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:


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


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.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Matching Music and Menus

Music and food go together like, well.....I can't seem to come up with a simile that doesn't include food references in song lyrics. They go together like beans and cornbread, like a cheeseburger in paradise, like a lime in a coconut, like jambalaya, crawfish pie and a file gumbo. When you have a dinner party, do you have your guests eat in silence?  If you are having a barbeque, would you choose to regale your guests with La Traviata?  For a holiday cocktail party, would you pick surf music as the soundtrack? Of course not. You would pick music to create the right mood, that special ambiance that will make your event most enjoyable. I am a big fan of Bob Blumer and his book The Surreal Gourmet actually has album suggestions to accompany various menus. It's a really interesting concept and one I think is worth exploring more.

I have the best job in the world. I am the general manager of a very cool non-commercial music radio station in Pittsburgh, PA - WYEP. Obviously, I am biased, but I would be remiss if I didn't make sure you knew about this amazing station. Hint - you can stream it online. But I digress. Pittsburgh has a thriving and growing food scene with new and interesting restaurants popping up all the time. One of the segments on WYEP is called "Pairings" and in this collaboration between our on-air host Cindy Howes and our own local celebrity Chef Bull Fuller, they match music and menus. Cindy will play a song and Bill will suggest a menu. Then Bill will describe a menu, usually something seasonal, and Cindy will suggest some music. This approach seems custom made for a dinner party, doesn't it?  So, that's exactly what we did.

Chef Fuller is the executive chef for the Big Burrito Group, which runs six restaurants. They do these benefit dinners once a month for local nonprofits in which they donate all the food and wine and the nonprofit sells tickets. We suggested to Chef Fuller doing this as a theme dinner inspired by a classic album and he loved the idea. In 2014, we hosted a dinner at Eleven restaurant inspired by Bruce Springsteen's "The River" and it was a huge success.  This time, we chose The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. It was perfect timing for a perfect pairing. Chef Fuller personally designed and executed this perfect menu.

As our guests arrived, we handed them a glass of cold, refreshing Lambrusco and we had Sgt. Pepper playing on the blue tooth speaker in the corner of the room. Chef Fuller came in and talked about the menu before each course arrived.

Photo credit - Tom Petzinger
First course: Fixing A Hole
As Chef Fuller explained, all these items were small, round and would have easily plugged up a hole. The plate featured tiny chicken-liver mousse profiteroles served on a small pool of bright red hot pepper jam, which had enough heat to tickle the lips, but not enough to overwhelm the flavor of the smooth mousse. There was a delicate deviled quail egg anointed with a small bit of caviar. The crown jewel on this plate was a perfectly fried squash blossom stuffed with chervil-chevre and a lovely aioli. This course was paired with a crisp Villa Sandi Prosecco Superiore, Valdobbiadene, Treviso, Italy.

Second course: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band/With a Little Help From My Friends
The inspiration here was the compliment of sweet, spicy and salty, all coming together in perfect harmony like old friends. This was a room temperature soup made from roasted sweet red peppers with a strong, salty eggplant and olive caponata in the bottom of the bowl. A couple slivers of smoked chicken rested on top of the caponata and they were drizzled with hot sauce. When the hot sauce was mixed into the red pepper puree, it added a wonderful high note to this luxurious soup. This course was served with a 2015 St. Antonius Kreuznacher Kronenberg Riesling Kabinett that had a sweet crispness which cut through the spicy flavors.

Photo credit - Cindy Howes
Third course: When I’m Sixty-Four
The dish featuring young ingredients is a homage to the lyrics of the song written from the point of view of a young couple in their salad days looking into their elderly future. This was a delightful salad made with roasted baby multi-colored carrots, grilled tiny young zucchini, shaved radishes, fresh fava beans that were lightly blanched, cherry tomatoes, little lettuces and a light yet flavorful red wine vinaigrette. On top of the salad was shaved Pleasant Ridge Reserve parmesan cheese, adding a pop of salty richness. For a salad, this dish was really complex, but truth be told the fava beans were my favorite part. This was served with a 2013 JCB No. 5 Cotes de Provence Rose, France

Fourth course: She’s Leaving Home
Chef Fuller explained the sparseness of the song, the stark, plain reality of a daughter leaving her childhood home and her parents and the simple truths associated with that separation. This course was an excellent reflection of those feelings - a perfectly cooked piece of Alaskan halibut with simple buttered potato puree, plain sauteed yellow wax beans, a lovely lemon buerre blanc and a small pool of tomato saffron infusion resting gently in the lemon butter sauce like a small drop of blood from a broken heart. It was so simple and delicious and it was served with a 2015 Cristophe Pacalet Saint -Amour Gamay, Beaujolais, France

Fifth course: Within You, Without You
If you are familiar with this song, you will understand the flavors of this dish. Heavily influenced by their time in India, this song is thick with the exotic sounds of the sitar and tabla and it speaks of Eastern philosophy. This dish was rich with Indians flavors in a beautifully roasted rare lamb loin resting on a green chick pea masala dosa with a buttery carrot puree at the bottom. There were two sauces on the plate, a thin red chutney and small pools of a refreshing yogurt and mint raita. For many, this was the star dish of the night. The wine served with this course was a velvety 2012 Deloach Vineyards Forgotten Vines Zinfandel, Sonoma County, California

Sixth course: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
When Chef Fuller introduced the dessert, he explained that the pastry chef had laid claim to this song as her inspiration before the rest of the menu was planned. In some circles, it is believed that this song was written as a result of some experimentation with LSD. The imagery is certainly hallucinogenic, but the truth is that John Lennon wrote this song based on a nursery school drawing that his young son Julian brought home from school. The lyrics refer to tangerine trees and marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green and a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. This dessert certainly brought the song to life.  It was an orange marshmallow whoopie pie resting on orange marmalade with a scoop of tangerine sorbet. There were gelatin pieces of green and yellow flowers that looked exactly like cellophane and the whoopie pie was adorned with a round sugar piece that looked like the lens of a kaleidoscope. The whole thing was stunning and delicious. The meal ended with the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise) of tiny pepper jelly squares and chili pepper chocolates.

Sometimes you are fortunate enough to have a dining experience that is excuisitely memorable.  This dinner was certainly one of those experiences for me.  I hope this concept serves as an inspiration for you to pair music and menus in new and interesting ways.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Salsa Verde

Summer is here and I'm overdue for some inspiration. By the time March rolls around, we have become bored with stews and soup. Since the weather started warming up, my culinary thoughts have turned to the bright and fresh flavors of seasonal produce. It's grilling season once again and I have banished my slow cooker to oblivion for the summer.

I haven't done anything new or experimental in the kitchen for months. Sure, I cook all the time, but I have not been pushing the boundaries. With a favorable forecast for the weekend, I was planning to grill some chicken and whatever early local produce I could find. The farmers markets have opened and on the way home from work on Friday, we went in search of the first pickings. I found some good looking local zucchini and my menu plans began to develop. I settled on grilled chicken thighs with zucchini, onions and some fresh asparagus I found at the grocery store. I decided to bathe the chicken and zucchini in salsa verde after it came off the grill.

Salsa verde just means green sauce and many different cultures have their own versions. The Italian salsa verde is parsley, garlic, anchovies, capers, onions, olive oil and vinegar. French sauce verte is more of a mayonnaise sauce flavored with tarragon and lemon. The German version features fresh herbs, sour cream, oil, vinegar and hard boiled eggs. In Argentina, they call their parsley, vinegar, garlic and red pepper flakes "chimichurri". In Indian cuisine, there is a green sauce made from mint, coriander and ginger. But the salsa verde I was after is the Mexican version made from tomatillos. If you've never seen a tomatillo before, imagine a green tomato with a paper husk. In fact, the tomatillo is a cousin of the tomato - both are members of the nightshade family. The tomatillo is an ancient fruit that was cultivated by Mayans and Aztecs and it is a staple of Mexican cuisine. They have become more accessible in recent years and chances are good that you can find them in your local grocery store.

I have never made salsa verde before, but it's one of my absolute favorites. Tomatillos have a tart flavor and fleshy texture and this style of salsa works really well with chicken and vegetables. When I make chicken enchiladas at home, I always use salsa verde, but I usually just buy a good quality jarred salsa. This time, I was charting some new territory and I was excited to give it a try. I bought six large tomatillos and two big poblano peppers. I've seen this sauce being made before and it can be prepared with fresh ingredients then cooked afterwards or it can start with cooked ingredients that get blended together. Since my plan was to grill, I decided to grill the ingredients to give it a lovely smokey flavor. But you know the old saying about the best laid plans, about an hour before I wanted to start the grill, ominous rain clouds started swirling in the sky and out of nowhere, thunderstorms appeared. My entire menu changed when I realized that grilling in the pouring rain was not an option. Oh well, plan B emerged and included steamed asparagus, roasted zucchini and pan-fried chicken. My green sauce would just have to be made indoors.

I started by turning the broiler on and moving the oven rack to the top. I cut a sweet onion in half and bathed it along with the poblano peppers in a light coating of olive oil, then put them on a sheet pan. Because grilling was out of the question, I figured broiling the peppers and onions would be the next best thing. The peppers need to be charred completely and moderately soft, which released the skin and makes them much easier to clean. While the broiler was heating up, I put the tomatillos in a shallow pan of water and put it over medium heat. Then I put the pan of peppers and onions in the oven. It took about 15 minutes for everything to cook and I turned and rotated the peppers and onions while they cooked to ensure they were charred on all sides. The tomatillos were soft, but not falling apart, so I moved them off the heat. The onions were slightly charred and mostly soft. The peppers were completely charred on all sides - I put them in a deep glass bowl and covered it tightly with plastic wrap. This encouraged the peppers to steam, which helps release the skin and allows it to peel right off.  I let everything cool for about half an hour to make it easier to handle.

With all the ingredients cooked and cooled, it was time to actually make this salsa verde. I cleaned the poblanos by peeling off the charred shin, opening up the pepper and rinsing out all the seeds. I put everything into the blender and turned my attention to seasoning. Now, most of the recipes I've seen for salsa verde include cilantro. I love cilantro, but my husband does not. In fact, there is an enzyme in the saliva of certain people that reacts with the cilantro and makes it taste like soap. You will never find cilantro in my kitchen, so my salsa had no herbs. Typically when I make tomato salsa, I like the classic Mexican flavors of chili powder and cumin, so I added a dash of each. I also like my salsa on the tart side and usually use the juice of one whole lime. Since the tomatillos have a naturally tart flavor, I only used half a lime and I added a generous pinch of salt and a healthy grinding of black pepper. When it comes to black pepper, always grind your own. The essential oils in peppercorns, which is where all the flavor comes from, tend to dissipate pretty quickly. If you buy pre-ground pepper, not only has it lost a lot of its flavor, but you also have no idea what's in it. It could be full of pencil shavings for all you know.  Buy whole peppercorns and grind it yourself for the absolute best flavor.

After blending, I adjusted the seasoning with a little extra salt and lime and I opened a bag of corn chips to see how this salsa tasted in an applied setting. It had a balanced flavor and a little bit of heat from the poblano peppers. Poblanos can be spicy or mild and you can't really tell how spicy they will be when you're buying them. If you are sensitive to heat, here's a tip that will work for any pepper. Cut off the stem end of the pepper and touch your tongue to the white pith. The heat of the pepper lives in its seeds and membranes. If the pepper is really hot, you'll know it right away. If you want a milder salsa, remove all the seeds and white pith and only use half. I served this salsa to my husband with a few chips before I started cooking dinner.  He gave it a thumbs up. It was absolutely yummy spooned over the zucchini and chicken, but this salsa is good on everything from tacos to pulled pork. Making your own salsa is easier than you think and much less expensive. Give it a try.