30 December 2010

Applesauce, again

For the second year in a row, we purchased the bulk of our apples after Christmas and spent a long, steam-filled day in the kitchen making applesauce. Last Sunday we bought about one hundred thirty pounds of apples and spent the rest of the day (and into the wee hours of the next) making and canning just shy of 50 quarts of applesauce. Had I not lost two jars to breakage in the canning pot, leading to messy delays, we would have reached that milestone. We're lucky because there's also a pot of ready-to-be-eaten-but-uncanned sauce in the fridge, as well as a bag of apples in the hallway that are waiting to be turned into tarts and pies. We used two varieties this year, Haralson and Fireside, and the tart Haralson is my favorite for both eating and cooking. The Fireside is a sweet eating apple, but its taste is a little too green for me, so I used the Haralsons at a 3:1 ratio.

This was the first year we didn’t core the apples; instead, I simply chopped them into pieces and tossed them into the pot. To prevent scorching, I put a little water in the bottom of the two stainless steel pots used to cook the apples; I’ve had problems when I’ve used a thin-bottomed aluminum pot, so that one is now used beneath the chinois to collect the about-to-be-jarred sauce. We cooked the apples just long enough to mash the pulp easily, after which we put everything through the chinois, which purees the pulp, giving it a smooth, even texture while trapping the seeds and skins. Pushing the hot, pink pulp through the chinois, as my son is doing in the picture, is hard work, but we're richly rewarded for our efforts.

Our recently cleaned and reorganized fruit cellar now holds an entire shelf of jars, and during the course of the coming year the kids will make frequent trips into the basement to retrieve the jars one by one. It’ll be served as a topping for pannukakku, brought to school for a lunchtime snack, and eaten plain while sitting at the kitchen counter. We’ll serve it with pork roasts and chops, and sprinkled with wheat germ or fragrant Vietnamese cinnamon. And finally, we enjoy giving applesauce to friends, a simple gift that is the distillation of an entire growing season in Minnesota and a single, steamy day in December.

23 December 2010

On the brink of Christmas

Here we are, on the brink of Christmas, the cookingest time of the year. Christmas cookies galore, a pork roast in the icebox with its rub of kosher salt and crushed juniper berries, a ham waiting for tomorrow, and a few undecided choices for Christmas breakfast. My siblings and I have been reminiscing about our delight in sneaking Christmas cookies from the downstairs freezer when we were kids, and how even today we all enjoy them frozen. I just told my sister in Alaska that I still prefer a Christmas cookie that I’ve sneaked, even from myself!

Tonight the kids and I will bake our last batch for the season, and tomorrow we’ll start eating them. While I have no remorse about pilfering Christmas cookies relentlessly, I abstain until Christmas Eve dessert, the traditional start of Christmas cookie season. It’s only after we’ve tucked into the ham that our anise-laced cutouts reach their full potential, and the gingerbread men are best as we near the Epiphany. So for now, although the tins, canisters, and wax paper-lined shoeboxes are packed to the gills, I still have to scavenge for a little dessert. Luckily there’s still a little of that delicious sesame-honey crunch we bought in Greece. Merry Christmas!

12 December 2010

My Garden in December

The snow has stopped falling and the brilliant blue sky is washed clean.  Enormous mounds of snow line the streets, proof of our industrious snow-blowing and shoveling.  My garden is buried beneath the snow, the last of the brussels sprouts, beets, and leeks frozen 'til spring.
My wife and I recently spent two weeks in Turkey and Greece, our first vacation in the eastern Mediterranean.  We loved the hamsi in Istanbul, the pomegranate syrup in Sirinci, Turkey, and the kebaps in Athens.  But, what really struck me was a simple breakfast treat at our hotel in Athens, a small, clear glass filled with yogurt, honey, and pistachios. I was reminded that all food, when made with good ingredients, nourishes and sustains.  The quality of the ingredients was outstanding, and the honey especially captured the intensity of the dry, fragrant shrublands known in the Mediterranean as garrigue.  Just as great wine comes from stressed vines, it seems that great honey also comes from the stressed heather, thyme and other plants of the region.  And where do the cows that make such yogurt graze?  The few we saw were wandering  through the same rocky terrain that obviously yielded much (including olive oil) despite its inhospitable appearance. 
Foods that capture and embody the particulars of place leave a lasting memory, and remind us that what we eat is as rich with history and culture as the beautiful sights we travel to see.