Sunday, November 24, 2013

Those salt cod recipes: or how Europe cooks our fish

Here's the Italian way to make salt cod. It's a perfect appetizer or hors d'oeuvre for Thanksgiving.  The French version is more a souffle of salt cod and potatoes, a recipe I'll share in another post.

Salt Cod spread on Crostini

1 1/2 lbs salt cod soaked in cold water at least overnigh
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and finely ground pepper to taste
pinch of nutmeg (optional)
  1. Put salt cod and garlic in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer 15 minutes or until fish is tender. 
  2. Drain but keep some of that cooking water. Remove garlic, fish skin and bones.
  3. Break the fish into pieces and put in a sturdy bowl. While it's still hot, get a whisk and begin to whip to it into a cream. As you get going, start to add the olive oil in a thin, slow trickle. (If you have a helper, great; if not just stop a sec and drizzle a little in every 30 seconds or so.) Keep whipping energetically until you get a mousse consistency. There may still be a large bit or two but no worries. with some larger pieces here and there. This is easiest done with two people. If the fish stays a little too dry after all the olive oil is in, drizzle in a bit of that cooking water until the mousse is creamy.
  4. Season to taste with salt (be careful here) and pepper and serve on slices of baguette or crostini. You can garnish a plate of these with chopped fresh parsley or a quick shake of crushed red pepper seeds. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The All-American Thanksgiving

The original settlers of New England didn't eat string bean casserole or sweet potatoes with marshmellows. They had other options. And it's really fun to put the history back into Thanksgiving dinner by making a menu from authentic local ingredients. It's no trouble at all either.

Taking cues from the land and seascape and the traditions of the Natives, you start with oysters or smoked salmon or, if you want to demonstrate the real reason America came into being--the abundance of salt and cod, serve salt cod, most easily as fritters. Salt cod remains a European and Caribbean delicacy sought after by gourmets so there are plenty of recipes for its preparation. Most involve that southern New World phenomenon, the potato.

Don't be afraid to bring on a mess of clams or lobsters because we know these were abundant and available when the settlers came. 

The wild turkeys weren't the big breasted Butterballs stuffed into supermarkets today so stick to the heritage birds available from local farms. Or to be probably more authentic to the original, go for a roasted duck or roasted venison.  It seems the Plymouth Pilgrims may have served turkey but it was in pieces cut into a traditional Indian stew of beans and hominy. So if you're going to serve turkey, why not stuff it with beans and hominy for a change?

My most popular Thanksgiving turkey by a landslide was the barbequed one, this in honor of our Southern cousins who love long slow saucy cooking. The night before cooking, you just slather the turkey inside and out, and under the breast skin with your favorite barbeque sauce and let it marinate overnight in the fridge. Then slip it into a 450º oven uncovered for 20-30 minutes so the sauce and skin start to crisp and brown. Slather on more sauce plus 1/2-1 cup chicken stock, reduce the heat to 350º and cook, basting from time to time until the turkey is almost falling apart. Nobody is going to complain your turkey was dry or tasteless, trust me.

Remember how many Eastern American towns have a Chestnut Street? Well, go ahead and get chestnuts. Roast them for stuffing or with the duck. Or roast them with slices of winter squash lightly brushed with butter and maple syrup.  Winter squash would be the traditional local vegetable. Maybe roast it with cranberries, which gets these traditional fruits on the table in something other than sugary cranberry sauce that has no meaning.

If you're not serving your turkey with bean/hominy stuffing, or in a bean stew, think about cooking up a saucy pot of Southern style beans and greens instead of the alien sweet potato marshmallow casserole. Remember the triumvirate of Native American food was squash, corn and beans. You'll want to have them all on a historic table.

Think mushrooms. They're appropriately local.

And finally the dessert. Indian pudding of course. Any version will suggest history. My own personal favorite is a yummy maple syrup laced pudding baked with apples and raisins in a mold so you can turn it out and ice it like a cake with ginger flavored whipped cream. The recipe is in Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, and like the barbequed turkey, it got itself a huge fan club.

All in all, your traditional Thanksgiving dinner doesn't have to be the same old, same old dull supermarket meal. Put history on the plates this year knowing it will not just be seasonal and local and all that jazz but meaningful and delicious.

In sum: oysters, smoked salmon, salt cod, lobsters, clams, heritage turkey or duck, venison, winter squash, cranberries, mushrooms, chestnuts, beans, some form of cornmeal, maple syrup, and Indian pudding which brings together the staples of the originally shipping trade that powered the original New England: cornmeal and molasses.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Yay is for Apples

This is probably prime time for America's favorite fruit: apples. And nowadays their variety seems infinite, from heirloom to newfangled. Traditional New England species are listed in How to Fix a Leek... with a short explanation of whether they're best of eating, cooking or baking. So no need to repeat here.

Apples are more versatile than many of us give them credit for. They don't just have to be dessert in one form or other. They're a great mate for cabbage: slice and sauté tart ones with red cabbage you're going to braise, or add chunks of sweet ones to sauerkraut. (Hint: to really do up that sauerkraut add potatoes, celery seed, juniper berries or caraway seed with the apples and serve with a mess of sausages).

Apple fritters are an old-fashioned substitute for pancakes as well as a dessert. Here's what you need: 
2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup white sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

2 quarts oil for deep frying

4 large apples, peeled and cored

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar for dusting

In a medium bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. In a separate bowl, beat together eggs and milk. Stir milk mixture into flour mixture until smooth. Heat oil to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) in a deep fryer or heavy bottomed deep pot or skillet. Slice apples into 1/2 inch rings. Dip apple slices in batter and fry, a few at a time, turning once, until golden. Drain on paper towels and dust with confectioners' sugar.

Baked apples are another old-fashioned treat that newfangled microwaves let you make in less than 10 minutes now.  For this you need large, round apples like Empire, Rome, Cortland. You can also use Granny Smith. And all you need to do is wash and core them. Make a stuffing out of whatever you like: I like chopped walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries, cinnamon, nutmeg and maple syrup. You can jazz to the max with diced apricots, currants, almonds, chopped dates, shredded coconut, bits of butter, butter, brown sugar, cloves and cinnamon.  Whatever you put inside, put them in a baking dish, sprinkle them  with fresh lemon juice, pour apple cider or pure apple juice over them so there's about 1/4-1/2" of it in the pan for basting. Put a dollop of honey atop each apple, cover the pan tightly with foil and bake at 350º about 1 hour or until the apples are soft.  OR you can line them up in a microwavable dish, cover with plastic wrap or another dish and let them cook on high for 2 minutes. Test for softness and cook on medium at 30 second intervals until they're done.
Serve with mascarpone, vanilla yogurt or whipped cream for a real treat.

If you're going to make a tart, use a firm tart apple like Granny Smith that holds its shape in the oven.  Don't cook with Fujis: they aren't juicy enough. One of the easier tarts to make is the famed Tatin, the so-called upside down apple tart. Its beauty is nobody will see your crust so it doesn't have to be picture perfect. You need a large iron skillet or an 9-10" metal pie pan and you need to coat the bottom of whichever you choose with bits of butter and brown sugar. You want a caramelized effect. (You can melt the butter and sugar in the skillet to achieve this perfectly.) Slice the apples and lay them in a concentric circle pattern to completely cover the pan. You can fill any tiny holes with bits of apple or currants. For good measure throw on top a pinch of brown sugar, pinches of cinnamon and/or nutmeg and 2 or 3 tiny bits of butter. Make a basic pie crust (combine 1 1/4 c flour, 1 stick cold unsalted butter, then add 1 tsp vinegar and 1/4 c ice water to blend. Roll into a circle slightly larger than the pan and top the apples, crimping the edges by pushing them slightly down into the pan, Bake at 350º about 45 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and flip onto your serving platter.

And finally, an easy and slightly different apple pie that was my biggest hit in Mongolia because the cookies and sourcream make it irresistible. For the crust you combine about 2 doz. cookies--either butter cookies, gingerbread cookies or graham cracker cookies--with 1 stick of butter, 1/2 tsp nutmeg and 1/4 c light brown sugar in a food processor until clumps form. Butter a 9" pie pan and pat this crust into it, right up and around the rim.  Refrigerate until ready to fill.
Now in a large bowl combine 2 tbsp flour, 1/2 c sugar, 1/4 c light brown sugar, pinch of ground cloves and 3/4 tsp cinnamon. In another bowl beat a large egg, then whisk into it 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract and 1 c sour cream. Carefully combine this wet mixture into the dry mixture. Peel six med/lg apples like Macs or Granny Smiths and chop them into bite sized chunks. Stir into the batter. Fill the pie pan with the mixture and bake at 350º about 40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.  Cool before serving.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Notes on November

Frost has finished off fresh fruits and vegetables in most parts of the land. So we're down to root veggies and winter squashes, the berries we managed to freeze in their heyday and the greens from greenhouses. Not local food of the moment would be persimmon and quince.  Persimmon pairs perfectly with turkey and it's orange color is certainly in keeping with the holiday. Think persimmon pudding instead of corn pudding, for a change. Or make a risotto--out of rice or farro--with persimmons, toasted pecans and bitter braising greens like arugula, mizuna or chicory. Right now I'm shaving it onto a very colorful and delicious mesclun salad with pomegranate arils, avocado, toasted almonds and goat cheese.

 As for quince, since it can't be eaten raw and I don't have my Spanish friend Sonia's sensational recipe for Catalan chicken braised with prunes and quince,  I make a kind of vanilla flavored jam/paste of it, my own personal membrillo without all the sugar. It's a real treat on croissants and baguettes, especially with hard cheeses on top.  It's not that hard to make, just requires two steps instead of the one for ordinary jam. Think three quince because these will make a winter's worth of paste. You peel and chop them, put them in a pan, cover with water and boil for about an hour until they finally soften.  I usually throw half a lemon in that water. Next, you drain the quince but keep a bit of the cooking water, and puree the fruit with about 1/3 cup of it. Put this into a large pot with 1 tbsp vanilla extract or 1 whole pod, juice of 1/2 lemon and 1 3/4 cup white sugar and 1 tbsp brown sugar. Stir to blend. (you can really gild this lily with 1 tbsp rosewater because quince itself get very fragrant when cooked.) Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring and stirring. Continue cooking until you get a consistent paste that sticks to a wooden spoon.  Preserve in properly boiled jam jars.  

If you're strictly local, think of this as kale time. Kale with garlic and lemon over penne pasta makes a fast, nourishing and surprisingly rich dish. While you boil enough penne for 4, chop a small red onion, mince 3 garlic cloves and shred a bunch of any kind of kale. Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over med/low heat until the onion gets soft. Toss in the kale. (And optionally 1 tbsp pine nuts.) Season with freshly ground black pepper. When the kale softens, squeeze in the juice of a lemon and blend. Add the cooked, drained penne, season with salt and more olive oil, stir to blend everything and serve with freshly grated cheese.  Please keep in mind the more you cook kale the more of its nutrients you destroy. 

More ways to enjoy kale right now are to make a traditional kale, potato and linguiça sausage stew/soup or stuff a large winter squash with the kale stuffing recipe in How to Fix a Leek...and bake an hour at 350º until squash is soft enough to serve. Great beside grilled or braised meat. You can also make a very tasty side dish by adding some shredded kale and a handful of dried cranberries to wild rice halfway through its cooking.  Yum with roasted chicken.

Thanksgiving up next...