in which we savor a big night

in which we savor a big night

Sometimes you find a small, unexpected treasure and it stays with you for a long time.  A book you find in a waiting room or airport or maybe a movie you never cared to see but coincidentally happens to be the only watchable thing on as you surf by.  It captures your attention somehow and is exactly what you needed at that particular moment.

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this little pleasure years ago, but since then it has become a favorite that I haven’t tired of yet.  I’m talking about Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s jewel of a movie, Big Night.  Every time I see it, there’s something more I didn’t catch the last time. But I warn you: do not watch this with an empty stomach!  The food is beyond beautiful – so much so, I immediately had to have the cookbook.

The movie inspired cookbook, Cucina & Famiglia, is another gem and is one of the most used books in my library. I’ve given the pair (DVD & book) as wedding gifts on more than one occasion.  Unfortunately, they’re not both so easy to come by anymore, making them even more special when you do find them.

The book features little stories introducing each recipe and chapter. These stories each offer a glimpse into the lives of the Tropiano, Tucci and Scappin families and recall fond Italian immigrant food  memories. Plus, the recipes are good. Really good.  I’ve not cooked my way through the entire book yet, but I’m getting there. Surprisingly the one recipe I have not made is timpano. It’s impressive and a rightful star in the movie; I’ll leave that one for you.

As my tomatoes are forming on their vines, soaking up all that summer sunshine needed to ripen them into their undisputed place as garden royalty, there’s one thing I am really, really waiting for.  A little impatiently, I might add.  If I had to choose only one tomato-y recipe to bring summer to life all year long, it would be this recipe for uncooked fresh tomato sauce.

This recipe makes four servings, but I had no trouble bumping it up and freezing it in one cup batches. Looking at the chicken scratch I wrote on the recipe, apparently I used 24 pounds of tomatoes last year and today I know it was not nearly enough.

What a treat to whip a container of this out of the freezer for a quick, fresh pasta, pizza or bruschetta that tastes like the tomatoes were literally just picked warm from the summer sun. The only thing that can improve it is home-made pasta and a really good Parmesan or pecorino. Don’t chef this one up until you’ve made it once just this way – it is perfection in its simplicity.

Eating a steaming bowl while looking at a foot of snow on the ground outside is almost as good as hitting the lottery. Almost.

Home-made pasta, last summer’s uncooked fresh tomato sauce from the freezer and some good quality Parmesan or pecorino – perfection in its simplicity!

In which we share a fruity secret

In which we share a fruity secret

Weepy, runny rhubarb juice is reduced into a thick, saucy liquid and drizzled over the tarts after they come out of the oven.

Most times, magic isn’t due to rare talent or secret techniques but instead to patience, diligence and willingness to take a little extra care.  Determination to do it again, and again and again if need be seems to be an important component too.

Last year, I stumbled upon  just such a secret that truthfully took me a good 10 months to really, fully appreciate. It deepened the flavors of my jams & jellies tremendously. And then, as ideas sometimes do, it started creeping into lots of other things that had nothing to do with jam or jelly.

I first read of this secret in Christine Ferber’s inspiring book Mes Confitures.  It’s funny how we will each travel different roads to the same place.  Many of you probably knew about this long ago, while others may discover this idea here, today.  So, you jaded old macerators, bear with me.  Or forgive me – I’m not sure which; you may have been neglecting to mention it when sharing  your world-famous recipe and without this technique,  your magic cannot be matched.  But we’re not that sort now, are we?

The universe shifting idea of which I’m thinking is of course macerating; essentially resting the fruit in sugar until all the precious liquid has been released.  A revelation at the least. By allowing fruits to release their juices slowly overnight, the juices may be boiled separately while the fruit is left intact retaining its peak summer ripened flavor, texture and color.  Some of the recipes in Mes Confitures are brought to a brief boil then put into a ceramic bowl and refrigerated overnight more than once, further amplifying the effect.

The down side of this technique is that on average, these recipes will take 2 – 3 days to complete. It takes a commitment of refrigerator space and a good non-reactive ceramic, glass or plastic bowl.  The upside is you’ll achieve a special indefinable magic that elevates a jam from good to supernaturally great. The sort of luscious fruitiness that reassures us the cold, barren winter may be long, but abundant summer will come again.

I wouldn’t call myself a baker. I may have a trick or two up my sleeve, but surely I wouldn’t consider pie to be one of them. Pies are like the daisies of the confectionery world; cheerful, cozy reminders of home. Maybe not your real home, but the one you  wish was real.  They have an unassuming beauty that makes them so welcoming and pleasant.  When I think of making pie however, first I get excited and motivated, but then I think through that whole crust thing and the mood tends to pass.

A beautiful crust is the siren call of pie; a great one cannot be resisted.  The crust should be lovely and nicely browned  with perfect scalloped edges or even more advanced, lattice.    A rustic tart is exactly the same, but with a homey charming appearance and a more forgiving crust making experience.  But the real reason I’m so crazy about these rustic tarts is because their open structure allows me to apply the magic of maceration to my filling.

One of my big pie turn-offs is fakey, gelatin-y tapioca-y or flour-y fillings. With that in mind, the technique for the filling in this rhubarb tart recipe (from Liana Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation) really caught my attention.

It solves the problem of a too liquid, runny filling by first macerating the rhubarb in sugar & vanilla bean, then straining the juice from the fruit, next reducing the juice in a saucepan while the tarts bake and finally spooning the reduced liquid back into the tarts while hot from the oven.  The sauce is perfectly thickened without adding too much starch or gelatin and the fruit flavor is intensified by the reduction. Brilliant!

I have never been so excited for fresh peaches and cherries to hurry up and get here already!

Charmingly Rustic & Homespun Rhubarb Tart

in which our turkey walks on the wild side

in which our turkey walks on the wild side

He's no beauty, but he sure does taste good!

Never known for their grace or beauty, wild turkeys can be counted on to be good for supper. Having lived in areas of Pennsylvania where wild turkeys have always been abundant, I was somewhat surprised to read that our turkey population was ever endangered, yet  today I find it’s true.

Turkeys were abundant throughout North America when the settlers arrived, and soon became an important food source for the colonists.  During the 1800’s, deforestation combined with unrestricted hunting decimated wild turkey populations. The Game Commission, by operating a successful trap and transfer program, imposing restrictions on hunting and even maintaining a turkey farm has been very successful in restoring our turkey populations.

The turkeys did their part by becoming very adaptive and claiming as home some pretty unlikely habitats. Today in Pittsburgh’s heavily populated suburban neighborhoods, we don’t think twice about turkeys running through our yards and crossing the roads.  Even watching a turkey’s awkward attempts to fly is pretty commonplace.  But still, the daily life of a turkey remains somewhat of a mystery to me.  This article, while 10 years old, is still an interesting read about our local wild gobblers.

Rare to see: I found a hen sitting on this nest of wild turkey eggs on the farm. Not sure who was more startled, the turkey or me!

My cousin has over the years become an excellent cook with the natural progression being a freshly developed interest in good ingredients and sustainable living.  Part of this journey for him has involved exploring alternatives to our industrial meat system. His strategy for making improved choices includes his decision to become a hunter and harvest his own meat, along with splitting a side of pastured beef raised by a local farmer with a few friends.

This spring, he bagged his first turkey – a jake (young male) and for my sausage making needs, he kindly shared a breast and a thigh.  My inspiration for turkey sausage is this recipe  for Turkey Meatball (Polpette alla Mollie) from Oprah.com.  The recipe was created by Chef Mollie of Trattoria Mollie in California and makes ground turkey (which let’s be honest, can be a bit bland) rich and delish. Because half of my eaters don’t like spicy food, I didn’t use the crushed red pepper and I like it almost as well.

Resting meat mixture awaits a good food processor grinding.

I mixed my cubed turkey with some pork fat, grated pecorino, chopped plumped black raisins and fresh, chopped Italian parsley from our garden and put it in the fridge for the flavors to marry. Check out the mixture here.

Being the only person in America without a KitchenAid stand mixer, I used my food processor for the grinding and the stuffing was done with this Oster Jerky Maker rig which worked very well (13 bucks thank you Bill!).

This Jerky making rig did a darn good job for 13 bucks!

So here we are, chilled, ground meat mixture, stuffing rig, and finished sausages.  Since I’m only two-handed, you’ll have to take my word for the fact that I really did stuff these babies myself. Working alone, it was all I could manage to handle the sausage, let alone the camera. Altogether, it wasn’t the Lucy and Ethel event I was dreading. I was actually somewhat competent and organized.

I cannot believe I made these myself - two coils of shiny, solid, beautiful sausage

This sausage is rich and the pecorino makes it a bit salty. You would never know the raisins were hiding in there unless I told you.  I thought it best to let the sausage dominate, and decided to support it with a classic white sauce.

Served over homemade pasta, again thanks to my cousin who makes a beautiful noodle, I’m feeling very satisfied.  Bring on that frankfurter challenge – I’m ready!

Yum! Home made pasta, home made sausage made of my cousin's wild turkey, and a classic white sauce

One of my favorite things about sausage is the thick, dark, carmelized drippings left in the pan after you fry the meat. I like to drizzle that over top of my sauce to further richen up the flavor.

In which we have blisters on our fingers

In which we have blisters on our fingers

And not the Beatles kind if you know what I mean….

My goodness, do I ever admire those pioneers.  Now that I am officially a gardener and putter upper of food, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the Pioneers.

I know, it’s a little crazy, but usually it’s in a moment of manual labor induced frustration.  I find myself getting whiny and then I think about a day in the life of a typical Pioneer.  Now that puts my silly mishap into perspective.

Charcuterie is trendy and cool these days, but truly it’s about preserving the harvest and eating seasonally.  Mostly, animals were butchered each winter when the temperature was low enough and a slew of charcuterie projects were handled immediately.  Fat was rendered for lard or tallow, hides were tanned for leather goods, bacons and hams were cured and smoked, jerky and sausages made and so on.

One of my favorite books is  The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. As we’ve been working our Charcutepaloozian way through bacons and sausages,  I’m reminded of Ms. Lewis’ description of hog killing in her community.  It took place in December since the cold weather was essential, and the families all joined in helping each other put up their meat & fat for the year.

She remembers that in addition to the anticipation of the special meals they would enjoy after the hogs were butchered, it was the “highly festive feeling of everyone working together that made this one of our favorite times in the year.”  (I do kind of have to laugh at the idea of how this little festival would be appreciated today at American community centers across the land… )

 

I take putting up food seriously, but thankfully, a bad harvest is no life or death crisis for us.  At least today.  For the Pioneers though, failure meant starvation; the for real kind.

Pioneers had to be thinking ahead for future meals ALL the time.  There had to be enough wood on hand to heat the stove, ingredients had to be planned for as much as a year ahead – there was no 24 hour super store backup.  And, projects had to be finished no matter how long they took or how tired or busy you were. Procrastination meant possible death – no kidding!

 

But, once again, I wander.  Could it be because I procrastinated a wee bit myself?  Thank goodness for the excess pork butt I had left over from last month’s smoking challenge because, believe it or not, my local butcher shop BURNED DOWN.  To the ground.  The reason? Their smoker…. be careful out there Paloozers!

I’m tempted by the highly flavored seasoned stuff; I really love it.  But today I’m stubbornly sticking to the most basic of basics.  My reason? I want to make pantry staples that I will use all year long.  If my seasoning is too specific, I’m limited in the recipes I can use later.  I want to be able to make fast food of the slow food kind later, so I need a freezer and pantry full of solid basics today.

Diced pork butt seasoned with kosher salt & finely chopped garlic

My pork has great flavor, so all I added is kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and some finely chopped garlic.  I chopped the pork fine (hence the blisters – sharpen those knives friends), mixed in my seasonings and let the flavors marry for a few hours in the fridge.

I used my food processor to grind the sausage and found the texture to be perfect.  The part I didn’t get so perfect is my seasoning mix.  I think they were too salty.  I wasn’t careful enough with my conversions I suppose.  I’ll be more careful next time – and there will be plenty of next times.

For this meal,  I went to a pantry favorite,  roasted peppers preserved in oil.  These are so useful not just for the peppers (a little goes a long way) but for the oil.  I mix it into pasta,  drizzle it onto polenta and toast.  I pan fried the sausage patties and dropped one into a little puddle of this oil and served with a couple of peppers and a tart salad of mixed greens in vinaigrette.

With my sausage patties formed and frozen, all I need to do to get a quick local meal on the table is to fry the sausages and toss the salad.  And to me, that’s what Charcutepalooza is all about.

Home-made sausage, hot peppers in oil & a crisp green salad

Hot Peppers from our garden preserved in oil. Drizzle over home-made sausage on soft white Italian bread! Yum!

In which we give thanks for fast food of the slow kind

In which we give thanks for fast food of the slow kind

Last Summer's Roasted Tomato Ketchup - I still can't believe how useful this was!

Yesterday, after a long day,  I was able to make an awesome supper of pan seared Devon steaks, salad and a pasta side in just 20 minutes because of my well stocked pantry.  Sorry, I was starving to death and taking pictures before wolfing it down just didn’t enter my mind. Sad because this meal was beautiful as well as tasty.

Thanks to my new and improved steak cooking skills (thank you Alton Brown), my freezer full of well raised beef, and my pantry full of last summer’s bounty, I was able to revert to the all-American can & jar method of cooking and had it on the table in no time.

The difference is that in my house, those convenience food jars are filled with preservative free, nutrient rich fruits and vegetables either from our garden or local farms.  Yes, there was a bit of a learning curve, yes I had some failures, and yes I invested some time and money but there’s no turning back for me now. The improvement in flavor, value, nutrition and sustainability is unbelievable – I’m hooked!

One very basic word of advice for those just beginning: stick to the simple.  My first year canning, I was resistant to “geese in dresses” style of country food. In my quest to be super modern, I tried plenty of complex, expensive and hard to source gourmet recipes.

Jam from rose petals is a lovely idea, but when it comes to every day eating, my family prefers jam that tastes like sun ripened fruit, not perfume.  There’s only so much rose flavored meat glaze and seltzer/jam spritzers (good ways to use jams & jellies) we can use and fridge space is at a premium. So, floral flavored jams are out. (Don’t think that’s ended my plans for dandelion wine and nasturtium capers this summer though).

Lesson learned, the things that make my every day life easier are the plainer things.  The more basic the recipe, the more flexible and useful it is as an ingredient. Let the quality of the ingredient shine – seasonings can be adapted later.

Some basic home-made love I can no longer live without:

  1. Roasted corn relish
  2. Home made chicken and beef stock
  3. Rendered smoked lard or bacon grease
  4. Fresh tomato sauce, frozen
  5. Strawberry Jam
  6. Peach Jam
  7. Roasted Tomato Ketchup
  8. Hot Sauce
  9. Roasted Peppers in Oil
  10. Onion Marmalade
  11. Preserved Lemons
  12. Home made pickles
  13. Plain tomato sauce, canned
  14. Apple pectin stock
  15. Roasted beets buttered, diced and frozen
  16. Blanched green beans, frozen
  17. Good quality cultured butter preferably home-made
  18. Greek style yogurt, again preferably full fat and home-made
  19. Beef and pork purchased directly from my favorite farmer by the quarter or half

Start (slowly & simply) now by making a short list of basics used regularly in your Go To recipes. Prepare now by gathering your supplies and having them ready to go when the harvest hits (always sooner than you think).  I recommend starting with the most basic, inexpensive and comprehensive of books, The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.

Spend your time and energy on recipes you know you will use.  I won’t sugar coat the part where the peeling, slicing and dicing is time-consuming and spending a few hours in a steam filled kitchen in the middle of August isn’t my first choice for fun ways to spend a summer day.

By spending your time on projects that you will definitely use, the payoff is obvious right away and you will appreciate the kitchen boost again and again.  I swear, after enjoying your bounty for a winter, next April you will  be revving your engines for next canning season!

Salsa made from our roasted corn relish. Fresh corn from our garden truly is summer in a jar all winter long.