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 years 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 is 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 an 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 are prized and 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 cucumber into thick, crinkled slices and I also sliced the onion very thinly. I put its 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 not necessary and some recipes omit it. But I find that the brine penetrates a little better if the pickles are simmered 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 I have two left. For my second batch, I made sour pickles with dill seed from my garden and I'm hoping they'll make it to Thanksgiving. 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.  


Monday, July 24, 2017

Homemade Ice Cream

Kerber's mocha chip in a chocolate cone
Man oh man, I sure do love ice cream. It's not uncommon in the middle of winter to find me bundled up in a blanket sitting in front of the fireplace eating a bowl of ice cream and complaining about being cold. It's a measure of discomfort I'm willing to live with for the sweet reward of rich ice cream. I could eat ice cream every day and, in fact, in the summertime I do. My favorite ice cream usually comes from small local creameries, dairies and ice cream shops where the ingredients are fresh and the recipes are handed down from generation to generation. One of my Instagram friends has been posting pictures for the past few months from his local creamery Kerber's Dairy in N. Huntingdon, PA. Every time I see his pictures, my craving becomes uncontrollable. I finally organized an outing and a handful of friends gathered at Kerber's to sample their frozen treats.

While enjoying a 14% butterfat mocha chocolate chip ice cream in a chocolate cookie cone, I got into a discussion with my friends about the differences between ice cream, frozen custard and gelato. We all proposed our theories and shared our experiences. When I got home, I did a little research.  There are a number of factors that contribute to the flavor, texture and mouthfeel of our favorite frozen creamy sweets. All forms of ice cream are basically a mixture of milk, cream, sugar, flavorings and sometimes egg yolks. These ingredients have a chemical reaction that makes ice cream what it is - smooth, creamy and uniform. American style, also known as Philadelphia style ice cream has no egg yolks, but it is churned at a relatively high speed which incorporates a lot of air into the final product and it is frozen at a lower temperature which makes the ice cream firm and scoopable. The butterfat content affects the richness of the final product, but too much butterfat can also mute the flavor. Gelato has egg yolks and a lower butterfat content, which allows more of the flavor to come through. It is churned more slowly to incorporate less air and it is also frozen to a slightly higher temperature, giving it a more creamy texture. Frozen custard is always made with egg yolks and has very little air incorporated, making it much more smooth and dense. Most high quality ice cream starts with a custard base, which is hot milk or cream added to whipped egg yolks, then cooked until it thickens. After doing all this research, I was inspired to make my own.

I've made ice cream many times using a standard, basic ice cream maker. It has a double-walled tub lined with material that freezes solid. The frozen tub fits onto an electric motor and a paddle attachment is placed in the middle. The ice cream base is poured into the frozen tub and the motor rotates the paddle, simultaneously churning and freezing the ice cream in about 20 minutes. The soft ice cream is then placed in the freezer for several hours to harden. There are special machines for gelato and frozen custard that churn at a much lower speed to incorporate less air. Perhaps one day I'll invest in a fancy ice cream maker. For now, the basic model will have to do. I had a container of strawberries in the freezer that I'd picked a month before so I stocked up on the rest of the ingredients and put my double-walled tub in the freezer.



HOMEMADE STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM


2 cups half & half

1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup of white sugar
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups of strawberry puree
1 tsp of vanilla extract
The zest of one lemon
1 tbsp of corn starch
a pinch of salt

Having done this a number of times, I have tested many variations in fat content, ingredients and flavorings. I have tried all kinds of different proportions of milk and cream, even adding some 2% milk to see if I could get good results with less fat. It didn't work at all and my final product was full of ice crystals. Some recipes call for more heavy cream than milk, but I find that too fatty and the ice cream leaves a film on the roof of my mouth. I prefer the combination of half & half and heavy cream. Half & half is an equal mixture of whole milk and light cream that has somewhere between 10% and 12% butterfat. Adding the heavy cream, which has about 25% butterfat, adds the richness I like without adding too much butterfat.



For this recipe, white sugar is fine. But I have made brown sugar ice cream and it is very good, especially with the addition of vanilla bean an candied pecans. I also find the addition of lemon zest adds a pleasant tartness without adding the acid, which would cause the dairy to curdle.

Finally, I have a secret weapon which allows me to add less egg yolks. When I first started making ice cream, the recipes I found called for as many as 6 egg yolks. That's because egg yolks have lecithin in them, which is an emulsifier and keeps the ice cream base from separating. Picture a jar of vinaigrette and think about how the oil separates from the vinegar. When you add a teaspoon of mustard, the dressing stays emulsified. Egg yolks have the same effect, but too many egg yolks make the final product taste too eggy. The answer is corn starch, which also acts as an emulsifier, helping bind the fat molecules to the water molecules so the mixture stays together and doesn't get icy. I found a couple recipes in which the corn starch completely replaces the egg yolks, but I have not been brave enough to try it yet.


The preparation is pretty simple. I started by putting the strawberries in the food processor. When I first started making ice cream, my motto was the chunkier, the better. But whole frozen pieces of fruit are very unpleasant to eat. Unless they are dehydrated, the liquid in the fruit freezes in the ice cream and you end up with fruity little ice cubes that hurt your teeth when you try to eat them. Pureeing the fruit adds the flavor without the frozen bits. However, I didn't make the puree completely smooth as I like a few little shreads of fruit to be visible in the ice cream. I put the half & half and cream in a heavy saucepan over low heat and added the pinch of salt. In a bowl, I mixed the egg yolks, sugar, corn starch and lemon zest together and set it aside. When the cream was hot enough to form bubbles around the edges, I started tempering the egg yolks. This process involves slowly bringing the egg yolks up to temperature before cooking the custard base. If you just dumped the hot cream into the egg yolks, they would scramble. While whisking the egg yolk mixture, I added a slow drizzle of hot cream, a ladle at a time, until I had about a cup of cream incorporated. Then I poured the entire egg yolk mixture back into the pot, added the strawberry puree and returned the pot to low heat. Some folks prefer to add the fruit puree at the end so they can strain the custard after its cooked. You could do that if you like, I just chose to do it this way.



The custard mixture must be stirred constantly while it's over the heat to keep it from scorching on the bottom of the pot. It should never come to a boil, which is why you want to keep the heat low. It needs to cook until it thickens and the best way to know when it's done is the spoon test. Lift your spoon out of the custard and run your finger along the back of the spoon. There should be a clear trail that you made with your finger and the custard should not run back into it. That's how you know when its thick enough.


Take the custard off the heat and if it looks a little lumpy, that's OK, just strain it into a bowl. Put the bowl into a bigger bowl filled with ice and stir the custard until it cools down to room temperature. Cover the surface of the custard with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for several hours. You want this mixture to be cold when you put it into your ice cream machine. I made my ice cream base early in the day and in the afternoon I churned it. After its churned, the ice cream needs a few hours to fully solidify in the freezer. It was still a little soft when I served it, but the flavor and texture were perfect. I do love making my own, but there are so many excellent ice cream shops out there to try and there's no such thing as too much ice cream. The quest continues!


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Strawberry Overload

I've done this before. In fact, I've done this a number of times. You'd think I would have learned my lesson by now, but no. When it comes to fresh produce at the peak of its season, especially when I pick it myself, I have absolutely no control. When we lived in Concord, New Hampshire, I took advantage of the abundant local farms that were just a few miles from my house. I picked strawberries and blueberries in the summer and apples in the fall. One year I picked seven pounds of blueberries and made delicious blueberry jam, a perfect blueberry pie and put a big bag of blueberries in the freezer. The following year I picked eight pounds of strawberries and made jam, trifle and pie. I also picked an obscene amount of apples every year. I'd usually pick apples a couple times during the season, which lasts from around Labor Day to early November. Different varieties of apples ripen at different times, which allow you to replenish your supply throughout the season. The early varieties like macoun, honey crisp and macintosh are ready to pick in September. By the time we'd eaten the first batch, I was ready to pick the later varieties like mutzu, empire and northern spy. One year I picked sixteen pounds of apples and I had to get someone to help me carry the bag to my car. I made apple butter that year along with pies and crisps. For three months out of the year, we'd have hand-picked apples in our fridge. They also store well in cool places like the garage.


Here in Pittsburgh, the pick-your-own culture is not as prevalent as it was in New England, but we have found a few nice places for produce that aren't too far away. Its strawberry season and we had a free weekend, so we decided to go pick some fresh berries. When we got to Triple B farms just outside Monongahela, PA, we discovered that they were picking raspberries, blackberries and blueberries as well as strawberries. In fact, it was their final weekend for strawberry picking. We grabbed two baskets for strawberries and one for blueberries. The high bush raspberries and blueberries were closest to the farm stand and tractor took us up into the fields and people got off at their desired destination.  The strawberries were the farthest away, up on top of a steep hill overlooking the rest of the farm. It was a hot, sunny June morning and as midday approached, the sun beat down on us as we picked our strawberries. It might seem like a charming pastime but strawberries grow low to the ground and it requires a lot of stooping, bending and crouching to fill a basket. It had rained quite a bit that week and while the fields had a good bed of straw that kept the ground from being too muddy, it was still a little treacherous walking up and down that hill and through the rows of plants. After about an hour in the heat and sun, I was starting to feel a little woozy. The cold bottle of water I'd started out with was warm and almost gone. My husband had disappeared to the far side of the strawberry field and my basket was just about full. I made my way back to the tractor pick-up and rode back to the farm to rest in the shade and wait for my husband to join me.

I sat down on a bench and eyed my full basket of ripe strawberries. I popped one in my mouth and savored its warm, sweet juiciness. There is nothing like a fresh picked berry warmed by the sun. It might be one of the greatest things on earth. My husband arrived on the next tractor with two full baskets. Since the strawberries were ripe and ready and we were both hot and tired, we decided to forego the blueberries this time, which meant we had three full baskets. When all was said and done, it was a little less than eleven pounds. Eleven pounds of strawberries!!  Eleven. Freaking. Pounds. We drove home without realizing just how much eleven pounds of strawberries really is.

The thing about berries as opposed to something like apples or vegetables is that they are extremely perishable. If you don't do something with your fresh berries right away, they begin to break down in about 48 hours and after four or five days, you have mush. Later that afternoon, I washed all the berries and put them in bowls so I could refrigerate them. Wow, I had a LOT of berries!!

The next day I made strawberry jam. I'd like to be able to tell you that making jam is difficult, but it's really not. If you've never made strawberry jam before, the best advice I can give you is to follow the instructions on the box of fruit pectin. Every time I've made jam, it comes out perfect for one simple reason - I FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS.  Every time I've made jam and it doesn't set well or gets moldy, it's because I didn't follow the directions. You can find all your canning supplies at the grocery store, usually in the spice or baking aisle. Here is what you'll need:

EQUIPMENT:

Jars - I like to use small jars, the 8 ounce size. Small jars of jam make great gifts and store easily.
Lids and rings - DO NOT REUSE THE LIDS!! They are hard to sterilize so I always buy fresh lids.
Wide mouth funnel - I can't imagine making jam without this tool.  Believe me, you need this
Ladle - to pour the jam from the pot into the jars.
Pot - you need a big pot

Now, I have a system for canning that works really well and it works well because I have a very deep double porcelain sink. I use one side of my sink for sterilizing all my equipment and processing my finished jam. If you don't have the luxury of a double sink or a sink that is deep enough to submerge the jars with at least two inches of water above them, you will need a canning pot and a rack. More on that in a moment

INGREDIENTS:

Fruit - You'll need 5 cups of crushed strawberries, which is about 8 cups of whole berries
Sugar - It's a lot, 7 cups, but the sugar helps the jam to set properly. Nobody wants runny jam.
Fruit pectin - You can find this with all the canning supplies. Don't use old pectin, buy a fresh supply
Lemon - I like to use the zest of one whole large lemon and the juice from half of it.
A pat of butter - It's only about a teaspoon, but it keeps the jam from forming foam as it cooks.

Like I said, making your own jam is not difficult, but there are a lot of little things that can go wrong. If you cut down on the sugar or your pectin is old, your jam will not set up properly and will end up gooey instead of jiggly. If you don't boil it enough, your jam will be too liquidy. If everything isn't completely sterile, your jam can form mold and while I've had people tell me you can just scrape off the mold and eat the jam anyway, I don't want to make anyone sick. Following the directions is critical.

Most home canners use a canning pot, which is a gigantic pot with a rack that fits inside it. The jars go on the rack and the rack gets lowered into the pot which is filled with simmering water. This sterlizes the jars and lids, heats them up so they won't crack when you pour the hot jam into them and allows you to heat-process the finished product. It keeps the jars from touching the bottom of the pot, which creates too much contact with the direct heat source and could cause your jars to break. If you are planning to make your own jam, pickles or other jarred items every year, this might be a good investment for you. I am comfortable with my own method, but you have to do what works for you.

A sterile environment is of the utmost importance. I start by scrubbing my porcelain sink with a cleanser with bleach. Once the sink is clean, I wash all my jars really well, making sure to scrub the rim of each jar, which is where bacteria can creep into your finished jam. I fill the sink with boiling water and submerge the jars, lids, screw tops, funnel and ladle. Keeping everything in hot water will reduce the chances of contamination. If you are using a canning pot, you can use it to heat the jars and lids in simmering water. No need to boil the jars at this time, just keep them hot while you make the jam. It's best to have everything ready before you start cooking anything.

Once you have your jars and lids sitting in hot water, you can start making jam. I like to measure the sugar into a bowl and have it sitting by the stove so it's ready when I need it. Put the strawberries in a big bowl and use a potato masher to crush them. You can leave a few big chunks but not too many. Measure exactly the amount of crushed berries into a big pot, zest the lemon into it and add the lemon juice and butter, add the pectin and turn the burner on high. You are going to bring this mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring the mixture constantly so it doesn't scorch. I think this is why most people assume it's challenging or time consuming to make jam. It does take a while for the mixture to come to a full rolling boil, but anything worth doing is worth the effort. Just be patient and wait for the right moment.  As soon as the jam is boiling rapidly and it doesn't stop when you stir it, dump in all the sugar and mix to incorporate. If there are clumps of sugar, don't worry, the heat will melt it. Let the mixture come back to a full rolling boil, stirring the whole time. Once its boiling as vigorously as it was before you added the sugar, let it boil for ONE MINUTE, then remove it from the heat.

At this point, time is of the essence. This is why you want all your jars and lids ready before you start cooking the jam. I set up a staging area next to the sink. The pot of jam goes on a cutting board with a kitchen towel right next to it. Using tongs, remove a jar from the hot water, set the wide mouth funnel inside of it and ladle enough jam into the jar to come just under the rim. Remove the funnel, wipe the rim clean of any remnants of jam, place a clean top on the jar and seal it tightly with a screw top. As the jam cools, it begins to set up, so this needs to be done while the jam is still hot. You don't have to rush, but this would not be a good time to take a phone call or walk the dog. You will probably be able to fill a dozen 8-ounce jars with this amount of jam. Congratulations! You have just made your own strawberry jam. Now it's time to heat-process your jars so they seal completely and can be stored.

If you are using a canning pot, place the jars in the rack and lower them into the full pot of water. The water needs to come up at least two inches over the top of the jars. Bring the water to a very low simmer, submerge the rack into the water and let the jars sit for about half an hour. Your water should not be boiling, but it should have some little bubbles at the bottom of the pot that rise gently to the surface. Of course, if you are employing the deep sink technique, you have to pour the boiling water over the top of your jars. I will fill the sink with boiling water, then place the jars into it, then pour more boiling water over them. I have a tea kettle and will add more boiling water every 10 minutes, just to make sure the water doesn't cool down too much as the jars process. You may hear the jars pop, you may not. The way to tell if your jars are sealed properly is to press on the lid.  If it stays down when you press it and it doesn't pop back up, your jars are pressurized and will store correctly.

I had some different size jars and ended up with nine jars of jam. There was a small bit left in the bottom of the pot, which I poured into a tiny jar and put it in the fridge. This was my test jar, just to make sure the jam set up properly and tasted great. An hour later, I pulled out the test jar and took a taste. WOW, it is scrummy!!  Fresh strawberries from the farm really do make the absolute best jam. Making jam is not as hard as you think - give it a whirl and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Squash Blossoms

This year is shaping up to be an amazing year for my garden. Here in Pennsylvania, the rule of the green thumb is that planting season starts after Mother's Day, which is the second weekend in May. But I usually start getting excited in early April and I have made the mistake of planting too early. Last year, against repeated warnings from my husband, I planted tomatoes in the middle of April and by July all my plants had succumbed to blight. This year I exercised a little more patience and waited until the end of April to get my first plants in. So far, so good. My garden is exploding!

We went a little overboard, though. I found four-packs of plants on sale at a local nursery and now we have an excessive amount of cucumbers, peppers and yellow squash. The cucumbers are just starting to develop and they will eventually become pickles. The peppers have just begun to bloom. But the yellow squash are out of control. Every one of the four plants are covered with tiny squash and dozens of blossoms. Last Friday morning, I saw a couple of squirrels and a hungry looking rabbit eyeing my garden, so I decided to harvest the larger squash before they became a salad bar for the critters.


Each one of those baby squash had a blossom attached and there were lots of other blossoms on all the plants. I grilled the following night and decided to just toss the baby squash on the grill quickly. But the blossoms! I've had fried squash blossoms before and they are so amazingly delicous. Its a classic Italian preparation and some of my Italian friends have spoken fondly of their grandmothers making fried squash blossoms for breakfast. Typically, they are stuffed with ricotta cheese, dipped in a thin batter and flash fried in hot oil so the cheese doesn't fall out. I've also seen them prepared with no filling, just the flower battered and fried. I had some lovely local chevre in the fridge and a bunch of fresh herbs in the garden. So, before dinner, I decided to try stuffing them and frying these delicate little flowers up as an afternoon snack.

I only had 6 blossoms, so this was a small scale operation. I filled a small bowl with water and washed the flowers very gently, being careful not to tear them, then placed them on a paper towel to dry. I cut some fresh thyme, parsley and chives, chopped them up and mixed them into about a quarter of a cup of chevre. Then I made a thin tempura style batter using about a quarter cup of flour, a little salt and pepper and enough seltzer to to give it the right body. The carbonation of the seltzer gives the batter a very light and crispy texture when its fried. I really can't tell you how much seltzer I used, I didn't measure anything and just relied on my intuition and hoped for the best. The batter has a similar consistency as crepe batter or heavy cream - just thick enough to stick to the flowers but not gloppy. I set a small pan on the stove and put about half an inch of vegetable oil in it, then turned the heat to medium and let it come to temperature while I assembled the blossoms.

I tore a slit in each blossoms and with my finger I dug out the little polen stem inside. I filled each blossom with about a tablespoon of the goat cheese mixture and wrapped the delicate flower around it so make sure it was sealed. One by one, I dipped each blossom into the batter mixture, letting the excess drip off the ends, and placed them gently in the hot oil. They popped and crackled as they fried. It only took a couple of minutes for them to turn brown and I removed them quickly so the filling didn't fall out. We ate these little beauties while they were still hot and the filling was melted. They were so yummy I wish I'd make more. Later that evening while I was grilling, I saw many more blossoms in the garden and now I can't wait to try this again. Fried squash blossoms - my new favorite treat.