28 July 2014

How to dry fresh herbs

How to dry fresh herbs
Because you can't just pickle an abundance of fresh dill, but you can dry it out, crumble it up, and use it to pickle other things!

Drying herbs at home is actually really, really easy. All you need is a place to let your herbs dry undisturbed and a little patience.

If you have lots of fresh herbs -- whether you grow them yourself, get them spontaneously through a CSA, or have good access to cheap farmer's market deals or foraging -- you should absolutely dry your excess so you can use them all winter long. It takes very little work, produces MUCH higher quality dried herbs than you can buy at the supermarket, and takes advantage of the super-cheap summer harvest. Give it a try!

I like to dry my herbs in the laundry room, because that's how I roll. Actually, a lot of blog stuff gets done in the laundry room. It has good light via multiple windows, which means the top of the dryer is very frequently where I set up my photo shoots. Yes! Secrets of foodblogging revealed!


So. Drying herbs.

Generally, you want to spread herbs out to dry, so they get good air circulation. You want them to be out of direct sunlight, so the sun doesn't bleach them and their oils don't evaporate. And you want to put them somewhere where they'll be undisturbed for at least a week. You have a choice of several different methods by means of which to do this.

First, the plate method.

This is the simplest possible way to dry herbs. Just spread your clean herbs on a plate and leave them alone for about a week, or until they are entirely crispy and crumble easily between your fingers. No elaborate drying screens necessary!

This method works really well as long as you can ensure your herbs remain undisturbed. If you have an inquisitive cat, for instance, this might not be the best choice for you. But if you can put them in a room (a laundry room, perhaps?) with a door you can keep shut, you're probably good to go.

Second, the hanging method.

Here, you'll separate your clean herbs into a series of small bunches and hang them somewhere to dry. Then just leave them alone for a good week, or until they're completely dry through.

I usually attach all my bunches of herbs to a wire hanger and hook it over a plant hook in the laundry room ceiling. (In case you were wondering, this is sufficiently above the windows to eliminate the direct sunlight issue.)

"Attach" can mean securing the bunch with a twist tie and then wrapping its ends around the hanger wire, or it can mean gently separating each bunch of herbs in half up to the tie and sliding that over the hanger, so the herbs fall to either side and the tie rests on top of the wire. Lots of other methods can work well too. Give it a try and see what's most practical for you.

How to dry fresh herbs

When your herbs are dry (by either method), carefully pick the leaves from the stems, working over a cutting board or plate to catch all the fragments. For some herbs, this takes more effort than others. Greener and more delicate herbs are easier to process; dill, for instance, generally crumbles right off its stem. Woody herbs like sage and thyme can take a bit more care, since you don't want to end up chewing on an inedible stem later. But unless you're harvesting an entire field's worth of dried herbs, you probably won't have too much trouble.

Next, crush, grind, or chop your dried herb leaves to your preferred texture. I usually roughly chop mine with a chef's knife. A mortar and pestle or spice grinder can come in handy if you want a finer texture. Do what works for you.

Finally, funnel your finished dried herbs into jars and store them until needed.

Hooray! You just saved a bunch of herbs from melting into a puddle of swampy goo in the bottom of the crisper! And you'll also be able to keep your money instead of shelling out for yet another jar of dried basil in mid-January.

Are you drying any food this summer? I keep meaning to build a solar dehydrator, but it hasn't happened yet. Any other less usual methods of food preservation in the house?

And hello to all the excellent women I met this past weekend at BlogHer! So nice to meet all of you! I have a stack of business cards and a whole lot of new blogs to visit and twitter feeds to follow...as soon as I take a day or two to nap. :)

21 July 2014

Fennel and orange pickle

Fennel and orange pickle

Cauliflower is not the only thing I am pickling this year! Nope. In fact, the pickling vat has been going on and off for several weeks now, and all the results are nothing short of thrilling.

I made yet another batch of my favorite pickled peppers ever, from Emmycooks (come back, Emmy!), doubling the recipe and adding some green beans into the mix. The results are stunning and delicious, and I can't wait to start tossing those beans into weekend bloody marys.

But the real star of the pickling season so far has been a surprise underdog: refrigerator pickled fennel.

This was yet another CSA save. We got multiple heads of fennel two weeks in a row. I am generally not into the typical shredded fennel salad, and so was kind of at a loss for what to do with it. But no more! This is hereby my default way to deal with any fennel that shows up at our house -- at least until I start experimenting with other pickle variations. A lemon variation would certainly be on the table, as would the inclusion of some fresh ginger. Oh man. I'm super excited to try that.

Seriously, it's SO GOOD. It is amazing. I am amazed.

This is heavily based on the pickled fennel with orange recipe in The Joy of Pickling, which is an excellent book and well worth a look if you like pickles even a little. The main change I made was to switch out the white wine vinegar for champagne vinegar, which I find smooth and delightful, and which I actually had in the cupboard besides. I also bumped up the orange zest, because who doesn't love orange zest? And everything worked out beautifully. Hooray!

Though it looks small, it is mighty.

Fennel and orange pickle

Fennel and orange pickle
adapted from The Joy of Pickling

2 heads fennel plus a few fronds (more or less for decoration)
1 tsp pickling salt
zest of 1 orange
4 peppercorns
6 tbsp champagne vinegar
juice of 1 orange (approx 6 tbsp)
1 tbsp sugar
pint jar
semi-optional canning funnel
chopstick or flexible spatula

Start by trimming your fennel bulbs, halving them, and slicing them thinly. In a medium bowl, toss your sliced fennel with the pickling salt. Let this sit for about an hour, so the salt begins to drain some of the juices from the fennel.

When the hour is up, drain off any accumulated liquid. Pack your fennel slices, fronds, and orange zest into a clean pint jar. I used wide strips of orange zest, but I'd recommend that you go for thin strips, either by using an actual zester or by slicing up strips taken with a vegetable peeler. Be careful just to include the zest and no white pith.

To make your brine, crush your peppercorns roughly with a mortar & pestle or the bottom of a measuring cup. Put your pepper, vinegar, orange juice, and sugar into a small pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer, swirling occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved.

Using the canning funnel, pour your brine into your jar, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace at the top. Use your chopstick or spatula to go around the edge of the jar, releasing air bubbles. Top up your brine if needed, cap your jar, and put your pickles in the refrigerator overnight.

After 24 hours, crack your jar open and taste your pickles. Try not to just eat the entire jar with a spoon.

Since this is such an unusual pickle, I bet you guys are wondering what to do with it (besides eating it with a spoon, which I heartily recommend). Well, I have found it to be excellent on toasted cheese sandwiches, usually with a milder cheese such as emmenthaler, along with plenty of cracked pepper. A super-simple snack platter of crackers with said emmenthaler, a smear of mustard, and some fennel pickle would be an excellent variation. It's definitely delicious tossed into a green salad, preferably with some orange supremes thrown in. And if you are of the sausage in a bun persuasion, how about searing one up and topping it with big handfuls of pickled fennel?

But I won't judge you if you just eat it with a spoon.

Who else is making crazy pickles this summer? Forget popsicles, right? PICKLES WIN.

(Oh, also I am suddenly going to BlogHer14 this weekend! If you are going, let me know & let's meet up!)

16 July 2014

Refrigerator giardiniera

Refrigerator giardiniera

One of the vegetables we've been getting from our CSA is cauliflower. I love cauliflower, but two heads in two weeks is a little much to work through when there are only two people in the house. So what's the solution?


When I came across Laurie of Relishing It's Giardiniera, I knew a batch was in my future. All the vegetables in the land, cut into pieces, doused in spicy brine, and kept nice and crispy in the refrigerator? Yes, please!

The vegetable mixture here is super flexible. I just went through the crisper and grabbed everything that sounded like it would make a good pickle. If you want to use a different mix of vegetables, go for it! If I'd had more space, I would have added in some small green beans (tailed but otherwise whole). Laurie added radishes and celery to hers. What do you have? It will probably be delicious.

Re: brine. Most giardinieras seem to include sugar in their brine. I am not at all into sweet pickles, so I decided to leave out the sugar. This was a wise choice for a lovely, vinegary, spicy pickle. However, if you do prefer a sweeter pickle, you can always choose to add a tablespoon or so of sugar. Give it a try and see what you like.

A note on canning: this is a refrigerator pickle, which means it is not processed for long-term storage. While it may be acidic enough to water-bath can, I am not a food safety or canning authority, so I can't provide accurate info about converting this to a canned pickle. Check the Ball Blue Book or another trusted canning resource if you want to make a canned giardiniera.

Refrigerator giardiniera

Refrigerator giardiniera
Based on Relishing It's Giardiniera

Makes 2 pints or 1 quart.

1/4 head cauliflower
1 carrot
1/2 red or yellow pepper, or several baby peppers
1 jalapeno (or half if it's very spicy -- mine was.)
2-3 cloves garlic
1/4 red onion
1/2 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp peppercorns

1 1/2 cups white vinegar
3/4 cup water
1 1/2 tsp pickling salt
1 large or 2 small bay leaves

2 pint jars or 1 quart jar with lids
canning funnel (semi-optional)
chopstick or flexible spatula

Chop your vegetables into pieces. The size is pretty much up to you. I kept my cauliflower and peppers in larger chunks and sliced everything else, but whatever you like should be fine.

Divide your spices evenly between your clean jars. I used pint jars, so I put 1/4 tsp thyme, 1/2 tsp oregano, and 1/2 tsp peppercorns in each. To keep the spice distribution fairly equal, add half your garlic and jalapeno slices to each jar as well. If you're using a quart jar, none of this applies, of course.

Pack your mixed vegetables into your jars. I did my best to distribute everything equally, but if you feel like cramming everything in willy-nilly, that's fine too.

Next, make your brine. Add all the brine ingredients to a saucepan with a lid. Bring the brine to a boil and cook, covered, until the salt has dissolved.

Remove the bay leaves and add one to each jar. Pour your hot brine into your jars, using the canning funnel if you so desire. Leave 1/4 inch of space at the top. Use a chopstick to release any air bubbles, working your way around the side of each jar. Top up the brine if needed, lid, and refrigerate overnight.

After 12-24 hours, your giardiniera will be ready. Hooray!

Refrigerator giardiniera

I especially love how the red onion tinges everything a beautiful pink.

What can you do with giardiniera?

- If you are a pickle lover, just eat it as a snack, or as a side with a big deli sandwich.
- Scatter handfuls of it into big green mixed salads.
- Use small pieces as garnish for deviled egg halves.
- In fact, chop up a handful and add it to egg salad or potato salad in place of the typical dill pickle.
- Use it as a garnish for a hearty soup like borscht.
- Puree it with a handful of kalamata olives for a very pickley tapenade.

What pickle experiments are you conducting this summer?

14 July 2014

Nocino: Italian black walnut liqueur

Nocino: Italian black walnut liqueur

Green black walnuts are clustering in the trees and staining the sidewalks in our neighborhood, so I foraged a few nice specimens and brought them home to make a batch of nocino.

What is nocino, you ask? Well. Nocino is an Italian black walnut liqueur flavored with lemon zest and cinnamon. It's traditionally made at the very end of June, since that's when the walnuts are fully formed but still green enough that you can easily chop them up. But for those of you who live in a climate a little less balmy than that of Italy, I'm guessing now is the perfect time to go find some green walnuts and start your own batch.

I still have a huge selection of homemade schnappses and liqueurs hanging around our kitchen cupboards, but I couldn't resist adding at least a tiny batch of authentic nocino. So here's what I'm doing to make one pint jar's worth of nocino this year. The results are going to be small, but so worth it.

Caution: walnuts stain! Be sure to wash your cutting board and knife immediately after chopping your walnuts, or you will have some serious fluorescent green to deal with in the future.

Nocino: Italian black walnut liqueur

Small batch homemade nocino

5-6 unripe black walnuts, quartered (to fill ~2/3 pint jar)
zest of 1/2 lemon
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
about half a 750 ml bottle of vodka
mason jar with lid
simple syrup to taste

Put your walnuts, lemon zest, and cinnamon stick into your jar. Cover with vodka up to the rim of the jar. Lid the jar, label it, and put it into a dark cupboard to steep.

Agitate the jar every few days for the first week or so of steeping, and once every week or two after that. The walnuts will oxidize and the vodka will turn disturbingly dark within a few days. Don't be alarmed! This is normal! You'll want to take off the lid every once in a while to introduce fresh oxygen and promote the oxidation process. As you continue steeping, the color will mellow to a rich dark walnut brown. So pretty.

Steeping time varies from recipe to recipe. I'd recommend you steep your nocino for at least a month, and up to three months if you can stand the wait. Then, when you're ready to bottle, strain out all the solids through a fine sieve or coffee filter. You may need a second or third straining to remove all the organic material.

Nocino: Italian black walnut liqueur

Flavor your nocino with a simple syrup made from 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. I'd suggest starting with about a tablespoon of simple syrup per cup of liqueur. Then taste and consider whether you want to add more syrup. Pour your final concoction into the jar or bottle of your choice.

Put your finished nocino in the liquor cupboard to age for at least a few weeks before you drink it. The last time I made black walnut schnapps (a very similar liqueur, just omitting the lemon zest and cinnamon), I aged it for a full year before drinking. That produced an excellent liqueur! But if you are impatient, you are definitely free to taste your nocino and drink it when you think it's sufficiently delicious.

How should you drink nocino? Well, you can certainly have it plain as a totally different and delightful aperitif, but I suggest you experiment with some cocktail recipes, such as Savvy Housekeeping's black walnut manhattan. SO good.

Are you making any interesting infusions this summer?

09 July 2014

Plum orangeade

Plum orangeade

For the last installment of plum week (or is it three weeks now?), we have the easiest possible thing to make: a drink.

Just as the plums were at the top of their game, our next-door neighbor brought us a grocery bag full of oranges from her tree. On the one hand, great! Double fruit harvest! On the other hand, we suddenly had twice as much fruit to eat before it all went bad.

The obvious solution was to combine them. Thus, plum orangeade was born.

This simple blender drink is sweet and refreshing. It's excellent served over ice all by itself, but you can also add a shot of vodka or rum, or just make a simple sparkler with half juice and half sparkling water.

The texture of the finished product is up to you. I don't mind pulpy juice, so I just threw my oranges into the blender in big pieces. If you are a non-pulp person, you will probably want to juice your oranges instead. To get two cups of juice, you may need a third orange.

As you can see, the orangeade is pretty foamy right out of the blender. If you like, you can always pass it through a sieve to eliminate the fragments of plum skin and other fibrous bits. I just left mine as-is and drank it. Why throw out any of the fruit? It's all good.

Makes approximately 6 cups.

Plum orangeade

Plum orangeade

2 cups plums, pitted and quartered
2 oranges, peeled and quartered
1-2 cups water, depending on the juiciness of your fruit
simple syrup to taste

Liquefy your plums, oranges, and water in your blender. Taste the resulting orangeade and decide if you want to add any simple syrup. My fruit made a perfectly sweet orangeade all by itself, but if you have less sweet fruit, you can always adjust.

Drink over ice, with or without the added alcohol of your choice. Super refreshing!

What are you drinking to beat the heat this summer?

07 July 2014

Strawberry, nectarine, basil, and fennel frond salad

Strawberry, nectarine, basil, and fennel frond salad

I don't know about you, but salad is just about the only thing I'm really craving right now. It's cool, refreshing, and delicious. It's an excellent way to eat as much delicate summer fruit as possible -- and vegetables as well. And it's certainly the season for a bounty of fresh produce!

Lately, our CSA box has been showering us with assorted greens, heads of fennel, baskets of strawberries, and even a still-rooted basil plant that's been resting happily in a jar of water for a good week. I supplemented this mix with a single white nectarine, and ten minutes later sat down to a huge plate of delicious fruit, herbs, and vegetables. So good.

I used a mix of butter lettuce and baby spinach for the base of this salad. Spinach and strawberry, together forever, right? The butter lettuce upped the crunch factor for a good contrast with the soft fruit and herbs. If you want an even greater contrast, you could also add in some bitter crunchy greens like endive or radicchio. Or toss on some toasted almonds, if that floats your boat. It's all good.

For dressing, I went super simple with olive oil and lemon. This salad could definitely stand up to a syrupy balsamic vinegar instead of the lemon -- I just tend not to ever have such a thing in the house. Yes, a foodblogger without balsamic vinegar! But no matter what my kitchen stock may be, berries and stone fruit with balsamic are still completely classic.

Strawberry, nectarine, basil, and fennel frond salad

Strawberry, nectarine, basil, and fennel frond salad

lettuce of your choice
2-3 strawberries per serving
1/2 nectarine per serving
3 fennel fronds per serving
4-5 basil leaves per serving
olive oil
lemon wedge
salt, pepper

Chop up your lettuce, wash, and spin dry. Arrange a few handfuls on as many salad plates as you want servings. Drizzle with a few drops of olive oil.

Wash your strawberries, halve or quarter them according to size, and scatter them across your plates of lettuce.

Wash your nectarine, twist the halves off the pit, and slice into thin slices. If your pit clings, slice individual slices off the nectarine, using the remaining flesh as a pivot for your knife, and gradually rotate until you have enough. Add your nectarine to your salads.

Roughly chop your fennel fronds and slice your basil leaves into thin strips. Distribute them over your salads.

Drizzle some olive oil over each plate of salad. Season with salt and pepper. Serve each salad with a lemon wedge for individual acid adjustment, or just squeeze and serve if you prefer.

Strawberry, nectarine, basil, and fennel frond salad

This salad is great by itself, or with a few crackers and cheese on the side as a simple lunch, but it would also work very well with all kinds of other dishes. Vivid carrot soup, garlicky white bean salad, or a piece of simple poached fish -- it's all good. Or shred some leftover chicken and add it in for a full meal in salad form. Hooray, salad!

Are you eating any of your summer fruit in salad form?