What’s Cooking Wednesday: Leek Butter, Fancy Melty Cheese, and New (Easier) Canning Rules

Leek Butter, aka The Best Thing Ever
If you find yourself with an overabundance of leeks this time of year, I beg you to try this: slice and rinse leeks to remove any dirt or grit. In a big pot over medium low heat, melt a good hunk of butter (I used about 1/2 a stick for four monster-sized leeks). Add leeks, stir to coat with the butter, and add a good pinch of salt. Cover and cook the leeks, stirring occasionally, until they’re very soft and let off much of their liquid. Uncover, turn the heat up slightly and continue stirring occasionally until all the liquid has cooked off and they are just starting to brown and stick to the bottom of the pot. Turn off the heat, cool, and store in the fridge or freezer.

I’ve been eating through this like it’s going out of style. I’ve been spreading it on egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, and can’t wait to stir it into soups, pasta, or just eat it with a spoon. It’s the simplest, most delicious thing I’ve eaten so far this fall and I can’t get enough.

Speaking of Grilled Cheese…
I will never, ever get around to doing this but oh I would love fancy cheese that melts perfectly like good old American cheese in its plastic wrappers.

New Streamlined Canning Process
Most of canning season is over, with the exception of apples and cranberries, but it’s still worth noting that the guidelines have changed to make things a little easier and less intimidating. Here’s the detailed information about the change but the short version is that you don’t have to simmer the lids in water and you don’t have to pre-sterilize the jars as long as the recipe you’re making calls for at least 10 minutes of processing.

I think both of these things make sense, and honestly, I’ve been doing both since I got comfortable with the process. I wash my lids with soap and set them in a bowl of water I ladle out of my canning pot when it starts simmering (one less pot on my stove) and I put my jars in the pot while it heats up just so everything is close to the same temperature (less chance of shock and a cracked jar that way).

I have no pictures of any of the above, but this seems empty without a picture so enjoy this sunset from my porch earlier this summer.

Crazy storms mean very cool sunsets #Chicago #edgewater #sunset #summerinthecity #summerstorms #summer #nofilter #lovemyporchview

What’s Cooking Wednesdays – Drunken Plums, Food Swaps, and the City of Light

In an effort to share a bit more often, I’m starting a weekly post of random food-ish related things going on: recipes I’m trying (or want to try), things I’ve learned, community goings-on, whatever’s interesting at the moment. With that said…

Gin and Juice
Did you know sloe gin is actually gin flavored with the juice of a fruit called a sloe? And sloes are related to plums? I discovered that after I went a little overboard at the sight of damson plums at the market. Damsons were my favorite new fruit discovery from the market last fall; tiny, dark purple plums that are terrible for eating out of hand but make the most amazing jam, possibly tied with the strawberry cranberry jam as my favorite.

Random Wednesday night projects: my most favorite jam (damson plum), attempting damson gin (apparently damsons are related to sloes, as in sloe gin), and the last 3 quarts of tomatoes #canning #gin #jam #puttingup #preserves #foodinjars #drinksinjars #eve

Anyways, I have two quart jars of of gin, sugar, and half-smashed damsons hanging out in my liquor cabinet waiting until Christmas, so we’ll see how this goes. I followed instructions from Nigel Slater and used 1/2 pound of plums, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2 cups of gin. If nothing else, the ruby red color is gorgeous.

New Home for Chicago Food Swaps
This past weekend I went to the first Chicago Food Swap at the new Fearless Food Kitchen and I can’t even say how excited I am about this space. There’s tons of natural light (hello giant skylight), the equipment and setup are great, it’s huge. I can’t wait to start taking classes at the Kitchen and possibly dabbling in teaching a class or two–they’re going to have a cool program called Taste Tests for community members to teach what they know.
New home of the Chicago Food Swap

For the swap I made jam tarts (adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who adapted her version from David Lobovitz) and a variation of one of my favorite fall chilis with black beans and orange zest (I added sweet potatoes and some different spices). I’m hoping to share my versions of both of these recipes soon as they both tasted and looked fantastic.

My goodies

Oui, Paris!
Not to bury the lede, but I’m going to Paris! For a few glorious days this fall, I’ll be indulging in all manner of treats (food and otherwise) and I. Cannot. Wait. I already have a list a mile long of places I want to check out, websites and books to read (The Greater Journey was nearly 600 pages of wonderful that I plowed through in a week), but I’m trying to rein in my planner side and remember to just go with the flow. I am practicing my macaron-eating though.

Very important to practice before the real thing #macaron #paris

End of summer garden update

Summer officially ends in a few hours, which made me realize I haven’t really talked about my garden since June. I’m calling this my “practice year”–for having no clue what I was doing, my garden did pretty well in its first year. Next year I’ll remember to fertilize much more often, be a little more on top of the weeds, and not be afraid to thin things out. The folks at Peterson Garden Project also deserve a lot of thanks for answering a ton of questions and saving my tomatoes!

How did your garden do?

June garden in full swing
First real slicing tomato
Wall of peas
Purple tomatillos

Successes Continue reading

Sharing food and my favorite recipe

In my post earlier this week, I talked about the challenges and possibilities of a home-cooked meal. It prompted some wonderful conversations that made me realize I didn’t clearly address the other half of this whole issue: the importance of how we share that meal with family, friends, and community. Conveniently this dovetails nicely with one of my all-time favorite recipes.


I, we, can talk all day long about how to make homemade meals possible given all the challenges and roadblocks in our society, making fresh food accessible, everything I said on Monday. But, I think, equally important is how we share food with the people around us.

If you’ve been to any one of my mom’s summer parties in the past, oh, 15 years, you probably recognize this. It’s a party stand-by, incredible payoff for minimal effort. Salmon is brined with salt and brown sugar, spiced with ginger, allspice, and bay. It’s coated with honey, freckled with peppercorns, and smoked with applewood for a perfect combination of sweet, salty, rich, spicy, spiced, and smoky. It’s heaven.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

As good as this salmon tastes (and if I haven’t made it clear, oh my god it is good), it’s memorable because of the people I associate it with. The family friends my mom got the recipe from, friends who also shared cookie day with us for more than two decades. My best friend and I sneaking a more than ample chunk to share at my mom’s house-warming and catching up on a rare summer day when we were both in town from our respective new cities (I know we are true and life-long friends because her first question when I mention a party at my mom’s is “Will the salmon be there?” She has her priorities straight). I remember it at big family parties on the bay and casual weekend barbecues, my high school graduation party, my sisters’ 18th birthdays.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

I know this as a dish to share with friends and family when warm weather comes, which is why it was the very first thing I knew I had to make for my own house-warming party in July (and a great excuse to test my new grill). Wrapped in its own little foil plate, it’s casual and low-fuss to serve and can even be made a few days in advance. But again, it’s what it represents with the people it brings together–circles of friends new and old sharing food and drinks and music on a warm, sunny, summer day.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercornsSmoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

My parents both showed me the importance of taking time to make a good home-cooked meal, they showed me how to cook. More than the food on the table, though, they showed me that it’s how and with whom that food is shared that matters; it’s about taking time and effort to acknowledge others. It was sitting at the dinner table with my dad and sisters talking about school, laughing about my teacher who wouldn’t let me wear an Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt because she thought the buckeye looked like pot. It was naming the best thing that happened during the day around the table with my mom.

Even on the affectionately named Hell Nights, when coordinating work schedules and activities for three kids meant dinner was picked up or eaten out, we still found a way to make the meal matter. I credit those Hell Night Chinese restaurant dinners with teaching me the math skills to calculate a tip. And that paper umbrellas and Shirley Temples are underrated.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

Yes, the quality of the food on the plate is important and I stand by everything I said Monday. But what I really, truly hope is that we continue to value the connections made over a shared meal. Those connections are deep and they are vital in the most literal sense of the word; they give life as truly as the food we eat. The food doesn’t need to be elaborate (or even homemade), the occasion doesn’t need to be special; all that’s required is genuine interest in the person across the table.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

(For another really thoughtful observation on this discussion, read Erica’s post at Northwest Edible Life, which inspired my original post.)

Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
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The reality of home-cooked meals

I don’t usually pull out my soapbox here, but last week, Slate published an article titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” that addressed a study that argues “the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.” Then I read this rebuttal and I got angry.

Look, I absolutely believe to my core that we as a society need to prioritize home cooking, growing our own when and where possible, and making good, fresh, sustainable food available geographically and financially. But the way our culture is set up, that is not always easy or even possible, and those roadblocks need to be addressed.

More than a few studies show that women (even with a partner) still do a larger percentage of housework and childcare, including cooking/grocery shopping/cleaning up, even after working a full-time job. That’s not even taking into consideration single parents, parents who work multiple jobs with odd hours for low pay, food desserts, the challenges of getting those so-much-cheaper-than-chips multi-pound bags of potatoes home on a bus. The percent of people who face any one of these challenges, let alone multiple, is far more than the 2% the author in the second article cites (a number that is so wildly out of line with reality I really couldn’t take anything else he said seriously).

And it’s patently not true that “healthful ground beef from pastured cattle versus fast-food burgers” is cheaper by the pound, especially when you take into account the time, tools, and knowledge necessary to acquire, store, and cook said beef. But that’s honestly one of the problem(s) that we should be addressing, not shaming the people who aren’t cooking (or spending their time or money) the way we think they should be.

I am so incredibly lucky and privileged; I acknowledge that. I was lucky that a home-cooked family dinner was a priority for my parents at both of their houses growing up. My dad (a former farmer who had decades of know-how) had a big garden in our yard that supplied a lot of our fresh vegetables in spring, summer, fall and (frozen) throughout the winter. My mom liked food and cooking and trying new things and encouraged my sisters and I to do the same. But my parents also had jobs where they could be home for dinner at a reasonable hour, had the tools and stability to make cooking a reliable option, and knew enough to teach me and my sisters how to start dinner or fend for ourselves if, and when, needed.

I am also lucky in that I love to cook, I reliably get home before 6 p.m. every night, I don’t have kids to care for or cart around to activities, I have the money to spend on the organic pastured local chicken (which, by the way, $26 for two 3.5 pound birds at the farmers market this weekend, four times what a regular chicken would be at the grocery store) or the produce at the farmer’s market (which is rarely less expensive than the grocery store–a whole other frustrating myth–even if it might be fresher, tastier, or more healthful). And even I sometimes find cooking an obnoxious chore.

Idealizing a home-cooked family meal is as much of a problem as idealizing the stay-at-home mom from decades past (a whole other rant for another time, because many, many women did have to work outside the home in some capacity to make ends meet). It’s not always cheap, easy, fast, or pretty, though it most certainly can be all those things. We should not give people excuses so they don’t have to try, which is a fundamental problem of the original Slate article. But we also cannot, I repeat cannot, shame them when we don’t think they’re trying hard enough.

Do I think it would be great if we could all sit down for an hour for every meal, food made from scratch, with good conversation and no electronics? Of course. But everyone has their threshold. Who am I to say that a parent is wrong if they’d rather spend time reading with their kid, taking them to a sport, or helping with homework when they get home exhausted at 8 p.m. instead of spending that time in the kitchen (and yes, kids should be helping in the kitchen too, but “I was making dinner” isn’t going to fly when homework isn’t ready for class the next day).

You know what the fastest way is to get someone to tune you out? Start telling them how wrong they’re doing things. No matter how much you have to say about building a better food culture and community, how much knowledge you might want to share about growing or cooking healthful food on a budget or with limited time or resources, none of it will be heard when it starts with “You’re doing it wrong.”

Instead of blaming, let’s encourage; instead of judging, let’s help. Let’s challenge ourselves to start changing what we can, even if it’s one thing, even if it feels small–one night without tv; trying once a week, even once a month, to switch out a boxed meal with something more healthful. Let’s share the knowledge and tools we have with our community. We all have something to contribute to make this ideal of a home-cooked meal more of a reality.

Life of Pie

Out of any interest or passion, cooking and eating is the only one I can think of that’s essential to life. This is actually pretty convenient in a lot of ways–if I have to eat anyways, why not make it as enjoyable and taste as good as possible? And I consider pie pretty essential to life, especially in summer, which has finally, blissfully made an appearance in Chicago.

Golden brown and delicious

I’m talking about peach pie, to be exact. And while I’m at it, maybe throw some blackberries in there too because, well, summer.

Peach season
Peaches and sugar
Peach syrup

America’s Test Kitchen’s weekly emails are one of my favorite cooking inspirations, especially since their recipes are so reliable (plus the taste tests and gadget reviews make my research-loving heart happy). At least one recipe usually gets bookmarked (and occasionally I actually get around to making it). Earlier this month, the email included peach pie. I don’t remember the last time I had homemade peach pie, which seemed a perfectly valid reason to buy armloads of peaches and give my pie crust another run.

Rumpled crust
Filled
Blackberries, why not?

If I get nothing else out of writing this blog, I’m happy to finally have and be able to share a reliable pie crust recipe and method. I still have a few tweaks to make–my crimps are hit-or-miss (I think the trick is refrigerating the pie after crimping so the crimps don’t disappear once the pie hits the oven) and I’m still trying to figure out how to brown the bottom crust more quickly in fruit pies (it usually works to put my pie plate on a preheated baking stone, but that didn’t work this time–did the tinfoil underneath make a difference?). And, happy day, I just discovered a pie shop in Chicago will sell, by request, the rendered lard they use in their own crust. As much as it’s a fun point of pride to say I can do it myself, it takes a bit of planning, which is not always my strong suit.

Crimps
Peach pie with lattice crust

I’m always amused to look at my Recipes page to see what it says about how I cook, or at least what I cook to share here. Lots and lots of fruits and vegetables, which is pretty true-to-life, and of course out of all the desserts or sweet treats I’ve shared, pies win. Not a bad trend, if I say so myself

Peach Pie with Blackberries
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Meditation on a chicken

This summer has been kind of crazy to say the least and I’ve found I’ve taken on fewer cooking projects that seem worth sharing (though if you’d like a post about blanching and freezing green beans or corn, I’d be happy to oblige). Lately the tasks I’ve gotten the most pleasure out of are the most mindless; the meals, the simplest.

Don't forget to grill a few lemons

Yes, it would be faster to cut the tips off green beans in a big bunch, but it’s nice standing at my new counter and breaking off the ends of a pile of beans one by one, getting into a rhythm–pick a bean from the pile on my right, snap the end with my left hand, ready bean goes in front of me, end goes to the trash bowl on my left.

Similar to the pleasure I’ve found in yoga, sometimes these repetitive actions are just what I need, a kind of moving meditation. Same with my meals lately–a simple open-faced tomato sandwich, a bowl of gazpacho, corn on the cob–they don’t require much effort and leave plenty of mental space to enjoy the sunset view from my new porch, a new book, or simply listening to the bells from the church around the corner.

I know, this is all a rather contemplative for a post about chicken. But it’s a really good chicken, I promise!

All you need

Over the 4th of July weekend, I got a new grill. I have lots of capital-T Thoughts on it I’ll share another time, but the relevant point is it has a lid, which means I could finally try a whole butterflied (or spatchcocked) chicken on the grill. (My mom has taken to calling it “sasquatched” chicken, which actually kind of makes sense–what else would a chicken look like if it were stepped on by a sasquatch?)

Marcella Hazan and her Essentials of Italian Cooking gave me exactly the recipe I needed. Five ingredients I have on hand always–salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, chicken–requiring the barest amount of thought, but ending in a fantastic meal. Adding herbs, some garlic, maybe some lemon zest all occurred to me, but maybe another time.

Lemon juice, olive oil, pepper
On the grill
"Sasquatched"

Whether your mind is occupied with enjoying last-minute beach vacations or the busy-ness of getting back to school (or, in my case, preparing for the newest round of students to come to campus and oh, planning a trip to Paris in fall), give this a try. It’s not only an easy dinner, it makes amazing chicken sandwiches the next day, leaving plenty of time to savor the not-fall-yet season.

Crispy skin
Looks prettty, but just try flipping one side over without losing all the pieces
Best chicken sandwich, all assembled

Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Pepper
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A little sweet, a little sour

I know, strawberry season is a distant memory at this point. But I hope you’ve got a few stashed away in the freezer because, on my third summer of making jam, I’ve finally figured out a basic strawberry jam that I really, really love.

Little jar of jamA few months ago, I saw a demo by Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, the primary resource I’ve used to learn about canning. One of the best points she made was that when people want to learn to make preserves, the first things they try are strawberry jam and cucumber pickles–two of the hardest recipes to get right. I’m not a cucumber pickle fan (though I’m acquiring a taste for them), but I can attest that the strawberry jam I’ve made the past two years was more like strawberry sauce. Tasted good, but not quite what I wanted.

Another bowl o' berriesTurns out that since strawberries naturally are low in pectin, they either require more sugar or added pectin to get a real jammy texture. I don’t particularly like the idea of using essentially equal parts sugar and fruit, so I didn’t want to go that route. I don’t like dealing with pectin packets, but what about adding another fruit that’s really high in pectin? Here I took a cue from my favorite fall preserve, cranberry conserve, that sets amazingly well (in part because cranberries have a ton of pectin) and keeps its gorgeous red color. And how convenient, last fall I stuck a gallon bag of cranberries in the freezer.

Cooking
Molten strawberriesI’m not sure where I saw the initial idea to combine strawberries and cranberries, but let me tell you, while this takes a little forethought (either finding cranberries in summer or good strawberries in late fall), it is 100% worth it. The cranberries help set the texture of the jam, they contribute to the beautiful color, and they provide a little sour contrast to what can otherwise be a one-note preserve.

So while strawberry season may be over, I hope you’ll keep this in mind come fall when cranberries are everywhere. Use frozen strawberries to make this jam or freeze a few bags of cranberries  for next spring. (Tangent: this was the project I used to break in my new kitchen–can I just say how much I love having an island? Everyone should have one of these! This jam also made a great gift to introduce myself to my new neighbors. Tangent the second: a nice little profile from Paper/Plates on yours truly with some fun book and food questions.)

Thick and jammyJam and bread

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam Continue reading

Putting down roots

As my kitchen (really my entire apartment) is currently in a state of utter disarray, has been for the past few weeks, and will be for another few, my cooking of late has pretty much consisted of salad (and often take-out salad at that). I’ll explain in a minute, but for now, an update on the garden, which is so far blowing my expectations away. Here are a few highlights:

StrawberryBaby lettuce Tomatillo flower

As for the reason for the kitchen chaos? I’m moving! Today I’m officially a first-time homeowner in Chicago.

Keys

I did say I wanted a change and I think this counts. I wasn’t planning to leave the ranks of the apartment-dwelling when I started looking for a new place in April, but everything seemed fated to make this happen. I’ve never been one to take the view that renting is throwing money away, it definitely has its perks and benefits, but I’m really excited about this step–and my new porch! Kitchen! My own laundry! I can’t wait to start cooking and sharing projects from my new space soon.

One of the best parts about the new place though? It’s closer to my garden! Here are some more pictures, including my plot layout and how the view has changed since mid-May: Continue reading

In the garden

I have a garden! If you follow me on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, you probably know this already, but I’m so, so excited that this will be my first year growing more than a little pot of lettuce and some flowers on my porch.

Plant markers

I learned about Chicago’s Peterson Garden Project and their pop-up victory gardens last year, but finally joined after urging from a friend who’s gardened with them in the past. For $75, I get a 4×8 plot with organic soil that’s all mine from April through October. Most people with a garden this size use the square foot gardening method (I’ll share more about that in another post), so I’m following suit for now. It’s definitely different than what I remember from my dad’s garden growing up and its orderly rows of beans and carrots and lettuce and corn.

So far I’ve planted seeds for:

I also bought baby plants of:

Other plants I still need to buy are:

  • Cucumbers (I hope I can find a baby cucumber to use for making cornichons!)
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs: Genovese basil, parsley, thyme, chives/garlic chives, oregano, mint (only in a pot)
  • Hot pepper

Baby plants

The history of victory gardens goes back to World War II and, reassuringly, I learned that people back then knew about as much as I do about having a vegetable garden than I do (which is pretty much nil, but luckily I have plenty of green thumb-ed friends and family as guides)! The Peterson Garden Project is a lot more recent, but is doing great work in a lot of areas I’m passionate about: eating locally, making good food accessible to under-served communities, helping people (like me!) learn to grow their own food, putting neglected urban spaces to good use, and building strong communities around Chicago. They’re doing much more than that, which I’ll talk about in another post, but for now I’ll direct you to their website if you want to learn more.

I’m positively giddy to see how this experiment goes and how different this view looks come July!

My garden!

(P.S. I don’t have any association with PGP other than thinking what they do is worth sharing.)