Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The doldrums

I was walking around Berkeley Bowl today kind of dazed and I'm not sure quite why, but I think that it has something to do with the fact that I found neither quince nor kumquats among the many rows of produce. I've wanted to make quince paste and kumquat whatever the kumquat recipe is from Ad Hoc At Home for quite a while now, and it turns out that I've missed my chance at both of them for the rest of this year. There weren't any persimmons either--it seems like just yesterday that I was biting into a really, really unripe persimmon, which actually feels like choking to death, and now they're all gone from the grocery store. Oh well. No persimmon pudding until I'm 26 years old. I was lucky to grab a couple of the last few pomegranates of the season, and I'm going to juice those and then turn them into either some liqueur or some molasses for later on. It is pomegranate vodka and it is delicious.

It turns out that pretty much everything is out of season in Berkeley Bowl--we're in sort of the unhappy doldrums between winter fruit (persimmons, pomegranates, quince, squash) and the first sings of spring (peas, morels, endless asparagus) where nothing is really fresh and in season except citrus. While winter tomatoes are just plain bad--I think they're the number one threat to America, pretty much--the elusive fruits of winter are things that you seriously can't get any other time of the year. And if I missed persimmon season and pomegranate season and quince season--gosh, what have I been doing for the past few months?

So I biked home with a bag full of blood oranges and bergamot and decided that tonight would be the night that I would finally make bearnaise sauce, a hot emulsified butter sauce that's a lot like hollandaise except you have to strain stuff first and chop tarragon. I wasn't really in the mood for steak or fish or anything, but I figured that it would be an excellent dip for some roasted potato wedges, and I happened to have some purple potatoes leftover from my last shopping trip to Berkeley Bowl (the one where I decided against buying persimmons because they just didn't seem ripe enough yet). So I dutifully set up my double boiler, made my tarragon vinegar reduction, and started whisking a single egg yolk until it had tripled in volume.

And, well, that one broke after I had mixed about three spoonfuls of butter into it. I knew that the problem was that I was using a bowl that was way too big for the whisk I was using, but I was kind of in denial about that, so I just whisked in some ice water instead and got it to re-emulsify. Two spoonfuls later--plop, broken sauce.

So I whisked that some more--more than I probably should have given how sore my whisking shoulder is after skiing this weekend--but no use, it broke again and kind of coagulated into this simultaneously ugly, wet, gloppy, and shiny globular mass of butter and yolk. I knew what I had to do--I separated another egg yolk, whisked it into a little more vinegar, started cooking that, and then mixed in my ugly, wet, gloppy, shiny globular mass in by spoonfuls. This time I decided to cheat and use the whisk attachment of my electric hand mixer. It's weird--I've tried everything on mayonnaise, from immersion blenders to conventional blenders to electric whisks to food processors. Well, not coffee grinders, but every other rotating bladed implement in my kitchen. The only thing that seems to work for my mayo is a fork, a single egg yolk, and a little white bowl that I have.

But it turned out that an electric whisk worked for this bearnaise sauce, and I successfully emulsified the six tablespoons of butter, then checked the seasoning: salty, tangy, delicious, thick, perfect for the potatoes that I had just taken out of the oven. I was just reaching over to chop up the last tablespoon of tarragon to fold in when BOOM, wetting, glopping, uglification, broken sauce again. Let this be a lesson to me in mise-en-place. If I had chopped the tarragon already, I might have gotten like two bites of roasted potato covered in silky tarragon-spiked bearnaise.

So I tried to save my sauce, because, really, it was a beautiful perfect smooth creamy mixture just thirty seconds ago. I put in a few drops of water. I blended it. Then a few drops vinegar. I blended it. I blended it harder. Harder. On the highest setting. On the highest setting plus turbo. No. Nothing. Sauce overboard.

And so the wind had left my sails this evening when I failed at making sauce and failed at finding persimmons and also I did a really bad job poaching an egg this morning (in my defense, it was an old egg and those are the worst for poaching, but putting a fried egg on top of my fried oatmeal seemed like gilding the already-golden-brown lily). My only consolation was the potatoes I had roasted were excellent, tender, starchy in a good way, and even a little crispy on top even though I didn't go to any special effort to broil them or shake them around or do anything except put them in a 400 degree oven for half an hour.

So that's why I ate a pound of potatoes for dinner and nothing else.

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