Archive for the ‘experiments’ category

project grapefruit

December 20, 2011

When the kid came by selling fruit, I was happy to do my part to support the school band. I went for the large box of grapefruit, at $30, not really paying attention to what “large” meant.Turns out large means three dozen, at close to a pound each. (See those jars in the lower left? They are half-gallons.) That’s a lot of grapefruit. For the past couple of days I’ve been on a two-a-day diet. Last night, I rolled up my sleeves and began the real attack. First, I prepared the peels (saved from fresh consumption) for candying.These went into a sugar syrup to simmer while I began the marmalade. My research had turned up two basic techniques. One involved a laborious separation of outer rind and pith (ugh) while the other counteracted bitterness – and retained pectin – by boiling the fruits whole for a couple of hours, then chopping everything together. Obviously I chose this one.

After their scalding soak, the grapefruits looked like the saddest dodge balls ever.

A recipe of marmalade called for two grapefruit, which seemed hardly worth the trouble, so I planned three batches, each spiced differently. My mom is big on savory applications for marmalade, so I had her in mind for the first, which included a heaping teaspoon (each) of cracked black pepper, crushed coriander seed, minced ginger, and salt. The remains of the ginger (probably about two tablespoons) went into pot #2. The last batch simmered with the crushed contents of 5 cardamom pods; at the end, I added a few glugs of rosewater.

The tedious peel-separating recipes call for you to boil the marmalade for a couple of hours. In the version I chose the long pre-boil meant that, once assembled, this recipe required only about 20 minutes in the pot. So by the time I got the last one ready, the first was gelled and ready to can.

Last but not least, I was hoping to make some version of an Indian lemon pickle, but using grapefruit. After studying several recipes I couldn’t really figure out the logic. Julie Sahni has one that uses a ton of sugar and one that uses no sugar; neither use terribly much salt. I found some with oil, some without. Most were packed with spices simply not available in Cooperstown. (Aside: I had hoped to make a batch of marmalade with Campari, but that’s a little too exotic for my local liquor store.) In general it’s a bad idea to experiment with preserving, but since grapefruit are way below the safe pH for botulism, I felt brave. I ended up using the proportions of salt and sugar in this recipe, but devising my own spice mixture to complement grapefruit’s floral quality: into the mortar went 1/4 cup (each) of peppercorns and coriander, plus a few shards of cinnamon. I topped off the jar with some lemon juice… we’ll see what happens.

Which takes me exactly 1/3 of the way through my giant box of citrus. I guess I know what’s for breakfast…

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?

what [plants] want

June 26, 2011

Friday night I actually escaped work early enough to have dinner at home, but I found myself too tired — not too tired to cook, but too tired to eat. My intestines recoiled at the thought of digesting that last serving of  roasted beets/walnuts/arugula waiting in the fridge. I mentally tried on the idea of something simpler — say pasta with olive oil — but my salivary glands were unresponsive. And a lovely fresh salad from the garden — well, that seemed like a whole lot of chewing. I was tempted to just go to bed, but Saturday was the day off and I didn’t want to be prematurely pulled out of bed by an rumbling stomach. After pondering a bit longer, I knew what I wanted: a few walnuts, a couple of leaves of wild arugula, and a length of garlic scape pounded in some olive oil, eaten with the last of the bread.

Saturday morning I made a quick trip to the farmers’ market and then put on my grubby gardening clothes to see what I could do for this year’s garden tenants. Barbara Damrosch, in The Garden Primer, talks about thinking like a plant, learning to give them what they want. “Once you understand what makes plants tick,” she writes, “you’ll understand what you need to do to help them grow well.”

One thing young plants want is a space clear of competition. Weeding is never-ending, and I have to confess, I kind of like it. Last month, with renovations on my kitchen way behind schedule, I took my rage out to the garden, patiently wresting the long, hairy roots from the soil. I really should have been attacking the layer of carpentry dust that covered everything in the house, but it seemed so pointless, with the work not done yet. Why waste my time washing dishes in a construction site when I could be clearing the soil for my summer grocery store?

Except: even if I possessed the skill, determination and luck to get every last dandelion completely out, down to the tip of its taproot — and I don’t — a soft breeze across the downy heads left in my neighbor’s yard will soon sully the soil again. In the garden, there is no such thing as finished. And the same thing is true in making a home.

The renovations are down to the last details now, and I’m able to keep the house pretty clean, but some part of me has continued to resist really inhabiting it — I’ve been waiting for the installation of those shelves, the arrival of that last piece of furniture before I finally put everything in its place.

One day last week, a couple of hours into a really thorough job of weeding the legume section, I made the mistake of allowing myself to take in the entire garden, rather than the single plant I squatted next to. Completely overwhelming. The only way to avoid despair was to bring my focus back to plant-by-plant hospitality — pulling weeds, pinching suckers, training tendrils to wrap around supports. I didn’t do any of these jobs perfectly, but I knew the plants were going to be much healthier — and more productive — because of my efforts.

Something about the work of tuning in to the needs of my little green tenants made me more attentive to my own requirements. When I was through in the garden, I went inside and moved a small chest across from the kitchen sink to stand in for the island that will not arrive for weeks.

Having that workspace — temporary and imperfect though it may be — has transformed my ability to operate in the kitchen. Yesterday, during a late morning rainstorm, I came in from the garden and worked on putting together meals for the next few days. I started out by roasting beets and fennel from the morning’s market. Since the oven was on, I threw in the last of 2010’s butternut squash (time to clear the pantry and begin making way for 2011).

I usually make squash stew with ginger and all kinds of sweet, warming spices. Since I didn’t have any ginger — and since I wanted something a little more green and summery — I dug up a small piece of horseradish from the garden and ground that to a paste along with some of last year’s coriander harvest, a garlic scape, a mint leaf, and a healthy pile of black peppercorns. I also made the stew somewhat thinner than usual, ending up with a soup that was both sweet and bracing. Somewhere along the way I toasted the seeds and tossed them with the beets and fennel for a salad of many textures. After a good night’s sleep and a day of work in the garden, my stomach was ready for it. Just what I wanted.

raiding the pantry

January 6, 2011

It’s taken me awhile to figure it out, but now I know: eating well in winter is more about planning than canning. Shell beans, winter squash, potatoes, garlic go from the ground to the pantry with no processing required. So I planted lots of them. This December, I spent more time in Roseboom than anywhere else, so it was a great opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my labors.  

I. Spicy peanut-squash stew. Hack a giant squash in two and set it to roast in the oven, along with a head or two of garlic, anointed with oil and wrapped in foil. On the stove, soften chopped onions and garlic in olive oil, then add spices (I used cumin, coriander, cayenne) and toast a bit. Scoop in some peanut butter, plus maybe a little water, and stir until melted; turn off heat. Squish the roasted garlic into the pot. When the squash is manageable, peel and chop into cubes. Add these to the pot, along with enough water to get the consistency you want. At this point you can puree into an elegant bisque-like creation (maybe add some cream or coconut milk) but I prefer a chunky, inelegant stew. It is especially good with brown rice added, but all I had was crushed wheat, and that worked pretty well. Something green added just before serving is always a good idea, and I was able to dig some kale out of the snow—at least the for the first few servings.

II. Black beans, brown beer, purple potatoes. I once read a recipe for black beans cooked in dark beer until the beans were soft and the beer reduced to a syrup. With company expected for dinner, I needed to stretch the recipe a bit, so while the beans simmered in Ommegang I sauteed onions in oil, followed by spices, then added water and some chopped purple potatoes. (Regular potatoes would work as well, but they take on an unappetizing gray color in black bean soup.) Combined the pots, added some garlic, and voila: a nice hearty supper. I also chopped up some of last summer’s dried tomatoes, added them to warm olive oil, and served on homemade bread provided by my guests.

III. Extravagant lentils. Sometime in January, my kitchen is going to be gutted. So this business of cooking from the existing larder is not just about feeding myself and avoiding the trip to the market. It’s also about spending down the stores before I have to move the contents of my kitchen into the living room. This makes me feel a lot better about decimating supplies of luxury ingredients like dried porcini mushrooms. I put them into a stew of lentils, roasted garlic, celery, and leftover red wine.

IV. Bean, tangerine…  Cook chopped-up tangerine (with peel) and onion until carmelized,then throw in some chopped ginger and red pepper flakes. Add squash seeds and cook til toasted. Green beans can go straight from the freezer to pot.

V. Nightshade elixir. Ground cherries were this year’s garden discovery. They look like small tomatillos and taste something like a tomato crossed with a pineapple. Starting in August, my one plant threw off a handful or two of ripe fruit every day. Just before the frost hit, I picked it clean, gathering more than 700 full pods, some more ripe than others. I put them in jars with vodka and honey. I’ve read that this kind of preparation should sit for six months, but I threw caution to the wind served them in shot glasses following a recent dinner. They taste like strawberries.

VI. Cornmeal mush. I’m glad the Quaker company has retained the traditional name for the most basic recipe on its cardboard canister. The Italian title may be more musical, but cornmeal mush is good enough for me. I had it for breakfast with butter and maple syrup, for lunch (after a freak thaw revealed perky greens under the snow) with kale and carmelized onions.

VII. Something Asian….ish. On New Year’s Day, my friends up the road host a party in their sweet little straw house. Guests are asked to bring an Asian dish to share. I had a few relevant ingredients on hand—a lime, ginger root, coconut, sesame seeds—but I couldn’t figure out how these might combine with the other ingredients in my winter pantry. So I mixed them up with an egg and some sugar and made macaroons.

roasted tomato cornbread

September 9, 2010

Yeah.

no bent forks

July 26, 2010

I have a director friend with a favorite speech (typically delivered over a meal) that goes something like this:

     This is a fork.

     Not a knife.

     If you try to make it into a knife, all you’re going to get is a bent fork.

Her point is not so much about cutlery as about understanding and respecting the essential qualities of the actors you’re given to work with.

The day after a gathering at my house, I found a mostly full bottle of red wine on the counter among the empties. It belonged to the genre one friend calls porch wine—not special, not bad, just fine for distractedly sipping on the porch.

I hated to throw it out, so instead I threw it on the stove, with a scattering of last season’s coriander, to reduce. As I considered what I was going to do with it when complete, I realized I didn’t have a lot of options. Red wine glaze just doesn’t go with most midsummer vegetables.

Then I remembered some eggplants I had picked up at the farmer’s market. Reduction done, I corrected with a little honey, then added salt, olive oil, some smashed garlic cloves, and the eggplant (halved lengthwise) to the pot. After simmering for awhile, I put the whole thing in the fridge and went to bed.

The next morning I put some rice on to cook, figuring to layer it with the soused eggplant and some feta and oregano. I cut up the eggplant and tasted a bit. Not bad… but not special. And not nearly as appealing as all the things coming out of my garden faster than I can eat them…

Hindsight is 20/20. I should’ve thrown out the wine before rendering those lovely eggplants unspecial. Instead, I threw out the whole conglomeration.

There are schools of cookery that are all about culinary alchemy—making silver knives out of stainless steel forks, as it were. There are old techniques for making tough cuts of meats into tender, refined dishes, as well as new techniques that turn solids to foam, or liquids into self-contained shapes. While I appreciate the craft, and often the flavor, of such dishes, in my own kitchen I’m more inclined to let a fork be a fork. More and more, I find the best way to appreciate the essential qualities of whatever came out of the garden that day involves the application of olive oil and salt. Sometimes the “recipe” calls for the application of heat, sometimes not. Herbs and/or lemon are sometimes nice, but unrequired.

After I let go of the eggplant idea, I shredded some radicchio and chopped a handful of green beans and added those to the warm rice, along with a splash of olive oil.

rhubarb made fancy

June 4, 2010

This weekend, I harvested my first rhubarb. It has been a long wait; with rhubarb, asparagus, and other edible perennials, you wait a few years for the plant to get established before you start consuming parts of it. Otherwise it can get discouraged. But after three years, these plants are fair game.

 Last year, I threw together a last-minute rhubarb sorbet with some stems from the market. No recipe: a simple combination of herb-infused simple syrup and chopped rhubarb cooked to the point of collapse, thrown in the ice-cream maker. The result was visually unappealing, but the taste was the opposite of beige. Summer by the spoonful.

I had a houseguest over the weekend, and I was excited about repeating this casual but brilliant idea to close a casual summer supper.

But, for whatever reason, it never quite made the transition from slop to sorbet. Not wanting to waste my first harvest, I put it in the fridge (which at that point was still working) and waited for inspiration to strike.

 The next day, I put the mixture back on the stove, added more lavender, threw in a stick of butter, thickened with some eggs, and strained.  It was not pretty but it was good.

 It was also more richness than two people could comfortably consume, so I needed to get from there to something that could be eaten out of hand at the tech table. I made a pie crust and then cut out rounds to fit the cups of a muffin tin. While they baked, it occurred to me that there was a danger of sogginess, so when they came out of the oven I placed a few chocolate chips on the bottom of the hot crusts and then, once they were melted, smooshed around with the end of a wooden spoon. Cut the corner off a Ziploc bag, filled the crusts, then finished with some shredded mint leaves.

A far cry from the casual, fresh intention, and not something I’ll have the energy to repeat anytime soon. But so good!