Category Archives: Cooking Techniques

Blackout fare: Herb salad with prosciutto and pine nuts, plus a perfect pan-seared steak.

feeder_frenzy

My sister and I moved into the old farmhouse during a particularly snowy March. With miles of huge old cottonwood trees shading the lines between our neighborhood and the rural electric company that serves us, we had a lot of power outages that spring.

But as soon as we bought a portable generator, Colorado experienced two of the driest years on record. We didn’t use the generator at all, other than starting it up periodically to keep it in working order.

But last spring, we got a few decent snowstorms and the generator started earning its prime spot in the shed. And then the flood happened, and our trusty generator kept us running for a full 3 days. Internet, sump pump, fridge, phones, and incubator — without backup power, it would have been so much worse.

And now, I can start the generator in my sleep. Gone are the days of nervously re-reading the instruction manual by the light of my headlamp before I pull the cord. We’re friends now, the generator and I.

Generator

Fortunately, I also have a gas stove and plenty of matches at my disposal. So once the the essentials are hooked up to power again, I always head for the comfort of my kitchen.

cooking_by_candlelight

I love cooking during a blackout, with only the glow of candlelight (ok, and my headlamp) to light my way. Somehow, the food always tastes better.

Last time, it was a couple of beautiful grass-fed steaks from Windsor Dairy. So in honor of the oncoming winter and the end of grilling season, today I bring you my tips for a perfectly pan-seared steak (and one of my favorite salads). It’s a meal best made by candlelight.

blackout_steaks

For a perfectly seared piece of meat, use a heavy pan (cast iron is best). Throw in some fat, like butter or bacon grease, and get it really hot but not smoking. Make sure you leave plenty of room around each piece of meat as you put it in the pan, so it can brown. Then, don’t touch it.

Seriously, just leave it alone. I know how tempting it can be to peek; I’ve ruined many nice cuts of meat this way. You have a mouthwatering steak sizzling in the pan, and even though the recipe says to cook on high heat for 5 minutes each side, it sounds like it’s burning. Sure enough, when you try to look it sticks to the pan, and then you panic and end up with a mangled piece of meat that’s barely even lost its pink. And it’s now it’s never going to brown.

If you think it’s time to flip whatever you’re browning, grab the sides with a pair of tongs and –very gently– try to jiggle it. If it doesn’t move easily, it’s not ready to be turned yet. Sticking to the pan is part of the process as the meat starts to cook. As long as you’ve greased your pan sufficiently, the meat will lift up as it browns and you’ll be able to turn it without leaving half of it on the pan.

Instead of trying to peek at that steak, pour yourself a glass of wine, be patient, and listen to the noises it makes as it cooks. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize the difference in sound (and smell) when it starts to brown.

Then, let it rest. When you cut into a juicy piece of meat as soon as you take it off the heat, the liquids bubble out onto the plate and you’re left with a dry, disappointing mess. But if you let it rest for 10-15 minutes (or 20-25, for larger cuts like roasts), the juices will settle back into the meat instead of running all over the plate.

steaks_resting_by_candlelight

While the steaks rested under a loose covering of tinfoil, I pulled out some leftover salad ingredients from the night before. Toasted pine nuts, fresh basil, chewy prosciutto, and nutty grated parmesan melting together under a warm balsamic dressing. Add some crusty bread, and the best steaks I’ve ever cooked, and it was almost a shame when the lights flickered back on.

prosciutto_salad

So bring on the snow and the wind (mostly snow, please). I’m ready.

snow_and_blue_skies

Fresh herb salad with prosciutto and toasted pine nuts

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Fresh herb salad with prosciutto and toasted pine nuts

adapted from Colorado Collage

Ingredients

  • 4 cups mixed greens
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup fresh italian parsley leaves, pulled off the stem
  • 4 green onions
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 3 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
  • 3 ounces thinly sliced Prosciutto
  • For the dressing:
  • 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 large garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

    Toast the pine nuts:
  1. Set oven to 325F and spread pine nuts in a glass baking dish. Place pine nuts in oven as it preheats and set a timer for 4 minutes.
  2. When your timer goes off, stir pine nuts and continue checking them for 1-minute increments until they begin to turn golden brown and fragrant, then set them aside to cool.
  3. Make the salad:
  4. Wash greens, basil, and parsley and place in a towel to dry.
  5. Rinse green onions, peeling off any wilted outer layers, and slice thinly (both green and white parts.)
  6. Cut prosciutto into bite size squares.
  7. Make the dressing:
  8. Peel garlic cloves and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices.
  9. In a medium skillet, heat olive oil over very low heat.
  10. Add garlic and cook until barely browned, about 8 minutes.
  11. Remove garlic with a slotted spoon; discard.
  12. Add balsamic and red wine vinegar.
  13. Increase heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes.
  14. Add brown sugar -- careful, the dressing will splatter.
  15. Cook 1 minute and taste for sweet-tart balance -- stir in additional sugar or vinegar as desired. If it still tastes too sharp, simmer for a minute or two longer.
  16. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat.
  17. Put it together:
  18. Arrange greens and herbs in individual bowls and scatter pine nuts, prosciutto and parmesan on top.
  19. Drizzle a few teaspoons of dressing over each bowl.
  20. Serve immediately and pass additional dressing.
http://www.homegrowngourmet.org/blackout-fare/

Chokecherry Jelly

chokecherries_in_the_sun

Last weekend, I got a text from my neighbor: “The chokecherries are ripe. Get them before the birds do!” And so my plans for the evening changed. I grabbed my buckets and headed across the street, where clusters of tiny cherries glistened on the bushes lining our dirt road.

chokecherries_everywhere

Chokecherries are a wild cherry that is native across most of the United States, and I’ve been harvesting them ever since I was little. At family picnics I’d tuck clusters of the bright, astringent jewels into my pockets for later, only to be forgotten until laundry day when my mom would open the washer to find a pile of purple-stained dress shirts. There wasn’t much she could say; she got in trouble for the same thing as a kid.

add_some_unripe_chokecherries_for_extra_pectin

Eaten right off the tree, chokecherries are extremely tart, and they’re mostly pit. But mixed with a whole lot of sugar, their delicious flavor comes out — imagine a much better version of the fake “wild cherry” stuff.

Chokecherries are easy to identify if you know what you’re looking for (namely, serrated leaves and small cherries hanging in clusters). But do a little reading first to ensure you’ve got chokecherries and not buckthorn, which would make for a truly memorable jelly (but not in a good way).

chokecherries_have_serrated_leaves

Whenever I harvest chokecherries, I tend to go a little overboard. I look at all those perfect little cherries, hours away from being stripped by the birds and the hornets, and I’m compelled to collect as many of them as humanly possible.

And then two or three hours later, sweaty and mosquito-bitten, I stand staring at 20 pounds of chokecherries that need to be picked through, and I wonder why I always get myself into these situations.

chokecherry_stemming_station

So if you’re going to be de-stemming 20 pounds of chokecherries, or even 5, there are a few things you’re going to need:

  1. Ideally a helper, but only someone with good attention to detail and fine motor skills. They’ll only be creating more work for you if they miss a bunch of stems and/or blemished fruit.
  2. That TV series you’ve been meaning to marathon-watch, books on tape, anything to keep your mind occupied for hours on end.
  3. Cocktails and caffeine, but not too much of either. (Refer back to #1).

This time, I set aside the ripest cherries for a batch of chokecherry wine, and the less-ripe cherries for jelly (since they add pectin and help it set).

I rinse the cherries in small batches (about 1-2 cups) as I pick through them, then once they’re all clean I boil and strain them to make juice for jelly. Or syrup, as the case may be.

milling_chokecherry_juice

The first time I attempted a batch of jelly on my own, my Mom passed down a bit of chokecherry wisdom she got from my grandmother: “If you try to make jelly, you’ll get syrup, and vice versa. So if you want jelly, try for syrup.”

Fortunately, I like chokecherry syrup even better than I like jelly, so I was secretly glad when my first batch didn’t set. For the second batch, I used my neighbor’s tried-and-true recipe and ended up with a delicious, perfectly set batch of chokecherry jelly. So hopefully it’ll work like a charm for you too, but if you get syrup, that’s just part of the challenge.

It’s possible to remake jellies that don’t set, but sometimes they get grainy so I just call it good at syrup (or “preserves” if it’s lumpy.)

outdoor_canning_setup

And a few words about my canning setup: I do most of my canning outdoors now, and I highly recommend doing it this way. While it’s entirely possible to do all of this on an electric stove in a tiny kitchen (and I have, many times) it’s so much better to do all the boiling outside while the cool evening air drifts through the house. It works so well for me that I eventually got a second propane burner and hot water canner so I can have multiple batches going at once, and they’re already getting plenty of use this summer.

sterilize_jars_by_boiling_at_least_10_minutes

The only downside is the mosquitoes, and the fact that it can be a little hard to see the jars at night (but a headlamp fixes that problem).

cool_on_rack_and_enjoy_the_sound_of_jars_sealing

Few things are as satisfying as lifting jars out of a hot water bath and listening to the *PING!* as each one seals. But picking wild cherries on the side of a road, and then turning them into something utterly delicious? Right up there.

Chokecherry Jelly

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: about 5 cups

Chokecherry Jelly

Wild chokecherries grow across most of the United States, and they make a delicious sweet-tart jelly.

Ingredients

  • About 4 pounds chokecherries, de-stemmed (to make 3 1/2 cups chokecherry juice)**
  • 4 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 (1.75 oz) box powdered pectin
  • **About 1/3 of your chokecherries should be underripe, as the additional pectin will help your jelly set. If not, you may end up with syrup, which is also delicious.
  • Special equipment:
  • Clean 4 or 8 oz. canning jars with new lids
  • A 21.5-quart hot water canner
  • Canning funnel and utensils (tongs, jar lifter, etc.)

Instructions

    To make juice:
  1. Place your washed, de-stemmed cherries in a large pot and cover with filtered water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Crush the fruit using a muddler or potato masher and hang it in a jelly bag to strain overnight, or if (like me) you don't have a jelly bag run the cherries through a sieve or foley mill. Allow the juice to settle for a few hours and carefully pour the top layer into another jar, leaving the sediment behind.
  3. Sterilize the jars:
  4. Put jars (a few more than you think you'll need) into a hot water canner and cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and boil for at least 10 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  5. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and remove from heat. Put jar lids in the hot water and cover until you're ready to use them.
  6. To make the jelly:
  7. Put a few small plates in the freezer to chill (you'll use these to test the jelly). Measure out the sugar and set aside.
  8. Bring your juice to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
  9. Add the pectin and stir until smooth, then bring to a full rolling boil and add the sugar all at once. Boil for exactly one minute and remove from heat. Skim any foam from the top.
  10. Dribble a small amount onto your chilled plate and put it back into the freezer for a minute. Then, pull it out and hold it sideways. If the jelly stays put, it's ready to process.
  11. Process the jelly:
  12. Remove your jars from the hot water bath and drain upside down on a clean towel.
  13. Using a canning funnel, carefully ladle the jelly into your jars, leaving 1/4" of air space at the top. Wipe rims with a clean damp cloth and top with sterilized lids and screw tops. If you have a partial jar do not process it, just use it ASAP.
  14. Carefully place jars in canner, adding boiling water to bring level 2" above jar tops. Bring canner to a boil and then process for 5 minutes, plus additional time for altitude (at 6.000 feet, I process mine for 15 minutes). Find your processing time here.
  15. Remove jars from water bath and allow to cool. Check jars to make sure they have sealed, any jars that don't seal should be stored in the fridge and used first.
http://www.homegrowngourmet.org/chokecherry-jelly/

Making the best of sour grapes: Ver Jus

verjus

Last weekend, I helped my favorite neighbor put nets up over her grapes. With four of us chattering as we worked our way down the rows, the morning flew by and soon we were celebrating our victory over the birds and raccoons with a glass of Haymaker’s Punch in the shade. As she put it, “many hands make light work.”

In the process, we clipped about 3 pounds of unripe grapes that were blocking the nets or too close to the ground. I immediately thought of ver jus, a sour grape juice that I learned about from a winemaker friend in Sonoma.

unripe_grapes

Ver jus (also vert jus, or “green juice”) has been around since the Middle Ages, and can also be made from unripe apples and berries, or from sorrel (which is taking over my herb garden, so I’ll definitely be trying that soon). It’s used in place of citrus or vinegar, and it’s “wine-friendly,” meaning it won’t overpower the palate as vinegar will if you’re drinking something fancy.

The last place I lived had a big fence full of concord grapes, and I once made a wildly unsuccessful batch of ver jus there. I’d just used up the last of the bottle I bought in Sonoma, and I had several clusters of grapes that were refusing to ripen, so I just ground them up, put the juice through a sieve, and bottled it — sediment and all.

It went moldy within a few weeks.

I’ve been pining for a second chance ever since, so I was overjoyed when the entire basket of sour grapes appeared on my porch last weekend. This time, I did my research first.

in_the_hopper

To make verjus, you’ll need at least a few pounds of unripe grapes, plus some citric acid to help prevent oxidation. You’ll also need a food mill — I used a Foley mill last time, which works great but requires some elbow grease. This time, I had the food mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer and it made quick work of the grapes. I just put them in the hopper, and watched as it churned out a big carafe of juice and a pile of dried skins and seeds. If you have a juicer, it’ll probably work great too.

first_of_the_juice

I highly recommend having a machine do the juicing if you can, especially because the faster you work the prettier your verjus will be (it turns brown as it oxidizes). For 3 pounds of unripe grapes, put about 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid in the collection vessel and swirl it periodically as the juice collects — this will also help to preserve the delicate green color of your ver jus.

And even if you’re not milling them by hand, don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to remove all the grapes from their stems before you juice them — it’s time-consuming to be sure. So pour a glass of wine, put on a movie, call a friend, whatever you need to do to make it fun instead of tedious.

Once you’ve pressed all the juice from your grapes, put it through a fine-mesh sieve and pour it into a sealed jar without much airspace.

pour_and_let_settle

There’s still some stuff that needs to be filtered out, but it’s too fine to get trapped in a sieve — so just let it settle completely, then carefully pour your juice off the top. The smaller the neck of your jar in relation to the sides, the easier this will be (i.e. don’t use a wide-mouth jar).

decant_juice_off_solids

When made this way, ver jus can be kept in the refrigerator for about 3 months. Some people also add grain alcohol, sugar, and sometimes sulfites to preserve it for long-term storage, but I’ve never had a big enough crop to warrant that. From 3 lbs I got about 30 ounces of ver jus, and my neighbor and I have both made a sizeable dent in our bottles already.

Use it on garden salads, fish, desserts, quick pickles, any dish where you want to add bright acidity without overpowering the flavor.

Ver Jus

Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: 30 fluid ounces

Ver Jus

This is a great way to use sour (unripe) grapes. Use anywhere you want acidity but not the intense flavor of vinegar or citrus -- this is delicate enough that it won't clash with wine.

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds unripe grapes
  • 1/2 teaspoon citric acid
  • Special Equipment
  • Food mill or juicer
  • Fine-mesh sieve

Instructions

  1. Remove all stems from grapes, weeding out any grapes that are wrinkled or very small.
  2. Wash grapes thoroughly.
  3. Put 1/2 teaspoon citric acid in the bottom of your collection vessel.
  4. Begin juicing grapes, working as quickly as possible. Swirl collection vessel as you go to incorporate citric acid.
  5. Pour juice through a sieve and collect in a sealed jar without much airspace. Let stand until the sediment finishes settling at the bottom.
  6. Carefully pour the juice off the top without disturbing the sediment at the bottom. If some of it gets in the bottle, just let it settle and pour it off once more.
  7. Store bottles in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
http://www.homegrowngourmet.org/making-the-best-of-sour-grapes-ver-jus/