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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...

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.)...

the nuances of brain juice

By on Dec 3, 2013 in craft food, love, process | 7 comments

When I was 14, I started to drink coffee while at camp, thin bitter dark coffee dosed heavily with packets of hot chocolate mix. When I was 17 I was an exchange student in Denmark, where my host father looked me in the eye and declared that he was going to teach me how to drink proper coffee (and alcohol,) because if I learned how to do it in the U.S., I was going to learn to do it wrong. When I was 23 I lived in New York City and became enamored of the barrels of beans at Porto Rico Imports in the Village, making a pilgrimage from Brooklyn every time I ran out. When I was 27 I did a grad school project for an interactive media project called “The Obsessive Compulsive’s Guide to Coffee.” Now, at age 38 I have a kettle that heats my water to precisely to 200 degrees, which I slowly pour into a french press with precisely 4 tablespoons of beans for two cups of coffee, then let sit for 4 minutes, which I can now do without using a real timer, and I drink it black. Slowly. I say all this because even with all that evolution and slow learning, I know approximately nothing compared to the eloquent Tim Coonan, owner and roaster at Big Shoulders Coffee. Go ahead and look up Tim Coonan. You will find he has been a chef in some of the finest places in the world. He was at Spiaggia here in Chicago for nine years. And when you drink his coffee, it is not a fanciful mélange of bean and foam, a place where you will find beans excreted from a civet cat wreathed in such mystery and exclusivity you expect there to be armed guards around the cup of coffee. You will drink coffee. With flavor. No-nonsense and yet highly nuanced flavor. On a grey Saturday morning, Mr. Coonan was kind enough to let me come in as he roasted his last batch of coffee for the day. I was there at 10:30AM, and he had already roasted 100 pounds of beans. I walked in the door of his coffee shop and was immediately embraced by the heavenly scent of freshly roasted coffee. I had recently been introduced to this glorious scent by my cousin, owner of  Cimarron Books & Coffee out in Colorado who has become entranced with the coffee bean and had bought a home roaster to do experiment with roasting. The scent of roasting beans wafting through their house was for me akin to living inside a glorious caffeinated bakery where I was not sure I could inhale deeply enough. So walking into a place where they just roasted 100 pounds… well it was beyond any kid in a candy store analogy you have ever envisioned. Way beyond. Right in the front window of Big Shoulders sits a commercial roaster, all vivid, shiny, and green. Tim began to work on roasting a batch of Ugandan beans. He explained the stages, such as first crack, and we watched the beans shift from green to brown, far more swiftly than you might imagine. His eyes constantly flicked between the beans and his nearby laptop, where he had charts for previous roasts of this bean, and a gauge showing temperature. His nose was watching even more keenly. Despite the careful gauging of temperature and time, checking against previous roasts, a lot of this really does still come down to the nose. He said there are machines where you can just program a profile for the roast you want and let it go, but there are so many variables that can affect the batch that day he prefers to watch every roast and do it all manually. I asked about dark vs. medium roasts, and what I had heard about West Coast vs. East Coast roasts, and his answer was not really what I would have expected. I knew about dark roasts being really more about char than coffee, but when it came to the other descriptives, he spoke of how we keep using words like “terroir” and these other coastal definitions, but they are really borrowed from other parts of the culinary lexicon. We don’t really have language yet for just coffee. Terroir is about wine, and about where it is grown, the environment around it. While there is definitely something to that in coffee, it goes farther. It also is what the farmer does to the bean after it is harvested. There is a farmer in Mexico that lets the bean ferment just a little in the bean, giving it this lactic flavor that is unlike anything you will experience in coffee (no civet cats required.) Tim was kind enough to have the folks at the coffee shop make me a couple of cups of coffee, from a couple of batches he really liked. We stood next to a wall where he had some of these beans in glass jars, and he held up an Ethiopian to smell, which smelled pretty much like I expected (still lovely,) and then he held up a jar of this Mexican coffee with the fermented bean, and I think all of my neurons, faithfully fueled by coffee for many a year, did a double take. He said the first time he had this coffee, he had a...

sweet, sweet snow

By on Nov 25, 2013 in craft food, libations, process | 0 comments

Once upon a time, on a sunny fall day on a quiet street in Chicago, a food blogger walked up to the gate of a long and low brick building. Before her was an aging metal panel of buzzers, and a tattered piece of paper taped over half of them with alternate instructions for only certain parts of the building. After a brief head scratch, the food blogger decided to move onto more modern technology and call the person she was meeting. A minute later, a tall woman with cropped red hair and improbably merry round black glasses popped out of a door a half block down the long and low brick building and yelled “RACHEL!” One would somehow like to think all this craft and local food happens in fabulously rustic kitchens or perfect retro factories with just the right amount of hipster grunge, but really? Sometimes it happens in a long and low brick building, and frankly, I don’t give a damn, because the end result is delicious. The tall woman in question is Melissa Yen, creator of Jo Snow Syrups. I had seen her out and about at the Chicago street festivals, doling out snow cones using what appeared to be a vintage ice shaver (it’s not vintage, it’s just a Japanese company that happens to make them look vintage.) On a particularly hot day at one of the festivals, I circled her booth like a parched vulture until finally the line was short enough, and dove in. My first experience was the tangerine lavender honey syrup drizzled over shaved ice in the classic little paper cone we all know from childhood. But this was no purple flavor or blue flavor. This was that smooth round sweet of tangerines, that little tang of honey and undercurrent of lavender rolling about, and I swear my core temperature dropped 10 degrees while my eyes rolled backwards from the pleasure of cooling down in such a scrumptious manner. A couple of months later, on a chillier September day, I encountered her again at a fair and tried the cantaloupe cardamom (which she thought was a bit too cardamom-y,) and I spied a bottle of woodruff syrup, a wonder I had encountered at a bar in Brooklyn a month before. I chatted with her a bit about how she was so much more than a fancy snow cone purveyor, and she graciously agreed to come have me hang out for a bit one fine day. And finally that fine day arrived. I made my way down to the door at the end of the long and low brick building, and upon entering, the first thing that hit me was the scent. Of granola. She uses part of the kitchen that Milk & Honey Granola uses, and there were several ovens full of granola roasting away, letting loose a homey scent of oats and sugar. We donned some very fashionable hairnets and went into the corner where she and two women were working away. Despite the proximity to the ovens full of tempting granola, I was drawn like a cartoon following an animated scent trail to her giant “tilt skillet” (a giant vat where they actually cook the syrup in enormous quantities that has this crazy motor setup that will slowly tilt the skillet over so they can empty it out into kettles for bottling.) Inside she was steeping cardamom rose water syrup. Let me pause here a moment. When I usually think of flavored syrups, it usually involves flavors hatched by a chemistry lab somewhere in New Jersey, bearing little resemblance to the flavor of the object in question. Purple flavor is purple flavor, not really grape. So when I say Melissa was steeping cardamom rose water syrup, I mean I was staring at a vat of syrup with an incredible quantity of whole cardamom pods and some cinnamon sticks steaming away, releasing a scent that really was within a hair’s breadth of causing me to float up and along in a state of ecstasy like a Looney Tunes character of old. Apparently the little old ladies at the Middle Eastern market look at her like she is insane when she buys 22 pounds of cardamom pods at a time. Fair enough. But this is totally my type of mad scientist insanity. On the table was a bin of figs from the day before, when she had been working on syrup for cream soda, for Farmhouse, a local restaurant. Actual figs, no weird chemicals involved. This is not to say there is no chemistry. Of course there is! It’s food, there is always chemistry involved, but not necessarily chemistry involving strange foreign substances emerging from a lab. Right when I got there she was testing the pH level of the cardamom rose water deliciousness to make sure it was at the right level, since it has to be at a certain level to ensure shelf stability. The only thing she uses to alter the pH is citric acid. Earlier in the day they had made and bottled some of the concord grape syrup, which is definitively not purple flavor. In fact, it isn’t even really all that purple. Sort of a glowing purply-red, like the best parts of a sunset, leaving me to occasionally just gaze at it wistfully. While waiting for the cardamom to be ready, Melissa pulled out...

inhale deeply

By on Oct 22, 2013 in love, process | 1 comment

Make no mistake; I am from the Midwest. I was born into a culture of casseroles (or hot dish, depending on your exact location,) rife with of cans of condensed soup, a grind or two of black pepper being the closest thing to spice around. Wait, I phrased that incorrectly. No grinding. A pinch of pepper from a tin canister, already ground, neutering the ethereal bite of a freshly cracked peppercorn. This is not actually all a bad thing. There are still moments I desperately crave a tuna noodle casserole, one of the few possible ways you will ever see me eat fish. And a casserole is a quick way of getting hot dinner to your family. But this isn’t about casserole. It is about that pinch of pepper. It is about spice. While my mother did expose me to a wider range of spices and flavors than the average Wisconsin kid had in the 80s, there was only so much she could do, given what was available at the time, at least in a mid-sized city in Wisconsin. A favorite joke in our house: Q: How do you make Norwegian salsa? A: Chop up a tomato. It’s not that far from the truth. But as I grew older, I grew more entranced with the art of cooking, and while I definitely will occasionally go to my mother’s house and bust out the stash of egg noodles I know are stored in a 35-year old coffee can (we take recycling VERY seriously in our family, those containers last forever) and whip up a classic tuna noodle casserole, I now take great pleasure in spice. Not the spice that blows your head off. I can take a fair amount of heat in my spice, although my pride on how spicy of food I could take was dented a little when I befriended a few folks from India and China. When the person from India tells you they think it is too spicy, believe them. Trust me. But I digress. Spice does not necessarily mean heat. Pull open my spice drawer and you will get assaulted with a thousand scents, only a few of which will actually make you tear up. I have a little marble mortar and pestle I bought well over a decade ago to grind them fresh by hand, and even though it can be a challenge, it is pretty much a given that freshly ground spices are always better. And one of the finer examples of it is harissa. No, that is not the misspelling of an arch-villain of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s. It is actually a Tunisian condiment. I must say, the Tunisians are brilliant. It has a long list of ingredients, but it holds for a few weeks and is one of the finer things to keep around the house. Of course there are many a recipe for this delectable little paste, but in the end I like it with plenty of aromatic spice, flirting with the edge of heat without taking out your tastebuds in a wall of culinary flame. I am absolutely positive there are those in my family who would turn red and start sweating just looking at it sideways, but for the rest I can assure them that it is divine. The making of it is a sensual act, each ingredient releasing headily distinct scents as you prepare them, and you start to rack up ideas in your head of what to put the final product on. I once had a student from Egypt tell me that they use it for breakfast to top off a nice bit of bread or chickpea soup. Dried ancho chiles release a sweet smoky scent, red bell peppers and jalapenos let loose a juicy edge of sweet. Cumin, caraway, and coriander seeds roast briefly in a pan, and the second you start to grind them in the mortar and pestle, the warm scent causes you to close your eyes as your mind flies away to a far away market that pretty much looks exactly like one in the market swordfight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Salty fresh garlic, a clean fresh hail of mint, a touch of earthy sweet honey, and the magical final component of the food processor to bring it all together into a smoky sweet warm salty concoction with the slightest bitter edge of pepper, and just a touch of heat. Now that is a luscious bit of spice. Harissa 2 oz. dried ancho chiles (about 5-7 chiles, don’t worry about getting too many, they keep. And yes, they are actually pretty easy to find, especially if your grocery store has a “Hispanic” section) 3 jalapenos, halved and seeded 1 red bell pepper, halved and seeded 1 tsp. whole cumin seed ½ tsp. whole caraway seed 1 tsp. whole coriander seed (yes, you can use ground if you have it, but I beseech you to try whole. And go buy a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ll wait. Go ahead. No, you can’t use your coffee grinder, you need something just for spice. OK. Have you got it? OK. Good.we shall continue.) 2 serrano peppers, halved and seeded 2 Tbsp. chopped mint leaves 1 Tbsp. honey generous pinch salt extra virgin olive oil Cut the tops off of all the ancho chiles and remove as many of the seeds...

billy goat grilled

By on Sep 22, 2013 in craft, process, sustainability | 4 comments

Behold a sizzling rack of goat ribs. Lovingly marinated in olive oil and a mix of fresh herbs, licked by flames until the surface becomes that beautiful crusty brown that causes an instant salivation for those of us in the human omnivore sect. It does not, by any stretch, taste like chicken. This is not about a recipe for goat ribs.   On a warm dry day on a mesa in Colorado, surrounded by scrub brush and mountain vistas, I was for the first time in my life brought directly into contact with knowing where my meat came from.   Before the ribs arrived on my grill, they were a part of a goat. That seems like a redundant piece of information. Of course ribs came from an animal. But this is the first time I met the animal. This was a goat owned by Ron and Pam Brown, a lovely rancher couple who were generous enough to let me watch the process and carefully explain everything they were doing. These folks raise almost all their own food, down to the meat. It is not some Luddite or hippie commune sort of thing. It is simply the way things used to be done and they still just do, except Pam wields a smartphone from the saddle of her horse. Near the end of the process Ron cut the ribs off and generously gave them to us so we could try them. He said he did not like them as much as pig ribs, but we had to try goat, roasted low and slow. Pam took the rest of the edible parts of the goat, rubbed them with a savory bit of seasoning she calls “Pig Paste,” then slow roasted them until the meat just falls apart, then froze it in small packages for the future. Before the goat was slow roasted into delicious oblivion, the goat hung suspended from a bar on a forklift so they could easily butcher the animal. A faint iron tang of blood hung about from the fresh slaughter, but no other scent (short of the wide open air and juniper lurking about.) Ron and Pam were quickly moving around the goat, cutting it up, removing the insides, with Ron explaining the best process for opening up the body cavity to remove the organs. Some choice bits of liver and heart were set aside for the cats. Pam invited me to pick up and join in with one of the sharp knives. “Don’t be afraid, join on in!” I held tightly to my camera and just kept watching. Goats are pretty small anyway, and I am the definition of inexperience when it comes to butchering anything. Short of chopping up a chicken in the kitchen. I don’t think that counts. My uncle Gene had come along for moral support (I am the city slicker of the family, no one was really sure how well I would deal with this, including me.) He helped to steady the bar the goat was hanging on so Ron could more easily work, and to remove the skin once it was loose enough to come off. Ron was showing me the best places to start cutting to remove it, and explained that it was best to do it as quickly as possible, since it was easier when it was fresh. This may sound strange, but when the skin is on, I kept seeing the animal. With the skin gone, I saw the food. Gene is a very experienced hunter (one of the reasons, along with my Grandma, that I grew up having venison, and also the reason I have had antelope meatloaf,) and he and Ron were discussing the dressing of game in the field. The way they were dressing this goat, was much cleaner than trying to field dress a deer out in the mud. They talked a little about slaughterhouses and those big commercial farms where cows are raised in pens. My uncle had told me about the unbelievable stench of CAFOs years ago, and in recent years I have driven by them a few times and experienced it for myself. It smells wrong. And then Ron said something that caught my attention.   “I worked in a commercial slaughterhouse for a year and a half, and there was a rendering plant out back. Every time I smell meat in the supermarket, it smells like that rendering plant.”   In a word… ew. Meat that doesn’t smell like meat, but the process of separating fat and occasionally blood, fur, and feathers from the rest. Some of this is for stuff like lard, but some of it is for… other things. I have read that some rendering plants have to be pretty remote because the stench is so bad. And that is what Ron smells when he smells supermarket meat. To be fair, I didn’t ask him to clarify the smell. It could have just been the scent of lard. But the way he said it, it did not sound pleasant. It is one of the many reasons they grow and raise almost all their own food. They really do know where it is coming from. Before Pam pulled in with the forklift to hoist the goat so it could be cleanly dressed, it was time to kill the goat. It seems harsh to keep saying “kill,” but if...