FacebookTwitter

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...

preserved sunshine

By on Feb 8, 2014 in love, preserving, process | 0 comments

(This was originally written (and promptly not posted) before I went off on a film shoot for several weeks that involved many a night shooting overnight, outdoors, in the coldest winter in 30 years, where I redefined how cold I thought I could be. So it seems doubly true, especially as I watch yet another volley of snow fall from the grey sky.)   There is a wonderful episode of Doctor Who where they reference the solstice in December, saying it is celebrated because it is “halfway past the dark.”  This is a lovely sentiment, but as a Midwesterner, let’s be honest. It doesn’t feel that way.  Yes, after December 21st, the days technically do start to get longer. But that just gives you more daylight time to watch the flat grey expanse of winter that is January and February. Maybe this is why so many New Year’s resolutions are broken. You start out with this ideal of the fresh start in January. Maybe you stick to them all through January. Screw the grey skies and frigid cold, you are doing this! Then February hits. The grey skies are still there. It feels like they have sunk a little lower. You sit on the couch, under a nice blanket, and from your cozy position you eye the sinking grey sky and think… “oh just one more episode of Breaking Bad…” Your resolve cracks. The lack of sunshine begins to wear on your psyche. By the end of February, that couch has become an extension of you, and you wonder why you keep living in such a cold, icy place.   The thing is, the grocery store does not help this much. Veggies start to look as disinterested in being there as you are. You are pretty sure that half-wilted pile of swiss chard would also like to be catching up on some episodes of Law & Order. Even in our age of shipping veggies and fruit willy nilly all over the country, by the end of February, it’s looking pretty grim. The one thing that is great this time of year? Citrus. Glorious citrus. Brightly colored orbs of tangy, juicy flesh, reminding you of a warmer clime far from here. Somewhere sun is shining on citrus fruit. Secretly, you get a little jealous. Enter the lemon. I am a huge fan of the lemon. The bright acid hit of its juice is a welcome addition to almost everything. The zest has a seductive aroma that brings even the biggest humbug a momentary bump in mood. Recently I learned of this beautiful thing called a preserved lemon. The concept is simple, based on the ages old phenomenon known as preserving. Salt, lemon, and time combine to create a moment of preserved sunshine that you can eat. The origins are from the Middle East and Northern Africa, and I have to stop and applaud these people. There is a particular tang to a preserved lemon that instantly fills you with culinary light. Or maybe that’s just me. Every time I sprinkle a bit of minced preserved lemon on a dish, each bite drives that lowering grey sky away, inch by inch. There are, of course, many recipes out there, but I started with one from Judith Jones. Take four lemons. Almost quarter them, leaving a bit at the end to keep it held together. Jam the inside of the lemons with kosher salt. Massage them deeply, taking long deep inhales of the glorious lemon scent. Let them sit for a day in a jar. Take 8-9 more lemons and juice them right into the jar until the juice covers the salted stuffed lemons. Cover, and let sit for three weeks. And that’s it. To use, just pull off a quarter of lemon, cut out the pulp, and use just the peel. Every time I crack open that jar, any troubles I might be having get pushed aside by the bright sunny aroma that comes forth. What to do with the lemon, other than inhale the aroma? Chop up a bunch of veggies. Potatoes, zucchini, red peppers, onion, maybe some mushrooms. Douse them in olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper, and let them roast. Near the end, add a load of chickpeas and a fistful of finely chopped parsley, and dill if you are lucky enough to find it. Top it with some harissa, if you have some made, and the minced preserved lemon. And that’s it. In the dead of winter, my bowl is glowing with flavor. So try it. Go start it right now, and when February comes, you will be ready to combat the grey. (note: so sorry… I meant this to go up earlier, but you can still get it in time for March, since that damned groundhog says we will still be having deep winter then.)...

dill sunshine

By on Apr 11, 2013 in love, preserving, vegetarian | 2 comments

I am sitting staring out the window. Night has fallen, but the dull orange glow of the sky is a reminder that clouds weigh heavily over the whole city. April can stop hosting this shifted wintry cold that refuses to leave. Today the weather was damp and cold, the wind winnowing in through the seams of clothing, wrapping icy fingers around the bones once thought to be hiding under warm flesh. My knuckles are staring at me, red and chapped, from where they sat earlier, exposed to the world as they clung viciously to an umbrella that proved ultimately useless. Even in the dark, you can feel the grey. And all I can think is… damn I want a pickle.   Yes. A pickle. A dill pickle. Why? Do you see it? There? That light as it soaks so luxuriously through tiny cucumbers bathed in hot brine? That bright, bright light that could only be borne of a hot July afternoon? Those luminous slices have been quietly lying in wait for months, waiting for that time when the seal of their jars is cracked with a soft seductive hiss, so eager fingers can fish out bright, salty reminders that summer did exist, and it was bountiful and bright. It was a hot July afternoon. I know this because the date is written in red marker across the top of every jar. I know it was hot because it was July.   I was working too much last summer. I had one day off a week. My sacred season, the season of fresh piles of food stacked on rickety tables in parking lots near and far, the season of talking to the people who grew this food so graciously so I could buy it, this season was slipping away. I had to capture it. I had to preserve it. I had to pickle it. So one day I went to the farmer’s market. I talked to a man who sold me pound upon pound of  “European” cucumbers. They were slightly sweeter. And more importantly, they were small enough. I took them home, sweating already in the morning heat. I boiled brine, packed jars full of heads of dill, garlic, and wedges of the jewel-like green treasure I had procured, I lowered whole jars into a large vat of simmering water, happy as the heat and steam curled up and around my sweaty brow. After all that, the jars cooled. They were carefully labeled, and moved to a pantry shelf. And then left as work continued to overwhelm. A jar or two was opened over winter, one shared at Christmas, but still more waited in the pantry. And today, after arriving home chilled with icy damp jeans clinging to my shins, I craved the tangy sun canned that day. Damn. I wanted a pickle. And so I had one. It was not a ray of sunshine, warming me from the inside out. That’s what bourbon is for. But it was a reminder. A reminder that seasons change, this cold will leave, and soon, very soon, the season of hovering over steaming pots of brines and jams while the temperature climbs higher and higher will be upon us, and the sun will shine in voluptuous fat rays through my kitchen windows once again. Dill Pickles There are so many variations on pickling, ranging from the type where you let pickles ferment in crocks for weeks in dark mysterious corners, to simple brines and processing. When it comes to dills, I have been using the latter variety, mostly because I did not possess a pickling crock until this year. And this year that has to be dedicated to an attempt at my Grandma’s legendary sweet pickles. Have I mentioned how much I like pickles? makes approximately 8 pints and a quart of dill pickles (did I mention I went a little nuts last year? I had to resort to a quart jar because I ran out of pints. You can scale this down.)   6-7 lbs. of pickling cucumbers 6 large garlic cloves, split (or 12 small ones, whatever you’ve got, the farmer’s market had giant garlic at the time) 9 dried red chile peppers (optional, it was not in the above batch) 4 c. white vinegar 4 c. water 4 Tbsp. + 2 1/2 tsp. Morton’s kosher salt (yes, this IS brand specific, it’s a translation from traditional pickling salt which I do not have, and there are different ratios dependent on brand) 1 1/4 Tbsp. sugar 8-12 heads of dill (if they are huge, you can break them up)   Clean and dry cucumbers. If they are too big to be pickles, quarter them. Or just quarter them because you like it. Clean all of your jars, fresh lids, and rings for canning in hot, hot water. I like to fill the clean jars with boiling water while I wait as well, and throw all the lids and rings into another pan filled with more boiling water. And a knife to flip the lids out of the water, not being someone with a fancy magnet grabber for them. Bring a kettle of water big enough to hold the jars with an inch of water above the rims to a full boil.   In a large saucepan, bring vinegar, water, salt, and sugar to a boil. Empty your jars of their boiling...

a jam of the evening

By on Jul 9, 2012 in fruit, love, preserving | 2 comments

9 o’clock in the evening is a perfectly reasonable time to make jam. A reward, say, for having spent 2 1/2 hours in meditation over a never-ending line of fresh strawberries nestled in quart boxes, their uniquely sweet and floral scent gently floating up, reminding you yet again that your Strawberry Shortcake doll from the 80s never smelled anything like this. 2 1/2 hours standing quietly over a sink, one hand deftly wielding a small knife, the other guiding the unsuspecting strawberries to the sharp point that would soon relieve them of their stems. One by one, quart by quart, the pile of hulled strawberries mounts in the sink. Who was I to resist their lure? Surely I did not really need to make all 8 quarts into jam. A few berries here and there, just for quality purposes, were tested. On the day of meditation I made five jars of jam. And then looked at the other giant pile of strawberries, glowing in their own rich redness, and decided that maybe I could freeze the rest. Which leads to the night in question. The night during which 9 o’clock seemed a perfectly rational time to make jam. It was really an act of necessity. I do not have a full-sized refrigerator, and the freezer was jammed to the hilt with berries. There was nary a space to stash an ice cube tray to chill my occasional tipple of bourbon. So I emptied the freezer of the strawberries, added some water that would soon become ice cubes, and proceeded to pull out my canning gear. I dumped the strawberries into a 4 qt. stock pot. You would be amazed at how long it takes 12 cups of frozen strawberries to defrost. The canning kettle was slowly heating with a vast quantity of water. I slid the frozen stock pot towards it, hoping the heat would help expedite the thawing process. I began to question whether or not 9 o’clock really was a reasonable time to bust out and make jam. Then I ignored that part of my brain and turned on the burner under the strawberries. The magical thing about heat is that it thaws. I stood patiently above the pot, stirring the frozen berries around, much like you would poke at the embers of a fire to help stoke it. Blissfully, the berries began to thaw and then collapse. Soon all sense of time slipped away as I merrily mashed the berries and threw in the sugar and pectin. The heavenly summery scent was not obscene enough, so in went a touch of balsamic vinegar, the distinct tang melting into the strawberry scent and intensifying it, sending my brain into a fluid state that stopped looking at the clock slowly ticking on above the oven. A spoon was dipped into the sweet lava and held high above to assess the readiness of the jam, relying on growing instinct to tell me when it is done rather than calculated numbers. Jars were filled, a finger dipped into boiling hot water to clear the rim, hot lids and bands thrown on, and the jars lowered into simmering water to seal in that crimson glory. The short dance went on for a while, in the end making six jars of jam. Brow beaded with sweat, I glanced at the clock. It was after 11. I heard the soft ping of one of the jars sealing as it sat on the cooling rack. Then another, and another. Soft musical notes playing into the quiet night of my kitchen. And I smiled. 9 o’clock really is a perfectly reasonable time to make jam. Strawberry Jam note: Do not fear the canning. Everyone freaks out, convinced you will die if you do one thing wrong. Just keep your jars clean and hot, and keep everything you work with clean and hot, and you will be FINE. Also, this recipe is using one very specific type of pectin, so this will NOT translate to other kinds. And this is not the usual Sure-Jell you find in the supermarket. This is very specifically using Pomona’s Universal Pectin, carried in most Whole Foods and likely other natural food stores. It is less chemically based, and allows you to use WAY less sugar than traditional jams while setting just as well. This recipe is probably the seventh iteration of jam I have made using this, starting with their precise instructions and then meandering into my own experimentation. I think I may have finally gotten it right. But try it for yourself. Or try their way for yourself. Worse comes to worse, you have some really tasty strawberry sauce for ice cream. Just try it. I dare you. 12 c. hulled strawberries, preferably fresh 3 c. sugar 5 tsp. pectin powder from Pomona’s Universal Pectin 10 tsp. calcium water from Pomona’s Universal Pectin 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar 6 pint jars with absolutely no nicks or cracks on the rim, 6 new lids, and six bands, fully washed a jar funnel (just a funnel with a wide opening for jars) Jar grabbers A potato masher or something similar Fill a canning kettle or other large pot that can hold your jars without touching and allow the water to rise an inch above the lids. You may have to do the jars in batches (I always do, my old kettle only...

ruby hued pickled joy

By on Jan 29, 2012 in experimenting, love, preserving | 0 comments

Crunchy leafy greens get piled on a plate, a quick dressing of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and olive oil is whisked together and drizzled on, a bit of a remarkably smokey blue cheese is crumbled about, and gently, ever so gently, a few generous slices of pickled beet are perched overall. A few grinds of pepper and some delightfully crunchy large grained salt is deployed, and the winter blahs are banished in a riotous blend of creamy and crunchy and salty and sweet and smokey and earthy and GREEN. And yes, you heard me. Pickled. Beets. And they are wondrous. Let’s be honest. It’s Chicago and it is January. What vegetables I can find in the market tend to be cowering, slightly shriveled shadows of what can be found in summer. Greens seem to be the only thing that hasn’t fallen into utter despair. February will only get worse, and all I will want to do is bury myself under piles of mashed potatoes and meat, hardy things that will power me through the greyest days of winter. But I still crave the fresh taste of a good veggie. Standing in front of my pantry door, my eyes light upon the jars of beets I pickled in September. It was a rash experiment, born of my uncontrollable desire to purchase enough vegetables at the farmer’s market every week to feed five people even though I am but one, and then manage to find an excuse to hit two farmer’s markets in one week, wild-eyed and giddily happy as my hands riffle through vegetables that were in the ground not 24 hours ago. And so on a bright September afternoon, after staring at the giant pile of beets taking up the entire lower shelf, I decided to pickle the beets, something I had not done before. Standing in front of my pantry door four months later, I could not be more grateful. “But wait,” you might be saying, “pickled beets?!?!? GROSS!” To those of you who say this, I say… try it. I dare you. It is possible you have only been exposed to those pickled beets of yore that came out of cans, looking one step firmer than a solid slab of cranberry “sauce” and tasting vaguely… wrong. Beets unto themselves are a very earthy flavor, with varying degrees of sweetness dependent on variety. All character was lost in those sad aluminum cans. This experience may have stopped you from enjoying beets as an adult, and you are missing out. A freshly roasted beet can be a thing of perfection, a deeply toned rosy gem that is welcome on the plate in the dead of winter when all else is brown and grey (I say this since we apparently are being robbed of wonderful white snow this winter in Chicago.) Pickling them takes them a few steps further. First you roast them slowly with rosemary, then pack them gently with slivers of red onion into clean, hot jars, adding in a some cloves and allspice. A hot sugary tangy brine is poured over all, and after a luxurious water bath that seals everything in and a few impatient weeks where all of those ingredients get to know each other, their flavors mating to create whole new generations of flavors, you have pickled beets that sit on the plate, fetching in their ruby glory, tasting of Christmas. And who doesn’t like Christmas? Pickled Beets – one of many possible variations This made five pints. note: these are actual properly canned beets, using a hot water bath and everything, so these can sit on a shelf in your pantry for months. Many people seem to be afraid of pickling, convinced they will die of botulism if they do not face the right direction or on the right foot while uttering the correct incantation during the part where you seal the jars. DO NOT BE AFRAID. There are only a few simple protocols, and it comes down to boiling clean jars, soaking new canning lids and the rings in hot water, and whatever you use to ladle. Just… a lot of boiling water. It will be fine. This particular recipe is a conglomeration of techniques I researched, and I picked the parts I found most interesting. Turns out, that was the tastiest way to do it. I have my grandma’s old kettle for boiling jars, which is narrower than the giant canning kettles they sell now, so I could only do three at a shot comfortably. Still worked out. You will need a kettle tall enough to completely submerge the jars, and you will need those nifty jar tongs, and cooling racks (the ones you use for baking). I know other people that use magnetized whatnot to grab the lids, but I just use a clean knife that has been dipped in hot water, slide it under the lid, then maneuver it over the jar and slide it right off. No touching of the underside with my hands. Ta da!!   The Beets 2 bunches beets (2 1/2 lbs.), cut into quarters, leaving the peels on (Use GOOD beets. These do not have to be farmer’s market beets, but do not pick some sad spongy thing up at the market you think you can salvage into a good pickled beet. You need to start with good beets to get pickled beets, otherwise people...

spiced apple chutney

By on Oct 19, 2010 in preserving | 0 comments

Crisp white apples, bright white onions, fiery red Thai chiles, misguidingly muted beige ginger, deep amber turbinado sugar, darkly pungent apple cider vinegar, dusky allspice and clove, boiled together, filling the small apartment with the sharp bright scent of the vinegar, currents of sweet apple and sugar eddying around underneath. In less than an hour, the chutney cooks down to a murky brown mass, flecked with bright red specks of pepper and dark studs of clove.  It is swiftly scooped into hot jars, boiled and sealed. It sits on a rack cooling, looking like a rough gemstone… somewhere in those muddy depths is a beautiful flavor waiting to come out, but for now it will remain encased in its glass, slowly...