Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spicy Cardamom Preserved Lemons

I am a sucker for cardamom. I know that's what tempted me to try a preserved lemon recipe again.

What are preserved lemons? They're just lemons quartered and packed with salt and a mix of spices, commonly used in Moroccan and Indian cuisines. The pickling softens the skin, which you slice up and add to tagines or bean dishes, after scooping out and discarding the fruit. 

I was really excited about preserved lemons a few years ago - they're easy, beautiful and seemed like such a great way to use the lemon bonanza that comes my way this time of year. I made way too many. The problem was using them.  

I tried to adapt my cooking to incorporate them, but they're such a strong taste that I found I had to structure a whole meal around them, which got a little old. Beautiful jars of preserved lemons languished on my shelf for months, years. I bet there's still some up there.

But this week the lemon tree I share with six other families is going off. There's probably 30 ripe lemons up there. I've already made lemon curd twice this season, and I just wasn't up for marmalade. Pickling suddenly seemed like an appealing option, especially after I found a recipe that incorporated cardamom seeds, cloves, sugar, cayenne and fresh ground pepper along with the salt. I'm willing to give it another go!

Simple Lemon Pickle
Courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian

2 pounds organic lemons (preferably not Meyer, because of their thin skins)
juice of 3 lemons
9 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 teaspoon seeds of brown cardamom (I substituted green)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cayenne
16 whole cloves
1 & 1/2 tablespoons sugar (I used turbinado)
1 big jar, or several little ones, washed with hot soapy water and dried completely

Wash lemons thoroughly in hot soapy water, then wipe dry. Leave to dry completely for an hour or so in order to prevent mold.

Grind peppercorns, cardamom seeds and cloves in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Be sure to extract the cardamon seeds from the pods first. In a large bowl, stir the ground spices into the salt, sugar and cayenne.

Slice off the end of each lemon and quarter them. My lemons were large, and I cut many of them into 6 pieces. Remove the seeds. Toss the lemon slices with the spice mixture.

Fill your jar or jars. These can be stored for 7-10 days on a sunny windowsill. Try to shake the jar once a day. After 21-30 days, the skin will be soft and ready to use. When you open and start to use the lemons, move the jar to the refrigerator.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Foraging Report: Candied Orange Peel

Urban foraging can be a lot easier with a toddler along for the ride. You might think a two year old would be more trouble than help in gathering fruit, but that's only if you don't calculate the cuteness factor. When we talk to neighbors to get permission to harvest a tempting fruit tree we've noticed just across a fence, my friend Wendy is the one who knocks on the door, fruit picker in one hand, baby in the other. They are the perfect team, impossible to refuse.

We recently took a walk around our neighborhood pushing the stroller in search of oranges. Now is a great time for most citrus and we knew of two trees that were loaded with fruit. We knocked on the door, and the woman who answered was more than happy to let us harvest from the huge tree in her backyard - it meant less cleanup for her.

"I don't think they're very good, though," she said doubtfully. We'd just sampled one of her oranges that was hanging over the sidewalk, however, so we weren't worried. It was delicious.

We run into this kind of comment frequently - people don't think their fruit is any good. I was puzzled by these statements for a while, until I decided that people must have tasted them out of season and then written them off. It's sad really, how common this seems to be, and it really comes down to a fundamental disconnect that many of us have with the seasonality of the plants around us. We don't know which varieties we have in our yard, when is the ideal time to harvest them and what purpose the fruit was bred for (is the orange meant to be eaten straight, juiced or used in a marmalade?).

We walked around to the backyard, where rotting oranges were strewn all over the patio and winter garden. One of us would use the fruit picker, while the other kept tabs on Corvis, Wendy's toddler. He started throwing the rotten fruit, so I came up with a game where he lobbed the moldy oranges into the chomping mouth of the green bin, to his delighted cries of "Yucky orange!" It worked like a charm and the clean patio probably made the homeowner very happy.

We ended up with bags of oranges that day, destined to be juiced and the peel candied. The stroller is another reason that children are great foraging companions - you're already equipped with a shopping cart to carry home your haul. We stowed the bags in the bottom compartment and headed for home, feeding Corvis orange sections as we walked. 

Candied Orange Peel Recipe
adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook
(which is a fabulous cookbook by the way, from local jam-maker Rachel Saunders)

4 sweet oranges
4 1/2 c. white sugar (I used 2 1/2 cups, which seemed to work fine)
2 cups water

Cut the oranges in half, juice them and then cover the peels with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes. Drain and repeat the process one or two times depending on the bitterness of the peel (you're leaching out the bitterness with each water change).  Drain and fill one more time, but this time cook until the halves are tender, for 30-60 minutes. Drain and cool.

When cool enough to handle, use a spoon to scoop out the inside of the orange, leaving a thin layer of white pith attached (see photo). This process is way easier than trying to cut off the pith before the peel is cooked, which I have done before for a different candied orange peel recipe. Then slice the peel into 1/4 inch wide strips. 

Cover the strips in a saucepan with 2 cups water and the sugar, making sure the peel is submerged.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a soft simmer. Cook without stirring until the edges of the rinds appear somewhat translucent and the liquid becomes a syrup, with thick bubbles around the edges. Turn the heat off and cool the rinds for 30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the peels to a wire rack. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, carefully separate them and spread them out evenly. The rinds should dry 1-2 days, after which you can toss them in sugar. I ended up using them to make my Homesteading Exchange chocolates, with a sprinkling of dried rose petals on top.

Friday, February 11, 2011

In defense of the homemade

A Homemade Exchange is a simple concept.

Last fall, I sent an email around to folks who might be interested in making something homemade - anything at all - to distribute to everyone else on the list.  Six women signed up for the project, and we set a date to exchange gifts.

Does this sound complicated and time-intensive to you? Even though I had come up with the suggestion, I found it a little overwhelming, and couldn't seem to get started on it. I worried about it, in the back of my mind, for months. What should I make?  Would it be nice enough? How could I carve out time to do it?

In the end, I found an easy recipe for chocolates and made two varieties with items left from recent foraging trips: one with dried candy cap mushrooms and one with candied orange peel and dried rose petals. I was tying the last bow on the packages five minutes before we were scheduled to meet.

Our long-awaited Homemade Exchange happened last week. After a delicious potluck dinner, I received a little pile of treasures including a Dead Sea salt scrub with geranium essential oil, spice mixes from Iraq and Ethiopia, chocolate macaroons, jars of pickled Brussel sprouts and pickled onions and a personalized apron. 

The dirty secret that everyone ended up confessing was that they'd all made their gifts either the night before or the day of the exchange. Like me, everyone else had been a bit overwhelmed by the thought of making gifts for five other people, and had put it off until the last minute. 

What I took from that confession was that we are so much more capable and creative than we realize. Projects take up far more mental energy than they actually do to execute. 

I ended up blown away by everyone's creativity and with a renewed appreciation for having things in my life that are homemade. It felt possible again. We were inspired to try to hold quarterly Homemade Exchanges instead of the annual event we'd pictured.
The exception, of course, was the maker of the personalized aprons - a phenomenally-organized woman, who started her project at least a month before we met. I don't think anyone could have pulled that off in just a few hours!

Bringing homemade back

Want to start your own homemade exchange? After you put the call out to friends and friends-of-friends, be sure to limit the final list to 10 or fewer people so it feels less daunting.

Set a deadline. Ours was roughly Jan. 1, but we pushed the date back a few times to find an evening when we could all get together.

You don't have to have a final party, but I really enjoyed oohing and aahing over everyone's handiwork. A few years ago, I participated in a homemade exchange where we didn't have a potluck, so the gifts trickled in over the course of a few months. I made plum jam, and I remember receiving homemade crackers, coconut lime candies, olives, granola and more. It worked fine that way, but it's so nice to give gifts face-to-face.

It can be done any time of year, but the fact that we pulled it together around the holidays felt like a breath of fresh air, a step away from the commercialized frenzy of the season. If you end up creating your own Homemade Exchange, let me know how it goes!

How did you make those weird chocolates?

I was wondering what I was going to do with all of those dried candy caps in the last Foraging Report, and I ended up being inspired by this blog post at ingredients, inc. which offered a chocolate recipe with endless possibilities for adaptation and variation. The recipe I improvised is a savory and sweet mix of earthy, maple sugar mushroom scents and dark chocolate, which got rave reviews. I received several surprised texts from people over the next week as they broke into their stashes.

I know you're thinking - melting chocolate, I'll need a double boiler, yuck - but what I never knew before was that microwaving the chocolate works just fine (sorry to the purists and anti-microwave folks out there).

Candy Cap Mushroom Chocolate Recipe
  • 1 12 oz. package semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate morsels (I used Ghiradelli)
  • 1 cup dried candy cap mushrooms, plus 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top
  • Package of foil candy cups (which can be hard to find - I got mine at Michaels)

My mushrooms had gotten slightly soft since I'd dehydrated them about a month beforehand. For this recipe, I wanted them to be nice and crisp, so I toasted them first. (This resulted in a texture almost like puffed rice, which was very nice.)

On a baking dish, set out about 25-30 foil baking cups.

Empty the chocolate chips into a glass or ceramic bowl and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Stir to melt any remaining chunks. Obviously the timing will vary depending on the strength of your machine, but you don't want to overdo it.

Pour in the cup of candy cap mushrooms and fold them gently into the chocolate. 

Fill the cups with a little more than a spoonful each of the chocolate-mushroom mixture. Sprinkle the remaining dried mushrooms on top. Refrigerate for at least an hour, and they're ready to eat.

In the next Foraging Report, I'll discuss the main ingredient in my other type of chocolate - candied orange peel, from foraged oranges, of course!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Foraging Report : Candy Cap Mushroom Bonanza

Last week, I pulled the bag of dried mushrooms out of the pantry and opened it, trying to figure out a way to use such a large quantity of dehydrated candy caps.

Their maple-syrup smell escaped immediately and umami richness filled the house for several days afterwards, causing people who walked in the door to ask "What is that amazing smell?" How did I get such a stash of candy caps?

Day tripping

In December, I decided that for my birthday, I wanted to pick mushrooms. Even though I've taken a mushroom growing class (with an ID slideshow) and gone on several foraging trips with experts over the past few years, I didn't feel confident going alone. Mushrooms are no joke.

You should be careful about everything you forage, and never eat anything you can't identify with complete confidence, but mushrooms are trickier than most. Pick what looks like a white button mushroom, but is really the early growth stages of the Destroying Angel, and you can guess what will happen. It is aptly named.
The fruits of our labor

So we went on a guided mushroom foraging expedition, led by Forage SF. We headed a couple of hours up the coast to Salt Point State Park, where picking mushrooms is legal - there you can pick up to five pounds per person per day. 

We all assembled in the parking lot, had a short lecture, including mushroom foraging etiquette: use your knife to cleanly cut the stem at ground level, leaving the base to produce further mushrooms and leave the area as undisturbed as possible.  Scattering bits of broken mushrooms on the ground is bad form. 

We then walked along a road, suddenly seeing mushrooms everywhere. Even covering territory, which had clearly been picked recently, we immediately found many different types. I would eagerly bring a mushroom to the guide, who again and again would say, "That one's not edible - it's not poisonous, just not so tasty," or occasionally, "Yep, that one would kill you." 

I tried to train my eyes to recognize a few distinct varieties. It took a few minutes for them to focus into "mushroom vision," where they zero in on certain shapes and colors half-hidden under leaves and undergrowth. It's like setting up a mental filter where you're only allowing certain types of information to enter your brain, ignoring all of the distractions and focusing intently on the goal. 

The translucent Jellyfoot
I started to get into a rhythm, searching for dark spots under certain types of trees for Black Trumpets (a type of chanterelle) and beginning to recognize the graceful, nut-brown silhouette of the Candy Cap. Somehow, candy caps became something we felt comfortable with, and it was clearly their peak season. We came back with bags of them. 

We also found Hedgehog mushrooms and a strange little Jellyfoot - a translucent mushroom that was the most delicate and beautiful mushroom I've ever seen. We found another chanterelle variety called Yellow Foot and tons of Pig's Ears. Then, as we were walking back to the car, I found one of the sought-after standard Chanterelles, a big one, newly emerging. Victory!

Once we got home, we cooked up a storm, frying the lone true Chanterelle in butter and cooking down the Pig's Ear as a polenta topping. The Chanterelle was, well, very buttery. The Pig's Ear, although it had great meaty texture, was admittedly a bit bland. I don't think we'd bother to collect it again.

Even after preparing a feast for friends, we still had so much  We started to worry about how to preserve it all, and then I remembered my friend's dehydrator - our lifesaver. We sliced and diced, stacked trays that looked like intricate mosaics and the dehydrator whirred into life. So easy!

Interested in learning how to ID mushrooms yourself? It rained just a few days ago, so now is the perfect time to head for the hills to pick some mushrooms.

It's still mushroom season, they're just not as abundant as they are in December and January. Tag along on a foray with the SF Mycological Society - they have a trip scheduled for next weekend - or just join them for one of their monthly mushroom feasts.