• 18Sep

    I’ve been so busy lately that I almost didn’t notice it is my favorite time of year. I love fall. The sun, lower in the sky, loses it’s summer brightness and dims to cast a warm glow. The shadows it casts become long stretching across the landscape. Trees turn beautiful hues of yellow, orange and red. The markets are brimming with the last of summer’s offerings and beginnings of the fall harvest. Life is abundantly good! What a great time to celebrate…and that’s what the Chinese thought way back in 2000BC when idol worship was all the rage. Back then, and at this time of year the idol of choice was the Moon of course. Who couldn’t help but notice on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month the moon shone big bad and bright. Exhausted from the long summer days working the land and the harvest finally all in, someone thought – what a great time to have an all night party when you could actually see who you were partying with and not have to bother with all those smokey torches.  

    Well, I suppose times have changed and idol worship is out so now we call it tradition. Through the years the celebratory traditions of the Autumn Moon Festival (or Harvest Moon Festival) has evolved. The current tradition of giving moon cakes to relatives and friends began relatively recently during the Sung Dynasty in 1100 AD. Moon cakes, round to symbolize reunion, are eaten with family and friends while gazing up at the harvest moon. And, if you can’t be with your loved ones at least you would all be gazing up at the same moon thinking of each other.  

    I love moon cakes. What are moon cakes? Nothing like moon pies though those are pretty darn tasty too. Moon cakes are a very solid – some liken them to the holiday fruit cake – disc shaped pastry ranging in diameter of a little over an inch to three inches (think hockey puck.) There are probably hundreds of varieties of moon cakes made but typically a moon cake is filled with a sweet filling like lotus bean or red bean paste or ground nuts all wrapped in a brown sugar pastry. Sometimes you will find a salted egg yolk in the middle. 

    Where can you find one of these moon cakes you ask? Well, head on down to your local Chinatown bakery or even grocer and you will find lots of them. Some fancier Chinese Dim Sum restaurants will even offer them. If you go to a bakery though, you can try out a few varieties to see which ones you like. My favorite is the lotus seed paste with an egg yolk.  

    Well, off to San Francisco Chinatown to enjoy the Autumn Moon Festival and get myself a few cakes.

  • 05Sep

    I love fall…the longer shadows, the sunlight has a bit warmer cast and here in the Bay Area we get Indian Summer. Besides all that, the figs on the neighborhood trees begin to swell up into sweet ripe purple orbs…or green if you’re spying a calimyrna or a kadota. A few weeks ago, you could catch me on a daily basis peering over the fence assessing whether it was worth dragging the ladder over to pick the bounty. A few times I even jumped the fence to take a closer look…don’t worry the neighbors know of my fig love. Finally, one very hot afternoon I declared it was time. The household gathered round and we trekked over to pick a few bags full.  

    I’ve loved figs since I was a kid. Figs were popular in my family whether in the form of fig newtons in our lunch boxes or fresh off my mom’s fig tree in our backyard. For the rest of human kind, figs have been enjoyed for over 5000 years. Figs have been found in Egyptian tombs as a healthy snack in the afterworld. The Greeks and Romans used figs fresh, roasted, dried and as a sweetener before sugar was discovered. It was the Romans who were instrumental in introducing figs to other parts of Europe. In turn, during the late 1700’s the Spanish missionaries introduced figs to California. Today, you will find fig trees growing all over the state.  Nutritionally, ounce for ounce figs have more fiber than prunes, more potassium than bananas, and more calcium than milk. And oh so much of that ‘good and good for you’ fiber.  

    Figs, a soft super sweet fruit with numerous edible blossoms and seeds encased in a thin edible skin, are a member of the Mulberry family and has two fruiting seasons. A short one in the spring and a longer more abundant one mid to late summer. Some common varieties you will find are the green ‘kadota’ and ‘calimyrna’, the brown ‘brown turkey’, and the purple ‘black mission.’ I pretty much love all varieties but the green ones rank up there. The purple ones are great for extra the antioxidants. 

    When shopping for figs, pick soft ripe fruit free of bruises, mold or nicks in the skin. A few small natural cracks are fine. Figs do not ripen off the tree so avoid firm unripe fruit. Key to this point is going to your neighborhood Farmer’s Market. You’ll rarely see a truly ripe fig at a grocery store. My favorite farmer is Rick Knoll – his figs are just oozing with ripe syrupy fig goodness. Do not wash until just before you are about to eat or prepare the fruit and if necessary, you can refrigerate for 1 or 2 days. If you’re picking fresh from a tree, grasp the stem between your fingers and twist. It’s a little tricky at first because you have to try not to squish the soft fruit at the same time. So what do I do with the bags and bags of figs? I eat them fresh – yum yum. Or dry them to use in baking and compotes. Or as I did last night, marinate them in balsamic, olive oil, honey and mint for a hour and then grill them (broiling will work too.) I served them on little grilled toasts with a dollop of ricotta that had been spiked with mint, honey and a squeeze of lemon. But don’t stop there! Search the internet and you’ll find loads of recipes for figs and proscuitto, fig tarts, fig jam….