ajvar’s late summer song

This weird summer in the Willamette Valley didn’t seem to affect the peppers as much as the tomatoes. I’m not sure why, since peppers love heat even more than tomatoes, but we had a pretty decent crop.

So…now is the time to cash in on peppers.  I do this by making the quintessential roasted red pepper spread of the Balkans: ajvar.

Ajvar is a mix of all the red peppers you can get your hands on, plus eggplant and garlic.  Sometimes, other vegetables and herbs are added.  In Eastern Europe, they use the elongated, thick-skinned pepper varieties that have a bit of heat to them.  The peppers must be completely ripe and dark red.  The peppers pictured above are what we see most frequently in the Eugene farmers’ markets — choose the conical ones pictured in the upper left corner for most Balkanesque results.  They’re easiest to roast.

Once you’re collected all these peppers, you roast them over an open flame, and then peel them, purée them, and cook them down until the whole pot of mush is rich, heavenly, sweet and smoky spread.

Uses for ajvar are legion.  The best way, of course, is straight up, spread on warm bread and eaten with cheese.  I like to serve it with meat, as well.  I use frozen corn from earlier in the summer to make roasted red pepper and corn salsa out of it, and in the winter, I add it to vegetable soups or stews.  It’s great on pasta with a bit of cream and grilled chicken, or with mild white fish.  The top, pretty photo, is of ajvar I had in Prague this summer.  It was accompanied by freshly baked bread and three kinds of cheese (a cottage, a feta, and a very mild Havarti-like cheese).  I suspect that the brilliant ruby color of the ajvar means that it was 100% red peppers.  It actually didn’t taste that great: no garlic, and possibly cooked peppers.

The ugly picture, on the other hand, is an unspeakably delicious combination: one of Del Del Guercio’s “stubs” sausages dressed with ajvar I made last weekend.  Looks aren’t everything!  Although the bad photo makes it look even more washed out than it is, the ajvar made with eggplant purée is always a bit more pale than red peppers.  I like eggplant for the slight bitterness it adds.  I also leave in tiny bits of blackened skin and a few seeds to add that umami flavor and some texture.  And I use as many of my hot Hungarian peppers as I can collect.  This year, I planted more plants than ever…then waited for months for them to ripen.  Finally!

Note: this spread, thanks to the eggplant and its thick consistency, is not safe to can.  I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make it safe to put up, but didn’t get an answer in time for this year’s batch.  I’ll update this post if/when I hear back from the Canning Powers that Be.  It can be very safely and profitably frozen, and the spread keeps for a week or so in the refrigerator.

Enjoy, while you can, late summer’s last hurrah.

Ajvar — Red Pepper and Eggplant Spread

Makes about 2 quarts
5 lbs. perfectly ripe red peppers, mixed hot and sweet
2 medium Italian eggplants
3 -4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons white vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil for serving

Roast peppers and eggplant using either the grill or the broiler setting in your oven.  Julia Mitric provides instructions in her wonderful ajvar recipe for broiling them:

Preheat oven to broil. Halve each pepper, discarding stems and seeds. Place peppers, cut side down, on an old baking sheet or one lined with foil.

Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and score with a knife, drizzle it with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt and place it on a second baking sheet.

Place one of the oven racks roughly 3 to 4 inches below the heat; place peppers on this rack. The eggplant should sit on a lower rack.

Broil the peppers and eggplant, turning the peppers occasionally until they are well roasted on all sides, roughly 15 to 20 minutes. The eggplant may be done [ed., meaning cooked until soft] first; if so, remove it and set it aside to cool.

The other option is to grill your peppers on a BBQ grill.  I prefer this, as it adds smokiness.  Wrap the eggplants in foil after poking them a couple times with a fork, then place them on the coolest part of the grill.  Watching carefully, grill whole peppers just until the skin blisters and slightly blackens.  You just want to be able to pull the skin off, not blacken the entire pepper.  Remove peppers and place them in a bowl, then cover the bowl tightly with a plastic bag so the peppers steam and the skin loosens.

Cook the eggplant until soft, turning it often.  We find that if we cook eggplant after grilling whatever it is we’re making for dinner, leaving it to sit on the coals with the grill cover on for about 30 minutes, it gets completely soft and nicely smoky.

Allow the peppers and eggplant to cool enough to handle.  Remove the blackened skin from the peppers, then de-stem and seed the peppers.  Cut them in quarters and set aside in a bowl.

Remove the pulp from the eggplant with a spoon, carefully pulling the seed section from the flesh.  Discard seeds.

Add peppers with the accumulated juice and garlic to food processor. Pulse until the peppers are chopped into fine pieces, then add eggplant pulp and purée.  Add vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  You might also add a little sugar if the purée isn’t sweet enough.

The purée can now be eaten, or, even better, cook it down for an hour or so at a simmer, so the flavors will be more concentrated.

The flavor will improve if ajvar is allowed to sit in the refrigerator overnight.  You may freeze (in 1/2 cup or 1 cup portions) or keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

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comfy confit article in the R-G!

Check out my latest article for the Eugene Register-Guard, an exploration of making confit on a budget at home.  It features my faux-confit chicken drummettes (which are a version of the recent NYT less-fat duck confit recipe), my adaptation for chicken drumsticks of Married…with Dinner’s wonderful, authentic duck confit recipe, and a recipe for a delicious, simple salad with shredded duck confit from Brendan Mahaney of Belly. The picture above is my own frisée salad with the faux-confit chicken drums, blue cheese, hazelnuts and pickled beets.

If you get the paper version of the newspaper, please fill out the survey in the Living section to show your support for more local cooking articles!  I’d love to do regular features on food preservation, but without your support, I’m not sure that it’s understood that this is a major trend in local cooking across America. You can also take the survey online, but I don’t have the link right now.  I’ll post it later!

Yum yum!

brussels sprouts hash with suffering

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I’ve never understood the moaning and groaning about brussels sprouts; then again, I noticed that there’s always plenty left over after Thanksgiving at my house.  I love brussels sprouts, so it’s ok by me.  I usually make them in a simple braise with chicken stock and butter, then add a handful of chopped, freshly roasted chestnuts.  I’ve always found that braising is better than roasting, since it infuses flavor throughout the sprout and softens it up a bit, whereas roasting makes for a more crunchy (tho’ pleasantly browned) sprout, slicked with oil.  It just isn’t, in my opinion, a vegetable that roasts well.  The only brassica that roasts well is cauliflower, and even that doesn’t have the water content to make a wonderful roast like, say, squash or asparagus.

This year, I’m going to try something new.  Since Retrogrouch is one of the millions of Americans who don’t eat brussels sprouts, I can experiment.  I’m going to stirfry up a brussels sprouts hash with dukkha, an Egyptian nut and spice mix that features Willamette Valley hazelnuts.  Even though it sounds strange, I think the flavors will match very well with the turkey and stuffing.

Dukkha is used as a dip for breakfast, snacks, and myriad other occasions in Egypt.  It is made of coarsely chopped hazelnuts, and a mix of ground toasted sesame seeds, cumin, coriander, black pepper and salt.  It’s really lovely just with bread dipped in olive oil, but you can also use it as a crust for fish, chicken or tofu, or mix it in coleslaw or roasted vegetables.  Or mix it in some absolutely incredible (I hope) brussels sprouts, thinly sliced, and fried with a bit of argan oil, chicken stock and…bacon.  Y’all can eat the turkey.

Needless to say, it’s a fantastic use of the hazelnuts that are in season right now and at our local farms.

Dukkha is also Buddhist concept.  It describes the suffering in life that happens when you live and lust in the world.  Surely, the name is a coincidence and has nothing to do with the Middle Eastern spice that will be topping my brussels sprouts hash.  Still, I like the idea of my guests suffering through yet another Thanksgiving with me and my brussels sprouts.  Or partaking of suffering gladly, consuming dukkha like there’s no tomorrow.  Chacun à son goût.

All right, enough already.  Speaking of suffering, I’ve got to make a run to the store on this, the day before Thanksgiving, because — ugh — I think I lost my big roaster.

Everyone else can sit back, relax, maybe check out my new column in the Eugene Weekly?  I haven’t seen it yet.  And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Willamette Valley Hazelnut Dukkha Spice Mix

1/2 cup roasted Willamette Valley hazelnuts

1/2 cup white sesame seeds (taste first — they go rancid quickly)

1 t. whole black peppercorns

1 t. whole coriander

1 t. whole cumin seeds, or 1/2 t. powder

1/2 coarse sea salt

In a stainless steel pan, so you can monitor the color, toast the whole spices over medium heat until lightly colored and smelling fragrant.  Remove and set aside for grinding. Then toast the sesame seeds, watching them very carefully so they don’t burn (and they burn quickly) until golden brown.  Grind the spices in a mortar or spice grinder into coarse pieces.  Combine the salt, ground spices, sesame seeds and hazelnuts in a food processor, and chop coarsely.  Don’t overprocess, or you will get a paste.  You want the mix to be sandy with bigger chunks of hazelnuts.

liberal elite miniature reubens in phyllo cups for the win!

dscf27741We won!  Finally!  Why yes, those would be my liberal elite miniature Reubens in phyllo cups (with apologies to Sheila Lukins for using her cookbook as a backdrop).  Each leetle cup has a few strands of my homemade purple sauerkraut, chopped corned beef that I had cooked the night before, a sprinkle of caraway seeds, a dollop of Russian dressing made from mayo, dill relish, ketchup and hot sauce, and Jarlsberg grated on top.

These nibbles were my contribution to a “liberal elite” election party last night, which featured such academic-minded delicacies as BBQ beef brisket, cupcakes, flatbread and Swedish cheese in a tube (several flavors).  The cupcakes were arranged in the shape of the United States on the coffee table.  Each one had frosting initials of a state on it, and when a state turned, guests were invited to take a cupcake, spoon on either blueberry or strawberry topping, and nom nom nom.

I thought about just bringing the fixins for Reuben sandwiches, that classic of days gone by, but I felt a social obligation to step up my game.  It was, after all, about elitism, and what says elitism better than phyllo cups?

I’ve worked with phyllo for many years, but mainly just for recipes that called for layers layed flat, stuff like baklava and spanikopita (Greek spinach and feta pie) and that marvelous Moroccan dish, bstilla, which pairs chicken or quail with raisins and cinnamon.

I’ve never bothered with the fussy little appetizer cups.  But, well, I bought a mini-muffin pan yesterday, and I had the phyllo, and I thought, the country’s in for some big changes…I should take up the challenge.   Yes I can!

And I did.

The instructions I used can be found here, and are easy enough for anyone.  The little cups can be filled with anything, of course, but my Reubens can inspire a wealth of sandwich fillings:

  • miniature clubs (chopped turkey, bacon, aioli with microgreens)
  • miniature PB&J (coarsely chopped peanuts and fresh fruit compote)
  • miniature croque-monsieurs (ham, gruyere cheese, a dab of mustard)
  • minature pan bagnat (olive-oil-marinated tuna, chopped roasted red peppers, capers on a slice of hard boiled egg)

In short, use your imagination, either liberally or conservatively. The results will work for any party.

OK, now for more sober business.

I am deeply disappointed, in a night of hope and change, that California passed the divisive and discriminatory Prop 8, which takes away the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state, a proposition I blogged about here.  All I can say is that our country is changing, and I firmly believe that in the next generation, being happily and openly queer won’t be judged as it is now, with religious bias in our civic institutions.  This is not the end; it’s the beginning.

lingering autumn cider jelly

One of the reasons I love being an American is fresh, seasonal apple cider.  I grew up in Michigan, where we take our apples seriously, and I don’t think there’s a single child in that whole state who didn’t love going to the cider mill for spiced, steaming hot cider and a fresh cider donut in the crisp days of October.  One of the great (and few) sadnesses of living in California for so many years was the lack of really good apple cider.  When we moved to rural New England, I was happy to have my cider back.  Now that we’re in Oregon, I have a new wealth of apple cultivars, and a few, precious repositories of cider.

You’d think I’d be satisfied with the seasonal goodness of that fresh cider, but I’m greedy, so I freeze what I can.  This year, I decided to try to make jelly out of the cider that could be used throughout the winter as an appetizer with cheeses and walnuts, a glaze for baked apple desserts and as layers in other baked goods, and of course, on toast.

Making jelly can be easy if you use commercial pectin, or a delicious pain if you don’t. I haven’t had the time to experiment with pectin-free apple cider jelly, but I do have a recipe that involves cooking apples, filtering twice, macerating overnight, adding cider, and blending it all together.  Sounds fantastic, but yeah.

If you’re going to go the commercial pectin route, there are two recipes I’ve found, a freezer jam using regular Sure-Jell pectin (i.e., not the freezer jam version, not the low-sugar version), and one using Pomona’s pectin, a natural pectin that uses calcium to allow for less or no sugar.*

One problem with the Sure-Jell recipe is that it is a freezer jam, which limits gift-giving opportunities and takes up freezer space.  Another is the sugar content.  The Sure-Jell recipe uses 3 cups juice to 5 cups sugar.  It will make more jelly, but achingly sweet stuff compared to the Pomona recipe, which uses 4 cups juice to anywhere from 3/4 to 2 cups sugar.

My aim is to keep the flavor as close to natural apple cider, with all its tart poetry, as possible.  Apples contain quite a bit of pectin naturally, so you don’t need to mess with them too much.  Even so, these recipes contain lemon juice, probably since they both call for apple juice instead of apple cider, which is an altered product with sugar and what-not.  I decided to leave in the lemon juice to combat the sugar, even though both shift the flavor a bit.

One needs to boil the cider to set the pectin, but boiling is the real problem when you’re trying to keep the flavor cidery.  Even pasteurization, a process that heats a product to kill microorganisms up to a certain temperature that’s less than boiling, will give a slightly “cooked” flavor to the cider.  So I recommend getting your juice up to a boil very quickly.

The processing time, 5 minutes in a boiling water canner, is necessary if you plan to store your jelly on the shelf or give it away for holiday gifts in December.  If you’re planning to just eat it quickly, don’t process it because the flavor will be fresher.  Just keep it in the refrigerator.

Lingering Autumn Cider Jelly

Makes 5 half-pints with a bit left over for sampling.

  • 1 quart (4 cups) fresh apple cider (UV-treated tastes better than pasteurized, if you buy it from a store)
  • Optional spice mix: one stick cinnamon, big pinch of whole allspice, pinch whole cloves, pinch cocoa nibs, one dried chili pepper
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 4 t. calcium water (in Pomona box)
  • 4 t. natural pectin (in Pomona box)

If you’re planning to spice your cider, start the day before canning.  Measure out your cider and place in a jar or bowl that can be covered.  Add cinnamon stick.  Place the other spices in a little cheesecloth square that can be tied shut with string, then add to the cider.  (OK, if you’re lazy like me, just add the spices without the cheese cloth and strain the juice later.)  Refrigerate cider with spices overnight.

Before beginning your jelly, wash your jars and sterilize them by boiling them in your canner for 5 minutes.  Wash your new lids and your rings.  Keep the lids and rings in water at a simmer (180 degrees), don’t boil them, in a small pot on the stove.  Filter out the spices from your cider and pour into a medium-sized pot.

To make jelly, follow the instructions on the bottom of the Pomona instruction sheet.  I adapted my recipe from the instructions for “tart apples.”  These are, basically, as follows:

Add calcium water and lemon juice to cider in the medium pot.  Bring cider up to a boil as quickly as possible.

As cider is heating, mix together the pectin and the sugar in a small bowl. Skim foam that rises to the surface of the cider.

When the cider comes to a boil, add in the sugar/pectin mix, stirring constantly for one minute, to melt the pectin.  If you don’t stir constantly, it will lump.

Remove from heat, fill hot jars, leaving a quarter-inch headspace, wipe rims, cover with lids and rings, and process for five minutes in a boiling water canner.

This recipe makes a firm jelly that will hold its shape.  You can unmold it from the jar by running the jar under hot water for a few seconds if you’d like to serve it at a party with cheese and crackers.

Enjoy fall in its finest, jellied form.

* If you live in Eugene, you can find this at Sundance, Market of Choice, and Down to Earth throughout the year.

This recipe won the Apple Cider challenge for the weekly Root Source Challenge over at Cookthink. Yay!

amusing

Amuses bouches have hit the unhip boroughs of our fine country (read: not New York).  Now, everyone is amusing their bouches with them.  Frankly, they’ve been uncool since 2002 among the hipsters, but since we don’t orbit in that galaxy, Daddy-o, we shall press on.

Trying to be hip myself (and thus always already outmoded), I’d say they are Derridean food, but it’s easier to prove and more 2008 if I just spit it out: they are tiny mouthfuls of fun that precede the appetizers in your fancy restaurant meal.  Like appetizers, but smaller and more liberated, contradictory even — more fanciful, less leaden and less predictable.  Amuses bouches are like the Beat Girl of appetizers:

(Yes, I watched this last night.  You’re seeing the best of it.  Well, maybe a café scene or two is better, especially since they use two of my husband’s favorite phrases, “you wanna fight?  Then join the army,” and “aw, nuts.”  He’ll be pleased to know the former phrase contained an even better ending: “you wanna fight?  Then join the army!  That’s what all the squares are doing.”)

But ANYWAY.  Amuses bouches come from Paris, like Gillian Hills, the star of Beat Girl.  There, they’re often called amuses gueules by the French poodles, which is too hard to say for us squares, so they became known as amuses bouches.

I translate these amusing mouthfuls most often when I have a very rich or very garlicky dish.  My cream of kabocha pumpkin soup with bacon, for example, served at Thanksgiving.  Or two or three strange flavors that might be overwhelming if they were served in larger portions, like this seared flank steak with Fraga Farm raw milk goat feta, boysenberry, and homemade blackberry-thyme vinegar.  Just one mouthful, that’s the ticket, dad, something that makes your tastebuds sing.  And sing they did:  the metallic tang of the meat, the funk of the creamy fresh cheese, the tart musk of the berry, and the echo of vinegar.

Needless to say, with les amuses bouches, one needs to use absolutely pristine ingredients.  Shell out for grass-fed local beef, Oregon Tilth (the big organic certifier around these parts) cheese, and just picked berries that you’ve rushed home from the vine.  Your guests will be wild for those kicks, even if you’re a bit behind the times, verging, dare I say it, on square.

And that’s what I’ve got for you today.  I’m gonna fade out, doll.  Zero.

keeping cool with sour cherry and apricot soup

I should dedicate this, the second summer appetizer in my series of summer appetizers with obscure ingredients, to the folks at Hentze farm, where I bought the blushing, lovely apricots and the already-pitted sour cherries, submerged in their juice.  It made my life so easy, and easy livin’ is what summer is supposed to be about, right?

Sour cherries and apricots whisper Hungary to me.  My trip to Budapest in 2006 for a conference was one of the highlights of my life.  If my soul had a foreign home, it would be Hungary.  Of course, I’d soon die and have to be buried in a piano box because I would eat so much, but I’d die happy.  At one restaurant, I ordered sour cherry soup (meggy leves), thinking it would be a light starter.  Of course, being Hungary, it was thickened with sour cream and topped with whipped cream.  And every bite was delicious.

My version of the soup is lighter and appropriate for a July grilled meal.  The soup is still rich, but unless you want to serve it as a dessert (which you absolutely can), forgo the whipped cream and replace the sour cream with thinner, lighter crème fraîche.  Noris Dairy makes a delicious, slightly runny “sour cream” that is basically crème fraîche, so I use that.  You might try lightening up your sour cream with a bit of heavy cream if you can’t find crème fraîche.  If you can’t find that, you certainly won’t be able to find Hungarian apricot brandy, which is not imported much in the States, so substitute cherry brandy.  Or make your own apricot liqueur!

Using fresh sour cherries and apricots make this soup extraordinary.  It’s better to substitute fresh Bing or other cherries than to use frozen or canned sour cherries, since this is all about fresh summer produce.  I don’t bother peeling the apricots, but it might make the texture more elegant.

Sour Cherry Apricot Soup

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or dessert

2 cups pitted sour cherries
3 cups cherry juice
½ cup fruity red wine, such as Merlot
1 cup quartered fresh apricots
1 T. sugar
½ cup crème fraîche
1 T. powdered sugar
1 piece cinnamon stick
1 star anise
3-4 whole cloves
1 T. apricot brandy (Hungarian barack palinka) or cherry brandy

Pour juice and wine into pot, add cherries, apricots, and sugar.  Place spices in small cheesecloth bag and tie with kitchen twine.  Submerge in juice.

Simmer cherries and apricots just long enough to soften them up, about 5-10 minutes.

Mix crème fraîche and powdered sugar in a small bowl.  Remove soup from heat and remove spice bag.

Scoop out about half of the cherries and apricots and puree in the food processor, then return to soup pot.

Quickly whisk in crème fraîche until thoroughly mixed, and add brandy.

Pour into small serving bowls and chill for several hours before serving.