Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Year's Eve Dinner: Celebrating with the Food Phobic

Chances are that if you love to cook, you love to cook for someone. To be sure, eating alone can be very restorative and there are many nights that I’m entirely content to stir up a pot of a spicy Asian noodle soup and curl up in my favorite armchair, legs dangling over one of the arms, watching TV and slurping as noisily as I want. Generally speaking, though, I prefer to cook for other people and I tend to go to far more effort for them than I do for myself. Between Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, I’ve got lots of opportunities to cook up dishes I don’t get to the rest of the year—whether because they’re too expensive, too labor intensive, too time consuming, or too fattening. But on New Year’s Eve, you can throw caution to the wind.

Although I don’t fully understand why, my thoughts often turn to a classic French bistro meal for New Year’s Eve. Something about a great big bowl of mussels steamed in white wine screams celebration to me. A gigot rôti (that’s French for roast leg of lamb) is definitively not something I make on a regular basis, nor is a Pommes Anna, that thinly sliced and layered-with-vast-quantities-of-butter masterpiece that most potatoes can only dream of becoming. With its brittle burnt sugar crust, a crème brulée is the perfect way to close a meal that has paid scant regard to time, money, or calorie content.

All this said, you can imagine my chagrin last New Year’s Eve. We’d invited friends over for what I imagined would be a feast for the senses, at once intimate and refined. I knew that one of them  had her issues with food, but I didn't know exactly how many issues she had—nor how deep-seated they were. As I stood in the kitchen, about to empty the string bag of mussels into an enormous pot of garlicky-winey broth, her husband commented matter-of-factly, “Oh, she’ll never touch that. She doesn’t eat shellfish. Most cases of food poisoning involve shellfish.” 

My bubble burst. Oh well. There’s always the main course, I thought. A large platter of perfectly pink slices of lamb crusted with rosemary and garlic. The smell alone was worth the price of admission. “Just a small piece from the end. One of the browner ones. I don’t eat meat unless it’s over 140 degrees. The salmonella might not have been killed off.” Strike two.

She'd just have to fill up on the potatoes. What possible objection could she have to them? Little did I know. “Were they cooked in butter? I’m avoiding dairy products. No matter what they say, you never know if the cows were given recombinant bovine growth hormones.” Strike three. Strike four too when you take my dessert into account: there’s simply no way to make crème brulée without the crème.
I do not think she gained an ounce that night. Thankfully, the other couple we’d invited relished everything. Not a mussel was left, nor did a drop of the briny broth remain at the bottom of the bowl. No lamb sandwiches were to be had for New Year’s Day lunch, and as I recall, there was some fast and furious spoon action surrounding that unaccounted-for crème brulée.  
So why is it, I wondered, that some people are vigilant to the point of phobia about what they put in their mouths while others don’t give a fig? Why do some people go through life mouth wide open while others purse their lips shut at the merest thought of shellfish, raw fish, raw eggs, rare meat, and dairy products? I’m not talking about allergies or intolerances here; I’m talking about fear of food. I know as well as anyone that it’s a big scary world out there with no end of germs, bacteria, and viruses, each and every one a potential killer. But even so, I long for the days of a bona fide Caesar salad prepared tableside, raw egg and all.  
This year for New Year’s Eve, we’ve invited the same friends over, but we’re taking no chances. It’s coq au vin on the menu. The chicken will be cooked to a safe internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. We’ve still to resolve on the starter, side dishes, and dessert, but of one thing, we’ll be as confident as it’s possible to be in this day and age. There’ll be no shellfish, no red meat, and no cheese on the menu, and, consequently, our guests will have the greatest possible chance of starting the new year off intact, free of e. coli, mad cow disease, salmonellosis, or any other garden variety food poisoning.  
My very best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Latkes & Applesauce

A few months ago, I went on record confessing that I don’t much care for honey, which makes celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a bit tricky because you’re all but obliged to serve up a honey cake to your friends and family. Well, now I’ve got another dilemma on my hands. It’s Chanukah and I’m supposed to be frying up a big batch of latkes. Here’s the hitch. I don’t like frying anymore than I like honey. All that oil spattering about, the smell that just doesn’t quit, and then—of course—there’s the matter of the fat and calories. Oil isn’t something I typically use by the quart and it’s astonishing how much oil you need to fry up a batch of latkes. In his book Jewish Food: The World at Table, my old friend Matthew Goodman notes in this regard that the word latke traces back to the Greek eladion, an oil cake, or, “as the American Heritage Dictionary prefers to define it . . . a ‘little oily thing.’” How good does that sound? A nice big plate of little oily things.  

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like a good fried chicken now and again and far be it from me to turn my nose up at a plate of fried shrimp and onion rings. When I lived in North Carolina, I became absolutely addicted to the fried okra you’d see on the menus of such haunts as Breadmen’s and Mama Dips (“Put a little south in yo’ mouth!”).

But I don’t generally fry at home. Which brings me back to my Chanukah dilemma. I could, I suppose, bite the bullet, grate the potatoes and onions, squeeze out the liquid (I’m always amazed by how much liquid comes out of a potato!), add some matzah meal, salt and pepper, start frying away, and then serve up a great big platter of latkes accompanied by an equally great big bowl of apple sauce. And there are plenty of years I do just that.

But this year, I’m going to do something different. In the first place, I’ve only recently made the realization that that’s nothing inherent about the connection between potatoes and Chanukah anyway. The holiday commemorates the military victory of the Maccabees in 2nd century BCE Judea and potatoes didn’t leave their home in South America until after Christopher Columbus arrived in the late fifteenth century CE. There’s no way the ancient Maccabees could have been frying up potato latkes to celebrate the oil that, legend has it, miraculously lasted for eight days.

In the second place, for all sorts of reasons, it’s just my daughter and me this year and since she’s a life-long vegetarian, the latkes can’t play their usual role as accompaniment to that other staple of Jewish-American holiday cooking, the brisket (whether sweet and sour or not). In years past, we’ve tried promoting them to starring role by varying them up. One year we made zucchini latkes (pretty good); another, grated beet, carrot, and sweet-potato ones (even better); and still another, Asian latkes with a soy dipping sauce (best of all!).

But this year, we’re going to dollop our applesauce on top of one large skillet-sized apple latke that we’ll serve pie style, sliced in wedges. It might not use as much oil as your traditional latke, but we like it just fine. We tend to serve it up with a big bowl of yogurt, but sour cream would obviously be just fine too.

Skillet-Sized Apple Latke

2 eggs
½ cup milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 peeled & thinly sliced apple

Whisk eggs, milk, and oil. Add the flour & sugar. Stir in apple slices. Heat a pat of butter (or a bit of oil) in a 10” omelet pan until it’s very hot. Pour in the apple batter and cook until golden brown on the bottom (peek underneath with a flexible spatula). If you’re up to it, flip high in the air to brown the other side; if you’re not, slide out onto a plate and invert the latke back into the skillet.  While the underside is browning, sprinkle the top with cinnamon & sugar.  Serve with applesauce & yogurt or sour cream.

Note: I make my applesauce exactly the way my mother does. She uses any kind of apples she’s got—or a mixture of all different kinds—and, without bothering to peel them, cuts them into wedges with one of those handy apple segmenters-and-corers all in one. She then puts the apple slices into a heavy pot, covers it up, and leaves it to sit over low heat for an hour or so, stirring from time to time. No sugar. No cinnamon. No water. The apples gradually collapse, giving off all their juicy deliciousness. When she can mush a wedge against the side of the pot with no resistance whatsoever, she puts the whole mess through a Foley food mill, the kind you can only buy at hardware stores, not at expensive culinary emporia. As the apples go through the mill, the peels and any remaining seeds get left behind. What you’ll have in your bowl will be the best applesauce you’ve ever had. Guaranteed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The United Colors of Rice

Although I know many people do, I generally don’t plan out a week’s worth of dinners in advance. Which means that sometimes eating gets a bit ad hoc around here. Like last week for instance. Somehow it didn’t occur to me until Thursday that I’d made something with rice every single night. On Sunday, we had miso-glazed tofu with edamame on Japanese sticky rice. On Monday it was curried cauliflower and chickpeas on Indian basmati rice. On Tuesday, I had a sudden hankering for arroz con pollo (Spanish for chicken with rice). Wednesday saw me stirring up some arborio rice into a pot of my favorite risotto with wild mushrooms. By the time Thursday came around, I took the cold sticky rice that had been waiting around all week in the fridge and stir-fried it with whatever vegetables and bits of tofu I could find and ended the week with—you guessed it—fried rice. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you what we went out for on Friday night. Sushi.

The week reminded me of a dinner party I gave some years back. I served that marvel of Spanish cuisine, a Paella Valenciana with its saffron-scented rice studded with shrimp, clams, mussels, and chorizo. Entirely on his own, my son produced his favorite dessert for the occasion: arroz con leche, the Mexican version of rice pudding into which you stir sweetened caramelized milk known as cajeta.

Obviously I’ve got a fixation with rice. But, to my defense, so does the rest of the world. It’s the staple food for roughly half the earth’s inhabitants (human inhabitants, that is)—which means that about 3 ½ billion people eat rice on a daily basis. The Chinese don’t even have different words for cooked rice and food; they’re both fan. Everything else, whether chicken, pork, vegetables, or tofu, is mere accompaniment, “cai.”

No surprise that it was the Chinese who first cultivated rice more than 8,500 years ago. Gradually it made its way across Asia and into India, where it was called vrihi in Sanskrit. The Persians brought grains of vrihi with them to the eastern Mediterranean and the Greeks soon adapted the word to oruza, which lies behind the name in virtually every European language, from Russian ris to Italian riso, French riz, Dutch rijst, Serbo-Croatian riza, and, of course, our English rice. Legend has it that rice cooked in clarified butter was one of Mohammed’s favorite dishes; in due deference to their prophet, Muslims brought rice with them as they spread throughout North and West Africa and into Spain, Sicily, and Turkey.

Columbus might have taken the tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and chocolate from the New World, but in return, he gave the gift of rice. Granted, it took a few centuries for the crop to take off, but by the 1690’s, so-called “Carolina Gold” was flourishing around Charleston, South Carolina. You can still buy boxes of Carolina® Rice in supermarkets today. In those early days of our country, Thomas Jefferson went so far as to defy a threatened death sentence by smuggling unhusked grains of rice out of the Piedmont region of Italy—“as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold”—in his efforts to promote the sale of American rice in France. Apparently he’d been told that Carolina rice was considered inferior to Italian rice because it wasn’t white enough. No surprise that he also acquired the tool the Italians used to clean their rice.

Gone are the days of death sentences for rice smuggling and gone too are the days when white rice reigned supreme. It’s appropriate, when you think about it, that since it’s eaten by people of so many colors, it should come in so many colors as well: white, yellow, red, brown, and black.

Enough talk. I’m getting hungry. It’s time to think about dinner. It’s been too long since I cooked up a big pot of a good old Louisiana Creole jambalaya.

Jambalaya (serves 4-6)

1 tbsp oil
¼ lb sliced smoked sausage
¾ lb cubed chicken breast
½ lb cubed smoked ham
1 heaping tbsp. seasoning mix (see below)
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup chopped celery
3-4 minced garlic cloves
1 16 oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1 14 oz can chicken broth
1 ½ cup white rice

In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Brown sausage. Add chicken & cook until done. Drain off fat. Stir in ham & cook 2 minutes. Stir in seasoning mix and vegetables. Cook, stirring until vegetables are almost tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and broth. Bring to boil. Stir in rice. Cover & reduce heat to simmer. Cook, covered, until rice is tender, 20 minutes. Serve with Tabasco & filé powder.

Seasoning mix: 1 tbsp dried basil, 1 tbsp dried oregano, 1 ½ tbsp. paprika, 1 ½ tsp dried thyme, ½ tsp cayenne, ¼ tsp black pepper, 1 tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp mace, 1 bay leaf. Makes 1/3 cup; store in a glass jar.

A final note: Although rice is a staple food for half the world’s people, according to the World Hunger Organization, over 925 million people went hungry last year. Here’s a small way you and/or your kids can contribute to wiping out such hunger by going online to Click on “Subjects” at the top of the page and choose your favorite category. Each time your child (or you) answers a quiz question correctly, FreeRice donates 10 grains of rice through the United NationsWorld Food Programme. Each grain might be tiny, but to date, they’ve donated more than 91 billion grains to countries around the world.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

Just a little more than a week after Thanksgiving and already the turkey’s no more than a memory. The last slices of pie have long since disappeared. It’s funny. For the few weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, all I could think of was pie: apple, sweet potato-pecan, and pumpkin-praline. But now that the last Thursday in November has come and gone, pie’s the farthest thing from my mind and I’m not likely to bake another one for quite some time.

Which doesn’t mean I’m retiring my oven mitts—simply that when I bake during the rest of the year, I'm far more likely to think cake. I don’t need a holiday for inspiration. I hardly even need a reason at all and often find myself standing in the kitchen in front of my workhorse of a KitchenAid, creaming butter, sifting flour, adding wet and dry ingredients alternately, and pouring the batter into round or square pans—but more often into a bundt pan (much as I love cakes, I’m not as fond of frosting, and so prefer the unadorned nakedness of a bundt cake).

This makes me wonder. Why do I bake pies for Thanksgiving but cakes the rest of the year?

Well, on the one hand, they’re easier. Whoever it was who first claimed something was “easy as pie” didn’t know what he was talking about. Pie crusts can be tricky and require technique, not to mention such special equipment as rolling pins and pie weights. Fillings have to balance precariously between moist juiciness and stodgy solidity.

Cakes, on the other hand, can be whipped out by a child. I know this for a fact. I started baking them when I was a girl. Following the recipe from the Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook, I submitted a Chocolate Fudge Cake to a Girls Scouts Cake Competition. I went on to make the Jack-o’-Lantern Cake for my brother’s late-October birthday and the red and white Heart Cake for Mother’s Day. I also remember making the Enchanted Castle Cake for my own birthday, complete with inverted ice cream cone turrets and pink pillow mint crenellations.

These cakes of yore may bring a nostalgic smile to my face, but they give me food for thought as well. Who ever heard of a birthday pie? A wedding pie? An anniversary pie? The practical explanation is that a pie can be only so big and you can’t very well layer them or decorate them with icing roses. Nor does a pie crust offer a smooth surface on which to write your heartfelt message.

But I think there’s something else. I think that cakes speak to us in a way that pies don’t. Why else do you never hear anyone call out, “If I’d ‘a known you were coming, I’d ‘a baked a pie”?

In this regard, I find it revealing that we’ve never been tempted to call them anything but what they are: cakes. We regularly pass our pies off as tarts when we want them to sound fancy. In an earlier post, I wrote about our penchant for speaking French when we want to sound as elegant as possible: just compare an apple pie to a tarte aux pommes. But when was the last time you heard someone call a cake a gateau? Even when they’re dressed to the nines, they’re cakes, plain and simple. Appropriately, they trace back not to a French word, but to the German Kuchen, which in turn derives from the not-very-glamorous sounding Old Norse kaka (the ancestor, by the way, of our most basic cooking word of all: to cook).

It seems fitting to me that cake should have a name that comes to us from the Vikings rather than from the Mediterranean. Northern Europe, after all, is where cakes came into their own, no doubt because northern Europe is famous for its butter—and without butter, our default idea of cake simply wouldn’t be. Yes, there are sponge cakes that rely on egg whites and yes, there are moist cakes that use oil rather than butter, but as Flo Braker writes in her wonderful The Simple Art of Perfect Baking,

When you are thinking of making a cake, a butter cake is likely to come to mind. Butter cakes are part of our past. Our birthday cakes, our wedding cakes, our everyday cakes are butter cakes. It’s the butter cake recipes that have been passed down from family to family: American classics, such as the 1-2-3-4 Cake and Wellesley Chocolate Cake, as well as untitled splendors, such as yellow cake, gold cake, Bundt cake, and good old-fashioned pound cake.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a pie as well as the next person, but there’s just something about cakes.

They say the purest ice cream is vanilla; with no additional flavorings, distracting chocolate chips, or streaks of toffee, the main flavor's got nowhere to hide. By the same logic, a simple pound cake has got to be the purest cake of all: nothing but butter, sugar, eggs, and flour (and, in this case, a pinch of salt, and a dash or two of vanilla and lemon juice). Try this one the next time you want to bring a smile to your family’s face. It's the essence of cake. It never fails.

Edna Lewis’s Pound Cake

½ lb unsalted butter
1 2/3 cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
5 eggs
2 cups sifted flour
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice

Butter a 9 or 10” tube pan and preheat the oven to 300. Cream the butter and when it’s very fluffy, add the sugar and salt. Cream well. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating well after each one; after the third egg, add 2 tbsp of the flour. Add the rest of the flour in four additions, taking care not to overmix. Blend in the vanilla & lemon juice. Spoon into tube pan, drop on the counter to burst any bubbles, and bake at 300 for 40 minutes, and then at 325 for another 20 minutes, or until done. Let cool on a rack for 5 minutes, before turning out and letting cool completely. You can, of course, glaze the cake with anything you want—lemon, chocolate, coffee, etc—but I like it plain best of all.

(Adapted from Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking)