Friday, June 1, 2012

Scapes: Pungent Beauty

Scapes.  Misunderstood and underutilized.  The flowering parts of garlic that, due to thousands of years of domestication, never really develops into flowers.  I fell in love with growing garlic 5 years ago.  There is something magical about separating one head of papery bulb into cloves, burying them in the ground in the fall and getting 6-8 two foot tall leafy plants the following spring.   By mid July, I’m harvesting plump, fragrant bulbs of garlic, creamy white and streaked with purple.  But my favorite part of growing garlic is still when the scapes emerge.
 They usually begin to appear in early June.  Long, slender stems that curl into graceful swooping arcs.  They turn and spiral, twisting into forms only nature could sculpt.  Perfect balance exists between sturdy, intricate stem and the long, tapering bud.   The bud can reach a foot long, alluding to a magnificent flower that never comes.  Most home garlic growers cut the scapes off, giving the garlic plant more energy to put into developing a large bulb.  At first, I didn’t know what to do with them.  I’d save a couple and tuck them into flower arrangements.  They lent grace to vases of peonies and lady’s mantel, but their garlicky aroma kept me from using them for long.  Most often, they were trucked to the compost with the next morning’s coffee grounds. 
One day, at the farmer’s market, I saw them at a stall run by my favorite old Hmong women.  Her limited English and my non-existent understanding of any variation of Hmong language never really seems to get in the way.  She’s always slightly alarmed when I buy an overflowing tray of bird chilies.  “Hot!” she yells.  Then pokes at one of the bored grandchildren helping her run the stall.  “She wants me to tell you they’re spicy,” they sigh and go back to fidgeting on their i-phones.   I picked up the scapes and asked her what to do with them.   “Eat them,” she said, and pantomimed eating from a fork and rubbed her belly, smiling.  She called to a slightly more helpful grandchild than usual.  “You cook them like asparagus or green beans,” the young woman said. “Like bean,” nodded the old woman. 
I was delighted to figure out what to do with them.  This year, garlic was awarded a position on the boulevard.  The boulevard at our house acts as a small field of sorts.  Last year I grew barley.  This year, I’m growing garlic and squash.  Last fall I plunked 4lbs of garlic in the ground and have been rewarded with a healthy stand of garlic plants and an abundance of scapes.   That’s alright with me.  There’s nothing as impressive as handing someone a Bloody Mary with a pickled scape hanging over the edge.

To pickle garlic scapes
Blanch scapes:  Bring a medium size pot of water to a rapid boil.  Working in batches, plunge whole scapes in the boiling water for 30 seconds.  Remove from the water and submerge in an ice bath. 
Pack blanched scapes into pint jars, separating them individually so they don’t get too tangled.  Stuff in 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh dill and 1-2 dried chili pods. 
Make the brine:  For each pint jar, put 1 Cup cider vinegar, 1 cup water, 2 tsp kosher salt, and 1 tsp white sugar in a non-reactive pot.  Bring just to a boil and poor into pint jars over scapes.  Be sure to cover the scapes fully.  Wipe the rim of the jar and secure the lid.  At this point, you may continue to canning, but I just keep mine in the fridge.  If not canned, refrigerate for up to 4 months. The longer they sit, the better they get.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Chambord Bottle Chandelier

“Any fire?”  My husband shouted from the basement.
 I peeked over the chair I was hiding behind. “No.  No fire.” 
“Try turning it on.”  He  yelled, “But, look away while you do it.”
I reached for the chain, shielding my eyes with my other hand.  Like that would protect me form an exploding light bulb.  I gave it a tug.
“Hey, hey!” My husband had come up from the basement where he’d spent the better part of the afternoon manning the electrical box.  “It works!”
Hanging the new hall chandelier I had made in class ended up being a minor ordeal.  I had put it on my husband’s honey do list knowing that it would take two people to accomplish, but I didn’t realize it would turn out to be the feat that it was.  It was mostly my fault.
I’d been sitting on this pile of old Chambord bottles for a couple years.  They came from various parties and people.  Once the neighbors knew I thought they were interesting, we struck a deal.  He got the plastic piece around the outside, and I got the beautiful round bottle.  I was able to accrue a lovely pile of holy hand grenades.  Once, I had to fend off my husband wielding a garbage bag and once I rescued one from the recycling.  My husband followed me back to the house, “Emily, what are you going to do with them?”  “Make a chandelier.”  It was a desperate, spur of the moment thought that was only meant to placate my husband’s concern that I was turning the basement into a flea market.  But, as it turned out, it wasn’t a bad idea.  Though, maybe not a well thought out one.
We needed a light in our hall anyway.  The one that was there was broken and we had been using a flashlight to peer in the linen cabinet for years.  I used a light base from another part of the house, a bunch of wire, and some ball bearings.  I was short a bottle, so my project went on hold until we could drink through another.  Chambord is great in a cocktail, but you don’t need much.  It was more of a challenge than I thought.  We made cocktails we called “interesting.”  Like, a pineapple juice, Chambord, dark rum concoction I named a Bleeding Kraken.  It tasted good, but it looked like what comes out of a faucet that hasn’t been turned on for a while.  Eventually, I finished the chandelier and proudly held it in place to see what it would look like.  That’s when I realized the fixture was wired to use a chain, not a switch.  I didn’t design my chandelier with a chain.  Back to the workshop.
Then there was the problem with the nest of excess wire hidden inside the chandelier.  Once hung, my husband flipped the breaker and POP!  Everything went out.  The wire holding the bottles in place was touching a live wire from the house.  We took it down.  Did I mention that it’s heavy?   I fixed that problem with most of a role of electrical tape.  But, the problems progressed.  We put it up and took it down four times before it actually worked. 
Now, it hangs securely and lit.  I like it.  It casts a pretty shadow through the hall.  And, I should take a moment to thank my husband for being patient and supporting my elaborate plans, no matter how many times he has to check the breakers.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Paint-By-Number Zen

Running errands with a friend, we came across a wire display of Paint-By-Numbers in the kid section of the art supply store.  We couldn’t resist.  Half joke, half spending frenzy, we each bought one; planning to ply our painting skills with a bottle of wine later in the week.  I brought mine home and tossed it in a pile on the dining room table.  There it sat forgotten. 

Until one day, lacking in inspiration and bogged down with brain prattle, I let procrastination get the better of me.  Instead of going to my workshop and finishing the pieces I needed for the week, I checked the weather.  Then did the dishes, walked the dog, checked the weather again, went on Facebook, put on some socks, checked the weather one more time, and then distractedly sat down with a pile of papers form the table.  Under the health insurance summery and the 2 for 1 deal on pizza was my paint-by-number.  It seemed the time waster I was dreaming of.  But as I popped open the first little numbered paint pot, something changed.

There is something about doing a paint-by-number.   It has the same inexplicable draw as coloring with a three year old.  It doesn’t really matter what it looks like.  It’s not like you drew it.  It’s understood that you aren’t creating a masterpiece.   You gather your stock paintbrush and ubiquitous jar of water. You pick a primary color and tug on its plastic tab. You dip in the brush and search the printed cardboard for the right tiny blue number and begin.  Then it happens.  By the second tier of the smokestack, you stop being concerned with picking up dog food.  By the third or fourth leopard spot, your breathing slows. You stop bunching your shoulders and crinkling your forehead.  Filling a swath of cloud, you begin to think clearer, have better ideas. 

I painted four number 10 spaces, and I was ready.  I’d somehow found focus simply by covering up little blue lines with a tiny brush.  I went to the workshop and was more productive than I had been in two days.  I had stumbled onto an indispensable tool.  The paint dries quickly, so I can cover just a couple of spaces, filling in what will become a shadow or a suitcase.  Then, put it back in a drawer until I need it again. I don’t really know what I’ll do with the finished product.  Maybe hang it in a pantry or the closet.  The finished product really isn’t the point.

My friend and I did eventually get our wine and paint-by-number diversion.  We had mimosas and rolls and painted.  Thinking up marvelous plans (watch for a paint-by-number cocktail) and churning out color blocked amalgamations that only vaguely resemble the picture on the box.  The picture didn’t really matter.  Just that we had a great time.  Am I suggesting that paint-by-number will cure you of anxiety and put you on the path of brilliance?  Well, yes.  I am.
When was the last time you did a paint-by-number?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cocktail Fail

Some of you may know, I contribute to a beer blog called Chicks that Dig Beer.  Last week I created a Caramel Ale Ice Cream that is absolutely amazing.  It has a delicate beer flavor brought out by a smooth caramel foundation.  I considered it a success.  It was so good, it kept coming to mind.  I couldn’t shake the thought that it had even more potential.  But, as what?  An accompaniment to a warm, winter root salad?  By pouring even more caramel over it?  I settled on what I always settle on. I got out the cocktail glasses. 

Beer Ice Cream Cocktail.  Sounds good.    The liquor cabinet was overflowing with possibility, following an over-indulgent trip to Surdyks.  Not to mention a miasma of half bottles.  Jewel toned schnapps in various faux flavors, most of which needed to be run under a hot faucet to be opened.  I began easy.  Vodka and ice cream.  Meah. It just wasn’t quite right.  Then, I tried whisky.  Still not it.  Each new concoction was pouring into two gleaming low balls that were whisked into the living room for my husband and I to try together.  Each one was followed by mutual looks of apathy and sometimes distain.  The glasses were politely discarded on the marble coffee table and I’d trot (or slink) back to the dining room.  Sounds of contemplation where followed by the clamor of ice in an aluminum cocktail shaker.

I tried to keep up hope.  This was just a tricky one.  I would need to think out of the box.  I tried all sorts of liquors and every mixer imaginable to compliment my wonderful ale ice cream.  Most of them overpowered the delicate beer flavor.  Some of them led to wiping our tongues on our sleeves to remove the taste…or texture… that had invaded out mouths.  There was a blueberry vodka contrivance that tasted like drinking beer out of a Caboodle that once stored erasers.  Soon, the living room began to fill with half drank, pungent glasses of separated booze and cream.  Some rimmed with sugar, all of them sticky.  Like a limousine after prom. 

Once we got over the house smelling like Lindsey Lohan hawking kettle corn for beer money, we did find one that we tolerated.  By tolerated, I mean we didn’t involuntarily re-open our mouths and let it fall out onto the rug… or the passing dog.  By this point, the subject was moot.  I had run out of ice cream.

The moral of this story:  Though happy people see potential in all their surroundings, not everything was meant to be a cocktail.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lingonberry Sausage

The week after the New Year holds mixed feelings.  Taking down the Christmas tree, hauling the carefully wrapped ornaments back to the attic and tossing the last cookie from the tin.  All those crumbs, remnants of delicious memories tinged with caloric regret.  Opening the fridge, you try to figure out how to make a healthy, optimistic, looking-forward-to-the-future meal out of half a pint of cream, a quarter bottle of flat champagne and those stupid lingonberries you always buy but never seem to do anything with. 
You’ve surely heard that legendary quote attributed to Otto von Bismark, "There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation."   Working for a non-profit for 10 years gave me a fair helping of legislation, and I’ve made sausage.   Frankly, sausage tastes better.  When I opened my fridge and saw those beady little lingonberries glaring at me I could hear them taunting me.  Whispering, “We got you again.  We were expensive. You bought us anyway.  And you’ll buy us next year too, so SHOVE IT!”  I’ll shove it, all right, right into a meaty sausage casing.   {Sidebar: Lingonberries are a small tart berry used in Scandinavian cuisine. They show up in grocery stores in Minneapolis around the holidays.  Their jewel like beauty always tempts me into buying them.  Grand schemes of lovely cheese plates and cocktail with glowing red lingonberries resting at the crux of a martini glass flash through my head as I reach for them.  Unfortunately, they float.  And….I don’t like lingonberries.}

Making sausage is one of those wonderful processes that allow you to be creative with the recipe.  You just need to follow a couple of rules.
     -Communicate with your butcher.  Tell them you are making sausage before they bring you your cut of meat.  Meats like pork shoulders make great sausage when they’re untrimmed, but if your butcher assumes you’re going to roast it, they will trim much of the fat off.
-It’s very important to keep your ingredients cold.  If it’s too warm, all the wonderful fat will just stick to the equipment, leaving you with dry sausage. 
      -Have enough fat.  Your meat should contain at least 35% fat.  You can use any meat combination you like.  But, if you’re using a lean meat, like lamb, you’ll need to add more fat in the mix.      Adding pork fat is a great choice. You can ask for it at your butcher.
-Keep your proportions right.  For every 5lbs or meat and fat I use 2 ½ Tbsp of kosher salt and 1 cup cold liquid.  Put in as much spice as you want.
-You don’t need to stuff your sausage in casing, but if you do, take the time to taste it first.  Get out a frying pan and fry up a little patty.  Adjust the seasoning as needed.

Lingonberry Sausage
5lbs untrimmed pork shoulder
2 ½ Tbsp Kosher salt
4 cloves garlic minced (about 2 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp ground pepper
1 Cup cold shiraz or good red wine
¾ to 1 cup whole lingonberries (you could substitute dried cranberries or even frozen wild blueberries)

8-12 ft hog casing, soaked in warm water 40 min and rinsed. (Don’t forget to rinse the inside)
A meat grinder with a sausage stuffer attachment.  I use the Kitchenaid attachment.  Make sure you have both the grinder and stuffer if you plan to make sausage links. They are often sold separately.

Cut the pork into cubes that will fit into your grinder.  Usually one inch cubes.  If the pork has a bone, reserve it for another use. Toss the meat with the salt, garlic, and pepper.  Cover and chill thoroughly, 2-24 hours. This is also a good time to put the wine in the fridge.
Set your grinder to the finest setting.  Set a bowl on ice.  Grind the meat mixture into the bowl.   Mix the mixture by hand or using a stand mixer for about a min.  Add the wine and the lingonberries and mix for 1 min more.  Do a taste patty.  Adjust the seasoning as needed.  Now you can make the sausage into patties or stuff into casing.
Stuffing sausage:
It’s really nice to have a partner when you’re stuffing sausage.  Not only is it more efficient, you need someone’s support when you realize what your doing could easily be misconstrued and the phrase ‘meat extruder’ makes you laugh like a 15 year old.  But, like sex, you can do it alone as well. 
Feed the casing onto the nozzle.  It’s surprisingly durable.  If you are getting kinks or knots in the casing, run a small amount of cold water through it.  That usually does the trick. 
Leave 3 inches of casing hanging off the end of the nozzle (sometimes called the ‘extruder’).  Give it a little twist or tie a knot.  Begin feeding the meat through the machine at an even speed.  Keep one hand on the nozzle releasing the casing slowly.  If you get very large air bubbles, prick them with a knife.  Small air bubbles usually work themselves out when you form links.  If you are seeing lots of air, the casing isn’t filling enough.  Release less casing.  If the meat is backing up around the outside of the nozzle, release more.  Once all the meat is stuffed in the casing, you should have a long coil of meat.  Don’t cut off the excess yet.
Clear out the machine and excess equipment. Figure out how long you want your sausages.  Start with the beginning of your length of meat. (Same place you started before.)  Measure your link and twist.  Measure another link. Don’t twist.  Measure a link.  Twist.   Got it?  Twist every other link and the in between links are formed by the twisted links.  It sounds strange, but will save you a lot of meaty heart ache.  When you reach the last link, twist the end casing and cut off the excess.
Eat your sausage!  It’s best fresh, but it freezes well for a couple of months when well wrapped.  Sausage making really is very fun. 
There are some great references out there for making sausage and other meaty delights.  One is Charcuterie ,by Micheal Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.