Monday, August 29, 2011

Dilly Beans / Come on [Ir]ene

On my birthday last year, a small cardboard box arrived in the mail from our friend Andrew, and it was full of small red chilis that he'd grown. No note, no card. Isn't that the best? I strung them up and dried them, and now they're showing off in many jars of things.

When the power went out last night with a sucking sound and then black silence, the kids darted in from their bedrooms, cheering. The hurricane had not gathered itself up with much oomph around here, thank goodness--a nisht geferlach, if you’re of the Yiddish persuasion. Some rain, a tree limb or two on the ground, us checking news updates somewhat obsessively, checking this and that online hurricane tracker, checking out the window, checking in with my parents in New York. We wanted our roof to stay on, sure, our basement to stay dry—but we understood that, in the scheme of things, we were likely to be fine no matter what, and, therefore, deeply lucky. “It might be a nuisance,” I reassured Birdy. “It might be a mess or a pain or even kind of expensive to deal with. But it’s not going to be catastrophic for us. The only thing worth worrying about is people who can’t stay safe where they are.” Who am I? I hardly recognize the person I’ve become—the person with perspective. But there it is. All of us together? And safe? Let the basement flood. (Of course, when the basement did flood in March, I did some no small amount of lamenting, don’t get me wrong. Every morning I stood at the top of the basement stairs with my coffee mug, looked down into the underwater gloom, and, to the children’s daily delight, sighed, “Motherfucker.”)

Disaster preparation, Ingalls-style. I picked five and a half pounds of wild concord grapes and made five and a half pints of jam. Also tomatillo salsa and bread-and-butter pickles and wild blackberry jam, which was overseen by my mother. Money in the bank, as I like to say. Or, rather, who needs money in the bank when you have canned goods?
But yesterday? I prepared for the hurricane like it was 1870, canning pickles and jam in a cloud of fragrant steam. “Should we do more stuff to get ready?” I asked Michael, but he’d already taken down the bird feeders and was now onto the important task of programming our iPod: Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”; The Beatles, “Rain”; Kris Delmhorst, “Hurricane”; Gillian Welch, “Wind and Rain.” He is a man with priorities. We played “everyone picks a board game,” which represents our family’s most luxurious kind of afternoon: four games in a row (Birdy: Make Me a Cake; Me: Rummikub; Ben: Acquire; Michael: Agricola). The projected peak of the storm came and went, and we pulled rubber boots on over our pajamas and went outside, kicked through puddles and crushed fallen apples under our heels. We wandered up to the top of the golf course as the sun was setting, pink light streaming in through rolling banks of silvery clouds, the kids chasing each other, mushrooms pushing up through the green, green grass almost, it seemed, while we watched. I was so happy. I am still.

But the kids were a little disappointed—a little bit awash in the strangely dry anticlimax, although they understood rationally how lucky we had been; they understood that the hurricane had uprooted a lot of people's homes and lives. Still, we’d planned for the romance of candlelight, of boiling tea on the camp stove and living off of pickles and jam indefinitely. (I, personally, had also planned on somehow not needing to work for days on end.) So when the wind picked up late, when doors slammed spontaneously shut all over the house and the window frames shuddered, when the darkness blinked on, they were thrilled. I lit a candle. We moved their mattresses into our bedroom, and then we lay on the big bed, all of us together with the cat, and listened to the wind. And only fifty minutes later, with a couple of stray beeps, the lights came back on. But it had been something. It was enough.

Here's hoping the same for you. Sending love and safe, dry thoughts.

Dilly Beans
Makes 6 pints

This recipe is adapted from one in the wonderful book The Joy of Pickling. I think that, if you’ve never canned anything before, you should go ahead and simply make these and plan to refrigerate them and/or give them away. That way you won’t be daunted by the stress of the canning situation, and you can just make them all together in a large bowl or jar. That said, I am not going to give you full canning directions because you really need to consult the introductory chapter of a book about it: the Joy of Pickling has a good one, as does Tart and Sweet, my new favorite preserving book, and of course your library has all the classics like Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving.)

I am kind of {immodesty alert} famous for these pickles. My friend Becky, who is a lawyer, once traded me doing our will for a jar of beans to put in her husband’s Christmas stocking. They are crisp and puckery and perfect. If you make them with dill, they’re classic, and if you use tarragon, they taste like French cornichons. Keep a few jars around, and you will always have something good to put out with drinks.

Did you need a beginner's canning kit? Here's a nice one.

Okay, the beans:

6 garlic cloves, sliced
36 black peppercorns
3 pounds very fresh green or wax beans, washed and topped
6 dill heads or sprigs (or else tarragon or basil or lovage or cilantro--I like them all)
6 dried chili peppers or some chili flakes (optional)
3 1/2 cups white or white wine vinegar
3 1/2 cups water
4 tablespoons kosher salt

Begin by putting a large pot of water up to boil. Give six pint-sized canning jars a thorough, soapy scrub, then put them in the pot of water that you’ve put on to boil. Make sure you have six lids and rings to match. (The other thing to do is pull jars, hot and fresh, from the dishwasher—especially if you’re not planning on doing the full canning thing).

Into each of 6 sterile 1-pint mason jars, put 1 sliced garlic clove, 6 peppercorns, and a chili or chili flakes. Pack the beans vertically into the jars, adding 1 tarragon sprig (or other herbs) to each jar. You will want to gather an organized handful of beans and then cut them to size so that nobody pokes up out of the brine.

Bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil in a pot, then pour the hot liquid over the beans, leaving a half inch of headspace. Close the jars with hot two-piece caps. Process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath, or pasteurize them for 30 minutes in water heated to 180 or 185 degrees F. They're best after a month and keep forever.

If you're not a canner, then just make them and store them in the fridge! Or eat them. 

And if you're an experienced canner, you can do what I do though I am not officially recommending it, and the Ball folks would have a fit because NOBODY RECOMMENDS THE OPEN KETTLE METHOD ANY MORE: pour a kettle full of boiling water over the beans in a colander in the sink, then pack them in the jars hot, with scrupulously clean hands. Then they’ll can up just fine in the hot jars, without the pasteurizing step (and they'll stay crunchier). But if you have any doubts, process or pasteurize them.

I picked these at our CSA and they were so fresh and green that they actually smelled like fresh-mown grass. In a good way.

Herbs. Garlic.

Beans, packed in a jar. The things is, everything you really want pictures of I didn't take pictures of. I'm sorry! I think I'm trying not to seem like a good starting-resource on canning because if you're going to get serious, you should read a book first and not just follow some crazy blogger's slap-dash method. But I made these for *years* before I canned them, just for the record. I used to keep them in an old pickle jar in the fridge.

After you add the brine, the beans turn khaki-colored. And the garlic turns blue. And your cheeks turn pink from standing over a hot stove, canning, like it's the friggin' 19th century.

Dilly Beans! Silly beans.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fish Tacos

"Fantastic!" the recipe now says, in Ben's careful handwriting. I'm encouraging him to write in cookbooks, because it's a good habit, don't you think? To make notes about substitutions or improvements, about whether or not you even liked something. My mother does this, and you can practically hear her crisp Britishness on the page when you read, next to a recipe heading, her damning "Not worth the trouble." 

But these fish tacos were a tremendous success: easy and fun and absolutely delicious. Ben picked the recipe out of Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs, a cookbook that inspires him with its appealing, appealingly colorful meals. And, if the fish tacos are any indication, the recipes themselves are excellent. The fish was savory and well-seasoned and nice and brown-tasting, if you know what I mean, even though it hadn't been crumbed or battered before its time in the pan. I volunteered as sous chef, and so chopped tomatoes and onions and the like while Ben worked on the fish, and, as is always true for me, I loved helping. Partly it's because I love Ben's company and I love that he's cooking. And partly it's that helping signals that I'm not the one cooking. And I always love to be not the one cooking.

Fish Tacos
Serves 4
Eat Fresh Food serves these with Avocado Mayonnaise, which looks super-interesting--a version of mayo made mostly from avocadoes and buttermilk. However, Ben doesn't like avocadoes, so we swapped in our delicious chipotle-lime mayo, which was perfect.

For the tacos:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon chili powder (Ben used chipotle powder)
½ teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 small garlic clove
1 ½ pounds halibut fillets (or any firm white fish--we used hake, because it was cheap, and it was excellent. Also, we only bought a pound which served the 3 fish eaters plentifully. Birdy had cheese instead of fish in her tacos.)
8 6-inch corn tortillas

For the taco bar:
2 cups shredded cabbage
½ an onion, finely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh tomato
1 cup diced avocado
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
Lime wedges
Chipotle-lime mayonnaise made by whisking 1 teaspoon of chipotle puree and the juice of a lime into half a cup of mayonnaise.

Combine the olive oil, spices, and salt in a pie plate. Push the garlic through a press and add it to the bowl. Cut the fish into 1-inch strips and toss it in the spice mixture to coat. Set it aside while you warm the tortillas.

Heat an 8-inch skillet (ideally cast iron) over medium heat for 3 minutes. One at a time, crisp the tortillas on each side for about 30 seconds. Wrap in dish towel to keep warm.

Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, then cook the fish for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until opaque and flakey. Transfer to a large plate and break the fish into large chunks. (The fish helped us with this step by breaking itself into large chunks as we were transferring it. Full disclosure: Ben needed help getting the fish out the pan as it all started to happen a little too quickly at the end, and it was sticking a bit.)

Give each person two tortillas and let everyone assemble the tacos as they like.
One nice thing about Ben cooking is that he actually follows recipes. Unlike me. So, where I would have skipped the cumin because I got sick of it in the 1990s when we dumped a pound into every single pot of beans that we ate every single night, he used it--and it was perfect.

The fish did not gross him out, which was nice. I was honestly surprised that he picked this recipe because he  is not always wild about fish, but I concealed my surprise behind genuine enthusiasm.

Doesn't that look good? It got a little touch-and-go in the pan, which is why there's no photo of it actually cooking.

Taco bar. Any meal this colorfully interactive is bound to be a hit, don't you think?

That looks perfect to me, just like that.

But you know it's immoral not to add the rest--and then it really is even more perfect. Oh that chipotle-lime mayo! Don't skip it.

All of a sudden Ben is Mr. Raw Onion. I love the way their tastes evolve.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Zucchini Olive-Oil Cake with Lemon-Crunch Glaze

I am not an animal! I am a vehicle for excess squash! Also, a really good piece of cake.

I remember this from Augusts past--this desultory fog that starts to creep in over the children. They argue in the back of the car, something to do with What's your name Mary Jane? "No, no" they are laughing and irritated both. "No, no. You have to say cucumber immediately. You have to--hup" I look back into the sudden silence, and they are both staring straight ahead, holding their breath. They resume their good-natured bickering as soon as we're past the cemetery.

Later, reading in bed, I hear them brushing their teeth, giggling and arguing in whispers. "Fine," Birdy says audibly, crisply. "Then I'll call you Scrotum McClitoris."

And so, when I ask the kids for help with this cake, Ben grates the zucchini like he's on kitchen duty at a tuberculosis sanitorium, leaning down from a high stool, his face on his fist, dragging the squash limply across the grater. "It's not really grating," he says, as a green slush gathers up at the edges of the grater. I show him that it takes force--real pressure--explain that he's going to have to actually stand up. Birdy comes to assist him, and when I look over, she's punching a measuring cup full of grated zucchini, her fist balled, green shreds flying. "Um, honey? Why are you hitting that poor squash?" She laughs. "Ben said to pack it tight, so I'm punching it." They are so pleasantly ineffective that it's hard to be irritated with them. Hard, but not impossible. "Go," I tell them. You guys are the best--I'm so grateful for your willingness to help. I am. But go. Leave me!" They walk out of the kitchen arm in arm, and I hear them laughing gently at themselves: "I was punching the zucchini!" It could be worse, I know. Especially since two minutes later I have to yell, "I know I just kicked you out, but can someone please grate the nutmeg for me?" and they both run back in cheerfully.

The thing is, I actually love baking--and it's partly because I have systematically hurdled the obstacles standing between me and this love. For one thing, Pam baking spray--the kind that manages to grease and flour at the same time? (With real flour!) It saved me. I used to think, "Maybe I'll make a bundt cake!" and then the thought of greasing all those awful ridges would totally deflate me. No more! Similarly, the Beater Blade on my Kitchen Aid spares me the irritation of stopping the mixer to scrape down the bowl (aka Batter Knuckles), and this seemingly minor improvement is huge for me. Plus, you can cream butter without letting it soften first, and everything mixes so beautifully. I cannot recommend it enough. 
My boyfriend, the Beater Blade.
Zucchini-Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Crunch Glaze

This recipe is from Dolce Italiano, by Gina DePalma, but I got it from lottie and doof, which is one of my favorite food blogs. Even though he's forever posting outrageously glamorous recipes for, like, elderflower fritters and mulberrytinis, because he and his partner are young and unencumbered by the fact of actual meals and, thus, get all the nutrients they need from elegant desserts and fancy alcohol drinks. Sigh.

I've made many changes, however. One is that I'm using half whole-wheat flour because I just can hardly bear to bake with only white flour these days. Another is adding lemon zest to the glaze, which totally MAKES this cake--it's simply the best glaze I've ever made. And you know I'm not a frosting person (by the hundredth frosting recipe I post, you'll be like, "Um, Cath?"). If I made this again, I'd use half vegetable oil because the strong olive-oil flavor actually makes this cake almost too savory. I'm wondering, though: What would this be like with grated chocolate in it? Grated chocolate and rosemary--keeping the vanilla, but skipping the spices? That's how I'm trying it next.

For the cake:
1 cup walnut pieces, toasted 4-5 minutes, and finely chopped
1 cup  all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
2  teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (or half olive oil, half vegetable oil)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups grated zucchini (about 2 medium-small zucchini)

For the glaze:
The grated zest and 1/4 cup freshly squeezed juice from one lemon
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease and flour a bundt pan. Or use the evil, wonderful Pam baking spray.

Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices into a medium bowl and set aside. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (aka my boyfriend), beat the eggs, sugar and olive oil together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, then beat in the vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed (ha ha, but you won't need to!). Beat in the dry ingredients all at once on low speed until they are thoroughly combined, then switch to medium speed and mix for 30 seconds. Mix in the zucchini and walnuts on low speed until they are completely incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes or until a tester inserted in the cake comes out clean and the cake has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan. Bake a little longer than you might be inclined: it's a heavy cake with a lot of moisture that needs to bake off.

While the cake is baking, prepare the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and granulated sugar, then whisk in the zest and confectioners’ sugar until the glaze is completely smooth.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully invert it onto a wire rack. Using a pastry brush, immediately brush the glaze over the entire surface of the warm cake, using all of the glaze; first it will all pour off, but it will start sticking as the cake cools, and you can scoop up the puddled glaze with a spoon and pour it back over (I forgot to use a pastry brush! I just spooned it and made a mess.). Allow the cake to cool completely and the glaze to dry--which it will, beautifully.

Don't be fooled by the smile. She is up to no good.

Don't be fooled by the huge pile of squash. I grated that myself.


Okay, go. Go, you guys.

Oh--but wait!

I love olive-oil cakes, but maybe the combo of zuke and oil conspired to make this one just a tiny, tiny bit too vegetal. As I mentioned, swapping in half regular oil would solve this, I'm almost sure.

My boyfriend.


Ready to bake.

Meanwhile. . . 

And then!

I absolutely love how this looks for some reason.

Friday, August 12, 2011

This and That

Thank you. You guys are always good for a little melancholy, I know, and I'm grateful.

Between writing that sentence and this, I sneezed a million times. But why?

Okay, onto the this and that portion of the blog, which is primarily about how we've occupied ourselves on recent car trips.

This audiobook, which we all loved, even though it had been misplaced in the children's section of the library. I have to warn you that there's a bit of profanity (sometimes hilariously) and also that, gulp, the mom dies of a brain tumor in the middle of the story. But mostly it's a memoir about an English family pooling their resources to buy and rehabilitate an old zoo. It's very funny and captivating and English, and we all loved it. The kids did not seem too overly crushed by the mother dying, and that may be because it's told in a moving but unsentimental way.

That audiobook. We are big James Herriot fans, so after listening to one English story about animals, it seemed time to listen to the classic, and it doesn't disappoint. Again, though, in warning: he is elbow deep in cow rectums and sheep vaginas for most of it, so if that's going to trouble anyone or make them vomit out the car window, then skip this. But it is really, truly funny, and still so fresh and delightful even after all these years--the mix of great work ethic with hard-drinking hedonism really speaks to me.

We are late to the audiobook party, but catching up quickly. It is such a joy to be together enjoying the same story in this way.

Finally, although this picture does not quite capture it, we made rock rainbows at the shore, and it was just the most dorkily fun project. The rocks did not look like anything in particular on the beach, but after we'd gathered all the brightest ones we could find and put them together, it really did make a kind of color spectrum. Right?

Wishing you brightness in unexpected places. xo

p.s. Okay, I know I've mentioned this book already, and I know the wait-list at your library is four thousand million patrons long, but just add your name patiently to it. Think how delighted you'll be in February, when you suddenly get to read THE BEST BOOK IN THE WORLD. Just saying.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Any-Berry Jam (the melancholy version)

I mark summer's passing by the making of jam: strawberry, when the world is still a riot of damp, fresh green; raspberry and blueberry at the halfway point; blackberry and peach as the lawn withers and the children's arms and legs turn to butterscotch, no matter how much sunscreen I torture them with. Ben is visibly alarmed by the back-to-school ads on the radio. He does an exaggerated double-take. "Are they kidding me?" He is offended, incredulous, despairing. Midway through a bike ride on Cape Cod last week, we stopped for ice cream and he was uncharacteristically moody--pushed his root-beer Italian ice away after only a few bites, grumped about the heat, slumped at the picnic table. "Do you need a little special attention?" I asked, which is what we've developed as an alternative to the question, "Why are you being such a pain in the ass?" (I notice this even in myself: sometimes it's easier to sulk and groan than to request the wrapping of arms around me.) Ben climbed into my lap, his long limbs splayed all over the place like a larger-than-life marionette with its strings gone slack. "What's up?" I asked, because seriously: sun, breeze, beach, bikes, clams--it was hard to understand. And he said, simply, "School." This happens to him every year when July click to August. I squeeze him, remind him that August is the longest month of the year, which makes him smile. But also I'm strangely glad here beneath him, surreptitiously gulping in the smell of his hot scalp, feeling his ribs beneath my forearms, the steadying thud of his heartbeat.
Me and my pet giraffe.
Last I wrote, it seems, I was agloat over our easy camping: Nobody needs us, life's a breeze! I gushed. But the last few weeks--a trip to visit my brother's family in North Carolina, a week in Wellfleet--I've felt a little empty-lapped. I've been missing the rhythm of the napping days: the easy excuse to disentangle a small, sleepy child from the fray, to lie down in a darkened afternoon room with the fan whirring softly and watch a beloved face flutter and drift. It's the way I used to feel about Michael, and still do: that no matter what the day brings, how much space or time between us, I know that at the end of it I will climb into bed with him and touch down. And now, with the kids: we spend so much time together--delicious, easy time--but I am missing the promise of that physical closeness, of the loving touch-down. I just miss it, that's all. They're busy people, these kids. They still hold my hand, they kiss me goodnight, I'm so lucky. I can't complain. I would never. But sometimes. I just miss my babies.

Any-Berry Jam
Makes 4-5 cups

This is a recipe I developed for FamilyFun, and it's in this month's issue along with a couple others, including Pool Noodle Salad, which I've made many times this summer. As for the jam, which is bright, fruity, and fantastic: there are lots of different kinds of pectin, and they all seem to work fine with this super-easy, fool-proof method.

4 cups crushed blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries (hulled). Crush the berries with a potato masher before measuring--it will likely take about a quart and a half of berries to make 4 cups crushed. If the strawberries are not crushably ripe, slice them first.
1 ½ cups sugar
1 pouch powdered or liquid pectin

Put the berries in a large, heavy pot. Stir together the sugar and pectin in a bowl (if you are using liquid pectin, skip this step), then stir the sugar and pectin thoroughly into the berry mixture. Bring the berries to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. You are looking for a full, rolling boil--the kind that can't be stirred down. Boil for one minute, then ladle the jam into very clean jars (leave an inch of headroom for expansion in the freezer), cap, cool to room temperature, and then use or freeze.
These were strawberries we picked in late June. We've eaten all it already but a half inch left in one jar.

Hulling and mashing the berries is a good job for a child. Ben made this entire batch of jam, start to finish, and he could not believe how easy it was.

Into the pot with you!

I like freezer jam because you can use much less sugar than you'd need to if you were wanting to can it properly.

"I don't understand the part about the boil you can't stir down," Ben said, and then said, a minute later, "Oh, okay, now I do."

If you get serious about jam, a canning funnel is a nice thing to have.


Jam on bread.

We couldn't possibly eat all that before the summer's over!

Any berry, left to right: raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, blueberry.