A new best

Favorites.  Bests.  Mosts-of-all.  Superlatives make me nervous.  It’s the way they tie your hands, bind your wrists so that you have no choice but to reach for one thing at a time.  That’s no fun at all.  I don’t play favorites, then – not my game.  I do, however, collect them.  Having more than one favorite may undercut the very meaning of the word, I know, but it’s much nicer this way.  It’s a simple matter of storage.  Some people have pedestals; I keep a shelf, wide, and deep, and bowed beneath the weight of my favorite, most loved things.  It’s cluttered and crammed, at capacity, for sure, until something new comes along.  Then, up that new thing goes, in with the rest.  There’s always room for one more.  My shelf may be heavy with almonds, but I recently stashed some pistachios up there, and a new best book, too, between one old best and another.  I’ve met new best people, made new best friends, stuffed them right in.  No one ever complains.      

It’s amazing to me how these best things keep coming along.  Take running, which I never once tried until I was twenty-three years old, and now makes my day every time.  Or that gem, Harper’s Magazine, which I picked up for the first time in an airport in 2010 and haven’t put down since, or, hey, this very site!  I couldn’t have imagined it just a few short years ago.  Then there’s the matter of a certain tiny human.  Last year this time, she didn’t exist.  Now, she’s among the very best things around.   

It makes me wonder how many more best things are out there, how many new favorites await.  A lot, I bet.  I can’t wait to see. 

What has me going on about all of this today is rhubarb.  For most of my life, I couldn’t have even told you what it is.  I remember thinking, as a kid, that it sounded old-timey, charming, and quaint.  I grew up in a little pocket of northeast Ohio called Orange Village, which also sounds old-timey, charming, and quaint, like the kind of place where people go around eating rhubarb all the time.  It isn’t.  Or if it is, I was running in the wrong circles, because it took me nearly three decades on this earth before I finally brought rhubarb home and put it to work.  We were leaving the next day for a few weeks away, and I remember stitching together what was left of our flours, butter, and sugar into a crumble, oozy and pink.  The rhubarb smelled of flowers but tasted much better; it was warm and juicy, rosy and tart, my newest favorite food.  When we dropped off the leftovers at our neighbors’ place before our flight, I felt like I was handing over something special.

Rhubarb crumble has taken on many forms in my kitchen since then.  I made a crumb-topped streusel-y version one year, and a nubby oat-topped version the next.  They were great, all of them, and the only reason I never deposited them here was the lack of an actual recipe.  Sometimes I’d riff on one thing or another, but usually I’d just pinch and scoop and rub my way to a topping that felt right.  This time, finally, I wrote it down. 

The plan for today’s crumble actually started with a cake, one from Nigel Slater’s beautiful new volume, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. (Happy birthday to me; thank you Molly B.).  It’s called rhubarb cinnamon polenta cake, and I saw it first, before the book was even in my hands, over on Alana’s site.  You know how I feel about corn meal, and rhubarb, and cinnamon, so you can guess how excited I was to see them all together like that.  I planned to bake it for a dinner with friends, but at the last minute the crumble urge struck.  So I grabbed the best of what Slater’s cake had to offer (the corn meal, the rhubarb, and the cinnamon, in case you missed it) and transplanted it into Marian Burros’s plum crumble, a recipe that’s lived up on my favorites shelf for a while now.  With that kind of parentage, it’s no surprise that the resulting dessert is very good.

The crumble begins as most crumbles do, with a mess of dry ingredients whisked together in a bowl.  But instead of the butter that usually comes next, cold cubes rubbed to bits among the crumbs, there’s an egg.  You massage it into the mixture, sprinkle the topping over the fruit, and only then do you spoon the butter, melted, over the whole thing.  Out of the oven, the crust is more a hard, crackly shell than a loose sheet of crumbs.  You get the sense that, were it not for the jammy fruit gluing it into place, you might be able to lift the topping off like a lid, in a single crisp piece.  Luisa likens it to a cookie, and I know what she means.  The added crunch of the cornmeal is right at home.  And just like that, I have a new best on my hands.  A new favorite, yes, if I’ve ever seen one, and I have, and I will, and happily so. 

Rhubarb Polenta Crumble
Inspired by Nigel Slater’s Rhubarb Cinnamon Polenta Cake, from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard and adapted from Marian Burros’s Plum Crumble, via Luisa and Molly

I’m no sissy about butter.  When the original recipe called for an entire stick, I didn’t blink.  But there was something off about the texture, how the crumb got over-saturated in places and the excess butter swirled weirdly around the fruit.  So the second time around I cut out a tablespoon, per Molly’s suggestion, and finally, I cut out one more.  That was the sweet spot, for me.  You get just a few little patches of more crumbly, less crackly crust this way.  It’s a nice mix.

For the filling:
1 pound rhubarb, chopped
3 tablespoons lightly packed brown sugar

For the topping:
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup coarse-ground corn meal
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Grated zest of a small lemon
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten well
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 

Stir together the rhubarb and the brown sugar in a bowl.  Scrape the sugared fruit into an ungreased 9-inch pie plate, and set aside.

Combine the granulated sugar, flour, corn meal, cinnamon, lemon zest, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.  Add the beaten egg, and work it into the dry ingredients with your hands, rubbing the clumps and bits of moistened crumbs between your fingertips and your palms.  Sprinkle evenly over the rhubarb.

Spoon the butter over the topping and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is browned and the juices from the rhubarb bubble up around the edges. 

Serve warm or at room temperature, with yogurt, à la Luisa, crème fraîche à la Molly, or vanilla ice cream, à la me. 


Bringing it to the table

Hi, friends. 

It’s been busy around here in the best possible ways, but I’ve been missing you guys, and I wanted to stop by. 

On Tuesday afternoon, I drove up to Portsmouth with friends.  We ate dinner at Evan Mallett’s restaurant, Black Trumpet, and I’ve been thinking about that meal all week.  I met Evan back in December at Pecha Kucha night, where we were both presenters.  The house was packed, and I was nervous, and the thing that I felt inching its way up into my esophagus was most definitely my stomach, but Evan was up before me, and when he started talking, I forgot about all that.  He spoke about his life in food:  the people and places and the winding path that led him to cook what he cooks in the way that he does.  For a few minutes, I wasn’t nervous, just hungry. 

There’s a lot that I could say about the meal that Evan cooked for us on Tuesday night, about the velvet yolk of the duck egg and the semolina dumplings I dragged through it, the pickled papaya, and the house-made mustard I licked from my knife.  But I read an essay by Wendell Berry this morning over breakfast, and I’d like to share a few lines from it, instead. 

We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else.  But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else.  The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition.  One reason to eat responsibly is to live free. 

Wendell Berry wrote these words in 1989, in an essay called The Pleasures of Eating.  He’s talking here about a politics of the plate, a decade, at least, before it was trendy or commonplace to do so.  The subject of the essay is eating responsibly, what it means, how to do it, and why.  It’s about cultivating an awareness of farming and agriculture, and guarding for ourselves the task of thinking about what we put into our bodies, instead of letting an industry decide for us.  Responsibility, though, is just one piece of it.  The Pleasures of Eating is the title of the essay and its true subject:  pleasures heightened by our own involvement in the acts of producing, of creating.  Wendell Berry is referring to food production writ large, farm to table, seed to supper, urging us to participate however we can, but – it seems to me – he means not only that.  When we set our tables and pull up chairs, when we drop dough onto parchment, words onto the page, whenever we make something according to our talents and tastes and launch it into the world, we get a bite of that pleasure, I think.  To be free is to generate and to build, to make something delicious, and gobble it up.  “Eating with the fullest pleasure … is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world,” Berry says.  From what I know of Evan’s work inside and outside of the kitchen – with food, with farmers, with people of all ages who eat and who cook – it matches up with all of this.   

After dinner, my friends and I went to hear Joan Didion talk about her newest book, Blue Nights.  Toward the end of the evening, she answered questions from the audience, and someone asked about how she spends her days.  I scribbled down her response on the back of my ticket stub:  “Today, I spent my day on the train.  That was useful, in that I got here.”  That was an important thing for me to hear.  I’m going to try to remember it.

Happy weekend, all.  Back soon, with rhubarb. 

p.s. -- I've titled this post after the book in which The Pleasures of Eating appears.