My family loves blackberry season. We can’t wait for the blackberries to come in every July so we can start our month-long ritual of berry picking and blackberry jam and cobbler-making. After three bug-bit, thorn-scratched excursions this weekend, we have already picked two gallons of wild blackberries. It’s not really a problem, but the berries are starting to get backed up in my fridge. It’s time to get serious about jam making. So, this week, I’m pulling my canning jars out of the closet and I’ll put up my first batch of low sugar blackberry jam for the summer.
Making pork tamales at home has been on my kitchen to-do list for a long time. Like every re-blooded American, I make salsa, guacamole, tacos, burritos, churros beans and Mexican rice all the time. Tamales, however, always seemed too difficult and time-consuming to bother making. Confronted recently with a rainy cold weekend, I knew that it was time to stop being lazy. I had fresh lard in my fridge that needed to be used and I had just bought some corn husks from the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market. I had also run out of excuses. I decided to make pork tamales with chile verde sauce.
One of my favorite local bakeries, Alon’s, makes one of my all-time favorite sandwiches – the Tunisian Spicy Tuna. It is a combination of quality canned tuna, potato, hard-boiled egg, capers, harissa sauce and, an unusual ingredient, preserved lemon. If you have had Moroccan or North African cuisine, you probably have run into preserved lemons before. You’ll find it as an ingredient in tangines and stews. It is essentially a salty, lemon pickle.
Preserved lemons are whole lemons, sliced open, put into jars, then covered in salt and lemon juice to cure. I’ve seen jars of preserved lemons in gourmet food shops and catalogs. They are laughably expensive, considering how easy they are to make at home.
Here in Decatur, we are a social bunch. My girlfriends and I often get together to share a cocktail or two. Like me, they are pretty adventurous with food and drink so they’re usually up for trying any new cocktail that I throw at them. It’s probably why I love them so much. Months ago, I was out with a few of these friends and we were lamenting the decline of our latest book club. It turns out, that one of the women at the table had a book club that gradually turned into a food and cocktail club. They had just met for a gin tasting. She told us that she had learned a lot about gin and that it had been a lot of fun. We all thought that this sounded like a brilliant twist on our usual neighborhood mom get-togethers. Since I’m Miss Cocktail, it was decided that I needed to be the one to host it.
Feeling the weight of responsibility, I began my research into gin. I found out right away that there were five distinctive styles of gin: London Dry, Plymouth, Old Tom, Dutch or Genever and New American or Western style.
Sometimes, when I talk about an ambitious food project that I’m working on at home, I get the sense that people think I’m crazy. Am I that much of a food freak? Maybe I just have too much time on my hands, but I sincerely love good food and I’ve realized over the years that the best food comes from a certain amount of effort done in my own kitchen. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this. Many of my friends are like-minded – spending a lot of time, energy and love on their food. I hope that you’re one of those people, too.
One thing I love to do is make pies, including my own pie crust. A homemade pie crust has a flavor and texture so superior to a store-bought crust and is so easy to make, that I never even think of buying one. If you have cold butter (and/or lard), flour, salt and sugar, you can have a pie crust dough ready to put in the refrigerator in 10 minutes.
What’s wrong with lard? Nothing. That’s why you should be making lard at home.
In the 60’s & 70’s, everyone knew that butter and lard were full of saturated fats and cholesterol and if you cooked with them, you were just handing out heart attacks on a plate. My Southern mother, being the progressive person that she was, always cooked with Crisco or margarine. Why? Because science told her it was healthy! To us, lard was a bad word, connoting greasy, porky, fatty food. I’m sure the ghosts of our Southern great-grandmothers were collectively rolling their eyes at this. Why? Because as it turns out, switching out manufactured shortenings and fats for natural fats was a huge mistake. It turns out lard is a healthful fat!
How healthful? Lard contains less saturated fat than butter, is mostly a mono-saturated fat (the good kind of fat), has no trans fats and has a high smoke point, making it ideal for frying. If it is naturally rendered, it is free of artificial colorings, flavoring or additives. It is also has an incomparable taste in a pie crust or a tamale. It’s really no wonder that chefs have rediscovered cooking with lard as a return to natural whole foods.