Wednesday, December 10, 2008

American Moxie

I am so pleased to let you know that this blog was featured in the Library of America's newsletter. Check it out:

When I got the call that they wanted to write the blurb, I was like, Wha--? REALLY? Which is to say I'm very flattered and proud.

This blog is a credit to the power of moxie. A sudden inspiration — I’m going to cook every one of the recipes! And I’m going to write about it! — changed my life in many wonderful ways.

Follow your instincts! (Especially when they involve food).

PS: I recently cooked Chicken Marbella again -- and my oh my, it is GOOD. Make plenty extra -- the leftovers are even better.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Eating Well in Hard Times

CNN’s dubious news-you-can-use on Depression cuisine (via Mills) and Steve Almond’s “recession garden” (via Cathy) got me thinking back on my “year of eating historically.”

There weren’t any recipes for squirrel, but there are some lessons.

Not so long ago, most people prepared nearly every meal as though they were in a recession. Meat was expensive. Affordable produce was seasonal. People “put up” canned fruits and vegetables for the winter. There were a few staples that they bought in bulk. Way back in the ’80s — the 1980s — I remember playing in my grandma’s cellar. I loved picking at the little white sprouts that grew out of the potatoes she kept down there over the winter.

Nowadays, we have cheap meat and cheap bananas and expensive asparagus all year round. In many cases, we’re not paying the true cost of our food: the carbon footprint of growing it on factory farms and then transporting it many, many miles to our kitchens. And although the global economic markets might have our attention, the true crisis — the one we’ll be dealing with for the rest of our lives — is environmental.

So here are a few suggestions that might be cheaper and will definitely be better for the planet….

  • Nut Loaf: a substitute for meat loaf. It’s improbably delicious. I made a “classic” version, as well as one with squash, carrot, and ginger. Unfortunately, nuts are expensive, unless you buy them in bulk. But their impact on the planet is much smaller than meat — and that’s important whether the stock market is up or down.
  • Apple butter (or apple sauce): if you pick them yourself, you can get 20-25 pounds for $20 — or less, if you’re not in NYC. That’s more than enough for several jars of apple butter, which you can eat throughout the winter and give as very thoughtful, very inexpensive holiday gifts.
  • Shit on a Shingle: eggs, flour, butter, milk, bread — all (still) affordable. If it was good enough for American G.I.’s, you better believe it’s good enough for their coddled grandchildren.
  • Bake a cake: ‘Causecupcakes are a rip-off! How about a nut cake (if you can’t get those wonderful hickory nuts, try walnuts) or that 1966 classic, the Tunnel of Fudge cake?
  • Rice Pudding: the price of grains has soared, but if you buy a big bag, rice is still very inexpensive. This is one of the most comforting desserts I can imagine. There’s a bonus recipe — my extra-special Rice Krispie treats — which are, unfortunately, too expenisve to make these days. Boxed cereal is also a rip-off.
  • Beans!: they’re cheap, especially when you buy them dried and in bulk. How about some spicy moong dal, tasty “unbaked” black-eyed peas, or heart-warming lentil soup?
  • “Working Girl’s Tuna Burger”: I mixed expensive yellowfin tuna and inexpensive whitefish — delish.
  • Irish Potato Pudding: don’t make this recipe. I repeat: don’t make this recipe. It was awful. You’d have to be in the middle of a famine to appreciate it. BUT there is a lesson: potatoes are cheap. They’re filling. And we’re so over that dumb no-carb thing, so give ‘em a try again!
  • Lobster Dip: lobster during a recession? Remember, it’s about moderation, not suffering. This recipe makes a delicious spread that serves about six.
  • Chicken Chartreuse: like the lobster dip, this is a way to make a little bit of (ideally) farm-raised, hormone-free chicken feed a crowd.
  • Tripe: ‘cause nothing says hard times like offal!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

October Surprise

On Wednesday, September 24th, I turned 27. We celebrated with homemade pizza, wine, and five varieties of cupcakes. Three days later, I had a marvelous 2050 A.D.-themed party, in honor of my newish blog about sustainability issues. But you could say my year really started when I was thrown into the air by a Chevy S.U.V. as I was walking across the street in Midtown on Sunday evening. I hit the asphalt hard on my right side and ended up in an E.R., where they gave me a bag of Morphine and looked inside my body every which way -- X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan. Satisfied that my organs were working as they should from where they should, they sent me on my way. I spent a painful but cozy week recuperating at home.

As becomes an invalid, I've wanted to eat little but soothing soups and tasty teas, and fortunately, I have wonderful friends who supplied me with both. But I'm a cook. The space between fridge, chopping board, and stovetop is where I simply am, where my elements are in harmony -- and it's where I start to put those elements together when they come undone. I am lucky, indelibly. Not only did I survive what a friend called "a blatant assassination attempt by Big Fossil Fuel," but I survived with the ability to cook. Happy birthday, indeed.

Earlier this week, I made tortellini in brodo with homemade broth, something I remember my Dad, a great cook, making in my childhood. It is my ultimate comfort food. And today, I made lentil soup -- perhaps the soup I most enjoy making at home. It's so delicious, so nutritious, so filling, and, unlike other legumes, lentils need no soaking and cook quickly, in about half an hour.

Before I started, I checked Mark Bittman's lentil soup recipe in How to Cook Everything, as I am wont to do, but improvised from there, adding potatoes we had on hand, and loading up on extra carrots. In a fit of inspiration, I sprinkled in nutmeg, then -- why not? -- cinnamon. The spices lent natural sweetness, an unexpected foil to the earthiness of the root vegetables and lentils. The thick soup was revelatory: an October surprise, no mud-slinging involved.

October Surprise Lentil Soup

Sometimes I like a lentil soup so thick even the label "stew" doesn't do it justice, other times I like a brothy soup. I generally prefer the latter when I'm using good, homemade stock. Adjust this recipe by adding more stock at the end if it gets too thick for your taste. Play with the recipe -- add spinach or celery, substitute shallots for onion, skip the potatoes, maybe even the carrots (though I do think some vegetables are crucial). The thing that makes this soup unique is the seasoning: thyme and (surprise!) nutmeg and cinnamon. The taste is pure comfort, whether you're recuperating after a run-in with a two-ton vehicle -- or just warming up on a blustery autumn day.

1 1/2 cup lentils, washed and picked over
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch coins
1/2 pound small white potatoes, scrubbed, sprouts removed, and sliced into 1/2-inch chunks
2 bay leaves
4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme or 2 big pinches dried thyme
1 big pinch ground nutmeg
1 pinch ground cinnamon
8 to 10 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped to a 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon minced garlic, or more, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Place the lentils, carrots, potatoes, bay leaves, thyme, cinnamon, and nutmeg, in a medium pot with 8 cups of stock. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally.
  2. Meanwhile, swirl the olive oil in a skillet and turn the heat to medium-low. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  3. When the lentils, carrots, and potatoes are tender -- about 30 minutes -- remove the bay leaves and the thyme sprigs and pour the onion mixture into the soup. Taste and adjust the seasonings. It should be faintly sweet, with just a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg.
  4. Add more warm stock if necessary. I like a very thick lentil soup, though it can be nice with more stock, especially if the stock is homemade. Season with salt (if needed) and black pepper and serve.
Serves 6.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Brooklyn Chili Takedown

On Sunday, my roommates Jane, Andrea, and I entered the Brooklyn Chili Takedown hosted by Matt Timms. My friend Cathy Erway of Not Eating Out in New York gave me the heads up on the seriously competitive cook-off that's held two or three times a year. The second I read her email, my jingle-jangle happy-nerves started buzzing. With someone like Jane on my side, I knew we'd be bringing home a medal for the Midwest (dintcha know? I'm from St. Paul, Andrea's from St. Louis, and Jane's from Kansas City.)

Much to Jane's embarrassment, we christened our team, "Jane and the Kansas City Corn Rows" (rejected by the grace of good taste: "Kansas City Devil-ettes" and "Kansas City Krunk").

Jane's idea-packed emails started flying immediately. At 4:40 pm on Thursday, August 7th, she wrote:

what if we made a 'summer chilli' that was maybe really spicy flavorful ground turkey chili with white beans or something, and then what if we topped it off with some sort of fresh corn and tomato salsa that would be cold (like andrea's AWESOME dip) and sour cream and maybe that yummy white mexican cheese. i think that could be a winner!!!

At 4:41 pm, she added:

and fresh cilantro! love that.

And at 4:46 pm:

i also think that we should make home made crispy tortilla strips to put on top. yum! i hope there are left overs!

And this is almost exactly what we did: a lighter "Summertime Chili" with ground turkey and pork, turkey sausage, white northern and pinto beans, fresh tomatoes, a bit of half-and-half, and a whole mess of secret seasonings.

Our three secret weapons (what another contestant called "the woman's touch") were a sweet and spicy fresh corn relish, cilantro-lime sour cream, and corn strips.

We took special pride in the fact that nothing came from a can. And the effort paid off. We won second place in the People's Choice category (with all due respect to Cathy, who was a judge, this was totally the category of the night.) This was out of 25 entries, some quite excellent, others quite unusual (there was even a crazy-good chocolate chili.) It was such a thrill!

Check out more photos from Andrea and myself, and this video I've put together (much to sweet Jane's embarrassment!):

The Chili Takedown from Nora Leah on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Where is she now?

I'll continue to post updated recipes from my collection of vintage cookbooks, but in the meantime, please stop by 2050 A.D., a blog I've created to explore a wide range of sustainability issues (including food!).

And for your daily Nora Leah fix, check out my personal blog, Thought for Food.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Year of Cooking Historically

This is it. The final recipe of the Project. And it ends with the beginning: the earliest recipe in Molly O'Neill's American Food Writing and the first recipe for ice cream in the United States, taken from a 1780s holograph (hand-written) manuscript by Thomas Jefferson, the founding foodie.

But before we get to the ice cream, indulge me a look back on this year of cooking historically. The single most amazing thing this blog has brought is the attention of Ms. O'Neill herself -- and a job. Working with her, I learned to approach food writing as an anthropologist might, digging into people's stories -- not just their cupboards -- to find out why they eat what they eat, and rolling up my sleeves to cook beside them any chance I get.

Just as I look at myself differently -- I'm so much more confident in my ambitions as a writer -- I look at my country differently. Taking on dozens of recipes from the past 230 years has give me insight into the evolution of the American diet and taste. The things I love most about this country are right there in the kitchen and on the plate: we build communities around the cultivated earth, sharing crops, labor, and meals; we struggle, collectively, to strike a balance between the indulgent and the puritanical; we celebrate the humble, the refined, and the kitsch; and, best of all, there's always room in the pot for more: Indian heat, Moroccan spices, hell, even Chinese tacos. This culinary and cultural education has spurred me to take risks, tossing traditions together like a chopped salad and approaching the act of cooking and eating with a pioneer spirit. Why not turn a basic risotto into an innovative and decadent chocolate dessert?

Today, I identify with a line of cooks and eaters and writers that stretches back generations. Women, in particular, have expressed their identities through food and food writing. Remember the Hayes and Tilden cakes of 1877? Miss Flora Ziegler of Columbus and Mrs. T. B. of Chicago couldn't vote, but they could bake and publish recipes in support of their candidates. In effect, they voted with their wooden spoons. How remarkable that, 131 years later, a young woman in Brooklyn would be reinventing their cakes for two Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination -- a woman and a black man!

I made the Obama and Clinton cakes for a tea party thrown by an effervescent young man named Nick whom I met through blogging; Nick brought another remarkable guy, Mark (pictured below), to my Good Friday gumbo party, we bonded over soul music and soul food; in April, I cooked at Mark's Williamsburg loft for the private supper club he runs with his roommates, and last Friday, I joined him and a few other friends, food and Internet enthusiasts all, to make a wholly unconventional version of Jefferson's ice cream.

And that is the final piece that I have gained through this blog: a network of dedicated, active foodies -- bloggers as well as people who open their homes to strangers to serve them some of the best food in Brooklyn. I've cooked by their side and witnessed their singular approach -- steeped in creative, unusual technique and fueled by boundless curiosity. They push me to push the envelope.

Which is my very long-winded explanation of how I came to make tobacco-flavored ice cream. My thinking was as simple as this: Jefferson grew the crop at Monticello, my friends are game, and -- why not?

Cathy, the lovely and curious food writer behind Not Eating Out In New York coached me on the custard-making (I've never made ice cream before), while taking the photos you see on this post. Mark, being Mark, goaded me into tossing in twice as much American Spirit tobacco as I first, rather timidly, added. We let the half-cup of tobacco and fresh vanilla bean infuse the custard for ten minutes or so, strained it, and tasted.

"Mmm. It's goo--," I started to say. And then the tobacco hit the back of my throat -- at once both spicy and, somehow, numbing -- and I had to take a step back.

"Woah. You've gotta taste that." Cathy and Mark dug right in.

The result was simply fascinating: it drew you in just as it pushed you away. Mark served it at our friend Michael's home as a "meal-ending trio of frozen weirdness." Reviews were good, but then again, the diners were comparing it to a Serrano & Raisin Granita that Mark likened to a "pork snow-cone." (See why I love cooking with these guys?)

And so. That's it for this project -- but it's not over. I'm too engrossed in cooking historically to give it up. Thanks to my unholy addiction, I have a vast collection of vintage cookbooks. From time to time, I'll post my adventures with dusted-off recipes, and I'll keep you updated on everything else I'm up to. And please keep in touch. Email me at nora(at)shermanhome(dot)com.

Tobacco-Flavored Ice Cream

Made with just heavy cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and tobacco, this is so thick it's closer to a frozen custard. But Thomas Jefferson called it ice cream, so I do, too. A half-cup of tobacco will make a very kicky, almost spicy ice cream. For a more subtle flavor, opt for less, about one-quarter cup, or as little as a tablespoon.

2 pints of heavy cream
6 yolks of eggs
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1/4 to 1/2 cup high-quality tobacco (I used American Spririt)

1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the yolks and sugar until thick. In a saucepan, warm the cream over medium-low heat. Slice the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds into the cream. Add the bean and the tobacco, stir well, and let cook, without boiling, for about 15 minutes. Strain. Remove from heat and slowly add the yolks and sugar to the cream mixture while strring. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and slowly warm the custard, stirring gently, until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool completely. When it's cold, transfer to the bowl of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Philadelphia Freedom

Concentrate, for a moment, on six words: the stomach lining of a cow. Got the image in your mind? Good. Now go ahead -- savor it.

There are phrases in the English language that are more unappealing, but not many. Add a couple more words -- soup and honeycomb -- and you begin to understand why it's taken me so long to make Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup, one of two remaining recipes on my American Food Writing-inspired "to do" list.

The soup is a soul food institution little known to outsiders, and it's not hard to figure out why: it's main ingredient is honeycomb tripe, the rubbery, textured lining of a cow's second stomach. The recipe -- a contribution from Sheila Ferguson, '60s girl group singer turned cookbook author -- has potatoes, cream, beef bouillon, spices, and, of course, peppers. But the tripe towered über alles.

Tripe, you shouldn't be surprised to learn, is not stocked at the Park Slope Food Coop, so I'd have to make a special effort to find it. But the promise of Pepperpot Soup didn't succeed in motivating me, even in the cold of winter, when (theoretically) any warm stew would be welcome. Before I knew it, daytime temperatures were topping 100 degrees, and I still had a soup to make and consume -- a tripe soup, at that.

Without really looking for it, I found tripe in a butcher in Chinatown. Two dollars and twenty-nice cents a pound. I gazed at it through the dirty glass window: honeycomb-rippled, gelatinous, and pale, in a basin of ice and water (the tripe above is from the same shop on a different day; it's darker and more expensive than what I bought. That tripe can vary so much is not exactly comforting!). Even though I only wanted no more than a pound, I bought what was there: 1.3 pounds (the meatmonger wouldn't let me shave off that extra 0.3), and brought it home to an apartment that was losing a battle against the AC window unit. As I got up the nerve to touch it bare-fingered, I started to think about cooking it.

Sheila Ferguson's recipe -- which has its roots in the soup that George Washington's troops ate to stave off starvation during a fatal winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania -- starts with cooked tripe, finely shredded. She doesn't explain how to cook it, though she mentions her aunt Ella's preferred method ("the soul way"): boiling until "it's nice and tender" and then breading and frying. So i tried that. I cut the tripe into a few pieces -- it was surprisingly resistant to my knife -- and boiled it in salted water for 15 minutes ... 30 minutes ... 45 ....

The cooking tripe gave off a peculiar odor, unmistakable to anyone who has spent time in Chinatown, any Chinatown, and I instantly regretted that the hard-working air conditioner unit prevented me from opening windows. After an hour, my patience was worn thin. Even though the tripe wasn't quite tender, I rolled it in highly seasoned flour and started frying.

Of course, being me, I had taken significant liberties with the other ingredients. Where the recipe called for bacon, I used turkey bacon; where it calls for bell pepper, I used fresh corn. I replaced white potatoes for sweet potatoes, and toyed with the seasonings a bit. My sautéd sort-of-succotash was spicy-sweet and delicious. Barely glancing at the printed recipe, I was so flush with freedom that I decided to hell with it. It's too hot for soup! I added no stock, no cream -- and no shredded tripe.

The result was a heap of veggies, flavored with cayenne and agave nectar, speckled with browned turkey bacon, and topped with a "fillet" of fried tripe. My roommates didn't hide their relief when I assured them the tripe was optional -- though they were good sports and tried a bite, even two. Finally, a year in the making, we sat down to enjoy our very deconstructed Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup, a little taste of tripe-free freedom in every bite.

Philadelphia Pepperpot Succotash

Cooking spray
6 slices turkey bacon, cut to a ¼” dice
Kernels of 2 corncobs
½ cup onion, finely chopped (1 small onion)
½ cup celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 large sweet potato, cut into a 1/8” dice

For the tripe:
1 pound honeycomb tripe
¼ cup flour
1 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons canola oil

1. To prepare the tripe, put it in a Ziploc bag and pound it for a minute with a heavy can. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and boil the tripe for at least 1 hour, until it can be pierced with a fork. Remove and let the tripe cool enough to handle. Slice into about 4 pieces. Heat the canola oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Combine the flour, salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper on a plate. Dredge the tripe peices in the flour so that they’re evenly coated. Working in two batches, fry the tripe until golden brown on each side, about 3 minutes each side. Let drain on paper towels.

2. While the tripe is cooking, prepare the succotash. Heat a skillet over low heat. Spray with the cooking spray. Add the turkey bacon and cook until it begins to crisp on the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, celery, corn, paprika, thyme, parsley, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Continue cooking until the vegetables are tender. Remove the vegetables from the skillet.

3. Melt the butter in the skillet. Add the sweet potatoes and sauté, stirring often, until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the vegetables and toss to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature. If you’re using the tripe, finely shred it or slice thin and serve on top of the succotash.

Makes 4 servings.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Primum Non Nocere

First, do no harm. That is to say: love the lobster. Treat it as you would your own mother, if you were a large marine crustacean with a cannibalistic streak. Do not mask its flavors with cream and butter and mayonnaise. Let it shine like the star of the sea it is!

This was my mantra last weekend as I took up the cause of a female lobster in the Cape Cod kitchen of dear friends. She was of speckled complexion and robust build, 1.25 pounds and about 10 inches long. There was one of her, and seven of us, but she, like those biblical fishes, would serve us all (no miracles involved).

Eliza Leslie, the author of Directions for Cookery (1837), did not abide by the code of nephropidae ethics to which I subscribe. Her approach to "Potted Lobster," a kind of shellfish terrine suitable for spreading on thin slices of bread, can only be described as buttery and violent: the lobster is parboiled, its meat picked out and beaten with a mortar, pressed "down hard" into a mold, slathered with butter, and baked for a half hour. The butter is then removed and clarified, the lobster meat is pressed into smaller molds, topped with the clarified butter, and, presumably, chilled until ready to serve.

What might potted lobster have tasted like? Well, there are a few spices in it -- nutmeg, mace, and cayenne -- as well as salt, but I suspect the dominant flavor would be butter. The lobster, cooked so long and treated so roughly, would retreat, its usually domineering flavor reduced to a vague pan-shellfish flavor rich in umami but not in lobster essence. Or perhaps not, but in any case, for a summer meal I craved something fresh and sea-breezy.

My approach to Eliza Leslie's lobster spread would celebrate the briny diva: lemon juice, green onions, parsley, salt, and pepper played chorus, and just a dollop of mayonnaise brought the ensemble together.

Like a true diva, she did not go without a fight. Lydia Hopkins, my hostess with the absolute mostest, has been spending summer on the Cape since she was a wee thing; she knows a thing or two about beach buggies and killing crustaceans. I've always boiled lobster but she suggested we steam it for the best flavor and texture. That meant preparing a shallow, simmering bath for the lobster in a saucepan large enough for her to sprawl in the bottom. And once she was in, it meant ignoring the sounds of her frantic scramblings. (I may have squealed with dismay, but all went silent within a few moments.)

Lydia's expertise came in handy again when it came time to remove the meat -- which was, as promised, perfectly cooked, not a bit rubbery, not even in the claw (as it can be when the execution method is a vat of boiling water). She made such quick work of the task, the lobster was reduced to an empty exoskeleton before I could properly note her technique. (So I shall have to return for another lesson, but in the meantime, these directions from a 19th century cookbook look good.)

You may be wondering why I keep reiterating that my lobster was a "she." I requested a female because I wanted her roe, both for its brininess and for its pretty color. Potted lobster layers white lobster meat with what Leslie called the "coral;" the roe in my dip gave my dip made it festively tricolor.

Served alfresco with dry white wine and toasted rye bread, the dip made an ideal appetizer for a meal of plump grilled sea scallops and vegetables. So you see, if you treat your crustaceans in death with the dignity that they lived, you will be richly rewarded. And you need not wait until the afterlife, either -- dinner will do.

Let-the-Lobster-Shine Dip

1.25 pound female lobster
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1 packed tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 heaping tablespoon mayonnaise
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. In a saucepan large enough to lie the lobster, bring about 2 inches of water to a gentle boil. Place the lobster in the bath, shut the lid, and close your ears to her scrambling. She'll quickly go quiet. Let steam for 15 minutes, remove from bath, and douse with plenty of cold water to speed up the cooling. When cool enough to handle, pick out the meat, including the roe.
  2. Combine the lobster meat and roe with all other ingredients. Taste carefully and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve with thin slices of bread rubbed with a bit of olive oil and garlic and toasted in the oven.

Serves 6.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cheater, Cheater, Corn-Muffin-Eater

Attentive readers may have noticed that I've lately taken bold liberties with the historical recipes on my source list, drawn from American Food Writing. I transformed traditional risotto into a chocalatey dessert; a basic slab of steak into a technicolor salad; and Chinese pancakes into Chinese tacos, to name a few.

You could call it cheating, but I prefer to think of it as winging it in style. As I noted in a response to a reader's comment, with 11 months of tackling challenging recipes under my belt, my cooking confidence is high, my urge to experiment is keen, and my desire to make foods that my friends actually want to eat overrides any concerns of inauthenticity. (It's remarkable what an otherwise innocuous bowl of bran jelly -- liquid cardboard, as it should be known -- and a heaping mound of inexplicable and nearly inedible potato pudding can do for your enthusiasm for following certain recipes to the letter.)

Which is to say that I don't feel a bit guilty for my latest improvisation, though this ranks among the most outrageous departures from the source recipe.

The only things that I took from Amelia Simmons' 1796 recipe for Johny/Hoe Cakes was inspiration and cornmeal (or "indian meal" as it was known at the time). Other than that, the muffins I made bare as much resemblance to the early cornbread recipe as a fresh berry-and-cream trifle does to a Pop Tart.

I had no interest in making ordinary corn bread. My friend the suburban gardener gave me a handful of fresh-picked sweet basil, I had some Pecorino cheese in the fridge, and I loved the way a smattering corn kernels spruced up thick pancakes: all these ingredients would play their part in my take on Johny cakes.

I noodled around Epicurious and found a recipe for Corn Muffins with Green Onions and Sour Cream, which became the foundation for my muffins. I replaced sour cream with cottage cheese because I love the stuff and would rather have it leftover than sour cream, and I skipped sugar because I didn't want anything masking the flavor of the herb. I roasted the corn, which dried the kernels out a bit. It might have been better to boil them, but then I wouldn't have gotten that lovely roasted flavor. My solution was to add 1/4 cup of olive oil.

The result was moist and overflowing with the flavors of a summer garden. I packed them away to take on a road trip to Cape Cod, following in the footsteps of their Johny cake forefathers, which were so named because travelers brought them on journeys.

A final note on cheating: attentive readers may be wondering just when I'm going to end this cooking project. The description at left says the grand finale was to happen on July 4, 2008, yet I have three more recipes to go: Thomas Jefferson's recipe for ice cream, Potted Lobster, and Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup. Well, I made an extremely loose interpretation of the lobster recipe on the Cape, but I still have the ice cream and soup to go. Think of this as extra helpings!

Corn and Basil Muffins

1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup cottage cheese (I used the low-fat, whipped variety)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup of cooked corn kernels (from 2 cobs of corn, boiled or roasted, or 1 cup frozen kernels, thawed and drained), finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped basil, packed
1/2 cup Pecorino cheese, grated (or 1 cup, if you'd like to make a full batch of cheesy muffins), plus 2 (or 4) tablespoons for the topping

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Line twelve 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper liners or grease a silicone muffin pan. Combine first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Whisk sour cream, eggs, melted butter, and olive oil in another bowl.
  2. Add cottage cheese mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until moistened (do not overmix). Fold in corn kernels and basil. Divide the batter in half (or don't) and fold in 1/2 (or 1) cup cheese to one of the portions.
  3. Divide batter equally among muffin cups. Sprinkle the cheesy muffins with the remaining cheese. Bake until golden and tester inserted into center of muffins comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool on rack.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Notes On Camp

I've got an outdoorsy streak that never fails to surprise people. Sure, I adore mascara, the Internet, goose-down pillows, and electricity but some of the greatest times in my life were spent grubby, exhausted, a 50-pound pack on my back, blisters on my heels, and 500 feet yet to climb. The most important question was not will he call me? but where will we put this food so the bears don't get it? I may not look it, but I've gone three weeks without a shower, pitched a tent in snow at 9,000 feet, and maintained "lightning position" for an hour in a thunderstorm.

My mom says that when I returned from those weeks-long expeditions to the Rockies or the Boundary Waters, I was, for a brief period, a normal, pleasant human being. The teenager who snarled at the mere suggestion that the dishes needed putting away was temporarily replaced by an easy-going young woman with confidence in herself and gratitude for the little things (like a dishwasher to remove said dishes from).

When I saw "A Michigan Receipt for Making Shortcake in Camp" in American Food Writing, I knew there would be no cheating it: this recipe would be made over a fire. If in this year of cooking historically I did not go camping, then I was prepared to make shortcake over the grills in Prospect Park.

As it turns out, Liz, a girl I'm so loyal to I may as well be her mutt, wanted just one thing for her 26th birthday: a camping trip. Nothing overambitious -- some of our friends, though equally loyal, are not as tolerant of creepy-crawlies -- just a night in a state park close to a Metro North station.

So last Saturday, after a fortifying Blood Mary in a patio bar near the Cold Spring station, we ventured forth into the Wilderness. We spent the afternoon doggy-paddling lazily around a lake, grilling hot dogs, drinking beers and white wine with ice from the cooler, and debating the relative merits of this tent spot vs. that one (a quandary when your campsite resembles nothing so much as a rock quarry, as Liz's sister Becca aptly put it.)

That night, we sat around the fire, just as our Liz had pictured, eating hamburgers, corn grilled in the husk, s'mores, and baked apples sprinkled with cinnamon that were so mushy they were like pudding. Anne, Liz's teacher colleague and friend, made them by wrapping the fruits in aluminum foil, tossing them near the embers, and letting Mother Nature do the rest of the work.

One nearly-sleepless night later (see above: rock quarry), and it was time for the Michigan shortcake.

The recipe, published in 1876 in the National Cookery Book, is comically rustic: it involves an Indian guide, a sapling refashioned as a rolling pin, a hot stone standing in for a frying pan, and the inevitable salt pork (historical cooking always gets back to salt pork). I imagine that what I would make of the "receipt" would be a hit-or-miss griddle cake: it could be greasy and flat or lifeless and bland or cakey and dense.

I wasn't willing to take the risk when our breakfast depended on it, so I turned to a book that a frontier woman can depend on: The Joy of Cooking. I took the Basic Pancake recipe as my starting off point. I doubled the recipe, which meant that adding the liquid mixture to the dry without overmixing was very difficult. Bill, Liz's boyfriend and a formidable foodie, reminded me that I was forming irreparable gluten. And so I was. As Bill noted, it's a short distance between pancake and bread, and so much of it is in the agitation of the batter.

There was nothing to do but pretend that gluten was my intention all along. I kept adding milk until it was a batter I could work with -- I got a whole quart in there (the recipe calls for 2 cups) -- but the result, once I got the charcoals and skillet at the right medium-hot temperature, were thick, hearty pancakes that are exactly what you want when you spent the night spooning with a small boulder.

Speaking of spoons, I added spoonfuls of fresh blueberries to some pancakes, and leftover apple mush to others, and leftover cooked corn kernels to others. On the side: great, local Canadian bacon from the Co-op and hot coffee ... from a nearby gas station. Hey, we're urbanites (who didn't bring our French presses).

As the "Michigan receipt" notes, when the food is "all seasoned with good appetite, nothing can be more delicious." And it was.

A New York Receipt for Making Flapjacks In Camp

3 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 quart milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 large eggs
1 pint blueberries
1-2 cups cooked corn kernels (from about 3 cobs)
1 cup cooked apple mush or applesauce
  1. Preheat charcoal brickets. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine wet ingredients in another. Slowly add the liquid to the flour, whisking gently to combine. Stir just enough to combine.
  2. When the charcoal brickets are hot, warm a nonstick frying pan. Brush with a bit of butter (I just rub it straight on the pan). Pour about 1/4 cup of batter onto the pan, letting spread to about 4 inches in diameter. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of blueberries, corn, or apple mush/sauce.
  3. Cook until bubbles begin to form and the sides of pancake pull away from the pan. The flip and continue cooking until the sides pull away. Check to be sure it doesn't burn! Cooking time will vary entirely on the fire, and is a constant struggle to get right (not gonna lie.)
Makes enough to feed about 10 people.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Under the Solstice Sun

Last weekend, we celebrated Katie's birthday and her new home in Stamford, Connecticut. (Can you believe I have friends who are already buying condos in the 'burbs and moving out there with their boyfriends??)

Katie and Chris (the boyfriend) ordered live crawfish from Louisiana and boiled it up under the sweltering sun -- felt just like NOLA! It was so hot the cheese melted on the plate, but I had my wide-brimmed hat and a pretty summer dress to keep me just cool enough to brave the barbecue. At about 5 p.m., when the oppressive solstice sun was mocking us with its sloooow descent into the West, we fired her up.

Luckily, there wasn't much to grill: just one great big flank steak and two corns on the cob, and I covered the grill and let the trio do their thing while I hightailed it to the single patch of shade.

How might so little feed so many? A salad, naturally Using strips of beef as an interloping ingredient among a riot of vegetables is a smarty-pants way to stretch one fantastic piece of ethically-raised, grass-fed bovine. And it also happens to be the way us omnivores should be eating, period.

I was (very, very loosely) inspired by a 1938 recipe for "Planked Porterhouse Steak," published by Rex Stout in Too Many Cooks -- an excellent title for a cookbook, don't you think? The steak gets its name because it is first grilled over a fire and then finished under the broiler, on a well-seasoned oak plank (instead of a baking pan), brushed with olive oil and surrounded with "a border of fluffy mashed potatoes." Just before serving, Stout brushed butter, sprinkled salt and pepper, and squeezed a bit of lime over the undoubtedly glorious-looking creation.

It's too hot to turn on the broiler, too hot to eat mashed potatoes, just too hot. But lime? Lime I can do. And grilling? That's practically my middle name (okay, not even close, but I can hold my own.)

A second inspiration was Marion Cabelle Tyree's "Meat Flavoring" from Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1878). The vinegar-based, highly-seasoned elixir is for the busy maid on the go: "As the housekeeper is sometimes hurried in preparing a dish, it will save time and trouble for her to keep on hand a bottle of meat-flavoring." Why, I couldn't agree more. And if you have found, as I have, that it's so hard to find good help these days -- the kind that flavors the meat on my plate -- then I suggest you print out the recipe below and pin it to her pinafore. The marinade I came up with (which is nothing like Miss Marion's) is a doozy.

On came together in a Latin-influenced salad of grilled corn, red peppers, avocado and mixed greens topped with strips of medium-rare steak marinated in lime and cilantro. It was, frankly, awesome. I just love it when a

And now, back to packing for a one-night camping trip for my friend Liz's birthday (we got her a tent but shh! It's a surprise.)

I'll be taking on "A Michigan Receipt for Making Shortcake in Camp," an 1876 recipe that calls for the aid of an Indian guide and a smooth sapling for a rolling pin. But this is Putnam County, NY, mere minutes from a Metro-North station -- not Lewis and Clark country. My Indian guide is bringing blueberries.

Solstice Steak Salad

1 1/2 to 2 pounds flank steak, preferably ethically-raised and grass-fed (you can taste the difference)

For the marinade:
3/4 cup lime juice
1/4 olive oil
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
Big pinch of kosher salt
1 tablespoon Mexican seasoning blend
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon cayenne
A few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:
2 ears of corn, shucked
2 small-t0-medium red bell peppers, or 1 large, sliced into thin strips
1 avocado, sliced into thin strips
4 green onions, chopped
8 cups mixed greens

For the dressing:
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
Big pinch of kosher salt
A few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

  1. Combine the marinade ingredients. Place in a Ziploc bag with the steak (easy to bring it outside to the grill) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  2. Preheat your grill. Get all your salad ingredients ready. Place the greens in a salad bowl or on a serving platter and arrange the other bits prettily on top (except the corn).
  3. About ten minutes before grilling, toss the corn cobs into the steak marinade. Once the grill is hot, put the steak above the fire and the corn on the upper rack or in the corner, away from direct flame. Cover and grill for about 5-6 minutes, then turns the steaks and corn and grill another 5-6 minutes for medium-rare. Let the steak and corn cool completely, then slice the steak(across the grain) into strips about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the kernels off the corn.
  4. Make the dressing by slowly adding the olive oil to the lime juice while whisking. Stir in the cilantro, salt, and pepper. Taste and correct the seasonings, if desired. Drizzle the dressing over the salad. Arrange the steak strips on top and sprinkle with the corn. Serve to the delight and amazement of your friends.

Makes enough for 12-16 people as a side dish or 8 people as a main course.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Duck, Duck ... Goose.

When I was twelve years old, some rare and fortuitous circumstance brought me to dinner at the St. Paul Grill, a steakhouse with dark wood, white linen tablecloths, and a carousel of Minnesota politicians rotating through the bar. I was buzzing with self-importance and the certainty that these scenes would feature prominently in my adult life.

In this refined setting, I ordered the chicken pot pie.

For a girl coming from a proto-Pollan, couscous kind of family, this was exotic fair.

So it should come as little as surprise that meatloaf made infrequent appearances in my childhood. It inspires zero nostalgia in me, unlike roast chicken, which made its glorious debut in my life when my dad and I moved in with Shelley, the woman who would become my adopted mother, or German apple pancake, spongy, eggy, and big enough to feed at least six, which my dad sometimes makes on wintry Sunday mornings.

It wasn't just the children of once-long-haired radicals who grew up without meatloaf on their plate. There's no equivalent in Latino, Indian, and Arabic cultures, to name but a few. But to my surprise, there is one in Chinese culture -- or, at least, Chinese-American culture. Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood (1997) offers a recipe for Steamed Pork Loaf with Salted Duck Eggs.

"This dish is well known to many of my fellow Chinese-Americans," Hom writes, "It should become a favorite of all Americans, hyphenated or not."

I made a special trip to Manhattan expressly for salted duck eggs, which, Hom promised, would be hard, rich with briny flavor, and would "add much to the already zestful blend of robust pork and spices." In Chinatown, I asked a few Chinese people where I might find a suitable grocery store. They were very nice but had no idea what I was talking about. It was a pleasantly disorienting experience, speaking my native tongue in my native land and feeling so foreign. I was saved by an Anglo British man pushing a stroller with a beautiful child of indeterminate, mixed race, who overheard my query and said, "Just up the street. I used to live in Bejing and I miss those eggs."

I'd like to know what brand he misses so much, because the kind I purchased were the sort of thing that could cause nightmares, never nostalgia.

For all Hom's declarations of the meatloaf's "exciting seasonings," I thought the recipe looked a little bland (it is a meatloaf after all), so I mixed turkey with pork and really revved up the spices, adding garlic, ginger, and spicy sesame oil. I replaced canned water chestnuts with fresh, which filled me with immense guilt but saved a great deal of time.

When it came time to add the duck egg yolks to the top (the whites were discarded), I unwrapped one of the eggs from it's red candy-like wrapping and gave it a tentative crack against the counter. The white was that sallow gray shade common to hard-boiled chicken eggs that have been cooked too long. I gave it a sniff. Smelled fine, like nothing much. I gave it a nibble. Salty. Very salty.

I peeled away the white ... and there was the yolk. I felt queasy. It was mealy, moist, dark gray, and frankly, disgusting-looking. The package showed a preternaturally yellow yolks that shone like small suns. I was unnerved.

A quick Internet search assured me that so long as there was no foul smell, the eggs would be fine. I proceeded, slicing the gooey yolks in half and pressing them into the top of meatloaf.

I set up an impromptu steamer by bringing a couple inches of water to a simmer in my roaster pan on the stove, and gently floating the loaf pan in the bath (Hom uses a wok and a rack.) In less than half and hour, I fished out the loaf pan, turned the meatloaf onto a serving platter, and arranged stir-fried boy choy, celery, and asparagus around it.

The egg yolks were now an innocuous, pale Easter egg yellow. But my roommate, Jane, and I could not forget the undead look they had when they were straight out of the shell. We bravely, gingerly tried a bite while my friend Liz, who wasn't there for the preparations, innocently dug right in. Though she didn't share our vivid visuals and the accompanying negative predispositions, she didn't like them either. They were still mealy and had no flavor to add but intense salt. I scraped them off the whole loaf, so my guests wouldn't have to.

The meatloaf itself was wonderful. Well-seasoned, a lovely, dense texture, and even better the next day, cold and warmed-over.

And now I have three salted duck eggs staring at ominuously from the top shelf of the fridge. You've seen the photo. Admit it: you'd be scared, too.

Chinese-Style Meatloaf

1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground turkey
4 8-ounce cans water chestnuts (or 1 1/2 pound fresh water chestnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons Mirin (sweet rice cooking wine)
3 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons spicy Asian sesame oil
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 salted duck eggs (optional)

In a food processor, mix the pork, turkey, and water chesnuts until they are nearly smooth. Scrape the mixture into a large stainless-steel bowl and add the scallions, then soy sauce and rice win. Add the salt, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and pepper. With your hands, mix well, then turn the meat into a greased loaf pan. Crack open the duck eggs, discard the whites, and cut the yolks in half. Arrange the yolks on the top of the loaf, pressing the yolks into the meat mixture.

In a large roasting pan, preferably with a flat rack in the bottom, bring about 2 inches of water to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and carefully place the loaf pan on the rack or in the bottom of the pan. Cover the roasting pan and let it simmer and steam for 25 minutes, or until the loaf is done.

Serves 4.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

La Dolce Vita

There is a surplus of savory recipes in this line-up, and far too few that feature chocolate. Sweets are my secret weapon to gain friends and influence people (now not so secret, but the technique will, I'm confident, lose none of its effectiveness) -- so I've been forced to improvise.

And so I did something to Marcella Hazan's 1973 recipe for Risotto alla Pamigiana (Risotto with Parmesan Cheese) that may be sacrilege to those who believe that oozing cheese is the mark of good risotto. But one bite of my Risotto al Cioccolato, slow-cooked Arborio rice blended with dark chocolate and layered with strawberries in their own syrup and liqueur-spiked whipped cream, and I'm sure they will find it in their hearts to forgive me.

It's best paired with a glass of fine prosecco, perhaps something from Carpené Malvolti, the original producer of sparkling Italian wine, which my guest had the good sense to bring.

Watch the video for the excellent, chocolaty adventure...

Risotto al Cioccolato from Nora Leah on Vimeo.

Risotto al Cioccolato
When the weather demands it, you might also serve this hot, perhaps with a crisp Italian cookie on the side instead of fresh strawberries.

6-7 cups of water
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
6 ounces dark chocolate (60% cocoa and up)
1/4 cup granulated sugar plus 1 teaspoon (approximately)
1 pint cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons white chocolate liqueur, such as Godiva (optional)
1 pint strawberries, sliced very thin

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a steady simmer. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the rice and stir to coat. Saute lightly and add 1/2 cup of simmering water. As the rice dries out, continue adding simmering water, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir frequently to make sure the rice doesn't stick. Continue until all the water is absorbed and the rice is quite soft and creamy. After you've added about half the water, stir in the sugar. (You may not need all 7 cups of water. As you get to the end, add just 1/4 cup of water at a time, to avoid drowning the risotto.)
  2. While the risotto is cooking, prepare the strawberries. Sprinkle sliced strawberries with about 1 teaspoon sugar (or more, if the strawberries are tart) and about 2 tablespoons of water. Reserve in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
  3. When the rice is finished cooking (it will take about 30 minutes), place chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high y until melted, 30 seconds at a time, stirring every 30 or 15 seconds. (It will take 60 to 80 seconds.) Add melted chocolate, vanilla extract, and 1/2 pint cream to rice and stir well. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
  4. When ready to serve, whip the remaining 1/2 pint cream with an electric mixer (add 2 tablespoons chocolate liqueur or 1 teaspoons sugar, if desired). Arrange risotto in martini or other glasses: a layer of risotto, followed by a layer of strawberries, another layer of risotto, and topped with plenty of whipped cream.
Serves 6.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

(Another) Alternaburger

Please don't revoke my citizenship, but I'm not much of a hamburger person. Sure, I get their appeal. While no dietitian would agree, they are a remarkably balanced food, rolling all the things we crave into a packet easily maneuvered with just a hand and a mouth.

But as a kid, I preferred Chicken McNuggets (as I've mentioned), and these days, given the choice, I always go with a grilled something-or-other sandwich, or a salad full of crumbly goat cheese, interesting greens, and crunchy bits 'n bobs, or, when the opportunity presents itself, a hunk of barbecued meat, dripping with sauce.

But there are a exceptions. Take the beef out of it, add some flavah-flave, and I'm down with the burger. Case in point: the "working girl's tuna burger," inspired by the Union Square Cafe Cookbook. And now, a new one to add to my (admittedly very girly) burger repertoire, inspired by one of the first burgers every recorded, back when it was still know as the Hamburg Steak.

The recipe is by Sarah Tyson Rorer in Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book (1902). Without saying so explicitly, she encourages the intrepid cook to disguise ground meat as steak. She forms the patties into steak shapes and serve it sans bun, as you might a T-bone: "dust with salt, put a little butter on top of each and send at once to the table; or they may have poured over them tomato sauce, or you may serve them with brown or pepper sauce."

I decided that I, too, would forgo the bun – in deference both to Mrs. Rorer and the modern dictum that limited white bread is not a bad thing. But if you're going to drop the carbs, you've got to add toppings that make you forget what you're missing. Instead of Mrs. Rorer's tomato sauce, I created a relish that would be a perfect foil for my favorite condiment, feta cheese, and would incorporate some incredibly fresh and fragrant mint grown in my friend’s suburban greenhouse. Feta and mint? I dare you not to think of Greece. I ran with the theme, adding kalamata olives, garlic, chopped tomatoes, and green onions, all quickly cooked in a bit of olive oil.

The result was a healthy, fast Wednesday meal for two that sang of the Mediterranean. The relish was really quite fantastic and would also be lovely on a bit of grilled fish or chicken, pasta, bruschetta – hell, even an all-beef patty between two buns.

Turkey Burgers with Olive and Mint Relish

With such flavorful toppings, I don't think this burger needs a bun. But add one if you'd like, or maybe serve atop a slice of country bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil and lightly toasted.

For the burgers:
1/2 pound ground turkey meat
2 tablespoons minced white onion
Big pinch of Kosher salt
A couple good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

For the relish:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Roma tomato, finely diced
2 large green onions, finely diced
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, finely chopped
Big pinch of Kosher salt
A couple good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

1/4 - 1/3 cup crumbled feta

  1. Preheat the broiler and arrange a broiler pan about 2 inches from the heat. Combine all the turkey burger ingredients, mix well, and form into two patties about 3 inches across. Spray the broiler pan with cooking spray. Place the patties on the pan and cook for about 4 minutes on each side.
  2. While the burgers cook, make the relish. In a skillet, over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and saute until just beginning to color. Add all other relish ingredients. Saute until the burgers are fully cooked.
  3. Place the burgers on servings plates. Top each with half the relish and half the feta and put back under the broiler. Cook until the feta just begins to brown. Carefully remove and serve.

Serves two.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Unbaked Beans

It's the end of a three-day weekend, when Americans have laid wreaths, vegged out by lakes and lawns, and finally, finally worn white again -- but I worked all day today and I worked all day Saturday and I didn't even notice what I put on either day. Don't cry for me, though. I spent a lovely Sunday blowin' around Soho and the Lower East Side, capped off with a nighttime walk across the Brooklyn Bridge lit with undulating colored lights in honor of its 125th birthday, a view so magical that it reduced me to childlike skipping, wonder, and glee.

And sure, the weather was postcard-perfect while I was chained to my laptop, but really, it's not so bad: while I worked today, I did a little cooking in honor of the holiday. Leaving aside a World War retrospective, what's more Memorial Day than a big pot of baked beans? We didn't have the barbecued meat to go with it but we did have something even better: my roommate Andrea just came back from a weekend at the Cape (you know, the Cod one) lugging a bag of live mussels. She prepared them to her mother's recipe, with white wine, butter, celery, carrots, and herbs, and you know we mopped the fragrant broth up with buckets of toasted bread.

The baked beans recipe I was working with -- published in 1963 in John Gould's Monstrous Depravity -- called for night-long soaking and day-long baking. Not wanting to turn on my oven for so long on such a warm day (and not having planned ahead for dried beans), I grabbed 4 cans of black-eyed peas and cooked them in the Crock-Pot.

Gould recommends a number of what are now considered heritage beans: yellow eyes, Jacob's Cattle, Soldier (or Johnson), as well as the common kidney bean. I found none of them except the latter, so decided to go with black-eyed peas because they, not surprisingly, resemble yellow eyes, and because they're lucky, and despite what I've said before, I feel like I could use some good fortune right now.

Mussels and baked beans: an odd combination, perhaps, but both honor New England (Gould was from Rockland, Maine), so why not? I more or less followed his recipe, though I upped the fresh ginger -- and if I were doing it again, I think I'd add even more. But then, I'm a known ginger lover.

May you enjoy them all summer long ... but not with white pants.

Slow-Cooker "Baked" Black-Eyed Peas

2-3 slices thick-cut bacon
1/2 cup white onion, diced
4 (15 & 1/2 ounce) cans of black-eyed peas
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/8 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1-2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced

Fry the bacon slices to just-crisp in a skillet over medium-low heat. Remove bacon and allow to cool slightly. Add onion and saute in bacon fat for 5 minutes. Slice the bacon into thin strips.
Empty the canned peas, including liquid, into the bowl of a slow-cooker. Add bacon, onion, bacon fat, and all other ingredients. Cover but leave a crack for steam to escape. Cook on medium for 5-6 hours, until liquid is reduced to a thick gravy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Go East, Young Taco

Faced with a 1945 recipe for Fried Scallion Cake, I thought, Fun! Easy! Let's up the ante. Make the cakes into tortilla-like wrappers for Chinese tacos.

Turns out the tacos were a very good idea. But I was wrong about the Fun! and Easy! part. The recipe, published by Buwei Yang Chao in How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, should have been a dead giveaway, particularly the bit where it instructs you to
roll up each cake (as you would roll a carpet) and then twist into a standing spiral, like a fattened water-heater. With the rolling pin, flatten the spiral from the top down...
Huh? Well, it made for an adventure. Take a look...

The moral? DO surprise your friends and family with a Chinese taco night ... but DON'T use Chao's recipe! Unless you know how to roll a sticky gob of dough into the shape of a fattened water-heater.

These Scallion Cilantro Pancakes look tasty and much thinner than the naan-like cakes I was able to make -- the better to roll up all the yummy fillings. The cilantro would be a welcome addition to the happy hodgepodge of filling flavors.

And speaking of those fillings, I suggest five-spice pork (or turkey? or firm, crumbled tofu?), Chinese pico de gallo, Napa cabbage with a light dressing (or plain), bottled black bean sauce (I heated mine just before serving) or hoisin sauce. You could also toss in some very thinly sliced red peppers, chopped sugar snap peas, or crushed, toasted almonds.

Now, doesn't it feel good to know you've got your menus set for Chinese New Year and Cinco de Mayo?

食飯 and ¡Buen provecho!

Five-Spice Pork

1 pound lean ground pork
2 heaping tablespoons five-spice powder
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (optional)
A little bit of oil for cooking
1/2 cup scallions, chopped

About 2 hours before serving, combine the pork, five-spice powder, soy sauce, and fresh ginger. Chill until ready to cook. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Swirl just a teensy bit of oil in there. Add pork and scallions and cook, stirring often, until pork is cooked through and not a speck of pink remains, about 10 minutes.

Chinese Pico de Gallo

1/2 cup finely chopped boy choy
1/4 cup finely chopped crunchy bean spouts
2 tablespoons minced scallions
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons hot sesame oil, or to taste

About 2 hours before serving, combine all ingredients. Taste and add more hot sesame oil if desired. Chill until 20 minutes before serving.

Napa Cabbage with a Light Mirin Dressing

3 cups shredded Napa cabbage
1 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Mirin (rice cooking wine)
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Just before serving, combine all ingredients and toss.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chartreuse

We're getting to the point in this project where the remaining "to do" recipes are those that, for whatever reason, still ... remain.

There's Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup. Starring role: tripe. For those of you not well versed in bovine anatomy, that's stomach. It's not that I'm faint of heart. It's just that one can find any number of reasons not to make cow tum-tum soup. And I have. But now that it's nearly summer, I'm regretting having avoided it all these months. Here's hoping for one more chilly Sunday.

And then there's Potted Lobster: essentially, lobster terrine. Sounds delicious, yes? And it's an economical way of stretching one lobster to feed many. But the thought of picking apart a lobster and not getting to immediately dunk that sweet flesh in a pool of melted butter -- heartbreaking. I'll have to make that sacrifice soon, just not yet.

Fortunately, the results of a dish I once feared -- Chicken Chartreuse -- are encouraging. The recipe, published by Mary Lincoln in her 1884 work, Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook, put me off, if only for the cooking method. We are to "put [the mold] on a trivet in a kettle and steam for three hours" (or one hour if the sausage and chicken is pre-cooked.) I mean, kettle? Trivet?

But with two months to go 'til I complete my year of cooking historically, I had to do like the Puritans and carpe diem -- with or without kettles and trivets.

I made Chicken Chartreuse for an informal drinks party with my New York posse. Also on the menu: my most-requested feta dip and a big ol' pot full of sangria.

**Hot food blogger tip: if you fear disaster, serve plenty of drink!**

But I needn't have worried. The Chartreuse had a texture that calls to mind a slightly looser paté, with flavors that are as familiar as matzo ball soup. On crackers, it made light and satisfying party fare. The concept -- bits of tasty stuff mushed together and steamed -- accommodates interpretations and improvisations galore. Just be mindful of maintaining the proportion of wet-to-dry ingredients.

I'm providing both the chartreuse and sangria recipes -- but you could definitely get away with serving just the former. No booze required! Now that Pepperpot Soup may be another story....

Chicken Chartreuse

I used truffle-flecked sausage links, but perhaps a rosemary or a red pepper flavor would suit you? Also consider substituting other types of cooked meat, and vinegar instead of lemon juice.

You can set up an impromptu kettle-and-trivet steaming combination with a deep baking dish and a couple inches of water.

9 ounces (1 heaping cup) of cold cooked chicken, minced
2 chicken sausage links, minced
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Pinch of cayenne
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Butter a two-cup mold. Press the chicken mixture into the mold and cover. Fill a baking dish with about 2 inches of water. Place the mold in the water and bake for 1 hour. Allow to cool completely in the mold. To remove the chartreuse from the mold, dip the mold briefly in hot water,and slip a thin, sharp knife around the edge of the chicken to loosen. Serve chilled with crackers.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer.

Saving-Face Sangria

1 bottle of red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Rioja, Zinfandel, Shiraz)
1 lemon cut into thin slices
1 lime cut into thin slices
1 orange, peeled and cut into wedges
1 & 1/2 cups rum
2 cups grapefruit juice

Combine all ingredients, chill, and serve.

Serves 4.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Great Compromise

For nine months, I've met every challenge that the cooks of yore have thrown at me (or so I like to think). But there are times when this historical food blogger is stumped.

Take a gander at this recipe, published in The "Settlement" Cook Book (1903), by Mrs. Simon Kander:

Matzos Pudding
  • 3 matzos (soaked, pressed and stirred until smooth)
  • 10 eggs beaten separately
  • 2 large apples (peeled and grated)
  • 1 cup goose fat
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Grated rind of a lemon
  • Sugar to sweeten
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Stir one-half hour and lastly fold in the beaten whites. Grease form well, bake in a moderate oven one-half hour and serve with wine sauce, six eggs, one cup of weak wine, sugar to taste. Stir constantly until it thickens as it is apt to curdle.

I mean, what is this? It starts with a porridge of unleavened cracker crumbs ... morphs into imitation bread pudding ... and ends with an egg-and-wine sauce for good measure? Is it even a dessert? And what's with the goose fat?

Since starting this project, I've often studied this recipe, intrigued by the unusual use of traditional Passover crackers but baffled by the directions and uninspired by the ingredients. And after my disappointment with that utterly pointless Irish potato concoction, I'm wary of strange puddings.

The official title of The "Settlement" Cook Book was "The Way to a Man's Heart." Molly O'Neill writes that the title "was quite in earnest, since poor cooking was often a source of marital strife."

They say the key to a good marriage is compromise, so I decided to negotiate with Mrs. Kander. I'd take her suggestion for Matzos Pudding, but I'd be making a few changes.

To begin with, goose fat was out: a custard of milk, cream, and eggs suits the modern palate, and brings us back into comfortable bread pudding territory. To give the dish more substance, crushed matzos made room for leftover whole wheat bread. Lemon peel? That could stay. But I added some Eastern spices (vanilla, cardamom, and star anise), inspired by a recipe for Lemon-spice Bread Pudding with Sauteed Peaches by Tasha Garcia and Julie Taras.

And in the produce section of Whole Foods, gazing at perfect, speckled globes of Asian pears, I found more inspiration. Two apples in the pudding became four pears in the sauce. I chose a variety, all at the peak of ripeness: two Comice, one Bosc, one Asian. I riffed on the classic dish of pears poached in wine: pears stewed briefly in lemon juice, butter, and red wine. A perfect compromise between Garcia and Tara's sauteed peaches and Kander's very rich wine sauce.

For the pudding, I followed Garcia and Tara's recipe fairly closely, but substituted half-and-half for their combination of whole milk and cream because it meant one less purchase at the store. And I added matzos, of course, broken into pieces. I mixed most of the matzos into the bread-and-custard mixture 20 minutes before baking, so that the matzos would soak up some of the cream and flavor, but reserved a handful to sprinkle on top just before sticking it in the oven.

The result was heavenly and wholly original. Matzos added a welcome crunch to the mundane (but wonderful!) mushiness of bread pudding. Lemon and spices and pears and wine make for an all-encompassing experience, like a goose down comforter on a cold winter's day (you see? We got some goose in there after all). The recipe below was a group effort -- Garcia, Tara, and Kander all contributed their part -- and I'm immensely proud of it.

Matzo-Bread Pudding with Pears in Wine Sauce

The subtle flavors of whole seasonings -- a vanilla bean, a few cardamom pods, and a pair of star anise -- add a great deal to the dish, but if they are unavailable, you may substitute vanilla extract and ground cardamom and star anise.

For the pudding:
5 cups 1-inch bread cubes from day old bread with crusts
4 matzo crackers, broken up into small pieces
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
3 cups half-and-half
4 cardamom pods, crushed (or a pinch of ground cardamom)
2 whole star anise (or a pinch of ground anise)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt

For the sauce:
4 large pears, preferably different varieties, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

  1. To make the pudding, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toss the bread and melted butter on a large rimmed baking sheet. Place bread in oven and toast until golden, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a medium saucepan; add bean. Add half and half, cardamom, star anise, and lemon peel to pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain.
  3. Whisk eggs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Gradually whisk half and half mixture into egg mixture. Add bread and toss gently to combine. Cover and let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Twenty minutes before baking, add all but about 3 tablespoons of the matzo pieces to the bread mixture and stir gently to combine.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 11 x 7 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Transfer bread mixture to prepared dish and sprinkle with remaining matzo pieces. Bake until just set, about 55 minutes. Cool pudding at least 10 minutes.
  5. To make the sauce, combine the pears, lemon juice, sugar, and wine in a bowl and toss. Melt the butter in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pears; cook until juices thicken slightly, stirring gently, about 4-5 minutes. Serve the pudding warm or at room temperature with the pears.