(Vegan) Strawberry-Maple Muffins

Fickle weather this week in San Francisco: A few glorious mornings of sunshine have been tempered by the usual and omnipresent fog, reminding me of just how chilly the summer months can be here. Last August I was in Yosemite for nearly a week and then went to Maine for 2 weeks so by the time I returned in late summer the sun had settled in for the long haul — in other words, I’d forgotten how gloomy this city can be earlier in the month. I’m not really complaining, mind, just observing. I think in a way this fog and mist is a good thing for it helps us appreciate the fleeting, warmer days of summer – and, oh, lovely Indian Summer I await you so very eagerly this year for a variety of reasons – when they come, and consequently we don’t take them for granted. Plus, a lack of intense heat and humidity is always great in my book. (See also: why I moved back to the West Coast eight years ago.) So I will welcome these cooler days, but I will also be grateful for my wool socks.

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Strawberry-Basil Crumble/Crisp

Writing my cookbook was an interesting experience for me and not just because I was burning through 5-pound bags of sugar at least once a week. When I cook (and sometimes when I bake), I tend to sort of feel it out as I go; recipes are used often, but by no means every day. I probably could never tell you the exact quantity of soy sauce I might use to punch up a quick vegetable stir-fry, or about how many sesame seeds I use to coat tofu before caramelizing it. For just me this is fine, but when I write up recipes for publication I have to be more mindful. (Not that this is a hardship, it’s just worth noting.)

Back in February I had grand plans of keeping a ‘cookbook journal’ as I moved through the testing process; this lasted about one month, tops. And it’s OK, really, because life gets busy and to be frank my brain was a bit addled with keeping track of measurements in both U.S. and metric units, not to mention the repeated sugar high that came along with tasting said recipes. Still, I regret it a bit – much like my upcoming move, I have been very much ‘in the moment’ and haven’t stopped too long to reflect on the process. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing – it certainly helps to cut down on the over-romanticized drama of it all – but I hope I don’t look back and wonder what exactly was going on because I didn’t bother to write down the details.

And yet so it goes. Here I am on June 7 with two and a half more weekends in San Francisco left before we go to Morocco, the movers come in two weeks, I am nearly done stockpiling all the American goods I want to start off with over there (peanut butter, brown rice, vegan mayo — yes, the essentials), there are a thousand and one boring tiny details I still need to attend to. Fortunately I will be back in California at the end of July for awhile (more on this … at some point) but the normalcy of the San Francisco life I’ve so enjoyed is quickly drawing to a close. I keep reminding myself that this is merely a postponement; we will be back; this is a temporary adventure and I must try to embrace it as such. On my better days this is truly how I see things, and while it’s bittersweet to leave the home I’ve kept for 7 years I’m excited for a new landscape. On my worse days I get into the kitchen and bake things I don’t really need to bake just to distract myself.

Like a few days ago when I realized I still had a lot of strawberries leftover from the weekend that only had a little more life them in them before they would be fit for the compost bin. I’d already made a big batch of strawberry jam with a touch of rhubarb and honey and didn’t quite feel like lugging out my big pots again; I also wanted something a bit lighter and quicker to put together. Enter this strawberry-basil crumble/crisp.

What makes a crumble a crumble and a crisp a crisp? In my mind they are one and the same — though perhaps a crumble has a bit more topping and a crisp is more … crispy. But no matter: the dessert I put together on Wednesday afternoon to use up the last of my parents’ neighbor’s strawberries was delicious and the name for it was merely an afterthought. I perhaps should simply call it ‘luscious’ and leave it at that.

A good example of the ‘little bit of this plus a little bit of that’ cooking philosophy is exhibited here. Normally when baking off fruit desserts such as crumbles, crisps, or even a pie (though I do stick to a consistent dough recipe) I eyeball how much fruit to include, which often depends on how much I have on hand. I may sprinkle in a little sugar or swap in honey but this is in drips rather than tablespoons and isn’t strictly measured. Most of the time these desserts turn out deliciously well, despite my haphazard method. But in this case I had an inkling I might like to share this beauty so was more careful when I made it and noted the quantities I used.

I hope you make this and agree with me that it’s a truly wonderful dish: full of the rich, heady taste of strawberries touched with a hint of basil and honey and not much else. I so love strawberries in season and while I can happily eat fistfuls every morning as-is when I cook with them I want to retain their strawberry-ness without tarting them up with too many other flavors. So there’s a tiny bit of cinnamon here in the topping, plus oats and almond flour and maple syrup, but these are meant to be complements rather than competition.

The topping instructions are applicable to just about any sort of crumble/crisp you might concoct in the coming months when stone fruit is literally rolling off the tables at the farmers market (or you’re drowning in backyard berries). I particularly love a combination of peaches and nectarines spiked with ginger as a base or blueberries and fresh mint. You can’t really go wrong with whatever fruit you choose.

For yes – summer is nearly upon us, at least according to the calendar. Like clockwork the fog has made its morning appearance here in my neighborhood after seeming months of brilliant clear skies this winter and spring. I suppose I don’t mind too much; it’s comforting in its familiarity after all. Will Casablanca have these foggy seasons I wonder? We shall find out soon enough.

My City by the Bay (+ Mixed-Berry Muffins)

[San Francisco at dusk, January 2012.]

The other night after work I walked home because I’d sat still all day and my legs were twitching to move through the cool clear almost-dark. It was sort of a last-minute decision; I was waiting for the light to change on my way to the bus, looked over to the right, and saw the early-evening-but-not-yet-sunset light. My feet seemed to turn away from the clutch of commuters of their own accord, setting themselves firmly up the (slight) hill on Bush Street before I registered what was happening. I wasn’t sure where the walk would take me – having walked home previous times I’ve gone up the fairly dirty and unaesthetic Market Street before splitting off west into my neighborhood – but it didn’t much matter. I simply wanted to go.

It’s about two and a half miles from work door to apartment door (aka, home), which isn’t so long really. It felt even shorter as I hiked along past little shops and grubby, tucked-away bars with funny names, laundromats and dry cleaners and churches interspersed with various healing centers (this is SF, after all) and corner markets. I wondered a little over some of the names and thought that the apartment buildings looked so nice but would it be loud in this neighborhood? I thought about what I’d make for dinner. I clenched with anxiety over a few things but pushed them away. I tried not to obsess over did my ITB twinge as I passed the Chinatown gate or is that hypochondria and instead looked out over my city, blue in the waning light. The light in San Francisco is sort of magical I think. There’s nothing else like it.

California shimmers in the sun, it’s true, and has been particularly shimmery this month. Weeks like the ones we’ve had — drought worries notwithstanding, it’s a gorgeous spell of days that’s a sort of time out of time — are to be savored even as we anxiously eye the water table. When real summer rolls around, thick with fog and the drip-drip-drip of water from the redwood leaves onto the ferns, we’re more likely to closet ourselves away with tea and Mozart’s Mass in C- and lots of wool blankets and warm things to eat. Or maybe that’s just me. Summer of the heart? Oh, that comes at the most unexpected times here and we’ll take it when we can.

Right now is a strange season. It’s the very mid of mid-winters but the sun shines and shines relentlessly without even a wisp of fog. I know it is brilliant and gorgeous and polishing the rocks and sand out at Baker Beach, and along the coastal trail that winds from the Palace of the Legion of Honor (you can get a surprisingly good lunch there, just to note) to Land’s End even as I type this. We went out there on Saturday and lazed a bit in the sun and ate the last of the Christmas cookies from Maine and it didn’t feel one bit like January. All the way out to Ocean Beach past the Bath ruins and the Cliff House the sun burned with fierce purpose. The tide was out and the beach, when we peered round the blinding glare, was wider even than at its usual. I am projecting myself there today, would trade the olive trees outside the window for that empty and booming beach just for an hour. A girl can dream …

[Pacific Ocean looking Southwest from the Sutro Baths, January 2012.]

I was talking about San Francisco this morning with my mum-in-law as we ate leftover berry muffins. I kept getting up to put away dishes and gather up the stuff I needed for the day, always with an eye on the clock (though I ended up being late in anyway) and always with an ear tuned to the conversation. There’s so little I know of my city, though I have – and do – make attempts to learn more; I saw an old photograph of the Cliff House this weekend at the museum that has prompted this bit of San Francisco wistful nostalgia for how-it-was. Dirt roads and houses of ill repute and filthy gold miners swinging through town to spend their hard-scrabbled nuggets on whisky and all – I would take it for a week, just to see.

San Francisco was once: gleaming with hope and teeming with horses and trolleys. Ships sailed in and out of the bay and there was no bridge yet (if you have ever seen that Ansel Adams photograph, “Golden Gate Before the Bridge,” you’ll know how strange and different it would have been to our modern eyes accustomed now to seeing that great span). Way out at the edge of town, in what is now the Sunset District, the few people who did start building houses found themselves thwarted by sandstorms when they planted gardens. The tram line ran out there and the tracks were often covered by drifting sand; still, I bet for a kid it was a fantastic place to live. All that empty space along the beach for hiding out and rambling, whichever you chose.

We munched on our muffins and sipped our cups of tea and I could almost see it out the window. Many buildings in my neighborhood – one of which, sadly, burned in fire just before Christmas – are so old they have stood for over 100 years. I love that about the city, that there are still so many houses and structures that survived the great 1906 earthquake and devastating fire. I love that nature is so close here. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, I sometimes think when the earth gives another, inevitable massive heave we’ll slide right into the ocean with hardly a splash. In the meantime we marvel over raccoons in Alamo Square Park and hope to catch a glimpse of the coyotes near the Buffalo Pasture (err — I do) and take walks home that remind us that we humans should tread lighter on the earth. We are the impermanent part of the universe after all, and perhaps in 1000 years San Francisco will be deserted and sand will once again drift over the train tracks along with a wayward grizzly bear come down from the north.

In the meantime, we are here. And when here we must fortify, and there are some days when oatmeal simply won’t do. Instead, muffins. I know it seems like all I do is bake and little else — I swear I have been cooking dinner nearly every night, even if very simple like last night which was just roasted potatoes and cauliflower and chickpeas with garlic and spinach and a piece of salmon baked in white wine and lemon juice and vegetable broth and then, YES, a chocolate-chocolate cake — but it is my wont it seems. Sunday morning I slid out from under the pile of the NY Times and whisked together a batter as quickly as possible using what I had on hand – the best muffins yet. I used a little whole wheat pastry flour here, some slivered almonds, more cinnamon than is usual, and brown sugar. They turned out dense and not-too-sweet and moist and a little crunchy and full of summer – perfect for this strange winter season and for meanderings of both body and spirit.