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.