Category — Summer

Rising to the Occasion – Lancaster County Corn Souffle with Gruyere

I’ve never made a souffle before.  What I knew about souffles was what everyone knows about souffles – that you have to tiptoe around the kitchen and make as little noise as possible, lest you cause the delicate, puffy concoction in the oven to collapse.  I think it’s this one notion that keeps more people from trying their hand at making one.

Well, it was the end of August, and the supermarket had this immense island of corn, going for something ridiculously cheap.  I had wanted to incorporate summer corn into the menu for the engagement party, but I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to approach it.

I picked up eight ears of corn and pored through my library.  I found this recipe for corn souffle back in issue #13 of Saveur (and found online here).  I tried to scale the proportions of the ingredients to make a souffle that would fit into a larger dish, but, as it turns out, when it comes to whipping egg whites, you can’t just multiply ingredients to come up with a bigger portion.  I had enough souffle batter to fill one large dish and two smaller ones.

After popping everything in the oven, I was curious about this whole souffle thing, so I turned on the oven light to see how they were coming along.  The tops of each souffle were rising steadily, and quite impressively, and the melted gruyere was forming a nice, brown crust.  And, to dispel the myth, we made no attempt to maintain a quiet environment in the kitchen during this time – people were coming in and out, dishes were being washed, and other recipes were being prepared.  Yes, they will deflate once you poke a serving spoon into them, so if you’re going for presentation, you may want to hold off and serve at the table.

In the end, the souffles were amazing.  The larger of the souffle dishes turned out a little underdone, but the smaller ones were perfect.  As a whole, the dish was a perfect way to highlight the freshness of local summer corn, and definitely something I am eager to repeat next summer.  Until then, I’m looking for more souffle recipes – they’re cheap and easy (like all egg dishes) and can be varied to suit what’s available.

September 11, 2008   Comments

My First Attempt at Canning is Not a Total Failure

Last year, shortly after all of the summer crops had given way to Halloween candy displays and holiday decorations, a coworker gave me a large black pot and metal rack for canning.  He told me that, just a couple of weeks earlier, he had ridden his motorcycle out into the Amish country, stopped at a roadside stand, and bought 35 pounds of tomatoes for seven dollars.  He made a bunch of sauce, but he’s more of a freezer and not a canner.  He suggested I might want to take advantage of the summer bounty by canning.

So, on the same day that we picked up our Halloween pumpkins from a local orchard, I also bought a set of Ball quart jars, jelly jars, and a canning accessory kit, all of which, along with the big black pot, were stowed in the dark corners of my basement.  Until last week, that is.

Having passed a few roadside stands in Lancaster County, at least one of which was overflowing with baskets of ripe tomatoes, I dug out all of my canning supplies and decided to make a go of it.  On Saturday, we stopped by a stand and I was able to pick up about four pounds of Roma tomatoes for four dollars.  I would have wanted more, but that’s all they had.  I’m still looking for the big tomato score.  Might be this weekend, might be next.

On Monday, after getting home from work, the first thing I did was fill the black pot with water and set it on the stove over the highest heat I could get.  I took my Ball jars, the lids, and the bands, and ran them through the dishwasher.  Then, I got to peeling the tomatoes.

Here’s the thing about canning – there’s a lot of heat going on in the kitchen.  For one thing, you’ve got this cauldron of boiling water.  Then you’ve got the jars, which you have to handle while they’re still hot out of the dishwasher.  Then you’ve got whatever liquid, be it water or syrup or juice, that you’re putting into the jars along with whatever you’re canning.  And, if you’re canning tomatoes, you’ve also got some more boiling water, into which you’re plunging the tomatoes to loosen the skins.

So, working from the pile of tomatoes, I took a knife and cut a small ‘X’ into the end of each one, dropping three at a time into the small pot of boiling water.  After 30 seconds or so, I fished them out with a pair of tongs and ran them under cold water, using my fingertips to peel away the skin, then dropping them into the waiting jars.  I had decided that, instead of using water as my liquid, I would use tomato juice, so I brought a saucepan of store-bought tomato juice to a boil and filled each jar with that.

I took the lids and screwtop bands out of the hot dishwasher as I needed them, and sealed each quart jar.  I put the jars into the black pot of boiling water (which, by the way, takes about forty minutes to come to a full boil, so you should put that onto the heat before you begin any tomato peeling), put the lid on, and processed the jars for about an hour and fifteeen minutes.

There were two important lessons learned from this, my first canning effort.  First, what would first appear to be a nice hill of tomatoes doesn’t amount to much when it comes to canning.  From the four pounds of tomatoes, I only ended up with enough to fill two quart jars – which made it seem like an awful lot of effort and water boiled for so little.  It really gets to be worthwhile if you’ve got the crops to process a full six or seven quart load, so for tomatoes this would be in the neighborhood of fourteen pounds.

Second lesson learned – I filled the jars too full.  When the processing time was up, I took off the lid to see that the boiling water had been tinged red by leakage, and when I took the jars out, one of them started seeping tomato juice.  I had initially thought that this meant my seals weren’t secure, but I left the jars alone and, as they cooled, the lids popped inward, indicating a vacuum seal.  I was still a little suspicious, but found some message boards on the internet that said that a vacuum seal was the most important factor, and, judging by the appearance of the tomatoes a week later, they seem to be just fine.

I’m still on the hunt for a massive tomato score before the end of this season.  We found a great Pick Your Own farm over the weekend, and managed to score some tomatoes, but many of the ripest were storm damaged, so we skipped them.  If the abundance of ripening green tomatoes were any indication, though, it looks like we may be able to go back in two weeks and harvest a full box.

September 4, 2008   Comments

Slow Roasted Zucchini, Sea Salt, Olive Oil

Deb Puchalla, who is an editor for Martha Stewart Everyday Food, sent out a call on the Dinner Tonight blog for stories about zukes and cukes.  Here’s mine.

Since it’s the height of summer, there’s a lot of fresh, local produce to be had.  While we don’t get out to the farmers’ stands often enough, the local supermarket has a wonderful program where they sell locally sourced fruits and vegetables, highlighting exactly where the food that you’re buying is coming from.  A couple of weeks ago, there was a nice mound of zucchini that was so tempting, we bought a few without a real plan for what to do with them.
Here’s the thing about food – you can coax the best out of anything that you cook if you respect the season and respect the ingredient.  So, the best ways with various foods are often the simplest, and, in this case, you really can’t get any simpler than olive oil and sea salt.

I have a truffle shaver which has, for years, been one of my favorite gadgets in the kitchen.  Mind you, I’ve only ever shaved a single truffle on this contraption, but it works especially well with parmesan cheese, chocolate, and hard vegetables.  It’s got a blade attached to a screw, and you turn the screw to make the opening wider or narrower as you need it.  I hacked the ends off of the zucchini and, in a flash, had passed them over the truffle shaver, forming a neat pile of uniformly thin rounds on my cutting board.

Now, if the preparation is going to be simple, I suppose I’ll have to make the presentation a little snappier.  I took a big round pan and started layering the zucchini rounds in concentric circles, alternating directions with each full layer.  Between each layer I drizzled some good-quality olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.  When I was done, I popped the whole thing into the oven and slow roasted the zucchini for about an hour, until the rounds were browned along the edges and top.

This approach concentrates the already-summer fresh flavor of the zucchini quite well.  The salt, as salt does with any food, enhances the subtle qualities of the vegetable, while roasting condenses and focuses the flavor.  Next time, though, I think I’ll cut the rounds thicker, or into matchsticks, since slicing them this thin sacrificed texture a little, resulting in soft rounds instead of crisps.

July 31, 2008   Comments

Meet the Meat

I knew there was a reason why I wanted a top-bottom refrigerator instead of a side-by-side.

43 pounds of charcoal.  Check.

28.6 pounds of pork shoulder.  Check.

24.5 pounds of ribs.  Check.

53 pounds of barbecue, coming right up.  We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

We forgot to ask if anyone was a vegetarian.  Maybe I should pick up a head of lettuce.

July 17, 2008   Comments

Garden Update for June 2008

I had my first foray into home gardening about a year ago, which was great for herbs, but the leafy greens came to an untimely end.

This year, I got smart and we’ve had a fence around the garden from the beginning.  As a result, well…we’re going to be eating lettuce throughout the rest of the summer, as you can see.

The sage and thyme survived through last winter and got an early start on growing this season.  Both had grown enough to begin blooming, but, seeing as the bloom season seems to have passed, I’ve clipped both down considerably, leaving one or two stalks for the benefit of the bees.  Also making a reappearance was the oregano which, like mint, grows like a weed, but I’ve left it alone because it’s more versatile than mint (which was dug out of the garden and now rests peacefully in its own pot).

Leaving the sage, thyme, and oregano meant that I had about 90% of the square foot garden left to play in.  I set out to complete the herb set, so I picked up some basil and a tarragon plant (new for this year).  I haven’t used either of them in my cooking so far, because I want them to grow a little more before harvesting.  On a whim, I picked up a lemon verbena plant and potted it next to the garden, and the few weeks of warm weather have perked it up considerably.  I also added chives and scallions to one corner – the chives are thriving, and I have three good scallions.  Both, I believe, are perennial, so I may never have to buy chives from the store ever again.

As far as crops go, I learned my lesson from last year and decided not to plant carrots this time around.  Instead, I again planted lettuce and spinach (the lettuce took off, and the spinach has been hard to cultivate this year) and tried my hand at broccoli rabe.
In the cool days of late spring, the broccoli rabe wasn’t very active.  The next thing you know, it’s waist high and has already bloomed, which may or may not have affected my ability to eat it – I haven’t tried any of it yet.  It is tempting, though, to consider sauteing a mess of broccoli rabe in garlic and olive oil, roasting a pork shoulder in the oven until it’s falling apart, and slapping all of it onto rolls paired with some painfully sharp provolone.

I really enjoy the level of self sufficiency that we attain during the summer months with our garden.  At this point, food shopping consists only of picking up the meats that we need from the store, and everything else that I need to make a dish pretty much comes from what we grow.  If only our homeowners association would allow me to raise chickens and cattle, I would never have to go to the store at all.

June 24, 2008   Comments

Cold Food for Hot Weather

We’re coming off of our first heat wave of the summer, four straight days of 98 degree weather which culminated in violent thunderstorms last night that finally brought some relief.

On Monday, it was so hot that I had absolutely no desire to cook anything, nor did I want to venture out into the heat to pick something up.  Whatever I made, I wanted it to be cold and really easy to make with things that I already had in my kitchen.

My solution was cold peanut noodles (you may see variations of this recipe as cold sesame noodles, but seeing as the bulk of the recipe is peanut butter…).

A quick search on the internet turns up lots of recipes for cold peanut noodles, and they all basically read the same.  Some of the recipes can get complex, but especially when I’m in a rush, I’m going for the most straightforward preparation possible.

Here’s a quick and dirty mockup, based largely on a Tyler Florence recipe that I found on Epicurious.  Feel free to adjust proportions and add items as you please.

Cold Peanut Noodles for Hot Summer Weather

3/4 lb of spaghetti

2 Tbs soy sauce
2 Tbs rice vinegar
1 Tbs sesame oil
1/2 Cup peanut butter
1/2 Cup water or stock

Protein of some sort – tofu, cooked chicken, cooked beef, really anything

Put a pot of water on to boil.

While you are waiting for your water to boil, put everything else into a small saucepan and set it over medium heat.  Whisk everything together, bring to a simmer, and turn off the heat.  Sauce is done.

Make your spaghetti.  Drain it, and run some cold water over the noodles to cool them down.  Tumble the pasta into a serving bowl and toss it with the sauce, adding your protein if you are using it.

This is good at room temperature, or even cold right out of the refrigerator.

Additional Hints:  I like to make this super spicy, which you can do by adding hot sauce, or sambal if you have it on hand.  It’s a spicy red chile mash that you can find in Chinese grocery stores, and some supermarkets.  Other neat additions would be chopped cilantro or cucumbers.

June 11, 2008   Comments

Re: Memorial Day Weekend

As much as we would have liked to get away last weekend for Memorial Day, it just didn’t seem worth the price of gas to book it down to the beach.  Given the fantastic, utterly perfect weather, we maximized our long weekend at home by picking up some perennials and planting them into the flower bed in front of the house.

Oh yes, there was something else, involving pork.

On Saturday, my neighbor held a small Memorial Day weekend gathering to inaugurate his new grill.  Seeing the opportunity to smoke some ribs without the production of having a lot of people over at our own place, I offered to bring barbecue.  The offer was gladly received, and on Friday we picked up about four racks of spareribs.

Here’s the thing about true barbecue – you need time and heat, and the actual mechanics of the process are more art than science.

Last summer, I treated myself to the only smoker that I will ever need to buy – a 200lb behemoth of welded steel, with an offset firebox and enough cooking area to feed a large party.  At the start of spring, I went and picked up a couple of boxes of hickory, and a recent Costco run yielded a nice double-pack of charcoal.  To say that I was ready for barbecue season would be an understatement.

On Friday, I filled a contractor’s bucket with water from my garden hose, and sunk about 8 logs of hickory into it.  For barbecue, it’s important to soak your wood before you begin, because if the wood is too dry, it will burst into flames instead of smoldering gently, which is what you need it to do in order to get a decent smoke going on.  I also whipped together a double batch of my rub, which is a mixture of cane sugar, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and a few other things which I am conveniently forgetting to list here.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and took the spareribs out of the fridge to let them rest on the kitchen counter (you don’t want to put cold meat into a hot smoker, because there’s a chance that creosote, a black tar-like substance, will condense onto your meat).  I took some time to clean out the smoker from the last session, emptying it of ash, and lit a bunch of charcoal in my chimney starter.  When the charcoal was ready, I dumped it into the firebox, opened up all of the vents, and let the smoker come up to about 225 degrees.

While the smoker was warming up, I cut the sparerib racks into manageable pieces (I would prefer to leave them whole, but with so many ribs, I had to use rib racks to hold the smaller pieces upright).  A heavy dusting of rub on both sides, and they were ready.  I carefully moved them into position in the smoker and closed the lid with a thud.

The best part of barbecue is the first addition of wood to produce smoke.  I fished out a nice-sized piece of hickory from the water bucket and put it on top of the charcoal in the firebox.  Within moments, faint wisps of blue smoke started piping from the smoker’s stack.

Put simply, smoking barbecue meat requires a sustained temperature of 180 to 220 degrees, fired by wood and charcoal, for several hours.  It’s a nice day spent at home, that’s for sure.  So, for most of the day on Saturday, I tended to the smoker, adding charcoal when the temperature got too low and wood when the smoke subsided.

By the time we delivered the final product next door, the ribs had gone for about seven hours, and were so tender you could pull the bone out with a gentle tug.

In case you are wondering about the picture, another thing that benefits barbecue is a good baste, or mop.  This time, I decided to make a mop of cider vinegar, onion, garlic, and Victory Hop Devil beer.  Good times.

May 29, 2008   Comments