Monday, June 04, 2007

Memory Food

On Saturday, my friend MS and I had a jam making party. It wasn't really a party by most people's definitions, because only two people were invited--MS and myself, but we did listen to good music, laugh, and have a great time. But the best part of the party, two-person or otherwise, was the final product: sunny orange half-pint jars of apricot jam. It's pretty exciting to turn fruit, sugar, and lemon juice into something that will last for a long time and taste good just about everywhere one spreads it, serving as a reminder of how perfect a ripe apricot tastes.

If you haven't picked one off your own tree or purchased one just-picked at a farmers' market in the last, oh I don't know, decade or so, when was the last time you had an apricot that tasted good? What grocery stores sells are not apricots: they are apricots' sour-hard evil twins, deceptively beautiful but mean on the inside. I know people complain about grocery store fruit all the time, but back when I used to shop at grocery stores for produce, I would be able to get good apples and pears, sometimes even good peaches, but never good apricots. They are the worst kind of fruit to ship, for apricots are as fragile as a summer memory.

When I was between the ages of ten and fifteen, my family lived on a small ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. We had cattle and goats, even a horse for me to love madly. We also had a huge vegetable garden and a fruit tree orchard. In the orchard grew two apricot trees, probably the most beautiful trees in the field with their heart-shaped leaves and Asian-inspired architecture, but those trees, no matter how well-loved by my family, rarely produced much fruit. Every year we'd get only a few larger-than-average fruit from each tree. Each fruit was near peach-sized and anticipated with uplifted eyes and occasional prodding for just the right give of a perfectly-ripe apricot. Finally, one would be ready to pick, and whoever found it ready for the picking would get to eat it.

A ripe apricot is soft on the inside, firm out the outside, overall tender and melting with sweet-sharp juice. It won't taste like any other fruit. It will taste like the start of hot days and no school. It will taste like something you've been waiting for for a long time.

Since our crop of apricots was always so sparse, Mom would supplement it with trips to Takahashi's Fruit Stand, where she would purchase flats of apricots to bring home and turn into jam. After washing and pitting the fruit, she'd toss it with sugar, bring it to a boil for just a couple of minutes, then pour the whole mess into large glass casserole dishes which she'd set out in the hot sun for a full day. To protect the fruit from bugs while still allowing the sun to hit the fruit, she'd place "fly-umbrellas," the kind one uses for picnicking, over them. The sun would suck out the water for from the fruit, and we'd be left with the best jam, full of the most concentrated fruit flavor in one tablespoon that any tastebud could handle. She'd pour the sun-warmed jam into Ball jars and place the jars in the garage freezer so we could taste ripe apricots all year long.

Saturday's jam, the simple stove-top, water-bath-sealed jam that MS and I made, doesn't quite taste like early summer concentrate, but it's close. It's enough to make me feel like I'm eleven and I have almost three months of long outdoor days ahead of me.

Last night, I took another walk down memory lane and made a quiche for dinner. I'd never made a quiche for ECG before--I don't know why not--and I was excited to bake one that my mom used to make for us frequently when we lived at that little ranch. It's a simple meal, one that you can build by raiding your pantry, refrigerator, and herb garden without any extra shopping. All you need to bake it are basic items: butter, flour, eggs, cream, and your filling ingredients, in the case of my mom's quiche, canned clams, olives, and chives.

When I told ECG that I was going to make a quiche for dinner last night, we spent a long time making fun of all the different silly ways to mispronounce the word. Right now, our favorite, for obvious reasons, is "quicky." Now that I've made this "quicky" at this golden point of our relationship--for really, it is the best point in our relationship so far, and it keeps getting better and better--I'll always try to remember the two as being attached. This quiche is a touchstone for a new kind of summer memory.

Clam, Olive, and Chive Quiche
You will need:
Your favorite single pie-crust
3 eggs
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
healthy grindings of black pepper
2 6.5 ounce cans of clams
1/2 cup chopped mixed good quality pitted olives (I used a mix of picholine and kalamata)
1/2 cup finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon butter, cut into pea-sized pieces

To make the quiche:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and place the oven shelf in the top third of the oven.

Roll out the pastry dough, line the pie pan with the dough, and crimp the edges. Weight the bottom of the pie crust with pie-weights or beans (to keep the bottom from bubbling up), place a rim-protector over the edges, and place the pie pan in the oven. Bake the empty crust for 10 minutes to firm it up for the filling, helping to ensure a crisp crust.

While the crust is baking, beat the eggs together with the milk and cream in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in all other ingredients, except the butter.

When the crust has pre-baked, remove it from the oven, carefully remove the pie-weights, and pour the filling gently into the crust. Sprinkle the little pieces of butter on top of the filling. Readjust the rim-protector, and place the pie pan back in the oven. Bake the quiche for 30-35 minutes, or until the center of the filling has set and the top has puffed slightly and browned in spots.

12 comments:

Susan in Italy said...

Great writing. I love how you describe the good and bad apricots. Having only eaten the supermarket kind I've never craved apricots. I must really be missing out on something.

Susan said...

Now that you mention it, I don't know that I've ever even had a good fresh apricot from the supermarket, either. Apricots from any source aren't seen that much around here.

Nice look back at your years at the ranch. Your mom's quiche sounds exceptional. What a great combination of flavors, mouthwatering just to think of it.

Lucy said...

Those little apricot butts are beautifully photographed and rather cute - they look spectacular against the dark background of your template.

I can recall, growing up, having apricots that tasted like the real thing only once. It was in the car with my dad, on our way back from the orchard up the road.

The real thing? Would love to try the real thing again. Have been a bit obsessed with unsulphured, organic Turkish dried apricots of late. They're pretty close.

Love the quicky.

ann said...

Oh wow, I totally forgot about the joy of real apricots! I usually avoid them like the plague, because you're right, there is nothing worse than an unripe stone fruit.

The boyfriend and I love mispronouncing words too. I hope it's a sign of intelligence! And that quiche! What an idea! I love canned clams (don't tell the food police!) and would never think to put them in a quiche. I'm so excited to try this now. Thanks!

Herbs and Me said...

Wonderful Recipe! You put so much effort into your blog! Thank you:)

Renee

melikay said...

My dear friend--I love this blog entry! I wish I would have taken photos of the canning! Ah well. PD ate a whole jar of the jam already...in 2 sittings! I agree with other comments that the photos of the apricots are lovely ... and you have such a way with words!! It's always a pleasure to read your posts. I hope to be half as good as you someday! C u soon!

Christina said...

Susan in Italy: Thank you. You are missing out on something. Someday, I hope to have trees my way, and then, perhaps, I can send some your way (with some careful planning and massive overnight shipping, of course).

Susan: Thanks for the compliments. Give the quiche a whirl--it's simple, and very, very good.

Lucy: Thanks! My boyfriend calls apricots "butt-fruits" for just that reason. I think they're pretty cute too. Dried Turkish apricots are good things.

Ann: Isn't mispronouncing fun? My boyfriend is Argentinean and his first language is Spanish, but he loves pronouncing any Spanish word in the most gringo accent of all. And we purposefully mispronounce all the time. You're right--it must be a sign of brilliance. Don't feel bad about loving canned clams. Real foodies know that good food isn't always hip.

Herbs and Me: Welcome to A Thinking Stomach. Thank you for the compliments.

Melikay: Thanks friend! I'm glad to hear that PDiddy loved the jam.

Wendy said...

It's not easy to find a good apricot in the north of Scotland. Vividly remember tasting them in Spain. Worth another trip I think!

Shaun said...

Christina - I have never been that fond of apricots for some reason, and I cannot put my finger on the reasons why not. Truth be told, I have not even tried to eat one for years, so I have no idea if this taste-prejudice of mine still stands.

As for the silly ways to pronounce quiche, Eric and I call it "qwitcha". I go weak at the knees for a beautifully baked pastry case; yours looks perfect.

Anonymous said...

Apricots are memory food, good for you, too. Vitamin A! I grew up eating ripe apricots from a fruit tree in my backyard and they evoke summer like nothing else I can think of.

Tips for choosing ripe fruit: Gently take a cot in your whole hand. If it's smooth, it "gives" just a little and has nice color, that's a good sign. If it's wrinkly it will be dry- it's too old. Don't bother with green fruit, hard fruit or fruit that smells musty.

Farmers markets are the best source if you don't live near an orchard. If you're stuck in a place like New York try organic, handmade jams and syrups like Blue Cottage (from Washington state). A dose of that on a dreary Monday morning will reassure you that grass still grows and somewhere there's a warm beach waiting for your inner child.

mrsron said...

I live in Altadena as well. Long time veggie gardener - just getting into fruit trees. Found your blog looking for good stone fruit recommendations for Altadena.
Nice blog !

I am also looking for a manure / compost source. Found Tim Dundon's website, and was greeted by the announcement that I had just been hacked !!!
Oh my.

I look forward to reading more. I am going to start doing some major canning, and just ordered my first 6 chickens. Nice to see fellow Altadena farmers.

Terry

Christina said...

Hi Terry! Nice to meet you. Shoot me an email at niezcka at gmail dot com, and I'll send you Tim Dundon's number. I'd love to talk trees with you--I just put in two apples and two plums this week.