Providore Turns Seven and Throws a Storewide Citrus Fest!

Seven years ago I touted the opening of the food emporium Providore Fine Foods on NE Sandy Boulevard as "a whip-smart move" on a street formerly known more for its drug dealers, dive bars and ladies of the night than gourmet delights. Partnering with a roster of providers who have deep relationships with local farmers and suppliers, customers have found the kind of high quality, thoughtfully sourced products they can't find anywhere else.

To celebrate, Providore is pulling out all the stops this weekend, showcasing the sunniest of the season's produce, a Citrus Fest that includes:

  • A wide-ranging citrus tasting at Rubinette Produce with every kind of sunshine-y mandarin, tangerine, kumquat, pomelo, orange, lemon and lime they can get their hands on.
  • Divinely inspired kumquat tea cakes from Little T Baker.
  • Two x Sea will be sampling their McFarland Springs trout spread, and will have citrus-inflected mignonette available to accompany their impeccably fresh oysters, plus citrus-marinated fish to take home and enjoy.
  • Revel Meat Co. will be offering samples of their beef hot dogs and a selection of their house-made sausages, all made from meats sourced from local small farms.
  • Lovely lemon curd brûlée citrus tarts, along with Meyer lemon madeleines from Pastaworks, plus Meyer lemon sheet pasta. The salad case will be filled with citrus-inflected grain salads—the orange, tinned-octopus and chorizo salad looks crazy good—and Pastaworks head baker Kathy High is making her legendary birthday bread pudding, servings of which will be given away on Saturday. And don't forget to look for the free tasting of Hungarian wines in the Wine Room!
  • Hilary Horvath Flowers will have sunny, citrus-hued bunches of tulips.

All of the above can be found at Providore, 2340 NE Sandy Blvd., this Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm.

Providore Fine Foods is a steadfast sponsor of Good Stuff NW.

New Pan, Fave Recipe: Hippie Carrot Cake Rides Again

It was the mid-70s and carrot cake was all the rage. Dense, dark, full of healthful whole wheat and carrots, it used brown sugar instead of C&H and was the opposite of our mothers' fluffy, preservative-laden Betty Crocker mix cakes.

Carrot wedding cake? Mon dieu!

Made in college friends' apartments in their sketchy ovens, we barely waited for it to cool enough before we dove in. This cake would surely fuel the overthrow of the dominant paradigm.

Vive la révolution! (I was taking French at the time…)

When Dave and I requested carrot cake as our wedding cake of choice, the bakery was aghast. How can we stack it in tiers without having it crumble or topple over, they asked, suggesting instead a nice chocolate or banana cake if we really needed something "different."

But we wouldn't budge, and as a consequence of our insistence—or was it payback—they made a cake decorated to look like a lady's summer straw hat, wide brim, low crown, pale yellow, a frosting ribbon trailing over the side…you get the picture.

Carrot cake perfection.

But it was delicious, and while our guests were a bit puzzled, it hardly spoiled the day—after all, it was August and a summer straw would have been fitting. Any cases of the vapours were assuaged by the rebels' microbrew, Henry Weinhard's beer (a lager and their groundbreaking Dark Lager), since no Bud, Blitz, Schlitz or Miller would be allowed to darken our day. (I seem to remember my mother added a few bottles of champagne to make the relatives happy.)

So when Santa gifted me with a new bundt pan to take the place of the hideously inappropriate-for-the-purpose silicon version that almost immediately got slimy and cruddy and wouldn't clean properly, a carrot cake seemed like the obvious choice for its first dance.

Dave ground the flour from his stash of Camas Country Mill's Hard White Wheat (obtained from Adrian Hale's PDX Whole Grain Bakers), and the winter-sweetened carrots grown by Josh Volk for the Cully Neighborhood Farm's CSA made it a perfect marriage.

Welcome back, mon vieux!

Hippie Carrot Cake

2 c. whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. nutmeg
2 c. brown sugar
1 c. oil
4 eggs
3 c. grated carrots
Nuts, raisins, currants, etc. (optional)

Sift whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add brown sugar and combine thoroughly. Add oil and stir in, then add one egg at a time, beating it in before adding the next one. When it is completely combined, add carrots and any additional ingredients you choose—I added 1 c. of chopped walnuts—and combine.

Pour into a greased and floured bundt pan—a 9" by 12" baking pan or Pyrex dish works, too—and bake for 35-45 min, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If using a bundt pan, allow to cool for 20 minutes on a cooling rack. Place your serving plate of choice on top, turn the plate and bundt pan upside down and remove the bundt pan. (Mine is a non-stick version, so this is easier.) If it doesn't plop out, give it a gentle bounce and it should come loose.

Watch one of the classic series of Henry Weinhard's ads by the incomparable Hal Riney.

Polenta is Back on the Table: Organic Floriani Flint Corn

When Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm sold their 140-acre farm to retire to upstate New York, Oregon lost not only two of the loveliest people I've had the pleasure to call friends, but also a crown jewel of Oregon's food system. Not just the outstanding fruit and vegetables that they'd shepherded through numerous seasons, adapting them to their nuanced tastes and our Northwest climate, but also meticulous plant breeders who introduced new varieties to market buyers, chefs and restaurant menues, setting a standard of quality that's as yet unmatched.

So good with roasted and braised vegetables and meats.

Along with their beans, berries and tomatoes, a particular focus of Anthony's was the corn that they produced—about which he wrote an entire book called Beautiful Corn—including white, flint and purple varieties they named Amish Butter, Roy's Calais Flint and Peace No War, respectively. The milled Roy's Calais Flint was a particular favorite of my family, made into cornbread, polenta and more. That meant that when the Boutards left, our source for local polenta was literally taken off the table.

In the months after my horded supply of Roy's had been plundered down to the last kernel, I searched local sources for new flint corn types. I even tried several varieties of Italian polenta available at stores, but nothing was satisfying my craving for that deeply corn-flavored, toothsome texture and flecked beauty.

Thanks, Camas Country Mill!

Then I discovered that Camas Country Mill, a local miller in Junction City, Oregon, that farmer Tom Hunton and his family opened in 2011—the first mill of its kind to operate in the Willamette Valley in nearly 80 years—carried a variety of organic ground flint corn called Floriani Red Flint, a dead ringer for the Roy's from Ayers Creek.

Grown by Fritz Durst, a farmer at Tule Farms in the Capay Valley of California, it's milled a bit coarser than the Roy's, so requires more liquid and a slightly longer cooking time (see recipe, below). You can purchase the Floriani Red Flint Cornmeal in three-pound bags direct from Camas Country Mill, or in the Portland metro area contact Adrian Hale of the PDX Whole Grain Bakers Guild. (Adrian's also a great source for small-batch grains and flours from regional mills. Highly recommended by Dave for home-millers!) Both sources also sell a Floriani corn flour, which is a finer grind and more suited to baking.

Floriani Red Flint Corn Polenta

3 c. water (or stock)
1 c. Floriani cornmeal
2 Tbsp. butter or olive oil (optional)
1/2 c. parmesan, freshly grated (optional)
1/4 tsp. dried thyme (optional)
Salt to taste

In a medium-sized pot, bring water to boil. Whisk in cornmeal. Keep whisking until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the polenta thickens and is tender to the bite but not mushy, add butter, cheese and thyme, if desired, plus salt to taste. If it seems too thick, stir in additional water a little at a time.

This polenta can also be made ahead and poured into a pie plate or baking dish and refrigerated until it sets, then cut into sections and fried or grilled.

Sign up for Adrian's PDX Whole Grain Bakers Guild newsletter to buy grains, flours and beans. Read Anthony Boutard's series of Farm Bulletins to learn about his methods and practices.

Holiday Breakfast Tradition: Strata!

It's a Sunday morning tradition around here. After we have both been humbled by the word puzzles on the New York Times website—me moreso than Dave—he starts puttering around the kitchen making breakfast. Sometimes it's as simple as his famous cheese omelets,  other times he's got some sourdough left over from bread baking to use for scones, biscuits or even waffles. I know that whatever it is, it's going to be delicious and I try to be appropriately appreciative.

My recipe box, broken cover and all.

But on holidays, I like to let him off the hook regarding breakfast. There are the tried-and-true, go-to selections—a hearty frittata, fluffy pancakes and real maple syrup from New England, a buttery, crumble-topped coffee cake—but this past Christmas Sunday I chose another standby, strata, which I hadn't made in a dog's age. I pulled out my trusty old recipe box and found the stained index card right there in the "Eggs and Cheese" section.

Dead easy, whether you call it a savory bread pudding or cheater's soufflé, strata consists of bread, eggs, milk and cheese, plus whatever other ingredients you want to add. Usually, in our case, this means mushrooms and bacon, but can include seasonal herbs, kale, tomatoes, asparagus, ham or other meat or seafood.

Call it savory bread pudding or cheater's soufflé, it's delicious!

But note that this cogitating on the possibilities needs to happen a day ahead, since strata really needs to be assembled the night before, with the bread spending all night absorbing the custardy goodness of the eggs and milk in order to achieve its utmost lusciousness. So the evening before I hauled out a half pound of the chanterelle mushrooms that I'd roasted and frozen a couple of weeks ago, plus some of Dave's fabulous bacon and the leeks that we'd received in our CSA share from Cully Neighborhood Farm.

The next morning, after pulling it out of the fridge and popping it in the oven, it bubbled away for ninety minutes while we sipped coffee and dug into our stockings. (And yes, we still do stockings around here…how else can you surprise someone with that probe thermomenter they've been drooling over online?) And I think Dave was pleased that Santa had thought to make breakfast for him for a change. 

Bacon, Cheese and Chanterelle Strata

3-4 c. bread, cut in 1/2" cubes (remove crusts only if you want)
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar or other cheese, grated
1/2 lb. bacon, cut in 1/4" strips
1/4 c. butter or margarine, melted
1/2 lb. mushrooms, chopped (I used chanterelles, but any kind will do)
1 med. or 2 small leeks, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2" slices
3 eggs
2-2 1/2 c. milk (see note)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt

The day before baking, sauté bacon until fat begins to render. Add chopped mushrooms and sauté till mushrooms start to get limp, then add the leeks and sauté until tender. Remove from heat and cool. Beat eggs, milk, mustard and salt in a small mixing bowl. In a medium casserole dish (I used my 2 1/2-qt. Le Creuset casserole but it can be made in a 9" by 12" Pyrex baking dish), place half the bread cubes, topped with half the bacon mixture, half the cheese and drizzle half the melted butter over it. Repeat with another layer of the remaining bread cubes, meat mixture, cheese and butter. Pour the egg mixture over the top. (Note: You can add a little more milk the next morning if it seems too dry, but go easy—the bread shouldn't be swimming in liquid.) Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight to soak.

The next morning, preheat the oven to 300°. Place the casserole in a larger pan with about 3/4" of hot water and place those in the oven. Bake for 90 minutes.

Fun with Paper Bags: Snowflakes and Stars for the Holidays (or Any Day)

The sudden winter storms that seem to have taken over most of the country right before the Christmas holiday have folks sheltering in place, eschewing the usual frenzy of shopping for gifts and ingredients for meals that precede this holiday.

So what's a trapped-in-the-house parent/host/please-anything-other-than-housework human to do?

My friend Lisa Belt, proprietor of Flour Market bakery on Killingsworth (and mad crafter to boot), introduced me to these stellar snowflake stars. She recently gave a tutorial to the kids and adults at a "Crafternoon" event she hosted at the bakery and they were an instant hit.

Made with small paper lunch bags, they’re totally simple and as easy as those paper snowflakes of yore that my mother would pull out of her bag of parental tricks when she wanted to get some work done (or just needed a break from her three overly excited offspring, particularly around the holidays).

You'll need eight paper bags—the white ones are particularly attractive, I think—glue sticks or a bottle of good old Elmer's, and a pair of scissors. (Glue sticks are better if you’ve got young ones…they dry faster and are easier to handle for small fingers and won't drip all over everything.)

All you need to do is make a line of glue down the center of the back of the bag (the side without the bottom flap) and another line across the bottom (photo, right). Then place another bag, flap-side down, on top of that and repeat the same lines of glue as the first bag. Repeat this with the remaining bags (keeping the top one unglued) and allow to dry.

If you remember cutting out snowflakes from folded pieces of paper, this is exactly the same thing. Lisa says making a rounded or pointed design at the top of the bag is prettier, but you'll for sure want to cut some shapes out of the sides, keeping at least 1/4" of the folds between shapes. Don't cut into the flap section, though, since that holds the center together.

When the glue has dried and your shapes are cut, open the star by gently pulling the outside bags around to meet each other. You can either glue these together to hold the star open permanently, or punch a hole near the top and make a loop to hang it from—this also make it easier to untie and store it flat for next time. (Completely confused? There's a video here.)

Leave it plain or decorate with paints, sparkles or whatnot and hang wherever!

Turkey Enchiladas: A Smoky Holiday Tradition

The ongoing crisis between Russia and NATO over the invasion of Ukraine, the struggle between protesters in Iran and the government over its extrajudicial killings, or the GOP's imminent implosion? Those have nothing on the potential fireworks involved in negotiating holiday meals with the family. The delicacy and maneuvering required as must-have side dishes are put forward for consideration, old family recipes are tossed in (and out) and dietary restrictions are figured into the mix would have even Anthony Blinken—who has released two songs on Spotify under the name "ABlinken"—scrambling for his easy listening list.

The bronzed beauty.

Like one year when Dave learned we were going to my brother's for Thanksgiving dinner. Normally an invitation from my brother isn't even a question due to the quality of his cooking and the depth of his liquor cabinet. But for this occasion Dave's reaction was a look of disbelief and a cry of, "But I was planning to smoke the turkey in the smoker!"

After assuring him that I'd ordered a turkey so he could smoke it the next day, leaving plenty of leftovers for turkey sandwiches and his beloved turkey enchiladas, he immediately switched into research mode, looking up which wood charcoal to use as well as the complex calculations involved in getting the temperature and timing just right.

Suffice it to say that not only was it a wonderful holiday meal that included incredible cocktails and wines, a whole grilled turkey and some great side dishes, but the next day's smoking produced a bronzed beauty and some rocking turkey enchiladas.

Now to start planning for Christmas. Eek!

Dave's Favorite Turkey Enchiladas

For the sauce:
6 dried ancho chiles, seeded and torn into pieces
2 dried hot red chiles like cayenne, seeded and torn into pieces
3 1/2 c. boiling water
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
2 Tbsp. (6-8) garlic cloves
4 tsp. oregano
3 Tbsp. paprika (I use 1 Tbsp. smoked Spanish pimenton and 2 Tbsp. regular paprika)
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
2-4 c. roasted tomatoes (optional depending on how strong you like your enchilada sauce)

For the enchiladas:
4-6 c. cooked turkey, chopped
2 c. grated Monterey Jack or sharp cheddar cheese, grated
3 green onions, chopped
1 c. sour cream
1/2 c. sauce (recipe above
Salt to taste
8 10-inch flour tortillas

Place the torn chiles in a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Soak for 30 min. until they are soft and pliable. Drain them, reserving the soaking water, and place them in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients and 1/2 c. soaking liquid and process till smooth, gradually adding the rest of the soaking water. Pour into saucepan and heat to simmer, then remove from heat.

Mix turkey, cheese, onions, sour cream and sauce in large mixing bowl. Stir to combine. Pour 1/2 c. of sauce in bottom of 9" by 12" baking dish and spread evenly over bottom of dish. Put 1/8 of enchilada mixture down center of one tortilla and roll, placing it seam-side down in baking dish. Repeat with remaining mixture and tortillas. Pour sauce over top to cover thinly (there should be sauce left over). Bake 40 min. in 350° oven. Serve leftover sauce on side or save for use in huevos rancheros, tacos, etc.

Note: This is my basic chile sauce and will make approx. 4-5 cups, which gives plenty for other uses like those mentioned above or is fantastic for a pork posole. It will keep basically forever in the freezer, making it easy to pull out as needed!

Book Review: Cooking from the Heart, the Hmong Kitchen in America

Sami Scripter's groundbreaking book, Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America, written with co-author Sheng Yang, has just been released in paperback. When it was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2009, it was the first published collection of Hmong recipes since the Hmong people adopted a written language in the 1950s, and it represented a cultural milestone for the widely dispersed Southeast Asian community. I wrote a story about Scripter and Yang for the Oregonian's FoodDay, and I'm republishing it here.

The Hmong people had no written language until the 1950s, so it makes sense that it took until now for them to get their first cookbook.

But to tell the story of the book, we need to go back to 1980. That's when Sami Scripter, the coordinator of the talented and gifted program at Rigler Elementary School in Portland, met Sheng Yang, a young Hmong (pron. "mong") immigrant, in her English as a Second Language class. Scripter's desk was in one corner of the room, and she was taken with the inquisitive and self-possessed 11-year-old.

"Sami was always very helpful," Yang says. "I'm a very nosy person. I'd go up to Sami and she would always answer my questions."

Portland had seen a large influx of Hmong from refugee camps in Thailand as part of a resettlement program in the late '70s. To welcome the newcomers to Rigler and expose the community to Hmong culture, Scripter organized a talent night that showcased Hmong songs, dance and food.

Yang (left) and Scripter (right).

Yang was scheduled to perform in the show and, since they lived just two blocks apart, Scripter would often give her a ride home from practices. Yang's mother would invite Scripter to stay for dinner, and eventually the two families formed a strong friendship. Knowing how fond Scripter and her family were of Yang, her parents asked if it would be possible for her to come live with the Scripters.

"Among Hmong families, children will often go to live with an aunt and an uncle for a year," Scripter says. "It's considered a learning experience. So it wasn't out of character for their culture, and we could help Sheng with her English and her classes."

"When I moved in with Sami and her husband, Don, he actually built bunk beds for me and (Scripter's daughter) Emily," Yang says. "Ever since then, Sami and Don and their family have been a part of our family."

Coconut Gelatin With Tropical
Fruit Cocktail

As with many cultural exchanges, it quickly became a two-way street. While Yang's English improved and she learned to appreciate tomatoes, she also began teaching Scripter and her new American family about Hmong cooking.

More than once this new road required some negotiating, as when Yang was making a variation of the traditional Hmong green papaya salad. Since green papayas were not readily available in stores at the time, Yang was making the salad with carrots.

"She needed a certain tool but didn't know the American word for it," Scripter said. "Of course, I didn't have it in my kitchen, so we ended up going back to her house. It turned out it was a mortar and pestle."

Mangosteens

Portland's Hmong population is estimated to be around 4,000, relatively small compared with the larger communities found in Minneapolis and Sacramento.* Most came here as refugees after the Vietnam War, when they were targeted by the communist government in Laos for helping the U.S. during the war.

In the mountains of Laos, they'd believed in a form of animism and used shamans and herbal remedies. Wild ingredients such as lemon grass, bamboo and rattan shoots, and banana blossoms, as well as herbs and seasonings such as cilantro, green onion, galangal, ginger, hot chiles, fish sauce and black pepper were commonly used.

Most food was cooked over an open fire, sometimes heated in a pot of broth or wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Compared with the fiery cuisines of many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, the cooking of Laotian Hmong was fairly mild and focused on subtler herbs and broths.

Chicken larb

As in many traditional cultures, food often played a central role in most ceremonial gatherings, whether for the new year, weddings and funerals or for shamanistic healing rituals. To this day, many Hmong foods have some spiritual or cultural significance.

But because the Hmong had no written language, until very recently they were dependent on an oral tradition to pass on their cultural heritage, and many of the recipes for these significant cultural foods had not been recorded.

Which is where Scripter and Yang's unique relationship enters the story.

Having written down Yang's recipes over the years, Scripter and Yang, now an adult, began talking about creating a book that would not only introduce Hmong foods to Western audiences but would also be a written record of the traditions that were becoming increasingly diluted by the influence of American culture.

"We wanted it to be representative of Hmong people across the United States," says Scripter, "not just what came out of Sheng's kitchen." She started traveling to different Hmong communities around the country, asking who made the best traditional foods, such as larb or cracked crab.

"So I'd go over to her house and cook cracked crab," Scripter says. "Then I'd ask what else people like that she cooks, and one thing led to another."

One interview was particularly significant and underscored why Scripter felt it was so important to write the book, which she and Yang had decided to call "Cooking From the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America."

"I met a woman and she really wanted to tell me this story," Scripter said of her first meeting with Mai Xee (pron. "my see") Vang.

Vang's mother, Ka Kue, had immigrated without being able to read or write, so she began teaching her mother to read and write English. It soon became apparent that her mother preferred her own language, so Vang taught her mother to read and write in Hmong.

After Vang married and left home, her mother fell ill and eventually succumbed to kidney disease. "Unbeknownst to her children, when Ka Kue knew she was really ill she started writing a journal," Scripter says. "It's all about her life in Laos and is illustrated with her own drawings, with all the traditional farming and cooking implements.

"Because she knew she would die, she wanted her children to have her voice to tell them what to do to be a good Hmong man or woman," Scripter says.

After the funeral, Vang and her siblings found their mother's journal, wrapped tightly in a Hmong skirt and concealed in a basket under her bed. Under the little drawings in her journal, Kue had written, "Peb ua neej nyob yuav tsum muaj tej nuav mas txhaj paub ua peb lub neej nyob. Nuav yog qov ob huv peb lub neej." Roughly translated, her words mean, "In our lives, we must have these things in order to make a good life."


Recipes from the original article include Trout Xav Lav Ntxuag Fawm (Trout Salad with Vermicelli Noodles)Kua Quab Zib rau Ntses Trout Sav Lav (Sweet and Sour Fish Sauce for Trout Salad)Laj Nqaij Nyuj Xaj los yog Suam (Grilled Beef Larb)Kua Txob (Hot Chile Condiment), Qab Zib Khov Xyaw Kua Mav Phaub thiab Tiv Hmab Txiv Ntoo (Coconut Gelatin With Tropical Fruit Cocktail).

* Current estimates for the Hmong population in Oregon are just under 3,000.

Photo of chicken larb by Robin Lietz from Cooking By Heart.

Guest Essay: Ode to a Strainer

My friend Hank Shaw, a Northern California writer, author and blogger at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, describes himself this way: "I write. I fish. I dig earth, gather things from the wild, raise plants, live for food and hunt anything that tastes good." Doing that requires a few basic tools, one of which he wrote about recently on his new venture with his partner, journalist and photographer Holly Heyser, a collection of wide-ranging essays called To The Bone.


This simple tool makes my food better almost every day.


I get asked about the secret to my cooking all the time. There are a lot of reasons why my food tastes the way it does, some of them learned from long decades of experience. But there’s one you can pick up tomorrow and vastly improve your own performance in the kitchen: a fine-meshed strainer.

Or better yet, several.

Sieving and straining food elevates the end product by removing lumps, debris, impurities or indigestible bits. And if you don’t think this matters, here’s a case study.

Straining water off freshly made acorn flour.

Years ago, my co-worker Laura decided she wanted to make soup for her family. I can’t remember if it was based on one of my recipes or not, but regardless, she’s not a hunter so it was store-bought products.

She liked the soup, but her family did not, derisively calling it “debris soup” because in the bottoms of their bowls lurked a witch’s brew of bone bits, clotted blood, stem fragments and other things too horrible to mention. The broth tasted chalky and sour to them.

Turns out Laura never strained her broth. What went into the pot stayed there, and while this is often perfectly fine, it sure isn’t when you want to make a broth that then becomes a soup.

Another case: Years ago, when I learned how to make a proper salsa, and I am talking a smooth Mexican salsa, not pico de gallo, the ladies who taught me made sure I knew to push the blended salsa through a strainer (top photo).

Why? Because if I didn’t, I and everyone else who ate that salsa would pay for it in the morning. Turns out the skins and seeds of chiles are not digestible. (And in fact the seeds of certain chiles need to pass through the digestive tract of animals, notably birds, before they can even germinate!) If you’ve ever had the “ring of fire” in the morning, blame the skins and seeds.

And blame cooks who failed to strain their salsas.

I use my strainers almost every day.

One day I am rendering fat. Straining separates the clean fat from the asiento, the “seat” of fine fatty bits that is so wonderful on a tortilla. That strained fat is purer, and lasts longer because there’s no debris in it to attract mold.

Another day I am making a syrup out of something like chokecherries or prickly pears or gooseberries. If you want the most flavor, you need to initially make these syrups with the whole fruit, pits, seeds and skins and all. But even whizzing it in a fancy Vitamix blender won’t totally remove them from the finished product.

So you need to strain. Otherwise, you get a layer of sediment at the bottom of your syrup, which not only makes it ugly, but makes it taste weird. You don’t want floaters on your pancakes.

Sauces are the same. Running a gravy or a pan sauce through a strainer elevates it, makes it prettier and cleaner-tasting.

Nowhere is this more true than in broths and stocks.

I strain these several times, the last time through a paper towel set inside the strainer. This, plus the fact that I never let a broth boil—boiling will emulsify fat or calcium particles in the liquid, turning the broth cloudy—which results in an almost consommé-like broth without the fancy raft and re-cook.

Even where there’s no liquid involved, I love my strainers.

When I grind chiles for pepper powder I use a strainer. Ditto for when I make acorn flour or masa harina or porcini powder.

You may ask which strainers I prefer, and while I have no brand recommendations, I will tell you that they should be sturdy, because you will forcefully push things through them from time to time. And they should be of different sizes. You can always make do with a larger one, but having a large and a small strainer makes life better; many companies make nesting sets of three.

You also want your strainers to have two handles, long on one side, C-shaped on the other. Why? This allows you to set the strainer over a bowl or pot, so you can do your thing. The ancient, one-handled strainers are irritating.

A cheffy chinois is nice, but not totally needed, nor is the even cheffier tamis, which is a drum sieve. I find them hard to clean, and I’ve never had a tamis that I haven’t blown out the bottom of.

Strainers make everything better. We used them many times a day in the restaurants I worked in, and they are an easy way to improve your own cooking at home.

Fermenting Sauerkraut: Sauer Is as Sauer Does

As cabbage season is upon us once again, I thought it was high time to rerun this post from December, 2011. The basic technique described below is the one I still use, though I don't do the water bath canning method that Ron prefers, since I like the crunchy, fresh (and probiotic) quality of the cabbage straight from the crock—the only drawback is you need more fridge space to store it, since it's not shelf stable. C'est la vie!

If it wasn't for a teensy misunderstanding, I might have been enjoying sauerkraut long before I did. You see, my mother had been told that my father's father had come to the United States from Germany as a young man.* So, as a young wife wanting to please her new husband, she tried serving him meals that would appeal to what she thought of as his German-American upbringing.

Slicing the cabbage.

Occasionally we would come to the family dinner table to find her version of a German dish was being featured, that is, sauerkraut straight from the jar heated on the stove with hot dogs—Oscar Meyer, no doubt—simmered in it. I think it took my father years to tell her he really wasn't fond of sauerkraut, but not before the tart, vinegary, tingle-your-back-teeth feeling was etched into all our minds.

That all changed for me when Dave and I went to France, traveling through the region called Alsace. Staying in an auberge with a fantastic restaurant on the first floor, we had the regional specialty called choucroute garnie, sauerkraut simmered for hours in a rich stock with sausages, pork, ham and other meats. It was truly a revelation, and forever changed the way I think about sauerkraut.

Packing the crock.

Which is why, when the subject of sauerkraut came up at a dinner we attended recently, I effused about my love for fermented cabbage. It turned out that the fellow I was speaking to was a sauerkraut aficionado, making gallons of the stuff every year from local cabbage, and he asked if I'd like to come observe the process. As you might expect, he'd barely finished asking when I answered, "Hell, yes."

I showed up one morning to find Ron Brey in his kitchen with several gigantic heads of green cabbage sitting on the counter. He buys them from Sun Gold Farm at the PSU farmers' market and looks for large cabbages—he buys 14 pounds total, or about three, per batch—that are tight and "hard as rocks." That amount is good for about seven quarts of sauerkraut, exactly the number of jars that will fit in his canner. He then slices the heads into quarters and then cuts those in slices about the thickness of a dime, slicing around the core.

Ready to ferment!

The chiffonade from the cabbage goes into a bowl and is mixed with 11 tablespoons of salt, which almost immediately starts to "sweat" the cabbage, that is, to pull the moisture out of the leaves. Ron says he uses kosher salt because it has no additives, and mixes it in gradually as he adds more cabbage. The salt and cabbage mixture is then left to sit in the mixing bowl for six hours.

After that, Ron transfers the shreds of cabbage into the glass crocks he uses to ferment the sauerkraut. (The glass-lidded glass jars are from Fred Meyer and he says they're much cheaper than most of the ceramic crocks sold for making sauerkraut.) He firmly packs the sauerkraut in the crock by hand until it's about seven-eighths full, or up to the shoulder of the crock. [It's not necessary to completely fill the crock. I've done batches with as little as 1/3 of the crock and it turned out great.]

Packing the kraut into jars.

Brey emphasizes that it's important that the sauerkraut remains submerged in its liquid in the crock, and various mechanisms have been developed to press down the shreds, some of which work better than others. But here's the genius part: Ron came up with his own method that works like a charm and is so simple it's ridiculous. He takes a gallon zip-lock bag, fills it with water, and sets it in the crock on top of the cabbage. With a gallon of water weighing in at about eight pounds, it's plenty to keep that crazy sauerkraut under control, and it conforms to the shape of the crock. Awesome!

The hot water bath.

The cover is placed on the crock, and the sauerkraut goes down in Ron's basement to ferment for a couple of weeks. He likes to keep it at 65° for the fermentation…lower than that would be fine, but would slow down the process. He says, "There is some point—certainly by 80 degrees—where it becomes increasingly likely that the kraut will not ferment correctly. It can become soft, dark and lose the combination of tartness and sweetness." The kraut should remain fairly light-colored during fermentation; any serious darkening is an indication the ferment has gone wrong and should be tossed. Ditto, obviously, with mold.

After a couple of weeks the crock is brought up to the kitchen, the kraut is transferred to clean quart glass canning jars and is canned in the same kind of water bath canner my mom used for preserving fruit. Too bad she never knew about homemade sauerkraut and that paradigm-shifting choucroute.

Ron recommends the book "Stocking Up" by Carol Hupping as a basic guide for making sauerkraut and other preserved foods. I would also recommend "The Art of Fermentation" by Sandor Katz as an excellent guide. For Japanese pickling methods, the slim but essential "Tsukemono" is unsurpassed. 

* In going through some family papers, I have since found out that my grandfather was born on Oct. 2, 1891, in the town of Sitauersdorf/Sitauerowka in the region of Galicia in what was then Austria, and is now a geographic region spanning southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.

One-Pot Pantry Favorite: Quick Coconut Curried Noodles with Seasonal Vegetables

Belonging to two CSAs, as you might imagine, has us benefitting from the fall bounty—or is it buried under a bounteous pile?—of vegetables from two local farms. While it's a short-lived situation, with the end of our summer share from one farm overlapping with the beginning of the fall subscription from another farm, it means I'm scrambling to use all the peppers, squash, cauliflower, greens and more in my veg bin before they melt into compost.

The dinner pictured above (with the meaty version on the left) is a simple one-pot curry that's been a boon on so many fronts: it's quick to prepare, it's delicious as either a vegetable or meat-friendly dish, I can throw in chicken or steak or roasted vegetables left over from other meals, and it takes up a ton of the items from those two CSAs mentioned above.

As flexible as fried rice when it comes to a healthy, hearty meal, as long as you have noodles, coconut milk and a curry paste (or powder) on hand you can have it on the table in about half an hour. I call that a darn near perfect dinner.

Coconut Curry Noodles with Seasonal Vegetables

8 oz. udon noodles (spaghetti or linguine work, too)
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, chopped in 1/2" dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh ginger, finely grated  (optional)
3 Tbsp. red or green curry paste (I like Thai and True made here in Oregon or 2 Tbsp. curry powder or 1 1/2 Tbsp. turmeric plus 1 tsp. ground cumin)
4 c. chopped vegetables (peppers, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, carrots, turnips or whatever you have in the veg bin)
1 15-oz. can coconut milk
1 c. or so chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
Salt to taste
1/2 c. green onions, chopped (optional)
1 c. cilantro, chopped (optional)

Bring a pot of water to boil and drop in the udon noodles. Return to a boil and cook for 4 minutes. You want the noodles very al dente, since they'll finish cooking in the curry sauce. (Regular pasta will take longer to cook, but you still want it al dente.) Drain and rinse with cold water.

Heat a deep, wide frying pan over medium-high heat and add oil. When it shimmers, add the onion and sauté until translucent. Make a space in the center of the onions and add the ginger (if using) and garlic. Sauté briefly and add the curry paste (or powder) and sauté briefly. Start adding the sturdier chopped vegetables first, then adding the more tender ones as the first ones cook down a bit.

When the vegetables are all tender, add the coconut milk, stock, and fish sauce, plus any meat you may be using (cubed tofu works here, too). When it comes to a boil reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the drained noodles. Bring the whole pot to a simmer for another 5 minutes or so until it's all thoroughly heated. Adjust salt to taste. Serve garnished with green onions and cilantro, if desired.