Thursday, January 8, 2015

Winning the Battle with the Butternut

my new peelers

One of my daughters gave me a recipe for a delicious butternut squash soup, which I wanted to make. So I went to my local supermarket and saw whole butternut squashes at ridiculously cheap prices. I also saw peeled and sectioned butternut squashes at twice the price. But the cut-up squash looked a little sad--a bit dry, I thought. So I bought the whole squash.

Only later did I realize what a pain in the neck it is to peel a butternut squash. My regular swivel peeler just wasn't up to the job. It slipped and slithered over the skin, not getting any traction. Finally, I gave up on it and just used a paring knife. But I suspected that there had to be a better tool.

The next day, I stopped by Kitchen Outfitters. I felt somewhat guilty corralling a sales clerk to discuss the pros and cons of something as cheap as a vegetable peeler, but the clerk treated my request thoughtfully. She suggested two different types of peelers, and I bought both. The black one shown above is different from my regular swivel peeler, because it has a serrated blade and padded handle.  It is called the Messermeister Pro Touch Serrated Swivel Peeler, and it worked like a charm. It cost around $8. So did the red Kuhn Rikon Swiss Peeler, which cost less than $4.

Now that you know how to win the battle with the butternut, here's the recipe for a soup that tastes sinfully rich but is not. It's also very quick to make, less than an hour. I've adapted my daughter's recipe so it reflects the soup that I made--her recipe gave options that I ignored.

Butternut Ginger Soup

  • 2 TBSP butter
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 TBSP dry sherry
  • 1 butternut squash halved, seeded, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 5 cups)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • ground pepper
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 cup milk

1. Heat butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until golden, about 5 minutes. Add sherry and squash. Cook, stirring until sherry evaporates, about 30 seconds.

2. Add stock, salt and pepper to taste, and ginger to the pan. Reduce heat and simmer everything about half an hour, or until squash is soft.

3. Add 3/4 cup milk and blend, using either a stick blender or a counter-top blender. Reheat and taste for seasoning. Add a bit more milk if too thick, but the texture should be very creamy.

Serve with croutons or chopped chives on top.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chop, Chop

I recently attended a potluck dinner, which I knew was short on salads. I thought long and hard about what to bring and finally settled on a chopped vegetable salad. I chose it because it was brightly colored and looked good, and also because it would be easy to serve and eat.

This one was a snap to make: two plum tomatoes, one English cucumber, one yellow and one red bell pepper, and one bunch of scallions. The dressing was a simple lemon vinaigrette flavored with fresh basil and parsley.

As I was preparing the vegetables, I realized how much I enjoy chopping by hand. It is such a basic, elemental daily task. Yes, I have a food processor, but I use it only for large-quantity cooking, because I also have a wonderful assortment of knives. Some were inherited from my great-grandfather. Although I have several stainless steel paring knives and one stainless bread knife, my favorites are made from carbon steel. I own a pretty impressive collection: a roast beef knife, a ham slicer, boning knives, several all-purpose knives, including one that has always been known as a pig sticker, and a few Chinese cleavers.

One cleaver has been my general slicing tool for decades. It fits my hand perfectly, and it slices vegetables quickly, cleanly, and effortlessly. Recently, though, I sliced through some chicken and nicked the blade, leaving a gouge in the straight edge. Although the knife had been bought in an Asian grocery store, it looked remarkably like a chalef, the ritual knife used in kosher slaughtering. Such knives  are not allowed to have any imperfections on their blades. My imperfect blade now speaks silently to me, telling me either to fix it or buy new. I have to find out whether the old blade is fixable, but I hope that it is, since a new knife requires serious getting-used-to. Who would have guessed that an old knife would become such a friend?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Oven Baked Meatballs

They don't look special, but they sure taste special
Recently, I was given some farm-raised grass-fed ground beef. It came with a warning: "This is much leaner than commercial ground beef, so cook accordingly." The beef looked like buffalo meat--dark red with almost no white or light areas. I decided that hamburgers would not be a good choice, since they were not likely to be juicy. So I settled on meatballs, where I could add some moisture.

I made them much like I make meatloaf:

  • 1 lb. beef
  • 1/4 cup Italian flavored breadcrumbs
  • 3 Tbsp. tomato juice (from canned tomatoes)
  • 1 egg
  • half onion, chopped fine
  • 2–3 Tbsp chopped parsley

I beat the egg, added the tomato juice, and soaked the crumbs in this mixture. Then I mixed everything together and made a dozen meatballs; each was about 2 inches across. I put the meatballs on a rack on top of a baking sheet and baked at 400 for 20 minutes.

While they were cooking, I heated up some oven roasted tomato sauce, which tends to be quite thick, and added a medium-sized can of diced tomatoes. I added a few cloves of chopped garlic and let this simmer while the meatballs cooked. Then I added the cooked meatballs and let everything sit on a low burner for half an hour or so.

The results were wonderful. The meatballs had a slight crust from the oven roasting; their insides tasted like the beef I grew up with: rich and very flavorful. Over the next few days, they flavored the sauce, so I could have made everything a day or two ahead. But I couldn't wait. I served them on pasta, in sandwiches, and finally chopped up on pizza.

As a kid, I loved steak, but my taste for it declined over the years. I thought that was the result of changing tastebuds. Now I'm convinced it is the result of changing beef. I have two grass-fed beef steaks in my freezer. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is Lasagna the Food of the Gods?

a favorite comfort food and company dish

I ate a lot of Italian food as a kid, but I did not even know about lasagna until I hit college. At that point, a man I was dating took me to his favorite pizza joint and whispered, "Try their lasagna!" I loved it, and I've been a fan ever since. However, I'm a bit fussy. I like only good lasagna, one that has the proper proportions of meat, sauce, cheese, and pasta. I don't like any single ingredient to dominate, although I do think that having a good red sauce may be the most important single item.

I make lasagna only in the winter, and since it trashes the kitchen (a large pot for the noodles, a large pot for the red sauce, a pan to brown the meat, and several other bowls and utensils), I don't make it often. But I make a LOT of it, because it's as simple to make a lot as it is a little. You need many different ingredients, so just get large sizes and make several pans of it; lasagna freezes beautifully.

I think I make really good lasagna, so I'm sharing my tips:

  • Use the noodles that you boil before baking. I know, it takes longer and is messier than using the no-boil noodles, but I think the results are far better. 
  • Make a red sauce that very juicy.I start with a standard tomato sauce of some sort and then throw in a large can of stewed tomatoes that I chop up, This adds little pieces of tomato, which taste good, and keeps the sauce liquid enough so that it soaks into the pasta during baking. 
  • Add a bit of meat to the red sauce. I usually add some ground turkey and a bit of Italian sausage, either pork-based or chicken-based.
  • Add a package of frozen chopped spinach to the ricotta-egg-cheese mixture. It adds color, interest, and taste. 
  • Use genuine ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Although I use part skim mozzarella, I use full-fat ricotta. 
  • Don't over-bake. You want the top brown and the cheese melted, but you don't want the noodles dried out. If you freeze some, leave ample time for reheating from a frozen state; this food is dense. 

Although lasagna is a complete and balanced meal in itself, it is truly wonderful when served with a fresh green salad and fragrant garlic bread.

Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Resolution: Cook More Fish

I love to eat all kinds of seafood and often order seafood in restaurants. At home, I frequently cook shrimp and salmon. But I shied away from cooking many other types of fish, mainly because I was not sure about my ability to choose well. This nagged at me, though, because it seemed as if I had given up before I even started. So I vowed to begin cooking more fresh fish. I've made a few great meals quickly and easily.

I lucked out when a fish market opened up in a nearby town. One day I went in, bought a piece of sole, and asked the owner, "How would you cook this?" He said that he would simply heat up some butter and olive oil, lightly flour the fillet and then cook it quickly without turning. Add a bit of salt and pepper plus a squeeze of lemon and I'd be done. So I tried it, and it was delicious. That emboldened me to branch out. Next time, I tried flounder and added some shallots and white wine to the pan juices. That too was excellent.

Now, when I go to a supermarket, I check out the fish, and I have found two local markets that always seem to have a variety of fresh fish that is reasonably priced. If I go in with a particular fish in mind, I'm apt to be disappointed, but if I keep an open mind and just select what looks good, I'm usually happy.

Last week I saw some gorgeous cod fillets, and when I asked the counterman, he said that they had just arrived. So I brought them home and looked up "cod recipes." I found many, and all suggested cooking fillets in a 400-degree oven for 18-20 minutes. Then it was just a matter of deciding how to flavor it. I went with a mayonnaise and parmesan topping, which I had enjoyed on chicken, and it was delicious. Next time, I'll add some breadcrumbs for some crunch.

Luckily, I had not looked up just plain codfish, because if I had, I would have learned about codfish worms, and that might have turned me off. The Internet is filled with questions about these parasites. However, once I did learn about them, I also learned that they are not a mark of inferior fish or unsafe fish handling; they are just a fact of life and pose no danger in cooked fish. So my resolution stands. Next year, I will cook more fish.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sticky Buns for Christmas

I did not grow up with sticky buns; instead, I had rugelah and babka. But when I was married, my husband really liked sticky buns, so I learned how to make them. Sticky buns are time consuming, because you have to make a yeast dough that rises, a simple filling, and then the sticky topping. The kitchen is usually trashed by all these steps, so it's nice to make this treat a day ahead. Although I seldom eat more than one myself, I still make these buns to give as gifts when I know someone likes them.

Recipes abound on the Internet, and these year I tried a new one. I liked the fact that it had a hint of orange in the dough. It worked well, so I'll probably make it again, although I will cut back on the sugar, since I found these extraordinarily sweet. Yesterday, though, I just followed instructions, although I did cook the buns in two round pans instead of one large rectangular one.

If you've ever made a pineapple upside-down cake, this is reminiscent because once you have made the various parts, you start assembling the food upside down; you place the topping in the pan first and then the buns. That way, when the pan is inverted, the topping is actually on top.

you can see a bit of topping on the left
One thing I liked about this recipe is that you make the dough, let it rise, form it, and then let it rise again in the refrigerator. You can have it stay in the fridge overnight and cook the buns up fresh for breakfast, although I let them rise for just a few hours so I could bake them, cool, them, and wrap them as a gift. The family I'm giving them to comes from Pennsylvania, where sticky buns arrived with the German immigrants.

For those of you who like sticky buns but don't really want to go to a lot of trouble, here's a tip I learned years ago. Buy Pillsbury cinammon rolls in a tube (the orange rolls are delicious) in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, but don't follow their directions. They tell you to add the frosting after baking. Instead, smear the frosting on before baking. It will turn into a sticky caramelized topping. You can even add nuts.

Merry Christmas, folks!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Bagel Famine of 1951

One of the shocks of my young life was moving to Massachusetts and discovering no bagels. I had grown up outside of New York City, where bagels were a staple, at least among Jewish families. These little breads even had their own trade union,  Bagel Bakers Local 338. According to Wikipedia, the members of this union were all Jewish, and their meetings were held in Yiddish.

Bagels at that time were hand-made but most were not made at home because the process is time consuming; instead, bagels were usually purchased from specialized bakeries or from Jewish delicatessens. For years, every time I left Massachusetts to visit my family, I would return with giant shopping bags filled with bagels, which I froze. I later learned that certain locales, such as Brookline, offered real bagels, but these places were far from where I was living.

I was not the only person perturbed by a lack of bagels. On December 16, 1951, Bagel Bakers Local 338 closed down all but two bagel bakeries during a NewYork labor dispute. What followed was the great bagel famine of 1951, dubbed that by no other than the New York Times. "Bagel Famine Threatens the City" read the headline. Not only were Jewish diners inconvenienced by this strike, but so were the delicatessens that supplied the lox that traditionally were served on bagels, as well as the truckers who delivered these foods.

The strike was settled rather quickly, but within two decades, the union lost its clout because of technology. A family named Lender began using machines to make bagels.  The good news was that bagels went mainstream and even started selling throughout Massachusetts; the bad news was that the bagels didn't really taste like the chewy old homemade ones.

History repeats itself, though, and today we are back to having specialized bakers create handmade bagels for those who crave them. Luckily, I have a friend who lives near one such bakery, and he knows of my fondness for this food. Occasionally I will arrive home to find a bag of bagels hanging from my doorbell (a real bell) or sitting on my porch. No note is needed, because I know only one person who delivers this special gift to my house, and luckily, the man knows his bagels.