Victuals & sour corn

It's not often that I find a cookbook that grabs my attention and makes me want to read it cover to cover, word for word.  Although, frankly, 'cookbook' is hardly the right word to describe Victuals, by Ronni Lundy which is probably why it's subtitled 'an Appalachian Journey... with Recipes.'  It's as much about the story of the food featured as it is the recipes, and it is masterfully and beautifully written. 

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, but like the author, my mom took me 'back home' to Blue Ridge, Georgia every chance we got. Weekends that were more than two days, or long, hot stretches in the summer that lingered to the soundtrack of grasshopper crescendos behind the cornfield. I knew exactly what the author was describing when she recalled sitting on the back porch with aunts and her grandmother, threading beans to hang and dry in long, lovely strings, and visiting the canning factory every summer to put up the harvest. Apples were destined for apple butter in the fall, and the aforementioned cornfield nestled at the foot of the hill was where my grandfather would head to hoe and weed when he came home from a shift at the copper mine just a few miles over the border in Tennessee. 

Some recipes I found in the book were new to me, and got me excited to try. Appalachia has a much richer and more multi-threaded history than most folks from outside the region suspect.  There's a strong streak of Scots-Irish tradition in the hearty staples, and adaptation of the native staples like corn in food and drink. But there's also a streak of German, Hungarian, African and several other waves or pockets of immigration that worked the mines, the fields or found the hills to be an otherwise likely place to settle in. 

So when I saw a recipe for 'sour corn' that was essentially an adaptation of traditional German sauerkraut which replaces cabbage with fermented corn, I had to try it. I love the tangy bite of sauerkraut, and we are just seeing the last fresh ears of corn for the season at the market. Perfect timing. 

I scalded 15 ears of corn in boiling water for 2 minutes and set them aside on the counter to let them cool a bit before cutting the kernels off the cob. (The chickens get a double treat this afternoon of both the husks and the leftover cobs, which they go wild for).

The corn goes into a 2 gallon ceramic crock (in fact the same one I've made sauerkraut in). I mixed 8 cups of water with just a hair more than a cup of kosher salt until the salt was completely dissolved, and poured it in over the corn. 

Slide a plate gently into the crock, and weight it down so that the corn stays submerged, and cover with cheesecloth. The crock is now resting in a cool, out of the way corner of the pantry for the next two weeks or so. 

When the corn is ready, I'll ladle it into mason jars, and make sure it stays covered with the brine. Properly canned (and I'll draw on my Bride's expertise to make sure I get it right), it'll last through the winter season. This will probably make enough for 6 or 7 pints.

The author recommends cooking up batches of sour corn with a little bacon grease and serving along side, well, anything. But she promises it's just as good fresh out of the crock. Which is good, because I'm not sure I'm going to be patient enough to let it get to the skillet. 

Pickled Pears

Transient

We inherited an ancient, 25' pear tree in the yard when we bought the house. It's clearly lost some major branches/trunk lines, is lopsided, and clearly past its prime. It sits over in one corner of the yard next to an equally-old and gnarled apple tree of unidentified variety. 

Every year, a few pears grow high in the branches, well out of reach of everyone but some brave squirrels. In the fall, the ones that have been missed will occasionally fall out of the branches to splatter down. Literally splatter. By the time they fall out of the tree, they're so grainy and gone that they burst into inedible little smears on the grass. 

However, for some unexplained reason, the tree put on a burst of youthful, showy production this year. I looked out and saw a tall, 6 point whitetail buck munching nonchalantly on something in the tree the other evening. When I walked out, I saw a huge number of small, perfect pears in the lower branches.  

Transient

I'm not sure of the variety. They're as small as a Seckel. But they're green turning russet like a Bosc. Not that it matters. I was so excited to see both this and the apple tree producing that we got to picking. 

Pears are only ripe for a few milliseconds. Then they go grainy and awful.   If you let them ripen on the tree, they're not worth eating. You pick them when they come off easily, and set them in a cool place on your counter. But not too long for these - they were destined to be pickled, so we still wanted them a bit firm.   

My Bride put these up (the picture at the top) using a combination of a recipe from the BBC Food website and a recipe in one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage episodes (the Christmas one, I think).  

Here's more less the adjusted recipe used:  

  • 1 lemon
  • 10 cloves
  • 2.5 tsp black peppercorns, lighltly crushed
  • 1 small chili, halved, diced fine, seeds removed
  • 1 tsp allspice berries, lightly crushed
  • A bit of ginger, sliced thin
  • 2 pints cider vinegar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2.5 lbs sugar
  • 2.5 lbs pears
  1. Zest the lemon and put in a pan with all the spices, sugar & vinegar over low heat. Stir until sugar dissolves.
  2. Peel, quarter and core the pears.  (If this takes a while, toss the peeled pears with a little diluted lemon juice to keep them from browning).  
  3. Add the pears to the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  4. Pack the fruit into sterilized canning jars, and pour over the warm syrup from the pan. Seal and put aside to finish.  

They'll be ready to eat in a few days, but even better if left to sit for a month or so before you crack open the jar.  

Pickled pears are a great side with pork tenderloin or other meats. Or just serve them in a small bowl along with a really nice set of cheeses. 

We'll set these aside to serve along with a nice glass of wine or four to our Christmas guests.  If we don't get tempted and dive into them sooner. 

 

Okra & peppers

The gardens have been in full-on production mode for some weeks now. We were very successful with the early greens like arugula and lettuce, our snow and sugar peas. The zucchini came on in their normal mad rush, requiring constant vigilance at the risk of producing a cricket bat sized squash hiding beneath the leaves if you turned your back for a second. All of the squash has done pretty well - I have pumpkins ripening that may last until halloween (always a bit of a gamble), and a new variety of chinese squash that a colleague gave me that are just a gorgeous pale green. 

My tomatoes were gnawed to stumps again by our neighborhood deer - we saw a young 6 point buck yesterday evening standing underneath the pear tree. He was pretty nonchalant about seeing us as well, and flipped his tail at us as he trotted back into the wood line. I swear I could smell his guilty tomato breath from across the yard. 

For the first time ever, we've had a really successful crop of peppers. Our summer isn't normally long and hot enough to produce good peppers of any kind. But I tried a few banana peppers this year and have had a terrific crop that I've grilled, chopped and tossed with sausage and other goodies. 

I didn't plant okra this year (though I have in the past), but we scored a couple of bags at the town farmer's market this weekend. And my lovely Bride was kind enough to pickle up the bunch, along with the peppers I hadn't gotten around to eating yet.   (Both of these recipes came out of the Martha Stewart Living cookbook)

Transient

They're still warm and fresh out of the canning bath, and I'll have to wait a few weeks to try them. But I'll be putting these into a special 'Dad only' part of the pantry. They'll make an appearance on sandwiches and salads after they've had a month or two to mature.

Amazing what a little vinegar, spices and peppercorns can do to keep these vegetables long into the colder months.