In A Pickle

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What is it
about vinegar plus ingredients that make me such a happy boy? Is it the
complimentary tang of anything that’s cured in brine brings? Is it that
zippy puckerface that follows after chomping on a pickled cucumber? Or
have I just encountered temporary culinary fatigue and needed something
loud and strong to shock me out of my lull?

Perhaps it was D, all of the above.

To
me, there are just some things that cannot and should not be enjoyed
without their pickled counterpart. I refuse to enjoy paté and baguette
without cornichon. I frown if a burger doesn’t have pickles waiting for
me under its bun. A ploughman’s lunch isn’t a ploughman’s lunch without
Branston pickle. Pickles, in whatever form, provide that sharp tangy
balance that pairs beautifully with the smooth and savory. It’s that
last crash of a symbol in a symphony, that sparkling sour kick in a
bite.

One of my favorite things to do in the pickling department
is Zuni’s red onion pickles. If you’ve eaten there and ordered a burger
you know what I’m talking about: those zesty,hot pink rings that adorn
the side of the burger, lending an intriguing spice flavor that lives
between their savory and salty notes. I always ask for extra, will
happily pick them off the plates of dining friends, and just about go
crazy for them.

Besides, anything that bright in color has to be loved.

Zuni’s
red onion pickles are quite easy to make at home and don’t require the
weeks of resting in brine to achieve their flavor (although they do get
better with age.) The process must be done in steps and it may seem
elaborate, but it’s not. Skipping the steps gives you an onion that
isn’t quite as flavorful and not the same texture. You want them soft
but still crunchy, and the multiple cooking delivers just that.

Aside
from their unusual hot pink color, the onions really shine in recipes.
They’re easily identifiable on a burger and don’t get lost amidst sharp
cheese and smoky patties. They’re also equally delicious on sandwiches,
with grilled fare, and served with cheese. I love them on grilled
sausages, sort of a fancy hot dog, if you will. However you enjoy them,
they’re definitely worth the afternoon effort and bring a little Zuni
home with every bite.

Red Onion Pickles  adapted from the Zuni Cookbook

Cooking
notes: You’ll want to prepare these in a stainless steel pot and use
stainless steel tongs or a wooden spoon. Aluminum cookware can leave
the onions with an off color and deny you the gorgeous hot pink hue
that you want.

Ingredients for about 2 pints

1 lb firm red onions (about 2 medium onions, although you can add more and increase quantity)

for the brine:
3 cups distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar
a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
a few whole cloves
a few allspice berries
a small dried chili
a star anise pod (Zuni recipe says it’s optional, I wouldn’t skip this part!)
2 bay leaves
a few whole black peppercorns

Method:
1.
Combine the vinegar, sugar, and all the spices in the stainless steel
pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 3
minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand to allow the spices to infuse
the brine.

2. Peel the onions, trim the ends and slice 3/8 inch thick. Separate the slices into rings, discarding any skin and tough bits.

3.
Uncover the brine and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately add
about 1/3 of the onion rings and stir them under. They will turn hot
pink almost instantly (YAY! says Matt.) As soon as the bring begins to
simmer around the edges, about 20 seconds, stir them under again and
slide the pot off the heat. Immediately remove the onions with a
slotted spoon, skimmer, or tongs and spread on a platter or cookie
sheet to cool completely. The onions will still be firm. Repeat with
the remaining onions, in two batches.

4. Once the onions have
cooled (you can stick them in the fridge to cool them quickly), repeat
the entire process, again in three batches, two more times, always
adding the onions to boiling brine, pulling them promptly as the brine
begins to simmer again, and cooling them completely after each bath.
After the third round of blanching, thoroughly chill the brine, then
add the pickled onions. This slightly tedious process saturates the
onions with the fragrant brine without really cooking them, a process
that leaves them crunchy. Zuni notes that without this process you’re
left with dull, regularly colored onion rings.

5. Place in jars,
cover and store refrigerated. The cookbook says they will keep
indefinitely, but I’ve never gone longer than 2 weeks before they’re
completely gone. Enjoy!

A Sip Of Paradise

Jamaica_story_final

Sometimes I think I live in paradise. Well, paradise if you omit the
405 freeway, the congestion, smog, the high cost of living and state
income tax. Even though Southern California gets a bad rap (and
sometimes deservedly so), it’s still filled with great beauty and
nature and it’s easy to see why it’s called the Golden State.

For
example, on a clear day I can see the ocean to my left and snow covered
mountains on my right. In one single day I can swim at the beach in the
morning, sweat in the middle of a desert during lunch and throw
snowballs in the afternoon and still be home in time for dinner. It’s
geographically miraculous and an ever constant source of personal
amazement.

Few places in the world have our climate, and this
explains why California is an agricultural goldmine. Plenty of
sunshine, cool days, mild winters and an ample amount of heat make for
luscious environs, and I only need to set foot into my backyard to
experience paradise.

While my deepest gratitude goes out to
Mother Nature and all that she supplies us I cannot forget another
woman who has made my life so extremely special; her name is Pat. You
see, Pat is my partner’s grandmother and the original owner of the home
we live in. Pat was a homemaker and an avid gardener. She was also a
lover of all things tropical and traveled to Hawaii, Fiji, the
Philippines, Tonga, Tahiti, Bahamas, Virgin Islands and every place in
between. She spent countless hours planting, culling, trimming and
beautifying her yard, planting the small cuttings that she brought home
from all her travels. I bet she had no idea that 60 years later her
grandson’s partner would whisper a little “thank you” each time the
season’s first plumeria or peach or nectarine appeared. To stand in her
yard and literally reap the fruits of her labor is such a gift, and it
reminds me that if you nurture and love and tend to and care for life’s
treasures you will be rewarded in ways greater than you can ever
imagine.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sometime
around 1955 Pat (or Granny as we called her) planted a row of plumeria
trees, fruit trees, palms, staghorn ferns and numerous hibiscus trees
in her backyard. Decades later they’re still thriving and every year I
love collecting the plumeria flowers for fragrant homemade leis. I hate
to see those beautiful flowers go to waste! I also discovered how easy
it is to make the drink Jamaica from all the hibiscus flowers.

Dried flowers from the Hibiscus sabdariffa are
steeped in boiling water and allowed release their color and flavor
(the bright red color is due to the presence of anthocyans, the same
compounds that give beets their color.) The soaked flowers are given
one last squeeze before discarding them and the liquid is strained,
sugared and usually served over ice. Jamaica is high in vitamin
C and has a tart, almost cranberry-like flavor and can deliver quite a
pucker. If you can’t find fresh hibiscus flowers (talk about eating
locally!) you can usually find the dried variety in health food stores
or Latin markets.

If you find yourself in Southern California
during August consider this an open invitation to join us in our small
spot of heaven while wearing a homemade lei and sipping Jamaica.
Paradise is always much better shared.

Jamaica
I’m
not big on formalities but if you’re saying Ja-may-kuh like the Island
then you’re just a tad bit off. Say it with me: huh-mai-kuh. There.
Much better. Oh, and if you’re female and time traveling from ancient
Egypt, you might want to stick with water. Red hibiscus flowers were
believed to induce lust to the highest degree and therefore a forbidden
drink. More for me!

Ingredients
2/3 cup dried hibiscus blossoms
1 1/2 cups water plus 3 cups
1/2  to 1/3 cup granulated sugar (or more to taste)
lime wedges for garnish

Method
In
a saucepan bring the 1 1/2 cups of water and blossoms to a boil.
Continue boiling for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add remaining
water and sugar. Transfer the liquid to a pitcher and set aside
overnight. Of course you can serve immediately over ice but the flavors
will be better developed if you wait. Garnish with lime wedges.

Review: Seasoned Skewers

Skewers_1

I
just read a pretty fascinating article on Homaro Cantu of Moto in
Chicago. Cantu is one of the gastronomical scientific renegades who is
attempting to change the way we eat and think about food by fusing the
science lab with the kitchen. You know what I’m talking about: menus on
edible paper, synthetic champagne, food disguised as shapes that reveal
their true identities once bitten, lasers, nitrogen, helium, class IV
lasers, I could go on. I can’t knock it because I’ve never tried his
cuisine, but something tells me that I’m content with my kitchen and
just a few pots and pans. I’m a simple guy.

Maybe it’s timing or
irony, but the second I finished the article a package arrived on my
desk. I opened it to find an assortment of skewers that promise
"15-minute flavor". Seasoned Skewers are flavored skewers that are
infused with essential oils and herbal extracts in a variety of
combinations. You put your unseasoned food on the skewer, wait 15
minutes, and cook.

Oh no, more food magic! I just don’t know if I can take it. I mean, what’s wrong with marinating the old fashioned way?

Reluctantly I gave the skewers a try.  I skewered shrimp, scallops and vegetables on the sticks, waited a bit and grilled.

Can you say amazed?

Can you say ingenious?

I
really had one of those "why didn’t someone think of this sooner?" kind
of moments. It’s clever, tasty, all natural, and fat and sodium free,
too. The skewers come in Honey Bourbon, Citrus Rosemary, Thai Coconut
Lime, Mexican Fiesta, Garlic Herb and Indian Mango Curry. I tried the
Thai Coconut Lime and sure enough my food was flavored perfectly.
Pretty aromatic, I’d say.

Ok, so it might not be polymer box
filled with foam, but Seasoned Skewers sure do the trick when you don’t
want to do it yourself.

Seasoned_skewers

 

A Snail’s Pace

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Keeping a garden of herbs and vegetables is one of my greatest
pleasures; keeping that garden grow without the use of pesticides and
chemicals is on my biggest headaches. It doesn’t matter how on top of
things I am, my enemies never fail to secretly invade and set up camp
when I’m not looking. Because of this I can’t grow basil, my cabbage
looks like Swiss cheese and I’m probably the only person I know with
sorrel that looks like lace, elaborate decorative holes and all.

I’ve
done the ladybug thing, and they clearly didn’t find my garden as nice
as I thought they would and they fled. I’ve tried covering certain
plants with protective covering but darn if the pests aren’t creative.
I’ve mixed things bugs don’t like with those that they love, hoping to
put an end to the endless buffet. Nothing worked. I’ve tried bargaining
with them, even telling the snail colony that recently moved in that
I’ll trade them a leafy green if they "leaf" my herbs alone. They
didn’t listen.

Always one to make lemonade out of lemons
(Meyers, thank you very much), I remembered an article I read in SF
Gate about a man named Victor Yool and his penchant for snails. You
see, this man not only loved serving these meaty mollusks to guests,
but he harvested them from his own backyard! BINGO! If my snails were
going to eat my greens then I was going to eat them! It’s a cruel world
indeed.

After some research and a quick chat with a zoologist
acquaintance, I decided to pursue this experiment seriously. I learned
that thanks to an Italian immigrant who came to California 150 years
ago, the common garden snail is actually the edible variety. I had
discovered a goldmind of Helix aspersa in my yard and soon they would be swimming in butter and garlic. And I couldn’t wait.

But
wait I would have to. Even though I refrain from using chemicals and
pesticides in my yard, I couldn’t be assured that my snow poke pests
hadn’t visited a neighbor’s yard and ingested any harmful toxins. I
would have to purge them, a process that involved containing them and
feeding them greens, corn meal and water for a minimum of two weeks.

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Ladies and gentleman, my name is Matt. I am a Snail Wrangler.

For
two weeks I had to endure the gasp of friends and the disgust of my
partner. It turns out that snails creep out quite a bit of people. But
I can’t figure out why. What’s not to love about a slow moving
shapeless blob with movie antennae that leaves behind a trail of slime
and long, black stringy waste? Apparently tons.

Nevertheless, I forged ahead for the sake of culinary experience.

After
my guests had cleaned out their systems they were ready to be
processed. I said a small prayer before dunking my mollusks into
boiling water, shell and all. There are different schools of thought on
what to do here; some methods involve layering snails in coase sea salt
which causes them to disgorge themselves before the boiling process,
but I went straight for a quick kill.

Snail_soup_5

They
cooked for about 10-15 minutes and required a change of water. I also
had to skim off the foam that appears on the surface. Once the foam was
gone I was ready. I rinsed the snails under cool water and used a
small fork to remove the snail from its shell. This was done with a
fine blend of facination and disgust; everything I’ve always wondered
about snail anatomy was slipping around in my hand.

Snail_body

Farming
snails from my garden and then cooking them gave me a crash course in
their anatomy. After a deep breath I decided I didn’t want to consume
their hepatopancreas, an organ that functions similar to a liver and
pancreas in mammals. This is only a personal preference–some escargot
lovers eat the entire thing.

Handful_of_parsley_1

After
removing the hepatopancreas I chopped up the remaining meat. My shells
weren’t terribly big and I knew I’d never be able to get a whole cooked
snail back in so I opted for a nice chop. Into the pan went butter,
garlic, parsley, white wine, sea salt and my snail meat, long enough to
heat through and cook a small bit of alcohol off. Once done, my snail
bits went back into the shell and back in the oven for a few minutes.
Once done I topped with more parsley and dug in.

Cooked_snail

They
were just as delicious as could be. Sure, there was unnerving snail
foam all over the kitchen. Yes, there was a distinct earthy smell that
hung around from boiling the mollusks, but one taste of that buttery,
garlicky goodness made this science experience rewarding, delicious and
educational.

As far as my garden goes, my basil still may be
half-eaten and my parsley full of holes, but it’s okay. The snails may
have won this battle, but I’m the one with plenty of recipes in my
arsenal.

Disclaimer: You never know where your snails may
have been. Because of this please use caution when eating snails from
your garden. They may have come in contact with pesticides and you do
not want to ingest that.