A Toast to the New Year

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The past month has been a busy one! December was an oddly warm one for the Hudson Valley, and I tried to get out to hike as much as I could. There were forsythia flowers blooming, and cherry blossoms opening, and mushrooms all over. As I write this, winter has finally settled in a little bit more– there is snow outside, and it is cold enough to have the wood stove cranking. The new year is upon us, and I, for one, am dedicated to making it a good one. There were so many heavy moments in the last few months of 2015 that by December, I sank pretty low. But with good food, an open mind, and love in our hearts, I know we can start on a high note.

Back in October, I harvested some berries from the invasive autumn olive. They are lovely red berries that have microscopic dots all over them, giving them a silvery cast (the plant is also called silverberry, due to the silvery underside of their leaves, and perhaps the berries themselves). I have been gathering these lovely little berries for years now, since I found a huge patch where you can never even put a dent in this highly productive species’ output. One bush will produce tons of berries. It’s a picking experience not without pain–there are some sharp thorns.

I must say that I had almost given up on them as a source for food. I don’t like the berries raw–though some do eat them this way–as they are very tannic. My lips just pucker at the mere thought of them. Pressed and added to apples is a suitable way to eat them, as I do like their flavor. I once tried to make something from them on their own, and they separated into a red pulpy mass with a white milky liquid. It wasn’t very pleasant. Also, the large seeds inside the berry have a grain-y smell to them that I don’t care for. When you pass them through a sieve, as for applesauce, it releases this flavor. It sort of ruins things for me, though I wonder how the seeds would be toasted.

This year, once they began to ripen I went to collect a small amount, about a pound. As I picked them, I didn’t even know what I would make. I had been so disappointed in them in the years past that I was only picking them because I do every year. What to make? I wondered. When I am at the end of my rope on deciding what to so with a fruit, I resort to two things: vinegar or liquor. I took the liquor route. And, I tell you, this was the correct route. (Though I will try vinegar next year–maybe that’s a good route, too!)

This mixture–a quart jar filled with the berries, covered with vodka and let to steep for about a month– is my new favorite elixir. At first, I was deflated. When I went to agitate it over the month I noticed it never changed a deep red which I thought it might due to all the lycopene autumn olives contain. But when I tasted it–well, that’s where I was sold. It’s tinged pink, sort of an eerie color, neither here nor there, but all the berry-ish flavor is leeched into the vodka, none of the acrid tannins linger, and all you have is a lovely fruity beverage to indulge in for the final hours of the past year. I will chill it thoroughly, and enjoy it by the fire as the minutes tick to nine o’clock. (Which is when I observe the change, as I cannot stay up until midnight.)

So, I raise my virtual glass of autumn olive cordial, and I wish you a wonderful 2016, filled with fine foods, friends and lots of love!

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Quinces

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Poached quince slices on yogurt.

Usually, every fall, I buy quinces from Locust Grove in Milton, NY. This year, my two little trees finally bore fruit. Coincidentally, it was the first year I started spraying them with neem oil. I guess I’ll be doing that again next year! I think I could have let the fruit stay on the tree a little longer–they were still slightly greenish, with small imperfections and dimples. With this precious bounty, I decided to do something extremely plain so I could fully appreciate the fruit on its own.

It used to be, when I first became obsessed with making preserves, that I would be drawn to whatever esoteric recipes I could find. Spices and herbs were so much fun to add to fruit! But that inclination has faded. I’ve been focusing on simpler preserves for a while now. In this case, for my prized home-grown quinces I simply poached them in water and sugar. No lemon juice, no cardamom,  no bay leaves or peppercorns (which are all lovely with quinces). The only tweak was that I used my slow cooker to poach them gently over the course of the day. This is the best way to bring out the lovely brick colors that these quinces turn.

Note that quinces don’t always change color. The other day I was given about five large yellow quinces. I decided to experiment–I wanted to roast them dry and see what happened. Usually I roast them with a bit of water and sugar. Using a lightly oiled cookie try, thick, skin-on slices with were roasted for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees. I turned them once half way through and sprinkled them with very little sugar. The skin crisped up and the insides softened, like roasted potatoes, but they were tart and fruity. They were golden brown, and not a bit pink. Just like that they might have been a nice side with a roasted meat.  Instead I chose to toss them with two spoonfuls of quince jelly. They were hard to stop eating.

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Poached quince syrup, pickled cherry juice, and soda water.

Poaching quinces will leave you with a lovely syrup. For thanksgiving, I used this syrup blended with a splash of leftover juice from some pickled sweet cherries to make an outrageously delicious shrub soda. Also, the poached quince slices are great on top of yogurt, see above, or even more delicious baked into an apple quince pie. That was thanksgiving dessert. I have a little bit less than a quart left–maybe for an all quince tart?

Poached Quinces

6-8 cups of sliced quinces, peel on (you can peel them if you like, but I don’t bother)

2 cups of water

1-2 cups of sugar (1 cup is my preference taste-wise, but 2 cups makes a thicker syrup)

In a slow cooker add all ingredients. Turn on low for 8 to 10 hours, depending on your cooker. Throughout the day check on it, and give it a stir. I like to pull the quinces when they are a deep red, and fully soft. You can cook them too much, and they begin to fall apart. A quick fix for that is to blend them, syrup and all, and you have a luxurious quince pudding. The texture when whipped up is so soft and dreamy–much fancier than just applesauce.

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A perfect apple quince pie.

Jerusalem Artichokes

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Last week the house was filled with the smell of quinces. It is a smell with a strong presence, floral and fruity. I was making lots of jam and jelly with that box of quinces I posted two weeks ago, and that smell and it’s rosy hue has put me in a good frame of mind. The porch is also putting me in a good frame of mind, as it’s doubling as the walk-in fridge now that it’s getting colder. I only get this option for a few weeks until it becomes too cold to leave anything out there. For now it’s like a grocery store: there are still apples, a small bowl of quinces, celery root, jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, onions, and squashes. Some will keep longer than others, like the squashes, and some will go quickly–like the jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes. I’m afraid I neglected them in favor of the quinces. Now it’s time to get to them, as they don’t keep long once harvested. Because of this I usually harvest half of the crop, then a few weeks later I harvest the rest.

Jerusalem artichokes are that wondrous crop that takes absolutely no effort for consistent harvests year after year if you have them in a nice sunny spot. They are also beautiful, tall and graceful with sunflowers that bloom at the end of summer into fall. No work at all. Just plant them and every year after that you can dig them out and eat them. That is, if your digestive system allows it. You don’t want to overindulge with sunchokes.  I might try this fermented Jerusalem artichoke pickle from Linda Ziedrich, which is also an amusing read on the indiscretion of this particular tuber. Some people do think that fermenting makes them easier on the digestive tract. Also low and slow cooking seems to help some people.

The other day I slow roasted a bunch in a pan with a whole chicken and they came out amazingly savory with a touch of sweetness, their outsides get crisp and the insides turn to creamy pudding. Cooking them long and low seems to inhibit the concentration of inulin, thereby creating less gas in the digestive tract. (Or that’s what some people say.)  There were a few roasted chokes left, along with parsnips, potatoes, onions and excellent chicken stock. Cooked up and then pureed, it turned into the best creamy and velvety soup.

I’ve started a celery root and Jerusalem artichoke kimchi, inspired by the book Fermented Vegetables and the recipe they shared from Cultured Pickle Shops. The original recipe is for Fennel and Sunchoke, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this comes out. How about jerusalem artichoke kraut, I wondered? I thought once grated, and fermented, they would stay a long time and be perfectly suited to become delicious fritters. I’ve only fermented them in thin slices before, and I feel that grated might be easier to incorporate in recipes. There was some dill in my fridge that needed using up, so I threw that in as well. I’ll check back here with an update on how they taste, but I will write down the recipe here if anyone out there happens to have some Jerusalem artichokes that need eating up!

Jerusalem Artichoke Kraut with Dill

3 pounds of cleaned, grated jerusalem artichokes (I do not peel them)

2 tablespoons of salt (sea salt is fine, but I use canning salt)

about a handful of dill, chopped coarsely

Grate all the chokes, put them in a bowl and sprinkle them with the salt. Mix with your hands, squeezing the mixture, adding in the dill. Let sit for a few hours to let the liquid collect. Pack tightly in a half-gallon jar which just fits it all in and cover with whatever it is you use for fermenting, in my case a smaller jar that fits in the wide mouth of the mason jar. In my case there was not enough liquid to cover the mixture properly, so I made a brine of one quart of water with 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt and once the salt was dissolved I used it to cover the kraut. Once the bubbling subsides, I will taste it to see if it’s ready. It might take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks.

Autumnal

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Maybe I was mistaken that the fall this year would be fleeting, as it is so often. This week we’ve had highs in the upper 60s–not a snow flake in sight!– even though the leaves continue to fall. There are birds frolicking all over my yard at the moment: the ever present nuthatches, a flock of bluebirds really seeming to be having fun, looking in at me typing on the porch, some woodpeckers–a yellow bellied and a downy–tapping in the trees that surround the house. Yellow-jackets hover around the porch screens, they can sense the baskets of fruit that line the wall inside, in particular the bowl of heady quinces on the table. A lazy fruit fly buzzes a wobbly line of flight. Thick leathery mahogany red oak leaves flutter down without stop, it seems, baring all the squirrel nests that dot the upper branches.

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One of the things I do enjoy about the falling of the leaves is that so much is revealed. The houses across the small valley are now visible, the ridge seems closer now that all the leaves are gone, and cars can be seen and not just heard from way down the road. A warm breeze floats up the hill I’m on, and it makes the last leaves on the trees rattle, a sound I note with some sadness. Despite the warmth, my neighbor’s chimney is puffing out a thin line of smoke that moves with the wind. The smoke changes the way the air smells, along with the the mold of the leaves’ decay, the damp smell of leaf litter.

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I hope to have something more substantial than seasonal musings up here next week, but for now, I’m outside enjoying the fine weather, the dried out milkweed pods and their silky seed parachutes inside, the slowly changing glow of copper and russet, the mesmerizing fall of leaves, the exquisite change of life to death.

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Pear Cider Syrup

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The fall is well on its way–foliage is now at what I see as its second peak. The first peak is when the leaves are screaming their bright colors, but there is still enough green that all the colors sing. The second peak is a bit more subtle, rich, not as demanding of your attention. Everything has more or less turned, many leaves are down, and a subdued wash covers the whole countryside. Last week was the first, and quick, wave, glorious fall days full of sun and blue skies.

The beginning of this week we had a serious cold snap. When I woke up at 6 a.m. the thermometer outside read 25 degrees. That is cold! A hard frost killed some soft basil left in the garden, turning it black. As my son and I walked to the bus stop, leaves were dropping at such a pace that it looked like snow falling. Large flakes of golden and orange snow. It was beautiful. I couldn’t stop watching it. I took several videos, but as always it fails to grasp the real magic of it. This is where the second wave starts–the more mellow peak.

What is it about autumn that so captures our sense of wonder and appreciation of beauty? Is it that it goes by so fast? “Wow, that fall just dragged on by, didn’t it?” Said no one ever. Every day there is a newness that most people’s eyes can’t resist. We are all feeling so great, even though it’s almost winter! How can that be? Is it some kind of drug the leaves are putting out in their last moments on earth that lulls us into this good feeling?

I have read that feeling gratitude is a good way to keep your mood on the upside. It has been easy with all the bounty that is falling our way, along with the leaves. My porch is filled with baskets of various apples, pears, tomatoes, chestnuts, drying herbs, and mushrooms. I feel a little bump of joy every time I pass them by. Such abundance! Lucky us! The fridge is also full: with soups, and stocks, and ciders. As soon as I clear something out, there’s something new to fill the void. Sometimes it’s a bit too full. There’s a lot of planning and thinking regarding all this food, and thankfully for me, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

The other day I bought a half-gallon of pear cider, which is always a treat for our family. You don’t see it as often as apple cider, which we also love. But this pear cider was a bit flabby, as they say in wine tasting circles. It was overly sweet, with no acidity to make it lively. Even my son, who, like most kids, loves cloying sweets, didn’t want to drink it. What to do? Why, make cider syrup of course.

This is super easy, a non recipe, a method. All you do is boil the cider down until you have syrup. You will boil it so much that you think it’s not going to work. A half-gallon will turn into a half-pint. But you are just boiling out water, and leaving all the good stuff, so it takes a while. All that sweetness that we couldn’t drink, turned into a slightly caramelized, glossy and thick syrup that I can’t wait to drizzle on vanilla ice cream (maybe that ice cream is on top of a slice of pear pie?), or use in an autumnal cocktail with rye whiskey, or maybe even tossed with some sautéed carrots in place of maple syrup? There are a lot of possibilities in that little jar of concentrated fall.

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Apples!

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It’s that time of year! Where I grab my buckets and a sweet hoe/rake combo that I acquired somewhere, and head out to the various apple trees I have met in the past ten years. I am much less zealous than I ever have been, because I have been brought down by too much fruit in the past. There’s just so many apples you can eat, you know? I just avert my gaze now when I see trees full with fruit that people are neglecting.

All I make these days with apples is applesauce and lots of it. I wouldn’t make so much if it weren’t for my son, who loves it. This year I added some pears to my applesauce, and my son declared it the best applesauce I’ve ever made. (Honestly, I think he’s realized that complimenting my food makes me happy, so he does it a lot now, which is, of course, very charming.) It’s also a good thing to have on hand if you want to make this chocolate applesauce cake, because don’t you want to make that? I do!

If you are setting out to make an apple pie, however, do you cook your apples first? I’ve always made apple pies with uncooked apples. Always. When I was a teenager I worked in a restaurant that did catering, and we made billions of pies. It’s how we did it there, and it was how I learned apple pie at my mother’s side. However, I think I may have just changed gears. The other day when my son turned seven, he requested an apple pie instead of cake. I had read about the precooked apple idea recently, I forget where, and thought: I should try that. More than not, I’m disappointed by a high risen top crust and a liquid-y apple mixture. It seems like it was always hit or miss. Always tasty, but somewhat aesthetically off, in my opinion.

For those of you that can apple pie filling this time of year, you are probably shaking your head at me with pity. I never liked the idea of pre-made pie filling, but I really do see its benefits for throwing together a quick pie. It has just never been my thing. Maybe now I’ll change my ways. What I did this time was to gently sauté the apples in some butter and sugar, adding cornstarch at the end. I followed along with this recipe from the Times. It was probably the best apple pie I’ve ever made, and you know, I’ve made some pies in my life.

What do you make with your apples? Brandied apple rings? Candied pickled apples? Apple tomato chutney? Apple vinegar? Apple pectin stock? Let me know!

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Rosemary Sugar

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Did you love cinnamon toast as a child? I did, and I still do! It was a crucial part of my young cooking arsenal. I wonder why we never spread any other kind of sugar on our toast? Well, rosemary toast is a thing in my world now. You might want to try it. I was recently doing some experimenting with rosemary, to see if I could make it stay green and fresh longer. My standby, and the method I’ll probably stay with, is to wrap it in paper towels with a sprinkle of cold water and then keep it in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer. I’ve also been known to keep it in a glass with an inch or two of water, like flowers in a vase, then cover it with a plastic bag and stick it in the fridge. That’s just asking for trouble, though, whether you have a seven year old in the house or not.

However. If you are using your rosemary in a sweet application, like I was in this cause for experimentation, I thought: why not whiz it up with some sugar? Just like I did with that basil salt from a few weeks ago. Take the needles off of a few twigs of fresh rosemary–maybe you have a half of a cup? Add that and a half cup of sugar in the  food processor for a good 30 seconds until it’s chopped and mixed well. The rosemary will release some liquid and the sugar will become a little bit coarser or clumpier. Keep it in a jar in the fridge. When you have a slice of toast needing to be dressed, butter it well and then spread it with some of this.

But it’s not just good for toast! It’s also good mixed in with a jam, or in a fruit pie, especially apple pie. Rosemary is great with so many things. Fruit is one. Another one is nuts. This pine-y, sticky sugar is great for a quick nut mix. Lightly grease a large cast iron pan–I used coconut oil–toast up some almonds, about a cup. (Don’t walk away like I did, you will likely burn your nuts! Which is NOT pleasant.)  When they are nice and toasty, put a tablespoonful of the sugar in the pan and mix it up with a rubber spatula, evenly coating all the almonds. Remove to a plate to cool and sprinkle with some Maldon salt. Or add a spoonful to a cookie batter, or shortbread. In a cake batter, in a pie crust. The sweet options are many!

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Staying Hungry

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