Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving: The Immutability of the Menu

I’ve had a lot of change in my life.  Confronted the bad, seized the good, walked away from indifferent and dull.  Far from afraid of change, I am someone who embraces it—maybe even a little too much.

So it is interesting, even curious, that the Thanksgiving menu never, ever changes. Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July: all are reconsidered, reconfigured, revised, reinvented every year.  But Thanksgiving’s only concession in thirty-five years has been to hold back on the number of dishes when the group is smaller—as it is this year.  That means, with some regret, one less vegetable, and one less pie.

In our house, the most essential dish—after the turkey of course—is the Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling that has been on our Thanksgiving table since I was a child. My grandmother made it every year, then my mother, now me. We sometimes refer to it as stuffing, but it is never put in the turkey, but rather baked separately.  A cross between stuffing and mashed potatoes, properly made it is moist, rich but fluffy, smooth but textured.  Leftovers are prized, hot or cold.

Given its reliable presence this time of year, I was surprised to find that I have never provided a recipe for it in a Thanksgiving post.  Most likely because it was decimated for picture-taking before I even thought of it. Or maybe because there really isn’t a recipe, in the sense of one written down. It’s something that is made largely be feel. Even so, that’s an oversight that I hereby correct. You likely have your own immutable menu, but if not, I do think this is worth a try if you like mashed potatoes or stuffing. And really, who doesn’t?

The Family Potato Filling

Other than the potatoes and bread, add the ingredients gradually (as indicated) to get the taste and texture you want. I always make this up the point of baking the day ahead. Serves 12 or more.

5 lb russet potatoes
2 lb traditional good-quality white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm original
12-16 oz unsalted butter for sautéing bread
1 cup milk, approx., heated
1 large onion, medium dice
4-6 celery stalks, medium dice (be sure to string the celery first)
1-2 tea or more fresh dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
3-4 T additional butter

Early on the day or the night before you make it, cut the crusts off the bread and lay out on a sheet pan to dry out a bit, turning occasionally; bring the crusts out to the birds immediately so you don’t eat them all dipped in soft butter (who does that??).  Cut the bread into cubes, 4x4 and leave spread out to dry.

Peel and cut the potatoes into even chunks.  Bring to a boil in a large pot of  salted water and cook until tender, or they slip off an inserted knife.

While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the bread cubes. If you have them, use two large frying pans; melt 4 oz butter in each, add the bread in an even layer (do not crowd the pan), and cook, tossing occasionally until crisp and golden, adding butter as needed. You will need to do them in perhaps 4 batches; remove to a bowl as you cook them, sprinkling them lightly with salt, pepper, and thyme as you go, and set aside.
When the potatoes are done, drain them and place in your biggest bowl; the upside-down lid of a Tupperware cake keeper works well. Mash the potatoes, adding milk (start with ½ cup), salt, and pepper to achieve a smooth consistency.  I prefer to use an old-fashioned potato masher or a ricer; if you use a mixer, be careful not to overbeat or they will be tough. There is so much butter in the bread that you don’t have to add any.

When the potatoes are smooth and still very warm, fold in the sautéed bread and about ¾ (to start) of the diced celery and onion, or about 1 cup each. Taste for texture, distribution of veggies, and seasoning; mixture will be very firm but should not be super stiff or dry—it should still feel creamy. Add a little more milk and additional salt, pepper, and thyme as needed; the thyme should be clearly present but not dominant.

Butter two baking dishes; if you distribute the filling among a large (say, a glass lasagna pan or a 3-qt soufflé dish) and a small (e.g., a 9” baker or 1 ½ qt gratin), you may be lucky enough to have one untouched for next day, and even defer heating it until you see if it is needed. Spread the mixture into the pans evenly and dot generously with butter. Cover with foil and refrigerate.

Remove from the refrigerator a good 4 or 5 hours ahead to bring to room temperature. Bake in a 375 F oven—you can put it in after your remove your turkey if you have a single oven—still covered with foil, for about 30 minutes (a deep dish takes longer to heat than a shallow one, so plan for that), or until hot in the center (I plunge in a finger to test). Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or so until browned and heaving. Serve in generous spoonsful with the turkey gravy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Transition: Little Compton Poblanos Make A Southwest Classic

One of the first gifts from Little Compton farmers markets—namely, Young Farm—that I received when I returned from my years in Tucson was poblano peppers. As you know, these are a favorite of mine, and the only choice, in my opinion, for chiles rellenos.. I promptly roasted, peeled, and froze them (although, yes, I did make one chile relleno for myself), in part so that I might use them in the future to make something for the person who brought them to me, my friend Anne.

Some weeks later, when Anne was coming for dinner, it seemed that putting them into a Southwest favorite of mine, pork green chile, known simply as “green chile” in most locales, would be nice. I usually use Hatch chiles for green chile, having come to believe that this dish is Hatch chiles’ true calling—but figured poblanos would be just as nice.

For those who don’t know, green chile is a kind of very soupy, minimalist stew. It is important, I think, to honor that, and not be tempted to put in potatoes or other common stew ingredients--even onions are controversial. A good green chile is an intense, rich, and hot-but-mellow marriage of pork and chile.  That is its essence, and its glory.

Green chile is versatile. In the Southwest, you will see it topping all kinds of things, from eggs to tacos and burritos to chicken.  I like it in a bowl, pure and on its own.  Some toritllas or even good white bread on the side for the heat if needed, sort of like serving chile.  I am not averse to having it over rice, as long as there is lots of delicious gravy.

The green chile I made with the Little Compton poblanos was fine. Good, but not great. The poblanos simply do not meld and mellow into the pork in quite the same way as their thinner-walled, differently flavored Hatch cousins do. It seems that this is another instance where a substitute really alters a dish, at least for those who have a basis of comparison. So: poblanos for chiles rellenos, Hatch for green chile. I think you—and also I, now that I am back home—will have to mail order Hatches from New Mexico next season if we want to savor the true taste of a great green chile.

(Pork) Green Chile

Start with a few chiles, and add more to taste; chiles vary in hotness from season to season, and planting area. You will likely use 1-2 cups, chopped. Please use only a pork shoulder/Boston butt, preferably with bone in (increasingly hard to find) so you can get the depth and complexity of flavor that characterizes the best examples of this dish. Serves 8.

4 lb Pork shoulder or Boston Butt, preferably bone-in (which may weight a bit more). This is often labeled as a half a butt.
3 T Lard or vegetable oil
3-8 Hatch (or poblano) chiles, roasted, seeded, peeled, and chopped
3-4 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
3-4 large tomatillos (around a pound or a bit more), husked and halved, or 1 16 oz can prepared tomatillos
6 c light chicken stock or water (if water, add 1 envelope Goya pork seasoning)
salt to taste
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

Trim and cut the pork roast into small cubes, about 1.”  In a heavy Dutch oven, sear the meat  (and the bone if you have it) in the lard or oil over medium-high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and add the garlic and tomatillos; cook a few minutes til softened without browning. Taste your chiles for heat; if quite hot, add just a few of the well-chopped  (nearly mushed) chiles and the broth  or water; bring to a low boil then reduce the heat, partly cover, and simmer for an hour.  Remove the bone. Taste, and add additional chiles if more heat is desired. Continue to cook another ½-hr to 1 hr until you have a largely homogeneous but fluid chile-gravy and very tender pork. Season with salt as needed. Serve in bowls with chopped cilantro and tortillas.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Return of the Near-Native: Back in Rhode Island


As I’ve had food-related reason to mention over the eight and half years (!) of this on-again, off-again blog, I was born and spent my childhood in New Jersey, but almost all my adult life in New England, dividing my time between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where I went to college, had a second home, and have spent every summer for many decades.  I consider myself a Rhode Islander.

As you also know, for the past 7 years I have ranged South and Southwest, but that long absence (like the long first sentence of this post) has finally come to an end. My itinerant days are over. I am back in Rhode Island. For good.

The bad year I mentioned in my last post got worse—really, and there is no point in discussing it except to mention that it involved, as a small but somewhat painful part, disposing of a lot of vintage port from some of the very best 20th century vintage years (alas! the 1963s and 1970s!), and every other ingestible thing in my kitchen. Considering that I normally am in a position to cook most any cuisine in the world for a small army at the drop of a hat, that is a lot of trash. With the cupboard (and the house) bare, the only conclusion I could come to was that it was time to come home. Forgive what might seem a logical leap, but to me it made perfect sense.

So I returned to Rhode Island at the end of September to a spectacular welcome: the most beautiful, balmy, bounteous Fall in memory. Seriously, the hydrangeas are still blooming, and “the last rose of summer” turned out to more aptly be the last rose of Fall—it was last week.  The ocean is available every day. It is good to be back.

I can’t say for sure whether having returned means I will also return to writing the blog on the consistent basis of the years before I left (2007-2008), when I hear tell it was actually pretty good. We’ll see. For now, here are a few pics of things I’ve made since coming home (and a pic of the kind of fresh roast turkey and ham club that childhood memories are made of). It’s been the year of the giant mutant apple, as big as grapefruits or melons. Something about the dry, sunny summer, it seems. So lots of apple desserts, like this pie and pandowdy. And pumpkin pie, of course. Like coming home, it was time.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Back in LC: Buttermilk III

Actually, I’ve been back in Rhode Island for just over a month now, but just got down to LC, where thoughts turn to baking and guilt about my on-life-support blog.  A few friends from here have mentioned it, subtly (as in, “I haven’t seen the blog in a while”) or not so subtly (“Are you going to do the blog now that you’re here?”). So here I am, sending this out to my few but fierce believers, after a month lolling about like a slug.

Which I totally needed after a horrific academic year, and six-months-and-counting of recovering from the dreaded (as in, do not get this injury) trimalleolar fracture.  Bones healed perfectly (“like a 20-year-old!!” surgeon crowed). Yeah, but all that other stuff—you know, the stuff that actually lets you walk—ligaments, tendons, muscles, nerves—a massive contractured, painful, scar-tissued mess. A metal plate with nine screws and a 4” bolt are the least of it.

But I can now stand and limp around crutch-free for short distances well enough to bake. And I must say that I do have some personal pent-up demand to break out the rolling pins and pie plates, after more than five months of being pretty much incapacitated.

By now you know that, with few exceptions, everything I do on this blog is down-right, unapologetically old fashioned, homey, and New England (or Pennsylvania German) to the core. This morning for Sunday breakfast I reached way back to make these plain scones “baked” on a griddle, the way scones were meant to be.  You do need to tend to them, but it is all as simple as can be, and since they mix up in two secs, the whole process is done in 20 minutes. Buttermilk, as always, makes them tender and a bit tangy.

Stove-top Scones

These will have a nice contrast of textures between the insides and outsides. Go for something golden, a little on the darker side, like an English muffin. These are not sweet; I compensate by eating them with butter and jam. Makes 12.

2 ½ c a-p flour
1 T sugar
2 ½ tea baking powder
½ tea baking soda
1 tea salt
1/8 tea ginger (optional)
4 T unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk (shake before measuring)
1 large egg

Put a seasoned griddle, preferably cast iron, on the stove over low heat.

Mix flour, sugar, b.p, b.s, salt, and ginger in a medium blowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and cut it into the dry ingredients with your fingers until crumbly.

Whisk the egg into the buttermilk and stir into the flour mixture with a fork until just combined. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into three pieces. Form each piece, kneading lightly, into a small circle, about 6” diameter but no less than ½” thick. With a sharp, floured knife, cut each circle in quarters.

Place the wedges on the griddle; they should be dry from the flour on the counter, and you do not need to grease the griddle unless you want to. Cook them for about 3 minutes, then turn the heat up to medium and continue cooking them for another 3-5 minutes, or until they have risen and the bottoms are the shade of golden you prefer. Turn them over with a spatula and cook until the other side is golden, 6 minutes or so. With your hands or a pair of tongs, turn the scones to one edge and cook for about a minute; repeat with the other edges until scones are cooked all around.

Serve hot with butter and jam or marmalade.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Locovore: Loco for Local

No, not a typo. I recently had friends over for the last largish meal I made before leaving Rhode Island to return to my desert home for the academic year, and realized that, without even trying, every single thing we ate was locally produced. On an island (Conanicut, otherwise known as Jamestown).  Don’t you just love that? 

It was hot in the morning, and the forecast was for thunderstorms. My friends don’t care for the heat. And my cottage is little and, of course, doesn’t have air conditioning. So I decided to make a dinner that I could cook before the rain and serve at room temperature. What a great excuse: that’s actually one of my favorite ways to eat.

My friend Wayne (source of the mussels) had called me up and offered me some fresh-caught Bluefin tuna “head steaks”; I learned that this was the meat right behind the head that was cut off in preparing a giant tuna to be sold. My friends may not like the heat, but I knew they liked tuna, so of course I said yes.  Wayne swung off the bridge to drop me the fish on his way out to another fish-spotting gig.

Now, Jamestown has a surprising amount of meat and poultry for such a tiny place: grassfed beef, pasteured pork, chicken, and lamb.  And your usual lot of summer vegetables, plus the early gift of fresh-dug potatoes. Surprisingly, tomatoes were early this year. Surprising because of the brutal winter—did that do something to speed them up?—and just because. I usually have to return to school before the really nice tomatoes are in—and these are field tomatoes we’re talking here, beautiful in early August.The meat and produce are from Windmist Farm,and Hodgkiss Farm.

So here is the menu, with some pictures of ingredients. While I made a very satisfying visit yesterday to our own impressive farmer’s market here in Tucson, I have to say, to paraphrase Dorothy, there’s no place like New England.

A Jamestown Dinner

Dinner for Friends on a Muggy Day Threatening Thunderstorms

Tuna Tartare on potato chips

Figs with goat cheese sweetened with honey and fresh thyme

Everything-grilled salad of chicken, beef, onions, peppers, yellow and zucchini squash, and corn (see this post)
Green beans marinated with olive oil and fresh oregano
Tomato and mozzarella (from Narragansett Creamery) salad  

Ciabatta from Venda Ravioli
Organic Blueberries and Peaches with Maple Sour Cream

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Strawberries: The Real Thing

Well, this is a little out of summer sequence, because this is the first local product I bought when I arrived here in June, and this jam is the first thing I made. How could I forget that precious item that that I eat only in their native habitat in season—strawberries (not counting tomatoes, of course)—particularly when they are scarce to nonexistent in Tucson, unless it is the strawberries brought in from Yuma? Which doesn’t happen much.

The strawberries were amazing this year: a gift after a cruel winter. It is a ritual for me to make a small batch of jam with the first ones I get, and this summer was no different. I always makes something a little different—although strawberry-vanilla is a perennial favorite—and since I had just planted a little container herb garden, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I had a nice lot of true peppermint on hand.

I suppose that my strawberry jams are really more like preserves. I leave smaller berries whole, and only cut larger ones in half. And of course, I like my jams cooked just long enough so that they have jelled but are still fluid. This takes a lot of practice—I am anti-commercial-pectin, as you may know—but is well worth the effort for a perfect, versatile product.

Strawberry-Mint Jam

I just throw the mint in whole and fish it out after the jam is done. Use as much or as little as you like. Makes a little over a pint.

1 pint ripe local strawberries
1 ¾ cups sugar
Pinch salt
3 or 4 nice big sprigs of peppermint, left whole
Juice of half a lemon, and the rind

Wipe strawberries with a paper towel, hull, and cut the large ones in half. Put everything into a minimum 2-qt saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring gently to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat somewhat, but keeping it at a low boil, and cook, skimming, until it is as you like it, testing by your preferred methods or temperature (about 220F at sea level).  Ladle into jars, and freeze one for a treat during the cold winter months.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Apple Cider Vinegar: What Grandma, and Hippocrates, Knew

I am never without cider vinegar. Because if I run out, I immediately need it again before I can even get to the store (word to the wise: Buy at least a half-gallon; it lasts).  Cider vinegar is that versatile, and that, in my opinion, nonsubstitutable. If that is a word.  You may sometimes see distilled white vinegar suggested as an alternative, but no, too sharp.  Apple cider vinegar is sweeter and more mellow—I’d go for my white balsamic, to which I am equally devoted, before that, at least for dressings and maybe some chutneys. But really, just have it on hand. It’s dirt cheap and always produces just the right subtle result.

Of course we cook and preserve with it. But it has been a kitchen and apothecary staple for many other purposes since ancient times—as a refreshing and healthful tonic (making a come-back today, bottled like water and sold, like water, at high prices to the susceptible); an excellent cleaning product and stain remover; a cool skin astringent; a rinse for squeaky clean hair; a pesticide; a disinfectant; a de-scaler; a weight-loss aid--and Colonial bakers understood that a little bit worked a tender magic on pie crust and bread, and that it was just as at home in a homey dessert as in a jar of pickles, as this unusual—and unusually good--roly-poly attests.

Vinegar Roly-Poly  With Corn

You can’t get more old-fashioned than my version of this old idea: truly, something my Pennsylvania German grandmother would have made, even with what turned out to be a somewhat inspired use, if I do say so myself, of Coll’s corn. I do sometimes think Grandma’s spirit lives on in me.  Serves 8.

For the syrup
¾ cider vinegar
1 ½ c water
1 cup sugar
2 tea cinnamon

For the dough
2 c sifted a-p flour
1 T bp
1 tea salt
1/3 cup (5 T) lard or, if you must, Crisco
¾ whole milk

For the filling 
1 ear fresh corn
4 T butter, divided
¼ c sugar plus a little more
2 tea cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a 9” round pan or pie plate and set aside.

Combine the vinegar, water, 1 c of sugar, and 2 tea cinnamon in small pan over low heat til sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to medium, and reduce by half or so to a light syrup, about 20-30 minutes. Set aside.

While making the syrup, shuck the corn and cut the kernels off; do not scrape the ear yet, but set it and the corn aside.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, bp, and salt. Cut in the lard or shortening. Scrape the milk from the reserved ear into the mixture, add the whole mile, and stir to make a soft dough. Lightly flour the counter or a board and roll the dough into a rectangle ¼” thick, about 9 x 10. Sprinkle the remaining ¼ sugar and 2 tea cinnamon over the reserved corn kernels. Sprinkle a bit of extra sugar over the dough, then distribute sugar-spiced corn over it.  Dot with 2 T butter.

Roll the dough gently from the longer side and cut the dough crosswise 1” thick, first trimming each end by about ½”. Place the slices cut side up, close together, in the pan. Dot with the remaining butter. Pour over all the hot vinegar mixture. I recommend  placing on a nonstick sheet pan or enameled broiler pan. Bake 30-40 min at 375, until lightly golden and dry to the touch, with no apparent liquid: a sauce will have formed on the bottom of the pinwheels.  Let sit for just a minute, then serve very warm, with some pan sauce and then some heavy cream spooned over, as a dessert or breakfast treat.

Note: Don’t be tempted to cut back too much on the 4 tea of cinnamon. It’s a lot, but not too much; it transforms quite a bit in the syrup. If you cut it down, cut a teaspoon from the sugar mixture that goes inside the dough.