Category Archives: Cooking

What you eat when winter wasn’t winter and summer is coming

Occasionally, summer and winter meet in a pot. This evening, it was the inevitable.

The winter, last winter, was, of course, dismally not wintery at all. Or delightfully so, if you distain shoveling any amount of snow and don’t tend to hunger for rich stews filled with rooty vegetables enjoyed while watching, through a large expanse of window, while reclining on the couch, a snow fall.

I do, and was saddened that I had the occasion to enjoy not one stew in repose last winter. The importance of which is marked by the fact that my couch is poised specifically to encourage reclining while gazing out the large picture window that dominates my front room.

Though it never really happened, winter was still captured, for me, in the flavors of dried herbs from my summer garden. And this year, as summer draws ever near, it seems my cache of stiff brittle rosemary and crumbly oregano, flaky thyme bits  and dried savory, are all still filling their jars.  I haven’t, actually, used any of them much at all because the weather never really let me know it was time to cook things slowly — a process which in fact requires dried herbs to get the flavors right, no matter how déclassé you imagine them to be.

Similarly, for  reasons I won’t go into here other than to say that I, like winter, never happened during those months, I have yet to really dig into the cache of frozen tomatoes and squashes I squirreled away from last summer’s garden.

But April is cresting and May is moving ever near — so I have commenced upon digging through my stored provisions for that which will be fed to the chickens if not tossed in a pot before warm weather, for good and for certain, takes hold.

But you should know, I am not a creative cook. So piecing together thises and thats can be stressful enough that I try to avoid it all together. Yet, I also live without a car. So I miss out the modern urban notion of shooting to the store for a choice ingredient in a recipe I want to try.

These two decidedly disparate ideas must be reconciled when I am hungry and dinner time has arrived.

Which is precisely the inevitability that tends to push my ideas about food and my cooking into an area that honors Albert Eistein — Try not to make a meal of success, but rather try to make a meal of value.

Grabbing frozen hunks of meat and mysterious bags of vegetables, scanning the spice horizon for possibilities, deciding on a cuisine to ground the idea and, with some hope, cooking forth. It is then, really, that I turn into a cook I can admire, if not for culinary brilliance but for frugality and resource and though, naturally in these times, one who leans heavily on The Google Machine.

Which brings me to tonight’s dinner. Following a chilly end-of-April day after a not very cold winter, I happened upon a dish I’ll call Baked/Braised Chicken with Long-stewed Summer Tomatoes and Squash.

I freeze leftover tomatoes whole in the summer. To do it, and you should, just shove them in a zip-top bag and toss the whole of it in the freezer. It captures the flavor like nothing in a jar ever can, if you pardon the pun. They’re best, then, cooked with just a bit of stock and seasoning in a covered pan, slowly, until they are soft, then poured over crusts of bread and doused with parmesan, which I’ll assume is of the good variety. Once the bread has softened, the soupy bite fools you long enough to remember the particular warmth of the summer sun on your face.

The summer squash, shredded, came from a rather aggressive pair of Zephyr squash plants grown last summer. I ended up, after eating squash dishes of every sort, pickling a batch and even giving some away, shredding and bagging piles of it for the freezer in single serving- and appropriate-for-bread-sized packages. It’s a worthy pursuit if one then uses the bagged treasure even occasionally, if not regularly.

Which I did not.

And so now I am stuck searching high and low for what people do with bagged shredded frozen summer squash. Thankfully there is much to choose from but unfortunately most of it is very casserole-like. Casseroles are not for single people; and even for pairs or more, it is really is only a thing you can make one of as you will end up eating it for eons if it is made well.

So, in true squash fashion, I have decided to bake up a few loaves of “zucchini” bread for foisting on a few friends who have done me good in the past and likely haven’t been thanked enough. Zucchini — or rather piles of bagged frozen summer squash — is good for that. Especially when you can accompany the bread with some companion jam that lingers on the pantry shelf reminding you that you clearly didn’t eat jam last winter either.

For this dinner, I tossed the tomatoes in a cast iron cocotte to melt. Then, I added  a bag of squash and half an onion, sliced, which had been languishing in the fridge. A good smattering of the dried herbs, a heavy dose of salt and pepper, and  just a scant half hour on the stove and the tomatoes will still taste of the freshness of summer and a goodly portion of summer squash will melt into the middle distance of taste.

While it cooked, I seared off some chicken legs, which I frustratingly bagged in pairs, though I can only eat one. It is important, when you are single, to fight off the urge to store up goods in portions more than one. I think, when it happens, it is the primal urge to break bread with others taking over one’s better judgement. Which, if it happens, can easily and simply be accommodated by defrosting two of a thing. But once the bag with two is opened, two you shall have, forcing leftovers which you must be clever enough to disguise, lest you eat another of the same.

The chicken legs got nestled into the tomato-squash mixture, covered with a mixture of ham-y bread crumbs and parmesan, and cooked in the oven until the crust was crusty and the legs were done.

It was a dish that bolsters my confidence in my resourceful frugality, which is the thing I most definitely admire most, and was best accompanied by a glass of wine. I ate it while reclining on the couch, to mark, in a way, the passing of a winter that never was.

Good Luck Peas

First and foremost: Happy New Year to you. I hope this year brings you everything you wished for as well as dreams you never dared imagine. Seriously, I hope it brings me these things to. I could use a reasonable year.

For the record, last night I rang in the new year at Butcher & Larder. I don’t remember ever ringing in the new year with such a wonderful group of people, and I am not just saying that, these folks were fun, funny, wonderful near strangers I randomly decided to join. That said, it was also a particularly delicious evening. We shared course after course of, basically, fat. Whipped, cured, shaved, potted, we had it all. Topped by a chestnut dessert, which I found kinda fitting since chestnuts are probably the most fat-like nut. And while I am  not one for detailing meals in a blog post, I will share that I posted a few highlights on Twitter.

Suffice it to say, I hope I get invited back and make butcher shop dining a New Year’s tradition.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post: the tradition of peas.

I can’t remember any New Year’s tradition from my childhood. In fact, when I started writing this, I called my mom to ask what we did, her response was: “Beats me.” When pressed, her answer expanded to: “We might have gone out every once in a while, I guess. But really, not a whole lot.”

Which is probably why I have spent most of my adult life trying to establish a firm tradition for myself to mark this most auspicious day.

I’ve tried on much: Krug champagne smuggled into the midnight showing of Cape Fear, wearing yellow underwear a la Barbados one New Year’s spent on a cruise ship, reading melted solder with one of Dick Cheney’s former business partners on the Mellinnium, standing in front of a burning hawthorne bush the year I lived in London.

But as I settled into my life, I seemed to have fallen into making an annual breakfast of black eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

Really, this makes no sense. My parents are from Boston and aside from a handful of years in Orange County, I am solidly a Chicagoan. But it is what it is and so this morning, a full-on black-eyed pea breakfast is what I made.

You likely already know that eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day is about good luck. To most Americans, the tradition hails from the south. But in reality, despite that honking ham hock that flavors most pots of peas in these parts, eating black eyed peas on New Year’s is a Sephardic tradition, celebrated for the Jewish new year.

So, as a nod to the Sephardi history of my peas, I like to include a pomegranate in my New Year’s Day meal. This year, I tossed that pomegranate into a quick salad of shaved Tuscan kale from the hoop house, parsley and cilantro from the garden itself, because the weather is so crazy it is still thriving, and walnuts.

Basically a version of Mary Klonowski’s Cancer-Curing Miracle Kale Salad, it was dressed with smashed garlic, good olive oil and vinegar. I got into vinegar last year so today, my kale got a syrupy Pepe Nero vinegar. If you haven’t tried making crazy vinegars, I recommend it highly. Honey vinegar, made with a moldy piece of bread, has pretty much become my go-to vinegar for anything and everything.

 But back to the peas.

First off, you should know that I cook dried peas. Black eyed peas are often available fresh but that kinda makes no sense for New Year’s Day. Traditionally planted as a cover crop before the winter wheat, the fresh peas would be available in late summer, early fall (for the clever reader, you’ll note this is around Rosh Hashanah). So, fresh black eyed peas in Chicago in winter, even this crazy winter, is just forced agriculture. So, I use dried.

Black eyed peas are only soaked for 4-6 hours, unlike the convenient bean-soak of overnight,  so it can be a little challenging to get them on the table for breakfast. So, I pressure cook them. If completely crippled by a hang over, one could get them cooked in a pressure cooker in about 10 or so minutes. My process takes me a half hour because I go thru a few extra steps to make sure I have super delish peas.

So, here’s the process: saute onion in (insert any high smoke point but I use coconut) oil, add diced onion and saute. Then add a meaty hunk of cured pork (usually a hock), add about 1/2 cup of water (I really have no idea, I just dump in water, it could be a cup) and pressure cook that for about 10 minutes. Pressure cooking the pork softens it up and makes a tasty jus. Take the pork out of the pan and dice it up into smallish pieces. This way, when you eat your beans, you get little pieces of tasty pork along with them.

This year, the hefty hunk my peas got was from the country ham I cured in my garage last year. For a year a pork leg that had been brined in blackstrap molasses and bourbon rested in a old pillow case tied to the rafters of my garage.

Crazy levels of hillbilly working with that ham.

And probably the crowning point of my culinary life thusfar.

Which I guess says a lot since my culinary life thus far includes cooking for Julia Child. (It was one part of one course, if you must know, not the whole meal).

This ham is making me quite proud.

But I am writing about peas.

After the pork is cooked and diced, add it back to the pan and add in the peas. Add in some water to cover and some flavorings (a tea ball filled with whole cumin, coriander, black pepper and red pepper flakes is a good start) and cook on high for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let the cooker come back to reasonable temperature on it’s own.

Boom, good luck breakfast.

Well, I also made cornbread, using Ruhlman’s Ratio app. There is a book, too, but I find the app to be amazingly helpful since I tend to have my phone nearby and it is small enough to perch it somewhere convenient.

As I started eating, marking the new year with a lovely meal and remembering the year that just past, the sun came out after a rainy/snowy/gray/cold morning walk. I am choosing to decide this is an auspicious sign that the coming year will be peaceful and delicious.

Fall — it’s for harvesting

There’s a quick flick of the wrist — a natural rhythmic motion one falls into when one is comfortable with a knife. The motion allows you to flick unnecessary bits out of the way so you can keep on task. So you can maintain the forward motion of cooking.

I was looking out the back window, the butcher block and the men, silhouetted in the doorway of the garage, when I saw Rob’s practiced flick. “There goes the head,” I said to Allie, who was with me in the comfort of the kitchen while the menfolk did their work outside.

Allie and I, and I guess the baby who was due last week so technically should be here, were cleaning up after an impromptu dinner I threw together once I realized everyone was coming over at 7:30 on a Friday — a time generally accepted as “dinner” if you are a Midwesterner.

Not ironically, I served chicken.

I served it in a dish I refer to as “Last Minute Chicken” because it is something I can cook without thinking and serve looking like I had been. It’s from Casa Moro. They call it “Chicken Fatee with Rice, Crispbread and Yoghurt.”

The awesome part of Last Minute Chicken is that you can cook the components ahead a bit and then just dump it all together at the last minute.  Clove-scented roasted chicken, cinnamon and garlicky tomato sauce, cinnamon-scented rice with sauteed onion and chickpeas, sauteed eggplant, a tossing in of crispbread in the bottom of the bowl, and drizzle of some garlicky yogurt on top. Oh, and a topping of roasted nuts. They specify pine nuts, I tend to use what I have, which is mostly Marcona almonds.

Unless it is bitterly cold, if I am going to serve a “one-pot” meal, I tend to prefer a dish with distinction in its parts. It offers textural variation that can make it feel like a complete meal itself, rather than just a bowl of something to eat because it is dinnertime.

That said, I forgot to pour the chicken juices over the crispbread so, unfortunately, it hadn’t soak up the juices when we all had started eating it.  Note to all: this is an important step! Miss it and your guests could, in fact, start ribbing you for putting bagel chips in your dish. It’s embarrassing and, without the bonding opportunities of the Fall harvest wrapped into the evening, could in fact leave a scar.

Thankfully, Rob was about to pull a drippy mass of unformed egg goo out of the butt-end of Pot Pie. Despite his meaty life, the experience seemed enough to distract his brain from what he demanded were bagel chips.  I live in a Middle Eastern neighborhood, for the love of all things holy, I can get my hands on various crackery breads at the corner store.

I guess I am scarred.

But at least I was not also scarred by the evening’s main activity, Pot Pie.

Indeed, it was a much different affair to have a butcher on-hand to navigate the way through the chicken. When I think back to that first night Friend X and I had together, all I see flashbacks I would very much like to forget. It was awkward and fumbling and, in fact, seemed very much more like teen sex than two consenting adults, carrying out a one of nature’s most natural acts.

When I think back on last night, the whole is something I’ll want to remember.

Mostly because the evening was really a glimpse into the community that can develop when food is honest.

Food is nourishment. Our very connection to the world around us — the earth and its flora and fauna — it is the nourishment of soul, the nourishment of friendship, the nourishment of body and the nourishment of humanity. In fact, when I think of the spiritual link that ties us all together — what you might think of as a higher power or a God — I think of the cycle of food and how it can enrich my days.

To me, it is that reverent.

It is why I choose to buy food grown by people I know — they become my congregation with whom I share values and beliefs. And why I choose to start with the raw ingredients of life when I cook — it is how I seek to understand the mysteries of my faith.

And it is why I appreciate the shared experience of a Fall Harvest, because my compatriots and I are practicing a ritual that connects us to one another in the most honest, and nourishing, of ways.

Pot Pie was one of the original chickens to come to my homestead. There were three and of them now there are none. I am sad, although I never much liked her and she seemed never to like me. She is being donated to a dinner this week, I think for a stew.

There are four chickens left: En Croute, who is my favorite because she is charming and loving; Mrs. Leghorn, who is standoffish at best; and Dumpling II, 1 and 2, who seem at once feisty and shy because I can’t ever tell them apart so their divergent personalities simply merge.

They will be joined by three chicks being picked up tomorrow.  And hopefully, soon, by rabbits if we ever get around to building the hutch. No one so much as brought up bees this year. I don’t know why though I imagine because the work of the vegetables can often seem like quite enough, thank you very much.

I wish this life, this opportunity to connect with the natural world so intimately, for everyone. I am sad when I realize so few even know what they are missing.

Moutarde d’Albany

For anyone who thinks Twitter is for the birds, I suggest that the ability to tap into a collective consciousness of creativity on such a site is invaluable. Without Twitter, my homemade mustard would be called just that. With Twitter, and most specifically the assistance of one @DecantChicago, my homemade mustard gets an appellation worthy of an appellation designation: Moutarde d’Albany.

Named for my neighborhood, Albany Park, Moutarde d’Albany is a Dijon-style sharp creamy mustard aged 75 days.

The basic recipe, which seems to be the same on all over the internet is as follows:

  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 cup minced onion
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 4 oz dry yellow mustard
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp hot sauce

In a small saucepan, heat garlic, wine and onion, bringing to a boil. Then simmer for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Set aside in a bowl for 10 minutes. Add the dry mustard into saucepan and slowly strain the heated wine mixture over top to remove the solids. Whisk until smooth, ensuring to remove any lumps. Add honey, salt and hot sauce. Place over medium low heat and stir until the mixture thickens. It will set up more as it cools. Remove from heat, cool, then store in a (previously boiled) glass jar. Refrigerate.

But there’s certainly a lot more mustard fun to be had. First off, why use ground mustard when you can start from scratch!  Also, why just add spices when you can add herbs!

So, I went with this:

In two cups of apple cider vinegar, soak 1/2 cup brown mustard seed, 3 crushed cloves, a small bunch of cracked peppercorns, a teaspoon each ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, a few sprigs of chervil, the leaves of some thyme sprigs and a healthy portion of tarragon.  Also, minced garlic and some bay leaves and salt. Actually, I am not sure if I was hallucinating when I wrote all that. If you want to know how to make mustard, go check out the actual recipe page.

Leave that to sit for a few days.

Then, blend it until smooth in a Vitamix.  If you don’t have a Vitamix, you’ll likely have to strain it.  Pour it into a glass jar and let sit for 75 days.

The Year of the Radish

Twenty-Eleven will go down in history as the Year of the Radish.  We planted too much.  And so we were stuck with eating too many.  Believe it or not, you can begin to feel you ate too many radishes, like anything else you grow too enthusiastically in the garden.  Last year it was bitter spring greens. This year, radishes.

When the season started and the first little red and pink orbs started forming, I started with my go-to seasonal favorite radish dish: on crackers with butter.  I make my own butter, so this is pretty much a no-brainer of deliciousness.  I slice the radishes thinly and maybe, maybe, add a chive to the top if I am having a dreary day.  Then, I sprinkle sea salt on top and I always use Nabisco saltines. I don’t use any other brand.  Only Nabisco.  And only eat them the day I open the sleeve.  You can blow thru a good portion of the sleeve when you have a lot of radishes.  I did. Leftover make good bread crumbs or I feed ‘em to the chickens.

I don’t buy a lot of prepared products but there are a few times I feel you need something specific and nothing else will do. This spring snack is one.  Then there’s Hawaiian Punch when I am really strung out from helping too many people. Wonder Bread for garden tomato ‘n butter sandwiches is another. Don’t judge me until you’ve tried it and, in case you are gonna try it, you are welcome.

This year, the go-to salad for spring was shaved fennel and radish with spinach and honey vinegar dressing.  I bought the fennel, of course, but there’s enough spinach in the garden that I actually started eating this salad for breakfast, but only when I added aged ricotta.  Sometimes, too, dried tangelos on that breakfast salad.

For lunches, I mostly ate it plain, although once I tried preserved kumquats. They were a bit mushy so the texture combinations seemed weird to me.

Sometimes I ate that salad with my fingers. Sometimes with a fork.  I only used Madon sea salt and I occasionally added 1-inch long chives, which I can make without measuring because I worked for a dickhead French chef during a dark time in my life.  He’d throw out your chives if they weren’t an inch long.

He didn’t appreciate it when I asked him how he knew how long an inch was by site, since he grew up metric.

I made Spring Chow Chow. Grate one head cabbage and add in about 15 ramps, finally chopped, about 10 radishes, also finely chopped, and about 2 tablespoons of salt.  Let that drain for about 8 hours for a workday or overnight and then added in a pickle of equal parts apple cider vinegar and sugar, seasoned with dry mustard, dry ginger, dried lovage powder and some brown mustard seeds.  After you dissolve everything in the vinegar, add the drained vegetables and cook about 10 minutes.  Pour into hot canning jars and seal.  I. Don’t. Boil. The. Jars.

Heresy.

I added diced radish to chicken salad. I also made beef tacos so I could add them, slivered, to the tops of the tacos. Those two things were a bit of a bust, radish-wise, because I only used two radishes each. And I really sorta needed to use more.

So, I made some of Mary Klonowski’s Cancer-fighting Kale Salad.  The salad is basically a mix of slivered Tuscan Kale (you can use any Kale by why would you when Tuscan kale tastes so delicious), smashed raw garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil and lemon juice.  It is ready in 15 minutes and can hold up for 3 days.  You can mix in all sorts of things then, parm and pine nuts, dried lemon chunks and walnuts,  preserved lemon and Marcona almonds, or … radishes!  I added a lot.

But using all these radishes meant that I had a lot of radish greens.

So, the next thing I made was beer- braised chicken thigh with whole radishes and radish greens. You can’t use overgrown radishes for this dish as they will come out tough. But basically you sear off a chicken thigh, at the end of cooking adding in diced garlic and onion so they get a little translucent.  When that is done, fill the pot with water, some dark beer, maybe at about a 1:4 ratio, and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  I used Big John from Goose Island because I had a bottle open and I couldn’t finish it.  Let it cook until it is done.

I also made a quiche with sauteed radish greens subbing in for spinach and lots of gruyere cheese.

By Memorial Day weekend, with radishes growing since about mid-April, I was getting a bit strung out on radishes and it was then that I made  Straccetti di Manzo con la Radish Greens, only subbing in the radish greens for the arugula in this classic Roman dish. Basically, it is super thinly sliced beef sauteed in garlicky oil (I  used green garlic, since it was spring) with wilted arugula. Turns out, the bittery tang of the radish greens is a great foil for the steak.

Everything can be made in one pan, which is always a bonus, and you make it by basically adding one item following the next as you go. By which I mean saute steak, towards the end add a big handful of diced green garlic, saute a bit, add the radish greens, wilt. The radish greens have to saute a bit longer than arugula, so you may want to remove the steak before adding the greens. Finish with a splash of lemon-Bay leaf vinegar.


Homemade Butter:  Seriously, you just take a good quantity of cream that is getting oldish and let it sit out all day.  Then, whip the crap out of it. The liquid is buttermilk. Pour it off.  Then add cold water and whip. Drain. Repeat until the water drains out clear.  Add a little salt and whip that in. Voila.

Lemon-Bay Vinegar: bring lemon rind and Bay leaves to a boil in white vinegar.  Boil for about five minutes then pour it into a bottle and stick it in a dark place to macerate.

Honey vinegar:  Mixing together honey and water in a ratio of about 1:8 and then float a little raft of yeast on toast on the top of the mixture for about a week or two, until the fermenting happens.  You can then take off the toast and let it cure for about 6 months.  The vinegar will keep for about ever, but it doesn’t last that long, so I make it is huge batches of about 4 gallons.

Hating on the Vertically Challenged Pizza Oven

A chef is coming over to dinner tonight.  I’d imagine most people would crumble in culinary fear, assuming that nothing would even hope to turn out properly — OMG! The salad even fell like a souffle!

Me, I know the chef doesn’t really care one way or another if something is over-salted or underdone. They’ll notice, sure, but they also just appreciate someone cooking for them, making the effort for them, no matter how it turns out.

But a dull knife can really frustrate a chef.

And my knives are dull.

And as far as tonight goes, my pizza oven is still sits about 1 foot off the ground. Generously. If you came over and measured it, you might say 8-inches. OK, I measured it, it is 8 inches.

My chef friend will be cooking pizzas in an oven a mere 8 inches off the ground.

Seems hella worse than a dull knife.

A few weeks back, Grant and I started the several weeks long, pain-in-the-ass project of moving my new wood-burning oven from it’s original home to my backyard.  One trip involved moving the stove itself.  The next was to break up and move the stone base.  The third was to move the last two layers of base, fused into a solid mass of stone.  A concrete pad was laid and cured.

And then it rained a cold rain, even snow, and the whole thing sat out back in a heap of stone and waiting stove for a few weeks.

And when my meetings were over yesterday, I dashed out into the yard to get the base assembled myself.  Heaving stones into place. Or what I thought was “place” and them moving them again. Referring again and again to the picture.  Cursing my crappy markings. Moving them again.

I am convinced I am missing stones the way I am always convinced I am missing puzzle pieces.

So, I’ll be inviting my friend AVH over because she is a puzzle whisperer. When you look at her looking at a puzzle, you can swear she sees a computer animation of pieces and their corresponding places being highlighted. If I suggest a trade of pizza dinner in exchange for her figuring out the puzzle that is the base, she’ll assume she hit some kind of crazy puzzle jackpot and likely giggle with joy the whole time she is here.

That said, there’s dinner tonight. No matter how mad and embarrassed I am by the vertical challenge that is the pizza oven.

Charcuterie Board of Bessie Lomo, Head Cheese, Housemade salami and Rillettes. Served up with Picklee Plums and Toast (if I have the energy to go get the bread).

Pizzas featuring ramp-bourbon smoked paprika chorizo from a recipe I adapted from the blog From Belly to Bacon. Delicious stuff. I had some last night with goat yogurt sauce.

Fresh sausage is a good beginner bit of charcuterie.  Firstly, it is insanely easy (as Mark S’s directions on his blog quite wittily showcase). Second, it is incredibly forgiving. Third, if you make your own fresh sausage and serve it to friends, they will assume you so brilliant that you could also, say, survive the apocalypse with your mad survival skills.

Mine basically involved the following:

  1. Pick and clean ramps. This, actually, is the hardest part of the recipe.  Especially when it is raining and has been raining because the ramps grow in thick parts of the forest and are generally filthy and your collection bag will likely be full of rotting leaf bits.  I suggest a mesh bag and a good rinse with the power spray of the garden hose outside.*
  2. Cut off and mince green bits. I used about a cup, but then again, I am spatially challenged so it could have been two cups. I am sure it was not a half cup, though.
  3. Dump ramp greens, about 2 pounds of fatty ground pork, about 1 tablespoon each of hot pimentón, Bourbon-Smoked Paprika and Bourbon-Smoked Pepper and a healthy dose of kosher salt into the stand mixer.
  4. Mix until it comes together.
  5. Cook up a bit and taste.  Adjust.
  6. Easy peasy.

I also made a batch of olive oil-pickled mushrooms to have for future parties. Basically, you make pickled mushrooms and sub in olive oil for some of the vinegar at a 1-3 ratio (oo=1, vin=3).  They are best when they sit in the pantry for a few weeks, but I vacuum-sealed part of the batch for tonight’s pizza and they’ll do fine.

I am topping this off with an attempt at homemade Campari. It is my first attempt. And it isn’t one of those miraculously brilliant first attempts that brand one a Campari Savant.  It is the bottom of the hill and the climb up seems precipitous and steep. But, I try.

For the pizza oven’s future, I of course first plan on getting it properly off the ground.  Along with, I’d like to tackle some other homemade pizza-on-the-spot things, like red pepper flakes, Italian hot pepper sauce, salt-cured anchovies and a hard cheese made from raw milk. But for now, I’ve got sausage, mushrooms and a few things assembled over the weekend.

For those who need to know the full details of a meal, the balance includes:

  • No-knead dough from Ideas in Food.  I am partial to Joe Yonan‘s Miraculous Jim Lahey No-Knead Pizza Dough but because I just read Ideas in Food the other night and I was completely freaked out by how brilliant the book is (and desperately want them to do a Modernist Cuisine-size version of their book), I decided I had to try it.
  • Mozzerella di Bufala, which I bought because I didn’t think in advance enough to buy some rennet to make the cheese here.  But I do plan on having a make your own mozzerella option for future pizza dinners because, well, you’ve obviously never had freshly made mozzerella, still warm from the whey, if you even have to ask.
  • Homemade goat cheese, because I can make it blindfolded. And it is good.
  • Homemade pizza sauce which is basically home-canned tomatoes cooked down with pizza-sauce things.  This batch has ramp pesto from the freezer, a few garlic cloves and dried herbs because I need to get rid of them before the summer gets in full swing.

Salute!


* You know that garden hoses contain a lot of lead, right? Which means that if you are watering vegetables with your hose, filling up the dogs bowl or you’re letting your kids play on a Slip and Slide, you are dousing the very things you love with lead. Lead-lead. The kind that causes permanent learning and behavior disorders in children. This is another one of the head-shaking stupid things that really makes you question the efficacy of capitalism.  Here is a source for lead-free garden hoses.

Sorry to end on a downer.

Variations on a Seder Plate Theme

I’m not really an entirely reliable source for all things Passover, being Catholic and all.  But I love traditions. Likely because my family never had much use for them growing up, as far as I can remember, and seems to have lost all respect for them now that we are all growed up.

But I can find a reason to start a tradition without so much as a holiday to hang it on.  Like the Ceremony of Garlic Planting in October or Great St. Patrick’s Day Pea Ritual, or, lest I leave out a nearly weekly tradition I have, The Festival of Sunday Morning Pancakes. And yes, I have some holiday traditions, such as my on again – off again Christmas tradition of watching the 8-hour Jesus of Nazarath Mini Series over the coarse of the day, interspersed with making a day-long Roman Feast of Fancy Christmas Foods.

And it seems I have a budding tradition of celebrating all the requisite Jewish Holidays with my friend JST, her family and a few rotating friends.

In years past, I brought the wine.  Mostly because I had a large wine dungeon in my basement that I filled with wines that could be classified as either fantastically exciting or hackneyed and predictable, depending on which crowd of my friends were nearby.  But I drank, gave away or made vinegar out of most of the wine a few years ago when I realized “Wine Collector” was actually not something I aspired to be.

So, now I bring food to JST’s.  And this year I am bring the Seder Plate.  Only, I am not one to just wanna toss a hard-boiled egg on a plate and call it a day. I tend to want to flash some jazz hands and mount a production. And lo, I came up with my own personal Variations on a Seder Plate Theme.

Karpas
The Karpas are supposed to signify the coming spring. Basically, most people dip parsley in vinegar (or vinegar, depending on which tradition you follow) and eat that. Hum. Not precisely what I imagine happening to the parsley I struggled to grow in my windowsill this early spring.

So I found a recipe for a gin-based drink with balsamic and parsley garnish.   The gin they used is Leopold American Small-Batch Gin, which has a hint of floral that supposedly pairs well with the parsley. But rather than clobber the thing with balsamic, I opted to riff on that floral aroma, pairing it with homemade honey vinegar I made with local honey last fall.

Note: this killed the vinegar honey, which was a sad moment I commemorated by having a drink of Maple-Rye Hooch before putting up more honey and water to cure. One should always have honey around for these situations, as well as some sort of seasonally appropriate and easy to grab hooch.

Charoset
JST said the charoset is one of her favorite seder things, but I have to admit it took me a while to “get it.” According to Wikipedia, it is — a sweet, dark-colored, chunky paste made of fruits and nuts meant to recall the mortar with which the Isrealites bonded bricks when they were enslaved in Egypt.

Traditionally, it is supposed to have forty ingredients, representing the forty dessert years, not forty ingredients specifically put together to taste delicious. Although it is apples, figs, pomegranates, grapes and all manner of other things are used often together, it also seemed a bit culinarily random to me.

In sum, the task of charoset is to make something decent out of a random hodge-podge of raw ingredients that is supposed to remind people of mortar.  I’ll admit I felt a little challenged by this.

Thankfully, JST is a bit fast and loose with the rule of Jewish law so I opted for the cooked version I found a recipe from Epicurious of Black Mission Fig and Ruby Port. I subbed in Six Grapes Port. This is obviously just Jewish Chutney, and chutney is something I can get behind. I’ll assume the fact that I have cooked this mortar should be helpful in reminding all at the table of the guilt they should be feeling for playing fast and loose with the rules.

Which I intend to be a helpful addition for the celebratants.

Z’roa
A joint of lamb representing the lamb offering. Easy Peasy. Not just because it can be tossed in a slow cooker with some leavings from the vegetable crisper, but also because it is delicious, lamb ragout does the trick, served up on a fried polenta cake.

Before you go all ballistic on me, cornmeal is ok for some Jews and not others. I decided JST & Co were just gonna have to be the kind for which cornmeal is fine, mostly because I am never one to buy a certain ingredient, say matzoh meal, to sub in for something else, say wheat flour, it is supposed to kinda be but really isn’t even close.*

Beitzah
Totally in my wheelhouse, this dish is, by most accounts, a hard-boiled egg. But those accounts apparently don’t reference Wikipedia, where it is clearly noted that the egg is actually supposed to be roasted — not boiled.  Sacre bleu! Or, I guess, Mishugana!

But, dear reader, you can, in fact, roast eggs instead of boil them to, basically the same effect. Just roast them on a rack set on a jelly roll pan at 325F for about half hour.  Shock them in ice water and try to peel them without being reduced to tears.**

For my eggs, I am mixing up the deviled part with lots of horseradish. Points if you grow it yourself because it is more delicious, feels more holy and keeps in the fridge, in vinegar, from one fall until the next. So you never have to go buy any of the prepared stuff, which is never as sharp and purely pungent anyway.  And, you can use the vinegar over and over again, though I will admit to bringing it to a fast boil in-between batches.

Happy Passover to all.


Post-Scripts, In Order:
*Other examples of stupid sub in’s of which I absolutely do not approve: Margarine, I Can’t Believe (insert any of their products here), Fat-Free (insert baked good here), Skim Milk, Half ‘n’ Half, Sugar Cereal That Turns Your Milk Colors, Turkey Bacon, Veggie Burgers, Tempeh or any Other Substance That is Supposed to Trick you into Thinking you are Eating Meat, in fact I will throw in Portabella Mushrooms Cleverly Presented as Meat, Light Beer, Lighter Than the Other Guy Beer, So Light You Think it is Water But it Costs More Beer, Most Vitamins, Lipator for Gen Pop, Water Fortified with Anything you Should get in a Balanced Diet Anyway, and Crisco. That’s just off the top of my head.

For the record, I do embrace decaf coffee, served with milk, for the benefit of those around me and wine coolers, when made at home, can be a revelation.

**Actually, as a side note, Joe Yonan‘s Miraculous and Surely Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book, Serve Yourself, has a brilliant Hard-Boiled Egg recipe that blasts the shells off even the freshest of eggs (I actually tried it with eggs that were so fresh, they were still warm from the hen, just to test him). It worked beautifully. I am not posting the method here or telling anyone how to do it — even Grant! — go buy the book and support this kind of cookbook author!

Fried Eggs 101

Last was a winter of much discontent. For it was my first season full of eggs and eggs, I found, are hard to cook perfectly without 10,000 hours of practice. I have now had said practice. And so I will share my directives for the absolute best way to cook freshly laid eggs.

Until I face another winter and need something interesting and yet quiet and introspective to do on quiet Sunday morning, I shall defer to this, the truly best method.

Fried Eggs, Sunnyside up

Fried Eggs are to be cooked sunnyside up or not to be cooked at all.  Over Easy is an abomination I am convinced was crafted by the industrial chicken farming business to mask the fact that the eggs, really, were not “laid today” fresh.  For if they were, fresh, that is, and by fresh I mean “laid today,” the eater would surely not want to miss the rich, deep, Mandarin-colored yolk.  Yolks, real yolks, are not pale.  Real yolks are a life-giving rich ochre that reminds one of cliffs in the Roussillon.

As for fat and fried eggs, I am of two minds, depending on the availability of leftover Tomato Junk. Tomato Junk is an annual ritual of the late summer everyone should honor.  It is the finest way of preserving summer’s tomato bounty, outside of just tossing them whole in the freezer, which is also a necessary component of lasting through a dreary winter. By way of a recipe, Tomato Junk is crushed whole tomatoes cooked briefly with garlic, onion, carrots and celery, the whole pressure canned. Which is all the recipe you need if you are futzing with a pressure canner.

Crudely, Tomato Junk can be described as stew base. In reality, it is what fast food should be, cutting out a tedious step in many a chili, meatloaf, bouilliabase. It  becomes spaghetti sauce when doused with red and Veracruz when tarted up with white. It can also be simply heated and served over polenta, rice or even cous cous, though I suggested only the Israeli variety there.  I have also, in a desperate mood, added some chicken stock and called it soup. I was that tired.

With respect to eggs, when one is smart enough to save some from the night before, it is a tasty garnish for those fried in a rather deepish pool of good olive oil.

In the absence of Tomato Junk or better, for those fortunate to be in possession of freshly made marmalade, Fried Eggs should be made in clarified butter.  Unclarified, of course, it results in brownish bits that are fine for sauce but bitter with the eggs.  Bacon grease is possibly a little too heavy.  Duck fat a little too, well, duckish.

For those keeping chickens, a significant quantity of clarified butter and freshly made marmalade seem just as important as feed and fresh hay.

The recipe:  Split and toast baguette.  Slather with butter and keep warm.  The baguette must be cooked first to ensure it is ready when the eggs are done.  Too many a perfect breakfast is ruined by scrambling cooks.

If you are going the Tomato Junk way, this should be at a softly bubbling stage, your having tasted and adjust seasonings so that it is ready to go.

Heat fat in cast iron pan over rather hottish heat.  Note I did not write well-seasoned.  If your cast iron pan is not well-seasoned I will assume you are the type to read these kinds of recipes and then go out to eat.

Crack eggs into a holding vessel — do not crack into the pan! You knew that, right?  You new they would finish at different times if you cracked one into the pan, scrambled to fetch the other, then cracked that one in, hoping no errant piece of shell fell in and needed to be fished out.

For the butter-cooked eggs, let cook approximately 30 seconds and then turn off the heat. Add small scant spoonful of water before covering the pan.  The water, you should know, can be precisely measured by filling the spoon with water completely on one side of the kitchen and then attempting to carry said spoon over to the stove on the other side, spilling the exact amount of water out of the spoon along the way.

For the oil-cooked eggs, turn off heat and cover the pan immediately, before the whole starts to sputter and spurt furiously.

The eggs should be cooked in a minute or two, when the whites are set completely on the top. Uncooked white is fit only for dogs, so be sure they are set completely.  You can check by looking and then doing a little independent thinking. I am often frustrated by the cooks who want precise information for every step in the process and end up feeling this kind of lack of personal responsibility is one small glimpse into why our country is broken. So, needless, I tend to write recipes that force personal responsibility. Maybe in some small way I will make a difference.

It is obviously frightfully easy for me to leap into political discussions, we shall return to eggs.

Once the whites are cooked, it is then, and only then, that you should introduce seasoning.  That seasoning, no matter the fat used, is Maldon sea salt, sprinkled liberally on the yolk only.  Trust me on this and keep your pepper in the mill.

I once worked for a chef who had an obsession with pepper. It ensured, of course, that his food made eaters stand up and take notice, the pepper so aggressive it demanded attention. Some things, though, are better understood if announced with a whisper.  Eggs, Fried Eggs in particular, are one of these things.

The butter-cooked eggs should slide of the pan effortlessly onto a large plate. If you’ve really worked, the plate contains a few rashers of bacon and some pan-fried cubes of potato. Otherwise, it is just the marmalade-covered bread and the eggs.

Olive-oil cooked eggs should be served in a large, flat-bottom bowl — a soup plate — next to a pool of Tomato Junk.  That way, when you break the yolk, it will begin to mix with the tomato without sliding away too far and you can alternate bits of yolk, yolk-tomato and just tomato, mushing the bread into the flat bottom of the soup plate when you are done with the more solid bits.

And with this, even winter on the first day of Spring becomes every so slightly more achievable.

Labor Day recipes

I spent most of Labor Day weekend gardening and canning, which is likely why I am so happy.  I thought I would share a few recipes from the weekend.

Hard Boiled Egg
Fresh eggs are not fun to peel after they have been hard-boiled.  In fact, if you garden a lot, and thus have super short fingernails, peeled a freshly laid hard boiled egg is nearly not worth the effort.  Ahem, until you cut open the egg to share with your mom and she gasps at the color of the yolk.  Yes, I found fresh eggs, hard boiled and laboriously peeled, are the most impressive to a newbie.  The color is, hum, I won’t get too poetic here, since I am not, but let’s just say that it is the color of the sun in that one perfect sunset in your mind.  Preferably the one on the Ligurian coast.  In summer.  After hiking the Cinque Terre. While eating fresh pesto.

Put egg in cold water, covering by one inch.
Add a small handful of salt to water. Actually the amount that fits into your fingertips if you scoop a bit.
Bring to a boil, turn off heat.
Cover for 10 minutes.  No more.

Summer Stew
My mom, who has some sort of crazy fresh corn fetish, can’t seem to eat corn that is more than 24 hours out of the ground.  Or so I always thought until she brought day-old corn to my house for lunch.  Still, she bought it at a great farm up by her house, near where I grew up, and the ears are super crazy stout and corn-y.  I am quite sure it isn’t organic or and there is some mysterious Monsanto-like thing they do to them to get them so large.  I generally don’t care because they are that good.

This is adapted from Deborah Madison, Local Flavors, because everything in that book is insanely delicious.

1 ear corn, apparently day-old is fine
small handful peas or green beans, whichever you have– green beans cut on the bias
2 handfuls of small tomatoes, cut in half — yellow teardrops, red, whatever
1 small zucchini, cut into chunks — if you can actually grab one out of the garden before it explodes in size
1 small fresh onion, diced
knob of butter
handful of whatever soft herbs you have, cut into chiffonade
fresh goat cheese

Blanch the corn briefly, remove from water and dump green beans in water if using.
Cut kernels off corn.
Remove beans from water.
Heat butter on stove and add onion.  Saute until soft.
Add zucchini, saute until soft.
Add beans and tomatoes, saute.
Add herbs and give it all a stir.
Serve, crumbling goat cheese on top at table.

Raspberry Jam
Super fast with not that much.

2 pints raspberries
6.5 cups sugar

I heat the sugar in a 250 degree oven to get it hot for a bit while I boil the jars and mash the raspberries.
Place raspberries in an oversize pan. (You really need larger than 4 quart or you risk it boiling over, which really sucks).
Add sugar and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a heat proof spatula, scraping down sides.
As soon as it is at a rolling boil, time it for one minute, stirring constantly. Do not cook more than necessary, it alters the flavor.
Add pectin, stir another minute. Depending on how thick you like your jam, you can put it up now or boil another minute or two.
Pour into jars and seal.
Process briefly.

Stewed Plums
This is a semi-recipe adapted from one Novella Carpenter kinda outlines in City Farm. Because they are not sweetened, they are great for breakfast and as a savory accompaniment to dinner, especially pork.

Wash plums well.
Pack tightly into hot, sterilized jars.  Place lids on jars.
Heat for 1 hour.  Add more plums.
Process for 15 minutes in pressure canner.

Grape Jam
This jam can be tricky.  Don’t thicken the juice enough, and you have grape syrup rather than jelly.  Not really a bad thing since the Jupiter grapes are insanely delicious.  If you boil too much, the fresh tang of the grape is gone, though you have a more jam-like consistency. I pretty much make this for myself, since I appreciate the flavor of the generally runny jam I end up with.  I find regular folk tend to fixate on the runnyness and it ruins the whole jar for them.

6 pounds grapes, preferably Jupiter
7 1/2 cups sugar
2 packets pectin

Boil grapes and sugar together until thickened slightly, stirring frequently.
Add pectin and bring back to a boil for one minute.  Check set.

Pickled Grapes
I happen to pickle just about everything and I happened to have a bit of a glut of Jupiter grapes, even after making jam.  So, I thought that pickling them would be nice.  I just ate a whole jar.

2 pounds red grapes, Jupiter are best
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups sugar
handful of green cardamom
1/2 handful black pepper
cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon salt

Heat vinegar, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and salt in a saucepan.  Stir to dissolve sugar.
Boil jars.  Remove from heat and pack with clean grapes. Make sure that only one cardamom seed goes in each jar.
Place lids in hot water to soften seal.
Pour heated vinegar over top of grapes.
Seal and place in hot water.  Bring to a boil and turn off heat.  Let jars cool in water.

Pickled Peaches
Because I bought  case each of grapes, raspberries and plums over the weekend, the farmer I buy from gave me the restaurant price for each and also tossed in a nice big bag of peaches.  Yummy, only I was already flush with peaches and had two melons from the back yard that were teed up and ready to be eaten.  Because I usually buy two cases of peaches for putting up at the end of the season and I am not a big fan of peach jam, I decided to just pickle them.  It’s easy.  Super easy since I am super lazy and don’t peel them since I won’t be giving them away.

4 cups sugar
1 cup vinegar
1 cup water
1/2 handful black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick per jar
1 piece star anise per jar
4 pounds peaches, chopped up in big chunks

Bring  sugar, vinegar and water to the boil.  Stir to dissolve sugar.
Place peaches in syrup and boil 10 minutes.
Spoon peaches into jars with syrup to half inch from top.
Process 10 minutes.

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