Monday, August 20, 2012

In The Can

I am devoting my blog space this week to celebrating the time tested process of preserving foods at home.

More than ever many of us are concerned about where our food comes from and what is in it, so it's no surprise that canning is making a comeback. Canning means having more control over what we eat, and using food when it tastes best, is the least expensive, and is grown locally. Plus you use a simple, chemical-free preservation process. And really, there's nothing like opening a jar of summery tasting preserves in the middle of winter.

I started canning only a few years ago, when a friend and I took a class at the Waltham Fields Community Farm. I know some folks are squeamish about canning for fears that it is either too much work or not safe, but neither are true. In terms of safety, all that is needed is a plenty of boiling water and some care. The Ball Jar website is invaluable for tips on safety, process and equipment.

In terms of cost and time, for about $50 and five hours work, I churned out twenty 1/2 pint jars of delicious peach butter (a cross between a spread and a jam) from peaches I bought at the Arlington Farmer's Market. So I have a yummy peach spread for my toast all winter, plus several holiday gifts to boot.

You can get easily overwhelmed by the available canning equipment. But you don't need them all to be successful. For peach butter, I used three pots: a big one (a 12 quart with the strainer insert) to sterilize jars and create the vacuum seal, a medium one (6 quart) to cook the jam, and a smaller one to skin the peaches. For any canning project, I use a magnetic stick to pick up the flat lids once they are washed and keep them clean, a grabber to move the cans in and out of boiling water without boiling your fingers, and a wide mouth funnel to get the food in the jars. All of these can be found in the canning section of any hardware store or here. So give it a try!

Peach Butter
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, makes about 12 1/2 pint jars

10 pounds peaches
3 c. granulated sugar
The juice from 3 lemons
1 t. salt

Start the largest pot of water to boil with empty glass jars and bands in it. Bring it to a boil, then turn off and let the jars and rings sit. In a bowl of hot (not boiling) soapy water, wash new lids.

At the same time, fill a smaller pot with water and bring to a boil. Set up a bowl with ice water and the jam cooking pot nearby. Use a sharp knife to score the bottom of each peach with an x. When the water is boiling, drop in peaches. After about 1 minute, you will see the skin start to peel away from the fruit. Remove the peaches and place in the ice water bath. When the peaches are cool enough to handle (about 30 seconds), the skin should peel right off. Cut the peaches in 4 pieces directly into the cooking pot. Repeat the process as needed until all peaches are skinned and cut.

Add sugar, lemon juice and salt to the pot of peaches and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook about 40 minutes at a simmer, or until the peaches are soft. Remove from the heat and, using an immersion blender, puree the peaches until smooth (this is optional but worth the effort). Return to the heat and cook at a simmer until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 20 minutes. While cooking a second time, keep a spoon and bowl nearby and skim off any froth/scum that rises to the surface.

When the butter is getting close to being done, remove the glass jars and bands (with tongs or the grabber) from the warm water and place on a clean towel nearby. Rinse the soapy water off the lids and, using the magnetic stick, place them on the clean towel. Bring the large pot of water back to the boil.

When the butter is done, ladle it into the jars, leaving a 1/2 inch of space at the top. Wipe the rims and put lids and rings onto the jars. Place jars back into the boiling water, making sure they are fully submerged, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the water and place on a clean towel. You should hear the lids form the vacuum seal quickly. Allow jars to sit undisturbed several hours, until cool.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Where The Buffalo Roam

I recently returned from a family trip to South Dakota, which was wondrous on many levels. We saw vast stretches of prairie and grasslands, witnessed colossal thunderstorms and wildfires, and mingled with antelope, prairie dogs, and grazing cattle. As for the food, we definitely were in the heartland. We ate every possible meat and potato combination, and my children discovered the joy of deep fried cheese curds and fry bread tacos. In fact, the word "fried" describes a large portion of the food we consumed.

But the big revelation for me was bison (commonly called buffalo, but bison is the more precise term). I've eaten bison before, but it is prevalent on menus in that part of the country. I had bison burgers, chili, and tacos, and all were delicious.

The population of bison in the U.S. has gone from near extinction at the end of the 19th century to estimates of 450,000 today, and there are now over 4,000 bison ranchers. Even "farmed" bison are always "free range," left to wander and graze on grass. They consume less food and use less space than cattle do, and therefore have a smaller environmental "footprint." Rising bison numbers means an increased need for grasslands, and some bison ranchers consider grassland preservation to be a twin goal to expanding the bison population. The state and federal governments are also encouraging bison farming, at least in the plains states. Bison are allowed to graze on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and I witnessed several groups of bison at Custer State Park, a 71,000 acre South Dakota preserve that is home to more than one thousand of these wandering, gentle animals.

Not only is a rise in the bison population good for the environment, bison meat is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than beef. And bison can even be a local food choice, with bison farms in nearby Connecticut and Maine offering direct shipping of bison. I also found bison (from South Dakota) at The Meat House in Arlington Heights. Bison meat will cost you, to be sure, but like all other meats, I try to use it sparingly in order to be able to buy quality.

I went with a flank steak, which is a lean cut of beef and even leaner if you are working with bison. The key is a long marinade and a quick cook. Cook straight from the fridge, rather than bring the meat to room temperature before cooking, and that helps prevent overcooking. For a quick weeknight meal, marinate the steak the night before and serve with a chimmichurri sauce, a tangy Argentinian accompaniment for grilled meat.

Grilled Bison Flank Steak with Chimmichurri

For the marinade:

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 bison flank steak, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds

Place meat and marinade in a sealed container or bag. Marinate in the fridge for a minimum of one hour, or up to overnight.

Remove from the fridge just before grilling. Shake off excess marinade and grill on direct heat for 3 minutes on a side, until nicely charred, and then move to indirect heat until just pink in the center, or until the meat registers 145 degrees F. Let the meat rest a few minutes before slicing.

Chimmichurri Sauce

1 cup packed cilantro leaves and stems
1 cup packed flat parsley leaves
6 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. red wine vinegar
1-2 garlic cloves
A pinch of red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

While meat is marinating, put chimmichurri ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Spoon over sliced meat.