Photo by Stacey Ballis

How have you lived this long without cornichon butter?

Stacey Ballis
June 07, 2018

I’m a major devotee of the philosophies Samrin Nosrat has laid down in her seminal book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. It makes me so happy that with her expert guidance, we are all throwing down in our kitchens, exploring balance in our dishes and learning to trust our tasting. But if you asked me what the most important message is from the book, it is that food gets happier with some acid.

Part of this preference is that I’m the girl who has always loved to get my acid on. The bottles of various vinegars in the pantry threaten to take over the whole room, but I still can’t pass by one of those vinegar and oil shops and not find something I suddenly can’t live without. I might frequently be out of milk, or low on eggs, but there is always a bowl of lemons at the ready to rescue my dishes with a dash of zest or a squeeze of bright juice.

When it comes to hosting brunch, I have a trio of tricks that I always rely on. First, I always try and have at least one main component as a make-ahead, like a quiche or frittata or strata so that I’m not trying to pull off too much a la minute cookery. Second, I always do a seasonal batched fruit juice drink that can easily have booze added to it. Third, I go heavy on interesting condiments, like unique jams and jellies, cheese spreads, chutneys, and salsas. It’s amazing how much a little display of extras can really make your buffet extra special, and some of my favorites hit the acid note in amazing ways.

Photo by Stacey Ballis

Since it is summer, I’m stockpiling chive blossom vinegar for the year. This is one of the easiest things to make, especially if you have a garden (or a generous gardening pal) and it is a vinegar you are going to fall madly in love with. Chive blossoms are just what they sound like, the lavender balls of blooms that top your chives as they grow to maturity. And while you can, and should, scatter some of the individual flowers around on your salads as a delicious and pretty summertime garnish, you should also definitely be making chive blossom vinegar.

This takes two ingredients—chive blossoms and hot vinegar—hanging out in a jar in a cool dark place for a week. What results is a vinegar with lovely oniony flavor and the most gorgeous pink color. It makes a great hostess gift, but I admit to hoarding it a bit to get me through the dark winter months. You can use it anywhere you use vinegar, great salad dressings, a dash or two in a pan sauce, sprinkled over steamed veggies. For brunches, I use it in place of regular white vinegar in a homemade aioli to serve with crudités, and if I’m presenting a salad, I fill pretty cruets with the chive blossom vinegar and a Sicilian green lemon infused olive oil and let guests dress their own.

The second secret weapon condiment is cornichon caper butter. Softened unsalted butter is mixed with a one-two punch of minced cornichons and whole tiny capers, and if you’re feeling extra fancy, a few chopped cocktail onions, for a schmear that will knock your socks off. Try it on little rye squares with the smoked fish you fancy most, or slather it on toasted sourdough and top with prosciutto cotto, or spread on soft pillowy white bread under thin sliced zucchini and tomato.

If you have access to those wonderful Spanish tinned shellfishes, put out a variety of open tins with some thin sliced hearty brown bread and a bowl of this butter. And if you are the kind of person who tackles eggs benedict for a crowd (and if you are I humbly bow down to you), spread a little on your toasted English muffin before the egg goes down and watch your guests fall over in breakstacy. Make a double batch and you’ll find yourself reaching for the leftovers for your sandwiches or morning toasted bagel on the daily.

Photo by Stacey Ballis

The last summery treat I’ve been making is pickled rhubarb. Rhubarb is usually overtaking everyone this time of year, filling your CSA boxes, stacked to the rafters at grocery stores and farmers markets, and exploding all over your garden. And while I never say no to a pie or jam application, rhubarb really lends itself to pickling. This sweet and sour pickle can swap out for your usual bread and butter chips on a sandwich, be added to salads for some unexpected amplitude, or draped over your lox and bagel for a really exciting new flavor. I often make two versions at once, one jar of whole lengths, which can then be cut or chopped into a variety of shapes and sizes depending on how you want to use them, and one jar of thin slices, for ease of adding to sandwiches or draping over a dish as a garnish.

This summer one of my favorite ways to use it is as an ingredient in a steamed asparagus salad with crumbled goat cheese and chopped pistachios with some fresh herbs like chervil or chives. The pickling liquid becomes almost like a shrub and can be a fun addition to cocktails or mixed with club soda for a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage.

Whichever of these easy additions you choose to make, they will absolutely wake up the senses of your brunch guests in all the best possible ways.

Chive Blossom Vinegar

Makes 2 cups

Ingredients

1 cup whole chive blossoms, washed
2 cups white wine or white vinegar

Directions

Place the clean chive blossoms in the bottom of a 2 cup glass container with a tightly sealing lid, I often use a canning jar for this, but a recycled jar of any kind will work fine. Heat the vinegar till hot and steaming, and starting to see little bubbles, but not boiling. Pour the hot vinegar over the blossoms and seal the lid, and give it a shake. Put it in a cool dark place for a week, shaking it up once a day or so. After a week, strain into smaller containers and store as you would any vinegar.

Cornichon Caper Butter

Ingredients

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons cornichons, minced fine
3 tablespoons nonpareil tiny capers, rinsed (if you can’t find the little ones, Reese produces good ones, buy the bigger ones, rinse them, mince them fine and then squeeze out any extra liquid)
2-3 cocktail onions, minced fine (optional)

Directions

Mix all ingredients together until well combined, and then transfer to your serving dish and store in the fridge. Better if made the day before so that the flavors can blend. Be sure to take it out of the fridge at least an hour to two hours before you want to serve, since it is best when smooth and spreadable.

Pickled Rhubarb

This will make about 2 12 oz jars of pickles

Pickling brine ingredients

2 cups white vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
10 allspice berries
10 whole cloves
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Directions for making the brine

Heat until sugar is dissolved, and mixture is hot with some little bubbles around the edges but not boiling.

Directions for making the pickles

For whole sticks

Cut clean rhubarb into finger lengths and put into brine while it is still on the heat for 3 minutes, then transfer the rhubarb into a glass container or jar and strain the still hot brine over, then seal the container and let rest at room temperature until cooled completely. Store in the fridge.

For slices

Cut your clean rhubarb into six inch lengths, then, using a vegetable peeler, shave long strips. Pack the raw strips tightly into a glass jar. Strain the hot brine directly over the rhubarb, and seal the jar. Transfer immediately to the fridge.

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