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butter me pickles

By on Jul 11, 2015 in experimenting, love, preserving, process, snacks, vegetarian | 0 comments

To say I love pickles is something of an understatement. I was that weird kid who, after I cleaned out the house pickle supply, insisted Mom keep the jar of dill pickles so I could drink the “juice.” At every family gathering, being good Midwesterners, there was a platter of veggie and pickles place out before the big meal. And of course we had the dill pickles from the store, but we also had some of what are known as “Grandma Pickles”, which were my Grandma’s sweet chunk pickles with a surprising tartness that smacks you in just the right way. We would fight over them. Now, ten years after her passing, three of the grandkids, myself included, have taken up the Grandma Pickle mantle, which involves weeks of brining in big ol’ crocks. This is not about Grandma pickles. Last week I laid eyes on the first pickling cucumbers of the season. No, these are not just baby cucumbers. These are Kirby cucumbers, a smaller variety that stays pretty compact and I am positive must have a lower water content than the traditional cucumber. I got very excited, because pickle season is now upon us. But I did not want to wait the many, many weeks for Grandma pickles (on top of the weeks of brining, they have to sit for a good month before ready to eat.) I wanted something immediate. I have done dills before, but I had a new obsession… bread and butter pickles. I really wanted to know why these are called bread and butter pickles. I assumed because they are built for sandwich topping, or some such thing. And if you Google it, one of the origin stories is that they were for Depression era times, when a bread and butter sandwich with pickles was cheap to make. Not the real origin. Another origin goes back to a guy in Europe who said making these pickles was his “bread and butter.” Also not it. The final one, and supposed real one, was from a family in the 1920s, short on cash who would trade pickles made from the non-marketable cucumbers they grew for groceries. As in actual bread and butter. That is supposedly the final origin, but the internet being what it is, I’m sure someone has yet another claim. But back to why these became my new pickle obsession. Why bread and butter pickles? The answer is simple. Hot chicken and pickles. That isn’t a euphemism. A local restaurant opened up recently, and one of their appetizers is hot chicken and pickles, which is quite simply really well prepared junks of juicy, spiced chicken, and a little side of house made bread and butter pickles. And they were delicious. So of course I had to figure out how to make them. The thing is… quick pickles are EASY. So easy that even people who claim they don’t cook could crack out a batch right now. I didn’t want to make ones that I would can and process for later, I wanted to eat these now, so I didn’t need to fuss about the proper pH balance and whatnot. And since the pickling of vegetables is so deeply rooted in food history and culture, there is no one solid recipe, which is fine by me. So I threw caution to the wind, did some research, mixed up some sugar and vinegar (in a nod to Grandma pickles, I left out any water, since her brine is an insane amount of vinegar and sugar, no water in sight) a few choice spices, and let ‘er rip.   And damn. They were almost perfect. Cool, crisp, tangy and salty and sweet, with currents of the spices rippling through my sinuses oh so pleasantly later on. I am going to mow through these. And I am going to alter the recipe just a hair, probably (and keep it updated here). Because really… I will eat all the pickles. Inaugural batch, made roughly 1 quart and 1 pint of pickles These will hold for roughly three weeks in the fridge 1 ¾ lb Kirby cucumbers, sliced about 1/8” thick (I used a mandoline, but cutting with a knife works just fine) 1 small fresh white onion 1/4 c Morton’s Kosher salt (yes, brand does make a HUGE difference. I use Morton’s because it is what I can find. Diamond is the brand preferred by chefs, and has a different sodium content. Sea salt has yet again a different sodium content. Do a bit of research and you will find the right ratio.) Combine the cukes and onions and salt in a large bowl. Cover and let sit in the fridge for at least two hours. (note… most recipes do not have you salt the onions with the cucumbers, but have you add them fresh when you put the cukes into the jar. I did salt the onions on this round. Next round I will not. Keep your eyes peeled here for later notes.) After two hours, remove from fridge, dump it all into a colander and rinse thoroughly. Let sit and drain while you make the brine. Oh yes, and make sure you have two clean jars ready to go. Make sure they are glass. This recipe has turmeric for color, and turmeric stains the heck out of everything. If you use plastic containers, they are going...

strawberry mezcal joy

By on Jun 22, 2015 in experimenting, fail... or not, libations, love | 0 comments

Once upon a time, a tall, cold-loving woman went to Austin, Texas. She left Chicago one abnormally chilly summer morning (and it secretly made her happy it was that chilly,) boarding a plane wearing a light sweatshirt, and two hours later when she strode forth through the sliding doors of the Austin airport, the heat and humidity hit her like a fist. And it technically was not even that bad. But this woman, this woman hated heat and humidity. But she embraced it, because inside this heat was a lovely, vibrant little city, surrounded by beautiful hill country. And of course… there was food. And that woman was me. And OH did I eat that food. There was the beet hummus that looked like a painting, found at Launderette. There was straight up family style BBQ at the Salt Lick, where I spent the entire meal dancing in my seat with joy. My Wisconsin heart leapt with joy at the prevalence of queso, almost always served with homemade tortilla chips. But my primary purpose was to celebrate the impending 40th birthday of a dear friend whom I have known for 15 years. And after I told her I felt the need to create a custom cocktail in her honor, even though libations are still not my forte, she jumped and sent a list of things she wanted to experiment with. Naturally, my eye lit upon strawberry, because, well, it said strawberry. Another was mezcal. Now this gave me pause. Mezcal. While this is by no means a new spirit, it is definitely new to me. And my head always associates it with tequila, which jumps straight to an unfortunate night in college that may or may not have involved swigging Jose Cuervo straight out of the bottle, and the subsequent morning which basically sealed the notion that I would never drink tequila again. Ever. Most people have that one thing. You know you do. But the nice thing about being a grown up is that you learn, and not just how to not get drunk because LORD you can not do the hangovers anymore. I have learned that there is tequila out there that is so smooth and lovely you want nothing more than to kick back with a little tipple, get a smidge tipsy, and watch life float by. And now… mezcal. Tequila comes specifically from the blue agave, but mezcal does not. It comes from the pina, the mature heart at the center of a maguey or agave plant, and it has quite the history. In reading up on it, I realized that it is traditionally served straight, not as a part of a cocktail. It has this incredibly complex smoky flavor, which is apparently best left appreciated for what it is. There was mention of topping with ground dried larvae. That… was not going to happen. I dithered about the internet, and of course found those who, like me, were about to profane the mezcal and make it a part of the cocktail. My friend bought just a ridiculously good bottle of mezcal (it is her birthday, after all,) and we set to it. First we tried it straight up, and it was indeed a revelation. It had this smoke that just rolled right back through the palate and released, letting a deep sweetness find its way to the surface. I had found references to strawberry and mezcal, using other splashes of ingredients to deepen the strawberry so it could play nice with the smoke of mezcal. And so it began. I chopped fresh strawberries, taking in their floral scent, as I always do. I minced up basil, since it pairs so beautifully with the berry, and I thought a hint of herbaceous flavor might be nice. And I needed to sweeten it just a hair, so I added sugar. But I added brown sugar, so I could keep some darker molasses in there, something to complement the smoke. A splash of balsamic, because I always add a splash of balsamic to strawberry anything, and a generous application of heat. More than generous. I placed the pot over the burner and stirred and stirred, watching that magical event where strawberries under heat collapse into sweet, lurid red goo. And then I realized I was making jam. A judicious quantity of water was added, in an attempt to make a thick syrup. When I was fairly sure I could not get it any more saucy, I painstakingly scraped the entire thing through a strainer, so we would not have to contend with seeds or the now black little scraps of basil. And then… the mix. I wish I had used a cocktail shaker, because really, James Bond had it right with “shaken, not stirred.” Trying to mix things in the glass was… messy. The strawberry conconction kept settling. I spanked a leaf of basil. (No really, this is a thing, spanking herbs.) I carefully balanced a slice of strawberry on the edge of the wondrous glasses my friend had procured. And it was… OK. We kept added a bit here, a dab there, and ultimately discovered it got WAY better when the ice had melted a bit and things were allowed to mingle. Then suddenly that round sweetness of the strawberry basil brown sugar syrup goodness actually showed up and started getting all friendly with the mezcal,...

chocolate chip, deconstructed

By on Jun 9, 2015 in baking, dessert, love | 0 comments

Truly, this isn’t new. I posted something four years go about reconstructing the chocolate chip cookies of childhood memory. Or, to be more precise, how I tweaked the recipe my Mom sent me ever so slightly. Many a things have happened in those four years. In the constant way of life, I have learned more from experience. I have upgraded cameras. Twice. Figured out more of the technical, which freed up the path to be more creative and explore how I wanted to photograph my food. I learned more about the technical parts of cooking and baking, which allows for more rampant experimentation with only a hair less trepidation. Read more and more about food, from a culinary and cultural standpoint, how we veered so far into processed, and people are starting to come back. Slowly. People still want processed shortcuts. Sometimes I do, too. And then it hit me… why was I looking for shortcuts? Granted, I have been accused of insanity when I start talking about how easy it is to whip up a batch of homemade marshmallows (which it is), because I am so in love with making things from scratch, but still… why? Why shortcuts? On an every day basis? Is this truly what our lives have become? In the four years since that cookie post, I have watched as life accelerated, time filled, and for me work took over everything, including my own self-care. And I know this is not exclusive to me. It is everyone, whether they be single and child free like me, or married with multiple children running about. Somehow our modern world has demanded that we fill our time with more things. More material things, more classes, more work, more activities, more social media, more television, more drivel, so much so that we look for shortcuts in cooking, in food, that which nourishes us, in favor of spending more time binge watching that latest Netflix series. (To be fair, I love “Grace & Frankie”.) And in fact, food is a wonderful part of human existence. It can be this wonderful communal event, or it can be a therapeutic small moment, like a cup of really good tea and a homemade cookie at the end of an overblown day overflowing with ‘more’. It is how people make others feel welcome in their home, it is a buffet laid out at weddings or funerals, celebrations of others’ lives, it is how you, with the power of a simple bowl of soup, can make another ill human feel better, even if it is only psychosomatic. And so I revisited the chocolate chip cookie. I revised the recipe after making it with my 3 ½ year old niece, where you can not conform to rigid recipes or timing, and discovered through her overpour of flour that an extra ¼ of flour made a big difference. I remember how intently she studied that dough, taking a scrap I had given her and fiddling with it, seeing what shapes it could make, what it would do if she added more flour, and the sheer unadulterated joy of laying it on the counter and whapping it with her little hand, smooshing it in the most satisfying way. When I came home to see if the replication of the extra ¼ cup of flour would work, I found myself suddenly intrigued by the walnut. I had a bunch of almost whole walnut halves, and noticed how beautifully, symmetrically gnarled they are. Suddenly I was focusing intently on each and every solitary ingredient, sniffing them deeply, hovering and contorting around them with my camera, focusing on just… them. No more. No elaborate staging of pretty dishes, no distressed backgrounds, just… the bare ingredients. And this is the result. (Recipe at the end, I swear.) Chocolate Chip Cookies (this is only a half recipe of the one we made when I was a kid, and it makes a little over 2 dozen, give or take how much you eat raw) 1 c. flour 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1/2 tsp. salt 1/2 c (1 stick) butter at room temperature (you do not need fancy pants European cultured butter, but please… it is such a strong flavor, get a good butter, not generic. Good old fashioned Land O’ Lakes is delightful.) 1/2 c. brown sugar 1/4 c. white sugar (small note here… the original recipe calls for a dead even mix of brown and white sugar. I happen to prefer brown, so I tipped the scale and added more brown. Do what you will, just add it up to 3/4 c.) 1 egg 1/2 tsp. vanilla 1 c. oatmeal (NOT the quick-cooking kind… technically you could use it, but they won’t have the same chew. If you live near a food co-op or a Whole Foods, get the regular rolled oats from the bulk bins, which will be cheaper than you think, and OH so very tasty) 1/4 – 1/2 c. chopped walnuts (optional, obviously) 3 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips Preheat oven to 350°. Grease or parchment line two baking sheets. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugars, cream well (until they begin to lighten in color.) Add egg, beat well. Add vanilla, beat well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mix into the buttery eggy goodness and fold in with a spatula until...

ruby Fragarian lust…

By on Jun 4, 2015 in fruit, love | 0 comments

This is a love letter to strawberries. Particularly, the ones that suddenly appeared on the farmer’s market table. Bright, juicy beacons of summer, blithely tumbled together in quaint little wood boxes, so different from their overgrown brethren, trapped in stifling plastic containers and shipped from California. Strawberries. Plump, juicy, tart and sweet strawberries. If asparagus is one of the first colorful foods we see here in the Midwest, those slender stalks of green leaping from the ground, the crimson glow of strawberries are a true herald of summer. Or, to be more fair, given the lust that ensues once these summery gems appear on market tables, they are basically their own Fragarian red light district, beckoning you to the delights of summer. (Yes, I had to look that up. They are of the Fragaria genus.) In case I hadn’t mentioned it before, strawberries are my favorite food of all time. When this time of year hits, I snap up quantities bordering on obscene. I fantasize about one day having a yard, which would just be a carpet of strawberry plants. Jam always must be made, jars filled with glowing red sunshine lining my shelves, every year tweaking and pushing just a bit farther as I discover more about my beloved crimson berry. This year is no different, but I decided to take it slow. I bought one pint. Just one, though it pained me. I rushed them home, plunked them down on the counter and gazed at them all moony-eyed. They do get their own Strawberry Moon , so I found it only appropriate. Even with imperfections here and there, a mild squish and bruise slightly marring the taught, luminous surface, they are still perfection. They cried out for a photo shoot, and so I obliged. No fanciness, no toppings, no seasonings, nothing but a pile and a carefully selected slice, carved with my finest paring knife. Nothing less would do. And then, they were eaten. There is no recipe here. I grew up with the grand treat of slicing them, sprinkling them with sugar and pouring milk over them, which is still wonderful. I have been learning more about things that pair beautifully with the sumptuous strawberry, such as red wine, basil, and the magic of a splash of balsamic vinegar that somehow deepens and intensifies the flavor of this sumptuous fruit. But for this first grand basket, this first dive into the magic pool of summery fruit, I went commando. With the fruit, of course. In the end, these are really early and they haven’t hit their full potential, which dampened my spirits ever so briefly. But they are hope. Hope of sunshine and fresh flavors and fruits and vegetables that actually have scent. Have you ever really smelled a strawberry? Find one at a local farmer’s market or farm stand. Stick it right up to your nose and breathe deeply, letting that sweet floral scent work all the way through your nasal passages. You will never get that from a cramped plastic box shipped from thousands of miles away. There will be more coming about strawberries. I have a few nefarious ideas. But for now, do yourself a favor. Hunt down a box of local, fresh strawberries. Don’t stick them in the fridge and wait to enjoy them, just rinse, pour into a bowl, and sit. Breathe deeply. And dive in. Sharing is...

spring is sproinging

By on May 24, 2015 in cooking, dinner, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

The winter was long and dreary. Yup, totally not an original statement. I am still not entirely sure if it is aging or actual changes in winter, but it feels like winters are getting harder in my beloved Midwest. Not necessarily in terms of snow, although Chicago did enjoy a 2′ in one day blizzard that buried my car so completely I could only see 1” of it after the snow plows came through, but in terms of the grey. The never… ending… grey… The cold that keeps a harsh snap way past any time that seems sane, though you know it happens every year. And for me, personally, in case the lack of writing wasn’t obvious, it was never… ending… work. Work is good, absolutely! I am lucky to have it. But being a studio of one, a freelancer, I piled on too much, deadlines slid around, and suddenly I found myself sitting in front of my computer for 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week, cultivating that translucent pallor enjoyed by the most dedicated of gamers. And my nutritional intake… well it was beginning to be on par with those gamers. For all my wailing about ‘there is always time for food,’ I wasn’t making that time. I was eating crap. Constant takeout. Skipping meals, only to binge on some processed snack late in the night. And I am feeling it. Mind, body, and soul. Enter Wisconsin. Well not really. I entered Wisconsin. Wisconsin pretty much stays where it is. Every year my family does a giant gathering in southwest Wisconsin, which coincidentally happens to be the most fertile farmland in the country. I have no scientific basis for that, I just have the evidence of my own eyes as I drive through and raid every food coop I can get near. This is the part of the country I grew up in, where I thought all cows happily grazed on grass all over rolling hillsides. I had called my Mom the week before to ask if her lone asparagus plant was up already, and had she cooked any. She swiftly replied “oh you know that never makes it into the house.” You see, if you have never beheld an actual asparagus plant in spring, you are missing out. Asparagus is one of those magical vegetables that heralds the final arrival of spring in the Midwest. It’s the first really edible green thing we see, and after months of grey, we fall all over ourselves eating this marvelous chlorophyll-laced tribute to the lengthening, warming days. And if you have ever stood in front of an asparagus plant, snipped a stalk straight off, and ate it straight away, well… it would never make it into your kitchen, either. I couldn’t pilfer any of my mother’s asparagus, but I did manage to find fresh local bunches of it at the local food coop, glorious in their short trip from farm to store. Next up, the ramp. This is something I had never heard of growing up. They are purely wild, can’t really be cultivated. Ramps are a strange sort of wild onion, pungent and fragrant, appearing only for a few weeks and POOF! Gone. They smell marvelous, and need to be treated with some respect, as their flavor is ultimately quite delicate and can get lost. And finally… the mythical morel. Everyone at this point seems to know about morel mushrooms. Another one of those wild foods that simply can not be cultivated. People hunt them every year, and do not reveal the locations they find them in. Somewhere I imagine there are wills out there, revealing spots solely to the most trusted loved ones, but only after the original finder has passed. I have yet to ever find a morel, but I found the next best thing this year. Deep in the rolling hills of the Coulee Region live many, many Amish families. There is one in particular I visit every year to get maple syrup from. This year, the grandson had found morels, and they were selling them, for far less than a schmancy Whole Foods would. I can’t tell you my source, as it’s almost as valuable to me as if I had found them myself deep in the woods. And so I eagerly snatched up the last container, paid the nice woman, and ran. Once back in Chicago, it was time to assemble my tribute to spring. I had some heirloom flint cornmeal I had picked up the previous year from a farmer’s market, and decided to make polenta. I added no parmesan, no cheese of any sort, I wanted it to be as straight up as possible (but not without considerable quantities of butter.) While the polenta slowly burbled away (I use a brilliant method by Deborah Madison that takes a little longer, but does not require constant stirring,) I snapped the tough ends of the asparagus off, sniffing the juicy fresh green. The morels were soaked lightly to rid them of any hidden passengers, and simply sliced lengthwise. Their earthy pepperiness filled my small kitchen. A few ramps were minced, adding to the light scents floating about. A bit of butter and olive oil was heated in my ancient cast iron skillet, and first went in the morels. The butter and olive oil bubbled appreciatively at their arrival. A pinch of...

long and slow, slow and long

By on Nov 15, 2014 in baking, experimenting, love | 0 comments

It seems like ages ago, but it has really only been a few months. I am, of course, referring to that explosion of fresh vegetables that covers the Midwest in late summer. Zucchini run rampant, threatening to cover whole towns. Cucumbers come to fruition so fast and furious no mortal can keep up, and pickling begins in earnest. Rainbows of carrots appear, stacked in neatly wrapped bunches, still lightly grubby with fresh dirt. The days are longer and lazy, enticing you to take a moment and stand a moment, soaking in that blazing ray of sun that is trying to fry your skin a delicate shade of red. And now here we are, an early winter blast, and the urge to hibernate arises, to slow down and become blanket-covered lumps, to slowly braise meat and vegetables into stews that comfort and weigh down the body in the waning light of winter. Even though it is not technically winter yet.   Have you noticed how both seasons seem to call for things to slow down? And yet… that does not seem to be how we live. We are so busy, so crazed, everything presses in on us, telling us to speed up. I cruise through countless recipes on the internet, each one speaking of shortcuts, time-savers, using processed stuff in cans to speed things along. And I am not immune to it. Clearly, I have spent the last two and a half months so bulldozed by work I have had a few dinners that involved pouring a glass of wine and ripping open a sleeve of buttery processed crackers (that no longer taste good to me,) collapsing brain dead onto the couch to watch a TV show I have seen a hundred times before. So yes, despite my protests of “you have time, you can always make time to cook,” I clearly hit runs of being unable to do it myself.   But then… suddenly… a day appears. A weekend. Two whole days of no work needs. No emails to check, no checking in with editors, two whole days of time spooling out in front of me, and the sudden ironic urge to speed up and do all the fun stuff arises. Surely I can cook everything in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one weekend.   Hold it. Wait. Slow down.   I work primarily from home, so there are times I am boiling a pot of beans in the background whilst I work away, which invariably leads to me forgetting about it and letting it go too far, ruining the batch. This time I can slow down and actually pay attention. And one of my favorite things to slow down is dough. Especially dough for pizza.   Dough is already a slow process. People try to speed it up, find shortcuts, buy premade stuff all ready to go, but to me… dough is meditation. The simple act of kneading, of losing track of all other things than the feel of the dough under your hands as it slowly transitions from soft mass to springy ball, that moment of knowing just from the feel of it under your fingers that the gluten has been pummeled into submission, and it is good to go. And then you wait. And wait. And wait. And there is no substitute for waiting, no substitute for the dough you make simply by hand.   One day I made a loaf of that no-knead bread that was making the rounds. An exceedingly simple loaf of water, yeast, a pinch of salt, and flour. And time. A great deal of time. Hours of rising in the fridge. And it is delicious. So I thought to myself… pizza can do this. Dough is dough is dough, and this is basically the same with a tweak of a ratio and adding some olive oil, right? I tried it a few times, whipping up a batch of soft dough and letting it rise for hours in the fridge, and it was fine, but it lacked oomph. I wanted depth. I wanted body. But… I did not want to use whole-wheat flour, the flavor being too strong and weighty. I rummaged around my cupboard and started throwing stuff in, and after several trial runs, I found the magic combination. The same base but with cornmeal and wheat bran added in, and suddenly, magically, it was a nubbly, light and tasty dough, good enough to be eaten on its own, but even more ridiculous as the base of a nice pizza. This takes hours of waiting, the dough hibernating much like we want to do in the increasing chill. But waiting, no short cuts, no pre-done ingredients, just simple time… well it is delicious. Sloooooooooooow Pizza Dough (makes enough for roughly 2 14” pizzas, depending on how thinly you roll the dough)   2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour ½ cup wheat bran (not the cereal type, the fluffy flakes) ½ cup medium or large grind cornmeal (I’ve done it both ways, and this sits so long it hydrates fairly well) ½ tsp. instant yeast 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil pinch salt generous pinch sugar 1 c warm water     Mix everything in a bowl with a big ol’ wooden spoon until it becomes a cohesive soft mass. If it feels like it needs more flour, add...