Better Latkes

 The perfect latke is crisp, not greasy, is golden brown on the outside and snowy white inside.

The perfect latke is crisp, not greasy, is golden brown on the outside and snowy white inside.


            Bring out the latkes: Hanukah is coming.  For most people, said latkes, grayish, greasy pancakes slathered with sour cream and applesauce are beloved just because they remind them of home.  But what if your latkes could be brown on the outside, snowy white on the inside, and not at all greasy?  I'm here to help you make your latkes (potato pancakes to non-Jews) perfect.                                                         

            The Jewish holiday of Hanukah—the Jewish festival of lights—runs from December 12 to December 20 this year.  It is a holiday that celebrates a miracle after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem when the flame of the eternal lamp burned for eight days until more oil could arrive, even though there was only enough oil in the lamp for one day.  The holiday is traditional celebrated with candle lighting and eating fried foods.

            Back in the old country, this was the time of year when a goose would be slaughtered to provide the cooking oil.  Geese were the poultry of choice in Eastern Europe, prized for their down, rich meat, and copious amounts of fat.  They were also prized because they could thrive on forage and didn't need shelter from the cold weather.  It was hoped that the goose fat would last long enough to make matzoh balls for the Passover celebration in the spring.  Christian neighbors slaughtered their pigs at the same time, and rendered lard for frying their potato pancakes.

            These days most Americans fry their potato pancakes in vegetable oil, even though chicken fat (schmaltz) or lard is readily available.  This recipe change happened sometime in the 1900s when polyunsaturated vegetable seed oils were touted as "heart healthy."  This lie is more than adequately exposed by Nina Teicholz in The Big Fat Surprise, among others. 

            So scratch the idea that vegetable seed oil frying is better for you than frying in an animal fat.  Beyond the health aspects, vegetable oil seeps into the pancakes in a way that an animal fat does not.  This year, fry your potato pancakes in any rendered animal fat you can get your hands on.  (You can find information on how to render fat in my book The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How or at a blog post I wrote for Mother Earth News:

            Making the interior of the latke snowy white is as simple as could be.  Grate the potatoes in a food processor, or by hand on a box grater.  Put the grated potatoes in a bowl of acidulated water (1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar to 4 cups water) and swish it around to wash away the starch, which is what browns.  Drain well.

 Swish the potatoes in a bowl of acidulated water and drain well.

Swish the potatoes in a bowl of acidulated water and drain well.


            Then take half the potatoes, return them to the food processor, pulse until mostly pureed, and return to the potatoes.  This step ensures you get the denser filling of a potato pancake, not the lacy texture of potatoes rosti.  Add a grated onion (very important!) and eggs to bind. Then fry the potato pancakes in about 1/2 inch of rendered fat.

 For the best texture, half the potatoes are coarsely grated, half are almost pureed.

For the best texture, half the potatoes are coarsely grated, half are almost pureed.

            Perfect latkes!  Here's my recipe, adapted slightly from Serving Up the Harvest.

    This year I fried in rendered chicken fat, but any animal fat yields great results!


This year I fried in rendered chicken fat, but any animal fat yields great results!

Potato Latkes

Serves 4 to 6

            Latkes are often mistreated in the kitchen, and the result is a greasy pancake, gray on the inside, soggy throughout.  The perfect latke is crisp on the outside, tender and snowy white on the inside.  There are a few extra steps in my recipe as part of my never-ending quest to get this dish right.

3 pounds russet or baking potatoes, peeled

1 large onion

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Any rendered animal fat, for frying

Applesauce and sour cream, to serve


            1.  Coarsely grate the potatoes by hand or in a food processor.

            2.  Transfer the potato mixture to a large bowl filled with acidulated water (1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar to 4 cups water).  Swish around with your hands for 1 minute.  Pour into a strainer and drain well.  Place a clean kitchen towel on the counter.  Dump the potatoes onto the towel and pat dry.  This step will keep the potatoes from turning pink, then gray as they are exposed to air.

            3.  In the food processor, grate the onion.  Replace the grating blade with the regular steel blade and pulse the half the potato mixture until finely chopped but not pureed.

            4.  Transfer the potato mixture and the grated potatoes to a large mixing bowl and add the eggs, salt, and pepper, mix well.

            5.  Preheat the oven to 300° F.

            6.  Heat 1 inch of any animal fat in a frying pan over medium-high heat.  Drop the potato mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, into the pan and fry until golden on the bottom, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.  Turn and fry on the other side, about 1 1/2 minutes. Drain on wire racks.

            7.  Keep the latkes warm in the oven while cooking the remaining batter, but serve as soon as possible.  Pass the applesauce and sour cream at the table.



The Evolution of a Recipe

The Evolution of a Recipe

When I was about five years old, my family took a trip to New York City to visit relatives and then to have dinner with an army buddy of my father.  It was well before GPS or Google maps, and my father got lost in Brooklyn, refusing to stop and ask for directions.  By the time we got to the restaurant, I was starving.

 Rice pudding has been my go-to comfort food since I was five.

Rice pudding has been my go-to comfort food since I was five.

My mother ordered lamb chops for me, normally a favorite.  But at this Greek restaurant, they arrived smothered in a spinach sauce.  I wept.  I wailed.  I was inconsolable.  A waiter came by, removed the offending chops and replaced them with a soup bowl filled with rice pudding.  Heavenly!

Rice pudding has been my favorite dessert—no, my favorite food since then. It would be included in the menu of my last meal, should I ever knowingly hav a last meal.  I have made it my birthday dessert instead of cake many times.  I frequently make it to sell at the coffee house concert series my husband and I run in the Ripton town hall. And in every cookbook I have written, I have tried to slip in rice pudding, so I could enjoy re-testing the recipe.

No, it isn't in my pickle book, nor in any of my other vegetable books. But, various iterations appear in 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains, 250 Treasure Country Desserts, and The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How.

Baked rice puddings have never met my standards: too dry, not creamy enough, though I have iterations in both 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains and 250 Treasured Country Desserts (meeting those number requirements is tough!). In 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains I have a eight different rice pudding recipes.  In 250 Treasured Country Desserts, I have only six, including ones made with vanilla yogurt replacing the custard, coconut milk replacing the traditional cow's milk, and black rice replacing the traditional short-grain rice.

In 250 Treasure Country Desserts, my favorite recipe was the Creamy Rice Pudding, which is made by cooking short-grain rice in milk, then folding in a stirred custard made with three eggs.  I tweaked that recipe for The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How, because those recipes were designed to be economical (what the French might call la cuisine de bonne femme) and use up leftover cooked rice, excess eggs and, perhaps, milk.  That recipe uses four egg yolks and is everything I can ask of a rice pudding: creamy, delicious, and as comforting as the bowl I had in the Greek restaurant when I was five.

But something nagged me about that recipe, perfect though it tasted.  It was those egg whites.  I hated to waste them.  So the last couple of times I made this recipe, I beat the egg whites with sugar and folded them into the pudding.  Cloud-like perfection!

 Folding in egg whites

Folding in egg whites

Now the question is how to incorporate this revised recipe into the cookbook I am currently working on, which is all about cooking with animal fats.  I am thinking I may embellish the recipe with apples caramelized in duck fat.  Now doesn't that seem like a great idea?

 Rice Pudding with Duck Fat Caramelized Apples will probably be included in my next cookbook. 

Rice Pudding with Duck Fat Caramelized Apples will probably be included in my next cookbook. 

Here's the recipe in its current state, with no embellishments, but with the egg whites folded in. You'll have to wait for the apples; I'm still tweaking the recipe...

Creamy Rice Pudding

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups leftover cooked rice

4 cups whole milk

1/2 teaspoon salt (if rice was cooked without salt)

4 eggs, separated

2/3 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. Combine the rice, milk, and salt in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat.  Slowly bring the milk almost to a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. 

2. In between stirring the milk, combine the egg yolks and 1/3 cup sugar in a bowl and whisk until well blended.

 3.  Test a grain of rice.  If it is pudding soft, then continue.  Otherwise continue to stir over medium heat until the rice is fully softened. Slowly add about 2 cups of the milk and rice mixture to the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly, to temper the egg yolks and prevent the eggs from curdling.  Pour the tempered eggs into the pot with the milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened and coats the back of the spoon. You should be able to run your finger through the velvety coating on the back of the spoon to leave a distinct trail. which happens at about 170°F, if you have an instant-read thermometer.

4.  Stir in the vanilla.  Transfer to a bowl and lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the pudding’s surface to prevent a skin from forming.  Chill for at least 1 hour, until the mixture is no longer warm.

5.  In a stand mixer fitted with a whip, beat the egg whites, gradually adding the remaining 1/3 cup sugar.  Continue to beat until soft peaks form.  Stir one-third of egg whites into the pudding to lighten it.  Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites until no white streaks remain but take care not to overmix and deflate the egg whites. Serve at room temperature, or chilled.



New Tool Makes Canning Easier

I taught a class on food preservation this summer at Sterling College and one of the things that had my students stumped was the idea of putting on the screwbands on the canning jars just "finger-tight."

 Applying the SureTight Band Tool 

Applying the SureTight Band Tool 

"Finger-tight"—the term is courtesy the National Center for Food Preservation (the ultimate authority on food preservation)—is something of a misnomer.  I suppose they chose the term to distinguish it from Ninja-tight or "plumbing-tight" but it implies a certain delicacy when a certain firmness is needed.

If a screwband is applied too tightly on a canning jar, there is the potential that the jar will explode in the canner.  But if the screwband is applied too loosely, the contents of the jars can bubble out, deposit food debris on the rims, and prevent a good seal.

Apparently, other people find the term "finger-tight" confusing because Ball Canning has come up with a tool to take the guess work out of it.  The tool is called the "Sure Tight Band Tool" and it can be found for between $7 and $15 dollars wherever canning supplies are sold and online.  What surprised me about the tool—and I've been canning for years—is how tight "finger tight" is.  I think "firm-tight" would be more accurate...

 To tighten screwband, turn handle until arrows align.

To tighten screwband, turn handle until arrows align.

In any case, this is the time of year I when I can tomatoes, when the kitchen is cooled off (and before my freezer fills with a half pig share).  My tomatoes were dumped into jumbo plastic bags and unceremoniously frozen last summer.  I dump the tomatoes still frozen into a stockpot and cook them down into puree or paste. 

 Just dump the frozen tomatoes into a stock pot and begin cooking.

Just dump the frozen tomatoes into a stock pot and begin cooking.

 After the tomatoes have cooked down, strain out the seeds and skin.

After the tomatoes have cooked down, strain out the seeds and skin.

For my most recent batch, I made paste, cooking down the strained puree in an uncovered stockpot for about 16 hours, until a spoon leaves a trail when the paste is stirred.  Per USDA instructions, I added 1 teaspoon of citric acid.  

 Cook down the puree until a spoon will leave a trail.  A slow cooker ensures the paste doesn't burn -- and it is easier to clean than it looks.

Cook down the puree until a spoon will leave a trail.  A slow cooker ensures the paste doesn't burn -- and it is easier to clean than it looks.

The formula is 14 pounds of tomatoes, cooked down to 8 or 9 half pint jars, with 1 teaspoon of citric acid.  I poured the paste into canning jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space and sealed the jars with my new band-tightening tool.  Then I processed the paste for 45 minutes. 

And every jar sealed.



Preserving Tomatoes and One-Dish Dinners

 When preserving tomatoes, you get more bang for your buck with plum tomatoes (meaning more can be put in a jar, but I can a mix of tomatoes, whatever I need to preserve.

When preserving tomatoes, you get more bang for your buck with plum tomatoes (meaning more can be put in a jar, but I can a mix of tomatoes, whatever I need to preserve.

For gardeners who love tomatoes, tomato season is both a joy and a burden.  It's a joy because nothing beats a fresh tomato as a snack, as an add-on to a sandwich, as a quick sauce for pasta, as a side dish, sliced and topped with a drizzle of oil and vinegar and a sprinkling of salt.  As we walk through the garden, we pop cherry tomatoes in our mouths, almost without thinking.

The thinking part does come.  What to do with all those tomatoes?  Whether all those tomatoes will be enjoyed fresh or whether they will be canned, I have a recipe for you.

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101 One-Dish Dinners is filled with recipes that bring dinner to the table quickly, with a minimum of fuss.  There are a lot of my family favorites contained in those pages, a lot recipes that are streamlined for speed and ease.  These are the recipes that my husband makes when I am out of town and my adult kids make for themselves and their friends. 

The one ingredient that makes a lot of these recipes sing is the tomato—fresh in one-dish salads, canned in soups and stews you might want to make when the weather cools.  In fact, I counted 22 out of 101 recipes that use tomatoes in one form or another. 

So, let's say you might want to make one of these recipes every two weeks or so.  That means you'll want to put up 26 quarts of tomatoes.  But, of course, just about everyone is going to want to make some form of spaghetti—with meat sauce, with sausage, or with a simple tomato sauce—every two weeks, so that's another 26 quarts of sauce or puree you'll need.  Homemade pizza is so much better than the greasy store-bought or delivery pizza, so add another 14 quarts of sauce or puree.  That's 64 quarts of tomato products.  And I haven't even thought about ketchup or salsa yet.

hot pack tomatoes and tomato sauce.JPG

While I am in a calculating mood, let me add that a lot of recipes in 101 One-Dish Dinners and elsewhere call for a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes.  That's equivalent to a quart of home-canned tomatoes (mine weigh in at anywhere between 25 and 40 ounces, depending on the variety and how much I managed to squish in).  Another way to look at equivalents is that a 28-ounce can holds 3 cups.  So you can drain your home-canned tomatoes (save the juice), measure, and return enough liquid to make 3 cups.  Or just figure that your quart of home-canned tomatoes is equivalent to a 28-ounce can and don't sweat the difference.

 Tuscan Tuna Salad with White Beans -- served with a sourdough biscuit from  The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen-Know-How.

Tuscan Tuna Salad with White Beans -- served with a sourdough biscuit from The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen-Know-How.

Now I have to go—I have more tomatoes to can.  And when I'm done, I'll whip up a dinner with a recipe from One-Dish Suppers.  Last night I made a Mediterranean Tuna Salad with White Beans and the night before it was Antipasto Antipasta Salad.  Quick one-dish meals make life so much easier when you are busy.



Steam Canners are Safe to Use!

I have a guilty secret.  For years, I’ve been canning my high-acid foods (pickles, fruit, jams, and tomatoes) in a steam canner—even though the USDA has frowned upon the practice and even though I have taught classes using the boiling water bath canner.  It was a “do as I say, not as I do” practice. 

tomato puree in steam canner.jpg

I use the steam canner to process tomator puree.

Finally, too late to include in my new book, The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How, researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, funded by a grant from the USDA and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), have concluded that steam canners (properly called “atmospheric steam canners” to distinguish them from pressure canners which use pressurized steam) can be as safe and effective as water bath canners when properly used to preserve acidified or naturally acidic foods.

Why do I prefer the steam canner to the boiling water bath canner? Because they speed up food processing.

The boiling water bath canner is a large pot with a lid and a rack to hold jars—large canners hold up to 9 quart jars and the small ones hold up to 7 quart jars.  When you heat the water in a boiling water bath canner, you have to bring at least 5 quarts of water up to a simmering temperature.  Then add your jars and wait for the water to come to a boiling temperature, adding even more water if needed to cover the jars with at least 1 inch of water.  This can take 30 to 60 heat-filled minutes, before you even begin processing, depending on the size of your canner, whether the jars were hot-packed or raw-packed, and the BTU output of your stove.

steam canner and bwb canner.jpg

Heating water is faster in a steam canner than in a boiling water bath.

By contrast, the steam canner is a 2-quart pot with a perforated metal rack for holding jars and a tall dome lid that allows a steady stream of steam to flow around the jars. There is less water to heat and less time spent waiting for the water to heat.  Best of all, pickles are exposed to less heat during steam canning, resulting in crisper pickles.

The University of Wisconsin released guidelines for using steam canners and I am replicated them here.  My remarks are in square brackets.

1. Only steam can foods high in acid, with a pH of 4.6 or below. [[This means pickles, fruit, jams and jellies, and acidified tomatoes—i.e., tomatoes to which you have added 1/2 teaspoon citric acid per quart.]]

adding citric acid.jpg

Adding citric acid to tomatoes acidifies them for safe canning.

2. Always use a research-tested recipe developed for a water bath canner. Acquire recipes from university extension programs or from the NCHFP ( The booklets that accompany steam canners usually don’t provide safe instructions.

3. Heat jars prior to filling them with food and minimize the amount of cooling time that passes prior to processing. You can use half-pint, pint, or quart jars.  [[I set the jars upside down on the canner rack and let them heat as I heat the water in the pot below.  When the water has boiled for about 10 minutes, if I am not ready to can, I turn off the burner, but leave the jars as they are.  They will hold their heat.]]

4. Process jars only after the temperature reaches pure steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Wait to start the processing time until the canner has vented and a full, steady column of steam appears. Monitor the temperature with a thermometer.  [[The dome lid has holes to release the steam.  This is why you can’t adapt another pot to be a steam canner—you need to see that steam escape.]]

5. Modify processing time for elevation — in general, add 5 minutes for each 1,000 feet you’re above sea level in elevation.

6. Only use recipes that require 45 minutes of processing time or less, as the amount of water in the canner may not last any longer. Don’t open the canner to refill the water while processing foods. [[Not a problem at most elevations.  Most pickles and jams require 5 to 10 minutes of processing time.  Acidified tomatoes and tomato purees require 40 minutes.]]

7. Cool the jars in still, ambient air. Cool jars on a rack or towel away from drafts. Don’t place them in the refrigerator to hasten the process.

Prices for steam canners vary widely.  Go for the simplest, least expensive one you can find.  My steam canner is about 35 years old and has been beaten up in suitcases when I take it to demos.  It will last a lifetime.  And remember: It is only good for high-acid foods, like the applesauce I am about to make.

It's applesauce time!

It’s applesauce time!

Watermelon in Vermont and Other News

I am proud to say that I managed to get one really big watermelon from my garden this year.  I know, I know, its no big deal to you valley dwellers, Southerns, and greenhouse growers, but it is a big deal to me.

With the full moon this week, frost has been gently touched my garden.  

I harvested all my eggplant and have turned it into soy-sesame eggplant for the freezer.  I turned my cucumbers in pickles.The cucumbers are sliced, then salted before I put them in jars.

Covering the tomato plants may help me harvest a few more pounds, but most have been bagged up for turning into sauce later.

Gazapacho and fresh salsa have all been made and enjoyed.

It's time to think about starting to clean up the garden.  I gott go.

Skordalia: The Perfect Dip for Vegetables

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Skordalia with fresh vegetables makes a perfect summer meal.

This is the time of year when supper is easily just a plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and vinegar and another plate of sliced fresh vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers) or blanched vegetables (green beans, waxed beans, broccoli).

The vegetables, of course, require a dip.  But not just any dip.  If you tell me your go-to dip for fresh vegetables (crudités) is bottled (or even homemade) ranch dressing, I will tell you are undoubtedly suffering from dip fatigue.

Have you thought about making skordalia—that magical Greek dip of potato, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt?  It’s vegan, it’s dairy free, it’s easy to make and more delicious than its list of ingredients might make you think—and it’s the perfect way to celebrate a bounteous harvest of garlic.

I love growing garlic. It is planted in the fall, when all hope of more harvests disappears from Northern gardens.  Then it is the first sign of life when the snow retreats.  The July harvest yields a space in the garden for fall crops, like another planting of beans or kale. 

garlic harvested.jpg
 Lots and lots of garlic makes skordalia super tasty.

Lots and lots of garlic makes skordalia super tasty.

Be generous with the garlic and mince it as finely as you can.

If you love garlic like I do, you can use a whole bulb of garlic in this recipe for skordalia. Does that scare you?  Keep in mind that Aristophanes, the Greek playwright of Lysistrata fame, wrote that garlic gave courage. Actually, not that much courage is required: the potato and olive oil mellow the garlic, while the fresh lemon juice cuts the richness.  (Don’t make the mistake of using bottled lemon juice—I did that once out of sheer laziness and the flavor was all wrong.)

Make skordalia with high-quality ingredients and it becomes a magical dip greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s a perfect dip for vegetables.

The magic of skordalia is in its silky smooth texture, which you get if you use a stand mixer. My Kitchen Aid was given to my mother as a wedding fgift in 1941.

Skordalia Recipe

Makes about 2 cups

1 1/2 pounds baking or russet potatoes (2 to 4 potatoes), peeled and cut into chunks

6 garlic cloves, very finely minced

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (juice of about 2 lemons)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil


1. Put the potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with salted water.   Bring to a boil and boil until completely tender, about 15 minutes.   Drain well.

2. Transfer the potatoes, garlic, and lemon juice to the bowl of a standing mixer and mash.   Beat over medium speed until the potatoes are smooth.  

3. With the mixer at medium speed, very slowly pour in the oil until the mixture is velvety smooth and the oil has been fully incorporated.

4. Taste and add season with the salt as needed.   Serve at room temperature.

 Recipe is adapted from Serving Up the Harvest.  ©Andrea Chesman, 2004, 2007.  All rights reserved. 

A Cool Salad for a Hot Night

Sometimes when it’s too hot to cook, it’s too hot to eat.  That’s when my brother makes an ice cream sundae and calls it dinner.  You’ve got your dairy (protein), your eggs (protein), nuts (fiber and protein), he says. Why not?

There are probably at least fifty reasons why ice cream for dinner is not a good idea, but my best, most convincing reason is a crisply chilled, herb and crunchy veggie–packed Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad with Shrimp. You’ve got your protein, your veggies, and you don’t have to break a sweat. The recipe that follows is a combination of several recipes that appear in Mom’s Best One-Dish Suppers, which came out in 2008.  Ever since then, this salad has been a summertime staple in my house.

 Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad with Shrimp

Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad with Shrimp

There’s not much cooking involved. The rice vermicelli noodles (a 7-ounce package) are put in a pot of boiling water, removed from the heat, then allowed to sit for 3 to 5 minutes before draining.  A pound of frozen shrimp are dumped into boiling water and removed as soon as cooked through, about 5 minutes.  In both pots the water should be as salty as seawater; it makes a big difference in flavor.

The dressing has no oil; it is just a light, light combination of 9 tablespoons of fish sauce, 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 6 tablespoons sugar, and 2 minced garlic cloves – heated ever so briefly in the microwave until the sugar dissolves.  Then it is combined with the dressing, shrimp, and noodles and put in the fridge.  This can be done early in the day if you are the make-ahead type.

In another bowl, I combine chopped herbs – a handful of cilantro and another handful or two of basil, mint, and or parsley.  Woodchucks ate my basil(!), so it is just parsley and mint here. I add it to a bowl with a about 4 cups of baby or torn salad greens, some sliced crunchy veggies – bell peppers, carrots, cukes, blanched green beans or broccoli.  Snow peas or sugar snap peas are wonderful in this combo, and I’m lucky enough to be still harvesting them from my partial-sun garden.

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You don’t have to, but salads always look better if you take care with the knife work.  A kinpira peeler is an inexpensive little gadget that makes lovely juliennes for carrots and daikon radishes.  A mandoline will slice cukes paper thin.

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Snipping the noodles into short lengths makes it much easier to eat.

I toss the veggies and spread them out on a plate or in a large shallow bowl.  Again, this can be stuck in the fridge if you want.  The veggies will hold up because they aren’t dressed.

 This handy little gadget, a vegetable peeler with a serrated blade, makes matchsticks easily.

This handy little gadget, a vegetable peeler with a serrated blade, makes matchsticks easily.

When I’m ready to serve, I just top the veggies with the shrimp and noodle mixture and garnish with chopped peanuts.  A frosty beer or an off-dry German Riesling does not go amiss here. After a dinner like this, I feel great and happy to have put my garden-fresh herbs and veggies to such good use.  My brother, on the other hand, needs to go on a 5K run to work off the sugar rush.   

I'm Joining a Seedling CSA

I tapped my maple trees two weeks ago and still no sap to boil.  I really don’t think spring will ever come, and as I write this at the tail end of March, it is 21°F out but Weather Underground says it feels like 12°F.  And it does.  It does!

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Hannah Davidson has her hands in the soil. Photo by John Falk

So what was I to think when this crazy email from my friend Hannah Davidson arrived, inviting me to join a seedling CSA at the Good Earth Farm in Brandon, Vermont.  Really?  A two-foot-deep blanket of snow still covers my garden.  I’m just guessing here, but I really don’t think I am going to be able to sow seeds in mid-April for my usual spring greens and peas.

This is Hannah’s first year selling her seedlings via a CSA, and it turns out seedling CSAs is the newest trend in small scale-agriculture circles.  The grower, whose expenses all hit in the early spring for greenhouse energy and maintenance costs, soil, and seeds, gets money upfront.  The gardeners get seedlings spread out through the planting season --- in this case, including plants for a fall harvest picked up in August – without worrying that the seedlings they want to buy will all disappear by the time Memorial Day weekend winds down.  

It’s the fall harvest plants that excites me with the idea of this  CSA.  I always plan to get a fall sowing in, and I almost never succeed.  In the dog days of August, I stop believing that the weather will ever be cool enough to support another planting of lettuce or spinach.  

Oh! Just like I don’t believe spring will ever come…

Hannah Davidson with tomato plants. Photo by John Falk

My check goes in the mail today. Two hundred dollars will cover five pick-ups of plants.  

Here’s what I’m going to be getting: The first pick-up of plants will be on May 2nd or 3rd and is scheduled to include two 4-packs of lettuce, two 4-packs of spinach, one 4-pack of kale, one 4-pack of chard, two 6-packs of snap peas, a bundle of 25 yellow and 25 red onions, and one each 4-inch pot of dill, cilantro, parsley, plus one 4-pack of my choice.

The second pick-up will be on May 23 or 24 and will include one 4-pack of broccoli, one 4-pack of cabbage, one 4-pack of sauce tomatoes, one 4- pack of heirloom tomatoes, one 4-pack of peppers or chiles, one mixed 4-pack of zucchini/summer squash, two 4-inch pots of basil, and two free choice plants (larger tomatoes or perennial herbs or flowers).

Third pick-up will be on June 6 or 7 and will include one 4-pack of butternut squash, one 4-pack of  mixed pumpkins/winter squash, one 4-pack of musk melon/watermelon, one 4-pack of cucumbers, two 4-packs of lettuce, one 4-pack of eggplant, one 4-pack of brussels sprouts, and two free choice plants.

The fourth pick-up on July 11or 12 will be light, but will include cucumbers, zucchini/squash, broccoli, storage cabbage, kale, chard, and more herbs for succession planting.

Finally, the fifth pick-up on August 8 or 9, will include curly parsley, flat parsley, dill, kale, chard,  lettuce, spinach, and broccoli.

Yes, I will be losing out on getting to choose my favorite varieties.  I don’t know whether Hannah knows I like Asian varieties of both cucumbers and eggplant.  She definitely doesn’t know (yet!) that she is being overly generous in the summer squash department.  But what I love is the fact that I am committing to renewing a patch of the garden each month when I prepare some beds for the new plants.  

I am also committing to the idea of spring.  Now if the weather would just cooperate.  

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Tomatoes growing in the greenhouse last year. Photo by Hannah Davidson

This Pickler's Favorite Cucumbers

It’s time to start dreaming about next summer’s garden.  Those catalogs that came in the mail in December aren’t getting any younger and neither are you.  The time to start plants will be upon us before we know it.  I write this as 3 inches of snow falls today, in preparation of another 3 tomorrow, and following 3 inches yesterday.  Yet, spring will come. (I think.)

I’m not one of those people who keeps notes from one year to the next about the garden, nor do I race to plant the newest varieties featured in the seed catalogs.  But I call myself a cook who gardens, and as a cook and an enthusiastic pickler, I am done with the traditional cucumbers that everyone grows.

What everyone grows are slicing, or salad, cucumber varieties.  There are many different cultivars, but they are all Marketmores to me—and they all have relatively tough, bitter skins and a tendency to be too seedy to make good pickles.  And they all yield abundantly. So if you grow slicing cucumbers, you will have too many, so you will make pickles.  And the pickles won’t be as great as they should be.

 Pickling cukes vs. Mid-Eastern (or maybe Japanese) cukes

Pickling cukes vs. Mid-Eastern (or maybe Japanese) cukes

Notice the small seeds of the larger, Mid Eastern cucumber. The part where the seeds are larger represents a week of rain. Even then, once the seeds are scraped out, the flesh is firm.

The solution, you may think, is to grow pickling cucumbers.  But no, don’t grow pickling cucumbers.  They get fat.  They get fat and seedy, sometime in the blink of a rainy afternoon.  And, they hide underneath leaves, getting fatter and fatter.  And don’t get me started on those white and yellow pickling cucumbers, with their tendency to become bitter in adverse weather.

For the last couple of years, I have been growing Beit Alpha and Asian cucumbers – great for both slicing and pickling.  These are long, either curved or straight, with generally tender skin.  The flavor of the flesh is sweet and slightly aromatic (unlike the neutral wetness of a slicing cucumber). Yes, they require trellising, but the great thing about these cucumbers is that they don’t go from almost ready to be harvested to oversized in a day.  They forgive you if you neglect your garden for a day or two. 

The Beit Alpha types, also called Mid Eastern types, are especially adapted to hot, dry climates, but I have had good luck with them in rainy, cool Vermont.  Lebanese cucumbers are nearly seedless, smooth-skinned and mild, yet with a distinct flavor and aroma. 

Asian cucumbers (Fed Co Seeds call them “long-fruited cucumbers), such as Tasty Jade are spiny, slender, and long — as much as a foot long.  Leave them on the vine and they just get longer, though after a point, they do become tough. These cukes are mild, slender, deep green, and have a bumpy, ridged skin. 

The best cucumbers are ones that you can eat in the garden—all flavor and thirst-quenching crunch. Bring the rest into the kitchen, slice and quickly brine in a little salted rice vinegar with chopped fresh herbs or red onions.  Makes me long for summer right now.

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This is an almost seedless cucumber.

It’s time to start dreaming about next summer’s garden.  Those catalogs that came in the mail in December aren’t getting any younger and neither are you.  The time to start plants will be upon us before we know it.  I write this as 3 inches of snow falls today, in preparation of another 3 tomorrow, and following 3 inches yesterday.  Yet, spring will come. (I think.)

Playing Favorites with Winter Squash

As fall moves into winter, I’ve been teaching classes on cooking winter vegetables, including winter squash.  Even though kale and beets seem to grab all the headlines, it is winter squash that is the most reliable of long-keeping winter vegetables.

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In terms of New England sustainability, Winter squashes may be the most important vegetable we have because of its ease of growing in this climate and easy storage.   One plant will feed one person for a full season.

There’s a fair amount of writing by colonists who suggested that the pumpkin (which is just another variety of winter squash) was “the meanest of God’s blessings.”  It got those colonist through the long New England winters all right, but it did get tiresome, boring, uninspiring.  One poet wrote, 

For pottage and puddings, custards and pies,

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;

If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undoon.

When I teach about cooking with winter squash, I always gather a lot of different varieties, then cook and puree the flesh.  I don’t flavor the purees, and we taste them one at a time, comparing the flavor and texture. 

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The big surprise to the students is the Acorn squash.  Its flesh is drier, stringier, and blander than the other varieties. “I know!” I say.  “It is my mission to see Acorns lose their grip on their popularity.” And don’t get me started on the white (colored yellow) and golden (colored orange) Acorn varieties.  They are even more lacking in flavor. 

Dark green Buttercups are confusing because sometimes the sport a small light blue turban and sometimes they don’t.  Fans say Buttercup never needs added sweetener, but I think maple syrup is always welcome.  The size of buttercup isn’t ideal, in my opinion.  One buttercup yields enough for three people.

Butternut, in my opinion, is the very best winter squash in terms of performance in the kitchen.  It is easily peeled. Its long seed-free neck gives you a nice piece of squash that can be easily grated raw and sautéed for a quick-cooking winter squash dish.  It is also easily cubed for roasting—and delicious combined with cubed root vegetables in a mixed vegetable roast.  The flesh makes a smooth puree.  And, according to the folks at Johnny’s Seeds, it is the longest keeping squash.

Delicatas have edible skins, which makes them good for stuffing and slicing and roasting. The relatively small amount of flesh makes them a poor choice for pureeing.

Slicing into a buttercup squash with a cleaver and rubber mallet

Lovely blue Hubbard squash makes the smoothest of winter squash purees.  In terms of flavor it is my favorite.  Working against its popularity is its very hard shell.  You can crack it open with an axe, a drop onto a paved driveway, or by pounding a cleaver through it with a rubber mallet (my preferred method).  When I first started growing Hubbards, I went for the full size ones – and some weighed as much as 40 pounds.  These days, I go for the baby Hubbards, and I’ve noticed at farmstands, that the word “baby” has been dropped.  Reverse supersizing?

Deeply orange colored Red Kuri is a Hubbard variant.  It has a relative soft skin that can be peeled like a butternut, but the same delicious – deep orange color.  It is especially good for purees and soups.

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So called because its fibrous flesh resembles strands of pasta, Spaghetti squash is too sweet to be enjoyed as a pasta alternative, but it is really good with garlic and cheese or cream.

If you are looking for an Acorn alternative, Sweet Dumpling is your squash.  It is sweet-fleshed with an edible skin. It is a good candidate for stuffing, but also makes a good puree.

In terms of cooking winter squash, the best thing is you can’t over cook them.  If you oversteam and the flesh is watery, just drain in a fine-mesh strainer, before or after pureeing. Bake halved and seeded squash at 350° in 1 inch of water 45 to 90 minutes.  Steam quartered and seeded pieces for about 15 minutes.  Or roast peeled, diced cubes that have been slicked with a little oil at 425°F until lightly brown, 20 to 30 minutes.

Oh, and those purees we tasted? After we taste them individually, I mix them together, add a fair amount of salt (very important to bring out flavor), some melted butter, and honey, maple syrup, or apple cider syrup.  What a treat!

My Sourdough Is Older Than Yours

My sourdough culture is older than yours.

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I can’t help it; I brag about my sourdough’s DNA all the time.  I got my sourdough from Jane Eddy, an artist friend in Middlebury, Vermont.  She got her sourdough from Cushman Anthony in 1977 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Anthony was a law student.  Anthony got his sourdough culture from the fellow who lived across the hall, another student.  This guy grew up in Alaska, and he got his culture from his dad, who was a fish and game warden, who got it from his secretary, who got it from her grandfather, who was one of the original Yukon Gold Rush “sourdoughs” of 1896.

The sourdough was actually a big sluggish when I received it from Jane.  After several feedings at 12- hour intervals, I gave it a boost with a half teaspoon of Fleishman’s yeast to get it nice and bubbly.  Sourdough cultures need to be fed regularly with equal amounts of flour and water to keep it going.  Neglect can be harmful, but not necessarily fatal. 

How regularly to feed a sourdough?  Generally, at least every two weeks is the limit for a refrigerated culture, but really, as long as there is no sign of mold, it is fine.  Some bakers will say mold can be removed, and the culture transferred to a clean jar.  As long as the culture hasn’t turned black, it can be revived.  I haven’t pushed a culture that far to know whether it is true or not.

I used to be one of those people who claimed I didn’t care for sourdough bread.  Then I started making the artisan-type no-knead loaves that baker Jim Lahey developed, and food writer Mark Bittman, among others, popularized.  I found these breads a little lacking in character until I started making the bread with the sourdough culture for leavening.  Now my breads, which take no more than 5 minutes of mixing and 2 minutes of shaping have plenty of flavor and texture. 

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no-knead bread

Now that’s really something to brag about. 

Harvest Triage

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Fall is coming.  We feel it in our bones, we see it in the forecast, in the trees that are turning. The kids are back in school, and, of course, the tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and zucchini and green beans are piling up on the counter and overwhelming the refrigerator.  What to do?  Who has time?

It is harvest triage time. 

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I do a fair amount of preserving myself, but I am working on preserving wisdom, not volume.  For example, I don’t do much with tomatoes this time of year.  Most the tomatoes go into giant plastic bags, to be cooked or canned later in the fall—or winter. I cut off bad spots, but that's about all that I do at this time.

 Most of the vegetables go into dinner plus.  By that I mean, one jolly dinner of eggplant Parmesan, and six more aluminum foil dinners in the freezer.  Or one Chinese stir-fry accompanied by soy-sesame eggplant (see July 2013), and several more containers in the freezer.

Vegetable stews are great way to preserve vegetables. 

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A big pot of stew makes dinner one night with garlic toasts and freshly  grated Parmesan cheese.  Then I freeze it in small quantities for an instant side dish or in larger quantities as a main dish.  Combine the frozen and defrosted stew with broth and you have soup.  Serve it over pasta and you have a different-seeming main course. 

Folks I know get dispirited as they pull out bag after bag of frozen broccoli from the freezer, knowing that there is perfectly good broccoli at the store.  They practically weep over all the frozen green beans still in the freezer even as asparagus season rolls around.  Do something different this year.  Make a yummy dinner now and freeze the rest.  You won’t regret it—especially when you are extra busy.  Which is always.

Oh, and all that zucchini?  Some people grate it and use it in zucchini breads. But I ask you, how much zucchini bread do you want to eat?  And you know that zucchini pickles are never as good as cucumber pickles. 

Forget about it.  Zucchini is a seasonal treat; it’s green and fresh and tastes like summer.  Treat it like the summer vegetable it is and do not preserve it except in stews and the pasta dish below.

You’re welcome.

Big-Crowd Vegetarian Pasta Casserole

Makes 12 to 16 servings

I developed this recipe for my book, Mom’s Best Crowd-Pleasers, which came out in 2006. I use the recipe as a guide—meaning I don’t necessarily use the mushrooms and the canned artichokes (though both do add to the recipe).  And instead of the bottled spaghetti sauce and canned tomatoes, I make a batch of sauce; you’ll need about 2 quarts of sauce and another quart of fresh chopped tomatoes or 3 quarts of sauce.  Add plenty of fresh basil, oregano, and thyme.

2 pounds small shells or other small pasta shapes

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 green bell peppers, diced

2 red bell peppers, diced

2 medium zucchini, quartered and sliced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts (about 6 artichoke hearts), rinsed, drained, and quartered

2 (26-ounce) bottles spaghetti sauce

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pound mozzarella cheese, grated

2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1.  Cook the pasta in at least 10 quarts of boiling salted water until just done.  Drain well. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

2.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.

3.  Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, bell peppers, zucchini, and garlic and sauté until the vegetables are limp, about 6 minutes.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the pasta.

4.  Return the skillet to medium-high heat.  Add another 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet.  Add the mushrooms and sauté until well browned, about 8 minutes.  Scrape the mushrooms and their juices into the bowl with the pasta and vegetables.  Add the artichokes.

5.  Add the spaghetti sauce and tomatoes to the pasta and mix well.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Mix in half the mozzarella and half the Parmesan cheeses.  Transfer the mixture to a large roasting pan—or to 3 or 4 ceramic or aluminum baking dishes.  Sprinkle the remaining cheeses on top.

6.  Bake for 45 minutes when freshly made and in casserole to serve 4, or for 1 hour to serve a big crowd. When serving the frozen casserole, defrost overnight and bake for 1 hour or bake for 1 1/2 hours straight out of the freezer.  Keep covered for the first hour.

Recipe adapted from Mom’s Best Crowd-Pleasers by Andrea Chesman. ©2006.  All rights reserved.        

Drizzling Flavor

As the bounty of summer piles up, I’ve been thinking about drizzles.  Not the rain drizzle, but drizzles over vegetables so tasty and fresh, all you want to do is add a whisper of dressing and call it done.

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Tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and red wine vinegar

You don’t need recipes for drizzles.  All you have to do is grab a couple of bottles from the cupboard.

Does a tomato need more than a drizzle of olive oil and red wine or balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of salt and pepper? I don’t think so, though a shredded basil leaf, a shaving of Parmesan never hurts. 

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Drizzled cucumbers

It’s been a perfect cucumber summer in the Northeast.  Hot, sunny days with a thunderstorm late in the afternoon.  I complain because every time I plan to go swimming, the storm clouds catch up to me.  But the cucumbers are abundant.  My favorite drizzle?  A little salt, a little rice wine vinegar, a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.

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Drizzled green beans with sesame oil, soy sauce, and black vinegar

Then there are green beans.  I love green beans every which way.  Slowly stewed in a tomato-based sauce, baked under a béchamel sauce with a crispy garlic topping, roasted and salted.  But most of the time, I just steam and drizzle. The drizzle of the week is sesame oil, soy sauce, and black (Chinese) vinegar. Garlic gives it depth. Black sesame seeds dress it up for a party.

You don’t always need a recipe to make a great dish.

As the bounty of summer piles up, I’ve been thinking about drizzles.  Not the rain drizzle, but drizzles over vegetables so tasty and fresh, all you want to do is add a whisper of dressing and call it done.
You don’t need recipes for drizzles.  All you have to do is grab a couple of bottles from the cupboard.
Does a tomato need more than a drizzle of olive oil and red wine or balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of salt and pepper? I don’t think so, though a shredded basil leaf, a shaving of Parmesan never hurts. 
It’s been a perfect cucumber summer in the Northeast.  Hot, sunny days with a thunderstorm late in the afternoon.  I complain because every time I plan to go swimming, the storm clouds catch up to me.  But the cucumbers are abundant.  My favorite drizzle?  A little salt, a little rice wine vinegar, a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.
Then there are green beans.  I love green beans every which way.  Slowly stewed in a tomato-based sauce, baked under a béchamel sauce with a crispy garlic topping, roasted and salted.  But most of the time, I just steam and drizzle. The drizzle of the week is sesame oil, soy sauce, and black (Chinese) vinegar. Garlic gives it depth. Black sesame seeds dress it up for a party.
You don’t always need a recipe to make a great dish.


Celebrating with Strawberries

Strawberries!Yesterday I finished writing a book on kitchen skills for the backyard homesteader, and today I celebrated by…making strawberry jam.

 Making jam

Strawberries emit a siren call in late June, early July. The first fruit of the season, and they exert a powerful call to those of us who have been making due with last summer’s bounty that we stored away.  Until it was all gone.  Though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an errant bag of blueberries hiding behind the lamb I recently bought.  My freezer management skills are nothing to boast about. 


I digress.


So even though I was under great deadline practice, I made time to go to Norris’s Berry Farm in Monkton, Vermont, with my friend Andrea, and we each picked about 15 pounds, effortlessly.  It was a perfect June day, and the strawberries were at that stage where the biggest berry in each cluster was ripe, along with several others.  It seemed we were picking in a row that hadn’t been picked over this season.


I am strawberrying through my days.  Just strawberries with a little sugar and crème fraiche first.  Then fresh strawberry pie.  Strawberry jam this morning.


The perennial question with summer jams is whether or not to add pectin and which to use.  Pectin occurs naturally in fruit; it contributes to the structure of the cell walls. As the fruit ripens, the pectin degrades, which is why under-ripe (hard) fruits have more pectin than overripe (soft) ones.  The old-fashioned way is to cook the fruit slowly, slowly, slowly, until most of the liquid is either evaporated out or has combined into a gel in the presence of pectin. High-pectin fruits, like blackberries, don’t take much time to make by this method. Strawberries, on the other hand, require so much cooking that in the end you are left with a miniscule amount of jam with caramelized sugar notes.


Because it is such a hot day, because I just liberated myself from one deadline, I decided to go with the convenience of a store-bought pectin. 


Commercial pectin, like homemade pectin, is extracted from citrus peels and seeds or apples and made into either a powder or a liquid. These pectins first hit the hit the market in the 1920s and 1930s; before that, people added pectin-rich fruits to jams when they wanted a firm set. The trick with commercial pectin, though, is that you have to follow the recipe from the manufacturer; brands of different commercial pectin are not interchangeable.


Those first—and still popular—pectins to hit the market—Sure-Jel and Certo—were formulated to be activated by white sugar and acid.  They required almost as much sugar by volume as fruit.  Enter Pomona’s Universal Pectin, most frequently found in natural food stores and sold online It allows you to sweeten to taste.  Sales took off.  And many, many jam makers adopted Pomona’s as their go-to brand. Pomona’s pectin is activated by calcium (included in the box).  It is a little fussy to use in my opinion, but works fine.


Since Pomona’s became successful, and since sugar is Public Enemy No. 1, and since a lot of people prefer jams that taste like fruit, not sugar, other manufacturers have come up with their own no-sugar and low-sugar versions. I have a favorite brand: Ball’s Real Fruit Pectin for Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin.  It is ridiculously easy to use and gives a nice, soft set.  At the website, which is Ball’s online store, they have a jam and jelly calculator that lets you pick the fruit and the pectin to use and calculates how much of everything to use.  It is quite handy.  And here’s the thing: As much as I prefer to avoid commercial products, using a commercial pectin gets me out of the kitchen much faster on a day like today.

 Strawberry jam on toast

Toast anyone?


Fresh Strawberry Pie

Fresh Strawberry Pie

This recipe comes from my 2009 book, 250 Treasured Country Desserts, co-written with Fran Raboff.  I don’t think a finer pie can be made this time of year.

6 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved if large

One 10-inch pie crust, baked

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

1 cup white sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup water


1.  Place 2 cups of the berries in a food processor and puree.  Set aside.

2.  Arrange half of the remaining strawberries in the baked pastry shell.

3.  Sprinkle the gelatin over the lemon juice in a small bowl and let soften.

4.  Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heavy saucepan.  Whisk in the water and pureed berries. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.  Boil for 1 minute.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin until smooth.

5. Pour half of the strawberry sauce over the strawberries in the pastry shell. Shake the pan gently to evenly distribute the sauce. Add the remaining uncooked strawberries. Spoon the remaining strawberry sauce evenly over the berries. Chill for at least 4 hours, up to 8 hours before serving.

Red-Cooked Chicken

A beautiful red-cooked chicken 

Some of my fondest food memories stem from the time I worked in a Chinese restaurant in upstate New York.  The chef-owner, Mr. Wong, had a post-doc in nuclear physics that ended and no job was in sight.  So while his wife continued to teach Chinese as an ad hoc professor at the university, Mr. Wong opened a restaurant and hired students as waitresses.

I was not motivated by a desire to serve.  The money wasn’t great.  But I started each shift cheerfully after fortifying myself with a snack of eggrolls.

Because Mr. Wong cooked by himself on a two-burner hot plate and sent dishes out of the kitchen one at a time, expecting each table to share each dish as it came out, orders often backed up.  And backed up.  And backed up further.  It turned out the frat boys, who usually ordered pork fried rice, didn’t like to share, so every table had some people who were unhappy—and hungry. 

It also turned out that I wasn’t very skillful at mollifying disgruntled patrons—if you count dumping a pitcher of water in someone’s lap mollifying.

I was banished from the dining room and spent the rest of my time in the kitchen, until the restaurant went out of business.

The kitchen was where I loved to be.  I made dumplings and eggrolls, I prepped soups and vegetables. And waited for the place to clear out so we could eat a late dinner.  One of my favorite staff meals was what Mr. Wong called “hacked chicken.”  This was chicken slowly braised in a soy broth until it was a deep mahogany brown and unbelievably flavorful. 

Years later, I was thumbing through Nina Simond’s wonderful book, Classic Chinese Cuisine, when I came across her recipe for Red-Cooked Chicken, or Hong Shao Ji. As soon as I read it, I knew this was the same as Mr. Wong’s hacked chicken. 

Red-cooked chicken is ready, veggies in the wok

Red-cooking is now part of my cooking repertoire.  It could be become part of yours—if you are looking for something quick, comforting, and unbelievably delicious.  Each time you make it, save the broth for the next batch.  Strain it, then freeze it.  The next time you make the dish, half the ingredients and the spices should be replenished.  This same broth can be used for pork (especially pork belly, which is unbelievably delicious cooked this way), lamb, beef, chicken gizzards, tofu, and duck.  It is the home-style Chinese cooking you never get to experience in today’s Americanized small-town Chinese restaurants where General Tzao’s chicken reigns supreme.

 Here’s my adaptation of the recipe.  Serve with a stir-fry of vegetables or steamed greens.

Red-Cooked Chicken

Serves 4 to 6


Red-cooked chicken with stir-fried vegetables

4 cups water

1 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup Chinese rice wine or sake

1/3 cup honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar

1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder

6 cloves garlic

6 thin ginger root slices

1 orange or tangerine peel

1 whole chicken

Dark sesame oil

Finely chopped cilantro, to serve

Finely chopped scallions, white and green parts, to serve

Hot cooked rice

1. Combine the water, soy sauce, rice wine, honey, five-spice powder, garlic, ginger, and orange peel in a large Dutch oven.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer for 5 minutes.

2.  While the liquid simmers, rinse the chicken and remove any fat from the cavity and neck.  Place the chicken in the red-cooking liquid, breast-side down, and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, turning the chicken occasionally. 

3. Turn off the heat and let the chicken cool in the liquid for 15 minutes.

4.  Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and set aside.  Preheat the oven to 400° F.

5.  Cut the chicken into small pieces, cutting through the bone.  Arrange in a single layer, skin side up, on a baking sheet. Drizzle the chicken with sesame oil and.  Place in the hot oven for 10 minutes to make the skin crispy.

6.  Skim the fat from the cooking liquid and bring to a boil.           

7.  To serve, place the chicken on a platter and sprinkle with cilantro and scallions. Pour the cooking liquid into a pitcher to pass at the table. Spoon the rice into individual bowls, passing the chicken, and cooking liquid at the table.


Spring Starts Here

Hauling buckets in 2 feet of snow

Today I committed myself to spring.  That is, today my husband and I tapped four maple trees, installing just seven taps.  We aren’t looking for a cash crop of maple syrup—or even a barter crop—just enough syrup to sweeten our days and make gifts for family.  Those seven taps—three of which are already running—will yield us gallons of maple sap that I will boil down into syrup on my kitchen stove as I go about my ordinary days doing my ordinary things.


Surely winter has had us in its grip long enough.  The path to the buckets is two feet of corn snow that falls into our boots in icy clumps.  Friday, when we woke, it was -8°F (“you get up too early,” laughed my sister on the phone), but by one o’clock, it was a warm bright day.  The sunlight means something.  I can feel my bones defrosting.

 We drill holes with a portable drill.Then hammer in the taps

I haven’t bought any maple syrup in about 15 years.  Most of our sugaring equipment was bought used; some of our taps are real antiques.  We make our tap holes with a portable drill, then we hammer in the taps, hang the buckets, and slip the lids on the buckets.  It takes maybe a minute per bucket.  The well-known statistic is that it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.  In fact, the ratio is anywhere from 20 to 1 to 40 to 1.  Some years all the trees yield sweeter sap than other years, and there is always variation from tree to tree.  If you drink sap, which many people do, you can often taste the variation in sweetness.


People look at me with amusement when I say that we have been boiling maple sap into syrup in the kitchen for all these years and have only ran into a problem once—an ice dam that formed on the roof outside the kitchen because of extra moisture that collected during very cold weather.  We weathered it. Oh, and the surface of my stove around the burner has become pitted and has lost its finish—a cosmetic issue caused by long periods of high heat. I’ve heard tales of wallpaper falling off walls, mold forming on painted surfaces, and the like, but I’ve never experienced it or visited anyone with firsthand experiences of said disasters. 


All maple syrup doesn’t taste the same!  Definitely how well you handle the process, your sanitation and cleanliness will affect the final results.  But there is more to it than that.  Early in the season, the sap will yield a light-colored syrup, called Fancy or Grade A.  As the season progresses, the sap yields a darker syrup, or Grade B.  At the end of the season, as leaf buds begin to form, the sap will yield a dark, dark syrup and it will begin to taste “buddy” or off.  That is when it is time to stop.  In between the extremes of fancy and buddy, the syrup will have hints of vanilla, crème brûlée, coffee beans, dark chocolate, butter, and even a subtle hint of smokiness.  In general, I prefer dark syrup for baking and lighter syrup for pancakes, but that is a personal preference.


When sap is flowing, I collect the sap daily. If I can’t boil the sap immediately, or if I collect more than will fit in my 5-gallon stock pot, I try to keep the sap as cold as I can, preferably outside, in the shade, and packed with snow.               

 Sap dripped from our antique tap as soon as we hammered it it.

Making maple syrup is really easy.  You filter the sap before pouring it into your boiling container to filter out insects and twigs that flew or blew into the collecting buckets.  (I use coffee filters or cheesecloth fit in a strainer.) Then you boil until it is syrup.  It is that simple. And yes, you can interrupt the process at any point (like you want to go to bed, finally!), but keep whatever you took off the stove chilled.


Really, the most challenging part of the process is figuring out when the syrup is done. Syrup that is too thin may ferment in storage—or change the baking time or texture of your baked goods that use syrup. If the syrup is too dense, it may form sugar crystals during storage.  You can judge when the syrup is ready by visual cues (risky but cheap), by using a thermometer (you should have one anyway for judging when meat is done), or by using a hydrometer (single use, but highly accurate and can be found for under $20).


If you are going to use a thermometer correctly, you need to figure out the boiling temperature of water on that day. Boiling temperature is generally 212°F.  But it will go up or down based on your elevation and on the atmospheric pressure on that day.  If you are going to use visual cues, stick a plate in the freezer.  A spoonful of syrup dropped on the chilled plate will allow you to leave a trail if you run a finger through it.  


Your syrup will contain a small amount of sediment, known as nitre or sugar sand.  You can filter the hot syrup through a wool filter or you can bottle the syrup without filtering.  The nitre will settle to the bottom of the jar.  When you use the syrup, just don’t use the every last drop; discard the sediment at the bottom of the jar.  Alternatively, you can let the nitre settle, pour off the syrup, again leaving the sediment behind, and reheat to 180°F and bottle it hot.  Don’t let the syrup get hotter than 180°F or more sediment will precipitate out.


That’s it.  Making maple syrup is the best way I know to wait for the ground to thaw.