Spices

A week before Christmas I was looking in my spice cupboard for some specific ingredients that I might need to make my annual homemade Christmas gifts. I hated to give the same thing year after year – after all, how much homemade jam can people use? – and I had decided that this would be the year of the spiced nuts. The annual activity, now nearly a decade long, was perhaps inspired by the delicious box of baked goods my pastry-chef step-sister would send along every year. I’m not much of a baker, but I started to can my meager harvest of strawberries and tomatoes and was proud enough to give a jar to each of my parents and my grandmother. I expanded to pickles the next year and then experimented with jelly: the least successful was wine-flavored (or perhaps I should say, the least versatile), the most sought after was my strawberry balsamic black pepper. This year, inspired by a recent trip to Morocco where a shop’s excellence might be measured in the depth of their ras al hanout and the entire country seemed to smell like the inside of an herboriste, I wanted to use spices, and lots of them.

I decided upon three versions of nuts – New England, Italian and Spicy – and started searching for the appropriate spices in my cupboard. The cupboard is in the corner, near the sink, which means that it goes back at least two feet – farther than I can reach without perching on the counter. I thought I had a pretty good mental inventory of what was in the cupboard, but was taken aback by some of what I found. Memories from past dishes and travels were defined through my spices, much as I had recently seen the history of the country of Morocco defined their food.

Digging around in the cupboard, while sitting next to the rack of drying dishes and row of olive oils and vinegars, I started pulling out jars. First there was the homemade pate spice, thoughtfully labeled as such, just one souvenir from my year-long charcuterie adventure. Next I pulled out a large jar, half-filled with dark orange spices, and smelling of heat and flavor. It had to be chili spice or something with cayenne and cumin and ground hot peppers, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. It had to be recent, judging by the shiny lid and location at the front of the shelf, and I swore to be better in the new year about labeling my concoctions. Behind the chili spice were a few jars of homemade spices purchased on a trip to Florida for a friend’s wedding: Florida fish rub, Thai seasoning and lemon pepper, all made from mostly locally grown (to the purveyor in Florida) ingredients. These brought back memories of how happy my friend was, nearly bounding down the aisle to meet her husband to be at the altar; of the afternoon on the beach when my husband first saw dolphins in the wild; of the morning before the wedding when we sought out our favorite tourist destination – a farmer’s market – to buy distinctly local delicacies that we could not find back in the northeast.

I set aside some rosemary and thyme, both picked from the raised bed in my tiny urban back yard, and dried in the dehydrator for my own use. Behind that I found the jar of ground hot peppers – truly the spiciest and most flavorful blend I have ever used – given to us by an old friend of my husband’s.

On the next shelf up I found a container with pink salt – clearly labeled as curing salt, not for normal consumption – an ingredient I had only recently discovered and learned to use. This reminded me of what I had learned in the past year as a cook and of the family and friends, virtual and in-person, who helped me with encouragement, stories of success, taste-testing and sous chef-ing. I found a jar of za’atar spice, a few years old now, that a friend gave us when she and her husband moved overseas. I thought of her and her little daughter, whom I had only met once, and thought to make a point to send her an email. I also found a jar of whole nutmeg, a gift from a high school friend’s mother for my wedding, now nearly four years old. She had sent us a box of spices after the wedding, and this was all that remained. I doubt she knew I was much of a cook – I wasn’t much use in the kitchen back when her daughter and I snuck rum from the liquor cabinet and blasted Pearl Jam in her bedroom – but her small gift was one of my favorites.

I gathered the spices I would be needing to make my homemade Christmas gifts, and put the rest back into the cupboard, trying to bring a few forward to encourage their use. I knew that spices lost their pungency, especially after a year or two, but I couldn’t bring myself to toss the za’atar – especially because I only recently was inspired to use spices from this part of the world – or a few others that reminded me of dishes I had attempted or friends with whom I had shared a kitchen or a meal.

I wondered what other shelf in my life contained such memories, such a ledger of times shared with others or skills learned. I vowed in the coming year to revisit this shelf more often, to try new dishes, label old spice mixes and toss those that lost their flavor. If I could do this on one little shelf in my life, I could only image the possibilities elsewhere.

Italian Spiced Nuts

Combine:

1 tablespoon thyme

1 tablespoon oregano

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a separate bowl, whisk 1 egg white until frothy

Toss a pound of nuts (your choice – maybe mixed or all cashews or almonds) in the egg white until coated. Toss the nuts with the spice mixture and roast in a single layer in 325 degree oven (on a silpat, greased cookie sheet or parchment paper) until lightly brown, ten minutes or less.

Take out of oven and immediately toss with a half cup (or more!) or grated parmesan (or grated pecorino would also be delicious). Package up for gifts or just serve at room temp.

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Duck Confit

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For, perhaps, the first time in this year of charcuterie, I did not know what to expect. I was sure I had confit at one point or another in my culinary life. I spent seven years (albeit all during my naive twenties) with an expense account, after all, have traveled internationally, have written about food. But for the first time I approached a recipe truly not being able to picture the end result. I had pork confit once – the chef claimed to have spent all afternoon making it and was very proud. But I found it unremarkable; just room temperature fatty shredded meat to spread, awkwardly, on toast.

But still, I read and re-read the recipes. I plotted my path to obtain the ingredients (this being my first charcuterie effort as a part-time resident of the city of New York). I did a little research.

Hmmm…. did you know that confit is simply a term that means immersing meat or produce in a substance for preservation or flavor. Fruit can be confit-ed by cooking in sugar or honey, vinegar and water, similar to a jam. I have unknowingly confit-ed roasted peppers and tomatoes in olive oil to preserve them for a bit longer than their brief shelf life in raw form. And now, I can say, I have confit-ed duck.

It was so easy. And tasty.

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I figured that the most time intensive part of this effort – which simply involved mostly passive cooking – would be finding the ingredients. I hoped to source my protein from the Union Square Farmer’s Market but figured that I might have to venture further afield for the fat. In the spirit of confit, I planned to buy whatever meat looked good – and was not extravagantly expensive. However, that I would be making duck confit was decided as soon as I walked into the square and met Matthew from Hudson Valley Duck Farm. I told him of my confit aspirations and asked his advice. It was easy he said, just cook the legs low and slow in the smallest pot in which they would fit in a single layer.

“I don’t need extra fat?” I asked.

“You’ll end up with more than enough when you are done cooking these legs,” he assured. He also added that I could salt and season them at least overnight – but if I wanted to let them sit in the fridge for up to a week, tightly wrapped in plastic, the flavor would only improve.

In the end I seasoned the two legs I purchased from Matthew with about a tablespoon each of salt and herbes de provence and wrapped them in plastic for three days.

On day three I washed and patted the legs dry, and then arranged them skin side down in a smallish oven-proof sauce pan. I baked them for about three hours at 200 degrees, and then took the top off and finished it off for another twenty minutes or so. The fat was beautiful, golden-tinged and clear while the meat was beginning to roast, but was still tender. The fat was not completely covering the meat, as I imagined it might by the recipe instructions. Was this still confit, I wondered?

I poured the fat into a half quart canning jar, and then, when the legs were cool enough to handle, I separated them and added them to the fat. They meat fell apart in my hands and I couldn’t resist taking a taste. It was fatty and unctuous, perfectly roasted and tender. The two legs, including the rendered fat, but after discarding the rest of the skin, perfectly filled one canning jar. I made sure the meat was covered in fat and then let it sit on the counter for the next two hours before dinner.

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For dinner, I picked up a strong semi-soft cheese that I thought would go well with the confit, and a loaf of fig bread from a local artisanal bakery. At home, I had perfectly ripe tomatoes from a previous farmer’s market excursion that needed to be eaten, and made a salad of them with basil from my front patio. My husband, Steve, opened a bottle of a bordeaux-style red wine. And we ate.

It was just meat in a mug of fat, as Steve pointed out, but it was delicate and flavorful. The confit held up well to strong cheese and wine, but on its own with just the fig bread, the meat’s sweetness shone. We ate not quite half of the jar, and I capped it and placed the rest in the refrigerator, despite my (relative) comfort that it was shelf-stable. I marveled at the simplicity of preserved meat in a jar, whose roots can be traced to the time of the Renaissance in rustic southern France. I may not have been able to picture confit before that afternoon, but I know to which standard I will hold all others.

 

Homemade Hot Dogs

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Living 500 miles from my home town, I try and plan one long weekend home during the summer to spend some quality time with my dad. Ever since I was young, he has been a major contributor to the family cooking, employing varying degrees of adventure. When I was five or six, I remember him bringing home the strangest fruit he could find at our small-town grocery store: a star fruit, pomegranate or mango. I recall the first time he brought home the latter – it was unripe, but never having before seen a mango, we didn’t know what to expect and its astringent taste dried out our mouths. Now, decades later, my childhood home finally has cable (we lived too far out in the country when I was growing up) and one of my dad’s go-to channels is the Food Network. A physics major in college and a builder by trade, he particularly loves Alton Brown and his scientific explanations and home-built cooking devices.

So nowadays when my dad and I catch up on the phone a few times a week, we often talk food. He was so impressed by my latest charcuterie exploits that I sent him homemade duck proscuitto and a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for Father’s Day. We have since been making plans to build a homemade smoker out of an old mini-fridge.

And then: the emulsion challenge.

The timing was right – I would bring my grinder home and my dad offered to set up a work table in the garage. The local grocery store has expanded since the days that mangoes were considered exotic, and now I figured I could buy almost any ingredient I might need once there. We decided on late morning, on the 4th of July. And what would be more patriotic than homemade hot dogs? Our plans were made.

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While my dad’s had made sausage with my grandparents countless times, it had been a few decades, so I took charge of seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard) and chopping the beef stew meat for the first trip through the grinder, along with just a bit of pork fat (fat back).

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We ground the meat first through a large die and then again through a smaller die, keeping it as cool as possible in a metal bowl atop ice. Ruhlman and others cite temperature as being a main element in keeping the texture firm and not mealy, so we started with nearly frozen meat and a chilled grinder as well.

I’ll note here that I also skipped the step that called for curing the meat with pink salt overnight. In speaking with the same butcher, a man who owned both a butcher shop and a gun shop side by side in a neighboring town so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, who also refused to sell me pink salt until he quizzed me on my curing experience, he noted that if I was planning to eat the hot dogs in the next few days and didn’t mind a brown versus pink color, then I could skip that step. Again, its about knowing how the ingredients work together. I was learning… In fact, for one of the first times in my memory, my dad – a man who could fix or build anything – was learning alongside me.

Next we cleaned the grinder and put that and the meat back into the freezer while we re-grouped. I must admit, I was a bit worried about the next step. I had asked the butcher from whom I bought the beef and casings if he had any tips, and his response was, “Keep it cold and don’t break the emulsion.” The long directions, according to Ruhlman, included adding liquid, and mixing the meat until it reaches specific temperature points; however the emulsifying step under the hot dog recipe only noted a quick two minute spin in a food processor, with no added liquids. I read the recipe aloud to my dad (neither of us were much on following directions when cooking, preferring to wing it based upon experience and instinct) and we debated what to do. For the first time the two of us – both a bit stubborn – feeling equally comfortable with the same task. Then I realized: we’re cooking. And we’re using ingredients with which we are familiar. While we may never have ground meat into a sticky paste to stuff in a clean pig intestine (I couldn’t find sheep casings), we understood the concept. We decided just to go for it.

 

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So we put the very cold, almost frozen ground meat into the food processor and let it run for two minutes as the recipe indicated. And we both agreed that it just didn’t look paste-y enough. I suggested adding a few ice cubes and a minute later my dad added a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and then a touch of water. Finally, we agreed that it was starting to look like an emulsion. How did we know? I’m not sure; we just trusted our collective instincts.

 

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Finally we could stuff the hot dogs. Admittedly, in the larger pig casings and without the tell tale pink tinge, they did look a lot like sausage. Which I guess a hot dog technically is.

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Maybe an hour later, with a pint of my dad’s homemade beer in hand, we threw these on the grill. The texture was right – smooth, with a bite from the casing. But the flavor was garlic-y and mustard-y with just a touch of smoky spice. Either the best hot dog I have ever had – or just a flavorful smooth sausage. But in the end, did it really matter what it was called? I just called it a good afternoon cooking with my dad.

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Pickled Strawberries, Round 2

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Of all the wisdom I have imparted in the past couple of years, my pickled strawberry recipe has been one of the most consistently popular posts. I recall being inspired to make these after visiting Garden at the Cellar, a particularly tasty farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Chef Will Gilson, where pickled strawberries were featured with one of the daily specials. The next day I basically swapped strawberries for cucumbers in a pickle recipe to see what might happen. And well, they were a tad strange. Certainly interesting and unique, but it was as if they too perfectly straddled the line of sweet and savory. I brought them to a few dinner parties and friends were excited to taste them, but would chew them thoughtfully, perhaps taking just one more to ensure that their flavors were a bit too odd to go back for a third. I still assert that they can make a nice accompaniment for a charcuterie platter or cheese plate, but only for the more adventuresome palate.

So with this year’s batch of fresh-picked strawberries I decided to tweak my own recipe, this time using my grandmother’s bread and butter pickles as a basis. I made two version, one more local than the other. Both turned out well – although the version with honey is a bit sweeter and more complex. These are certainly on the sweet side – the amount of added sweetener ensured that, although in the future if I started with sweeter strawberries I would cut it down even further. As it was, this season’s berries didn’t quite hold up to last season’s. So for all those looking for a pickled strawberry recipe, I ask you to give some feedback on this one. I think that if I were to make this again, I’d stick with honey as a sweetener and add maybe black peppercorns for bite or substitute balsamic vinegar in place of some of the white vinegar. Oh well… maybe next year.

Sweet Pickled Strawberries

*fills about a pint jar of strawberries

In a sauce pan, over medium heat: heat 1 cup vinegar, 3/4 – 1 cup sweetener (depending on sweetness of berries, sweetener used and personal taste) and 2 tablespoons of salt. Perhaps a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract. Heat until the sweetener and salt are dissolved and the liquid reaches a simmer.

Meanwhile, clean and de-stem enough small, ripe, blemish-free berries to fill a clean pint jar. Layer in a few clean and unbruised mint or basil leaves.

Pour the boiling liquid over the strawberries. Once at room temperature, store in the fridge. Let them sit 12 – 24 hours or more before serving.

Watch me pickling!

Locavore on the Road: Oysters in Willapa Bay, WA

Late last week I was lucky enough to be driving down some of the most dramatic and scenic coastline in all of the US (that I have seen – and I’ve seen most of it) on a west coast road trip from the San Juan Islands in Washington to San Francisco, California. This trip produced plenty of delicious stops and gorgeous vistas, but the one bite (that I had over and over again) was the Willapa Bay Oyster. My husband and I were not far from the Oregon state line when we saw a few signs indicating that we were in the “Oyster Capital of the World”. Needless to say, I was on the lookout for a spot to sample the local delicacy. We passed through downtown Willapa so quickly – for it’s a sleepy concentration of houses, important town buildings, a convenience store and just one seafood shop along a stretch of highway bordered by a narrow bay – that we had to turn around in an empty church parking lot when we realized we missed our best chance at oysters.

Inside the small East Point Seafood Market in South Bend, Washington I approached the woman behind the counter in shop with a few shelves lined with canned oysters, spice blends and cookbooks.

“So, can I get some oysters? To eat now?” I ventured. This was certainly a store, but there were a few empty picnic tables in the parking lot and I thought I smelled chowder cooking in the back room. She said she would make us two “shooters” (or about 5 large oysters in a plastic cup served with a side of cocktail sauce) and volunteered the bit of trivia that one out of every five oysters eaten in the world came from Willapa Bay. These treats cost us $2.50 a cup.

Out back, overlooking the not-too scenic Willapa Bay, I dipped into my shooter and drew out a large, briny oyster, smelling faintly of the sea. I could see why these are so popular – they are huge – and as I took my first bite I was expecting the same mass produced taste that I’ve had in various stews or soups in a number of non-oyster producing towns across the country.

Not so – these were creamy and only slightly briny and very tender. Their large bodies melt in your mouth, offering mild oyster taste with just a hint of the sea. These are everyman’s oyster (my husband, not a huge oyster fan, was the one who suggested we go back for more), and might not have the complexity of some of the smaller and saltier varieties. But eaten incredibly fresh, with a view of the bay from which they came, I had never had a truer oyster.

Harvesting Garlic

Finally, more than seven months later, I am reaping the benefits of my planted garlic cloves. I watched the green shoots grow – the first sprouts in the garden, four months ago now – and knew that this day would come. I read about when to harvest garlic: mid-summer was generally when they would be ready; I’d know when because the tops will “die back”. As with most of my garden experiments, I couldn’t exactly picture or pin-point how or when this would happen. But sure enough, as I was weeding the other day, I saw unequivocably that those garlic tops were dead. So dead, that if I hadn’t been careful, I might have cleared away the brown, straw-like former-sprout and not even know that there was a garlic bulb below the dirt. I poked around (my garlic is interspersed throughout my garden) and saw that most of the garlic tops were dying and I would need to be harvesting all those beautiful bulbs soon. But what did I do after I dug a dozen or so heads (smaller than I thought they’d be – and with a bit of a red tinge to them) from the ground?

In my internet research, I found a lot of ideas. Preserving in vinegar, freezing whole or chopping cloves and dehydrating are some ideas. Most of these methods also keep the all or most of garlic’s health properties as well. All fine and good, but I wanted them as close to their harvested state as possible. One source said that that freshly harvested would keep 4 – 12 months at room temperature. (I have the few I dug up the other day in my little garlic bowl – a pot with a top and a few air holes that is meant to keep the garlic aerated but dark.) But I will also throw a bunch of heads in a mesh bag in the “root cellar” nook of my basement, as a few other sources recommended. It sounds like aeration is important, as is darkness and temps that don’t much fluctuate. I’ll report back. In the meantime, garlic, zuke and spinach stir fry over lentils tonight for dinner!

Pickled Strawberries

I dragged my husband along for our yearly strawberry-picking adventure. I supposed I could do it alone, but it seems less of a chore and more of an outing with someone else. We arrived at Verrill Farm in Concord, MA (where last year we had a semi-celebrity sighting: Doris Kearns Goodwin! How did we even know what she looked like? And she was in the farm stand area, not in the field) less than half an hour before they were to close for the day. The berries were perfect: fat with rain and sunshine and as sweet as they would get before bursting and becoming insect food. Six pounds of perfect (although smallish) berries only took us until closing time to pick.

I let them sit for a day, only slicing them into yogurt, before I figured out what I might do with six pounds of berries. Sure, jam was great, but I had made jam for the past few years, never quite giving away or finishing each season’s efforts. My parents and friends were getting tired of the same gifts. On the second evening that the berries sat on my counter, covered lightly in a vain attempt to keep out fruit flies, I met a friend at Garden at the Cellar, one of my favorite small plate restaurants that specializes in farm to table and seasonal food. The bartender (who, at one point plucked basil from a plant on the bar to make my cocktail) described the specials, one a pate that came with pickled strawberries. I asked her what the berries were like – salty or sweet.

“The pickling doesn’t make them salty, really, it just brings out the berry flavor. They’re amazing, really,” she told me. I didn’t order the dish, but I did make pickled strawberries the next day, inspired by her description alone.

This recipe is loosely interpreted, and of course relies on small berries that are incredibly sweet, and not at all bruised or rotting. The result is tangy from the vinegar, but sweet and complex from the spices and the berries themselves. An interesting condiment to fancy cheese, I would say, or even pate or fois gras.

Pickled Strawberries

In a saucepan I combined 4 cups water, 1 cup white vinegar and 4 tablespoons salt. To that I added a teaspoon each of mustard seed, black pepper corns and vanilla extract (I would have scraped a vanilla bean if I had one), two bay leaves and one cracked cinnamon stick. I boiled for five minutes and let cool to room temperature.

After sterilizing my jars (the brine would fill about four pint jars) I filled the jars loosely with the best strawberries, stems still on. When the brine was cool, I filled the jars, using a clean butter knife to help release any air bubbles and cap them. I tried some after a few hours in the brine and they were tangy and sweet and totally unexpected.

The flavors are so strong, eating within a week would be great. Although I did process two jars for future gifts using the technique described in Blue Ribbon Preserves my canning bible. In this cookbook, Linda Amendt recommends boiling the jars (with fresh lids on of course) at between 180 and 190 degrees for 30 minutes. This lower temperature helps keep the color and texture of the pickles. I did this and the berries did shrink a bit and were a bit paler than before, but I do trust that the jars will keep longer – by months or even years if unopened. The brine turns a nice magenta though, obscuring the pink-grey berries. An interesting experiment.

Local Ipswich Clams

Perfect Sunday: an afternoon drinking local wine in the backyard of an old friend (paired with bread and local cheddar and goat cheese). My best friends are in town, their husbands (and in one case, toddler) in tow. We drive to the beach and get our face whipped by the wind, watching the waves dance and glint in the sun. When we’re hungry we head to Woodman’s, in Essex, for local fried Ipswich clams, washing them down with a pint of Sam Adams. The clams are fat and juicy – the breading light, but hefty enough to give each fat belly a crunch. My friends, in town from Buffalo and Seattle, rave about the freshness of the seafood and the beauty of the north shore. I know how lucky I am to call ipswich clams local, and to share them with some of my favorite people.

Herb Salt

Mother Nature teased me the last few weeks with her unseasonably warm weather. I was almost caught off-guard as I let my woody herbs soak up the last rays of warm above-freezing weather. Thus I found myself in the garden one afternoon late last week with raw hands and a bagful of sage and rosemary leaves as the sun was setting and the snow starting to swirl.

Inspired by the delicious Provencal Salt I’ve been using all summer (purchased from the local Herb Lyceum stand at the farmer’s market) I decided to dry the sage in my dehydrator (just a few hours did it as the leaves already had a low water content) and then process them until finely crumbled. I then mixed salt and sage at a ratio of 3:1. I packaged some up in small recycled glass jars for holiday presents and will be leaving a bit for myself to toss with the last of my beets or on cauliflower, pork chops or in a beef stew.