Rhubarb Schnapps: the waiting is the hardest part

I had a fair bit of interest in the rhubarb schnapps I brought to the swap earlier this week and thought it was worth documenting the process. I’m not sure how to credit the recipe, since all I have are my own notes on a post-it, but I think it may have been in one of Nigella Lawson’s book. (Google says yes.) I haven’t tried it with other fruits, but I imagine it would work just as well with citrus or cherries or berries, anything tart and juicy.

The amounts are flexible, since everything is just proportional. You start out with your rhubarb, say, a few stalks. Wash it, chop it up and put it in a mason jar or other container. Fill the jar with the fruit, but don’t pack it too tightly. Then fill the jar with cheap — and I mean cheap, we’re talking plastic jugs here — vodka.** Set it aside for a week or so. At the end of the week, strain the mixture and discard* the fruit. Measure the liquid and calculate:

—1.5 times that amount of water
—half that amount of sugar
(so, if you have 2 cups of vodka, you need 3 cups of water and 1 cup of sugar)

Make a simple syrup using those amounts, add to the alcohol and age it at least a month. Three months is better, six months is much better. I drink the kind of wine that comes in screw-top bottles, which are perfect for recycling in this kind of project. You don’t need to do anything special to it while it’s aging; I stashed mine under the kitchen sink with the date it would be ready taped to the bottle and moved it to the fridge after that date. I liked it with seltzer and lemon over ice, but it also makes a nice after-dinner drink, the kind of thing crime-fighting old ladies might sip after a big meal, served very cold and in a tiny glass.

*If you’re using cherries or raspberries or something, they might be great after soaking in vodka for a week. Rhubarb, not so much.

**Edited to add: I’ve had a couple of questions about using expensive vodka instead of the plastic-jug stuff. Happily, Hank Shaw just addressed this issue in his post about making mirto, the Sardinian myrtle berry liqueur, in which he writes that, “…you get better extraction of an herb’s flavors with the higher alcohol content.” So, it’s not just any cheap booze you’re looking for, it’s the booziest cheap booze you can find.


Last night was the latest in a series of larder food swaps organized by Kate of Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking and Meg of BKHomesteader. The general idea is to bring extras of all of the jams, pickles, and other interesting concoctions you’ve been making and swap with other people who’ve also been toiling away making fun stuff. I brought some of the rhubarb schnapps I made this spring (will post a recipe soon, have to find my notes) and a jar of roasted, shelled gingko nuts I collected this weekend (post on that to come too) and came home with a jar of salmon rilettes made by Liza of FoodCurated and a fascinating tea blend made by Liz, who I was excited to meet after following her on twitter for a while. It’s called Vivid Visions and can be either drunk or smoked(!) The swaps are always a good time. People bring snacks, last night there was wine, and there are dozens of interesting people to chat up.

New project

Last weekend, I had an overwhelming urge to cast on for a new sweater, one that I would just knit straight from the pattern without designing it myself or rewriting for a gauge difference or reworking elements to be more to my taste. So I did, more or less.

I’ve had this Teva Durham pattern from the winter 99/00 issue of Vogue Knitting on my radar for a while. I wanted a pullover since I’ve been knitting a lot of cardigans lately and I really like the mix of textures and how smoothly the pattern transitions between them. I like that it’s closely fitted at the shoulder, which makes a huge difference in how well a sweater fits (and therefore flatters) me. I didn’t quite meet my goal of a project with no changes, but the ones I’m making are fairly straightforward: leaving off all the foofaraw on the bottom and doing besides the slit and pom-poms at the neck. I’m using some Aracaunia Nature Wool that I had ordered online a year or so ago thinking that it was a pretty dark pink color. When it showed up was a kind of dead pinky-wine color, so I overdyed it with (I think, it’s been a while) some burgandy and a little black and it’s a much more interesting darker plum now.

Heathful by default

One of my general lifestyle goals (do I actually have such a thing? I hadn’t really thought about it until I typed out the words. I …guess?) is to make eating in a healthful manner my normal. There’s nothing wrong with some Annie’s mac and cheese with some frozen peas added — until you realize that that’s the thing you’re reaching for automatically when you don’t have anything in particular planned for dinner and that you’re going through an embarrassing number of boxes each week. So I’m talking about dishes that are genuinely good for me, really easy, and appeal to my occasionally idiosyncratic palate.

I mean, duh, who goes out and decides to pursue foods that are bad for you, difficult to make or procure, and that you don’t like? Nobody. What I’m aiming for here is a repertoire of things that are ACTIVELY good for me (like, very strict nutritionists would approve) and RIDICULOUSLY easy and VERY delicious, with bonus points given for using only ingredients that I always have around. I’m particularly interested in food that is quick to eat, as well as to prepare, since I often have things planned for the evening (knitting, typing, shaking my fists at the people outside) for which I want the use of my hands. This recipe from my previous blog for caramelized tofu fits the bill. And so does what I made for dinner last night.One thing that makes this dish as quick and easy as it is is the fact that I keep a large container of cleaned, chopped leafy greens in my fridge. It would be hard to exaggerate how much this particular action changed the way I cook and eat. If I come home late and starving (after, say, seeing the delightful smartypants Ben Goldacre talk about the placebo effect, AIDS activism in South Africa, vaccine-danger hoaxes, Tony Blair’s sex life, and other matters of scientific importance), I can be eating sauteed greens with an egg on top ten minutes after walking in the door. There are always at least two kinds in the mix — right now it’s kale and tatsoi and some dandelion greens from my dandelion houseplant experiment; I dug up a healthy plant in the park, replanted it at home and rip the leaves off every other week  — so I never feel all ‘what am I going to do with this chard?’ It’s just ‘greens,’ and they’re a constant presence.

I do all the prep work as soon as I bring the vegetables home, with the happy results that I always have greens available for a quick stir-fry or to add to soup. It helps me keep an eye on my greens consumption too; if the level in the container isn’t going down, I know I need to eat more. Which is, as a matter of fact, one reason I threw this together last night. I used walnut oil at the end just because I had bought a bottle at some point for all the good omega whatnots it has, but olive oil would work just as well. Halloumi is a magical Mediterranean cheese that you can brown without it melting, but a bit of feta or parmesan would add a similar sharp, salty richness. When I’ve seen it for sale, it’s been in shrink-wrapped blocks that are roughly 5″ x 7″. I cut two slices about 1/2″ thick off the short end and broke them into pieces about an inch big. Sometime soon, I want to cook several large batches of beans and freeze them in can-size portions to cut down further on the amount of packaging I bring into the house and BPA that I consume and increase my sense of smug self-satisfaction, but for now I’m still buying cans.

Chickpeas and Greens with Halloumi
makes 2 servings

olive oil
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 c. cleaned, chopped dark leafy greens
juice of one lemon
2 t walnut oil
2 slices halloumi, broken into pieces

Heat the olive oil in a skillet in with high sides and add chickpeas to the pan. Stir occasionally for five minutes, or until heated through. Add greens and toss or stir constantly until greens are as cooked as you prefer them. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and walnut oil. In a small frying pan, cook the halloumi until browned on both sides. Divide chickpeas and greens between two bowls and top with cheese.

Squash and Apple Muffins

These muffins were an exercise in using up some stuff in my kitchen that happily turned out to be delicious. The original recipe is in the very nice Hometown Cooking in New England, but the muffins I ended up making bore little resemblance to the recipe. Instead of canned pumpkin, I used roasted delicata squash, dried cranberries instead of raisins, chopped apple instead of walnuts, yogurt instead of buttermilk, a mix of whole wheat and unbleached flours, plus some wheat bran and ground flax instead of straight flour. They were wholesome and tasty and made the apartment smell fantastic for a solid 24 hours. Good stuff.

Squash and Apple Muffins
makes 12

1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. unbleached flour
2 T wheat bran
2 T ground flaxseed
1 t baking soda
2 t baking powder
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground cardamom
1 t ground allspice
1/4 t ground cloves
a few scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t salt
1/2 c packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 c butter, melted
1 c roasted squash
1/2 c yogurt or buttermilk
1/2 c dried cranberries
one large apple, chopped finely

Preheat over to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the flours, wheat bran, flaxseed, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt. In a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar, eggs, and butter until light and frothy. Blend in the squash and buttermilk or yogurt. Add the dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened. Fold in the cranberries and apple, but do not overmix. Spoon into greased muffin cups and back for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly brown.

Dye job

This was a bit of a risky endeavor, as these things go. I knew that I’d like this sweater more if it were solid black instead of the less-appealing-to-me black and pink tweed. But dyeing whole garments is trickier than dyeing yarn or fabric, since it’s a lot harder to dye big pieces evenly. I wasn’t really worried though, since most of the sweater was already the color I was aiming for and if the pink parts took the dye unevenly it would still be more interesting than it was. I used Jacquard acid dye in black and my enormous stainless steel dyepot and was happily surprised by how evenly the dye took and how very, very black it is.

I’m pretty happy with how the sweater turned out overall. The neck is higher than I’d normally choose, but I like the sleek, fitted effect.

Cheap luxury

I don’t do it weekly, or even monthly — the pleasure in just as much in the break of routine as it is in the experience itself — but I love going to nice restaurants by myself at lunch. It’s a fraction of the price of going at dinner (even with a 25% tip, I spent less than $13), but somehow feels much more luxurious. It’s quieter and brighter, the pace is slower, but the service is faster. No one is looking over her shoulder from the bar, waiting for her turn at my table. Sure, I have to go back to the office afterward, but knowing that I took the effort to carve out that space in the middle of an otherwise busy day makes it that much sweeter.

Today I went to my favorite neighborhood sushi place. Out of the office, away from my desk, at a table with a waitress and a menu and the nice, non-splintery chopsticks, I sat quietly for an hour, sipping miso, nibbling salad, making notes about the book I’m working on, and savoring my spicy salmon and eel avocado rolls. It was a pleasure that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

That was … weird

This past weekend, I went to the last ever performance of Angels and Accordions, the site-specific dance/music/dramatic posing extravaganza at Green-Wood Cemetery. I had won tickets through their site for knowing some things about Dewitt Clinton* and brought along my friend Anna. I had a great time, but it was due more to the excellent company and our shared love of the absurd than the performance itself, which was overly crowded and overwrought and kind of hackneyed. This photo gives a pretty good idea of what it was all about:There was some dance at the beginning and end of the event, but the bulk of it involved walking around with roughly 500 other people, looking at “angels” posing dramatically around the cemetery. Occasionally, someone playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Beautiful Dreamer” on an accordion would be stationed nearby. We split off from the group for half an hour or so and wandered around taking pictures and picking up conkers, which I find completely irresistible both as shiny, useless objects and a kickin’ potential fake swear. If I could think of anything to do with them, I’d haul ‘em home by the sackload.

I’d never seen this stone before Anna spotted it and we spent longer than I’d like to admit trying to figure it out. There’s no apparent connection between the two people. She was 13 when he died, so he could have been a grandfather, though it doesn’t say so. They seemingly had nothing in common, she being a California-dwelling pacifist and socialist, while he was a Freemason who fought in the Civil War. Even if she was a descendant who wanted to be buried across the country from where she died near this particular guy, why add him to a new stone? Presumably he had had one sometime in the more than 70 years between their deaths.

Then we accidentally stumbled back on the group just in time to catch the finale.

*VERY little-known fact about Dewitt Clinton: He was the ancestor and namesake of a young man with whom I once spent an evening in the early ’90s drinking a highly suspect concoction of malt liquor and wine coolers and because of whom I was subjected to one of my first hangovers.

Apple Pie Oatmeal

This was a happy experiment over the weekend. I like adding dried fruit to oatmeal, but had never thought to add fresh until I was facing a fridge full of apples and a looming CSA pickup this weekend. Cooking the apples with the oats gave it a creaminess that meant that I didn’t need (or even want, really) to add butter.

4 c. water
1/2 c. steel-cut oats
pinch of salt
1 smallish apple, chopped
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cardamom
1/4 t. allspice
brown sugar

Bring water to a boil, then add oats and salt. Add apple and spices after 10 minutes. Cook for 30 minutes total, stirring occasionally. Serve with brown sugar and milk.

Makes one (sizable) serving.