Sunday, December 30, 2007

To Do: Eat, Drink, Be Merry

Well, la-ti-da. The Shermans ate well this Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, my dad and aunt Therese made their way to a Burbank market to collect a local, organic turkey only to learn that the day’s supply had already run out. Dad wasted no time in acquiring some other meaty thing: as we know, prime rib is a more than suitable substitution for a large swath of the edible animal kingdom. He roasted the great block of fatty, tender beef and we finished it at the table with a ladle of divine Madeira gravy, inspired by this Epicurious recipe and made possible by a three-quarters full bottle of the sweet red wine that was leftover from my latest Cooking Project: Lobster Newberg.

Not to be confused with the rather unfortunately named prog rock jam band, Lobster Newberg is a classic dish popularized (if not invented) at one of America’s first white-linen dining establishments, Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City. You just don’t see it on menus anymore, although it continues to inspire nostalgia (I've seen it on a few cheerful signs in front of glorified roadside seafood shacks on Cape Cod – but have never tasted it myself).

One of our Christmas Eve dinner guests exclaimed that he loves Lobster Newberg, but when I quizzed him (apprehensively) on how well he knew the preparation, he admitted that he can’t remember when last he tasted it. (I’m always unnerved when I make a “blog dish” and someone professes to love the thing. This invariably occurs when I have not so much as tasted the dish before and have only a foggy idea of what I'm trying to make.)

Charles Ranhofer published a recipe for "Lobster à la Newberg or Delmonico" in The Epicurean (1894). He was the head chef of Delmonico's in 1876, when the dish was introduced to the restaurant by a wealthy sea merchant named Ben Wenberg. Originally listed on the menu as Lobster à la Wenberg, the name was scrambled after a quarrel between Charles Delmonico and Mr. Wenberg.

In Chef Ranhofer's version, 6 two-pound lobsters are boiled (for 25 minutes!) in the shell, the meat is removed, sliced, and sauteed in clarified butter in a sautoir. Raw (unpasteurized) cream, egg yolks, Madeira, and a dash of Cayenne are added to the butter to create a very rich but cleanly flavored sauce.

We used Pacific spiny lobster tails (with their insect-like legs and lack of claws, they look like overgrown, ocean-going crawfish.) I made a few adjustments, picking up hints for measurements and cooking times on the Web, but stuck very true to Chef Ranhofer's recipe (no flour for thickening! no nutmeg! no Sherry or other liquor!), and the dish, which we served as an appetizer, was sweet, heady, and tantalizingly good. The recipe is below.

On Christmas Day, my uncle Mark, a Santa Barbara restaurateur, wine god (in that he always has such great stuff on hand, breathed and ready to pour), and all-around foodie inspiration, prepared a crown roast. He had to dig into a few cookbook classics of yesteryear for guidance on how to proceed with this imposing rack of about 20 pork chops bound by some brute butcher into a great crown of bones, like a meaty coliseum in miniature.

The result – glazed with a sweet, spicy citrus and pepper reduction and piled high in the middle with a buttery apple and cranberry stuffing – was extraordinary.

Because Ketel One martinis, fine California wine, and a well-rounded cheese platter just weren’t enough to wet our appetites for the momentous main attraction, there was a version of Oyster Rockefeller – two dozen gorgeous, still-quivering specimens blanketed by a sweet spinach, garlic, and breadcrumb sautee and dusted with browned Parmesan.

The inspiration? Alice B. Toklas and her mid-1930s cavort across America. She and Gertrude Stein sampled them at a small French Quarter restaurant. Alice's recipe (published in her cook book in 1954),was a favorite of her French gourmet friends. "It makes more friends for the United States than anything I know," she wrote. I can't vouch for its diplomatic powers, but it won over my 5-year-old cousin in 60 seconds flat.

There were more luxurious eats (namely, an almond torte with a lemon curd filling and dark chocolate buttercream icing) – but that'll have to wait for '08 posts. I'll be ringing it in with a glass or two of Roman Punch (a frothy 1887 tipple) and bustin' loose with Rebirth, my favorite New Orleans band. Happy New Year's, y'all!

Lobster Newberg

3 lobster tails
2 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee
1 1/2 cup cream
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup Madeira
Pinch of cayenne
Salt and pepper

  1. In a large pot, bring a couple quarts of salted water to boil. Cook lobster tails in gently boiling water for 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and blanch tails in cold water. Meanwhile, melt clarified butter in a sautoir (a 12-inch saute pan with 2-inch sides) over medium heat. Chop tails into 3-4 pieces and cook gently in butter for 2 minutes on each side.
  2. Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and combine with cream. Add cream mixture to sautoir and cook until reduced by half. Add Madeira and bring to a simmer. Add seasonings. Remove lobster meat and continue cooking sauce at a low simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Spoon sauce over lobster meat and serve immediately.
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer.

Oysters Sherman

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-4 cloves minced garlic
3 cups fresh spinach
1 cup breadcrumbs
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 scant teaspoon dried parsley or 1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley
1 scant teaspoon dried tarragon or 1 tablespoon fresh minced tarragon
1 scant teaspoon dried basil or 1 tablespoon fresh minced basil
1 tablespoon fresh minced chives
Salt and pepper
2 dozen oysters
½ cup grated Parmesan (optional)
1-2 tablespoons butter

  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook just until it stars to color. Add spinach, breadcrumbs, lemon zest, and seasonings and sautee for about 5 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, shuck the oysters, leaving the oyster loosened in a shell. Preheat broiler. Arrange shells on a single layer on baking sheets. Spoon about 1-2 tablespoons of spinach mixture onto each oyster. Sprinkle with Parmesan (or not – they’re just as good either way). Dot each oyster with butter.
  3. Cook oysters under broiler for 4-5 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly on top. Serve immediately.
Serves 8-10 as an appetizer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas with the Family: S.O.S.!

I come from a line of limited traditions. Those we have are all about food: sushi on Christmas Eve, strudel-making on the dining room table, and from my mother’s family, creamed eggs on Christmas morning.

Creamed eggs, hard-boiled eggs suspended in an unflavored béchamel and slopped over toast, debuted in its most refined state in the late 19th century as Eggs á la Goldenrod, an acceptable culinary exercise for the genteel young ladies that flocked to Fannie Merritt Farmer’s cooking school (she published a recipe for the dish in1896 in The Boston Cooking School Cookbook.) In American Food Writing, Molly O’Neill cites feminist food historian Laura Shapiro: Eggs á la Goldenrod was for the “ambitious homemakers” who wanted to learn “how to make plain, wholesome breakfast ingredients look so decorative and non-nutritive you could even serve them to ladies.”

By the second World War, it was known by its more frank monikers, “apcray on apcray” (for those of you fluent in Pig Latin) and S.O.S.” (i.e., “shit on a shingle”), and certain sissy steps like putting the yolks through a potato ricer and sprinkling them on top of each serving were 86ed. Macho things like chipped beef were added (sometimes replacing the eggs altogether).

Eggs-and-chipped-beef is the version that my mom’s family grew up eating and the provenance of the dish my two uncles and aunt make every year for their families on Christmas (but not my never-much-of-a-conformist mom). In the family, the eggs are credited to their late dad, Hal, although I’ve heard that my grandma Sue has said indignantly, “I was the one who made them!” So let’s split the difference and call it a joint effort.

Yesterday, after 90 minutes of gift-opening, I helped my uncle make Hal/Sue’s creamed eggs. We met halfway between the S.O.S. version and Mrs. Farmer’s Eggs á la Goldenrod: the sauce was fortified with ham (my uncle’s way), but we added a garnish of crumbled yolk and we cut the toast slices into “points” (Fannie’s way).

The result is über-comfort food, a homely, filling meal that goes down a treat with kids and fills everyone up for a second round of gift-opening.

On a side note, let’s talk about boiling eggs. Only recently have I realized that such a straightforward gesture is, in fact, a cooking triple lutz. Getting them right ain’t easy: boil them too long and the yolks take on an unsightly grayish-green tint; boil them too little, and, well, they’re not hard-boiled eggs. Improper cooling after cooking makes the shell cling to the egg and come off only in the tiniest, most aggravating little bits. My uncle’s technique produced yolks that were dull on the surface and had shells that just wouldn’t give up their post. He’s been boiling eggs all his life – what did he do wrong?

In The Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman recommends that you put eggs in a single layer on a pot and pour in cold water (this reduces the chance of cracking the shells in transit), bring water to a boil and then remove from heat, cover the pot, and allow to sit 12 minutes (on average – some eggs will take a bit less time, others more). Then place the eggs in an ice bath to cool completely before peeling (and if you’re going to peel them right away, Ruhlman advises that you crack the eggs as they go into the ice bath. So if you accidentally crack the eggs at this point just play it off as technique.)

The method outlined above is counterintuitive to most of us – turn off the heat to cook the eggs? My mom is deeply disgusted by runny yolks so she’d rather boil the bejeesus out of ‘em than risk a bit of yellow goo.

My uncle actively boils his eggs for 10 minutes. In light of Ruhlman’s recommended technique, it’s no wonder they were overcooked and cracked in the pan from too much jostling. But then you turn to another authority – say, Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual, my first cookbook – and learn that 12 minutes of active boiling is desirable. What gives?

I intend on experimenting with a dozen eggs and a timer -- but not in the middle of the holidays. For now, the best answer I have is that most of us overcook our boiled eggs, and to achieve the bright yellow, creamy yolk that grace the salad course of fine dining establishments everywhere, we’d do well to ease up a bit (incidentally, same goes for scrambling).

Eggs á la Hal and Sue

6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Paprika or cayenne, to taste (optional)
½ cup chopped ham
6 to 10 slices of bread

  1. In a small saucepan, set milk over medium-low heat and slowly bring to about body temperature. Meanwhile, make a roux: melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Mix in flour until combined. Slowly add warm milk, mixing in each ¼-cupful until incorporated. When milk is completely incorporated, season with salt and pepper and paprika or cayenne. Continue to stir occasionally until sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, separate egg yolks from whites. Crumble yolks with a fork. Roughly chop egg whites.
  3. Add egg whites and about half the crumbled yolks to the sauce. Add ham. Adjust seasoning. Meanwhile, toast and lightly butter bread. Slice into halves, diagonally. Serve each person two toast triangles with sauce and a liberal sprinkling of yolks on top.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Humble Pie

More nostalgia, or missing what I never had...

I was the girl who brought a box lunch to school -- never a bag, that would be wasteful -- filled with dark brown bread smeared with all-natural peanut butter and a smelly hard-boiled egg. We had couscous with raisins instead of Hamburger Helper; I was bribed every so often with "sugar cereals" like Berry Berry Kix.

We ate healthy/organic/local well before the days of a Whole Foods in every gentrified neighborhood. It was mortifying.

So I loved sleep-overs at friends' houses and babysitting for the kids down the block because they spelled rare opportunities for junk food. And Kraft Mac n' Cheese was definitely right up there in the hierarchy of nasty-but-good. By the time my sister, 11 years younger, was around, there were natural versions of classic easy-cook junk foods, like Annie's shells and cheese and Amy's frozen pizzas -- yet another reason why the young ones always have it better.

In fact, that classic American dish -- mac n' cheese -- has had a number of guises. It was surprising to me to learn that it's been around since at least 1847, when it was published in a recipe titled "To Dress Macaroni a la Sauce Blanche" in The Carolina Housewife by a Lady of Charleston. The story goes that the dish arrived in the south long before the Italian immigration to northern cities because our man in Europe, Thomas Jefferson, brought notes on Italian pasta-making and samples of Parmesan back to Virginia.

The recipe, which you can read here, is a heavy on the sauce. The pasta and cheese must have been luxuries and they would have had dairy coming out their ears. My roommate Jane, acting as my lovely sous chef, doubled the pasta and Parmesan and reduced the butter, milk, and cream by half. The result was a really fantastic classic baked macaroni and cheese -- what some people call a "macaroni pie" -- that had the levity of a souffle.

Old-fashioned Macaroni and Cheese

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 pint milk
1/2 pint light cream
2 cups parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pinch of cayenne

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large pot of salted water, boil the macaroni according to package directions until al dente. Drain and reserve.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter over low heat and whisk in the flour. Add the milk and cream and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil while continuing to whisk. (The Charleston housewife says, "This sauce ought to be stirred the whole time it is boiling, and always in the same direction.") When it's as thick as a creamy soup, remove from heat. (You may add more flour if needed). Add a cup of the Parmesan cheese to the sauce and stir to combine. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne, to taste.

3. In a greased 8" x 8" baking dish, put a layer of macaroni, then a layer of cream sauce, then a layer of grated cheese. Repeat until you have 4 to 5 layers, finishing with a layer of cheese. Bake for 10 minutes. Finish under a broiler for a lovely browned top.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Real McChicken

I’m ba-aack!

And I’m back with a Mac attack.

Hands down my favorite thing at McDonald’s as a kid growing up was the Chicken McNugget Happy Meal with a strawberry shake.

Oh the greasy salty hot little morsels, so perfectly sized for a child’s hand, nestled in that little box like eggs waiting to hatch – chickens! (Or a close approximation of chicken flavor …texture … mouthfeel.)

And the sticky honey-dip that got everywhere but just melded so beautifully with the nuggets for that singular American combo of salt n’ sweet.....

The fries? Eh, they were there. Never been so into fries. I mean sure I’d eat ‘em, still will, but honestly --- not so turned on by fries. And besides, who can pay much attention to soggy little sticks of starch and beef tallow when there is (could it be?) a STRAWBERRY SHAKE IN OUR MIDST.

Oh, the pink! The cool! The unimaginable decadence of eating’s one’s dessert as appetizer, side dish and then, of course, dessert! (One of my favorite food memories is when I was a wee one, blissfully unaware of such things as nutritional content and my thighs, and I would order a malt in any old greasy spoon, and it would come with that WONDERFUL silver mixing cup on the side and a long elegant spoon and as you scooped and then sucked down the first cup with all your little might (so thick and cold it almost hurts), you would gaze at that second cup, comfortable in the knowledge that when you’ve gotten down to the slurp and dry suction, THERE IS YET ONE MORE TO BE DRUNK, still cold and sweet and waiting for you. Is there any better comfort on Earth? Is this feeling what we search for when we suction up other things into our orifices? Is this why life can seem so futile at times – the fear there is no second cup?)

Pause: [ ……………… ]

Let’s hedge our bets, shall we, let’s make the most of THIS cup. Let’s LIVE for chrissakes! Let’s drink dirty martinis on Fridays! Let’s go sledding on snow-days! Let’s eat fried chicken-thingies! (But let’s not do it at McDonalds.)

Here’s a surprise for you: fried chicken thingies have been around for a century and a half, and more. I tackled an 1881 recipe last night (from What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher). Back then they called them Chicken Croquettes, which is SO much lovelier than calling them Fingers, don’t you think?

Chicken Croquettes are blissfully simple: they are chicken meat, boiled and chopped very fine, mixed with egg, rolled in crushed crackers and deep fried in lard. For some perspective: compare to the 38 ingredients that go into the McNuggets (see Dilemma, Omnivore’s).

I’m sure Mrs. Fisher's lard beats that smelly, beefy Mickey D’s stuff any day – but I am now in full awareness of my thighs, so I pan-fried in a combo of canola oil and butter. I should note that deep frying would have worked out much better. Little cracker bits shook loose from the first batch and promptly burned in the pan, smelling and smoking up the joint and alarming my unsuspecting roommate. Windows had to be thrown open, the second batch looked and tasted a bit charred (from picking up the black bits), but no alarms went off and it all tasted pretty good.

Like chicken-good, not Chicken McNugget-good.

Next up in a brief series on the provenance of childhood comfort foods: "Macaroni a la Sauce Blanche." (That's mac n' cheese to you and me.)

Also, I'm off of work for the next week -- and back in the kitchen -- so there's lotsa cookin' to come....

Chicken Croquettes

3 pounds chicken parts (I used thighs)

3 eggs

1 ½ cups unsalted saltines, crushed very fine

Salt and pepper

2-4 tablespoons canola oil

2-4 tablespoons butter

Cayenne or paprika or some other seasoning. (Not recommended: tertiary butylhydroquinone).

1. Boil the chicken in a large pot of water until very tender and cooked through. Allow to cool and then remove all skin, gristle, and bones. Plop the chicken meat in a food processor and pulse it until it’s uniformly and finely chopped. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and whatever seasoning you’d like. Whisk eggs in a bowl and then add to chicken. Stir with a spoon to combine – or give it a few more pulses of the processor, but this will make the chicken rather pasty and weird.

2. Form the chicken into about 8 oblong patties, 3 inches long and a 1 ½ inches across. Whisk remaining egg. Dip patties into egg and then into cracker crumbs.

3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp. each of oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place half the patties in the skillet and let cook 2 minutes before checking for done-ness. When golden brown on underside (2-3 mins.), flip and cook another 2 mins. Remove pattie from pan and let drain on a paper towel. Add remaining oil and butter to skillet, as needed, and cook remaining patties.

Service Chicken Croquettes with ketchup jazzed up with a bit of hot sauce or ranch dressing or the perennial classic, honey.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Submitting to the Art of French Cooking

On a wintery evening in St. Paul, MN, I peeked into my parents' fridge to discover a good-looking local, farm-reared, really n' truly free-range chicken thawing in the fridge so I thought I’d give it the Julia Child treatment: douse it in booze and call it Coq au Vin.

Julia instructs that one use a frying chicken, by which I suppose she means one on the less-than-plump side. Mine would do fine, having lived a life of active pleasures. But I don't get why she didn't recommend a rooster. My French ain't so good but, uh, doesn't cock = coq? I suppose it's simply the dearth of roosters in the modern marketplace.

I wasn't super-careful with all the steps and ingredients and so I can't properly judge the recipe by my ho-hum results. I still don't get why I needed to bring two whole quarts of water to a simmer to gently cook the bacon in BEFORE gently frying it in butter. We figured the two-step cooking process was meant to reduce the amount of fat -- but two quarts is way more than is necessary for 3 to 4 ounces of bacon, don't you agree? Weird. Impatience and rumbling tummy drove me to simmer the bacon for half the time in half the water (no biggie, I'm sure). Another problem was that pearl onions were simply not to be had in the five-block radius, so used thick slices of red onion.

The only liquor store that could be reached in the white-out conditions had no cognac, a key ingredient, so I substituted a $12 bottle of Christian Brothers brandy. Eh, close enough. My parents don't go much for the "young, full-bodied" French red wines, so I dug out a South African cabernet sauvignon blend from their cellar.

I was so psyched for the part of preparation when I would pour in the cognac-cum-brandy and, "averting [my] face," as Julia recommends, watch it go up in flames. So excited, in fact, that I forgot that crucial step: "ignite ... with a lighted match." Whoops.

I rushed the cooking, even though I knew I ought not have. Poor little drunken chicken was assaulted by a near-rolling boil. The finished product smelled delicious but fell flat in the mouth. The flavors hadn't blended together well and the drumstick (my favorite) was a bit tougher than I would have liked. Slower cooking would have solved that one. My dad's friend recommended that I add shallots, which I tossed in with the mushrooms and onions, but it didn't do the trick. She cooks her vegs in with the sauce which makes loads of sense but since Julia doesn't do it that way, I didn't. Wish I had. After we'd finished, she sat back and said, "Well, I can say without equivocation that my coq a vin is much better." Touche.

I'm not going to bother posting a recipe. I used the one that Julia wrote with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). But if you want to make coq au vin some snowbound Sunday afternoon, I recommend Nigel Slater's musings and recipe (wish I'd read it before I dove in). I'd love to hear about your experiences with this classic dish and other "cooking with Julia" stories!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

T minus 24 hours: it's cranberry sauce time!

Jane jetted off to Tokyo; Andrea's got a date with a sailboat off the coast of Guadalupe. Yes sir, my roommates are living the high life this Thanksgiving. But oh! the poor dears. Las pobrecitas! This year they won't get their starch-and-fat happy meal, their late afternoon turkey coma, their fridge full of leftovers. And so we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at our house last weekend. It was cozy and wonderful: imagine the sweet autumnal scent of mulled wine and spiced nuts; long-lost friends, some with new loves and some without; a table laden with delicious offerings from as far afield as Williamsburg and the Upper West Side; and everyone happily camping on the floor when the chairs ran out.

I was charged with the bird. I brined it overnight in a humongous Glad-lock bag, inspired by the Pioneer Woman (although I ended up following something close to Alton Brown's recipe). It turned out gorgeous, sexily succulent, the Angelina of roasted poultry.

And for the sake of this project, I laid claim to cranberry sauce duty. Not that anyone was fighting me for the chance to make it. It's not a glamorama dish, like an all-star pecan pie or even some insanely buttery, tasty stuffing. No man will fall in love with the girl who makes a mean cranberry sauce. But it was on my list: American Food Writing includes a 1901 recipe for Sauce aux Airelles from The Picayune's Creole Cook Book (that's cranberry sauce to us yanks).

The ingredients couldn't be simpler: fresh cranberries, water, and sugar, but the recipe runs on for two whole pages because there are a lot of things that can go wrong even when things might at first glance appear so easy.

First, a warning. Creole cranberry sauce is emphatically NOT like Jello-O or any of its forefathers. The cookbook warns against those who would discard the precious fruit, leaving only a humorless gel: "Never strain the sauce. Many do, but the Creoles have found out that cranberry jelly is a very poor and insipid sauce, compared to that of the whole fruit. ... Liquid cranberry is a very poor apology for the dainty crimson mold of the native fruit."

And there are more such no-nos, but time does not permit me to go into them (T-day fast approaches, after all, and I need to get this post out NOW). Suffice to print this one, which we all may know from our grans: "Never cook cranberries in a metal saucepan; nor even in one of agate or the brightest tin. The berries absorb the taste, as they are an acid fruit, and your best efforts will fail in making a fine sauce. Use always a porcelain-lined saucepan."

Since you must (or really should) let the sauce stand overnight, and therefore if you plan on making it for the Big Day you've got just 24 hrs to spare, I must cut this off and hop to the recipes. In addition to the cranberry sauce, I've tossed in a fantastic idea for them leftovers, inspired by a simple, hearty one-pot dish that got me through the last couple crazy days before I left NYC for 2 weeks of food research in the Midwest, including interviews with the women of the Butterball Turkey Talk Line near Chicago and the people who are keeping alive the concept of truly wild rice. More on that later (but in the meantime, forgive me if I slow down on the blogging).

Old-fashioned Ultra-Thick n' Tasty Cranberry Sauce

1 quart cranberries (4 cups)
1 pint water (2 cups)
2 cups sugar

1. Put cranberries and water in a non-metal saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring often with a wooden (or other non-metal) spoon to break up the berries and prevent burning. Cook 20 mins, stirring occasionally.
2. After 20 mins, take pot off heat and stir in sugar. Return to heat, now at medium-low, and cook for another 10 mins, until thick.
3. Transfer to a pretty earthenware mold or simple glass dish, whatever's handy. Let stand until set (preferably overnight) and either remove by dipping mold in warm water or simply serve in dish.

Thanksgiving Leftovers & Wild Rice Delight

2 cups wild rice or wild rice mix (NOTE: directions below for cooking the rice are a general guide, but it's better to follow the direction
4 cups stock or water or cooking liquid from steamed vegs
2 tbsp. butter
1 bay leaf
2-3 tbsp. cranberry sauce (or more, to taste)
3-4 cups of extras: any combination of cooked mushrooms, onions, pumpkin, squash, turkey, chicken, sweet (or neutral) sausage
Plus 1/2 cup of toasted pecans, almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts.
Salt and pepper

1. Melt butter in large pot over medium heat, add wild rice, stir to coat, add water and bay leaf and bring to boil.
2. Give it a stir, reduce heat to a simmer, cover the pot with a lid, and let cook undisturbed for 45 mins.
3. Add all the extras, replace lid, and allow to simmer five more minutes, then let stand 5-10 mins, lid on, so the flavors can blend.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Feel Like Bundtnin' It Up!

Happy Bundt Day, dear friends! In honor of the glorious occasion, I hosted a Big Bundt Appreciation Bake-off. (Suggested listening to get you in the celebratory spirit: "Feel Like Funkin' It Up" by the Rebirth Brass Band.)

And while I had but three entries (a bit sad, isn't it?), I'm simply thrilled with the Bundt love that came my way. (Besides, a little Bundt goes a long way -- it took four days and about twenty people to polish off my Hickory Nut Bundt Cake.) Thank you to Dave, Andrea, and Anne. And to all those who had every good intention of making a Bundt cake but just didn't get around to it: Bundt Day isn't over! In fact, Bundt Day is every day of the year you feel like bringing a big golden crest of love and joy into the lives of your nearest and dearest! And so, on to the entries...

I've learned that Bundt cakes have a peculiar power to reach across generations.

It took the combined efforts of three generations to produce the entry from Ann of Redacted Recipes. Ann's mother dipped into her trusty recipe box and suggested "Barbara Teague's Hummingbird Cake," a pineapple, banana, and nut confection that is delightfully retro and so Southern, y'all. (Btw, I loved Ann's simple but effective Bundt-appropriate update: replacing a citrus glaze with the traditional cream cheese frosting.) Ann's daughter helped her capture the throwback feel in a photo that could be torn right out of a Nixon-era cookbook. Now, you may know that I have a major case of VCA (Vintage Cookbook Addiction), so this was right up my alley!

Faced with a beckoning Bundt pan, Andrea in Brooklyn also dialed "M" for Mother. She adapted a recipe that her grandmother passed down to her mother, and cleverly dubbed the creation "Pirate's Bundt-y" (10 bonus points for the whimsical name). Infused with orange juice and three types of liquers, it had me dreaming of sun-drenched tropical beaches and the brown pools of Johnny Depp's eyes. Great art direction in the photo! (Recipe below.)

And our third contestant passed the love of the Bundt on to a younger generation. David at Luna Pier Cook baked a Sour Cream and Apple Bundt Sort-of-Cake with his son, who's celebrating a birthday today (happy 15th, Adam!). They had a minor mishap of the sort that, honestly, happens to me about once a month. Without baking soda and baking powder, their cake made a graceful pirouette and turned into a torte.

And what a glorious torte it was! It looks moist and dense and simply delicious with that fat dollop of fresh-whipped cream on top. I think the best lesson any young cook can learn is to roll with the punches, in the kitchen and in life, and learn to enjoy your mistakes because they lead to innovation and yumminess never before explored -- and when in doubt: throw some whipped cream on it!

Unfortunately, I had to choose a winner. I decided upon Ann and her Hummingbird Cake because it was a lovely representation of Bundt past and Bundt future. Congratulations! So what'll it be, Ann: apple butter or balsamic ketchup?

Andrea's Pirate Bundt-y

Items to be mixed and put into Bundt pan:
Yellow Cake Mix, Vanilla Pudding Mix, 1/2 cup Vegetable oil, 4 eggs, 4 jiggers orange juice, 1 jigger vodka, 4 jigger of St. Maarten Liqueurs (I carefully selected Spice, Mango, and Almond flavors)

Glaze to be drizzled on top of warm Pirate's Bundt-y:
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, 1 jigger orange juice, 1 jigger Vodka, 1 jigger liqueur.

Cook's note: If one doesn't know what a jigger is, one might want to ask their grandmother.


Monday, November 12, 2007

The Hickory and the Bundt: A Romance

There's something so wonderful about opening a plain brown box, packaged by hand, addressed to you with the handwriting of a person you'll never know. It's been years since the anthrax scare, but still, forced as we are to remove our sneaks just to get on the puddle-jumper to Tallahassee, most of us can't help but feel an irrational distrust of unclaimed luggage and lost packages. The occasional Ebay delivery, swaddled in an overindulgence of packing tape and blockily printed with a Sharpie, is a comforting reminder that not it's not all stranger-danger out there.

My special delivery was hickory nutmeats, of course. They arrived from Wisconsin in a quart-size Ziploc bag nestled in shipping popcorn. My first thought was that there may have been some mistake -- they look so familiar, like miniature walnuts, perhaps they mixed up the orders. But with the first bite -- very crunchy, sweet, with overtones of maple and not a hint of the bitter walnut aftertaste -- I realized that these nuts are better than any I've ever had and worth every penny. (I paid $12 plus $5 S & H for a 1/2 pound, shelled.)

Such a nut deserves a spectacular debut, and what better than the starring role in an Old Fashioned Hickory Nut Cake -- which also happens to be my creation in honor of National Bundt Day? After all, "off all the nut cakes there is none better than this old-fashioned one," or so says Hester Price, who published the recipe in The Good Housekeeping Hostess, 1904. I've heard it said that modesty is a virtue, but I don't believe that applies in cooking, and Ms. Price has reason to boast. I tried the recipe with hazelnuts -- delightful results, as you may recall -- but I've got to hand it to her, the hickory cake blew it out of the water.

Sure, I gilded the lily just a little -- I dribbled a chocolate glaze made with Lindt 70% with Orange and Almonds along the top of the noble Bundt crest, but the hickory nuts were center stage.

All I can say is: wow. I can't wait to make this cake again for my family for Thanksgiving. My advice: go to Ebay, splurge on some hickory nuts, play around, make the recipe below or give 'em a whirl in one of your favorite autumn yummies. Just try these nuts.

And don't forget, you've got a little less than 24 hours left to enter your Bundt cake to my Big Bundt Appreciation Bake-off. I can't wait to see what y'all have come up with! I'll post the results on Thurs, 11/15, National Bundt Day.

Old-Fashioned Hickory Nut Cake with Dark Chocolate, Orange and Almond Glaze

This recipe is big enough for a standard Bundt pan. Divide by half for a loaf pan. This cake is very dense, so you probably don't need to make this much for most occasions -- that is, unless you like big Bundts!

3 cups sugar
1 cup butter
1 & 1/2 cup full-fat milk
5 cups butter, sifted
4 tsp. baking powder
2 cups hickory nut meats, crushed just a bit (you want them to be just split into halves or quarters, not pulverized) and dredged lightly with flour
1 tsp. vanilla
8 egg whites, beat stiff
For the glaze:
1 bar Lindt 70% cocoa bar with orange and almond bits (we don't need the entire bar -- you get to eat one square!) OR 3 oz. dark chocolate with a 1/2 tsp of orange zest and 1 tsp. of slivered almonds, crushed a bit
3 tbsp. water
3 tbsp. butter

1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Cream together sugar and butter. Add milk, flour, baking powder, and nuts. Stir until blended after each addition, and then stir until smooth.

3. Fold in egg whites.

4. Pour into a buttered Bundt pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick emerges good and clean. Let cool 5 minutes, then invert and let cool completely before glazing.

5. Put the chocolate and milk a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for about 2 minutes, stopping every 30 secs. to stir. (Or put in the top of a double boiler over medium heat.)

6. When it's just melted, remove from microwave/heat and stir in butter, 2 or 3 pieces at a time. When it's completely smooth, let cool until it'll pour in a slow but steady stream, then pour it over the top of the cake, slowly working around a few times, allowing it to drip prettily down the sides.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Accept no substitutes

Everyone I know is crazy about the cornbread muffins that start off every meal at Jacque-Imo's. The size of chubby child's hand, they have the thinnest, perfectly golden-brown crust that is ever-so-slightly crystallized and sprinkled with a few snips of chive. Pulling it apart, the moist center is the shade of fresh egg yolk, and a powerful aroma, sweet and buttery, sets your mouth salivating. Just how buttery? Less than a minute on a napkin is enough for them to leave a dark imprint of grease behind. This is Nawlins, baby (as the Department of Tourism says), and you best check your diet at the door.

A few years ago, I interviewed Jack Lombardi, owner and head chef, for the arcade, Tulane's student magazine, and asked him if the secret to his food (and cult-like following) was butter. I think I offended him. I certainly didn't mean to. My dirty little dinner party secret? Butter. As any cunning gal will tell you, the more you put in, the thicker the praise. People walk away thinking you've performed small miracles when in fact it was just a simple pound of butter. (What other edible serves as the perfect stand-in for fine Italian marble? Would you be surprised to learn that it is one of my dreams -- unrealized and, indeed, unattainable -- to have my visage carved into an 80-pound block of butter, a la Dairy Princesses of the Minnesota State Fair?)

Thing is, there's a reason you can't spell butter without "but." Lately I've been on a bit of a butter-backlash. I adore Mario Batali as much as the next, but when I watch him toss a pint of heavy cream and a stick of butter into an Andouille sausage something-or-other on Iron Chef, I want to cry, Cheater! I mean, that's not even trying -- the judges can't help but melt like (yes) butter! It's like hiding sweet potatoes in the mac n' cheese and then saying your kids love vegetables.

(That being said, I'd happily gobble up a plate of Mario's something-or-other any day of the week. What can I say, deep down I'm a butter-lovin' fool, although I do find it a diverting challenge to create actually delicious "creamy" soups without cream or butter, and muffins and quick breads with, say, yogurt. Bonus: I still get the applause that, let's face it, I love: my friends lap 'em up with even greater abandon when I declare my creations "[relatively] low fat.")

Clearly I've got mixed feelings about butter, but there's one quick (i.e., yeast-free) bread that you just can't mess with: for the love of all that's sacred, please don't take the butter out of cornbread.

Indeed, in a very early (1848) recipe for cornbread, butter was one of just 6 ingredients, the others being eggs, milk, corn meal, molasses, and salaeratus (baking powder to you and me.) The source is Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers' Guide by Tunis G. Campbell. Mr. Campbell had one of those lives that seemed to span more than a century, although he died at 79. Born in New Jersey, one of ten kids to free black parents, he went to an otherwise all-white grammar school where he trained to be a missionary, became an evangelical, preached abolition, and worked as hotel steward to pay the bills (we've all got our day jobs). Later, he made speeches beside Frederick Douglass, co-owned a bakery, and was elected to the Georgia state senate during Reconstruction.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia says that the Hotel Keepers (etc) Guide:
provides practical information for supervising and running a first-class hotel, but the book is more valuable for its instruction in interracial social skills, its insistence that managers recognize the dignity of labor, and its emphasis on the need for workers to be educated, well paid, prompt, clean, and competitive.
Well amen. I'm glad the Guide has all that going for it, because as a cookbook, I have doubts. The measurements in the recipe for cornbread were about as off as can be and try as I might I just can't sort out that it was my mistake. Granted, I did reduce by one-sixth, but I took out a calculator, went through the numbers at least three times, and should have ended up with something wetter than the recommended consistency ("about the thickness of good molasses") because instead of including two-thirds of an egg (4 eggs divided by 6) I put a whole one in there. But no. My batter was dry as month-old chicken bones left out in the yard.

So I just kept adding more of the same -- butter, milk, and eggs -- until I got the batter where it needed to go. Then, following Campbell's instruction, I added one-sixth of a "tea-cupful of molasses" (this begs the question, what size are your teacups? I eyeballed it; oh, about a tablespoon); poured it into a greased skillet, and stuck it in "a good hot oven" for 30 minutes (less than Campbell's recommended "three quarters of an hour" which indicates that 375 degrees is a little too good and hot.)

On a side note: when this project is complete, I'm going to be a veritable expert on the differences between a hot oven, a good hot oven, a naughty oven, a steady oven, a low oven, a quick oven, and a bun in the oven.

Needless to say, I can't offer a recipe this time. I have no idea how much of what went into that batch, except that there was a pound of cornmeal. But there are two lessons from Campbell's cornbread that you might consider if you're hankering for a more authentic version of the American classic. Campbell's recipe uses all cornmeal, no flour, and that making for a very dense, decidedly old-fashioned consistency; the addition of molasses lends a sophisticated flavor without the sweetness of many modern cornbreads. It could have done with some salt (I ended up sprinkling some on top, along with chives, Jacque-Imo's style), and something to jazz it up, possibly buttermilk (a common ingredient in many Southern-style cornbreads, which also have bacon fat and, like Campbell's, no flour.)

To be honest, I wouldn't recreate it exactly even if I could, but it served its purpose -- as a hearty counterbalance to my roommate Jane's very delicious but very spicy "white" chicken and corn chili -- and the leftovers will be reincarnated this weekend in Jane's oyster stuffing for our pre-Thanksgiving dinner. I'm brining the bird and making cranberry jelly from a 1901 recipe published in The Picayune's Creole Cook Book!

Actually, I don't know why I'm knockin' the cornbread. It was good. And how could it not be? It had almost a pound of butter in it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Arroz con leche ... y masmelos!

My Friday evening began just great: a flurry of gossip with BFF Liz over martinis at my Park Slope apartment and the two of us giggling all the way into the city to meet our pals, fueled by a water bottle half-full of more martini (on second thought...). But it ended sadly and prematurely with a desperate and fruitless search for my 40s-glam-meets-noughties-excess fur collar on the floor of "secret" bar and a discouraged subway ride home alone (which resulted in me nodding off and ending up in bumble-youknowwhat, Brooklyn).

Headache and heartache be damned, I awoke early the next morning determined to put some positive memories between me and the loss of that furry little thing (which is just a THING, after all). So: a cardio class at Crunch ... a visit to the library and greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza ... a few hours of hard work on my various projects ... and baking, the ultimate self-medication (believe me -- in my younger years, I tried a few).

What are the sweet things most likely to make both baker and recipient grin wildly with joy? Why, brownies and Rice Krispie treats, of course. But not just any. Oh no. My "signature" brownies are super-fudgy and low-fat, with no egg yolk, a little butter, and applesauce to replace much of the sugar. (Believe me, this works.) The Rice Krispie treats were an on-the-spot innovation -- a REVELATION, if you will. (And I'm not exaggerating to say that these bars have all the makings of a revolution -- if you, dear readers, should join me, bake a batch this weekend, and share them and their recipe with everyone you know, as well as strangers just passing by.)

That's basically how I was recruited to the cause. There's a very talented baker who sells her creations out of a van near the Brooklyn greenmakert on Saturday mornings (forgive me for not knowing her name; I'll get it next time.) Anyway, she has a crispy rice and marshmallow bar that is made about 1,000% better with the addition of dried cranberries, almonds slivers, and flax seed. I recreated it to devastating effect (that's good, by the way). Recipe below.

But hey, wait a minute, isn't this a "historical cooking blog?" Although I could argue that the Rice Krispie treat is an American institution, dating back to 1939, and hence fair game for this project -- the fact remains that Ms. Molly O'Neill did not include it in American Food Writing so it doesn't "count."

She did include a surprisingly funny recipe for "Mother's Rice Pudding," published in 1877 in Elizabeth Stansbury Kirkland's Six Little Cooks. That's her to the left. Don't let the starched collar fool you, this lady had a sense of humor. The book is written as a trite little tale about a fictional Aunt Jane, a cooking dynamo, her simpleminded niece, and her niece's five friends, who really want to be good little wifeys someday but, you know, cooking class is so hard.

I'd like to think Kirkland is actually being rather subversive.

The recipe is: "one cup rice, ten cups milk; bake five hours."

And then it continues in prose: "'Why, Aunt Jane, that is the shortest recipe I ever saw,' said Mabel.
'That's all there is to it,' answered her aunt, 'except that of course any cook would know that there should be a little salt added -- perhaps a teaspoonful. You must wash the rice carefully...'" Aunt Jane continues in this vein for another 30 lines. A nine-word recipe has four paragraphs of footnotes, a parable (I believe) that warns against those who would cook by rote and without passion.

"'Won't you let me write down some more receips [er, recipes], aunty?"' silly little Mabel asks, obviously not getting the point. "'Oh yes, a dozen of them if you want them," aunty replies. Kirkland doesn't describe the smirk on Ms. Jane's lips, but we know it's there.

I followed Aunt Jane's so-called recipe with the same reverence with which it was offered. I had to guess at the temperature of an oven fire that is "steady and slow" (um, 250 degrees?). I went with her offhanded suggestion to toss a few raisins in, and on my own volition, added a few seasonings, too. So without one ounce of facetiousness, I humbly present my pudding "receipt"...

Slow-Cook Rice Pudding

"Pour a half-cup of short or medium grain rice and five cups of full-fat milk into a buttered 9 by 9-inch oven-proof pan. Add a half-cup of raisins, a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg and a pinch of salt. Bake it in a 250F oven for about five hours, until it is firm when jiggled. Serve hot or room temperature or cold, with a dollop of apple butter or a pat of dairy butter or a bit of apple sauce or a swirl of maple syrup -- or plain, as we enjoyed it back in the olden days in Park Slope."

"Why, Nora, that's just about the easiest recipe I've ever heard."

"Why yes, dear, and maybe next time I'll teach you how to make mama's dirty martinis."

Extra Special Rice Krispie Treats

You, too, can be the most popular girl at the party with these no-fail, insanely delicious yummies-for-dummies! Feel free to substitute the Kashi cereal for another whole wheat crispy rice cereal and about a half-cup of almond slivers or crushed pieces -- as well as a tbsp. or so of flax seeds, for that little something extra.

6 tbsp. butter
3 cups Rice Krispies
3 cups Kashi Go Lean Crunch Cereal with Honey, Almonds & Flax, crushed into itty-bits in a Ziploc bag
6 cups mini marshmallows
2 cups dried cranberries
1 tbps. vanilla

Butter a 9 by 13" inch pan. Melt the butter over medium-low heat, add the marshmallows and stir as they melt. When uniformly creamy, turn off the heat add the cereals, cranberries, and vanilla and stir until blended. Pour the mixture into pan, press it down until firm and smooth on top. Allow to cool before slicing.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chop it to me

If you can remember the 80s, you can probably remember chop suey, though it was certainly long past its heyday by then. Its arc from exotic favorite of snazzy coastal taste-makers to a safe "ethnic" dish for Middle America's Tuesday night suppers was decades long and has finally reached its end. My sister, born in 1993, has never tasted chop suey and probably never will -- unless, of course, I make her my tasty, almost-vegetarian update of this classic pseudo-Chinese comfort food.

My Grandma Lee, an Italian-American from Chicago who was, frankly, not much of a cook, always brushed off an old recipe for chop suey during my long summer visits. I was ambivalent about the pile of limp, shredded veggies and bits of anonymous meat in a sauce that was satisfying primarily for its saltiness. Chop suey sure wasn't egg drop soup at the local early-bird restaurant or a Chicken McNugget-and-strawberry shake Happy Meal at one of the original McDonald's or Franco mints at the Marshall-Field's in downtown Chicago (my regional favorites), but it was tasty enough to keep my interest for at least six minutes at the dinner table (safely distracted from plotting diabolical pranks that resulted in boxes of puzzle pieces raining down upon the unsuspecting head of my poor grandparents -- and much worse).

The provenance of chop suey (from a Mandarin phrase that translates to "odds and ends") is murky. It may or may not be an American invention; it may or may not have been a cheap eat created for/by Chinese-American miners and/or laborers building the transcontinental railways; it may or may not have been a San Francisco chef's late-night solution to a pack of drunken revelers. One thing we know is true: it was Buster Keaton's "favorite dish," as recorded by the Beverly Hills Women's Club in Fashion in Food in Beverly Hills (1930). This the recipe included in American Food Writing.

My version replaces pork with seitan, a new obsession for me, and chicken with firm tofu (inspired in part by Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, another new obsession). I used chicken broth, though, which kind of ruins the mood, but it's what I had on hand. Instead of three cups of canned mushrooms I sprang for the real thing, a combination of shiitake and cremini (I might have done all shiitake if I could afford it). I should have replaced regular soy sauce with a low-sodium version and/or reduced the amount (a whole cup!).

The result was as salty and soothing as a bowl of chicken noodle soup and lasted my roommates and I a whole week. While yummy and addictive like salty popcorn, it definitely suffered from sodium overload. The recipe below is a reflection of what I wish I had done. And since you sure as hell ain't gonna find this on any Beverly Hills menus these days, if you want your wee children to get a taste of this steaming bowl of melting pot Americana, you'll have to make it at home.

Updated, Almost Vegetarian Chop Suey

2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 balls of seitan, sliced thin (about 1.5 cups)
2 cups of chestnuts, cut into discs
2 1/2 cups bamboo shoots
2 cups baby bok choy, chopped into small pieces (or other Chinese green)
2 cups chopped celery
3 cups mushrooms, sliced thin (I used a combination of shiitake and cremini)
1 cup onion, diced
5 cups bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped tamari-roasted almonds (or plain almonds)
2 tbsp. corn starch
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/2 - 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 package (about 2 cups) firm tofu, cut into 1" cubes
1/4 cup chopped green onions

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large pot.
2. Fry the seitan slices until well browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip over and cook other side. Remove seitan to a paper towel and reserve.
3. Put the chestnuts, bamboo shoots, celery, mushrooms, onion, and bean sprouts in the pot and pour in 2 & 1/2 cups water. Over medium heat, stir vegetables as water begins to gently boil. After ten minutes, lower the heat slightly, cover the pot, and allow vegetables to steam for 30 minutes.
4. Add the stock mixed with corn starch. If it's too thick, add a bit more stock; if it's too thin, add more corn starch.
5. Add soy sauce, starting with just half a cup, taste and increase as desired. Add tofu and seitan. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Toss in the green onions just before serving.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

I like big Bundts!

Martha Stewart and I have a lot in common. For starters, we've both spent time in jail. We both like playing around with a glue gun. And we both dig a nice Bundt cake.

Last year, in honor of Nordicware's National Bundt Day (Nov. 15), Martha welcomed the grand prize winner of the "Bundts Across America" baking contest to her show. Plus, she's got a killer recipe for Apple-Cinnamon Bundt Cake (now why can't my icing come out like that?).

And if Martha was a blogger, I know she'd be hosting the "National Big Bundt Appreciation Bake-off." But since she's not, the duty falls to me.

The rules are simple: bake a Bundt cake -- big OR small, one that expresses your cooking soul -- take a picture and type up the recipe and the story behind it. Post it on your blog and/or email it to me by Mon. Nov. 12. (nora[at]

On Nov. 15, I'll post the results. And the entry that expresses the purest form of Bundt love -- a combination of enthusiasm and creativity -- will win a jar of my homemade Balsamic Ketchup or my "Kings County Apple Butter," their choice!

PS: Spread the love -- whether you enter my little contest or not, please contribute your cherished Bundt cake memory or recipe to the Minnesota Historical Society!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's nutting time!

National Bundt Day is nearly upon us and as a native Minnesotan (by way of a pristine maternity ward in a pretty hilltop hospital in Darmstadt, Germany) I intend to celebrate in high style. (Didntcha know? The Bundt pan was invented in MN, as was the Pearson’s Nut Roll and the Jucy Lucy.)

For the occasion, I’m thinking I’ll follow-up on that hazelnut cake with the Real McCoy: hickory nut cake, baked in a Bundt pan. And I’ve learned my lesson, so I’m planning ahead and ordering the nuts online.

All well and good, but in my search for hickory nuts that wouldn’t come in five-pound bulk bags that I’d never know what to do with, I discovered an 87-year-old article in the New York Times that mocks my plight.

“It’s nutting time! And the nuts are not far from the city,” begins the article, which promises that with an adventurous spirit, a bit of gumption, and the use of a motor car, New Yorkers can experience the life-affirming escapade of collecting wild hickory nuts not far from their own front stoop.

In the “Highlands” district, between Bear Mountain and West Point, lay “the best nutting grounds,” including hickory trees and hazelnut brushes, fertile in late October and ripe for “clubbing” (that is, knocking the nuts free – after one shimmies up the trunk). It’s no easy feat, warns our anonymous guide: “like all good things, hickory nuts are not easy to get, even when they are plentiful.”

The hickory may present its challenges, but at least its population was still bountiful. The chestnut tree was already victim of the “lumbermen” who “cut over the whole region two or three times.” The image of “dead chestnuts trees” is unspeakably sad: “their branches, now bare, once held a bountiful brown harvest at this time of year.”

Today I can find very few stories of people harvesting the fruit of the Shagbark hickory tree, a species indigenous to almost all of the area that is now known as the United States. Those who do seem to be in Wisconsin or thereabouts, none in NY. It would seem the onward march of the highways and the lumbermen have made their mark, crushing forevermore the nutty dreams of larking foragers from the big city.

And it’s no shock to learn that even if all those old-growth trees laden with sweet, never-bitter nutmeats were still standing, climate change would be making the would-be nutter a little, well, nuts. On Oct. 24, 1920, the author writes, “Jack Frost has done its work well by this time and the nuts are easily shaken and easily shelled.” A frost by mid-October? We were prancing about in 80 degree heat and the green markets still had local tomatoes!

To paraphrase our anonymous guide: “How can a fellow gal go nutting where there are no nuts?” Ebay, my friends. Ebay.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hey jowter, give us some chowder!

I'm forever partial to New England Clam and my eyes still get misty at memories of Irish Seafood, but I give props to a subtly-spiced Manhattan and never turn down a bowl of hot Corn. We could debate the pros and cons of various chowdahs 'til salmon grow legs and start walking up-stream, but there's really only one thing required of it to make it authentic: it must be made in a big, hot pot.

See, it's all in the name. The root of the word is probably French, from chaudiere ("pot"), which is itself derived from chaud ("hot"). The theory is that Breton fishermen, working off the coast of Newfoundland, brought a version of their bouillabaisse to North America. (Or it could be a down-on-the-docks bastardization of "jowter," an Old English word for fishmonger, which tickles me, perhaps because it is fun to holler the word "jowter!" Try it.)

Anywho. I know what you're thinking: Thanks for the etymology lesson, Missy, but gumbo's made in a big, hot pot and that don't make it chowder! Point taken. So there's another old tyme element of chowder, as Molly O'Neill points out in American Food Writing: "the word used to imply layering of ingredients."

In The Frugal Housewife (1830), Lydia Maria Child told us, once and for all, "How to Make a Chowder." She said layers, so I did layers ... well, my version. I layered my chowder from bottom to top, one layer of each ingredient -- instead of Lydia's lasagna of fish-cracker-onions-potatoes, repeated until reaching the top.

Lydia's chowder starts with salt pork (I used bacon, watched over with appropriate gravity by my kid sister), Lydia's cooks in a kettle hung high over the fire (I used a gas stove, somewhere between the numbers 4 and 6 on the knob), she swears that 4 pounds of fish are enough for four or five people (um, I'd say! At $9.99 a lb. for some meaty monkfish I bought 2 lbs. for 8 ladies, plus 2 dozen precious little clams).

The inauthenticities don't stop there: her potatoes were "sliced as thin as a four-pence," my fingerlings varied somewhere between a silver dollar and a button on a thick wool coat. She thickened it up with layers of crackers and a "bowl full of flour and water"; I added cream, milk, and a bit of flour, judiciously. As a homage to the cracker, we half-submerged a toasted baguette slice in each bowl just before serving. For further richness, my base was a luscious lobster broth that I whipped up with a couple exoskeletons that I've stored in the freezer for just such an occasion since August -- a broth made with stewed tomatoes and dry white wine, a nod, in a very roundabout way, to Lydia's suggestion that "a cup of Tomato catsup is very excellent" in the chowder and "some people put in a cup of beer."

The result was, to hazard a guess, better than Lydia ever made it, and a rare moment to feel grateful we live in these abundant times. The scene was near-perfect: women gathered 'round from some of my favorite cities -- Dublin, St. Paul, San Francisco -- and eight steaming bowls of briny, delicately creamy broth and plump chunks of perfectly cooked fish and potatoes.

Seafood Chowder, Relatively Light and Richly Flavored

You can substitute other meaty white fish for monkfish and skip the clams, if you’d like. Likewise, the bacon’s not crucial – start with 2 tbsp. of butter instead. If you don’t happen to have a saffron-scented homemade lobster broth on hand, try this with a homemade or store-bought fish or chicken stock, and boost the flavor with a teaspoon or two of minced thyme, a pinch of crushed red pepper, and a few threads of saffron, if you’re feeling luxurious, all tossed in with the potatoes. You may also want to add freshly ground black pepper towards the end of cooking.

6 slices all-natural applewood-smoked bacon
2 lbs. fingerling potatoes, sliced into coins (you may substitute chunks of Yukon gold or similar)
1 medium onion, diced
1 leek, sliced thin up to the base of the green fronds
4 cups rich lobster broth
½ cup flour
½ cup cream
1 cup full-fat milk
2 lbs. monkfish, sliced into bite-size chunks
2 dozen small little-neck clams, scrubbed clean
2 tbsp. butter
Two big pinches of salt
Baguette slices, toasted with olive oil until crisp

1. Fry the bacon slices over medium-high heat in your biggest, deepest pot. When they’re brown and crispy, remove and reserve.

2. Toss in the potatoes, onions, and leeks and fry in the bacon fat for two minutes.

3. Lower heat to medium. Add the stock (it should cover the vegetables with about an inch to spare). Add cream and milk and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle in the flour. Simmer until potatoes are al dente.

4. Add monkfish chunks and cook at a gentle boil for five minutes. Add bacon bits. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the clams. Float the butter in the broth. Check the seasonings. Add salt.

5. Cover the pot and allow to cook for five minutes, then check if the clams have opened. If not, replace top and check after another two minutes. Once 90% of the clams have opened, turn off the heat.

6. Serve the chowder with a slice of baguette toast half-submerged in the bowl and at least two little clams presented prettily on top.

Serves 10.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

National Meatloaf Day: When a meatloaf ain't a meatloaf

Pundits, kindly shut your traps! America is ready for a woman president. America is ready for a black president. Matter of fact, America is ready for a black woman president.

And you know what else? America is ready for a meatloaf without meat. Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, my fellow bloggers and my fellow Americans, I present to you: the nutloaf!

There any number of reasons why the conscious omnivore chooses to skip the animal bits on occasion, but one that matters most of all: deliciousness, and trust me, the nutloaf has it in spades.

I wish I could take credit for this wonderful innovation, but in fact, it's an old-time staple that dates from the 1920s, when meat was a relative luxury and folks found ways of making the stuff that lined their larder shelves tasty, interesting, and filling. I discovered it in my quest to cook my way through American history, anthologized by Molly O'Neill in American Food Writing.

The basic recipe for nut loaf, published by Isabel Ely Lord in Everybody's Cook Book (1924), is a fairly direct interpretation of the meatloaf: there's a carbohydrate to fill it out (in this case, breadcrumbs), eggs and tomato sauce for binding and flavor, and nearly endless combinations of chopped vegs, spices, cheese (well, 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 to be exact). I had such success when I recently took on Mrs. Lord's recipe, that there was no question in my mind that a version of nutloaf -- a very special version, mind you -- could holds its own against all that flesh on National Meatloaf Day.

What I would like to suggest is that the best part of meatloaf is not the meat. It is the satisfying, simple action of selecting, chopping, and mixing good, straightforward ingredients. It is the delicious smells wafting from the oven, stimulating appetites throughout the house. It is friends and family, gathering around a warm platter to slice into a steaming loaf. It is the perfect balance of protein, carbohydrate, and flavor in every bite.

And so, I respectfully present a harvest-time nutloaf that welcomes the cooling weather. Its flavors are redolent of Thanksgiving feast -- but watch out, with ginger and cayenne, this loaf's got bite. (Feel free to tone it down as you see fit).

Autumn Nutloaf

Top your nutloaf with a vegetarian alterna-gravy: I had apple butter in the fridge, so I made a simple, spicy sauce with it by mixing the butter with apple cider, a bit of olive oil, and cayenne. You could do something similar with apple sauce, or top the nutloaf with a favorite chutney.

Nutloafs are terrific straight out of the oven, but they may be even better the next day, reheated on an oiled skillet so both sides of the slice are slightly browned. It's even great cold!

3/4 cup hazelnuts
3/4 cup pecans
2 cups breadcrumbs
About 1 and 1/2 lb. butternut squash (or 2 cups puree)
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
1 cup shredded carrot
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup part-skim ricotta
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp. brown sugar (optional)
1/2 tsp. cayenne (optional)
Big pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375F.
1. Peel the squash and cut into 1" chunks. Put into microwave-safe bowl with 2 tbsp. water, cover, and microwave for 10 minutes, stir a bit, then microwave another 3-5 minutes, until pieces are very tender. Or place chunks in a steamer over an inch of water and steam for about 20 minutes.
2. While the squash is cooking, process the nuts in a food processor until finely chopped, but not uniformly grainy.
3. In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta and the beaten eggs until blended.
4. When the squash is cooked, put it with the ginger into a food processor and process 'til smooth.
5. In a large bowl, mix the squash puree with the carrots. Add the seasonings. Taste and correct, if needed.
6. Add the ricotta mixture to the large bowl and mix until blended. Add the nuts and breadcrumbs and mix until blended.
7. Spoon the mixture into an oiled loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the top is just beginning to brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Yields: 6-8 servings.

Spicy Apple Gravy

3 tbsp. apple butter
2 tbsp. apple cider
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. cayenne

Whisk together all ingredients and spoon over nut loaf slices.