Sunday, January 25, 2015

such a comfort: James Beard's braised onion sauce on pizza

Often in these doldrums I’d just as soon pull on a pair of wool socks and another sweater and make a bowl of polenta (or rice or ferro) laced with cream and maple sugar and a hint of cinnamon and sprawl on the couch to catch up on the last season of Mad Men. That childish meal would take precedence even over a slightly more sophisticated bowl of the same stuff condimented with olive oil and garlic and parmesan – if you’re going to be twelve, be twelve! In that light, forget the maple syrup – make it brown sugar, and be sure to put a lump of good butter in the bottom of the bowl before you pour in the hot cereal.

But those days are gone forever. At seventy, one needs to dredge up at least a modicum of dignity and put to work the things one knows are good to do for oneself and one’s ones. But sometimes good intentions fail when 8° Fahrenheit is a heat wave and you just want something comforting but not too pointedly childish.
And, sometimes the more you know the ‘less’ you need to do to get away with very little. Recently I heard reference to James Beard’s Braised Onion Sauce from his book, Beard on Pasta, one that I don’t own, but was able to look up online. The recipe is simplicity itself and, though it is meant to go on pasta, I thought I would use it as a pizza topping.
Most of us can recognize the desirability of braising onions long and slow until they turn golden and soft and very very sweet. Nowadays food writers can get a little pretentious about it and call for a certain kind of sweet onion. And yes, it is possible that the reason James Beard called for plain ole yellow onions is not because of choice but because of the lack of it: When he wrote, there were two kinds of onions readily available – yellow and white – and yellow were preferable for this recipe.
I’m sure he knew of the sweet cipollini or Maui or Vidalia but I like to think that even if they were available he would still have preferred to cook down strong sharp flavorful onions to discover their hidden sweetness rather than to accentuate the already sweet and often insipid ones. I would, anyway. Of course he does call for the addition of a tablespoon of sugar to the onions and that can be omitted or at least halved, as the finished sauce was quite sweet and in my opinion the sugar detracted from the natural sweet flavor of them.
He calls for 1 ½ pounds of onions and ½ pound of butter! That – 2 sticks, or 16 tablespoons – is too much butter, if such a thing can be said of butter. I used ten tablespoons, which is a stick plus 2 tablespoons and next time I would cut it down to one stick. (Actually, thinking this over, the amount of butter may not be too much for pasta because it makes up the sauce. It IS too much for a pizza topping.)
So the idea is that you slice up about 3 large onions, put them in the pan with the butter and a bit of salt, turn the heat to low and let them just sweat in the butter and their own juices for about an hour until they are golden and even puddeny. When they have become that thick, unctuous, caramelly sauce, you add some Madeira – or sherry, as I did, lacking Madeira – and then you throw them over some substantial pasta and shave a bit of parmesan over them and voila::: Comfort Food!!!
This idea caught me early in the day so I started braising the onions, thinking that – for lack of an appropriate pasta – I would use it on a pizza. So that’s what I did, and here’s that little recipe:

James Beard’s Braised Onion Sauce
(for pasta or pizza, annotated, of course, by me)
  • 10 to 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (I used 10 tablespoons and the pizza was ringed in melted butter. I’d use 8 the next time)
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (for me, this is optional – I would leave it out next time)
  • Salt (about a teaspoon for the cooking, and a sprinkling of coarsely ground at the end)
  • 1/4 cup Madeira (lacking this, I used sherry)
  • 3/4 pound hot cooked pasta (I used a pizza crust)
  • Grated Parmesan, for serving
  1. In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent.
  2. Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions slowly for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Patience is key! When they're done, they should be golden, caramelized, and borderline jammy.
  3. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a few more minutes
  4. Add the cooked pasta to the pan. Shower on a generous dusting of Parmesan, and using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce OR
  5. simply spread the onion sauce over the pizza crust, shave parmesan over the top, pop it into a 450° oven for about 15 minutes or until golden and bubbly and that will be that.
We loved this for dinner and I cut the leftovers into little squares and served them as a snack when friends came over the next day.
It was very popular, arguably a bit healthier than the sugary hot porridge, but still Such a Comfort!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

marshmallows from mastadons

hands of mom and dotter make easy work. photo by Isobel Gabel Nimtz
Yea, it was Christmas Eve day and all through the house there were presents to be wrapped, rugs to be vacuumed and, if I ever got my rear in gear, cookies to make. But then, who would eat them, all crunchy and sugary? And who should? Certainly not me!
So what did I do with this holiday crescendo hanging over my head? I decided to make marshmallows, than which there is not, of course, a healthier snack nor one more emblematic of the holidays. Which holiday? Well, maybe Easter or the 4th of July.
Nevertheless I persevered, tempted by a photo of a plateful of them online somewhere. We would have marshmallows for Christmas.
Or, rather, we probably wouldn’t. How many times had I attempted my grandmother’s divinity in this season, beating a sugar syrup into egg whites until light as clouds and dropping mounds of it filled with black walnuts onto a sheet of waxed paper. Hers remained mounds, and she portioned them out to all the men in her life; mine became lakes. I always blamed my failure on damp Christmas air.
This Christmas Eve it rained all day but I nevertheless determined to make a sugar syrup and add it to gelatin, and whip it into light and airy marshmallows. It had no more chance of success than my divinity efforts, but for some reason I followed this strange compulsion.
Was I insane? I believe I was suffering from at least a temporary form of holiday insanity.
I checked for supplies: Yes, the last of the 40 year old gelatin was in the spice cupboard, assuming it was still viable. (Do hydrolyzed beef bones go bad? I wonder if we could make marshmallows out of mastodon bones?) And yes, I had about a cup of corn syrup (not high-fructose) left in the bottle – how old was that? I’d used up my lifetime can of  PAM in about 1987, if I remember correctly, and that did seem to be an integral part of this process – PAM to spray the pan, the parchment paper, the spatula, the knife, lots and lots of PAM.
Not the healthiest thing I’d done this year but shut up about that. Please. You can not reason with the insane.
Okay, PAM. It was Christmas Eve, remember, and I was NOT about to go to Hannafords or Price Chopper or anywhere near Rutland, which would be a mob scene. Lowell!, I thought, and called her. “Which kind of PAM would you like? she asked. “I have coconut oil, olive oil lite, canola oil...” I told her, anything with some lecithin in it, which I believe is the ingredient that gives it its legendary properties of non-stickness.
Back home again! I needed 2.5 tablespoons of gelatin. I may have overestimated the amount in each of those little packets – they felt fat. I measured out the last two of them and came up with about 2 tablespoons. There was an opened packet, partially full, and without measuring I dumped that in, too. I was taking no chances on being a trifle short, just BAM, there we go. Okay.
But then I measured out the cup of corn syrup and I was a good quarter cup short. Damn. I knew Lowell wouldn’t have it because she doesn’t bake. The little store had none, but they suggested the family dollar. I’d forgotten we had a family dollar so I drove there. They had no corn syrup but they did have PAM, so I bought a can of it and will probably never run out of it again.
So then I stopped back at Lowell’s and sure enough she had no corn syrup but called Cassie, who did. After I sat around and chatted with Lowell and Dave, who was finishing up the holiday cards, I drove over to Cassie’s and chatted with her and her mother while Cassie rolled out pie crust.
This day was turning out to be the most Christmassy and relaxing and pleasant thing I’d done all holiday season. I wondered who I could visit next, and thought I’d have to when Cassie pulled out her bottle of corn syrup::: It was, Get this, LITE corn syrup! Lower in sugar. What the hell?!!! You’re not going to drink corn syrup all that often, but when you DO find occasion to use it you don’t want them to’ve cut down on the sugar. Sugar’s the whole point! 
But enough was enough. I took my Lite Corn Syrup home and proceeded to make the marshmallows.
I think what caught my eye in the first place was the idea of combining the honey and sugar and corn syrup and water and heating it until the sugar dissolved and then bringing it “to a full boil for 30 seconds”. None of those hard or soft ball stages – just blast it for 30 seconds, which you can count, you know – and then if it didn’t come out it wasn’t your fault. You’d done your part!
I Pammed the pan, lined it with parchment paper and Pammed that. Then I Pammed the spatula and scooped all that luscious froth into it, smoothed it out, and set it aside. Then I looked at the floor, which had been Pammed, too. We could’ve skated on it.
Next afternoon I Pammed a sharp knife, cut those suckers into cubes, Dotter rolled them in (yet more) (powdered) sugar and pronounced them – not divinity – but divine! Nobody even missed Christmas cookies. Some purists wanted to age them like Peeps and eat them for Easter. Fat chance they were going to last that long.
So just in case you want to follow up and make some of these lovelies, here’s the recipe. it’s one I found with the help of one of my favorite pages, Improvised life, and those ladies reprinted it from a blog called Kitchen Repertoire. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water (this will be divided into ½ cup + 1 tablespoon and ¼ cup*)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup (this is light as in color, not lite as in less sugar)
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • food coloring, sprinkles and flavoring of choice (I used rum/vanilla for flavoring, and next time would definitely use some sprinkles or something for color)
  • Confectioners sugar, for dusting
In a bowl sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water.  Let stand to soften.  Meanwhile combine sugar, corn syrup, honey, salt and remaining 1/4 cup  water in a large heavy pot. (*I believe I forgot to add in that last quarter cup of water...Jest sayin’) Cook over medium heat for a few minutes until combined.  Increase heat and bring to a full boil for about 30 seconds, stirring frequently.  Reduce heat and stir in gelatin, 1 tablespoon of whatever flavoring you wish and stir for a 30 more seconds until all the gelatin has dissolved.  Transfer the mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer, add a drop or two of food coloring if using,  and whisk until thick and fluffy and very stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes at a high speed (I whipped it until it could stand up and walk away – about 10 minutes).
Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with Pam - lots and lots of Pam.  Line pan with parchment and spray the parchment.  Spray a rubber spatula with more Pam and transfer marshmallow goo into the pan.  Flatten top - using sprayed spatula.  Let cool, wrap in plastic and allow to stand overnight.  
Turn out marshmallows.  Spray a knife with Pam.  Cut into squares of any size, toss with sifted confectioners sugar, shaking off excess.  If decorating with sprinkles - dip ends into sprinkles instead of using confectioners sugar so that the sprinkles stick. 
Happy (early) Easter!

Monday, December 29, 2014

the Lebovitz adaptation

I can scarcely read David Lebovitz  without wanting to share with you whatever it is he’s talking about that day. But then you might just as well read yourself instead of tuning into Twice Bitten every other Tuesday.
I have to admit that some of his recipes work better than others. For instance, in a braised endive dish that I couldn’t wait to try a few weeks ago, the endive is braised in butter on the stovetop and then tucked in with a parchment paper covering to the oven for about an hour before taken out and cooled, each endive wrapped in thin ham, then put back into the baking dish and covered with a b├ęchamel (white sauce) with Gruyere or other Swiss style cheese folded into it, and then browned back in the oven.
I made it and Leo thought it was dreamy, but I found a few things wrong with my execution of it. First of all, the sauce was brown instead of white and golden on top as in David’s photo. And there was something about the texture that I didn’t like, the endive being extremely soft and yet rather stringy. Neither of which was the fault of the dish but, as I say, in my execution of it and, possibly, in David’s directions as to the making of it. And perhaps the endive could have been fresher. A better cook than I would have adapted it to her own expectations, anticipating that the browned butter in the dish would turn the entire sauce brown. Which I may have recognized, but did nothing about.
So now, in hindsight, let me tell you, I would bake it until the juices had become a glaze, not liquid, and then, instead of a b├ęchamel, I would simply nap it with warmed heavy cream and the grated cheese and bake it until bubbly and golden. That would make a wonderful very low carbohydrate dish for this carb-hyped season.
Another thing that David did, recently, was to print another cook’s adaptation of a recipe from David’s book, My Paris Kitchen, for a slightly sweet Israeli cous cous! I’m unable to find that now – he may have taken it down for it’s circuitousness – but I did find the adaptation, itself, by Sara Rosso on her blog, It involves a lot of fresh lemon juice and cilantro along with dates and pistachios and a bit of cinnamon.
It sounded wonderful to me and so I tried it – adding bacon to the mix, and more lemon – and was blown away. I thought it was outstanding and I could eat it all day, while Leo thought it was good but too sweet for a main dish despite the bacon. Whomever you believe you can bet it would make a wonderful side dish for the holiday table.
Israeli or Middle Eastern (as the Co-op labels it in the bulk department) cous cous  is simply a larger grained cous cous. And of course cous cous is not a grain, or only remotely, being made from flour, traditionally from semolina wheat. I think of it as a pasta. Don’t ask me how they form regular cous cous  into those little balls::: Well, do ask me, and I would tell you women’s fingers and lots of gossip I would guess. Sitting outside on kitchen chairs in some North African landscape, deftly rubbing dough between their palms to form tiny little pellets. On the other hand, Israeli cous cous is actually extruded into larger little balls and then baked. It is cooked, then, by boiling briefly.
I am buying bacon made from the hog jowl from Plew Farm at the Rutland Winter Market on Saturdays. I keep it frozen and shave off just as much as I need for each use. I imagine I used 2 or 3 ounces in this dish – just enough for a bit of savory flavor. Excellent Medjool dates may be found in the Co-op’s produce section. Roasted and salted pistachios in their bulk section. As a matter of fact all the ingredients (but the bacon) can be found in different parts of the Co-op.
Here’s the recipe. It is Sharon Nimtz’s adaptation of  Sara Rosso’s adaptation of David Lebovitz’s
Lemon-Pistachio Israeli Cous Cous
3 or 4 ounces thin sliced bacon (see above)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ cup cilantro, chopped just coarsely
½ cup diced Medjool dates
½ cup salted and roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
2 tablespoons very good salted butter at room temp
1 ¼ cups Israeli cous cous
sea salt to taste
 Freshly ground pepper
Add all the ingredients except cous cous, salt and pepper to a large bowl.
Boil the cous cous in salted water according to package directions, or simmer about 8 minutes until al dente. Drain, then add the cous cous to the bowl and stir until the butter is fully melted and all the ingredients are mixed well. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature. I would not re-heat leftovers.
Happy Holidays, Dear Readers!
this Twice Bitten column was published in the Rutland Herald on 12/23/14

Tuesday, December 09, 2014 the most delightful way

Last summer when I harvested my delicious, pungent, crisp and plentiful 2014 crop of garlic, small-headed though they were (a whole other story), I peeled almost two cups of the cloves and put them into a pint ball jar, salted them liberally and let them sit over night in order to begin the fermentation. The next day I rubbed them dry and covered them with local Rutland honey from Right Mind Farm. I put the lid and ring on the jar and set it aside in a hidey place over by the coffee pot.
Now, a recipe for this substance called Ninniku Hachimitsu-zuke from the book Quick and Easy Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Recipes, does not call for the garlic being salted overnight, but just covered with honey and set aside in a cool place. Sarah Nelson Miller, who referred to that recipe on her blog, Killer Pickles, points out that not only is honey 80% sugar but it is also acidic, both traits that help preserve whatever’s in it. Like garlic. Miller also urges us to, “try using it in dressings, sauces, and marinades, and it’s a natural choice for many kinds of Asian cooking. I love to chop up a bit of the garlic and mix it with the honey and some raw apple cider vinegar and drizzle that over (a pork loin).”
This concoction was being raved about by posters on a Facebook thread called Fermenter’s Kitchen and another called Wild Fermentation (started by Miller) after the book by Sandor Katz. It was promoted as being, number 1, delicious and, number 2, a fantastic remedy for colds and flu due to the antibiotic and healing properties of both ingredients.
Truthfully, what I had in mind was an approximation of the delightful taste you get when you baste thin flatbread dough with garlicky olive oil, bake it off, and then drizzle it with honey and a sprinkle of coarse salt, and eat it while it’s warm. If you’ve never tasted this you must must must make occasion to try it.
But this was not to be, for when I tried the garlic and honey after it had fermented on the counter for a couple of weeks, the honey had watered down with the juices of the garlic, I guess, and simply did not have that unctuous mouth feel. And of course, then, also, there was the fermented taste, which is not to be scoffed at, normally, but in this instance was not what I was looking for. I left that jar alone after that, merely glancing at it balefully once in awhile, trying not to bewail the waste of valuable garlic AND honey......
But that was before this insidious little dry cough that came on slowly over a week or so became productive and near constant, keeping me awake at night and finally making my ribs hurt. That baleful glance happened once again on that little pint jar and this time lingered, and I thought well, what the hell, that’s what it’s s’pozed to be good for and I forked out a garlic clove and ate it! That was a treat! Then I spooned up some of the honey and swallowed that. Not bad.
Next morning, cough was still there, and still productive but with the air of clearing out and cleaning up rather than going deeper and despicable-er. Another clove of garlic and spoonful of honey – hot and sweet! there are worse ways of dealing with illness – in the morning and healing is definitely on the upswing.
Just proving that A Spoonful of Honey makes the medicine go down...
This Twice Bitten column first printed in the Rutland Herald 12/9/14 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

caramel alchemy

Partner-in-life has been on a too-long ice cream jag, which would be all right except for all the sugar carbs  that tempt me to share the jag, and two more reasons, #1 that he has eschewed Ben and Jerry’s creaminess (and priciness) for Second-Best-Local-Ice-Cream. SBLIC, which used to be really good, is now, due to a family quarrel regarding quantity vs quality, not as good as it used to be: It tastes icy instead of creamy.

P-i-L HAD brought home one of those B&J pints with a core of caramel down the middle of it. That was dicey in that it was TOO good. Next he bought the SBLIC Sweet Cream flavor, which sounds so good but was still icy, and a little jar of brand name (SureFine? Smuckers?) caramel which sported as first ingredient high fructose corn syrup. That was Reason #2. I put that little jar on the porch. I said, “You take that right back, we don’t eat that kind of Stuff in this house.” Dotter was home, knowing (as did he) that I was right. But. Caramel! “What do you think that caramel core in B&J’s was made of?” he whined. I hate to think.

Well, actually, I did think and so I looked it up. Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Core Ice Cream has about 23+/- ingredients but, though it does list corn syrup, it is apparently not high fructose corn syrup.

Twenty-three ingredients! Ice cream is best when you have three ingredients. In June those would be Cream, Sugar, and Strawberries. In July substitute blueberries for the strawberries. Caramel should have 2 or 3 ingredients: sugar, cream, and maybe butter. Added together that’s 4 ingredients, most of it sugar.

So one night, right after the marvelous shrimp dinner that I wrote about 2 weeks ago, that he and she had cleaned up after, with SBLIC Sweet Cream looming, almost without thinking I plunked the black cast iron skillet on the burner and turned it up to medium-high heat and, when it was getting there, poured a cup of white cane sugar into it, then shook it a bit, and turned the heat down a bit and stood looking at it, as did dotter.

“What...?” she said. “Just sugar...?” she said, as the edges of it browned and sank and ate at the interior, and a couple of hot spots in the center began to spread.
“Yep,” I said, “caramel.” A gasp. “I didn’t know it was such alchemy,” she said.

Alchemy, yes: When you think what different substances ice cream and caramel are, both made with almost the same ingredients.

I modulated the heat, picked up the skillet to that end, put it back down, turned the sugar with a silicone spatula, and when all was melted, white turned to amber and that turning dark reddish brown, watching witchfully, as soon as it “was just past the point when it starts to smoke,” (David Lebovitz) I turned the heat off and added heavy cream that I’d warmed in its own container in a bowl of hot water, Thomases again, and stirred carefully as it rose whoosh up the sides of the pan (silicone gloves are handy) stirring with that silicone spatula. I turned the heat back on low and when all was incorporated I turned the heat off again and added a couple lumps of salted butter and swirled them in. It was gorgeous. 

Ice cream sundaes were made with that Second-Best-Local-Ice-Cream’s Sweet Cream flavor topped with fresh, pillowy red raspberries and then that Surprise Caramel Sauce that astonished me as well as them, because it disappeared over the berries and ice cream only to be re-discovered in the process of spooning it up where it had formed its soft, round, buttery mouthfuls deep in the ice cream and berries.

Chemistry. Ain’t it grand?

Post Script: This is privileged stuff, having the sugar, the pan, the stove, to cook. How many people don’t. I can’t imagine. But I know it happens and so I give my money to people who can help those who haven’t even the basics, Vermont Foodbank. Please give to them this holiday season and every other season. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Shrimp with a Snap

Let’s just say that flaccid shrimp are not my cup of seafood!

I found the following instruction in a recipe posted by a popular cooking show: 

"Immediately drop in the shrimp (to a moderately hot pan) and stir for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the shrimp are turning pink and are barely firm. Turn the shrimp into a serving bowl..."
Did you say UGH as loudly as I did?

A friend told me of his dear friend who habitually brought rather limp shrimp to events, so that one time when he forgot to cook them at all no one noticed. Flaccidity in shrimp is not your friend; as a matter of fact i can't think of an instance when it is a good thing. If you have anything in your home that the word flaccid could apply to it is probably a good idea to get rid of it.

But that wasn't the only thing that was wrong with that recipe. It called for the shrimp to be brined in a mixture made of water, 1/2 cup sea salt, 1/3 cup cane sugar, and 1/3 cup medium-hot chile powder! Soak for twenty minutes and then dump all that chili powder and sea salt out? I don't think so.

Sometimes we glom onto old advice that does not benefit us. For instance it is certainly possible to handle pastry dough too little and it is probably done quite often simply because everyone is paranoid about "handling it too much," advice that benefits only the makers of store-bought pie crust. After all, the stuff has got to hold together. 

Ditto about cooking shrimp and lobster for a short time "so as not to make it tough". Well, I'd rather have it tough than flaccid. But most of all I'd like it firm and with a bit of snap when you bite into it. A juicy snap.

A few weeks ago my daughter was flying out the next day to drive a u-haul back here from North Carolina with her significant other and all their belongings. That night called for a special meal for her to remember and come back to and that's why I picked up her favorite, shrimp, that had been imported from an Ecuadorian shrimp farm by Green Mountain Fresh down on State Street.

I'd been talking to Ingrid Wisell there about the advantages of farmed shrimp versus wild shrimp when owner, John Schramm, walked out and said he'd stack up his farmed E-Z Peel shrimp against wild-caught any old day. So I ordered 1.5 pounds of E-Z Peel. 

It's cheaper than wild-caught –  about $12 a pound that day as against just about $17 for the wild-caught –  and Ingrid had told me that most of its food is swept over it in the wild ocean, and that food is supplemented with appropriate other wild food. "It is definitely not fed chicken feed," she said, rather offended, but dispelling my greatest fear.
To prepare that shrimp I set my oven to 450° and placed a heavy cast iron griddle in it and as it heated I peeled the shrimp. E-Z Peel means the shells have been cut up the back, which makes them perhaps E-Zier, but not really E-Z, to peel. As I peeled them I lined them up on a flat, rimless pan so they would be easier to slide onto the hot griddle when it was time. 

I have an old oven so by the time it had come up to temp I had prepared the shrimp and thin-sliced the last green tomato from the garden and fried it in some lard (rendered by Pine Woods Farm in West Pawlet) in a heavy cast-iron frying pan. 

I removed that flaming hot griddle from the oven ever-so-carefully, drizzled it with just a bit of olive oil to prevent the shrimp from sticking, then slid the shrimp onto it and placed it back into the oven for about 2 minutes. Back out they came to be doused with half a stick of melted butter and 2 or 3 cloves of finely chopped garlic. Back in for another 2 minutes, and when they came out this time I sprinkled them with the juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon, some coarse sea salt, and covered them with a bit of parchment paper and let them sit and sizzle and drink up the flavorings for a few minutes. 

They were served atop polenta made from a bit of masa harina that I'd cooked down for a long time until it was positively gluey, then thinned with Thomas’ heavy cream and grated cheddar. Slices of that wonderful green tomato went on the very top, juices were drizzled and chopped fresh parsley was strewn over everything.

It was exquisite, the shrimp snapped with flavor and texture, and the meal did its job – Daughter showed up safely, right on time a few days later and again lives in Rutland. 

Good shrimp'll do it every time!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

wild apples and rutabaga

Apples gone wild -- Good taste and, seen with your taste buds, beautiful.

 Last September I went to a friend’s house and picked apples. They’d planted heirloom trees back in the ‘70s, a dozen or so different kinds of them, specimen trees, I think they’re called, but no matter what you call them they produce a lot of apples each year. But unless it’s an exceptionally bountiful year, my friends don’t bother picking them; if it IS a bountiful year they have a cider pressing party, and that’s all good, too.  But, because these apples don’t appear to be beautiful with their spots and blotches, my friends don’t pick them to eat.

But I had discovered that the imperfections were superficial and did not affect the taste, and I enjoyed comparing the offerings of the different trees – the hues from magenta to chartreuse, the sizes from golfball to almost grapefruit, and the flavors from sweet mallow to spicy cinnamon, bland to intense. And once I took them home I found that they really were beautiful, not in spite of and not actually because of the spots but because they were all just... beautiful together.

Just a week or so ago I saw some of these spotted apples at the Dorset Farmers’ Market with a little sign that said that the spots did not render the apples inedible but were indicative that the trees had not been sprayed. And that might be the best thing about the spots – when you eat the apples they are on you are not ingesting yet another, and apparently totally unneeded, industrial poison! That’s not to say, of course, that all apples with black spots have not been sprayed – they may have been sprayed with something that does not affect black spots – but I knew for a fact that my friends’ apples had not been sprayed or ‘aided’ in any way whatsoever –  I’m actually pretty sure they’ve never even been pruned.

Fall crept on from there – actually it flew by, but then all time does at this age – until it was almost Thanksgiving. The Winter Farmers’ Market had been going on for a few weeks at the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center down on West Street and I had already bought some Brussels sprouts, some of which had taken me an immense amount of time to snap from the stalk and to prune out the bad parts only to end up with a small bowl of them for all my work. And that’s when I spied some pale green rather small orbs on stalks at the booth of a new vendor, and when I took one of those stalks home the sprouts snapped off and needed very little paring. As I believe my apple anecdote shows, I am as accepting of imperfect organic food as the next purist but this perfection was a welcome thing as it made them so much easier to render edible, with so much more to show for my effort.

Next Saturday – the one before Thanksgiving – I sped to his stand again to find people buying up his veggies higgledy piggledy as they were from all the vendors –  the Saturday before Thanksgiving being the busiest market of the winter. By the time he got to me there were only two stalks of sprouts left and I took both of them, then sold one to the next person in line who had been crestfallen at my purchase. I used them – delicately steamed – to complete the casserole of  root vegetables I’d roasted for Thanksgiving dinner. Mixed with a bit of quinoa and topped with melty, creamy, cheese, it was a very good dish.

Weeks went by, it’s the new year by now – 2014 – and I notice that John – for that’s his name, John Falk of Neshobe Farm in Brandon, partners with Hannah Davidson – is back to the market sporadically and that his veggies  – he does not have a great variety – have dwindled as the canning jars have increased, until finally there are only two gigantic rutabagas on his stand amidst the jars of zucchini relish and pickles and jams. And who needs a gigantic rutabaga? But these rutabagas are so fresh and lovely that I am intrigued and after a little chat and a weighing I actually buy the smallest of these monsters even though it weighs six and one half pounds!

I don’t even like rutabagas, do I?

And as he’s weighing and I’m buying and we’re exchanging money for rutabaga I’m also raving to my friend about John’s blemishless Brussels sprouts when John jumps in. He has an eager, open, laughing demeanor, friendly and talkative, and he gives us a little lecture on how you should never judge organic vegetables by their looks because no matter how delicious they are, and good for you, organic vegetables may be just a little ugly. He is, of course, preaching to the converted – my food sense developed in the ‘70s, don’t you know.

Oh John, I think, Shut up! If the goodness of vegetables were to be proved by their ugliness then you would lose, hands down, but this is getting so convoluted that I cannot even begin to open my mouth and I bid the boy adieu!

Above: Not so difficult to pare
Below: Simmering in water and coconut oil

That enormous rutabaga? It was perfect, of course, thin skinned, smooth, not gnarly, not a lot of trouble to peel, not fibrous; tender, sweet, golden orange, and plenty enough to prepare every which way. First I cut it into cubes and steamed it until crisp tender, then froze at least half of it, probably more.  But even before that I took a goodly portion of the raw cubes and simmered them with a little water, some salt, and a nice amount of coconut oil and, when they had absorbed the water and caramelized in the oil – I stirred them as they did that – I mashed them together and perhaps I added a bit of coconut mash and corrected the seasonings – more salt? – and maybe I grated a bit of nutmeg into them. Oh yes, delicious. (Note: Coconut mash is the whole ground coconut, and although it does not contain sugar it does lend sweetness and flavor.)

A few days later I put some of the steamed cubes into an earthenware dish in which I had melted some coconut oil (yummy stuff), salted and peppered them, dotted them with a few spoonfuls of coconut mash, tucked parchment paper around them for a porous cover, and put them into a low oven for half an hour or so until they were caramelized on the outside. I served them with slices of orange. Scrumptious.

Leo said, “Yes. Very good, but how much more rutabaga do we have, exactly?”

 “Oh don’t worry. We won’t run out,” I said. 

Tonight will be the third time – two suppers, one breakfast, and numerous snacks – that this first one-quarter of a rutabaga will be eaten in our house. There are only two and one/tenth of us, for little dog Dakity loves a good rutabaga herself.

And really, who could protest having a beautiful, wonderfully-grown, bright-tasting vegetable in the February of a frigid winter

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Sfef: a holiday whodunnit

Recently, I came across a recipe I got from Priscilla Martel, whose All About Food business was serving Mediterranean delicacies at a James Beard Awards ceremony many years ago, and though it is called Sfef – a North African Wedding Cookie, I decided it would make a delicious and somewhat mysterious and multicultural addition to a holiday cookie plate.

It also provides a refreshing change from other cookies in the way the dough is put together, as each ingredient is cooked before being combined, including the flour, which is roasted in a dry pan. My next thought was, Hmm, I wonder how this was made in the olden days, before Moroccans became so first-world as to take white flour and confectioners sugar for granted, and so I burrowed into the past a little bit by going online and asking some Moroccan cooks what they could tell me about sfef.

There was a thundering silence and then, “Do you mean sffouf?” Well of course I had no idea if I meant sffouf, but I went along with it.

“Sffouf is not a Moroccan wedding cookie!” Oh, well, what was it then?

“It is served only on the naming day of newborns and in Ramadan.” The more nuts you add, they said, the more flavor you get, and each Moroccan state makes it differently from the others. “I, personally,” one cook said, “don't add any flour. I make it with just nuts, fennel, and pure organic honey.”

Another cook added, “For the history of it my information is they used to give it to the woman that is breast feeding,” and when I hazarded a guess as to why that might be I was told that it was to prevent colic, as fennel (and anise) are both good colonics and digestives; and furthermore sffouf was said to increase the flow of mothers’ milk.

Another cook remembered, “My mom used to make huge buckets of sffouf and zomita for my father when he was in Army to take with him because during war they can't cook. So those were the only things they ate.”

Being a real pain, I then asked what Zomita was, and was told, “Zomita is the cousin of sffouf , but more healthier and has lots of seeds, whole wheat, nuts, and you toast everything and you grind. It’s popular in Fes, Meknes, Rabat, and Sale' and we have a very famous song called Zomita. All Moroccan people know about it.”

Okay. All right. I thanked the Moroccan cooks profusely and came back to my kitchen and made the original recipe I had from Priscilla. All she’d done to alter it in the last twenty years was to halve the recipe. I was glad of that because forming those little cones is a time intensive, backaching business. I was half done when I realized that a small, cone-shaped coffee scoop could do a much neater and faster job. 

These things are absolutely delicious! They’re even better frozen, which in my household is a severe drawback to the longlastingness of Christmas cookies.

Although nothing about this is very local (except the flour, butter, and, possibly, fennel seeds), all ingredients are available at the Co-op.

Note: Times for baking and roasting and mixing are highly individual. Keep a sharp eye out not to burn and/or over process.

Sfef (or Sffouf)
adapted from a recipe from Priscilla Martel

Yield: about 2 dozen

•    1/2 cup (3 ounces) hulled sesame seeds
•    1 cup (5 ounces) whole blanched almonds
•    1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
•    1 cup (4.5 ounces) all purpose flour
•    1 cup (4 ounces) confectioner’s sugar
•    1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
•    grated whole blanched almonds or blanched almond flour for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°
  1. Place the sesame seeds on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 3 minutes. Pour them into the bowl of a food processor and set aside while toasting the almonds
  2. Place the almonds on the baking sheet and bake 8 +/- minutes until they darken slightly Add them and the fennel seeds to the food processor along with the sesame. Process this mixture for 3 minutes until it is finely ground and well blended.
  3. Cook the flour in a large, dry, skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly until the flour develops a pale yellow color.
  4. Add the flour to the nut mixture along with the sugar. Pulse to combine.
  5. Pour in the warm melted butter and pulse until it forms a pliable mass.
  6. To form the cookies, place a large teaspoon of the mixture in the palm of your hand, form it into a small cone about 1 1/2 inches high and slightly pointed. Place the cookie on a tray and proceed with the remaining dough (or use a cone-shaped coffee scoop like the one pictured).
  7. Let the cookies set for at least 2 hours before serving, then dust them with freshly grated blanched almonds or almond flour.

These will keep, well covered, in a cool place for about 1 week or in the freezer until you need them or have gobbled them one by one. 

This little article was published in the Rutland Area Food Co-op Newsletter , Winter, 2013