Making Marmalade

Jar of orange marmaladeIn 2006 I began a New Year tradition in my household: making orange marmalade from scratch, a process that’s fairly labor intensive but that results in some of the best marmalade that I and – to hear from my friends, neighbors and acquaintances who’ve gotten a jar – everyone else around me has ever had. No need to be humble about it I guess, since most of it is the work of Mother Nature.

It all started when a tree in my parent’s new garden suddenly bloomed one spring with an abundance of fragrant flowers, nearly a decade after they’d purchased the property. Whether the tree had been planted there deliberately by the previous owners or accidentally sprouted from a carelessly tossed seed we’ll never know, but my parents were delighted to see the blossoms turn into oranges over the course of the summer, fall and winter.

They weren’t so delighted when they actually tasted one.

The tree may very well be a Seville orange tree, famous for its fabulously sour fruit. Inedible out of hand, sour oranges are perfect for making traditional marmalade, so I picked a few armloads of fruit that first year and experimented at home with recipes found on the Internet. The tree itself has continued to produce fruit prodigiously and every year, when I return home to visit my parents for the holidays, we pick them all.

The fruit themselves are heavy. Really, really heavy. They look like ordinary oranges you’d find in the grocery store but the skins and pith are thick, the insides full of seeds and juice. They weigh nearly three times as much as you’d expect a normal orange to weigh. In fact, the fruit is so heavy that it bends most of the branches of the tree down to within easy reach. We all quickly learned, however, that the more fruit we picked, the lighter the branches got. Soon they’d lifted out of reach and we had to figure out how to get the rest of the oranges off the top of the tree. The second year we left almost half of the fruit unpicked simply because it was out of reach, even with the aid of a ladder.  Today it’s a quick and easy process involving a ladder, a pruning pole, shears and three people. Thick work gloves are necessary too because of the nasty thorns on the tree.

This year the yield was a little thin because of the drought and several freezes that diminished most of Dad’s citrus orchard, but last year the tree yielded nearly 145 pounds of oranges.

The New Year always starts out with a marmalade-making project of massive proportions that takes over my kitchen. It can take up to three months to complete and I’ve worn out at least one juicer in the process. The upside to this chaos is that the whole house smells of fragrant oranges until about March.

Despite being a novice at making marmalade, my first year was a success almost immediately — once I figured out how to get the slivers of peel just right.

The whole process begins with washing the oranges, then juicing and peeling them – in that order. Even though there are no pesticides of any kind, the oranges still manage to attract a fair amount of dirt (way up there in the tree, don’t ask me how) and need a good scrubbing before the peels can be used. I first soak the oranges to loosen the dirt, then use an antibacterial soap and scrub them, rinsing several times, before hand drying them with tea towels to keep them from going bad too quickly. With 145 pounds of oranges, just washing them took several days!

Next, I juiced them. Despite the thick peels and pith, the real weight of the oranges comes from an abundance of juice, so my puny little juicer gets a real workout. There’s a lot of pulp, pith, and seeds to toss as well as the occasional fruit that goes bad too quickly, so the trash fills up quickly with the remains of the innards of the oranges. Storage is also an issue, since the juice needs to be kept until the peels are prepared and ready to be cooked.

The really labor intensive part of the process comes next – preparing the peels. Frankly, this part took a couple of years of trial and error to get just right. Most folks suggest a sharp peeler to get thin pith-free slivers of peel off the oranges before they are juiced, but I didn’t really like the result: a somewhat tough candied peel. So I came up with a slightly more complex process that seems to result in a better end-product: once the fruit is juiced, I cut the emptied halves into half again and then slide a sharp knife along the flattened inside of the peel, scraping off most – but not quite all – of the pith. Kitchen sheers make quick work of the scraped peels after that. Obviously this takes a while to do and I’ve got to keep the peels moist or they’ll dry out and be hard to scrape and cut. I learned that juicing a few oranges and then preparing their peels right away worked best. The prepared peels also need to be kept in water and soaked and drained a couple of times to remove some of the bitterness. (Overnight for several nights worked best.) This method produces a slightly softer candied peel in the marmalade (especially when you add a pinch of baking soda later to the boiling water) with minimal bitterness and it leaves just enough of the pectin-containing pith intact for jelling the stuff properly with store-bought pectin.

Eventually all the peels are done (whew) and the jelly making can begin. That’s the fun part and it goes really quickly. If I’ve got enough sugar and jars, I can usually get all the juice and peels made into marmalade in a single day!

First, I start by boiling the peels. This is to get any remaining bitterness out of them rather than to soften them. To soften the peels, I boil them just once with a bit of baking soda. I found less is more here, since boiling them too long or with too much baking soda can result in mushy peels. It’s an inexact process: I usually have to boil, taste, drain and boil again several couple of times before they have the right taste and texture.

Once the peels are cooked and ready, it’s time to start making the marmalade. Six cups of sugar (yes!), four cups of peels and two cups of juice – that’s the recipe. I combine all but the sugar with one box of pectin and bring it to a rolling boil in the largest pot I’ve got. Then I dump in all the sugar at once and bring that to another rolling boil. At this point the marmalade is something akin to lava, so caution is necessary to avoid any bad burns. I keep it boiling for exactly one minute, then start ladling the liquid and peels into jars. If I’ve got the right balance of fruit, pectin and sugar, it starts firming up right away. If not, the peels float to the top of the jar and it takes a week for the marmalade to semi-set. If it doesn’t set at all, I’ll just recook with another box of pectin and reseal the jars. The taste is a little different if I have to do that, so getting it right the first time is always best.

I skip the processing part, which is when you put the sealed jars back into a boiling water bath for a specified amount of time, but only because I don’t have enough space and or equipment to handle all the jars and because the marmalade keeps pretty well once sealed. Any jars whose lid doesn’t go “pop” to indicate a seal gets stuck in the fridge and used first. Besides, between friends and family the stuff disappears rather quickly.

Last year’s massive haul – nearly 145 pounds of oranges – was used for experimentation. Friends happily volunteered to taste-test from eight different batches to find the perfect one. While peel texture seems to be a personal thing, I did come across one recipe that was universally liked. I also found that the marmalade can be made fairly successfully with the artificial sweetener, Splenda (I wanted to make something my diabetic mother could have) although it came out less sweet, more tart, slightly bitter and very cloudy due to the cornstarch that is blended with the Splenda. I’ll probably experiment with this formula a bit more to get a clearer product (liquid Splenda maybe? Stevia?) and a sweet, less bitter one too.

The marmalade making didn’t end with the oranges. Dad also grows Meyer lemons which made a beautiful marmalade one year. Unfortunately the peels stayed a little tough, so it wasn’t as satisfying to use but, oh my, the jelly was fantastic. I’d be doing that again this year, with improved peel preparation, but the Meyer lemon trees were hit hard by this year’s weather and didn’t produce any fruit. Next year, I hope!

One thing I learned from all this? An effort like this requires a great deal of organization, but also a fair amount of patience and hard work. No wonder it’s usually retirees and nuns who make this from scratch.

Thai Iced Tea

Making proper Thai iced tea isn’t that hard. But given how long it took me to finally get it right, you’d think it was the most complicated procedure in the world.

Maybe it’s just me, but trying to decipher the mystery of the sweet concoction I’d savor at Thai restaurants was challenging and frustrating at first. Every recipe I consulted told me to add sweetened condensed milk to the prepared, cooled ice tea. No matter what I tried, it seemed like I could never get the right ratio of sweetened condensed milk to black tea to make it sweet enough. It never looked right either, with globs and blobs of the syrupy milk floating in my cold tea. Even thinning out the thick syrup with hot water to create my own milky version of a simple syrup didn’t work.

It wasn’t until the local Thai restaurant told me their secret that I finally figured it out. And now I shall share it with all of you (who probably already know all of this, thus making me feel all that much more silly for having taken years to figure this out). No matter. I’m too proud, happy and satisfied to be finally sitting here – in the 150 bazillion degree heat of a Texas summer – with my lovely glass of Thai iced tea to care about that.

First you need to brew up some strong black tea. Any black tea will do, but one flavored with star anise is traditional. Be warned, if you buy a “thai tea” blend at the store (you can find it easily at any Asian food mart) it may also contain a bit of red or yellow food dye, so be careful not to get any on your clothes or you’ll end up with instant stains.

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I use about four heaping soup spoons of tea leaves to a full kettle of boiling hot water and pour the hot water directly over the tea leaves, giving it all a quick stir with a spoon before letting it steep – about 5 minutes.

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After it’s finished steeping, I pour it through a fine meshed strainer into another pitcher and add about a cup of sugar. Stir this up and put it in the refrigerator to cool down. Yes, it’s REALLY REALLY strong and REALLY REALLY sweet. If you want to have this without the milk, you might add about a third of the same amount of water and then pour it over ice before serving.

Or hey, you can drink it straight up and then mow your yard. And the neighbor’s yard. And the side of the highway. And then do something nice and relaxing, like build a house out of toothpicks.

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To serve, fill a glass with ice and then pour about two third of it full with the dark tea and the last third with milk. Voila! easy-peasy Thai Iced Tea.

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Baked Salmon

I’m being lazy with my blog and just re-posting my recipes for now. I hope you like them!
This one was originally posted on Monday, August 4th, 2003

Baked Salmon

Prep work takes about 10 minutes.

1 one pound salmon fillet (Coho Salmon if you can get it)
2 Tablespoons of a dry white wine
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 Tablespoon olive oil
3/4 teaspoon lemon pepper spice mix
a pinch of kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon dill (dried is fine, fresh would be better)
a few grinds of black pepper
1 shallot, thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 350.

Drizzle a little of the oil into a shallow baking dish. Wash and pat dry the salmon, then place it in the baking dish. Using small needle-nose pliers, pull out the pin bones. (Run your finger up along the thick part of the meat and you’ll feel them sticking out.)

Carefully pour the white wine and lime juice on top of the fish. Drizzle the rest of the olive oil on top. Sprinkle with lemon pepper spice mix and gently rub the oil and spices into the fish. Sprinkle on the kosher salt, dill weed and a few grinds of black pepper. Lay the shallot slices on top.

Bake uncovered for 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Slow Cooker Chicken with Garlic Mashed Poatatoes

Another recipe from the archives.

Originally posted December 15, 2003:

Slow Cooker Chicken with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

This is a recipe that’s best made one day ahead of time. On day one you’ll need:

1 whole chicken
2 yukon gold potatoes
10 or so new potatoes
several pinches of kosher salt
several grinds of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 tablespoon lemon pepper
1 large handful (several springs) of rosemary

Wash and trim the chicken of any extra fat and remove (and discard) all the innards. Pull back the skin. Cut the yukon gold potatoes in half and arrange all potatoes on the bottom of the slow cooker. Set the chicken on top of them and stuff with the rosemary. Sprinkle salt, pepper, thyme and basil and replace the skin. Sprinkle with the lemon pepper. Cover and cook on low, 6 hours. When cooked, remove chicken to an oven-proof container. Remove potatoes to another container, and drain all the liquid into a third container. Place everything in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day you’ll need:

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon whipping cream
1 cup canned low sodium chicken broth
1 cup of the chicken stock from the previous night (skim the fat off of
the top and discard)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder

Place the chicken in the oven and turn it on to 350 degrees for the chicken to warm up while you prepare the potatoes. Cut all the new potatoes in half and then push all the potatoes through a potatoe ricer into a microwave-proof bowl. (Alternatively you can simply roughly mash them up and leave the skins on, or peel them all and roughly mash them up. Leave chunks.) Heat them in the microwave for three minutes, stirring every minute. In a pan on the stove, heat the other tablespoon of butter and four over medium-low heat until it has a light golden color. Remove from heat and add cream. Stir until it a smooth paste again. Slowly whisk in the chicken stock, then the broth. Remove potatoes from the microwave and sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder and stir. Add one cup of the broth mixture and stir. Add another 1/2 cup or cup, depending on the potatoes and stir. (You want them to be thick and fluffy and not watery.)

Remove the chicken from the oven and enjoy!

Halibut Baked in Grape Leaves

One afternoon in 2003, while waiting in a Doctor’s office lounge, I came across an intriguing recipe  recipe that suggested wrapping a piece of fish in grape leaves before baking.

I had two enormous jars of grape leaves, packed in acidulous water that I had bought from a Mediterranean grocery store. I’d intended to make dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) but never got around to it, then forgot I had one jar and bought another one! Naturally, when I saw a recipe for baking fish inside a pouch of grape leaves I decided to try it.

It is absolutely fantastic. If you can get grape leaves – fresh or in a jar – I highly recommend this approach; it was quick, easy and absolutely delicious and the fish was moist, tender and full of flavor.

Originally posted Friday, July 8th, 2003:

Halibut Baked in Grape Leaves

You can use just about any fish, but I used halibut as the recipe recommended.

2 boneless/skinless halibut fillets
3 or 4 fresh grape leaves (or 5 or 6 canned/preserved) for each skinless fillet
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, then lightly oil a baking dish. Lay out the leaves on a cutting board, overlapping them to create an 8 inch round circle. Sprinkle with half the olive oil, the thyme, salt and fresh ground pepper. Place a fillet in the center of the leaves and wrap them around it in a clockwise fashion to close it up. Lay the package, seam side down, into the baking dish and bake for 20 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. (The grape leaves will crisp up.) Carefully transfer to a platter and peel away the leaves.

I cooked mine for twenty minutes, then turned off the oven and let it sit in there until I’d finished some pasta (about another 5 minutes).

The fillets are delicious plain but the recipe also included a fantastic vinaigrette to serve it with:

3 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients together and pour about a tablespoon or so over each fish fillet