Over Yonder

I’ve been going through a Southern thing lately. I was offered a near-free subscription to Garden & Gun magazine, much to the dismay of Rich, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The articles are interesting, the writing is excellent and the recipes are creative. He grumbles about it, but I point out that some of the best American writers of all time are Southerners. (Not counting John Grisham, and I say that having gobbled up four of his novels 20+ years ago.)

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When I was in college Sylvie and I went on a road trip to Graceland. We actually didn’t make it — there was a dental emergency in Nashville — but the scenery was breathtaking. Honestly, if you’re looking to see some of the best of what the United States has to offer, visit the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, and drive the Shenandoah Skyline. The beauty of Appalachia will make you weep.

Over the past few months I’ve borrowed a number of Southern cookbooks from the library. Truth be told, there wasn’t a thing I could eat in Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles. My Two Souths also relied heavily on things that oink and creep and crawl on the bottom of the ocean, but there were some gems in it. Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard was a good book, but too sprawling; she could have spread all those recipes out across two or even three books. Sean Brock’s Heritage is excellent, although there’s still a ton in the book I can’t eat. (If you’re curious about what Jews can and do eat in the South, definitely check out Marcie Cohen Ferris’ Matzo Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South.)

So when I was offered Fruit, A Savor the South cookbook by Nancie McDermott, I jumped at the opportunity: A Southern cookbook based on foods I could actually eat. Well, sort of. There are some fruits I just can’t find up here, and some I’ve never even heard of, like mayhaws, scuppernong grapes, and pawpaws. But for the fruit I can get hold of, the recipes are terrific: fresh peach fritters, watermelon-rind pickles, Okracoke Island Fig Cake with Buttermilk Glaze, horchata made with cantaloupe seeds.

The recipe I decided to share with you is the strawberry shrub. I figured most of you have best access to strawberries. A shrub is a fruited drinking vinegar that has its roots in the sultry climates. The root of the word is from the Arabic sharab, which means “to drink”.

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As Nancie puts it, “Shrubs are a lovely means of preserving summertime berry goodness for sipping on the porch while lightening bugs flicker or by the fireplace come winter. Vinegar adds a tangy kick to the ruby fruit, making a syrup that can be added to club soda or sparkling water to make a homemade soft drink, or stirred into a champagne, white wine, or cocktail for a spirited refreshment.”

We cut ours with seltzer from the Soda Stream and it was refreshing and delicious on a warm July night. It’s a bit like having a homemade Italian soda, now that I think about it. Rich put some in a beer, and said it was a little like a Berliner Weisse, a sour wheat beer often drunk with raspberry syrup. In this case, the tartness comes from the syrup instead of from the beer.

The recipe calls for the jar to be set aside in a cool, dark place for 24 – 48 hours and to make sure the jar is not exposed to heat or light. I tucked mine away in the basement for two days. But since I found a snake in the basement last night, I’m never going back down there again. I’ll have to find another place to age my shrubs.

To sterilize the jars, I used the method from Artisan Preserving:

Wash in very hot soapy water. Do not dry the washed bottles or jars, but put them upright on a baking sheet, about 2 inches apart, and put in the oven. Turn on the heat to 350F and once the oven has reached this temperature, leave the bottles or jars in the oven for 20 minutes to ensure they are completely sterilized. Wear protective oven mitts when handling hot bottles and jars.

Strawberry Shrub from Fruit by Nancie McDermott

Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

3 cups apple cider vinegar

3 cups trimmed and quartered fresh or frozen strawberries

3 cups sugar

Directions

Prepare a large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid as directed.

In a medium saucepan, heat the vinegar until it is just about to break into a bubbling boil and remove it from the heat. Place the strawberries in the prepared jar and pour the vinegar over them, making sure they are covered by an inch of vinegar. Let cool to room temperature and then cover tightly. Set aside in a cool, dark place for 24 – 48 hours (be sure the jar is not exposed to heat or light.)

Strain the vinegar into a medium saucepan and discard the solids. Add the sugar to the vinegar and bring to a rolling boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. As soon as the sugar is dissolved, remove the pan from the heat and let the shrub cool to room temperature. Pour the shrub into a clean, sterilized jar and cover tightly. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

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The Middle

Wait a sec, where did July go? July is the cream in the center of the summer cookie, and it seems I’ve licked it clean. It’s been a tasty month, not to worry. July started with a few days up in York Harbor, Maine, at Sylvie’s in-laws, where we spent the mornings tag-teaming crossword puzzles, eating cherries, and vying for the best reading seats on the wraparound porch.

Mid-month, some friends went out of town, and we jumped at the chance to enjoy their CSA share for that week. I’m used to my share coming in a box, but theirs, through Red Fire Farms, is set up is like a mini-farmer’s market: you pick your own veggies to match the allotment for the week. The produce was really exquisite, and, as a Western Mass native, I was delighted to learn their farms are located in Granby and Montague. I advised the two women running the stand to make sure to get to Montague this summer, even if to take an afternoon off for lunch and a visit to The Book Mill.

So we started the month out of town and with an empty fridge and ended up with a bounty. Pounds of carrots filled my crispers, and beets and their thick green leaves poked out of my middle shelves whenever I opened the door. My cupboard barely shut with the piles of potatoes July was offering us. I panicked for just a second, not knowing what to do with all the vegetables. But then it dawned on me that I had all the ingredients for my very favorite beet salad, a salad, I realized with some embarrassment, that I had never shared on this blog.

Beet vinaigrette, along with Salad Olivier, is a Russian salad I enjoyed at my best friend’s house growing up. (Sure, she’s originally from Latvia, but this seems to be a catch-all Baltic dish. At some point I’ll get Salad Olivier up on the blog. Love that salad. Love it, love it.) The recipe I use, and the one my mom uses, is from Spice and Spirit cookbook, that purple cookbook with the perfect hamentashen dough recipe. The authors note that this salad is often served “as a side dish at a Kiddush” which makes sense because it’s a cold dish that can be made ahead or assembled from ingredients cooked before Shabbos.

Sure, boiling potatoes and cooking beets takes some time, but I prepped all the vegetables for this salad over a few days. Although the recipe calls for boiling the beets, potatoes and carrots all in one pot, a few days ago I grabbed the beets that were in the fridge, cut off the greens (and set them aside for some nice sautés with garlic, maybe some ginger) gave them a rinse, and placed them into a lasagna pan (something that had sides). I filled the pan with about a half inch of water, covered and sealed the entire pan with foil, and tossed it all in a 400 degree heated oven for an hour or so. I knew they were done when a fork easily slid in and out of them. When the beets were cooled down, I tossed them into a bowl, covered them, and put them in the fridge. For the past few days, I’ve grabbed a beet or two, run them under cold water which allowed their skin to easily slip away, and added them to salads and dishes. Couldn’t be easier.

Last night I peeled some potatoes and carrots and set them in a large pot of water that I brought to a boil as I sat and watched the Olympics in the other room. Again, couldn’t be easier. So even though the beets, carrots and potatoes had to be cooked beforehand, the actual assembling of this salad took just a minute or two. I have a friend whose Mom is Hungarian, and I’ve noticed that she tends to keep boiled potatoes on-hand in the fridge at all times. It really does make putting together a meal a snap.

Classic Beet Vinaigrette

The amount here is massive and can feed a dozen. Feel free to halve, or even quarter, this recipe. I also tend to always have red onion on-hand, so I usually sub that in for the scallions, making this a pretty dandy pantry recipe for the summer or winter.

Ingredients

8 medium potatoes

3 carrots

6 medium beets

4 scallions (or a quarter of a red onion)

3 sour pickles (I actually prefer dill in this recipe)

Dressing

1 Tablespoon salt

3 Tablespoons sugar

1/3 cup vinegar or lemon juice (I enjoy balsamic in this recipe)

¼ cup oil

¼ tsp. pepper

Directions

Scrub potatoes, carrots, and beets and place in a 4-quart pot. Cover vegetables with water and cook until soft. Potatoes and carrots will become tender before the beets. Remove them and continue to cook beets.

Let vegetables cool, and peel; cut potatoes and beets into cubes. Peel and dice carrots, scallions and pickles and then mix all vegetables together in a large mixing bowl.

Mix together dressing ingredients, add to vegetables and toss well. Potatoes will take on red appearance. Chill and serve.