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Chili Power!

With the weather cooling and rain threatening, we’ve been in a frenzy of preserving lately! The peppers did especially well this year, thanks at least in part to the sun-shades we made by attaching empty chicken-feed sacks to the wire cages with clothespins. We usually lose half the fruits to sun scald, so it’s especially satisfying to have found a solution. Of course, the flip side is that we have twice as many peppers and chilies to deal with!

Last year I made some scrumptious pickled roasted peppers, and we put up pints and pints of pickled jalapeños, but with so much to do before the weather turns, we’re turning to speedy, simple methods this year to preserve everything in sight. I thought I should crawl out from under my heap of peppers for a few minutes to share some of my favourites!

Roasted Peppers for the Freezer

So simple, so good. You can do this with any amount of peppers, from just a few to a bushel full, and with just about any variety as well. Heat a gas grill to high, toss on your peppers, and grill, turning occasionally, until all sides are blackened and blistered. They’ll look dreadfully burnt; this is what you want! (If you don’t have a gas grill, you can do this in the oven as well — spread the peppers on a foil-lined sheet pan and pop them under the broiler.)

When the peppers are blackened on all sides, transfer them to a bowl and cover with a plate or some foil. Allow to sit for at least half an hour — the peppers will “sweat” in their own steam, loosening their skins. You can use them fresh, or freeze them to enjoy all winter long…

To freeze, spread peppers on foil-lined baking pans and place in the freezer. When they are completely frozen, transfer to zip-top freezer bags or containers. (This keeps the peppers from freezing into a solid block, as the tend to if you just toss them straight into the freezer bags without individually-freezing first.) Label everything right away — pepper varieties may look totally different fresh, but its often near-impossible to tell the anchos from the pimientos when they’re all black frozen blobs! To use, thaw the peppers, peel off the skin (running them under warm water makes this a snap), and remove the seeds.

Pimientos are divine when roasted — their firm flesh is ideal — but poblanos and even jalapeños are also excellent. We made smoked roasted jalapeños by wrapping apple twigs loosely in foil and placing on the grill directly over the flame — when the twigs start to smoke, add your jalapeños and close the lid. Check and turn them often, though, as small peppers can burn quickly. This method gives them just a hint of extra smokiness, and they make fantastic salsa, especially when combined with tomatoes roasted the same way! Just peel the chilies and tomatoes, add a bit of chopped onion and a pinch of salt, and whiz in a food processor until blended.

Thai Chili Paste

Thai chilies are one of my favourites to grow — they’re scorchingly hot, but once you get past that, they have a wonderfully fruity character. And one little plant will grow more chilies than you know what to do with! Fortunately, they lend themselves to preserving in several simple ways…

For chili paste, you’ll want either all red or all green chilies. Remove the stems and put them in a food processor. Add some sea salt: for every cup of chilies (packed), we use about a tablespoon of salt. That sounds like a lot, but trust me, you’re not going to eat this stuff by the spoonful! Process until you have a smooth paste, adding a few drops of water at a time if necessary. (Confession: I actually have one of those little “As Seen On TV” Magic Bullet machines — long story — but it is dynamite for making chili paste!)

Transfer the paste to glass jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer. And here’s the cool thing: refrigeration actually tames the heat of the paste, allowing the flavours to “bloom” and to stand out over the searing heat of the fresh chilies. The paste keeps up to a year refrigerated, longer frozen; try a spoonful in curries, chili, you name it!

You can go all-out and turn this into Thai-style curry paste, too: add ginger, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, cilantro, a dash of oil, and cut the salt back a bit as well. Scoop balls of paste onto waxed paper, freeze, and transfer to freezer bags or containers. (Don’t forget to label, or you’ll be racking your brain trying to figure out what these weird blobs are — cookies? — when you find them in the back of the freezer a year later….)

Oh, and of course there are always

Dried Chilies!

The easiest of all, especially if you have a dehydrator or a sunny day outside! Thai chilies and other small, thin-walled peppers are best for this. (Avoid whole thick-walled peppers like Bell, Pimiento, or Jalapeño peppers; they can spoil before they dry completely.) Anchos are another great drying pepper — pick ripe, glossy-red fruits, and make a slit down one side if you want them to dry a little faster. You can also string chilies with a needle and thread (through the stems) and hang them by the fire or in another warm spot.

Well, that’s enough to keep me busy for a few days — and enough chilies in their many forms to keep us warm all winter long!

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Springtime Mushroom Hunt (and Wild Mushroom Fritatta)

Springtime may be all about wildflowers and clover and, well, see that last post — but one of the things I look forward to the most when the weather warms is a bit less greeting-card-perfect and a little more… strange: the Spring mushroom season! Unlike the showy blossoms and greenery, mushrooms are subtle and secretive; they won’t jump out at you with a riot of skyward-reaching stalks and stems, with Technicolor hues on a grand scale. You have to look for them.They’re tiny, experts at camouflage. You could walk in the woods every day without the faintest inkling of the tremendous variety of fungi surrounding you.

I’ve been hunting for mushrooms for only a couple years, and I’m continually amazed by the diversity of species we see even right here on our little farm. Even more fascinating is the way a mushroom can look totally unremarkable at a glance, but then be so intricate and beautiful if you take the time to study it up close. I have to thank my friend Thea, mycology-expert and forest-sprite extraordinaire, for introducing me to the mushroom world, and to David Arora’s fantastic field guides (a must if you want to know just what it is you’re looking at). Here are a few of the many fungi that show up in our area — see if you can spot them next time you’re out wandering!

Left: A member of the Lactarius family is easily identified by the “milk” that exudes from its flesh when scratched or broken. (Which particular Lactarius it is, however, is a little more challenging to discern!)

Right: One of my favorite little mushrooms, Hygrophorus chrysodon. The name chrysodon comes from the Greek for “golden-tooth” — a wonderfully poetic description for the bright-yellow flecks that dust its cap and stalk.

The wonderful thing about mushroom-hunting is that you’ll be taking a perfectly civilised walk in the woods, and then next thing you know, you’re lying on the ground in the mud, not entirely sure of how you got there, nose-to-nose with this:

Such is the weirdly charismatic nature of fungi. This little guy is absolutely electric! I suspect it’s some kind of Hygrocybe, but I couldn’t bring myself to pluck it for a more detailed inspection. That parrot-green hue, by the way, is quite true to life!

Left: The convoluted, velvet-black cap of Helvella lacunosa, the Fluted Black Elfin Saddle. They’re quite common around here in springtime. Spotting them among the leaves is good practice for finding their delectable relative the Morel!

Right: another common one in our area, Laccaria laccata, known as the Lackluster Laccaria, which I suppose it is when compared to its violet cousin L. amethystina. Both have long, tough stalks, jaunty domed caps, and white spores.

Some mushrooms are wildly flamboyant, like these turkey tails; others are nondescript little dots in the leaves…

I love this particular copse of manzanitas. The bees are crazy about them, too — you can stand under the arching branches and listen to the most incredible buzzzzzzzzz overhead. When we open the hives this time of year, there is often a distinct manzanita-blossom fragrance that drifts out — nectar from the blossoms the bees have been so busily visiting.

Another devotee of the manzanita grove: the cheekily-named Cowboy’s Handkerchief! The moniker is an apt description of their slimy, snow-white caps. Hygrophorus eburnius is a more respectable name for these guys, but not quite as, ah, colourful…

My mushroom-hunting route follows a deer trail through a particularly damp, shady north slope of the woods: a perfect environment for fungi, as well as for lush mosses and lichens. Ferns, too. Oh, to have a good guidebook for each — but then I’d be lost in the woods all day, identifying everything in sight….

But, as much fun as it is to spot and study all these fascinating denizens of the forest floor, the best mushroom hunts are the ones that end with a basket of edibles! What a delight to stumble across this trove of blewits: Clitocybe nuda, a fabulously-hued and absolutely delicious wild mushroom that grows like a weed in the woods around here. I wasn’t expecting to find many this late in the season, so for once I didn’t bring a basket — maybe the Russian saying is true: Carry a large basket with you, and the mushrooms will see it and hide!

There are a few other purple wild mushrooms around here that could be mistaken for a blewit, but none have the distinct orange-juice aroma that these do. It’s funny — after a a while, you start to smell mushrooms in the woods. Or you develop a mysterious mushroom radar, telling you to look over there. And then, following your feet and nose and instinct, you’ll find a beautiful Amanita, or a prized Matsutake, or a whole basketful of these beauties…

And one of the mushrooms went immediately into this frittata for lunch!

Phyllis’s Wild Mushroom and Potato Frittata

Peel a large potato, cut in half lenghthwise, and slice into thin half-moons. Fry potato slices in 2 Tb olive oil in a 9-inch frying pan, gently turning the potatoes until they are just tender.

Add one sliced green onion, some chopped parsley, and about 1 cup sliced wild mushrooms (one large blewit mushroom). Sautee until everything is tender; season with salt and pepper.

In a bowl, beat 7 eggs with 1 Tb water, a dash of hot sauce or sriracha, and some salt and pepper.

Add eggs to pan; lift the potato-mushroom mixture around the edges with a spatula to allow the eggs to run underneath. Stir everything around a bit (being careful not to break up the potatoes) and smooth out the top.

When the eggs start to set, turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for about 5 minutes. Then uncover the pan and slide it in the oven under the broiler — watch carefully and cook just until the top is set and lightly browned.

Slide the frittata onto a plate, grate some good cheese over the top, and serve!

If you’re interested in hunting for edible mushrooms, find someone with knowledge and experience to go with you — don’t try it alone at first, even with a field guide in hand, as mushrooms are subtle things and their defining characteristics can be deceptive to the untrained eye. As mentioned above, there are other purple mushrooms that could be confused with the blewit; make sure you know exactly what you are looking for and how to tell it apart from look-alikes! That being said, blewits are a great “first mushroom” to collect because they are so distinctive, and absolutely delicious as well…. happy hunting!

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Making Things: Lacto-Fermented Ginger Ale

Lacto-fermentation: it’s what puts the sauer in sauerkraut, the zing in kimchee, and the bubbles in… ginger ale?

Ok, so highly-fragrant cabbage-based condiments may not be the first thing one associates with soda, but, weirdly enough, you can harness the power of this seemingly-magical natural reaction to brew up some delicious (and non-alcoholic) bubbly. And the best part? It’s actually good for you!

Wait a minute, you say — soft drinks? Good for you? Well, sure, there’s sugar in this recipe, but the resulting soda is a far cry from the the kind of artificially-flavored, corn-syrup-laden stuff we usually think of. So, before we launch into a debate about the perils of sugary beverages, let’s talk a bit about what’s going on here…

Lacto-Fermentation

We’re going to utilize heterolactic acid fermentation to turn sucrose-water into a healthy probiotic drink! Doesn’t that sound like fun?? Nah, we’re making soda pop!

It’s pretty cool what’s happening here, though — because this soda is actually alive. We’ve all heard about the benefits of probiotic foods, the “living” foods containing friendly microorganisms that aid our digestion, boost immunity, and help keep our internal ecosystems in balance. Yogurt, sauerkraut, and other lacto-fermented foods all contain what our friends (the fermentation-whizzes) Joe and Wendy call “your own personal probiotic army” — and the same goes for this ginger ale! Natural (and harmless) bacteria in ginger root will start the fermentation, munching up the sucrose we’ll feed them and transforming sugar-sweetness to tangy, fragrant, complex flavours that you simply don’t get in store-bought soft drinks. You’ll also find that this soda isn’t nearly as tooth-tinglingly sweet or aggressively carbonated as the stuff in a can, and you’ll know exactly what goes in it — no corn syrup, no weird chemicals, no artificial anything. Oh, and did we mention that ginger is really good for you?

And, in keeping with the slow-food philosophy, lacto-fermented ginger ale takes a while to happen, although very little of that time involves actual doing on our part — the bacteria take care of all the hard work! It’s a process with plenty of room for experimentation, variation, and all that stuff that makes it so much fun to, well, make stuff. So, let’s get started with…

Step 1: The Starter

The measurements here aren’t exactly exact; some of it is a matter of taste, and after you make your first batch, you’ll have a better sense of how sweet/spicy/fizzy you like your ginger ale to be. I start with a good-sized hunk of fresh ginger, a five or six inch segment of root, and I look for fresh, domestically-grown organic ginger, as you will put the whole thing, skin and all, into your brew.

In addition to the ginger, you will need:

• Fresh, filtered and/or non-chlorinated water
• Cane sugar
• A clean glass quart jar with lid

Start by grating up a couple tablespoons of ginger. Put it into a clean quart mason jar, fill about three-quarters of the way with water, and stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Put the lid on loosely, so air can escape, and set it in a comfortably warm place. I keep my starter on the kitchen counter, as it’s usually a little warmer there than the rest of the house, about 70°. If it feels comfortable to you, it’s probably just fine for your ginger starter too.

The next day, add another spoonful of sugar and stir. I don’t really measure it, but it’s probably a couple teaspoons. You can taste a bit of the liquid (don’t put a used spoon back in the jar) — it should taste lightly sweet. If you can’t taste the sugar, add a little more. Keep doing this every day; it’s kind of like having a strange little pet… and, like a pet, if you neglect it, it will starve to death. Of course, we’re talking bacteria here, so no major guilt necessary if something goes wrong — just start over again!

After a couple days, you should be seeing signs of fermentation. Look closely at the surface of the liquid — are there little bubbles around the edges? Does it smell pleasantly zingy? It can be hard at first to see if the starter is bubbling or not — shine a bright flashlight into the jar and you should see little bubbles rising up from the bottom, especially if you stir or shake the jar a bit.

Left: The starter — see the little bubbles at the surface?
Right: the next step — ginger ale in a gallon jug with airlock.

The starter usually takes five or six days to get good and fizzy. Let it go too long, though, and it will become too acidic for those little bacteria to live — you want to use it before it starts slowing down! And of course, if you notice any mold or “off” smells, dump it out and start over. It should have a pleasant, gingery, almost “fizzy” smell and a nice bright ginger taste.

When your starter is ready, it’s time for…

Step 2: The brew

You’ll need:

• Your ginger starter
• Ginger root
• 1 1/2 cups cane sugar
• Fresh, non-chlorinated water
• The juice of a small lemon or lime*
• A pinch of sea salt
• A clean one-gallon glass jug
• An air lock **
• A fine strainer or coffee filter ***
• A large funnel

* You can also use grapefruit juice, mandarin juice, strawberry juice… just be careful not to make it too acidic, or it won’t ferment. More on variations and troubleshooting in a future post!

** An air lock is a bottle stopper that allows air out, but not in. This keeps oxygen and airborne nasties away from your brew. You’ll need to assemble a few parts and fill it with water before using it. You can improvise in a pinch by poking a pinhole in an uninflated balloon and stretching it over the mouth of the jug, but it’s worth buying an airlock for this — find one for a couple bucks at any homebrew shop.

*** I like to use a reusable metal-mesh coffee filter basket — it’s sturdy enough to stand up to plenty of squeezing and is easier to handle than paper coffee filters. Sometimes they’re called “gold” or “permanent” coffee filters. They are inexpensive and last just about forever; you can find them at kitchen stores or online.

Put the sugar into a small saucepan and add about twice as much water. Add a pinch of salt. Set over low heat to dissolve sugar. When sugar is completely dissolved, remove from heat to cool a bit.

Meanwhile, grate up some ginger. The amount you use depends on how spicy you want your ginger ale; start with a couple ounces, or a couple inches of ginger root. (You can always taste the brew after you mix it up and add a little extra if you like.) Mix the ginger with a bit of water to make a nice soupy mixture. Or, if you have a blender handy, just chop up the root and whiz it to a fine puree with a cup or two of water.

Set your strainer or filter in the funnel, and set the funnel in the mouth of the jug. Pour the fresh-ginger slush into the strainer and press to expel as much of the liquid as you can. Pour a little more water over the ginger and repeat — you want to squeeze out as much of the flavourful juice as you can.

Scrape out the ginger pulp and discard. Pour your ginger starter into the strainer and press it out just as you did with the fresh ginger. Do the same with the lemon or lime juice.

Left: my funnel-filter setup. Right: making Bearss-lime-ginger ale.

Fill the jug about halfway with water, and pour in the sugar-water mixture. (Don’t pour boiling-hot water directly into your starter, or you might kill it!) Fill the jug almost to the top with water and stir or shake to mix. Now is the time to taste a bit of your brew to see if it needs anything — more ginger, lemon, etc. If it tastes too sweet for your liking, don’t worry; the sweetness will decrease as the fermentation does its work.

Top off the jug with water to the base of the neck, and add your assembled airlock. Now, let the fermentation begin! Set the jug in a warm spot, just like you did for the starter. This secondary fermentation will take a little longer; after a few days you’ll see tiny bubbles making their way up the neck of the bottle, and the airlock will start its happy occasional burbling. It will usually ferment vigorously for the first few days, then slow down a bit. You can set the jug on a heat pad or in a very warm spot to speed it up; just don’t exceed 90 degrees or so. At ambient room temperature, my ginger ale usually takes a week or two for its  secondary fermentation.

When the bubbling slows down to almost nothing, taste the brew. It should be lightly sweet, not too sugary. If it tastes about how you like it, it’s time to bottle. You’ll need clean, empty beer bottles, something that can hold a bit of pressure — not thin glass bottles, as they may explode! Bottles with a flip-top stopper are easiest, such as Grolsch bottles, but you can also use empty Champagne bottles or heavy glass beer bottles with crown caps and a capping device. And start looking for good bottles to save — I’m always collecting interesting ones for brew projects!

I won’t go into the finer points of bottling here, but if you’re new to home-brewing, you can check with your local brew shop for all the details. (Here’s ours.) Simply put, you’ll siphon off the soda into the bottles, leaving the cloudy dregs that have settled to the bottom of your gallon jug.

There’s one important step, though: Before I fill them, I add about a half-teaspoon of sugar to each bottle (a teaspoon for the larger fifths, quart, or litre bottles, like the clear ones in the photo above). You can skip this step if your soda is still pretty sweet; it’s more necessary if your brew has fermented until it’s fairly dry. The “bonus” sugar gives the fermenting bacteria a bit more to work with inside the bottle, which produces more fizz. Incidentally, this is how Champagne gets its bubbles (although ours is a much-simplified version of that process)!

Set the bottles out somewhere warmish for a few days to ferment a bit more, and then park them in a very cool basement or in the refrigerator to halt the fermentation. I like to leave mine for a couple weeks to a month to develop a nice fizz. The soda will keep for months beyond that, getting gradually drier (less sweet) and fizzier as it rests. When you’re ready to try it, open a bottle carefully and taste-test; if you want it bubblier and less sweet, leave  the rest of the bottles for another week or two before opening.

Cheers!

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Brandied Pear Bread Pudding (and Pear Brandy, too)

So many pears! This is the time of year when we pick pears, carry pears, polish pears, sort pears, pack pears, sell pears, dry pears, eat pears…. every single day. It’s a short season, though — just about a month, really — so by the time you’re feeling slightly tired of pears, it’s almost time to start missing them. And that, to me, is precisely the joy of seasonal eating: nothing gets old. And everything, every bite, is wonderful. Which brings me to today’s recipe.

As soon as the weather begins to cool ever so slightly, it’s time to make my favourite brandied pear bread pudding — simple and cozy and delicious, the kind of recipe where every ingredient shines in its own right. Needless to say, it starts with good ingredients: a dense, crusty loaf of country-style French bread, or a rich challah; perfectly ripe pears; whole milk and fresh eggs for the custard; and, if you are lucky enough to have some in your pantry, pear brandy. We’ll get to the recipe in a moment, but first, about that brandy….

We always get a kick out of bringing one of these pears-in-a-bottle to the farmer’s market and setting it somewhere on our table. It never fails to set people to talking — and to tossing around all kinds of wild speculations on just how that pear got in there. “Did you light a match in the bottle, like with an egg?” “I know, you put a pear seed inside!” Of course, the real explanation is quite simple…. any guesses?

Growing a pear in a bottle (shhhh, it’s a secret!) is amusing enough on its own, but the real fun starts when the pear is ripe, and you fill up the bottle with brandy. The sugars and flavour of the fruit infuse the alcohol; we let the bottles sit for a good 6 months before opening them. Pear brandy makes a lovely after-dinner drink, and it’s a sublime baking ingredient. You can make a just-as-good, if not quite so spectacular, version by setting a ripe pear in a mason jar and topping it off with brandy. For this recipe, you can use regular brandy if you don’t have pear brandy ready-made, or even omit the brandy altogether. It lends a subtle and compelling warmth to the pudding, and the smell as it bakes is absolutely divine. I highly recommend the leftovers (should there be any) for breakfast!

Julia’s B-H Ranch Pear Bread Pudding

•  6 to 8 Bartlett pears (I like a mixture of firm-ripe and soft-ripe)
•  8 to 10 slices firm country-style French bread or challah
•  1 3/4 c milk (I use whole milk)
•  3 large eggs, beaten
•  2/3 c sugar, or a little less if you like it less sweet
•  1/4 c pear brandy (see note above)
•  1 tsp vanilla extract
•  1 tsp cinnamon
•  1/2 tsp nutmeg
•  1/4 c butter, melted and cooled a bit
•  1/4 c chopped walnuts (optional)
…and a deep 9″ square baking dish.

Preheat oven to 350°. Peel, core, quarter, and slice the pears into bite-size pieces. Slice the crusts off the bread and cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. Put the pears and bread into a large bowl and toss to mix.

Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, brandy, vanilla, and spices in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the butter. Pour this over the bread and pears in the other bowl, gently stir/fold to coat everything evenly, and let stand for 20-30 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Turn the mixture after 10 to 15 minutes, being careful not to over-mix; you want the bread pieces to remain as intact as possible.

Pile bread mixture into a buttered baking dish (it will be very full; press gently to make it all fit.) If you like, sprinkle chopped walnuts over the top. Bake in a water bath at 350° for about an hour, or until set. (Check with a toothpick or the point of a knife.)

(To make a water bath: set the baking dish inside a larger baking dish, making sure there is room on all sides. Set the nested dishes on the oven rack and carefully pour boiling water into the outside dish, so that it fills one-half to two-thirds of the way up the inner pudding dish. If you fill it too high, boiling water may splash into your pudding, so don’t get too close to the rim of the inner dish. See the photo below if any of that sounds confusing… and don’t skip this step, as the water bath will keep the custard from curdling as it bakes. )

You may need to tent the pudding with foil if it looks like it is browning too quickly — if so, remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so of baking so the top gets nicely crisp. Serve with lightly-sweetened whipped cream (with an additional dash of pear brandy mixed in, if you like) or vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!

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Making Things: Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt

It’s pouring rain today, but that won’t stop me from posting ice cream recipes! It has finally been acting like a proper summer here in the foothills… until today, that is, when we had a spectacular all-afternoon downpour that sent the chickens running for shelter and completely flooded the new duck pond I’d just finished building this morning (more on that later!) Of course, the rain is great for the seeds I planted, at long last, in my flower garden; and, really, it does cool things off ever so nicely. That’s the only catch: It no longer feels quite so much like ice cream weather — but in a few days things will heat up again, no doubt, and that’s where this recipe comes in!

So: my favourite new ice cream recipe, I think. Which is saying something, as I love love love making ice cream. My sweetheart gave me a super-duper electric ice cream maker a couple years ago for my birthday — boy, does he know me! — and I’ve been fascinated with the making of frosty confections ever since. Electric ice cream makers are genius, by the way; the old-fashioned hand cranked model has its nostalgic charms, sure, but how often do you actually feel like using the thing? Maybe once a summer? Fast forward to the ‘lectric version — just switch it on, toss in your ingredients, and let it do the rest. Et voilá: homemade ice cream whenever you like! On a whim! Got some extra strawberries? You know what to do!

Now, once you’re set up with your nifty machine, it can be tempting to go a little crazy with the ice cream thing. So many possibilities! But after a few rich, cream-heavy, custard based concoctions and complicated all-day recipes, you might be looking for something a little lighter — and simpler. How simple? Well, if you happen to have some lemon curd on hand, it’s just a matter of stirring together three ingredients and switching on the machine. No lemon curd? Don’t despair — it’s easy to make, and you can always buy a jar in a pinch…. but, if you have the time, absolutely do try making some from scratch! The recipe here comes straight from my dear friend Thea, who hails from the Magical Land of Lemons and Citrus, a.k.a. Penryn, California (a few short miles down the road from us, and a few very crucial degrees warmer in climate.) It’s absolutely heavenly folded together with whipped cream and dolloped on angel-food cake or with fresh berries, so by all means, do make extra. As Thea says, it lasts refrigerated for about a week — but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep everyone away from it for that long!

So, on to the recipes! The frozen yogurt is super simple and so addictive — it’s perfect for the summer party when you want to make something dressy for dessert but don’t want to turn on the oven or spend all day on it. And to top it off, it’s yogurt, after all; you could argue that it’s quite healthy. What are you waiting for? Whip up a batch and dig in!

Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt

The measurements for this recipe are all pretty loose; no need to get out the measuring cups if you can eyeball an approximate 2/3 cup of lemon curd. I haven’t yet tried it with low- or non-fat yogurt, but I suspect it would work well with those, too. I do wish I had a better photo here, but as you can see, the ice cream was almost gone by the time I got out my camera!

• 3 cups (24 oz) Greek-style yogurt  (I use “The Greek Gods” brand, Traditional Plain style; you could use any full-fat Greek yogurt.)
• 2/3 cup lemon curd (see recipe below)
• 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar  (to taste, and depending on how sweet your lemon curd is)
• Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Stir together yogurt, lemon curd, and 1/3 cup sugar until smooth. Freeze in your ice cream mixer according to its instructions — it takes about half an hour to freeze in mine (an electric Cuisinart). Stir in lemon zest just before you turn off the machine (or stop cranking the thing, if you’re doing it the old-fashioned way!)

Scrape the ice cream out of the machine into a chilled bowl or container. Cover tightly and freeze for at least a couple hours before serving. For the best scoopability, remove the ice cream from the freezer a few minutes before serving. It’s lovely on its own, but if you’d like to gild the lily a bit, add a sprinkling of fresh blueberries, drizzle with honey and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Thea’s Lemon Curd

A very rich, tangy, egg-thickened custard great on toast, as a cake filling, etc.

• 4 egg yolks
• 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
• 1/3 cup granulated sugar (or to taste)
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
• Grated zest of 1 lemon (if you like)

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a small saucepan or the top of a double boiler. The double boiler takes a little longer, but it’s safer – you’re less likely to overcook the eggs or burn the custard, both of which are easy to do!

So, in your vessel of choice, add the lemon juice and butter to the sugar and eggs. Cook it over low heat (if you’re just using a pan, use the lowest possible heat!), whisking until the butter melts to get everything mixed well.

After the butter is melted, I usually switch to a spoon to stir with, since it’s easier to get into the corners. Keep stirring, frequently with a double boiler or constantly with a saucepan. Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides to keep it from sticking. The mixture will be frothy at first, but that will go away as the custard starts to thicken.

Cook it until it is thick enough so that when you lift a spoon out of it the back of the spoon stays coated, and you can draw a line through it with your finger that doesn’t go away. You don’t want it to boil at all (keep stirring!), but it often starts to bubble just about when it’s done. It will thicken more as it cools. You don’t want the custard to be lumpy, which happens if the eggs get overdone.

If you see a few lumps, you can pour the curd through a sieve. After that, add the lemon zest. If it’s not sweet enough for you at this point, you can add a little more sugar and stir it in too. Let it cool in a bowl with waxed paper or greased parchment sitting directly on the surface of the curd – this keeps it from forming a skin. Some people use plastic wrap instead.

Keep it in a jar in the fridge – it keeps for about a week, but it doesn’t usually stay around that long in my house!
Bon appetit!

Thanks, Thea, for the fabulous recipe!

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Filed under making things, preserving, recipes, spring, summer

In the garden: Fava beans

Have you been to the farmer’s market lately? Cherries, raspberries, lettuce, the earliest peaches… it’s a feast for the senses! And among all those springtime delights, you may spot these giant, bulbous green pods:

What are they? Favas! Or Koukiá, as we call them in Greek. A remarkable-yet-remarkably-underappreciated bean. They are very easy to grow, they’re one of the first springtime vegetables, and they’re delicious — and yet, it does take some searching to find fava beans. I’ve seen them a few times in the grocery store (usually in very small quantity), but by and large, if you want to get your hands on some of these tasty legumes, you’ll have to grow them yourself or go to the farmer’s market. Life is hard, huh?

And as much as I love, love, love the farmer’s market — our local markets are fantastic — I’m all for the backyard plot on this one! Not only are favas simple to grow, they also have lovely sweetpea-scented flowers and, being a legume, they’re great for the soil. You can even grow them (or their cousin, bell bean) as a cover crop; just be sure to cut and compost or till them in before they start to bloom for the highest nutrient level.

See, they’re just such happy-looking plants! We plant the seeds in the fall, usually November or thereabouts, when the rains begin but it isn’t yet too chilly out. They grow all winter long, getting taller and taller — by harvest time, the topmost leaves (which, incidentally, are edible and tasty when young) are brushing my shoulders. We plant them in a block and fence the plot on all sides with chicken wire, about two feet high; it keeps hungry critters like rabbits away from the young sprouts, and when the plants get taller, it provides just enough support to keep them from falling over. Which they absolutely will, if you let them.

They’re also abundant producers. Our fava patch this year was about 6 by 8 feet, and we ended up with a tremendous harvest — I’m guessing 20 to 25 gallons of beans in the shell. Of course, there is one catch with fava beans: they’re mostly shell! The beans themselves are wrapped in a tough, spongy-textured pod, and it can take quite a lot of time to shell them if you don’t have help… so, like many things of this nature, it’s really best as a communal activity! Round up a few friends and make some lemonade — you’ll find it’s quite pleasant work that way.

Here they are, ready to shell. That’s just a small fraction of the crop! (And, yes, that bucket does say “for FOOD” on it, to distinguish it form the many other buckets for dirt, fertilizer, etc around here.) There are a handful of tricks for getting the beans out of the pod; I usually snap off one end, “unzip” the little strings along the sides, and then pop the shell open along its length. Everyone has their own technique:

Once you have the bean out of the pod, flick off that little “cap” on the end:

Annnnd, the final bean-to-shell ratio. Take heart — those empty pods will do wonders for your compost pile!

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Most fava-bean recipes will tell you to take the shelled beans, dip them in boiling water, and then shell them again, removing the peel that surrounds each individual bean. By the time you do this, you’ll be wondering why you even started in the first place — a bushel of beans will result in a handful! But the Greeks know that this is silly: why, after you’ve gone to all the work of growing those beans, should you throw most of your harvest away? Stew them up with some lamb and tomato, or blanch and freeze them ’til Summer to add to eggplant, zucchini, okra, and tomato with some dill — as long as you pick the beans while they’re tender, there is no reason you have to peel and toss that inner shell. You might want to for certain dishes, but it’s by no means a necessity! (An interesting bit of koukiá history here.)

Ragout of fresh favas with artichokes from Bob Roan and Teri Ueki, with our own dried tomatoes and spanakorizo (rice with spinach, Greek-style) …. mmm-mmm!

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Filed under around the farm, farmer's market, homestead how-to, in the garden, preserving, recipes, spring, Winter

Making Things: The Best Homemade Corned Beef Ever!

I’m a little bit obsessed with making things. Food things in particular. Especially the ones that we’re all used to buying from the grocery store. Bacon, olives, cheese, soda pop, marshmallows — they just turn up on the shelf, in jars and cans and packages, and that’s that — right?

Well, of course not; if you’ve ever planted a garden or cooked a meal you’re aware of that. Most of us (I hope) are. But what we are so often unaware of is the process that goes into making these things. And that’s what I’ve gotten hopelessly hooked on: the process.

When you start making things like cheese or sauerkraut or olives, you become immediately, profoundly aware that these foods weren’t developed simply because they are tasty or go well with a sandwich: They grew out of the age-old need to preserve seasonal foods for the rest of the year. That became particularly clear to me the first time I made a batch of cheese — I had never really thought of milk as a seasonal food, like strawberries or tomatoes, but it most certainly is. Hence, cheese.


(My obsession, so idyllically grounded in exploration of age-old foodways, took a diversion into frivolity over the holidays this year, when I found myself compelled to replicate Hostess Sno Balls — chocolate cupcakes, marshmallow coating, ground coconut, cream filling… the works. They were indeed delicious, although they took me the better part of three days to make! I would guess that the development of Sno Balls was probably in no way linked to the need for food preservation, though you know what they say about the indestructible nature of Twinkies…)

homemade sno-balls: worth the work? …yes. definitely.

Winter is a lovely time to dip one’s toes in the waters of Making Things — sweet cabbages abound at the farmer’s market for sauerkraut, citrus galore for lemon curd and candied peel, and the cold, wet weather make indoor projects all the more appealing. My current fixation: Corned Beef!

I made my first home-cured corned beef last year, and it looks to be becoming a new tradition around here. What with the horror stories surrounding “mystery beef” and the toxic qualities of nitrate/nitrite, store-bought corned beef looked to be a thing of the past at our St. Patrick’s Day table — and I couldn’t have that!

So, what to do? We checked out the pricey cuts at nearby natural-foods markets, but that seemed to be a bit much for what we thought of, up til then, as a bit of a novelty meal. I consulted a few cookbooks, found several recipes for home-made corned beef, and decided to give it at try. We went to our local butcher shop, picked out a nice beef brisket, and proceeded with the recipe. Five days later, bam — the best corned beef we had ever tasted! Fantastically flavorful, not too salty, spiced just so. A world apart from the store-bought stuff. We raved about it for days.


And the best part is: it’s surprisingly simple to make! A dry-rub of salt and spices is less messy than the usual pot-of-brine method, you only need to check on it once every day or two, and the ingredients (other than the meat) are likely things you have in your pantry already. This post is a bit late this year to have it ready for St. Patrick’s, but don’t let that stop you — it’s fantastic any day!

Best-Ever Homemade Corned Beef

Why “corned?” The name apparently derives from Old English: “corns” of coarse salt were originally used to preserve the meat. We’re using kosher salt, but otherwise, the method here is more or less the same as the one used hundreds — even thousands — of years ago.

Many recipes, as well as most commercial corned beef products, contain saltpeter (potassium nitrate) as a preservative and colour enhancer. This is what gives store-bought corned beef its bright pink hue, but it’s really not necessary — and a Google search will reveal hundreds of articles on the detrimental health effects of nitrates in processed foods. (Besides, saltpeter isn’t exactly something you can just pick up at your average grocery store, and it’s an ingredient in gunpowder! Yum, right?) The good news is that you can make perfectly fine corned beef without it, as we’re doing here.

Ingredients:

• Beef brisket — ours was about 5 pounds
• 1/2 cup kosher salt
• 1 Tb freshly-ground black pepper
• 2 tsp paprika
• 2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed, or 1 tsp ground coriander
• 1 tsp mustard seeds
• 1 tsp powdered mustard
• 1/8 tsp ground cloves or allspice
• 2 large bay leaves, crumbled

(This is the spice mix I use — you can certainly vary it to suit your tastes.)

You will also need:
• a large plastic bag, such as a zip-top freezer bag
• a sharp bamboo skewer
• a baking dish large enough to hold the brisket

If you are lucky enough to have a local butcher shop, by all means buy your beef there! We used a lovely brisket from Longhorn Meats here in Auburn — they even cut it to order for us. Ask the butcher to trim off most of the fat, or trim it yourself before you get started. The salt curing tenderizes tough-yet-flavorful cuts, such as brisket; and, of course, it bears mentioning that if you’re going to put in the time and effort on a project like this, it’s worthwhile to start out with the very best ingredients you can find!

1. Combine all spices with the kosher salt in a small bowl.

2. Lay the brisket on a baking sheet, cutting board, or other work surface. With the bamboo skewer, poke holes all over the brisket, about an inch apart, clear through the piece of meat. Turn brisket and repeat on other side.

3. Sprinkle a handful of the salt rub over the brisket, and rub in thoroughly. You’ll want to sort of “massage” the salt into the meat with your fingertips. Repeat until both sides of the brisket are evenly coated, and all the salt mixture has been used.

4. Place the brisket in the plastic bag — you might need an extra set of hands to do this — and seal the bag, squeezing out most of the excess air. Place the bagged brisket in the baking dish.

5. Now, just park the dish in the refrigerator — and don’t forget about it! The salt will draw the juices out of the meat; turn the brisket every day or two so both sides spend equal time in the juices. We leave ours to cure for about five days. If your brisket is particularly thick, say two inches or more, you might want to give it an extra day or two.

When you are ready to cook the corned beef, remove it from the bag and soak in cold water for a couple of hours, changing the water once or twice. This helps to draw out the excess salt. You can now proceed with your favorite corned-beef-and-cabbage recipe — the farmer’s market is a great place to pick up the requisite carrots, onions, and potatoes.

 

Don’t forget the Guinness and soda bread

And the leftovers make a sublime sandwich — especially when paired with local marble rye and homemade sauerkraut!

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Filed under farmer's market, homestead how-to, making things, preserving, recipes, spring, Winter