I am back! “When Life Gives You Lemons….”

Did you miss me?  I know there have been times where I haven’t posted for a while, and had some legitimate excuses, but folks, this time, we have had some kind of several months.  The day after I published my last real blog post (this one about places in Downtown Detroit) in early July, I was admitted to the hospital for a very unexpected appendectomy.  While in the throes of recovering from that, we had the unexpected death of my father in law’s partner, in the midst of a visit from “the Hungarians”.  Shortly after, in Michigan, and several other states, we had some of the most catastrophic and destructive flooding ever seen.  Since we had moved to a new home, you would think we were immune, but we weren’t.  It wouldn’t have been so bad except that the recovery from that revealed a severe mold issue in the house we were renting.  Flash forward a few weeks and we were moving, to get away from the mold.  And that leaves me where we are now.  In a beautiful house that we plan to call home for a long, long time. (Note here to the Hubby, if I have to pack and unpack this kitchen again in anything less than 3 years, I am throwing it all out and starting over!)

So, you see, when life hands you lemons, sometime there is a gorgeous pitcher of fresh, tasty, icy cold, bright yellow lemonade right around the corner!  I can’t say this past several months were easy, but we are both happier and healthier than we have been in a while!  So, take that life!

I just got the gas line installed for the stove, so there has been sporadic cooking in the last week or so, mostly to keep my father in law from starving, so no cooked posts, but I felt that this past few months might warrant a nice blog post that focuses on some food related things we don’t often think are easy to do.  We’re at the time of year where we start to bundle up and prep for winter, not to mention Thanksgiving, and “our birthday” as my niece likes to call it.  So, I want to talk and post a little about the reason I started this blog.

As the years pass and this blog gets older and older, I have come to realize that I really do have a passion for food, and other people not only appreciate it, but also take inspiration from it. I never could understand why people would look at me and say “Wow, you make your own pasta/pie crust/cheese?  I could never do that, it’s just too hard/time consuming/scary.”  I want to scream at the top of my lungs: It isn’t hard!  There are so many methods it’s used when you cook,  but most of them not are not difficult.  If they were, they would never have survived over the years to still be in use today!  What I mean is, it’s not just the act of providing nutrition for you and your loved ones, it’s an art that anyone with a little bit of time and patience can easily master.  Seriously, as scattered as I am most of the time, I can whip up a batch of just about anything with the right ingredients and enough time (I stop being so benevolent at tripe… I just can not make myself do that.)

For example, think about pickling.  Not the vinegar and heat based kind, which is delicious in and of itself, but the lacto-fermentation kind.  You know, those tantalizingly sour Kosher pickles that you only see in the very best deli’s?  Or in “Crossing Delancey”, for those of you old enough to remember “The Pickle Guy”. Honestly, it only takes a handful of ingredients and some careful sanitation and prep and once it’s done (which takes mere moments) you put it aside and let nature take it’s course.  That’s it!  No more paying $8 for a jar of “Bubbies” pickles (Elizabeth, really?), you can do it too and it’s so simple!  This is why I started and continue this blog!  I want everyone to be as passionate about this stuff as I am, because you CAN do it!

Look at this beautiful jar of deliciousness!  Don’t you want to reach out and take crisp, sour bite?

my mouth is watering just looking at them!
my mouth is watering just looking at them!

I am going to give you the simple rules for making these easy pickles, and I swear, you’ll be a convert in no time!  All you need to remember is that everything must be clean and sterilized…. but having said that, your dishwasher will do that for you.

A few notes before I dive in.  These are the sour “kosher” type pickles, not the vinegar based Vlasic type.  So, once you do all the prep, you simply wait a few weeks, typically three, and you’ll have full soured pickles.  If you want half soured, you go only a week and a half.

How you flavor these is entirely up to your taste.  I added garlic, mustard and coriander seed, along with whole black peppercorns.  If you want to use traditional pickling spice, do that.  The one thing you have to be sure of when doing this, and I can’t stress it enough, is keep everything as clean and dry as possible before it goes into the jar.

After doing this several times, I have come to develop the method below.  These instructions are tried and tested, and I would encourage you not to skimp on them, until you’ve made your own a few times, then you can experiment.

Homemade Lacto-fermented Pickles

  • 5 tablespoons of pickling salt (you can find it in any good supermarket or an Ace/Aco Hardware store)
  • 2 quarts of distilled water (important note below)
  • 8 – 12 pickling cucumbers (Persian or small thin skinned are best)
  • 6 – 8 cloves of garlic peeled and cracked (not minced or sliced)
  • large head of fresh dill, or tablespoon of dried
  • chili flakes, mustard seeds, black pepper corns, cloves or 3 tablespoons commercially produced pickling spice
  • 4 Mason jars, with lid inserts
  • small bowls or flat rock to weigh things down
  • 6 – 8 oak/grape/horseradish leaves (optional)

In a large pourable container, combine the water and salt.  Stir well and allow the salt to dissolve, and set aside.  The reason the water can’t be tap water is that it contains chlorine, along with other additives.  Chlorine is a deterrent to the fermentation process, and so while tap water will work, your results will take at least 4 times longer, and will be less pleasing in its quality.  You may end up with hollow pickles, or pickles that are too soft.  A note about the oak/grape leaves, these are to help the pickles be crunchy and hold their shape, but again, it’s optional, so don’t sweat that detail.

Prepare your jars and lids.  Be sure to remove any stem or end bits from the cucumbers, and be sure they’re bruise and cut free.  Place as many cucumbers in the jars as will fit, allowing a small amount of water to flow between them.  Pop in the garlic cloves and sprinkle in the pickling spice or spices you choose, evenly amongst the jars.  Make sure you have a dark area out in the kitchen that the jars can be stored for a few weeks.  Once the jars are prepped and full of veggies and spices, pour over enough salt water to completely cover them.  They may start to float, but we will fix that shortly.   Once everything is covered, take the grape leaves (1 – 2 per jar) and cover the contents of the jars, tucking in the sides to cover everything.  Over that, place a/several small rocks, or the small bowls with the bowl side up, over the grape leaves, this is to weigh everything down and keep them covered in water, which is critical.  Place the lids and inserts over the jar and tighten well, so the rocks/bowls are pushing it all down into the brine.  Set the jars in a cool dark area of your kitchen or pantry, away from light, and where the temperature is consistent.  Start the wait.

Everything has to be under the liquid so no air is introduced in to the fermentation process, so that is critical.  Keep an eye on the jars, and after 3 days, burp them (open the lids to let any gas out) and check to see that everything is still covered with water.  You can add a little more salt water if they’re not covered but you shouldn’t have to. Going forward check and burp them each day.  As the days go by, you may notice the liquid in the jar bubbling, and the cucumbers changing in color from bright green to a more drab olive.  You can skim off any light mold that might form on the top of the liquid, but if the odor is bad, or there is slime along the top of the jars, discard them and sterilize the jars. you should see a slight foam, or nothing at all on the top.

After 2 weeks, open the jars and take a good smell.  If they smell sour to you, and good, try a small piece to check the fermentation.  At this point, it’s up to you how sour you want them.  If you like them here, remove the bowls/rocks from the jars, tighten them well and put in the fridge.  If not, let them keep going, and check periodically.  Once they reach the peak of your taste, remove the weights and put them in the fridge and eat at your leisure.  A note about pickled garlic, YUM!  It’s amazing what the flavor is like.

Now, once you feel you have mastered this, you can pretty much pickle any veggie with this method.  I find that asparagus is just wonderful, as is cauliflower, peppers and pearl onions, even mushrooms.  And, as mentioned before, you can make these spicy with chile flakes, or play around with the spices, cumin, cinnamon for a more Persian feel.  These also have some great health benefits.  They’re full of beneficial gut bacteria, and are a super way to get some liquid into your diet that isn’t water.

Oh, the possibilities!  Enjoy, and leave your comments below!

No pressure!

How many of you live outside of the Eastern seabord?  Ok, so of you, how many have heard of something called mostaccioli?  Am I wrong when I say that it’s the poor younger brother of baked ziti?  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good baked pasta.  My issue here is that the mostaccioli I speak of is a kind of bland, basic, tasteless staple at Michigan weddings, and in hot bars.  Truly, it’s not worth all your effort to turn out something so bland and kinda boring.

So, Michiganders, and Midwesterners, please see below for a few easy, and very tasty tips to turn your mostaccioli into a mouth watering and delicious baked pasta dish.  I am listing them as DO’S and DON’TS.

  • DON’T refrain from salting your pasta water.  The Italian tradition says your pasta water should taste as salty as the sea.  Listen to them, if anyone knows of what they speak, as far as food, it’s the Italians!
  • DO add luscious cheese and some good ricotta to your casserole.  Now, I am making an assumption here that most people know how to make baked ziti, or mostaccioli?  If not, I’ll give you a run down at the end of this list.
  • DON’T over boil your pasta before you put it in the dish. (Self explanatory.)
  • DO add vegetables, and all kinds of meat or proteins to your dish.  As a matter of fact, I use the very best jarred sauce I can find, or you can make your own.  (You hear me?  No sweet, sugary jarred Prego here, please!)
  • DO be liberal with seasoning, with the exception of salt.  Remember, you have made your pasta cooking water “like the sea” so the salt will be an inherent part of your dish.  I usually add ricotta cheese, and salt that rather liberally too, so there is that salt to remember.  Too much salt isn’t what you’re going for here, it’s mellow, cheesy and luscious.  (Maybe I should just call this Luscious Bake.)
  • DO use a large enough pan.  I was lucky enough to be gifted a set of new bakeware this Christmas (Thanks, Pop!) and it is non-stick and comes with silicone inserts, so no need for the pot holders or oven mitts to get it out of the oven!! My point is, even cooking and enough crunchy brown stuff to go around makes for maximum deliciousness!
  • My final DON’T is, DON’T NOT make this!  It’s so good, and so easy, and will feed you and your mid-sized family for several days.  This, a salad, and perhaps a good glass of wine and some bread?  That’s what will keep you warm in these ridiculously cold days!

Sooo, I forgot to mention above, have you heard of ziti?  Don’t we all know what that is?  It’s a tubular pasta, with ridges, although, I have to say that might be rigatoni, I’ll have to check my pasta shapes book.  But, you can use either, you can also use any stuffed pasta, like tortellini  (I would refrain from ravioli, simply because it will bust open and make a mess, trust me on this one)  I am also imagining how great this would be with elbows, spirals, pretty much anything that will catch the filling and sauce.

Here is the basic recipe.  You can add anything you like, but the bake time should remain fairly the same.  If you’re super adventurous, you can use fresh pasta.  In that case cut back the pasta cooking time, but then you’re probably experienced enough to know when fresh pasta is ready to go.

Bep’s All Purpose Baked Pasta (aka Baked Ziti)

Preheat your oven to 350°.  Prep a large baking dish, about 12 inches long by 3 deep.  You can rub it with olive oil, but you really don’t have to.

  • 1 pound uncooked pasta (ziti, rigatoni, etc) Usually one box/bag
  • salt, olive oil
  • 1 large jar spaghetti sauce (or 4 cups of your homemade. I really prefer Newman’s Own, or Barilla here, but it’s up to you) (*Not a paid sponsor)
  • 1 15 oz tub of ricotta cheese (whole or skim, makes no difference)
  • 1 whole egg, per container of ricotta (you can leave out, but it makes a huge flavor difference)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 16 oz shredded mozzarella (I have used provolone too, really good)
  • 8 oz Parmesan, shredded or powdery

Any or all of the below:

  • 1 pint cooked mushrooms (sliced thin, sauteed in olive oil with garlic until soft)
  • 1 jar artichoke hearts, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach (or a packet of baby spinach leaves), washed and sliced fine (if using baby leave, just leave them whole)
  • Bunch of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, sage, to taste) washed, dried, chopped
  • Meat (1 lb ground meat, chicken cooked, pork sausage diced, you get the idea)

Bring a large pot full of water to the boil.  When it comes to the boil, add enough salt so the water is well and truly briney, taste it (probably about a tablespoon of Kosher, 2 tsp of table salt).  Add a good glug of olive oil, and let it come back to the boil.  Once it’s rolling boiling, add the dried pasta.  Cook it to the packet’s instructions, but my rule of thumb is, stir it until they’re all rolling around in the water.  Once you make the other preparations, it will be ready to drain and sauce (close to 12 minutes.) Now, I said above, don’t overcook it, and I mean that.  You should feel slight resistance when you taste and bit into it, but not crunch, just a nice solid resistance to your teeth.  It should above all be cooked through.

While your pasta is cooking, place your ricotta cheese into a medium sized bowl and add the egg, beaten, and salt and pepper.  Use a fork to beat this until it’s fully incorporated.  Now, you will need to taste it for seasoning.  A little tiny bit of raw egg won’t kill you.  Adjust the salt and pepper so it tastes good to you.  At this point, if you’re using the herbs, add them, and beat again into the ricotta mixture.  Reserve a tablespoon or so for later.  Set this mixture aside.  Prep all the other ingredients you’re adding, if any.  Check if your pasta is done, and if it’s ready, drain it in a large colander. Once the pasta is drained, it’s really just a matter of plonking everything in the baking dish, adding cheese and baking it.

Leave your pasta to drain for a few minutes, and add the sauce to the bottom of your baking dish.  Add the pasta to the baking dish and mix until all the pasta is covered with sauce evenly.  Take 1/3 the ricotta mixture and mix it through the pasta and sauce.  If your using the other ingredients, with the exception of the artichokes, swirl them into the pasta now too.  Once everything in incorporated, add the artichokes to the ricotta and mix well.  Then spread the mixture evenly over the pasta, it doesn’t have to perfect, it will get covered with cheese at this point!.  Sprinkle the Parmesan over it, then cover the whole thing with the mozzarella.

Once everything is done, put it in your oven and bake for 45 minutes, and allow at least 10 minutes of cooling time to be able to cut through it.  If you reserved any herbs, sprinkle them over the plate when you’re serving.  For the two of us, this will make 3 dinners, or at least 2 dinners and 1 lunch.  It’s so good, and honestly, isn’t that easy?  Mostaccioli, FEH!!

This is what ours looked like tonight!

YUMMY!  And so easy!
YUMMY! And so easy!

For all of you that will be getting into Winter Storm Ivan, be safe, and don’t spend much time outside if you don’t absolutely have to!  Cook something instead!

Hopping on the spring artichoke bandwagon

I  have read several articles in the last few days about artichokes, in particular in the New York Times, but also in some of the blogs I read.  I’ll give the links to them at the end of this post.  My favorite is from my darling Mark Bittman, who did a great video about how to peel and slice and artichoke, and made it look super easy, which of course it is!  You can view the video and the accompanying article here, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/magazine/i-heart-artichokes.html?ref=dining.  But, I am going to share a seriously simple, very tasty, and easily customizable recipe.  I do encourage you to look at the video attached to figure out how to pare an artichoke, or I can give you the real basics here.

Artichokes are actually the flower of the artichoke plant, which is a thistle.  The “choke” at the heart of it is actually the flower, and when it blooms, it looks like this:

220px-Artichaut2

 

Isn’t that beautiful?  I especially love the little snails clinging to the one in this photo.  It reminds me of my Grandfather Lambert’s “snail zoo” which I got to “view” when I was small and visited his house in Ireland.  He had what I have to assume was an old wooden egg crate, since my Grandmother had raised chickens for years, and in each of the egg holders, there was a tiny snail.  He told me it was his snail zoo, and I of course believed him!  I remember my cousin Michael being very excited to show me this little snail farm, but I realize now he was in on the secret, my grandfather was fooling 8 year old me with!  I can only imagine Grandpa gathering all 2 dozen snails and putting them in this egg crate for me to just find.  Such a sweet memory of the both of them, both have passed now, Michael way too soon, sadly.

So, back to the recipe!  Artichokes are a labor intensive bunch.  They’re very tough in their older phase, and you have to do a fair deal of prep to cook them. The very young small ones you find this time of year are so tender, you can wash and quarter them and deep fry, or sauté without much other prep, choke and all.  

My big secret is acidulated water.  Which really just means water with acid in it, usually citrus juice or vinegar. It stops the cut surfaces from getting black.  I usually put the acid in the water, then use the cut, juiced citrus to rub the cut surface of the artichoke before I plop the whole lot in the water.  My other secret is to remember, green is pretty, but undesirable, and white or cream is desirable.  Now, if you decide to cook this baby whole, the prep is much easier.  You use a very sharp knife, and cut straight across the lower third of the globe.  When I say this I mean the third you should have left includes the stem.  Once you make this cut, you can trim the sharp edges of the remaining green outer leaves with a sharp scissor, and that’s about it.  You can steam it for about 30 – 40 minutes until a knife is easily instead into the bottom is easily inserted and removed.  Once they have cooled it enough to easily handle, you can use a spoon to gently maneuver between the innermost leaves and the heart, and leaver the choke out, scraping the flower heart gently away.  You can eat them with vinaigrette, or the California style, mayonnaise, scraping the leaves with your teeth.

This recipe requires slightly more work.  You do the cut into the lower third, but with a paring knife, you then peel the green carefully away, until you have nothing left but the choke and the heart.  I usually cut this in half, and then use the paring knife scrape and cut out the choke and dip the whole thing in the acidulated water until you’ve pared them all.  Once you do that, you can then slice them up and once again dip them into the acidulated water again.  

While the slices are sitting there waiting for you, combine 1 cup cold water, 1 cup acid (white wine vinegar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, lime juice or last resort would be white vinegar) in a non-reactive pot.  I have added fresh lime leaves, fresh basil, sliced garlic, red paper flakes, oregano, a little salt and a great deal of freshly ground pepper.  Add the drained slices of artichoke, and on medium heat, bring it to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 – 35 minutes, the slices will still be tender, but still whitish.  At this point, I usually cool the slices in the liquid and either bottle or freeze it.  I use the slices in salads, pretty much everything.  Tonight I made pizza.  The nice thing about this recipe is it’s virtually calorie free, but high in protein.  Who woulda thunk it?

Enjoy, and as usual, let me know what you think, and what you make with this recipe!

(Edit: Here are a few of the links I mentioned above:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/health/baked-orzo-with-artichokes-and-peas-recipes-for-health.html?src=recg

Warm potato salad with artichokes and herb dressing

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/health/farfalle-with-artichokes-peas-favas-and-onions-recipes-for-health.html?src=recg)