The Fat of the Land

Month: May, 2014

All in a Pickle

pickle

Pickles have personality that seems larger than the sum of their parts—puckering acidity, chopped vegetables, salt and a pinch or two of seasoning add up to refreshing brightness and enigmatic flavors that effortlessly invigorate a bowl of rice, a sandwich, or a steak.

There are essentially two kinds of pickles: fermented and not fermented. Fermented pickles use a salt brine to isolate lacto-bacteria and create an acidic environment that preserves the food suspended in it. Fermented pickles are a compelling combination of salty and sour flavors, and include among their ranks the now ubiquitous deli staples of sauerkraut and kosher dills.

Pickles made without fermentation rely on another form of acid to hinder spoilage, usually vinegar. Vinegar pickles may be sealed and stashed in the pantry using the water-bath canning method or stored unsealed in the refrigerator. They are acidic, salty and often sweet, as sugar is a common addition to balance out the vinegar’s sharpness.

The difference between the two categories is vast. Fermentation transforms a vegetable into something new, creating biological and flavor components that were not present in its raw form. Vinegar brines build, maintaining the spirit of the fresh vegetable’s flavor and adding layers of brightness, herbal notes, and sweet or aromatic spices.

Fermented cucumbers were my first pickle love, and I adored the subtle funkiness of their flavor so much I often wrote off their vinegar-brined kin as being too ostentatious. The grocers and restaurants of my formative years offered little diversity in pickles; then came a pickle renaissance, and in sauntered so much more than overly sweet relishes and bread-and-butter medallions.

As interest in home canning has increased in the last decade, vinegar pickle recipes have proliferated, stretching far beyond the traditional beet, dilly bean, and cucumber standbys. Driven by DIY ethos, some restaurants now compose their own pickled preparations, lining their pantries and countertops with handsome, exotically colored jars. Pickled novelties garnish plates, perch on cocktail rims, and add an instant dash of culinary mystery to otherwise familiar dishes.

Vinegar pickles have one serious advantage over fermented pickles for chefs and home cooks alike: they can go from preparation to plate in as little as a few minutes. Known as quick pickles, vegetables doused with vinegar, salt and any number of flavorings may be used immediately for the highest contrast of flavor and texture, or after marinating for a few hours or days to mellow and blend.

While pickles became mainstays of nearly every culinary tradition because they are so good at preserving foods rich in vitamins and minerals, we also acquired a taste for them along the way. We’ve since developed a wide range of food preservation techniques and greatly increased our access to year-round fresh vegetables, and yet pickles still satisfy and inspire us.

Now a traditional food, a frill du cuisine, a blank canvas for gastronomic whim or nostalgic indulgence, pickles are always refreshing—cutting through rich flavors, showcasing seasonal produce, making us at once thirsty with their salt and quenched by their acidity. But perhaps, more than anything, we love pickles because they allow us to conspire with time and its magic.

“On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.”                                         -Thomas Jefferson

Identifying Elderflowers

Correctly identifying and processing elderflowers is important as some varieties of elderberry tree (Sambucus genus) are mildly toxic or simply lack a desirable flavor.

Elderflower cordial is traditionally made using the flowers of European elderberry (Sambucus nigra), though things start to get confusing quickly as there are numerous subspecies that appear in many regions across the globe, taking on names such as blue or black elderberry. Most of these subspecies will have flowers with a fragrance and flavor worthy of bringing into the kitchen. Red elderflowers (Sambucus racemosa) cause digestive discomfort for some and, more importantly, do not have the same desirable qualities of their cousin Sambucus nigra.

While the two species are easily identified when fruiting (one has black and sometimes blue-looking berries, the other, red berries), at that point no more flowers will remain on the tree. To identify them in the flowering stage, look at the shape of the flower cluster.

Red elderberry flowers are arranged in a panicle, or grape-like cluster of small blossoms:

red elderflower

Blue and black elderberry flowers are arranged in an umbel, or a flat-topped cluster of small blossoms:

black elderflower

The leaves, stems and unripe berries of both red and black elderberry species contain cyanide-inducing glycosides which can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body. When using elderflowers, be sure to remove them from all but that smallest stem attachments to keep these toxins out of your food. I do this by holding the flower cluster upside-down over a bowl and snipping away.

Elderflowers are best when harvested in the morning, before the heat of the day has begun to volatize some of their aroma compounds. They don’t store well, as the flowers begin to shrivel in too much humidity (a closed bag in the frig) or if left on the counter. Try to use them within a few hours of harvest for the best flavor.

Follow this link for an excellent description of how to make elderflower cordial at home.

Nectar

elderflower

Synonymous with sweetness, fragrance and divine sustenance, nectar is a term borrowed from mythology. Stemming from a Greek word meaning “death-defeating,” nectar was the literal drink of the gods that, along with ambrosia (the food of immortality), granted eternal life. Appropriated in the 1600’s to imply a sweet substance, the word nectar has never fully shaken its mythical origins.

As flowers and their ethereal scents came about long before Mount Olympus, the concepts of nectar and ambrosia were surely influenced by the real thing, challenging human imagination to reach beyond their earthly limitations. The word nectar still elicits fondness and wonder, that a thing so small and insubstantial can enter the nose and mouth with such outsized charm. Nectar is sugar, but with complex scent and deepness that still hints at magic.

Pull it apart with the tweezers of analytics and you’ll find that nectar is one thing, pollen and aroma compounds another. Bees are searching for nectar (at base, a sugar solution expelled by plants) as they pass from flower to flower, collecting and spreading pollen on their hind legs as they go. Aroma is less consistent from species to species: sometimes absent, sometimes residing in the pollen or nectar, sometimes exuding from petals or other flower structures.

In biology, nectar is a reward—liquid energy exchanged for pollination or protection—a symbiotic arrangement that is one of nature’s most sophisticated. Flowers direct bees’ ambitions with a multifaceted marketing program that includes elaborate architecture, fragrance, pigmentation and “nectar maps” often drawn in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Now that our species is involved, the dance has become even more complex, with humans manipulating bees and coming ever closer to annihilating them (through no fault of traditional beekeepers).

Though we are certainly not its primary directors, our involvement with honey production and collection has taught us a few things about nectar. Namely that, beyond its sugary sweetness, the flavor profile of nectar is as diverse as the plants from which it is harvested. From light and mild clover honey to aromatic citrus-blossom honey to the smoky dark flavor of buckwheat honey, nectar varietals offer a wide assortment of culinary possibilities.

Even without the nectar-extracting skill of honeybees, the sweet and fragrant flavors of certain flowers have found their way into our culinary traditions. I grew up sucking on the trumpet-shaped tubes of honeysuckle and columbine flowers. I’ve used edible flowers as a garnish for their punch of sweet (and sometimes spicy or bitter) flavors, layered aromatic blooms in sugar to absorb their fragrance, or sprinkled them in a steeping pot of tea.

A versatile nectar to harvest this time of year is that of the black or blue elderberry tree. Flowers from either tree may be used to make elderflower cordial, a simple syrup infused with the rich aromatics of elderflowers.

Elderflower cordial is a popular beverage base in northern Europe, where it is used to flavor sparkling water. I’ve added mine to cocktails, iced tea and even drizzled it over fresh strawberries for a refreshing dessert. Elderflowers may also be added whole to pancake, pastry or fritter batters, and lend a delicate richness to strawberry preserves. Be sure to correctly identify foraged elderflowers before using them, as some varieties are mildly toxic.

Bringing nectar into the kitchen requires a subtle hand. While some honeys are strong enough to hold their own in a barbeque sauce, fresh flowers, especially, have an ethereal flavor that hovers and easily flutters away among more powerful seasonings. Put in the right place, nectar, pollen and flower fragrance offer substance fit for the gods.

The Flavor Green

spring salad

There is something common among the canon of spring vegetables that is found few other places—a freshness that cannot be fully preserved, a tenderness and depth of subtle flavors that quietly slips away in the heat of summer, lacks the robustness to survive winter. As spring days lengthen and the rich soils warm, the world becomes green for a few delicious months, and we dine on its delicate plenty.

Certainly leaf vegetables and herbs taste green year-round—that sometimes bitter, sometimes astringent, always tonic hallmark of healthiness—but the flavor green belongs to spring. In spring, arugula is succulent and nutty, pea shoots are soft and rich as butter, kale leaves are tender enough to eat in raw mouthfuls, lettuce’s bitter notes are balanced by sweetness and green substance. The flavor green even goes so far as to permeate the milk of grass-fed ruminants, lacing it with powerful odors (too strong for some) that taper into sweeter, floral aromas, casting the milk in deep orange hues.

The green color of plants comes, of course, from chlorophyll, the primary pigment responsible for transforming light energy into chemical energy. This explains the increase of green pigment in spring; more sunlight means plants leap into action, capitalizing on the newly available energy. But just what makes spring vegetables—and the flavor we think of as “green”—taste so opulent this time of year is more difficult to nail down.

Though most people associate chlorophyll with green-tasting foods, it is, from a cook’s point of view, mostly color. Hidden by chlorophyll’s powerful presence are concealed pigments that complement its work. When it comes to flavor, the carotenoids (ranging in color from yellow to orangey-red) may be some of the most significant of these accessory pigments. Acting as a buffer, carotenoids provide chlorophyll with light reserves as well as shield it from excess light that would otherwise cause harm.

Beyond their role as pigment, carotenoids double as precursors to flavor compounds as well as A-vitamins. Left in their whole state, functioning as light harvesters, carotenoids have neither intrinsic flavor nor odor. When processed by enzymes or oxidization, their chemical components convert to vitamins and antioxidants (as in the human digestive tract) as well as flavor.

As we chew a green leaf, the tearing action of our teeth releases enzymes present within the leaf itself that quickly convert carotenoids into some of those grassy flavors we associate with chlorophyll’s green color. Other flavor compounds are released by chewing, and in complex concert create the particular flavors we know as lettuce, asparagus, pea, and so on. Even black tea, whose chlorophyll has been converted away from green by oxidization, has carotenoids to thank for some of the lighter, grassier elements of its flavor profile.

Spring milk, too, gets its hint of green from carotenoids. Ruminants are capable of transferring the A-vitamins they’ve gleaned from carotenoids (and all associated flavor compounds) into their milk, so a diet higher in fresh forage will translate to stronger flavors (and more vitamins) than milk from primarily grain-fed ruminants. Not surprisingly, the color of spring milk, a rich yellow-orange, comes from carotenoids as well.

To me, the flavor green is equally a texture, that soft, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness only spring vegetables have. The serendipity of fresh molecular content, soft fibers, ample moisture and fewer bitter compounds may all have a hand in fashioning the subtleties of early-season flavor.

In our region, spring is a cavalcade of moisture and sunlight, one following the other in sometimes hourly successions, tempered by cool nights. While the nutritional content of spring vegetables is certainly not greater than their summer counterparts, it is available in abundant and succulent mouthfuls.

Spring Alliums

Most cooks are familiar with the virtues of alliums, a botanical genus that includes garlic, onions, shallots and leeks. The alliums are a tribe of powerful flavors that constitute the backbone of countless soups, sautés, sauces, roasts, salads and stews. They are the definition of savory: pungently aromatic, acidic and spicy when fresh, oozing with deep, often sweet umami flavor when roasted. Their essence permeates a dish only to harmonize the other flavors, providing a song for them to dance to.

In the garden, as on the palate, alliums are lingering guests. Leeks, onions, garlic and shallots all have long maturation periods, occupying valuable garden real estate for up to nine months. Garlic, leeks, and shallots accomplish much of their extended growth period over winter, when little else is growing, but most onion varieties require spring planting and a long, luxurious soak in the sun to reach bulbing stage.

Late spring is the narrows of allium bulb availability: winter leeks are beginning to bolt, onion sets have just been planted, garlic and shallots are still a month or two from harvest, and storage bulbs are sprouting.

Luckily, lush, green spring has its own brand of alliums, enlisting fresh, herbal flavors, sweetness, and succulence in place of shelf-stable bulbs.

scallions

Scallions, also called green onions, bunching onions, or spring onions are one of two things: a variety of onion that never produces a bulb (usually labeled scallions or bunching onions) or a bulb-producing onion that has been picked before bulbing (usually labeled spring onions). The difference is horticultural, though not usually significant in the kitchen. True scallions (those that will never produce an onion) are one of the most nutritious alliums, boasting 140 times more phytonutrients than a typical white onion. Eaten fresh, they promise peak flavor and powerful nutrition in a small but versatile package.

chive flowers

Chives and their attractive purple flowers are one of the first edible alliums to appear in spring, sprouting as early as late February in our region. By May, their bloom is in full force, sending up a composite flower that is as attractive in a vase as it is delicious sprinkled on anything you can think of. Consider chives and their flowers as spring’s perfect condiment, adding a dash of oniony sweetness and densely packed nutrients to eggs, salads, pastas and more.

spring onions

Salad onions, sometimes also called spring onions, are a variety of sweet, bulbing onion harvested before reaching maturity. Their juicy, tender bulbs and green tips are delicious raw or roasted. They are one of my favorite spring vegetables to grill: the bulbs caramelize into silky, smoky sweetness while the green tips get a little singed, adding a crispy, toasted onion accent.

garlic scallions

Garlic Scallions are the garlicky cousin of scallions, immature garlic plants pulled while their bulb-ends are still tender and soft. Sliced thinly, they may be added raw to salads or used as a garnish. They are slightly drier than onion scallions, so roasting or sautéing them both deepens their garlic flavor and softens their texture. One of my favorite quiche preparations features garlic scallions; their combination of garlic-aroma and fresh allium brightness balances perfectly with the egg and cream richness.

Leek Scapes

Leek Scapes or shoots are the leafless flower stems of a leek plant. All alliums produce scapes—shallot and garlic scapes are seasonal delicacies that begin appearing in mid-June—which are an edible bi-product of a plant entering its next physiological stage. Unlike garlic or shallot scapes, leek scapes are best harvested by pulling out the whole plant once the flowering shoot has grown about four inches above the leaves (but has not yet bloomed). The blanched white stalk that leeks are best known for is still edible at this stage, and may be prepared by slicing it up to the point where it transitions to leaves. Peel back the leaves until you get to the firm but tender central stalk.

Later (a week or two from this point), the scape will become stiff like a young tree branch, but at this stage it should be slightly rubbery. The entire stalk and flower bud are edible and delicious, like leek-flavored asparagus. When my leek patch starts to bolt, I harvest them all at once, slicing the white bases and tossing them in the freezer to use later, extracting the scapes to cook now.

Garden Pearls

pea tendrils

May marches in with a ruffled lettuce cape, an asparagus crown studded with radishes, a necklace of glowing green pearls. Baskets of crunchy-sweet peas at the farmers’ market seem the poster child of spring vegetables—crisp, light, sugary and satisfying, they are the perfect snack food and a straightforward ingredient.

Historically, peas were harvested in their dried form and cooked, year-round, into thick porridges accented with seasonal vegetables and herbs. Peas’ high protein content made them a nutritious alternative to meat, and a staple of the commoner’s kitchen. Native to temperate regions of the Middle East and central Asia, the garden pea’s ancestor, known today as field peas, nourished generations of early civilizations and is thought to be one of the first agricultural crops.

Peas eaten fresh, as we think of them, were an Italian innovation. Italian botanists of the late Middle Ages selected a pea variety for earlier plantings and green pea harvest. Dubbed piselli novella (new peas), this novel crop quickly became popular with the Italian nobility, and traveled with Catherine de Medici to France, where farmers took this new genetic material and ran—cultivating sweeter and sweeter varieties, which they called petits pois (little peas). These varieties are known today as shelling peas, those whose pod is too fibrous to eat, but whose peas are the tender, creamy, silky rich sweetness a porridge-eater could only dream of.

Edible pea pods were also likely a European invention, though some claim that Chinese farmers may have also cultivated an edible pod type. In Europe, the pea’s biggest fan may have been the English, who are one of the earliest and most enthusiastic cultivators of garden varieties, though Holland is often credited with developing the first edible pods. Peas, in all three forms, came early to the New World and were staples of colonial settlements for their dry storage ability and high protein content.

Thomas Jefferson declared the pea his favorite vegetable, and in his garden at Monticello he grew 30 varieties, competing among the neighbors for earliest production. Those who make an annual practice of planting peas into their soggy spring soil know the feeling; peas are one of the first seeds we sow each year, and as such embody those first hopeful imaginings of a bountiful garden. At that stage of the game, looking over a garden still deep in hibernation, imagination is required.

Pea seeds sprout relatively quickly, and in cool soils, promptly providing the first hard evidence of a garden, but fruiting takes about two months. While the wait can be long for the main course, pea plants are themselves a sort of appetizer. Long embraced by Asian cuisines, the tender growth tips of the pea plant are a seasonal delicacy becoming more popular in American markets and restaurants. While harvesting and selecting pea shoots (sometimes called pea tips) has a few tricks, the rewards are worth the diligence.

Pea shoots, when harvested while still young and tender, are the most sumptuous green I know. They taste very much like a pea—all of its mellow richness and delightful nuance—with a depth only greens can provide; their cellular density designed for energy conversion and growth harnesses pea flavor and delivers it, in some perfectly concentrated form, in the space of a few delicate munches.

Pea shoots harvested too late in the game are fibrous, frustrating things. Cooking does them no good, so I suggest you save your pea shoot aspirations for only the best. When buying them at the market, test the stems for tenderness: pea shoots should separate easily with a small amount of pressure from your fingernail; those that resist will do the same to your teeth.

If you have a bit of garden space waiting for tomatoes or some other summer crop, consider a dense scattering of pea seeds (they can be planted up to five seed per inch) sown in succession over a few weeks. Cut the plants back once they reach about six inches (3-4 weeks from germination, though check them frequently for tenderness and harvest once the lower stems start to stiffen) and re-sow if your planting schedule permits. Sowing pea seeds for the purpose of harvesting them as shoots eliminates two problems at once: you won’t be checking the growth of those you planted for pod harvest and you can easily snip a handful or two of perfectly tender shoots all at once.

When those crunchy pods do arrive, in the garden or at market, know they are an ideal nutritional package: high protein, healthy fats, a rich assortment of vitamins. Peas are best when harvested early in their pod-forming stage and when eaten fresh, before their sweetness turns to starch, which continues even after harvest. For optimum flavor and nutritional benefits, keep a fresh and steady supply on hand.