Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't Pity the Fool!

“We were getting rather frustrated with Transport for London at one point and discussed internally trying to get on a bus with a coffin.” – London funeral director John Cribb expresses frustration at special road lanes set aside for Olympic vehicles.

            By now, we probably have a case of Olympic fatigue. I know I do. Even thought the 2012 London Olympics are officially over[1], there are only so many rounds of women’s boxing, shot put and Michael Phelps that one can take within a 14-day period. There is no way that anyone can convince me that McDonalds builds Olympic champions. And don’t even get me started on the overly-enthusiastic commentary from sportscasters…no matter how much you yell, synchronized swimming is not an inherently scream-in-your-face sport.
From the looks of it, it seems that Olympic attendees have had it with the food offerings at Olympic venues. Stories of faux-Mex, 12-dollar crap fish-and-chips, 10-dollar beer and McDonalds everywhere have been the complaint of many attendees. Add industrial scones, cheap tea and Cadbury chocolate bars, this was probably not British food’s finest moment. This is especially sad considering the renaissance that British cooking and restaurantation has had in the last 10 years. Maligned for many years as a cuisine of mushy-peas, Marmite and funny names,[2] British cooking has returned to its roots by concentrating on high quality regional foodstuffs and ingredients. Neal’s Yard Dairy, in London, has a full selection of artisanal British cheeses – from 4 different types of cheddar, several blue cheese that are NOT named Stilton and a Stinking Bishop.[3] St. John in London has done this brilliantly by bringing back old classics such as Eccles cake, pigs tails and Welsh rarebit in a form that actually tastes like it was supposed to (by that, I mean it tastes like food you really want to eat).
One of those quintessential British ingredients is the gooseberry. Native to the UK, northern Europe and parts of Asia, the gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) is related to currants. Native to parts of Northern Europe (both in the UK and on the continent) and across Asia, gooseberries are thorny bushes, about 1-3 feet. While gooseberries can be found in the US, its cultivation is very limited.[4]
Gooseberries look much like their currant cousins in shape, but slightly bigger in size. While there are several varieties of gooseberries, most are a pale bright green and are used primarily in desserts and preserves. Primarily fruiting in mid-late summer, their sweet-tart flavor is a primarily used for pies and preserves. But honestly, why waste fresh fruit? Gooseberries are perfect for another one of those classic British desserts: Fool.[5]
Fool, like its related desserts (or puddings, if we really want to all-Brit) Eton Mess and trifle, is merely a sweetened fruit puree folded into whipped cream.  And fool, like gooseberries, has been around for a while-some sources have it dated as far back as the 15th century, especially the gooseberry variety.
 Because it is SO simple to make, it is absolutely crucial to have to best quality ingredients-namely, good fruit and fresh cream. Now I could go on about the abysmal quality of dairy in the US, but if you are lucky enough to get good cream[6] this is the perfect use for it. In terms of the berries, if you happen to get real gooseberries, then by all means use them. In a pinch, you can substitute any soft fruit, blackberries, strawberries, etc. and it will just as good. The only key is that the fruit be ripe and in season. And the best part about fool? It’s NO COOK cooking. The only equipment you really need is a hand mixer, and you don’t even need that (for those who want an upper bicep workout). Mash fruit, whip cream and fold and you’re ready to eat.
And with this, I say good riddance to the Olympics. But I definitely hear the UK calling. And it’s because I’m a fool.

Hay-Infused Gooseberry Fool (with blackberry garnish)
Hay-infused Gooseberry Fool
Because I like a twist on things, I have incorporated a little something extra for this particular fool recipe – smoked hay.  You’re probably thinking I’m nuts, but smoked hay accentuates both the cream, by bringing out its grassy/savory elements, and the gooseberries, by foiling the acidity. But if can’t really deal with the idea of horse fodder in your food, by all means you can omit it, but I think you’d be really missing out. You can get hay at any pet shop, but if you are lucky enough to have a local source, by all means use it. (And for those of you worried about diseases and those sorts of things, because the hay is heated, any critter, small or large, will not survive. Trust me.)

2 large handfuls of hay
1 pd. of gooseberries (or any other soft fruit, e.g. blackberries, strawberries, raspberries) with some reserved for garnish
¼ c. sugar + 2 tbs. sugar
11/2 c. cream (see note)
Mint leaves for garnish

1.     Smoke hay. Heat oven to 350F. Take a metal baking sheet and line with foil. Place hay on top in an even layer. Place in oven and bake until it starts to smoke and have a noticeable scent, about 45 minutes to an hour. (Start checking at 45 minutes. You don’t want a fire in your oven).
2.     In the meanwhile, take the cream and place it in a metal bowl. Place in the refrigerator to chill until hay is finished smoking.
3.     Also while hay is smoking, make the fruit puree, take chosen fruit you are using, and mash roughly with a potato masher, until desired consistency. (For a smoother consistency, mash thoroughly and strain skin and seeds out with a fine-meshed strainer or a chinoise.) Add ¼ cup of sugar, stir thoroughly to dissolve and place in refrigerator to chill. (You will probably have more than you need for the recipe. Use the rest for yogurt or pancakes!)
4.     When the hay has finished smoking, immediately place the hot hay into the cold cream and let it infuse for 2 hours in the refrigerator.
5.     When ready to serve, take infused cream and strain hay out of cream, using cheesecloth lined strainer (you want the taste of hay, not actual hay in your mouth) strain all the hay out of the cream. Press on the hay to make sure you can extract all the cream from the hay.
6.     With a hand mixer, add 2 tbs. of sugar into the cream and whip into hard peaks form. Add 1 ½ c. of fruit puree; gently fold into cream until thoroughly combined.
7.     Place into individual dessert bowls or into a large serving bowl. Garnish with reserved berries and mint sprigs. Serve immediately.

[1] I’m not sure what is defined as “over” by the Olympic committee. Even though the closing ceremonies were Sunday, I hear that the Bronze soccer match is going to be today. Are the over or are they not? Does anyone have an answer to this?
[2] Funny names would include Toad in the Hole (sausages encased in Yorkshire pudding batter), Bubble and Squeak (fried vegetables from a roast dinner) or pasties, which are encased meat pies (for a long while I wondered why the British were naming food after the things you put on your boobs).
[3] Stinking Bishop is a washed rind, soft cow’s milk cheese that is pretty stinky, but not offensively so.  Made exclusively in Gloucestershire, the cheese used to be made solely of Gloucestershire cows, but due to scarcity of the breed, other cows’ milk may be added.
[4] To those that get annoyed by the US customs agents asking you if you have any fruit, plants or seeds from a foreign country, get over it. The main reason why gooseberries and currants are not cultivated in the US has to do with invasive species. The Ribes sub-genus is a host for white pine blister rust, which has devastated pine forests all over Europe. For that reason, Maine and a couple of other states (mainly in New England) have forbidden the cultivation of currants, gooseberries or any hybrids in any form.
[5] For a while, I thought the name fool came about because it was so simple to make, but the Oxford English Dictionary basically told me I was fooled (HA!). There seems to be very little history on the dessert itself, beyond it’s ubiquity after the 16th century. Some have traced the etymology from the French word fouler, or to crush, but according to the OED, that is completely off. If anyone has a clue as to the origins of this word, let me know. I’ve been wondering about this for a while….
[6] I think raw cream is amazing stuff, but honestly, from a public health perspective, raw cream is a raw deal. Anyhow, it is almost impossible to get unless you know some dairy farm that will supply you with the illegal goods (yes, raw milk is illegal in several states). The main problem with raw milk is that it is usually filled with pathogens, e.g. E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. Yes, pasteurization kills a little bit of the taste, but you won’t taste much from a hospital bed if you get food poisoning.