OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week she offers some clever ideas for using up last year’s preserves and shares a recipe for sticky fig-tahini blondies for Eid-al-Fitr.
In April, before the farmer’s market and garden are really cranking out anything inspiring, you might be staring at a lot of food that you put into jars last year (or even the year before). Maybe you overestimated how much pumpkin risotto you’d eat and you still have a couple kabocha squashes kicking around your basement. This is the ideal time to cycle through your inventory to make room for a new season’s bounty, but there’s only so much you can do with a whole shelf of blackberry jam and pickled peppers, right? We at “Superabundant” are here to remind you that you can clear the pantry without turning everything into sandwiches and trifles. What’s the magic ratio for turning pretty much any jam into cake? Read on to find!
Small bites: A feast to end the fast, new findings on the chemistry of smoke taint and helping farmers in crisis heal
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
You can’t spell ‘feast’ without ‘fast’
Eid Mubarak! Friday, April 20, spells the end of Ramadan (depending on where you are and the visibility of the new moon), and that means it’s time for Muslims to celebrate with the feast that breaks the fast, Eid al-Fitr. In Muslim-majority countries, Eid is celebrated for three days; the first of these, Eid al-Fitr, is typically spent visiting friends and family and exchanging sweets; Eid al-Adha, the meaty Festival of the Sacrifice, concludes the celebration. Find our recipe for sticky fig-tahini blondies — inspired by the superabundance of the Middle East — at the end of this newsletter.
Oregon enologists make new breakthrough on smoke taint
Researchers at Oregon State University (with assistance from Washington State University) have isolated the chemical responsible for the noxious, ashy flavors that wildfires can leave on wine grapes. Originally assumed to be caused by a class of chemical compounds known as volatile phenols, the findings, recently published in Food Chemistry Advances, can more specifically be attributed to thiophenols, napthalene thiols (napthalene is what mothballs are made of) and other thiols (thiols are added to natural gas to give it the distinctive rotten egg smell).
Mental health support for struggling farm workers
(Warning: discussion of suicide and depression.) Everyone knows that farming is hard work, but people might not realize just how soul-crushing it can be — so much so that some agricultural workers eventually find themselves unable to cope any longer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that farm workers are two to three times more likely to end their own lives than the general population, but as OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, Oregon’s new Senate Bill 955, would provide state money to support a suicide helpline for rural people who may be reluctant to seek help from urban helplines. The bill would grant $300,000 to connect Oregon to the existing AgriStress support network; lawmakers have until the end of June to meet the legislative session deadline.
Spring cleaning the pantry
Before spring’s bounty fully shows itself in markets and the garden, it’s important to remember the order of operations: before we can “in with the new,” we have to “out with the old.” Maybe you’re staring down a cupboard full of last year’s fruit preserves, pickles and applesauce; you might still have winter squash or a box of apples in storage, or bags of berries in the freezer. It’s time to use them up!
Cleaning out the refrigerator once in a while is a chore, but there’s no better time than now, so put on a good podcast and get to work. But before you toss everything into the compost, we have a few tips for making the most of last year’s efforts.
- You can make cake out of any jam by following this formula: Use 2 cups of wet stuff per 3 cups of dry stuff. The dry stuff is easy — it’s 2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, and a 1 teaspoon each kosher salt, baking powder, and baking soda. You can add cinnamon, cardamom, whatever sweet spices you like. The wet stuff is 1 cup jam (literally any jam will do, even applesauce!), ½ cup fat (e.g., canola oil, a stick of butter, etc.), 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon of a flavor extract (vanilla, almond extract, etc.) and enough milk or buttermilk to make it 2 cups. Mix thoroughly and scrape the batter into a greased loaf or cake pan and bake at 350o for 50-60 minutes. Vanilla and cinnamon are universal, but don’t be afraid to go off-script with flavors — stone fruits like plums, apricots and cherries love almonds and almond extract, blueberries and blackberries love lemon zest and nutmeg, citrus marmalade loves cloves and cardamom.
- You can also turn jam into a pie. Jam tarts and hand pies are a dead-simple way to cruise through a lot of jam — just pour any fruit jam into a prepared pastry shell (or even frozen puff pastry, to make turnovers) and bake.
- Dehydrate stuff to buy yourself some time. We’re not just talking fruit leather — this even applies to foods you think have no business being dehydrated. If you find that an old batch of pickles lost its crunch (this happens with lactofermented “sour” pickles), you don’t have to toss them! Puree the pickles and spices and dehydrate the slurry in a low (200o) oven overnight or in a food dehydrator, then powder them with a spice grinder. The resulting pickle powder is sharp and flavorful — it’s great on tater tots and popcorn, it adds zip to burgers and potato salad, or you can sprinkle it onto bloody marys. Same applies to kimchi, though you can also use really ripe kimchi in jjigae (stew).
- You can crock pot just about anything into a meal. Within reason, of course. If you don’t have a lot of time to be an attentive cook (or family schedules overlap with dinnertime), we love dumping a jar of tomato sauce or salsa into a countertop cooker with a pound of skinless/boneless chicken thighs, stew meat or even a couple eggplants, add some seasoning and then go on with our day. At meal time you can fork the meat apart and serve with tortillas or rice. You can use pretty much any fruit jam as the base of a crock pot sauce perfect for meatballs or those tiny smoky cocktail sausages (see our blackberry barbecue meatballs recipe from last December).
- Use springtime ingredients to give stored winter foods a facelift. Got a pumpkin that needs eating? Brush it with mole or miso, roast it and serve it with a bright salsa verde of fresh herbs and spring onions. Shave beets or apples from the root cellar onto flatbread or pizza with a creamy soft cheese, a pile of fresh arugula and a drizzle of honey. Make gnocchi with celeriac (just sub the potato in any gnocchi recipe) and toss them in nettle pesto. Grill whole heads of winter radicchio, escarole or even Romaine and brush them with a bright vinaigrette of Meyer lemon juice, your favorite oil and gobs of fresh chives.
With just a little determination, you can make your kitchen ready for all the delicious things spring promises — and eat well while you’re at it.
Recipe: Sticky fig-tahini blondies
Sesame gets a lot of love in savory applications, but its nuttiness makes it a natural fit with sweets, too — there’s halva, of course, but we also love old-fashioned sesame snaps (guaranteed to pull out a dental filling) and the bowls of gooey fried jian dui that make an appearance on dim sum roll carts. Sesame also pairs beautifully with Levantine sweet ingredients like honey, figs and dates, as ably demonstrated by these sticky fig-tahini blondies. This recipe will use up a pint of fig jam in one fell swoop — keep it around if you have a productive fig tree and a penchant for putting up. Makes 18 bars.
Note: Every year we prepare some of our fig preserves without added sugar so that the final product can be used in a wider variety of dishes like breads, moles and chutneys for serving with roast meats; we added ½ cup honey here to make it sweet enough for a dessert.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp cardamom powder
2 cups fig jam (if using unsweetened fig preserves, add ½ cup honey)
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
Scant ⅛ tsp orange flower water (optional)
½ cup tahini
3 tbsp date molasses (or regular blackstrap molasses)
1 tsp sesame seeds
- Grease a 9x13″ baking dish and line the bottom with parchment paper. Move a rack to the middle position of the oven and preheat to 350o.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and cardamom. In another bowl, whisk together the fig jam, eggs, melted butter, and orange flower water.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, then pour in the fig mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking dish, then dribble the tahini over the top in blobs (don’t worry about making it perfect). Artfully blorp the date molasses over the tahini, then use a chopstick or toothpick to draw wide swirls through the molasses and tahini. Again, don’t worry about making it perfect — you’re aiming for casual artisness here. Scatter the sesame seeds across the top.
- Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean(ish). They should be slightly gooey (like a blondie!) but without any raw batter. Cool for 30 minutes and then slice and serve.