World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: July, 2007

Ice Cream: The Whole Scoop


I’ve been a little obsessive over ice cream lately. It is, after all, National Ice Cream Month. And I don’t mean frozen yogurt or low fat knockoffs. No. Full-flavor butterfat-rich frozen diary with a cone please, the real cream experience.  It may be because for a number of reasons I’ve been either fasting for medical reasons or eating super lean and freshly for mind-body efforts that I crave just one treat that is full on flavor.  But quite frankly for me, there’s just something about a cone in summertime that takes me back to family outings to Crescent Ridge Dairy.

As you see in the photo I’ve been exploring all kinds of flavors (clockwise, starting from the top left): my Homemade Swanton’s Strawberry Mint Chip; Swenson’s Chocolate Chip & Mint Chip; Double Rainbow It’s A Goody and Swenson’s Mocha Fudge.  There’s many others but one must maintain some semblance of control. I’ve also re-discovered Dr. Bob’s Scharffen Berger Works.  At $7.00 a pint this is not for the casual ice cream indulgence.  Warning, this chocolate ice cream is nirvana: containing bittersweet and semisweet chocolate bits and ground cocoa beans in a dark chocolate base, it is like no other.  The secret is in the amount of butterfat at least 16%.

So why the fuss over the butterfat?  Well, federal law, it seems, sets the standard. Ice cream must have at least 10 percent milk fat. This seems to me to be a small amount, that results in a very airy ice cream. In the churning process the amount of air affects the density and quality of the ice cream.  The more air there is the poorer the quality.  Super-premium ice creams typically has at least 12 percent and sometimes as much as 16 percent butterfat.  You get what you pay for, eh?

According to the International Ice Cream Association,  about 8% of the milk produced in the U.S. in 2005 was used to make frozen dairy products.  The top flavors are vanilla (by a very large share), chocolate (a distant and paltry showing), Neapolitan, strawberry and cookies ‘n’ cream.   The numbers work out to be about 52% of us walking the straight and narrow.  The rest of us, if we look to Ben & Jerry, have freezers full of Cherry Garcia, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream, Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream and Chunky Monkey Ice Cream. The complete list can be found here.

There are all kinds of tales as long as the summer about where it all started. It all started back in the fifth century BC, ancient Greeks sold snow cones mixed with honey and fruit in the markets of Athens.  Later Roman Emperor Nero is said to have eaten fruit chilled with snow brought by slaves down from the mountains. However, elsewhere, Mongolian horseman are said t o have taken cream in containers that were formed from animal innards as provisions across the Gobi desert in winter. Galloping along the cream was shaken and frozen all at the same time.  As the empire spread through China, Marco Polo picked up on the idea and brought it to Italy in the late 13th century.  In turn Catherine de Medici who at 14 years young was married off in 1533 to the future French King Henri II she brought with her an entourage of Italian chefs and the ice cream fixings. All good stories but the true history probably has more to do with the invention of the ice cream maker in the mid-19th century and the rise of refrigeration.

Today there are essentially two methods of making ice cream:  Philadelphia-style, made from with a base that is a blend of milk and cream, flavorings and sugar or the custard-style often referred to as French made from a pre-cooked custard base that includes egg yolks, sugar, milk and less cream; they are also whipped before they are frozen.

Around the world ice cream is popular. In Japan these days they have a rather unique flavor set, sweet potato and a saltwater fish flavor that is combined with large amounts of brandy. One of the more popular flavors rice ice cream.  This is made with Japan’s favorite rice, koshihikari, which is also used to create some of the country’s finest sake. In Italy, granita, the savvy Sicilian cousin to gelato, is a semi-frozen sugar-water flavored grainy ice treat. In a recent NPR story I learned that a summertime breakfast in Sicily is often coffee granita served with brioche.  And if you live in or around San Francisco you can taste ice cream India-style at Bombay Ice Creamery. this eight-year-old looks-like-nothing-much location showcases flavors that are homemade and reflect that tastes of the Indian subcontinent including saffron-pistachio, cardamom and mango, and chicku.

And in case you are the extra-curious sort the average person eats about 22 quarts of ice cream a year about 3-ish small cones a week! And it takes, on average about 50 licks to finish a scoop of ice cream. So really I think I may need to pick up the pace in the efforts of keeping with the stats!

My Recipe for Strawberry Mint Ice Cream

Wacky World of Japanese Ice Cream

NPR: Ice Cream A Perennial Favorite

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Blackberries at Night- Part II


Food memories have been sneaking up on me lately.  I don’t know if it’s melancholy, home sickness or most likely the coming together of a myriad of food memories but blackberries are on my mind. It could be that I am now able to sit in my itty bitty backyard in my new deck chair enjoying the summer air.  All those summertime childhood memories of blackberries, bats and fireflies. I grew up on a bumpy back road that followed a few of the bends of the Charles River outside of Boston.   During those long summer nights we would pass the time my sister, brother and the other neighborhood kids could be found picking and in quick form, eating blackberries by day; catching the lightening bugs in the early evening and then chasing bats by night.  Now I sit in my backyard with a martini glass in my hand.  Those summers were different, full, luxurious and relished.  I needed to get closer to that time.

So on this one Marin night feeling food nostalgic I started the evening with a cocktail concoction featuring blackberries and then moved on to a dinner of lobster ravioli which was in need of a sauce.  After some rummaging in the IBK* which produced some butter, a generous pinch of brown sugar, vinegar and a handful of blackberries all in a saucepan for a few minutes producing a reduction sauce, and a topping of a few toasted crushed hazelnuts.  To those of you who may think this odd try it first.

Blackberries are also called a bramble referring the thorny plant from which they are picked.  According to my botanical guide the name of the bush is derived from brambel, or brymbyl, signifying prickly. And that is the truth, all that sweetness is yours if you have patience and a good pair of garden gloves.

A few years ago on a road trip that took me and C. through Oregon we stumbled upon a few brambles of Marionberries that were the essence of that warm summer day. What I didn’t know then is that there are many, many varieties of blackberries–at last count about 250: boysenberry, thorn less evergreen and the marionberry.  These varieties constitute about 95% of all cultivated blackberries which in North America are primarily found in Oregon, California and Washington. In fact in Oregon farmers grow more than 30 million pounds of this most widely planted blackberry cultivar; it is available in season for only a few weeks beginning in mid-July and ending in early-August.

In California, we have our own special variation on theme. We have olallieberries. A berry of complicated lineage, olallieberries, were an unknown berry to me before living on the West Coast.  It’s a cross between the loganberry (which is a hybrid of the "marion" blackberry and raspberry) and the youngberry (which is a marriage between the "marion" blackberry and dewberry).  Given the strong predominance of blackberry it appears very similar to the blackberry.  Years ago some folks in Oregon were experimenting and came up with olallieberries but they didn’t take to the soil but the plant did like the California coast.

And in particular Swanton’s in Davenport. This weekend I found myself on a day trip south toward Santa Cruz and ended up at the annual Swanton’s strawberry u-pick which happily coincided with the 3-week olallieberry picking window. How lucky can a girl get?   Picking is gentle and hard work.  And now I am bursting with berries, 8#.  There were a few lucky recipients late Sunday afternoon when the blackberry truck pulled up to their door.

There are a number of recipes that are now in my queue which are link below.  In the meanwhile enjoy my post-work backyard cocktail, Blackberry Noir. It may not be fireflies, bats and the river road but it’s my own form of sublime relishment today.

To store: Keep blackberries in the fridge, without washing them, but they are delicate and need to be eaten as soon as possible. Blackberries can be frozen and included in pie or crumble fillings.

Blackberry Pudding with a Cinnamon-Dusted Crust

Smoked Turkey, Blackberry & Mozzarella Sandwiches

Blackberry Smoothie

*IBK = Itty Bitty Kitchen                                                        *Illustration by Paula Becker

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Blackberries at Night – Part I


Blackberries at Night

When the orange lightning bugs

flickered strangely in the nightthe boys would run out

and pick hidden blackberries.


One would carry the yellow bowl,

one picked them off the bush,

another watched his brothers

and considered the moments.


He waited for something

to crack the silence,

to scatter their voices

in the sky forever.

-Donald Illich excerpted from Alimentum

RATATOUILLE: A Recipe for the Senses


     "If you are what you eat, I only want to eat good stuff."

                                                                    -Chef Remy

Take one part ambitious rat with an overdeveloped sense of smell and taste; add the best animation team around and place in the world of high profile restaurants and grill, sauté, and flambé for nearly two hours and serve up in Paris.  Viola an aromatic visual feast.

While I will admit to at first being a bit uneasy with the whole rat in a kitchen idea Remy charmed and won my heart with his dream to ‘chef.’  And there’s a lot we can learn from this "little chef."  But this is a story not about a rat. No it’s a story of Remy who follows his heart and puts his passion into being that dream against all odds. Trite as that may sound the folks at Pixar have assembled a delightfully, sweet and visually edible story to while a way a summer afternoon. 

The Pixar crew took cooking classes, ate at notable restaurants in Paris and worked alongside Keller at the French Laundry. The commitment paid off in the dishes we see and can nearly taste: steamed pike with butter, braised fennel and heirloom potatoes; grilled petit filet mignon with oxtail and baby onion ragout topped with truffled bordelaise and shaved Perigord truffle. We also learn a few kitchen secrets along the way such as how a fresh baguette should sound, the proper way to chop a leek, and the value of keeping your station, and your sleeves clean. But the biggest lesson comes in the form of how to melt the coldest heart with a warm dish. This lesson comes through Anton Ego, portrayed by Peter O’Toole , the morbidly jaded restaurant critic.

The story made me immediately hungry and has inspired me to deconstructing the dish of the film’s name over the next few weeks. There are many variations as there are French mothers. The dish and films’ name, Ratatouille is the blending of two French words: rata, slang from the French Army meaning "chunky stew" and for the verb, ‘to stir’, touiller.

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