A Fool for Pickled Chard

I finally got around to pickling chard stems again last week, when I needed to dig out several big Swiss chard plants so I could start next year’s garlic crop in a raised bed. These plants were of the Bright Lights variety, with its assortment of beautiful yellows, pinks, and reds.

Bright Lights first proved me a fool me last spring, when the plants had grown about two inches tall. I had expected to find all the various colors on a single plant, as with a capsicum plant whose fruits change according to individual timetables from green to yellow to orange. Not so with the chard. I found some seedlings with yellow stems, and others with pale pink, beet-red, or white stems. Obviously, a farmer sells a multicolored bunch of chard by banding together stems from various plants. Someone with a very small garden who wants multicolored chard may have to choose one color for herself and share other seeds or seedlings among her friends, with the hope that they can trade full-grown stems later on.

Bright Lights turned out to be just as stringy as plain old white-stemmed chard. I was fooled again in the kitchen as I pulled off the strings; as with most rhubarb varieties, the color on those pink, yellow, and red stems is only skin deep, and much of it comes off with stringing. My Bright Lights had dimmed before the pickling began.

I made the pickle as in my prior post on this topic, except in a quart jar this time. The next day I thought I would take a picture of the pretty jar, but now, strangely, the contents appeared uniformly pink. Tipping the jar, I saw that the top ends of the chard stems were all the same color, a very pale pink. Fooled again! The chard had given up its color to its pickling liquid. I might as well have pickled a jar full of white-stemmed chard and slipped in a small slice of beet.

Bright Lights chard in all its lovely colors is still growing strong in the main garden. Until the rains drown the plants or the cold rots them, I’ll search for other ways to bring their beauty to the table.

Tasting Dandelion Wine

Yesterday my husband brought me a glass of the dandelion wine we made last April.  It’s a lovely brew, gently aromatic from the citrus and ginger, and sweet with residual sugar. I think I now know what the dandelions are for: They give the wine its pale golden color, to imitate white wine or, perhaps, mead.

The only way I can imagine improving the recipe would be to substitute honey for the refined sugar. But then I would have mead, and the dandelions might be superfluous.

As it is, our sweet, spicy, slightly bitter dandelion wine makes an excellent low-budget treat for the bleak mid-winter. I recommend drinking it cold, preferably by a warm fire.

How to Core a Quince

Around the seed cavity of a quince is a hard core of flesh that tends to stay hard after cooking. When a recipe requires coring a quince, you’ll want to remove all of this hard flesh. Doing so can be difficult; a sturdy paring knife will suffice, but only if looks don’t matter much. After accidentally cutting crosswise through a few quince slices, you may find yourself hunting through your Drawer of Useful Things (as I call mine) for a more appropriate tool.

Forget the pear corer; it’s too flimsy. What you need is the tool pictured here, a pointed spoon with sharpened sides. Best known as a peach pitter or pitting spoon, it’s designed for jabbing into a stone fruit and withdrawing the pit while leaving the fruit intact. My mother-in-law probably thought I knew what a peach pitter was when she bought me mine, at least a dozen years ago, but I didn’t, and in fact I’ve never tried to pit a peach while leaving it whole. I’ve often used my pitting spoon for scraping the white pith from citrus rinds. Its main use in my kitchen, though, is in coring apples and, especially, quinces.

I don’t know where my mother-in-law bought my pitting spoon, but finding one today can be hard. Canneries, once the main market, now use big machines instead. But I’ve found one online source: the Organic Tool Company of Turlock, California. Have a look at Pitting Spoon No. 2, priced at $12, and at the many other uncommon tools for the farm, garden, and kitchen in the OTC catalog.

Does anyone know of another source for pitting spoons?

Homemade Grape Molasses

Quince preserved in grape molasses

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.

Semi-reduced juice with quinces just added

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. 

A New Bottled Lemon Juice: Fragrant and Sulfite-Free

After reading “Real Lemon versus ReaLemon,” Harry Merzian of Dream Foods International sent me a sample bottle of his company’s Italian Volcano Lemon Juice. This juice is not made from concentrate but squeezed from fresh-picked lemons, which are organically grown near Mt. Etna in Sicily. Instead of preserving the juice with sulfites, Dream Foods “gently” pasteurizes it. Once you open one of the 1-liter glass bottles, Harry says, the juice will keep for 30 days in the refrigerator.

My husband, my daughter, and I did a comparative tasting of Italian Volcano Lemon Juice, ReaLemon, and the strained juice of an organically grown lemon. (I thought the lemon was from California, via the supermarket, but my daughter now tells me that a local friend grew it in her hothouse. In either case, the lemon was almost certainly a Eureka or a Lisbon.) My husband and my daughter, for both of whom the tasting was blind, could immediately tell which juice was which. Whereas the ReaLemon was cloudy, pale, and notably bitter, with the aroma of added lemon oil and a slight but unpleasant aftertaste, the fresh lemon juice was clear and yellow with a mild aroma, a balanced sweet-tart flavor, and no bitterness. The Italian Volcano had to be the one with a pinkish-brown tinge. This juice was extremely aromatic, much more tart than the other two, a little sweet, and only mildly bitter. To me, the Italian Volcano tasted a bit like grapefruit juice.

The strong aroma of Italian Volcano comes from the lemon juice itself, Harry says. No oil is added, and the pressing method doesn’t allow accidental inclusion of oil from the rind. The Sicilian lemons must be like no lemons I’ve tasted before. Harry credits the volcanic soils.

Italian Volcano isn’t standardized for acidity. Harry says the pH (pH is a measure of acidity different from percentage of titratable acid) ranges from 2.2 to 3.6. I’ve just tested the pH of the juice Harry sent as 2.4, which is close to results I’ve gotten in the past for fresh lemon and lime juice and various kinds of vinegar. To my husband, my daughter, and me, the Italian Volcano tasted more acidic than it actually was.

Because of its neutral flavor, fresh California (or Oregon) lemon juice would generally be my top choice for canning. But Italian Volcano would be excellent in many desserts and in lemonade and cocktails, and it would be preferable to ReaLemon in canning if anyone with an allergy to sulfites might eat the canned food. Do keep Italian Volcano’s variable acid level in mind.

Dream Foods International was founded in 1998 by Adriana Kahane, who as an MBA student at the University of Southern California studied the feasibility of importing Sicilian citrus, especially blood oranges. The company today imports only juice, lemonade, and limeade, not fresh fruit. For more information about Italian Volcano juices, visit the website at www.dreamfoods.com.

Triple Crown Blackberry Jam

“Rip out those plants, Mom!” my daughter told me. “They’ll totally take over!”

She meant the alien-looking blackberry canes towering over one of my Marionberry rows. The monstrous canes don’t sprawl over the ground like the Marions but stand erect, as tall as fifteen feet. Each cane is as thick as a sapling, and thornless. The leaves aren’t blotched with rust like those of the Marions but solid green, the picture of health.

The fruit is different, too. Whereas Marionberries are long, slender, and soft, these other blackberries are big, round, firm, and glossy. They lack the sour, bitter, winy notes of Marionberry; their taste is frank Himalaya, with a little less acid. They ripen with the wild Himalaya, too, starting at the end of the Marions’ season.

It’s the resemblance to the Himalaya that scares my daughter. We love this most common wild blackberry, but it’s so invasive that we rip out every start except along the irrigation ditch and at the far edges of the wheat field. The new blackberry plants in the row with the Marions aren’t spreading, though, at least not yet. They stay in two tidy clumps, lightly attached to wires just to be sure the plants won’t topple over in the wind (they’re technically considered “semi-erect”).

These plants are the Triple Crown blackberry, a variety jointly developed by USDA breeders in Oregon and Maryland. Released for sale in 1996, the variety is starting to get popular both in and beyond the Pacific Northwest and the mid-Atlantic states. Triple Crown is named for its three “crowning attributes”: flavor, productivity, and vigor. But the variety has two other wonderful attributes, and they’re the ones that will keep me from ripping out the plants: disease-resistance and thornlessness. With western Oregon’s long, cool wet season, disease-resistance is all-important. And I never miss the pain of tiny blackberry thorns in my fingers.

Still, my daughter has a complaint unmentioned in the berry trial reports: “The seeds are too big. They stick in my teeth.” So I decide to make the Triple Crowns into one of her favorite jams, seedless blackberry.

Triple Crown Blackberry Jam
Makes about 3 pints

Although you could use a different blackberry variety in this recipe, I’ve written it especially for Triple Crowns. These berries are relatively low in acid, so I use a little more lemon juice than usual. And because the berries are so large and firm, I cook them before putting them through the food mill.

3 pounds Triple Crown blackberries
3 2/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice

In a broad, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot, simmer the berries, covered, until they are tender and most of their juice is rendered, about 10 minutes. Then put the berries through the fine screen of a food mill.

In the pot, combine the berry purée with the sugar and lemon juice. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat to medium-high, and boil the jam until a drop mounds in a chilled bowl. (The spoon test will work with this jam, too; when the jam is ready, two drops will run together off the side of a spoon.)

Remove the pot from the heat. Ladle the jam into sterilized jars, and process them in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.

Once my daughter has tasted this luscious, dark jam, I hope, she’ll never again complain about my monster blackberry plants. In the next year or two, I may be ripping out Marions to make room for more Triple Crowns.

Sauerkraut Tips

If you mostly eat your kraut cold, don’t can it; just store it in the refrigerator or another cool place. A cellar, outbuilding, or porch may suffice, depending on the time of year and on your climate. Uncooked kraut retains its vitamin C and live microbes that can aid digestion.

If you can your kraut, use the low-temperature pasteurization method. Put the covered jars into a canner of water heated to between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and continue to heat the water until it reaches 180 degrees. Maintain the temperature between 180 and 185 degrees for 30 minutes, and then remove the jars. This method helps keep the kraut from softening and also helps prevent the loss of liquid that’s so common with boiling-water processing as well as pressure canning.

Always thoroughly dry your washed crock, and especially the stoneware weights, in the sun.

Maraschino Cherries: The Almost-Real Thing

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 was renamed 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.

Early-Summer Aioli Platter

Just as the tomatoes and peppers are timidly stretching their rootlets into the (finally!) warming soil of the main vegetable garden, we’re filling baskets with produce from the raised beds. Every mealtime provokes a variant of the same question: What shall we do with all the cauliflower/peas/artichokes /scallions/turnips?

On a warm day, my choice is often an aioli platter. Aioli is the finest way to celebrate the garlic harvest, which also happens about this time. At the moment, our garlic stalks are just starting to bend; we’ll probably harvest in a day or two. Fortunately, the garlic we grow keeps well for more than a year, so last week I twisted a bulb from one of the last of 2010’s braids hanging from the kitchen wall and started mashing a few cloves for aioli.

Aioli is the Provençal word for an emulsion of olive oil, egg yolk, salt, and garlic. Common also in Catalonia and elsewhere in eastern Spain, where it’s known as allioli, this sauce is almost certainly the original mayonnaise (whose name comes from Mahón, Menorca). Aioli goes well with many foods, but we usually have it with boiled or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.

To make aioli, you must mash the garlic thoroughly; fresh garlic is preferred for its ease of mashing as well as for its flavor. I smack three or four cloves with the side of a chef’s knife, peel the cloves, and then either smack them again and mince them or else pound them in a mortar. I combine the garlic with about 1/4 teaspoon salt and an egg yolk—or, if I’m feeling lazy, a whole egg. Then I get out the olive oil. I use extra-virgin, but not the best; I prefer the flavor of aioli made with fairly bland oil. Or, for a very different and even more delicious taste, I substitute roasted hazelnut oil.

I have often sat on the floor with a small bowl between my bare feet and beaten in the oil with a whisk, drop by drop, but if I start with a whole egg or two yolks I can use a hand blender, running it on high speed while pouring in the oil, about 1 cup. I stop blending when the aioli is very thick. This happens in less than a minute with the hand blender, and perhaps 10 minutes with a whisk.

If I beat in a little prepared mustard and lemon juice, I have mayonnaise. But usually I prefer plain aioli.

I chill the aioli while cooking the vegetables and eggs. Last week I steamed artichokes, cauliflower, potatoes, and snow peas. The artichokes went in one pan, with about an inch of water, for an hour. I put the cauliflower, broken into florets, on top of the artichokes for the last 10 minutes of cooking. In another saucepan, I simmered small new potatoes, with salt and about 1/2 inch water, for 20 minutes; I added snow peas on top of the potatoes for the last 4 minutes. I boiled eggs in a third saucepan, this way: I covered the eggs with cold water, put the lid on the pan, brought the water to a boil, and then turned off the heat. The eggs were ready in 15 minutes. I rinsed them in cold running water. Usually I’d peel them in the kitchen, but on this lazy day we did the peeling at the table.

I don’t chill the cooked vegetables or boiled eggs for aioli. They are best when still slightly warm.

The last, nearly essential ingredient of an aioli platter is bread. It can be brown or white, toasted or not. For me, aioli and good bread alone can make a satisfying meal.

Last week’s aioli platter was a fine one, but my mouth is watering now for the one that’s coming soon, just after we pull his year’s fresh, juicy garlic from its bed.

Frozen Blueberries Love Fresh Rhubarb

In jams, pies, cobblers, and other sweet treats, rhubarb routinely gets paired with strawberries, for good reasons: Rhubarb and strawberries tend to reach the peak of their seasons together, and strawberries disguise the often lackluster color of rhubarb (although all-green rhubarb can be attractive on its own; see my recipe for Green Rhubarb Jam).

But in a spring as cool the one we’re experiencing in thePacific Northwestnow, local strawberries lag behind the rhubarb. There’s hardly a spot of red in the berry patches yet, and nobody wants to substitute hard, green-centered strawberries from California for sweet, tender red fruits from the garden or farm stand. This is a good time, though, to clean out the freezer, to make room for the abundance that will come (it will, really). And amid the pork chops and pesto may lurk bags and bags of last year’s fruit. My friend Sally hauls all out all her frozen fruit this time of year to make a batch of mixed-fruit wine. I make jam.

I decided to make jam from the last of last summer’s blueberries combined with the first of this year’s rhubarb. The pairing worked: The rhubarb took on the deep-blue color of the berries, lent an interesting texture, and balanced the berries’ high pectin content so I could use minimal sugar and yet avoid a tough jell. To eliminate the unpleasant fibrousness of cooked blueberries, I first heated the berries separately and then pressed them through a food mill. The result is a lusciously soft, dark jam that seems the essence of blueberry until you notice the tart yet subtle background note of rhubarb.

Supposing no blueberries turn up in your freezer, wait a few weeks. With adequate watering, your rhubarb will still be going strong when the first blueberries ripen. Then you can mix the two deliciously in jam—or in a pie, a tart. a crisp, or a cobbler.

Blueberry-Rhubarb Jam

1 1/2 pounds blueberries
1 pound trimmed rhubarb (leaves and tough bases cut off), cut into small pieces
3 1/3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

If the berries are frozen, let them thaw.

In a broad, heavy-bottomed pan, simmer the blueberries, covered, for about 5 minutes. Press them though the fine disk of a food mill.

Combine the berry puree in the pan with the rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, while still stirring frequently, until the rhubarb breaks down and a bit of the jam mounds in a chilled bowl, or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 221 degrees F. This should take no more than 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Skim the foam from the jam, and ladle the jam into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Close the jars, and process them for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

Remove the jars to a rack or pad, and let them stand undisturbed for 24 hours, after which time the jam should be well set. Store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place.

Makes about 6 half-pints