened. I don't have a cherry pitter, so I just cut each cherry in half, twisted it like an oreo, and popped the stone out with the knife tip. When they're really good and ripe, even a kilo goes pretty quickly. I chopped a bunch of them up a bit, put them all in a pan with a little lemon juice and cooked until they were soft. The only tricky part is figuring out how much sugar to add. Though the fruit is pretty amazing by itself, the high sugar content thwarts Evil growths. It seems that most people add roughly ¾ the volume/weight of the fruit in sugar, so that's where I started. For a non-confiturist, that made for an alarmingly large mound of sugar in my beautiful deep red pan of cooked fruit. So I added a bit more lemon juice and zest. And since I'm the one making up this recipe, I also added a little ground ginger and freshly and finely ground pondicherry black pepper (which has a little caramely/toasty flavor) to highlight the flavor of the cherries and add some zing, and cooked it quickly until it thickened a bit. It was remarkably simple.

My first ever jam. I like it.

Since I have space in the fridge to store it and will probably go through it in the next couple of months, anyway, I didn't bother sterilization and whatnot. I just boiled the jar and lid (and a juice glass for the overflow) ~5 min, added the hot jam, and chilled. It'll stay clean at least a couple months, by which time I'll surely have bought too much of something else. I just hope that isn't broccoli rabe.

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