Posted tagged ‘cooking’

Peel Me A Grape

September 4, 2016

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I fully intended to go to the fair. I wanted to see the animals, the kids’ 4-H projects, the pies, the jams and jellies. I really didn’t give a hoot or a holler about the concert stages, the fair foods, the hordes of visitors. I just wanted a metaphorical taste of the country life.

But somehow, instead of going to the fair, I became the fair.

My Concord grapes were so ripe that I could smell them from the driveway. I happen to think that their perfume is deeply thrilling, and I would eat them if I could, even though most people don’t consider them fit to be table grapes. Last year I gave them all to the food pantry, because they came ripe just as I was moving in, and I didn’t have the time for them.

This year I decided to make jam, which is truly a labor of love. I de-stemmed and then peeled 13 pounds of grapes, which took me the better part of an afternoon and evening. I wished for an old-fashioned huge family, sitting around the table, popping the fruit from the skins amid merry chatter. Instead, I sat outside on a lovely afternoon happily free from yellow jackets, and with the encouragement of some very nice tequila popped until I feared I could pop no more. And then, inevitably, I popped even more, because 13 pounds is roughly a million grapes. Fortunately friends came to harvest the remaining 40-50 pounds, because really, I was popped out.

But while I was popping the clear, seedy pulp from the fragrant near-black skins I looked up and saw that my plum tree had lots of ripe fruit, most of it too high for me to reach. I snatched down what I could, and made a few jars of plum-cardamom preserves. The rest will have to wait until a friend with a ladder comes to pick them for me. Whoever planted that tree let it get way too tall for picking. I don’t know what I’ll do with the rest of the plums, but it definitely won’t involve peeling them.

Plus, I remembered the pumpkins that a friend gave me last weekend, just waiting to be roasted, puréed, and frozen until Thanksgiving. So that’s up next, as soon as I wash just about every large bowl and huge pan in my kitchen, all of which are currently coated in stickiness.

The peculiar part is that, low-carb person that I am, I won’t eat any of it. I made it all to give away, because I can’t stand letting beautiful produce go to waste, and I love that it grows effortlessly in my garden, and because I enjoy feeling like a long-ago country girl, if only for a day or two. All that by way of saying that I had a good excuse for not making it to the fair, although I really did want to go. Next year I’ll have to plan better and not wait until the last day of the fair to start peeling those grapes. Or maybe I’ll gather a jolly popping crew and we’ll go to the fair together. Because whatever the next year may bring, there’s sure to be fruit, and there’s sure to be a fair.

Food For Thought

September 14, 2014

DSC_9056Today I haven’t seen, nor spoken to, another person. Toby and I have had a couple of heartfelt conversations, but although talking to a cat can be sweet and comforting, it’s not a very intellectual experience. So I’ve had a lot of time to think.

The day was hot and sunny, with just the slightest dash of autumn in the air. The water has been shushing and lapping all day, as it does, but with a poignant little song that says “you won’t be sitting out on that deck too much longer, missy, so you’d better drink it all in now.”

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There are still bees in the garden, stocking up for the coming winter, and the dahlias are out in full glory. It was a perfect day for a summer-preserving project, and here’s one of my favorite things to put up as the sun begins to go down earlier and earlier. I can’t eat them, of course, but I still love to make them, and they’ll make lovely holiday gifts. Make them right now, while the Italian prune plums are still in the market. Make them, but don’t eat them, yet. The longer these plums soak in their sweet brandy syrup the headier and more fragrant they’ll become.

This is a recipe that someone gave me many years ago, and they’ve sustained me many a time through the fading of the summer, the contemplation of the dark days to come. Because no matter how cold, wet, light-starved, or miserable you might be in the coming months, these plums will always bring you back to the warm, juice-dripping days of summer, whether or not you have someone with whom to share them.

Madison Valley Brandied Plums

3 lbs Italian prune plums
1 2″ long cinnamon stick
2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups brandy

Boil a pot of water as deep as the shoulder of your canning jar. This amount will make about a 2 quart jar full, and it’s easier to make it all in one large jar, although I sometimes, like today, make some in smaller jars (just beware of burning yourself with smaller jars!).

Wash the plums, remove their stems, and with a needle, pierce each one 6-7 times around the stem end. Pack them in to the jar, adding some plums cut in half to fill in the empty spaces. Tuck the cinnamon stick in there somewhere as you fill the jar.

In a medium pan bring the sugar, salt, and 1 cup water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Let this syrup cool for 10 minutes, then add the brandy. (And don’t go using expensive cognac here, just a reasonably-priced brandy will do just fine). Immediately pour this syrup into the jar, covering the plums.

Partially cover the jar and place it in the boiling water. Let it cook for 6-7 minutes, until you see the syrup at the top of the jar bubbling. Very carefully remove the jar from the water (here’s where burning yourself with those small jars comes in), tighten the lid, and set it to cool. When cool, store in the refrigerator for at least 2 weeks and up to several months before serving. In addition to the delight of eating these plums all by themselves, the syrup is delicious over ice cream, yogurt, or pound cake, and you could probably make a dynamite cocktail with it too.

Silky Shin Stew

September 26, 2011

Rainy day? Fall in the air? Beef shanks in the fridge? Last night’s dinner hit that trifecta and went on to a very satisfying finish. Is that good enough, or did it have to win the race to merit being featured here? Shel and I debated that point: although this isn’t the pinnacle of perfection, the gosh-darndest best thing you ever had on your fork, the dish that will win me eternal fame and fortune, I have to say that it’s really, really good. It’s beefy, since the shin, or shank, is one of the most flavorful bits of beef. It’s silky, because the leeks and marrow that are braised with the beef in a heady mixture of wine and cognac are all puréed into an unctuous sauce.  It’s just what it ought to be, a fancy trick done with an inexpensive cut, and you’ll save on heating your kitchen too as this dish braises all afternoon, warming the house and filling it with appetizing aromas before you settle down to mmmmm your way through dinner. Try it and see if you don’t.

Silky Shin Stew

2 T butter
2 T olive oil
3 1/2 lbs beef shanks, crosscut
3 medium leeks
1 ripe tomato
3 cups red wine (I used a Cheverny, you don’t want too much fruit or tannin)
1/4 cup cognac
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Salt and pepper the meat generously, using more pepper than you might think is prudent. Melt the butter in the oil in a heavy Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Brown the beef thoroughly, in two batches. When well browned, remove the beef to a plate and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 225°. Wash and thinly slice the white and light green portions of the leeks. Dice the tomato. Add the leeks to the Dutch oven and stir until they are lightly golden. Add the diced tomato and stir again. Add the wine and cognac, then the bay leaf and thyme and stir to combine. Return the beef to the pan, all in one layer, and spoon a bit of the leek and wine mixture over the meat. The liquid will only come about halfway up the side of the meat. Cover the pan tightly.

Set in the oven and let braise for about 4 hours, until the meat falls off the bone and is fork-tender. If you have any doubts about the tightness of your lid, check halfway through to be sure there’s still enough liquid in the pan, if not, add a bit more wine.

When the beef is tender, remove pot from the oven and carefully remove the hot beef from the pot and set it on a plate, leaving the sauce in the pot. With a knife, poke out the marrow from the bones and return it to the pan. Remove the bay leaf. With an immersion blender, purée the sauce until creamy and smooth. If it’s not as thick as you’d like it to be, set it to boil for 5-10 minutes until it reduces.

Pick the beef clean of any bits of connective tissue that have not dissolved during the braising, then return the beef to the sauce. Warm it all together, and add a fresh grinding of pepper, as well as additional salt as necessary. For non low-carbers, serve over polenta or mashed potatoes to soak up the delicious sauce. Low-carbers, be sure to have a spoon handy, you’ll want to lap up the sauce all by itself, and you should.

Tomatillo Time

September 16, 2011

We’re always craving Mexican food when we’re in France, and when we’re in the US we eat it as often as we can. That project has been considerably aided this year by a local farmer who has produced a bumper crop of gorgeous tomatillos. I’ve made several sorts of salsa verde, one of which found its way into

Shel’s beloved chicken  enchiladas with green sauce. But most often I’ve made a splendiferous version of guacamole that includes tomatillos and is the freshest, greenest-tasting, zingiest version of guacamole that I’ve ever encountered. Not to mention that it keeps in the fridge for several days, the acidity in the tomatillos evidently preventing it from browning like regular guac has a tendency to do.

This recipe comes form the current issue of Saveur magazine, which  you should run out and buy while it’s still on the newsstands, because it’s full of lovely salsa and pesto recipes. But in case you miss it, and especially for Annie and Rebecca, who recently raved about it, here’s the recipe. I use more lime and less chile than Saveur does, but that’s something you’ll need to adjust to your own palate and the acidity of your tomatillos.

Guacamole Taquero*

8 oz tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and chopped
1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped
1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
1/2 small white onion, chopped

Toss all of the ingredients in the food processor and whiz until smooth and creamy. Eat with everything imaginable.

*adapted from Saveur magazine

Scrumptious Shishitos

February 12, 2011

Today I’m celebrating on three counts: I found some beautiful shishito peppers and stunning fresh water chestnuts in the market, I’m typing this with two hands, and I can (just barely) lift the Nikon again, so the quality of pictures here can improve. Other than that, I’ve been neglecting you while we tried to thrash out whether Shel’s health will permit us to return to France for a few months, as planned.  The answer is, we still aren’t sure, but we’re making a decision on Tuesday after we see Shel’s doctor, because if we do go, it’s in just a couple of weeks, and we’d really have to get cracking. Don’t you agree that all of that calls for a really good dinner?

If you’ve never had shishito peppers, try to find some right away, at the Asian grocery nearest you. Normally they’re grilled whole and sprinkled with salt, and just popped in the mouth, one, two, three, or as many as you can eat. Their particularity is that some are neutral, some are warm, and the odd one is hot, and I’ve heard that those thrill-seeking Japanese, probably the same ones who eat the poisonous fugu fish, like playing hot pepper roulette.  Anyone who eats jalapenos will not find even the hottest shishito to be incendiary, but the thrill of the chase will still be there.

So I had those peppers, and a pile of water chestnuts, and some juicy and inviting pork shoulder steak to play with. The result was this rather homely

but addictively appetizing stir fry that I recommend to you for a chilly evening when the thrill of the pepper chase will warm your spirit.

Shishito Stir Fry

12-16 shishito peppers
12-16 fresh water chestnuts
1 lb pork boneless shoulder steak
1 small sweet red pepper
4 T canola oil, divided use
2 T soy sauce
2 T Shaoxing wine
1 T fish sauce
2 tsp black sesame oil
1 T crispy fried garlic (Vietnamese or Chinese)
3 T peanuts, roughly chopped
salt

You must have all the ingredients ready in advance, as once you fire up your wok this dish comes together in about 5 minutes. Begin by mixing together, in a medium bowl, a little marinade of 2 T canola oil, the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, fish sauce, and sesame oil. Cut the pork into bite-sized pieces and toss them into the marinade, mixing to coat all the meat. Let this rest on the counter as you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Peel the water chestnuts and slice them across the equator, so that you get 4-5 round slices from each one. Let the slices sit in a bowl of cold water as you proceed. Cut the red pepper into short strips. Chop the peanuts.

Heat your wok and add 1 T canola oil.  Toss in the whole shishito peppers and cook until they soften and begin to char, adding the red pepper strips about halfway through the cooking. Sprinkle the peppers with salt and remove them from the wok, setting them aside.

Add the remaining T of canola oil to the wok and toss in the pork, with its marinade.  Stirring rapidly, cook the pork very briefly*, just 2 minutes or so. Add the peppers to the wok, and the drained water chestnuts, and toss in the crispy garlic and the peanuts.  Stir together to combine the flavors and serve immediately.

*Pork shoulder can be cooked for just a couple of minutes before it toughens.  Once that happens, you have to cook it for hours to get it tender again, so really, just a minute or two in the wok!

Soul Satisfying Soup

January 22, 2011

Walking up the stairs to my kitchen yesterday, the aromas wafting downward from the soup pot filled me with a sudden “all’s right with the world” feeling. How does chicken soup do that?

We’d had a large and spicy Indian lunch, and I wanted a light supper, light but not bland.  Full of good things but not too filling.  Something easy on the waistline and the blood sugar, but nothing insipid. Something warm and warming for a drizzly evening in January. Chicken and vegetable soup popped right into my mind, although as we all know it can be a supremely boring dish.  I vowed to make one that wasn’t, and this one isn’t.  It’s not full of flavor fireworks or exotic ingredients, but it’s really, really good.

The stock’s the thing.  I always have a gallon ziplock bag of chicken bones in the freezer, and anytime we eat any sort of chicken I stuff the bones into the bag until it’s full, then I make stock. But I realize that a bag of bones is not for everyone, so you are allowed to cheat!  And here’s how.

Chicken and Vegetable Soup with Meyer Lemon

1 rotisserie chicken
1 quart chicken broth, homemade or bought
1 large leek
2 stalks celery, with leaves
1 large bulb fennel, with fronds
1 small zucchini
6 oz green beans
8 shiitake mushrooms
8 new or fingerling potatoes
2 T butter
1 Meyer lemon
salt and pepper
water as needed

Start by pulling all of the meat off the rotisserie chicken.  Do this with your fingers – it’s easier if the chicken is a bit warm. Put the meat in a bowl and refrigerate.  Put all the chicken bones  and part of the chicken skin in a 6 quart stockpot with the chicken broth, the green portion of the leek, the celery, the shiitake stems, and the fennel stalks and fronds. There’s no need to chop up these vegetables, jut set them atop the bones and add water to the pot until the bones are covered and the vegetables float.  Cover the pot, leaving the lid very slightly ajar, and simmer for about 2 hours.  You can definitely let it go longer, but 2 hours is the minimum here.  Have a peek from time to time and add a little water if necessary to keep the bones covered.

While the broth is simmering, dice the white and light green portion of the leek, dice the fennel bulb, and dice the zucchini. Trim the green beans and cut them into small bite-sized pieces. Cut up the meat from at least half the chicken, more if you wish, into small bite-sized pieces. Slice the shiitake caps.

When the broth is done simmering pour it through a fine strainer into a large bowl, then return the strained broth to the stockpot. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring the stock to a boil.

Drop in the little potatoes, reduce the heat to medium, and boil gently for 10 minutes. Add the shiitake slices, green beans, and diced leek, fennel, and zucchini, and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until all the vegetables are just tender.  Add the cut up chicken and simmer until heated through, allowing the flavors to blend but avoiding overcooking the chicken.  Just before serving add the butter and swirl until it melts. Squeeze in the juice of the Meyer lemon. Taste again for salt and pepper and serve.

That Ol’ Pot Likker

January 3, 2011

In the pantheon of lucky foods to start the new year off right, I’d have to say that collard greens, which are supposed to bring wealth and will undoubtedly bring health, are my favorite.  I know that leafy greens can be intimidating, so here’s a little how-to to get your year off on the right foot.  This is not so much a recipe as a concept, but it follows closely in the footsteps of cooks all over the South, and you can feel free to make it as is or to add your own personal touches without compromising your luck.

First off, get yourself a pile of collards (I used 3 pounds) and a couple of good meaty ham hocks. Put the ham hocks in a 6 quart pan and cover them with water, then boil them for an hour while you are preparing the greens.  You want the ham to be starting to fall off the bone before you add the greens.  Now, wash the collards,

and laying each leaf out flat, one at a time, remove the center ribs with a sharp knife.  Those ribs are tough and I just toss them, but if you have chickens or pigs to feed, I’m sure they’ll be glad to help you recycle the stalks.

Now take all of the leaf halves and stack them evenly one atop the other.

Working from the long side, roll the pile of leaves up into a tight bundle,

then slice across the bundle, creating a chiffonade of the leaves.  I like to give one final slice in the other direction too, so that the threads of greens aren’t so long that they’ll hang from your teeth in snarky strings.

When you’re done wielding the knife you should have a neat and lovely pile of greens ready for the pot.  Check your ham hocks.  If the meat isn’t yet ready to start falling from the bone, go make a list of all the lucky things you are hoping for this year. When the meat is very tender add the greens all at once, add a teaspoon of salt, cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and simmer the whole thing for 30-40 minutes.  When it’s done the greens should be very tender, and the meat even more so.  Taste for salt, and serve.

Be sure each bowl contains not only meat and greens but also a generous scoop of the juices, known as pot likker.  Lots of people would say that the likker is the best bit of all, and far be it from me to disagree: I love the stuff. Douse your bowl with some vinegary hot sauce to taste, it should be tangy and spicy. If you like cornbread, it’s the traditional way to mop and sop up all the likker.  Me, I put the bowl right to my lips and slurp it delicately down.  And there you have a succulent bowl full of health and wealth and good luck all around.  Happy New Year to you, and don’t forget to eat your vegetables!