Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Once Upon a Summer....

Once upon a time, there was a big yellow dog, called Nikita....

It may be odd to write about food and loss at the same time.  It may be odd, but it feels right to me, after all, food can make one feel better, calm the grief, even if just for a few minutes.  We lost the sweetest, cuddliest and the smartest dog.  We loved Nikita to the point of obsession and she paid us back with pure devotion.  Something about our relationships with our pets makes the tears run freer and heavier, something about the simplicity of these relationships makes them so hard to give up. They give us a purest for of love attachment, unconditional, uncomplicated, unselfish...and we pay them back by this crazy attachment we them.
Nikita was a good dog, but she was more than that to our family.  She was a master of forgiveness, granting us clemency for springing “the monster of all dogs” upon her senior head.  She was a teacher, first teaching my than toddler daughter to keep her food close and her hair ribbons even closer (Nikita had quite a thing for those)… and then teaching the young “Monster dog” how to properly behave in polite society.  She was a stealth thief with countless achievements, she once stole a sandwich while I was STILL MAKING IT without me noticing it… she once ate a whole basket of corn bread I made for Thanksgiving while I turned my head for one minute… she also stole countless sticks of butter when she was young and would swallow them whole, all keeping an innocent expression: “What? Me? No… Look, I am not even chewing" Nikita was a charmer, everyone loved her until she barked endlessly, begging to play catch.  She was an accomplished swimmer, chasing tennis balls and ducks in the lake, performing for the crowd of on-lookers in the park.  She was my warm pillow in the winter, my comfort on bad days, and someone to always count on to lick the tears off my face.  She was a friend, a constant companion, and I miss her terribly.
Nikita loved the summer and was miserable in the winter.  She would sunbathe on the deck for hours, until her silky fur would become scolding hot, and then she would turn over and bathe some more.  Summer meant ball chasing, hikes and swimming in the lake.  Nikita was our calendar, April through October; she would lounge around on the stairs, moving from step to step with the morning sun.  She never did it in the winter. Somehow she knew when the sun was warm even though the temperature in the house was unchanged.  A big yellow dog basking in the warm rays was the first sign of spring even when it was still cold outside, and when she moved from the stairs to our bedroom in the mornings, it was the first sign of winter.  It never sized to amaze me, how will I be able to tell now?
My heart is heavy now, but I know that all dogs go to heaven, where there is no pain, where there is endless summer with plenty of lakes to swim in and plenty of tennis balls to play with, and hopefully someone to throw them.
She loved summer, and in her memory I can make it last a little bit longer.  This preserved summer peaches recipe is pure sunshine; it is summer in a jar. As I was making these peaches, she was wilting away and has not eaten anything for days, but as I was peeling the peaches she came over and looked interested.   One last beg...I didnt know it would be the last thing she ate...a sweet sunshine peach.
I didn’t want to make peach jam, I wanted to preserve fresh peaches and let them keep their texture and fresh taste so I let the syrup remain liquid.  These sweet, sweet, summer peaches are a perfect complement to ice-cream, morning oatmeal or a bowl of cottage cheese.

Summer in a Jar Preserved Peaches.
10 lbs of peaches pitted and cut to bite size pieces (you can leave the skin on or peel it)
Additional 5 lbs of peaches, pitted, skinned and cut into wedges
5 cups of sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
2 cups of water
1 ½ cups of macadamia nuts (optional)
I use a simple formula, ½ cups of sugar per 1 lb of peaches

First make the preserving liquid by combining the 10 lbs of peaches, water, and sugar and lemon juice in a large stock pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 hrs.  Strain out the cooked peaches and continuing to simmer the liquid until it is reduced by at least 2/3.  The process is similar to making jam, but you don’t have to wait until the liquid “Jells” as long as it coats the back of a spoon it is fine.
Once the preserving liquid seems thick enough add the additional peaches and the macadamia nuts.  Turn off the heat and stir once.  Immediately pour into the preserving jars.  I don’t bother with the actual preservation process as I keep my jams and preserves in the fridge, so I just run the glass jars in the dishwasher for a few minutes and pour the preserves while the jars are still very hot.  Tightly lidded they should keep in the fridge for at least a month.

Once upon a time, there was a big yellow dog, called Nikita...sleep in piece, my friend.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lazy summer day with a memorable menu

The summer is drawing to a close and with only a few lazy weekends left, I feel sad.   I love summer, I am sad to see it go away.  Somehow I still feel entitled to a vacation for the entire length of warm months, must be school kid in me.  The fact that I occasionally need to go to work in the summer irritates me as if I am being interrupted doing something really important ( like lounging around by the pool and drinking wine).  I still have a very great trip to look forward to, but then it will be over.  Hopefully a trip to Spain will fuel me with culinary and writing inspiration to last the winter months. 
Every spring I have the most ambitious cooking projects planned for the summer months, I even though I pretty much get to cook what I wanted, I had virtually no desire to write about them until now.
With August, comes the most beautiful produce of the season, and it is a shame not to capture those flavors.  Corn is sweet and young, figs are abundant and there are 30 pounds of peaches on my kitchen counter waiting to be jammed.  There is also a case of new gadget of mine, a brand new birthday gift of a smoker, which I need to master.  My friends must have had ulterior motives in picking it out, it is almost industrial size, not that I am complaining. 
To capture the season’s flavor and to play with my new toy, I decided on sweet summer corn chowder and a variety of smoked goodies.   The two recipes below turned out to be one of the best things I ever made.  The soup made such an impact that my children who do not like any soups had three helpings each and the ribs were everything a good BBQ should be… succulent, sweet, spicy and just a bit charred.
Any chowder by definition is laden with butter and cream but I had the most silky and beautiful corn chowder which was vegan when I dined in Finger Lakes earlier this summer.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the recipe to re-create this soup, but could not come up with any thickeners other than butter and cream, until I came upon a recipe for corn butter.  It is brilliant and simple and makes this soup (and other dishes) light and healthy.  I did not stick to a fully vegan version as I used chicken stock and crisp pork shoulder as a garnish, but it certainly can be made fully vegan by using vegetable stock and omitting the pork.
 Summer corn chowder.
12 stalks of corn peeled and cornels cut off.  I like the tri-color corn for this as it makes for a prettier color and I find it sweeter.
1 small white onion chopped very fine
2 garlic cloves chopped very fine
1 carrot chopped very fine or pulsed in a food processor to almost a paste
2 small celery ribs chopped very fine or pulsed in a food processor
2 tbs of olive oil
1 cup white wine ( optional)
4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
3 small or medium white or yellow potatoes
5 sprigs of fresh thyme
¼ tsp of cayenne pepper
Salt and white pepper to taste
Cubed smoked pork shoulder or bacon for garnish (optional)

Make corn butter.  Cut of the cornels of the corn stalks by running you knife a full length of the stock.  Reserve about 1/3 of the cornels to use in the soup.  Using the blender on Liquefy setting for good 3 -4 minutes, process the rest of the corn until it a very smooth paste.  You may want to do it batches.  Using a mesh sieve, strain the corn mixture into a heavy bottomed pot.  It is best to use the rubber spatula to push as much of the corn mixture through the mesh.  Cook the strained corn paste on low heat stirring constantly until it starts to thicken, about 5 minutes.  At this point you can store it in a fridge for up to a week and use it to flavor anything from sauces, pastas and risottos instead of butter.  The corn butter has an amazing flavor, it is sweet and savory and buttery and luscious. 
To make the soup, heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot, add the onions and the garlic and sauté until translucent.  Add the carrot and celery and cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes stirring occasionally.  Add the white wine (if using) and cook for a few minutes, until reduced by about half.  Add the corn butter ( you should have about a 1 ½ cups) and the stock.  Add salt, white pepper and cayenne pepper and simmer for 10 minutes.  Peel and cut the potatoes into a small dice (the size of the potatoes cubes should be just a bit bigger than a corn cornel).  Add the potatoes and the reserved corn cornels to the soup and simmer until the potatoes are al dente.  If you wish, you can add a few tablespoons of cream to the soup, but I find it unnecessary, the sweet corn butter really creates a wonderful texture.

To serve, crisp up some cubed bacon or smoked pork shoulder and add to each bowl.  This soup is wonderful served chilled or hot, but I liked it best at room temperature.
Smoked Ribs with Fig BBQ Sauce.
2 full racks of baby baked ribs, trimmed
For the brine
20 cups of water
2 cusp of kosher salt
1 cup of brown sugar
2 tbs of hot sauce
Fresh ginger cut up ( about 1 inch knob)
1 lemon halved
2 tbs of worstershire sauce
2 tbs of soy sauce
2 tbs of smoked paprika
2 tbs of Mexican chili powder
1 tbs of dry mustard
1 tbs of whole fennel seeds
For the Fig BBQ sauce
1 small yellow onion diced
1 inch of fresh ginger cut up
8-10 fresh figs preferably very ripe cut up
1 fire roasted pepper diced
2 tbs of honey
2 tbs of brown sugar
2 tbs of chili powder
1 tbs of hot smoked paprika
1 tsp of cayenne pepper ( more or less to taste)
2 tbs of salt ( less or more to taste)
1 can of pure fire roasted tomatoes
½ cup of ketchup
2 tbs of soy sauce
2 tbs of balsamic vinegar

Prepare the brine by combining all the ingredients in a stock pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.  Let the brine cool fully.  Place the ribs in the brine, making sure they are fully covered and refrigerate for at least 24 hrs.
Discard the brine before cooking.  Cook the ribs using a smoker or a grill on BBQ setting ( very low hear 200F to 250F) for 3 hrs ( or when the meat is tender and begins to fall off the bone), using whatever smoking wood you like ( I used apple wood, because that was all I had).  You can even cook them in the oven if you wish but you will not get the smoked wood flavor.

While the ribs are cooking, prepare the BBQ sauce.  Heat a few tbs of olive oil in a pot and add the onion and the ginger.  Cook stirring for a few minutes. 

Then add all the spices and all remaining ingredients at once.  Bring to a boil and let simmer on very low heat for 30 minutes.  Transfer to a food processor and pulse until smooth.  Check the seasoning and add salt if needed.

In the final 20 minutes of cooking, brush the ribs on both sides with the BBQ sauce.  Transfer to a grill ( or if cooking on the grill already, increase the heat to medium).  Cook for 2 minutes, flipping often and brushing with more BBQ sauce after each flip, until the ribs are nicely charred.  Serve right away with more BBQ sauce on the side.

These are pure finger licking goodness!