sweet openings

This week marks the new school year for universities and colleges in the Willamette Valley on the quarter system, and also the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah.  I’m not even remotely religious, but I do like me some food holidays, so you can bet Retrogrouch and I are eating sugary nothings to usher in a sweet new year.  The traditional snack is apples and honey, so I stopped off at the vegetable barn in Albany on my way back from teaching my poetry class at Linn-Benton in Corvallis, and picked up some local apples and apple cider. The honey I bought from a fellow MFP volunteer in Roseburg, who finds this Kauk’s Bees wildflower honey absolutely delicious, and I agree.  I don’t know what they’re feeding those bees with, but it yields deep and rich honey, like Meadowfoam honey, but without the slightly burnt aftertaste.

I do hope the year will be as sweet and soft as honey for all of us, or at least as crunchy and shiny as apples.  Or as steadfast as a gourd from my garden.  Or as big and happy as my pumpkin (and only slightly chewed).  I suspect this will be a rocky one, what with the economic crisis and all.  All I can say is hold your nose and close your eyes…maybe the elections will bring a bright spot of hope.

I’ve been crazy busy, spitting out articles left and right, and preparing all my materials for the big job season that’s underway.  In English, we have one big conference where almost all of the interviews happen.  Since I’m finishing my Ph.D. this year, it’s a crucial year for me, and I’m going to need every bit of sweetness I can get.  My first application goes out today.  So please help me celebrate the new — drink a big, cold glass of this season’s first crop fresh cider for me, thank you very much!

more fun with dehydration!

Why yes, that would be a lacy bit of tomato chile leather atop a slice of Tillamook cheddar, thank you for asking.  My recipe?  Dump a jar of homemade salsa on a fruit leather drying sheet, dehydrate until leathery.  You can also dehydrate tomato sauce (no meat, please) for a different taste.  I like eating little slices with bread, too.  It’s like a sundried tomato with a kick.

And speaking of sundried tomatoes, I have about a gazillion of them in different forms, including a “reject bag” of ones that were overdried, dark, slightly smoky, a tad bitter.  I added a handful of the rejects to my pot roast yesterday, and yum!  The flavor was perfect, and the dried tomatoes held their shape better than the handful of fresh plum tomatoes I threw in.

I also dried my Hungarian paprika peppers in the dehydrator this year.  Last year, I relied on the good ol’ fashioned sun, but I was worried about the cool weather we’ve been having.  It wasn’t nearly as funny as line-drying the peppers and making jokes about being a kinky gardener, but it got the job done.  I also dried some ripe-red hot banana peppers, which I’ll add to the mix when I grind them all down for paprika.

panzanella variations

I am most pleased to announce my first monthly food column for the Eugene Weekly came out today!

The article is my last clinging hope that summer will stick around for a few more days, and it responds to the age-old Willamette Valley question about what you can do with all the tomatoes that are just now, just prior to our first frost, ripening by the bucketful.  I wrote about panzanella, the Tuscan bread salad, and variations I’ve made over the last year or so.

I think panzanella is the perfect late summer salad — it’s more hearty than the caprese or plain tomato salads that are so refreshing during the hot, long days.  Panzanella gives us the fortitude we need to face the rains of fall.

I only had room for one panzanella recipe, the base recipe from which all the variations spring, so I wanted to add a few more notes.  The picture appearing in the article, which is the first one in this post, for example, is the fennel olive panzanella with tarragon and parsley.  Those are peppery little Japanese kaiware radish flowers from my garden in the picture, by the way.   You can add nuances to the fennel and tarragon, both anise-y flavors, by adding a 1/2 teaspoon of aniseed or a glug of Herbsaint liqueur to the salad. Fresh, soft, yellow fennelseed from your flowering fennel plant would transform the salad into something exquisite, I guarantee it.

You can see the differences in the bread I used for the wet-bread experiment, ciabatta from Eugene City Bakery (left), Marché Provisions (right), and Metropol (not pictured).  The light crust, big holes and coarse-grained texture of the ECB bread made the panzanella more couscous-like.  See?  The panzanella on the spoon below is couscous-y (and flavored with cucumber, chive vinegar and fresh chives); the panzanella pictured above is custardy, with intact cubes.  The latter is Marcella Hazan’s recipe with capers, anchovies, red pepper, garlic and cucumber, yum.

I had never thought much about the kind of bread to use for the salad before writing the article, and I’m really glad I experimented with it.  The MP bread really did make a custardy, almost bread-pudding-y panzanella, and my extensive staff of kitchen tasters (i.e., my husband Retrogrouch) preferred it greatly over the couscous-y panzanella.

There are some recipes out there that call for darker, heavier bread, and I suppose you could do that, but I dunno.  I mean, strawberry seeded dark rye panzanella?  Yikes.  Sounds…healthy.  I believe in life we pick our poisons, and if that’s yours, well, vaya con dios.  My kitchen is more about making an American burger panzanella with dill pickles and ground meat with a sesame seed garnish.  I think it’s pretty clear who should be trusted in this crucial matter.

On a more serious note, I’m very excited about the EW column, and already researching possibilities for my next article, when fall is really, honestly here.  I’m trying to decide between an Ode to Rain recipe and an American Gothic exposé, giving advice on how to explore the darker, bitterer side of cuisine.  I also have a kickass cranberry sauce recipe, hm.  And then there’s that beef jerky I’ve been meaning to discuss, which is also very American Gothic if you ask me, with its desiccated flesh.  Ah, decisions, decisions.  I guess fall won’t be so bad.

tips on mitigating risks for fermented dill pickles

I posted a few weeks ago about the tested and food-safe recipe for kosher-style dill pickles that my Master Food Preserver group teaches. You can find an annotated version of two recipes here.  Both can be safely processed in jars for storage.  One uses a strong vinegar solution and low temperature pasteurization to produce crunchier but familiar pickles like the ones you get in the grocery store.  The other ferments the cucumbers for a few weeks first with a bit of vinegar and a salty brine, then cans the pickles with low-temperature pasteurization to kill off any living microbes.  These taste much better than the vinegar pickles, but it’s a matter of an extra step and waiting several weeks more to eat your delicious pickles.

Now that the weather is cooler and cucumbers are at the end of the season, I thought I’d post my thoughts on non-canned, non-vinegared fermented pickles, a radically different process than canning.

Fermentation pickles are the not-so-safe kind of pickles, the ones you ferment on the counter, keeping alive in a crock with lactic acid, and want to eat relatively soon.  I have to preface this post, therefore, by stressing that I’m not writing as an MFP volunteer here, and the MFP program only endorses their recipe for fermented full-sour dill pickles.

There are good reasons for this.  For lactic acid fermentation, you can’t use a lot of vinegar, which kills bacteria, both good and bad, and inhibits the lactic acid fermentation.  Pickles kept in brine with even a small amount of vinegar at room temperature (and in the refrigerator) have been tested to host listeria, a nasty little microbe that makes seniors deathly ill and can abort fetuses in pregnant women.  And there’s always a risk of listeria in low acid foods in anaerobic environments (as in inside a cucumber, even if in brine).  Brine pickles without significant amounts of vinegar at room temperature are not considered safe at all.

My pickle needs require brining without vinegar, and keeping the pickles in a solution that is relatively low salt.  For me, the holy grail is the half-sour pickle, the bright green pickle you see in New York delis next to the sour garlic Kosher dills.  They must make them in some way that’s considered safe for public consumption by some authority, so I’ve been looking for a reliable recipe.  I’m willing to risk some of the pickle dangers for this.  I am a firm believer in risk-aware, consensual cooking (RACC), where consumers take responsibility for the matter they put in their mouth, especially if it is homemade, and know what the potential risks are.  I know I run a risk by making my pickles, just as I know I run risks by eating European soft cheese and sushi (you are taking this risk, too, if you eat deli meats, hot dogs, or supermarket produce.)

I’m willing to sacrifice some safety for the thrill of orgasmic deliciousness, but not for hot dogs.  Everyone needs to make their own call on risktaking.

It helps me to know how to help along the good bacteria and discourage the bad.  Lactic fermentation starts soon, and it acidifies the brine (think of the sour flavor or yogurt, which contains lactic bacteria), so I aim to encourage that along as fast as possible.

I also try to minimize contamination as much as possible by keeping my counter, sponges, and utensils very clean.

So that’s my stance on pickle politics.

I’ve been experimenting all summer long, first with pickling cucumbers from the Asian market in town, then with some from farms, and now with my own cucumbers.  I’ve looked at recipes in German, Hungarian, French and Polish cookbooks, and heard recommendations for Russian recipes and old-fashioned American ones.

Of everything I’ve read, I highly recommend Sandor Katz‘s book Wild Fermentation, if you are going to take the fermentation route.  I love his writing style and his pilgrim soul.  I also particularly dig that he’s not your usual food preservation type: a gay man living in an intentional community at the corner of wilderness & who-knows-where, and one living well with AIDS.   He has experimented for years, and it shows, undaunted by ingredient or national cuisine.  His book has recipes for hooch, injera, tempeh, vinegar, cider, sourdough, kombucha, kimchi, and everything in between.

Unfortunately, his dill pickle recipe, which is much more about the garlic than it is about the pickle (to the tune of 2-3 heads per jar) and produces a very sour pickle, isn’t what I’m looking for. Please take a look, though, if you’re interested.  They’re delicious.

As much as I look, and as much as I try, I can’t find a standardizable recipe for half-sours (and many internet recipes are downright scary).  The variables are just too numerous.  Unlike the vinegar pickle, which aims to be reproducible, and the sour dill fermented pickle, which blasts the pickles with garlic and salt, the half-sour fermented pickle is more finicky about the temperature of the environment and the ingredients.  My first try at the half-sour was brilliant:  sour, only a bit salty, bright green, and alive with almost a fizzy quality from the active fermentation.  Then, several delicious but not most-fabulous-like-the-first-one batches later, I am stymied.

All I can do is provide some tips from what I’ve learned.  As I mentioned earlier, you’re responsible for the risks these pickles create in the kitchen, just as you are welcome to take the credit for their deliciousness.

Golden rule: if in doubt, throw it out!

NOTE:  I’ve received a few questions about fermented pickles, and I wasn’t very clear in the above paragraph about NOT providing a recipe here because I don’t want the liability associated with advising on fermented pickles.  As such, I won’t be able to answer your questions here, either.  I’m not comfortable answering questions about this over the internet with strangers about recipes I can’t see or discuss in more detail, sorry.  Please use a tested recipe and/or call your local Extension office for help.

Half-Sour Pickle Tips

  1. Sandor Katz has a handy formula for salt in brine for pickles (see his recipe linked above).  He suggests using 2 T. canning salt per quart of water for half-sours, and I’m trying this now.  Longer storage requires a stronger brine.
  2. Many Eastern European recipes boil the brine before using it, but I think that would kill beneficial bacteria with the bad, so I don’t do it.  I use lukewarm water.
  3. Go forth and multiply!  The key is to make lactic fermentation start as quickly and productively as possible, especially if you’re on the lower end of the salt spectrum in your brine.  I’ve had great success enculturating my new brine with a bit of homemade kimchi juice or fermented pickle juice from the last batch.  Poles used to use a slice of fresh soured rye bread. Whey is also suggested. Drain an organic yogurt (like Nancy’s from Springfield) in a fine-meshed sieve in the refrigerator overnight.  A quart will yield about a third-cup of whey, so drain at least two quarts for a 3L jar of pickles.  I’ve also heard that whey softens pickles, but I don’t have a problem with that.  At least so far. [Ed: Several softer than desirable batches, and it’s No Whey, Dude! for me.]
  4. To keep pickles firm, use a handful of fresh, organic Concord (or other) grape leaves.  I’ve also had good — even better — success with horseradish leaves.  The leaves leave no discernible taste in the brine.  I also cut 1/16-inch off the blossom end of the cucumber because enzymes live there that soften the pickle.  The blossom end is the lighter-colored end of the cucumber, opposite the stem end, which is where the pickle attaches to the vine.  See the blossom in the middle of the first picture?
  5. I use a tablespoon of Penzey’s pickling spices in my pickles, as well as dill, garlic, and brown mustard seed and fresh bay leaves.  This spice mix has cloves, red peppers and allspice in it, among other things, and I think it adds a beautiful, subtle spiciness to the brine.
  6. I poke holes in each cucumber with a rounded chopstick to assist brine penetration.  I do this after I’ve washed the cucumbers so there’s less risk of pushing bacteria into the inside of the cucumber which needs the most time for brine penetration.
  7. One recipe recommended washing the cucumbers and garlic and jars with vinegar.  This killed off the fermentation bacteria for me, and it was the only batch I had to throw out.  Cucumbers can be dirty and muddy, though, so do wash each cucumber carefully, scrubbing gently with a soft brush after soaking them in a clean sink full of water.
  8. Temperature, temperature, temperature.  It’s really crucial to do half-sours in cooler weather, or even better, if you have a temp-controlled place to store them.  Vacillating temperatures are the worst. 60-65 degrees seems to be the magic range; 55 degrees slows down the fermentation too much and over 80 speeds it up too fast.
  9. As for the timing, I just don’t know. This depends on the temperature.  You have to keep the pickles unrefrigerated to start the fermentation.  I usually take a look after two days on the counter, then either keep them there for another day or two if I don’t see active bubbles and the brine turning cloudy (which is a bad thing for vinegar pickles but a good thing for fermented pickles).  After I see fermentation going well and the pickles smell like pickles, I immediately move them to the refrigerator.  I usually don’t taste them for a week or two as they sit in the refrigerator.
  10. I taste the pickles once they’ve achieved a standardized color, they smell like pickles, they aren’t slimy or suspicious-looking, and I can assess the brine has penetrated through to the middle.  I slice a small one in half and look at it first.  I leave the bigger ones to ferment longer.
  11. When making the pickles, I put in a weighted Ziploc bag of brine, and leave the jar open with a clean dishcloth on top as it sits unrefrigerated.  In the refrigerator, I close the jar.  I might be stopping the fermentation process when I do this, though, so the jury is out on this one.
  12. In full sour pickles, sometimes a white, slightly viscous, yeast develops on cucumbers.  This is harmless but ugly.  This shouldn’t develop on half-sours, though.
  13. I use fresh dill heads from my garden, but also freeze some.  Frozen dill heads are much stronger than dried ones and dried dill seed, and some people even say better than fresh.
  14. Use a large container and a significant amount of brine.  One recent internet recipe calls for a weak brine and small jars holding just six cucumbers (which aren’t sliced, so most of the jar is hard to penetrate cucumber).  This is a serious risk for listeria.
  15. I can’t stress this last point enough.  Keep everything clean.  I microwave my sponges (dampen them, then put them in at full power for 1 minute), spray the counters with a bleach solution, and scrub down my sinks with cleanser before making fermented pickles.  I wash my hands during the process if I’ve handled anything out of that immediate area.

I’d love to hear experienced, tested opinions on any of these tips, so please let me know what you’ve tried and researched!

cut and dried: vegetable salts

I’ve been, as you may know, experimenting like a crazy mofo with dried foods this year.  I’m not going to beat around the bush: my interest is perverse.  There’s something untoward about taking fresh, plump, in-season fruits, vegetables and meats and desiccating them into shriveled chips.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s an ode to the death drive, but if you argued for a campfire tale of mummies and their long afterlives, I wouldn’t say no.

But enough of that nonsense.  One of the nicest dried up ideas I’ve had is to make vegetable salts out of ground veggie chips.  They add a blast of subtle flavor to soups and sprinkles, and look pretty, too, if you use colored vegetables.  Plus, they cut your sodium count if you use them properly.  I’ve never been a fan of low-salt herb blends (because if I want herbs, I’ll just add herbs) or fake salt (because it tastes weird).  Vegetable salts provide an alternative to these products, and you can make them at home and therefore control what goes in them and where you got it.  Root vegetables, especially, have subtle and characteristic tastes that are underused in the American kitchen, and they’re fun to play with.

I thought, therefore, my vegetable salts might be a good addition to Michelle’s Heart of the Matter recipe contest this month.  She’s asking us to provide recipes that preserve the harvest.  I have made several low-sugar jams and fruit concoctions this year, but I thought this might be an unusual addition to a preservation bonanza.

The original inspiration for celery salt was taken from Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, where it is served with hard-boiled eggs.  I grated some fresh celeriac, soon to be in season, left it in the refrigerator with salt for a couple of days, and then dried it and blended it.  You can see some great preparation pictures at this blog, an individual who is taking on the cookbook page by page, a là Julie and Julia.

I really like to add a small pinch of vegetable salts to slices of vegetables I’m drying.  You can see some tomatoes here; the dried celeriac tastes particularly lovely on dried tomatoes.  I like the carrot salt on zucchini, because it is a pretty orange color that contrasts with the slices and adds an unusual sweetness.  A few more ideas:

  • Beet salt would be nice on roasted carrots;
  • Rutabagas, with their pretty yellow color, would make a great sprinkle on mashed potatoes;
  • Dried chanterelle mushroom salt sprinkled on tofu adds a nice umami (meaty taste);
  • Parsley root salt on roasts.

The specs?  Well, you’ll need a dehydrator, or an oven that can go very, very low.  Vegetables dehydrate typically around 125 degrees, and can take overnight or a few hours, depending on the strength of your dehydrator.  Grate your root vegetables, add salt and grated vegetable to a ziploc bag and keep in refrigerator for two days.  Spread out on dehydrator tray that has been lined with either heavy duty cling wrap or a fruit leather sheet (to prevent a salty mess from dropping through the mesh) and dry until brittle.  Whirl in food processor until powdered.  If you decide to do mushrooms, skip the pre-salting and refrigerator step, and just whirl together dried mushrooms with salt (adding some chipotle powder is delicious, by the way).

I think I used four cups celeriac to one cup kosher flake salt the first time I made celery salt, but it’s best to weigh out each and follow this simple rule:  same weight for each (e.g., 400 grams grated celeriac, 400 grams salt).  Salt is much heavier, so it will be less volume.

Garlic and shallot salts are also possible with this method.  I haven’t tried shallots, but I found the garlic took a very long time to dry and stayed moist in the salt, making it less like salt than a clump of garlic mortar.  The taste is good, though, like roasted garlic.  I wonder if using older garlic is the key — I used the freshest new garlic of the season, which is perhaps more moist.  ETA:  Aha.  Deanna Delong’s How to Dry Foods tells me that I pulsed the salt too long, which made it too fine and liable to cake.  So don’t be like me; hold back with the pulsation.

mad grilling skillz: a love story

What do you want for dinner, he says.

And I says:

, I says, but I’d be happy with



Well, says he, then I can do:

And I says, that’s ok, sweetie, I says, whatever is easiest. I just don’t want:


But he was already, like,


so I’m all, ok then, would you mind

?  And he says ok.  And then

ensued, and we lived happily ever after.  The End.

taco mondays at belly


Belly, Eugene’s best new restaurant*, is now serving simple taqueria-style tacos for lunch on Mondays.

On the menu:  carnitas ($3.50), carne asada ($4), baja fish (deep fried cod, $4.50) and veggie ($4).  Each comes with onion and cilantro, plus condiments of your choosing: marinated red onions, jalapeño, tomatillo and red salsas, and avocado crème.

The meat is premium quality, and two suffice for a satisfying meal.  I had the carnitas and carne asada the other day.  The former was oily and succulent, but a tad oversalted, and the latter was just plain delicious.  I would have loved to have seen grilled jalapenos instead of the pickled canned (?) ones since they match so brilliantly with deep-fried pork, but eh, I’m a complainer.  You can also get Jarritos sodas and ‘Merrcun ones served out of a cooler.  This is casual, delicious, quick lunch food.  N.b.  they’re serving it lunchtimes on Mondays only, and this weekday may change.

Of course, I had to take the opportunity to drool over some of the specialties on the September dinner menu.  Bacon-wrapped grilled figs with sheep milk cheese ($9), anyone?  Mussel and cucumber salad ($8)?  Farm chicken in vinegar ($14)?

Check ’em out on 5th Ave., across from what I just realized is the misnamed Fifth Street Public Market.  Sigh, Eugene.

*according to me.  Other results aren’t in yet.