April 20th, 2009

eat me

What I learned in the kitchen this weekend, and other stuff

I’m a dabbler in the kitchen compared to many others here, such as theotherqpc and snousle. But I’ve read a lot of cookbooks and food writing (all hail M.F.K. Fisher and Harold McGee), can hold my own in a kitchen, and can usually improve upon most recipes I read, and replicate or improve upon dishes eaten in restaurants. I’ve cooked a few spectacular meals in my life (an eight-course Indian birthday feast; haute camp cooking for 16 hungry bears with stuffed pork loin, cauliflower gratin, and autumn salad), and everyone likes my comfort food, which is what I cook most of the time.

This weekend I got an invite for brunch, so I volunteered to bring a fruit salad and a dessert. Mostly so we’d be sure to have a dessert, and the fruit salad for those that didn’t want all the sugar of dessert.

The fruit salad was pretty simple, looking like a Candyland game set: simple colors of banana, fresh pineapple, canteloupe, and watermelon in uniform cubes, discs, and wedges. While at the grocery store I decided to pick up a couple of less familiar fruits to add to the mix.

The first was kiwiberries, which I thought were baby kiwi fruits (and made me feel a bit like serving a vegan veal, fruit that hadn’t been allowed to live out a full, happy life), but others at brunch knew that they’re actually a cousin to the larger, more familiar fruit.

The kiwiberries are the size of large grapes, are hairless and thus don’t need any tiresome peeling or scooping, and are much sweeter and juicier than their larger versions – making we wonder why we were introduced to the big ones in the first place, given that the kiwiberry vine plants are prodigious (100 pounds of fruit can be borne by a single plant) and can grow in a wider range of conditions than the larger ones (indeed, two kiwiberry varietals are named Hardy Kiwi and Super Hardy Kiwi). I suspect it’s simply a matter that the larger fruit can take the long distance shipping all the way from New Zealand better than the little ones, which probably start shrivelling sooner.

For the other fruit (no pedants, please) I thought shaved fresh coconut would be a nice addition to the tropical mix. Then I saw a “Fresh Young Coconut,” which I had never bought or used before, but I have eaten it in a dessert at WD-40, Wylie Dufresne’s please-stop-playing-with-my-food temple of molecular gastronomy.

Well, it turns out a “Fresh Young Coconut” is just as and possibly more difficult to open than a regular coconut. Beneath the spongey, fibrous hull I discovered there’s still a hard shell to contend with. The instructions on the label say cut it with a big knife, but it really needs a hammer and a chisel. The soft hull makes it impossible to just drop it on the floor and crack it open like you can with a regular coconut. I struggled with it for a good twenty minutes with a big Chinese cleaver, at great risk to chopping off my other hand. Finally cracked, I was able to pour out the liquid, and eventually slice/break the coconut in half.

There was nearly a cup of crystal-clear liquid (you can’t call it milk) which was ambrosial, unbelievably sweet and flavorful and worth the coconut’s $2.50 pricetag by itself. The meat was brilliant white, but great care was needed to scrape it out without getting pieces of the inedible inner husk attached (which would later dry out as part of the hard shell). The texture was somewhere between very soft rubber and very firm jello, but its flavor was extremely subtle, and after all that work I finally decided it wouldn’t make a good addition to the fruit salad.

The dessert was a lot easier and even better, since it was storebought. I bought a Meyer lemon tart, but decided to gussy it up with fresh raspberries (which I glazed in a little melted raspberry jam) and crème fraîche. It hit extreme notes of sweet and sour. Final verdict: Next time, bigger dollops of the crème fraîche.

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Caught the HBO production of Grey Gardens last night, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. Not a version of the off-Broadway musical, a new dramatic version of Jackie Kennedy’s relatives both young and older, living out their lives in a run-down mansion out on Long Island, encompassing the production of the infamous Maysles Brothers documentary. The production and the performances are dazzling -- who knew senility and decrepitude could be so entertaining? It'll garner lots of Emmy noms. They both give amazing performances, but Jessica Lange is the one to beat. The film is a wonderful bookend to the original doc.