Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Just before the frost, an end of season cocktail

My garden has begun to brown at the edges like lace carelessly dipped in coffee.   The sumac has tips of red.  The end of summer is here.   I sit, listening to the pop of canning jars just pulled from the pot, brimming red with the last tomato harvest.   I reflect on the summer and its stormy changes.
I need a drink.
With the first frost in my garden comes the conflicted feeling of regret and release.   The garden season is over.  No more picking Japanese beetles.  No more weed burns on my hands and cursing at bunnies.    But, no more garden phlox on the table.  No more fresh herbs or tomatoes still warm off the vine.   I try to do what I can to extend my season.  Use the cold frame.  Cover some of the herbs at night.  I spend evenings checking weather sites to see if there will be frost.  Then I check again an hour later.  (It could have changed you know.)  I fret over whether I should bring in the last of the cucumbers.   But, no matter what I do, the dahlias still get spots, and the basil just isn’t as green as it once was.  
So I harvest.  I harvest like there will never be a summer again.  My fridge is full.  My kitchen floor is covered in boxes of tomatoes.  Soon, cabbages will join them.  My husband stands in the kitchen door, eyes watering from boiling vinegar, and picks at a tomato seed stuck to the trim.  He sighs and turns to use the front door instead.    What do you do when you have too much to do and too little time?  Make a cocktail, of course. 
 I had a lot of mint this year.  It was a mint hedge, really.   I tried to give mint away to anyone who walked by.  Every guest who came had a handful of mint shoved at them on the way out.  Mint adorned packages.  Mint garnished cocktails, desserts, and once a bowl of cereal.
The following is a recipe for a Cucumber Mint Martini that my good friend and I devised.  It is a great way to use up end of season mint and cucumbers, as the cucumbers don’t have to look pretty.  Scars and blemishes are fine.  

For two Cucumber Mint Martinis (because who ever needs just one)
You will need:  
One cucumber, sliced, skin still on                  

1 handful mint (I prefer chocolate mint for this one)
1 lime wedge, about 1/8 of a lime                        2 tsp simple syrup (recipe below)
2 shots (or more) citrus vodka                                club soda
A shaker                                                                            muddler or a fat wood spoon
Ice                                                                                         2 pretty glasses

Simple syrup: Mix equal parts sugar and water in a non reactive pot.  Heat and boil 2 min.  Remove from heat and cool.
Martini:  Put 8 slices of cucumber, 4 sprigs mint, 1 wedge lime, and 2 tsp simple syrup (more if you prefer) into the shaker.  Muddle until the juices start to flow from the cucumber and the lime.  Add 2 Shots vodka and top with ice.  Secure the lid and shake.  Pour equally into 2 glasses and top with club soda.  Sit back and enjoy September.  Or, November.  Or, anytime.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


"What the hell is that?"  A common utterance from guests who open my fridge looking for a place to put their beer.  This time, referring to the green baseball sized fruits floating in a pungent red brine.  "Is that string?"
I sweetly reply, "Mangoes.  Its a type of pickle."
Mangoeing actually refers to a 19th century method for pickling unripe melons, green tomatoes, peppers, or even unripe peaches. It has nothing to do with the tropical mangoes you can find in the store.  The fruit is hollowed out and put into a salt brine overnight.  Then, its stuffed with a mixture of chopped veggie, sewn shut with a needle and thread, then pickled in a strong vinegar.  I first ran across a reference to it in a cookbook published in 1877 called Buckeye Cookery and Practical House Keeping.   Written before canning was widely used, this book is full of ways to preserve your harvest.  None of the recipes have any water in the preserving brine.  Just straight vinegar.  So strong it could cure an embarrassing rash.   More potent than political rhetoric. This is my version of the recipe, streamlined and updated. 
If you live somewhere like Minnesota, as I do, its not uncommon to have melons on the vine that will never ripen before the frost.  This is a good way to use them up.  I used a variety of melon that is specifically grown for mangoeing called a mango melon.  Its a tasteless heirloom melon, so I didn't feel like I was wasting anything by using them.
The first day, you will need:
   1-2gallons of unripe melons or green peppers      1 gallon water
   1 cup salt                                                            needle and white thread
   a pairing knife and a small spoon                         a large jar or bowl to submerge the fruits in

 Wash the fruits and look them over for scars and soft spots.  The general rule in pickling is that the pickling subject needs to be perfect. 

 Select a fruit.  Cut a wedge out of the side of the fruit.   Make sure its a wedge and isn't halved.  This will keep them in place later.  If you are using peppers, you can cut off the top.

 Hollow out the fruit forming a little box.  Hollow out the inside and the top.

Thread the needle.  Push the needle through the lid and through the fruit.  Cut the tread and tie the ends together.  The purpose here is to tie the two pieces together so they don't float away from each other in the brine.  Repeat with the remaining fruits.

Make a salt brine:  The 19th century definition of salt brine is salty enough water to float an egg.  That's a lot of salt.  I mixed 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water.  It worked fine.  Submerge the fruits in the brine.  You could use a plate to keep them under the brine.  Let sit overnight or up to 2 days.

The Filling
You will need:
  1/2 a small head of red cabbage, sliced thin                          1 red onion, sliced thin
  1 cucumber, seeded, halved and sliced thin                           1 cup red grapes, halved
  1/4 cup kosher salt                                                               1 T mustard seed
  Cotton kitchen string                                                            4 cups cidar vinegar
  4 cups water                                                                        3 T sugar
  1 inch knob of ginger, peeled and sliced                                3-5 chilies pierced with a sharp knife.

 To make the filling, combine cabbage, onion, cucumber and the salt in a non-reactive bowl.  Let stand 1 hour. Rinse and drain the mixture twice.  Add mustard seed and grapes.  Mix well and set aside.

 Drain the fruit from the salt brine.  Rinse well  and drain again.  Take one fruit and remove the thread connecting the pieces.  Stuff the fruit with the cabbage mixture.  Use enough to fill it tightly but do not over fill.

 Put on the lid.  Wrap a piece of kitchen string around the melon twice and tie tightly.  Repeat with the remaining melons.   Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, ginger and chilies in a deep non-reactive pot.  Add fruits and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 30 min.  Stir gently as not to loose the string.

Remove from the stove and let cool.  When they are cool enough to handle, pack the fruits in a jar or crock.  Pour the cooking liquid over them, making sure they are covered.  Refrigerate for up to 2 months.
As for how to serve them, well, the 19th century recipe doesn't explain that.  I sliced them and put them on a relish dish.  I pull one out and eat it as a snack once in a while.  I also think they'd be great with as a container for a Bloody Mary Shooter.   Get creative!  You could stuff them with almost anything.  (except cheese.  Trust me.)  I love to hear how you've adapted the recipe!

Couple of great references:
Baker Creek Heirlooms sells Mango Melon seeds:  http://rareseeds.com/
Visit The Oliver Kelley Farm in late summer and maybe have a chance to see 19th century pickling and the mangoeing process done the traditional way.   http://www.mnhs.org/places/sites/ohkf/

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Playing without a full deck.

    Dealing a hand of poker recently, we realized the deck of cards was short. (I wondered why that ace never came up.)  My husband got up to throw them out and I chased after him like some hero in a movie trying to catch a vile of antidote before it hit the ground, pushing our guests and spilling 2 glasses of wine and a cheese plate along the way.    Despite protests from my him, I pushed aside the trodden Gruyere and wrote, "Not a Full Deck" on the box and kept it.  I've since used it for table settings, labels on jam, and now, little boxes.  Here is a tutorial in how I made them.  (If you don't feel like making your own, visit my Etsy shop and buys some to impress your friends with.)

Find yourself some used playing cards with nice used texture and an interesting pattern on the back.  Select 3 playing cards, one for the bottom and two for the lid.  Use the nicest one for the bottom of the box.  It will be the one that shows the most when the box is opened.

 Cut from each corner to the center box.  About 2 cm.  You can change the dimensions of the box by cutting the corners shorter or longer.  just make sure they're all the same length and and at a 45 degree angle.

                 Turn the card number side up and fold up the sides.  Repeat with the top and bottom.

                                          Fold all the points inward.  These will be the corners.

           Fold all the sides upward.  The short sides should fold inward to keep them from snagging on the lid.

Glue the points in place using a power bond roller adhesive, like Tombo, from the paper supply store.  Be sure to use a strong adhesive.  Now you have completed the bottom of the box. 

 To make the lid:  The lid will work like a match box cover and slide off and on from the sides.  Take one playing card and place it face up.  Set the bottom of the box in the middle of the card and mark the width with a pencil.  Fold  along the pencil line.

Set the box on the playing card again and measure the height of the box.  Mark with a pencil and fold along the pencil line.  The card won't reach all the way around the box, but because we measured from the middle, there will be space to glue another piece in place.

Cut a piece of playing card the width of your box using the third playing card.  Glue it to the tabs we've made on the box lid.  This will be the bottom of the lid.

                                  Slip the box bottom into the lid and impress everyone you know.