Saturday, October 3, 2015

Crocking the safe

In a dark corner of the basement of my 1919 bungalow sits a crock whose interior has had the good fortune of fermenting pounds of cabbage into sauerkraut for the last few years.  In an attempt to come closer to the heritage of my Eastern European Jewish ancestors, I have decided to give kraut a break and to use it to make my favorite pickled green tomatoes.  I have written about these in former posts, and it may seem as though I am obsessed- true story.  It's not my fault, though, as I inherited it from my parents and grandparents from Philly.   Because I usually use Ball jars to make these, I am excited to see if the traditional way is better...

For this recipe, I have used the same salt to water ratio that I use for my pickled kohlrabi and beet stems: 5 tbsp salt to 2 qrts water.

  • Dissolve the salt completely.  
  • Take 3 pounds of green tomatoes and quarter them.  
  • Put a whole head of garlic (cloves peeled and put in individually) into the bottom of the crock. 
  • Then, put the tomatoes on top of the garlic.  
  • Put two or three grape leaves in - the tannins will keep the tomatoes crisp.  
  • Then, pour in the brine and make sure that all of the tomatoes are covered with it; the crock came with stoneware weights that fit perfectly inside so that there is no chance of anything sticking out of the brine and attracting mold.  
  • After all of this, put some water inside the lip of the crock and put the lid on- this is an airlock system that works perfectly!  
My next post will give the results of the experiment.  See you in a couple of weeks!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Japanese Knotweed: Smart not hard

I have always wanted to grow rhubarb.  Strange assertion, I know, but those of you who read this are aware that this whole blog is predicated on strange.  Yes, I have always wanted a patch of big, green leafy rhubarb with its long thick stalks of red sourness, and I have never had any luck.  Not sure why, maybe I haven't tried enough.  This year, I was up for another try; before I could even put a spade in the ground, I rediscovered something that I had known about for quite a long time, but had never given any serious thought: Japanese knotweed.  

I am what you would call a type A- personality: I am extremely driven, but when it comes to working, I try to work smart, not hard.  All of the type As I know are incredibly industrious and seem to thrive on the work itself.  I am more interested in the product.  So, you might be asking yourself what this has to do with rhubarb...

I have been "foraging" since I was 10 years old and I bought my first book on wild edible plants.  It looked like this:

In 1983, most of the world was infatuated with one-handed sparkly gloves and jelly shoes.


Foraging was not really on most people's agendas and probably even less so ten-year-old boys, although I'm sure many kids have eaten wild plants and just not talked about it.  It's inevitable when you're out playing and you get hungry.  

I'm not even sure foraging was called foraging back then; I think it was just called "weird" or "grody". I mean, you go out and eat stuff that doesn't magically appear in the produce section at the grocery store?  Then again, when you live in subsidized housing and don't have any money, you can be pretty creative with your spare time.  The fact our complex was bounded by woods on one side helped us to pass the time.   

We used to eat even stranger stuff at my house than I did in the field.  My brother's father introduced us to organ meat when I was 9 (heart and kidney), although my mom had already very generously presented us the fantastic opportunity to eat liver and tongue- a vestige of her bubby's cooking back in Philly.  There was milk soup with dumplings, hominy, grits.  Pickled green tomatoes when we could find them, bowties and kasha.  Our favorite sweet was halva, coupled with the fabled Tastykakes my aunt would send us from Philly. We pretty much ate anything that could be consumed.  It's no wonder my sister and I came up with our famous pickle juice and spaghetti concoction.  It's exactly what it purports to be: raw spaghetti noodles broken up and mixed with pickle juice and garlic powder.  The crunch of the noodles and the acridness of the pickle juice was only enhanced by the intensity of the Aldi's garlic powder we sprinkled on the top.  This was our go-to snack.  Yes, we were odd, but we secretly reveled in our oddity.

After these culinary experiences, it is not so difficult for me to label something as food, and so this post comes full circle.  Foraging for me is not odd, nor is it some cool trend like lacto-fermentation or buying organic.  It is part of my childhood collective memory and identity.   So, when given the chance to wait a year until the rhubarb grows or harvest an invasive weed, I chose the latter, of course!  

Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) grows in abandoned lots, back yards, anywhere it can sprout its sourness and is incredibly invasive.  Because of this, many of us would like to eradicate it like we would garlic mustard.  Its shoots look a bit like asparagus, but not really when you compare them side by side.  To me, knotweed looks like it would grow in Japan; it's got that elegant Eastern look to it.  Especially when it is fully grown with its flower, it looks like it could be outside of a shinto shrine.  This is what the shoots look like in early spring.  They have that bamboo-like quality, conveyed by the nodes with papery sheaths:

The taste is similar to rhubarb, but not as intense and the texture is not as stringy, either.  A friend who hates rhubarb tried my pickled knotweed and to her surprise, really liked it. Just another testament to my motto when it comes to food: work smart not hard.  Here are some links to learn more about this amazing foodstuff:

So far, my favorite way to eat knotweed has been to grill it like asparagus:

Take several spears of knotweed.
Clean them and peel them if the outer skin is too tough.
Marinate them in good olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Grill or broil until slightly charred.

I used them to top off salmon filets.  Under the salmon is wild asparagus, prepared the same way as the knotweed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

It's easy being green, Kermit

It's early spring and my impatience is palpable.  I can't wait to go strolling for parts of my meal. During the months of April and May, plants are at their most tender stage and this is my favorite time to eat them!  The greens produced during this period can be bitter, but they are nutrient-rich and no one can beat the freshly culled green treats that await those of us who know about them.  I have been foraging for greens and other plants since the early 80s when I was a mere child; unfortunately it took quite a long time for me to develop the taste required to really enjoy these greens.  I am dedicating this post to winter cress because it has quickly made its way to the top of my list.

The pic below shows three of my favorite early spring greens: Winter cress, peppergrass and plantain (left to right and top to bottom).  

Winter cress is a hardy plant that grows literally everywhere I walk in Milwaukee.  I have seen it in old garden beds, along bike trails and even in yards.  It has very shiny, dark green leaves and at this point in the season has grown stalks with flower buds that resemble very small florets of broccoli. These are very bitter when eaten raw, as are the leaves; when cooked, however, they become very palatable to anyone who likes greens and I highly recommend them.  

To harvest this plant is extremely easy: pick the leaves closest to the top, as they will be less bitter than the large ones at the bottom of the plant.  For the flower buds, just cut them at the base of the stalk, with the leaves still on the stalks.  Put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you need them; check on them if you don't plan on using them right away, as they can become flaccid and wilted.  Just soak them in cold water for a while and drain them to fresh them and then store them in a freezer bag in the crisper. The possibilities for cooking and eating these beauties are endless and I suggest experimentation for anyone who likes to cook.   You can use the leaves, flower buds, and stalks in recipes that call for greens - especially those that require mustard greens, as they are bitter, too.

 Click the tofu for a recipe that winter cress will make even better!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pickles in the Genes

While fermented foods are nothing new, especially in a city like Milwaukee, where new eateries and gastropubs are as plentiful as dandelions, and the German heritage of the city almost obligates at least a sip of beer and a taste of kraut, I am compelled to write about them. You may wonder why...

A yid vet shtendik gifinnen a zoyere ugerke.  A Jew will always find a pickle.  In my humble opinion, this should be a Yiddish saying.  It certainly is my mantra.  As far back as I can remember, I have savored the green, sour, salt-laden cukes; of course my favorites are sour green tomatoes- the kind you find in delis on the East Coast- and when I realized that the Russians in Milwaukee had made it possible for me to eat them, I almost wanted to swear allegiance to the Russian flag (almost...).  

Growing up with Jewish parents from Philly, any time there were sour tomatoes, half-dones or full-dones around, it was a big deal, especially since we lived in the Mid-West.  Whenever my grandparents called from the City of Brotherly Love, my mouth began to go into shock, as some kind of Pavlovian response triggered my salivary glands to go into over-drive.  There was not even a mention of tomatoes, but I had begun to associate the brash, Brooklyn-accented voice of my grandfather or the Philly-infused patois of my Aunt Sandi and Uncle Marvin with the green, globular, garlicky treats.  When blessed with the occasion to visit them, unlike other kids, our obnoxiously persistent whining was not linked to some chocolaty delight, did not target a creamy, cold cone of ice cream, did not evoque a sugary, granular delice; it simply meant that we were jonesing for a taste of briny, crisp sour tomatoes found for free on the tables of Ben and Irv's deli in Suburban Philly, where my Aunt Sandi and Uncle Marvin would take us for our fix.  As a result of our admittedly salty addiction, my siblings and I never lost the yen for acid and base, sour and salt.

In the next post, I will give glory to the Pickle God; at the risk of heresy, I will admit that the Jews really have two gods... 

So much for monotheism.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

¿Xoconostle? ¿QuĂ©?

Tostadas with beans, tomato, avocado 
Pico de gallo de xoconostle

On Friday, my last day of school, right before our end-of-the-year lunch, I was talking to Dolores, one of our amazing janitorial staff.   We often exchange words in Spanish (I don't know how she puts up with my shoddy language skills, but she does...), and most of the time the conversation turns toward food, the universal unifier.  The day before, she was telling me that she is from Guanajuato, a state in the middle of Mexico, which led to a discussion about the cuisine there.  Continuing this conversation Friday, I told her that I had been thinking about experimenting with the xoconostle, a smaller kind of tuna that I had seen at various food markets around my neighborhood.

This fruit is very sour and is used in soups, stews and salsas.  Dolores was very excited about a salsa recipe using this peach-colored cactus product and began to tell me all of the ingredients and how to make it. Of course, I didn't write it down; so, I looked up recipes online and found that it was hard to choose between the dozens and dozens of sites extolling the qualities of the xoconostle.  The one that I eventually prepared was the simplest in that the xoconostle does not need to be cooked, which also gives a more honest idea of the flavor of this little-known fruit.  It's really wonderfully tart and spicy, with a freshness that you don't find in conventional pico.
*If you don't like really spicy salsas, I would halve the amount of chiles de arbol.

I bought the xoconostles at El Rey Foods, but you could also go to Cermak on Miller Parkway.  You will need:
  • 6 xoconostles
  • a white onion
  • cilantro salt 
  • 1 lime
  • 3-6 chiles de arbol
  • a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder
Click for recipe.

Once the salsa is prepared, you can prepare the tostadas.  I have been making these tasty, simple flat tacos ever since I lived in Ukrainian Village in Chicago. Right across the road from my house was a bodega that sold latino foods.  They were filling, healthy and best of all.... cheap!  I was making aliving playing music and needed all of the help I could get saving my money.  This recipe serves one person, so you will need to double it for 2 people, triple it for 3, etc.  

  • 3 corn tortillas
  • 1/2 tomato chopped
  • 1/2 avocado cut in chunks
  • 1/4  can refried beans ( I like the ones with green chiles in them or the black beans)
  • Sour cream or plain yogurt
  • Xoconostle pico de gallo

- Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Spread a thick layer of refried beans onto each tortilla ( I usually make 3 per person).
- Once oven is at temperature, put tortillas with beans spread on them directly on the oven rack placed in the middle of the oven.  Make sure that you check them as they are cooking because the tortillas bend from the heat and will fall through the rack if you don't position them right (each oven is different, but you will see what I mean).

-The tortillas should be ready when they are fairly hard (not too hard) and the beans look a bit crusty on the surface.
-Take them out of the oven and add the ingredients on top.
-Top with Xoconostle pico and sour cream or plain yogurt.  Serve.

As always, try new things, you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Watermelon Gazpacho (and its garnishes)

In the late spring, when the heat of the day rears its welcome head, turning on the oven or even a burner on the stove begins to sound like a really awful idea.  These are the porch-sitting days, where we yearn to travel back to a time before air-conditioning when families sat outside on the porch and kids played in the front yards.  Because of the heat, there is an automatic desire for cooling, watery foods: enter the Gazpacho family.  Garnished with a sandwich, a salad and some fruit, this soothing yet spicy cold soup can really make sitting on the porch an even better experience.

One of my favorite porch lunches to prepare is Watermelon and cucumber gazpacho, cold shrimp pita sandwich with greens, tomato and mayo and fruit on the side. A tangy, vegan coleslaw made with 6 simple ingredients rounds out the plate and gives it that little picnicky touch.

1 piece of pita bread per sandwich
vegan mayo
1 tomato, thinly sliced
spring greens (or any green you prefer-arugula, etc,)
smoked salmon, left-over grilled shrimp, salmon, etc.

Grill pita on burner of stove or heat non stick frying pan to high and toast bread lightly on both sides until slightly browned.  Let cool.  Cut in half (use on half for bottom of sandwich and the other for top- see pic above).  Spread mayo thinly on both sides.  Put greens on bottom, then tomato slices, then fish.  Put other half of pita on top to make sandwich.  Cut in half and place on plate.

2 cups coleslaw mix: finely sliced green and / or red cabbage, broccoli stems and carrots
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
a little honey
2 tbsp vegan mayo

Pour slaw mix into large bowl.  Then, mix in mayo and vinegar.  This slaw is not an exact science. These are approximate measurements and it is recommended that one put in half of the vinegar and mayo, then mix with the slaw and taste.  If it does not taste saucy enough, add more until you get a mix that suits your taste.  Add a bit of honey (perhaps a 1/2 tsp at first) and taste.  Then add a little salt and pepper.

Plate the slaw in the middle of the sandwich halves.  Then put the extra watermelon outside of the sandwich and slaw, still on the plate, where there is space.  

You will need a food processor.

Although the recipe I used was from Tyler Florence, like any cook, I have changed it slightly to reflect my taste.  I added more vinegar and used a little more watermelon.  I also add more hot pepper, as I like my gazpacho to have a little more bite.  In addition to these little variations, I might add a little tabasco, as well. I like to vary the herbs suggested in the recipe- perhaps a little mint or cilantro, etc. I do not use the feta, but I'm sure it would be amazing with the garnish; I steer clear of cheese most of the time when allergy season hits, as lactose aggravates my hay fever.

The beauty of this recipe is that it is extremely easy to vary the ingredients and still have a delicious dish.  

  • 1 large tomato
  • 1/2 serrano or jalapeno chile
  • 2 cups cubed fresh watermelon (seedless works really well)
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar (or infused herbal would be delicious)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil (I don't put as much in, but this is a personal choice)
  • 2 tbsp minced red onion
  • 1/2 seedless cucumber
  • 2 tbsp minced fresh herbs (dill, mint, etc.) plus more for garnish
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese (I don't use this, but I'm sure it's tasty!)

In a blender, puree the tomatoes, chile, and 1/2 of the watermelon.  Pour in the red wine vinegar and olive oil and pulse.  Add the onion, cucumber and herbs and season with salt and pepper.  Puree until smooth.  Pour into chilled bowls and sprinkle with herbs, feta and remaining watermelon.  Serve.

Serve the plate and the cup or bowl of gazpacho together with a crisp white wine or sparkling water with lemon and mint.

Bonne dégustation, as they say in French!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Extremely local foods

Since the age of 10, I had been looking for the elusive Jerusalem Artichoke.  I remember seeing the photos of this great plant and wild edible in the Audubon's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants; the thought of finding it was like some mysterious deep-sea treasure hunt coming to a successful, triumphant end!  Last year, as summer transitioned to crisp, chilly autumn, the prize was finally captured.  The great find happened on a portion of the Hank Aaron State Trail, which runs from the 6th Street Bridge at the start of the Menomonee Valley all the way west to 124th Street and beyond.

While strolling along its newly paved, smooth asphalt surface, I looked to my right, then to my left, scanning for edibles I recognized.  Immediately to my right was a stand of yellow flowers, not unlike small sunflowers.  At first I thought they were black-eyed susans, but the center of flower was a distinct pale yellow.  I had not seen these before, except in photos.  I took out my field guide and compared the flowers under my excited eyes to the photo in the book.  I then read the description of the plant: hairy stems and leaves, check; yellow flowers with yellow centers, check.  Leaves at the top of the stems opposite, while the lower leaves were not, check.  The only element left to verify was the tubers, which would lead to a definite identification of the fabled plant.


I grabbed my garden spade from my shoulder bag and knelt down on the cold, dry dirt around the still extant flowers (many had fallen away, but there were still some left).  I took a breath and shoved the tip of the spade into the hard ground.  Shoveling away dirt from the base of the plants, I sighed with disappointment as I encountered more and more roots without tubers.  Then, something magical happened.  I know it may seem trivial to many, but to me, who had been waiting more that 25 years to find this, it was like finding King Tut's tomb!  I came upon a pinkish tuber, about the size of a fingerling potato.  I broke it open, exposing the fresh, white, apple / potato-like flesh.  It was still full of dirt, but I could not resist nibbling a bit.  It tasted nutty (not in the Andrew Zimmern way) and earthy, with a crunchy texture, a bit harder than a potato.  I dug around this and found more tubers.  This was amazing!  I must admit, though, that the people running and biking by me must have thought I was pretty strange.

I knew that the tubers were not completely ready to harvest, however, because the ground was still too warm and the flowers and plants were still alive.    So, I returned in November and found an abundance of purple tubers.  The smaller, brownish ones are immature or a different species (not sure which).

I am always careful to make sure that there are enough so as not to decimate the population.  The great thing about these is that they are very often already disconnected from the plant.  They store very well in the cold ground until they can be harvested.  Here are two very simple ways I have used them:

Roasted root vegetables:


  • 1/2 lb Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut in chunks
  • 1/2 lb beets, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1/2 Primrose roots (see upcoming post), peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 head of garlic, cloves separated but husk left on
  • olive oil 
  • salt
  • pepper
  • sumac

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place rack in the middle of the oven.
2) Put all root veggies and garlic in a glass roasting pan and mix liberally with olive oil, salt, pepper and sumac.
3) Roast in oven until vegetables are soft and caramelized, about 1 hour, depending on oven.


Assorted greens
shaved fresh beets
shaved carrots
several Jerusalem artichokes, cut width-wise into very thin slices

Olive oil
Balsamic dressing
Dijon mustard

1) Assemble salad
2) For dressing: put 2 parts oil to one part balsamic vinegar into a non reactive bowl.
3)Add dijon to taste (I usually add about one tablespoon per cup and 1/2 of liquid)
4) Add honey, salt and pepper to taste
5) add some capers (as many as you'd like)
6) Whisk until all ingredients are combined and the dressing is smooth.
7) drizzle over salad and enjoy!