Monthly Archives: August 2009

Making Pickles

And now for a closer look at the pickles briefly featured in the raclette post…

 

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I made these babies earlier this month. The main thing keeping me from making my own lacto-fermented, or brined, pickles sooner was lack of access to grape leaves. Most pickle recipes that I have read call for spices to be added to a crock, then a layer of cucumbers, a layer of grape leaves, etc. The tannins in the grape leaves are said to keep the pickles crisp as they ferment. I still don’t have any grape leaves lying around, but I recently read that horseradish leaves will also do the trick, so I called on a friend whose dad grows horseradish in his yard. Though his papa enjoys the spicy little root, it grows like a weed, threatening to overtake his garden, so my friend has been known to show up with bags of dirty little horseradish roots whenever he’s been at his parents’ house on weeding days. Needless to say, I love this. When I asked for some leaves, he was all too happy to show up at my door with a huge freaking plant, roots and all, hanging out in a bucket. I am sorry that I failed to photo document.

I washed the leaves well and sliced the root finely using my ceramic slicer. A grater or mandoline would work, too. I threw about two heads of garlic (peeled whole cloves), a whole bunch of fresh dill and a small handful of peppercorns in with the horseradish in my big gallon jar, then laid some small kirby cucumbers on top. I topped the cukes with a layer of horseradish leaves and some more dill and repeated until my jar was just about full. I then poured in some salty brine, topped with a ziplock as I do for kraut and a little coffee filter hat, and I put it all in a dark spot.

It took a day for the clear brine to cloud over. I checked the pickles every day to make sure they weren’t getting funky and to see how fermentation was coming along, and mine were ready in 10 days. I didn’t find them to be particularly crisp, though they were a bit moreso after some time in the fridge. I don’t know if this is a product of using horseradish instead of grape leaves, or if there is only so much crispness that can be preserved during the fermentation process. I suspect the latter, and the pickles are enjoyable and definitely not mushy, and I will make more pickles in the future. Next time around, I will add much more garlic than I did last time around and maybe experiment a bit with other spices, though my personal opinion is that it’s hard to beat the simple combination of garlic and dill when it comes to pickles.

“Next time” implies, of course, that I will ever approach the end of the gallon jar of pickles that is currently taking up precious shelf space in my fridge…

I have been munching on them solo, I enjoyed them immensely with raclette, and last night I chopped them into a variation on sauce gribiche inspired by the inspirational Orangette. I look forward to working the pickles into many a salad and pressed sandwich in future weeks (egg salad and veggie cubanos top the priority list). Perhaps I’ll even be ready to make another batch this glorious cucumber season.

 

sliced up and picnic ready
sliced up and picnic ready
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Raclette

Every summer, loved ones and I convene in New Hampshire to reunite and swim in a lake and rejuvenate in various ways and, most importantly, to eat some amazing cheese. OK, the cheese is not quite as important as the loved ones and the reuniting, but it is pretty damn special.

I was blessed to grow up, from the age of four on, in a wonderfully tight-knit neighborhood. There were single people and families, kids with whom I learned to ride bikes on my dead end street. There was the beloved bachelor professor who lived downstairs from me. There were roommates and people who lived down the block, flitting in and out of the weekly dinners that were a constant for the rest of us, and then there was Colleen. Colleen was just about the most beautiful and sophisticated person I could imagine. She lived next door to us with a family of friends, and they had all met in Switzerland. Colleen had lived all over Europe. We called her driveway “piazza,” strung with twinkle lights and decorated with a small gondola. She traveled the big world and broadened my littler one with exotic chocolates and mementos and enchanting stories. Once she phoned me from an AIRPLANE for goodness sake. My mind was blown.

It must also be said that Colleen is from the Midwest, all American charm and stories of swim meets and big families and having too long legs as a girl. She grew up spending summer days on a lake with brothers and sisters and cousins, water-skiing and swimming and all kinds of neat things. When I was about six, she bought a house on a lake in New Hampshire, in large part so that she could share that experience with her loved ones. It is a fantastic house, and she fills it with fantastic people throughout the summer.

Because a few cornerstone members of our neighborhood crew first met in Switzerland, we took to spending Swiss national day, August 1, at the lake house and, though the date has varied over the years, the tradition of celebrating with raclette has not.

Raclette is an amazing thing. It is a semi-firm cheese, and also the dish named for the cheese, traditionally served melted with fresh ground pepper and boiled potatoes and cornichons and little pearl onions and cold cuts (though I traditionally forgo those last two things). It is a washed rind cheese, and I thought it was offensively stinky as a kid, but now I find it somewhat mild. My palate is either more sophisticated or rather more dull than it was twenty years ago. Go figure.  In any event, the raclette is creamy and smooth and just the tiniest bit stinky-cheesy and one of the best things that you could ever hope to eat.

 

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Raclette with potatoes and black pepper. Shown not with the traditional cornichons, but with homemade pickles that I added to the mix.

 

Nowadays, it is possible to purchase various types of electric raclette grills to make melty cheese in your own home. Many of these little grills have individual pans to melt down individual slices of raclette. While I would never say no to my own little portion of melted cheese, and while I’m sure raclette tastes phenomenal under any circumstances, it’s worth pointing out that the name raclette comes from the word “racler,” to scrape, and I am both pleased and unduly proud to consume raclette prepared the old-fashioned way every summer with some of my very favorite people.

Here is how it’s done.

Step 1: Procure half a wheel of  cheese. Not a sliver, not a wedge. An entire half wheel of cheesy awesomeness is required. Place the cheese with the cut side facing a fire. Our traditional racleur was not able to make it this year, but he rigged up this system years ago — a contained fire with a grill grate against which coals can be stacked to maximize heat exposure while keeping the cheese safe from flames and ash — thus enabling us to forge ahead with our cheese-loving ways with relative ease.

 

the early stages of the half wheel
the early stages of the half wheel

 

Step 2: Scrape-a-scrape! The racleur flips the cheese for even melting and watches, with a keen eye, to see if it is ready. Once the outermost layer of cheese has melted, the racleur removes it from the fire and uses a special flat knife to scrape the melty goodness onto a waiting plate. Inevitably, there will be some excess along the sides. This is scraped upwards and inwards, onto the flat surface of the cheese, for additional melting and eventual serving. The crispy, rindy bits are known as the religieuse after the nuns to whom this part was relegated until other people caught on that it was awesome. At least that’s what I was told when I was a kid. Maybe it’s called the religieuse because eating it makes you feel close to God? That seems entirely plausible. Would someone less ignorant and better with French please step in here and clarify?

 

mid-scrape
mid-scrape

 

Step 3: Repeat. Repeat until everyone is fed and happy, and until someone else dons the apron and gives the racleur a chance to eat. 

Step 4 (Optional, but recommended): Let me have a go! Cheese lover that I am, I was thrilled, after 22 years of this wonderful tradition, to get behind the cheese for the first time.

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taking the cheese very seriously.

 

Step 5: Wrap leftover cheese in foil, refrigerate, and make rösti in the morning. My mom handles this part, frying leftover potatoes with grated raclette until crispy and brown, while I make a big pan of eggs that inevitably takes way longer than it should, and eventually we all sit down to one of the best breakfasts of the year in a sunny spot on a lovely lake, and I, for one, feel blessed and happy with hot food and cold juice and lazy days with friends who feel like family.

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Confetti Gratin

I find it funny that a disproportionate number of my food posts are about gratins, which are really not a huge part of my daily cooking repertoire. Perhaps that’s why they get written up here — they seem somewhat novel to me. Or maybe I just think they’re pretty.

We had a bunch of root veggies from the CSA last week. More kohlrabi, buttery amazing potatoes, and, as is so frequently the way, radishes. I had planned to make a gratin with the kohlrabi and potatoes, the simple kind where you slice them up and pour cream over (well, half & half as my cream — the primary inspiration for this dish — had spoiled) and bake it, with some garlic and fresh herbs added for good measure. I sliced the kohlrabi and potatoes directly into my baking dish using my ceramic faux mandoline, and then I spied the radishes tucked away in the veggie drawer. We get radishes from our CSA. We get lots of radishes. I was still working on the previous week’s radishes when more arrived. Inspired partly by aesthetics and partly by the abundance of radishes, I decided to put them in the gratin, and look how pretty:

 

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The half and half was whizzed up in the blender with some fresh garlic and handfuls of various herbs and a bit of parmesan, and it was poured over my pretty root veggies and baked at around 450 for quite a while. Over an hour. Maybe an hour and a half.

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Note the little herb flecks in this ready-to-bake dish. We had received a few little plastic baggies of herbs from some lovely gardeners in our lives. Into the blender went small handfuls of thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano. This was definitely not a dish carefully designed to play up the qualities of any one herb. It was more confetti-style smatterings of lovely flavors and colors all baked up.

It strikes me that this would be something that could be fun to make with kids. Not all of the slicing — you should do that — but the layering and arranging of the different veggies, bright white kohlrabi and yellow potatoes and easter egg radishes pink- and red- and purple-rimmed. And nimble little fingers are great for picking herbs off of their stems, right?

The end result was herby and garlicky and good. The radishes mellowed a lot in cooking, mostly in flavor, but also a bit in color. Were I to make this again with a bit more ambition, I would probably blanch the potatoes and thicken the sauce, either by making a roux or just by tossing some flour into the blender, to shorten the overall baking time and to retain a little more of the radish colors. The colors were still there this time around, though, a bit mellowed, but still there, reminiscent of confetti, brightening up the middle of our work week.