Saturday, July 31, 2010

Raspberry Liqueur

When I was in high school, a friend of my father's introduced us to the previously-unknown world of Spanish cooking. She brought us paella and sangria, and strange as it may seem in these days of global cuisine, I don't think I'd even heard of them before. But of course, regardless of your level of familiarity, these foods are pretty easy to love.

After we enjoyed the feast (Exciting! Exotic!), there followed a few days of leftovers. A tupperware container of boozy fruit sat in the fridge, and I would pull it out after school. Now mind you, I was a seriously lightweight teenager. After a day or so, my mother figured out why I was giggling through the house, and cut me off. "Deena!" she admonished, "This is not a snack!"

I have a similar problem when it comes to this raspberry liqueur. It's so delicious, so sweet and full of deep berry flavor, that I just want to sip it all day. Which would have the unfortunate results of

a) depleting my raspberry liqueur stash
b) leave me ready for bed by around 7pm

And so, I have to constantly check myself. Deena, this is not a snack!

But oh, is it lovely. Like rhubarb liqueur, this is ridiculously easy to make. Easier, arguably: you don't even have to chop the fruit. Just give the berries a quick rinse, toss them in a jar with grain alcohol, and let sit for a few weeks. Strain, sweeten and dilute, and you're ready to go. When you're as busy as I am catching up on the local arts, you appreciate the ease. Perhaps someday I can find another (preferably non-boozy) snack I like half as well.

Raspberry Liqueur

as with my rhubarb liqueur, this is more a loose template than a recipe, easily adapted to whatever quantity of raspberries you have

grain alcohol

Rinse the raspberries and place them in a glass jar. Pour in enough grain alcohol to cover by a few inches, screw the lid on, and allow to steep 3-4 weeks. Over this time, the flavor and color will leach out of the raspberries, leaving the alcohol a deep ruby color, and the raspberries a weird ghostly pink.

When the raspberries have finished steeping, strain them from the alcohol, discard, and filter the solution through several layers of cheesecloth or, preferably, coffee filters. Measure the final amount of alcohol -- this is your base number. In a saucepan, heat 1.5 times that amount of water, and 1/4-1/2 that amount of sugar, depending on how sweet you like things (note that this is less sugar than required for the puckery rhubarb). To give an example: 4 cups raspberry alcohol would need 6 cups of water and 1-2 cups sugar. Let the sugar syrup cool, then add it to your filtered alcohol. Taste (the flavors will be a bit harsh), and add more sugar if desired. Let age for at least a month before enjoying. Raspberry liqueur keeps at any temperature, but is especially delicious straight from the freezer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tonic Water

For all their bad rap as the source of our modern poor health, sodas can be surprisingly old-fashioned. Sure, nowadays they're pumped full of modern additions like high fructose corn syrup. But their origins are almost confusingly antiquated. Dr. Pepper is supposed to taste like prunes? Colas were flavored with some kola nut in the 19th century? And what exactly is tonic water made of, anyway?

I recently learned the answer to the latter question firsthand. Tonic gets its characteristic bitter edge from quinine, a compound found in the South American cinchona tree. Quinine helps ward off malaria infection, making it a favorite drink in tropical climates. The amounts of quinine needed for effective protection were pretty steep, leading to a drink so bitter that Brits with the East India Company decided that you really needed a good lashing of gin to make it go down. I'm not one to argue. The floral/piney notes of gin's juniper berries work well against tonic's bitter edge (and a wedge of lime, in my opinion, makes everything better). Like most cocktail drinkers, I love a good g&t on a hot day. And we've certainly been having a lot of hot days lately. But since I'm not really a fan of high fructose corn syrup, I decided to brew my own.

It turns out that homemade tonic is surprisingly easy. And delicious. The hardest part is securing the cinchona bark--I picked mine up from a local produce market with a huge bulk section (or, rather, I meant to but ended up filching it from a friend because the market was on back-order), but it's easy to find online. The concentrate keeps for several weeks in the fridge (more if you make the simple syrup separately, but that involves too many containers for my lazy self). In addition to simmering the quinine out of cinchona bark, you also add the juice and rind of several types of citrus, a pile of lemongrass, and a scattering of spices. I keep meaning to bring this as a gift to summertime parties, but I end up hoarding it all to myself. I don't know how this stacks up to "traditional" tonic water, but I'd venture to say the Raj never had it so good.

Tonic Water Concentrate

adapted from Portland's own Jeffrey Morganthaler
yields ~5 cups concentrate

This recipe is adaptable -- you can swap allspice berries for the coriander and cardamom (as in the additional recipe), or substitute grapefruit for the other citrus (a nice variation). I've tried this twice with cinchona from different sources, and the results have varied (and, surprisingly, the shredded bark ended up more potent than the powder). The lower amount of cinchona ensures that it doesn't overwhelm the other flavors, but if you favor the bitter, have a less-potent cinchona, or just need something to cut through the heat, go with the larger amount.

4 cups water
1 cup coarsely chopped lemongrass (~4 stalks)
3/4-1 ounce cinchona bark (see note above)
12 caradamom pods, bruised
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
zest and juice of 1 orange
zest and juice of 1 lemon
zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup citric acid
1/4 tsp coarse salt
3 cups sugar

Toss all ingredients except the sugar in a pot, bring to a boil, and reduce heat until it just maintains a simmer. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Let cool, and pour through a cheesecloth-lined strainer (you can also pour through a coffee filter if you like, depending on how much sediment remains and how clear you like your beverages). Place back on the stove, and add the sugar and an additional 1 cup water. Heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Taste, and add more sugar if needed (note: this is difficult to taste on its own, so you might need to pour a bit into some soda water to get a good read on the finished product). Pour into jars and chill.

To serve: Pour an icy glass of soda water, and stir in enough tonic concentrate to suit your taste (this is generally just a few tablespoons). Gin and lime optional, though highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Senegalese Red Rice

Sometimes cooking inspiration is easy to come by. If you have a well-stocked refrigerator and a well-developed cookbook collection (or blog-reading habit), sometimes a recipe ex machina seems to beam down like a shaft of divine light. Leftover potatoes, newly-harvested garlic scapes, nuts and cheese combine to become my new favorite pizza. Or baby lettuces, fresh cilantro, barely-blanched asparagus, feta, radishes and lemon zest turn into an essence-of-spring salad that I'm still kicking myself for not photographing.

And then there are the other evenings. The fridge is empty, the pantry is uninspiring, and you have neither the time nor the will to go to the market. These are times when I can't remember what it is that I know how to cook anyway, and will literally thumb through the recipe index of my very own blog to remind me. It's a bit ridiculous. But it does happen, more often than I'd like to admit. And so, for times like these, I add another Iron Pantry Chef recipe to the list: Senegalese red rice.

My experience with African food has primarily been limited to regular meals at a local Ethopian restaurant. But last year I checked out The Soul of a New Cuisine, by the Ethopian-born, Swedish-raised Marcus Samuelsson. The recipes are intriguing yet approachable, and are a lovely introduction to African flavors. But for all of the exotic menus in the cookbook, this humble red rice became my favorite dish. In some ways it's similar to a Mexican red rice, consisting of a simple starch, tomato, chili, and fresh cilantro. But it's somehow much more. It's unabashedly soupy, creating more of a stick-to-your ribs risotto-type dish than a fluffy pilaf. The dried shrimp (if you use them) give a nice briny note, but it's equally nice without them. With the exception of cilantro (which required a trip to the front yard for a quick garden harvest), all of the ingredients were in my house last night. Who knew I had the makings for an African meal in my there's-nothing-to-cook pantry? And I don't know if I need to even say this, but the leftovers, when topped with a fried egg, make a fabulous breakfast.

Senegalese Red Rice

adapted from Marcus Samuelsson's The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Food and Flavors of Africa

yields 3-4 servings

2 Tbsp canola or peanut oil
1 smallish red onion, diced
1 jalapeno, finely diced (you can omit if you don't like it spicy)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp chili powder
2 tsp shrimp powder (I've substituted 1 Tbsp asian dried shrimp, soaked and chopped, but have also omitted entirely for an equally nice dish -- I also imagine crumbled nori or other seaweed might make a good vegan substitution)
1 cup chopped tomatoes, canned or fresh
1 cup short-grain white rice
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 sprigs thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves)
1 cup tomato juice
2 cups water
1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped

Heat the oil in a large pot over a medium flame. Add the onion and cook until translucent, ~5-7 minutes. Add the jalapeno, garlic and chili powder, and cook another minute. Add the shrimp powder (if using) and tomatoes, and stirring occasionally, until the oil separates out from the sautee (~10 minutes).

When the oil has separated out, add the rice and stir to coat. Add the salt, thyme, tomato juice and water, and raise the heat to bring to a boil. When the mixture is boiling, reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, check to see that the rice is al dente, just shy of being done. Turn off the flame, stir in the cilantro, and let sit, covered another 1o minutes for the rice to finish absorbing the liquid (it will still be a somewhat moist dish). Serve.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Host a Canning Party

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of home preservation. I recently simmered some lemons into marmalade, have turned plums and apricots into jam, and set up jars of whole pears and plums (well, semi-whole with pears, but still). I've spent a lot of solo time with my canner, but really it's so much better when you get together to can with friends. It's like anything else, I suppose.

And, like anything else, there can be something of a learning curve. I recently authored an article on the lovely blog Culinate, giving some handy tips for hosting a canning party. It's something of an update on thoughts I'd been marinating on since last year's canning parties, all refined and distilled into an easy list. You can check it out here. Happy preserving!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lassi (Rosewater Yogurt) Popsicles

From my humble corner of the kitchen world, I'm not quite sure what to make of the molecular gastronomy that's happening at top restaurants. While I chop vegetables and simmer marmalade, chefs at fancypants venues are rendering ingredients unrecognizable. I'm still in awe of things like slightly savory ice creams (I literally started giggling the one time I tasted a pink peppercorn sundae), and can't imagine vegetables turned into squishy bubbles, peanut butter and jelly rendered into powder, or air and smoke considered legitimate ingredients. It's all far beyond me these days. The closest I come is turning a drink into a popsicle.

I've always been a big fan of lassis, the yogurt drink enjoyed at Indian restaurants. Usually they're featured flavored with mango, and occasionally show up salted instead of sweetened (which can lead to disappointing mistakes, unless you favor a savory beverage). But my favorite is the plain sweet lassi. As someone who always picked vanilla ice cream over strawberry, that's probably no surprise. But the sweet lassi is far from plain. It's got tang from yogurt, a bit of sugar to sweeten, and rosewater to lend a lovely perfume (beware overdoing it, or it might be a bit too much like perfume). I also like to mix in a bit of cardamom, though it's still sweet and refreshing without. I know it's pretty humble, but on days like these it feels like the perfect bit of kitchen magic.

Lassi (Rosewater Yogurt) Popsicles

I freeze my popsicles in these nifty molds I bought with some cooking store credit, but you can use anything: paper cups, a loaf pan (slice after freezing), or, adorably, shot glasses. If you don't have handled molds, you can pick up popsicle sticks at a grocery or craft store. In a pinch: chopsticks! You can also substitute buttermilk for both the yogurt and milk, for a nice variation.

2 cups yogurt (low-fat yields an icier pop, full-fat is creamier)
1/2 cup milk
6 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp rosewater
1/4 tsp cardamom (optional)

Whisk together all of the ingredients. Let sit a minute, and then whisk again until the sugar has dissolved. Pour into your desired posicle mold, and freeze until firm (usually overnight). Enjoy.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Meyer Lemon Thyme Marmalade

For all my love of my current home (Portland, Oregon), I must admit that California just blows my mind sometimes. A few years ago I made the drive from Portland to the Bay Area, and at one point I casually turned to look out the window and the view just knocked me out. Napa, maybe? The picture had changed from the usual grassy verge to these amazing, breathtaking golden-blond hills. It was like the setting for some romantic period movie, secretly hidden in this very country. "Oh my god, why doesn't everyone want to live here?" I managed to gasp. My boyfriend turned to me, patiently. "Everyone does want to live here," he explained. "These are some of the highest property values in the entire country." Ah, California.

Truth be told, it's not just the rolling Tuscan hills, dirt-cheap amazing produce, or general golden glow that endears California to me. It's this: everyone I know in the Bay Area has a meyer lemon tree in their backyard. Everyone. I think they're part of a state-issued program, like the dividend checks from Alaska's permanent fund. If by chance you don't have one of your own, you live next to someone who does. And you have at least an apricot, fig, or persimmon tree instead to console you.

Last month a friend made the drive up from Berkeley, and offered to bring some lemons with her (it's possible I might have insisted). I made it clear that I wasn't looking for a couple token fruits, but a cardboard box full of them. Which I was given. We had a few blissful weeks of fragrant whisky sours, and the zest is still infusing in a jar of soon-to-be meyer limoncello. But time marched on, and I didn't want the remaining lemons to go soft. So I turned to marmalade.

I've tried a few marmalade techniques over the years, and this method is my favorite. I won't lie: it's undeniably fussy, and takes a good bit of time. But the results are lovely. Most methods have you hack up the whole fruit, discarding only the pits. The rinds soften during their long simmer, and the resulting sour/sweet product is delicious. But, inspired by the amazing June Taylor, I adopt a somewhat more involved process. Instead of tossing in pieces of whole citrus, I break them down in a particular way. The zest is shaved off, cut however you like (I tend to use a citrus zester for tiny curls, but some people might favor taking larger strips with a peeler). Then the remaining bitter white pith is trimmed off, and the fruit segments are "supremed," or cut/pulled off of the tough dividing membranes. You simmer the membranes and pits in a cheesecloth bag to extract pectin to set your marmalade, but the spread itself is remarkable smooth and delicious. No bitter white pith, no tough fibrous membranes. Just lovely juicy fruit and sharp candied peel, suspended in clear golden sweetness. Oh, California.

Meyer Lemon Thyme Marmalade

yields ~ 6 half-pints marmalade

6 lbs meyer lemons, washed
2.5 cups water
2 lbs (lbs, not cups!) sugar
~1 Tbsp thyme leaves, rinsed and pulled off the stems (I favor a sprinkling of thyme to play on my Mediterranean dreams of the Golden State, but the marmalade is just as lovely without)

special equipment: cheesecloth, kitchen twine, canning jars and gear

Peel the zest from 2/3 of the lemons, and chop however finely you like (I like to remove tiny ribbons of peel directly from the fruit with a citrus zester, but if you want finished peels that are large enough to see in the finished product, use a regular peeler and then cut the removed peel into bits the size of your choosing). Be careful to remove only the peel, and none of the bitter white pith. Set the chopped zest into your marmalade pot and set aside.

Take the lemons and supreme them. If you haven't done this before, you can find a handy pictorial here, but this is the basic overview: Cut off the top and bottom of the fruit to form level surfaces, and then cut off all remaining pith and peel. Free the fruit from the membranes--with some citrus you'll have to cut the sections out, but with most meyer lemons you can just sort of tug them free with your fingers. Drop the naked, membrane-free fruit sections in your marmalade pot along with the zest. Place all membranes and seeds in a separate bowl. Discard the pith and extra peel. If there's any bits of fruit on the peel/pith you've trimmed, feel free to squeeze its juice into the marmalade pot. Bear in mind that the fruit segments will break down as they boil, so don't worry too much if you can't get them out in one piece.

Add the water to your marmalade pot, and bring to a boil over high heat. While the heat is coming up, lay out a large square of cheesecloth, and place all your membranes and pits therein. Tie it up with the kitchen twine, and add it to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and fish out the ball of seeds and membranes and set it on a plate to cool. When it's cool enough to handle, squeeze it to milk out the pectin. As you'll squeeze, a milky goo will ooze out. Exactly what you want! Let this goo plop back into the marmalade pot (don't worry if it sits strangely in blobs--it will melt once you reheat the marmalade). Squeeze the bag for a few minutes, until you've milked out a few tablespoons of pectiny goo. Add the sugar and thyme leaves, and bring the pot back to a boil.

Keep the pot at a good rolling boil until the marmalade sets. The amount of time this takes will vary, depending on the amount of pectin and water in the fruit. Count on at least half an hour, generally. It's done when a candy thermometer measures 220 degrees (the consistency will also have changed somewhat, and become more thick and syrupy). If you, like me, don't have a candy thermometer, you can do the cold plate test: Chill a plate in the freezer, and then drizzle a small amount of hot marmalade on it. Place it back in the freezer for a minute, then check it. Set marmalade doesn't need to be set like a jelly, but should be firm enough that it wrinkles slightly when you push it with your finger, and you can almost mound it, like slightly-thickened egg whites. Done! Pour into sterilized canning jars and process in a water bath for a shelf-stable product (and adored gift), or pour into any jars you like and store in the refrigerator.