Too Many Lemons? Make Preserved Lemons and Enjoy Them All Year Round

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One of the many things I treasure about living in California is the amazing abundance and variety of citrus fruits which come into season in the winter. Among all that variety, Meyer lemons are probably the one I find most useful.  While in many places Meyer lemons are an expensive delicacy, in the Bay Area, it seems nearly everyone has a neighbor, friend or family member with a tree which produces more than they can use.  Play your cards carefully, and you never have to buy one.  Even I have a dwarf Meyer lemon growing in a pot on my patio, and today I harvested about 20 lemons which I’ve decided to preserve Moroccan style. Preserving lemons is a wonderful way to stretch a supply of lemons to last for a year. You can use the preserved lemons in almost any savory dish where the brightening taste of lemon is appropriate. Preserved lemons are a frequent ingredient in tagines, the stew-like dish which is one the foundations of Moroccan cuisine, and preserved lemons are a great foil for most any protein, whether beans, fish, poultry or meat. Chopped fine, they’re also a great addition to whole grain pilafs and salads. Yes, it’s true that you can buy preserved lemons at upwards of $10 a pound in stores such as Whole Foods, but if someone offers you a slew of lemons, why not make your own?  All you really need to add is salt.  Then, it’s just a matter of patience–this truly “slow food” will be ready in about a month! Detailed directions for preserving lemons, after the jump…

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Produce Superstars: What I’m Learning About Curing Olives at Home

Fresh, ripe coratina olives from Knoll Farms, Brentwood, CA.

I think I fell in love with olives and olive trees years ago, when I spent a winter in Positano, an ancient town on the unforgettably beautiful Amalfi Coast of southern Italy. In that region, olive trees, with their silvery-green leaves and  gnarly trunks, are as natural a part of the landscape as they are deeply embedded in the culture. Although much of California is well suited to olives, and they’ve been here since Spanish missionaries arrived more than 200 years ago, they’ve always been a relatively minor crop. That’s slowly changing as more and more groves are being planted with a wider variety of olives, and growers are pressing ever greater quantities of quality oil. One thing that strikes me as sad however, is how many trees planted as ornamentals produce beautiful olives that just go to waste.

Maybe people think they’re too much trouble to pick, but given how delicious, how expensive, and how healthy good quality olives are, why not make use of some of those olives? To be edible, they must first be cured, as you know if you’ve ever tried to eat an olive from the tree (bitter does not begin to describe the taste). Curing is a process which can can take weeks, even months–but it isn’t complicated. I’m a novice when it comes to curing olives, and I didn’t pick the two pounds of olives for my trial run. Instead, I bought the freshly-picked, bio-dynamically grown coratina olives from the Knoll Farms people at the San Francisco Ferry Farmer’s Market. As with anything homemade, you can customize the olives to your taste, adding garlic, herbs, spices–whatever you like. There are several well-tested methods for curing olives–read about the method I’m using after the jump (and check back later for updates on how my olives are doing)…

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Coratina olives in salt brine, day one.

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Travel: Exploring Minnesota Food at St. Paul’s Famed Farmer’s Market

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On the day before Halloween, an array of pumpkins and squash.

I’ve just returned from a ten-day stay with family and friends in Minnesota, and I plan to write several posts about what’s happening in the gopher state, where I spent 25 years of my life. Yesterday, my friend Roger Haase took me on a tour of St. Paul’s justifiably famed downtown Farmer’s Market which dates back 150 years. In its present location at 290 East 5th Street since 1982, the market has 167 stalls and operates on weekends year around, with a smaller winter market open December through April. Because everything must be grown or made in Minnesota and nearby Wisconsin, the market is a good gauge of what Minnesotans are growing and eating.  I almost always feel uplifted when I visit a Farmer’s Market, and yesterday was no exception.  It’s invigorating to be in the company of people who work so hard to produce beautiful food. You don’t get rich doing this sort of work, so you know that they value something else. Minnesota’s once meat-and-potatoes cuisine has in the past few decades been enlivened by immigrants from many countries, but most notably Viet Nam, Mexico, Somalia, and by Hmong people from Southeast Asia, who, as truck farmers, play a large role in the market. It must be said also, that because of global warming, or for whatever reason, Minnesota’s climate is now not as harsh and unforgiving as I remember it to be.  Frankly, I was surprised to find as wide a variety of locally-grown produce (even tomatoes) so late in the season. See more photos of what I found at the market after the jump.

Lovely root vegetables, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, onions, you would expect to find this time of year....

Asian produce grown by Hmong immigrants is a relatively new addition to Minnesota cuisine.

Creative marketing was much in evidence, a basket of gourds and Indian corn.

Wisconsin cranberries. Tell me honestly, did you even imagine that they grew cranberries in Wisconsin? More photos of the market, after the jump...

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Wondrous Vegetables from the Sea: What They Are and How to Use Them

Clockwise from top: bars of agar agar, sliced kombu, kombu, hijiki, sheets of nori, wakame, in the center: dulse

Writing about intriguing foods which are under-appreciated in the U.S. seems to be one of my themes. Sea vegetables (marine algae) certainly fall into this category. Today, I begin an exploration of these edible marvels: what they are, where to find them, how to eat them.  I’m not a marine biologist, so I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of the thousands of varieties of sea vegetables which are cultivated or grow in nature.  I’ll concentrate on the eight to ten varieties most readily available to purchase (I’ve included links to people who sell sea vegetables online at the end of  this post).

So, why do I find sea vegetables so interesting?  Three reasons, mainly.  First, to me and to most of us, they provide new flavors, textures, colors and tastes. They expand the range of materials we cooks have to work with. Incorporating them into our cuisine breaks new culinary ground, and I find that exciting.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is their nutritional profile. Like everything natural, they vary from variety to variety and harvest to harvest, but generally, they are remarkably high in minerals and trace elements, especially iron, calcium, iodine, magnesium and potassium, as well as vitamins A and K and folic acid, while being low in fat and cholesterol free. And thirdly, some of the best ones are gathered in our own back yard (I consider the Mendocino coast part of our back yard).

So let’s get started with a few of the common varieties…

Pear and Red Grape Kanten, gelled with agar agar (recipe after the jump)

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Lee Brokaw’s Gardening Secret (Borrowed from the Native Americans)

Indian Moon tomatoes (a Navaho variety) in Lee Brokaw's garden. Other of his favorites: Black Prince, Green Grape and Bloody Butcher, new this year.

By day, Lee Brokaw is a general contractor, in his spare time he pursues his passion for gardening and cooking.  In both, his natural curiosity leads him to try the new and unusual.  While others talk about locally grown food, Lee practices it. He recently brought me a sample of his delicious and spicy quinoa salad made with cucumbers, peppers, red onion, cilantro, garlic and lime juice all grown in his garden.  I kidded him that next year he will have to plant quinoa as well. His backyard gardens in Palo Alto and Santa Cruz are crammed with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Lee credits much of his gardening success to fish heads buried in the soil, a technique Native Americans reportedly taught to European settlers. The fish heads break down, gradually releasing nitrogen and minerals (as evidence that this works, see the controlled experiment in the photo below). Gardeners on line suggest planting them kind of deep so critters (likely racoons) won’t be tempted to dig them up. More photos of Lee’s garden, after the jump. If you garden, I invite you to share pictures of your garden and recipes of dishes you make from home-grown food with readers of MacroChef (email to alindersf@aol.com).

Right front: tomatoes grown with fish heads buried underneath. T0 the left rear, the same tomato variety grown under the same conditions, but without the fish heads.

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Locavore: What’s Fresh, Local and In Season

SATURDAY AT SAN FRANCISCO’S FERRY BUILDING FARMER’S MARKET

At a time when it seems like everything is shipped in from China, it’s such a relief to shop where nearly everything is locally sourced, your nearby certified farmer’s market. And if you’re a foodie, or even just mildly interested in food, you are missing out if you haven’t been to San Francisco’s Ferry Building lately.  Inside, you’ll find more than 40 food-related businesses, outside on Saturdays a hundred or more additional vendors set up one of America’s most celebrated farmer’s markets.  As a cook, there’s no better way to find out what is local and seasonal than to shop at a farmer’s market, and as far as I’m concerned, nothing stimulates my creativity more than a trip to a great farmer’s market. While the Ferry Building market is the most well-known, there are, of course, highly regarded farm markets in Berkeley, San Rafael, Palo Alto, Mountain View and in most every city and town in the Bay Area (click here for farmer’s market locations in the nine-county Bay Area). One of the great perks of the Saturday Ferry Building market are the free food demonstrations given by top (and often famous) San Francisco chefs. Lots more photos of my discoveries this past Saturday, after the jump…

Buckwheat sprouts, one of hundreds of unusual items at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market

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Locavore: Why We Love Meyer Lemons

Dwarf Meyer lemon tree in a pot on my patio

When I moved from San Francisco to a place in Vallejo with a sunny patio, I decided to fulfill a long-time wish to have my own Meyer lemon tree. I bought this dwarf tree about a year and a half ago, and as you can see, it looks to produce quite a few lemons this year. In fact, I need to thin the tiny lemons to allow larger growth for the remaining ones. It has a southern exposure, I feed it with a mix designed for citrus, and last year I pruned it back quite a lot. As meyer lemons tend to thrive in this climate and, legend has it, do well in pots, I hope to have a steady crop for years to come. More on Meyer lemons and a recipe for my vegan Meyer lemon-maple mousse after the jump.

Creamy Meyer Lemon-Maple Mousse (recipe after the jump)

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