Post #618 The Christmas Pickle

December 19, 2018 at 10:29 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #618 The Christmas Pickle

For the past several years, I’ve noted a peculiar ornament showing up on Christmas trees and wreaths more and more.

So, what the heck is this all about?  When did a pickle become part of the holiday lexicon?  So, like the intrepid trooper that I am, I decided to do some research.  Also, an article on the Christmas Pickle showed up on my newsfeed and presented an opportunity.  But I really was wondering about it.

So, the “tradition” is that a pickle ornament is hidden on the Christmas tree and the first person to find it on Christmas day would get either a year of good fortune or an extra present from Santa, depending on the culture you were raised in.  The first incident of glass ornaments being hidden on the tree began in the late 1800s.  And the first manufactured ornaments came out of Germany a few years after.

No one really can lay down exactly when or why.  However, they can almost definitively put it down to an American custom.  Pickles on trees don’t appear in any other culture, although other veggies and fruits do.

The area where the tradition appears to have started, or at least, the area where it was first noted/documented was heavily Bavarian giving rise to possible Germanic roots.  Except the tradition doesn’t exist anywhere in the Germanic customs.

Some suggest two possible stories as origin stories.  The first is about a German soldier who had been captured.  To stave off starvation, he asked for a pickle which saved his life.  The story changes a lot, so I’m not sure about this one.  And even accounting for “Christmas miracles” one pickle seems far fetched to stop starvation.  So this one seems like the kind of story that appears after the tradition started.

The second story is about how some travelers were murdered and dissected and stuffed into pickle barrels.  The were rescued by St. Nicholas, or a forebear of his, and restored to life, good health, and good wealth.  To be honest, I first read this legend in Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates as a kid.  Hans Brinker was written by Mary Mapes Dodge in 1865, so it’s not inconceivable that it might have given rise to the Christmas Pickle story.  However, if she wrote it in her book, it’s likely that it was already an old and very well known story so it wouldn’t be the origin for a late 1800s tradition.

Given all that, what started it; where did it start; what’s its significance?  It’s fairly certain it started in America and in the northern mid-west.  All the other questions aren’t easily answered so why try?

One very cynical answer to all these questions is that the whole story and tradition was started by traveling salesman after the civil war.  It was designed to help them sell more pickles, and more ornaments.

So, whatever else it is, the Christmas Pickle is one of the weirdest Christmas traditions ever conceived.  Distinctly American, and unutterably odd, it’s still a charming and fun way to celebrate.

Are there any weird traditions, Christmas or otherwise, in your family you’d like to share?  In my family, birthdays were always private family affairs.  My first birthday party was when I turned 17 and was given to me by friends.  At home, we always had presents and cake.  When mom made the cake, she’d make two round layers and put frosting in the middle.  To make sure the layers stayed in place, she’d put four toothpicks through them to hold them steady.  Whoever got a toothpick in their slice of cake was the birthday person’s slave for the day.  Silly, fun ways to celebrate.


Speaking of traditions, this year I’m starting a new tradition with the blog.  Since I’m working retail these days, time is in short supply.  Long hours at the store, on my feet all day, no time for breaks or meals.  By the time I get home, unwind, and eat, the last thing I’m thinking about is more work on the computer.  So, I’m going to take a break from the blog for the holiday.  Today will be the last until the holidays and birthdays are done.  I will return on Jan 1, 2019.  I will be posting short messages to the blog’s Facebook page if you want to head over there to see what’s going on.

I wish you all the merriest and happiest of holidays.

And, as always,

Post #617 Write it Down!

December 16, 2018 at 5:16 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #617 Write it Down!

I’ve been cooking a long time, nearly half a century, and I’ve been talking about cooking for longer than that.  I talk to anyone about it.  I’m always trying to ferret out a new technique or flavor combination.  I constantly look for ways to simply or improve my own recipes and my own processes.  The oral tradition is longer than the written, but the written will last far longer than the oral.  I check out every antique store and used book store for the oldest cookbooks and magazines I can find.  During my lifetime, I’ve had cookbooks that were over a hundred years old, and I’ve had ones where the ink wasn’t even dry.  I’ve had literally hundreds of cooking magazines squirreled away in boxes that were too heavy to move.  So what the heck does someone do to find a recipe they want but don’t know what book or magazine or whatever else it might be in?

I’ve written about a kitchen journal before, but it bears repeating.

A kitchen journal is simply a repository for all the ideas, notes, cut out articles, pictures, stories, and whatevers you come across in your cooking journey.  I’ve tried multiple times to computerize mine, but it never works.  It’s not the same for me as holding something in my hands.  I had one, a while ago, that was created by Paula Deen while she was at the height of her popularity.  It was about a 2/3 size of a standard sized notebook and had pages with pockets, some with lines, and some just blank.  It was supposed to help contain the clutter of ideas any human has about a subject close to them.

But, a kitchen journal is really so much more than that.  It’s a personal cookbook designed by you especially for you.  In your design, it expands and changes to become exactly what you need for any given time.  I’ve been thinking a lot about kitchen journals lately because I’ve sold so many at the store recently.  The ones at the store are gimmicky.  They’re supposed to be.  They’re designed to look cutesy and to stand out.  They aren’t necessarily designed to be practical, although they aspire to be.  I don’t imagine for a minute that they’re designed by cooks for cooks.

So, what do I estimate a good kitchen journal should be?  I’ll break it down into four basic categories that I think are important.

First, Looks.  It should look good, and it should wear well.  In two years, you want it to look as good as when you started it.  In twenty years, you want it show its history, but still be recognizably the same book you started with, unless it’s not the same book.  You want it to be stain resistant so the cover should be able to not only resist wet and dry ingredients, but ideally, it will be either waterproof or be able to wipe clean easily.  And if you show it to friends or (god forbid) loan it to someone, you want to be proud of it.  You want it to show you as a cook, and not you as someone who looks like they don’t take care of their things.

Second, Usability.  The journal isn’t much good to you if you never refer to it or never write anything in it.  Trust me, I’ve started many journals that I wrote in once and ignored for the rest of my life.  They were always “cute” and “stylish” but not easy to write in.  So rather than get a spiral notebook, you want a ringed notebook that you can add to.  I’m going to have lined paper, graph paper, and blank paper, as well as pockets and section dividers.  The lined paper is for lists.  The first list I’m going to start is my go to recipes.  It’s just a title list.  This will help to solve, at a glance, the age old question of “What should I fix for dinner tonight?”  My list will start with spaghetti and tacos, and run from there.  The graph paper is for free form ideas and note taking.  And the blank paper is for drawings or diagrams should I ever need that.  Recipes will be on any of those pages and will reside in a separate section.  The pockets will hold recipes that I printed from the internet or from magazines until I can get them into the notebook.  The size of the notebook will be standard size and probably either one inch wide or one and a half inches wide.

Third, Growth Potential.  I can’t stress this enough.  Use a ringed notebook.  You will eventually stuff this thing so full that you will need to cull, toss, file, or otherwise move things around to make more room.  My Paula Deen notebook had to be held together with a rubber band after about two years.  I’ve seen some chefs who have a whole row of notebooks that comprise their professional journals.  The first one will grow into another, and on it goes.  So use a notebook that’s going to expand to fill your needs.

Last, Versatility.  By versatility I mean how easy is it to use, and to change, over time?  I started out just writing recipes I’d heard about.  Then I added my own ideas.  Then I added notes about how I’d changed certain recipes.  When I started developing my own recipes, I had to change my notebook to include that.  I tried using small notebooks for each thing, but then I had to cross reference things and it got crazy.  I was spending all my time working on my notebooks and not doing things I wanted to do.  That’s why I included section dividers so the usability could expand as needs expanded.  And if you start a section that you find you’re not using, or gets incorporated into another idea, it’s a simple matter to move pages from one section to another.

Beyond anything else the kitchen journal is something you create for yourself, so if you want it to be digital, go for it.  If you want it to be paper, that’s fine.  If you want a special notebook designed by a celebrity chef, buy it.  It’s most important to get or create something you’re going to use.

I’ve never met a chef of any kind who wasn’t extremely forthcoming with knowledge about their craft.  They are happy to share and encouraging in our efforts.  When we discover something that works for us, or doesn’t work for us, having a kitchen journal is an essential part of learning to make sure we don’t forget.

Post #616 Glad Yule Tidings!

December 12, 2018 at 9:57 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #616 Glad Yule Tidings!

We’re soon entering the darkest part of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.  In just a few days, the shortest day of the year will be upon us and it will be the start of Yule.  Yule is the celebration of the return of the light.  It will still be dark and cold for quite a while, but each day will be longer by small increments.  Our ancestors railed against this time of year with a festival of light.  Harvests were long since in from the fields and stored in barns and out buildings.  Animals were brought in from the far fields and were safely warm and sheltered.

Lots of things kept people busy.  There were clothes to be made.  There was food to prepare.  All the things we call hobbies today were things done to survive in those times.  Candlemaking, soap making, beadwork, jewelry making.  Even dehydrating and smoking meats were routine chores done during the dark times.  But there were festivals, and story telling, and music, and laughter taking place.  And there were parties and special feasts, and plenty of holiday foods that weren’t made at other times of the years.  These days we have them any time, but then they were the special feast foods because the ingredients were expensive and hard to get.  Mostly the spices were hard to find or mock up.  Time was another factor.  So, I’m going to share a couple of the traditional recipes for the festival foods for Yuletide and let you go to town with them.

The first is the Twelfth Night Cake.  Twelfth Night was the end of the Yuletide season, and in many cultures it was the night gifts were given.  Twelfth night ended the season of frivolity and was highlighted by a madcap feast in a lot of cultures.  The cake was the centerpiece.  A dried bean and a dried pea were baked into the cake.  The person who got the bean was the “King” of the feast, and the person who got the pea was the “Queen” of the feast, irrespective of their real gender.  They led the rest of the revelers in foolishness.  This tradition was so widespread that it’s become an archetype.

The cake itself was basically a fruitcake with exotic spices.  The fruits took a long time to prepare.  So here’s a basic recipe:

  • 2 1/2 pounds mixed dried fruits, but lots of raisins
  • 2/3 cups whiskey
  • 1/2 cup candied orange peel, or mixed candied citrus peel
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cups butter, room temp
  • 1 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs beaten
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup glace or maraschino cherries
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Place the fruit and peel in a large bowl and toss with the whiskey and milk.  Cover and leave overnight in the fridge.  Preheat the oven to 275.  It’s a low heat but the cake cooks for a long time.  Oil a large cake pan measuring 12×10 inches and line with parchment paper.  Brush the paper with oil.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the beaten eggs a little making certain to fully incorporate between additions.  If the mixture curdles, add a small amount of flour.  Mix the flour, baking powder, and spices together in a bowl and add to the creamed mixture.  Fold until well blended.  Add the fruit with their steeping liquid.  Add the nuts and cherries and stir well.  Turn out into tin, and if you’re adding the dried bean and dried pea, press them into the batter somewhere.  Bake in the center rack of the oven for 2 1/2 hours.  Remove and allow to cool completely in the tin.  Turn the cake out and remove the paper and set on a plate.  The cake can be decorated any way you choose, but mostly it’s a simple lemon glaze and more chopped nuts on top.

The second recipe is for Mulled Wine.  I usually just see this around here at Christmas time but it’s a warm flavorful drink and can be enjoyed any time you like.  I have a cup of hot chocolate all year round; mulled wine can be like that, too.

Mulled Wine

  • 2 bottles good red wine (I’ve also used white wine)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • orange and lemon slices

Put the sugar and water in a heavy pan and heat over low heat till dissolved.  Add the juices from the lemon and the orange and zest their rinds and add.  Add the whole spices and the ground ginger.  Boil for five minutes, then leave to infuse for an hour.  Strain into a small or medium crock pot.  Set on high and add the raisins.  Add the wine and stir.  When the wine is simmering, turn down to low, or warm if your crock pot has that setting.  Add the extra lemon and orange slices and a cinnamon stick and a couple of whole cloves.  Leave a ladle next to the crock pot for any to serve themselves.

Like I said, these are a couple of traditional recipes.  Here’s an untraditional one that could easily have been around back then.  A friend told me this one that she said has been in her family for generations, and that really what the season is about.

Nut Candy

  • 2 cups salted peanuts out of the shells
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of each of the following ground spices in any combination: cinnamon, ground clove, ginger, ground allspice, mace, nutmeg, star anise, lemon zest

In a large skillet, toast the peanuts lightly over low heat.  Add the spices and toss for about 30 seconds.  Take off the heat and add the melted butter.  Shake to evenly coat then spread over a baking sheet to cool.  These can be served warm or room temperature.  They usually don’t last long, but if there are any left over store in an air tight container in the fridge and bring to room temp or lightly heat in microwave before serving.


Post #615 Taking the Water Out

December 9, 2018 at 3:24 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I grew up in the Arizona desert, so it’s probably no surprise that I like to dehydrate things.  I also like things that are dehydrated.  Well, not all things.  When I, myself, get dehydrated, I turn into a nasty beast.  All head-achy and snarly, no sense of humor.  But we won’t go there.  This post is about dehydrating foods and how good they are.

A long while ago, I was an avid long-distance hiker and backpacker.  I did large sections of the Appalachian Trail, although not a complete end to end trip.  I’ve probably done about 1/4 to 1/3 of it in sections.  Most of my hikes were 1-3 day affairs, but one or two were week long.  When hiking, weight in your pack is one of the primary considerations.  In most places of the trail, and in most trails that lead up to it, natural water sources are fairly easy to find, but you do have to carry water with you.  Water is heavy.  One gallon of water is slightly over 8 pounds.  When carrying everything you need to sustain yourself over a few days, your pack should be about 1/4 of your body weight.  For me, that meant between 40 and 50 pounds.  The tent took up some weight; the sleeping bag took up some weight; my clothes took up some weight; food took up some weight.  The first thing to factor was the weight of the water I would need to carry.  Everything else could be trimmed.  I’ve known hikers who clipped the strings from tea bags to save weight.  A little over the top to my way of thinking, but they felt better for it.

There were things I could do to trim clothes weight.  Disposable underwear; light weight shoes; tech material pants; things along those lines.  Tents were light weight; sleeping bags were mostly air.  So the biggest area to trim weight was food.

That meant no cans.  Of any kind.  Also, no bottles.  Glass is pretty heavy.  Even the food itself was a consideration.  Mushrooms are heavy.  Steak is heavy.  Uncooked pasta and rice are pretty light.  Bread is both heavy and light, depending on what kind you get.  Veggies are full of water so are heavy.  But there’s a trade off with food.  Weight versus nutrition.  Light foods tend to be lower in nutrition.  Lots of hikers make certain to take multivitamins while on the trail.

One of the best foods for sustained physical activity is protein.  Simply put, meat.  The heaviest of foods to take on the trail.  There are other proteins that work as well, but their form is heavy.  Peanut butter, hummus, and the like.  There’s one protein that’s plant based and fairly light weight, tofu.  But it has it’s own drawbacks and a lot of people just don’t like it.

Once the balance of weight and nutrition are met, there’s the question of storage.  How to keep the food from going bad.  That’s the million dollar question, and the answer is pretty simple.  Dehydrating it properly keeps it light, nutritious, and stable.  It lasts much longer dried.  Take the water out, and it takes a long time to spoil.  And, when food is dehydrated, its flavors intensify, and so does its nutrition.  Mostly because it’s compacted into a smaller piece.

In the dry desert states, that’s easy.  Put the stuff outside, not directly in the sun, and covered but with airflow, and it a couple of days, it’s going to be dried out.  Anywhere else, there’s only mechanical means.  There are two primary mechanical ways:  heat or chemical.  Very low heat, and lots of time.  Chemically, there are a ton of ways but the most prominent is salt.  Salt pulls the water out but also infuses the food with salt that deters mold, mildew, and nearly every other spoilage.  Sulphur fumes does the same thing, but tends to makes foods taste odd.  Other chemicals not readily available to us, will do the same things, but are cost prohibitive.

I’ve never used salt.  You need a ton to make it work, and the result needs a ton of water to rehydrate.  Not too easy on the trail.  So heat it was.  I started off in the oven, then bought a dehydrator.  Most of the units for home use are under $100 and can be added to.  They use low low heat air flow to pull the water out and away.  And I think they’re fun.  So what do I make with them?

Mostly beef jerky.  I grew up with that stuff like it was candy.  But another popular favorite is fruit leather.  Those are so good!  Like natural candy.  I’ve also just dried ripe fruit into pieces and added those to various things.  Partner/Spouse does not like raisins (and I can take them or leave them) so I’ve never tried them, but there’s a world of dried berries out there.

Fruit leathers are one of the easiest things to make but they require some preparation.  First, it needs a base.  Most of the time, it’s applesauce.  But it can be other things, too.  The fruits are pulverized in your favorite pulverizing machine.  Mine is my food processor/blender combo.  (I got a Ninja!!)  Then they’re mixed with the applesauce and spread on a flat sheet in the dehydrator.  It takes about eight hours to completely dehydrate.  Usually during the last half of that, I add nuts, or seeds, or coconut, or something to add texture and crunch.

Dried fruits and veggies are easy, too.  Just make sure they’re ripe and no blemishes or rotten spots.  Cut them into uniform pieces and dry away.  Once they’re dried, they can be used to make soups, stews, rehydrated into breads or cakes, toppings on desserts and ice creams.  It’s really just your imagination.

My true love for the dehydrator is jerky in whatever form.  We grew up with jerky in the house constantly.  It makes a nutritious, if somewhat salty, snack when you need something to tide you over.  I’ve made meals out of jerky, cheese, and crackers.  We bought a ton of jerky, mostly beef, and made a ton of jerky, mostly beef.  One year, I made three pounds of jerky in the oven for my brother-in-law’s Christmas present.  I made regular and peppered.  He thought they were great.  He worked outdoors at the time and he’d put a few pieces in his pocket to take with him for breaks.  He said his teammates were jealous.

Oven jerky is really simple.  Take a very lean cut of beef and trim off all visible fat.  Slice the beef about a quarter inch thick and about two inches wide.  Length is up to you.  I usually go about six inches.  Sprinkle the beef lightly with coarse salt and using a rolling pin, lightly press the salt into the surface of the beef.  Lay the beef strips on a cooling rack making sure that none of the strips are touching.  Lay the cooling rack over a baking sheet.  Put the beef strips into the middle of your oven and set the oven to it’s lowest possible temp setting whatever that is.  Prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon across one corner and place a small fan to blow across the opening.  You want as much air circulation inside the oven as you can get, but you don’t want to dissipate the heat.  Leave it alone for 8 hours and check it.  The strips should be stiff and firm and crack but not break when you bend them.  It may take longer or shorter depending on the temp of the oven.  Once it’s reached that stage, take the jerky out of the oven and allow it to cool COMPLETELY.  You can eat it any stage you like, but to keep the jerky from spoiling, do not wrap it until completely cooled or else residual moisture will cause mold issues.  The salt helps retard that, but isn’t foolproof.  To make flavored jerky, if you want spice and herbs, just add them at the salt and rolling pin stage.  If you want sauces, omit the salt stage and spread a layer of sauce on both sides of the beef strips.  You’ll need to increase the drying time since you’re adding moisture to the jerky, and the final product will be a little sticky, but taste wonderful.  There is a way to make jerky out of hamburger (the leaner the better) using a press to shape them and adding spice blends, etc.  I’ve never used ground meat, though.  It feels like cheating to me.

When I was eighteen, I came home from work once in the early afternoon.  Mom was cooking dinner that night so I wasn’t in a hurry, but I wanted a snack.  I reached for a box of jerky on the counter.  I didn’t recognize the brand, but grabbed a piece.  They were a little odd looking, as though they’d been pressed into cookie mold or something.  And they were individually wrapped in plastic but the plastic had air in it.  I was hungry so I took a big bite expecting to have to tear the jerky with my teeth to get it free from the main piece.  But it came away in my mouth like a cookie.  Odd, again.  And it crumbled a little and was dry.  The taste was okay, but overall, the experience just wasn’t good.

I looked up and saw Mom watching me with a look of amusement on her face.

“Mom, don’t buy this jerky anymore.  It’s not very good,” I said.

“It’s for the dogs.” she replied.

Ooops.  I looked at the box closer and noticed the stylized cartoon puppy with the grin on its face and the words in bright red “For Dogs”.

“Never mind.”  She didn’t laugh as long as I thought she would.

Post #614 This Stew is a Labor of Love

December 5, 2018 at 11:49 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #614 This Stew is a Labor of Love

The weather has turned cold and it’s time for those warm comfort foods that make the house smell amazing.  Since we’re cooped up inside due to unfriendly weather outside, we have time to putter in the kitchen and pay attention to long cooking recipes.  This recipe is a meat stew, but it’s not made in the traditional sense.  There are no veggies, the seasonings are added after most of the cooking is done, and it’s simmered on the stove top for hours.  It’s easy to make, but takes a long time.  It’s a version of Beef Burgundy and comes in a dozen different names.

I’ve made this several times over the years, but haven’t made it lately.  You can’t put it in the crock pot because it won’t cook down and create the velvety sauce it needs.  You can’t put in the oven because it needs to cook with the top off and be stirred often.  The ingredients are minimal so it has to be treated right.

Take a 3-4 pound chuck roast and cut it into 1 inch pieces.  You can brown them or not; it won’t impact the flavor of this dish.  Place the meat into a large heavy high-sided pan.  Sprinkle with a little salt, but no other seasonings, spices, or herbs.  Add two cups of good quality beef broth and two thirds of a bottle of a good dry red wine.

TIP:  When cooking with wine, always use a wine that you would drink.  If it doesn’t taste good to drink, it won’t taste good to eat.  All recipes that use alcohol in whatever form are relying on the taste of the drink, no the alcohol.  The alcohol will burn away in the cooking process.

Over a medium heat, bring the liquid to a boil and allow to boil for five minutes or so, then reduce the heat so the stew is on a low simmer.  Stir the stew so it doesn’t scorch.  Allow the stew to simmer for three and a half hours.  As the liquid reduces, replenish first with the rest of the red wine, then with half cups of beef broth until you’ve reached five cups.  Do no use water as this will reduce the flavor.  Stir the stew occasionally to ensure no scorching and equal cooking.

The meat will become fall-apart tender and release its own flavor to the broth.  At the three and a half hour mark, add salt if needed, although it likely won’t be if you’ve used beef broth that includes salt.  Add half a teaspoon of dried thyme, half a teaspoon of ground black pepper, and if you want to, one small onion that’s been thinly sliced.  You can also add a clove or two of crushed garlic.  Make sure there’s enough broth to simmer for another hour, but will reduce to a thick sauce in that time.  Stir the stew to combine.  At the end of four and a half hours, you will have a stew of beef chunks in a thick savory sauce that’s almost like a glaze.

Beef chunks by themselves can be a little boring, so I’ve added mushrooms to this at times.  Other times, I’ve added carrots for their sweet cooked flavor.  It’s really up to you if you want to change it up, but I highly recommend making it simple first, then adding later.

When I serve this, I boil up some noodles and spoon the stew over them.  I top with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chopped scallions.  Sometimes I use mashed potatoes instead of noodles.  Fresh crusty bread and a salad along with it make a good meal.

Let me know if you try this and what changes you made!  It’s all good.

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