When Jennifer Burns Levin wrote about her encounter with atjar tjampoer in Amsterdam, I realized that this Indonesian-Dutch cousin of chow-chow was missing from my collection of recipes for the mixed pickles that originated in the East Indies and traveled with sailors around the globe, evolving along the way to suit local tastes and conditions.
Atjar tjampoer is especially interesting because it’s still popular among the descendants of both the colonizers and colonized. It’s an everyday food not only in the cool Netherlands but also in warm Indonesia, where the pickle goes by the modern, de-dutchified spelling acar campur. Although Indonesian recipes often include tropical ingredients that are rare in Europe, such as candlenuts and lemongrass, both Dutch and Indonesian recipes call for European vegetables: usually cabbage and carrots, and often cauliflower and green beans. As with other mixed pickles, the ingredients can vary according to what’s available in the garden or market.
Chow-chow wouldn’t be chow-chow without mustard. Atjar tjampoer is always brilliant yellow, but usually all the color comes from turmeric, though mustard is occasionally included. In Indonesia, fresh rather than dried turmeric is preferred.
Like chow-chow, atjar tjampoer is a sweet pickle, but the amount of sugar can range from a tablespoon to a half-cup per pound of vegetables. And whereas chow-chow recipes include various spices such as cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and black pepper, atjar tjampoer’s seasonings are usually limited to hot pepper, ginger, garlic, and salt. The resulting taste is clean, pungent, and usually more bitter than sweet.
American and English picklers tend to put up chow-chow in great quantities, but atjar tjampoer, especially when it’s acar campur, is often treated more as a make-ahead salad than as stock for the pantry. I developed this recipe to fill a quart jar.
Atjar Tjampoer/Acar Campur
Feel free to change the vegetable types and amounts to suit your needs, but aim for a total of 2¼ pounds. In summer, include sliced cucumber and chopped green beans.
I used rice vinegar of 5-percent acidity, but most recipes call for distilled vinegar.
If you happen to have a jar of sambal ulek, Indonesian hot-pepper paste, use it instead of dried hot pepper. Because the peppers in sambal ulek are ground with salt, you may want to reduce the amount of added salt in this recipe. Another alternative, of course, is to grind some fresh ripe peppers yourself.
1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 tablespoon minced garlic 2 teaspoons minced ginger 1 tablespoon ground turmeric 2 tablespoons sugar 2 teaspoons salt 1 cup vinegar 2 teaspoons ground dried hot pepper 10 ounces trimmed cabbage, sliced thin 6 ounces onion, halved and sliced thin 4 ounces carrots, sliced thin diagonally, the slices slivered lengthwise 1 pound trimmed cauliflower, broken into the tiniest florets
In a nonreactive pot, heat the peanut oil. Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric, and red pepper, and cook the mixture briefly, until it is fragrant. Add the sugar, salt, and vinegar. As soon as the vinegar begins to boil, add the vegetables. Cook and turn them for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are wilted; they should not soften much.
Remove the pot from the heat, and pack the vegetables firmly into a quart jar. Cover them with the liquid. Cover the jar, let it cool, and then store it in the refrigerator.
The pickle can be eaten right away, but it will taste better after several days.
The Dutch serve atjar tjampoer as part of their rijsttafel (“rice table”), an elaborate colonial-style banquet. Indonesians eat acar campur with spicy and hearty foods, including meatballs, pork chops, pot roast, fish, and sandwiches.
My California sweetheart farmer, Rich Collins, came through once again this year with a Valentine’s bouquet of Belgian endive. So I put off harvesting any of my own chicons until yesterday.
This is how my chicory plants looked in the garden last summer (remember, what we call Belgian endive is actually chicory). The leaves, though edible, were ferociously bitter. I left them alone, thus ensuring that the plants would have the energy to form big roots.
In December I dug up the roots. Here they are at harvest.
To replant them for their winter growth, I trimmed off their tops and took them to the barn.
I found a plastic box, 13 inches deep and cracked on the bottom, which seemed a perfect planting container; nobody would mind my filling the box with dirt, and the roots would have drainage, if needed, without my damaging the box further. Lacking either sand or light soil as a planting medium, I used some commercial potting mix that I had on hand. I trimmed off the bottoms of the roots so that the tops would be covered with at least an inch of the moistened potting mix. Now I needed to bury the roots further in a light material like sawdust or leaf mold, or more planting mix, but I had already filled the box to the top. So I piled some wheat straw over the roots, inverted another plastic box on top, and secured it with a couple of half-bricks.
Except for occasional peeks, I left the roots alone. Our cat Daphne, however, did not. While we were on vacation in late February she managed to knock off the bricks and the top box, leaving the chicons barely covered with straw for as long as six days. When we came home I covered them again—until yesterday, when this is what I found. The biggest chicons, I saw, had grown on the biggest roots. Some of the heads are a bit greener and more open than they should be, because of Daphne’s transgression, or the transparency of the bottom box, or my failure to bury the roots deep enough, or a combination of these possibilities. But no matter—most of the heads are firmly closed, and even the green leaves have hardly any bitterness.
If you’re in the United States and want to grow Belgian endive, you can buy the seeds from Nichols. For tips on preparing Belgian endive for the table, see my piece from last year, “Playing with Belgian Endive.”
Robert and I flew to New Orleans the week before last to spend time with our youngest, who was finishing an internship in southern Louisiana, and to see the city for the first time. I hope you don’t mind my diverging from the topic of homegrown food once more to share some photos of NOLA’s unique food culture.
Waiters take a break at Café du Monde, the city’s favorite spot for beignets and people watching. Though I’ve avoided coffee blended with chicory since my dreadful experiment with a 100-percent chicory brew, I had to try Creole coffee, typically an 80-20 blend served as equal parts brew and milk. New Orleans folks seem a bit defensive about their chicory, which tourist literature describes as “very mildly bitter”; Café du Monde’s website says chicory “is added to the coffee to soften the bitter edge of the dark roasted coffee.” Thankfully, the milk softens the bitter edge of the chicory, but the acrid aftertaste lingers on the tongue.
This is Café Beignet, Café du Monde’s leading competitor, situated in a lovely city-owned plaza where musicians entertain at nearly all hours. Café Beignet’s beignets—rectangular yeast doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar—are said to be lighter than Café du Monde’s, and we concurred with this opinion. We also appreciated not having to excavate Café Beignet’s beignets from a mountain of powdered sugar. (At Café du Monde, I watched a man eat his excess sugar with a spoon.) But at both cafés the beignets were excellent, as doughnuts nearly always are when they’re served fresh and hot. Which is the only way to serve a doughnut, right?
Our server pictured at Café Beignet is Laurie, who led a fascinating group tour of New Orleans eateries through Tastebud Tours.
On Bourbon Street, in the French quarter, crowds of tourists stroll and stagger from one club to the next, all night long. Choose your blues, jazz, rock, Cajun, or whatever (the music is so loud that the genre may not matter), and you can sit and listen or dance for free provided you buy a drink. But many people prefer to drink as they amble down the street, and this is perfectly legal. Here is one of several shops specializing in frozen daiquiris to go, in a rainbow of artificial colors.
And here is a walk-up bar that opens right onto Bourbon Street. The sign says, “Pour me somethin Mister!”
I was thrilled that our food tour included servings of muffuletta, also known as muffoletta or muffaletta. I’d been intrigued by the name of this sandwich ever since my sister brought me a jar of olive relish labeled with the same word. Actually, the relish isn’t properly called muffuletta or even relish; it’s known in New Orleans as olive salad. Originally, muffuletta was the name of neither the relish nor the sandwich but of the bread loaf, which a Sicilian baker introduced to the city in the late nineteenth century. In Sicily, soft, round, sesame-topped loaves of muffuletta are still popular, especially on November 2, All Souls Day. They are split crosswise and spread with various fillings, such as cheese, anchovies, and olive oil. At Central Grocery, a little Italian market still thriving in the French quarter, Lupo Salvatore invented the New Orleans muffuletta sandwich in 1906, when he filled muffuletta loaves with Italian cold cuts, cheeses, and a mixture of chopped olives and pickled vegetables and wrapped the sandwich in paper to make a portable lunch for his countrymen who worked on the Mississippi River and on nearby farms. The muffuletta pictured here is from Mike Serio’s sandwich shop.
Once I understood that muffuletta was bread, the name lost its mystery. Muffuletta is an obvious cousin of the French moufflet (soft, tender bread), the German muffe (small cake), and the English muffin. I suspect that all of these words are related to the English muff and terms in various European languages for puffy things–boxing gloves, mold, softness, and even wild sheep.
A French Quarter shop displays hot sauces, distinguished one from another more by their provocative names and label art than by their ingredients.
Johnny’s Po-Boys, another stop on our food tour, specializes in the other iconic New Orleans sandwich, the po’ boy. Filled with anything from roast beef and gravy to deep-fried seafood, the po’ boy has its own origin legend: Bennie and Clovis Martin worked as streetcar conductors until they saved enough money to open a coffee stand in the French Market in 1922. Inn 1929, the streetcar workers went on a long and violent strike, which the public supported with a boycott. The Martins offered free food to the strikers, big sandwiches filled with gravy and fries. Whenever one of the strikers came toward the stand, the Martins would say, “Here comes another po’ boy!” Their generosity made them and their sandwiches famous.
The Martins worked with a local baker to develop a new sort of French loaf, 40 inches long and blunt at both ends, to be easily quartered with no waste. Today most of these loaves are made by a bakery called Leidenheimer, which also makes most of the muffuletta loaves used by New Orleans shops and restaurants.
By the way, the German immigrant who founded Leidenheimer Bakery in 1896 first tried to sell the dense, dark breads of his homeland. But today Leidenheimer makes only “French” (white) bread. We saw no whole-grain bread anywhere at all in New Orleans.
Laura’s Candies specializes in pralines (pronounced “prah-leens”), candied pecans that are more candy than pecan and formed like drop cookies. Other candies in the shop are at least as interesting.
We came across this coffee truck in the Garden District. The only food carts allowed in the French Quarter, for some reason, are Lucky Dog hot-dog carts.
Royal Street, in the French Quarter, has a lot of antique shops. In one of them we found these French copper jelly pans, priced from $300 to $600. Keep these in mind if you want to send me a birthday present.
In New Orleans we ate a lot of crawfish, mostly boiled in heavily spiced water (and at one restaurant left in the water until they turned to fiery mush).
Better still was this crawfish etouffée, shelled crawfish smothered with a roux-based sauce, at the Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street.
At the Praline Connection we also ordered fried pickles, vinegared dills sliced crosswise, battered, and deep-fried. They are a pleasant change from French fries or fried onion rings, but fermented pickles sliced into spears are much better for frying, I think.
Miss Sandra stirs her gumbo at the New Orleans School of Cooking. I took several pages of notes in her class, which was as entertaining as it was informative.
After a swamp tour near Slidell, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, we let Sam’s GPS find us a restaurant. What the GPS thought was Schaefer’s turned out to be Speckled T’s, but no matter. For $19 each, we enjoyed the most amazing all-you-can-eat brunch of our lives, with raw and grilled oysters, boiled shrimp and crawfish, braised catfish, shrimp and grits, asparagus, sliced duck breast, whole boned quail, prime rib, and more, including all-you-can-drink champagne.
For our last meal in New Orleans we visited Deanie’s Seafood, a fifty-year-old favorite with a casino downstairs. While we waited for our entrées, the waitress brought not us not bread but red-skinned potatoes, boiled, apparently, with the same chile-based seasoning mix used for crawfish and shrimp. What a revelation! In Louisiana, potatoes and sweet corn are often boiled in the same pot with shellfish, but I hadn’t considered boiling potatoes on their own with Cajun-Creole spices.
At Deanie’s we also loved the soft-shell crab, something we don’t have here on the West Coast. How clever to time the catching and selling of crabs so people can eat them just after they have lost their shells but haven’t yet begun to grow new ones! If I had to shell a crab this small, though, I think I’d order something else.
I’m sorry we didn’t get to eat at Commander’s Palace, probably New Orleans’s most famous restaurant, in the Garden District across from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The owners, the Brennan family, have several other expensive restaurants in town. Five days in New Orleans wasn’t quite enough.
We did eat in two other expensive and impressive restaurants where I was too busy eating to take any pictures: Lüke, one of John Besh’s several restaurants in the city, where I watched the cooks work in a glass-walled room, and La Petite Grocery, in the Garden District, where the lobster beignets were unforgettable. Keep these two in mind if you plan your own trip to New Orleans.
Every day this winter I’ve eyed my citron melons in the entry hall, admiring their summery beauty and wondering how long they would keep. Some people say they store well for a whole year, but I’m guessing that’s true only in a quite cool place, such as an unheated cellar. The temperature in my entry hall is usually about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, probably not cool enough to warrant pushing my luck past February. Last week I figured that, though I didn’t need more citron melon preserves, I also didn’t want to lose the chance to experiment more with the melons, which I might never grow again. So I cut into a second one.
Although citron melons are notorious for their hard rinds, I’d had no trouble cutting my first melon, back in December. This time the rind seemed to have toughened. I sympathized with the writer of a poem, published in the Burra, Australia, Record in 1935, that begins this way:
There ain’t no dish I’d rather try Than my dear wife’s good melon pie. I get a melon from the pit And take the axe and open it.
Instead of an axe I used my twelve-inch chef’s knife, which Robert bought me for cutting big winter squashes. I’ve been a little bit scared of this knife ever since the day it flew into the air and I caught it by the blade instead of the handle. Now I often use the knife by holding it in place and pounding it with a rubber hammer (which as you can see I also use for closing paint cans).
That worked to split the melon cleanly. Cutting the halves into wedges, as I’d done to make citron melon preserves, would be too difficult and dangerous, because besides growing a tougher skin the melon had also become more mucilaginous, as if someone had injected it with a quart of aloe juice. My hands and cutting board were already slippery. I tried spooning out the pulp, but that was slow going. So I used a technique I often rely on for another hard fruit, the quince. I turned the halves face down and sliced them straight downward. Then, using a smaller, thinner blade, I cut the rind from the slices without much trouble.
Now I needed to remove the big, hard, numerous seeds. I picked as many as I could out of the sliced flesh, cut the slices into smaller pieces, and picked out more seeds. This is a job to do while listening to an excellent radio program, so you don’t start dwelling on the question of what your time is worth.
Although I hadn’t found a single pie recipe for this fruit that’s often called a pie melon, I‘d found two recipes for compotes of sorts, one in Mildred Maddocks’s Pure Food Cook Book, published in New York in 1914, and one from an unnamed cook in Queensland, who described the fruit as “So country! So winter! So not dinner party material.” I based my recipe less on Mildred’s than on the Queenslander’s, which included, enticingly, cinnamon and marsala. Lacking marsala, I used brandy.
Although the Queenslander used only a quarter of a melon, her other quantities seemed about right for my five-pound melon; this made me wonder just how big citron melons grow in Queensland. I wonder also if the flesh of Queensland pie melons is especially tender, because whereas the Queenslander cooks her compote for about forty minutes, mine needed two hours for the melon to soften.
As these differences indicate, melons called citron or pie melon can vary a lot. Mine are striped, white-fleshed, red-seeded, and tasteless. If yours vary from this description, you may need to adjust the recipe.
Baked Citron Melon Compote
½ cup raisins ¼ cup brandy 1 5-pound citron melon 1 cup sugar 1 orange 1 lemon 2 cinnamon sticks 2 tablespoons butter
Soak the raisins in the brandy for at least several hours.
Peel and seed the melon, and cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the zest from the orange and lemon in fine strips, and then squeeze out the juice, picking or straining out any seeds.
In a three-quart casserole, combine the raisins, their soaking liquid, the melon cubes, the sugar, and the orange and lemon juices and zests. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the mixture, and dot with the butter. Bake the compote uncovered for about two hours, turning the fruit gently a few times, until the melon is tender, golden, and slightly translucent.
You can serve the compote warm or cool, perhaps with cream, though I like it plain.
The compote turned out mildly sweet. If you think you’d like it sweeter, honey would be a pleasant addition. The fruit’s mucilaginous texture remained after baking, but neither Robert nor I found it objectionable; I think it’s growing on me. Because the melon is virtually tasteless, all the flavor of the dish comes from the added flavorings–the raisins, brandy, cinnamon, and citrus. How could a dessert with those flavors be anything but good?
As the Queenslander points out, you could make this dish into a pie by thickening the liquid (with cornstarch or arrowroot or just by simmering it down a bit), spooning the fruit and liquid into a baked pie shell, and perhaps adding a topping of cream or meringue. I like the compote just as it is, though, for breakfast or an afternoon or late-evening snack, and maybe even as a homey dinner-party dessert.
I first learned about watermelon’s pale-fleshed, seedy ancestor while studying traditional ways of preserving modern watermelon. Why, I wondered, do people bother to make the watermelon’s narrow inner white rind into pickles and sweet preserves when the red flesh and the seeds have much more nutritional value and flavor? Was the white layer proportionally bigger in watermelons of the past? And what is a pie melon? Did Southerners actually make pies out of a sort of watermelon?
Soon I was reading about the citron melon, the native African watermelon from which our garden varieties were developed. Citron melons grow wild in many hot places today, including the southern United States. Green Deane describes them growing in Florida citrus groves, though the melon wasn’t named for this preferred habitat.* Wild citron melons are said to be usually bland-tasting, but sometimes they’re sweet or bitter. Cultivated varieties are always bland. “Pie melons” can be citron melons or crosses between citron melons and sweet watermelons.
That much I learned from other writers, but I wanted to experience this fruit for myself. So when I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog in 2011, I had to send for some seeds.
I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but this year I did better. My single citron melon vine produced several round fruits, each no more than 7 inches in diameter and striped dark green on a pale green background. I picked the melons at the first frost of the year, in early October, and hoped that they would keep well on the cool tile floor of our entry hall while I spent the next several weeks canning and drying tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Later I would try making some citron melon preserves, which are just like watermelon rind preserves except that you use all of the melon except for the hard outer rind and the seeds.
In early November one of my readers, Val, suggested that I have a look at a blog post by a writer in southern France concerning “jamming melons,” or melons d’Espagne. In Médoc, writes Mimi Thorisson, everybody makes confiture with these melons just after harvest, in early November. She suggests two variations on the basic confiture, one with vanilla and one with mandarin orange and ginger. Her recipe, I noticed, closely resembles American recipes for citron melon preserves. In her photos, the melons d’Espagne look just like my citron melons.
I consulted other French sources. Some French writers say the melons are harvested in late fall and kept in a cool place until just after Christmas, when they are made into the last preserves of the year. All the French recipes I found are much like both Mimi’s and the American recipes. If melons d’Espagne and red-seeded citron melon aren’t exactly the same variety, they must be very close.
I cut into one of the melons. Inside, it fit the French descriptions. The flesh was pale green and bland tasting. It felt slimy, like aloe. The red seeds were many, large, and hard in comparison with seeds of the sweet watermelon cultivars I know.
I worked out a recipe to suit myself. I didn’t add an apple or chop the melon in a food processor, as one French recipe specifies. This would give a jammy result, and I wanted to make preserves, that is, bite-size pieces of fruit in heavy syrup. I didn’t use the alum called for in some Southern recipes, to give the melon a brittle (and, to me, odd) texture. Instead of choosing either vanilla or orange, as Mimi suggests, I combined the two, as in other recipes.
I used half of a vanilla bean, and the flavor was overwhelming. So in the recipe that follows I call for only a quarter of a bean and offer the option of using ginger instead, as I’ll do next time. If you prefer vanilla to ginger, you might also follow another French tradition: Add a splash of dark rum at the end of cooking.
Citron Melon Preserves
For this recipe you’ll need a melon about 6 inches in diameter or else a piece of a larger melon. Cut the melon in half, and cut each half into narrow wedges. Poke or pry out all of the seeds. Peel each wedge with a knife, and then cut the wedge into ½- to ¾-inch pieces.
3 pounds prepared citron melon pieces 2 clementines 3 tablespoons lemon juice 3 cups sugar ¼ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and slivered crosswise, or 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced thin, and slivered
Put the melon pieces into a preserving pan. Halve the clementines, squeeze out their juice, and add the clementine juice and the lemon juice to the pan. Scrape out any membranes and stringy white bits from the clementine peels, slice the peels into thin strips, and add them to the pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla bean or ginger pieces. Stir gently, cover the pan, and let the mixture rest overnight.
Set the pan over medium heat, and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring only occasionally and gently. When the preserves are ready, there will appear to be more fruit than liquid in the pan. The fruit will be partially translucent, and the syrup will form a thread when dropped into a glass of cold water.
Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the preserves into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.
Note that the syrup will probably jell, but slowly, over a period of days.
Serve the preserves on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or ice cream.
Makes about 4 half-pints
*Nor does the melon taste like citron; it isn’t tart at all. Instead, its English name derives from its generic name, Citrullus, which was first applied to its cousin colocynth, or Citrullus colocynthis, a plant that loves very dry as well as hot conditions. Ripe colocynth fruits on the vine look like oranges scattered about on the ground, as if somebody’s shopping bag had ripped in the middle of the desert. Citrullus colocynthis was once a highly valued medicine, traded throughout the Old World for its purgative effect, despite its horribly bitter taste.
I first learned of this traditional preserve of Brittany from a travel guide. In our subsequent trip to Brittany, last spring, my family and I searched the grocery stores and gift shops for pommé. Some people we talked with mentioned a traditional bread or pastry called pommé, but none had heard of the confiture. We thought we’d found what we were looking for at a festival in Dol-de-Bretagne, but the pommé there turned out to be bread with apple filling.
Though apparently once very popular in the eastern, traditionally Gallo-speaking part of Brittany, pommé the preserve is little known today. It rarely appears in shops catering to tourists. As I learned with further research from home, pommé is still prepared, sold, and consumed mainly in the countryside.
Pommé is none other than apple butter, usually made without spices or added sugar, so that a spoonful offers a full taste of the caramelization that occurs with long cooking along with concentrated natural fruit sugars and acids. For farmers in the pays Gallo, making pommé was an excuse for a party. Each autumn, they would empty a barrel of fresh cider into a copper cauldron and add peeled, cored, and cut apples. Family members and neighbors would take turns stirring for twelve hours or longer until the apples had broken down and the cider had condensed to make a thick, brick-red, glossy jam. Once the apples were in the pot, everyone but the person stirring would sing and dance to the music of an accordion player or fiddler.
Pommé was sometimes called le beurre du pauvre, the butter of the poor, because when you couldn’t afford to buy butter, or needed to sell all your homemade butter for cash, you could spread your bread with pommé instead. This made pommé especially popular during the world wars. After World War II, though, butter was more affordable, and so was the refined sugar for making modern jams. Pommé was nearly forgotten.
In the 1970s, residents of the villages of Bazouges-la-Pérouse and Tremblay began to revive the custom of the ramaougerie (“stirring”) de pommé as a public event, complete with live music, sales of artisanal goods, and cider pressings. The finished pommé is packed into jars and sold to the crowd.
Making pommé in a small batch at home is a less festive but also less time-consuming affair. Constant stirring isn’t actually necessary until the cooking is mostly done. This is how I’ve made pommé:
1 gallon sweet cider 5 pounds cored, peeled, and quartered apples
In a big, wide, heavy-bottomed pot (mine holds 7.5 liters), begin heating the cider. Add the quartered apples—you can do this gradually, if you like—and simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally. When the apples have broken down and the pommé starts to spatter, stir it constantly for about 10 minutes, until it has thickened and darkened. The finished pommé will be glossy and a warm red-brown. The total cooking time should be about 4 hours.
Ladle the pommé into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
When my faithful correspondent Sheila offered to send me seeds of a pepper variety called hinkelhatz, I didn’t bother to ask what a hinkelhatz pepper was. Every pepper variety, I figure, is worth trying at least once. As I laid the seeds on damp paper towels and later planted the sprouted seeds in pots in the greenhouse, I wondered what the fruit would be like, but I didn’t bother to research the question. And when I set the little plants out in the garden, again, I was too busy to look up a description.
It wasn’t until I idly picked and bit what I took to be an extra-small shishito that I learned what I’d planted. I screamed, spit, and tore to the house, drooling all the way, to salve my burning tongue with a big spoonful of sour cream. Hinkelhatz peppers are hot!
I grow many varieties of peppers, but with our cool summer temperatures of the past few years the chiles have sadly developed little heat. And our summers are simply too short for most reliably fiery varieties, such as habanero, to produce mature fruits. So the hinkelhatz was a big surprise.
Because it has been grown for well over 150 years by a small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites, the hinkelhatz has been added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. The name of this pepper—“chicken heart” in Pennsylvania Dutch—aptly describes its size (1½ to 2 inches long) and shape (somewhat conical but blunt-ended and slightly furrowed). The hinkelhatz starts out the same pale green color of the slighter longer—and never hot—shishito. Some Pennsylvania Mennonites grow a yellow hinkelhatz, but the commoner type, which I had, ripens orange-red. This description may remind you of the habanero, but the hinkelhatz has none of the habanero’s characteristic aroma. Just the heat.
When the first frosts came in early October, very few of my hinkelhatzes had ripened. I stored them in a box in our unheated guest bedroom, and I waited.
In mid-November, a few of the peppers had begun to rot; it was time to use the rest. Many were still fully green, so I put them in brine to ferment. About a third had ripened. These I would use in the way that Slow Food says the Pennsylvania Dutch do, as pepper vinegar.
The term pepper vinegar usually refers to vinegar that’s flavored by stuffing a jar full of hot peppers, pouring vinegar over, and letting it slowly draw out the peppers’ fire and flavor. Pepper vinegar of this sort is a common condiment in the West Indies and southeastern United States.
But Slow Food describes the Pennsylvania Dutch pepper vinegar as made from cooked and puréed peppers. So I created what might be better called a pepper sauce, in this way:
Hinkelhatz Pepper Sauce
1 pound ripe hinkelhatz peppers, tops cut off ½ cups cider vinegar (5 percent) 1 teaspoon fine salt
Grind the ingredients together in a blender or food processor until the peppers appear minced (not puréed). In a saucepan, simmer the mixture for 10 minutes. Press it through the fine screen of a food mill. Funnel the sauce into a bottle, and store it in the refrigerator.
Makes about 1 pint
The sauce turned out a beautiful vermilion and, as expected, quite hot. It seems strange that Pennsylvania Dutch folks, with their sugar- and vinegar-rich but otherwise bland cookery, would favor hot sauce of any kind, much less this kind. According to Slow Food, the Mennonites who grow hinkelhatz peppers sprinkle pepper vinegar on their sauerkraut. I wish someone could tell the story of how this pepper arrived in Pennsylvania, presumably—though probably not directly—from Mexico, and how it came to be treasured and passed on through generations in a community of Mennonite farmers.
I thank those farmers for passing the hinkelhatz on to the rest of the world. Seeds for the red type are now available from many garden seed companies, which you can find with a quick Internet search.
Arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, vin cotto, vino cotto, pekmez, petimezi—these words from various lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all mean the same thing: grape juice boiled down to a thick syrup. Before Arabs introduced cane sugar to Europe, molasses from grapes, figs, or pomegranates was the best substitute for honey, a product that was usually more costly—or painful—to obtain.*
Grape molasses is still fairly common around the Mediterranean. In Spain arrope is used to fortify wines, to transform them into liqueurs with rounded flavor and enhanced sweetness. In Italy vin cotto is sometimes be served with quince paste and cheese. In Turkey pekmez is used in preparing many desserts. Grape molasses is also dribbled on toast, salads, steak, yogurt, and ice cream, and used as a marinade for duck and other meats.
The typical way to begin making grape molasses is to save some of the must when you’re pressing grapes for wine. You need at least two quarts must, which you’ll get from about six pounds of grapes. If you don’t have a fruit press, you can separate the juice from the seeds and skins by putting stemmed grapes through a tomato strainer. Or you can heat the grapes in a covered kettle until they come to a boil and burst their skins, and then drain the juice through a colander. For a jammier texture, press the grapes through a fine strainer (or use a food mill, if the grapes are seedless).
The second and final step in making grape molasses is to gently boil the juice—in a wide, heavy, nonreactive pan—until you have a thick syrup (like hot honey), taking care that it doesn’t caramelize. The boiling requires at least an hour and a half, longer if you’re using more than two quarts must.
Store the hot molasses in tightly closed jars. You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, just as you would jam—five minutes if you’ve sterilized the jars first, ten minutes if you haven’t.
The color, texture, and flavor of your grape molasses will depend on your grape variety. The juice will darken with boiling in any case, but dark grapes, to my mind, make the most visually attractive molasses. The molasses will be more or less tart, and notably astringent or not. If it’s made from an American grape variety, it may jell upon cooling, though slow cooking can prevent this.
To make preserves in a truly ancient style, add fruit to your grape molasses while it’s cooking. Dried fruit, such as figs, are added to the juice at the start of the cooking. A few weeks ago I added a cup of dried figs to the juice of eight pounds of seedless, blue Glenora grapes to make two pints of dark, rich preserves.
Even more interesting are my Glenora-quince preserves. Quinces conveniently ripen at about the same time as grapes, so combining the two seems natural. I used a pound of quinces—peeled, quartered, cored, and then cut into smaller pieces—for six pounds of grapes. I added the quinces to the juice after reducing it by half. Then I gently boiled the fruit in the syrup for about an hour, until the syrup was suitably thick.
Early in the cooking, my quinces looked almost like sliced beets in beet juice. Afterward, in jars, the quince pieces were invisible in the dark molasses.
Preserves made with grape or other fruit molasses are more complex in taste than preserves made with refined sugar. Deliciously tart, mildly astringent Glenora-quince preserves go just as well with smoked pork or roast poultry as with toast or yogurt.
Fat bunches of Canadice grapes, my favorite for fresh eating, still hang on the vines trellised over our back deck. Before the birds and wasps get them all, I think I’ll boil some down into molasses.
* I use the word molasses for these fruit products because it originally meant “honey-like.” The word syrup seems less suitable, from a historical perspective, because it comes from an Arabic word for a sugar-sweetened drink.
Look what I found in the liquor store in Albany, Oregon, among the flavored vodkas and cheap tequilas! I wasn’t looking for maraschino (pronounced maraSKEEno), but finding it made my day. It’s cherry season in the Willamette Valley, a region once well-dotted with cherry orchards. Almost all have long since been cut down, but the birds continually replant the feral descendants of the Bings, Lamberts, and Royal Annes that once made our nurserymen and farmers so proud. The fruit of the cherry trees that manage to grow up, mostly along the edges of farmed fields, can be large or small, red or yellow or black, and sweet or sour or bitter. My favorite tree, which grew from a seedling beside our shed, annually produces hundreds of pounds of small, black, slightly bitter fruits.
Because these cherries are too small to pit, I’ve had to find uncommon ways to preserve them. This was the same quandary faced hundreds of years ago by the people of Dalmatia, a region of modern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea where thrived the marasca cherry, a small, dark, slightly bitter variant of the sour morello. Sixteenth-century Dominican monks in Zadar (or Zara, as the name is still spelled on the Luxardo label) crushed the cherries along with their pits and some of their leaves and probably added some honey before distilling the fermented mash. The product, aged in white ash and then sweetened with cane sugar, became known as rosolj, “sun dew.” In the eighteenth century, rosolj wasrenamed maraschino and relished by the wealthy all over Europe.
Girolamo Luxardo began making maraschino in 1821. Luxardo’s double-distilled clear liqueur is sweet, viscous, and mildly bitter, with a complex flavor and aroma that you probably wouldn’t recognize as cherry or almond. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, Luxardo maraschino was available in the United States, where bartenders put it in cocktails. By the late 1800s, marasca cherries soaked in maraschino had also become popular. They were the ultimate cocktail garnish.
Prohibition put an end to the importation of both maraschino and maraschino cherries. So in the 1920s Ernest Wiegand, a professor at Oregon Agricultural College, devised a cheap, nonalcoholic substitute for maraschino cherries, using Oregon’s big, fleshy, pale Royal Annes. He first soaked them in a salt-and-alum brine, and then he packed them in sugar syrup doctored with food coloring, acid, and almond extract. His shiny crimson knockoffs soon took the place of maraschino cherries in cocktails, in “fruit cocktails” (which had gradually lost their liquor but continued to be served in cocktail glasses), and atop sundaes.
At the request of readers, I included the home version of Wiegand’s recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. But I personally preferred to soak my cherries in brandy. I’d never tasted marascas, but they sounded quite similar to my own favorite cherries. I figured that my brandied cherries, with sugar and a little almond extract added, must be pretty close in taste to true maraschino cherries. A couple of years ago I tried my brandied cherries on a young woman from northern Italy. They did taste something like maraschinos, she said. But they weren’t the same.
This year I have what I need to make almost-true maraschino cherries—I have maraschino. So here’s my new recipe: Fill a jar with stemmed sour cherries (preferably small dark ones with a touch of bitterness). Cover the cherries with maraschino. For a pint jar, you’ll need about a cup of liqueur. Cover the jar, and put it in a cupboard. Wait a few weeks or months. Then eat your cherries and drink your now dark and frankly cherry-flavored liqueur, over ice, in a cocktail or fruit cocktail, or however else you like.
I’ll let you know come fall how I like my almost-maraschino cherries. In the meantime, let’s hope that one of our new little distilleries considers producing anOregonversion of maraschino liqueur.