Busybusybusy

This has been a busy week.

I had to work six days in a row (which wasn’t a surprise, just the way schedules worked out), and given my job (I’m a librarian), it was also no surprise that the days just before and after the release of HP7 were a little crazy.  What I didn’t expect was that I’d be so busy with food, as well.

It’s high summer, which means that everyone with a kitchen obsession is preserving frantically, hoping to save some of the bounty for the wretched, frozen days of winter.  In my house, that mostly means freezing fruit, and occasionally making the odd batch of tomato sauce or refrigerator pickles.  I sometimes make concentrated fruit purees or applesauce, but almost never jam or jelly; we don’t eat a lot of toast, here, so it would be a bit of a waste.  (I made some lovely quince jam last year, but I’ve still got two jars of it left, out of the three I made). 

Pounds and POUNDS of berries and stone fruits have gone into the freezer this last week.  I’ve got gallons of blueberries and raspberries, 2 gallons of black raspberries, 2 gallons of currants, 1 quart of gooseberries, 1 gallon of apricots, 1 gallon of peaches, 1 quart of sweet cherries and an ungodly, too-embarassing-to-admit amount of sour cherries.  I even made some applesauce with the earliest yellow transparent apples.  There is very little room left in the free-standing chest freezer.

Since the wedding, though, I’ve been thinking about another kind of preserving.  There’s no way that I could say what item we served at the reception was the most popular, but the guests demolished my first attempts at homemade liqueur, some to a rather unexpected extent.  Given that evidence indicating that I didn’t do such a bad job at liqueur making, I’ve been planning to try it again.  (I suppose it might be considered a stretch to claim that liqueur-making is preserving, but if it does nothing else, vodka certainly preserves anything you put into it). 

Given #1. my adoration of fresh currants, and #2. the plethora of currants that I have in the freezer (a direct result of #1, since, in fear of missing the year’s harvest, I asked a friend to pick some up at the farmer’s market while I was on the honeymoon, and came back to a fridge packed full), a currant liqueur seemed a natural. I love eating red currants out of hand (or out of freezer bag, as the case may be), and I have several recipes to try that call for white currants, so the black currants became my choice for liqueur.  I did some research (ie, looked at a couple of my cookbooks and clicked around on the Internet) and decided to make cassis.  (Or at least something cassis-like.  No recipe was definitive and so I just mashed together a recipe that purported to be for cassis and one that I liked the sound of that was just designated “currant liqueur”).

The next step was certainly easy enough.  I put 4 cups of black currants in a big mason jar, added 4 cups of vodka, a cinnamon stick, a few whole cloves, a splash of red wine and another splash of simple syrup.  The jar is now stashed in a dark corner of Teacherman’s study, a room that really is turning into The Cave of Alcohol–it’s where I aged the wedding liqueurs and where Teacherman ages his homemade beer and mead.  (He is out of town for two weeks and there is a frothing carboy of mead on his desk.  Technically I’m not supposed to have to do anything to it, but still–I wish it wasn’t so alive).  In any case, the jar will stay in the study for at least three months, deepening and becoming empurpled, until we decide it’s ready for consumption.  Already the color is leaching from the fruit into the vodka, making it lovely to behold. 

Freezing fruit and flavoring vodka, though, is not what tipped my kitchen adventures into the realm of the frantic.  On Tuesday night, freezer-diving to check my quantity of black currants, I realized that I had ten chicken carcasses at the bottom of the receptacle, not to mention a few odd, limbless chicken backs (left over from making butterflied chicken),  and the skeletal remains of three grilled-chicken-wing-pig-outs.  I save all of these things for stock-making, but, obviously, I hadn’t made stock in quite some time.  I needed the freezer space, so out came the foil-wrapped detritus and down came the crock-pot. 

Yes, the crock-pot.  As previously mentioned, work was crazy this week, and I didn’t have time, even in the evenings, to attend to a pot on the stove.  Unfortunately, my crock-pot isn’t that big.  It’ll hold a nice 3 1/2 lb chicken (or the stripped remains of two), but nothing more. 

It took seven day to use up all the bones.  Each batch contained an onion, skin still on, cut into 2-4 pieces; a few stalks of celery, broken in half; a couple of carrots, snapped in two if large; a thumb-knuckle pinch of whole peppercorns; and however many packages of frozen chicken bones I could wedge into the pot.  The fridge was never without a big mixing bowl of cooling stock, and the freezer was constantly full of ice-cube trays turning the gelatinized aspic into stock cubes.  The last batch of cooled stock has gone into the ice cube trays to freeze solid, later to be added to the terrifying quantity of frozen stock lying cheek-by-jowl with all of that frozen fruit. 

I certainly hope there aren’t any other freezable summer fruits that I’ve fogotten about, or I’ll have to buy another freezer.

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Published in: on July 30, 2007 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Peaches and Cream

It is true: the Evanston farmer’s market is my first favorite, and my consistent Saturday morning destination.  It is, however, only available on Saturday mornings, meaning that if I get a midweek market craving I’m out of luck.  Enter the Lincoln Park farmer’s market, situated in a completely different part of the city, across the street from the zoo and underneath a thick canopy of trees.  It’s a considerable trek to get there, and my first impressions of it on a visit last summer weren’t that stellar (small but poorly laid out and sprawling, somewhat snooty), but the Lincoln Park market is open on Wednesday mornings as well as Saturdays.  Last Wednesday at 8 when I suddenly felt a desperate need for fresh fruit, I knew where to go.

I dragged Teacherman out of bed and across town to the lake, then south to the zoo and our ultimate aim: the market.   I was pleasantly surprised at the changes I found–there were many more vendors, much greater variety of produce, and friendliness all around, even though a storm squall had just moved through and everything was soaking wet. After my usual speed-scan of the entire market (Fresh-cut sprouts! Handmade tomato sauce! Cheese more expensive [but more worthwhile] than a new pair of shoes!), I found what I was looking for: a stand with the freshest, most unctuous stone fruit imaginable. There were cherries so complex and intense in their balance of sweetness and tart that they could almost have been dried, plums nearly black on the outside but translucently golden within, and peaches of such astonishing sweetness and depth of flavor that we almost passed them by because they were too perfect.

We were planning to be out of town that weekend, so we couldn’t buy as much fruit as we wanted.  We reluctantly refrained from buying the plums (not to mention some transcendent blueberries and raspberries), but splurged on the cherries and the peaches.  The cherries we ate immediately upon returning home, but the peaches we froze.

I’m a bit of a heretic when it comes to freezing stone fruits–I don’t peel them or cook them in sugar syrup or whatnot.  I just sliced the peaches off the stones, plunked the slices on a parchment-lined tray and slid the tray in the freezer.  Ten hours later I peeled the slices off the tray, put them in a freezer bag and threw them in the deep-freeze.

 Friday morning we rose early for our trip out of town.  We were reeling at the early hour, slightly cranky and very hungry.  The best breakfast for such an occasion?  Perfect peach smoothies.  I let the frozen peach slices sit for a few short minutes at room temperature, then blitzed them to ice crystals in the food processor.  I added Greek yogurt, a mere whisper of vanilla, and tasted to see how much simple syrup to add. Absolutely nothing was needed.   The sweetness of the peaches saturated the creaminess of the dairy, the tang of the yogurt cut the intensity of the fruit and the retained peach peel added a glorious color and an oh-so-slightly bitter background note, making a thick, complex, and absolutely moreish smoothie.  I piled the mixture at least 3 inches high above the rim of our glasses and we dug in.  Twenty minutes later we were perfectly fortified for the 5-hour road trip ahead, and already planning new ways to use peaches.

Tomorrow it is Wednesday again.  This time I may have to buy some plums. 

Published in: on July 24, 2007 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Still Life With Lunch, the Final Chapter

Freiburg was our favorite place of all. Not only is a beautiful university town with a stunning cathedral, all located with in (in my opinion) the best part of the Black Forest, but our hotel was right on the cathedral square and that square hosts a six-hour farmer’s market six days a week. The market extends all around the cathedral in a two-sided hoop, with gustatory delights on either side. It was plum season. It was cherry season. It was the season for every other summer fruit delight. We were seduced by the cheese stands and by the meat and sausage counters and looked (but alas, did not purchase anything) at the smoked fish cart.

Every day, as soon as we had finished working our way through the bountiful breakfast spread inside the hotel, we’d venture out into the market and buy food for lunch and/or dinner. Before we left, one of my colleagues had scoffed, saying “what use is a farmer’s market—you won’t have a kitchen.” This is undeniably true—our hotel room was a bedroom only—but to think that nothing for sale at a farmer’s market could be edible until transformed by cooking is nonsense. We bought cherry tomatoes, covered with golden speckles and more flavorful than I’ve ever had. We bought tiny gherkin cucumbers, meant for making cornichons, and ate them by the handful, like popcorn. We bought sweet, earthy carrots and tongue-numbing radishes—once we even bought radishes thinking that they were carrots! We bought innumerable kinds of cheese: weinkase, blue, sheep’s brie, chevre coated with pink peppercorns (excellent when spread on a perfect apricot), and once, a tiny, perfect thimble-sized container of crème fraiche. Nothing has ever been better on a strawberry. We investigated various meat stands, buying heavily smoked ham, lightly smoked ham, and various kinds of dried sausages. We bought olives, we bought pickles, we bought nuts; we ogled, but did not buy, spices, plants, eggs, and the most beautiful mushrooms I’ve ever seen. (I made up for this last by ordering chanterelles fried in butter in every restaurant that served them. It was the most worthwhile expensive passion I’ve ever acquired). We had four days to try as much from the market as we could, and we barely skimmed what was there. Every market-based meal we had was perfect—we would have happily eaten every meal there. Next time we visit, though, we will have a kitchen (I don’t know how, but we will); those eggs are calling to me.

Published in: on July 16, 2007 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Still Life With Lunch, Vie Francaise

There is a lot of food in France.  Significant portions of the whole are in Strasbourg.  I think I may have eaten most of it.  Due to such exceptional greediness, we didn’t take pictures of any of our picnics, and we were too afraid to take any pictures of restaurant meals (in spite of the utter transcendence, of, say, the choucroute avec confit de canard et lard fume at the restaurant overlooking Strasbourg cathedral, or the restaurant devoted to using cheese in every way humanly possible [not to mention the attached boutique de fromage, where we practically lived]).  Strasbourg farmer's marketInstead, we have a sole picture of the Strasbourg farmer’s market–or rather, a picture of a cheese stand therein (a cheese stand that also sold bacon, as one can see in the foreground, and stationed next to a sausage cart, which you can see in the background).  Just out of the frame is the stall where we bought the most intriguingly flavored wild blueberries I’ve ever tasted–they were so concentrated and winey in flavor that they tasted like raisins.  Yes, they were definitely blueberries.  Yes, they were definitely fresh, not dried.  They were exceedingly good, not to mention tres unique.  (And it didn’t hurt that we ate them sitting in a churchyard in the Vosges mountains looking towards a misty Romanesque mountain settlement).

Also, in Selestat, a town just down the road from Strasbourg, we found The House of PAIN.  Strasbourg farmer's marketYes, I know that pain is just the French word for bread.  Allow me to be self-indulgent: when I was in high school I edited the literary magazine.  Faced with a never-ending stream of missives on the blackness of everyone’s SOUL, another board member and I, both of whom were in the same French class, came up with a silly method of diffusing the adolescent angst surrounding the discussion of such literary gems at board meetings.  The poems, you see, were really about bread, not pain.  Thus, while Teacherman found the Maison du Pain funny purely on an English-cognate level, I doubled over in wheezing giggles at the memory of those long-ago meetings.  I may have even produced a few scraps of remembered scholastic verse, to mark the occasion.  It’s a good thing Teacherman didn’t leave me there on the curb.  The bread looked excellent, I must admit.  

Too be continued, of course. . . . 

Published in: on July 14, 2007 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Still Life With Lunch, part one

I’m back.In fact, I’ve been back for a few days, but time-zone adjustment takes time. The wedding was perfect and the honeymoon was lovely, and, what’s more, I actually took some pictures. Herewith, an abbreviated tour of Lunch in Foreign Climes, with a special inclusion of lunch nearer to home.In Heidelberg, Germany, the farmer’s market was tiny, but there were innumerable fruit stands and organic produce stores to browse. GooseberriesIt was in Heidelberg that we fell into our habit of picnic lunches, the first restaurant lunch having been rather disappointing (in contrast to our restaurant dinners, which were universally excellent). Day one: to salve our souls (and stomachs) after a sub-par cafe lunch, we bought The World’s Biggest Gooseberries at a fruit stand. (Note the size–that’s right, gooseberries, not tomatoes. My hand is in the picture for scale reference. Also note the sleeve of the parka–it was about 40 degrees).

The next day we also had a picnic, in the grounds of Burg Gutenberg, a stunning medieval castle with a library of historical volumes we would have given our tastebuds to get into.  We ate just outside the moat, on a little rise above the walkway.  The area was rather infested with shrieking 11-year-olds on a school trip, but it was a lovely meal nonetheless. Gooseberries We’d bought a head of red-speckled lettuce at the Heidelberg farmer’s market that morning, along with a small bunch of ripe tomatoes, 2 pints of red currants and a package of Emmenthaler cheese.  We cut the tomatoes and cheese into chunks and made wraps with the ruffly lettuce leaves.  A little unconventional, but delicious.  The cheese wrapped in the lettuce had all the unctousness of a good cheese sandwich and the tomatoes were so much more tangy than I’m used to.  I stopped putting them in the wraps and just ate them on their own to better savory the spice.  The currants were perfection, as currants mostly are.  In spite of the fact that they are, as Teacherman says, “fiddly,” they were consumed in record seconds.

More adventures to come, I promise. . . .

Published in: on July 12, 2007 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment