Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's Fresh Now: Tomatoes

We are having the most heavenly growing season out here in NYC. Last week I showed up at my CSA pickup and was handed a 20 lb. box of tomatoes, which over the weekend turned into sauce. I then canned this sauce, because there was no way I was going to fit 6 quarts in the freezer.

The tricky part was that I don't have a canner--a big deep pot fitted with a wire rack so that the jars don't jostle and break as they're boiling--so I devised one out of my brew kettle and an old rubber bathmat that I scrubbed with bleach first. I actually wouldn't recommend any of this, because even when I'm not using bootleg equipment I worry about getting sloppy and flirting with death. Anyhow, I've decided to invest in a dedicated canner what with apple season just kicking in.

Th'usband rolled his eyes a little at this news given that this project took the better part of my weekend and saw me verging on a panic attack until he helped me figure out how I was going to get the finished jars out of the canner; if I was doing it to spare the cost of 6 industrially produced quarts of sauce, clearly I had lost my mind.

Fortunately for me, th'usband is himself a re-enactor, and understands that this kind of doing has its own satisfaction, and that even when I'm reaching into the boiling water wearing silicone oven mitts, what I'm really doing is a flawed but earnest impression of my grandmother, or yours, ca. 1940. I'm sure that they never saw a day coming when sewing, knitting, canning and suchlike would amount to costly acts of indulgence rather than necessary acts of thrift.

First I peeled the tomatoes (with an extra set of hands lent by J.) by immersing them in near-boiling water for about a minute, then transferring them into a waiting bowl of ice water. This made the skins crack and slip off like gloves.

Prior to canning, the jars and lids get sterilized in boiling water. I took this photo before turning on the gas so that you could appreciate the bathmat action.

I quartered the peeled tomatoes and used my thumbs (can you tell by looking at my pristine hands?) to open and empty the big pockets of seeds, then chopped them roughly. These were perfectly ripe and red to the core and required very little trimming.

So here's the drill: using sterilized equipment, you ladle the sauce into the jars, leaving about 1/2 inch for expansion. Then you put on the lids, screwing the rings down tight so that the sauce doesn't ooze out when you carefully lower the jars into boiling water. You let them boil for 10 minutes, long enough to get the sauce inside the jars boiling again to kill off any pathogens that might have sneaked in there. Heated stuff expands, so when you pull the jars out of the water at the end of the processing time, they look full to the brim; a few minutes later, though, you'll hear a noise as the contents cool and contract, drawing the lid down to make a tight seal. The rings will seem loose at this point, and you can certainly screw them down--but really, nothing's going in or out of that jar until the day you slide a knife blade or file under that metal lid to release the pressure.

The only problem with canning is that the finished jars are almost too pretty to open.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Brewing by committee

Someone did th'usband and me a tremendous kindness, and although we can't repay that individual, it was pointed out to me that beer is always welcome. Then it hit me that right about now would be the time to get some holiday brews going anyhow, and the next thing I knew, I was planning a big step backwards, as it were, from the spiffy keg system I started with into more portable and gift-worthy bottles. Now all that's left is to choose my recipe.

I've posted four possibilities for your polling pleasure, selected from a list of a delectable dozen holiday beers dreamed up by one Randy Mosher. If you'd be so kind as to vote (look up to the right for the poll) for the one you'd theoretically be happiest to receive a couple of months down the road (I'm not making any promises, but if you live & move in my world it's not at all out of the question), I'd be much obliged. Here are the descriptions and how-to's for the finalists:

1. Caramel Quadrupel. Gravity: 1100; color: deep reddish brown.

A caramelized sugar and malt mixture imparts a lingering toffee-like quality. Mix a pound each of light malt extract and white sugar in a heavy saucepan. Heat until the mixture melts; stir only enough to mix together and continue heating until it starts to darken. Use your judgment about when to stop. Once it starts to brown, things happen quickly, but it can get fairly dark before it will make the beer taste burnt. When done, remove from the stove and cool by lowering the pan into a larger pan of water. Once cooled, add brewing water and reheat to dissolve the caramel, then add to your brew in progress.

2. Saffron Tripel. Gravity: 1090; color: orange-gold.

Pick your favorite Belgian tripel recipe as a start. If there’s no sugar in it, substitute 20 percent of the base malt for some unrefined sugar, such as turbinado or piloncillo. Jaggery (Indian palm sugar) is lovely. Add the zest of one orange at the end of the boil, along with a pinch of crushed grains of paradise or black pepper. Ferment with Belgian ale yeast, and add 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads after transferring to the secondary.

3. Crabapple Lambicky Ale. Gravity: 1050; color: pale pink.

Crabapples add not only a festive touch, but tannins and acidity as well, which makes it easier to get that tart, champagne-like character without extended aging. Brew a simple pale wheat recipe. If mashing, go low (145 degrees) and long (2 hours). Ferment with ale yeast, Belgian or otherwise. Obtain 3 to 4 pounds of crabapples (cranberries work also), wash well, then freeze. Thaw and add to the beer when it is transferred to the secondary, along with a package of Wyeast mixed lambic culture. Allow to age on the fruit for two months, then rack, allow to clear, then bottle. Lambic character will continue to increase with time.

4. Spiced Bourbon Stout. Gravity: 1050; color: India ink.

Take your favorite stout recipe and dose it with a vodka infusion. Into 6 ounces of vodka and 2 ounces of bourbon (more if you wish), add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 tablespoons crushed coriander, 1 whole star anise (or 1/4 teaspoon ground), 1/4 cup crushed juniper and a pinch of black pepper. When beer is ready to package, pull off some 1-ounce samples. Use a pipette or syringe to dose the samples with the strained infusion, increasing until you find the right dose. Then scale up and add an appropriate amount, plus a little extra to account for aging.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

social climbing

I just realized yesterday that I never posted the picture of our puppy (who's not really a puppy) at his grandfather's house with Biscuit Mondale. We went to a family reunion and left him (the puppy) behind with my friend M., who just happens to dog sit for the former vice presidential pooch. The two are now BFF, which would represent a significant social achievement for most dogs, I'd say; it's an even greater testament to his charm when you consider that just over three years ago, our little hooligan was waiting out the afternoon rain under a bench and subsisting on restaurant scraps in a (very nice, but still) Mexico City park.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What's Fresh Now: [Mostly] Local Meals

As I've mentioned before, September is this year's official Eat Local Challenge month. The organizers of this event, which is now in its 3rd year, are an incredibly encouraging bunch. If what you need is a good rational reason why eating locally produced food matters, they'll give you ten. Tips and guiding principles? Here are a nice even seven. Testimonials? Loads of them. Help with sourcing ingredients? Well, the Bay Area is this movement's spiritual home, but you might find a link to closer compadres here. Enough already and you'd like to sign up? Suit yourself.

While I hesitate to call th'usband and me full-fledged participants--on account of the fact that we haven't done anything in September so far that we didn't already have underway in June, July, or August--the good news is that simply by trying to make frugal use of our CSA produce, we've enjoyed one or more [mostly] local meals each week. I'll give you a few examples.
  1. The Red Meal: Th'usband and I are both going to start new jobs on the 24th. Cooking is going to have to get a lot more programmed without someone at home to run last-minute errands or speed-thaw something from the freezer, so we've cracked out the crockpot again. I had a roommate once who used one to make split pea soup, and th'usband is justifiably proud of his own slow-cooked barbeque chicken, but all I really know how to make it in so far is corned beef. Fortunately, I like corned beef a lot. This meal started out with a red onion, a bunch of red carrots, and some juicy red beets from our CSA layered under the corned beef and nice little red potatoes. Four or five hours later, after the meat was cooked, I took it out to make room for a red cabbage, cut into wedges. Nothing could be easier--and while it seems like wintery fare, when you use a crock pot, you don't even heat up the kitchen.
  2. Roast chicken and applesauce: Our friend A. was having a bad day. After we walked the dogs, I suggested that he come over for dinner and homebrew. That's the great thing about roasting a whole chicken--you can just spontaneously ask folks over, and there will be plenty to go around. I got our chicken from Dines Farms, of course, and brined it for a couple of hours in a mixture of salt, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, and maybe a few other things like red pepper flakes, but don't quote me on it. After drying it thoroughly and hitting it with salt, I crammed whatever fresh herbs I had on hand--thyme, I think, and some basil--under the skin and popped it into a 450 degree oven for about an hour. In the meantime, I peeled some apples recently procured from my uncle's tree and sliced them into a pot along with a pinch of salt, a shake of hibiscus sugar that an acquaintance in Minneapolis makes (and that I imported to the state on my person when I moved here), a twist of lemon to keep everything from getting too brown, and some of that world-famous Brooklyn tap water. Covered and simmered for a half hour or so, this turned into applesauce, and freed me up to steam and saute veggie sides--a mess of green beans and some more of those red potatoes--courtesy of our very own Farmer Bill.
  3. Mmmm. Montauk: I really wish I'd taken a picture of this one, but our hunger got the best of us. Th'usband and I like to pick out fish when we go food shopping, and look forward to a fast, healthy meal just as soon as we get the other groceries put away. This week, we wound up with yellowfin tuna steaks, fresh caught on Montauk. As soon as we got home, I started heating up a half-inch or so of (non-local) canola oil in a cast iron skillet, and sliced six or eight medallions of (non-local) polenta to fry in it. After that was sizzling away, I turned to cleaning green beans and peeling and slicing some gorgeous little carrots that I had to clear out of the fridge to make way for this week's batch. I steamed the beans, but softened the carrots in butter while I made up a little marinade/sauce in another skillet. It's a favorite of ours ever since we came home from Vermont last fall with a very large and yummy jug of maple syrup. I start by melting a little bit of butter, then adding equal parts (non-local) soy sauce and syrup. When all was blended, I brushed a goodly amount onto the tuna steaks and popped them under the broiler. The rest of the sauce went into the carrots, and I smacked a lid down on top of them so as not to lose the moisture. Five minutes later, everything was done and so beautiful that I pulled out my favorite rectangular, terra cotta rimmed plates. I laid down a grid of 4 crispy polenta medallions on each plate, then topped this with a tuna steak. I heaped the carrots on top of the steaks, letting the sauce flow freely down, and finally, filled out each place with a great green swath of beans. I ain't even saying, I'm just saying: heerlijk!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

On tap: Saison d'etre

In the past month, I've made the decision to leave my freelance existence behind and give corporate life a whirl. I'm really excited about it, but all the interviewing and thinking it over and tying up of loose ends has left little room in my head for blogging or beer.

But if you could just taste what I've got on tap--the self-same saison, or Belgian farmhouse ale I cooked up with that groovy heat-loving yeast--you'd have figured out weeks ago that there must be some huge topsy-turvy something going on, or else I'd surely be bragging about it.

Quite simply, my Saison d'etre is perfect. Thanks to two-stage fermentation, it's crystal clear and deliriously amber in color; thanks to that yeast, it's complex and peppery and fruity but still dry. Saison d'etre is also quite boozy, th'usband has pointed out, though exactly how boozy I couldn't say...I only just this week got a hydrometer. Maybe 6%-7%. I might mellow it out a little bit next time to make it a lighter, more summery beer, but for now, I'm glad for anything that keeps us from swilling it down too quickly. I've just learned that my three Brewing Uncles are paying me a collective visit in a couple of weeks, and I'd love to have some left for them to try.

What's more likely is that we'll polish it off before then, and be down to what's been a rather disappointing batch of chili beer. I modeled it on a crisp and frisky brew I'd tried last summer in Fort Collins, CO, but while mine has some appreciable heat, there's really not enough beer behind it to make that interesting. I began scrambling around last week for ingredients for a new, more conventional seasonal beer, but wound up with a kit containing liquid yeast that is taking forever--2 days and counting--to reanimate. Even if I am able to brew tomorrow, the resulting beer will still be too young to drink by the time they get here.

Ah, well. Here's a picture to remember her by.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What's fresh now: apples

I went apple picking with my friend S. on Sunday. I thought they'd give us a ladder, but instead we each got a long stick with a plunger on the end. S. laughed at me because I was wearing this stupid dress, and because I didn't understand how to use the plunger at first. I showed her, though, and pulled out three apples just as she was attempting to document my ineptitude. It was actually a bit hot and very humid out, which seemed wrong to both of us.

The apples were Jonamacs. Yesterday, I mixed these with some Wealthys I got from my uncle's tree when we went to Maine over Labor Day, and made apple crisp. You always get a better tasting pie or crisp when you use multiple apple varieties. I'm not giving this one rave reviews, but there's really no such thing as bad apple crisp.