Storing fresh herbs

I love fresh herbs. Ideally, I would have herbs growing on my deck so that it’s just a matter of walking out and snipping what I need for anything I cooking–well, excluding some that are best grown in some semblance of shade. In reality that’s not the case; work and hot weather have gotten in the way of my on-deck herb garden, sadly. So that leaves me foraging for herbs in the produce department of my local supermarket, usually pretty successfully for the basics.

There’s a problem with single-serving cooking and supermarket foraging for herbs: those expensive little plastic clam shells often end up languishing in the crisper until they turn to something disgusting.

I’ve seen the recommendations to keep them on your counter-top like a bouquet, and seen the ads for special containers for storing them in the refrigerator. Those packages, or even the bunches of parsley and cilantro, are still a lot of herbs if you’re cooking only for one. The on-the-counter method has some drawbacks–little short sprigs don’t fit well in to a container without some work–stripping leaves, changing the water, and being devoured or designated as toys by the cat. Even so the “leftovers” usually end up discarded from terminal wilt after I’ve let them run out of water, so I revert to the fridge.

Yes, I’m also cognizant of the ice-tray-water suggestion, or storing in oil, too. But if you’re still searching, here a list of some of the best sources I’ve found.

I’m glad I can get fresh herbs at the market, but you simply can’t beat having them growing close to the kitchen door–even if it’s just in pots on the deck to pick just what you need when cooking, or just to rustle around in them for the joy of smelling them and maybe changing your mind about how to season what’s cooking now. A son gôut!

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Culinary rhizomes: Ginger and turmeric

We’re all familiar with ginger root (from the grocery store or dried whole or powdered) and turmeric (commonly found in curry powder–the bright yellow-orange stuff), and galangal in Southeast Asian cooking, but you can add those to the things you can grow in your kitchen garden–even if it is a container garden.

The ginger family of plants (Zingiberaceae) provides us with a number of “spices” that we use frequently:  ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric(Curcuma longa), and galangal (Alpinia officinarum or “lesser galangal), and cardamom seeds (genera Elettaria–green cardamom-and Amomum–black cardamom).

Ginger, turmeric, and galangal are perennial herbaceous plants with specialized horizontal stems (rhizomes) that lie underground, but close to the surface.  While we are most likely to encounter these in the dried form or find the ginger rhizomes in the produce section of the grocery store, you can add the fresh forms of some of these to your culinary repertoire.

All these plants mentioned above have similar requirements for growing: even moisture, well-drained soil, partial to dappled shade, warm temperatures, and high humidity, and protection from cold.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

You can start your ginger by getting the “root stock” (an official technical term here) from the grocery store.   You want rhizomes that are plump, and fresh looking, and that have knobs or nubs growing off the main part of the root.  It’s likely that the ginger root you find in the grocery store will have been treated with something to retard growth/sprouting, so rinse it thoroughly before you plant it.

Bury it about one inch deep in well-drained soil and keep evenly moist.  If you’re planting it in a pot, you should use one that is of 12- to14-inch diameter and about same in depth, but does not need the full depth of most 14 inch pots.

It may take a few weeks before you see shoots appear.  You’ll not want to harvest your ginger heavily the first season, but you can harvest some after about 4 months.  Ginger will not need (or like) full sun–it would prefer part (dappled) shade.  In areas where you get hard freezes, you’ll need to overwinter indoors.  In areas where the winter is mild, it may die back to the ground with the onset of cool weather but should come up again in the spring.  (I’m partial to growing it in large pots).  During the summer it can be put outdoors and moved to shelter to prevent freezing in winter.  It should be fertilized with an all-purpose fertilizer about twice during the growing season.

You harvest by very gently uncovering part of the rhizome, or where it’s seen above the surface towards the edge of the pot–leaving the center portion undisturbed.

The ginger you harvest from your plant will be much less fibrous and less “hot” when compared to the large rhizomes that you purchase in the grocery store.  The leaves/stalks can also be used to brew tea (steep leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes) and you can add to stir-fries or other dishes if you slice the stalks/leaves thinly–it has a mild ginger flavor and maybe a hint of lemon or citrus.

Turmeric ( Curcuma domestica syn Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is touted as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant–I’m not touching on those properties here, but rather the culinary uses.  It has been called “poor man’s saffron” and that’s one of my favorite things: add fresh turmeric to rice.  It’s very earthy and warm.  It’s not saffron, but it’s good.

To grow your own, you’ll need the fresh rhizomes–found in Asian, Indian or Latina groceries–probably located close to the ginger, (and maybe the galangal).  You’ll treat it almost as you would ginger:  plant about one to two inches deep in a 12- to 14-inch pot (about 12 inches in depth as well), keep evenly moist but well-drained, and give it part shade to dappled shade.  This is also a tropical perennial so it will need winter protection.  In cool weather, the leaves will die back, but if not frozen the rhizomes should sprout again in the spring.  (I tried keeping some, with the ginger, in the house to overwinter, but neither turmeric nor ginger survived as a plant; the rhizomes did put up shoots again in the spring.)

You can harvest as you would ginger–by carefully cutting off small pieces toward the edges of the pot.  You need to handle with care as it will stain hands and probably counters–it’s used as a dye, too.   Left undisturbed (except for harvesting from the edges) you may see blooms in the second year.

Turmeric is currently appearing in chocolate bars, and being touted as a “superfood”. I just like the earthy flavor, in many things where I would use saffron (but am too cheap to do that).

I hope to add galangal if I can find the fresh rhizome–there is an Asian food store that I keep watching. I suspect I’ll find it there sooner or later.

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Beans & Rice

This was a kitchen happening–not really a recipe with given quantities of anything–just because I wanted rice and beans. Everything is flexible, depending on your taste and how many servings you need. (I wanted to have some extra to put in the freezer for quick side to grilled meat.)

It’s SO hot here that cooking just isn’t very appealing even with air conditioning on. One of my solutions is to eat things can be prepared without turning on the stove. I did this in the Krups multi-function pot that I love and use in so many different ways. (Tomorrow I’ll be using it to make tuna confit since my supermarket had lovely tuna medallions on a really special sale. That will keep me in tuna for my summer salads for a bit.)

Black Beans & Rice with Chorizo

Ingredients

  • rice (about 1 cup)
  • olive oil (healthy dollop)
  • onions, chopped (lots)
  • black beans
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • canned diced tomatoes with green chilis
  • red pepper flakes (dash)
  • pimenton (dash)
  • Mexican oregano (good healthy pinch)
  • pork chorizo (about 1/2- to 3/4-pound fresh)
  • water or extra tomato juice/V8 juice as needed for the rice

Preparation

  • Sauté onions in olive oil until translucent and starting to soften
  • Add red pepper flakes, pimenton, oregano, salt and pepper and sauté until the spices are aromatic
  • Add chorizo and sauté until it starts to turn opaque
  • Add canned tomatoes
  • Add rice and black beans (canned or frozen)
  • cook until rice is tender

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It’s hot and humid here, and I was being particularly lazy, despite my desire for food so I did this in the multifunction pot. I did make this as easy as possible–frozen chopped onions, canned tomatoes, and frozen black beans (these from 13 Foods) but Stahlbush Island Farms also has black beans and brown rice that make a good starting place for this. The result with frozen legumes is much better than with canned, though those will work as well.

A note on the oregano–it was Mexican oregano which is definitely not the same as Greek or Turkish oregano. If you don’t have Mexican oregano, then I would substitute thyme or cilantro. I can’t get my head around the Greek or Italian with this mix of flavors.  The pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) adds a bit of smoky flavor.

I first measured my rice so that I’d know how much liquid needed to be added to have it cook to proper doneness. Everything else was added (as indicated) by the dash, dollop, or pinch.

The chorizo that I used was fresh, made in-store from my Harris-Teeter supermarket, and not in casings so all I had to do was break it up into the pot to sauté.  Couldn’t get any easier. If you can’t find “loose” then just remove from the casing, or put the whole sausages in to make this a meat-centric dish.

Everything was sautéed using the rice cooker setting with the lid open. Quite quick and easy although it does require a little attention. Once the tomatoes (with juice) and beans were added, with just a bit of spicy V8 juice to give enough liquid to cook the rice, the lid was closed, and I went away to do something else–until my meal was done. The caveat here is that you do need to be sure that the amount of liquid is appropriate for cooking the rice–too much and you’ll have “blown out”, mushy rice; too little and it will still be crunchy–you’ll need to add more liquid and continue to cook until tender.

Quantities and totally flexible–maybe you like more rice than beans–or the other way round. I love lots of onions, but if you don’t, then just don’t use many.  The proportion of chorizo depends on how meat hungry you are–it can vary too, from almost a seasoning to a lot. Next time I make this I will add just a bit more than I used this time, although it was quite good this way.

A son gôut!

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Spice & herb information

I’ve had a leisurely day–studying about bees in hopes of taking the Journeyman exam at the NC State Beekeepers Association meeting this summer, and as usual when anywhere near access to the internet, doing a little browsing that, inevitably, leads to food or something closely related to it (if not bees or honey).

I found a website that I thought worth sharing on the Kitchn called Spice Intelligence with articles (and recipes using) spices and traditional blends.  There are discussions from asafoetida to za’atar.

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Gremolata

A simple, quick way to add some kick and freshness to lots of dishes: gremolata.  It’s an Italian classic served with osso buco, but can be used with almost any grilled, roasted, or even boiled meats, fish, or with vegetables. It’s especially delightful in the winter when food is a bit heavier and lacks that spring and summer freshness. Great taste, and it is so simple and quick.

It’s one of those things you don’t really need a recipe for. It’s just lemon zest, parsley, and garlic. Here is a nice post from The Kitchn that should give you all the information you need to whip up this condiment.

Once you’ve got this basic condiment down, you’ll find lots of uses for it, and here are some variations for different dishes.

So many variations!

A son goût.

Holiday time again….

Like it or not the holiday season approaches. I’ve one Christmas gift to order yet, but then I’m through. I thought I’d pass on a few suggestions for gifts for those of you who still have a cooking person on your list to shop for:

  • Volrath French carbon steel skillet: probably my most-used, it has the advantages of cast iron, without the weight.
  • Romertopf clay cooker: a go-to especially for one-dish meals in cold weather.
  • Home espresso machine: Can’t start the morning without my jolt of caffeine either straight espresso or café latte.
  • Clever Coffee Dripper: If I’m not wanting quite the jolt of espresso this gets something more like French press, with the benefit of a filter to eliminate the sediment.
  • Kunh Rincon garlic press: If garlic is a cooking necessity, a garlic press can be a time-saver, or it can be a total nuisance when you have to clean it, so you don’t use it. This is a good one, recommended by Cook’s Illustrated after testing lots of them.*
  • Max Burton Portable Induction cook unit: Live where it’s hot and humid in the summer? You just hate to turn on the stove? Induction cooking is much cooler–though it does require cookware that is either stainless steel or iron.  If a magnet won’t stick on your cookware, then you need the Hob Heat Diffuser that will allow you to use other cookware with the induction unit.
  • Pressure cooker: The Fissler FSSFIS5859 Vitaquick Pressure Cooker was the winner of the Cook’s Illustrated testing* and is pricey.  The runner-up was the Fagor Duo line, less pricey, highly recommended and noted as “best buy”. (This is the one I’ve used.) This cooker does work with induction cook units–a real plus in hot, humid weather when you still want those dried beans cooked.
  • Fasta Pasta Microwave pasta cooker: This is a real gem to have in the kitchen! So much easier than boiling that big pot of water–again great in hot, humid weather, but once you start using it, you’re hooked. Again this is a kitchen “gadget” that was tested by Cook’s Illustrated.*
  • If the cook you’re shopping for is just getting a kitchen set up, there’s always some of the essentials for good cooking: Penzeys herbs and spices, either basic, for bakers or for the cook starting to branch out, a do-it-yourself box of specialty herbs and spices.  If you have someone on your list who has to watch sodium intake, there are lots of salt-free blends. If you buying for a cook pressed for time, seasoning blends can be real time-savers–in my kitchen I don’t want to be without herbes de Provence for that time when I’m just too rushed to think blending my own.
  • For relaxation and enjoyment,  either alone or with company, a selection off teas to have on a leisurely morning, or relaxing afternoon break.  Harney & Sons Master Tea Blenders have a fantastic selection–black, green, herbal, flavored, and all the accessories necessary to make a special occasion. Teas can be ordered individually, or there are collections ready made.  If you’re unsure what tea would please your “giftee” most, then send a selection of samples–for a modest $2 you can send enough to brew a decent pot of many teas. Some very expensive ones–e.g. Black King which rings up at $240.00/pound–the sample may run $5. What a great way to let someone explore fine teas–treat yourself.
  • Like a liqueur to sip while relaxing? If you’re in North Carolina, there are some lovely liqueurs made in Durham by the Brothers Vilgalys: Krupnikas, a spice honey liqueur would be a real treat, or look at the unusual liqueurs they make: Beatmik, Beebop, Zaphod, and Jabberwok.  All are great in cocktails, for just sipping straight, added to hot chocolate or hot cocoa.  If you’re not in North Carolina you may still be able to get these delightful liqueurs through other distributors.

Wishing you and your favorite cook very happy holidays–lots of good food, friends, conversations, as well as wines and spirits!

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*Cook’s Illustrated equipment testing is done without manufacturers knowledge until after publication, and products tested are chosen for consumer benefit. They do not accept requests for testing from manufacturers.

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Thyme and Black Pepper Crackers

These sound just incredible–and easy!

"blackberry-eating in late September"

2015 Blog September-0498Over the past few years, N. and I have made it our business to conclude the week with a happy hour – we load some cheeses and crackers on a plate, sometimes some sliced cured meat, sometimes a few dried figs – and pour something cold and alcoholic into a frosty glass. Through this process, I’ve learned that N. loves black pepper. We bought a wedge of cheese crusted in black pepper once as an experiment, and I think since then it has been on every shopping list, every week, for about the last two years. More recently, we started picking up variety packs of crackers – the crushed wheat rounds, the chalky water crackers, the rectangles spiked with vegetable bits – and in one variety-pack, a black pepper water cracker. This sleeve always, always disappears first. N. doubles up on the pepper – peppered cheese on peppered cracker. And…

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