In my personal life, I crave stability. You could count the number of serious boyfriends I’ve had on one hand. (Actually, Rahm Emmanual could count the number of serious boyfriends I’ve had on one hand.) I’ve lived in the same metropolitan area for the past ten years. After my judicial clerkships, I’ve had exactly one full-time legal job. In short, I tend to shy away from change.
But, in my passions and hobbies, I crave novelty. When I was a knitter, my interest was almost exclusively in learning new skills. I wanted to learn how to make lace, then cables, then bobbles, then intarsia. Each project I undertook was designed to teach me some new technique. I’m the same way about cooking. I took up canning three summers ago because it was a relatively obscure skill that not too many people knew. (As it turns out, my interest in canning coincided with its renaissance, which has allowed me to find easily all the supplies I need and to be a part of a lively canning community.) Recently, I’ve gotten interested in cake-decorating and bread-baking. I always want to tackle some new area.
I’m the same way with ingredients. The more unusual and unfamiliar an ingredient is, the more I want to try to make something with it. That’s one of the things that I love about the farmers’ market: there is always some weird new ingredient on offer. (Sometimes I suspect that this new food they are charging me $6 for is what the farmers used to feed to the hogs, but no matter.) In the past few years, I’ve learned what to do with garlic scapes, wild ramps, tayberries, rhubarb, currants (both black and red), tomatillos and squash blossoms — none of which are ingredients that I remember eating as a child. The truth is, when I see something new or rare or otherwise obscure at the farmers’ market, I simply cannot resist it. I will plunk down my money then and there and figure out what to do with it when I get home.
So was it when I saw gooseberries at the Oak Park farmers’ market this Saturday morning. One small stand had exactly two pints of the pale green berries for sale. I made a beeline for them. “Oh look, gooseberries!” I heard someone exclaim. “Not any more,” I said through clenched teeth as I elbowed the poor man out of the way. (My husband’s cousin who was visiting from California retold that story several times over the course of the weekend.) I snapped up the two pints and reveled in my triumph.
“What are you going to do with them?” was my husband’s question when I got home. Good question. What was I going to do with them? My go-to fruit dessert cookbook, Rustic Fruit Desserts, was surprisingly silent on the subject of gooseberries. (Surprising because gooseberries seem like such an old-fashioned, Ma Ingalls kind of ingredient and this cookbook is full of old-fashioned, Ma Ingalls kind of desserts, like brown bettys and pan-dowdys.) My research revealed that a fool is a fairly classic thing to make with gooseberries, but as a fool is essentially sweetened fruit layered with whipped cream, that dessert would not have been friendly for my dairy-allergic Zuzu. I contemplated making a gooseberry jam, but the little girls who had been at the farmers’ market with me when I bought the gooseberries, namely Zuzu and her second cousins, wanted to eat the gooseberries, not can them. So, ultimately, I decided to make gooseberry pie.
For those of you not familiar with gooseberries, they are small, firm, round berries that are related to currants and also to tomatillos. (Many people think tomatillos are related to tomatoes, but not so.) Gooseberries can be pale green or reddish purple. They have a tart flavor that has an unusual minerality. (Sometimes dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc, is described as having a gooseberry flavor and I think it is this mineral flavor that people are referring to.) My adult pie-tasters tried to describe the flavor of the gooseberries without any real success. I tasted a resemblance to currants. One guest felt that the berries tasted almost like a sour grape. All of us agreed that it was like nothing else we had ever tasted and we loved it.
To prepare gooseberries for cooking, you need to remove the stem and the blossom, i.e, the “top and tail.” I’m not going to lie to you: it’s a time-consuming process. But it’s pretty mindless so you can do it in front of the TV or radio. Or, do it like we did, with friends.
Pie dough for two (top and bottom) 9 inch pie crusts*
2 pints gooseberries, topped and tailed (approx. 4-5 cups of berries)
3 TB cornstarch
2-3 TB butter, cut into small pieces
1-2 cups sugar, to taste
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1-2 TB of milk for glazing
Preheat oven to 425. Roll out the bottom pie crust and place it in a 9 inch pie plate. Patch any holes and trim edges the edges to about 3/4 of an inch all around. Refrigerate.
To make the gooseberry filling, combine the berries, the cornstarch, the lemon juice and 1 cup of sugar in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, mashing the berries slightly, until the berries begin to release some juice and the mixture thickens. (As you cook the filling, taste it periodically and add more sugar as needed. Gooseberries are really quite tart.) Remove the filling from the heat.
Roll out the crust for the top of the pie. Pour the fruit filling into the pie plat and spread evenly. Dot with butter. Lightly moisten the edges of the bottom crust with water. Place top crust on top of the pie and pinch the edges of the top and bottom crust together. Crimp in a decorative manner. Carefully cut three or four steam vents in the top crust. Feel free to use any excess dough to make decorations, like my leaves and berries above. (Kids love to help with this.) Gently brush top crust with milk to ensure a golden brown color..
Place pie on a cookie sheet and place it in the oven. Keep a close eye on the pie so that the edges of the crust does not burn! I cover mine loosely with foil after only a short time. After 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 350 and bake for 20-30 minutes more until thick juices bubble through the steam vents. Cool and serve with whipped cream or à la mode.
*Any good cookbook can give you a recipe for basic pie dough and detailed instructions on how to handle it, if you do not know. I will tell you that I often use Jiffy pie crust mixes, which are easy to make and the result is a nice, flaky pie crust.
Have you had the opportunity to experiment with a new ingredient lately? I would love to hear about it.