Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hungarian roots, part 3: Goulash

When I smell onions and paprika cooking together, I am instantly transported to the family dinners of my childhood at my Grandma Bella's house in New York. Onions and paprika are the base for so many Hungarian classics that you might call them the "holy duo" of Hungarian cuisine. In my opinion, no other dish expresses that unique flavor profile better than goulash.

This slow cooked stew of meat, onions, vegetables and paprika is eaten all over Central Europe, but it originated with cattle herders in Hungary. Its been a staple on Hungarian tables since about the 9th century, although paprika didn't make it to that part of the world until the 16th century. I've always made goulash with beef, but it can be made with pork, veal or lamb. Like any beef stew, the best cuts for this preparation are tough cuts that require long, slow cooking such as rump, shoulder or brisket. Purists will say that authentic goulash has only 4 ingredients - meat, onions, paprika and water - but it was not uncommon for vegetables like celery and carrots to be added. Over time, different ingredients like potatoes, bell pepper, garlic and wine found their way into the goulash pot.

My mother made her goulash with blade steaks cut from the shoulder and it had big pieces of potato in it. She typically served it with brown bread and a green veggie on the side. My grandmother's goulash had a thin, watery sauce and she served it over egg noodles, which is more traditional. But the absolute best goulash I ever ate came from an unlikely place - my ex husband. He was raised by his Austrian mother and grandmother and they were incredible cooks. I will never forget the roast duck they served me with chewy potato dumplings anointed in duck fat and braised sweet and sour red cabbage on the side. My ex husband learned how to make goulash from them and in my opinion it is the gold standard. It is the goulash that every other goulash aspires to be.  

GOULASH
4 lbs of beef - chuck, rump roast or bottom round are the best cuts. 
6 medium onions
3 tbsp of good quality paprika
1 qt. white button mushrooms
1 cup white wine - I like a mild German riesling for this dish
Salt and pepper
Flour for dusting

Chuck on the right, bottom round on the left
Let's start with the beef. The best cuts for this recipe are from the tough, well used muscles of the cow. These cuts have fat, collagen and connective tissue that break down during cooking and add flavor and richness to the dish. Chuck comes from the shoulder and is good for stewing, braising and slow roasting. Brisket also lends itself to long, slow cooking and it has a generous amount of fat that keeps the meat moist and juicy as it cooks. Rump roast or bottom round is a little more lean and is the go-to cut for pot roast. I used a two pound piece of chuck and a two pound piece of bottom round, which I trimmed of excess fat and cut into large chunks. 

Next, lets talk about the onions. The best variety for this dish is the yellow or Spanish onion. This may seem like a huge amount of onions and, to be honest, it is. But don't forget, this dish cooks for two hours and the onions basically cook down to nothing but flavor. They become sweet and soft and they add a ton of beautiful flavor to this stew.  Its kind of a pain in the butt to prep all these onions, but once you get good at it, it goes quickly. Make sure your knife is very sharp to avoid crying while you're slicing them. Cut the onion in half through the root, lay the cut side down and slice the top off. Peel the dark and tough outer layers of the onions, then lay them flat on your cutting board. Cut off the root end and slice each onion thinly. I just happened to have some carrot sticks in the fridge, so I decided to dice them and throw them in. I also really like button mushrooms in this dish. Its not traditional, but it is delicious. They will get added to the goulash half way through cooking. 

Finally, a word about paprika. This spice is made from air dried peppers and there are a surprising array of different kinds of paprika from sweet to hot to pungent. The peppers were not native to Central Europe, but originated in Mexico and were brought to Spain in the 16th century where they spread throughout Central Europe. Hungarian paprika is prized for its unique sweetness and bright red color. Its easy to think that goulash has some kind of tomato product in it because of its deep red color, but that color comes exclusively from the paprika! Look for real Hungarian paprika and invest in a good quality spice. This recipe calls for a whopping three tablespoons of paprika, which also seems like a lot, and it is. But again, after two hours of cooking with the meat and onions, the paprika become mellow and complex. Don't skimp in this recipe. 

With everything prepped, you're ready to start cooking. Put a large stock pot over medium low heat and dump all the onions in with a little bit of butter, about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper and all that paprika. Add about a tablespoon of kosher salt and a teaspoon of ground black pepper to the meat and toss it in. Then sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the meat and gently toss to coat each piece of meat with a little bit of flour. Not only will the flour help the meat brown, but it will also add a little body to the sauce. You're going to sear the meat in a hot pan before you add it to the pot, so put a medium skillet over medium high heat. When the skillet is hot, put six or seven pieces of meat in and let it brown. Don't overcrowd the pan with too much meat or your meat will boil instead of sear. Turn the meat over so it browns on both sides, then add a splash of the wine to deglaze the pan. Let the wine cook briefly with the meat, then dump it all into the pot with the onions.  It'll probably take four or five batches to get all the meat browned. Once you get all the meat in to the pot, cover it and turn the heat down to low. Cook it for two hours and half way through, add the cleaned mushrooms. If your sauce looks a little too thin, take the lid off the pot for the final half hour of cooking.

When the meat is cooked properly, it will shred easily into that luxurious red sauce. Using two forks, shred the meat and mix it into the sauce being careful not to break up the mushrooms. The onions and other vegetables will have cooked completely into the sauce and combined with the paprika create a deep and complex flavor that is just heavenly. Serve your goulash over wide noodles with a dollop of sour cream on top and a crisp green salad on the side. This dish is like getting a warm Hungarian hug from the inside. I think my ancestors would be pleased. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hungarian roots, part 2 - Chicken Paprikash

Kate and Isadore Segall - great grandparents
After a completely authentic Hungarian dinner at Jozsa Corner last month, my culinary thoughts have turned to the dishes I grew up with, the food of my heritage. On my mother's side, my family lineage is Hungarian and Romanian. My great grandparents Isadore and Kate Segall came to this country as teenagers in the late 1800's and married and raised a family in New York City. Kate taught her traditional recipes to my Grandma Bella, who passed them down to my mother Bonnie. Mom was a wonderful cook and when I prepare these recipes at home, I imagine the women who preceded me, the European wives and mothers who passed these recipes down from generation to generation. When I cook my favorite Hungarian family dishes, I can feel my ancestors looking over my shoulder and guiding my hand. 

Some of these dishes I can prepare without thinking and these are the recipes I turn to time and again. They are peasant dishes with no frills, no fancy ingredients and no complicated cooking process or special equipment. They are the meals I ate as a child, the comfort food of my people, and one of my favorites is chicken paprikash.  In fact, it is the national dish of Hungary! It’s kind of a chicken and onion stew that is ripe with paprika and it’s typically served over spaetzle or egg noodles, which absorbs the sauce. Because it cooks quickly, this was a go-to weeknight dinner for my family and the leftovers were even better the next day. 

Although I saw her prepare it hundreds of times, my mother taught me to make this dish over the phone. Not long after I moved away from home, I had a craving for chicken paprikash, so I called her to get the recipe. She told me to basically throw everything in a pot, cover it and walk away for half an hour. I couldn't believe it was that simple. I asked "How do you make the sauce?" and she said "It makes its own sauce". What??!! No way!! But when I followed her instructions, it totally worked. Over the years as I've learned more about technique, food chemistry and the finer points of cooking, I've modified this dish to my own liking. I hate to say it lest I insult my ancestors, but I think I've improved this traditional family recipe. Grandma Bella, please forgive me!! 


CHICKEN PAPRIKASH

1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large onion
2 tbsp sweet paprika
1 cup of white wine or chicken broth
Flour for dusting the chicken, salt and pepper to taste

When cooking peasant dishes like this one, it’s important to remember that they all have regional differences and most of them were created based on what was available to people at the time. I have read dozens of recipes for chicken paprikash and very few of them are exactly the same as this one. I've seen recipes that call for some kind of tomato product, which is not traditional at all. Some recipes call for adding sour cream to the sauce, which we never did in my house. You may read this and think "that's not at all how I make it", but this is exactly what I grew up eating. My mother told me to slice the onion, saute it briefly in a deep pot, toss in the chicken pieces, sprinkle the paprika on top, cover the pot and simmer it on medium low heat for about half an hour. That produces a thin and watery sauce and chicken with flabby skin. Needless to say, I made some modifications. 

If your chicken breasts are big, you can cut them in half so that all the chicken pieces are roughly the same size. I typically don't use boneless chicken for this dish as it dries out and no matter how much sauce you spoon on it, it will be stringy and tough. My preference is bone-in thighs and legs, which stay moist during cooking. Give the onion a rough chop and saute it in the bottom of a large pot. You want a tall pot for this recipe as it creates steam, thus retaining all the moisture and that's how this dish makes its own sauce, although the wine helps. Here is where my preparation departs from my mother's. I season the chicken then dust it generously with flour and once the onions start to turn soft and brown a bit, I move the onions to the side of the pot and brown the chicken. The more you brown things, the more flavor your dish develops. In addition to helping the chicken brown, the flour thickens the sauce. Brown the chicken until the skin has rendered some of its fat and is golden brown. Also, if you're concerned about the fat and calories, you can remove the chicken skin and it'll turn out just fine.


Turn the chicken over and sprinkle the paprika over the top. This may seem like a lot of paprika, but it mixes into the sauce and blends with the onions and wine. Trust me, I promise it's not too much. Pour the wine or broth in, put a cover on the pot, turn the heat down to low and simmer the chicken for about half an hour, which gives you enough time to boil some wide egg noodles. To check for doneness, stick a knife in the bottom of one of the chicken thighs. The knife should slide in easily and the juices from the chicken should run clear and not pink. Fill a bowl with egg noodles, place the chicken pieces on top and pour the sauce over the top so it runs down into the noodles. I like to serve mine with a green salad on the side. This is simple Hungarian home cooking that speaks to my soul. Sometimes, there's nothing better.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hungarian Roots, part 1 - Jozsa Corner

Pittsburgh is a melting pot of eastern European cultures. When the city's mills and factories were booming during the industrial revolution, people from all over the world came to Pittsburgh to chase the American dream. In the hills and valleys where the three rivers meet, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Serbian, Hungarian, Ukrainian and many more communities came together and gave this city its unique character. It is most evident in the local food traditions. Pierogies are kind of a big deal here. Its tradition to serve pork and sauerkraut at New Years and people are crazy for coleslaw, pickles and keilbasa. The city is dotted with small restaurants that serve their communities with the dishes of their homelands, the food of their people. This is certainly the case for Jozsa Corner.

Beef goulash from Jozsa Corner
I'd heard about this place since I moved here five years ago and have been intrigued ever since.  You don't make reservations at Jozsa Corner, you make an appointment. From what people had described to me, you are basically dining in someone's living room on the most rustic homemade Hungarian fare this side of the Atlantic ocean. I have quite a bit of Hungarian and Romanian blood flowing through my veins and comfort food for me includes chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage and goulash. Give me some pickled herring, dense brown bread and a briny, fermented pickle and I'm a happy girl. Looking at Jozsa's menu online, the siren call of my ancestors echoed in my heart.

The descriptions were absolutely accurate, this place could not be more unpretentious or informal. The old building sits in front of railroad tracks on a sparsely populated corner in a working class neighborhood. It has a storefront with a counter, a couple of stools, a kitchen with an ancient cook top and well worn appliances. You can imagine generations of Hungarian immigrants stopping in after their shifts at the factory to pick up dinner on their way home.
Dinner in the parlor
Alex Jozsa, our proprietor, looks to be about 70 years old and he chatted with our party of five people when we arrived, making sure he learned everyone's names. He took us through the kitchen, past the tiny sink and into the living room where we would dine. On the way past, we met Alex's daughter, who was busy cooking the meal were about to enjoy.  Alex has a couple of banquet tables set up in the parlor and you are literally sitting next to his old TV, family piano and cluttered bookshelves. The walls are adorned with old black and white photos of immigrants and Alex's original paintings.

Its just he and his daughter, cooking dinner for people when they get appointments, which is no more than about 10 at a time. At lunch, they serve to-go dishes like keilbasa sandwiches, soups and single servings of haluska, which is sauteed cabbage and egg noodles. For dinner, you don't order off a menu, its just whatever Alex wants to cook that day. It is served on plastic tablecloths with plastic forks and styrophome plates and bowls. There is a pitcher of water on the table with no ice. This is as no-frills and you get.

Transylvanian goulash
There was tart red cabbage salad on the table when we arrived and it tasted like something I'd find in my grandmother's icebox. Every 20 minutes or so, Alex would arrive with another big bowl of food. We started with langos, which is a round, doughy flatbread that is crispy on the outside, and it was served with mushroom paprikash - big, meaty slices of mushrooms in their own juices, heavily imbued with flavorful paprika. We had goulash, chicken paprikash, haluska, cucumber and dill salad and something called Transylvanian goulash, which was pork shoulder cooked in sauerkraut in a rich, tomatoey sauce. For dessert, Alex took a warm langos and covered it with chopped dried fruits, chocolate chips and chopped nuts. It was a lovely sweet ending to a dinner that touched my Hungarian roots.

The Hungarian dishes I grew up eating were prepared differently than Alex's, but I found his cooking to be totally authentic. That food probably tasted exactly the same as it did when his grandmother prepared it a century ago. I was inspired by this dinner and committed myself to cooking all my favorite Hungarian dishes over the next six months. The following weekend, I bought a pork shoulder and a couple bags of sauerkraut and I made Transylvanian goulash. While I would put my paprikash or goulash up against Alex's any day, my version of this dish didn't come close to what he served us that night in his living room. This winter, I'll be cooking the beloved Hungarian dishes I learned from my mother and will post the recipes here so you can give them a try.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stuffed Eggplant

For home cooks everywhere, social media provides a constant stream of inspiration and an excellent forum to share our experiences. My personal feeds on Instagram and Facebook are filled with beautiful pictures of food, links to recipes and posts from some of my favorite chefs and culinary publications. When I see something interesting, I make a mental note and start devising a recipe in my head. That's what happened when a video popped up in my Facebook feed showing a recipe for stuffed eggplant Parmesan.

I do love eggplant, although I grew up eating it prepared one way - dredged and fried. I made the mistake one time of buying a rather large one because I had a craving for that fried eggplant of my childhood. It was entirely too much fried eggplant and despite the yummy eggplant Parmesan I made to use some of it up, I was totally sick of it after a couple days. For many years, it was a forgotten vegetable for me, but when I saw that video of the stuffed eggplant, I started building my own recipe in my head. A few days later, my husband and I were at local outdoor market and a Greek food vendor was selling stuffed eggplant with a ground meat filling, rich tomato sauce and a topping made of thick bechamel. It was absolutely delicious. The eggplant shell had absorbed the juices from the meat and was soft and unctuous. I made up my mind to experiment with this recipe the next day. 

I had a tub of San Marzano tomatoes in the freezer from my garden and I was able to find some small to medium sized eggplants at the store. I picked up the other ingredients I needed and headed home to make magic in the kitchen. The beauty of this kind of recipe is that you can do anything you want with it - just let your imagination run wild. 

STUFFED EGGPLANT PARMESAN

3 small to medium sized eggplants
2 large cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 large yellow onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 8 oz ball of fresh mozzerella cheese
1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
1 medium sized fresh tomato or 12 fresh grape tomatoes
1/4 cup of chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley
Salt, pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to taste

Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. I made my own tomato sauce, but you don't have to.  If there is a jarred sauce you like, you can omit this entire step in the process and save some time. However, its really not difficult to make and it's absolutely worth the minimal amount of effort to have a simple, homemade sauce that is full of flavor. Put a medium saucepan over medium heat and drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom. Chop half the onion into a medium dice and add it to the pot with some salt and pepper. While the onion is cooking, open your cans of tomatoes and lift the tomatoes out into a separate bowl and reserve the juice for a later step. Crush the tomatoes with your hand, making sure to break them all up into very small pieces. Once the onions begin to take on a little brown color around the edges, thinly slice two cloves of garlic and add them to the pot. It only takes a couple of minutes for the garlic to become fragrant and begin to brown. That's when you want to add all the tomatoes. Turn the heat to low and let the sauce cook covered for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

While your sauce is cooking, you have time to work on your eggplants. Cut them in half lengthwise so you have two even halves. With a small paring knife, cut the flesh of the eggplant all the way around about half an inch from the skin. This will give you enough space to wedge a spoon in and scrape out the flesh of the eggplant, which you want to set aside. It takes a little work, but what you want to end up with is an eggplant boat that you can fill with stuffing. The skin can be leathery and unpleasant to eat, especially in large pieces. Ultimately when the dish is served, you will be scooping the cooked eggplant away from the skin as you eat it. Put your eggplant boats in a roasting pan, drizzle them liberally with olive oil, salt and pepper them and place them in the oven while you make your stuffing. 

Now, this is the fun part and the place where you can let your imagination soar free. I'll tell you when I did, but don't let that hold you back. You can use whatever stuffing you like. Some sweet Italian sausage or ground beef would be good in here. I can imagine making this dish with ground lamb, fresh oregano and feta cheese. It would be yummy with mushrooms, zucchini or even spaghetti squash in the filling. You could add chopped Calamata olives, pine nuts, raisins, any kind of cheese that strikes your fancy or even chopped fresh apples. The possibilities are endless. 

If you are using meat, that will be the first thing you cook.  Brown it in a large skillet over medium high heat until it is cooked through and set it aside in a bowl to cool. Chop the other half of the onion and the garlic, add it to the same pan and cook it over medium heat until translucent, about 8 minutes. Chop the pieces of eggplant you set aside into bite-sized chunks and add them to the pan. You may need to add a little extra olive oil at this point as the eggplant acts like little sponges and will soak up whatever moisture is in the pan. If you were adding any other veggies, this would also be the time to add them to the pan. Cook everything together and allow it to breakdown a bit, adding salt, pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to taste. Finally, add about half a cup of the liquid from the canned tomatoes and place a lid on the pan. Let that cook for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables and soft and cooked through. The finished mixture should have a sludgy texture with very little or no extra liquid in the pan. If your mixture is too  juicy, turn the heat up to high and let the liquid cook away until you have a tight mixture. Scoop it into a bowl and take your eggplant boats out of the oven and let everything cool off for about ten minutes before moving to the next step. 

I like my tomato sauce smooth, but if you like yours more chunky, this is another step you can skip. I used an immersion blender to make a smooth sauce, tasting and adjusting the seasoning as I blended. Cut your cheese into small cubes, dice your fresh tomatoes, chop your herbs and now you're ready to assemble. Add your cooled meat to the veggie mixture, add the cubed cheese, add the tomatoes and herbs, half a cup each of grated Parmesan and Panko bread crumbs and mix everything together. Fill each eggplant boat with a generous amount of stuffing. Ladle sauce over each eggplant boat and cover the tops with the rest of the grated cheese and breadcrumbs. I also ladled some of the sauce into the pan so the eggplant would kind of be floating in a thin bed of sauce as it cooked.  Cover it loosely with foil and place it back in the oven. It needs about 45 minutes to cook completely, but take the foil off half way through the cook time so you can get some browning on the top. That cheese will be as hot as molten lava when it comes out of the oven, so let it cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before you serve it. 

I served mine over angel hair pasta, but it would be good over rice or with just a piece of crusty bread for sopping up the sauce. This is one of those dishes that can go in any direction. Its not terribly difficult and looks very impressive on the plate. This is also a great dish if you're entertaining vegetarians and if you leave out the cheese, its great for your vegan guests. Whatever you stuff in your eggplant, I hope you'll share your experience on social media and create your own community around the food you love to cook. 





Monday, September 11, 2017

Fried Green Tomatoes

I am a little sheepish to admit that until last weekend, I had never made fried green tomatoes.  In fact, I'd only eaten them once or twice before and while they tasted fine I wasn't wild about them. They just didn't live up to the hype for me. One of my home cook heroes is Jason's grandmother Mom Mom Jessie and she has been singing the praises of fried green tomatoes for as long as I've known her. This has been an amazing year for tomatoes and my garden has yielded quite an abundant crop. I was tending the garden one day and a very large unripe beefsteak fell off the plant. It didn't knock me on the head, but that green love apple gave me an idea and I decided to follow Mom Mom's advice and fry that baby up.

I read a few recipes and recommendations on line and consulted my best friend Jenny, who cooks them all the time. Basically, this preparation is the same as any other fried delicacy - the sliced tomatoes are dusted in flour, dipped in an egg wash and coated with cornmeal or bread crumbs before being pan fried in a flavorless oil. Jenny had some good suggestions, such as adding grated Parmesan cheese to the coating and double dipping in egg and flour before coating them in breadcrumbs, making for a thicker crust. Jenny also warned me to slice the tomato thinly so the inside cooks through before the coating has a chance to burn. Armed with tricks and tips, I was ready to fry my first green tomato.

For the coating, there are more choices than you might think. Cornmeal and Panko breadcrumbs seem to be the most common and in many cases they are mixed with flour, but I saw recipes that employed cracker crumbs, crushed corn flakes and a liquid fritter-like batter. I like using matzoh meal for dredging as it gives you a crispy and light coating, but I decided to mix in Panko crumbs for the extra crunch. I also happened to have buttermilk in the fridge, which acts as an excellent adhesive for coating fried chicken. Why not tomatoes?

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

1 large or several small to medium sized green tomatoes
1 large egg
1/3 cup of buttermilk
1/2 cup of matzoh meal
1/2 cup of Panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup of flour
Dash of hot sauce
1 tsp each of salt and pepper
1/2 tsp of any seasonings that strike your fancy
2 cups of any neutral flavored oil for frying, such as vegetable or canola

Just like any fried food, there is science and technique behind the perfect result. Ultimately, you want a crispy, deep brown coating that adheres to the tomato and you want the inside to be soft and fully cooked but not mushy. In order for the coating to adhere to the tomato, it needs a glue to hold it in place. That glue has to stick to both the coating and the tomato without sliding off. The surface of the tomato has to be dry or the egg will just slip right off and your coating will not adhere properly. That's why fried foods are typically dusted with flour first. The flour creates a dry surface, which allows the egg to stick, then the coating sticks to the egg. When the buttermilk is added to beaten egg, it creates a thick, almost gelatinous goo that sticks beautifully.

The temperature of your cooking environment is also really important. The first step to this preparation is to put your oil on the stove to heat up. I like to use a cast iron skillet for all my frying, but any skillet will do. Pour in enough oil so that it comes up about an inch in the pan and turn the heat to medium. This will heat the oil slowly and allow it to hold its temperature during cooking.  The thickness of the sliced tomato is also an important variable. If its too thick and takes too long to cook, you'll have burned coating and a hard tomato. If its too thin, it'll get gushy and fall apart during cooking. While the oil is heating, cut the tomatoes into 1/8th inch slices, lay them flat on the cutting board and sprinkle them with flour. Then beat the egg and buttermilk together with a dash of hot sauce and in a separate bowl combine the bread crumbs, matzoh meal or whatever you're using with the spices. By the way, I used granulated garlic and a dash of cayenne pepper in my coating.

If you are organized about the dredging process, the whole task is much more manageable. Set up an assembly line with the tomatoes on one end, the egg mixture next to it and the coating on the end closest to the pan. Test your oil by dipping your finger in a little of the egg and letting small drops fall into the pan. If it sizzles when it hits the oil, you're ready. If it just drops in and does nothing, the oil isn't hot enough, but if it spatters like crazy, your oil is too hot. Flip the tomato slices over and flour them thoroughly on both sides so the surface is dry, then slide them into the bowl of egg and coat them well. Lift them out and let the excess egg drip off, then place the slice into the breadcrumbs. I like to shake the bowl around gently to begin to coat the tomato, but the coating really needs to be pressed in. With the palm of your hand, apply pressure to one side then flip it and do the same thing on the other side, making sure that your coating is really stuck on there. Shake off a little of the excess before sliding your coated tomato slice into the pan. You should only cook maybe three slices at a time to avoid overcrowding. They cook really quickly and as soon as the sides begin to turn golden brown, flip them over gently. I like to use two wooden spatulas to flip them so there isn't too much splashing around.

Once they are a deep golden brown, remove them from the oil one by one allowing then to drip off before placing them on a sheet tray. I do not drain any of my fried food on paper towels as the steam that is released from the hot food will create moisture, which is absorbed by the paper towel and transmitted back into the coating you worked so hard to get perfect. It'll get soggy and fall off before you know it. If you are concerned about drainage, put your fried tomatoes on a metal rack on the sheet tray to allow the extra oil to drip through. Sprinkle a little salt on the finished tomatoes while they are still hot.

Ya know when people say "you don't know what you're missing: and you think "yeah, right"? Well, that's exactly what I thought before that slice of fried green tomato crossed my lips. The coating was super crispy and the inside was tender with that slight tang you expect from a green tomato. We ate ours on potato rolls with goat cheese, green salsa and lettuce and they far exceeded my expectations. I spent the next two hours reliving that meal and making yummy noises. Think you don't like fried green tomatoes? Think again.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Pickle It Yourself

I think I killed my taste for cucumbers this summer. Its hard to believe that I could harvest so many cucumbers in one season. Actually, I brought this upon myself.  On a road trip to the Fiestaware factory outlet in WV with my adorable friend Marie, we stopped at Janoski's local farm stand and I found a whole bunch of very nice looking plants. The problem was that they came in four-packs priced at only $2 each. How could I resist? I bought a four pack of cucumber plants and put all of them in the ground, thinking only two would thrive and produce. Boy was I wrong.  We returned from a week-long trip right after July 4th and found about a dozen enormous cucumbers hanging from the plants and probably 20 more small ones that would be ready to harvest just a few weeks later. I have been harvesting cucumbers for two solid months and they are beginning to get on my nerves. I brought a bunch of them to work, but it barely made a dent in my harvest. I mean, seriously, how many cukes can two people eat? There's only one thing to do with too many cucumbers. Make pickles, of course!

To some folks, the idea of making pickles is daunting.  Questions abound. How does a brine work? Do I have to ferment them for a long time? How do I keep them crisp? How do I keep them from going bad in the pantry? What kind of vinegar should I use? I was talking to my 93 year old dad about how his mother made pickles. He described a crock that sat on the kitchen counter for months and the time-intensive process she went through to ferment her own pickles the old fashioned way. Not all pickles are created equally - there are hundreds of types of pickles and they are enjoyed by many cultures around the world.  Pickling was a main form of food preservation long before the invention of modern refrigeration. Sauerkraut is really just pickled and fermented cabbage. In Japanese cuisine, pickled ginger is quite popular. On the Indian table, you will find mango pickle. There are pickled eggs, pickled beets, pickled pigs feet and even pickled herring. You can pickle just about anything.

Picklesburgh features a giant inflatable pickle.
Of course, the technique, preparation and ingredients for a great pickle are different depending on your tastes. Pittsburgh is the hometown of H.J. Heinz and people here are proud of the important role pickles have played in the city's history. In July, we have wonderful festival called Picklesburgh that takes place on one of our stunning bridges and all things pickled are celebrated and on display. I go every year, but given the annoying abundance of cukes in my kitchen, I was there for inspiration this year.  For my first batch of the season, I decided to go with one of my favorites, the sharp sweetness of the bread & butter pickle.

***IMPORTANT NOTE****
After making a few batches of pickles, you get a feel for the proportions of the ingredients. I started by following a recipe for the brine, but I had a lot of cucumbers to deal with and I didn't want to have any left over.  You need enough brine so that each jar is filled to the rim, so you might need to adjust the amount of vinegar and sugar to ensure that you have enough brine. Too much is better than not enough.

BREAD & BUTTER PICKLES

15 cups of sliced cucumbers (12-15 medium large cukes)
1 thinly sliced yellow onion
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp celery seed
1 tbsp pickling spice (optional)
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

My husband makes a pickle recipe that was handed down from his grandmother. They are affectionately known as "MomMom pickles" and they almost treated as currency in his family. This recipe is made with sliced zucchini and the brine is more sweet than tart. MomMom's secret to keeping her pickles crunchy is to salt them and let them sit for a long time so the excess moisture is drawn out of the zucchini, which firms them up so they don't go soft in the brine. MomMom is a farm cook and everything she learned about food and cooking was passed down to her by generations of farm cooks. In my opinion, that is the kind of kitchen wisdom you can't get from a book. So, if it works for MomMom, its gotta work for me. I used a crinkle cutter and sliced my cucumbers into thick, crinkled slices and I also sliced the onion very thinly. I put it all in a colander and tossed it with the kosher salt, then covered the top with ice and set the colander in the sink. Its important to keep the cucumbers cold while the salt does its work. Three hours later, there was a generous pool of light green liquid in the sink and the cucumbers had a slightly firmer texture.  They were ready to rock.

In order to dissolve the sugar and allow the spices to release their flavor, the brine needs to be simmered. I put all the brine ingredients into a big pot and brought it to a simmer over medium heat. Once the brine was simmering, I rinsed my cukes and put them in the pot with the brine to cook for just a moment. This step is omitted from some recipes, but I find that the brine penetrates a little better if the pickles are simmered in it for just a few minutes.  If you are using something more firm, like green beans or cauliflower, its a good idea to simmer them in the brine so they soften slightly before they are jarred.

The pickles should be packed tightly into jars and the best way to do this is with tongs. Lift the pickles out of the hot brine and put them in the jars making sure to press them down so you can get as many in there as possible. Once your jars are filled with pickles, ladle the brine over them so it covers the cucumbers. You can keep the jars in the fridge or you can seal them using the traditional canning method and they'll be good in your pantry for about six months, although mine don't make it that long. I made seven jars of bread & butter pickles and for my second batch, I made sour pickles with dill seed from my garden. I'm hoping they'll make it to Thanksgiving, but they are in high demand. Pickling is really not difficult and once you learn the technique, you can pickle whatever you have on hand. Don't be shy, give it a try!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Homemade Tomato Sauce

I love making amazing dishes from stuff I grow myself.  Nothing tastes as good as fresh veggies straight from the hot summer sunshine, veggies that you nurtured from small plants. That's the way to eat - the less time and distance between you and your ingredients, the better the food. The sense of satisfaction I get from cooking from my own garden is immeasurable.

I am having an amazing year for tomatoes. I planted golden teardrops, which were the first to harvest and they were sweet and delicious. There was a local variety developed by a nearby farm called Janoski's. That was a firm and fleshy tomato with a bright tartness that was great on sandwiches. I also planted beefsteak tomatoes, which are gigantic and are just starting to ripen. Finally, I grew San Marzano's, the wonderful Italian plum variety so prized for its sweet flesh, low moisture and low seed count - which is the perfect variety for sauce. From a single plant I harvested no less than 50 tomatoes! I also had a head of garlic I'd harvested earlier in the season and lots of fresh herbs.  Hot damn, this is the moment I wait for all summer long! It's time to make the sauce. 

HOMEMADE TOMATO SAUCE:

20-25 large, ripe Roma, San Marzano or plum tomatoes
1 large yellow onion 
3 large cloves of garlic
1 cup of white wine
A splash of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of dried mushrooms, preferably Porcini
4 stems of fresh basil
Handful of fresh parsley
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

You can make your own tomato sauce with just about any kind of tomato, but certain varieties are better than others. The best tomatoes for sauce are paste tomatoes, which have low water content and fewer seeds. You won't have to cook them as long for the sauce to thicken. Save the juicy tomatoes for salads and sandwiches, they taste much better fresh than they do cooked.  Find yourself some plum tomatoes for the best sauce. 

The tomatoes need to be peeled before you can cook with them. The best way to do this is to blanch them in hot water until the skin loosens, then put them in ice water and they peel quite easily. I had a lot of tomatoes to process, so I set up a staging area with my swinging bowl of garden tomatoes, a pot of water over medium low heat, a bowl of ice water and another bowl to hold my peeled tomatoes. I put a small slit in the bottom of each tomato, just to see when the skin begins to peel away from the tomato. I put three or four tomatoes into the pot at a time, allowing them to sit until the skin started to roll back from the flesh, then scooped them out and dropped them to the ice water. While they were cooling, I put the next batch into the pot. By the time I had peeled the first batch, the next one was done blanching. Once I started, the whole operation went pretty quickly and in 30 minutes, I had processed about 25 ripe San Marzano tomatoes. 

Peeled tomatoes
With the tomatoes standing by, it was time to get the sauce started. First, I put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and covered them with hot water to rehydrate. I diced the onion and threw it into a deep saucepan over medium high heat with some olive oil. I like to add my spices at the beginning to cooking so they have a chance to bloom in the oil, so in went the salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and dried oregano. I let that cook for about 10 minutes until the onions softened and just started to turn golden brown. Now, when it comes to adding the garlic, there are a few different ways you can go. If you crush your garlic, it releases more of its essential oils and you get a very pronounced garlic flavor. You can just smash your garlic cloves a bit, leaving large pieces that will impart mild flavor but that you can fish out later. You can cut your garlic into large chunks, which basically has the same effect as leaving it whole. I like to slice my garlic for sauce. You end up with beautifully soft and sweet garlic slices that impart their flavor without being overpowering. Given that my garlic was really fresh and came out of my own garden about a month earlier, it was pretty assertive to begin with. I thinly sliced three medium cloves of garlic and added them to the onions. If you add the garlic too early, it burns and tastes a little bit like gasoline, so wait until your onions are cooked before you toss that garlic in. 

I let that go for a few minutes, allowing the garlic to release its flavor into the olive oil and letting the onions brown a little bit more.  All these steps help to build additional depth of flavor. Allowing the onions to caramelize and the garlic to cook and the spices to bloom adds nuance to your sauce. When everything was a little brown around the edges, I added the white wine, which sizzled and boiled when it hit the hot saucepan. This step of deglazing with wine or stock washes the caramelized food off the bottom of the pot, adding more flavor to the sauce. Wine tends to be acidic and needs to cook down to burn off the alcohol and concentrate its flavor, so I let this reduce over medium high heat until there was very little liquid left, at which point I added a splash of the water from the mushrooms and a splash of balsamic vinegar. I don't normally measure stuff like this, so a splash might be about 2 tablespoons, but you can let your own taste buds be your guide. I let that reduce down as well until there was almost no liquid left. 

Sauce before and after cooking and blending
Now that everything had cooked and simmered and reduced down, it was time to add the tomatoes. I crushed them with my hands so they were all broken up before adding them to the pot. I removed the hydrated mushrooms out of the water, which was now barely warm, then chopped them finely and added them to the pot. I made a small bundle of the basil and parsley, tied it up with kitchen string, dropped it into the pot and gave it one final stir before turning the heat to low. I wanted the sauce to reduce and thicken, which happens when you leave the pot uncovered and allow the excess liquid to cook off, but I didn't want my entire kitchen to be splattered with tomatoes, so I made a cover out of aluminum foil and draped it loosely over the top, leaving plenty of gaps for the steam to escape. 

I came back a couple times and stirred the sauce, just to see how it was coming along. After an hour, I fished out the fresh herb bundle, whipped out my immersion blender and blitzed that sauce until it was almost smooth but still had a slightly chunky texture. I tasted and WOW, it had intense sweet and zingy tomato flavor. It was delicious as it was, but I let it cook down for another 30 minutes just to thicken up a bit and voila, the sauce was done!

Most sauces, especially tomato sauce, taste better the next day when it has time for the flavors to meld and marry into an amazing symphony of deliciousness. I left mine sitting on the counter to cool off before putting it in jars and putting it in the fridge. My yield was about two quarts of homemade sauce and I had plans for it the following day, which included rolls of roasted eggplant and zucchini stuffed with cheese and pesto, meatballs and gnocchi. It was all scrumptious and I'm saving the rest of the sauce to serve over my own homemade pasta. So there it is - how to make your own tomato sauce that will blow the lid off any jarred product you can buy at the supermarket. If you don't have a garden, I highly suggest you go to your local farmers market while the tomatoes are in season, stock up on the right variety and give this recipe a try.