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Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

tomatillo composite

Just after I graduated from college, but before I moved to Philadelphia, I spent a period of four months working as a personal assistant for a very wealthy woman who lived in Portland’s west hills. I sort of tumbled into the job, in the synchronous way that I typically do (true thing, I rarely look for jobs, for better of for worse, they just appear) and while it wasn’t always a rousing good time, I picked up a slew of useful life lessons. One thing I saw demonstrated again and again was the fact that money is rarely the key factor in a joyful life.

My boss, who lived in a gorgeous home, had a doting husband and everything she could possibly want (in the material sense) spent her days in misery. When she wasn’t actively unhappy herself, she was doing everything she could to stir up dramas among her friends and spread a sense of unease and insecurity in others. In stark contrast was her maid. Teresa was working for her on a tourist visa from Mexico and spend her days scrubbing that 7,000 square foot house from top to bottom (about every third day, she came to the end and then turned around to start the process again) and cooking food for my boss and her husband. In the evenings, she sat alone in her room, watching TV and working on needlepoint.

And yet, she was never anything but completely cheerful. We spent a lot of time together during the four months I was there. She didn’t speak any English and all I had to offer was my high school Spanish. And yet, we became friends. She taught me how to find my way around the house, a handful of new words and how to be happy no matter what the situation. And she taught me how to make this tomatillo salsa.

Sometimes she blanched the tomatillos and sometimes she roasted them. I liked the roasted salsa better. We’d eat it quesadillas, with a bit of shredded chicken and pepper jack cheese. So delicious. She never used exact proportions for the salsa, instead she just cooked by feel and adjusted the seasonings at the end to make sure everything was balanced.

With tomatillos showing up in abundance at my local farmers markets lately, I thought this might be a good recipe (and story) to share. I also thought we could all use a break from the boiling water canner (I know I need a short rest from chopping, picking and jamming).

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Grape Catchup

clean grapes

I have something of a problem when it comes to vintage cookbooks. I can’t walk by a used bookstore or thrift store without stopping in to scan for some interesting new title. Some I buy just for their kitsch factor, but I find that many older cookbooks I pick up haven’t lost their utility to age and have quite a lot to offer, particularly for a girl who’s interesting in reviving the waning art of canning.

One of my favorite volumes is the New York Times Heritage Cookbook. It was originally published in 1972 and was written by long-time NYT food writer Jean Hewitt (she also wrote the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook, which was a staple of my childhood). It’s an unembellished book, but it manages to capture the many distinct faces of regional food that were once present in this country (fast food, national grocery brands and TV have homogenized us in so many ways).

5~ cups grapes

I pulled it off the shelf a couple of nights ago, in my search for pickled lime recipes. While it didn’t yield any helpful recipes in that direction, I discovered a very intriguing recipe for something called Grape Catchup (yes, spelled just like that) in the Mountain/Northern Plains section (the book is organized by region of the country). It seemed both easy, calling for nothing more than grapes, apple cider vinegar, sugar and spices, and strangely appealing.

I made it last night, filling the apartment with the pungent smell of hot, fruity vinegar (sounds like the name of a band made up of pickle makers). What came out was a really tangy, sweet/sour condiment that would make a great dipping sauce (I also think it would be amazing on baked chicken or roasted pork – oh god, a pulled pork sandwich with this instead of bbq sauce would be amazing). It has sort of a runny consistency, as the recipe doesn’t call for any pectin or thickener beyond the grape skins (which do contain some natural pectins).

Grape Catchup

Being that I now have four pints of this grape catchup in seven separate jars, I’m giving away two half-pint jars to a couple of lucky readers. If you want to try this tasty condiment that you absolutely won’t be able to find on your grocery store shelves, leave a comment by Sunday at 5 pm. And, if you want to make a batch yourself, the recipe is after the jump.

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Homemade Hummus

Scott's snack

I was in high school the first time I made hummus. I wasn’t much of a cook back then, relying almost entirely on bagels, boxed turkey sandwich lunches from my school cafeteria and whatever my mom was cooking for dinner to sustain me. However, I fell hard for hummus after tasting the mezze platter at Nicholas Restaurant. I quickly developed an expensive hummus habit, which sent my mother and me in search of a recipe, in the hopes that we could make it more cheaply ourselves.

We quickly discovered, it is possible to make nearly a quart of hummus for nearly bupkis and so I began a ritual of firing up her vintage Vita-Mix (I still long to have one of these of my own. Occasionally, I’ll search eBay for the shiny, stainless steel 3600 models, just like the one I grew up with. I haven’t broken down and purchased one yet though, but I’ve come close) once every couple of weeks to whir a can of garbanzo beans into a garlicky, lemon-y delight. As these things go though, I eventually fell out of the hummus making habit (I think it coincided with the time I went off to college. It becomes far harder to make hummus when you’re working in a dorm room. Not impossible, but harder).

garbanzo beans in processor

Recently, Scott and I have been on a hummus kick and I was once again reminded how expensive it can get when you’re buying your chick pea spread from Trader Joe’s in 8 ounce containers. This time, I got even fancier than I once did, using my pressure cooker to reanimate 2 1/2 cups of dried garbanzo beans. After 35 minutes of pressure, the garbanzo beans were fully cooked and tasted pleasantly firm and nutty, nothing like the slightly mealy beans you get when you just open a can (not that I’m demeaning canned beans. Goodness knows they’ve saved me more than once. It’s just that these are so much better).

I measured out two pints for the freezer and tumbled just over two cups of beans into the bowl of my great-aunt Flora’s Cuisinart (it’s older than me and still going strong). I pulsed the beans with several cloves of garlic, a massive pinch of salt, an oversized dollop of tahini and some lemon juice. After things were broken up, I ran the motor and streamed in about a 1/3 cup of olive oil and the same of water.

Jar 'o hummus

After it was all combined, I stood in the kitchen for a few minutes, dipping my finger into the bowl for tastes and remembering back to high school. Later I handed some to Scott, with a bowl of cucumber slices, for a snack. He declared it tasty, but then pointed out the unblended clove of garlic that landed in his bowl (how does that happen in the midst of all that processing?).  The rest I scraped into a large jar for storage. In the last 24 hours, we’ve already made a considerable dent.

This is one of those recipes that gets better with age, as the ingredients get a chance to hang out and intermingle with one another. I’m planning on making several batches for my wedding (the reception is going to be a potluck), because it can safely hang out for a bit without being refrigerated, it makes the vegetarians happy and it goes down very, very easy. There’s a more specific recipe after the jump.

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Homemade Mayonnaise

jar of homemade mayonnaise

For years, I’ve been reading food books in which homemade mayonnaise is described in rapt, nearly euphoric terms. I recently read an essay (did anyone else read this? Where was it? Thanks to Taylor, the story has been found.) in which a woman describes how her aunt was known for her pimento cheese sandwiches and brought them to every major event in her community. The first step in making these beloved sandwiches was whisking the mayonnaise together from scratch. The sandwich maker stated plainly that the sandwiches weren’t worth preparing if you were going to resort to Hellman’s or Duke’s.

Thinking about homemade mayo, I’m also reminded of an essay in Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, in which she recalls picking up Julia Child from the airport in France and they eat oeufs mayonnaise together at a small countryside cafe. The description of Child happily eating freshly made mayonnaise on eggs, french fries, baguette and from the tips of her fingers has always delighted me.

However, despite all these lovely literary evocations, until tonight I had never before made mayonnaise on my own. I’ve been talking about it for months, mentioning it as a possible Fork You topic, without settling down and trying it in my own kitchen. I followed a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, as I’ve always loved the way she writes about food, her instructions made me feel calm instead of anxious. I also was comforted by the fact that she offered several variations on how to save your mayo if it broke.

Mine did break at first, primarily because I chose to be lazy and use my KitchenAid mixer’s whisk to do the work (Nigella does offer it as an option, but also states that she always does it by hand). As I incorporated the olive oil, my burgeoning mayonnaise couldn’t hold another drop and became gloppy and loose. I tried Nigella’s suggestion of adding couple of drops of boiling water, but that did nothing to reconstitute it, so I broke open another egg, separated it and slowly incorporated my broken mayo into that yolk, hand-whisking it in. That worked perfect and I was rewarded with gorgeous, creamy mayonnaise. I used some to make egg salad, which I ate on top of a pile of baby arugula for dinner (Scott’s away and so my meals have become less structured in his absence).

I now have a half-filled pint jar of really delicious, homemade mayonnaise in my fridge. I think tomorrow night I’ll stir some minced garlic into some and turn it into aioli.

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A pint of Salsa Fresca

salsa fresca

I was 13 when I first learned that salsa was something one could make at home. Up until that point, I functioned under the belief that salsa was the product of some mysterious alchemy, making it something that could only be purchased at Safeway or Trader Joe’s. This culinary revelation came when my parents decided to go to Europe for work/vacation and left my sister and me with the older daughter of a family friend.

Deliah had a completely different approach to food than the 3 balanced meals a day routine that Raina and I were familiar with. She used lots of bright, vivid flavors and believed that dinner could consist of fresh salsa, tortilla chips and a dollop of sour cream. Needless to say, we adored her.

One afternoon, I watched as she made the salsa, dragging the colander of tomatoes out to the living room coffee table, along with a cutting board, mixing bowl, sharp knife and salt shaker. She set up her tools in front of the TV and I observed as she chopped the tomatoes and added diced onion, minced jalapeno, torn cilantro, lime juice and lots of salt. She set the bowl aside for awhile, to let the flavors mingle and later we feasted until our lips blistered from the acids.

Later, I taught my mom how to make salsa and we would make batch after batch from the tomatoes that grew in the backyard, using it to top scrambled eggs or digging in with chips. The first year I was living in Philadelphia, my dad and sister came to visit me for Thanksgiving. My mom couldn’t fly that year, so in her place, she sent a quart jar of homemade salsa in her place, triple wrapped and tucked into my dad’s checked luggage. It wasn’t quite as good as seeing her, but nearly.

These days, fresh salsa is one of my summertime refrigerator staples. I make it at least once or twice a week, alternating between spiking it with jalapeño/cilantro/lime or black pepper/basil/olive oil (for an italian flavor instead of a Mexican one). It’s not something I typically make on a larger scale and can (although I am planning on canning some cooked salsas and tomatillo condiments this summer), but I always stash it in a canning jar for temporary storage.

Last night, I made Molly Watson’s Turkey Tacos for dinner and they cried out to be accompanied by some fresh salsa. Tomatoes aren’t even remotely in season at the moment, and so I stood in the aisle of Sue’s Produce for a moment, tortillas, limes and jalapeños heaped in the crook of my arm, debating whether to indulge or not. The craving won out and I picked up a single Ugly-branded tomato. It didn’t come close to the tomatoes I get in the summer, but it did the job.

My very basic recipe is after the jump…

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Homemade Sauerkraut

sauerkraut-and-kielbasa

Last October, Scott and I filmed an episode of Fork You with Scott Gryzbek of Zukay Live Foods. Zukay makes a line of probiotic condiments and Scott (Gryzbek) came on the show to teach us some basic fermentation techniques. We made pickled daikon, an apple-pear chutney and sauerkraut. The episode was really fun to film and it piqued my interest for fermentation as a means of preservation.

Unfortunately, I let the chutney ferment a little too long and the sugars turned to alcohol, so we never got to taste that one. However, both the pickled daikon and the sauerkraut were huge successes. We polished off the daikon some time ago, but the sauerkraut has been hanging out in the fridge, waiting for a good application.

Sunday night, we planned a simple dinner. We had a coil of supermarket kielbasa in the fridge and two pounds of brussels sprouts that I was going to halve and roast with onions and garlic. Scott said, “Too bad we don’t have some sauerkraut.” In a flash, I remembered the jar that was tucked in the back of the refrigerator. He sliced up the sausage and tossed it in a frying pan with about half the jar of sauerkraut. Ten minutes later, the sausage was browned and the sauerkraut was translucent and pungently aromatic.

sauerkraut-in-fridge

I am now totally sold on homemade sauerkraut, because it was dead easy to make and so much more delicious that anything than came from the store (and there’s something magical about cutting up a cabbage in October and not eating it until February). We simply thinly sliced the cabbage (a nice big one from the Headhouse Square Farmers Market), put it in the bowl with a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of fennel seeds (we didn’t have any carraway, which is the traditional flavoring) and banged it up with a potato masher to break down the cell structure of the cabbage a bit. Then we packed it into a jar (packed being the operative word) and topped it with a bit of distilled water (just enough to cover the cabbage). Then it just hung out in a corner of the kitchen for about a month. I put it in the fridge after that time, but I do believe that you can also let it spend a bit more time doing its thing.

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