Salsa and the Art of Fermentation

The tomato crop is just about over and done with for this highly productive year.  Markets everywhere were awash with heavy, ripe tomatoes.  Across the street, my wonderful neighbor had such a bumper crop on her hands that she kept a steady stream coming, in hopes I would use more.

Nothing says summer like sweet, juicy tomatoes fresh off the vine. They were everywhere this year and they went into everything!

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One noteworthy success worth sharing came by way of an outstanding homemade fermented salsa, which started out as a fairly basic version.  Earlier, I had tested a batch of fermented baby cucumbers and hot peppers, and they were crazy good. The cukes were reminiscent of old fashioned half-sours. Well, why not salsa?

The ferment process is fairly intuitive; there is no cooking required, just a scrupulously clean work space and tools.  All it takes is a little time and salt to transform vegetables into a new realm of complex flavor and nutrients. The salt acts as a natural preserving agent while tiny microbes busily gobble up the sugar and transform it into lactic acid—which in turn serves as a natural preservative. It’s a happy environment for beneficial bacteria to flourish, to keep harmful bacterial in check, and to become rich in probiotics.

There are a few simple tricks that will help ensure proper fermentation and prevent the risk of food-borne illness. As with all pickles, the vegetables need to be kept completely submerged below the surface of the liquid solution.

C02 builds up during fermentation and those bubbles need to go somewhere. I started out with the jar loosely covered with cheesecloth and lid, set in a small bowl for run-off, and knew I could do better.Salsa Ferment.ph

I found a handy fermentation lid that works like a charm and I’ve since learned there are many similar devices on the market.

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Once a mason-type jar is properly filled, the lid is screwed on and water is poured into the well on top which creates a vapor lock.  A small cap is then placed over a center vent which allows pressure to release safely.

When the salsa is prepared and in the jar, it’s a simple matter of topping it off with brine to secure it all.  It is left to ferment on the counter for 2-5 days or longer, depending on the temperature of the room. The warmer it is, the quicker the process.

As it ferments the salsa mellows and develops robust but nuanced character; the harsh saltiness shifts into an intriguing, pleasantly sour taste. The longer the salsa ferments, the more pronounced the flavor. Once achieved, enjoy the salsa as is or refrigerate for longer storage. It will hold for several months.

Likely it won’t last that long, though.

Naturally Fermented Salsa

 Ingredients
1 cup onion, dice
3 cups tomatoes, seed & dice
1 cup mixed peppers, seed & dice (serrano, jalapeno, pasilla are good)
2 cloves garlic, mince
Handful of fresh cilantro
Lime juice to taste (start with ½ lime)
1 teaspoon salt
Brine ratio: 1-2 teaspoons salt to 1/4 cup water

Instructions

  1. Mix together all the ingredients including the salt.
  2. Place the salsa in a 1 quart mason jar, pressing down to release some liquid. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid.  Place a lid or other weight to submerge the salsa.  Finish with a bit of extra brine if needed and top off throughout fermentation process.
  3. Ferment for 2+ days at room temperature (mine took 5 days, then sat in fridge 4 more days before using).
  4. When  the fermentation period is complete, the salsa is ready to eat or can be stored in the refrigerator for several months.  Yield: about 1 quart

Let Them Eat Bread!

There was a time when the dinner roll was ubiquitous fare with evening meals throughout America. In the early half of the 20th century, most popular was the Parker House roll, that fluffy darling known for its addictive sweetness.  The cloverleaf roll and other flavorless knock-offs followed, and by the 70’s and 80’s the dinner roll had morphed into throw-away status, a mere place-holder for the most ravenous.

Before we knew it, our evening bread threatened to drift into obscurity.  For those conforming to diets and health regimens, the dinner roll was typically viewed as not worth the carb outlay and restaurateurs were forced to take a serious look at the role bread played on the plate. They recognized the value of bread: it bought time and was an affordable meal extender.  On the other side, diners’ palates were becoming more sophisticated. “Either give us something worth eating, or forget about it,” they demanded.

Enter the army of artisan breads. Apparently, the French knew what they were doing with their beloved baguette. It wasn’t long before delightfully innovative loaves had fully captured our attention and claimed a well-deserved place at the table. We made the turn from soft and fluffy dinner rolls to artfully crafted bread—worth eating every crunchy, chewy, tangy bite.

Me?  I’m somewhere in the middle. I enjoy a slice of crusty bread dipped in flavored olive oil. Currently on my counter?  I’ve got my own light, yeasty rolls cooling on a rack; they’re enriched with sweet potato, accented by fresh sage.

sweet potato rolls

Shades of Parker House rolls!  These slightly sweet copper-tinged beauties serve a dual purpose:  they are both nutritious and delicious.  The sweet potato provides a good hit of valuable nutrients like vitamins A, C, manganese, calcium and iron, plus it brings a touch of sweetness and adds fiber for the dough’s structure.

This particular recipe is actually reworked from a gluten-free one by Erin McKenna in her excellent cookbook, Bread & Butter.  In my version, the dough is quickly mixed by hand to bring the dry and wet ingredients together. I use instant dry yeast which cuts down on rising time. Best news here, no kneading is required. The scooped dough is dropped onto a baking pan with limited space between the rolls. Within the hour they double in size, ready for the oven where they rise up and support each other to form light pull-apart rolls.

These rolls have real character; they are a match with a simple smear of butter and they can stand up to big flavors.  I’ve used them as sliders with sausage, kraut, and spicy mustard.

They are perfect for breakfast with eggs and such. They are just right with minestrone soup, and the dough makes fantastic pizza!

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You get the idea, they are dinner rolls worth eating.

Sweet Potato and Sage Rolls

Adapted from Erin McKenna’s Sweet Potato and Sage Pull-Apart Rolls from Bread & Butter

Ingredients
1 tablespoon cornmeal for the baking pan
½ tablespoon butter for baking pan
1-½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat, spelt, or teff flour
2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sweet potato puree (from 1 small)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon fresh, mince

Instructions

  1. Ahead: Prepare the sweet potato puree: bake 1 small for 6-8 minutes in microwave, turning once half way through. Let cool, scoop out the pulp, mash it well, and reserve ½ cup for puree. Butter the sides of 8×8” or 9×12” baking pan, line the bottom with parchment, sprinkle with cornmeal.
  2. In medium bowl whisk together flours, instant yeast, baking powder and salt.
  3. In a 2 cup measure or small bowl, combine the puree, 1 tablespoon butter, milk, agave, sage, and warm for 40-60 seconds in microwave to melt butter and bring it to 110-120°.
  4. Make a well in the dry and pour in the liquid; with a spatula stir to combine, until it is the consistency of a sticky dough.
  5. Using a 3-tablespoon ice cream scoop, measure portions into pan with no more than 1/2 inch between each roll on the pan. Cover the pan with a towel and let the rolls rise until light, 45-60 minutes.
  6. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake the rolls for about 16 minutes–half way through rotate the pan. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the rolls cool on rack for 10 minutes before unmolding. Yield: 9-12 rolls.

Socca: Guilt-free, Gluten-free

Ever need a flat bread or cracker with character to fill in as a snack with drinks or as an alternative bite with soup or salad?  This one is even gluten-free.

Socca is a fascinating chickpea based ‘crepe’ popular in the south of France.  In northern Italy, Farinata is a variation sold along-side pizza and focaccia.  No shaping or patting required, Socca is a simple batter built on chickpea flour, salt, water, and a bit of olive oil.

If time permits, let the batter rest overnight for it to relax and thicken. The flavor and texture will improve, resulting in a creamy interior and crisp exterior texture.  When ready, spread it into a pizza pan and bake in hot oven to set. Remove briefly, add toppings, and return to finish.

As you can imagine, this chickpea treat is full-flavored and needs little more than a light topping of olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, fresh herbs, perhaps a few olives for embellishment…  Rosemary is one such herb that is assertive enough to do well here.

Or, if you are feeling adventurous, try Zhoug Sauce , a highly addictive condiment from Yemen made with cilantro, jalapeno peppers, chile flakes, garlic, cardamom, and cumin seed.  I was lucky enough to discover the sauce at Trader Joe’s recently and it was a big hit on a recent Socca batch.  Be prepared, Zhoug packs quite a punch.  I liked it so much, I even added feta cheese.  So much for keeping it simple.

Socca

Inspired by King Arthur Flour, Socca

Ingredients

Batter
3 cups chickpea flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/3 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil, more for the pan
Toppings
½ cup olive oil or sauce of choice
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
3/4 cup pitted and sliced Greek olives
1 cup feta cheese (optional)

Directions

  1. Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add the water and olive oil and whisk until smooth. Cover and let the batter rest at room temperature for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Spread 9” pizza pan liberally with olive oil. . Place the pan in the oven to preheat for 5 minutes.
  3. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and pour in the batter, spreading to edges in an even layer. Bake for 7 minutes and remove from the oven.
  4. Lightly spread top with olive oil, fresh herbs or sauce of choice. Add feta cheese if desired, and return to oven for 7 minutes longer until the surface takes on color and browns. If the top doesn’t brown, turn the oven from bake to broil until crisp and blistered.
  5. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges to serve warm. The top and bottom should be crisp, and the center creamy and moist.
  6. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week. Reheat in a preheated 400°F oven for 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 3 – 9” rounds cut into portions.

 

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

For a casual brunch following St. Paddy’s Day, I opted to configure some of my fabulous corned beef hash into a riff on Scotch Eggs.

Often eaten as a cold snack, Scotch Eggs are hard cooked eggs wrapped in sausage and deep fried.   As such, my version included just enough of the corned beef hash to tidily encase a hard cooked egg. It was then treated to a gentle sauté in a thin layer of vegetable oil until hot and crispy.

Since I had hard cooked eggs ready to go, this treat took no time at all.  My yolks were more cooked than I normally prefer— the perfect enhancement would be a slightly moist yolk.

Once I had a grip on the egg preparation this was a fairly effortless undertaking. The lively plates consisted of the highly entertaining Irish Scotch Eggs along with a mild mustard sauce, pickled onions, radishes, sharp cheddar cheese and warm soda bread slathered with cranberry apple jam.  Irish Eggs,  Scotch Eggs, Irish-Scotch Eggs… enjoy and call them whatever makes you happy!

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

Ingredients (per serving)
½ cup heaping, Corned Beef Hash (see blog recipe)
1 hard cooked egg, peeled
1/3 cup flour (approx.) lightly seasoned with salt and paprika for dredging
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for pan
Accompaniments:  mustard sauce (see below), pickled onions, cheddar cheese, radishes

 Directions

  1. Heat a skillet with oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Place flour in wide bowl and lightly dust the egg with flour.
  3. Mound hash in palm of hand and make an egg-sized indentation in the center. Insert the hard cooked egg into the center and mold the hash around the egg to completely encase it. Lightly moisten hands with water if it becomes sticky.
  4. Carefully dust the exterior with flour and place egg in hot pan. As the surface begins to take on color, roll it over slightly with spatula, continue until entire surface is crisp and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes.  Serve with accompaniments of choice.

Light Mustard Sauce: combine ¼ cup sour cream and ¼ cup mayonnaise, blend in 1 tablespoon deli mustard, or to taste.

Marbled Tea Eggs, pretty tasty

Since Easter is rolling around the corner, now’s the time to take advantage of the crates of eggs stacked at the market, and get ready for the big holiday weekend.

Beyond colorful dyed eggs, here’s a creative and tasty variation for beautifying hard cooked eggs. In China, marbled tea eggs have been around for centuries. The concept is quite simple.  Simmer a flavorful marinade of soy, oolong tea, cinnamon, star anise, and perhaps a bit of orange.  Our marinade incorporates the heavy smokiness of lapsang souchong tea, but any oolong will do. Using the back of a spoon, crack the shells of hard cooked eggs into a series of spider webs, then soak them in the marinade.

The original marble tea eggs in China were simmered in a marinade for quite a while, then left to soak even longer. These days less tough and stinky eggs can be crafted with a brief simmer in the soy blend, then refrigerated in the marinade for a mere day or two.

Half the fun is the final egg peel unveiling the outcome of this process. It is always a surprise, perfected by practice. The soy marinade saturates via the egg cracks, artfully coloring and flavoring the eggs. For darker marbling and more pronounced flavor, allow a couple of days.  Pretty and tasty.

Marbled Tea Eggs

Ingredients
6-12 hard cooked eggs with shells intact, chilled (see below)
Marinade
1/2 cup soy sauce (I use a deep, rich mushroom soy sauce found at Asian markets)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups water, divided (more for the pot)
2 Lapsang souchong tea bags, oolong or other black tea
2 star anise, broken up
1 cinnamon stick
2 – 3” x ½” strips peel from mandarin or other thin skinned orange

Instructions

  1. Gently crack shells of hard cooked eggs all over with the back of a spoon to create webbing. Do not tap too hard.
  2. Prepare marinade
    Pour 1 cup boiling water over the tea bags and steep for 5-10 minutes.
    In a pan that will hold up the number of eggs in one layer, heat the soy sauce, salt, sugar to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the brewed tea, additional 1 cup water, cinnamon stick, star anise, orange peel, and simmer gently 10-15 minutes to allow flavors to blend.
  3. Marbleize the eggs
    Gently lower the cracked hard cooked eggs in a single layer into the heated marinade and add enough water to barely cover the eggs and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool in liquid (about 1 hour).
  4. Marinade the eggs
    Store the eggs and marinade in a covered container in the refrigerator, discarding cinnamon and other seasonings. Let marinate in refrigerator at least overnight. For darker marbling and more pronounced flavor allow up to 2 days.  Peel the eggs and serve. Yield: 6-12.
    Note: reserve the marinade; it can be re-used.

Lip Smacking Good: Boston Brown Bread

As mentioned in the previous post, when March approaches I get nostalgic. Much of this is brought on by St. Paddy’s Day, since I was raised outside of Boston.  I recall it as a hugely anticipated day-long event packed with celebrations, all culminating with aromatic corned beef, cabbage, and all the trimmings.

Another much loved food from those days is irreplaceable Boston Brown Bread, a must have accompaniment with famed Boston Baked Beans. Whenever I see a brown bread recipe, I automatically save it.  I’m not sure why I collect them, because there is nothing complicated about it:  just a basic bread using baking soda for leavener, with a combination of hearty flours like rye and wheat—and of course cornmeal.  Buttermilk is the standard liquid, and molasses is a key ingredient which supplies mild sweetness along with its signature flavor. Raisins or currants are negotiable.

Boston Brown Bread is a quirky boiled/steamed bread with a history that likely goes back centuries.  In more recent times, the practice of using a coffee can as a cooking mold has become linked with its now characteristic round shape.

I must confess until this March I had never made Boston Brown Bread.  I may have been caught up in its mystic, but the idea of boiling bread in a water bath for an hour just seemed a little too remote.

That is all pre-multi-cooker.  Now, I am so smitten by the Instant Pot’s flexibility that I seek out challenges—and what a ride it gave me this past weekend. Most certainly the IP was created for Boston Brown Bread.

This is inspired by Jasper White’s Boston Brown Bread recipe, which I have adapted to the PC.  The batter is divided between two 15 ounce pinto bean cans.  It’s a good idea not to fill the tins any more than 2/3 full to allow for rising space. Cover them with foil and secure with twine.  In 30 minutes,  the loaves are ‘baked’ and beautiful.

I will not gush, but will simply state that this is a bread worth investing in a multi-cooker.  It is just as good as I remembered!   Brown bread is great warmed in the morning, spread with butter or cream cheese.  It makes a great mid-day snack, an accompaniment to many entrees, and it is lip-smacking good as an ice cream sandwich.

Boston Brown Bread, PC

Adapted from Jasper White’s Boston Brown Bread

Ingredients
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup dark rye flour
½ cup medium grind corn meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup molasses or ¼ cup molasses + 2 tablespoons apple butter
1 cup buttermilk, or a half and half combo of milk + yogurt
½ cup raisins or currants
Accessories:  2 – 15-1/2 ounce cans top and labels removed and cleaned

Directions

  1. Grease the insides of two cans with butter or baker’s spray.
  2. In multi-cooker, insert trivet and pour in about 6 cups water.  Set pot to Saute or Simmer to begin heating the water.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients with a whisk in a mixing bowl.  Stir in the liquid, then fold in the raisins.
  4. Divide the batter between the molds. It should fill molds about 2/3s full.  Secure the tops with foil and tie with twine.
  5. Place the cans into the pot, adding more water if necessary to fill ½ way up the sides of the cans.  Do not fill the pot beyond maximum capacity mark.  Set to High Pressure and cook for 30 minutes.
  6. Allow bread to rest in pot with lid sealed for 10 minutes then slowly release pressure. Test for doneness:  a skewer inserted in center should come out clean.  Transfer molds to cooling rack and remove the foil covers.  Cool for about 45 minutes before unmolding.  Yield: 2 loaves.

Ultimate Kid Food, Part 2

It is all a matter of taste, and opinions on the grilled cheese sandwich are legendary.

Folks are very picky about their sandwiches and you just don’t mess with this one. What about the cheese?  Should it have Swiss or American cheese? Or do we go off the deep end and prefer blue cheese and pears?  What about mustard?  Preferences here can run deep and strong; it’s a very hot topic, indeed.

Of course, the bread is an important factor.  Here, we begin with an inoffensive Buttermilk White Bread. It’s not too soft and not too dense. It’s a good size, not too big and not too small, but large enough to trim the crust – if an issue.

For the cheese, we stay in the middle with a compromise, and go with a slice each of Swiss and American, plus a light schmear of deli mustard in between for good luck.

The bread is lightly buttered on the exterior sides only.  That is it. Grill both sides over moderately low until crispy, golden, and gooey.Tom Soup, Grilled Cheese

Enjoy with a steamy cup of tomato soup and dip away!

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Ingredients
2 slices Buttermilk white bread
1 slice Swiss cheese
1 slice American cheese
½ teaspoon deli mustard
1-2 teaspoon butter

Instructions

  1. Over medium low heat, preheat grill/pan.
  2.  Spread butter on 1 side of the bread slices. Place one slice, buttered side down in pan. Layer it with Swiss cheese spread with a light schmear of mustard and then the American cheese. Top with 2nd slice of bread, buttered side up.
  3. Cook until the bread is golden brown, 2-3 minutes; turn and repeat; press and turn again until crusty and cheese is melted.  Cut off the crusts if desired, and slice into fingers or triangles.  1 serving