Friday, July 21, 2017

Mission: Plumpossible

What a treat it was to see my friend Jenn and spend a few days with her and her husband Eric in the south of France this week! Jenn, who I met a decade ago in French class back in DC, is my kind of crazy: loves good food and wine, has an insatiable interest in learning and exploring new places, and suffers from a similar hatred of wasting things. An avid recycler and compulsive composter, Jenn seemed at many points during this visit to be my long lost twin. (Mon dieu!) This feeling was confirmed when Jenn showed me their glut of fresh red plums on Tuesday, filling containers on every available scrap of kitchen table and counter space, with many more pounds of fruit still hanging from overloaded boughs in the garden, and asked if I could make something to salvage them. Preferably gluten-free.

Challenge accepted, obviously.

When Jenn and Eric set off to work yesterday, I put in a load of laundry, turned on some music, sat down at their kitchen table, and began to chop. An hour and twelve cups of chopped plums later, I assessed what other ingredients were on hand and got cooking: plum bars, plum shrub syrup, and, because I believe I mentioned how both Jenn and I loathe wasting anything, plum fruit leather made from the skins strained out of the shrub base. 

Oh, you have lots of plums, too? Well, I already have a  shrub recipe on the blog, so you don't need that. The fruit leather is still dehydrating in the sun, so I'll hold off on sharing that recipe til I get a positive review from Jenn. For now, here is how to make your own delicious -- and super easy -- tart plum bars. Perfect for a picnic in Paris, btw....

Gluten-free Summer Plum Bars
Adapted from the smittenkitchen website's strawberry rhubarb bar recipe.


1 cup rolled oats
¾ cup all-purpose gluten-free flour
½ cup + 1 Tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons butter, 
2 heaping cups fresh plums, pitted and diced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice


Heat oven to 375°F. For easy removal, line bottom and sides  of an 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.

Place oats, flour, 1 cup sugar, and salt in the bottom of your baking pan and mix. Pour melted butter over, and stir until clumps form. If the clumps feel soft or look overly damp, add up to 2 more Tablespoons of flour. Set aside ½ cup of the crumble mixture.

Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan. Spread half the diced plums over the crust, then sprinkle it evenly with cornstarch, then lemon juice, and 1/2 Tablespoon of granulated sugar. Spread the remaining plums over this, and top with second 1/2 Tablespoon sugar. Scatter reserved crumbs over fruit.

Bake bars for 30-40 minutes, until plums are bubbly and crumbly portion is golden and smells delicious. Let cool in pan, then put in the fridge to set. Cut into squares and sprinkle with powdered sugar or a dash of cinnamon sugar before serving. Store leftovers in fridge or freezer.

I think almond meal would be delicious in the crust/crumble part, too -- maybe swap it for 1/4 cup of the flour -- but since Jenn can't eat almonds, I didn't try it this time. Ooh, I can't wait to hear how the fruit leather comes out!

Friday, July 14, 2017

More than goat milk

Finally, in western Poland, I've found the vegetables! Each day this week, along with the ubiquitous meat and boiled potatoes, Jagoda (my relation -- a second cousin, I think?) has been feeding me luscious, from-scratch soups: mushroom, broccoli, zucchini, and, today, creamy tomato. Yummmm. And, with many thanks to her husband Krzysztof, I've also had a chance to work on a small farm in the region. I'm getting back to my roots in more ways than one.

Wednesday night after dinner, my relatives drove me to Kozka -- an organic farm that produces goat milk, cheese, and yogurt. After arriving, I chatted a bit with the farmers, Jolanta and Norbert, over herbal tea then beers, heading to bed around midnight. At the crack of 6:45, it was time to get up to help with morning milking....

I'm not going to be quitting my day job to become a goat milker any time soon, it appears. Norbert and his assistant, Danke, easily milked nearly seventy goats in the half hour it took me to get through two, never mind that about 25% of the milk that came out of my goats ended up on my pants. Luckily I was able to redeem myself with efficient garden tasks later in the morning -- so much so, in fact, that Norbert declared my thorough tomato pruning and pea crop clearing earned us all a two hour siesta after our fava bean and pork belly lunch. (Lord knows I needed the nap after the overzealous rooster outside my window had gotten going at 3am. Jerk.)

I learned so much from Jolanta during my time there, where she farms, makes yogurt and cheeses for sale, and practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine. She has lived in Lubowo since her father gave her a few hectares of land there as a wedding present in 1980. She and her carpenter husband were simply homesteading until about a dozen years after settling there she noticed their second son was allergic to cow's milk. So they got a couple of goats. Jolanta had studied agriculture in college, but she had focused on plants, so they decided to spend a bit of time in Switzerland learning how to care for livestock. They soon acquired a few more goats, and a nearby supermarket asked if they might sell some of their milk there. Then a few more goats joined the herd as demand grew... It turns out that organic agriculture is quite an anomaly in Poland, but there's been a recent uptick in consumers seeking out what is here called "biological" produce, dairy, and meat. There's still a long way to go, Jolanta assured me, but slowly the country is waking up to the ways conventional agriculture is damaging human health and the health of the environment.

As of 2012, the unique organic farm has been hosting field trips for groups of students from schools in nearby Poznan. Kids as young as kindergarteners come for 3 hours at a time to milk goats (and taste the milk), ride ponies, see a wide variety of fruits and veggies growing, and have a cookout. How cool! As far as I can tell, the farm is the only one in the country offering this amazing farm-to-school opportunity. I hope it's the start of a trend -- have I mentioned the general lack of veggie consumption in these parts? 

When Krzysztof came to pick me up from the farm last night, the couple sent me back with big hugs along with a hunk of their aged goat cheese and homemade black currant syrup. These are my people!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"No risk, no fun"

So said my fearless guide, Kris, on the first day of our week-long bike tour as we scrabbled our way up the hilly roads toward our destination: the ski resort town of Zakopane. Our group of 12 was reduced to 4, including our guide, willing to bike uphill in the pouring rain that first day -- the rest took the van with our bags. (I have to say that I am getting rather used to the idea of organized bike tours, with someone else schlepping my bags, and sleeping in a bed rather than a tent at night. Am I getting soft, I wonder?) After the first somewhat miserable stretch of cold, wet biking -- 50F is not the weather I'd expected in July, as reflected by my choice of packed clothing -- the rain let up and we stopped for a seasonal raspberry beer and to check out a local festival in a small village along our route. About an hour of (mostly uphill) biking later, the sun came out as we came upon another village fair, this time with young men and women in traditional costumes dancing. I'd have totally missed this if I'd taken the van!

Mind you, biking in Poland is NO JOKE. I learned from our guide that the country is second to Russia in terms of annual car crashes. Being on the road in Poland, whether on a bicycle or in a car, frankly, you are taking your life in your hands. With cars blowing through red lights, stray dogs roaming the towns, and vodka being cheaper than bottled water, I was definitely glad to be part of a larger group rather than a lone cyclist. I stayed somewhere in the middle of the group as we wound our way through the majestic Carpathian Mountains, tracing the Dunjanec River as it crossed into Slovakia and back. Some bits of the tour were quite challenging, and even I had to walk my bike part way up a couple of the hills. But it was worth it. Crumbling castles, stunning vistas, beautiful open skies....

Kris was to cheerfully repeat his mantra throughout the week and we all took note. Luckily there were plenty of opportunities each day to take a nerve-calming ice cream break:

I could not resist any opportunity to try new foods, though, from mystery ice cream flavors to artisanal pastries with names I couldn't pronounce.The lunch food options were as daring as the biking in some cases, from traditional goulash one day to sauerkraut soup and honey vodka another. Sometimes the English menu translations were indecipherable or altogether missing, and I'm not quite sure about some of the meats I consumed. One afternoon we ventured into a shack that was making oscypek, southern Poland's traditional smoky sheep's milk cheese. It was undoubtedly smoky. The cheese and the air in the shack. The kind cheesemaker offered us tastes of the raw and smoked cheeses as he explained the painstaking process. At least I think that's what he was gesturing about -- I don't speak much Polish. I'm pretty sure it wasn't pasturized. I'm definitely sure it was delicious.

At one point, during our last full day of cycling, Kris picked up a bottle of plum vodka so our group could taste the regional specialty. (We finished the bottle at dinner that night. Our guide found it endlessly funny to refill my glass when I wasn't looking. I think the lining of my esophagus is still recovering.) But no risk, no fun, right? Many thanks to Kris and my cycling companions for a fun week!