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Last-Minute Sweets for Rosh Hashanah

toaster oven baklava rolls with honey

A quick last-minute wish for peace and a sweet and prosperous New Year to everyone. I know it doesn’t look that likely, between the physical and political versions of “weather” in the news, but I try to remember that it begins with us in our own neighborhoods and that we can make a difference by our own actions. If you haven’t yet, please make an effort to donate aid–even a couple of bucks–to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and to the victims of the earthquakes in Mexico. If you have neighbors and friends waiting to hear from loved ones caught in these disasters, do what you can to support them.

In the meantime, if you’re stuck for a last-minute dessert that works along the theme of “honey”–try baklava. I’m not actually kidding–if you have a toaster oven (for smaller amounts, 7-10 portions) and a microwave, and you have the makings of baklava (a roll of fillo, a bag of walnuts, some sugar and sweet spices and some butter or light-flavored vegetable oil), plus a bottle of honey, you’re in business. Of course, you could do apples instead of walnuts and make a strudel instead–also good and pretty easy. Peel and slice up or chop the apple (s), stick the pieces on a plate and microwave a minute or so to cook through and drain the juices before sprinkling on sugar, spices, and crushed nuts or breadcrumbs and/or raisins, and rolling up in fillo.

Toaster Oven Baklava Rolls

These are kind of like “ladies’ fingers” Moroccan fillo pastries, only with walnut filling rather than almond paste. Rolling individual fillo sheets is easy and a lot  quicker (and more fun, frankly) than layering several sheets flat and neat and then cutting pieces and baking and pouring a big jar of cold syrup over the hot pan. Plus the traditional syrup soak is a huge overload of sweet that’s admirable in its own odd way but very rich and hard to deal with–very sticky–right before you have to head off to synagogue. This is kind of a modular recipe–make just a few rolls if you feel like it, drizzle a bit of honey over the rolls at will.

  • roll of fillo dough , thawed (uses 1 sheet per roll; if you have extra left over, rewrap carefully and store in the fridge or freezer)
  • about 1 ounce walnuts per roll (I used about 6-7 ounces for 7 rolls)
  • 1 T sugar per 3-4 oz walnuts (I used 2T)
  • cinnamon or ground cardamom, about 1/2 t for 6-7 oz walnuts)
  • 1 t orange blossom water, optional, or orange or lemon juice or rind–you don’t want the mixture wet, this is for aromatic flavor
  • 2-3 T butter, melted, or vegetable oil, or a mixture, as needed
  • honey to drizzle over the top once baked, about 1/2-1 t per roll
  1. Slice the butter thin and melt in a ceramic or other microwaveable bowl, about 2 minutes.
  2. Put the walnuts in a plastic bag with some room and roll over them with a rolling pin or wine bottle to break them up fairly fine with a few 1/8th-1/4 inch bits, or if you feel like it, chop them in a food processor, not too fine. Add the sugar, spices and orange blossom water or juice to the bag and mix them into the nut meal.
  3. Unroll the fillo carefully onto a clean flat surface (lay down plastic wrap first as needed).
  4. Put a plastic sandwich baggie over your hand and dip it lightly into the melted butter. Dab on the top sheet of fillo.
  5. Fold the fillo sheet in thirds lengthwise. Grab a small handful of the nut mixture (2 T-ish), squeeze, and place at one end of the fillo strip. Tuck the side edges over it by 1/4-1/2 inch, then roll the end over and around the nut filling to enclose it. Dab a bit more butter on the rest of the strip and roll it up. Place on tin foil. Repeat with the rest of the fillo sheets until you run out of nut filling. If you run out of butter or oil, you can slice a bit more to melt quickly. You don’t need much per roll and the sandwich baggie should help spread it without absorbing any.
  6. When all the rolls are made, dab the last of the butter or oil on the tops, wait a minute to let it sink in a bit, and place the sheet in a toaster oven (or your regular oven preheated to 350F). For the toaster oven, set to bake on 350-400F, not “toast”, for about 8-10 minutes and keep an eye on it so nothing burns.
  7. Bake until the rolls are a deep golden brown and smelling baked. Remove from the oven, cool and squeeze on a drizzle of honey to taste–about half to one teaspoon per roll is enough for flavor without submerging it in syrup.

Baklava rolls browning in the toaster oven–don’t forget to set the temperature a little lower than for toasting so the tops don’t burn

L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu!

Finding heart

Right before the inauguration, a woman I didn’t know wished me a happy new year as we passed each other in the library. Something about the cautious way she said it made me wish it back to her with a wry twist we both acknowledged: neither of us felt we had much to look forward to in the coming administration, and both of us were worried for our families, our children, our community, ourselves. “We’ll keep on,” she said and I nodded. Both of us were a little grim.

And although it’s spring and Passover started Monday night, I am still a little grim and on standby. Every so often I feel a bit lighter in spite of the news, but to tell you the truth, I still often feel like hiding under a table. With a big tablecloth on it. In another, better, saner country. I kind of wonder if Iceland’s available. Are there Jews in Iceland? I hope so. Do they have enough matzah? I could lend them some…

But it’s spring. You can’t just hibernate for 4 years (or 2, hoping for a reversal in Congress in 2018 and a brain transplant for pretty much everyone in the White House, starting not with Trump–may not be possible–but perhaps Spicer? no, again, not possible–stick the oversized bunny suit back on him, make him hop around the WH lawn–would you be able to tell the difference?)

Ahem! As I was saying, you have to get back out there and see how your neighbors are faring and talk to them. If you’re not naturally extroverted and you work alone (double-ahem!), it’s even more important to take a breather and reconnect in the real world.

Despite my wariness about the immediate future of American government and my repeated incredulity at the daily headlines, there is reason for hope in this country. All kinds of people, business leaders and employee groups, religious leaders and congregations, public officials, judges, entertainers, and most of all, ordinary citizens have started speaking up and donating money and time to support the safety and rights of threatened and persecuted minority groups, whether their own or someone else’s. Citizen or not. Same religion or gender or race or not. California’s not the only place where this is happening. If it can happen in North Carolina, in Kansas, in Pennsylvania, in Texas–it can happen anywhere.

These surprising oases of sanity, civil contribution and decency give me heart that we can take steps in our own neighborhoods and states to protect the progress and community we’ve recovered since 2008.

But I do have to ask, is there really still room for a food blog like mine? Is this what I should be doing this year? Can I help anyone by talking about food and trying to seek pleasure in it when we’re all worried about bigger things? It’s taken me four five whole months to get to the point where I can say I think so.

A few weeks ago, still wondering, I went to Shabbat services for the first time in a while and tried hard to find heart and figure out what to do with it. And I did. I looked around at my neighbors and friends, I joined in the prayers and singing, sat with my husband, said kaddish for my brother and father and grandmother, whose yahrzeits all fall in the same week, got an aliyah, heard my daughter chanting the longest possible maftir in the book (usually we’re tawkin’ 3 verses at the end of the Torah reading, this time it was 20-plus). I found myself thinking both how proud I was of her, how beautifully she sang it, and how rusty my Hebrew reading had gotten through neglect these past months.

Being with my community and my family, seeking something not posted in the daily news headline deathspiral, put me in a more expansive frame of mind.

I decided not to let the current occupants of the White House and their make-America-hate-again tactics continue to ruin my or my neighbors’ life and drain all the color out of our days. I decided not to hide under the table–it was too much like duck-and-cover, and that’s only good for ducks, and only if it’s Wabbit Season.

We can be better and more powerful together than our current representatives in Washington think. Although I would personally like to thank MY congressional representatives, Judy Chu and Adam Schiff, as well as my senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein. Keep doing the right thing, and Chazak v’Amatz (strength and courage).

Living well and supporting each other is the best revenge.

(Chasing recalcitrant rightwing congressional reps down with pitchforks or at least cellphones at various town halls and telling them to do their jobs is starting to be tempting too, don’t get me wrong. Plus it’s aerobic.)

So anyway, back on track. Because Civility 101 demands community, and community includes good food. Even if it occasionally has to be served up with a pitchfork. And, as I mentioned somewhere up in the wilderness above, it’s Pesach. Time for a taste of freedom.

Passover Links

Passover Pareve, Eggless Chocolate Torte (Sacher Torte) with Dairy-free Ganache

Assorted Passover cakes (apple/almond, banana ginger) and breakfast schemes

Macaroons, mandelhorns and almendrados

Homemade Horseradish (but I’m not bitter)

Not gefilte–better fish options

Microwave shakshouka

Not-chicken soup

Israeli spinach-feta casserole

How to fly with a pie

Happy Chanukah–tonight was the first night–and as per usual, a belated Happy Thanksgiving too. I hope everyone ate nice, had fun, enjoyed and helped do the dishes wherever you gathered.

Now that it’s over, I have a few more additions to the list of things I’ve learned–good or bad–about How To Travel With Food ™. Because my in-laws, who usually host Thanksgiving, are traveling in Africa (!!!–think elephants coming up to their cabin porch), my ex-brother-in-law invited all the rest of us to join him for the weekend instead. In Sonoma. At what turned out to be not a cabin with or without elephants, but a luxurious private residence he’d booked for the group as a vacation rental. And it was out and out marvelous. If a little weird and unsettling in its own way.

Sonoma-Kenwood.jpg

When we were still deciding how to reach Sonoma from Pasadena, we realized with dismay that it’s about 10 or 11 hours by car at the best of times, and Thanksgiving week is not the best of times. When we lived on the east coast, a trip like that would have us thinking airplane automatically, but out here we usually just suffer. My niece and her boyfriend drove up from San Luis Obispo, usually 4 hours north of us, and it took them 9 hours instead of 5 or 6. So I was really grateful to my husband for finding affordable plane tickets for an hour’s flight into Oakland. So far, so good, and it took a lot of the strain out.

But all those airline rules. And we were the ones bringing pumpkin pie. In carry-on. My ex-BIL offered to pick up a couple of big stalks of brussels sprouts for me up there (I don’t think we even had any more at down here by this time; Trader Joe’s was out of them by weeks) as well as a green cabbage for Greek cabbage salad. These are big heavy scary-looking items you just don’t want to schlep on a plane unless you’re auditioning for the live version of Shrek. As the shopping list got longer, I decided to just bake the pies at home, cool them, freeze them as far as possible, and take them in a stiff box with some ice packs stuffed in the corners and hope for the best.

Continue reading

Persian Posh and Jewish Soul: Two Veg-Friendly Cookbooks for Spring

"The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian" (aka "Veggiestan" in the UK) by Sally Butcher, cover photo from amazon.co.uk "Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh" by Janna Gur. Cover photo from amazon.com

 

Passover week didn’t exactly go the way I’d hoped, with loads of new vegetable dishes to play with and experiments in microwave gastronomy that would wow the most cynical reader…

After the optimistic start with the chocolate almond torte and the microwave shakshouka for one, I suddenly caught a bug–my husband caught it first, suffered a day or so, got better and then kindly passed it to me, and I ended up sick for the better part of the week. We all agree we got it from a kid he was sitting next to at seder. Now that our kid’s a teenager, we’re no longer used to it. Clearly we’ve gone soft.

So I was–shall we say–less than enthusiastic about cooking the last week or so, and ended up with lots of ideas that stayed in my head while I stayed in bed, attempting to keep up on tea, rice, poached eggs and applesauce. And feeling really embarrassed that every time I opened the fridge and saw all the beautiful vegetables I’d bought for the week, I peered at them suspiciously–how much trouble would they cause me? Was it really a crappy virus or was it maybe secretly food poisoning, even though everyone else was able to eat? Maybe tomorrow–and closed the fridge door again and groaned. It took a couple of extra days to start looking at vegetables with any enthusiasm at all.

This, I thought, is what most of the country thinks about fresh vegetables if a dolled-up superstar chef isn’t holding one on the cover of a glossy magazine (or even if he is). Maybe with a little less queasiness or dizziness than I experienced, but with that lurking suspicion that vegetables have dirt on them, that you have to wash them off and then cut them up and do something to them, that they’re not sterile and wrapped in plastic for your protection, and that it’s all too much bother. What a lousy, paranoid way to live.

So anyway, now that I’m better the vegetables are looking good again, and the (four or five) leftover matzah boxes have been relegated to a top shelf for sometime when I’m not sick of them and want to experiment a bit for next year.

Two bright and sun-filled new (or newish, anyway) cookbooks that make lavish and hearty use of vegetables were languishing on my desk for the entire week of Passover (and two weeks before that, when I was too busy to do more than look at them wistfully). Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan is a collection of pan-Middle Eastern vegetarian recipes that centers on her husband’s family Persian cuisine and their experience as the proprietors of a Persian specialty grocery in London. Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh is Israeli food writer/editor Janna Gur’s second major English-language cookbook, and it focuses on Jewish “grandma” food from all the cultures Israel is home to.

Both books run something along the lines of Yotam Ottolenghi’s approach to food–appealing, vegetable-filled, exotic, and fun to cook and eat. But the food is generally simpler and homier, more traditional and with fewer trendy/haute touches or UK-specific ingredients like salsify or seabeans that you just can’t find most places in the US. Butcher and Gur each have a foot in both professional and home cooking, which may make the difference. The recipes here are not chefly so much as cookable. Eminently cookable, and they make me want to run right out and try so many things (especially if I can stuff any of the steps into the microwave) that I’m just going to have to get them both and give back my overdue library copies.

The authors share an approach to traditional and modern Middle Eastern food that is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, ecumenical and–I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but  neighborly comes close. Reading these books is like hanging out in the farmer’s market and the kitchen with a friend who knows how to make all the dishes your grandmother might have made but never showed you.

Veggiestan is the original 2011 UK title of Butcher’s mid-sized cookbook, now out in trade paperback,  but the publishers thought that title would be too controversial for the US (land of “freedom Continue reading

Purim: Poppyseed filling with a Persian-style twist

poppyseed filling with orange blossom water

Tonight is Purim, when we dress up in costume, make fun of dire villains and dull kings, cheer modest heroes and most of all praise a heroic woman, Esther, who risked everything to change the king’s addled mind and spare the Jews of the Persian empire.

In previous years, I’ve done the Hamantaschen thing–low carb, medium carb, all homemade, no pasty white horrors, praise of Joan Nathan’s basic recipe from her first cookbook…lots of non-Dayglo, non-candy fillings from figs, prunes, apricots, and so on…

Today I’m probably not going to get a chance to bake anything or even cook very much, because I decided to take a leaf out of Esther’s Megillah this year and read part of the fifth chapter, splitting it with my (much-wiser-than-Ahashverosh) husband. So about three days ago I decided I was going to go for it and learn the Purim cantillation (trope marks for chanting) system. Which takes more nerve than usual, because it’s tricky and somewhat deceptive, like the entire story. And it’s been almost two years, since my daughter’s bat mitzvah, since I’ve even chanted Torah. And, like I said, three days ago. Not brilliant.

Luckily there’s Youtube. And a number of synagogues post recordings by their hazzanim (cantors, male and female) for the cantillation marks and for the readings as a whole. Only there are so many versions for Purim! It’s a late holiday in our history, after a lot of us were living in the Persian empire, and the different melodies reflect our already dispersed community. One interesting version was by a Moroccan hazzan–his system actually had a couple of trope mark tunes that are nearly the same as ours for the regular weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. Maybe those are the oldest ones that everyone has more or less in common? Cool!

So–our daughter is chanting a few verses with her youth group for Chapter 7 tonight, and the director is bringing kosher Persian food from a restaurant on the West Side of LA, where the largest Iranian (and Iranian Jewish) community outside of Iran resides. I wish I were a kid tonight, for sure.

Still, in honor of the occasion and the roots, I did get around to making poppyseed filling for the hamantaschen I’ll make tomorrow.

I went to my local Armenian greengrocer yesterday morning for vegetables and picked up a new bag of poppyseeds, hoping they were fresh, really fresh enough to use. My previous latest bag in the freezer has puffed up suspiciously with air–suggests it’s no good and starting to release gases even though I didn’t open it before freezing, dammit.

I tasted the new poppyseeds raw–okay. But rancid sometimes only shows up when you toast them, so I poured a spoonful in a metal pan and swirled them around on the stove until the aroma came up. Then I test tasted those once they were cool enough. Still good, still lucky.

Poppyseed filling is quite an elaborate affair in my trusty 1984 spiralbound edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Figs, apricot jam, brandy, egg whites? Oy. Ten or more ingredients. A production, and kind of expensive considering how many younger people don’t like poppyseed filling. Including my daughter, I’m sad to report (see below)…

But I do, which is the important thing, and my supermarket no longer carries those cans of Solo in the Jewish Foods section. So I decided it was fine to simplify. And while I was at it, to add a hidden Persian-style element or so for the occasion of Purim.

So this filling looks black…but holds the essence of early spring and orange blossom within it. And if anyone doubts that it’s completely effective in its ability to transform, at least temporarily, I should add that my daughter, who insisted she tells me every year she hates poppyseed filling with a hot hate, and that I never listen, took a tiny bite and looked surprised and pleased…at least for about five seconds, until the bitter toastiness of the poppyseeds came through like a bagel at rush hour, poor kid, and she pulled a Tom Hanks (from Big, the caviar scene). She even did the wiping-the-tongue-desperately-with-a-napkin bit. And no, I’m not sure I should be telling you this. Five seconds delay, though. From her, I’m gonna have to count that as a win. And it was pretty funny, another point to Purim.

Poppyseed Filling With a Persian Twist

  • 6 oz (172 g; it was the size of bag they sold) very fresh poppyseeds
  • 6 oz. sugar (again, 172 g, but anyway, the same amount as the poppyseeds)
  • 1/4 c (60 ml) water
  • juice of a lemon
  • orange part of the rind of an (organic, washed) orange or tangerine (in this case), grated or if that’s too much of a pain, shredded with a knife and ground in a coffee grinder or food processor with an additional spoonful or so of sugar
  • pinch each of ground cloves and cardamom (if you have it)
  • very tiny shake or grinding or pinch of nutmeg
  • up to another 1/2 c. water (see instructions and PS note at the bottom)
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1 t. orange blossom water (yes, this was my idea of the Persian twist, and it’s good, though probably it should have been rosewater for authenticity–I just wasn’t ready for that)

Taste-test the poppyseeds raw, then toast a spoonful in a dry steel saucepan on the stovetop until you start to smell their aroma. Cool and taste-test again before using to make sure there’s no funky, off, or rancid flavor to them.

ground poppyseeds

Then grind them a few pulses in a coffee grinder (in two batches) or in a food processor or blender.

In the steel saucepan, combine the sugar and water with a squeeze of lemon and let the sugar wet down all the way before turning on the burner to medium. Bring just to a slow simmer without stirring–the slurry should start to go clear as the sugar dissolves.

poppyseeds cooking in syrup

Add the ground poppyseeds and stir gently. It should be a thick dark-gray grainy mass. Keep the pot on a low heat so it bubbles gently but doesn’t spit for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally but not hard or you might cause the syrup to seize. As it cooks add the lemon juice, spices, grated orange or tangerine rind and stir in, then [see the PS below] test-taste–if the seeds are still kind of hard, add 1/4 c. water, let simmer with a lid partway on for a few minutes, stir and do it again here until the seeds soften a bit and the raw-poppy edge is off. Add the vanilla and just before taking it off the heat, stir in the orange blossom water. Take a tiny bit and let it cool enough to taste and adjust any flavorings, then take off the heat and pour into a container to cool to room temperature. It will thicken further, especially after you put it in the fridge.

B’te’avon, bon appétit, and Chag HaPurim Same’ach!

PS…AKA, next-day “Do-over,” kind of. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to try this, be happy for a few minutes, and then kind of hate the result when they took a second taste. If it needs a fix, it needs a fix, and I felt this did…

The next day I took it out of the fridge for a taste test before deciding if I really wanted to bake…it was pretty grainy and the top was crusted sugar. I stirred it and realized the seeds were pretty hard still and kind of bitter–not rancid, just really raw-poppyseed. Very strong. I think I didn’t have enough liquid in the recipe compared with Joan Nathan’s, even without all the jams and things. She had “juice of an orange” in there somewhere next to the juice of a lemon, and I’d assumed it was mostly for flavor, but probably the extra liquid helped cook the poppyseeds too (hence, the “up to another 1/2 c. water” bit I’ve just added to the ingredients list).

Never one to look away from a challenge (oh yeah? I hear someone muttering sarcastically in the background)…I decided to reheat the filling in the microwave with some extra water and a lid for a minute or so and see if that would induce the poppy seeds to absorb some of the water and soften up a bit. I stirred in about 1/4 c. of water, which immediately went cloudy-white, kept stirring, and the filling thinned almost to pancake batter consistency. Put a lid on and heated 2-3 minutes in the microwave, let sit a few minutes to absorb. It was better as well as thicker, and a little of the poppyseed bitter edge was out as well. So I did it again with another 1/4 c. water, heated 2 minutes or so, let it sit again and it thickened back up but the seeds were definitely softer and a little more brown than black (although I admit it’s pretty hard to tell).

In any case, I’d do this the first time around while it’s still cooking on the stovetop. Add the extra water in bits after you’ve added the poppyseeds and spices, and before adding vanilla or orange blossom water (so you don’t evaporate them off). Expect to cook it down from about pancake batter looseness until it becomes very thick, a grainy paste. Then taste a little and feel to see if the seeds have softened and mellowed in flavor–add more water and cook longer or else do the microwave thing instead if you’re impatient, but I think it might only take maybe as much as 15-20 minutes on the stove rather than the 5 minutes I’d expected.

Safety: The only thing about heating syrups in the microwave (this is basically a syrup with seeds) is that they can get very, very hot. So 1. keep an eye on it while it’s heating and be ready to stop the microwave if it starts to boil over (this didn’t, either time, but you just don’t know) and 2. don’t use a plastic microwave container because the mixture could melt or scar plastics. Proper microwaveable ceramic or old-style borosilicate pyrex is ok if you still have some from 20 years ago or can find it in Europe and tote it home. (NOTE: “new Pyrex” that clanks and is made outside the US is made of soda lime glass and is not very heat-stable–see right sidebar warning).

 

OK, Fried PLUS Dairy for Chanukah

fried-panela-and-artichokes

Another good version from a previous fry-up: slices of panela browned with marinated artichoke hearts (bonus: a hit of garlic and lemon flavor from the artichoke marinade, plus the lemon juice increases the browning)

Well…I figured out something quick to fry for the first night of Chanukah: slices of panela cheese, a white rubbery fresh cheese that’s almost exactly like halloumi. Only it’s Mexican rather than Greek, so it’s a locally abundant variety (along with queso fresco) and about half the price per pound here in Pasadena.

I decided to do something a little different with it though. While the spoonful of olive oil was heating in the nonstick (very important) pan, I pressed the slices of panela into about a tablespoon mixture (not shown in above photograph; we ate these too quickly to take a picture of any worth) of pre-toasted sesame seeds, crumbled oregano, sumac, a pinch of ground caraway, and Aleppo pepper–essentially za’atar mix, only without added salt. It didn’t stick incredibly well to the cheese but I was able to press it in on both sides long enough to get it into the pan.

When I started frying the cheese, some of the whey immediately bubbled out into the oil, but although the slices softened up and started melting a little, they mostly kept their shape and I was able to flip them with a wide spatula to fry the other side. Halloumi firms up again as it cools–a little flatter, but pretty tasty, especially with the za’atar mix I improvised. I served it on top of our salad, but in restaurants it goes by itself, with its own bed of greens, maybe a bit of chopped tomato and onion, or with bread and olive oil. It’s only a few minutes of work for something unusual and delicious.

Microwave tricks: 5-Minute Plum Jam for Fall

Italian prune or blue plums

These Italian prunes are some of the fresher, better-looking specimens from my greengrocer’s bin this week. But overripe plums work fine too.

Italian blue or prune plums are probably the last round of plums to appear at my local greengrocers for the year (well, until they start getting in carboys of plums and peaches from Chile). Prune plums aren’t much to look at–well, okay, they have a graceful enough elongated shape, but cut into one and you won’t be terribly impressed–the peel is thick and slightly bitter, the flesh is yellow-brownish, not very juicy, and a bit stickier and less brilliantly flavored than the red and black plums of summer, to say nothing of the gorgeous green and mottled dinosaur and Santa Rosa plums we can get here in LA. Many of the fresh prunes end up overripe and still untaken at the end of the day.

Which, I’ve discovered this week, is actually quite a shame. Because if you buy them early and firm, while there’s still a tint of reddish purple about them, they’re closer to regular plums–crisper, juicier and livelier tasting raw. Still not the ideal eating plum, but not bad.

And if you take the ones that are fully ripe and disappointing and bland and not too pretty, cut them up and microwave them, suddenly everything transforms. Italian prune plums make a gorgeous, rose-red, vibrantly flavored low-sugar jam. A lot like cranberry sauce in both color and flavor, but somehow a little mellower, with the bitter edge off, and a hint of spicy perfumed depth.

Microwave plum jam on wholewheat toast

Five minutes in the microwave, and everything changes.

Many stone fruits react this way to heat–sometimes sugar too, but mostly it’s the heat. Even very bland, mushy pale apricots seem to bloom into vibrant flavor and acidity when baked or simmered, and sour cherries go from slightly bitter and dull raw to world-famous classic pie filling with a strong almond aroma. I’ve rescued bland, spongy supermarket nectarines and peaches by microwaving them into fruit spreads with real flavor, but obviously good fruit makes even better jams and compotes. It’s just that when the fruit is good raw, I’d usually rather eat it raw, because the season is short.

The prune plums I bought this past week don’t provoke that dilemma of choice; they’re definitely better turned into a quick fruit spread, and maybe I’ll freeze a second batch for later. These plums would also make a great pie filling, like the zwetchgenkuchen that Joan Nathan first published as a traditional German Jewish dessert for Rosh Hashanah in The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Baked conventionally, the quartered prune plums would probably hold their shape somewhat in the crust and look beautiful.

In the microwave, the plums quickly break down to a bubbling mass and gradually take on color from the peel–at first, bronze with a hint of pink, and after a minute or two the color spreads and deepens to cranberry red (as does the flavor). Sugar just to taste, a tiny squeeze of lemon, and a pinch each of clove and ginger balance out the tartness, and after a day in the fridge, the jam has mellowed and integrated beautifully.

The accents of brandy, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon peel in Nathan’s recipe make me want to run back to the store and try it this instant, but after a week of baking challah for the high holidays and prospects for 100 degree temperatures yet again, I’m not sure today’s the day. Maybe for Sukkot, which starts later this week.

But the combination of plums with aromatic spices is right on, and if you’re adventurous you could always take this fruit spread one step further and add a small spoonful of brandy, a few shakes of cinnamon and an even tinier hint of nutmeg, even a little grated lemon peel. The simple version below is good on toast, delicious with Greek yogurt and plenty complex enough for me before or after the second cup of coffee.

However, the full-on dressed-up version would probably be a wonderful accent for goat cheese tartlets or a baked brie if you were doing swanky appetizers for a dinner party. I’d test-taste a small batch of the jam first just to make sure it wasn’t too rich with the brandy and nutmeg, because a little goes a long way, but otherwise, let ‘er rip. The plum-jam-with-cheese appetizers would also be an unexpectedly good accompaniment to mead, sherry or other apéritifs for fall.

5-Minute Microwave Plum Fruit Spread (makes about a cup)

  • 5-6 ripe Italian blue or prune plums (or any other plums), washed, pitted and cut up
  • 2-3 T sugar (or more to taste–I like mine less sweet, more fruit)
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • pinch of cloves (maybe 1/8 t, probably a little less)
  • pinch of powdered ginger (a little less than 1/8 t)

Put all ingredients in a microwaveable ceramic bowl big enough to hold them with a couple of inches to spare, because the plum mixture will bubble up as it cooks. Remember to handle the edges of the bowl with a towel or oven mitt or something (folded paper sandwich bags also work okay in a pinch) because this will heat long enough for the bowl itself to get hot.

Microwave 1-2 minutes on HIGH (I have an 1100 W oven, so adjust times to whatever works for you if yours is older and lower power). The plums should be starting to break down and just starting to color pinkish. Stir the mixture and microwave another minute or so, stir again. If it’s not cooked as much as you think it should be, microwave another minute or so but be prepared to hit the stop button if you see it start to boil over. If it’s fully colored and broken down to a fruit spread, take a small spoonful, let it cool, and taste carefully. It will probably taste a lot like not-very-sweetened cranberry sauce. If it’s not sweet enough for you, add a little more sugar to taste, and maybe another squeeze of lemon, then let it cool all the way covered and refrigerate. It will thicken a little further and mellow overnight and taste more like plums, especially with the clove and ginger notes.

You can, obviously, also boil the ingredients a few minutes in a saucepan on the stovetop if you prefer. If you want it completely smooth, cool it and put it through a food mill or food processor.

This isn’t canned, so store it in the fridge for up to a week or freeze it for later. When you thaw it, taste it again–you might need to add another squeeze of lemon and/or reheat in the microwave just a minute or so to refresh it.

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