Thursday, December 23, 2010

Icicle Pickles

Every family has their Christmas traditions and icicle pickles are one of ours. These pickles just taste like Christmas to me. My Great Grandmother made them every year and my mother continued the tradition and it is still is being passed down through the generations.

Once you commit to them, the house fills up with the heavy smell of boiling vinegar for days. But at the end you have crunchy tart/sweet delicious Christmas pickles. It's a marathon though... 

Here's the recipe exactly as given to me.

Icicle Pickles
12 Quarts small cucumbers
2 ½ Quarts white vinegar (10 cups) 
16 Cups white sugar 
1 Tbsp celery salt
1 Tsp cassia buds 

Day 1-4 
Make a brine by adding 2 ½ cups salt to 6 Qt water. 
The brine should be strong enough to float an egg; if not add more salt.
Clean and quarter cucumbers and put them in the brine. (or slice thinner if cucs are larger) 
Stir once a day for 4 days.

Day 5 
Drain off the brine. 
Fill with boiling water enough to cover the cucs.
Measure the alum, in your hand, about the size of an egg.
(This is old farm people measurement technique.)
Add alum to the water.

Day 6
Drain again.
Combine white vinegar, white sugar, celery salt, cassia buds 
Bring to a boiling point to make a syrup.  Pour syrup over the cucs.

Day 7–8–9
Drain syrup off and bring it back to a boiling point.
Pour syrup back over the cucs again.

Day 10
Sterilize your bottles, lids, seals.
Drain syrup off and put cucs in bottle.
Bring syrup back to a boiling point.
Add syrup to bottles and seal.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Art of Giving

This has been a delightfully stress-free pre-Christmas chiefly because I got all of my shopping finished and gifts wrapped weeks ago.... and everything is already paid for. I made a vow to stick to a budget and reined myself in repeatedly. How much you spend is not an indication of the depth of your love. I explained this to my niece who called to say she'd gotten me something but it "wasn't enough" and she needed to know what else I wanted. The truth is, all I really want for Christmas is some delicious turkey with my family and some laughs. That's all I ever really want. Well, that and pie.

I grew up with a large extended family that gathered every Christmas day at my grandparents' home for two hearty meals. A massive, festive buffet for lunch and a huge feast for dinner, complete with pies, cookies, traditional Christmas pudding and Christmas crackers. The house was teaming with relatives from midday to midnight. Teaming! My mother's four brothers and sister, and all of their various and sundry offspring and dates. Everyone brought their particular skills to the party. Aunt Myrna was known for her exceptional gravy. Great Grandma for her turkey basting and stuffing. A cheesy cauliflower dish was another aunt's domain and an uncle was renown for his carving abilities. Traditions were cemented around these skills. In-between meals we played board games. The line of tables were cleared and immediately dressed with Dominos, Sorry, Checkers and more. The boys were wild, playing crokinole and air hockey. The men retreated to an upstairs bedroom for football. There was nary an argument. Never. Not one ever. Only peals of laughter throughout the house. The same held for Thanksgiving. So it has always been a curiosity to me when watching Christmas and Thanksgiving movies where discord is depicted as the prevailing atmosphere. I can't imagine why. It's totally unnecessary.

Today everyone seems stressed about money but also about what the giftee wants. Lists of gimmes are provided via email. I don't remember us putting in an order for our gift when we were children. But then, our parents dashed the Santa myth when we were mere tots. We were told that Santa was a symbol of the spirit of Christmas, not a bona-fide being. Christmas orders were just not done. I still find them tacky. 

I try my best to avoid the gimme list, and find that choosing a gift is the easiest thing in the world if you cultivate the skill of placing your feet in another person's shoes. Paying attention to the things people care about is the key. What do they talk about? What do they love? What do they lament? What do they struggle with?

I use three basic criteria to choose the perfect gift: need, passion or wounds. What do they need in a practical sense that will improve their lives? What are their passions? What are their psychic wounds? Buying gifts that enable an unfulfilled burning desire or an untapped talent always has an impact. The recipient feels "seen." It's surprising how effective that can be in bringing people closer to you.

An associate of mine has a mother who spends extravagantly on all of her adult children every year, but never gives anything of use or value. I heard one of her children once say in frustration, "But I don't wear things like that. I told you I really needed a warm jacket." The mother replied, "Oh, that's not any fun."

The mother's gift giving isn't about her children at all. It's all about her shopping pleasure and finding unique items that thrill her. She never fails to disappoint every Christmas.

I think seeing who people are is really at the heart of giving. The executive producer of a TV show I was working on had written a movie thirty years prior and lamented the fact that the studio had never given him a movie poster. For him, it was the crowning achievement of his career but that one omission bothered him. It took me two solid months, but I finally hunted down a poster in a vintage movie poster outlet and had it framed for him for Christmas. I've never been so tightly hugged by a boss before. The real joy was seeing the light in his eyes. Of course, then we celebrated with cookies and eggnog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Putting the pantry to work

It's such a pleasure to dig into the pantry in December and unearth the gorgeous summer fruits you put up. It's like you are right back in the garden again, picking ripe berries off the bush. Black current jam and rhubarb and black raspberries will grace our table today.

First of all, two big thumbs up for the biscuit recipe in Alice Waters book, "In The Green Kitchen." Page 33 of her book. What light, fluffy, crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside biscuits they are!

I made the sweet cream variety and we enjoyed them for breakfast with Devon cream (my absolute favorite thing in the world and likely responsible for the high cholesterol) and some super yummy black current jam from the garden, canned in July.

Today I'm also making a rhubarb and black raspberry pie from frozen fruits harvested in late fall.

The bottom of the freezer is still packed with rhubarb, shredded zucchini, black raspberries, elderberries and home made pesto cubes waiting to be put to use. It's such an embarrassment of riches. True wealth.

Meanwhile, on the stove... the white beans that soaked overnight begin their transformation. Fresh thyme, sage, rosemary and garlic from the garden (and still flourishing inside the hoop houses!) bring a deep, hearty flavor to the sauce. The aroma fills the house. Homey. Warming. The fresh sage smells like Christmas. Recipe on page 65 of Alice Waters book.

It's really a wonderful side dish that will be perfect for dinner and there was plenty enough to share a large mason jar full with a dear neighbor who is a shut-in. Sharing it is as good as eating it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Warming Winter Beans

White beans soaking on the kitchen counter before the window. Is there anything better than a bowl of warm winter beans on a cold blustery day?


I'm trying out a recipe from a cook book in my audition pile. White beans with garlic and herbs. A very nice, straightforward recipe. It's in Alice Waters new cookbook, "In The Green Kitchen" which was on the New York Times best cookbooks of the year list.

I baked the soda bread recipe from the book for last night's dinner and had a failure with it. Perhaps because I didn't have real buttermilk and made the standard substitute. (Milk with a bit of vinegar.) I also added some yoghurt. The bread came out very dense, with a salty, spongy interior. Nonetheless it was a rustic addition to the delicious carrot soup. Onward. Tomorrow, beans.

You can't really fail with beans, can you? Especially when you have a nifty cast iron bean pot, like the Lodge Bean Pot. This is my go to pot. I use it for everything. It's permanently situated on the back burner of the stove.

Perfect for two-person stews, no-knead bread, deep frying, beans and sauces, or anything else that needs a smaller pot. I love my Lodge bean pot. Love, love, love it!

Jim Lahey's no-knead bread always comes out of it perfect as a wonderfully round little boule. (Always impresses guests.) And so does everything else I cook in it.

I really encourage everyone to add this baby to your cooking arsenal. It'll never die and can be passed down through the generations. The only thing you don't want to do with cast iron is take it from a hot source and plunge it into a cold source (like stovetop to ice bath.) It could potentially crack or warp. Other than that, it'll last forever. You can get them directly from Lodge. Or through Amazon, if you are so inclined. I picked mine up at The Great Indoors.

I wash all my cast iron cookware with hot water and a stiff brush. No soap ever! If crusties are on the inside a dose of coarse salt with a stiff brush does magic. I always dry my cast iron on the stovetop under a low heat. It takes only a minute or two. And, if the shine is looking peaked, I add a little oil to maintain the non-stick quality of the pan.

Lodge cast iron comes already pre-seasoneded and ready to use (wash with hot water first) but inevitably someone in the household, who takes on the dish washing chores, will subject it to soap and water. That will reduce the seasoning and nonstick properties and possibly even cause it to rust. If you ever get rust, it can be remedied. A little light scouring with fine steel wool will remove it, then you must season the pot again. Dose it with a fine mist of oil and leave in a 350 degree oven for about 90 minutes and you're good to go.

Sauerkraut... finally

Bottled up two quart jars of sauerkraut yesterday and now I can finally get the fermenting/eating system going. This amount came from a single cabbage.

I decided to experiment with a smaller batch after an unfortunate mishap with the first batch. Something I neglected to report on.

Yes, within only two weeks I managed to smash the lid on my !!! brand new !!! Harsch crock while taking a typically impatient peak at the progress. I should've just left it alone. Air can be an enemy to fermentation.

Although I tried to cover it all up with a plate, the air found its mark and a bloom of mold took over.

I've read on other blogs that you can scoop off the mold and dig out the perfect sauerkraut beneath, but since this was my first homegrown batch I didn't want to chance it. Instead I disposed of the whole operation, sent away for a new lid, and began anew. Miracle Exclusives sells authentic Gartopf lid replacements, if anyone else out there needs one.

I'm really looking forward to mashed potatoes mixed with homemade kraut tonight. Comfort food. Yum.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Auditioning Books

These are the current gardening and cooking books in the audition pile right now. It's an ever revolving selection. I spend two weeks with a book before deciding whether it will be added to my permanent collection or not. Enter the library. My partner in this endeavor. (I had to seriously take myself in hand around book purchasing after recently disposing of over three hundred books, many unread.) Hence the new winnowing process, which, I might add, works brilliantly. If I don't find myself drawn to the book repeatedly, it's not a keeper. The quality of mercy is not strained. I do find I'm wanting more manuals now. More building and planting instructions, more recipes and more how tos. Less fluff, more meat.

The new online system of ordering loaners from any library in town and having them automatically delivered to your local library free or charge is absolution perfection. The library even emails me when my selections are ready for pickup. I feel so pampered. It's often quicker then Amazon, definitely cheaper and a benefit I already pay taxes for. I'm getting my money's worth from the library these days. Music, DVDs, periodicals and books. It's like a spa for the mind.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Corkscrew Hazel

Hazel has lost her leaves for the winter, revealing her resplendent inner beauty beneath.

I absolutely love this twisted sister. The droopy leaves in the summer have people constantly asking if the bush is dying, but no, no, no, no, Hazel is very much alive. She's just more complex in her countenance than the commonly perfect bushes that surround her. I think people are like this too. The more they divert from the norm, the more interesting they are.

Artists recognize Corkscrew Hazel's true beauty. Her distorted branches are a favorite of florists. But it turns out veggies love her too.

I used some of Hazel's crooked branches as stakes for my peas this year. The peas instantly gravitated to her, ignoring the straight and narrow bamboo stakes that came first.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

S510 Food Safety Modernization Act

The Senate has passed the S510 bill. If you don't know how this will impact your CSA, local farmer's market or organic and raw food producer then start googling S510 my friends. Never was it more important to plant a victory garden.

A great book to get your victory garden going is Carleen Madigan's "Back Garden Self-Sufficiency." I highly recommend this manual (again). It's in my personal library and I refer to it often. I was reading Madigan's chapter on chicken keeping last night (a goal of mine impeded only by current city ordinances outlawing it) and was struck by something that I had never considered before. Allergies. Madigan raises the issue and I choked on my enthusiasm for the first time. Yes, unfortunately I'm allergic to chicken feathers, so chicken keeping may not be the total joy I am imagining, but I'm not ruling out the option. I still dream of strolling into my own yard to pluck fresh eggs from a coop every morning.

Meanwhile I must content myself with my meager indoor winter garden that is plodding along under the grow lights. Below, the lettuce continues to sprout.

Beets are doing well.

The strawberries are content.

And to my surprise the grape vines have begun to bud and leaf.

My hope is to at least get enough Mesclun lettuce to keep us in fresh homegrown salads for the cold months.

Which brings me to Christmas shopping. I've started to think about gifting indoor garden sets like the Aerogarden hydroponic unit for my soil phobic peeps. The crusade continues...