Archive for the ‘putting food by’ category

now and later

May 8, 2013

When I begin laying out my garden each year, I’m mentally grouping the vegetables into four families: nightshades, cucurbits, legumes, and….other random stuff. Plants belonging to one family tend to have similar nutritional needs; they also share susceptibility to some of the same diseases and pests. Keeping kin together and rotating them to a different section of the garden each year is a way to keep everyone healthier without resorting to chemicals. So I try to end up with more-or-less-equal square footage for each of these categories.

But before that, back in seed-ordering season, I’m thinking about different groupings: now and later. The now vegetables are the reason I started gardening: the luscious tomatoes that can barely contain their own juices, the delicate greens that are best when cut moments before being dressed simply and served. I once thought I’d never get enough of these things–and in deep winter, when the catalogs arrive (seed merchants know what they’re doing) I still think that. But after a couple of years I found myself getting just as excited about preserving projects. And once you go there, it’s a short step to excess. (If you’re firing up the canner anyway, why bother with a few measly half-pints? Send the jumbo pack of beet seeds, please!)

But there is another category of later, one that has become more appealing as my garden has gotten bigger:  the “later” vegetables that keep with little help from me, like potatoes, winter squash, shell beans. Last year I felt very smart for planting lots of these (in the nightshade, cucurbit, and legume sections, respectively).

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All winter long, I’ve been enjoying the fruits of my labor. So, you’d think I’d be nearing the end but…you’d be wrong. While I’m not yet to the point where I’m tired of eating butternuts, it is getting to be time for the “food storage room” to be a “guest room” again. A few days ago, I roasted as many  as would fit in my oven.IMG_1618

These became:

– A curry-ish stew, made with a mysterious and magical spice blend (bought in Oman), plus onions, ginger, brown rice, dandelion greens, cilantro

– A couple of bags of squash puree for the freezer (which will probably be turned into something like the above)

– Squash gnocchi, again for the freezer

– Roasted squash seeds with cayenne, cumin and a touch of honey

All of these things are good, but they do not compare with the transformation achieved last night. I went to visit a friend in the next village and brought her a nice-looking specimen, plus a few storage failures to feed her goats.

She, in turn, sent me home with some just-snapped asparagus spears from her own garden.

Talk about transformation! I ate about half of them on the drive home. When I got home, I tossed some leftover rice with lemon, chives and feta, then topped with sosofresh sautéed asparagus and a fried egg.IMG_1654

Category: now.

 

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?

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.