I'm P.C., and I have studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France have broadened my culinary skill and palate. But my kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.

I live, mostly in my kitchen, in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Debris Po’ Boys

Debris Po BoyMardi Gras is almost upon us, so it’s time to talk Po’ Boys. Traditionally, the story goes, the Debris po’ boy (pronounced DAY-bree in this case) was made from the leftover bits and pieces left behind from carving a roast, soaked in the gravy and meat juices. But I don’t generally have enough leftover roast beef to serve a crowd, and besides, debris is just too good to wait for leftovers. So I make this version in the slow cooker, to get the slow roasted flavor and lots of juices to turn into gravy. It is a very fun celebratory meal, letting everyone assemble their own po boy.

The bread for a po’ boy is obviously a key part of the overall experience. In New Orleans, po’ boy bread is a thing unto itself – made by local bakeries it is soft in the center with a crust that is not overly hard or chewy. Outside Louisiana, it’s a little hard to find real po’ boy bread, so you have to do you’re best. I find typical French bread too chewy so I tend to go for a hoagie roll or Mexican bollilo rolls. If you have a bakery in the area that supplies rolls for a Vietnamese bahn mi place or a Vietnamese grocery, that version of French bread is pretty close. Split the rolls or loaves and lightly toast.

Debris Po Boys
Serves 8
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Ingredients
  1. 4 stalks celery
  2. 3 carrots
  3. 2 onions
  4. 1 green bell pepper
  5. 10 cloves garlic
  6. 3 bay leaves
  7. 3 sprigs thyme
  8. 5 pounds bottom round beef roast (in two pieces is fine)
  9. Creole seasoning (I like Tony Chachere’s)
  10. 1 (12-ounce) bottle dark beer (I use Abita Turbo Dog)
  11. 1 cup beef broth
  12. 1 teaspoon corn starch
  13. Creole Spread
  14. ¾ cup mayonnaise
  15. ¼ cup Creole mustard (I like Zatarain’s)
  16. 2 teaspoons honey
  17. 1 teaspoon hot sauce (I like Crystal)
  18. 6 French bread rolls or hoagie rolls
  19. provolone cheese
  20. shredded lettuce
Instructions
  1. Place the celery, carrots and onions in the bottom of an 8-quart slow cooker. Stem and seed the bell pepper and add it to the crock with the garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Generously coat both sides of the beef roast with creole seasoning, rubbing it into the meat. Place the meat on top of the vegetables in the slow cooker.
  2. Pour in the beer and beef broth, cover and cook over low heat for eight hours. Remove the meat from the slow cooker to a deep rimmed platter or bowl. Pour the liquid from the slow cooker through a strainer into a large saucepan. Discard the solids. Let the juices settle, then skim off the fat. Bring the liquid to a boil and boil for about 5 minutes, until it is slightly reduced.
  3. While the liquid is boiling, shred the beef. Cut away any fat or gristle, then use two forks to pull the meat into shreds.
  4. Put the cornstarch onto a small bow and whisk in a few tablespoons of cooking liquid and whisk until completely smooth. Whisk the cornstarch mixture back into the juices and continue cooking for 2 -3 more minutes.
  5. Rinse out the slow cooker crock and return the meat to it. Pour over the juices and keep warm until ready to serve.
For the Creole Spread
  1. Whisk together the mayo, mustard, honey and hot sauce. This can be done up to a day ahead, covered and kept in the fridge.
  2. To serve, split the rolls and lightly toast on a cookie sheet in the oven. Spread on side of the bread with the creole spread. Use tongs to pile the beef onto the bread, then top the hot meat with a slice of cheese, then layer with shredded lettuce.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Habitant Pea Soup in the Slow Cooker

Habitant Pea SoupLast fall, over a year ago now its hard to believe, I set out on a book tour to share Pimento Cheese The Cookbook (available at your local bookstore or online now) throughout the South, tasting all sorts of local specialties along the way. I drove myself for the whole tour, so I spent a lot of time in the car listening to public radio and a few podcasts. One program I was listening to had a Canadian chef expounding the virtues of Habitant Pea Soup, a traditional Canadian dish I’d never heard of before. Maybe I was in the mood for some home cooked food, or the weather was turning cold or just the enthusiasm of the chef, but the story piqued my interest. And the story of this chef exploring the origins of the soup as a piece of Canadian heritage was fascinating. (If I remembered where I heard it I’d post a link!). He deduced that this was a dish made by the original European explorers out of their meager stores, and that it had remained in the Canadian culinary canon. When I got I home, I did a little research and came up with my own version of the soup, cooked in the slow cooker for simplicity.

Habitant Pea Soup is as comforting and homey as I thought it would be. The split peas, an ingredient I had only used in Indian cooking before, add a nice richness and creaminess to the soup, and the use of a ham hock and a little salt pork keep the soup from being plain or boring. In my research, I found a couple of different ideas. I settle on this version for ease of preparation, but one recipe suggested shredding the ham meat and crisping in a skillet and serving on top of the soup, rather than stirred through. I like that. Some suggested topping the soup with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche. I like that too. I can definitely imagine this warming up the original explorers on a cold Canadian night.

Habitant Pea Soup in the Slow Cooker
Serves 6
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Ingredients
  1. 16 ounces yellow split peas
  2. 1 ham hock (about 14 ounces)
  3. 6 ounces salt pork
  4. 1 medium onion, finely diced
  5. 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  6. 1 carrot, finely diced
  7. 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  8. 6 -7 sprigs of thyme
  9. 2 bay leaves
Instructions
  1. Spread the split peas on the bottom of a 7- 8 quart slow cooker. Place the ham hock and salt pork on top, then the onion, celery and carrot. Pour over the chicken broth. Do not stir. Drop in the thyme sprigs (count how many stems so you can remove them later) and the bay leaves. Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 7 hours.
  2. Remove the salt pork, thyme stems and bay leaves and discard. Remove the ham hock to a plate and pull the meat off the bone using two forks. If needed, dice the hock meat into bite size pieces. Return the meat to the slow cooker, cover and cook a further 30 minutes.
  3. Serve warm, topped with sour cream of crème fraiche if you like.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Slow Cooker Spiced Pecans

Slow Cooker Spiced Pecans

Spiced and seasoned roasted nuts are a great pleasure. The problem I’ve always encountered was baking them in the oven without burning them, or at least some of the nuts on the baking sheet. Nuts contain flavorful oils that can scorch easily. I’ve come across several recipes for cooking nuts in the slow cooker and the idea made total sense to me. Large quantities without the fear of burning. So I adapted a favorite seasoning mixture to the slow cooker method and it has become a favorite. Stirring the nuts into a seasoned butter right in the crock is simple, and the even heat brings out the flavor of the pecans and prevents burning. While this is not a totally hands-off slow cooker recipe, it is easy to have these going while you attend to other tasks. Set a timer for 30 minutes and give them a stir.

This recipe makes a big batch of nuts, so there are plenty to wrap up and give away and still have lots to snack on. These will also keep for several weeks in an airtight container, which makes them particularly handy for holiday gifts or drop-in guests.

Slow Cooker Spiced Pecans
Yields 2
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Ingredients
  1. 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
  2. ½ cup granulated sugar
  3. ½ cup light brown sugar
  4. 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  5. 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  6. 1 teaspoon black pepper
  7. ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  8. a few dashes cayenne pepper to taste
  9. 2 pounds pecan halves
Instructions
  1. Spray the crock of slow cooker with cooking spray and turn the cooker to high. Cut the butter into pieces and place it in the slow cooker and cover. Cook for 15 minutes until the butter is melted. Stir in the sugars and spices until combined, then stir in the pecans until they are all well coated. Cover the slow cooker and cook for 2 hours, stirring well every 30 minutes, then uncover the cooker and cook for a further hour, stirring frequently.
  2. Spread the pecans on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Taste one and if you think it needs more salt, sprinkle some over. As the nuts cool, separate any clusters with a fork.
  3. Once cool, these will keep in an airtight container for up to a month.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Indian Spiced Butternut Soup in the Slow Cooker

Indian Spiced Butternut Soup in the Slow Cooker

It’s a cold, wintry day. I’m on the sofa with a good book and a soft blanket while my house fills with the smell of warm spices. I know that I’ll have a delicious bowl of rich, flavorful soup for dinner. This is my favorite winter scenario and this soup is a favorite way to make it a reality. The slow cooker does most of the work, simmering the squash to perfection while the spices infuse the soup. But this is a great soup to come home to as well. Put it together in the morning and your house will be warm and inviting with dinner waiting when you come home.

A little chopping is all it takes to put this delicious soup together, and I’ll tell you that I happily buy pre-chopped squash at a busy supermarket where it doesn’t sit around too long. An apple adds a bit of sweetness, while ginger adds a little zing. A good dose of Indian inflected curry powder and garam masala add so much flavor and spice without to much work, and coconut milk adds richness. I love this soup served with a dollop of rich yogurt swirled in and a little chopped cilantro for freshness. Some soft, warm naan on the side is a nice treat.

Indian Spiced Butternut Soup in the Slow Cooker
Serves 6
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Ingredients
  1. 32 ounces cubed butternut squash (about 6 cups, from about 2 medium squash)
  2. 1 green apple, cut into chunks
  3. 1 onion, cut into eights
  4. 3 cloves of garlic
  5. thumbnail-length piece of ginger, chopped
  6. 1 Tablespoon curry powder
  7. 1 teaspoon garam masala
  8. 1 teaspoon cumin
  9. 1 teaspoon salt
  10. 4 cups (32-ouncs box) vegetable broth
  11. 1 (13.6-ounce) can coconut milk
  12. yogurt and chopped cilantro to top
Instructions
  1. Combine the squash, apple, onion, garlic and ginger in the crock of an 8 quart slow cooker. Sprinkle over the spices and stir to coat. Pour in the broth and the coconut milk, stir to combine and cover the pot. Cook on high for five hours or low for eight, until the vegetables are completely tender. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup until completely smooth.
  2. Serve immediately with a dollop of plain yogurt and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro on top.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Slow Cooker Southern Black-Eyed Peas

Slow Cooker Black-Eyed Peas

I feel very strongly about the importance of eating black-eyed peas on New Years day to ensure luck for the coming year (and greens for prosperity). But New Years Day is also not always a day I want to be slaving over the stove. Peas and greens are generally pretty hands off foods, but this has got to be the simplest recipe around for getting your dose of good luck with a nice punch of flavor. I only use the slow cooker, so no extra pots are necessary. Pre-chopped, frozen vegetables and canned tomatoes make this an even simpler prep, but the spices and cured pork add deep, rich flavor.

Start this in the morning to have for dinner, or cook it overnight for a nice lunch. Scoop it as is into generous bowls, or serve it over rice or grits. Some Cast Iron Collards served on the top would make a one bowl meal full of good things for the New Year.

Slow Cooker Southern Black-Eyed Peas
Serves 6
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Ingredients
  1. ¼ cup (½ stick) butter
  2. 10 ounces frozen vegetable seasoning mix (onion, green peppers, celery)
  3. 1 piece of cured pork (about 5 ounces) – country ham shank, ham hock, smoked ham, salt pork
  4. 1 pound dried black-eyed peas
  5. 4 cups chicken broth
  6. 1 (15 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  7. 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  8. ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  9. ½ teaspoon celery salt
  10. ½ teaspoon black pepper
  11. 1 jalapeno pepper
  12. 4 cloves garlic, peeled
Instructions
  1. Cut the butter into pieces and place it in the slow cooker set to high until it begins to melt. Add the vegetables and pork, cover and cook for 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft and the butter is melted. Add the peas, broth, 2 cups water and tomatoes and stir well. Stir in the paprikas, celery salt and pepper. Drop the whole pepper and the garlic cloves into the pot and cover.
  2. Cook the peas on high for 5 hours or low for 8 hours until the peas are tender. Discard the pork and the jalapeno and serve. If using ham hock or smoked ham, you can shred the meat and stir it into the peas.
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Slow Cooker Creamy Corn with Bacon, Green Onions and Bourbon

Southern Slow Cooker Creamy Corn with Bacon, Green Onions and Bourbon

My family has a farm in Arkansas, rice and soybeans mostly, but a few other crops. One year, when I was maybe ten or twelve, my dad and a fellow farmer decided to experiment with corn. So on a little corner of the farm, they planted a couple of varieties. When it came in, he brought home paper grocery sacks of corn all summer. My mother spent that summer shucking corn and using it in every kind of recipe she could think of. We ate corn every single day. The problem was, it was never very good. Little kernels, pale and tough. But my mama sure did keep trying and we did our best to support her. One day, Daddy was out at the farm, picking some corn and putting it in his paper grocery sack and his fellow farmer asked what in the world he’s doing. Well, turns out my dad, bless his heart, had been picking corn from the end of the field that was grown as feed corn – not the good eating corn from the other end. Of course, by the time he figured it out, the season was pretty much over. We don’t grow corn anymore.

Fresh corn is one of my very favorite things about summer. I wait for the season all year and really make the most of it when it arrives. I buy freshly picked cobs by the armful at the farmers market. I blanch and strip those kernels and freeze them in little bags to enjoy all winter. I can fresh corn relish. I use it in cool summer salads. And of course I eat it straight off the cob, boiled or grilled and smothered with butter.

Sometimes I do go over board. I buy so much corn, I just can’t get it dealt with quickly, so there are some cobs in the fridge for a few days. They are still good, but not as fresh and tender and sweet as those right out of the field. So they sometimes need a little help. I found myself in this predicament one day and remembered a recipe for crockpot corn scribbled on a scrap of paper. I dug it out of the files, but decided I could do better. Take that basic creamy corn recipe and really give it some style. Green onions, bourbon and hot sauce zazz it up, but is deliciously creamy and tender.

You can cut the corn from the cobs right into the slow cooker and avoid the mess of flying kernels (just be careful if the cooker is hot). And of course, you can use frozen corn when the fresh is not in season. But whatever you do, make sure the corn was intended for good eating and not for the pigs.

Slow Cooker Creamy Corn with Bacon, Green Onions and Bourbon
Serves 6
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Ingredients
  1. 5 strips bacon, cooked until crisp
  2. 3 Tablespoons bacon grease
  3. 2 Tablespoons butter
  4. 7 – 8 green onions, white and light green parts, finely chopped
  5. 1 clove garlic, minced
  6. 6 – 8 ears of corn (about 5 cups kernels, or 1 ½ pounds)
  7. ½ cup milk
  8. 8 ounces cream cheese
  9. 2 Tablespoons bourbon
  10. 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  11. 1 teaspoon black pepper
  12. 1 teaspoon hot sauce
Instructions
  1. Place the bacon grease and butter on the bottom of a 5 – 7 quart slow cooker, turn it on high, cover and leave for about 5 minutes until the butter melts. Add the chopped green onions and minced garlic, cover, and leave for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft. Reduce the heat to low.
  2. Add the corn, cream cheese cut into cubes, milk, bourbon, salt, pepper and hot sauce and give it a good stir. Cover the crockpot and cook for 3 ½ hours.
  3. Chop the bacon strips into small pieces and stir through the corn. Cover and continue cooking for 30 minutes.
  4. Serve immediately
The Runaway Spoon http://therunawayspoon.com/blog/

Simple Slow Cooker Tomato Soup

Simple Slow Cooker Tomato Soup

I have ditched canned soups for good.

First off, I love making soup from scratch.  There is something warm and comforting about having a big pot simmering on the stove, or knowing there some in the fridge that just needs to be heated and you’ve got instant comfort.  I don’t think the can is an equal match – it is a poor substitute for something that can be so easily made fresh.  Sure, opening a can is quick, but making this soup is as quick and easy as it gets.  Maybe a few minutes more works, but the pay-off is light years ahead.  No unpronounceable ingredients, not metallic aftertaste, no unnecessary added sodium. The slow-cooker and some ready prepared ingredients make it a snap to have fresh, flavorful soup with ingredients you chose, seasoned the way you like.

Tomato soup is my all-time favorite, perfect with a grilled cheese or crusty bread.  If I am industrious, in the summer when tomatoes are fresh, I make lots of tomato soup base for the freezer.  This is my winter version of that.  Minutes to make and hugely adaptable.  You can whip this up before you go to bed and have soup ready for the thermos or the fridge when you wake up.  You can make it before you go to work while you are getting breakfast ready and dressed for the day, then have a warm bowl of soup waiting when you get home.  I’ve listed some ideas on how to change up this recipe, but use your imagination to make the perfect soup for your family.

Simple Slow Cooker Tomato Soup

Make sure your vegetables and tomatoes have no added ingredients

¼ cup ( ½ stick) unsalted butter

1 (12-ounce) package frozen carrots, celery and onions (“mirepoix blend”), thawed and drained

2 teaspoons minced garlic (freshly minced or from a jar)

2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

1 (32-ounce) box low-sodium chicken broth

5 sprigs fresh thyme

5 sprigs fresh oregano

salt and pepper to taste

½ cup heavy cream (optional)

Cut the butter into small pieces and place in the crock of a 7-quart slow cooker.  Partially cover and leave for a few minutes to melt.  Add the vegetables and garlic, stir to coat with the butter, cover the slow cooker and leave to soften, about 20 minutes.

Pour the tomatoes and broth into the slow cooker and stir to combine.  Tie the sprigs of thyme and oregano together with kitchen twine to make a neat little bundle.  It is okay if leaves come off, but you don’t want stems in your soup.  Tuck the herb bundle into the soup, cover the slow cooker and cook for 5 – 6 hours on high, or 7 – 8 hours on low.

When ready to serve, fish out the herb bundle and discard.  Use an immersion blender to purée the soup until smooth (you can also do it carefully in batches in a blender).  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  If you want a creamier soup, stir in the heavy cream and leave to warm through.

Serves 6 – 8

Variations:

Add 1 Tablespoon curry powder to the vegetables, omit the herbs, and stir in ½ cup coconut milk instead of heavy cream

Add a small can of chopped green chiles to the vegetables, omit the herbs.

Stir in a can of rinsed and drained cannellini beans 20 minutes before the end of cooking time and warm through

Stir in some cooked pasta or rice at the end of cooking until warmed through

30 minutes before the cooking time ends, stir in some finely chopped spinach and cook until wilted and warmed through.

Add 2 Tablespoons vodka and replace the thyme and oregano with dill.

Rosemary Pear Butter

As autumn approaches, I start to feel a little panicky about the end of farmers market season.  I spend a huge amount of time in the summer preserving the bounty, through canning and freezing my favorite produce.  But when I start to realize that my source for all that fresh, local goodness is going into hibernation, I fret and worry.  My Saturday ritual will come to an end, and my weekday market trips will be over.  I’ll feel at loose ends, disjointed.  I won’t be quite ready to give up my canning habit, but also not quite ready to dig into my summer stockpile.  I’ll wait for the cold weather to really start.  In fact, when I am putting up squash and green beans and peaches, I often think of how good they will be at Thanksgiving.

Fall pears are my salvation.  My last gasp at famers market love. As the market season winds down, I find wonderful little hard green pears.  These gems are perfect for preserving, and the most rewarding and simplest way to do this is in the slow cooker.  A dash of local honey and the woodsy, surprising note of rosemary create a rich, comforting spread. This pear butter is decadent  on a piece of toast or a warm biscuit, but my favorite use is in combination with a soft, creamy cheese like brie, camembert or taleggio and some salty meat, like bacon, country ham or prosciutto, layered on a baguette or toasted in a panini.  Make a batch now and tuck it away, because this will take your post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich to a new level. And what an amazing hostess gift if you are not holding the big dinner.  I have even spread this pear butter on a pizza base and topped it with goat cheese and prosciutto, maybe some sliced red onion.  Its uses are endless, and all the possibilities are delicious.  I preserve corn and tomatoes for a little summer in the winter, but it is equally as nice to have some fall flavor around in the spring.

Rosemary Pear Butter

The recipe easily doubles, but the second cooking time to reduce to butter may be a bit longer.

2 ½ pounds hard green pears

1 cup white granulated sugar

¼ cup honey

8 – 9 stalks fresh, fragrant rosemary

Core the pears, remove the stems and cut into eighths. Place the pears in the crock of a slow cooker as you slice, and when you’ve put in half the pears, sprinkle half the sugar in an even layer over the pears so all the exposed sides are covered.  Add the rest of the pears and sugar, making sure that any exposed pear flesh is coated in sugar.  This will prevent oxidation, which can affect the taste.  Cover the crock and leave for 5- 6 hours.  The pears will begin to release their juices, so you should have a nice amount accumulated at the bottom of the crock.

Drizzle in the honey and stir to coat the pears. Cover the crock, turn the slow cooker on low and cook the pears for 10 – 12 hours, which I do overnight.

When this cooking time is finished the pears will be dark brown and fragrant.  Remove the lid from the slow cooker and use an immersion blender to puree the pear butter. Tie the rosemary up in cheesecloth to create a nice little bundle that no rosemary needles can escape (I find a never-used, new knee high stocking is a great tool for this).   Submerge the rosemary bundle into the pear puree.  Leave the lid off the cooker and continue to cook on high for 2 – 4 hours stirring occasionally, until the butter has reached a thick, spreadable consistency.  To check this, spoon out a little of the butter and leave it to cool somewhat.  If it’s thick and spreadable and no thin liquid seeps out, it’s done.

Spoon the hot butter into hot, sterile jars and seal (see below). Process in a water-bath canner for 10 minutes.

Makes 2 half-pint jars, with a little leftover for immediate use

Here is how I can jams and butters:  Place canning jars and the metal rings (but not the lids with the rubber seal) in the dishwasher and run the cycle.  There can be other things in the dishwasher.  Timing here is important, as you want the dishes to be done when you are ready to can.  Right before you can, soak the rubber-ringed lids in hot water to soften the rubber. You want to remove the jars and rings from the dishwasher while they are still hot. Spoon your hot butter (or jam etc.) into the hot jar, leaving about ½-inch headroom, put on the lid and screw on the rings.

You can let the jars cool and store them in the fridge for a few months, but I prefer to process them in a hot-water canner for longer storage, and to make them shelf stable for gift giving.  To do this, bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil.  The pot needs to be tall enough that the jars will be covered by water when submerged.  If you do a lot of canning, a canning kettle with a rack is a great tool.  If you don’t have one, fold up a tea towel and place it on the bottom of your chosen pot then fill with water.  The towel will protect the jars.  Carefully lower the jars into the boiling water (a cheap jar-lifter is the best tool for this), cover the pot and process for 10 minutes.  Uncover the pot, turn off the heat and let the jars rest in the water for five minutes.  Remove the jars from the water and place on a tea towel on the counter to cool for 24 hours.  At some point, you should hear the lovely ping of the jars sealing.  To check if a jar has sealed, lightly run your finger over the lid, if it is flat with no springy indentation, it has sealed.  To check this, remove the ring and lift the jar by the lid.  If it stays put, you’re safe.  Store the jars in a cool place. If they don’t seal, store in the fridge.

Once opened, store in the fridge use up the jar as quickly as possible.

Here are step-by step instructions for processing jam in a canner.

The processed jars will keep for a year in a cool, dark place. Don’t forget to label your jars!

You might also like a Rosemary Pear Martini

Fig, Bourbon and Vanilla Bean Jam

Canning is a new passion for me.  I’ve had fits and starts about it over the years, lots of failures, lots of time spent making jams or relishes only to forget about them and never use them. But after all that trial and error, I have finally got the knack of it and have had mostly successes, and a great deal of enjoyment from what I have produced.  I have even gained the confidence to experiment with my own concoctions, and this is one of my favorites.  It’s rich with figs, set off with the warmth of vanilla and a depth from the bourbon.

I like using the slow cooker for making this.  It is pretty hands off, and clean-up is relatively easy.  This method is also a little forgiving as it will stay at temperature and there doesn’t need to be that frantic rushing to fill the jars at just the right moment.  I also use an immersion blender for this, but if you don’t have one, chop the figs smaller and try a potato masher or a really sturdy spoon to mash up the figs. You will get a slightly chunkier product.

I love this jam on an English muffin.  And fresh, warm buttermilk biscuits – oh lordy.  But this is also a very sophisticated accompaniment to a cheese and charcuterie tray.  It makes a great glaze for pork roast, or serve some on the side.  And of course, it is gorgeous in my Blue Cheese and Fig Savories.  This makes quite a few jars, but it’s worth it since there are so many uses for the jam.  And what an elegant gift!

Fig, Bourbon and Vanilla Bean Jam

3 ½ pounds brown fresh figs, like Celeste or Brown Turkey

2 ¾ pounds granulated sugar

6 Tablespoon lemon juice

5 Tablespoons bourbon

1 vanilla bean

First, place a small ceramic plate in the freezer.  You’ll use this this to test the set of the jam later. Then get your jars clean.  You will need nine half-pint mason jars.  I clean the jars and the rings in the dishwasher, and leave them in there with the door closed to stay warm.  You can’t put the lids in the dishwasher, it will ruin them.

Quarter the figs, cutting any larger ones into eights and place in the crock of a 6 quart slow cooker.  Add the sugar, the lemon juice and the bourbon and toss to coat. Cover the slow cooker and cook the figs for 2 hours on high. The figs will become nice and syrupy.  Remove the top from the cooker, and using a stick blender, puree the figs until you have a smooth texture with a few small chunks.  Split the vanilla bean open and scrape the seeds into the figs, then drop in the bean. Give the mixture a good stir, then continue to cook the jam, uncovered, for 4 -5 more hours, stirring occasionally.

When the jam has cooked down and is thickened, pull that little plate out of the freezer and spoon a little jam onto it.  Leave to set for a minute, then tilt the plate.  If the jam stays put, or only runs a little bit, it’s ready to go. Also, run a finger through the jam on the plate if the two sides stay separate and don’t run back together, you’re good to go.

While you jam is cooking, get a boiling water canner or big stockpot of water going.  Here are step-by step instructions for processing jam in a canner.  When the jam is almost ready, pour some boiling water over the lids to your jars to soften the seals and set aside.

When the jam has met the set test, turn off the slow cooker. Remove the vanilla bean. I like to ladle the jam into a large measuring jug for easy pouring. Fill each of your warm, cleaned jars with the jam, leaving a ½ inch head space.  Dry the lids with a clean paper towel and place on the jars.  Screw on the bands, then process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.  If you have a bit of extra jam, scoop it into a refrigerator container and keep in the fridge for up to a week.

When the jars are processed, leave to cool on a towel on the counter.

The processed jars will keep for a year in a cool, dark place.  Don’t forget to label your jars!

Makes 9 (1/2pint) jars

Charro Beans

I’ll be honest, I don’t actually know the history of Cinco de Mayo, I just know it’s a perfect excuse for a slap-up Mexican meal, and that is always a good thing.  And there is something so friendly and communal about a Mexican feast.  It’s a great way to gather friends and family, its interactive eating that everyone can enjoy. So for your own celebration, serve up some Smoky Beef Tacos or Green Chicken Chilaquiles, along with a side of Charro Beans.  Start your party off with some Green Chile Cheese Puffs.  And of course, don’t forget the Fresh Citrus Margaritas!

I have found some gorgeous red kidney beans at my local Latin/Asian/Caribbean/Middle Eastern supermarket from Guatemala called Frijol Pilay, but look for any dark burgundy, plump beans. Epazote is a popular dried herb in Mexican cooking, and I have been told that not only does it improve the flavors of beans, it aids in their digestion – and some of the impolite side affects. You’ll find it in the herb and spice section of Latin markets, but I pick it up at Penzey’s.  Mexican oregano has a more distinct flavor than standard (usually Turkish) oregano and is worth having around if you cook a lot of Latin dishes. My favorite restautant charro beans come with diced pieces of jalapeno floating in the broth, but I prefer a halved, cleaned pepper in to flavor the cooking liquid, instead of biting into pieces.  Do what you like, and add another pepper if you like it spicy.

Mexican chorizo is a soft, well-seasoned sausage (Spanish chorizo is hard and dry).  I buy freshly prepared at the Latin market, but it is readily available at many grocery stores.  It can range from mild to spicy, and if it’s labeled, choose mild so you can monitor your own flavor level.

Charro Beans

3 cups dried red kidney beans

1 small onion, diced

1 teaspoon epazote (optional)

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 jalapeno pepper, stem, seeds and ribs removed

5 cloves garlic

Handful cilantro (stems and leaves)

1 pound fresh Mexican chorizo, casings removed if necessary

6 strips bacon, cut into small pieces

Sort through the beans and pick out any that are shriveled or imperfect.  Soak the dried beans in 6 cups of water, uncovered, overnight. The next day, drain the beans, rinse well and place in the crock of a large slow-cooker.  Add 6 cups of water, the diced onion, epazote, oregano, jalapeno pepper and garlic cloves and stir well.  Cover the crock and turn the pot to high, 6 hour setting.

When the beans are halfway cooked (3 hours), sauté the chorizo until brown, breaking it up into small pieces.  Remove to a heavy layer of paper towels on a plate to drain using a slotted spoon.  Drain off the oil, then sauté the bacon pieces until crispy.  Remove the bacon to paper towels to drain.  Pat the chorizo to remove as much grease as possible.  With a good chorizo, it will be bright red, so try not to stain your clothes.  Add the chorizo and bacon to the beans in the slow cooker, stir, replace the cover and continue cooking until the beans are tender.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can cook the soaked beans in a large Dutch oven over low-heat for 2 – 3 hours until tender.  Check the beans occasionally and stir to prevent scorching on the bottom, adding water as needed.

Serves 8- 10