Friday, May 01, 2015


Patience, readers, long overdue realization that i need to do some work on this blog so... i'm in the process. Under construction... Thanks...

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

tapping into spring

Photo by Donna Wilkins Photography
Trickster returned from a long and grueling journey to find the habitation of his village gone to hell and falling down and seemingly deserted until he spied all the villagers lying hither and yon under Maple, drinking her full-fledged syrup that leaked down into their open mouths.
Incensed and full of sorrow, Trickster grabbed up the river and flowed it into Maple, diluting her sugar into sap. “There,” he told his villagers, not without a characteristic edge of evil glee, “is work to be done! From this day hence you will be called out of winter sleep by vibrant cruel sunshine in what some call this grimmest of seasons, to tap Maple, steal her sap, haul thousands of gallons of it to the fire and bring it to boil with red hottened rocks and keep it there until it is reduced to powder, the better to fit into small vessels.
“The alchemy between this season, in which it is impossible to do anything else worthwhile, and Maple, and your sweat in this first, wild, foraging time, will feed you in Aprils before any green things creep out of the muck.
“Go to it, My People!”

As so often happens, a good punishment turned out to be a blessing. Look at it this way – if you’d been hibernating in a primitive abode made of stone or animal pelts as in a cave or a tent, a yurt of some sort (or within bricks or wood-frame or logs, for that matter), and it came to be this time of year and your dried berries were giving out and the grains had become somewhat beetley, and your normal quiet cheer had receded to reveal the roots of desperation, then you would be glad, nay you would be ecstatic, when the days reached above freezing and the nights reached below, to go out into the mush by day that turned to frozen ruts by night, to slash the maples and to gather the sap in buckets or waiting troughs and to boil it down into sugar. You would be glad, you can bet, if need be, to exist on nothing else but that sweet in Aprils that were slow to show green shoots pushing up anew.
It begins, this sugaring season, with fits and starts, some false, finally true. Some days begin at -5° and are +45° by 11 am. The sun blasts through a skyblue sky and freshets run everywhere, over sun-slickered ice, muddying ruts, through the trough of ditches and from here we will hear the beginning roar of Otter Creek as the weight of it filling with melt pushes its freightedness faster and higher. All Saturday morning trucks chuckle by splashed windshield-high with a surf of mud, and through the cracks of it shine bright eyes and devilish grins. Red goosedown vests are open over black turtlenecks as the rounds of morning are made to the transfer station, the locker, to Evie’s Deli, and to the Post Office. Then, after noon, everything is nulled and silent. The chores are done and everyone is back home again, trying to find work outside.
Sugarers are lucky that way. They take their little hand-auger, their taps, their pails they’ve scrubbed, climb out along the sugarbush and make ready for the drip of the sap. Not only is sugaring something to do when that randy energy rips you from the fireside, from out the rocking chair; not only is it something to do when the earth is still inhospitable to most other activities, but it is something to do with food, so that viscerally it is perceived to be at least vestigially worthwhile.
Anna Fenton’s Maple Pudding Cake
Anna Fenton was a long-time maple sugar crafter and 4-H leader, and a wonderful cook besides. This is such a sweet confection that I always think it needs a baked apple or a cool fruit sauce to finish it, but on second thought we keep shaking our heads. No, that would not do. The only thing that tops it suitably is yet another spoonful of cream – unsweetened whipped cream or, better yet, one of crème fraîche. Serve it once a year and enjoy its richness. The syrup stays on the bottom, almost frying the delicate batter, then gradually seeps up into the cake. It is a simple batter in the European style of biscuit. A butterier, shorter, American biscuit dough is more traditional in community cookbooks. This serves 8 once, 4 twice, or 1 or 2 piggies
o    1 cup maple syrup
o    1 ½ cups flour
o    1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
o    ½ teaspoon salt
o    2 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
o    ¾ cup sugar
o    1 egg
o    1 cup milk
o    1 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat the oven to 350°. Liberally butter a glass soufflé pan 8 inches in diameter, 4 inches deep (don’t scrimp on size or you will have a mess), and pour the maple syrup into it. Set aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.
With a wooden spoon or large whisk, beat together the butter, sugar, and egg. Quickly whisk in half the milk, then the dry ingredients just until smooth, then the rest of the milk.
Pour this batter into the baking dish. It should reach only halfway up the sides of the dish! Drizzle the heavy cream over the batter, place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick tests not dry but baked.
Let cool at least 15 minutes, cut into eight slices and serve warm, with extra mapley stuff from the bottom spooned over the top, and a spoonful of crème fraîche if desired.

And keep an eye out for Trickster – He’s liable to eat the whole darned thing right from under your astonished eye.

Note: This column was adapted from CookSpeak: A Seasonal Narrative with Recipes by Sharon Parquette Nimtz, Issue 5: March/April 1995.  Sugaring techniques may have advanced since that ancient time.

time and space and, oh, corned beef

“Where does time go,” she pleaded plaintively. And then she continued...
We are back from Apalach, which is how we natives refer to Apalachicola, where we rose early and, turning our trenchcoat collars up against the gray drizzle, began days of eating dozens upon dozens of fresh and briny and liquory oysters, sating ourselves for the time being. And then we moved west a few feet and began walking the alternately misty and sunny, and fabulously-birded beaches of San Blas Peninsula and continuing to eat oysters and conduct our own exploration for the best hush puppies in the area. They can be so very good.  There really WAS nothing to eat besides oysters and hush puppies. Well, some breakfast shrimp and grits were pretty good.
Hanging over us all the time we were there was the need to get to the airport for our return at some point, and that airport was in a different time zone. It’s bad enough, as you probably know, thinking about a day of flights without having to worry about the spring ahead fall back syndrome without even the spring and fall. Panama City airport (Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport) is on central time and we were eating oysters on eastern time. We needed to get to the airport an hour earlier... or was it an hour later? Finally, realizing that if we left Atlanta at 4:45 and were to arrive at Panama City at 4:55 for an hour flight, then if we needed to be at the airport at 8:30 a.m. and it was a 2 hour drive, we would need to leave San Blas by 7:30. I thought about this a lot. I tried to bounce it off the others in my party but they trusted me implicitly. No one else would even entertain the thought process. Cowards!
And now what I can’t figure out is why did we make such an effort to deal with the two big quandaries of time and space just to get back here to the land of dirty snow and dried-out air. While our outermost membranes gulped gallons of moisture down there, there is nothing we can do about the frigid landscape. Except wait. And while we solved (I solved) that particular question of time, no sooner do we get back than Daylight Savings goes into effect and we lose whatever grounding we’ve gained. If any.
So it is that I find myself here needing to write a column on this snow-drizzling Ides of March, in time to get to the Paramount by 3 (which would have been 2 nine days ago) and then a celebration dinner, at Roots, the Restaurant, after the Symphony, of our 46th anniversary with friends whose anniversary is the 17th. Add to that not waking until almost 9, which would have been 8, I remind myself, 9 days ago, which was still late. It is a day all about time. And that is a fact I hope to ingest and make part of me and then forget! About it.
Then, of course, speaking of dates – and we were, weren’t we? (I’m beginning to feel a bit like Charles Dodson) – here comes St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday. Let’s face it, I have not the slightest bit of Irish in me, nor does Leo, who also doesn’t appreciate Irish music one whit (while I’m not above enjoying a nice tenor), but we do like a good corned beef. Toward that goal I began yesterday, a little haphazardly, prepping for one. It won’t be done by Tuesday but it will be corned by Friday, which is as good a day to eat corned beef as any other. Corning a piece of beef is really no different from brining a chicken or turkey. Corn originally meant grain, and here we’re talking grain of salt. So what we’re doing is preserving and flavoring with salt and pickling spice.
First I bought about 5 pounds of beef brisket from Plew Farm yesterday at the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market, then I went to the Co-op and obtained some pickling spice. I left the brisket out to thaw when I got home and did manage to make a brine and put it outside to cool.
All the while I’d been mulling over using pink salt – the nitrite salt used for curing, which gives corned beef its distinctive color and flavor – or celery seed, which contains its own significant amount of nitrite. But I did not have enough celery seed, nor could I find the ratio of celery seed needed for the amount of pink salt called for. I may go to the locker tomorrow and see if I can get some pink salt. I don’t see what the problem would be in adding it after the fact.
In bed last night I remembered that I had forgotten to put the thawed brisket in the brine, indeed could not remember putting it in the fridge, but instead of getting up and checking on it – control freak that I am – I decided Leo must have put it in the fridge when he did the dishes after supper, and I allowed myself to go back to sleep.
He had. I put it to brine this morning.
Home-Cured Corned Beef
The following recipe is adapted from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman
For the brine:
1½  cups kosher or sea salt (a pure salt, with no additives)
½ cup sugar
4 teaspoons pink salt (sodium nitrite), optional
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons pickling spice
1 5-pound beef brisket
For the cooking:
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in two
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons pickling spice
In pot large enough to hold brisket, combine 1 gallon of water with kosher salt, sugar, sodium nitrite (if using), garlic and 2 tablespoons pickling spice. Bring to a simmer, stirring until salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled.
Place brisket in brine, weighted with a plate to keep it submerged; cover. Refrigerate for 5 days.
Remove brisket from brine and rinse thoroughly. Place in a pot just large enough to hold it. Cover with water and add remaining pickling spice, carrot, onion and celery. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer gently until brisket is fork-tender, about 3 hours, adding water if needed to cover brisket.
Keep warm until ready to serve. Meat can be refrigerated for several days in cooking liquid. Reheat in the liquid or serve chilled. Slice thinly and serve on a sandwich or with additional vegetables simmered until tender in the cooking liquid.
This turned out very very good, in spite of professionals telling me I'd have just a glorified pot roast  it had the characteristic corned beef texture and taste, it just wasn't pink! I'll never buy corned beef again. 

“Remember,” she finished, “you can make this at any time. As a matter of fact, just forget about time. Think about cold and warmth. Make it when it’s cold because – now add space into the equation – it can reside on the porch instead of the fridge while it’s brining.” No longer was she plaintive. 

Monday, March 09, 2015

going to oyster town

Boss Oyster is so large they can afford this oyster washer. Oysters go in on this end, are tumbled and sprayed and come out clean on the other. Beyond is the Apalachicola River and beyond that the Bay.

We’re just about to fly out of Rutland airport for a warmer (as opposed to hot) climate – to the Panhandle of Florida, to the little town of Apalachicola. My son-not-exactly-in-law, recently back from the south, explained to me that’s proof that the Appalachians should be pronounced in that southern way, with the soft a, AppalAHchia, instead of AppalAYchia, because that little town provided a kind of southern stem of the mountains that we know and love: the Apalachicola People would travel up to the mountains to hunt and fish, then retire smartly to winter in comparative comfort: Apalachicola is better known for its bays and rivers and gulf shore. And oysters.

Yes oysters, and I intend to eat so many of them in the coming days that I won’t need to stop into Green Mountain Fresh on State Street anytime soon for a secret feast. (You can do that, you know, stop in and order a half dozen or so freshly opened oysters and sit there and slurp them up with the horseradish sauce or not. You could even do it at three o’clock in the afternoon if you pleased. You could take a friend with you, or friends, or not. You can rely on Ingrid’s discretion.)

Anyway, I’m on tenterhooks about whether or not the flight will leave because don’tcha know, snow is forecast for Wednesday (this will be in the past by the time you read it). Do you ever remember winter being so reliably frigid – between 5° and 15°, with very few even 20° days? Except according to my south porch thermometer which often tells me it’s in the thirties out there and it is until you get to the end of the porch and the wind smacks you back into the house to get some real clothes on!

I was thinking that there’s not really all that much to say about oysters except that they’re all at least a bit different according to where they’re found. One of the biggest regrets of my life is about the time when I was in my twenties and sitting in a little roadhouse right on the Chesapeake Bay and some friends came up with fresh dug oysters from the bay and offered to share with me and I refused. This little northern brat was not going to let that slime down her gullet. I wasn't exactly stupid, just ignorant: Had no idea what I was missing.

What else would you say about oysters except that maybe you could ruin them by cooking them or putting too much glop on them? A bit of lemon juice is as far as I want to go and that only after I've slurped down a couple of the briny, liquory lovelies all by their own selves.

But then I looked up our very own Rowan Jacobsen who wrote The Geography of Oysters, and he maintains that Apalachicola oysters are one of the 3 very best in the country, along with Damariscotta’s Glidden Points and Totten Virginicas from Washington State. And he says this about Apalachicola itself, 
“this is one of those few towns that considers breakfast part of the oyster day. I began my morning with a dozen on the half-shell at Caroline’s, and followed that up with Oyster Cakes ’n Eggs (grits on the side, naturally). But I could have easily gone for the oyster omelet, or waited a few hours and tried the oyster tacos, oyster jambalaya, chargrilled oysters, or oysters & artichokes poached in champagne and served in puff pastry.”
Caroline’s is the adjunct restaurant of the Apalachicola River Inn where we are staying. Are we lucky or not.
So I guess I’m wrong – I’d forgotten that I do love them crispy fried and now I may learn to love them poached in sparkling wine. But eventually Jacobsen comes back to my point of view when he begins to talk about the offerings from the legendary Boss Oyster: “Boss has several pages worth of oyster recipes, everything from oyster po’ boys to oyster stew, plus they’ll Gild the Lily and pile chives, ponzu, wasabi, and flying fish roe on your raw oysters, but really, with oysters this fresh, you should probably accent them with nothing more than a Dos Equis.”
Yes Man!

About Apalachicola itself, Jacobsen says, 
“What makes Apalachicola even better is that it is about 80 miles from Anywhere, which keeps most highly annoying tourists away. The few who make it here are already in the know. And what they know is that if your idea of a good time is to hang out in a small town with a working waterfront…. and where oysters are not a precious luxury but part of the fabric of town then Apalachicola just may be the best place on earth.”  
I certainly would agree with that. Reminds me of my joy hanging around the lobster boats on Maine’s Monhegan Island.

He also says that tonging oysters in April was pure bliss, but the oysterman he was with said that summer, “95 degrees, no wind,” is brutal, and winter is even worse.” Note that I’ll be there end of February, first of March. We’ll see!

One last quote? Rowan Jacobsen maintains that – in 2012 at least – Apalachicola oysters were $8 a dozen. And we’re gonna be there – god willin’ and the crick don’t rise – on Thursday. But I won’t relax until I’m sitting on that plane hearing the lovely tractor-like roar of the motor revving up to lift us all off the ground and into the air. I still don’t believe that’s possible, do you? Let’s face it, if anything goes wrong y’all will have heard the news by now.

And that would be a shame because that would mean I would die famished for oysters. And if you are, too – craving oysters, I mean – get yourself on down to Green Mountain Fresh on Thursday or Friday and have a dozen. It won’t quite be the same – I doubt you’ll get flying fish roe on top of them; and do be sure to take your own Dos Equis.
These were grilled with Parmesan and as a second choice over the best – raw – really wonderful!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

just noodling

Say you’ve got some scallions and garlic, a bright lime, some roasted sesame oil, maybe some sesame seeds, and perhaps some cilantro. What do you do? Add them to some soba noodles for an exuberant version of Sesame Noodles!
Could this be the first time I’d noticed the buckwheat goodness of soba? Could it be that I’d never had them before? Because I was very impressed. They were both silken and strong, as well as flavorful.
Soba is the gray/brown Japanese noodle made of buckwheat and water and it is literally the word used for buckwheat. The traditional recipe for cooking these noodles is to bring a big pot of water to a boil, plunge the noodles into it, and when it comes to a boil again to keep adding cold water each time to keep them at a simmer.
I brought a pan (I use a rather deep sauté pan for this) of water (but not an exorbitant amount) to a boil, plunged the noodles into it and cooked them over a medium heat for 6 minutes, then plunged them into a pan of cold water to cool them off but not make them too chilly. When I was ready, I drained them and tossed them with the ingredients above, adding maybe some salt and perhaps a small brunoise (tiny squares) of jalapeno. I took them as an appetizer to one of our Fridays@Five get-togethers and we all looked like birds, dangling those beautiful strands down our gullets.
The reason I was bothering with those noodles at all was because of a recipe I’d seen in Seven Days by one of their new food writers, Hannah Palmer Egan, for a Daikon Miso Noodle Bowl. I was particularly interested in the simple miso broth she made with 4 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of red miso paste, a scant handful of bonito flakes, and ½ of a medium daikon radish that had been peeled and thinly sliced. The water is brought to a boil, the miso paste whisked in, then the bonito flakes and daikon are added, the pot is covered and it’s boiled over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes. She went on in some detail and I did follow that recipe that can be found in their January 6 issue and it was very good but I’ll leave that up to you.
For those times when you just want a broth to add your own things to, this is a good basic one and you don’t have to boil up a chicken. I add some sesame oil, some garlic, and maybe an egg and it fulfills my afternoon hunger. Or supper. Or even breakfast.
An egg? My Facebook friend, CrescentDragonwagon, detailed a quick soup that she was having for breakfast when I questioned her about it. She had said, “…miso soup, with grated fresh ginger, minced garlic, scallions, tofu, a poached egg, a little cooked brown rice… this is what called my name.”
Ah, I said, and do you boil the water and then add miso and bonito flakes. She reminded me that she was vegetarian and so skipped the bonito flakes, “And yes, I bring water to the boil, today adding a few chunks of fresh ginger, then poaching the egg in it, then pouring a little water onto the miso paste to dilute it, then pouring the whole shebang into the diluted miso.” Sometimes she would add grated ginger and sliced shiitake mushrooms. But, one should remember that, “The egg yolk of course should still be on the runny side when it gets poured into the bowl, because the minute you pierce it with the spoon it flows into the hot broth and cooks further and the whole thing enriches quite wonderfully.” WOW. Egg yolk porn.
When I made my first miso broth the other day I dug out a white plastic container of Mitoku Organic Yamaki Barley Miso that I’d bought at Sunshine Natural Foods in the last century sometime and had never tried. It was a shiny mahogany color of clay-like consistency, and I thought – hey, now or never. Absolutely delicious. Now I am on a hunt for it. If any of you know of it or where it can be found, please let me know. Otherwise, a fascinating array of misos can be bought at the Co-op. 
So those are some ideas for soba noodles and miso broth, and now I want to talk about udon noodles and this is why: Saturday, which was Valentine’s Day you will remember, I stopped after the Farmers’ Market at Green Mountain Fresh on State Street to get some fish for Leo’s supper: He brings me flowers and I make him a nice dinner (which I do every other day, too, but I make a bigger fuss about it on Valentine’s Day). They had fresh chopped clams and I thought that we had not had clam spaghetti in a long time and we do both love it. And I thought that it would be especially good with soba noodles and I was sure that I had another package at home. Yum. I was hungry already!
Long story short, once home I found I did not have soba noodles, I had udon noodles and I was certainly not going back into town, so udon noodles it would have to be. And though I did not know what to expect, these turned out to be as silky and strong as the soba noodles, without, however, the nice buckwheat taste.
I cooked them up in the same way I did the soba and then I dumped them into a pot of cold water just as I had the soba, and they warmed the cold water to a comfortable level while I made the clam sauce, which was simply some white wine poured into the bottom of a sauce pan, some chopped garlic added to that, cooked until just a scrim remained then adding a stick of butter to melt over a very low heat and when it was melted I poured in the lovely chopped fresh clams and their juices and warmed the whole thing. In the meantime I chopped a lot of flat-leafed parsley and stirred that in. In shallow soup bowls I swirled the cooled udon noodles, spooned the hot clam sauce over and sprinkled that with grated parmesan cheese. 

I’d lit candles to illuminate Leo’s beautiful bouquet and we dug in, twirling our forks against a soupspoon and slurping those silken noodles and chunks of clams into our mouths. A crisp massaged kale salad bright with lemon proved the perfect foil.

Friday, February 06, 2015

oh sugar!

Remains of avocado with lime and panna cotta, so good forgot to take a photo
After all of this sugar – Marshmallows, for goodness sake??!! – I have been forced to get serious about deleting carbohydrates from my diet. Yes, sugar. Yes, white things like bread and flour. But also carrots and potatoes and, well almost every civilized thing you can think of, like rice, certainly pasta, oatmeal, in fact all grains – gone, gone until... well, gone. When we can begin to fit into our pants again we may begin to add things back – a raisin here or there, half an apple, because no, you are not eating fruit right now. Fructose is sugar.
You eat lots of non-starchy vegetables, like cabbage and broccoli and Brussels sprouts and turnips, and piles of salads, and eggs, almost any meat, almost any cheese. Fish. Thick cream in your coffee instead of half and half. Fat. Fat is your friend. On your fork, not on your body. And after a few days
cheddar crisps
of this? You are not hungry.  You aren't hungry because you've gotten rid of your sugar cravings. Possibly you are not hungry because if you were you would need to chow down on some more cheese. More Cheese? No, thank you very much. You do love cheese but enough is enough, especially without crackers or bread.
Except. Want something crisp? How about some pan fried cheese – now there’s an idea. Or baked.  Slice some cheese, lay slices on parchment paper, well separated, put them into a 350° oven for 20 minutes or less – until they are melted and golden and crisp. Some kinds will become pocked. Let them cool and eat them like crackers.
The potential problem with this way of eating is that, if you allow sugar or more than a very minimum of carbohydrates (25, say) into your mouth, your body will deposit all that fat you've been eating on your hips. You are aiming at burning fat and you will not burn it if carbs are available. I think of dockworkers and the foreman who yells at them, “Hey you wit da fat! Store it on the hips, in the belly, around the liver until we need it. And hey, we only need it when we don’t got carbs to burn.” Fat, stored in your body, around your organs, is a very unhealthy situation.
So. Are you hungry? How about an avocado, cut in half, pitted, salted and peppered, and olive oiled and garlicked. Spooned out of the shell into your mouth. Wonderful lunch. There are 21 grams of fat and 2 of carbohydrate in an avocado. Perfect for our purposes. Delicious, too, and satiating. You probably won’t need anything more, but if you do, you could have some cheese. Novel thought.
You notice we didn't count the calories in that lunch? They are irrelevant, that’s why.
This kind of eating is so effective, and delicious, is much easier to stick to than many others except that everywhere you go someone’s thrown some sugar into the salad dressing or added some flour to the sauce or coated the meat or fish with it.
And that brings up the second potential problem with low-carb eating – your cravings will return if you are careless about carbs. Let’s face it, carbs taste good and once you let them in you want them more and more and more. I just re-read that sentence, and really? It’s not that they taste so good, it’s that they’re so addictive. We just got an email featuring a luscious looking piece of pork but it was entitled Sweet and Savory Overnight Pork.
So we followed that back and found the recipe and it’s based on one by Jamie Oliver for pork with fennel seeds – nothing unnaturally sweet about that – except that the mother who sent us the recipe changed it to make it more attractive to her little girl, “I wanted something less Mediterranean and more barbecue, so I stirred together a thick paste of chopped garlic, brown sugar, maple syrup, mustard...” See what I mean? That little girl is being taught that everything should be sweet. Leave the damned sugar out of it, let the natural sweetness come through. And in roasted pork there is a great deal of a umami taste that’s even better than sugar sweetness.
We guess this could be called the third problem with this kind of cooking – that we are bombarded with carbohydrate ideas,  so unless we stick to plain, one-item things like meat and cheese and eggs, it’s hard to come up with an idea. Difficult but not impossible – you just have to think outside the box.  I've been using lemon juice and zest on everything. Yum. Citrus without the carbohydrates.
The other day I emailed a friend who happens to always be looking for something sweet but without sugar. Lots of things taste sweet when you don’t eat carbs –  Leo’s breakfast sausage the other day just about knocked me on my ass. Heavy cream in my coffee is wonderful. Very dark chocolate – say 85%? – becomes quite enjoyable. I suggested, in that email,
“How about: Whip some heavy cream. Whip in coconut manna and fold in grated very dark chocolate. So very few carbs.
“Hmm, wondering about adding some gelatin to make it pudden'y.
“Whaddya think?”
A word about coconut manna. It consists of the whole, ground, dried coconut. It is delicious and delivers a nice sweetness with very few carbs. For a tiny sweet snack I’d been embedding a shard of chocolate in a teaspoon of the manna. It was enough. Another thing that’s good in small quantities and helps to assuage sweet toothes is tamarind paste concentrate, or a miso broth. Stevia makes a good, natural sweetening agent. I like to keep little bowls of seeds and spices handy to dip a finger in to. Tiny tastes to keep your palate satisfied. I told you – we’re thinking outside the box.
So I gave the cream thing  a try and what I came up with was rather bland and, I thought, a little rubbery, but a good mouth feel and very satisfying. My friend, whom I’d given a little bowl, added something I’d never heard of – English toffee drops. We finally figured out it was Stevia under the name of Wisdom Natural, Sweet Drops, Liquid Stevia Sweetener, English Toffee. It comes in 2 fluid ounce dropper bottles. Stevia is a plant. It is definitely the best of the artificial sweeteners because it is not artificial, not manmade of chemicals. It grows as an herb and it is very sweet. Some people find it overpowering, but i quite like it in small amounts.
To my original recipe, I added another cup of cream, a bit of salt, and some stevia – or you could use the drops –  and this is it – very easy and quick and satisfying.   
Coconut Panna Cotta
·         4 tablespoons cold water
·         1 packet gelatin
·         3 cups heavy whipping cream
·         2 tablespoons coconut manna
·         1 teaspoon vanilla (or other flavoring)
·         ½ teaspoon stevia or  up to 24 drops of Wisdom Natural English Toffee
·         tiny pinch of salt (to bring out the flavor)
·         ½ ounce (or so) very dark chocolate
·         cinnamon (optional)
Grease 6 small (1/2 cup) bowls with butter or oil or even PAM.
Sprinkle the gelatin over the water in a small bowl. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm the cream over low heat, whisk in the coconut manna and vanilla, and when it is very warm, take it from the heat, whisk in the stevia (or drops*) and salt and then the softened gelatin. Whisk very well. You may even beat it for a few minutes to make it a bit thicker, then pour into the bowls. Slice the chocolate very thinly with a sharp knife and it will break into thin shards. Sprinkle each bowl with a good number of those shards, then chill for at least 4 hours. Sprinkle a little cinnamon over it if you like before eating.

The title of this little piece is Oh Sugar! It should, of course, be No Sugar! Give it a try.
panna cotta

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!