Ari's Five Foods

5 Foods for the Week of October 26, 2009

Hi all!

Greetings and good wishes from the middle of October. Can’t say I’m personally wild about winter approaching but the leaves are beautiful and there’s all that great food for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the holidays coming up.

Congrats to everyone on the Christmas Cookie Club release, the coffee roaster firing up in its new spot, candy bar sales booming across the country, the busiest day in 28 years at the Deli this past weekend, the successful start of welcoming the holiday staff to Mail Order for the season and a few hundred other great accomplishments that I’m failing to list here. While we’ve definitely got some spots that we’re pulling together to build sales in still, overall, things seems to be moving forward in positive ways (I’m generalizing so please know that I know where trends are still tight and am working hard to be of help…). So… although I’m really here to write about food, somehow I let my mind move onto leadership and looking ahead to the coming months. So apologies for that—if you want to get the culinary stuff you can skip down to the bit on baguettes below.

In the bigger picture organizational sense though, it’s been striking me of late that most (not all) of the pundits now seem to spending their time arguing over whether the economy is getting better or not (as opposed to arguing over how much worse it’s going to get). Under which circumstances it would be easy to get a bit of that feeling of relief, of having “made it” through the toughest times, and of starting to let up a little. I can’t say for anyone else but I know I’m vulnerable to a bit of that. Which is why, in all seriousness, I’m very committed to myself and to you to going into the next ten weeks of holiday season at higher than ever energy levels (yes, adjusted for health issues, thank you J), and of pushing myself to help bring everything we do to higher levels than ever. In truth, having gone back and reread the essay (working on a “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading” book) I did a year or so ago on how I thought we should handle our response to the economy, I realized that everything in it is still equally appropriate. The same stuff—pushing for ever better food, ever greater service, the spirit of generosity, a better than ever workplace, guarding our margins, etc.—is all as totally true now as it was twelve months ago. Which just stands to remind us of what we knew then and I think know now and everyone here is already committed to—that our job is always to do what we’re already supposed to be doing better than ever every day, regardless of harried headlines and assorted economic ups and downs.

So, not that you actually asked me, but if you did, I’d say the next few months are the time to work harder than ever to take better care of customers and coworkers and to push our food quality levels to new heights. To me, that often means actually acting on those little feelings we’ve got inside that tell us that something we make or do or manage could be better, even though we’re not getting much urgent pressure to change it. It’s hard to do because, realistically, no matter what the improvement is, we know we’re going to meet a fair bit of resistance when we go after it. This isn’t glamorous work. Later of course everyone will tell you/us how smart it was but in the moment, the truth is it’s almost always less stressful to stick with the status quo than to constructively challenge ourselves to get better and then get people on board to do what needs to be done. Just for fun, I’ve reattached what I wrote last fall. Still seems pretty relevant to me nearly twelve months later. Given that it’s basically what we’ve been doing since we opened in ’82, it’ll probably be equally relevant next fall too. And the fall after that as well.

One element of that essay, and of what we’ve done since day one, is to live the spirit of generosity—to give more to folks around us first rather than waiting to get something for ourselves before we give. Speaking of which, although Wall St. bonus levels seem to be right back where they were there are still a lot of people out there in need, who don’t have jobs or food or a place to live, let alone a big bonus. Any way one wants to give help is good, of course, and in the moment, I’ll just add here that there are (I think) a few seats left for the Vampire’s Ball on Wednesday night. Elizabeth Kostova is flying in from Asheville for the event to read from her soon to be released new novel, Swan Thieves. The event helps everyone at Food Gatherers to fund feeding folks in need in our community and every ticket sold does make a difference. Even if you’re out of town or already booked for that evening and can’t make it to the event, there’s no reason not to buy a ticket and help support folks in need. For more details see the Vampire’s Ball details on the Roadhouse site or to go

There’s probably not all that much in the preceding paragraphs that you haven’t already thought on your own, or heard from someone else you work with. Apologies if I’m being repetitive. It’s a good problem—one I’m deeply appreciative of—to be around so many hundreds of people here that are going after great things day in and day out. It’s not the norm in the world, but it’s the only way I’d want to work. Thanks for the chance to be part of it.

Anyways, enough of that non-culinary nonsense—here are five foods that are active in my brain, poked into and played with as it’s been of late.

See you all soon!


1. Ever Better Baguettes

Speaking of doing the unglamorous work to take what’s already good to higher levels… If you haven’t had one of the French baguettes at the Bakehouse of late, I’d really encourage you to make time to taste. I had one the other day that really was so darned good as to get me to give it a 10, which as you know, I don’t do too casually. Ok, I mean it probably wasn’t totally perfect so maybe it was a 9.8 or 9.7 if I was being picky. But in practical terms… it was good enough that I ate half of the one I bought that morning even though I wasn’t really even hungry. Which, I guess, in a down to earth, very practically sense, what a ten is to me. It means that I want to eat (or drink) more just because it’s so darned good. A 10 is when I want to call (or email) everyone I think would be interested to tell them—which, in this case, I did, first by just telling most anyone I ran into that I thought would be interested in baguettes. And then by starting to write this piece later in the day.

In the context of the economic setting… last spring I was sitting with Frank outside at the Bakehouse… sun was out… can’t remember if we were actually there together for some specific reason or whether we just happened to run into each other. Anyways, for whatever karmic causes brought us together we were sitting out there chatting and Frank says, “You know, I think it’s safe to say that in the middle of all this economic craziness, we’re pretty much the only bakery in the country that’s working on how to spend more on labor to go back to hand rolling baguettes.” I haven’t done any scientific sampling of America’s better bakeries, but I’m pretty confident he’s correct. I’m glad we were though because the results of the work to rewind the technological clock have actually brought the already good baguettes to much higher levels. Than they’ve ever been.

The bottom line of all this is that we continued apace at the Bakehouse, and have, indeed, gone back to the older style of hand rolling every baguette. While machine rolling isn’t inherently evil or anything, doing the baguettes by hand, while more time consuming and hence more costly, is slightly but noticeably, better for the bread. The “crumb” retains just a bit more texture, stays slightly more open (that’s a good thing!) and we keep a lot of little nuances of flavor that are lost in the machine rolling.

Mind you, it’s not like the Bakehouse baguettes were bad before—they’ve been pretty darned good for the decade or more we’ve been making them. But they really did go up a notch when we reverted to the older way of hand rolling. You can ask pretty much anyone at the Bakehouse and they’re going to tell you the same thing. Being the history major and something of alliteration addict (there, I did again)… I’ve come to think of this as a French revolution revisited—it’s part of our constant push to take techniques and flavors back closer to the way (a good way of course! I know there was lousy bread, bad candy bars, crummy cheese or whatever else a hundred years ago just as there is now) the best of the best would have tasted “back in the day!”

So, what’s a 10 or 9.7 baguette like? Well, start with the feel. The crust is substantial but not dry, not leathery, not too thick. It breaks nicely, but it’s not so crisp as to be brittle and completely shatter (like, by contrast, a good croissant should). When you look at it it’s going to have what we call a really nice hole structure—lots of pretty broad, big (for a baguette) holes so the bread looks… like a big wild honeycomb on drugs? When you smell it there’s a really nice milkiness—there’s no milk in the bread, mind you, just this amazing aroma. When you taste it you’ll get a touch of sweetness (though no sugar is added). When you eat it you’ll get a really great creaminess, just the right amount of salt (this is a small but critical component), sweet at the end, savory throughout.

Hopefully you’ll get to taste one of these some time soon. Be glad to taste with you and appreciate the handwork that all the bakers have put into getting these to ever-higher levels.

2. Masia el Altet Olive Oil from Spain

Can’t remember who it was that asked me, but it was a question about which kind of cooking would be the one I eat the most of most of the time. The obvious answer is that, while I’m interested in, and enjoy, all kinds of food, Mediterranean cooking is still what I’m inclined to more than any other. Not saying other cuisines aren’t equally great, or even better in many ways, but for me… when it comes down to it the Mediterranean stuff is still what I cook more often than anything else. Which would is why it shouldn’t be very surprising that I keep coming back to olive oil in my eating and in my writing. So, with that as preface, while neither the world at large, nor us in particular, are hardly in need of another olive oil we just got one in that’s really creepily good (sorry – hard to hold back on silly Halloween references this time of year)… Anyways, seriously, this oil is scarily good and refreshingly different and… devilishly delicious. And plus I like it.

The Masia el Altet is the very first olive oil we’ve brought over from the province of Valencia, on Spain’s east coast. By name, most people here would more likely know it because it gave of the oranges that bear its name, and then secondarily since it serves as the home of paella, which (after 20-something years of teaching about it) we’re sort of the Midwest capital of. (See the Spanish rice chapter in the Guide to Good Eating for much more on this. I’m very high on the Calasparra Bomba rice if you’re headed that way in your cooking soon. More info available on request!) If you’re into nature, Valencia is home to some pretty amazing nature preserves with pretty spectacular birds. In truth though it’s really a rarely visited part of Spain, certainly not one known for its olive oils. This stuff could start to change that though. It’s really one of the best tasting, most distinctive oils (to my taste at least) I’ve tried in a while.

The first time I tried the Masia el Altet oil was, I think, at the Alimentaria food fair in Barcelona a few years back. As at all of these shows nowadays, there was way more food on display than anyone in their right mind could really process or parse or properly put in their mouths. The olive oil stand alone, seriously, I think had like seventy-eight different oils or something like that. Given that there’s always a couple really great ones woven in with what is otherwise often just OK and that you really can’t tell much of anything from the bottle or label alone, the only way to find the few really special ones is to taste. Which is easy to say, but of course, even for me, tasting 78 oils is a bit daunting, if not downright next to impossible. I think I went back like every day for the three or four days that I was at the show and tried to sample my way through the stack.

Of course that’s not really an ideal way to do it –they say you’re not supposed to taste more than like six or seven oils at a time, but at that rate it’d have taken me night on two weeks and I only had a couple of days. The problem with tasting that many such a short time frame… it’s not all that easy to do and not lose track of what’s good, palate fatigue and mental mindlessness and plus sometimes I start to think that what I’ve tasted is good or not so good and… then …. who knows? Anyways, what I do when something does taste good is go back and retaste later in the afternoon, or even the next day—it’s not uncommon that what tastes good to me on Monday just doesn’t hit the spot in the same way when I go back and try it again on Tuesday and can be tasting worse still on Wednesday. The foods that fall from favor in that way, are, I guess the false reads, the bad leads, the oils that we just don’t’ need. On the other hand, there are always a few – the needles in the holistic haystack of the food world—that taste really good on Monday, seem even more special when you try them again on Tuesday, and are still seeming really wonderful on Wednesday. Those, to state the sort of obvious, are the ones we want here! The Masia el Altet met that test.

Now people who don’t work here might well think that the tasting is sort of the end of it—we find a good product, and, almost instantaneously it’s on our shelves. But of course in the real world it’s actually rarely that simple. I won’t bore you with all the gory (damn, that Halloween thing again) details but let’s just say that two years, a lot of work by a lot of people on our end and back in Valencia, an economic crisis, a presidential election, a Candy Manufactory, a Christmas Cookie Club and a thousand other things under our belts later… the oil has arrived in Ann Arbor. And the good news to me is that it tastes as good or actually even a touch better to me now that it’s here than it did back in Barcelona a few years ago.

Part of what I like about the Masia el Altet oil is that, aside from being just plain good, it’s also pretty darned different in flavor from really most any other oil I can remember trying. Everyone’s taste is, of course, his or her own, but to me, the Masia is pretty uniquely flavorful stuff. It’s got a bit of the green olivey thing that I like in early harvest oils, a touch of what people in the trade call “green tomato,” a fair bit of high notes and a touch of nice sweetness without as much of the “bass” that you get with say Tuscan oils (not dissing Tuscan oils—I love ’em. This is just different.) There’s a touch, though it’s subtle, bit of pepper at the end. Above and beyond all else it just has this totally seriously extremely large banana note to it that comes out best when you pour it on hot bread, that, in a good way, I can’t get out of my mind… I mean, I know “banana” sounds sort of silly or pretentious probably, but, really, I’m not joking. It’s delicious. I love it. It’s strangely, in a very good way, tropical.

Of course there’s more here than just interesting notes of banana in a tall glass bottle. Here’s the scoop on what makes the Masia al Altet oil… so good. Sergio Perez-Borbujo, who’s been our contact at the Masia from the get go, said that, “Our property is located among two natural parks as Sierra de Mariola and Font Roja. Our olives trees are in altitude around 830 meters (about 2500 feet) above the sea level. Besides of that, we deal with very short springs and autumns, temperate summers and cold winters. As we are in a spectacular outlook, all mornings begin with a pure dew which falls into the soil, making the olive trees opened up.”

(I know that some of Sergio’s writing isn’t all grammatically, Englishtically, correct but, I’ve left it as is because I think it gets the point across and I like it cuz it actually portrays his passion for his product and that’s such a huge piece of what has helped keep me pushing down the path of getting the oil here in the first place )

Going on then… he offered up that, “Our property is surrounded by mountains, pines, oaks, savins, junipers, sage, thyme, rosemary, mint… We have around 14.000 olive trees. Our work is carried out using a system of not working the open ground, with the application of biodegradable and non-residual herbicides in a small space of time. The planting space is seven meters by seven meters with periodic foliar analyses being performed during the vegetative cycle to detect and correct any nutrient deficiencies with the intention of maintaining the tree and its fruit in the best (of) conditions.”

Sounds a bit scientific to my history person’s brain but… the main points, I think, are:

a) it’s a beautiful place,
b) they’re not breaking up the soil or doing a lot of fertilizing, and
c) they’re using low intensity, wide row spacing.

The first point adds a lot to the aesthetic and says a lot about what the area adds to the visual appeal; the latter two are generally related to the quality, (though of course, as always they’re only a few of the fifteen hundred factors that contribute to quality). making for a costlier but more flavorful oil.

Sergio then went on to say that, “Fertilization is carried out through a drip system and by means of foliar applications. The detection of any type of pest is monitored daily using bait spread through the farm, and, for its elimination, products offered on the market with the least amount impact on the environment and fauna are used. Such cultural cautions allow the production of impeccable fruits free of any type of insect bite or fungus.” I.e., they’re using “Integrated Pest Management” techniques—if they do spray it’s extremely minimal.

Going back to the actual trees, the Altet folks are growing a mix of Spain’s two primary olive varieties—first and foremost Picual which is about two thirds of what goes into the oil, and then some Arbequina which is typical of Catalunya to the north. What clearly contributes though to the unique flavor of the oil are other three varieties that are in the mix, a trio that’s particular to the Valencia area— Alfafarenca, Genovesa, and Blanqueta. All five types of olives are picked relatively early in the season which, as you likely already know, means lower yield, bigger flavor, higher polyphenols and really good green, fruity flavors. And in this case, as I mentioned up front, a big bit of banana!

Background wise… the oil, as is true of any number of great oils these days, has been inspired and developed by someone whose initial career is elsewhere. In this case, it’s Jorge Petit, an attorney by formal training, who happens to have fallen in love with olive trees. As Sergio shares the story, “Jorge found villages very close by to where he was living with a beautiful landscape. He bought the land immediately. He started to rebuild and refurbish suddenly and he had around 70 hectares into the natural park. He did not know exactly what to plant, but his father-in-law convinced him to grow up some olive trees. He went down to Andalucia for buying the olive tress and he started to study intensively. He had no clue what is going on, but he asked for advices for growing. Pretty clearly he got good advice, and he was also able to put it to good use. He takes great pride in the oil and puts a lot of energy into it.” As Sergio said, “Jorge wakes up very early in the morning by driving through the fields. He treats each olive trees as unique. Although he’s an avocat (that would be “lawyer ” in Spanish) by trade,” Sergio said smilingly, “this oil is one of his eternal passions. He loves it as a ‘professional hobby.’ In a completely grammatically incorrect but supremely lovable and I think pretty effective way, Sergio added, “He is calling THE MAD OF THE OIL.”

Because the flavor of the oil is so distinctive, I can’t say I’d use it on everything. More than anything I’ve been eating it just on Paesano toast where its uniqueness comes through, and it can have center stage to itself. It’s also surprisingly good on anchovies, and also on toast topped with sliced apples or pears from the market. The Altet oil is big enough though to hold its own nicely with meat—a broiled or grilled steak or lamb or pork chop with a good brushing of the oil on top would be quite darned good I’d say. And of course you could just dip a good sized bit of a hand-rolled baguette in a little bowl of it and… that’d be a good way to start just about any autumn meal.

3. Pickled Lemons from Tunisia

Two years ago, the only time I’d have eaten pickled (or preserved) lemons was if I was eating out at a Moroccan restaurant. But as I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of these—one of the like twenty-two really great things we’re getting from the Mahjoub family—I’ve started to use them with ever greater frequency to the point where they’ve actually evolved into a steady staple in my kitchen. They’re just one of those things you can keep in the cabinet and add to all sorts of dishes whenever you want to contribute a little extra character to your meal.

If you’re not already familiar with them, pickled (or “preserved”) lemons are a staple of North African cookery. People like Duff, who’ve traveled to Morocco, will certainly have had them there, and it turns out folks in Tunisia rely them on as well. The pickled lemons are the latest—after the harissa, couscous, wild orange marmalade, sauces, capers, olives, etc.—of their foods to catch my attention. I want to say that the lemons are like a second sun to Tunisian cooking, coming up quietly, but actually really brightly, behind that spicy red, sun dried harissa that I’m so hooked on. Majid Mahjoubs says that, “Preserved lemon and harissa are the principal protagonists of the Tunisian cuisine! Both of them have their roots deeply in our nation’s heart and soul!” Either way, the point is that while harissa is clearly the lead, preserved lemons aren’t exactly laying around waiting for life to happen to them. They’re a pretty prominent piece of Tunisian cooking and their tart, terrific brightness brings a really unique bit of flavor to anything you add them too.

You can, of course, actually make these lemons at home too if you’re up for it. Paula Wolfert has written extensively about them in, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.” The Mahjoubs pack these handpicked Tunisian lemons into barrels with sea salt, then leave the covered barrels in the sun for over six months for the lemons to cure. As with most all their products, this is the ways the work has been done for centuries. Personally I’m good with letting the Mahjoubs to do the work for me—given the quality of their work, all I have to do is buy a jar, take it home, open it and then cut a lemon into cubes to use in salads, sauces, pastas, scallops, chicken or really pretty much anything you like. Sliced and stuffed into, over or under fresh fish of all sorts before roasting or broiling is excellent. They’re great on the sandwich Tunisienne—tuna, harissa, olive oil, olives, capers, and chopped up bits of the preserved lemon on a baguette. I’m tempted to try using them instead of fresh lemons in the Lex’s Chicken Recipe that’s in the “Guide to Good Eating”—if you beat me to the punch, let me know how it comes out.

The bottom line of these lemons is that they add a really great little bit of zip and zest to whatever you put ’em into. A couple of folks who write a lot about North African cooking have referred to them as “their secret ingredient.” Which makes sense to me… as with the harissa, they’ve got a flavor that’s familiar enough for me to be comfortable with it (chiles, olive oil and spices in the harissa; lemons here), but that the preparations are so amazingly unique—Tunisian twists on what seem like they should be “everyday eating” that I get to use at home to take my cooking into a really different, kind of familiar, but then again totally new, playing field. I’ve eaten them a few times in the last couple weeks cut into small pieces then tossed with just cooked pasta (Rustichella fettucine and Martelli spaghetti are high on my list for this) with fish—swordfish, scallops, or actually tinned sardines or anchovies if you’re working in a pinch out of the pantry. The pickled lemons are also a great garnish for a Harissa Mary—add the Mahjoubs spicy, sun-dried harissa sauce to tomato juice, and then serve with a wedge of pickled lemon lying on top. Hard to go wrong if you like the lift that the lemons give.

Long story short, one of the easiest ways I know to add a lot of life to your cooking for a really minimal amount of work, and this time of year in particular I’m always up for a little extra zest and brightness!

4. Sam Edwards’ Traditional Virginia Country Ham

Although I wasn’t actually there two hundred years ago to have tasted in person, I’ll speculate with a pretty high degree of certitude that this is the kind of cured pork that made Virginia famous for country ham back in the early years of the colonial era. Unfortunately for the state’s ham standards, Sam Edwards is really the only one left doing it at any kind of commercial scale the traditional way. While the “Smithfield ham” name is still protected, it’s most all about where the ham is made—Smithfield County—which happens to be completely dominated by probably the LARGEST pork producer in the world, and the hams that now bear the name, to me, lack the complexity and greatness that the Edwards’ much more traditionally cured pork offers.

What we’ve got here by contrast, is done the way Sam’s grandfather did it a hundred years ago. The hogs were slaughtered around Christmas, cured in salt for two months, smoked over green hickory and aged at ambient temperatures for a year. These particular hams are from a limited edition run that are made from the more flavorful Berkshire pork Sam was able to buy from the Newman family out in Missouri. After aging for nearly a year, the flavor is really darned fine—a touch tangier and I think slightly less smoky than Nancy Newsom’s Kentucky hams, but with the same sort of nicely balanced, not at all too salty, really rich, long lingering flavor.

Carlos at the Deli has arranged for a couple dozen of these hams to be on hand for the holidays. They Deli crew are slicing off the bone to order and it really is darned good. As with all the good cured hams we’ve got (and there are a lot of them),

  • Buying small amounts as close to the time you serve is the way to go. Keeps the flavors and aromas intact.
  • Serving at room temperature is essential—if the ham is served cold, straight from the fridge, we’re missing out on half the flavor.
  • A little bit goes a long ways. A couple ounces are probably plenty to put out as an appetizer for three or four people. (Not that they couldn’t eat more but… )

As the interest in good cheese has grown and grown over the years, I’m pretty convinced that cured ham could, should and will follow the same path to popularity. Cured hams, like these from Sam Edwards, have all the same things going for them that good cheeses do—they’re totally traditional, the flavors are really big, a little bit goes a really long ways, and because the making and curing is done by craftspeople (in this case Sam and his crew down in Surry), all you and I have to do is buy a bit, let it come to room temperature and then serve it.

With all that in mind, I’m an ever-stronger proponent of getting people to put together ham boards when they entertain in exactly the same way that they do cheese boards. It really couldn’t be much easier—just pick out three or four cured hams (or bacons—the Hungarian double smoked bacon, pancetta, lardo, etc. are all excellent in their natural raw state.) So… if you’re thinking of something good to serve during the season give some good thought to sticking a some nice slices of Sam’s ham out on a board along with a couple of the products of his cured pork compatriots to bring home the healthy contrast of flavors and textures that make the world of good food such a good place to be.

(For more on Sam and his family, you can see the stuff in “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon.” You can also sample the quality of their work in their dry cured bacon and breakfast sausage. And for a quick look at Sam’s grandfather cradling a country ham pretty much just like the ones I’m writing about here (but half a century ago), look to the big photo on the wall when you walk into the far room at the Roadhouse.)

5. Paw Paw Gelato from the Creamery

I think I wrote about this last year so I hesitate to include it here again but… .the paw paw gelato is such a unique and special addition to what we do that I don’t want to miss the chance to put it out there in front of folks again. From pretty much every angle—the flavor, the story behind the fruit, the exceptional efforts by Rodger at the Deli to get us the paw paws, Josh at the Creamery to turn the ripe fruit into really good gelato, and everyone around the ZCoB to talk about and give tastes of something pretty much no one around Ann Arbor has heard of—it’s special stuff.

I can’t actually remember, but I think this is our third year of making and selling the paw paw gelato. Regardless of when we actually started, though it’s already pretty clear to me that this old time American fruit is going to become a big Zingerman’s fall tradition. Wait five or ten years and paw paws will be as much a ritual of autumn around here as paella making in September, round challahs and honey cake for Rosh Hashanah and roasting peppers from Cornman Farms. It’s hard to miss really—how can you not be biased towards a Native American fruit called a paw paw? And who doesn’t like ice cream? Gotta love too that they’re also known as the Prairie Banana the Hoosier Bananas, or the Poor Man’s Banana. How about a Prairie Banana Split with toasted black walnuts and good whipped cream, and a little chopped fresh paw paw to put it over the top?

The paw paw is really my kind of culinary underdog—the mass marketing world would rule this one out pretty quickly. The poor paw paw is hard to grow and, despite its long history, very few people in the US have really ever eaten it. Like a lot of the old fruits, the amount of work required to grow ’em vs. the yield in picked, ripe paw paws isn’t all that great. It doesn’t ship well and shelf life is short so you can’t keep it in the cooler indefinitely. From a growing standpoint it’s challenging too because it’s got a long taproot so saplings are hard to transplant. Like I said, you can see why it long ago fell out of favor with most fruit growers.

On the upside once you get a paw paw successfully planted it’s apparently low maintenance. If you’re buying on nutrition they’re really high in vitamin c, riboflavin, niacin, and magnesium. Apparently paw paw stems and leaves are great natural pesticides. And they’re easier than many fruits to grow organically. There’s also a town named Paw Paw right here in Michigan. In fact, Paw Paw is where Malinda Russel, author of the first African-American cookbook published in America lived (there are a few copies of the limited edition reprint of the book for sale at the Roadhouse—it’s an exceptional gift for anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing). If you’re really ready to get seriously on the not particularly well traveled paw paw path, note that Kentucky State University has the only full time paw paw program in the country.

Paw paws do have a pretty profound history. Native to North America, the first recorded notes on them are from the 1541 expedition of Hernando de Soto. Lewis and Clark ate a lot of them—Meriwether Lewis wrote in his diary from September 15, 1806: “We landed one time only to let the men gather Pawpaws or the custard apple of which this country abounds, and the men are very fond of.” While George Washington is famous for chopping down the cherry tree, I’m not sure how he felt about eating cherries. By contrast it’s well recorded that the paw paw was his favorite dessert! Thomas Jefferson—culinary leader that he was—had them grown at Monticello. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but they’re also featured in “Jungle Book.” They’re in the “Bare Necessities” song, where Baloo the Bear compares them to a prickly pear: “… you don’t need to use a claw when you pick a pair of big pawpaws.”

To give you a better sense of the visuals, paw paw trees grow from about 10 to 20 feet in height. They have long dark green, sort of droopy-eared leaves. In fact they’re the largest edible fruit that grows in North America—biggest paw paw ever recorded was 18 inches across. They look a bit like a mango I guess, but in pear green-colored flesh. The fruits are ripe when their skin gets a bit darker and the perfume is more pronounced. If you get some that aren’t ready to eat, just leave them lie (or put ’em in a paper bag) for a bit to ripen up. When they are ripe, you take the skins off and mash up the pulp. Like avocados the pulp will brown up pretty quickly so keep refrigerated and away from air. One challenge is that you have to get the seeds out. (Thanks josh!) Seeds look a bit like lima beans and you don’t eat them. Fortunately they’re big enough that getting them out isn’t horribly onerous, just a significant pain the… paw paw. You can make the puree into custard, pastry cream, paw paw pie, or… gelato. I have to say that I’m happy we have the gelato because it makes it really easy to eat this somewhat challenging in our speed focused modern world.

Aside from all that which is already pretty intriguing, the interesting thing with paw paws is that I can’t quite put my finger (or maybe, my paw?) on exactly how to describe the flavor. I’ve been thinking that the paw paw could possibly be the North America equivalent of passion fruit. Turns out that I wasn’t all that wrong—they’re a distant relative of the tropical Cherimoya. Slightly citrusy, kind of custardy when ripe. The flavor’s not strong. But it is rather smoothly persuasive, never pervasive or intrusive. Got maybe a hint of lime, a little vanilla, a papaya, maybe a touch of the taste of ripe pear. The main thing here of course is that the paw paw gelato is pretty special. Light but luscious, if you can cope with not having chocolate, it’s really something special both in its history and its flavor. Ask for a taste for sure next time you see us!

5 Other Things to Know

1. The coffee roaster is up and running in its new home at Zingerman’s Southside, just up the “road” from the Creamery and Bakehouse. Our ever more interesting pre-historic Zing-warehouse district. What was once a few thousand square feet of Bakehouse with one oven, Frank, Amy and a few other folks from the opening Bakehouse crew back in ’92 now includes, the Bakehouse, BAKE, CAKE, coffee roasting, the Creamery, the Candy Manufactory, the ZingTrain training space, and of course the whole ZingNet crew. If it takes a village, I think we’re on our way. The Coffee Co’s new retail and brew space should be opening some time in the next month or so. stay tuned for more.

2. Although tomato season is over fresh mozzarella at the Deli and Creamery is still as good as ever paired up with some of the great peppers out at the market. A couple minutes of roasting plus 30 seconds of peeling and you’re ready roll. Just slice the cheese and the peppers and top with some good olive oil, sea salt and Telicherry pepper. If you don’t want to roast buy a jar of the Spanish Piquillo peppers, or better still the pretty amazing Cristals. Either way, no reason to let one’s taste for fresh mozzarella lapse. Be great as a sandwich on one of those really good French baguettes too.

3. Speaking of gelato the Indonesian Cinnamon and the Pumpkin gelati are also out for the fall. Both are pretty great I think—stick em next to a slice of Bakehouse pie. Also don’t forget that we’re now shipping gelato – it makes a really good gift any time, definitely something different for the holiday table or for football games I guess too.

4. Second printing of the Bacon book is in the works so that we don’t run out at the holidays. Thanks to everyone who’s helped sell so many copies already.

5. Got kids and looking for a full flavored, safe and sound way to get ready for Halloween. The Deli has its 4th annual Halloween Hootenanny tomorrow night. Ask for a taste of the paw paw gelato while you’re there!