my staples: junuary gingersnaps

IMG_2865Sometimes one just needs a reminder that one can snap back, whether it’s a tomato plant in rainy Junuary or a teacher in the last two weeks of school or a student on the other end of the stick or a dog who wants to lie in the sun or a voice that has gone flat.  These tried and true cookies, one of my first recipes thrown out on the internet a-many years ago, will help. They help keep you peppy with the triple snap of fresh, powdered, and crystallized ginger.

It occurs to me that these would be quite good with a substitution of teff flour.  The texture of my teffernutters (almond butter-teff flour-chocolate chip cookies) is rather similar, and the molasses would ease the march into Wholegrainsville.  If you experiment, please let me know.

Junuary Gingersnaps

(Adapted from recipe in Cookies Unlimited by Nick Malgieri)

Aim for 40 small cookies.

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 12 tablespoons (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, softened (not melted)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup blackstrap molasses
  • 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
  • 1/4 cup chopped preserved ginger (optional)
  • demerara (or other large-grain) sugar for rolling dough balls before baking

Set racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Combine flour, baking soda, salt, ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. In a mixer bowl, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy (~3 minutes). Add egg and beat until smooth.

Lower beater speed to the slowest setting, then add half of dry ingredients.  When combined, ratchet up the speed and add the molasses, grated ginger, and preserved ginger. Turn off the mixer, scrape down bowl, then repeat with second half of dry ingredients.

Set mixture in refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

Form 1- to 2-inch diameter balls of dough and roll in a small bowl containing demerara sugar. You can use regular sugar, but the bigger grains of demerara sugar make a pretty cookie.

Place balls on cookie sheets covered with foil or parchment, leaving about 2 inches between balls.

Bake about 15 minutes, or until cookies are crackled and darker in color and firm to the touch. (N.b. my light cookie sheet doesn’t allow them to crackle, but my dark one does, so you should not gauge doneness by crackle alone.) Cookies will crisp up as they cool.

respect your elders

IMG_4599If you still have elderflowers, and I suspect I will even with the rain and my ill-timed travel, consider making elderflower sugar this year.   Mine are Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty,’ one of the newish mahogany-leaved cultivars of the more common European elderberry.  I often use the flowers for strawberry jam, but am thinking of infusing sugar so I can use it for other preparations throughout the year if the sugar mutes the particular scent that some consider cat urine-like and others call lemony.  De gustibus non disputandum est.

Can’t quite commit to picking fluttery flowers?  Wait for the berries and make hedgerow jam or jelly, as I’m planning to do this spring with my already ripe haskapberries (!) and frozen elderberries, gooseberries, and bramble fruit that make up my various spindly hedges.

Most important with elderberries is to know that the plant stems, leaves, and roots are poisonous, and even the berries have toxins in them if eaten raw.  Don’t fret; if you cook the ripe berries of black or blue varieties (e.g., Sambucus canadensis or Sambucus nigra, but do check reliable sources for toxicity information on your variety because it’s a bit confusing) you’ll be ok.  Check out Hank Shaw’s posts on effective ways to remove the stems of flowers for elderflower fritters or effective removal of the stems of ripe berries by freezing them for such lovely delicacies as elderberry syrup.  You’ll also need to know that there are tiny seeds in the berries that are best strained out.

In other elder news, I recently had an excellent elderflower beer, Cazeau Saison, at San Francisco’s haut biergarten, The Abbot’s Cellar.  It had a big white head and an icy fresh green taste, something along the lines of crushed wet chervil.  The elderberry washed-rind English cheddar purchased at Corti Bros. in Sacramento was not nearly as good, with the berries just used as a pretty pink dye.

Hedgerow jam or jelly is a British autumn tradition, a delectable mixed fruit concoction made with fruits that can be gathered in the countryside or from your own hedges in an edible garden.  It often contains blackberries, sloes, rose hips, hawthorn and crabapples, sometimes even nuts.

For a traditional English recipe, try this link featuring hazelnuts.  I’d probably refrigerate this one or any recipe containing nuts or lower sugar than tested American ones either with or without pectin, both for safety and to keep the flavors as vibrant as possible.  When you’re combining fruits, you will have variable issues with gel set because of the natural pectin content in the fruits you choose, so don’t feel you need to be a perfectionist about this one.

I’ll post my hedgerow jelly recipe and method soon!

sour cherry revival

IMG_3055A reader on my Facebook page posted this link to a plea to revive sour cherries, the garnet little tart cherries that rise and fall like fortune on a single week, or maybe two if you’re lucky, in June.

I love NPR’s The Salt blog, and not just because I wrote a piece for it on Amsterdam pickles.  The blog features a collection of writers and radio producers who focus on a single, tiny connection or issue involving every aspect of food.  It’s not a paid gig, so the pieces are not overblown or forcing luxury or political hysteria on the reader.  It’s just about recovering many small stories that tie us to our daily bread.

And oh, let me tell you, author Dan Charles, I am absolutely all about the effort to revive sour cherries, one of my favorite foods.

I buy a 5-lb. bag each year, already pitted and freshly picked and already sitting it its own heavenly juice from Hentze Farm in Junction City.  I usually call for several weeks to find out when they’ll be ready.  I only have a couple of fresh sour cherries recipes on CE because, quite frankly, I drink the juice raw like a heathen and brandy the cherries to use throughout the year in desserts. I also dry the cherries after they’ve been brandied, and use them like raisins or dried cranberries.

One of the best uses for fresh sour cherries, without question, is a cold Hungarian sour cherry soup.

I use the brandied cherries in cocktails and desserts, folding them in to batters of cakes, most recently the Burmese coconut semolina cake featured in Naomi Duguid’s brilliant cookbook.  Not remotely authentic, but especially good when bathed in homemade crème fraîche, as above.

An important note about the pollination issue mentioned in the article — it’s another reminder that it is key to reintroduce genetic diversity into our food crops.  The stone fruits that blossom and set fruit early in the spring are particularly vulnerable when the weather can be brutally variable.  I’ve been watching Oregon plum and cherry crops with some anxiety for years, and sometimes a late cold snap can wipe out nearly all of the fruit in one variety.  So introducing various pollinator trees and a range of sour cherries helps ensure the bees will come back during the season and catch the little blossoms on a lucky sunny day.

Ayers Creek Farm now grows ‘Balaton’ sour cherries, and I’ve seen a few other varieties around.  I tried to do my part and plant a sour cherry tree a few years ago, but my yard just isn’t the best place for fruit trees, I’m afraid, so I’ll do my duty as a consumer instead.  Eat local, eat fragile, eat rare and fleeting and challenging.

the long way home

IMG_3318I’m in Ashland on an almost sunny morning, on my way to Michigan via San Francisco for my grandmother’s funeral. I had been planning to take a road trip south to have time away from the administrative onslaught, time to think, but life seems to be relegated lately to one of those car chase video games where the ills of modern civilization — flaming tires, the bodies of fallen comrades, police cars —  keep being flung in one’s path.   All we can do is swerve.

I have to write a eulogy, and it will probably involve food, for my grandmother was without question the earliest food influence in my life (well, besides my mother and breast-feeding, I suppose).  She was the only one in my family who really wanted to talk to me about cooking.  What are you making, she’d ask, and always listen eagerly as if I were a cooking show.  She bought me a wok for my wedding.  I don’t even think she knew what a wok was.  Our last conversation involved an oven and baking, my neighbor baking.  What’s baking, she asked.  And then I knew she was gone.

I think: I’m kind of too sad to write right now, though.  Then I think: if you can afford to be too sad right now to write, you should count your blessings and get to work, missy.  Chop chop.  Do you have to raise five kids?  Do you have to get up at the crack of dawn and go work at some shitty factory job?  Do you live in Detroit?  There are people who are too sad and there are people who just get it done. Something about the devil and idle hands, right?  Idol hands.  Chop chop.

I remember Polish rye bread and real butter.  Frozen strawberries.  Coconuts.  I begged for coconuts.  And, starved for carbs, we ate Liv-a-Snaps meant for the dog.  They were in the drawer with the paddle, the menacing paddle with pictures of naughty children on it.  I don’t think it was ever used, it was just a Foucauldian symbol, and an ineffective one if we saw it and still ate the dog biscuits.  Whole milk. Radish flowers. And always kielbasa, yards and yards of it.  My intestines are made of kielbasa.  Funny that I don’t remember many casual meals with her.  I think we ate lots of soup: either chicken or vegetable beef.  She accidentally burned me with a soup pot when I was very young and underfoot.  My first kitchen lesson, my initiation scar.  Oh yes, and fried bologna sandwiches and hard salami.  I still love hard salami.  And the cookies she spirited away from the Polish bakery.  Almondy sugar cookies in vague shapes and pointless powdery chrusciki, angel wings.

So here’s what I’ve got so far:

Leokadya “Lillian” Ann Kuznicki Mendrek, 1924-2013. A formidable presence, caretaker, cook, comedian, beloved mother of five, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of five. She’d take care of any baby anywhere, playing a major role raising me and my siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. She sang in the kitchen and gave us butter and made lists for Grampa and mobilized the forces. And she never let rules stand in her way, hiding a few kids to convince the anti-Catholic real estate agent the family would fit perfectly into the new suburban development in Inkster; inventing plastic-wrapped diapers to minimize leaks (she had twins, no time for nonsense); baptizing my nephews in the bathtub herself so they wouldn’t linger in purgatory; pretending at reunions that she had attended high school and not worked in the factory across the street from St. Francis in Detroit. God only punished her when she smuggled the baked chicken from Sweden House in her purse for Uncle Dennis. A long life filled with love. We’ll miss you, Nanny.

duck, duck, goose, ice cream PARTY: food for thought today

IMG_3276Don’t forget to party with Boris and me today at noon on Food for Thought. We’ll be chatting with James Beard Award-winning author and wild foods expert Hank Shaw, who will discuss his new cookbook, Duck, Duck, Goose, morel season, and fishing in Depoe Bay.  And we’ll hear all the news downtown from Chief Churners Stuart and Emily Phillips from Red Wagon Creamery and Chef Mark Kosmicki from Party Downtown.

Coming your way fast and furious: Food for Thought on KLCC Sunday at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations all across Oregon, or live on the web.

fermented mustard greens

IMG_3278

To prepare for my fermentation class on Saturday, I’ve been experimenting with fermented vegetables in small batches.  We’re making sauerkraut and red and white kimchi, and tasting a range of wonderful ferments, including fermented mustard greens.

Although “Sichuan pickled vegetable” and “preserved mustard greens” (among other names) are widely available in Asian markets, I wanted to make my own using my garden-grown fresh mustard greens.  My greens lack the fleshy stem of the Chinese mustard green called jie cai (芥菜) in Mandarin or gai choy in Cantonese, but they are still tasty and very flexible.  They have a nice slight bitterness and spicy flavor, a great foil for bland noodles, white fish, pork belly or other fatty pork, and soups.

I’ve also used this recipe for fermented green beans for the wonderful Sichuan dish chopped sour beans with pork.  I don’t care for the ginger and other spices when used with green or long beans, so I just use salt and a little sugar.  I successfully froze slightly sour beans in their brine last summer and used them in stirfry dishes this winter.  Much better than the weird spongy flavor of frozen chopped green beans.

Note: I adapted this recipe very loosely from Fuchsia Dunlop’s pickled vegetable recipe, which appears in various forms in her Sichuan and Hunan cookbooks. Dunlop calls for rice wine or vodka in her original recipe.  As this would inhibit the fermentation process, I’ve removed it.

Sichuan Fermented Mustard Greens

  • 2 large bunches mustard greens
  • 1/4 cup coarse sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 3-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger
  • 3-4 dried chiles (Facing Heaven variety, if you have them)
  • 1/2 star anise
  • 1/3 cinnamon stick
  • a tablespoon or two of live-culture sauerkraut (not processed) or fermented hot pepper juice or whey (optional, to speed fermentation)
  • a half-gallon or larger jar, two ziplock-style bags, and a piece of cheesecloth large enough to cover jar

Bring two cups of water, salt, and sugar to a boil; let salt dissolve and set aside to cool a bit.

Slice mustard greens into three or four big chunks.  Do not chop too finely or they will be harder to handle.

In a sterilized half-gallon sized (or larger) jar, add the chiles, star anise, cinnamon stick, and optional fermentation “starter” of sauerkraut or pepper juice or whey.  (Make sure this juice is from live-culture products with lacto-bacilli to inoculate the mixture or else it won’t work.) Then pack mustard greens into the jar, pressing down tightly.

Pour one cup of brine over the mustard greens, and the rest into a ziplock-style bag.  Place one bag into another bag and close both securely to ensure the brine won’t leak.  Use the bag as a weight in the jar to submerge the greens under the water.  If there isn’t enough brine to cover the greens, pour some of the brine in the bag into the jar.  You can use other methods (like a bowl or jar filled with water or river rock) as a weight, as well.

Cover jar with cheesecloth and let sit at room temperature for 3-7 days, testing daily after three days for your desired levels of sourness.  Skim any white film off the top of the water and remove green bits that have molded on top.

For storage, cover the jar with an airtight lid and refrigerate.  The quality will improve after another week or so in refrigeration, but will start to deteriorate after a month.

Before serving, chop into small pieces.  Great in soups, pork stir-fries, dumplings, fried rice, noodles, etc.

chile weather 2013

IMG_2980I don’t think I’ve ever planted cucumbers and peppers on the same day before, but call me behind the times and ahead of my time.

This year, I’m going loco and concentrating on Mexican chile varietals to play with molé. That’s me eating enchiladas molé at a restaurant in Las Vegas with some modernist studies colleagues, above.

I also bought a couple of Facing Heavens, the Sichuan chile that I use dried and fermented and chopped into a sauce.  Jeff’s Garden of Eaton has several hundred varieties of tomatoes and hot and sweet peppers, including many rare ones, so it’s always fun to go out River Road to look and pick up a few for $2 a plant.  They’re getting tall already, so you’ll want to go soon.

I am switching beds this year, so am hoping the peppers will be happy.  They grow remarkably well in the hottest, driest spot in the garden.

Here’s my lineup (clockwise from East end). What is yours?

  • Facing Heaven
  • Chiltepec
  • Sweet Pickle
  • Pimiento de Padron
  • Chile de Agua (tell your Mexican friends about this Oaxacan pepper, very rare)
  • Pasilla de Oaxaca
  • Mulato
  • Chilhuacle Negro
  • Costeno Amarillo
  • Another Facing Heaven