10.19.2012

October 19



With this book project underway, I've been thinking a lot about how I write, mainly because, honestly, it’s a total mystery to me. When I was in college, I read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. A few sections of it were assigned as part of a class I was taking on the history of the City of New York, but when I started in on it, I couldn't stop, so I read the whole thing. The whole 1,344-page thing. (An impressive percentage of which I insisted on reading aloud to my then-boyfriend.) (He was a very good sport.)  The class included an all-night bicycle ride through the city. We started in Morningside Heights and pedaled all the way down the island.  I took the class in the spring semester of my senior year, just a few months after 9/11.  We stopped at Ground Zero in the still-dark hours of the morning before crossing the bridge into Brooklyn at sunrise.  It meant something to be reading about a previous life of the city just then.

The Power Broker is a tremendous book in every respect, a biography, a portrait of a city, a study of politics and power. It’s a gorgeous, intense read, and also a fun read, and whenever I’d hoist myself up and out of those pages all I could think was how on earth does this happen? How does someone write a thing like this?? It was impossible. Except for that it wasn't, because there was the book, and there I was reading it. A miracle, then. A decade later, that answer’s still the best I've got.


Last week, Robert Caro's latest book on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, was nominated as a National Book Award finalist. When I saw that, I remembered a Sunday Routine column featuring Caro that ran in the The New York Times last spring. I was in the final push with my proposal then and reading it gave me a real boost. You’ll find the column right here. Also terrific is this slideshow on Caro’s writing process. 

And while we’re on the topic of writers who make me cheer, take a look at this letter that Eudora Welty wrote to The New Yorker in 1933, asking for a job. It’s a gem. (Thanks to Andrew for pointing me to it.)

p.s. Did you know she was a photographer, too?

10.16.2012

You and me and spicy

Dear taste buds,

We need to talk. It’s an uncomfortable topic for all of us, and I’m not entirely sure how to raise it. But you and me, we can talk about anything, right? So I’m just going to come out and say it:

Spicy foods.

I think you know where I’m going with this.

I wouldn't even mention it if you weren't such absolute champs. Bitter things, sour things, oddly textured things – you embrace them, one and all. You do not complain. You let me suck lemons and chew on boiled kale! You let me slurp bone marrow, you wonderful creatures, you! Then along comes some heat and you’re through. All I want to know is why.


Maybe it was that time at Chi-Chi’s back in 1987 when I accidentally flicked a speck of hot sauce into my eye. Remember? Dad scooped me up from the booth and jostled me over to the bar, filled a shot glass with water, pressed its rim against my eye socket, and dipped my head all the way back into the crook of his arm. That was traumatic. But taste buds, you have no eyeballs. You’re safe.

Or maybe it was the tamale that took me by surprise at a family reunion in St. Louis, the single fiery mouthful and the well-meaning cousin who told me to drool into my napkin for relief. It was not our finest hour.


You and me and spicy, we've had a tough run. But you know what? I think we can do better. I know we can. Now, rest assured: I’ll never shove an entire wad of wasabi into my mouth, or chomp pepperoncini from their stems in a single bite, or some other stunt like that. You are not my circus monkeys. It’s just that I fear we’re missing out. Spicy’s kind of a thing right now. All the cool kids are doing it which, I know, is never a respectable reason to do anything, but in this case the cool kids are the smart kids. Smart kids who cook! And they’re making some really good food. Pizza with Padróns, Sriracha on everything. I want in. I think we should try. I've made something to help us along.


Pickled peppers, the jalapeño and hot wax kind. You know, the ones that come in our farm share every year and pile up in the crisper drawer until one day we man up and slice into one, consume a brave quarter of an inch, and then stand helplessly by, fanning ourselves and recovering for the next week while the rest of it turns to mush. Those. Pickled, these peppers keep a long, long time. No rush to sweat our way through them; no risk of waste. And sliced into rings they’re far less daunting. We can fish them out one at a time. We can call one ring a “serving.” We can take things nice and slow.

Taste buds, are you with me?

xoxo,
Jess

Pickled Peppers (Jalapeño and Hot Wax)
Adapted from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan

I told you a bit about Marisa and her lovely book earlier this month and now I bring you a recipe from it. These pickled peppers are a “blank slate” (as Marisa puts it) by design. There are no herbs or spices here – just the simplest brine and the peppers – which makes them wonderfully versatile. So far, I've tucked them into grilled cheese sandwiches and chopped and scattered them over all kinds of things: scrambled eggs, lentils and rice, baked fish, tortilla chips with melted cheese. Marisa suggests slicing the peppers in half lengthwise and canning them just like that. I sliced them into ¼-inch rings. You don’t want to go much thinner than that or your pickles might lose their crunch.

A note about the boiling water bath: To keep your pickles crisp, you boil the filled jars for only five minutes. So, to make sure your jars are sterile, Marisa has you boil the empty jars for at least ten minutes, and remove the jars from the water bath right before you’re ready to fill them.

If you’d like to pickle peppers but you’d prefer not to can, these work as refrigerator pickles, too. Just fill your jars with peppers and brine and keep in the fridge.

About pickling salt:  If you’re having trouble finding it at supermarkets in your area, try the hardware store. That’s where I found mine, in the aisle with canning supplies. Or, you can buy it on Amazon.

Here’s Marisa on substituting other kinds of salt for pickling salt.

2 cups distilled white vinegar (5% acidity, which most commercial vinegars are)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 pound hot peppers, like jalapeño, or hot wax, or cherry, sliced into ¼-inch thick rings

Remove the rings and lids from your jars and set them aside. Place a cooling rack, or silicone trivet, or whatever you’re using to shield the jars from the heat, in the bottom of a big pot, and put your jars on top. Fill the pot with water to cover the jars, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring them to a simmer over very low heat to soften the sealing wax. No need to heat the rings.

Bring the pot of jars to a boil and let it bubble away for at least 10 minutes (see note, above).

Meanwhile, combine the vinegar, water, and salt in a medium pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

When the jars are ready, remove them from the pot and set them right side up on a clean towel on the counter, pack them with peppers, and fill with the hot brine, leaving ½-inch of headspace. Gently tap the jars against the counter, then stir with a wooden chopstick or Popsicle stick to loosen any air bubbles. Check the headspace, and add more brine if necessary.

Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and return to the hot water bath. Bring to a boil, and process for five minutes. Then, remove the jars, set them on the counter, and listen for the ping of the lids sealing.

Let cure for at least a week before opening, and store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Yield: 12 4-ounce jars.

10.10.2012

Not much to it

There are some foods out there that are built to surprise. (White asparagus ice cream, anyone?)  Quiche is not one of them.


I mean, look at it.  Eggy filling baked in a crust.  You might swap out one cheese for another, or sub in mushrooms for greens or, if you're really living on the edge, add some hot pepper flakes so it will be...  spicy!, or, I don't know, throw some breadcrumbs on top so it will be (wait for it)... crunchy! Quiche, guys.  There's not much to it.

Now, I'm not complaining. I like quiche. I like that a single slice feels like a proper meal. I like that it's as fitting for breakfast as it is for dinner or lunch. I like that when I say, "quiche," Mia hears "kiss," and leans over and plants one on me.  Most of the quiches I've met in my lifetime have been pretty darn good, and a few have been truly fantastic. My friend Matya, despite all his shrugging and repeated claims that it's just eggs, cheese, and vegetables in a frozen crust, makes a hell of a quiche, and so do the folks at Oliv, which I mentioned last time. I've been impressed by quiche before, but never surprised. I never suspected I could be. But hey, I guess that's what makes a surprise a surprise.


The thing about this quiche, the surprise, is that it has no cheese in it. None. What it does have is crème fraîche, so instead of a dense, springy quiche with height and heft, you get something creamy, custardy, and smooth. It's terrific. I served it at a brunch at our place last month, and no fewer than four people rushed over to me with their mouths full, gesturing at their plates, chewing and swallowing as quickly as they could so that they could hurry up and ask me what on earth was the story with this quiche.  That made me very happy.


The crust is something special too, which is the opposite of surprising given that the entire plate of butter you see here makes its way inside. (To be fair, the recipe makes enough dough for two crusts, so you're actually looking at double the butter in a single quiche. Still.)  I'm off to the kitchen right now, actually, to get a batch of this dough started. A friend of mine had a baby last month and she needs quiche.  The recipe now, because I bet you do, too.  

Custardy Swiss Chard Quiche
Adapted from Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

You can prepare the custard in advance and store it, covered, in the refrigerator for up to four days. You'll want to give it a good whisk before you pour it into the crust to take care of any flour, pepper, or thyme that may have settled at the bottom. The pastry dough recipe makes enough for two 9- or 10-inch shells. Perfect for when you're making a couple of quiches for a big, brunchy spread (just double the filling). Or, use half now and freeze the rest for another time.

For the pastry:
3 cups + 2 tablespoons (455 grams) all-purpose flour 
1 cup + 5 tablespoons (300 grams) unsalted butter, very cold
2/3 cup (150 milliliters) ice water
1 teaspoon salt

For the custard:
5 eggs
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup crème fraîche
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped Swiss chard

Make the pastry and bake the shell:
Combine the ice water and salt in a small bowl, stir, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Put the flour into the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and scatter over the flour. Pulse briefly - say, about 15 short pulses. You should see plenty of pea-sized butter lumps. Add the water and salt mixture and pulse a few more times, until the dough just starts coming together. It won't be completely smooth; you'll still have some butter lumps. (You'll take care of them when you roll out the dough later on.)

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface, divide into two equal balls, and pat into 1-inch thick disks. You'll want to handle the dough as little as possible during all of this so that it stays nice and cool. Wrap well in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours, or overnight. (You can pop one of the disks into the freezer if you're planning on making only one quiche.)  

Place one disk of chilled dough on a lightly floured surface and roll it out to fit your 9- or 10-inch pie dish. (For a pretty presentation, you can use a tart pan with a removable bottom.) I like to transfer the dough into the pan by rolling it around the pin, then unrolling it over the pan. Press gently into place and trim any excess dough. Crimp the edge with a fork, if you want, or leave it alone.  

For a flakier crust, chill the shell until it's firm to the touch, 30-60 minutes. While the shell is chilling, heat the oven to 375.

Line the chilled shell with parchment paper, fill with pie weights - I use dried beans - and bake for about 25 minutes, until it begins to brown. Remove the parchment paper and weights and bake for another 5 minutes or so, until the shell is golden brown. Let cool completely.

Make the custard:
Put the flour and one of the eggs in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the remaining 4 eggs and whisk well. In a large bowl, whisk the crème fraîche until smooth, then whisk in the milk. Pour the egg and flour mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into the crème fraîche and milk. Whisk in the salt, pepper, and thyme, then stir in the chard.

Assemble and bake the quiche:
Pour the custard into the cooled pastry shell and bake at 375 for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 325 and bake until the filling is just set - the center of the quiche should feel slightly firm - about 30 minutes longer. The original recipe suggests waiting 20 minutes before slicing so that the custard has time to set up, but I suggest waiting even longer. Or, make the quiche in advance and reheat, loosely covered in foil, for 15 minutes at 325 degrees. It will slice beautifully. It's also very good at room temperature.  

10.04.2012

Pflaumenmus

It's been fifteen days since I polished off the last slice of Pflaumenkuchen, but my head's still stuck in Berlin.





I blame Luisa.




These photographs are from a couple of years back when Eli and I picked up and moved to Berlin for the summer.  A few chapters into Luisa's book, I dug them out, and I haven't been able to stop looking at them.  


I meant to tell you more about Berlin back when we were actually there (I may have even promised to - eeesh!), but before I knew it we were off to St. Petersburg where there was fresh honey to report on, and then we were in Amsterdam where we found those spelt cookies, and then - poof! - we were back home, with tomatoes on their way out and apples on their way in, and... Anyway, I thought I might make it up to you today. With 41 (!!) photos and a recipe, another from Luisa's book, for something that I ate nearly every single day while we were living in her most beloved city.   


Pflaumenmus.  Plum butter, that is.  




Pflaumenmus is the German doppelganger of the American apple and pear butters I grew up on.  The word "Mus" in German means "pulp" or "purée," but it sounds like the English word "mousse" (or the French word, I should say - are you following?) and that feels exactly right.  Fruit "butter" is named for its velvety consistency; there's no actual butter in it.  So soft, so smooth. Mousse-y.  It's the kind of thing you want to run your finger through and swipe onto your tongue.  And the flavor is something else.  Deep and rich and unexpected, a new version of the fruit you think you know so well.      


My friend Molly tried a spoonful from the first batch I made a few weeks ago and said it tasted like Christmas.  To Luisa, it tastes like an abandoned orchard at the edge of Berlin and a day picking fruit with her now-husband's family.  To me, it tastes like that Berlin summer.  Every last bit of it.


Hot and twinkling.


Leafy, shaded, wet.  





There was Italian food that summer.  




With a side of the World Cup.    


(Or maybe it was the other way around.)



There was also a lot of herring and, consequently, a very happy Jess.  (Very thirsty, too.  Herring is salty.)



I took these next photos at a café called Oliv.  It was just a few blocks from my German class, and I would go there sometimes in the afternoons for a slice of quiche with a remarkable crust, tender and crackery, two words that barely make any sense used together like that to describe the same thing, but made perfect sense in that crust.





And here's a photo of the kitchen table at our apartment on Prenzlauer Allee.  I showed it to you once before, when this site turned two.  We plucked fresh currants from their stems sitting there, fanned tomato and cucumber slices across ridgy white plates, spread quark, cold and thick, on toasted seeded bread, and Pflaumenmus, of course, over salty butter.  It's where I began to trust again, just a little bit, in my own body and its powers, to believe in what might be, and even start to say these things out loud.   




These dudes were our neighbors.   


They didn't talk much.


We got new shoes in Berlin.  The store was once a butcher shop, and when Vans moved in, they not only kept the original century-old tile, they designed a shoe after it.



I wish I could tell you that this was the first time that Eli and I owned the same pair of shoes.  It was not.


On our last full day in Berlin, we went to Kauf dich glücklich for a waffle.  I am not a waffle person, but if they all were like this one, I might be.


The crust was crisp and shattery and hot - is that right? do waffles have crust? - and beneath it was a chewy, steamy crumb.  It was all the pleasures of a good piece of toast, but in a waffle instead.  (And that, friends, might be my highest praise.)


When I eat Pflaumenmus, I think about all of these things.  


I want to switch gears now to talk a bit about canning, since this is the first recipe for anything canned I've ever posted on this site.  If you're an old canning pro, go ahead and skip right down to the recipe - it's a good one - and enjoy.  You can also skip this part if you'd like to make the Pflaumenmus, but plan on storing it in the fridge.  It should keep there for at least a couple of weeks, no canning required. (You'll probably either want to make a smaller batch, or give a few jars away, though!)

:: :: ::

A few words about canning

I'm new to canning.  For a long time, I avoided it out of fear.  From the many recent articles and blog posts I've read by the newly converted, I've learned that this is a fairly common position.  The fear is a healthy one:  If you don't follow proper canning procedure, you risk dangerous contamination.  But there are two facts that lent me the courage to get canning, nonetheless:

1.  "Proper canning procedure" is not, as I had imagined, a lengthy, highly scientific process involving all kinds of special equipment.  There are a few things you can buy to make the job easier, things like a jar lifter and a wide-mouth funnel, but they aren't necessary.  All you really need is a big pot, something to throw into the bottom of the pot to protect the glass jars from the heat (a small cooling rack, anything silicone, even a handful of silverware) and, if you decide to skip the jar lifter, a set of tongs.  Check out this video (thank you, Olga) for a great tongs-plus-rubber-band hack that works in place of a jar lifter.

2.  Botulism cannot grow in a high-acid environment.  I'm going to say that again because these are the words that released me from the grips of my canning fears:  Botulism cannot grow in a high-acid environment.

Now, "high-acid" is a much, much broader category than you might think.  It includes most fruit!  Blueberries, strawberries, plums, apricots, apples - high-acid, all.  Oddly, tomatoes, which I - and maybe you? - think of as more acidic than all of these things, are not in the safe zone.  (Which is why you need to add acid in the form of bottled lemon juice to your tomato products before canning.)

My source for all of this information is my very smart friend Marisa McClellan.  A lot of you know her, I bet, from her site, Food in Jars, or from her book of the same name that came out earlier this year.  Marisa knows her stuff.  And I don't just mean in a general, I've-made-some-great-jam-and-you-can-too kind of way.  I watched Marisa give a canning demonstration when she was in town last summer, and when it came time for the Q and A, I was floored.  She advised one woman about the spots that appeared on her pickled asparagus (perfectly safe), answered questions about pectin, which fruits are naturally high in it (things that bounce when you drop them) and which are not (things that go splat), the role of sugar in achieving proper set (very important), fruit butters that separate (it happens - eat them sooner; their shelf life is shorter), and what to do when you accidentally overcook your jam and it gets too stiff to spread (ease out of the jar, roll in sugar, slice).  Listening to Marisa, reading her book, made me feel not only that I could can, but that I wanted to.  I'm grateful for that.

What I've typed up here is a hybrid of Luisa's recipe and the canning tips and tricks I've picked up from Marisa.  I was planning on telling you to file this one away for next year when plums come around again, but then I saw them hanging around at a couple of markets last week, so hey, there's still time!  Just hurry.

Pflaumenmus (Spiced Plum Butter)
Adapted from My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, with canning techniques from Marisa McClellan and her book Food in Jars

The ratio of fruit to sugar here is 1 pound to half a cup.  You can adjust the recipe accordingly if you find yourself with more or less than the four pounds of plums stated in the recipe.  Add an additional cinnamon stick and a clove if you increase the fruit by more than a pound.  I've made this recipe three times with 4, 6, and 7 pounds of plums, and I've consistently ended up with one 8-ounce jar of plum butter per pound of fruit.

A note about cooking time: Luisa has you cook the jam at 350 degrees for two hours, but it took closer to three hours in my oven to reach proper consistency.

4 pounds Italian prune plums
2 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves

Make the plum butter:

Wrap the cloves in a square of cheesecloth and tie with a piece of kitchen string to form a small pouch.  It's easier to fish out a pouch than a couple of loose cloves when it's time to purée.

Pit and quarter the plums and place in a large non-reactive pot, the shallower the better.  (I use enameled cast-iron.)  Add the sugar, the cinnamon sticks, and the cloves in their cheesecloth pouch.  Stir well, cover, and let sit overnight, or for eight hours, so that the plums soften and release their juices

Heat the oven to 350, uncover the pot, and cook for 2-3 hours, until the liquid has reduced and you have a thick jam.  Remember that it won't fully thicken up until it cools.  Here are a couple of ways to check for doneness:

1.  Stick a spoon into the pot, lift out some of the jam, then tilt the spoon and observe how it drips.  The excess will pour off in droplets at first; then, if the last bit slides its way down in more of a sheet - it's like seeing a thin, glowing rim of stained glass along the edge of the spoon - you're done.

2.  Put a plate and a few metal spoons into the freezer while the fruit is cooking.  When you think your jam is done, scoop a little onto one of the spoons and return the spoon to the plate in the freezer.  (The plate's just to keep from making a mess in there.)  Wait a minute or two, then retrieve the spoon and nudge the jam with your finger.  If it has firmed up a little and wrinkles to the touch, you're all set. (Ha! All set!)

When the jam is ready, fish out the cinnamon sticks and the pouch of cloves and purée  with an immersion blender.  You now have plum butter and it's ready to jar.

Can it:

While the plums are cooking, heat your jars:  (The pot of hot water you'll use here will become your processing pot, so when you're heating that water, you're getting two steps for the effort of one.)  Remove the rings and lids from your jars and set them aside.  Place a cooling rack, or silicone trivet, or whatever you're using to shield the jars from the heat - the first time around, I used a silicone muffin pan folded in half - in the bottom of a big pot, and put your jars on top.  Fill the pot with water to cover the jars, and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring them to a simmer over very low heat to soften the sealing wax.  No need to heat the rings.

Once you've puréed the jam, remove the jars from the pot and set them right side up on a clean towel on the counter. Keep the heat on under the pot - this is the hot water bath you'll be using in just a few minutes.  Remove the lids from the saucepan and lay them out on the towel, too.

Fill your jars with the plum butter - a wide-mouth funnel is helpful here - leaving half an inch of headspace between the butter and the top of the jar.  Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp towel, cover with the lids, and screw the rings into place - but not too tightly.  (Use your finger tips, not the palm of your hand, to tighten.)

Lower the filled jars into the canning pot, return to a boil, and process for 10 minutes.*  Remove the jars from the pot and listen for the ping of the lids sealing.  If a jar fails to seal, you can store it in the fridge and eat within a couple of weeks.

Canned butters will keep for a year, but according to Marisa the texture will be best within 6-8 months.

Yield:  Four 8-ounce jars.

*Update:  A reader reminded me that if you're canning at high elevation - more than 1,000 feet above sea level - you'll need to adjust your canning time. Thank you, Laura B.! Marisa wrote a post all about it right here that includes a guide for high elevation processing times.