Wednesday, September 23, 2009

- Some Gruene/Green Things

We went to the Gruene (pronounced “green”) Market Days for the first time last Sunday, drawn by the promise one hundred vendors selling their creative wares. Then wandered through the downtown area, the shops welcome oases in the hot Texas sun.

As we got closer to the water tower, Don spotted Gruene Hall.  It was packed with people and obviously not air conditioned, which made it somewhat less than attractive with the late-afternoon temperature stuck in the 90s. Fortunately, Don prevailed and we entered to find a bluegrass band playing to beat all, led by a young fiddler named Ruby Jane.

After settling onto a bench in the back, we took in the screened open-air hall, which was lined with tables liberally carved with names and dates like old-time school desks. The band played under a bank of neon beer signs, seemingly unaffected by the heat, which was only partly relieved by the overhead fans hanging from unadorned rafters. Folks were mostly drinking beer, but as we tapped our toes some braved the dance floor, unable to resist the music’s call.

Over to one side, kids barely taller than the sides of the pool tables played an impromptu game, trying to roll cue balls into corner pockets past the outstretched hands of their watchful opponents. Parents looked on from nearby benches, happy to have found a momentary diversion. In the shade of the hall, the heat finally lifted … or maybe it was the music that carried it away.

All too soon The Ruby Jane Show wrapped up with a final number, the applause faded, and the crowd trailed slowly out into the street. Later we learned that Gruene Hall is the oldest dance hall in Texas. And that Ruby Jane is only fifteen years old. Fitting factual bookends to nestle around a great Texas memory.

* * * *

As I write this three days later, the heat has broken and the temperature is an unseasonably low 60-something degrees. The promise of fall has arrived, if only briefly, and I’m thinking onion soup would be just about right for lunch. But not the standard-issue, chewy-cheese, watery-thin-beef-bullion-based onion soup of restaurant visits past. Rather, a velvety rich concoction, with gruyere softly strung on tender shreds of sweet onion in a golden rich broth. I told you the chicken stock would come in handy some day.

Onion Soup (for two)

3 cups rotisserie chicken stock (give or take)
1 or 2 Vidalia onions, coarse grated (or whatever sweet yellow onion you might have)
2 Tbs butter (1 Tbs for sauteeing, 1 Tbs for roux)
1 Tbs flour
¼ cup Marsala (You have no Marsala? Well then, a light red wine if you must ... or Vin Santo)
½ to 1 cup coarse grated gruyere cheese (I tend to go heavy on the cheese)
Toasted bread or croutons

Sauté the onions in butter until tender in a medium-sized saucepan.
In a separate saucepan, melt the butter and make a light roux with the flour.
Whisk 1 cup of chicken stock into the roux and cook until thickened.
Pour the remaining chicken stock into the onions; add the roux and a healthy splash of Marsala.
Season with salt to taste and bring to a rolling boil.
Put toasted bread or croutons in the bottom of two soup bowls and top with grated Gruyere.
Pour boiling soup over bread and cheese ... stir gently to melt the cheese and serve immediately.
Best with cold ale and a nap afterward.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

- Salad Days

The phrase “salad days” has been rattling around in my head all week and during lunch today I wondered out loud if I was right in recalling that it meant good times. Afterwards, I went to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website at to check my assumption, finding:

     Main Entry: salad days
     Function: noun plural
     Date: 1606
     : time of youthful inexperience or indiscretion
     “my salad days when I was green in judgment” — Shakespeare
     also : an early flourishing period : heyday

So, not exactly “good times,” although I certainly have fond memories from way back when. I guess what I need is an ancillary definition to cover our recent lunch-time fare, which is replete with salads, no two exactly alike and all good.

We've avoided the “lettuce, tomato and cucumber” rut by taking a cue from the old Chinese menus of the past, which prompted choosing “one from column a, one from column b” etc.  In composing your own salads, try to use as many categories as possible without using too many ingredients from any one category. And if you read this and wonder, “How could she have forgotten (fill in the blank)?” please send a comment ... I'll happily add to the lists.

Lettuces - Romaine, spinach, arugula, leaf lettuce (either “baby” or mature, blends or single variety)
Cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables
Herbs - chives, basil, cilantro
Vegetables – Avocado, cucumber, celery, carrots, beets (I know, they're not all green)

Tomatoes – grape, Roma, cherry, beefsteak
Tag sale find from Shelter Island, gifted by my Mom
Strawberries, grapes (red seedless)
Oranges, apples, pears, peaches

Nuts and seeds
Tree nuts - walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, almonds
Legumes - peanuts, peas, beans
Seeds – pumpkin, sunflower, sesame

Soft cheese – fresh mozzarella, feta, blue
Grated cheese – parmesan, asiago, cotija

Proteins (leftovers are often an inspiration here)
Meat – chicken, pork, beef
Seafood – shrimp, crab, lobster
Eggs – hardboiled, fried

Potatoes – boiled, fried
Rice – wild, white, blend
Pasta – orzo, shells, linguine
Added crunch – croutons, wontons, corn chips

Garnishes (for want of a better term)
Onions – scallion, red onion, shallot, chives
Olives – Kalamata, green (please, not canned black olives)
Peppers – bell, hot, pickled
Cured meat – bacon, prosciutto, sausage, ham

Oils – safflower, olive, peanut, sesame
Citrus juices (fresh squeezed) – lemon, lime, orange
Vinegars – cider, red wine, rice wine, balsamic
Seasonings – salt, pepper, mustard, soy sauce, garlic, anchovy paste

Nota Bene: please avoid bottled dressings … it's so easy to whisk up your own! As a rule of thumb, for two people combine approximately 2-3 Tbs. of citrus juice and/or vinegar with 2-3 Tbs. oil and season to taste. After a while, you’ll find that you can just eye-ball the quantities. Additions such as mustard, garlic and anchovy paste will tend to help the emulsification process along, but just whisking and immediately dressing the salad should suffice.

Here are some tried and true salad combinations, but don’t feel bound by them. Experiment and make note of those that please you.

Baby spinach and romaine, cucumber, tomato, feta, Kalamata olives, red onions, with a wine vinegar and olive oil dressing.

Romaine, tomato, pine nuts, prosciutto, olives, shredded asiago, dressed with balsamic and olive oil

Romaine hearts, croutons, parmesan, seafood (crab, shrimp), dressed with wine vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, anchovy paste and garlic … please, no tomatoes!

Asian Inspired
Baby greens, bok choy or cabbage, carrot shreds, orange, almonds, shredded pork, scallion, sesame seeds, fried wontons, dressed with peanut and sesame oils, rice wine vinegar, soy and brown sugar

Williamsburg Trellis Style
Baby greens, toasted pecans, scallions, strawberries, boiled potatoesgrilled chicken, bacon, dressed with safflower oil, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and Dijon mustard

Baby greens, tomato, bacon, walnuts, fresh mozzarella, croutons, dressed with safflower oil, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and Dijon mustard

Arugula, tomato, blue cheese, walnuts, avocado, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil

Grilled skirt steak or chicken, cotija cheese, blue corn chips or fresh flour tortillas, salsa of red onion, avocado, tomato, jalapeno, and cilantro dressed with lime juice and salt

Breakfast Salad
Baby greens, bacon or ham, fried potatoes, fried eggs, dressed with a touch of balsamic vinegar

Refrigerator Salad
Baby greens, leftover meat, leftover veggies, leftover pasta or rice, nuts and/or cheese, vinaigrette (like this one with baby spinach, leftover chicken, oven-roasted beets, fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette ... which would have been even better with some pine nuts)

Friday, September 18, 2009

- Home Sweet Home: Wimberley

We can’t mow our backyard. There is so much loose limestone that the only way to trim the grass is with a weed whacker. Indeed, for the first month and a half, we didn’t even need to do that, given that we arrived at the tail end of a twenty-month drought. But now that it has rained –three days worth of road-closing, flash-flood-warning heavy rain– the temperatures have dropped into the eighties and the grass is growing.

Which is to say, we’ve been outside all week. The house we are renting has sod out front, but no other landscaping to speak of. There is a pile of limestone leftover from the house construction and a lot of bare dirt. So we had a load of mulch delivered and are in the process of moving chunks of limestone from the pile in the backyard to the edge of the cement walkway, which is being trenched and leveled.

We’re doing all of this very carefully, having heard that Texas critters like to hang out in rock piles. So far so good. And we’ve got to make hay while the sun shines, because El Nino is coming. Yes, more rain … in abundance. At least that’s what I’m expecting, having experienced the El Nino of 1998 that dropped so much rain on Virginia that it delayed our move into Hempstead Road. It's true that weather predictions are notoriously unreliable, but we’re taking everyone at their word and getting the soil protected while we can.

Of course, all this yard work requires a tremendous amount of energy (mildly sardonic tone here), giving me just the excuse I needed to dredge up an old favorite from the recipe book. Only what I found was I actually had three versions of Crème Brûlée French Toast, which have been conflated into this fourth and, for now, final version. Crusty on the top and dripping with caramel on the bottom, you won’t need any maple syrup … just a good hot cup of coffee and a way to burn off the calories.

Crème Brûlée French Toast (for two, with leftovers if you’re good)

3-4 cups bread cubes (please use a good crusty loaf, preferably stale)
1 egg and 1 yolk
1/3 cup heavy cream*
2/3 cup milk*
½ tsp vanilla
3 Tbs. butter
1/3 cup brown sugar

Melt the butter and brown sugar.
Pour the caramel-to-be into the bottom of a buttered 1 ½ or 2 quart baking dish.
Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream and vanilla.
Put the bread in the casserole and top with the egg mixture.
Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for half an hour. Take out when golden brown and set.

Decision point: do you want a chewy caramel base or a soft caramel base (as seen here)?
For chewy, just pop the casserole straight into the oven.
For soft, put the casserole in a pie plate in the oven and then add 2 cups of water to the pie plate.
This is a custard, after all, and a water bath will give a gentler set to the end product.

* Note: I have used 1 cup half-and-half (either regular or fat-free) in place of milk and cream. It’s not quite as good, but it gets the job done.

Monday, September 14, 2009

- Everything but the Cluck: Rotisserie chicken

There’s an old expression that you can cook every part of a pig, except the oink. Well, one of the reasons I don’t begrudge the food store six dollars for a good rotisserie chicken is that I use everything but the cluck. After Friday Night Supper comes Saturday lunch, and while I have been known to warm up the bread and chicken as a perfectly respectable lunch, I tend to get more positive feedback when I make chicken salad. Fresh herbs are key, so Don and I headed out the other day to pick up chives, parsley, basil, and rosemary at the local feed and seed.

Once stripped of the usable meat, the remaining chicken bones, skin, and whatever drippings lurk in the bottom of the plastic shell are dispatched to a stock pot. A minimalist, I do not add anything but water to cover the remains of the chicken, bring the pot to a boil, and then reduce it to a simmer for a couple of hours. The result is liquid gold, aka Rotisserie Chicken Stock. But a caution is in order: if you want a good basic stock, it is best to avoid rotisserie chickens flavored with lemon pepper, barbecue sauce, etc. Strained and frozen, the stock can be kept for another day, another recipe.

Saturday Chicken Salad

Chunks of leftover rotisserie chicken
Finely diced celery
Finely diced cucumber … I’m partial to the seedless English variety
Toasted almonds or pine nuts
Chopped herbs … parsley, chives, and/or rosemary work well
Chopped olives … kalamata or green olives in brine
Finely diced shallots or thinly sliced scallions
Dash of Montreal Steak seasoning

Yes, yes … I know there are no amounts, but I don’t know how much chicken you have leftover. This is where you have to channel your inner chef … cut some stuff up, throw it together, taste it and adjust. It's also what I call the cook’s privilege: getting a taste beforehand, not to mention the applause afterward.

Serve on bread if you must, but I prefer good multi-grain crackers such as Fresh Market Lavasch or Kashi TLC Stoneground 7-Grain.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

- Let’s do Brunch: Cinnamon rolls

I should have learned after the great bagel caper a couple of weeks ago that I really don’t need to bring anything to an Austin brunch, but East Coast habits die hard.  I asked Tasha if I could bring something today and she graciously permitted me to do so, but once again I needn’t have bothered. What an amazing spread she and Mike put on for us at their home in Dripping Springs:
  • Made-to-order espresso in more flavors than I can count
  • Fresh smoked Alaska Silver Salmon that Tasha caught a couple of weeks ago in Alaska
  • Bagels and cream cheese (some with the aforementioned salmon blended in)
  • Egg casseroles, one with feta and spinach, the other with peppers and sausage
  • Fresh fruit and biscotti
  • Did I mention the fresh smoked salmon? I did? It’s worth repeating … it was that amazing
We sat outside under cloudy skies, thoroughly enjoying the 80 degree temperatures, the view of Sunset Canyon and some great conversation. There were plenty of Cinnamon Knots leftover, but not much else. So, lesson learned … until next time.

Cinnamon Knots (makes 32 small rolls)

1 Tbs. yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup lukewarm water (total)
2 cups bread flour
2 Tbs. wheat gluten
½ tsp kosher salt
Optional: Grated nutmeg to taste
1 Tbs. melted butter (for dough)
6 Tbs. melted butter (for coating)
1 cup cinnamon sugar

Put ¼ cup lukewarm water in a cup; add yeast and 1 tsp. sugar. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, put flour, gluten, salt, nutmeg (optional) and melted butter in a food processor bowl.
When the yeast starts bubbling, add it to the dry ingredients along with the rest of the water.
The dough should be fairly wet as you process it … add more flour until the dough gathers and no longer sticks to the sides of the food processor.
Remove the dough, add enough flour to keep it from sticking to your hands.
Knead into a flattened disk, cover the bowl with a wet towel and let it rise for one hour.
Put the melted butter and cinnamon sugar into two shallow rimmed bowls.
Divide the dough into two halves and set one half aside.
Divide the remaining dough into 16 pieces (cut in half, in half again, etc.)
Hang the resulting fingers of dough on the edge of the bowl.

Dip each piece of dough in butter, then in cinnamon sugar, and twist in a knot.
Put the first 16 knots on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Let the rolls rise for another hour.
Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, or until dark golden brown and firm to the touch.
Place on cooling racks for ten minutes, dip in glaze (below), and cool another half hour.

3 Tbs. melted butter
1 cup confectioners sugar
½ tsp. vanilla
2-3 Tbs. milk

Whisk into a glaze … add milk or sugar as needed to get a “dip-able” consistency

- In my Mother’s Kitchen: A recipe is just a suggestion

My Mom was generous with her kitchen ... she actually let my brother and me learn to cook by getting our hands dirty. We learned the basics early on by making chocolate chip cookies, but the pièce de résistance was my first solo effort at making dinner for the whole family when I was 11 (in 1967). Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia Child, culled from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was the chosen dish. No wonder … we loved watching the French Chef together on Channel 13 (which never needed a laugh track to get us going).

If you have Julia Child’s epic tome, please turn to page 315. If not, you can link to a reasonable facsimile of the recipe. Knowing my Mom, this is probably close to what she said as I learned how (not) to follow a recipe:
  • 6 ounces of bacon sounds like a lot … we’ll use 4 slices and that will be plenty
  • Never mind that part about simmering the bacon rind, we’ll skip that
  • We’ll use chuck rather than lean beef … it’s got much more flavor
  • Rather than dry the beef, we’ll just salt it and coat it with flour, that will save a step later
  • You won’t need a whole onion, and why don’t you cut the carrots into sticks
  • 3 cups of wine?! We’ll cut that in half … burgundy will do
  • And here are the Herb Ox bullion cubes, dissolve them in 2 cups of boiling water
  • Tomato paste yes, garlic no … you know how I feel about garlic and we’ll never miss it
  • Thyme, check … bay leaf, check … aren’t you glad we skipped the bacon rind step?
  • 18-24 small white onions? Not necessary, we already have enough onion in there
  • Let’s put the mushrooms in at the end, so they won’t get soggy
  • Parsley? I just don’t think that’s necessary if it’s just for decoration

Followed as directed, what we ended up with was my Mom’s excellent beef stew with a red wine kicker. I learned my lesson well, and have rarely followed a recipe to the letter ever since.

For the next 41 years my Mom and I shared our love of cooking and our recipes. As a young newlywed I would call her at dinnertime for directions. When we went up to Shelter Island, I watched her cook, although there were certain recipes I never mastered, chief among them her oatmeal cookies and her strawberry jam, both of which relied on her intuition for their realization. As the Internet developed, we moved from phone calls to emails, the better to record our efforts.

Yesterday I went back to an old stand-by for leftover rotisserie chicken, a recipe Mom sent back in 2001. In her email, she started with “Hope Melissa is fine – let us know when she has completely recovered (Meliss had pneumonia that summer) … I tried a new recipe tonight and thought you might like it.” After detailing the recipe ingredients she continued, “Actually, I forgot to buy a red pepper so I did without … maybe you could add good olives [instead]. And I served it on arugula. Of course, I never follow recipes exactly, but you get the idea.”

Of course I did.

Chicken Orzo Salad

Leftover rotisserie chicken, cut into bite-sized chunks
Juice of one lemon
Olive oil in equal measure
1 tsp. dried thyme (I’ve never used fresh, but it would be great)
1 garlic clove, minced (or pressed, which is what I usually do)
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 cups of cooked orzo
4 oz. feta cheese (please don’t get pre-crumbled, it’s so dry)
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sautéed in 1 Tbs. butter
Fresh dill (my contribution, strictly optional)

While the pasta and mushrooms are cooking, dice the chicken and place in a serving bowl. Whisk the lemon, olive oil, thyme, garlic, and salt for dressing the salad. When the mushrooms have sweated out, add them to the chicken. Drain the pasta, and add to the serving bowl. Stir in half the dressing, and taste before adding more (or not). Crumble feta over the top and serve.

This can be served plain or on greens … my favorite accompaniment is fresh arugula.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

- If at First you don’t Succeed: Egg Salad

You may (or may not) recall during "The Great Egg Debate" there was a bit about some potato and onion cakes. The first batch had to be pitched due to over-seasoning, and even though the second batch was better in that regard, the end result was still disappointing. The cakes were chewy rather than crispy and therefore unworthy of further mention.

Fortunately, we had been to brunch at Z'Tejas with Meg and Paul, so I had an idea of what I could try to remedy the situation. Recalling the fine shred of the Z'Tejas hash browns, I used the smallest opening on my OXO box grater ... which just got the nod from America’s Test Kitchen (in their free online newsletter). It was tough grating raw potatoes, but when I tried my microplane box grater, it didn’t give the shred I was looking for.  So I soldiered on and watched my knuckles. After shredding in a hint of onion (much easier), I wrung out the excess moisture. Five paper towels later, I had a nice dry mass of shredded potato and onion, which I proceeded to season lightly and fry to a crisp in olive oil.

My other objective was further self-education in the joys of eating free-range eggs. A bed of greens and prosciutto made the perfect nest for an end-product that turned out to be picture-worthy. Fortunately, Don’s recently acquired Nikon SLR was up to the task of documenting this new take on egg salad.

Egg Salad

2 red bliss potatoes, raw and unpeeled
1 small sweet onion (yellow or red)
2-3 Tbs. olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Balsamic vinegar
Mixed greens (I used arugula and baby romaine)
Shredded prosciutto
1-2 eggs per person

Shred potato and onion using a fine grater. Squeeze out excess moisture. Spread into two loose cakes and season lightly with kosher salt. Sauté in olive oil at medium high until dark golden brown, turning several times. Keep warm while cooking eggs.

Dot the serving plates with balsamic vinegar. Top with a nest of greens and shredded prosciutto.

Heat butter in frying pan. Crack eggs into custard dishes and slide into hot pan (to avoid breaking the yolks). Turn gently and be careful not to overcook (the yolks should be runny).

Place potato cakes and eggs on the salad. Before eating, break the yolk, the better to distribute the flavor to the rest of the salad.

Friday, September 11, 2009

- September 11

Charles Mathers departed this world
September 11, 2001
We'll miss you always Uncle Chuck
Photo by Lt. Arthur Barnett, FDNY (retired)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

- Meatballs and Spinach Hockey Pucks

By all rights, I should put the product back on the shelf with an ingredient list like this:

Unbromated Unbleached Enriched Wheat Flour [Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid], Unbromated Stone Ground 100% Whole Wheat Flour, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Salt, Contains 2 percent or Less of: Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Unsulphured Molasses, Yeast, Spices, Onion Powder, Nonfat Milk, Calcium Propionate (to Retard Spoilage), Buttermilk, Wheat Gluten, Crushed Wheat, Citric Acid, Parsley, Vegetable Mono and Diglycerides, Sugar, Monoglyceride, Honey, Butter, Vegetable Oils (Canola, Soybean and/or Sunflower), Raisin Juice Concentrate, Soy Fiber, Vinegar, Whole Wheat Flakes, Spent Wheat (Wheat Bran, Wheat Protein, Maltodextrin), Potato Flour, Wheat Bran, Datem (Dough Conditioner), Unbleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley, Calcium Carbonate, Enzyme Modified Soy Lecithin, Cultured Whey, Degerminated White Corn Flour, Soy Flour, Guar Gum, Wheat Starch, Lactic Acid, Enzymes and Soy Lecithin.

I mean, what is this stuff? Trouble is, I love the taste of Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing, made by a company which was, irony of ironies, founded by a woman who learned to bake bread because of the “severe allergies and asthma of [her] youngest son, whose condition made him unable to eat most commercially processed foods,” to quote the Pepperidge Farm website.

How did it get this crazy? I know I’ve mentioned Michael Pollan before, but his message bears repeating. And he’s put an interesting twist on that message in today’s New York Times op-ed piece. Take a look, then come on back.

Because the truth is I’m gonna keep using Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing ... it tastes that good. It makes the best filler for meatballs and meatloaf I’ve ever used, and crushed in the food processor the crumbs are unbelievably good as a coating for homemade chicken fingers.

However, it reaches its finest expression as a star ingredient in Spinach Hockey Pucks, so dubbed by a disdainful guest at the annual Laroche tree-trimming party (pictures pending) who had seen one too many spinach balls. But not these spinach balls. One taste and he was converted. Spinach Hockey Pucks became a holiday tradition, a non-negotiable must-bring requirement for entrance at subsequent tree-trimming parties. Try them for yourself. Maybe you’ll become a convert, too. And if not, you can always use the leftover stuffing mix for meatballs and chicken fingers.

Meatballs (makes a ton to freeze for future meals)

1 lb. ground veal
2 lbs. ground pork
3 eggs
1 cup Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing
1 Tb. Italian Seasoning
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 cup freshly shredded parmigiano reggiano

Lightly knead together by hand in a large glass casserole dish (take off your rings first!). Roll into meatballs (or be lazy like me and make them into small patties, which are easier to flip in the pan). Fry in good quality olive oil (I know, they say it doesn't matter, but it does, it does ... I love Central Market Arbosana olive oil, btw). If you make patties, 2 minutes per side will ensure a good crust, but leave the inside par-cooked so that you can reheat the meatballs in sauce without getting tough). Drain on paper towels and freeze for future meals.

Spinach Hockey Pucks (there won't be any leftovers if you take these to a party)

2 boxes frozen chopped spinach
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 stick melted butter
½ cup coarse grated Parmesan
2 cups Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing
1 small onion, coarse grated
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and coarse grated
4 slices dry-cured bacon, cooked and crumbled

Cook the spinach according to package directions, but be careful not to overcook … you want some texture. Squeeze out the excess water and combine with the other ingredients. Shape into walnut sized balls and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes at 350 or until firm and lightly browned on the bottom. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

- Crazy Country: Going a little farther west

We left Williamsburg, Virginia for Texas on a Thursday morning in late July. I had planned the journey down to the last detail with Trip Advisor and Google Map. We each had cell phones and Garmin Nuvis (GPS). And we had two cars. Knowing how different our driving styles are (mine is “jack rabbit up to speed and hit cruise control,” whereas Don’s is “keep your foot on the accelerator at all times and adjust to the conditions”), I proclaimed that we should not try to stay together.

It was a pretty good plan as far as it went, which was about 40 miles. Then I hit the turn-off for the I-295 bypass around Richmond and realized that Google Map and the GPS both wanted me to stay on I-64 West. What would Don do? I called to ask, but he didn’t answer. So much for well-laid plans.

We did eventually rendezvous at a rest area on the west side of Richmond, decided that it might be better to stay in sight of, if not rigidly one behind the other, and headed on ... only to encounter traffic at a standstill on I-81 South. Hours later, we arrived at the planned lunch stop in Lewisburg, West Virginia where the GPS dropped us four blocks east of our destination. By the time we staggered into the Stardust Cafe it was 3:15 and they had stopped serving lunch. So had everyone else in the area it turned out.

Taking pity on us, a kind waitress delayed her own meal long enough to bring us some fantastic home-made tomato soup and bread, the best she could do under the circumstances. As we ate, I bemoaned the traffic delay that had prevented us from enjoying a fuller meal. Don, ever on the lookout for the positive, noted how beautiful the mountains had been on the drive in.

“You look at them?” I squeaked in amazement, “I just try to get through them without totally freaking out!” Not to worry, Don reassured me, we’d be through them in no time at all.

“Are you kidding?” I shot back, “We have 150 miles left to go through West Virginia, and West Virginia is nothing BUT mountains.”

And so began my odyssey in the Odyssey: the endless climbs and hair-raising descents through “almost heaven, West Virginia.” (Note to John Denver: what were you on when you wrote that one?) I fairly flew, not daring to slow down as the grills of monster trucks loomed in my rearview mirror, hitting the radio search button on the rare straight-aways, finding nothing but gospel and country to get me through.

As I drove I recalled the last time I had ridden a roller coaster ... a very long time ago, before Busch Gardens had even built the Loch Ness Monster. Back then I had chanted a mild four-letter expletive (starts with “c” and rhymes with trap) over and over, while promising God I would never again go on a roller coaster if I could just survive the ride. So what was I doing piloting 4600 pounds of metal down 45 degree inclines at 80 miles per hour while muttering the same old incantation? In the words of Dierks Bentley, “I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?” We should have shipped the cars to Texas and flown Southwest, that’s what.

Obviously I lived to tell the tale and never was I happier then crossing the state line into Kentucky. Beautiful Kentucky, with its rolling hills and blue grass. Gentle Kentucky. I loved Kentucky, yes I did. Of course, by the time we limped into Lexington, the carefully chosen restaurant had already closed for the evening. We opted instead for Ricardo's sports bar in Versailles (pronounced ver-sale … go figure), which turned out to be a high-class honky tonk with a mean pinot noir (MacMurray) and some surprisingly good seafood. My nerves slowly stopped jangling, soothed by the riffs of a two-man combo strumming Keith Urban in the background. 551 miles down, only 1177 to go.

It would nice if I could say I left West Virginia behind that day. Nice, but not true. Fate may not be kind, but she does have a wicked sense of humor. You see, the song at the top of the country hit parade, the one that played over and over as I drove through the West Virginia mountains, left its chorus indelibly recorded on my mind's internal soundtrack. So when it comes on the radio and Don calls out, “They’re playing your song,” I’m already gone, barreling down the West Virginia highways once again, singing,“God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy."

Leaving the Burg Leftovers

Good cheese ravioli (fresh if possible)
Chopped fresh tomato
Chopped parsley
Garlic butter
Mascarpone cheese
Toasted pine nuts
Thin shreds of Prosciutto or Speck (smoked prosciutto)
Grated Fontinella cheese
Chopped Kalamata olives

You’ll notice there are no quantities here. That would be because I was literally emptying out the refrigerator and pantry in anticipation of our impending departure. Just cook up some ravioli, warm a little mascarpone, melt some garlic butter, throw the whole thing together and enjoy. If you have different stuff hanging out in your fridge, follow your muse. A glass of red wine would do nicely, too.

Monday, September 7, 2009

- Requiescat in Pace: Remembering Mom

My mom died on April 7, 2008, five months to the day before her fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. Today marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of their marriage on Labor Day in 1953 and my dad still grieves ... will always grieve.
It’s impossible to comprehend the depths to which the loss of a parent (or that of a spouse, child, or sibling) will send you until you experience it for yourself. Seventeen months after her death, I am just now accepting that Mom, my daughters’ Nana Ruth, is truly gone.

For the longest time I denied her passing, imagining her to be taking a nap or out at the store when I talked to Dad on the phone. Even when I went to Shelter Island to help sort through her clothes and her crafting supplies, I clung to the illusion that she was just out of sight in another room, unable to reconcile her absence from my life with my need for her.

A few days ago I finally brought myself to complete the linen bag that will hold her ashes. As I stitched the letters of her name and the dates that bounded her time with us in this world, I let go of my denial and accepted the reality, the finality of her death. And realized the wisdom of Kaddish, the Judaic mourner’s prayer repeated daily in the year following the death of a parent. For it is only with time that we can come to face that which we most want to deny.

The raw edge of grief has blurred. I no longer expect her to answer the phone, but I do hear her voice from time to time, its inflections escaping from my lips, especially when I’m talking to Meghan, Melissa, or Logan.

I sense her presence in other small signs … the ladybug that appeared in St. Mary’s on the day of her funeral and reappeared at the Outer Banks in the two summers since … rainbows … a break in the traffic as I merge onto a highway … stars shooting out of the Pleiades in the middle of August.

Those are not enough, of course. But a wise friend once reminded me to be thankful in all things, rather than for all things, as the scripture is more commonly rendered. The world still turns, each new day bringing grace if we have the will to see it. And that is sufficient to bring a measure of peace.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

- Eggs Redux

Did I say I couldn’t tell the difference between mega-mart eggs and free-range eggs earlier today? Please allow me to recant. But first, a picture:

This is a popover. One of the best popovers I have ever put in my mouth. It didn’t hurt that it was accompanied by some Texas free-range loin lamb chops that we scored at the Dripping Springs Farmers Market. The chops had a healthy layer of fat, unlike the mercilessly butchered lamb that appears in the meat cases at most food stores. Fat that carried the essence of lamb to the tongue with a grace that …

Wait, this is supposed to be about the eggs. And the popovers, which were like perfectly toasted marshmallows … crunchy brown on the outside and utterly hollow on the inside. When broken open, each popover released a fragrant puff of steam as it revealed its golden center. They would have been great as leftovers for breakfast, with a dab of butter and seedless raspberry jam, but there were no leftovers tonight. Tant pis.

It’s time for a recipe. And it appears that I’m going to have to find another free-range egg supplier, because the twelve eggs I bought today are now six, which will never last until the next Dripping Springs Farmers Market two weeks hence. Next time I’ll have to buy two dozen ... or three.

Popovers (serves only two when they taste this good)

2 eggs (need I say free-range?)
A generous ½ cup of milk (I use 2%, whole milk would be even better)
1 Tbs. melted butter
A scant ½ cup of flour

Pre-heat oven to 425
Grease a 12-cup mini-muffin tin with Baker’s Joy spray (I know it’s chemical, but it works so well)
Whisk the eggs and milk to a froth, then whisk in the melted butter
Add almost all of the flour and gently whisk
The batter should be like a very heavy cream, but take care not to overbeat it
Add a bit more flour if the batter looks too thin (this takes experience … just keep trying)
Fill each mini-muffin cup to the rim and bake for 15 minutes, or until the popovers are rich brown puffs
They can be held in a warm oven for up to half an hour if need be

- Once a New Yorker … On bagels

There are certain foods that only attain perfection in New York. This is true. Ask any New Yorker. Only in New York can you find the perfect pizza, bagel, or Kaiser roll. Ex-pats commiserate about their never-ending frustration as they try out the newest restaurant or food store. Ever in search of their bliss, never succeeding, they ponder the reasons why. Is it the water? The salt air? Being at sea level? What is it about New York and bread?

So I was worried, very worried, when I learned about the new recipe my son-in-law was concocting. There was no way it could ever hit the mark, but how was I going to tell him the bitter truth? What was he thinking, trying out his bagels on a native New Yorker?

I tried not to worry too much. Paul is nothing if not thorough. He researched everything you would ever need to know about bagel-making. He told me stuff I never knew. Did you know that proper bagels are boiled in a lye solution before being baked? I didn’t. Besides, Paul has made some amazing food for us in the few short years that we’ve known him: fried ice cream, grilled prosciutto pizza with arugula and truffle oil, smoked brisket with his own dry rub, sea scallops perfectly seared with asparagus on the side, fried chicken and waffles … together. Maybe he could pull it off. Maybe I wouldn’t have to be … polite.

On the appointed day, I volunteered to bring some contributions to the brunch, as I am wont to do: granola, yogurt, strawberries, and a freshly baked blueberry coffee cake. I needn’t have bothered as they went virtually untouched by the assembled noshers. Because the bagels were amazingly good: the surface glazed to a crackle, the texture just chewy enough, the flavor … perfect. As were the honey almond and bacon scallion cream cheese blends that Meg had whipped up. I was … wrong.

Sorry, no recipes to share here. Just this: anything is possible. Even New York bagels … in Austin.

- The Great Egg Debate

I was taken to task for my promotion of “fake eggs” in the “Cookie Dough Conundrum” posting the other day. Guilty as charged, although in my defense, I did read labels and chose the Better’n Eggs brand because it was 98% egg whites, didn’t have too many unpronounceable chemicals, and tasted as close to mega-mart eggs as I could find. So it's only 2% fake. Which is, I guess, about as indefensible as being 2% guilty or as impossible as being 2% pregnant. Fake is fake. (2018 update: So now I use pasturized egg whites from the dairy case ... unadulterated).

Duly chastised, my mission today was to find real eggs laid by real chickens on a real farm. To that end, Don and I headed out early to case the Dripping Springs Farmers Market. The first booth yielded tomatoes, potatoes, and delightfully small onions. (Which merits a parenthetical observation: why do food stores only carry monster-sized onions? Don’t they know you only need a little bit of onion if you’re cooking for one or two?)

The second booth yielded pay dirt: fresh eggs from free-range, pastured, bug and grass eating local chickens for only $4.00 a dozen.  Opening the carton of eggs was like opening a jewel box. I must confess, though I knew intellectually that they existed in more than two colors, I was rocked back on my heels at the sight of the multi-hued eggs. Betraying my total ignorance, I asked if the eggs got that way because of what the hens ate. No, the farmer patiently explained, egg color was determined by the variety of chicken. What kind of chickens? Heinz 57s, production reds, golden sexlinks, leggers, and one other that I can’t quite recall. Really. I looked ‘em up when I got home. And found a bit more on Google than I bargained for. Who knew?

In any case, there was no question that we were going to have eggs for lunch. I took out some leftover sausage (pork with poblano chile peppers made by Norman at the local grocery store ... but that’s another story), fried up some potato and onion cakes (the first batch of which I over-seasoned and had to trash), and sliced some fresh tomato (which looked way too much like a mega-mart variety and tasted much the same … you can’t trust everything you find at a farmers’ market).

The eggs I did last, knowing they would cook in a hurry. Melting butter in the skillet and then scrambling the eggs with my trusty bamboo spoon, I was caught off-guard by just how quickly they set into soft golden curds. Light and delicious, the eggs were a perfect foil to the spicy sausage and crispy potatoes. Lunch was a success and I was converted.

But I do have another confession to make. I can’t honestly say that the eggs tasted significantly different from store-bought eggs, which I’m sure will infuriate true egg aficionados. Perhaps it’s because my taste buds are not yet attuned to the subtleties of true egg flavor. Perhaps I need to sample another farmer’s wares. Perhaps I need to make some custard ice cream to better ascertain the flavor potential of the little jewels.

This much I do know: I love the idea of bug and grass eating chickens running around in a pasture much more than the idea of antibiotic-infused warehouse chickens that surely lead miserable lives. That idea alone is worth spending an extra three bucks per dozen to me. And I’ll happily keep working on further educating my taste buds.  No doubt it will be a pleasure.

Friday, September 4, 2009

- Friday Night Supper

Google “eating dinner together” with “student achievement” and you’ll come up with a raft of reasons why sitting around the table with your family every night is a sound parenting practice. But I can honestly say that Friday Night Supper was not designed to enhance anyone’s grades in school.

The original Friday Night Supper was my Mom’s way of taking a break from cooking one night a week since we rarely ate out. So, in my teen years anyway, my brother and I were on our own in the kitchen. My supper of choice was pancakes, made with Bisquick of course. Sometimes I opted for mock Crepes Suzette cribbed from an old, yellowing cookbook with its covers falling off from many years of use. I don’t remember its title, but it was thick as a New York phone book and inscribed to my mom “from your starving husband,” or words to that effect … a true relic from the early years of their marriage.

I still whip up crepes and orange sauce from time to time, using a recipe that has never before been written down and the battered Flint pancake turner that my brother Art gave me as a wedding gift. Another relic, it has been mightily used and abused in its time. On one memorable occasion, Art and I were bickering as Mom tried to fix dinner. She cautioned us to stop, which we ignored. Repeatedly. Finally fed up, she raised her voice and intoned, “Cut it!” while whacking the edge of the counter with the pancake turner. The handle shattered. Art and I stared at each other, eyes wide, then erupted in snorts as we tried to keep from laughing. Mom turned, the mangled Flint in her upraised hand and … laughed out loud. At which point we joined her, laughing until tears came to our eyes and our sides ached as we gasped for air. I don’t know if I was actually supposed to keep the Flint when Art gave it to me years later … I so wanted it that I never asked, and I’ve used it to flip hundreds, if not thousands, of pancakes since. It’s the best spatula I’ve ever used.

Fast forward to the 1990s: Friday Night Supper was my way of getting out of cooking, too. As a working mom, the end of the week marked the ebb tide of my energy and cooking ambition. I would head to the grocery store after work to do the shopping for a weekend’s worth of eating, but it was Ma Ukrops who did the actual cooking for the Friday night meal. The shopping list rarely varied: a rotisserie chicken, a loaf of crusty bread, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, and avocado. Whoever packed the groceries was asked to place the bread atop the chicken nested in its plastic shell, the better to warm the bread up on the drive home.

I rationalized this abdication of my cooking responsibilities thusly: what is a recipe but an assemblage of ingredients after all? And the proof was in the pudding … my kids rarely missed being home for Friday Night Supper. In fact, they often brought friends to share the meal with us.  Heather and Jessica (shown here at Melissa's wedding) became stalwart fans. The resultant lack of leftovers was more than offset by the gift of their presence as we sat at the table talking on and on, long after the eating was done.

Friday Night Supper (Williamsburg Style)

1 warm rotisserie chicken (from Ukrops, if you have one in your own hometown)
1 fresh loaf of crusty break (Ecce Panis Neo-Tuscan Boule, if you can find it)
Fresh tomatoes (whatever variety is ripest)
Fresh basil (don’t count the cost, you’re worth it)
Fresh mozzarella (the softer the better)
Avocado (yielding ever so slightly to a discerning thumb)
Unio olive oil (you must have this on hand at home)
Kosher salt (another staple)
Fresh lemon (ditto)

Slice enough bread to serve the assembled diners, wrap in foil and put in a 350 oven
Slice tomatoes and mozzarella, top with basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil
Peel and slice avocado(s), drizzle with lemon juice
Request the services of your favorite carver to dismantle the chicken
Provide ample salt and pepper for seasoning at the table, along with olive oil for dunking the bread

Friday Night Supper (East Williston Style)
aka Crepes and Orange Sauce (serves 2)

2 eggs
2/3 cup milk
½ cup Bisquick (there I go with the Bisquick again)

Whisk the eggs and milk together, then add in just enough Bisquick to make a thin batter
Let the batter sit while making the orange sauce (see below)
Pour ¼ cup of batter into a hot, lightly oiled omelet pan
Tip pan to spread batter into a thin crepe, flip once (with a Flint, if you have one)
Batter should flow easily and set quickly … adjust as needed by adding Bisquick or milk
Roll each crepe and put on a warm plate in the oven until ready to serve

¼ cup orange juice concentrate (which now comes in re-sealable containers, very cool)
¼ cup water
¼ cup sugar
2 Tbs. butter

Combine orange juice concentrate, water and sugar in a small saucepan
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer while the sauce thickens (five minutes or so)
Whisk in butter to finish the sauce and keep on very low heat until crepes are done
Adjust sugar to taste

Serve crepes with warm orange sauce and a sprinkling of extra sugar if you’re feeling particularly decadent (which is par for the course for me)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

- Craving Mexican (well, Tex-Mex anyway)

Wannabe-Yankee that I am (I grew up on Long Island), I always thought that Mexican food was too hot and spicy to handle. Fortunately, Cindy Sedam invited us out to Fort Worth about ten years ago and took us to Joe T. Garcia’s.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. I fell in love with fajitas, enchiladas, guacamole, and pico-de-gallo (aka salsa) … only to be cautioned that I wouldn’t find the same fare back in Williamsburg. Fortunately, that wasn’t entirely true. Casa Maya, and then Tequila Rose became my go-to haunts for all things Mexican. But they couldn’t hold a candle to Joe T’s … or to Matt’s El Rancho on South Lamar … or to Torchy’s Tacos in the South Austin Trailer Park (hold your fire Austinites … I’m sure there are others, I just haven’t had time to sample them all yet).

So while we were still on the East Coast, I developed my own take on Mexican-style food. I discovered that jalapenos could be tamed by removing the seeds, became adept at timing avocado ripeness, and stalked the local food stores for Cotija. I took a deep breath as I paid $12.99 a pound for skirt steak and $1.99 a bunch for organic cilantro. And I learned how to make my own flour tortillas, the core ingredients of which --flour, lard, salt and water-- are the same as my grandmother’s Depression-era bread recipe.

Now lard can be found in many grocery stores, but I share Michael Pollan’s dim view of animal fat that doesn't need to be refrigerated. Read the fine print on a lard box and you’re apt to find the dreaded word “hydrogenated.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to eat something that’s full of saturated fat, I want it to be unadulterated. Fortunately, you can find leaf lard online, which can be portioned and frozen for future use. I’ve also made tortillas with olive oil, and they’re actually pretty good, but there’s nothing like using lard in flour tortillas, absolutely nothing. So find yourself some good lard and make some tortillas. Then you’ll have enough lard leftover to try in your next apple pie crust. At which point you should be well and truly hooked.

East Coast Fajitas (serves 2)

1 lb. skirt steak
Hardwood charcoal for grilling if at all possible

3 Tbs. soy sauce (I just eyeball this as it glugs out of the bottle)
3 Tbs. olive oil (ditto)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. cumin
Juice of ½ lime
2 Tbs. brown sugar

1 ripe Haas avocado, chunked
½ small red onion, finely diced
½ cup diced ripe tomato
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 small jalapeno, seeded and chopped fine
Juice of ½ lime
Kosher salt to taste

1 cup flour
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbs. lard (or olive oil)
1/3 cup water

Optional toppings
Grated Cotija cheese (or queso seco)
Sour cream
Onion and/or red peppers, lightly sautéed in olive oil

Make the tortilla dough at least two hours before you plan to start dinner
Put the water and lard (or olive oil) in the microwave just long enough to warm it
Add to the flour and salt and give them all a spin in the food processor
The resulting dough should come together in a ball without being too sticky or crumbly
Add water or flour as needed to make a nice elastic dough
Let it rest under a damp towel for at least an hour, more if possible

The salsa and marinade can be made about an hour before grilling time
Cut the skirt steak into two to four shorter strips before marinating
Assemble any other toppings as desired
Recruit your favorite grillmaster to get the grilled fired up and the meat cooked rare
Then carve the meat into thin strips just before serving

Try to cook the tortillas while the meat is grilling, so they’re hot when you serve them
You can hold them under a damp towel in a warm oven, but hot off the griddle is best
Divide the dough into 6-8 pieces
Roll into 6-8” circles, using as little flour as possible
Cook on a 400 degree griddle (or a hot frying pan) … do not grease the cooking surface
Flip several times, 20-30 seconds to a side, until each tortilla puffs
You’re aiming for light brown spots … if the pan/griddle starts smoking, turn it down a bit

To serve, layer ingredients onto tortillas, roll up as best you can (good luck with that) and enjoy

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

- Cookie Dough Conundrum

E. coli outbreaks have become a staple on the evening news, but the one that emerged this summer was worthy of Sherlock Holmes. A cluster of young women, not normally associated with E. coli outbreaks, led the Centers for Disease Control to look for an unorthodox culprit. And they found it: cookie dough. More precisely, pre-made cookie dough from our friends at Nestle (makers of the only semi-sweet chocolate morsels I ever put in my chocolate chip cookies).

Now I’ve been paranoid about salmonella in eggs for years, which is why I use Better'n Eggs, a pasteurized egg product that lets me bake my cake and eat dough, too (we’re not talking calories here, just food poisoning). I’m not sure  eggs were the culprit in this particular E. coli outbreak, but this I truly believe: if you make your own cookie dough, you’re less likely to get food poisoning ... especially if you eat it right away.

There is one problem, of course. My chocolate chip cookie recipe makes enough dough for 6-8 dozen cookies, which is a bit excessive, even for me. That’s why I mastered the art of the cookie dough snack batch. I never did tell my mom, but I started making my own mini-batches of dough when I was a teenager, taught it to my own kids, and just now noshed the latest batch. Which I made purely for the purpose of testing the recipe on your behalf. Selfless I am.

Snack Batch Cookie Dough
Note: I don’t use measuring spoons … just teaspoons and tablespoons from the silverware drawer

1 heaping tablespoon of Land O Lakes butter with canola oil (or whatever shortening you’ve got)
2 heaping tablespoons of light brown sugar
1 heaping tablespoon of white sugar
1 teaspoon of Better'n Eggs (you’ve got to keep this stuff on hand at all times)
A few drops of vanilla
2 heaping tablespoons of flour
A pinch of kosher salt
A pinch of baking soda (don’t leave this out, it adds flavor)
2 tablespoons of chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate … improvise)

Mash the butter and sugar together in a cereal bowl. Mix in the egg and vanilla. Stir in the flour, salt and baking soda. Add the chips. No oven to pre-heat, no baking sheet to grease. Just enjoy.

P.S. When Meg was going to JMU, her roommate was one of those rare people who doesn't particularly care for chocolate chips ... but she loved the cookies.  So Kate, if you're reading this, just leave out the chocolate.  Bon appetit!