The problem with tortilla chips is that they come in a giant bag. A giant bag of greasy, salty goodness. And I’m just one person, but I will eat the entire bag if given half a chance. I’ve often wished that tortilla chips came in little snack-sized bags, but if they do, I’ve yet to find them.
Admittedly, there are worse problems in life. But the good news is that this is a problem with a quick, cheap, and easy solution that involves oil and salt. The best kind of problem and solution, really.
I have mentioned before that I worked doing prep in a Mexican restaurant for a few years while I was in college.
I spent mornings back then at my prep table, drinking Mountain Dew while rock music rattled the stereo speakers and cool morning air wafted in the open back door. I cut up a lot of things, including corn tortillas for chips. I would take a thick stack of tortillas, cut through it quickly four times like a pizza, shove the triangular pieces off my table into a giant tub, then grab another stack and repeat this process until the tub was full. This wasn’t precision work, so my mind wandered or I shouted insults back and forth with the guys at the grill while my hands hustled. Throughout the day, the fry cook took handfuls of those tortilla triangles and plunged them into the fryer, poked them around a bit with a long set of tongs, then at the perfect moment, turned them out of their basket, all hot and crispy, into another tub.
Even if you don’t own a deep-fryer, this is an incredibly easy process to replicate at home. It only takes about ten minutes, and the chips are so much better than anything you can buy in a bag.
Here’s how: A wok is ideal for this, but you could also use a largish heavy-bottomed saucepan in a pinch. Either way, just keep a close eye on your oil during the process and don’t walk away.
Pour about two inches of vegetable oil into the wok, and turn heat to high (or more like medium high on a gas range). Place a stack of six or so corn tortillas on your cutting board, and cut them in half, then in fourths, then eighths. You should now have a pile of tortilla triangles. Continue to cut as many tortillas as you want.
Check your oil by tossing a drop of water in. When it sizzles hard, try a tortilla triangle. It should fry madly, but if the oil is starting to smoke, it’s too hot—turn it down a little. Gently toss in a handful of tortilla triangles. The sizzling and boiling should really escalate. Agitate them around a bit with a slotted spoon or a spider, if you have one.
Chips only take a few minutes to cook. Fish one out when they look crispy but not yet brown and try it. If it’s crunchy they’re done. If it’s leathery, give them another 30 seconds. If they start turning brown, you’ve gone a little too far but they are probably still pretty edible.
Scoop cooked chips from the oil–this is where the spider is especially handy. Put chips in a bowl, salt lightly, and toss another handful of triangles into the oil. Continue this process until you have enough chips—or a little more than enough. Because you’ll be amazed at how delicious they taste. You may not decide to make your own tortilla chips every time, but they are well worth the effort every now and then.
IN PICTURES: Fun fried foods
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In my working class family, meat was strictly the cheap cuts. When I was growing up, beef was chuck turned into burgers or meatloaf or spaghetti sauce – or the occasional pot roast, slow cooked so the fat melted into it and the toughness cooked out of it (as much as it does). Chicken was chicken, all of it relatively inexpensive back then, cooked and consumed with the skin on. And pork was most often chops, well marbled with fat before that was even a term used in households. Which probably explains why I like meat so much.
The cheap cuts are where the flavor is, in every juicy, chewy, sometimes stringy bite. Home cooks have known this pretty much forever and have developed techniques to bring out that flavor while taming the toughness that often accompanies these cuts – is indeed built into their muscle fiber.
Some of that big flavor and most of the juiciness comes from fat. And that’s a problem when it comes to pork chops. Pork producers have worked hard at slimming down their pigs in an effort to make pork “the other white meat,” closer to chicken in fat content than to beef. And they have succeeded. Some cuts are as low or even lower in fat than chicken. But the success comes at a cost, particularly when it comes to pork chops. With so much less fat marbled through the meat, chops often cook up dry and tough. Braising chops in liquid sometimes helps, but not always.
Brining chops – soaking them in a salt water solution for several hours before cooking – is a more reliable way to restore juiciness and tenderness. Brining is something of a balancing act, though. Besides the salt, sugar is required for the process. Too much of either or both can make chops taste like ham. So can brining meat for too long.
For this recipe, I took a conservative approach, both with ingredients and timing. The resulting chops were tender and juicy, with no hint of hamminess.
Which brings me to the plums. Pork loves fruit, more than any other meat. There’s an underlying sweetness to its savory flavor that makes pairing it with fruit a natural. We’ve made the most of this fact over the years, teaming various forms of pork with peaches, apples, cherries, mango and pears (twice). So it seemed like a good time to try plums.
Italian plums are one of those rare truly seasonal fruits that show up in markets for a short time late in the summer. They’re also called Italian prune plums, because that’s their primary use, being dried into prunes to be enjoyed year ’round. They’re smaller, firmer and less juicy than other plum varieties. This makes them less popular for eating out of hand, but perfect for baking. Marion’s always popular Plum Cake is a luscious example of that use.
And then there’s grilling. Halved and tossed with a little olive oil, they cook up quickly and take on a sweet, smokey taste. Since I was working with Italian plums, I took the chops in the same direction, adding tarragon and garlic to the brine. The result was subtle, letting the meat’s flavor shine through. As grilling season begins to wind down, the combination of the seasonal plums and flavorful chops tasted like the end of summer.
Grilled Pork Chops and Italian Plums
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 generous tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine (see Kitchen Notes for substitutions)
4 bone-in pork chops, about 3/4 to 1 inch thick (about 1/2 pound each)
freshly ground black pepper
12 Italian prune plums
Brine the chops. Combine salt, brown sugar, tarragon and garlic in a saucepan or heatproof bowl. Add one cup of boiling water. Stir until salt and sugar dissolve. Let sit for five minutes for flavors to steep. Stir in wine and one cup of iced water. Cool completely.
Place chops in a large zippered plastic bag. Add brine to bag and seal, forcing out as much air as possible. Work brine around the chops and refrigerate, occasionally turning the bag and working the brine around the chops, for at least five hours and up to 12 hours. The brine won’t keep the chops totally immersed in the bag; you can either increase the brine ingredients proportionally or turn the bag as I did.
Grill the chops and plums. Prepare your grill for direct grilling. About half an hour before you’re ready to grill, remove the chops from the fridge and let them come to room temperature. Meanwhile, prepare the plums. Rinse them and pat them dry with a clean dish towel. Halve the plums, removing the pits, and place them in a large bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil and toss gently with a wooden spoon.
When the grill is almost ready, remove the chops from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Multiple paper towels. They will have taken on a lot of moisture and are now ready to exude it. Season generously with ground black pepper. Oil the grill grate and place chops directly over the coals. Cook uncovered for a couple of minutes and then close the grill. After five or six minutes of total cooking time for the first side, turn the chops, cover the grill and cook for another five minutes or so. By now, they will probably cooked through (a quick read thermometer should register 145 degrees F). Mine were still a little blond looking, so I turned them and cooked them for another minute. Don’t overcook them, though – it’s not needed, and you’ll undo all the juiciness you brined into them.
Transfer to a large plate and tent with foil (kind of stack them – they lose less heat as they rest). Give the plums another gentle stir to coat with oil, then place them on the grill cut side down. Let them grill for 2 to 3 minutes, then start turning them, using tongs and a spatula. If they haven’t taken on grill marks yet, let them cook another minute or so. They won’t all take on those beautiful grill marks, despite your best efforts. Move on. After you turn them, they only need to cook for a minute more. Transfer to a plate. The skins will want to slip off them; try to keep most of the skins with their original owners.
Transfer the chops to a serving platter. Arrange the plums around them, gently pushing skins back into place as needed. Serve.
Experiment. Play with the aromatics, trying different herbs or adding onions. Substitute apple cider or a little vinegar for the wine. Just keep the salt and sugar in balance. You’ll find lots of helpful brining basics and some additional recipe ideas here at About.com.
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The collages and paintings by Maz Dixon featuring “The Big Things of Australia,” will be featured in the upcoming curated exhibition “Art + Food: Beyond the Still Life” at Brenda May Gallery in Sydney. Beginning in the early 1960s, monumental objects ranging from giant fruit to prawns and pelicans began to litter the landscape of Australia.
Personally, the first “Big Thing” I encountered after moving to Australia was The Big Prawn in Ballina, which was constructed in 1989. In reality, the bubblegum pink crustacean emerges on the horizon of the roadside much in the same way it pokes out of the surf of Dixon’s "Monument (Prawn)." Here the vintage feel of the artwork is echoed in the recipe with the retro-classic, prawn cocktail.
In her artist statement about the work, Maz Dixon writes, “Our view of the landscape is heavily mediated by mass-produced travel ephemera such as maps, souvenirs and postcards.” The small series of paintings and collages in “Art + Food” explore the “gap between a traveller’s expectations and the reality of a place. Using the language of postcards and souvenirs, [Dixon is] going through a process of re-exploration, mapping the many layers of cultural detritus burying the destination.”
"Monument (Prawn)" can be viewed at Brenda May Gallery starting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, as part of the curated exhibition “Art + Food: Beyond the Still Life.”
Retro Prawn Cocktail
Yield: 3/4 cup of sauce suitable for around 500 grams (about 1 lb.) of prawns
1/4 cup tomato ketchup
1/4 cup chili sauce
2 tablespoons horseradish purée
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Dash of Tabasco sauce
Sea salt and ground pepper to taste
500 grams (about 1lb.) cooked prawns
In a small bowl, mix all of the ingredients well. Serve with cooked prawns. Sauce will keep for up to two weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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Megan Fizell is the curator of the exhibit “Art + Food: Beyond the Still Life.”
I was introduced to this delicious substance by my husband's Aunt Maggie who gave us a half-pint jar she'd made from her own small stash during our Thanksgiving canned goods swap last fall. It collided with a log of fresh goat cheese and some herb-covered crackers and lasted all of half an hour.
This stuff is seriously delicious. It's amazingly tasty with cream cheese and lox on a bagel, as a spread on a salami sandwich, with goat cheese and crackers, or lots of other ways.
The good news is that it is not very hard to make (whether or not you end up canning it). But you really need to make it now before sweet pepper season ends. You do not have to use red peppers though the color of the jam will be prettier if you do. So go buy a boatload of sweet peppers (or harvest your own if you've got 'em). Then get jamming.
The steps are pretty simple – you blend or cuisinart (yes, I use that as a verb) the peppers, then salt and let drain for a few hours.
Then add sugar and vinegar and simmer down to a thick, jammy consistency.
Then can it (or if you prefer to make a really small batch, just store it in an airtight container once it's cooled down). But I suggest you make enough to can at least a few jars – once you've tasted this stuff, you're going to want them. They also make great gifts.
Red Pepper Jam
Makes roughly 2 pints (or 4 half-pints)
12-15 large, sweet red peppers, rinsed and with the stems, ribs and seeds removed
2 cups apple cider or white vinegar (I used apple cider)
3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons salt
1. Chop or blend the peppers in a Cuisinart or blender. Remove to a bowl, sprinkle the chopped peppers with the salt and let stand for three to four hours then drain.
2. Place the peppers in a pot, add the sugar and vinegar and simmer gently until thick and jammy, about 40 minutes to one hour.
3. If you plan to can any of this delicious stuff, use this time while the jam is simmering to sterilize your canning jars and lids and get your canner pot ready to go. If you don't want to preserve any, just kick back.
4. Once the jam has reached the desired consistency (it should thicken a little when it cools, mind you), if you're canning, ladle the jam into the sterilized jars, wipe the rims clean of any drips, apply the sterilized lids and bands and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Let cool in a draft-free place then test the seals. If good, you can store for up to a year. Any that have not sealed properly should go into the fridge and get used within a week or two. If you're not canning it, let it cool a bit, then pour it into an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to two weeks.
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Can you say yummy goodness? I can after this lava cookie experiment. I have to credit my sister with this idea, or rather the onset of her visit. My sister's favorite dessert is molten chocolate cake or lava cake. I've tried various recipes in the past and usually am thwarted in finding the recipe for lava cake goodness that I aspire to. My sister was coming up to visit one of her daughters (my niece who now goes to college in the area) and wanted "something chocolate." Rather than making another attempt at a lava cake, I decided to try and make a lava cookie instead. I'd wanted to try this brown butter chocolate chip cookie from Alli-n-Son's blog so it seemed like a good time to try out both.
First of all, I love just about anything with browned butter. The fragrant smell alone could bring me to my knees. And the super-deliciousness of its taste? Uber goodness. Second, instead of chocolate chips, I chopped up one of the blocks of milk chocolate I had brought back from Switzerland in July, thereby almost guaranteeing this was going to turn out well. You simply can't go wrong with Swiss chocolate. After I made this cookie dough, it smelled so good I almost ate the dough. And I never eat cookie dough, much preferring the baked version. So for me to consider snitching cookie dough because it smelled and looked so good is almost unheard of. If you're a cookie dough lover, make a pact with yourself that you will reserve some dough to actually bake. Otherwise, you're going to miss out on a really good lava cookie.
I used Nutella as the lava portion for the middle of the cookie but if Nutella isn't your thing, you can also use caramel, biscoff spread, or even melt some chocolate chips and add a little butter to keep it liquid for a pure chocolate center. The Nutella worked stupendously well in this cookie (I'm bringing out all the superlatives for this recipe because it was just that good). You can serve this with ice cream but I found it doesn't need it because it's a good standalone dessert even without ice cream. I may try a different version with a white chocolate chip cookie and biscoff spread next time.
These cookies are a two-step process, since you’ll need to chill the Nutella-stuffed dough at least overnight.
Nutella-stuffed chocolate chip lava cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon slices
2-1/2 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt (I used fleur de sel but you can also use regular salt)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1-1/4 cups light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups milk chocolate chunks
In a small pot melt the butter over medium heat, whisking occasionally. Once melted, the butter will foam up, and then subside. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until light brown specks form at the bottom of the pot and the butter has a nutty aroma. Careful not to let it burn. Remove from heat and pour into a glass bowl. Set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, sift together the bread flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.
In a small bowl whisk together the milk, egg, egg yolk and vanilla extract, and set aside.
Using an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, on medium speed cream together the cooled browned butter and sugars for 2 minutes.
On low speed, add in the egg mixture, mixing until well combined, about 30 seconds.
Slowly stir in the flour mixture, mixing until well combined, scraping down the sides as needed.
Stir in the chocolate chunks. Form into dough balls, dropping a spoonful of Nutella in the middle and wrapping the dough around to cover the filling completely. Alternatively you can drop a spoonful of dough in a ramekin, drop a dollop of Nutella over it then cover with another spoonful of dough, filling the ramekin 2/3 full.
Chill the dough balls (or ramekins) in the fridge overnight or up to 48 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Line two cookie sheets parchment paper.
Place dough balls about 2 inches apart on each pan. Flatten balls slightly. If using ramekins, place on unlined baking sheet.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pans half way through for evening browning.
Cool slightly before moving to a wire rack to cool completely. Serve warm.
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During the change of seasons, it isn’t just my wardrobe that straddles the two. One day I’m thrilled to wear boots for the first time in months, the next day I’m thankful that my flip flops are taking one last tour of the back yard.
I’ve already baked my first pumpkin treat, filling the house with the aroma of autumn spices. Yet, we are still hunting through the thick foliage along our fence and discovering large, crisp cucumbers. This summer, I put my new mandolin to use a number of times turning our freshly harvested cucumbers into this thinly sliced salad.
This typical, simple cucumber salad is a favorite. The bite of the vinegar and the aromatic dill are held together in creamy, Greek yogurt. During my August dieting days, I heaped piles of these green discs on my plate – it is low calorie and high flavor. Ever since I read that the skin holds all the vitamins, I stopped peeling cucumbers to boost the nutritional value.
If you don’t mind a little less crunch, this cucumber dill salad will last a number of days in the refrigerator. If you can find fresh dill, use it. Otherwise, good dried dill will do.
Dill Cucumber Salad with Greek Yogurt
2 large cucumbers
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (or dried)
1 teaspoon white sugar
Wash cucumbers and slice them into thin disks. In a bowl, combine yogurt, vinegar, dill, sugar and salt. Taste and adjust to your liking. Pour over cucumbers and mix to coat the cucumbers. For best flavor, let the salad sit for 30 minutes before eating
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Today's post is written by Terry Boyd's wife, Marion.
Summer is drawing to a close – we have a real blanket on the bed, we are wearing sweaters in the evening, and we are casting around for ways to use the bits and bobs that we harvest here from our apartment garden. The nation’s corn crop may have suffered this year, but our tomato crop is record-breaking. Outside, we have just a tiny scrap of ground under cultivation, but it is giving us a quart of cherry tomatoes every day, on bad days – and that is to ignore the big tomatoes, which are coming in with a vengeance.
And friends, I have also figured out how to beat the local squirrels. It’s been years of frustration, featuring comical shots of me, in various inappropriate garments, yelling even more inappropriate things at squirrels as they frisk up ahead with fat ripe red tomatoes in their clever jaws. But, because every year I rotate a different tomato variety into the mix, I stumbled on an answer: yellow. In our neighborhood, the squirrels do not recognize yellow tomatoes as food. Red tomatoes, yes. Peppers, berries, French fries, apples, yes. But yellow tomatoes, for no reason I understand, are safe. This year I planted only yellow varieties, and now we have a bumper crop, small and large, pear-shaped and round, all of them luscious, well-balanced explosions of acid and sweet, and not one meddling squirrel has touched them. Not. One.
We thought of this recipe on the fly as part of a recent weekend barbecue. We’ve got tomatoes! We’ve got potatoes! We’ve got 30 minutes! It’s one of those dishes that is so simple, it is almost not a recipe, but a description.
Potato and Cherry Tomato Salad
Serves 4 to 6
30 fingerling potatoes, mixed red and white
A pint of cherry tomatoes, cut in half
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
Wash the little tomatoes and cut them in half. Our version uses Sun Gold tomatoes, our favorite, but use the ones you like best. A mix of little heirlooms, red, yellow, purple, would be very handsome.
Make the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set it aside.
Choose fingerling potatoes that are all about the same size, nice unbruised ones without eyes. Don’t peel them. Put them in a pan, cover generously with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for five to seven minutes, depending on the size, until they are just tender.
When they are cooked, drain them and plunge into cold water for a minute so you can handle them. Cut each in half lengthwise and place in a medium bowl.
Pour the dressing over the potatoes – use just enough to coat the potatoes, not so much that it pools in the bottom of the bowl. Save any extra dressing for another salad.
Set aside a few tomato halves for garnish. Carefully pour the rest into the potato salad bowl, and very gently fold everything together.
Garnish with the remaining tomatoes, snip some chives over the salad and serve. That’s it.
This is also really wonderful the next day, cold from the fridge.
Up until a couple years ago, quinoa was relatively unheard of. It certainly wasn’t something my family ate when I was growing up and I rarely ran across it on restaurant menus, cookbooks or online. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, quinoa seemed to explode onto the food scene. Suddenly, quinoa is everywhere. It’s actually been on a gradual rise in popularity over the past several years and now this trendy pseudograin has found a place with the cool kids, right next to cupcakes and macarons.
Despite it’s relatively new popularity, there’s actually nothing new about quinoa. On the contrary, it was once considered a sacred food source of the ancient Incas. And with good reason. Quinoa is high in protein and unique in the realm of vegetable proteins for its notable lysine content. Containing all eight essential amino acids, quinoa is considered to be a complete protein, which is especially attractive for people looking to get their protein from non-meat sources. It’s also high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, gluten-free, wheat-free, and easily digestible. It’s truly a nutritional superfood.
A few years ago, after reading an article touting the awesomeness of quinoa, I ran to the store, bought myself a bag and prepared it with dried fruits and a bit of honey for breakfast. To be honest, I was less than thrilled with the result and hadn’t prepared it since; until yesterday, that is.
Inspired by the request of a friend, I decided to give it another try. This time, I went with a savory preparation, incorporating some of my favorite flavors; sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and goat cheese. I stuffed all of this delicious goodness into a baby eggplant and the result was phenomenal. Seriously delicious! Have it for lunch or make it as a side dish for dinner. You’ll be happy you did.
Now, be careful to pronounce it correctly when talking to your friends about your new favorite quinoa recipe. Though, by appearance and common convention, you may assume it’s pronounced Kin-O-ah, the correct pronunciation is actually KEEN-wah. It takes me a forced effort to remember this fact. My mind thinks Kin-O-ah, while I force my mouth to say KEEN-wah. In fact, if someone started talking to me about KEEN-wah, it would probably take me a good minute before I figured out what they were talking about. It goes against my natural instincts, but KEEN-wah it is.
2 baby eggplants
3/4 cup quinoa
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place quinoa and vegetable stock in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and gently simmer for 15 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat. Keep covered and allow it to rest for 5 minutes. Gently fluff with a fork.
Meanwhile, cut the eggplants in half lengthwise. Use a knife to cut around the edges being careful not to cut through the skin. Leave about a 1/4 inch remaining around the edges. Use a spoon to scoop out the middle.
Chop the scooped eggplant into small pieces. Drizzle with olive oil. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, parsley, salt, crushed red pepper, and about 2/3 of the goat cheese crumbles. (Reserve the remaining 1/3 of goat cheese crumbles for topping the stuffed eggplants.)
Once the quinoa is cooked, gently toss it with the eggplant mixture. Rub the outside of the eggplant skins with a small amount of olive oil, then place on a baking sheet. Generously stuff each skin with the quinoa mixture. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining goat cheese crumbles on top of each eggplant during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
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Forget about buying the same old boring bottles of soda from the supermarket. There is a much better and creative way – with a little bit of effort – to bring a bit of sparkle to your next party. The Artisan Soda Workshop by Andrea Lynn (Ulysses Press, 2012, 127 pp.) has more than 70 recipes that will help you to make your own sodas at home using fresh fruit and the real flavors of spices and herbs.
With sections ranging from “Homemade Soda Copycats” (Natural Golden Cola Syrup, Root Beer Syrup), to “Soda Adventures with Herbs and Spices” (Sea Salt-Lime Syrup, Mango-Chile Syrup), to “Seasonal Suds” and “Agua Frescas and Shrubs” there’s a lot here to explore and enjoy.
“Soda didn’t start out as a mass-produced uniform product,” Lynn writes in the introduction to “The Artisan Soda Workshop.” “A hundred years ago, soda could be enjoyed at local shops that offered it in a wide variety of house-made options. Now, more people are looking back to the history of soda and recognizing all the possibilities; they’re applying modern ideas about food to make new and exciting soda recipes.”
While homemade sodas may seem like a chore, when one could simply twist off the cap of a mass-produced drink, there are some added benefits. Homemade sodas are made with real fruit, not artificial flavoring, and you can control the sugar levels to your preference. The syrups just need to be stirred into seltzer water, and Lynn says purchasing your own seltzermaker is worth it. (She likes www.sodastream.com.) There are also plenty of other uses for your fruit syrup, such as drizzling it over pancakes or atop big bowl of ice cream.
We had a Cowboy Chili Cookoff at work this week, and instead of trying to compete among all the other chuck-and-beans creations I decided to go another route and bring homemade soda punch. It was a good decision I think – there were 19 crockpots of chili but only two homemade sodas: Prickly Pear Agua Fresca and Sparkling Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca.
“Agua fresca” simply means “fresh water” and its a common practice in Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean cuisine to serve “fresh water” blended with a bit of fruit. There are almost endless combinations, as Lynn points out in her book, and once you get down the basic knack of boiling down fruit to make simple syrups you can quickly experiment on your own.
For instance, with the Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca, I bet adding a cup of freshly chopped mint to the simple syrup would add yet another level of taste to the sweet-then-heat flavor of this sparkling pink drink. Even without the mint, it was a big hit at our Cowboy Cookoff.
As with most drinks, “to taste” is completely subjective. Lynn does offer some basic measurement guides at the back of the book, but the yields were hard to translate (for me) into a large-punch-bowl size. So I simply puréed and strained one small, seedless watermelon, which resulted in about 4 cups of juice, squeezed in the juice of two limes, and used the entire 1/2 cup of the jalapeño simple syrup (see recipe below) combined with 2 liters of sparkling plain seltzer. The combo was perfect, with only the slightest hint of heat. Someone else thought you could get away with eliminating the sugar from the simple syrup altogether, since the watermelon is already quite sweet. As I mentioned, “to taste” is completely subjective.
For the Prickly Pear Agua Fresca, I was intrigued after reading about prickly pear punch earlier this summer on The Ravenous Couple’s blog and thought I might find some prickly pears in the supermarket in the Hispanic neighborhood near me. Sure enough, there was an unmarked basket of prickly pears, also known as cactus fruit or dessert figs, and I bought 16. Prickly pears are covered in fine needles that will embedded in your finger tips. I tried soaking the pears first and then wearing gardening gloves when I peeled them, but neither of these were much help!
Peeling the pears is actually quite simple. You chop off both ends, slice about 1/4 inch through the flesh lengthwise, and peel. The peel comes off all in one piece and you are left with a bright magenta egg shape that has a consistency of a kiwi. Simply cut this up, and boil in a pot of water. Or you can purée the pulp and add to water or lemonade. (You can find a good pictorial guide on pealing prickly pears here.)
I put all 16 prickly pears in 6 cups of water and thought it would only take me 1/2 an hour to boil the syrup down to a cup, per Lynn’s measurements. But this did not happen. After an hour of simmering I still had a lot of water left. So I strained out the pulp and continued simmering another 40 minutes until I had about 1-1/2 cups of syrup.
When I added the agave syrup, and then added 2 tablespoons of the finished syrup to a glass of plain seltzer water, I felt the taste was too mild. In the end, I added the entire 1-1/2 cups of prickly pear syrup to 2 liters of lemon-lime seltzer. The added citrus taste was just enough to complement the prickly pear taste – faintly resembling bubblegum – without overpowering it.
Was it worth all the trouble to make my own soda? I’d say yes. First, they were a novelty among the regular plastic jugs of store bought soda lining the drinks table. Second, the bowls of magenta and pink punch with floating lime circles was pleasing to look at and inviting to try. Third, they tasted delicious and fresh!
So try artisan soda sometime and make a real treat for your dinner guests, friends, and family.
Fizzy Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca
Excerpted with permission from “The Artisan Soda Workshop” by Andrea Lynn
Yield: About 2 cups
Watermelon and jalapeño make for a great pairing of sweet and heat. The level of heat in individual jalapeños can vary quite a bit, so you may want to taste as you go to get a sense of the spice level. Jalapeño seeds contain a lot of the pepper’s punch, so make sure to include them.
Jalapeño simple syrup
1 jalapeño, chopped, seeds included
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2-1/2 cups cubed watermelon
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
To make the simple syrup: In a small pot, combine the jalapeño, water, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat and the let cook until the sugar is entirely dissolved and the syrup is flavored with jalapeño, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Then, use a fine-mesh sieve to strain the jalapeño pieces out of the simple syrup. Refrigerate the syrup in a covered container for up to 7 days.
To make the watermelon juice: In a food or blender, combine the watermelon and lime juice. Blend until the watermelon is puréed, 1 to 2 minutes. Then, fit a bowl with a fine-mesh sieve, and pour the juice through the strainer to catch the pulp. Make sure to press the puréed fruit against the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible, and discard the pulp. Refrigerate the watermelon juice in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
To make Fizzy Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca: Fill a 10-ounce glass with 8 ounces (1 cup) watermelon juice. Stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons of jalapeño simple syrup to taste. Top with seltzer, and serve.
Prickly Pear Syrup
Excerpted with permission from “The Artisan Soda Workshop” by Andrea Lynn
Yield: About 2 cups
Yield: 1/2 cup
Prickly pear is the fruit of a paddle-shaped cactus. Some people describe its flavor as reminiscent of bubblegum. Don’t be intimidated; it’s easier to work with prickly pears than it seems. The soda’s magenta hue makes this one of the most beautiful of the bunch.
8 prickly pears
3 cups water
2 tablespoons agave syrup
To tackle the prickly pear, use a cutting board that you don’t mind potentially staining. Slice off both ends of each prickly pear. Then, cut down one side of the prickly pear skin. Use your hands to open the skin around the prickly pear and remove the flesh. you can use your hands to break the flesh into pieces, or chop with a knife.
Combine the prickly pear pieces and water in a medium pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low or medium-low, and let simmer for about 15 minutes, until most of the liquid is gone, with just 1/2 cup remaining, plus the prickly pear seeds. Remove from the heat, and let cool. Use a fine-mesh sieve to strain the pulp and seeds from the syrup, making sure to press it against the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir in the agave to combine. Refrigerate the syrup in a covered container for up to 5 days.
To make Prickly Pear Soda: Stir 2 tablespoons Prickly Pear Syrup, or to taste, into 10 ounces (1-1/4 cups) seltzer.
Field peas are one of my favorite things about summer. I freeze them in little baggies to pull out at the height of the winter blahs to remind me of the warmer months. I always seem to remember them as warmer months, not miserable, stifling hot and humid. On Saturdays, when I am cooking and putting by my farmers market purchases, I put them on to cook with some piece of pork, garlic or onion and let them bubble away while I work. But I also love them chilled in salads, so I decided to work on a pickled relish that would hark back to those fresh summer salads, chock full of farmers market ingredients, with a nice vinegary zing.
The peas need to be of roughly the same size. I have found that tiny lady peas turn mushy and disintegrate, while larger butter beans are unevenly pickled. Crowder, whippoorwill and the darker peas tend to turn the brine an unattractive color.You could add some zipper or cream peas, as long as they size is right. If you like a little spice, very finely dice a jalapeno or two and add to the mix, or put a whole hot chili in while cooking, then fish it out before canning. You could also add a pinch of dried pepper flakes.
Pickled field peas are a great relish beside roast pork, but also make a great dip for corn chips. In the middle of winter, you can pretend it’s summer by serving a scoop of this pickle in a lettuce cup as a salad. Pickle black-eyed peas alone, and you have a perfect hostess gift for New Year’s, or a special treat to serve for good luck.
Pickled Field Peas
2 pounds fresh field peas, all about the same size – purple hull, pink-eye, black-eye or a combination
1 large Vidalia onion
2 green bell peppers
1 red or orange bell pepper or 1 pimento pepper
3 cloves garlic
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons canning salt or 3 tablespoons table salt
1-1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Put the peas into a large bowl of cold water and leave to soak for about 10 minutes. Finely dice the onions and peppers (I use my as-seen-on-TV onion chopper to speed things up). Finely dice the garlic.
Skim off any floating peas, then use your hands to scoop the peas out of the water and place them in a 5-quart Dutch oven. Let the water drip through your fingers leaving any debris and dirt behind. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, just until slightly soft, but still with a bite. Drain, rinse and return to the pot, which you should wipe out first to remove any scum.
Add the onions, peppers and garlic to the peas in the pot and stir well to distribute evenly. Pour in the vinegar and sugar, stir well then add the salt, mustard, paprika, celery seed and pepper.
Bring to simmer over medium high heat, reduce the heat to medium and simmer, at just a gentle bubble, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. While your peas are cooking, get a boiling water canner or big stockpot of water going. When the peas are almost ready, pour some boiling water over the lids of the jars to soften the seals and set aside. When the cooking time is up for the peas, immediately scoop into sterilized canning jars. Top with a little extra brine to cover, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Dry the lids with a clean paper towel and place on the jars. Screw on the bands, then process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Refrigerate any extra peas, and discard any extra brine.
When the jars are processed, leave to cool on a towel on the counter.
The processed jars will keep for a year in a cool, dark place. Don’t forget to label your jars!
Makes about 7 half-pint jars.
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