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Pickled Okra

Okra is one of those vegetables that people feel passionately about.  Either they love it, with a dedicated, all consuming love, or they hate it.  Dan and I fall into opposite ends of the okra spectrum.  He doesn’t want it within ten feet of his plate (or at least no closer than my side of the couch) and I can’t get enough of it.  I want it fried, I want it stewed, and always (always) I wanted it pickled.  When I was growing up I used to love to settle into the the front porch with a good book and a jar of pickled okra.  Nothing made me happier than the crunchy outside, the spicy vinegary flavor, and the unexpected pop of the seeds beneath your teeth.  In my lifetime I have consumed an embarrassing amount of pickled okra, one jar at a time.  And I don’t regret a bite.

This year we grew okra in the back yard, which was a lot of fun.  About a month into the plant’s existence what looked like a seed pod (the part of the okra you eat) appeared on the plant.  Great news, except I had never seen a flower.  I consulted the interwebz and learned that the okra flower blooms for less than a day, so I just missed it.  Afterwards I always felt a little rush of excitement when I caught the okra flowering, like I was seeing something secret.  Because I’m a five year old, obviously.  And because growing plants is a magical experience.

This is a traditional pickled okra recipe, similar to what any of your southern grandmothers make or what I spent my childhood eating on the front porch.  Heavily vinegar based, like any pickle, and spicy, this is one of my favorite snacks.  And definitely my favorite way to eat okra.  In other news, this weekend I’ll be submitting a pie into the Cville Pie Fest in Charlottesville, VA.  It’s a pie that is brand spankin’ new and might fail really horribly.  In front of a lot of people.  Come by and watch the fun!

Pickled Okra

4 pounds of fresh okra

6 pint size canning jars with lids and bands

3 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar

3 1/2 cups water

6 tbsp red pepper flakes

12 cloves garlic

2 tbsp salt

6 tsps whole mustard seeds

6 tsps whole cumin seeds

1 jalapeño, sliced

Begin by sterilizing your jars.  About an hour before you want to can fill two large pots with water.  I recommend that you have some canning equipment, at the very least a large pot with a rack and a pair of tongs.  You’ll need a separate pot for sterilizing your jars and lids.  Bring both pots of water to a boil.  In one pot (the one without a lid) place your jars and the lids (not the screw bands).  Allow them to boil for at least 10 minutes, but keep them in the pot until right before you fill them.

In a non reactive sauce pan heat vinegar, water, and salt.

Clean the okra and cut off the stems.  In each sterilized jar, place two cloves of garlic, one slice of jalapeño, 1 tbsp red pepper flakes, 1 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, and as much okra as you can pack in tightly.  Ladle vinegar mixture into each jar, leaving about 1/4″ headspace.  Wipe the rim down, place a clean lid on each jar, and screw band on tightly.  Process in your large pot (with rack) for 10 minutes.  Remove from water, give the band another squeeze, and allow to sit.  Once the jars have sealed (you’ll know if you can’t pop the lid up and down), set them in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks.  They will stay for up to a year.

**As with any preservation process, there are risks.  If you notice anything abnormal, discard the pickles immediately.  Botulism is no fun.**

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Eastern North Carolina Barbeque

Starting a post about one of my favorite foods has left me here, sipping my coffee, for almost an hour.  Where do I begin?  Do I tell you my childhood memories associated with Eastern North Carolina Pulled Pork Barbeque (the only way to eat it, in my opinion)?  Do I talk about pig pickin’s at church gatherings, family functions, neighborhood parties?  Or do I start in the present and talk about how on Saturday I smoked my first pig shoulder, pulled it by hand, and the end result was some of the most delicious barbeque I’ve ever eaten?  How about I cover all of this, starting with a definition of barbeque and what it means to make it Eastern North Carolina style?

(image via)

First off, this is the pig.  If you’re squemish about the fact that your meat comes from animals, now is the time to defect.  And maybe have a reality check because that kind of thinking is disrespectful to the animal that you’re enjoying for dinner.  There are a lot of different types of dishes that come from each cut of the pig, and I’ll just give you a general run down, starting with ham.  Ham is the hind quarters of the pig and I have to say, my least favorite cut.  Maybe it was an over-saturation of ham dinners for special occasions, or the dreaded ham lunchmeat, but I just don’t like ham.  It doesn’t do it for me, and I can’t get myself to like it.  But I’m okay with that because there is plenty left for me on the pig.  The back and middle cut contain your ribs, sausage meat, intestines, and odds and ends.  The belly, which is a very fashionable part of the pig these days, is delicious smoked, cured, etc, and is also the source of the All-American favorite, bacon.  Next up is the best part of the pig, the shoulder.  Commonly referred to as the “butt” or “Boston butt,” the shoulder is the most commonly used cut of the pig for barbeque (when you’re not cooking the whole pig).  It is a tough cut, which requires that it be cooked over low heat for a long time.  This low and slow method is what creates the tender, mouth watering, delicious flavor and texture of barbeque.  But we’ll get to that.  The last cut of the pig is the head, which (believe it or not) is commonly used in stocks, soups, and sometimes even gelatin molds (called head cheese).

So that’s the pig.  Now here’s a little history of my favorite part, barbeque.  It is worth mentioning, up front, that when I say “barbeque” I mean something very, very specific.  I mean pork that has been cooked slowly over low heat/smoke, and basted in a vinegar based sauce.  This is the traditional North Carolina way and around the south you’ll find variations on the kind of sauce but the constant is that “barbeque” is always a noun.  If you go south of, say, Richmond, and expect to get a hamburger when someone invites you over for barbeque, you’ll be mistaken.  For a full run down of the types of barbeque the south has created, see here.  Now, while every state is entitled to sauce its pig however it wants, it is worth noting that the style I’m showing you today, pork slow roasted and basted in a sauce that is made up completely of vinegar, red pepper, salt, and black pepper, is the original American barbeque.  Starting in the coastal colonies, this is how the first pigs were roasted and prepared in what is now the U.S.  And while Eastern North Carolina (roughly parts of the Piedmont and all points East) is the only area that still eats its barbeque this way, it has its roots throughout what was coastal colonial America.

In the south barbequing is an important part of almost all facets of the culture.  From church picnics to swim team meets, the presence of a whole pig roasting all day was an important and expected part of my life.  Cooking a whole pig, or even just smoking a portion of one, is an all day experience, and participating in this experience as a community is amazing.  Last year my Father’s Father’s side of the family, the Rosemonds, had a reunion.  We had a pig pickin’ and the whole day was spent milling around, watching the pork cook, being together.  It’s an excuse to sit around all day and enjoy the people around you.  There is something so liberating about not being able to do anything else or go anywhere because you have to make sure the coals stay hot, you have to baste the meat every half an hour.  And in a society where everything is expected to be instantaneous, where your boneless, skinless chicken breast needs to be finished cooking in under ten minutes so that you can go on to more important things, it is really nice to cook something that you can’t hurry.  That won’t be done until it’s good and ready.  There’s no rushing a smoking pig.

Despite having been present at countless pig pickin’s and barbeques, Saturday was the first day that I made barbeque myself.  Not equipped to cook a whole pig in my small urban backyard, we opted to cook a shoulder on our smoker.  Now the smoker is a special piece of equipment that made it a little easier but is not necessary and the instructions I will give are for cooking a pork shoulder on a regular charcoal grill.  I got off to a late start on Saturday and by the time I had gone to pick up the shoulder (a respectable 6.5 pounds), gotten the coals hot, and prepped the meat, it was 11 a.m.  The shoulder was over the coals by 11.30, and the fun began.  The whole day was spent with me sitting outside, reading, keeping a second set of coals hot (ready to transfer into the smoker), basting the meat, and tantalizing the neighborhood with the sweet smell of hickory.  Many pages read and a few beers later the meat came off the grill at about 8.  It rested for an hour and then I pulled it, sauced it, and served it around 9.30.  And then we ate and fell into a state of total bliss.

Dan checking on the coals. Obviously, I need to invest in manlier oven mitts.

There are a few must-dos when it comes to making barbeque.  For one, charcoal is a necessity.  A lot of the flavor of great barbeque is the smoke taste, specifically the hickory smoke taste.  It adds an element that can’t be recreated by sauces and an electric grill.  If you’re going to go to the trouble of making barbeque, do it right (it’ll be worth it).  The second is that the temperature needs to be very carefully maintained, which is why you really have to hang out next to the grill for the duration.  I can’t over-emphasize how important the “low and slow” mantra is.  To start you’ll get a good little collection of hot charcoals and hickory chunks going, and then every half an hour from then on you’ll need to add 5 or 6 more hot coals, which means having a second pile of charcoal going.  Finally, the meat needs to be juicy.  I’m no fan of dry meat and there are two things you’ll do to prevent that.  The first is that for the first 5 hours or so, you’ll cook it with the meat side down, the fat on top.  This will allow the fat to drip down through the meat, keeping it tender.  Second, every time you add more charcoals you’ll baste.  Combined with a good saucing after you’ve pulled the pork, you’ll have juicy, mouth watering meat.

I’m not one to toot my own horn when I don’t deserve it so when I say this is among the best barbeque I’ve ever had, I’m saying that as objectively as possible.  Smokey, juicy, spicy, vinegary, it was delicious.  Spot on.  Absolutely, finger-lickin’ perfect.  Paired with the North Carolina style cole slaw that I made it was so… home.  It felt like home.

A pig being picked at the Rosemond Family Reunion, August 2010

Eastern North Carolina Barbeque & Coleslaw

Barbeque:

1 6-8 pound pork shoulder

Charcoal

Hickory chunks*

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup red pepper flakes

2 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt, pepper, red pepper for meat prep

Heavy rubber gloves

Cole Slaw:

1 head cabbage

1 red onion

3 carrots

2 celery stalks

1/2 cup  mayonaisse

1 tbsp dried mustard

1 tbsp brown mustard

Salt & pepper

2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tsp red pepper flakes

Barbeque:

*If all you can find are hickory chips you can make packets of hickory in tin foil with slits cut in the bottom.

The day before you would like to smoke, soak your hickory in water.

To smoke a pork shoulder you’ll need a charcoal grill, as well as a space (like a smaller charcoal grill or a pit) to heat additional charcoal.  Get started by heating 12-15 pieces of charcoal in each pile.  On your main grill, you want to create a charcoal circle.  It’s important that the meat not be over direct heat, so you’ll need to create a ring around the edges.  Take a metal bowl, fill it halfway with water, and place that in the center.

While the charcoal is heating, rub your pork shoulder down with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and red pepper.  When your charcoal is gray, add hickory to it, place the pork in the center of the grill, over the bowl of water.  Place the pork on the grill meat side down, so that the fat/skin is on top.  Cover.

Now create your baste.  Mix together cider, red pepper, black pepper, and salt.  Stir well.  Set next to the grill, covered.

Every 30 minutes, you’ll need to transfer hot coals to the grill, 5 or 6 each time.  When you do this, also baste the meat.  After you’ve transferred coals from your secondary station, be sure to replenish it with fresh coals.  Each hour add hickory chunks to your grill.  It is important to carefully monitor your coals.  you want them to be gray and smoking.  Too hot means your meat will overcook, too cool and you’ll be there forever.

You should factor about an hour and a half per pound of meat.  About 6 hours in, it’s time to flip your meat.  This is where the rubber gloves come in.  Grip the meat and carefully turn it over.  Add more coals, baste, cover.  With a 6-7 pound shoulder you’ll be cooking for 9-10 hours.  When your meat has been cooking about 9 hours, you can start testing it for signs that it is done.  For one, when you grip the meat, it should give.  For a more accurate test you can take it’s temperature.  The ideal temperature for your pork to be, at its center, is 155-165.  When it has reached this temperature, you can take it off the grill.  But don’t get out the forks yet, it needs to rest!

Sit the pork in your kitchen and walk away.  It needs to sit for an hour so that the juices can redistribute.

After an hour it’s time to pull the pork.  To start doing this you need to remove the fat.  You can simply cut off the layer of fat on the top.  Next, remove the bone.  The meat should be tender enough that you can simply pull it off the bone.  Now your meat is in large chunks.  Break each chunk down to manageable sizes (that will depend entirely on your pulling style).  Use two forks to literally pull the meat apart into medium size to small chunks.  Place them in a bowl.  This process takes a while.  It’s okay to do it in stages.  As your meat is pulled, you want to add sauce.  Add sauce at your desired rate.  I like my pork a little wet, but not dripping.  The meat will absorb a fair amount of sauce, so go slowly.

Serve with cole slaw, sweet tea, and hush puppies.  This is how it’s done in Eastern North Carolina.

Cole Slaw:

Start by thinly shredding your cabbage.  Next, grate your carrots on one of the smaller sides of a box grater.  Thinly slice your celery and onion.  Combine in a large bowl.  Add red pepper, dried mustard, mayonnaise, brown mustard, and vinegar.  Toss.  Add salt & pepper to taste.

My youngest brother, Ryan, inside a grill big enough to smoke a whole pig

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Balsamic Fig Tarts

In 2004, I started college at the Maryland Institute College of Art.  Four years later, I graduated, moved to D.C. and started preparing for a new life. A few years after that a lot had changed but one thing had become very, very clear- I was not (nor was my husband) a D.C. person.  So we packed up everything and moved back to Baltimore, our new house literally two blocks from my college apartment.  That was in May.  It is now September and MICA has started back up in full force.  Sitting at our favorite college (and post college) haunt yesterday for lunch, watching the overly enthusiastic freshman, the jaded and bitter seniors, and my judgmental husband, I couldn’t help thinking about how MICA shaped me.

Take, for instance, this fig tart.  At one point in my life I probably wouldn’t have touched it with a ten foot pole. Later in life I may have eaten it but I wouldn’t have regarded it in any other way than how I think about burritos or a tomato sandwich (delicious but not necessarily anything to look at).  Yesterday, however, I spent hours with this fig tart.  With each step I would walk the ingredients to my bedroom (the best light on a rainy day) and position the food over and over again, tweaking here and adjusting there, the whole time basking in the glory that is the fig.  Have you every seen something quite as beautiful? Yesterday, I wasn’t sure I had.  Pink on the inside with this gorgeous texture, a lovely contrast between the center and the deep purple outside.  Mentally waxing poetic about this fruit I thought about my experience at art school.  Years of teachers and fellow students “forcing me to reconsider” whatever social issue they were creating about must have rubbed off on me.  Because yesterday, in the midst of using my B.F.A. in photography, I reconsidered a fig.  And then I ate it.

This month the world lost a wonderful soul. Our close family friend, Fred Cates, known to me as Capt’n Fred growing up, was an imaginative story teller, a fierce supporter of banana pudding, and a hell of a man.  He meant a lot to my family, and in turn, to me.  If there is a heaven, I hope he’s up there shootin’ the shit with his wife Lib and my grandparents.  Rest in peace, Capt’n.

Balsamic Fig Tarts

Pie dough (recipe here*)

1 tsp cayenne pepper

6 black mission figs

2 cups goat cheese, crumbled

2 cups balsamic vinegar

Salt

1 egg

*Pie dough substitutions: instead of 3 tbsp sugar, use 1. Also use 1 tbsp salt, and the 1 tsp cayenne pepper listed above

Start by making your balsamic vinegar reduction.  Over very, very low heat, simmer the vinegar for an hour to an hour an a half, or until it has reduced by about half.  Remove from stove and let cool.

Make your pie dough.

Roll our your pie dough into 6 4-5″ rounds.  In the center of the round, spread the balsamic vinegar, about 1 tbsp per round (it will expand in the oven).  Slice your figs and arrange the fig over the vinegar, leaving about 1 1/2″ between the figs and the edge.  Top with goat cheese and a sprinkle of salt.  Fold the edges up over the figs to form the rustic tart.

Whisk your egg until frothy.  Brush the egg over the exposed dough.

Bake at 400 for 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown.

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