The Passion Fruits

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A Taste of the Mediterranean: Catalan Bread with Tomato

So, yes, recently Mr. T and I returned from a wee vacation in Spain with the rest of the family T. And, while there was allegedly internet access (via “dongle”), it wasn’t all that reliable and there were so many other pressing things to do… playing with adorable the niecelet, conquering castles, eating tiny fish, and, uhm, sitting on the beach, sitting by the pool, etc.

In any case, though, how about a lovely little snack for when you’re not doing any of those things, but would like to be? Direct from Spain–or Catalonia, depending on where you are and who you ask–and far more than the sum of its admittedly humble parts. This is one of those, “really, this is going to be tasty?” recipes. I mean, at it’s most basic, it’s just a piece of toast with garlic and tomato smushed into it.

Doesn’t sound that all that appealing, really. But it is. Crunchy bread; hot, pungent garlic; sweet, juicy tomato. It’s really got everything–particularly when you opt to lay on a few olives or bits of anchovy. Even better!

As with all simple things, this one really depends on the quality of your ingredients. You want a nice, big, end of season tomato that, hello, tastes like a tomato. A nice, knarly-looking heirloom that might just be a bit too soft for salads? Perfect.

Your bread should also be beyond reproach–a nice simple country loaf will do fine. Avoid sourdough. Use the finest salt and olive oil that you have, and if you’re going to garnish with anchovies or olives (and I suggest that you do) for lord’s sake use good ones.

The below recipe is for two slices of bread. Obviously, this can be multiplied several times over with ease, and the finished slices could be cut into smaller pieces for a cocktail ‘do and that would be totally bueno. Just remember that they shouldn’t sit around too long. The bread should still be warm and the tomato should only penetrate so far. There’s no magic in cold, soggy bread; so serve them up as you make them with sunshine and panache.

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A Taste of Vienna: Gurkenlimonade

On a recent trip up to New York, I dragged Mr. T to the Neue Galerie for a little visit with Gustav Klimpt and some pretty tea sets. Mr. T, usually game for such cultural attractions, wanted to take a nap instead, so we first detoured to one of the gallery’s two cafes for a restorative bit of cake.

He settled on a piece of linzertorte and an espresso. I was entranced by the idea of gurkenlimonada, a lemonade with cucumber. I also just like the word: “gurkenlimonade”. Tee hee.

And it was delicious. With a refreshing flavor that matched its sprightly green color (theirs was greener than mine was… still working on that…) it was just the thing to perk us up for an afternoon of gallery hopping. It’s quite a delicious cooler on its own, but makes for a fabulous end-of-summer cocktail with a slug of gin–a cucumber-heavy one like Hendrick’s would be just perfect to take the sizzle off of hot Indian Summer day.

One word of warning, though. Do this pretty close to a la minute. It tastes lovely, fresh, and cucumber-y when combined together, but as the  mixture sits it gets a little… pickle-y. Not a bad thing, really, but not as good as it is when freshly mixed.

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Dining Out: Big Problems with Small Plates

One plate, two plate. Red plate, blue plate. So many plates. Plates everywhere. Especially small plates. DC has definitively caught small plate fever and, good lord, do I wish there was a cure. So visceral, at this point, is my irritation with this cultural misappropriation that I find it hard to articulate it. But I’ll do my best.

It seems like practically every new restaurant opening on hip-again 14th Street is specializing in small plates. Or, if they’re trying for some sort of ethno-street cred, “tapas”. I’m sorry, but tapas are Spanish, which is how we end up with all sorts of ridiculous hypenations: Asian tapas, Czech tapas, Southern tapas, pork-related tapas, and my personal favorite, Latin-Asian fusion tapas. That’s THREE different food cultures to mangle together and make annoying. Good show!

To begin with, there’s how the staff, clearly having been indoctrinated in some sadistic, Jonestown-y, Kool-Aid kind of way, breathlessly explain to you about how very DIFFERENT and EXCITING their special way of dining is. You see, they say, the plates are small (but meant for sharing) and the come out as they’re prepared (when the cooks feel like it) and you should probably order three to four plates per person (way too much, which will leave you as stuffed as your wallet is depleted).

And that’s really the crux of the issue: restauranteurs have taken this quintessentially Spanish pastime—namely, ambling from little wine bar to little wine bar for a few hours before dinner (a necessity since it’s at, like, 10pm) and having an olive or so here or a bit of pan con tomate there—off the streets and taken it indoors where it just doesn’t work, particularly in the grossly excessive, “let’s put French fries on top of this salad” US of A.

Of course, by bringing these small plates inside and insisting that one makes an actual meal out of them, we run into several critical issues. Issue the First would be order anxiety: are we ordering enough? Too much? I never seem to get it right, ending a meal either starving or ready to barf my face off. Despite the recommendations of the cultist—er, waiter—who takes the order, it’s always too much or too little, but spread out over so much time and so many different items that it’s hard to track what a reasonable amount of food actually will be.

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If Life Gives You Laotian Sausages: Make Summer Rolls!

A few weeks ago after work, Mr. T and I tootled off in a trusty zip-truck to the furthest reaches of Northwest DC to help friends move some furniture about. It wasn’t really that far, but that part of the city does tend to feel like another (gentler, more bucolic) planet… In any event, we found ourselves out in the leafy suburbs. I’d already categorized this expedition as our mitzvah du jour, so it was an added bonus when we got to the pick-up location to find a lovely dinner waiting for us.

The simple spread of salad, corn, and things from the grill (oh, to have a grill and a yard to put it in…) was as delicious as it was unexpected, but the sleeper hit was definitely the Laotian sausage. Oh my lord, were these things good: juicy and crackling from the grill, richly porky, and redolent with garlic and lemongrass.

The chatelaine of the house is quite renown for her encyclopedic knowledge of the greater DC food scene, particularly of the Asian persuasion. So, no surprise that she’d managed to track down the one artisanal producer of Laotian sausage in the DC metro area. There are apparently clandestine phone calls and secret knocks on a certain door involved in their procurment. Of course. And I got the leftovers: winning!

Of course, I am unlikely to see a Laotian sausage ever again, and unless you’ve got some serious hook-ups, you’re probably not likely to see a Laotian sausage… ever. Nevertheless, their fleeting transit through our culinary orbit serves as an excellent starting point for a discussion of summer rolls, as my precious haul of magical sausages found themselves all bundled up with herbs and veggies in translucent rice paper wrappers. Totes delish.

Of course, summer rolls (or salad rolls, or garden rolls, or fresh spring rolls, or fresh rolls, or crystal rolls; the branding seems a bit schizo) aren’t Laotian, but Vietnamese. National borders have never stopped the PassionFruits, however, and in any case, the summer roll is well on its way to being a truly global food. Vietnam’s neighbors have adopted the dish into their own repertoires, and the West is understandably quite enamored with the combination of light, cool textures and strong, pungent flavors that the summer roll has to offer.

Part of the summer roll’s appeal, I think, comes from its protean nature. Within the accepted boundaries (as espoused by me, obviously) the summer roll can accommodate any number of delicious fillings. Here, though, is what you absolutely have to have in order to make a decent summer roll:

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PF Investigates a Louisiana Treasure: Morganza Cake

Every so often, when the river of life tosses you up on some strange, foreign shore, it then has the kindness to ensure that you’ve washed up near the best sort of locals (the ones that’ll point you to the best bar in town). And so it was several years ago that I was lucky enough to make the delightful acquaintance of some lovely ladies from Baton Rouge. Entrusted to make sure that my industry’s major annual conference went off without a hitch, they managed that task with aplomb and with plenty of energy to spare… which is a good thing since the Ladies know how to par-tay.

I have since had the good fortune  to see the Ladies once a year or so, but thanks to the miracles of modern technology (aka Facebook) I get regular updates on their excitingly exotic (for me, at least) goings on down in Cajun country. There always seems to be a celebration or a bake sale or a huuuuge pot of pastalaya a-stir for one cause or another. It was in a post about a bake sale that mentioned a Morganza cake, and how someone should make one as it always sells out.

A cake, you say? That always sells out at Louisiana bake sales? Color me VERY interested. After a little Google-fu, I’d learned that Morganza cake, named after the town (and/or spillway) in Pointe Coupee Parish from whence it came, is a devil’s food cake with a just as devilish praline frosting. Clearly something worth further, immediate investigation. I only turned up one recipe, courtesy of the Baton Rouge Advocate, but that was enough.

Directions in my hot little hands, I made for the kitchen with all due haste. The recipe, though, did leave a few things to be desired, I thought. It called for a cake mix chocolate cake. Oh no, I think not. Pecans were “optional” and I ended up sticking a good 3c in. There was no salt either, an omission that I rectified right quick and really makes the praline sing–even if it’s not strictly traditional. Finally, I tossed a little bourbon into the mix as well… because, well, BOURBON. Duh.

Not wanting to have anything to do with a boxed mix, I turned to Dorie Greenspan for a nicely textured, well-flavored devil’s food cake. Hers gets dotted with chips and split in four before getting frosted with a marshmallow icing, but the moist, tender crumb and deeply chocolate flavor is a perfect foil for the slightly more robust but just as sweet praline frosting.

Having made this twice–once for a crowd of 50 and once for a much more reasonable potluck of eight, I can say that this one is indubitably a keeper. The refrain at the big party went something along these lines: “WHAT is this?!” in very rewardingly awed tones.

Cheers to the Ladies, and I’ll look forward to cutting them a slice real soon.

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Retro Kitchen Update: Goat Cheese with Jalapeño Jam

My friend Heather came over for dinner not so long ago and brought a jar of jalapeño jam as a hostess gift. A lovely and unmerited gift, to be sure, but I’ll admit to wondering if she’d picked it out especially because she thought it would be delicious, or just because it might stymie me. She’s ornery like that sometimes. But seriously, jalapeño jam? What on god’s green earth was I supposed to do with that? So, into the cupboard it went and life marched on.

But, then, last week I found myself prepping for dinner party 1 of 4 (in a row, thank you SO much) and in need of a little something for people to nibble on while I wrapped up the main event in the kitchen. In the fridge I had a little log of chevre that I’d picked up to go with the tapenade I’d not had time to make. I glared at the goat cheese accusatorily til the door alarm started chiming, and then I remembered the jalapeño jam in the cupboard.

More importantly, I also remembered the ur-Southern appetizer of cream cheese spread with hot pepper jelly. Could goat cheese and jalapeño jam be pressed into service as a modern update of the classic? Well, yes, apparently. I’ve plated this baby up probably three times in the last two weeks. It’s easy, tasty, and really quite pretty too.

Just spread your goat cheese about 1/3″ thick on a small plate or dish (easier if softened a bit, but not strictly necessary) and gently spoon and spread over an even gloss of the pepper jelly. I like to add a little chopped fresh jalapeño and some black pepper, but again, this is really all about how NOT to be all fiddly. Serve forth with toasts or crackers and feel retro chic.

Gooseberry-Elderflower Custard Tart

In keeping with our “Ephemera of the Farmers’ Market: weird berries edition” kick, last week we picked up some white currants and gooseberries… in addition to some peaches and two kinds of plums for Mr. T, who is powerless in the face of stone fruits’ allure. The white currants, I’ve decided, were a bit of a wash. They’re very pretty to look at but don’t offer much else than a muddy, greenish astringency. At least red currants’ tartness is complimented by their redness. And yes, “red” is a flavor. Anyway, having left the white currants to their own devices, I still had a pound of gooseberries to deal with.

They, too, are quite astringent, but much more interestingly so, in their green, tufty, slightly hairy way. According to the always charmingly informative Jane Grigson, they’re generally used in sauces for meat and a broad array of desserts–fools, pies, and the like.

La Grigson also averred that elderflower is an excellent flavor compliment for gooseberries. Since I don’t have any homemade elderflower ratafia floating around (for shame, I know) I decided to float the berries in a St. Germain-scented custard.

This was quite lovely, with the tart, seedy berries providing a lively contrast to the silky, fragrant custard. Mr. T, though, would have liked slightly more berries. I was just short a pound, so a full pound should do nicely. For a slightly more pronounced elderflower flavor (it was quite faint), dribble a teaspoon over the top of the custard after the tart’s come out of the oven and cooled just a bit. It’ll soak down into the interstices and give a little extra oomph. And yes, I am still tinkering with the master short crust pastry to end all debates, so I’m leaving that up to your discretion… for now.

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Three Years in the Making: Passionfruit Curd

Despite the name of this here blog, I’ve actually only used actual passionfruits once–as a component of the faaaabulous Dacquoise Imelda, so I think that should count for twice–in over three years of writing. Given that it’s perennially in my top ten search terms, Mr. T (being a management consultant extraordinare) is always after me to cook with them so as to better capitalize on the vast millions out there googling “passionfruits”. Of course, he’s right, but… just… *sigh*

Leading search terms aside, passionfruits really are kind of magically delicious, so here we are. Although the vines grow well here in DC, and some early varieties can even squeeze out a few fruit by the end of the summer, passionfruits remain firmly in the strange exotica department, particularly with their varied, and slightly odd, looks.

While the fruit comes in a numerous colors, the ones we see most often are purple-rinded and best when slightly wrinkled. The ripe fruit are also mostly hollow, with only a tablespoon or so of seedy pulp, so the savvy shopper must ignore the ingrained habit of searching out taut-skinned, heavy specimens and instead pick the light, shrively ones.

After overcoming that moment of cognitive dissonance in the produce section, the rewards are pretty fierce. With an amazingly pungent, tartly tropical floral flavor punctuated by dark, crunchy seeds, passionfruit pulp possesses a unique taste that holds up uniquely well. Even after freezing, cooking, puree-ifying, the lovely essence of passionfruit always comes through like a champ where so many other  tropical flavors would give up the ghost.

This curd is no exception. Even with the cooking and addition of sugar and two kinds of fat (egg yolks and butter), the passionfruit flavor is still rewardingly assertive. It’s also a very basic thing to make and has SO many potential uses. Its unique flavor will add tropical juju atop your morning toast, sandwiched between cake layers, or just right off the back of your spoon.

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