Monday, December 31, 2012

Toast the New Year

ruby port
On New Year's Eve I will toast the end of 2012 with a small glass of port, one of the few forms of alcohol that I drink regularly. I will serve it with a few slices of Stilton cheese and some wheat biscuits. Friends would serve port with room-temperature chocolate, but I'm not as big a chocolate eater as I once was, so I no longer have much around. Besides, I prefer the cheese.

Port wine has a higher alcohol content than most other wines, so a little goes a long way. It is a sipping wine rather than a drinking wine. Personally, I'm a fan of ruby port, which is slightly fruitier than tawny. Tawny is aged longer and has a slightly nutty flavor.

My very favorite port is Graham's Six Grapes Reserve Port. It costs about $20 a bottle. As ports go, it is probably a mid-range price, but I've tried several of the less expensive brands and most lack richness and depth. Most wine lover recommend serving port in an oversized glass to better enjoy the aroma, but I don't. I have some very pretty crystal glasses that I like, so I use them instead.

So far, I've been afraid to try any of the expensive vintage ports. Vintage ports can be very price indeed.  I think I'm afraid I might fall in love with one and never be able to enjoy my affordable port again. Then I would either have to go broke or go without.

Happy new year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Red Cabbage: Definitely not Guggy

good raw or cooked
Many holiday foods have a texture that I call "guggy," meaning they are slightly sticky and dense. Mashed potatoes are guggy, as are boiled noodles, winter squash, and stuffing. After eating guggy foods at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I develop cravings for vegetables with more texture. Cabbage is one of those veggies. It is not guggy. Served raw in coleslaw, cabbage is crisp and sharply flavored. Served cooked, it can still maintain much of that crispness, depending on how you cook it. Even when not crisp, though, it retains a texture that you can feel with your teeth.

I'm a real fan of red cabbage. When I was younger, I delighted in showing how to use it to make a homemade litmus paper. Now I can tout its nutritional benefits. Like green cabbage, the red is high in Vitamins A, C, and K. However, it has twice the iron of green cabbage, as well as lots of other bioactive compounds, including anthocyanins.

Anthocyanins give red cabbages (and blueberries, I might add) their  lovely color. Scientists are studying anthocyanins eagerly, because researchers now believe that they may protect against a host of ailments, ranging from high blood pressure to cancer.  I liked the look and taste of red cabbage even before I heard that it might have medicinal qualities, so the nutritional benefits are just a happy bonus.

In cold weather, I usually braise red cabbage slowly, which takes time, but creates an incredibly rich, tasty side dish that pairs well with strongly flavored meats and almost any sausage. It can be served hot, lukewarm, or even cold. I don't really use a recipe but I'll give an approximate one:

2 strips bacon
1/2 large red onion
1 small or 1/2 large head of red cabbage, shredded
tart apple, chopped.
3-4 TBSP vinegar
2-3 TBSP brown sugar
Optional: raisins, caraway seeds

Saute the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon and keep the drippings. (Use the bacon in a sandwich or something else.) Now saute the onion and cabbage in the bacon fat for about 5-10 minutes, until well coated with drippings and just starting to soften. Add the apple, and then add the vinegar and sugar to taste. Cover and cook over very low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. If it starts to dry out, add a bit more liquid: apple cider is great if you have it; otherwise, use water or a mild vinegar. Finally, add salt and pepper. If I have them, I sometimes add a few TBSP golden raisins about halfway through cooking. Sometimes I throw in a pinch of caraway seed as well.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Panacea: Chicken Soup

taste the soup for salt and richness

My parents used to call chicken soup "Jewish penicillin" because it was considered a cure-all for most illnesses. I didn't believe them when I was a kid, but now I do. Medical science may also be coming around to their way of thinking; researchers are trying to discover what properties make chicken soup so healthful.

I love it for several reasons: it allows me to roast a chicken for just one person—me—without any guilt about waste; it's delicious; it's warming; it's easy to eat when you're under the weather and few other foods taste good; it feels like a talisman against life's vicissitudes.

When I was undergoing heavy-duty chemotherapy a few years back, I probably ate chicken soup five or six times a week. I honestly believe it is one reason that I maintained my weight and my energy throughout. I pity those who have never had rich, homemade chicken soup; it has a heartiness that is surprising in a broth. The good stuff does take time to make, but it's not time you spend fussing; it's mainly time that the soup is cooking.

My method cooks the soup twice, first to make the broth and then to make the finished soup. I start with leftover roasted chicken pieces. I just throw everything into a large pot. Then I add 2 or 3 stalks of celery in chunks, 2 or 3 carrots, and a large onion. I fill the pot with cold water and let it simmer for an afternoon. Then I strain it. I throw away the depleted vegetables and try to pick every last piece of chicken off the bones. I rub it between my fingers to try to eliminate any tiny bones. Then I throw out the bones and skin, tossing the chicken meat back into the broth.

Now I cut up fresh vegetables: 2 or 3 more carrots, more celery, onion, and a parsnip. I dice these rather small because then the soup is easier to eat, and I add them to the broth. Then I add about a tsp of dill and a whole lot of parsley. Let this cook for about an hour covered.  Then uncover and boil the broth to concentrate the flavor. I usually wind up with about half the liquid that I started with. Only then do I add more salt. (The roasted chicken is usually salted, so that adds some at the outset.) Finally, I throw in a large handful of medium noodles and let those cook for half an hour or so. After the soup cools, store it overnight. In the morning, you can skim off a bit of the fat on top, but often I leave it, because it adds depth to the taste.

I usually enjoy some of the soup right away and then freeze about half of it in single-serving sizes. With a freezer full of chicken soup, I feel ready for anything winter can throw at me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Delicious! Butter Crunch Candy

home-made butter crunch
Every year I was a child, I looked forward to Judith Leudeman's fudge. Judith made wonderful chocolate walnut fudge, which she gave my family every December. It was always prettily wrapped, and I always anticipated it happily. That memory spurred me to try my own hand at candy-making years later. Since that time, I have made numerous candies: chocolate fudge, peanut butter fudge, thin mints, candied walnuts, buckeyes, peppermint patties, and coconut balls, to name a few. Nowadays, I make just one—butter crunch. It was always the most popular and widely appreciated. Even though I posted this recipe a few months back, I'm reposting for those who may have missed it or ignored it because they were not then thinking about holiday cooking.

For some reason, homemade candy seems to impress people more than other homemade foods, such as cookies or jam. Yet it's not difficult if follow a few rules. First, don't make candy on rainy or moist days. It doesn't work well. Second, follow the directions carefully. If the recipe says don't stir, don't stir. If it says let cool undisturbed, let it cool undisturbed. Also, use a wooden spoon instead of metal.

Butter crunch, or butter toffee as some call it, is the delicious result of a chemical reaction that occurs when butter and sugar are cooked to the perfect temperature, about 294 degrees Fahrenheit. (At least that's the temperature I've read; I actually don't use a thermometer. Most candy thermometers are large bulky items and hard to place correctly.)

Here's the recipe for my butter crunch and the steps:

1/2 lb. butter
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. blanched almonds (i use half toasted with skins)
1/2 lg. bag chocolate chips
Chop 1/3 blanched nuts fine. Put them, the butter and sugar into a large pan. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the almonds turn brown and the mixture forms a hard ball
in cold water. This takes only a few minutes. At first, the mixture is grainy and yellowish white. Then it begins to change color.  (Remove the pan from the heat while you test it, so as not to overcook.) Once it has reached the correct stage, immediately pour onto a large, flat cookie sheet or baking pan. I put this on a rack so it doesn't burn the counter top. Let cool slightly until the top is firm to the touch.. 

 Then sprinkle with chocolate chips. (My son prefers peanut butter chips; you could probably use white chocolate as well.) Let them melt and smear them around. Chop the rest of the nuts fine and sprinkle over the  chocolate. Press them into the chocolate slightly. Now let this cool thoroughly. I let it cool on a counter top for an hour and then refrigerate it until stone cold. Then it can easily be broken into pieces and stored in airtight containers. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Finishing the Fruitcake

cut fruits are soaked in dark rum for a week

 Believe it or not, I just finished making the fruitcakes that I wrote about last week. They are a time-consuming food. First you have the cut up all the fruits and nuts and soak them in dark rum. After a week of this, they are ready to bake.

 Since fruitcakes are sticky, the pans need special preparation. They must be greased, lined with paper, and then greased again. Then the batter is prepared and spooned in. The cakes are then baked in a cool oven with a pan of water on the bottom rack. This keeps them moist over the long cooking time.
Finally, the baked cakes are cooled for hours, first in their pans and then on racks. (In my house, they are covered with dish towels as they cool, to keep the cats away.) When they are absolutely cool, they are brushed with rum, wrapped in cloth, and then wrapped in foil. They sit this way for several weeks at least. This step is called "ripening." The sharp alcohol taste mellows, and the flavors blend. By New Year's Day, these cakes will be ready to serve.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

No Fruitcake Jokes, Please

If I wouldn't eat it plain, I wouldn't  put it in my fruitcake

When I was a kid, my father's secretary used to give our family a homemade fruitcake every Christmas. It was generally rich, heavy, and delicious. As a young married, I made a dark fruitcake pretty regularly, buying mountains of dried dates, raisins, figs, currants, and other similar foods. I would start making it the weekend after Thanksgiving and then let it age until Christmas. But a few years later,  I started hearing rumors that fruitcake was not beloved by all; in fact, some people really disliked them. A Boston Globe columnist wrote a funny anti-fruitcake column every year. Stad-up comics began to tell cruel jokes about fruitcakes. Heck, even Edward Gorey got into the act.

I began to have doubts as to whether my gift was truly appreciated. Good fruitcakes are a tremendous amount of work, and they are also expensive to make. The rum alone costs more than $20. But you can't make a good fruitcake with cheap rum. And if you start with real dried apricots, Medjool dates, black mission figs, and similar other fruits, the cost mounts. (None of that weird, fluorescent glaceed peel goes into my fruitcake!) So I didn't want to spend the time, effort, and money if no one wanted the result.

But I love good fruitcake, and for years had a small cadre of other diehard fruitcake aficionados. I'd bake a few just for us. The year I got sick and had multiple surgeries and treatments, I stopped making fruitcakes, and then I got out of the habit. This year, however, my brother wondered if I'd be making them again, and I thought, "Yes!" He will get one, since he also loves them.

So I've started. Last night I chopped up all the fruit and nuts and threw them into a large bowl to soak up rum. In a week, I'll put the batter together and actually bake them. I will hoard my fruitcake, sharing it only with people who truly adore and appreciate this toothsome treat. When I've polished mine off, that's it for the year.

So don't make fun of fruitcake within my hearing; I take this food seriously. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Secret Ingredient

One of the few prepared dishes I use regularly

I used to make Welsh rarebit frequently; sometimes I'd start with a white sauce and add mustard and Worcestershire; at other times I'd start with beer. Then I tasted Stouffer's Welsh Rarebit.  I stopped making my own, because I liked theirs so much. It makes a delicious light meal over toast, as intended. It also makes an incredibly good and useful sauce. (No, I have no connection to the company.)

I must admit that one reason I like the packaged variety is the serving size. It's perfect for one person, because I can either get two meals out it, or even three if I use it as a sauce. When I made my own from scratch, I usually had way too much and got tired of eating it.

Nowadays, I always try to keep a package of welsh rarebit in the freezer. It combines well with almost any vegetable, and also with meatloaf. Here are just a few of the ways I use this versatile item:

  • spooned over steamed broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus
  • poured over cooked spinach or broccoli that has been served atop a baked potato
  • replacing the hollandaise sauce in eggs benedict
  • smeared on toast, put it under a broiler, and then served with raw sliced tomatoes on top
  • as the sauce for eggs florentine (poached eggs over spinach)
  • drizzled over asparagus bundles that have been wrapped inside a ham slice
Many cooks also use it to make mac and cheese, but that's not a favorite of mine, so I seldom make it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Paninis, Real and Fake

Apparently, this is not a real panini
Wikipedia tells me that a true panino (panini is the plural) is a sandwich made from other than sliced bread, such as a ciabatta roll. So I guess my panini shown here is just a toasted sandwich. Nevertheless, I will call it a panini, because I made it in a panini press.

In cold weather, these sandwiches make wonderful meals. They have several virtues: they are warm, they hold a lot of filling tidily, and they lend themselves to experimentation. (If you prefer not to experiment, there are many panini recipes online.)

There are several secrets to making a good panini. First, use a bread that has some heft; you don't want the outer covering to fall apart. Second, use something in the filling that helps everything stick together. I usually add some sort of cheese—sometimes even two or three types. Third, mix a variety of flavors, bland and sharp, mild and savory. A few pieces of chopped olive, sun dried tomato, or chopped scallion, for example, can add some zip to an otherwise bland sandwich. Finally, don't burn it. My panini press is a cast-iron pan with a heavy ridged weight that rests on the sandwich. I preheat both the pan and the weight, brush them with a bit of oil, add the sandwich, and then turn down the heat. This allows time for the filling to melt without the bread burning. Usually, I turn it only once.

The panini shown above has one slice of ham, one slice of provolone, a few crumbles of goat cheese, a few slivers of cheddar, roasted red peppers, sliced tomato, some chopped scallion, and some shredded spinach. Other useful ingredients include black olives, pesto, sundried tomatoes, mayonnaise, mushrooms, and any leftover meat, sliced thin.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Shopping Done
I don't  particularly like shopping, but I do enjoy getting ready for Thanksgiving. When I was younger and still working, it was a hectic time of year. Now, though, it is a pure pleasure. I start almost a week ahead of time, polishing silver, making a menu, and creating a shopping list. About two days before the actual day, I start cooking, making dishes that can be made ahead and figuring out a timetable based on the size of the turkey. Most years, I make the same traditional dinner: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes and squash, creamed onions, peas, green beans, and always a plate of raw crunchy vegetables. Desserts vary, although there is always pie.

I have enjoyed huge Thanksgiving dinners with large crowds, smaller meals with just immediate family, and intimate twosomes. I must say my favorites have been the ones that I make. When I sit down to eat, I am surrounded by items that were given to me by parents, grandparents, other relatives, and friends. My silver pitcher, for instance, came from my paternal grandmother; the plate on which I serve raw vegetables was a gift from my grandmother-in-law; the glass salts on my table always sat on my parents' Thanksgiving table.  These tangible reminders of the important people in my life are probably the reason I like the day so much. Whether in fact or in thought, I share Thanksgiving with all those I love and who love me, and I am grateful to have so many of them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Versatile Veggies

I put the onions on first, then the pepper, then the mushrooms, and finally the eggplant.

Before this year, I used to buy grilled peppers at a local farm stand. They were expensive and utterly delicious. Then I learned that I could make them myself. So now, whenever I see red bell peppers on sale, I buy a batch and cook them all up at once. Last week, I also cooked an eggplant, some mushrooms, and a large sweet onion. It takes about an hour from start to finish but provides me with a lot of good eating. I used to marinate the vegetables before cooking, but now I just brush them with oil and add the seasonings afterwards.

After the veggies are grilled, I usually slice everything up and combine them with a bit of olive oil seasoned with minced garlic. I get at least three meals from a platter like this. The first day, I made a warm sandwich. I toasted some french bread, smeared it with goat choose, and piled on the vegetables. It's a slightly messy sandwich to eat, but a wonderful combination of flavors and textures.

The next day, I spread garlic hummus on a whole wheat wrap, covered this with cold roasted veggies, added chopped lettuce and spinach, and rolled it up. Another great sandwich, and very different from the first.

The final meal was pizza. I sliced plum tomatoes to the other vegetables, as well as a few chopped kalamata olives. Then I spread them over a pesto-coated pizza crust and sprinkled everything with Parmesan cheese. Finally, I added a bit of shredded mozzarella and baked the pizza for about 20 minutes.

I do eat meat, but not at every meal; these vegetables have the mouthfeel of meat: chewy, rich, and tasty. Investing a little cooking time to grill them made for very fast food later on. Furthermore, each dish had a very different taste and feel from the others, so I never got bored.

Friday, November 2, 2012

My Father's Mayonnaise Episode

As far as I'm concerned, there is only one true mayonnaise: Hellmann's. I buy and use no other. In fact, I trust these people so much that I actually tried one of their recipes, which I had seen advertised in magazines and on television: Parmesan Crusted Chicken. I made half the amount, since that's all the chicken I had, and it was delicious.

Measuring the ingredients reminded me of the day my father decided to make mayonnaise. Now, Pop was an enthusiastic cook who sometimes let his enthusiasms get the better of him. He cooked often, usually making steak or spaghetti sauce or other hearty dishes. He cooked with energy and verve, paying close attention to his utensils and supplies. Our  household kitchen, for example, had a huge restaurant stove, with 6 burners, 2 large ovens, and a giant griddle and grill. Such stoves were seldom seen in the 1950s. Pop also had a wonderful collection of knives—a roast beef knife, a ham knife, various cleavers and slicers—some of had been passed down to him. He kept those knives sharp and clean.

However, he wasn't so fastidious about his recipes. "Isn't that the best damn spaghetti sauce you've ever had?" he'd ask. Sometimes it was great, but at other times it most certainly was not. Pop seldom tasted or measured as he cooked; instead, he'd just add ingredients as the mood struck him. Most times that method worked, but a few times it failed memorably.

The mayonnaise episode is a case in point.

One weekend we were at our farm, where we had an abundance of eggs but no mayonnaise in the fridge. Undaunted, my father announced that he would make mayonnaise. It was simple, he stated: merely a mixture of eggs, oil, lemon juice and seasoning.  To prove his point, he broke several eggs into a blender, mixed them up, and then poured in some oil. The resulting mess was totally inedible. We threw it out.

He tried again with the same result, and then tried a third time. Now we were out of oil, so my mother was sent into town to get more. It never occurred to my father to look at a cookbook. I finally did as we waited for my mother to return, and I learned that the oil can't just be dumped in but must be drizzled in, bit by tiny bit until it creates a permanent emulsion.

I explained this to Pop, who had a chemistry degree and understood the situation instantly. The next batch of mayonnaise had a perfect consistency, although for the life of me I cannot recall how it tasted.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Love Affair with Leftovers

I know many folks who turn up their noses at leftovers, but I embrace them. If I enjoyed eating something once, I usually enjoy it a second or third time. Still, I sometimes change the appearance of an ingredient after a few meals.

In summer, almost any leftover might show up in a salad of some sort. In winter, those same ingredients often show up in a quiche or in soup. The quiche shown here, for instance, contains two large mushrooms, one leftover leek, a handful of fresh spinach, and a small end piece of gruyere cheese. I chopped and sauteed the mushroom and leek briefly, and then used the same pan to wilt the spinach. Next, I layered those foods in the pie shell and poured over the custard. (I have also made quiche using broccoli, asparagus, green beans, onions, tomatoes, chicken, ham, or a host of other ingredients.)

The rule of thumb for most quiches is simple: place bite-sized or shredded meat, cheese, or veggies in an unbaked pie shell. Then make a custard using 4 eggs, 1 1/4 cups milk (or half-and-half, if you like it), and salt and pepper. Pour the custard over the other foods and bake in a preheated 350 oven for just under an hour. The center may still be runny, but the edges should be cooked. Let stand for 15 minutes or so.

Despite Bruce Feirstein's book, real men do eat quiche, and most enjoy it. So do women. Furthermore, most people do not think of this dish as being created from "leftovers." Therein lies half its charm.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cauliflower: Unfairly Maligned

For some reason, cauliflower gets little respect from people. (The exception being a bunch of true cauliflower fans in Margaretville, NY.) Perhaps they ate it only after it was steamed too long and then plopped onto a plate, anemic-looking and sweating profusely. Whatever the reason, it's time to take a second look.

Cauliflower, which Mark Twain once described as "nothing but cabbage with a college education," really is  related to cabbage, as well as to broccoli, brussel sprouts, and other healthful foods. It's relatively bland and is the perfect vehicle for other flavors, including cheese and garlic. It's tasty both raw and cooked, which is why it so often appears on platter of veggies and dip. Furthermore, it's loaded with nutrients and low on calories.

The simplest way to cook cauliflower is to break it into pieces and just to toss it in a bowl with a TBSP of olive oil, 2-3 minced cloves of garlic, salt and pepper, and the juice of a lemon. Then place on a baking sheet and roast it in a hot oven for about 30 minutes. Pour it into a bowl and sprinkle liberally with parmesan cheese.

I'll return to cauliflower in later posts, because it's good in a variety of ways, including soups, salads, and curries. In the meantime, I just wanted to put in a good word for this underrated food.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ready for Anything

Ready for its topping
I don't think I've ever eaten a baked potato in summer. It just seems wrong. However, when the weather grows colder, twice-baked potatoes are a staple in my house. I can enjoy them at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Usually, I make a whole bunch at one time, since they take over an hour to prepare. I use russets and begin by baking them in a 400 oven for just over an hour. While they are baking, I sprinkle some dried onion flakes into a small glass of milk--perhaps a quarter of a teaspoon of flakes to 1/4 cup of milk. When the potatoes are done, I cut them in half the long way and scoop out the centers, being careful to preserve the skins.

I put the flesh into a big bowl and throw in some sharp grated cheddar. After a few minutes, when the cheese has softened, I mash everything together with a fork, adding the milk after I've broken up the big lumps. Usually, I keep adding milk, since the potatoes absorb it. I end up with a texture a bit like soft-serve ice cream. At this point, I add salt and pepper.

I refill the potato skins and sprinkle them with a bit more grated cheddar. Then I put them on a baking sheet and cook for about 20 minutes more, until the tops are browned slightly. Now they are ready to eat or cool down for freezing. These freeze remarkably well. I usually freeze them on the baking sheet until they're firm; then I toss them into a plastic bag.

If I'm eating these for breakfast, I usually add a dollop of cottage cheese. If I'm eating them for lunch or dinner, I usually top them with steamed spinach, broccoli, creamed chicken, chili, spaghetti sauce, or almost anything else that I have left over. Twice-baked potatoes plus a topping make satisfying and filling meals.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

'Tis the Season....

I always find it hard to give up summer's fresh fruits and vegetables. That is, I find it hard until I am reminded of all those cold-weather foods that I love and have not enjoyed for months. Hot soups, panini sandwiches, and roast chicken are a few of the fall/winter foods I seldom eat in warm weather.

Another is homemade candy. First of all, candy doesn't cook correctly on a humid day, so I don't even try to make it in the summer. But in fall, it's a quick and easy treat to make, mainly to share with others. It's a great dish to bring to a potluck, because for some reason many people never make candy. Some may have had past failures trying to determine exactly what the soft-ball stage is, while others may fear they will eat the whole batch.

My favorite candy (maybe because it has so few ingredients) is butter toffee, which I make with a chocolate coating. I usually have the ingredients on hand, and I can make it in less than half an hour and eat or serve it a few hours later. One trick with candy-making is to watch it like a hawk. It can quickly go from raw to burnt. When you test it, remove the pan from the heat while you do so. This way, if it has reached the correct temperature, it doesn't overcook while you're testing it.

Here's the recipe I use:
   • 1/2 lb. butter
   • 1 1/2 c. sugar
   • 1 c. blanched almonds or use half blanched and half with skins
   • 1/2 lg. bag semisweet chocolate chips

Chop 1/3  nuts finely. Put them, the butter and sugar into a large pan. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the almonds turn brown and the mixture forms a hard ball in cold water. Immediately pour onto a large, flat cookie sheet or baking pan. Let cool slightly. Then sprinkle with chocolate chips. Let them melt, and smear them around. Chop the rest of the nuts fine and sprinkle over warm chocolate. Press in lightly. Let cool thoroughly. I refrigerate mine for about an hour. Break into irregular pieces and store in airtight container. It keeps for quite a while that way.

I've made this with sweet chocolate, with peanut butter chips, and even with white chocolate, but the semisweet is my favorite. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Joys of the Season: Clementines

Clementines are easy to peel and easy to eat

I hate to see the end of summer and the disappearance of all the fresh summer vegetables. However, that disappointment is quickly forgotten after I taste my first  clementine of the season. These little citrus fruits, relatives of the mandarin orange, are relatively new to this country. They really became popular only in the late 90's, after bad weather ruined a lot of the Florida citrus crop. Their origin is unclear, with both Algeria and China claiming credit for the fruit, but their popularity is growing.

This week, I bought a few clementines from Peru, and they were delicious. All are a bit larger than I'm used to, but the ones I tasted were both sweet and incredibly juicy. What makes clementines such favorites is that the skin zips off effortlessly, and the fruit is usually seedless, which makes eating and clean-up simple. Low in calories and high in Vitamin C, they are downright virtuous food.

The clementine season usually lasts well into January and often February, so you have plenty of time to stock up on these little gems. Today, they come from all over the world, including South America, California, and Spain. Choose fruits that feel heavy for their size and that have shiny, unblemished skins. Even though I live alone, I usually buy them by the boxful. I keep a handful at room temperature and store the rest in the refrigerator. They are the perfect antidote to grey skies and dry air.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Glorious Red Glop

Italian-style Red Glop

I wanted to grill the last of the summer vegetables, but the weather didn't cooperate. Although I love my grill, I refuse to stand in the rain to cook on it. So I took my assorted veggies (eggplant, red bell pepper, sweet onion, mushrooms, tomatoes) and instead made one of my all-purpose Italian-style red dishes. I had one grilled Italian sausage left over from a cook-out, so I chopped this up as well.

I call this "glop" only because it doesn't really taste like a great Italian tomato sauce, and its texture is somewhere between a stew and a sauce. However, it does taste really good, which is why it's glorious. Basically, I sauteed everything but the eggplant (I oven-roasted that and then cut it up and threw it into the simmering sauce) in a bit of olive oil, added about 1/3 about half an hour.

When cool weather arrives, I make this type of dish frequently if I have odds and ends of full-flavored meaty vegetables, such as eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, or winter squash. The sauce is very tasty on a slice of toasted bread, in a baked potato, atop pasta or pizza, or baked into lasagna. And it freezes well, so you can eat some immediately and then put the rest away until the next chilly fall day.

If I have leftover meat instead of vegetables, I sometimes make a white glop (basically a cream sauce with half broth-half milk, splash of sherry, plus sauteed mushroom and onions--good with leftover chicken, turkey, or ham) or a brown glop, which is a bit like beef stroganoff (sauteed mushrooms, onions, garlic, splash of red wine, throw in a heaping TBSP of sour cream or Greek yogurt right before serving--good with beef, liver, chicken). Like the red glop, this can be served over toast, pasta, noodles, or a baked potato.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Apple Season

I am lucky enough to live within minutes of at least half a dozen orchards. Living near orchards in New England provides numerous benefits. First, I get to enjoy the trees themselves, which bloom early and announce spring. Next, I can buy apples and apple products right at the source, from people I know. And finally, I enjoy a great variety of apples, which are incredibly versatile fruits.

We had apple trees on our farm when I was growing up, but those were different creatures from the ones in orchards today. Those trees were giants, and for all I know, they could have been planted by Johnny Appleseed. Modern trees, though, are smaller and denser, which makes pruning and picking easier. 

While apples are nutritious (Vitamin C, fiber, potassium, etc.), they are mainly chosen for taste and texture. For eating out of hand, I like firm, slightly tart apples, such as MacIntosh and Honeycrisps. For cooking, I often mix apples: Cortlands for sweetness, Granny Smiths for tartness. One of my favorite cold weather desserts is apple crisp, and one of my favorite cold weather beverages is hot cider, mulled with a cinnamon stick and a few cloves.

Apples are also good for mixing with heavy, bland vegetables. Here is one of my favorite cool-weather dishes, Baked Roots and Fruit:

 First, cut the following into large chunks:
  • 1-2 large onions
  • 3 large carrots
  • 1 large parsnip
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 2 white potatoes
  • 1 apple, cored (peel or not, as you wish)
 Grease a roasting pan with olive oil and throw in the chunks of food. Sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, and cinnamon. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake at 350-400 for approximately an hour, stirring once or twice.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Another Great Sandwich

Is THIS the world's best sandwich?

Although I recently wrote that I'm not a huge fan of sandwiches, writing about them got the idea stuck in my mind. So naturally I began making sandwiches. So far, I'm made three more, two of which are worth mentioning.

I make the sandwich shown here only on days that I visit a food store, because I want the roast beef to be freshly sliced. I don't cram the sandwich full of meat; instead, I smear the bread with a little mayonnaise, slather on a goodly amount of horseradish, and add some sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce. With a bit of salt, it's a great sandwich. I make this on some sort of rye bread, either marble rye or plain, and always serve with half-sour pickles, which can be somewhat challenging to find in this area.

A sandwich that I have made almost weekly this summer is a type of veggie wrap. I spread garlic hummus on a whole-wheat wrap, pile on grilled vegetables (mine always include sliced red bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms and usually some sort of eggplant or squash), and then add either lettuce or spinach. For some reason, the combination of the garlicky hummus and roast vegetables is somewhat addictive, which is why I make this often.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Scrumptious Sandwiches

A good sandwich is a thing of beauty; a bad one is a waste of calories. I'm not a huge fan of sandwiches in general. Often, they are too bready, too chewy, too meaty, or too bland. A few, however, really delight me. These usually provide a variety of rich flavors.

One, shown here, is not only a favorite of mine, but also a regular lunch or light dinner. It has lots of ingredients, but most are usually in my refrigerator.  This sandwich starts with a whole wheat wrap that is brushed with mayonnaise and mashed avocado. Then I add one slice of crisp bacon, some sliced turkey, lettuce, tomato and fixings. The sandwich pictured has a bit of blue cheese sprinkled on it, as well as chopped olives and scallions. The combination of the bland turkey and wrap with the crunchy lettuce, juicy tomato, and tangy fixings is truly satisfying.

 I have found several different ways to keep sandwiches interesting. One is to have numerous fixings on hand that don't spoil quickly. My favorites include crumbled blue cheese, anchovies, kalamata olives, feta, hummus, various mustards, and horseradish. In addition, I usually have some bacon (separated into strips on wax paper and then rolled up raw and frozen inside a plastic bag), and lately I have also kept an assortment of grilled veggies, including peppers and onions. 

By combining various textures, tastes, and colors, I can make a good sandwich in a few minutes. Furthermore, it's usually far tastier than one I could buy elsewhere—cheaper, too.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Glorious Green Beans

fresh green beans

When I was a kid, green beans were one of my favorite vegetables. My mother found that strange, because she thought that green beans had little taste. I beg to differ.

Well-cooked beans are a delight and a wonderful side dish for many foods. Furthermore, they are good for you. I usually buy far more than I can eat at one meal, because I am perfectly happy eating them for several days. The trick, I believe, is to basically buy them fresh; cook them very briefly (3-4 minutes) in salted boiling water; plunge them into cold water to stop them from cooking further; and finally finishing them in a fry pan with butter and garlic, olive oil and garlic, butter and onions, or butter and fresh dill. I cook them whole, just snapping off the ends.

Green beans also make a surprisingly addictive vegetable  pate. This is a great dish to bring to parties or to keep in the fridge for frequent noshes. Here's the recipe:

     1 lb. green beans, cooked
     4-5 hard boiled eggs, coarsely chopped
     1 cup walnuts
     4-5 medium onions, chopped
     few tablespoons oil or butter
     salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onions in the oil until soft but not browned. Then throw everything into a food processor and process until the mixture is combined but still has a rough texture. Serve on crackers or toast.

By the way, what you call green beans depends on where you live. People commonly call them string beans, green beans, pole beans, bush beans, snap beans, runner beans, and French beans.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Furry Friends: Kiwis

I never ate a kiwi when I was growing up. Of course, back then, few people did because they were called Chinese gooseberries, and their furry appearance was slightly off-putting. Then, in the early 1960s, some marketing genius renamed them kiwi fruits and a star was born.

Kiwis are gorgeous to look at, and their fresh  color and taste makes them a natural for fruit salads, green salads, and garnish. However, these fruits contain an enzyme that can cause a few problems. One problem is that the enzyme reacts to dairy foods and to gelatin and starts breaking them down. So if you use kiwis combined with any dairy food, eat the combination immediately. And don't use raw kiwis in gelatin, or it won't set.

The other problem is that some people—mainly those with allergies to latex, bananas, and papayas— have an allergic reaction to kiwis. However, most people enjoy them with impunity.

Like strawberries, kiwis have a sweet-tart taste. Both fruits are also high in Vitamin C and potassium, so you can feel virtuous snacking on them. Kiwis pair up beautifully with avocadoes in salads. They also go well with most other fruits for dessert. I tend to buy several at a time. One, at least, I eat plain, first cutting it in half and scooping out the flesh with a spoon.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Me and My Shrimp

just plain shrimp, to be eaten with cocktail sauce

I have a long and affectionate relationship with shrimp. When I was a kid and out to dinner with my parents, shrimp cocktail was my favorite restaurant appetizer. I loved the way they were presented, usually served dangling over the edge of a silver or crystal bowl, with a little tub of cocktail sauce in the center and a slice of lemon on the plate below. I also loved that I could eat them with my fingers.

Later, shrimp was one of the foods that I served to company. It had many incarnations: shrimp creole, scampi, stuffed shrimp, jambalaya, and one of my very favorites, shrimp de jonghe. Shrimp dejonghe is one of those foods that I eat infrequently, because it's so rich with butter, but I adore it. I serve it in large seashells that I was given years ago. I think they were meant for Coquille St. Jacques, another rich and tasty seafood dish, but one that I have made exactly once. However, I keep the shells because they are the perfect vehicle for serving up my shrimp de jonghe. The dish was named, by the way, for the DeJonghe Hotel in Chicago and the brothers who owned it.

One thing I love about shrimp is that it is tasty but very mild. So it goes well with sharp flavors like horseradish or garlic. When I eat shrimp plain and cold, I make a quick sauce by mixing together ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, and a dash of Tabasco. When I eat it hot, most often I make quick scampi.

I've been reluctant to try grilling shrimp, because it cooks quickly and I was afraid I'd ruin it. However, I visited some friends last week and they had a great method: cook peeled shrimp for 2-3 minutes in boiling water; drain and set the colander over ice in the refrigerator. This keeps the shrimp from being soggy. After the rest of the dinner is ready, slather the shrimp with a marinade (teriyaki sauce or garlic and butter) and then throw on a very hot grill just for a few moments. Since the shrimp is already cooked, this just heats it up, chars the outside a bit, and carmelizes the marinade. Delicious!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flashy Food

Admit it: sometimes you want to prepare a dish that looks great but is really easy to prepare. Years ago, my daughter Kate gave me just such a recipe, which she learned at Earlham College. The ingredients are simple: sugar cookie dough (your own or the type that comes in a roll); 8 oz. cream cheese; 2 TBSP sugar; dash vanilla; sliced fruit; jam.

Assembly is also simple. First, get your cream cheese out of the fridge so it softens. Now spread the dough on a greased pizza pan or other flat pan. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes, or until it turns pale brown. Let it cool. When it's cool, beat the cream cheese until soft. Then add the sugar and vanilla. Spread over the crust.

Now comes the fun part. Slice plump fruit but leave small berries whole. I used kiwis, Granny Smith apples, and strawberries, but you can also use bananas, blueberries, peaches, or anything but citrus, which curdles the cream cheese. Arrange the sliced fruit over the cream cheese, pressing it in slightly. Now melt a few TBSP of jam in a saucepan. I used apricot, but almost any jam works. Strain it and add a tsp of water to thin it slightly. Spread this over the fruit and chill for at least an hour. The glaze keeps the fruit from drying out and makes it sparkle.

This is a great dessert to bring to a potluck dinner, because it never fails to attract attention. It looks wonderful and is very tasty. (Not as great as the made-from-scratch fruit tart, with a shortbread crust and pastry cream filling, which the same daughter once made for my birthday, but that is more of an undertaking.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Too Many Tomatoes? No such thing!

Nothing beats a fresh tomato, eaten immediately after picking. However, some times you wind up with a batch of tomatoes, rather than one or two perfect specimens. When tomatoes ripen, they often do so all at once, giving cooks an opportunity to cook in quantity and then save for later.

When I was younger, I used to can tomatoes. It was a bit of a pain, I admit, but they sure looked great in their sparkling jars. Then I froze them, back when I had a giant freezer in the basement. Now I roast them and then freeze them in bags. The roasting concentrates both the flavor and the bulk, and it makes a delicious sauce.

Take a large roasting pan and brush it with olive oil. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange them cut side up in the pan. You can crowd them in, but don't pile them up. One layer only, please. Sprinkle with a little salt and some chopped garlic, if you like. You can also throw in some basil or oregano. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Roast in a 400 oven for about an hour, depending on the size of the tomatoes. Check on them after 45 minutes, but it could take up to 90, depending on size. You want them to brown but not completely dry out.

Now put them through a food mill, if you have one and don't like skins. Or, throw them into a blender, skin and all (or use a stick blender). The resulting sauce can be frozen in plastic bags in serving sizes that fit your family. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Then use as is in recipes.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Enjoy the Stinking Rose

Recently, I bought a fresh head of garlic from Small Farm, and I was surprised at how different it was from the garlic that I usually buy. It had bite; it had scent; it had juice. It was wonderful.

I love garlic. In the winter, I roast it and spread it on sandwiches. This time of year, I usually throw it into stir-fries and salad dressing. Yesterday, I tried making a red pepper aioli, which turned out wonderfully. I had bought a bag of red peppers to roast, and I used half to make the aioli.

Garlic is touted as having all sorts of health benefits. The bulb is thought to prevent several types of cancer and improve blood flow. Scientists are trying to separate fact from fiction, since many medicinal uses, although steeped in history, do seem a bit dubious. (Garlic is also reputed to ward off vampires and werewolves, in case these concern you.) I don't care so much about the health benefits as I do about the taste. To my way of thinking, garlic has no good substitute.

By the way, I no longer mince garlic cloves with a knife; instead, I grate the cloves on a microplane. Much faster and easier.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Artichokes: the Edible Thistle

The first person to eat an artichoke probably deserves some sort of award, because the part that we eat is really the edible bud of a huge thistle plant. If left on the plant, the bud produces a large purple flower. In this country, commercial artichokes are all grown in California. I know this because I once drove through Castroville, California, which calls itself the artichoke capital of the world. (In 1948, Marilyn Monroe was crowned as the artichoke queen.)

Artichokes are one of those perfect summer foods, because they are good whether hot or cold. I often buy several them on sale and cook them all at one time. I eat a hot one right away and save the others to eat cold. To select a good artichoke, pick it up. It should feel heavy and the leaves should squeak a little when the globe is squeezed. If the tips of the leaves are brown, it could be old and a bit tough.

Despite their armored exteriors, people have been eating artichokes for centuries. The taste is both distinctive and appealing. Many diners are introduced to this vegetable through a spinach-artichoke dip served by some restaurants, while other folks make their own dip. One of the simplest is just to combine equal parts of chopped artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese, and mayonnaise. Place in a buttered casserole and bake at 425 degrees for 20–25 minutes.

Cooking and eating artichokes is simple. Personally, I don't use a pressure cooker any more. Although it does save time, more often it overcooks the food. Instead, I just steam them on top of the stove after adding some lemon and garlic to the water.  Hot or cold, I eat them with mayonnaise, but many other people enjoy lemon butter instead.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Farm Food and Flowers Nearby

the flower gardens at Small Farm
Recently, I've been reading quite a bit about the Farm to Table movement. Adherent believe you should plan meals around what is freshest and best, rather than first creating set menus and then searching for foods that fit. The Boston Globe wrote an article about farm to table meals, as did Smithsonian magazine. I knew that Nancy's Airfield Cafe used local foods whenever possible, but I thought she was the only nearby source.

Boy, was I wrong!  Through the two print articles, I learned that Verrill Farm in Concord offered a summertime meal they described as "from field to fork" (sold out at the time of this writing, according to their website).  I thought it sounded like a good idea and then promptly forgot about it for all of two days.

Then I stopped by Small Farm in Stow, where I often stop to schmooze with the owners, Barbara and Dwight Sipler,  and to enjoy their chemical-free produce and their glorious flowers. On this visit, they introduced me to a young friend and relative, Amanda, who is putting on a seasonal feast next week. She calls it Supper on Small Farm, and has scheduled it for 4 in the afternoon on August 5. The meal will feature not only Small Farm produce, but also local wine, beer, and cider.  In addition, guests can carry home a bouquet that they have picked themselves. For reservations and more details, call Amanda at 686-2033, area code 617.

Who knew that the food revolution had hit so close to home?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fit for a Queen

Last year, the Boston Globe presented a recipe for Coronation Chicken Salad. I had never heard of this before (Queen Elizabeth eats chicken salad?), so I did a bit of research. Turns out that the dish was created for Queen Elizabeth's coronation, but it was not totally original. It in turn was based on another dish that had been served at the King George V's Silver Jubilee.

I was intrigued by what a long history the dish had and how many backstories people could find. The dish is also called Chicken Elizabeth, Chicken Mayonnaise, and a host of other things, but in general it contains chicken, mayonnaise, a bit of curry, and other odds and ends. Early recipes were major productions. They began with a raw chicken and took ages to prepare.

The Globe's recipe is a bit simpler but still plenty complicated for me, because it calls for several ingredients, such as mango chutney, that I did not have on hand last year. The first time I make a recipe, I try to make it as written, so I assembled the various ingredients and went to town. I'm not a huge curry fan, or so I thought, but this salad was downright addictive. I ate it for days, always thinking I should give some to friends and family but then never giving away a forkful. Now, I keep the ingredients on hand.

It is now one of my favorite summer dishes. I made some today. I now am a bit more flexible about the ingredients, because experience has taught me which are crucial (the mango chutney, the curry, the grated ginger) and which can stand a substitution (today, for instance, I used chopped raisins instead of  currants and toasted almonds in place of  toasted pecans). Experience also taught me to invite a friend to join me at dinner. I know that I won't want to give any more away.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Joy of Raspberries

Raspberries are one of those foods that I almost always photograph before eating. I can't help myself; their color, texture, and shape makes them great subjects. This time of year, farmers' markets and farm stands have bright displays of all types of berries, but raspberries are still my favorite.

They are plentiful right now and reasonably priced, so this would be a good time to stock up. One problem with these luscious fruits is that they spoil rapidly. To prevent this, do not wash raspberries until right before you eat them. One tip that I read recently suggests washing them in a dilute solution of vinegar (1 part vinegar to 10 parts water), swishing them around, draining, and then rinsing again. This is supposed to kill lingering mold spores. I haven't tried it yet, but I will.

I enjoy raspberries in three main ways. I eat them plain, doused with a bit of cream, or with yogurt. I make jam, usually combining them with a few blueberries for added oooomph. And I make peach melba, surely one of the most glorious summer desserts of all. My peach melba is a bit changeable. It always has the traditional ingredients: peaches, raspberry sauce, and vanilla ice cream. However, the methodology changes. Sometimes I use freshly sliced raw peaches; at other times, I poach the peaches in light syrup before assembly; this year, I'm going to try grilling peaches and then using them.

Although nothing beats the taste and texture of fresh raspberries, the fruit is also easy to freeze. Just pour dry berries onto a cookie sheet, separate, and then freeze until firm. Once frozen, pour into freezer bags and keep frozen. Once frozen, the fruit is fine for sauce and for jam but a bit mushy for eating plain.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cow Corn and Sweet

Growing up, I never ate sweet corn.  Since our farm raised lots of cattle, we grew acres and acres of field corn, which is tougher than sweet corn and less sweet. My father always scoffed at sweet corn, saying it had little taste or texture. I would have felt disloyal disagreeing.

When the first corn of the season ripened, we sometimes ate an entire meal of corn. We simply boiled it and served it with butter. The butter was spread on chunks of bread, which were then rubbed over the hot kernels. Or, a stick of butter was placed on a flat plate and then we would take turns rotating our ear of corn into the surface of the butter.

Until I was in high school, I assumed everyone buttered their corn that way. What a shock to see that some people tried to butter their corn using knives, which seemed to me to be a losing proposition. The butter just slid off the knife. A few people owned little gadgets to spread their butter, but these  seemed a bit precious. Someone once gave me such a tool. It looked like a slightly flattened spoon with slots in it. You stuffed the butter into the spoon, and then rubbed the back of the implement over the hot kernels. The heat melted the butter, which then oozed out through the slots. It was a lot of work compared to the methods I was used to, and there was more clean-up.

Last night, I grilled corn for the first time. I tried Mark Bittman's method, which is to just place the husked ears on the grill and keep turning them. Although the corn was very tasty, it was slightly dry and chewy, very reminiscent of the cow corn of my youth. His sauce was tasty, but I guess I prefer my corn quickly boiled and then buttered.

However, I used my leftover grilled corn to make corn relish, and the dry, chewy kernels were wonderful in that dish. Basically, I cut the kernels off the cob and threw them into a bowl with all sorts of chopped vegetables: onion, green peppers, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes. I had some leftover black beans, so I threw those in, too. Then I made a simple dressing with oil, vinegar, lime juice, chili powder, chipotle, fresh cilantro, salt and pepper. I let it sit for an hour or so in the refrigerator and then enjoyed it for lunch with corn chips and guacamole.