Thursday, May 31, 2012

Swiss Chard the way I like it

Besides buying produce at the farmers market, I get a CSA box every other Tuesday. I first signed up for it thinking that it would force me to use produce I’m not familiar with, but their customer service is so terrific, they give me 4 days warning during which I can fiddle with the box, and I almost always do.

I decided long ago that I wasn’t going to cook a different meal for each generation in my family. I cook, and you eat what you want. As a result, my kids are excellent eaters. But I know not to push my luck too far. As long as there’s something they know and like in a dish, they’ll give it a try. But I mess with my CSA order because I’m not sure they’d let me get away with serving as many leafy greens as the box wants us to some weeks, and there was a week last winter during which I consumed a remarkable number of different root vegetables and my kids weren’t all that impressed.

So despite the fact that my kids have been telling me for years that they don’t like Swiss chard, I continue to serve it. My favorite way to eat it is actually so delicious that I truly do not understand why they won’t eat it. And my perseverance has finally paid off. On Tuesday I got a big bunch of rainbow chard in my CSA box. I thought about deleting it because we bought a great big bunch a week ago, but it’s just so good right now, I couldn’t resist.

Tonight I made chicken schnitzel to get in my children’s good graces (they love it). And I made the chard just the way I like it, with pine nuts and raisins. Maybe it’s grown on them? Maybe they were super-hungry? Maybe they’ve just given up? But tonight they ate it, and everyone had at least a second helping. I found the original recipe years ago in a magazine, probably Gourmet or Bon Appetit. I’m pretty sure that over time I’ve increased the quantities of “extras”, but basically the recipe is this:

Toast about ¼ cup pine nuts in about ¼ cup olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they are golden. Carefully remove them from the pan and put them on a paper towel to drain, but leave the oil behind in the pan. Lightly salt the nuts and set them aside. In the leftover oil, sauté one finely diced onion and the chopped stems of one bunch of chard until they are tender. Add the chopped chard leaves, a good sprinkling of sea salt, a couple of tablespoons of water, and ¼ cup of golden raisins. Stir, and put the lid on to let the chard steam and the raisins plump for a few minutes. When the chard is as tender as you like it, add the nuts and toss to mix. Add more salt to taste.

And enjoy! We ALL do!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rhubarb Jam

I cook and bake all the time, and so I eat what I make without thinking too much about the fact that I made it. I am very good at giving credit where it's due - so if I like what I made I assume it's great because my ingredients were great and the recipe was great.

But there's something about preserving that gets me all fired up and proud. In the middle of winter, when I look in my pantry and see all the jars of jam that I made I feel...capable. Which is a funny thing, I realize, because I know I can (probably) buy jam for less than it costs me to make it, and I can (probably) buy jam that's better than mine. But I don't want to know.

The Italian prune plum tree in our backyard has had a couple of phenomenal years since we moved in, and a couple that were disasters. But as long as I get enough plums from it to make five different desserts on five different days, and one good-sized batch of jam, I'm happy. When the fresh fruit is but a memory, and I reach into a jar for a dollop of jam, I remember the day I bought or picked the fruit, and I remember (vividly) what the weather was like the day I made the jam. Seattle summer days can be magnificent, and I'd rather spend those outside, preferably with one foot in a lake. If my timing is such that I am jamming, I feel more like a pioneer than a multi-tasking woman of the 21st century. We're not air-conditioned, and I spend the jamming hours feeling sorry for myself, sweat pouring down my face. Plum jam days are often like that.

Strawberry jam days are a toss up. Sometimes they're warm and wonderful, but they can be cold and rainy, and then I can't think of anything I'd rather do than make two or three or four different batches of strawberry jam at the same time. I get in the zone, and I feel like I can save the world, one jar of jam at a time.

Rhubarb jam days are never physically uncomfortable - it's more a matter of motivation. With time, most people's memories of time-consuming tasks fade in such a way that they underestimate the time and difficulty involved. I'm the opposite way. I think about my preserving pot tucked away on a shelf in our garage, and the jam pots on various shelves in various places including the utility room and the laundry, and whether I still have a case or two of jars and lids or if I'm just short of lids (again), and I think that maybe this year I'll just buy my jam. And then one Spring day I'll go to the market and see piles and piles of rhubarb in varying shades of green, pink, and red, and next thing you know I've no choice in the matter because no one could eat as much rhubarb as I've brought home. That first jamming session of the season always surprises me. I set aside a day, and a couple of hours later I have a neat row of jars cooling for the pantry.

A couple of years ago I bought Christine Ferber's book on making jams and preserves, and now I always use her technique of putting all the jam ingredients together and leaving them overnight in the fridge. The following day, she strains the fruit, and first cooks the syrup to jam, then adds the fruit and cooks it again. One summer I made all my jams from her book, and while they were delicious, I missed the sloppy, compote-style jams where the fruit is so soft it can be squashed onto your toast. Now I often use her recipes, but I cook everything together. The last few weeks I've made rhubarb jam from Amy Pennington's recipe in her lovely book, Urban Pantry. The first time I did it exactly her way; the next few times I melded her recipe with Christine Ferber's. I put all the ingredients together, put them in the fridge, and then lost any and all motivation to make jam. When I found it again, 3 days later, the rhubarb was falling apart, and the bowl was full of fabulous rhubarb-y syrup. The resulting jam is creamy, smooth, and tart. I slather it generously on Challah toast or my South African Seed Bread. I made a batch with rose, and another with vanilla, and the only thing that will cure me at this point will be the appearance of Billy Allstot's great big buckets of use-them-today strawberries.