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.

Pomocentrically Speaking

If, as Michael Pollan tells us, apples adapted to our need for sweetness in our diet and indeed our cold-wind, big-prairie life (in exchange for our help in their quest for nationwide domination), then apple butter is the perfect expression of humanity's place in agricultural evolution. Preserves allow us to turn the tables on the tyranny of nature. Here is a perfect match of palate-stimulating flavor and energy-galore (all those calories). Here is harvest bounty that is divorced from climate, a reclamation of woman's rightful dominance over the natural world.

And not just any woman. Her name's "Aunt Sarah" and she made Bucks County's best apple butter, or so said Edith Thomas in Mary at the Farm (1915).

Who was this Aunt Sarah? She must have been popular: she brought together able-bodied farmboys and farmgirls from far and wide to help her peel and core a whole mess a' apples ("what country folks call an 'apple bee'"). She's the keeper of traditions, the one who knows how to fashion a long-handled stirred with a couple pieces of wood. She had authority and gumption, a woman whose word was the last on all subjects concerning good, resourceful, economical living. "Spices destroy the true apple flavor," Edith reports, "although Aunt Sarah used sassafras root, dug from the near-by woods, for flavoring her apple butter." I like that image: Aunt Sarah with dirt to the elbows, a gap-toothed grin, her nieces charged with swatting away the flies.

I wanted to stay as true as possible to this old-time recipe within the not inconsiderable limitation of modern-day resources. Sassafras is out, sorry to say. And spending an entire day boiling down cider? My Keyspan bill would be through the roof! (Also out: a wood fire on the fire escape. Talk about blocking your exit!) And sadly, it was a one-woman apple bee. I had plenty of help in the picking but the paring was all me. I was the only among my friends to have that questionable-holiday-in-October off of work, so I spent an intimate hour with a vegetable peeler, four pounds of Jonagolds, and my brand-new, dangerously sharp birthday knife.

Aunt Sarah's recipe was a good starting place, but I had to wander the Web for a recipe not designed for quantities in the tens of pounds and an outdoor range. My girl Heidi and her friend Carolina B. came through for me. I worked with this recipe, sticking pretty close to the instructions but wimping out on the spices, Aunt Sarah's admonition in the back of my mind. One long, hot afternoon (and *only* two arm-burns) later, I had three warm jars, canned the modern way instead of Aunt Sarah's very charming method of storing in small crocks topped with paper and nestled into the cellar. I took a cold shower and went to bed, feeling finished.

But at 5 am, I found myself wide-awake with one thought in my mind: that apple butter is too damn sweet! Aunt Sarah just wouldn't constitute it. I couldn't shake the image of her lips pursed in disapproval. Only one thing to do: I got up and started paring another couple pounds of apples. (Have I mentioned my obsessive tendencies? I spent the better half of my 8th year reciting the incantation, "A great big bunch of bananas." When I was about ten, I entertained myself at dreadfully dull adult dinners by writing down every word they said. My parents thought it was a great party trick, especially when I read it back to them and I got to the later parts, moments that would have been lost to the wine if it wasn't for me, amateur stenographer.)

I had to go to work in a few hours so I decided to go with a slow-cook Croc Pot method. In lieu of straight apple cider, I cooked the apples in a mixture of apple cider vinegar and sweet cider, the idea being that Aunt Sarah's cider might have been closer to tart, boozy applejack (hence the interminable boiling down in advance). Didn't add sugar but did float a clove-studded lemon in the fruity soup. Cooked on high for an hour while I caught a few more winks, then switched it to low for the day.

That evening, I was greeted with the singularly homey fumes of warm and bubbling apples. The butter was not yet at the consistency of marmalade (Aunt Sarah's instructions), so I left it to cook, uncovered, for another hour and a half. Fished out the soggy lemon and a few straggler cloves (my method of infusing acid and spice makes a pretty picture but it was not exactly practical. If I had ground cloves on hand, I would have used that.)

When my butter was just right, I popped open the jars of the too-sweet batch, combined them and re-canned. The result was spot-on, perhaps spicier than Aunt Sarah's but still true to the essential appleness of the harvest. I've already given one jar away, to Ms. O'Neill herself, and I'm eager to hear a verdict!

Niece Nora's Kings County Apple Butter

I used mostly Jonagolds, because that's what we picked at Outhouse Orchards, but I would recommend a mix of tart and sweet cooking apples (Jonagolds are pretty sweet). If your apples are tart, increase the sugar by a half cup or so. (Heidi and Carolina B. at 101 Cookbooks recommend roughly 1/2 cup to every pound of apples, but I found this too sweet). It's always best to start with less and add as needed, as I'm sure Aunt Sarah, whoever she was, would tell you.

6 lbs. apples, pared and cut into 1/2" pieces
2 to 2 and 1/2 cups of sugar
1/2 gallon apple cider
1/2 gallon apple cider vinegar
3 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground clove
juice of 1 lemon

Put the apples in a slow-cooker and pour in the cider and vinegar (it should be enough to cover the apples, plus about an inch). Cook on high, covered, for one hour, then add sugar, spices, and lemon juice (letting the apples cook first allows you to get a better idea of how much seasoning is needed). Cover and cook on low for about 9 hours. The give it a stir, check the seasonings, and allow to cook, uncovered for another hour or even two, until it's as thick as marmalade. Stir every 20 minutes or so. Preserve in canning jars (follow instructions that come with jars) or if you should happen to have an old-fashioned cellar, you can try storing them in adorable little paper-topped crocks!

Yield: about 40 oz. of apple butter. Plenty enough to keep and share!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

You gotta pick some apples to make apple butter

Remember that scene in Wizard of Oz when an orchard comes to life and pelts Dorothy with apples? Or how about those shiny lunch pails sprouting from trees in the decidedly Dadaesque Return to Oz? Boy, do I!

But if my apple-picking experience resembled any cinema fantasy it would be ... let's see, maybe those Vaseline-hazy scenes in Woody Allen movies where our heroes escape from New York to a bucolic, antique-filled countryside. We were a cheery group, full of teeth-baring laughs, pointing out sights along the West Side Highway (but don't look too close: the man beside me is my ex. O so Woody!)

We arrive at Outhouse Orchards (yes, really). It's crazy busy. There's a harvest festival clogging traffic, offering free tastes of pumpkin cheesecake and generally reeking of that singular combo, funnel cake n' burned hot dogs.

The damage: $20 for a bag that, Apple Lady assures me, will hold 20-25 lbs. Lickety-split calculations: it's a DEAL!

The trick to apple-picking in an orchard crawling with single-minded, pomaceous-mad families is, in a word, determination. The apples growing at the bottom of the hill, dangling from the lower branch, bobbing at the short end of the kiddie pool -- those are long gone. And all those long-handled poles specially tricked out with a four-pronged claw and rope bag? Not nearly enough to go around (and don't be the jerk to jack one from Grampa).

But there was apple butter to be made! Clad in Minnetonka Moccasin lace-up boots and short-shorts, I scrambled up the trees and tossed sun-warmed fruits to my friends below (see Jane in the purple dress, about to catch a Jonagold in her cupped hands). As a girl who buried my schnoz in books rather than dangle from woody limbs, this was thrilling.

Once we reached the top of the orchard's hill, away from the masses of drippy-nosed toddlers and scowling teenagers, the pickin' was easy. Our biggest concern was getting the greatest variety -- do we have the perfect Macintosh in our sack? And how about these interesting green specimens? (Apples are deceiving, by the way: each tastes different. Can't judge a tree by a single fruit.)

And have I mentioned the ungodly heat? In our apple-picking dreams, we're feeling sexy-cozy in our flannels, not sweating like it's high summer. It was picturesque and there were some happy-autumn playful moments, but we didn't linger and we certainly didn't warm up with some cider afterwards.

Twenty-five pounds of apples later, we headed back down the hill and snacked on hazelnut cake out of the car boot. Back in Brooklyn, I began preparing for the real fruit of our labors: Bucks County Apple Butter, a recipe dating from 1915.

Apple butter is a substance that, I've recently learned, people are rabid about. ("You're making apple butter? Oh my god, I LOVE APPLE BUTTER!" or "Bran jelly? Think I'll wait for the apple butter.")

Without the benefit of experience or even (dare I say it?) a particular love of this butter, do I have the balls to take on such an American institution? I'll say this: I do have the apples.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sometimes you feel like a (hazel)nut

I made something else this weekend, something from the anthology. But I'm afraid I can't really mark it off my list and I'll tell you why: I cheated. I mean really cheated.

In this quest to cook my way through American history, I allow myself certain substitutions. I've been known to use a hand-held electric mixer for a recipe that was written long before the light bulb cast its cheerful glow across millions of kitchens. No salt pork? No problem! Bacon will do. The way I see it is if I can improve upon a vat of homemade ketchup with once-exotic vinegars, why shouldn't I? After all, introducing the sophisticated (and traditional) flavor of fine Italian balsamic to the quintessential hot dog-topper is just a bit of the melting pot in action.

But here's where the buck stops: you just can't make "Old-Fashioned Hickory Nut Cake" without hickory nuts. And the hickory nut, a family of related nuts native to the eastern and central U.S. (as well as parts of Asia), is no longer a staple, long replaced by its more easily domesticated and versatile cousins, the walnut and the pecan (actually a hybrid hickory). The Park Slope Food Co-op carries Himalayan goji berries in at least four forms (dried, juiced, in two types of trail mix, and in my favorite bulk granola) but it doesn't carry American hickory nuts. My man Bobby D was right: the times have a-changed.

Ok, no hickory nuts on hand (I'll have to mail order for next time). But I was feeling a little blue on Saturday and I wanted to whip and fold. Not just anything either. Climate bedamned, my inner clock is tuned to October. I'm wearing autumn scarves with my summer tank tops and I'm baking with nuts, dammit.

I adore hazelnuts in sweets and baked goods-- this is certainly the Austrian blood in me, aided by a semester as an exchange student in the German countryside (my host father was a recently retired baking meister with lots of time to my make my favored treats) and memories of making chocolate-glazed hazelnut cake with the bunny mold that my parents bought in Germany (an Easter tradition I revived this year).

It was a simple substitution, really, just a bit of this-for-that. The recipe was published in The Good Housekeeping Hostess by Hester Price in 1904, around the time some of my great-great(?)-grandparents immigrated from a gorgeous agrarian town near the Austro-Hungarian border to establish a farmstead in central Minnesota. I imagined that they might have brought some hazelnuts from home, and made a cake quite like the one I was making.

In that spirit, I resisted using my brand-new food processor (thanks, Shelley! thanks, Dad!) and banged and crushed the nuts with a rolling pin. I also whipped the egg whites by hand, inspired in part by a Top Chef relay race. I timed myself: cracking, separating, and whipping four egg whites to a stiff fluff took me 6 minutes, 55 seconds. Whew!

The cake turned out beautifully: a cake, perhaps, for people like my dad -- who always requests a birthday pie. Not too sweet. Straightforward flavors. Reasonably light. Very satisfying. Simply good.

Molly O'Neill writes that the recipe "is one of the foolproof bits of Americana, reinterpreted generation after generation." I'd like to think I took part in that tradition -- to delicious result -- but without the original, essential ingredient, I can't know what I'm missing. Hester Price declared, "Of all the nut cakes there is none better than this old-fashioned one." And so, Mr. Whisk, we shall meet again.

Old-Fashioned Hazelnut Cake

The key to success seems to be fresh ingredients and a light touch. The butter and sugar should be creamed -- whisked briskly 'til fluffy and pale golden in color. As you add other ingredients, take care not to over-mix. The result should be airy as a cloud! I served this plain, picnic-style, after apple-picking, but it would really smarten up with a chocolate glaze or even a frosting, if not too cloying and overpowering, and/or a fruit compote or sauce on the side.

1 & 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup "sweet" milk (lacking sweet milk I used simple, organic 4%)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 & 1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp. sifted flour (to sift, place in a bowl and give it a few swirls with a clean wire whisk to remove any clumps)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup hazelnuts, crushed into tiny pieces with a rolling pin or pulsed a few times in a food processor
4 egg whites

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Cream together sugar and butter. Add milk gradually, while blending (gently) with a wooden spoon. Add vanilla.
3. Combine flour and baking powder and gradually add to the wet mixture while mixing.
4. Add 1 tbsp. of flour to hazelnuts to prevent from bits from sticking.
5. Whisk up the egg whites to a "stiff froth" (skipped the gym today? Do it by hand and see if you can beat my admittedly unimpressive time!)
6. Fold in the egg whites: first lighten the batter by mixing in half the whites with a spatula. Then add the other half of the whites with a gentle under-and-over movement, scooping up the bottom of the mixture and lightly setting it down on top, repeating just until specks of the whites are evenly distributed throughout.
7. Pour in a greased large loaf pan or medium Bundt pan or bunny mold.
8. Bake for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
9. Allow to cool a few minutes, then remove from pan.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Gardenburger's Grandma

They don't call 'em nutmeats for nothin'. Turns out they make a damn good substitution for ground beef.

In 1924, the price of meat made it a Sunday-only luxury for many Americans. Today, we've got ozone-melting feed lots that pack cattle teeth to jowl making it possible to get ground beef for less than $3 a pound. And at no extra cost you just might contract a nasty case hemolytic-uremic syndrome and a free trip to the emergency room! (As our President has recently reminded us, dial-911-for-care is still the economical and, um, viable alternative to health insurance.)

My point is that putting the meat in meatloaf is something nearly all of us can afford to do, but there are any number of reasons why we may not want to. But you don't have to give up that loafy feeling. What worked then, works today: nut loaf!

It's exactly as it sounds: a meatloaf switcharoo. Everything you loved about Ma's Meatloaf is in there (and I'm punting here because this is something I've only read about in Cold War-era books): breadcrumbs to thicken it up, a few spoonfuls of innocuous spices, eggs and tomato sauce for binding, a browned and slightly crispy crust, and a moist center. Just replace ground beef for chopped nuts -- any kind or combination will do -- and feel free to experiment with other additions and subtractions.

The recipe was published in Everybody's Cook Book (1924), and author Isabel Ely Lord wasn't kidding with that title. Anyone can make this dish, almost any way they want. Mrs. Lord gives you the basic recipe and encourages to take it from there.

You can use brown sauce or cheese sauce or milk instead of tomato sauce, add an egg or omit altogether, switch the crumbs for mashed potatoes or cooked Cream of Wheat or rice, toss in some shredded carrots or chopped celery, fatten it up with your cheese of choice, or spice up the seasonings with pimentos, Worcestershire sauce, or onion. Instead of baking it in a loaf, you can roll it out nearly flat on a pan. Serve it hot or cold, with tomato sauce or not. Leftover slices can be pan fried it or "brushed with fat" and broiled. All in all, she suggests at least 25 variations. If my calculations are right, this one little recipe yields the home cook 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 possible distinct loaves. Each cheap as chips and capable of feeding a family of ten (so says Mrs. Lord -- I have to say, this wouldn't feed that many with today's appetites.)

Nut loaf ain't pretty, but it gets the job done. It should come as no surprise that Mrs. Lord also published a 1922 tome on sound spending, Getting Your Money's Worth; she knows a thing or two about making a dollar's worth of food taste like at least five. As for her cookery skills, this is the woman responsible for the first published recipe for apple crisp. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

For my loaf, I chose walnuts and pecans because they're native to North America. I took up Mrs. Lord's suggestion of cottage cheese and extra veggies. (Ever since I learned that one of my favorite Indian foods, saag paneer, is made of something quite like Western-style cottage cheese, I have longed to incorporate this rather unlikely ingredient into savory cooking.) I served the loaf on a Sunday evening after an all-American autumn afternoon of awesome apple-picking (followed by a night of alliteration, apparently). On the side, a dollop of my balsamic ketchup. The result? Delicious, filling, and moist; great for vegetarians as well as omnivorous seekers of alternative comfort foods.

Ah, nut loaf. Just like Ma never made it.


This recipe was made for customization and adaption; use whatever's on hand or in season. Just make sure the mixture is moist.

3/4 cup walnuts
3/4 cup pecans
1.5 cup marinara sauce
1 cup cottage cheese
2 cups breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup shredded carrot
2 celery ribs, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tbsp. flat-leaf parsley, minced
Dash of paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
2, Pulse the nuts in a food processor until coarsely chopped or put them in a Ziploc bag and smash with a jar (bonus: fun!)
3. Mix together all ingredients and transfer to a greased large loaf pan.
4. Bake for 40 minutes. Turn the pan over. Slice and serve with extra tomato sauce or homemade balsamic ketchup.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

May I suggest? An alternative to that colonic

It has been 10 days since I last smoked a cigarette. I quit for my 26th birthday, and to fulfill a long overdue promise to my little sister, Gena, and because the month and year I started -- September 2001 -- no longer feels like recent history. I quit because it's a crutch, and it makes me feel good to knock it out from under my armpit.

I'm currently using a patch, 14 mg. every 24 hours. It's going quite well, thank you.

I swear I felt my lungs expand a little wider in a kick-my-ass cardio class on Sunday. And I'm relaxed, knowing I'm one step closer to becoming the liberated, long-living lady of the world that I want to be. There's still the daily Diet Coke habit, but I'm on a healthier path.

The perfect food for this new leaf? Why, bran jelly, of course!

It's the bland, baby food-like substance that the overextended and well-to-do subsisted upon while they recuperated from the Gay (Eighteen-)Nineties lifestyle at a Michigan sanatarium run by the King of Corn Flakes himself, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Sanitariums were the luxury rehabs of their day, where one could wilt gracefully after too long a stretch as society's favored belle, indulge one's moist-eyed dreams of literary greatness, or quietly pass into old maidenhood (not to be confused with sanatoriums, legitimate medical facilities for the terminally consumptive).

Mrs. E. E. Kellogg taught her coddled, pooped-out guests to treat their ailments with a diet of whole grains. Healthy, yes, but as I've discovered, an all-around failure in presentation, imagination, and flavor.

She published her secrets to gastronomic wellbeing in Science in the Kitchen in 1893, the year in which Pabst won its blue ribbon, a devil ran amuck in a white city, a crash of the NY Stock Exchange triggered a depression, and the American Council on Alcohol Problems was established. Clearly Mrs. Kellogg's temperance-minded advice was much in demand.

How was bran jelly supposed to cure you of your hard-partying ways? It's not clear, but it seems the mechanism had something to do with the cleansing of the colon and the regulation of the bowels. Good plumbing, as it were.

Bran jelly is the liquid pressed from boiled wheat bran. As I set out to prepare it, I didn't realize just how little substance I would end up with. There are no measurements in the recipe included in American Food Writing -- we are instructed to sprinkle clean wheat bran "slowly into boiling water as for Graham mush, stirring briskly meanwhile with a wooden spoon, until the whole is about the consistency of thick gruel." I went with a ratio of about one-to-one: 4 cups of bran and 4 cups of water, and ended up having to add a bit more water, as you can see in the video.

It's been ages since I was rescued from that dastardly orphanage, so I'm a bit hazy on the precise mouthfeel and thickness of good gruel. I went for a more familiar consistency: stick-to-your-ribs oatmeal. I then plopped the bran mush into my roommate's Crock-Pot, as an alternative to Mrs. Kellogg's double boiler.

As per Mrs. K's instructions, I left to boil gently for two more hours, after which the mush appeared, smelled, and tasted much the same. (I can only presume all the boiling was to ensure any nutritional value in this supposed health food would be well and truly squelched.) I began to strain through a fine wire sieve -- but the first cup or two of mush, dumped unceremoniously in the sieve, produced about a teaspoon of gelatinous goo not unlike wet Pacific sand.

The sieving proved to be the most difficult part of the process. I did everything I could to coax as much goo out of the gruel as heavenly possible. I pressed and pried with the flat side of the spoon, turned the spoon in concentric arcs, smashed the underside of bowl into the mush to squeeze the liquid out, and finally left it overnight, to let gravity do the rest of the work.

I had less than two cups of bran goo when I awoke. I reheated it to boiling and stirred in a spoonful of amaranth flour "rubbed smooth in a little cold water." (I couldn't find Graham flour at the Co-op. My favorite not-graham graham crackers are made with amaranth, so I figured it was a legitimate substitute.) Following Mrs. K's directions, I turned the mixture into molds. (Since taking on this cooking project, molds have become the bane of my existence. What is our foreparents' obsession with containing and taming every food?! Of course, it doesn't help that I don't own proper molds and always end up using fluted glass bowls meant for storage or silicone cupcake pans -- by the way, never buy silicone muffin pans. Ms. Heidi has made a similar comment in other circumstances and it's true: silicone for baking? Sucks.)

For supper that evening -- a Monday in which I attended a Pilates class before work and did 40 mins. of cardio after work, good girl that I am/can sometimes be -- I settled down to bran jelly. Mrs. K recommends that it be served cold with "cream or fruit juice." My roommate had some bowel-cleansing plum juice in the fridge. How appropriate! I prepared myself a pretty tray, one of those breakfast-in-bed affairs with handles, complete with drab flower.

Two bites in and I was longing for cream. It's possible that this meal would fill me up if I'd done nothing but lounge on an old-fashioned reclining straw-covered wheelchair on the veranda all day, but this simply was not going to cut it. It was nearly flavorless and the consistency was a confusing no-man's land between jam and porridge (a far cry from jelly -- but as we've established, it appears that I couldn't even make super glue set!).

I supplemented my meal with the modern ascetic's solution to a weekend of over-exertion: a bowl of wilted spinach, plain, topped with a few pieces of ready-made macrobiotic vegetarian peking duck stuffed with shitake mushrooms. (I followed the meal with two squares of Lindt Intense Orange 70% Chocolate. Shh, don't tell Mrs. K!)

I've asked myself why Ms. O'Neill chose this particular recipe for the anthology. Is Bran Jelly a national treasure, deserved of its position next to such culinary touchstones as "Macaroni a la Sauce Blanche" (a.k.a. mac n' cheese) and "Tunnel of Fudge Cake," winner of the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off?

In a word: no. But then it came to me. Bran Jelly was a harbinger of things to come. In this respect, it's not unlike an 1881 recipe for Chicken Croquettes, the prototype for the Chicken McNugget. Looking back, we see the makings of a nation that will become increasingly obsessed with fads, diets, speed, and quick fixes. We've gotten cannier with flavor substitutes, broader-minded in our culinary references, fancier with our colon-cleansing retreats, competitive in our search for the most whole, healthy, and life-fulfilling. But there it is, in a bowl of tasteless brown goo and in the umpteenth new energy drink with a flavor that bears no resemblance to those found in nature -- it's unmistakable: the more things change the more things stay the same.