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.