Middle East’s ‘peanut butter’ on the rise in U.S.

Hummus is touted in the current Mail Tribune food section as a health-savvy and satisfying snack for kids, as well as adults.

Indeed, Charlotte Observer writer Kathleen Purvis called it “the Middle East’s answer to peanut butter.” But whereas peanut butter is a sticky issue in some schools, hummus has a lower allergen risk and is readily adapted with alternate ingredients. The additions of vegetables and fruits, such as the beets and avocados suggested in this week’s story, even raise the nutritional profile of hummus.

The profile of hummus itself is on the rise. In 2006, the dish ubiquitous in so many countries was found in only 12 percent of American households. That’s now up to 20 percent and growing fast, according to the Observer.

But how to make hummus at home that’s as creamy as a Lebanese deli’s? Save the liquid from the can of chickpeas and add it to the hummus while it’s pureeing in the food processor. The Raleigh News & Observer goes one step further and advises pureeing the hummus longer than you think is necessary, for at least five minutes. Its recipe is posted below.

Of course, the creamiest hummus ever made in my own kitchen was the handiwork of my dear friend, a frequent traveler to the Middle East. She insists on peeling the membrane from each and every chickpea, a laborious process that does remove some of the legume’s fiber but certainly makes for a silky spread.

It’s even better served with the Middle East’s iconic spices: za’atar and sumac. My friend brought me a stash from her last trip. Although I’m keeping them viable in the freezer, I’m looking forward to spices from her next adventure.

Until then, I’ll be using this classic recipe, delicious no matter where in the world it’s eaten.


1 (15 1/2-ounce) can chickpeas

4 garlic cloves, peeled

3 tablespoons tahini

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (a little more than 1 lemon)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for optional garnish

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Greek olives, for garnish (optional)

Toasted pine nuts, for garnish (optional)

Pita chips or pita bread, for serving.

Set colander over a bowl. Drain the chickpeas into colander. Set aside chickpeas and liquid separately.

Puree the garlic in bowl of a food processor, then add drained chickpeas, the tahini, cumin, salt, lemon juice, oil and crushed red pepper and puree again. Let processor run for 3 to 5 minutes, adding 1/4 cup at a time of reserved chickpea liquid until desired consistency is reached. (You may use entire amount of reserved chickpea liquid.)

Serve with the optional garnishes, if desired, and the pita chips or pita bread.

Makes 12 servings.

Recipe from “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews,” by Poopa Dweck (Ecco, 2007).

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‘Crispy Treats’ a cut above rice-cereal originals

School bake sales and parties just wouldn’t be complete without the ubiquitous Rice Krispies Treat.

Kellogg’s beloved cereal bound up with melted marshmallows is certainly high on nostalgia but most definitely low on nutrition. Even an organic version enhanced with some high-quality nut butter doesn’t make the grade for nutritional therapist Summer Waters, although the original was a fixture of her childhood.

Not even as an occasional treat? I asked. Parents can do better, she replied, with every intent of showing them how in an October class. See this week’s A la Carte story for more details.

But while I deferred to Waters’ nutritional ethic and excluded the following recipe from this week’s food section, I couldn’t resist sharing it in this blog. Yes, I could do better. But I’d also choose this “crispy treat” any day over the original, which aren’t altogether too tasty in my opinion.

This one, courtesy of McClatchy News Service, gets higher marks for flavor, fiber and healthful fat from freeze-dried fruit and peanut or any other nut butter. And cutting them into heart shapes makes them both fun to look at and eat. Leftover pieces can be rolled into balls.

MCT photo

Heart Crispy Treats

4 cups organic, crispy brown-rice cereal

1 cup freeze-dried raspberries or strawberries (available at most health-food stores)

1 cup brown rice syrup

1 cup smooth peanut butter (or any nut or seed butter)

In a large bowl, combine the brown-rice cereal and freeze-dried fruit.

In a large saucepan, heat the brown rice syrup and peanut butter over low heat and whisk until melted and combined, for about 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and pour over rice crisps in. Stir with a plastic spatula until completely combined. Pour into a greased, 8-by-8-inch pan and press down to flatten top. Cool for 5 minutes and then use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut into hearts.

Makes 14 (2-inch) hearts.

Recipe from Weelicious.com

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Try this sweet treat for back-to-school snacking

If there’s ever a time when meals and snacks should keep kids and parents going all day, it’s the rush back to school.

The best options, nutrition experts can attest, don’t come in the packages. Simply put, they’re whole foods or dishes comprising them. And while fruits and vegetables are high on the list, it’s healthful fats that provide long-burning fuel in the body.

Recipes in this week’s food section, two featuring avocado, are simple snacking or lunchtime options. More can be had next month in a Medford class with nutritional therapist Summer Waters, who provides samples with her large helpings of nutrition information. Read this week’s story for more details.

Waters also ends each session with a “sweet treat,” such as faux fudge based on nut butter. These no-bake fruit bars are right in line with Waters’ nutritional principles and also quick and easy to assemble on a weeknight with minimal mess.

In addition to a loaf pan, a high-powered food processor, like a Cuisinart, is necessary. A blender or mini chopper just won’t cut it here, literally. And closely monitor how the mixture comes together; it may need to be broken up in the middle of processing until pasty.

Cookbook author Lisa Yockelson suggests pressing a generous sprinkle of additional coconut flakes, nuts and/or seeds right on the top of the loaf just before chilling for at least five hours before slicing. Uncut loaf or sliced bars can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks, individually wrapped for long-term storage.

Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post

Fruit Bars

1 2/3 cups moist dried apricot halves (about 6 1/3 ounces), snipped into small pieces

1/2 cup moist pitted dates (about 2 3/4 ounces), snipped into small pieces

1/4 cup moist dried apples (about 1 3/5 ounces), snipped into small pieces

2 tablespoons coconut oil, at room temperature (may substitute coconut “butter”)

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (about 1 ounce), plus more for optional garnish

1 tablespoon honey or brown rice syrup (optional)

1/2 cup raw cashew pieces, plus more for optional garnish

1/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds, plus more for optional garnish

1/8 teaspoon salt, preferably flaked sea salt

Line bottom and sides of a 4-by-7-inch loaf pan with a double layer of plastic wrap wide enough to allow long sides to eventually overlap and seal fruit-bar loaf.

In a food processor, combine the apricots, dates and apples. Pulse for 30 seconds, or until chopped. Add the coconut oil, vanilla extract, coconut flakes and honey or brown rice syrup, if using; pulse for 45 seconds to 1 minute. Add the cashew pieces, pumpkin seeds and salt; pulse for 45 seconds to 1 minute.

Continue to pulse for about 1 more minute, until mixture is dense, comes together in big, clinging clumps and becomes pasty. If mixture balls up during this time, stop and carefully break it up. (If mixture is not thoroughly processed until pasty, it will not adhere to itself well enough, and will not cut cleanly once thoroughly chilled.) You should be able to see small bits and flecks of nuts and seeds rather than one, solid color.

Carefully remove blade from food processor, and use a sturdy offset knife to dislodge any fruit-bar paste that might cling to blade, then use knife to scrape and transfer globs of fruit mixture to loaf pan. Use a flexible spatula to firmly press mixture into an even layer. If desired, coarsely chop extra coconut flakes, cashews and/or pumpkin seeds (about 4 teaspoons total) and distribute evenly over surface, gently pressing them in place while mixture is still sticky. Fold over flaps of plastic wrap directly on surface. Refrigerate for 5 hours, or up to overnight, until quite firm.

Use a sharp chef’s knife to cut loaf into 16 equal slices (bars), or store the fruit-bar block whole in loaf pan and slice as needed. Keep refrigerated, either way.

Makes 16 servings.

Recipe from The Washington Post

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Silky stew or quick saute is summer’s symphony

Shares from a traditional community-supported agriculture program can seem a bit like the “mystery boxes” intended to stump chefs in so many cooking competitions.

Both entirely unfamiliar produce items and the all-too familiar — filling boxes for weeks on end — offer their own culinary challenges. Even home gardeners who grow exactly what they like, and farmers-market shoppers well-versed in seasonality, can benefit from thinking outside the box, as chef Constance Jesser opined for a recent story in the newspaper’s food section.

Ratatouille is one of the recipes Jesser said she intended to share in an upcoming class. A symphony of late-summer flavors, it’s also a dish that freezes well for months she said. I would hazard that’s the case particularly if the ratatouille is simmered over more than an hour in the classic Provencal style, shared in a previous post.

The following recipe is closer to my take on “quick ratatouille,” which my husband prefers to the silky stew that his mom makes every summer. Our tastes may differ on this point, but we couldn’t be more in sympathy about cultivating this cast of veggies every year.

Garden Fresh Ratatouille

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 large eggplant, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 small onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 red pepper, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 green pepper, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 green zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 yellow squash, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch dice

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

6 Roma or plum tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1/3 cup fresh basil, cut into thin strips

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

A pinch of dried, crushed, red chili flakes (optional)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant and spread into a single layer. Cook until it just starts to soften and turn golden-brown, stirring occasionally, for about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove eggplant from pan and reserve.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil to same skillet. Add the onion and peppers and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until just softened and slightly golden. Add the zucchini and squash and reduce heat to medium. Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, basil, thyme and chili flakes, if using, and cook for about 7 to 9 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes start to break down.

Add reserved browned eggplant to skillet and cook for about 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft and mixture looks like a wet, but not saucy stew. Season with the vinegar, salt and pepper. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Makes 8 to 10 side-dish servings, 4 to 6 main-course servings.

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Onion pickles can wait for home-canning lull

Canning often is akin to preparing a time capsule: capturing a fleeting moment of peak ripeness and flavor.

For centuries, food preservation has extended the bounteous harvest into the lean months when fresh produce is sparse and therefore precious. So it’s no wonder that summer’s tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and copious fruits are arguably the most commonly put up.

But there are opportunities for preserving foods after the high-season heyday has passed, particularly when the food is a commodity practically year-round. That’s how this recipe for sweet-and-sour onion pickled caught my eye.

Published in The Washington Post to kick-start springtime interest in canning, this recipe uses “spring” onions, which really are available almost any time to home gardeners. Onions are a short-season crop that we continually keep going by reseeding. They take a bit longer to bulb out in chilly winter soil but usually weather the cold just fine. The tender green shoots that emerged just a few weeks ago should be plump and piquant once we’ve had a breather from all the jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys.

Traditionally, pickled onions are essential to British pub fare, such as the ploughman’s lunch, and French country pates. They can add a je ne sais quoi to simple grilled fish or chicken and become addictive additions to sandwiches and eggs (deviled, in particular), even pimento cheese spread.

Substitute 24 ramps or wild garlic, or combine all three, pickling only the bulbs. But steer clear of meager grocery-store scallions for this application, said cookbook author and food blogger Cathy Barrow, who developed the recipe.

Sweet-and-Sour Onion Pickle

2 tablespoons kosher salt

8 to 12 plump spring onions (about 12 ounces total), extremely fresh and very clean

3 cups apple cider vinegar

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon pickling spice

Fill a stainless-steel or glass bowl with 1 quart cool, non-chlorinated water. Stir in the salt. Closely trim away roots from ends of the onions, then cut off greens. Add onions to salt water; top with a plate to keep them submerged. Drape the bowl with a tea towel and let it rest for 12 to 24 hours.

Drain onions, rinse well under cool running water, then drain again.

In a nonreactive (stainless-steel) 3-quart saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar and pickling spice; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved and formed a light syrup. Add onions; once syrup returns to a boil, cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let mixture rest in saucepan for 12 to 24 hours.

Prepare for water-bath canning. Bring onions in syrup to a rolling boil over high heat. Use a slotted spoon to lift onions out of syrup and pack them into sanitized jars, filling each jar no more than two-thirds full. Boil syrup for 5 minutes, until slightly thickened.

Add thickened syrup to jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. (You might have syrup remaining; it makes a sinful addition to a gin cocktail and a surprising sip over ice with sparkling water.)

Run a chopstick or flat plastic knife along inside of jars to dislodge any air bubbles. Clean rim of each jar with distilled white vinegar to cut residual oils, place warmed lids on and finger-tighten rings (not too tightly). Process in boiling-water bath for 15 minutes, bringing water to a low boil before starting timer for processing. Turn off heat and let jars rest in pot for 10 minutes. Use a jar lifter to transfer jars to a clean, folded dish towel to cool for several hours.

Label and date sealed jars. Store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Let onions cure for at least 2 weeks before serving, during which time any of their sharp flavor that remains will mellow.

Makes 12 servings (makes 2 half-pint jars).

Recipe from Cathy Barrow, author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (Norton, November 2014).

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Home-canned artichoke hearts a ‘revelation’

For years, I was the one doling out food tips to fellow Mail Tribune staffers, including the design guru behind so many editions of the newspaper’s food section.

This week, I was on the receiving end, as my friend and food-section counterpart filled me in on how to grill artichokes. Clearly, some variations on this prickly but oh-so-delicious vegetable are in order. Although “artichoke” was one of this blog’s most searched terms this summer, most of the references are to commercially prepared artichoke hearts.

So I’m going to do one better for artichoke aficionados. Way better. And it’s still in time for many of us who have artichokes coming on in the garden. The need for tightly formed buds, firm and weighty, makes this recipe for homemade, canned artichoke hearts an ideal treatment for those tiny artichokes that so often sprout up around a central, much larger blossom.

Be forewarned: This recipe is an involved process with a very small yield, just three jars to treasure. But cookbook author and food blogger Cathy Barrow swears the results are worth it. “So spectacularly different from the vaguely metallic, overly acidified versions on the grocery store shelf, it is a revelation,” she writes for The Washington Post.

Once cured for a month or more, these artichoke hearts are velvety, tart and full of flavor. Layer them on pizza, flatbread or sandwiches; strew them into salads and frittatas; combine them with cured black olives, roasted red peppers and goat cheese for a charcuterie platter, coarsely chop them for bruschetta topping or enjoy them on their own as a side dish.

To trim the artichokes, break the leaves away from the heart until the tender, yellow-bottomed center leaves are revealed. On a baby artichoke, that will be only a few of the outer leaves, but larger artichokes have many more fully formed leaves. If all of the leaves have thorns, remove them all and scrape away the furry inner choke.

Work quickly. The hearts will darken when exposed to air. A lemony water bath will preserve their light color. Beware: The tannins in raw artichoke will stain your hands. Lemon juice will remove the stain.

If you choose to skip the water-bath canning called for here, refrigerate sealed jars of artichokes for one month before serving. (Artichokes that are not water-bath-canned will not achieve the same silky texture as those that are.)

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Home-Canned Artichoke Hearts

4 lemons

9 medium or 15 baby artichokes

1/4 cup plus 3 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt

1 cup distilled white vinegar, plus more as needed

1/4 cup white-wine vinegar

1/4 cup mild olive oil, or more as needed

1 tablespoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes

3 garlic cloves, peeled and root ends trimmed

3 (1-inch) strips lemon zest

Halve and juice the lemons. Place spent lemon halves in a 5-quart, nonreactive (not aluminum or copper) pot; fill it with cold water. Strain juice and reserve it for marinade.

To trim the artichokes, pull leaves from each one, snapping them where they naturally break. Use a sharp knife or vegetable peeler to peel choke, then make a clean cut across end of stem, retaining tender portion. Use a grapefruit spoon, melon baller or side of a teaspoon to scrape away fuzzy choke, revealing meaty part of it, then quarter entire choke. (For baby artichokes, trim only to any inner leaves without a thorn.) As each choke is trimmed, drop it into pot.

Add the 1/4 cup salt. Bring pot filled with lemon water and artichokes to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium or medium-low so water is barely bubbling. Cook, uncovered, until artichokes are fork-tender, for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make marinade: In a small saucepan over high heat, combine reserved lemon juice, the vinegars, oil, oregano, crushed red-pepper flakes and garlic cloves. Bring to a boil; cook for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer artichokes to sanitized jars, dividing them evenly and stacking small ones and first cutting medium ones into quarters. Tuck them in as tightly as possible without breaking or bruising them.

Whisk marinade well and divide among jars. If there is not enough marinade to cover, add oil as needed to leave 1/2 inch head space at top of each jar. Make sure 1 garlic clove, 1 strip of lemon zest and 1 teaspoon salt go into each jar.

Run a chopstick or flat plastic knife along inside of jar to dislodge any air bubbles. Clean rim of each jar with distilled white vinegar to cut residual oils, place warmed lids on and finger-tighten rings (not too tight). Process in boiling-water bath for 15 minutes, ensuring water is at a low boil before starting timer for processing. Turn off heat and let jars rest in pot for 10 minutes. Use tongs to transfer jars to a clean, folded dish towel to cool over several hours.

Store water bath-canned jars in a cool space to cure for 1 month. Once opened, jars should be refrigerated and used within a month.

Makes 9 to 15 servings (makes 3 pints).

Recipe from Cathy Barrow, author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (Norton, November 2014).

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Spur quicker consumption with quick pickling

The last post to this blog betrays my tendency to purchase more food than we can consume in a reasonable period of time.

It’s not so bad when the item is shelf-stable, at least for a couple of years. But many of us overestimate how often preserved food will keep. In many instances, it isn’t safety that’s called into question but rather quality. Echoing the sentiment of a local Master Food Preserver, why would I eat my 3-year-old canned peaches after we just put up more?

Quick-pickled lemon cucmbers and radishes (Sarah Lemon photo)

In one small arena, at least, my consumption is keeping pace with preservation. Last year’s quick-pickled peppers, explained in a previous post, are nearly gone. A lone habanero chili is biding its time in a jar of vinegar until the next batch of nachos. Waiting in the wings are some Italian sweet peppers that I pickled a few days ago. The only reason they weren’t roasted and frozen is because I have yet to use last year’s frozen stash. Sigh!

Also consigned to the quick-pickle fate this week were lemon cucumbers and radishes. Refrigerator storage aside, the free-form nature of quick pickling is suited to almost any combination of vegetables, as a recent article in the Miami Herald pointed out.

The following recipe from writer Linda Cicero specifies cucumber, bell pepper, radish and carrots. But she also recommends jicama, golden beets, turnips, carrots and celery, even zucchini and other types of squash. See a previous post to this blog for my favorite pickled zucchini recipe. Cicero cites McCormick.com.

Then add your pickled veggies to charcuterie plates and relish trays, burgers and bratwursts. Chop them up to mix into chicken, tuna or egg salad. Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, in particular, are traditional repositories of pickled veggies.

While Cicero gives these a refrigerator shelf life of two weeks when stored in a nonreactive container, I find that quick-pickled veggies actually keep much longer and can even improve in flavor. You be the judge of their quality.

Asian-Style Pickled Vegetables

1 large seedless or English cucumber, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into thin strips (about 2 cups)

1 cup thinly sliced radishes or daikon (Asian white radish)

1/2 cup julienne-cut carrots

2 tablespoons mixed pickling spice

2 cups sugar

2 cups rice vinegar

2 tablespoons kosher salt

In a large, glass bowl, mix the vegetables. Set aside. Place the pickling spice in center of a piece of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Tie tightly with string. Place in a medium saucepan with the sugar, vinegar and salt. Bring to boil on medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Reduce heat to low; simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour hot liquid and pickling spice bundle over vegetables. Cover. Refrigerate vegetables. Stir once a day for 1 to 2 days to blend flavors before serving. Makes 20 servings.

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Blueberries bring natural pectin to jam-making

If there’s one food without a chance of escaping my innate hoarding tendencies, it’s jam.

I’m ashamed to admit it isn’t even homemade jam, a backlog in the pantries of many avid food preservers. Because my husband, Will, consumes jam with such abandon, I’d never be able to keep up. That’s why I stockpile it when it’s on sale.

To be clear, it’s not just any, old jam. I’m loyal, almost to a fault, to the Bonne Maman brand because it actually tastes like jam (not a fruit-tinged, corn-syrup slurry) and lists fruit before sugar among the ingredients. When I can find it for less than $3 per jar (usually at Ashland Shop’n Kart), I load up on as many flavors as possible, trying to calculate how many I already have on hand. Plum, my personal favorite, is one of the rarest commodities, so I can never overpurchase it. But I invariably come home to a 15-jar stash of strawberry, apricot, cherry, peach, raspberry and even “four fruits” dispersed around the pantry in some vain attempt to rotate it by freshness.

The only flavor exempt from our zeal is “wild blueberry,” off-putting for some reason to Will. I personally think blueberries are wasted in jam because they owe so much of their appeal to texture and appearance.

Yet the blueberry’s sturdy skin is precisely what makes it so suited to jam-making. According to cookbook author and food blogger Cathy Barrow. Squashing blueberries activates all the natural pectin needed for a good set. See her instructions for testing a jam’s set in a previous post.

Barrow’s recipe, with its inclusion of lemon verbena, could possibly give me a faint appreciation for blueberry jam. Lemon zest could be substituted.

This method is so foolproof, Barrow claims, that it requires no added pectin. Taste the berries before starting. If they are very tart, add more sugar. If they are very sweet, use less — but use no less than 3 cups.

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Blueberry Jam

2 pints fresh blueberries, picked over for stems

3 to 4 cups sugar, depending on the berry

Juice of 1 lemon

4 sprigs lemon verbena, 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest or 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Rinse the berries. Spread them in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel until dry.

In a mixing bowl, combine berries with the sugar (as needed) and lemon juice. Add the lemon verbena or lemon zest, if using. Stir to blend well, then let mixture sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

Transfer mixture to a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan; discard lemon verbena, if using. Use a potato masher to crush half of berries, then stir to incorporate. Bring to a boil over high heat; cook long enough so mixture foams, continuing to stir and mash all but a few berries.

When mixture begins to gel at bottom of pan, you’re close to finished. Once foam is almost entirely gone, jam will be done (about 35 minutes). Test the set (see related recipe); stir in the almond extract, if using. Ladle jam into clean jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space.

Clean rim of each jar. Secure warmed lids and finger tighten rings (not too tightly). Process in boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let jars sit in water bath until boiling has stopped. That will reduce siphoning, in which food burbles up under lid, breaking the seal. Use jar lifter to transfer jars to a clean, folded dish towel to cool for several hours.

Label and date sealed jars. Makes 4 half-pint jars.

Recipe from Cathy Barrow, author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (Norton, November 2014).

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Hands-on knife class needs keen participants

Sharps knives are much safer in a cook’s hand than dull knives, or so most of us have heard.

And sharp blades also are more efficient, allowing cooks to work faster and with less effort. But how many of us maintain the right tool with conscientious care only to wonder how exactly to wield it? A hands-on class with chef Constance Jesser, co-owner of Jacksonville Mercantile, can set you set straight.

The Monday, Aug. 11, session is open to just eight people (Jesser is looking for a few more participants). Instruction, starting at 6:30 p.m., will include the differences in knife styles, how to sharpen and store them, as well as all the cuts common in professional kitchens, detailed in a previous post. The class costs $45. Call 541-899-1047 to register.

MCT photo

Students need to bring their own chef’s knife and paring knife. For anyone unclear on those knives or their functions, here are explanations courtesy of McClatchy News Service.

A chef’s knife is a utility blade useful for everything from cutting meat to dicing vegetables. It’s considered the most important, go-to and versatile knife to have in the kitchen. It comes in several lengths, but an 8-inch blade is a good, standard size. The blade should be wide at the heel end (near the handle), tapering to a point at the tip end.

A paring knife is a small, all-purpose knife designed for intricate work, such as deveining shrimp or skinning a small fruit or vegetable. The blades are thin and short, about 2 to 4 inches long. Use a paring knife for peeling, paring, coring and pitting or removing the tops of strawberries, or any small slicing jobs like garlic cloves.

Bringing one’s own blades likely is a bonus feature of the class for those looking to upgrade based on a chef’s opinion. German and Japanese brands are known for their quality, value and reliability. Some middle-of-the-road models are available from Wusthof, Shun, Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Global.

No matter their provenance, all knives benefit from the following treatment:

Keep them out of the dishwasher: Harsh detergent and heavy jostling can damage and dull knife blades. Instead, carefully wash with a sponge using warm, soapy water.

Don’t leave them soaking: Someone could get cut by a knife hidden at the bottom of a murky pool of dishwater. Or, other utensils and dishes could blunt the blade.

Use the right board: Wooden cutting boards are most forgiving on knife edges; acrylic and ceramic dull blades faster.

Store separately: Don’t crowd knives in a drawer with other utensils; they’ll get damaged. Keep knives in a wooden block holder or a wall-mounted magnetic strip.

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Baby’s berry blues warrant look at prewashing

Fresh blueberries have been a commodity at local farmers markets and U-pick patches almost since the start of summer.

But they’re just starting to come on at the Oregon Coast, my preferred locale for U-picking organic berries at a family farm that’s grown them for several generations. I mined the bushes with more fervor than usual this past weekend, spurred on by my 16-month-old son’s love of blueberries.

The perfect finger food for tiny tots, blueberries keep well frozen for months and months. Before doling them out to my little boy, I used to relegate frozen berries to baked goods, where their softened texture didn’t compromise the end result.

In the hands of a baby, however, frozen blueberries become the world’s most potent purple dye, staining hands, cheeks and lips even after bath time, which only softens the patches of pigment to gray. My husband forbade blueberry consumption in the week leading up to my sister-in-law’s June wedding, in which my son had a role. We don’t want him to look dirty in photos, Will admonished.

In hopes of staving off so many blueberry stains, I’ve changed my typical approach to preservation that entails washing the berries first, spreading them out on cookie sheets and then popping them in the freezer to form an ice glaze around each berry. That method makes them easier to pour into batters and over oatmeal, I reasoned.

Conventional wisdom holds that washing delicate produce any farther in advance than a few minutes before consuming breaks down the delicate cells, causing juices to seep out. So after picking over my berries for stray stems and withered specimens, I simply packed them, unwashed, into quart-sized freezer bags. A quick rinse is all they need before hitting my son’s high-chair tray or a bowl of cake batter.

My favorite lemon-blueberry cake, the topic of a previous post, quickly disappears at potlucks and picnics. But because it rises only a couple of inches in a 9-inch, round cake pan, it’s been mistaken for quick bread.

Here’s a blueberry cake recipe, courtesy of The Washington Post, that cookbook author Lisa Yockelson describes as “light and airy.” She suggests serving it with mid-afternoon iced tea or coffee, and as a casual treat.

It can be made a day in advance and kept (covered) at room temperature.

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Blueberry Cake Squares

2 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt

1 cup fresh blueberries, picked over for stems

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup sour cream

Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat inside of an 8-by-8 baking pan (2 inches deep) with nonstick flour-and-oil spray.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt onto a sheet of wax paper.

In a medium bowl, toss the blueberries with 1 1/2 teaspoons of sifted flour mixture until thoroughly coated.

Place the butter in bowl of a stand mixer or beat with a hand-held electric mixer. Beat on medium speed until smooth, for about 2 minutes. Stop to scrape down sides of bowl.

On moderately high speed, blend in the granulated sugar in additions, beating for 45 seconds after each addition. Add the eggs at a time, beating for 30 seconds (or until just incorporated) after each addition. Blend in the vanilla extract. Stop to scrape down sides of bowl.

On low speed, beat in half of flour mixture, the sour cream, then remaining flour mixture, mixing just until flour is absorbed.

Scatter coated blueberries over batter; use a flexible spatula to fold them in. Scrape batter into pan, smoothing surface evenly. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes or until cake has risen and set and is golden-brown on top. Baked cake will pull away slightly from sides of baking pan. Cool cake completely.

Just before serving, sift confectioners’ sugar evenly over top. Cut the cake into 16 squares.

Makes 16 servings (makes one 8-by-8-inch cake).

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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