December 2017 - Birdseed Kitchen

Honeycrisp Applesauce

Honeycrisp Applesauce

What goes better with latkes than Honeycrisp Applesauce?

Actually, sour cream does. Sour cream is THE first-place, definitive latke topping. Trick question! But this Honeycrisp Applesauce is also an absolute requirement for any latkes we make. And – bonus! – your house will smell of apples, cinnamon, and vanilla when you make it.

This recipe makes a big batch: about 2.5 quarts. This year, I used 12 honeycrisp apples, which tend to be on the large size as apples are measured. That’s a lot of peeling, but I was fortunate to have just picked up a new vegetable peeler, which was (and still is) nice and sharp. Those apples practically jumped out of their skins.

So, grab your sharpest peeler, a big bowl of apples, and turn on your favorite program to binge-watch. (Maybe The Good Place? Or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?) (Some of these are affiliate links.) Homemade applesauce is totally worth the prep. And once you have the apples chopped, the cooking is mostly hands-off.

I’ve used a variety of apples for applesauce in the past, including Braeburn, Fuji, and Pink Lady. This year, I wanted to get as much natural sweetness from the apples as I could, and use less added sugar. I ended up getting by with just one tablespoon of brown sugar for the entire recipe! That’s not a lot of added sugar at all per serving, so I’m going to continue to enjoy this applesauce as a dessert during Sugar Free January (2018.)

A lot of applesauce recipes call for softer apples because they cook down more easily. Because I prefer a chunky-textured applesauce, I tend to go for more flavorful apples, regardless of texture. More chunks make this applesauce feel more like a dessert dish and less like a sauce. But if you would like your applesauce to be smoother, you could puree it with an immersion blender a few times.

If you’re looking for the perfect latkes to go along with this Honeycrisp Applesauce (and sour cream, of course), check out my Potato Latkes recipe.

Honeycrisp Applesauce

Course Side Dish
Servings 20 1/2-cup servings

Ingredients

  • 12 honeycrisp apples peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tbsp packed brown sugar
  • 2 tsp ground Vietnamese cinnamon I like Penzeys
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Instructions

  1. Peel and core apples. Chop into large chunks. (No need to be particular about the actual size, but it's a good idea to keep them all about the same size.)

  2. Add apples to a large stockpot with water, brown sugar, and cinnamon.

  3. Simmer over medium-low heat, covered, for about 20-25 minutes, or until apples are soft and can be broken up with a spoon.

  4. Add vanilla. Remove from heat. Break up large remaining chunks with the back of a large spoon until the applesauce is the consistency you like. You can also use an immersion blender if you like a smoother consistency.

  5. Serve warm, or store in refrigerator or freezer. Makes about 2.5 quarts.

 

Potato Latkes

Potato Latkes

Ask ten Jewish mothers the proper way to make latkes, and you’ll get fourteen different opinions. So this post comes with a disclaimer: all latke-related opinions are my own, and not necessarily your bubbe’s.

Additionally, I must also disclose that I am relatively new to the tribe, having converted to Judaism in 2013. So I am what you might call a latke novice. But from the feedback I’ve received – mostly in the form of satisfied grunts and crunching noises – I’m doing alright.

Latkes, one of the traditional fried foods served at Chanukah, are a personal holiday tradition for us. They are one of the first traditional Jewish foods I learned to make, and I look forward to making them once (or twice… if I’m lucky!) during the season.

I grew up with potato pancakes, not latkes – and there IS a difference. Potato pancakes are more like a traditional pancake – soft and flat. Latkes differentiate themselves by using shredded potatoes and grated onion, along with eggs as a binder, and salt. The best latkes, in my opinion, have lacy edges formed by lots of crisp strands of potato shreds, and soft, fluffy centers inside. The proportion of crispy to soft parts is key, and I think I lean toward more crunch. Stacked up to cool on a towel-lined plate, they look like a collection of little birds’ nests.

Potato Latkes with homemade applesauce

At their most simplistic, latkes are composed of shredded or grated white potatoes (I use russet), grated onion, eggs, and salt. From this basic potato-onion-egg base, opinions seem to vary wildly on every aspect of latke cooking, starting with how you shred or grate the potatoes. Some people still knuckle down and grate their potatoes by hand, while others (myself included) save time by shredding them with a food processor. Not only does the food processor save time, but it also produces longer strands of potato that give my latkes those shoestring-potato-like edges we love.

In addition to eggs, most recipes call for some sort of an added starch for additional binding. This can be a small amount of flour, potato starch, or matzo meal (if you want to keep them kosher.) The recipe I use calls for flour, and I’ve adjusted the amount to suit my family’s tastes.

Some people add spices – anything from a simple grind of fresh pepper, to fresh-chopped herbs. I like my latkes to be neutrally seasoned, and served alongside sweet homemade applesauce or savory sour cream; or Greek yogurt, which is surprisingly good for a fraction of the calories. To me, latkes are all about texture and technique.

crispy potato latkes with applesauce and sour cream

If you want to get creative though, latkes can also be made with shredded root vegetables, like these Cumin-Scented Beet Latkes from Epicurious.) Or, try them with sweet potatoes, like these Spiralized Sweet Potato Latkes from Skinnytaste. And although they are also delicious, cheese latkes are another thing entirely. In my opinion, they’re not latkes, and they should be called what they are: ricotta pancakes.

A traditional flavor for latkes that I haven’t experimented with, but intend to someday, is schmaltz. According to the website of food historian, Jewish cooking expert, and fellow convert Tori Avey, “Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe and immigrants to America typically fried their latkes in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, until more healthy oil alternatives were introduced.” Her recipe for latkes calls for just a bit of schmaltz added to the oil, just to add flavor.

When it comes to the best oil for frying latkes, I prefer peanut oil, but canola oil would make a good substitute. Both peanut and canola oils have high smoke points, allowing them to stand up to the high heat of pan-frying and not break down. Sephardic Jews (from areas in the Middle East) have traditionally fried their latkes in olive oil, but I can’t recommend this as an oil for frying.

So you’ve mixed your latkes, your oil is heated up, and you’re ready to fry. Keep in mind these tips for making sure your latkes are crispy, salty and irresistible:

  • Latkes fry relatively quickly, and are best eaten HOT, right out of the pan. Make sure you have side dishes and toppings like sour cream and/or applesauce set out and ready before you start frying.
  • Before you start, set up a space for draining the latkes. I drain mine on paper towels, but you could also use a wire rack. Whatever keeps them crunchy.
  • When I’m forming latkes in my hands, I try not to press the potatoes together too firmly. I press gently to make something vaguely patty-shaped, with a lot of strands sticking out along the edges. Then I slide it down my fingers and into the pan. It takes some practice. It might look like there’s no way the mixture will hold together, but if you let it get crispy enough on the first side, you’ll be able to flip it easily.
  • Wait to turn the latkes until they are medium to deep golden brown. They will hold together better. I like to use the thinnest, flattest spatula I have (a fish spatula works well.) Try not to turn them more than once.
  • To keep the latkes warm while you’re cooking more batches – if they last that long – place them on a wire rack on a sheet pan in a warm oven.

My best advice for latke novices? Try a few recipes and see what you like. Ask a Jewish grandmother for her recipe. Or, do like I did and find an old spiral-bound cookbook from the ladies’ circle of a Jewish temple. My own recipe is based on Binky Read Cohen’s recipe from “Historically Cooking: 200 Years of Good Eating” published by the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Sisterhood in Charleston, South Carolina, 1980.

recipe for potato latkes by Binky Read Cohen

As they say in the foreword, “We are an old people, yet ever new.” I hope you find your own favorite way to make latkes. Let me know what great ideas you come up with!

Potato Latkes


Cuisine Jewish
Servings 4

Ingredients

  • 4 russet baking potatoes shredded
  • 1 small onion grated
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • peanut and/or canola oil for frying
  • kosher salt to taste

Instructions

  1. Scrub potatoes and shred with your preferred method, either a food processor or hand-grater. (If you want to peel the potatoes, that's ok, but I like the flavor that the skins add.)

  2. Place shredded potatoes in a large colander and rinse well with cold water, moving the potatoes around to make sure all surfaces are rinsed. The water should run clear. Set potatoes aside to drain.

  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat 2 eggs. Add salt and baking powder.

  4. Press the drained potatoes firmly with paper towels, or a clean dishtowel, to remove as much water as you can. The drier the strands of potato, the better.

  5. Add potatoes to egg mixture in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with flour. Stir until well combined.

  6. In a cast-iron skillet, heat peanut and/or canola oil over medium heat. Prepare a wire rack or paper towels on which to drain the latkes. The oil is hot enough to start frying when a single strand of potato dropped in the oil sizzles actively and browns within one minute.

  7. Make loose patties of the potato mixture with your hands, using approximately 3 tbsp of the latke mixture. Slide them into the hot oil. Cook for 3-4 minutes on the first side, until golden brown and crisp.

  8. Flip latkes, and fry an additional 2-3 minutes until second side is also brown and crisp.

  9. Remove from pan at once and sprinkle with kosher salt.

  10. Eat immediately with applesauce and sour cream or plain Greek yogurt. Makes about 16 latkes.

 

 

Sage Derby and Butternut Squash Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Sage Derby butternut squash grilled cheese

Creamy Sage Derby cheddar cheese and butternut squash, topped with wilted spinach and caramelized onions, make this warm and satisfying grown-up grilled cheese a fall favorite. Use a semi-dense bread. You’ll need it to soak up all these rich flavors.

I’m prone to wandering. When I was young, my mind wandered… a lot. Just ask my grade school teachers. I was usually thinking about something I wanted to draw or create. As an adult, my wandering continues – through parks, along trails, in libraries and museums, and at grocery stores.

A trip to the grocery store is more than just shopping for me. It’s a creative jam session. I’m inspired by whatever looks delicious and fresh, or by something that reminds me of a recipe I saw on a blog that I’ve been meaning to make. I’ll think about applying a favorite technique to a new food (can I smoke this?), or a new skill I want to acquire (I’ve been meaning to learn how to make a great hollandaise sauce so I can make Eggs Benedict for Noah.)

Quite often, it’s about discovering new foods. In the case of this Sage Derby Grilled Cheese, it was inspired by a new cheese. Our local Harvest Market has a darn respectable cheese section. They frequently offer samples (the 5-year cheddar we tried yesterday was excellent), and they have a small basket of “lonely cuts.” These are usually smaller or odd-sized pieces of cheese, of all types, and they are perfect when you want to try something new. A few weeks ago, I picked up some Sage Derby, and as soon as I tried it, I wanted to put it in a grilled cheese.

Sage Derby is an English cheddar originating from Derbyshire. It is a semi-hard, aged artisan cheddar, infused with sage and sometimes colored with other vegetable ingredients. It has an attractive marbled curd and would make a standout addition to a holiday cheese board.

Because the flavor of sage is so strongly associated with fall, I wanted to add some rich flavors to this sandwich. We’ve been having a lot of fun with our OXO Spiralizer (affiliate link), and I thought it would be a great way to create thinly-sliced butternut squash rounds to add to the sandwich. I’m always a fan of caramelized onions, especially with grilled cheese. And wilted spinach is so nutritious and flavorful that I thought it would bring a nice freshness to the sandwich and break up all that richness.

I’ve been on vacation this week, and finally got around to making this sandwich. I also baked challah bread two days ago, and that homemade loaf made all the difference in the quality of this sandwich. I would recommend challah if you want to use it. A semi-dense whole grain bread would also work. I would definitely go for something more substantial than sandwich bread for this one, because the toppings are soft and rich. You need something to soak up all that juiciness.

sage derby butternut squash grilled cheese

There are a few components to this dish, but you can prep the onions and the spinach in the same pan while you roast the squash, so there’s not a lot of mess involved. I used a separate pan to grill up the sandwiches, but you could rinse the pan you used for onions and spinach and use it to grill your sandwiches.

I enjoyed this sandwich so much, I am making it again for lunch today. It’s that good. I hope you enjoy it too.

Sage Derby and Butternut Squash Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Creamy Sage Derby cheddar cheese and butternut squash, topped with wilted spinach and caramelized onions, make this warm and satisfying grown-up grilled cheese a fall favorite. Use a semi-dense bread. You'll need it to soak up all these rich flavors.

Course Main Course
Servings 2 sandwiches
Author Rachel

Ingredients

  • 1/2 butternut squash
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter divided
  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion thinly sliced
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves packed
  • salt and fresh pepper to taste
  • 4 slices challah bread, or other semi-dense bread
  • 3 oz Sage Derby cheddar cheese thinly sliced

Instructions

Roast the Squash

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

  2. Cut off the narrow top portion of the butternut squash. Cut off the stem end, peel it, and slice it thinly in rounds (or use a spiralizer.) Arrange squash rounds in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and fresh pepper to taste.

  3. Roast in oven for 12 minutes, or until squash is tender but not mushy. Remove from oven and set aside.

Caramelize the Onions

  1. In a wide skillet over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add sliced onions, season with a bit of salt, and stir to coat with butter. Let sit for a minute or two, then stir periodically until the onions are lightly browned and translucent, about 5-8 minutes. If the onions begin to stick and burn, reduce the heat a bit, or add a small amount of water to help deglaze the pan.

  2. Remove onions from pan and set aside.

Wilt the Spinach

  1. Return pan to heat and add 1/2 tablespoon butter. Add spinach leaves and season lightly with salt and fresh pepper. Toss leaves briefly until spinach leaves are wilted completely. Remove from heat and set aside. 

Assemble the Sandwich

  1. Place a skillet over medium-low heat. Spread remaining butter on one side of the four slices of bread. Place bread butter side down in skillet to grill. Top each slice of bread with a layer of Sage Derby cheese.

  2. For each sandwich, top one side of the bread with half of the butternut squash slices, and the other half with a layer of caramelized onions, and a layer of spinach. (You might have some onions left over.)

  3. Grill open-faced until bread is golden brown and toasted. Put sandwich together, slice in half, and serve.

 

Cheddar Garlic Biscuits Recipe Sketch

This recipe sketch has more structure than my previous sketches. I enjoyed laying out the components in a modified grid structure like this. The effect is somewhat like a comic book. A few of the components purposefully break the grid. I thought the bowl would be a good choice as a central component of the recipe sketch, since it is where everything in the recipe goes.

You might notice one difference between this sketch and my recipe for Cheddar Garlic Biscuits: onion powder. The recipe I had previously posted on this site doesn’t call for onion powder, but I have used it in this recipe in the past. I consider it optional, and I apologize for any confusion!

recipe sketch showing cheddar garlic biscuits

My Plastic Problem

My name is Rachel, and I have a problem.

As I put some clean dishes away recently, I opened our slide-out cabinet drawer of plastic food storage containers. The overflowing drawer barely contained this oddball assortment of containers of various shapes, sizes, and brands.

I stood before the chaos, contemplating possible solutions.

“I wonder if I have some slightly larger plastic bins in the basement that I could use to sort these containers into?” I asked myself.

That’s when it hit me: this is my rock-bottom moment. I need more plastic to hold… too much plastic.

And so, I literally brought it out into the light to deal with. Behold, my shame:

photo of a lot of plastic storage containers

It’s not that I’ve bought any new plastic containers recently. (See, I am totally in control!) You see, I have a husband who not only celebrates my strengths, but also knows my weaknesses. Sometimes, when we’re shopping, I’ll walk down a certain… specific aisle. You know the one. The kitchen organization aisle, aka The Forbidden Zone.

“Rachel?” he says.

And sometimes I actually hear him. But I just want to touch them – to feel their snug little seals, how easily their lids nest together. Ooh, this one has a separate little container for my salad dressing! The colors are so pretty!

“Rachel.”

Right, ok. Back to reality. And that reality is usually, “where would I put these?”

The problem is not only storing and organizing a million little plastic containers and their lids. It’s also the curation, care, and feeding of this menagerie.

For example, some of the containers have a small silicone ring nested around the perimeter of the lid. The lids usually clean up easily in the sink or dishwasher, but sometimes there’s something that has snuck under that little sealing ring, necessitating a search for the nearest table knife or other semi-sharp implement to pry it off. Then, you have to hope the ring stays the same size after you’ve washed it in hot water, which is not always the case. And if it doesn’t fit on the lid again properly, here you are with another orphaned, lidless container.

Another problem: I don’t microwave in plastic. I’m not completely certain that microwaving food in plastic is bad for my health, but the evidence seems to point in that direction. Might as well be cautious, right? So using a plastic storage container pretty much guarantees that I’m going to be washing two containers. No thanks!

Secondly, if you microwave anything with oil or tomato products in a plastic container, you’ll probably end up feeding that container to your recycling bin. It’ll be stained, pitted, or permanently warped. I had a few containers hanging around with these little pits in them, and I have to wonder what sort of germs were hiding in them. Eww.

And so, determined not to waste another minute of my time on the care and feeding of my plastic empire, I put serious thought into those that I would keep, and those I would donate or recycle.

First, I thought about the kind of things I usually store:

  • Large-quantity leftovers: a big pot of chili, soup, or curry.
  • Condiments we make in batches and keep on hand: salad dressings, pimento cheese, fig jam, basil oil, Peppadew Relish, etc.
  • Odd-size solid leftovers: usually meats, such as part of a roasted chicken, one or two sausages, or a piece of leftover fish.
  • Pre-prepped vegetables and fruit: sometimes I chop onions, spiralize vegetables, or slice produce in advance.
  • Liquids: stock, cold-brew coffee, iced tea, infused water.
  • Non-refrigerated pantry items: breadcrumbs, spice mixes, nuts, snacks, baked goods.

Next, I called upon my favorite, time-tested type of storage container: Mason jars. True to form, we also have plenty of these on hand, in sizes from half-pint to half-gallon. And with only two standard lid sizes to work with, our Mason jar lids are already easily organized in a single place.

I already use Mason jars for leftover soups and pot dishes: wide-mouth quart jars for keeping leftovers at home, wide-mouth pints for packing in lunches. I also use them for condiments, liquids, and non-refrigerated pantry items. That leaves some specific use cases for a plastic container – namely, when the item to be stored is large or awkwardly-sized, or there is a large quantity of items (such as biscuits cupcakes.)

The most difficult containers for me to let go of were the assorted small lunchbox-sized containers. I have a weakness for tiny cute things, as well as matching sets of any sort. Most of my tiny cute containers are a matching set. But however much I might like them, they are the biggest part of the problem, with their tiny little parts and lids of various sizes that are difficult to match. I replaced them with a set of these elegant swirled-glass 4-oz Mason jars, a size that should be easy to pack in a lunch, and perfect for holding little refrigerated bits.

I have also ordered some stainless steel Mason jar lids with silicone sealing rings. As much as I love Mason jars, the old-school tin sealing rings are susceptible to rust and corrosion, especially when storing pickled foods. I wanted something that would last longer and be totally dishwasher-safe. I’ll let you know what I think after I use them for a while.

Baby steps.