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Marmalade, markets and a marvelous maitake mushroom: Chef Kathy Gunst shares her best bites of 2022

Winter citrus marmalade, (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Winter citrus marmalade, (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Scrolling through hundreds of photos that I took of foods I ate and dishes I cooked this past year, I was struck by how many of them were at my table or the tables of friends and family members. Eating at home, which became so much more important at the height of the pandemic, is now a permanent fixture of my dining routine.

I still love eating in restaurants. And I feel it’s vitally important to support them — both small and large — especially after the devastation of COVID. But COVID is still here and it has had a lasting impact on my dining choices. I feel most comfortable enjoying restaurant food in an outdoor parklet or as a take-out order. And whether I’m eating a meal prepared by a restaurant chef or cooking at home I am constantly reminded of the rising cost of food.

But cost alone doesn’t explain why I’ve found that cooking and eating at home holds more of a draw for me than ever. Is it fear of the virus, or just that I got used to relying on my kitchen for most meals during these tumultuous past few years? Not relying on restaurants during the height of the pandemic made me a better cook. I taught myself new skills. If I craved croissants or pho, tacos or Chinese dumplings or chocolate souffle and carrot cake, I had to learn to make them myself. Those skills have stayed with me, even as I have ventured back into restaurant dining.

My best food memories from the past year involve at-home cooking as well as some very special dishes from restaurants. Here’s a look back at some culinary memories that lingered and still put a smile on my face:

Making marmalade in Los Angeles with my daughter, her boyfriend and his mother was a long, fun day of chopping and simmering. Winter in Southern California is a citrus lover’s dream come true: oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, Pomelos and Meyer lemons are abundant. We spent hours one January afternoon chopping local citrus and simmering the peels and fruit with sugar and fresh citrus juice. Sharing a cooking activity and ending up with the freshest, most luscious marmalade (not to mention great family time) was worth all the work involved. I’ve recreated a very simple recipe below.

Jenna Rozelle holding up a 20-pound maitake mushroom. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Jenna Rozelle is a professional forager in Southern Maine. This past fall I spent an afternoon with her walking through the woods learning about all the edible and medicinal fruits, nuts, stems, and plants that I had no idea existed. We found hickory nuts, wild cherries, wild grapes, and the biggest gift of all: a 20-pound maitake mushroom (also called Hen of the Woods) growing at the base of a magnificent old oak tree. Rozelle carved the massive mushroom off with her pocket knife, carefully placed it in the woven basket she wears on her back to collect the treasures she finds, and we hiked back to my kitchen. There we got to work, chopped a couple of pounds of the mushroom into 1-inch size pieces, drizzled them with olive oil, chopped garlic, salt and pepper and placed in a hot oven to roast. (I gave the rest of the mushroom to a friend who preserved it in his vegetable drier.) We devoured the roasted mushroom right out of the hot skillet, dunking ripped pieces of crusty bread into the pan to soak up every bit of juice. It was wild, savory, autumnal heaven.

Summer berries. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Farmer’s markets continue to draw me in more than any other type of food shopping. Buying fresh, seasonal food directly from the farmer (or someone who works directly with the farmer) thrills me. No matter where I am — at home or traveling — I always seek out farmers’ markets. That’s where I find out what’s truly in season and what the local specialties are — from tiny tender artichokes, buttery avocados and plump Meyer lemons from the Hollywood Farmers Market in L.A., to peppery arugula, fat raspberries, heirloom tomatoes and winter squash from markets in Maine and New Hampshire that I visit during the summer and fall

Freshly harvested olives. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

I taught a food writing class in southern Italy last spring (one of the most wonderful trips/classes I’ve ever experienced) and we had so many memorable meals: From the pizza of Naples (fried, stuffed, classic Neapolitan with tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella) to tiny, briny clams simmered with garlic and olive oil and served over pasta. Spaghetti alle vongole, or spaghetti with clam sauce, is one of my favorite dishes to make and always brings me back to those incredible meals in Italy. My recipe for linguine with seafood sauce is here.

Another bite I won’t soon forget was an oyster at Izakaya Minato, a Japanese restaurant in Portland, Maine. Local Motoyaki oysters are topped with miso custard and citrusy ponzu and lightly broiled. The combination of salty, sweet, and fresh briny seafood creates the most perfect bite. Try to eat just one.

One of my big splurges this year was an anniversary meal at Brooklyn’s iconic restaurant Gage and Tollner, which opened in 1829. Even though I was born in New York and lived there for many years of my adult life, I had never eaten at this culinary landmark. This year my husband and I went to check it out. It was everything I had hoped for: from the original antique gas lanterns that grace the dining room to the knowledgeable waitstaff in their crisp uniforms. It was an elegant and delicious evening, a welcome return to unpretentious fine dining. Our meal began with a special appetizer of soft belly clams broiled in miso butter and topped with crunchy, butter-strewn breadcrumbs. The bone-in rib eye steak was perfectly aged and grilled and the butter-roasted hash browns and creamed spinach were spot on. The coconut layer cake with a lime curd, cashew-pink peppercorn brittle and cherries from executive pastry chef Caroline Schiff was ethereal. Light, fluffy, airy doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Deep fried eggplant topped with spicy miso pork and a raw quail egg at Raku in New York City. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Another memorable NYC meal happened at Raku, a small Japanese restaurant that specializes in udon noodle bowls. Again it was the appetizer, Yaki Nasu, that grabbed me. Deep fried eggplant topped with spicy miso pork and a raw quail egg. We were instructed to use a spoon and dig down deep into the eggplant, breaking the yolk of the egg, to get a bite of the buttery, almost silky eggplant, spicy miso-spiked pork, and raw egg.

The past few years have seen two, seemingly contradictory, trends when it comes to alcohol consumption. On one hand, there was a troubling increase in excessive drinking during the COVID lockdown. But there has also been dramatic growth in the variety and popularity of non-alcoholic beer. Many grocery stores now offer an outstanding selection of non-alcoholic beers from top beer makers and craft breweries, and non-alcoholic beer is easier to find on menus at bars and restaurants. There are even non-alcoholic beer pubs popping up around the country. Mocktails have become more prominent at bars, restaurants, and even dinner parties. Getting creative without alcohol used to be a big challenge (if you didn’t drink you were usually offered a ginger ale). But more bartenders and mixologists have taken on the challenge of creating delicious drinks without alcohol. I will have the occasional cocktail, but there are many nights when I want to hold a glass full of something delicious without consuming alcohol. Julia Bainbridge’s book “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason” is a great place to start.

Winter citrus marmalade

Winter citrus marmalade, (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

You can make really delicious marmalade using one fruit — oranges, for example — but it gets even more interesting when you combine several types of citrus. For this marmalade, I used oranges, Meyer lemon, grapefruit, tangerines and a few kumquats. Use what you can find that is fresh. It’s crucial that you wash the fruit well before making the marmalade since you’ll be using the peel and fruit to make this thick, sweet (slightly bitter) jelly.

The cut fruit and peel need to soak in cold water for at least 1 ½ hours and up to 24 hours so plan your time accordingly.

This recipe yields about 3 cups. You can easily double or triple the recipe if you have access to an abundance of citrus.

Invite a few friends or family members to come over and help chop and you’ll have a winter marmalade party. Crank the music. Bring in the new year and celebrate winter food at its finest.

Makes about 3 cups.

Ingredients

  • About 2 ½ to 3-pound citrus, a single type of citrus is fine, but a combination of any of the following will yield the best results: oranges, blood oranges, tangerines, lemons, Meyer lemons, limes, kumquats, and grapefruit, well washed and dried
  • About 5 cups water
  • About 3 cups white sugar
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional


Instructions

  1. Using a small, sharp knife cut the ends of the citrus off so the fruit sits upright on your counter. Using a small, sharp knife or wide-mouthed peeled, peel off the zest (the outside yellow or orange “skin”) and just a bit of the pith (the bitter white part just inside the zest) from the fruit. Cut the peel and pith into very thin slices (about ¼ to ½ inch thick) and place in a large bowl.
  2. Cut the citrus into segments and remove the membrane (the white connective tissue). Cut the fruit into small ½-inch pieces and add to the bowl with the zest. Cover with 5 cups cold water and let soak for at least 1 ½ hours and up to 24 hours.
  3. Pour the zest, fruit and water into a large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The peels should be softened.
  4. Place a small plate in the freezer.
  5. Stir in the sugar and bring to a boil again over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the vanilla if using, and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. To test to see if the marmalade is done: it should appear thickened and when you dip a kitchen spoon into it, it should drip off slowly, not in a thin fast stream. If you have a candy thermometer the marmalade is done when it’s at the setting point of 220 degrees. When you think it’s done, place a teaspoon on the plate from the freezer. Run your finger through it; if it’s properly jelled your finger imprint should hold and not be thin and disappear. Simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes if needed.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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