Saturday, January 28, 2012

Buddha's Hand Citron

The first time I ever saw one of these, on a tree outside a hotel in New Zealand, I thought - what the heck is that, a mutated lemon??  Basically, yes... but it wasn't just that one tree. It turns out this is a very old type of citron called Buddha's Hand, native to China or northeastern India.

We picked these up at a citrus farm stand outside of Bakersfield on our way home from California last month, for super cheap. They are huge, compared to the ones I'd seen before - more than a pound each. They have almost no pulp or seeds, they're just all pith and rind. The taste and smell of the rind is just incredible, more fragrant and floral than regular lemon. They're just so wacky - like a squid crossed with a lemon - I had to have them!

After admiring them for a couple of weeks, I made them into citron vodka and candied citron. I know, I've been making a lot of candied citrus lately, but they're all different!

Buddha's Hand Vodka or Limoncello
1/2 lb citron
750 ml of decent vodka
2 cups sugar (if making limoncello)
2.5 cups water

Chop citron coarsely, or slice fingers in half lengthwise for a prettier presentation. Combine citron and vodka in a quart jar and leave to infuse in a dark place for 2 weeks. If you just want infused vodka, you're done! For limoncello, combine sugar and water, stirring to dissolve. Remove citron and add syrup until it's sweet enough for you. Age for 2 more weeks, until silky-smooth.

Candied Buddha's Hand
This is like the candied citron you'd use for fruitcake, but better! The corn syrup is important because it keeps the sugar from crystallizing, so the pieces come out soft and chewy.

2 lbs citron
3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Cut the citron into 1/2-inch cubes and put them in a large pot. (A 2-quart saucepan is not big enough, because when you boil them with the syrup it bubbles up a lot.) Add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Simmer 30 minutes or so, until the pith is translucent, to remove bitterness. Some say the pith of citrons is not bitter like orange pith, and maybe sometimes it's not, but... when I tasted it uncooked, it was not bitter; after I boiled it a bit, it was definitely bitter. When I boiled it longer, the bitterness went out of the pith and into the water.

Drain the citrons, then put them back in the pan with 2 cups water, sugar and corn syrup. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring frequently especially toward the end, until the temperature of the syrup reaches 230ºF. The syrup should be very thick; almost all the liquid must evaporate for it to reach this temperature. (It can take a really long time if you have the heat too low, and I think this is why mine have a slightly caramelly-burnt taste, so next time I'd let it bubble a lot so that it reduces quicker. I think for fruitcake or similar purposes, it wouldn't be a disaster if it wasn't quite up to 230ºF, the finished pieces would just be softer and stickier.) Don't worry if they still have some white color to them at this point. Turn off the heat and let the pieces sit in the syrup for another hour. Drain the citron pieces thoroughly in a colander, then spread on a cookie sheet to cool.

Lamb Stew with Winter Squash and Preserved Lemons

This sweet, tangy, spicy stew is great winter comfort food, made with lots of preserved and long-keeping ingredients. Our ancestors probably ate more meat in the winter, when it could be preserved by the cold, and fresh vegetables were limited. Local lamb is often available at winter farmers' markets; lamb neck bones are one of the cheapest and most flavorful cuts, perfect for stew.

The secret ingredient in the rich, fruity sauce is... prunes! Preserved lemons and harissa (a North African chile paste) add kick at the end. If you can't find preserved lemons, you can just use fresh lemon juice and zest, but they are worth seeking out at Spanish or Middle Eastern specialty stores. Or, you can easily make them at home... recipes for both harissa and preserved lemons are on my blog, Parsley is such an underrated herb; a big handful of parsley adds a really nice flavor and a fresh note to rich stews like this.

2 T. oil
2 lbs lamb neck bones
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 T. freshly grated ginger
2 t. cinnamon
Pinch of saffron
1 C. dried plums (prunes)
4 C. winter squash (either raw or cooked), peeled and cubed
1 preserved lemon (or juice and zest of one fresh lemon)
2 T. harissa
1 T. honey
Salt and black pepper
1 C. minced parsley
A few green onions, sliced (optional)

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium flame. Add the neck bones and brown on all sides. Wait to add salt until the very end, because both harissa and preserved lemons are fairly salty. Add onion and cook a few minutes more, until translucent. Add the garlic, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, prunes. Stir and cook for a few seconds, then add water to just cover everything. Simmer for 2 hours, until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.

If using raw squash, add it to the pot and cook uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. If using leftover cooked squash, first reduce the sauce until it is as thick as you like it, then add the squash at the end. Stir in harissa until the stew is spicy enough for your taste. Stir in honey until the stew is as sweet as you like it. Chop preserved lemon finely and stir in. If using fresh lemon instead, turn off heat before stirring in juice and zest. Add salt and pepper as needed. Serve with crusty bread, and lots of parsley. Serves 6.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Candied Limequats

When we were out in California for the holidays, we couldn't resist buying all kinds of wonderful produce at the farmers' markets there (since we were driving and could take stuff home.)  We got persimmons, Meyer lemons, berries, Brussels sprouts, chanterelles, and a few odder items... Buddha's Hand citron, and limequats!

The limequats looked basically like tiny greenish lemons, and the tart juice had a lovely lemon-lime flavor. The rind was a bit sweet, but not as sweet as a kumquat's. They were kind of enjoyable raw, but pretty puckery.

I read a few recipes for candying whole kumquats, and decided to try this method. It's taken me a while to get around to posting it, but they turned out fantastic!

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 cups whole limequats
4 half-pint canning jars

Make 4 small slashes, lengthwise, in each limequat. Use a toothpick or the tip of a small knife to pop the seeds out through these slits. Don't worry if you don't get them all - the rest will slip out during cooking.

Bring the water, sugar and salt to a boil in a large pot (a 2-quart saucepan will not do) because the syrup bubbles a lot during cooking. Cover with a lid left slightly ajar. Simmer on medium-low heat until the rinds of the limequats are mostly translucent, 20 minutes or so.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the fruits from the syrup and pack them gently into 4 sterilized half-pint canning jars. Pour syrup over, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top of the jar. Save any remaining syrup for drinks or something else. Put on hot lids, and process the jars in boiling water for 20 minutes (this is for 5000ft - if you're at sea level it's 5 minutes less, at 7000ft it's 5 minutes more).

Now I just have to think of a use for these little beauties!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Poached Egg with Roasted Tomatoes and Tarragon Butter

Roasted tomatoes are a bright spot in winter - if you grow tomatoes, this is one of the nicest ways to put them up. Their intense umami flavor adds richness to any dish, but this is a great way to enjoy them, and it's become one of my favorite breakfasts. I've recently rekindled my love for tarragon, which is easy to grow, perennial, and even somewhat frost hardy so that I sometimes have fresh tarragon even in January. I dried the leaves on my kitchen counter, and I've been using this compound butter on everything. Local eggs may be hard to find this time of year, but with a little extra light early in the morning, hens can lay throughout the winter, although not as much as in the summer.

2 eggs
1 English muffin or 2 slices of any good bread
1/4 t. dried tarragon
1/2 T. butter, softened
1 T. roasted tomatoes

Place two small ramekins or round cookie cutters in the bottom of a medium sized saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, cover and bring to a boil. Crack eggs carefully into the ramekins and turn heat to medium-low. Cover and cook 4 to 5 minutes, until the whites are set.

Meanwhile, put your bread in the toaster. Mix tarragon and butter. When toast is ready, spread with tarragon butter, then with tomatoes. Set poached eggs on toast, and top with a dab of tarragon butter. Serves 1 or 2.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Roasted Sunchokes with Orange-Pecan Gremolata

Sunchokes are abundant at winter growers' markets, and they're so funny looking, I always have to get some. They are the root of a sunflower, often called Jerusalem artichokes, but it's thought that this name is a corruption of the Italian word girasole, for sunflower. But I never really figured out what to do with them - a creamy soup seems like cheating somehow, because anything tastes great when slathered in cream.

Roasting is a reliable technique for bringing out great flavor in any vegetable, and sunchokes are no exception. They take on a really sweet, caramelized flavor much like sweet potatoes. Don't eat too many, though, if you've never tried them before - they contain a starch called inulin, which doesn't agree with some people. For a touch of freshness, I added a little gremolata made with fresh parsley, pecans and orange zest. Parsley is a very hardy herb, but also pretty easy to grow indoors, so it's a wonderful winter flavor.

1/2 pound sunchokes
2 T. olive oil
4 T. minced parsley
2 T. finely chopped pecans
1 clove garlic, minced
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 450F. Scrub sunchokes thoroughly, and slice about 1/4 inch thick. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and spread in a single layer on a sheet pan. Roast about 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Mix remaining ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl. Arrange sunchokes atop a pile of gremolata and sprinkle more over the top. Serves 2 to 4 as an appetizer or side.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hopi Squash with Green Chile and Pine Nut Stuffing

We grew a gigantic Hopi squash plant this summer, and it ended up producing about a dozen lovely round, pinkish-orange pumpkins. They each have a cute little turban at the blossom end, and weigh 2 to 7 pounds. I don't usually bother growing squash because of the squash bugs, but this plant was incredibly vigorous! So I've been looking for ways to eat more winter squash (or give it away). Stuffed squash is great because you can easily make it so many different ways, you might not even get tired of it before spring! This stuffing, with green chile, pine nuts, apples and cloves, is tasty with either corn bread or regular bread. It's a perfect vegetarian main dish, but you could add meat, such as browned sausage or shredded chicken as well.

2 small winter squashes (about 2 pounds each)
3 T. olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
1 large apple, coarsely chopped
1/2 C. chopped green chile
4 cups dried bread (or cornbread) cubes

1/4 C. pine nuts
1/4 to 1 C. vegetable or chicken stock
Salt and pepper 

Preheat oven to 375F. Cut squash in half through the stem end, and scoop out the seeds. Rub the insides with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Place the halves cut side down, in a baking pan. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the stuffing.

Heat olive oil on medium flame in a large skillet or saucepan. Cook onion, carrot, and celery until very soft and lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add apple, green chile and cloves. Cook, stirring often, for a few minutes longer, until apple is soft. Toss this mixture with the bread cubes and pine nuts. Add stock, a little at a time, until the bread is moist but not soggy. Season with salt and pepper as desired.

Turn over the squash halves, and drain any liquid from the pan. Fill each half with stuffing, and bake about 15 minutes more, until the top of the stuffing is lightly browned. Serves 4.