Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dinner with an Old Friend

Friend might be the wrong word for Jessica. After living together three out of four years of college, family might be a better word. I made the trip to San Francisco for three things dear to my heart, Jessica being one of them, Sophia Project (where I served in AmeriCorps) and Slow Food Nation being the other two. In celebration of two of the three (Slow Food and Jessica) I made dinner.

Jessica and I went to a wonderful local foods market in Palo Alto with a list of ingredients for the menu I had planned. The produce was in such abundance that we abandoned the menu and just picked what looked good. The resulting meal was a celebration of the ripest fruits and vegetables and based on a couple very exciting ingredients. First were the fava beans which I lightly steamed then added garlic, olive oil, and salt. The resulting butteriness was satisfying and comforting while light enough for the day's heat. We also bought some golden beats. Golden beets are my favorite thing from my grandpa's garden. This year they were too much for him, so the golden beats were a special treat that we roasted and sliced on a platter with red beets. The color contrast was beautiful.

Rhubarb is the last of our special ingredients. When I was little my dad used to make great rhubarb upside down cake for picnics. It's the only things I remember him making besides rice and peas, and is also something I've been craving since spring time in Italy. This was the first time I've come across it. This time I simply roasted it in the oven with some honey and raw sugar. It was wonderfully sweet and bitter, much like my dad's cake. Except without the cake there was nothing to temper the bitterness and round out the flavor. A butter or shortbread cookie would've done so nicely while adding textural intrigue, unfortunately we didn't have any. Though this morning we added it to our cereal and it was wonderful: a slight rhubarb obsession has begun.

And as for Jessica, she's an oldie, but a goodie.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Doughnut Plant

Ever since I've gotten back from Italy I've wanted a doughnut. Being overly particular about the food I eat, it couldn't be just any doughnut, it had to be the PERFECT doughnut. And luckily for me it only took four weeks to find. The wait was more than worthwhile, I fully appreciated my coconut cream doughnut at The Doughnut Plant in New York's Lower East Side. While selections were varied, and interesting, I played it pretty safe with the coconut. The cream inside was the essence of coconut, I suspect coconut milk thickened with eggs. I will say no more, and allow the picture to speak for itself.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mincemeat Pies

Every Christmas I remember, as desert emerged my dad would wax poetic about mincemeant pies. In the first years of my parents' marriage mincemeant made an annual appearance on the Christmas table. Slowly over the years both farmer market suppliers went out of business, and by the time I came along mincemeat pies were a dreamy remembracne. Now the "mincemeat" available doesn't even contain meat, and is therefore totally unacceptable by my father's standards. As a child the idea of a sweet meat pie was bizarre and incomprehensible. Chicken pot pie I could undertand, but meat as dessert? Gross.

As an adult mincemeat retains it mystery, though it has gained intrigue. As my interest in food has developed my desire to uncover cultural food traditions has become insatiable, I set out to discover mincemeat.

My research began, as any lazy researcher begins, with Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia mincemeat is what we Americans more commonly call ground meat. This is definitely not the definition I was looking for. My mincemeat is Pennsylvania Dutch in origin. And so I went to the mattresses: Grandma.

Grandma keeps everything in pristine condition. Luckily for me, this includes her cookbooks. She has a treasure trove of old Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks all of which include recipes. One of my favorites, aptly titled Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook, calls mincemeat “a Christmas and Thanksgiving necessity.” Maybe my dad wasn’t so far off after all. Having sorted through my grandmother’s various recipes in her —along with my dad’s own recipe—we set out to begin.

We started by boiling a four pound mixture of ground beef, buffalo, pork, and turkey, my former vegetarian self’s stomach turned. All the meat was purchased at a gem of a nearby country store in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania. The store, Dietrich’s Meats & Country Store, carries only local meat all processed on premises. Products range from the traditional, like head cheese and speck, to the unknown such as smoked pigs head and pickled snouts. The various pickled parts are on display in jars like you might see in a sociopath do with humans in a horror flick. At Dietrich’s it is somehow endearing and genuine; doing it like it used to be done. And recently I found out I’m not the only one who thinks so. Flipping through Cory Kummer’s The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes, Dietrich’s Meats was given a two page spread as one of eleven featured artisans.

I myself could wax poetic for awhile about Dietrich’s, but I’ll spare you and get back to the task at hand: the mincemeat. When the meat was cooked we drained all but one cup of the liquid, and set that aside. Next the apples needed to be peeled, cored, and chopped. The recipe’s endearing resourcefulness lies in this next step: boiling apple peels and cores in water and simmering for ten minutes, then straining and reserving the liquid. This apple “broth,” if you will, is combined with the meat broth for our four and a half pounds of dried fruit in a large stainless steel stock pot. We picked the dried food that was available and sounded good, ending up with a motley combination of raisins, currants, apricots, dates, cherries, and cranberries.

To the dried fruit and broth mixture we added orange and lemon juice and peal, a little salt, and brown sugar. While the fruit soaked, the meat and suet—here again the former vegetarian’s stomach did flips—were chopped together until well incorporated and added to the dried fruit. Next came a couple pounds chopped apples and spices: mace, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The entire mixture brought to a boil and simmered for an hour. When cool ¼ cup Jim Beam was added, and taken down to a cool and dark basement closet. Once a week for six weeks a quarter to half of a cup of bourbon was added along with a good stir. Now that the first six weeks are over the flavors are left to themselves, and by Thanksgiving and Christmas (after three to four months of aging) the mincemeat should be just right.

Now if only it was Christmas...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sushi Chef In Training

While visiting dear family friends yesterday we made sushi; some for their dinner, and some for me to take for dinner at the airport with another dear friend who turned out to be M.I.A.

In any case, Grace and I had a great time. I julienned carrots, cucumber and avocado and Grace helped me roll. The first time I made sushi it took me several rolls to get them tight enough. Not Grace. (You see her in action in the picture to the left.) Her rolls were perfectly tight, even at those tricky ends, the first time around. A natural born sushi chef. Maybe in another life she was Japanese. As we were rolling we started to talk about what different things we could put in the rolls. Grace had so many great ideas involving all sorts of things. I think my favorite was candy sushi made with fruit roll up, coconut as rice and various candies as fish (Swedish fish perhaps?). Personally I'm still trying to work through ideas for peanut butter and jelly sushi and breakfast sushi using pancake in place of nori. I guess in a way we already have that, and call it pigs in a blanket. What a perfect way to start off a day of sushi we have in the works. That way we can make our different ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

We are accepting suggestions.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me

Studying other peoples' food cultures gave me a renewed appreciation for my own. So today I went to my grandmother's house to learn how to bake Shoofly pie, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch pie. The pie is mostly sugar (both molasses and cane) along with some flour and butter, all baked in a pie shell. We made a wet-bottom Shoofly, which means there is a bottom layer of thick molasses goo. In terms of shoofly wet bottom is really the only way to go if you ask me or my grandparents who are both 100% Pennsylvania Dutch. None of us are sure why anyone bothers with a dry-bottom.

A Shoofly is made with two separate batters, the crumbs and the syrup. The recipe Grammy uses says to layer half the syrup, half the crumbs, and then repeat. She never does it this way though, she simply put all the liquid topped with all the crumbs. We did an experiment and did one pie according to the recipe and one her way. To the right is a comparison of the two methods. The left is Grammy's method and the right is the layering method. I didn't tell her this, but I think layered method is preferable because the pie rises a little more, is more airy and not quite so dense. Also the slight curve of the layered one is more pleasing visually.

The best part, though was baking with my grandma. She's 80 now, as she reminded me several times, and so she mostly sat and supervised me. Well, actually, she sat, got up to clean, talked about how she needed to sit down, sat down, got up again to do something else, complained about needing to sit down, sat down, and well, you get the picture. One thing she insisted on standing for was the addition of the "slop." This is her word for molasses. Grammy doesn't like baking Shooflies because of the slop, it's the hardest part she says. So difficult she wouldn't let me do it, I could only watch. Actually, she didn't want me to do it because molasses, in all its thick, sticky glory makes a mess, and she hates messes. Now, there's a Pennsylvania Dutch woman for you.

But also thanks to her "Dutchness" she has numerous old cookbooks in immaculate condition, so I'm sure I'll be writing about more recipes soon. In the meantime, here's a picture of Grammy's deliberate "slop" measuring.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dinner for Dad

It was a busy weekend for cooking at my house because I also made dinner to celebrate my dad's birthday and Father's Day since I missed both. For Dad we had charred corn, summer squash and tomato torte, and French lentil salad which was left from the night before. Dessert was a peach upside down cake. The cake had some corn meal in it which gave it a gritty and dense texture, not too sweet flavor, which worked really well with the peaches. We served it with a fromage blanc sauce mixed with peach schnapps and some sugar, and then cream. The recipes, slightly improvised, were from The Sustainable Kitchen a beautiful cookbook that was, funnily enough, a birthday gift to me a year or two ago.

Remembrance of Things Past...

Yes, I stole Proust's title, but I couldn't think of one more perfect. In homage of a trip to France I invited my mentor and dear friend Sarajane over for dinner. For someone who had given me so much of her wisdom and energy, I wanted to give Sarajane some of the best of my experiences traveling.

The food in Burgundy was classic and beautiful, much like Sarajane. So as an appetizer I made aioli with fresh herbs and served it on a plate with fresh cut vegetables. For dinner I made bread from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads. It was dense but really very delicious. I also made lentil salad using A.O.C. Puy lentils that I bought while in France, along with salad, a tomato tart, and mustard grilled chicken. The chicken was brined for about four hours before hand and made with dijon mustard, of course. I have to say that I have become completely convinced that brining is the way to go with meat, it makes such a difference in terms of moisture. For dessert I made fromage blanc from raw milk that I bought at the farmer's market. I served it with cream, blackberries and sugar.

I am thankful for such beautiful memories.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cupcakes for Sara

These cupcakes, are a version of a birthday cake we made for a dear friend while in Italy. I call them lemon risotto cupcakes. I used Acquerello rice because the overly chatty owner gave us three cans for free on our visit. I used it to make a lemon risotto which allowed me to cut down on the amount of flour (also made of rice) used. I think the rice also allows for more moisture while having to use less oil, always a plus. The first time I made them I made a lavender icing. This time I couldn't find lavender buds so I made a kind of glaze with Amarene cherries. They are so overly sweet. I tried to cut the sweetness with lemon juice and a sprinkle of purple basil. It was especially important that these cupcakes were good because I took them to the bakery where I'll be interning. They weren't mind-blowing as I had hoped, though decent enough to still give. The picture doesn't quite do them justice.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Peach" Tart

Today I noticed apples on the verge. Having spent the day yesterday dog-earring recipes in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte, I was looking for excuses to make something. So I decided on her Peach Tart, which she says can be made with any ripe fruit. So with a few minor adjustments I made her recipe vegan and removed the refined sugar. For the crust I used almond milk instead of the regular milk which the recipe calls for. Instead of sugar in the crust I put a teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of cardamom, and a pinch of ginger. (I recently read somewhere about cardamom in desserts and was intrigued, thought I'd try it). For the "crumbs" I substituted 1/2 cup honey for 3/4 cups sugar and 2 tablespoons of oil for 2 tablespoons butter. I also added some more cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg. Mine obviously did not have the kind of crumb Husser intended, so i added crunched rice checks and pretzels. Afterwards I thought about adding peanut butter, but it was too late. I think I may try that next time. I baked it as Hesser suggested at 425 degrees. I think this was a little too hot for the honey/pretzel mixture which got a little charred, if not pleasantly so. After about 15 minutes I reduced the oven to 325 to let the apples continue to roast without incinerating the pretzels. Another fun day experimenting.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Raw Food

Two days ago I ate lunch at a raw foods restaurant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania called Arnold's Way. One thing I love about diets of any kind is they can teach you to be more creative with the ingredients you do have. That is why my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area is a raw restaurant, Cafe Gratitude. At Arnold's Way the food was not nearly as captivating. Arnold's heart seems to lye in the medicinal aspects of food and not in its artistry. In fact when I mentioned Cafe Gratitude to Arnold he responded that they are too elaborate with their food; using too many ingredients. Each meal, according to Arnold, should have no more than five ingredients. Each ingredient competes with the others for the body's attention, much like tryng to have a conversation with twenty people at once. Arnold believes five is the limit. He himself eats just fruit and greens. Not even vegetables or nuts. The body, according to Arnold, does not know what to do with protein or grains, they only bog it down and confuse it. Fruits and greens offer the necessary nutrients, but require constant consumption. Arnold eats all day.

As someone who loves food as well as its nutritive properties. I found Arnold fascinating. He touts that in terms of illnesses "you name it and he's dealt with it" meaning you can cure anything with such a diet. But really, is it possible we don't need protein or grains? What about bread as the staff of life?

I'm not convinced, and the mostly unforgettable combinations left nothing to convince me. The Polynesian salad, however was noteworthy; an interesting and pleasing combination of mango, pineapple, coconut, almonds, zucchini, and tomato. This salad can easily be made at home, it was simply all mixed together, chopped I believe with a grater feature on a food processor. The sweet potato pie was pretty good as well. Though it still boggles my mind how the sweet potato is soft without being cooked. One of life's little mysteries I guess.