Monday, October 6, 2014

Lower East Side Jewish Pickles

Time was, you could throw a cobblestone in the lower east side and hit a pickle vendor. Now they're all gone but for The Pickle Guys (and I don't really care for their pickles). For years, I've been frustrated about this, and given serious thought to making my own. Ultimately, I was stopped by the lack of access to appropriate cucumbers- you can't just use any variety.

However, I recently stumbled onto some at a farmer's market. I decided to finally put my money where my mouth is and give it a try. Coincidentally, I had recently been looking up pickle recipes. They tend to fall into two categories:

1. The Wrong Kind. These are the recipes which call for things like vinegar or enormous quantities of dill. If you are only familiar with pickles that you get in your supermarket, these are for you. These are not the kind I was looking for. However, the FDA has a page with some of these recipes and give a bit of useful background on them too, worth reading.

2. The Hippy Kind. These were posted by people who swore that the secret magic of fermentation cured their AIDS. I'm not joking.

So, before I go into my recipe (which is the simple part) I want to talk a little bit about what pickling is, how it works, and what you *need* to be aware of before you start. You can skip this section if you've done it before, but it's good for newcomers to learn about proper, safe setup.

What it is: there are two types of pickling, fast and slow. Fast pickling has to do with preserving food by storing it in boiling hot vinegar. This is normally what your sauerkraut at the supermarket is, or how onions may be preserved. More or less, if it's been canned, it's probably the fast method. And that's fine for a lot of things.

Slow pickling is very different. Here you generally (although not exclusively) use a salt brine solution to allow naturally occurring anaerobic lactobacteria (bacteria which are active in oxygen-free/limited oxygen environments, as opposed to aerobic bacteria which thrive in oxygen rich environments. So if you buy an airtight coffin, it's the anaerobic bacteria which will break you down) to break down and ferment the food. When done correctly, you get a pickle. When done incorrectly, you get poison.

Which begs the question- how can I do this correctly? Well, remember that you want to encourage growth of anaerobic bacteria, not aerobic- so you need to limit the amount of fresh air the brine is exposed to. However, the fermentation process results in the production of carbon dioxide (just like in beer) which means that you can't use a sealed container. A sealed container will undergo high pressure and may explode. In addition, the carbon dioxide may re-dissolve in the brine solution, increasing the acidity higher than it should be, affecting the anaerobic bacteria. So, you need to have a way of releasing the pressure while simultaneously minimizing the exposure to fresh air.

There are many different ways of accomplishing this, and with a little bit of thought, you can build a water well setup like I have or create your own. Or you can buy a fancy high-end kit. It's all up to you, depending on the amount of work/expense you want to dedicate to the setup.

I used an old clean 1/2 gallon mason jar I had laying around. I cut the bottom out of a pint sized plastic food container to that it would slip down and around the neck of the mason jar. The edge was sealed with silicon caulking and allowed to dry. I then cut the top of a diet coke bottle to shape so that it would fit over the mouth of the mason jar. Once the mason jar was filled, I was able to pour water around the outside of the neck of the mason jar and fit the diet coke bottle over it. This acted as a water well- the water would seal off the inside from fresh air, but when the carbon dioxide inside built up, it could bubble out without a problem.

In addition, as the pickles fermented, mold will grow on top. It is very easy to scoop that off the top and throw it away.

Now, you've got your setup completed. What kind of pickles do you want? There appear to be two competing theories regarding Half-Sour vs Full Sour pickles. One is that it is dependent on the salt concentration in the brine. A lower salt content will simply develop a half sour pickle and be done with it. A higher salt content will create full sour. The other theory is that it has nothing to do with the salt content, it has to do with the length of time that the fermentation is allowed to continue. So a half sour pickle will turn into a full sour pickle.

From my experience, I think that both of these theories are correct to an extent. I suspect that in addition to the temperature, the salt content plays a role in the activity of the lactobacteria. Thus, a lower salt content may prevent a full sour from being achieved in a reasonable timespan. However, people who have experience with real pickles know that they have a limited lifespan, as the older they get, the softer they will become as the bacteria continue to break them down. Thus, new full sour pickles are crunchy, while old ones become mushy. To make the fermentation process more rapid, a higher salt content is desired. However, a salt content that is too high will also inhibit the bacterial growth, so it is a balancing act.

Since the temperature plays a key role in the bacterial growth, the fermentation time can vary. I predict ~1 week for half sour, 3-4 weeks for full sour.

In the interests of science and tastiness, I decided to try a middle ground.

One last note, and it's on salt. Look on the back of the salt container you're going to use. Most table salts contain anti-clumping agents which are perfectly non-toxic for you and me, but cause issues with fermentation. As such, you'll want anti-clumping agent free salt. Everyone tells you to use sea salt or kosher salt. This is bullshit. Some kosher/sea salts will contain anti-clumping agents. There's no magical way to know unless you actually check the ingredients. The kind I used listed only sea salt as the ingredient, and had a warning that since it contained no anti-clumping agent, that clumping could occur over time.

Take your pickling cucumbers and give them a good rinse in cold water and remove any remnants of the blossom. Naturally, the fresher the better. Prepare your brine by making a 5% by volume salt solution. That is: measure out 9 1/2 cups warm water (it does not need to be boiling- in fact, you don't want it boiling hot as it will thermally cook the cucumbers. the warmth is simply to aid the dissolution) and add a half cup of salt. Mix until the salt has fully dissolved. This is way more brine than you'll require for a single 1/2 gallon jar, but it's better to not have to make more if you need it- and it's salt water, it's cheap.

Fill your mason jar with the cucumbers. Try to wedge them in so they won't be floating and bobbing to the surface too much. Pour the brine over them. Add the following to the brine:

1 tsp dried dill
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp celery seed
1 head garlic, peeled.

Close up the container, however you've decided to do it, and wait.

 Jar, on initial setup.

My reports:

1. After ~48 hours, the clear brine has become cloudy. The brine is becoming proper pickle juice

2. After ~96 hours, the cucumbers seem to be visibly changing.

 3. After 135 hours (~ 5 1/2 days) 1 pickle removed to check taste and consistency. Conclusions: a) it's definitely working- it's a pickle alright. b) the flavor is more or less dead on exactly what I was looking for. c) the pickle is just shy of being half sour- what is called a New Pickle (thanks mom). This means that most of it has reached half-sour status, while parts of it are still under-fermented. The color looks a more olive green. d) some mold grew on top overnight, scraped off. e) seems to be meeting my prediction for 1 week=half sour. Remains to be seen if full sour will be achieved, how long it will take, what the state of the pickle will be at that point. e) pickle has large hollow center, which stems from the age of the cucumber before pickling (fresher cucumbers do not form hollow centers.) This is also evident from the size/hardness of the central seeds. f) while the pickle isn't soft, it isn't quite as crunchy as I'd like. This may be partially due to my slicing it with a knife to share with people. Will know more later. A soft full sour is *not* desired.
 Jar after 5 days

Pickle after 5 days

Pickle jar after 12 days

Pickles after 12 days

After 12 days, I was worried. I'd begun to notice some growth among the dill and celery seeds along the bottom of the jar. In addition, the brine smell was beginning to take over in my apartment, partially thanks to my rather shoddy homemade pickling jar. So, I figured to roll the dice and decant the pickles a couple of days early. I gave them all rinses in water just in case.

Coincidentally, my father and sister had gone to Katz's Deli to pick up some pastrami, and grabbed a couple pickles while they were at it. I thought it'd be fun to have a taste comparison.

My pickles: range in shade from light to dark green, but healthy looking
Katz pickles: uniform deep green, slightly wrinkled as if they were a little old.

My pickles: crunchy (!) like a half sour
Katz pickles: some crunch, but more firm than crunchy

My pickles: garlicy and flavorful, with the bite at the back of your tongue that I always look for.
Katz pickles: they tasted like unflavored brine. Boring. My sister went so far as to spit hers out in disgust.

So, overall a resounding success. Some notes and thoughts for the future:

1. The garlic flavor intensified as time passed. If you don't want it as garlicky, either use less, or decant sooner.

2. Better protection from the air.

3. Seeing some mold at the bottom of the jar among the spices makes me think it might be time to buy some new spices.

4. Nobody has come down sick with anything after ~24 hours.

5. The debate regarding brine concentration versus time is still not settled, but I'm still going with my argument of both.

6. The cucumbers were right on the edge of usability. I had two left over that I couldn't fit in the jar. I put them aside for a couple of days. Within 4 or 5 days, both had become disgusting rotten masses. In addition, some of them were clearly older and more fully developed than others- less developed is better, to prevent the hollow middles, the hard seeds, etc. Try to get the youngest and freshest you can find. Remember that these cucumbers go from green to yellow during the growth cycle, not the other way around.

7. The flavor is excellent, the texture is excellent, this is a classic LES pickle.

8. The temperature will naturally have some effect on the length of the pickling process. This was completed late September/early October, and the temperature in my apartment was generally in the neighborhood of 75 degrees for most of it. But during the hottest part of the day it could go up to the mid-upper 80s, and on cooler days it could potentially drop down into the 60s (though only the last few days did the temps begin to really drop).

I'm really, really pleased with how well this turned out. I'm determined next year to grow my own cucumbers, my mind has been made up now.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Kirsten's Japanese Style Potato Salad

If you are looking for a new way to enjoy potato salad, try this:


6 potatoes.  Russets are fine. White potatoes are starchier but better as they hold their shape. Yukon gold are fantastic. Just peel 'em and quarter them.
3-4 red radishes, chopped small
1 large carrot, scraped.
1/2 cup sweet corn kernels
2 Tbsp chives or scallion, chopped
1 boiled egg
1 small yellow onion, chopped fine
1 small cucumber. If you can find Persian cucumbers get that because they are smaller and closest match to Japanese kyuuri. However, if you can only find regular cucumber, scrape it and slice it thinly.
1-2 slices smoked ham (optional)
1/3 cup Kewpie Mayo (please do yourself a favor and find Japanese mayo! Go to any Asian grocery store and look for Kewpie.)

1 Tbsp rice vinegar (use white vinegar if not rice)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. sea salt

1. Set the peeled, quartered potatoes in cold, salted water (just enough to cover them) in a pot on the stove. Heat them to a boil and cook 15 minutes or until a wooden toothpick can be inserted easily into them. You want them tender, not mushy.

2. Drain the potatoes pieces and set aside.

3. Cook the peeled carrot in water for 1-2 minutes until tender. It should still be firm and a bit crisp though. When finished, chop the parboiled carrot into small cubes.

4. In a bowl, combine the chopped onion, carrot, and cucumber and pour the sugar, salt and vinegar on top of them. Mix well with your hand to make sure everything is coated.

5. Chop the cooked potatoes into bite-sized cubes. Most Japanese potato salad is mashed smoothly but if you prefer to have solid cubes of potato as in a chopped salad, be my guest.

6. Mash the egg and combine with the mayo. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

7. Now combine the potatoes with the egg-mayo mash and the corn and vinegar-ed vegetables. Chop the ham into thin strips or squares and add if you want. Mix well until combined. The texture is up to you. Most Japanese potato salads resemble smooth mashed potato with bright chunks of vegetables inside. But if you want the texture to be lumpy instead of smooth, use a gentler hand when you mix.

8. Use chopped radish and scallion as garnish. You can also use fresh parsley.

9. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve. This is great food to take on a picnic or to have with roast chicken. Use an ice cream scoop to serve it on a fresh leaf of lettuce.

10. Ingredients are really to your taste. Want to omit the egg and ham? Fine. Prefer to add a teaspoon of salad mustard? Rock on.  Require Adobo on it the same way you require it on everything else? Please do! Wanna get funky and add strips of seaweed or mentaiko? It's up to you how you want it to taste. Everyone has a different method for making potato salad but I enjoy this smooth, Japanese version so much. Plus, I love making my woman happy!

Note: I made this recipe today in the more western "chopped" style. The flavour is very lively, fresh, and exiting - just right for spring. It was definitely improved by allowing it to sit in the fridge for a few hours before eating to allow the flavours to blend and mature. I suspect an overnight rest might be optimal as it is with our usual potato salad recipe.
Also note: If you don't already have rice vinegar as part of your standard kitchen supplies - get some! It's terrific stuff and magic at adding a slightly tart, lively note to many dishes.

With thanks to Kirsten Phillips for allowing me to steal her recipe.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tuscan Wine Cake

This is a refined, elegant variety of Italian cheesecake made with ricotta cheese. (It's completely different from the classic NY cheesecake made with cream cheese.)


2 sticks plus 5 Tb unsalted butter (UK: 1 block/250 gr plus 50 gr), softened (plus extra to butter pan)
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 cups whole milk Ricotta (UK: 2 250 gr tubs)
4 large eggs
1/3 cup vin santo or dry sherry
1 1/3 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
Rum soaked sultanas
2 Tb pine nuts
1 to 2 Tb confectioner's sugar (UK: Icing sugar)

Tip 1: If you don't routinely keep a jar of sultanas soaking in dark rum (shame on you!) then put some up to soak overnight or a few hours ahead of time. The sultanas should have time to absorb the rum and plump up before use. I use Mount Gay Barbados Rum which is a golden dark rum.
Tip 2: Make sure you take the butter out and let it sit at room temperature on the kitchen counter to soften.
Tip 3: You can use either a stand mixer or a sturdy hand mixer but gently please, don't overbeat.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F or 180C/160C Fan
2. Butter and lightly flour a nonstick 9 inch springform pan
3. In mixer bowl/large bowl combine and beat butter and sugar then add ricotta and beat until fluffy.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time and then with mixer at slowest speed add the wine.
5. Measure flour and baking powder into a small bowl, then slowly and thoroughly beat them into the batter.
6. Remove bowl from stand mixer if you're using one. By hand with a rubber or silicone spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Sprinkle 2 or 3 Tb of drained soaked sultanas on top - amount is to personal taste - then gently fold into the batter.
7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and lightly smooth. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top and place into the center of the oven.
8. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cake is firm but springy to the touch.  When I checked my cake at 30 min it needed a bit more time and to be turned around to brown evenly. An additional 5 min was all it needed.
9. Remove cake from oven and place on a wire rack. Cool before removing the cake from the pan.
10. Sift confectioner's sugar over the top before serving if desired.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Peching Duck and Slaw

A new delivery from the meat fairy included a duck. Naturally, I didn't want to freeze it, I wanted to eat it immediately. I love Peking duck, but I haven't truly enjoyed it for a long time- it's never quite right. I did my own take, after a thorough search of the literature (the internet), decided to adapt ideas from others into my own.

Prepping and Cooking the duck:

Score the entire breast of the duck in a cross-cross pattern. If your duck is anything like mine, there will be an enormously thick layer of fat to protect the meat. Gently poke the tip of the knife into the skin along the legs and the bottom. I find it's easiest to flip the knife so that the blade faces upwards and stab at an angle.

Stick the duck in a 300 degree oven. Every 45 minutes, flip the duck over, until 4 hours have passed. Take the duck out and let it sit. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. While the oven heats, remove any liquid fat in the bottom of the pan to reserve for the future (nom). Once the oven has stabilized at 400, put the duck back in (making sure it's breast-up). This is the final crisping stage. Leave the duck in for 10 minutes, then turn the oven up to 450 and leave it alone for another 10 minutes, then remove the duck again.  Coat generously with glaze and put back into the oven for another 8-10 minutes. Remove duck from oven and serve immediately.

The glaze: combine equal parts honey and maple syrup (~1/3-1/2 cup each). I use fancy grade maple syrup, so if you use a darker kind, use less. Interesting variant here is to try different honeys. Add a small squirt of sriracha, and a generous dollop of low sodium soy sauce, and a squirt of lemon juice. Heat on stove on medium until it begins to simmer and allow to simmer about 5 minutes. Put glaze aside to cool. It will be very liquidy while hot, but will thicken significantly when cool.

While cooking the duck, I thought about sides. Mac and cheese was an easy side to make, but I wanted a vegetable of some sort. Something crispy, astringent to contrast the rich fattiness of the duck. I had some cabbage left over from making stuffed cabbage a couple of days ago, so I went for cole slaw.

Cole slaw: ~1/3rd  head of cabbage, chopped. A few heaping tablespoons of mayonnaise (can substitute half of the mayo with sour cream). Be light on the mayo- you can always add more later, but if you add too much, it gets disgusting. Add a generous dollop of dill, a chopped green apple, several tablespoons sweet relish, a sprinkling of salt, pepper, and a squirt of lemon juice. Mix with a spatula and let rest in the fridge, covered, for at least an hour. It ended up being really gorgeous, a perfect counterpart to the duck.

Officially Wife approved.

What, no pictures this time? We were both starving, so we ended up eating everything so quickly that we didn't bother with photos. Sorry folks, maybe next time.

Oh, and Peching is another one of my deliberate puns, but you have to pronounce it the particular way.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Beef & Barley Soup

I'm in Wismar, Germany and it's cold so I was inspired to whip up a batch of Beef & Barley Soup. Usually I just make this with whatever leftover bits and bobs are in the house but this time I went ot the market expressly to get ingredients for this dish.

500g Stewing Beef (or what ever you like - oxtail works beautifully)
1 large soup bone with lots of marrow
2 yellow onions, roughly chopped
4 carrots, sliced
1 fist sized Celeriac (or celery if you prefer), sliced
1 large leek, sliced
250g mushrooms
2 Bay leaves
250g Pearl Barley - dry (In Germany you will need to look for Gerste)
1/2 cup flour
salt & pepper
olive oil

I start by heating ~1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup olive oil in the bottom of a large soup pot. You can probably get away with less but I don't like to take a chance on anything burning and ruining everything. While that is on the go, I mix the flour with just a bit of salt and pepper (maybe 1/2 tsp each), then dredge the beef in the flour (top tip - use a plastic baggie then shake well).

I then cook the beef in two batches in the fat mixture. You can test if the fat is hot enough by drizzling a tiny bit of water - if it sizzles then you are ready. Cook each batch on both sides for about 3 1/2 minutes each so that a brown crust forms, then remove. DO NOT cook all the meat at once as you will just get a slimy nasty result.

Having removed all beef, add the onions and leeks and saute a few minutes, then add your carrots and cook for a few more minutes, stirring regularly. Then add your celeriac and mushrooms.

Boil ~1 litre of water. Then add the meat back into the mixture and the soup bone. Add water until everything is well covered. Then add bay leaves and pearl barley.

Bring to the boil then lower to a bare simmer. Leave to simmer for at least one hour and preferably two hours. Check it and give it a good stir every half hour, adding more water as necessary and to produce the consistency that you prefer (I like mine thick). Once the meat is falling apart and the marrow slips out of the soup bone, you should be ready to rock.

Note: Tastes even better the next day and freezes very well!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Asian-Inspired Meat

This recipe can be used with whatever meat is laying around.

I wanted to make something tasty for dinner tonight, but lacked a few semi-essential ingredients (like flower- who runs out of flour?). The recipe goes as follows:

1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup room temperature water
6 cloves garlic, minced.
(optional) small amount of freshly grated ginger (taste to check amount- a little goes a long way)
(further optional) Add a little Sriracha sauce to give it a complex heat (again, a little goes a long way)

I used a pork loin sliced into thin slices (~1 cm thick). You can use similarly thick pieces of chicken or steak.
flour (or, since I have no flour- breadcrumbs)

Mix together the sauce ingredients and put aside for at least a few minutes to allow the aromatics from the garlic to permeate the liquid.

Dredge the sliced meat into the flour. Butter a large pan on medium heat and lay the meat inside for 3 minutes. Turn once. Quickly mop the tops of the meat with the sauce. Wait five minutes, flip, sauce. Remove meat to separate plate to cool.

I know my recipes which use soy sauce always use low sodium soy sauce. There's a reason for this. You can make all the arguments you like about the high salt content in our diets, blah blah blah. And some of those arguments are valid. However, from a culinary stand point, I always prefer to manually add my salt whenever possible, giving me greater control over the food. In addition, low sodium soy sauce in particular tastes better to me- the flavor of the soy sauce is much more pronounced, where regular soy sauce has the flavor covered up by the taste of salt. I have no problem with salt, I don't think it's the great evil others do. I do, however, object to it being used in such concentrations (for little to no reason) that it overwhelms the taste of the food it's being used with.

Serve with rice, buttered egg noodles, spinach, whatever you like.