Archive for September 2011

pickle me this

September 10, 2011

All summer long my friends and I have been embalming lovely fresh produce in vinegar and/or sugar syrup and then subjecting the jars to a boiling water bath* to kill anything that might still be alive.

Humans have been pickling food for thousands of years, but my generation seems to be just rediscovering these frugal-yet-hedonistic techniques. We buy cookbooks from nouveau homesteaders based in places like Williamsburg and Charlotte, NC. We follow modern FDA guidelines — and then some — for safe handling, carefully processing either high-acid or sugar saturated mixtures, and we put together exotic ingredients our forebears never thought of. Don’t get me wrong — I am definitely enjoying strawberry preserves with rosewater, plum noir with cardamom, and spicy squash with cumin (that’s right, in Otsego County, whole cumin is still an exotic — after failing to find it in the four stores within a 15-mile radius, I finally got lucky at the Oneonta Hannaford).

Still, the whole idea behind preserving is about, well, preserving what you have. And I kept coming across these descriptions of old-fashioned lacto-fermentation. In this technique, vegetables are placed in cool salt water, where they wait for microbial organisms naturally present on their skins to ferment and transform them into something delicious.

Yum? We super-sanitary Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with the microscopic creatures with which the air and water teems. And that’s before reading about the mat of mold that periodically needs to be scraped off the top of the bubbling mixture. Still, I was intrigued. I was intrigued by the descriptions of the taste, said to be less sharp than that of vinegar-cured pickles. But more than that I remain intrigued by the idea of food made exclusively from the sun and soil and air — and microbes — present on my little half-acre.

So a couple of weeks ago I filled a crock with wedges of cucumber, yellow squash and green tomato, plus a bunch of dill and a few slivers of horseradish, poured over the brine, and forgot about it.

Well, that’s not true. I also worried a little. While I’m a firm believer that American kids don’t eat enough dirt, and that all this hand sanitizer is actually making us a lot less healthy, botulism is no joke. The fact that I live alone made it all the scarier — I could see myself, drooling, half-paralyzed by the deadly neurotoxin, trying unsuccessfully to reach the phone while Bob mewed worriedly from the stairwell.

So I did what any self-respecting homesteader would have done: I order some pH test strips from Amazon.com.

When I removed the lid from the crock, the sight might have made me sick — if it didn’t smell so good. Here is a picture of the brining pickles, along with their lovely furry hat.

In case you are not sufficiently repulsed, here’s a close-up of the scum.

Botulism cannot survive in pH lower than 4.6, though, and the pH test gave a reading somewhere around 3 — very safe. Also delicious!

*Pickle Trivia: According to the NY Food Museum, we have Napoleon (yes, that one) to thank for the boiling water bath. He valued pickles as a health asset for his armies, so much so that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve food safely. The man who won the prize in 1809 was a confectioner named Nicholas Appert, who figured out that if you removed the air from a bottle and boiled it, the food wouldn’t spoil. He’d have to wait for Pasteur to describe why by making the bottle airtight, no microorganisms could enter, and by boiling it, any microorganisms that existed were killed. Known today as the “boiling water bath,” Appert’s discovery was one of the most influential culinary contributions in history.

But who needs it?

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more than one way to skin a tomato

September 6, 2011

The first time I tried to peel and core a (small!) quantity of cherry tomatoes, it wasn’t too long before I wanted to flay myself. It is a fussy job no matter how you slice it, but if the little suckers are  slightly too green or slightly too ripe it is damn near impossible — either the skins refuse to let go or the fruit turns to mush in your fingers. And yet this morning I found myself contentedly peeling a pile of cherries for the summer’s third batch of tomato preserves.

This is the season of tomatoes, the most valuable currency of the kitchen. I bring in way more multicolored beauties than I can consume, but I’m always reluctant to downgrade them from fresh to — well, anything else. Every day or so I’ll dry a few pans of halved cherries in the oven, but at least as many are reserved for consumption in their unadulterated form. I pile them up on every available surface, believing somehow that I need to hold on to that Brandywine, this bowl of Persimmons, or risk fresh tomato bankruptcy — never mind that the garden’s economy is showing no signs of slowing.

Yesterday I came to my senses and decided it was time to clear the countertops. I began the day by sorting — perfect, medium-sized specimens would be preserved whole in a ginger-lemon syrup, smaller ones would be oven-dried, and the random remains would be sauce.

These plans involved peeling everything but the babies destined for the oven, a task that turns out to be not as tedious as it once seemed. It helps when you have gained a measure of skill through practice. But more than that, it is an aesthetically pleasing process, bordering on the erotic. After a quick dip in boiling water, the damp, soft skins slip off like a negligee, revealing the delicate flesh beneath — veiny, translucent little orbs that seem lit from within.

I once came across a note in a cookbook that suggested drying tomato skins in the oven and using them as a seasoning. At the time I thought this to be a ridiculous idea. But looking at the sunset-colored pile of discarded vestments, I couldn’t resist.

Even pleasant pursuits can be exhausting, so when I reached the bottom of the preserves pile, I took a little break before attacking the lumpier beasts destined for the saucepot.  Slicing up cherries for drying is quick work; after a few hours in a low oven they would dry to leathery coins that could be packed away for a winter’s day.

So, with the oven humming and a pile of sugar slowly melting over the preserves-to-be, I turned to the sauce tomatoes. Their flesh folded into irregular crevasses and weird growths, as well as the occasional dark spot that needed to be excised — nothing sexy about any of that. I wielded my paring knife like a butcher and did my best to contain the gore.

I find it hard to get too excited about tomato sauce, actually, but after a busy summer of canning I’ve already got more ketchup, salsa, and tomato jam than I know what to do with. So for this project I thought more in terms of soup base — something I could add to, say, a bag of lentils for a quick winter meal.

I started with the typical mélange of onions, carrots, celery, plus a stalk of lovage. (Lovage is my new discovery of the season — it looks a little bit like celery, tastes a little bit like celery, but it also carries the distinctive flavor of, well, lovage. It really doesn’t taste like anything else that I can identify, but boy does it add an intoxicating aroma to a bubbling sauce.) Next, some garlic pounded with coriander, followed by a couple of zucchini, and finally the tomatoes and some oregano.

Preserves were the last job: the pretty little globes with which I began my day went  over the flame with their sugar syrup, plus sliced lemons, ginger and a few cloves. It is a recipe that takes more patience than skill: the idea is to reduce the liquid to gel stage without allowing the tomatoes to fall apart.

And that was that — 14+ pounds of tomatoes reduced to six luminous jars of preserves, about a cup of dried tomatoes, the beginnings of four pots of soup. And the experiment with the peels? Um… I got distracted and burned them.

I stepped outside with the remains and the breeze carried them east to settle on the garden from whence they came. Which is where they were headed anyway, I guess. The path they took happened to be a little less messy than traveling through my gut and septic system. But whether progress begins with a holy unveiling or sloppy scalping, whether they seep into the muck or are borne aloft on the wind, all tomatoes get themselves back to the garden… somehow.

late summer supper

September 6, 2011

ground cherries

fresh goat cheese with olive oil, herbs, lemon zest

*

sliced tomatoes with wild arugula

pesto eggs

lemon squash stewed with tomatoes, olives, oregano

green beans, kale, and potatoes with creamy walnut-garlic-thyme dressing

*

strawberry-rose jam tart with almond meal crust, served with fresh goat cheese

ginger tea

Someone once told me that “packing takes the time allotted,” and it’s absolutely true: if start planning two weeks before your trip, preparations can easily consume that fortnight. On the other hand, I’ve set the alarm just a little bit early on the morning of departure and still managed to somehow throw a few things together and make the plane.

On Sunday I started dinner quite early — it was to be a hot day, so I planned a dinner of cool things that could be cooked in advance, giving the kitchen plenty of time to return to a comfortable temperature. I started with the baking: punched down the bread dough I had put together the night before, then made the pastry for the jam tart. After I put it in the fridge to chill, I walked out to the garden to do some grocery shopping.

I was able to congratulate myself on the awesomeness of my life for about half an hour before things started to go wrong. The first jam tart burned. The purple potatoes turned gray and mealy when boiled. The blender went on strike after I filled it with basil, oil, garlic, almonds. I did find another route to the one experimental preparation on my menu — a dish in the shape of deviled eggs, but flavored by mashing the yolks with pesto — only to find that yellow yolks + green basil = unappetizing gray-green paste.

A head start saves no time in packing, and the same is apparently true in the kitchen: this simple summer supper was going to consume my day. I went back to the potato pile for something waxier. I thawed the pesto I had put away a few weeks earlier. When it turned the yolks gray, I tucked basil sprigs and nasturtiums between the eggs and made bright-green basil oil to drizzle over before serving. I started again with a new jam tart. In the spaces between I blanched some beans, shaped some bread, picked and cleaned the various herbs I’d need to finish each dish.

The squash — the last thing on my prep list — was the only thing that proceeded according to plan. (Melt and brown finely sliced onions. While the onions are cooking, peel and core tomatoes. Remove onions from pan. Add squash in batches to brown, then return onions to pan with tomatoes, pitted olives, a few smashed cloves of garlic, and a pile of oregano. Stir occasionally and swoon.)

I had started cooking early, but by the time I was done prepping and cleaning and putting things away, the day was almost gone.

And then the electricity went out. Which, in a house supplied by a well, means no water. It thought about calling my guests, but the phone was out too. So they came, and we sat, and candlelight was enough to find our forks and converse by.  No one could appreciate the many colors of tomatoes in the pretty green serving bowl — but then, no one noticed the gray eggs, either.