I’m creating a garden in my backyard. This is a dream come true for me. I took a day off to accomplish a list of things, but instead of recipe creating and taking photos, I’m drinking iced tea with lemon and mint, while instructing the gardener and crew around the yard, showing them where I’d like to plant the large pots of jasmine, bougainvillea and creeping fig. I’ve got my hands and feet in the soil, digging holes with a spade to plant lavender and rosemary. The scent of earth is alive and renewing my senses.
A green beetle flies around drowsily, then a butterfly. My bare feet sink into the damp grass. The budding fruit on the orange tree fills my heart with promise, and reminds me that only last year I lived in a cramped and dark two bedroom apartment with my three children, just dreaming of this moment.
Even my kitchen is a daily reminder that I am realizing what for many years felt impossible in times of single parenting struggles. Now I have so many recipes in progress, so much abundance tumbling upon my kitchen island where the bounty of farmers’ market produce is displayed, and I am overwhelmed with the harvest of summer. My colander filled to the brim with juicy cherry tomatoes hand plucked from a friend’s garden, the stems a-top like little green bows, such gifts of exploding sweetness on the tongue. I slice them in half easily and roast them very lightly with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of sea salt. Fresh pops of cherry tomatoes are just as good or perhaps better in a green bean salad. I serve it cold, simply dressed in a miso cashew vinaigrette and toss it together with quinoa. Parsley too, cilantro. I cannot believe my luck, and a rush of joy swells in my body.
The plums were just too beautiful for words.
In the fruit stall at the farmers’ market, stunned by their beauty, the dark purple plums heavy with ripeness, globes of crimson violet fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. Baskets full of such plums— Santa Rosa, Black Beauty, Yellow plums— bedazzled by the many jeweled colors as the waft of their jammy fragrance meets my nose, I’m in awe of their splendor. The farmer behind the table slices a plum, hands me a sliver of fleshy fruit, its juice drips down my fingers, as my lips and eyes close in bliss, tasting it. So sweet.
This is how I found the plums.
Soon I held plastic bags weighted full of them. The farmer hands them to me and gives a toothy grin, sprinkling change into my hands. I place the plums gently into my canvas grocery tote. He winks at me as if to say, enjoy.
The hot sun beat down as I walked with the heavy loads of produce in each hand, gathering bunches of colorful sweet peppers along the way, bouquets of basil, mint, marjoram, rosemary, purple basil, and a wildly grown bunch of Malabar spinach. I found a bouquet of squash blossoms, but much to my dismay, they were too delicate and faded quickly in my refrigerator later.
I had planned to make something special with the squash blossoms, a raw vegan recipe using pistachios, cashew cream, pesto, purple basil leaves. Yet I didn’t have time to prepare such a dish within a day after buying them. They wilted, turned dull and looked gray. I was too slow to use them immediately, too busy, driving all over the city running errands, driving my children to summer camp, working my day job, and you know, the things that take time away from the simplest pleasures in the kitchen. Busy life. Sometimes there’s just toasted bread with almond butter rather than the grand idea of creating a special recipe or making homemade vegetable soup, if only to use up all of the richness from the open market. It seems I’m always in such a rush, watching the clock, the days, weeks, how they go so quickly.
I want to savor each day like a ripe plum eaten from the market stall.
Then I had a conversation with a man I met at a friend’s cafe about the importance of being present. He was a spiritual guide and counseled couples. He sat next to me during lunch and chatted about food, the appreciation of eating, and what is good for our soul. I expressed my understanding through nods to him and bites of my seaweed salad. He told me that he had gone to a meditation retreat once where the food was so marvelous, he actually tasted the love given to it. The chefs gave silent prayers over every dish as they created them in meditation. This made so much sense. After awhile, we really understood one another and everything he shared rang true.
“Today, standing in my kitchen, grinding fresh-roasted spices with a mortar and pestle, holding those ancient implements in my hands, watching, feeling, hearing, touching, inhaling and imagining my friends enjoying the flavors, I thought: This is it. This is life. What else could I want?” ~ Rob Ackerman
Love, the essence of it, whether it is self-love, maternal love or romantic, and all the many colors of love, is an essential ingredient. Your fingers, while cooking, infuse emotion, which is why I cannot allow myself to cook if I am sad, upset, frustrated or angry. For instance, at the end of a relationship, I over salted a quiche. It was inedible. Salt water is represented as tears during a Jewish Passover seder. I had cried more tears during that last year. It began to change my face and my cooking. We sat at the table that New Year’s Eve, pushing aside the quiche. He mumbled, pensive and downward glance. I sighed and looked away. Inedible. But in the springtime of our romance, all we did was cook and eat together.
There was once, like a ripe plum, juicy kisses and sweetness in his touch. But he never liked stone fruit. It bore a childhood memory of eating the rotten selection at his family fruit stand, because they didn’t have much, so his mother insisted that he and his brother and sister eat the mealy peaches, the bruised apricots, the sodden and moldy plums. It was all he knew of harvested fruit, and perhaps, love.
I’ve over-seasoned things, undercooked dishes, while tangled in muddy thoughts of depression, frustration, annoyance. In those cases, I could not serve dinner, nor would I feed my children and partner such disasters from moods where I could not add the taste of love, joy and happiness.
“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.”
~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
It comes through our fingers and hands, emotions. Being present and completely attending to the act of making something, such as a tart dough, is a meditation. You can give everything to it. You have the time. Being present brings us to the center of our heart.
The sweetness of ripe plums. It becomes love from the earth, from the tree, from the sun.
Part of this recipe is to give it love. I contemplate the happiest moments of my life while I cook and prepare. Pinch of salt, meditate on what I am grateful for and how am I using the difficulties I’ve had in the past to season my appreciation for where I am. Cup of sugar, the birth of each one of my children, witnessing their eyes opening for the first time, looking deeply into their newborn face. Pure joy. Add two teaspoons of vanilla, remembering the way my lover kisses the back of my neck so softly, feeling his warm hands upon my skin. Alright, add more of that vanilla, will you? To add kindness, don’t over mix your dough. Feel the texture with your fingers, skip the mixer.
Since the essential ingredient for this recipe asks for very ripe plums, please use them right away. Eat them in the kitchen as you decide upon exactly how you want to make this dessert. This is important: taste the plums first. If they aren’t anything special, consider blueberries or raspberries instead.
If you are overwhelmed and daunted by recipe given below, or maybe just too darn busy (I understand this), you can make a crumble rather than the tart. It’s a suggestion here, because I find that the plums, while so sultry and ready for you to eat, as lovers the throes of passion, cannot wait another moment. You must taste pleasure now.
Plum Tart with Hazelnut Crust
FOR THE PÂTE SABLÉE (Hazelnut Crust):
2 1/3 cups all-purpose whole wheat flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup hazelnut flour
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup coconut sugar
6 ounces French-style butter (such as Plugrà), plus more for greasing pan, at room temperature
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (always add more if you desire)
5 egg yolks
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon Chambord liqueur to thin the jam (optional)
½ cup plum jam (mixed berry jam if you can’t find plum)
5-6 ripe plums
powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)
ground hazelnuts, for dusting
To make the hazelnut flour: Place hazelnuts on a sheet pan lined with parchment and roast for 15 minutes. Keep your eyes on them, don’t let them burn, please. Roll the hazelnuts on the sheet pan by giving them a shake. When toasted, remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes. Place in a bag or a dish towel. Seal bag and gently roll over nuts with a rolling pin. Put the hazelnuts into a high speed blender (Vitamix) and pulse until a fine powder.
Make the pâte sablée: Sift flour, hazelnut flour and confectioners’ sugar into separate bowls. Place butter, salt and sifted all-purpose whole wheat flour in the bowl. Mix with your fingers and use your hands to crumble the butter until the flour and butter just come together. Add sifted hazelnut flour and confectioners’ sugar. Continue to crumble and mix with your fingers until ingredients are lightly fluffed and blended.
Here’s where it gets sticky and sensual. Add vanilla extract and egg yolks, mixing with your fingers until ingredients come together. Scrape dough out of bowl with your hands and a spatula. Press into a 1/2-inch-thick round shape. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight to rest.
Unwrap dough and cut into two equal pieces. Wrap one piece and refrigerate or freeze for use in another tart.
Prepare the tart shell:
Butter a 9-inch metal tart pan with a removable bottom very lightly and evenly. Place parchment paper on a work surface and dust lightly with flour. Pound the dough gently with a rolling pin to make it soft. Roll dough out carefully to about 1/4-inch thickness, frequently rotating it to roll evenly. Work it at a steady pace so the dough doesn’t warm up and get sticky. Dust with flour if necessary.
Cut a circle around with a knife that is a little larger than the tart pan. I use the tart ring as a guide by setting it on top of the dough. Keep the excess dough on the side for shaping the crust edges. Lightly dust dough with flour. Wrap dough loosely around rolling pin to lift it up from work surface, then immediately unroll it onto tart pan. You can also turn the tart pan upside down upon the dough and flip it into the pan.
Gently guide dough down the sides of the pan with your fingers, making sure that dough leaves no gap between the bottom edge of the sides of the pan and the bottom. Shape the edge of the crust by pressing and pinching the dough into the mold of the tart pan. Trim away excess dough hanging over edges. Refrigerate tart shell, uncovered, for at least 1 hour to rest, preferably overnight.
Assemble the tart: Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Remove tart shell from refrigerator. With a fork, poke holes in the dough, 1 inch apart.
Bake tart for 20 minutes, until crust is golden and the tip of a paring knife comes out clean when inserted. You can check on the tart shell to make sure it isn’t over-baked. You will want the crust to be like a shortbread cookie texture. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes.
Remove tart from the ring, leaving the base intact to support the tart. With a small spatula or brush, spread jam over surface in an even layer (If jam is too stiff to spread easily, place it in a small saucepan and warm it slightly first on top of the stove. A dash of Chambord liqueur gives it dimension and thins the jam).
Arrange fresh plums on the jammy surface. Just before serving, sprinkle with ground hazelnuts among the plums and dust with powdered sugar.
The tart is best when eaten the day it is made, but can be refrigerated for a day.
YIELD One 9-inch tart, plus dough for an additional tart shell
Adapted From Martha Rose Schulman’s “Raspberry Hazelnut Tart” recipe via original recipe from “The Art of French Pastry” by Jacquy Pfeiffer