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Archive for September, 2009

A reminder for life

Wedding from Traci 313

I always have a song in my head.  And I really mean always. If I’m lucky, it’s a good one, but even the good ones get old when you’ve been singing them for eight hours- know what I mean?  But I love the little life-reminders that I often get from the songs that are stuck in my head…almost in my subconscious.

Lately I’ve been humming, “Always look on the briiight si-ide of life (insert the cute little whistle)”.  And the other day I noticed that I was humming it faster, and faster, and faster, the more stressed I became during a busy Friday night service at the restaurant.  Ironic?  Um, yes.  But it did remind me to chill out a little…

And the one I had in my head this past Saturday: Hakuna Matata… Sometimes I think that someone out there watching over me must be inserting these little tunes in my head.  Chill out Emily!  Everything’s gonna be alright!  This ain’t brain surgery, this is Life! …and then I start to feel real sorry for brain surgeons.

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For once in my life

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While I’m mostly inclined to continue that title phrase by busting out a little Stevie Wonder, I had actually planned to go a different route.

For once in my life I’ve had the sense to make jam on a day that doesn’t register as one of the hottest days of the year.  Well not yet, anyway.  I’m sure the thermometer will soon spike, and I’ll be left to finish my project in a hot, humid, sticky kitchen, without the faintest relief-breeze.

But in the meantime, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy the cool air next to my jam pot.  I really haven’t made much jam this year, which is totally out of character.  In fact the only jam I’ve made is strawberry.  But then I saw the Elephant Heart plums that Blossom Bluff Orchards had on display last Tuesday at the farmer’s market.  And I thought to myself, “I just can’t go a whole year without that plum jam”.  So I bought a flat and got busy.

Elephant Heart plums are my favorite.  Their skins are vaguely grayish-purple with dark speckles, and their flesh is ruby-red.  They are sweet, but with an edge of tartness, and they have an almost raspberry-like brightness to their flavor.  I just love them.  And of course the jam turns a brilliant red that manages to uplift even the dimmest of winter mornings.

Plum Jam To Keep You Cheerful Through the Winter

  • 10 pounds plums (yielded 16 cups pitted and chunked)
  • 5-6 cups sugar
  • 3 pods of cardamom-optional (because I’m a good Norwegian girl)

Place the plums and the 4 cups of the sugar in a large (I used a 10-quart) pot and turn the heat on high.  Stir regularly until the sugar is completely melted and the plums begin to lose their juice.

Bring the fruit and sugar to a boil and skim any foam that rises. Taste for sweetness.  Remember that the jam will taste less sweet once it has cooled.  Add up to 2 more cups sugar if necessary.  Add the cardmom pods.

Continue cooking at the boil, stirring regularly to prevent sticking.  As the jam reduces in volume, you’ll need to turn down the heat- it will continue to boil even over medium-low heat.  Be sure to stir constantly with a rubber spatula, and be VERY CAREFUL around the hot jam-it will splatter somewhat as it boils.  Wear long kitchen gloves or a towel over your hand so the lava-like splatters don’t burn you.  Reduce to the desired viscosity (*do a freezer test to help determine how thick the jam will be once it has cooled).  Ladle into sterilized jars and either freeze or process in a boiling water bath.

*To do a freezer test, place a small plate in the freezer before you begin.  When you reach a point where you think the jam’s viscosity is right, spoon a little jam onto the chilled plate.  The jam will instantly cool, making it easier for you to decide if you’d like it thicker, or not.

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Machete

If these were daggers…..

Then these must be machetes…

P9170005…or maybe one of those cool Hattori Hanso swords like The Bride had in Kill Bill…

…and I’d like to take this moment to offer up a ton of overgrown, tough, practically inedible okra….anyone? anyone?…

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Ketchup

And speaking of “before it’s gone for good“…here’s an end-of-summer project.

Though it seems a little odd, we’re in the height of the tomato season here in the Bay Area.  We all associate the start of the school year with autumn, but we usually find ourselves tolerating the hottest days of the summer in mid- September.  So what did I do?  I made ketchup.

P9170004P9220016Fair warning now: this project took me almost 4 hours from the very start, until the jars were canned in a boiling water bath.  Of course, you don’t have to can them.  You could just fill the jars with ketchup and place them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.

Also, I think that next time I’ll use a little less ginger, and a little less sugar.  But here’s a good thing to remember: when you’re cooking something that will be eaten cold or at room temperature, (ice cream, jam, ketchup, etc) it needs to be seasoned more heavily than something that will be eaten hot.  Generally things like salt and sugar are the main culprits.  To clarify, a jam that seems perfectly sweet when you’re cooking it will seem not sweet enough when it’s cooled.  It’s really a judgement call.

And before you start cooking, go taste some of the commercially-made ketchup in your fridge.  Have you ever tasted ketchup and really thought about the flavor? I hadn’t!  Ketchup has always just been ketchup!  But taste it and notice how sweet it is, how sour it is, the clove/cinnamon notes…interesting huh?

Now keep in mind,  you’re not trying to replicate that ketchup! You’re trying to make something better and different.  If you were trying to replicate the commercial stuff, what would be the point??? My point is that ketchup is a condiment made with tomatoes that have been cooked down for a long time, and flavored with various aromatics, and there can be tons of variations.  This is just one variation, and aside from the few things that I’ll change next time around, I quite like it.

Ketchup adapted from Jamie Oliver’s TV show, Jamie at Home

I used a 10 quart pot.  Use the largest-diameter pot you have, as the surface area will make evaporation-process go more quickly.

  • 4 medium onions, roughly diced
  • 4 ribs celery, roughly chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 oz ginger root
  • 3 mildly spicy jalapenos
  • 3 teaspoons fennel seed, ground
  • 3 teaspoons coriander seed, ground
  • 4 whole cloves, ground
  • 10 pounds ripe, red tomatoes, roughly cut into large chunks
  • 1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 10-1/2 ounces brown sugar (I didn’t measure out the cups because brown sugar packs down differently with different people)
  • 2 Tablespoons pure olive oil

Place the oil in large pot.  Sweat onion, celery, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno down over medium heat with the lid on, until partially tender.  Add the fennel, coriander, cloves.  Stir every now and then until completely soft.

Add the tomatoes and salt.  Cook over medium heat without the lid for about 35-45 minutes, or until all the vegetables are fully cooked and tender.

**CAREFULLY blend in a kitchen blender in batches.  Pour the puree through a mesh strainer or sieve set over a large bowl, pushing the pulp through with a rubber spatula.  This yielded me about 6 quarts of puree, though yours may vary depending upon the juiciness of your tomatoes.

Wash the large pot, and pour the puree back into the same, clean, large pot.  Add the vinegar and sugar.  Over medium heat, begin to reduce the puree, stirring the bottom with a rubber spatula every few minutes so that it won’t stick.  As the volume reduces, you’ll need to turn down the heat so that it won’t spatter as much.  You may want to use gloves as you stir since the spatters are hot!

Keep stirring and scraping the sides and bottom with the spatula.  Reduce until very thick.  To determine how thick the ketchup will be once it cools, you can place a small plate in the freezer and spoon a little bit of ketchup onto the plate.  The plate instantly cools the sample, making it easier for you to decide if you’d like it thicker, or not.

Carefully ladle into sterilized jars and either process in a boiling water bath, or freeze.  Yields about 9 cups of ketchup.

**Blending hot liquids in a blender can be dangerous.  Either let the mixture cool slightly before blending, OR fill the blender only 1/3 of the way full, and leave a steam vent in the lid as you blend it.  To leave a steam vent, place the blender lid on the blender, but leave the lid’s centerpiece cock-eyed.  Fold a heavy duty kitchen towel and hold it over the lid and steam vent as you pulse the blender a few times.  Pulse, pulse, pulse, then leave it on high until completely pureed.

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So there we were…sitting on the couch…watching baseball…(watching The Yankees)…on a ridiculously hot day…eating a Cobb salad…and I thought to myself…I feel so American right now.  And it was fun.  And we hooted and hollered as Derek Jeter tied Lou Gehrig’s record for 2,721 hits…and I wondered if the neighbors could hear our cheers.  And never having been a sports fan in my life, I thought… I could get in to this.

But please.  Don’t get your hopes up about Fantasy Football.  I just don’t think I have it in me.

For our Salade Americaine

I used “Little Gem” lettuces which are a cross between a butter lettuce and romaine.  You could easily use either one with tasty results.  I then made a creamy dressing using creme fraiche (but you could also use a combination of buttermilk and sour cream).  I minced some tarragon and stirred it into the creme fraiche.  Then I added a few splashes of champagne vinegar and a few glugs of extra-virgin olive oil and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and whisked it together.  I tossed the lettuce with some of the dressing and put it on the plate.

I placed a spoonful of black-eyed peas on one side, some diced Jack cheese on another side, and a huge dollop of caponata on another side.  Tomatoes went smack-dab in the middle.  More dressing drizzled over the whole thing, and mmm, did it hit the spot.

What?  Caponata isn’t American?  Creme fraiche either?  Harumph.  We live in a melting pot baby!

Oh, come on.  I know I left out the ham…so call me a bad American.  But I think you’ve heard my rant on rules already…

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P8270024P8270026A million different people have made panzanella a million different ways.  I hadn’t intended to post this in fear of “beating a dead horse”, but it was just so tasty that I figured, what the heck….what’s one more beating?  But you’ve got to be quick, because summer is coming to a close and you won’t have garden-fresh tomatoes for much longer…

So I’ll make it short and sweet (two adjectives that also happen to describe yours truly if I do say so myself!).

There’s just no sense in making this summer salad if you don’t have beautifully ripe, in-season veggies.  So harvest those home-grown tomatoes!

Panzanella

The ratio of stale bread to veggies I used is about 1:1.  Also, you should use a rustic country-style loaf of bread.

  • a few really ripe red tomatoes, cut into large dice
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes, stemmed and halved
  • a couple small, or one large cucumber (peeled only if it’s been waxed), cut into large dice
  • 1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly
  • a handful of arugula
  • red wine vinegar
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • *stale bread, torn or cut into cubes

Toss the tomatoes, cucumber and red onion in a medium bowl with a liberal pinch of salt and a couple tablespoons red wine vinegar.  Allow to macerate for at least 15 minutes.  They will begin to release their juices.

Give the veggies a stir and add a few glugs of olive oil.  Remember that you’ll need enough vinaigrette combined with the vegetable juices to fully dress the salad, even after the bread has been added- and the bread will really soak it up!

Place the stale bread in a large bowl.  Pour the vegetable mixture evenly over the bread and gently toss it all together.  Taste the bread for seasoning and add more oil, vinegar, or salt if necessary.  Allow the salad to sit and soak up the juices for at least 15 minutes.

Just before serving, toss with the arugula and sprinkle with black pepper.  Yum!

*If you don’t have stale bread, simply cut or tear your bread into bite-sized pieces and place it on the counter or in the oven with just the pilot-light on for a few hours.

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I’m not really big on rules.  Actually, let me rephrase that.  I’m not really big on rules when it comes to cooking.  There are some rules that I follow steadfastly, like stopping at red lights, not BBQing on smog days, and putting the toilet seat up when I’m done (ha! pshaw!).  But when it comes to cooking, breaking the rules usually turns out well.

Take caponata for instance.  A traditional caponata is a sort of condiment or salad that contains eggplant, onion, tomato, olives, capers, pine nuts, and a few other things.  But I didn’t have all those ingredients at home, so I made caponata with what I did have at home.  I used a similar cooking method and just substituted some other things that I wanted to use up.  And it was delicious!  And who cares that it’s not traditional!

We ate our “caponata” with potatoes that I chunked up, tossed in oil and salt, and roasted til crispy.  Then we topped it with Ventresca tuna (tuna belly).  But you could also eat it along side a steak or on crackers, or stirred into pasta…

“Caponata”

  • olive oil
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1/4 cup diced celery
  • a pinch of chili flake
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup diced bell pepper
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seed, mortared
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes
  • 4 cups diced eggplant, about 1/2″ cubes
  • 1-1/2 Tablespoons packed mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • salt to taste

In a large saute pan over medium-low heat, warm about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the onion, celery, chili flake, and a pinch of salt, and cook slowly until they are partially translucent.  Add the garlic, bell pepper, coriander, and another pinch of salt, and continue cooking until the pepper softens.

Scoot the veggies over to one side of the pan, add a little more olive oil to the empty side, and pour in the tomatoes and another pinch of salt.  Now move the pan on the stove so that the flame is directly under the tomatoes and the other veggies are somewhat off the heat.  Turn the heat up to medium-high and allow the tomatoes to begin to soften before stirring them into the other vegetables.  Pour the whole vegetable mixture onto a plate, scraping the pan well with a rubber spatula, and set aside.

Pour another 2 Tablespoons olive oil into the saute pan and place it over medium-high heat.  Add the eggplant, and a sprinkling of salt.  Toss.  Then allow the eggplant to sit, without stirring for a minute or two, until it begins to color.  (Note that eggplant soaks up a lot of oil, but once it softens it releases some of that oil).  Give the eggplant a stir and again, allow it to sit without stirring for a minute or two.  Add a little more oil, judiciously, if it needs it.

When the eggplant has softened and is lightly golden, pour the vegetable mixture back into the saute pan and add the vinegar and mint.  Turn the heat to low.  Give it a good stir and cook slowly, with a lid, for 20-30 minutes, until all the veggies are completely tender.  (You may need to add up to a 1/2 cup of water to keep the veggies from sticking).

Taste for salt and vinegar.  It shouldn’t taste sour, but the vinegar should counteract the richness.  Serve hot or at room temperature.  Yum!

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