Falling behind

See: because it’s fall.  And because I haven’t posted in a season.

As a lifelong California resident with many friends and loved ones that have moved here from points east, I’ve heard a broad range of disparaging comments about the inferiority of our fall colors.  And I’m totally willing to concede that we don’t offer the hundreds of square miles of lurid orangeness that folks in NC or DC (or wherever–no favoritism here, those are just two East Coast places I’ve actually been to in the fall) enjoy this time of year.  Showoffs.  It’s gaudy, if you ask me.  Here we get our fall colors in trim little accents, like this one, which I pass by about 15 times a day:

A particularly pretty Chinase pistache (Pistacia chinensis) tree at the corner of Roth and Campus Drive.

This is one of maaaaany Chinese pistache (or Chinese pistachio) trees distributed around campus in an effort to keep all our homesick transplanted students and faculty from fleeing back to their states of origin this time of year.  Or possibly just to sprinkle a little extra red around the place.  As you’ve probably already suspected, Pistacia chinensis is a close relative of the pistachio of culinary fame, Pistacia vera P. vera is a Mediterranean native, and it’s in Mediterranean desserts that I like pistachio nuts the best: baklava, biscotti (recipe below), and the like.  The Chinese pistachio fruits are not edible (except to birds–the bluebirds go nuts for them here), but they look like a plausible smaller relative, and unlike commercial pistachio nuts, Chinese pistachio fruits are naturally red.

Fruits of the Chinese pistachio tree. They’re doused in very sticky sap, which left my fingers tacky for the rest of the day after this pic.

P. chinensis is common all over the Bay Area, so if you live nearby there’s a good chance a few of these are brightening up your neighborhood, too.

Pistachio and anise biscotti recipe:

(Since P. chinensis is not edible, this is a bit of a stretch as a foraging recipe, but I did pick the anise flowers myself last week.  Currently anise/fennel is in flower, and I really like their delicate flavor, but you could substitute seeds at other times of year)

1/3 cup butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

4 tsp chopped fresh anise/fennel flowers

1 cup pistachio nuts

1. Preheat oven to 375 F; spray 1 cookie sheet with cooking spray, keep another ungreased cookie sheet on hand. Cream together butter and sugar, beat in baking powder, salt, vanilla and eggs.  Stir in flour, fennel flowers, and pistachios.

2.  Divide dough into 3 portions. Shape each third into a roll 8-9″ long.  Place rolls several inches apart on sprayed cookie sheet, and flatten so each roll is about 2.5-3 inches wide.

3. Bake at 375 F (190 C) for 20-25 minutes.  The “loaves” should be golden brown around the edges and cracked on top.  Cool 30 minutes.

4.  Use a sharp serrated knife to cut each roll on a diagonal into slices, about 1/2″ thick and 4″ long.  Lay slices cut sides down on ungreased cookie sheet.  Lower oven temp and bake at 325 F (163 C) for 8 minutes, then flip cookies and bake on the other side another 8 minutes until dry and crisp.

Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s yard part 1: Loquats

If you live anywhere in California below about 2000 feet of elevation, somewhere in your neighborhood there is a loquat tree.  Your job this May/June is to find it and forage it (you’re allowed to ask the neighbor first.  In fact that might be a good idea).  I love these things so much, and every time I see an under-appreciated tree with its fruit littering the ground in early July it breaks my heart.  You guys have to help me out.

The lovely, luscious, little-loved loquat is Eriobotrya japonica, a Chinese native (confusingly), and member of the Rosaceae family, just like apples, pears, and all those Prunus species I was celebrating back in February.  It’s a moderate-to-large evergreen tree that’s often used for shade, because its large glossy leaves are great at blocking the daylight.

A shade-casting loquat tree in one of the east-side courtyards of Stanford's main quad. Small clusters of unripe green fruit are visible among the leaves.

In December/January, it produces nondescript sweetly-scented yellowish flowers, that very very slowly give rise to clusters of fruit.  In May, these reach their full size (a little smaller than a golf ball, and either round or slightly oval), and ripen to a peachy orange color.  The fruit at the tops of the trees ripens first.  Some of my fondest memories from college are of my friends and I foraging these off the tree-tops in Claremont, trying to reach the uppermost fruit without getting totally covered in tree bits and spiderwebs.

The fruit (and the leaves) are covered in a downy fuzz, and this coupled with the color always makes me think of peaches…so much so in fact that I have trouble deciding what they actually taste like, because it’s hard to get peaches out of my mind.  I think they may taste a little like raspberries with a radically different texture.  A heaping pile of miner’s lettuce to anyone who can help me pin down the flavor.

A loquat leaf and full-size unripe fruit, with quarter for scale.

The fruit is best when its fully ripe, and it’s easiest to tell if this is the case by looking where the fruit meets the stem: it should be orange-yellow, and not at all green.  The fruit should also pop easily off the stem.  When they’re a little under-ripe, they’re a bit tart but still very good, and when they’re fully ripe they’re heavenly: very sweet and fragrant.  I like them best with the skin peeled off (a word to the wise though–peeling the skin will stain your fingernails brownish if you don’t wash your hands), but you can eat the skin too if you rub off the fuzz.  Inside, there are several large glossy dark-brown seeds.

The same loquat leaf and fruit split open to show the shiny brown seeds. There can be anywhere from 1-8 seeds, usually depending on how large the fruit is.

One final thing: they don’t store well (only a day or two in the fridge, max), so as you go out and find your local neighborhood loquat tree, don’t hesitate to enjoy them on the spot.  Spread the word!