Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rhubarb, Round 1: Sauce

Yesterday afternoon, I decided to go the simple route and turn my fresh rhubarb into sauce.   Honestly, I think this might be what rhubarb aspires to be:  the flavor of the fruit is bright and pronounced, but slightly sweetened to remove its tart, biting edge.  I do love me some rhubarb cake and muffins and torte, but this sauce is hard to beat.

What can you use rhubarb sauce for, you might be asking?  You can spoon it over ice cream, like a sundae topping, for a sweet/tart treat.  You can spoon it over pound cake and add a dollop of whipped cream.  You can add it to a trifle, in place of lemon curd.  Or you can go the healthy route and spoon it over some vanilla Greek yogurt, then top it off with granola, for a heavenly breakfast.

This recipe for rhubarb sauce is the same recipe you’d use for rhubarb jam–just cook it longer and do the plate test (as you did if you tried out my recipe for strawberry jam) before you take it off the heat.  Many recipes call for adding a box of strawberry Jell-o to the rhubarb mixture after you’ve taken it off the heat, and while that will help to ensure that it sets up, I think the fake strawberry flavor of Jell-o is an insult to the beautiful flavor of rhubarb, which deserves its own moment in the sun.  In my humble opinion, any rhubarb jam that doesn’t thicken up simply becomes rhubarb sauce–which is more versatile than jam anyway.

If you do make jam instead of sauce, remember to store it in the refrigerator or freezer unless you heat-process your jars for shelf storage.

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Rhubarb Sauce

Ingredients:

4 cups rhubarb, chopped
2 cups sugar
Juice of one small lemon
1/2 cup water

Directions:

In a deep, non-reactive saucepan, toss the rhubarb with the sugar. Allow this mixture to sit at room temperature for about an hour, until the sugar begins to draw the liquid out of the fruit and dissolve slightly.

Place the pan on a burner over medium heat; add the lemon juice and water to the pan. Stir until the sugar has dissolved completely and the liquid is clear.

Continue to cook over medium heat until the liquid comes to a boil. Stir the boiling mixture for about 10 minutes, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. (The amount of time this will take depends on the water content of the rhubarb, so it might be more or less than 10 minutes. Remember, too, that the sauce with thicken more as it cools.)

Transfer the rhubarb sauce to jars and allow it to cool to room temperature. Store rhubarb sauce in the refrigerator. Freeze any sauce you won't eat within a few days, making sure to leave half an inch of space at the top of any jars that are headed for the freezer.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Rhubarb!

Today was a very good day.  A very, very good day.  Because look what I found at Straight From the Crate, my local farm-to-market store.

I haven’t had fresh rhubarb since last summer, when I visited my parents’ house and raided my dad’s garden.  Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake was the last thing I made for my dad, and one of the last things he ate before he passed away.  So I’ll probably associate rhubarb with my beloved dad for the rest of my life, and when you add this to the fact that I love the flavor of rhubarb anyway–well.  The guy at the market today said “I have never in my life seen someone this excited about rhubarb,” and I didn’t know how to explain myself.

Perhaps this will help:  at my local grocery store, fresh rhubarb sells for $6.99 per pound.  That’s a ridiculous price, given that rhubarb is easy to grow and pretty durable.  But the big grocery store chain that turned down the rhubarb pictured above did so because of the slightly bruised, brown ends (which result from cutting the rhubarb stalks during harvest, not from spoilage).  This leads me to think rhubarb might be difficult to harvest in the pristine condition shoppers would be looking for if they didn’t know those brown edges aren’t the sign of an inferior product.  I guess that might explain the high price, though it certainly wouldn’t persuade me to pay it.

Frozen rhubarb is cheaper, of course, but a 1-pound bag is still in the neighborhood of $2.00.  Given that a package of frozen rhubarb yields just over 2 cups chopped, figure the cost at about $1 per cup.  That’s much cheaper than fresh rhubarb–but frozen rhubarb, like most fruit, turns mushy after it’s thawed, and a lot of the juice from the fruit gets lost inside the packaging.  So while it’s more economical, frozen rhubarb has its own drawbacks.

Then there’s fresh rhubarb.  I looked for it at every farmer’s market last year, and at Straight From the Crate, but they never had it in stock.  Until today, that is.  The rhubarb I bought this morning had been freshly harvested and was selling for–prepare yourselves–$1.49 a pound.  I was close to tears when I saw this.  I bought slightly more than 2 pounds, which translated into a generous 8 cups sliced after I got home.  I could have bought twice that much, but I was trying to be kind and leave some for other rhubarb lovers.  (Plus, I knew I’d just have to freeze whatever I couldn’t use up in the next few days.  That seemed to defeat the purpose of buying it fresh.)

The cashier who rang up my purchase had never tried rhubarb before.  “It looks like pink celery,” she said, but I assured her that it’s nothing at all like celery and told her she really owed it to herself to give it a shot.  Then she asked what to make with it.  I explained how to make the rhubarb upside-down cake and told her I’d probably be baking one over the weekend.  I’m also thinking about making this beautiful rhubarb liqueur, which sounds exceedingly simple and delicious–the only thing that might deter me is that it takes awhile to age, and I’m inclined to enjoy my rhubarb while it’s still in season.  That leads me to think about making a batch of rhubarb sauce or jam instead, both of which are also very simple.

Stay tuned for adventures in rhubarb–whatever I decide to make, it’s guaranteed to be delicious.

 

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Steak Seasoning

Oh, Foodie faithful–if you’re still with me, I appreciate your patience.  This is the time of year when people who work in academia go a little crazy trying to get everything done before another year wraps up.  As a result, this is also the time of year when I do less cooking than I’d like to–mostly because, by the time I get home on any given day, it’s all I can do to sit upright until the bedtime hour has arrived.

Having said that, I’ll add this:  one of my favorite things to make for dinner on nights like these is a tri-tip roast.  Tri-tip is fairly low in fat, but still tender and tasty even without major preparations like marinating or tenderizing.  It’s the triangular portion left over at the base of the sirloin after a butcher has cut it into steaks.  Usually, a tri-tip roast weighs about 2 pounds–perfect for dinner, with enough leftovers for the next day’s lunch, but not so many leftovers that you’ll get sick of seeing it in the refrigerator.   All you have to do is stick the roast in a shallow pan, then pop it in a 400-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, just until your meat thermometer registers 130 degrees.  When rubbed all over with this steak seasoning before its trip to Oventown, tri-tip is really, really delicious.

Whenever someone tells me that they hate making steaks at home, because they just don’t taste like the steaks you get at a restaurant, I tell them these things:

  1. You might not be letting it warm up before putting it on the heat.  If you don’t let meat sit at room temperature for about 20 to 30 minutes before cooking it, the outside will be done long before the inside even has a chance to warm up.
  2. You might be cooking it too long.  Meat continues cooking, due to residual heat, after you take it out of the oven or off the grill, so you need to remove it about 10 degrees before your preferred temperature–and you really need to use a meat thermometer.
  3. You might not be letting it rest.  If you cut into just-off-the-heat steaks, their juicy goodness spills all over the plate because heat brings it to the surface.  Cover the steak in aluminum foil and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes, so the juices can redistribute themselves throughout the meat.
  4. You might not be seasoning it well enough.

In my humble opinion, most people are afraid of seasoning–partly because they don’t know what spices go with which items, partly because they’re afraid of ruining their food with too much spice, and partly because they’re in a hurry to get food on the table.  I love this steak seasoning mixture because it’s ready to go and requires no forethought:  I just shake it out of the storage bottle, press it into the surface of the meat, and get ready to cook.  Start with about a tablespoon of this seasoning per steak and judge your own tastes from there.  You might want more or less.  (And if you want less, just scrape it off your steak.  The residual flavors will still be there, but at a less intense level. Voila!  All better.  It really is that easy.)

Sometimes I leave out the red pepper in this mixture, since we aren’t big on super-spicy foods in the Foodie family.  Sometimes I use about half the amount listed below, and sometimes I use the full amount.  It really just depends on my mood when I’m mixing up a new batch.  I always keep this on hand, though, because it’s useful in so many ways:  for seasoning hamburgers, adding to beef-based soups or stews, even for seasoning gravy.  I love this stuff.  If you’re worried about the amount of salt it calls for, keep in mind that sea salt is far less intense than regular iodized table salt and the two are not interchangeable.  Sea salt is more like a suggestion of salt, whereas table salt is in-your-face sodium.  If you don’t have sea salt on hand, I’d recommend using about a tablespoon of table salt.  Or, better yet, heading to the store and buying sea salt.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

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Steak Seasoning

Ingredients:

4 T. coarse sea salt
1 T. freshly ground black pepper
1 T. onion powder
1 T. dry parsley
1/2 T. crushed red pepper
1/2 T. garlic powder
1/2 T. dry thyme
1/2 T. dry rosemary
1/2 T. fennel seeds

Directions:

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight bottle with a shaker top. Shake or rub about 1 tablespoon of the seasoning mixture onto steaks or burgers; press spices into the surface of the meat before roasting or grilling.

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Easter Confession

Here’s the honest truth:  I don’t like Lent.  Many of my churchgoing friends say that Lent is their favorite time of year, and I can understand why.  It’s the time of year when we contemplate the nature of unconditional, boundless love.  When we think about the extraordinary sacrifice that allows us to go on living our imperfect human lives, and (if you’re a Lutheran) to do that without any sense of guilt.  To do that because you know it’s what God wants for you.

My problem with Lent is this:  I get stuck.  I get stuck on the “I am so unworthy” part of the equation, and I never get to the joy of thinking “but God still loves me, just as I am!”  I get stuck on feeling bad that I don’t attend the extra church services at mid-week.  (Not bad enough to go to church, though.  Which makes me feel even worse.)  I get stuck on feeling bad that I don’t enjoy Lent the way so many of my churchgoing friends do.  I start thinking this must mean I’m doing something wrong.

In other words, I am a very, very bad Lutheran.

This year, Easter has been complicated by the rising-from-the-dead portion of the Christ story, because for the first time, someone I really love is also dead.  And he’s not coming back.  And I know this, of course, but the part of my brain that refused to believe my father was actually dead–the part that honestly kept waiting for the funeral home to call my mother’s house and say, “Um, I think somebody made a mistake, because this guy isn’t actually dead and we need someone to come down here and pick him up”–the part that didn’t relax until I saw my father’s death certificate and started believing that his death wasn’t just a terrible assumption–that part of my brain has been wide awake for the last few weeks, wondering and wondering.   Wondering why Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus after the resurrection.  Does that mean I won’t recognize my dad when I see him again?  That I won’t see him again?  Etc., etc..

For me, Easter always arrives with a sense of enormous relief.  It’s the end of Lent.  (Finally!)  It’s the celebration of new beginnings.  And this year, it’s a huge relief of a different kind:  everyone is where he or she is supposed to be.  We’re all okay.  The stone has spoken, the tomb is empty, and we’re all moving forward in the embrace of God’s amazing love.  Period.

The Foodie family started moving forward over brunch this morning.  It was a simple affair:  ham, fruit salad, and Simple Cheesy Potatoes.  The potatoes are a family favorite; they often appear on Christmas morning, as well.  This recipe came from my sister, and it’s easy to customize–by using a combination of cheeses, by using a bechamel sauce in place of the condensed soup (or a different flavor of condensed soup), by stirring in a can of chopped green chilies or topping the potatoes with crumbled bacon.  The recipe below is my favorite version.  It’s simple, straightforward and uncomplicated.

Which isn’t always the best way to approach your life.  Because, let’s face it, this world is a complex place.

But on Easter morning?  Simple and uncomplicated is all I’m looking for.

Hallelujah.

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Simple Cheesy Potatoes

Ingredients:

1 bag (2 pounds) frozen Southern-style hashbrowns
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup milk
1 stick of butter, melted
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 tsp. sea salt
Cracked black pepper

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.

Empty the frozen potatoes into a large bowl, using a wooden spoon the break up any large chunks. Set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the soup, sour cream, milk, and melted butter. Pour this mixture over the frozen potatoes and stir to coat. Add the grated cheese and diced onions; stir to distribute throughout. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and pepper.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking pan, using the wooden spoon to create an even layer. Bake for 45 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the potatoes are soft.

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Starting Over

We’ve spent the last few years in a very bad drought in this part of Texas.  Not just bad to the point that public fountains had to be turned off and the watering of lawns had to be restricted–that’s pretty commonplace for us.  I’m talking bad to the point that mature trees were just falling over and giving up the fight.  Scary bad, when you live in a house that’s presided over by the 200-year-old live oak tree that was your inspiration for buying said house.  We tried to console ourselves with the knowledge that this couldn’t have been the only severe drought that tree had survived.  Still, we worried.  A lot.

And then a miraculous thing happened:  it started raining again.

And raining.

And then it rained some more.

This spring we’re having one of the most glorious wildflower seasons I can remember: there are literally flowers everywhere.  On medians, at the roadside, in vacant lots.  Yellow, purple, orange, red.  All the dead grass of last year made room for the wildflower seeds that germinated in this year’s rain.  It’s a good reminder that you should never give up hope that things will get better–and when they do get better, the better part is really, really beautiful.

To do my own small part in keeping hope alive–and, okay, because pretty much everything that used to live in my backyard is dead, and because I love lemons–I bought a Meyer lemon tree at Costco this morning.  It’s already loaded with fruit–there are about 20 more of this little guy waiting to grow into luscious lemon maturity.

It’s also loaded with buds that are waiting to become blossoms and, eventually, baby lemons.  Lemon blossoms smell so delicious, it’s hard to be excited when they disappear and are replaced by fruit.  Still, it’s the way of the world.  Or, rather, the way of the citrus.

I can’t wait to have a whole crop of lemons to use.  In the meantime, though, I’m enjoying the return of this brazen wave petunia which miraculously  came back all on its own, after producing very few flowers last year.  It was just too hot.  Apparently, it’s now making up for lost time.

I planted a second wave petunia, in royal purple, when the pink one came up on its own and started going crazy.  They’re in the same area of the yard, so I’m expecting to be overrun with petunias any day now, which will be just fine with me.

If you look at the left side of the photo above, you’ll a branch of rosemary snaking into the picture.  The rosemary is about the only other thing in my backyard that didn’t succumb to the drought.  In fact, it’s going gangbusters.

I’m seeing a lot of Rosemary Chicken in our future.

Because the rosemary has been doing so well this spring, I also decided to take a chance on planting basil and parsley in pots on the deck.  Last year I tried planting basil, but I couldn’t water it enough to keep it healthy.  The poor thing just wilted and wilted and wilted until, finally, I decided to put it out of its misery.  This year’s basil already looks much happier, as does its neighbor.

It appears that everything is off to a healthy, fresh start this spring.  Even our friendly neighborhood geckos are back, to help us control the pest population.

Surviving a drought means starting from scratch, always keeping in mind that what you have right now won’t be here forever.  Maybe, depending on the weather, not even for very long.  A lot of my neighbors are covering their dead grass with various forms of hardscape, hoping to avoid another loss the next time we find ourselves facing weeks without rain.  But failing to have enough faith in the future to start your garden over again–to my mind, that’s a much bigger loss than anything a dry time can take away.   Plant a tree instead.

 

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