The art of the barter

In late July, my friend Lise gave me a large bag of wild blueberries that she and her boyfriend had picked. Picking wild blueberries, which taste unlike any of the cultivated varieties, is backbreaking and tedious. In exchange for the wild blueberries, I gave Lise a couple of jars of my homemade elderflower jelly.

Also by bartering, this summer I obtained other fresh local produce, including some horseradish I needed for pickling beets, and a load of peppers when my entire crop failed. I received all these bounties in exchange for my homemade jams, jellies and pickles. Continue reading

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Squirrel with a chest freezer

At this point I am sick and tired of canning, blanching and freezing, and cleaning the kitchen afterwards. There is still a good amount of crops in the garden: lettuce, arugula, beets, spinach, radishes, kale, collard greens, and carrots, not to forget the jalapeño plant, almost a bush by now that just won’t stop producing. Yet most of the fall harvest will not require lengthy and messy processing.

The sight of the filled freezer and the line-up of jars with jam, jelly, chutney, relish and other preserves is utterly satisfying. Like a squirrel, I have packed away as much as I can for the winter. Thanks to the generator we finally installed, this is the first year I don’t have to worry about spoilage any longer when we are without power for days in a row, like last year after Hurricane Irene in August and again after a foot of snow in late October.

With the gardening season winding down, I have time for another fall project: the revised edition of Spoonfuls of Germany, my German regional cookbook (see my new blog).

It’s funny though, as much as I welcome the upcoming downtime, I already find myself thinking about the elderberries that need to be moved in the spring, about which new crops I want to try next year, and how I can find a rhubarb forcer in the United States. As a gardener, even when you don’t stick your hands in the dirt, your head is somehow always in it.

Cherry Tomato Cobbler

Two new tomato dishes I tried this year are definite keepers: Sarah Leah Chase’s Scalloped Tomatoes (with olive oil, not bacon; a food52 Genius recipe), and this Cherry Tomato Cobbler. There are several recipes for tomato cobbler recipes out there but they all call for all-purpose flour only. That would have tasted too much like a regular sweet cobbler to me, tomatoes need something more rustic so I used a mix of cornmeal and all-purpose flour for the topping.

This is a great way to use all those not-so-pretty cherry and/or grape tomatoes, as well as the end-of-the-season runt right now. To avoid a soupy consistency, I added extra cornmeal to the tomatoes.

In the summer I made the cobbler in a large gratin dish but I thought it would be also nice to give everyone their individual serving dishes. I don’t own ramequins so I used ovenproof French onion soup bowls. They turned out to be perfect – shallow ramequins would have been too small.

Filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

2 large garlic cloves, pushed through garlic press

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 pounds cherry or grape tomatoes

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cobbler topping:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup stoneground cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes

¾ cup heavy cream

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet and cook the onion until soft and starting to brown at the edges, about 10 minutes, stirring often. In the last 2 minutes, add the garlic and oregano. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

3. In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, cooled onions with herbs, cornmeal, kosher salt and pepper.

4. For the cobbler topping mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Work in the butter with a pastry cutter or with your fingertips. Once is has a crumbly consistently, add the cream and fold it in swiftly with a fork; do not overmix.

4.  Divide the tomato filling among 6 ovenproof French onion soup bowls, or put it all in one large gratin dish. Top with the cornmeal crumbles.

5. If using individual serving dishes, place them on a jelly roll pan to catch any drips. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are bubbly and the tops golden brown. Serve hot or lukewarm.

Makes 6 servings

Brining olives, bringing back memories

Pomegranates and olives are the two things that I associate the most with my Tunisian grandmother. Of course I cannot grow either in my Pennsylvania garden so when I saw fresh olives for sale the other day I could not resist buying some to try my hand on brining them.

Those olives brought back vivid memories of my grandmother. Most of them have to do with food, as I did not speak a word of Arabic as a child, and my grandmother did not know French. And, like most women of her generation, she was illiterate. She basically communicated with me through food. I remember her putting things on my plate, and when she realized I liked it, she nodded or chuckled, or both, and put more on my plate.

My grandmother’s cooking was as Mediterranean as they come – no dairy whatsoever. Before trips to Tunisia, I remember my mother buying gingersnaps for her at a spice store in downtown Frankfurt, a place where she usually never shopped. In the 1970s, gingersnaps were something very exotic for Germany, and certainly not cheap. I tried one and found it awful (today I love gingersnaps) but my mother told me that these were the only cookies my grandmother liked and was able to eat. It only occurred to me now that she had a milk allergy.

At my grandmother’s house in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian coastal area called the Sahel, the meals were taken in the large courtyard. We sat on straw mats, with the starry night sky as the ceiling. You could faintly hear voices and music from neighboring houses, and cooking smells wafting over, yet it felt ultimately private.

The middle of her courtyard had a small, rosette-shaped elevated garden with an orange tree, a pomegranate tree, and some turtles roaming around. My grandmother knew how much I loved pomegranates, so each time she came to visit us in Germany, usually in the winter, she brought me pomegranates from that tree.Storage roomOlives, especially olive oil, was omnipresent in her cooking. The greenish oil was so thick that a spoon could stand in it. Like all her other provisions, she kept the olive oil in earthenware amphora, neatly lined up in the long narrow storage room. The olive oil came from the family’s olive groves and she used it for everything, from frying thick wedges of potatoes to her delicious hot pepper sauce, which was much milder than harissa, and which I never managed to fully recreate. She did not distinguish between light olive oil for cooking and the thick cold-pressed grade.  I never use extra-virgin olive oil for cooking, I find its flavor too strong, but back then I did not mind. Then, of course, there is the price issue. Good extra-virgin olive oil is expensive. Early this summer I finally found a mail order source for Tunisian extra-virgin olive oil. I bought three liters thinking it would last us a whole year. We were out after a few months and I recently had to reorder.

My grandmother also made her own olive soap. I still have one of those irregularly shaped chunky bars, and I never thought of using it because it is one of the few objects that connect me to her. When I went to her house ten years after she died, I took as many photos as I could. The house was deserted and clearly falling apart. For a short while I hoped I would be able to save that gem, with its beautiful Moorish tiles, its wrought-iron windowpanes, and its sleeping alcoves with elaborate multi-colored woodwork frames. But renovating it was too big of a task for me at a time when I was just starting my career. Then, life took me elsewhere and, eventually, to the United States.

Brining olives takes time. Mine are still at the stage where I need to soak them in water and change it daily to remove the extreme bitterness. I hope it will work out and I will end up with tasty olives in a couple of months so I can post the recipe. (Update, January 2012: The cured olives failed, they were awfully bitter. I will rely on the pros for olives but it was fun to try).

In the meantime, all this thinking and reading about olives put me in such an olive mood that I concocted a quick salad with olives, using leftover chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes from the garden. This is, like most salads in Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines, a compact affair, small and filling, like Tabouleh.Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil)

Finely chopped fresh chili to taste

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Lime juice to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil to taste

Mix all ingredients. Let sit a few hours before serving. Refrigerate if not serving the same day. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings

Overcoming the green tomato prejudice

Until now I have been heavily prejudiced against green tomatoes. Not that I ever ate a green tomato. When I occasionally had green tomatoes in the garden because a branch broke off, or I ended up with green tomatoes at the end of the season, I would rather throw them on the compost pile than using them for cooking.

Maybe it’s the idea of eating something unripe that put me off. I know fried green tomatoes are a southern specialty but I was never tempted to try them. I am not a health fanatic but when I use artery-clogging ingredients, I prefer do to it when there is no alternative, such as butter in a piecrust. Also, I do not like the idea of buying additional produce in the height of the harvest to make something with green tomatoes.

When I collected a couple of pounds of green tomatoes from the garden this week, I reconsidered. I constantly try new things, so why not give green tomatoes a second chance and make chutney? I browsed recipes online and went through my cookbooks for inspiration. The only condition I set for myself was that I would minimize the purchase of extra ingredients. Since I have jalapeno peppers in the garden right now (also a premiere), and lots of fresh garlic, the only thing I had to buy for this Green Tomato Chutney were apples. All the other ingredients were staples I had in the house.

As the prospective main chutney eater besides me does not like it too spicy, I removed the seeds from the jalapenos. I am glad I did because the chutney is already quite hot as is. For a hotter version, simply include some or all of the seeds.

I don’t think I will ever actually pick green tomatoes but at least I have a simple recipe that I like in case green tomatoes come upon me. I look forward to opening the first jar of chutney and eat it with Indian food this fall or winter.

For now it’s back to fresh red tomatoes.

Green Tomato Chutney

2 to 2¼ pounds green tomatoes

10 garlic cloves

1 large onion

1 large or 2 small tart apples (I used green summer apples)

3 jalapeno peppers

1 1-inch piece fresh ginger

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole allspice

6 cardamom pods

1 pound 6 ounces Turbinado sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup white wine vinegar

3 bay leaves

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

6 whole cloves

1 teaspoon dried orange peel

1 teaspoon finely grated zest from an organic lemon

You also need:

A canning pot, or a very large stockpot

5 half-pint canning jars

5 bands

5 new (unused) lids

1. Remove the core from the tomatoes and cut them into 1-inch dice. Slice the garlic cloves thinly. Chop the onion. Peel the apples and remove the core. Cut the apples into 1-inch dice. Cut the jalapenos in half and remove the seeds. Chop the jalapenos very finely. Wear disposable gloves to do this, or wash hands thoroughly afterwards to avoid skin and eye irritation. Peel and finely chop the ginger.

2. Crush the peppercorns, allspice and cardamom in a mortar.

3. Mix all ingredients in a non-corrosive pot (no aluminum) and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours.

4. Slowly bring the mix to a boil. Cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Fill into sterilized canning jars using a slotted spoon, as you don’t want to fill the jars with too much liquid but make sure the chutney is fully immersed. You will have about 1 to 2 cups of cooking liquid left over; discard. Close jars with brand new lids and bands immediately and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

5. Remove from the water onto damp kitchen towels. Let rest 24 hours before storing the jars in a cool place away from the light.

Makes 5 half-pint jars