Monday, July 25, 2011

About those pickles....

Pickles are serious business in my husband's family. According to them, pickles should be puckery, crisp, with a great dill tang. There should NOT be sweet, floppy or bland pickles. Over the years, I have come to agree with them. My husband's paternal grandmother came up with a refrigerator pickle that really is perfection. These have a decided crunch when you bite into them and pack the ideal punch of dill, salt and vinegar. Best of all, these are super-easy to make. No boiling, no two-part jar lids, even a food preserving novice can make a great pickle. I know this, because these pickles were one of my first successes.

I got married young. Twenty-one, starry-eyed and quite confident in my ability to be the perfect wife, I couldn't wait to set up housekeeping with the man of my dreams. Our first summer we planted a small garden in the back yard. Watering and weeding, I planned out all the delicious canning projects I would impress my new husband with. He even installed shelves in the basement in anticipation of jars full of our garden bounty. Excitedly, I skipped off to the dollar store(we were broke and living on love) bought a $8.00 stockpot, the Blue Ball book of canning and a box of jars. I couldn't wait until our beans were ripe, so my first attempt was blueberry jam. Sugar and blueberries got measured into my brand new pot. I cooked and stirred, cooked and stirred and stirred some more. But the jam did strange things. It bubbled over the sides, regardless of my stirring and seeped right into the crevices of my stove. The cheap pot scorched the berries. Rock hard and tasting of ashes, the finished project was a disaster. Even my husband couldn't choke it down. Undaunted, I tossed the jam, scrubbed the pot and got ready to try something else. This time I thought salsa would be just the thing. I chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers in a flurry, ready to prove that I could conquer the mason jar. My husband took one look at my project and urged me to call his mother. "She makes great salsa and she's been canning for a long time. Maybe she could give you a few tips." "Oh, that's not necessary, Honey", I assured him. "I know exactly what I'm doing." He wandered out the door and down the hall to the office. Ten minutes later he was back, recipe card in hand. "I just talked to Mom and this is what she does. See, this is how she thickens up the salsa." I sighed, took the card and reminded him of my expertise. "None of this is the the book," I replied, holding up my brand new canning book. "It can't be right." Well, the salsa was a lot of work. Making it took plenty of expensive produce, and turned out - can you guess? That's right, it was awful!

My husband and I have now been married almost 15 years. Somewhere along the way, I figured out that I don't know it all. Thankfully, my dear mother-in-law took me under her wing and passed along many trade secrets and family recipes. One of the highlights of summertime, is our canning days. "Mom", my sister-in-laws and I spending the day chopping veggies, catching up, laughing and working together while the cousins play. These days are memories that I will always treasure. Also treasured, is the Grandma Ropp pickle recipe. This is one of first things I successfully made after I finally got tired of wasting ingredients and took some advice. Now, my kids help me make these pickles all summer long. Currently, we are going through a gallon per week. They really are that good! My baby eats them whole, like corn on the cob.  He nibbles bites all the way around, and then wants a new one.  I like them cut into wedges, while the husband prefers them sliced thin and piled on his ham sandwich. There really is no wrong way to eat these.

Grandma Ropp Pickles
We make these by the gallon.  Stored in the refrigerator, they will keep for a couple of months.  Keep in mind, the longer they are stored, the stronger and more sour they will become.  If you want to slow down the pickling, pull them out of the brine and store them in a resealable bag or other container. If you want to make fewer pickles, it's easy to half the recipe.  I use an old gallon pickle jar.  If you don't have one, it's easy to find big glass jars at almost any Walmart, Target, TJ Maxx, Marshalls etc.

Pickling cucumbers are best to use for this project.  They are small, firm and less seedy then their larger version.  Right now, our local farmers markets are overflowing with locally grown pickling cucumbers.

You will need dill for this project.  Grandma Ropp used fresh dill heads, which look like this:
Unfortunately, unless you grow your own, it's really hard to find this.  Once in awhile I've seen it at a farmers market, but very rarely.   So, I have used dried dill seed from the grocery store, which looks like this:
 I usually throw in a  little fresh dill weed, also from the grocery store which looks like this:
Now that I have schooled you in everything you ever wanted to know about dill, here's the rest of the recipe.
  • 8-10 cloves of garlic
  • 2 large heads of dill or 2 tablespoons dill seed plus a few sprigs of dill weed
  • 3 scant tablespoons mixed pickling spice (available at any grocery store)
  • 6 tablespoons non-iodized salt.  Kosher or pickling salt both work fine.
  • 1 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes or a chopped jalepeno (optional - use if you like a little heat)
  • pickling cucumbers, (the smaller - the better) scrubbed clean
Put garlic, dill, mixed pickling spice, salt and vinegar into one gallon jar.  Pack jar full of pickling cumbers.  Fill the jar the rest of the way with cold water.  Put lid onto jar and shake until ingredients combine.  Let jar stand on the counter for a day or two.  Shake a couple of times - whenever you remember.  Store jar in the fridge for one week.  Cucumbers are officially pickled and ready to enjoy.  These will keep at least a month or two.  Grandma Ropp would make them in the summer and store them in the cellar until Christmas, so rest assured that they won't "go bad" for quite some time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Peach Blueberry Muffins

South Carolina peaches are not something to be taken for granted.  Sweet, juicy, bursting with delectable flavor, these bits of summer sunshine are locally available  from early June through mid-September.  Our weekly trek to the peach farm is always an adventure because we never know what variety will be ripe next.  Late June brings the delicate white "Georgia Belle's,  July, the rosy "Red Globe".  Comparing, contrasting and choosing the favorites has been an intriguing business for my crowd of peach eaters. Last week we brought home 2 full bushels, which has meant quite an abundance of peaches in this house.  We've eaten them whole like apples, chopped and sugared over vanilla ice cream, swaddled in cream and baked in cobbler, best of all, paired with blueberries and tucked into muffins.

These muffins bake up light, cakey and delectable.  They manage to avoid the whole gummy, heavy feeling you sometimes get with a muffin that has oil as a base. The peaches and blueberries add a summery burst of flavor that make it hard to stop at just one. As a final layer of decadence, these have a crunchy layer of struesel on top.  Because you know, if you're going to eat cake for breakfast which we all know muffins are it might as well be worth your while.

Peach Blueberry muffins with Pecan Streusel
Brown Sugar-Pecan Streusel Topping:
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped pecans (optional), lightly toasted if desired *
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Muffin Batter:
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice (optional - try nutmeg if you don't have allspice)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 large eggs
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 1/4 cups sour cream, plain yogurt, or buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons  pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups peeled, pitted, chopped peaches
  • 1 1/2 cups blueberries
1. For the Topping: In a small bowl, combine the pecans, flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Stir in the butter, and mix until well blended.

2. For the Muffins: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line at least 24 large muffin cups with paper liners, and spray lightly with nonstick spray.

3. In a medium bowl, wisk together the dry ingredients, from flour to salt, and set aside. Pour in the blueberries and gently toss until well coated with flour mixture.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, butter, sour cream, yogurt or buttermilk and vanilla. Fold in the peaches.

5. Add the egg mixture to the dry mixture. Stir until just moist and blended. Do not overmix.

6. Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin pan with a large ice cream scoop (1/3-cup scoop). The batter should come to the top of the paper liner or pan. Sprinkle generously with the Brown Sugar-Pecan Streusel Topping, and lightly press the topping into the muffin batter.

7. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until the tops of the muffins spring back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes clean. Remove from the oven, and cool for 5 minutes. Turn the muffins out of the pan, and serve immediately.

*Tip:  Try lightly toasting nuts to be used in baking.  It just takes a minute and absolutely deepens the flavor.  To do this, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat.  Let cook  for 4-5 minutes, shaking and stirring  until nuts are fragrant and/or begin to brown.  Set aside and let cool before chopping.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Scenes from my kitchen

Somewhere on the dim edges of my memory, there is my Great-grandma Hostetler.  My family lived in Northern Michigan and one of the highlights of our year, was making the trip to Ohio to visit our cousins and grandparents.  Often, we stayed with my grandma who lived in a big house with my great-grandparents.  I don't know if it was a duplex or what, but I know they each had their own kitchen.  Sometimes while my brothers were napping and the house needed to be quiet, mom would let me go over to the great-grandparents side of the house.  Great-grandma Hostetler would be delighted to see me and I can still her the sound of her voice as she settled me into the chair and asked if I wanted tea and a snack.  She would bustle around the kitchen, putting on the kettle and pulling out shimmery orange Fire King mugs.  There would be hot mint tea with a bear shaped bottle of honey that I got to squeeze in myself, as much as I wanted!  And then, best of all, she'd give me a little china bowl of  her home canned peaches.  Those golden, sweet circles tasted to me, of sunshine.  I'd cut the halves into tiny pieces so I could make  my treat last as long as possible.  Great-grandpa would sit beside me with his long white beard, stirring his tea and eating peaches.  I felt so big, so grown-up. I think of them, my great-grandparents as I stand in my own kitchen peeling peaches, filling jars, keeping a watchful eye on the bubbling canner.   I love the richness of tradition, of the women before me who took the time to preserve summer.

Then there are these. Grandma Ropp pickles.  This recipe is handed down from my husband's grandmother. Anson's dad tells the story of how his mom would make these pickles in the summer and stash them in the cellar until Christmas time.  By then they would be so puckery strong, but they loved them anyways. These are a simple refrigerator pickle that we make all summer long when the garden is full of fresh cucumbers and dill.

Who would think that food could hold such memories? In a time when life is a non-stop frenzy and dinner is sometimes more like ingredients out of science lab then actual nourishment, I love the simplicity of canning.  I like slowing down and taking time to pack summertime produce into a jar.