My mother-in-law, J., is a story teller. That is not the sum of her, naturally — she is an interesting, complex woman to be sure — but when I think of her, the first thing that springs to mind are her wonderful tales of growing up out here in the West with her dad, an extraordinary scientist. Pet ravens, bones boiling in the back yard, lamps made of elephant bones … it all sounds like a scene out of a novel. If I hadn’t actually seen the lamp, I don’t know that I’d believe it.
Besides keeping the family stories, J. is also keeper of family mementos. Her home is full of unexpected treasures like antique Native American rugs, and such: every so often, she passes some of those on to us.
We have a sweet set of tea cups, for example, that J. inherited from her grandmother. They are not especially valuable, but I love them dearly. They are dainty enough to be charming, without being so delicate that I’m afraid to touch them. We never use them for tea — the cups are far too small for the vats of tea both Husband and I like to drink — but they are a wonderful size for desserts like panna cotta.
I consider panna cotta (Italian for cooked cream) to be the ultimate in fancy jello. I know that sounds crazy, but really, that’s all it is: milk mixed with gelatin (I use Great Lakes*) and whatever flavoring you want.
Panna cotta is so lusciously creamy, and so easy, that I want to make it all the time. I think it works for every season, too. My husband has a summer birthday, so for him, I made one with an apple mint. When the autumn started, these beautiful plums just spoke to me. For my birthday, I’ll probably do lemon, since I love citru. around springtime, I can’t wait to try lavender honey. Then next summer, maybe lemongrass, and in the fall again there’ll be apples…The possibilities are endless.
Getting back to this fall’s dish: I wanted a treat, with a deep, fruity flavor, that I could have even on a Whole30. I wasn’t looking for a traditional dessert, because I don’t believe that’s in the spirit of Whole30, but I wanted something that would be like having a fancied up piece of fruit after dinner. I think this sticks to the rules of the challenge while still being a little bit special; something tasty you could share when swapping stories with friends after dinner.
This is not a traditional panna cotta, being much more fruit than milk, but it sets up similarly. Rhubarb is quite tangy, so use the sweetest plums you can for contrast; the grapes add an extra boost of natural sweetness as well. If you are on a whole30 or a 21-Day Sugar Detox, that should be all you need: it really will be fine to leave out the sweetener. Heck, you could leave out the rhubarb if it isn’t your thing; double the amount of grapes instead. Plum and grape panna cotta would be brilliant, too.
If you are having sweetener, do try adding the maple syrup and honey; it adds some depth that emphasizes the hint of anise from the star anise and the smoothness of vanilla. Of course, use the best vanilla you can find; it really does make a difference.
Finally: vegetarian friends, I have not tried this, but I hear agar agar works well as a substitute for gelatin. Do let me know if you try it!
- 1-1/2 pounds plums, washed and roughly chopped
- 1/2 pound rhubarb, chopped
- 1/2 pound red seedless grapes, sliced in half
- 1 small piece star anise
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup (optional; skip if doing whole30)
- 2 tablespoons honey (optional; skip if doing whole30)
- 1 cup coconut milk (or other milk of choice)
- 2-1/2 tablespoons gelatin
- In medium saute pan, combine plums, rhubarb, star anise, vanilla, maple syrup, and honey. Stew over medium-low heat for approximately 30 minutes, or until the fruits have softened enough to give when poked with a fork. Remove star anise; rinse, dry and reserve for another use.
- Pour the fruit into a high speed blender and puree 15-20 seconds, or until mixture is smooth. (If you do not have a high-speed blender, an immersion blender will also work. The texture will be somewhat less fine.) Set aside.
- In a separate sauce pan, pour the milk and gelatin. Allow gelatin to absorb liquid for a few moments, then stir to dissolve. Briefly warm the mixture over medium heat, about 5 minutes.
- Combine the gelatin and milk with the fruit mixture.
- Pour the panna cotta mixture into the molds of your choice. Refrigerate for 30 minutes until soft set; for a firmer set, refrigerate for at least one hour.