Pickling–and Sweating–in the Kitchen

Come the middle of July, when I see cucumbers, green beans, and fresh dill at the farmer’s market, I always buy extra to make dilly beans and pickles. I think dilly beans are a New England tradition, although I’m not positive. They’re just green beans pickled like you would a cucumber. I saw them in a specialty food store once, albeit a tourist trap, for $5+ for a pint! I knew I could make them more cheaply at home.

It never fails that the night I want to make pickles it’s always hotter than heck outside. Just turning on the stove top means a line of sweat on my brow. But no matter, once I eat these babies, it will all be worth it!

This recipe is for refrigerator pickles, so canning isn’t necessary. And I give all recipe credit to my good friend (and reader!) Deb Allen, at whose house I happily munched on homemade pickles one late and dark January night over Scrabble and knew I had to get the recipe. So you can make these year round or whenever you want a taste of summer!

The recipe is easy and I vary it with whatever vegetable I’m using. Take 1 ¾ cup of apple cider vinegar and 2 cups of water with 1/2 tablespoon of coarse salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. While that is happening, take your glass jar (I keep old spaghetti sauce jars just for this use, but any large glass jar will do.) and add 2 teaspoons of black peppercorns, several cloves of garlic chopped in half, lots of fresh dill, 5-8 dried chili peppers (or less, depending on how you like the heat–and these are also the small ones, a couple of inches in length), and add either your cucumbers or green beans. I always find it like a puzzle, trying to fit everything neatly in the jar. When the vinegar mixture is ready, pour it over the veggies and let it sit on the counter until it is cool, cover, then refrigerate. I find the four cups of liquid is just about enough for two jars. Have them sit in the fridge for a few days, then open them and you are going to have a zippy combination of vinegar, garlic, and hot peppers with a crispy bean or cuke. I never measure aside from the vinegar, so I’m always trying to tweak them toward a better flavor; should I use more dill or less dill, less garlic, more chilis or less? This summer I think I’m going to try pickling squash and some onions!

What’s best about this recipes is there are virtually no calories so you can eat guilt-free to your heart’s content! I recently read a German study where vinegar makes you lose weight, or something along those lines. I guess I’m ahead of the game!

Saturday Morning Ritual

Saturday mornings in the summer are a total about-face from my winter routine. Up with the sun with a cup of coffee, I sit with a piece of paper and pencil, figure out what I’m going to cook for the week, grab my bags, and head out for my local farmer’s market.

Farmer’s markets weren’t something I grew up with, but following college, I visited my  first one when it opened in town, which had just a couple of booths with farmers selling vegetables. At the time, I didn’t really know what organic meant nor were my cooking skills honed enough to know what to do with most of the veggies, so I stuck with what I knew: peas, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes. That same farmer’s market has expanded ten fold in the past two decades, moved its location, and now is one of the largest in the state.

I’ve been going to my own farmer’s market for more than ten years and along with the usual fruits and vegetables has come a plethora of other vendors. This year we have two local vineyards, meat, greeting cards, jewelry, homemade soap, flowers, prepared food, maple syrup, baked goods, and various crafters. This year I can even get my knives sharpened at $3 a pop! But I’m really there for the food.

Unlike my grocery list that is neatly organized, I go to the farmer’s market with some cash in my pocket, no list, and unusual reckless abandon. My method is always the same, start at one end, going down the other, checking out what is available and their prices, then going back to my usual farmers. And I always end up buying more than we can eat in a week’s time. Who can resist the gorgeous fresh garlic still on its stalk? The pint of bright red tomatoes? All the emerald-colored herbs that will fill my car with the  aroma of summer? The fridge overfloweth with fresh vegetables and fruit.

Herbs are something I love to buy, but I usually end up with too much and too many times have made their way to the compost pile because I didn’t use them in time.  A couple of years ago, staring at some wilting herbs in their water, I decided to make something with them so I could use them up and have summer all year long–Garlic Herb Butter! And it’s so easy; take some minced new garlic and some minced herbs, I like basil, parsley, dill, oregano, or a combination, and mix together. Take some butter and make a paste with the herbs. (Depending on how much you have for garlic and herbs will be how much butter you use.) When you finish mixing, take a cookie sheet lined with parchment or wax paper and with a tablespoon, measure out into herb butter patties and place in the freezer. When they are frozen, I take them out, wrap each one individually, and store in a freezer bag. I make several different combinations and just keep them in the freezer. I use these for sauteing vegetables in the wintertime and buttering homemade bread; the aroma of the fresh garlic and herbs is wonderful; it takes me back to my hot kitchen in the middle of summer! And they keep forever; I found some in the back of the freezer this winter with a date I won’t to say, but it was still fresh and was delicious with some winter vegetables!

Another dish to make is something I call Farmer’s Market Salad, with veggies that are currently in the season at the farmer’s market, aside from the ingredients for the dressing, of course. You can use any combination: fresh lettuce mix and/or spinach, steamed green beans, tomatoes, fresh corn, scallions, cooked new potatoes, cucumbers, herbs, basically any vegetable you buy can go in the salad. Since everything is so fresh and tasty, I don’t like to adorn it too much, so some olive oil, salt and pepper, and a splash of either lemon or vinegar will do. Who knows, maybe I’ll see olive oil and lemon purveyors next summer!

101 Simple Meals in 10 Minutes–or Less!

One of my all-time favorite cooks is Mark Bittman.

(Photo © Fred R. Conrad/New York Times)

I was first introduced to Bittman around 2005 through his PBS cooking shows, “Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs” and “The Best Recipes in the World.” Author of How to Cook Everything, Food Matters, among others, and a longtime contributor to Wednesday’s Dining Section of The New York Times (he is now a food columnist for the Sunday magazine but still contributes recipes), Bittman can take just a couple of ingredients and create an inventive, delicious, and quick meal.

In the summer, when dinnertime is right around the corner and you don’t really feel like cooking, Bittman, of course, has the answer. In 2007, he published in the Times, Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less.” As he writes in the introduction, these are more of a general outline instead of a formal recipe. Such as this:

“3. Cut eight sea scallops into four horizontal slices each. Arrange on plates. Sprinkle with lime juice, salt and crushed chilis; serve after five minutes.”

See, simple, easy, and delicious in six minutes! He has since expanded this idea to “101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics” (2008), “101 Simple Salads for the Season” (2009), and “101 Fast Recipes for Grilling” (2010).

So, get your printer fired up and take advantage of your ten free monthly articles from the Times and print these menus out! I always haul them out once springtime arrives for some needed inspiration on those evenings I don’t feel like cooking!

True Confessions…and a Recipe

“Hello. My name is Chris and I am addicted to cookbooks. I’ve done so well in 2011, only purchasing Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2 that I got for a steal on eBay in January. I’ve heard NPR and the New York Times review the summertime cookbooks with nary a note. I’ve gone to used book sales and have put back cookbooks that were tempting me. I even went to a bookstore that had an amazing cookbook section and purchased just two books of food essays! But the other day I found myself tempted by a cookbook and I fell off the wagon.”

Of course, this is done in jest, but I really do have a lot of cookbooks. I take them to bed with me to read like a novel, propped on a pillow. You’ll know I’m in a cooking mood or planning a big meal if you find a stack of cookbooks next to the bed in the morning! And often I do pare down my collection; I donated several to my library book sale this spring and was pleased to discover I had more room on my cookbook shelves.

So the other day I was remembering a story I recently heard food writer Melissa Clark  tell on the NPR radio program, “The Splendid Table.” She spent several summers in France with her family and every day her mother made a pan bagnat for the family’s lunch to take to the beach. This is a delicious sandwich, where you take a loaf of crusty bread, hollow it out, and fill it with a mixture of tuna, vegetables, herbs, olives, garlic, and lemon. When the sandwich was made, her mother would wrap it tightly in foil. A key ingredient to the recipe is to have a seven-year-old child to sit on the sandwich!  This melds everything together, the bread and the filling, into a delicious meal.

Clark writes the “Good Appetite” column in the NYTs and her book, In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite: 150 Recipes and Stories About the Food You Love, published last year,  brings together recipes and past articles. She is a great food storyteller and is improvisational in the kitchen, making dishes out of just about anything. I can’t wait to read this–and who can resist that grilled cheese sandwich on the cover?

Next week is Festival on the Green. From Sunday to Friday, evenings will be spent listening to free music on the green. This is always a week of picnic salad suppers for us, made ahead of time, so I can grab things quickly to pack when I get home from work before heading out the door again. I never, ever consider a sandwich dinner, but for this week, I plan on making pan bagnat for dinner one evening, sans the seven-year-old; my nephew doesn’t live close enough to sit on the sandwich!

Pan Bagnat
Reprinted from A Good Appetite: Lunch Recipe: Take One 7-Year-Old by Melissa Clark

Prep time: 15 min
Weighting time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 min
Yield: 2 to 3 servings

2 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
1 very small garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 8-inch round crusty country loaf or small ciabatta, halved
1 Kirby cucumber or 1/2 regular cucumber
1 medium-size, ripe tomato, sliced
1/2 small red onion, sliced
1 jar (5 to 6 ounces) tuna packed in olive oil, drained
8 large basil leaves
2 tablespoons sliced pitted olives, preferably a mix of black and green
1 hard-cooked egg, peeled and thinly sliced

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the optional anchovies, the garlic, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle in oil, whisking constantly.

2. If using a country loaf, pull out some soft interior crumb to form a cavity. If using a ciabatta, you won’t need to eliminate anything.

3. If using a Kirby cucumber, slice thinly. If using a regular cucumber, peel, halve lengthwise, and scoop out seeds from one half. Thinly slice seedless half. Add sliced cucumber to vinaigrette and toss well.

4. Spread half the cucumbers on bottom of bread. Top with tomato and onion slices, then with tuna, basil, olives and egg slices. Top egg with remaining cucumbers and vinaigrette. Cover with second bread half and firmly press sandwich together.

5. Wrap sandwich tightly in foil, waxed paper or plastic wrap, then place in a plastic bag. Put sandwich under a weight such as a cast-iron frying pan topped with a filled kettle, or have a child about 7 years old sit on it. Weight sandwich for 7 to 10 minutes, then flip and weight it for another 7 to 10 minutes (or as long as you can get the child to sit still). Unwrap, slice and serve immediately, or keep it wrapped for up to 8 hours before serving.

Crunchy Maple Granola

Sunday mornings are sacred to me. The only day of the week I don’t awake with an alarm clock, I usually get out of bed between 7 and 8 and slip on my Asics to take my four-mile walk. No need for music on these walks, I am serenaded by the symphony of meadowbirds and the crunch of me feet on the earth. My body knows this road well, so I am able to be inside my head and meditate on  reflections of the week that has passed and the week to come or some problem or situation on which I need clarity. Frequently, I will walk this road in the afternoons, but on Sunday mornings, nary a walker will I pass, save the occasional pickup truck. This early morning is for me and me alone.

Today is Sunday, March 27. The last Sunday of March, at least for another year. I’m still bundled in two layers. No need for coffee before I walk, the western wind from the Adirondacks keeps me awake. The sky is baby blue with no sight of a cloud and the sun is brilliant; I’m able to stop for a moment and drink all that I get from the sun.

March in Vermont also means maple sugaring season. Warm days and cold nights make the sap run and gets the sugar houses going. Just like the return of the Canada geese and the red-winged blackbirds, that first plink in the sap bucket is music to everyone’s ears; it means the end of another winter and the start of spring.

On today’s walk, I thought about what I could make with maple syrup to celebrate this glorious season. This granola recipe is so easy, throw everything into a bowl, mix, and stir mid-way. Plus, you have the added comfort that you know exactly what is going into it; so many granolas on the market are filled with added sugar and other not-so-healthy ingredients. I’m giving you the original recipe, although I usually halve it for just two. Another note, this recipe originated with my aunt, who gave it to my mom, who gave it to me, so its origins are unknown, although I have seen similar recipes through the years. And it is reflective of the 1970s, dry milk is added, probably for an additional protein. Although I’ve made it without the dry milk, I prefer it included. This is delicious added to yogurt or just in a bowl with a little milk.

Crunchy Maple Granola
Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes or until done.

In a large bowl, mix:

  • 5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup sesame seeds
  • 1 cup wheat germ
  • 1 cup dry milk
  • 2 cups almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, or any combination
  • 1 cup coconut or sunflower seeds

Add to dry ingredients:

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup maple syrup or honey (both are equally delicious and add their own special flavor)
  • 1/3 cup water
  • Vanilla, to taste