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!