In Rhubarb Kumquat Jam We Trust

I’m a believer in jam. I think a society that deals in filled and sealed jam jars as its currency is probably pretty happy as a whole. Swapping blueberry jam for boysenberry couldn’t possibly breed ill will. People would be too busy baking biscuits for smothering with fruit spread to worry much about a looming apocalypse or adulterous politico. In jam we trust.

Think about it. With jam everybody wins.

Rhubarb jam on toast on another unseasonably disagreeable day may feel as precious as gold when you’re at the breakfast table. And things have gotten pretty complicated for us here. So let’s slow down. Make some jam.

Homemade jam is a bottled season that you can open whenever you need a little pick-me-up. A reminder that there is still good that comes from the world turning and time passing. Yes, it is has been rainy and cool for weeks here, but I know its spring because I can see ruby red rhubarb. And when I talked to my mother yesterday she had just picked a few stalks to make some loaves of rhubarb bread. It made me homesick.

Yes, I had that kind of childhood. I grew up with loaves of quick bread and jars of homemade jam made with fruit picked by my house or from a nearby orchard we’d travel to in our minivan. So I have a sweet spot for the stuff. (Please note: I do not—nor will I ever—have a sweet spot for minivans. Especially maroon-colored ones.)

While my life isn’t currently filled with rhubarb plants and blackberry bushes in convenient proximity, having a steady supply of homemade jam certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s also entirely possible to pull off. For credibility with this, I point to The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders. It’s divided into delicious seasons and features classics like East Coast blueberry jam, as well as pairings that place cardamom and orange marmalade together (at last!).

So I couldn’t resist when I found kumquats for Saunders’ rhubarb kumquat jam. The tiny oval-shaped citrus is a lovely counterpart to the rhubarb and the jam has enough sugar to soothe the face pucker that rhubarb often provides. This spread is pleading for a partner in the buttermilk scone department. But it’s also lovely eaten simply by the spoonful, sitting on a kitchen stoop. (Mine has definitely seen a fair amount of jam action going down recently.)

So if someone is selling a society based on jam, I’m buying. I’ll happily collect my rhubarb jam, pack up, and ship out. I’m certain this jam is better than a greenback: good for most debts, public and private, and far superior on scones.

Rhubarb Kumquat Jam
Adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook

3.5 pounds trimmed rhubarb stalks, cut into 2 inch chunks
6.75 cups sugar
5 ounces fresh lemon juice
3/4 pound kumquats, sliced into thin rounds and seeds removed
A few drops of orange blossom water

Day 1
Place rhubarb in a large non-reactive stock pot and pour sugar over it; add lemon juice and let steep for 24 hours at room temperature.

Day 2
Heat rhubarb on stovetop and add in kumquats, stirring well. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Continue to heat at a boil for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and turning down the heat to prevent scorching, as necessary. Continue to stir the jam, almost constantly, for another 10 minutes or so to prevent it from sticking, until the jam has thickened.

To test for doneness, place a bit of jam on a spoon and put it on a plate in the freezer for a few minutes to see what the consistency of the jam will be like when cooled (you can also place the plate and spoon in the freezer ahead of time). When the desired consistency is reached (the jam shouldn't easily slip off the spoon) add the orange blossom water.

When your jam is done, pour into sterilized jars and process them for canning or simply place the jam in freezer-safe containers and store in your freezer, removing pints as needed.

Makes about 4 pints

-Please note, this jam takes 24 hours plus to make.

-Saunders notes letting the rhubarb macerate for 24 hours at room temperature will help the rhubarb release its lovely juices.

-Whole Foods has orange blossom water, as will Middle Eastern grocers. You can always leave it out, but it adds a nice depth and subtle floral quality.


Tamarind-Glazed Chicken That’s Like a Samba

I’m in the midst of a food fling. I’ve been making roast chicken for years, usually on top of carrots, onions, and potatoes; occasionally, I’ll throw in an apple or two. The cavity gets stuffed with lemons and butter and herbs are slipped under the skin. It’s an open-and-shut case of classic roast chicken.

It’s comforting. Consistent. Like the girl next door. And then, in walks the girl (read: chicken) from Ipanema. Bronzed, exotic, and as alluring as any bird could possibly be. (I want so desperately to throw in tall, tan, young, and lovely but such descriptors just don’t fit for poultry, try as I might.) Anyways, when you eat it, it’s like a samba.

Don’t get me wrong, traditional Sunday-style roast chicken is wonderful. It’s just that I’ve been in a bit of a cooking rut and so a simple roast chicken would simply not do. Yet, with this trade comes certain risk.

It’s a much flightier bird. The tamarind glaze could easily become too thick and sweet too fast on the stovetop. The heat of the serrano pepper could really sting. But the tamarind paste and resulting glaze that follows is worth the risk. It adds a haunting, soul-satisfying depth.

Tamarind itself has a special lure all its own. The paste is deep—almost black—garnet in color. It’s slightly sour, without being bracing; its fruit hails from a tree in the tropics. And it’s rumored to be given to elephants to make them wise. This quirkiness, coupled with its exotic appeal, tugs at my heartstrings.

And it was likely the magic behind the best roast chicken I’ve ever made. It almost feels like cheating. So I’m shacking up with a saucy new chick for now. People may talk. But the tamarind speaks louder.

Tamarind-Glazed Roast Chicken
1 red onion, cut into thick wedges
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut roughly into chunks
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
3-4 pound whole roast chicken
~1 tbsp butter
a few springs of oregano, thyme, or any other herbs you fancy
1 large orange, cut into quarters

1/3 cup tamarind paste
1/4 cup honey
2-4 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
Juice of 1 juice orange (or small orange)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 serrano pepper, finely minced

Preheat oven to 425. Place the onions and carrots into a large roasting pan. Toss with olive oil (enough to coat and make the vegetables shiny) and season with salt and pepper. Place roast chicken on top of vegetables. Gently coax the top of the skin of the chicken away from the meat; rub butter underneath and add herb sprigs.

Insert orange quarters into cavity of the bird. Season top of bird with salt and pepper and add a little more olive oil to rub into the top of the bird. Tie legs together and place in the oven.

About 30 minutes after the bird has been roasting, boil about 1/2 cup water in a small sauce or saute pan; add tamarind paste and whisk with water until dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and cook on medium heat until mixture has thickened (about 5-10 minutes), whisking occasionally to prevent burning and tasting and adjusting for salt or additional brown sugar, as needed.

When paste is ready, take the chicken out of the oven and brush on tamarind glaze. Place back in the oven until the bird is fully cooked or registers 165 degrees (about 1 hr and 30-45 minutes). (You'll want to occasionally check to make sure the glaze isn't burning; if it starts to get a little charred simply cover the top with foil)

Makes 1 whole roast chicken, plus roasted carrots and onions

-I used Tamicon tamarind concentrate that I found at Whole Foods.


The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie (No Perfection Required)

I recently attended a “Coping with Stress and Adversity” conference. There we learned to “never say never, or always” and how to offer criticism by sharing a “star and a wish.” So when I saw this recipe I thought: now is the time.

I have never very rarely been able to follow a recipe precisely. Meticulously following directions tends to make me anxious. (Which should come as no surprise, considering the kind of conferences I frequent.) I can do it. But I don’t like it.

Before I bake, I take a few deep breaths, read the directions aloud, and wish for the best. Tried and true recipes require less meditation, but new recipes can unhinge me. Yet, when I saw these chocolate chip cookies, I decided to dig deep, follow the instructions, and shut up about it.

A classic recipe like chocolate chip cookies can evoke an added layer of stress, as there can be so much expectation, fond childhood memories even. You typically can’t please everyone. Some like thin, crisp cookies, while others like them soft and chewy. And then there are those that can’t commit and prefer to have it both ways (turns out, I’m one of those). Well, this recipe caters precisely to … umm, everyone.

I followed the directions perfectly (actually, I’m not sure if I’m still allowed to say perfectly after my seminar). Browning the butter was crucial and made the cookie dough reminiscent of toffee. The process was actually pretty therapeutic. What was not therapeutic: despite following the recipe with precision, I had cookies come out looking like they'd been steamrolled. When I retraced my steps I found baking soda that was "best by June 3, 2010."

Yet—and here’s the kicker—even flat these cookies are lovely. Nutty. Chocolately. Crisp and chewy. And if you follow the directions (which are not difficult, I might add) you’ll get fantastic cookies.

And, though I probably shouldn’t be advocating for the use of cookies as a 'coping mechanism' after the conference I just attended, I could swear having a cookie and milk moment brought my blood pressure down again. Now, I don’t know you, and I don’t know anything about your blood pressure, but my guess is that you don't have freshly baked cookies with milk nearly enough.

So here comes the star: bake these cookies and you’ll be a hero. The recipe is from Cook's Illustrated. They’ve done the heavy lifting and have written instructions that truly work. Their dough is divine chocolate intervention and their method is perfection.

As for my wish? I wish I had fresher baking soda. And also, more cookies. Always most days, more cookies.

Cook's Illustrated's Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies

1-3/4 all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda*
14 tbsp unsalted butter (1-3/4 sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1-1/4 cups chocolate, roughly chopped into chunks (or chocolate chips)

Position oven rack to middle shelf and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in a medium bowl and set aside. Then, heat 10 tbsp of your butter in a saucepan, swirling constantly, until butter is nutty and dark golden in color. Transfer melted butter to a large bowl; add in remaining butter and stir until the butter melts.

Add sugar, brown sugar, salt, and vanilla extract to melted butter and whisk until combined. Add egg and egg yolk and whisk until smooth and sugar is fully incorporated and without lumps (this should take about 30 seconds). Let mixture sit about 3 minutes, then whisk again for 30 seconds. Repeat this process 2 more times; the mixture will become smooth, thick and shiny.

Stir flour into batter until just combined. Then stir in chocolate. Scoop cookie batter into portions that are about 3 tbsp each. Bake cookies one tray at a time, rotating tray half way through baking, until the cookies are golden and their edges have begun to set but the centers are still soft, about 10-14 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool.

Makes 16 cookies

-Warning! Baking multiple cookie trays at a time can cause uneven baking. (This is really good news if you only have 1 baking sheet due to the size of your tiny, tiny kitchen.)

-I still am not over this batter. It was a rich, caramel-wannabe cookie dough in its finest hour. The browning of the butter and use of dark brown sugar is spot on.

-For the chocolate I used half Taza's stoneground 70% dark chocolate (because I just love the stuff) and half Scharffenberger chocolate.

-For more info check out Cook's Illustrated's explanation.

-*Check the expiration date. I beg of you.


Pain Perdu to the Rescue

It’s a dessert … it’s breakfast … it’s pain perdu. It’s one of the sexiest things you can make from bread. And if you didn’t know its potential, you might totally pass it by.

Literally translated as “lost bread,” it's often made from day-old slices thought to be of little use to society in their current state. But pain perdu is no lost moment. And it knows exactly what it’s doing: namely seducing with thick, buttery slices. But where pain perdu truly gets its oomph is with the addition of Cointreau. It's an important breath of boozy citrus, and definitely worth adding in.

It's also an easy way to feel quite pleased with yourself first thing in the morning. After all, it’s pretty much French toast, just a bit boozed and buttered up. Though, you still have to be careful. Yes, it's true I made this for breakfast ... on a Tuesday. But the self-satisfaction lasted precisely until I ran my fingers through my hair and realized I had honey in it.

This is an important lesson, folks. While pain perdu may be easy to make, one has to remember his or her personal Kryptonite. (Which, for me tends to involve sticky sweeteners ... and making brioche.)

Luckily, it’s hard to mess up such a simple item. Egg and butter typically taste pretty good. Even with honey in your hair.

Pain Perdu
2 eggs
~1/4-1/2 cup whole milk
2-3 tbsp Cointreau
1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp honey
Pinch of salt
4-5 slices brioche bread
Butter for pan
Seasonal fresh fruit plus powdered sugar to garnish

Combine eggs, milk, Cointreau, vanilla extract, honey, and salt. Dip bread in mixture and let soak for a few minutes. Add bread to preheated pan that has been coated with butter and cook until golden (about 3 minutes/side). Garnish as desired.

Makes 4-5 slices of pain perdu

-The Cointreau and brioche really adds something special, so try not to leave it out.