The Refrigerator Down the Hall

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View outside my front door. I’m a city boy, but I enjoy it here.

I’m in Wisconsin while rehearsing a musical I’ve co-written. I have a lovely one-bedroom suite in a charming lodge. Outdoors it’s rustic—we’re across the street from a state park! but indoors it’s very pleasant indeed. If you write musicals, and you don’t get a place at least this nice, you should complain to your producers. I’ve got plenty of counter space, a microwave, a coffee maker, a four-burner stove with oven…and a teeny-tiny refrigerator.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care about the size of a hotel room’s refrigerator; I’d usually only use it to store some leftover take-out food and maybe a soda or two. But I’m here for six weeks. It’s a vacation town, in the off-season; businesses close early—if they’re open at all on weekdays. Rehearsals run late into the evening. And even if none of that were true, six weeks is a long time to survive on restaurant food. And I like to cook.

My pint-sized refrigerator has a decent enough freezer compartment, but its vegetable drawer is laughably small. A quart of milk fits in a holder in the door, and there’s a rack for a six-pack of soda, but it’s just not meant for someone who needs to cook most of his own meals and who can’t get to the market every day. (The irony that She is learning to improvise while I have to meal-plan is not lost on me.)

I mentioned my predicament to the night manager, hoping he might offer me the mini-fridge from a vacant room. “Sure, we can take care of that,” he said. He led the way past my suite to a break room used by the housekeeping staff, which contained a full-sized fridge. “We’re not all staffed up for the summer yet. You can use this.”

Of course, he couldn’t move the fridge into my suite, but it’s got plenty of space, and nobody else is using it. It’s a little like having an extra freezer in the garage.

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So, today, zipping my little mini-cart around the Piggly Wiggly, I shopped for the week—or maybe more than the week. There’s a steak in my freezer (packaged in meal-sized pieces), along with some ground turkey that will become chili sometime soon, and some chicken thighs for which there isn’t yet a definite plan. A dozen eggs. Some bacon, because why not. Plenty of salad greens. Spinach. Other fruit and veg. Hummus. I’ve got this. I will not need to eat pasta or peanut butter sandwiches every night.

I’d made a pot of overnight oats for weekday breakfasts, and, before leaving on the shopping excursion and figuring this would be a busy day, today had a mushroom and asparagus omelet. (The mushrooms and asparagus were taking up most of my tiny vegetable drawer anyway.)

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I diced an onion, some carrots, and celery and simmered them with a quart of chicken stock, a little crumbled bacon, and some herbs. (I brought from home a bin of dry goods, so I wouldn’t have to buy everything here, along with some decent spare knives, and a cast-iron skillet.) When the stock was deeply flavored, I added a half-cup of brown rice and left it to simmer for another hour. The rice didn’t completely lose its structural integrity, but it thickened and fortified the soup—and, truth told, absorbed enough of the broth that the soup is much more like a stew, which is what I was hoping for in the first place. I sautéed some radish greens in the pan I’d used to cook the bacon and had those for a light lunch.

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The store didn’t have any “regular” pork shoulder, but I found a small pre-seasoned package that is in my slow-cooker now (along with more carrot and onion, a little mustard and a little red wine. It’ll do its slow-cooker thing all night, and I’ll cool it and package it up at breakfast time.

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After all the shopping and chopping and stowing and stewing, I went for a run, changed, and took myself out for dinner. I expect that the Coyote Roadhouse gets rowdier on a Saturday night during the high season, but on a late Sunday afternoon this out-of-the-way place was populated by gentle folks enjoying their barbecue and beers and the eclectic mix of music from Johnny Cash to Elton John that played in the background. The burger was good, the service was terrific, but the fried green beans were worth driving a thousand miles for. I brought home the leftovers and stored them in the fridge down the hall. They’re worth walking that far, too.

 

 

When “The Girl Who Follows Recipes” Proved She Can Improvise

Spring 2019 is an interesting season for us. Clay is adventuring in Wisconsin for six weeks of making theater (and living out of a very nice little hotel room with an efficiency kitchen), and I’m at home in Connecticut with the cats, the long commute to New York, and the CSA share.

He’s been more than idly afraid that I’ll choose to subsist on chips and guacamole for the duration of the trip, and I have been defiantly proving him wrong by preparing my own meals all week (with the exception of one extremely late night when take-out was the difference between eating and going to bed hungry). The catch is that I’ve been relying on leftovers or my go-to dishes, specific things that I know how to make from a precise list of ingredients. Last night that changed.

I left for the farm around 5:30, focused on arriving before they closed up shop at 6 and I missed my collection window. The whole way, I thought about what I might make from the yet-to-be-revealed bounty. I mentally ticked through the list of ingredients back home – a pint of lovely mushrooms Clay bought just before he left, a few glugs of red wine left in a bottle, a half dozen small potatoes, the end of a loaf of sourdough bread, a red pepper or two, several different cheeses, a pint of cream, and a pantry well-stocked with dry goods. Betting that – like in the last three weeks – there would be some salad greens and spring onions in the mix, I settled on a creamy mushroom sauce over egg noodles with a green salad (dressed with goat cheese, toasted pecans, and chive blossom vinaigrette).

I arrived at the farm just in time and read the list of share items for the week. Having promised that I would not accept anything I did not believe I would eat (since Clay is far more vegetable-loving than I am), I collected the arugula flowers, salad greens, asparagus, and green garlic but left the mustard greens and tatsoi greens (since bitter leaves are rarely my thing) and the basil and tomato seedlings (since after four years of trying I have accepted that my yard doesn’t receive enough sun to support either).

The lack of onions didn’t bother me; Clay had stocked the freezer with chopped onions for me before he left, so my plan was intact with the addition of mild garlic to add to the sauce, and enough asparagus that I could add in those languishing peppers and make a tiny lasagna primavera for myself this weekend.

I arrived home with my bag of beautiful produce and got to work. I pulled some onion from the freezer and tossed it in a pan over low heat to defrost while mincing a stalk of the garlic. (The other two were popped into a jar of water, roots down.) When the onions were thawed, I added a bit of oil to the pan and turned up the heat to soften them and earn some color, then pulled the mushrooms out of the fridge.

And the mushrooms had turned.

The star of my dish, a mushroom sauce I had seen many chef-type people make on countless food shows but not made myself before, was absolutely out of the question. But the onions were glistening and sizzling in their pan, with a fragrant pile of minced garlic on the cutting board next to them.

Follow-the-recipe Lissa would have tossed the onions and oil, washed the pan, and pulled out a cookbook. Learning-to-improvise Lissa thought on her feet.

“You’re hungry. If you stop now, you’ll order pizza or something else equally not-home-cooked and lose the game. Think about what you can do in 30 minutes with what’s already started. And move.

Yank open the refrigerator door and pull everything that you see onto the counter. Steak that Clay had seared but left too pink in the center, cooked potatoes, the aforementioned peppers, a tiny amount of mashed sweet potato, and two dozen kinds of sauces. Okay, two separate meals, to be cooked simultaneously.

Turn down the heat on the onions, stir the garlic into the pan, wipe down the cutting board, and set a cast iron skillet to heat on another burner. Run to the garage-pantry for a can of crushed tomatoes and pull out the spice box. Pour the tomatoes into the pan with the onions and garlic – now translucent but not yet browned – along with a cup of red wine, a palmful of salt and black pepper, a hearty dash of dried basil, and the usual seven shakes of Cavender’s seasoning blend. Turn the heat to medium so as to reduce the liquid, and pivot to the cast iron skillet.

The leftover steak was brushed with chive butter and chopped into three pieces before becoming leftovers, so goes into the hot skillet butter-side down. While it browns, chop the ends off the asparagus and carefully trim baby arugula leaves off of the flower stems. Flip the steak just in time to keep it from stepping more toward char, turn the oven to warm and set a large plate inside, and taste the sauce – still too watery.

Push the mashed sweet potato through a ricer and into the pan of sauce, shake in a few red pepper flakes, and turn up the heat. Meanwhile, take the steak out of the pan and onto the plate in the oven to keep warm. The outside is a gorgeous, rich brown just bursting with flavor, but the center is still too pink for someone who likes her meat “well done”. Fix it later. Place the asparagus into the skillet just vacated by the steak, and toss it in the herby, buttery drippings. Grind a mass of pepper over the top of it, and think.

Grab the slightly-too-hot-to-handle-comfortably plate from the oven and slice the New York Strip as if it were a London Broil – a quarter inch thick. Tip the perfectly cooked asparagus out of the skillet and pop the steak back in, pink sides down. Forty-five seconds per side and it’s a gorgeous mass of steak cooked as if to be “the browned bits” in the bottom of a beef stew. Pop into the warming oven with the asparagus.

Shove the leftover potatoes into the microwave to reheat and stir, stir, stir the sauce. Consider grabbing the food processor to smooth it out then realize that’s crazy talk and pour it into a quart-sized mason jar to cool. Clean as you go – there’s no joy in having to wash the dishes *after* eating dinner.

Pull the potatoes from the microwave and whip them with a wooden spoon. Consider adding cream, then remember that you just made a steak cooked in butter and vow “no more fat this weekend”.

Realize you made a steakhouse dinner for two. Assemble a bowl for yourself (because every meal is better in a bowl!) and a container of leftovers for the fridge: mashed potatoes spread across the bottom of the bowl, top with asparagus spears in a log-pile on the left and steak tidbits on the right, shake a bit of Worcestershire sauce over the steak (to cut the richness), then scatter torn baby arugula leaves over the top.

Wipe down the counter, put the jar of sauce and pyrex dish of leftovers into the fridge,  then sit down to enjoy your dinner – 35 minutes after you walked in the door with the CSA bounty – basking in the pride of a successful improvisation.

Lissa's Accidental Steakhouse Dinner

Lissa’s Accidental Steakhouse Dinner

P.S. I ate lunch while writing this: a bit of sausage roll with thick, chunky tomato sauce. It, too, was delicious.

Lissa's Accidental Tomato Sauce

Lissa’s Accidental Tomato Sauce

New Year, New CSA

I’m lounging in bed on a lazy Saturday morning, listening to the chirps of young birds and looking out the window at the baby leaves of a maple tree and the last blossoms of a yellow forsythia bush. I’m so grateful that spring has arrived; I love the winter, but part of that love is in knowing that it ends. And this year, spring is not just in the yard and outdoor parts of our life, but on our plates: yesterday was the first pick-up day for a new-to-us CSA!

We’ve explored many CSA options over the last several years – Simpaugh Farms from West Suffield, CT last year with a weekly delivery to a nearby farmer’s market; Norwich Meadows Farm from Westchester, CT two years ago with home delivery every week; and when I lived in Manhattan I supported Windflower Farms from Valley Falls, NY (right down the street from where my Nana lives) for years – they had a share delivery directly to my neighborhood.

This winter, I saw a post for The Hickories on Instagram, and was over the moon with excitement; this beautiful farm is just 12 miles from our home.  They use hoop and green houses in addition to fields so their growing season is exquisitely long and the CSA shares run from the end of April through Thanksgiving, and include a wonderful variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, preserves, and pick-your-own crops. Members collect shares every week directly from the farm stand, which is attached to the sheep barn!

Yesterday I visited the farm for the first time. After a 28-minute drive through beautiful winding roads, I met Farmer Laura and the baby lambs – the little nibbler in this photo came over to the fence to greet me and lick my hands.

Inside a barn a small white lamb nibbles hay. In the foreground, two brown lambs and one white lamb rest.

Lambs!

After spending some time with the wooly friends, Laura brought me back into the farm stand room and showed me how collection works. I signed myself in for the week, and brought my giant canvas bag to the wall of CSA produce bins to collect our share:

  • I weighed out a half-pound of beautiful spinach leaves
  • Collected a bag of freshly picked and washed arugula
  • Gathered a bunch of bright Hakurei turnips
  • And another of lovely scallions
  • Was introduced to a bouquet of kale raab
  • And chose a beautiful jar of salsa verde

Yesterday’s share newsletter was a wonderful education in raabs: these are the first new growth of bolted brassica plants (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc) each spring, and are entirely edible! I’ve eaten broccoli raab but had never seen it or any other growing; since my bunch still had a few flowers attached, I cradled it like a bouquet.

In years past, figuring out how to store our veggies was a big part of share day, but now that I’m using The Jar Method of prepping and storing the produce that comes into our kitchen, it was nearly effortless to put these beauties away.

Week 1 Share: Kale Raab, Salsa Verde, Spinach, Hakurei Turnips, Arugula, Scallions

Week 1 Share: Kale Raab, Salsa Verde, Spinach, Hakurei Turnips, Arugula, Scallions

I stored the Kale Raab and the Scallions each in a 1-quart mason jar of water as a bouquet. I dried the spinach and arugula leaves and tucked each into their own half-gallon mason jar, with a bit of folded up paper towel at the bottom to absorb moisture. The salsa came in it’s own packaging. The turnips have given me a bit of trouble so currently they’re still in a bunch on the counter. Storage tips welcome!

The other ingredients will be so easy to use, though:

  • We used a third of the raab in a shrimp linguine dish last night, and the rest will be chopped for tomorrow night’s stir-fry along with the scallions.
  • The salsa verde is just what we need to make our favorite InstantPot chili with pork shoulder from the freezer.
  • The spinach will become a salad, along with strawberries, goat cheese, pecans, and some balsamic dressing.
  • Arugula is a wonderful sandwich topping for turkey sandwiches, especially with hummus and red pepper tapenade as the condiments. Time to get some bread dough rising…
  • As for those turnips? I’m a sucker for a pun and a huge fan of poutine, so am seriously considering an adaptation of this Turnip the Disco Fries recipe.

(If anything we make is worthy of sharing, Clay will certainly post about the adventure.)

P.S. While at the farm stand I also bought a bouquet of antique tulips and a new-to-me magazine: Edible Nutmeg. I’m looking forward to digging in later this weekend!

Edible Nutmeg (Spring 2019 edition) and Antique Tulips

Edible Nutmeg (Spring 2019 edition) and Antique Tulips

Fried

Painted in Waterlogue

Most of the photographs I see on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of food and families. Exquisitely-set tables, elaborate dinners, generations of relatives with freshly-scrubbed faces and beautiful clothes (or, sometimes, new and often comically matching pajamas), happy pets and the occasional engagement ring.

They might as well be pictures from the surface of Mars.

I’ve worked for many years as a church musician—and most of that in a very big church with many, many services. Not only are Christmas Eve and Christmas day workdays, they’re two of the biggest workdays of the year, with extra services, huge crowds, extra musicians. And don’t even get me started about the perfect-storm of a bad year when December 24th falls on Sunday, which means it’s a “regular” workday all morning, and then suddenly becomes Christmas Eve in the afternoon. And if you work in a parish that has services on Saturday evening (“anticipating” Sunday morning), it gets even worse. A special Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question. And by the time you get home on Christmas Day, what you may want more than anything else is to collapse.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. Hearing about the Feast of Seven Fishes in some families,  I tried picking up sushi on my brief Christmas Eve dinner break. It was sort of festive, but far more rushed than feast-like. Looking for a simpler option, I tried a particular tortilla soup I liked. It was tasty and quick to prepare, but one year it was accidentally too spicy and I turned my head to cough after the first spoonful and re-injured a pulled back muscle and had to play Midnight Mass on some pretty serious pain medication. (That was my first year in the parish and the head of the search committee that hired me worried that they’d made a terrible mistake.)

So I decided: whatever. A ham sandwich eaten in the choir room can be perfect Christmas Eve–maybe with a cookie for dessert. Big Christmas Dinner can be postponed until after I’ve had some sleep.

And then I decided: I’m not doing that any more. I’m not working in a big parish, and I don’t miss it. I may fill in here and there, playing one service on Christmas Eve in order to give a colleague a couple of hours off to have a decent meal with her or his family, but that’s it. And on Christmas morning I am home with my small, happy family.

It doesn’t mean that December is quiet and restful, though. This year, between teaching and concerts and writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes and rehearsals and performances—both of us doing shows at the same time in different theaters—there wasn’t a day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But, while driving to the train station in the morning, or in the few minutes before sleep at night, or in text messages exchanged here and there, we made plans: I’d play my one service on Christmas Eve with her in attendance to hear the music she loves so well; we’d go for a little drive to look at the lights; then we’d come home to roast a fast-but-festive spatchcocked chicken. On Christmas Day, we’d have a late breakfast of pumpkin-cream-cheese French Toast Casserole, and slow-cook a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Of course none of that happened quite the way we planned. The looking-at-lights trip happened several days after Christmas. The beef stew went into the pressure cooker rather than a slow oven. And what we thought would be a quick Christmas Eve nap resulted in her waking up on Christmas morning.

I’m just reporting, not complaining.

But there it was, the 28th, and we still had a raw chicken in the fridge. “Should I spatchcock it?” I asked. “What about Alton’s fried chicken?” I was skeptical about thermal-control issues, but she had given me a spiffy new instant-read thermometer for Christmas. So I used my treasured boning knife to portion the chicken. She made the spice blend and moved on to other household tasks. I buttermilk-bathed and spice-rubbed and flour-massaged.

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While the chicken rested I prepared the salad, scrubbed and started the potatoes baking.

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I cranked up the not-very-effective exhaust fan, opened the kitchen window, and heated the oil

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I checked each piece with my spiffy new thermometer, and kept them warm in the oven until everybody was finished. 

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It was a wonderful meal.

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Oh, Christmas Eve? I woke up from our nap sooner than she did. I padded downstairs in my robe and slippers to I assembled the French Toast casserole so it could rest overnight.  Then I realized I really did want some dinner. I had a ham sandwich and a cookie for dessert.

It was perfect.

The Nowhere Near Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge

Painted in Waterlogue

“Let’s just have green beans,” she said.

She didn’t mean we should forego the turkey, skip the stuffing, or pass on the pumpkin pie. And she surely didn’t mean there would be no mashed potatoes.

I had been asking about green bean casserole, which is a pretty traditional Thanksgiving side dish around here. But considering the butternut squash soup, the giblet gravy, and the aforementioned and very buttery mashed potatoes, I agreed the there would be enough creamy things on the menu. Steamed beans with salt and pepper and a little lemon zest would provide a nice, crisp balance. Nobody missed the casserole at Thanksgiving dinner, and everybody left the table happily full.

But, on Sunday night, while watching a cooking game show that included a “remake this side dish” challenge, I thought about green beans. (I’d bought more vegetables than we’d needed to cook for the seven of us, so there were some in the fridge that ought to be cooked soon.) When we arrived home on Monday after long days at the offices and long, rainy commutes, it seemed time for something warm and comforting—and not just the last of the reheated Thanksgiving leftovers. One of my students today had said, “You know, give me green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, and I’m good for Thanksgiving.”  So, while she folded some laundry, I thought: Game on. Remake Green Bean Casserole as an entree using only things we have in the fridge or pantry.

Green Bean Tortellini

1/2 package spinach tortellini
2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tbsp giblet gravy
2 tbsp cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp grated parmesan cheese
2 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil

Do the slicing and chopping. Set a pot of water to boil. If you have been sitting at a desk or piano, or in traffic, all day long, go into the living room and do a 7 Minute Workout. If your day has been sufficiently active already, slice and dice while waiting for the water to boil. Warm pasta bowls in the oven.

Cook tortellini according to package directions. Steam the green beans over the water in the pasta pot.
Put a glug of oil in a skillet, get it good and hot, and sauté the onions, then the mushrooms. Add the Worcestershire sauce and toss.
Drain the tortellini and put it in the oven to keep warm; it won’t be long now.
Add the green beans to the drained pasta.
Add the cream and gravy to the mushrooms and onions; stir to combine and heat through.
Pour the mushroom/onion sort-of-sauce over the pasta and beans; toss to combine.
Divide into the warmed bowls. Sprinkle crumbled bacon and cheese on top.

Serves 2, plus one lucky lunch-eater the next day. (Or increase all the quantities and serve 2 for lunch, or 4 for dinner.)

 

The idea here is for a dish that is equal parts veg and pasta. The result is not soupy. The beans are still crisp. The bacon is totally optional, but I’d made it and forgot to add it to the Brussels sprouts on Thanksgiving day, so its salty crunch seemed like a wise addition. It’s not Thanksgiving leftovers, it’s something entirely different. And I’ll do it again.

Dinner in 30 minutes, plus a little exercise, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a long day of happy-but-challenging work.  Not bad for Monday.

 

 

Simpaug Farms CSA: Weeks Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen

It takes approximately 10 weeks to form a new habit. It took approximately 10 weeks (as evidenced by the diminishing level of detail in our “cataloging the share” posts) for collecting and processing our share to become routine.

At some point between 10 and 2 each Sunday, I tidy the fridge, dispose of anything spoilt, wash any dishes, and head to the Farmer’s Market to collect our share. I unpack the crate of goodness into cloth bags, load them into the trunk, and drive home. (The market is three times farther away from our home than the grocery store is, and this process still takes less than half the time of a typical grocery run. No lines!) Once home, I unpack the items, store them appropriately (this now takes less than ten minutes!), and move on with my day.

In the first weeks of receiving the share, I spent hours with the fresh veg – meticulously photographing each item, washing and drying and trimming and wrapping and placing each one in its storage spot, poring over cookbooks and farm magazines looking for just the right recipes to showcase our farm-to-table goodness, and then feverishly batch cooking it all.

Now, it’s just food.

Well. In our house, nothing is “just” food, but bringing the share into our home isn’t a project – and it’s so much less effortful than making lists and choosing each item and packaging them. Sundays are, once again, full of ease.

What’s in Our CSA Share?

For the last few weeks, each of our shares have been remarkably similar: eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic, sweet and hot peppers, fresh herbs, acorn and butternut squashes, green beans, lettuce mix, watermelon and pullet eggs.

We’ve eaten watermelon by the slice, and I’ve relished baking cakes with these beautiful, yolky little eggs. Clay developed a new InstantPot chili recipe using acorn squash instead of beans, and a butternut+Parmesan pasta sauce. We’ve made creamy tomato soup and roasted ratatouille, and put up a few jars of salsa for the winter. I made a dozen mini quiches last week that we enjoyed for take-along-breakfasts. And salad is back in season, with a different custom dressing (see yesterday’s post about our thwarted desire for hot oil).

I’m craving a squash-and-potato soup with sharp cheddar cheese, so that’s on this week’s to make list. I’d like to give Ina Garten’s mini Italian frittatas a try. And I’ve been baking stone fruit skillet cakes and fall-fruit hand pies – I’ll keep at both of those!

What’s happening in your kitchen?

How NOT To Make “Hot Oil”

Pretty doesn’t always equal tasty.

Our favorite local pizza spot is a pub that specializes in the Hot Oil Bar Pie – a paper-thin, crisp crust smeared with aromatic marinara, a blend of cheeses, and an olive-oil-soaked jalapeño pepper placed in the center of the pie (so the spicy oil disperses throughout as it bakes). The heat is all up-front, so people who can’t handle a lingering spiciness can still enjoy a slice. This is an amazing pizza.

Since the predominant kitchen motto in our house is “I bet we can make that”, and since we’ve received a half-dozen jalapeño peppers from our CSA share in the last few weeks, I followed the instructions received from our waitress on our last visit; topped the peppers, removed the seeds and ribs, packed them in olive oil, and left them to cure.

The result: moldy peppers and cloudy oil!

I’m assuming that the folks at Colony take a few more steps, and that their peppers are packed tightly (like cucumbers for pickles); slicing mine made them less sturdy and more slippery, which probably means they were less likely to stay submerged in the oil.

I’ve done a bit of reading on making other spiced oils, and have a new idea: rather than retain the peppers for use, I’ll chop them, infuse them into heated oil, then strain the solids and retain the oil for use in dressings and marinades and finishes. Sadly, the new plan may have to wait until next Sunday; I packed yesterday’s jalapeños into a new jar albeit without slicing them, before checking on the originals. (A classic food-preservation blunder!)