Cherry Peppers for Stuffing

036-2When I traveled to Italy for Slow Food’s Terra Madre two years ago, I spent a lot of time examining fruits and vegetables in jars. And the preserve I saw more than any other was stuffed cherry peppers. Most were filled with prosciutto and cheese; some were filled with tuna. Some were sott’aceto, under vinegar; most were sott’olio, under olive oil.

I was most impressed with the peppers themselves: They were uniformly round, red, and free of cracks and other imperfections. I had grown cherry peppers for years, from seeds of various origins, and I’d tried to improve the fruits by saving seeds from only the best plants. But always my peppers turned out uneven in size and shape, with many of them more conical than round. When the rains came, they all would crack around the stem. Upon learning that vastly improved cherry peppers existed, I promised myself I’d throw out all my old seeds.

About the time I did so, last winter, someone gave me a few seeds of a superior cherry pepper. I must have planted all the seeds, because I can’t find the envelope, and now I’m no longer certain of the variety name. But I believe it was Ciliegia Piccante (“Hot Cherry”), a popular hot cherry pepper from Italy.

And how lovely those peppers were in the garden! As the perfect 1-inch green spheres gradually turned red, they never cracked, even when heavy rains fell in September.

When my cherry peppers were uniformly scarlet, I picked them all at once and then considered what to do with them. In past years I had pickled a lot of cherry peppers whole, but this year’s peppers were so pretty that I felt they merited stuffing, Italian-style.

The stuffed peppers I’d seen in Italy were once a common household product, but no longer; people were worried about botulism, which from time to time has sickened a handful of Italians. The Italian government provides general advice on safely preparing vegetables sott’olio: Basically, you boil the vegetables in vinegar before covering them with olive oil, and then you give the jars a boiling-water bath. But there is no Extension-style advice for making stuffed peppers sott’olio.

An Italian friend explained to me how her mother prepared stuffed peppers: She would freeze the fruits whole after harvest, and then just before serving them she would boil them, seed them, stuff them, and marinate them.

Freezing peppers without blanching works well; raw peppers don’t soften in the freezer as other vegetables do. But my freezer was full, and in any case I didn’t think the peppers would benefit from boiling. I wondered if I could pickle the peppers—jar them up sott’aceto—and then, later, simply stuff them.

Because I didn’t want the peppers to turn out too sour, I used a light pickling solution, with more water than vinegar. I left most of the peppers whole, without slitting them, although for the sake of comparison I seeded one pintful. I poured the liquid hot over the peppers, but I did not process the jars, because in my experience processing makes peppers soft. Then I stored the jars in the refrigerator, although because I’d sterilized the jars before filling them and they had sealed well, pantry storage would have been adequate.

Three and a half months later, on Christmas Eve, I opened a quart jar of the peppers, stuffed them with prosciutto and cheese, and marinated them in the refrigerator overnight. About a week ago, I did the same with the rest, except that this time I stuffed some of them with a tuna filling.

The peppers I’d seeded before pickling turned out softer, and their liquid was cloudy and tinted orange, whereas in the other jars the liquid was a clear yellow. In other words, the seeded peppers had given up more of their goodness to the pickle juice. A bigger fault, though, was that their cut edges were torn in places. They had been hard to cut cleanly, when fresh, and now they looked untidy. The whole pickled peppers, in contrast, were easy to cut, Jack-‘o-lantern-style, without any tearing.

This is the way I’ll treat my cherry peppers from now on:

Marinated Stuffed Cherry Peppers

 For pickling:
1¾ pounds whole ripe cherry peppers
1½ cups white wine vinegar
2½ cups water
2 teaspoons salt

For Stuffing #1:
4 ounces thin-sliced prosciutto
3 ounces cheese (such as provolone, manchego, or aged cheddar), in ¼-inch cubes

For Stuffing #2:
1 6.5-ounce can albacore, packed in water or olive oil
1 ounce (about ½ small can) anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon capers
About 3 tablespoons olive oil
Ground black pepper to taste

For the marinade:
1 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
A few grindings of black pepper

img_9833-2Rinse the peppers, and trim their stems. Pack the peppers into two sterilized quart mason jars. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil. Pour the hot liquid over the peppers, leaving ½ inch headspace. Release any bubbles with a pointed chopstick, and top up the jars if needed, retaining the ½ inch headspace. Add flat lids, and screw the rings on tight. Turn the jars upside down for 5 minutes, and then right them. When the jars have sealed and cooled, store them in the refrigerator.

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Each pepper is packed solid with seeds.

Several hours to a day before serving the peppers, open the jars. Cut around the stem of each pepper as if you are making a tiny Jack o’ lantern. Using a small spoon, such as one meant for feeding a baby, seed each pepper.

To make Stuffing #1, cut the prosciutto into ½-inch lengthwise strips. Wrap a strip snugly around a cube of cheese, aligning one edge with the top of the cube. Tuck the excess prosciutto under the cheese cube, and insert the wrapped cube into a pepper. You should have enough prosciutto and cheese to fill half the peppers.

To make Stuffing #2, combine the ingredients in a food processor, adding olive oil from the can of tuna or anchovies or both, if you like, plus enough additional oil to make a soft, smooth mixture. Spoon the tuna mixture into the remaining peppers, and level the top of the filling.

img_9855-2Place the filled peppers in a single layer in one or more serving dishes. Whisk together the marinade ingredients, and pour the mixture over the peppers. Cover the dishes, and chill them until 15 minutes before you are ready to serve.

The stuffed peppers all tasted good, apparently; on both occasions they got eaten up fast. Unfortunately, one little bite was all I could stand. The peppers were too hot for me!

I want to make stuffed cherry peppers again, and I want to be able to eat them myself. So now my task is to find a beautiful, uniform sweet cherry pepper. I have just received from Reimer Seeds seeds of both Kuners and Red Cherry Large sweet cherry peppers. Kuners, in the catalog picture, looks much like Ciliegia Piccante. Red Cherry Large, said to date to before 1860 (how have I missed encountering this variety before?), is supposed to be 1½ inches in diameter. For Red Cherry Large I’ll cut my cheese cubes a little larger; hopefully a stuffed pepper this big won’t be too awkward to eat. I’ll let you know!

Do you have your own favorite cherry pepper, hot or sweet, to recommend for pickling or stuffing?

 

 

 

Posted in Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

First Achocha Harvest

I’ve had to wait through several weeks of computer woes to post his piece. I send it with wishes for a happy new year!

img_9628Achocha foliage with a fruit behind it. In my hand is a sandita.

In mid-December, freezing rain adorned the bare branches in my garden with icicles, which hung in place through a day of snow and several nearly sunless days that followed. But autumn’s first freeze had come only about a week before the freezing rain, nearly two months late. Suddenly, the nasturtiums, tomatillos, and oca and sandita tops had turned to mush. But no matter: The tomatillos and sanditas had long stopped fruiting, the nasturtiums hadn’t borne blossoms for weeks, and the oca had set its little pink tubers, which were now ready for harvest.

Only one vegetable plant seemed caught off-guard by the freezing weather: the achocha, Cyclanthera pedata. Just the day before it had seemed still in its prime, filling out its trellis and climbing onto the deck to smother the potted plants there.

This South American native, so long domesticated that it can’t be found in the wild, goes by many names, among them lady’s slipper and Bolivian cucumber. Although achocha indeed belongs to the cucumber family, to me it resembles a cucumber only in that both are vines, and even in their vining the two differ radically. The achocha, unlike the cucumber, attaches itself to trellises and anything else in its path by grape-like tendrils. The smooth, bright green leaves are un-cucumber-like as well; in fact, they look like cannabis leaves.* Achocha fruits are plump but two-sided, gently curved like mangoes, and smooth, firm, and semi-hollow like peppers.

Through the summer, my single achocha plant suffered in the warm, light soil on the sunny south side of the deck. The vine grew slowly and seemed set on hiding under the deck instead of climbing the trellis of nylon netting. Soaking the roots with water didn’t seem to help, though perhaps I didn’t soak them often enough.

Then the rains came, and cooler weather, and the vine flourished. At the end of August it had produced only three fruits; before the freeze it bore seven more, each two to three inches long.

I’m not sure why my yield was so poor. Achocha is said to like plenty of sun and well-drained soil, but it also likes moisture and humidity, and Willamette Valley summers are dry. Perhaps my achocha would have thrived if I’d managed to keep its roots cool and moist with a well-placed rock or a sheltering neighboring plant. Maybe the east side of the deck would have been a better place to plant the achocha.

But since the vine managed to produce lots of tiny flowers through the summer and fall, I suspect my main problem was not the planting site but poor pollination. Achocha flowers are pollinated by hoverflies, or syrphid flies, which come in many species but generally look like wasps or bees with just one pair of wings—distinctly long wings—instead of two pairs. I saw no hoverflies around my achocha.

Or maybe I didn’t look hard enough; maybe I simply didn’t notice the hoverflies. Although achocha is supposed to be self-fertile, perhaps pollination is improved with two or more plants.

Other problems I had with this plant were (1) finding the fruit, and (2) knowing when to pick it. The fruit starts out as green as a jalapeno pepper, the same color as the foliage, and maintains this color for weeks, it seems, before lightening a bit. When I managed, with difficulty, to find some fruits among the foliage, I couldn’t tell how ripe they were. Achocha fruits are edible at all stages, but the older ones are more hollow inside, with big, black, roughly square and wrinkled seeds. From less developed fruits, I scraped out the tender, pale seeds and the spongy white pulp around them with a grapefruit spoon.

The seeded fruits are bland-tasting but pleasantly crisp. South American writers say that younger achocha fruits can be eaten raw, whereas the older ones are usually cooked. Achochas are often stuffed—so often, in fact, that in some places they are called pepinos de rellenar. And I’ve read that baby achochas, as small as olives, are sometimes pickled.

Finding myself alone one evening with five achocha fruits, I decided to use them in a stir-fry for one, along with the last of the eggplants :

Stir-Fried Achochas and Eggplants

 1 tablespoon peanut oil
½ medium onion, cut into wedges
1 garlic clove, minced
1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger, minced
5 achochas, halved lengthwise and seeded, and each half halved again
3 ounces small eggplants, cut into pieces approximately ½ by ½ by 2 inches
Soy sauce, sake, and honey to taste
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted in a skillet
Roasted sesame oil, to taste

Pour into a hot wok 1 teaspoon of the peanut oil. Add the onion, and stir-fry the pieces until they are barely tender. Add the garlic and ginger, and stir-fry about 10 seconds more. Remove the onion mixture to a serving bowl.

Return the wok to the heat. Add the remaining peanut oil, and then the achochas and eggplants. Stir-fry the vegetables briefly, until the achochas turn a brighter green. Reduce the heat, and add about 2 tablespoons sake. Dribble about 2 teaspoons soy sauce down the inside of the wok. Add the honey. Cover the wok, and simmer the vegetables until they are just tender.

Return the onion mixture to the wok, and stir. Sprinkle over about ½ teaspoon sesame oil. Cover the wok, and turn off the heat. Wait 1 minute.

Transfer the stir-fried vegetables into a serving bowl, and sprinkle the sesame seeds over. Serve the vegetables with steamed greens and steamed rice.

It was a fine solo meal, texturally rich with the crisp achocha, soft eggplant, firm onion, and chewy sesame. I hope you’ll keep stir-frying in mind among ways to prepare achochas. And definitely try partnering achochas with eggplants.

Achochas probably haven’t yet shown up in your local farmers’ market, but you can buy seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery.

*Achocha is so little known in the United States that writers disagree on its botanical name. Those marijuana-like leaves are a clue: They are palmate, or like a bird’s foot, which is what the species name pedata means. C. brachystachya, a relative with which C. pedata has been confused, has very different leaves as well as much smaller, oblong, spiny fruits. A common name for C. brachystachya is cuchinito, “little piggy.” The piggies are said to make good, gherkin-like pickles.

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Save That Potato: The Makah Ozette

Ozette potato 4.jpgThe one little potato tuber I planted in my city garden this year turned out to be a good choice: My single Makah Ozette plant yielded nearly 13 pounds of tubers.

Until recently grown only by the Makah tribe of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the pale-skinned Ozette is called a fingerling for its elongated shape, not its size; my biggest tuber was 8 inches long by 2 inches in diameter. Some other fingerling varieties, of course, can also grow gigantic. A stranger thing about the Makah Ozette’s appearance is its profusion of deep-set eyes, evenly distributed over each tuber. The big and little fingers look puckered like a hand-tacked quilt.

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My Makah Ozette plant, just beginning to yellow at the start of October

Stranger still is the way the plant grows. Although I planted my tiny tuber in a back corner of the garden, where it competed with nearby shrubs and received little water, the plant grew five feet tall. And it kept growing into autumn.

It’s said that potatoes, like tomatoes, come in both determinate and indeterminate types. The determinate ones die soon after producing their tubers, more or less all at once; the indeterminate ones keep on growing until disease, insect predation, or freezing weather kills their tops. Makah Ozette, then, must be indeterminate, and unusually disease-resistant besides. My plant showed no shriveling or discoloration until well into October, after at least a week of steady rain.

Harvest time brought more surprises. First, although the tubers I dug were all close to the surface, they had spread widely from the center of the plant, a foot and a half in all directions. What a clever way, I thought, for a tuberous plant to protect its future generations from soil-borne disease.

Second, the thin skin of the Makah Ozette proved remarkably tough: I could scrub the potatoes immediately after digging without rubbing off any skin. I didn’t need to store these potatoes dirty while they hardened off.

All of the other potato varieties I’ve raised have grown only about two feet tall, have died back in August, and have kept their baby tubers close to Mom. The tubers have had tender skin and shallow eyes, clustered at one end. Why is the Makah Ozette so different?

A 2010 DNA study provides the answer: The Makah Ozette, unlike all the other potato varieties with which I’m familiar, did not derive from the Peruvian potatoes brought to Spain in 1570. Those varieties slowly spread through Europe, and eventually Scottish and Irish immigrants brought them to North America. The first permanent North American potato patches were established in New England in about 1719. From there the potatoes spread westward.

But potatoes reached the Pacific Northwest long before the first big wave of white settlers. The Pacific Fur Company planted potatoes near Astoria in 1811, and the Hudson’s Bay Company grew potatoes and other vegetables at its forts, beginning with Fort Vancouver in 1825. By that year, however, native tribes in the region were already growing and trading potatoes in large quantities. Among these tribes were the Makah.

The DNA study shows that the Makah Ozette, along with two other varieties traditionally grown by Pacific Northwest tribes, is more closely related to Chilean potatoes than to European, North American, or Peruvian cultivars. The researchers concluded that the potatoes reached the Pacific Northwest by ship from Chile, perhaps with a stop in Mexico. The ancestral version of the Makah Ozette may have been brought by the Spanish traders who had a garden with potatoes at Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, from 1790 to 1792, or by the Spanish explorers who, in 1792, built and briefly occupied a fort at Neah Bay, in Makah territory. Or the potatoes may have come with some earlier, forgotten expedition: In 1790, Manuel Quimper noticed natives along the Strait of San Juan de Fuca wearing Chinese, Portuguese, and English coins as earrings, although the people had never seen a ship before.

In any case, the Makah, like other Northwest tribes, took quickly to the potato. The tribes grew potatoes much as they did camas, on “prairies,” and they named this new vegetable after wapato, a water plant whose tubers, harvested by tramping in aquatic mud, taste similar to potatoes. Hunger for potatoes drew the tribes to trade with the fur companies, and success as potato growers drew them back to the posts to sell their crops. In 1854, the ethnologist George Biggs wrote, the Duwamish and other tribes cultivated about thirty acres of potatoes at the outlet of Lake Washington, and they harvested about three thousand bushels. That’s one hundred bushels per acre—the same average yield as for commercial farmers today.

The tribes got out of the potato business when white settlers took over their lands. Some tribes, however, continued planting potatoes in their gardens. The Makah have stewarded their Ozette potato, named for one of their ancient villages, for well over two centuries. Not until the late 1980s did the Makah share the potato with outsiders.

In 2005, the Makah Ozette potato was boarded to the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and in 2008 the Makah Nation, Slow Food Seattle, and local farmers together formed a Slow Food “presidium”—a project to safeguard the future of a traditional food by establishing production standards and promoting local consumption. Today the Makah Ozette is available for planting both by farmers and by home gardeners. I got my seed from Nichols Garden Nursery.

I know I’ve been trying your patience with so much history. You want to know what this potato tastes like, right? Gardeners have variously described the Makah Ozette as earthy, nutty, firm, creamy, and similar to cooked beans. To me the flesh is dry, not so different from that of a russet potato; any nuttiness or beaniness is subtle. Still, I like the Makah Ozette for roasting, and it is delicious boiled whole and dipped in aioli (or seal oil, I suppose, in Makah style), or baked, lightly smashed, and showered with roasted hazelnut oil. The Ozette is excellent for mashing; I boil the tubers whole, slip off the skins, and blend the flesh in an electric mixer with plenty of hot liquid (any combination of cooking water, milk, cream, oil, and melted butter). Along with high productivity and drought- and disease-resistance, good taste is one more reason to try this potato in your garden.

Posted in Food history, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

Salad Days and Striped Beets

shredded-chioggia-beet-7

The fall rains came early this month to the Willamette Valley, and they have scarcely let up for more than a few hours since. The ripening tomatoes split and opened like flowers. The vines blackened and finally dropped their remaining fruit, green spotted with rust and sometimes hairy with mold. I’ve gotten wet and muddy as I pull up vines and dismantle trellises, and frustrated as I fumble with knotted wet twine. But the grey clouds hiding the sun have a silver lining: These are our salad days.

We missed our greens last spring, when the weather turned unseasonably warm. The lettuce, mizuna, arugula, and spinach all flowered before they could grow to eating size. We ate some tough, bitter salads while waiting for the cucumbers to appear and the tomatoes to ripen.

Salad days go fast here in fall, too. Some years the weather stays too hot for too long, and again the greens go to seed. Other years the first freeze comes too soon, in early October. Growth stops, and the little plants begin to rot.

But as long as the rains keep falling, the garden greens thrive, immune to the diseases discoloring and shriveling the tomato and cucurbit vines. Slugs and snails, if I let them, will eat everything but the chicories, but a daily patrol ensures that the humans get some leaves, too.

So for dinner at a friend’s house last weekend I happily offered to make a salad. I would prepare a big bowlful of tender young leaves of spinach, mizuna, arugula, chicory, and nasturtium. While harvesting I pulled up some Chioggia beets, the Italian variety with the candy-striped roots. I cut off the leaves and chilled them to cook later. The roots would provide contrasting color for the salad.

These beets have posed a problem for me: When I cook them their colors run. The stripes disappear, and the roots end up looking like red beets with anemia. So I decided we would eat the beets raw.

I grated them coarsely and tasted them. The raw shreds had the earthiness of cooked beets without the sweetness that disguises the roots’ inherent bitterness. I bathed the shreds in vinaigrette; that didn’t help much. But then I added a little sugar, and the bitterness seemingly vanished. I knew what to do: I would bring the beets to our friends’ house in a lidded container with the vinaigrette, and then dress the greens with the mixture right before dinner.

In just two hours in their bath, however, the beets lost their stripes. The shreds were now uniformly pink. To preserve the stripes, I should have done the grating and the dressing all at the last minute. Still, the pink shreds of beet were pretty, especially in contrast with the deep greens of the leafy vegetables.

Fall Green Salad with Shredded Raw Beets

I used tarragon in the dressing because the plant will soon die back and I won’t taste tarragon again until early summer. But I could have instead used some of the green seeds on the five-foot-tall fennel plant by the deck; I would have crushed them lightly in a mortar to bring out their flavor. Cumin would be delicious with the beets, too.

My husband would have liked me to use unrefined sunflower oil instead of olive oil. For many people the flavor of sunflower oil would be too strange, but for the two of us that would have been a good choice.

If you don’t have Chioggia beets or don’t care about stripes, you can use red or yellow beets in this recipe instead.

 1 teaspoon minced tarragon
¼ teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon prepared mustard
A few grindings black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
½ pound Chioggia beetroots, peeled and coarsely grated

 Combine all the ingredients but the beets in a pint-size jar or other container. Cap the jar, and shake well. Open the jar, and add the beets. Shake again.

If you want the beet shreds to keep their stripes, serve the beets immediately, with their dressing, over fall salad greens. Otherwise, store the jar in the refrigerator, and take it out 15 minutes before serving the salad.

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Fermenting and Storing Kraut in Small Jars, without Pasteurization or Refrigeration

cabbage-heads-2-croppedI’ve more than once seen Extension home-ec agents roll their eyes when asked if it’s possible to store sauerkraut in the same jar in which it has fermented, with no heating or chilling. Where do such ideas come from? the agents ask.

From Extension’s mother agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of course! Randal Oulton recently sent me a 1936 USDA press release, intended for radio broadcast, about how USDA researchers had made and stored sauerrüben—fermented shredded turnip—in just this way:

Shredded [and salted] turnips were packed in 2-quart glass jars, which held approximately 4 pounds of turnips each when packed firmly. Because of the pressure produced by the gas released during the initial fermentation, the lids of the jars had to be left loose. By this means the gas was allowed to escape, yet at the same time a sufficient concentration of carbon dioxide to prevent aerobic spoilage was maintained over the fermenting material. As the evolution of the gas lifted considerable quantities of the juice to the top of the jar, causing it to overflow, the jars were placed in enameled pans until the period of gas formation was over. Once each 24 hours the lids were removed, the shreds were pushed down into the jars by means of a wooden spoon or blunt wooden stick, the lost juice was returned to the jars, and the lids were replaced.

I wonder if the researchers strained out the fruit flies before returning the juice to the jars. Anyway, the report continues:

As soon as the gas ceased to be given off, which required about 4 days, the jars were sealed tight and stored at room temperature. The fermentation was generally completed in 12 to 14 days, and the product was then ready for use. The product put up in this manner has been kept for 3 years and is still in excellent condition, although heat has not been applied.

Presumably the jars were stored in a cool place such as a cellar and not in a really cold place like a refrigerator. We aren’t told what kind of lids the researchers used and whether the lids formed a vacuum seal. In any case, the method worked, and the writer suggests trying it with 1-quart as well as 2-quart jars. The article makes no mention of exploding jars, which the home-ec agents always warn about.

I would certainly prefer to try this method over another recommended in the same piece: After fermenting the shredded turnip in open stone jars, you cover the surface with mineral oil.

Have you tried making and storing sauerkraut or sauerrüben in small jars without heating or chilling? How well did your method work? I’d love to hear your stories.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Goodbye, Scrumptious September

With October have come gray and dripping skies and, to the garden, split and spotted tomatoes and feasting snails and slugs. This weather is the norm for autumn in western Oregon—if not for the Pacific Northwest in general.

renatas-happy-face-2016

Renata’s happy face at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market

But nearly all of September was sunny and warm, the peak of the harvest season. Last month was a time to celebrate, and I did.

First was the Labor Day weekend tomato tasting at the Almarodes’. What an excellent way to compare and choose among varieties that have done well for your neighbors! With homegrown and home-smoked turkey, homemade wine, live music, and salads from everybody’s gardens, this annual event is always a big, noisy party.

tomato-tasting-at-almarodes

A couple of weeks later the Santiam Food Alliance celebrated the Day of the Nightshades at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market.

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Master Gardener Betty shares advice and beautiful books.

 

Nightshade Day 2.JPG

Here’s Lisa making tomatillo salsa. In the foreground is her eggplant relish, in the background an assortment of fresh tomatoes for tasting.

Robert and I squeezed in a food expedition to Portland, with visits to the Barn (Trapold Farms’ overgrown farmstand) and various ethnic markets. My favorite was Supermercado Mexico. In the long glass case lining one side of the store were beautifully cut meats and, at one end, seafood, salsas, and dulces.

octopus-at-supermercado-mexico

salsas-at-supermercado-mexico

Tomato salsa goes by many names. On the left is one that makes its primary use clear.

dulces-at-supermercado-mexico

On the left, candied fruits; on the right, guava paste and quince paste

Then there was a tasting of savory jams, at my house. For at least an hour my tasters were silent and serious, absorbed in their work.

savory-jam-tasting

Robert and I ended the month with a plane trip to Boulder, Colorado, where some people, at least, stop running and pedaling in the sun long enough to cook and eat well. We especially enjoyed an inventive but unpretentious dinner at Arcana, lunch at the Dushanbe Teahouse, and basil-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream at the Heifer and the Hen, where other imaginative ice-cream flavors include squid-ink-and-lemon.

preserves-at-arcana

Preserves on display at Arcana

 

teahouse

The teahouse was shipped in pieces from Boulder’s sister city in Tajikistan.

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The Heifer and the Hen–a swinging place!

leyden-cheeseI nearly forgot to mention our greatest find in Boulder: raw-milk Leyden-style cheese made from grass-fed Jersey cows at James Ranch, near Durango. I’ve never had true Dutch Leyden cheese, so I don’t know how it compares, though I can say that the James Ranch cheese lacks the annatto-orange rind of the Dutch version. In any case, I love the hard, sharp, crumbly James Ranch Leyden, laden with both cheese crystals and whole, fragrant cumin seeds. We didn’t even balk at paying nearly thirty dollars a pound for this cheese at Cured, a shop on hip Pearl Street in Boulder.

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Finally, Stainless-Steel Mason Jar Bands

“See this rust?” asked a county-fair judge of a young 4-Her, pointing at a little spot inside the band the judge had just removed from the child’s jam jar. “This can keep your lid from sealing.”

I’d never known even the rustiest band to keep a mason jar lid from sealing, and I was startled to learn that a fair judge might withhold a blue ribbon because of a tiny spot of rust on the inside of a band. But I do think that rusty bands are ugly. If you want to make a good impression when you display or sell or give away your preserves, you’ve got to use brand-new bands.

But why must the bands go rusty by the second or third use? After one of my readers and I recently shared our annoyance at this, he started googling. To our mutual delight, he discovered a source for stainless-steel mason jar bands.

Maggie and Ryan Helseth, owners of Mason Jar Lifestyle, say that their rings are stain-resistant, not stain-proof; they may start to rust if they’re left soaking in water for days. But they won’t rust with normal use, including passes through at dishwasher. I’ve tested some of the stainless bands by using them in a boiling-water bath and by immersing them in water for a full day. So far they show no sign of rust.

As you might expect, the stainless-steel bands cost more than regular ones: You get five narrow-mouth stainless bands for $11.99 or five wide-mouth bands for $13.99. Because of their higher cost, and because the stainless-steel bands are identical in appearance and weight to regular bands, you’ll want to take care to keep the two types separate, so you don’t give away the good bands accidentally. If you do mix up your bands, though, you can tell the stainless from the soon-to-be-stained with the help of a magnet. The stainless bands, unlike the others, are not magnetic.

stainless band & silicone lid linerMaggie and Ryan sent me some of their other products to try. I am much taken with their silicone lid liners and sealing rings. Made of material that is stable and nonreactive—that won’t leach chemicals and won’t be damaged in a dishwasher—the liners can be used under plastic mason-jar caps or two-piece lids to keep food from touching metal or plastic and to keep plastic caps from leaking, a problem especially during transport to potlucks and picnics. Though flexible, the liners are sturdy enough, at 2.2 millimeters thick, that you can use them with rings alone. The sealing rings, like the lid liners, can be used with plastic Ball caps to prevent leakage and to provide an airtight seal—not for canning, of course, but for storage of unpasteurized foods in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Ten silicone lid liners cost $13.99 in narrow-mouth size and $14.99 in wide-mouth. Ten silicone sealing rings cost $6.99 in narrow-mouth size and $8.99 in wide-mouth.

silcone sealing ringMaggie and Ryan also sell stainless-steel mason-jar caps, which come with their own removable silicone sealing rings (since the rings are removable they are also replaceable, although I don’t imagine they wear out fast). Without logos or other decoration, these lids are plainly attractive, especially if you dislike plastic. Like plastic mason-jar caps, the metal ones are not intended for canning. Five stainless caps with silicone sealing rings cost $16.99 for in narrow-mouth size, $18.99 in wide-mouth.

Self-described “mason jar geeks,” Maggie and Ryan have other products, too, such as a stainless lid with a hole for inserting a drinking straw. See all their stuff at masonjarlifestyle.com.

Update: August 24, 2016
A few of Maggie and Ryan’s customers have complained that the stainless-steel bands have come off in during processing, usually in a pressure canner, Ryan tells me. Because stainless steel is harder than tin, the threads on the Mason Jar Lifestyle bands are less well defined than those on ordinary mason-jar bands. Ryan is working with the factory to fix this problem. If you plan to use the stainless-steel bands for canning, I suggest waiting at least a few weeks before ordering them.

Update: July 25, 2017
I have yet no news from Maggie and Ryan, but another company, Kraut Source, is now offering stainless-steel mason-jar bands, at http://www.krautsource.com/new-products/stainless-steel-lid-ring-3-sets.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

From the New Joy of Pickling: Pickled Sliced Peaches

IMG_9609The Washington State Fruit Commission made my day again early this month, when a big box of fragrant, juicy peaches and nectarines was delivered to my front porch. The fruit was so tasty that I made small batches of plain peach jam and raspberry-peach jam and then, with my husband’s help, simply devoured the rest.

But I had promised the Fruit Commission a blog post, so I bought some locally grown, almost equally delicious peaches to make Spicy Pickled Peach Slices, one of the fifty-some new pickles in the third edition of The Joy of Pickling.

Whole pickled peaches are a treat at holiday meals, but most commercially grown peaches are too big to fit into mason jars. Even if I could buy extra-wide-mouthed jars, I wouldn’t want to serve whole fruits as big as a newborn’s head. Sliced peaches are not only easier to pack into jars; they are also easier to eat with a fork than are whole peaches.

With the sweetness, spice, and tang of a good barbecue sauce or chutney, and striking good looks to boot, this pickle is an excellent accompaniment to smoked and grilled meats. Try it over ice cream, too.

Spicy Pickled Peach Slices

2 3-inch cinnamon sticks, broken
2 teaspoons mace or chopped nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons whole cloves
1 ½ inch gingerroot, sliced into quarter-size rounds and slivered
2 cups distilled white vinegar (5 percent)
2 ¼ cups sugar
24 coriander seeds
8 allspice berries
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
4 quarter-size slices of gingerroot
1 teaspoon pickling salt
About 4 pounds freestone peaches

Put the cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, cloves, slivered gingerroot, vinegar, and sugar into a saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the syrup for 10 minutes.

Divide the coriander, allspice, pepper flakes ginger slices, and salt among four pint mason jars.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch the peaches a few at a time until the skins loosen, about 30 to 60 seconds. Plunge the peaches into a bowl of cold water.

When all the peaches are blanched, slide off their skins. Slice each peach into wedges about 1 inch wide at the widest point.

IMG_9602Strain the syrup into a wide pan. Bring the syrup back to a simmer, and add the peach slices. Bring the mixture to a boil, and remove the pan from the heat.

Ladle the peaches and syrup into the mason jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Add two-piece lids, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 20 minutes.    

Makes 4 pints

Posted in Fruits, Pickles | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Fennel Pollen—Really?

fennel head 2Examining a Florence fennel plant I’d let go to seed, my daughter came to the same conclusion I had—that the fad food fennel “pollen” was actually fennel flowers.

You’re supposed to rub fennel pollen over chicken or pork before roasting the meat, dust the pollen over salad or cooked pasta, or use it as a flavoring in bread, cake, or cookies. The chef my daughter works with has brewed fennel-pollen tea. To me the flowers seem best sprinkled over simply cooked seafood—white fish, shrimp, or squid—or even over eggs or buttered toast. You can most appreciate the bright yellow color and honey-sweet, anise-like flavor when the stuff is atop rather than mixed into other food.

I harvest fennel flowers by placing a plastic vegetable bag over a blooming fennel head, closing the bag around the stalk, turning the head downward, and shaking. After bagging and shaking each flowering head on a plant, I might have a teaspoonful of yellow bits. I spill them into a dish and let any spiders or other critters crawl away. Looking closely at what remains, I see little stamens and curled petals. The bees and other flying insects around my fennel plant are surely gathering pollen, but any pollen on my dish is invisible to my eye.

fennel flowersAnother way to gather fennel flowers is to cut blooming flower heads and hang them upside-down in a paper bag. The stamens and petals—and, I suppose, pollen—will fall off in time. The color and flavor of the dry mix will be just a bit less bright than the color and flavor of the fresh flowers.

Some of the fennel pollen pictured on the Internet looks more green than yellow. I suspect these products are actually crushed fennel buds. The buds are easier to harvest in quantity than open flowers; you just pull the buds off their little stems, and crush them between your fingers. The bits will look yellow-green, not bright yellow, but they will still have a delightful flavor. Judging from the pictures on the Internet, dried buds are less pretty than fresh ones.

Florence fennel is a somewhat difficult plant to grow as a vegetable; getting good bulbous stems depends on mild weather and plentiful water. But harvesting the flowers reminds me of all the good things fennel brings us. Bronze fennel is a lovely, if often invasive, garden ornamental. The caracois served on heaping platters in Lisbon bars are Theba pisana snails, harvested from the fennel stalks where the snails congregate and estivate (I once walked through Roman ruins in a field filled with snail-laden fennel, each plant barren of leaves but decorated with a dozen or more colorful shells). Mukhwas, the Indian after-dinner digestive aid and breath freshener, is usually made up mostly of fennel seeds, some of them candied. And how many Californians have childhood memories of scraping the “Indian bubblegum” out of dried fennel stalks and inhaling the heavenly scent of roasted fennel after a field fire?

Enjoy your fennel flowers, like the seeds, from your garden or the wild; you probably don’t need to buy them through the Internet. If you do, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve invested in a tinful of pollen.

 

Posted in Herbs, Wild foods | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Canned Cherries for a Flamboyant Dessert

cherries in cointreau for blogBefore cherry season comes to a close, I want to share with you a recipe I recently developed for the Washington State Fruit Commission, thanks to whom a big box of fresh cherries landed on my porch a few weeks ago.

The cherries, dark and of an unnamed variety, were so large—a full inch tall—that I had to buy a new cherry pitter to fit them. Their firm texture and mild sweetness made them excellent for fresh eating, but their flavor was too muted for the jam, chutney, and other sorts of preserves I tried them in. A thirty-five-dollar bottle of Cointreau, however, dolled them up beautifully.

Serve the preserved cherries straight from the jar over ice cream, or use them to make the famous Victorian dessert called Cherries Jubilee. For that, you reheat the cherries and their syrup—at the table in a chafing dish, if you have one—while you spoon vanilla ice cream into small dishes. Then you pour warmed brandy or Kirschwasser over the cherries (1/4 cup to a pint of cherries) and, using a long match, set the liquor alight. Spoon the flaming sauce over the ice cream, and serve.

cherries jubilee 3Cherries in Cointreau

2 pounds dark sweet cherries, pitted
1 cup sugar
2 long strips of orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler
¼ cup orange juice
About 1 cup Cointreau (or other orange-flavored liqueur)

Put the cherries, sugar, and orange peel into a large skillet, and pour the orange juice over. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, shaking the pan or stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Continue to heat the mixture for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until the syrup has begun to simmer and the cherries are heated through and just beginning to soften. Remove the pan from the heat.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the cherries to two pint mason jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Either discard the orange peel or, if you prefer, add it to the jars. Pour the syrup over the cherries, dividing it equally between the two jars. Top the jars with Cointreau, maintaining the ½ inch headspace.

Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 15 minutes. Let the jars cool in the canner for 5 minutes before removing them. Store the cooled jars in a cool, dark, dry place.

Makes 2 pints

 

Posted in Fruits, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments