Pickles. Old school style.

As many of you know, I am a pickle-lover. But there are pickles, and there are PICKLES. Over the past few years I have been learning about the benefits of fermented pickles which differ from hot-packed and boiling-water-processed pickles which are made with vinegar and sugar. Fermented pickles are preserved through a natural process which occurs when vegetables mix with salt or brine and the resulting environment is hospitable to lactobacillus. Lactobacillus are helpful bacteria which help create many of the fermented foods we enjoy, like yogurt, sourdough bread and pickles. Adding naturally fermented and lactobacillus-rich foods into your diet helps support healthy digestion and increases the availability of some nutrients in the pickled vegetables.

I love fermented food and drinks, like wine, beer and kombucha. I always have a stash of Adamah pickles in my refrigerator and when I go to any farmer’s market and I see lactofermented ANYTHING I buy it. To support my habit, I recently started playing around with fermenting on my own. I started with the “gateway drug/ferment” of sauerkraut, and experimented with a variety of flavorings. I did a more Asian/kimchi-esque kraut with shredded ginger and hot peppers, and I did a plain one with mustard seed. Both were incredible and easy and tasty and nutritious.

If you read this blog, and followed my quest to hot-pack pickle something every month of 2010 as part of Tigress’ Can Jam, you might remember this rant/panicked post about my irrational fear of botulism.  Because I still harbor that fear, I was thrilled to learn that no one — not ONE  single person — has ever became ill from a fermented pickle! Yes, one should consume fermented products in moderation, and yes, one should be sure to wash the vegetables first and use clean jars, but according to this Fresh Air interview with fermentation guru Sandor Katz, fermentation is safe… ALWAYS! In other words, I’m in!

After experimenting with cabbage fermentation, I was ready to dive into full-vegetable pickles. I was excited to make a classic sour pickle after finding local NJ kirby cucumbers at Fairway Market. I referred to Sandor Katz’s new bible of fermenting, The Art of Fermentation, which I ordered earlier this year. I looked around to see what other ingredients I could use flavor the pickles with and came across a nice looking seranno pepper, ginger, garlic and a bunch of cilantro from my CSA (this post was started over the summer – and posted now in November. Oops.) I decided to make a Thai-flavored cucumber pickle. Sandor Katz recommends adding a tannin-rich element to the jar when pickling whole cucumbers, which tend to get mushy while they ferment because of their high water content. I didn’t do this, however, knowing that I would eat them quickly after they were done. Mine didn’t get mushy, but maybe I was just lucky and I did eat them pretty quickly. Maybe next time I will add a tanin-rich element incase it was just luck – he suggests grape leaves, oak leaves, a tea bag, or a green banana peel.

While traditional sour pickles are pickled in wooden barrels or fermentation crocks, I’ve been using large Ball jars which work just fine. For these pickles, I placed the whole, peeled garlic, sliced peppers, washed cilantro and sliced ginger on the bottom of a jar, added the scrubbed kirbies, and topped with 5% salt water brine. The ratio to make a 5% brine is 3 Tbsp of salt per liter of water. I used kosher salt, (Sandor Katz uses unrefined sea salt, but agrees that any non-iodized salt will do) and Pur-filtered and pre-boiled and cooled NYC tap water (I attempted to remove the chlorine from the NYC tap water, but it’s unclear if it was removed; the pickles didn’t seem to suffer).

Once everything was in the jar, I pressed the cucumbers down and made sure that the brine was above the top of them, loosely placed the screw-band on the jar, and kept the jar on the countertop. Every time I passed the jar over the next few days, I vented the buildup by opening the jar, pushed the cukes back down under the brine, and after about two days, I started tasting and (because I love a science experiment) testing the pH. The color of the strips changed over three and a half days from a basic green to an acidic orange and eventually yellow. The taste also became less salty and more sour. Since I was fermenting these pickles in a NYC apartment in mid-July, it took all of 4 days to fully ferment, at which point I transferred the jar to my refrigerator, from where I pulled out a kirby daily for a snack or side to my meals.

One thing to note was that some of the garlic turned bright blue during fermentation. Electric cyan not being a color one generally sees in a natural cooking environment, I turned back to Mr. Katz to see if I was going to turn all blue à la Violet Beauregard if I ate it. It turns out the blue garlic reaction is a common and HARMLESS  one which occurs due to compounds in the garlic which react to trace amounts of copper in the water.

The picture to the below left is at the beginning of the fermentation, and at the bottom right, after 4 days. You can see subtle changes in the color and texture of the vegetables. In terms of ease, fermentation is pretty hands-off and once the vegetables are prepped, a small time commitment for something so healthful and beneficial. Look for more posts about my home fermentation experiments soon and comment below on any fermentation tips or questions you have.

More reading from around the internet on fermentation:

Chipotle Sweet Potato Mash

WAIT! There is still time to make a simple, delicious, killer side for Thanksgiving! And better yet, it’s not JUST for Thanksgiving – I’ve been eating this since it became cooler a few weeks ago, and it’s become my “crack” of the season. I need it. I crave it. Thank G’d it’s easy and cheap to make, or I’d be in trouble.

Matthew made a version of this for the first meal he cooked for me, way back when. He used this recipe from Alton Brown, and I was blown away. It might even be one of the reasons I married him. Since then, we have both turned to this dish when looking for a simple, but punchy and somewhat unexpected side-dish. When I make it now, I’ve cut out the butter that Alton included in his version, and have at times played with other additions like maple syrup when I was looking for more sweetness, or garlic, or chopped herbs for freshness. One of my friends posted a request for great sweet potato recipes on Facebook today, and although this was easy enough to write in a comment back to her, I decided to post here complete with pictures.

Chipotle peppers are smoked jalapeños and they can be quite spicy. This recipe calls for chopolte peppers in adobo sauce, which are a canned item, usually stocked in the Latino section of a grocery store.

2-ingredient Chipotle Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Since we get a hefty amount of sweet potatoes from our CSA, I don’t peel them, and just merely scrub them with a clean nailbrush reserved for that purpose. Once cleaned, cut into similarly-sized pieces and steam until soft. I use a simple metal steamer basket in a Le Creuset Tagine or dutch oven, and it usually takes 5-10 minutes, depending on how large my potato chunks are.

While the potatoes are steaming, grab a Chipotle pepper from the can and chop roughly. If you are opening up a new can of peppers, throw the extras with all the sauce in a small 4-ounce jelly jar and store in the fridge. It will keep for a while, although it usually doesn’t since I am known to throw chipotle peppers in all sorts of things. Someone of the Facebook thread said that she purees them, then stores in a jar in the fridge, and I really like this idea, since you can just stick a spoon in and throw into whatever you have cooking. I know this isn’t the most appetizing picture. Don’t be dissuaded.

Once the potatoes are soft, transfer to a large bowl, add the chopped pepper and some of the marinade, and mash with whatever implement you have handy. The beauty of the steamed potatoes is that the moisture is retained and they should mash with very little effort.

Taste and season with salt if needed. I sometimes add olive oil for a bit of richness, but it’s not necessary. If you make this a day ahead, the spiciness will really emerge overnight, so beware and start with just one chipotle pepper. While best served warmed up, I’ve been known to eat it right from the fridge with a large spoon.

Greek Cookie Love

Queens, NYC is known for it’s diversity. According to Wikipedia, no one ethnic group holds a majority — I love that! Not only because I like to live in a melting pot, but also because I have access to tons of different authentic ethnic cuisines. We don’t eat out often, but when we do, we explore these unique enclaves. We enjoy Bukharian (Uzbek) kebobs in Forest Hills, vegetarian Bombay street-food in Floral Park, and a Hunanese outpost in Flushing. One of the best known ethnic areas in Queens is Greek Astoria. I have spent fair amount of time in Astoria over the past few months, and much of that time has been spent in Artopolis, an incredible Greek pastry shop. Anytime I’m remotely in the neighborhood (read: I drive out of my way), I swing by to get a handful (read: bagful) of these delicious honey-dipped biscuits. Since I was developing quite a melamakarona habit, I decided it was high time I learned how to make them at home. So I turned to my trusty copy of Vefa’s Kitchen (which also inspired this Gigante Bean post), and started baking.

Making the cookie is the same as making any other biscuit: mix dry ingredients, mix wet ingredients, mix wet and dry ingredients… But the fun part comes after the cookies are baked. You pour beautiful amber syrup over the just-out-of-the-oven cookies! It’s incredible how much of the syrup gets absorbed by the cookies. The cookies themselves only have 1/2 cup of sugar in them, so they’re mild (and firm) enough to withstand the onslaught of sweet syrup. Once the cookies cool and soak up the syrup, it’s time to top with a fragrant chopped walnut garnish.

I tweaked the Vefa’s Kitchen recipe slightly.  Vefa’s version used both olive oil and butter in the biscuit recipe, and I used only olive oil. I also modified the shape of the cookie to emulate the one from Artopolis, and added some spices to the dough recipe. The cookie that I fell in love with at Artopolis has a sign that specifies the cookie is vegan (although it is doused in honey, which means that to 95% of vegans it’s not), so I knew that it was possible to use olive oil instead of butter. For vegans out there that don’t eat honey though, I’m not that well-versed in the particulars of alternative honey to recommend a substitution; I am conflicted about agave nectar, since it is a highly processed high-fructose syrup, so does anyone have any suggestions?

Melamakarona: Honey-Dipped Biscuits

Modified from Vefa’s Kitchen

For the biscuit:
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons brandy or Cointreau or triple sec
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
For the syrup:
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
For the topping:
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cloves and cinnamon and make a well in the center
  3. Blend the oil, sugar, OJ, liquor and zest with a food processor (I used an immersion blender and it worked well)
  4. Pour the blended wet ingredients into the well, and slowly incorporate into the dry, without over-blending
  5. Make 1T round balls and place a few inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. I use this OXO mini-scooper to make the biscuits – it’s one of my favorite baking tools.
  6. Bake cookies for about 30 minutes until golden brown, but start checking at 25 minutes, as they tend to get dark very quickly.
  7. Meanwhile, make syrup: Mix honey, sugar and water in a small sauce-pan. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is disolved, skimming any white foam that appears. Turn off heat.
  8. Mix the topping ingredients together.
  9. Transfer baked biscuits to a pyrex or other baking dish immediately when they’re out of the oven, and pour over the syrup. You may notice the syrup coming up the sides of the biscuits – but they will soak all the syrup up eventually. Top with walnuts. Cover with wrap and store at room temperature for 3-5 days.

Above is the Artopolis version (left), and my version (right).

Cool Down Cucumber Seaweed Salad

I’ve been making this salad since I fell in love with a similar one at Souen, a macrobiotic restaurant in Greenwich village during college. Now, 13 (gasp!) years later, knowing more about Chinese medicine and the 5-elements, this salad remains one of my top go-to summer dishes. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, the summer season corresponds to the fire element – no surprise there – and fire’s flavor is bitterness. The fire element is balanced by the water element – again, no surprise there – and water’s flavor is saltiness. So this cold sea salty salad is the perfect antidote to the blistering days of summer.  The crispness of the raw cucumbers together with the salty seaweed will cool you down and fast!

Seaweed is a great vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids and calcium. Fish actually get their omegas from eating seaweed, so why not go straight to the source?! Today I used two kinds of seaweeds: hijiki and wakame. I tend to buy “cut” or “flaked” wakame since it’s already de-stemmed, which cuts down preparation time.  Dried seaweed will keep in your pantry for about a year. It’s important to note: seaweed expands A TON when soaked. Depending on the ratio you’re after, keep that in mind. I used about 1.5 cucumbers today, and about 3 Tablespoons of each seaweed, which was plenty. Mix the seaweed and cover with ample water; soak for 15 minutes and drain.

Meanwhile, cut the cukes. I got a number of cucumbers from our CSA last week, so I decided just to scrub them, although if I bought them in the store, I would have peeled them. I scraped out the seeds and cut thinly into half-moon shapes.

Once the seaweed is reconstituted and drained, toss the cucumber slices with the seaweed and dress with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, a squirt of sriracha, and freshly grated ginger. If you have black sesame seeds, throw them in there, too. Sometimes I need a bit more salt, and I put a dash of tamari, but it depends on what I’m craving. Speaking of, sometimes I make it very spicy – which is great with the coolness of the cucumbers. In other words, please experiment – this is a framework to make your version of the salad. Who knows, maybe it’ll turn into a summer classic that helps you stay cool for the next 13 years.

Taste of Queens 2012

Blanca Lilia Narváez from Tropisec accepting the award for Best Dessert at Queens Taste 2012 (Photo: P. Conti)

I would not hesitate to say that Queens is the best borough to have dinner in. Or lunch. Or breakfast for that matter. Whether it’s Chinese food in Flushing, Mexican in Corona, Korean in Douglaston, Indian in Floral Park, or the lesser known Bukharian restaurants of Forest Hills, it’s no secret that the streets of Queens are teeming with authentic ethnic eateries. In addition to brick-and-mortar restaurants however, Queens is churning out exciting high-quality artisanal food from passionate entrepreneurs cooking out of a 5,000 square foot kitchen in Long Island City.

The Entrepreneur Space (referred to as the “E-Space” by those in the know) is a joint venture between the Queens Economic Development Corporation and Mi Kitchen es su Kitchen. This past Tuesday night, I had the privilege of attending the QEDC’s 10th Annual Queens Taste 2012, an incredible evening where over 1,000 people celebrated the food of Queens at Caesar’s Club at Citi Field. The 47 vendors included many businesses from the E-Space, and I was thrilled to be able to talk to the chefs and visionaries behind the ventures.

Beyond Kombucha: Astoria, NY

It doesn’t get more sustainable and local than the Astoria-based company Beyond Kombucha. Started by Astoria-native and self-proclaimed “Tea Snob” Spiro Theofilatos, the kombucha churned out by this company is powered by the 3rd largest private solar field in NYC! Kombucha is an effervescent fermented tea beverage made with tea leaves and herbs. While most comercial kombucha is formulated to remove the alcoholic byproduct of the fermentation process, Spiro being the purist that he is refused to compromise the integrity of this ancient beverage, and instead went through the process of becoming the first NY State and federally-licensed kombucha brewery on the East Coast. Now the very slightly alcoholic (1.5%) drink can be sold legally with it’s authentic flavor intact…And that flavor is delicious! Tuesday night, he and his team were offering 2 of their spring 2012 flavors to taste including Yerba Mate and Vanilla Rooibos. While both were refreshing, I preferred the Yerba Mate’s herbaceous and appley profile, but I can imagine sipping on the Vanilla Rooibos with dessert. Kombucha is a naturally fermented and “live” product, and all the good bacteria (probiotics) inherent to the fermentation process are wonderful for your digestion. I often suggest incorporating fermented foods to my patients struggling with digestive issues, and I will definitely include Beyond Kombucha in my recommendations moving forward.

Josephine’s Feast: Long Island City and East End of Long Island

Josephine’s Feast is a small-batch jam and preserve maker. I had heard about the company a few years ago, when Food Curated made a 6-minute video about the founder Laura O’Brien’s thoughtful and artisinal approach to preserving seasonal fruit. I had the chance to speak with Laura’s husband, Sean, and was thrilled to hear how the company has expanded in the past few years. They still have the sweet jams, but have branched out into a variety of marmalades and mustards. While they source as much fruit as possible from farms near their home on the East End of Long Island and in upstate New York, they were tasting 4 marmalades made from seasonal winter citrus form California. Of the four marmalades that Sean was sampling, I enjoyed the Thick Cut Blood Orange Marmalade the best. The marmalade was a beautiful, rich and vibrant scarlet color which would pair wonderfully well with a sweet butter or soft cheese. Of the mustards, I loved the whole grain mustard with lemon, sage and chablis. Throw a bit of that in a vinaigrette, and you’ll immediately be transported to Provence!

Tropisec: Long Island City

If being transported to a tropical paradise sounds more like what you’re after, I recommend snacking on the dried fruit creations of Blanca Lilia Narváez’s Tropisec. Based out of Long Island City’s E-Space, Blanca was inspired to start Tropisec when she missed the natural, sun-sweetened dried fruits of her native Columbia. She sources her raw ingredients from a Columbian co-op that supplies her with all organic, dried fruit, which she artistically arranges into edible sculptures. She employs women in Columbia, many of whom were displaced by domestic violence, to make her natural banana-leaf packaging. Once you’ve tasted these sweets, you will understand why the Queens Taste 2012 jury awarded Tropisec the best dessert. I tried a sundried banana bite dusted with cocao powder which packed real intense banana flavor, and a whimsical papaya flower. Both were unique and delightful.  If you are looking for something unique for the moms in your life, you can order Tropisec’s fruit creations on their website.

Overall it was a fantastic event, and it was inspiring to see the many diverse food pioneers right here in my back yard, as they work to uphold Queens’ reputation as the BEST food borough.