August 17, 2010

a pickle update, and pattypan success

Well, I have good news and bad news.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first...My first batch of lactofermented, salt-brined pickles was a fail. Boooo! 

I suspected from the start that the pickles might be a little, um, unusual. Dill, the requisite herb for cucumber pickles, wasn't in the pantry, so I ended up using a hodge-podgy assortment of other herbs and spices instead. I also didn't have any tannin-rich leaves (grape, oak, horseradish, etc), which are they key, I've read, to keeping brined pickles crisp. I was not off to the most auspicious start - but I did have a pile of fresh kirby cukes and an overly exuberant urge to get started on the pickle making, so I decided to make a go of it anyway.

I checked the pickles each day, made sure they were completely submerged in the brine, and skimmed off any foam that formed on the surface. On day 5, I tasted them. They were slightly sour - getting there maybe? - but they were just blah. Their crunch was gone, and they were lacking flavor. Probably could have let them go a few more days to see if additional fermentation would have improved the flavor, but really, I thought by then I would have two jars of pickled mush on the counter. So I chucked the pickles, taking comfort in Sandorkraut's admission that his first batch of sour pickles didn't yield stellar results, either, and decided to try again another time.

On to the good news: I've had pickle success with a much-more-cooperative vinegared refrigerator pickle recipe. And I now have two pints of totally addictive, crisp, sweet and tangy pattypan squash pickles in the fridge, ready at any moment to toss into a salad, nibble beside a burger, or eat straight out of the jar.

Pattypan squash has been one of my favorite greenmarket treats this summer -- I don't think a week has gone by when I don't return home with some of these little guys in my bag. I've been getting my fix from Lani's Farm, in Bordentown, NJ -- their pattypans are hands-down the best I've ever tasted. Harvested small, they are firm-fleshed, dense, and crisp when raw, with a scant amount of tiny, tender seeds -- the epitome of summer squash perfection. Mostly I've been slicing them thinly and caramelizing them in a blend of butter and olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, along with leeks, sweet corn, baby eggplants, and any other summery things I happen to have around. They hold up well in the pan, becoming tender but retaining some of their firmness, delicately flavored and sweet.

When I spotted the recipe for zucchini pickles in my newly acquired copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers (I know, I know, I'm about 8 years behind on this one - but better late than never!), I knew just what to do with my latest bunch of pattypans. (And I think these scrumptious-looking zucchini pickles also inspired me!) The technique for Zuni's pickles is simple as can be: while thinly sliced zucchini and onions soak in an ice-cold brine, simmer up a pickling liquid with apple cider vinegar, sugar, dry mustard and mustard seeds, and turmeric. Drain the vegetables, combine them with the cooled vinegar mixture, and refrigerate. In about a day you'll have delicious, crisp, and vibrantly golden-hued pickles. Pretty no-fail. They'll keep for a long time, too.

And not to worry - my love for these vinegar pickles has not dissuaded me from experimenting with the powers of wild fermentation. In fact, I've already started a couple of new batches: two jars of brined cukes with dill, mustard seeds, garlic, and fresh jalapeno, and another jar with the same mixture plus an oak leaf. (Until my search for oak leaves began, I never noticed how high up the branches start on an oak tree's trunk! K and I foraged some in Central Park on Saturday, when we finally found a tree with reachable leaves. He picked a few perfect specimens for me. It was an exciting moment.) The no-oak-leaf pickles are on day 5, the with-oak-leaf pickles are on day 3. I'll be reporting on these later this week. Fingers crossed!

I'm also making lactofermented ketchup. In fact, with all the pickle and ketchup jars lined up on my kitchen counter right now, it's starting to look like I'm opening a a mickie D's for fermentation fetishists....

sweet and tangy pattypan pickles, from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Makes about 2 pints

1 pound pattypan squash (or other variety of summer squash)
1 small onion
2 Tbsp sea salt (if using kosher salt, use a little more than 2 Tbsp)
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup sugar (I used turbinado)
1-1/2 tsp ground yellow (dry) mustard
1-1/2 tsp yellow or brown mustard seeds, lightly crushed
1 tsp turmeric

  1. Thinly slice the squash using a knife or mandolin. In order to keep the pretty scalloped edges of the pattypans, I halved the pattypans lengthwise (along the stem-to-stem axis), then sliced very thinly with crosswise cuts (at a right angle from the stem-to-stem axis). Judy says the slices should be about 1/16th of an inch - some of mine were a bit thicker than that.
  2. Halve the onion and slice thinly (I made saute slices - first cut lengthwise along the root-to-stem axis, then thinly slice each half making cuts that are parallel to that axis).
  3. Combine the squash and onion slices in a large, shallow bowl. Add salt and toss to combine. Then add cold water, just to cover the vegetables, and a few ice cubes. Allow to sit for about an hour, until the squash is firm-tender and pleasantly salty. 
  4. While the squash and onion soak, combine the vinegar, sugar, ground mustard and mustard seeds in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. Cool the liquid until it's just slightly warm before pouring it over the vegetables (if hot it will cook them and make them flabby).
  5. Drain the squash and onions, drying them well with paper towels or spinning them, a few handfuls at a time, in a salad spinner. Return them to the bowl and pour the just-warm pickling liquid over them, and stir to combine.
  6. Transfer pickles to a glass jar (or jars) and pour the brine over them, making sure the pickles are completely covered and leaving about 1 inch of space betwen the brine and the top of the jar.  (I used 2 pint-sized Ball jars with "shoulders" to help keep the pickles submerged in the liquid). Cover tightly and refrigerate, allowing to marinate for about a day before eating. According to Judy, they'll keep indefinitely in the fridge. 

August 5, 2010

brining away

Hey, I'm making pickles over here! Real, old-fashioned brined pickles. In other words, rather than using vinegar as a preserving agent, I'm relying on salt, water, and the activity of friendly bacteria (Lactobacilli) to transform cucumbers into tangy, sour pickles.

I've wanted to try brine pickle-making for a while, and at yesterday's greenmarket I saw some really nice kirby cukes and decided it was time to finally try my hand at the technique. This is just Day 2...and only time will tell how this little experiment of mine works out.

For background, I checked out the vegetable ferments chapter and sour pickle recipe in Sandor Ellix Katz's (aka Sandorkraut, the king of ferments) always-informative book, Wild Fermentation (such a terrific resource - sourdough bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, beer, wine - it has it all). First I made a brine by dissolving 2 Tbsp of Celtic sea salt in about 16 ounces of filtered water (A "light brine" consists of 1 to 2 Tbsp of salt per 1 quart of water -- since it's darn hot in these parts, I decided to make a saltier brine, hoping it would better preserve the cukes). 

With only a couple of smallish jars on hand (one 16 ounces, the other 20), I decided to make two small batches: one with spears, the other with slices. I ended up using a total of about 16 ounces of brine.

At the bottom of each jar I placed a couple of peeled garlic clovesDill (fresh herb or seeds) is classic for seasoning pickles, but when I started this project at 10 o'clock last night I realized I didn't have any around. So, for the the spears, I added a cinnamon stick, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, and black peppercorns. For the slices I decided to use smoked paprika (about 1/2 tsp), 2 whole dried red chilies, and a pinch of whole cumin seeds and coriander seeds (about 1/2 tsp of each).  I arranged the cukes in the jars and poured in enough brine to completely cover them.

I should mention that Sandorkraut also recommends adding a tannin-containing leaf (such as cherry, grape, or oak) to the pickles in order to keep them crisp. I didn't have any tannic leaves on hand, so that will have to wait for next time.

Unlike vinegar picklimg, brine pickling requires the jars be open to the air in order for the fermentation to proceed (so the Lactobacilli and other beneficial microorganisms can get in). In addition, the vegetables must be completely covered in brine, otherwise they can go moldy. So on top of the cukes in each jar I placed a smaller jar, partially filled with water, as a weight to keep the cukes completely submerged in the brine. The last step was to cover the jars with cheesecloth to keep out any bugs, and that's it.

Now the only thing left to do is wait -- which is the hardest part! I can't wait to taste these pickles. They should be ready in about a week; once they're nicely soured they can be transferred to the fridge for longer storage (refrigeration slows down the fermentation process and keeps them at about the same sourness level).

Have you brined before?

August 4, 2010

dutch baby

A while back I clipped a Dutch Baby recipe from an article in Gourmet, intending to make it asap. Then somehow it ended up filed away in my recipe folder for too long.... you know how that goes. Finally, in search of breakfast inspitation a few weeks ago, I began leafing through my recipes one evening, and there it was! Breakfast solved.

Have you ever made one of these Dutch Babies? If not, please put it on your must-make-very-soon-for-breakfast list! Ridiculously easy, absolutely delicious, and not hard on the eyes, either. A sort of popover-pancake hybrid, it's light and eggy, with wonderfully crisp golden edges, and a moist and slightly dense center. Plus, it's really fun to watch puffing up in the oven (and particularly mesmerizing when you're just a few sips into the first cup of coffe and not quite awake).

On DB attempt #1, I followed the orignal Lemon Sugar Dutch Baby recipe from Gourmet, which includes lemon zest in the batter and lemon juice and lemon sugar sprinkled on top. It's quite yummy. The following Sunday's attempt #2, however, we liked even better: sans lemon, and with amped-up amounts of vanilla and warming spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg). I also substituted plain yogurt for milk, and a 50/50 combination of spelt and buckwheat flours for the original recipe's all-purpose white (I always seem to prefer the flavor and texture of whole grain flours -- moist and more substantial-tasting). And we drizzled maple syrup on top. Spectacular.

The batter can be whisked by hand or, even easier, whipped up in the blender. You could even make the batter the night before serving, refrigerate it overnight, then bring to room temp and bake the next morning. An effortless breakfast! If you don't have a cast iron skillet, a pyrex or ceramic pie plate can be used instead -- though in it seems to puff up more dramatically in cast iron. For a fruity DB, arrange slices of fresh peaches or apples, or berries, in the bottom of the pan before pouring in the batter.

Buckwheat and Spelt Dutch Baby, Adapted from Gourmet
Serves 4 reasonable people, or 2 greedy ones

3 large eggs, at room temp for 30 minutes
2/3 cup plain yogurt, room temp (if using very thick yogurt such as Greek, measure out a bit less than 2/3 cup and then add water or milk to up to the 2/3 c mark)
1/3 cup spelt flour
1/3 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1/2 stick butter (4 Tbsp)

For serving: powdered sugar, maple syrup, jam or preserves, fresh fruit...vanilla sugar or cinnamon sugar would also be great.

Equip: 9 or 10-inch cast-iron pan

1. Place cast-iron pan in oven on the middle rack. Heat to 450F.
2. Whip eggs in a blender until pale and frothy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add all other ingredients (except butter), and blend until very smooth, about 2 minutes more. The batter will be about the consistency of heavy cream, similar to a crepe batter.
3. Remove hot pan from oven and add butter. When butter is melted, carefully pour in the batter and return the pan to the oven.
4. Bake for 18 to 25 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve right away, plain or with toppings of your choice. It will deflate as it cools.

August 3, 2010

breaking fast

I have a thing for savory breakfasts. Vegetables and protein (and coffee) make me very happy in the morning. Often I'll throw together a combination of raw or cooked greens, tomato, avocado, eggs...sometimes adding a bit of leftover quinoa or other grain, or a crumble of feta or chevre. Olive oil and lemon juice, sometimes some minced garlic (I know that last one might sound scary, but I just love it).

This was a tomato-egg-basil morning: two soft-cooked eggs (simmered 5 minutes; the white is set but yielding, the yolk still liquid), diced greenmarket tomato, chopped basil, drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, Maldon sea salt, black pepper. It hit the spot.