love potions

December 18th, 2011

The day’s snowfall approaches one foot, the roads are unplowed and the solemn silence of winter comes on like a weary exhalation across the endless horizon of white.  I want to be some place that smells of sunshine and trees and dirt roads.  The smell of horses would be nice as would be a pond shimmering in the heat with insects skipping and bouncing along its surface.

Alas, I am shackled to the kitchen table writing about database storage and software navigation.  Escape is possible, nonetheless, if I squint and imagine a golden and green hued environment.  I can ignore the double layer of sweaters and pretend I’m wearing a sundress made of organza that swishes in a tropical breeze.

Winter in the Boondocks has no aroma, and that too, is something I can correct, and in the realest of senses.  An exotic curry perhaps, made from toasted spices and lots of ginger and garlic, left to simmer on the stove for a couple of hours draws everyone to the kitchen and in the spirit of that intoxicating smell, a new energy and vibrancy is born.  Conversation becomes more animated and the hush of winter takes a back seat, if only for an evening.

Potions

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na zdorovie!

November 22nd, 2011

I spent several weeks honing a four-course Russian menu for our Spring Fling party yesterday.  Friday’s weather forecast warned of sub-zero temperatures for the day and a mad panic then ensued to revamp the menu to keep it appropriate for the weather.

Out went the Wood-grilled Pork Shashlik and in came Filet Mignon Bourguignon.  The tiny Buckwheat Crepes filled with Smoked Trout and Crème Fraiche were replaced by a Duo of Smoked Salmon Rilletttes.

The Baked Mushrooms topped with Savory Custard was suddenly redundant and the Sauerkraut Salad with Onion Rye Flatbread utterly unsuitable for a Bourguignon.  A simple Green Salad with Dill Vinaigrette and Puff Pastry Sticks became the accompaniments for the entrée.

The dessert course, Fresh Fruit Pavlova, delicious though it is, is not generally enjoyed in front of a blazing fireplace, but something that at least hinted of spring’s arrival would be nice, so I whipped up a Genoise cake and layered it with Strawberry Chantilly in parfaits glasses.

In the course of one day and one weather forecast, our Spring Fling had turned into a Sprung Flung and the highly anticipated Russian feast looked more like a Franco-Russian Alliance, but no flavor was lost in the translation and only I knew of the hurdles bounded to get that luxurious dinner on the table.

Our Cinqo de Mayo party isn’t going to encounter any last minute overhauls because I’m going to start out with two menus, just in case it snows.

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yōshoku

November 8th, 2011

At the turn of the 20th century, Japan ended its national seclusion and began to adopt a number of Western philosophies and practices.  In particular, it was determined that the American and European diet would yield a taller race.  An early Japanese entrepreneur who bought a McDonalds franchise even went so far as to suggest that after 1000 years of eating hamburgers, Japanese would come to have blond hair.

Many Western dishes began popping up with decided Eastern spins and this form of food was called yōshoku, which differed from their traditional washoku, by the larger ratio of meat in the dish.  Paired with rice, topped with sweet/sour sauces and eaten with chopsticks gave many Western dishes a completely new life.

Among the most favorite yōshoku, both in the East and the West, is Katsu, an innovative spin on Schniztel.   It is most often prepared with ton (pork) and is equally good made with chicken, veal or beef.  The meat is seasoned, dredged in flour, dipped in an egg wash and then heavily coated with Japanese panko crumbs.  A brief swim in hot oil renders up a crunchy and tender morsel of meat, quickly sliced and situated atop a bed of shredded cabbage.  Drizzle on some sōsu and dig in.

Tonkatsu

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dinner in 20

October 17th, 2011

Speed cooking is not my cup of tea any more than are speed eating or speed driving.  Cooking is a pleasure best enjoyed slowly so that atmosphere and appetite develop along side the meal.  The calming and rhythmic tasks of chopping and slicing can be done at a leisurely pace and guarantee a consistently sized product.  Gentle sautéing and slow oven roasting provide aromas that whet the palate and the orderly execution of a dish provides a serenity found no where else.

That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it!  Time, however, sometimes likes to wield it’s stubborn inflexibility and my careful planning gets thrown asunder and the clock face demands acceptance of a speed cooking challenge.  So it was that one of our favorite dinners went from a two-hour preparation to a twenty-minute breakneck execution.

A complex marinade was thrown together in five minutes, the filet mignons marinated for five minutes before hitting the grill.  Rice sticks, softened in hot water, were drained and tossed with cucumber, tomato, basil and mint. The table set, the wine opened and poured and a few peanuts chopped for garnish.  And, presto, in less than the time it takes to write about it, our delicious dinner in 20 was sitting poised before us!

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smell me something good

October 11th, 2011

There’s an area about two-thirds up the staircase that seems to accumulate various oven essences from the kitchen.  Among our favorites are bread (naturally), baking beans, roast beef and roast chicken.  It could also be something agitating on the stove, like marinara sauce, bacon, curries or gumbos.

We call this area of the stairs, “the smelling station” which is about eight steps above “the petting station” where the cat likes to stop and pause and get petted through the stair railing.  My office is also the kitchen and the man who came to dinner and never left’s office is directly above.  I often holler, “Go check out the smelling station!” which he’s quick to do, and then barks several times or gallops all the way down for a closer sniff.

Chicken 'n Fixin's

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paint your palate

October 9th, 2011

The time has come to stow the double wide slow-cooker and the never-rusts food mill to their respective boxes and their respective shelves in the kitchen annex for another year, because fruit butter season is officially over.

During autumn, the orchards and vineyards that pepper the landscape up here in the north country are laden with New England’s favorite apples, pears and grapes and this means that over a 6-8 week period the house smells of fruit pies, crumbles, and crisps along with sauces, chutneys and our all time favorite, fruit butter.

Be it apple, pear, grape or combinations thereof, fruit butters have a complex and luxurious flavor that suggest a laborious process, which it certainly was in the olden days when two days worth of stirring rendered up what today’s slow-cooker can do with very little assistance.

Toss out those antiquated recipes that call for pounds of sugar, and absolutely never discard fruit skins, seeds and cores because that is where the pectin comes from which help ‘set’ the butter.  Spice seasoning is for the cook to choose, and I usually take a minimalist route to let the true flavors of the fruits shine through.

Quarter up five pounds of apples and chuck them into a slow cooker with about an inch of apple cider.  No peeling, coring or seeding needed, in fact the seeds hold the pectin that helps set the butter.  After six or so hours, the apples will have broken down into a big pot of apple mush.  Leave it to cool overnight.

The next day, put the apple mush through a food mill to extract the seeds and skin.  Return the cleaned mush to the slow cooker and add your favorite flavorings; cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, maple syrup, brown sugar and for a special kick, Calvados.

Fruit Butters

 

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patch of green

October 1st, 2011

The basil patch has flourished, despite its neglect, into a glossy green mass of fragrance.  When considering how expensive fresh basil is at the stupormarket, satisfaction is sure to follow when calculating the retail value of many hundreds of three-dollar sprigs that populate the garden.

Capturing basil at its freshest and preserving it for use through the winter is a worthy challenge and there are really only two methods that return winter to summer in a single bite.  One method is to process the fresh basil leaves with water and then freeze it in ice cube trays, repack the cubes in zipper bags and use as needed whenever a tablespoon of fresh basil is called for in soups or sauces.

The other sure-fire method, albeit more time-consuming, is pesto, which freezes just as successfully.  The word pesto comes from the past participle of the Italian pestare and simply means “to pound”.  What one ends up pounding is totally arbitrary and does not necessitate basil and pine nuts, rather, can be mint and almonds or cilantro and walnuts or a younger brother who’s misbehaving.

My current favorite pounding is basil with walnuts, garlic, parmesan (or fontinella), processed with olive oil and its uses are exhaustive.  Aside from the expected toss with pasta, pesto adds new dimensions to ground beef and lamb, especially when grilled, and throws an everyday vinaigrette into untoward realms of magic.  Of course, it’s great on toasted crostini and other baked goods, and in particular, when slathered onto puff pastry and rolled into Palmiers, baked and served crispy-hot and redolent of the end-of-summer garden.

Pesto Palmiers

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serendipitous minestrone

September 27th, 2011

In early summer we make a clear minestrone with fresh herbs and young vegetables from the garden.  But when fall comes around and the first frost threatens it’s a mad dash to get the last of the tomatoes, basil, parsley, chard and zucchini from the garden for a hearty version of minestrone.

The only question is how to embellish a soup that is powerfully flavorful to begin with and that is always a fun challenge.  Among our preferred additions to this rich tomato-based minestrone are grilled Italian sausage slices or browned country sausage or roasted chicken chunks or tiny beef parmesan meatballs.  And sometimes we just add in every available vegetable at hand.  Any and every treatment renders up a satisfying and healthful soup moment.

Hearty Minestrone

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what’s in a name?

September 7th, 2011

Cookies date back to 7th century Persia, whereas chocolate chip cookies, in particular, are relatively new to the block, 1937 to be exact, and are the proud mistake of Ruth Wakefield of Whitman, Massachusetts.  Ruth ran the Toll House Restaurant along the highway between Boston and New Bedford and was renowned for her baking abilities.

She endeavored one day to use block chocolate instead of cocoa for a chocolate cookie.  The chunks of chocolate did not melt and disperse as she’d hoped and instead maintained their original shape after cooling.  Guests loved this mistake and the chocolate chip cookie was born.  It has since become the official cookie of Massachusetts.

Riffs on this celebrated tidbit certainly go the gamut of sublime to supercilious and is certainly a great platform from which to find inspiration.  Like most bakers, I have lost track of how many versions of chocolate chip cookies have been concocted in my kitchen over the years and each new version becomes the all time favorite until its successor comes along.

Case in point, the most recent favorite:  chocolate cookie batter studded with chunks of bittersweet chocolate, toasted pecans and orange zest.  Our neighbor Rett calls them Chocolate Nirvana, and we agree!

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BLT with TLC

September 3rd, 2011

America’s favorite foods are also the easiest to prepare and so it is that I always wonder why restaurants never really nail the Hamburger, the Hot Dog or the simple Sandwich.  I think what is missing from their ingredients is Love.  A little less Indifference and a lot more Love would make me more willing to pay good money for simple food.

Case in point is the BLT, beloved by many, and perhaps the most abysmal item ever ordered from a restaurant menu.  The bacon is always undercooked, the tomato under-ripe, the bread under-toasted and the lettuce and mayo addendums of complete indifference.  The successful construction of a BLT is not rocket science, for heaven’s sake, because it’s only five ordinary ingredients!

The confluences of cool and hot, salty and sweet, and crunchy and smooth is what protects this special sandwich from ever being boxed, frozen and microwaved, and that, of course, is a good thing.  The BLT simply needs some plain old TLC in its preparation and while variations and additions are endless, that perfect tomato, that perfectly crisped bacon, that perfect pair of toasts, that crisp and fresh lettuce, and that homemade mayonnaise, assembled with a soupcon of Love, are all one ever really needs to yield a true king of the sandwich world!

BLT

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