Monday, January 30, 2012

Meyer Lemon Marmalade

Meyer Lemons, ready to pick
My little Meyer lemon tree was finally ready to give up its glorious fruit.  Every day, I’ve been testing the golden globes to judge how close they might be to finally dropping into my hand, like a ripe tomato.  Since April of last year, when I first swooned over the intensely fragrant blossoms, I have been watching the progress of the fruit as it first began to appear in little green nuggets.  I suppose I could have picked the fruit a little sooner but I wanted as much ripening on the tree as possible.

I picked six lemons, leaving the remaining green ones to grow and ripen in their own good time.  Oddly enough, these are from a second blooming of the tree, which happened when we brought the tree in from the coming cold of late fall.
Sliced lemons in water with tea strainer full of seeds

I would make marmalade so that we could savor the taste just a little longer than if I chose to use them in another kind of recipe.  And I would make the marmalade the same way that I make orange marmalade since these little beauties were almost as sweet.  When I sliced them very thin I could see that there were a lot of seeds which would be very good for the natural pectin.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have to boil down the sugar quite so long.  I put the slices in a big bowl with a quart of water and put the seeds in a tea strainer and let it stand overnight.  The next day, I poured all this into my All-Clad stock pot, which I always use for making jam, and set it to cook slowly until it was reduced to four cups total.  I dumped in four cups of sugar, stirred it a little to dissolve and let the jam cook a little longer while I prepared the jars.
Meyer Lemon Marmalade

Joe loves this jam.  I didn’t think he would because it’s a lemon, after all.  But the lemony tartness is softened by the subtle tangerine hint that is so distinctive in a Meyer lemon.  I always thought this was a hybrid of a lemon and a tangerine, but in fact, the Meyer lemon is its own identity and not a cross of anything else.  The jam tastes a little like lemon curd but not as cloyingly sweet.  On a piece of baguette in the morning with an easy over egg fresh from my neighbor’s chickens, a half grapefruit and a steaming cup of black coffee and I’m in heaven.  Joe and I have decided that breakfast is by far our favorite meal and invariably exclaim with joy when we have finished the last crumb.
Joe's breakfast: scrambled eggs, turkey sausage and toast with marmalade

My breakfast: egg easy over with my own hot sauce (very hot), toast and marmalade

Meyer Lemon Marmalade
6 large Meyer lemons
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
Slice lemons in half, then in quarters, and slice each quarter very thinly.  Remove the seeds and put them either in a cheesecloth bag or a tea strainer.  Put the lemon slices, the seeds and the 4 cups of water in a bowl or a non-reactive pot, cover and let stand overnight.
After 24 hours, put pot on moderate heat and cook down to make 4 cups, about 45 minutes.  Add the sugar and continue cooking an additional 15 minutes or so, until jam is at soft-jell.  To test, put a little on a cold plate, tilt plate and if the jam slides slowly on the plate, it is done.  
Ladle into sterilized ½ pint jars.  Seal jars and boil in hot water bath for 10 minutes.  Makes 5 jars.  Will keep up to 1 year (if you don’t eat it all before then!)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Snowed In

Our Gardening Shed

This was a storm that had been expected to last only a few concentrated days of cold and snow, to be followed by a kind of “Pineapple Express” that would bring warm temperatures and lots of rain to melt away the anticipated 6 to 8 inches of snow.  We usually have fairly mild winters with only a few seasonal events.  This was one of them.  I guess it was our turn to get on the national evening news.
Late Wednesday night, when this was all supposed to be winding down and turning to rain, the snow continued to come—even more heavily.  Laden trees snapped their branches and knocked out power lines.  Just as our power went out, I looked out the window and saw an enormous flash and heard an immediate loud bang coming from the transformer across the street.  Throughout the remainder of the night, the snowplows criss-crossed our neighborhood streets, trying to stay ahead of the snow, even as power trucks were also repairing downed lines.  By morning our power was back, but the hard work of the snow crews was to no avail and it was evident that we wouldn’t be going anywhere—unless it was on foot or with skis.
But there is something splendid and even magical about this kind of enforced slowing down.  I called my young son to find out how he had fared and whether he had been able to get to work.  He drives a modest sedan, lives in the city but has to commute north to Everett for his job.  “Not too bad,” he said.  “You just have to take it easy and not go over sixty on the freeway.”  That being the speed limit anyway, I had to assume the freeway was clear—though reports on the news seemed to show otherwise.  As for my daughter, she and her family were at the epicenter of the storm, but since her husband is a teacher, this became a week of unplanned vacation, a time to slow down and breathe deeply.  There is much to appreciate when we can take the time to notice more.  I wasn’t concerned about my other son, knowing he would thoroughly enjoy any opportunity to put his Jeep Rubicon through some demanding road testing. 
View from my office window as I write

For Joe and me, this has been a time for reflection, coming finally to the understanding that we are really quite retired.  It’s been especially hard for Joe, because he’d really rather work—if there could be work to be had.  It’s not his idea to be put on the shelf while his colleagues continue to be creatively involved with clients.  And, truth be told, I also enjoy the stimulation of doing the kind of work that we have done together for so many years.  But it is what it is and we have no clients, so we accept our retirement and enjoy these times of quiet appreciation for the life that God has given us.
Meyer Lemons...almost ready

Baby lemon, still growing
Dried Dill silhouetted against snowy scene
Snow on the skylights...snow out the window, still coming down

I’ve been taking a lot of pictures, trying for a different perspective to capture the essence of what this week has been like.  Today it rained as the temperature went from below 30 to nearly 40 degrees.  Where we had snowbound streets, we now have mounds of gray slush that are quickly turning to rivers in the streets and all the parking lots.  Definitely not as picturesque! Joe and I ventured out, but are happy to be home again, ready for another lovely fire in the fireplace this evening.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Snow and Italian Sausage Soup

Last night, we had one of Joe’s favorite meals.  He is, after all, Italian.  My favorite market, which is usually too pricey, except when they have a special kind of deal, had fresh, small manila clams on sale for $3.99 a pound.  I bought a scant pound, just enough for dinner and maybe a little left over.  I would make Linguine Alle Vongole, linguini with clam sauce.
Trace came out with me, of course, to fetch the parsley from the remains of my herb bed.  It was dark (it seems that it’s always dark now after 5:00, even though the days are supposedly beginning to get longer) and I had to step cautiously because it had begun to snow earlier and there was almost an inch of accumulation already.  I groped for the parsley with one hand and snipped with my scissors, each little remaining head of parsley capped with a bit of snow.  Amazingly, it was still green and fresh and still seemed to be growing.  Our winter has been mild so far and the sleeping garden seems to like that.
This particular dish is my idea of really good comfort food.  Served in a soup bowl with a sprinkling of grated parmesan and a crusty piece of bread to sop up the wonderful sauce, it’s easy to understand why Joe, my sweet Sicilian husband, would love this so much.  It’s like bringing the sunshine in.

This morning, we woke up to a fresh winter wonderland.  It was still snowing when we took Trace for a morning romp.  We only had to say the word “walk” almost in a whisper and his ears shot up and he sat at attention, ready to go.  We barely had to ask him to get his collar or Joe’s shoes (mine were already outside).  He ran eagerly to Joe, collar in mouth, ready to go. 
As always, with a fresh snow, all sound seems to disappear into the whiteness. Our feet made a soft muffled thunk in the wet snow and every once in a while a clump of fresh snow fell from a branch and dropped to the ground in a whisper.  Sunday and no one was out and the streets were still pristinely white.  I was surprised to note that our lovely border collie actually looked a little dingy against the snow, his usually snowy collar now almost creamy by comparison.

Joe had the chucker and a ball so that was all that counted, as far as Trace was concerned.  Such a luxurious pleasure it was to watch him run flat out, in the street, free and unleashed, doing his border collie thing.  He ran and ran, not just chasing the ball, but running for the sheer pleasure of breaking free in his own neighborhood.  At some point, even he had to rest and catch his breath and lie in a snow bank, ball in mouth, tongue out, panting with pleasure.

I made an Italian sausage soup for lunch.  This kind of day called for a hearty soup, especially after a morning’s exercise in the snowy neighborhood.  I had some concentrated chicken juices from the roast chicken we had last week, and a couple of sausage links in the freezer.  This would also be a good time to begin to use some of the greens that I had frozen this past summer.  Joe was watching a football game, and I could hear the action from the kitchen (I’ve come to enjoy football, at least at the end of the season when the best teams duke it out), and as I put the soup together, I realized I was as happy as I ever could be.  I could look out toward the street and the trees, dressed in a white lace of snow, as we were snug and safe in our warm home, lights glowing softly, TV action in the next room, our border collie splayed out on the rug, relaxed after a big run.
We may be at the low end of the income ladder, but we have enough.  We have a snug home, we have our love and our health, and I’m making a good soup for lunch.  Life is good.

Italian Sausage Soup
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons EVOO
½ onion, chopped
1 or 2 Italian sausage links cut in pieces
1 carrot, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1 can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 can great Northern beans, with juice
8 cups chicken stock (I used leftover pan juices, which are quite concentrated, and water to make about 8 cups)
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning (or Herbs de Provence—the same thing)
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 package frozen leaf spinach (I used 1 packet of frozen turnip greens from this summer)
In a large pot on medium heat, sauté the garlic, onions, sausage and herbs together for a few minutes or until sausage has cooked through.  Add carrots, celery, tomatoes, and beans and toss together.  Add stock and spinach and simmer until flavors blend, about thirty minutes.  Add ground sea salt and pepper to taste. 
Place a crusty piece of bread in a soup bowl and ladle soup over it.  Grate a bit of Parmesan cheese over the soup and serve.  Makes about twelve cups of soup.

Linguine Alle Vongole Linguini with Clam Sauce
¼ cup EVOO
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 can diced tomatoes
¼ cup white wine
1 pound small Manila clams
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/3 package linguini pasta
In a deep pan, large enough to hold the clams, sauté the garlic and half the chopped parsley on medium heat, only until the garlic is fragrant and still golden, about 2 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and cook until much of the juice has thickened, about 20 minutes.  Add the wine and simmer for about 2 minutes until alcohol has cooked off.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to boil.  Drizzle in about a tablespoon of olive oil and add pasta.  Cook according to package directions, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Toss the clams into the sauce and cover immediately.  Cook about 5-7 minutes.  Discard any clams that have not opened.  Add the cream and stir together.
Using a spider, lift out the pasta from the boiling water and add it to the sauce.  Add the remaining parsley and stir together.  Serve in soup bowls with crusty bread.  Grate a little Parmesan cheese over each bowl.
I realize that as I write this recipe. I have used the word “about” quite a few times.  This is because this is such a malleable dish.  What we have here is the basis of most recipes, which begin with ingredients on hand, what can be done with them, what tastes good together, and even—what do I feel like eating as I put this together.  So, in this case, the recipe can be expanded to feed a large group—or family.  It can be adapted for only two people, and it only requires a few very simple ingredients.  I suppose if you don’t like clams, you could substitute another sea fish—shrimp, maybe?  And if you have an abundance of tomatoes (which, for me only happens in late summer), use fresh ones by all means.  The essential simplicity of this dish is what makes it versatile enough to be able to use the word “about” in trying to describe how to put it together.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

December Interruption, Bread and Pot Au Feu

New Year's Eve (Joe's Birthday)
It seems as if the month flew by before I could even begin to mark it.  But as with every December, this one was also filled with lots of occasions to gather, to laugh, to craft, to cook, to feast—and even to rest and ponder the meaning of the month.
And now it’s January (almost half over!) and I’m beginning to get around to maybe making plans for the coming year.  The winter has been mild so far so we’ve taken down the hoop house as we decide where it will go early this spring.  Rather than the arduous task of raking leaves, Joe mows them and mulches them in the catcher.  I asked him to lay them over the main vegetable bed and I’m hoping that as winter wears on and the rains come, that this process will have created fairly good compost.  At least it should take care of weeds.  When we get ready to prepare the bed, we’ll turn that all into the soil and work in some fertilizer.
Hoop House, ready to erect this spring
Winter is a sleepy time in the garden.  We don’t see anything stirring, but we know that it’s all happening underground as the plants rest and gather nutrients from the soil and the rain for the big push that will come in early spring.  The days are short, but minute by minute, growing longer.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can’t complain of shivering cold, and the rain is usually not much more than a mist.  Though the long grey days can be discouraging, we can overcome the gloom with absorbing projects.  And spring is only two months away!
Today, I’m making bread—again.  Kim gave me a bread-making cookbook from Il Fornaio a couple of years ago so I’ve been experimenting with some of the recipes, using my new Kitchenaid stand mixer (a wonderful Christmas gift from my son).  I made a fairly successful Ciabatta loaf, which is Joe’s favorite, but I think I’m using the wrong kind of flour so that the loaves I make tend to be heavy and dense, not at all like the ones I used to make with the good Eastern Washington flour, which is a little pricey, even in bulk.  I thought I was saving some money by getting some from Costco instead.  Unfortunately, that’s a lot of flour to use up if it turns out to not be good enough…So far, I’d rather spend a little more for a better flour, but I’m still trying.
Ciabatta, but not airy enough

New Year’s Eve, Joe’s birthday, we had a big family dinner.  The turkey was really good, roasted and basted with a duck a l’orange kind of sauce.  The mashed sweet and Yukon gold potatoes were light and fluffy (thank you Kim for the idea of cooking them this way!).  The Russian Kale, freshly picked from the garden and baked in a simple white sauce was a hit as well.  The dinner rolls, however, were like little stones: crusty and dense.  There were quite a few leftover, even with everyone’s best effort to eat them up.
Yesterday, Joe and I had the last of the rolls in our soup.  We love soup for lunch and one soup will evolve over time into a totally different kind as I add leftovers into it to stretch it a little more.  The one we had started as a simple vegetable soup that I made with some of the leftover turkey and stock, carrots, celery, a can of white beans, some onion and of course the herbs de Provence blend that goes into practically everything I make. I had some yellow squash that needed cooking so that went into the soup as well. 
This soup started shortly after New Year’s Day as I cleaned out the refrigerator and has evolved since then.  The French call this a pot au feu, literally a pot on the fire.  The first day, I served it with one of the crusty, dense, hard rolls, sliced in half with the soup ladled over it and a bit of cheese grated over the top.  This turned out to be the perfect way to use these stony little rolls.  For a little variety, I made an Italian tomato soup the next day, recalling how much I enjoyed this simple cup of soup when I was working as a store manager and needed a break.  Based on what I remembered, I tried to duplicate this delicious soup.  The third time we had soup, I combined what was left of both of them for a rich tomato-vegetable soup.  Today, we had the last of this pot au feu and the last of the crusty rolls.  My tummy is warm and satisfied!
Pot au Feu (Soup of Leftovers)
½ tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 or 2 carrots, sliced in discs
3 or 4 stalks celery, sliced
½ sweet onion, chopped
1 tablespoon herbs de Provence
About 1 tablespoon ground sea salt (to taste)
1 cup yellow squash or other leftover vegetable
1 cup chicken or turkey meat cut in small pieces
1 can pinto beans (with liquid)
9 or ten cups chicken or turkey stock
In large stock pot, sauté garlic and herbs in olive oil until garlic is golden.  Add all other vegetables except beans and toss together to cook for about 5 minutes.  Add meat and toss together.  Add beans and liquid and toss together.  Add stock and simmer gently on low heat for about 30 minutes.
Warm soup bowl and place two pieces of crusty bread in each bowl.  Ladle soup over the bread and grate a little cheese over soup.  Makes about ten servings.
Tuscan Tomato Soup (I wish I had basil to add to it...)

Tuscan Tomato Soup with Crostini and Parmesan
½ tablespoon olive oil plus 2 tablespoons
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon herbs de Provence
1 teaspoon fennel seed
½ tablespoon ground sea salt
½ large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons roasted tomato pesto
14 ½ oz. can diced tomatoes
6 oz. can tomato paste
4 cups water
4 cups chicken broth
¼ cup cream
Sauté garlic and herbs in olive oil. Stir in roasted tomato pesto and tomato paste.  Stir in diced tomatoes.  Add stock and simmer to blend flavors.  Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and cream and stir to blend.  Simmer about 30 minutes.  Warm soup bowls and ladle soup into each bowl.  Top with garlic/herb croutons and grated Parmesan cheese.  Serves about 8.
Combine leftover soups to create a new Pot au Feu.
So, here we are, almost in mid-January, still enjoying the fruits of past feasts.  I think that the most important lesson I ever learned from my mother and the French heritage of my father, is the value of leftovers: being creatively inventive with the little bits that are left from past feasts.  If we look at any recipe carefully, we can probably see that many of them have evolved from other original basic dishes.  Think of chicken pot pie.  Where did that come from?  Or how about tuna casserole?  Or gumbo?  Or paella?  Or tortilla soup?  Almost every dish we love had its origin as a feast in another form and we, in our kitchens, have combined what’s been leftover into something new and wonderful.  Our challenge is to continue the long heritage of inventiveness in the kitchen that we learned from our forbears.