Culinary Smackdown: Battle Oktoberfest

I am no culinary master.  I am still learning about food and cooking, and that's exactly why the Culinary Smackdown events are so fun to participate in.  It's been a very long time since I have joined in--mostly because I let my life get in the way of actually posting my entries--but this time I'm feeling pretty good about my chances.

The theme for this month's competition is Battle: Oktoberfest!  Cincinnati and Dayton have their Oktoberfest festivals during the month of September (side note: isn't that weird?) and everyone has beer, sauerkraut, and schnitzel on their minds.  I remembered my dad, the man who contributed to my German lineage, talking about warm potato salad, so I called home to ask for their favorite recipe.

My mom sent me on a scavenger hunt to Food Network's website looking for a specific recipe by Bobby Flay, saying that she had recently taken it over to her neighbors house, who is a German immigrant, and it was a big hit.  After a bit of ingredient comparing, I found the right recipe and had all of the ingredients on hand.

Big boxes of dirty potatoes have started showing up at the farmer's market.  I bought these red potatoes from a man with a kind smile and long beard, and brought them home to give them a good scrub.  The rest of the recipe came together pretty easily; as the potatoes boiled, I cooked the bacon, then the onions and celery, and finally started on the warm dressing.  The mystery ingredient--flour--was intended as a sauce thickener, but I don't think it's effect was evident until the potato salad was assembled and then allowed to cool slightly. 

In hindsight, while this recipe was extremely good, especially if you like the idea of the strong vinegar to be tampered down a bit with a little sugar, I think it would be even better if made a day in advance and then warmed the following day.  I ate the leftovers for breakfast this morning and my-oh-my!  That's a darn good potato salad.

Side note:  Don't you think my potato salad would go perfectly with Cindie's entry

Warm German Potato Salad
recipe from Food Network
serves about 4

At one point in the recipe, you are supposed to drain off the bacon grease, reserving just 1 tablespoon.  But I'd recommend not throwing the bacon grease away!  Save it!  It will give excellent flavor to dishes in the future like mushroom risotto without you having to actually add bacon. 

1 - 1.5 lbs red potatoes
5-6 slices bacon
1 medium onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 tbsp chopped chives (optional garnish)
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional garnish)

In a large pot, boil the potatoes whole in salted water until you can easily pierce with a fork.  When done, drain off the water and cut into approximately 1 inch cubes.  Place in a large bowl and set aside. 

While the potatoes are cooking, cook the bacon over medium heat in a large skillet until almost crisp.  Remove from skillet and set on paper towels.  When slightly cooled, crumble the bacon into small pieces.  Add the onions and celery to the skillet and cook in the bacon grease until slightly soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.  Remove the onions and celery with a slotted spoon and set aside in a small bowl. 

Pour off the bacon grease, reserving 1 tbsp of bacon grease in the skillet.  Turn the heat to medium-high and add the flour, sugar, salt & pepper and whisk into the grease until there are no lumps.  Allow to cook for about 30 seconds, then add the water and vinegar.  Allow to cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mixture reduces slightly. 

Add the onions, celery, and potatoes back into the skillet and warm through, tossing the potatoes in the dressing to coat, about 2 minutes.  Transfer the dressed potatoes to the large bowl (previously used for the potatoes).  Sprinkle the bacon, chives, and parsley over the potatoes and carefully mix to combine.  Test for seasoning and add more salt or pepper if needed.  

Serve warm.

To see all entries for the Culinary Smackdown this month, go check out last month's winner, Stephie of Small Girl Adventures.  She is the host and judge of Battle Oktoberfest and all entries will be linked to her host page


5 Canning Tips (& A Canning Giveaway!)

I've been canning and preserving this summer, just as I did last summer, but I haven't mentioned much about it.  I think there is a danger in the abundance of recipes for preserves, pickles, and sauces that have been somewhat haphazardly posted onto some food blogs as these recipes may not necessarily be proven safe.  It's especially a red flag if I see that the recipe was passed down to them by a great-grandmother or super-ancient-relative because family-taught preservers are not always up to date with the latest guidelines for food safety from the FDA, and this blogger can be a danger to their readers if they are sharing recipes that do not meet those guidelines. 

I participate, as often as I can, in a canning chat on Twitter and a recent topic was food safety.  Questions such as, "How do I know if I need to acid to my tomatoes for canning?" and "What ingredients in a jam are safe to change for recipe personalization?" came up immediately.  The overwhelming consensus from our moderators and experts was not to change anything, especially if you're a rookie in food preserving.  The secondary opinion, for those who understand the basics of canning, is you can change the herbs and spices, but you should not change any ingredients that will affect the acidity in the jar.

For example, let's say you want to can jam--maybe something like the Blackberry Jam with Lemon Zest that I made a few weeks ago.  If you don't have the main ingredient on hand, you can't just swap the blackberries for peaches.  The recipe is written with the natural acidity of blackberries in mind and that is a crucial component for keeping bacteria (the scariest of all being botulism) out of your jars.  But, if you felt the urge to add a little ground ginger or thyme to the recipe, while maintaining the rest of the ingredients as it is written, that would be unlikely to affect your food safety.

Another important fact that can often be confusing is if food inherently does not have high acidity and you do not add acid to it, it is not safe to can in a water bath.  If you want to can green beans (and do not want them to be in a vinegar brine like a dilly bean), then you must use a pressure canner.  I have not explored the world of pressure canning so I can't speak on that topic--but maybe next summer?  We'll see. 

Of course your nose and your eyes should be your guide:  if you open that jar six months later and it smells funky or there is something strange growing inside the lid--TOSS IT.  If it looks and smells as perfect as it did when you put it in the jar, then you can feel confident that your food is safe.

While the canning demonstration at Findlay Market this past Sunday was more for beginners than kind-of-know-what-I'm-doing-people like me, I did learn a few things.  If you find mason jars at a garage sale or thrift store, they may be reusable for canning.  Just check to make sure there are no chips or cracks, especially around the lip of the jar, and use a new lid every time.  And you don't absolutely need a canning rack; you can line the bottom of your water-bath pot with extra rings to keep the jars elevated from direct heat.  Essentially all you need as a beginning food preserver is some jars with unused lids, a big pot of water to process the jars in, a rack or extra rings to set the filled jars on in the water bath, a jar lifter or tongs to transfer the hot jars in and out of the water bath, and a safe recipe.  A few clean towels, a funnel, some open counter-space, and a friend to help go a long way, too.

And of course, the most common question from eager future-canners is, "Where do I start?"  While I don't consider myself an expert, I do have a few tips:

1.  Start simple.  
Quick pickling and refrigerator pickling, which don't require water-bath or pressure processing and must be kept in the refrigerator, will give a newbie near-instant gratification and confidence.  Some great recipes I'd recommend are my own Refrigerator Dill Pickles, Wine Me Dine Me's Red Onion Pickles, Zuni Cafe's Zucchini Pickles (as seen on The Wednesday Chef's site), and even Pickled Carrots from Smitten Kitchen

2.  Ask around for advice from friends and family, but be wary of the information you receive.
Food preservation traditions are often passed down.  As Tea of Tea & Cookies so eloquently put it, the kitchen is a place that people have always come together, especially for projects like preserving the harvest.  But as I said earlier--just because no one has died from doing things an "un-safe" way, like not processing for correct times or canning foods that don't naturally have enough acid, doesn't mean that it's okay and doesn't ensure that it won't eventually make someone sick.  You don't want to be the cause of another's (or your own) illness, especially when safe recipes are accessible!  You can find a few safe, FREE recipes like those on the Ball website.  I'd also recommend investing in some canning books (always try to find the most recent edition). 

3.  Try a recipe for something you buy often. 
My sister looooooooves pickles.  I'd suggest she try her hand at canning kosher dills.  My stepdaughter looooooooves berries.  So we made blackberry jam together.  Do you love salsa?  How about apple butter?  Tomato sauce?  The list of possibilities goes on and on.  If you can't wait to eat what you've made, the entire experience is more fun.

4.  Have a little patience.
This is not a virtue of mine.  I am a toe tapper and a rush-a-rounder and a now-now-now kind of person, but it's good to wait for the food in your jars to mature.  You allow the ingredients to get to know one another, meld their flavors together, and your patience will be worth it.  Most recipes suggest waiting two weeks or more before eating what you've made.  I like to hold off a little longer; I wait until the weather turns chilly and I really, really miss fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes before I pop the lid on our salsa.  The shelf life of food in jars varies, but if kept in a cool, dark place most can last up to a year, some even up to two.

5.  Share.
Most recipes are written for making several pints or quarts of a product.  The Ball recipe for Zesty Salsa, that I've made two years in a row because we loved it so much the first time, makes six pints.  We really love our chips and salsa around here, but it's fun to give a few of those pints away so others can enjoy it too!  Home-canned goods make wonderful gifts for house-warmings, congratulations-on-the-new-such-and-such, and even holiday gifts. 

Hopefully by now I've convinced you that canning is easy and accessible, and you are thinking about what you want to do to get started.  I'd like to help you out with that!

I'm doing a Canning Giveaway that starts today, September 16 and ends on Thursday, September 22 at 11:59pm.  I will announce a winner on Friday, September 23.  You could win:

Canning for New Generation
Ball Blue Book
Ball Utensil Set (jar lifter, jar funnel, lid lifter, bubble remover & headspace tool)
2 Coupons for $1.50 off Ball Jars

Prizes are all provided by me and will be new/unused. 

A few rules:
1.  One entry per person.  I will ship via USPS anywhere in the continental U.S.A.
2.  To enter:  Leave a comment answering this question:  I'm interested in canning because...
3.  Winner will be chosen randomly.  A number will be randomly generated and the commenter's who number matches the random number will be the winner.
4.  I will ship the products directly to you so on Friday I will need to be able to contact you for a shipping address. If I can't figure out who you are by your commenter name or because I know you inside or outside the blog world, then you may forfeit your prize.  I will give the winner 24 hours to claim the prize by asking the winner to contact me.  If I there is no contact made, I will choose another random number and have a new winner.

Good luck!!!

I will not respond to questions or inquiries in the comments section until the giveaway is over so that I don't affect the "numbers" until after the giveaway ends.  If you do you have a question, you are always welcome to find me on twitter or email me (contact information is on my About page).  

UPDATE:  The winner is...(drumroll)...comment #9 Jaida!  Congrats Jaida!  I'm sending you an email to get your shipping information!  Thanks everyone for entering!


Free Canning Class at Findlay Market

I saw this great event advertised on Twitter and wanted to make sure my local readers heard about it.  I will be going to this on Sunday, September 11 and would love to meet you!  Please track me down if you attend.
Findlay Market and the OSU Extension present  two classes on the art of canning!  Classes take place in the OTR Biergarten and in the event of rain will take place in the Internet Cafe.   Betsy Dematteo, Family & Consumer Science Program Coordinator at Ohio State University Extension, Hamilton County will be the instructor. This class is offered FREE of charge!

Sunday, September 11th      2:00pm      Apple Preserves
Saturday, September 17th 10:00am      Apple/Maple Jam

Planning to can or want to start canning? Whether you are a gardener preserving your harvest or a shopper who likes to make fancy jams and gifts, this workshop is for you!  Beginners and experienced canners will both want to learn what is new in canning recommendations. Updates to equipment and canning recipes will change your results!  Come learn how to can safely and effectively, and become confident to can in your own kitchen! 

To register, contact Betsy at 513.946.8994 or at dematteo.15@osu.edu.  


Back to the Kitchen

It's cold.  Relatively, of course, because if this were March and the temperature climbed to 65 degrees I'd be frolicking outside in my sandals and sundresses.  But no, it's September; we are in the beginning slow descent to winter just after an incredibly hot summer.  We (Murray and I) sat at my desk today (he curled up on my lap) and looked outside at the dreary gray afternoon.  It's cold and ugly out there and we are warm and cozy in here.  How long ago summer seems after just a few days of this weather! 

This is all silly talk, of course, because summer food has not ended.  I still have tomatoes and eggplants doing their best to fatten up and tip my plants over with their weight.  Sadly we lost the our butternut squash and pumpkin plants to squash bugs--evil little creatures that steal the water from the vines until the plants wither away to nothing.  (I will be more prepared for them next year, if I decide to plant squash again.)  My herbs, especially the basil, oregano, and thyme, have stretched upwards and outwards.  I can't use them fast enough to control the growth.

Perhaps the garden story from this summer that I will forever remember pertains to the tomato plants given to us by my sister Amy and her husband Dustin.  They have a vegetable garden along the sides of their house and have been wildly successful growing tomatoes and summer squash.  The Roma tomatoes that they planted last year sprouted again, somewhat unexpectedly, and they didn't have enough room to keep them.  Dustin offered them to us, which we gladly accepted, and we planted them along the sunny side of our house.  We all thought that all five plants were Roma's until I noticed one of the plants had clusters of flowers in a much different configuration than the rest.

It was definitely not a Roma--and it turned out to be a red cherry tomato plant.  The funny part--Amy and Dustin didn't grow any cherry tomato plants last year.  We concluded that it must be a result of...well...bird poop.  I try not to think about it that little detail because this plant keeps on producing beautiful cherry tomatoes.  I have already decided next year I will focus more on cherry tomatoes in our garden plans because they are so incredibly useful.  We've tossed them in salads, on pizza (new pizza dough recipe coming soon!), and in my new go-to early fall dinner, Spatchcocked Chicken with Tomatoes.

This chicken is so incredibly simple; it's one of those throw-it-all-in-a-pot types where you can go back to the couch and drink a glass of wine while the oven does all of the work.  It's a quick meal too since you use the high-roast method, and the only other thing you need to do is make couscous or a green salad to go on the side.  Tim loves it because the cherry tomatoes mix with the cooking liquid to concentrate the flavor and end up tasting like little bites of fruity tomato sauce.

Truthfully, after a few months of fried egg sandwiches, grilled vegetables, clean-out-the-refrigerator salads, and carry out, I'm glad to be back in the kitchen with the oven on.  It feels good to be in a meal-time routine, to be feeding my husband, to be thoughtful about what we are eating.  And even though I've been complaining to Tim about the cold weather, I secretly like it.  It brings me back to the kitchen. 

Spatchcocked Chicken with Tomatoes
slightly adapted from Everyday Food
serves 4

For more information on how to spatchcock a chicken, read this article in the San Francisco Chronicle with images and instructions.  

No picture here of the final product (it was starting to get dark outside and the pic is dim), though you can see it over on my instagram feed if you are really curious.  Visually, you are looking for a crispy skin and the liquid to reduce down, but most importantly the chicken needs to reach the internal temperature noted.  And don't rush it to the table--it benefits greatly from resting.

1 three to four pound whole chicken, spatchcocked
3 unpeeled garlic cloves, smashed
1 pint cherry tomatoes (a mix of colors is prettiest, but not necessary)
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 dry cooking sherry or dry white wine
1/4 cup water
4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme or oregano
salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.  Season chicken with salt & pepper and place breast side up in a heavy pot like a dutch oven or a roasting pan.  Add garlic cloves.  With the tip of a paring knife, pierce the skin of the cherry tomatoes and add them to the pot.  Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes and season with salt & pepper.  Pour sherry and water into the pot.  Nestle sprigs of herbs around and on top of the chicken.

Roast chicken until internal temperature reads 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh and juices run clear, about 30-35 minutes.  Let rest 5-10 minutes, then carve into four pieces (2 breast, 2 thigh and leg). 


I've Got a Birthday To Celebrate

On my 16th birthday my sister left for her freshman year of college.  I stood in our kitchen at six o'clock in the morning, surrounded by her packed bags, with the members of my family rushing around the house to make sure nothing was left behind, and it didn't feel like a birthday to me.  Of course, it wasn't the norm for how my birthdays were spent, but it can be hard to have a birthday so close to the back-to-school rush.  Even now that I'm out of school, I still sometimes want to tell everyone to wait-just-a-minute and stop rushing through August! because I've got a birthday to celebrate. 

Tim understands this because his birthday falls near Labor Day so there is the same guilt associated with wanting to make a to-do about getting a year older.  There are always friends on weekend trips away or spending time with family.  It's hard for either of us to assert ourselves and ask for attention.  So we do that for each other.  We get how the other feels. 

For my birthday, Tim went overboard.  He bought me a beautiful fragrance to replace the one I broke (dropped it on the bathroom tile) and he made dinner reservations somewhere he knew I'd want to go.  He didn't tell me at first where we were going, but he's terrible at keeping a secret and eventually confessed.  We were going to Jean-Robert's Table, and I was so excited.  Back when I worked in wine sales, I met Jean-Robert de Cavel at a few parties a mutual friend hosted.  He is jovial and interesting to talk to and everyone flocked to him.  That kind of personality can draw a crowd at a party or to his restaurants, and it makes you wonder why this French ex-pat has chosen Cincinnati as his home. But he came here along while ago and never left.  I'm especially grateful now that I've eaten at Table.  I will go back there again and again.

We had an excellent dinner, and perhaps Tim encouraging me to finish the bottle of wine is partly to blame for no documentation of our food.  Everything we ate was fantastic (Tim had steak and I had duck), but trust me when I say, I didn't need pictures to remember our Heirloom Tomato Salad appetizer.  It was a special, not on the regular menu, and as soon as our waitress began to describe it I had already decided to order it. 

I recreated it at home simply because I needed to eat it again.  The soft cheese served with the salad was the perfect foil to the acid.  This salad is for all of the summer-tomato-lovers out there, and tomato discrimination is not allowed; you'll need a good mix of types and sizes to capture the essence of it.  Also, everything added to the tomatoes is merely there to make it all more tomato-ey.  It's simple.  It's fresh.  It's summer.  Tomatoes will now always make me think of my birthday.

I owe Tim for helping me create new, positive birthday memories--it's harder to do than it seems and he excels tremendously at it.  

Heirloom Tomato Salad
inspired by Jean-Robert's Table
serves 4-6, depending if it is served as a light lunch or an appetizer/side dish

I purchased all of the tomatoes for this salad from the Landen Deerfield Township farmer's market, which is held every Saturday during the summer and continues on occasionally throughout the winter.  For heirloom tomatoes, I am particularly drawn to booth hosted by That Guy's Family Farm.  Guy seems to have the biggest variety of heirlooms, including little yellow plum tomatoes, beautiful multi-colored cherry tomatoes, and an incredible green-striped salad tomato that I wish I could remember the name of.  We also sliced up a big Mr. Stripey from our garden for even more size variance and sweeter flavor. 

If you can't find herb goat cheese at your local market, you can always chop up fresh herbs and mix them in with plain goat cheese.  I'd recommend soft-leaf herbs like parsley, dill, basil, and oregano; add no more than a tablespoon total of herbs. 

At Table we had this salad with French bread but at home I decided to make Flatbread with Honey, Thyme, and Sea Salt from a recipe I found on Smitten Kitchen.  It was really simple to make and I highly recommend it. 

~3 lbs of heirloom tomatoes, a variety of sizes and colors
1/2 tsp kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
4-5 leaves of fresh basil
3 oz soft herb goat cheese
crusty bread like baguette or flatbread

Slice the largest tomatoes across like thick sandwich slices.  Cut the medium size tomatoes into quarters or sixths so that you have wedges.  Depending on the size, halve cherry tomatoes or leave the littlest ones whole.  Put all tomatoes in a medium size bowl and toss with the salt and pepper.  Allow to sit for 10minutes to draw out some of the juice of the tomatoes.

Add the olive oil and vinegar and lightly toss.  Transfer mixture, including accumulated juices onto a serving tray.   Chiffonade the basil and sprinkle over salad.  Serve the herb goat cheese on the side with bread.

Build the best bite by putting a smudge of the goat cheese the bread with a juicy tomato on top.