Monday, February 28, 2011

Oven Canning

NOTE: Oven canning is a controversial subject that I wanted to discuss, not necessarily to recommend. I want to state again that the NCHFP is against oven canning, and they make the guidelines for safe food preservation. If you are a new canner, please stick with a boiling water bath to process your food. Please read through all the comments, they are informative and helpful. I want to stress that when discussing this procedure, it is with regard to high-acid jams, marmalades and jellies only.

Recently I made some star fruit jam (recipe to follow in a few days!). It was a rather large batch, so I felt it was time to try something new: a method of sealing your jars that is called oven canning. There's a lot of dissent on the subject, and I'm writing down what I've come across, both yay and nay, in order to make some sense of the subject. I'd love to hear from you in the comments section if you have any thoughts!

I first became aware of this technique via artisan jam company, Blue Chair Fruit. BCF proprietor, jammer and author, Rachel Saunders, uses the oven for sealing her jars and recommends this process in her book. Many other small jamming companies use this procedure. Why? I think the biggest reason is because you can process a lot of jars at once. What's surprising is it's frowned upon by the National Center for Home Preserving, and many other canning heavy hitters. So then why are companies allowed to do it? [Side note: Honestly, you could let your jars seal on their own (which is called open kettle sealing) and no one would be the wiser. It's sealed, right? Who cares how you sealed it? And, as you won't get any really bad stuff from fruit (as long as said fruit are not low acid) you really would never know. Oops! I'm digressing.]

I've been asking around about this, ever since a friend of mine took a class with BCF and raved about the technique. She loved that she didn't need to bring her big pot out, and fill it with water, etc. etc. Point taken. Rebecca at RCakewalk also found it to be a great technique; check out her post on it. I pestered Doris from Doris and Jilly Cook about it and she said, sure, why not? As long as you don't get silly and use this technique with anything but fruit. Why? Because fruit is higher in acid, and generally less risky. (Please see Doris' comment below, with clarification on what she had said to me about oven canning.)

Here's how it goes:

Oven canning: Heat your oven to 250 degrees. If you are not sure of your oven's temperatures, and don't have a oven thermometer, I suggest that you stick with water bath canning. (And then, go out and buy a oven thermometer, for goodness sakes! They're, like, four bucks.) On a cookie tray arrange your jars facing up. You will want to heat these for a good thirty minutes. BCF recommends putting the lids in at the same time, but I thought that might compromise the rubber seal so I put them in, rubber side up, at the last ten minutes.

Be careful! If you leave the jars in over a half hour (which is fine) please watch out when you start ladling your fruit in. Always, always pour a little bit in first. If the jars are too hot, it will bubble immediately (and possibly splatter you). If this happens, let the jars cool a few minutes before you begin. Fill the jars as directed in your recipe (usually 1/4 to 1/2 inch). Seal the jars, and return them to the oven for about fifteen minutes. When they are done, put the cookie tray with the jars on it cool on a rack. They will ping as usual, and seal themselves.

It took me a while to try this out as I'm a creature of habit, and I've come to find that this technique seemingly works just fine. The best thing about it, is that when doing larger batches (which I rarely do) it's easier. It's also a lot quieter. Call me crazy but a pot of water boiling furiously for almost an hour sort of keeps me on edge. Using the oven, it was just me and the pot of jam. I usually do very small batches, only around four or five half-pints at a time.

However, I am new to this process and am still feeling it out. I would love hear what you have to say about it. Have you tried it? Do you love it? Do you utilize it in your business? When Saunders was on Martha Stewart's show, she made a jam and also showed her oven technique. Martha seemed to dig it. There's a lot of appreciation for it, but there's also a great deal of vehement opposition.

Here are a few quotes from some venerable institutions, all in the anti-oven-canning-camp:

From the National Center for Home Food Preservation:

"Is it safe to process food in the oven?
No. This can be dangerous because the temperature will vary according to the accuracty of oven regulators and circulation of heat. Dry heat is very slow in penetrating into jars of food. Also, jars explode easily in the oven."

From the Agricultural Extension Service at the University of Tennessee:

" inside a canning jar in the oven can be heated no higher than the boiling point of water (212 degress F at sea level) regardless of how high the air temperature is inside the oven. This is a basic law of physics."

From Pick Your Own:

"Oven canning is extremely hazardous."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Candied Calamondins

I recently got an amazing package in the mail from my mother. It was filled with calamondins: leetle, teeny, tiny oranges with a super sour bite. They can be found, on a bush or small tree, in the tropical south zones. Originally from Southeast Asia, they have been planted here as an ornamental, but you know me, I'm wanna eat it! I received about five pounds (me to my mom after she sent me a small handful to inspect: "No, that's not enough, I need more"). So far I've started calamondins in gin, and salt-preserved calamondins. As it so often goes during this time of year, I'm a little marmaladed out. I was wracking my mind for something new. After paging through a million books, I settled on this recipe for Kumquat Preserves from this kooky book:

You probably have a stack of vintage cookbooks like these, right? I particularly like the ones that have canning sections even though you are not to follow them for canning, as they are outdated and possibly unsafe, as per USDA and the National Center for Home Food Preservation. However, my personal guidelines for these recipes are that usually fruit is a safe bet. I do my research, I compare recipes, I check the sugar, etc. I decided to can these at ten minutes. They are so high in acid, and the only other ingredients are sugar and honey, that I felt it was safe to can. But that's me. I'm crazy like that.

It is said that calamondins can be used in recipes like kumquats, but I don't know about that. Calamondins have very thin skin and are very juicy and filled with sort of big pits. More like a really small tangerine. I love these old recipes. They take a little while to decipher. Just a small paragraph and you're on your own. Which I like. I will note that I almost didn't add the 2 cups of honey the original asked for. 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of honey seemed like a lot to me. Then I realized that the honey is the glucose that keeps the sugar from crystallizing, so I quickly threw in a 1/4 cup of honey. It seems to have worked, but maybe I'm making that up. 

I am really looking forward to these as a garnish for a drink, come the warmer weather. They are certainly candied yet very tart. Maybe with that calamondin gin I'm making. And don't forget about the nice syrup you get as a extra bonus! The most brilliant idea I came across for calamondins is to freeze them and use them as ice cubes. Maybe I can get my mom to send me some more...

Candied Calamondins
adapted from My Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 1940

Note: this is a three day or so procedure.

1 quart of calamondins
1 quart of water
2 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of honey

Calamondins, when plucked from the plant, will rip the stem right out of the skin. When you pick them you might want to use clippers or shears so that they stay intact until you need to use them. Otherwise, they shrivel up, and who wants that? When you are ready to use them, pull the stems gently out. You will have a small hole where each stem was. Perfect. If you were preparing kumquats, you would prick the skins. This is so they can absorb the sugar.

Soak the fruit overnight in salt water. 1 quart of water, 1 quart of fruit, 1 teaspoon of salt. Why? I don't know. Maybe you can tell me. I was skeptical, but strangely I did it.

Drain them. Cover with fresh water in a preserving pot and bring to a boil. Cook until tender. Which was a few minutes. These are very thin-skinned fruit. Drain.

Have this heating up in another good preserving pot: 2 cups of sugar, 4 cups of water, 1/4 cup of honey. Once this is simmering, add the drained, tenderly boiled fruit in. Simmer until the fruits look translucent, and the syrup is thick. (When did we stop spelling syrup sirup?) Pour this mixture into a glass bowl and cover with wax paper.

Let stand for two days. 

Bring back to a simmer for ten minutes and cook until it looks right. For me that meant thick syrup, candied fruits. I ladled the calamondins into hot 4 ounce jars and processed in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. If you prefer, pour the whole lot into a quart jar, seal it. When it's cool put it in the fridge. They will probably last until you have a nice cocktail party. And then they will be gone!

For more a-quat-ic inspiration go check out Michael's candied mandarinquats and Tigress' fermented sweet preserved kumquats!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bacon, Guanciale

Quite a nice Valentine's Day!

Where to begin? I guess it could start with a tweet on Twitter (#charcutepalooza). I tweeted that the bacon I had just made was the best I'd ever had. Mrs. Wheelbarrow congratulated me on converting. And I said that I had been converted last year, but now I was proselytizing. Indeed, I am here to sing the praises of curing your own bacon, and guanciale. They are totally worth all the sitting around I did, living my own life, while they did their own magical thing with salt and time, transforming into amazing cured products that turn everything they touch into tasty, tasty gold. That little number above? That was our appetizer on Monday night. Nice, right?

What made my bacon the best I'd ever had was the high-quality pork belly I had purchased at Fleisher's Meats. It's all about the ingredients. Everything will taste better and be better for you when it's all about the ingredients. Look at this pork belly.

Suggestively fleshy.

And the after shot. I usually use this Saveur recipe, but this time omitted the seasoning in favor of just a bit of cracked pepper. I'm so glad I did. It was so simple and the flavor of the meat itself just shined.

Isn't that how bacon should look?

Other than just having slices fried up for dinner or breakfast or whenever I could get a free minute, I enjoyed this special snack I made for Valentine's day:

 I cooked some oysters right on the stovetop cast-iron grill alongside a few slices of bacon. You know they are done when they open their shells. (They go a lot quicker on an outdoor grill, but mine's asleep until spring.) Then, you can grab them with a oven-mitted hand and rip off the flat shell. Put them on a plate, top them with some bacon and a touch of chopped preserved lemons, chopped chives and cheers! Drink some champagne.
Oysters and bacon.

Part Two: Guanciale

Hog jowl.
What is it about these winter-lit shots of raw meat that are so seamy? Is it the butcher paper? The crinkly plastic wrap? I don't know but these are like pin-ups. So. Ahem.

I loved the Babbo recipe, and of course referred to Wrightfood, too. (Confession: I haven't bought my copy of Charcuterie yet. So far, I'm the only person sitting at the Barnes & Noble Thomas the Train play table watching my toddler play trains while reading a book on meat curing. That may change soon, though. Either I will get the book, or more people will be reading up on guanciale while playing trains. My favorite train? Salty!)

Threading meat was a novelty.
You know, I had no idea how much I'd love guanciale. And I had no idea how different it was from bacon. I sort of thought: yeah, well, it's just more bacon, right? And that would be: wrong. After it's initial salt soak in the fridge, I hung it in the basement with a little cloth covering it. (I got an okay from guru Bob del Grosso on this; my basement is very dusty.) After two and a half weeks it felt and looked right, but it didn't lose the 30% weight. So, being that today was post day I decided to chance it and pull it.

Look at that pristine white fat! I sauteed some up to make this bastardized version of an amatriciana sauce. A few slices fried up turns glassy first, and they a little browned on the edges. A taste reveals such sweetness (again, that Fleisher's meat) and nuttiness! This is what we ate tonight for dinner. Not bad for a stay at home mom whose two and a half year old is on a nap strike.

Chopped guanciale sauteed until golden. Add one medium onion, diced, saute until soft. Add one jar of sauce (homemade, canned, from my garden) slowly, until all is incorporated. Add a few chopped celery leaves (no parsley in the house, celery leaves from summer, frozen). Toss in pasta of your choice (organic wheat rigatoni), serve with pecorino shavings. Now, wolf it down and chase your toddler who is choking the cat and try to get him to sleep!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Purple Podded Pea Soup

Writing purple podded pea soup was irresistible, but this post is really about my garden and these peas I dried. Right now my little garden is under two feet of snow with a thick crust of ice on top. So, when I take things out from the pantry or freezer it's really like a postcard from summer, and a glimpse into next summer.

It doesn't necessarily have to be from my own garden to get me verklempt. I pulled a quart of huge, red tomatoes from the freezer that were from my friend Dana's garden and used them to make some incredible chili. The red of these great big heirlooms was a shock to my winter-glazed eyes. What's so cool is that it was Dana's first garden in many years. She was a little worried that it wouldn't work out, but it not only supplied her family with food, she had to unload some on me! Bless her soul.

He called them Thai fish chilis...
How about these amazing peppers from pals John and Jen? They're been gardening in the New Paltz Community Gardens for years now, I believe. John makes some outrageous hot sauces, so he goes heavy on the peppers. I never grow peppers, but I think this year I will. Look at how incredible these are! I strung them up in the kitchen and after about five months they are dry and ready to pop into meals. Like chili.

When I bought the purple podded peas seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library, I wasn't quite sure what I had gotten. I thought I would be able to eat them off the vine. Technically I could, but they were a bit tough. A tweet answered from those nice folks at the library told me what I suspected: they were peas for drying. What happens with legumes that you dry? Very simply: they dried on the vine, I shelled them, stored them in a mason jar, and took them out recently to make some pea soup. They did not look like split peas at all. The look like pea seeds, which they are. My yield from a little row of peas was one and a half cups. I tossed them in a pot, added eight cups of water, some chunks of ham, and let it cook for quite a few hours. It tasted just like pea soup, even though it doesn't quite look like pea soup.

It's nice to have a helper for shelling dried peas.
However, growing these peas, as I noted, didn't yield much. My rationale for growing them again is this: legumes are wonderful for your soil, they are what's called nitrogen-fixing plants, and naturally provide nitrogen for your garden (for more in depth but simple information on this process follow this link). So, if I get a pot of soup out of it, all the better. It's also a beautiful plant and easy to grow. Remember that when you plant peas or beans you will want to look into inoculant for your soil to get the best results. The inoculant (a naturally occurring bacteria) helps the plants to fix the nitrogen. I bought a small bag at my local gardening store and sprinkled it in the soil before planting.

Purple podded peas!
If you want to get serious about growing dried legumes, you're going to need a lot of room to plant quite a few plants. I'm not sure that I have enough room for that. Already I am working on how I'm going to plant everything I want to grow this year. I built three new beds last year! And already I know I'll run out of room. It's not just that I want to grow more, but I want quantity. I'm trying to keep in mind that the last two summers were probably the worst ones we've had in years. Two years ago it rained incessantly. Last year it didn't rain at all. However, my spirits are never dashed; I am completely optimistic about this year.

The walk to the compost pile is arduous.
What are you dreaming about with regards to gardening? Do you have seeds already started? Or are you still dreaming in the snow, like me? Have you been gardening for years, or are you just starting?

Mr. and Mrs. Elderberry need wetter quarters.
I'm dreaming about more fruit plants, moving my elderberries to a new home by the pond, creating a new composting system, building more growing space. Although, I've been gardening my whole life, and my current garden is now five years old, I always, always feel like a novice. I just keep on learning!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Rice Bowl

This is about as close as I get to a post on super bowl anything.

I love sushi, but I don't have it often. And when I do, I have a vegetarian option. What I really crave, aside from the silky beautifulness of high-quality raw fish, is rice and seaweed and ginger and soy. When I get a fix of that, I tend to not miss the fish anymore. And I try to not get all in-your-face political over here, but if people don't stop eating fish, we will not have any more. Period.

So. I recently was given a brand new rice cooker, which I was like wha? Whatever will I do with that? After a great discussion on my Facebook page about it, I gave it a go. And I like it. I mean, I didn't think rice could get any easier, but it did. And easier clean up too. I'll make a few cups of rice in the beginning of the week. I'll heat up a cup of rice for lunch, and add to that a half of a perfectly ripe avocado, seaweed, pickled ginger and a few shakes of soy sauce. You can put anything on it of course: some edamame, an egg, greens, pickles, vegetables chopped in matchsticks, sesame seeds.

The pickled ginger from The Ginger People is addicting, for the record. Steve asked me why I didn't make some of my own, and it's really because I love this stuff so much. I bought a case of it. And the seaweed is Yama Moto Yama seaweed snack chips. I snip them with my kitchen scissors right onto my rice.

I'm sure I'm being very basic here with the add-ons. If you have a great idea, let me know in the comments, would you? This way of eating has been a great way to avoid the lure of grilled cheese sandwiches, so I don't want to tire of it!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Duck Prosciutto Bread

In my experimentation with the duck prosciutto, I think this is my favorite thus far. Back in the day (that's about eight years ago) I used to live in NYC, Brooklyn to be exact, and I used to get some really exemplary prosciutto bread. Maybe it was Joe's Busy Corner in Williamsburg, or perhaps it was Caputo's in Carroll Gardens, I really don't remember. But it was chewy bread, with a good crust, studded with prosciutto and cracked black pepper. (You know things are good when they're studded!) Meaty, spicy, salty and chewy bread. That's what makes a girl happy. So, when seeing the duck prosciutto in the fridge the other day, it dawned upon me that I could make prosciutto bread. I can get nice prosciutto, but if I'm laying out the cash for it, I'm having it sliced in see-through slips with nothing else (sounds dirty, doesn't it?). But the duck prosciutto? It's perfect for cubing and stuffing it into dough.

For bread,  I usually use the guidelines for the basic dough in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I make it and leave it in the fridge in a large food-grade plastic container, and when I'm ready I can throw together a quick loaf of bread. In this case, today's bread began with a look out the window to see more snow pouring down ceaselessly. An ice storm is due tomorrow. If this meaty bread doesn't cure my winter time ennui, I don't know what will. Maybe those three boxes of wine I have down in the basement. Yes, boxes. Don't knock it!

One loaf I rolled out and sprinkled cubes of prosciutto over it, adding fresh ground black pepper. Then I rolled it back up and pinched the ends. The other one was more focaccia-style. The rolled one steamed the meat, and made the inside all nice and duck-fatty. The focaccia one made the duck get all crispy crackly on the top. I really think the best way to approach would be to start with a new batch of bread, so that when incorporating the flour, you can add the prosciutto, so that the meat and dough cling to each other. But this is certainly not a bad place to start.