Friday, June 28, 2013

Pickle Quest 2013: The Dill Pickle

Pickle season is upon us and it’s time for me to venture into the world of dill pickles. I’m pretty sure I have Bread and Butter pickles down cold, but the dills have eluded me like a Paula Deen interview on the Today Show.

It’s really a balancing act and if you don’t get it right, you’re left with flabby, overly salty pickles until next year when pickling cukes are in season. I’ve fermented them, hot kettle canned them, tried different vinegars, whatever, and it’s been a true hit-and-miss for the past 7 or 8 years. This year, I’m super excited to be canning my VERY OWN, home grown pickling cukes. I planted Boston Pickling cucumber seedlings in April and they’ve given me enough cukes so far to make 8 quarts of pickles!

This year, I’m sticking to the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) mind set and used the Joy of Pickling Really Quick Dill recipe. What do I have to lose?

Really Quick Dill Pickles
Recipe Source: Joy of Pickling
Makes 6 pints or 3 quarts

4 pounds 4-inch pickling cucumbers, blossom ends removed
24 whole black peppercorns
1 garlic head, cloves separated, peeled and chopped
6 small dried hot peppers (I used dried pepper flakes, about ½ tsp per jar)
6 dill heads, with sprigs (I used dried dill, about 1 tsp per jar)
2 3⁄4 cups cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, or distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
1⁄4 cup pickling salt

I usually double the pickling brine recipe, as I’ve almost always need more brine than the recipe calls for.

Second Note: I also use food grade Calcium Cholride (a.k.a Pickle Crisp) in each jar to prevent flabby pickles. I use 1 1/2 tsps per quart jar, but be sure to use the recommended amount.

1. Halve or quarter the cucumbers lengthwise, if you like, or leave them whole. Divide the peppercorns, garlic, and hot peppers (if you’re using them) among 6 pint or 3 quart mason jars. Pack a portion of the cucumbers into each jar along with some dill.

2. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Pour the hot liquid over the cucumbers, leaving ½ inch headspace. Close the jars with two-piece caps. In a BWB, process pint jars for 10 minutes, quart jars for 15 minutes. Or pasteurize the jars for 30 minutes by immersing them in water heated to 180° to 185°F.

3. Store the pickles for at least 1 month in a cool, dry place before eating them. After opening a jar, store it in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sour Cherry Picking

Last weekend, hubby and I went and did our annual sour cherry picking expedition and picnic. Sour cherries are only available for a very, very short time up here in Virginia (less than 2 weeks), so we make sure to make time to go picking. I’ve rarely seen sour cherries available at the farmer’s markets and if they are there, they cost a fortune, so it’s worth going out of our way. They are also a very delicate fruit, so you will never see them in the grocery store outside a can or freezer case. The orchard we go to charges a dollar a pound, which is a total bargain as far as I’m concerned.

Before last year, I had never even SEEN a cherry tree, much less pick cherries. I was again amazed at picking such wonderful and exotic fruit (to me) that wasn’t citrus. I get the same feeling about apples, pears, and peaches, as I didn’t grew up around these kinds of fruit trees in Florida. Sour cherries are THE ultimate pie and canning cherry to use, as the sour flavor is tamed by all the sugar used in both recipes. To me, the epitome of cherry flavor comes from sour cherries and it’s one of my most favorite fruits.

The orchard was packed and it was a perfect day for cherry picking. Hubby and I initially staked out a tree, and then moved around the orchard to find the “perfect” tree. Some trees had smaller cherries and some bigger, some riper, some greener. We made our way around, occasionally popping one of the darker, riper, less sour cherries in our mouths. In the quieter part of the orchard, we’d pick in silence while eavesdropping in other people’s conversations. I loved hearing what people were going to do with the cherries when they got home. Were they going to make a pie, ice cream, jam? Surprisingly to me, there was an unusually large amount of Middle Easterners in the orchard; I remembered that from last year too. My guess is that sour cherries are very prized in their culture for desserts. My favorite part was watching new comers taste the cherries for the first time then scrunch up their faces and spit them out. I guess they didn’t know they weren’t sweet! We’ve had so much rain this spring that sweet cherries weren’t even available, but that’s perfectly fine by me.

After picking just shy of 30 lbs, we put up a small picnic spot in the shade of one of the trees and enjoyed a bottle of wine while watching young and old sour cherry enthusiasts busy themselves in the orchard. Later, when we got home, we pitted our entire haul and divided it into quart-sized freezer bags for the freezer. This will last us all year for pies, jams, sauces, and whatnot. Raspberries are next!

Monday, June 10, 2013

How To Grill Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts Without Drying Them Out

Grilled chicken really is the little black dress of your meal planning repertoire. You can eat it on its own, make salads with it, chop it up and throw it in some cooked pasta, soups, fajitas, wraps, sandwiches, appetizers, even breakfast burritos. The only dish I haven’t been able to fit grilled chicken into is dessert, but I’m sure it’s been done SOMEWHERE.

But the problem with grilled chicken, especially boneless and skinless breasts is that it is often over cooked. The end result is tough and dry and not worth doing much more with than chopping up and smothering with mayonnaise for chicken salad. Poor boneless and skinless chicken breasts; they removed all your fat and bones to make you healthier and easier to cook, but left you an outdoor grilling pariah. My litmus test for any really good BBQ joint is how well they can do their chicken; it’s a bitch to get right.

But the fix to this is so easy you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing it all along. I know I did. The solution to leathery, dry grilled chicken breasts (or any grilled chicken) is brining. Here’s how:

1. BRINE: Take two tablespoons of kosher salt (not table salt) and add to about a quart of warm water in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Stir to dissolve the salt. Add whatever flavoring you would like your chicken to have to the brine (just make sure it’s salt free). I am using an Italian Herbs blend from Penzeys. You could add fresh herbs, lemon zest, a little white wine, whatever floats your boat.

Add your chicken breasts to the brine, making sure they are all submerged, cover the bowl with Saran Wrap, and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Chill for ONE hour. Be sure to note the time because you do not want your chicken breasts to become too salty by being left in the brine too long.

2. GRILL: After an hour, remove the chicken from the brine and discard brine. Do not rinse chicken, but simply allow them to drip dry over the bowl as you pull them out then place them on a platter. Preheat ONE HALF of your grill on high and leave the other half off. When at temperature (about 400 degrees), place your chicken breasts on the hot side of the grill and allow to sear for approximately 4-5 minutes. Flip breasts over and sear the other side for the same time. After searing, move the chicken to the unheated side of the grill, close the lid, and allow the chicken to cook from the residual heat for another 5-15 minutes. Total time should be around 20-25 minutes. Test for doneness by taking a quick peek inside one of the breasts with a knife, or use a thermometer (160 degrees).

3. REST: Take chicken off the grill, place on clean plate/platter, and cover with tin foil to allow to REST for about 10 minutes. This is important! This allows all the juices in the meat to redistribute and not run out if you immediately cut into the meat. I like to cook up a whole package of breasts at a time and graze off them all week and they are juicy and flavorful all week long. I leave them whole until I’m ready to use them for whatever.

After I’ve started doing this, I will never, ever grill chicken the same again. Even if you are grilling bone-in, skin-on breasts, give them a little time in a brine, they’ll thank you for it and so will your friends and family!

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