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Marisa McClellan's Cherry Butter

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I came into a glut of cherries this week, picked by a friend from the tree in his mother's garden. He and his wife ate themselves silly while standing on ladders leaned against the tree for picking, then pitted and preserved a whole bunch more, and still had a bucket or two left over after that. Did I want some, they asked. DID I EVER, I replied.

We drove to their place to pick up our loot. Hugo's just learning how to eat around a cherry pit, so we gave him a handful to celebrate with in the backseat while we drove home. "Chays!" he calls them.

The rest I pitted with my thumb and forefinger. These were small cherries and already past their prime. They were easy to pit like this, though my nail beds now look like I've been dabbling in the dark art of butchery. If you have fresher, bigger cherries, you would probably do better by using a cherry pitter, as canning and preserving expert Marisa McClellan says.

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It's from Marisa's first book, Food in Jars, that I got the recipe for what I made with those cherries: dark and velvety cherry butter. Don't think of actual butter, though. Think of cherries and sugar cooked down into a thickish, wine-colored mixture, then puréed until as creamy and smooth as, well, butter.

Did you know that I have strong feelings for fruit butters? (Exhibit A: this apple butter, one of the best things on this here website. Exhibit B: the roasted plum butter recipe in My Berlin Kitchen.) I do. I love them: their smooth yet faintly nubby texture, how they manage to be simultaneously tangy and almost toasted in flavor, and the way the fruit used always ends up tasting so concentrated, so deeply of itself, if you know what I mean. I like fruit butters on buttered toast, I like they way they swoop through yogurt (especially if the yogurt is swoopy itself), and I like them spread in a crostata or layered with cream and rolled up in a jelly roll (recipe forthcoming in the German baking book!).

General wisdom around here is that sour cherries are the cherries you want for jam-making, while sweet cherries are the ones you want for eating out of hand. And, you know, if the sweet cherries you can find are so plump and fresh that they crunch when you bite into them, then you should definitely just buy them by the pound and eat them all out of hand, spitting the pits out if possible. That's one of life's great pleasures, full stop.

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But. If your sweet cherries are a little old and dented, or if you share my intensity of feeling for silky fruit butters that drop luxuriously from a spoon, then you should try this recipe.

Marisa McClellan's Cherry Butter
Adapted from Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round
Makes 3-4 8-ounce jars
Note: As the subtitle of Marisa's book says, this is small batch canning - the recipe yields just a few small jars of precious cherry butter, which seems like very little indeed until you consider how long it took you to pit three pounds of cherries. If you can rope someone into helping you, I suggest doubling the recipe below.

3 pounds (1.4 kilos) sweet cherries
2 cups (400 grams) sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Pit the cherries. Wash four small jam jars and their lids in hot soapy water and rinse well. Set aside to air dry.

2. Place the cherries and 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) in a large pot. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers and let the mixture cook for 60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so.

3. After an hour, the mixture will be reduced and a deep wine color. Take off the heat and purée thoroughly (taking care not to burn yourself with any splatters) with an immersion blender. When the mixture is velvety smooth, taste it - if it needs more sugar, add some of the reserved sugar and stir well. Then stir in the lemon juice.

4. Return the pot to the stove and place over medium heat. The butter will start sputtering pretty quickly. Let it cook for another minute or so, until the butter is thick and spreadable (remember that it will thicken and set more as it cools).

5. Pour the boiling hot butter into the prepared jars, filling them up as far as you can. Wipe the rims, if necessary, then screw on the lids and turn the jars upside down to cool completely. The jam will keep, unopened, for at least 6 months.


Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese

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I've just returned from a week in Sicily, where Rachel and I taught our food writing workshop at the splendidly picturesque Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. I have so much to tell you, but the words and impressions and images are still swirling around in my head and haven't had a chance to settle yet. While I was away, Hugo and Max went to visit Max's grandparents in deepest Bavaria. They communed with sheep, cows and chickens, wore rain boots all week, and generally had the best vacation a little boy could hope for.

We all got home this past weekend, to an empty fridge and an uninspiring larder. Even the bread box was bare. And since stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, shopping was out. Mercifully, my mother had us over for lunch on Sunday. There were oven-baked polpette encrusted with breadcrumbs, roast potatoes, salad, and gratineed eggplant. After a week of being cooked for at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I thought I might feel like cooking again once I got home. But no, actually, being fed by someone else still felt pretty good.

At dinnertime, though, we were on our own. I picked up and considered a can of baked beans, a jar of millet, some carrots asleep in the fridge. I thought about doing a bit of tinkering. Roasting nuts, cooking lentils, trying to make something fresh out of the drabness staring back at me from the pantry. But after all that Sicilian home cooking - the expertly balanced menus, richly flavorful sauces, the vegetables that tasted so deeply of themselves and the earth, and crisp fritti - culinary experimentation felt a little sacrilegious. And after a week of not seeing my loves, the last thing I felt like doing was sequestering myself in the kitchen for an hour.

Instead, I went all the way back to the most basic of basics with the things I always always always have around: rice and peas and a little bit of broth; an abbreviated, simplifed risi e bisi. You could go elsewhere for more complicated versions of that classic Italian dish (David Tanis' with pancetta and pea shoots and lemon zest, oh my, or Rachel's via Marcella Hazan, with homemade stock, fresh peas and Italian rice). But in a pinch, it's good to know that cutting corners works just fine too. This is how I cook when I don't want to cook.

I heated olive oil in a pan, then cooked the rice (regular long-grain, nothing fancy) in the oil until it was toasty and fragrant. In went a lot of water, enough to cook the rice and still have a bit pooling in each plate after serving. The water sizzled as it hit the hot pan. Then a few spoonfuls of Better than Bouillon's vegetable base were stirred in. (You could also use a bouillon cube. I often do.) When the rice was halfway cooked, tiny droplets of oil pooling at the surface of the water, I added twice as many frozen peas, then let the whole mixture cook together until the rice was finished.

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I spooned the rice and peas into our bowls, the broth pooling just slightly at the edges, put grated Parmesan on top to shrivel in the heat and melt. It felt like the truest nursery food, calming and nourishing, piping hot and agreeably savory.

You don't actually need a recipe for this, I think. But sometimes it's nice to know about the simplest, silliest meals, how we feed ourselves when we must make do. Knowing how to make a little thing that will fill you up and taste like home is just as important as knowing how to make a feast. These are the dishes that end up making up the fabric of flavors of your life.

Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese
Serves 2 adults and one toddler

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup long-grain rice
2-3 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon vegetable base (or a bouillon cube)
2 cups frozen peas
Grated Parmesan, for serving

1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan, then add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is fragrant and slightly toasted. Pour in 3 cups of cold water and add the bouillon base. Bring to a boil, then reduce to the heat to a simmer, with the lid on and slightly askew.

2. After about 7 minutes, add the frozen peas and stir well. Raise the heat to bring the water back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer again and finish cooking, with the lid on and slightly askew, another 7-10 minutes. The rice should be soft but not mushy. There should still be some liquid in the pan.

3. Ladle the mixture into bowls and top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.


The Art of the Picnic

Picnic

Yesterday was Joanie's annual birthday picnic, which I look forward to like nothing else. Rain or shine, the picnic happens every single year. Everyone is encouraged to bring something to eat if they want to, but Joanie spends a few days preparing a bunch of her favorite things too - the result is a huge, diverse spread of absolutely delicious picnic food. Some things, like the brownies, potato salad and spinach-feta turnovers, are all-stars that make an appearance every year. But the rest changes with each passing year and with the guests who come. I love seeing the new things that appear and always wonder about the things that don't make it a second year. It's such a wonderful reflection of how the food culture is constantly changing and evolving.

In no particular order, here's what was served at the picnic yesterday (with the exception of the Turkish pide bread, the bread sticks, and - uh - the fruit, everything was homemade):

Seeded crackers
Meatballs
Carrots in dill vinaigrette
Spinach-and-feta turnovers
Jam bars
Almond cake
Fresh watermelon and cherries
Potato salad with yogurt or Quark (I think? It's the best creamy potato salad I've ever had.)
Pickled white asparagus
Quinoa salad with herbs and peas
Caprese salad
Hummus
Hamantaschen filled with cream cheese and guava paste (recipe in the comments!)
Lentil and parsnip salad
Stewed eggplant and tomato salad
Baked chicken wings
Stuffed celery
Grape leaves filled with yogurt, herbs and pine nuts (I think it's this recipe.)
Marinated tomatoes
Cheesecake with mandarin oranges
Brownies
Breton far with prunes
Beet salad with endives (or fennel?)
Spiced roasted almonds

Hungry yet? :)

Besides the food, Joanie always brings a couple of huge plastic tarps to spread out and then tablecloths to put on the tarps (the food goes on the tablecloth, the people sit on the tarps). There are coolers of iced tea and homemade fruit punch, bottles of wine and water. There are plastic cups (the same ones she's been toting there for the past 40 years and counting) and metal flatware and wooden spoons for serving. The only things that are disposable are the napkins and plates.

At the end of the day, our bellies full, the leftovers are divvied up and wrapped, the tarps and cloths are folded, the trash is collected and tied into bags. Those of us still remaining make our way down from the hill, the long grass tickling our legs, little gnats suspended in air and silhouetted in the setting sun. Some of my earliest, happiest memories are from Joanie's picnic. It fills my soul all the way up to think that now Hugo gets to have the same ones.


Writing. Something. Anything.

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Dear readers, much like this little bronze pig on a bridge in Wismar, I have fallen and I can't get up. Though something tells me this pig would characterize his prone position as something far more pleasurable and intentioned than I am able to. In fact, the more I think about it, I'm in more of a Samsa-ian cockroach phase than an indolent pig phase. But you get the picture. Metaphorically speaking, I seem to be somewhat...blocked.

I've decided that instead of belly-aching about it, I'm going to just make pretend that no one is reading and get back to writing. Something. Anything. Because if I keep letting my endless to-do list rear its head while the annoying little voice in my head that tells me I have nothing to say, the days will keep clicking by and I will become so paralyzed that I might never write again.

(I have a penchant for the dramatic, DONTCHA KNOW.)

So. Here is a list of stuff from my brain.

1. I went to London last weekend to see my best friend (we stayed here, it was perfect) and while there, we had a glorious dinner at Barshu, the Sichuanese restaurant in Soho for which Fuchsia Dunlop consults. We had pickled vegetables and bang-bang chicken and fish-fragrant eggplant and ma po tofu and it was so good that we ate until it hurt (literally), and then some. I didn't sleep much that night - do you ever sleep well after gorging yourself? - but it was worth it.

2. Did you know that I am a serial cuticle biter? I have been since I was 13 years old. It drives everyone who knows me absolutely bonkers. Keeping my nails short and manicured helps keep this filthy habit somewhat in check, but it's a little weird to spend so much time in the kitchen with fire engine red (or Yves Klein blue!) nails. I recently discovered Deborah Lippman's Naked, though, and it's the best nude nail color ever for an olive-skinned neurotic home cook like myself. It has a sort-of monochrome, sort-of sixties thing going on with my skin and makes my nails seem really elegant and cared-for, when nothing could be further from the truth. (I like to alternate weeks of keeping my nails neat and tidy and then having them fall apart completely in an anxiety-riddled gnash-fest.)

3. After falling hard for Kate Atkinson's Life After Life last year and then actually screaming out loud (seriously) when I read the news that she was writing a sequel of sorts to it, I got my grubby little hands (see previous point - am currently in the second phase mentioned) on A God in Ruins last weekend. I'm forcing myself to read it in small doses because...wait...I don't actually know why. It's quieter than Life After Life, if you know what I mean, less of a compulsive page-turner, and more of a meditation on life and its compromises. But I've had all sorts of epiphanies while reading it and I'm only a third of the way in, so I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like it, a lot.

4. Joanie's annual birthday picnic is in an hour. I'm bringing wedges of nicely sour German cheesecake with mandarin oranges and squares of really simple apple cake made with a super-thin yeasted dough, both of which are from our most recent round of recipe testing for the book. (For more on the progress of the book, check out my Instagram profile.) I'll report back in case any of you are also total picnicophiles and need some inspiration.

And with that, I leave you. For now. Thanks. xo