When artist Eric Zelz came to me with the idea for this column — to create an illustrated food feature every week — I immediately fell in love with the concept. And since summer 2014, we’ve created dozens and dozens of recipe and illustration pairings.
Last week, when we were talking about this week’s piece, I decided to do something a little different. Instead of just deciding on a recipe and mulling over concepts together, I challenged Eric to choose an ingredient that I would craft a recipe around.
His response? “How about cranberries?!”
Being so close to the holidays, I immediately thought about appetizers and pictured sugared cranberries, which I have seen everywhere lately. I’ve cooked with fresh cranberries dozens of times — not just making a variety of cranberry-based sauces, but baking them into desserts of all kinds and even whirling them with fresh ingredients for a tart, spicy salsa. Too tart to be eaten alone, I wasn’t sure they’d taste very good even covered in sugar.
But, hey, how would I know if I didn’t try? Those sparkly little balls intrigued me.
After reading up on them a bit, I discovered that they are shockingly easy to make. You start by making a simple syrup — just sugar, water and vanilla, in this case. Then you soak the berries in it overnight. It tempers the tartness while also giving the sugar for the outside something to cling. The next day, you drain, toss with sugar and use them however you like.
When I tried them, I discovered that they’re sweet-tart balls of fruity goodness. And absolutely perfect for pairing with a savory spread with a hint of sweetness, which is exactly what the Sage Ricotta Spread is.
Consider making this crostini for your holiday celebration. It’s easy, but no one needs to know that.
Earthy sage-flavored ricotta cheese is spread on thin crostini toasts and topped with those craveable sweet-tart sugared cranberries. It’s a symphony of flavors, so easy and looks impressive to boot. You just can’t go wrong.
While, yes, these are something that takes a little planning and requires two days of work, the actual process itself couldn’t be simpler.
That’s also how I feel about this column and its illustration. When Eric suggested it, my only concern was finding the time — both myself and him — to work on this each week. Could we really create something so special each week, and find time in our schedules for it?
We did, and we do.
It takes a little planning. There needs to be both a recipe that can be created, tested and perfected in a week, and a concept for the illustration too. That doesn’t take too long — we’ve at times come to concepts in mere seconds.
Then comes the creation. I get into the kitchen and Eric starts sketching, painting and everything else that goes into the artistic portion of this.
It sounds like a lot but the process really is so easy. It’s helps a lot that Eric and I get along so well, and can talk through concepts creating ideas we’re both excited about.
So on this nearly Thanksgiving eve, I wanted to share something I am grateful for: my partner in this food column, Eric Zelz. To do something like this — a fresh take on how a newspaper would deliver a column like this using illustration and allowing the column itself to focus on life, not just food, is a dream come true for me. And to do it with someone who has brought to life dozens of ideas, concepts, thoughts and plans in creative, bright, colorful and unique ways is nothing short of a blessing. A huge thank you to Eric for all these many months of Maine Course — and for creating the idea in the first place. Without him, this column would have never appeared in the first place.
And while we’re at it, I am also thankful for my younger brother Zach who, when presented with my quandary about what to actually call this column, instantly said “Maine Course,” as if the answer couldn’t have been more obvious.
He was right. It couldn’t.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. May your day be filled with good food, good conversation and happiness — all the good things.
- ½ cup water
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ lb cranberries
- ½ cup ricotta cheese
- 2 tbsp parmesan cheese
- 2 tsp finely chopped fresh sage
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp ground pepper
- 1 loaf French bread, cut diagonally into ¼-inch slices
- Start by making the syrup: Combine the water and ½ cup sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Do not let it come to a boil. Stir in the vanilla extract and remove from heat. Place the cranberries in a small bowl. Cover with syrup mixture. Use foil to both cover the bowl and press the cranberries gently into the syrup. Chill overnight.
- Drain the cranberries (syrup can be reserved and used to sweeten drinks, if desired). Place the remaining ½ cup sugar in a shallow dish that will allow the cranberries to remain in a single layer. Toss the cranberries with the sugar and then chill for at least 1 hour. Toss again and use as desired.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush bread slices with olive oil on both sides. Bake for about 10 minutes until crispy.
- In a mixing bowl, stir together the ricotta, parmesan, sage, salt and pepper until well combined.
- Spread a little of the ricotta mixture on each of the bread slices. Top with 2-3 of the cranberries. Arrange on a platter.
- Serve immediately.