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Monday, May 30, 2005

Except for the head cold I caught on our second day in Scotland -- which was pretty much gone by our sixth day in Scotland -- there is very little that Lloyd and I would change about our trip. We liked the little town in which we lived, we liked our tiny room-with-a-view on the second floor of the guest house, we really liked our hostess and her family, we had a blast on our numerous day trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow, we even enjoyed the bus rides back and forth from Edinburgh to Galashiels, where we could charge up our batteries for a good day's city prowling and then relax, tired but happy, on the ride home, watching hills roll, water flow and sheep safely graze. There is only one change we would make for any future trips, even though to do so would deprive us of our hostess's warm company and excellent breakfasts: in the future, we would like a place with a kitchen in which we can do our own cooking. That way, we could actually buy the lovely produce and meats we found at the markets, bring them back to the room and actually cook them. That way, I would not have to spend much of my vacation in a state of longing, wishing I could make my own stovies long after the coffee shop with the best stovies in town was closed for the day, wishing I could make a compote or pie out of the screaming-red stalks of rhubarb displayed outside the health-food store across the street, craving the weird, spiky, peppery but not-at-all bitter arugula which formed the basis of one of my two lunches at Valvona and Crolla. You spend two weeks in this excitable state, and it creates certain expectations in your cooking life when you get home, expectations that can be deferred but not denied.

Deferred they were, though, at least for a week, when I spent my first week back in New York stumbling through the accumulated paperwork at LuthorCorp and some (for lack of a better phrase) complex and interesting personal events. Our first weekend back at home was spent in Philadelphia, in the bosom of family and Salvador Dali (not literally, of course), and while I wouldn't trade a weekend in my mom's company for all the pastry in France, I still knew, as I left the office under a brilliant blue sky on Friday afternoon, that I was long overdue for a market romp.

You might say I overdid it on the rhubarb. I always do. This is because I can get a lot of mileage out of rhubarb. A smallish bag will yield maybe a bit of compote. A bigger bag will yield a batch of jam. But a really big bag will yield a batch of jam *and* a batch of rhubarb and strawberry jam and some more for compote and maybe a bit left for pig's bum, a steamed pudding of vanilla sponge and rhubarb that is much more delicious than its snickering-schoolboy name would imply. I have become so good at overbuying rhubarb that it now becomes a ritual: I go through the mountain of rhubarb on the table at the Locust Grove Farm stand at the greenmarket; I chat with the guys behind the table, all the while seeking out the reddest stalks I can find, and hey, presto, there's my 3 1/2 to 5 pounds of rhubarb in the bag. On Wednesday I came to the market at lunch and the rhubarb was all gone, but another stand had the first New Jersey strawberries of the season. Saturday there were no strawberries, but there was plenty of rhubarb. They'll dovetail one of these weekends, but in the meantime, I found myself with 4 pounds of rhubarb and only a vague idea of what to do with it. Because I had forgotten to stock up on butter and stick it in the freezer before we went away, I was down to a single stick. Pie was right out. Crumble was doable, but I didn't want to stint, which I would have had to do to have enough butter for the rest of our meals during the week. (We don't eat a lot of butter, but we do like to have an omelet or fritatta at least once a week, and I often find that as soon as I don't think I need any butter, it turns out that I do.) I could have made jam, but that would have meant searching out jars, buying new lids, and going through the boiling-water-canning routine, which is great fun when you plan for it but a bit tiring for a spur-of-the-moment adventure.

In the end I decided on just a simple compote: rhubarb, sugar, water, nothing else. Recipes for rhubarb compote always call for something extra, most often oranges. While I don't exactly take a dim view of this -- rhubarb and oranges are indeed quite good together -- I sometimes think that we overdo it on the rhubarb-and-orange combination. Yes, rhubarb is often paired with something else, strawberries, stone fruits, raspberries, but I can't tell you how many recipes I've read for rhubarb jam or pie that say "this is rhubarb on its own, in its glory...with just a hint of orange juice for flavor." Now, I love oranges; I love how in February, when nothing else is in season and you find yourself wilting under the weight of subzero wind chills, the Honeybell and Mineola tangelos and navels and Valencias show up just at the instant you need them, so full of juice and sunshine that it's an effort not to cut one open and suck it dry right in the fruit store. But to me at least, in the world of fruit, oranges are the divas, showing up and demanding the spotlight. When I make fruitcake, I tend to leave the orange peel out for that very reason: you can taste orange peel, but little else. If I want an orange-flavored dessert, I'll make an orange cake, or Maltese custard. But if I want cranberry sauce, I want sauce that tastes like cranberries, not cranberries and oranges. And I certainly am not going to forgo making rhubarb compote just because I don't feel like running out to get more oranges. Four pounds of rhubarb, 2 1/2 pounds of sugar (about five cups), 1 1/2 cups of water, stirred, boiled, simmered for 30 minutes, et voila: I now have enough compote for a few dozen breakfasts of compote stirred into a little pot of yogurt, with enough left over to send a pint or two to a friend or two. I took a quality control taste as I decanted all of this fruit into any container in which it would fit. This is what I was missing in Scotland, that tart friendly hit of a fruit (well, a vegetable, really) at the peak of season, simply full of itself and happy to share itself with you.

Of course, I can't let rhubarb get all the glory. At Valvona and Crolla, I had one of the best salads I'd ever eaten, made of arugula and nothing else, dressed with oil, lemon juice and a generous shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I have put away a lot of arugula in my day, but this arugula was like none I'd ever eaten before: tiny, spiky leaves, tasting intensely of that buttery, peppery arugula taste with none of the bitterness you can get from mature arugula. It turned out that this was Italian arugula, a particular varietal, and Valvona and Crolla sold it in their retail shop. Lloyd had to physically restrain me from spending the rent money on it so I could eat it on the street on our way back to the bus station. I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least I'd had something special, and I could live on the memory of it. I was perfectly content to do so...then I discovered that the Paffenroth Farm stand, where I buy my salad greens, potatoes, herbs and root crops, had obtained the seeds and now had Italian arugula of their own to sell. As salad greens go, it is a dear one: two dollars for a small nosegay (consider that the picture below shows three heads of it), but you can stretch it out among milder salad greens; in fact, if your palate doesn't go in for strong flavors, I'd recommend doing just that. Even if you do eat it all in one go, it helps to think of it not as an expensive vegetable, but rather, a cheap luxury, easier on your wallet than an iPod, and with more vitamins, too. smile

If my Remembrance of Things Scottish weekend had only been confined to rhubarb and arugula, I would have been happy. But as it turned out, after three weeks of hankering and dreaming, I was able to successfully recreate the illusive stovies in my own home and eat them in a quantity of which Mireille Guiliano and her fellow non-fat French women would not approve. I can hear you now: Jen, we're hearing a lot about these damn stovies, but you haven't bothered to tell us what they are. I will, dear friends, I will. But the stovie love will have to wait until after Lloyd and I return from our picnic with the lovely Bunni and her lovely neighbors, where we will eat cheese and crackers and olives and sausages and the yummy amuse-bouches Bunni is preparing even as we speak. We will sit in the park and eat it all, with water to keep us fresh and -- hopefully -- vinho verde to keep us happy, and we will bask in the sun until the rain clouds show up or until the Lush event to which Bunni and I were invited to starts, whichever comes first. Only after this can the Tale of the Stovies unfold. Until then, happy Memorial Day, dear U.S.-based friends, and happy Monday to dear friends abroad.

Arugula_001

Posted by Bakerina at 01:41 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks

Oh, Vicki, now I’m *really* kicking myself.  I’m betting you were at Trattoria L’incontro, from which I live literally around the corner.  Again, I’m so sorry I missed you, but I’m glad you had a nice time, and I’m glad you were able to eat at L’incontro.  Should you find yourself visiting again, I will be on the ball, and I will take you to dinner at 718, another fabulous Astoria restaurant, where Lloyd took me to dinner last year on my return home from Arkansas.

Bakerina on 06/01/05 at 09:39 AM  
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