Dark Days: Veal Cutlets, Sauteed Spinach and Roasted Potatoes

Valentine's Day Meal

The short, chilly days of winter are now upon us and that means just one thing. Time for another round of the Dark Day Challenge, in which participants from all over the country (and world) prepare at least one intentionally local meal per week during the winter and blog about it. The goal is to prove that it’s possible to eat locally, even during the cold months when the verdant abundance of summer is just a memory.

For this first week, I have a meal that’s actually doing double duty for me. It’s the bulk of my article for the February issue of Grid Philly, all about how to have a romantic and tasty home-cooked Valentine’s Day. You’ll have to wait until that issue hits the street (or internet) to get the full details of the menu. However, I can tell you that it was everything you want in a celebratory meal – a little bit special, not at all too hard and very satisfying. It also requires the use of both a knife and a fork, which alone elevates it above more than half the meals I make on a regular basis. All ingredients were sourced from the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market, a highly useful resource for Philadelphia grocery shoppers as they carry nearly everything you need for virtuous eating, all year round.

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Holiday Giving: Homemade Vanilla Extract

vanilla extract ingredients

Thanksgiving is behind us and out here on the East Coast, December is less than an hour away. Sounds to me like a fine time to start talking about homemade, edible gifts (well, as long as you’re prepping for Christmas. For those of you starting your Hanukkah celebrations tomorrow night, well, I’ve failed you miserably).

Now, I know that lots of you spent the summer putting up luscious jams, vivid jellies and puckery pickles to tuck into boxes and baskets. However, I have my suspicions that there are more than a few folks out there just beginning to think about how to cover their gift giving bases. I can empathize, as I am a known procrastinator and truly, if it weren’t for my canning habit, I’d be perpetually stuck for hostess and holiday gifts.

splitting vanilla beans

However, there is hope. One easy, lovely holiday gift that you can get started now and will be ready in plenty of time for Christmas/New Year’s giving is homemade vanilla extract. It’s an amazingly easy thing to do and people are mightily impressed when you present them with a ribbon-wrapped bottle.

Vanilla beans in vodka

Making vanilla extract is as simple as splitting eight or nine beans (although even more is better) and dropping them into a bottle of vodka. Now, I realize that vanilla beans can be a bit spendy. However, if you buy them bulk the price drops impressively. I have found that you can get them on eBay in bundles of 12, 15, 30 or more beans for just a few bucks. Team up with a few friends, order a pound and suddenly whole vanilla beans won’t feel like such a rare commodity anymore.

I like to let the beans steep for at least a couple of weeks before pouring the now-infused booze into the regular-mouth half pints jars. I typically include at least one bean in per jar (though two is even better) that I’m gifting and I like to top each one off with a bit of dark rum, to balance the sharpness of the vodka.

It’s nice to add a tag to the jar before giving it as a gift, instructing the recipient that as they use it, they can keep topping it off with vodka or rum to extend the extract. Eventually the vanilla bean will surrender the entirety of its fragrant virtue, but it can refresh several rounds of booze quite happily.

Updated: Many of you have gotten in touch to say that you don’t think that a couple of weeks is long enough to fully develop the extract flavor. And while I’ve always managed to get good vanilla flavor in that time, I do understand that results can vary. If you don’t think the vanilla extract is sufficiently vanilla-y when the gift exchanges arrive, you can still bottle it up and give it away. Just let your recipients know that it may need a bit more time to get appropriately fragrant and flavorful. Asking people to wait prior to use does nothing to the thoughtfulness and eventual utility of the gift.

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Open Jars: Upside-Down Jam Cake

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still trying to get myself together after all the food and lazing about of the Thanksgiving holiday. Happily, while I recover from the amount of pumpkin pie I’ve ingested in the last five days, I have a guest post from Melissa who blogs at The Wynk to keep you all entertained. As you plan your holiday meals and parties, her very clever Upside-Down Jam Cake is definitely one to file away.

Here’s my confession: I love pineapple upside-down cake so much I could eat the entire thing in one sitting. I had some jam lying around and decided to see if I could do something similar with it. It turned out so delicious, that it’s now my new favorite way to both use up leftover jam and bake cakes.

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It’s also brilliantly easy, because you go through all the same steps you normally do to make cake, with one addition: after you grease the cake pan, add a layer of jam to it!

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You want to get a nice layer of jam in the bottom, but it doesn’t even have to be the same kind of jam. The cake I made last night had a bit of tangerine marmalade and a bit of strawberry-muscat.

Then, you just make your cake up as usual. You can use your own favorite cake recipe, or even a box mix.

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Pour the cake in the pan, on top of the jam.

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Pop it in the oven and bake to your recipe’s instructions.

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Let it cool a few minutes, and then turn it upside down onto a platter.

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Experiment with different combinations of jam and cake. The more fruit there is in the jam, the better it will come out.

apricot upside-down cake

vegan chocolate-strawberry upside-down cake

Another thing I’ve learned–coworkers really don’t mind if you bring in your experiments. That is, if there’s any left. ;)

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Let the Thanksgiving Prep Begin!

Pre-Thanksgiving Fridge

It’s the day before Thanksgiving. All across the country, turkeys are transitioning into states of readiness. The vegetables are gathered and waiting for their assignments. Desserts are being baked and serving dishes are getting getting their annual preparatory rinse.

I’m not responsible for cooking the full meal this year. In a few hours, Scott and I will be braving I-95 South (along with half the eastern seaboard) in order to spend the holiday with his mother and extended family. It’s not a wholy cooking free week for me, though. I spent the last two nights baking a double batch of these blondies and two of the vanilla bean loaves from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte (it’s the best pound cake I’ve ever had) as my contribution to the Thursday dessert table.

My family’s meal is taking place on Saturday and I’m bringing a vanilla-flecked sweet potato puree (loosely based upon this one), mashed cauliflower (so my carb-avoiding husband can have something akin to potatoes) and about a half gallon of homemade gravy. My cousin Angie is roasting the turkey and has promised to save the drippings, so that we can add them to said gravy.

I’m also taking a jar of that Cranberry Quince Sauce I mentioned yesterday to each of these dinners. I’m excited to share some of what I’ve canned with these friends and family. This time of year, it just feels right to share a bit of my own bountiful harvest (no matter that I didn’t grow any of the food I put up).

And that leads me to my question for all of you. How are you integrating the foods you’ve canned and preserved this year into your Thanksgiving celebrations? Whether you’ve made your own cranberry sauce, you’re laying out a relish tray bedecked with homemade pickles, or you grew and preserved every single side dish, I want to hear about it. Additionally, if you manage to snap a few photos of your jars in action this holiday season, don’t forget to add them to the Food in Jars Flickr group.

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Cranberry Quince Sauce

cranberry quince sauce

As promised, here’s how I turned the quince pulp leftover from making jelly into a cranberry quince sauce. Just so you know, I went pretty light on the sugar. I wanted something that would have the necessary flavors to go alongside turkey, but would still be good to eat throughout the rest of the year (as soon as I pop the first jar, I’m plan eating a big scoop with some cottage cheese and a few Ak-mak crackers).

This is the type of recipe that’s more technique that true recipe. That’s to say consider this a starting point. Use what you have and adjust the ingredients in order to make it taste good to you.

quince pulp

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November Can Jam: Rosy Quince Jelly

quince by the sink

It took me years to figure out that quince were edible. During my middle school years my family lived in a house that, years before, had been owned by a botanist. She had planted beautiful and exotic trees all over the property, many of which were impressively mature during our time there. Towards the back of the property, there was a cluster of fruit trees we optimistically called “The Orchard.”

chopping quince

There were four unidentified apple trees, a bedraggled pear tree that only produced one mealy piece of fruit per year and a mysterious tree that produced rock hard furry pieces of fruit that we had no idea what to do with. Season after season, we let these dense, inedible fruits ripen and rot.

boiling quince

It wasn’t until last year did I finally made the connection between that old tree and the fruit I’d come to know as quince. As soon as I realized what we had had and squandered, I felt a bit mournful. If I ever come across a feral quince again someday, I won’t make the same mistake.

boiling quince

If you’ve never worked with quince, here are a few things you should know. When it is ripe, it smells incredibly fragrant, clean and floral. However, for as good as the fruit can smell while sitting demurely in a bowl on the counter, during the cooking process it goes through a period of time when it releases a terrible scent, akin to my sister’s dirty feet.

It’s also challenging to cut and clean. The flesh is dense and resists the blade of the knife like the dickens (to use a phrase of my father’s). It requires a good deal more force than the apples and pears we’re all used to and so you’ve also got to be increasingly wary not to slip and cut yourself. I’ve come close a number of times.

quince pulp in a strainer

Quince is best known as the main ingredient in membrillo, a vividly hued paste that’s most popular in Spain as a accompaniment to cheese. It also makes an excellent jelly, because it’s so rich in pectin that it needs little else to set up into a delicate, spreadable condiment. What’s more, if you boil the fruit with water to extract the juice, you will still have a great deal of pulp leftover, which can become part of a jam or sauce. I combined mine with four cups of cranberries and now have four pints of tart, floral sauce, some of which is headed straight for our Thanksgiving table (that recipe will be up tomorrow).

quince jelly

Yesterday, I took four different varieties of my preserves to a cheese tasting that my friend Tenaya organized. Let me tell you, this quince jelly was so, so good paired with a Spanish goat cheese called Idiazabal (please don’t ask me to pronounce it). With Thanksgiving coming up, I can also imagine it smeared on a piece of leftover turkey to very pleasing results.

the three cheeses and their jams

The recipe I used is after the jump. Since there’s no additional pectin here, you can scale the recipe up or down as needed. However, I wouldn’t increase the size of the recipe too, too much, as it will then take more time to cook the jelly to the correct temperature.

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