sugar time

In New York City, its pot hole season, this time between winter and spring when the streets are pitted with holes from the ice and salt of winter. Not romantic. You have to watch out for the holes when you are on your bike. In the country, it is mud season. Also sounds not romantic except that it is sweet and magical because it is also the time for maple sugaring. I have visited my daughter at her college in Vermont when the snow is melting and the sap starts flowing in the maple trees.

The edge between winter and spring in Vermont

The edge between winter and spring in Vermont

MapleTreeBuckets

As I’ve always said to my daughters, there is nothing more energizing or more beautiful than to be amongst people who think they can change the world. Oona’s college is such a place. Sterling College is one of the seven colleges in the Work College Consortium, a tiny school with a big community spirit dedicated to environmental stewardship. The students work with both their hands and their minds. They have a farm. They eat the food they grow. They have their own sugar house where they process the sap collected from the maple trees and turn it into maple syrup. In the small village every maple tree you see has buckets attached to collect the sap.

MapleBucket

the sugar house at Sterling College

the sugar house at Sterling College

Sterling College maple sugaring at the Sugar House. Photo: Sterling College

Sterling College maple sugaring at the Sugar House. Photo: Sterling College

It is vital to support small farms and the people who are working them where ever they are. And so…

Our dear friend Rob Handel, Chef at Heather Ridge Farm in Schoharie County, New York generously sent me these maple recipes to share with you. Thank you Rob.

Maple Dijon Vinaigrette

4 Tbs Dijon mustard
5 Tbs maple syrup
1 Tbs pink peppercorns
6 Tbs apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup brewed tea
1 clove garlic
pinch of salt
optional – 1 tsp summer savory

Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until well emulsified. Store in the fridge for up to one month.

Maple Parsnip Chutney (Chef Rob says this chutney is fabulous on pork, chicken and cheese)

3 Tbs butter
1 diced onion
2 cups diced parsnip (1 to 2 parsnips)
1 apple peeled and diced
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cracked coriander seed
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

Melt the butter in a medium sized skillet and add onions, parsnips and salt. Cook over medium low heat until well caramelized about 30 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until everything is softened and most of the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately or store in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Maple Panna Cotta

Chef Rob says: This panna cotta recipe only involves 10 minutes of prep time, can be made in a single pot and it is fabulously rich. Here we go.

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla or 1 Tbs rum
1 package (1 Tbs) unflavored gelatin
pinch of salt

Place milk in a medium sauce pan and sprinkle gelatin on top. Allow to bloom for 5 minutes, then add remaining ingredients and bring to a low simmer. Stir until the gelatin is fully dissolved and pour into molds. Allow to set for at least 2 hours or prepare ahead and refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Maple Bacon Popcorn

1/2 c popping corn
2T maple syrup
2T rendered bacon fat
2T brown sugar
2tsp salt

Combine all ingredients except salt in a stovetop popcorn popper and stir over medium low heat until the popcorn begins to pop. Keep stirring vigorously until the popping slows. Immediately tip into a large bowl and toss with salt, adding more if necessary

tree trimming party 2014

The weekend before Xmas is busy with parties. We had our annual tree-trimming party on Saturday. Oona is home from college and she has a good eye for picking out a good Xmas tree. Saturday morning we set out on foot to our usual Xmas tree spot on Houston St. where the French Canadian guys will deliver the tree to your apartment for ten bucks. Oona was lamenting about how much fun it was when we used to carry the tree home ourselves on foot. We reminisced about the time we brought one of our Toy Fox Terriers with a tiny Santa hat on his head and he was so cute walking next to us while we carried the Xmas tree, that we were not only photographed multiple times but also filmed by a passing video crew.

NYC_xmastrees

A toy fox terrier in a Santa hat - Millie

A toy fox terrier in a Santa hat – Millie

We carried the tree home this year. I’d forgotten how much fun it is. When people in New York see you schlepping a pine tree, they smile and wish you a Merry Xmas. Random men offer to help you carry it. People sitting in restaurants smile and wave to you from the windows. It’s a jolly trek home when you are carrying a Xmas tree in New York city.

NYC_xmasTreeornaments

This year’s party featured cocktails made with drinking vinegars or shrubs. Shrubs were popular in colonial America as way to preserve fruit and make a refreshing drink. Oona had concocted some at school and so we decided to make wintery shrubs for our guests.

Beet Balsamic Shrub (recipe from Ashley Marti of Local Haven)
2 cups raw beets, peeled and sliced
½ cup maple syrup (I used sugar)
½ cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbs balsamic vinegar

Put beets in a quart mason jar and cover with sugar or maple syrup and shake it up to coat the beets. Put into the refrigerator for 24 hours and shake occasionally. After 24 hours, add the two vinegars and shake it up. Put back into the fridge for another 24 hours, shaking occasionally. Then strain the liquid into a clean jar and store in the fridge.

This makes a syrupy drinking vinegar which we then added to seltzer. Make it as strong or as mild as you like. This was especially good with vodka and a slice of lemon.

Cranberry Sage Shrub (adapted from Jerry James Stone’s blog Cooking Stoned)
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup Champagne vinegar
2 fresh sage leaves

It is the same steps as the beet shrub, except you should roast the cranberries to soften them up first. Put them on a baking pan and roast them for about 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven till they are mushy. Then put them into a quart mason jar, shake with sugar, let sit, add vinegar, shake and sit in the fridge – then you’ve got the wonderful syrupy tart sweet shrub to add to your seltzer and cocktails.

The flavor combinations are endless. Now that we’ve got the hang of it, the experimentation will begin. Happy Holidays, dear readers.

XmasBikeNYC

how to make peppermint bark

When you bite into a piece of peppermint bark and close your eyes, you might see multi-colored Xmas lights, the diamond like sparkle of snow crystals in the moonlight and maybe even smell pine needles. It is much nicer to make your own, but in a pinch, any peppermint bark will do and you should eat it all winter because it is definitely a winter only sweet. Its cold sweet bite illuminates dark nights.

chocolatebarRev

Here is my recipe for peppermint bark:

1 1/2 lb – good quality semisweet chocolate chopped into small pieces
1 1/2 lb – good quality white chocolate chopped into small pieces
3/4 tsp peppermint extract
5 or 6 candy canes

darkchocolateRev

whitechocolateRev

Line a 9×12 baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Using a double boiler or put one pan on top of another pan with boiling water in the bottom pan, you slowly melt the semisweet chocolate in the top pan. Stir continuously and be careful that the chocolate does not burn. When the chocolate is melted, add 1/4 teaspoon of peppermint extract, mixing well. Spread the chocolate out onto the lined baking pan, smooth it out with a spatula and give it a little shake so that it is even. While this is cooling, it is a good time to crush the candy canes. I used an old ice crusher – one of my very good yard sale finds, but you can wrap the candy canes in a dish towel and simply pound them with a hammer or a heavy spoon.

peppermintcandyRev

peppermintbarkRev

Once the dark chocolate is cool, you should put it in the fridge so that it hardens a bit more before you put the white chocolate layer on it. Now, melt the white chocolate the same way you did the dark. When the white chocolate is melted, add 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract and stir. Then add the crushed candy canes and mix well. Spread the white chocolate on top of the dark and put it into the fridge. Once the top layer of white chocolate encrusted with peppermint candy is hardened, you can remove it from the pan and break it into pieces. Merry peppermint. Merry winter, dear readers.

xmaswindow

 

canning pink

I tried my hand a a little bit more canning. I love radishes, especially because you get to put a lot of salt on them. I once heard someone say “the radishes are a vehicle for the salt”. I didn’t realize radishes were spicy until I tasted one from the farmer’s market. After that, I never bought another supermarket radish again. I discovered watermelon radishes at a Supper Club in Brooklyn hosted by Nan of Toast Home Cooking. The radish was beautiful and so I scoured the farmer’s market in Union Square till I found some for my first experiment in canning something that is not sweet.

Their beauty gave me pleasure when I sliced them

watermelonradish

I just had enough for a couple of half pints which I will use on salads and sandwiches in the dead of winter. This is how I did it.

I boiled half water and half vinegar with a little salt. The sliced radishes and a clove of garlic were put into the hot jars and the hot brine was added. Then I processed the jars in the hot water canner for 15 minutes. Everything turned pink.  Here are instructions for safe canning.

watermelonradishballjar

the honor system vegetable stand

In New York City you must be ever vigilant for thieves. You’d better chain up your bike just so and don’t even think about slinging your handbag over a chair in a restaurant.

I am enjoying letting my guard down in the country where you don’t even have to lock your car in the shopping center parking lot. There are many vegetable stands that still use the old fashioned “honor system”. The stands are unmanned and the produce is set out with pricing on hand-written signs. Sometimes they don’t even have the pricing, they expect you to leave what is fair. There is a metal cash box for you to leave the payment in.

I get my corn from a dairy farm where they set out piles of just picked sweet corn and the metal cash box on a wooden wagon in the driveway. I like to buy vegetables and eggs from my friends and neighbors Martha and Richard’s stand. When you chop their kale, it smells as strong as wheat grass juice and your fingers are stained green. Martha says that sometimes she thinks the cash is a bit low when she goes to pick it up, but then the next day there is more money than expected. It is because the day before someone didn’t have small bills. That’s the honor system.

the roadside sign

the roadside sign

the mountaintop garden

the mountaintop garden

rsz_2014-08-14_164547

the honor system vegetable stand

the honor system vegetable stand

can – can

I suddenly got the urge to start canning while spending the summer in the country. The most food preserving I’d ever done was to freeze some herbs. We live in a metropolis where you can buy produce from all over the world anytime you want. Its not in the culture to think about “putting things by” to get you through the winter. But living in such close proximity to farms and eating their bounty all summer has put me in another frame of mind. It’s a different story when you slice a zucchini and it is so fresh that you can see it sweat little beads of plant juice and down the road you see beef cattle eating grass in sunny pastures. Oona said “Mom, think about how much better your tomato sauce would be if you made it with farm tomatoes and basil from your garden”. I thought about cooking comfort foods in the deep winter. I thought about opening a mason jar of August tomatoes and how its essence would return me to this summer and how the smell of hay and rainstorms and the sound of goat bells would come back to me on a cold dark night.

I thought about Frank’s penchant for eating slimy canned peaches as a midnight snack and that made me think about canning some more. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead he spooned out fragrant slices of summer peaches packed by my hand when he was sitting at his computer late at night? It would be love in a dish.

Our dear friends Beth and her daughter Nipu invited me and Oona to go peach picking at Fix Brothers Farm in Hudson, New York. The peach orchard was at the top of a mountain with spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the day was hot and sunny. It smelled good and I didn’t want to leave. The danger in those “you pick ems” scenarios is that it is so much fun and you pick so fast that you pick too much and you get sticker shock when they weigh your bag (this happens when you are picking with kids and you don’t want to spoil their fun). Unlike the time we went apple picking when the girls were younger, this time we paced ourselves. We picked only what we could reasonably pay for and preserve and enjoyed the day on peach mountain. We set our peaches on the kitchen table to fully ripen and the trailer was redolent of peaches for days.

Fix Brothers Orchard in Hudson, NY

Fix Brothers Orchard in Hudson, NY

photo 1

2014-08-13 18.47.48

I bought a canning kit by Ball that had the canner and all of the handy accessories I would need. I found a book on canning at the library but the author wrote so extensively about the dangers of bacteria and food poisioning that I returned the book and instead bought the Ball book on canning. It was in a magazine format and more optimistic and user friendly for the beginning canner. A chef I know told me that many people are put off by canning because they fear killing their families. I think of course the warnings must be made, but probably a lot of that is lawyers talking. I canned in a small kitchen in our off-grid trailer with no running water and my friend Martha who is a canning fiend, proclaimed my vacuum seals as good to go.

Here are full instructions on how to can food

I processed the peaches according to the instructions in the Ball Book. The peaches were packed raw and instead of a plain simple sugar syrup or water, I canned them in a basil syrup. Here is the recipe with the adaptation of the basil syrup.

2 to 3 pound peaches per quart
lemon juice (or powdered citric acid which is vitamin C)
Basil infused simple syrup

Make the basil simple syrup by boiling 5 1/2 cups of water and adding a fistful of fresh basil leaves. Turn off the water and steep the leaves for about 20 minutes. Remove the basil leaves, re-heat the water and dissolve 2 1/2 cups of sugar in the basil water and keep it hot. This was enough syrup for 10 quarts of peaches.

Peel the peaches and toss the slices in lemon juice (or something that has a lot of vitamin C) to prevent their discoloration.Pack peaches into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Ladle hot basil syrup over the peaches leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two piece caps. Process quarts for 30 minutes in a boiling water canner.

I also made a plum jam from plums harvested by Paulina and Nico, local farmers who sell produce at their roadside stand.

The plum jam was easy and filled the kitchen with a marvelous scent. You do not have to peel the plums, only chop them up. I used the recipe for Dawson Plum Jam from the Ball Book. I don’t know what kind of plums we had, all I know is that they were dark red inside and beautiful. I added lavender from my herb garden to this. I do not normally like flowery food, but this combination was a good idea. Here is my adaptation of the plum jam recipe to include the lavender.

5 cups coarsely chopped plums (about 2 pounds)
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
a few springs of fresh lavender

Combine the plums, sugar, lavender sprigs and water in a large pot. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. I removed the lavender sprigs after about 15 minutes of boiling. Cook rapidly and stir constantly as the water will cook down and the plums will thicken. You don’t want the plums to stick and burn. Once it is thick and jammy, remove from heat. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Adjust two-piece caps. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

There will be scones with lavender plum jam for brunch this winter.

rsz_2014-08-19_161312

herb harvest

It’s time to put gardens to bed so I say goodnight to my herb garden. You gave us such good meals all summer long. Three different kinds of basil on our tomato salads, parsley for the chimichurri on our steaks and fresh mint in our mojitos.

I harvest and freeze the fresh herbs so that this winter we can smell and taste the summer again.

Millie must have liked the smells in the herb garden because she liked sitting there when I weeded.

Millie must have liked the smells in the herb garden because she would always come and sit there while I worked.

herbI washed and chopped the fresh herbs and put them in water inside a muffin tin to freeze. That allowed me to freeze a larger amount than in an ice cube tray.

herb1

I then popped out the herb cubes and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Now I say hello to Fall.