Romesco—best dip in the world!

Romesco is my go-to recipe whenever I need an appetizer. Rich, nutty, and sweet, this is a seriously delicious and highly addictive dip.  Though the dish originated in Catalonia, Spain, I include it with any meal with even a remotely Mediterranean influence.  Versions vary but all contain almonds or hazelnuts, garlic, peppers and olive oil.  This recipe is simple but gets me all kinds of complements and has become my signature dish.  I use it mostly as a dip with crackers, but it can be served as a sauce for all sorts of foods—beans, potatoes, pasta, fish, meatballs, etc. Try it; you’ll be inspired.

For a rich, complex, sweet and smoky flavor, roast your own peppers. Roasted red peppers from a jar make the dish bland and unremarkable.   In the fall when red peppers are at their peak, I apply an economy of scale principal, roasting and storing as many as my freezer will hold.  Not only do I save money, but I also save time.  With ready-to-use roasted peppers in the freezer, I can make romeso in less than 5 minutes all throughout the year.

Romesco
Author: 
Recipe type: Appetizer, Dip or Sauce
Cuisine: Spanish
Prep time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 2 cups
 
Using red peppers you've roasted and frozen in advance makes this a super quick appetizer.
Ingredients
  • ½ cup whole almonds
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 3 roasted red sweet bell peppers, seeds and skins removed
  • 1 T red wine vinegar
  • ½ t salt
  • 1 t paprika
  • 2 T olive oil
Instructions
  1. Add almonds to a food processor and finely chop.
  2. Next add garlic, peppers, vinegar, salt, and paprika and processes to a course puree.
  3. With the processor running drizzle the olive oil in until it becomes a thick, and creamy paste.
  4. Serve at room temperature.

 

Roasting & Freezing Bell Peppers

Sometime in fall, my attention turns from tomatoes to peppers.  Sweet red, yellow, and orange bell peppers come into season in Southeast Wisconsin in Mid-September and usually stick around until sometime in early November–a mere 6 or 7 weeks to enjoy one of the most delicious treats from the farmers market.  During peak season, farmers practically give them away— 2 or 3 for a dollar!!!  That’s a steel of a deal compared with prices at the supermarket. So while they are in season, run to the market and buy as many as your freezer can hold. You will not regret this.

First determine how many you plan to freeze as is and how many you plan to freeze roasted.  Make sure to set aside 3 of the roasted peppers to make Romesco.

How to Freeze a Fresh Pepper

All peppers freeze well.  Simply wash them, remove the seeds and white membranes, and cut them how you would like to use later—chopped, sliced, halved etc. After preparing peppers, place them on a cookie sheet and freeze.  This is called IQF—Individually Quick Frozen.  Once individually frozen, transfer the peppers to a freezer-safe plastic bag or box, date and label.  Use these peppers in cooked dishes, not raw, as they lose their crispness.  I uses them in stir-fries and soups.

How to Roast  Peppers

Peppers can be roasted on a grill, under an oven broiler or directly on the grate of a gas stove.  I use the grill as it is the easiest way to do larger quantities and it can be done while grilling other food.

Grill Method

  • Place whole washed peppers on a clean grill on medium high heat.

  • Char and blister each side of the pepper (3-4 minutes each side) turning with a metal tong.

  • Once the pepper is charred evenly, place in a bowl and cover with a plate or a larger nesting bowl to contain the steam.

  • Allow the peppers to steam at least 15 minute.

  • If you plan to eat the peppers soon, remove the stem, seeds, and skins with your fingers.  Do not use water to wash the seed away as this will reduce the sweet, smoky flavor attained in roasting.

Oven Broiler Method

  • Follow the steps above but #1.  Instead place peppers on a cookie sheet and place under the broiler.

Stove Top Method

  • Follow the steps above but #1.  Instead place peppers directly on the grate of the stove top and turn gas to high.  You can roast 2 or 3 peppers on each grate.  This only works with gas stoves.

Storing roasted peppers in the refrigerator

Roasted peppers kept in an air tight container will keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator. Peppers drizzled with olive oil, will keep for about 1 week.

Storing roasted peppers in the freezer

Place roasted peppers with skins and seeds still intact on a cookie sheet.  Freeze and transfer to a freezer-safe bag or box.  It’s easier to remove the skin and seed from partially defrosted peppers as the pepper is stiff and easier to handle.

Mild Pickled Jalapeños

Pickled jalapeños are a family favorite.  No Mexican inspired meal goes without them.  Because 3 of the 4 members of the family protest when something is too spicy, I would buy mild jalapeño pickles from the grocer.

Yes, you read that right.  I WOULD BUY A PICKLE.  I bought La Preferida Mild Pickled jalapeños for years.  It galled me, especially when fall arrived, and jalapeños spilled over every farmer’s stall at the market selling for a cheap $2 a quart.

I tried to recreate them at home, an annual exercise in futility.  I tired the obvious at first—removing the seeds and white pith. This helped but certainly didn’t eliminate the heat. I tried to substitute peppers like poblanos, but they didn’t have the right meaty texture.  I wanted mild pickled jalapeños, not pickled poblanos.   I tried blanching and salting them, knowing from a food science stand point this probably wouldn’t do anything…and it didn’t.  Renewed in my quest, each fall I scoured university extension sites from California to Maine for answers on how to de-heat  jalapeños.  Nada.

How do the people at La Preferida make such a tasty mild jalapeño pickle?  I was on the verge of writing the company a letter, when serendipitously, I stumbled on a seed catalogue revealing the answer.  You cannot make a hot jalapeño mild.  You can, however, grow a mild variety.  Duh!   The answer is so obvious.  Why did it take me 5 years to figure it out?

Question answered. Problem not solved. Where can I get one of these mild varieties?  I have yet to meet a farmer that grows and sells them in Southeast Wisconsin.  Let me know if you know one.  I could grow them, but with curious children and cats and a cave of a house,  I don’t have a safe environment, let alone the sunlight to start my own jalapeño seedlings indoors in February.  Nor have I discovered any nursery around here that grows mild varieties like Texas A&M, Senoritas and Fooled You.  Again, let me know if you do.

Then, in another serendipitous moment, I went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant with a friend who asked the waiter to bring extra pickles—not the jalapeños, just the carrots.  She confessed that she was addicted to those delicious little pickled carrots.  I tried one and agreed—a perfect combination of mild heat and sweetness and a satisfying toothy texture.  Light bulb!  If I modify the heat with carrots, not only will I get milder pickled jalapeños but also the added bonus of pickled carrots.  This classic pickled is officially called Mexican escabeche and includes jalapeños, carrots and white onions.  Most recipes call for a bay leaf too, but I prefer a lighter, brighter flavor and so leave it out.

Mild Pickled Jalapenos (and Carrots)
Author: 
Recipe type: Condiment
Cuisine: Mexican
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 9 pint jars
 
Ingredients
  • 3 pounds jalapeños, sliced into ⅛th inch rings, seeds and veins removed
  • 3 pounds carrots, sliced into ⅛th inch coins
  • 3 cups finely chopped white onions
  • 6 cups water
  • 6 cups white distilled vinegar
  • 4 T canning salt
  • ⅛ t turmeric per pint jar
  • ¼ t sesame oil per pint jar
Instructions
  1. Prepare the carrots, onions, and jalapenos. De-seeding/de-veining is best done with hands--slice the peppers, put on some disposable gloves and deseed/devein the rings one at a time with your hands. Slow but effective.
  2. Rinse and drain the prepared jalapeno rings in several changes of water to eliminate all seeds.
  3. Meanwhile, bring vinegar, salt and water to a boil.
  4. Add turmeric and sesame oil to clean hot pint jars, then pack tightly with carrots, jalapenos and onions.
  5. Pour hot brine over ingredients leaving ½ inch head space.
  6. Cap and hot water bath process for 10 minutes.
Notes
This recipe is flexible. Reduce it by half or a third. You may also play with the ratio of carrots to peppers. More carrots for less heat more peppers for more. If you find a mild variety of jalapeno you can eliminate the carrots all together. Do not reduce the ratio of water to vinegar if you intend to can it.

After reading this, you might ask, why not just buy the mild pickled jalapeños slices bottled by La Preferida.  Is a $2 quart of fresh jalapeños so compelling?  Well, to me it is, but if it isn’t to you, I have additional reasons.  I like to know the source of my food whenever possible for all sorts of environmental and food safety reasons.  Remember the E. colitainted jalapeños discovered a few years ago?  Do I have to say more?   Also commercial bottled versions come with preservatives and additives like sodium benzoate and sulfides.  While the FDA may generally recognize them as safe in the amount typically eaten, I would just as well avoid them if I can.  Cancer is cancer no matter how tenuous the link.

More pickle recipes and information:

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Italian Green Beans with Potatoes

Some people love green beans.  I never understood the appeal.   They are a rather plain vegetable in flavor and certainly no nutritional dynamo.  That said, it bothers me to not embrace and celebrate a veggie especially one as popular as green beans.  It feels like a personal challenge.  “How can I learn to love the green bean?”

However, after years of persistent searching and experimenting, I discovered several recipes which have changed my mind about green beans.  Discovering Romano beans (also known as the Italian or pole bean) was perhaps the biggest breakthrough in my quest to embrace this humble little pod.    The flavor is essentially the same as the regular green bean but the texture sets it apart.  Thick and meaty, these beans can stand up to cooking techniques that require more heat and time.  I have yet to find them anywhere but at the farmers market in the summer and early fall.

Italian Green Beans and Potatoes
Author: 
Recipe type: Side dish
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 6 servings
 
Ingredients
  • 2 medium all-purpose potatoes like Yukon gold, peeled and cubed into 1” pieces
  • 1.25 lb. Romano beans, chopped into ½ inch pieces (4 cups)
  • 4 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 T chopped fresh basil and parsley
  • Salt & pepper
  • Juice of half a lemon
Instructions
  1. In a large pot, boil the potatoes in salted water for 10 minutes (While the potatoes boil, you can blanch the tomatoes in the same boiling water in order to remove the skins.)
  2. To the same pot, add the chopped Romano beans in with the potatoes and boil another 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, cook the tomatoes in olive oil with the garlic on medium-low heat.
  4. Once cooked, drain the potatoes and green beans and add to the skillet with the tomatoes, Turn the heat to high and sauté for 2 more minutes.
  5. Remove from heat; add salt and pepper to taste along with the fresh herbs and lemon juice.

Preserve it:  Buy extras when they are at the peak of season.  Don’t wait too late in the season when they could be tougher with pronounced strings. That is, by the way, why they call them string beans—they have a string which had to be removed.  Actually, most cultivars are bred stringless eliminating that little annoyance.

Blanch them a pound at a time.  Bring a large pot with a tight fitting lid to a rolling boil.  Meanwhile, prepare the beans by cutting them into 1 inch pieces. Add them to the boiling water and place the lid on the pot.  Begin timing immediately—4 minutes.  After 4 minutes, remove them from the water and submerge in ice water.   Once cool, place them in freezer bags in portions that you would want to cook in.  Remove as much air as possible and label.  For the best quality, use within a year.

Store it:  To keep green beans in the fridge for up to a week,  don’t wash them until you are ready to use them.  Place them in a paper bag.  Place the paper bag in a plastic bag and finally place the bag in the warmest part of the fridge.  Beans are prone to frost damage in a cold fridge.

Cooking with Kids: I use kitchen shears to snip off the green bean tops and tails. It’s much easier than snapping them. Snapping takes me back to memories from my childhood of sitting on the back picnic table snapping a shopping bag of beans when I’d rather be swimming. Kids can easily do this task and perhaps happily, if you give them scissors and limit it to a pound at a time. They can also use their scissors to chop the herbs. Other possible kid-friendly tasks in this recipe: Wash and squeeze the lemon juice. Crush and peel the garlic. I have them use a meat tenderizer and a plastic cutting board or the bottom-end of a thick plastic cup for this task. I have my 6 year old use a peeler to peel the potatoes. Anything that involves a real kitchen tool is okay with her. Take the time to show your little one how to do it safely.

Half-Sour Pickles: Fermentation Baby Steps

Half Sour PicklesI learned the art of fermenting pickles last year and quite frankly couldn’t stop.  Watching a crisp little Gherkin transform into a tangy crunchy pickle by simply submerging it in salt water for a few weeks, well, it seemed like nothing short of a miracle.  With each batch I made, I kept thinking, that was just dumb luck.  So I’d experiment, making another batch, and behold, more pickles. Like a baby testing the effects of gravity by dropping her bottle on the floor again and again, it never ceased to surprise and delight me.

Once I had mastered it, I took the show on the road sharing the joy of old-fashioned pickling with the world.  It might have been the most well attended class that I have ever taught, and the questions, so many questions.  It seems people not only have a hunger for pickles, but the DIY know-how to make them at home.

Well, I’m here to say, that you too can ferment pickles at home—the kind of pickles that would make any Polish grandma proud.  And it couldn’t be simpler.  If you have never fermented before, the half-sour is a good stepping-stone fermented pickle—it takes only a week to make, it requires very few ingredients, and any quart jar with a lid will do.

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Half-Sour Fermented Pickles
Author: 
Recipe type: Pickle
Prep time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 1 quart
 
Half sours use a brine with a much lower salt concentration--a fresher taste in exchange for a shorter shelf life
Ingredients
  • 12 oz. pickling cucumbers, blossom-end removed
  • ¼ t peppercorns, crushed
  • ½ t pickling spice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 sprig dill
  • 4 ½ t pickling salt
  • 1 T white wine vinegar
  • 3 cups water
Instructions
  1. Dissolve salt into the water.
  2. Pack all ingredients and spices into a sanitized jar and pour brine over the ingredients. Cucumbers must be submerged to ferment, so pack them tightly using a quart jar with a narrow mouth or stuff a pint-sized freezer bag filled with remaining brine into the mouth of the jar to keep cucumbers submerged.
  3. Check the jar daily and clean any scum off the top, rinsing the bag if necessary. This is just yeast.
  4. In 3 days, there should be fermentation bubbles. Once the bubbles have stopped forming in 7 or 8 days, place the jar in the fridge.
  5. Pickles will keep in the fridge for about 3 weeks.
Notes
Every cucumber has 2 ends--the stem-end on one side and the blossom-end on the other side. The blossom-end is where the flower transformed into a fruit. Shave off the blossom-end of each cuke before pickling. This will keep it firm as the blossom-end contains enzymes which soften the cucumber over time.

This Half Sour Pickles recipe was inspired the pickling guru Linda Ziedrich in her book The Joy of Pickling. for more information and recipes on pickling and fermentation see the following links:

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