August 09, 2010

Pickled watermelon rind


In a few days, I'm getting on a plane.

While I'm not flying to Chicago this time, my last flying experience made me think.  Not trying to be morbid, but the one thing that kept popping into my head when we were delayed with engine trouble was this: Great. I'm gonna die in a plane crash today and the last thing I ate was a gluten-free Larabar and a cup of coffee. That is bullshit. 

What happened to me?

I used to be the traveler that other travelers envied and also sometimes probably despised.  While they were stuck with their bag of airline-issued pretzels and flat Sprite with fecal-infused ice, I'd be the one setting up my little bento box of charcuterie, vegetables, and fruit.  While they hauled on offensive-smelling bags of gristle and poo from Burger King, I'd nosh on smoked almonds, candied walnuts, cheese, and dark chocolate.

But lately it seems I've gotten lazy about my pre-travel food prep ritual.  And with celiac, there are no gluten-free food options in airports or on airplanes, so I have to be diligent about bringing my own snacks.

So, I decided to kick myself in the ass and make something from the Alinea cookbook to take on the plane for this trip.  After poring over the pages, drooling over some of the options, I decided to make the pickled watermelon rind from "Ayu, kombu, fried spine, sesame" on page 97 of the book.

Something in my body is changing and evolving because I can't seem to stop pickling things this summer.  First it was green beans with dill.  Then, I expanded to doing green beans with fennel seed, or clover and mustard seed.  I pickled chard stems.  I pickled cherries.  I pickled fennel.  I pickled grapes.  All this from the girl who, a year ago, gagged at the mere thought of eating anything in a vinegary brine.

With a seedless watermelon from the farmer's market already on my kitchen counter, I got to work. I had to change the amounts in the recipe to accommodate the larger quantity of rind I'd be pickling, but this is so incredibly easy, I hope you'll try it.  Watermelon pickles are soooooo good, and this whole process took all of 20 minutes.

I cut open the watermelon:



I scooped out the flesh and saved it for later (actually, I've been eating it all week and MAN is it good).

I sliced the halves into crescents and then cut the crescents into strips (easier to remove the green bit of the rind that way):


I removed the outer green rind, and the rest of the red flesh, leaving only planks of the white and pink rind, which I cut into smaller pieces (about 1" square):




The brine is easy:

200g water (just under 1 cup)

200g rice vinegar (just under 1 cup)

150g sugar (3/4 cup)

Heat all three in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, add the watermelon rind pieces, turn off the stove burner, and let the rind sit in the brine until it comes to room temperature (about an hour).


You can eat them right away, but they're even better 3, 4, 10 days out.  After mine had cooled to room temperature, I put them in a mason jar with as much brine as would fit, closed the lid nice and tight, and stored them in the refrigerator (which is where they'll stay until I'm done eating them).


I'm totally stoked to be able to take a little container of these on the plane with me for a snack.  Bet no one else will have anything this good in their carry on.  (Watch.  Freakin' Ferran AdriĆ  will be on my flight, and will whip out some sort of avant-garde Chex Mix and put me to shame.)

When you travel, whether by car, train, or plane, do you bring your own snacks?  What do you make?  What do you avoid?

Edited to add: I'll be carrying these on the plane in a small container, no brine.  No TSA agent is gonna make me throw away these beauties.

Resources: Seedless watermelon from the 14th and U Street Farmers Market; Domino sugar; Marukan rice vinegar.

Music to Pickle Things To: You guys, I am such a dork. I've begun what will likely be a year-long process of cleaning up my iTunes.  Getting rid of music I downloaded on a whim and realized I don't like.  Reorganizing my playlists.  Listening to all the music I already have and downloading more from artists I love.  Correcting typos in track listings (yes. dork.).  Making sure all songs in albums are labeled in the correct order so I can listen to them in the way they were intended to be heard (again. dork. I KNOW.).  This is all a very long way of telling you I listened to a lot of Adam Ant while I was pickling this watermelon rind.  I'd forgotten how much I love "Desperate But Not Serious," "Friend or Foe," and "Strip."  I saw Adam live at the old 930 Club in DC in 1989 and had a great time at the show (despite the rabid fan who pushed his way to the stage to show Adam the full back tat he had done of Adam looking over this guy's baby daughter, which, creepy).  It was good to listen to his music again.  And how fitting is the chorus of "Antmusic" when it comes to my music reorganization project: "So unplug the jukebox and do us all a favor, that music's lost its taste so try another flavor."

Read My Previous Post: Shellfish Sponge, horseradish, celery, gooseberry

October 22, 2009

Finding Crab Apples

Remember how helpful and supportive my mom was with my whole eucalyptus-magnolia confusion?

Well, she totally redeemed herself in my quest to find crab apples.  Yay, mom!

When I was in Madison, Wisconsin, I had a chance to go to their farmers market, which, may I say, WOW.  Hundreds of vendors, beautifully organized, hot coffee at the ready, cheese and other items for sampling, hot food carts at key points around the perimeter, good company on the stroll around the square... it's an incredible market, and I'm totally jealous.

On my walk from the hotel to the market early that cool and drizzly Saturday morning, my mind wandered to the tasks ahead of me that week both for work and for this blog, and I thought: It's October, I bet someone will have crab apples.  My flight was in just a few hours, so I figured I'd buy some, stash them in my suitcase, and hope they survived the trip home.  But I didn't know how many crab apples I needed; couldn't remember if I needed one pound, four pounds, eight bushels, twelve tons, or just three wee apples.

My parents were traveling, so I couldn't call them to ask them to check their copy of the Alinea cookbook.  My neighbor was minivans-deep in her kids' soccer practices, so I couldn't have her run across the street to my house and look it up for me.  Just before putting out an APB on Twitter, I texted my friend, Brad, who I knew would have his copy of the book nearby.

Of course, my text message woke him up (because it was 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and man, that was jerky of me to call so dang early), but he quite gamely looked it up, and texted back: 2 lbs.  Turned out no one at the market had crab apples, so I woke up Brad for no reason.  Whoopsie.  On to plan B.

I was going back to Pennsylvania to babysit my nephew that next weekend, so I called my mom a day or so beforehand to see if 1) the crab apple tree in our old house's backyard was still there, 40 years later; 2) there was anyone in town who had a crab apple tree I could pick from; or 3) there was still a crab apple tree at the orchard our uncle used to own.

She told me there was a crab apple tree on the wooded property behind their house (I hadn't known about that one!), but that the deer had already gotten to it, so that was a no go.  She didn't know if the crab apple tree at our old house was still there, so, she said she'd check over at the orchard, and let me know.

As I was driving up their way that next Saturday morning, she called to say that there was, indeed, still a crab apple tree at the orchard, and that the woman she spoke to there said I was more than welcome to come by and pick whatever I wanted.  So I did.


Just a mile or two from my parents' house, is Forge Hill Orchards, which used to belong to my great uncle.  I have such fond and vivid memories of this place.  Smells.  Sounds.  Watching my grandfather and cousins help the crew sort and pick out the bad apples on the conveyor belt.  Feeling the fuzz on a fresh-picked peach.  Eating nectarines, and enjoying the juice dribbling down my chin.  Begging my uncle for a nickel out of the cash register so I could buy a bottle of Nehi grape soda (in a glass bottle) from the soda machine behind the cider pressing barn.  Watching cider get pressed, and holding a cup under the spout to taste it before it was pasteurized.


Yes, that's Three Mile Island off in the distance.  Lots of memories there, too, but for another time.

Many, many fall days when I was a kid, we'd rush home after school, pile into the car, and go to the orchard to pick apples, buy pears, or just stop by to see what they were working on.  I remember not being a very productive apple picker.  I more enjoyed climbing the tree, finding the perfect limb -- way high up, or so it seemed at the time -- to sit on and daydream, and picking one apple to eat while everyone else filled their baskets.  Turning off the main road onto the farm lane back to the orchard used to have such a distinct sound when the road was still gravel.  It's paved now.  That bums me out.


I stopped part of the way down the lane and, for the first time, realized how big this orchard is.  I mean, it's not a huge, bajillion-acre commercial mass-production orchard, but for our area, it's significant. Peaches, nectarines, pears, chestnuts, apples, plums, strawberries, chestnuts, and fruits I'm sure I'm forgetting... as far as the eye can see.



But I wanted crab apples.  Just two pounds of crab apples.

I poked my head into the little orchard store to say hello before finding my crab apple tree.  I made my way down a small hill past the old cider-pressing barn and farmhouse, toward the picnic pavilion and pond where we'd had cookouts with my mom's cousins in the summer, and standing there just before the pavilion was a crab apple tree.  Without realizing I was doing it until after I'd done it, I reached up and touched my right cheek -- I swear, I could feel the sting of that one hard, little crab apple hitting me smack in the face when I was 10 and my brother was 8, and his baseball-throwing (and crab apple-throwing) arm was a force to be reckoned with.


I stood under that tree and just breathed in.

Just fifty feet away, the orchard workers were burning wood in a large, shallow burn barrel to generate enough smoke to help keep bugs away.  Twenty feet away in the other direction?  A small pond with a slightly murky smell, but familiar nonetheless.  I think the rowboat turned upside-down at the water's edge is the same one we'd use to ride out into the middle of the pond after the sun had set to listen for that distinct bullfrog crrrrroooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaak.



Smoke, drying grass, water, apples, and now, under this tree, the smell of crab apples.  When they're blossoming, they smell ever so sweet and floral.  But when the fruit is ripe, they have their own distinct smell.  A little like feet, and a little sweet like an overripe grape, with a hint of spice and a hint of green.  Earthy. Sharp. Unusual.


I had my half-peck basket in the crook of my left arm, and used my right hand to pick. 

I could've stayed there for hours.

The sun was shining, the air was slightly smoky and crisp and cool, there was an occasional breeze, and I could almost taste the hot dogs my cousins and I ate and the marshmallows we roasted not far from this tree those many, many Indian summers ago.


I picked and I picked, and wondered, why am I remembering picnic food?  I should be remembering what crab apples taste like, and it dawned on me: I'd never eaten a crab apple.  They always seemed so ugly and wormy.  Great as weapons (my brother and I played out our love for each other with fruit violence apparently, because my only memories of crab apples seem to be getting hit by them, or winging them at someone hard enough to leave a red mark and a lump on their arm), but I had no idea what they tasted like.  Sure, I'd read about them and could imagine by their size and shape that they were sour, but I needed to know for myself.

I took one of the ripest-looking ones out of the basket and rubbed it on my shirt to clean and polish it.  Shiny, half-red/half-yellow, slightly larger than a golf ball.  I took a small bite.

Chalky, sour, sharp.  Slightly woody.  Tough, not crunchy, and really, really tart.  Maybe a tiny note of sweet for the first 0.00000000000000000000001 seconds of the bite.  A clean, pointed nose-feel that went all the way up into my sinuses and out through my tear ducts.  Bite-y but not acidic or vinegary.  Weird, but not bad.

I couldn't wait to see how this sharp, pointy-tasting, dense and chalk-like little fruit was going to be transformed into a tasty (I hoped) sorbet, complemented by a pepper tuile, eucalyptus pudding, olive oil jam, onion jam, and white cheddar sauce.  So, I finished filling my basket, hopped in the car, and listened to the Avett Brothers as made my way back out the farm lane and away from the orchard, fiercely missing the dust cloud the old gravel road used to churn up in the rearview mirror.  Stupid progress.  Stupid pavement.

I've made the dish, and will post it on Monday.

But now, just an hour or so ago as I stood in line at the Whole Foods in Silver Spring, the woman in front of me put a small bag of crab apples (who knew Whole Foods carried crab apples?) on the conveyor belt and said to her daughter, "I don't know what we're gonna do with these, but we'll figure something out."  She turned and smiled at me as she continued to move things from her cart to the conveyor belt.

I smiled right back and said, "You're buying crab apples?  I just made crab apple sorbet.  Wanna know how?"

She smiled again, much bigger this time, and said, "I would love to.  I just saw these and we'd never eaten them before and wondered what they were like.  It wasn't until you just now asked me about them that I realized I had no clue what to do with them." 

So, I hand-wrote on the back of an envelope she'd dug out of her bag what I hope were good, simple instructions for the sorbet... or at least instructions that will work for her, in her kitchen.  I hope she finds as much delight in eating those crab apples -- in whatever form they take -- as I did in finding mine.

Coming soon: Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion


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