June 2008 Archives

 

The home canner's favorite sound is the satisfying plink of the canning jar sealing. When you hear the first metallic pop from the rows of cooling jars you can relax just a little, knowing that, whatever the contents of those jars taste like, you at least didn't screw the whole process up.


Whence comes that charming sound? As the hot content of the jars cools down, the volume decreases, creating a pressure difference between the interior and exterior of the jar. The sound comes from the convex canning lid turning suddenly concave as the pressure difference causes a vacuum seal. This seal protects your delicious jam, pickles, or what have you, from the ravages of wild microbeasties.

While I've canned a fair amount of jam, this was my first try at canning pickles. When venturing out of the kiddie pool of jam canning, I turned to Putting Food By, a book that will appeal to anyone who loves the feeling of walking into a well-stocked market, gazing into a full-to-brimming fridge, or that chapter in Little House in the Prairie where they blow up the pig bladder. You and your family will make it through that long, hard winter ahead!


The basic procedure for canning pickles is to remove them from their brine and pack them into sterilized jars, then to boil the brine and pour it over the pickles. The jars are then closed and placed in a bath of boiling water for a time appropriate to the size of the jar (and the altitude, if you want to get all technical). And that is exactly what I did with my mixture of pickled beets, turnips and radishes. Shockingly, the pickles retained their flavor and crunch, the jars sealed with resounding plinks, and while we may not be at risk for starving this winter, we'll be enjoying this fresh taste of summer all the more for it being homemade.

 

Last weekend we drove out to our CSA, Red Fire Farms in Granby, MA, to take advantage of their pick-your-own offerings. We had a narrow escape with a drenching thunderstorm, but we came away with a huge bag of shelling peas, and another bag, even larger, of strawberries. That made for a lot of produce to deal with - I spent more time shelling peas and hulling strawberries this week than I even want to talk about.


After all that work, I really wanted to create some dishes that would showcase these seasonal stars, but I didn't manage to do so with all-local ingredients. One of my favorite early summer dishes is green garlic and pea soup, and it seemed like the perfect thing for all those peas. I had lots of green garlic from the farmers market, and also a pile of garlic scapes from Red Fire. The only problem was my homemade chicken stock from the freezer, which was not made from local ingredients. In fact, I made it long enough ago, I don't even remember what the ingredients were! But I used it, along with some non-local wine and butter, to transform my peas into a creamy soup. (I used this recipe as a starting point.)


It can't be coincidence that the strawberry season coincides with a heat wave - strawberry ice cream is the only logical conclusion! And while the milk, cream, eggs and strawberries are local, the sugar and vanilla bean... not so much. To make matters worse, instead of corn syrup, I used Lyle's Golden Syrup, all the way from the UK, for its superior flavor. The custard and strawberry puree are in the fridge now, awaiting the ice cream maker, but I'll be sure to show off the result soon!


So thats two swings and two misses for the challenge, but two hits for peas and strawberries!


Ingredients:
Milk from Oake Knoll Ayreshires in Foxboro, MA
Cream from Hatchland Dairy, Haverhill, NH
Eggs from Chip-in Farm, Bedford, MA
Green garlic from Kimball Fruit Farms, Pepperell, MA
Peas, garlic scapes and strawberries from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA

 

After the success of my homemade sauerkraut (I am still enjoying it regularly, and we ate it last night with a Czech braised pork and gravy - delish!) I have been itching to lacto-ferment more veggies. Last week, our CSA share included a bunch of dill, and I knew the moment had come. I am particularly eager to try making dill pickles, but cucumbers are not yet in season - my own cucumber plants are only a few inches high, although our CSA may have them soon - so I had to improvise. I had some embarrassingly aged beets in the fridge, two too many bunches of radishes, and a bag full of newly-arrived CSA turnips - together, they sounded like a plausible pickling combo. I peeled the beets and sliced everything into manageable toothpicks, then added a handful of fresh dill and peeled garlic cloves and mixed it all together in my crock. Then I covered it all with brine (~.75 Tbs salt per cup of H2O, per Katz), weighted it with a smaller container to keep everything under the brine.

Now, just under a week later, the beets, turnips and radishes are all nicely pickled. They range from tender to crisp, and from sweet to mildly biting, but they all have a nice bright dill and garlic pickle flavor. I am thinking they would make a delightful cool summer soup, tart and sweet and salty. I am also going to try to can these, since I sincerely doubt Greg and I will be able to make it through 12 cups of pickles in any sort of reasonable fridge storage time frame.

This project was noticeably different from the sauerkraut in a couple ways. Firstly, smell: the dill and garlic conspired, over the course of a couple days, to turn the pickle crock into a sort of inverse air-freshener. If my kitchen were a Gl*de commercial (which, wow, is actually my worst nightmare), right now there would be heads of garlic and vinegar bottles floating through the room on a beet-red breeze. I think that the canning process will bring this to a head, but as soon as that's done, I'll be tempted to bake a pie to chase the smell out. The second less-pleasant quality is the beet-infused brine, which is definitely a stain risk. Lastly, because of the size of the pieces, I was unable to keep all of the pickles under the surface of the brine, and a couple at the surface developed little moldy patches. I picked those pieces out, and it should be fine, especially since everything is cooked in the canning process. None of these things are deal breakers for me, but I can't really imagine doing this more than a couple times a year in my small kitchen (not that we would go through more pickles than that anyways!)

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Variable. You could probably do this in a quart or half-gallon jar, but a sizeable crock or food-grade bucket is probably better. You can keep it anywhere, however, as long as it isn't sweltering hot, like under a table or in a cabinet.
  • How much time does it take?
    About 20 minutes, depending on how you chop the veggies, plus a few days of fermenting.
  • Does it smell?
    Yes, at least if you use strongly-scented seasonings like dill and garlic.
  • Does it look grody?
    A little. Mold can form on the surface of the water, especially if you let anything float on the surface. You can skim this off, but it's not the prettiest.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    No
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    If you can put up with the smell for a week, sure!
 


Last week, while visiting Salem for work, my coworkers and I stopped into Ye Olde Pepper Companie, "Americas Oldest Candy Company." In addition to being a perfect example of an adorable New England candy shop, complete with all kinds of chocolates, fudge, and barley pops in the shape of lobsters, Ye Olde Pepper Company still manufactures several nineteenth-century candies. Black Jacks, pictured above, are hard candy sticks made with corn syrup and molasses, with a recipe dating from the 1830s. They have a nice hint of molasses flavor, not at all overwhelming. These candies are not exactly show-stoppers, but they are satisfying and tasty.


Gibralters are the original Salem candy, first sold in 1806. The texture of a gibralter varies across its length and lifetime. It begins like an airy candy cane, crisp and hard, and then becomes soft and crumbly as it absorbs moisture. The flavors, lemon and peppermint, are clean and direct. Eating a peppermint gibralter immediately made me nostalgic for the experience of finding one in my Christmas stocking (an experience I have, in fact, never had).


My favorite, however, is the ginger bread - also known as honeycomb toffee. Not unique to the Pepper Companie, this simple-to-make candy is found all over. While the toffee is still soft, baking soda and acid react to form carbon dioxide, puffing up the candy and creating a honeycomb-like structure that has a delightful crunch. After a few chews, the candy compacts into a chewy, sticky mass of toffee that sticks fast to teeth.

If you're in Salem, I recommend you try all three!

 


This week's One Local Summer meal was veal loin chops, white polenta, and steamed asparagus with a dill and cream sauce. This was a pretty simple preparation: only pan-frying, simmering and steaming. The ingredients made it feel like a fancy meal, but it managed to fit into our busy week.

The polenta was seasoned only with salt, and the great flavor of the fresh cornmeal really stood out. I am also proud that I managed a nice round mold on the polenta - another simple thing that made it seem elegant. Even the dill cream sauce, which gave the asparagus an extra spark, was just cream simmered with a sprig of dill and pinches of salt and paprika.

Ingredients:
Cream from Oake Knoll Ayreshires in Foxboro, MA
Asparagus from one of the MA farms at the Union Square Farmers Market - I forget which
Dill from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Gray's Rhode Island Cornmeal, from Gray's Grist Mill in Adamsville, RI
Veal loin chops from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

 

OK, I'm in the middle of a seventy-hour week at work right now, so the kitchen has been pretty quiet. One thing I did have time to do was put together a couple of fruit fly traps. The little buggers started popping up last week despite the fact that we've had no actual fruit outside the fridge for ages. They seem fond of the sourdough starter, even though it is covered by both a lid and a cloth.

I followed these instructions on Instructables for both a soap bubble trap and an inverted cone trap. I put them out last night and this evening there are several dozen flies in there, mostly in the inverted cone trap. Several dozen. Where did they come from? I can see why classical thinkers believed in spontaneous generation - except my theory would have to be the fruit flies arise from the smell of sourdough starter alone.

 

I had been wanting to create some sourdough starter from wild yeasts for some time now, but a lot of descriptions make it seem difficult, finicky, or tedious. I am sure that it can be, but I think I managed to stumble upon a particularly simple and pain-free process for getting a starter going.

When planning to start my own wild yeast sourdough starter, I read a number of recipes that called for rye flour, particularly fresh organic rye flour. Apparently, wild yeasts grow on the surface of a number of grains and fruits, perhaps most famously rye and grapes (you know that dusty white coating on grapes straight from the vine? It's yeast, and it makes the origins of wine a little less mysterious.) When freshly ground, rye flour still contains a lot of living yeast.

At my local health food store, I easily found whole organic rye berries, but the store was not equipped to mill them, and neither was I. I could have whipped out my coffee-grinder at this point, but I realized... if the yeast is on the surface, did I really need to grind them at all?

I created a mix of all-purpose flour, water, and about a quarter-cup of whole rye berries, and followed the The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion's feeding instructions: half a cup of warm water and a cup of flour once in the morning and once in the evening. This creates an awful lot of throw-away starter, (which I saved for things like fry-bread and pizza crust - more on those later), but it also creates a happily bubbling little starter in about a week. Over the course of the feedings, the rye berries worked their way out in batches of discarded starter, and now there are no more. They make such a tasty addition to bread, however, that you might want to add them back in!

The starter can be used for no-knead bread, as well as the more traditional (and time consuming) pain au levain and other sourdough breads. You can leave it in the fridge and skip feeding it any time you aren't planning on using it for a while, although it will eventually languish away and your fridge will start to look like my mothers: a ten-year-old unused sourdough starter in one corner, a bag of fifteen-year-old undeveloped film (my childhood!) in the crisper, and a three year old jug of vinegar that used to be mead a friend gave you taking up half the bottom shelf. (j/k, Mom, I know you threw out that mead! ; )

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Not much - a quart container would do, and it can go in a cupboard.
  • How much time does it take?
    1-3 minutes a day.
  • Does it smell?
    No.
  • Does it look grody?
    No, although dried starter residue develops on the sides of the container, so I guess it depends on how often you clean it.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    No.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    Since you can use it for no-kneed bread as well as the more time-consuming breads like pain au levain, this is worth it if you are at all interested in homemade bread.
 

Ok, so the thing about my wonderful, awesome, perfect meat CSA, is that they keep sending me breakfast meat. Lots of breakfast meat. More than we could eat in a week of Sunday brunches. And I can't quite bring myself to break out the pork sausage on a work morning. Which brings us to...


Breakfast for dinner! It started with that mouthwatering pork breakfast sausage, then I saw what else I had on hand:

Local wheat flour can't be found for love or money, but I did recently come across some local cornmeal, and johnny cakes seemed to fit right into the breakfast motif. The back of the Gray's Jonnycake Meal bag gives the following directions for thick johnny cakes: "Take quantity of corn meal required. Add a little salt. Scald with boiling water to make a stiff batter. Add a small amount of milk. Fry on a hot griddle." The end. But luckily they also provide a more detailed version on their website. I had some trouble getting my iron skillet to the right temperature, so my jonnycakes stuck and were ugly, but really delicious.

To make it a little more dinner-y, I made a salad with redleaf lettuce, chives, and cilantro, with a honey, balsamic and olive oil dressing.

Ingredients:
Milk from Oake Knoll Ayreshires in Foxboro, MA
Maple Syrup from Stowe, VT
Honey from Buzzy Bee Apiary in Foxoboro, MA
Lettuce, chives, and cilantro from Red Fire Farms, Granby, MA
Gray's Rhode Island Cornmeal, from Gray's Grist Mill in Adamsville, RI
Pork breakfast sausage from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

 

I've been having a lot of trouble with the comment system, so I gave up on Typekey and OpenID authentication, and switched to a native account system. That means you can sign up for a Brave Potato account if you plan to comment often. Anonymous comments still work as well. Thanks, and apologies to everyone who experienced a comments glitch.

 

I've been keeping worms for a few months now, and so far my experience has been very positive. I no longer have to cringe when tossing my veggie trimmings into the landfill-bound trash bucket, and the amount of trash we send to the curb has been reduced. Best of all, it has not noticeably influenced my to-do list or schedule: the worms are in the basement, and I spend about five minutes a week feeding and observing them, usually on my way to or from the laundry.

Near the bin, I keep a bag of autumn leaves left over from the yard, brown and limp from sitting under the snow all winter. The first few times I fed the worms, I dampened some of them and spread them on top of the scraps as bedding. Now I generally just tuck the scraps under the existing leaves, but occasionally I add an extra handful of leaves. I drain any liquid from the reservoir under the bin, and use it to water my veggies. The liquid is pretty smelly, but it's quick to drain off and dump outside.

Speaking of smells, I am even happier that I invested in a commercial bin now, after a few months of use. While the bin generally smells fine unless stirred up, there has been the occasional stinky day in there, and I have been really impressed with how well the bin has contained odors.

One of the fun things about keeping worms is that they are constantly changing. The bin smells different inside every time I open it (ok, fun might be a strong word for that). Sometime the worms are near the surface, sometimes below. Springtails come and go. When the worms find a piece of choice refuse, they swarm on it in a happy little knot. Yet, for all of those changes, the worms are incredibly low-maintenance. They don't care whether I feed them once a week or twice. They didn't miss me when I went on vacation. They decide which scraps to eat and when to eat them on some sort of logic I don't understand. They reproduce and die on their own schedules. And that is fine by me.

 


I have always loved pasta carbona, starting back when my mom made it with bacon and a cooked egg and cheese sauce (remember, foodies, that this was during the Salmonella scare, a movement that had a much larger effect on my childhood than I ever realized at the time - I still clean up more meticulously after cooking with raw chicken than anything else.)

Later, I learned to make it in a slightly more traditional manner, with pancetta, raw egg, and fresh pasta, and fell more in love with it than ever. From the moment I conceived of making my own guanciale, I was daydreaming about the carbonara I would make.

The build-up to this ultimate carbonara was intense. As the moment loomed nearer, my inner perfectionist kicked in. I couldn't make this carbonara with just any pasta, so I plotted my first attempt at homemade pasta. I usually feel free to play fast and loose with recipes, but this one (again from Hazan), I intended to follow to the letter. I even made a special shopping trip.

For such excitement, the cooking was almost anti-climactic: carbonara is the simplest dish you could hope to make. The eating, on the other hand, was triumphant. I already bragged about the pasta, but the sauce, the sauce! Those rich pork flavors of the guanciale melted into the fresh egg and silkily coated each strand of pasta. Somehow it was refreshing and yet reassuring, light and yet earthy - a resounding rediscovery of an old favorite.

 


This week's local meal was veal tongue with parsnip and sunchoke gratin and radish salad. While it was tasty, it could have been much better. Sadly, I had a late day at work, and ended up rushing the gratin and the tongue out of plain ol hunger. It didn't help that this was the first time I cooked tongue!

I started by gently simmering the whole tongue. Most recipes recommend an hour for this, but I gave it only about 25 minutes. The longer simmering should make it easy to remove the skin, but I had to settle for slicing and scraping it off. After that, I simply sliced and sautéed the tongue with olive oil, salt and pepper. While the taste was good, it was a little on the rubbery side, something I think the longer simmering would have helped.

For the gratin, I began with cooking the parsnips and sunchokes in boiling water until just fork tender. In my rush, I sliced them while they were still a little too hot to touch, and layered them in a small casserole. I tossed them with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and a healthy dose of cream, then put them in the oven at 350 degrees. A few minutes later I impatiently yanked them out and served some for our dinner. I put the rest back in the oven until it was golden-brown - I had a little of it for dessert and it benefited greatly from the extra cooking!

We ate the radish "salad" rolled up in the lettuce leaves, and that was a complete success due to its utter simplicity.

Ingredients:
Cream from Oake Knoll Ayreshires in Foxboro, MA
Radishes from Blue Heron Farms, Lincoln, MA
Lettuce from Bolton Farms, Bolton, MA
Parsnips from Manheim Farm, Whately, MA
Sunchokes from Whole Foods, grown somewhere in VT
Veal tongue from Houde Family Farm, St. Johnsbury, VT

*It turns out I started a week early - this should clear up any numbering confusion.

 

Shave ice is as strongly associated with Hawaii as poi, and much more favorably regarded. Shave ice is the sophisticated sister of the snow cone, trading clunky crushed ice for delicate flakes shaved from a block, a difference that makes a surprisingly huge improvement on the experience. While you can track down some similar stuff on the mainland, particularly in various Little Tokyos, I've never been to a place offering as many varieties and flavors, or such finely shaved ice as the ones we went to in Kauai. This stuff was fluffy in the extreme, even soaked in syrup. For the minimalist, there is the purity of single-flavor ice, but I happen to prefer the whole shebang - three flavored syrups, with a lump of rich ice cream waiting underneath to soak up the disintegrating dregs of brightly colored ice.


My favorite was probably guava, passion fruit and pineapple over macadamia nut ice cream, and another group pick was coconut over macadamia nut ice cream with coconut flakes and coconut cream, but the most interesting choice was the halo halo shave ice, which includes a mix of beans, jelly and fruit under the ice. Jo Jo's Shave Ice in Waimea makes a halo halo shave ice with a mix that includes red beans, yam jellies, coconut strips and sundry fruit and jelly items, which is topped with coconut cream, shaved ice, coconut syrup and more coconut cream.


This particular variety of shave ice is a treat with a long lineage. According to Wikipedia, halo halo means "mix mix" in Tagalog, and in the Philippines it refers to a dessert of shaved ice and milk topped with a wide variety of fruits, beans, grains, kitchen sinks, gelatins, creams and/or custards. My understanding is that shave ice found its way to Hawaii via Japan, where shave ice is often topped with red beans, nata de coco and condensed milk. Jo Jo's halo halo shave ice looks like it was also influenced by Thai shave ice, which offers a huge variety of additions, but places them under the ice, unlike Japanese or Filipino versions.

 

With my first try at making homemade pasta, one thing was immediately clear: pasta-making is the epitome of "easy to learn, hard to master." I used the instructions from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a book I highly recommend for its meticulous discussion of pasta-making and other Italian cooking techniques. She painstakingly describes, down to the curve of your palm and the turn of the rolling pin, the movements used to knead, roll and shape the pasta dough.

Dough doesn't get much simpler than this: two eggs per cup of flour. Methods, on the other hand, don't get much more nuanced. While I attempted the motions Hazan describes, I felt like I was simultaneously rubbing my tummy and patting my head - while riding a unicycle. But I bumbled through, in the end producing something roughly akin to fettuccine.


I am glad I did, because the resulting pasta was, without an iota of exaggeration, sublime. Despite its uneven shape and the many places it stuck to itself, this pasta had a life and a vibrancy that made it addictive. It sprung up, on the tongue and the palate; its firm, smooth bite matched by a fresh, rich flavor. I'm a long-time fan of a little neighborhood shop that turns out fresh pasta in a variety of shapes and flavors, but I might be converted to doing this by hand. (But Capone's is still the next best to doing it yourself!)


To be honest, I think I owe the amazing texture and flavor of this pasta to the use of fresh eggs from local pastured chickens. These eggs have an excellent flavor, and are generally only a day or two old when they reach my fridge, meaning that they still have a very firm white. I haven't tried this with conventional eggs, though, so I can't be sure.

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    A large flat surface for rolling out the dough, preferably wood or some other low thermal mass material (ie, no marble) - I managed with about 36"x24" - and space to dry the pasta.
  • How much time does it take?
    About 20 minutes, plus drying and cooking time.
  • Does it smell?
    No.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    No, although a specialized rolling pin is recommended.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    Maybe. I am hooked on the homemade stuff, but if you need dinner in 10 minutes, the Barilla is the way to go.

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