Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Blackberry Hunt

One of the days we decided not to while away at the seaside, Valeria, Sue and I went blackberry picking along the road above the house. Yeah, above. The land slopes almost vertically from the sea up to the house and continues up to the top of Mt. Pelion. Mountain and sea, sea and mountain. Pretty spectacular for this girl from the Great Plains.

Our plan that day was to collect many more blackberries than usual (usual being pick one, eat one, pick one, eat one…) and to make a big batch of blackberry preserves for everybody to take home. Well, among the 3 of us, we ended up with scores of cuts, scrapes and thorny slivers; about 35 mosquito bites; and a big, big bowl of gorgeous, ripe blackberries. Here's Valeria in mid-struggle.
I thought the yield was well worth it, but poor Valeria who is allergic to a lot of things had a giant, swollen thumb after her efforts to extricate a particularly luscious, particularly high-up blackberry cluster (bunch? What DOES one call a group of blackberries?). Music to pick blackberries by: "Gouge Away" by The Pixies. It's a rough song for a rough job.

Here's Sue with the loot!
So once we got back to the house, administered some first-aid and got cleaned up a bit, we started on the jam. First off was weighing the loot. We needed to know the weight to know how much sugar and lemon juice to add to give the preserves the right note. Here’s the scale contraption we found in the basement which did a fine job once we figured out how it worked. The blackberries weighed in at 2 kilos (almost 5 pounds)!

The ingredients:
2 kilos of blackberries
2 kilos of sugar
juice of 2 lemons

The method we followed was the same as the one for fig preserves (see recipe here). When we were done, we had 11 jars of jam! The next morning, we broke out one of the jars and ate all of it (among the 6 of us) with rich Greek Yogurt! Here’s a photo of some of our jam production 2006.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pente Cose (Five Things) Italiano-Elleniko

Haalo of Cook (Almost) Anything Once has tagged me for a fun meme, choose 5 things that you have eaten that you love so much, you think everyone else should try too. This is really hard, though. I LOVE food as much as I LOVE music. I never have an answer when somebody asks me what my favorite band is so I usually just go with who has been obsessing me for the past few days. If you ask me something specific, like what my favorite punk band is, I can answer: it's The Clash, Post-Punk? The Pixies, Salsa? Ruben Blades, klezmer? The Klezmer Allstars. So with food, I'm limiting this to Italian and Greek (Elleniko) since Italy is where I live and Greece is where I've been for the past 3 weeks. Here Goes:

1.) Fresh Figs. Shocked, are you not? See the 2 previous posts to find out why.

2.) Wild Blackberries picked yourself. Imagine escaping the over-crowded beaches of the August Greek Isles and going wild- blackberry picking in the mountains! I love the glorious taste of these huge tangy-sweet or minerally-sweet fruits that are in my mouth only 1 second after being picked. They must be the most nutritious thing that way. See my next post on blackberry picking and preserves with Valeria and Sue.

3.) Novi's Italian Beef Only to be had in Chicago, Italian Beef is one of my favorite street foods. Paper-thin slices of roast beef swimming in a spiced au-jus (spices include fennel seed, red-pepper flakes and dried basil for sure) are layed into chewy Gonnella bread and then, if you know what you're doing, everything is dunked whole into the jus. As you eat it, it's so delicious, you don't even care that jus is dripping down to your elbows and bits of beef have fallen into your lap. Oh, and Novi's, the very best place to get Italian Beef, is on the corner of Ogden (Rte. 66) and Oak Park Avenues in Berwyn.

4.) Sea Urchins, aka "Ricci di Mare". You may have had sea urchin sushi at some point, but this summer we (well, "we" meaning Valeria and Simone) hunted these pointy little critters at the "lythos" (a tiny island we call the rock) by the house and after a killing-and-cleaning assembly line, we all ate them with spaghetti, lemon, mentuccia and olive oil. Yuhuhuhummmm! Again, tune in soon for the blog-post report complete with video of an escaping sea urchin.

5.) Fresh Porcini Mushrooms. What else? When anyone asks me what my favorite thing about Italy is, I always say, "fresh porcini mushrooms!" Before moving here, I'd never even seen one fresh. Since this blog began only last November, I haven't yet had the opportunity to give you fresh porcini recipes but their season is almost upon us! So tune in.

And now, I tag:

Estelle of My French Cuisine
Paz at The Cooking
Adventures of Chef Paz

Ivonne at Cream Puffs in Venice
Lotus at Lotus Reads
M.O.T.S. at Not Again!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Homemade Fig Preserves

Some of the figs at the house become perfectly ripe and drip honey just before you pick them and others, especially after a rain, split open and become the ideal basis for Fig Preserves. The first time I saw the fig tree full of a chorus of open-mouthed fig sopranos, I said, “oh, we have to make preserves out of all those open figs!” And everybody looked at me like I was nuts. “Whaddya mean? Fig preserves?! That’s not a thing” was essentially the answer (well, translated from the French). It seems that in Pelion, Greece, nobody had ever heard of fig preserves. I think it goes back to how in Mediterranean areas, fig trees are tantamount to weeds. Maybe they don’t get the respect they deserve. Long story short, I insisted in making them and now they are a family favorite along with the traditional bitter orange marmalade, golden plum and blackberry preserves.

Here’s the recipe:

1 kilo (2.2 pounds) fresh, peeled, green Kadota figs or stemmed, unpeeled purple Mission figs
¾ kilo (27ozs) granulated sugar*
1 tbsp finely minced ginger
1 tbsp grated lemon or orange zest
juice of 1 lemon or 1 bitter orange

Either cut the figs into small pieces (how small depends on what kind of texture you like in your preserves) or puree them with **an immersion blender. In your largest stock pot place 4-5 clean empty glass jars (recycled jars with screw-tops will do just fine), cover with water and put over high heat. It usually takes a long time to get such a large volume of water to boil, so put the jars on the stove before the jam. Put the figs into a large heavy-bottomed pot, add the sugar, ginger, zest and juice and mix until all the sugar is incorporated and you have a wet, sticky consistency. Put the heat on high until you reach a boil. There will be foam but you do not have to ***skim it off the top. Music to boil jam by: My favorite old school rap song, "Jam On It" by Newcleus. Watch the video here. After the foam subsides, you can begin to check for doneness. It may take another 15 minutes after the foam subsides for the preserves to be thick enough. Each jam is different so exact times are hard to give. There are many done-ness tests to do and one I learned from Valeria and feel works well is to take a cool, dry saucer and let a drop of the preserves fall on it. If it remains dome-like and doesn’t spread at all, your preserves are fully cooked and will spread well on toast. If they are too runny, they work well as an ice cream topping or you can re-cook them.

Once your preserves are thick enough and your jars and lids are at a rolling boil, you’re ready to jar the preserves. Utensils you will need: 1 long wooden spoon, 1 ladle, 1 plastic funnel cut in half so that the pouring space is narrower than the jar mouths but wide enough for the preserves to go through, 2 oven mitts and ideally 1 friend standing by, surgical technician-like, to make the process go more smoothly. Using the long, wooden spoon, fish out one of the jars and shake it upside down to remove excess water (the spoon should be inside the upside-down jar). Place the jar right-side-up next to the pot of preserves. Place the funnel over the jar, ladle in jam up to just millimeters from the very top, fish out a lid with the spoon and, using oven mitts, screw the lid on very tightly. Flip the sealed jar upside-down on the counter and proceed with the subsequent jars. Allow to cool completely. There are often some extra preserves that won’t fit into the jars and that can be ladled into a cup and eaten with toast the next morning.

*Since figs are sweet, sweet, sweet, I find that they go well with a little less sugar than normal (usually the jam-making ratio of fruit to sugar is 1 to 1) and with astringent flavors like ginger and citrus zest to create a zingy-sweet balance.
**This year I learned that before cooking, taking an immersion blender to the peeled green (or unpeeled purple) figs gives you a smooth consistency while leaving the little, crunchy seeds intact.
***This non-skimming thing is new to me this year. Previously, I had removed it as I do the foam that rises to the top of chicken stock. The idea was that the foam carried the impurities and if not removed, would cloud the stock/preserves. Well, Valeria was told different, we went her way and no harm was done. Makes the process a lot easier, too

Friday, August 25, 2006

Figs in the Garden of Eden

Hi Everybody! I'm back from my vacation to the Garden of Eden, otherwise known as Pelion, Greece. While people on the other side of the mountain sweltered in 40C/102F heat, we were kicking it cool in the shade of olive trees, swimming in the cove and cooking all matter of things in the outdoor kitchen. But figs are my #1 draw to Pelion in the summer. You know the green Kadota figs are ripe when they turn from solid green to a yellowy-green color, when they begin to drip "honey" and when cut from the branch, they no longer exude a milky liquid at the stem end.
One of my favorite things to do at the house is to go down for a swim and on the way up again, to pick a ripe fig off the tree and eat it before going inside. Edenic. There's no other word for it. Could Adam and Eve's downfall have been brought on by just a mere apple?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Hi everybody, Gabriel and I are taking our summer break starting tomorrow. I'll be blogging a bit (maybe once a week) but otherwise will be hiking in the mountains of Pelion, swimming in the Adriatic and doing some rustic, outdoor cooking in Greece. Will keep you posted on culinary and other adventures! Ciao!

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