Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pickle Time

Dang it, the summer flew by and suddenly it was almost, almost too late to make pickles. But luckily, I happened to be shopping the other day and noticed the market still had pickling cucumbers and flowering dill, so I loaded up my cart and went on my merry way.

Then last night, in less time than it takes to make dinner, we made pickles.

Of course, they won't be ready to eat for a week or two or three, because we are making them using natural fermentation. Do you know about the book Wild Fermentation? It's a great resource authored by Sandor Katz, about the many benefits of making your own fermented treats - like yogurt, pickles, and sauerkraut. Of course, he doesn't just sing the praises of fermented foods, he tells you how to make them!

You can find the precise recipe for pickles here, or better yet, get your own copy of the book! But below is a rough guide to how we do it.

First, you don't have to use flowering dill but it's nice to use if you can get it. You can use regular fresh dill or dried dill.

The Wild Fermentation site recommends that you make your pickles in a crock, but we always make them in mason jars.

So here's what you'll need:

3 2-quart mason jars

3-4 lbs pickling cucumbers
2-4 bunches fresh flowering dill, or fresh dill
2-3 heads garlic
3-4 T. whole black peppercorns
Salt and water

First, make the brine. You'll need enough to cover all your pickles so you might want to start with 2 quarts water with 6 T. salt mixed into it. This probably won't be enough brine to cover all your pickles, but you can easily make more.

Rinse the pickles and the dill. Peel and smash the garlic cloves and distribute them evenly amongst your clean pickle jars.

Roughly crush the peppercorns in a mortar & pestle, or if you don't have one, crush them with a rolling pin on a cutting board. Divide the peppercorns into the jars.

Divide the dill evenly into the jars, and then add the cucumbers to the jars.

Now pour the brine over the pickles, and, if you need to, make a little more brine. You want enough to nearly cover the cucumbers.

Sandor Katz recommends you place a plate on top of the pickles to immerse them completely, but we've found that a clean beer bottle with a little water in it is the perfect way to weigh the pickles down and immerse them fully.

Cover the pickles loosely with a clean towel and put them in a cool place. Mr. Katz recommends you taste the pickles after a few days, and then check them daily. We have tended to only taste them about once every week or so, and that's worked out fine for us. Regardless of how much tasting you do, you'll want to skim off any mold that may form on the top, and rinse any mold off the bottles too.

Depending on the temperature, and how sour you like them, your pickles should be perfectly delicious and ready for crunching in one to four weeks.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Welcome Back, Herb Butter

Fall seems to really be upon us this time. No more summery teasers, just cooler air and grayer skies and scattered showers, and for me anyway, an intense desire to make soup. A desire bordering, of course, upon obsession. Lately I have not wanted to eat anything else, and so all week long, it's all soup, all the time. Of course, I write these words on a Monday and so far, it's only been two days of soup. Yesterday it was lentil vegetable for dinner (and this morning for breakfast too), tonight's dinner (and surely tomorrow's breakfast or lunch): mushroom barley with homemade mushroom stock. Tomorrow night it's going to be Middle Eastern Spinach Soup from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu cookbook, and the next night, Deborah Madison's Parsnip Carrot Soup from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

All along, so far, the magic bonus ingredient has been herb butter that I hastily whipped up last week with some leftover thai basil, dill and shallots that I had laying around. And I'm reminded of what a wonderful staple this is to have in your pantry - or rather, freezer. I haven't only used it in soup recently. Over the weekend I fried and egg in it - what a way to elevate your basic average fried egg on toast to something sophisticated and elegant!

I highly recommend you make yourself a slab of herb butter next time you have some leftover herbs wanting to feel completely loved. It's easy - bring a stick of butter (I prefer unsalted) to room temperature. Once it's nice & soft, blend some finely diced herbs into it using a rubber spatula - 2 to 2 1/2 T. is a good amount, and if you are so inclined, you can add some finely diced shallot and grated lemon zest, along with a light sprinkling of salt.

Once the herbs and enhancements have been blended into the butter, smear the whole lot of it onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper and shape into a roll. Throw it in the freezer and when frozen, cut it into slices and store the slices in a glass or plastic container, taking out a slice or two to use as needed.

Just think: herb butter melting into a mountain of garlic mashed potatoes or a steaming squash biscuit or creamy scrambled eggs or a hot pot of stew or freshly steamed root vegetables....I'm sure you get the picture and I bet you have dishes of your own that are crying out for a little herb butter love, so bring 'em on!

I'm thinking the cold weather season is going to be a whole lot easier to stand as long as I've got lots of soup and lots of herb butter.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Today would have been my Grandma Esway's 111th birthday.

I wouldn't have even known it was her birthday except for the fact that I realized recently that since I've moved, the few photos that I have of her haven't resurfaced yet. So I asked my parents to scan a photo and send it to me. And it happened that the photo that my Mom sent happened to be a photo of her on her birthday (which, coincidentally, also features a roughly three year old me, sitting there right next to her!), and Mom also pointed out that her birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Grandma!

I still miss her and wish that I could have known her better. I bet my parents and all of her children and grandchildren still miss her too. I've been thinking a lot about how we are never really ready to say goodbye to those we love. I've been thinking a lot about how I wish I could have known her better, and for that matter, my Grandpa Esway, who died when I was young enough not to be able to remember much of him - and both of my grandparents on my Mom's side too, whom I remember but wish that I had known so much better than I did.

I was very inspired recently by my friend Taralinda's recent posting about Dia de los Muertos, aka the Day of the Dead - a time to honor our ancestors. So I am taking this moment to honor my grandparents and thank them for everything they sacrificed so that I can be sitting right here, right now, writing these words.

My Grandma Esway married very young and most certainly lived a difficult life - the likes of which I can only imagine. She never had a fraction of the choices or options that someone like me has today, and she never had much money, but somehow, whenever I was with her, I felt like the richest person who ever lived. And despite whatever material items she may have lacked, she definitely helped to inspire my love of food and feeding people and reveling in the kitchen. And I seriously think of her and give thanks for her every time I use her cast iron skillet, which is practically every time I cook. And I know that no matter what I make in that skillet, there is always a little of her magic in it, and a little of her love, which no doubt makes everything that comes out of it taste that much more delightful.

So Happy Birthday, Grandma. Thanks for the inspiration.