Simple Syrup for Fruit

All the summer fruits are coming to the farmers’ market in Southern California now – two weeks ago the kids begged for “anything but citrus, NO MORE ORANGES!” and now we’re happily gorging on strawberries, melons, peaches, nectarines, cherries…. I try to buy for the week, carefully choosing some peaches that must be eaten TODAY, some a little greener, and some still quite hard. And now there’s the daily ritual of peeking into the paper bags on my counter, pulling out the ripe ones and returning the green ones to ripen for another day or so.

But what do you do when you have fruit that you want to serve for dessert, but it’s just not quite there yet? Or if you want to dress the fruit up a bit for a special yet healthful dessert? An easy solution is to slice it up and soak (the culinary term is “macerate”) it a bit in simple syrup, which is a mixture of sugar and water, often flavored with another ingredient. Voila – homemade fruit cocktail, delicious and free of all the artificial ingredients!

Plan to make your syrup ahead, so it cools, and soak the fruit for up to a few hours before serving.


  • your choice of fruit, cut into 1″ cubes or slices
  • 1 c sugar – raw cane works here, but white is better for the sake of color
  • 1 c water

flavoring – choose one:

  • 2 T chopped fresh herbs (best to stick to 1): mint, basil, thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena….
  • 1 tsp dried herbs (choose from the previous list)
  • zest from 1 orange, lemon, or lime
  • spices (best to stick to 1): 1 stick cinnamon, 1/2 tsp whole cloves, 1/2 tsp whole allspice
  • feeling really adventurous? 1 small dried red chili or 1 small fresh serrano chili, cut into rounds, or 1/2 tsp any color peppercorn


  1. Dissolve the sugar in the water in a saucepan, and bring to a boil without stirring.
  2. Immediately turn off the heat and add the flavoring.
  3. Let the syrup cool to room temperature, then strain out the flavoring (you may want to use cheesecloth to catch the really fine bits).
  4. Pour over the fruit and let it sit for up to 1 h at room temperature or up to 4 h in the refrigerator, stirring gently once in a while.
  5. Just before serving, you can add a bit of fresh flavoring – chopped fresh herbs or citrus zest.

do ahead:

The syrup can be made up to a week in advance, strained, and kept, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

I’m inspired…

I’ve been thinking a lot about how moving from SoCal to Michigan is going to change our cooking and eating habits, and all I can think is, the change is going to be HUGE. In Torrance, I shop once a week at the farmers’ market, which takes place right next door and is full of amazing produce all year round. I even get my chicken, beef, bison, fish, and eggs there, so my trips to Trader Joe’s take place every other week or so and are mostly for sandwich bread, milk, butter, and the occasional snack food.

As we organize our move for June, I’m trying to learn all I can about Ann Arbor’s options for CSAs, including those that deal in poultry and meat. (Now welcoming all recommendations!) And although Ann Arbor has a farmers’ market, I suspect it will be harder to get to, harder to find parking, and not quite as stocked year round, although I understand it is open all year.

So I’m looking at the freezer options and hoping to join the many Americans who are (re)turning to processing and preserving their own food. Lucky for me, the New York Times has a piece on canning today – “Preserving Time in a Bottle (or Jar)” – which includes some reading recommendations and other resources. More books to add to my list – it’s a good thing we have a long plane flight ahead of us, as well as lots of hanging out time between leaving one house and moving into another!

Menu: Happy Memorial Day!

Happy Memorial Day! If you’re tired of the traditional burgers and dogs, here’s a barbecue menu with a Chinese flair. All of these dishes can be substantially prepared in advance, leaving you to enjoy some time relaxing and eating!

the recipes:

the strategy:

  1. Prepare the rice pudding.
  2. Prepare the barbecue sauce and marinate your protein of choice.
  3. Prepare the vegetables: cut and salt cucumbers, roast and soak beets, blanch and drain mushrooms, wash and chop cilantro
  4. Prepare the dressings for the cucumbers, beets, mushrooms, and cilantro.
  5. Marinate the beets and mushrooms.
  6. Dress the cucumbers and cilantro just before serving.
  7. Grill your protein.

Sweet & Sour Cucumbers

Just about any kind of cucumber will work for this recipe – I prefer the small Persian or Japanese ones, since they don’t have such large seeds and their skin is thin. English cucumbers are great, but who needs all that plastic packaging? If you use a conventional cucumber, you can scoop out the seeds with a spoon or melon baller before cutting.


  • 2 small or 1 large cucumber
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger root, minced
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 T vinegar – rice wine or apple cider varieties are best here
  • 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 T sugar – brown or raw cane is best
  • 1 pinch freshly ground white or Sichuan peppercorn as garnish – optional


  1. Wash the cucumbers and pat dry. If you are using a thick-skinned variety, you may wish to peel them.
  2. Cut off the ends of the cucumbers, then cut each into sticks approximately 1/2″ x 1/2″ x 2″ long – usually cutting small cucumbers into 2″ sections, then cutting lengthwise into quarters is just about right.
  3. Sprinkle the cucumbers with the salt and allow to drain in a sieve for 20-30 m.
  4. In the meantime, combine the remaining ingredients except for the pepper in a bowl and set aside.
  5. Pat the cucumbers dry, then add the remaining ingredients, mixing gently to coat the cucumbers thoroughly with the sauce.
  6. Arrange in a bowl or on a plate, sprinkle with pepper if desired, and serve.

do ahead:

The salted cucmbers can sit for up to 6 h in the refrigerator, and the dressing can be made up to a day ahead. Bring to room temperature before combining and serving. You may need a little less soy sauce as the cucumbers will be saltier to begin with.

“Shake the hand that feeds you”

Today’s LA Times has a photo slideshow celebrating the farmers’ markets of the area. Hm. I was a bit puzzled as to why the first 20 photos (of 28!) pictured the prepared foods (or, as the Torrance market calls it, the “non-agricultural products”) section or local restaurant gardens. Okay, I was happy to see our “crepe man,” Thierry Boisson, featured in photo 14, but really, isn’t the farmers’ market supposed to be about the produce, about the farmer?

Every stall I see in the produce section is a riot of colors, piled high with ingredients, all of which I want to take home and make into glorious meals or just eat as is, with juice running down my chin. If many of the larger operations hire people to run their stalls and work more than 1 market on any given day, still in most of those stalls stand the farmers and families who grow these fabulous foods for me and my family. They can tell me which produce is ripest, how long it will keep, how to cook it to best effect. They’ll often throw in something extra “just to try” or “for the kids” or reduce the price because I bring my own reusable nylon bags, which weigh more than plastic on the scale. (One week I forgot one of my bags on the scale, and the next week, the farmer not only returned the bag but insisted that I fill it with English peas, as I’d paid for them last week!)

Best of all, these people have names and faces that I know. And lucky for me, they know my face, if not my name, and my children’s faces – this is particularly helpful when my 5-year-old insists on getting lost and needs to be taken to the information booth, which has happened twice already. “I was just going over to taste the strawberries, Mommy, and then I looked around and you were gone….” Maybe it would help if the tasting displays weren’t so attractive and at child level and the nice people at the information booth did not hand out lollipops, thereby creating incentive for him to get lost? Or maybe I just need to buy a leash?

In any case, the farmers’ market, which takes place right next to my house twice a week, will be what I miss the most about Torrance when we leave in June. I know, Ann Arbor has a wonderful market, but still…. Many of “my” vendors here know that we are moving, many have asked how the real estate transactions are going (both the sale and purchase are finally done!), and ask when we are leaving. Many have offered me their phone numbers and shipping information – I know I won’t find cherimoyas in Michigan, after all. In a way, these vendors are like family, and I’m more inclined to hug them than shake their hands.

We should do all we can to support our local farmers – it’s good for them, good for us, and good for the environment to buy local. If you can “shake the hand that feeds you,” as Michael Pollan writes, your life will be richer for it. And if you want to see what lies beneath the surface of that farmer’s face, check out this beautiful piece – “Peach farming: risk, worry, and obsession” – written by David Mas Masumoto. You may find that a poet and artist lurks beneath that “stoic farmer’s face.”

Coconut Sticky Rice Pudding

Disclaimer – this is in no way a Chinese recipe, but I put it together this weekend, inspired by a Food & Wine recipe from Pok Pok in Thailand, and it was so good I had to share! And it works wonderfully at the end of a Chinese meal. And it’s very simple. And it used up yet another can from the pantry I’m trying to clean out before we move, although after last night’s earthquake, I’m not sure cleaning out the dry goods is a great idea just yet…. Glutinous rice is short grain rice that is the basis for a lot of Japanese dishes such as mochi – it cooks up very sticky and lends itself well to sweet concoctions. You could try using a medium-grain rice, such as Jasmine, but your pudding will not be as sticky. The pudding is delicious with a tropical fruit, such as mango, but it’s also good on its own.


  • 12 oz glutinous rice – I used white, but brown or mixed would work equally well.
  • 1 12-oz can coconut milk (reduced fat is fine, but remember – coconut contains “beneficial fats” so why not splurge just once?)
  • 1/4-1/2 c sugar – use white if your rice is white, brown or raw cane if you’re using brown rice.
  • 1/2-1 tsp sea salt


  1. Soak and cook the rice according to the Basic Steamed Rice post.
  2. While the rice steams, combine the coconut milk, sugar, and salt in a pot, then bring it to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally for approximately 5-10 minutes until it is slightly reduced.
  3. Mix the coconut milk with the warm rice, adjust the seasoning, transfer to a bowl, then serve or allow it to come to room temperature or chill it before serving.

do ahead:

The pudding can be made up to a day ahead of time. If you would prefer to serve it warm or hot, place it in a steamer until heated to the desired temperature, usually 15-20 m. It can also be microwaved on low power, but the steamer seems to make for a better texture.

Menu: Spring Stirfry Supper

Amaranth is back at the farmers’ market – certainly a sign of spring when the leafy greens start reappearing! And “Colleen the Tomato Lady” is back up to her elbows in gorgeous beefsteak tomatoes. I added those ingredients to the fact that I’m starting to clean out my pantry in preparation for our move and came up with a quick ovo-vegetarian meal that used some of the fresh stuff and some of the dry goods I have on hand, namely seaweed and mushrooms. The menu rather breaks the rule that not all dishes should be stirfries (to cut down on last-minute work), but the 2 side dishes can be done ahead, and if you do the stirfries in the right order, everything still works out. In fact, since I’d done most of the prep in the afternoon, this turned into a great after-after-school-activity dinner!

the recipes:

the strategy:

  1. Soak the mushrooms and seaweed, then complete these recipes up to 4 h in advance. Both can be refrigerated or left at room temperature for up to 2 hours.
  2. Up to 1 h in advance, soak and pick the spinach leaves off the stem, peel the tomato, and julienne the potatoes.
  3. Complete the rest of the preparations for the 3 stirfry dishes.
  4. Stirfry the potatoes (they will hold their heat for the longest time).
  5. Stirfry the spinach.
  6. Stirfry the eggs with tomatoes – this one is last because there aren’t too many things less appealing than cold scrambled eggs….