Ah chocolate. What could be better? As an avid baker I recently started experimenting with one of my favorite chocolatey desserts: classic chocolate cake. I got into my research mode, started looking at recipes, weighing the pros and cons of buttermilk versus sour cream, and I found myself asking one big question: Dutched cocoa and natural cocoa, what’s the difference? Continue reading
Tomatoes have finally arrived at the markets, marking a period of time that I’ll spend plotting my week around visiting Chicago’s markets and co-ops on various days of the week, knowing that each tomato purchase is only going to last me a day or two. Tomatoes – especially those mixtures of summer sungolds, purple zebras, and baby romas – may just be my all-time favorite local food.
I went my whole childhood adamantly hating tomatoes, picking them off of sandwiches and ignoring them in salads, only to realize, my sophomore year of college, how much I had been missing out. The problem was that I had been eating pale, flavorless, ghosts of real tomatoes my whole life. I was an active Slow Food UW member during my time in at UW-Madison, and was there that, finally, not willing to be called out my cool local food-obsessed friends, I had my first in-season, locally-grown tomato. It was like a warm little piece of sunshine that exploded its flavor in my mouth – it was the ghost of tomatoes past reincarnated into a living, breathing, incredibly flavorful, naturally sweet little piece of happiness.
Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with tomatoes, and look forward to them arriving at the markets and dread their inevitable disappearance. While they’re here, I find ways to work them into almost everything I make. In my opinion, tomatoes are among a small number of foods that easily illustrate the difference between local and non-local food. Potatoes or broccoli seem roughly the same regardless of how far away they came from or when they were grown, but tomatoes are different.
Guacamole, of course, begs to have tomatoes included, but this brief period of the summer is the only time I actually include them. Few things are better on a hot Chicago summer day than some fresh chips and guacamole with a refreshing beer – except, of course, that same guacamole with some locally-grown tomatoes thrown in.
Summertime Guacamole with Local Tomatoes
1/2 of a purple onion, diced into small pieces
10 small tomatoes of any variety (such as sungolds, purple zebras or baby romas), halved or quartered depending on size
2 tablespoons ground Cumin Powder
2 teaspoons salt
3 – 5 sprigs of cilantro (to taste), chopped
1/2 of a lime (for juice)
3 tablespoons sour cream or plain yogurt (optional)
Slice open the avocados and remove the pits (an easy way to do this is to use a heavy knife to strike the middle of the pit, hard, so that the knife gets stuck in it, then pull the knife away pit and all. Scoop the flesh out and put it into a large bowl, then mash with a fork. Mix in the salt, cumin and lime juice. If you’re going to add sour cream or yogurt (which give the guacamole a wonderful creaminess), stir it in at this point. Finally, gently stir in the onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Taste by trying on a chip. Enjoy on a patio or deck with a refreshing summer beer.
I’m not going to wax poetic about bacon. That’s been done by better poets than I.
I will even ignore the idea of bacon as the gateway meat for ex-vegetarians, even though there’s a possible evolutionary reason.
The simple fact of the matter is that bacon is delicious and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. Just ask these guys.
The toughest part of curing bacon at home is finding pink curing salt #1. Pink curing salt #1, formerly known as Prague Powder #1, is table salt mixed with a bit of sodium nitrite to help inhibit bacterial growth. Coincidentally, the Spice House carries pink curing salt #1. This should not be confused with pink curing salt #2, which also has the addition of sodium nitrate and is used for long cures. (Think dried sausages like Spanish chorizo.) Pink curing salt #1 is for shorter curing times for foods meant to be eaten relatively quickly. Both are colored pink to avoid confusion with table salt, and should not be confused with pink Himalayan salt.
The recipe below is for what’s known as green bacon. After roasting, it is ready to eat. Just cook it normally. It can also be hung to dry or smoked after roasting, both of which will help preserve it longer. Or, cut it into one pound pieces, wrap well in plastic, put it into a freezer storage bag and freeze.
- 5# pork belly
- ½ c. dark brown sugar
- 3 tblsp. medium cracked (10/16) peppercorns
- 2 tblsp. smoked sweet paprika
- 4 bay leaves crumbled
- 2 tsp. curing salt
- ¼ c. Kosher salt
Mix dry ingredients well. Rub thoroughly into pork belly. Put the pork into a resealable two gallon plastic bag along with any leftover rub. Lay flat the refrigerator and turn over daily. Liquid will begin to accumulate in the bag as it gets drawn out of the meat. When the meat feels firm remove from the refrigerator. (7 days for thinner pieces, 10 days for thicker.) Rinse and pat dry.
Roast at 200° until the internal temperature reaches 150°, about 90 minutes.
Let cool and wrap in plastic. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, or in the freezer for about two months.
We’ve recently added a powdered version of everybody’s rooster hot sauce, Sriracha. (Well, “everyone,” except for that neighborhood in California.) After many, many requests we also put an Ethiopian blend, Berbere into the lineup. But, the newcomer I’m most excited about is hibiscus. I’ve mentioned before that I had a career in beverage once upon a time. Given the way my mind still works, I know more intuitively how to work with hibiscus than I do with the Sriracha or Berbere. (Let’s be honest, I’m being lazy, the hibiscus was just way easier for me to work with.)
Hibiscus tea, common in West Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, is most commonly seen here in Chicago in Mexican restaurants as agua de Jamaica. (pronounced: hah-MY-kah) Steeping hibiscus in hot water imparts a brilliant red color shockingly fast and has a surprisingly tart flavor.
I recently wrote about grenadine and that got me thinking about using hibiscus in a similar manner. Where the grenadine has some darker flavors, a hibiscus syrup is going to be at the other end of the spectrum with flavors that are wonderfully bright. Substituting hibiscus syrup for grenadine isn’t a huge leap. While the profiles are different, the flavors hit a lot of the same notes. A cocktail made with hibiscus instead of grenadine will be different, but far from unpleasant. (It’s got the added bonus of being more kid-friendly. I’d use this in a Shirley Temple over the grenadine.)
Or try some in your coffee. Trust me. I used to be a professional.
(yield approximately 3 ½ cups)
Tie hibiscus in a double layer of cheesecloth. Add sugar, water, hibiscus and salt to a medium sauce pan over high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Discard hibiscus. Stir in citric acid.
I don’t drink tea. I’ve never really liked it. I drink coffee. Black. I also tend to be a little contrarian by nature and generally appreciate a good challenge. Because of all of this, I’m not terribly inclined to immediately think of using our Chai Spice blend in tea. I am, however, inclined to look for other uses of it.
With the cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla, it’s pretty much a slam dunk in sweet applications. Try throwing it into oatmeal cookies, apple sauce or butter or banana bread. My wife loves it in oatmeal.
As a challenge, though, I like to find savory uses for it. The key to using this with savory foods is to add salt and a touch more pepper. They will make the sweeter flavors a little more grounded.
It’s got a lot of flexibility, and as a result, is an easy ingredient to play around with. Dice some pineapple, sauté it in coconut oil, add some chai and serve it with tilapia. Or, make a compound butter and use it with fresh corn. One of my favorite ways to use it is with sweet potatoes.
Roasted Chai Sweet Potatoes
- 2 pounds of sweet potatoes diced
- 2 tbsp. maple sugar
- 2 tbsp. Chai Spice
- 2-3 tbsp. canola oil or butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and mix to coat sweet potatoes. Roast at 450° for 45 minutes or until tender.
My absolute favorite way to use the chai, is in corn bread. This recipe, which makes me want to bake everything in cast iron, is adapted from the 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking. The ’64 Rombauer is, hands down, the best cookbook ever. If you find a copy, buy it. (Or, swipe it from your mom like I did.)
Skillet Corn Bread with Chai
Preheat oven to 425°. Grease a 10-inch cast iron skillet and place in the oven until sizzling hot.
Sift flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix in corn meal. Add egg, milk, butter and bacon. Combine with a few rapid strokes. Pour batter into hot pan and bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Approximately 30 minutes.
In my former life I was a bartender. That’s where I developed an understanding of flavor, the way flavors work together, how to balance them. When I started tending bar, longer ago than I care to admit, drinks generally ran sweet. It’s what people knew. It’s what they expected. That changed over time and people came to expect a balanced cocktail, one that balances sweet, sour and bitter.
The two worst perpetrators of overly sweet cocktails are sour mix and grenadine.
Never—I repeat NEVER—buy sour mix. All you need is lemon juice, water and sugar. Make it yourself. Or better yet, make simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water and use that and lemon juice. It’s easy, will taste better and isn’t full of unnecessary ingredients. (A quick internet search reveals that one of the most common brands contains only 3% juice, preservatives, artificial color, and oddly, milk solids.)
Most store bought grenadine is the same as sour mix in that they contain very little actual juice, just a ton of corn syrup and food coloring. The Spanish word for pomegranate is granada and grenade in French. Any guesses the etymology of grenadine?
Actual, for real grenadine has levels of flavor and a brightness missing in the store bought stuff. It’s for grown-up cocktails.
I spent a few years mixing drinks at a place that made grenadine with pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses is by slightly sweetening pomegranate juice and then reducing it. The cooking process brings out darker, more complex flavors than straight pomegranate juice would yield.
(Makes 1 pint)
In a medium sauce pan combine pomegranate molasses, sugar and water. Heat over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Add orange flower water. Refrigerate.
Thanks to my friend, and former co-worker, Cristi DeLucca for helping me to confirm the ratios for the recipe. If you’re in Chicago go see her behind the bar at Bangers and Lace. Ask her to make you a Ward 8.
Like the vast majority of people these days (or least of Americans), I grew up on cranberry sauce that came out of a can. We had certain, unspoken rules about it in our house. It needed to maintain the shape of the can when put on the serving dish; it needed to be sliced with a knife and not scooped with a spoon; and the kind with whole cranberries was certainly NOT allowed. But, sometime in my early-20’s, I saw an actual, for real recipe for cranberry sauce and was absolutely astonished by how easy it was. It’s ridiculously easy. Like, I-can-make-it-in-the-time-it-would-take-me-to-find-a-can-of-it-in-the-supermarket easy.
I came up with this recipe last year at my wife’s behest. It’s slightly more complicated than the above recipes, but is still pretty simple and doesn’t involve a whole lot of active prep time.
- 1 bag (12 oz.) cranberries
- ¾ cup cider vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- 5 whole Spice Island cloves
- ½ tsp whole white peppercorns
- ½ tsp whole anise seed
- 1 ½ tsp cracked cassia
- 1 tsp dried orange peel
Place spices in a muslin bag, or tie in cheese cloth. Add vinegar, spices and sugar to a sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add cranberries and cook until berries just begin to burst. About 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and transfer to a nonreactive bowl. Cover and let sit overnight. Remove spice bag and refrigerate. As with so many other recipes, after a couple of days the flavors will become really good friends.
Post Script: I just showed my kid a picture of sliced, canned cranberry sauce. She thought it looked ridiculous.
So, my mother-in-law found my pickle stash.
I don’t know how it happened.
So, the only thing I can do is to make more pickles and hope there will be enough to get through the next nine months until cucumbers are back in season. My fingers are crossed that 100 jars will do it. That’s not crazy, is it? Rational people who live in smallish apartments do that sort of thing all the time, right?
The thing is it’d be a shame to throw away all that brine once the pickles get eaten. Reusing the brine for more pickles is fine for refrigerator pickles, but I can my pickles. Reusing brine to can is a dicier proposition because science. Besides, I don’t have the space to store it.
It doesn’t mean, however, that leftover canning brine can’t be used for something other than pickles. Like fried chicken. It’s not as weird as it sounds. We’ve all seen buttermilk fried chicken, where the chicken is marinated in buttermilk. The acidity in the buttermilk tenderizes the meat. There’s plenty of acid in vinegar, so…
Place 4 chicken breasts in a gallon Ziploc bag along with the brine from a quart jar (or 2 pint jars) of pickles. Remove as much air as possible and seal the bag. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours. When you’re ready to cook, remove from brine, and pat dry. Then prepare as you normally do. Obviously, that’s going to include includes our Ozark Fried Chicken Seasoning, right?
I needed an assistant. I needed someone who would handle the mundane grunt work. Someone to write recipe notes for me; to scrape vanilla beans for me; to do the dishes for me.
The hitch, though, is that I don’t have the money to pay a decent assistant. But, with a little perseverance on my part I found someone who was willing to work for Pop Rocks.
Granted, she needs to be in bed with the lights out by 8:00, but who am I to argue with the price?
This time of year the canister for our ice cream maker basically lives in the freezer. After every batch of ice cream or sorbet, it gets washed and put right back into the freezer so it’ll be ready for the next recipe. Recently, with an itch to make something frozen, and in the mood for something different I hunted down the root beer extract we had left over from a horribly failed attempt candy making venture.
Middle age, being the jerk that it is, has required that we look for alternatives to dairy in our house. While the original recipe (from America’s Test Kitchens The New Best Recipe) calls for whole milk and heavy cream, I used soy creamer and coconut cream in place of whole milk and heavy cream respectively. This recipe makes for a good base for most ice creams (just substitute another extract flavor), but works best with heavier flavors that can stand up to the coconut.
My newly hired assistant also expects a certain amount of entertainment and fun, so what we really needed was a vanilla soda so we could make Reverse Root Beer Floats.
We carry three different vanilla beans at the Spice House, but I settled on the Mexican beans. In contrast to the others, especially the Madagascar, I get earthier notes off the Mexican beans (think coffee and bitter chocolate), that I figured would work better with the root beer flavors.
Root Beer Ice Cream
- 1 ½ cup coconut milk (or heavy cream)
- 1 ½ cup soy half and half (or whole milk)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 4 large egg yolks
- 3 tsp root beer extract
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
Position a strainer over a medium bowl set in a larger bowl containing ice water. Heat the coconut milk, half and half and ½ cup of sugar in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally until steam appears and the milk is warm (about 175 degrees), about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar in a medium bowl until combined and pale yellow. Whisk half the warm mixture into the beaten yolks, ½ cup at a time, until combined. Whisk the milk-yolk mixture into the warm milk in the sauce pan; set the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until steam appears, foam subsides and the mixture is slightly thickened or an instant read thermometer registers 180-185 degrees. (Do not boil or the eggs with curdle.) Immediately strain the custard into the bowl set in the ice bath, stirring occasionally to help it cool. Cover and refrigerate until and instant-read thermometer registers 40 degrees or lower, at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours.
Add root beer extract and vanilla paste and stir well. Pour the custard into the ice cream machine canister and churn, following the manufacturer’s instructions, until the mixture resembles soft-serve ice cream. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container, press plastic wrap flush against the surface, cover the container, and freeze the ice cream until firm, at least 2 hours.
Vanilla Bean Soda
- 3 Mexican Vanilla beans
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cup water
- Pinch of kosher salt
Combine sugars, water in salt in a medium sauce pan. Split vanilla beans lengthwise with the tip of a paring knife. Using the back of the knife scrape the seeds from the pods and add them to the saucepan. Add the pods to the saucepan.
Place the saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugars are dissolved. Let cool a bit and pour into an airtight container. Refrigerate overnight.
Strain and discard pods.
To serve combine ½ oz. (2 tbsps) with 8 oz. (1 cup) chilled club soda. Add syrup slowly to avoid foaming. Stir well. Or, add 4 oz. (½ cup) syrup to 1 liter of chilled club soda. (Again, add syrup carefully to avoid foaming.)
My trusty assistant forgot about the Pop Rocks altogether. She was too bugging me to taste the ice cream.
I have a confession to make: Last summer I went on a pretty hardcore bender. In the process I became a living Portlandia sketch. I pickled everything I could get my hands on. Working a couple of days a week at a farmers market meant I got my hands on plenty.
See, over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested (okay, obsessed) with preservation and the surprising number of foods we still eat that came about simply to avoid spoilage and to have something to eat in February. Cured or smoked sausages, ham and bacon, jams, dried fruits and herbs all began as a way to avoid spoilage. So did duck confit. Beer and wine likely started as a means to lengthen the shelf life of barley and grapes. As did pickling.
Roughly defined, pickling involves using a liquid base that inhibits bacterial growth. Acid, salt brine and vegetable or olive oil all do the trick. My bender resulted in putting up far too many jars of pickled fruits and vegetables for a normal family of three to eat, and a kitchen that perpetually smelled like vinegar. (Although, between my pickles and the jam my wife made we would have been set if that brutal Midwestern winter dragged on any longer. So, it’s not all bad.)
The Spice House carries a great pickling spice blend that makes a great base for dill pickles, but I think my favorite style is the sweet bread and butter pickles. My mother-in-law agrees and did her part to move a few jars. She started asking politely a few months ago when I’d be making more. Now that cucumbers are showing up at the farmers markets, she’ll be relieved to know that I can start making them again.
After trying a few recipes I found online, I made one that was close to what I was looking for, but was a little heavy on the celery seed, so I pulled back on that. If memory serves, I also had to adjust out of necessity. I think I was short on white vinegar and/or white sugar and made up the difference with cider vinegar and/or brown sugar. The changes not only made a huge difference, but gave me the exact pickles I was tasting in my head.
I made a batch of these last week. Somehow, though, three jars went mysteriously missing. Curiously, my mother-in-law had been over to babysit.
Bread and Butter Pickles
(makes approximately 7 pint jars)
- 3 cups white vinegar
- 1 ½ cups cider vinegar
- ¾ cups brown sugar
- 3 cups sugar
- 5 tablespoons Kosher salt
- 4-4 ½ pounds of cucumbers
Wash and sterilize 7 pint jars, lids and rings.
Slice cucumbers into rounds about ⅛ inch thick.
In a heavy sauce pan combine vinegars, sugars and salt over medium heat. Stir periodically until sugars and salts are dissolved.
To each sterilized pint jar add:
Pack each jar tightly with sliced cucumbers, leaving ½ inch head space.
Fill each jar with hot brine and cap. Wipe rims with a clean, damp towel. Place in refrigerator for at least two days to allow flavor to develop, but try to allow them to refrigerate for at least two weeks.
Alternately, instead of refrigerating, process the jars in a water bath and store in a cool, dark space where your mother-in-law can’t find them