Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Preserving A Great Tradition: Making Bread & Butter Pickles

While many have tried and failed, I have successfully created a vehicle that transports me back in time. Granted, I don't make the trip physically, but rather my journey is an emotional one. I can vividly see the people and places, hear the voices and laughter, and smell the smells of my food-flourished past. Just last weekend I took one of these trips, as I often do, while in the cottage kitchen. The spark that launched my time machine was the aroma of a simmering brew, something so unique that a mere whiff of it can only mean one thing: it's pickle time. The combination of vinegar cooking with sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds and other spices immediately connect a thousand dots of my life experience.

The process of canning is a bit magical, I think. There is a lot of science taking place among the jars and lids and water baths. And all of that is easily explained. But the time spent with loved ones, working side by side, creating something together that will be shared with others, is the most enchanting part of the process. These hours spent with my dad, who I love and cherish, and is now 84 years-young, are priceless. The recipe we use comes from his aunt Helen, who passed it along to his mother and other aunts. While all of aunt Helen's generation are now gone, they remain with us every time we make these wonderful pickles.

Like most families, ours is one of many traditions. While canning was a common occurrence before the proliferation of processed foods and reliable refrigeration, our extended Polish family always "put up" bread and butter pickles. And these are not like any you would find in the supermarket, because beyond using the pickles (cucumbers) themselves, the flavor is amplified with the inclusion of green peppers and onions. It also nice to look into a jar of these pickles and know every single ingredient that went into them.

Maybe it's just me, but home preserving of foods seems to be on a bit of an uptick. Stores that normally carried a small stock of canning supplies, if they had any at all, now seem to be dedicating more space to jars, lids, canners and other items necessary to home preserve. It could be the movement to more organically grown foods has transcended into a growing popularity of canning. For whatever reason, I think it's  great that more people know where their food comes from and how it is processed.

Because canning is not something you can't do in an hour, the length of the project from start to finish required me to split it into two videos. Canning is not hard if you follow the basic steps. If you're not already a canner, go in with a relative or friend and have a pickle party! It will be the start of a great tradition!

Bread & Butter Pickles
(amount for one batch - makes about 4 1/2 quarts)

1 gallon (4 quarts) cucumber pickles - sliced thin
2 large green peppers - seeded and sliced thin
1 extra large white onion (or two medium) - sliced thin
1 quart ice cubes
1/2 cup kosher or pickling salt
5 cups sugar
5 cups white vinegar
2 TBSP mustard seeds
1 tsp celery seeds
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cloves
Enough clean and sanitized jars, lids and bands to hold batch. Can use quart or pint jars.

Before slicing cucumbers, wash the outside of each one with cold water and a vegetable brush making sure any dirt is removed. Once washed, remove both bud and stem end of the cucumber. Check for soft or rotten spots and remove those, too. Begin to slice cucumbers. I recommend using something that will provide uniform slices - a food processor with slicing blade, a manual food slicer/shredder (like I use in the videos), a box grater that has a slicer side, etc. Slicing by hand is not only a lot of work, but will generally produce very uneven slices. So take some help!

Once the cucumbers are sliced, proceed to slice the green peppers and onions. For me, it is very hard to slice an onion paper thin by hand, especially if you are using very large onions. So, I employ a mandolin, which makes quick work of the job and yields uniform thin slices. The green peppers, however, can be sliced by hand. There are only two peppers per batch and it goes pretty fast. Add the peppers and onions to the cucumbers in a large bowl and sprinkle 1/2 cup of kosher or pickling salt to the vegetables. DO NOT use iodized table salt - there are too many additives and impurities in that salt and it will react in the canning process. Kosher and canning salt are easily found at most markets. Toss vegetables so the salt is well distributed and bury a quart of ice cubes in the bowl. If you want, you can put a plate on top of the vegetables that is weighted with a jug of water or some other heavy object. Let stand for two hours. You will notice the wonderful aroma of the vegetables - even at this stage.

While the veggies are doing their thing with the ice, take the opportunity to wash your jars and bands. If you have an automatic dishwasher with a high heat cycle, you use that. You want the jars HOT when you put the pickle mix into them. So leave them in the hot dishwasher until it is time to use them. If you don't have a dishwasher, wash the jars in hot sudsy water, rinse and put into a 225 degree oven to stay hot until you need them. Wash the bands (these don't need to stay hot). In a small saucepan, put your lids (with the rubber seals) with water to cover them and bring them to a simmer. Keep the burner on warm until you are ready to use them.

When a couple hours have passed, transfer your vegetables to a colander and rinse well under cold water. You want to wash the salted water (made from the melted ice) off the veggies. Let them drain well. Make your brine. In a large pot (6qt or more), put the vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, turmeric and ground cloves. Bring mixture to a simmer and then back the heat off. Add your vegetables and stir so that they are completely coated with the brine. Bring the pot back up to the boiling point - but as soon as it starts to boil remove pot from heat! Give them a final stir and proceed to fill the jars with hot pickle mixture. Leave a half inch of head space at the top of the jar. Using a long, thin, non-metallic object (I use a wooden chop stick), remove any air bubbles that may have been created when filling the jar. With a clean damp cloth, wipe any brine off the top lid of the jar. Place metal lid on jar and place metal ring over that and hand tighten.

Most canners (these are large pots designed to boil jars in) hold seven jars. Yours may vary depending on the size. You should have the water in the canner boiling BEFORE you start filling the jars. Put filled jars into canner (water bath). There should be an inch or two of water over the lids of the jars. Bring water back to the boiling point and boil jars (process) for 15 minutes. Remove jars and gently set them on a table/counter top that has a towel on it. Place jars a couple inches a part to allow for good air circulation. As the jars cool, a vacuum will be created within the jar that will pull the lids into a concave position. You'll hear them "pop." When jars are cool, gently press each lid to make sure they sealed properly.

Don't eat these pickles right away. Put them in a box or in a cool, dark area for at least two weeks - even better for four weeks. This way all the flavors have a chance to blend. You don't have to refrigerate them before opening, but once the jar is opened you'll need to keep them refrigerated.

Yes, it's work. But once  you taste the goodness of these pickles you'll know it is well worth the effort. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Baking Beautiful Banana Butter Bars

We all have a few "go-to" dishes that we feel comfortable and confident making. So when I'm asked to bring something sweet to a party or other gathering and I don't have the time to try out a new recipe, I make a batch of these banana butter bars. They always go over big. You can eat them with your hands or if you want to fancy it up, it's perfectly appropriate to eat them with a fork. I generally have all the ingredients on hand - other than the ripe bananas. Lucky for me, a few local markets always seem to have a few heavily spotted bananas tucked to the side or put in bags at a reduced price. I think it's funny that they sell delicious, sweet, succulent ripe bananas CHEAPER than they sell the hard, tasteless, inedible green ones. I guess it's a question of shelf-life for the grocer, so they need to get the brown bananas out. To me, the ripe bananas are a premium!

These bars are heavenly. I've heard similar bars referred to as "gooey cakes" by my southern friends. While they are gooey, I don’t think of them so much as cakes, but one could argue they have some cake-like qualities. Life is too short to argue about such things, I say, so call them what you want but just enjoy them with people you love.

Banana Butter Bars

One box of yellow cake mix
1 egg
1 stick of butter, melted

1 8oz package of cream cheese, softened
3 eggs
1 stick of butter, melted
2-3 ripe bananas, mashed
½ tsp banana extract
1 lb. box confectioner’s sugar

First make your crust. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9x13 baking dish (I like glass) by giving it a spray with non-stick cooking spray and set aside. Using an electric mixer, combine cake mix, egg and melted butter. Beat until combined. Batter with be very stiff. Remove from bowl and press into the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Come up the sides of the baking dish a little bit. You now have your crust.

Prepare the filling by putting the cream cheese in your mixing bowl (the cream cheese should be softened - leave out at room temperature for about an hours) and beat cream cheese until creamy. Then add melted butter and three eggs and combine well with cream cheese. Then add the mashed bananas and banana extract (if you don't have the banana extract, don't worry....they will still taste dee-lish.. You could put in a little vanilla instead - it wouldn't hurt any!). Mix bananas in well. Finally, add the powdered sugar and beat until all is well combined. Pour batter over crust and put in 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes. The top should have a nice golden color to it, but you don't want to overcook these! The filling should remain soft, even after it cools. Because the filling stays soft, when you cut it into bars, have a paper towel handy and wipe your knife after each cut and it will make for a cleaner slice. Enjoy! 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hello Haluski! Just Another Reason To Love Cabbage!

Our quiet friend the cabbage is a fairly humble vegetable. Often relegated to coleslaw and sauerkraut, cabbage gets celebrated a bit more openly in other cultures. Eastern Europe has long enjoyed this crunchy, fragrant vegetable. Of the many cabbage dishes originating from that region, golabki (stuffed cabbage) is probably one of the most popular. Another is haluski. Haluski is what happens when you combine cabbage, bacon, onions, garlic and noodles into one incredible satisfying and flavorful dish.

One thing I love about dishes like haluski is that there are so many variations depending on where you travel and who is doing the cooking. While the cabbage and noodles remain constant, all the other ingredients may vary.  I always believed that many of these variations came about based on what was in the pantry at the time. We've all done it - realized we were missing an ingredient or two, so we either left it out or more likely substituted something else. Sometimes the results end up being a more interesting dish. This is part of the creative fun one has when cooking, creating opportunities to improvise and reinterpret.

While cabbages are large, plentiful and inexpensive in the markets, go ahead and pick one up and discover new ways to enjoy it (cabbage is very nutritious, too). Here's our traditional haluski recipe (NOT low fat, but very, very delicious). If all the bacon scares you, think of using a little less or switching to something a little more lean, like pancetta. You could also cut back the butter a little and make up the difference with some olive oil. Haluski can serve as a side dish or main course. I love it so much that having a side wouldn't satisfy me, so I eat a plateful!! Either way, it will give that head of cabbage in your fridge another way to serve you!

1 head of fresh cabbage, chopped
2 medium sweet onions, diced
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
1/2 pound of bacon - diced
1 stick of unsalted butter
12 oz package of egg noodles
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet (I use an electric skillet for this job) saute diced bacon until crisp and fat has rendered. Remove cooked bacon with slotted spoon and transfer to paper towel. Leave bacon fat in skillet and add butter. Mix melted butter and bacon fat and add onions, cabbage and garlic. Mix well with spoon so vegetables are all coated with the butter/bacon fat. Cover, stirring occasionally. You don't want the vegetables to brown, but you want them to get soft. Take your lead from the cabbage. When it becomes tender (not mushy) then it's done. While the vegetables are cooking, prepare the egg noodles per package instructions. Take care not to overcook the noodles - they should be tender but not mushy (like your cabbage). I usually boil them 2-3 less than the package directs. When noodles are done, drain and put back into pot. Add the cabbage/onion/garlic mixture, the cooked pieces of bacon and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and serve immediately. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Food Tastes Better When You Cook With Friends - Summer Fennel Salad

The sheer joy of preparing food with people you love can never be overstated. While many of us get great satisfaction out of preparing food for our family and friends, the meal means all the more to me when I share the kitchen with special people. If you are a total control freak, then cooking with others might not be a great idea, because people approach tasks differently. So when someone isn't tearing the lettuce they way you think they should, trouble starts brewing! A kitchen is not a good place to argue and fight (too many sharp objects!). But if you're okay with letting people do things their own way, than the kitchen is an ideal place to celebrate, nurture and love.

Thinking back on some of the best times spent with loved ones, many of them took place in the kitchen. My memories of my mom are particularly kitchen-related. How many times I watched her beautiful hands (she had the softest skin) chop an onion - she must have done it thousands of times in her life, yet she took great care every time she held the knife. While my hands are larger, and certainly not as soft, mom is with me every time I have an onion on the cutting board. I am so grateful for those memories, as I am for the countless times friends have come to visit and we cooked and ate and celebrated the time we had together.

Our dear friend Skip came by for a visit on a sunny Saturday. An earlier stop at a couple of local farm stands and the butcher left us with a variety of fresh produce and thin, bone-in pork chops. The pork chops were going to be prepared in our usual "Polish" style and we would roast up a big bunch of beets, too. Best of all was a big bulb of fennel, which we thought to turn into a salad.

Fennel is one of those vegetables that many people don't grow up with or even recognize. Raw, it has a wonderful crunch and texture with a slight flavor of anise. The seed from fennel is often used to season Italian sausage and has a stronger licorice flavor. So, with Skip's able assistance, we put together a lively, light, crunchy salad with our fennel, celery and an apple. It's a no-fuss salad, even easier to make when you have a friend helping out, that stays true to the spirit of summer!

Summer Fennel Salad
3 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 1/2 TBSP Apple Cider Vinegar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 1/2 TBSP fresh tarragon, chopped
1/4 tsp sugar
3 stalks celery, sliced thin diagonally - chop and include any celery leaves if you have them
1 large fennel bulb (or two small) sliced thin crosswise (you can chop slices in halves/quarters if they are too large) - chop and include fennel fronds
1 apple (Pink Lady, Gala, Granny Smith) julienned
salt & pepper to taste

Whisk first five ingredients in a large bowl. Add celery, fennel and apple and toss so that everything gets a coating of dressing. Season with salt and pepper. You can serve immediately or keep chilled in refrigerator for a couple of hours. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bunches of Basil? Make Pesto Pronto!

It's amazing to me that a couple of little basil plants that went in a garden pot back in May are now big, full producers of this wonderful herb. Even if you don't grow your own, I've seen bunches of it at a number of farmers markets here in Detroit and up in the Thumb. But why not grow your own? I paid $1.50 for each of the plants. I put both of them in a 10 inch pot off the back porch where the plants were exposed to lots of sun. The basil got a good watering from me twice a week and Mother Nature took care of the rest. Now, I've got basil by the galore!

There are countless ways to use all this fresh basil. Have it with fresh summer tomatoes, use it in sauces, add it to salads, it goes great with fruits like berries and melons (also in-season right now), or you can make pesto. Pesto is a good way to put a lot of basil to use in one recipe.

We never had pesto growing up. It would have been something incredibly exotic, to be sure! I think I was in my late teens when I experienced it for the first time while eating over a friend's house. It was so bright and I could smell it across the table. It was a side dish - I think we were having lamb chops and there was this side of pasta with this crazy green sauce. When I took my first bite...OMG! I never tasted a taste like that taste tasted! I was an instant pesto fan and have been loving it ever since.

Pesto comes in many forms, the traditional being made with basil. You can make pesto out of mint, parsley, cilantro and other herbs. Another variation is the type of nuts that are used. Going back to traditional pesto, you would typically use toasted pine nuts. Right now, pine nuts are incredibly expensive - about $35 a pound! While you don't need a pound of them to make a batch of pesto, the price of pine nuts can give people pause. Good alternatives to pine nuts are walnuts, or as we used in this recipe, almonds. It does give a different flavor, but one that I think is delicious.

If you have a food processor, this is a perfect job for the machine. You can also use a blender, but the narrow bottom of many blenders make it challenging sometimes. The versatility of pesto makes it fun to create. Try different variations and ways to use the sauce. It has a lot of nutrition and big, big flavor.

Cottage Pesto

2 - 2 1/2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves (large stems removed)
1/2 - 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 large cloves of garlic (if you like it less garlicy, just use two)
1/4 cup toasted almonds (you can use pine nuts or walnuts, but it is important to toast the nuts before using)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (DO NOT use the stuff in the green can for this recipe)
1 tsp salt (Kosher or sea salt is nice here)
ground black pepper (to taste)

Wash your basil leaves and remove excess water. I use my salad spinner for this task, but you could also roll the basil in a towel. In a small skillet over medium low heat, toast your almonds or other nuts. This will take a little time. When you can start to smell the nuts and they begin to slightly darken, you have them toasted. This is an important step, as the toasting helps release the natural oils that contain a lot of flavor. Let nuts cool slightly after toasting. Add basil, nuts, garlic (does not have to be chopped - the machine will do it), grated Parmesan, olive oil (start with 1/2 cup), salt and pepper to the bowl of your food processor. Pulse until all ingredients are incorporated and the nuts become extremely fine. You may want to add olive oil depending on the consistency you prefer. Taste for salt and pepper and add as you like. Remove from processor and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. If you have no plans to use in the next few days, you may want to freeze it. Serve on pasta, sandwiches, toasted bread with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or get some good bread sticks and start dipping! Enjoy!