Uncle Craig’s potato salad

173Potatoes are the most eaten vegetable in the U.S. I have nothing against potatoes – love ‘em! I rarely cook them in my own house. I might make an occasional pot of mashed potatoes, especially if I want to make shepherd’s pie. I will make my mom’s sausage-potato-corn casserole several times during fall and winter when the weather is colder. Periodically I’ll throw a couple into a soup recipe if it seems like it’ll be ok. Otherwise, I mostly eat them when I’m eating out (french fries, mashed, baked) or eating at the homes of others.

It’s ironic because as a kid, I would say most family meals included potatoes of some kind. We almost never had rice since my dad is not a fan. If we ate out and I had a choice of potato or rice, I often chose the rice pilaf as a kid just for something different, but it wasn’t for lack of loving potatoes. Living in Japan, to be sure, shifted my focus to rice over most any other starch except pasta. These days, if I’m eating out and have a choice, I’m likely to pick a baked potato since I make them so infrequently myself. Plus, the toppings – sour cream, butter, bacon, chives, cheese. Or garlic mashed potatoes. Or potato gratin. Who can resist all of these indulgent potato options?

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We get potatoes from our farm CSA pretty frequently in the winter and periodically in the summer. They often collect in the bottom of my veggie drawer for weeks until I finally share them with someone else or find a use for them.   I had a full share of the veggies last week since my share partner was out of town so I got a full bag of small, fresh potatoes. I decided that since I had them, I should make some potato salad, but instead of the regular salad of just potatoes and mayo I’d make what I think of as “Uncle Craig’s potato salad.”

Years and years and years ago – before I went to college? – my uncle made or brought a potato salad he made to my grandmother’s house. Unlike the usual mostly potato dressing, his also had crisp cucumber and tomato. At least I think it did. It has been so many years, I’m not sure what is true and what is the stuff of memory. The one thing I know it contained for sure was big chunks of dill pickle. I had never had a potato salad like it. The dill pickles and the pickle juice gives the salad a bit of bite and tang to balance out the creaminess of the mayonnaise.

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I have a brand of pickles I really like. They seem more like the pickles one would make if they were making their own and they usually have carrots and peppers mixed in with the pickled cucumbers. My friends and I ate most of a jar recently. I’ve been adding chard stems and garlic scapes to the jar to pickle in the extra brine. I decided that I could use the results from this experiment in my version of Craig’s salad.

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There aren’t any exact measurements since it’s about what you like and the amounts that would taste good to you.

  • Potatoes
  • Cucumber (remove seeds if they’re especially large)
  • Sliced (but similar size to potatoes and cucumber) dill pickles
  • Chopped up fresh tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes sliced in half)

For the dressing (enough to make things moist):

  •  Mayonnaise (could use ½ mayo and ½ plain yogurt to cut the fat and calories)
  • Pickle juice
  • A squirt or spoon of mustard (Dijon or smooth mustard is best here, I think)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

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This is a salad that is best eaten the day it’s made or the next day at most. The brine from the pickles breaks down the veggies faster so you don’t want to make more than you think you can consume pretty quickly. Also, refrigerating tomatoes makes their texture mealy and dulls the flavor so they won’t be as good after refrigerating the leftover salad.  Sometimes, like today, if I’m going to take it for lunch, I’ll leave out the tomatoes and just take them in a separate container and add them in just before eating.  It might take a little extra work, but it’s better for the flavor and texture of the tomatoes.

175IMG_20150721_121353507_HDRFor me, it was extra delicious since I had the other dilled and pickled veggies I had put into my leftover dill pickle brine. Along with the carrots and dill pickles that were already in the jar (how the product is sold), it made my salad both colorful and extra veggie-full. My tomatoes from the Saturday farmer’s market were orange, red and green, so the whole salad screamed of summer.

I wonder if Craig is still making his salad this way? Hmmm…

 

 

“Sous Vide” Salmon Salad with Honey Mustard Dressing

115I’ve been seeing this “sous vide” cooking on websites and food cooking shows for a bit. I believe it means cooking at a low temperature of hot water and using vacuum packed bags. Essentially, you season the fish or whatever you’re cooking and put it and a bit of oil into a vacuum bag, vacuum out all of the air, and then cook it in water at a temperature of roughly the hottest water from your tap. There are expensive machines to help you do the job and control the temperature. The idea is that the low cooking under vacuum seal results in moist, tender, perfectly cooked food like fish. If you don’t have a vacuum sealing machine, I’ve seen hacks where they use a Ziploc freezer bag and a straw to get the air out (using water in a bowl to force out the air) to approximate the vacuum sealing.

I’m not likely to spend any money on an expensive machine any time soon and I do not own a vacuum sealer either. I also don’t cook a lot of fish. I love fish, but I didn’t grow up eating much of it and it wasn’t really ever cooked in front of me. I’ve tried a number of attempts over the years, but usually I end up erring on the side of overcooking and my results have been less than great. I’ve tried poaching which probably gave me the best results, but even that wasn’t terrific.

Recently, I had this idea that I would try again with fish so I bought some frozen tuna and salmon. The tuna is all frozen in one pouch but the salmon came in individual vacuum pack portions. I didn’t realize this at the time of the purchase, but when I went to take out some pieces to thaw, I thought this vacuum packed packaging might allow me to try this sous vide process just using a pan of water. I put two pieces into the fridge to thaw for a couple of days.

In the meantime, I looked at online pages to see how people were doing the sous vide process without a machine and how it varied if you have the machine. What I finally decided was that I would try the following technique: bring the water just under a boil, put the heat down to low, and then put the packs in the water 15 – 20 minutes.

129I took out a pan and filled it with cold water from the tap. I put it on to boil. Originally I thought I might actually boil the water and then let it sit for a while to cool, but as I was standing there, I could just make out the beginnings of bubbles on the bottom of the pan which precede boiling. At that point, I put the heat to low so it wouldn’t boil and put in my two packs of vacuum-packed salmon. It immediately went from bright pink to an opaque color. I hadn’t really accounted for the bulk of the plastic packaging so my pan was pretty tight. In my reading online, people who hacked this on the stove seemed to think it important that the water be able to move well around the fish to keep the water temperature consistent. If I were to do this again, I would definitely use a larger pan to account for the packaging and be more able to “stir” things around. Instead, I just stood there moving the packages around every few minutes. Also, because one piece of fish was quite thin and because I think my starting temperature was warmer than what most were advising online, I decided to stop at 15 minutes. As the timer sounded, I fished out my warm plastic packages of fish.

Thankfully I had done my research ahead of time or I might have been pretty grossed out by the results. When you open the bag, out comes a pretty pale, not-so appetizing looking piece of fish. It’s clearly juicy and cooked, but it doesn’t look like much. Most folks online talked about doing a quick fry on the fish to add some color more than to cook it since you don’t want to ruin the goodness of the sous vide method by overcooking the fish in a pan.

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Delicious: lettuce, fresh basil, lemon cucumbers, and the salmon with my homemade honey-mustard dressing.

I had my pan warm and ready with some olive oil. I simply salted and peppered my two pieces of salmon, tipped them into the warm oil, and cooked them just long enough to add a bit of color to the fish.

While the fish had been in the water, I made the salad on which I planned to serve my salmon. It was a mix of salad greens, chiffonades of fresh basil, and lemon cucumber. I was going to put my warm salmon on the cool salad for a simple summer dinner. On top of it, I had a bit of honey mustard dressing left over from a few days before so I planned for that to be my dressing.

It’s a very simple salad dressing. Here it is…

Honey Mustard Dressing

  • 1 T. mustard (Dijon, grainy, etc)
  • 1 T. honey
  • 2 T. apple cider vinegar
  • 4 T. olive oil (or a ½ combo of oil and water)

I use this on simple salads but it’s also a really, really, really great coleslaw dressing (no mayo!) for shredded vegetables like cabbage or kohlrabi with apple and carrot.

When the salmon came out of the pan, I cut each piece in half so I could compare. As I noted, one was quite thin compared to the other so I was curious to see if maybe the thin one would be dried out compared to the thicker piece. I also was curious to know if the leftover salmon would be dry and yucky the next day as leftovers.

To my surprise, the salmon was amazing. It is tender and moist. The flavor was nice even though my seasoning happened post-cooking rather than at the start before vacuum sealing the fish. Both pieces were equally tender and moist and delicious. With my honey mustard dressing and the fresh basil, it was a vibrant, summer salad. The warm salmon warmed the greens a bit and released the aroma of the basil while the cucumbers stayed cool and crisp. Fantastic.

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The leftover salmon the next day…

 

On day two, I took the leftover salmon out and made a second salad. This time I used the same salad greens and lemon cucumber, but I was able to get some fresh shiso leaves (a Japanese herb) and a bottle of shiso vinaigrette from the Asian market, so I put that in my salad instead of the basil. On the top went the cold salmon. It was amazing. The shiso flavor was very nice with the salmon and the salmon was still tender and delicious. It had dried out a bit but nothing like any other fish I had made before so I guess this sous vide thing could be a technique I use again with fish already vacuum sealed.

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Japanese shiso leaves, fresh from an Asian market near Portland, Oregon.

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Shiso vinagrette from the same market.

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To be honest, I do have to admit to being a bit nervous about the idea of plastic in hot water and what bad things it might add to my food, but those concerns aside, it was delicious and really easy. I don’t think I’d do it this way every time, but I’d be open to it especially if I was going to try to make fish for company to eat. I never thought I’d be able to say that.

Two pickles, one evening

105During the craziness that was the early summer, it was sometimes hard to get motivated to do kitchen “projects” that might have taken a lot of time like canning.  I honestly don’t find canning that difficult, but it can take some time.  Having the time or taking the time can be a challenge.  Sometimes you need somebody else to push you to make the choice.

Jeff and Carri, my farmer friends and CSA farm, know that I am obsessed with fennel.  They were thinning their rows of fennel plants and Jeff, for whatever reason, had the genius idea of actually gathering these thinnings fennel plants and tying them together with one of those wire marker flags like you sometimes see for installing sprinkler systems or marking pipes.  When I went to pick up my veggies that night, he handed me this crazy looking mass of young fennel (think thick grass, some of the stems were so thin) and said ‘do you want this?’  I have to admit, I kind of wondered what it was at first.  When he said it was fennel, there wasn’t really any way to say no but when I got home and unwrapped the wire flag, I have to admit I wasn’t sure what I had accepted.  There were some small identifiable beginnings of fennel bulbs, but lots of it was really thin stems.  Plus grass and weeds.  I broke the mass in half, put each half in water in a jar, and decided that was not the day to deal with it.

A day or two later I wondered what I could do with mostly fennel stems.  A quick google search brought up a pickle recipe that I found intriguing.  First, it was mostly for stems.  Secondly, I already had all of the needed spices (fennel seed, cumin seed, and whole coriander) in my kitchen and I had purchased an organic lemon that week by chance.  It seemed an easy recipe:  boil the pickling liquid, add in sliced lemon and the fennel, and let it cool in the liquid (the reason you kind of want an organic lemon since the outside skin is in contact with the liquid a long time), pull out the lemon slices, and then put in jars and refrigerate.

I did make it and it was easy and delicious.  The hardest part was going through the fennel masses and deciding what was large enough to use and what really did need to go into the compost.  I trimmed off dried bits.  I pulled out grass and weeds.  It was a bit tedious, but when the pickles were made, I was so happy to have made the effort.  I had one large jar of very tiny/thin pickles that already tasted good to me.  The spices were great and the lemon added a certain sophisticated element to the fennel flavor.  When I served it to them a week or so later, my fennel loving friends also liked them.

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Flash forward a few weeks and we received a “proper” amount of fennel as part of our CSA share.  By proper I mean fully developed bulbs, stems, and fronds.  Again, folks don’t always like fennel so a lot of it gets put into the trade box.  I take all I can get and Jeff and Carri gifted me with an armful.  I knew I was going to make those pickles again.  At the same time, we had these big bags of juicy sugar snap peas.  I love eating them raw and sautéed, but this week we had a lot of them and I was wondering what I could do to possibly preserve some.  Luckily, Carri had put a link which I nearly missed in our weekly CSA newsletter.  That link was for a sugar snap pea pickle.  Again, not canned and super simple and it contained tarragon, one of my favorite herbs which I happily have growing in a pot in my yard.

So, armed with fennel and sugar snap pea abundance, I hit the kitchen.  Here’s the genius part of this duo.  Both have a lot of passive time so while I was waiting for one to rest, I could work on the other.  I started with the fennel.  The fennel pickle recipe begins with toasting the spices in a dry pot.  You have to be very careful with this step.  If you step away or try to do something else like chop the fennel, you’re likely to burn the spices.  I did this.  One second it’s a nice smell and in a second it’s a burnt smell.  I had to throw out those spices, wash the pot, and start again.  In my case, it also meant an extra trip to the store to get more fennel seeds since the last of what I had went into the garbage…

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Armed to try a second time, I prepped the fennel first:  chopping off the root ends and then setting most of the fronds aside for other uses (some did go in the jars).  With the remaining bulbs and stems, you chop into a size that you can manageably get into jars and would want to eat — maybe the length of a thumb or finger.  Once that was done, I went back to starting the pickling liquid and kept my eye on the spices.  After toasting them, I added in the liquid (water and apple cider vinegar), sugar, and salt and brought the mixture to a boil.  The original recipe calls for half a lemon, but both times I’ve made it I’ve used a whole lemon, cut into pretty thin slices to maximize lemon flavor.  Once the mixture boils, you take it off the heat, add in your lemon slices and fennel, and then just let it sit there to cool.  It can take a couple of hours.  Once cooled, you remove the lemon slices (they’d encourage bacteria, I think, if you left them in the pickles) and stuff the fennel into jars.  This time, I got three large jars worth of pickles.  You want to maximize the pickle flavor so I strained the pickling liquid to retrieve the spices that sink to the bottom of the pan.  I then distributed those spices to each of the jars and then poured in enough liquid to cover the fennel.  There’s more liquid than will fit in the jars so you do need to fish out the spices in some way.

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I did try a pickle warm.  Because the fennel was larger now, the fennel pickle retained a bit more fennel flavor which was nice.  The first batch had been so tiny or thin that the flavor was covered a bit by the pickling liquid.  I was very happy to put these jars in my refrigerator to eat over the next weeks and months of summer

At the point the fennel and lemon went into the hot pickling liquid to cool and pickle, I set to making the sugar snap pea pickles.  This recipe was also easy and it gave me something to do (chuckle, chuckle) while the fennel-lemon mixture was cooling.  I prepped the peas by removing the ends and strings and washing them.  In this recipe, you do very little “processing” and instead just put all ingredients, cold, into jars and pour over the boiled-and-then-slightly-cooled pickling liquid, so the only time is getting your ingredients ready and into jars.  I did make a variation to the original recipe to up the garlic flavor and to help my dried chilis which were a bit on the old side:  I put them in the pickling liquid to warm and better infuse their flavor.  Otherwise, I did it as directed.

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In two pint jars, I divided up my tarragon (two sprigs at the bottom of each jar since I really love tarragon) and stuffed in my sugar snap peas.  I didn’t boil my jars to sterilize them, but they had just come out of a hot dishwasher so they were very clean.  For refrigerator pickles, I think you still want to be careful and keep things as clean as you can so your efforts don’t spoil before you can enjoy them.106

Because you need to boil and then cool the pickling liquid, I made it before I prepped my peas.  The pickling liquid is just white wine vinegar, water, salt sugar, my garlic, and the dried chills.  Before filling the jars, I fished out the chilis and garlic and split them between the two jars.  I then used the liquid and filled each jar to the top to cover the peas.  Again, I tried one of them warmish and could tell it was going to be good.  The recipe says to wait two weeks to eat.  My friends and I were eating them less than a week later.  That was weeks ago and I still have one jar left in my fridge.  They’re still terrific.

108 By the time I got the snap peas done, it was just a little more waiting before I was ready to jar the fennel.  By the end of the evening (only a couple of hours — made longer by my need to go to the store after I burnt my spices), I had 5 jars of quick pickles in my fridge — no canning necessary — and the satisfaction of knowing that produce wasn’t going to go to waste and we’d have lots of yummy things to eat with barbecues, on salami/cheese trays, and in salads.

Hot weather pickles

PhotoGrid_1436221412580Wow, Oregon has been really hot this year.  Most of the time it means not doing anything to create more heat — lots of salads and ice cream!  The one good thing for me was that it created the perfect opportunity to defrost my upright freezer that is in the basement.  I had cleaned it out of old food (my shame) but it was still full of lots of ice.  The mass at the top I was starting to think of like a malignant tumor — sucking out my life force every time I thought of using the freezer to store something.  I had put a few things in there recently, but they were getting icy immediately so action was necessary.

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Enter the hot spell.  I figured this would be the best time to do it since it would be accelerated by the heat.  Sadly, I didn’t use nearly enough towels to capture the mess, but the freezer is now clean.  I did move some items down from the upstairs freezer that I’m less likely to “forget” like before:  walnuts and pecans, extra chocolate chips, some small jars of chicken broth, a jar of pasta sauce, a jar of base for mimosas (we ran out of prosecco before we ran out of the juice), and one jar of recently made salami-fennel sauce.

And that triggered my memory:  FENNEL!!  My CSA farmers had put fennel into our shares on Tuesday.  Many people don’t take it or leave it behind.  I’m convinced it’s because they haven’t eaten enough of it because it’s one of the things I adore.  I had a full basket of fennel from the farmers.  I put it in the basement where it was cool since I didn’t have room to put it in the refrigerator (there was so much!), but then I had kind of put it out of my mind with all of the cool weather eating.

Today I had the day off and nothing planned so I had plans to sleep in.  Of course, this means I was awake at 5 a.m. I tried getting up to feed the cat and going back to bed, but I just couldn’t sleep.  I also noticed that it was unusually cool given how hot it’s been.  I decided to get in the kitchen and make more of the salami-fennel sauce while it was cool.  I had lots of salami in the freezer and it just had to thaw out long enough to cut it into strips.  I had jars and jars of my home canned tomatoes from the summer (I used 4).  I had that basket full of fennel which I had brought upstairs so I couldn’t ignore it any longer.  I was all set to begin.

To my regret, the fennel fronds were toast.  Some were still in reasonable shape, but outside of the refrigerator, they do what plants do which is begin to yellow and dry out.  I had to compost the fronds and most of the stems.  It made me sad because usually I could have put those to use in things like salads, salad dressing, and pickles.  The good news was that the bulbs were still fine so I filled a salad spinner full.  I’m not even sure how many bulbs I started out with (didn’t bother to count), but it was at least a double batch of the sauce.  Now I have two quart jars to add to the downstairs freezer for a couple of great winter meals and a partial jar (maybe 1/3) upstairs in the fridge to eat soon.  Maybe tonight.

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005Last Tuesday we also got some really lovely small cucumbers, perfect for pickling.  I had really rotten luck a couple of summers ago making bread and butter pickles.  They ended up being super salty — almost too salty to eat.  I keep hoping they’ll mellow, but they haven’t.  I’m on the verge of finally tossing the last two jars.  ‘Tis pity, as my Ukrainian friend always says.012

I saw a recipe years ago on the Splendid Table website for “Lois Lee’s Icebox Pickles.”  I’ve saved it and probably even printed it out a couple of times but I’ve never bothered to make it.  It came around again on Facebook and I finally looked at it carefully to read it.  It was the recipe I needed.  It didn’t need to be canned — the trade off is you need to eat in a week or two.  I had all of the spices required (mustard seed, celery seed, turmeric, and ground clove).  It was the ground clove that got me.  I’m not sure I even really registered that the result would be bread and butter pickles.  The turmeric should have clued me in for the yellow color it gives, but I kept wondering what clove pickles would taste like.  Delicious, as it turns out.

Better than the ingredients is the technique.  For a hot weather location, it is ideal since there’s almost no cooking.

The main process is putting the sliced cucumbers and onion and salt into a bowl with ice and letting it sit for 3 hours.  I did stir it occasionally but I’m not really sure that’s necessary.  Given my earlier “too salty” experience, I did halve the salt to 1 tablespoon instead of 2.  I kept tasting and did eventually add a bit more, but still not the 2 tablespoons of the original recipe.  The salting process softens the raw vegetables and draws out a lot of their liquid giving a better result to the pickles by not watering down the flavor and helping to improve the texture.  I can’t be sure of the science, but I think the ice keeps things crisper than just salting alone — softening and crisping at the same time.

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013Once the 3 hours passes, you drain off the salty liquid.  In a pan, you boil the water, vinegar and the 4 spices until it comes to a boil.  Once it does, you add the cucumber/onion mixture and bring it to a boil again.  Once it boils, you remove it from the heat, put it in a jar or container (I used glass so as not to stain with the turmeric), and put it in the fridge to cool.  That’s it!  So easy.  Not heat producing, really.

 

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I did taste a few of the warm pickles and they tasted good already.  The next day, they were fantastic.  The clove adds a little mysterious “something” to the flavor but isn’t super recognizable if you don’t know it’s there.  I took them to gatherings before and on the 4th of July.  They were delicious as part of a salami-cheese feast and they were good as one of the sides with barbecued ribs and sides.  I plan to take the rest to a gathering this week where we very often eat brats.  I think they’ll be delicious that way too.020

The color is amazing.  The flavor is amazing.  I feel bad now that I haven’t given Lois’ pickles a try until now.  I guess everything in due time, right?

Summer melon!

030A friend of mine hosted a gathering just before the 4th of July.  Given our hot weather, she focused on no-cook foods — salami options, cheeses, and lots of sliced fruit.  We feasted on pickles and olives and some prepared salads.  And ended with some great banana chocolate chip muffins I made in the morning when it was cool.  It was lovely and perfect for the hot spell we’ve had as of late.

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At the end of the evening, she sent me home with a container of the lovely melons:  honeydew, cantaloupe, and crenshaw.  The next morning I decided to try making another agua fresca with the melon and mint.  I started with the two green-ish melons, added some ice and mint, and then decided it wasn’t quite enough so I added some of the canteloupe.  Given how much water is in melon, I used a little less water than when I made it with strawberries.  After a quick whir in the blender, I was drinking one of the most refreshing summer drinks ever!

Yum.

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