Monday, May 27, 2013

Aglow with summer

Rhubarb-vanilla jam
Last year, I let rhubarb season pass me clear on by. I had deadlines to meet and couldn't allow myself even to daydream about matters pink and bright. It would have been too much. One thing would have led to another. Daydreams to a bus that would take me across town. That bus to the festive sprawl of Green City Market and row upon row of pearly pink stalks. A serious armload of such stalks to an afternoon in the kitchen, chopping them up and letting them cook down in sugar. And if you ask me, there few better ways to spend an afternoon. But deadlines are deadlines. So I pushed those thoughts out of my head and let the season pass.
This year, I was determined to have things turn out differently. This season would have to make up for the last. I would get my hands on some rhubarb early and make the most of it. So, last weekend, as a start, I scooped up some rhubarb from the market and made myself a few jars of rosy-hued jam.
Rhubarb stalks Chopping stalks Macerated rhubarb
Now, making jam is one of those things I don't have much experience with. I've made jelly here and there in small quantities, but none has been an unqualified success. Like the apple jelly I made last October--I let it cook for way too long. After it set, it was pretty well unworkable, like trying to spoon and spread an oversized gummy bear on toast. So, yes, preserving fruit--or at least fruit juices--has not really been my thing. But lately, for some reason, the idea is something I've been drawn to. I think that it has something to do with tangibility. So much of what we make in the kitchen disappears so quickly. That's just how it is--an afternoon's effort spent in a few mouthfuls. But a batch of jam is something you can hang on to for a good long while. And it marks some particular moment in your year. I, anyway, find comfort in the idea that I could wake up on a dark morning in January and find a row of jars in the kitchen still aglow with summer. There would be something really special about prying open one of those jars on a morning like that and thinking back to the day I'd ladled in the fruit and sealed it up.
But I'd be surprised if this particular batch lasted until January. For one, it's a very small batch--just a little over a pint's worth. But more to the point, the jam is very good--bright, fruity, and aromatic. It'll be hard not to go through it all pretty quickly. I'm hoping, though, that this batch is only the first of many I'll make this year.
Rhubarb jam on toast

Rhubarb-Vanilla Jam
Adapted from Brandi Henderson's I made that!
Note: Though my jam-making experience is limited, I've found that it's one of those cooking processes where it pays to be very attentive--not enough stirring and you might scorch your fruit or let it overcook. You could also make use of a candy or instant-read thermometer in cooking the jam (the set point is supposed to be 220 degrees F), but I've found the wrinkle test to be a more reliable indicator. About the lemon. The lemon in this recipe is important for two reasons. First, the juice adds the acidity needed to make the jam shelf-stable. Second, both the juice and rind add pectin, which will help your jam set.

24 oz rhubarb, trimmed
17.25 oz granulated sugar
Half a vanilla bean
1 lemon, preferably organic

Slice the rhubarb into pieces about 1/8 of an inch thick. For particularly thick stalks, halve them lengthwise before slicing.
Pour the sugar into a large bowl. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and add them to the sugar. Using your fingers, break up the clumps of seed and distribute throughout the sugar. Add in the rhubarb and the vanilla pod. Juice the lemon and add to the rhubarb. Cut the rind and flesh into quarters, remove any seeds, and then add the quarters to the bowl. Stir well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour (but up to overnight) to allow the fruit to release its juices.
Sterilize two half-pint jars and their bands and lids, either by heating them in a 200 degree F oven or in boiling water for 10 minutes. Put a small plate in the freezer. 
Transfer the rhubarb to a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a lively simmer over medium-high heat. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the fruit is thickened and hisses loudly in the pot as you stir, about 20-25 minutes. Check to see if the jam will set. Spoon a small amount on the cold plate from the freezer. Return the plate to the freezer for 1 minute. Try pushing the jam with your finger. If the surface wrinkles, the jam is ready. If not, continue cooking for a few more minutes and repeat the test. Remove the jam from heat and ladle into the sterilized jars, leaving a 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe the jars' rims clean and put on their lids and bands. 
Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes (count 10 minutes from when the water returns to a boil). Remove the jars from the water and let cool. Check to see if a proper seal has formed by removing each jar's band and holding the jar by its lid. The lid should hold firm. If it doesn't, store the jar in the fridge and eat its contents promptly.
Makes about 1 pint.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

In-between days

Pork balls in broth
Around here, spring tends to come in dribs and drabs--a splash of sunshine here, a smattering of blooms there. It takes a while for the season to gather momentum, to really come into its own. In some ways, these first few weeks are the ones I like best. The first shoots out of the ground, the first lacy blossoms on the trees--spotting these on walks around the neighbourhood makes me want to skip to the end of the block. Spring! It's here! It's here! There's something so good about the newness of it all. 
Mise for the pork balls Chopped For mixing
But like I said, the season's momentum is slow to gather. Like right now, it feels just about like spring. It's warm enough to throw open all the windows, and when passing through the yard, it's hard not to crush a few violets underfoot. They've got it carpeted. But most of the farmers' markets in town have yet to open, and even when they do in the coming days, it might be a while before there's much more filling the stands than asparagus and pea shoots (which is not to say that I have anything against either). So, yes, I'm being impatient. But after months and months of brassicas--roasted, braised, and pan-fried--how can you not be? There comes a point in the year, however short-lived, when it's hard to even look at another cabbage.
Fry up Pork balls Bowls
But, in these in-between days, cabbage is what you can count on. So here is something to help you wait out the days--Nigel Slater's chicken broth with pork and kale. Now, I can't go so far as to say that it tastes like spring--that would just be a bit of a stretch--but it doesn't quite recall the depths of winter either. An in-between kind of dish. For, though that ruffled kale afloat in broth has an unmistakable wintriness to it, the meatballs do not. These are rolled together with generous handfuls each of parsley, mint, and scallion, as well as a bit of fresh chile for kick, then seared golden in a hot pan and finished in the broth. The effect is something bright and fresh, something powerfully enlivening--enough to slough off the last of winter's drabness and make you forget (at least for a little while) that you are waiting.

Chicken Broth with Pork and Kale
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender
Note: As Slater says, you can substitute the kale leaves for savoy cabbage, and I get the feeling that I might have preferred it that way. I also bulked up the leftovers the next day with some cubes of boiled potato, which rounded things out rather nicely.

400 g / 14 oz ground pork
2 small, hot chiles
4 scallions
2 garlic cloves
6 bushy sprigs of parsley
6 bushy sprigs of mint
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
A little vegetable oil

1 liter / 4 cups chicken stock
125 g / 4 1/2 oz kale leaves (from about half a bunch)

Remove any tough stalks from the kale leaves and tear into rough pieces. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the kale for a minute or two, then drain and set aside. Give the pot a quick rinse.
Put the pork in a mixing bowl. Finely chop the chiles and add them with their seeds to the pork. Slice the scallions, discarding the roots and the very darkest tips of the leaves. Peel and mince the garlic, and add with the scallions to the pork. Pull the parsley and mint leaves from their stems and chop coarsely, then add them to the pork with the salt. Mix everything thoroughly with your hands and form into about sixteen balls, about 1 1/4 inches in diameter.
Warm a thin slick of oil in a cast-iron pan and cook the pork balls, in batches if needed, until toasty on all sides, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the same pot the kale cooked in, bring the stock to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Lower in the pork balls and then decrease the heat and simmer for 5-7 minutes, until they are cooked through. Add the kale to the soup and serve immediately.
Serves 3-4.