garlic powder, preserved lemons and more, in alana chernila’s ‘the homemade kitchen’
WHAT DO TWO OF THE SIMPLEST, most familiar ingredients like garlic and lemons add up to? Plenty, in the hands of Alana Chernila, author of the new cookbook, “The Homemade Kitchen.” Especially if you make homegrown garlic into everything from garlic powder to a party-worthy appetizer, and store-bought lemons into preserved ones (get her recipe below) that in turn transform soups, pasta or hummus.
Besides leaning how, enter to win the new book plus a chef’s knife and tote bag Alana shared with me to celebrate her book launch, the followup to her previous hit, “The Homemade Pantry” in 2012.
One recent weekend, when we were teaching back-to-back, daylong cheesemaking classes at my place, I was explaining to the students how Alana Chernila and I ended up in my kitchen together this way, surrounded by all this milk and cream. After all, I’m a gardener, right, not a dairy farmer?
Trying to explain Alana’s and my connection, I asked the class:
“You know how my A Way to Garden website motto is ‘horticultural how-to and woo-woo?’–like not just the garden facts, but also the feelings?” They nodded yes.
Well, the way Alana cooks is all about culinary how-to and woo-woo–so, we’re peas in a pod. Her cooking involves a sense of wonder, and self-forgiveness, too, as required. Neither one of us expects perfection every time in our endeavors but we always enjoy the ride, and learn. Alana joined me on my public-radio show and podcast, to talk about garlic, lemons, the new book and more. Stream it on the player below, or at this link; it’s the October 12, 2015 edition.
my q&a on ‘the homemade kitchen’ with alana chernila
Q. The book is “The Homemade Kitchen: Recipes for Cooking With Pleasure.” How do you find yourself describing it in interviews so far as you do your book tour —you know, when you’ve been asked the same question a number of times, and then you realize, “Ah, yes, that’s what it’s about.” It finally distills. [Get all Alana’s tour dates, around the nation, and attend an event.]
A. It’s kind of fun to find it. This book is about all the different ways that I connect the way I eat to the way I want to live.
So the book is organized around a list of principles that essentially are little mantras that I keep on my fridge, and have for years, and that have grown over the years. They’re ways to help me remember that it’s possible for me to cook and eat in a way that can contribute to a life that I want to live.
Those phrases really help when I think, “Uhhh, I really have to make another dinner?” or, “Oh my gosh, do I have to think about what we’re supposed to eat and not supposed to eat—all these crazy questions of the food system?” Things that just get me down in the world of food.
These mantras bring me back to the pleasure that I feel when I am just at the counter just cooking the way I want to cook; when I’m having people over, eating what I want to eat. The simple, good process of cooking that’s really why I came to it in the first place.
Q. I will say, the book is also a “good read.” It has about 150 recipes, and is beautiful, but is also memoir-ish, or essay-ish, and in the style that I think some reviewers have even noted of a Laurie Colwin-esque tone. It’s a very beautiful piece of food writing, too.
A. Thank you.
Q. There are anecdotes about what you just said—about life and food both having the same mantra. [Laughter.] They’re fun to read, and some are poignant, and some are very funny.
I loved one anecdote about the beginning of summer, in your family with two young daughters. Instead of succumbing to walking past the ice-cream place in town and saying, “Let’s have a ice cream today, let’s have a ice cream today,” you start the summer with a set of tokens for visits to the ice-cream place, so it’s special. So if it’s a day when the kids want to take a token out and spend one, OK good, we go. But if we’re out of tokens, we’re out of tokens.
A. And then we have to make our ice cream at home. [Laughter.]
Q. But it’s things like that: Instead of just, “Let’s go get an ice cream,” it’s a little bit more than that, and I love those stories.
A. I think there are so many opportunities to make the basic, essential process of eating something else—something special, something that enriches our days. It’s fun to find these stories, and the ways we do it, and the ways I want to do it. That’s a fun example of that process.
Q. We should say that the sections or chapters of the book are these principles that you’ve pasted up on the fridge all these years. They’re phrases like, “Start where you are,” or “Be a beginner,” or “Put your hands in the earth.” Or, “Slow down,” or, “Don’t be afraid of food.” Mantras.
Could we take an ingredient like garlic, since it’s about time to plant it again, and to store our garlic that we harvested in July or August from our gardens. The cycle is going to repeat itself with an ingredient like garlic, so could we talk about it through the year? You eat it all year, you use it, you cook it in different ways—and now we’re going to plant it.
I think you and I plant it in different ways. Do you plant and then thin it?
A. I do plant it and thin it, because I do love what I get in the spring if I do it that way.
Garlic is one of those things—and I’m sure you have more plants that are like this—but it’s one of the very few plants in my life that I feel the benefit of through the entire year. All those cycles of the garlic plant—they always amaze me.
Q. I agree, and I remember the year that I celebrated what I call my “garlic independence,” the first year I had built up enough head from my own selection. I’d saved the best cloves from the biggest heads each year and replanted them, and eaten the rest. I’ve never bought garlic since—and it’s probably eight or nine years now. I’ve never bought a clove, to eat or to plant.
A. Isn’t it amazing? The cycle begins and ends with you.
Q. Speaking of a plant that definitely feels like the principles in your book—it’s a good one.
Even though we’re just across a hill from each other, you plant yours in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (Zone 5), as late as sometime in November.
A. I garden the best I can, but I’m often doing my best and then letting go. I often try to plant my garlic in the beginning of November, or I’m even shooting for Halloween, and then usually it tends to be a tradition that I’m doing it the day after Thanksgiving.
Q. When I asked about thinning, what I meant was that instead of planting cloves like a hand spread apart (from the tip of your pinky outstretched to the tip of your thumb), meaning maybe 5 or 6 inches apart, you plant double-close in all directions.
A. I’ll often plant 2 or 3 inches apart.
Q. And that’s because you’re going to harvest green garlic in the spring?
A. Yes. Of course the garlic won’t bulb up if it’s planted that close together, but I plant it that close. And then in the spring it’s the first thing that pops up, and it cheers me and make me realize the season is actually turning. What I do is once those green garlic plants are about a foot tall—or even 8 or 9 inches—I thin the garlic, and use the green garlic, which is like a sweet, tender leek.
It’s actually one of my favorite moments of the garlic plant. It’s really fantastic in soup, and so versatile—mellow but very deeply flavorful. I love to thin it out, and I can thin it over time, starting when it’s just high enough and thinning enough for that week. And then I’ll thin a little more, as long as it eventually has enough space deep into the spring to start its bulbing process.
Q. So we get green garlic, and then if we’re growing hardneck garlic we can get garlic scapes, and then eventually in July or August, our bulbs. It’s a really rewarding and easy crop.
You make a lot of things with it, and some are deceptively simple, like garlic powder. If we’ve ever bought it at the store, it’s full of things–the label probably has 27 ingredients. [Laughter.]
A. …that are mostly not garlic. [Laughter.]
Q. You make it so simple, because I have watched you—so how does it go?
A. I love making garlic powder. I tend to make it sometime around January or February, when the garlic I’ve been storing is starting to dry out a bit. It’s a great use for that garlic, that starts to get a bit shrivel-y, if that’s happening to you.
I peel it, and slice it thin—often I’ll use a knife, or use a food processor if I’m in a hurry. I’ll slice it thin, and I essentially dehydrate it in a really low oven, at 170 [degrees F], until it’s pretty brittle.
Q. On parchment, or a baking sheet?
A. I do it on parchment, but it’s OK on an oiled baking sheet, too. But I use parchment, because I’m all about the ease of cleanup—there are enough dishes in life to do.
I’ll do it on the baking sheet, and once it’s nice and brittle, I can just throw it in a coffee mill or spice grinder and blend it up into a powder.
It is actually a totally different product from what you’d buy at the store, and so wonderful and garlicky. I just need a little bit. I think garlic powder has great uses—but some people poo-poo it; they say you should be using garlic. But garlic powder doesn’t burn in the way garlic does, so if I’m doing a rub for meat and I’m going to be browning it, I love to use garlic powder instead of fresh garlic.
There are a lot of great uses for garlic powder, and it’s so fun to make—and also fun to give as gifts. People say, “What, you made garlic powder?” and you can pretend it’s really hard.
Q. From a couple of heads you get how much?
A. I get a small jar, which is enough to last me—it’s very pungent, and a little goes a long way.
Q. I could do this in a food dehydrator?
A. Yes. You really want to get it to a place where it’s brittle. But even if there is a little moisture left in it and you put it into the coffee grinder or spice grinder, and it sticks together, you can actually just put it back in the oven for 20 minutes. It will keep drying out, and you can press it out. Sometimes it clumps together, but nothing that the back of a spoon won’t fix.
Q. We should say that this is a coffee grinder that we are not using for coffee, but one set aside for spices.
A. Exactly, unless you really like garlic in your coffee, but I don’t think that’s a flavor combination that really works. [Laughter.]
Q. And you mentioned that you do this sometimes in the New Year, when the garlic you’re storing starts to dry out. Where do you store it?
A. I store it in my pantry; I’m always looking for that perfect spot.
Q. It stores best at 32 to 50 degrees and 60 to 70 percent humidity. So it can go colder than you think, but not damp or hot. I put it in the upstairs of my barn, which has a tiny bit of heat, so it’s like 40 degrees up there but dry.
A. I’m still looking for the perfect place.
Q. It took me 20 years to find it, honestly.
A. It might not be here; I might have to find a new house with a perfect spot for garlic. So my garlic does get shrivel-y sooner than yours.
Q. What I do to have my own garlic right through to the next harvest in July or August, is that I peel whole cloves, put them in a bowl, toss them quickly with a teeny bit of olive oil. I put them in canning jars in the freezer, taking out a clove or two and use it—not defrosting it first. I sauté it whole, then mush it up in whatever I’m cooking. [More on storing and freezing garlic.]
A. I’m always grateful to you for learning that after poking in your fridge during one of our cheesemaking classes together.
Q. You make garlic powder and you make roast garlic, too, which people don’t do enough. If friends call and say they’re stopping by, and I think, “I’ve got nothing special to make,” I take out a head of garlic. Even with just crackers, it’s such a treat.
A. I love roast garlic because it’s an instant, perfect hors-d’oeuvre—it’s gorgeous, and you spread it on bread or crackers and everybody’s happy.
It’s also a real powerhouse ingredient. It has such a different flavor than garlic cooked in other ways. It’s so mellow and sweet, and it adds this kind of deep richness to anything you put it in. And you can of course use more than you would otherwise—you can use a whole head of roasted garlic, where you might just want to use a couple of cloves otherwise.
I love it in hummus, I love it in soups, and anything that you might want to add that garlic flavor to. I think of it often as more of a condiment, an ingredient, that I love to have in my house. And it freezes well, too.
Q. And of course you did it in the new book, in “The Homemade Kitchen,” as a sort of takeoff from a dish at one of our favorite local Berkshires restaurants, John Andrews, where we have both been going forever and where the chef, Dan Smith, has had it on the menu for years. It is sort of a nod to Alice Waters, and he uses a head of roast garlic as a centerpiece to the dish—and you’ve reinvented it in your book.
A. I call it Queen Garlic with Chevre and Tomatoes [above, in the book]. And there’s a recipe in the book for chevre as well, and I talk about roasting cherry tomatoes as well—which is a wonderful trick with cherry tomatoes, especially.
Q. So they create another rich, caramelized, sweet-tasting spread?
A. And you just put it on the platter together. I like to spread the goat cheese on toasted bread, and then I have the roasted tomatoes on the side, and the whole garlic standing there like a queen in the court. You put it on the table and just let everybody jump on it. It is a wonderful dish to break the ice at any table. Everybody wants to eat more, and you can’t do it neatly—you’re squeezing the garlic out of the cloves, and everyone’s fingers are oily. It’s a very sensuous dish; it’s wonderful.
A. Preserved lemons have become one of the most important ingredients in my kitchen, and I’m glad they are becoming more popular in cuisine these days, because anybody can make them at home. That really saves money, since they are so expensive at specialty stores.
They’re fantastic: I have a recipe in the book for Preserved Lemon Hummus, and that’s a great use for them. But I love them in chicken soup—anywhere that needs a little lemon and salt, and that added bit of funkiness that a preserved lemon brings, like a really good cheese. They’re that thing you put into something and everybody wants to know how you made it. The flavor is so fantastic.
Q. And what are they preserved with, salt?
A. Yes, with salt. It’s a really fun process where you start out with maybe 12 to 14 lemons, and then you cut them through so that you can open up the lemon but part of it stays intact. You want to be able to pack salt into the lemon. You pack all the salt in, and you layer these salty lemons into a big clean jar, along with some spices—some bay leaves, and some cardamom pods. The salt helps draw the juices out of the lemons, and they create a brine.
You let that ferment on your counter, turning it over a couple of times, for a couple of weeks, actually. It just transforms the lemons into something amazing. [Alana’s detailed recipe is at the bottom of the page.]
Q. The most fun of all is that as I went through the whole book, then the roasted garlic and these preserved lemons found their way together into a pasta dinner, didn’t they?
A. I love that recipe—it’s so simple. You end up with both roasted garlic and preserved lemons, which are such amazing flavors, and they sort of meld together to make a sauce for pasta that is an easy, quick weeknight meal but so delicious.
Q. And they’re almost generic, ubiquitous—lemons and garlic are things you can get anywhere.
A. They’re the basics in all of our kitchens.
Q. But if you go the extra mile…like you say in the book, one of the chapters is called, “Be a Beginner…”
A. [Laughter.] Because aren’t we all?
Q. We don’t have to have the special-fancy; it’s just those beginning things.
more from alana chernila
- Visit Alana Chernila’s website, Eating From the Ground Up
- Check dates for her 2015 fall-winter book tour, including California, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York and more.
- Buy her new book now on Amazon (affiliate link)
- Our next cheesemaking classes together at my house: December 2015 (ticket info)
enter to win the book, chef’s knife and tote
ALANA CHERNILA shared a special gift with me to share with one of you: A signed copy of “The Homemade Kitchen,” plus a tote bag imprinted with the book cover and one of her mantras, plus a 6-inch Zwillig chef’s knife. All you have to do to enter to win is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
If Alana’s approach to cooking is expressed in phrases like, “start where you are,” where are you at the moment with cooking and food–with feeding yourself? Fed up (perhaps with all the “xxxxx is bad for you” pressure, or just with finding time)? Or is it fun (perhaps you’re learning some new skill, such as fermentation or slow-cookery), or what?
Since I left my corporate life and moved to a rural town eight years ago, I cook all but perhaps one or at most two meals a week for myself from scratch, and I’ve never been happier about it. Nothing fancy, mostly served in bowls and eaten with big spoons, but nourishing and satisfying–and I know where everything came from. Also: I now waste very little food, something that is particularly satisfying. (One of the sections in “The Homemade Kitchen” is titled, “Use Your Scraps.” And Alana and I both do.)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but an answer is even better. I love hearing from you. I’ll select a winner at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, October 18, 2015. Good luck to all.
prefer the podcast?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the October 12, 2015 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
alana’s preserved lemons recipe
- 3 pounds organic or unsprayed lemons (10 to 14 lemons)
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 10 cardamom pods
- 6 bay leaves
- 2 cups lemon juice, or more as needed (this can be fresh squeezed or bottled, as long as it is 100% lemon juice without chemical additives)
1. Scrub the lemons to remove any residue. For each lemon, cut off the tip. Then cut the lemon lengthwise, leaving the end intact. Cut it again lengthwise at a 90-degree angle to the first cut. The lemons will be quartered, but still attached at one end. Have ready a sterilized ½-gallon jar or two quart jars.
2. Measure the salt into a medium bowl. It might feel like a lot, but it’s the salt itself that preserves the lemons, and it needs to fill all the spaces between the lemons in the jar. Put the cut lemons in the bowl, a few at a time, and rub the flesh of each lemon with salt. Put a few tablespoons of salt in the bottom of the jar. Push the lemons into the jar, making a layer of lemons. They will release juice and smoosh a bit—this is good. Now scoop some more salt from your bowl and add it to the jar, along with a few cardamom pods and a bay leaf. Salt a few more lemons in the bowl and transfer them to the jar, repeating the process until you have filled the jar. You want to use all the salt in the bowl, so be generous in your layers, and dump any leftover salt into the jar at the end. Press the lemons down with a wooden spoon to release more juice. Then pour the additional lemon juice into the jar so that it fills all of the space around the lemons and covers the lemons entirely. Cover the jar with a sterilized lid and shake well.
3. Let the lemons ferment at room temperature, giving the jar a gentle shake or a turnover every day or so. In 3 weeks, the lemons will be ready to eat, and you can transfer the jar to the refrigerator.
As you salt and smoosh your lemons, some of them might break apart at their connected end. This is fine! The lemons will salt up just as well in quarters. Also, a few lemons might float up above your brine, and this is okay, too. If this happens, you have two choices: you can simply discard those top lemons after the fermentation process, or you can rig up a system to keep all the lemons down, as one of my blog readers taught me. Break a skewer into pieces the same diameter as the jar so you can fit them into the jar just above the brine in an “X.” This makes a little cage to keep all the fruit under the brine.
- Store in the refrigerator in their jar for 6 months to 1 year. Discard if the lemons get moldy or too soft.
- Sterilize jars either by submerging them in boiling water for 15 minutes or running them through a dishwasher with an extra-hot temperature setting.