Tag Archives: food preservation

Putting up with the CSA

I woke up this morning to the pounding rain outside open windows, a truly enthusiastic downpour. A perfect day, my groggy self thought, to stay indoors and catch up on some things around the house (why, after these weeks and months of not working full-time, there are still so many things to catch up on is anyone’s guess). As my recent blogging lapse may imply, things have gotten away from me a bit in the kitchen lately. I have noticed, these last few weeks, that our refrigerator is always packed with vegetables, even when it is Tuesday afternoon and our new CSA delivery is slated to arrive in mere hours. On this rainy Monday, I decided to break that pattern, to clear out some space in the veggie drawers for our new stuff tomorrow. It was time to put some veggies up for even drabber days.

I spent the morning washing greens, chopping the stems of Chinese broccoli, separating beets from their leafy tops, steaming those tops with the Chinese broccoli and some u-choy, packing delightfully dark and tasty steamed greens into freezer bags.

Then I broke out some more CSA goodies, chopped a few rough stems, and cleaned out the salad spinner to transform this:

into this:

It feels good not just to have some space in the fridge, but to have shiny new packages in my freezer, sturdy vegetables and fantastically vivid green sauce for winter months. The frozen greens will go into frittatas, turnovers, noodles, wherever fresh greens normally go. The arugula-dill pesto, bright and fresh with a slight bitter bite, would be tasty in gratins, on pasta, or slathered on fish. Mashed into cream cheese, it would make a lovely little tea sandwich. Instead of a fridge packed with veggies that I fear I will not eat in time, I have a freezer brimming with possibilities.

Arugula-Dill Pesto Recipe

What Goes In:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 large bunch arugula
  • 1 large bunch dill
  • 1 handful (probably around 1/4 cup) toasted pine nuts
  • zest and juice of 1 small lemon
  • a good glug of olive oil (again, probably about 1/4 cup)
  • salt and pepper

How to Do it:

  • Give garlic a head start by rough chopping in your food processor
  • Add greens, pine nuts, lemon zest and juice. Pulse. Pulse.
  • With the food processor running, add olive oil until nice and thick.

That’s it! Super easy! Get to it! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some adorable patty pan squashes to steam and scoop and stuff.

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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

How to Make Sour Cherry Jam

Step 1: Get cherries.

I have wanted to make sour cherry jam for years, but it seems that I just about always miss sour cherry season. I tend to think they will stick around longer than they do, or it is not a convenient jam-making time when the season is upon us. This year, I finally prioritized jam making and picked up around five pounds of sour cherries at the greenmarket. Sour cherries have a slightly different flavor from sweet cherries. They are the ones typically used in pies and maraschino cherries, and they are delicious, but the main reason I wanted to use sour cherries instead of sweet is that jam and preserves generally need a whole lot of sugar to set up and keep right, and I thought sour cherries would make a more balanced jam than sweet ones would.

 

About a quarter of the total cherries used

 

Step 2: Pit cherries.

I recommend a cherry pitter for this task, also known as an olive pitter. It works on both. This task is repetitive and time consuming. If you have someone to chat with, throw on some music and jabber away. If you’re on your own, I recommend turning on the TV and sitting while pitting. It’s all fine and good to be meditative about it, full attention to pitting cherries on foot in the kitchen, but that’s not how I was feeling on Wednesday evening after work and class and hustle and bustle. I was happy to sit down.

Step 3: Put all your ingredients in a big pot and turn on the heat.

This is the first time that I have *gasp* canned without a recipe. I am generally fearful of doing so, because it’s possible to screw up and give your loved ones botulism for Christmas, and that is no fun at all. But I could not find a recipe that I felt compelled to use. A lot of recipes I came across called for pectin, which I didn’t feel like getting into (I have only used pectin in jam once, and I found that I far preferred the texture of preserves made without it). The Gourmet recipe had me smashing cherry pits and tying them in cheese cloth and letting it all sit for 8 hours before cooking and then adding pectin anyway. Who wants to do that? Martha Stewart had fewer cherries than I did and only used a splash of lemon juice, and she had me adding a little sugar at a time and waiting…a little more and then waiting…it looked like a good recipe, but who has the patience?

In the end, I looked at those two recipes and compared the amount of sugar in both and went for the higher of the two, using the same techniques I’ve used for past preserves. Both recipes called for lemon juice, and I added significantly more lemon juice than either recipe called for. More acid = no botulism, and I love lemon juice in just about anything. I simmered some big strips of lemon zest in with everything else, but removed them after about an hour or so, so as not to disrupt my acid balance. Then I cooked and cooked and cooked it. Pectin would definitely have helped it gel more quickly. It bubbled away on the stove for at least 2 hours, probably more, before it became an appropriately jammy consistency.

 

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Note: I broke some of the cherries up a bit with my hands before cooking, and, after simmering for a bit, I used an immersion blender to chop some of them more finely, leaving some big chunks in there. If you do not have an immersion blender, go ahead and coarsely chop all of your cherries before throwing them into the pot.

Step 4: Check to see if you have jam yet.

Put a small plate in the fridge to chill. Once your jam gets to be thick and fairly uniform in texture, put a dollop on your chilled plate and stick it in the fridge for a few minutes. Check to see if it has set up by running your finger through the jam. If your finger leaves a little path of plate in its wake, your jam is done. I’ve seen a number of recipes that call for elaborate jam-checking measures: Using a thermometer to ensure that you are cooking it at 220 degrees for a set amount of time, turning off the heat every time you check your jam lest it should overcook in the three minutes or so that your dollop is in the fridge, etc. My experience has supported my belief that an extra three minutes of cooking will not destroy your jam. The sugar and acid content and how you process your jars will determine how well your jam keeps. Texture is really an aesthetic thing. Call it done when it’s the texture you want, and you won’t run any greater risk of spoilage.

Step 5 (optional): Let your jam plump overnight.

I had some substantial hunks of cherry left in my jam (I like it that way), and, even when it finally thickened up, the bigger pieces floated to the top of the pot. Letting the jam sit a while before canning gives the fruit an opportunity to absorb more of its surrounding syrup. The fruit can then be distributed more evenly within the jars rather than floating to the top. That’s the idea. Also, it was late by the time my jam achieved jamminess, and I was tired, so I opted to not can just then, instead letting my jam sit and cool and plump overnight, lid on. Ideally, I would have canned first thing in the morning instead of going to work. Alas, that was not to be. I somehow found room in the fridge for the pot to sit during the day. Here it is plumped and ready to go:

 

Plumped and ready to go

 

Step 6: Prepare your jars (also, a word about canning pot alternatives).

Wash your jars, lids, etc. Put the lids in a small saucepan of water and heat until tiny bubbles form, but don’t let it boil. You don’t want to overheat the lids and damage the seal part before processing your jam. Put the jars in whatever canning mechanism you’ve got and cover with water by about 2 inches. If you have a special canning pot with the little slots for each jar, put it to use! If you do not have a special canning pot, have no fear. I do not have a special canning pot either. I have a big stockpot, the kind that’s designed for spaghetti, with the pot-sized strainer that fits into the cooking pot. The main thing you want, when looking for a canning pot, is one that is big enough to cover your jars with a couple of inches of water, and one that has some kind of mechanism to keep the jars off of the bottom of the pot. A wire rack would work. Gourmet actually has you lining the bottom of a regular pot with kitchen towels. That last idea scares me a little, but they usually know what they’re doing with food over there at Gourmet, so give it a whirl if you’re less of a chicken than I am. I set my jars in the strainer inside my stock pot, and it works just fine. Cover them with water and bring to a boil. Boil them for 10 minutes or so. Go ahead and boil whatever else you plan to use for packing: wide-mouth funnel, ladle, jar lifter, etc.

If you plan to can your jam as soon as you have cooked it (as opposed to letting it plump overnight), start your jars around the time that you start your jam. It takes a while for all that water to reach boiling point. Once they’ve been sterilized, leave them in the hot water until it’s time to can. If you have let your jam plump, bring it back to a boil while the jars sterilize. You don’t need to cook it more, but you do need it to be hot in order to pack it into jars.

Step 7: Pack and Process your Jam.

Once the jars have been sterilized and your jam is hot, get to canning! I highly recommend procuring a jar lifter to help with this. I used to can without one, using a silicone kitchen mitt to lift jars in and out of boiling water, but that sucked. Get your hands on a jar lifter. You can borrow mine. One by one, lift the jars out of the hot water, tip the water back into the pot, and let dry for a minute before filling with jam. I have not found a funnel to be necessary, but some people like them. I just spoon it on in. If you have noticeable bubbles in the jar, run a butter knife around the edge to knock them loose. I have only found this to be a problem with really thick stuff like apple butter. Jam tends to settle into its jar just fine. Leave 1/4 inch of empty space (head space) at the top of the jar, or whatever your recipe calls for. Top with lid and screw on the outer band to hold it in place. Screw it on until you feel some resistance, but do NOT screw it as tightly as humanly possible. The lids need a little bit of give so that air can escape while the jam is being processed and you can get a nice vacuum seal.

Put the jars back in the pot, making sure that they are not touching each other or the walls of your pot. Use the jar lifter. It’s better than a silicone glove. Bring the water back to a boil and start timing. I processed my cherry jam for 10 minutes, an appropriate amount of time for acidic things in pint-sized jars. Some recipes insist that you keep your jars in the water until it cools down. Others insist that you remove them immediately. Both camps are very clear about the fact that their way is the only possible way to make sure your jam is processed properly. I take this to mean that they both work just fine, but I tend to remove my jars and allow them to cool out on the counter, both because this method dominates my more trustworthy recipes and because it is more satisfying to watch them cool down, gleaming on the counter, and to listen for the flat little “ping” that happens when a convex lid vaccum seals and becomes concave, safely sealing your jars of jam.

 

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Cherry Jam Recipe in a Nutshell:

What goes in:

  • 5 Pounds Sour Cherries
  • 5 cups Sugar (quite shocking to the sugar-cautious among us!)
  • 3/4 – 1 cup Lemon Juice
  • Zest of 1 Lemon, in wide strips

Special Equipment:

  • Cherry pitter
  • Jar lifter
  • Adequate canning pot & jars (no, you cannot reuse old jar lids. New lids everytime, please!)
  • Any other canning paraphernalia you deem necessary

How to do it (abridged):

  1. Pit and coarsely chop the cherries.
  2. Combine all ingredients in heavy pot over medium heat, stirring well to dissolve sugar.
  3. Bring to a boil and cook until jammy consistency is reached (check using the chilled plate method, above). Remove lemon zest.
  4. If desired, let plump overnight and return to boil before canning.
  5. Sterilize jars and lids and any other relevant equipment.
  6. Fill and process jars.
  7. Make adorable labels to give your jam away as holiday gifts (I usually get around to this in December or so), or label with a sharpie and hoard for your greedy little self.

Salty, Pickly Bok Choy

I am still enamored with weekly vegetable deliveries, and bok choy is delicious. Really. It’s great. So is it a bad sign that I began to tire ever so slightly of bok choy by week 3 of CSA deliveries? It was week 2 of failing to split the delivery with my share-sharer, and I had a lot of veggies to consume. I contemplated finding a way to put them up for the winter, but I’m pretty sure lettuce does not freeze well, and I suspect that even bok choy would lend itself to mushiness if frozen. And so I turned to kraut.

I thought about making kimchi, which seemed like a more natural fit for the taste and texture of bok choy, but, as much as I enjoy it when I have it, I imagined that a jar of the stuff would wind up sitting in my refrigerator for a very long time indeed. A friend had brought some gnarly little horseradish roots over from his father’s garden a while back, and I had some fermented garlic from awesome Amish farmers in the fridge, so spicy kraut seemed like the way to go. Besides, I am going away this weekend to a land of hot dogs and hamburgers (mine will be veggie), and I figured that kraut would be a welcome addition. Here’s what I did:

Started with a massive bunch of bok choy, which I washed and coarsely chopped.

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Mixed my greens with grated horseradish, chopped whey-fermented garlic, a little fresh garlic (because I cannot resist), and a little too much salt. Salt keeps nasty spoiler micro-organisms at bay during the fermentation process. It was a hot and swampy day when I was assembling my kraut, and I erred on the side of too much salt. At least my stuff’s not spoiling!

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Tossed the greens and their fixings into a jar and smashed them around with my (well scrubbed) hands. In addition to reducing spoilage, the salt helps draw moisture out of the greens, creating a nice brine. It’s important to keep everything submerged in brine during the fermentation process. Otherwise, things can get slimy and unpleasant.

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I hope to have a pickling crock one day, but, in the meantime, fermentation takes place in jars in this household. I had some whey kicking around from making cream cheese, so I added it to the brine. Whey is both cultured and acidic, a combination gives fermentation projects a little boost. To keep everything submerged, I weighed the bok choy down with a ziplock bag filled with salty water. The idea here is that leakage will not affect the salt content of the brine.

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I made a little coffee filter hat for my kraut and put it in a dark spot for a few days. I checked it after a few days, and the smell was just like that of good dill pickles. It smelled…well…pickly, and very garlicky to boot. It tastes briny and garlicky and sour, with a bok choy edge. The horseradish is muted, if there at all, but I anticipated as much. Horseradish maintains its kick best in cooler conditions, but I thought I may as well give it a whirl. No harm, right?

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The kraut is just a tad saltier than I would have liked, and there’s a chance I prefer the texture of good old grated cabbage (my last batch of kraut was plain old cabbage with garlic and caraway seeds, a tough act to follow), but the bok choy kraut is decent for sure, and I can only hope that my fellow fourth-of-July-ers will deign to slop some on a sandwich and give it a whirl. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

In the meantime, if you’d like to whip up some sauerkraut of your own, here are all my tricks:

  • If you are not lucky enough to have a pickling crock, keep your fermentables submerged in brine by filling a ziplock with saltwater and placing it on top of your brined veggies. I like to put the empty bag in the top of the jar and fill it once it’s inside. Less messy that way, and easier to finagle.
  • Though all you need for sauerkraut is salty brine, whey can help give it a boost. I think the easiest way to get whey, assuming you do not have a jug of it in the fridge, is to strain store bought yogurt. Make sure your yogurt contains live active cultures (it will say as much on the tub). You can get cheesecloth or muslin  involved, but the cleanest way to strain yogurt is to pour it into a basket style coffee filter set inside a strainer. Leave it sitting over a bowl in the fridge for several hours, and you will wind up with a bowl of whey and a strainer full of incredibly rich and creamy yogurt, sometimes called Greek style, always delicious.
  • I like to top my jars with coffee filters. They are clean and easy and on hand and let the whole thing breathe. A piece of clean cloth would do just as well, but I think it’s worth investing $2 or so in a box of basket style coffee filters. They are great for straining all kinds of stuff and for capping kombucha, sauerkraut, kvass, really anything you wish to ferment in a jar.
  • If your stuff gets a little scumminess on the top of the brine while it’s fermenting, skim it off. If the scumminess is pervasive, or if anything in your jar turns vibrant and unnatural colors, toss it. Odds are in favor of your fermentation going just fine, and common sense definitely applies.
  • There is a great book on fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. I waited quite a while to get it from the library some time ago, and I was pleased as punch to realize, when I begrudgingly returned it, that it is available in limited, but amazingly navigable form on google books. He says more than I ever could about fermentation — krauts, sourdoughs, honey wine, you name it. Take a look! He also has a website with useful information and troubleshooting Q&A.