caramelized gooey local syrup with windfall fruit

IMG_9581Do you remember that odd bag of pancakes in my freezer?  Well, I lived the freezer packrat dream for one glorious moment when I used them to test a new recipe.  Yet another from the oeuvre of Linda Ziedrich, whose work I rely on time and time again to inspire great Oregon canning recipes, the inspiration was sirop de Liège.  It’s a long-cooked, caramelized, thick, dark sludge made traditionally mostly of pears, with a little apple thrown in for good measure and pectin, traditionally eaten with cheese like membrillo.

Eugeniuses may find the Belgian city of Liège familiar, as it’s home not only to my syrup but also the waffles made locally famous by Off the Waffle.

What I love about the syrup is that it uses great quantities of fruit, perfect for those of us with pome trees or neighbors who want to get rid of pears, Asian pears, and apples.  You can make the syrup two ways: deliciously burnt-sugar dark sludge, or light peach-colored pourable butterscotch.  Since we don’t have our own source of maple syrup in Eugene, I thought it might be a good addition to those seeking local pancake enhancers.

Pear and Apple Syrup, Two Ways

Use a 6:1 ratio for weight of pears and/or Asian pears to apples.   Cut the fruit into quarters, leaving the peels and cores on, and cook it down on medium low until it liquifies.

Once the fruit releases lots of juice, carefully remove the fruit and strain the liquid into a large bowl. (You’re after the juice, not the fruit, so save your fruit to make applesauce with a food mill.) Press the fruit in the sieve to get as much liquid out of it as you can, then add the liquid to a clean pot.

Cook down the liquid on low heat for a few hours. After an hour or so, it should be the consistency of maple syrup with a slippery mouthfeel and a slightly caramelized color and buttery taste. Perfect for pancakes.  Stop here if you want to be able to pour it.

If you want a darker, richer, slightly bitter caramelized flavor (and more traditional version), cook for longer, being sure to watch as it gets thicker and more liable to burn.

The yield will be minimal for the fruit: warning.  Using 6 lbs. of Asian pears and 1 lb. of apples will yield about a pint if thin and as little as a 1/2 pint if thick.  As I said, it’s great if you have tons of fruit.  Not so great if you are buying at premium prices.

Variation: I recently came into a bunch of Asian pears, and thought I’d give it a whirl with a few apples and a handful of cranberries to make the color pretty (above).  The cranberries release some ruby redness and better yet, stay intact in the light syrup, so they become candied and really wonderful.

 

red fruit summer pudding

IMG_7840A perfect, perfect dessert for summer gatherings in Oregon, this lovely, solid, old-fashioned British chilled pudding is laden with sweetened berry and cherry juice.  I use red currants, raspberries, and tayberries from the garden, plus a glut of sour cherries and a good slosh of homemade cranberry liqueur.  Life is good.

It’s fine to use dark berries, but I like the study in red.  In fact, this recipe is based on one for blackberries that I wrote for the Register-Guard a number of years ago, since disappeared (see purple pic below).

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Also nice: you can take the crusts and layer them in a small bowl, then use any remaining berry compote to make a red fruit summer pudding for a solo breakfast, comme ça:

IMG_7837Just press and chill just like the big pudding.

This dessert is a show stopper and should be made for an otherwise humdrum potluck at least once a year in July, when the sour cherries are ripe.  If you are fortunate enough to have access to endless flats of berries, like we are in the Willamette Valley, it’s not terrifically expensive, just a small luxury, but the costs may be prohibitive elsewhere. Sorry!  :)  You could use frozen and thawed fruit, but it’s not really the same.

Red Fruit Summer Pudding

Serves 8-10.

The proportions in this recipe are for an 8-inch glass mixing bowl. Use glass to see how well the juice has soaked into the bread.  You may use a 1-1/2-quart soufflé dish or large glass loaf pan, but there may be fruit left over. Frozen fruit may be used for this recipe, and it actually helps if the raspberries are frozen so they’ll release more juice. Plan for an overnight refrigeration.

  • 6 cups raspberries, preferably pre-frozen
  • 6 cups fresh, pitted sour cherries with juice
  • 2 cups red currants, gooseberries, or a mix of both
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon red fruit liqueur or a little kirsch
  • 1 loaf firm, high-quality white bread (I’ve used Market of Choice’s crumpet bread with good results; don’t use sourdough)
  • extra berries for garnish
  • whipped cream for serving

In a stockpot, bring the 14 cups of berries and sugar up to a simmer. Cook until the sugar is melted and the berries release their juices, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add the kirsch.

Remove the crusts from the bread and slice it into 1/2-inch slices if you are not using pre-sliced bread.

Line bowl with plastic wrap to ease the removal of the pudding. Use enough wrap to let it hang over the sides for folding over the top when you finish.

Place the slices of bread around the bottom and side of the bowl, overlapping the slices slightly and cutting pieces to fit the holes where necessary.

Set aside and refrigerate one cup of berries with juice for the final presentation.

Working slowly, ladle 3-4 cups of berries and juice over the bread, pressing juice and pulp into the bread on the sides of the bowl as well as the bottom. Pour half of the berries into the bread-lined pan, and spread them over the bottom layer of bread to cover the entire surface.

Add another layer of bread on top of the berry and bread layer, placing and cutting pieces as before. Spread out about half the remaining berries on the sides and bottom of the layer of bread.

Cover with a final layer of bread, and add the remaining berries and juice.

Fold the plastic wrap over the bread on top. Before placing in the refrigerator, find a plate or other flat surface to fit on top of the pudding, inside the bowl. Weigh down the plate with a large can of tomatoes or large bag of beans. Refrigerate overnight.

Before serving, unfold the plastic wrap and use it to help invert the pudding onto a large serving plate. Remove the bowl and the plastic wrap. You may see spots that are not fully stained with juice. Use the reserved juice to color in these spots, and pour the rest on the sides of the pudding. Garnish with extra fresh berries.  Cut into slices and serve with whipped cream.

juicyberry pie: recipe for all juicy berries

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Since my haskapberries went bonkers this year, I thought I’d turn some into pie.  The texture of these berries, which look like elongated blueberries and taste like a combination of tart boysenberry and wine grapes, is soft and juicier than blueberries.

Haskapberries!  I think I finally picked the last of them yesterday.  Not bad for a crop that ripened in the third week of May this year.  The berries sweetened and softened on the bushes, too, making even the annoyingly clingiest bush easy to pick.

IMG_7529This recipe is an adaptation of my blackberry pie recipe, but it works for haskaps and all juicy berries, really.  The main idea is to showcase the raw berry flavor and texture, but hold together the filling with a “paste” of cooked berries with a little thickener added.

Why am I so convinced this is the way to go?  Ah yes, my juice factory with the last haskapberry pie I made:

IMG_7666Tasted great; bled like a stuck pig.  So yeah, trust in me…I fail for you!

Plan ahead: the pie crust, the berry sauce, and the finished pie all need to be chilled before serving.  You’ll also need to buy some Clear Jel, a modified food starch that doesn’t break down after time, like corn starch does; you might substitute corn starch for less satisfactory results.

IMG_7664Juicyberry Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie.

  • 5-6 cups fresh haskapberries, blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, or any juicy berry
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons Clear Jel
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 prebaked and cooled pie shell (see recipe below)

The day before or several hours before you assemble the pie: prebake and cool a 9-inch pie crust.

In a small saucepan, combine 2 cups of berries and water. Mash berries well. Heat until boiling on medium high heat. In a small bowl, mix Clear Gel and sugar. When berries are boiling, add sugar mixture to berries, stirring constantly for one minute to set the starch and thicken the juice. When thick, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.  Don’t omit the cooling process.

(Whoa!!  A note from our sponsor about blueberries:  You might want to add the fresh blueberries to the hot slurry mix instead of waiting for it to cool down so they soften a bit.  Your goal is to have a fresh tasting pie, not cooked, but blueberries benefit from a little taming.)

Pour cooled sauce over top of rest of fresh berries in a large bowl.  Stir gently to combine with sauce, trying not to break berries. Chill well, at least an hour before serving.

Slice with sharp knife and use pie server to aid transfer of servings, as the pie will be looser than pies made with cooked fruit. Top with whipped or ice cream.

Prebaked Pie Crust

1/4 cup cold water with ice cubes in it
3/4 teaspoon vinegar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I’ve tried soft pastry flour and white whole wheat; it never works as well as just plain ol’ flour)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
9 Tbsp. (4 ½ oz.) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

About 30 minutes before you plan to make the crust, throw butter and a bowl of iced water in the freezer.

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Pulse a few times to blend, then  add the chilled butter.  Pulse until it looks like a coarse meal (the old way is to say ‘alligator’ six times) and the butter is in tiny pieces but still very visible.  Measure out 1/4 cup of water from your chilled bowl of ice water, then add the vinegar to the water.  Slowly add the water-vinegar mixture to the flour meal, pulsing until the dough starts to come together.  You want it to be right on the borderline between crumbly and a clump of dough.  You may need to add a tiny bit more water.

Gather the dough and mound it on a clean surface.  Now here’s the fun part.  Take egg-sized bits and press down with the heel of your hand, “smearing” the butter and flour together.  Then shape all the dough into a disk about 1 ½ inches thick, wrap the dough in plastic wrap, refrigerate it for a few hours to two days.

When you are ready to roll, take the dough out to soften for 15-30 minutes (you want it cold but pliable, and not sticky).

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a circle with the diameter of about 11 inches. As you roll from the center outward, turn the dough so you ensure it doesn’t stick.  Add flour to the surface and your pin as needed. Transfer the dough gently into your pie dish, and press it to shape.

Trim any dough to about an inch larger than the dish edge, then fold the dough under, pinch all along the top, and prick dough with a fork all over, including the sides. Place the pie crust in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Bake the empty pie shell (this is called blindbaking, and helps combat sogginess) for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown, on the lower third of the oven.

Cool the pie shell to room temperature before adding filling.

 

as american as roman honey pickled cherries with savory

IMG_3581Looking for a new locavore cherry recipe in anticipation of the sour cherry crop now ready to go in the Eugene area?  Go no farther than ancient Rome.

A fellow participant in the Cult of Pre-Pasteurian Preservation and Food Preparation Facebook group page, Justin Mansfield, wrote that one of his favorite Roman preservation recipes is this one, a pickled cherry concoction using honey, red wine vinegar, and savory. He provides some details for Classics geeks and historical recreators:

Since there’s some interest, here’s the original recipe, from the 10th century Roman agricultural collection Geoponica (Farm Work) 10.42: Περὶ διαμονῆς κερασίων· Τοῦ Αὐτοῦ. Κεράσια ἀφαιρεθέντα τοῦ δένδρου πρὸ ἀνατολῶν ἡλίου, καὶ εἰς σκεῦος ἐμβεβλημένα, προϋποβληθείσης εἰς τὸν πυθμένα θρύμβης, εἶτα κερασίων, καὶ πάλιν θρύμβης, καὶ ὀξυμέλιτος γλυκέος ἐπιβαλλομένου φυλάττεται· καὶ εἰς καλάμους δὲ ὡσαύτως φυλάττεται.On the preservation of cherries, by same {i.e. this recipe is excerpted from Florentius, a lost author of the Imperial era}. Cherries that are picked from the tree before sunrise and put into a container, with savory first strewn over the bottom, then cherries, then once again savory, and sweet oxymel added on top, will keep. They’ll also keep the same way with rushes.

The species referenced are probably Prunus cerasus, and Satureja thymbra respectively. (No idea what kind of rush is referred to here… the name refers to several species. Dalby also points out that it’s unclear if the meaning is “laid out on rush mats” or “with rush-leaves used in place of savory.”)

He also notes that other sources indicate the honey:vinegar ratio should be between 6-8:1 parts by volume, not weight.  I opted for less sweet, and may just regret it, since I chose a very full-flavor, acidic Italian cabernet vinegar.

The cherries should be sour pie cherries, not sweet ones (but I’m willing to look the other way if you can’t get sour).  The recipe reads as if the Romans didn’t pit the cherries, but you may opt to do so.  I usually buy my sour cherries at Hentze Farm in Junction City, already bagged and pitted because I’m so lazy.  Pros: no sticky pitting on a hot day; easier to eat final product; and you get a quart or so of the most glorious juice in the world.  Cons: not nearly as pretty as intact cherries; you’ll need to pick through the cherries for bruised ones, as the machine handles them roughly; and you don’t get the nice almond flavor from the pits when pickling them.  In either case, you must use sour cherries almost immediately or freeze them, as they are exceedingly fragile.

Romans didn’t cook with sugar; honey was a basic sweetener.  For locavores, you already likely rely heavily on honey and even might have a hive or two to help mitigate the bee crisis.  As for me, I made this recipe with a wild star thistle honey I bought on the road in California, since it seems vaguely Mediterranean and has the scent of almonds from nearby groves (or so I fantasize).  But if you’re in the market, there’s some local thistle honey that’s being sold at Sundance, distributed with other wonderful varieties like pennyroyal, snowberry, meadowfoam, buckwheat, and coriander. (The coriander is grown in fields north of Eugene, Hummingbird Wholesale tells me, and the pennyroyal tastes a little like mint.)  Also in honey news, I hope you caught the interview with new Eugenius and prolific cookbook author Marie Simmons on Food for Thought on KLCC last weekend.  She has just published a book on honey, with history and recipes.  Marie was our last interview before our summer hiatus, so check out the archive if you missed it and you miss us! :-)

Anyway, the Roman pickled cherry recipe is wonderful with homemade duck rillettes, which I had for breakfast in a moment of sheer decadence.  Life’s too short for Cheerios.  As Epicurus would have said, had he known the phrase, carpe diem!  The savory brings out a, well, savory quality of the cherries.

Honey Pickled Cherries with Savory

Makes one quart.

  • 4 cups sour cherries, either pitted or not
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/8 cup wine vinegar
  • 12 two-inch sprigs of savory (either winter or summer; I used winter, which is stronger)

Wash and sterilize a quart jar.  If you are using fresh sour cherries, rinse and sort out the bad ones.  If you are using pitted cherries, strain cherries and sort for badly bruised ones.  Reserve the juice unless you are completely nuts.  Pour yourself a shot of pure sour cherry nectar and knock it back.  Ah, there.  OK, now proceed.

Heat the honey and wine vinegar in a medium saucepan, then take off heat and let the cherries soak in the mixture for a few minutes.

Rinse savory.  Place 3-4 sprigs at the bottom of the jar, then add another layer in the middle, then add some on top to help keep the cherries immersed in the liquid.

Using a jar funnel, carefully ladle the cherries into your jar, pressing down gently to fill gaps, and adding savory in the middle and on top.  Fill with 2 inches head space.  You may have more cherries than necessary; if so, enjoy over ice cream with more honey.  If there is not enough liquid, either add back the juice you removed or press down a little harder on whole cherries to encourage them to exude juice.

Place on a plate, and cover jar with cheesecloth.  If you used unpitted cherries, it is especially important that you have enough overflow capacity. Let sit on counter for 48 hours minimum.  At this point, taste and decide if you want to ferment longer for a fizzier, deeper, sweet-sour flavor, or otherwise refrigerate.  Pitted cherries will ferment faster.

Enjoy as a condiment with any roast meat or sausage, as a special side on a cheese plate, or, as I just did, with duck rillettes.

a world of possibilities for stuffed cabbage rolls, fermented!

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Polish stuffed cabbage (golabki, or little pigeons, pronounced, basically, Guh-WUMP-kee) was never a favorite of mine growing up.  I don’t particularly like the mixture of ground beef, rice, and sweet tomato sauce — often ketchup — in the funky steamed cabbage that forms the roll.  It is rarely seasoned properly, so it lacks salt and flavor, and with its yellow-grey leaves and smear of orange sauce is just about the ugliest thing to emerge from a pot ever.  And the name is vaguely horrifying.

But, I reasoned, if a dish has survived generations across an entire continent, it should have a good reason to continue.  I do like meatballs, and I do like cabbage, and I do like the Greek dolma stuffed grape leaf filling with lemon.  I’d try to pull together a tomato-free version of the classic stuffed cabbage recipe, something that improved the taste and the look as much as possible.

Turns out I can’t stop eating them now.  They’re surprisingly light and flavorful, and would make a great new year meal.

The beauty of stuffed cabbage is the variety of possibilities.  If you can break away from your Eastern European traditions, or look more deeply into them, you’ll see that stuffed cabbage has as many flavors as Eastern Europe had geopolitical borders.  And the little pigeons graciously subjugate themselves to our new emphasis on local and whole grains, too.

The basic recipe is 1 cup of rice, 1 lb. of ground beef, and an egg, with seasonings.  Instead of a boring swap to brown rice, we could start with kasha or buckwheat groats (or cracked grains), a traditional substitute for rice golabki.  Quinoa or couscous would be similarly mushy and appropriate. And if we go there, we could easily move over to wheatberries or rye berries or frikeh or fregola sarda for a less firm stuffing, but still very delicious.

We used black “forbidden” rice, then swapped out the ground beef for some ground veal and pork sausage I had languishing in the freezer.  The pork sausage added a moistness and flavor from within.

From without, well, I had the brilliant…I’m going to go there, BRILLIANT…stroke of BRILLIANCE to use whole leaves of fall cabbage that I had fermented sauerkraut-style a few months back.  These sauerkraut bombs I nestled in between rolls wrapped more conservatively with savoy cabbage, a light variation on the more traditional round cabbage leaf wrappings.  When cooked in chicken broth instead of tomato sauce, it make for a tangy and delicious stuffed cabbage.  Don’t have whole cabbage leaf sauerkraut?  Just use regular sauerkraut, mixing some in with your filling and adding a layer or two in the cooking pot for more flavor.

If you’re meat-free, I suggest using any number of fillings to substitute for the meat.  It’s perfectly traditional to use farmer cheese or potatoes or mushrooms with your rice/kasha (try this Jewish version with mushrooms, kasha, and a cream sauce). And why not lentils and chopped walnuts and carrots?  Kohlrabi!  Leeks!  Parsnips?  If you’re afraid of the filling not holding together, just add another egg.  I also suggest bread crumbs to help on that score.

The decadent can skip the grains altogether. Chopped pork shoulder is divine.  How about a traditional tamale stuffing of shredded pork or beef, almonds, and raisins?  And think about it: do you like stuffed peppers?  Same filling, so why not make an inverted stuffed pepper, and put the peppers inside the cabbage rolls?  Chef Tiffany Norton at PartyCart even uses pickled ginger for her forcemeat.  Why can’t you?

Yes, the world is your cabbage.  You can stuff it with anything.

EDITED TO ADD:  More ideas from the Queen of Preservation, Linda Ziedrich!

EDITED AGAIN TO ADD:  A vegetarian Polish option from a reader, Linda Peterson Adams.  Thanks, Linda!  “Parboil the cabbage to remove leaves. [Mix] 2 cups cooked dry rice, pearl barley or buckwheat groats, a few tablespoons soaked and chopped fine porcini mushrooms, salt and pepper. Stuff rolls with this mix. Put a layer of leaves in a dutch oven, and add 2 cups fermented rye liquid or stock with the mushroom soaking liquid. Dot with butter. Cover and simmer until tender, about an hour. Thicken leftover liquid with beurre manie. You can also add sour cream at the end. You can also use sauerkraut to nestle the birds in in cooking.

Tangy Stuffed Cabbage Master Recipe

  • 1 large head savoy cabbage
  • 1 cup cooked grains (try short-grain rice, black rice, kasha, quinoa)
  • 1 lb. ground meat (try a combination of beef, veal, pork, pork sausage, etc.) or 2 cups farmer cheese or sauteed wild/button mushrooms
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs IF you are using the vegetarian fillings only
  • 1 large egg
  • 2-4 cups sauerkraut, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • paprika to taste (optional)
  • 2 cups chicken broth

Cook the rice or other grains as necessary and cool.

Prepare the cabbage leaves.  Heat a pot large enough to submerge whole cabbage leaves with enough water to blanch the leaves.  Carefully remove the core and outer leaves, keeping the whole cabbage intact.  Peel off the layers of leaves without tearing if possible, and rinse thoroughly.  Reserve the inner, smaller leaves for the bottom of the pot.

Trim the thick bottom vein of each leaf by either cutting it out or shaving off layers until it is almost as thin as the surrounding leaf.  (If you do not do this, it will make rolling harder.)

When the water comes to a boil, blanch the prepared leaves for about 30-45 seconds, or until pliable and easy to roll.  Note: plain cabbage should be blanched longer, about 2 minutes; if you are using whole-leaf sauerkraut instead of savoy cabbage, just rinse the leaves, don’t blanch them.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and place the smallest leaves in the bottom of a dutch oven or similar large pot with a lid.

Mix up the filling.  Add the cooled, cooked grains, the meat/cheese/mushrooms, a large egg, and a cup of the sauerkraut (eliminate sauerkraut if you are using whole leaf sauerkraut as a wrapping, add breadcrumbs for structure if you are using the vegetarian fillings).  Drop a bit of the filling into the steaming water or the microwave for a few seconds, so it will cook enough so you can taste for seasonings.  Adjust seasonings with salt, pepper, and paprika.

Roll the cabbage rolls by placing about 2 tablespoons full of filling at the thick end of the leaf, folding the end over the filling, then folding the two sides over the filling, then rolling up to the end tightly.  Place seam side down into a dutch oven.  Repeat for all rolls.  If there is filling left, roll it into a meatball and nestle it among the rolls.  Nestle the rest of the sauerkraut between rolls and between layers.

Add chicken stock, cover, and cook for about 2 hours, or until the filling is firm and most of the stock is soaked up into the cabbage rolls.  Better the next day.

Serves 4-6.

berried in berries: recipe index for the black and red

In Eugene we take our berries so seriously, we even turn them into wallpaper. This vintage stuff graces the hall of my friend’s new fabulous old farmhouse, and it’s soon to be modernized, made redundant, given the old heave-ho, disappeared.  I love the detail of the black and raspberries in the print, but even I can’t deny it’s a tad dated to have blackberries crawling all over your sunroom, and, well, to have wallpaper in general.

So in honor of blackberries and new old homes, and everything delicious under the sun, I bring you a list of all of my berry recipes (with a few cherry recipes thrown in for good measure).  They’re mostly for preserving, but I include the best pie recipe ever, and my mixed berry summer pudding, a recipe I’ve already made this July, even though I can barely reach as high as the countertop.  It’s that good.

run, run, as fast as you can; you can’t catch the strawberry shortcake man

Gruel in action, snack after the Spring Classic duathlon in Portland.  After three legs of running, biking, and running again, Retrogrouch finished in the middle of the pack for his age group.  Not too shabby for a first timer!  Even more amazing, given that he’s only been running for a year or so. Check out that calf!

The leather saddle stands alone.

I had to capture the post-race eats, of course, which Retrogrouch calls “sugary crap.”  He had a point.

I had escaped the sun (!) to sit under the tent and read my book on anorexia in literature.  Naturally, I was distracted by the candy strewn about on all the tables.  This horrible blond woman, whose aggressive, hypermasculine husband was one of the early finishers, walked into my shot.  I said, brightly, oh, I’m so glad you’re here so I can include your strawberry shortcake in my photo!  She shrank away, so as not to associate herself with the dessert, saying “you want to take a PICTURE of that?”

Well, yes.  They serve candy, big hunks of honey-wheatish bread, HFCS peanut butter and jelly, cookies, whipped cream, shortcake, and Genuine Muscle Milk (“contains no milk”) as a reward for exercise.  I think that’s worth documenting and pondering.  What does it mean that we’re encouraged to eat foods we otherwise demonize as a reward for socially acceptable behavior?

Evolve?  I’m pretty sure I’d rather be primordial.  No offense.

They did have a form of gruel for people like Retrogrouch, though, steelcut oats with craisins.  He partook in this delight after finishing his own gruel.

Suffice it to say that I opted instead for a big, delicious bowl of bun bo hue at Pho Dalat down the street from the race venue. “Dingy like an old Denny’s,” a Yelp review accurately notes, but excellent and unusual spicy beef pho with brisket, tendon, and thin slices of pig’s blood cake in a pork broth, with accompaniments of Thai basil, cilantro, lime, jalapeno, bean sprouts, and shredded cabbage.

Beautiful, sunny Sunday in a great city.  Happy Easter from Portland!

please, sir, i want some more: whole-grain morning gruel

Living with 100 lbs. less of a husband, and a newly minted marathoner yet (training for his first full one), causes some food clashes in a house formerly dominated by the taste principle of cooking.  Alas. But even with my weak willpower and distaste for nutritionism in American food rhetoric, I had to admit that my 20-year habit of eating a big white bagel in the morning was Not Good.  I would often start to crash and need a small snack around 10:30 a.m., and then turn into a raging bi…g white bagel if I didn’t have lunch by 1 p.m.  I had tried many times to change and found myself crashing even harder with cold cereal or oatmeal.  Adding cream cheese or butter to toast didn’t seem to help, either, and I found anything heavy and savory, like eggs, revolting in the morning.

I’ve really come around on the eggs issue, though, and after my strict debagelization training regime with Retrogrouch, I now usually can eat a fried egg with a piece of thin pumpernickel German toast in the morning, as long as it’s not first thing.

But he’s taken, lately, to making an overnight porridge with whole grains, not the chopped or rolled version you see in packaged grain porridge.  I took to calling it gruel as a joke because of its austerity, but it’s anything but thin and watery. [Edited to add: he has switched over to the crock pot, thank god.  It affects the texture and makes it slightly more gluey, but it’s still good.]

The gruel usually features oat groats that we get locally from Camas Country Mill.  He’s also done it with ryeberries from Open Oak Farm, also local, and occasionally with Open Oak’s wonderful purple barley, which we’ve been eating quite a bit of since he’s returned from his leave in Seattle.  What these grains share in common is that they are not processed at all but left whole and un-pearled or rolled, processes that break down the groat so it is more easily digestible, but removes some of the nutrients.

Retrogrouch makes his gruel even more healthy with the addition of flax meal, which may not be to everyone’s taste.  Whole grains lack the starchy quality of those that have been pre-digested.  I find flaxmeal tastes like mealy wheat germ, and the texture is difficult for me, but it does add some “stick to your ribs” quality that using whole grains lacks.  He also adds whole flax seeds and chia seeds, the latter currently trending in pop nutrition circles, which add crunch and a pleasant slipperiness.  He adds no sugar or salt, but I think it would benefit from a pinch of salt.

It’s critical to note that the gruel cooks very, very slowly for about 12 hours.  He claims it is better than the version he’s tried at half the time, because the grains finally break down and yield a creaminess (see above).  However, at 12 hours, I constantly worry about him burning the bottom of the pot.  So far there have been no casualties.

He likes to add frozen thawed blueberries and walnuts as a topping in the morning and eat gruel as a snack throughout the day.  I, being my own weak self, prefer cream and brandied apricots with a little vanilla powder, and can’t fathom eating it more than once every few days.  But surely there’s a happy medium.  And it’s really quite good.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t go back to regular oatmeal (or god forbid a bagel) after trying it.

[ETA:  You can find oat groats in the bulk section of better supermarkets, including Market of Choice.  Retrogrouch also wants me to explain that he uses oat groats not merely because he likes the flavor, but they have more protein than other grains. Chia seeds add protein and fiber; chia and flax also are high in Omega-3 fatty acids]

Do you like this kind of information/post?  Let me know in the comments.  I don’t want to turn this into a health food blog, but if you like Retrogrouch’s very different approach, I’m happy to include more from him.

Whole-Grain Gruel

  • 1 cup oat groats (best from Camas Country Mill)
  • 4 tablespoons Chia Seed
  • 2 tablespoons flax seed
  • 2 tablespoons flax seed meal
  • 4.5 cups water

No need to presoak the grains.  Bring all ingredients to a boil, stirring frequently to incorporate the meal and to break up the chia seeds, which tend to clump. Lower temperature to the lowest setting (we use our gas stove’s simmer burner) and heat gently for 12 hours.  If you have an electric stove, you may want to use a crockpot instead.  Once you have the technique and your own stove’s capacity down, just stir every couple of hours, but you might want to be more vigilant to make sure nothing is burning on the bottom of the pan.  Be particularly careful in beginning of the cooking process because the flax meal goes to bottom and may stick.

For cooking in the crock pot, just add all ingredients and cook on high for the first couple of hours, stirring every hour or two to integrate the water that rises to the top and scrape the sides, which cook more rapidly. Turn to low for 3-4 more hours to finish cooking.  Won’t be hurt if it gently cooks overnight.

Makes about 4-5 cups of gruel.  Can be refrigerated for several days.

oxtail and colcannon: luck o’ the irish

Edited to add:  Want to hear me discuss this dish on the radio?  Listen in to today’s Food for Thought on KLCC program by downloading the archived show here.

Warning: gruesome tail image below. Vegetarians avert your eyes.  No, really.  I’m not joking.

I’ve been doing so little cooking lately that I consider my kitchen time sacred.  I miss playing with my food.  Our freezer is still 3/4 full of the 1/4 grass-fed cow we bought from a local farmer last fall, thanks to my crushing schedule and my husband’s sudden decision not to eat much meat anymore after the order was made.

St. Patrick’s Day seemed like the perfect time to change all that.  I had a package of oxtails, so thought I’d make a traditional Irish oxtail braise.  Oxtails used to be a cheap cut of meat — a leftover part for the poor.  But now that the wealthy have figured out that it’s rich and delicious, you see it on chi-chi restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic.

What better time to experiment with a wild green colcannon that wild foods expert Hank Shaw posted on his blog the other day? Colcannon is fancy mashed potatoes, usually made with spring onions and kale or cabbage, that the Irish serve with a pat of melty butter.  Hank brilliantly realized this humble side dish would be enhanced with wild greens like cow parsnip or nettles.

As for me, I used the wild onions that spring up in the grass in March in Oregon, and some arugula that had gone feral in my garden.

If I were to change anything in his recipe, I’d blanch the greens first before sauteing them in butter alone, and I’d emphasize strongly that they should be chopped very finely.  No one wants a tough tongue of limp arugula in their mashed potatoes.  And I know from personal experience.

As for the oxtail, well, it’s a good thing I’m not squeamish, because they included the whole damn tail, not just the lovely meaty chunks up higher toward the business end.  (One more chance to avert your eyes)

Holy snakes, St. Pat!  And not cutting through the thing…that was just cruel.  So into the soup bone bag in my freezer the wiggler went, and the meaty part became my braise.

When making any kind of tough, collagen-rich meat braise, you really don’t need a recipe, since they’re all basically the same.  You can’t really mess up as long as you go low and slow.  Preheat the oven to 300, then cut the meat in chunks, salt and pepper it, then sear it on all sides in vegetable oil or lard (I often save bacon fat for this task), then place it in a dutch oven. While the searing pan is still hot, sweat down chopped onions, carrots, celery and parsley, then add it to the meat in the dutch oven.  Lacking a carrot and celery, I used parsnips, rutabagas, and cutting celery instead this time.)  Add liquid and a bay leaf almost to cover the meat.  I often use half red wine and half chicken stock, but beef stock is better.  Cook for several hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. During cooking, taste for salt and pepper.

When it’s ready, remove it from the stock.  You have a couple of choices, based on time.  You can strain the juices and put them in the freezer until the fat rises to the top and you can remove it.  You can scoop the fat off the top with a spoon and then strain.  But either way, you’ll want to return the juices to the pan and cook them down and taste for seasoning.  As I do this, I whisk a couple of teaspoons of flour into the reducing sauce to thicken it and add a bit more red wine to brighten up the flavors, but that’s not necessary.  All you need to do is have a lovely, concentrated sauce to go with your braise.

And that’s it!

It’s even better the next day.  I suggest turning the leftover colcannon into colcannon latkes. As James Joyce would say, contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality!

digging your own gravlax

I’ve been trying lately to include food that is high in protein in my breakfasts.  I’m always trying to have delicious noshes in my refrigerator for cocktail hour.  It was inevitable that I should run smack into gravlax.

Gravlax is the most delicious, silken, salt-cured salmon served in Scandinavia.  It’s a less salty, less aggressive, dill-tinged, slightly sweet lox, which is cold-smoked, and much more subtle than the smoked salmon you find at your local bagelry.  And it’s wonderful with PNW salmon. Definitely don’t use Atlantic salmon, which is always farmed, and tastes muddy and yucky once you’ve dipped your toes in the sweet Pacific.  Save your Chinook/King salmon for the grill; gravlax is better with the stronger flavors and leaner meat of Sockeye or Coho.

Plan ahead — you’ll need to freeze fresh salmon for 3-7 days to ensure any parasites are killed, or use commercially frozen salmon.  All the recipes I’ve seen have called for skin-on fillets, but my fishmonger suggested she skin it, so I went with that.  It was just fine, and more convenient.  Look for a fillet that’s not too thick at the center, rather more even in thickness for most of the fillet.

For us, 1-1/2 lbs. is plenty, so really think about how much you’ll be eating.  It’s better to make less more frequently, since storage alters the flavor and it’s not something that keeps for a very long time.  You can freeze it, which dries it out, or keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

My recipe is based on several sources, including the base recipe and comments in this long, comprehensive post from Cooking for Engineers.  It’s very much worth the read for debates about how long to freeze and store, whether or not to weigh down the fillet, add-ons, etymology, and parasitology.

Mark Bittman published a collection of recipes that alter the ratio of salt to sugar and feature different spices, including citrus and a Moroccan-inspired rub.  He prefers a 2:1 ratio of sugar:salt, but I like 1:1 with my limited desire for sugar.  Next time, I’ll surely opt for a traditional splash of Aquavit (or most likely Herbsaint, which I have on hand right now) with the cure.

Simple Gravlax with Dill

Serves 4-6, or more.

  • 1.5 lb. fillet of wild Pacific salmon, a less fatty variety like Sockeye or Coho, skinned
  • 3 tablespoons coarse salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons chopped dill or fennel fronds

Prepare the salmon by feeling the fillet for small pin bones; remove with tweezers.  Freeze salmon for at least 3 days to kill any parasites.

Combine salt and sugar in a small bowl.  Chop dill.

On a piece of plastic wrap or aluminum foil that is large enough to wrap the salmon, sprinkle half of the salt/sugar mixture.  Place the salmon, dark-fleshed (skin) side down, atop the mixture. Add the rest of the salt and sugar to cover the fish, and sprinkle the dill on top evenly.

Wrap the fish well in the plastic or foil, and then wrap it again in another piece of foil.  Place fish in gallon-sized Ziploc bag to reduce smells, and lay out the package on a baking sheet that fits the fillet without bending it.

Refrigerate for 48 hours, flipping over the package every 12 hours or so.

Unwrap the salmon and cut a piece off to make sure it is cured through the middle (it should be an even color).  Taste some. If it is too strong for your preparation, rinse off the cure, but you may opt to leave it on. Dry, then slice as thinly as possible on the bias.  Serve with brown bread and cream cheese, or in scrambled eggs with crème fraîche and scallions, as I did above.  Breakfast of champions.