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.