Adding a little zest to the holidays

Now that the Mayan calendar’s 14th Baktun has started with no hitches, it seems that there’ll be a 2013 after all – and the really good news (assuming the Values Institute at DGWB is better at predicting things than doomsday sites) is that food waste consciousness will be the top 2013 trend (with “meatless mainstreaming” coming in at number 4). Beth Hoffman, in an article she wrote for Forbes, seems to concur, listing food waste, humane animal treatment and food labelling as three issues of great importance that have finally made it into mainstream American consciousness.

It’s about time.

So, now that we’re all on the cusp of heightened food waste consciousness, I expect a few people will want to be making New Year’s resolutions to waste less, and if you’re looking for ways to do that, this article on CNN.com is a good place to start.

One food that the CNN article doesn’t mention, is citrus peels. Peels almost inevitably get wasted, which is a shame, because a little zest can add a great accent to sweet and savoury dishes, mulled beverages, teas, chutneys, pickles, cocktails and more. So why do so many peels end up in the bin? Simple: people rarely have cause to use citrus peel on the same day that they use the fruit … and on days that they do use zest, they often end up wasting the fruit.

It’s about timing.

In 2012, we decided to do something about that in our home, and started freezing peels whenever we ate citrus fruits. That provided us with a handy supply of zest throughout the year, with a big surplus at year end – perfect for making holiday candy.

We made our candied peels with some brandy, cinnamon, star anise, and cloves. The peels last for several months, and are versatile. They can be used in baking or as garnish, eaten straight or dipped in chocolate – and make a nice seasonal gift during the holidays.

Candied citrus peels

The extra bonus was the simple syrup infused with spice and citrus that was a byproduct of the process. It came in handy when we opened a bottle of red wine that was not as tasty as we’d hoped. We heated up the wine, and added one tablespoon of brandy along with two tablespoons of our new instant Glühwein syrup (patent pending) per serving – and, just like that, bad wine was transformed into very Christmasy mulled wine. I’m guessing the syrup will also be good for making spiced tea and cider.

Candied peel (8 cups)

Ingredients

  • 8 cups of citrus peels, sliced
  • 4 cups water
  • 8 cups sugar
  • ½ cup brandy
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 slices star anise

 Directions

  • Thaw peels (if needed) and slice into various shapes. We used a combination of thawed orange, blood orange, lemon and lime peels, as well as the fresh peels of a red pummelo and an oroblanco grapefruit Bonnie Lee had just used in a savoury fruit stew. The fresh peels were very thick with pith, and ended up having a texture similar to gummy bears, with great grapefruit notes.
  • Submerge peels in water, and bring to a boil. Drain. Repeat. Repeat again. This removes some of the bitterness from the pith.
  • Mix sugar and water. Boil for 10 minutes or so, until the syrup reached the thread stage (i.e., until syrup dripped from a spoon into cold water forms thin threads).
  • Add in the brandy, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and peels, and simmer until the pith is translucent. This took about 2 hours for our batch.
  • Let peels dry on wire rack until they are no longer sticky (this can take up to a day).
  • Roll peels in sugar, if desired.
Fruit stew

The fruit stew that sparked the candy making.

Thawed peels

Thawed peels

Peels being candied

Peels being candied

Rolling peels in sugar

Rolling peels in sugar

Instant Glühwein

Instant Glühwein (patent pending)

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Stone soup

A hungry traveller arrives in a village, and asks the people there if they have any food to share. They all say no. It is an all too common a story.

This particular traveller, however, does not leave the village defeated and hungry. He does not go on to die by the side of the road – though countless others in his situation certainly have. Instead, he fills a pot with water, pulls a stone out of his travel bag and drops it in, and places the pot on the fire. 

One by one, the villagers come to him, and ask him what he is doing. He explains that this is a soup stone, and that he making stone soup, which he would be happy to share – and which would be even better with the addition of some small ingredient. 

The villagers, who not so long ago claimed to have nothing, each add a little something to the stone broth, eventually creating a feast together – one which they share.

In case you never heard it before, the above is a boiled down version of the story of stone soup. I can still remember the first time my mother read it to me. Something about it moved me. The traveller was cunning, and the moral of the story resonated – but more significantly, I was amazed that that’s all there was to soup. I quizzed my mother to make sure I understood properly – that all you had to do to make soup was boil stuff. I was three or four years old, and am quite sure I’d never thought about where soup came from before. Soup, to me, was a rich flavored liquid, origins unknown, that warmed and satisfied on a cold day. And all you had to do to make it was boil stuff. That felt like magic to me.

All these years later, the ability to extract the essence of foods, and to combine them into complex, layered flavors still feels like magic. For years, I started with whole vegetables and chickens, but have had better results lately using food that used to go straight into the compost or garbage.

What I do is this: whenever I peel or chop vegetables or meats, I toss any bits that would usually be destined for the compost or garbage bin into a colander, wash them, then put them in a container in the freezer.  When I want to make stock, I throw the stone-like frozen scraps into water and boil. I made the last batch with corn cobs, chicken wing tips, carrot greens, onion skins, celery and carrots ends, carrot peels and some cauliflower leaves and carrot tops that didn’t make it onto the menu a few weeks ago. It was complex with a hint of sweetness – and, in the spirit of stone soup, it was a broth made in what some would perceive as the absence of food.

I used three cups “stone soup” broth to make one of my favorite soups – a spicy beer and cheddar soup. The final product really benefitted from the multitude of flavors in the broth, particularly the distinctive flavor of corn imparted by the corn cobs.

Spicy beer & cheddar soup (serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 serrano pepper (with seeds), sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 crushed clove of garlic
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1 cup beer (I use a white beer)
  • 3 cups “stone soup” broth
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Mix mustard powder into vinegar and set aside.
  2. Sauté the onion, serrano pepper and garlic in olive oil over medium heat, until onion is translucent.
  3. Add in the celery and carrots, and sauté for about five minutes.
  4. Add in the beer and stone soup broth. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Melt the butter over medium heat in a deep skillet, and whisk in the flour.  Continue to whisk over medium heat for about 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture starts to turn a light shade of brown. Whisk in the milk, and heat until the mixture starts to thicken. Stir in the cheese, and once it’s melted, pour the cheese sauce into the soup and blend.
  6. Add in the mustard mixture, and salt and pepper to taste.