Dill Pickles

Little cucumbers from Tipi CreekI’m getting closer to my ideal dill pickle.  The quest was especially feverish this fall because I had a bit of Montreal-style smoked meat in my fridge.

Year by year I’ve been making my pickling liquid more and more acidic.  I like a sour pickle.  This year, I used straight vinegar, without diluting with water.  This might sound crazy, but it works.  The pickles are a bit too sour immediately after jarring, but let them hang out in the cellar for a month, and they’re prefect.  For me, anyways.

I’ve also been engineering the crunch-factor.  We all want a very crisp pickle.  This year I doused the fresh cucumbers with 5% of their weight in kosher salt, and let them stand for an hour or two to draw excess moisture and stiffen.  This process yielded a 22% increase in crunchiness.

As for flavourings, year by year I’m adding less and less.  At one time I would have had black peppercorns and mustard seed and coriander in the mix.  This year there were only lightly crushed garlic cloves and whole heads of dill.

Following is the current version of my recipe.  All ingredients are expressed as a percent of the weight of cucumbers used.  (I don’t start out saying, “I’m going to pickle 5 pounds of cucumbers today,” but rather, “Holy Moses I have lots of cucumbers: I’m going to pickle about half of them.”)

The exact amount of liquid necessary will depend on your jars and how you fill them.  If I have one pound of cucumbers, I typically use one pound of vinegar.

Dill Pickles: A Working Recipe

  • 100% cucumbers, very fresh and firm, cut, if necessary, into pieces 3″-4″ long and at most 1″ wide
  • 5% kosher salt
  • 100% cider vinegar
  • 25% granulated sugar
  • 10% honey
  • 3 garlic cloves for each pint jar
  • 1 large head of dillweed for each pint jar

Procedure

  1. Toss the cucumbers and kosher salt in a large bowl.  Let the mixture stand until the cucumbers have released water, about one hour.  Gently press the cucumbers to release more liquid.
  2. Sterilize the jars and lids.  Add three cloves garlic and one large head of dillweed to each.  Stuff each jar with the lightly cured cucumbers to within a half inch of the top.
  3. Combine cider vinegar, sugar, and honey in a large pot on the stove.  Bring to a rapid boil.
  4. Pour the pickling liquid into the jars so that all contents are submerged.
  5. Lid the jars.  Let stand at least two weeks before opening.  Refrigerate after opening.  Once the pickles have been eaten, reserve the liquid for pickle soup.

Jars of dill pickles

Spruce Syrup

Spruce tips: the tender, young needlesLast year I wrote briefly about evergreen syrup, flavoured with the flourescent, tender bundles of needles that appear on spruce trees in spring.  I first came across this preparation in Austria, where the restaurant I was working at used the syrup to flavour a sauce accompanying the roasted leg of a May deer, a fantastic, fantastic example of terroir-driven flavour pairing.  The syrup also has obvious applications in the pastry kitchen.

This week I made the syrup myself for the first time, and I want to relate a few of the details of its preparation.

I’m kicking myself for not getting an exact recipe from Looshaus.  I recall that they brought the syrup and evergreen tips to a simmer, then removed the pot from the stove immediately.  However, a quick internet search of the syrup’s true German name Maiwipferlhönig yielded many suggestions to boil the tips vigorously for half an hour.  This method sounded promising.  I know that in beer-making extracting the flavour from hops flowers requires extensive boiling.  There are a lot of similar flavours between hops and evergreen needles, so perhaps the long boiling method would yeild a more flavourful syrup?

I tried the two methods side by side.  Both pots contained:

  • 2 oz spruce tips
  • 5 oz granulated sugar
  • 10 oz cold water

The first pot was brought to a boil, then poured into a jar and left to stand at room temperature overnight.

The second was boiled vigorously for 30 minutes.  Every 10 minutes I added a bit of water to maintain the liquid level.  After boiling this mixture too was jarred and left on the counter overnight.

Jar One: Quick Simmer

  • appearance: liquid is clear and without sediment; a faint, dull, brown-green tint
  • aroma: medium to strong smell of spruce; clean and minty
  • taste: tastes like it smells – strong, minty evergreen

Jar Two: Long Boil

  • appearance: liquid is cloudy with a faint, dull, brown-green tint
  • aroma: unmistakably evergreen, though slightly muted compared to jar one
  • taste: a mild evergreen taste; resinous, slightly bitter; also gives a slight impression of acidity
Two jars of spruce syrup: one briefly simmered, the other extensively boiled

In hindsight these results make perfect sense.  Now that I reconsider the hops analogy, I believe that the extensive boiling in beer-making is done to extract the bitter flavours of the hops. Lengthy boiling destroys the finer aromas of the hops, so hops that are meant to contribute to the scent of the beer are typically added at the very end.

All in all I vastly prefer the character of the quick simmer method.  I’m also reasonably happy with the strength of the aroma and flavour produced by this ratio of spruce tips to syrup, though I’ll be trying some stronger batches in the near future.

Pickle Soup

Pickles!This is exactly the kind of delicious, hearty, ingenious, frugal dish I love.
While finely chopped condiments like relish, piccalilli, and jam can be canned on their own, larger slices of vegetables like cucumbers, beets, and carrots require an acidic liquid in which to be preserved.  The liquid prevents the growth of aerobic pathogens by keeping air away from the vegetables and filling the space with acid, salt, and sugar.  Once the vegetables are gone, this delicious liquid can be used in a number of applications.

If this sounds at all gross to you, think about what is in dill pickle juice: water, garlic, black pepper, mustard seed, coriander, bay, cider vinegar, salt, and sugar.  The liquid has been cooked out and over the course of a few weeks or months has had time to mellow and balance.  It really is fantastic stuff.

My day to day use of pickling liquid is in dressings.  Thinning out mayonnaise with a bit of dill pickle juice makes a great dressing for slaw.  Thinning crème fraîche with pickled beet and horseradish liquid makes an elegant accompaniment for smoked fish.

I recently came across a traditional Ukrainian dish called kvasivka selians’ka that uses the brine from the sauerkraut crock to make soup:

[The soup] makes a thrify use of the sauerkraut juice that would otherwise be left in the barrel.  It seems appropraite for Pentecost celebrations, since by late spring the supply of last year’s sauerkraut would probably have run low.[1]

It may only be November, but I’ve already gone through a few jars of preserves.  Today I had some dill pickles out, so I decided to make pickle soup.

For this particular version, I browned carrots, onions, and the garlic cloves from the pickle jar in butter.  Then I added all-purpose flour and cooked the roux until aromatic and starting to brown.  Then I poured in some of the pickling liquid and whole milk, which I cooked gently until the mixture thickened.  At this point I added some boiled, chopped, russet potatoes, and some of the pickles themselves.

Some notes:

  • Consume very hot, with a healthy dose of black pepper, and a drizzle of cold-pressed canola.  I don’t know why, but the flavour of cold-pressed canola goes extremely well with this soup.
  • The exact amount of pickling liquid you use will depend on how acidic the liquid is.
  • The starches (the roux and the potatoes) temper the acidity of the pickles.
  • Browning the onions and roux brings out their sweetness, which compliments the sweetness of the pickles.

Dill pickle soup finished with cold-pressed canola

1.  Pisetska Farley, Marta.  Festive Ukrainian Cooking.  ©1991 University of Toronto Press.  A very good read.

Button Soup Canning Bee

Taking a jar from the canning potUntil recently the only bees I knew of were spelling bees, quilting bees, and honey bees.  There was a time when there were many other types of bees.  Canning bees, for instance.

A “bee” is any gathering called to perform a particular task.  In the days of yore it was often implied that people were coming together to help one person or family accomplish a large task in a relatively short amount of time.  In rural Canada a community might gather to help a family thresh all their grain.  Another threshing bee might be held the following week at a different farm.

A family history book tells me that food and whisky were provided to those who helped.  That same family history cautioned not to serve the whisky until the chores are done.


A Button Soup Canning Bee

This September a group of ten friends helped me put up a large amount of preserves, and were then treated to a large spread for dinner.

Preserves included dill pickles, pickled onions, onion marmalade, beet relish, figgy mustard, highbush cranberry sauce, pickled garlic (cloves and scapes), and piccalilli.  For those unaware, “piccalilli” is just relish, made with a wide assortment of vegetables instead of just cucumber. My mother’s family always made it with green tomatoes.   This particular batch used overgrown zucchini, bell peppers, and onions.

Preserving Mountain Ash (Don’t…)  Besides the more familiar preserves listed above, we also made some experimental batches of mountain ash jelly. A botanist friend has ensured me, time and time again, that our mountain ash are edible. I’ve finally conceded that they may be safe to eat, but they aren’t worth eating.

I hate to say that, because we had people cleaning and processing mountain ash all day, but the fact is that the berries are just too soapy and bitter.  We even tried a traditional Scottish recipe for rowan jelly in which the whole, uncrushed berries are gently simmered, supposedly to minimize the extraction of soapy flavours, but the resulting liquid was still inedible.

Crushing Apples with a Meat Grinder (Don’t…)  We also crushed and pressed another round of apples that day.  On the recommendation of an internet site, instead of using a proper crusher, we tried a large meat grinder. It didn’t work very well. The grinder worm wasn’t able to pull the apples through the machine, so we had to force them through with the plunger.  We ended up crushing the apples more with the plunger than the blade of the grinder.  It took forever.  Never again.

Dinner

Part way through the afternoon we pulled out the hard cider, which was in its bubbly, alcoholic, sweet spot.

For dinner, since the kitchen was tied up with people chopping vegetables and boiling jars, we ate simple dishes that could be prepared well in advance.

First was headcheese, ideal for serving large groups because a) it’s cheap as nails, and b) it can be made the night before and simply sliced to order.  Taken with pumpkin seed oil and cider vinegar.

A few plates of headcheese, waiting for vinegar

Next we put out some roasts: pork shoulder, pork belly, and beef eye of round.  Sliced and served on crusty buns with coleslaw and homemade potato chips.

A jar of each preserve was set out to sample with the sandwiches.

Pork bunwich and homemade potato chips

Dessert was sour cherry pie and vanilla ice cream.

Evans cherry pie with coffee and ice cream

Thanks to those who helped out.  I have you all scheduled for next September.

Glacé Sour Cherries

A jar of glacé sour cherries“Glacé” is a confusing term because it can refer to ice cream, cake frosting, fruit candied in “hard crack” syrup, or simply fruit preserved in syrup. It’s that last definition that applies here. Most sources I consulted had a similar procedure for making glacé cherries:

Make a simple syrup of one part water and one part sugar.  Bring to a simmer, add pitted cherries, remove pot from heat, cover and let stand over night.  This is simply to infuse the syrup with cherry, and the cherries with syrup. The next day, remove the cherries and reduce the syrup until a candy thermometer reads 230°F.  This gives a good thick-but-runny consistency.   Reintroduce the cherries, simmer briefly, then store in a sanitized jar.

I used to fill my Christmas fruitcake with glacé Bing cherries, but a few years ago I switched to our local Evans cherries instead.  They were so soft after the glacé process I worried they would be too delicate to fold into the dense pound cake batter.  While they definitely don’t hold their round shape like the bings, they managed to stay in one piece.  Their tartness is a welcomed addition to the cake.

The syrup that the glacé cherries are preserved in is fantastic in sparkling water, or cola, or cola and rum.

Dried Sour Cherries

Dried sour cherriesMost sour cherry varieties, like Evans, do dry okay, but it takes forever.  With my dehydrator running on the “Fruit/Vegetable” setting (135°F), it took 30 hours to reach raisin consistency.

The dried cherries are extremely sour, even more so than when fresh (which I should have anticipated…)

I had originally planned to eat these dried sour cherries in yogurt and granola, but they are way too tart to be consumed with tangy yogurt.  Suggested alternative uses: game terrines, “Raincoast Crisp” style cracker, and other applications where there is meat or starch to temper their acidity.  I also love tossing them into puddings, like wild rice and barley.

Rose Hip Jelly

A bowl of rosehipsWhen rose flowers wither and fall from the plant, they leave behind a little green ball called a rose hip.  In late summer those hips swell and turn red, and start to look like berries.

They are not berries, as you will discover if you open one up.  Rosehips are full of seeds and what looks like white hair.  If eaten raw those hairs will irritate your mouth and throat.  Don’t eat those hairs raw.  The fleshy part around the seeds and hair can be eaten raw.  It has an interesting flavour; depending on the plant and the time of year it can taste like fresh cut grass, or a tomato, or possibly a plum.

Though rose hips can be eaten fresh, they are most commonly made into jelly. They contain little pectin, so the jelly usually contains another fruit, like apple.

 

Rosehip Jelly
adapted from River Cottage Handbook No. 2 – Preserves

Ingredients

  • 325 g rosehips
  • 775 g apples, peeled and quartered (I used windfall apples from my questionable backyard apple tree, removing any severely damaged sections)
  • roughly 550 g sugar

Procedure

Place the quartered apples in a straight-sided pan.  Cover with water.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until the apples soften and turn to pulp.
 Simmering the apples
In the mean time, chop the rosehips in a food processor.
Chopped rosehips
Add the rosehips to the pan and simmer for 10 minutes.
Simmering the apples and rosehips
Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes.  Pour the mixture into a scalded jelly bag suspended over a bowl. Drain for several hours.  After 24 hours I ended up with about 800 mL liquid.
Straining the mash in a jelly bag
Measure the juice and put it into a pot. Bring to a boil, then add 400 g of sugar for each 600 mL of juice. (My 800 mL of liquid required 533 g sugar.) Stir until completely dissolved, then boil to setting point, 220°F.
Boiling the mix to concentrate the pectin
After boiling I had roughly 500 mL jelly. Pour into hot sterilized jars.
A glowing jar of rosehip jelly

 

Rhubarb Onion Jam

The fond: the essential flavour of rhubarb onion jamI’ve had recipes for rhubarb relish passed to me from both my family and Lisa’s.  Though one is from Ontario and the other from Alberta, they are uncannily similar: one part chopped rhubarb and one part chopped onion, stewed together with cinnamon, clove, and other “pumpkin pie” spices.

This has been my default rhubarb sauce to accompany meat and hearty bread for the past couple years, but I have to admit it’s not a show-stopper.  I’ve been trying to elevate this recipe, and a friend of mine recently found the way.  His discovery of rhubarb onion jam was one of those rare times when something in the kitchen goes horribly wrong, but the food turns out better than if all had gone according to plan.  I think many of our favourite foods were probably discovered this way: grape juice was left out, and mysteriously started to ferment; dry leaves fell into a pot of boiling water; or a marshmallow was accidently impaled on a stick and left too close to a campfire.  Rhubarb onion jam resulted from a similarly serendipitous mistake.


This happy accident can be reproduced in a controlled manner through an intensive cycle of developing and capturing fond. 
 Remember that word, “fond”?  The one with the nasal “on” and the silent “d”?  We discussed it briefly here.The mistake was that a pot of simmering rhubarb relish was left unattended for an hour.  By divine providence the pot was covered, and enough moisture trapped within that the relish didn’t really burn, but rather stuck to the bottom in a thick mat of caramelized “jam.”  With a little water and scraping, that jam was retrieved and found to be delicious.

To create good fond, you need a stainless steel pan.  To capture it, you need a wooden spoon, and possibly some liquid.

Start with the abovementioned ratio of rhubarb and onions.  Cook them in a bit of hot oil.  When the rhubarb and onions have broken down to a paste, spread them evenly across the surface of the pan.  Once a layer of caramel-coloured fond has developed on the bottom, use the wooden spoon to scrape the fond into the paste. Redistribute the mixture and repeat.  If the fond is difficult to remove, add a few tablespoons of water; they should help lift the sticky residue off the pan.

The mixture will slowly darken and thicken.  Continue the process until a jam-like consistency is achieved.  I finished the mixture with honey, to balance the concentrated tartness of the rhubarb.

The rhubarb and onions shrink dramatically in the process.  Starting with 300 g onions and 300 g rhubarb (about four cups of ingredients all told), I finish with less than one cup of jam.

Rhubarb onion jam gets along famously with cornbread and pork.

Rhubarb onion jam spread on cornbread

 

Pemmican

When I first decided to make pemmican, I thought the process would be simple: make jerky, pound jerky, render fat, combine. In practice, there were a couple hiccups, but the results were surprising.

In the finest pemmican, the dried meat was pounded until it became a powder. I started grinding pieces of jerky with a mortar and pestle. It worked, but I realized it would take days to process a useful quantity of meat. I eventually found a rock and a solid piece of earth, wrapped the jerky in cloth and pounded it out. You could probably blitz the meat in a food processor and obtain similar results.

With my meat powder made, I ran into a problem:

Buffalo Fat

Removing the marrow from buffalo bonesBuffalo fat is almost an oxymoron. The animal is very lean, and there is certainly nothing like the fatback on a pig. To complicate the matter, buffalo is dry-aged, a process that claims what little fat cap there is to protect the meat. It is therefore extremely hard to obtain raw buffalo fat in the quantity required for pemmican.

I had actually come across the solution to this problem ages ago, without realizing it. “The Plains Indians used to crack and boil bones to make grease.” It was right there in my notes, but I didn’t recognize “grease” as “edible fat.”

I had a bag of marrow bones (that is, leg bones cut into two or three inch lengths). To separate the marrow from the bones cleanly, I emptied the bag into a bucket of cold water. After a few hours of soaking I was able to push the cylinders of marrow out of the bones (photo above). Soaking bones in cold salted water, replacing the water as it clouds, is a common way to purge the marrow of blood. I don’t have a clear idea why the process makes the marrow slide out of the bones so easily, but it does.

These marrow cylinders can be rendered as if they were pure fat scraps: throw them into a pot with a touch of water and place over very low heat. I soaked my marrow extensively to draw out as much blood as I could, as I thought the blood might somehow taint the fat. I retrospect, I’m not sure this was necessary. After rendering for a few hours, I had beautiful fat with a layer of what looked like curdled blood on top. The blood that I was unable to purge had separated cleanly, and it didn’t seem to affect the fat in any way.

I strained out the non-fat components because a) they look gross, and b) they increase the rate of spoilage of the fat.

The next step was to combine the meat powder with the fat in roughly equal parts. Simple enough, though there is an important nuance: the fat must be just, just melted (ie. not too hot). If the fat is too hot, it will cook the meat powder and make it hard and gritty.

My reasons for making pemmican were quasi-academic, and truthfully I wasn’t expecting the dish to give a pleasurable eating experience. Of course the flavours of the jerky, smoke and juniper in my case, dominate. Salt is not traditional at all, as it wasn’t harvested by the Plains Indians, but by seasoning the meat and fat before cooling, this pemmican was actually damn tasty. The texture was strange, though not unpleasant. It was a bit like a rillette that you don’t have to chew.

This is a preparation that you could toy with. For instance: what if the jerky were simply pulled apart and mixed with the marrow fat, so that there was still a characteristic jerky chew? Dried saskatoons would definitely allow you to play with texture.

A puck of pemmican

Dried Tomatoes

A tray of partly-dried tomatoesTwo years ago, I had no place in my heart for tomatoes. With the stiff, pale burger-garnishes in mind, I wondered how anyone could get excited about them.

Then a few potted tomato plants in the backyard taught me how much heat they need to mature. Once they started to fruit, the woman next door was in awe, as not thirty feet away she had tried to grow tomatoes to no avail. We decided it was the exposed, south-facing cement wall behind my plants, storing heat during the day to pass to the tomatoes at night, that let them flourish. After harvest, I built a special room in my heart for tomatoes, the demanding plants that grow best in greenhouses and small anomalous corners of backyards. They are a luxury, and the crown of the late-summer harvest.

In Edmonton, it’s hard to acquire the amount of tomatoes that necessitates preserving. However, for several years my mom has been taking advantage of a boom and bust greenhouse production cycle. She buys from a greenhouse that only produces in summer months, so come September they have a windfall of beautiful tomatoes that are dirt cheap. She’s able to buy 40 lbs of romas for $20.

Oven-Drying Tomatoes

I keep expecting preserving to compromise the eating-quality of fresh ingredients. But, as with other preserves like jam and pickles, I’m left with a fantastic pantry item with an intense, focused flavour. In fact, I think I enjoy oven-dried tomatoes more than fresh ones.  People feel compelled to specify that they are oven-dried because of the popularity of the brilliantly marketed sun-dried tomatoes.  However you dry them, the process evaporates moisture to concentrate flavour and acidity, and gently caramelizes some of the sugars. These tomatoes are dynamite in pasta or tapenade, or just on a plate with garlic sausage.

Cut the romas in half and remove the juice and seeds. Strain this mixture and reserve the juice, either to drink or to use in canning (see below). Toss the flesh of the romas in oil, salt, and pepper. Go easy on the seasoning, as the tomatoes will reduce to a fraction of there original mass. Place the tomatoes on a sheet pan lined with parchment or silicon, and put them in an oven on low heat, maybe 200°F. Not trusting the thermostat in my oven, I have a high-temperature thermometer clipped to the oven rack. I have to set my dial below 150°F to achieve 200°F. Leave the tomatoes for several hours, until they develop a dense, chewy texture. This year mine took about twenty hours. Packed in oil they will keep for months.

Canning

Authorities like Bernardin and the USDA say that the pH of tomatoes is on the cusp of acceptable acidity for canning. As such they recommend the addition of lemon juice to the canning liquid, about two tablespoons per quart. From a flavour standpoint, this makes me cringe. I have, however, read testimonies of people who grew up on tomatoes canned without any acid supplements.

I wonder if, since the pH walks the line of food safety, I could give it a bump in the right direction by slightly reducing the tomato juice we can with. Some water boils off, leaving a higher concentration of acidity.

As this was my first year canning tomatoes, I tried a bunch of different recipes. All started by blanching, shocking, and peeling the tomatoes. Then I canned some in water, some in tomato juice, some with lemon, some without, some with herbs and salt, some without.