While visiting my father in India, a friend gifted him with a crate of our favorite mangoes. Alphonso mangoes have a short season and a shorter shelf life, and my father was leaving nothing to chance in order to savor their valuable flavor. He unpacked the wooden crate to aerate and reassemble the contents. Using the jute fiber as a base, he spaced out the mangoes nestling them under a layer of straw. Like a mother bird guarding her eggs, my father hovered over the mangoes for the next few days. Every day, he rotated the mangoes a quarter turn and checked for black spots, especially around the stem. He removed some of the straw to regulate the heat being generated by the mangoes, and waited for the skin to turn a golden orange color – just as their floral aroma reached a peak.
Mangoes, considered the king of fruits (each state and district in India claims to have the best), have a cult-like following, and yet they share something in common with less exotic fruits such as avocado, banana, papaya, pears, and kiwis. All of these fruits are plucked before they can ripen on the tree. They continue to ripen on our kitchen counters with the release of ethylene gas, a natural plant hormone. Trapping the gases hastens ripening, and it is the reason why avocados and pears ripen faster when they are stored in a brown paper bag. The brown paper bag, like straw, allows air circulation and additionally concentrates ethylene gas, which softens and ripens the fruit.
Most fruits and vegetables produce varying amounts of ethylene, which is also responsible for their final degradation. Separating fruits and vegetables, whether in different fruit bowls or shelves in a refrigerator, is important. This prevents a high ethylene producer such as apple from spoiling an already ripe strawberry or citrus fruit. Separating vegetables such as asparagus or leafy greens, a lower ethylene producer, from tomatoes helps keep both fresh for a longer period.
This chart is helpful for separating and storing your produce:
Fruits and Vegetables Classified By Ethylene Production Rates
Very Low: artichoke, asparagus, cauliflower, cherry, citrus fruits, grape, jujube,Strawberry, pomegranate, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, potato, most cut flowers
The first asparagus spears that push through frost and dirt need only a dusting of salt and pepper to bring out spring’s freshness. Later in their season, the more hardier and fibrous asparagus tips benefit from embellishments of shaved Parmesan cheese or a creamy Hollandaise sauce.
Hollandaise is the “mother” in a family of buttery sauces, which also includes Béarnaise and mayonnaise. Béarnaise is used with meat and Hollandaise sauce usually accompanies milder flavors such as eggs or asparagus. The base for Hollandaise and the others is an emulsion of egg yolks and butter, which is combined together at the right heat for a velvety-rich textured sauce. Monitoring the heat is key; too hot, the yolk can curdle or the emulsion separates, and if there is not enough heat, the emulsion does not form.
Controlling the temperature is accomplished by using a simple utensil called a double boiler. A double boiler or bain-marie (water bath) can be bought, but can also be improvised. A double boiler, like a homemade steamer, uses two pans. The main pan is filled with water, and the second pan sits snugly above the first without touching the simmering water. The steam, which is at a lower temperature than the boiling point of water, cooks the ingredients in the inner pan. Using a double boiler prevents overcooking, burning or curdling, and is a more foolproof option for making delicate sauces or melted chocolate than using a microwave or direct heat.
Egg yolks – 3, beaten well
Butter – 5 tbsp
Lemon juice – 1 tbsp
Kosher salt – ¼ tsp
White pepper – ¼ tsp
Set up the double boiler. Start to simmer water in the bigger pan.
Warm the butter in a separate pan, and keep aside at room temperature.
Add salt and pepper to the egg yolks in the smaller pan that fits inside the larger pan of the double boiler. Whisk the yolks continuously for 6-8 minutes. Keep the water at a simmer. The color will change from deep yellow to a creamy pale yellow as the sauce thickens. Stop when the whisk or fork leaves a trail in the pan. If the temperature is too hot, remove from heat and keep whisking. Do not let the eggs cook.
When the mixture is creamy, remove from heat. Drizzle in the lukewarm butter and keep whisking until all the butter has emulsified (mixed) with the yolk mixture. The sauce will be rich and creamy yellow.
Add the lemon juice. As whisking generates heat, mix gently to prevent any more cooking.
Serve Hollandaise with grilled asparagus or shrimp.
Many years ago, a casual remark to a new friend about my dislike of the taste of cheese prompted an immediate invitation to a cheese fondue dinner. A Swiss native, my friend simmered Raclette in the fondue pot, and paired it with trimmings of fresh and pickled vegetables, cubes of bread, and spiced meat. This memorable meal made me a cheese convert, and it also highlighted the potential of a fondue dinner as a collaborative meal.
When A. and N. wanted to taste some of the foods they had missed but saw written up in the blog, I thought about that fondue dinner. Fondue is a good example of a communal meal that showcases a variety of different textures and flavors. Pickled pearl onions and balsamic compound butter can be worked in as accompaniments alongside chunky bread pieces and bite-size sausages to scoop or dip into melted raclette cheese. There is plenty of room for innovation and collaboration when many hands are involved. Some of our new favorites included new potatoes brushed with cumin and coriander and crisp black radish drizzled with melted balsamic butter. These side dishes, along with firm red pickled onions, were a perfect textural contrast to the semi-firm cheese.
For the Fondue:
Heat 1 lb of Raclette or Gruyere in a ceramic fondue pot or in a pan.
When the cheese has a runny consistency, remove from heat and serve.
Continue to stir while warm.
Add more cheese as needed.
Grilled asparagus spears with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Strips of colorful bell peppers.
Green beans drizzled with melted balsamic compound butter.
The beauty of a communal meal lies in the variety of ideas that are presented on the table. I would love to hear about your traditions or thoughts on some of your favorite side dishes.