Along the Grapevine


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Sourdough Soda Crackers

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Sourdough soda crackers, some with za’atar, some just salt 

If you happen to make sourdough bread, you might find yourself in the enviable position of having an excess of starter. Recipes for sourdough always suggest you discard half of it, but that seems an extreme measure. I have managed to add it to all sorts of baking which, while allowing me to use up the excess,  does not make it a real sourdough recipe. So I was very pleased to find a great recipe for banana sourdough pancakes from Justyna at Garlic Matters. These are so simple to make, and the sourdough combined with the baking soda make the lightest and tastiest pancakes I have every had.

Of course, one good recipe often leads to another. As I was thinking of how to use even more of my sourdough, I decided to try this soda trick to make crackers. I have been trying to come up with a fool-proof recipe for a simple cracker, and as luck would have it, I finally succeeded with this one. Light, crispy and good for at least a week in a closed container, they are the perfect snack to have on hand. For my first attempt, I used plain salt on half of them and some za’atar for the other half since I was processing sumac at the time. I expect every time I make these, they will undergo some change of flavour depending on my mood.

Ingredients

1/4 cup water

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup sourdough starter

enough flour to make a workable dough, about 2 cups

salt, herbs, seeds or other topping (optional)

Method

Dissolve the salt and baking soda in the water. Add to the sourdough and mix thoroughly. Use a large bowl, because the mixture will bubble up and almost double in volume. Gradually mix in enough flour to make a workable dough and knead it until all the flour is incorporated. Divide the dough in half and roll each half to about 1/8th of an inch thickness. I found a pasta maker at the widest setting worked well for this. If using any seasoning or salt, sprinkle it evenly over the surface, then roll it lightly again to keep it from falling off. Puncture the surface with a fork. Cut the crackers in whatever shape and size you want and place on a parchment lined baking tray. Bake at 425 F for 8-10 minutes, or  until the edges turn a golden brown. Makes about 6 dozen 1 inch square crackers.

Needless to say, there is no need to stick to this recipe. I repeated this same process using rye flour instead of wheat, added 1 Tbsp of dark molasses to the water and soda mixture, and sprinkled liberally with caraway seeds before baking. The next one might be cornmeal! So now my problem with excess sourdough starter is solved, and I am now faced with the problem of not having quite enough!

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Sourdough soda crackers with rye and caraway seeds


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Pickerel in Grape Leaves with Mushroom Za’atar Sauce

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Pickerel, or walleye as it is often called here, is a fresh water fish common in North American lakes. It is the fish I might have caught had it been warm enough to go ice fishing, but given the small number of fishing huts in the area, I am not the only timid one. I did manage to find a good source of fresh, local fish which I’m sure is as good as any I would have caught. Besides, it came all cleaned and filleted. So this is my contribution to The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday – seasonal, easy and wild.

This fish is a close relative of the pikeperch, so that could be substituted in this recipe, as well as any white freshwater fish. The other main ingredients are grape leaves and za’atar, and those are available in most areas. If you don’t have a stock of wild grape leaves in your freezer from last year, regular leaves are sold in jars in some supermarkets. Just be sure to rinse the brine off before using. If you don’t have za’atar, or the ingredients to make it, use any recipe for za’atar and replace the sumac with grated lemon zest.

Pickerel in Grape Leaves

1 1/2 lbs fish fillets

3 Tbsp finely chopped sweet onion

2 Tbsp za’atar

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tsp salt

2 Tbsp olive oil

30 grape leaves, approximately

Remove the skin from the fillets if there is any. I used the skin to make stock which I used later in the sauce. Just cover with some water and allow to simmer until you are ready for it.

Cut the fillets into pieces – some will already be small from the skinning process, but others can be about 2 inches long. Place them in a bowl and mix in the remaining ingredients, except for the leaves.

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Lay two or three leaves on a flat service overlapping slightly. If the leaves are very small, you might need four – two if they are very large. Place a large spoonful (1/4 cup) of the fish mixture at the base of your leaf arrangement. Fold upwards once, tuck in the sides and continue to roll up. If grilling, it might be wise to secure them with toothpicks which have been soaked in water.

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If using an oven, place them in a casserole dish, brush with a little olive oil and garnish with lemon slices. Bake in a 425 degree F oven for about 1/2 hour.

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These can be eaten hot or cold. I’m thinking of making some next time I pack a picnic. Meanwhile, I served these warm with saffron rice and a mushroom sauce. No need for a sauce really, or you can make whatever kind you like. This is how the sauce was made.

Mushroom Za’atar Sauce

Fry about a cup of sliced mushrooms in butter until lightly brown. Make a roux with 1 Tbsp butter, 1 Tbsp flour (I used chestnut flour to  make it gluten-free), and 1/2 cup of fish stock. When the sauce has thickened, add the cooked mushrooms, 1 tsp of za’atar and salt and pepper to taste. Heat through and it is ready. This is a small quantity for two people, so just multiply it to get the amount you need.

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The grape leaves keep the fish from drying out or getting scorched if being grilled. They also add flavour to the delicate fish, and provide good packaging for any leftovers to be eaten cold the next day. There doesn’t seem to be any difference in flavour that I can detect between wild and other grape leaves, so just use whichever is convenient.


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What is Za’atar and How to Make it?

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Naan with za’atar

As part of my promotion of sumac, I would be remiss not to write about za’atar, a tangy Middle Eastern mix made of herbs, sesame seeds, sometimes spices, and often sumac, the latter being indispensable in my mind.

I was introduced to it as a topping on pita bread, but it is also served with plain pita, dipped first in olive oil and then in the za’atar. I have since learned to use it in dressings, with vegetables, meat, fish, sprinkled on hummus or yogurt, in short just about everything but dessert. It makes a pretty amazing addition to bread and butter too, especially a good, fresh, home-made variety.

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Hummus with za’atar sprinkled on top

It is easily found in any Middle Eastern shop, and each time I have bought it, it has been a little different from any other. That is because the mixture can have only a few ingredients or many, dried or fresh herbs, with or without spices and with or without sumac. The za’atar I have bought keeps very well for as long as most dried herbs, which means it has probably already lost a lot of its flavour by the time I buy it.

So I decided to make my own mixture with what I had on hand. The result was recognizable, but much zippier than any I had bought, and a much prettier colour. You can actually taste the different ingredients, but the overall flavour is unlike any other. If you use dried herbs, it will keep longer, but I think if you have some fresh ones, use them. Make as much as you can use in a week, and keep it in a sealed container in a cool place. This amount I was able to use easily in two days, and I look forward to my next batch soon.

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Ingredients for za’atar

Recipe for Za’atar

2 Tbsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted

2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped

2 tsp ground sumac

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp coarse salt

Mix all the ingredients together.

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Za’atar

You can also use dried or fresh marjoram or oregano as well as thyme, and in any proportion you like. This recipe just serves as a base – no need to follow it slavishly!