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Super Food Nerds: How to Make Maraschino Cherries

I do not like maraschino cherries. Not in a cocktail or a mocktail, not on a sundae or a parfait. Not anywhere. And I comfort myself in the knowledge that I am not alone. Some of my favorite food and drink writers have described the maraschino cherry as “an embalmed corpse” (Toby Cecchini), a “skeleton” (Harold McGee) and “undead” (Dave Wondrich). These cherries haunt critical food lovers like a sheet-wearing treats-seeker on Halloween.

We are speaking, of course, of the chemically treated, candy-sweet modern maraschino cherry. As I detailed in an earlier post, today’s maraschino cherries arose from the grave of their pre-Prohibition-era precursor: a sour cherry (the marasca, a Croatian variety) preserved in sour cherry maraschino liqueur.

In developing the Super Food Nerds maraschino cherry recipe below, I set out to exhume the lost flavors of the original — a seemingly doable task. The cocktail authority Cecchini has claimed there was nothing more to the old maraschino cherries than throwing sour cherries in a jar, covering them with maraschino liqueur and going about your business for two weeks. If Cecchini was right, this seemed like a secret everyone should be in on.

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Super Food Nerds, Behind the Scenes: The Cherry on Top

Close your eyes and picture “cherry red.” What do you see? I’d wager you’re picturing a color that has been witnessed in a fresh cherry precisely … never. What you are seeing is a maraschino cherry — maraschino red, that is.

Which is odd, because the maraschino we’ve come to know bears only the faintest relation to a real cherry. Today’s maraschino is a preserved fruit of a particularly brutalized sort, the result of chemical brines, artificial dyes and “natural” flavors that would shame even a cosmetic surgeon. The jarred stuff starts with sweet cherries (typically Royal Ann or Rainier); these are saturated with calcium salts, which firms the cherries’ texture while stripping color and flavor. The resulting specimens are then pitted and macerated in sugar syrup. After a month of maceration, the cherries are dipped in red dye, stem and all, and packed in almond-flavored syrup.

The resulting product is indisputably an eye-catching garnish; whether it is an edible foodstuff is debatable. With its impossibly cloying sweetness and synthetic taste, the maraschino is rich in meaning, poor in flavor. But it persists because flavor is beside the point. The maraschino exists as an ornament, a bauble, a visible sign that says, “Now we are treating ourselves.”

Flavor hasn’t always been an afterthought, though. For centuries, before they became a cliche, maraschino cherries were a rare and coveted luxury item. Their distinguished pedigree traces back to 16th-century Dalmatia (a region of modern-day Croatia), where Dominican monks first distilled the wild marasca cherry — a sour variety celebrated for its spicy cinnamon flavor — in a clear liqueur. With time and tinkering — like sweetening with cane sugar and distilling the cherry pits separately (which lent bitter, almond notes) — the monks arrived at the spirit that came to be known as maraschino, still produced in Italy today.

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Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Sauerkraut

In my corner of the food universe, everyone’s crushing on kimchi these days. We — friends, co-workers, me — make it, share it, gift it, and put it in and on everything. When we see kimchi on a menu, we know instantly what we’ll be ordering. We are, it’s fair to say, obsessed; and in this we are far from alone. But while kimchi soaks up all the plaudits, nobody, it seems, swoons over its European cousin in cabbage-y fermentation, sauerkraut. Who will sing of sauerkraut?

I, for one. Here, let me begin. Sauerkraut — nothing more than shredded cabbage, salt and time — is vegetable fermentation in its purest form. It is to cabbage as wine is to grapes: a complex, lively, astonishingly delicious ennoblement. (Kimchi, which involves more flavoring and manipulation, is a nearer analogue to beer.) The comparison to wine may seem a bridge too far for sauerkraut if all you know is the dull jarred stuff that upholsters billions of hot dogs. But as anyone who has ever made it at home understands, good sauerkraut, with its irresistible mix of salty and savory, crunchy and tangy, is a sophisticated thing of beauty.

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Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Kimchi

Once kimchi has gotten its hooks into you — stinky and fiery as it may be — life becomes unthinkable without the fermented Korean dish. It makes masochists of those who happily endure its scorch — even Super Food Nerds like myself. Kimchi packs the earthy-fruity wallop of a good hot sauce, the crunch and tang of a great pickle, and, rumbling beneath it all, a funky-savory-umami bass note uniquely its own. Any food that can do one of those things well deserves a place in your kitchen. A food that excels at all three is, quite simply, indispensable.

As I embarked on the quest to develop a worthy kimchi recipe, I enlisted the help of my colleague Esther Choi, a marvelous chef who, having grown up in a traditional Korean kitchen, has kimchi pretty much coursing through her veins.

What I learned from Esther could fill a book; I’ll stick to the highlights. According to Esther, kimchi is more method than dish. There are hundreds of harvest-preserving kimchis: summer kimchis, fall kimchis, kimchis meant for eating fresh and those meant to see you through a season. Once you get the hang of the method, nearly any vegetable can be kimcheed. I once tasted watermelon rind kimchi Esther made; it was spectacular.

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Super Food Nerds: How to Make Your Own Yogurt

Superfoodnerd Milder here, reporting this month on Project D.I.Y. Yogurt. Let me start by saying that I came to this with some trepidation, scarred by a personal history of sour milk and thin, lumpy yogurts of my own making. I had read the articles (“better than anything you can buy!”), seen the blog posts (“idiot proof!”), followed the recipes — and the recipes had failed me. I knew I was in for a fight on this one.

And quite a fight it was. My first few attempts were utter travesties of spilled, wasted and spoiled milk. I killed my starter culture; I ruined my curd; I scalded my hand; I threw out my back. I would have cried, were I anything less than a steely-eyed superfoodnerd. No, I picked myself up, straightened my pocket protector and set to work. It took considerable research and tinkering, but ultimately I did manage to break through to yogurt — really, really good, smile-across-your-face yogurt. For all its difficulties, this was a project with a big payoff.

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Super Food Nerds: In Pursuit of Hummus

Hi, I’m Jonathan, librarian, Super Food Nerd, and man in the grips of an obsession — an obsession with chickpeas. Or rather with hummus, the highest end a chickpea can aspire to.

In New York City’s Chelsea Market, several floors below Food Network and Cooking Channel’s offices, there is a lunch counter for Ronnybrook Milk Bar, famed for its ice cream. For those in the know, however, there is only one thing to order: hummus with egg. The Milk Bar, it turns out, is helmed by a bonafide hamsani (Middle Eastern hummus vendor), Aylon Hadar, originally from the outskirts of Tel Aviv; a man who, I am absolutely certain, turns out some of the absolute best hummus in NYC.

Aylon’s hummus is everything store-bought hummus is not: light as mousse, smooth as pudding. It is served just a bit warm and made fresh daily, both customary in the Middle East. Aylon begins with a shockingly large quantity of hummus, spread in a concave layer across a rimmed plate. A generous quantity of olive oil is then poured into the center. Atop this, he drizzles a thin white tahini sauce, and finishes with a splash of color in the form of sweet paprika and chopped parsley. The final result is layered, sophisticated, beautiful; a far cry from dense, monochromatic store-bought hummus.

So, with Aylon’s hummus as my grail, I attempted to hack his recipe. Here are some lessons I learned along the way.

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2013 Food Trend Predictions from Food Network Kitchens

The Food Network Kitchens peered long and hard into its crystal ball to come up with its annual list of the top trends that will define 2013 in food. Check out a few of their predictions here, then visit Food Network’s Dish for the rest of the list.

What’s New? Make Some Room For:

  • Artisanal hard cider (the boozy stuff!) is the new craft beer
  • Sweet potatoes are the new potatoes
  • Paleo is the new gluten-free (gluten-free is the new low-carb)
  • Roasted seaweed is the new kale chip
  • Carrot is the new kale
  • Chia is the new quinoa
  • Antibiotic-free meats are the new natural
  • The juice bar is the new salad bar
  • Shishito peppers are the new jalapeño poppers
  • Gochujang is the new Sriracha
  • Artisans Step Onstage—Whether producing small-batch spirits, bespoke chocolates, or heirloom jams, a new, mostly Millennial generation of American food makers is stepping to the fore.  These 21st century artisans are more likely to carry advanced degrees and a savvy marketing sense than to have done a long, grueling apprenticeship. By applying big-business savvy to small-scale food, these folks are building a movement to change the American food system from the inside out.
  • From Farmers’ Markets to Food Markets—From Grand Rapids to Miami, a wave of public markets is sweeping the land and injecting new life into cities. This trend is a natural extension of the wildly successful farmers’ market movement. The new public markets, built around local chefs and artisans as well as local ingredients, are bringing fun into the picture with a communal, eat-and-graze instead of shop-and-go approach—less organic broccoli, more BBQ sandwiches. Look for public markets, food truck parking lots and night markets to boom and public spaces for food to pop up in cities big and small.
  • Service Upgrade—First came the Sommelier; then, recently, the Certified Cicerone® (a beer sommelier); in 2012 we got the Certified Cheese Professional. What’s next, the Sausage Maker’s Guilds? Yes, we hope so! Today’s burgeoning craft food industries have created a need for knowledgeable purveyors who can compellingly represent their products. It signals a respect for the middleman and a return to professional service that we haven’t seen since, well, the Middle Ages.
  • See Food—In food today, images are everything. Whether in apps or on photo-sharing sites, pictures rather than reviews, articles or blogs are the driving inspiration behind recipe search and restaurant discovery (on Appetude and Foodspotting). What’s cool today is decided by committee, with likes and re-pins of food images the currencies of choice.

For more predictions from the Food Network Kitchens, visit Food Network’s Dish.

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Food Network Kitchens: Top Food Trends for 2012

Food Trends for 2012
The Food Network Kitchens peered long and hard into its crystal ball to come up with its annual list of the top trends that will define 2012 in food. Check out two of the trends here, then visit Food Network’s Dish and Healthy Eats for the rest of the list.

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Get to Know: Local Butchers

Your local butcher can be your guide to custom-ground burgers.

Meat-eaters of America, grilling season starts with burgers. And great burgers start with great meat, freshly ground. Which is why this grilling season is the perfect time to start a relationship — with your butcher.

Find yourself a good full-service butcher — someone who grinds daily, and grinds to order. Just as importantly, find someone you can talk to. That someone holds the key to carnivore happiness.

The following list is intended to help you in your search. Call it grill season matchmaking. All the places below grind beef fresh daily. Some even make their own proprietary burger blend. But at these establishments you needn’t feel limited by what’s already in the meat case. Any good butcher will be happy to grind whole cuts for you. Chuck roast, which has great flavor and a fat-to-lean ratio well-suited to burgers, is always a good burger choice on its own. But try mixing in some brisket or adding some short rib and top round to the mix and see what a difference it makes. Better yet, solicit some ideas from the guy behind the counter. Get to know him!

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Flavor’s Future

Flavor forecasters predict a rising interest in exotic superfruits as well as more familiar superfruits like the antioxidant-packed pomegranate.

Please join me in a quick thought experiment:

Do your gastric juices respond to the words Douglas fir? Favorably?

Does your mind draw any association between ‘Christmas tree’ and ‘edibility’?

To your way of thinking, is ‘Nordic’ more suggestive of a cuisine or a climatic condition?

Do ‘yumberries’ and ‘cloudberries’ sound craveable? Snackable? Quaffable? Or more like the work of a kindergarten-age Donald Draper?

Do the words borojó, aguaje, or myoga signify anything to you?

In the worlds of food and beverage product development, where it pays to be a step ahead of current trends, there’s a lot riding on these questions. And if flavor companies, food industry forecasters, and restaurant consultants are correct, as we get further into 2011 your answers to the above are likely to change.

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