When cooped up inside with braises and stews simmering away and time to spare, it is easy to lean into an appreciation of complex flavor combinations and involved technical practices. To be sure, I enjoy doing the math to figure out how my sourdough discard will affect the measuring of other ingredients in a recipe when engineering something new or gathering an armful of spices to get just the right mix for a curry. Project baking and complicated cooking are where my mind tends to live. But while these capital C Cooking Endeavors are the hallmark of winter for the culinarily inclined, my mind has been in a space of reverence typically reserved for summer: pure produce.
While I am acutely aware that it is only due to the globalization of our markets and chemical engineering (for better and for worse) that this is possible, it is this anachronism of a perfect pear in February that has me even more in awe than usual. Of course, even with all the modern technology that gets that pear to my plate without rotting, there are plenty of less-than-ideal ones out there. Mealy. Bland. Tough. No matter how humans may try, produce will do what it does, and occasional imperfection is unavoidable.
So, when one is blessed with a perfect pear, supple, sweet, and juicy, it is a gift. It’s an event. Same with a mango, peach, or plum (especially a plum). You can squeeze the sides and inspect the flesh all you want, but even a fruit that seems perfect on the outside can fake you out and deliver a whole lotta nothing in flavor. Then there you are, stuck with the rest of an orange that cannot be un-peeled but is not especially orange-y.
But that particular occurrence is rarer these days, because while they’re not exactly local, it is still citrus season. The prime time to be transported to warm places by means of lemon bars and key lime pie after shoveling the driveway and dreaming of days when going outside didn’t involve donning four layers of clothing. With this in mind, I made sure to pick up some extras in that department during my most recent grocery run. Not sure what exactly their future would hold, I grabbed a grapefruit big enough to double as a weapon, and a handful of mid-sized oranges so titularly vibrant they seemed to be asking to be in a photoshoot for a trendy magazine. These would round out the bag of clementines still knocking around the fridge (somehow not at a youth soccer game where they are most at home) and the mountains of lemons and limes picked up at BJ’s for their multifaceted acidity delivering abilities.
Armed with citrus inspiration, I honored it that night with a bountiful salad to accompany some steamed salmon filets that were also picked up that day, a shopping expedition treat. A combo of radicchio and romaine made a dappled bed for sections of grapefruit, accompanied by some thinly sliced cucumber, radish, and carrot, and a handful of roasted edamame to round it out with some more substantial crunch. The whole thing was brought to life with a dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, orange juice, grated ginger, white and cayenne pepper, and some poppy and sesame seeds. Alongside the salmon, seasoned simply with some salt and pepper and steamed with some ginger and lemon halves that were squeezed over the filets at the end, it was a cohesive celebration of the simple power of good citrus. Even the produce-less sauce made to go over the salmon of maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger served as a great compliment to the bright, and in the grapefruit, bitter flavors from the fruit. But it was by no means necessary to enjoy it. The next day for lunch I added some perfectly supple mango to make it even more of a fruit celebration. The almost gelatinous cubes of mango, bursting with sweetness, met with triangles of cutting grapefruit in a jungle of greens and veg for an energizing mid-day treat. At the end of it all, I savored some mango that didn’t make it into the bowl for fear of overcrowding, taking my time with what is probably my favorite fruit when so ideally ripe.
But the larger fruits, what we call hand fruit in this house, don’t hog all my reverence for themselves. My daily bowl of oatmeal speckled with berries is its own kind of art. Sure, I am a huge fan of oats, and part of the bowl’s joy is certainly in the whole oats’ chew and mild nutty flavor, ever so lightly adorned with a hit of cinnamon and maple sugar or honey. But it’s the mix of berries that are the most important and most cherished addition. We usually keep around a couple different kinds. Almost always blueberries, probably some strawberries, either a small container of raspberries or blackberries. Recently I dabbled in gooseberries, which were a delight. Every weekday, after my morning workout, I gather what we have and assemble a colorful array atop my oats in an unnecessary but pleasingly exacting design. It stays warm while I shower covered by my yellow gingham napkin, and when I return the berries have lightly steamed in a way that accentuates their favorable traits. The blueberries in particular plump up, making their skins taught, shiny, and deepening their blue/purple color. The miniscule drupelets that smoosh together to form the body of raspberries and blackberries seem to expand, too, tempting me to pop each one individually with a needle in bubble wrap-like satisfaction. But daily, I resist, and after a thorough gaze and a thoughtful couple of sniffs, I mix them together, bursting some bubbles along the way and streaking sweet juices throughout. On its face it could seem like a monotonously simple routine, oatmeal for breakfast every day. But the beauty of the berries – never quite the same in their size, shape, texture or flavor and always their own unique wonder of simple but satisfying flavor – makes it an easy routine to keep.
When food and cooking is a large part of your life, there can be pressure to be highly experimental, unexpected, and complicated. There is a line to toe between indulging interest and appreciating the many possibilities of food, and getting too in your head, over-intellectualizing, and complicating to the point where the basics are lost. And indeed, the quest to globalize our plates is valuable work that can involve a lot of such intellectual work in meal plan and prep. But when inspirational reserves are running low and a meal turns from a joyful task to a taxing chore, a return to the unadorned fruits of the earth is a respite in which one can always find gratitude, interest, and unabashed joy.