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a most precioussssss idea

By on Jul 15, 2015 in quotes | 0 comments

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

J.R.R. Tolkein

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...

MFK Fisher on baking bread

By on Jul 10, 2015 in quotes | 0 comments

The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…

[Breadmaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of
meditation in a music-throbbing chapel. that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.

M.F.K. Fisher

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...

Sing it, Julia!

By on Jun 23, 2015 in quotes | 0 comments

I think every woman should have a blowtorch.

Julia Child

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,...

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...