Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Travels with Alice

Would you trust a lesbian for advice on men? A few days ago I would have said, Why not?, but now I'm not so sure.

Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein's lifelong partner. Together, they traveled the world, spent Stein's money, led the ex-pat community of pre-WWII Paris, and entertained the geniuses of the day (Alice apparently unhappily stuck making small talk with their wives and mistresses).

I've read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written, of course, by Ms. Stein), and gathered that Alice was a natural homemaker. She cooked for and entertained Gertrude's friends -- men with names of Joyce, Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, Gris, and Pound. And that was the extent of my undergraduate Stein/Toklas scholarship.

What a surprise to find an excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954) in American Food Writing! (Who knew that in the Eisenhower years there was a demand for the culinary musings and homemaking advice of the "widowed" lover of America's best-known, bygone lesbian heiress author?) The excerpt focuses on a lecture tour and travels that the two women made across the U.S. in 1934 and 1935. They were entertained by wealthy acquaintances, professors from the colleges they visited, and Scott Fitzgerald himself, who thoughtfully provided them with "endless varieties of canapés" to remind them of Paris. Needless to say, they weren't eating like the rest of the country. Before giving a lecture, Gertrude could stomach only oysters and honeydew melon, which she had delivered to her hotel room (even in the Midwest, even in winter, although occasionally she had to settle for fish or chicken) -- her diva-demands would put J. Lo to shame.

The theme of the travels seems to be incredulity and delight in finding that American cuisine was not only edible but often as excellent as the French foodstuffs they'd grown to love.

Alice's writing is fresh, self-deprecating, and funny. We learn that travelers have been complaining about airplane food since the very dawn of commercial aviation: "it is incredibly bad," she writes. "Do they cook these meals [...] in the fuselage?" In St. Paul (my hometown), they encountered "miles of ice and snow-drifts" and "sweet people" who welcome them to a "festival dinner," where they sampled mint jelly for the first time. A murder in Detroit scared the wits out of the women (they called in a friend to rescue them to Lansing). In New Orleans (my college town), they dined at the famed Antoine's but preferred a meal at a smaller restaurant -- probably because it was there that they first tasted Oysters Rockefeller. Gertrude secured the recipe (she was very good at this; she paints a charming picture of constantly popping back to the kitchen to congratulate and quiz the cook) and served it to gourmets back in France, remarking that "it makes more friends for the United States than anything I know." (So here's a suggestion, Mr. President: make Oysters Rockefeller, not war.)

In Monterey, Alice and Gertrude stayed at the Del Monte, where they sampled the clean, creative, garden-fresh food that would become the hallmark of another famous cook named Alice (and indeed, the entire state of California). An unforgettable meal of "grilled chicken and turkey broilers, spring lamb cooked on a spit and basted by brushing it with a sprig of fresh mint," served with homemade gooseberry jam, ended with "the ineffable" iced soufflé. Alice provides recipes for both the jam and the soufflé -- in mid August, I took on the latter.

I've had success with soufflés, hot and cold, in the past. For one of my dad's high-summer birthday parties -- a particularly good year for the strawberries -- I filled a dozen pretty teacups with frozen strawberry soufflé. A Gruyere and prosciutto soufflé from The New Basics Cookbook became one of my early staples (having grown out of Pigs in a Blanket).

Alice notes quite matter-of-factly that this iced soufflé "is a particular favourite with men." Intrigued, it was close to the top of my list of recipes to try -- and then when my relationship recently ran into one of those big orange caution signs and off the side of the road, I thought I'd get a perverse pleasure from making this man-happy treat for my girlfriends and gay BFF.

Alice's defining culinary principle is this: "One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen." She fairly swoons at the sight of the abundant New Orleans market; her greatest complaint about American cooking, even fine American cooking, is its dependence on canned fruits and vegs (for god's sake, woman, this is Grapes of Wrath country!).

It was in this spirit of green-market inspiration that I made significant alterations to the iced soufflé recipe. The soufflé itself was basic: lots of egg yolks, lots of sugar. Whip over low heat 'til stiff, then chill on ice. Alice flavored it with kirsch or anisette and topped with sprinkled macaroons (a prepackaged treat that I've noticed pops up fairly often in mid-20th century recipes). But it being August I went with nature's bounty instead: blueberries and white plums -- and the only booze I had on hand, Crown Royal.

The fruit-and-whisky flavor was terrific but the soufflé did not turn out quite as I expected. Without egg whites, cream, or much of anything to lighten the yolks, on the stove it was very custard-like. And three hours in the freezer was not nearly enough (how did she do it in 3 hours in an old-fashioned ice box?!). After a rave-inducing meal of tuna burgers and gazpacho, it was amusing to witness my friends' dubious looks as I presented them with this pale purple, half-frozen substance that oozed like melted marshmallows and had the subtle but distinctive crunch of partially granulated sugar. Achingly sweet and soupy, my friends diplomatically dubbed it "a great sauce."

Twenty-four hours later, the soufflé was properly frozen and although still vividly sugary, rather yummy. But is this something a man would particularly enjoy? The texture, the sweetness, the very coldness of the dessert all seem rather ... womanly to me, or at least woman-friendly. As my erstwhile ex-boyfriend remarked when he'd heard I'd had a dinner party a day after the crack-up, "Shouldn't you have been eating tubs of ice cream while I got drunk and smashed shit?" Indeed, a couple days later I housed the rest of the soufflé. And so, Alice, I don't believe “the ineffable Iced Soufflé” in any incarnation would win me a man. But getting over one, perhaps.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Tomato Bee!!

Inspired by this blog, my dad came up with an excellent idea: a Tomato Bee at the St. Anthony Park Community Garden in my hometown, St. Paul, MN, where he grows an abundance of perfect tomatoes and raspberries, among other things. In the spirit of the apple bees of a bygone era, when farmers and their families gathered to peel and core apples for apple butter, we've invited our neighbors to come together to make old-fashioned tomato catsup on Sat. Sept. 1.

We'll be using two sources to make the quintessential American condiment: an 1871 recipe from Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery and a New England recipe recorded in 1938 by novelist Kenneth Roberts, recalling happy memories in his grandmother's kitchen. Common Sense calls for a cooking time of "at least" five hours -- talk about slow food! (Ah, the age-old August question: what to do with all these tomatoes? Melissa Clark, writing for the New York Times, has some excellent ideas.)

I will also be making some crowd-friendly historical food to share (hmm, "nutloaf," anyone?) and there will be gallons of refreshing homemade lemonade. For those of you in the Twin Cities, please join us! And if you have tomatoes to spare, come early and bring a peck to throw in the pot. Everyone who participates will get a jug of catsup to take home. The Garden is located on Robbins St. near Raymond Ave. We'll be out there from 11 to 5 pm. If the weather ain't cooperatin', we'll be at our house at the corner of Raymond and Doswell.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Working Girl's Tuna Burger

I live in a hip part of Brooklyn and make in the neighborhood of $30,000 a year. I have a fantastic apartment, friends who are always up for an evening of (...), and a major clothing habit that is currently in remission (one day at a time). I avoid eating out on my dime, never order in, and always pack a lunch (when I can make it better at home, why wouldn't I?). I'm a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op, which helps with the grocery bills (it's a "real" co-op, meaning you have to work every month, and we pay close to wholesale for everything). But when you do as much cooking as I do, the fresh vegetables and seafood, ethical beef, and wine (lots of wine) add up.

The point is: I have very little money to spare. This is where I get creative.

Preparing for a small Sunday evening dinner party, I decided to take on the Union Square Café’s Yellowfin Tuna Burger once more. According to the recipe, 1.5 pounds of tuna meat would yield four burgers. I had to make five. I figured I'd go with two pounds. Ouch: at $15.99 a pound, that's about $15 more than I wanted to spend. Looking baffled by my request, a fish-monger told me no, they didn't have any “discount” tuna scraps or tails. Why would they? They purchase from their supplier only the steak-ready stomach meat that their Park Slope customers demand. (Tuna goes through a chain of sellers longer than the average eightball of Colombian cocaine, each taking their cut. A fine bluefin sells for around $80,000 and winds up in the best sushi joints of Tokyo for a retail cost of $70 a half-ounce.)

So, inspired by certain Tulane University drug dealers that, rumor has it, mixed cocaine with baby laxatives, I decided to cut the tuna with something cheaper. I deliberated with the fish-seller. He suggested whitefish because "all the New Yorkers use it in salads" (he is Japanese). He assured me that it would blend right in and would hold up to pan-frying. Although I was sure he'd never made or eaten a fish burger in his life, I liked the idea of using the quintessential New York bagel-ready fish (ok, after lox) in my poor man's version of yellowfin. And at $4.99 a pound, I was willing to experiment.

The fish-seller assured me that whitefish skin is so thin that it needn't be removed but as I chopped the fish to the consistency of ground meat, the skin clumped and gave the meat a particularly sorry appearance. I picked out the skin, introduced the whitefish to the tuna, mixed all with mustard, garlic, salt, pepper, and 1/3 of a cup of olive oil (this last a mistake: I misread the recipe, something I do fairly often and one of my greatest flaws as a cook. In standardized tests I always scored very, very high on reading comprehension -- but in following recipes, driving, and love I can be a little careless.)

I made six patties and seared them over medium-high heat. Meyer and Romano suggest medium-rare but I cooked them through: between the whitefish and the less-than-sashimi-grade tuna, I erred on the side of caution. A couple of the burgers fell apart -- due to both the flakier whitefish and the olive oil (it was supposed to be used for frying, not binding, as it were). I topped each burger with a spoonful of the "Ginger-Mustard-Soy-Honey-Whatever Glaze and/or Marinade" and passed pickled ginger to my guests.

The burgers got rave reviews -- they were juicy, spicy, filling yet light (not unlike turkey burgers). The whitefish blended perfectly, acquiescing to the strong flavor of the tuna, showing itself to be the true chameleon of the sea, as happy smoked with sour cream, mayo, celery, and herbs as it is masquerading with the fancy fixings of fusion food. To paraphrase Bill Murray in Caddyshack: a Cinderella story, outta Brooklyn.

The Working Girl's Tuna Burger

1 pound yellowfin tuna
1 pound whitefish (or some other fish with the chutzpah to stand up to tuna!)
3 tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 large cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil plus 1/3 cup olive oil (PAY ATTENTION: for frying!)
6 hamburger buns, preferably whole wheat with seeds
pickled ginger for garnish, optional

Chop fish to consistency of ground meat. Remove large clumps of skin (or remove skin before chopping, but you'll need a sharper knife than I had for this). Add mustard, garlic, salt, pepper, and 2 tbsp. olive oil (a little oil helps because whitefish is less oily than tuna). Form 6 patties. Sear over medium-high heat for 4 minutes per side. Serve over toasted buns, topped with spoonful of Ginger Mustard glaze and a few pieces of pickled ginger.

A cold day in August

Spicy gazpacho, tuna burgers, iced summer fruits souffle, and my favorite vinho verde = nearly perfect August fare. Too bad by dinnertime it was 60 degrees, drizzly-damp, and decidedly April-like.

I'd been planning a cool summertime meal for a while and of course narrowed in on a 1952 recipe for gazpacho from The West Coast Cook Book by Helen Evans Brown. She writes that "there is no better way to start a meal on a broiling summer day," and I can add that it also does just fine on a cold summer day.

Gazpacho, I have learned, originated in Andalusia, a likely adaption of the Spanish Moors' ajo blanco, a soup of garlic, olive oil, bread, vinegar, almonds, and salt (sounds tasty, doesn't it?). Today ajo blanco is a signature dish of Malaga and, intriguingly, features grapes. Traditionally, gazpacho is a "liquid salad" of tomatoes, bell peppers, olive oil, vinegar, cucumber, garlic, and week-old bread, but there are so many possibilities for successful improvisation.

The provenance of Ms. Brown's "West Coast gazpacho" is, so she says, both Spanish and Latin American. Indeed, gazpacho is an early example of fusion food, bringing together the staples of the Mediterranean diet -- olive oil, garlic, crusty breads, and salt -- with the singular fruits of the Americas: tomatoes and bell pepper, carried home by ransacking conquistadores (fusion food at the end of a sword).

I find it amusing that, as early as 1952 West Coast gazpacho forgoes bread ("we skip that out here," notes Ms. Brown). Might she be the first Zone dieter?

I followed the recipe almost to the letter, but "skipped out" on peeling my tomatoes because they were simply so ripe and thin-skinned that the pulp and juice fairly burst into my lap. I substituted half of the red tomatoes for sweet yellow ones, and the green pepper for yellow, too. To temper the sweetness I upped the spice: instead of a "dash of tabasco or 1 small hot red pepper" I squirted in an ample pile of harissa, a chili paste or sauce of North Africa, thereby reintroducing Spain's Islamic past.

The soup went over a treat with my guests, quickly wiping away memories of clammy wet subway rides. My friend Shane noted that the gazpacho avoided the all-too-common problem of tasting like "watered-down salsa," as it is at the restaurant where he works (which for obvious reasons shall remain nameless). Many have their own cherished gazpacho recipe -- I suggest sticking with yours but experimenting with harissa. The rich and complicated spice adds a fullness of flavor where simple hot sauce can seem flat and/or overpowering.

Red & Yellow Gazpacho, by way of Andalusia, Latin America, California, North Africa, and a Brooklyn farmers' market

1 clove garlic, minced
2 pounds tomatoes (mixed varieties for extra fun!), cored and minced
1 cucumber, seedless if you care
1/2 cup minced yellow pepper
1/2 cup minced white onion
1 and 1/2 cup tomato juice (free of added sugar or salt)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 to 3 tbsp. vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
Salt & pepper
1-2 tbsp. harissa paste

Toss together, chill, and serve to about 4 to 6 of your dearest dears.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Wiggle room

Wasn't so long ago we Americans thought tuna were born, lived, and died in cans. Introduced in 1903 when an American cannery ran out of sardines, tinned Albacore tuna remained the only taste of the fish most Americans had until the 1980s and 90s and even 00s, when sushi spread from a food for the coastal elite to the elite of the interior and, eventually, everyone else. A Vanity Fair writer lamented: "This ascent reached its peak on January 1, 2004, when a place called Tiger Sushi opened at the Mall of America, in Minnesota." (Minnesota?! Do you think they know not to cook sushi there?) But what he ignores is that by then, the fast-food sushi counter was a feature of food courts in universities, airports, and yes, malls, even strip malls, across the country.

I admit that my love of the fish began in its canned form and can be traced to Tuna Wiggle, a recipe found in my first cookbook, the brilliant Kids Cooking ("A very slightly messy manual"), published by the folks at Klutz and accompanied with a set of color-coded measuring spoons. Tuna Wiggle's kid-friendly innovation is the jaunty name, but otherwise it's a straight-out-of-the-50s casserole (key ingredients: can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom and a potato chip topping). It was the sort of thing I never got to eat at home. Child of food co-ops and farmers' markets, I coveted things like Pop-Tarts, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and the distinctly whitebread vibe of a "hotdish" created from pre-packaged foods. My revenge: I made Tuna Wiggle myself, at least twice a month, and fed it to my parents (following the standard rules of the table, they had to clean their plates). Note to young parents: When I was about 8, my dad assigned Friday dinner to me, a fantastic idea. For a few years, my parents suffered through meals of not-so-sloppy Joes, pigs in a blanket, and the blandest chili either side of the Mississippi, but by eighth grade I'd graduated to perfect asiago and prosciutto soufflé.

As a nation, we've come a long way from tuna casserole, tuna melts, tuna salad-stuffed tomatoes. Trailing after the tailfins of the popular hamachi sushi (yellowfin tuna) and maguro sushi (meaning simply "tuna," but generally referring to the buttery, red-fleshed and increasingly endangered bluefin), tuna made its way to the part of the plate once occupied by cuts of steak. And then, inevitably, it became burger meat.

The Union Square Cafe opened in 1985, when I was four and really into PB & J sandwiches (to my chagrin and lunch-room embarrassment: the PB was natural and, unlike my friends' Jiffy, separated weirdly in the jar, and the bread was dense, dark, and flavorful). The Cafe was the first of the very successful Danny Meyer restaurants that today dot the teen and twentysomething streets of Manhattan, and was, so I've read, a dining revelation, back when American Nouveau was, um, noveau.

Meyer and his partner Michael Romano published their recipe for Yellowfin Tuna Burgers with Ginger-Mustard Glaze in a 1994 cookbook. The spirit of the dish represented a seismic step in American culinary history, as Molly O'Neill alludes to in Great American Cooking: "Invented when health concerns had Americans searching for leaner cuisine, the Yellowfin Tuna Burger is merged cuisine: a nod both to the American icon and to the rage for sushi and sashimi." Merged cuisine is the lasting emblem of the 90s, one that is so entwined in American eating that our conception of good food will forever more be hyphenated. Potatoes are not mashed, they are wasabi-mashed; no foodie worth her whisk would serve (organic, local, grass-fed) lamb chops without, say, melted feta and a Banyuls-cherry sauce. (The hyphen-effect can be achieved without actually changing the recipe: a creative vocabulary - and the misuse of foreign glossaries - does the trick. It's not Tuna Wiggle, it's an Albacore Tuna and Creamy Mushroom Strata with Crispy Gratin Topping!)

I set out to make the tuna burgers last weekend, selecting my ingredients - where else? - in and around Union Square. Although the rest of the weekend's fare was coming from the farmers' market (including the peaches for the leather), I thought I'd have to get my yellowfin at the massive Whole Foods overlooking the square (representing the rise of what Michael Pollan's Organic Industrial Complex and so not in keeping with the spirit of this project - but naughty fun all the same). Then I saw a fishmongers' stall right there in the market, cleverly equipped with curtains to shield the coolers from the intense sun (a little tuna peep-show) and bags of ice to send you and your perishable purchases off in relative comfort.

Meyer and Romano's recipe notes that the tuna burger is the unplanned but beloved child of Mother Necessity. It's a solution to the problem of the "expensive, delicious, but oddly shaped" tail-scraps of their "Fillet Mignon of Tuna." The fishmonger only had fillets from the fatty belly of the beast. I was so exited to try tuna patty-making that I was disappointed for about a minute with my purchase of two 7-ounce slabs. (No way was I spending $16.99 a pound to treat these two perfect fillets like ground chuck!)

The tuna looked so ripe for eating straight out of the butcher paper that I admit to taking raw nibbles: the phrase sushi-grade is batted around too often these days, but the taste test is best. I stopped my indulgent grazing in time to marinate the fillets in a loose interpretation of Meyer and Romano's glaze (recipe below) and, a few hours later, grilled them to medium-rare perfection, with grilled Asian eggplant and husk-on corn-on-the-cob on the side. Now those are hyphens that'll never go out of style!

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Snooty Vanity Fair: my sister had her first sushi at the age of 11 months on the occasion of our traditional Christmas Eve sushi. In 1993. In my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota.

To wrap this up: I don't consider the Yellowfin Tuna Burger crossed off my Cooking Project list. Another day, when the moons and fish scraps align, I will try again...

Ginger-Mustard-Soy-Honey-Whatever Glaze and/or Marinade

1/3-cup soy sauce
2 tsp. minced ginger
2 large cloves of minced garlic
1-2 tbsp. honey
1-2 tbsp. wholegrain spicy mustard
1-2 tsp brown rice wine vinegar

As a marinade, let sit for an hour or more. As a glaze, bring to a boil, lower the heat and let simmer until it coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes.

This is the most un-recipe of recipes. Substitute or add any of following: teriyaki sauce, ginger-flavored soy sauce, pickled ginger, white wine vinegar, miren, Dijon mustard, honey mustard, honey Dijon mustard... (Just don't forget to taste it as you go along.)


I'm mixing it up a bit with this post. This project has really got me thinking...

My grandma broke her hip last Sunday. She's in a rehab facility and desperate to get back to the home she and her husband built with their bare hands 50 years ago (but it's looking less and less likely that she will ever be able to live in that house on her own again.) To cheer her up, I sent her a copy of American Food Writing. I hear she's very pleased with the gift. (Frankly, I could have sent her the phone book and she would be touched that I'd thought of her.) My dad has read her a few of the stories and poems. "They're short and about food," he said, "you can't go wrong."

That's my grandma. Her attention's a bit zapped - she's on a lot of pain-meds - but she's always got a minute to think about food. Vacations, parties of any kind - they're just excuses to note and comment on meals served. For as long as I can remember, she's been calling her four sons by some amalgam of their names (ie, my uncle Leo is "Markpauljohnleo!") but I wouldn't be surprised if she could list every dish served at cousin so-and-so's wedding back in 1998. The preparation and enjoyment of food is integral to her good life; talking about it makes the memory all the sweeter.

Me and my grandma Leonora (for whom I am named): we don't have a lot in common. I was raised in cities, atheist, privileged, of activist parents. She was a farm girl; briefly, a blue-collar working woman; eventually, a mother of eight. But we share this love of food-talk. I've just found a way to spread it round a bit more.

Monday, August 6, 2007

How to keep a man

Peach leather is the sort of thing that few modern city-dwellers in their right minds would make. Why pay $2-$4 a pound for high-summer peaches only to turn their luscious flesh into shriveled strips?

Surely, the perfectly ripe peach deserves a different fate. She should blossom, warm and fragrant, from beneath delicate latticed pie pastry or get a bit rough and tumbled in a bowl of crumbly, buttery cobbler or simply drip her juices down a child’s chin. To mash and desiccate her just seems cruel! But this is what they did in 1867 when Annabella P. Hill of LaGrange, Georgia, set forth the definitive recipe for Peach Leather in Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, “the major Southern cookbook published in the aftermath of the Civil War,” as Molly O’Neill explains (emphasis mine). And so this is what I did on a recent dog-day Saturday afternoon.

Mrs. Hill, born in 1810, knew turbulent times. It’s not for nothing that today’s Future Christian Housewives of America have looked to her for inspiration and the courage to stick to their convictions in a war-torn world ruled by dubious politicians and corrupt morals. The gals at FCH quote Mrs. Hill at length; I offer an abridged kernel:
“Men grow sated of music, are often too wearied for conversation, however intellectual; but they can always appreciate a well-swept hearth and smiling comfort. A woman may love her husband, may sacrifice fortune, friends, family and country for him… but a melancholy fate awaits her if she fails to make his home comfortable, and his heart will inevitably forsake her. Better submit to household duties, even should there be no predilection for them, than doom herself to a loveless home...”

So this is why good housewives of the Old South made peach leather! Men cannot live by the fresh and bountiful alone; men desire constance and something to chew on in the winter months (presumably something other than a deep thought from the little woman). In the generation that survived the Civil War, young, able-bodied men had their pick of brides. If you're lucky enough to land one, best not lose him because you failed to stock your larder.

Like pickled shrimp (which is, according to O’Neill, the other quintessential Southern dish of its day), peach leather is a food for ants who save rather than grasshoppers who gorge. But without my own orchard, there was little chance of me making enough leather to last a week. And even that would cost a small fortune in Union greenbacks. Thankfully I had the good, housewifely sense to secure just-overripe peaches at a deep discount from a vendor at the Union Square Farmers’ Market. En route to my boyfriend's familial home in Westchester (the key thing was that it has a yard - I didn't want to do the leather-drying on my fire escape), 3.5 pounds of mushy peaches seeped through the nylon of my trusty reusable Chico bag, leaving a trail of nectar on the 4 train and through the great hall of Grand Central.

The upside was that once I got into the kitchen, I had little mashing to do. A quick rinse, a few pulses and turns of a potato masher, and then, in cup-size batches, I pressed the fragrant, goldenrod-yellow goop through a sieve. A dozen peaches produced about 6 cups of thick juice (terrific mixed with seltzer or spooned over ice cream) and 6 cups of puree, flecks of soft skin left in.

Mrs. Hill instructs her young housewives-in-training to “butter well panes of glass, and spread the paste smoothly upon them,” then put the panes out to dry, turning once. Old recipes are generally short on specifics like measurements, temperatures, and time (details!). Could I expect my paste to become leather in a day, or would this be a weekend operation? I had no way of knowing.

What’s more, I seem to have misplaced my spare panes of glass. Mrs. Hill concedes that buttered strips of cloth spread upon “well-seasoned boards” are an adequate substitute. I decided to go with wax paper, butter spray, and a 14-inch pizza pan (making do with what was on hand).

At about 1 pm, the pan was laid out in the sun to start drying (I realize that Mrs. Hill would have woken with the rooster’s crow and had her peach-panes out just as the sun peaked over the old oak trees hung with Spanish moss). Six hours of direct sunlight on a 90-degree day got me less than half way to dry. After grilling dinner, I put the pan in the still-warm grill and left it there as we went to a movie. It was fairly moist when we got home, so I put it out to catch the first rays of sunrise. The next morning, I realized I’d failed to factor in the morning dew. I’d lost some ground: moisture had seeped back into the puree through the wax paper. I didn’t have all day to leave it out again and so reluctantly put it in a 200-degree oven for about 45 minutes (thereby forfeiting at least one-third of the leather's novelty: its sole reliance on the power of the sun).

After letting it cool completely, I sliced the leather into one and a half-inch wide strips and carefully peeled them back. As you can see in the photo, the strips came out decidedly ragged-edged (leaving the impression of being a prop from a horror film, as Marc unhelpfully pointed out). I should have used real butter and plenty of it, as Mrs. Hill advises. Also, I let the edges of the puree get too thin, while the center was thick and didn’t dry completely (although this part – roughly the consistency of jam – is my favorite).

Overall the leather is tasty and undeniably peach-y, sure, but in a city where Stretch Island Fruit Leather is sold at every bodega’s counter for about 50 cents a pop – what are you gaining by all the effort? I produced about 5 ounces of leather – the equivalent of ten Stretch Island single servings – and a day later, I’ve got about two-thirds left.

The real test of the homemade leather's magic would be to put away the small amount I have (“roll up and keep in boxes,” as Mrs. Hill recommends) and reserve for dark winter days, when my man is feeling glum, cooped up, and tired of my voice (these days, we call that seasonal affective disorder). Each chewy bite would evoke summer sunshine and possibly the sweetness of young love, and he’d remember why he married me, a woman of a "higher order of mind" who knows that her "feminine, domestic duties" are her "first duties."

Um, I'll leave that to the future housewives. Would anyone like a strip?

Stay posted: in the next few days I'll add my versions of the recipes I've attempted -- for those of you who want to follow along at home. And also my take on a very 90s (that is, 1990s) recipe for mustard/ginger-glazed tuna burgers, which was what I cooked on the grill mentioned above. Other recipes on my to-try list for August? Oysters Rockefeller (1955), tomato catsup (1871), Alice B. Toklas' iced souffle (1954), George Washington Carver's peanut puree (1916), and Perfection Salad (1905)--sparkling gelatin is the non-negotiable ingredient, if I can just get my hands on it! Any ideas?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Don't think of a turkey

You're not going to believe this, but Cape Cod is a lousy place to buy cod.

We watched Fourth of July fireworks over Provincetown harbor in a light, comfortable rain. By the next morning, the rain had grabbed a hold and made very clear it would be going nowhere for a day or two. It was all we talked about over pancakes. (But then, there are really only two topics of conversation on the Cape: the weather and the simply unresolvable bayside vs. oceanside debate.) My boyfriend, Marc, and I decided to spend the day checking in on his favorite record- and bookstores and coffee shops. And it seemed a perfect day to cook dinner for his parents.

This dinner was supposed to be something of a set piece in the five-day vacation. I love to cook and, of course, love to feed and please people with my cooking. Marc and I have been together since around New Year's. Before the trip to the Cape, I met his parents in their Westchester home just once and quite briefly. I consider myself a good conversationalist and fairly charming - but I know that the surest way to win friends and influence people is with my food. (I'm shameless; I take advantage of this. Seared sashimi-grade tuna and a watercress salad has won me at least two dreamy dishes.)

I wanted to make a statement. I figured that when cooking for The Boyfriend's Parents for the first time, it's best to show your cards. I had lugged the anthology with me on vacation (beach reading? well, why not? and indeed, at least one other blogger agrees), and knew I was going to take my recipe inspiration there. And when I came upon page 181, Sheila Hibben's recipe for "Cape Cod Turkey," there was no question that it was this 1932 comfort dish that I would recreate (in a salt-stained clapboard house, no less). My only concern was the amount of baking that would be involved - so I was secretly happy for a chilly day.

You've probably assumed as much but here it is: there's no cod in Cape Cod Turkey. (Like snakes from Ireland, I imagine turkeys were banished long ago, awkward, ugly, and no competition for the bounties of the sea.) Cape Cod Turkey is "1 medium-sized codfish" treated like a turkey: gutted, gussied, stuffed, and needled whole again.

We don't encounter stuffed fish very often these days - blame it on carb-bashers and the ease of the store-bought fillet - but I've had some experience in this area. On a Thanksgiving not long ago, my mom and I treated two glorious Pacific salmon, wild-caught and a very special purchase from our favorite fish-monger, to the traditional turkey treatment. (For the last seven years or so my family has exclusively deep-fried the holiday big-bird, so perhaps the desire to stuff the salmon stemmed from a hint of nostalgia.) These creatures were so beautiful - as thick around the middle as my dad's arm, with glinting skin like motor oil on the surface of a puddle - that only a stuffing of King Crab himself would do. When they came out of the oven, my mom and I each took one in our oven-mitted hands and paraded through the house for our guests.

Pacific salmon is the modern-day trophy wife: as smart and powerful as she is good-looking. It's a given that she deserves only the best (ie, fresh crab). Her cousin the cod is a homelier sort. Breadcrumbs, butter, boiled egg, and seasonings, moistened with chicken stock and the fat of salt pork, will do quite nicely. I tracked down these ancillary ingredients (all except the salt pork and stock) in the sort of post-hippie, over-priced natural food store that Mrs. Hibben could never have imagined would be dotting the small Cape towns she once knew. She'd probably be turning over in her grave at the mere thought of spending $4 on stale crumbs of bread. And she'd be plain bewildered to see me replace simple, cheap-as-chips chicken stock with a cup of dry white wine, but modern gal that I am, it's what I almost always have on hand (and in hand) when cooking.

A further note about my deviations: the wine-scented stuffing was tasty, but I wish I had included some salty animal fat in the dish. The salt pork is supposed to lay at the bottom of the pan, a moist mat for the fish. I hadn't yet had the Cooking Project idea and wasn't particularly concerned with authenticity or even the spirit of authenticity. In the future, I won't remove such ingredients from the recipes I take on - minor as they may seem - without replacing them with an evocative, perhaps updated stand-in. ('Cause really, where the hell do you get salt pork these days?)

Ingredients for stuffing accounted for, we turned our attention to the real booty: the cod herself. In my mind's eye, I saw her waiting for me atop a bed of shaved ice. I would recognize her by the knowing, complicit look in her fishy eye.

I wanted head on, tail on, with a clean slice down the belly from preopercle to caudal peduncle. Maybe a few less fins - the ventral, pectoral, and anal could all go - but the key was that my fish should proudly represent itself, the Gadus morhua. I wanted a fish, not a fillet!

Marc and I first went to a wharf-side fish seller's shack in Truro. And then another in Wellfleet. And then Mac's at the Wellfleet Marketplace, a well-known fish-monger popular with the vacationing therapist types. And not one had a whole cod! Many large fillets, opaque flesh dull under fluorescent light. But the closest thing I could get to a whole codfish was a whole flounder - the flat fish covered in raw-red scales that looked woeful and sickly next to the codfish of my imagination. I thought I knew what the problem was. I wanted to explain, "Look, I'm a tourist, yes. But I'm trying to recreate a little bit of the Cape's past and I NEED A FRIGGIN' CODFISH!"

Well, we settled for a two-pound fillet, a foot long and each butterflied side an inch or more at its thickest. Marc picked up a dozen oysters (he shucks, you know). On the ride home, I dampened down my disappointment over the fillet. I couldn't stitch it up as Mrs. Hibben would have wanted and these helpful folks illustrate nicely. But truthfully, I probably would have skipped that step anyway. I planned to present it with the stuffing cresting out of the belly, browned and bubbling.

Instead, the fillet, scales up, lounged gracefully atop the mound of stuffing. A fine presentation all the same. After our raw, intensely decadent appetizer, we had a beet salad, and then I brought the fish to the table. The reactions were just what I wanted. Two to three servings apiece, but we soldiered through and ate the whole thing (everyone knows that fish don't keep). I may have mentioned I like to make meals a production, beginning to end. We finished with homemade strawberry shortcake and freshly whipped cream.

There were some missing elements: basting with the fat of salt pork, coarsely rolled breadcrumbs from the stale heel at the bottom of the basket, a head, a tail. But I felt a connection to the past.

Oh who am I kidding? It was a tasty meal. And a week or two later the memory of it, coupled with further perusal of the recipes in American Food Writing, inspired this blog. Next up? Peach leather. Stick around.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The apple, the bee, and me (An introduction)

Let me explain how this plan came about.

I'm a fiend for anthologies (welcome to the confessions of a former English student), love cookbooks as much as the next (but considerably less than some -- from what I've heard, we're talking postage stamp collection-level obsession), and enjoy the sort of all-day cooking challenges that climax with six pots competing for a four-burner stove, flour gracelessly clumping in hair, and plenty of “ooh'ing” and “ahh'ing” guests who will pretend to buy my pseudo-modest cries of "Oh, it was nothing, really."

And so when I brought home a copy of American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, edited by Molly O'Neill and published in March, I brimmed with the excitement of a new crush.

It’s like Ms. O'Neill had written me a 5-pound love letter. It has it all: beautifully printed old (and new) recipes as comforting to simply pore over as a Little House on the Prairie-inspired cookbook I had as a child, a clever gingham and half-sleeve cover design that reminds us of the sweet old Gran we never had, flawless food writing from all the greats of the genre, a few literary nods (a poem from Virginia, musings on soul food from Langston), and even a few pages of David Sedaris.

Seriously, Ms. O'Neill: if you're asking, the answer is yes.

What intrigues me most about the book are the recipes. The dear ol' thing begins with a how-to on ice cream from Mr. Thomas Jefferson (yeah, that one), plunges ahead to the foodstuffs of a pioneering nation (when ovens were "good and hot," not 425 degrees Fahrenheit ), and meanders through the days of milk, honey, and plenty of both.

A recipe for apple butter begins with an "apple bee" when neighbors from nearby farms get together for a day of peelin' and corin' and the hardest-working bachelor gets first dibs on a dance-partner when the mess is cleared, the sun dips low, and the fiddles made to sing.

There are reminders, too, of sparser times: a 1924 recipe for "Nut Loaf" serves ten and is recommended as a "meat substitute." Reading the recipes, I felt a connection to the past that I've never gotten in a history class.

I started making lists of the recipes I wanted to try and it quickly became clear that I wanted to cook all of them, except the ones that seemed impossibly intimidating: all-day affairs that assume one has access to bushels of tomatoes, a wood-burning stove, and even an “Indian guide.”

And then it came to me: what I had before me was a challenge handed down to me by ancestors (not necessarily my own) through the hands of Ms. O’Neill.

A challenge I have accepted.