Got juice

Three years ago, David and I became the proud owners of an apple orchard on Vancouver Island. It was August and ten, old trees stood before us in three, neat rows above a carpet of burnt, golden grass.  The hot, Cowichan Valley sun beat down on our Torontonian brows as we gazed up, knowing nothing, surveying our orchard’s branches.  

I pulled the closest apple off a tree and opened my mouth.

“What are you doing?” David asked, incredulous.

I bit off a big chunk and chewed, holding his gaze. I continued to chew, hoping that somehow the taste and texture would improve. 

But it didn’t.  

I spat it out and recognized the first unripe flavour of my new occupation.  Apple Orchard Aug 2016

Beside the orchard was a long, gravel driveway up to the house, guest house and barn. It was lined with plum trees, all of them heavy with yellow, orange and red plums each no bigger than a cherry tomato.  They hung like grape clusters and beckoned sampling. I started with a demure, meek sampling that turned into rapid gobbling followed by voracious hoarding. 

David’s watching eyes bugged. 

Each plum was sweet, juicy and too plentiful for the pouch I’d fashioned in my t-shirt, now fully stained and attracting a buzz of nearby wasps.   

David picking High RussetsDavid, my apple farming husband, is still incredulous three years later as he lugs 15 boxes full of apples into the back of the SUV. It’s our third annual harvest and the first to go to McBarley’s juice and fermentation facility in Duncan. It’s not even the fall and we have harvested and boxed all of Number Two and Three trees. (These round, red and green apples the size of a fist resemble McIntosh apples – but doesn’t every Ontarian call apples that?)   Classic Red No 2

Never before have we nabbed the apples from Two and Three before the ravens execute their robbery. But here on the West Coast, David and I often wait for the wildlife to inform us. Their radar goes off like a living, breathing Brix meter. This year, all it took was a murder in the orchard for me to get out there and taste our wares. 

“It’s really good,” I say to David, mouth full of apple. “Try it.”

“Sweet!” is his reply.

We’re both incredulous. 

The brown, dry grass below the trees is littered with scat. We argue over their provenance. Is it bear, deer, rabbit or the neighbor’s lab? We know elk don’t venture in these parts, but then again, we never know what can happen here.  Just a few months ago, six gargantuan black steer (set loose from a neighbouring field) sauntered past our windows at dawn, way before our caffeine had kicked in and we had the wherewithal to run outside and follow them.

But I digress.  The apple harvest.  With tall, old trees like ours, it has to happen with ladders, a tool David was thrilled to purchase at Adam’s Tool and Tarp in Duncan and load into his brother’s pickup.  He bought an eight and 10-foot pair, neither which is easy to lug across the orchard let alone manoeuvre around our tall, leafy apples trees with their outstretched, unruly boughs.  

“It must be stable,” said our arborist Gordon McKay in his thick Scottish brogue, as I climbed up the rungs one wet, bone-chilling March morning several years ago. It was the only piece of instruction he’d given me in the past half hour that had made total sense. 

Number 7 beauty shotMcKay had started with the buds, pointing out their difference, which I could not discern. 

Then he spoke about cutting angles, which I quickly confused.  

Finally, he spoke about “last year, this year and next year’s growth”, at which point I was terminally lost, yet climbing up an eight-foot ladder. 

Just clip and hope for the best, I told my shivering self, dressed in two layers of long underwear and holding Japanese cutting shears in my right hand. My tree mentor’s instructions had floated right over my baseball cap into that gleeful empty field I call my memory. Luckily, the arborist was nearby on the other ladder, up another tree, clipping away expertly at breakneck speed. I faked a good hour of pruning until I snuck away, sighting urgent bathroom needs. Both McKay and I knew – there and then – that I didn’t have what it took to prune, but I might have some talent in the harvesting department.

Fast forward to August 2019.  My baseball cap and pony tail are stuck in a branch and I can’t move my head. An inch. I’m up on the top rung of an eight-foot ladder.  All I can see is apple leaves, spider webs, branches and one fat, out-of-reach 2-pound honker of an apple. But if I move too far to the right or left, it will be suicide, by hanging. A professional (i.e. Lee Valley) apple harvester’s bag is slung across my chest. It probably weighs 15 lbs and despite weight-lifting at my Mill Bay Pilates classes, I know I’m a goner. So I do something unusual for me: I wait. I breath. I listen to the jungle call of a nearby Pileated Woodpecker and thank my lucky stars that I get to be an apple farmer stuck in a tree overlooking Herd Road lake.  

Harvest box 2&3David and I are killing this year’s harvest.  Four or five full apple boxes are at the base of Number 8, the only tree we sort of know the varietal name for, due to its rusty, russet skin. Because we’re professionals, we don’t pretend to know the true varietal names of any of our ten trees but we are carefully recording their appearance, taste and botanical behaviour like the untrained scientists that we are.   

One summer, we took samples from each of our ten trees to the BC Tree Testers at the Cobble Hill Fair. Despite the combined  wisdom of three experts riffling through onsite reference books, slicing, tasting and considering… they came up empty, sighting the more than 10,000 different apple varieties and their unfamiliarity with our mysterious ten. Thus, we can only be certain all ten trees are different varieties, likely planted around the time David and I were born. We fondly refer to our apple family as Tree One through Ten, a habit that seems scientific but at the same time, really appeals to my Chinese sensibilities.  

A perennial Food Mama, I cannot let the offspring of my offspring go to waste. Thus the harvest, the ladders, the collapsible boxes, the shears and bags all spring into action once the ravens descend on the orchard. They huddle like dark shadows at the base of our trees and diffuse in a tactical squad when we walk or drive by. Once I’ve pulled all the easy to reach apples from the low hanging branches and dump that first bag of hard red orbs into a box, the ravens have returned to the perimeters, invisible in the high branches of our pines and firs emitting an intermittent  “scaaaw”, a staccato, almost digital “blonk” or my favourite, a continuous stream of gurgling water. 

200lbs for juiceAt McBarley’s, there are no ravens. Just barrels and barrels of fruit waiting to be crushed and squeezed into juice.  Much of it is fermented and bottled into hard cider or wine. One of the staff points to a binder and encourages us to flip through its pages of bubbly possibilities, be it rhubarb wine, pear sherry or blackberry aperitif.  Our inner wine snobs snort at these suggestions. We opt for off-dry, 8 percent alcohol for our apples and toy with putting a raven on our cider label.  

Timing is tricky. Really tricky.  Mother nature doesn’t give a hoot about any of the dates I’ve put into GoogleCal but booking an apple squeeze is imperative. We know our trees don’t all ripen at the same time. Rather, they ripen up the line from Number One (ready in mid-August) to Ten (done in early October). 

But it took us three years to learn to stagger one year’s harvest into three drop-offs at McBarley’s. 

Our newbie harvest of  ‘16 was crushed in Courtney, a 3-hour drive away. Pressing Matters have a $300,000 German-made mobile apple juice maker that travels across the island and even ferries to many of the Gulf Island apple farms during the season. Yet this year, it was grounded. 

“Why?” I asked, making my first apple farmer business call.

“Cause nobody has apples this year,” laughed the gruff farmer on the other end of the line. “You bring ‘em here and wait for us to juice them.”  

David and I were the fourth truck full of apples to pass through Pressing Matters farm gate early one October morning.  We unloaded, adding our harvest to a ramshackle sea of cardboard boxes filled with pockmarked apples of every size and variety. Apple Juice Boxes in SubaruMany hours later, we left with 5L boxes full of hot pasteurized juice packaged into vacuumed plastic bags. Just like boxed wine, this juice comes out of a tap and is shelf-stable for 6 months without refrigeration.   

Next year, Pressing Matters went mobile and we found them at a small farm in Cedar, an easier 45-minute drive away. The truck in the lineup ahead of us had three times as many apples as we did. 

We waited most of that cold dreary day for our apples to move up the que, David lifting each of our 30-pound boxes off the ground and over to the washing bin, where they tumbled like rocks, washed of their debris and dirt before climbing up a conveyer to be cut and sliced into a coarse wet mash. A young woman wearing goggles, ear muffs and water-proof overalls turned a huge hose on and off, belching a controlled torrent of apple mash into half a dozen mesh-lined trays stacked one upon the other. Then came the press.

Weight bore down on the stack and juice oozed out as viscous and sweet as honey, coursing into the pasteurizer where the juice swirls and heats up to sanitary highs then flows into strong,  5L plastic bags, all manipulated and vacuum sealed by a smiling young woman from Quebec who stands at the end of this small factory’s line. 

A mobile pressing machine like this requires four or five to operate and at McBarley’s they run the unit outside in their parking lot. Customers like us just drop off our apples, watch them get weighed and sign up for pasteurized juice, hard cider, or both. 

It sounds simple but the rub is in the timing. Ask any farmer and she’ll tell you to check that almanac, or your horoscope or better still, the waxing moon to know best harvest times. Yet to run a facility like McBarley’s, it’s all about scheduled dropoffs and pickups  for hundreds of folks like us avec les pommes. We opted for a three-stage harvest this year hoping 2019 will translate into the sweetest juice and  best bubbly vintage, ever. 

I know Number One through Ten will drink to that. 

3 apples on the ladder

Ground lamb curry & FOO Asian Street Food

There’s nothing like the thrill of an Asian food find for an eater like me. Especially when the food is found in Victoria.  In the rain.  On Yelp. When we least expected it.

FOO Asian Street Food (769 Yates Street) is not a fancy place. Like many of its Vancouver Island brethren, this funky hole-in-the-wall demands lining up before you can order and snag a seat. At FOO the seating is slim:  no more than a dozen stools line the perimeter of the order/waiting area.

Emma and I dashed in from out of the rain and were instantly slammed (in a pleasant, food-lover’s-way) by the smell of the place. The air was thick with stir-fried oil, Thai basil, chillies, toasted seaweed and Jasmine rice. FOO’S menu, along with daily specials, were in big print on the blackboard. Reading it was veritable candy to my Asian-cuisine-starved eyes:  curries, noodles, stir-fries, dahls, sweet and sour soups,  and crazy specials like poutine with Szechuan peppercorn gravy or fries done up Togarishi-style with spicy house furikake and fermented chili mayo.

Better still, the woman at the cash taking our order was mean. She had an edgy, crowded city attitude that delights masochistic and hungry metropolitans like me.

We ordered hot fried bread and chutney to whet our appetites along with two local brews: a can of Fat Tug (Driftwood IPA) and a tall bottle of Hoyt Pilsner. IMG_1897

Because our stools were squished near the cash counter, I leaned over, smiled senior-sweetly and asked the Cash Lady if the fried bread contained chickpea flour.

She could barely contain her disgust.

“Chickpea flour?!” she scoffed.  “We’d never do that, ever.” Then she guffawed.

Okay, maybe I should have guessed turmeric.  I know they secretly tuck something into these professionally deep-fried triangles of golden-hued, super moist bread.  Each bite took the edge off our hunger.

Next up, seared morsels of rare, albacore tuna were spread out like a deck of cards over a tangle of cold soba noodles and cucumber ribbons bathed in a sesame-miso vinaigrette.  Pad Thai was ratcheted up a notch with charred scallions instead of plain old green onions.  But it was the Curried Noodle Stir-Fry that stole my foodie heart, with morsels of cha siu bbq pork, succulent shrimp and truly al dente Shanghai noodles. IMG_1900

I lied. It was the Sweet and Sour Pork Belly with tamarind glaze served with spicy green beans that stole all our hearts. Each one of these pork mouthfuls had us groaning, its flavourful fat such a yummy counterpoint to the salty pork.img_1895.jpg

Just below the blackboards manning the open kitchen, two young chefs in black T-shirts slammed, shook, tossed and sautéed non-stop. Working eight unrelenting gas burners on super high, each like a blow-torch, these guys have no time for comments or questions from Plebeians like sweet, little old me. I watched them ladle in sauces, drop in handfuls of noodles, sprinkle fistfuls of shrimp, pork or tofu and slide steaming contents into one big white bowl after another.  It was an endless stream of expert deliciousness overseen by the Cash Lady managing both the line-up and take-out call ins.

“You can pick up in an hour,” she told one caller, “Want it sooner? Try McDonalds.”

Luckily, we experienced no wait. We were at the front of the line both visits and food arrived swiftly.  After the first FOO visit, we started plotting our return, despite the more than hour drive into Victoria over a mountain pass, no less.

It was the Ground Lamb Curry’s fault. I didn’t tell you, dear reader, about its rich and layered meat sauce, redolent with a dozen spices and so superbly satisfying. The blackboard advertised it as “Indian spiced lamb” but it was so much more than those three words.  I swear those line cooks had pulled every flavour out of their toolboxes to create this glistening, gravy infused lamb creation, sweetly offset with green peas, lying on a soft white bed of basmati.IMG_1904

There were four of us all fighting over the Ground Lamb Curry on our second visit. It was a magical flavour equation that I had to recreate in my kitchen.

As every cook will attest, ingredients are 90 per cent of a recipe’s success. I jumped on two packages of frozen, farm-raised ground lamb from the Yesteryear stall at the Duncan Farmers’ Market.  Later, I pounced on fresh, very unwrinkled turmeric root at The Community Farm Store, also in Duncan. My spice drawer had recently been supplemented by a happy, inaugural stroll through Sabzi Mandi Supermarket in Nanaimo. The finishing green garnish would be a handful of mint from the burgeoning mass under our willow tree and another, from a clump of cilantro in the raised beds. (Miraculously, cilantro (fresh coriander) self-seeds here on the island.)

And because I am so humble, I attest that the only difference between my Ground Lamb Curry and Foo’s is me.  I am the final 10 per cent of this recipe’s success.

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Herd Road Ground Lamb Curry with Peas and Mint

This is the same and different from Foo Asian Street Food’s ground lamb curry.

2 cooking onions, quartered

6 garlic cloves

2 inches ginger

2 inches turmeric

Peel and chop onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric.  Whirl into a paste in a food processor, adding ¼ – ½  cup water.

In large frying pan, heat  two tablespoons oil and saute onion paste until golden, about 3 minutes.

In a small mortar and pestle, crush:

1 hot dried pepper

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp fennel seeds

½ tsp black peppercorns

1 ½ tsp coarse sea salt

Add to onion mixture and saute 1-2 minutes.

Add:

4 tbsp tomato paste

½ cup coconut milk

Bring to a boil and simmer gently for a few minutes.

Add

2 lbs ground lamb

3 tsp garam masala

Cook on medium heat until lamb is brown.  Add 1 1/2 cups water.  Cover and simmer on extreme low for 20 minutes

Add:

1 ½ cups frozen peas

2-4 small fresh green hot peppers

2 tsp anardhana (dried pomegranate) * optional

1 tbsp lemon juice

¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves

¼ cup chopped fresh coriander

Simmer until peas are tender.  Serve on steamed basmati rice.

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Sourdough baking with Sarah Owens

It’s because of cookbook author Sarah Owens that this baker has started to travel with her dough. I put it in a big plastic tub in the trunk of my car or strap it into my bike carrier, ready to drive off to meetings or Pilates classes with living, bubbling yeast. I pack water and a cloth so I can stretch and fold the dough with wet hands every half hour and clean up my doughy fingertips afterwards.

IMG_6038

Pulling beet levain dough in the car during a tennis game

My life goes on and so does the ferment. It’s got to! Sarah’s technique requires half a day of fermentation.

If you think that’s crazy, you’re unlikely to want to bake from SOURDOUGH: Recipes for rustic fermented breads, sweets, savories, and more.

But then again, you’d never have the pleasure of taking the lid off a Lodgepan combo cooker in a 500F oven and seeing cheddar cheese ooze out of a hot, chili-spiked bread. Your palate would never notice the delightful zing and bite of both fresh and candied ginger folded into a sweet, buttery cake or enjoy the crunch of poppy seeds in a turmeric-tinged artisanal levain loaded with leeks.

Turmeric scallion leek levain

Seeded Turmeric and Leek Levain

This cookbook has opened a new world of baking for me. Never before had I used sourdough starter to make anything other than bread, but now I’ve tried it in cakes, cookies, popovers, even crackers. The wild yeast adds a depth of flavour to these baked goods and a bubbly crumb. (Besides, I refresh my sourdough starter weekly, if not every few days, and I’d much rather add it to an innovative recipe than throw it away.)

Sourdough bakers believe that good bread needs a very slow rise.  Often, that’s a three-day process that requires more waiting than action. Sarah’s bread recipes are no-knead and include a range of flours, from buckwheat to kamut to emmer.

Beet Bread (found on my copy’s stained page 55) asks you to plunge into a slurry of roasted beet puree, levain and three different flours and “mix with your hands until completely hydrated and no lumps remain.” IMG_6053

I was game. My fingers emerged a bright, gooey pink and my banneton might be stained for life but every cakey, sweet bite of this levain was worth it.  Think velvet cake without the sugar.

IMG_6059Sarah really understands flavours and how to pair them.  A former rose horticulturist with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, this woman knows and loves blossoms, buds, roots, seeds and fruits. She bakes like a true artist and luckily for us, she’s written down all of her highly novel, well-tested creations. Who would have thought to make popovers with spring chives and dandelions? Or pair cocoa-spiced pork with rhubarb in a pot pie?

Admittedly, I have had a little trouble with a couple of her recipes. Brooklyn Sourdough is minimalist in terms of ingredients but calls for a five to six minute “slap and fold” method that I was unable to master.  My boule-shaped loaves looked like pancakes when I pulled them out of the oven. Ditto for the Friendship Loaf.

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Honeyed Spelt and Oat Levain

But neither of these disappointments will stop me from raving about the feathery-light, wide open crumb of Honeyed Spelt and Oat Levain.  Or from trying more of Sarah’s out-there ideas.

Sourdough was her first cookbook yet it won la crème de la crème of cookbook awards in 2016: the James Beard. No wonder she has 26,000 people following her on Instagram.

Last Christmas, my son gave me Sarah’s second cookbook Toast and Jam: Modern recipes for rustic baked goods and sweet and savoury spreads. This beauty of a book contains as equally a novel approach to preserves, as it does to sourdough baking.  I’ve got a sumac tree outside my window that I’ve been eying for her jelly recipe not to mention some gnarly organic carrots from my garden, bound to dazzle in her Spiced Carrot Levain.

If it weren’t for this cookbook author’s mighty contribution to baking, neither me nor my dough would be travelling together in such a delicious way.

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Cardamom Biscotti

Sometimes it just has to go cardamom in my kitchen.  I start dreaming about flavour swaps and find my hands magically clutching a baggie of army-green pods from that crazy mishmash called my spice drawer. I hold the bag and … sigh.

No, I start cussing, wondering aloud if I have the cooking mojo in me to ferret out their cache.  Will my cold, stiff fingers find the fortitude to single out each and every one of these tiny seeds that bear an uncanny resemblance to mouse turds?

Cardamom pods aren’t like those happy, smiling pistachio nuts, each cracked and cooperative. These babies are sealed shut like an exotic, perfumed temptress.

Thus, they bring out the pounder in me.

I’ve tried crushing them under my chef’s knife like garlic cloves –  but lo, they slide and slither.  I’ve grabbed a sheet of wax paper and hammered a rolling pin over them a few times, to absolutely no avail, except for a heap of shredded wax paper.

Luckily, an adorable silver mortar and pestle comes to my rescue.

I throw a handful of pods in the bowl and happily clunk the silver pestle down until I hear crunch after satisfying crunch, splitting and cracking, dispersing their wealth.

The very first pod reaps a clump of tar-black seeds.  I can hear my East Indian cooking teacher intoning “Only the black ones are good” as I crack open pod after pod that she’d obviously throw out.  A sliver fuzzy membrane is scattered among my largely brown, verging on beige collection. I drop it all into my spice grinder and grimace, again, because fifteen minutes of finicky fine motor work hasn’t even covered my spice grinder’s blade!

Despite this ominous beginning, the seeds whirl into a satisfying silvery and soft powder that trails up into my waiting nostrils with an explosion of menthol and sweet, peppery perfume that is unmistakably cardamom.

Why don’t I just throw up a white flag and buy it ground?

Because I want flavour. Whole spices that are crushed or ground right before use, release essential oils full of oomph.  And oomph is what I have planned for this special little biscotti  packed with toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds, filled with organic flours, eggs, sugar and vanilla then made perfect thanks to cardamom in the batter. I finish each and every log of biscotti dough with a sparkle of cardamom sugar.

Just a pinch will do it.

 

Cardamom Biscotti

I really can’t live in a house without biscotti. They are my go-to cookie and a welcome gift to friends and family . Thanks to the double bake, they store for weeks, even months in a closed glass container and travel well on airplanes and road trips.

Biscotti Batter:

1 cup whole, raw almonds

½ cup pumpkin seeds

1 ¼ cup organic all purpose flour

1 ¼ cup organic soft whole wheat flour

1 1/4 cups organic granulated sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp salt

4 large eggs

3 tsp vanilla

The Finishing Touches:

1-3 tbsp flour (for rolling out logs)

½ tsp ground cardamom

1 tbsp organic granulated

Preheat oven to 350 ° F.

To toast almonds, arrange on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Add pumpkin seeds to the sheet and bake another 5 minutes. Allow nuts and seeds to cool completely.

In a large bowl, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, cardamom and salt. Use a whisk to mix thoroughly.

Whisk eggs and vanilla in bowl of an electric mixer until frothy. Use the paddle attachment to mix in flour and sugar mixture.  As soon as the dough clumps around the paddle, add toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds and mix until just combined.

Dust countertop with flour. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Spoon out one quarter of the sticky dough, dust lightly with flour and working quickly, roll into a 8-10 inch log. Transfer log to baking sheet. Repeat 3 times.

In a small bowl, mix sugar and cardamom.  Sprinkle over logs with pinched fingers.

Bake for 30 minutes or until biscotti logs are golden and firm. Completely cool logs on a rack for at least 30 min.  Using a serrated knife, cut crosswise into 3/4 inch wide slices.  Arrange cut side down on baking sheets and return to 350 oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden-brown and crisp.

Lucy’s Amaretti

My friend Rocca likes to bake cookies. Because she’s Italian and the women in her family have  taught her well, she will stare at you something evil if you decline any of her food offerings. Most don’t dare say no. Those who oblige are always glad they did.

Rocca understands flavor and the dynamics at play when you combine lots of sugar, butter and chocolate. She’ll practice a recipe with the tenacity of a terrier until she gets it just right. Rocca’s chocolate almond biscotti and her sea salt, chocolate and pistachio sablés are unparalleled, in both taste and appearance.

Maybe she was Japanese in a past life, for Rocca cares about good packaging, nesting her deep brown cookies into turquoise tin boxes that show off these treats in signature fashion. Just a glimpse of a turquoise box starts most of us Rocca-cookie-lovers salivating. We’re the same ones who hasten to return her tins the moment they are empty, ever hopeful for a refill.

My late husband Don – not a baker – always said, “Food tastes better when someone else makes it.” He was a consummate sweet talker, a salesman even, and he inspired the bread baker in me. Don’s sage words were ringing in my ears today as I tested Rocca’s amaretti recipe.

It just didn’t taste as good as when Rocca made it.

IMG_3290Full disclosure: I have a thing for amaretti. They are classic among Italian sweets and like most classic things, vary wildly from cook to cook, region to region. I’d made it my calling to sample them all, be it fresh from a bakery or ripped out of a  supermarket package. Yet all the recipes I’d baked were abysmal. I was resigned to never finding my dream amaretti recipe until that fateful day in Rocca’s kitchen.

“What? You’ve been hiding these?” I sputtered on a mouthful of hot espresso and frothy milk combined with crunchy-almond-amazingness.  Seconds earlier, Rocca had pushed a plate of amaretti in my direction.  This cookie was consummate:  awash in almondy, chewy goodness here was a pudgy, crackled morsel crowned with a whole almond dimple.

“Aren’t these great? They’re my sister Lucy’s.”

“She made them?”

“Nope, it’s her recipe and I made them.”

I had to have The Recipe.

Amaretti recipeRocca delivered it the next day in a text, taking a photo of Lucy’s typewritten recipe.  It was short and sweet.  Only five lines of ingredients and a very brief sentence of instruction below. The title read “Almond Cookies.”

But to this tried-and-true recipe tester and developer, it looked deceptively simple.

“Four eggs. No flour.  And a whole lot of ground almonds. That’s it?” I asked. “No leavener?’

IMG_3285“Oh, throw in a teaspoon of baking powder,” said Rocca flippantly. Were these Puglian sisters in collusion?! What other ingredients were somehow missing in this recipe meant for mangiacake me?

IMG_3283“Be careful,” said Rocca, relieving my paranoia slightly. “The almond flour is not cheap.  I was so shocked the first time I bought it: Fourteen dollars! And don’t buy blanched flour.  Whole almond flour tastes best.”

Two more ingredients needed examination: cocoa powder and that entire bottle of almond extract. Suddenly it became apparent why Rocca’s father likes to carry a little snort of Grappa in a recycled extract bottle. Lucy must use dozens of these in the course of a baking year and rather than toss them into the garbage, they went the way of her father who likes to tuck one of these discreet yet convenient mickeys into his Speedo bathing suit when strolling the beach in Mexico.

IMG_3751As to the cocoa powder, the taste is negligible.  The cookie batter is dark but bakes out into a light brown cookie.  This single teaspoon seems to counter that entire bottle of extract.

But taste is a mysterious thing and a cookie infatuation can derange even the most reasonable of people. Like my friend Ling.

“I like them too much,” she admitted recently after I gave her a gift package of Lucy’s amaretti.  “So I hid them.”

“Huh?” I wondered how that worked.

“My memory so bad,” she laughed, “Now I only eat five a day. When I can find them.”

Amaretti

Lucy’s Amaretti

I’ve cut Lucy’s recipe in half to reduce the sticker shock on the pricy almond flour. Plus, you’ll have some almond extract leftover for your next batch.  This makes plenty!

3                          large eggs, beaten

3/4 lb/ 12 oz      almond flour, whole not blanched

2 tbsp                 almond extract

2/3 cup               granulated sugar

1  tsp                   cocoa powder

1  tsp                   baking powder

Raw almonds

Icing sugar

Combine eggs, almond flour, almond extract, sugar, cocoa powder and baking powder into a batter. Scoop two teaspoons, dredge in a little icing sugar and roll into a small ball, place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet and top with a whole, raw almond. Bake at 350 F for 8-10 min.

amaretti

Chinese Braised Pork Belly

It was a cold, rainy day at the Duncan Farmers’ Market but luckily, no lineup at Yesteryear Meats. I waited hopefully as the owner riffled through all of his four freezers searching for my request.

“Here it is,” he said, passing me a two pound chunk of Berkshire pork belly. “All that fat is good for you, full of CLAs” he said in his gruff, Aussie accent. “But not everyone appreciates it.”

He kept staring at me, looking long and hard, trying to cess out my pork-belly-loving-nature, before he passed the treasure to my outstretched hands.

“What will you do with it?”

“I’ll cook it real slow, Chinese-style,” I replied.  “I’ll braise it so that the fat stays in big fat, snowy chunks.”

I knew by the way he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes he hadn’t tasted this before.

But I had.

In China – pork belly capital of the world – they kowtow to pork fat and praise its culinary worth. They’re simply astounded that so many Western diners carve away fat and push it to the side of their plates.  My uncle, Hsiung Shu Shu adored the stuff and was faster with his  kuaizi (chopsticks) than myself or Auntie Di.  He’d spear the largest, fattiest morsel  and wail “Ai yo!” before the pork met his mouth, his eyes rolling in ecstasy.

Standing in the misty rain at the outdoor market, I held my two-pound frozen parcel close to my chest, regretting that I hadn’t spent more time in Auntie Di’s Yong He kitchen decades ago. I could see her smiling and braising her pork belly long and slow in a covered clay pot, nestled inside a bamboo steamer basket.  She’d calibrate a braising liquid of soy, stock, ginger, star anise and Shaoxing wine… but how many tablespoons, how many cups, I never bothered to learn the specifics.

My aunt made everything, except bao.  All the steamed buns we ate came out of a cart pushed through the Yong He alleyways by an old woman who wailed out “maaaaaaaaaaaaaan tou!”  plying her yeasty morsels day and night. Besides, Taipei in the 80s didn’t serve pork belly in a bun, the way David Chang at Momofuku has made famous.

Instead, Auntie Di would bring the clay pot to the table, along with four or five other dishes and politely say to our little family of three, “Mei you cai” which literally means “There’s no food”.

Ironic and understated, that was the cultural norm. Auntie Di spent most of every day cooking and preparing a generous buffet of foods for Hsiung Shu Shu and me to feast on.

Oh, how I wish I’d just stood there in her kitchen, observing and learning by osmosis. I have never mastered the cleaver like she who sliced a myriad different shapes, chopping ceaselessly upon a six-inch thick board, cut from a tree trunk. Why hadn’t I watched her prepare the wok, heat the bamboo steamers, clean the fish or stir up the scallion pancake batter?

Now, almost 40 years later, I must rely on the hundreds of taste memories stored in my palate to retrieve and recreate this braise. I know this belly is 90 per cent fat and needs to be browned at high heat to create a beckoning, caramelized surface.  After that, my instinct is to allow the simple passage of time and slow, low-heat cooking. Many classic Chinese braising sauces are too heavy-handed with soy, so I add only enough. I snap a cinnamon bark in half, toss in little stars of anise, pour over the golden elixir that is homemade chicken stock.  Instead of a clay pot and steamer, I turn to my enamelled cast iron Cuisinart and a 275 F oven.  Just before I cover it, I press down a big sheet of parchment paper over the surface to prevent evaporation. Every single drop of this unctuous braise is precious.

I won’t serve it with rice or bring it to the table and pronounce I have nothing to show. My husband David is already salivating in the kitchen, lurking over the turquoise Cuisinart, offering to pull the belly’s buttery strands apart.  While he prepares the meat, I take off the steamer’s lid and a cloud of sweet steam kisses my face.  I can’t stop smiling at these fluffy white buns which open up easily without complaint, ready to receive snowy chunks of fat and tender juicy pork.

At the table, we dig in, our lips and cheeks smattered with the salty-sweet hoisin slipped around the meat, slipped around the spongy bun.  Chef Chang will be proud of me.  I have recreated his pork belly bao all the while remembering the premier Chinese chef in my life: Auntie Di.

Plus, I just heard someone call out  “Ai yo”!

David is guaranteed seconds.

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Chinese Braised Pork Belly

The most difficult part about this recipe is sourcing some quality pork –  I recommend Berkshire pork raised naturally so that you are dining on healthy, fine fat.

2 tbsp              organic canola oil

2 lbs                pork belly

4 cups             chicken stock

2 tbsp              soy sauce

2 tbsp             Shaoxing wine or cooking Sherry

2 tbsp             granulated sugar

1                      stick cinnamon, broken in half

2                      whole star anise

3                      garlic cloves, smashed

2                      green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths

2                      dried red chillies, chopped

1 tsp                ground Sichuan peppercorn

Preheat oven to 275 F. Heat oil at medium-high in enamelled cast iron pot and brown pork belly on all sides. Add stock, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, garlic, green onion, chillies and Sichuan peppercorn. Bring to a boil.  Cover with parchment paper and lid and place in the middle of the oven.  Cook for 2 hours or until meltingly tender.

To serve on steamed bao, place a chunk or shredded mound of pork belly inside, drizzle with hoisin sauce and garnish with freshly chopped coriander and peanuts.

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Steamed Bao Buns

This is a simple dough that’s easy to make.  You’ll be thrilled with the sight of these soft and fluffy bao once they are steamed. (T&T or any large Asian supermarket will have plenty in the frozen section if you aren’t up for the task.)

1 tsp          instant yeast

2 tbsp                 granulated sugar

Pinch                  salt

1/4 tsp                 baking powder

1/4 tsp                 baking soda

1 cup                  warm water

2 1/3 cups   all-purpose flour

Canola oil

In mixing bowl, combine yeast, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, flour and water and mix with dough hook for 3-4 min.  Let dough rest at room temperature in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

Turn dough out on to a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 pieces, shaping each into a ball. Roll a ball into a 6 inch x 2 inch piece, baste lightly with oil, lay a chopstick vertically in the middle and gently lift the top of the dough over the bottom, pulling out the chopstick to leave a small tunnel. Arrange on a parchment paper covered baking sheet and cover with a clean tea towel.  Repeat with remaining balls. Let dough rest 30 min to double in size.

Cut the parchment paper around each bun and place into a hot, covered steamer for 12 minutes. (Buns can be frozen once cooled and steamed to defrost).