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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...

the perfect pie

By on Jul 9, 2015 in baking, dessert, fruit, vegetarian | 0 comments

So you know that phrase “as American as apple pie”? A great phrase, sure. And apples were important in the history of our nation, what with Johnny Appleseed and all that whatnot. But our nation’s big day is July 4th. Notably, not apple season. But in most parts of the country, it is fruit season. Glorious fresh fruit season, where you bite into a berry that hasn’t spent weeks on a truck, the juices gush forth, and your eyes widen in a big “OH!” moment. And around July 4th, at least in my beloved Midwest, we are at the tail end of strawberry season. And if the farmers did it just right… the tail end of rhubarb season. Which means it is time for the ultimate of pies… strawberry rhubarb. Now I know, I know, I can hear you objecting already. Everyone has their own favorite pie, and in the very personal world of food choice, pie seems to get people whipped into a frenzy. So feel free to disagree with me. But… hear me out. Strawberries are these beautiful plump denizens of summer, all juicy and floral. They range from tart to sweet, and at the tail end of the season, you get these ruby orbs that are bursting with sweet early summer flavor. Rhubarb is the wonderful plant I grew up with in the garden, with the warning of “never eat the leaves, they are poison!” (Which is so intriguing and thrilling to a child!) Somehow those long bitter stalks turned into sweet gooshy crisps. And did not poison you. In my first house I remember as a kid, the neighbor would take swaths of the giant rhubarb plants we had (they may not have been giant, I was a kid, so all things being relative…) and made them into pies, always sharing. She also let me pick raspberries straight off the vine, but that is another story. Fast forward to many, many years later, where now I am a grownup and can make a mean pie crust. But now… I want the perfect filling. I love strawberries, but the idea of a straight up strawberry pie… not appealing. I have visions of it being a syrupy overly sweet mass, and for as much as I love baking desserts, I really do not like to be punched in the face with sugar. I loved those rhubarb pies of old, but they were also on the crazy sweet end from the dump truck of sugar traditionally stirred in. And I get it, rhubarb is tart, but it has a crazy tannic flavor all of its own, so why can’t we just enjoy it? Enter the strawberry rhubarb pie. This is not a new idea by any stretch. It is a classic many love, and absolutely associate with summer, particularly these early parts where the days roll out long and lazy. But when I started researching recipes, I almost heard the beeping of the imaginary dump truck that was doing to back up and overwhelm the filling. It started to take on an eerie echo, and in my mind’s eye I started to see a filling of total goo, quivering and threatening to send every diabetic in the tri-state area into insulin shock. Which, in retrospect, was a little melodramatic. It’s really not THAT bad. But of course, I didn’t want to put in all the sugar I’ve seen. I knew a lesser amount would still get me macerated fruit and a nice set on the filling, and I wanted the strawberries and rhubarb to shine through with their own flavors. I started with the crust, throwing in a little cornmeal for crunch, and as a tribute, since it is a purely American grain. While the crust chilled, crisp green rhubarb was tossed with strawberries so ripe they were red all the way through. I added in a mere third of the sugar normally called for, some flour to help the juices coalesce into a proper filling, and a splash of balsamic to deepen the strawberry. As I poured the fruit into the waiting pie crust, I kept thinking I needed more. Some part of my memory perked up in the background, reminding me of the various pies that have overflowed, and the wondrous fun of cleaning that up. I decided that filling it just to the top of the pie pan was fine. A little over an hour later, and it was done. I burned a fingertip or two snatching a taste of the filling through the holes in the lattice crust, but I had found it. A pie filling that was sweet and tart, all at once. A filling where I could taste that sweetness of the berry, while a hint of bitter of the rhubarb rolled in the back, without my face puckering up as if I had eaten a lemon. Later I enjoyed a full on slice, the flaky crust lovingly cradling the succulent, velvety ruby filling. As I told you in the beginning, strawberry rhubarb is, in fact, the ultimate pie. I have proof. Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Crust (using the Ruhlman 3-2-1 ratio method, so it is by weight)   2 oz. medium grind cornmeal 5 oz. whole wheat pastry flour 5 oz. unbleached all-purpose white flour 1 tsp. salt 1 Tbsp. sugar 2 sticks (8 oz.) butter, cut into large chunks, kept COLD...

i am a sheep

By on Jul 2, 2015 in experimenting, quickie, salad, vegetarian | 0 comments

I should never, ever, be allowed unsupervised in a farmer’s market. My eyes light upon row after row of crisp, vibrant vegetables, and a switch will flip in my brain. I am honestly not sure exactly what that switch does. I only know the end result, where suddenly single me has enough produce to feed a family of four. For a week. But the thing is, I’ll eat it. You see, this is my favorite time of year for the deceptive salad. I say ‘deceptive’, since most of us just view it as some drudgery, that thing we have to eat before the main course so we ‘get our vegetables.’ We drizzle some sad concoction out of a bottle onto some anemic greens, maybe some dried out carrots, and done. Not me. I love salads. Not salads as some forced thing to eat before the meal, but as the main event. Salad in a giant bowl, a terrifying mound of chlorophyll that would make you think I am about to feed a small herd of sheep. But I am those sheep. I will rifle through the greens I have purchased, ranging from sweet to bitter, pungent to mild, admiring the fascinating patterns that roil through the supposed chaos of nature, and throw them willy nilly into a bowl. Admittedly, the ratio tips more in favor of the sweet and mild. I will shower the pile of greens with long, tender sweet curls of carrots. I’ll thinly slice legions of radishes, some milder pink ones, maybe. And then I will simply mix together fresh lemon juice, really good extra virgin olive oil, and maybe some fresh herbs from my little window box, and dress the whole thing. Maybe a crank of fresh ground black pepper, a generous sprinkle of kosher salt. And then… I will graze. Slowly, languidly, feeling the warm summer breezes float through my apartment. I will enjoy the hell out of that salad, every last bite as it wanders through the spectrum of taste. Maybe next time I’ll make croutons, or dig up some goat cheese. Maybe not. Maybe new greens will be in store for next week. Maybe I’ll just try one green. This last week I picked up some pungent wild watercress, which might need to hang out with a bit of Treviso raddichio. I have garlic scapes, maybe they can make an appearance. Who knows? As long as this bounty is around, I will revel in it. Dive head first into it. Make salads a celebrated main course. And graze until fall comes. Baaaaaaaa. No recipe here, because there isn’t one. I mean, it’s salad. I’m sure there is an art to balance, but I sort of roll with what is in front of me. Mix things up, find contrasting tastes, make a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, maybe some fresh herbs if you’ve got ’em, and...

verdant ribbons… and beans

By on Jun 10, 2015 in baking, dinner, experimenting, vegetarian | 0 comments

There is this one stand at my local farmer’s market that I always frequent because they are they mushroom people, and I can not resist a good mushroom. But of course, a farm can not subside on mushrooms alone. They have quite a bit of prepared stuffs, tamales, soups and the like, and of course in my brain I always think “I can totally make that.” But then… I noticed a bin full of asparagus. No ordinary asparagus, but big, giant stalks that looked as though you could beat someone bloody with them. They really would be a festive form of defense, but likely only good for one skirmish. In which I would lose after having sautéed all of my weaponry. The stand guy caught me in my reverie, and he already knew what I was thinking. “I know, I know,” he said, “people think giant asparagus are going to be all tough and woody. These aren’t.” I raised an eyebrow. He had to be kidding. These look like they could be used for a log cabin for an elf. The Keebler boys could upgrade. But no, he was deadly serious. Apparently they use quite a bit of mushroom detritus as fertilizer for their asparagus. He was hesitant to use the word ‘steroid,’ because it instantly evokes negative connotations, but it sort of was. Their asparagus grows so fast and so furious, it hasn’t had the chance to get all tough and woody. It just sprouts out of the ground and keeps, well, sprouting. So I decided to take him at his word (his mushrooms are delicious, after all,) and I bought a chunk of it. And then… what to do? I wasn’t sure, in my spring asparagus frenzy, that I could take another sautéed number. They were just too intimidating to eat raw, and I will admit, I was still hesitant about them. Enter the peeler. I had heard of the wonder of the shaved asparagus salad (which sounds vaguely pornographic) via Smitten Kitchen, and since I am an admirer of hers, I thought I’d start with that. And then… I did what I always do. I researched. And researched. Dug up recipes here, there, and everywhere. Decided that greenery alone wasn’t enough, I needed something more substantial. And I had that round of leftover cannelini beans I had cranked out with my beloved pressure cooker a few days earlier, seasoned with bay leaf and garlic. I had herbs loose and running around, including a fresh bunch of dill and a potted tarragon plant on the deck. I paused for a moment, eyeing the last of a ridiculous, eye roll inducing bit of chèvre. Being a Wisconsin woman at my core, I of course panicked, thinking a quarter pound of chèvre would not be nearly enough. (It was.) So naturally, I made a pizza. Yes, you read that right. A pizza. While I do adore the traditional pizza, riddled with cheese and pepperoni, every so often I wander off with other types. And, to be fair, Google revealed that someone had done a pizza with spinach and white beans, and since spinach is green, and asparagus is green, and Smitten Kitchen had done a straight up shaved asparagus pizza, a mashup was required. I started to shave the asparagus, cursing my ancient peeler, and wondering why I insisted on clinging to this thing that only worked on the most delicate of carrots. It does look pretty in photos, though. If you have not shaved asparagus, it is quite the event. You will make a mess. Just be ready for that. Your kitchen will smell like someone just mowed the lawn. I have read accounts where people do this with a mandoline. All I could envision was my fingers going free range in a bloody heap on the cutting board. I stuck with the cruddy peeler. It took some doing, but I finally had a glorious, soft pile of thin curls of asparagus. I ate one. The mushroom stand guy was not wrong. It was beautifully tender, even raw. And then… well I sort of lost all control. I tossed in some olive oil, squeezed in a bit of lemon, a pinch of red pepper flakes. Not enough. A sprinkle of salt, a grind or two of black pepper. Nope. A bit of fresh dill and tarragon, minced together and tossed in. Now it was enough. The beans were already flavored with garlic, so I let them be. I pushed and patted out the pizza dough, slathered it with fruity olive oil, and dotted on the creamy white beans. Totally normal and acceptable sized gobs of chèvre were dotted on. And then, the asparagus, slick with oil and redolent of green, herbs, and lemon. The rest of the chèvre was dotted on, after a brief moment of panic, as I still believe ¼ lb. would not be enough. It still was.   A careful slide into the oven, blessed with obscenities as I burned my arm on the edge of the oven on the way in, a fretful wait, and ah! Joy! A light pizza at once creamy and piquant, the asparagus having almost pickled in the heat and spice. A fitting summer pizza, to be sure. Shaved Asparagus White Bean Pizza Technically this could be vegan if you just take away the chèvre. You could also just do the asparagus part alone and make...

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...

cabbage, my new love affair

By on Aug 6, 2014 in dinner, salad, vegetarian | 0 comments

Some day, if you are a fan of farmer’s markets, you will find yourself irresistibly drawn to a cabbage quite literally the size of your head. It may actually be larger than your head. The compacted center beckons from the center of the lush furled outer leaves, and before you know it, you are attempting to wedge it into your bag (which once seemed so voluminous,) hurriedly flinging a few dollars at the person who so carefully grew it. Then you get it home. You rearrange half of your small refrigerator in an almost vain effort to fit it in. And then reality sinks in. You just bought a cabbage bigger than your head. You are one person. What in god’s name are you going to do with that much cabbage? Coleslaw, while a venerated summer tradition, just doesn’t do it for you. While you do enjoy pickling and preserving things, sauerkraut is really not going to happen in your kitchen.   So now what?   You turn to someone who always knows better when it comes to vegetables. Deborah Madison, your favorite cookbook author. You skim through the four books you have from her and finally land upon a recipe that not only seems appealing, but makes some use of your small attempt at an apartment herb garden. A wilted red cabbage salad with mint, dill, parsley, and goat feta. Sure, you’re missing the lemon part, but you have white wine vinegar, and it appears to be there only for sharpness. You cut into the massive head of cabbage, the magnificent JT of cruciferous vegetables that is bringing sexy back to this much maligned member of the Brassicaceae family. You really do not like most of the other members, but somehow… the humble cabbage speaks to you. Usually. The oddly random yet mathematical swirls of the vibrant compacted leaves laid bare as you gaze upon the freshly cut vegetable is intriguing, yet you can’t quite be completely in love with the idea of eating it. The doubt is there. That faint odor you can’t quite place but makes your nose wrinkle wafts up with each sharp slice into the massive beast. Even as you wilt it in a large pan (noticing that clearly an 11” skillet is not big enough and you need an even bigger one,) you are suspicious. Will this become a nasty cooked cabbage nightmare, a thing of 50s dining past that made everyone hate cabbage for decades? You hold steady, keeping faith with the instructions of Ms. Madison. Your eyes flick back and forth between the pan and the clock, timing out the brief tosses of the brilliant purple shreds. You swear softly as you lose a few bits of cabbage to the gap between the stove and the wall. You really do need a bigger skillet to cook a pound of sliced cabbage.   After a few short minutes, it is done. You toss it with fresh herbs, plucked straight from your back deck, and wonder why you don’t use all the herbs five times a day. The lingering scent of mint mixed with dill on your fingertips is heavenly. A dash of vinegar, a generous grind of black pepper, a shower of piquant goat feta, and it is done. Somehow, magically, that off-putting scent has vanished. You spear a generous round of cabbage and somewhat hesitantly taste. You pause. You continue to chew, but more slowly, savoring every heady moment. You are now comforted in the knowledge that you know how you are going to deal with the remaining half of the giant head of cabbage. You are going to make this again. Tomorrow.   Wilted Red Cabbage Salad with Goat Feta   (This is not my recipe. This is from Deborah Madison’s latest work, Vegetable Literacy. I am more than a little in love with her books, ever since I bought my first copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone 15 years ago. You don’t have to be vegetarian to love her.)   4 cups packed red cabbage, sliced thinly (a scant pound) 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly 1 clove garlic, minced fine 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley juice of one lemon (or, if like me you have no fresh lemon, a generous splash of white wine vinegar) salt and pepper to taste goat feta to finish (I honestly don’t know why goat feta as opposed to normal, but I found some and it was deliciously mild.)   In a large skillet or wok, heat the olive oil until hot. Add onion and sauté for one minute, just until it starts to get soft. Add in the cabbage and garlic, and a generous pinch salt. Cook for about two minutes, tossing all the while. You just want it to get slightly wilted, not completely cooked. Remove from heat and toss into a large bowl. Add in lemon juice (or vinegar) and a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste, adjust salt and pepper as necessary. Add in the fresh herbs, reserving a pinch or two for serving. Toss together. Portion out onto serving dish and sprinkle with crumbled goat feta and the remaining herbs. Be alarmed at how much you suddenly like cabbage....