Foodie Tuesday: White Currants + Bar-le-Duc jelly/jam, or confiture de groseilles

People, observe: the most expensive, labor-intensive jam known to man. One 3-oz. jar costs €16 if you buy it in Europe.  Here in the states, prices are upwards of $40 for a small jar at Dean & Deluca, Cardullo's in Harvard Square, and other purveyors of fine foods.

Got your attention?  Good.  Let me back up.

The story really begins in 1999, when I was a wee lass freshly graduated from high school, taking my first really big overseas trip with a bunch of classmates.  It was our first morning in the hotel in London that I got real taste for "continental breakfast," which included toast, butter and blackcurrant jam.  Up until then, I had never tasted a fruit product so delicious (since then, I have to say that the mangosteen remains the most delicious in my book, but that's another post).  I became obsessed with it and slopped it onto my toast every breakfast thereafter, and it wasn't hard to find blackcurrant jam in Europe no matter where we went.

When I came back to the states, I was determined to find this magical jam that had so beguiled me.  Not so fast.  Even at Knott's Berry Farm, which I understood to be the Godmother of American Jam-making, didn't carry it - the best they could do was blackberry jam, which is not the same at all - a much sour-er and tart-er flavor, along with all those pesky seeds!

It wasn't until years later that I wandered into Cardullo's in Harvard Square and found a (rather large) jar of blackcurrant jam sitting right there next to the marmalade and jalapeno jelly.  I grabbed it, of course.

Since then blackcurrant, otherwise known as cassis in French, has been one of those things that'd make my eyes light up every time I saw a mention of it, because it was still rare enough.

Fast forward to this weekend, when I was wandering the aisles at Berkeley Bowl and came across the berry section, where I saw something that seemed too good to be true: a small row of white currants sidled up next to the piles of blackberries.  I grabbed a box, of course!  I had already had white currants on the brain because I'd been flipping through one of those cookbooks by either Giada De Laurentiis or Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, where I saw a recipe for white currant tart, and I remember thinking, "where on earth does one buy white currants?". Well, here was my answer!

I got the box purely out of curiosity.  I had no idea what it would taste like or what to do with it-- I remember thinking vaguely that I could just eat them up by the handful, even though they were probably the prettiest, most jewel-like fruits I'd ever seen.  I went home, washed them, and popped a few in my mouth.  And instantly made a face - they were SO tart!

I resorted to Googling 'white currant recipes' and whatnot, disappointed to find that there was not a whole lot that people knew to do with the berries.  All ideas are pretty much summed up by this thread on Chowhound, "What to do with white currants?" and include rolling them in egg whites and dipping them in sugar.

I was not satisfied with this, and moreover, I found that I detested the seeds!  I am not a fan of seedy berries in general, but these babies pack a whopping average of 7 seeds (large ones, in proportion to its size) per berry.  That is to say, the mass of a single white currant is probably more then 50% seed, and a rather hard and bitter seed at that.  It slowly dawned on me that eating currants with seeds intact was no way to eat them at all.

So I got curious about this mysterious "Bar-le-Duc" jelly that kept popping up alongside articles about white currants everywhere.  Probably one of the best is this 1984 NY Times article that goes into detail about how the jelly is made and what makes it so special (and so darn expensive).  I don't want to belabor the story so I'll stick to these fun facts about Bar-le-Duc jelly, or confiture de groseilles:
  • Exactly one producer in the whole world makes the jelly, Mr. Jacques Dutriez, in the tiny town of Bar-le-Duc in the heart of Lorraine province in France.
  • Currants are hand-seeded by deft French countrywomen wielding goose quills.
  • According to this very educational article, 2 kilos of picked berries yields 1 kilo of jam-worthy fruit. That means you need"2,000 berries just to make that kilo. We're talking about the removal of about 16,000 seeds"!  This takes about 3 hours for an experienced epepineuse, and a whole day for a mangy amateur.
  • Mary Queen of Scots called the jelly a "ray of sunshine in a jar."  Marie Antoinette and Alfred Hitchcock were both fans (the latter insisted on having it every morning with a croissant).
  • Though Mr. Dutriez doesn't use any preservatives in his jam, he cooks it in some secret way such that you could open up a jar 100 years later and it will be just as good as the day it was made.

(The image above is from this fantastic article that shows how the de-seeding is done, step by step, by Mr. Jacques Dutriez himself.)

You're probably wondering where I'm going with all this.  Well, the fact is, I was so intrigued by this point that I decided to try making my own imitation bar-le-duc jelly.  I didn't have goose quills, but I did have fingers and a little bit of patience. 

I tried a bunch of things, including snipping the berry ends off with my eyebrow scissors (thoroughly washed of course!).  I realized I couldn't possibly be expected to de-seed AND de-end the berries, so I promptly ceased that madness. The process that proved most straightforward was plucking the berries from the stem ("like a barbarian," as Mr. Dutriez would say), and then squeezing them gently, one by one.  I found that the seeds practically wanted to pop out of the little incision left by the stem, and I didn't lose too much of the tiny bit of pulp. I would stick the seeds in my mouth as I removed them and suck the little bit of juicy pulp on them, so as not to waste anything, before spitting them into the wastebasket.

The downside: this still took for-freaking-EVER (not to mention, it was terribly unsanitary--good thing I'm the only one who'll be eating it).  It took me something like 1.5 hours just to get about halfway through my tiny, $2, 6-oz. box of white currants.  I finally lost patience and just gathered the 3 spoonfuls or so of de-seeded currants and took it to my pan where I sauteed it in water and some very fancy honey, because I didn't want to use white sugar.  The honey is from Italy, made from rhododendrums and with a crystalline texture.  In all honesty it was a total waste to melt down good honey like that (next time I'll use garden-variety honey, something with a very light flavor...if there is a next time).

In the end, I had a tiny dab of the jam I'd made with a plain cracker and it was still delicious.  Even after the sheer madness of such an endeavor, I have to admit there really is something bewitching about the flavor of currants - suggestive of some faraway and delicately romantic place you've only visited in dreams.  And white currants are even more enchanting than blackcurrants, what with their subtler flavor and light texture.

Tomorrow I just may have to finish de-seeding the remaining 3 oz. of fresh currants I have sitting on my desk to make a bit more of the jam.  Otherwise, I know what I'm asking for, for Christmas =D.

Every grain under the sun @ Berkeley Bowl West

This is why this awesome market is a must-go every time I cross the bridge to the East Bay.  Organic red quinoa, kamut flakes, black sesame seeds, whole wheat orzo, loose Israeli couscous, pumpkin flax granola, roasted fava beans, hemp seed, black jasmine rice, you name it, you can probably find it here in the loose grains section at Berkeley Bowl West.

I love Berkeley.

Not-so-Foodie Tuesday: Traumatic experience with a butterfish.

So far it's butterfish: 2 and Stephanie: 0.

UPDATE: So yeah, the butterfish had gone bad.  According to this article, you have to cook the fish within one day of  buying it.  Also, if you are suffering from rotten-fish smell on your fingers, rub a wedge of lemon all over them, especially under the fingernails.  The lemon juice/oils works wonders on the stink.


I first had butterfish (which is not actually a butterfish, according to this article, nor is it actually a cod, though it is called black cod...the correct name for it appears to be sablefish) at Google.  I can't remember if it was at No Name Cafe or Oasis.  Either way, it was glazed in miso sauce, baked, and the most delicious fish I'd ever tasted.  Unbelievably delicate and tender.  Flaky.  And oh-so-flavorful.

Okay that's not true.  Now that I think of it, I must have first had this fish, under the name of "black cod," at A.O.C. Wine Bar in LA, as part of a small plate.  It was delicious then, too.  But Google is what really brought this fish to the forefront of my consciousness.

Failure Number 1

A couple months ago, since I left Google (and since they probably stopped serving this magical but pretty expensive fish in the cafes), Garry and I got it in our heads that we would attempt to cook a butterfish fillet.  We hadn't the faintest idea where to buy one, except at Whole Foods for like $17/lb.  But we were walking down Clement St. one day and stopped into one of those smelly fishmongeries and lo and behold, there was the butterfish on a bed of ice.  Against our better judgement, we bought one and took it home.

We looked up a number of recipes for how to prepare the butterfish, most calling for (amazingly!) frying it in butter with some other stuff.  So we tried it, but it was a disaster.  Adding butter to the oiliest fish alive resulted in something that was sickeningly oily, with that slimy aftertaste you get sometimes from eating fish.  Plus, I don't think it was the freshest when we bought it at the smelly fishmonger. Garry swore off butterfish forever, and couldn't even enjoy it at my friend Karin's wedding (though I enjoyed it thoroughly, as it was prepared with miso and baked to perfection).

Failure Number 2

So it came to pass that I was at Costco and saw the guy standing there at the station with all the fancy seafood and saw trays of whole butterfish lying there at $6.99/lb.  I couldn't believe it.  I hemmed and hawed for about two minutes before I found myself selecting a modestly sized tray.  A two-pounder.  Never mind that I have never filleted a fish in my life and had no idea what I was in for.  As I clutched the tray and headed to the checkout stand, I started to get a little creeped out by the sort-of wriggly, slimy body under my fingers.

As such, I was very busy with work, weddings and packing for my move, so I left the fish in there (only I can find a way to procrastinate on preparing food!) for three, maybe three and a half, days.  Bad idea!  When I cut into the package, the stench immediately rushed out and filled the air in my kitchen.  I wasn't sure if it was supposed to smell like that, or if it was just plain rotten.  My mom told me to test the fish by poking it to see if the meat was mushy, but it looked okay.  

The first thing I did, because the thing was so big and black and creepy, was cut it in half to make it look less like a living creature. I should have used gloves, because I would be smelling the fish on my fingers (a disgustingly acrid smell) for a full two days afterwards.  The skin of the thing was so bizarre, thick and tough and covered with what felt like tiny spines, much like the skin of a shark or ray.  As I got down to the part where the guts should have been I thought to myself, "Dear lord, please tell me they gutted this fish for me!"  Mercifully, they had.

The bone structure was unlike any I had encountered before in a fish.  Most fish I've dealt with have a spine, with one fan of bones going up and another one going down, with the meat on either side.  Very straightforward.  This thing, however, had what seemed like three or four sets of bones radiating out from the spine, so that when I tried to fillet the meat from one side, my knife kept going through bones.  I started to just hack away at the thing, grimacing the whole time, and finally came away with maybe 6-8 three-inch portions of fish.  I covered it in miso (that's a whole other story) and set it in my fridge overnight.

The next day, it looked okay.  I took the fish, rinsed off the miso and set it in a baking pan to bake for 15 min. at 350 degrees.  It didn't take on that browny edge that I always see at restaurants, but the fish was cooking through and it was leaking a good lot of liquid.  I pulled it out and tried searing the fillets on a very hot pan, which gave it a brownish edge but did nothing to improve the taste.  

I very cautiously put a flake or two in my mouth and immediately wanted to spit it out.  It was, after all, not good--or maybe it was just all the psychological confusion of smelling the raw fish and battling it for so many hours.  At any rate, I was done with it and just wanted to be rid of the whole experience.  (In case you haven't guessed, it takes a LOT for me to give up and throw away food.)  I ended up throwing the whole thing away and frying an egg for dinner--something simple, something I was comfortably familiar with.

That night I typed desperately to my coworkers into my blackberry as I was falling asleep:

Hey ladies, I'm trying to recover from an awful experience attempting to fillet and cook a butterfish.  It did not end well and I need something to restore my faith in food (and my appetite).  Any interest in taco truck for lunch?

Not-so-sufferin' succotash

I don't really have much to say about this, except it's the first time I made succotash, and it was just a mixture of stuff I had around in the fridge: leftover purple potatoes from the pizza Garry and I made yesterday, leftover red onion, leftover zucchini, frozen edamame, and the star of the dish, white corn I bought at Arata Farm over the weekend.

I like how prettily the purple mixes with the green and pale yellow.  It was yummy, too.

Strawberry surplus + hot summer days = homemade popsicles!

I bought a flat of strawberries from Costco - four pounds for $4.50.  Amazing right?  And they were deliciously sweet too.  But then a week later I realized I had been too ambitious, because they were starting to look kind of frail and I still had about half the box left, even after gorging on berry parfaits for breakfast all week.

So I stuck them all in my food processor (I'm sure a blender works too) with a bit of sugar...reserved a few chopped strawberries to mix in whole...and dropped the mixture into popsicle molds that I bought from Kamei for $1.29.  Yes people, a delicious and healthy snack.

Cocky Leeky Soup

Otherwise known as cock-a-leekie or chicken & leek soup.  Get your mind out of the gutter!  I was introduced to this lovely, heart-warming soup pretty early on, when I went to the delightful cafe Rutabegorz in my hometown for the first time.  I loved it then, but haven't had it in about ten years.

So now, I have been making chicken soup left and right this year, and stuff with leeks also.  The other day, after Garry and I tore into yet another Costco rotisserie chicken, I thought, oh my lord, I have put put the chicken and leeks together this time!

I set about finding the perfect recipe but they are surprisingly hard to find, as I guess it is not a very well known soup outside of its native Scotland, where it is traditional indeed.  There were no recipes in the usual spots:,,,,  There isn't even a wikipedia article for cocky leeky soup!

Never fear, the powers of Google Search came to the rescue.  

I found a couple super basic recipe that were almost too simple to believe: chicken (whole), leeks, white rice, a bit of parsley, and broth.  That's it!  I mean I guess it makes sense, because leeks are so wonderfully flavorful and delicate that they really can shine all on their own in a dish.  But I wanted to get a bit more complexity of flavors so I decided to take the best of all the versions I came across, and make my own version:
  • Chicken stock or water: I took the scraps from my Costco chicken after stripping all the meat from it and boiled it with water, parsley, and bay leaf.  Strained and refrigerated it, then skimmed off the fat.  Yes, a bit labor-intensive.
  • About 3 leeks sliced, green parts trimmed off.  I proceeded to saute them in butter first to make a confit like in Molly Wizenberg's column.
  • Leftover cooked chicken meat.  I think I had almost a whole chicken, minus two legs and wings, but didn't end up using the whole thing
  • 1 1/2 slices of bacon, chopped.  Because bacon is awesome (though I trimmed a bit of fat)
  • 1 carrot, 2 stalks celery, and about half an onion, because I can't really imagine making a western soup without mirepoix.
  • 1 yukon gold potato, diced
  • About 3/4 c. barley: most recipes call for rice, but I prefer the texture of barley in soup
  • Another bay leaf for good measure.
  • Some chopped parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste (be careful, the bacon will leech saltiness)
  • A few teaspoons of flour/cream to thicken
I started with onions and bits of bacon.  In retrospect, I would put only 1 slice because the flavor is so strong, and overpowers the leeks a bit.  Then added carrots and celery until tender.  Then added the leeks, potatoes, herbs.  Let the flavors meld a bit before adding chicken and barley.  Next time I would wait until the end to season, because I underestimated how salty the bacon would be.  When the barley is done, then I add the cream/flour.  Voila.

Other Versions

Late Foodie Tuesday: Gougeres

I just learned how to pronounce these correctly in the last four days.  I've been saying "gough-ghairs."  But it's actually "goo-zhere."  Anyway, they are delicious and I have been obsessed with them.  

So what are they exactly?  The base is pate a choux, the stuff you use for cream puffs and eclairs.  Except gougeres (the wiki article links to a NY Times recipe) are savory - no cream filling, just eggy airiness on the inside and delightful crispness on the outside, with a healthy dose of cheese and herbs mixed in.  I read about them in (what else) Molly Wizenberg's Bon Appetit column after first discovering them at Tartine Bakery (thyme and pepper, mMmMm).  They sounded pretty easy to make, and there are few things I love more than simple, delicious foods that are easy to make.

The first time I made them (pictured), I did it all right until the point where you add in the eggs.  You start with a bit of butter and melt it in a saucepan with water and salt until it gets a bit foamy.  Take it off the heat and dump in all the flour at once and begin to stir.  A lot.  It will form a ball and leave a thin film on the bottom (unless you use nonstick).

Then, the eggs.  One at a time.  This is where I messed up - I didn't incorporate the eggs as well as I should have, and as a result my gougeres did not puff up as nicely as they should have.  The photo below, that is NOT what your gougeres should look like before they go in the oven.  The second time I made them, I did it by hand and stirred until my arms were sore.  

It's interesting because when you first add the eggs, it looks like it will never mix, and it turns into slimy clumps.  Then, slowly but surely, the dough starts to accept the eggs.  Then in the span of a few seconds it will totally transform into this mixture that is thick, perfectly smooth, and glossy.  At that point it is ready for cheese and herbs (I have been making them with sage cuz that's what I have but you can use any number of herbs).

Spoon onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil (or you can pipe them if you wanna get fancy), and bake for about 30 min at 400 degrees.  Fantastic.

Foodie Tuesday: Garlic Aioli FTW!

Some may remember the sad story of the time I broke the aioli I was making for Thanksgiving.  It was the first time that ever happened to me.  Key takeaway: don't get greedy.  One large egg can emulsify just about 1 cup of oil and that's it.  Fin.

I redeemed myself last week by making this beautiful aioli to serve with crudite at a dinner party.  What is aoili, you ask?  Think of it as fancy mayonnaise - the only difference really is the addition of garlic and the type of oil you use.  It helps if you have a powerful stand mixer for this one, though a regular hand mixer may work just as well.  I do not recommend doing this totally manually.

Ingredients (roughly)

1 large egg yolk
1-2 cloves garlic
approx. 1/4 tsp mustard (or mustard powder)
approx. 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 c. good oil (olive, or mix of olive and vegetable)
herbs to taste
salt to taste - a little goes a long way!

I start with the yolk in the mixer and add the garlic, mustard and lemon juice before turning on the mixer.  Slowly bring the mixer up to speed.  Start dribbling the oil in a drop at a time, allowing it to mix thoroughly before adding more.  This takes patience and upwards of 15 minutes.  I like to use a relatively high speed to get a nice stiff peak to my aoili - I don't like it runny.  At some point, you can probably start pouring the oil in a very thin and steady stream.  Stop every once in a while to taste it and add a few shakes of salt.  Be careful not to overmix or add too much oil, lest you break your aioli like I did.

10pm supper for two

Salmon-potato cakes, adapted from this recipe.  This is how I did it:

  • 1/2 can salmon (leftovers - last night I sauteed the other half with pasta)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1/2 a cooked (in the microwave) yukon gold potato, diced
  • About 2 T diced white onions
  • A handful of breadcrumbs
  • A tsp. or so of my homemade garlic aoili
  • Salt (I put in too much) and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil for frying
Mix everything together.  Use hands to form into patties.  Fry until nice and brown, then flip and fry the other side.  Top with extra-sharp cheddar.  I served them on a bed of spinach.  Next time I will serve with aoili on top!

Foodie Tuesday: Fava Beans

I'm hopping on the springtime bandwagon and featuring one of my favorite legumes, the fava bean, particularly the fresh fava bean, because so few people (including myself, until recently) know what to do with it.

Of course, I never met a bean I didn't like, but the fava bean takes the pulse family to the ultimate in sublime.  Apparently it's also known as the broad bean, which is how I originally knew it, sold fried, cracked open, and seasoned in plastic packets at the Chinese supermarket.  It seems most of the world where the bean originated (that is, north Africa, the Middle East, and southwestern Asia) eats it dried, fried, or otherwise brown.  

Tasty, but not nearly as good as it is fresh. Eaten fresh at the peak of its season, it has a firm but yielding texture, a delicate and nutty flavor, and a really pleasing bright green color. Of course the only thing I'd heard about the fava bean until recently, like so many of my American peers, was that line in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lector talks about having a guy's liver "with fava beans and a nice chianti."  It did not do the poor bean justice.  

I fell decidedly in love with the fava bean about one year ago, under Thomas Keller's masterful influence, in a French Laundry dish with veal, sunchokes, and chanterelle mushrooms.  The veal was supposed to take the main stage but the fava beans stole the show for me.  There were about three of them on the whole plate, so perfectly tender and flavorful, that I put them in my mouth and have not been able to get them off my mind since.

You can imagine how thrilled I was the other day when I saw a small bucket of them at my neighborhood grocer.  I had no idea how to prepare them or how much to buy or even how to pick the best ones, so I just picked more slender ones that looked rather green (in retrospect, I should have picked ones that were bigger and plumper).  They turned out to be somewhat labor intensive (involving shucking, blanching and peeling before cooking again) but well worth the effort.  Check out the Bon Appetit article on how to prepare them.

It took me a while to decide how to cook the beans, what precious few I had.  I finally decided to saute them in olive oil with asparagus, diced white onions, prociutto, and thinly sliced crimini mushrooms, served over linguini.  It was perfect.