I'm in a Bit of a Pickle!

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My garden is about to overflow with pickle cucumbers. This year’s weather (and the fact that I revitalized the soil with horse manure) means that I’m going to harvest a bumper crop of everything from lettuce to cucumbers, tomatoes to hot peppers and herbs.

And by the way, f you don’t have a garden … you should. Mine consists of four raised beds two 4’ x 8’ and two 4’ by 6’. One of them is devoted to strawberries and is a marvelous beginning to summer. Another is all tomatoes for canning on the fall. One is herbs, onions and peppers. And one is lettuce, carrots, radishes, kale and cucumbers that climb up a four foot trellis.

It’s an amazing amount of fresh food!

But I’m in a pickle! What to do with the crisp fresh cucumbers that are popping like popcorn at a campfire. It’s too early to haul out the jars and canner. But I’m anxious about eating all of these.

What to do?

Something I had never heard of … refrigerator pickles.

Apparently, with a little care, you can whip up a jar or two and stuff them into the fridge without all the fuss of a day long canning marathon.

Here’s the recipe I’m using. It’s enough to do 2 quarts.

  • A bunch of pickling cucumbers, each about 4 inches in length. I’m doing one jar sliced and one whole

  • 1 cup Spanish Onion

  • Half a dozen sprigs fresh dill weed

  • 1 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

  • 1 1/2 cup water

  • 6 cloves garlic, smashed

  • 1 Tablespoon pickling salt, (I think you can use Kosher salt as well)

  • 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar

  • 1 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

  • 1 1/2 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seeds

  • Pinch or two crushed red pepper flakes

I’ve left in the fridge for 24 hours and taste tested. It’s very crisp … but not quite as “pickled” as I want it to be. Let’s see what another night will do!

Sláinte Mhaith! The Secret Behind a 25 Year Tradition!

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Corned Beef & Cabbage for St. Paddy’s Day

For at least twenty-five years, I’ve made a tradition of cooking corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day. Not just because of the Irish in me. But more as a rallying point for Spring after a long bout with old man winter.

And so, I thought that on this year’s celebration of The Green, I thought it fitting that I share my recipe in case you want to share in some of the warmth.

Nothing says Spring like a warm plate of corned beef braised in Guinness and some hearty, crunchy vegetables on the side.

That’s right, I said CRUNCHY. For about half of those 25 years the Corned Beef I made was about as tasty as damp cardboard. And, the vegetables were so mushy, they could pass for strained baby food beets.

When I finally discovered ways to overcome these problems, it developed into my secret Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner – made for as many as 30 people, but mostly enjoyed by just close family and close friends.

The secret in “secret recipe” is simple and has three main components:

  1. Remove the Corned Beef from the package and immediately throw the little plastic bag of “seasonings” away. They’re as bland as canned soup and are best used for compost.

  2. Cook the vegetables in a separate pot. “One pot” Corned Beef and Cabbage is a mythical beast at best.

  3. Guinness and Brown Sugar! I learned the benefits of this fine Irish stout in my wayward youth. Even made the trip to St. James Gate in Dublin. Back in my alcoholic days, I spent weekends shooting pool, drinking voluminous pints of Guinness, smoking non-filtered camels, and washing it all down with shots of tequila. I’m either going to live to be a hundred, or my liver is going to fall out any minute.

Cook’s Notebook #1: Don’t forget to buy your Guinness BEFORE the day you plan on cooking. In Puritan New York State we’re still living under laws that prohibit the purchase of alcohol … even for cooking purposes … prior to 8:00 a.m. I’ve made the jaunt to Wegman’s early on a Sunday Morning to get last minute ingredients and found my self thwarted by these antiquated laws.

So let’s start with the Corned Beef:

I’ve used a slow cooker many times. Particularly for large groups, but frankly, I find that “slow cookers” – like many “labor saving devices” actually save little time and tend to get one out of the kitchen, where all good cooks should be along with their guests, kids and family. My number one ingredient for cooking is to not do it alone. Get the family back into the kitchen.

Some of my fondest memories are of cooking with my step-daughter Clare on Thursday nights when her Mom had meetings. Bonding over food is a real way to build memories that last long after the last dish is washed.

So I use a combination stove and oven braising.

Cook’s Notebook #2: Don’t forget to put a cookie sheet under the pot in case it boils over. Cleaning baked on beer out of an oven is about as much fun as shaving with a dry razor.

The basis for great CB&C is the stout and brown sugar. Pure and simple. It’s good for the beef. Good for vegetables. And good for the cook.

Here’s what you need for the Corned Beef:

  • A Hearty Brisket of Corned Beef

  • A Tablespoon of Pickling Spice

  • ¼ Cup of Brown Sugar

  • Half a Spanish Onion

  • Head of Garlic, Halved

  •  Rinse the Brisket well and pat dry. Place in an ample pot. Combine A Bottle of Guinness and the Brown Sugar and add to pot along with Spice, Onion and Garlic. Pour in enough Guinness to nicely cover the ingredients.

Bring to a simmering boil (watch the pot so it doesn’t boil over!).

Place in pre-heated oven at 300° (don’t forget the cookie sheet) for 4 to 6 hours depending on the size of your Brisket. Turn it over once during cooking.

When the corned beef is done, remove and set aside. I cover it loosely to keep it warm or put it back into the oven with it “off” to accomplish the same.

Reserve the liquid though – it’s going to be great for cooking the veggies.

Now for the Vegetables:

  • A nice Head of Cabbage sliced into wedges

  • Several Carrots

  • As Many Potatoes as you are of a mind to eat. I like to use the small reds

  • Parsley

I cook the vegetables separately. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you pop potatoes or cabbage into a slow cooker and put it on low for 8 hours what’s going to be the result. More mush than the Iditarod Sled Dog races.

So get the Corned underway early and take time to prep the vegetables after you slide the meat into the oven. That way, as the day wears on -- and presumably you are oiling the palate with more Guinness -- when the time comes to cook the veggies, you won’t cut your hand off.

Put some oil in a wide pot big enough to boil all the veggies and carefully brown the cabbage on both sides. Takes about 3 or 4 minutes.

Add the carrots and potatoes and cover the whole thing with the reserved cooking liquid. Cook on a low heat and remove the cabbage after about 7 or 10 minutes. Add to your warming corned beef. Cook the carrots and potatoes until done having tested with a  fork -- about 5 to 10 minutes. Maybe a bit longer.

Drain and add the chopped parsley. Plate it up and there you have it.

Cook’s Notebook #3: Just to be sure, I liberally spread more Guinness in glasses with a few shots of Irish Whisky to my guests so that no matter how the Corned Beef and Cabbage turns out, they don’t really care.

 Sláinte mhaith!

Some Stale Writing as we Edge Toward the Equinox

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“Man cannot live by bread alone …”

Just when you were thinking that the nuttiest words a President has ever said are coming out of the current White House, consider this:

“Man cannot live by bread alone, he must have peanut butter.”James Garfield, 20th President of the United States.

Who knew? This story may seem a little stale, so I’m going to apologize in advance.

I’ve been posting some tragically depressing things lately on my website. Sorry! It’s the end of winter, OK?!  But here’s a tip that is sure to bring a broad smile to your face. And, it’s guaranteed to freshen things up.

I don’t bake bread very often during winter here at the Alamo. It’s too cold for the dough to rise properly here in the cabin unless I put it right on the wood stove. However, then I have the opposite problem. It’s really too hot and the dough gets a nasty crust on the top.

I’ve been working on making perfect French baguettes for a couple of seasons. But, alas, my French cooking is about as good as my French speaking.

Comme ci comme ça.

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Pursuit of the perfect baguette.

Last year, I bought a neat ceramic bread pan from Emile Henry that promised to improve my baking tremendously. And, I can’t wait to get started again on my quest for the perfect baguette as Spring approaches.

The problem now is, that it makes three loaves at a time. And while I suppose I could just make one, the dough recipe doesn’t work out properly. So I’m now faced with at least one of the baguettes heading towards stale before I get a change to eat it.

We’ve all faced the situation. Particularly if you bought one of those great Wegman’s loaves of pain de campagne and not gotten half way through it before it turns.

So this week, I can’t save you from Fascists or ICE or the next disaster perpetrated in the White House, but I can save your stale bread loaf in three easy steps. Here goes:

  1. Preheat your oven to about 300° or so, or use a “warm” setting if your unit has one.

  2. Take the offending bread and stick it under the faucet … crust side out … so that it gets pretty wet. (They say you can soak the crap out of it, but I don’t really recommend it.)

  3. Pop the damp loaf into the oven. I put it directly on the rack in about the center of the oven. Leave it in there for about 6 or 8 minutes and voilà! You’re bread is resuscitated!

It takes a few experimental trials for you to get the hang of it. Right amount of water. Right amount of time. But it’s sort of like toasting some not too appetizing slices to serve at breakfast before your guests know you’re serving them stale bread. It works in the toaster for a slice. Why not the oven for a whole loaf?

So there. Freshen up for Spring. Bon Appétit!


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Summer Sauce...

Just a sampling of the harvest from the gardens at the Alamo. This is my recipe for some kick-ass sauce for those of us who aren’t blessed with Italian heritage!

It is the waning days of summer here on the North Coast. That time of year when the anticipation of long lazy days spent stretched out under the umbrella with a cold brew in hand have given way to the pressure of the Labor Day Holiday, elections for me and commencement of all things rushed and busy.

Still, there’s the garden to tend. And the of harvest. This year, in a fit of poor planning, I planted a wall of cucumbers that seem to have taken over and already there are eight cans of pickles naturally fermenting on the shelf.

I like pickles. But that’s more than anyone can hope to eat in a whole year, and my idea of getting pickeled has a lot more to do with Irish Whiskey than it does vinegar.

It’s the tomatoes though that I am most excited about. Because one of my favorite things to do in an effort to make it through the long cold winter is to make Sunday Sauce. And while my Italian comrades would fdouble over in fits of laughter at my suggestion that my concoction rates being called that – their grandmother’s recipes being as sacred as the good book itself — I will say that mine has passed the taste test of not a few Italian grandmothers.

I can’t really say that my Mother taught me to cook.

And though many’s the hour I spent perched on the red plastic covered step stool next to the stove watching her prepare dinner with me asking a million questions, they were rarely about the food itself.

But I can without hesitation say that she inspired me to expertise in this as in all things.

She was big on me being able to cook my own meals, iron my own shirts, and do my own laundry.

“Someday, your wife will love you much more if you can do these things and don’t condemn her to kitchen drudgery,” she would say over and over – or at least some version of it. And, while wives have been generally in short supply for me throughout my life, she turned out to be right.

My father was sort of a meat and potatoes guy. His idea of dinner was boiled potatoes; some sort of meat … meatloaf was a favorite … and a vegetable – preferably green beans. In fact, following my flight from the nest, I can’t remember eating plain, peeled, white boiled potatoes since.

One exception he made was that he would eat spaghetti, particularly if there was a pork chop or two in the sauce to liven it up. And while I’m not really sure where my Mother got the recipe. (I have her recipe file, but there’s no mention of sauce anywhere in it) it was pretty darn tasty.

I do know that it smelled good, filling the house with aromas and flavors that made even my father get excited for dinner. And I remember that for some odd reason, she usually decided to cook it on the any one of the hottest days of the year.

I learned to make my sauce recipe not from her, but from stealing little dribs and drabs from people like Carla Palumbo whose sauce is famous throughout the ROC. (Rochester to the uninitiated.) But like any good Italian Cook – the real secret is hidden in great grandma’s kitchen and passed on only to true bloods of which I am not.

But what that means is that I get to tell you my recipe … and the secret that goes into it – without any guilt or mystery.

During the dog days of summer, I like to spend some of the slight spare time I have tending my small gardens here on the North Coast. And, in my self-imposed exile, I have expanded them exponentially to include not only a tiny vineyard (still a few years from producing) as well as the beginnings of a substantial strawberry patch.

One of my favorite things to grow are Tomatoes and I have branched out, so to speak to some more “exotic” varieties this year in anticipation of the delicious sauce I will be making as the harvest begins.

I cook some kick-ass sauce, even if I do say so myself. And, fresh tomatoes can make even a lousy recipe turn incredible!

So if you too are looking at the garden wondering just what you will do with the mounds of tomatoes, take heart. This recipe is guaranteed to taste like you too have an Italian grandmother, even if your are Irish-Japanese. LOL

An important note: I use fresh tomatoes when they are in season, but I use the canned stuff the rest of the year. There’s no sense in using the red bulbous crap that most supermarkets pawn off as “tomatoes” in the off-season. They’re flavorless, have the texture of an old foam rubber pillow, and not the worth the effort.

First thing to do is to get the tomatoes out of the fridge. Believe it or not, it is the worst place to store them. Screws up their ripening and turns them FASTER!

Am assuming you have a fairly big pot to do this in, that you have around 12 to 15 or 17 average sized tomatoes (more if you are using plum tomatoes) and that you are carnivores.

Ingredients:

  • Olive Oil

  • Couple of Bone-in Porkchops

  • 8 to 12 Oz Chuck Steak Cut into two or three pieces

  • 12 Oz Can of Tomato Paste

  • A nice big Spanish Onion, chopped

  • A few stalks of celery, chopped

  • A red or green Pepper if you have one

  • A Couple of Organic Carrots Chopped  and (from the market if you can gt them so they don’t taste like cardboard) Otherwise I leave them out

  • couple cloves of garlic

  • Teaspoon Oregano

  • Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes

  • Tablespoon of Basil

  • Salt and Pepper

  • 1 Bay Leaf

  • A teaspoon of sugar if you have it to cut the acidity

  • Couple Tablespoons of Fresh Parsley

  • And Now the SECRET ingredient: 2 maybe 3 medium sized whole pickled Perpporoncini’s

  • Oh, and Red Wine – anything from Chianti to Cabernet, Merlot. Enough to drink – even if it takes two bottle. (LOL) It helps the cooking process if you drink liberally!

Prep:

You need to take the skin off the tomatoes first. Which is easier than it sounds once you’ve done it.

You need 1 Pot and Two Bowls. Put water into the pot. Enough to cover a half dozen or a couple more small ones tomatoes.

First, remove any leafy parts. And, with a sharp knife, cut an X in the bottom of each tomato.

Bring the water to a boil and drop Tomatoes in. Leave there for about a minute and remove with a slotted spoon to Bowl # 1, which is filled with water and some ice cubes. You will see the skin curl up and the ice water immediately cools the tomatoes. Remove skins with your fingers and drop them into Bowl Number 2, discarding the Skins.

Repeat until all are done.

If you have a food processor, you can put the tomatoes in to lightly puree. But quite frankly, I think it works better to mash them up in a large bowl with tool something like a hand potato masher. Leaves you some larger pieces but does the job.

Set Aside.

In Your large pot:

  • Put some olive oil in, enough to brown the pieces of meat on both sides. I salt and Pepper when I do this.

  • Brown and set aside.

  • I add a little more oil, and then the cloves of garlic – CHOPPED and sauté lightly.

  • Add Onions, Celery and Carrots

  • sauté lightly

  • Then the Can of Paste.

  • Then add: Oregano, Red Pepper Flakes, Basil, Salt and Pepper, Bay Leaf and Sugar.

  • Mix it all up and sauté for about a minute or two.

  • Add the mashed tomatoes. And stir up.

  • Add the pepperoncinis – this is the secret ingredient that gives the sauce a kick.

  • Add about a cup of wine.

  • Return Meat to Sauce (Big Chunks. They will braise and actually start to fall off the bone.)

The thing is – using fresh tomatoes means you have a LOT of water. So it takes a couple – even three plus hours to simmer it down. I do it with the top off the pot and stir every 15 minutes or so to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn. Don’t know if you have an electric or Gas stove but I have it on low.

Leaving the top off allows the house to fill with a great Smell.

I taste it periodically to make sure it doesn’t need anything. I actually salt it a bit more than most people. And sometimes, throw in another teaspoon of basil.

Over the cooking time, it is best to drink the remaining part of the wine, so that no matter how it tastes and what your guests say, you don’t really give a shit. It will taste good to YOU!

Use whatever pasta you like. I have made fresh pasta with my Kitchen-Aid that is nothing short of divine. But you can get some really great pastas these days that are locally produced.

I use fresh cheese and grate it over the Pasta rather than that cardboard canned stuff that tastes like beach sand.

Warn your guests about the pepperoncinnis. I find it best take them out along with the bay leaf.

Open more wine. :-)