Thursday, November 1, 2012

Of Jujubes and Spoon Sweets

 "It's a question of discipline," the little prince told me later on. "When you've finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend to your planet."
-Antoine de Saint Exupery (The Little Prince)

 All week long, I've been following the Little Prince's sage advice and tending to my planet. You might say that things have fallen in a state of disarray now that November is here: I've come down with a weird cold/cough combination that makes my throat feel itchy and my nose feel like an alien object interested only in my demise. There's a pile of laundry begging to be done. I also have two pages to cut out of a conference paper and, despite my best efforts, I don't really see what else can be cut. I suppose I must be merciless, however, and just keep on cutting. 


Last week while I was still in the safe zone of October, life felt a little different. The sun seemed to shine more. My step felt a little lighter. Maybe I'm dreaming, but with November comes a certain sense of urgency. There's the election (a big one!), Thanksgiving (menu planning!) and then, with December, the end of yet another semester and year. Personally, I think time needs to stop. Unfortunately, it's not likely to listen to little old me.


In such times, I think it's best to preserve fruit. And, by preserving fruit, I mean making a Greek-style spoon sweet. It's the perfect rainy/lazy day activity. Something about its simplicity soothes me; I like that it's so low maintenance that you can move around the house, both thinking about and doing other things, while the heat performs its magic. All it really requires of you is the occasional stir. What emerges from the pot at the end is a sweet and syrupy liquid with bits of preserved fruit. The Greeks, as I ascertained during my travels, will either eat a small amount of the spoon sweet with yogurt for dessert (or for breakfast, which is my favorite way), or will serve a small bowl with a little syrup and a sampling of the fruit to guests, with a glass of water on the side.


My fruit of choice last week was the jujube, or Chinese date. I had thought long and hard about what I should do with the small container of jujubes that had appeared in our CSA box a few weeks ago.  You see, when I first tried jujubes at the farmers' market back in August, I didn't really care for them. I had wanted so much to like them (they sounded intriguing), but when I took a few samples, they tasted dry, spongy and somewhat chalky; their skin also seemed unnecessarily tough. I considered putting them in a crumble or in some kind of loaf cake, but I didn't really trust the jujube to shine in these settings.


But then I recalled my "long list of things I want to make" and how I never managed to cross off the spoon sweet. Considering it had been on the list since we returned from Greece in July, as well as the fact that the jujubes were looking sadder and a little more wrinkly with each passing day, I felt its moment had finally come. Granted, I had no idea how it would turn out; the spoon sweets I had tried in Greece were made from quince, sour cherries, oranges, apples, grapes and apricots--juicy, flavorful fruits. I wasn't sure that the jujube would prove to be spoon sweet material--even when boiled with water and sugar and some spices.


But my recent experience tells me that my assumption was wrong; I had misjudged the jujube. Once combined with lemon juice, lemon peel, cardamom pods and some vanilla bean, it becomes the ideal spoon sweet material. The color of the spoon sweet itself evokes fall. I've been eating this for breakfast for the past week with Greek yogurt, loving the combination of the slightly sour yogurt, the sugary amber syrup and the deep red jewel-like fruit. 

Even better, my jujube research tells me that they've been used medicinally to help soothe sore throats. They're also supposedly a stress-reliever--perhaps just the right fruit for what is sure to be a very busy month. And, also, as a final jujube fun fact, it turns out that they also exist in Greece; there, they're called tzitzifa. According to the Greek, there's a neighborhood in Athens that's called Tzitzifies (Jujube Trees), which means that, perhaps at this very moment, somebody else is turning jujubes into a spoon sweet. I don't know why, but there's great comfort in that thought.

Jujube Spoon Sweet (Tzitzifo Gliko koutaliou)

Yields about one small jar + a little extra
225 grams jujubes
175 grams granulated sugar
the juice and peel of half a lemon
150 milliliters water (about 2/3 cup)
3 cardamom pods, crushed
seeds scraped out of about 2 inches of a vanilla bean (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)

-Wash the jujubes and cut them in half to remove their pits (this may prove tricky, so, in some cases, be prepared not only to cut the jujubes in half, but also to slice open the bottom half of the jujube containing the pit).
-Combine all of the ingredients in a small pot and bring to a boil.
-Stirring occasionally, simmer until the liquid has reduced. Remove from heat once the liquid sticks to the back of a spoon, or is the consistency of maple syrup.
-With a spoon, remove the cardamom pods and lemon peel. 
-Place into a jar (I should note here that Greek canning processes are infinitely simpler than American ones; there is no need to seal the jar) and cover with its lid. 
-Enjoy with Greek yogurt or, when in the mood for sugar, in a small bowl with a glass of water on the side.

4 comments:

  1. Ah, jujubes! Are they Chinese? My dad puts the dried kind into winter melon soup! They add a sweetness to the broth and the date turns soft after being boiled. Love the idea of a spoon sweet -- even the name is lovely.

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  2. Hi, Ann; I'm not entirely sure if they're Chinese. There are so many names for jujubes (red date, Chinese date, Korean date, Indian date) that its origins seem somehow hard to determine. But it's easy to imagine that it was first grown in the east and then brought to the west, since that often seemed to be the way of all good things. :)

    And that soup sounds fantastic; I've never had a melon soup and especially not one intended for the winter. Your dad sounds like an interesting cook.

    And spoon sweets are lovely. The Greek's parents are coming soon and I'm really hoping to make one with pumpkin! It's been my fall fantasy for a while now.

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  3. Winter melon is a Chinese vegetable. My uncle just grew one that was bigger than our Halloween pumpkins! Here's some more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_melon

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  4. Thanks, Ann! I'm always interested in food fun facts!

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