Thursday, September 30, 2010

Unforbidden Fruit Crumble

To satisfie the sharp desire I had
Of tasting those fair Apples, I resolv'd
Not to deferr; hunger and thirst at once,
Powerful perswaders, quick'nd at the scent
Of that alluring fruit, urg'd me so keene.

Is there any fruit in the world that conjures a more wholesome image than a ripe, red apple? And is there anything that makes a house feel cozier than the smell of apples and cinnamon, baking away in the oven? And isn't this love affair with Malus domestica somewhat ironic, in light of the tradition that the Fall of Man was brought about by Eve's disobedient choice of snack in the Garden of Eden (she could have had a persimmon, or a kumquat, but nooo...)? True, Genesis refers only to "...the fruit of the the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die," and various interpretations have had Our First Mother eating figs, grapes, and even lemons, but the apple was firmly established as the forbidden fruit by at least the Middle Ages.

Certainly, any serious challengers for the title were out of the running by the time John Milton was writing Areopagitica (1644), in which he names the "fruit of the knowledge of good and evil" as an apple, and his portrayal of events in Paradise Lost (1667) pretty much sealed the deal for apples and women alike. Henceforth, everyone knew that Eve was manipulated into doing/eating something she shouldn't by a fast-talking, charismatic snake - I'd say this wasn't the first time this happened to a girl, except that I suppose it was - and future generations have been paying the bill ever since. (Oh, that Old Testament God: no sense of perspective. Or humor.)

Jehovah and Uncle Milty notwithstanding, the apple's association with health, innocence, and overall goodness has persisted, which is particularly evident in materials aimed at children: an apple for teacher, apple-cheeked cherubs, etc. In fact, just a few years ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted an entire exhibit on the subject, A is for Apple: Apples in Children's Illustration. Interestingly, in the case of the Beatrix Potter image above, the fruit's potential for fermentation seems to have restored some of its Original Sinfulness: "Cecily Parsley is tipping apples into a pancheon (a large shallow earthenware bowl, wider at the top than at the bottom, used for setting milk to stand in). The background is actually the kitchen at Hill Top, the farm owned by Beatrix Potter. The design of this watercolour was re-drawn for the publication. The published version replaces apples with cowslips at the insistence of the publisher because they did not want to mention alcohol in a children's book. [Note the bottles of gooseberry wine in the foreground - ed]." It's nice to know that the apple never completely lost its edge, even in the teeth of Victorian sentimentality!

[By this point, you may be thinking "Okay, okay, but when are we going to get to the food already?" and your patience is about to be rewarded.]

One of the most lovely, comforting things to make with apples is a crumble; the fact that it is also idiot simple only adds to its homespun appeal. Although its name evokes Hardyesque notions of buxom Wessex milkmaids, selflessly making crumbles for rugged yeomen and sensitive, misguided swains with stupid names like Angel Clare, the dish's origins reach only as far back as WWII, when rationing made it difficult to gather sufficient quantities of flour, fat, and sugar to make a proper piecrust. Essentially, a crumble deconstructs the pie into its disparate elements, and then reconstructs it as A Whole Other Thing.

And what a thing it is: as good as a pie, but less work, and less definitively associated with dessert. In fact, I made apple crumble for breakfast one recent gloomy morning, when the skies were teeming with rain because A. I woke up hungry, which almost never happens; B. a bazillion apples reproached me from a bowl on the kitchen table; and C. the cozy chimes of our newly-inherited grandfather clock demanded I Make Something British.

Serve this warm with Bird's custard, and you will believe yourself transported to Paradise. If you're feeling magnanimous, you could even share with any snakes you might happen to know. Or not.

Unforbidden Fruit Crumble
~ 6-8 good baking apples, depending on the size
~ 2 tbsp. agave nectar or maple syrup
~ 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
~ 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
~ 1/2 teaspoon salt
~ ¼ tsp. each: nutmeg, ginger
~ 1/4 packed dark brown sugar
~ 4 tablespoons vegan margarine, chilled

~ Preheat the oven to 375 fahrenheit.
~ Wash the apples, then chop them roughly into 1/2" chunks (I never peel apples, and you don't have to, either!)
~ Arrange the chopped apples in a greased, glass casserole dish, then toss with the agave nectar.
~ In a bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, ginger, and brown sugar.
~ Chop or grate the cold margarine into the flour mixture, then rub the whole mess together with your fingers until it resemble coarse crumbs.
~ Sprinkle the crumble mixture evenly over the apples and bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes, until the topping is crisp and golden.
~ Serve warm, ideally with lashings of Bird's custard (which is - yes! - vegan), prepared according to package directions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fassoulia (White Bean Stew w/Greens)

When I was growing up, my father used to make a delicious, garlicky stew with white beans and escarole. I hadn't thought of it in years, until one recent afternoon, when my partner and I encountered a version of it at a local Armenian restaurant, whereupon we ate a huge bowl of the stuff.

The effects of this lunch were twofold: 1. a case of serious garlic breath, and 2. a burning desire to recreate my dad's rendition. One of the many weird things about losing one's parents is that new ways to miss them keep cropping up; in this particular instance, the inability to call and ask, "Hey, you remember that white bean stuff with the garlic and greens? How did you make that anyway?"

Thrown back on my own resources, I went online and searched for "Greek bean stew," which brought up everything from green beans cooked with lamb to cold salads. Eventually, I hit on one that seemed pretty familiar, and after tinkering with the seasonings and exchanging the escarole for spinach, I came up with the following recipe. It's not exactly like my father's, but I actually think it's - shhhh! - even better. Hearty, a little spicy, and perfect with good, crusty bread: a big hit on a chilly autumn night.

Fassoulia (White Bean Stew w/Greens)
~ 2 cups dried navy, cannellini, or other white beans, soaked overnight
~ 2 tbsp. good, extra-virgin olive oil
~ 2 cups onion, chopped
~ 1 large carrot, diced
~ 1 large stalk celery, diced
~ 6-8 cloves of garlic, minced (at least 1/4 cup)
~ 1 tsp. kosher salt
~ 1/2 tsp. each: oregano, marjoram
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 1 tbsp. dried parsley
~ Fresh black pepper to taste
~ 5-6 cups vegan "chicken" broth (I swear by Better Than Bouillon)
~ 1 14 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes, including liquid
~ 10 oz. package baby spinach, roughly chopped
~ 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

~ In a large, deep pot, saute the onions, carrot, celery, garlic and spices in the olive oil until wilted, about 5-7 minutes.
~ Add the tomatoes and beans, and stir to combine.
~ Pour in the broth or water, cover, and bring to a boil.
~ Reduce heat to simmer, and cook for 1.5 - 2 hours, until the beans are tender.
~ Add the lemon juice and chopped spinach, and cook another minute or two, until the greens are just wilted.
~ Taste for seasonings, and serve hot or at room temperature.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Creamy Comfort Pasta with Asparagus and Spinach

Well, here it is: September. I have to admit that I have never been happier to see the back of summer in all my life; to describe the past several months as "difficult" would be an understatement on a par with calling WWII "a bit of unpleasantness." Watching my mother get sicker and sicker, then losing her, dealing with the associated emotional and administrative fallout, getting one son ready for high school and another for college, finishing my looked like more than I could hope to manage back in June, but somehow it all happened, and here we are. I know that in years to come, when I look back on this hideous excuse for a summer, it will be as one of those "before and after" times that occur in all our lives - a season somehow removed and apart from our ordinary reality. That being the case, I am only too glad to turn the calendar page and look ahead to autumn, which has always been my favorite season. I won't deny that my boy's imminent departure for school adds a distinctly bittersweet note to the whole business, but my job is not to keep him a little boy, but to be happy as his horizons expand, and encourage him as he begins the exciting, scary, and amazing process of negotiating his life. (And fortunately, he's only 90 minutes away, and his room isn't going anywhere!)

So. I'm definitely ready for fall, but apparently central Massachusetts is not: today's temperature was well in the 90s, accompanied by a humidity level that challenges one's will to live, making the prospect of a nor'easter seem like Paradise. But we have had some hints of what's to come. About a week ago, we had a string of those cool, rainy late-summer days that always make me think of sweaters, hot cups of tea, apple pies, and crunchy leaves, filling me with hope for the season ahead. One delightfully drizzly afternoon, wondering what to make for dinner, I was struck by a craving for pasta. I've always been a sucker for a creamy sauce (as a child, one of my favorite meals was my father's outrageously rich Fettucini Alfredo), and I have to say that this really hit the spot. The sauce was really fast and easy, and the addition of spinach and some beautiful asparagus only made things better. The result was simple, yummy comfort food that was ready in well under an hour: what more could you ask for? Soon - very soon, it is to be hoped - this blasted heat wave will end, and I look forward to making this dish again on those blessedly chilly nights to come.

Creamy Comfort Pasta with Asparagus and Spinach

~ 1 lb. penne pasta, cooked and drained according to package directions
~ 8 oz. asparagus, broken into 1" pieces, steamed until just bright green
~ 4 tbsp. Earth Balance
~ 2 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 1 tsp. salt
~ 2 tsp. dried basil
~ 2 tbsp. flour
~ 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 2 cups vegetable broth
~ 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
~ A few generous grinds black pepper
~ 4 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped

~ In a large, deep skillet, melt the margarine.
~ Add the garlic and saute over medium heat, about 2 minutes.
~ Add the flour, salt, and basil, stirring to make a roux.
~ Gradually add the soy milk and broth, whisking constantly, and cook about 5 minutes.
~ Add the nutritional yeast and pepper, and cook another few minutes, until slightly thickened.
~ Stir in the spinach until just wilted, then add the steamed asparagus.
~ Add the sauce to the cooked pasta, combine thoroughly, and serve hot.