Friday, October 31, 2014

Chicken Soup for the Autumn Soul....

It's that time of year-- colds and flu season is kicking into high gear. Those darned viruses! You may be someone who rarely falls prey, or you might succumb several times during a calendar year. A few facts about viruses will help you sort it out....

First, scientists disagree on whether viruses are actually living things. Many feel they don't satisfy the criteria for living organisms and describe them simply as packages of RNA with crunchy coatings, unable to reproduce until they're introduced into cells, where they immediately take full advantage of the host. Those aches and pains you feel when you have the flu? They're caused by your cells being ruptured by explosions of newborn viruses, liberating irritating intracellular substances into your tissues.  Ow.

Second, no one is immune to any virus-- at least that we know of-- unless that person has (1) had the illness caused by the virus or (2) been immunized against it. Even then, neither is 100% foolproof. Simply put, if you get hit with a full virus "load" (e.g., a full sneeze hits your face, or your hand picks up a hefty dose of virus from a doorknob-- and you then rub your eyes, inoculating yourself), you're probably going to get sick. Keep in mind that viruses spread in different ways, i.e, some are airborne, some are spread through contact with infected bodily fluids, etc. Know your viruses and be wary.....

But, this isn't supposed to be a medical post, although my medical background betrays me. I was a registered nurse for thirty years, and once a nurse, always a nurse. Here's my last thought on the subject-- my best suggestions to you for colds and flu season:
  • Get a flu shot, if you're not philosophically opposed (I swear by them; if you are opposed, I respect that, too-- to each her own);
  • Avoid crowds when you can;
    Don't touch doorknobs and other surfaces that a gazillion other people touch;
  • Wash your hands a lot; 
  • Take care of your general health (if you're healthy, you're less likely to get sick); and
  • Make chicken soup.
Which is why we're here, right?

My grandmother taught me to make chicken soup, and my mother added tips of her own. The process is simple, it fills your house with wonderful smells, and it makes a product infinitely superior to anything you can buy. And.... there is actual research supporting the health benefits of chicken soup. It may be good for the soul, but it's great for the body as well.

Let's begin by differentiating stock, broth, and soup. Stock is made by simmering bones with vegetables, herbs, meat/poultry, and seasonings. Broth is similar but doesn't use bones. Soup is what you get when you combine a finished stock or broth with other yummy items like pasta, beans, or veggies.

This blog post will focus on stock, and the first thing you'll need are some bones. You can use raw chicken parts or a whole chicken, bones leftover from a recipe, or a carcass from a roasted or rotisseried chicken. Turkey bones and pieces work, too. In fact, turkey wings are one of my go-to's for stock making-- they're incredibly flavorful and seem to have a lot of gelatin, creating a rich, dense stock.

You'll need veggies and herbs, too. As with any good cooking, the better your ingredients, the better the final product. Splurge! Buy from a local Farmer's Market or greengrocer if you can, take part in a local CSA, or grow your own. Work with fresh, organic components and buy local if you can.

Here's an ingredients list suitable for making a pot of chicken stock-- enough to make soup for four.

Note: Start the process 1-2 days before you want to serve the soup.
  • One "chicken-equivalent" of chicken and/or turkey parts, raw or previously cooked (raw is best)
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, sliced, skin on
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and chunked
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, including lots of leaves
  • 1 handful-sized bunch of parsley, chunked
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
  • 2-3 sprigs (each 3-4") of thyme 
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 12-124 fresh peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A pinch of ground allspice (my grandmother's secret ingredient) (she won't mind me sharing it)
Put all of the ingredients into a big (8-10 quart) kettle and cover with cold water. Why cold? You want the temperature to increase slowly, opening the pores in the bones and coaxing out every bit of the flavor and gelatin within. If you bring the water to a boil too fast, the results won't be nearly as yummy.

Place the kettle over medium low heat. Now go do something.... For several hours. It will take at least a couple of hours for the kettle to slooooowly heat up enough to begin simmering or even bubbling. Once it does, adjust the heat so the kettle is steamy hot but not quite boiling-- a hard simmer. You're going to let it do this all day. Check it every hour or so and add water to keep all of the ingredients submerged. You're not trying to reduce the volume-- you're simply letting everything simmer and get cozy.

Here's the fun part: at the end of the day, turn the stove off, put a lid on the kettle, and leave it right there, overnight. There's no need to refrigerate it. (In French country cooking, it's not uncommon for cottage folk to keep a stock kettle going on the back of the stove all the time, adding bits and pieces and dipping into it as needed.) When you get up in the morning, turn it back on and bring it back to a simmer.

As the Day Two simmer progresses, allow the volume to begin to reduce somewhat. As the bones begin to break down, you'll be able to push and crush them into the bottom of the kettle. Later in the afternoon, turn the stove off and let the kettle cool down for a couple of hours. Then, strain the stock into a clean kettle or large glass or ceramic bowl. (Please don't put hot stock into a plastic bowl-- this may release carcinogens! Bleh....) Taste it and add salt if needed.

Tuck the bowl into the refrigerator-- overnight, if possible. The fat in the stock will rise to the surface and congeal, and you'll be able to lift it off. (Note: if you're a foodie, tuck some of this chicken fat-- also called schmalz-- into the freezer to use another time.) Your chilled stock will resemble chicken jell-o, thanks to all the great gelatin you coaxed out of the bones. (Good job!)

You're now ready to make soup. I usually use diced chicken meat; diced celery, onion, and carrot; and some sort of rice or pasta, but another wonderful variation involves diced chicken meat, sliced kale, and white beans. It's easy to find good recipes in cookbooks or online, and because you're now starting with your own fabulous stock, the soup will be delicious.

  • Some people like to roast their bones before cooking; doing so deepens (and changes) the flavor. If you want to try this, roast the bones in a 450 degree (F) oven in an open shallow pan until the pieces are a deep brown-- but not burned!
  • I like to freeze stock in 2 C portions; I use plastic freezer bags and freeze them flat, allowing me to stack the frozen bags in the freezer. They may it easy to make a quick small amount of soup, and they're also excellent for adding stock to stews, vegetables, or casseroles. 
  • I also keep at least a quart of chicken soup in the freezer on stand-by, just in case I come down with a cold. It's my very own emergency soup back-up kit.
  • And, little bits of leftover stock can also be frozen in ice cube trays. Pop them out when frozen, store in a freezer bag, and add to whatever you're cooking. One cube adds immensely to a stir-fry or a quick vegetable saute.
Enjoy! Yum....

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Say "Nicole’s Cranberry-Maple-Ginger Sauce... or Syrup..." or just say AMAZING...

You know, I think autumn may be my favorite cooking season of the year, what with soups and stews and pot roasts and gingerbread and hot cider and pumpkin pie and any number of other fall treats. I love the fresh foods of summer, but there's something about the lengthening fall days and cooler temps that makes fall comfort foods feel like balm for the weary soul.

Along those lines, I get excited when I see fresh cranberries pop up on the store shelves. They appeared last week, and my mind immediately went to an amazing concoction my friend Nicole turned me on to last year: fresh cranberry-ginger-maple sauce. It's easy to make, tastes decadent, and lasts for months, and a creative cook can use it in a myriad of scrumptious ways. (I love a good chance to use the word scrumptious, don't you?)

For one batch, you'll need:
  • 2 Cups (about 12 ounces) fresh cranberries, washed and sorted (gooshy ones tossed out)
  • 1 1/4 Cup water
  • 1/3 Cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger-- a 2-3" chunk, peeled and grated
  • 1/4 Cup pure maple syrup-- I like the 'B' grade
Combine the berries, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan (right). Bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer until reduced by half (about 10 more minutes). And note: if you want a thicker sauce, boil it a little longer until it reduces more; if it over-reduces, just stir in water a spoonful at a time until it's the right consistency.

Remove from the heat and stir in the ginger (right). (Nicole notes, "sometimes we go double on the ginger." I think she's onto something.)

Let the mixture cool (the recipe says for at least half an hour, but I have trouble waiting that long) and stir in the maple syrup.

At this point, it's ready to use--warm or cool. It can be stored in the fridge for, well, I've had it in there for months with no problems. It also freezes very well. (It would make an awesome Yule gift, maybe packed with some extra-special gingerbread mix.)

How to use the amazing sauce? When Nicole first introduced me to it, her official recommendation was to pour it over gingerbread waffles. I tried this, and yes. She was right. I mean, YES.

But since then, I've also served it on pancakes (in the picture below, it's spooned over pumpkin pancakes--yum!), used it to top oatmeal (with a handful of toasted walnuts), and spooned it over warm gingerbread, along with a dollop of whipped heavy cream. I've stirred it into a spoon of mayonnaise for dressing turkey sandwiches and I've slipped it into peanut butter sandwiches. I've poured it over ice cream, and once I even made a quite wonderful milkshake with it. I've used it for meats and poultry, too: it's an amazing topping for pork chops or sliced tenderloin, and it makes a good simmer sauce for chicken as well. And can I be honest? I'm not opposed to just taking a jar of the sauce out of the 'fridge and eating a big 'ol spoonful plain. Now you know.

Bottom line? Get yourself some cranberries and make a batch of this pronto. You won't be disappointed. And thanks, Nicole!


Health-wise, cranberries are known as a "super food," ridiculously high in antioxidants, vitamins C and E, and fiber-- a perfect addition to one's fall and winter immune-boosting arsenal. Ginger is known in Chinese medicine as a warming herb and is believed to stimulate the immune and circulatory systems. It's also famous for relaxing the digestive tract and settling an upset stomach. As for maple, it's a form of unrefined sugar-- but it also contains minerals, including a significant amount of manganese, zinc, and iron and trace amounts of other minerals.

From a magickal standpoint, cranberries are known for their protective qualities and for boosting vitality, and like most berries, they have a feminine correspondence. As for ginger? It's inherent "warmth" and the fact that the roots often look somewhat human make them ideal for magickal works involving love and connection. Maple is also useful in love and lunar magicks and has strong healing properties as well. There you have it. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How Does Autumn Taste? Like Apple Butter....

I have three apple trees in my back yard—Gala, Golden Delicious, and King-- and this year they produced abundantly. Seriously: I invited the neighbors to come and pick their fill, and I still had apples coming out of my ears. Several boxes are in the basement fridge, and I’ve made applesauce and apple butter and baked a couple of pies. The apple butter came out beautifully, and as one of my friends asked me to share the process, I'm happy to oblige.

  • Apple Butter Hint #1: I prefer the stove-top process for making apple butter. Lots of people today make apple butter in the oven or in a crock pot, but I still cling to doing it like my grandmother used to. Go ahead--call me silly. It makes me feel connected, so there you go. That said, you need a big, deep kettle-- 8-10 quarts is ideal. The broader the kettle-- the more surface area on the bottom of the pan, and the quicker the process.

I started with 5.5 lbs of peeled and cored golden delicious and King apples (weighed with a food scale). I chopped these fine in my food processor and put them into a kettle with 2 C. of water.

  • ABH #2: The finer you chop the apples, the more quickly they'll begin to soften and cook down. However, if you puree them too early, their cooking will look more like what happens in a Yellowstone National Park mud pot, with huge, appley "bloops" that shoot molten apples all around the kitchen. Save the pureeing for late in the process.

Bring the apples and water to a quick boil over moderately high heat. Then, turn it down so it's just barely simmering-- we're talking very, very low heat-- the very lowest setting you can manage without turning the burner off. From this point, you'll want to stir the contents every half hour or so. The fruit has to be hot enough to soften and, eventually, for the moisture to begin evaporating. This is important: you're cooking the apples, but even more you're keeping them hot enough for the water to simmer off slowly.... Slowly. Stirring it helps this process and also keeps the mixture from sticking.

And this is where patience comes in, because the stove top method is a very slow process-- slow as in many hours required. My batch took most of the waking hours of two days time-- probably about 16-18 hours all together. That's what I said: patience. Always a good exercise, yes?

At the end of day one, turn the burner off, cover it, and just leave it on the stove overnight. When you get up the next morning, turn the burner back on and get it going again. The apple butter will thicken and begin to turn a deep brown. At this point, it's time to add sugar and spices.

  • ABH #3: Don't add the sugar too early in the process as it will make the mixture much more likely to scorch. The sugar could also caramelize if cooked too long, affecting the flavor of the apples.

To your batch of apples, add 1/2 C. sugar, 3/4 tsp. cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp. each ground allspice and ground cloves. Stir well, and keep cooking. At some point in here, you'll want to puree the mixture. The easiest way to do this is with an immersion blender (no kitchen should be without one), but you can also cool the mixture slightly and puree it in a blender or food processor.

How will you know when it's done? Scoop up a spoonful and give it a look: it should hold its shape and be easily spreadable. If too "dry," it'll be pasty and sticky-- in this case, add a bit more water, one tablespoon at a time. If too wet, cook it a bit longer. Once you're pretty sure it's done, give it the ultimate test: make a piece of toast and try it out! Adjust the seasonings and sugar as necessary.

From this point, it'll keep in the fridge for a few weeks and in the freezer for a year. You can also water-bath can the butter, which is what I did. To give you an idea of how much the apples cook down, see the difference (above) between the finely chopped apples when I started and the final product, which cooked down to about 4 cups of apple butter. There's a nice metaphor buried in there about the fruits of one's labors being ever so much more appreciated when they come with hard work.

It's a labor of love, indeed, and so worth it! Good apple butter is tart-sweet, smooth, silky, cinnamony, and just plain wonderful. Add magick by stirring deosil as you work and by telling family stories over the kettle, as my grandmother used to do. Work your own energy into the mixture, tell it your stories, and it will nurture you in the months to come.

Fun for the kids: cut an apple in half around its "equator" to reveal the hidden pentacle inside. Apples are deeply regarded in the magickal community, linked to takes of Avalon, dreams of prosperity, and even to entry into the Faery world. May your orchards be fertile and your life much-blessed!