Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Secret to Making Great Hot Sauce Even Greater


Every gardener has a muse--the inspiration that compels him or her to break out the shovel. It could be a childhood memory of a cherry tomato, warm from the sun. Maybe it's the seedy pop of a deep-ruby strawberry, or the taste of a cucumber right off the vine. Whatever it is, it's enough to make him dig up his lawn, start saving kitchen scraps for compost, and spend all his free time bent over, pulling weeds.

My muse is the chile pepper.

I save pepper seeds all winter, like some sort of fanatical collector, in little wax envelopes. I have some that a friend smuggled back from Jamaica and some from a pepper that blew smoke out of my ears when I ate it on a dare. I have Chocolate Habaneros and Louisiana cayennes and Indian ghost chiles. They all sit patiently until early spring, when I plant them in starter containers and set them on the windowsill, where they stretch their first leaves out of the dirt. Then, for the next six to seven months, nothing much happens. The plants grow at a frustratingly slow pace. It's not until late September that the fiery fruits are ripe and ready.


Well, here we are in late September, and I am rolling in capsicum. The local farmers' market is erupting with chiles, too. There are too many to eat raw or even to cook. The chile's draw is also its force field. They're spicy little buggers. There's really only one way to use up mass quantities: hot sauce.

There's an unfathomable variety of recipes for hot sauce, and finding your favorite might take some doing. But the secret that I hope you'll take away from this post has to do with aging. The last time I made hot sauce, I put the jar in the back of the fridge and forgot about it. That turned out to be a very happy accident. The sauce mellows as it ages and becomes less spicy, letting the floral notes of the chiles come forward. This isn't new. Tabasco, possibly the world's most famous hot sauce company, crafts a Family Reserve sauce that it ages for up to eight years. I don't suggest that you need to wait that long for your hot sauce to mature. Feel free to use it right away--but if you keep it tucked at the back of your fridge for a couple of months, even a year, the results will be stunning.

Hot Sauce
Makes 1 scant quart

12 oz. fresh hot chiles, stemmed and halved
1 head of garlic, roasted*
2 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar plus more if needed
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. kosher salt

Pulse chiles and roasted garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small pan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Place chile mixture in a 1-qt. mason jar, then pour vinegar mixture over. Top off with additional vinegar, if necessary (chiles should be completely covered with liquid). Cover the jar and store in the refrigerator for at least 3 months and up to 1 year. If a more refined sauce is to your liking, strain the hot sauce through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding solids, then pour sauce into a jar and chill.

* Roasting garlic is so easy, it barely requires a recipe. Anytime your oven is heated to 350-425 degrees for an hour, you have a great opportunity to roast a couple of garlic heads. Simply cut off and discard the top 1/2" of one or more heads of garlic and place the remaining heads on a small piece of foil. Drizzle with a little oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Wrap the garlic in the foil and place it in a corner of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour. You can use your roasted garlic right away, squeezed out of the bulb, or refrigerate it until you need it, for up to a month.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Zen And The Art of Beekeeping


I've been keeping bees since I was a teenager. That was 20-plus years ago, and still they amaze me. Of course the honey is great. I collect several gallons each September, enough to last all year. But it's the sounds the bees make that I find captivating. There's no guessing game with bees. If they are happy, you'll know. If they are upset, you'll know that, too. They are very good communicators.

In the beginning, before I learned to listen to the bees, I got stung a lot. Once, I almost died. I should have known better; I should have been listening. The bees "sing" to you or they "scream" at you, and when they scream they sound like banshees. The buzz of 80,000 angry bees' vigorously vibrating wings sounds, well, just like you'd think it would. Their pitch rises when they're upset. It sometimes gets to the point where all you can hear is bees, screaming with their wings. This pandemonium is dotted with tiny staccato pops, the punctuated landings of a thousand angry workers dive-bombing your beekeeper's veil. It can be scary. But it doesn't have to be.
If you've ever met any beekeepers, you've probably noticed how calm they tend to be. The bees pick up on a peaceful personality. If I am calm, so are they. Some of us are naturally placid. Not me. I had to learn it. It took years.

The first trick I tried was singing to the bees as you might to a baby, in a calm, soothing tone. I didn't sing an actual song, just gibberish, but it worked. The bees stayed calm and I didn't get stung.

I didn't know it at the time, but bees don't have ears so they don't "hear" in the sense that we do. My singing only calmed me, and the bees felt my tranquility. I still sing to them. I have not been stung in more than 15 years.

This week I collected honey from the hive, and to celebrate the harvest (and National Honey Month--woot! woot!) I made this simple honey cake. It was a busy day and I had to carve out enough time to bake. With flour all over the kitchen and deadlines looming, I was feeling somewhat stressed. Mixing the ingredients, I caught myself humming a little made-up tune, just to relax. It worked in the kitchen, just as it does at the beehive.

Honey Walnut Cake
8 servings

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for pan
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup walnut halves or pieces
Creme fraiche and fresh fruit for serving

Arrange a rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9x9x2" baking pan.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well, then beat in honey and vanilla. Add flour mixture and milk in alternate batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until just combined.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top, then sprinkle with walnuts. Bake until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 1 hour. Transfer cake to a cake plate. Serve with creme fraiche and fresh fruit.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Six Pounds of Dinner Just Sitting in the Forest

hen-of-the-woods-cluster-484.jpgWait, it's a hen. In the woods. No, it's a hen of the woods mushroom!

Earlier this year, I wrote about foraging for mushrooms and its similarity to searching for love: you'll never find any if you're looking too hard. Well, I still believe that. But I also know that you'll won't even stand a chance if you don't put yourself out there. Sometimes you've just got to strap on your boots and walk through the woods.

You never know what you might find.

While it may still feel like summer to you and me--September can be so manipulative with its sunny days and piercing blue skies--the forest knows better. I can feel the changes at night. As the sun sets, a cool blanket of air gently rolls down the hill. And that, combined with all the rain we've had recently, means we are into the autumn mushroom season.


Yesterday, I tiptoed around hundreds of mushrooms. Some, I knew, were poisonous; others I couldn't recognize. (As a rule, I steer clear of anything I'm not 100 percent certain about.) Then I saw a scattering of chanterelles so orange they could have been drips from a late-summer sunset. Only one of them was big enough to be picked, so I left the rest to mature for a few days.

As I moved on from the chanterelles I saw a huge hen of the woods. The name is fitting, I guess; if you squint enough the mushroom looks like the full plumage of a roosting bird. Kind of. This particular cluster weighed in at about 6 pounds, but they can grow as heavy as 100. Hen of the woods is an easy mushroom to identify, and you've probably seen it and walked right past it in the woods several times. It's commonly known and sold in grocery stores by its Japanese name, maitake.

The cluster I carried home will feed me (and those who trust me) for several meals. The first will be a simple saute with a shallot and some garlic, served over soft polenta with a spoonful of creme fraiche.

If you're not an expert forager or don't have access to one for guidance, pick up a small cluster of maitake mushrooms at the grocery store and embrace the coming season with this super-satisfying dish.


Sauteed Maitake Mushrooms with Soft Polenta and Creme Fraiche
2 servings

Note: Unless you are an experienced mushroom hunter DO NOT forage for any mushrooms without an expert guide. Contact your local mycological society for help. Have we made ourselves perfectly clear on this? Good.

1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup polenta or corn grits
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, smashed
8 oz. hen of the woods (maitake) mushrooms
1/2 lemon
2 Tbsp. creme fraiche

Bring salt and 2 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan; whisk in polenta. Boil, stirring occasionally, until soft, 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in shallot and garlic and saute until just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Tear mushrooms into bite-size pieces and add to skillet, stirring. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are golden, 6-8 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and squeeze lemon juice into mushroom mixture.

Divide polenta between 2 bowls. Dollop creme fraiche over each, then top with mushrooms and serve.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


A Custom Knife and a Tasty Slaw on the Knauer Farm


This is the latest post in Ian Knauer's Farm to Table series. Ian will be checking in weekly throughout the season with recipes and stories from his family farm in Knauertown, PA.

cut-brooklyn-knife-484.jpgPhotograph courtesy Cut Brooklyn

Some years ago I was sitting around a picnic table drinking beer with my friend Joel. He's a knife maker who's pretty much always thinking about his craft. We started chatting about all the lumber that my grandfather, an erstwhile carpenter, had stored in the barn at the farm, scraps of which are still there: cherry, red oak, and black walnut. I asked Joel if he could make me a knife with a black-walnut handle. He thought for a moment, then said yes.


I brought Joel some scraps of the walnut and he made me the most beautiful knife I have ever cut with. He based the design on his grandmother's well-used classic kitchen knife and, with my grandfather's walnut, achieved a beautiful and classic aesthetic. The knife is a real tribute to American craftsmanship. The first time I used it was to cut through a rutabaga. As the blade slid effortlessly through the rock-hard vegetable, I made a sound that was some combination of gasp and giggle. It is still my favorite cooking tool.

Every so often I bring Joel more scraps of black walnut from the barn. About half the knives he sells these days have 40-year barn-aged Knauertown black-walnut handles.

I've learned a lot from Joel about knife care. His tips start with creating what he calls a "relationship" with your knife. Get to know its sweet spots (what the knife excels at: rock-chop, slicing, dicing, julienne, etc.) and you will use it to the fullest and begin to appreciate it for the finely tuned tool it is. It will become your best friend in the kitchen.

ian-knauer-grandma-knife.jpgGrandma's knife below; new one on top

Once you've established that relationship, caring for your knife becomes second nature. You won't throw it in the sink (or, God forbid, the dishwasher). You won't cut on a glass cutting board (which will dull it immediately). You'll slow down, nick yourself less often, and let the knife do the work.

Of course, now and then you'll want to hone it back to its original samurai-quality edge. For that, you'll need a steel.

A honing steel is the long, round metal rod that you see professional chefs glide their blades over all the time. It doesn't actually sharpen the knife, but removes little burrs as well as nicks and dings that are created by regular use. These imperfections get in the way of the cutting edge's ability to cut, and removing them is easy.

We see TV-personality "chefs" whizzing their knives back and forth over a steel at record-breaking speed. Joel suggests you slow down--a lot--and let the weight of the knife do all the work. He glides the blade once or twice over the steel in a slow motion at a 20-degree angle. That's all you need to do to hone the knife.

Okay, it's not all you need to do. Every year or so, depending on use, you will need to have your knife truly "sharpened." You can do this yourself with a whetstone, or take your knife to a pro like Joel to give it a once-over.

Your knife, when it's at its sharpest, should effortlessly slice through a sheet of paper, or anything else for that matter. And you'll have a lot of fun using it. One of my favorite uses is to make unfathomably thin slices of cabbage for my favorite slaw.


Red Cabbage Slaw with Bacon Bits and Carrots
6-8 servings

Hot bacon dressing makes everything better. Here, it helps cook the cabbage just so, taking away the raw edge. This dish is an easy way to use up a head of cabbage, and it complements almost any entree.

1 2-lb. head of red cabbage
2 large carrots
1 jalapeno
1/4 lb. bacon, chopped
3 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Quarter cabbage and slice crosswise, as thinly as possible, with a chef's knife. Peel carrots and cut into thin matchsticks. Thinly slice jalapeño. Combine vegetables in a large bowl.

Cook bacon in a heavy skillet over medium heat until browned and crisp, about 7 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to cool. Add vinegar, oil, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper to skillet and stir with a wooden spoon to blend, scraping up any browned bits.

Pour dressing over vegetables in bowl and toss to coat. Crumble reserved bacon and sprinkle over; toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Irene & The Invention of The Pigloaf

roasting-pig-ian-knauer-484.jpgSetting up the spit under cover.

Every August, my cousin Leif and I roast a whole pig. We buy it from a local butcher and cook it for about nine hours over hickory that we've chopped and dried just for our annual roast. We get a keg of beer and invite everyone we know to join us. In years past we've had close to a hundred guests, and this year would have been no exception--but for a hurricane.

The impressive (and, as it turned out, justified) media buildup to last weekend's inclement weather convinced all but nine guests to stay home. I fielded a lot of phone calls from invitees wondering if the festivities were still on. Short answer: they were.

We named the pig Irene.

And the roast was as fun (and the food as delectable) as ever. Leif made German-style potato salad and a huge pot of baked beans. We ate hickory-roasted pig until our guts about burst. Then we ate some more. After a few hours, I carved the remaining meat off the animal--enough to fill a dozen large containers. The nine well-fed souls who braved the storm will be eating leftover pork for a long, long time.

But after tacos and sandwiches (and hash and chili), what does one do with another 50 pounds of leftover pig?

pig-on-spit-ian-knauer-484.jpgIrene, you did right by us.

Meatloaf recipes generally call for ground raw meat. But if you find yourself with plenty of cooked meat, it makes a great addition to the mixture. In fact, the textural counterpoint of the ground raw and the shredded cooked meats makes for an outstanding meatloaf that's reminiscent of the finest French country pâté. You can use any meat: chicken, turkey, braised beef, you name it. Just shred it and mix it with a pound of ground raw meat, some milk-soaked breadcrumbs, a couple of eggs, and some cooked vegetables. But be smart about it. Choose your accompanying ingredients based on the type of cooked meat you're using.

Let's say you're using cooked turkey; you might add ground pork to make up for the low-fat bird and dried seasoned stuffing instead of breadcrumbs--and you'd have a Thanksgivingloaf.

I wanted to make something extra special with our leftover roast pig. So instead of plain ground pork, I added bratwurst sausage meat that I'd slipped out of the casings, along with some caramelized onions and a little McCutcheon's BBQ sauce. The outcome was a cross between pulled pork BBQ and game-day smoked brats--the best of all possible pigs.


BBQ Pigloaf
6-8 servings

1 cup freshly ground breadcrumbs
1/2 cup whole milk
2 Tbsp. rendered bacon fat or extra-virgin olive oil
3 large onions, sliced
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup BBQ sauce, plus more for serving
1 lb. bratwurst sausage, casings removed
3 cups shredded cooked pork

Soak breadcrumbs in milk.

Melt rendered fat in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onions, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are deep golden-brown, 30-40 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Let onion mixture cool to warm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Work onion mixture together with breadcrumb mixture, eggs, BBQ sauce, sausage, and shredded pork. Place mixture in a 1 1/2-qt. loaf pan and bake until cooked through, 45-60 minutes. Let pigloaf cool slightly, then remove from pan and serve with additional BBQ sauce.