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Susan Lutz

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Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer who is currently writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner.  She is a certified Master Food Preserver through the University of California Cooperative Extension, where she helps community members with canning and food preserving techniques. She has produced over 300 hours of documentary and nonfiction television programming for numerous cable networks including The Food Network, HGTV, A&E and History on topics that range from food chemistry to knitting to Haitian voodoo.    When she isn't blogging about Sunday dinner, she is often making photographs of heirloom foods or teaching the history of photography.  Raised in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley (where her father still cures his own hams), she currently lives near Washington, DC.

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7 Tricks To Mealtime Magic With Artisanal Salts Image

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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» DIY Popcorn: Give ancient superfood a kick


Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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6 Garden-Starting Tips To Give Your Kids Green Thumbs Image

Spring has finally come to our neck of the woods, and we’re beginning to take the tiny shoots from our mini-greenhouse in our basement out into the world. I want my daughters to know where their food comes from, but growing a kid-friendly garden means more than just planting kid-friendly plants.


If you want to get kids to actually eat their veggies, it helps if you get them invested in the process and care of the garden. If your kids see the backyard vegetable garden as “theirs,” they are far more likely to embrace the products: happily eating radishes and arugula that they’ve grown on their own. Here are six tips — tested in our home — to get your kids to embrace gardening and become active agents in creating their own food.

1. Get dirty

Susan Lutz - 6 Quick Garden Tips for Kids

Kids need to dig into the earth and get their hands dirty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Forget the image of white-frocked children basking in a pristine flower bed; that image gets in the way of real gardening. Get your kids dirty as fast as possible. Ask them to dig with hand trowels, sticks or bare fingers, and they will leap at the opportunity. When watering, “accidentally” drench them with a good hosing. They’ll squeal, then beg for more — and watering is no longer a chore but a family frolic. Make mud and get them in it. Over-plant in anticipation of grubby little fingers pulling out the extraneous shoots. A garden shouldn’t be too precious. Good gardening demands some filth, and when kids realize this, they embrace it.

2. Get gross

If your garden doesn't have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love gross, and a garden has it in spades. Ask your kids to find worms, then take the opportunity to discuss their impact on the soil. If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, go buy them and let the kids play with their new “pets” while you’re putting them into the garden. If you want to step it up a notch, create a vermiculture bin and let your kids be in charge of the worm farm. Look for beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae and lacewings. Explain that the reason you wash food that comes from the garden comes down to two words: bird poop. Some kids may react negatively to grossness, but that’s part of the charm. Gross things are both attractive and repulsive to young ones, and finding that fine line where attraction and repulsion equal each other out keeps the kids coming back to the garden.

3. Get creative

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Encourage your kids to rename the plants in the garden. Our girls have dubbed our sage bush as “Hairy Bigfoot Plant.” That name has made the humble herb extremely attractive to our girls and to the neighbor kids — especially after we cut out pieces from a milk jug and made markers for our newly named plants. In fact, our two girls and the neighbor boy run to this plant every morning as they walk to school and actually eat a leaf of Hairy Bigfoot Plant. Without that name, I suspect elementary school kids would not be eating raw sage leaves every morning on the way to school. Have your kids play The Name Game, and they are suddenly personally invested in growing and eating mummy peas (snap peas) and bloody spice balls (radishes).

4. Get a kit

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love kits, so create an easily portable garden set for each child. You can buy them ready-made at the nursery or dollar store … but where’s the fun in that? Ask your kids to choose cheap tools for themselves, or gather the tools you already have and put them in specific kits. We turned milk jugs into garden kits, but a tote bag or plastic bucket works just as well. Add more than just a trowel rake and gloves. Put in a magnifying glass, eyedroppers, specimen jars and other “scientific” tools to deploy in the garden. When it’s time to do some weeding, tell your kids to grab their kits and you suddenly have an eager workforce.

5. Get experimental

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Make your garden a laboratory, not a display. Ask your kids to experiment with the dirt, the compost, the layout and the results of your planting. Turn gardening into a science experiment. When the plants are coming up, try taste experiments — is this bitter? Sour? Sweet? This type of hands-on discovery helps kids understand that “good” doesn’t always mean “familiar” — so that when your crop is ready for the kitchen, your kids will beg to try to results. This may require you to set aside a part of your garden to be devoted to the kids’ experiments (so that you don’t ruin your entire crop) but their creative/destructive explorations will personalize your garden… and its results.

6. Get dramatic

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Learn a lesson from molecular gastronomy: Presentation and entertainment are part of the full experience of food. When it was time to thin the new shoots of butter crunch lettuce and arugula, we had our girls wash the tiny shoots and arrange them attractively on a platter with small chunks of string cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. A garden chore suddenly becomes an art project, then a dish of Farm-To-Table Micro-Greens. In the garden itself, use the “experimental” area for play as well as work: Set up scenes, fairy gardens or Lego cities beneath the plants. The “forest” of carrots grows more lush around the tiny family that lives beneath it … then Godzilla descends at harvest time, pulling the trees by the roots as the dolls run and scream in horror. The garden becomes a playground, and the plate becomes a stage, turning the concept of “playing with your food” into a deeper understanding of the earth, growing plants and the process of creating and eating food.

Main photo: Keep the fun factor high when enticing children to do gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Insider Tips From La Varenne Cooking School Image

Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.

Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.


“Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen”
By Anne Willan, Spring House Press, 2015, 133 pages
» Click here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”

Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”

The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”

In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”

I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”

Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”

From the wisdom behind La Varenne

This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.

“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”

By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.

I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.

Court Bouillon

By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
6 peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice

Directions
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.

Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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DIY Popcorn: Give Ancient Superfood A Kick Image

Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.

Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.

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First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids

Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties  of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”

“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.

The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.

A popcorn worth the obsession

The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.

Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick

Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)

3 tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup popcorn kernels

Directions

1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.

2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.

3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.

4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.

5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)

6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.

Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Secret To Delicious Tomatoes: Winter Prep Image

Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.

Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.

LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.

I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.

Winter gardening: prime time for research

LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.

Craig LeHoullier, author of "Epic Tomatoes," holds a Cherokee Purple tomato.  Credit: Susan Lutz

Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

Determine your gardening goals

LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.

LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.

Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.

Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat

Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.

Get to know your gardening climate

Epic Tomatoes

Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.

Seeds vs. seedlings

LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.

Hybrids vs. heirlooms

Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”

Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.

Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.

One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”

Disappointment is an opportunity for learning

A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”

The bottom line

LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”

Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”

Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz

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6 Gifts For Canners: Old School, Hipster & Science Geek Image

Canners like me tend to give gifts in cans or jars: marmalade from the backyard tree, red wine vinegar made from the leftover bottles of a special party, goat cheese hand-rolled by the kids.

But sometimes the cupboards are bare. And sometimes you want a little something from Santa yourself. That’s when you need ideas from canners — for canners.

In my experience there are three major styles of food preservers: I call them old school, hipster and science geek. (There are, of course, many other types and hundreds of sub-genres.) The old-school canner likes to preserve the way Grandma did. The hipster is looking for something that preserves with some style. And the science geek is often more interested in the process and cares less that the homemade vinegar tastes good than that the techniques are cool. They each have their own needs when it comes to preservation gear and gadgets.

This is my list for holiday giving, both for presents I’ll be giving to fellow food preservers and, of course, for my own wish list.

Top gifts for food preservers

1. Finishing salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, $9 for 3.5-ounce jar, $25 for 1-pound bag.

Serious canners tend to be obsessed with salt, even the fancy kinds that aren’t actually used in food preservation. I discovered this hand-harvested, small-batch finishing salt at Monticello’s harvest festival in the fall. Chefs and speakers at the festival were wedged together in a tiny booth tasting and admiring the complex flavors of this salt. Made by siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, this salt is a reinvention of an older tradition of salt processing by their ancestor William Dickinson, who started mining salt along the Kanawha River in the Appalachian Mountains in 1817. I have a case of Dickinson’s 3.5-ounce jars of salt stashed on a shelf ready to be given as hostess gifts. (Truth be told, it’s a case minus two jars, as I’ve decided to keep a couple for myself.)

Great holiday gifts for canners include a lacto-fermentation kit from Rancho La Merced Provisions, J.Q. Dickinson Saltworks' finishing salt and Leifheit canning jars. Credit: Susan Lutz

Great holiday gifts for canners, from left, include a lacto-fermentation kit from Rancho La Merced Provisions, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works finishing salt and Leifheit canning jars. Credit: Susan Lutz

2. 1.5-liter lacto-fermentation kit from Rancho La Merced Provisions, $42.

Know someone who loves sauerkraut or kimchi? Science geeks and hipster canners will appreciate the clever design of this kit. I received one of these kits as a gift from the maker, chef Ernest Miller, the man who helped relaunch Los Angeles County’s Master Food Preserver program in 2011. Although old-school canners may scoff at the idea of needing anything more than a Mason jar for lacto-fermentation, this kit helps reduce mold issues and produces more consistent results than old-school methods, especially for the inexperienced canner.

3. 2-gallon stoneware fermentation and pickling set from Kirby & Kraut, $136.

Old-school food preservationists with hipster design aesthetics will swoon over the fabric and artwork choices available to grace this 2-gallon crock with fabric top. As someone who currently uses a dishtowel to cover my crock, I’ll admit that this fermentation kit would be an upgrade to my current setup. I find the red/blue chevron top particularly charming.

4. Pectin jaune from La Cuisine, 8 ounces for $20.

Pectin is gelling substance used to help solidify jams and jellies. Commercially produced powdered pectin is usually made from apple seeds, but pectin jaune is a bit different. Made from the seeds of citrus fruit, pectin jaune will not liquefy after it sets as other pectin can. This unique property makes it the traditional choice for use in pâte de fruits (fruit paste), a delightful French confection that is vaguely similar to — but infinitely better than — those jelly fruit slices that are so popular around the holidays. I found pectin jaune at La Cuisine, an amazing cooking store in Alexandria, Va. Pectin jaune is often available in only large quantities, but this store packages it in 8-ounce bags suitable for small-batch experimentation.

5. Leifheit canning jars, available in various sizes ranging from 1 cup (1/4 liter) to 1 liter, price varies by size. Also available for purchase in six-packs.

Leifheit canning jars use the two-piece lid system recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but they have a more unique shape than the classic Mason-style jar. Their diamond footprint allows these jars to fit neatly into the canner, which will appeal to organization nuts and those with a strong sense of spatial relationships. Perfect for the hipster canner on your gift list. Although the jars themselves are reusable, consider springing for a few extra sets of replacement lids and rings, which are safe only for one-time use.

6. Nine-tray radiant cherry Excalibur dehydrator with timer, $399.95.

It’s an extravagant gift, but an Excalibur dehydrator is a gift that keeps on giving, especially during the summer harvest season. I’ve been eying this nine-tray cherry red version with a 26-hour timer. There are other dehydrators on the market, but the Excalibur is my favorite because of its horizontal airflow system. When comparing dehydrators, look for an adjustable thermostat, large tray size, mesh screens with small hole size and a timer. Also, be sure to consider how many trays you think you’ll realistically need. I’ve filled up nine trays (15 square feet of drying space) with no problem, but your working style may be different. If you’re going to splurge on a gift of this magnitude, you might want to give the recipient a heads-up so she (or he) can weigh in on color choice and other important features.

But even if you splurge on a beloved fellow canner, also be sure to whip up a batch of apple butter or bake some gingerbread for your nearest and dearest. A homemade gift is often the best gift of all.

Main photo: J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Work’s finishing salt, pectin jaune and pâte de fruit top holiday gift lists for canners this year. Credit: Susan Lutz

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