On Being Prepared

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With the impending holidays, instead of joy, I begin to feel in my heart a little seed of anxiety. As the days go by, I know it will grow. I’m an anxiety-prone person, I will admit. Worry, worry, worry! I have a deep furrow between my eyebrows that some will point to and tsk at: you’re making wrinkles! I’ve had the knit-brow wrinkle long before wrinkles started knocking on my doorstep. With all this worry, I try to spearhead it by being prepared. As I write this I am making dinner. It’s 1:30 p.m. Prepared!

When I was a teenager I had a job at a restaurant and catering company. I was a prep cook (and server) and come the holidays I practically lived in the low-ceilinged cement basement below the restaurant. I had lists of things to prep: huge amounts of crudités,  tons of frozen shrimp to peel, dips to puree and chicken tenders to deep fry. We made many pies, roasted many hams, and I think I may have sliced thousands of loaves of bread. Perhaps the fear and anxiety started there: I would stand by waiting for orders as my bosses fretted over yellow legal pads filled with endless scribbled lists.

My catering days are over, thankfully, but the prepping is not. These days, I’m preparing for the holidays by having food prepped. Not for the holiday feasts, but for the busy days that seem to fly by before the big days. For those lunches and dinners when you are so hungry that you will easily eat something unhealthy just to have a quick meal. My biggest downfalls: grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of pasta.

The easiest plan is to have a large pot of brown rice made in the beginning of the week.  Rice can be breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Sweet or savory. Two favorites for breakfast: an egg on top, with avocado and kimchi, or pudding style, pureed with milk and maple syrup. There are numerous variations. When you get sick of brown rice, I make jasmine coconut rice (substitute some coconut milk or coconut cream to your rice when cooking) and it still goes both ways.

PSA: I recently made brown rice in the pressure cooker. It makes the most delicious brown rice ever. It also doesn’t seem to get hard in the fridge. You may thank me later. 

The other day I made a jar of coconut curry sauce based on this recipe. It used up some coconut cream from making coconut rice. It makes a staple in the fridge, like rice, that much closer to a real meal: just add some vegetables and tofu, see above photo.

Another good thing to have on hand, especially if you have rice on hand: beans. We eat a lot of burritos around here, so black beans and small pintos are a must. Lentils and chickpeas are also favorites. Sprout chickpeas a few days before you cook them in a pressure cooker. When I do this, the beans have this smell that I can only describe as cheesy and umami-rich. It’s the sprouting for sure. It made an amazing chickpea stew, and now there’s hummus in the fridge. So prepared!

These are just a few ideas from this week. What about you?

Cranberry & Sour Cherry Jam

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We are starting the holiday season with a bang this year. Right now it’s snowing heavily and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. We’ve been outside in the snow. We have a fire going. And we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon! Tomorrow we’ll have a small feast, just the three of us, and while we miss our families, there is something nice and quiet about this day that we spend with each other. I don’t get too riled up about cooking on Thanksgiving–it’s easy comforting fare, and when it’s this small there are very few worries. I do hope a similar day of comfort and thanks is headed your way!

Lately, I’ve been somewhat uninspired in the kitchen, wondering what to eat and whether it’s worth it. Cranberries provide some spark of hope for me. They are always fun–they seem to go so well with so much. This year I tried yet another new take on the ubiquitous sweet preserve on the Thanksgiving table. Good hoarder that I am, I had a bag of frozen tart cherries still in the freezer.  Let me tell you: tart cherries go smashingly with cranberries. I know it’s probably too late, and tart cherries are so precious to hoard, but one day give it a whirl.

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1 cup pitted tart cherries (slightly frozen are always easier to pit)

1 cup cranberries (fresh or frozen)

1/2 cup sugar

Add all three ingredients in your jam pot, and bring to a nice foaming boil. Use the spoon test to check your consistency. It will boil down, become glossy, and all this will happen pretty quickly; about ten minutes. Pour it in a nice jar and stash it in the fridge for the main event.

Nothing more! I so wanted to add some booze or clementine juice, but I kept it simple and I’m glad I did. This will go incredibly with some juicy dark meat. It’s tart times two, and has the slightest bitter zing at the finish. The tart cherries really take center stage, which I was surprised by.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Chocolate Chestnut Tart

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I can’t believe it’s already November 18th! I’ve been missing this place, to record what I’ve been doing and thinking. Life takes over sometimes, and my sacred place to be me usually is the first thing that gets squeezed out. But I’m muscling my way back in! Just like the acupuncture appointment I made last week, I’m trying to take back the time for me. It’s always the hardest space to carve out, isn’t it?

A while back, a pal of mine gave me a bunch of chestnuts from her lovely old chestnut trees that grace her backyard. A picnic table is under them, lights are strung from them, and food drops from them. Their beauty and worth are not without trial though. In the fall, the chestnuts and their mace-like sheaths litter the backyard, which becomes a mine field for a few weeks a year. I hope you don’t step on one in your bare feet!

A little about chestnuts: there aren’t many American chestnut trees around due to a chestnut blight long ago. You might be seeing Asian chestnut trees. And don’t mistake a horse chestnut for a chestnut! One of the problems that chestnuts from someone’s backyard might have is worms. It’s sort of gross–these industrious worms will bore a perfect circle out of the nut and any plastic container you have them in so they can return to the soil to make more worms. The trick, I have found is to boil them for twenty minutes in 120 degree water. It truly works.

Once you’ve de-wormed your nut, you can move on to other more pleasant tasks, like making sweetened chestnut paste. And then onto this simple yet elegant chestnut tart that needs no crust, and has no added sugar because the paste is sweet enough. It tastes like a very soft chocolate chip cookie. That might not be the best press, but think comfort and refinery at once.

Chocolate Chestnut Tart

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have ready a buttered 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

1 cup chestnut paste

1 stick of butter

1.5 ounces dark chocolate, chopped

½ teaspoon of baking powder

2 eggs

Put chestnut paste and butter (chopped in chunks) in a food processor and puree until smooth. Add chocolate, and process until smooth. Then the baking powder and eggs, again until smooth. Pour batter into the tart pan (optional: sprinkle some coarse sugar on top before baking; it creates a bit of a crunchy shell.) Bake for thirty minutes. The batter will have puffed up and will be set in the center. It will deflate a bit upon cooling. Serve as is, or dress up with a bit of powdered sugar or creme fraiche.

Review: Fermented Vegetables By Kirsten and Christopher Shockey

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Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey came in the mail to me, thanks to Storey Publishing, at a perfect time. The ferments I made in late summer are almost finished and I have room for new batches. Fermenting vegetables is such an easy thing, right? Add salt and let it sit! Well, even simple things are complicated, just more subtly so. So many little questions pop up that it’s nice to have someone there who’s done all the experimenting for you, which is just what the Shockeys have done. Many years of experimenting with their own business selling local vegetable ferments led to the making of this book. You can check out their website and hear more at The Fermentista’s Kitchen.

The book is laid out in an orderly fashion: the basics and mastering techniques followed by recipes according to vegetables alphabetically, then recipes that use up those ferments. I’m particularly interested in the flavor-packed fermented pastes, like Thai basil paste. I also like that the authors note vegetables you really don’t want to ferment. The tone is always informed and never condescending. The book is seasoned with great quotes, personal stories and sidebars about admirable fellow fermenting peers who run small businesses. The section on recipes that incorporate ferments is very creative and well thought out. There are several things I already have bookmarked, among them a savory sauerkraut quiche. One of my first experiments using this book as a guideline is a sunchoke ferment that I have started. We’ll see how it goes–I’ll keep you posted!

(Disclosure: I received this book from Storey Publishing to review. All of the opinions here are my own.)

Grape and Fig Mostarda

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There’s something about preparing for guests that’s truly in my blood. Was it all the years I worked in restaurants and catering? Or digging even deeper, transferred from my parent’s love of throwing elaborate dinner parties? I recall very early on in life, waking up while my parents still slept, to find the table covered with dishes and wine glasses, and being utterly entranced by this adult otherworld that I was not privy to. It was like an archeological dig–trying to place what conspired by piecing together artifacts I had very little information about.

I love placing silverware down on napkins, I love letting cheese sit out all day to get soft, I love shining wine glasses with a cloth. I know there is this romantic notion of the host cooking while everyone watches, laughing and drinking wine, but frankly that makes me a bit nervous– although I’m always impressed by people who can do it. I prefer having everything ready so when the guests come I can pour myself a glass of wine and sit down and talk.

Last week, I had some friends over to celebrate recent nuptials, the season, and general friendship and camaraderie, and although I wanted it to be special (and I worked the two days before) I still relied on my preserving know-how to carry me through. To start we had burrata with an heirloom tomato confit that I had made the week prior. Some duck liver paté was paired with pickled figs. Bread and bubbly was all that was needed to while away the afternoon while we sat outside in the unseasonably warm weather.

For dinner, I had a roasting pan filled with some winter savory chicken and lamb sausages, onions, shallots, and potatoes. On another tray I had thin slices of Japanese kuri squash drizzled with olive oil, rosemary and sea salt. Both went in the oven at the same time, and all I had to do was pop them in. They looked great on a large platter in the middle of the table with serving utensils. On the side were some leeks with vinaigrette. A full dinner for six with a modicum of work.

Dessert was an apple frangipane tart I bought (gasp!) and which we didn’t even dent. I served it with a few cheeses, and a platter of grapes and figs. We finished the cake for breakfast the next morning, and the fruit sat for a day or two until I turned them into this mostarda, which came out amazingly delicious. A few days later, I served it with some blu mauri, an Italian goat and cow gorgonzola when a new batch of friends stopped by. And so it goes: preserving saves the day! Make some mostarda this fall, and make sure to have friends by to enjoy it.

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Mostardas are great on meats, go well with cheese, and are happy just on a piece of bread. Be creative and don’t worry if your fruit isn’t perfect. This recipe is a guide–use your taste to figure out what you like best. The mostarda will also mellow a bit after a few days in the fridge, so keep that in mind.

Grape and Fig Mostarda

1 pound fruit, mixed grapes (Concord and Niagara) and fresh black mission figs

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup sugar (although 1/4 cup of honey would be great)

1 cup fruity white wine, like an off-dry riesling

2 tablespoons of whole grain mustard

Cook the grapes in a pan with the vinegar until soft. Pass through food mill to remove the seeds and break down the skin. Return grape puree to pot, add quartered figs, the wine and mustard. Boil down till you reach a jammy consistency, about 30-45 minutes because it’s a nice small batch (some recipes will have the time at a few hours). Store in the fridge. Serve with savory items–a bold cheese, cured meats, etc.

The End of the Tomatoes

IMG_8572There are so many fall preserving projects on the horizon–all the fall goodies: apples, pears, quinces, winter squash, jerusalem artichokes–but I still need to finish up summer! There are still tomatoes to be dealt with, and it’s grueling, but everybody knows it will be worthwhile in the winter. So, without further ado, this is what I’m doing to get those long-awaited tomatoes out of my kitchen! I’m sure I will be pining for them once again in the not too distant future.

Fermented Tomato Conserve – I have never tried this but as soon as I saw this I was completely intrigued. See this post also, which is slightly different, and uses a recipe from (obviously) Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. The author discusses how he used the excess liquid in a Bloody Mary. I am choosing to use this liquid for a soup stock, but I love the cocktail mix idea! I’m not sure I squeezed as much liquid out of my pulp as I could have. I started with 10 pounds of tomatoes, and ended up with 12 ounces of pulp to which I added 2 ounces of kosher salt. It is quite salty!  The seeds and skins were tossed, and the liquid is now in the fridge waiting to be used up. How does one use this, you may ask? I see it as a tomato paste that can be added to soups, stews and sauces for a salty, umami jolt.

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Salt added to the finished pulp.

The easiest thing I do to tomatoes? Fill my crock pot with tomatoes–I even leave them whole, in the case of tiny plum tomatoes–and just put them on the 12 hour low mode. They will break down and release their water. Then, when cool, I puree them in my Vitamix. (This is how I fell in love with my Vitamix, processing tomatoes.) I return them to the crock pot to become ketchup or tomato paste. The very last of the tomatoes are in there right now because I just couldn’t bear to keep them on the counter any longer.

Some more ideas:

How about oven-dried tomatoes in oil? Tip of the hat to Sean Timberlake, new head honcho at the About.com’s preserving page, for bringing attention to this method from UC Davis.

 Or this TOMATO sauce from Raisin & A Porpoise?

Is this really goodbye?

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Hard to turn down an opportunity to glean!

Plum Kuchen Jam

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Here on the east coast it’s high season for preserving the harvest. I have piles of tomatoes still to be tended to, lots of jam to make, and I haven’t even touched the fall fruit yet except for a batch of applesauce. My son’s sixth birthday was this week, and amidst all this preserving, there were sprinkles and frosting an an abundance of Legos. It’s been a whirlwind, to say the least! It makes one have an appreciation for the quiet of February. Sort of.

Meanwhile, the nights are becoming chilly and I wonder: flannel sheets yet? The leaves are turning that faint yellow around the edges, and there are reds and oranges starting to show. The shorts and t-shirts are giving way to sweaters and boots. You can tell that people are invigorated by the autumnal weather! Why is it that right before the winter is the most exciting time? Even though we know the long cold months are ahead, we can’t help but to feel a high note singing out right now.

Have you ever had plum kuchen? I love this German cake that celebrates the late season prune plum, oval purple-blue freestone plum cultivars, like Italian, Earliglow, or Stanleys. Something about these plums with cinnamon, sugar and almond flavors sends me reeling. As a plum kuchen baked recently, and the smells wafted through the house, I thought why not make this into a jam? It is super easy and full of tempting flavors, great over vanilla ice cream or in a gallette.

Plum Kuchen Jam

yields 4-5 half pint jars

2 pounds of prune plums, stones removed, coarsely chopped

1 pound of sugar

1 teaspoon of lemon juice

1″ stick of cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon powdered cinnamon

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or better, an inch of vanilla bean)

1/4 cup of almond liqueur (your own homemade noyaux perhaps? Or Amaretto.)

Chop the plums, then add the sugar and lemon to sit overnight. This should be covered, and at room temperature. The next day, add the macerated mixture to a pot and bring to a boil. Add the stick and powdered cinnamon. When you it is close to being done–the water has boiled off, the mixture is thick, it is getting glossy and jam-like, add the vanilla. Once you feel the jam is done, turn off the heat and pour in the liqueur, stirring gently. Let the jam sit and stop bubbling. Ladle into warm jars, and process the way you prefer. Boiling water bath time should be 10 minutes.

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Staying Hungry

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