We’re in the thick of blueberry season now and I can’t stop myself from buying more every time I go to the grocery store or the farmer’s market.  The berries are plump and juicy, perfectly sweet, and the ideal addition to oatmeal or waffles.  They are also great eaten alone.

Given my recent interest in making jam, though, and my discovery of a tantalizing recipe for Savory Blueberry Jam on the beautiful blog Z Tasty life, I had to give blueberry jam a try.  I was particularly intrigued by the idea of a savory jam that was intended to serve with cheese and crackers.

I also liked the idea that I could make this jam on the stovetop.  And to top it off, blueberries are so naturally full of pectin (the ingredient that makes jellies “jell”) that you don’t need to add Sure-Jell to make the jam thicken.  All in all, a simple and tasty idea, I thought.  And I was right.

I quickly sautéed some finely chopped shallot in olive oil and added the berries and sugar (I used a bit less than one cup of sugar — these berries were already pretty sweet) to the pan.

Balsamic vinegar, chopped rosemary, nutmeg and pepper went in next as the berries began to simmer.  As the liquid evaporated and the berries broke down, the jam thickened nicely and the fragrance of berries, rosemary and balsamic vinegar perfumed my kitchen.

After about 15 minutes the jam was ready and I spooned it into jars (I didn’t sterilize them — I’ll keep this jam in the refrigerator and use it within the next few weeks).

You can find the recipe here.

Last week I posted the recipe for cherry drinking vinegar used to make a colonial drink called a shrub (concentrated syrup made from fruit, vinegar and sugar poured over ice and sparkling water).  When you last saw me, I had pitted and mashed the cherries, covered them with apple cider vinegar and left them to sit at room temperature.

Today I added 1/2 cup of sugar and gently boiled the cherry – vinegar mixture for about an hour (I chose to do it outside on my trusty Weber grill because boiling vinegar has a somewhat pungent odor),

strained the mixture and began a series of taste tests.  With some advice from my visiting sister-in-law K, I added about 1/4 cup more sugar and the drinking vinegar was ready to use.  My first shrub was delicious — a perfect refresher for a summer afternoon.

The recipe made just shy of three cups of liquid and I am already imagining all kinds of other uses for this vinegar — in salad dressing, mixed with vodka … I think the possibilities are almost endless.  The recipe says it keeps indefinitely; I am guessing it won’t be around that long!

One of my recent fascinations has been with the fruit drinking vinegars that are on the menu at two Portland restaurants:  Ping and Pok Pok.  These drinks are light, fruity, not too sweet, and, because the vinegar is topped with sparkling water, a little bit fizzy.  A perfect taste for a hot summer afternoon or evening and a great companion for spicy, complex foods.

A few weeks ago someone tweeted about a New York Times Magazine “Case Study” by Toby Cecchini that included a recipe for drinking vinegar and I knew the gauntlet had landed.  I was going to try making my own drinking vinegar at home.  A weekend trip to Hood River which resulted in several bags of cherries provided the final ingredient — the fruit I needed.

The recipe is not complicated.   The first step is to pick through the fruit (and in the case of cherries, you remove the pits), mash it up a bit, cover it with vinegar and let it sit in a covered container for a week.  Pitting cherries is messy work, and my fingers are stained red right now, but I think it will be worth it in the end.

As recommended in the original article, I used an additive-free organic apple cider vinegar — Bragg vinegar — that I was able to find at my local New Seasons grocery.  You might have to order this vinegar; it is available online.

After the shrub has developed, the recipe calls for adding 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar, boiling the mixture for an hour, and testing it for sweetness.  The drink is served mixed with sparkling water over ice.

Here’s the full recipe from the NYT website:

Makes about 1 1/2 to 2 quarts, depending on fruit used.

These measurements can be played with quite liberally, as some fruits contain more natural sugars.

2 quarts fruit, use any fruit, pears, figs, raspberries, cherries
1 liter apple-cider vinegar (preferably Bragg) or other vinegar.
1/2 to 1 cup raw sugar
Soda water

1. Rinse the fruit and discard any rot. Place in a large non-reactive or ceramic pot and mash for several minutes with your hands or a wooden spoon to break up. Pour in enough vinegar to cover and top with a lid. Let macerate at room temperature for a week, stirring once a day. (Do not be alarmed by the smell or the sludge on top.)
2. After a week, stir in 1/2 cup of the sugar and gently boil for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly, then strain. (The smell created from boiling is a bit offensive, so open the doors and windows.)
3. Make a test shrub: cool 3 to 4 tablespoons of the fruit mixture. Fill a 20-ounce glass with ice. Add water or soda water to almost the rim, then add the chilled fruit mixture. Taste to determine sweetness. If it is too tart, add sugar to the fruit mixture, little by little, while still hot. Cool fully and funnel into bottles. Will keep indefinitely in refrigerator.

Since I have only completed the first part of the recipe myself, you’ll have to wait (with me) for a week to find out how the shrub turns out.  Stay tuned!

Cooking in someone else’s kitchen can be a real challenge.  You can’t find the salt, you don’t have your favorite knife, their oven is not like yours.  Fortunately, my most recent experience was easy and fun.  And, even better, the food turned out well!

This kitchen was at the home of my friend A, someone I have known, we calculated, for about 40 years.  His kitchen is a work of art — a room he designed in a house he has built (is technically still building) in the hills above Oakland, CA.

The occasion was a fourth of July barbeque.  Everyone was bringing something, and I decided to contribute two small salads — one with roasted sweet potatoes and one with watermelon — variations of traditional fourth of July potato salad and fresh watermelon.

The dishes are both easy to make (I hesitate to even call what follows recipes, they are so simple) and can be pulled together in less than an hour, including the time needed to peel, dice and roast the sweet potatoes.  Next time you are cooking in a friend’s kitchen — or even your own — you might want to give them a try.

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Parmesan, Basil and Mint

1 small seedless watermelon, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
¼ cup crumbled Feta cheese
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 small bunch basil, sliced very thinly
1 small bunch mint, sliced very thinly
Juice of one lime
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Toss watermelon cubes in a generously sized mixing bowl with Feta, Parmesan, basil and mint.
Add lime juice and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Let the salad sit for about 15 minutes and then transfer it to a serving bowl using a slotted spoon (there will be a lot of “juice” in the bottom of the bowl; I prefer to serve the salad with only a little of it).
Serve at room temperature or cooled in the refrigerator.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Lime

3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
¼ (or less, to taste) cup finely chopped sweet onion (like Vidalia)
Juice of one lime
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Toss diced sweet potatoes with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and spread out on a baking sheet.  If your baking sheets are small, use two so that the potatoes are not touching.  Bake for about 20 minutes, until sweet potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.
Transfer the roasted sweet potatoes to a medium sized serving bowl and toss with the remaining olive oil, diced onion and lime juice.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (I like a lot of black pepper with this salad).  Serve at room temperature.

This week we are on the road, exploring the coasts of southern Oregon and northern California.  I’ll post some pictures when I have some.

In the meantime, here’s this post about the most delicious little berry shortcakes I made last week after finding incredible boxes of raspberries and blackberries at Zupan’s.

A quick search through my baking cookbooks led me to this lovely book, Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert, and a recipe for Buckwheat Shortcakes.  I couldn’t resist (and just happened to have some organic buckwheat flour in the pantry).  The cakes turned out perfectly — light and not the least bit chewy — and were the perfect complement for the tart berries.

Here’s the recipe.

buckwheat berry shortcakes
(adapted from Alice Medrich’s book Pure Dessert)

prepare the shortcakes
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 oz) all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (1.7 oz) buckwheat flour
¼ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder (sift it if it is lumpy)
3/8 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
a little extra cream (the dregs from the bottom of the measuring cup are fine)
2 tablespoons coarse granulated sugar (or turbinado sugar)

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with two layers of parchment paper (to protect the bottoms of the shortcakes from browning too fast).

In a large bowl thoroughly whisk the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Make a well in the center and pour in the cream (reserve the measuring cup).  Use a rubber spatula to gently mix the dry ingredients into the cream, mixing just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough looks rough and shaggy.  Gather the dough into a ball and knead it gently against the sides of the bowl five or so times until it just holds together and the bowl is fairly clean.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and pat it into a 6 inch square about ¾ of an inch thick.  Trim the edges, using a sharp knife and quick stokes so as not to compress the dough, for the best rise.  Cut the dough into nine squares.  Place biscuits at least one inch apart on the baking sheet.  Brush tops with the cream remaining in the measuring cup and sprinkle with the coarse granulated sugar.

Bake until the biscuit tops are golden brown, 12 – 15 minutes.  Cool on a rack.

prepare the filling
1 cup heavy whipping cream
sugar to taste
2 -2 ½ pints fresh ripe berries

Whip the cream in a chilled bowl, sweetening lightly to taste.

Sweeten berries with sugar to taste (if using strawberries, slice them first).

assemble the shortcakes
Slice each cake horizontally in half.  Place the bottom halves on serving plates and top each with  scoop of berries and a dollop of whipped cream.  Cover with the cake tops.  Serve!

Now that berries are finally here I find myself coming home from the farmer’s market loaded down with more fruit than even I can eat.  The solution?  Make jam, and make it right away, before those berries get overripe.

How do I find the time to make jam?  I use my handy dandy bread machine!  Yes, my bread machine (an older version of this one) has a jam setting that makes jam-making easy and fun.

So far I’ve made two batches — strawberry (with amazing Hood strawberries, a particularly flavorful small berry that is only around for a few short weeks in the early part of the strawberry season) and raspberry.  Both were amazing, though if I had to choose, I’d give the raspberry a slight (very slight) edge.

The recipe is really easy and quick (one note — this only works in bread machines with a “jam” cycle).

Bread Machine Berry Jam
(adapted from The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensberger)

3 cups fresh strawberries or raspberries
1 cup sugar
¾ package of Sure-Jell (or other powdered pectin)
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice (use more or less to taste)

If using strawberries, crush the berries roughly before adding them to the bread machine.  This step can be skipped with raspberries.

Put all of the ingredients into the pan of the bread machine and let them sit for about 15 minutes or until the the sugar begins to dissolve.

Set the Bread Machine on the JAM setting, push start, and let the machine do the work.

When the jam is ready, spoon it into canning jars, cover and refrigerate.  Your jam may be a bit runny at first; it will thicken as it cools.

These jams will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.  You can also spoon jam into plastic bags and freeze if you want to keep it longer.

Several years ago I found a recipe for an Italian olive oil cake that became a regular dessert in our house.  It was a simple recipe that started with eggs, sugar, flour, orange juice and olive oil and ended as a dense, moist flavorful cake.  I used to serve it topped with whatever berries were in season.

Right now, at last, the strawberries are in season here (after a very long cool, wet spring) and I wanted to make another cake that would highlight the incredible taste of these little juicy berries.  So I searched for, and found, another olive oil cake recipe.

This one, from the same Rustic Fruit Desserts cookbook I wrote about here, is much lighter than the cake I used to make, but at least as good.  Instead of using orange juice, this recipe calls for the zest of a lemon, an orange and a grapefruit, and the only juice you add is in the glaze.

The cake is light and fresh tasting, and a perfect match for fresh berries, slightly macerated with lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar.

Olive Oil Citrus Cake
(from Rustic Fruit Desserts)

1 ¼ cup unsifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon plus ¾ cup granulated sugar
zest of:  1 grapefruit, 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Using a paper towel, coat a 9-inch by 2-inch round baking pan with olive oil, then sprinkle it with about 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together TWICE.

Using a handheld mixer or stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar and zests on high speed for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are thickened and lighter in color.

Add the vanilla.  Turn the mixer down to medium-low speed and drizzle the olive oil into the batter, pouring slowly along the edge of the bowl.

Add the flour and mix on low speed until just incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cake is golden and slightly domed in the center.  Cool to room temperature.

¾ cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons fresh citrus juice (I used orange, the original recipe called for grapefruit)

Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a small bowl.  Add the juice and whisk to combine.  Pour over the cooled cake.

This cake will keep, well-wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for 2-3 days.

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