Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Listening to Mincemeat

...a friend gives me venison neck and I make the mincemeat...

There it was, that neck, calling out for action on my part. Perfunctorily, I sliced and cut the meat from the bone and chopped it with an enormous cleaver whose weight, alone, was enough to cleave the meat. I melted the suet, added the apples and spices and vinegar and sugar into the pan with the meat, and, as it cooked down, its wafted meaty-fruity-spicy scent said to me, “Take your time, Dear. Don’t you recognize me?”
I tasted and sniffed, and Yes, oh Yes, it was the synthesis of the season, it was the sun dipping low on the horizon and disappearing just after mid-day, it was snow piling up as it’s done this year, it was the inchoate nostalgia of the Christmas tree, it was the changing family, gathering one-by-one throughout the years, it was Grandma’s kitchen, it was bleak mid-winter, it was good King Wenceslas, it was old food, arcane food, food to feel lucky for and to celebrate by.

And, damn, but this was a particularly good batch of mincemeat! The meat is chopped, you see, instead of ground, so that, when finished, after simmering for a couple of hours, there are tiny shreds of it threaded through the fruitiness. And the suet is chopped, too, finely, before it’s melted, so that the rendered bits of tissue in the fat are small and undefined to the tooth rather than lumps of mostly rendered fat that have to be picked out. There’s a lot of cinnamon in it, and of cloves and nutmeg, too, whose tastes warn not to expect meat, but, to the initiated, not to expect non-meat, either, but rather a synthesis of all good things.
When Grandma died and I went through that kitchen door for one of the last times, I made a beeline to the cabinet by the stove and rescued the little book where she kept all her hand-written, tersely-written, recipes. It was held together with a rubber band, the sewn spine having dissolved, the pages yellowed and brown-spotted, its little brown cover blackened, and the insignia on it – the first time I’d stopped to read it – read, incongruously, Buster Brown Shoes: First because of the Last.

Mince Meat was on the second page, only the third recipe in, and it reads: 1 bowl chopped meat (2 lbs); 2 bowls chopped apples; 1 tc syrup [that means teacup]; 4 tc sweet cider; 3 tc sugar; 4 tbs. butter; 6 tsp. cinnamon; 1 tsp cloves; ½ tsp. pepper; ¾ tsp. nutmeg; raisins, citron & salt to taste. And then, again incongruously, a notation “catsup”.
Ick. No catsup on MY mincemeat, thank you very much.

...permutations of a recipe...

This was the recipe and suggestions as she’d received it from her sister-in-law (as I remember), my grandfather’s brother’s wife, my great-aunt Leah, probably around 1925.
The recipe she wrote out for me back in the ‘80s specified a few more things she’d realized from fifty or so years of making the stuff: “Spys are best,” she noted, for the apples; vinegar or fruit juices could be added to or substituted for the cider – I used all cider vinegar in mine this year – and she called for 2 “tc” of syrup and 3 cups of “B”sugar.
Only now do I realize that the first recipe did not call for suet, but for butter, and only 4 tablespoons, at that. Grandma always used suet, and called for ½ cup of it on her 80s recipe card. I was so taken with the distinction that suet made to the finished dish that I called for it in the Green Tomato Mincemeat that I developed for a book a few years ago.
Maybe it was just common sense, and suet, like water, needn’t be called for formally.

When I’d geared myself up to make mincemeat that first time, I called Grandma to clarify a few things. What kind of syrup, I asked. She allowed that syrup could be optional. Then, Three cups of brown sugar seems like a lot, I said. “Well, Kid, that was teacups – just try half that amount. That’s what I do!”
Like, “Kid, use your head!”
She also called for “¾ tc nuts”. Now I knew there had never been nuts in mincemeat, not hers, and never would be in mine. “Well then, leave ‘em out!”
Then, How many raisins? I wailed. “Well, maybe a cup,” she allowed, if I really needed to put raisins into a measuring cup instead of just adding them handful by handful until there were ‘enough’ or the box was empty, whichever came first.
So, as you can see, the recipe has evolved, all with the aim of creating the best, that first-tasted, mincemeat of yore. And this is the form of it I pass on to anyone interested:

• 1 bowl chopped beef (2 pounds) ( I love using the ratios) (Grandma and I almost always wait for venison neck, rather than beef, that we can beg, bully, or steal from some unsuspecting hunter)
• 2 bowls of chopped apples (spy and macs combined)
• 1 teacup sweet cider or cider vinegar or a combination (that’s about ¾ of a cup)
• 1 ½ cups brown sugar
• ½ cup suet chopped fine
• 1 cup raisins or sultanas
• 6 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon cloves
• ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
• ¾ teaspoon nutmeg
• salt to taste
• 1 ½ cups dark rum

Render the suet, then add all other ingredients except the rum. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until done – about 2 hours. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
When cool, stir in the rum, pack into canning jars, and store for a week or two in the fridge.
The rum, the sugar, the long cooking, helps to preserve the mincemeat, and I’ve kept it for quite a bit longer than two weeks – I hate to say just how long, but maybe from deer season to now. Or longer. It could be frozen, too, right in the canning jars packed full.
When the time is right, enclose 2 to 3 cups of this between two pastry crusts and bake it off.
Ah, but never mind, unless you grew up with it, anticipated it as the culminating aspect of Christmas, there is little chance that you will appreciate a slice of mincemeat pie. They have been a precious few, those to whom I have introduced it, whose eyes lit up at the first bite.
But no matter – this solstice season, this season of lights, this season of hitting bottom and looking back up is, for me, encapsulated in the mindful chore of the gathering and chopping of ingredients, and their generous return of scent and taste, and their reminder to slow down and let it happen.

...spinach in the snow...

I realized the mincemeat lesson again last night when I was tired and preparing some local swiss chard for supper. The Winter Farmers’ Market still has swiss chard, spinach, kale, and even arugula on offer and probably will have some of them all winter.

Thinking of a Richard Olney technique that I use quite often, I cut out the ribs from the chard with kitchen shears, washed the leaves and the ribs separately, par-boiled them just until limp, drained them, squeezed as much water out of them as I could, then chopped everything finely.

Two states-of-mind were at war in me – duty, and pleasure. Why is it that we have to remind ourselves to pay attention, to LET ourselves enjoy what we are doing?

I melted some butter in the sauté pan, noticing the bubbles in it, the golden mustard color it was turning, then added some olive oil and spread the chopped chard in the pan over a medium heat. When it had dried out a bit I sprinkled a bit of flour over it and stirred it in, watching it bubble and thicken.

It was then that I realized that it needed some liquid, but I couldn’t remember what was called for. I went to the bookshelf and took down Richard Olney’s “Lulu’s Provençal Table.” The book was heavy yet compact in my hands, a substantial book, beautifully made, with thick, creamy, but not glossy paper. The print is as fine and precise – almost embossed – as the words. It’s unimaginable to think of finding a typo in it. I opened it to Chard Gratin. The liquid was milk – plain and simple.

I stirred the milk into the chard and let it thicken.

Richard Olney, and the eponymous Lulu, never content not to make a good thing better, take this thick pudding-like chard and process it into a puree, then pour it into a buttered gratin dish, grate dry bread over it, drizzle olive oil over that, and bake it at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. That’s good, too, especially for a more formal meal, and it could be made up ahead of time and slipped into the oven a half hour before dinner. For our little supper with good hamburgers made from grass-fed beef, and some leaves of arugula sprinkled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper, a dollop of it straight from the sauté pan suited me.

I knew, as I stirred in the milk – in fact had known when I watched the butter melt and bubble and brown – that this chard was going to be very good, because I had allowed myself to enjoy the process of making it.

Mincemeat taught me that – once again.

Monday, December 08, 2008

arcane december

My friend and neighbor, Photographer Lowell Snowdon Klock clicked her shutters and sent me photos

The mysterious nature of this time of year couldn’t have been more evident than during last week’s shining conjunction of Venus and Jupiter playing with the new crescent moon in the southwest sky just after dusk, bigger than life, just moments after that late afternoon sun had blazed there and made its fiery descent. Devastating!

This week, on Friday, the moon will be full at noon, and Uranus, Mercury, Mars and Saturn will be at the four points of the sky, right over the Guts of the Universe, otherwise called, by some, the Great Attractor. Don’t take your eyes off it!

It’s the perfect time to remake the acquaintance of an old friend.

...a friend comes to stay...

An old friend has come to stay, for good this time, I think, and she is nothing as I remembered. Oh, she can still cook – some of the earthiest, most elegant, yet down home dishes I’ve ever tasted with eye or tongue. Like Grandma cooked, but without the flour, and with a good deal more butter, a twist of wine, a kick of herb.

We’ve had Pot-au-Feu, the French boiled beef, rendered with technique so simple and transparent that the finished product is divinely so. That was followed by Boeuf Moroton – the perfect follow-up for the ‘leftover’ beef from the Pot-au-Feu.

She offers a garlic soup with up to a head of garlic for each person, depending upon our need, and a sugar tart made of yeasted dough and a bit of filling that flicks off the fingertips like water dampening clothes for ironing. All favorites of Parisians and people in the north of France, she tells me.

For she is French, of course, and generous with her secrets if you will only pay attention. But what I remember as a compact little thing with old-world shadows around her eyes, gray-streaked hair pulled back into a neat chignon, her pretty brown wool cinched snugly between pillowy bosom and ample hips, proves instead to be an angular tall person with jeweled fingers and a wisp of white hair, with faded velvets hanging from her shoulders and slim hips, a little like my old friend, Ms. Bomblatt who, like she, proves to be much more agile in the kitchen than she looks. But such is – not the failures of, but the permutations of – memory.

The last time I saw her was about 1995, and she was lent to me by Chef Stanti at the Inn. I used her mercilessly, not only for the Pot-au-Feu but for a lovely cabbage stuffed with, among other things, chestnuts, from the Auvergne – the central region of France – and a Breton poundcake (Gateau Breton), that was too delicious, from Brittany, for whose raisins I substituted, later, green tomatoes, and made a good thing of for a book.

What I like about my old friend is that she does not skimp on the things that make food taste good. She is unapologetic when ordering a teacup of rum to 6 large egg YOLKS, and 1 cup of the best butter you can find, to the 2 ¼ cups of flour of this poundcake. She does not make it every day, but when she does she will not skimp. No pale imitations for her.

On the other hand, another thing I like best about her is that she can take good simple ingredients like that homely cabbage and turn it into a silken offering, saying, “As far as cooking is concerned, poverty can be a hard but effective taskmaster. For it is a curious fact that the richest regions do not always produce the finest cuisine,” but that the poorest may.

Ever since I returned her to Chef Stanti over a decade ago I have regretted that I did, for when I questioned him about her he could not remember her. He squinched his eyes thoughtfully, but “No, No, do you not mean...?” and he would mention someone else I was not the slightest bit curious about. I could not remember her name and, as you see, I could not even remember what she looked like. It was hopeless.

But not too long ago I looked up one of her recipes from my files – the Tarte au Sucre, actually – and there I had included her name. I googled her, and found her, and ordered her back here poste haste.


...memory versus reality...

I had been expecting a large book, and thick, a brown-covered compendium of classic French recipes, serious, about the size of that Complete Shakespeare we all have mouldering in our bookshelves. But “France, A Culinary Journey” must have been one of the first oversized, over-beautiful books to’ve been published, or at least one of the first in my experience, because I did not categorize it as I would now, at first glance, as mostly a pretty face with mediocre skills. And no earthly good because I don’t have a free counter big enough to lay it on. Open, at least. It’s not even a coffee table book – it’s a dining table book! The only other one I own of that size and breadth is Provençe, The Beautiful Cookbook, and the only reason I own that is that it was compiled and written by Richard Olney, who is one of my favorite writers and one of the best food minds, in my own mind. It, like France, was published by Harper Collins.

She, or rather it, that is, France, A Culinary Journey, is divided into sections of that country, with comparatively short but in-depth intros into the geography, history, farming, and people of the region. Then, with no further ado (or would that be adieu) – dives directly into the serious recipes, the techniques of which are marvelous.

Each section is written by a different person or team of persons, and they may be individuals but are not the least idiosyncratic but together make a seamless whole, as though each had been asked to seek out the most classic and true foods of each region, and paid accordingly, so that each truly did not fall prey to worries about time and expense, but were free to do their best work. See if you can find a copy: France A Culinary Journey: Classic Recipes from the Regions of France, and invite her or inveigle her, or pay her to stay forever.



The broth of this is a sparkling, clear, flavorful distillation of the ingredients. Absolutely wonderful.

The following is another distillation, of the authors’ – in this case, Philip and Mary Hyman – words and my own. Mostly theirs. Mine I would bold, but I’ve also extracted, so just read this and trust me:

The goodness of a pot-au-feu depends on the cuts of meat, the quantity and quality of water and, especially, the proper salting of the water in which the beef is cooked. Use about 1 ½ quarts of water for every 2 pounds of meat, and 1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt for every quart of water (this is the most important thing). Only a few rules apply to the vegetables: cabbage is never cooked in the broth, and potatoes are best boiled separately. Only a few simple root vegetables are cooked with the meat, the amounts being left to the discretion of the cook.

A Pot-au-Feu should be served with a wide range of condiments – cornichons and other pickles, mustards of all kinds, and freshly grated horseradish – and a little coarse sea salt should be sprinkled over the meat and vegetables on each plate.

Leftover meat and vegetables can be served cold with a mustardy vinaigrette and the meat can also be made into another Parisian favorite, boeuf miroton.

  • 4 ½ to 6 pounds of boiling beef, such as thick, lean short ribs, brisket or chuck. (I used a 3 pound eye of round.)
  • 1 ½ quarts of water for every 2 pounds of meat
  • 1 teaspoon of course salt for every quart of water used
  • pinch of peppercorns (maybe 6 for every 2 quarts of water
  • bouquet garni: 1 bay leaf, 2 thyme sprigs, 2 parsley sprigs
  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 1 onion stuck with 3 cloves
  • 1 lb carrots quartered
  • 1 lb young turnips, quartered
  • 2 lbs. leeks, halved, or quartered if large, tied into 2 bundles
  • 6 celery stalks, halved and tied into 2 bundles
  • 1 lb starchy potatoes (russets)
  • 6 1 inch sections of marrow bones tied inside a cloth (I omitted this)

Place the meat in the bottom of a large pot and add the appropriate amount of water. Bring to a boil, skim off any foam that rises, then add the salt. Skim again, if necessary, then add the peppercorns and all the vegetables. Bring to a gentle boil, cover and cook over very low heat for 3 ½ to 4 hours. About 30 minutes before the cooking time is up, add the marrow bones, and cook the potatoes, if using, in a separate pan in boiling salted water.

Lift the meat, the vegetables and the bag of marrow bones out of the stock and keep warm. Discard the bouquet garni, the garlic, and the onion, and strain the stock. Leave it to rest for about 15 minutes, then skim off as much fat as possible. (Do not discard the fat. It can be used to make boeuf miroton.)

Reheat the stock and serve as a first course. Place the meat on a large platter, top with the marrow from the marrow bones, surround with vegetables and serve with an assortment of cornichons, vinegar pickles, mustards such as Dijon or Meaux, coarse salt, and a little extra stock for those who want to moisten the meat and vegetables.

Serves: 6

Tarte au Sucre (Sugar Tart)

I think of this as something served to children in their nursery by their governess, but it is an elegant dessert for grown-ups, too, and might even bring a nostalgic tear to the eye of someone who has experienced it in the aforesaid manner.

Pastry :

  • ½ teaspoon dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons lukewarm water
  • 2 cups (8 oz) all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup (4 oz) softened butter


  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter, in small pieces

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Place the flour in a mixing bowl, sprinkle with salt, make a well in the center and place the sugar, egg, butter, and yeast mixture in the well. With a fork, whisk all the latter ingredients together in the well, then begin to incorporate the flour, working very quickly with the tips of the fingers until a smooth, homogeneous dough is produced. Pack the dough into a ball, cover with a damp cloth and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Roll out the dough and line a 10 inch pie pan or flan ring, then roll the edge of the dough toward the inside to form a sort of rope around the edge. Prick the dough base all over with a fork.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

For the filling: Mix the milk and egg together. Spread the sugar in an even layer over the bottom of the tart – it should be about 1/8 inch thick.

Flick the milk and egg mixture over the sugar, using a pastry brush or fork, or the tips of the fingers, as if sprinkling laundry to be ironed. Place dabs of butter all over the top and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry has browned lightly. Serve warm or cold.

...what’s cooking, rutland?...

More good delicacies will be coming our way when Ann Clark, of Ann Clark, Ltd, a company that makes cookie cutters in a multitude of shapes and sizes that have found an enthusiastic audience world-wide, is the next guest on What’s Cookin’ Rutland, the PEG TV Show that will be taped next Monday evening, December 15th. We’re making it a cookie swap for those who would like that sort of thing, and if you are one of those people bring a dozen of your favorite cookies to the taping.

Ann will share a few of her favorite cookie recipes and techniques while chatting with host, Whitney Lamy.

The show is taped at PEG TV Studios in Howe Center starting at 6PM. Doors open at 5:30 for the seating of the live audience. A $10 donation is suggested, and reservations may be had by calling 508-813-8114 or emailing whatscookinrutland@gmail.com


A shoreham sun setting over a winter cornfield, by me