TOMATOES BY THE BUSHEL

October 16, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogThis is still tomato season at the markets, thanks to the fine weather.  Piles of red, yellow, orange and green tomatoes, not always perfect, but still tasty, fill tables along with squash, potatoes. And apples.  Some tomatoes look a bit sad, far from the shiny red globes found in supermarkets, but a lot more flavorful.  A pile to heritage tomatoes are gnarly, with dark splotches, a bit of a turnoff but still tempting one with the hope for a true tomato taste.  Boxes of tomatoes in various stages of ripeness bring ideas of tomato soup, spaghetti sauce, chili sauce, even catsup.   It will be another year before we see this wealth of harvest again; a year before you taste the glory of tomatoes ripened in the mid-western sun.  How can one pass them by; I buy a bagful and head home to a juicy tomato lunch.

During my youth canning filled many steamy hours the end of the summer, rising to a crescendo in early fall when garden produce peaked and everyone turned into pickling dervishes.  My mother, a city girl, collected recipes for canning after she married my father and moved to the country.  She looked for help with this unfamiliar job and found it in the women’s advice columns, “Dear Hope” and “Dear Abby” that appeared in local papers.    Here’s a recipe she had clipped for chili sauce that appeared in a 1921 issue of the Omaha Journal-Stockman paper,  ” Chili Sauce, one peck of tomatoes, 10 onions, 8 red or green peppers, 10 cups vinegar, 20 tablespoons sugar, 5 tablespoons salt.  Add spice in sack to suit taste.  Boil all together (after chopping) 1 ½ hours.” That’s not a lot of instructions for a novice, note the afterthought “after chopping”.  For your information a peck is one-quarter of a bushel or 8 quarts.  My city girl mother learned and when I was old enough to help I took over the peeling and chopping.  In those days almost everyone canned summer produce to have food for the winter.  When inexpensive canned tomatoes in grocery stores it brought a halt to much canning.   But WWII brought a revival of canning as well as gardening.  A few people continue to make family favorite jams, jellies, and relishes but not many people can tomatoes.

Today canning has become a lost kitchen art-form, the younger generation have never tasted homemade Chili Sauce, Catsup, Gooseberry Jelly, or Bread and Butter pickles.  I for one still make a few jars of Peachy Chili Sauce almost every fall; this flavorful sauce makes even deli roast beef taste great and turns a lowly burger into something special.  I pass jars out as hostess gifts to introduce friends to this ‘gourmet’ chili sauce; many of them ask for the recipe but probably never make it. I found the recipe in a Nebraska cookbook where it was called Canadian Chili Sauce; later I saw it in the Tribune’s food pages, and I want to share it with you.  If you miss the tomato harvest this year, tuck it away for next year.

Tomatoes are really fruit, although they most often appear as a vegetable.  The addition of peaches and pears to the onions, peppers, and spices usually found in this condiment produces something special.  It isn’t hot like salsa, the most popular condiment today, or as bland as ordinary chili sauce.  Bits of chili peppers and fresh ginger give it zing but never jolt the senses.  It takes time to peel and chop the fruits and vegetables, but once it begins to simmer and the spicy aroma fills the kitchen, all the work will be forgotten.

PEACHY CHILI SAUCE

  • 10 large ripe tomatoes (3 or 4 pounds)
  • 4 large ripe peaches
  • 4 large ripe pears
  • 3 medium-large onions
  • 1 large sweet pepper
  • 2 medium hot chilies
  • 1 2-inch piece of gingerroot
  • 2 medium cloves garlic
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons pickling salt (do not use iodized salt)
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves (1 teaspoon whole cloves)

Peel tomatoes; cut in half and use finger to push seeds into a strainer over a bowl or cup.  A few seeds won’t matter but the sauce will be improved when most are removed.  Cut tomatoes into chunks and put into a large stainless saucepot or enamel kettle; never cook tomatoes in an aluminum pan.  You should have about 3 quarts cutup tomatoes.  Add juice drained from seeds.  Peel peaches, remove pits and chop; add to the tomatoes.  Pare the pears, remove core and chop; add to tomatoes.  Remove stem and seeds from sweet peppers, dice and add to tomatoes.  Mince the seeded hot chilies and pared gingerroot; add to the tomatoes with minced garlic, vinegar, sugar, salt, and spice.

Stir to mix and place pot over heat; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Turn down the heat and let mixture simmer until it thickens; this will take some time.  Watch carefully as it thickens, stirring often near the end of the cooking time to prevent sticking and burning on bottom.  As the boiling continues the glossy bubbles will turn to noisy plops and your chili sauce is ready to can.   Put the mixture into sterilized jars, adjust tops, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes to sterilize.  Cool, label, and put away for the winter.     Makes bout 10 12-ounce jars.

CATSUP OR KETCHUP

Icon that represents the story part of a blogMaking catsup may seem like a lot of work, especially if you’re only making a few small jars, but gather some friends together and spend a slow but fragrant fall afternoon doing this.  I knew one family, father and kids, who gathered in the fall to make their supply of catsup.

Canning and making these old fashioned sauces can take a lot of time and effort.  It’s easier to speed a day in a steamy kitchen than it once was but it’s still a lonely job.   Do like a friend of mine who sponsors a ketchup party during tomato season.  Several people gather to make this tasty condiment; making large quantities takes time but many hands make the time fly.  She notes that the men are more excited about this than their wives or girlfriends.  While the tomatoes bubble away, you can drink beer or wine, snack on salami, and enjoy the aroma as you ketchup bubble away.  It could take 3 hours or more if you kettle is big and the batch large.

I am giving you a small recipe, but if you want a years supply of catsup, double, triple or quadruple the amount.   You will need a large kettle and end up with a lot of sauce. While it cooks savor the great smell as your ketchup cooks.  It could take 3 hours or more to boil down a large pot of ketchup. Like most sauces this will improve upon standing so the flavors blend.  So taste only on your cooking day, wait to serve the catsup after it has had a few days to mellow and the flavors fuse.  This small amount of catsup will keep for weeks, even months, in the refrigerator but process a larger amount in canning jars to give or keep for the year.   Your homemade catsup will flavor a hamburger, jazz up scrambled eggs, and spike a grilled cheese sandwich.   Imagine how good your homemade catsup will taste on meatloaf some wintry day; even deli counter meatloaf will taste better.

TOMATO KETCHUP

  • 2 quarts chopped ripe tomatoes
  • 2 cups chopped red sweet peppers
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 2 or 3 hot chilies, chopped
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard

There’s no need to peel or seed the tomatoes as the vegetables will be put through a food mill or strainer.  Remove stems and seeds from peppers, skin and roots from onions.  Put vegetables in a large stainless saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Turn down the heat and simmer until vegetables are soft, 20 to 30 minutes.  Cool slightly and press hot vegetables through a food mill or sieve.  Return to saucepan, you should have 5 or 6 cups.  Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and stir; let boil until thickened, about 1 hour for this small batch.  Stir occasionally to keep from sticking and burning on the bottom as it thickens.  When thick enough, ladle into small sterilized jars, seal and process.  If desired turn into a quart jar and refrigerate.  It will keep for several months in the refrigerator.  Makes 3 6-ounce jars or about 1 ½ cups.

GREEN FRIES

Icon that represents the story part of a blogNot all the tomatoes found in the fall markets will be red and ripe.  You’ll find bushels of green tomatoes.  Fried green tomatoes are usually considered a southern delicacy, especially after the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, but they were a treat on Midwest farms as well.  We didn’t eat fried tomatoes during the summertime; ripe tomatoes were eaten or canned for winter use.  Fried green tomatoes came to the table in September and October at the end of the growing season after the shelves had been filled with jars and unripe tomatoes were overflowing the kitchen.  They weren’t seasoned with hot sauce or cayenne as they often are in the south, just salt and pepper.  We used cornmeal for the coating, after all Nebraska is home of the Cornhuskers.  The coated tomato slices were usually fried in bacon fat but butter can be used.  A crock of bacon fat was always there for frying or baking.  If you don’t collect bacon fat, use a mix of butter and oil; the oil keeps butter from burning.  Or fry some bacon to serve it with the fried tomatoes for the true country taste.

Green tomatoes with a bit of red on them will fry up softer and less tart in flavor.  I like these better as they have the familiar taste of tomato.  Very green tomatoes will fry up firm, with a meaty firmness and a sharp acidic taste.  Serve the fried tomatoes with cream gravy to soften this sharpness.

Consider frying green tomatoes for breakfast on the weekend when there’s time to fry and enjoy.  The fried tomatoes taste best when eaten soon after they are fried; the cornmeal coating crisp and flavorful.   Serve a strip of bacon on the side; an egg wouldn’t be out of place.  Today there’s a trend to put fried eggs atop burgers, why not top your burger with fried tomatoes instead of a slice of ripe tomato.  Add a dusting of dill weed, paprika, or nutmeg.  The last is a spice that complements many foods adding a hard to identify but pleasant to taste.

FARM FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

  • 2 large green tomatoes (about 1 pound)
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup yellow corn meal
  • Salt and pepper
  • Bacon fat (1/3 to 1/2 cup) or oil and butter*
  • 1 cup whole milk or light cream
  • 1/3 to ½ cup sour cream, optional
  • Fresh herbs (dill, thyme, parsley, etc), paprika, or nutmeg

Wash tomatoes, dry, and cut into ¼ inch slices; sprinkle with salt if desired.  Combine flour, cornmeal, and seasonings to taste.  Dip tomatoes in mixture making certain they are well covered.

Heat ¼ inch of fat in a frying pan; when it is hot add a few coated tomato slices.  Fry until nicely browned, about 2 minutes on each side; remove from pan and add more slices.  Keep them warm.  Continue until all tomatoes are fried, adding fat as needed.  If tomatoes are very green and hard it may take longer before they soften.

Add fat to the pan, about 1 tablespoon; stir in 1 tablespoons flour mixture.

Add milk, stirring until mixture thickens.  Add sour cream for desired taste and thickness.

Give the tomatoes your special touch with a sprinkling of herbs or spice.

Makes 4 servings as a side dish; 2 as main dish or for breakfast.

*Fry some bacon to serve with the tomatoes and use the fat for cooking them.

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SOUR CHERRY PITS

August 24, 2010

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This year the search for sour cherries was disappointing.  The end of June and first week of July is the time I usually start seeking Michigan pie cherries at the Farmers Market.  This year I was too late, the warm weather had brought them to market early; they said come back next week when the late crop might be ready.  I visited 3 markets and found no pie cherries.  The tables were full of sweet cherries, dark red to creamy pink ones, but there was not a sour cherry in sight.  There were some frozen pitted cherries in generous 1-pound bags, enough cherries for a 9-inch pie.  But I wanted pie cherries with pits so I could pit cherries as I did when I was growing up in Nebraska.  Last year I had found Balaton cherries that remained round and plump even when pitted; they made beautiful pies.   This year my search was going nowhere and it seemed there would be no cherry pies for friends with July birthdays unless I used cherries I had frozen last year.

The grower told me Balaton cherries only produce every other year; this wasn’t their year.  The Balaton sour cherries are firm deep red balls that seem to glow with an internal light; they rival sweet cherries in beauty and while the skin is firm, it is not as hard a bite as sweet ones.  They were much easier to pit than the cherries I pitted as a child and they stay pulp, round, and perfect when the pits are removed with care; that’s why I wanted to pit cherries by hand.  This however, was the year of the Montmorency cherries.

The Nebraska cherries of my youth had been Montmorency variety.  They were soft and easily mangled when pitted, especially when the hand crank machine was used. A mechanical cherry pitter tends to smash the cherries and while the flavor is fine, the look is mangled. Even when carefully pitted by hand the Montmorency cherries end up with a crushed appearance.  I like to pit cherries by hand in the same manner I did so many years ago, removing the pit with a wire hairpin.  The loop end of a thin wire hairpin is pushed into the hole where the stem had been and the pit popped out.   Done with care the Balaton cherries end up near perfect; even the soft Montmorency cherries look better when pitted this way. When I finally found pie cherries this year, they turned out to be Montmorency cherries and they were over ripe, soft, and difficult to pit.  I should have bought the pitted ones.

I have quite a history with pie cherries.  I grew up on a farm with a large fruit orchard that contained several cherry trees.  The cherries ripened in July and had to be picked, pitted, and canned or frozen for the winter.  The orchard was near the farmhouse and each summer, in the hot Nebraska sun, my brother and I climbed into the trees to pick the ripe cherries.  The tree leaves offered some shade but the cherries were warm and sticky, bees and yellow jackets shared the experience with us.  We filled pail after pail with cherries, eating a far share while we worked.  But picking the cherries was not the end of the process; they had to be pitted before they could be canned or later frozen.   My brother and I would sit in the backyard with the cherries we had picked and with a hand cranked cherry pitter attached to a wooden bench we would pit the cherries until we filled a large canning kettle.  We were soon covered with juice and pits; bees followed us from the orchard and flies found us in the shade of the trees.  When the kettle was filled with fruit and juice, the kettle was carried into the old wood burning cook stove, sugar was added and the cherries were cooked.  They were loaded into quart jars, capped, and sealed.  No one worried about processing the canned fruit; if the seal was broken the cherries soured but they weren’t lethal as spoiled canned green beans could be.  The cooled jars were stored on shelves in the basement along with peaches, green beans, and sweet corn.  Later, when a locker plant for frozen food was built in Genoa, the cherries were frozen for storage.  They were sweetened and packed into plastic freezer containers. When we had a good supply, my father would take them into town to the locker where they were frozen and stored.

Few Nebraska farms had electricity at the time, and fewer had refrigerators or freezers to store food in.  The icebox was still found in many kitchens.  Most of the food stored for the winter was canned which made for a hot and steamy summer.   After World War II when the freezer plant was built in town the cherries and vegetables were packed in plastic containers and frozen for storage.  Summer was still a busy time but it wasn’t quite a hot.  The freezer plant butchered and packed meats for freezing as well as freezing home packed plastic containers of fruit and vegetables.  My family rented a locker where frozen meat and many quarts of cherries and sweet corn were stored for winter meals.

How I would have loved to have Balaton cherries when I was baking pies for photographs.  We worked hard to make the available cherries look red and beautiful.  We stuffed them with bits of cotton to round out their shape, painted them with red food coloring, and treated them with care.  Maraschino cherries were used when a particularly colorful pie was needed.   Cherries hung on toothpicks or hairpins to make the pie slice look fruity; sauce was dripped over them.  Once a congressman counted the cherries in the picture on a frozen pie package and found there were more cherries in the pictured slice than in the entire pie; truth in advertising exploded in the freezer case.  Pie slices got smaller with fewer cherries showing.  We had formulas for making the pictured pies.  This was the time when new frozen food products seemed to appear regularly; new frozen food producers started showing up everywhere.  Packaging companies shot pictures of pies, cakes, and meatloaf dinners before the products had been formulated; hopefully the end product would end up resembling the pictured one.

When I moved to Chicago I worked with the woman who produced the Cherry Pie Baking Contest.  The Red Cherry Association sponsored a contest where a young Home Economics student who baked the tastiest pie would win a college scholarship; hundreds of young women came to Chicago to bake cherry pies.  The Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest started in the late 1940’s and everyone was very excited about cooking contests.

Apple pie has always be American’s favorite pie, but cherry pie is mine. I’ve discovered it’s a favorite of many friends who have summer birthdays; my edible present to them is usually a freshly baked Michigan cherry pie.   I make fat pies with more cherries than usual in my pies; increasing the fruit and leaving the sugar the same gives me pies with a bright cherry look and taste.  A too sweet pie doesn’t have that fresh fruit flavor; you might as well use canned pie filling.  Add to that sparkly homemade look by brushing the top crust with cream and sprinkling with sugar.  Hopefully you will find frozen cherries as the fresh Michigan cherries is gone for the year.

CHERRY BOUNCE

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogBack in the 60’s and 70’s I would go to Michigan in July to pick sour cherries and turn them into something called Cherry Bounce for Christmas gifts.  At the time everyone was making homemade liqueurs.  People were traveling to the islands searching for a warm place to spend time during cold January; they brought back wonderful liqueurs. Those of us who couldn’t go island hopping started making our own liqueurs; Cherry Bounce was one of them. This was the beginning of cruising vacations that have now turned into almost everyone’s favorite way to get away.  January was a great time to go as the prices were often lower while people recovered from holiday spending.  Ships were smaller and the service was great; those midnight buffets blew the Midwest cruisers away.  They had never been offered so much food with out having to ante up lots of coin.  Weight gain was almost as bad on those cruises as it is today, but it was adults getting chubby, not kids.

But I digress for this is a sour cherry story; however it was the memory of Cherry Bounce that brought sour cherries to mind.  The lucky souls living near the sour cherry orchards in Michigan discovered they could make this delicious drink and impress friends and relatives.  At the time there was also a rash of making coffee liqueur using instant coffee.  The Michigan cherry trees nestle up next to the border, a quick drive from Chicago.  One could spend a hot day in the sun, get with sticky fingers, and come home with bags of cherries.  Add sugar and some booze and in a few months this gorgeous sipping drink and some macerated cherries are ready.  Dig out those lovely little liqueur glasses you seldom use, fill them with the cherries and add the red liqueur to cover.  Serve with fancy toothpicks or small forks; you may have some silver ones hidden away.  Once each cherry has been sucked off the pit, sip the juice.  This is a clever way to end a winter meal, think George Washington and the cherry tree; the liqueur you made in July will be ready for his birthday celebration.  Put this recipe away for next year.

CHERRY BOUNCE

  • 1 quart fresh red sour pie cherries
  • 1 pound sugar (2 cups)
  • Fifth of light rum, vodka, or grain alcohol

Put cherries and sugar in a 2 quart bottle; fill with rum.  Let stand of at least 4 months, a year is better.   Give the bottle an occasionally shake; you may open and sniff the aroma; wait with eagerness.

CHERRY ORCHARD PIE

  • 4 to 6 cups fresh pie cherries*
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons quick cook tapioca
  • 1 ½ to 2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 15-ounce package refrigerated piecrusts**
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream, optional
  • Sugar, optional

Wash and drain cherries; pit.  Place pitted cherries in a mixing bowl.  Combine sugar, tapioca, lemon juice, almond extract, and salt; sprinkle over cherries.  Mix and let stand for 10 minutes.

Follow package directions on piecrust package; let pastry come to room temperature.  Unroll pastry and carefully fit into a 9-inch pie pan or plate; trim edge so it hangs slightly over the edge of the pie pan.  Pile cherries into pastry, dot with butter, and brush edge of pastry with cream or water.  Unroll remaining pastry and fit it over cherries; trim leaving a ¼ inch overhang beyond bottom crust.  Lift up bottom crust and tuck top crust overhang under bottom crust, pinch to seal.  Flute edge as desired. Cut a few slits in pastry.  If desired, brush top crust with cream and sprinkle with sugar.  Bake in a 400° oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until juice bubbles up through the slits in top crust.  If cherries are chilly from the fridge they will need more time before bubbling begins.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.

*Use 1 quart frozen pitted cherries

**Pastry for double crust pie

Fresh pie cherries were in short supply this year so I found an old Better Homes & Gardens prize tested recipe from the 60’s that was made with a cheesecake top and needed fewer cherries; it was a great success.  Everyone loved it; one friend said it was the best cherry pie he had ever eaten. If you can’t find frozen cherries make it using a 21-ounce can of pie filling. The pie is best served the day it is baked but after it has cooled.  If you can’t find fresh or frozen cherries, use a can of cherry pie filling.

CHERRY CHEESECAKE PIE

  • Pastry for single 9-inch piecrust
  • 3 cups pitted pie cherries, fresh or frozen*
  • ¾ cup cherry juice
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Dash salt
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract, optional
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla

Fit pastry into a deep 9-inch pie pan; build a high pinched edge.

Drain cherries and measure ¾ cup juice; if needed add orange juice, apple juice, or water.  Mix sugar, flour, and salt in saucepan; add juice whisk to mix.  Cook and whisk until mixture boils, thickens, and clears.  Remove from heat and stir in almond extract; add drained cherries.  Cool slightly and turn into prepared crust.  Bake in a 400° oven for 15 minutes.

Beat egg until fluffy, add sugar, cream cheese, and vanilla; beat until smooth and fluffy.  Remove pie from oven and spoon cheese mixture evenly over cherries, spreading to the edge.  Return to oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes until cheese mixture is set.  Cool before serving.  Makes 1 pie, 6 to 8 servings.

*One 21 oz. can of cherry pie filling may be used instead of fresh cherries and cherry sauce.

CHERRY SQUARES

When I was growing up in Nebraska desserts made with fruit baked in a batter, under a crumble or crust, in custard, or rolled in biscuit dough were very popular.  It was a clever way to make dessert with a small amount of fruit that would serve many people.  In the summer fresh fruit was used, in the winter drained canned fruit was used.  Occasionally a cobbler or crumble still appear on restaurant menus, in fact there seems to be a revival of this sort of homey dessert.  I see fruit cobblers and crisps appearing now as the new crop of peaches and apples are arriving in the market.

This sort of old fashioned cake with fruit baked in a spicy batter isn’t often seen.  It originally appeared in the 40’s as a February dessert to honor George Washington and his cherry tree escapade.  It’s spicy and the cherries are tart; there’s nothing timid in the taste.  Serve it warm with a shimmer of sauce and splash of heavy cream; that is how my granny would have served it.  Top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or squirt of whipped cream.

SPICY CHERRY SQUARES

  • 1 14-ounce can pie cherries
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk*
  • .      .      .       .
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup cherry juice, add water if needed
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • Reserved drained cherries
  • Red food coloring, optional

Drain cherries well; measure ½ half cup and set remaining cherries aside.

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy and light.  Add eggs, one at time, beating after each addition.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt.  Add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk, ending with flour.  Add ½ cup drained cherries and fold them into batter.  Turn cake into a greased 8-inch pan.  Line pan with parchment paper if desired. Bake in 350° oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until done.

While cake bakes make sauce from reserved cherries and juice.  Mix 1/3 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon flour in a medium saucepan.  Add cherry juice.  Whisk to mix well.  Bring to a boil, cook and stir until mixture is thickened.  Stir in butter and vanilla.  Add cherries and coloring.  Makes 1½ cups sauce.

May be served warm or at room temperature.  Makes about 1 ½ sauce.

SOMEONE’S IN THE KITCHEN

August 16, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogYoung men are cooking and not just doing summer barbecuing.  Men have always been the “king of the grill”; check out barbecue cookbooks of the past and you’ll see celebrities as well as working stiffs tending fires and flipping steaks.  Fellows are still heading for the backyard grill with a can of beer in hand, but some have moved inside where they are using nifty grillers, Panini ovens, cast iron grilling pans, and the kitchen range.  Young doctors, lawyers, photographers, and businessmen have staked out townhouse, apartment, and condo kitchens for some truly inventive cooking.  These young fellows aren’t yet ready for the house in the suburbs, kids, and a backyard grill.  They’re grilling in apartment kitchens, on rooftops, shared patios, and the back stairs.

One young friend reported he bought his first George Foreman grill Memorial Day weekend to start grilling and catch up with friends who cook.  Along with the grill he picked up chicken breasts, salmon, and strip steaks. That was an ambitious plan; it turned out to be too much for him to handle so he froze the lot and grilled a solo burger.   The cleanup turned out to be more than he expected; he ended up warping his drip pan when it got to near the heat.  I know how frustrated he must have felt.  The first and only time I tried one of those grills, the pork chops were just so-so and I had a messy cleanup. The George Foreman grills have been around for some time, now other small grillers are joining them.

This started me wondering what guys were cooking with their GF grills.  I found some wanted to talk about Panini grills; seems dinner between two slices of bread was a good choice for them.   The overstuffed meat and cheese Italian and Cuban sandwiches have captured their attention.  The Croque Monsieur, French version of ham and cheese, was one of the first great grilled sandwiches, but it has lost some of its appeal.   Maybe the small grill can bring it back.  Made with Canadian bacon and some great cheese that’s now available even in the super market, this is a great summer meal.

I kept asking questions and having discussions with young “home chefs”.  One reported steaks made on a griller paled beside the steaks grilled on a grooved iron pan atop the stove.  This is what we once called pan-broiled steaks.  When you live alone or as a couple, lighting up the barbecue grill or turning on the oven broiler seems like too much work.  A hot cast iron frying pan, there are small ones perfect for one steak, can turn out a steak or burger that’s as tasty as any you’ve ever eaten.  The outside is crusty brown, the inside juicy and medium rare, if that’s the way you like it.  This is an old fashioned way to cook a steak; it predates stoves with broilers and backyard barbecues.  Granny seared her steaks in a cast iron skillet; today the grooved pans turn out a steak that looks as if it had been grilled over charcoal.  Pan-broiling is quick and doesn’t overheat the kitchen like a hot broiler.  It’s a lot quicker than starting a barbecue grill, not to mention cleaning up afterwards.

All the attention young men are giving to cooking and kitchens seems sexy, sensible, and fun.  Young chefs on TV have become today’s celebs while chefs from popular restaurants get star billing for molecular cooking.  Some gain stars for turning pork belly into something besides bacon.  But those guys cooking a home are an interesting lot as well.  As a result of the economic downturn young men are having difficult finding jobs; young women are often luckier. That means the guys need something to do and cooking is fun, useful, and saves money.  Cooking at home can take less time than waiting for the pizza deliveryman, and is often less trouble than driving to a restaurant.

So who’s cooking today?  It’s not Mom in a calico apron.  Restaurant prep chefs wear white aprons, but young geeks, grad students, and guys waiting for their first job wear tee shirts and shorts.   These newbie cooks are into experimenting and seeking new tastes.  They like recreating what they ate in an ethnic restaurant, doing unusual flavor combinations, and shopping at ethnic and farmers market.   They know no fear; they change ingredients, jack up flavors with hot peppers and fish sauce, mix up standard ingredients, and try alternate cooking methods.  They don’t realize they are practicing century old cooking habits, making do with what is available and hoping for a happy result.

If my new young friends are right, we have a new generation that want to use frying pans, French whips, and chefs’ knives as they ‘experiment’ while making dinner.  I questioned the use of the word ‘experiment’ for I believe they’ve just discovered old-fashioned cooking methods; using what is on hand, adding ingredients they like, changing methods to work better for them while they come up with a dish they will enjoy.

Many years ago, Madeline Kamman, a talented French cooking teacher, said she felt Americans were too in love with written recipes; they follow recipes slavishly, afraid to trust their own good taste.  I have seen such cooks in the supermarket.  They carry long lists, today they also carry a cell phone as they double check with some distant ‘expert’ before they buy.  Someone speaks behind you, you turn to answer before realizing someone is on the phone debating the kind of apple to buy, which soup, frozen, fresh, or packaged, what vegetable will go with a still undetermined meat cut.  I hope my new ‘food experimenter’ doesn’t turn out to be one of them.  A recipe should be a guide for it presents the taste of whoever tested it, not your personal taste.  These 30 year-old ‘experimental’ cooks feel brave because they are eating something their family may have never tasted and then decide to try making it.  That’s commendable, promises good eating, should lead to some interesting experiences, and maybe some kitchen history to pass on to their families.

DAVE DOES THAI

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogHe calls this “fake” Tom Yum but he’s actually making a classic Thai soup.  It is usually made with shrimp but Americans have a love affair with chicken, so Tom Yum is offered in restaurants and recipes made with shrimp or chicken.  The base is the same they just add chicken instead of shrimp.  Dave told me he had to do some substituting, he wasn’t talking about the chicken.  Something in a recipe he was using wasn’t available.  It could have been coriander the name used in many Thai recipes, or Kaffir lime leaves.   Cilantro, readily available, is just another name for coriander; sometimes it is called Chinese parsley.   I once heard a woman berating Whole Foods because they did not have coriander, only cilantro.   Coriander seeds do indeed have a definitive taste, but the leaves differ little.  There are a few other ingredients that may be hard to get, but substitutions are quite successful. Dave adds cherry tomatoes, and rice noodles for a bit of color and to turn this soup into a hearty dinner.

DAVE’S TOM YUM SOUP

  • 48-ounce package chicken broth
  • 2 dried Arbol chili peppers
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • Juice from 1 lemon, about 3 tablespoons*
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 stalks lemon grass, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 2 large cloves garlic, pressed**
  • ¼ pound mushrooms
  • 1 large shallot or small onion, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 chicken breasts, about 1 pound
  • 8 or 10 ounces rice noodles, cooked according to package directions
  • Cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered, optional
  • Cilantro, chopped

Combine broth, dried peppers, fish sauce, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, sliced lemon grass, and crushed garlic in large kettle; bring to a boil.  Simmer 2 minutes.

Wash, dry, and slice mushrooms; cook in butter with sliced onion.  Cook quickly over medium heat to lightly brown mushrooms and onions.

Cut chicken breast into slices; add chicken, onion, and mushrooms to broth; simmer until chicken is done, about 2 minutes.

Cook noodles as directed on package, drain.

To serve, put noodles in bowl with a few tomatoes; ladle soup over

noodles; sprinkle cilantro and serve.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.

*You may use a combination of lemon and lime juice to taste.

**Southeast Asian garlic is softer with thin skins than ours; it is often added whole.  Our garlic needs to be pressed or crushed.  Do not peel, cut in half crosswise and fit into garlic press, cut side down.  Crush; the skin will remain in press and can be easily removed.  It will take any bits of garlic with the skin; the press is easy to clean.

STEAK

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogI’ve cooked a lot of steaks that went in front of a camera as well as served many a steak to my friends, but somehow steak seems to belong to “young men who cook”.   Junior may not know how to boil water but there’s a pretty good chance he can grill a steak or at least he will try.   It’s not only young men who grill steak; there is a senior stockman who keeps his grill at the ready all year long.  The grill spends the winter inside a huge storage shed and moves to the side of the house during the summer; he grills fat sausages for breakfast and steak for dinner.

There are few things that make ones mouth water like the smell of a steak being cooked on the barbecue.  But the “young men cooking” I’ve been talking with aren’t using a big barbecue grill; they like their small grillers or cast iron grilling pans. .  One young cook, actually a girl, uses a LeCruset grooved pan to turn out steak so great no one believes it was done on top of the stove.  This is not fried meat but true grilled steak.

You can pan-broil almost any steak, a boneless one is easier to control as the bone can keep the meat from touching the grill and affect doneness.  Strip steaks, rib eyes, filets, chuck, and top round may be used. The steak should be ½ to 1½ inch thick; thicker is better if you like medium rare.  If you’re out to impress, you can use filets, cut 1½ inch thick.  Any thickness of steak can be cooked this way; thin cuts just need less time.  Take the steak out of the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking so that it warms a bit.  A cold steak may overcook the outside before the inside is warm.  Cook your steak this old fashioned way the newbie cooks have found again and serve it with a dollop or pat of steak butter like great steak houses once did.

STEAK BUTTER

Today we look at butter with a cautious eye, but in the past grilled steaks were often topped with a dollop of soft butter sometimes flavored with herbs, mustard, anchovies, etc.   The melting butter and warm meat juices that collected on the plate were treasured; bread dipping wasn’t frowned on.  Baked potatoes served with steak dinners were usually topped with butter and sour cream, but buttery beefy juices were a tasty addition. Forget the steak sauce; give one of these flavored butters a chance.

MAITRE D’HOTEL BUTTER

  • 8 tablespoons sweet butter (1/4 pound)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • Salt and white pepper
  • 1 or 2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Cream the butter until it is soft; add lemon juice slowly, stirring to blend juice with soft butter.  Add grated peel, stirring to mix.  Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.  Add parsley and mix well.  Shape it into a 5 or 6-inch log, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.  Slice it into ½ inch pats and place atop hot steak, chicken, or fish.  Steak may be popped into microwave or under broiler to melt butter.

Suggested variations:  Parsley may be dropped or reduced.

  1. Add chopped tarragon in place of all or part of parsley.
  2. Add chopped mixed herbs, thyme, basil, marjoram.
  3. Add 1½ tablespoon Dijon mustard.
  4. Add 2 tablespoons anchovy paste.
  5. Add 1 tablespoon, each, tomato paste and chopped chives.
  6. Add 2 tablespoons blue cheese.
  7. Add 2 or 3 mashed garlic cloves.
  8. CROQUE MONSIEUR

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogAlmost everyone loves a good grilled cheese sandwich.  Kids likes American cheese, Dad loves aged Cheddar, and Mom leans toward Brick or Muenster. Go one step further and turn it into a great traditional sandwich, the Croque Monsieur. Pick a great cheese, add some Canadian bacon, and butter your bread.  Give your sandwich a French name and brown it on your new griller. Accompany it  with Cornichons,French style gherkins, and a dab of Dijon mustard.  You may never again go back to plain American cheese and white bread.  You’ll want to try some other combinations of cheese and cured meat.

GROQUE MONSIEUR

  • 2 sliced of good white bread, crusts left on
  • 2 slices Canadian bacon
  • 1 or 2 slices Swiss cheese, like Gruyere
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons butter

Spread one side of each slice of bread with butter.  Heat your grill or a small heavy skillet.  Give the Canadian bacon a warm up in the grill.  Lay 1 slice of cheese on unbuttered side of one slice of bread; add bacon, and second slice of cheese.  Top with second slice of bread.  Place on grill or in pan.  If using a grill you will not need to turn the sandwich; grill until the cheese melts and bread browns.  If using a skillet, brown one side of sandwich, turn, and brown second side.  You may press the sandwich down with a spatula or small flat lid to speed the melting.

Cut in half and serve with olives or pickles.  Have a beer or glass of white wine.

SALAD WITH A PAST

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogThere was a time when interesting salads accompanied steak dinners, not just the usual lettuce, a few shreds of carrot, wedges of tomato, slices of cucumber and dressings, Ranch, Blue Cheese, Vinaigrette, all from a bottle salads served today.   Here’s a salad from the past that will make your guest sit up and take notice.  I served it for a small party and everyone loved it.  One guest asked if I would put it on my blog, so here goes.  See it pictured with the ratatouille at the end of the Italian movie blog.

ANTIPASTO SALAD

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 celery stalk, minced
  • ½ red bell pepper, minced
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 dill pickle, minced
  • 4 black olives, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon capers, minced
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • .      .     .     .     .     .
  • hearts of palm, cut into ½ inch slices
  • 1 8-ounce can marinated artichokes, cut in half
  • 1 head Romaine lettuce
  • 1 head fennel
  • thinly sliced salami
  • 6 or 9 grape tomatoes, cut in half

Combine olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, minced vegetables and pickles; shake well and let stand for several hours or overnight.

Wash and tear the romaine into small pieces; wash and slice fennel thinly.   Toss with chopped hearts of palm, and artichokes.  Just before serving toss with dressing.  Top each with 2 or 3 salami slices and tomato halves.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: You’re not fond of chopping, give the dressing and vegetables a quick spin in your food processor.

AN ITALIAN MOVIE MEAL

August 15, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogIt does seem that there are few things I do or experience that don’t trigger thoughts about food.  I spent my working life putting food in front of the camera, developing recipes for food companies, traveling the world to taste local dishes, and entertaining at personal parties; food was seldom far from my mind, even today I find myself heading for the kitchen whenever I am bored.  I find inspiration in the usual places, at restaurants, in friends’ kitchens, on the pages of recipe books and shelter magazines, in grocery stores and butcher shops.  I also get food inspiration visiting museums, art shows, and at the theater and movies.  There’s always something that nudges a food memory to the fore.

There have been many movies orientated towards food that I fondly remembered.  My personal favorite is Babette’s Feast, a Danish film about a French chef in Scandinavia during the French Revolution.  She slowly collected the ingredients for a magnificent birthday meal, the wine, herbs, vegetables, and a turtle that spent days lumbering about the country kitchen before being turned into soup.   Restaurants recreated the meal and those of us who couldn’t actually attend the feast, imagined it.   Tom Jones was an early film with a memorable food scene that seemed a bit shocking at the time.  Watching Tom and his wench gnawing on bones as they shared lustful looks was a new experience for most viewers.  While this was not a scene I wanted to recreate, nibbling on beef bones and spareribs can be appealing.  Other well remembered movies are, Like Water for Chocolate, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Tortilla Soup, Ratatouille, and of course Julia and Julie.  Recently I read several reviews of the movie ‘I Am Love’ suggesting that food was the seducer in this melodrama, I knew I had to go.

The movie opens in snowy Milan where snow is such an unusual happening the movie director seemed hesitant to leave the scene.  The camera drifted from one snowy vista to another, before it finally turned to the kitchen and dining room where preparations for a birthday party were in progress.  The guests gathered, were welcomed, and ended up at an elegant dining table where food entered the movie.

A huge soup tureen, filled with broth, was presented to the guests who ladled soup into their bowls.  This scene brought memories of European meals I had enjoyed.  They almost always started with a wonderfully flavorful bouillon or consommé served with slivers of cut crepes, a few fine noodles, 3 or 4 tiny profiteroles, pinches of julienne vegetables, or minced herbs afloat; the bouillon was the star.  It was California that put salads at the beginning of our meals, pushing such soups off the dining table.  Some ethnic restaurants still offer a choice of soup or salad, but it is seldom one of these light soups meant to build appetites not slack them.

A COOL BEGINNING

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogSoup to start a meal can be a wonderful thing, especially during the snowy months but a bowl of hot soup doesn’t seem as enticing when the summer sun warms us.  After seeing this movie, the soup scene stayed with me.  I mentioned it to a friend who got a dreamy look in her eye as she told me about cups of madrilene being served in the living room before diners went to the dinner table.   Sometimes this was jellied, a chilled beefy tomato broth topped with lemon slices; it almost cools one just thinking about it.  Madrilene is seldom served today but let’s not let it be forgotten; this chilly start to a summer meal would be welcome today.

You can make your own fresh tomato sauce, there’s a recipe in an early blog.  You can even make your own beef broth, but go the cool way and buy canned consommé and tomato sauce.  You might be surprised to find how cooling a serving of jellied soup can be on a steamy August day.  Maybe Grandma knew a thing or two about surviving summer heat.

MADRILENE

  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
  • ½ cup cold water
  • 1 10-½ ounce can beef consommé
  • ½ cup tomato sauce*
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry, optional
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, optional
  • Fresh lemon wedges or slices
  • Sprig of parsley

*Make your own tomato sauce with extra tomatoes.  See Bargain Chicken Blog-April 2009.

Soften the gelatin in cold water; add half can of consommé.  You can heat this in glass measuring cup in the microwave or in a small saucepan; stir to dissolve gelatin.  Add remaining consommé, tomato sauce, sherry, and lemon juice.  Refrigerate until set.

To serve, break up with a fork or cut into cubes; spoon into a chilled soup dish.  Add a lemon slice and sprig of parsley.  Makes 4 cool servings.

The movie meal began with soup but what else was served remains unknown, until the Monte Bianco, a classic dessert named for a snow-clad mountain, was presented as the patriarch’s birthday cake.  Cooked sweetened pureed chestnuts were turned into a high fluffy mountain, crowned with whipped cream, and topped with a birthday candle.  Save this idea for a wintry day, find one of the gelato spots that are popping up all around Chicago.

As the party ends, a young chef arrives bearing a cake.  How I yearned to see that cake, but it was not revealed.  Was it a panettone or cassata?  Was it decorated with marzipan or candied fruit?  Another scene frustrated me as well.  While it played well, building tension between the young chef and sexy matron, I had questions.  Why would the chef use a blowtorch to brown a small hors d’oeuvre?  Was he perfecting his method or testing a new creation?  Such pastry wrapped appetizers are usually made in quantity, baked, and served warm from the oven.  Baking or browning with a blowtorch, one small snack at a time, would seem an unlikely feat.

The scene that drew me into the film was the one where the young chef served his love interest a plate of shrimp with vegetables.  Italians are expert at vegetable preparation.  Their vegetable dishes often outshine the fish, fowl, or meat.   Fresh produce is so important in Italy that at one time almost everyone had a garden plot.  When money was scarce, vegetables were the main dish.  The vegetable dish the chef served with those fat shrimp was probably a sort of ratatouille, mixture of eggplant and other vegetables.  The big difference between French ratatouille and Italian caponata is the addition of vinegar to the Italian mixture.  Someone suggested this was added to keep it edible when carried for lunch on fishing boats.  Either preparation would be delicious served with a seafood dinner, but I have chosen ratatouille.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s Julia’s show was the main talk around the office water cooler and ratatouille became the vegetable of choice when entertaining; she turned the Midwest onto eggplant and zucchini.  The first time I made this dish I followed Julia’s recipe explicitly.  The eggplant, zucchini, onions, and peppers were cut into perfect pieces, kept separated from each other, sautéed one kind at a time.  They did not meet until layered into the ‘casserole’ they were to be cooked in.  Even the ‘casserole’ seemed strange to me for Julia simmered the mixture on the stovetop.  Where I came from casseroles were always baked in ovens.  I was a novice at French cooking and Julia’s recipe must be followed; I simmered my ratatouille in a Dutch oven.

Back in Nebraska things were chopped in a haphazard manner; we used butcher knives, paring knives, curved choppers, even the cut edge of a tin cans for chopping.  Quick not careful was the key.  But along came Julia and real French recipes, everything about cooking, even chopping became an art form.  By the time I finished prepping and sautéing the ratatouille vegetables in olive oil, the stovetop and nearby counter were slippery; bowls of oily vegetables covered the limited space in my apartment kitchen. Julia said, “Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen”, the smell of olive oil and vegetables filled my apartment.

The dish was a success and I have made it many times, although I’ve added shortcuts each time.  The following ‘bastard’ version has become my choice.  It calls for little precooking, the cut up vegetables are loaded into the baking dish and everything bakes in the oven.  It’s not as fragrant with olive oil but it is perfect for serving at a buffet.   It can be prepared ahead of time, for it does not need to be served hot.  It actually tastes great at room temperature and cold the next day, it makes a good sandwich.  You can individualize the taste by adding other vegetables, selecting different herbs, even using a chili pepper or two.  This may no longer be ratatouille, but it’s a fine way to prepare summer vegetables.  Serve it cold on garlic toast crisps while your main meal is on the grill.

EGGPLANT AND ZUCCHINI BAKE

  • 1 medium onion, peeled, sliced, or chopped
  • 1 medium garlic clove, minced
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar*
  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs**
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3 or 4 plum tomatoes
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 3 medium zucchini
  • 1 large green bell pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dill seeds
  • Toasted breadcrumbs, optional

Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil until tender but not brown.  Remove from heat; add seasonings, herbs, and lemon juice.  Set aside.

Peel tomatoes and slice.

Pare eggplant if skin is tough, cut into cubes or small sticks; there will be about 4 cups.  Slice zucchini, cut large zucchini in half before slicing; about 4 cups.   Cut bell pepper into thin strips, discarding stem and seeds.

Layer eggplant, zucchini, and green pepper into a 2-quart casserole, spooning some onion mixture over each layer.  Place tomato slices on top and sprinkle with dill seeds.  Cover and bake in a 350° oven for 45 to 60 minutes or until mixture bubbles.  Remove cover; if mixture seems too juicy, press some breadcrumbs into mixture. Bake 10 or 15 minutes longer.

Mixture may be stirred and tossed to mix before serving, but it looks great presented as it comes from the oven.   Makes 6 to 8 servings.

**Herbs of Provence, basil, thyme, marjoram; chopped parsley, may be used.

This Italian version is more a relish than a vegetable.  Serve it with grilled meats, use it to top a burger, or jazz up a deli roast chicken.  Grill ciabotta bread, top with a tomato slice and some of this for a Grilled Bruschetta.

CAPONATA

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 6 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch slices
  • Herb bundle*
  • 1 ½ cups crushed tomatoes
  • 1 eggplant (1 pound), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • ½ cup white or red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup pitted green olives
  • ¼ cup capers, drained

Put 1/3 cup olive oil in a large skillet; add the onions and cook until soft and golden.  Add the cut celery and cook a few minutes, stirring.   Add herb bundle and crushed tomatoes. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.

Heat remaining olive oil in a large skillet; add eggplant and cook and stir about 5 minutes until tender.  Do not add additional oil after the eggplant absorbs it; continue cooking until tender. Blanch olives in hot water to remove excess salt.  Add eggplant to tomato mixture and simmer 20 minutes.  Add vinegar, sugar, olives, and capers to tomato mixture.  Makes 8 servings.

The birthday party celebrated in the movie was undoubtedly grand.  Perhaps they served caviar, pate’, and champagne before dinner.  Should this inspire you to entertain here’s an interesting dip that is made of eggplant, often called Eggplant Caviar.   Garden fresh eggplant is now at the market, so this is a good time to try it.  Real caviar is impressive but very expensive; this stand-in has a pretty pink color and intriguing flavor.  It is based on Baba Ghanoush, a Middle Eastern spread, but call it caviar, serve it in a pretty bowl with pita chips, and enjoy.

PINK CAVIAR

  • 1 medium eggplant, 1 pound
  • 1 large ripe tomato
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 4 tablespoons tahini*
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Sea salt and pepper

Cut off stem and navel end of eggplant; cut in half lengthwise.  Place, cut side down, in a lightly oiled pan.  Cut tomato in half and place cut side down on pan with eggplant.  Bake or broil until eggplant and tomato are very soft.  Cool.  Peel eggplant and chop flesh.  Strip skin from tomato and remove seeds, chop.  Put eggplant, tomato, shallot, and garlic in food processor or blender; puree.  Add tahini, lemon juice, and seasoning to taste; puree to mix.  Refrigerate for several hours.  Serve with pita crisps or rye crackers.  May be served as a dip for raw vegetables, if desired.

*If you don’t have tahini use 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon peanut butter.  Makes about 1 cup.

WHAT’S HOT- MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY

June 22, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogAncient In An Apron loves eating out, sampling ‘taste blowing’ foods chef’s serve to amaze and intrigue diners.  Afterwards it’s time to muse on how the dinner was launched, shaped, buffed, and infused with color and flavor.  Today this food puzzle can be as challenging as Sudoku, although it is definitely a more expensive pastime.  Read reviews on an eatery, compare it with what you were served, and often a deeper puzzle evolves.  Could the chef be in a slump?  Was he in Washington preparing a state banquet? Have tastes changed that much?  Was the reviewer recognized and his food maximized? Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia have added another layer of confusion; anyone and everyone can be a food critic.  Food tastes are so individual there’s little chance everyone will agree, but what fun to compare critiques.  Curiosity leads one to hot new places especially after they have been declared amazing.  This often turns into a one-night stand, experienced, and soon forgotten.   Here’s a tale of dining at one shrine of molecular gastronomy in Chicago.

We arrived at the restaurant feeling expectant, were coolly escorted to our table, and left to study the room while awaiting the dining adventure.  There was no hilarity, toasting, or joke telling; it was a somber place. The food being served didn’t seem to excite the diners I could see.  In fact some appeared to view the food with fear.  One girl poked suspiciously at an unrecognizable bit of food, never daring to put it in her mouth.  She and her escort apparently were celebrating a special occasion that was turning less than gleeful.  Some businessmen in expensive suits and their fur clad ladies arrived.  The host was either well informed or a repeat visitor, he hyped what was coming.

We were a strange pair.  An ancient woman and New York based classical musician, each of us wearing casual dark outfits.

The night we dined at “the best restaurant in the United States” the first course served was, “Osetra”, introduced as “traditional” caviar service; it was not quite what a caviar fancier might expect.  The toast wasn’t crisp for it had been turned into an igloo of foam with a tiny blob of Beluga caviar tucked in.  We missed the crunchy toast but the caviar was first rate.  Glowing colored beads on the plate were a mystery.  Could they have zapped lemon, sour cream, hard cooked egg, or onion, things often served with caviar and turned into balls of intensified flavor?

Next came “Pork Belly” and “Matsutake”, possible salad spinoffs.  Then came my favorite moment of the evening when our uptight hostess introduced “Trout”, a French inspired course.  She chirped, “The chef has decided to investigate traditional French cuisine and is revisiting Escoffier.”  She looked at me and said, “Do you know who Escoffier is?”  Whoops—Of course I knew who he was and quickly informed her of that.  I’m certain I’ve eaten in more 3 star French restaurants than she has.  She viewed me with a bit less distain after this.  This was delicious and even resembled proper French food.  The miniature roll of trout was delicate and flavorful, accompanied by a primo pate in a tiny barquette, rich pastry boat.  I decided I would see if I could find anything similar in my French cookbooks; one of them has an introduction by Escoffier.

Intriguing but unrecognizable food with names like, “Pheasant”, “Peanut Butter”, and “Concord Grape”, continued to arrive at our table accompanied by detailed explanations.  One small plate was balanced on a slowly deflating puffy pillow that released an aroma meant to enhance taste.  Another small plate held a sizeable glowing ball; it came with directions to pop it in the mouth, throw back the head before biting; failure to do this could mean an unexpected shower.  This seemed a bit like gargling to me so I punctured the ball on the plate and watched the colored liquid flow free.   I was tempted to pick up the plate and slurp but resisted. Instead I dragged a spoon through the liquid and licked off a taste; I missed the experience of flavored liquid streaming down my gullet.   I just couldn’t do it.

After the evening was over I found it was impossible to remember the tastes, but I found the visual and aromatic experience remained.  The blended flavors of altered food forms were not memorable.  What would the chef think of that?  Only the course named “Hay” was remembered.  A dry bitter sawdust taste, created of burnt sugar, coffee, and huckleberry, filled my mouth.  The flavor so intense and texture so odd I nearly spat it out.  I begged for real coffee to rinse this strangeness from my mouth.  Water would have only spread the harsh flavor, much as it does when one tries to soothe pain after biting into a Jalapeno pepper.  Real coffee would dilute the taste and dislodge the chips from between my teeth. The waiter demurred, coffee wasn’t served until the end of the meal; “Chocolate” and “Bubble Gum” were still to come.  I insisted and finally got a cup of coffee; that was a flavor I remember.

After the visit to the restaurant I was given the impressive Alinea cookbook and while looking through it I had an epiphany. The cookbook stated that today chefs have “bigger tool kits”, filled with new tools, not all meant for the kitchen.  I wondered what the chef would have thought about the tool kit I hauled about when working in photography studio kitchens.  One photographer declared it was definitely the heaviest one he hefted.  Comparing the tools used in this creative kitchen with those I used when putting food in front of the camera might make an interesting blog.

Special tools have always played a big part in food preparation whether it was being created for family dinner, photography, or molecular gastronomy.  The large kit, originally designed for fly fishermen to hold flies and spinners, I carried was filled with implements; each with a special use.  I filled it with pins (straight, safety, bank, needles), toothpicks, X-acto knife blades, razor blades, eye droppers, syringes, tweezers, manicure scissors, baby spoons; all small things that could be easily lost.  There were also special knives, cutters, shredders, spreaders, brushes, and lengths of wire we used to slice through wheels of cheese and drums of ice cream, potato mashers, rotary beaters, wire whips, strainers, and an electric paint remover.   Some tools had been created to use with food, others started life as dental, medical, artist, and handyman tools.

The Alinea cookbook is filled with gorgeous food shots of constructed food, designed dishes, frivolities, and lovely miniature servings.  The big difference in what inventive chefs serve today and what I put in front of the camera is size; our aims were similar.  We both want to put something engaging in front of the diner or viewer.    Something that will tease, create desire to taste, and end with enjoyment.   The chef’s miniaturized plates today promise a heightened experience that will be satisfied when the fork picks up the food.  The bigger than life cakes and generous plates I put in front of the camera were meant to be admired visually and desired.  In food photography we sell the imagined good taste that will be delivered when the cake has been made or purchased. Apparently the viewers of the first Sara Lee Cake packages and advertising found they lived up to the promise; they’re still in grocery freezer cases.   First time visitors on a photography set always said the same thing, “That looks good enough to eat”.  This sometimes led to a problem.  Occasionally someone would sneak into the kitchen and rip off the perfect slice of cheesecake waiting for its moment in front of the camera.

THE TOOLS

The chefs at Alinea have their special tools, as we also did.  Some are the same or at least similar; others are new additions.   They use acetate sheets to create ribbons of color to wrap around berries; we had gelatin and created colorful salads and desserts.  During the “Jello” era Broken Glass Cake with translucent red, green, and orange cubes in a creamy pineapple gelatin base glowed as intensely as today’s creative desserts.

Meats are cooked in Cryovac wrap for controlled flavor.  The nearest we came to doing this was cooking in bags sold as the way to an easier cleanup job; the flavor boast was a happy extra.

Ovens have long been used to dehydrate fruits and vegetables for storage; now it is speeded up with a dedicated dehydrators.  We dried and toasted coconut, nuts, seeds, and breadcrumbs for garnishes; a tricky business, turn your back and the coconut burned.

The new chefs use molds, small ones; we used large and ornate ones and filled them with fancy desserts and salads.  There were molds of many sizes for Fish Molds, Plum Pudding, Suet Pudding, Brown Bread, and Tea Party Mints.

Older and less sophisticated versions of blenders and mixers were in my kitchen.  In fact we developed recipes for one of the first electric blender cookbooks.

We used graters and slicers, not microplanes, for grating cheese, vegetables, and fruits.  Mortar and pestles were around and being used for grinding spice and seeds long before these young chefs were born.

Anyone can use silicon mats for baking today.  We coated our baking pans with pan coat, a mix of shortening and flour; a bit of cocoa was added for chocolate cakes.

There was no siphon for foaming liquid in our kit; wire whisks and bar foam created bubbles for us.

Syringes were used to inject meats and tease juicy drizzles down cut surfaces; they improved the look, not the taste.

All sorts of strainers and sieves were used to make fresh breadcrumbs, remove seeds from raspberries, and separate chaff from chopped nuts.

X-acto knives and slender knives carved melons, cut away odd spots from foods.  My favorite knife has a 5x½-inch blade and was originally meant for larding.  We searched through garbage pails if one was accidently tossed out with parings.

There was no anti-griddle for quick freezing; a slab of dry ice worked for us.  We sifted powdered dry ice over ice cream to keep it from melting until the camera shutter clicked.

There were all sorts of slicers from commercial electric slicers to sharp carving knives.  When the electric knife came it was beloved by some but it left a wavy surface I found unattractive.   We had tricky gadgets that would spiral a hotdog, carve a radish rose, or core an apple.

The first heat gadget we used on the set was an electric chicken singer; few remember when chickens were killed and plucked at home. This devise was used to burn pinfeathers off plucked chickens.  We used it to brown meat, toast marshmallows, and glaze hams.   When the chicken singer burned out an electric paint stripper replaced it; there’s one of those in the molecular kitchen. We used a blowtorch to caramelize sugar on “burnt cream” and flame cherries jubilee; even Julia used a blowtorch to finish her Baked Alaska.

Spray bottles added drops to iced tea, cola, and beer glasses, moistened lettuce leaves, and juiced up cut fruit with a Fruit-Fresh solution.

Electric steamers meant for clothing were used to melt pizza cheese; real live melted cheese wouldn’t hang for long exposures.

We used a food mill or strainer to crush pulp and remove seeds; the molecular wine press wasn’t there for us.

Thermometers of all sorts were on hand; to test syrups, roasts, and oven temps.   Studio ovens were not always accurate; we never baked without checking with an oven thermometer.

How I wish meat glue had been around when I was putting hams in front of the camera.  We used a paste of meat and fat to fill holes and a photo retoucher fixed the color. Later Crazy Glue got in on the act.

Let’s not forget tweezers that Chef Achatz says he uses every day.  Tweezers were never far from my hand when I was on the set.  Our purposes were similar; arranging perfect bits of food in a most attractive way.  When I commented on this to a young friend, she said, “Why would anyone need tweezers to handle food?”  Those long slim tweezers gently place a bit of garnish, drop a berry in place, remove a stray crumb, spin fettuccini into a curl, or remove a fruit fly from a coffee cake.  I wish I had seen the fly that settled down on a crumb topped coffee cake before he had his picture taken.

Could I claim to be a forerunner in the field of inventive food preparation?  Molecular gastronomy it wasn’t but many of the tools, food handling tricks, and visual maneuvers used in the new shrines to food imagination are similar to those that made burgers juicy, pizza cheese drape, pancake syrup hang suspended, and kept ice cream from melting. I didn’t turn toast into foam, create bloated balls, or fashion thin sheets of vegetable and fruit leather; but foods were melted, pureed, sprayed, moistened, glazed, and kept moist and fresh using many of the same tools.

We are walking an exciting line of creativity with food today, pushing the past away, some hoping old recipes will stay there silently.  I’d like to bring some of those old recipes into the light just as Grant Achatz did with Escoffier creation.  He added his ingenuity; I want to stick closer to tradition. I wonder if in 50 years when molecular gastronomy has become a part of history, will there be someone trying to recreate his visions?

FRAMBOISE FANTASY

June 22, 2010

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogThis big bouncy mold draped with raspberry sauce and frilled with whipped was very popular for home entertaining in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  It provides a bit of theater just like a wedding cake, and had the advantage of being made ahead of time to wait in the refrigerator for the big reveal.   Just for fun take this larger than life dessert and minimize it in the manner of today.  Nothing needs to be centrifuged or frozen, no texture warped, or surprise flavor infused.  Just rethink the presentation.  Add a few blueberries for a patriotic look and bring old or new out for July Fourth.

GATEAU (The cake)

  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1½ cups cake flour
  • 1½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 egg whites

Cream the butter and sugar until it is light and smooth.   Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together.  Add flour alternately with water and vanilla to the creamed mixture.  Beat egg whites to form stiff peaks.  Lighten the batter with some of the beaten egg whites; then fold in remaining whites.  Butter and flour a 9×1½ inch cake pan or a 9-inch spring form pan.  Line the pan bottom with parchment paper for easier removal.  Turn batter into prepared pan.  Bake in 375° oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until done.  Cool a few minutes before removing from pan.  Cool cake.

RUM CREAM MOLD

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
  • 1 1/3 cup milk
  • ½ cup light rum
  • 2 cups whipping cream

Beat egg yolks, egg, and salt until thick and lemon colored.  Gradually add sugar, beating after each addition.  Soften gelatin in 1/3 cup of milk.  Heat remaining milk to boiling point; add softened gelatin and stir to dissolve.  Gradually pour the hot milk over the beaten eggs while beating.  Beat in the rum.  Cool mixture until it begins to set; whisk occasionally as it cools.  Whip cream until soft peaks form; fold into the rum mixture.  Pour into mold and refrigerate overnight.

RASPBERRY SAUCE

  • 1 12-ounce package frozen raspberries
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice or water
  • 1 ¼ cups red currant jelly

Defrost berries; press through a sieve or strainer to remove seeds.  Put pulp in a saucepan.  Mix cornstarch with orange juice; stir into raspberry pulp and jelly.  Heat to a boil, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened.  Cool.

THE  “PICTURE PERFECT” DESSERT

  • 1 baked white cake layer
  • 1 chilled rum mold
  • 1 recipe raspberry sauce
  • Whipped cream
  • Fresh raspberries and blueberries

Place the cake layer, top side down so there’s a nice flat surface facing up, on serving plate; brush the top with raspberry sauce; outside edge may be coated as well.  Chill.

Now comes the tricky part.  Unmold the Rum Mold and place it atop the cake.  If you have a large pizza spatula, unmold on it and use it to guide the mold atop the cake.  The spatula may be dipped in water to ease removal.  If all goes well the mold will be in the center of the cake, if not carefully slide it into place with the spatula. That doesn’t work use whipped cream to hide miss-match.  Refrigerate until time to serve.

Using a pastry tube pipe a frill of whipped cream around the base of the mold.  Another frill may surround the cake if size of serving plate allows this.  Decorate with fresh berries.  This is the season for fresh berries, be generous.  If your mold has a hollow on top fill it with raspberry sauce, drizzle more over mold and serve.  Makes 8 to 10 servings.

DIMINUTIVE DESSERT

Bake or buy the cake, halve the rum mold, using 1 egg, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 ½ envelope gelatin, l cup milk, ½ cup rum, and 1 cup cream; chill it in a metal bowl.  Halve raspberry sauce recipe; buy or make some Almond Brittle, snip a small flower in your garden and serve.

RUM-BERRY-BABY

Find an amusing small plate.  Spoon a puddle of raspberry sauce onto the plate.  Using a melon baller or small scoop to rum pudding balls; place in sauce.  Cut small wedge of cake, nestle it beside the rum balls, add a flip of whipped cream and your flower.  Add a few bits of Almond Brittle.  Enjoy but expect requests for seconds.

ALMOND BRITTLE

  • 1/2 cup blanched sliced almonds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Salt, crushed red pepper, optional

Bake nuts in 350° oven for 10 minutes.  Melt sugar in a small heavy skillet..   When it is golden sprinkle in the almonds, stir to coat.  Sprinkle salt and red pepper.  Cool.

RESCUE OLD RECIPES

June 14, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogThe makers of Tabasco just announced they will no longer be awarding prizes for the best cookbooks complied by social clubs, church groups, or fund raising organizations; there are too few being produced to make it worthwhile.   I for one will miss them.  Leafing through those cookbooks has always been my favorite way to find out what Americans were cooking and eating.   I especially love the older generation of books, reading them is a history lesson of American eating habits. We are a nation of different ethnic backgrounds and these books trace the melding of tastes, combining of new and old.  The recipes found in books from the 30’s are usually ethnic inspired; the 40’s wartime recipes were influenced by the rationing of sugar, butter, and meat.  Recipes from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, years when I worked in the food industry, brought recipes that show us the evolution of food as new products and equipment flooded the market.   Home cooking started winding down in the 80’s and recipes reflect an interest in exotic taste, imported ingredients, and labor saving kitchen equipment.   Cream soups made with the food processor nearly killed a taste for them; they appeared at almost every dinner party.

The earliest books are filled with traditional recipes, some calling for ingredients that were not always available, and giving sketchy instructions.   Later the same recipes appeared, but they had been adapted to new ingredients, cooking methods, and kitchen tools.  These bastard versions of beloved recipes bothered me; I was under Julia’s influence, seeking the authentic, with accurate measurements, and detailed instructions.  That was the time when learning ethnic cooking was in and fat French, Italian, Asian, and tropical cookbooks flooded the market.  The group cookbooks were full of shortcut recipes with ethnic flavor.  Now I accept this recipe updating as it adds another layer to our food history.  If such changes had not been made many of these old recipes would have been lost and the next generation would never have known of them.

Originally many of these new and updated recipes were created as a way to sell canned and packaged food products that filled grocery store shelves after WWII.  Almost every food or kitchen manufacturer had a Home Economics Departments filled with eager young women who tested recipes in up-to-the-minute kitchens.  Companies that didn’t have their own kitchens hired Food Consultants, like me, to come up with new uses for their products.  Home Economists wore white uniforms and shoes, like nurses, and hairnets were in order.  Today the food experts seen on the Internet, even elegant restaurant chefs, use their fingers to arrange food.  Sometimes long strands of hair swirl about almost brushing plated food.  Kitchens are less antiseptic and relaxed today; they are becoming playful and inventive.

There are few recipes that can be considered new, most are just reworked old recipes.  At times it is easy to recognize the original; sometimes they remain a mystery.  Those early Home Economists who were so busy changing things liked using traditional names even when the recipes had little connection with the original.  They invented names that sounded exotic, clever, denoting good taste and attached them to their recipes.  West Indies Dip had a dash of curry, Marigold cake was made with orange juice, the only thing dark about Othello Torte was chocolate, South Sea Island Treat was Spam in pineapple sauce, and recipes calling tomato sauce were given an Italian legacy.  Reading these made-up names as they appeared in cookbooks, publicity releases, and magazine articles is lots of fun and good for a laugh.  One day I will do a blog about such roguish recipe names.

During the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s busy American housewives had jobs, but they still cooked for their family, there was little or no ‘carry-out’ available at the time.  They were only too happy to stop chopping, stirring, and measuring and quickly accepted recipes using canned and packaged products.  Recipes that had been developed in company test kitchen became the norm and many remain family favorites.  I was preparing the food for advertising and publicity photographs at this time; some of the recipes even came from my kitchen.  Leafing through private group cookbooks of this era is like reliving my life with the food industry.

Home cooking was an important part of family life during those years; women collected and shared recipes; that often led to the creation of group cookbooks.  Recipes from food and shelter magazines as well as newspapers, were also being using.  Magazines had huge food sections showing recipes made in their well-equipped test kitchen, often they tipped their pots and pans to food companies that advertised in the issue.  The Campbell soup ads that appeared every month in Better Homes & Gardens determined the red color used in the magazine; there were lots of recipes using canned soups.  These recipes were clipped, prepared, and served at family meals.  If they got family approval they were filed away in a recipe box or notebook; later they appeared in those social club cookbooks.

Canned soup as sauce came out of the gate like a charger leaving homemade sauces to be abandoned.  There had been a time when every cooking class taught students how to make 3 kinds of white sauce, thin, medium, and heavy; no one graduated without making perfect Béchamel sauce.   But now dishes and casseroles were being sauced with canned cream soups and given names like Deluxe, Elegant, Continental, or Supreme.  Cream of mushroom soup was poured over                                                                                                                                     pork chops, chicken, shrimp, tuna, and ground beef.  There was even a Beef Stroganoff recipe made with mushroom soup.  Casseroles were extremely popular to serve at home buffets; they were almost always made with some kind of soup.  The manufacturers of canned meat products such as stew, hash, pasta, saw what was happening and got in on the act; canned gravy and sauces appeared on grocery shelves; next came packaged dry mixes.  There was no need to make sauces or gravies.

Food companies sought uses for their new and sometimes suspiciously regarded products.  Recipe folders filled with these recipes were distributed at clubs, schools, and meetings of social groups. Newspapers and magazines printed their own versions.  Recipes using prepared foods were quickly embraced and became a new generation of family recipes.

My old recipe books are falling apart; I tuck them into plastic bags to keep pages from being lost.  The glue is dry, paper spotted and wrinkled, the bindings hang free.  One favored book, Priceless Pages of Recipes, published in 1950 by the Platte County Extension Council of Nebraska, must be opened with great care for the pages fall like dry leaves.  These recipes have inspired uses for a client’s product.  They’ve been copied and file away, some are on my computer, but I cling to this tattered book.  It was the first book I turned to when I started work on this blog.  Ingredients, preparation methods, and today’s tastes may have changed but those old recipes are delicious and well worth rescuing.  With a little updating they could become food memories for another generation.

I’ve delved into almost every sort of cuisine during my career working with food, but for this project I’m sticking with Midwest foods prepared and served during the past 60 years.  Recipes have been largely influenced by the geography, climate, and economics of the area where they are made; ethnicity has not remained a major force.  While there are still family favorites reserved for special occasions, even they have been amended as ingredients and methods became available.    Some great recipes have fallen by the wayside, lost in junk drawers and recipe boxes, abandoned because of changing ingredients and tastes.  The old gets forgotten in the excitement of trying new things.

We are heading into the summer when easy on the cook has always been the watchword. In years gone by, a pound of ground beef, some American cheese, and a can of tomato soup made this casserole that everyone loved.  It was quick and easy to make, could be prepared ahead of time, and reheated at serving time.  When I prepared this old favorite recently, I found it was as well received as it had been in the 40’s when it was conceived.  Two young men samplers kept going back for more for more until there was little left; I had made a double recipe as my baker was large.   This is definitely a recipe that should be rescued.

Summer is salad season and today we have an endless variety of new greens, vegetables, fruits, and herbs to put in it.  Once there was iceberg or head lettuce and it was used in a salad that home hostesses loved.  Does anyone remember Layered Salads?  There were endless variations of this salad as almost anything could be layered atop the chopped head lettuce; it stayed crisp and fresh until tossed at serving time.  The salad is prepared ahead of time, spends the night in the refrigerator, and isn’t uncovered until it is time to serve.  It looked great in a chilly glass bowl, layers of soft color, topped with creamy dressing, shredded cheese, and crumbled bacon.  Bacon is favored by clever chefs today who are putting it to all sorts of new uses, even into desserts. This would seem to be the perfect time to revisit and rescue this salad.

MIDWEST POT PIE

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogThis tomato soup recipe is from the 40’s it remained a favorite on into the 60’s and 70’s.  It came from Better Homes and Gardens and was served once a week in the Meredith Publishing Company cafeteria; it always sold out before lunch period was over.  The cafeteria baked it in large steam table pans, served it in sloppy rectangles, each topped with a mound of cheesy potatoes.  It is inexpensive and easy to make, Mom will like that; almost everyone will love it.   Potpies were popular in England; often baked in a crust like a typical pie, but sometimes topped with mashed potatoes as this version is.  Casseroles were used as a way to make a little meat go a long way, no wonder this was a popular recipe during the great depression.  This could be a good time to make it again;  it would be a shame if this recipe remained forgotten in the junk drawer.

The original recipe called for canned green beans but frozen is more popular today.  Local garden grown fresh beans that are on the market now is an even better choice; I used fresh beans for my popular potpie.  You might even consider dropping beans and using corn, green peppers, or even summer squash.  The meat mixture seemed bland so I have added hot sauce; garlic, fresh herbs, or spices wouldn’t be amiss.   If your eaters are as hungry as mine were, you may want to double the recipe.  I made a large casserole and had very little left after four people finished eating.

HAMBURGER PIE

  • 1 pound ground beef*
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1 tablespoon butter or cooking oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Ground pepper
  • A few drops hot sauce, optional
  • 1 10¾ oz. can condensed tomato soup
  • 1 9-ounce package frozen green beans, lightly cooked**
  • 5 russet potatoes***
  • ½ cup warm milk
  • 1 beaten egg
  • ½ cup shredded American cheese

Cook beef and onions in a large skillet; add a tablespoon butter if beef is lean.  Stir mixture as it cooks breaking ground meat into chunks. Continue until beef is done, no pink showing; season salt, pepper, and hot sauce.   Stir in tomato soup and well-drained beans; bring to a boil.  Taste, adding seasonings as needed.  Turn the beef mixture into a 1 ½-quart casserole.  Set aside.

Pare and cut up potatoes; cook until done in boiling salted water, drain.  Mash adding warm milk and beaten egg.  Spoon mashed potatoes atop the hamburger mixture.  Sprinkle with American cheese.  Bake in 350° oven for 30 to 35 minutes.  If your casserole has been in the refrigerator, it will need about an hour to heat.  Makes 4 servings.

*Ground beef today is often so lean that a bit of fat is needed to improve flavor and texture.

** Half pound of fresh green beans may be used instead of frozen. Wash, cut, cook, and drain before adding to meat mixture

***Instant mashed potatoes or ready mashed potatoes may be used.  Prepare instant potatoes as directed, skip warm milk, but add egg.   If using ready mashed potatoes, warm potatoes before stirring in beaten egg.

NOTE:  The tasty meat mixture, without beans, can be used to make Sloppy Joe sandwiches.  Spoon hot beef mixture into warm buns, top with a slice of American cheese, if desired, and pass dill pickles.

CAMPBELL KIDS SOUP BURGER

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogThis recipe obviously came from the Campbell Soup kitchen and was probably created to sell an underused soup, Chicken Gumbo. It is a mellow tasting sandwich that has been around for a long time; the recipe can still be found on the Internet.  Tastes have changed since this was first introduced and the flavor seemed a bit flat so I added Cajun seasoning. The recipe book ladies gave the sandwich different names, played with catsup and mustard, but for all intents and purposes the recipe remained the same.  Today you will find Chicken Gumbo soup labeled as “light” soup; some of you may feel this is a plus. Brighten the sandwich flavor by serving it with gherkins or pickled peppers; pickled okra could be a nice touch.

SOUPER BURGERS

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon butter or cooking oil, optional*
  • 1 10¾ oz. can condensed Chicken Gumbo Soup
  • 2 tablespoons catsup
  • 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika, optional
  • ½ teaspoon garlic salt, optional
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne, optional
  • ½ teaspoon dry thyme leaves, optional
  • 6 burger buns

Brown the beef and onion in a skillet; add butter if beef is lean.  Cook and stir to break up the meat; cook until beef is done with no pink showing.   Add canned soup, catsup, mustard, and pepper; add remaining seasonings for more flavorful sandwich.  Stir and heat; simmer five minutes until mixture is juicy but not soupy.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Serve on warm or toasted buns.  Makes 6 sandwiches.

SUMMER SALAD RESCUE

June 14, 2010

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogThese layered salads peaked during the days when buffets were popular for backyard parties, church suppers, or neighborhood picnics.  The ingredients varied but the look was always the same; a large glass bowl was filled with layers of chopped and sliced foods.  The salad could be made the day before, refrigerated overnight, and served well chilled the next day.  Iceberg lettuce is looked down on today but it was perfect for this kind of salad for it stayed crispy and fresh, even weighed down by the other ingredients, until it was tossed and mixed with the dressing.  The recipe was a big hit with the cookbook ladies as there were many variations printed in the recipe books.  Cooks played with ingredients, adding what they liked, omitting what they didn’t.  They changed the order of layers, varied the chopped veggies, zipped up the dressing, and even added things like crushed pretzels and chow mien noodles.  However, they never strayed far from this recipe.  This salad reminds me of Cobb Salad that was popular at the same time.  In this salad ingredients are layered in a deep bowl, for the Cobb salad they are artfully arranged atop a bed of lettuce in a large flat bowl.

This is one of those foods that are visually beautiful but can be difficult to serve.  Make certain your bowl is big enough to contain everything without overflowing.   It can turn messy with peas running amok, lettuce free falling, and dressing drooling.  I like thinly sliced vegetables rather than chopped for they are easier to capture with tongs or serving forks used for serving. Tongs work well for they can dig deep allowing one to sample all layers; large salad servers tend to skim the surface so that the first salad eaters may end up with all the eggs, bacon, and dressing, never reaching the lettuce.  You may prefer to toss the salad after presenting it but some of the fun and drama is lost.

I believe the original dressing may have been mayonnaise alone, but the recipe book ladies amended it to their tastes; combination of mayo and ranch is very good.  Some added sour cream, yogurt, or small curd cottage cheese; others tried Thousand Island or creamy French dressing.  The club ladies also changed the kind and amount of vegetables adding red or yellow peppers, cucumbers, water chestnuts, shredded carrots, or cherry or grape tomatoes.  They may have used what was available at the market.  One cook suggested a mix of canned kidney, navy, and garbanzo beans.  Cheddar cheese adds a nice bit of color, but other cheeses have been used; Monterey Jack, with or without hot peppers, Swiss; or Muenster.   You might try blue cheese or feta for an adults only salad.

Summer is the time to rescue this recipe and serve it at patio parties or carry to neighborhood picnics.  Prepared it in the cool of the morning or the night before and refrigerated, the well-chilled glass bowl keeps everything crisp and tasty until time to serve.  Don’t, however, let the salad stand in the hot sun; reveal your masterpiece only when the hungry hordes are ready to begin their attack on the food.

SPLENDID SUMMER SALAD

  • 1 head iceberg lettuce
  • 1 cup, each, chopped or thinly sliced celery, green pepper, and red onion
  • 4 hard cooked eggs, sliced
  • 1 can green peas, drained, or 1 9-ounce package frozen peas, defrosted
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup ranch style dressing
  • 1 to 2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 6-ounces shredded mild Cheddar cheese
  • 8 slices bacon, crisp cooked and crumbled

Wash lettuce, pat dry, and chop or tear into small bits.  Fill a tall, about 1 1/2 quart, glass bowl a little more than half full with lettuce.  Layer celery, green pepper, and onion, in that order, atop lettuce.  Add a layer of sliced hard cooked eggs, stand a few against the glass, if desired.  Sprinkle peas over all.  Combine the mayonnaise, ranch style dressing, and lemon juice to taste; spoon over the salad and carefully spread to cover the top of the salad.  Sprinkle with shredded cheese.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight or for at least 4 hours.  Uncover and sprinkle crumbled bacon before serving.   Add an extra fluff of cheese to top if desired.  Makes 10 or 12 servings.

SOUPY SALAD DRESSING

Seeing all the bottled salad dressings that fill shelves and refrigerator cases at supermarkets today, it may be hard to imagine there was a time when only a few basic dressings like mayonnaise, ‘Miracle Whip’, and that orange French dressing were available.  Everyone who wanted a change, had made there own and tomato soup was often an ingredient.  Some will remember the steak house on south Wabash that made a name for itself with this sort of dressing.  The salad was so good diners didn’t care if the steak wasn’t prime and aged.  The recipe ladies loved this dressing, although some did make minor changes to suit their tastes.  Here’s a basic recipe that you can tweak.

TOMATO SOUP DRESSING

  • 1 10¾ can condensed tomato soup
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup white or cider vinegar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon celery, garlic or onion salt*
  • 1 tablespoon, each, dry mustard & paprika
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce,optional

Combine all ingredients in a blender, food processor, mixing bowl, or quart jar.  Blend, beat, or shake until well mixed.  Store in a jar and shake before using.  Makes about 3 cups.

*Variations: Two tablespoons grated onion, 1 crushed clove garlic; salt to taste.

Serve dressing over iceberg lettuce wedges or toss with a mixed vegetables.

IT’S NOT GRANDMOTHER’S PIEPLANT

May 6, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogThis Ancient in an Apron loves the warm memories of the rhubarb pies her grandmother and aunts made in early spring; it always send me out seeking fresh stalks of pieplant.  But not everyone has such happy thoughts or feels the same way about rhubarb as discovered this story was being put together.  Several people served rhubarb upside down cake said they didn’t eat rhubarb, however only one refused to taste it.  Those who tried it grudgingly admitted it was delicious. These misguided souls will never know what they are missing, leaving more for the rest of us.

Rhubarb is not really a fruit; it’s a vegetable, part of the buckwheat family. It is almost always used to make sweet desserts, although a tart rhubarb sauce is perfect to serve with roast chicken, pork, or ham. The large fan like green leaves are impressive but toxic and not edible; this has led some people to believe the entire plant is dangerous. However, the long red stalks, with plenty of sugar added, do make a delicious pie. Most of the rhubarb recipes found in old cookbooks and written on tattered recipe cards are for pie, that’s why it was called ‘pieplant’.  There are recipes for double crust pies, open-face custard pies, and meringue pies. Rhubarb pie was the favorite of almost everyone, but there were other uses as well.

An upside cake made with rhubarb rivaled the popularity of pineapple upside down cake in the Midwest at one time.  This cozy dessert is still with us sometimes given an unexpected flavor; a friend raved about rhubarb upside cake flavored with anise that she recently ate.  Rhubarb compote, they called it ‘sauce’ in the early days, was another favorite.  The sauce was spooned over puddings, pancakes, and sweet biscuits.  Home canned fruit was often served as dessert during the winter; rhubarb sauce was a fresh and welcome flavor change.

At one time fresh fruit or garden produce didn’t arrive in Midwest kitchens until mid-summer; the folksy rhubarb plant arrived early and became much loved because of this.  Rhubarb was one of the first plants to appear in early spring and almost everyone had a stand of it growing in their garden.  The plant had large with showy elephant ear leaves that added a spot of green to winter brown gardens.  As soon as the celery like stalks were long and plentiful enough to make a pie, they were cut and there was pie for dinner.  They weren’t thick and red like they are today, but thin, green, and sour, needing lots of sugar before they could pass for dessert.

The first time you prepare rhubarb you may find it hard to believe anything tasty, sweet, and juicy could be made from the stringy tough stalks, even the smell seems harsh, almost acrid.  When you have finished trimming and chopping rhubarb your hands will smell as if you’ve been pulling weeds, not getting ready to bake a sweet dessert.  But don’t be turned off, the warm juicy rhubarb pie or upside down cake will be simply delicious, especially when served with ice cream or whipped cream.

Fruit pies are always best when eaten warm, out of the oven just long enough so the juice thickens slightly but not long enough so it becomes gluey.  This can make cutting and serving the pie a bit messy, but the warm pie will be memorable.  Just keep the first collapsed piece for the server, tuck it away for a late night snack, the next pieces will be easier to serve although they still may be soft and fluid.  Once the pie has cooled completely, the warm fruit smell and bright taste fades.  The refrigerated pie is still enjoyable, but the rhubarb may taste less fruity and the crust will be soggy, quite brown in flavor.

Finding fresh rhubarb isn’t always easy, even in springtime when it is supposedly in season.  Last week I asked for rhubarb in a large grocery store and was told they had none in stock.   The produce stocker, an older man, knew this was the right time to ask for it, but found none was available.  Actually today rhubarb is raised in hot houses so it can be found in some markets all year long; a few stores may have it frozen as well.  But spring is truly rhubarb season, so now is the time to seek it and bake a pie.

In Europe rhubarb is usually used alone, but in this country it is often paired with strawberries, another early spring arrival.  This tasty combination might have started as a way to stretch a few berries into dessert large enough for the family.  The combined taste of sweet berries and tart rhubarb was so perfect and the color so bright, it became a hit.  I am using this delicious combination in my pie recipes, but you may drop the berries and use only rhubarb.  If you know anyone who grew up back in the days before fresh produce was flown in from around the world arriving all year long, you probably know someone who will get teary eyed and begin to drool at the mere mention of rhubarb pie.

IT’S TIME TO BAKE A PIE

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogIt has been said there are three fruits of summer that call for making pie, rhubarb, gooseberry, and sour cherry. Rhubarb arrives early, cherries and gooseberries follow; once their seasons are gone, we must wait for their return.  Today these fruits can be found frozen and pies made of them appear on restaurant menus throughout the year, but a home baked pie made with fresh picked fruit is a taste to be treasured.  Gooseberries and sour cherries seldom appear in grocery stores and when they do they are expensive, but this is an opportunity not to be missed.  Michigan fruit growers at Farmers Markets in Chicago sell pie cherries and gooseberries for a few weeks during the summer, then they are gone for another year. Rhubarb is the only one that can usually be found in regular grocery stores.  Spring is the time to find some, buy it, and bake a pie.

PIEPLANT STRAWBERRY PIE

  • 1 to 1¼ cup sugar
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons minute tapioca
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups chopped rhubarb (1 ½ pound)*
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
  • Pastry for 2 crust 9-inch pie
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Milk or light cream, opsional
  • Sugar, optional

Mix sugar, tapioca, nutmeg, and salt together.  I like my pie juicy and fruity rather than stiff and sweet; I use the lesser amounts.  Pour lemon juice over cut rhubarb and let it stand for a few minutes.  Add strawberries and toss to mix.

Fit pastry into a 9-inch pie plate.  Spoon about 3 tablespoons of the sugar tapioca mixture over bottom crust, then pile in 1/3 of the cut rhubarb and strawberries; sprinkle 1/3 of remaining sugar mixture over fruit.  Repeat until all rhubarb, strawberries, and sugar have been used, ending with sugar mixture; dot with butter.  Trim the crust so it is even with edge of pie plate and brush edge with water or milk.  Adjust top crust, trim to leave about half inch overhanging edge of pie plate.   Lift edge of bottom crust and tuck top crust under; pinch to seal, flute edge.  Make slits in top crust; brush with cream or milk and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.

Bake in a 400º oven for 50 to 60 minutes until the fruit bubbles up through the slits.  If your fruit is cold from the refrigerator it may take longer.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

PIE UNDER MERINGUE

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogI have fought the battle of baking and cutting meringue pies most of my life.  Whether the pie was for a photograph or to be served for dinner, cutting it was a tricky feat.  If you’ve ever made and served a lemon, butterscotch, or chocolate meringue pie, you’ll understand what I mean.  They look beautiful as they came out of the oven with meringue standing tall and regal, the top swirled and touched with warm brown tips.  Put the hot pie on a cooling rack, turn your back to let it cool before cutting, and things start going awry.  The meringue begins to shrink away from the crust and starts to collapse; it no longer stands proud and impressive.  A trough forms between the shrinking meringue and crust; it begins to fill with seepage while wet beads form on the meringue itself. This moisture dampens crust; it will break and crumble when being cut.   The thought of cutting a meringue pie to serve for company can bring fear to even the most experienced pie baker.  Putting a meringue topped pie, whether cut pie or a slice, under the camera for a photograph was often a nightmare.  Several pies had to be made for no one could tell which one, if any, would cut like a dream.  Every meringue pie photograph was a crapshoot; sometimes food stylists went home in tears.

There were many theories why this happened; the eggs were too fresh or too old, too cold or too warm, there was too much sugar or not enough, it was beaten too long or not long enough, the oven shelf was set too low or too high, the temperature was too high or low, a chilly air conditioning breeze hit the pie?  The list goes on.  We tried everything and sometimes it worked. Ingredients were kept at room temp, not too warm, hopefully just right.  Oven temperatures were checked with special thermometers.  Only one pie was baked at a time, set in the very middle of oven on the middle shelf; no chance of a hot spot.  Pies were cooled away from drafts and cut without delay once they cooled.  They were never refrigerated.  But meringues still pulled away from the crust and collapsed.  They had to be patched, slipped back in place, and anchored with toothpick and bits of paper towels absorbed the drips.  The piecrust was given a back support cut from a spare tin or aluminum pie pan.  Once the pie was cut it went quickly from kitchen to set where it was photographed without delay.

We wondered how the pies in bakery cases could look so perfect and cut so slick?  Eventually meringue mixes made from dried egg whites appeared for home cooks and we found they worked; we surmised that was why bakery pies didn’t collapse.  Pies from scratch began disappearing.  We used canned pie fillings, pastry and meringue mixes.  It was easier and we didn’t look back.  But meringue from a box doesn’t have the softness, fluffiness, and light taste of one made from fresh egg whites.  After I stopped putting pies under the camera, I decided to see what I could find out about making meringues.  I checked cookbooks, food information sheets, asked questions, and talked to country cooks who still baked the old fashioned way.   One day in an old Nebraska cookbook I found a slightly different method for making and baking meringue pies.  It was not quite what I had learned in my college food classes and not exactly what is recommended by the food experts, found in cookbooks, or food magazines today.  However, it seemed worth a try.  My pie came out of the oven looking perfect.  The meringue clung the crust, stayed high and cooled without change; it cut easily.  True it didn’t have quite the same softness of traditional meringues; it was a bit firmer but it cut without tearing and tasted fine.  If you’ve ever come close to tears over meringue pie you might like to try this meringue; you’ll either love it or hate.  It doesn’t have to be used on rhubarb pie; it will work on lemon, butterscotch, or chocolate pie.

RHUBARB MERINGUE PIE

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 cups diced rhubarb
  • 2 cups diced strawberries
  • 1 9-inch unbaked pie shell*
  • .      .       .      .
  • 3 egg whites
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons sugar

Cream butter and sugar together; add flour and salt; blend thoroughly.  Beat egg yolks and add to butter sugar mixture; mix well.  Add rhubarb and strawberries; mix well.  Turn the mixture into unbaked pie shell.  Bake in a 375° oven for 50 to 60 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and filling is set.  If your rhubarb is chilled from the refrigerator it may need more baking time.  Remove from oven and set on a cooling rack while making meringue.

Beat egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt until fluffy, add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, while continuing to beat.  Beat until stiff peaks form, do not under beat; this will take 2 to 4 minutes.  Time will depend on beater you are using; it may take a full 5 minutes if using a hand mixer.  Spread meringue over warm pie sealing meringue to the pastry edge.  Bake for 30 minutes in 325° oven until lightly browned.

*There’s no need to make piecrust these days as there are packaged pastry sheets and frozen pie shells to make pie baking simpler.  The frozen pie shell is particularly good for one-crust pies like this as they are fitted into a pan and ready for baking.   Since the crusts are cold when you fill them, you may need to bake them longer than the recipes indicate.

PIEPLANT MAKES MORE THAN PIE

May 6, 2010

Icon that represents the story part of a blogNot all rhubarb has to be baked in a pie.  Upside down cake was another popular dessert that those early cooks used when fresh fruit was available.  This recipe uses a packaged food product, marshmallows, popular during the 60’s and 70’s.  Marshmallows were found in recipes for sweet salads, desserts, and vegetables, like the sweet potato dish some still serve for Thanksgiving.  The melted marshmallows give the fruit a beautiful glazed look that remains even after the dessert has cooled.  Serve this warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.  When they served this for dessert in Nebraska, my grandfather would pour whipping cream over it.  They saved whipped cream for company.

RHUBARB TOPSY TURVY

  • 2 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1/2 pound
  • 2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
  • ¾ cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or cider vinegar
  • 1¼ cup miniature or cut up marshmallows
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 recipe Cottage Pudding

Combine the rhubarb, brown sugar and lemon juice; pour it into a well buttered 9-inch square baker or 10-inch round baker.  Sprinkle marshmallows over and toss to mix.  Dot top with butter.  Turn cottage pudding batter atop the rhubarb; carefully spread batter over rhubarb, covering from edge to edge.

Bake in 350° oven for 55 to 60 minutes or until cake is baked and rhubarb is cooked.  Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, loosen from edge of pan and turn out onto a plate.  May be served from the baker if desired.  Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, Makes 6 to 8 servings.

COTTAGE PUDDING

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogThis is really a cross between muffins and cake; it can be used in many different ways and is easy to make.  Here it is used to make an upside down cake, the batter baked atop fresh rhubarb and strawberries.   It can be baked as a plain cake and served with fruit compote, lemon sauce, or custard sauce. It could be frosted or sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar to serve with tea or coffee.  This is a simple quickly made cake that our grandmothers loved.  They baked and served it when company arrived unexpectedly; every visitor was offered a cup of coffee and something sweet.  Today we serve packaged cookies, purchased cupcakes, or frozen pound cake; grandma baked a cake.

COTTAGE PUDDING

  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter and sugar until soft a lightened.  Add eggs, one at a time, and beat.  Mix flour, baking powder, and salt; add to egg mixture alternately with the milk and vanilla.  Batter will be thick and fluffy.  Use as directed for Rhubarb Topsy Turvy or turn into a well-greased 9-inch round or square baking dish.  Bake 35 to 45 minutes in 350° oven or until done.

FRUIT COMPOTE

Icon that represents the recipe part of a blogDessert as I was growing up was often fruit, cooked or canned, served in sauce-dishes, a cookie on the side.  This was the only fruit available in rural Nebraska except when there was ripe fruit on the cherry, pear, or apple trees in our orchard.  My parents lusted for the summer months when those trees were laden with ripe fruit. I, for one, wasn’t so thrilled for this meant fruit had to be picked and canned; that was the summer job for farm kids.  Somehow the taste for fresh cherries was lost when picking, pitting, and canning were the activity of a hot and humid day.  There were no peach trees in our orchard, but they grew on the western slope of Colorado and were trucked in when they were ripe. My father would bring home bushel baskets of peaches that had to be peeled, pitted, and canned.  Fresh fruit wasn’t a luxury to be enjoyed; it meant hard work for everyone when it was being canned.

All cooked fruit was called “sauce”, whether it came from a can or was freshly cooked.  I wonder if I would have liked it better had they called it fruit compote and served it in a cut glass dish.  Today, I find some fruit shipped-in fruit with an off flavor or hard texture develops a superior taste when it is cooked.  When such fruit is cooked or baked with a bit of sugar and little or no water it develops more flavor.

Making fruit sauce from rhubarb is easier than baking a pie or cake and this is a great way to enjoy rhubarb.   Adding some frozen strawberries after the rhubarb is cooked and tender gives the sauce a lovely color and flavor.  The rhubarb sauce is delicious spooned over pound cake, rice pudding, or atop yogurt or vanilla ice cream.  It can also sauce a pork chop, chicken leg, or ham steak.

RHUBARB BERRY COMPOTE

  • 4 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup water?
  • 1 10-ounce package sweetened sliced strawberries or raspberries*

Combine rhubarb sugar, and water in saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Cook until rhubarb is tender, about 10 minutes.  The rhubarb will break up as the flavor is released into the sauce.

Remove from heat and stir in frozen berries.  Serve warm or chilled.   Makes 6 to 8 servings.

*A larger package of frozen fruit may be used.