What to Do?

The weather does not know what to do with itself.  Half of the time it’s nearly 50 degrees and raining, and half of the time it’s 30 degrees and snowing, and half of the time it’s below zero and too cold for either one.  (And yes, the extremes really DO make it feel like I’m living a life of three overstuffed halves).

Weather like this wouldn’t be unheard-of in late March (though it would still be annoying) or even April, but in February it’s a little discombobulating.  What’s more, it has an adverse affect on meal planning.  Do I want something sprightly and light?  Or do I want to hunker down with comforting stodge?

Even if I do need warmth and comfort, I don’t know how much in the mood I am for real winter food — say, sauerkraut or ham hocks.  On the other hand, I still don’t want to eat anything cold and aesthetically ascetic.  Whatever the official temperature, it’s a safe bet that the day—and the people in it—will be wet and miserable.  Luckily, there’s a world-renown remedy for this condition: chicken soup. 

How to make chicken soup comforting enough to combat the drear, but light enough to look forward to spring and not back to winter?  How about a clear, glistening broth, un-muddied by a hodge-podge of disparate ingredients?  How about poached chicken?  A few weeks ago, when Teacherman and I had some friends over for dinner, I determined to serve just such a dish.

I have often poached skinless, boneless chicken breasts, bringing them to a boil in a saucepan and then turning the heat off and letting them sit, covered, for 30 minutes.  The result is perfectly cooked and moist, but in spite of my wish for lightness, a plain slab of poached breast seemed TOO unadorned—more cuisine minceur than I was going for.  Also, I felt that we needed a bit more fat than a chicken breast alone would produce.  Nothing that would be noticeable, but just enough to round out and deepen the flavors of the final dish.  I did not, however, want to poach only chicken thighs; a dark meat-only mixture often results in a rather gamey, cloudy broth, and that did not fit in with my idea of lightness.

Instead, I decided to poach a whole chicken.

I got out my favorite Dutch oven, and filled the bottom with 1 onion (peeled and cut in half), 3 carrots (peeled and cut into chunks) and 3 celery stalks (wipe clean and thinly sliced).  The onions would be present merely to flavor the broth, but I wanted the option of serving the carrots and celery along with the chicken; thus their more careful preparation. 

I put a 3.5 lb frying chicken (I prefer these to ‘roasters’, because the breasts are more in proportion to the rest of the body) on top of the vegetables and nestled it down far enough that it fit below the rim of the Dutch oven.  I sprinkled a big, three-finger pinch of whole black peppercorns on top of the vegetables, and then an equally big pinch of kosher salt over the chicken.  I then poured water over all of this—I’m not sure of the quantity.  The liquid came nearly up to the top of the chicken, but it was low enough that I knew it wouldn’t boil over, if it came to that.

I brought everything to a boil over high heat, then lowered the flame to the point where the liquid just simmered, and covered the pot.  I left the pot alone for an hour, then checked the internal temperature of the chicken.  It was perfect, so I turned off the heat, remove the chicken to a platter, and strained the broth into a large bowl.  I removed the onion, then added the carrots and celery back into the broth to keep warm

When the chicken was cool enough to handle, I deconstructed it, removing the meat, leaving aside all the bones and tearing the meat into bite-sized pieces.  The chicken was silkily tender but still resilient to the tooth, and moister than anything short of a confit.  The peppercorns and carrots had infused the meat with a spicy sweetness that was subtle but moreish. 

I put the chicken, vegetables and broth back into the Dutch oven and reheated it gently, checking the seasoning of the broth.  It was very deep and complex in tone, but needed MUCH more salt than I’d given it.  I believe I added an entire teaspoon of kosher salt, which immediately pulled all the flavors of the broth together, without making it appreciably salty.

To serve, I dropped a handful of spicy greens into each of four big bowls.  On top of the greens I laid chunks of the chicken and vegetables, and then ladled broth overall.  On the side, there were obscenely thick slices of sourdough toast, spread with homemade salted butter. 

The whole meal DID manage to be both comforting and sprightly.  The flavors — chicken soup, buttered toast — were utterly familiar, but done extremely well.  No one would have thought of complaining about ‘the same old’; they were too busy enjoying their meal.  The broth was just as crystal-clear as I had wanted, light on the tongue, but full-flavored and mellow.  It was hardly cutting-edge in any way, but it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had in months.

Published in: on February 29, 2008 at 8:27 am  Comments (2)  

Silk

As difficult as it is to find things to write about when confronted with uninspiring winter produce, it’s even more difficult to write about food when one has a stomach bug. 

Blech.

Even when one has a head cold, there are plenty of comforting, brothy soups to savor, plenty of heady teas to sip.  With a stomach bug, this does not work.  With a stomach bug, the sort of food that one (or at least, I) eat tends to be of the I-haven’t-eaten-in-48-hours-I-can’t-take-it-anymore-oops-it-was-a-mistake-to-eat-anything-yet variety. 

After two days of nothing but water, I was not only faint from hunger and weak from illness, but cranky from a lack of creative output.  What makes me feel comfortable and full of well-being?  Cooking.  Cooking both for myself and — even more so — for other people. 

This morning, though, I finally managed to eat breakfast, albeit a distinctly unchallenging one.  Greek yogurt, liberally laced with minced fresh ginger, topped with supremed red grapefruit and juice. 

It was soothing, silken comfort.  And it was FOOD.  I was refreshed not just by the nutrients and density of the meal, but by the act of preparing it, setting the table for it, and sitting down to eat it with cutlery and linen. 

I’m still staggering and shaky, but just those tiny things made me feel better.  Soon I’ll be back to my old tricks.  Soon, I will be hungry.

Published in: on February 18, 2008 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Better Late Than Never

Once upon a time it was Christmas Day. And once upon a time I made soup. Specifically, the most arrestingly red soup I have ever laid eyes on. It was, as the recipe’s author (Nigella Lawson) pointed out in the recipe itself, “so damn Christmassy that it’s ridiculous.”

I chose my recipes for Christmas dinner about four months beforehand.  I am the sort of person that plans ahead with intricate lists and detailed, choreographed visions of sugarplums, but usually not THAT far in advance.  The extenuating circumstance?  Beef tenderloin.  We can afford to buy it about once a year, and when I find a good recipe, I reserve the next holiday meal, whatever it might be, for That Recipe.  Thus, I found a recipe for a filet mignon spiced with garlic and winter spices in September, copied it down, and horded my cash for the interim. 

With the main dish chosen, it was easy enough to pick out the side dishes–mashed rutabaga with cardamom and a green salad with winter spices in the dressing.  Voila.  Christmas dinner. 

There are, however, two more meals that happen on any given day, and Christmas day is no exception.  It would be easy enough to just fling sandwiches and pastry at people, while getting on with the massive undertaking that most people consider Christmas dinner preparation to be, but given that there were only two people for dinner (this was both Teacherman’s and my own first Christmas spent without either of our families.  Extenuating circumstances?  You don’t want to hear them), there was no reason not to have real food for these meals.

Breakfast was pumpkin-hazlenut smoothies, based on a pumpkin-hazelnut pie recipe I found online.  Voila.  Done.  (And delicious).

Lunch?  Um.  Er.  Thing? 

I never felt particularly Christmas-y this year, and this led to a distinct lack of inspiration when it came to holiday meals.  Every time I came up with something “traditional” (for a typical American, that is, since my family never had a set holiday dinner), it just didn’t sound appealling.  I began ransacking all of my cookbooks, trying to find anything that I might want to eat.

Finally, in Nigella Feasts, Nigella Lawson’s cookbook about holiday food–in the Christmas section, no less–I found a recipe that sounded weird enough to peak my interest: cranberry-beet soup. 

No, really!  (This is becoming a continuing refrain in my posts–Honestly, I made it!  And it was really good!)

I cooked 3 grated beets and 1 chopped onion in some oil until softened.  I then added a bit more than a cup of cranberries, a large clementine’s-worth of juice and zest and a shake of cloves.  I smushed everything together for a second, then added a container of vegetable stock and performed the usual soup routine: I brought it all to a boil and then turned it down for a simmer until everything had cooked through.  Using a stick blender, I pureed it into a pottage of an incredibly shocking color, and served it up. 

And yes, it was really good.  The beets were sweet and earthy, and the cranberries added the sour tang necessary in a beet soup, so often added through liberal use of vinegar.  The texture was silken and the flavors were as bright as the color.  It was undeniably Christmas-inna-bowl. 

(And, unsurprisingly for a beet soup, the leftovers were delicious cold, the next day).

Published in: on January 28, 2008 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

This is Obviously One of THOSE Days

Some days, I make roasts and soups and complex, layered sauces, all from scratch.  Other days, I make soup out of two avocados blended together with half a jar of tomatillo salsa and topped with a can of crab. 

What kind of day do you think today was?

Honestly, the soup was really good. Ripe avocados, good quality salsa, sweet-tasting crabmeat. It was even pretty, if you don’t mind green. I cannot, however, pretend that it was Cuisine. Or A Recipe. It was just good. And it was fast and filling, and I don’t regret eating it at all.

I should probably be happy that I didn’t fall asleep with my face in it, though.

(And yes, what you heard on the news was correct: it is actually -2 degrees, my car doors are frozen shut, and it was so freezing at work that I still can’t feel my feet.  For reasons unknown to mankind, however, I am eating a cold soup. Not ice cream, though. Both of those things together would be taking things MUCH too far.  Instead I made coconut-kahlua hot chocolate.  From scratch).

Published in: on January 19, 2008 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Soup For the Season

Somehow, I have been gone for a long time.

I meant to post more–I’ve been eating and cooking and experimenting just as much as at any other time. But I worked hard the week of Christmas–worked at my actual job, which is another story–and then collapsed into relaxation the week after. Writing was one of my many usual activities that simply didn’t take place.

Today, I finally have some breathing room. I’m not working so fast that my eyeballs are a blur, and I’m not so exhausted that those selfsame eyeballs won’t even open. Strangely enough, today’s lunch was the simplest thing I’ve made in almost a month. (That breakfast where I ate frozen fruit and cold cuts doesn’t count).

As some of you may know, Nigella Lawson is one of my favorite cookbook authors. I was given the original edition of How to Eat as a Christmas present years ago (thanks, Dusan!) and I poured over it like a novel. The voice was entrancing and the recipe were excellent. I still go through that cookbook every few months to see what treasures I might plumb. I only own one other of her cookbooks–Nigella Feasts–but I’ve checked her remaining three out of the library on numerous occasions, and made any number of the recipes therefrom.

Today was a lazy day. I might be finished with exhaustion, but I’m not done vegetating. I can’t recall a day in years when I stayed in my pajamas and bathrobe past nine in the morning, but today I was still lolling around on the sofa well past noon. When I looked up from my book and noticed the time–roughly concurrent with the moment that my previously silent stomach chose to howl like a banshee–I had to come up with something to eat quickly.

Thus, a recipe from Lawson’s latest cookbook, Nigella Express (which, as one might expect from the title, is a compendium of fast/easy recipes): Pesto-Pea Soup. The recipe has only five ingredients (if you count salt and water as ingredients), required less than 10 minutes to prepare, and was exceedingly tasty, which is exactly what I needed in my befuddled, unshod state. (I had to do a little math to reduce the quantity of resulting soup–I didn’t have 3 bags of frozen peas, merely half of one–but thankfully the elementary division wasn’t too difficult for my feeble brain).

I took half a bag of frozen peas out of the freezer and dumped them into a saucier, along with a whole scallion, washed, but unchopped. I added a cup and a half of hot water and a pinch of salt, then brought the whole thing to a boil and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. The recipe calls for letting it simmer for 7 minutes, but the peas seemed done in 5, and I since didn’t want to cook them to a grey ooze, I just stopped early.

I let the mixture cool a fractionally, discarded the scallion (odd, but I followed the recipe), poured the peas and liquid into my food processor, and then added the ingredient that turned prosaic peas into something snarfable: pesto.

Back in September, I bought a small container of lemon-basil pesto at the Madison farmer’s market, and I’ve had it in my freezer ever since, waiting for the perfect recipe. It must be admitted that I forgot it was even there, but last night I rediscovered the jar right next to the ground poppyseeds I needed for another recipe, and in my frantic, lunch-planning state, the memory of that pesto brought to mind Lawson’s recipe.

I scooped the bright green paste–fragrant even when frozen–out of the jar and into the food processor, there to mingle with the cooked peas. The heat of the water (and a bit of nudging with a spoon) melted the pesto immediately, and I pureed the whole thing together into a nubbly pottage. I poured the mixture back into the saucier, reheated it a bit, and then served it, with no accompaniment, in plain white bowls.

Unsurprisingly, the pesto is the key ingredient in this dish. The soup was heady with basil and the rising vapors wafted the scent of lemon. The cheeses and nuts in the pesto added depth and creaminess to the soup, without being aggressive with their individual flavors; the peas still shone through, not just as a textural component, but with the definite sweet, grassiness inherent to peas. In spite of the noticability of the peas, however, using a poor pesto would undoubtedly result in a poor soup. I was lucky to have such a delicious pesto on hand, but if I had to procure pesto for making the soup in the future, I would make sure to buy the best available.

(And yes, I would have to buy it. It is depressing to admit, but I have been trying to make pesto for YEARS, with the highest quality ingredients, often from my own garden, and it always turns out brackish and disgusting. So I buy good pesto from the farmers market, or, in the winter, the refrigerated case at the nearest earthy-crunchy grocery. It serves me well, and I usually don’t feel guilty).

Published in: on January 4, 2008 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who For Such Dainties Would Not Stoop?

When I was a child, I loved tomato soup.  It was, in fact, the archetypical American-childhood tomato soup–Campbell’s condensed, rehydrated with milk (never water), served perfectly smooth and absolutely unadulterated by additions of any kind, with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side. 

(I understand that the grilled cheese sandwiches, called “cheese toasties” in my family, were one step away from the norm in that they were usually made on caraway rye bread, rather than white [which we never had in the house], and with Colby-Jack cheese rather than American [ditto].  But I’m not talking about sandwiches, here, I’m talking about soup).

I do still sometimes long for that creamy, slightly processed, stewed-tomato flavor, but I’ve come to enjoy the sharper, more acidic flavor of real tomatoes (even when canned, the tomatoes I buy these days are more “real” than those in condensed soup), and the rough, pottagey texture of home-blended soup.  I rarely make tomato soup, but when I do, I make it that way.

Funnily enough, I almost never crave tomato soup during tomato season itself.  It’s when the weather turns cold, dreary and damp that I want it–conditioned, no doubt, by memories of childhood tomato soup lunches on snow days or after being caught in the rain.  Thus, I always make tomato soup with canned tomatoes. 

Though I scorn to peel tomatoes for almost every other application (including even those that I admit to needing it), I prefer peeled tomatoes.  And because diced canned tomatoes almost always have the skin on (indeed, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them otherwise), I use whole, peeled tomatoes, which I then puree before using.  This means that there are fewer discrete pieces of tomato in my soups, but more tomato in every bite, which I enjoy.  In my opinion, a broth–no matter how delicious–with pieces of tomato floating therein is not tomato soup.  I’m sure this is also leftover childhood conditioning.

Sunday night, I wanted tomato soup.  Teacherman and I had been out of town all weekend, and had driven 5 hours back from a warm and balmy St. Louis, to find our home city gripped by sneaky cold winds and lowering skies.  There was almost no food in the house, but when I opened up the pantry cupboard, a big can of whole, peeled tomatoes stared back at me. 

I sauteed shallots–lots of them.  I added two minced red jalapenos, three big pulverized garlic cloves and about 2 Tbsp of minced ginger.  When they began to caramelize, I added some lime zest from my frozen stash and stirred it around. 

While that became lovely and fragrant, I pureed the can of tomatoes in the food processor, then added that to the pan along with several cubes of frozen chicken stock and two Tbsp of Thai fish sauce.  I covered the pan and let it simmer for about half an hour.

At this point, it could have been done.  It was a hearty, thick soup that would have been lovely on its own–the ginger, lime and especially the fish sauce giving it an unidentifiable, but distinctly moreish depth–but we were both in need of something substantial, so I determined to add protein.  I pulled out the last carton of farmer’s market eggs and cracked six into the wide skillet, sprinkled them with salt and then let them gently poach in the tomatoey depths.

A mere five minutes later we were at the table, scooping up thick spoonfuls, some enriched with egg, some not.  Without egg, the soup was rich, but still sparkling with acidity; with egg, it mellowed until it almost resembled a sauce.  Both ways were comforting, sustaining and, most importantly, satisfying.    I wanted to wrap my arms around the bowl and huddle into it, letting the steam fog up my glasses and open my pores. 

We scraped the bowls clean, and sat at the table, content.  Tomato soup can do that to you. 

Published in: on November 19, 2007 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sans Spice

My spice rack can be a bit overwhelming. 

When I say ‘spice rack,’ what I really mean is ‘spice cabinet.’  My spice collection takes up an entire 3-shelf kitchen cabinet–the savory herbs and spices on one shelf, the sweet spices on another, and salts, peppers, and pickling spices on a third (along, it must be admitted, with some pickling equipment, but not much). 

I don’t just have the basics (though honestly, these days who knows what The Basics are?) I’ve got things that most people haven’t even heard of.  Long pepper?  Check.  Grains of paradise?  Yes, indeed.  Worse, I don’t believe that I could get along without almost everything I have.  I really do use all the different individual chile powders and juniper berries and green and red peppercorns.   I really do USE all three varieties of paprika–weekly, even!

Last night, though, I made a meal without any spices at all.

As you might remember, I spent two weeks of this summer in Germany.  Since then, I have made more traditionally German (or at least Germanic) food than I ever have in my entire life.  Most of the dishes I’ve making are not even ones that I ate when abroad, but for some reason I feel compelled–happily compelled–to make them. 

Last night I made a very unusual stew that I found in a couple-of-decades-old German library cookbook.  The stew originally interested me because it contained enormous quantities of leeks–not as a substitute for onions, but as the major component of the dish. 

The stew starts out as most German stews do, with bacon.  I have rarely seen a stew recipe that did not begin with an instruction to crisp some bacon in a pan, remove the bacon, and continue with the soup using the bacon drippings as the cooking fat.  I could have used leftover bacon fat from the jar I keep in the back of the fridge (yes, I really do.  It’s excellent for searing salmon in), but I wanted bacon bits to sprinkle on top of the stew, and thus followed the recipe directly.

The stew continued in a familiar way, with a saute of aromatics–in this case, an onion, two carrots and two celery root, all cut into 1/2-inch cubes.  After they were browned (a difficult task, given the constrast between the sheer quantity of vegetables and the relatively modest size of my Dutch oven), I added 4 cups of beef stock and brought the whole thing to a bubble.

Now for the fun part: bockwurst.  Bockwurst is one of the eleventy-million varieties of sausage produced in Germany, and one of my favorites.  It’s an emulsified sausage, meaning that the insides are smooth and almost fluffy.  Teacherman describes them as “like a meat marshmallow,” but I don’t find that description particularly appetizing.   (He also prefers wiesswurst to bockwurst, which is a conflict).

In spite of my weekly practice of sausage-making, I have never made an emulsified sausage.  Luckily, there are two places in Chicago where I can purchase phenomenal sausages, almost as good as the ones we had in Germany.  Thus, I had easily procured one pound of bockwurst, and I had it at the ready.

I placed the bockwurst on top of the bubbling vegetables, turned it down to a simmer, covered the pan, and left it to stew for 40 minutes.  When I checked it after 20, I discovered that all of the sausages had split, exploding out of their skins and leaving yawning canyons all down one side (one sausage actually managed to split in a spiral–I’m not sure how that happened).  I understand that some people find split-skinned sausages to be an abomination impossible to be tolerated, but I have never minded it.  On a grilled sausage, a split skin just means there’s more surface to caramelize, and on a braised sausage like this, it means that it was easier for the juices of the stew to flavor the meat of the sausage (and the juices of the sausage to add body to the flavor of the stew). 

When 40 minutes were up, I added 2 pounds of leeks, quartered, cleaned, and sliced into 1/2-inch curves.  The lid went back on for 15 minutes, just long enough for the leeks to become crisp-tender, but not long enough to become limp and unfortunate.  I added a little salt at the same time as the leeks, but the stock, bacon and sausage contributed salt of their own, and I barely tipped in more than a pinch.

Voila.  A leek and bockwurst stew.  Given my love for Thai curry and southwestern green chile, can such a spiceless dish garner any praise from me at all?  Aren’t such dishes usually characterized as bland?

Yes, it’s true.  German food is often considered bland (along with “heavy,” a word which I’m beginning to believe means only “makes the speaker feel guilty for enjoying it”).  And it’s also true that this dish didn’t have any screamingly herbal top notes or sparkling, acidic touches.  What it did have was depth–the deep background flavor of the sauteed onions, carrots and celery root, which was mellow and earthy without being in-your-face.   The bockwurst was almost sweet in contrast to the vegetables, and the softness of the meat was comforting. 

The leeks, though, were what really made the stew.  They were cooked just enough to have given up their raw crunchiness, but still seemed fresh.  The soft but firm give of the leeks provided textural contrast and a giant hit of flavor.  Even without spices, it was a delicious, satisfying dish.

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  

The Albino Horror

Almost exactly a month ago, now, I went to the Madison, WI farmer’s market and came home with a mountain of produce.  Buried amid the bounty were two specimens of a vegetable that I’d never seen before: white beets.

They were enormous (at least 8 inches in diameter) and cheap (50 cents a piece).  “Ugly but good!” said the sign, and thinking, oddly, of the Italian cookie, ‘bruti ma buoni’, which means the same thing, I bought them.

They were very large.  And very white.  And “Good Lord!  That’s not a vegetable, that’s Swamp Thing’s heart!” said our upstairs neighbor.  I cooked them anyway. 

I peeled, chunked and roasted the two behemoths, for once not needing to worry about magenta (or orange, or pink, or blood-red) stains.  I forgot about the foil packages for two hours, the way I usually do, and when I came back to get them: Ugh!

They were all BLACK!  And dirty-looking!  And just grotesque!

I had no other vegetable to serve for dinner that night, so I sliced them into matchsticks, tossed them with a pickle-y vinaigrette and ate them, averting my eyes.  They were extremely tasty, but with less than zero visual appeal.  I blended up the second half of the unfortunate cubes, put the puree into a tupperware and shoved it to the back of the freezer. 

Throughout the month of September I thought about that container of greyish puree.  I knew I should do something with it–aside from the fact that it would be wasteful to discard that much food, the beets actually tasted GOOD.  I just couldn’t get over the color.

Finally, I was rescued by an unexpected savior: curry. 

In one of my many forays into a library cookbook I found a recipe for curried beet soup with apples.  I liked the idea of the earthy sweetness of the beets playing off the lighter sweetness of the apples, with the spices to warm up the flavors, and finally–grudgingly–decided to defrost the beets.

I sweated a small, roughly chopped yellow onion until it was limp and translucent, then added a chopped apple (Northern Spy, in case you wonder) and two teaspoons of bright yellow curry powder.  I let the apple get slightly soft while the aroma of the curry powder bloomed in the heat, then added the beet puree.

Magic!  The turmeric in the curry powder transformed the grisly grey color into a lovely umber  I was immediately more sanguine about my meal prospects.  The soup had smelled delicious all along, but it was only that moment when I began to really believe it.

I added 2 cups of my homemade chicken stock, put a lid on the pot and let it bubble for half an hour–long enough for all the ingredients to amalgamate into a harmonious whole.  Meanwhile, I seared some cubes of pressed, ginger and soy-marinated tofu, to serve as “croutons” on top of the soup.

It was delicious–and pretty–saving the beets from a doomed existence at the back of the freezer. 

Published in: on October 10, 2007 at 6:39 am  Comments (1)  

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.

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

A Little Bit Jumbled and Jivey

I have been on an oat kick recently.

After a few years of ignoring the grain, I recently rediscovered the joys of hot oatmeal in the morning–it is still early spring here, no matter what the calendar says–and oats have become a staple freezer item.  (I treat oats like nuts and store them in the freezer, to prevent any oils from going rancid).  I’ve purchased many different varieties of oats for my experiments: mostly ordinary old-fashioned rolled oats, but lately also steel-cut oats, those little nubbins that most would be unable to identify as oats at all.  They make a wonderfully rustic and grainy oatmeal, but since it takes half the amount of steel-cut oats to make the same finished quantity of oatmeal as that made from rolled oats, I always miscalculate, overbuy, and end up with uncooked steel-cut oats that languish in the freezer while I finish my overabundance of leftover breakfast.

As part of my search for perfect oatmeal, I checked out Lorna Sass’s new cookbook Whole Grains: Every Day, Every Way.  I certainly enjoyed her recipes for hot breakfast oatmeal, but what really intrigued me was a recipe for a Tex-Mex turkey soup with steel-cut oats stirred in at the end, instead of rice or pasta.  It seemed a perfect use for the leftover steel-cut oats in my freezer and a perfect Sunday night dinner–warming enough to cut the chilly wind, but not so stodgy as to repulse, given the vaguely spring-like tendancies of the weather. 

The stew is simplicty itself, the only deviation from the norm being the presence of the oats.  Sweat an onion and a stalk of celery in oil, add stock (or water) and that beloved southern staple, a can of diced tomatoes and green chiles.  Plunk in some turkey thighs (boneless and skinless in my case, though the recipe calls for bone-in) and various spices, simmer for a short while, then add a measure of steel-cut oats and simmer again until the oats are soft.  Finally, add in some corn kernels, diced avocados, lime juice and chopped cilantro.  The result?  A deeply flavorful bowl of tomato-y stew, enriched by the turkey and stock, spiced by the green chile, and thickened by the addition of the oats.  The oats serve the same purpose as barley in a beef-barley soup, but add a toasted flavor that deepens and enlivens the dish. 

I would definitely make this stew again, and am excited to try other oat recipes from Sass’s book.  If I can get my hands on some whole oat groats, her oat pilaf might be in the offing.  But wait–whole oat groats?  I wonder what kind of hot cereal that would make. . . ?

Published in: on May 7, 2007 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment