Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's a Gratin Time to Fall Behind...

I've been back from vacation nearly two weeks, and I'm still catching up.

Sure, I started off with a clean slate in the kitchen -- or, rather, a clean fridge -- but I very quickly restocked on fresh vegetables and then... fell behind.

A prime example: I bought a bulb of fennel at last week's farmers' market and have meant all week to make a gratin with it. But it wasn't until this evening that I had time, energy, and inclination all together to propel me into new recipe territory.

Though I meant to follow the recipe from Local Flavors to the letter, a discussion with the Archivist on the merits of fennel with potatoes and lemon persuaded me to adapt the recipe. I ended up using local garlic scapes, local fennel, and CSA potatoes along with plenty of lemon peel, organic cream, and Parmesan cheese to make this fragrant and filling dish.

I've also fallen behind on my blog-reading and link-sharing, so I'm just going to have to offer you a hodgepodge of other reading to carry you into the weekend:

--If you're like me and buy more at the farmers' market than you can get to right away, you might want to review these tips on storing produce, offered over at Grist.

--Looking for a good way to use some of the produce you've been drying? (Because I know you've tried it, right?!) Tuck it into your backpack for your next big hike. Of course! Now, if only I could find a mountain nearby...

--I'm a big fan of fellow Ohioan Gene Logsdon and his writings from a real farm. His recent offerings over at Organic To Be include an "ode to horse manure" and instructions for building hotbeds (using that manure). Handy for the day I actually get to homestead myself!

--Barbara over at Tigers and Strawberries had a recent post on "How Local Can You Realistically Go?" I think she offers a number of good points, but I sometimes find her blunt realism off-putting. I would suggest instead that in some cases, if you can't find it locally, why not try growing it? I haven't been able to find local dried beans of any variety, which is why I decided to plant favas, garbanzos, cannellinis, and pinto beans this year. I may not get a big crop, but it's showing me what is possible. I'd also like to try grains sometime. Why not think about that, too?

--If you're following my preserving series, don't forget to follow what other bloggers have to say, too. Valerie at Cincinnati Locavore reminds us why it's important to follow the rules in canning, while Janet at Foodperson shows one example of when a little improvising is possible. Sharon at Casaubon's Book has recently wrapped up an online course on food preservation, and everything she writes is worth reading, though I would particularly highlight her tips on preserving food on a very tight budget, developing a method for storing and using your food, and looking at food preservation from the angle of keeping fresh food coming in longer.

--And if you're wondering what's in season before you head to the farmers' market, Epicurious has an interactive map available to help you find out.

That should keep you busy for the weekend while I hole up in the kitchen and plow through my produce (including the giant zucchini the Archivist gave me).

More anon...

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 9

Just when I thought I had friends aplenty at my CSA farm, along comes this little guy, dubbed Iggy by my Pop.

And yes, this handsome fellow greeted us as we picked up this week's CSA share and let us know that our first eggplant was available today. Wasn't that sweet of him?

Granted, the table was well loaded with a wonderful variety of produce, so after a stroll back to the fields while the Lady Bountiful helped another CSA member, My Dear Papa and I reviewed our selection for the week and divided it accordingly:

--one Superstar white sweet onion (his)
--one Walla Walla sweet onion (mine)
--two small eggplant (one for each of us)
--two green peppers (ditto)
--three bulbs garlic (one for him, two for me)
--one Spineless Beauty green zucchini (mine)
--one Gold Rush yellow zucchini (his)
--one pint yellow summer squash (his)
--one pint okra (mine!)
--one head Snow Crown cauliflower (his)
--one quart green beans (mine)
--one quart Early Girl tomatoes (mine)
--two Lemon Boy tomatoes (one for each of us)
--one pint red cherry tomatoes (his)
--one quart Red Pontiac potatoes (mine)

That seemed like a good division of the spoils to me, but then we both ended up buying extra: My Dear Papa bought a pint of the Early Girls, while I added on two and a half pints of cherry tomatoes, another pint of okra, another head of cauliflower, and three more zucchini. I know, I still have produce in the refrigerator -- but how can I resist?

The Lady Bountiful reported that not everyone wanted their okra from the CSA share, so while she agreed to swap them something else for the okra, I reaped the benefit. (You know I loves me some okra.) And I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the windfall than by having some fried okra along with my dinner -- especially when my recipe ended up on this week's CSA sheet!

After dinner, I prepared all the cherry tomatoes for drying and got them started in the dehydrator, but that's all I plan to do tonight. Maybe tomorrow I'll get more preservation done, and then I can tackle some cooking this weekend. (Zucchini, here I come!)

Are you hungry yet?

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Watching the Crock

Around the New Year, inspired by Ed's raptures about his pickling crock, I found a nice smallish ceramic crock at a nearby shop, determined to try something different for food preservation this year.

I'd had the wild notion to try making sauerkraut. Granted, I've never tried fermentation before, and I've never been a fan of sauerkraut, but I thought I'd at least try and have some homemade kraut for My Dear Papa, who loved it.

Well, that was the idea, anyway. When I informed him of the plan, My Dear Papa pointed out that he had real difficulty with eating sauerkraut and other sour things these days, so he probably wouldn't partake.

Back to the drawing board! Instead, I remembered Bonnie's talk of kim chi on the Ethicurean, and then I found Emily's inspiring post about making kim chi to break in her crock. What the heck? I thought. It's worth a try.

I decided to follow Emily's recipe as it didn't sound terribly hot and spicy -- and I do like ginger -- so with two heads of cabbage from this week's double CSA share, I thought it was time to get started.

I shredded most of one head of cabbage and grated a couple of carrots, tossing them into the crock this morning before heading off to the Inn.

I added the brine and fumbled around for a dish that would truly fit the crock, finally settling on a small baking dish. Setting the dish atop the vegetables, I added a quart jar of water and allowed the excess brine to spill out (having set the crock in a baking dish) as the dish weighted down the vegetables.

Then, I walked away, leaving the dish to press down for the better part of the day (though I had to switch bowls at some point as the first one would only go down so far). By evening, I was ready to drain the vegetables, reserving the brine.

I added scallions (from my garden), ginger, crushed red peppers (from last year's preservation), salt, and sugar to the cabbage and carrots, stirring well to mix before returning them to the crock and topping with brine. I pressed a dish into the vegetables again and tucked the lot into the refrigerator.

According to Emily's recipe, I'll have to wait a few days to taste the final product, but I'm optimistic. It certainly looks good to this point!

Guess I'll just have to wait and see!

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Market Report: 7/26/08

I almost didn't go to the farmers' market today.

It's shocking, I know. But since the Innkeeper asked me earlier this week to fill in for her this morning, I decided to pick up a double CSA share on Wednesday, hoping that would keep me covered for produce for a week, just in case I wasn't able to get to the market in time.

But I wrapped up breakfast at the Inn earlier than expected, and I had other errands to run downtown. And most of all, I couldn't bear the thought of what I might miss!

So I trekked down to the market and wandered from table to table, looking at all the good produce and baked goods, and took some time to visit with the farmers I haven't seen in three weeks.

As you might expect, getting more produce earlier in the week didn't stop me from buying more this morning, but I did manage to limit my purchases considerably:

--blueberries from a new farmer
--half a dozen ears of bicolor corn from the Corn Queen
--fennel, a zahtar spice mix, and crackers from the Herb Lady
--broccoli, kohlrabi, and a cookie from the Cheerful Lady
--more broccoli from the Fiddlin' Farmer
--a pound of green beans from the local Orchard (they ran out of red raspberries just before I got there!)

Yes, much of that will end up in the freezer, though I'm sure I'll enjoy one ear of corn for dinner tonight!

Wandering the market also gave me an idea of what to expect in the next couple of weeks: peaches and (I hope) plums, okra, more corn, and loads of tomatoes. The work -- and the fun! -- never ends!

How could I have thought of missing it all?

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: July, Week 4

Summer can be a tricky time for the appetite. Though I may be smitten with all the gloriously colorful and fragrant produce now coming into season, I often find that the hot weather -- or exhaustion from all the work needed to preserve the food -- curbs my appetite significantly.

It's a time of year when simplicity rules. Salads and raw foods tend to rule the day, given the ease of preparation and the benefit of avoiding the stove or oven. Many days I'll come home from work, nosh on a cracker or two before starting in on prepping vegetables for canning or freezing, and then just pick a vegetable from the refrigerator and prepare it as simply as I can. Somehow, delaying my gratification through preserving food often helps me eat far less now to save it for later.

Not always, though. After all, I have to keep up my energy and strength to keep working in a hot kitchen, right? So some evenings I will move beyond eating lettuce out of hand and actually dirty a pan or two to get a decent meal.

While I often fall back to an easy pasta dish -- and I did make both pasta and pesto this week -- I'll share with you one of my other summer standby meals:

My beloved cast iron skillet gets a workout at other times of the day than just showing up for morning pancakes. And while I've been known to make a meal of hash browns alone (or topped with yogurt or chutney), I also like very quick and easy vegetable pan-frying.

Zucchini slices alone, thinly cut from a small and tender squash and sauteed in olive oil until soft and browned, make a beautiful, simple, satisfying meal. Pan-fried potatoes, with their crispy edges and salty bite, help ease the occasional cravings for potato chips. But when you throw the two together, dinner gets even better.

For dinner this evening, I sliced part of a zucchini and one large red potato, both from this week's CSA share, and fried them so quickly on the skillet that they were more seared than fried. Both vegetables had a raw snap to them in many places, but that added to the fresh intensity of the flavor, as if I'd hit the Lost Chord of culinary delights. Seasoned solely with salt, pepper, and dried oregano (also from my CSA), they would have made an ideal meal on their own.

But then, you see, I had this beautiful little Rutgers tomato from my garden, sitting by its lonesome on the counter and looking oh so ripe. So I sliced it and added it to the plate, as darkly red and silkily tender as velvet. It's been a while since I had a real fresh tomato, but the first one of the season never fails to stop me in my tracks and to impress me with its pure tomato essence.

A meal like that -- simple, small, fresh -- made the perfect interlude between preparing cherry tomatoes to dry and blanching and freezing yellow beans. I don't need much to keep going, but I do need something to make it all worthwhile.

It's good to get away from recipes in the summer and to approach fresh produce on instinct, asking yourself what would make that ripe vegetable taste as much like itself as possible. Chances are, you won't need to do much at all with it, either in cooking or seasoning.

So go. Take a break from putting up food for the winter. Sit back and enjoy something light and fresh. Save the fancy stuff for later.

And enjoy.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Herb 'n' Sprawl

After picking up this week's CSA produce, My Dear Papa drove me by the garden to check on things. We had stopped briefly on Sunday, and I could see then that it needed attention, but I knew I'd have to wait to get much of anything done.

Granted, I didn't have a whole lot of time this evening to much, either, but I did have the opportunity to take a closer look at everything.

The amaranth, grown tall and lush, is now blooming, with fuzzy fuschia flowers crowning the stalks. While this particular variety of amaranth may not be as useful for grain (though it apparently makes an excellent red dye), I'll be collecting those flowers as they dry and set seeds.

I'm finally starting to see some action on the rest of the beans. While the Tiger Eye beans were setting pods before I left on vacation and the others were blooming, I was starting to get a little worried that the cannellini and the garbanzo flowers hadn't been pollinated.

Ah, but fret no more, for the cannellini beans (left) now have several small and slender seed pods, and the garbanzo plants (right) have
developed soft, puffy pods for their beans. I don't know yet just how prolific the plants are in either case, but it's a start. After not being able to find local dried beans and finally hitting upon a way to get my own, I'm so excited to know that my pantry will include a little extra protein this year, thanks to my garden.

The tomatoes continue to produce plenty of fruit, though after last week's heat wave, the nights have grown cool again and kept the tomatoes from turning red. My Dear Papa picked three last week, and I picked one upon my return home, but otherwise, we'll still have to wait.

The melons, after a sluggish start, have decided to allow their imperialist streak to reign triumphant, and they have not only taken over their entire bed, but they have annexed the next as well. (I hope the kale I planted there a couple weeks ago survives...)

A careful look under the leaves of the watermelon plants revealed several small melons forming, from the just barely swollen size to this beauty:

This melon is currently about 6" or 7" in diameter and fairly weighty for its size. It's not quite ripe, and I don't know how large this particular variety gets, but I am definitely starting to salivate.

Amidst all the melons, the nasturtiums continue to thrive, so one of these days I'll need to harvest some blossoms for herbed vinegar and some more leaves for salads. (I also hope to try harvesting some of the buds or seeds to make a substitute for capers... I've never tried that before!)

The main harvest of the night, though -- aside from a few scallions -- was a grocery bag full of basil stalks and leaves. That's right, it's time for pesto!

My Dear Papa loaned me his small food processor, so once he dropped me (and my produce) at home, I got busy. I chopped garlic from my CSA share and pureed it with pine nuts, pepper, olive oil, and the basil leaves, stopping occasionally to scrape down the bowl and to add more of everything.

As is my usual routine, I spooned the finished pesto into ice cube trays for freezing -- and ended up filling one and a half trays with about 3 cups of pesto. I've found in the past that one cube is usually sufficient for a two-serving batch of pasta, so this will last a while.

I do so enjoy eating from the garden!

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Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 8

Though I can't say I was jumping for joy to be back at work this week, I can definitely say that I am thrilled to be back into the CSA groove!

My Dear Papa and I headed out to the farm this afternoon, eager to pick up this week's share. And since My Wonderful Parents got the bulk of the produce for the past two weeks, they were happy to let me have it all this week. (And I was happy to take it.)

Another colorful week! Here's what made up the share today:

--one Alisa Craig sweet onion
--one Red Burgamaster onion
--one bunch of Bolero carrots
--one head of Dynamo cabbage
--three bulbs of the first dried garlic
--one Spineless Beauty green zucchini (I love these names!)
--one Gold Rush yellow zucchini
--one pint Patty Pan squash
--one head Snow Crown cauliflower
--one quart of yellow beans
--one quart of Early Girl tomatoes
--one pint of mixed cherry tomatoes (red and gold)
--one quart of Baby Red Pontiac potatoes

A pretty impressive selection, don't you think? Ah, but it gets better.

Since I'm ready to jump back into food preservation this week and may miss the farmers' market again this coming Saturday (maybe not, but I don't know yet), I asked the Lady Bountiful if I could get a second share, as long as she had enough produce to go around. She confirmed that she had plenty, so I paid for the second share on the spot and brought home twice of almost everything -- the exceptions being a large zucchini in exchange for the second Patty Pan squash, three extra pints of cherry tomatoes instead of one, and some extra green beans thrown in for fun. Wow!

I may have come home from vacation to a largely empty refrigerator, but after this, if I go hungry, it's my own darn fault!

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cheaper By the Frozen

I meant to post an update on my preservation progress before I headed off on vacation, but never fear -- I can catch up now just as easily.

Before heading off, I needed to clean out and rearrange the freezer. I've been adding so much to it that the remains of last year's produce were buried, and I needed to pull those out, ready to thaw when I got back home to an empty refrigerator. So I took the small wire rack from under one of my houseplants and set it in the freezer to delineate the space a little better for storage.

At this point, here's what I've frozen of this year's produce (and bear in mind that though I may use quart-sized freezer bags for the most part, I usually only freeze about two servings per bag):

6 bags pac choi from the garden
1 bag chopped spinach (definitely not enough!)
4 small bags of carrot tops for stock (should be freezing more)
2 bags snow peas
1 bag shelling peas (not enough for samosas and stews)
12 bags broccoli (pizza, here I come!)
1 bag cauliflower
4 bags green beans
16 cubes (ice cube sized) cilantro
1 bag strawberries
1 bag blueberries
2 bags black raspberries
1 big bag gooseberries

While I've done pretty well at putting away vegetables so far (save for peas; but I still have edamame to use and will get more later in my CSA), I certainly haven't frozen much fruit. Fortunately, that's because I've been drying more of that.

And if you're wondering about the progress on my canning, well, I still have applesauce and tomatoes and grape juice in the pantry from last year, but I've been adding to the shelves in small batches:

6 half-pint jars of strawberry jam
1 half-pint jar and 3 half-cup jars of mulberry-lemon-ginger jam
3 half-pint jars of spiced cherries
3 half-pint jars of mixed vegetable pickle
12 pints of hot dill pickles
3 half-cup jars of red onion confit
2 half-pint jars of blueberry chutney

That's pretty good progress, I'd say!

Of course, it's not even the end of July, and there is so much more food preservation to come. But it's good to lean back for a moment, survey what I've done so far, and think how much that will save me on my food budget come winter.

And that's enough incentive to continue.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blues Sisters

In planning our vacation, the fair Titania offered a number of suggestions for our leisure hours, including hiking nearby mountains, swimming, kayaking, and other outings.

Enthusiastic as I was, though, about enjoying a very physical vacation after spending way too much of my work time in front of a computer, my body had a different plan in mind once I settled into the lake house. I've been sleeping in, lolling about, and drifting on the lake, venturing out only for the rare visit to local establishments and one brief hike.

Early in the week, Titania determined to head out and pick wild blueberries. She introduced me to a local field where the owners welcomed community members to pick freely from the low bushes.

"Have fun," I said, drifting back to my book and sunny perch on the dock, not wanting to waste my efforts on bending over for so many small fruit.

I should add here that Titania has always demonstrated far more enthusiasm for blueberries than I have, holding the wild variety in high esteem. I like blueberries, but as I'd only ever had the cultivated ones before, I didn't understand her passion. When she shared some of her foraged berries with me, though, I could see her point.

The cultivated ones, left, might be bigger, but the small wild blueberries tasted juicier, sweeter, and more intensely flavored. I'm sold!

Two outings to the field, despite the good yield, proved to be insufficient for my dear friend, and I found myself eagerly supporting her plan to take the kayaks out on the lake and to forage from the endless shorelines of wild berry bushes.

We headed out in late afternoon, inspecting spots along the way and picking clean the bluest of berries from those branches we could actually reach. I couldn't quite decide if this seated method were easier than standing and bending around a high bush -- or if I were getting far more of a workout from maneuvering my craft and strong-arming branches into my reach.

We wandered and picked for a couple hours, only gathering about a quart and a half of berries between us, but we returned shortly before sundown, welcomed home by a loon drifting across our course.

After cleaning my share of the berries, I treated myself to the harmonious combination of local ginger ice cream topped with wild berries. Perfect!

I still have about a pint of berries to take home with me -- as long as the airport security folks don't confiscate them.

And that's the berry best souvenir to carry home!

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A Food Time Was Had By All

The fair Titania, one of my dearest friends, is also one of the best people I know for sharing a vacation.

Her fearlessly adventurous spirit, her delightful sense of whimsy, her knowledge of local treasures and customs, her willingness to set the excellent example of late mornings and restfully-paced days -- these qualities all inspire in me a sense of total relaxation and enjoyment, both much needed.

When you add in the fair Titania's kitchen ability and poetic appreciation for fresh produce -- well, you can imagine that this week has been one long, exciting exploration and celebration of the area's finest foods.

Following our first evening's meal, we've enjoyed cooking with the local produce from her CSA and from the local farmstands:

--an Indian-inspired meal of dal, raita, chapati, breaded eggplant with blueberry-red onion chutney, and a spicy combination of potatoes and peas

--radish sandwiches on local sunflower seed bread with local creamery butter, and fried okra

--a luscious apricot and plum crisp with locally-brewed rhubarb soda

--a breakfast omelet made with local eggs, raw milk cheddar, and fresh basil

--salad with lettuce from her parents' garden, and cucumber slices dipped in local creamery garlic cheese

--brunch at a local restaurant, featuring produce from a neighboring farm

And I haven't thought once about having to preserve any of it: this week, it's all about appreciating excellent food here and now!

And we have more appreciating to do!

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cream Catcher

It might be difficult for me to be away on vacation in the heart of summer, knowing that I'm missing all the delights of my CSA, my garden, and my local farmers' market. And I do miss them, even with all the food preservation work tied up with all of them!

But I am enjoying exploring the local foods that another foodshed has to offer, and one of the most appropriate culinary treasures for a week's vacation at the lake house comes from the local creamery.

The fair Titania led me over hill, over dale, and back a number of gravelly trails into the woods and up a mountain. When at last she stopped next to a seemingly deserted cabin, she announced that we had arrived and promptly introduced me to the locals.

Once inside the 24-hour farmstand (operating on the same local honor system), it became immediately evident that not only were several more cows involved in the creamery's activities but that a handful of humans had helped to produce an astonishing variety of ice cream flavor combinations (available in quart, pint, and half-pint containers). Heavenly!

In addition, the creamery also produces a number of cheeses, from the blocks of hard cheeses like Cheddar and Jack to small wheels of Brie and dishes of Boursin and other savory spreadable delights. Truly a dream come true!

Neither the fair Titania nor I believe in the unnecessary restraint of culinary appreciation, so we selected half a dozen ice cream flavors (mostly half-pints, as our wallets do require such restraint) -- maple walnut, almond joy, a brownie sundae, black raspberry chocolate chip, coffee, and ginger -- as well as a small block of Jack cheese and a tub of creamy garlic cheese.

We enjoyed a picnic dessert on the dock back at the lake, sampling each of the flavors as we watched the sun dip behind the mountains and the wind ripple the lake water. Can life get much better than this?

Why, yes. Yes, it can.

Because though I may be on vacation, having a full kitchen at my disposal means my baking impulse will not be denied. And tonight I whipped up an easy maple shortbread cookie base, topped with organic chocolate, that I baked just long enough to set.

I spread the remains of the black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream over the warm crust and topped it with fresh local red raspberries.

Titania and I dug in while the dish was at its perfect balance between warm and cold, and after much rapturous murmuring and sighing and smacking of lips, my dear friend cleaned out the bowl with her usual thoroughness.

That dish is but a memory now, and our stash of ice cream is dwindling rapidly, but we're making the most of it.

And I'm sure I'll dream of it long after I leave here.

Blissful Berry Cookie Torte

I confess, I sometimes mix up a small dish of very basic cookie dough -- just to eat the dough. So I had no problem improvising this little treat with the limited pantry we had at our disposal. You can modify this in endless ways, depending on what ice cream flavor you have on had and what toppings you might prefer. But do share!

1/4 c unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c maple sugar
pinch of salt
up to 1/2 c flour
1 oz dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 to 1 c ice cream, softened
fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cream together butter and maple sugar. Add pinch of sugar and enough flour to bring the dough together. Press into a small baking dish (I used a 6" pottery dish). Sprinkle chocolate on top. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes, until shortbread is set. Allow to cool slightly.

Spoon ice cream over warm shortbread, spreading into an even layer. Top with fresh raspberries.

Serve warm AND cold... and enjoy!

Serves 2

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Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 7

No, I'm still not home from vacation, so I'm not around to pick up my CSA share for the week.

Fortunately, My Wonderful Parents not only get to enjoy the produce this week, but they also put in a little time working at the farm today, cleaning garlic for the Lady Bountiful. (They claim to have fulfilled the work portion of the CSA for me... how kind!)

They also shared the list of this week's basket:

--a sweet onion and a red onion
--a bunch of carrots
--more kohlrabi
--two zucchini
--1 quart of summer squash
--both broccoli and cauliflower
--1 quart of green beans
--1 quart of green tomatoes
--red potatoes

Sorry, no photo -- but looking at last week's summary, you can get a good idea of the colorful array of excellent produce!

My Wonderful Parents also assured me that next week, all the produce is mine. That's even more exciting!

So until next week, keep on drooling...

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: July, Week 3

There are many obvious advantages to preserving summer's bounty for winter, not the least of which is actually having food halfway prepared for a meal.

There is a slight disadvantage to preserving produce, however: preserved food does not taste as fresh and as pleasing as food straight from the garden or the farmers' market.

In any method of preserving food, some nutrients are lost, and with them, some flavor is lost, too. That's just what happens when food begins to break down at the structural level, whether it's rotting fresh fruit or thawed frozen vegetables.

Some methods of preserving, though, add other ingredients to enhance or change the flavor of the original produce, and they can also improve the staying quality of the preserves at the same time. Jam, for example, adds sugar to keep the fruit at the peak of ripe sweetness, and the sugar also helps to inhibit the growth of bacteria that would spoil the fruit.

Pickles offer the same solution. Whether you're talking about traditional pickles that use brine or vinegar to preserve fruits and vegetables, or chutneys and relishes that add sugar, spices, and usually a little vinegar or other acid, pickling imparts a sweet and sour (and sometimes hot and spicy) twist to the original produce.

It's a flavor combination that has taken me nearly my entire lifetime to date to appreciate.

Growing up, I watched the Chef Mother make large annual batches of the family hot kosher dill pickle recipe. This tradition, which she claims "burned many a mouth at the dinner table" but kept people coming back for more, involved making a salt brine, packing hot jars with dill, cucumbers, garlic, dried chiles, and allspice, filling the jars with brine, and processing the pickles in a boiling water bath. When the Chef Mother stopped making them, I took over, supplying the rest of the family and a new generation of friends who declared these to be the best pickles ever.

Still, I was unmoved by pickles. I came to appreciate chutneys the more I ate at Indian restaurants, and gifts from friends of homemade zucchini relish and dilled green beans gradually held more appeal for my taste buds.

But last year, when I found fresh cider vinegar at the local farmers' market, everything changed.

I trotted out the Chef Mother's watermelon pickle recipe -- the one at which I had turned up my nose throughout childhood -- and suddenly found I couldn't get enough. I experimented with chutneys, and I promised myself that I would try more recipes this year, leading me to try spiced cherries, a mixed vegetable pickle, and a red onion confit.

As always, when you're just starting to try pickle making, find a recipe that sounds good to you and follow it to the letter. Salt and vinegar may be prime preservation ingredients, but there are still some basics you'll need to follow to avoid problems with spoilage:

1. Make sure your jars are clean and free of cracks or missing chips that can deter the pickle from getting a good seal.
2. Use new lids (again, to ensure a proper seal).
3. Clean and sterilize the jars, lids, and rings in a boiling water bath.
4. Use the freshest possible produce, avoiding any fruits or vegetables that are moldy, bruised, or otherwise damaged.
5. Rinse (or scrub, if possible) the produce and dry it gently before use.
6. Follow the recipe.

Many pickle recipes start with salting the vegetables to draw out excess moisture, though this is not always the case. If you do use a recipe that requires this step, be sure you drain, rinse, and again drain the produce thoroughly.

If you are making a brined pickle, you will likely make the brine separately and pack the jars with the remaining ingredients before adding the brine. Pickles using vinegar, though, usually ask that you simmer vinegar with the spices -- preferably whole spices, to keep the liquid from getting cloudy -- before either adding the produce for a quick simmer or before pouring the vinegar over produce already in the jars.

Once you've packed the jars, follow the instructions for processing (often between 5 and 15 minutes in a boiling water bath). Remove the jars, set them on a cooling rack or a towel to cool, and wait for those satisfying pings and pops that tell you your jars have sealed.

For relishes or chutneys, you will mostly likely throw everything (or almost everything) together in a saucepan, heat it all to boiling, and then simmer the mixture until it has thickened.

Pickles, relishes, and chutneys won't solve the problem of the loss of nutrients that comes with preserving food. But with these savory delights, you're likely to use them in small quantities as condiments or garnishes, not as whole side dishes, and thus you'll be more inclined to appreciate the way their flavors enhance a meal.

And yes, you'll relish the easy additions they make to your pantry!

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Market Report: 7/12/08

First, I confess that this is not my usual market report, because I left on vacation Friday and am not around my usual farmers' market.

Second, this technically is not a market report as I was too late in arriving at my destination to catch the local farmers' market here.

Still, all is not lost, for I am traveling with the fair Titania, my fellow gourmet and fearless experimental cook, and we are visiting what she considers to be her home territory in the wooded wilds of New Hampshire. (I can't tell you where, exactly -- the family's lake house is in a beautiful area that the locals would like to keep well-hidden, and I find myself inclined to agree.)

For our week's stay at the cottage, the fair Titania contributed her CSA share for the week, not to mention the added produce she received for her work on the CSA farm. That bounty provided us with an enormous bag full of onions, leeks, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, beans, okra, eggplant, turnips, basil, and summer savory.

On top of that, we stopped today at a couple of local farmstands to see what's in season here around the lake.

Though both farms had a lovely selection of fresh produce, we limited ourselves to fragrant fresh dill and two pints of juicy rose-scented red raspberries.

This area charms me with its seemingly old-fashioned (but definitely heart-warming) trust in the essential goodness of human nature. The farmstands operate on the honor system: you take what produce you want from the coolers, weigh it if needed, mark down what you've taken, and deposit your money in a locked box. (OK, they're not blind in their trust.) And it works. (I'm told that several local creameries and farmstands take this approach, and I look forward to visiting them, too.)

Once we had stocked the cottage refrigerator with all our finds, we took a quick dip in the lake and then returned to the kitchen to make dinner: a sauté of onions, squash, and green beans; a tomato-herb focaccia from a local farmstand; raw milk cheddar from Titania's local market; and fresh berries for dessert.

And that's the perfect start to my vacation.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 6

Each week, our CSA share seems to increase as more and more produce comes into season. What a treat!

This week, My Wonderful Parents and I picked up:

--four or five yellow summer squash
--three yellow zucchini
--a bunch of baby turnips
--half a dozen carrots
--two sweet onions
--three green garlic bulbs and one elephant garlic bulb
--a bunch of leaf lettuce
--a pint of snow peas
--a big bag of broccoli
--four kohlrabi
--a small bunch of Swiss chard
--a cucumber
--a pint of black raspberries

I let the folks take most of the produce as I'm still cleaning out the refrigerator, but I did snag the broccoli, the snow peas, some squash, and the black raspberries.

Next week I'll miss the CSA pickup, so My Wonderful Parents will get to enjoy all of next week's luscious produce. Lucky them!

And lucky me, that they take me to get it every other week!

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