Monday, March 16, 2009

The New "New" Thing

“Love-matches are made by people who are content, for a month of honey, to condemn themselves to a life of vinegar.” ~The Countess of Blessington, 1789-1849

I read recently that bartering, though it’s been around for centuries, is the new ‘new’ thing and with the economy falling out from underneath us, the online bartering community has exploded with new websites popping up everyday.’s barter section has more than doubled in just the past year! My cooking skills have been a handy bartering tool in the past. I’ve gotten discounted dental work in exchange for catering a baby shower, some yoga lessons and even tax advice, but that was some time ago and I decided recently that it was time to put my bartering skills to work again.

I’ve been wanting to make vinegar for quite some time now but it’s not as simple as just leaving a bottle of wine out in the open air – just like making cheese is not simply leaving a carton of milk out on the counter for a month – wine needs the right bacteria to make a good tasting vinegar. Many of the articles that I had read on vinegar making suggested buying a vinegar ‘mother’ or starter (essentially a ‘live’ vinegar containing the right bacteria for a good flavor) from a beer brewing supplier, while others recommended starting with a live vinegar such as Bragg’s Live Apple Cider Vinegar and then adding water and juice and allowing time for the cultures to grow before building it up with wine or more juice. One article described a complicated arrangement of garden hoses and water buckets to let C02 out of the soon-to-be-vinegar, without letting any oxygen in, and then lots of mixing and toiling, while another involved making fruit juice from fresh fruit, converting that to alcohol and then to vinegar and so on. It seemed rather complicated for a process that has probably existed for over a thousand years and most likely did begin with someone forgetting to cork their wine vessel.

So, I decided to talk to a family friend who happens to be a wine importer. If anyone is going to know about vinegar, I imagine it would be someone in the wine business, right? Right. You can only imagine my delight when I found out he heads up a super-secret vinegar society on the west coast. A whole group of people who gather together to make and taste and talk about vinegar? Awesome. He lead me to the back of his store, where, in a dark recess, underneath the stairs was a very large, glass jug filled with a deep purple liquid. “That, my dear, is made from a 109-year old balsamic vinegar starter from Modena, Italy, brought to the United States by Benedictine Monks. The starter is kept in a monastery in a location that I cannot reveal. I can’t even tell you how I received it or the Monk who gave it to me could be excommunicated from the church by The Pope, himself!”. “Wow, a super-secret vinegar starter – so sought after that a monk risked his life to give you some?”. My mind raced. I could distract my little wine-importing-friend while someone else heisted the bottle for me. But that wouldn’t be very nice. I could ask to use the restroom and siphon some off of the top of the bottle. He probably wouldn’t notice. But that isn’t nice either, and karmic retribution is a bitch sometimes… Hmmm, “would you be willing to trade something for a little starter?” I appealed to his Italian heritage, “how about some jars of homemade mostarda and homemade blood-orange marmalade?”. “Ok”, he said. “Come back tomorrow, at midnight. The exchange must take place in complete secrecy. No one can know. And bring an empty wine bottle with a cork.” Hmmm, an empty wine bottle. Now where am I ever going to find one of those?

I ran home, looking over my shoulder to make sure there were no Priory of Sion followers after me - but this is Ashland, Oregon. I’m more worried about the Prius of Sion followers. A non-violent environmental fringe group dedicated to electric cars, green energy and tofurkey. So, I returned the next night, under the veil of darkness, with my jars of homemade condiments and an empty bottle in hand…

“Hold the funnel”, my friend told me, as he poured the giant jug into my little wine bottle. Glug-glug-glug. “Doesn’t that make you just dream of salad?”, he said, as the aroma of the tangy, jewel colored liquid filled the air. I corked up the bottle, slipped it inside my coat, waved goodbye and slid out the backdoor. Walking home, my eyes couldn’t help but watch the sidewalk, taking careful steps so as not to fall.

I poured half of the contents of the wine bottle into a 1 gallon glass jug and added a bottle of red wine, gave it a good shake to aerate it, as my friend told me to do, tied a piece of cheesecloth over the top and stuck it in the pantry where it will breath and grow and turn my wine into more yummy vinegar. Then, I slit an avocado in half, drizzled it with a little bit of the remaining vinegar and a sprinkle of Maldon Sea Salt, grabbed a spoon and had a little feast. My mouth watered. There was nothing offensive or obtrusive about the flavor. It was sharp, tangy and good.


And what's so wrong with a life of vinegar?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Mostarda di Rogue Valley

The signs that spring has sprung are everywhere out here in Southern Oregon. The warm sun melts the frosting-like snow glazing the Syskiyous. Knock kneed calves suckle from their momma’s teets and wobble around the pastures as though they’re on stilts, baby lambs and kids graze on the fresh green grass, pregnant buds are ready to burst forth from the trees. But it’s March, a typically fickle month almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and tomorrow it might just snow. But I know spring is just about here and before long the farmers markets will be bursting with the Rogue Valley’s bounty. And I can’t wait…

I’ve decided to stick around for a while. Jessie, my Caribbean cheese making friend, and I have moved into a great little house right in the heart of downtown Ashland. Our humble little abode is just a few blocks from the Ashland Food Co-op, farmers market and the food mecca that is downtown. And, since I’m not working 100-hours a week, I feel like I’m practically on vacation – and Jessie and I are getting into plenty of trouble in the kitchen.

As I write this, Jessie is patiently stirring a pot of whole milk, bringing it up to temperature for a batch of lemon-blood orange farmers cheese to pair with the homemade mostarda jam and blood orange marmalade that I just made today, and the loaf of rye bread that’ll be ready to bake off tomorrow. Jessie’s being a little mopey though, I think she’s disappointed that she didn’t get to milk the cows herself, but desperate times call for desperate measures and we were having a cheese making attack so we settled for an $8.00 per 1/2 gallon bottle of Straus Family Creamery Organic Whole Milk. If you have to buy pasteurized milk from the grocery store for home cheese making, Straus is definitely the way to go (but ouch, what a price tag!). She did find a source for raw cows milk, but it’s a ways from here – so we may go pick some up after hitting the Grants Pass farmers market this weekend. Jess has promised that we would make fresh mozzerella together. Life back on land has its adjustments…

Blood Orange Marmalade

Mostarda is a traditional condiment served with bollito misto (boiled meats) in Northern Italy. It’s made from several types of fresh or dried fruit that’s been almost candied in a combination of wine, mustard essence (sold at pharmacies in Italy, it’s so pungent it will literally burn your sinuses out if you smell it) and sugar. Sweet, pungent and spicy? sounds like chutney to me! What’s not to love? I’m not even sure when it was that I first tried mostarda, but I’ve been thinking about it for years now – and, oh, where would I be without Google?

I read several recipes for mostarda and decided to use Mario Battali's recipe for Mostarda di Cremona as my jumping off point. It is full of wonderful dried fruit; figs, apples, cherries, and apricots as well as prepared mustard and mustard seeds and lots of red wine. The recipe called for “prepared mustard”. Ever walk into a store and see a jar that just says “prepared mustard”? There are about 300 different mustards at my local Shop&Kart! So, I went for the Dijon, and a bottle of Nero D’avola wine. But the mostarda turned out too runny (which could have to do with the fact that I'm eagerly awaiting the moving truck from NYC with all of my cookbooks, cooking gadgets, etc. and don't even have a measuring cup at the moment) and I couldn’t imagine the dried fruit would really absorb all of the liquid it was sitting in. So I decided to cook the concoction down a bit, which made the sauce velvety and rich and softened the dried fruit, and then I added just a small amount of pectin.

Now that it’s jelled, it’s turned into a deep purple, deliciously winey jam with a nice, pungent bite from the mustard, lush and sweet from the chunks of dried fruit and a fresh bite here and there from the addition of a very under-ripe pear (as the original recipe specified). Ok, it's a break from tradition - but wow, is it ever good! The mostarda would be heaven with Jessie’s camembert or even one of the great blue’s she’s whipped up – except that I think I’ve eaten it all. Oops. I guess I’ll have to settle for the Finocchiona sausage from Salumi Salami in Seattle, and the fresh farmers curds we're making right now. I can’t wait to attempt a fresh fruit mostarda when the stone fruits start hitting the farm stands in the summer but I’ll have to find someone who can smuggle me the mustard essential oils from Italy. Mmmm, so many good things await…

Mostarda Jam di Rogue Valley
Adapted from Mostarda di Cremona by Mario Batali

Ingredients (this makes a big batch!)

8 dried mission figs, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 unripe pear, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cup dried Turkish apricots, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cup sundried cherries
1 cup dried apples, cut into 1/4 inch julienne
3 cups sugar
3 cups dry red wine
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup dijon mustard
1/2 cup mustard seeds
1/2 packet of Pomona’s Universal Pectin combined with monocalcium phosphate (included in the pectin box) and water (per directions)


In a saucepan, heat sugar and wine together until boiling. Lower heat and stir in mustard and seeds and add figs, pear, apricots, cherries, apples and pectin. Simmer gently until dried fruit just begins to soften and is beginning to plump,10 to 15 minutes. Add vinegar. Test jell by chilling a spoon in the freezer then drip a small amount of jam onto the cold spoon – it should jell, and will continue to thicken as it cools. Carefully ladle into sterilized 8 oz. jars and close. Allow to sit out overnight, refrigerate the next day (or eat!).

Thursday, March 12, 2009


A student asked me the other day if I thought a food processor was a necessary item in the kitchen. Personally, I can’t live without my food processor, I use it all the time for shredding vegetables for coleslaw, grinding breadcrumbs from the heels of my loaves of bread, grating gruyere for mac’n’cheese. It’s an essential piece of equipment for a creamy, chicken liver and cognac pate or smoked salmon mousse. I guaranteed my student that come the holidays, she’ll be so happy to have a food-processor.

The question that proceeded was, why not use a blender? The answer to this might seem obvious if you’re comfortable in the kitchen and cook often, but as I begin teaching a second series of “Confident Cooking”, a 10-week course on kitchen basics, I realize that there are a lot of people out there that are totally new to the kitchen and it is a big step for them just to be cooking. The student that asked me the question has been on a very limited diet for 10-years due to some health concerns and this is the first time in a decade she’s enjoyed cooking and eating the way she wants. I have another student whose spouse past away 3-years ago and they’ve been using only a microwave ever since. So, it's interesting to me to find out what drove them into the kitchen and be able to help them with even just the basics. So, blender vs. food processor: first and foremost, a blender has a tall narrow jar meant for more liquid or moist ingredients (like fruit) to be able to move around. A blender, essentially, is meant for pureeing and it will puree much smoother than a food-processor ever will, whereas a food-processor has a wide bowl and can chop, grind and slice and can process dry and moist foods – but too much liquid and it’ll leak. So, they’re two different tools for several different jobs.

When choosing a food-processor, there are really only two companies worth considering and those are KitchenAid or Cuisinart. KitchenAid has a reputation for quality products, their food processors look like race cars compared to the utilitarian, boxy design of Cuisinart, circa 1962. But, I bought my Cuisinart long before the hot-rod red KitchenAid even hit the shelves, and I don’t plan on replacing it anytime soon. It’s minimalist and simple with just two buttons – Pulse/Stop and Go and I hate gadgets with too many buttons. Do you really know the difference between Frappe and Puree on your blender? The only other button that I whish mine had was one that read, “wash dishes”. Sometimes less is more. But I don’t like the feed tube on the Cuisinart. It’s poorly designed; there are two many small gaps and pockets for bits of things to get stuck. According to Consumer Reports, the KitchenAid scores slightly higher for it’s ability to puree, but I used my dad’s less-than-a-year-old KitchenAid recently and the handle fell apart (the plastic literally just fell right off and broke). Apparently it’s a problem that they are aware of and they’ll replace the bowl if you contact them. There are pro’s and con’s for both, and I probably won’t be buying another food-processor for at least a decade – but the KitchenAid does rate highest in Consumer Reports and Cooks Illustrated. So, if I did buy another, well, a hot-rod red food-processor would look nice with my granite countertops.

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