Sunday, April 29, 2012

Strawberry Fruit Leather

Last month I posted about making fruit leather with frozen peaches put up from last year.  You can make fruit leather with just about any frozen, canned, or fresh fruit you have on hand, but in my opinion, the very best fruit leather is made with freshly picked strawberries.  The strawberries consistently provide me with a thin chewy leather, perfectly sweet, slightly tart, and flecked with tiny seeds for added texture.  My family has already been through three batches of this leather (I gave one to my niece who eats them after school each day), and we are in need of another.  We complain each time that the oven does not hold enough trays (only three) at a time, which I am sure calls for a move to a new house with a larger kitchen and multiple ovens.  Unfortunately, my husband does not take his fruit leather that seriously.  Oh well, one can dream.

To make one tray of leather, you will need a cookie sheet with sides.  Mine are approximately 13 x 17 inches.  You can use smaller sizes; you will just have to use less strawberries or dry a little longer.  You begin by lining your pan with plastic wrap, making sure to smooth it out as much as possible and leave an overhang on each side.  Then you process your strawberries with a little sugar and Fruit Fresh or lemon juice.  You can go with no sugar at all depending on the sweetness of your berries.  The mixture gets poured onto the sheet pan and spread into an even layer.  Then it is dried in the oven at 140 degrees or using the drying cycle (if you have one) for approximately 12 hours.  Sometimes mine takes a little longer, sometimes less.  I usually dry it overnight, and it is ready the next morning.

Once dry, you can cut it into strips of your choice.  I opt for a fruit roll-up size.  Roll it in wax paper, and tie it with twine.  The rolls store well in a tightly sealed container for weeks (some people say even months, but mine never last that long). 

Strawberry Fruit Leather- makes 1 sheet

When I make this leather, I generally make as much as my oven will hold at a time.  I simply make one batch, pour it onto a sheet pan, and then repeat.  You can also use a dehydrator if you have one.  Your oven must be able to hold a consistent temperature around 140 degrees or have a drying feature.  You can also add as little or as much sugar as you desire, but remember that the flavors and sugars will concentrate and become sweeter during drying.  I generally use anywhere from 2 tablespoons to a scant 1/4 cup per tray. 

2 cups washed and hulled strawberries (you can also use frozen)
1/8 tsp Fruit Fresh or lemon juice
1/4 cup (or less) granulated sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries

Place your oven on 140 degrees or set it on the drying cycle.  Line a 13 x 15 or 13 x 17 inch cookie sheet (with sides) with plastic wrap making sure to leave an overhang.  Smooth the plastic wrap out as much as possible and set aside. 

In the meantime, process the berries, Fruit Fresh, and sugar in a food processor until completely smooth.  Pour the mixture onto the lined cookie sheet and spread it out to an even layer.  Place the pan in the oven and dry anywhere from 8-18 hours.  Mine usually takes about 12 hours, but I begin checking after 8.  When ready, it will feel only slightly tacky and there will be no indentation present when you gently press on it in the center of the pan. 

Remove the leather from the oven and allow it to cool 5 minutes.  Pull the leather away from the plastic wrap, cut it in strips, and wrap in in waxed paper for storage.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Boiled Peanuts

Boiled peanuts are a distinctly southern snack.  In fact, depending on where you are from, you may have never heard of boiled peanuts.  Or if you have heard of them, you may have turned your nose up at the very thought.  They are one of those foods that you either love or hate, and many people decide they hate them before they give them a fair shake. 

In North Carolina, boiled peanuts can often be found in some of the strangest places.  Growing up, my family always looked forward to eating them as a snack on trips to the mountains.  They used to be very popular roadside snacks, and they can still be found being sold in a large pot on the side of the road in smaller, rural towns.  In the city I live in now, there is a man who sets up to sell them each Saturday by the train tracks next to his house, and a gas station I stop at frequently sells them from a slow cooker throughout the day. 

Boiled peanuts are very different from roasted ones.  Since peanuts are a legume, they are soft and bean-like when cooked.  Most people like them on the salty side, and the best way to eat them is to use your teeth to crack the shell open just enough to suck all the salty juice out.  Then you can finish cracking and eat the nuts themselves.  They are soft and creamy, and they are equally good hot or cold.  The shells of boiled peanuts are discarded (don't be like a friend of mine who tried to eat them only to find that they were tough). 

This is what the green peanuts look like when you buy them.
To make boiled peanuts, you must use raw peanuts.  These are often called green peanuts at the store and farmers' market.  They will need to be cooked anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, and you will know they are ready by testing them.  The peanuts inside the shell should be soft and tender.  At that point, they will need to cool in the cooking liquid to soak up the salty brine.  

Boiled Peanuts

This is more a method than a recipe.  The amount of salt and water will depend on how many pounds of peanuts you purchase.  A good rule of thumb is to use a heaping 1 tablespoon of salt to every quart of water.  When I boil two pounds of peanuts, I generally use about 2 quarts of water and two heaping tablespoons of salt.  This gives me a little over two quart jars of cooked peanuts.    

2 pounds green peanuts in their shells, washed
kosher salt  

Place the peanuts in a large pot.  Cover by about 1 inch with water.  Add 1 heaping tablespoon salt for every quart of water you use.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours until the peanuts inside the shells are tender.  Remove the pot from the heat and allow the peanuts to cool at least 30 minutes to soak up some of the brine.  Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold.  Some people drain the peanuts, but I prefer to keep them in the remaining liquid when I put them in jars.  They will keep about a week in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Strawberry Pie with a Buttery Crust

There is nothing like a pie made with first-of-the-season local strawberries.  I have been eating some form of this pie all my life, and I have been making a version ever since the first strawberry season of my marriage.  It is made with fresh berries, cornstarch, and flavored gelatin.  Depending on whose version you eat, the consistency of this pie changes.  Mine is on the looser side of things but not at all runny.  It is jelled enough to hold its shape when cut but does not have the consistency or texture of Jello.  I am really not a big fan of Jello.  The Jello is there to help it set up a bit and to give the "goo" (I'm not sure what else to call it) a strawberry flavor. 

My mother-in-law makes a memorable strawberry pie, and she cuts her berries up in the filling.  I make mine according to a recipe in Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies (which, by the way, is an indispensable book with yummy pie recipes).  In the version of the recipe I follow, I leave the berries whole.  We like getting a whole, juicy berry each time we take a bite.  Either way, it is delicious, and you can cut the berries into slices if you prefer.  

The buttery crust is essential, and homemade is definitely the way to go.  I use kosher salt in the crust which gives it a nice contrast to the sweet filling.  Since the strawberries are the key ingredient, use the best locally grown berries you can find.  This is not the place for grocery store berries which lack the flavor and juiciness of local ones.  It is also not the place for frozen berries because they will be too watery and will make for a soggy pie.  So, go pick some berries and start baking.  Strawberry season will be gone before you know it.

Strawberry Pie-  makes two 9-inch pies

This recipe is adapted from Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies.  The crust recipe is an all-butter crust I have been using for years.  Both recipes make enough for two pies.  If you only want one pie, make half the crust and use half the berries.  It will be a little more difficult to make only half the goo since it uses one box of gelatin, so you will have extra goo leftover. 

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting counter
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar
2 sticks cold butter, cut into small pieces
approximately 4 tbsp ice cold water, plus more as needed
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 (3 oz) package strawberry gelatin
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 pounds fresh strawberries, washed and hulled

To make the crusts:  Combine flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to blend. You can also mix the dough by hand. Add the butter to the processor and pulse several times until it resembles coarse crumbs. Alternately, cut in the butter using a pastry blender. Add the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together and forms a ball.  You may need to add up to 4 additional tablespoons to get your dough to hold together, but be careful not to add too much.  Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten into disks, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill the dough for about an hour. 

Remove the dough from the refrigerator five minutes before attempting to roll it out.  Roll the dough into a circle about 1/8 inch thick.  Gently roll the dough up on a rolling pin, transfer to a pie plate, and unroll.  Trim the edges, leaving enough dough to just hang over the edge of the pie plate.  Tuck the edges under and crimp the edges using your thumb and forefinger or a fork.  Repeat with the other crust and pie plate.  Place the crusts back in the refrigerator to chill another 30 minutes before baking to keep them from shrinking in the oven. 

To pre-bake the crusts, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line the crusts with foil filled with pie weights or dried beans.  Bake the lined crusts for 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven, remove the weights and foil, and continue baking 10-15 more minutes until golden brown.  Cool completely before filling.

To make the filling:  Combine the water, sugar, cornstarch, and gelatin in a saucepan on medium high heat.  Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil.  Continue to whisk until the mixture is thickened and forms a thin coat on the back of a spoon.  When the filling it ready, you should be able to draw a line down the back of the coated spoon with your finger and the line will remain clean.  Cool the mixture until it is just warm.  

Place the strawberries in each of your two pie crusts, pointed end up, by starting in the middle and working your way out in circles.  Pour half the gelatin mixture over the strawberries in each pie and chill for at least two hours until the filling is set.  Serve alone or with whipped cream.      


Friday, April 13, 2012

Country Ham, Kale, and Potato Hash

One of the perks to being a teacher is spring break.  I have been on spring break this week, and it has been fantastic.  I have gardened, I have been antiquing, I have visited several farmers' markets, cleaned...the list goes on and on.  I have not had much down time which is just the way I like it.  One thing I love about time off is being at home to make lunch for myself rather than being relegated to the position of the (dare I say it?) peanut butter and jelly sandwich eater that I am much the school week?  Yes, I do sometimes have leftovers to eat at school instead of pb&j, but even the best leftovers cannot compare with a home cooked, wholesome meal prepared at the lunch hour and eaten in peace and quiet at my own leisure. 

This recipe is a great example of one such meal.  Yesterday, I found myself in front of the computer (doing work for school) but enjoying the ability to work at my own pace when lunch time rolled around.  I had no idea what I was going to eat, so I rummaged through the pantry and the refrigerator until I came across what I thought could be the makings of a decent meal.  Well, let me tell you, it was not only decent, it was downright tasty.  

It began with diced country ham browned in a little olive oil with an onion, some garlic, and a sprinkling of red peppers flakes.  A bunch of kale was added to the mix and cooked until it was wilted.  In the meantime, a handful of creamy Yukon Gold potatoes were boiled until just tender.  Once all the components were ready, the potatoes were drained and added to the ham and kale mixture to create a sort of hash.  A sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese finished everything off nicely.  The only thing that could have made it better would have been a fried egg (sunny side up, of course) on top. I can't wait for the leftovers tomorrow!

Country Ham, Kale, and Potato Hash- serves 3-4

The ingredients and quantities in this recipe could easily be altered.  County ham is difficult find in some areas of the country.  It is salty which eliminates the need for a lot of added salt.  If country ham is not available, use regular ham but add a little more salt to compensate.  Bacon could also be used rather than the country ham (which would make it similar to Orecchiette with Kale and Bacon).  Alternately, sausage would be a delicious, but different, addition. Spinach or other greens could easily replace the kale. 

1 tbsp olive oil
4 oz diced country ham
1/2 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 bunch kale, torn and washed
1 1/2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled if necessary) cut into 3/4 inch pieces
1 tsp salt, divided (or more or less to taste)
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Place a pot of water on high heat.  Add 1/2 tsp salt to the water along with the potatoes.  Bring the water to a boil, reduce heat, and allow to simmer 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are just tender.

Once the potatoes are almost ready, heat the olive oil in a skillet on medium heat.  Add the country ham and onion and cook until the onion is translucent and tender.  Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 30 seconds more.  Add the kale and cook 1-2 minutes until the kale is wilted and almost tender.  Taste and add up to 1/2 tsp salt as needed.  Drain the pototoes and add them to the kale mixture being careful not to break them into pieces.  Stir gently to incorporate all ingredients.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Serve topped with a sprinkling of grated cheese.      

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Red Wine Vinegar

Well, folks, the vinegar I started back in February is finally ready.  In case you missed the beginning of the process, the vinegar is made from homemade muscadine wine given to me over the holidays.  The wine was mixed with water and a vinegar mother and has been hangin' out on my kitchen counter for around 10 weeks.  It has been a time consuming yet hands-off process, and it was so worth it.  Over the course of time, several mothers formed, became heavy and sank to the bottom which gave me a good indication that everything was going smoothly.    

I tasted the vinegar about a week ago not really knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised.  For a person who is not fond of store-bought red wine vinegar, this was a revelation.  It was acidic but not overpowering, and it had a depth of flavor that those store-bought varieties don't have.  It actually had a taste.  It was crisp, fruity, and rich, and I got carried away and sipped three spoonfuls of it before deciding I had better gain control over myself.  I allowed it to sit for one more week, partly because I didn't have time to deal with it and partly because I wanted it to be a little sharper.  One week later, and I am proud to say that this is the best red wine vinegar I have ever had. 

I opted to skip the step of pasteurization.  If you make a lot of vinegar and will not use it in four to five months it is a good idea to pasteurize it by heating it in a non-reactive saucepan for 30 minutes at 155 degrees.  It can then be poured into sterilized bottles and kept indefinitely.  Unpasteurized, it will not keep as long, but I think I can use the amount I made in a reasonable length of time.  I did strain the vinegar through coffee filters to remove any sediment as well as pieces of leftover vinegar mother.  This is not required but will give you a clearer vinegar.  

The muscadine wine is sweeter than other red wines which makes the finished vinegar fruitier and sweeter as well.  I was eager to see what the vinegar would taste like with a dryer red wine, so I left 2 cups of vinegar in the jar and added 2 cups red wine and 1 cup water.  I am starting the process over again and will feed this vinegar (as I did the previous vinegar) in 1 1/2 weeks.  The whole process will take about 10 more weeks, and then I will be able to compare the two vinegars side-by-side.  To read more about the process of making your own vinegar, check out this fantastic article by Food and Wine with step-by-step instructions. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

First Strawberries

There is no food that says spring quite like the strawberry.  Each year, we anxiously anticipate their arrival and mourn their hasty departure.  The wonderful thing about this year is that the weather has been so warm that strawberries are making their appearances about two weeks early here in my part of NC, and that means that I woke up this morning with one thing on my to get my hands on some. 

Now, each year I purchase several flats of berries, but (and I am a little embarrassed to admit this) I have not picked my own berries since I was a kid.  I am not sure why.  Maybe it was my long-time hatred of insects (which has slowly decreased with age) or maybe it was that it just seemed so much easier to buy them from the farmers' market.  Either way, I have changed my ways.  Today, I went to a strawberry farm just outside the city and was converted into a pick-your-own fan. 

We really went to get a box of pre-picked berries, but once we got there, we thought, what the heck!  We grabbed a cardboard box made to hold 5 pounds of fruit and set out down the aisles of raised strawberry beds.  It was a little muddy since they ran the sprinklers last night to keep the berries from freezing, but it was so worth it.  As we walked the rows, we saw tiny bits of red peaking out from beneath leaves.  Some were not yet fully ripe, but oh the excitement when we came upon those that were.  It was like finding little hidden jewels.  We were quick to show off the best ones we found, and it developed into a little competition to see whose row had the most ripe and ready berries to pick.  I think my husband won, but all the berries went into the same box, so does it really matter?  I think not. 

When we got back to the car, I grabbed a berry, sat down in the driver's seat, and slowly ate it, savoring the taste of spring.  There is nothing like a strawberry.

Now, I realize I should post a recipe made with my bounty, but (as of yet) I cannot bring myself to do anything with them other than wash and eat. 

I hope you enjoy your first strawberry when it arrives.  Savor it and make it last as long as possible.  It will be so worth the wait!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Spaghetti with Garlic Anchovy Oil and Toasted Breadcrumbs

It is difficult for me to spend a lot of time in the kitchen this time of year because I really want to be in the yard planting things and watching them grow.  I love watching the vegetables in the garden change daily, and my husband says that he feels like we have taken up residence at the plant nursery.  So when dinner time rolls around, I often have very little motivation to get in the kitchen for anything overly tasking or time-consuming.  What I really want are quick, satisfying meals ready in minutes which also yield leftovers for weekly lunches.  One solution?  Spaghetti with Garlic Anchovy Oil and Toasted Breadcrumbs.  

This dish is a variation on the classic Aglio e Olio.  It can be prepared in the time it takes to boil pasta, and it is simplicity at its best.  It is also the perfect meal to prepare when your pantry is dwindling.  The garlic permeates the oil without being overpowering, and the anchovies provide an indistinguishable depth of flavor.  The lemon adds a subtle tang while the chile flakes provide a nice kick.  The only thing that makes a bowl of carbs even better?  More carbs in the form of toasted breadcrumbs.  You can certainly leave these off, but I think they add an interesting texture to the pasta.  You can toast your own bread and process it or you can crush some leftover croutons as I did.  Just remember that a dish is only as good as its individual parts, especially when the dish is as simple as this one.  Use the best quality ingredients you have on hand.   

Spaghetti with Garlic Anchovy Oil and Toasted Breadcrumbs- serves 4
adapted from Bon App├ętit 

1/3 cup good quality olive oil plus more if necessary
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tbsp anchovy paste
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp red chile flakes
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup toasted breadcrumbs
1 lb spaghetti

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the spaghetti and cook until just tender.  Remove from the pot and strain.

In the meantime, heat the olive oil on medium low heat.  Add the garlic and anchovy paste stirring to blend the paste with the olive oil.  Cook 2 minutes until the garlic is beginning to color.  Add the lemon juice and zest along with the chile flakes.  Cook 1 minute more.  Toss the spaghetti with the olive oil sauce and grated cheese.  If the pasta soaks up the sauce too quickly, add a drizzle of oil to finish.  Serve topped with toasted breadcrumbs