Friday, September 29, 2006


I don’t eat jam. So why did I just spend 4 hours obsessing over hygienically converting 2 flats of raspberries into 6 little canning jars of jam? Well, OK, I use jam to make things like cookies and cakes.

For you sharp readers out there, I froze the raspberries until I had time and cooler temperatures to deal with them properly.

Why 4 hours? Because I’m a perfectionist who hasn’t canned in a year, and my sterile techniques were a bit rusty. The last thing I was going to do was cut corners, so I ended up having to bring my large canning pot to a rolling boil more frequently than I should have needed to should I have been on top of my game. And then, when I was all ready to start dispensing hot jam into my sterile containers, the freshly sterilized ladle fell on the floor, so there was even more boiling to do.

The best part of canning is always the space of time after the actual process, when you linger in the steamy kitchen listening for the popping of the seals.

I will record my jam recipe here for my own reference, as it contains only a small amount of quince pectin, which threw off the sugar ratio somewhat. In general, a good berry jam recipe is to use 6 cups of sugar to 9 cups of berry juice.

Nearly Seedless Raspberry Jam

Process raspberries a handful or so at a time through a food mill to extract the juice from the seeds. Some seeds will make it into the juice, but most of them won’t.

Measure out juice – I had 7 cups of juice

Calculate the amount of sugar you need to add with the following formula: (amount of juice) * 2/3 --
I rounded up and used 5 cups of sugar, because I was also adding ½ cup of quince pectin.

Mix juice with sugar (and pectin) in a large pan over medium to high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Be careful as your jam reaches the boiling point, as it will begin to froth quite a bit. Remove from heat as necessary to keep the jam within the pot, and keep stirring until it settles down while still boiling. Then reduce until it thickens to your liking. One way to test thickness is to watch how it drips off your spoon. As the individual drips begin to flow more into a sheeting action (mine never really reached a true sheeting action), your jam should be at a reasonable reduction. Pour into sterile jars to can in a boiling water bath, or pour into clean jars to store in the refrigerator.

The extra jam I had after filling my canning jars jelled very well once it cooled. This is not representative of the jelling in the canned jars, since the extra processing during canning can compromise the jelling somewhat.

Thai Green Curry

One of my all time favorite Thai dishes.

I first sampled this dish at an easily overlooked and under-acknowledged Thai restaurant in the University District of Seattle. I didn’t even know the restaurant was there at first, until it came to my attention by word of mouth. It is below street level on one of the minor streets that run perpendicular to “the ave.” I’m not sure what the name of it is or if it is even still there. But back in the day, I rarely ordered anything besides their Thai green curry.

Since then I have tried to relive that Thai green curry experience at many a Thai restaurant, by endlessly and obsessively ordering Thai green curry dishes. These explorations usually end in disappointment. Usually green curries include what I consider bland chicken or tofu and various vegetables that don’t excite me as much as eggplant – zucchini for example. So if I want Thai green curry done right, or rather to my personal taste, I have to roll up my sleeves and do it myself. It really doesn’t take that long to make once you have green curry paste on hand. Even better if you have a supply of homegrown organic ingredients outside your door. My green curry paste is aging, so I added a little extra lemon grass -- one of the more volatile components of the paste. I was fortunate enough to only need to slip out into the garden and snip off a small stalk. I had plump Indian eggplants that were contemplating growing dull and “bitter”. I even had a few Thai basil leaves left to collect before the cooler temperatures stifle their vigor.

In this recipe it is important to note that technically coconut cream is the undiluted contents of a can of coconut “milk”. Coconut milk is coconut cream diluted with an equal amount of water. Open a standard size can of coconut “milk” (about 2 cups) and dump the contents into a bowl. Mix well. Then measure out ½ cup to use in the recipe as cream and add 1 ½ cups of water and stir well to add later as milk.

I make my own green curry paste. I haven’t even bothered with the packaged variety. There are a lot of volatile flavors that I suspect won’t preserve well during processing. The green curry paste recipe is a bit labor intensive, but if you can find all the ingredients it is fun to make and very rewarding. It makes enough paste for quite a few meals. I freeze the excess and it keeps well for at least a year. If you’d like to try the green curry paste recipe, please reference Nancie McDermott’s book Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking. If you enjoy Thai food, this book is a wonderful investment, even though it includes a lot of meat dishes. Use your creativity to get around relying on meat, but I don’t think you can really substitute anything suitable for fish sauce. Some people sub soy sauce. Fish sauces are usually made with anchovies, which are a relatively unpolluted source of beneficial omega 3’s.

If you accidentally combine the lime zest and lime juice, go ahead and add them together when the recipe calls for lime zest. The flavor of the resulting dish won’t be negatively affected.

If I remember correctly, this is a version of a green curry recipe from Nancie McDermott’s book, that I altered to imitate the object of my original green curry affection. It is nearly spot on, by the way. If anything, it only differs in tasting a bit healthier and fresher.

Mostly Vegetarian Green Curry

Vegetable oil
½ yellow onion, sliced into rings and then in half
½ cup coconut cream
¼ cup green curry paste
3 cups coconut milk
1 ½ cups stemmed and quartered Thai eggplant (or other eggplant cut into bite sized pieces)
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
12 fresh wild lime leaves (or ½ tsp lime zest and juice of ½ lime)
½ cup Thai basil leaves (or other fresh basil leaves)
9 thin red bell pepper strips

Heat some oil in a large skillet and saute onion until golden. Set onion aside.

To the same pan, add coconut cream over medium heat. Allow the coconut cream to boil gently and then lower the heat so that it is just warm enough to keep the cream boiling gently. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. When tiny pools of oil begin to glisten from the surface of the cream, add the curry paste and stir to dissolve it into the cream. Cook for another couple of minutes, until the mixture has a pleasing aroma.

Increase the heat and add the coconut milk, eggplant, fish sauce, sugar and salt. Mix well. Add half the lime leaves or the lime zest, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle, active boil. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the onion and cook until the eggplant is tender. Adjust seasoning as desired. If using, add the lime juice, and immediately remove from the heat. Transfer to a serving bowl. Add basil, bell pepper, and remaining lime leaves and stir before serving.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

When Life Gives You Quince . . .

. . . make quince pectin! Years ago I planted a Japanese quince in my garden. While my main goal was to attract hummingbirds with its early-blooming red flowers, I began to wonder if the fruits of their pollinating labor were useful as well.

Searching on the internet, I didn’t find much hope, as various sites defined the fruit of the Japanese variety of quince as inedible. Upon further investigation, I’ve come to find that those sources really meant “unpalatable” as opposed to “inedible”. That is a huge difference! Quince fruit are best described as tasting like a mixture of green apple and lemon. They are just slightly less tart than a slice of lemon. I can just barely eat them slowly, a slice at a time, but then I’ve been known to eat lemon when I have a nasty cold. Also in high school I was addicted to those crazy Japanese sour lemon candies. All that natural sour fruitiness has its pluses – quince are high in vitamin C. Not only that, quinces are much higher in pectin than sour apples.

There is rumor that quince was the alluring apple from the garden of eden.

And here I was bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have an apple tree, after I read that I could make pectin out of green apples. Meanwhile my quince fruits were plumping up and ripening to a lovely chartreuse. What could I do, but immediately pluck a few and commence pectin extraction.

See I’m one of those crazy purist types who refuses to buy commercial pectin to add to homemade jam to ensure jelling. Many fruits can be made into jam without added pectin, however I’ve found that when making nearly seedless blackberry jam, I don’t get jelling, despite the supposedly high pectin content of blackberries. Apparently I’m too much of a perfectionist when it comes to picking blackberries, because the riper berries contain less pectin. So inevitably I’m enchanted with the idea of making my own pectin from a natural source, and especially thrilled that I can use an otherwise “unpalatable” fruit growing organically in my backyard.

The only change I made to accommodate the quince fruit in place of the apple, in this pectin recipe, was to cut the quince into sixths instead of eighths, because the quince are notably smaller. Of further note, I used a mixture of semi-ripe and ripe quince, whereas if you are using apple you’ll want to use strictly under ripe fruits.

Homemade Pectin

For every pound of washed and sliced apple, add 2 cups of water and combine in a large pot. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Fruit should be tender. Cool to a workable temperature.

Pour the contents of your pot through a jelly bag, cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel, into a large bowl. Gather the corners of the cheesecloth or towel and tie to a knob, faucet, or somewhere you can leave it suspended over the bowl over night. [note: after some deliberation I chose to use my standing blender and the blender bowl].

The next day pour the juices from the bowl into a suitably sized pot. Note the level of the liquid in the pot (either measure it or just eye it if you feel confident you will remember). Boil over high heat and cook until reduced by half. [note: my pectin left a mark where it began evaporating from, so it was fairly easy to tell when it was half reduced, even without measuring]. Cool and then either refrigerate and use within 4 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.

In an old canning booklet, I read that you should use 1 cup of apple pectin for every cup of fruit juice when making jelly. However, if the fruit you are using has good pectin content, you can probably get away with less. For reference, I used 1 ¼ pounds of quince fruit and got about ½ cup of quince pectin.

Thai Green Bean Salad -- Eating in Season

The people of France know how to eat well. I hear they shop at street markets every day to pick up fresh produce, spices, and other ingredients. When I was in college I tried to emulate this lifestyle as much as possible. It was refreshing to eat what I happened to be craving that day, walk to the store (as much as half an hour away by foot), and buy what I required. I quickly noticed that our society here in America does not generally embrace this method of grocery shopping. Often I would cringe at the shopping carts brimming over with packaged food in front of me in line. Over the years I came to the conclusion that waiting in line like that was a huge waste of my time and sanity.

Since my appetite for organic and more exotic foods has increased exponentially, my preferred market for grocery shopping is only reasonably reached by vehicle. Always the fuel conscious individual (even back in the late 90’s when gas was cheap), I cannot justify driving to the market without combining it with another errand that takes me to that general vicinity. Therefore, I have, out of necessity, adapted to planning my menus a week or so in advance, compiling a list, and nearly filling a half-sized shopping cart. Gone were my days of reckless shopping spontaneity. Or so I thought.

Lately I’ve begun to try to buy more seasonable organic produce and use my finds as inspiration for my menu selections. This adds nouveau spontaneity to my shopping adventures, as well as my culinary explorations. Some times I know what I can make with the produce du jour, sometimes I’m not prepared with a recipe, and will eagerly ferret one out of my various recipe resources. This past week I couldn’t resist the organic green beans, even though I generally have disturbing memories of over-cooked green beans from childhood. But I knew the perfect recipe for them, a Thai vegetable dish that I first tried this spring when Chinese long beans were on sale.

For every recipe that I am familiar with there are certain ingredients I can count on in my cupboard, and certain ones that need to be bought fresh. Usually I am pretty good about remembering the ingredients that I need to buy without a list, but often times I overlook one or two. The first time I tried this recipe with the green beans, I had not looked at the recipe in over a year, nor had I cooked it yet. However, the recipe title was reassuring enough that I felt I had a good chance of remembering the necessary produce. Sure enough, the green beans, cherry tomatoes, and asian eggplants were the only ingredients not in my cupboard already. Not only was my shopping a success, but so was the finished product.

I would consider this to be a cold Thai salad. I found this recipe at Epicurious. What it lacks in stomach-filling properties, it more than makes up for on the palate. It goes well over warm rice. I’ve tried it with both white and brown basmati rice and I have to recommend the brown rice, which adds some earthy flavor to the meal. I must chastise myself for not serving this more over the summer months, because it is quick to throw together and satisfying on a warm night.

Tangy Eggplant, Long Bean, and Cherry Tomatoes with Roasted Peanuts

½ pound long thin Asian eggplants (about 2)
½ teaspoon vegetable oil
1 ½ Tablespoons fish sauce
4 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
½ pound long beans or other green beans
10 cherry tomatoes
2 Tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
1 Tablespoon roasted peanuts

Cut eggplants at a 45 degree angle in ½ inch thick slices. Brush both sides of the slices with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Broil on high 3 to 4 inches from heat for about 4 minutes, or until slices begin to brown. Turn slices and repeat.

While the eggplant is broiling, mix fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice in your medium or large serving bowl. Stir until all the sugar dissolves.

Once the eggplant has broiled, add to the fish sauce mixture and combine until the eggplant is well coated.

Now blanch the beans. Boil lightly salted water in a medium sized pan. Cut beans into 1 ½ inch lengths. Add to the boiling water for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath (ice plus water). After 2 minutes of boiling, immediately drain the beans and add to the ice bath. Drain and add to the eggplant mixture.

Cut your cherry tomatoes into bite-size slices. Coarsely chop cilantro. Finely chop peanuts. Add tomatoes, cilantro, and peanuts to the eggplant mixture and mix well.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Holy Basil

Every year I grow Thai Holy basil for one dish, and one dish only. Chicken with Holy Basil. My husband and I first tried this dish at a great Thai restaurant in Seattle, called Racha.

All basil plants love hot weather, but Holy basil is particularly finicky. We had cool rainy weather most of the way into June, so I was afraid my Holy basil was doomed. I did manage to nurse along 3 plants and with cooler weather returning, it was time to harvest and feast.

Thai basil is an unusual basil plant in that its leaves resemble a cross between mint leaves and basil leaves.

The only complaint I have with this dish is that I could easily double the basil content. This recipe comes from my favorite Thai cookbook: Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking by Nancie McDermott.

Gai Paht Bai Graprao

1 chicken breast half
1 chicken thigh
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1 Tablespoon fresh Serrano chili, minced
2 Tablepoons fish sauce
1 Tablespoon water
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup holy basil leaves, cut in thin strips (or substitute half basil and half mint leaves)
9 long, thin sweet red bell pepper strips

Cut your chicken into bite-sized cubes.

Mix the fish sauce, water, soy sauce, and brown sugar in a small bowl.
Heat a deep pan over medium-high heat. Add oil and coat the inside of the pan well. Once the oil is heated, add garlic and chili. Saute until golden. Add chicken and stir-fry about a minute. Add the fish sauce mixture and continue stir-frying for another minute or so. Once your chicken looks thoroughly cooked, add basil and bell pepper. Mix until basil begins to wilt.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lemon Truffle Cake

I must confess to having an affinity for See’s cream-filled chocolates. Among my favorite flavors is the lemon cream. It used to be the raspberry one, but I’ve begun to discern the jarring chemical taste of the artificial flavoring. So, back to the matter at hand: Lemon & chocolate – not a traditional or even intuitive combination, but one that has begun to fixate me. Could it be the combination of sour, bitter and sweet that has me so fascinated? I’m intrigued enough that I decided to make a cake that would combine the tart lemon flavors with the darker nuances of chocolate. I chose to pair a moist, almost moussey chocolate cake with lemon curd. My husband always doubts these adventures off the beaten culinary path, but once again, he had to eat his words.

A second confession: I have piles of clippings and print-outs from the internet with recipes I have never, ever gotten around to making. Believe it or not, I’ve been saving recipes from magazines since I was a child, barely allowed to navigate the kitchen. I remember working on a school project in fifth grade that required clipping pictures from magazines. In the process of completing my assignment, I clipped out a small fortune of recipes that I wanted to try – not surprisingly most of them were dessert recipes.

This chocolate cake recipe was from a Seattle Times butter commercial from 1996 that my mother saved for me. The cake is a recipe from the owner of Borracchini’s Bakery and Mediterranean Market, in Seattle.

Remo Borracchini’s Chocolate Fudge Cake

¾ cup butter, softened
½ cup cocoa
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 egg yolks
2 ¼ cups flour
3 Tsp baking powder
1 cup cold water
3 egg whites

Grease and flour two 9 x ½ round pans.

Sift flour and baking powder into a small bowl.

In a large bowl, beat cocoa into butter. Add sugar gradually. Beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and then egg yolks one at a time. Add flour and baking powder a little at a time. Add water and beat until smooth. [note: I had to add some water before I finished adding dry ingredients, because the consistency was unmanageable]

In a small bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold egg whites into cake batter.

Bake at 300 degrees F for 30-35 minutes. Cool.

Lemon Curd

4 eggs, slightly beaten
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp grated lemon peel
4-5 Tbsp lemon juice
2 cups granulated sugar

In a saucepan, add all ingredients and heat slowly over medium heat, while stirring constantly, until it begins to thicken and bubble – 5 to 10 minutes. [note: be very careful not to overheat the egg or else use a double boiler] Remove from heat and cool at least 2 hours or 1 day.

Assemble Lemon Truffle Cake

Cut one of your cakes flat on the top. Pour a portion of the lemon curd on top, making a thin layer. Place your second cake on top. With the remaining curd, you can either drizzle some on top or pool it below slices as you serve. Pooling the curd has the advantage of allowing the diner to control the amount of curd they eat with each forkful of cake.

To be safe I stored my cake in the refrigerator, along with the extra curd. I’m not sure if the curd is safe to sit at room temperature*, but in any case refrigeration (along with covering) seems to keep the cake exceptionally moist.

* Proof you can find just about anything on the internet – here’s some information on shelf stability of lemon curd, which recommends refrigeration, by the way.

Foodie Pandemic

With the pitter patter of little raindrops falling on my roof, and with daylight dimming to nearly perpetual dusk behind deep charcoal gray clouds, I'm feeling symptoms of the cooking virus re-surfacing. Better step back, I think it might be contagious.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Dust Bowl Re-Visited

The following are excerpts from an article titled "Dust Bowl 2006?" found here:

More than 60 percent of the United States is in drought or experiencing abnormally dry conditions, according to Mark Svoboda, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who said the drought stretches from Georgia to Arizona and north as far as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Montana.

The Dakotas are the worst-hit, where weeks of unbroken 100-degree days have scorched crops and dried up ponds and streams, leaving dry alkali dust free to be picked up and blown by the wind, a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in the area since giant dust storms swept the Midwest during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

"The 1999 to 2006 drought ranks only behind the 1930s and the 1950s. It's the third-worst drought on record—period," Rippey said.

Susie White, who runs the Lone Steer motel and restaurant in Steele, North Dakota, a town of about 760 people, told the AP that even out-of-state travelers have been noticing the effects of the drought on local farms and ranches.

"Even I never paid attention to the crops around here. But I notice them now because they're not there," she said. "We're all wondering how we're going to stay alive this winter if the farmers don't make any money this summer."

High Fuel Costs and Your Food Supply

The following is an article titled "Agriculture Facing its own Katrina" that I found here:

Agriculture today is facing a major catastrophe not experienced since the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression. Based on expert economic projections, for the first time in decades, many U.S. farmers cannot possibly "cash flow" a crop or crops for the year 2006. Bankers are saying "No." Many of us will not be able to farm this year or the next. The doubling and tripling of fuel and petrochemical prices are the last link in a chain of bad economic events.

Since Aug. 29, the entire world has been focused on the aftermath of the terrible destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Then, to make a terrible tragedy even worse, Hurricane Rita slammed into Southeast Texas and Western Louisiana on Sept. 24.

These two storms had an impact on the nation's fuel refining capacity, increasing prices beyond an already dismal situation. In agriculture, we cannot pass these prices along as other industries do. Ultimately, it means the numbers don't add up. If we can't show positive cash flow, we won't get our operating loans.

For farmers, a Katrina-like disaster is building. It will soon swamp many family farming operations. Astronomical fuel prices, fertilizer and chemical costs have reached the point that even a modest profit is impossible.

Farmers are receiving the lowest price for commodities that myself or most farmers can remember. Farmers are a proud group, usually not willing to protest. This time, I hope someone is listening. We are literally at the end of the turn row. That's a metaphor for desperation. Agriculture is in serious trouble.

A friend of mine and long-time Central Texas farmer sums up the current crisis in a unique way: "It's a lot easier to do nothin' for nothin' than somethin' for nothin'." Why invest huge amounts, work from daylight to dark and struggle for a profit when you know you have no chance?

What if, one by one, many farmers are forced into the painful decision that they can't afford to plant this year and the next? How many such decisions will it take to produce, nation-wide, the bare grocery shelves brought about by Katrina and Rita?

Granted, food can and will be imported. If we allow American agriculture to wither and die, that will be our only choice. If this sounds familiar, it's exactly what we did with energy. Does anyone like what they are paying at the pump now? Do we really want our food supply at the mercy of producers outside our own borders?

With this dismal prospect in mind, we can begin to view the federal farm program as an investment in keeping farmers on the land and preserving the ability to feed our own people at a reasonable cost. Congress and the Bush administration have proposed drastic spending cuts in the federal farm program, while preserving lavish pork barrel spending. Are our priorities really that far out of whack?

U.S. agriculture can feed the world if the profit is there. The federal farm program is a safety net that equally protects U.S. farmers and consumers. Under the current protectionist trade policies in the world, there is no way to farm without it. Drastic cuts would take us down a policy path that is dangerous for our food security. I don't believe we really want to go there.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Just When We Need More Atkins Dieters . . .

Brace yourself for an increase in the price of bread products and flour. Wide-spread drought has spoiled wheat crops across the world. Reference the following Forbes article: Wheat Prices Climbing Amid Global Drought. In particular, note the following couple of quotes:
  1. "There is this band around the world where wheat is produced that is affected by this drought"
  2. “Texas is going to harvest the fewest number of acres since 1925”

If you want to keep your costs down, start stocking up on flour now. I’m not sure if it was coincidental, but this week when I made it a point to buy another sack of flour, I noticed a few bare shelves.

We tend to be pretty laissez-faire in our house about letting bread spoil on the counter, but I think I will start storing my bread in the refrigerator (even though there isn’t ever any room in there). Also, once bread starts to stale, it still makes for amazing croutons.

Reduce. Fully use. And hope for better luck during the next cycle.