The Recovery Plan

Peach & Strawberry Jam

About a week ago, I sat at my computer reviewing my ever-growing expenses and felt my left eye twitch. The twitching, I’m told, is caused by stress, and since a complete overhaul of one’s budget isn’t exactly the most peaceful exercise, I turned to the interwebs for distraction.

I ended up here.  Melissa Clark, high priestess of The New York Times Dining section and fellow Brooklynite, was making and canning jam. And she was making it look so easy! I make fruit sauces and refrigerator jams all the time, but true canning would allow me to preserve the best tastes of summer to enjoy all year long. Until I saw Clark’s demonstration I had been more than a little intimidated by the process: boiling and sterilizing jars, ensuring each jar has enough “headspace” and is sealed airtight, creating enough space in the kitchen to carry out the process from start to finish—it’s a lot of stuff. But Clark inspired me.

Hello, Weekend Project.

I bookmarked the video and made a trip to Whisk, a cooking supply store here in New York, for canning supplies. (They also have a well-stocked online store.) Even though you don’t need any special equipment for canning, a few tools make the process go much easier: a jar lifter, a wide-mouth funnel, a lid wand, and a set of tongs to lift the rings.

I’m getting ahead of myself. For the amateur home canner, the best jars to start with are 4-ounce or 8-ounce glass canning jars with metal lids and rings, like these.

As for jam ingredients, I lucked out at the farmers market—it was the last week for peaches, so I stocked my canvas bag full of them. I couldn’t find any of the lemon verbena Clark’s recipe called for, so I decided on some flavorful substitutions: the addition of almond extract (just a few drops) and Wild Turkey American Honey (a couple of generous tablespoons).

I returned home and re-read Clark’s peach jam recipe another ten times, and then watched the jamming & canning video again. And again. Once I was sure I had all the steps down, it was time to prepare the fruit for Phase I: Maceration. This step doesn’t require anything fancy—I combined the peaches, sugar, lemon zest and juice, almond extract and liquor together in a pot, bought it to a simmer, and then transferred the mixture to a big bowl.

Just peachy

It was like looking at sunset: pinks and yellows and oranges swirling together, shining brilliantly. Sigh. I covered the bowl, transferred it to the fridge and then headed to bed, a little too impressed with myself and very excited for the morning to come.

Sunday! The weather was perfect for a brisk walk to the waterfront, so I took one and returned home energized and readyfor Operation: Jam! All my equipment was assembled, jars ready for in-pot sterilization, and I had watched Clark’s video for what must have been the twentieth time in twenty-four hours. I separated the fruit solids from the syrup that developed overnight, and poured the rose-hued syrup into my 12-inch skillet and turned on the heat.

The fruit rested peacefully in a colander on the counter, slowly dripping its clinging juice into the bowl below. Bubbles appeared in the syrup as I stirred along. I was impatiently looking for foam, the kind of foam I remember from chemistry experiments gone wild in high school, the high billowing foam that Clark’s syrup produced in the video.

After a few more minutes, I still didn’t see any foam, so I raised the heat and turned my attention to the large stockpot full of boiling water on the adjacent burner. Time to sterilize the jars. I carefully took hold of each jar with the lifter and lowered them into the pot. But they wouldn’t stand up straight like they do in the video (reason: too much liquid in the pot).  Drops of boiling water splattered and stung my hands as I quickly and awkwardly maneuvered the jars.

And then I smelled it: burning caramel. I looked over and saw the syrup foaming and blackening rapidly. I left the jars to tumble in the water, covered the pot and went back to the skillet to save my syrup. I shut the heat and grabbed a spoon to stir, but it was too late.  It was goop. Burned and quickly hardening goop.

Sometimes you have a moment where everything. Just. Stops. You realize you were moving too fast, maybe taking too much on. Maybe you overestimated how good you really are. Or the expectations you had were so high that the level of disappointment you’re now experiencing will destroy your day.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. I mean, it was tempting. But the kitchen was a mess, and I had a project to finish. And it wasn’t going to be finished until there was jam canned in shelf-stable jars. Besides, if I stopped now I’d have go back to the depressing prospect of my unbalanced budget.

I took a breath. Even though the syrup was ruined, I still had the macerated peaches – soft and full of flavor. I had another two pounds of peaches for snacking in the fruit basket & a package of over-ripened strawberries in the fridge. It was time to get back to business and make this work.

RECIPE:

Peach & Strawberry Jam

Adapted from Melissa Clark

The Original Recipe

  • 3 pounds peaches (or combination of peaches and nectarines),
  • peeled and sliced
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1.5 tbsp American Honey Liquor
  • 4 drops almond extract

Combine all ingredients in a stockpot or large skillet. Bring to a simmer and stir as sugar dissolves. Remote from heat. Transfer mixture to a bowl and let sit overnight. In the morning, spoon the solids into a colander set over a large bowl, set that aside, and pour all the remaining syrup into a pot. Put the syrup into a wide skillet as Clark instructs, set it over medium high heat and look for the foam to form.

I’m going to pause here since this is where I screwed up—Be patient: I turned my attention away for a couple minutes and… Well, you know the rest. So! Once my syrup was burned and therefore useless, here’s what I ultimately did to make that beautiful jam you see in the picture:

The Recovery Plan:

  • 1 pound strawberries
  • 2 pounds peaches (or combination of peaches and nectarines)
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp. American Honey Liquor
  • 1/4 tsp. almond extract
  • Macerated peaches from previous recipe

Wash, hull and quarter the strawberries. Peel and cut the peaches into 1” chunks. Combine all ingredients through the almond extract in a stockpot (you heard me – forget the skillet). Set the pot over medium high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil 2 minutes, stirring, until sugar dissolves, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.

Simmer 25- 30 minutes, then remove from heat.  The fruit will be soft but still intact, and the mixture will be a little thicker but still viscous. Using a large spoon, transfer the fruit solids to a colander set over a large bowl.  Return the syrup to a boil, and allow to boil for 3 to 5 minutes until you see foam begin to form around the edges. Reduce heat so that syrup is at a full simmer. Cook for another 15 – 20 minutes, and continue to stir mixture as it thickens. Be sure to reduce heat if foam rises too high or mixture starts boiling again.

Once your syrup passes the “wrinkle test” in Clark’s video, or registers 220 degrees on a candy thermometer, return the fruit to the pot, stir into the syrup and remove from heat. Cover the pot.

Now, you can focus on the canning. Go forth, home cook, and make that jam.

From Market to Table: Homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Compote

You really need smell-o-vision for this.

At around midnight last night, when I finally had a chance to catch up on The New York Times Dining & Wine section, I watched a video of Melissa Clark making fresh rhubarb compote. It looked so pretty. And easy. And more importantly—delicious.

I woke up with rhubarb on the brain.

After I picked up my morning coffee I ambled over to the Grand Army Plaza farmers market to check out spring’s latest local offerings. It was about 40 degrees this morning here in Brooklyn, and the air didn’t feel so springy. But upon entering the market, I caught sight of a crate of rhubarb stalks priced at $3.50/pound.

If you live in New York, you understand what a bargain this is. Even in season, most supermarkets sell rhubarb for about $7 per pound, which makes it cost-prohibitive for a cook like me who relies more on trial & error than published & tested recipes.

Bag of rhubarb in hand, I stopped at the grocery store to get strawberries (still too early in the season to get local ones here). Once home, I re-reviewed Clark’s video and got to work.

RECIPE:

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote

Inspired by Melissa Clark’s Rhubarb Compote, from The New York Times

Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 3-4 cups

Ingredients:

  • One pound rhubarb stalks
  • One pound strawberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Juice from half a large lemon

Method:

Begin by giving the rhubarb a good rinse and trimming the ends. FYI – The leaves on the rhubarb plant are poisonous.  Next, wash and hull the strawberries. Cut the rhubarb into 1″ pieces. Leave the strawberries whole if they’re small, or cut them into quarters if they are larger.

Combine the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir to coat the fruit with the sugar. The mixture will come to what looks like a boil, and the fruits will start releasing their juices.  When you start to see a fair amount of liquid build, reduce the heat so that the mixture cooks at a steady simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.

You’re done when the fruit is fork-tender and the liquid is at a syrupy consistency. Transfer mixture to a bowl and allow it to cool for about 15 minutes. Then you can store it away in a jar (it’ll keep for at least a week in the fridge), or serve heaping spoonfuls of this red goodness on any of the following:

  • toast
  • yogurt
  • pancakes
  • french toast
  • pound cake
  • sponge cake
  • granola
  • ice cream
  • corn bread or muffins

 

Happy Weekend, all!

Stracciatella Alla Romana, Plus a Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your Own Chicken Stock

I saw this recipe in The New York Times Dining Section last weekend.  Stracciatella alla Romana, otherwise known as Roman Egg Drop Soup, is the perfect dinner for a chilly spring evening.

Forgive my shadow that's cast over “i straccetti,” or the savory, eggy little rags floating in this delicious, simple soup.

It’s not only a pretty dish; it’s light, feathery texture, robust flavor and ever-so-slightly spicy warmth will make you feel happy, snuggly, and satisfied.  And it’s a dish that comes together in 20 minutes, provided you have one ingredient on hand: homemade chicken stock.

If you do have homemade stock on hand, go forth, make the recipe and let me know what you think. I was lucky enough to have farm fresh eggs on hand for the Stracciatella, so I used more than were called for. It was not a mistake.

But in the event you don’t have homemade stock on hand— fret not, friends!  Save the soup recipe to make another night.

I have two approaches to making chicken stock, and both are equally simple. There’s the quick method, which takes about 2 hours of largely unattended time and can be done after work on a weeknight, or whenever you can eke out 2 hours from your day.   Then there’s the brown stock method, which takes anywhere from 6 to 8 hours of largely unattended time—perfect for a lazy or busy day spent at home. Either way you choose, you’ll still end up with a stock that’s better than anything you can get out of a carton or a can, and ultimately much less expensive.

And if you don’t eat meat, proceed without the chicken and make vegetable stock. Cut the simmering time by half, and you’ll still end up with amaaaazing stock.

What you need to make chicken stock:

  • One roasted chicken carcass (details below)
  • 2-3 carrots
  • 2-3 stalks of celery
  • 1-2 parsnips (if you can’t get them, it’s not a big loss)
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 head of garlic
  • fresh herbs (rosemary, parsley and thyme are essential, sage is a nice addition, but anything else may alter the flavor of the stock)
  • black peppercorns
  • A large stockpot
  • A jelly-roll pan or rimmed cookie sheet, or a roasting pan
  • Cheesecloth (totally optional)
  • A mesh strainer (preferably a large one)

 How to make Brown Stock:

First ingredient: the carcass! If you’ve just made a roasted chicken, or roasted one a week ago and froze the bones, you’re ready to go. The important thing is that the chicken has already been cooked, and that some meat (preferably the wings) is still clinging to the bones. If you’re starting from scratch, get a raw, preferably organic, 3 -4 pound chicken. Rub some some butter on its skin, sprinkle salt and pepper all over it, and bake it at 400 degrees for an 1 hour. Then, carve the chicken, eat the meat or save it for some other use, and save the carcass for the stock.

A lot of chefs recommend using the neck bones and giblets, which you can do, but I don’t and my stock still tastes great. Generally speaking, you don’t want to include the heart or the liver—these organs are filled with blood, and blood will make your stock bitter. We want none of that.

Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. Make sure your veggies are washed, but it’s not necessary to peel them. Cut the onion in half or into quarters. Slice the top off the head of garlic so the tops of the cloves are exposed. If your carrots, celery and parsnips are large, you can cut them in half across the middle. Next, lay your vegetables on the rimmed baking sheet or pan, making sure there’s some breathing room in between each piece—you want them to roast, not steam. Suppress the temptation to add oil or salt. They are not invited to the party tonight.

Let the vegetables roast 35-40 minutes. Check them out. Are they browning?  If yes, take them out. If not, leave them in until your see some brown. Remove the veggies, turn off your oven, and add the veggies and your chicken carcass to the stockpot. (If you are using a carcass that was previously frozen, make sure it is fully defrosted.)

Add enough cold water to the pot so that the carcass and vegetables are fully submerged, and then some more. Bring the mixture to a simmer. This will take a while, so in the meantime, let’s tend to the other ingredients.

Get about 1 tablespoon of peppercorns, 2-3 sprigs of rosemary, and 6-8 sprigs of thyme. You can put all of this in a cheesecloth pouch and tie it with butcher’s twine, or you can leave it loose—either way, you’re going to have to strain the stock anyway. Get a bunch of parsley and trim the stems.

An hour after the stock has been simmering—and it’s really important that it simmers and doesn’t boil—add the herbs, give the stock a stir, and find something to do for the next 45 minutes.  Check on the stock periodically over the next 5-7 hours and do the following:

  • Make sure the mixture is at a simmer
  • Skim off any foam that rises to the top
  • As water evaporates, add more. How much? Enough to cover everything in the pot.

As time passes, after the housework is done, or you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings series, or read Great Expectations, your stock will have turned a rich brown color, and the entire house will smell fragrant and delicious. You will attract neighbors and potentially some stray cats. The aroma is impossible to ignore. Inhale with pride.

Then turn off the heat and get an apron. Now it gets a little messy.

Get a large bowl and your strainer, and then using using tongs or a serving spoon, remove the veggies and chicken parts (which by now have nearly melted away), and place them in the strainer, pushing gently to extract as much liquid as possible. Then, discard the solids.

Pour the remaining stock in the pan through the strainer.  You may see some bits of herb and veggies; that’s okay. If you want a clear stock, strain again through a piece of cheesecloth over the strainer. Divide the stock into containers, allow to cool for an hour, and refrigerate anywhere from 4 hours to overnight.  The fat will congeal and rise to the top. Skim off, and then use the stock or freeze indefinitely.  Ultimately, you’ll end up with about four quarts of stock, which you can use for soups, sauces, or to add flavor to just about anything.

How to make quick stock:

You’ll still need a roasted chicken carcass (as described), but in this method, skip roasting the vegetables—just wash them, leave them unpeeled, cut as described in the previous steps and put in a stockpot with the carcass. Add cold water so that everything is submerged, bring the mixture to a simmer, add the herbs and peppercorns, and let simmer for 90 minutes to 2 hours. Strain as described. The stock will be much lighter in color, but still very rich in flavor, and especially useful as a base for lighter soups, stews and sauces.

 Why I don’t add oil or salt:

Stock is the base for a lot of recipes, and since it doesn’t require sautéing, no oil is required. Salt is generally added while preparing a recipe, or for finishing, so you don’t want to start with a salty base.

Food Reading: It’s Dining & Wine Day!

After Sunday, Wednesday is my favorite day of the week.  Sunday is generally my big cooking day, and Wednesday is my big reading day—since that’s when The New York Times publishes its Dining & Wine section.

I read it (digitally) from start to finish, usually in the morning over coffee, but depending upon how busy I am I may read the section over the course of my day, enjoying the restaurant review over breakfast, combing through the recipes at lunch, later reading and forwarding my boyfriend the wine reviews.

I get a lot of ideas from the NYT Dining section.  It’s an endless source of inspiration for my savory cooking, and I get all drooly every time I look at slideshows of holiday cookies and cakes.  The photos are amazing, but the writing is the thing; each of the writers brings their own taste and brand of humor to the table, with just the slightest hint of snobbery (this is The Times, after all).

David Tanis and Melissa Clark write a lot about the experience of cooking in a New York kitchen, and as a resident you can sympathize with their lack of space and need for simplicity.  Pete Wells has taken over as chief food critic, but he won’t be starting till the new year.  Eric Asimov, the wine critic, has been covering for Sam Sifton, who gave up the job over a month ago (going out with a bang – he reviewed Per Se.  Nice work, Sam!).  Sifton replaced Frank Bruni, who wrote one of the best restaurant reviews I’ve read, as well as a fantastic memoir that I read this year, called Born Round (a must read for anyone who grew up with an insatiable appetite for all things delicious).  Julia Moskin and Kim Severson are regular contributors, as is Amanda Hesser, who wrote The Essential New York Times Cookbook, published last year (I think I had that on my Amazon wishlist. If not, Santa – take note).  Martha Rose Shulman and Tara Parker Pope also contribute recipes, though the Recipes for Health column they both write is generally featured in the Health section.

Perhaps the one food writer that’s influenced me most in the last few years is Mark Bittman, who quit writing the Minimalist column but still continues to write for The Times.  I am prone to complicating recipes, acting on my big ideas without thinking them through, but Bittman consistently reminds me to keep it simple, focusing on getting maximum flavor from a few ingredients, generally ones that are very fresh and in season.  Bittman is all about making the act of cooking as easy and un-intimidating as possible, which makes his writing a refreshing change from the likes of Martha Stewart and a host of other well-known chefs and recipe writers who like to say, “Oh, it’s so easy!” but never quite succeed in making a recipe or process simple and straightforward.  He possesses the practicality of Alton Brown without all the machinery and overt snobbery, and can whip hundreds of impressive meals together faster (and likely better) than Rachael Ray. Mark Bittman taught me not to be afraid of making pie crust and preparing bulgur as part of a savory breakfast, and most recently, to boldly and fearlessly prepare a prime rib roast and yorkshire pudding for a major American holiday.

Bittman hasn’t written anything new for this week, but his latest piece on cookies is a good read for the novice baker.  Once you’ve got the master cookie recipe down, there are endless variations.  Also, there’s a picture of Pecan Pie bars. I want!

David Tanis had a delicious looking recipe for a dish I’ve been working up the courage (and budget) to prepare for ages: Fish Stew.

But the best feature of the Dining section today focuses on the memories of holiday meals past, appropriately titled “The Gifts? I Forget. But the meal!”.  It’s an interactive piece, featuring Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton, and Julia Moskin, among others.  It’s impossible to read without thinking of your own holiday favorites and those truly memorable dishes.

And that got me thinking about the foods that make a holiday a holiday.  The traditions behind those dishes, the flavors and aromas we look forward to each year, the labor that goes into making these specialties, and the presentation that demands “oohs” and “aahs” from everyone at the table.  These are the foods that defines our holidays, and sometimes they define the people who make them.

What are the must-have dishes at your holiday gathering?