February 27, 2009: A Mardi Gras Feast
On Mardi Gras we had 20 people over for jambalaya – what South Carolinians call “pilau.” There are as many versions of jambalaya as there are cooks in Louisiana, but most of them include some type of ham, as the name indicates. Chicken, duck, seafood, ham, and sausage, in any combination, fill this one-pot rice dish. I rarely follow a recipe; the only important thing to remember is the proportion of liquid to rice (2 to 1). The following version that I made on Tuesday is a combination of my two traditional Carolina pilau recipes, one with shrimp (see London) and one with chicken (see November 27, 2007). I served Rockefeller Turnovers (see December 20, 2007) as an appetizer with Champagne Punch (see below), and saved the oyster liquor to add to the stock. The day before, I poached a chicken with aromatic vegetables and made a stock. I also cooked the shrimp ahead of time in shrimp stock and added that flavorful liquid to the cooking broth as well.
This is an easy way to feed a crowd.
one 3-1/2- to 4-pound chicken
2 quarts water plus celery, onion, carrots, bay leaf, and herbs of your choice OR
2 quarts chicken stock
½ cup butter, olive oil, or bacon grease, or a combination
3 cups chopped onion (2 or 3 medium to large onions)
3 cups chopped celery
1 bell pepper, green or red, chopped
1-1/2 pounds red ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, OR 1 large can chopped tomatoes,
preferably San Marzano, with seasoning if desired
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs of
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups long grain white rice
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 pound cooked city or country ham, diced (3 cups)
3-1/2 pounds shrimp, cooked and peeled
Wash the chicken and cover it with the water and aromatics or with chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Allow the chicken to cool in the broth, then strain the mixture, reserving the stock. Remove the skin and bones from the chicken and refrigerate the chicken meat, well covered.
Add the fat of your choice to a very large, heavy pot such a 7-quart enameled cast iron pot. Over medium high heat, sauté the onions, celery, and bell pepper until limp and beginning to become translucent. Add the tomatoes, herbs, and peppers and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is almost gone. In the meantime, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and dice it uniformly. Add 2 quarts of stock, salt, rice, and 3 tablespoons of the parsley, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and allow to simmer, without lifting the lid, for twenty minutes.
Remove the cover and add the ham, using two forks to fluff the rice and mix in the ham. Do not stir with a spoon. Cover the pot and allow to simmer for another ten minutes.
Uncover the pot, add the shrimp, using forks again to distribute them and to fluff the rice. Turn off the heat, cover the pot again, and allow to sit for another ten minutes.
Serve with cornbread or French bread and a green salad.
Green Bean and Benne Salad (see February 8, 2008)
I served a green bean salad that has long been one of my most requested dishes. I doubled the recipe that I ran here, but I have found that if I heat the oil and add the garlic and cook just until the garlic starts to sizzle, then remove from the heat, that the garlic isn’t too potent or stomach-upsetting to those who can’t eat it raw.
I place the benne (sesame) seeds in a pot over medium high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to darken. When about a third of them are dark, I turn off the heat, add the hot pepper flakes, and continue to stir occasionally until they are cool. I then assemble the dish with the blanched green beans and olive oil and keep it cool until time to serve. Only upon serving do I add the lemon juice, which would turn the green beans dull and brownish if allowed to sit. If you refrigerate the dish, bring it to room temperature before serving.
With the oyster turnovers, I serve the Champagne Punch from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, in which I wrote:
Charleston’s winter social season is no less festive than it was two hundred years ago, when balls were given nearly every night in January and February. Today the season runs from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, but the socializing — and drinking — are still legend in the port city. Most people opt for glasses of wine or cocktails these days, but I love to serve a big bowl of punch once a year. Many of the beverages in the Junior League’s Charleston Receipts of 1950 are champagne- and tea-based punches. This is not the orange-pekoe tea drunk cold at dinner, but green, uncured tea. I don’t really follow a recipe, but a good formula includes a quart of green tea, a pint of brandy, a pint of ratifia (or a flavored brandy of your choice), a half dozen lemons and a half dozen oranges — sliced thin, a quart of dark rum, and, just before serving, four quarts of champagne and four quarts of seltzer. The Junior League advises, “And never forget that punch stock should be poured over a block of ice and served cold, cold, cold!”
That punch makes 3 gallons. I had 20 for dinner and offered beer and wine as well, so I figured that a third of the people would drink punch. A gallon is 128 ounces and a champagne flute holds 4 ounces, so I divided the recipe by a third, more or less, giving us 32 servings, or enough for half the folks to have 3 glasses. It was the perfect amount.
Early in the day, I made a pint of tea, using Bigelow’s naturally flavored Green Tea with Peach, thereby eliminating the need to find a flavored brandy. I then added a pint of brandy and 11 ounces of white rum (because that’s what I had on hand) to the punch bowl in which I had 2 oranges and 2 lemons, well-scrubbed, thinly sliced, and the seeds removed. I allowed it to sit all day.
The night before, I had placed a store-bought half-gallon of lemonade in a cardboard container in the freezer. Just before serving, I emptied the now frozen block of lemonade into the punch bowl and added a fifth of champagne and a quart of seltzer. You can use flavored seltzer if you wish. Delicious!
Februrary 25, 2009: How much do I hate Microsoft?
Let’s just put it this way: after working on my blog this morning for 2 hours, reporting on my dinner for twenty last night, both this stupid platform and Internet Explorer (which is the only browser the program works in) crashed, losing all my work. I may or may not re-post.
Since Mikel was gone all last week, I didn’t cook much, and this week we are visiting with several old friends, including Kathy Coburn Benton, whom I’ve known since childhood. Her son, Pope Thrower, is in town taking the test for the State Department. He’s teaching English in China, where this shot of the two of them was taken. (P.S. He passed!)
Today we went out to the suburbs to the Eden Center, the big Vietnamese shopping plaza, and I shopped for a big office party I’m cooking tomorrow — jambalaya (it is Mardi Gras, after all).
On Saturday night, I picked Mikel up at the airport and we headed to Café du Parc in the Willard Hotel. I can’t wait until warm weather so we can go dine outdoors there, overlooking the park! We loved it. I was immediatly thrilled by the fact that Chef Westerman brought a bunch of French folks with him here to open this place — his chef, sous-chef, and several of the wait staff. They poured without asking cold tap water with no ice, thank you! And the bread — and French butter — were delicious.
February 17, 2009 Pansôti, Preboggion, Prescinsêua, and Tocco di Noxe
Mikel is out of town all week, so I won’t be cooking much. I’ll eat leftovers and catch up with friends, having some meals out. I did make one of my all-time favorite dishes this weekend, pansôti, an herb-filled ravioli fromLiguria, laced with the requisite walnut sauce, per tradition.
Preboggion is a Ligurian dialect word for a mixture of wild herbs and greens, always including some of the bitter ones; it is, frankly, impossible to recreate outside the region. A typical preboggion might include any number of mostly wild greens and herbs such as dandelion, sow thistle, chard, parsley, marjoram, beet greens, chicory, fennel, arugula, cresses, nettles, endive, and, invariably, borage. In truth, I rarely recognized most of the wild greens that my friend’s mother, who taught me how to make preboggion, gathered on their farm high above Genoa in the entroterra, as the upper inland reaches of the region are called. Most of the cookbooks I own from the region don’t even bother to give you a recipe. Odor di Basilico (1989) claims to offer authentic Ligurian recipes. Its version of pansôti (also spelled pansóuti) calls for 700 grams of borraggine and bietole as well as 500 grams of preboggion, but the book offers no recipe for the mix of greens.
To make matters worse, the Italian names of greens (and root vegetables) can be maddeningly difficult to decipher. Swiss chard, a Ligurian favorite, is known as bietole, but so are beets, or beet greens, actually. Barbabietola is the beet root. Though they are often eaten raw, they are usually sold cooked. Turnips are rape, but not rape greens as we know them. Confusingly, turnip greens are also sometimes called broccoletti, not to be confused with broccoletti di rape, the “broccoli raab” now so popular everywhere. Salsify and scorzonera are two root vegetables that I grew fond of when I lived inEurope, but they, too, have confusing names, even in English. Black salsify is a winter root vegetable; true salsify is also known as oyster plant. They’re both time-consuming to prepare and difficult to find in the States.
But where was I? Oh, yes: preboggion. I first wrote about the foods of Liguria for the New York Times Magazine back in the mid-80s. At the time, pesto was just barely making itself widely known on this side of the Atlantic, but no one knew much else about Liguria except perhaps to associate Genoa with Christopher Columbus. Portofino was a playground of the European Jet Set, but Cinque Terre had not yet been discovered by Americans. And no one had a clue that both minestrone (see below) and ravioli were Genoese dishes. As I wrote on in my second book, and repeated on the blog on May 7, to approximate the intense flavors of the wild Ligurian potherbs, I combine a good handful of herbs with about a pound of leafy green vegetables, always including some bitter greens. I might include a few leaves each of mitsuba (Japanese parsley) from my herb garden, along with chicory, French sorrel, sage, basil, lovage, chervil, hyssop, and a little tansy. Borage is invariably included in Liguria, as is wild marjoram. To these, I add about a pound of whatever mixed greens are available from the greengrocer — a handful each of Swiss chard, spinach, watercress, parsley, arugula, kale, and mustard and beet greens. When serving three or four, I remove the outer leaves from three heads of Belgian endive and add them to the mix, reserving the rest as a bed for a salad. Washed, picked clean and drained, the herbs and greens should weigh about a pound, still wet. They will fill an average colander — about 12 loosely packed cups.
That was a mix for a 10-egg frittata. Yesterday I simply used what I had on hand: 6-1/2 ounces of beet greens and arugula, to which I added a couple of ounces of fresh herbs.I roasted the beetroots in the oven with olive oil, onions, salt, pepper, and a sprig of rosemary. I peeled the root vegetables, tossed them with the olive oil, and served the beets at room temperature alongside the ravioli as the contorno, or side dish.
Should you find more precise instructions for making preboggion, they will invariably tell you to boil the greens for a few minutes, then squeeze them perfectly dry. But I find that you lose too much flavor that way, so I place them in a rice steamer (the steamer insert has a solid bottom with holes up above the foods to let steam in) and steam them until they are limp, then leave them in the pot to cool. I then squeeze them out, but they won’t have lost nearly as much of their wild character as when they’re boiled. I then place the steamed greens on a cutting board with a couple of good handfuls of herbs.
Mikel bought one of those hydroponic gardens with an electric pump (see photo, below). It does brighten the breakfast room, but the herbs don’t have much flavor. I find that I have to use three or four times as much as I would with fresh herbs from the summer garden. I then add a peeled small clove of garlic with the green shoot removed, and chop the herbs and steamed greens with a little salt until they are uniformly minced.
The herbs are traditionally mixed with prescinsêua, a sort of fresh cow’s milk cheese or clabber, somewhat like cottage cheese, but without the curds. When I lived in Genoa, it was illegal to sell it, but I befriended a cheesemonger who made his own and who would sell it to me to use in traditional American recipes calling for buttermilk. I thinned with a little water, milk, or wine.
Prescinsêua is traditionally used in tocco di noxe, the walnut sauce, as well, but I used ricotta instead. To the greens, I added ¾ cup ricotta, 1 egg, freshly grated nutmeg, and parmesan. I have seen recipes that include butter, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, marjoram, and olive oil. To each his own. While most pansôti today are triangular in shape, I think that that’s simply because that’s the easiest shape to make. I’ve seen fagottini, cappelletti, squares, circles, and agnolotti. The shape isn’t what’s important with these (meatless) ravioli magri; it’s the intensely herbal filling overstuffed into the gossamer-thin pasta dough, which is lightened with wine. Sorry, but you can’t substitute store-bought pasta or wonton wrappers in this dish and expect it to taste anything at all like the original.
To make the pasta, you need to work methodically and quickly. Roll the dough so that it’s as thin as possible but still strong enough to hold your filling. I have a hand-crank pasta roller with 6 settings and I find that I can take this dough to the 5th setting. It’s too delicate to go any finer. You also will need to constantly dust the counter with flour and to dust the ravioli as well, keeping them covered with a flour-dusted towel until you are ready to cook them, which should be as soon as possible after making them.
For the pasta (to serve 2 to 3; you can multiply this recipe), I made a mound of 1- 1/2 cups of flour sifted with ½ teaspoon of salt on our granite countertop, then made a crater in the middle, to which I added an egg, beating it with a fork in the crater and gradually pulling the flour into the egg, mixing it a little at a time with the fork, and slowly pouring 4 tablespoons of dry white wine into the crater as I mixed in the flour with the fork. Then, cupping one hand around the outside wall of the crater, I continued pulling the flour into the dough with the fork, and, when the dough got sticky, I began to knead it together with my hands.
If your dough is too dry, you can add up to 1 more tablespoon of wine or water. You can always add more flour if you must. I find that if I keep working the dough, it comes together well. I knead for a good ten minutes, until the dough is shiny and elastic. Relax and have fun while you’re kneading. I find that if I put on some favorite music, it goes more smoothly for me. Don’t cheat on the time, and don’t be afraid to manhandle the hell out of the dough. I pick it up and slap it down on the counter several times to aid in the kneading. When it’s smooth and pliable, I cover it well and let it rest for an hour.
It’s when I’m ready to roll the pasta that I find that two sets of hands help. I roll it out thin, and cut pieces about 2 feet long (see photo). I like my pansôti to be a little rough looking, so I place mounds of the filling a few inches apart, then cover the ravioli with another sheet. The distinguishing characteristic of pansôti is that they are overstuffed: pansôti means “pot-bellied” in dialect. So, no matter what shape you make, make them fat.
You must keep the rolled dough covered or it will dry out quickly, since this dough has no oil in it and the wine evaporates easily. If your dough is dry, you may have to paint around the filling with water to be sure that the top layer sticks. Carefully press the top layer down on top of the bottom layer, pushing the dough down tight around the mounds of filling. Cut the ravioli and place them on a well floured surface or cloth. Be sure they don’t touch and cook them as soon as possible. They take no time to cook, rising to the surface in a matter of minutes. Scoop them out, draining them well, and place them in warmed bowls. Use some of the hot pasta water to thin the sauce (recipe follows), which you ladle over the pasta. Serve immediately with crusty bread.
Tocco di Noxe is the dialect name of Walnut Sauce. Recipes vary even more than do those for preboggion and pansôti. I’ve seen cream and butter in some of the oldest recipes, though Liguria has almost no cows. Breadcrumbs, pine nuts, marjoram, and parmesan are included in some recipes and not in others. Prescinsêua appears in most traditional recipes, though today many people use cream, ricotta, or milk. Walnuts seem to be the only ingredient that I’ve found in every recipe. Ligurians are proud of their walnuts and their sauce, but I think that both nut and recipe came toItaly fromPersia. I’ve always thought it funny that we call them “English walnuts” while the English call them “Persian.”
Throughout the South, of course, we have the native black walnut that has a very tough shell and dark meat that is very hard to extract. It’s got a gamey taste. It’s one of my favorite foods, but I’ve never seen it used in sauces. Only in sweets. But I digress again.
Some recipes call for you to blanch the walnuts, which is actually a nice touch. If you blanch the nuts, you can make the sauce in a blender or food processor, but you will never get the right creamy texture unless you use a mortar and pestle with nuts that haven’t been blanched (simply pour boiling water over them and let them sit for a half hour or so to rid them of bitterness and crunch). Sorry, but it’s like pesto in that respect.
What you want are nuts, cheese, and liquid. For 2 to 3 servings (again, you can multiply this) I add a small, peeled clove of garlic with the green shoot removed to a cup of walnuts and about a half cup of finely grated parmesan and a half cup of ricotta thinned with warm water or milk. A dash of salt and a couple of leaves of marjoram if I’ve got it. Crush the walnuts and garlic and salt together until you have a paste, then begin adding the other ingredients. It will be a very thick paste which you will thin with a little of the hot pasta water just as you are serving the pansôti. You want it to be as creamy as possible. The photo doesn’t give this incredibly delicious meal justice. Sorry. I wanted to eat them while they were hot and didn’t pay much attention to what I was doing with the camera.
Here’s what I ended up making yesterday (see notes on minestrone in yesterday’s blog, below). It’s a sort of southern minestrone, made with collards, which take much longer to cook than the normal cabbages and chards of Italian versions. I love winter soups, but, being a southerner, I’m used to making them with animal fats (bacon and duck fat, for example) or with sausages, country ham, or meats to bolster them. Ligurians are right to distinguish between summer and winter versions of minestrone (see below), for it’s hard to get the bright flavors of a summer soup in a vegetarian winter broth. That’s why they often swirl in a bit of pesto just before serving. I’ve been known to add hot pepper vinegar, soy sauce, Asian fish sauce, anchovies, lemon juice, and chopped herbs to vegetable soups in winter to boost the flavors. I also don’t throw away any of the tough rinds from grana — Italian grating cheeses such as parmesan and pecornino; they add complexity and flavor to soups such as these. If ever “season to taste” means just that, it’s in soup making!
You don’t have to soak the beans overnight. There’s a quick-soak method and, in a pinch, you could use canned. But I usually soak them overnight, as I’ve done here:
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 sprig fresh thyme
extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped celery, 3 to 4 ribs
1 cup chopped carrots, about 2
2 cups chopped onions, about 2
1 pound collards, 1 to 2 dozen leaves, stems and
tough ribs removed, cut into strips (see photo)
hot red pepper flakes (optional)
2 large, ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 average red potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon hot pepper vinegar (optional)
parmesan rinds (optional)
3 ounces (about ¾ cup) dried, short tubular
pasta such as ditalini
3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, basil, and/or
freshly ground black pepper and other seasonings to taste
freshly grated Parmesan
The night before, soak the beans in water that covers them by at least an inch. Drain, rinse, then place in a saucepan with 5 cups of water, the garlic, and the thyme. Bring to boil, reduce the heat, and allow to cook until tender, but slightly al dente. It will take anywhere from 1 -1/4 to 2 hours, depending on the age of the beans and how slowly you cook them. I boil them hard for a few minutes, then turn them down low and let them cook very slowly. I find that by the time they are done, the water is nearly all gone. When they are almost done, discard the thyme, remove the garlic and set aside, salt the beans lightly, then cover the pot, and set aside.
Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pot such as an enameled cast iron French oven (I use my 7 quart Le Creuset pot), with a film of olive oil, slip the garlic from the bean pot out of its papery skin and add it, then, over medium high heat, add the celery, carrots, and onions, sautéing the soffrito until the vegetables are limp. Work quickly, stirring constantly, but don’t allow the vegetables to brown. Grab handfuls of the collards and add them to the pot, continuing to sauté over medium high heat. Add the water that clings to the collards as well as you stir-fry the vegetables until the collards wilt. Continue adding handfuls of collards and stirring, adding more olive oil and a pinch of salt with each handful, if desired. If you want your soup spicy, you can add some hot red pepper flakes along with the collards (or you can add hot pepper vinegar later).
When all of the collards are wilted and glistening with oil, add the tomatoes and potatoes and stir well, then add the stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, add the reserved beans, vinegars, and optional cheese rinds, and simmer until the potatoes and collards are done to your liking. In the meantime, cook the pasta until it is al dente, drain, and toss with a little butter or olive oil and the chopped herbs.
Add the pasta to the soup and stir well, then correct the seasoning with salt, pepper, and whatever else you want. I’ve been known to add soy sauce and Asian fish sauce.
Serve hot with crusty bread and freshly grated Parmesan.
Makes 8 servings.
February 10, 2009 Minestrone
Genoa, Italy, is said to be the home of minestrone, but the soup appears there in as many forms as it does here. The most common Genovese form, menestron in dialect, does not resemble the “big soups” that we know from the Italian-American tradition – that is, a vegetable soup chock full of fully recognizable ingredients. Throughout Liguria, and in Genoa in particular, minestrone is more likely to be a thick soup of beans and vegetables cooked down until they have totally fallen apart and melded together. Sometimes bolstered with pasta, and often seasoned with a parmesan rind, the minestra might also be finished off with a swirl of fresh pesto just before serving.
Recipes might include one or more types of beans, both shelled and fresh green; cauliflower; pumpkin or winter squash; potatoes; carrots, celery, leeks and/or onions; tomatoes; zucchini; peas; eggplant; mushrooms (usually dried); cabbage (cavolo cappucio, our common cabbage) as well as other greens such as kale or chard; and herbs. Most versions contain neither meat nor broth. In one book from 1867, the author says that the soup is a summer specialty of Genoa, but that it can be made in other seasons if you can find sun-dried vegetables, canned tomatoes, and dried beans to substitute for the fresh.
One of my Genoese cookbooks provides only two traditional recipes, one seasoned with soffrito (aromatic vegetables cooked in oil) and another with pesto (see September 16, 2007). The latter calls specifically for fagioli lumé, also known as Fagioli di Lamon della Vallata Bellunese, which we know as either cannellini (white) or borlotti (cranberry) beans, from north of Venice. The recipe also specifies “a little cabbage called in Genovese gaggetta,” of which I’ve never heard, though “half of aSavoy cabbage” can be substituted. I love winter soups made with dried white cannellini beans and greens. Sometimes I add sausage and sometimes I use stock. I’ve never really used a recipe.
In looking through my Genoese cookbooks (I lived there in the early 80s), I find several variations, generally separated as follows:
Minestrone con Soffrito. Aromatic vegetables cooked in oil (the soffrito) season this summer version made with fresh beans.
Minestrone con Pesto. Also called Minestrone alla Genovese, according to David Downie, who writes that “for inexplicable reasons, in this case the pesto does not contain pine nuts and sometimes does not contain cheese.”
Minestrone con Corsetti, a coin-like fresh pasta that is stamped in a mold.
Minestrone al Pesto con Brichetti, a type of pasta made specifically to be used in soups (see hot link).
Minestrone di Riso, made with rice in the summer, with fresh beans and tomatoes.
Reading through these cookbooks, I realize how bad my Italian has become. We’re going toGenoa for two weeks in April. Time to start reading regularly in Italian to get my language skills back up to par so that I can at least order in restaurants!
Last night I soaked cannellini beans and today I’ll make my own sort of southern-style minestrone, with collards, and post the recipe and photos later. (The recipe appears above.)
In the meantime, I’m lost in Italian cookbooks.
February 9, 2009 Roe Shad and Oysters
We had dinner with friends on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, then brunch on Sunday, so I haven’t cooked much over the weekend. We did have the neighborhood children in on Saturday for a frittata with broccoli and potatoes, but I hadn’t really cooked since I made truffles last week. After brunch yesterday, we drove by the Wharf, the colorful downtown Washington fish market. It was a beautiful day, more April than February, with an aquamarine sky and a balmy breeze. The market had both Chincoteague oysters (my local favorites, so much saltier than most of the Chesapeakes, and much more like the beloved wild oysters of lowcountry saltmarshes) and roe shad, so last night we feasted on raw oysters and the shad baked in rock salt. I posted the recipe back in March. It’s simply a matter of removing the roe sac, gutting the fish, placing it in a pan of rock salt, inserting the roe sac back inside the fish, covering it with rock salt, and baking it for about 45 minutes to an hour. The tricky part is the deboning of the notoriously bony flesh, but once you get the hang of it, it goes quickly. Shad has the most delicate flesh of any fish I know. Here are some photos.
February 4, 2009: Mark Gray and Chocolate
When I moved back to Charleston to open my culinary bookstore in 1986, one of the first people I met was Mark Gray, a master confectioner who owned a chocolate shop called Cacao’s on King Street.
Mark had developed the candy recipes at the Greenbrier in West Virginia and so finely tuned were his skills that Albert Kumin, the brilliant, and at one time the best-known chocolatier/patissier in the country, said that Mark knew more about sugar than anyone else he had ever known! Kumin first came into the spotlight when he was the pastry chef at the celebrated Four Seasons in New York, but went on to teach hundreds of students and served as the pastry chef at the White House under Jimmy Carter. I’m surprised there’s not a Wikipedia page for Kumin, though any search engine will score dozens of hits about the man.
Online, I searched for Mark Gray, who closed his Charleston shop several years ago, and found an article he wrote for Fine Cooking in 1996. This is a much more detailed version of the instructions I provided in my first book (see below).
In 1990, while my home and store were being rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo, I was seriously concerned about my future. I had turned in the first draft of Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, but I had to come up with another book idea to plan for the worst case scenario. I traveled back to Genoa, Italy, where I had lived in the early 80s, in hopes of preparing a book proposal on Genoese and Ligurian cooking, then virtually unknown in America. In the centro storico, the historic center of the old port where I had lived, there is one of the oldest and best confectioners in Europe, Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano. Genoa’s center is a rabbit warren of medieval alleyways and Renaissance palaces, the largest intact medieval walled city in the world. The shop in Via Soziglia hasn’t changed in 300 years. And the techniques for preserving whole fruits hasn’t changed since the Genoese learned how from the Arabs during the Crusades.
I bought a box of Romanengo’s mixed fruits — pears, figs, peaches, cherries, etc. — to take home to share with Mark. He was impressed, but said he could duplicate them. So, when local figs were ripe that summer, he and I got up at the crack of dawn to beat the birds to them, and brought them home and candied them. It was amazing to work with Master Gray. He insisted, as does Romanengo, on using only the absolutely perfect figs. We put them on racks and lowered the racks into vats of bubbling sugar at exactly the right temperature. We let them cook for awhile, then removed the racks to dry overnight. The next day, we brought the sugar to a boil again, measured the density with a hydrometer (specifically, a saccharometer), added more sugar, brought it to a boil again, lowered the fruits on their racks down into the bubbling mass again for an amount of time that only Mark could know, and repeated the process every day for a week until the figs were plump and preserved. They looked almost exactly like fresh figs, but when you bit into them, a figgy syrup, the essence of fig, poured out onto your tongue. Just like Romanengo’s, but better, because southern figs are so much more delicate than Mediterranean ones. I was floored.
As the brilliant Anne Willan wrote in La Varenne Pratique (easily the most useful book on cooking that I have ever owned, and, at one time, I owned over 10,000!), “The technique, which is tricky as the concentration of the syrup must be carefully controlled, varies according to the ripeness of the fruit and the speed at which it simmers. The candying of whole fruits …. requires skill, and several days of successive cooking in ever more concetrated syrups.”
It was with great pride that I got to make these ancient wonders of the confectioner’s repertoire with Mark, and with humility that I got to keep half of them. I figured they would last me a year, doling them out after dinner, after desserts, after the after dinner drinks, and perhaps even after the coffee. Alas, that was not to be, as you can read here.
I’ll write more about this later and include some photos. In the meantime, I’m going to make some truffles according to Mark’s recipes:
Perfect chocolate candies and glazes are accomplished by tempering — heating and cooling the chocolate to precise temperatures. A pure chocolate (which may include cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk, sugar, lecithin, vanilla or vanillin) should never be subject to temperatures 121 or greater.
Over a simmering bain marie (do NOT allow the water to boil), place a stainless steel bowl containing a small amount of chocolate, beginning to stir immediately. Continue to add the rest of the chocolate which you need to temper. When all of the chocolate is smoothly melted, remove the bowl from the bain marie. Wipe any water off the bottom of the bowl before you approach your clean work surface — marble, a sheet tray free of any grease or water, or an enameled counter top. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 of the chocolate onto the surface. Spread out with a spatula, occasionally bringing some chocolate up on the spatula to touch your lower lip, to test the temperature. When the chocolate first feels cool against your lip, it should be tempered. When first out of the bowl, it should be between 110oand 120o. Cooling — or tempering — the chocolate does not take long. When the chocolate on the counter has cooled (about 85o), scoop it up off the counter and combine with the remainder in the bowl. Stir well and wipe down the chocolate on the sides of the bowl, mixing all the chocolate well together. Test the chocolate frequently for cooling. It is perfectly tempered at 86o, but 85o-88ois acceptable. Tempered chocolate should be shiny, with a velvety texture. It will have changed from “chocolate brown” to a nearly jet black, and it will seem to have changed both volume and weight, feeling tighter and heavier. When it passes all of these tests, it is perfectly tempered and ready to glaze cakes and candies. After 10-15 minutes the chocolate will become thick. Simply reheat, add freshly shaved chocolate, and repeat the process.
Mark Gray’s Truffles
For the ganache center:
1 cup whole cream
1 pound chopped or premelted dark chocolate (not unsweetened)
4 ounces your favorite liqueur
Bring cream to a violent boil, reduce heat, and add chopped or melted chocolate. Stir until smooth. While warm, add liqueur. Allow the mixture to become room temperature, 8-24 hours. Do not refrigerate.
When the chocolate is ready, pipe truffles out through a pastry bag fitted with a no. 7 straight tube, holding the bag 1/2″ to 1″ from a parchment-lined pan. Allow the mixture to flow out. It should form a sphere (between a nickle and a dime in diameter) as it hits the surface. Stop the flow with a slight upward twist of the pastry bag. After filling the tray, place in the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes until firm (Mark notes that most home refrigerators are set for 40oF and warns not to leave the chocolate in for longer periods or condensation will form on the candies). Remove from the refrigerator and roll the ganache into balls. Place back in the refrigerator while you temper chocolate for coating the truffles. Dip the balls into the tempered chocolate (see above) by hand and place them on a lined sheet tray to dry. Store at room temperature as refrigeration destroys truffles’ delicate flavor.
If you are a sloppy truffle maker like me, after you’ve coated them in tempered chocolate, you can roll them in cocoa powder (see photo). Those are orange walnuts in the foreground. (See November 12, 2007, for the recipe.)
February 3, 2009 Dinner parties, Clams, and Gravlax
Wow! I’m in a situation I can’t remember ever being in: we have dinner invitations Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday! Plus, I have tons of leftovers (roast quail, beef stew, salad fixin’s), so I doubt that I will be cooking much the next two days. Tonight I will make Clams with Tomato and Fennel, because I found beautiful “mahogany clams” at the supermarket, and I’m also making some gravlax to take to one of the dinners, but I’ve written about those recipes already on the blog. The clams I will make similar to the Royal Red Shrimp on April 4, 2008 and the gravlax as per the recipe on July 22.
Mahogany clams (Arctica islandica) are more intensely flavored than the popular quahogs, the scientific name of which has always cracked me up: Mercenaria mercenaria! We all learned in grammar school how Native Americans used the purple wampum from quahogs to make beads, which were a currency of sorts among various tribes, but the very idea of pacifist East Coast Native Americans as having anything mercenary about them is laughable. The range of the common quahog is the entire Eastern Seaboard, from Canada to Florida. It was one of the foods that I would gather at low tide from the banks of lowcountry estuaries as a teenager when my mother would send me out in the dinghy to get lunch. How you prepare them depends mostly on the size of the clam, which ranges from the smallest littlenecks (about 10 to 12 per pound) to the largest chowders (as much as 5 inches in diameter, only 1 or 2 per pound), fit only for what their name implies. The medium “cherrystones” average 3 to 5 per pound. There is also a grade called “topneck,” averaging 6 ot 8 per pound. Popular belief notwithstanding, these are all the same species.
Mahoganys, or ocean quahogs, are an entirely different species, but in this boldly flavored recipe, they work well. Do not be put off by the dark color of the flesh. I bought a 2-lb mesh bag, which holds 20-24 clams, and divided the recipe in half.
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups water
1 cup Vermouth or dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 or 5 black peppercorns
a sprig of fresh thyme
juice of a lemon
one garlic clove, unpeeled but crushed
2 fennel bulbs with stalks attached
2 average ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
4 dozen small clams (10 to 12 per pound), preferably littlenecks or mahoganys
Sauté the onion in the olive oil until it is transparent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the water, wine, bay, cayenne, pepper, thyme, lemon juice, and garlic. Trim the stalks from the fennel bulbs and add them, saving a few of the feathery leaves for garnish. Raise the heat, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
Strain the court-bouillon and discard the solids. Cut the base off the fennel bulbs but do not core them. Remove any discolored or damaged outer ribs and discard. Slice the fennel into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices, about 6 per bulb. Place the fennel in a large sauté pan with the court-bouillon, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes to the pot, raise the heat to medium high, and cook until the liquid is reduced in half, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally as it cooks, breaking up the fennel clusters so that they cook evenly and intermingle with the tomatoes.
Add the clams, cover the pot, and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until all of the clams open, about 5 minutes.
Serve as an appetizer immediately in pasta bowls with crusty bread and a dipping dish of extra-virgin olive oil, or refrigerate immediately and serve chilled.
Makes 4 servings.
Wine: I’d recommend a White Côtes du Rhône with this dish.