Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pumpkin Time

There is probably no fruit or vegetable as evocative of harvest time as the pumpkin.  (Sorry, apples.)  Of course, the big pumpkins are used in ornamental displays or to carve up as Jack-O'-Lanterns. But pie pumpkins are for eating.  Especially, and always, in pies.

Pumpkin pie is the classic for Thanksgiving.  And like all Thanksgiving classics, it has to be made the way we have always had it, with the recipe my mother used.

People often make pumpkin pie with canned pumpkin.  This is sad, because it is so easy to use the real thing.  Simply cut the pumpkin in two (many people save the seeds and process them by salting and roasting as a snack) and put the two halves on a baking sheet.  Bake at 300° for about half an hour or until your finger can easily dent the fruit wall into the soft inside.  Cool, scrape and mash, and you have really fruity-tasting wholesome pumpkin.  It can be measured and frozen for future use.  (Pumpkin bread is another good use if you should get tired of pie.)

Memory is an important part of taste for traditional meals like Thanksgiving.  My mother began baking from the Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book 50 years ago (the paperback version came out in 1961).  She wore it out; I found a reprint which I have now reduced to single pages.

Many of the recipes are still good classic treatments and I use several of them.  It does show its vintage in certain directions.  For example, this recipe calls for "top milk".  That is a remnant of the days before homogenized milk and it means rich milk that is partly cream.  I simply add some cream to the 2% milk I usually drink.

I often use a full 2 cups of pumpkin.  This makes a very fruity pie.  For a firmer custard, use 1 1/2 cups.  I also use a counter-top mixer (Mixmaster) to make the pie.  If you don't have one, use a handheld.

Pumpkin Pie
modified from Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book

Have ready an unbaked pie shell.  Set the oven at 450°. 

In a mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly.  Add the dry ingredients, mixing as you go.

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 T flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 t ground allspice
1 t ground cinnamon

Then mix in 1 1/2- 2 cups cooked pumpkin.
Heat but do not boil 1 1/2 cups milk (part cream); add slowly to mixture, mixing thoroughly.

Pour into pie shell.  Cook for 10 minutes at 450°, then turn down oven to 350°.  Bake for 40-50 minutes. I usually choose the 50 minutes because I use more pumpkin.  The pie will set up more as it cools, but should not still be liquid in the center when you remove it.  Cool on a rack before cutting.

I don't use the pie crust recipe from Ann Pillsbury.  True to its time, it relies on good old Crisco, which made a fine crust but we now know is loaded with trans fats.  After I threw away my Crisco can, I experimented for a while with all-butter crusts but they were failures.  Finally, thanks to a friend's food blog, I learned how to make a crust that has good manners and tastes good, too.  (And it freezes well, future pies on hold.)

A note about fats in pie crust:  There are many options, but you do need a fat that is solid at room temperature, not a liquid oil.  A blend of fats works well because you get the virtues of each kind.  I use a mixture of butter and lard.  The shelf-stable lard in big tubs at the grocery store is hydrogenated (trans fats again).  Try to find some rendered lard at a good butcher, or learn to render it yourself (not really hard if you can find the pig fat).  Keep this in the refrigerator or freezer.

Originally, this recipe called for volumetric measurements (cups).  But measurement by weight is easier and more reliable if you have a kitchen scale.

Another note: use Mark Bittman's advice and refrigerate the dough at various stages, including just after cutting and before rolling out.  Also, don't overcut.  (Don't use a food processor and reduce it into granules!)  The fat pockets from irregular pieces are what make for a flaky crust.

Gramma Bayer's Never-Fail Pie Crust
with thanks to Kim Bayer and her grandmother

Mix 3 cups of flour with a dash of salt.
Cut in (a hand pastry blender gives you the most control)
1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1/4 lb lard

Refrigerate briefly.

Whisk together:
1 egg
1 T vinegar (apple cider is fine)
5 T cold water

Mix this into the flour and fat mixture with minimal handling.  Use a small amount of flour on the working surface if needed.  Refrigerate.

Cut into three equal parts.  (Weigh them, if you will.)  Each one is a single pie crust.


Roll out and fill. Freeze unused portions in a plastic container or bag.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Legacy Pickles: Green Tomato Relish

Surely almost every culture on Earth has a pickle (or, sometimes a fermented food) that serves as a gentle bass line to the melody of the meal - a taste that is part of the food though never its focus. Often this is something that has been passed down through the family, or friends, or perhaps a familiar food conveyor.  Once you have become accustomed to that little assist, the food never tastes quite right without it. The jar is there in your pantry, and you reach for it without much of a second thought. 

Green Tomato Relish, ready for the shelf
In our family, that is Green Tomato Relish.  It is required that we make a batch of this every few years.  Homemade hamburgers are not real without it.  It is the secret ingredient in meatloaf, deviled eggs, sauces and salad dressings.  This relish is closely related to a couple of other Southern pickles, "chow chow" and "piccalilli".  Indeed, when I was introduced to this, it was called piccalilli, but as far as I can tell, most recipes for piccalilli include some fruit such as apples. Chow chow usually includes cabbage.  But what all three pickles share is that they are a mixture of fall vegetables with plenty of sugar and vinegar and some assertive spices.

I learned to eat "piccalilli" that was made by the parents of family friends.  We were gifted with a jar each fall as the senior Whitworths cleaned out their fall garden and the green tomatoes, peppers and onions went into the mix. I came to love this mixture as a child, especially on hamburgers.  Later, I combed through recipes until I found one in Joy of Cooking that seemed to match my memory. (The elderly gardeners were long since dead and gone.  The lesson is, always ask for the recipe.)

Use enough red bell peppers to add a color note.
The first challenge is to find the green tomatoes.  If you have your own garden, this is easy.  Traditionally, it was made from the garden leftovers just before the first frost.  But I have been known to grow tomatoes and harvest the first flush of fruit to make this pickle.  It is surprisingly hard to get commercial growers to supply you with them.  Hope for good friends with good vines.  You can use green tomatoes of almost any size, though I don't recommend the tiny ones.  As a rule of thumb, I might choose medium-sized green tomatoes not yet at full growth potential.  At least, make sure that the tomatoes have not begun to ripen.  It will make them too mushy.

Sliced, salted, drained vegetables
Plan for two days to make the pickles.  The vegetables are sliced (I use a food processor) and layered in a crock with pickling salt. (It is very important not to use iodized salt.  If you can't find pickling salt, use kosher salt.)  This will create a brine.  The crock is covered and left overnight (12 hours).  Then the vegetables are drained and rinsed, to avoid a highly salty pickle.

The next step is to place them in the pickling mixture to cook until they are transparent.  Then they are ready for canning.  Some people might keep them in slices, but I put them through a food processor briefly to make a relish.  (Be careful not to purée them.)

Measurement note:  tomatoes are often sold in farmers' markets by volume rather than by pound.  A peck (8 quarts) is about 16 pounds.  I find that a half peck makes enough relish for several years.

Green Tomato Relish
One-half peck green tomatoes (about 8 lb)
12 bell peppers, about 1/3 red or as available
5 large onions (less if Spanish onions, which are larger)
1 large garlic bulb or about 8 cloves of garlic

In a crock:
Layer these sliced vegetables with about 1/2 cup pickling salt; add scant teaspoon to finish as needed.
Push  a clean plate down over the vegetables until brine covers them.  Cover the crock and set in cool corner overnight.   Drain and rinse after 12 hours (approximately).

Pickling mixture:   (Heat in resistant pan, enamel or stainless steel)
1 1/2 quarts cider vinegar
2 lb light brown sugar
1 T plus 1 t powdered ginger
1 T plus 1 t dry mustard
In infuser bag or wrapped in cheesecloth
2T whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
1 T celery seed 

Add vegetables and simmer until translucent.  Try to avoid a heavy boil.

Can these in pint jars for 15 minutes (hot water bath canning).

Pickles can first be chopped in a food processor, taking care not to purée the relish.

Allow pickles to mellow for 1 month before using.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ricotta Made at Home

Here are my basic precepts for sustainable food:

1. Make as much of it as you can yourself, from scratch.

2. Use either food you grow yourself, or is grown near you, as much as possible.

3. Use recognizable real food, not mixes or partially prepared mixes. (This is what "from scratch" means.)

So, although it is possible to buy ricotta cheese from the dairy case, I'd rather make it myself.  This has to be the simplest cheese in the world to make.  It can be used in many ways, including cheesecake, macaroni and cheese, and especially in homemade lasagna.

There are two ways ricotta is made.  If you are already a cheesemaker and like to make mozzarella at home, the leftover whey can be made into ricotta.  (This is a different recipe.)  But I like to make it from whole milk.  We don't have it that often, so why not have the best?  It can be made from skim or fat-reduced milk, but we now know that butterfat is actually good for you, containing omega-3 acids.  And whole milk ricotta is so delicious.

We are fortunate here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to have an old-fashioned family dairy nearby. Not only do they sell milk that is minimally processed and in glass bottles, it is possible to obtain their non-homogenized milk, with a cream head. But if you can't get that, even supermarket homogenized whole milk makes a very nice ricotta.

You need some citric acid.  Ricotta is made by acidifying milk and heating it.  This causes the protein to coagulate and make curds.  Some people use lemon juice or vinegar, but to my taste these impart a flavor.  Citric acid is a simple, pure, crystalline organic acid that can be found in shops who cater to brewmasters or picklemakers (or cheesemakers).

Here are the proportions of citric acid to be used.  Dissolve the powder in water before adding it to the milk.

1 gallon milk            1 teaspoon citric acid         1/4 cup water
1/2 gallon milk        1/2 teaspoon citric acid     2 tablespoons water

Place the milk in a nonreactive pan (stainless steel is good) and mix in the citric acid solution.  Heat the milk, with occasional stirring, to 185-195 F°.  An instant-read thermometer is very useful for this. DO NOT let the milk boil or scorch, but watch it constantly. When it reaches temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes.

Pour the whey and curds into a colander lined with butter muslin (a fine-textured cheesecloth).  If you don't have the cheesecloth, a clean "flour sack" type tea towel will probably work.  After the whey has drained (a few minutes), the ricotta can be released by folding the cloth gently, and placed into a bowl for refrigeration until used.  It should be used within a few days.

A half gallon of milk makes about 3/4 pound of ricotta.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lemon Ice Cream (with Mango Instructions)

For languid summer feasts, the best thing is a very simple and luxurious dessert.  This classic freezer ice cream takes almost no time to assemble, and is always eaten in respectful silence.  It requires no special equipment.  Because of the high cream content, there is no crystallization and an ice cream machine is not needed.  Just pour the mix into a cake pan and place into a freezer for a couple of hours.

As an additional touch, fresh mango fruit (which is obviously not local to North America, but is frequently fresh and widely available in the late summer) may be sliced and placed on each serving.  I do not advise sugar or any other addition to the fruit.  My husband has published a full description of the method for peeling a mango on his blog, from which this illustration is lifted.

Freezer Lemon Ice Cream

2 cups whipping cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T grated lemon zest

Mix and pour into an 8" square cake pan.  Freeze for a couple of hours, till solid.

This is best eaten on the same day but can be kept frozen for a few days.

It is just as good (and some would say better) when lime is substituted for the lemon.

Monday, August 25, 2014

How Green Was My Pepper

Whether you source your summer vegetables from a CSA, the farmers' market, or your own garden, there comes a time when you are faced with a bumper crop of green bell peppers.  Eventually these big babies will ripen into red sweet peppers, or into another color.  Ripened bells are beloved by most.  I've written several posts on the preparation and use of roasted and peeled red peppers and of course sweet ripe red peppers are appreciated in salads and other dishes.

But as has been acknowledged even by the writers of the New York Times food section, green peppers are another matter.  We think so little of them here that I have often offloaded the end of season bounty on friends and neighbors.

Still, they are what is now.  And they do have some use in selected dishes.  This is the time of year that I pull out an old standby, from a cookbook that is also an old standby.  I received my copy of the I Hate To Cook Book at about the same time as my original copy (1964 edition) of the Joy of Cooking.  While I read Joy cover to cover (it was my first cooking course), I probably made a great many more meals from Hate To Cook over the first several years of my marriage.  There was no stigma in cooking from cans at the time.  (That was the form in which most food was sold.)  Also, I was a student with little time or money for fancy cooking.  The book has now been reissued and its author, Peg Bracken, has now been acknowledged as a figure of cooking history in her own right.  I'm still using some of the recipes from the book.  For one thing, they don't all involve creamed canned soup.  For another thing, they are invariably easy and tasty.

This casserole uses up a whole green pepper!  It goes well with some fresh sautéed vegetables like summer squash and a crisp salad from seasonal greens.  I made mine with a locally produced pork sausage, very sustainable.

Note: the recipe calls for "pork sausage".  You'll want bulk sausage for this.  But bulk sausage comes with various seasonings included.  Mine has sage and crushed red pepper.  If you use unseasoned ground pork instead, the results may vary slightly.

Dr. Martin's Mix

Slightly modified from The I Hate To Cook Book, by Peg Bracken

Using a stove-to-oven pan (enameled cast iron is my choice), crumble and brown 1 pound bulk sausage.  If excessive fat is produced, pour some off.

1 green pepper, chopped
2 scallions, chopped
2-3 celery stalks, chopped
2 cups chicken broth (homemade or commercial)
1 cup uncooked long-grain rice
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
(if using unseasoned sausage), black pepper

Mix, cover, and cook in a 300° oven for one hour.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Joy of Compost

Left corner: my first compost pile, 1972
One of the joys of being a home gardener is the participation in the cycle of life, from starting seeds to recycling all that garden produce into compost.  What is compost?  The product of the breakdown of organic materials by microbes. Composting has become a major industrial method of disposing of unwanted organic materials.  It can take on a highly technical aspect.  But home composting by gardeners is to industrial composting as home vegetable gardens are to corn monoculture.  In the home garden, it not only disposes of old leaves and overripe squash, but makes a lovely product that enhances soil and plant productivity. Soil scientists all concur that addition of organic material is the universal cure-all for soils (except peaty or "muck" soils, which are almost entirely organic matter).  Finished compost is high in humus, which alters the physical characteristics of soil for better nutrient availability and water percolation.

Compost can be used in many different ways.  It can and should be dug into the soil at planting.  It can be mixed with garden soil for potting purposes.  It is a very successful topdressing around established plants. When applied to the soil surface, it will be integrated into the soil over time and create a more friable soil.  In the shorter term, it makes an attractive mulch and will help to retard weed establishment.
Compost used as mulch

Note that they are empty.
There are as many ways to make a home composting operation as there are to make homemade lasagna.  I knew a gardener who made little chickenwire cages (about a foot wide and a couple of feet high) that were hidden behind shrubs.  She put garden scraps in those over time, then forgot about them.  A year later she took apart the wire to harvest a tiny pile of compost.  Some people make a huge heap of everything in the back corner and then turn it over once a year to get at the decomposed part. Others buy a plastic compost container or even a compost tumbler.  (I suspect that these often fall into disuse.)  Many gardening books and articles show elaborate constructions of three wooden bins. I've never understood how this can be successfully managed. They should not be regarded as necessary to home composting.

The system I use is cheap and flexible.  It is ordinary wire garden fencing made into temporary bins. (For people of average height, about 4 feet high works well.)  In the fall the bins can be expanded to hold fallen leaves, and as the new growing season begins, the fencing is wrapped more tightly into smaller bins.  They are not anchored and the bins can even be rolled up tightly for storage.  The compost can be turned frequently (a compost pitchfork is best) and the area can be raked in between uses.

What has to be achieved in a home compost pile is to allow the plant materials to decompose rapidly without excessive odor.  Woody materials must be run through a shredder if they are to be added. Other plant parts will benefit from cutting into smaller lengths or chopping by hand into pieces (squash or other large fruit or tubers).  Roots will not usually compost.  Don't add diseased plants to a home compost pile, and no really weedy material that has seed pods. I strongly suggest that plant material is all that should ever go into the pile.  No animal parts.  Definitely no animal feces, including manure (that can be composted separately).  In this comprehensive study of compost odors you'll note that the really bad stinks (those characteristic of putrefaction) derive from animal sources.  Ammonia is a common problem in home compost piles (from degradation of high-nitrogen tissues like grass clippings) and fatty acids like butyric acid (detectable at low concentrations!) are noticeable when anaerobic bacteria take over (too wet, too little oxygen).  It helps to understand that a compost pile is a little ecosystem. For details, here is this overview of microbial succession, but the point is that different bacteria and actinomycetes come and go through the process and the system needs to support them.  In a very real sense, what you have is a fermentation reactor and like such a reactor, you need to have the proper substrate and environmental conditions to make it work.

Moisture:  The mixture should not be too wet (so it needs good drainage) or too dry.  If it is too wet, anaerobic conditions result and you will get odor and clumping.  If too dry, the pile won't work and you may even see blue or green mold, a bad sign.  Often plant materials are sufficiently wet, but a sprinkle with a watering can between layers is usually a good idea.
Oxygen:  Aeration is critical.  The beneficial microbes involved in composting are engaged in active metabolism and will use up the available oxygen quickly.  Then the process will shut down.  This is why commercial composting operations turn the compost in windrows daily.  Turning the pile at least once every couple of weeks during active composting is a good idea, and good exercise too.
Temperature: It is perfectly okay to add materials to a compost pile when it is cold, but don't expect anything.  The pile will operate best within a range of  120-140° F internal temperature and the air temperature will affect that.  The process will be most active in summer temperatures.  If the pile is kept moist and turned frequently when it has the right nutrients, it should be at least pleasantly warm in the center.
Layer the "greens and browns".
Nutrients:  A mixture of high-carbon (fall leaves, straw) and high-nitrogen (green plant material) is needed.  Too much nitrogen, you'll get ammonia.  Too little, nothing happens. It is not necessary to be too precise about this, except that too many grass clippings really will be hard to manage.  It is better to add continuously than to store green material.

All this effort occurs fairly automatically during the gardening year.  You'll notice that after a time, the total volume has been reduced and new material is not decomposing very fast.  This is a good time to quit adding material.  Turn a pile once more, adding moisture, then let it sit.  By the fall, you should have compost.

Finished compost
The compost can be stored over the winter in its bins.  (Be wary of leaving it for too long under trees, especially maples - their roots will grow up into it.)  If you have perennial beds, they will appreciate a nice topdressing before winter.  Finished compost should not look like any of its original constituents, but partially finished compost (leaves still discernable) can still be used as mulch.  If you have a garden storage area, try keeping finished compost in buckets or trash bins over the winter.  It'll be usable in the spring before an outside bin has thawed.

If you want to have an even finer texture for the finished compost (to use, for example, in a potting medium, or as part of a fertilizer mixture), it can be put through a riddle.  This will remove odd bits of twig and bark.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Dill Bread of Summer

Bouquet dill is one of the most welcome sights of midsummer.  Its exuberant flowers are cheerful, whether as volunteers in a flower bed or in the vegetable garden.  And it is one of my favorite herbs.

Of course dill is famous for fish, chilled cucumber salad or soup, and in pickles.  But I especially look for it so that I can bake dill bread.

This recipe is a survivor from an era when no-knead batter breads were popular.  It contains cottage cheese, whose protein gives the bread structure without heavy kneading.  But I knead it anyway.

The bread should be made to serve hot, along with a summer meal that might include corn on the cob, a grilled meat, probably a cold salad or grilled summer vegetables and perhaps some sliced tomatoes. Its frank opulence offsets those simple elemental flavors (don't skip the butter for the hot bread). Leftover bread can be toasted the next day and served as a tea bread or snack.

Many market gardeners and supermarkets feature the variety known as dukat dill, which resists flowering and provides a long supply of the fresh dill leaves.  But in my experience these have a milder (duller) flavor than the ferny foliage of the bouquet dill.  You'll need to pick the leaves before seedheads begin to form and the leaves start to yellow.  I like the strong flavor of the bouquet dill and include lots of it in the bread.

Cottage Cheese Dill Bread

Dissolve one measure* of instant dry yeast in 1/4 cup warm water.

Mix 1 t salt, 1/4 t baking soda, 2 T sugar and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour.  Set aside.

In a saucepan (low heat), melt together 1 cup of creamed cottage cheese (not low-fat) and 1 T butter.  Let cool in pan after combined.

Combine the cooled cheese mixture with the yeast, the dry ingredients, and

1 egg
2 T (or more) chopped onion
2 T (or more) chopped fresh dill

Mix in approximately 2 cups more flour.   Turn onto floured board and knead briefly to combine flour and wet mixture, adding flour as necessary.  The objective is not to knead aggressively as for breads that depend on gluten for structure, but to combine flour and produce a dough that can be handled.  Place in a buttered bowl and let rise for 45 minutes.

Butter a casserole or loaf pan.  (An oval casserole can make an attractive loaf for the table.) Punch down the dough and place into the pan to let rise another 30 minutes or until bread has risen above the container.  (Note - it can run over the edge if left to itself, so watch.)

Bake the risen bread for 35 minutes in a preheated 350° F oven.

*Yeast note: A packet of instant dry yeast may be used.  Regular bread bakers often use a bulk dry yeast such as saf-instant (available from King Arthur's catalog or in many groceries), in which case the recommended amount is 2 1/4 t.
The center of the bread is soft, but not wet.