Choose two different types of produce* that you’ve never tried before [..] Purchase enough to use in at least three different meals. [..] *Try to find seasonal and/or locally grown produce.
I decided to try going to the Excelsior Kowalskis, a small specialty supermarket where I usually never shop because everything is too expensive, thinking that this would be a good place to find a large selection of unique produce. Actually, I found that I had already cooked with just about everything they had in stock, and the few things I had never seen before unfortunately weren’t identified by name on the price tag. Because it seemed too challenging to try to figure out how to cook with a strange root that I couldn’t identify (later found out that it was horseradish), I ended up choosing fennel and jalapeños. I love licorice and had always wondered what could be done with fennel, and we regularly buy canned pickled jalapeños so I thought it would be fun to see what I could do with fresh ones.
Dish 1: Jalapeno and chedder cheese corn muffins.
This is a recipe I found by searching the internet with keywords “recipe” and “jalapeno” and then ignoring everything that had to do with “poppers”. It was on some person’s blog and had dozens of glowing reviews. My husband loves cornbread, so it seemed like a good choice. Turns out I was wrong, but more about that later.
Step 1: Assemble the ingredients. This includes checking all of the items from the pantry to see if any are past their expiration date. The half-used bag of flour said “best by 2013”, a sad indication of how infrequently I cook, but fortunately there was also an unopened bag of flour, which was good until 2019. The corn meal said “best by” 2017, but I didn’t think I had bought it that long ago, and I really didn’t want to have to make a special trip to the store, so I went with it. The baking soda was also somehow miraculously a new unopened box, and the salt, well, probably from 2008, but salt lasts forever.
Step 2: Preheat the over, grease the pan, and prepare the ingredients:
First mistake: I had never cooked with jalapeños before, so it didn’t occur to me that touching the seeds and veins would be a problem. The jalapeños looked really delicious, so I set the seeds out to dry to see if I could maybe later get some of the plants to grow in our garden. I didn’t wash my hands again after that because, well, I had just washed them before I started cooking.
Also, we didn’t have buttermilk, but I intrepidly found instructions on how to make some using vinegar and regular milk. Turns out that low fat milk is not the same thing as regular milk, so after 10 minutes or so the result looked very suspicious, like transparent globules of pure fat floating in a cup of slightly opaque water. But I had no idea what it was supposed to look like. Everything else seemed fine.
Step 3: Combine the flour, cornmeal, soda and salt in a bowl, and the buttermilk, butter, sugar, eggs and honey in “a glass measuring cup”.
Who writes these recipes, seriously? There is definitely not enough room in a 2c measuring cup for 1 stick of butter, 1c of buttermilk, 2 eggs, 1T honey and 1/2c of sugar. So, I improvised by putting the sugar in with the other dry ingredients.
Step 4: Pour the wet mixture over the dry mixture and stir until just moist. Fold in the peppers and cheese. Fill the muffin tray.
Ok, so there’s definitely too much batter for 12 muffins. Fortunately I find a small loaf pan that looks appropriate for the remainder.
Step 5: Bake for 15 minutes.
Well, obviously, the different quantities required different baking time. And 15 minutes at 375˚ was way too little. My least favorite part of cooking is checking the oven every 2 minutes for the next 10 minutes to make sure that whatever is baking is not too raw nor too burnt. But I think I got it right. The loaf took about 5 minutes longer than the muffins.
Step 6: Enjoy! Or not.
I knew it was bad when my husband, who loves cornbread muffins, cut his in half and then didn’t put syrup on it. He loves syrup, and we have a great batch from this spring (despite the weird weather and the squirrels chewing through all of our bags at the end of the season). He ate half, and then said he was full. This is a guy who usually has a hard time not eating three muffins in a single sitting. So then I tried one. It tasted like a brick of congealed butter with some weird things floating inside. There was no lovely melding of flavors. My husband said the problem was the fresh jalapenos, that it was like Tex-Mex from someone who knew nothing about Mexican cooking. I blamed the stick of butter. I love butter, and lots of recipes call for one stick, which is why it didn’t raise flags for me. Only later did I realize that one stick of butter is totally too much for such a tiny volume of other ingredients. My husband said the chickens would probably love them.
About an hour after breakfast, I realized my fingers were feeling burned. It started gradually, so at first I thought maybe I had somehow run them under water that was too hot and not noticed. But then they really started feeling like they were on fire. Washing with soap and water did nothing to help. Of course my husband then explains about how to properly handle hot peppers, and now I know but it was a hard lesson. The pain eventually went away after about 2 hours.
Over the next few days I ate a few more of the muffins just so they wouldn’t all go to waste. My husband helped by feeding a few to the chickens each day so that it would look like he was eating them and I wouldn’t feel so bad.
Dish 2: Sweet Potato and Fennel Hash
Ok, I have to be honest. After using the fennel fronds in the week 1 assignment, and after the disaster of the jalapeno corn muffins, I put off cooking with the fennel bulb and in the space of less than a week of sitting on the countertop it turned into a black ball of toxic mess while the rest of the jalapeno peppers shriveled into wrinkled cones. But I was determined to persevere so I went and bought more of each.
Recipe 2 looked like it would be a winner. I love sweet potatoes, and the recipe sounded great: fennel, onions, sweet potato, bacon, whiskey, sugar, and jalapeños. It had a full five stars on some recipes.com website, and it would help us use up that half bottle of whiskey left over from when my son’s girlfriend had come over and baked a pecan pie for Christmas about five years ago.
Step 1: Assemble the ingredients:
Step 2: Prepare the ingredients. I chop the fennel, onions, and sweet potato. The recipe calls for a half bulb of fennel and half an onion. The half onion is fine, we use onions in everything. But what am I supposed to do with a half bulb of fennel? I figure the recipe will be fine if I use the whole thing. I very carefully remove the seeds and veins from the jalapeño without touching them, then chop the pepper.
Step 2: “Cut the bacon into 1 inch pieces and cook in a skillet until brown”. This is when the flags started going up for me. Why is this necessary? Who can even get uncooked bacon to cleanly cut into pieces? Maybe people with a kitchen full of sharp knives, but not me. Nevertheless I try my best, and it seems to sort of work. “Remove the bacon, reserving the grease in the skillet”.
It would have been so much easier to just cook the three slices of bacon and crumble it later. Who writes these recipes?? The internet is so full of random nonsense it’s ridiculous.
Step 3: Cook the onion and fennel in the bacon drippings about 10 minutes. Add the sweet potato, cover and cook another 10 minutes.
So far so good.
Step 4: Add the whiskey, bring to a boil. Stir in the bacon and brown sugar. Cook until the whisky has been absorbed (about 5 minutes).
At this point, I realize that the recipe didn’t say what I was supposed to do with the jalapeño. Clearly it’s not a garnish. I read the recipe again carefully. No mention of the jalapeño except in the list of ingredients, after the sweet potato and before the whiskey. Probably it was supposed to go in with the sweet potato? Well, it’s too late to add it now. I crumble the bacon into smaller bits to match the sizes of the vegetable chunks.
The result was very sweet, and tasted strongly of whiskey. I couldn’t taste any of the fennel, and it seemed like a huge waste of $3.99 to put it in something like this. I guess I should have realized that the whiskey would overpower everything. Fortunately I had eaten a bunch of the fennel raw while I was cutting it, partly to compensate for using too much in the recipe, so at least I know what it tastes like now. Even though I love licorice, I don’t think I’ll buy it again – it’s too expensive for what you get. I might try to grow it in the garden though.
Dish 3: Pickled Jalapeño Rings
I know this sounds lame, but we buy these things regularly so it seemed worthwhile to try to make them from scratch. The recipe was really simple: slice the peppers, boil some water, sugar, vinegar, garlic, and salt, then put the peppers into the water mixture and turn off the heat.
My husband suggested that I roast one of the peppers to give the result more flavor. He said to use the skillet but without anything in it except the pepper. I tried it, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything to the pepper and the hot pan was setting off the smoke alarm, so he cooked the pepper the rest of the way for me over the fire, like he does with poblanos for rajas (one of my favorite things that he cooks). I figured its wasn’t really cheating to let him do that part for me because the roasting bit was an add-on to the recipe in any case.
Before putting everything into the jar, my husband suggested that I add the leftover chopped jalapeño from the fennel hash recipe, to give it more flavor and not waste the pepper. We haven’t tried the result yet so I can’t say how it compares to the store-bought ones. It definitely cost more to buy the ingredients than to buy a jar pre-made. But if those seeds I saved turn into decent plants and we get a good crop, it might turn out to be something we make more often.