It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for another cozy Free Range chat: just you, the Food section experts and hundreds of folks spending lunch hour at their computers so they can watch the action.
This week’s big topic in Food is calories, specifically the ones you’re served by restaurants in their food and alcoholic beverages. There’s a push for posting more nutritional information, but will diners care? And Washingon Cooks spotlights two talented Frenchwomen — okay, one is Canadian — who seemingly don’t worry about calories as they cook traditional fare, don’t skimp on bread and cheese and yet are walking examples of the 2004 book “French Women Don’t Get Fat.”
So join us and weigh in, as it were. The time is noon, and it’ll be an hour well spent. Bring your questions — about calories or any other topic — and if we can’t get to yours, maybe I’ll answer it in this virtual space next week. Here’s a leftover from last week’s chat:
I’ve heard that honey never goes bad. Is that true? I ask because I have a Mason jar of local honey that I bought less than a year ago at a farmers market that’s still about half-full. I opened it the other day and it has . . . well, not solidified exactly, but congealed, I guess? It’s soft, like butter, and slightly crystalized. I scooped some out and used it in my tea anyway (a sick girl has needs), and it seemed okay, but now that I’m out of my flu-induced fog I’m wondering how bad an idea that was.
It was a fine idea, as proved by the fact that you still appear to be with us and able to type.
Honey does, in fact, remain edible for years and years, reportedly even centuries, though 1,000-year-old honey might not taste like much. A key factor is how you store it. We’ll get to that later.
I described your congealed honey to Cris Ianculescu of the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association. “It’s safe to eat, and some people actually prefer it that way because it’s less runny and easier to spread on bread,” he said. The thickening you noticed is the early stage of a natural granulation process, which you can easily reverse. We’ll get to that later, too.
Honey’s staying power stems from its composition. It’s about 18 percent water, and the rest is various kinds of sugars. “It is a very dense solution,” Ianculescu said, and “the sugar is so concentrated that microorganisms can’t live in it.” So if any bad bugs do invade, they don’t last long.
However, honey also is hydrophilic, which means it grabs moisture from the air. If enough gets in to increase the water proportion much above the 18 percent I mentioned earlier, the honey can become hospitable to microorganisms, and that could make it dicey. But “as long as you keep the jar covered, it will be safe for a long time,” Ianculescu said. (You can refrigerate it or not, but refrigeration is quite unnecessary.)
Honey’s hydrophilic nature explains why it crystallizes at the bottom first. The top portion of the honey is pulling a little moisture from the air, but down below, the sugar is becoming more concentrated, and that sugar eventually crystallizes.
Getting rid of the crystals is easy. First, what not to do: Do not, as I once did and never will do again, put the little plastic bear into the microwave and zap it. Those bears melt so fast, you wouldn’t believe it. (My apologies to Howard Herman at the Falls Church Farmers Market; I totally wasted your fine product. Sorry.)
Ianculescu says: “The way it’s usually done is to immerse the jar in a pot of warm water — not boiling, but fairly hot. After a while, the crystals will re-dissolve.”
Let’s use up your honey before you get more crystals, okay? Here’s a good and easy soup that’s served cold. The recipe calls for pears, but I think apples would be lovely, and you might not have to cook them as long. It comes from Ann Harman, a beekeeper in Flint Hill, Va.
4 cups water
2 pounds barely ripe Bartlett pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon crushed anise seeds
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup raisins, for garnish
1/4 cup medium-sweet sherry (may substitute brandy or Madeira)
Combine the water, pears, cinnamon stick and anise seeds in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for 60 to 75 minutes or until the pears are very soft.
Discard the cinnamon stick and transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the honey and stir to combine. (At this point, the soup can be pureed in a blender or food processor or with a stick/immersion blender.) Cover and refrigerate for several hours or until quite cold. Meanwhile, soak the raisins in the sherry in a small bowl for at least 2 hours.
Just before serving, drain the raisins, discarding the liquid. Divide the soup among individual bowls and garnish with the raisins. Serve immediately.