dinner for oscar the grouch

If the contents of your compost bowl look this good, you know late summer has truly arrived.  We’re still struggling with no main tomato crop in the southern Willamette Valley, but they’re starting to trickle in, and the next few days promise to have a little heat.  I managed to get 6 pints of very hot jalapeño and fresh cayenne pepper salsa out of my own tomatoes, mostly Saucey and Black Prince.  I’ll probably do another batch with purchased tomatoes, should that opportunity arrive before school starts at the end of the month.  I’m completely out of tomato sauce and regular tomatoes, so I would really like to make this happen!

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senfgurken: vengeance will be mine!

Senfgurken, mustardy pickled cucumbers popular in Germany, are warriors in the battle of the summer squash.  Vengeance will be mine!

We all know the war — summer squash vs. you.  One day, you’re harvesting tiny cucumbers and zucchini, some even with their blossoms still on the fruit.  You look carefully every day or so, removing the young, tender squash from their vines.

But lurking under the trap doors, hidden down in the tangle of vines just out of reach, is a terrible creature biding its time until it can swell up and take over the garden: a monster zucchini or a yellowing, bloated, misshapen cucumber.

Overgrown zucchini can be used for quick bread, of course, but I’ve always felt slightly ashamed of the bloated cucumbers.  After all, what could I do with them?  Discarded, they are sending the wrong message to the rest of the plants, that one can escape the gardener’s scythe if one just hides long enough.  And then, if composted juuuuuuuust right (i.e., not correctly) your seeds will germinate and you will live again, muwahahahahahahh!

This vegetable revolt went unchecked in my garden until I discovered senfgurken, which magically transforms the yellowing cukes into mustard-spicy sweet pickles similar to watermelon rind pickles.  Indeed, they are less work than watermelon rind pickles, too, and you don’t have to collect a bunch of sticky, hard-to-peel rinds.

This year, I grew quite a few cornichons, which immediately slipped beyond my control.  Cornichons, tiny french cucumbers, do not fare well when let go:

Senfgurken time.

Use very yellow, very bloated, horrible-tasting, late summer cucumbers for this recipe.  My cornichons didn’t yellow beyond this point, but the pickling cucumbers did.  Any yellow-bellied cur of a slicing cucumber will be a marvelous martyr on the battlefield.

Oh, and the seeds?  Save them for planting next year, so the war can continue.  And then you won’t have to fund it with money for schools or public programs!

Senfgurken Mustard Pickles

(Adapted from several recipes, including Linda Ziedrich’s Joy of Pickling)

Makes 8-9 half-pints or 4 pints

  • 5 lbs. large yellowed (overripe) cucumbers
  • 1/4 cup pickling salt
  • 3 cups cider or white wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spices, separated into two equal piles
  • 2 tablespoons white mustard seeds, separated into two equal piles

Peel cucumbers, halve, and scoop out the seeds (save for next year’s planting). Cut into strips about an inch wide, and cut the largest pieces in half.  Salt slices, and soak overnight on the counter (or for 8-12 hours) until the cucumbers are pliable.

Drain the cucumber slices, but do not rinse.  Bring your water bath canner up to a boil and prepare your jars, lids and rings.  Since you will be boiling them for 10 minutes, you do not need to sterilize the jars, but do wash well.

Combine the vinegar, sugar, and half of the mustard and pickling spices in a medium-sized pot, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat, then add about half of the cucumbers to the brine.  Let simmer for one minute.  Then remove the slices with a slotted spoon and place in the jars with the aid of a wide-mouthed canning funnel.  Once all the cucumbers are in the jars, fill to 1/2 inch from the top with the hot brine, including as many of the spices as you can.  Remove air bubbles in each jar with a plastic knife or chopstick, packing the slices down well, and rearrange any slices floating with their tails pointed upward and well out of the brine.  Wipe jar mouths and adjust lids and rings.

Add the remaining spices to the leftover brine, then bring to a boil again and repeat procedure with the rest of the cucumbers.

Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  (Linda Ziedrich suggests low-temperature pasteurization for 30 minutes at 180 to 185 degrees as an alternative to boiling.)

Once cool, check the seal on the jars and refrigerate any that did not seal.  Remove the rings and keep jars in a cool, dark place for 3 weeks before eating your pickles.

Serve with ham or other cured meats, pork roast, sausage, or cheddar cheese.

roasted blackberry jam for étienne brûlé

Chester blackberries, a late variety usually associated with the East Coast, also grow well in Oregon.  No surprise there. But they’re worth investigating because of the beauty of this cultivar and the flavor.  I find marionberries a bit monochromatic, I’ll confess.  They all taste the same.  Evergreen and Himalayan “wild” blackberries, the ones that grow like pests in our gardens and alongside roadways, are often too tart for pleasurable eating.  But Chesters combine the tartness of the wild blackberry and the consistency of the bred berry.  They hold their shape well in preserves and don’t have the copious seeds of the Himalayan.  A good choice, therefore, for late blackberry pies and jam.

I made a French-style, long-cooked preserve from Chesters this year.  When you cook berries for a long time to set the jell, they take on a roasted, almost figgy flavor.   I find these jams a very nice transition into autumn.  I named my jam “Blackberry Brulé” not only because of the slight caramelization in the jam, but also after my ancestor, Étienne Brûlé, a French explorer and interpreter who had a hard time picking the right friends.

From Étienne, we learn that the company one keeps is crucial to success, and one should be wary of all cooks.  Now that eating local and food preservation have become a craze, there is the inevitable creation of a canon — a set of recipes and techniques that are associated with these movements.  One of the new no-nos seems to be jam with pectin.  Pectin has biocides in it, they cry! This is silly.  It’s a naturally derived substance from apples or citrus fruit.  Moreover, there are various types of pectin and each pectin creates a different product.  Some do have additives, and if  you must, avoid them, but you’d be better off avoiding that low-carb, preservative-laden wrap you ate last night.

Think of pectin as a cooking tool, molecular gastronomy, if you will.  To be a cook, in my view, means you know how to manipulate your final product for the effect you want, whether Frenchman or jam.  This is a good thing.  It increases creativity and works against the canon-formation of any food movement.

Most often, I use Pomona pectin, which is activated by calcium, for low-sugar fruit spreads.  The ratio of sugar to fruit becomes 1:2 or less, instead of 2:2 or more, which is what you’d need for pectin-free French-style jam to jell.  Take your choice: a tiny bit of preservative in the tablespoon of pectin you’re using for your batch of jam, or double the sugar in each bite.  I’m not judging sugar-eaters here.  It’s just a different product.  Full sugar jam tastes much fruitier, believe it or not, on toast with butter, compared with a low-sugar fruit spread that tastes like fruit if you eat it with a spoon.  The butter seems to dull the flavor of the low-sugar spread.

So let me take a stand for pectin.  But you can also do it naturally.  Christine Ferber has a recipe for green apple pectin, and I’ve made my own for marmalade with orange skins and seeds.  Even easier, I cooked up some beautiful, pectin-rich quinces last fall and froze the unsweetened juice.  Since my Chester blackberries were bursting full of juice, I knew that I’d need a jelling boost or else I’d end up with a too-loose jam (for my purposes) if I was going to do it the french way.  So I defrosted about a cup of quince juice and added it; the set was beautiful.

Ferber’s recipe for wild blackberry jam, from which this recipe is derived, doesn’t use any pectin.  It will also result in a looser jam.  Using wild blackberries (instead of Chesters) will significantly reduce the juice amount and increase the seeds in the product.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the overnight sugar bath will turn this jam into preserves, really, because the sugar infuses the cell walls of the whole berries and strengthens them.  If you stir carefully, the jam will remain a true preserve, with whole berries suspended in the solution.

I don’t stir carefully.  I like jam.

And I like this jam, roasty and dark.  It’s lovely served with fresh farmer cheese or chèvre on still-warm, freshly baked bread.

Blackberry Brulé Jam

Recipe adapted from Christine Ferber’s “Wild Blackberry Jam” in Mes Confitures

  • 2 1/4 pounds of wild or Chester blackberries
  • 3 3/4 cups sugar
  • juice from one small lemon
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened quince juice (optional)

Combine the berries, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring carefully to melt the sugar.  Pour mixture into a glass or ceramic bowl, and cover with a sheet of parchment paper.  Refrigerate overnight.

Pour the chilled mixture into a large stockpot, add the optional quince juice, and bring to a boil.  Allow it to boil until it starts to jell, stirring frequently to prevent scorching (especially as the liquid boils off).  The time is approximate, since every batch is different, and the quince juice will change the time.  But plan on boiling for 20-30 minutes for a roasted flavor.

Jam should be spooned into hot, sterilized canning jars with 1/8-1/4 inch of headspace only to deter mold, and fitted with properly prepared two-piece lids. (Refer to a canning basics guide if you don’t know what this means.)  Process for 5 minutes in a waterbath canner.

vegan undercover: miso-marinated grilled tofu and veg

A vegan friend of mine visited from the Bay Area last weekend.  Up for a challenge, I decided to go undercover as a fellow vegan, vegging out on vegetables, while she was here.

The plan was to hit up the plethora of new vegan food carts around town, since I don’t find them particularly appealing otherwise (sorry, guys!).  I didn’t realize that they were almost all vegan fast food (fried things, hamburgers, hotdogs, and the like) and my friend is dedicated to eating low-fat and low-carb meals.  And honestly, if I’m going to have fried or high-calorie snacks, I’m not going to waste the calories on tofu sausage.  (But I have to say the greens and cornbread at Cornbread Café do look good… and I was just informed that there’s a raw food cart in Kesey Plaza called Raw Love that we missed when we did our research online!)

So, we did some cooking.  Many of the side dishes I make are vegan, and it was easy to make a pot of beans, Moroccan carrot purée, some French olive-oil-based potato salad, panzanella, and dried fruit, berries, and hazelnuts for snacks.  I broke out the table grill and made rather yummy miso-marinated grilled tofu and vegetables, too.

Miso Marinade for Grilled Tofu and Vegetables

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup yellow miso
  • 1/4 c. sake
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1 T. sesame oil

Whisk all ingredients together.

To prepare vegetables: Slice vegetables in large pieces for the most attractive presentation.  Zucchini and yellow summer squash work very well, as would small Japanese eggplants, sliced lengthwise twice, peppers, and sweet onion.  (In our dinner, we used a red pepper, an Anaheim pepper, three small zucchini, and a summer squash.)  Brush half of the marinade on the vegetables.

To prepare tofu: For best results, drain water from a cake of firm tofu by placing it in a colander with a plate on top of it. Place a weight (like a big can of tomatoes) on the plate.  Let sit and drain for 30 minutes or so.  Dab any remaining liquid off with a paper towel.  Then slice the tofu lengthwise in 1-inch thick slices.  Brush the other half of the marinade on tofu.

Marinate vegetables and tofu in separate bowls for about 30 minutes.

Brush grill with oil before placing tofu and vegetables on the hot grill, as they tend to stick.  Avoid turning tofu and vegetables too early.

Note: these measurements are approximate.  Watch for the salt in miso — if you are using watery vegetables, like summer squash, the salt is necessary, but it may be a bit strong if you are only using red peppers.  The saltiness is a must for tofu.

Enjoy these vegetables with a dry rosé.

apricot ménage-à-trois

When I saw a lug of pristine Eastern Oregon apricots on my way back from Montana, I knew I had to have ’em.  In short order, they became:

Orangette’s version of Zuni’s apricot tart.  I *love* this recipe.  And the crust is excellent for all pies, by the way.  I substituted plain distilled vinegar, being out of cider vinegar, but I wonder if some of my fruit vinegars might be nice with, say, a blackberry pie.  It would tinge the crust a pleasant mauve.  I think. And the apricots really do soften up and lend a juicy glaze.  It’s almost better to use slightly underripe ones, and don’t go more than a pound.  Restraint, unbelievably, is good.

Apricot jam, two kinds.  The plain jam is tart, sweet, and bursting with summery fruit.  The Czech apricot is flavored with Becherovka, a cinnamon-y bitter, and a bit of cinnamon stick.  Both have a shot of Hungarian palinka, an apricot brandy.  These rely on natural pectin and the softened fruit to thicken the gel.

Brandied apricots.  With a quick boil and sterilized jars, they’ll keep for a few months in the refrigerator.  The brandy can be used for cocktails, and the apricots for ice cream or baked goods.

And the leftover brandy, slightly flavored with apricot, I used for this year’s brandied sour cherries.  The pitted sour cherries are available for a very short window each year.  I usually buy mine pitted by Hentze’s Farm in Junction City by the 5# bag.  Makes life so much easier.  I love the Hentze folks, and they scored some equipment when the local canneries went out of business, so you can save time by purchasing very high quality cut beans and corn, pitted cherries, and shelled nuts that they grow on the farm.

They also have lugs of apricots, another ephemerally short season.  If you want to make any of these treats, the time is now!

berry season hits the willamette valley

What a stupid headline.  With what, a squish?  But that’s all I’ve got today.  So here, take someone else’s offering:

This gorgeous, gorgeous shot of Russian peasant girls presenting berries, so gorgeous I’ve been saving it for you since a friend of mine posted a link to the set on Facebook, is from a turn-of-the-20th-century Russian photographer who chronicled Russian life via train.  Check out the entire, remarkable set by clicking the picture, which links to the Denver Post gallery of the collection of the Library of Congress.

As for me, I’ve been dodging rotten berry bombs from various administrative unpleasantness as I prepare for my next trip to Zurich and London.  I’ll be studying sex in London and food in Zurich.  I don’t do well with unanticipated changes of plans and uprootings, and there have been plenty this week.

To stay calm, I’ve been jamming.  It’s no secret in preservation circles that we seal up things in jars and stick them in cupboards to try to halt the natural progression of life into decay and keep something perfect, just the way it is, for longer than life would allow.  That’s what berry jam does for the fleeting, rich, green moment of July.

Check out the size of these beauties.  Tayberries are elongated, maroon blackberry crosses, with quite a bit of raspberry in them.  I wrote about what they are here last year.

It’s tayberry season now for the next week or so.  Their reputation is beginning to spread in the Willamette Valley, but not many growers cultivate them.  Why?  After putting in my own tayberry last year, I discovered the reason.

This is why people don’t grow more tayberries.  The thorns are thick, soft, and sensitive, running up the vines all the way to the leaf tips.  They stick to everything and anything.  Most cultivated raspberries have more manageable thorns.  Some don’t even have thorns of note.  But tayberries don’t hold back in thorniness.

But bought, tayberries are the best berry around.  Check out Lelo’s post with a berry comparison (I’m the comment by “Eugeniq,” a rather nice typo if I do say so myself).  Anyway, besides the Crème de Violette version I mentioned in the comment, I’ve had some fun with tayberries this year.  My 2010 jam series is a platonic pair: Old Bachelor and Old Spinster tayberry jams.

Old Bachelor tayberry jam is soused with my Old Bachelor liqueur, put up last year with booze, sugar, and mixed cane berries and cherries.  The recipe is inspired by Christine Ferber’s discussion of this old French cordial in her book, Mes Confitures.  The essence of summer.

And then, inspired suchly, I had to make Old Spinster tayberry jam to go with it.  Old Spinster has a handful of rhubarb thrown in to add some bitterness, and a single fragrant rose geranium leaf pressed in to the top of the jam before canning.  (This is the leftover jar):

I think that’s right, no?  Old Bachelor fragrant with liquor and red candy; Old Spinster complicated by rhubarb and rose.

I didn’t get a chance to make my Old Crazy Cat Lady with cat hair and Danish salmiak licorice Tyrisk Peber granules, with a dash of absinthe.  But the thought was there, believe me.

What are you doing to doll up  your plain cane berry jams?

in which she sings of rosé

I’m sad you missed the Kermit Lynch rosé tasting at Provisions yesterday afternoon.  You are too.  Most of the wines were from Langedoc, and worlds apart from the boxed White Zin your mom used to drink over ice.  They’re also quite different from the cheaper, quaffable, fruit-forward rosés one sees coming out of Oregon and California.  Instead of bright cherry or strawberry dominating, these show more of the terroir with more complex flavors and a noticeable minerality. Not a jot of sweetness — dry and crisp like an Oregon summer morning.  And the colors range from a pale apricot to an amber to a deep cerise.

I bought a Spanish Ameztoi Rubentis Getariako Txakolina (back) earlier in the spring, when they were available.  The pale salmon color and happy, tingly frizzante is also nothing like these later, Frenchier rosés. This time, I picked up a few bottles of Chateau Trinquevedel Tavel from the exclusively rosé-growing region of Tavel in the Rhône Valley, and a peppery Ermitage Pic St. Loup from Langedoc.

It’s very worthwhile to check out Provisions’ wine tasting events: the free tastings, the classes, and the dinners.  I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on wine — not even an educated amateur — but I feel more confident each time Ryan guides me through his tastings.  The next class is July 22, and features the wines of Spain.  Be there!

I plan to drink these rosés with grilled fish, or a juicy mound of grilled vegetable couscous, perhaps with a lamb sausage or perhaps not…Willamette Valley chickpeas, garden mint, and golden raisins as a garnish.   Or maybe a sour cherry claufoutis.  Ah, summer.