Sunday, October 4, 2009

Good-bye garden and hello homemade liqueurs

Today was pretty much the last day of the edible garden. In years past, I have had the energy and foresight to plant a cold-weather garden of radishes and greens. This year work and family conspired to let my summer garden die a slow, scraggly death. Still, this week I got 10 pounds of grapes off my two year old Concord vine, 6 quarts of brussel sprouts and 2 final succulent pounds of Blue Lake Pole beans. I cooked and canned the grapes with Eugenia Bone's recipe for Concord Grape Walnut Conserve, from her new(ish) book Well-Preserved. The sprouts and beans we didn't eat immediately were pickled -- sprouts blanched and beans raw-packed -- with a "dilly bean" brine recipe. All the jars are now satisfyingly lined up on the shelves in my family room, along with the cauliflower, pears and apples I put up with produce from the market.

The beans were from One Seed Chicago -- in the early spring, my toddler recieved a handful of seeds in a newspaper twist at the Garfield Park Conservatory. I gave him a square foot of one of my raised beds, and the beans took off skyward. The old cable and phone lines that riddle the west-facing back wall of my house were the ideal trellis. Most of the beans within his 3-foot reach went straight into his mouth while standing in the backyard. That one square foot of raised bed, almost unwatered this entire summer, managed to put green beans on our plates once a week for the entire summer. Of course, since the "summer" started in late July this year, I can't say it was a very long season.

The canning process was, as usual, less work than I thought. "Less arduous" is actually what I mean, because it did take up a whole day. Both this weekend and last have been chilly, however, and hours of standing near large boiling pots of water were not unwelcome. I love seeing all of my beautiful jars lined up on my shelf. I am loathe to open any as this would disturb the symmetry of my display. I will be brave and do it at some point, but for now I just want to look at them. The only thing missing is strawberry jam. This was our first year of the strawberry beds, and we ate them all straight off the plants. I didn't even make one cobbler or pie! My kid would go out every morning and check the beds -- any berry remotely close to ripeness was quickly plucked and shoved rapturously into his chubby toddler cheeks. For a few weeks, the growth outpaced him and I was able to collect a quart. I stuck them in the fridge overnight and tried to pawn them off on him at breakfast but one taste and he pronounced them "bad strawbabies" and insisted on going outside to get better ones. I take it as a small victory that I have produced a strawberry snob in inner-city Chicago.

The canning spirit had inspired my inner French peasant, so I decided this was also the time to examine my stock of homemade liqueurs. I was initially turned on to this craft by the French Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis. Well, I knew about it before my travels to Mexico and Bolivia all it took was a few minute conversation with someone in the countryside and I was invariably invited to step over to their house to sample some homemade brew. I had even tried to make limoncello when I was living in New York, but it ended up being weakly-lemon-flavored cheap vodka. But Loomis' recipes looked promising and delicious, and since then, no dinner party of mine has been complete without pulling out a bottle or two of some digestif for my guests. Hostess that I am, my demand has outstripped my supply: my Quince Eau-de-Vie was finished a few months ago, and now I am left with a scant cup each of Thyme Liqueur and Vin d'Orange. So, I have started a new bottle of the Thyme Liqueur, especially since my thyme plants have threatened to completely take over my herb garden. I am also trying a head-to-head battle of the recipes for Liqueur 44. Liqueur 44 is a French orange-and-coffee cordial. Loomis has a Vodka-based recipe and Saveur recently printed a rum-based recipe. I have made a jar of each and in 44 days, I will sample and report the winner.

For now, here is the recipe for the Thyme Liqueur, adapted from Loomis. It is a good use for end-of-season herb plants, although technically one should probably pick the thyme at the peak of summer flavor, preferably in early morning. I will leave that to the purists, and for myself I will have this mellow herbal taste of early autumn. Hmmm...mellow only if you let it sit for four or six months....freshly made it can "bend a nail", as Loomis writes.

Thyme Liqueur

Thick handful of thyme sprigs, washed and spun dry
1 quart vodka
1 quart water
3/4 c sugar

1. Pack the thyme into a 1 quart jar that will close airtight. Pour the vodka over and close well. Shake and then let sit in a dark cool place for a month.

2. Strain the mixture and discard the thyme.

3. Bring the water and sugar to boil and stir over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.

4. Blend the thyme essence and the sugar syrup together in a 2 quart jar. Let sit for another month. The liqueur will get more mellow and better with age.

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