Ratatouille. Or, How Thomas Keller Made My Life Hell

Ratatouille: The case for Smell-o-vision

Ratatouille: The case for Smell-o-vision

Ratatouille.   Conjured in savory memories, it’s a fragrant eggplant-basil-and-tomato-y meal, served with crusty bread and a big glass of house red wine at a laid-back Montmartre bistro.  It’s 1987, and I’m with my girlfriend Woodford Reserve (on the rocks with a splash of spring water) knocking around Paris.

Me (far right) with my gal Woodford Reserve's parents (Bob & Penny Miller) and their famous friends: Paul Levy, Michael Holroyd, Margaret Drabble, and Georgia Levy. England, summer 1987

Me (far right) with my gal Woodford Reserve’s parents (Bob & Penny Miller) and their famous friends: Paul Levy, Michael Holroyd, Margaret Drabble, and Georgia Levy. England, summer 1987

We were in France and England during the summer between high school and college, and thanks to her parents’ superb restaurant picks, progressive ideas and generous wallet we travelled, and ate, and drank very well on our jaunt.  Well, better than I did for many years to follow, anyway.

Paris, 1987.

Paris, 1987.

Fast forward to 2007.  Over 20 years, I’ve finally (in my humble opinion) mastered a pretty kick-ass ratatouille in my home kitchen, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud.  I revel in finding the perfect glossy eggplant, the juiciest yet firmest plum tomatoes, and most gorgeous zucchini my garden or the market has to offer.   It’s wonderful atop a graceful swirl of pasta or buttery mound of polenta; or served as I remembered it in France, sopped up from a shallow bowl with generous crusts of bread.  For the longest time, my kids thought it was just another chunky pasta sauce; and until Sprite started eating only white food in first grade, both boys ate it all the time without question.

And then along came Thomas Fecking Keller.  Mastermind chef behind the food styling for Disney/Pixar’s 2007 film Ratatouille.

Ratatouille "All Stacked Up" in the movie.

Ratatouille “All Stacked Up” in the movie.

Don’t get me wrong.  I will eat Keller’s food whenever I get the chance.  And, I LOVE this movie.  I love the theme behind it; that “anyone can cook.”  I love the message—even preschoolers get it—that great soul-and-body nourishing food is about balance and flavor and freshness, not about how fast you can get it from a cardboard container into your mouth.  I love that drinking the occasional glass of wine by reasonable adults is neither demonized nor glorified; it’s just part of enjoying a great meal.  I love that the main female character is a culinary badass and has short hair, clogs, keeps her clothes on for the entire movie, and does NOT sing a goddamn peep.

And I loved hearing my children say as the credits rolled, “Mom, let’s make ratatouille!”

I spent all day with them making it: chopping, then individually sautéing each vegetable until just al dente.  We gently folded each perfectly cooked vegetable into an enameled Dutch oven, then covered it with parchment paper and slowly roasted it at a low temperature for most of the afternoon.  My boys took one look at the glorious results and said, “what’s THAT? ”

They were expecting Thomas Fecking Keller’s version:  as they call it “Ratatouille, all stacked up.”  Which I eventually figured out how to make, and it’s also pretty kick-ass.  But now they expect EVERY thing in our tiny kitchen to come out plated as beautifully as a goddamn Bon Appétit feature spread.  When I told this story to my buddy French 75, he said “what did you expect?  You brought this shit down on yourself.”

And I totally did.

I entirely support the notion that you eat with your eyes first, and that a beautifully composed plate should be at every meal served at our table.  It really doesn’t take that much longer to orient your vegetables attractively and put a little saucy swirl and some herbs on the plate, and I think in the long run it makes great food more attractive, accessible and approachable for more people.  Especially the shorties.

I just wish I didn’t feel backed into a corner to do so by a little rat named Remy, who’s possessed by a plating genius.  Fecking Keller.

Thomas Keller (left) constructing the ratatouille dished used for the film.

Thomas Keller (left) constructing the ratatouille dished used for the film.

Ratatouille “All Stacked Up”  (serves 4)

Keller’s version is a gorgeous layered casserole, which he then deconstructs for plating.  That’s beautiful and awesome, and is a great way to make this recipe, too.  I use 4” round mini springform pans with removable bases to bake the vegetable layers in, which the kids love to pack themselves for individual flavor preferences.   I also add mozzarella cheese and sometimes a sprinkling of Panko to this dish, even though it’s not at all authentic (hell, nothing about this is authentic, so why stop there?)   It just makes it more gooey, crunchy, and yummy.

4 Tbs olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 medium eggplant

1 medium zucchini

1 medium yellow squash

3-4 plum tomatoes

1 red bell pepper, cored

1 medium onion

2 medium balls fresh mozzarella (or 1 cup shredded mozzarella)

1 small bunch basil leaves (12-16 large leaves)

½ cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) – optional

Ratatouille towers, ready to go in the oven (I hadn't added the Panko yet).

Ratatouille towers, ready to go in the oven (I hadn’t added the Panko yet).

Slice the eggplant into very thin (as thin as possible) rounds.  Spread in an even layer on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt (about 2 tablespoons).  Let sit for about 20 minutes, then turn over the eggplant slices and sprinkle with a bit more salt.  Let rest for another after 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice all of the remaining vegetables cross-wise with a very sharp knife or mandolin, making your rounds as thin as possible.  Sprinkle all of the vegetable slices with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Slice the mozzarella balls into thin rounds (or crumble) if using fresh cheese.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the eggplant slices from the rimmed cookie sheet, and squeeze gently to remove as much liquid and salt as possible.  Don’t worry about completely removing the salt from the eggplant slices, it will add great flavor to your dish.   Wipe all the excess liquid from the cookie sheet.

In a large cast iron skillet, heat about 2 Tbs. oil over medium heat.  Add garlic slices and stir constantly to avoid burning; when the garlic starts to soften and brown (but not burn!) remove it from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside in a small bowl.   In batches of 3-4 slices of eggplant per time (so as not to crowd your skillet), add eggplant to the oil and cook gently until slightly softened on each side and just starting to brown.  Repeat with remaining eggplant slices, adding more oil if needed.

Slightly oil the rimmed cookie sheet with olive oil.  Place four 4” mini springform pans WITH THE BASES REMOVED on the sheet pan, spacing equally.   Starting with a slice of eggplant on the bottom, fill each pan (or stack) with equal parts of each vegetable type and basil leaves, alternating layers of each type of veggie, and layering about halfway through with half of the cheese.  Put more cheese near the top layer, and press down gently as you go to compress the layers as much as possible.  If using springform pans, really pack those suckers full, the veggies will cook down quite a bit.  Drizzle the top of each tower with about 1 tsp. olive oil, the reserved garlic slivers, and sprinkle on top about 1 tablespoon Panko if you like a little crispy accent.

Place on the center rack of your oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until brown on top and bubbly.  Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes to let layers settle.  To plate, slide a wide spatula underneath the tower (or underneath the edge of the pan), gently wiggling to make sure the eggplant is not stuck to the cookie sheet.  Run a small sharp knife around the inside edge of the springform pan to prevent sticking, then gently slide the spatula-laden tower to your serving plate; pull the spatula free from under the tower, then pull the springform pan straight up to release that baby onto your plate.  Garnish with a drizzle of oil from the pan and a sprig of basil.

Now grab a big glass of wine – you deserve it!

A Proper (and Improper) Mint Julep

Today is National Bourbon Day! And also Flag Day. It’s your super-patriotic moral imperative to drink some bourbon- America’s native spirit. Might I suggest a julep or two?

A Bourbon Gal in Utah

Towards the end of April I start getting all nostalgic about Kentucky Derby’s of my youth, singing (well, warbling) “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the weeks of debauchery Louisville celebrates leading up to the big day.  I’m getting misty eyed just thinking about it, but my friends here in Utah don’t quite get the appeal.  There’s a lot to love about my adopted mountain state, but a tradition of extended whiskey-soaked revelry is just not one of them.  And don’t y’all EVEN tell me Pioneer Day rallies the same hedonistic enthusiasm.  Just stop it.  Now.

What’s Derby like?  Well, if you haven’t already, it’s a moral imperative you read Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 essay, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”  It’s a marvel of sports reporting and travel journalism wrapped up in complete and utter sublime bullshit that stands the test of time more than forty years later.  And…

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Butter-Mint “Meltaway” cookies

Sweet Nostalgia: Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (1963)

This was my first cookbook: One of my favorite vintage cookbooks.  Thanks, mom!

Well, not the one photographed here.  That primordial one would still be with my mom (Grey Goose & Diet Tonic, Lime).  Egg white-warped and vanilla stained from decades of use, it’s still shelved in her tidy Louisville kitchen.  But GG&DTL did go on eBay a few years ago and find vintage editions for my brother, sister, and I as Christmas gifts a few years ago.  Yup, my mom’s pretty awesome like that.

In fact, the first recipe I remember truly and epically failing was from this cookbook:  lemon bars.  When you are 8 years old semi-confidently baking on your own and use 1 Tablespoon of salt rather than 1 teaspoon, you will never forget the resulting humbling yuck.  And the sibling smack talk.

Long ago I decided that if I’m going to bake, I’m going to go with some known results, and for that, my friends, Betty Crocker’s got your back.  Every. Damn. Time (excepting for user error).  I’ve found a handful of tried-and-true cookie recipes from this magnificent pastry compendium.  After all, it’s sub-titled “A Complete Collection – for All Occasions, for Every Taste.”

True, that.

The only things I’ve modified from the original 1963 publication are that I always use unsalted sweet cream butter (rather than the margarine/shortening, or as my grandma Beefeater &Tonic calls it, “oleo”), and I often use a pinch less sugar and a pinch more salt than the recipes call for to adapt for the butter shift.

If your mom hasn’t already sent you a copy, go and find one for yourself.  You will be the hit of the next mid-century modern cocktail party in the desert category.  Unless some talented wombat one-ups you with a Baked Alaska.  This has happened to me.  Sigh.

For the beery brunch the bev-blogger Hoss on Hops and I recently collaborated on, these Buttery Mint cookies were perfect for serving with a chocolaty stout.

Butter-Mint “Meltaway” Cookies (makes about 4 dozen)

Butter-Mint "Meltaway" cookies are great with a chocolate stout.  Thanks for the photo, Hoss!

Butter-Mint “Meltaway” cookies are great with a chocolate stout. Thanks for the photo, Hoss!

I make a triple-batch of these every time*Adapted from Betty Crocker’s 1963 edition Cooky Book

1 cup unsalted butter

½ cup powdered sugar (plus additional for dusting)

1 tsp. peppermint extract

½  tsp. (or more) green food coloring

2 ¼ cups cake flour

¼ tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar, mix until combined and fluffy.  With the beaters going, add peppermint extract and food coloring a drop or two at a time (it will splatter!).  Sift together flour and salt, and then add to the butter mixture ½ cup or so at a time.

Mold the cookie dough into walnut-sized balls (a great kid project).  Place on ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake about 8 minutes- until set but not brown.  While still warm, dip and roll in more confectioners’ sugar to coat.

*These freeze really well to keep on hand for cookie entertaining emergencies.  Like hosting an impromptu beer party on a Sunday morning, for instance.

Suddenly Summer!: Cucumber-Basil Martini with a Salish smoked black sea salt rim

Cucumber Basil Martini

Cucumber Basil Martini

Holy hot spike, Batman!  We went straight from snow-covered daffodils to wilting tulips to hopeful tomato plants all in one day here in the Wasatch Mountains.  Even broke some early spring temps records yesterday.  In celebration (and yes, respite… I’m not quite ready for the 90s yet) I broke out some of my favorite summer flavors:  cucumber, basil, and the floral melody of gin.  I’ve wanted to try out some of my lovely salt collection for use on more than finishing pan-seared meats, roasted potatoes, and salad dressing.   These salts I’ve gathered mostly at my local Tony Caputo’s Market – where they thoughtfully provide 99 cent sample cups of various and sundry goodness so those fickle souls such as I can dabble and snack before commitment.   In this case, I used a finer-grained black Salish smoked sea salt on top of a cucumber-rubbed glass rim.  Delightful.  Yay for Spring!  Or at least the 3 hours of it we got this year.

A sampling of sea salts.  In this case, I used the Salish Black Smoked Sea Salt from Caputo's Market, but I also like the coarser grained Durango smoked grey salt for this cocktail.

A sampling of sea salts. In this case, I used the Salish Black Smoked Sea Salt from Caputo’s Market, but I also like the coarser grained Durango smoked grey salt for this cocktail.

Cucumber Basil & Smoked black sea salt Martini

Freeze a martini glass, or add to the glass several cubes of ice to chill and set aside.

Just before assembling, rub ½ of the glass rim with the cut edge of a cucumber and dip into the smoked sea salt of your choice.

 To a cocktail shaker, add:

1 small cocktail cucumber, sliced thin (about 4 slices of cucumber- reserve 1 slice for garnish)

4-5 leaves fresh basil

2 oz. very floral gin (I’m a fan of Broker’s for this cocktail)

½ oz. dry vermouth

4-5 ice cubes

Shake vigorously until well-frosted and frothy (about 15 seconds)

Strain into the chilled and salty goodness of that martini glass.  Garnish with a cucumber slice and a sprig of baby basil.

Isn’t that refreshing?

Now, don’t y’all put away your parkas and gloves yet, my mountain friends.  Just having made this cocktail guarantees we’ll have a freezing spell next week.  I’ve got my towels ready to cover my ‘maters, just in case.

Mmm-mmm-mmm Mojito Ice Cream

Creamy zesty velvety goodness in 5... 4...3...2..YUM

Creamy zesty velvety goodness in 5… 4…3…2..YUM

Utahns are crazy for sweets, especially ice cream, frozen custard, and frozen yogurt.  I make this treat for my Mormon girlfriends when they’re feeling a bit subversive and rebellious.  It contains two whole tablespoons of rum!  As tempting as it is to add even more (and believe me, I’ve tried) going heavy handed on the liquor in this and most ice cream recipes messes with the freezing point of your concoction and you may end up with a gloppy mess instead of a smooth rich scoop.  Save that extra booze for your cocktail, instead.

mojito_ic_ingredientsMojito Ice Cream (makes 1 quart)

2 large eggs*

¾ cup sugar

2 cups half-and-half

1 cup heavy or whipping cream

½ cup frozen limeade concentrate, thawed

2 Tbs. white rum

2 tsp. peppermint extract

Zest from 1 lime (reserved until the very end)

In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until light and fluffy (2 minutes on med-high speed).  Keeping speed constant, whisk in the sugar a little bit at a time, and continue whisking until completely combined and pale yellow (about 1 minute more).  Reduce speed to low, and then slowly pour in the half-and-half and cream.  Whisk to blend, scraping the sides of the bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the lime zest, whisk until thoroughly combined.

Transfer slowly to your ice cream maker.  Freeze and process following the manufacturer’s instructions.  When the ice cream is about done, sprinkle in the lime zest and processes another 1 to 2 minutes to distribute evenly.

Due to the high butterfat content of this ice cream, it benefits from storage in a case freezer if you’ve got one.  The texture

One of our five hens off to work (she has a very determined stride, no?)

One of our five hens off to work (she has a very determined stride, no?)

will be a little softer if it’s stored in your regular kitchen freezer but it will be equally delicious.

*This recipe includes raw eggs, which I have an abundance of from my healthy backyard hens.  You can use

pasteurized eggs from the supermarket if you’re worried about salmonella and other cooties.

Date Night: Gorgonzola stuffed dates with Whiskey Salami

My challenge, should I choose to accept it: 

My gal Saketini and her husband Smoked Porter have invited us over for dinner tonight with another couple, our friends IPA and Lemon Drop.    Saketini’s not given us much direction on what she’s making, but has asked Lemon Drop and me to bring appetizers.

What would A Bourbon Gal do?  Damn, I love a good food challenge.

Here are some other considerations before I put the knife to the board:gorgonzola and salami stuffed dates

1)      I didn’t see this text until half of the group conversation had gone by, so I’ve only got 2 hours left to prepare something.  Plus I still need to take a shower and get myself prettified.  Saketini and Lemon Drop always look gorgeous, so this is no small undertaking on my part (No baking or searing, check).

2)      We’re walking through our lovely neighborhood to their house, so my apps need to be backpack portable.  (Nothing fragile, check)

3)      My gal Lemon Drop will probably bring artichoke dip, so my contribution needs to pair well but not appear to be competitively spreadable or dippable.  (Stick to finger food or something skewered, check)

4)      It should go with the undoubtedly fabulous beer selection that Smoked Porter and our buddy IPA—who writes the fantastic beer blog Hoss on Hops—will assemble.  (Strong flavors, check)

Luckily, I sent my budding 11- year old gourmand, Tim Collins, to our neighborhood Emigration Market for some cheese and charcuterie the other day.  He’s a huge Creminelli Salami fan, and brought back one of their delicious uncured salamis and a nice chunk of imported Gorgonzola.  We have a few ounces of salami left and a nub of cheese.  I could totally do a quick nibbles board accompanied by some fruit and crackers, and that would be perfectly lovely if predictable and, quite frankly, sparse.   I’ve also got jars of my own go-to preserves and chutneys, but they’ve all had those a million times, and I’m down to only 3 ounces of gloppy-looking cream cheese to pour them over.  Plus, I’m out of crackers.  And good-looking fresh fruit.  And now, time!

What I need are some perfect little bites to share.  Something sweet and savory to balance Lemon Drop’s dip and crackers, but salty will go great with the beer.  And a bit hearty, too.  We’re feeding a firefighter and a beer blogger here; they need some sustenance!  Damn, this challenge is getting better every minute.  It’s like a real-life version of Chopped!  But without the ugly chef’s coats, sympathetic Ted Allen, lots of yelling “behind,” snarky eye rolling and side-commentary, and the dishy Marcus Samuelsson (sigh).  And I don’t have a blast chiller in sight.

The result?  Here, my friends, is your perfect 4-ingredient, pantry & fridge-scrounged, no baking required, highly durable, and very tasty bite (and I had time to make my hair look fabulous):

 Gorgonzola-stuffed dates with Whiskey salami

 1)      Slice 10-12 extra large dried dates in half length-wise; remove pits.  Place pitted side up on a platter.

2)      In a small bowl, mash together with a fork 3 oz. softened cream cheese and 4 oz. crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (also terrific with Maytag Blue)

3)      Remove casing from 3-4 oz. of Creminelli Whiskey salami (or other hard dry uncured Italian salami, any will do) and slice on the bias into very thin ovals. Slice ovals in half again to make half-oval strips.

4)      To assemble: scoop up about 1 teaspoon (this is very approximate folks, I don’t know how big your dates are!) of cheese mixture and gently scrape it with the back of a spoon into the center of your date half for the filling.  Top with a salami strip or two.  If you are packing these to travel, place a crumpled sheet of parchment paper between layers and pack gently in glass or plastic lidded containers.

Superlative Slope-side Bloody Mary*:

Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary

Spring brings along with it the dubious refined culture of the mid-day cocktail.  Think mint juleps, Planter’s punch, mojitos, and of course the hangover brunch standards:  Mimosas and Bloody Marys.  In my Memphis-based undergraduate days, we trained during much of the year to get ready for  studied diligently, then barely survived enjoyed a series of late semester parties, culminating in a music festival called “Rites of Spring.”  Awfully pagan for a church affiliated private liberal arts school, hmmm?  Good times.

I’ve moderated my own daytime drinking propensity in the decades years since in response to semi-responsible adulthood: graduate school, keeping a job, parenthood, PTA meetings, those goddamn pesky “empty” alcohol calories that every fascist nutritional resource tells you will haunt you and your belly fat thighs ass liver and muffin top mid-section forever.  And they do, my friends, they do.

But there are certain events in one’s life that call out for the return of day drinking an occasional mid-afternoon cocktail in its inherent subversive naughty splendor:  Super Bowl Sunday.  Mardi Gras.  The Kentucky Derby.   Volunteering at your kids’ school for “Pioneer Week” field trips.  Independence Day.

And, here in my adopted mountain home:  Spring Skiing.

Thanks to Brighton Ski Team for this great photo of the racers!

Thanks to Brighton Ski Team for this great photo of the racers!

Case in point.  Our family unit ventured to Grand Targhee, WY last weekend for an extended ‘Spring Fling’ two-day ski race event in which our older son, Tim Collins, competed.  We met up with about 10 other families from our home mountain and awesome guests.  We arrived at the mountain at 8:30 am each day to get our kids outfitted with their race speed suits, their racing bibs, their surly attitudes, and their appropriately-waxed skis.  Then the parents took turns trudging up the slope to set up a ‘base camp’ at the race finish—a good 200 yards straight uphill.  My man The Macallan valiantly delivered tent poles, coolers, and backpacks.  I mercilessly nagged supervised, and tried to finish my coffee before it cooled.

Waiting at the tent each morning after a couple of runs by noon, were the combined efforts of a few but mighty genius minds:  Gallons (yes, gallons!!) a pitcher of super-peppery homemade Bloody Mary mix,  several quarts of hooch hidden in duffle bags a bottle of Five Wives Vodka (Utah’s own artisan spirit), and some jalapeño-stuffed green olives for garnish.   Served in red Solo cups  non-breakable slope-side beverage containers, this was, my friends, the nectar of the ski gods.  Ullr and Loki were undoubtedly looking after us in their own pagan fashion:  Rites of Spring, now all grown up.  Kinda.

Slope-side Bloody Mary (makes 1, multiply as needed for your crowd) 

When I’m at home, I add a bacon-salt rim to the glass, just ‘cause you can and it’s delicious (Hello?  Bacon + salt !?).  Also great with Old Bay Seasoning.

In a cocktail shaker with 3-4 cubes ice add:

2 oz. vodka

One 5.5 oz. can original V8 juice

½  tsp. fresh lemon juice

¼ tsp. prepared horseradish

2 dashes Worcestershire sauce

2 dashes hot sauce (I like Crystal)

1 tsp. Okra pickle juice or green olive juice

A couple of generous cranks of fresh-ground coarse black peppercorns

A generous shake of bacon salt or Old Bay Seasoning

Shake until combined.  Pour the whole shaker into a heavy glass or red Solo cup.  Garnish with pickled okra and/or several skewered green olives.

Until next ski season, SKOL and Slainté, my friends! 

*Please imbibe responsibly, and for cripes sake watch your sodium levels.  We’re not getting any younger, you know.  Geez.

Applaud the Pod: Okra, okra, okra!

Okra:  Pickled, fried, and in a martini.   pickle okra_martini

My first introduction to okra was in the form of cornmeal-crusted deep fried bites in a Louisville diner.  Crunchy, salty, greasy goodness.  Yum.  After that, I looked for okra all over the South, trying the pod in its many and various forms:  stewed with tomatoes, with onions and spice topping rice, folded into gumbo, and of course, fried.  Deep fried, pan fried, fried in bacon fat or peanut oil.

As a grown-up, though, my absolute favorite okra treat is a crunchy, spicy, garlicky okra pickle.  Even better if it’s a whole skewer full of them lined up on the rim of a Bloody Mary glass, or on the advice of my girlfriend who we’ll call Tennessee Redneck Martini, in place of olives for a truly bodacious dirty martini.  If this doesn’t convert you to okra, then I gladly throw in the towel.

When we lived in Phoenix (down the street from my aforementioned girlfriend TN Red Martini) I grew okra right alongside my artichoke plants, collard greens, and rainbow chard.  The desert growing season being both long and hot enough there to produce a bumper crop every year, provided I spent plenty of time watering.  Seeing the combination of crazy purple artichoke blooms, variegated chard, and spiky outrageous okra plants taller than me made me smile every day: it was like my own personal Little Shop of Horrors-slash-Tim Burton garden.   I swear some days you could watch an okra pod grow in one afternoon – like zucchini, you’ve got to watch those little bastards because they will get woody and fibrous on you in a matter of days, if not hours.

Since moving to the mountains, my okra-growing days appear to be over (or at least limited), but that hasn’t stopped me from gathering up bushels of okra when I see them fresh at the Asian market or farmer’s market.  You can tell okra pods are fresh if they are uniformly green, and the tip end is firm (not bendable); also check for bruises and dark spots, which indicate they are past their prime.  The cut end of the pod should be firm; trim the end off of the stem end to clean, but do not pierce the pod.

After much trial and error, I can share the following suggestions for making your own pickled okra, and then wish you the best of luck. You can also buy perfectly good pickled okra at most grocery stores, but where’s the fun in that?

The actual canning part of making okra pickle is pretty straightforward.  Gently pack all of your ingredients into sterilized jars, and then pour over the pickling liquid and process as usual.  But okra are tricky little buggers, and it’s taken me years of practice to get them to behave.  They are susceptible to bruising and bursting, and are notorious floaters.  One friend claims that he has one jar explode in the canner every time.  On the other hand, another friend’s jars are routinely only half-full of pickling liquid after processing.  I’ve tried pricking the pods with a needle on the advice of grandmas (which does limit floaters, but tends to make the pickling liquid gluey and cloudy), hand-packing the pods in the same direction, or alternating directions.

My advice: place the flavoring ingredients in the bottom of your jar, first.  Gently pack okra one at a time in the jars, filling jars as full as you can (it doesn’t matter which direction, but I like them all lined up the same way because it looks pretty).  Put long pods in pint jars, and the baby ones in squat half pint jars.  Avoid squishing, bending, or bruising the pods.  Most recipes call for ½ inch of headspace AFTER removing air bubbles – I audaciously fill those suckers with pickle liquid right up to the rim.  Again, gently, poke around the pods with a chopstick to remove air bubbles, then recklessly fill the jars to the rim again.  Trust me:  there are inevitably air pockets around the okra no matter your chopstick skills, and the pods themselves are full of air.

Okay, here you go:

Crunchy & Spicy Okra Pickles (makes about 7 pints)

1)      Prepare canner; sterilize jars and lids

2)      In a large non-reactive (stainless steel) saucepan combine 6 cups water, 6 cups white vinegar, and 2/3 cup pickling salt; bring to a rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer

3)      Meanwhile, to each pint jar (or halve ingredients for ½ pint jars) add:  1 large clove peeled garlic, two tiny bird chilies, ½ tsp. dill seeds

4)      Clean and trim about 6 lbs okra pods, sort by size (see, above)

5)      Gently pack okra into jars, leaving at least ½ inch head space between pods and the rim of the jar

6)      Ladle hot pickling liquid into jars to the rim.  Poke a chopstick around pods to eliminate air bubbles.  Pour more liquid in to cover okra, if needed.

7)      Wipe rim with a sterile cloth; center lid on jar, and screw band down to finger tip tight

8)      Place jars in canner, making sure they are completely covered with boiling water.  Resume boil, and process for 15 minutes (In SLC I add another 6 minutes to adjust for altitude).

9)      Turn off burner.  Remove canner lid.  Let sit for 5 minutes.

10)   Remove jars, cool at room temperature for 24 hours (do not tip those jars, no matter how tempting!).  After 24 hours, test seals, then tip jars over on their sides & lids to release air bubbles and check that pickling liquid is covering most of the pods.  Store in a cool dark place for up to 1 year.

Tennessee Redneck Dirty Okra Martini (makes 1)

Rub half of the rim of a martini glass with a section of picked okra, dip the damp rim into a saucer dusted with Cajun or Creole seasoning.   In a cocktail shaker combine:  3-4 cubes ice, 2 oz. gin, a dash of dry vermouth (1 tsp., or to taste), and a slosh of okra pickle juice (about 1-2 tsp).  Shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds.  Strain into the martini glass, and garnish with skewered okra pickles.

This is a bit more involved than my eponymous gal makes- hers just has gin, okra juice, and an okra pickle in it and it is sublimely and simply delightful just like that.

Fried Okra

Cut 2 lbs. okra pods into 1” wide rounds.  Combine 2/3 cup cornmeal and 2/3 cup white flour.  Add 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. black pepper, and ½ tsp. cayenne pepper and mix thoroughly.  Toss all of the okra into the dredge and mix to coat.  Heat a cast iron skillet over med-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil; heat over med-high until almost smoking.  Shake off excess dredge, and gently scatter a handful of okra into the hot grease.  Fry until golden, then remove to a paper-towel lined plate.  Keep on repeating until all your okra is done, adding more oil as needed, and turning down the heat if okra is getting too brown too fast.  Dust with additional sea salt while still steaming.  Eat right away.

Quick and Easy Irish Soda Bread

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Photo from the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. These folks are serious.

Every year I make Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day –slathered with butter and served, of course, with corned beef and cabbage—and I think, “Geez, this stuff is so easy to make.  And super tasty.  I should make it more often!”  Then, I drink too many Irish Coffees, run out of buttermilk*, and forget all about this stroke of brilliance until I start seeing corned beef in the cases at Costco in late February.

As many of y’all know, I really only bake under duress (excepting the “3-Bs”: brownies, biscuits, and birthday cakes).  All that measuring, weighing on scales, perfect ratios.  Accounting for altitude.  Ugh.  There’s a wonderful bakery down the street from my house to which my very responsible children Sprite and Tim Collins can go as my representatives and pick up a few loaves for our family (and probably clear out half of their bread board sample offerings.  Sorry).  However, I’m not a fan of any of the “Irish” soda breads for sale in our fair city come March:  the ones I’ve tasted thus far are more sweet than savory.  Ick.  Cakey textured and loaded with sugar and raisins.  Double-ick.  And completely unlike anything I ate during my foray to Ireland, brief though that was (click here for a fantastic rant on what does and doesn’t qualify as traditional Irish soda bread.)

Soda breads—meaning breads leavened with bicarbonate of soda reacting to an acid, such as that found in buttermilk, rather than bread using yeast—are called “quick” breads for a reason.  They usually require little or no kneading, just the very basic incorporation of all ingredients, are not as sensitive about the higher ambient temperature needed to encourage adequate rising.  In fact, they generally don’t have a rising period, at all.  Foolproof even for the most inattentive baker (yes, that would be me).  SCORE.  There are lots of theories about why an “X” is cut in the top of the loaf before baking:  to let out the faerie spirits or as a symbol of Christianity, for instance.  Most bakers agree that the distinctive cut allows for more even baking of the dense bread.  I think its faerie exodus, FTW.

You can bake your soda bread in a cast-iron Dutch oven with great results –this is, after all, the traditional method—but a cookie sheet works perfectly well, too.  Personally, I enjoy any recipe that requires a good “thwacking” to determine doneness rather than guesswork or toothpicking.  And soda bread delivers on that count.  This bread dries out quickly, so eat it all within two days, as if that’s any hardship.

Mmmmm, where’s the butter?

Irish Soda Bread

1)       In a large bowl, measure out 3 cups of flour (I usually use 1 cup whole and 2 cups white cake or pastry flour, but you can increase your wheat flour up to 2 cups making this a very dense bread).

2)      To flour, add:
2 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Stir well to combine.

3)      To flour mixture cut in 2 Tbs. chilled butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

4)      Make a well in the center of the flour mix; add 1 ½  cups buttermilk.
Stir until just moist (don’t overbeat!)

5)      Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface; knead gently 5 or 6 times (just until the dough comes together). Pat dough into a ball, and then flatten gently to make an 8″ round.

6)      Lightly butter a cast iron Dutch oven or on a baking sheet. Place dough in center of baking vessel and cut a shallow “X” into the top with a sharp knife.

7)      Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. You know it’s done if you firmly tap the bottom of the loaf with a knuckle and it makes a sharp “thwack” sound.

8)      Cool on a wire rack. Serve in wedges with lots of butter. Yum.

*Yes, I’ve heard you can make your own buttermilk.

Have I ever done this?  No.