Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fig Preserves

Tuesday I got this message from my good friend Lori... "TONIGHT. We have figs! Let's make some jam." Though my parents are expert canners - putting up everything from pickles to salsa to jelly to stewed tomatoes to jam, and have done it my whole life - I never joined them. (Or not enough to have learned anything.) The only fig preserves I remember eating when I was younger were made by my paternal grandmother. I don't remember eating figs any other way, ever, except in a Fig Newton. So, I was very excited to take Lori up on her offer. And not only did we make it; we made it from figs that we had to pick first.
Lori picking figs from the tree she and her husband planted almost twenty years ago, now two doors down (and two stories high) from her current house in South Austin. 
Lori grew up in Hallettsville, the same town my mom grew up in. Her parents' house was in town, though they had land outside of town at Rabb Switch, Lori's mother's homestead, for cows and to have a larger patch of some crops, like potatoes. But at the house in town, Lori's parents tended a garden with all kinds of vegetables and several kinds of fruit trees, including a huge fig tree... big enough to climb in. The family ate the figs fresh, but her mother also made fig preserves.... lots of it apparently, because the kids loved it.

Fresh figs waiting to have the tough stems removed and be washed.
Though Lori used the word jam in her email invitation to me, what she really meant was confit - fruit cooked down to a jam-like consistency, but not preserved. The confit is still put in jars, but needs to be kept in the refrigerator and is for eating immediately. She used a recipe for preserves as a guide, but Lori was winging it. We started by washing the figs, some of which were plump and some of which had started to dry on the vine a bit. The recipe called for 14 1/2 cups which I assumed was an enormous amount, since I don't regularly pick fruit, but we actually picked 16 cups. It didn't even take long to do and it was probably 102 degrees outside, so I would have given up if it had. 

Figs, water, sugar and lemon juice boiling.
Fig Confit
From Lori Najvar, with guidance from a recipe for Fig Jam by Mrs. Frank Polasek in a Catholic Daughters cookbook put out by the Hallettsville chapter in the 1960s. 
16 cups figs
8 cups sugar or to taste
1 pint water
14 tablespoons lemon juice or to taste 
Remove tough stems from the figs and rinse them. Place the figs in a large pot with the sugar, lemon juice, and water and bring to a boil. Boil until soft enough to mash. Use a potato masher to mash and crush the fruit. Be very careful about boiling hot, splattering fig juice when you're mashing. Continue boiling until the mixture reaches a jam-like consistency.. Total boiling time is at least 1 1/2 hours. Let cool and ladle into jars. Store in the refrigerator and use as soon as you like.  
Other recipes in the Catholic Daughters cookbook (3 others) called for packets of strawberry or raspberry Jell-o, Sucaryl, and/or fresh peaches, too. Lori said her mother did use the Jell-o occasionally, which yielded a much redder, mock-strawberry jam out of the figs.
We started the boiling and then left the watching to Lori's husband, Glen, while we did a 45-minute hike on the greenbelt. This was not something that my older relatives would have done 50 years ago while they made jam, as they got plenty of exercise from life in general. 

Fig confit in a collection of jars and containers foraged from Lori's cabinets.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Okra Two Ways

I was without my children last weekend and tonight so have been free to eat any foods I want. (I eat pretty much anything, unlike the boys in my life.) And what I wanted to eat was fresh okra. The inspiration came in Hoffer's, the mom-and-pop grocery store/washateria/gas station in Hallettsville on Alt. Highway 90.

I was in town last weekend for another family reunion (Morkovsky this time). I always stop at Hoffer's to see what local produce they have and Saturday was a banner day.... okra, cucumbers, green onions, tomatoes, banana peppers, zucchini, eggplant. The okra was so green, so plump-looking that it called to me. The tomatoes so red, so meaty. And what a beautiful combination they'd make with the orange banana peppers. Reunion spreads always need more vegetables, so even though I didn't have a recipe, I decided to take okra and tomatoes. Take THAT Austin Downtown Farmer's Market... I got a pound of okra for $1.35, 4 firm, gorgeous banana peppers for about .75, scallions for .95 and 2 pounds of the most flavorful tomatoes for about $2.25, all sold to Hoffer's by people who live and garden within a 5 mile radius.

I stayed at my grandmother's for the weekend. She passed away in January, but the family still has her house and we have gathered there for various reasons in different combinations since she went into a nursing home several years ago. With 5 bedrooms and a huge, open family-friendly kitchen, it's like a private B&B where we do the cooking.

This trip I got to enjoy the company of my Aunts Jane and Maggie and my Uncle George, who also all stayed at the house. Uncle George was the food guru Sunday morning, showing up with 4 sausage biscuits from McDonald's to which he added eggs he fried himself.  (They wanted a dollar each to add an egg to a sandwich and he could buy a whole dozen eggs for $1.29 at Hoffer's... makes total sense.) He made sure the apple strudel in the oven was taken out before it got too brown. He made cole slaw to take to the reunion. He made sure the potatoes I was boiling for my Dad didn't get too soft. And he oversaw my contribution to the reunion, too.

Uncle George shared with me what things would have been growing in the backyard garden of the house when he was a kid.... green beans, yellow squash, tomatoes, okra, watermelons. After consultation about how my grandmother would have made this dish (she called it okra gumbo) we collaborated on the following recipe...

Okra and Tomatoes
Dawn Orsak and George Kallus 
1/2 stick of butter
1 lb. fresh okra, sliced, discarding the tops
4 medium-large ripe tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 large scallions, chopped
salt and pepper to taste 
Melt the butter in a deep skillet with a lid over medium heat. Saute the onions and garlic in the butter until they start to soften. Add the okra and saute a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, stir it all together, put the lid on and turn the heat down to low. Stir every once and a while. When the tomatoes have broken down and made some juice and the okra is tender, add salt and pepper to taste and simmer a little longer so all the flavors meld together.
* Many recipes call for adding a little sugar to this dish (like a teaspoon), which I'll try next time. As you can see below, no one who ate it at the reunion seemed to mind it not being in my version. Uncle George said my grandmother would also sometimes add a can of corn "to stretch it." (She had 8 children.)

A second pound of okra came home with me so that I could test another cooking method. Six out of the first 8 Texas Czech community cookbooks I looked in confirmed that (besides frying) cooking okra with tomatoes is the preferred method (with or without green peppers, bacon, chili powder, corn.) But I also found the recipe below for Okra Patties.
Okra Patties
Dorothy Olsovsky, Society No. 44 Moravia
from Sharing Our Best: K.J.Z.T. Centennial Book of Recipes, 1994 
1 lb. chopped okra
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup water
1 egg
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup cornmeal 
Finely chop the okra and the onions. Mix well with salt, pepper, water and egg. Mix the flour, baking powder and cornmeal. Add to previous mixture. Drop by spoonfuls in hot fat or oil and brown well over medium heat. Drain on paper towels. Yields 10 patties.
Crispy outside, squishy inside with a subdued okra flavor. The recipe above is typed straight from the cookbook, but I would increase the salt to a teaspoon. And I think of fried things as being served with some kind of sauce or dip... french fries and ketchup, salmon patties and tartar sauce, fried mushrooms and ranch dressing, fried mozzarella and marinara, fried shrimp and, well, shrimp sauce.

The okra recipe didn't recommend eating the patties with anything. I tried ketchup... not very interesting. Then I tried Louisiana hot sauce - a natural with the Southern flavors of okra and cornmeal. It was the perfect accompaniment for a girl who loves spicy foods. In a previous blog post I ruminated on Texas-Czech gravies... garlic, dill, tomato, etc. Perhaps one of those with Okra Patties? Hhhmmmmm.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Peach Pie at the Orsak Reunion

My Dad and his Aunt Marcella. She brought pinto beans, deer sausage
 and a dewberry pie to the reunion. My Dad brought a pot of chili.
If they're not Texas cooks, no one is. 

Homemade pickles, dilled green beans, devilled eggs, 6 kinds of sausage, potato salad and dewberry pie. Is this the multi-course tasting menu at a new Texas-Czech restaurant? No, it’s just some of the offerings at the 2012 Orsak Reunion outside of Ganado on Sunday, June 3rd. The list of dishes goes on, reflecting my family’s Czech heritage, but also our Texas roots which include Mexican influences and years of family members living near the coast.

Appetizer table:
Chips with salsa and queso, ciabatta bread with a Mediterranean seasoned olive oil, hot wings, stuffed jalapenos x 2 (one cold dish, one fried), homemade pickles, fruit platter, seafood dip and crackers.

Main dishes:
Baked ham, barbecued ribs, chicken and briskit, chili, fried chicken x 2, roast in gravy x 3, baked chicken x 2, beef enchilada casserole, sausage x 6, King Ranch casserole, turkey noodle soup, shrimp and sausage gumbo w/ white rice, chicken and rice casserole.

Sides and Salads: Bread, dilled green beans, sliced fruit, pasta salad x 3, devilled eggs, sliced tomatoes x 2, broccoli salad, pea salad, corn and black bean salad, pinto beans, potato salad x 2, cucumber salad, sauteed zucchini and yellow squash, green bean casserole, dressing x 2, squash casserole x 2, sweet potatoes, buttered potatoes, mashed potatoes, baked rice. 
    My mom and Theresa Hluza, my Dad's first cousin.
Peach cobbler, Hummingbird Cake, peach and blueberry pie, angel food cake, fruit salad, cherry cream cheese squares, cheesecake, brownies, coconut cream pie, dewberry pie, German chocolate cake, cheese roll, banana pudding, lemon poundcake, fruit tarts.

You cannot keep an Orsak down when it comes to food. My mom, just finishing the 6th of 12 rounds of chemotherapy, brought sautéed squash and a Hummingbird Cake. I had to lay down on an ice pack for my bum lower back in between baking the peach pie and making a sausage and sauerkraut dish Sunday morning, but I did it. My Dad’s first cousin Theresa Hluza showed up with a cast on each arm from the fingers to the shoulders after breaking both elbows in a fall JUST LAST WEEK!  Not only did he show up, but she showed up with kolaches and cheese rolls for the silent auction pulled out of her freezer.  She told my mom, “I can’t wait to get these things (casts) off so I can bake some kolaches.”

My favorite overheard comment of the day was “Dang Orsaks. You’d think they were feeding a whole village!” Ironically, I left the reunion with a charge from my Dad to contact a genealogy researcher in the Czech Republic. He wants to know if brothers and sisters of his great great grandfather had children that also came to America. He’s convinced that all Orsaks in Texas are related.  Apparently, in our village of origin (Novy Hrozenkov in Moravia, CR) all the Orsaks WERE related...  some Orsak had sixteen sons at one point. So, in a way, we did feed a village at the reunion. It must be in our genes.

Below is the recipe for the peach pie I took to the reunion. I fudged with a recipe that I had marked as being my mom’s, but she said she didn't recognize it when I showed it to her. So, I guess it’s my recipe. She did remember her grandfather peeling peaches at her parents kitchen table for pie. Peeling peaches is a satisfying task when the skins slip off easily. If they don't, just use a vegetable peeler. I used store-bought crust pie because I haven't tackled the homemade version yet. It was still delicious.

Peach Blueberry Pie

1 ½ pounds whole peaches
½ pint of blueberries
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
3 Tablespoons flour
pinch of salt
2 pie crusts (not deep dish)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Boil a large pot of water. Drop in 1 ½ pounds of whole peaches and boil for 3 minutes. Drain, let cool, peel, pit and slice them. Mix in the blueberries. Sprinkle the lemon juice over the fruit and set aside. Mix together the sugars, spices, flour and salt. Add this dry mixture to the fruit and mix until the fruit is coated. Turn into one of the pie shells. Dot butter on top and cover with second pie crust as you wish (whole or lattice.) Place in the preheated oven with a cookie sheet on the rack underneath it. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake another 30 minutes.

Variation – use 2 pounds of peaches without the blueberries.
Variation 2 - use 2 ½ pounds of peaches for a deep dish pie.  Adjust the other seasonings accordingly.