Though we have had a exceptionally cold winter, I’m convinced of global warming. March is the new April, and we’ve had tons of rain to prove it. Crocuses are long gone and daffodils are in full bloom. Tulips are starting to open. In addition to flowers, the first of the spring and summer vegetables are coming in fromFlorida and I’m loving them. I’m very much a locavore, but who can resist spring onions and vine-ripened tomatoes and tender young squash?
For the past several days, we’ve been eating vegetarian meals because when I went shopping early in the week, I bought way too many of these fresh young vegetables, the way I always do at the farmersmarkets in summer. Last night, we had pasta with a Provencal sauce and a salad of crunchy fennel, apples, and walnuts.
For the sauce, I sautéed celery and onion in a bit of olive oil, then added ripe (not hothouse), peeled plum tomatoes fromMexico. I let that stew a bit then added garlic chopped with fresh and dried herbs (actual herbes de Provence), a good splash of red wine, and some cut up zucchini. I covered the pot and turned it almost all the way down and waited for Mikel to call to say that he was on his way home from work, at which point I lifted the lid and let it stew gently, but not too long, while I cooked the pasta, which I then drained and folded into the sauce.
The salad was simply chopped raw fennel and apples, a bit of onion, parsley leaves, and walnut oil. Just before serving I added salt, pepper, and a splash of rice wine vinegar, though lemon juice or the vinegar of your choice would do.
The great thing about these light meals is that you don’t feel guilty digging into the desserts that we still have leftover from Mikel’s birthday! We even called his mother to tell her that we had finally eaten the last of the caramel cake she sent! We are going to Palena, my favorite restaurant, tonight, and have young friends coming over tomorrow to make Mexican food together. See you in April!
March 23, 2009 Spring at last!
Of course after a perfectly beautiful day in the 60s yesterday here in the Mid-Atlantic, the temperature will be dipping below freezing for the next few nights. Spring is officially here, but I’ve learned my lesson about planting any tender crops until after May 1. I keep reading about Michele Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House, and I commend her and the White House chefs for taking on the task, which is to be done as a community garden with a group of local elementary school children. I just hope that the project is truly educational for all, and that they tell us the truth about the experience: about the rats eating the melons, the various diseases affecting the tomatoes, and the number of hours that it takes to tend a garden that is intended to feed as well as educate. (See my various blogs on the subject, throughout the summer and fall of 2007.)
Yesterday I fried chicken, per his request, as a birthday dinner for Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post. I made biscuits and gravy and butterbeans and rice and cole slaw, and served it all with a host of homemade condiments – dilly beans (see July 11, 2008) and pear relish (see September 17, 2008) and fig preserves. Ann Brody and Larry Cove brought desserts, including a Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake, Melissa Clark’s recipe for which had run in the New York Times a week earlier. I, too, had seen the recipe, which Clark had adapted from one by the celebrated food writer, Dorie Greenspan.
Cakes made with olive oil are legion inItaly, where desserts tend to be much homier and less sweet than the rest ofEurope’s andAmerica’s. Stateside, cakes made with oils instead of butter are called chiffon cakes, though ours tend to have far more eggs and sugar than those from the Mediterranean. Californians claim citrusy chiffon cakes as their own, but I’m willing to bet that they were made much earlier inFlorida, where Greeks and Minorcans were cooking with olive oil and where citrus trees planted by Spaniards in the sixteenth century predated West Coast groves by 200 years.
In northwesternItaly, where I lived 25 years ago, every Ligurian and Piedmontese village has its own version of an orange-scented cake made with olive oil. Interestingly, it is also often made with as much cornmeal as wheat flour. But for the citrus, it tastes like Yankee cornbread (that is, made with sugar and flour). Here’s a photo of Ann’s cake made with blood oranges.
Sweet Potato Cake
I developed this recipe for a Sweet Potato Cake for the International Olive Oil Council. In the South, you find versions of this cake made in layers and iced with a rich coconut frosting; sometimes it’s topped with an orange glaze. Neither embellishment is necessary. Baked in a tube pan and served after a powerful main course such as seafood gumbo, this light southern favorite is perfect as is. It is very moist and keeps well.
Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you begin. Use a 10-inche tube pan that is ungreased for this cake, so that the batter can cling to the sides and rise high. Non-stick pans with removable inserts work particularly well. If your mixer has only one bowl, beat the egg whites first, then turn them out into another bowl — preferably copper — while you continue with the dish. Use a 10-inch tube pan for this cake, but don’t grease it: you want the batter to cling to the sides and rise high. Non-stick pans with removable inserts work particularly well with this recipe.
4 eggs, separated
1 cup fruity olive oil
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup hot water
2 1/4 cups soft southern flour such as White Lily or cake flour
l large sweet potato, peeled and grated (2 1/2 to 3 cups)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Whip the egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then set aside in a bowl (preferably copper).
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the oil with the sugar until it is well mixed. Use the paddle attachment if your mixer has one. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each. Slowly pour in the hot water and continue to beat until the mixture is light.
Sift 1/4 cup of the flour over the grated sweet potato in a large bowl and toss so that it is lightly coated. This will keep the potato from sinking to the bottom of the cake. Sift the remaining flour with the baking powder, soda, salt, ginger, and nutmeg. Add the dry to the wet ingredients and mix well, then mix in the vanilla and the sweet potatoes.
Beat the egg whites again until they hold stiff peaks, then fold them gently but thoroughly into the batter. Pour the batter into a 10-inch tube pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the cake is lightly browned and a straw poked into the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven, invert the pan, and allow to cool completely.
Tom also requested cheese straws, which he’s had several times at our house, but I couldn’t serve fried chicken without devilled eggs. I dare not offer a recipe for devilled eggs since they are infinitely variable. When I’m making them at the last minute, I’ll use butter, the way my sister Sue does, but if you’re going to refrigerate them, you’ll have to remember to take them out at least a half hour before serving or the butter will harden and the fillings will contract and pop out of the eggs. I like to cut the ends off the eggs and cut them in half crosswise instead of lengthwise. They’re easier to pick up that way.
At a family reunion in westernTennessee a few years ago, my cousin Ginny Martin Lewis brought devilled eggs on a boat ride. She had the hollowed whites in one plastic tub and the devilled yolks in a plastic bag. She snipped the corner off the bag and piped the the filling into the whites. I’ve used the idea many times since. (That’s Ginny and Uncle Bud, my mother’s brother.)
I put some chow-chow (see November 25, 2008), homemade mayonnaise (see June 5, 2008), and fresh herbs in a mortar with the egg yolks, added a little olive oil, and mashed it all around until it was the perfectly creamy consistency, seasoning it to taste and sprinkling it, per tradition, with paprika, just like Mama used to do. In the photo above, you can see the cheese straws in the background.
Ironically, after all my work, the okra chips (which longtime customer Tim Griffin sent me) were the hit of the party because of their “newness.” You can get them from Fresh Market.
Lemon Meringue Pie
When my sister Sue was in town, we went to dinner at the home of our dear friend Richard Little. Twice he had attempted to make a lemon meringue pie from a new pie cookbook he had purchased and twice the recipe failed. It was too sweet for one thing and the lemon filling never set. On Saturday he made my recipe from The New Southern Cook and he sent me the following photo and email:
So, Jay gets here and said, where did you get that porcelain pie? “I made it yesterday” I say. He was astounded that it was real, and thought that I had bought a glass pie for decoration (Can you imagine?!)… and then one of the other guests was suggesting that he had brought the pie over as a gift and had bought it in a bakery. When I served it, the first comment was o wow, this is not too sweet!. Everybody had 2 pieces and one person (Jay, the porcelain pie one) had three!… The pie ended up on the dinner table so people could keep cutting little extra pieces off it.
Now, that’s a pie. It was delicious, if I do say so myself. And everybody was amazed at how beautiful it looked. It did, too. Of course, I told them about the prior disastrous one (well really 2, but I did not go into all that detail) and that this one was your recipe…
From The New Southern Cook, with pie cooked and photographed by Richard Little:
When we were discussing recipes to be included in this southern collection, my editor, Fran McCullough, asked if I had a great recipe for Lemon Meringue Pie. I had already decided not to include a Key Lime Pie, not only because the Florida Keys are hardly southern, but also because Key limes are hard to find. I also do not care for cloyingly sweet pies made with condensed milk, nor, for that matter, those made thick with cornstarch or flour.
This is a very old recipe with none of those traditional thickeners. It’s really just a lemon curd made with whole eggs, poured into a crumb crust and baked with a meringue topping. It is not so sweet as other recipes, but it is rich: You can cut smaller slices of this one, but you can’t reduce the sugar in those others.
For the crust:
1-1/4 cups Graham cracker crumbs (or about 10 crushed Graham crackers)
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
5 tablespoons melted butter
Grease a 9-inch pie plate, then dust it with flour. Combine the crumbs, sugar, and melted butter in a bowl and mix thoroughly. The mixture will be in crumbs, not a dough. Dump the crumb mixture into the prepared pie plate and distribute it evenly with your fingertips, then press it into place firmly enough that it holds it shape. Be sure to come all the way up to the edge of the pan.
Set the crust in the refrigerator to chill.
For the filling and meringue:
4 eggs plus 1 yolk
1-1/2 cups sugar, divided
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, cut into 8 pieces
4 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
On a piece of wax paper, grate the zests of the lemons. You should have about 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon of grated zest. Put 2 tablespoons in the top of a double boiler or in a wide stainless steel bowl that will fit snugly over a pot of simmering water. Put the extra teaspoon aside in a little bowl. Juice the lemons until you have 1/3 cup. Add that juice to the 2 tablespoons of zest. Squeeze another teaspoon of juice and add it to the teaspoon of zest.
Add the eggs, yolk, and 1 cup of the sugar to the reserved 2 tablespoons of lemon zest and juice. Mix well, then place over simmering water and cook, stirring constantly with a whisk, until it is very thick, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Whisk in the the butter, 1 or 2 pieces at a time. Set the custard aside to cool while you prepare the meringue.
Beat the egg whites until foamy, then add the cream of tartar and salt and beat until they hold soft peaks. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat until it is all incorporated. Add the reserved teaspoon of zest and juice and beat once more until it is just mixed in.
For the final assembly:
Preheat the oven to 300º.
Remove the crust from the refrigerator and put on a level counter. Pour the lemon filling into the crust. Fold the meringue out onto the pie and cover completely, being sure that the meringue goes from crust to crust so that it does not shrink away from the sides. Use the back of a large serving spoon to pull up the meringue in attractive peaks.
Place the pie in the preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the meringue is lightly browned on the peaks. Remove to cool on a rack in a completely draft-free place. It should cool completely before it is served. It can be served at room temperature, but I prefer to refrigerate it after it has cooled down a bit, and serve it chilled.
Smoked ribs, sausages, and tomatoes
As if I didn’t have enough to do this weekend, I also rendered my own lard, and made homemade sausages, which I put on the smoker with ribs (Saturday night’s dinner) and tomatoes. What a perfect thing to do with dumb hothouse tomatoes: put them on the smoker for a few hours, peel them, and make a simple sauce with them. A few shrimp tossed in and you have a wonderful complement for pasta.
The tomatoes don’t take long; the ribs and sausage take several hours.
To render your own lard, buy fresh pig fat from a butcher. You will probably have to order it in advance. Ask him to grind it for you as well. Here’s what I wrote in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking:
My preferred shortening is clean, home-rendered lard. For frying, it has a higher flash point than vegetable oils, and for baking, it produces the flakiest pastry and the most delicately layered biscuits. Rendering lard is incredibly simple. Have your butcher save clean, fresh pig fat for you. He may be willing to run it through the meat grinder for you, to save you a step.
Put a mere film of water in the bottom of a heavy pan — preferably cast iron — large enough to hold the fat you want to render. (I have a cast-iron roasting pan that is 20 inches long and 4 inches deep; I can render 15 pounds of lard at a time. If you do not own any cast iron, and plan to buy some to outfit your Lowcountry kitchen, this is a perfect way to begin the seasoning of them.) Grind the lard and add it to the pan. Put the pan over very low heat or in an oven heated to 225o. Melt the fat slowly. When the solid matter, or cracklings, turn brown and sink to the bottom of the pan, the lard can be strained through cheesecloth or a fine mesh stainless steel strainer into sterilized jars. You may fill them to the rims, as the lard will contract upon hardening. Cover the jars with cheesecloth, but do not cap them for two days. The lard will last several months in a cool, dark, dry place; even longer in the refrigerator. One-half cup of lard weighs 3 ounces; 1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons is equal to 1-1/2 ounces.
Commercially available lard is often stale; it usually contains questionable additives such as BHA and BHT. John F. Martin & Sons are custom butchers in Stevens, Pennsylvania, who sell pure lard, with no additives. Call (717) 336-2804 for shipping information.
March 18, 2009: Ritzy leftovers made plain
The caviar’s gone. We’ve had our fill – for a few days, anyway – of goodChampagne. I froze the blackberries and strawberries we never touched. We still have cake and cookies and bonbons, but they’ll last. But last night I really needed to finish up the lobster and oysters I bought for Mikel’s birthday.
This simple oyster soup – and, like several other “stews” in the South, it’s not a stew at all — is a favorite up and down the eastern seaboard. In New England, it’s likely to include bacon and shallots; around the Chesapeake, egg yolks and ham. But I’ve always preferred the simple formula of oysters, milk, and cream. In Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, he wrote, “A basic southern oyster stew highlights the simplest ingredients: 3 parts milk, 1 part heavy cream, heated, with 2 parts shucked oysters added and poached lightly, seasoned only with fresh black pepper and whole butter – salted crackers the only accompaniment.” He then proceeded to give a more elaborate version made with onion, celery, rice, chicken stock, watercress, and scallions.
In The New Southern Cook, I praised my friend Neal, whose “untimely death saddened the food world, especially in the South, where he had spearheaded the return of traditional southern cooking to restaurants.” I, too, then offered a gussied-up version from chef Sam McGann of North Carolina’s Outer Banks:
1 pint freshly shucked oysters and their liquor (about 4 dozen oysters)
1-1/2 to 2 cups heavy cream
1-1/2 to 2 cups half-and-half
about 3/4 cup finely diced or julienned mixed vegetables such as cucumbers, carrots, celery, leeks, and fennel
2 or 3 slices cooked, crumbled bacon, preferably an old-fashioned cure
Drain the oysters and reserve the liquor. Taste this juice so that you know how salty it is. Many oysters are very salty and will need no further salting. Measure the oysters and add an equal quantity of cream and half-and-half. Season very slightly with Tabasco sauce and Worchestershire. Salt only if necessary.
Simmer the stew for 3 to 4 minutes or until the oysters are plump and the edges begin to curl.
To serve, Sam says, “A dollop of sweet butter and fresh snipped dill would add a little elegance, but a purist might beg to differ. Divide into small bowls and finish with crumbled bacon and some thinly cut vegetables.”
Makes 4 hearty servings.
Debbie Recommends: Pouilly-Fumé or a Chardonnay from Monterey or Santa Barbara.
In Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, I based my recipes on Charleston standards from the 19th century:
Sarah Rutledge offered recipes for several oyster soups in her seminal classic, The Carolina Housewife (1847), including one with peanuts (“ground-nuts”) and one with benne (sesame seeds):
To half a pint shelled ground-nuts, well beaten up, add two spoonfuls of flour, and mix well. Put to them a pint of oysters, and a pint and a half of water. While boiling, throw on a seed-pepper or two, if small.
This recipe, adapted from Rutledge, is made in the same manner except that instead of half a pint ground-nuts, a pint and a gill of Bennie is mixed with the flour and oysters. A gill (pronounced jill) was a common 19th century measurement equal to a half-cup. The following adaptation of the benne-oyster combination may be more to your liking.
1 tablespoon benne (sesame seeds)
1 cup oyster liquor
1 cup cream
12 freshly shucked large oysters
cayenne and freshly gound black pepper
In a medium oven or in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat, cook the benne until they are evenly browned. Remove to a mortar and grind with a pestle until a paste forms, adding a few drops of oyster liquor or cream if necessary. Heat the cream and oyster liquor together, gradually stir in the benne paste, then add the oysters and continue to heat until the oysters are just curled. Season with cayenne and black pepper.
Here’s Rutledge’s original Oyster Soup, which she called Potage aux Huitres. I’ve often wondered if our confusion of the terms soups and stews has to do with the early French ancestors and the pretensions of the American settlers who emulated European upper classes.
Potage Aux Huitres
Bruise in a mortar two dozen fine oysters, very fresh and washed. Put them in some broth, and cook
on a slow fire for about half an hour. Pass the soup through a sieve or fine colander, and put in crusts
of bread. This soup is more nourishing and more wholesome than any other that is made from meat.
All that said, last night I simply drained the freshly shucked, and very salty, Chincoteague oysters, measure them, reserving the oyster liquor. I then put an equal measure of milk and an equal measure of cream, slightly splashed with hot sauce, in a pan and heated it gently. Well, that’s not quite true: I didn’t have quite enough cream, but I did have the leftover butter that we had been dipping our lobster meat in, so I added that, then added the oysters for just a few minutes at the end, to heat through, until their edges were just beginning to curl. No salt. No pepper. No Worcestershire (I don’t have any in my kitchen). No bacon. No onions. No ham. No watercress. Delicious!
Leftover cooked lobster, cut into bitesize pieces. Truly new Yukon gold potatoes, cut into chunks and
simmered until just barely done, drained, then put back in the pot to dry. Everything room temp. Lots of
fresh-chopped basil. A little celery. Homemade celery salt. A little pepper. And just enough, just-made,
room temp mayonnaise to bind. Room temp is everything in this salad. And not too much of anything.
Before we delved into a weekend of culinary debauchery, I made a simple dish that I thought was both inspired and tasty: creamy, slow-cooked stone-ground grits with salty, raw Chincoteague oysters and fresh arugula stirred in just before serving. ”Grits and Greens” (known in Italy as Polenta e Verdura) is an old southern favorite, but in both the South and in Italy, the greens are traditionally cooked first, then stirred into the corn mush near the end. In Italy, that mush is then often turned into a casserole dish and allowed to cool, then is sliced and served at room temperature, though it can be pan-fried or grilled to reheat it.
But since the oysters and the arugula merely needed warming through, I simply cooked 1-1/2 cups of grits in 6 cups of water to yield 4 servings, then stirred in a cup of oysters (12 large, salty, just-shucked Chincoteagues) and 2 cups of packed arugula, weighing 2 ounces. It was a hit!
I’m always a bit self-conscious when we splurge on Champagne and caviar, but Mikel works hard and deserves whatever he wants. His birthday was on Friday, which he had arranged to have off over a month ago. As it turns out, he worked not only on Friday, but on Saturday as well. We ordered the delicious caviar from Bertha and Howell Boone’s Georgia Seafood inDarien,Georgia. I’ll put Howell’s malossol (low-salt) sturgeon caviar up against the world renowned producers’. The sturgeon is now extinct in the Baltic, and interstate sales of Russian caviar are banned in theUnited States until 2017. Further, the harvest and sale of wild sturgeon meat or caviar is also banned inRussia, though farm-raised sturgeon may be taken.
Iranians produce beluga, sevruga, and ossetra caviar from theCaspian Sea, the world’s largest inland lake that is also bordered byTurkmenistan,Kazakhstan andAzerbaijan. The three types of caviar refer to different species of sturgeon. If you have problems withIran’s politics, you may shy away from buying Persian caviar, though the Iranians say that illegal fishing by their neighbors and oil pollution threaten the future of caviar trade.
Caviar, or salted fish eggs, is made from the roe of other fish, but once you’ve had the various black sturgeon caviars, it’s hard to appreciate the others. I’ve been a fan of caviar since I was a child, when Georgetown, South Carolina, was the last of the big East Coast producers. In the late 19th century, millions of pounds of Atlantic sturgeon were taken each year, but production had dwindled to almost nothing by the time of the Great Depression. After World War II, during the most rapid expansion of the American economy, the numbers were back up to 200,000 pounds a year, though most of the fish were taken for caviar.
Here’s what I wrote in the late 1980s, with a photo I took of Howell (on the right) with his father, Sinkey, back then:
Sturgeon were once so numerous here [in the South Carolina Lowcountry] that there are several eighteenth and nineteenth century references to the mouths of our rivers so full that one could cross to the opposite bank by walking on the backs of the ten- and twelve-foot fish. The roe of the female and the gonads of the male sturgeon, herring, and shad are delicious eating. I can remember my parents sending to Georgetown, on Winyah Bay, an hour north of Charleston, for fresh malossol caviar made from the Atlantic sturgeon to serve at a cocktail party. As it is now illegal to take sturgeons along the South Carolina coast, Georgetown caviar is a delicacy of the past. But Walter’s Caviar in Darien, Georgia, processes caviar “the Russian way.”
Argentinian tartas and empanadas
Besides champagne and caviar, Mikel also requested tartas (traditional Argentinian tortillas españolas – savory pies) and empanadas from El Patio, one of my favorite places to eat in theWashington area. He and I discovered the Argentinian bakery and café by accident once en route home fromNew York, when we left the insane traffic of the interstate aroundJessup,Maryland, and walked into their unpretentious place in an industrial area that for the world resembled a 7-11. We ended up buying several of their quiche-like pies, chock-full of spinach, cheese, and ham. The pastry is as good as I’ve had.
They have a second location in Rockville, north of the city, so my sister Sue and I went up on Thursday and bought beef, chicken, and ham and cheese empanadas as well as slices of their delicious pies, among them one made from calabaza that was the hit of the birthday party. Sue and I also ate lunch there, where, for $11, I had a perfectly grilled grass-fed beef flank steak with a salad and French fries. The staff is courteous and helpful with the menu. They also cater parties and make deliveries. Both locations carry a wide assortment of their house-made baked goods, including their tasty Alfajores de maicena (barely sweet, buttery cookies filled with dulce de leche and dusted with grated coconut). See the photo below.
With the tarts and empanadas, I served two salads, one a tzatziki in honor of our friend Yori (see below).
We also got a bushel of briny Chincoteague oysters, which Sue and Mikel and I opened outdoors on my new oyster-shucking table that I built for our front stoop. Since it rained all weekend, we also set up an umbrella, though I couldn’t get any of our guests outdoors to shuck, except for Yori Voulgaris, who is visiting fromMykonos,Greece, and who took to opening them like any good island boy.
Back home in South Carolina, an oyster roast is a lively social gathering where many people first eat their fill of raw oysters, each person shucking his own. I wrote in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking:
The Lowcountry oyster roast is a unique outdoor celebration. Rustic giant cable spools are common on the lawns of some of our most historic houses: they are the perfect height for opening oysters, which is done while standing. A log fire is built on the ground. Concrete blocks support a piece of sheet metal which sits a foot above the fire. Raw oysters from the surrounding marshes are laid on top of the sheet metal, then covered with soaking wet croaker sacks (gunnysacks — so called because are they used to hold the catch when frog-gigging), so that the oysters steam. Packages of saltines and bowls of cocktail sauce (usually “homemade” of tomato catsup and horseradish) and melted butter are placed on the oyster tables, but most Sandlappers prefer the salty local oysters plain. Everyone fends for himself, and brings his own oyster knife and glove. We take turns manning the fire; a shovel is the only tool used. Empty shells are returned to the marsh or laid in driveways. Sandlappers tend to stand at the tables and open raw oysters for an hour before eating steamed ones. They are best when just heated through, so that they open more easily than the raw ones without having lost their tangy juice. A serious oyster eater can devour a bushel; I get a bushel of oysters for every five people invited.
Since everyone else was inside, I hosed off several dozen oysters, turned the oven up to 500º, placed the oysters on a sheet pan, and covered them with soaking wet towels, heating them just until the hinges loosened. I went ahead and pried off the upper shell for our guests. Here I am getting ready to serve the heated bivalves, the flesh puffed up, hot, and juicy.
Mikel’s mother, Dixie, always makes his birthday cake. He prefers her chocolate cake (and, in the South, a chocolate cake is a yellow layer cake with chocolate icing. If you want a chocolate cake with chocolate icing, you have to ask for it), but we had a guest coming who doesn’t eat chocolate, so she sent a caramel cake (see photo) instead — my favorite! She’s sent us several over the past few years, and we all thought that this one was her best yet. The cake and icing are homemade, the real thing, not these fake caramel icings made with powdered sugar, and the cake was perfectly moist. Since caramel has always threatened me somehow, I’m going to film her making the cake when we visit this fall. I’ll request the cake for my upcoming 60th birthday!
Also in the photo are the phenomenal chocolate bonbons from Artisan Confections in Arlington. I’ve been hearing about Artisan for awhile and now I believe all the praise. I never thought I would have chocolates as elegant as those I learned to love in both Paris and Genoa, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had better. Our friend Patrick Triano brought them to Mikel for his birthday.
With my sister Sue having only one day left, we headed down to the fish markets on the Wharf in DC, where we got lobsters — Mikel’s last request for his birthday. First we went to the National Gallery of Art to see the fascinating and brilliantly mounted show on Pompeii, then home to cook the lobsters. I’ve never been a big lobster fan, having been around crabs all my life (and whose flavor I prefer). I don’t think that I had ever cooked one before! I pulled several of my favorite fish books off the shelf and they all said about the same thing. Most of my books are very old, but I also had a copy of Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore’s Fish Without a Doubt, which Roy had sent me. Rick’s recipe for “Better Boiled Lobster” made sense to me: you bring a big, heavily salted pot of water to a boil, lower the lobsters in head first, wait for the water to return to a boil, let it boil for one minute, then let the lobsters sit in the water for 20 minutes.
Alas, we were so full from eating the remaining oysters that we cleaned only one of the lobsters and served it with mounds of arugula. Mikel and I will be eating lobster again tonight. But we’ll be holding off on caviar until his birthday rolls around again this time next year. In the meantime, we still have plenty of Champagne and sweets to devour. We always use his birthday as an excuse to exert our most extravagant bourgeois tastes, but it will be back to the gym and no wine on weekdays around here for awhile!
March 9, 2009 Not much cooking this week
Mikel is in Vinton, Iowa, visiting the Midwest Campus of the National Civilian Community Corps, of which he is the Acting Director, so I won’t be cooking much until he gets home. My sister Sue is in town and we will go to museums and eat out a lot. Mikel’s birthday is Friday, and we’ll have caviar and oysters and Champagne, but more about that later.
I’ve been going through old photos and posting lots of things on my Facebook page, egged on by my dear friend Dana Downs. Among the amazing things I’ve been finding in some old journals (which were spared the wrath of Hurricane Hugo, unlike most of my artwork, negatives, and slides) are wine labels from the past. When my mother had leukemia back in the early 80s, I came home from Europe and helped my father care for her until she died. They had set out in their boat to do some seriously sailing, with the possibility of circumnavigating one day, when she became ill. The keel of their boat was filled with Dad’s wine cellar, which we slowly drank up as my mother lay dying. Among some of the rare gems was his last bottle of 1949 Chambolle Musigny, which he had bought as futures when I was born, that great vintage having been harvested on my birthday. I wrote about that bottle of wine on July 21, the week after Dad died.
I found these two labels from then as well:
When I lived in the Virgin Islands in 1979, a well-to-do friend of mine bought several cases of the 1970 Mouton, which we proceeded to drink. When I came back to the States, I brought a bottle for Dad, which he had saved. It was a very good year, and was drinking perfectly at the time, already showing a sophisticated aging. The wine threw a little sediment, but it was full of fruit and perfectly balanced tannins. We had it with lamb chops. This was before this vineyard got elevated to a Premier Cru in 1973 and it was everything you could possibly want a Pauillac to be; in other words, everything you want from Bordeaux. I’ve never been a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon as a varietal, especially not the in-your-face style of winemaking that was popularized in California and now is considered the “international” style, with high alcohol content and very forward fruit. But Pauillac is mostly Cab, blended with a little Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. This is truly what winemaking is all about.
Margaux, on the other hand, is an entirely different ball game, farther south, on the Garonne, an estuary that branches off the Gironde north of the city of Bordeaux. The soil is mineral-laden on the river bed, and more than 50% of the grapes grown are Merlot. The wines, however, run about 55% Cabernet Sauvignon. Chateau Lascombes, a second growth in the 1855 classification, had been purchased by Alexis Lichine in the early 1950s. Dad was a big fan of Lichine’s. Dad was also one of the charter members of Les Amis du Vin, a wine-buying cooperative begun right here in D.C. He read Lichine’s writings religiously and owned all of his books. He also patronized his winery in the good years. 1964 was not an outstanding year like 1970, but it was damned good, and the wine was nearly 20 years old when we drank it in 1982. It was the perfect complement to our filet mignons. I seldom eat filet, but it could not have been better choice to serve with this lovely old Margaux. You can see where my father wrote our initials on the label in the upper right corner.
March 6, 2009 Pasta with Country Ham, Fresh Peas, and Mushrooms
You find this dish throughoutItaly, made with prosciutto, of course, instead of country ham. It is reminiscent of a typical Easter side dish served throughout the South, with peas and pearl or spring onions cooked in cream, sometimes, indeed, served with mushrooms and sometimes with bits of country ham.
Fred Plotkin, in his wonderful The Authentic Pasta Book (Simon & Schuster, 1985), called the dish Tagliatelle alla Scaligera because his favorite version is the one served in Verona, where the powerful Scaligeri princes ruled in the 13th and 14th centuries. I’ve cooked from Fred’s book so many times that I wonder if I’ve tried all of the recipes in this 300-page collection. I believe the book is currently out-of-print, but if you can find a copy, I highly recommend it. Many of the recipes are for 1 or 2 servings, which makes it easy for a single person or a couple. They are easily mulitiplied.
Last night I did something I rarely do: I followed a recipe verbatim. Well, not really verbatim, since I used country ham instead of prosciutto and prepared the dried porcini mushrooms a little differently… But I used Fred’s exact proportions. I was a little surprised by the large size of the serving, which seemed much more like an American pasta dish, but we not only gobbled it down, but remarked on what a nice dish this is. And so simple and quick to prepare! The sauce is made while you cook the pasta. How cool is that?!
Fred’s writings on opera and Italian food and travel are exemplary. He beat me to the punch years ago writing a book on the foods of my beloved Liguria, but it well should have been him, with his remarkable fluency in both the language and the arts and culture. I first met Fred in the spring of 1986 when I was apprenticing with Nach Waxman at Kitchen Arts & Letters, learning how to run a culinary bookstore. Fred’s mother came in the store and, somewhat deviously, asked me if I could recommend a decent book on pasta. I had returned to the States about a year or so before after living in Genoa. I was flummoxed at the lack of knowledge of or availability of Ligurian foods. Fred’s book, brilliantly written, had been a revelation for me: there was real pesto made in a mortar, as well as Tocco de Noxe, Trenette, and Pansôti. (For the walnut sauce and herb-filled ravioli, see my blog on February 17.) At the time, even pesto was barely known on this side of theAtlantic. I bent Fred’s mother’s ear for a good ten minutes, extolling the virtues of the book, its authenticity, its charming headnotes with their many references to opera and history, and even its inclusion of recipes from some of the great stars of the operatic stage. “But don’t think this is a celebrity cookbook,” I told her. “Fred knows his stuff. The singers whose recipes he uses, are, after all, Italian. And I lived inGenoa, and I know he got that part right.”
“Oh, really?” she said. “I need several for gifts.”
I can’t remember if she then told me that she was Fred’s mother or if I got the call from Fred. Little did I know that he was at the time the performance manager of the Metropolitan Opera. His mother had told him about my enthusiastic pitch of his book, how could he thank me? I told him I was leaving to go back to South Carolina to open my own culinary bookstore the next week. Well, then, would I like to come see their final performance of Simon Boccanegra, with Kiri Te Kanawa as Amelia? It’s set inGenoa, you know.
I knew little about opera then and I know little now. But I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see Kiri Te Kanawa!
Years later Fred and I got to know each a little better while on press junkets sponsored by the International Olive Oil Council. His work continues to inspire me. When I found the first of the fresh peas (fromFlorida, yes, but fresh nonetheless) yesterday, I knew exactly where I would turn.
Pasta with Country Ham, Peas, and Mushrooms
This recipe makes hearty, American-style portions. Serve it as dinner with a salad.
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
4 ounces fresh peas, about 1 cup
4 ounces country ham or prosciutto, diced, about ¾ to 1 cup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces tagliatelle, fettucine, or another flat ribbon-style pasta
½ cup cream
Bring about an inch of water to bowl in a small pot and add the mushrooms. Simmer for 2 to 5 minutes, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to boil while you begin the sauce. Before adding pasta to the water, toss in a bit of salt and bring to the boil again.
Drain the mushrooms though a fine sieve, saving the water. Rinse the mushrooms under running water, pat dry, and chop finely. Strain the water again through something like a coffee filter back into the small pot. This step will remove any remaining grit. Add a cup or so of water to the mushroom water and bring to a boil. Add the peas and allow to simmer slowly. Fred recommends grating the Parmesan now and setting it aside.
Place a tablespoon of the butter in a wide saucepan over medium low heat and melt it gently. Add the country ham and cook for no more than a minute, just to warm it through. Add the mushrooms and cook for another 30 seconds or so, to warm through.
At this point, begin cooking your pasta until they are al dente.
Add the second tablespoon of butter and the peas. I simply scoop them out of the mushroomy liquid with a slotted spoon. When the butter is melted, add the cream and bring to a simmer, cooking until the sauce is thickened and the pasta is ready. You can add spoonfuls of the mushroom liquid to the sauce as it cooks if you desire.
Drain the pasta and add to the sauce, tossing the noodles around and evenly distributing the sauce. Serve in warmed bowls with a lots of grated Parmesan.
For wine, Fred recommends a Valpolicella but I believe I’d head for an acidic white to cut through the fat. Try a Lugana, Trebbiano, or just about any blended white from the South of France. (For some ideas, see my blogs from September 3, 2008.)
My local bodega, really a very well stocked Latin American grocer, carries a vast assortment of tropical, subtropical, and temperate fruits and vegetables. There’s a world a chiles available, both fresh and dried, though many are already packaged in shrink-wrap. I always wonder what I’m supposed to do with a pound of jalapeños, but they look better and cost the same as a handful at the supermarket. I bought a pack of four poblanos, thinking I might make chiles rellenos (for a traditional recipe, see February 8, 2008) one night during our friend Terry’s visit. But we had so much food that I never got to the peppers, one of which I used in a lemongrass paste to season quail (see below).
Last night I decided to make chiles rellenos, using what I had on hand. I wasn’t in the mood to fry them, so I recreated a dish I had made in the Yucatan (see my very first blog from January 2007) when I was cooking for ten a couple of years ago and didn’t want to fry for that many people. I stuffed them with cheese, placed them in an ovenproof dish, and baked them in salsa verde.
First, I charred the skins of the poblanos over open flames, allowing only the skins, and not the flesh, to turn black. I then placed them in a plastic bag and covered it with a towel so that the charred skin would steam away from the flesh. When they cooled, I rubbed the burnt skins away, slit the peppers down a natural groove, and carefully removed the seeds and cut out the tough part of the core while leaving the pepper intact. I then stuffed them with cheese, closed them, pressing them back into their original shapes, and placed them in a baking dish (for four peppers, an 8” by 8” pan is perfect). Diana Kennedy recommends mozzarella or a mild cheddar, but what I had on hand were ricotta andMonterey jack and cheddar. For four poblanos, you’ll need a pound of cheese. I often use some goat cheese as well. Use any good melting cheese.
When you fry chiles rellenos, you coat them in flour and egg, so that they are coated with a light batter that holds them together. You might want to use toothpicks to hold them together while you bake them.
Salsa Verde is usually made by simmering tomatillos in water until they are soft, then pureeing them together with onion, garlic, salt, cilantro, and fresh, green chiles. Diana warns that if you make it in a blender instead of a molcajete (the Latin American mortar), the sauce will become watery and separate. Never mind, though, this is a quick school night supper.
For four poblanos, you’ll need a pound of tomatillos, Strip off the husks and wash the tomatillos, which can be sticky, well. Quarter them and place them in the work bowl of a food processor with 2 hot chile peppers such as jalapeños, Fresnos, or Serranos. Since peppers vary widely in their heat factor, I would suggest that you use peppers that you are familiar with. I used a jalapeño and aFresno. Add a couple of tablespoons of cilantro stems, a teaspoon of salt, a peeled garlic clove, and a chopped small onion or large shallot. Pulse until you have a thick puree. (Diana says “there should be some texture and pieces of skin evident in the sauce”).
Pour the sauce over chiles, sprinkle some grated Parmesan on them, and bake until the sauce begins to bubble, about 15 minutes at 375º. Serve a chile per person. Divide the sauce and garnish with just-chopped cilantro leaves.
I cook dinner every night, and I usually shop each day for that meal. But the snowdrift in the driveway and the ice on the sidewalks has seen me staying in the past couple of days, except for the treacherous dog walking, and I have relied on the refrigerator and freezer for our meals. Fortunately, on hand I had duck breasts and leftover walnut sauce (see February 17) and frozen ricotta gnocchi and lentil soup that Terry brought from London Grill and plenty of prosciutto, cheese, and salad fixin’s, so we haven’t gone without.
Yesterday for lunch I made a grilled cheese sandwich, one of my favorite comfort foods. Hearty, homestyle white bread slathered heavily with butter and filled with cheese that gets gooey as it melts (in this case, aged Vermont cheddar). Is there anything better alongside a bowl of soup on a cold day?!
March 2, 2009 Snow and Terry Berch McNally
Our dear friend Terry Berch McNally of Philly’s London Grill came to celebrate her birthday with us and we have feasted royally with oysters and caviar and Champagne and far too many bottles of wines of all colors — reds, whites, and rosés. We were thrilled when she got snowed in for an extra day!
On Friday night, we grilled plump spring onions and served them with romesco sauce (see my blog about Catalonia), then grilled thick slices of eggplant and quails that had been marinated in Elizabeth Schneider’s great lemongrass seasoning paste from her marvelous Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide. Since the book appears to be out of print, I’m attaching a scan of the recipe here. It’s a great one. We sat on the deck all evening; the temperature was in the sixties. Saturday we ate lunch at the ever-popular Market Lunch in the temporary quarters of DC’s fabled Eastern Market. (Mikel and Terry had crab cake sandwiches; I had fried haddock.) At the adjacent flea market, I almost bought some lovely Tunisian pottery that inspired me to come home and make a lamb tagine with preserved Meyer lemons, tomatoes, and golden raisins. Terry took this shot with her iPhone of me turning the lamb shanks after about 3 hours of slow baking.
We went by the Wharf and bought 50 Chincoteague oysters, so perfectly briny that we simply opened them outdoors and devoured them with no garnish whatsoever. Photos of Terry and me by Mikel Herrington with his Blackberry Storm.
Yesterday morning I made a big pot of my delicious whole-grain, stone-ground heirloom dent corn grits into which we all dunked an egg yolk (I save the whites in the freezer, marking the container with hatchmarks. When I have 10 or so, I make an angel food cake — see November 12, 2007, for a recipe). A little bit of butter and salt in the pot while they’re cooking and little bit of freshly ground black pepper afterwards is all that’s needed. I realized after we had eaten that I meant to shuck the last of the oysters and add them to the bowls of grits instead of the egg yolk. Oh, well, next time!