Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Now, it's a complicated recipe, so you might want to get out a pencil. (And yes, there will be a pop quiz.)
Take a few greenish bananas, one for every pal you're planning to feed. Put them in an ovenproof dish (the bananas, duh).
Put the dish in a hot oven. (How hot? Oh I dunno, let's say about 400 degrees. Or 425. Whatever, just "hot.")
Now sit right down and wait. (Somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes seems about right.) When the skins are the color of dark brown M & Ms (or you simply can't wait any longer, whichever comes first), proceed to the next step.
Put on a pair of oven mitts.
Remove dish from oven.
With the tip of a sharp knife, slice a sliver down the length of the bananas' soft skins. The flesh will be creamy-yellow, steamy, fragrant, and still firm enough to plop out in one long banana fruit.
Arrange on a plate, top with ice cream, coconut flakes, chocolate chips/shavings/sauce, butter, cream (whipped, clotted, whatever), nuts, maple syrup, cookie crumbs, etc. (Or nothing at all).
And now ... mangia!
So there you have it. Baked bananas!
Now, class, as promised. Please choose the correct answer:
Baked bananas is one of the world's best desserts because...
a.) Everyone gets their very own special portion, like an individual soufflé (and who isn't a sucker for those?)
b.) A monkey could (and definitely would) make it, if monkeys discovered the secret to man's fire
c.) It's sure to be a novel experience for even the most fiendish epicurious.com devotee
d.) And yet it feels so familiar that it fills even the most blasé among us with child-like delight
(Pencils down, please.)
Ok, you got me. That was a trick question ... because it's ALL OF THE ABOVE.
The recipe for Baked Bananas "Porto Rican Fashion" (included in American Food Writing) is from a 1911 cookbook called Good Things to Eat, written by a fellow named Rufus Estes. Born a slave in Tennessee, he went on to become a cook on Pullman cars and a chef for a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. (As you may recall, Alice B. Toklas had all kinds of complaints about airplane food in the 1930s; she claimed it was a poor relation to railroad dining. If this recipe is any indication, I'm inclined to believe it.)
Mr. Estes recommended baking the bananas 'til the skins burst. I just couldn't hold off that long, though next time I'll try because it sounds like fun. He sent them to the table still in their skins, wrapped in a folded napkin to hold in their heat, and he topped them with just butter, but plenty of it. (I tried some butter on mine and it was fantastic, but this isn't 1911 and I'm not riding behind a steam engine, so why not break out the cold n' creamy stuff?)
And oh! it gets better. Baked bananas can get dressed up all fancy-like for dinner parties, but they've also got an outdoorsy streak in 'em (not unlike myself, incidentally.) Mr. Estes wrote that you can simply bury the bananas in the ash of a hot fire. (Omg, can you imagine what a layer of hot n' oozy banana would do for a s'more? ... S'MORANAS!)
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Well, never thought about it that way but okay...
The setting is a September dinner party; the recipe is Zucchini Quiche. The source, Anna Thomas' seminal 1972 ode to the soaring possibilities of a meat-free diet, The Vegetarian Epicure. (Oh yeah, my former hippie/underground revolutionary parents had the book. For me, the yellowed pages and slightly goofy line drawings spell comfort and first tastes of couscous.)
Anna was a graduate student when she wrote the cookbook, studying film at UCLA, and I imagine an attractive blond in Birkenstocks, sleeveless tops, and cotton skirts that loosely grace her trim, tan figure. Very "German living abroad" (or in her case, a naturalized U.S. citizen still in touch with the muesli-and-homeopathy-obsessed wing of her mutterland.) In my mind, she lived in communal student housing, the kitchen spacious and never renovated, stocked with sturdy pots and pans found in garage sales, a big plank table nicked and smoothed by time filling one sun-drenched corner where her lucky housemates tasted her experiments.
Anna brought spirit (and probably sexy) to the back-to-the-earth-contingent, they of the "heavy, tasteless bulgur casseroles and soybean loaves," as Molly O'Neill writes in American Food Writing. A 1973 recipe for quiche published by the Rodale Fitness House Kitchen (an early self-help clearing house) is, on paper at least, a joyless affair: the shell is made of cooked brown rice, the custard filling blends 3 eggs with skim milk powder and water. And then there's 1 and a 1/4 cup of cheese -- it's not like the result is exactly low-fat.
But Anna's quiche is different. Sure, it has fat and carbs, but it's healthy fare -- certainly in comparison with the heavy custard and bacon of the classic quiche Lorraine or the processed, creamy filling of the average early-70s family casserole. Unlike many Rodale dishes that reach for tamari soy sauce instead of fresh herbs or powdered milk instead of the real thing, Anna's quiche doesn't strive for a false blandness.
The quiche is constructed in layers -- this is where the masonry comes in. But unlike in house-building, the base is not really the most important layer. You can cover any multitude of pastry sins with a lip-smacking filling (provided your audience is willing to be wowed). But the perfect crust is something that I'm going to have to master, so I took its preparation seriously.
And so at the stroke of midnight on a chilly early-autumn night (the oven cold, the kitchen perfectly serene and cool), I started to slice Crisco and butter into pastry flour, working quickly so as not to heat up the fat. I had read pages 858 through 861 of The New Joy of Cooking at least three times before I began, and my lips moved softly as I repeated the flaky pastry mantra: The goal is to cut the fat ... The goal is to cut the fat ... Firm, separate pieces ... Firm, separate pieces ... Some fine and crumblike ... Some fine and crumblike ... The rest the size of peas ... The rest the size of peas.
And I do believe I got it right -- but something went haywire in the next stage, "the binding of the dough with the water." I drizzled (I swear I drizzled) a bit of ice water over the flour mixture and cut with a spatula to blend, but I just wasn't achieving the proper sticky balls of dough. One-third of a cup plus 1 tbsp. of water became one-third plus 2, then 3 tbsps. (the maximum that Joy allows), and it still was quite dry and crumbly. I went over by another tbsp. or two, but I knew then that I had earned a mere passing grade: my crust was irrevocably glutenous. It would turn out dense and perhaps chewy rather than so light and flaky that it "shatters at the touch of a fork."
But as I said, a good filling is enormously forgiving. What's more, the quiche's crust calls for the addition of a half-cup of grated Parmesan and cheddar. As I set to rolling it out with "firm, decisive, sweeping strokes" I knew it would taste just fine. (However: I froze half the dough for a future recipe, Pineapple Pie, and I'm afraid the lack of flakiness will be considerably more pronounced.)
I folded the dough in quarters to transfer it to the pan, a maneuver helpfully illustrated in Joy, and forked the edges, before leaving it to "rest" in the fridge.
Now, to the heart and soul: the quiche skips the traditional heavy custard and replaces it with a sour cream, chive, flour, and two-egg souffle-like filling (the eggs are separated and then the fluffy whites folded back in). I was out of flour and substituted cornmeal -- as it was only 2 tbsp. this worked just fine.
Anna's quiche is at once continental and American: a nod, perhaps, to Julia Child, who taught Americans that quiche Lorraine contains no cheese. It dares to be different: it features cheese only in the base and the topping; the inside a heady six layers of vivid green zucchini planks and light and flavorful cream sustained with a dash of cream of tartar.
And it was fun to put together, just as Anna promised it would be, and fun for my guests to watch, their eyes growing wide with anticipation as they grazed on a selection of my favorite easy-breezy appetizers: crunch pita chips from Aliza Green's Starting with Ingredients, cold, spicy sesame-marinated celery adapted from Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World, roasted peppers to dip in the world's best store-bought hummus, and a new addition to the table, Alice Waters' warm olives, recently published in the NY Times. (You didn't think I cook all historical, all the time, did you?)
Fifty minutes later, I presented it at the table and it did indeed look "like a fabulous, double-crust, deep-dish pie," as Anna wrote. Each wedge stood tall and proud, a feat of culinary engineering, "like a stone brick or wall." My guests, three out of four of them architects, appreciated the structural integrity, but mostly they appreciated the flavor, surprisingly light, "not at all like a wall."
Bricks and mortar never tasted so good.
PS: We topped our second helpings with two of my varieties of ketchup -- another triumph in their victory lap!
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Inspired in part by the AMC series Mad Men, set in a swishy fantasy of 1960
Let's just say that's not how it turned out – and not least because there would be no indoor smoking.
I was guilty of poor planning. Foods that were popular fifty years ago require a great deal of advance work, for gelatin sets at its own pace (a length of time that I have found is always double what the recipe indicates it shall be.) I woke late on Saturday morning, exhausted from several weeks of nonstop work, travel, and other modern-gal activities. After an egg-white spinach omelette and some blogging, it was afternoon by the time I hit the grocery store.
My shopping cart looked like I was stocking a bomb shelter. I got a bit carried away in the canned goods aisle, as thrilled and curious as a time-traveler by cocktail onions and a 70th-anniversary tin of SPAM.
But I was jolted back to the modern day at the checkout counter. My bill came to $60-something, in part because I over-bought to compensate for poor planning, so not in the spirit of the thrifty young housewife (who, let's remember, would not have had her own debit card.)
Most of my friends are single; I am as well, very newly so, and so it simply couldn't be helped: at a ratio of six women to one man, the party was heavily weighted toward lipstick and rhinestones rather than V-neck sweaters and oiled hair.
This is a big tsk-tsk, according to all the old hostessing manuals, but Chris, Katie’s date, was a good sport (we sang a round of "For he's a jolly good fellow" in his honor – after a few rounds of my roommate Andrea's gin fizzes and Manhattans, mind you.)
On the menu... (put to shame by a group of bloggers' retro buffet party in Marin!)
Admittedly odd-looking mushroom canapés stuffed with shamrock-green Roquefort cream inspired by several recipes for dyed cheesy things found in my new VCA-fueled Ebay acquisitions. As weird as the canapés were (my guests barely touched them), at least I didn’t freeze the green cream into squares and serve over salad, as The Best from Midwest Kitchens (1946) would have me do.
What I’ve dubbed the “Sputnik Surprise”: a cheeseball sprouting toothpicks of precious little cocktail onions and teensy squares of fried Spam, inspired by an illustration in Betty Crocker's Guide to Easy Entertaining (subtitled "How to Have Guests – And Enjoy Them.")
More “surprises:” puff pastries filled with cocktail weenies and green cheese, respectively.
“Shrimp Mold Deluxe,” a cracker dip recipe from my roommate Jane’s mom Linda that contains a number of things I thought I’d never eat (and especially not together): canned shrimp, lemon gelatin, pimento cheese, and more, oh so much more. (Find the recipe below.)
In 1905, Mrs. John E. Cooke created the perfect salad: finely shredded cabbage, celery, and canned red peppers suspended in sweet and tangy gel flavored with vinegar, sugar, and lemon (“perfectly cut vegetables in a pretty gelatin bondage,” as Molly O’Neill writes in American Food Writing). Mrs. Cooke named her creation Perfection Salad, submitted it to the Knox Gelatine company, and saw it published in the classic of the gelatin genre, Dainty Desserts for Dainty People. For her efforts she won a not-too-shabby $100.
What's a Theodore Roosevelt-era recipe doing in a Cold War party? As Laura Shapiro argues in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (1986), the salad epitomizes the era of domestic scientists, those experts in cooking and housekeeping who approached the duties of womanhood like their granddaughters and great-granddaughters would approach environmental law, neurobiology, and advanced degrees in Irish literature. More to the point, they were just as into gelatin-anything, including variations of Perfection Salad, in 1955 as they were in 1905.
As a matter of fact, I was encouraged by Molly O'Neill herself (!!) to take it on for the supper party; it is "a must," she wrote in an email. (Someone at the Library of America found this blog and passed it along to Molly, who contacted me. There was an exciting flurry of emails about food writing and the pursuit of quintessential recipes – with all due respect, she's clearly a VCA sister.)
My salad was … not perfect. It didn’t set in the time I had (four hours). But it was gelled enough to be look presentable in cups made of green peppers (one of many ways that Mrs. Cooke recommends that it be served – she wasn’t kidding when she called it Perfection, the thing is versatile.) My guests actually ate their entires servings – I’m not sure that they would have been so enthusiastic if the salad was firm, cubed, and jiggly as Jello.
And then, to fill us up, tuna casserole, pretty much exactly as it’s done on the
And for dessert, a Glorious Fruit Crown Mold – which, wouldn't you know it, just wouldn't set.Perfection's overrated, I've always thought.
Linda’s Shrimp Mold Deluxe
Blender-chop each of these ingredients one at a time and put in a single big mixing bowl: 2 cans shrimp (drained), 2 oz jar pimientos (drained), 2 hard-boiled eggs, 1 c celery pieces
In blender (no need to clean out the blender first) mix together: 1 pkg lemon gelatin and 1/2 c boiling water until dissolved
Add these items to the blender lemon goo and process until smooth: 1/2 c half-and-half, 1/2 c mayo, 1 thin slice onion, 3-oz pimiento cheese, 1 t salt
Pour this over the chopped stuff in the bowl and mix well. Pour all into a well-greased (I use Pam spray) 1-quart mold and chill thoroughly (overnight is best). With luck, you can turn this out onto a serving plate. Surround with interesting crackers. Enjoy!
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Good ketchup captures the sweetness of freshly sliced, ripe tomatoes and the comforting flavor of long-simmered tomato soup. It captures the bright tang of a simple tomato and vinegar salad and the satisfying satiness of preserves.
I first became fascinated by ketchup (that's right, fascinated) when I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the Sept. 6, 2004 issue of the New Yorker. I was on a trip to Paris, a 23rd birthday gift from my then boyfriend, and I fairly ignored him as we rode the Metro from Montmartre to the 14th Arrondissement, so riveted was I by this tale of the rise of flavored mustards, the apparent perfection of Heinz ketchup, and the Power of Umami.
Umami is the fifth taste and, I have to say, my personal favorite. We all know sweet, salt, bitter, and sour. But there's something else, something that fills the mouth and satisfies the palate, that connotes comfort and savory satisfaction: this is umami. In Gladwell's words, it is "the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother’s milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato."
The Heinz company, according to professional tasters, has achieved the perfect balance of the five flavors in its ketchup, what another blogger has called "a Platonic state."
(Where does mustard enter into this? When Grey Poupon was introduced to U.S. consumers in the 70s, many said it wouldn't succeed, claiming that the American palate was quite satisfied with good ol' yellow mustard. But it did, opening the door for the dozens of mustard varieties now commonly available, from honey to apple cider to wasabi. Some have tried to do the same for ketchup -- chipotle, BBQ, and other such flavors -- but have made little headway. Apparently we are quite happy with our ketchup, and besides, we have America's actual favorite condiment, salsa, for variety)
All this was at the forefront of my mind when I took on this challenge. In a phrase: how to beat Heinz at its own game?
I began with an authentic touch, preparing a cheesecloth pouch of spices -- sticks of cinnamon, cloves, mustard seed, nutmeg, and allspice. I plopped this thick and fragrant cocoon into the puree. Following Bittman's advice, I also added a couple heaping tablespoons of cayenne and paprika directly to the puree, as well as some (though not a lot of) sugar.
The burner set to medium, I checked back every ten minutes or so to give it a few turns of a long-armed spoon and breath in the developing flavors. We turned off the heat when we left for dinner and recommenced the cooking later that night, now at a lower temperature as I was distracted by a movie about snakes on commercial air craft and didn't trust myself to stir regularly.
The next morning, I woke to find the pot once again bubbling gently away and that Dad had removed the spice pouch. One taste of the almost-ketchup and it was clear why: the stuff was picante! Flavorful and complex and interesting -- but also very spicy, maybe too spicy.
Once the puree reached ketchup consistency, we left it to cool. (A viscous consistency is everything to ketchup, its classification by physicists as a thixotropic power-law fluid both its greatest asset, enabling the steady application to a footlong hot dog, and its greatest flaw, a boon to all those faced with the last few drops of ketchup in a glass bottle. We squirted a bit of store-bought ketchup onto a plate to test that we'd gotten the consistency about right.)
And now the final step: we pulled all the vinegars out of the cupboard, and several bowls and spoons for tasting. Dad had been a little iffy about vinegar in the ketchup. I love the stuff, eat it everyday some way or another, and couldn't imagine ketchup without it. After a moment's deliberation he revealed that it wasn't vinegar per se that he was unsure of but which vinegar. The oldest ketchup recipe has none; by Heinz's day, it was a common ingredient. Bittman recommends either cider or red wine vinegar.
We called in the family and tried at least six vinegars in combination with the almost-ketchup, settling on three varieties (and hence three varieties of ketchup): a combination of white and red balsamic; sherry; and spicy green pepper. Each vinegar drew out a different aspect of the ketchup's flavor profile: its full-bodied tanginess; its sweetness; and its fiery potential.
At a ratio of 1/3 a cup of vinegar to 3 cups of almost-ketchup, we put three pots back on the stove, again cooking off the liquid to the right viscous consistency. We canned the results -- a total of about two quarts of ketchup, more than I thought we'd end up with and definitely enough to share and eat through the winter.
The next day, Labor Day, we invited friends and family to come taste ketchup atop hot dogs and burgers. It was a triumphant and ironic moment when our guests dipped tortilla chips into the spicy green pepper flavor. A couple decades ago, ketchup lost its place as America's #1 condiment. And today, our ketchup -- bright with flavor, rich and complicated -- took back the title, at least for a moment. Take that, salsa!
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Debbie looks like a nice enough woman; while she’s not actually from
But Debbie is racked with obsession, an obsession that has led her to scrounge through dusty boxes of others’ junk, troll her nights away on Ebay, and become unnaturally devoted to the history of the hotdish.
Debbie is a reference specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society, which allows her to feed her obsession morning, noon, and night. For you see, Debbie suffers from Vintage Cookbook Addiction (VCA). She specializes in unearthing
I spent an hour or so with Debbie last week, dishing about vintage cookbooks like housewives chatting about homemade stain removers. She’s a big fan of the community or congregation cookbook where a surprising range of recipes (and glimpses into history) can be found. A 1940s church compilation includes sukiyaki, submitted by a member of
As someone who has recently developed a mild case of VCA (recent purchases include Cooking with Miracle Whip, the New American Cookbook of 1950, and The Best of Home Economics Teachers Bicentennial Cookbook), I was delighted to talk to a woman with such expertise and passion – and who didn’t look at me like I was crazy. Debbie’s working on a book called Potluck Paradise, based on old recipes and a follow-up to Ann Burckhardt’s instant classic Hotdish Heaven, and I can’t wait to taste the results!
This weekend, I’ll be delving into my new/old cookbooks for a 1950s-themed dinner party: gin drinks, gelatin salads, pork tenderloin, and casseroles, gee whiz!
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
The Tomato Bee was a rollicking success!
There were naysayers: supermarket checkout women, grumpy old men, and finicky dieters posting on chat boards said that great homemade ketchup couldn’t be done.
“I had to mix it with store-bought ketchup just so the kids would eat it,” one woman told me. Another warned, “It has so much sugar in it!” I smiled patiently, thinking, Must be one of those follow-the-recipe people.
On Saturday morning, my Dad and I loaded up the (hybrid!) SUV with two huge pots, a propane tank and burner, two bushel baskets of tomatoes, one jug of olive oil, a bag full of spices, three large plastic bins, nearly a dozen tools for stirring and mashing, a bottle of soap, a hose, a wad of cheesecloth, a roll of twine, a giant Thermos of tart, homemade lemonade, a half-dozen assortment of rags and towels and a stack of reusable plastic cups (no paper products for us), two digital cameras, two cookbooks, one large umbrella, one folding table, four aprons, an armful of wide-brimmed hats, a bottle of sunscreen, and an industrial-grade sieve borrowed from Chef J. D. Fratzke of Muffuletta.
A note on our source recipes. I may have mentioned that I never follow a recipe to the letter (passed down from Dad, like my big head). No less than four informed our ketchup attempt:
1. The (possibly) very first tomato catsup recipe, published in 1803 in the Sugar House Cookbook, which I found on Wikipedia.
2. An 1871 recipe from Maron Harland’s Common Sense in the Household
3. Kenneth Roberts’ memories of his New England grandmother’s catsup making, first published in 1938 in the Saturday Evening Post (both Roberts’ and Harland’s recipes are collected in American Food Writing.)
4. Mark Bittman’s modern take from How to Cook Everything.
We unloaded our gear at the St. Anthony Park Community Garden and set up in a corner overlooking a local Girl Scout troop’s pumpkin patch. Megan, the garden's coordinator (at right), helped me wash the tomatoes while Dad charred sweet red peppers over the burner (ours would not be ketchup for purists, inspired in part by Bittman's recipe, which includes onions and peppers).
Taking a cue from the Sugar House recipe, we mashed the tomatoes to a pulp with our bare hands. My grandmas Sue and Leonora took to the task like little girls making mud-pies.
Next, we put the tomato mash and red pepper flesh over a hot flame for about 90
minutes, until it was a vivid red stew specked with skin and seeds. Aunt Bracey (at right) was one of the folks to take a turn with the spoon, preventing the tomatoes from burning at the bottom.
Several gardeners showed up to see what was going on (“Is this the ketchup thing?”). One couple had a grocery bag full of what we believed to be tomatoes but was in fact Mason jars, displaying a marked misunderstanding of the share-and-share-alike concept of the Bee.
The sun at its height, we gave ourselves and the tomatoes a good 30 minutes to cool off. As we gazed around this peaceful scene of late-summer abundance, it struck us: where's the beer?! I made a run for a cold 12-pack of St. Paul's own Summit Scandia Ale. Our friend Mary astutely observed that beer may well be the secret ingredient to a successful tomato bee.
Refreshed, we proceeded to the next step. Working in batches, we poured the stew into the sieve and worked a hole-punched stainless steel spoon in a circular motion, forcing the juice and pulp through the sieve (alas, I was not born with the silver spoon that Sugar House recommends). We followed this first sieving with a few turns in a food mill.
While we were mulling (er, milling) all this over, Michelle Hueser, the editor of Edible Twin Cities stopped by, looking for inspiration for her upcoming editor's letter on the "tomato crunch" -- the age-old Minnesota problem of what to do with all them August tomatoes. I'm not sure if we'll get a shout-out in her magazine, but it was great talking food and food writing with her.
By then, it was late afternoon. From at least 100 ripe tomatoes, we had a damp and spiky mass of rosy skins and yellow seeds (bound for the compost pile) and about a gallon or so of liquid puree.
This was the point when we would sweeten, salt, and spice the concoction and leave to boil away to ketchup consistency -- a process that our various sources claimed to take anywhere from one to five hours.
We were a bit loopy from the long hours in the sun and looking forward to supper at Aunt Rose and Uncle John's house (true foodies -- their romance was born in the aisles of an upscale cooking supply store). We decided to declare victory and pack it in to finish the cooking at home. I carried the pot of puree on my lap while Dad drove.
A lot of fun is still to come -- the Preparation of the Seasoning Pouch, the Great Vinegar Taste Test, and, of course, the Labor Day BBQ when my ketchups (yes, plural!) made their debut. Check back soon.