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August, 2011:

First taste of the pickles

I came back to the office on Tuesday; I’d worked from home Monday because my subway line was still on limited service Monday morning, as the MTA cleaned up after the hurricane, and I opted not to fight the crowds. I thought I’d mark the occasion by bringing in most of the cookies I’d made on Sunday, and also brought in two jars of my pickles: one jar of regular dills and one jar of hot-pepper dills.

OfficeSnacks3

I opened the regular jar and ate one of the pickles before announcing their presence to my co-workers, just to make sure something hadn’t gone horribly awry. (“Are they supposed to taste like oven cleaner? Is that a thing?”) They’re very sour; it’s only been three weeks since I canned them, and I think they might mellow slightly in the next few weeks as the flavors continue to blend. But they’re dilly with a pepper and cumin undertone, and reasonably crunchy except for the seedy middle part. You can taste the garlic. I was pleased.

OfficeSnacks7

Later in the day I thought I’d snap the pictures here, and used the fork to hold one of the hot-pepper dills out of the brine. Once I’d finished shooting, I ate that pickle, my first taste of that variety. Wow. That is a pickle that challenges you. That is a pickle that walks up to you and thumps you on the chest to get your attention. It’s got all the sour punch of the regular dills, with a slow-burning fire coming in after the initial taste. If you don’t like hot or sour food you’d probably hate it, but I was thrilled.

OfficeSnacks2

A number of my co-workers were pleased too; I may have converted at least two to pickling. (There’s still time! There are still cucumbers and celery and other good things in the Greenmarket!) Those who weren’t into pickles enjoyed the cookies. Judging from the paucity of crumbs left by late afternoon, nobody was bothered about the fact that the cookies weren’t magazine-pretty.

Hurricanes and cookies

chocolate chip cookies

I live in New York. If you’ve been following the news you know that Hurricane Irene passed through here in the early hours of this morning. More accurately, it was Tropical Storm Irene by the time it reached us, and not as big and awful as it might have been. It was still big and awful enough for plenty of people in the area; there are numerous reports of downed power lines, flooding, and fallen trees, as well as a few deaths. Here at Chez 107 we were lucky to come through virtually unscathed; the only problems we encountered were a minor leak in the skylight above the hall stairs, the possibly coincidental death of our cable box/DVR, and serious disruption to our sleep.

We were not so confident that it would be this easy in the days leading up to the storm. Forecasts suggested it could be a Category 2 when it hit the city, which could cause serious damage. We don’t live in one of the evacuation zones so we prepared to shelter in place, and that included stocking up on food we could eat if the power went out. We’ve never lost power here in a storm before but a Category 2 hurricane seemed like a good candidate for the first time. So I went to our regular grocery store on Friday night, not sure what would be left. Bread was almost cleaned out, but I found a number of other things: peanut butter, crackers, hummus (one package, which we could finish off in short order if the power went out), salsa (ditto), chips, cereal, and a few other little things. I was pretty sure that if we did lose power we wouldn’t be without it for very long, so I made sure to only get things that we would use anyway.

I understand not everyone kept that in mind when preparing for the storm. If you’re someone who stocked up on non-perishable food that you no longer thrill to now that the crisis has passed, you might donate your excess to a local food bank (such as Food Bank for New York City).

We had completed our preparations by midday Saturday, and then we were left to wait. The storm was moving slowly, and it had an entourage in the form of massive TV coverage, a pretty well-mixed blend of the informative and the sensational. Waves of rain washed through, all a prelude for what was to come. The worst of it passed through overnight; we tried to get some sleep but were repeatedly awakened by alerts and our own anxiety. By this afternoon, when it was mostly through except for some intermittent showers and gusts of wind, I was ready for things to be normal again.

Cookies

Which is probably why I made chocolate chip cookies. My original plan was to make chili for dinner as well, but I seem to be out of beans. (Well, I suppose they wouldn’t have been high on my list of things to make without refrigeration or a stove.) So we foraged on room-temperature food for another night and I’ll be making a pot of chili for tomorrow’s dinner. But I found comfort in the process and the taste of cookies. I was a little imprecise with the soda and salt measurements, so they’re a bit flat, but you know what? They still taste good. They taste like normality, and comfort, and safety from disaster.

Join Me: Take the Slow Food $5 Challenge

I’m a big believer in home cooking. That’s probably no secret if you’ve been reading this blog. I can be as lazy or inattentive or self-indulgent as anyone — I am not averse to the occasional takeout empanada or sandwich — but I also really enjoy the process of cooking. I like the fact that most of the time, what I end up making is better than something I would buy. And I especially enjoy the fact that for just about anything I make, I end up spending a lot less money than I would if I went out and ordered the same thing at a restaurant, or got home delivery.

There are people who don’t believe this, though. Really. There are people who argue that cooking at home is much too expensive for anyone to do. This mentality gives rise to ridiculous blog posts like “The $84 Stir-Fry,” in which an inexperienced cook demonstrates that she also doesn’t understand the concept of amortization by assuming that the amounts she shelled out for a pepper grinder, a cutting board and a “totally unnecessary” (her term) food scale deserve to be included in the cost of this single meal. (Seriously, did she throw away the scale and cutting board after she ate?) I have a feeling these are also people who don’t actually do the math to compare the costs of a week’s worth of deli sandwiches with the costs of getting the equivalent amount of bread, meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato at the supermarket. The data set may not be valid.

OK, it’s true that if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to do it you may make the mistake of buying the wrong ingredients, in the wrong quantities, for the wrong price. You may make rookie mistakes that result in waste and mess. You may take longer than you think is reasonable because you don’t have the skills to work efficiently. But that doesn’t mean cooking is inherently expensive, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to learn how to do it at all. Smart cooking enables you to make use of the best-priced fresh ingredients you can find, to take advantage of seasonal availability (and the fact that a vegetable at its prime in the market is often at a great price as well — supply and demand in action), and to make smart substitutions that save you money.

Of course there are also a lot of people who can’t find affordable ingredients. They live in food deserts — areas where there are no grocery stores, produce markets, or other sources of reasonably priced fresh food to use for cooking. They have easy access to overpriced bodegas, fast-food outlets galore, and 99-cent stores with dubiously sourced packaged foodstuffs, but not to fresh tomatoes or whole-grain bread or frozen spinach. If you don’t have a car or can’t afford gas, and your nearest supermarket is two bus rides and a 25-minute wait at the transfer point away, you aren’t going to make a habit of grocery shopping; you’re going to get whatever you can find most cheaply near you, no matter how bad for you it is in the long run. This is a big problem, but it won’t help matters if we blithely accept the assumption that cooking at home is expensive and thus isn’t a realistic goal.

Slow Food USA is trying to help spotlight the real value of home cooking. On Saturday, Sept. 17, they’re presenting the $5 Challenge. Participants will either cook or participate in a meal — a slow food meal, cooked with real ingredients by real people — that costs no more than $5 per person. (That applies to ingredients, not to extraneous purchases like “totally unnecessary” scales.) The goal here will not simply be to cobble together cheap ingredients; the goal will be to create a delicious, nourishing meal at a low cost.

Who’s in? I’m in. I’m not planning to host a public event — though those who would like to do so are invited to host an event or attend a hosted event or potluck — but I am planning to cook, photograph and write up a meal, including a detailed accounting of the per-serving cost. I think this is a great chance to demonstrate a few fundamentals of home cooking:

  • Real food doesn’t have to be costly.
  • Real food tastes great.
  • Food that you share with people you care about is nourishing in ways that go beyond vitamins and fiber.
  • You don’t have to be a trained chef to cook something that people will enjoy.

So why don’t you join me? If you know me in real life, get in touch about coming over for dinner. Otherwise, please feel free to dive in and host an event or join one that’s already set up, and come back here to post about it in the comments.

Recipe tool and random thoughts

I didn’t do a big cooking project this weekend, but I have decided to try to get back to a regular publishing schedule. So I will aim to post every Monday, regardless of how intensive my cooking efforts have been, and to post more if I can manage it.

This isn’t to say that I have not done any cooking. I’ve made a few pasta dishes, and froze some pesto for the winter. (I haven’t actually done that before, but I understand one is supposed to omit the parmesan before freezing because the consistency doesn’t work out so well upon thawing. I’ll report how that worked when the time comes.) The night of my canning I made a basic pasta-tomato-basil dish to accompany sauteed chicken breast, but I didn’t photograph it. I’ve been out of the habit of photographing if it’s not a special recipe. I may have to rethink this so I can show off a few nifty-looking but not difficult dishes.

Here’s a pasta dish I cobbled together a while back, for example:
PastaReadytoServe

I boiled pasta and combined it with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, chickpeas, lemon zest, salt and pepper, parmesan, and asparagus. I tossed the asparagus bits into the pasta water a few minutes before the end of the boiling and drained it all together.

That’s typical of a lot of the cooking I do: I like to improvise. Or sometimes I have little choice but to improvise, if the hour is late and my foot is sore (that flipping plantar fasciitis) and I can’t find it in me to make a run to the store. I could just sigh and lament the long-lost days of living above a Zupan’s, or spend even more of our disposable income on delivery, but far better to rummage the shelves and figure out a clever combination.

A recent Techlicious article spotlights several sites that help you do this kind of improvisation more easily. I’ve signed up for SuperCook.com, which lets you store pantry items and add other ingredients on hand to see what you might be able to throw together. I’ve populated most of my staples, and before adding anything from the fridge or freezer I was already seeing a lot of pasta and garlic dishes; adding mint and lemon significantly expanded the options. Unsurprisingly, I seem to be able to make just about any kind of cake or cookie if I’m so inclined.

Though as it happens, I have not been willing to turn on the oven. We’ve had a hot summer. Yesterday was the first relatively cool day in weeks, as my electric bill can attest, and if we had stayed home I’d have thought about making chili and maybe baking a batch of cookies. But instead we went out to a tavern where our neighbor works; at his insistence we tried the fried dill pickles, and now I am going to have to make some for myself. But not tonight. Today was my first day back at work, and frying will have to wait.

Pickling Party, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation

dill pickles with garlic; tomato sauce; spicy peach jam

Pickles8Last fall, I laid plans for a four-week vacation this summer. We get generous leave benefits where I work. We also have a sabbatical program, but I’m still a few years away from qualifying for my second one; however, I realized at some point that I could use my accumulated personal leave to get a nice long break without waiting until 2014. So I made the appropriate PicklesToBerequests and got approval and got the time onto the calendars. I had second thoughts about the wisdom of this plan back in April, when I was overloaded with projects at work and busy with volunteering and other obligations outside the office, and no days off in sight. But I held fast, and soon the glorious day arrived: July 18, my first weekday of liberty.

MoreWhereThoseCameFromThat’s right: This is my fourth week of vacation. I haven’t been blogging during that time because I’ve been more focused on a different writing project. I was hoping I’d finish a solid draft of that by this Friday, which admittedly was always an unrealistic goal; however, unrealistic goals are useful motivators sometimes, and I have FoodForCanninga much better framework in place for the project itself now. I’m better prepared to make regular progress once I’m back at work and have a solid draft done in the next few months. End of September, perhaps? Just the right end of unrealistic to shoot for, I think.

This week, however, I’ve turned my attention to food. You may PicklingMaterialsremember back in July, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef collaborated with friends to organize a virtual pie party. It was a smashing success: thousands of people made pies and posted pictures and comments on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs. So Shauna and her friends thought a new party was in order, and today is Pickling Party day.

PeeledChoppedTomatoesI’ve made pickles before. Back in Portland it was simple: Get some jars, get some goodies from the farmers’ market, check your recipes, do lots of cleaning, boil a lot of water, and ta-da! It’s some work but nothing complicated. In New York it’s similar, but with one twist: finding canning jars at a reasonable price. New York is an expensive place to live, and most of its retailers are serving people PeachJamwho don’t have a lot of space and so aren’t buying in bulk. In Portland I could walk into just about any hardware store and find 12-jar cases of pints or quarts for around $10; in New York you can buy single jars for $1.75 apiece, or more. The first year we were here, one hardware store a few blocks away from my home attempted to sell me a box of pints for $30. Twelve jars. I walked out in a huff.

TomatoSauceThe growth of the whole and homemade foods movement has prompted more New York retailers to stock cases instead of singles. However, those cases are still $16 and $17, reflecting the higher cost of doing business here. And those retailers are far away from me, leaving the challenge of getting a heavy load of glass jars home on the subway without breakage or other disaster. I’d JarsBeforeBrine2looked for jars on Amazon and other online outlets, but the savings in per-case charges were always more than offset by shipping fees for heavy glass. However, I kept poking around in forums and question threads, and finally found a pointer to FreshPreserving.com, the official online distributor for Ball jars. I did the math: even with shipping charges, the cases cost less than JarsBeforeBrine3they would in the Brooklyn or Manhattan stores. And they came fast, via overnight shipping (after a day or two for the order to be processed).

Now I was ready to hit the Greenmarket. As with any big project, I started by dreaming big. How many kinds of pickles could I make? Maybe I could do several jams, since I might as JarsBeforeBrinewell do other canning while I had the water boiling. Hey, this could be the year I make tomato sauce! What about chutneys and relishes? A leisurely browse through my main canning cookbook and some websites filled my mind with visions of pickled brussels sprouts, ginger jam, pickled garlic, habanero jelly. Then I let reality creep back in. There are only so many hours FillingJarsin a day and only so many jars in a dozen. Brussels sprouts aren’t in yet; those may fill a Sunday this September but won’t do for the August pickling party. Berries are kind of expensive here, even at the Greenmarket; New York is not the berry wonderland that the Northwest is. And to me pickles start and end with cucumber: crisp, dilly, with a hint of garlic and maybe a hot-pepper bite.

FillingJars2I decided to do three categories of canning: pickles, the bulk of the effort; tomato sauce, my first foray into preserving the Greenmarket’s red jewels for cold weather; and peach jam, an easy old standby. (I had to remind myself that I don’t actually eat nearly as much jam as all that, not enough to stock up jars and jars of the stuff.) I hit the market on Monday with my rolling cart SealedAndCoolingand a list in my mind. I trundled away some time later sweaty, my foot aching (I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis), and laden with fresh produce destined for the jar, the freezer or that night’s dinner. Once home, I set aside the things for the next day’s work, used some of the tomatoes for a pasta dish for dinner, did some necessary housecleaning, and took a few minutes to start PicklesInJarsmacerating fruit and herbs for soda syrup (another Gluten Free Girl offering; I followed her recipe to make cherry-basil, and followed the basic proportions to make peach-mint).  Then I rested for the evening, knowing I’d be busy the next day.

And so I was. Once I’d finished breakfast and caught up with my Facebook Scrabble games, I got PeepingAtSlicesto work. I started by getting the soda syrups out of the way, pureeing the macerated fruit and herbs and then filtering out the solids. Then I got the leftover dishes done and put away, dug out the few odd leftover canning jars and lids, and figured out my game plan. The jam and the sauce would require cooking before canning, so I’d get started on those. I boiled water so I could Pickles3dunk scored peaches and tomatoes to peel them; chopped the peaches and got them cooking with sugar, lemon juice, nutmeg and cinnamon; chopped the tomatoes and set them aside until I had a burner free for the tomato sauce; and started washing canning jars while the jam cooked.

I pulled out my tall stock pot — Pickles4that would be my hot-water-bath canner, tall enough to accommodate the quart jars. I washed away the dust, found the tidy round rack that goes in the bottom, poured in water, and started it heating on a back burner. I pulled out my pressure cooker, which is essentially an enormous pot since I don’t have a complete pressure gauge for it and so don’t feel comfortable Pickles7using it for canning. That would be my pot for sterilizing the jars. I filled it with water and started that boiling as well. I pulled out a smaller saucepan to keep hot but not boiling for the lids.

While the jam cooked, I washed and sterilized jars, laid out towels on the counters, and chopped onions and garlic for the tomato sauce. When the jam had hit its PartOfADaysCanningtemperature target I used a canning funnel to ladle it into jars, carefully laid on the clean lids with tongs, tightened up the rings, and lowered the jars into the hot-water bath. Then it was time to start the tomato sauce: I sauteed onions, garlic and herbs in olive oil, added the chopped tomatoes and their bright-red liquid, and let the works simmer for about half an hour. While those were in process Pickles8I moved now-sealed jam jars aside to cool, washed and sterilized more jars, and started to pull together my pickling materials.

I love dill pickles in nearly any form, so I decided to do several, and I washed and sorted my cucumbers accordingly. A medium-sized bowl of little cucumbers to pickle whole. Two SpearsAndSlicesbowls of spears, some thicker and some fatter. A bowl of nice round chips. (I have a crinkle-cutter, but I opted for smooth slices this year for a cleaner look.) I mixed up a pickling spice dominated by peppercorns, mustard seed and cumin seeds. I filled a small bowl with promising-looking dried chiles. I peeled clove after clove of fresh garlic. I trimmed the largest stalks out of the dill, JarsInRowsleaving individual tufts of the feathery fronds. And when the tomato sauce was done and in jars, I used that burner to prepare my brine: a ratio of 1 cup vinegar to 1 cup water to 1 tablespoon of plain salt.

I filled my jars: whole pickles in the widest-mouth jars I had, spears in the quarts or pints as their length allowed. I dropped in Pickles7garlic, spice, dill. Some jars got chiles. The individual jars are going to have subtle variations in flavor; the spice mixture didn’t want to stay uniform, and some jars have more mustard seed while others have more peppercorn. That’s OK. I also added a sprinkle of alum powder, which I was advised to do years ago by a friend who knows a lot more about pickling than I do; I’m not sure exactly what it does but my pickles have always been good so it can’t hurt.

Finally it was time to add brine. I had to keep mixing more, but it doesn’t take long for the salt to dissolve and the mixture to reach a boil again, and my batches of brine kept pace with my batches of jars going into and out of the hot-water bath. While pickles sealed and jars sat waiting their turn, I set aside the jars I hadn’t used, washed the pots and utensils, and got the rest of the kitchen in order. At about 6 pm I was pulling out the last 7 jars of pickles; I’d managed to produce 6 quarts and 14 pints, along with the 5 pints of tomato sauce and 3 1/2 pints of jam. I was ready for a shower and a drink.

I’m looking forward to eating pickles. Spears alongside a salad. Slices in a sandwich. Little whole pickles crunched down in two or three bites.