I was very proud this fall when I finally got to use my Nani’s heavy, lacquered earthenware crock – the same one that she used to make the cherry brandy that my cousins and I would lick pooled from the … Continue reading
I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least when Michaela Hayes, owner of Crock and Jar, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in making pickles and the teaching the art of pickling and canning, said that a main tenet of her … Continue reading
EVEN MORE IN THE SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION, I AM SO PLEASED TO FEATURE A GUEST POST FROM STEVE MAYONE, MUSICIAN, SONGWRITER, AND SELF-DECLARED “O.H.” THANKS FOR PUTTING UP WITH ALL THE FRUIT FLIES. – SUZANNE COPE I … Continue reading
Maybe a dozen miles as the crow flies, it took us nearly forty minutes to get there. We went up a dirt road and crested a mountain, down the other side until deep ruts turned to asphalt. And then we … Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday, once the clouds broke, I convinced my husband to go strawberry picking with me. I thought I had missed the season, but the late spring and mix of hot and cool temperatures have kept the strawberry fields in full harvest mode. In fact, I had never seen plants so loaded with fruit! Unfortunately, because of the heavy rains of late, most of the fruit was blemished. Some enough to still pick and eat (I knew I could cut off the soft parts and use them in short cake topping or fresh-sliced on yogurt) while too many others were not. And, unfortunately, the flavor wasn’t what I remembered from seasons past. But still, a short half hour later we had almost ten pounds of fruit among us.
From past experience, I knew these had to be processed as quickly as possible. So today I cleaned them all, dipped them all in boiling water for a few seconds (a recent discovery, as this will keep fresh berries from rotting and molding for a few days longer) and froze many of them. You can watch this process here on my Youtube channel. I also set some fresh berries aside for eating, pickled some (recipe and video to come!) and boiled the rest in a bit of honey water for shortbread topping. I decided against jam this year, in part because I will be picking raspberries with my mom, aunt and cousins next week and anticipate a full-on jam session then.
However, what yesterday’s farm visit really did get me thinking about was the fickleness of nature and the challenges of farming. I saw so many strawberries that would be rotting on the vine. Strawberries that were bad before they were ripe; berries that could not have been saved. As I uncovered more ruined berries than good, I remembered the large swaths of the country (the world, even) that are currently in a drought situation, and perhaps just as many areas that are flooded or experiencing epic rains. There are crops struggling to grow in all of these places, and people much more dependent upon those crops than I am upon my strawberries. I thought of the stereotype of the stoic farmer – one who does not express rage or sadness but resignation over a crop ruined by pests or rain or oppressive heat. And maybe for the first time, in my very tiny way, I could understand why. What could the farmer do but watch the last few weeks of rain come down, unable to alleviate the certain consequences. To be a farmer is to anticipate that nothing can be anticipated and plan for any eventuality. For many, that becomes untenable. And for each farm lost, many people lose a local source of food and large parcels of land that have been cared for by generations of one family.
So yesterday, I picked a bit more than I might have once I thought about the fate of my local farmer. And I remembered as well why I made the trek in the rain earlier in the day to shop the local farmer’s market. I was reminded why I am part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) which requires paying for the season’s worth of produce before the sprouts are even out of the ground. Every year I have experienced an embarrassment of riches from my CSA – weeks so full of gorgeous vegetables that it felt like a full time job to eat and preserve it all. But just as easily my weekly take might have been a quart of mushy strawberries, or worse, nothing. A CSA is a way to invest in a local farm, to help insure them against a rainy spring or drought-filled summer. Because I was reminded yesterday that my life is better when local farms thrive, and of course, so is theirs.
I tend to take the holidays off from eating locally. Not that I ever claim a 100% success rate, but when I return to my hometown a day or so before Christmas Eve I quickly realize that I would starve and/or alienate my Italian-American extended family by NOT eating the oyster stew, sausage bread, carbonara, cheese & sausage, veggies & dip, cookies etc. that populate my mother’s home. Eating, you see, is a family affair. To eat (and to cook) is to show love. If it weren’t for this reciprocal action, our familial emotions would probably be quite stunted.
Regardless, I did have a few revelations about our collective consumption this holiday, and despite my mostly NOT local eating, I feel pretty good about the decisions I make overall and how they might be helping others think a bit more about their food choices.
#1 – I actually do a pretty good job of eating – and shopping – locally. I rarely enter a major supermarket and haven’t bought meat NOT raised by someone I’ve met since sometime in 2009. Sure, when I’ve been at friends’ houses or out for a meal I haven’t been so careful. But in general I can find the farm that produced most of the products in my home on a map of New England (and stretching a bit into upstate NY). I feel really good about that. (Of course then I have to try very hard not to judge when my mother has maple syrup or honey that COULD be easily sourced locally, but isn’t.)
#2 – It’s about quality not (ok, sometimes and) quantity. Food I ate with abandon in the past doesn’t interest me. A few years ago if I was offered scalloped potatoes sprinkled with Doritos (who knew my NASCAR-loving step-brother was such a semi-homemade cook!?) I would take a helping with a smile. But this time I took a forkful to be polite and moved on to something else. Sugar-free cookies or fat-free muffins? I appreciated the cook’s resourcefulness, however I couldn’t stomach the aspartame or processed non-fat butter substitute. As often as I could this time around, I chose quality small-batch cheese over store-bought hunks eaten mindlessly. And I tried to bring the ingredients I cared about (see aforementioned “fancy” cheese) and stuck to items that I felt good about eating – even if I ate them immoderately.
#3 – Despite some incredibly sugar-laden and super-processed foods being eaten with abandon by the dad’s side of my family, in some ways they are inspirational as the original locavores. Grandma featured home-grown, -canned and -cellared pickles, sauces and roasted veggies on her Christmas buffet alongside the misnamed whipped topping and candied fruit salad “ambrosia”. Recognizing the mutual interest in local and minimally processed food – albeit for different reasons – has helped us find a way to connect. My grandma has lived in the same house for the last 50 years and didn’t finish the ninth grade, but she and I can talk for hours about how late beets can be harvested and how the caterpillars are predicting a cold start and finish to the winter.
#4 – Much of the extended family (on my mother’s side) cares about humane, local and/or sustainable eating as well. My mom’s two brothers shared a locally born and bred cow this past year (named “D” for “Delicious”) and most of my cousins, their spouses, my aunts as well and my mom and I all grew at least some of our own food and canned local vegetables, pickles and jams this past year. My cousin and step-father both hunt as well – although not exactly to decrease their carbon footprint. We had a locally caught and smoked fish on Christmas Eve and a platter of pickled and canned veggies for Christmas. This attention to local, sustainable and healthy eating by no means originated with me: my oldest cousin has long worked for a non-profit environmental agency and her sister is a vegan blogger. And while our approaches to healthy and humane eating can be quite different, what we realized over a glass (or three) of local wine was that we all want the same thing: for people to be more conscious and thoughtful about what they eat.
And that is my continued goal for the new year.
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!
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.
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.