May 24, 2009

a sweet and sour taste of summer berries

Last weekend, I was up to town to get a few things done. It was my first time being in central Tokyo in a while; I don't really go up to town that much these days.

As I was walking up Route 246 (otherwise known as Aoyama-dori), I stumbled upon a mobile green grocer along the street, unloading produce from the back of his pickup.

In Tokyo and maybe other places in the country, it is not so uncommon to see vendors selling fruits and/or vegetable, but they seem to be almost always right in front of a train station and not by some random street, which was what this particular guy did.

I was on the way to somewhere and was almost just walking by, until something caught my eye: fresh raspberries and blackberries, in generously-sized baskets.

I don't know about where you live, but those perishable fresh berries are NOT a staple in grocery stores in Japan, and when they do have them, they are almost always imported and usually come in tiny baskets with a hefty price, with the exception of strawberries (which are widely grown in the country) and maybe blueberries. Which I find is a shame, as someone who loves all kinds of berries - we have some gorgeous strawberries produced in Japan, but that's about the only berry we can get with a choice. You don't have options such as locally-grown versus imported, or organic versus conventional, at least as far as fresh berries available in the market are concerned.

So, finding a mobile green grocer by the roadside in the middle of the trendy Aoyama was unusual, and it was even more so to see them carrying fresh berries of luxury, in a relatively large portion. But what was the most unusual was their pricetag; the guy was selling them for 500 yen (approx. $5) per basket, both raspberries and blackberries, as well as blueberries (which are not photographed above but he had them at the back).

Now a bit of pricewatch; a basket of raspberries normally costs somewhere between 700-1,000 yen (approx. $7-10) in Japan, and that holds a pathetically small amount of berries - just a tiny handful, weighing perhaps an ounce or two.

So I think you can guess what a bargain these berries were, and just how excited I was to find them. It was hard for me to resist the temptation to buy up ALL the berries he had, but it would have been a bit too much (after all, they are perishable and meant to be used within a short period of time), and I was still on the way to somewhere else, so I settled with just a basket of each.

I was being extra careful carrying the berries all the way back home, pondering over what I could do with them - I was mentally going through recipes I have with me, ones that I was always tempted to try but couldn't due to a large amount of fresh berries required. I was so excited - there are too many to choose from!

And what did I eventually pick? Nothing. I didn't get to try any of them. It almost brings tears welling up just to recall what happened, but it was all my fault; I managed to have all the precious berries spoiled. And it all happened within a very short period of time.

Basically, you must keep fresh berries in the fridge, or at least in a fairly cool and dark storage. Everyone knows that. But that weekend, as it usually is anyways, our tiny fridge was completely full and had absolutely no room for any of the berries. So I had no choice but leaving them out, carefully picking the coolest spot in the house. Luckily, it was a fairly cool day, so the berries kept quite well for the first day.

Then, there came a sunny, warm day, with the daytime temperature expected to hit 80F. And what was the coolest spot in the house in the evening happen to be the hottest in the morning, which I did know, and had been planning to move them somewhere else first thing in the morning. Except, the 'first thing' for me turned out to be way past mid morning. So when I woke up to an already sunny and warm day, I jumped out of bed and went straight to check my babies, I mean berries - only to find them, well, all COOKED.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing, what I managed to have done, and what an idiot I had been. It was only a couple of days before that I was all so excited to get a great deal, but what's the point of a generous portion or a bargain price when you only leave them to spoil, before doing anything with them at all ?

But the saving grace was that the berries were, actually, NOT inedible. I basically had stewed berries; raspberries, the most perishable of all berries, were completely cooked up. Blackberries and blueberries managed to hold their shape, though halfway cooked. Because at the spot where I had them, the temperature shot up really quickly and got hot enough to literally 'cook' the berries, leaving no time for them to go slowly rotten or moldy.

Still in a state of shock and unable to face dumping everything right away, I carefully tried a few berries and made sure they were not gone bad. Then I reached over the fridge and took a few things out, and stowed the baskets of berries (I know, how come I didn't do so in the first place, BEFORE deciding to leave them hanging around?). And even though the berries managed to stay somehow edible, it was clear that they weren't going to keep much longer. So, without further ado, I got ready to sort things out.

Other than using some to whip up smoothies along with other fruits lying around nearly overripe, I managed to turn most of the surviving berries into something enjoyable - making jams is the last thing I would do with any fruit, by the way; I don't really eat jams.

So here are what I ended up with, all more than satisfactory:

Super berryful raspberry scones, luscious blackberry and mango cobbler, and good old-fashioned blueberry muffins were all based on recipes from the adorable new cookbook by Erin McKenna, the mastermind behind BabyCakes NYC, a Lower East Side sweets shop known for legendary cupcakes and more, mostly gluten- and sugar-free and completely vegan.

For the past week or so, I've been baking through this book to largely good results, and I'm going to do a post about them sometime soon (I mean it!). But for now, I just wanted to mention that the book gave those ill-fated berries the best you could get; sure, their beauty would have shined if used fresh, but baked goods (good ones) would be a fairly good place they could find themselves in, considering what I had done to them (sorry).

Having managed to make a good use of them, I now felt a little less guilty. Yet that was not the end of the story.

When I bought the berries, I already had a few things to make in my mind, and I'd started some preparation before the tragedy hit me (or the berries, depending on where you are coming from). That was why I felt even more shocked when I realized I had just ruined the whole thing.

Not sure what to do, I could have gone ahead and replaced berries with something else. But because I was already totally obsessed with my plan, I ended up going out and bought more berries; only this time I paid a normal, ridiculous price for a tiny basket each of raspberries and blueberries. This time, I secured them in the fridge right away (yes I got that one this time around), and got to business without delay. And what I was so obsessed with? That was, fruit tart(let)s.

This is another recipe from my friend Taeko's new Italian book, which has been a source of most of my dinners for the past few weeks. Called Forest Fruit Tart with Mascarpone in the book, the tart looked absolutely gorgeous in Taeko's picture; but alas, being a clumsy baker, I failed to reproduce it and my photos here don't do it any justice, yet my morsels tasted sweet and yummy all the same.

I love all kinds of tarts, but fruit tarts - especially those with fresh fruits- have something special about them. While some of you might consider fresh berry tarts as an ubiquitous treat, it is just not the case in Japan for the reasons I have waxed lyrical about. So I was thrilled to get the berries, and this recipe was the first thing that came to my mind. And when I confronted the unfortunate accident (I know, I know, I do remember I was the very cause of it...) I had already baked the tart shell with almond filling, so I just couldn't bear wasting the whole thing. And boy, I was really happy when I FINALLY put them together!

And even though my second batch of fresh berries was not a lot, I still had some left after the tartlets, so I promptly used them up in something else - not to put in something baked, though.  Quite honestly, I really can't afford to buy raspberries over here with the intention of baking with them! (For which, we do have an option to buy frozen berries.)

And my choice of use was for summer berry pavlova. I'm not a great fan of baked meringues in general (they are usually too sweet), but this favorite dessert of Aussies and Kiwis, crusty outside and marshmallow-y inside, somehow pops to my mind every now and then. And I thought this would be a great way to showcase fresh and juicy summer berries.

I suppose you usually have simple whipped cream for pavlova, but here I used a mixture of mascarpone and lightly whipped heavy cream with just a touch of sweetness of honey, basically the same filling as the one I'd used for the fruit tarts. After all, I didn't want to risk wasting the leftover mascarpone, too!

And by the time I was done with all these baking and finished the fresh berries, I had almost gotten over the trauma of spoiled berries. It doesn't mean, however, I've forgotten the pain; next time I find a berry bargain, I'll first make sure that I have some room in the fridge. Or just eat them up as I walk out of the store. Maybe I should consider carrying some cream and sugar with me at all times. You know, just in case.

May 5, 2009

an italian week with T

I've been having a bit of Italian cooking frenzy thanks to the new Italian cookbook (Kodansha, 2009; in Japanese) written and photographed by my incredibly talented friend Taeko. Here's a quick glance into what I had last week...

Other things I made but not pictured above include: tagliatelle with vegetable ragu, lemony spaghetti with clams and zucchini, fusilli with eggplant sauce, and tomato-basil sorbet. I enjoyed cooking and eating them all, but if I was pressed to pick a few of my definite favorites, I'd have to go for the simple yet super yummy spaghetti aglio, olio & peperoncino with smoked salmon and arugula, the bursting-with-spring-flavor spring vegetable stir-fry with prosciutto, the tangy and refreshing potato & octopus sald with salsa verde, and pasta with the deeply aromatic eggplant sauce.

This is Taeko's second book that is intended for Japanese home cooks, using ingredients mostly readily available in Japan. Like her first book that was published in 2007, this can quite easily make a pretty coffee table book with all the stunning pictures by none other than Taeko, but my copy, after a mere week or so from the puchase, has already become a bit worn out here and there, from sitting intensively in my kitchen for the entire week. And I'm proud of it - although nowhere close to how proud I am of her, knowing (albeit partly) how hard she worked to put everything together for this beautifiul piece.

Personally, I am looking forward to seeing her and catching up on all the behind-the-scenes tidbits, and maybe visiting her at her home in North Italy to be treated for her often simple but invariably delicious dishes and desserts. Until then, cooking from her books would be the best (and only) option I have, it seems; too bad Italy isn't somewhere I can go on a bike, like my local bookshop or grocery stores.

Congratulations and thanks for the lovely work, T!

* The last photo is from a small town called Porto Venere, one of the places we visited during a weekend trip that Taeko and her family took me to last time I visited them back in November 2007. It's disturbing to have to admit that I haven't done anything much with hundreds of photos I took while there (other than a few I managed to post on my Japanese blog), but Taeko does have some nicely done shots here, if you are interested (her blog is written in Japanese, but the beautiful photos you'll find there really don't require any translation, I guess).