Tuesday, August 18, 2009

California dreamin'.

Heirloom tomatoes
I was pleased to have caught chef Dan Barber's editorial on late blight in last Sunday's New York Times, despite my being in The OC and the lure of another almost foreign daily (that would be The Los Angeles Times). Late blight -- even the name sounds boring, and maybe a bit more serious than it actually is. The disease does not harm people, but it can decimate potato and tomato crops across an entire region within days. It was one of the first topics of conversation when I returned to work in New York. My boss wanted us to be sure we understood what it was and the effects it was having on the local tomato crop (i.e., fewer tomatoes, higher prices). Mostly, he wanted us to be prepared for customers to grill us on the origins of the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes we serve in our panzanella (New Jersey). It's been a long while since I fielded questions from a customer so engaged, but I'm glad to carry some of Barber's wisdom with me and to pass it on.

Understanding where food comes from and the obstacles farmers face in getting that food to market has helped foster a deep appreciation for the hands that feed me. It also helps me relish the local, seasonal food I encounter while in different parts of the country. In California, where late blight was nary an issue, I enjoyed beautiful, local heirloom tomatoes as much as possible. The gems pictured above and below were on the menu at The Winery restaurant in Irvine, Calif. Sliced and layered with a creamy burrata, topped with a touch of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic and micro arugula, they embodied summer on a plate. But like summer, all good things come to an end, and I was reminded of that when I picked up my CSA share this week: two baby heirlooms and a pint of sun gold tomatoes. All delicious, I assure you, but regrettably not as plentiful.

Heirloom tomatoes 2

Friday, August 7, 2009

All eyes on nectarine pie.

I'm not a dessert person. When a good meal ends and most minds turn to something sweet, I'm the guest who craves a nice piece of cheese or another glass of wine. OK, maybe I'll sneak a bite of your flourless chocolate cake or creme brûlée (because who doesn't love flourless chocolate cake and creme brûlée?), but rarely does another catch my eye, and if it does, rarely do I indulge.

I have theories regarding my dessert indifference. One is that it stems, like so many of my food preferences, from my childhood. In my mind, we weren't a dessert family. Yes, there were always cookies in the Cookie Monster cookie jar, and boy did I love me some puddin' pops, but I remember those indulgences being just that: occasional snacks and treats, not a regular after-meal course. Another theory is that my brother got all the sweet-tooth our genes could afford. Watching my brother eat dessert is one of my most thrilling pastimes, his dedication and endurance legendary.

Pie filling

Last night my brother ate two pieces of this pie to my one, although I easily could've had another. Turns out, the right kind of pie is more than mere dessert: it's an event, a celebration of seasonal fruits, family (in this case, my aunt's birthday) and butter. Oh, how I love butter. And really, there's not too much in this recipe. Just a cup to make the crust nice and flaky. Inside I packed a combination of fleshy, sweet nectarines and tart blackberries from the fantastic Avila Valley Barn in San Luis Obispo, Calif., along with toasted slivered almonds. I used as little sugar as possible, wanting the fruit to shine. A little lemon juice helped keep things bright, and while so many fruit pies call for cinnamon, I used nutmeg.

Making this pie was as satisfying as eating it. Nectarines are one of my favorite fruits, and they bake beautifully, softening while retaining their shape and texture. The blackberries burst like tiny paint sacks, dotting the filling deep magenta. The almonds added crunch, and the crust was flaky in all the right ways.

Juicy, tart, earthy, sweet. Dessert, I'm eying you.

Oh, pie!

Nectarine and blackberry pie with toasted almonds


2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, chilled and diced, plus 2 tablespoons more
1/2 cup ice water
5 medium nectarines, peeled, deseeded, sliced
1 1/2 cup blackberries
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg white, beaten (optional)

In a large bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups flour and salt.

Cut in 1 cup butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Stir in ice water, a little at a time, until mixture becomes a doughy ball. Cut in half.

Wrap two balls in plastic and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

Roll out to make two 9-inch pie crusts.

In large bowl, combine remaining (1/4 cup) flour, sugar, nutmeg and almonds. Gently mix in nectarines, blackberries and lemon juice and vanilla.

Line pie pan with one crust, spoon in filling, top with second crust.

Seal and flute crust edges.

Brush top pastry with egg white. Cut slits in top.

Protect edges with foil strips; these will be removed in the last 15 minutes of baking.

Bake at 425 degrees for 35-45 minutes, until crust is golden brown.

Serve warm with vanilla bean ice cream.

Serves 6-8.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Will travel for coffee.

View from Lamill
OK, maybe that's a little extreme. But whether traveling or at home, I will shamelessly seek out the finest cuppa joe a town has to offer. Coffee, for me, is like pizza: I've never met a cup (or slice) I didn't like, but some are definitely better than others. In New York, I get my caffeine fix at places such as Abraço and El Beit; being an Oregonian, I've enjoyed watching the Stumptown Revolution in Brooklyn and beyond, and I like to visit there and Albina Press when in Portland, Ore. I often dream of living in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, just so I could saunter up to the Blue Bottle kiosk every morning (never mind that I love nothing more than starting my day with a pot of French press at my kitchen table). Philadelphia's La Colombe, Rockland, Maine's absolutely stellar Rock City Coffee, I could go on...

Lamill signage

Then there's Southern California, where a solid 75 percent of my family resides. Kéan's is really great, and I used to love the Diedrich's in Old Orange before it morphed into a Starbuck's. On my most recent visits, my uncle and I have traded tips and taken turns pulling shots and whipping up lattés on his in-home espresso maker, which is all fine and good. But it turns out my love of coffee is just as much about, well, coffee as it is coffee shops, with their crush-worthy baristas, obscure magazines and piles of newspapers, always spinning the perfect soundtrack for the occasion.

Clam fritters

Imagine the happiness I felt yesterday when I entered Lamill Coffee. Radiohead was playing softly and the 20 or so tables were abuzz with quiet chatter. My mom and I were mid-way through our drive from Orange County to her home in San Luis Obispo, and the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles seemed as good a place as any to break. I'd read about Lamill on Ruth Reichl's Twitter feed, of all places, and some research revealed I needed to check it out, not just for the coffee but the food, too. Mom and I shared a totally indulgent lunch of clam fritters with yuzu kosho mayonnaise and a panino of coffee-rind cow’s milk cheese, scallions, chorizo and piquillo pepper, served with house-made potato chips, olives and cipollini onions. All very good, but the yuzu stole the show, brighter than lemon or lime, super tangy and perfect as a dip for the fritters (as intended), as well as my half panino and chips (inspired)!

Chips and yuzu

Just as impressive is Lamill's drink menu, several pages in length and featuring coffee, espresso and tea. Serious coffee geeks will appreciate that they offer five methods of extraction and three times as many varieties of beans. Anyone not from L.A. will appreciate that they serve a green tea called "Nip and Tuck," which promises to "firm the skin and reduce fine lines around your eyes and mouth naturally." They also serve the Best Iced Coffee in Los Angeles, as voted by Los Angeles Magazine. Mom tried that with a little milk and was still shaking four hours later. I opted for my usual, an Americano. Not as much crema as I've seen or like, but still good enough to have me daydreaming about my next trip to L.A., something I never thought I'd do.

Yummy coffee