Winter Update

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February has been unusually cruel this winter. I wonder how it is by you? We have two feet of snow, piles of ice and sub-zero temperatures. This morning I woke to see the thermometer read -12. That’s just silly. We don’t usually have temperatures like that in the Hudson Valley, so when I see that I feel very alarmed. Did you see this map from the Washington Post? About how the eastern U.S. is the coldest place in the world? So, yeah, it’s cold.

Oddly, I really don’t have any desire to cook right about now, so that’s why I haven’t posted anything lately. I’m just not that kind of blogger. I’ve tried, but when I’m not motivated by something that excites me, I just feel like: why bother? Lately I’ve been drinking a lot of detox tea (so exciting!! …not), fresh citrus juice (those piles of citrus don’t motivate anymore, but a big glass of grapefruit-clementine juice hits. the. spot.) and chocolate pudding (you have to live a little, right?). Also lots of rice bowls, see above. I keep my pressure-cooked short-grain brown rice in the fridge for when lunch time comes a calling. I put various things on top: scrambled eggs cut in strips, avocado, cucumber, scallion, grated carrot, pickled ginger, sesame seeds, togarashi, hot sauces, sesame oil, tamari, etc. It always makes me feel satiated in such a good way.

I’ve also been reading a lot–going back to cookbooks, organizing my canning shelves, making notes on what worked and what didn’t, planning for next year’s garden, dreaming about my little green wrought-iron bench that’s buried in snow. And I’m getting ready for a preserving class I’m holding on May 2nd. I’m trying to remind myself to take advantage of this down time.

Here’s some other things inspiring me lately:

This book, Dawns and Dusks, that features taped interviews with sculptor Louise Nevelson. It can be a little rambling, but it’s intimate tone is fascinating.

I love Brain Pickings, don’t you? I’ve been holding onto this one, Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People. Also, I wasn’t aware of how handsome Mr. Chekhov was.

Spring cleaning is already bubbling up in me. I sort of want to get rid of everything. Or is that mid-winter crazy-pants disorder (MWCP)? I don’t know, but I like this article titled Abundance Without Attachment.

Let’s think warm thoughts, and look forward to March 20th, shall we? That’s the first day of spring or vernal equinox, which also boasts a full solar eclipse. Truly, we have much to look forward to!

Roasted Grape and Hazelnut Conserve

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I know that title sounds luxe, but I will admit this recipe was born of something quite the opposite. Things have been a little rough for the past week in these parts, truth be told. My son has been sick, out of school for over a week, and as these things go, I soon had my own illness as well. All we do is cough and color and watch TV. In addition, there have been blizzard warnings, winter storm watches, and a foot of snow fell just yesterday. All this means I have been in the house for what feels like a verrrry looooong time.

Because of all of this, I haven’t had much of an appetite or the ability to go out and shop for food. However, last Thursday we made a very exciting trip to the local grocery store. It was like we were at the county fair. We held hands and walked down the aisles in our clompy winter boots like zombies, reading labels with glee and in general, being amazed at the bounty before us. There were flashing lights, strange noises, and people were milling about everywhere!

We decided on a few things to get us through the next few days, and as a special treat my son requested red grapes, which I don’t normally buy. I even let him pick out the bunch, though I thought to myself: he’s not going to eat that. Poor thing had been so sick, his stomach in such pain, I let him pick anything that would tempt him. Of course, over the next few days he would eat a handful of those grapes and lose interest. Not because his appetite was gone, but because they really weren’t very good grapes.

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Yesterday, I decided I was really going to toss them in the compost. Sometimes I get so weary of using everything and never letting anything go to waste. Sometimes I too just want to throw things out. We all have our days. But I’m glad I gained the strength to make this, because it’s a noble destination for those sad table grapes. The grapes retain a soft pop, and have a barely sweetened, slightly caramelized taste. I’ve been eating this on yogurt, and I bet they would be welcome on a slice of baguette with cheese or paté or both. As a savory option I would leave the vanilla out, and add some dried thyme instead. Also, I didn’t have the foresight to roast the hazelnuts first, but I bet that would be nice.

Here’s to your health, I hope it’s better than mine at the moment!

***

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Roasted Grape and Hazelnut Conserve

Yield: one pint

One bunch of red grapes, stems removed

A handful of hazelnuts, no shell bits please! Toast in a cast iron pan if you like.

A dash of vanilla extract (bean is all the better, if you are so lucky to not be snowed in)

One clementine (it only needs a little bit of life left in it)

One teaspoon to one tablespoon of honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a baking tray with neutral oil. Put the grapes in a single layer on the pan and roast for 20 to  30 minutes, until soft and slightly shriveled, and a tad caramelized. Remove them gently to a pot and squeeze in the juice of the clementine. Stir in the honey and vanilla. Bring to a simmer and mix, making sure the flavors blends. Cook about ten minutes. Remove mixture to a glass jar. Keep refrigerated.

Preserved Citrus

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Now that winter has us in it’s icy grip, it seems all of the food world is writing about citrus and what can be done with it–case in point, see my limequats post from earlier. I am surely there with everyone else. It’s a loving crutch we all grab for when the light starts to fade this time of year. There have been about a million blog posts on the details of making preserved lemons. I will spare you yet another. You have the rest of the internet to describe exactly how to master this phenomenally easy preparation. However, I won’t spare you my musings on this versatile ingredient!

One of the cool things I’ve learned about salt-preserved lemons is that you can use any citrus, not just lemons. Along with various lemons, I’ve experimented with calamondins and the wild sour oranges I get from my mother in Florida. I’ve seen limes, oranges and grapefruits as well. I preserved so much citrus in salt a few years back, that I haven’t allowed myself to make more. They live on the bottom shelf of the fridge and are still bright in color and taste. I use a bit here and there. I haven’t made any more because truly, how much can you use? (Not to mention, I have a six-year old in the house.  I always thought my child would be that kid who loved everything, and while he’s much more adventurous than many kids I know, he still has a very limited repertoire. I try not to cater too much to his kid-like palate, but I do have to feed him, you know?)

The calamondins have turned into a clear golden jelly, filled with seeds and their thin skin. The tennis-ball sized sour oranges were squished into a large mason jar. The other day I took both dwindling jars out and separated all the skin from the flesh. I milled the innards to remove the seeds and membranes. This puree covered the skins, which I julienned, in a much smaller jar. Now I have a half-pint left, which will probably last me another year!

Of course, you can use your varied salt-cured citrus in many preserved lemon recipes. Some of my favorites are here:

Pureed Preserved Lemons.

Preserved Lemon Hummus.

Preserved Lemon and Mint Allioli.

Preserved Lemon Mayonnaise.

And I haven’t made this, but I ought to! Preserved Lemon Martini. I’ll bet salt-cured oranges would made a great drink…

Chicken in Whey

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I was so excited to make all that ricotta and yogurt the other day that I forgot one thing. And that is: now I have SO much ricotta and yogurt! Not to mention whey. However, there are so many good things to do with all of them. Here’s a well-organized list, which mentions the idea of making a cocktail with whey. I’ve never thought of that. There were two comments on my post with other good suggestions for using whey.  One was for this whey and honey sorbet from Laura of Glutton For Life. I love this idea! The other was from Rebecca of Cakewalk who drinks it with lemon or lime. Of course she bakes and makes soup with it, too!

Whey does delightful things to slow cooked meat, tenderizing and adding richness. I had a whole chicken in the fridge and started searching for recipes that cooked chicken with milk, thinking I could substitute the whey for milk.  After reading this rave from The Kitchn, I decided to make Chicken in Whey based on Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk recipe. Sage, lemon, cinnamon and whey? Sounds a little strange, but truly, it was amazing. I served it with fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat, and it was a rich meal that has us feeling pretty good about staying home on a Saturday night. (So good that all the photos I took were sub-par, but oh well!) I saved the chicken breast for another meal–shredded in quesadillas–and Steve commented that it reminded him of the chicken we used to get at a little Peruvian restaurant, El Pollo in NYC. Incredibly tender, rich and  so subtly flavored. I will make this one again for sure!

Yogurt and Cheese Experiments

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A friend texted me this: did I want a lot of milk and light cream? There was a bunch leftover from an event the other day. Never one to hesitate in these situations, I was suddenly the owner of 4 quarts of organic milk and a case of light cream. I was in a hurry when I stopped by to pick it up. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the milk and cream were all ultra-pastuerized. Bummer, I thought. It was also some weird Omega 3 milk. Why do they have to add stuff to it? Please don’t put fish oil in my milk. And light cream on it’s own is so useless–it’s basically coffee creamer. These were all good for baking, it’s true, but I had hoped to make a large batch of fresh cheese and yogurt. Then I thought: why not experiment? It’s all free, right?

After a little research, I realized that although a lot of people nix the use of ultra-pasteurized milk in cultured dairy products, there are also lots of folks who say it’s not a big deal. Generally, I don’t buy anything ultra-pastuerized, which is, by the way, milk brought up to temperatures of 280 degrees then chilled quickly–basically dead milk that can last on the shelf a long time (more in depth discussion here). There is so much information out there on the inter webs, it can get dizzying when people are shouting different theories. Basically, as in all of life, there are some things that you just have to find out for yourself.

Speaking of finding out for yourself, it’s also important not to be fooled by simple recipes. Even (fool proof!) ricotta recipes vary in many slightly different ways. When do you add salt? Do you like lemon, vinegar or citric acid to curdle the milk? For a change, I used this recipe from New England Cheesemaking Supply, which varied slightly from my regular recipe in that it added the acid and salt before bringing to temperature. By the way, there are two ways to make what we call ricotta: the true one made with whey, and the fresh cheese I made, which you could also call farmer’s cheese (Is there a difference? Should we all be calling these fool-proof ricotta recipes farmers cheese recipes?).  So many questions! I hope I’m not boring you.

I used two half-gallons of milk, and two pints of light cream, and here I used citric acid (whereas I’ve usually used vinegar or lemon in the past). It came out beautifully. Maybe the best ricotta I’ve made. The higher fat content of the cream helps, I will guess. Always a bonus, there’s more than a half-gallon of whey to enjoy. Last night I used it in a great soup–beef pasta and chard. It was one of those soups you are wary about–will this be good? It was amazing, due to all the rich things I put in it, not least of which was the whey. If you use your whey, what do you use it for? I use it mostly in bread baking and soups.

As the clock was ticking for this milk and cream, I also made a big batch of yogurt. There must be five million posts on how to make yogurt, including some of my own. I loved reading this one I stumbled upon, in which this jeweler describes all the ways he makes yogurt that would make purists shout. He knows he’s flying in the face of convention, and doesn’t care, okay? I love that. It’s really all about what works for you, don’t you agree? This time I only brought the temperature of the milk to 160 instead of the oft-quoted temperature of 180ish. I’ve tried this before, but it didn’t come out right. But who’s to say what the reason was? It wasn’t a scientific experiment. This time it worked perfectly. Was it because I used cream? Or milk powder? I find that both of these add a lot of heft to my yogurt.

My recipe was this: two half-gallons of whole milk, two pints of light cream, and one 7-ounce container of Fagé yogurt, full fat (which is always hard to find, for goodness sakes). For four quarts of that mixture, I used the old cooler technique to incubate (in which you put the full inoculated jars into a cooler filled with warm water) but for the rest I tried something new, again, and used my slow cooker. This is a widely discussed method that I’ve never used because why mess with a system that works? For the sake of experimentation, I went for it. I found that for large amounts of yogurt it’s very helpful, especially if you intend to strain the yogurt. Why bother with jars if you are going to scrape it all out any way? I didn’t have the time to do the whole process in the cooker, so I heated and cooled my milk, then inoculated, then poured it into a already warm cooker that had been turned off. I wrapped it in an insulated bag and put it down by the wood stove. There are always odd things like this around my house: vinegars with blobby mothers wrapped in towels, slow cookers in inverted insulation bags by the fire. Does your house look like this too?

So go ahead, do something someone told you not to do! Experiment a little! Everyone knows that mistakes makes discoveries, and you may like what you find.

Candied Limequats

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I candied these little limequats the other day. Have you ever seen one? I never knew about them until my friend Shae educated me: they are a hybrid of key lime and kumquat. They are adorable, shaped like a plump kumquat, and at their ripest a sunny yellow. They have a very limey smell when first cut open–the smell reminds me of the super fresh limes you encounter in Mexico. These particular limequats were special: they were grown on a little tree in Shae’s backyard. I only had a few handfuls of them, and honestly I was stumped as to what to do with them. Knowing that I love candied calamondins for cocktail garnish, I decided to candy them. Candying always seems like a bonus–you get candied fruits plus their delightful syrup.

But what recipe? I recently was gifted the beautiful new Prune cookbook. It was such a thoughtful present because it was from the same friend who took me to Prune so long ago when it first opened. The recipe for cold candied oranges caught my eye–it’s also used for Meyer lemons in the book, so I tried it for the limequats, taking down the cooking times for the smaller and thinner-skinned fruit. It’s also a more streamlined recipe than I’ve used for candying whole citrus. It worked okay–though half of the fruit puckered into itself, which seems to happen with calamondins too. The insides were a touch mushy, and seedy. I wasn’t thrilled. I think I need to take a little more care. And what I really want to make is glacéed fruit (here are some good pictures of what I’m talking about) which is a much more involved process. But still–they will work plunked in the bottom of a drink.

But the syrup! The syrup is out of this world. Do you have a childhood fondness for Rose’s lime syrup? I do. Their grenadine, too. Rose’s has this perfect key lime tang to it, and I’ve enjoyed many a gimlet with it, back when everybody wasn’t making everything in house. This syrup is the closest thing to it. I have found that making syrups with fresh citrus juice doesn’t quite yield you the syrup you may have in mind. I have yet to make a lemon syrup I like. It’s trickier than you might think. So this was a real revelation. The night after it had rested and cooled in the fridge, I mixed it with some gin–that’s it, just 11/2 ounces of gin to 1/2 ounce of syrup and shaken up with ice–that’s my gimlet. It was the perfect antidote to the painful dental work I had done during the day.

Now, does anyone ever see actual limequats? Maybe if you live in California. Try it and let me know if you do! If you don’t happen to have the Prune cookbook (and maybe you have kumquats instead?) I think you’ll be very happy with this recipe in the NY Times from Cathy Barrow.

Happy 2015!

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What was the point of writing a post last month? I mean who was reading anything in December?  That’s what I kept on telling myself, anyway. For the new year, I gave my priorities a psychic chiropractic adjustment. The goals for this year are to read, think, walk, and hopefully, write more.  I never have to make a resolution to cook more or eat more, however, but I usually make resolutions to be more thoughtful about my eating and cooking life. Honestly, the resolutions stay the same, and it’s easy to think I’m not actually getting better! But it’s a work in progress, as they say.

I started the year with reading Tiny Beautiful Things, which I know I will finish in a few days, and I’m already sad about that. I recently found and read this, and it prompted a Cheryl Strayed phase. I will admit that I’ve never read the Rumpus Dear Sugar column, or Wild and certainly haven’t seen the movie (that will probably take another several years). Sometimes when things are so huge I ignore them even though they just might be brilliant. This is one of those times, I think.

I’ve been thinking and walking a lot in the past few days, and I’ve started documenting this on Instagram  so I can see how much I’ve walked. We’ll see how long I last with this project, but right now it seems to be motivating me to get outside and that’s a good thing in the winter. I might as well be saying my new year’s resolution is to breathe more–do I really need to think more? Or walk more? Well, I do. I really should put breathing on the list as well. We could all use some thoughtful breathing. Or maybe just more thoughtfulness.

As far as food goes, Winter cooking is in full gear, and the sugar and fat of the holidays is now a thing of the past. I don’t think I over did it, but I still have a drawer full of chocolate that sometimes causes me great joy as well as buzzy anxiety. Sometimes I want to eat it all just to get rid of it. But I’m trying to be moderate, and allowing small bits here and there. I’ve been making lots of bread, and lots of soup. Yup, it’s winter!

And I have to say: thank you, winter. Yes, you heard me. This is such a special time–it’s miserable out (at least here in the Hudson Valley) and by March I will have broken out in hives and will dig in any patch of dirt that the snow has melted off of, but it’s really such a beneficial time. It’s filling the well time, and it should be utilized accordingly. All this staring out the window, and watching movies and reading books are just what I need right now.

The other day I had the first flash of what I wanted to grow this summer. It was a tingle of excitement that I haven’t felt in a long time. The summer and fall can leave one burnt with activity. I’ve felt a deep ennui with cooking and preserving, and it has forced me into my cookbook collection, to dust them off to learn, to be inspired again. So, thanks to winter, I am being forced to think about who I am and who I want to be, and just how to do it. Here’s to a work in progress!

Staying Hungry

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