Saturday, September 30, 2006

An Autumn Stew for Isabella

Last Saturday, at the beginning of autumn, Christina and I were in Boston for the baptism of our 6-month-old grand daughter Isabella. On Sunday I had the chance to cook for her parents, Lisa and Jason, plus Jason’s folks, Isabella's other grandparents. The cooler season in New England screamed for cooking with apples. And pork, one of my favorite meats, whether white or not, is also seasonal in the fall, at least traditionally (read: in the old days before refrigeration). It's also cheaper in the fall. What emerged was pork simmered in apples, plus plums, and in the wine left over from the baptismal reception, minus of course what went into the cook. Hey, it was after 4 PM somewhere.

While the recipe evolved fairly spontaneously, my vision was clearly influenced by cooking I have experienced, or more often read about, from central Europe, particularly Czech cuisine. The pork chunks cooked with fruit take on a delightful and almost indefinable flavor. The fruit-enriched sauce is intense and serves well on mild-flavored accompaniments, like noodles, potatoes, or rice, or like dumplings in central Europe.

Here’s the recipe (slightly modified after retesting on guinea-pig friends in Atlanta) for what I developed on the weekend of Isabella’s baptism. She of course was too young to eat any, but some day I hope she likes it. Right now she still delights in mashed avocado and sweet potato.

Pork with Apples and Plums Tim-- dedicated to Isabella Dondero Westrich

(serves 6 with tasty leftovers)

1 pork “butt” roast or shoulder, 5-7 pounds, including bones
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 medium onions
2 large cloves garlic
2 large apples
4 medium black plums or 5 “prune plums”
2 bay leaves
1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup red wine
Salt to taste

Trim any skin and excess fat off the pork. (If there is skin, trim the fat off it and simmer the skin in the stew for extra flavor.) Cut the meat into 1-1/2 inch chunks. Cut the bones apart at the joints. In a large pot (stainless steel or enamel preferred) heat the olive oil then add part of the pork for a layer one piece deep. Fry over medium-high heat, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the color of the meat has changed on the surface and there is a little golden color on some pieces. Remove the meat to a bowl and similarly fry the remainder, in several batches if necessary. While the meat is cooking, peel the onions. Either cut them in chunks and chop them in a food processor by pulsing until the pieces are small, but not puréed, or dice them by hand. When the pork has changed color, add all of it back to the pot and stir in the onion (do not wash processor) and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the reserved pork skin and the bones to the pot. Put the garlic, apple, peeled, cored and chunked, plus the plums, unpeeled but washed and pitted, to the processor and chop finely until nearly puréed (or mince the garlic and chop the apple and plums finely with a chef’s knife). Stir the mixture into the pork. Add the bay leaves and other herbs and spices plus the wine (do not add salt yet). When the mixture boils, lower the heat to medium-low, cover and continue cooking with occasional stirring, adding a little water to keep the sauce juicy, but slightly below the level of the meat. After half an hour begin adding salt, starting with 2 teaspoons. Simmer the stew until the pork becomes tender, tasting the sauce from time to time and adding salt if necessary.

Serve with (optionally) steamed potatoes, buttered egg noodles, or lightly salted and buttered rice. Accompany with warm crusty bread and a green salad. A fruity, not too heavy red wine, like a merlot or an Italian Tempranillo, or a dry fruity white wine such as an Alsatian Riesling would go well with this.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cinnamon Flop: Great coffee cake, whacky name

For years we’ve enjoyed a light fragrant breakfast cake called “cinnamon flop” from a recipe of my wife’s grandmother (“Nanny”), which was given to us by my mother-in-law. No one we’ve met had heard of this breakfast goodie outside of the family. The “flop” is white and airy, has a tender cinnamon topping and irregular deep pockets rich in spice and butter. It’s unique for having no egg and relatively little butter or shortening, and uses the old-fashioned hand mixing style of alternating dry and wet ingredients. An electric mixer makes the coffee cake tough, and adding egg (obviously we tried both) gives an uninteresting cakey texture that misses the delicate uniqueness of real cinnamon flop. I had assumed that it came from the Great Depression and was an economical survivor of that time of deprivation, and wondered if it was limited to the family. Or was it maybe something from Boston, where my wife’s grandmother grew up.

But noooo. Some research turned up a number of other “cinnamon flops”, and they typically had the tell-tale no egg, the alternating mixing of wet and dry ingredients, and bits of butter pushed through the topping into the cake. Some recipes call for much more sugar than does “ours”. But most interesting were several attributions of cinnamon flop to the Amish and the “Pennsylvania Dutch”. In fact, my wife’s grandmother lived her married life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So that ethnic origin of the family’s spice-scented coffee cake is quite plausible (and certainly consistent with the cinnamon and brown sugar). The recipe was probably learned in Pennsylvania by Nanny.

Cinnamon Flop Nanny

1/4 cup butter (originally “butter the size of an egg”)
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour plus 2 tablespoons for the topping
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon (originally 1 teaspoon)
2 tablespoons cold butter (1/4 stick)

Set oven at 375 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking dish or pan. In a bowl, using a wooden spoon mix 1/4 cup butter with the sugar until creamy. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add one-third of that to the butter-sugar mixture and stir it in. Then add 1/2 the milk and mix it in, just until evenly wet. Add and briefly mix in another third of the dry ingredients, then briefly the other half of the milk. Finish by briefly stirring in the last portion of the dry ingredients, just until moistened. Do not over mix it or the cake will be tough. Spread into the buttered dish. Mix together the 2 extra tablespoons flour, the brown sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the batter. Cut the cold butter into little slivers and stick them down here and there part way through the topping into the batter. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the center springs back when touched. Serve fresh and warm.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Bolognese Meat Sauce for Pasta

I was a purist on Italian red sauces for pasta, liking either a clean tomato-based marinara (and wrote an earlier blog posting about it) or a marinara with Italian sausage chunks or meat balls. Somehow “meat sauce” seemed crude and heavy, just loose hamburger cooked up with tomato. But I grew up around southern Italian cooking, which set my standard. Much later when I had a really elegant “Bolognese” I learned how subtle and luscious a meat sauce can be, as I will try to prove with the recipe below.

“Bolognese” [bo-lon-nyay’-zay], meaning in the manner of the city of Bologna in north central Italy, apparently really is a specialty of that area and is commonly a sauce for spaghetti. Bologna, unfortunately, also gave its name to baloney (bologna sausage) that on Wonder bread makes the horrible gummy sandwiches eaten by generations of kids at school and homeless people at soup kitchens. But dull and nasty as that cold cut can be, Bolognese sauce, by contrast, can be vibrant and luscious.

Here is a recipe for a tasty Bolognese. Although the real thing probably should be made with ground veal, I use ground turkey, which gives the same light-bodied richness. The real thing also often has a little cured pork cooked into it, like pancetta or bacon, but I sometimes leave that out. The recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta – a “short” pasta is good for this one, such as penne rigate, or maybe rigatoni. And although on pasta I generally prefer the strong sheep’s milk cheese pecorino Romano, the lighter and more elegant Parmesan, a northern Italian cow’s milk cheese, is more appropriate for this dish.

Bolognese Sauce for Pasta Tim
1 medium-large carrot
1 medium stalk celery
1 small onion
2 strips of bacon or slices of pancetta (optional)
4 tablespoons olive oil (3 tablespoons if using bacon or pancetta)
2 large cloves garlic
1-1/2 pounds ground turkey (not white meat)
1 large bay leaf
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or a large pinch cayenne
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, depending on preference
1/2 cup red wine
1 large (28-ounce) can crushed tomato (Hunt’s or imported Italian)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 pound pasta (such as penne rigate)
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese for sprinkling

Peel the carrot, split it lengthwise several times and dice it finely. Discard leaves from the celery. Split the stalk into 1/4-inch wide strips, and dice. Peel and dice the onion. Finely dice the bacon or pancetta, if used. In a heavy stainless steel pan, gently fry the diced vegetables and bacon or pancetta in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, until the carrot is tender. Mince the garlic, and stir it in. After a minute, raise the heat and stir in the ground turkey, breaking it up as it heats. Add the bay leaf, paprika, black and hot pepper, and nutmeg. When the turkey color has fully changed, add the wine and simmer 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomato plus a tiny amount of water for rinsing out the can. Simmer for 10 minutes, and add the sugar and salt. Simmer 5-10 more minutes, taste, and add salt if needed. Add the parsley and simmer for a few more minutes.

When sauce is done, cook the pasta in a large amount of boiling salted water, stirring frequently at the beginning so it will not stick together, until just tender to the bite. Drain it well in a colander. In a large bowl toss some of the sauce into freshly cooked pasta, spooning the rest of the sauce on top of the pasta when serving. Sprinkle generously with grated cheese.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Full Frontal

Last week as late summer brought Atlanta its first cool delightful mornings I stepped eagerly out the kitchen door toward the garden and into the brightening air. And right through the massive overnight cobweb that had until then filled the doorway. The Gulliverian distress of soft clingy fibrils enveloping face and neck and arms was worsened by suddenly not knowing the location of the giant spider.

I guess that's my culinary rambling for the day. It relates, I suppose, to the kitchen (which in French is "la cuisine"), or at least the kitchen doorway, but somehow it doesn't inspire me to put down a recipe. Only croquembouche might be apt, that pretentious French pyramid of little cream puffs enmeshed in a gossamer of caramelized sugar strands. And that one takes hours, plus it might imply that I, ensnared in sticky strands, was somehow a cream puff. Which I sort of was, flailing around to get the cobwebs off and to get the spider before she could get me. So no recipe for now; I'll have something tasty in the next posting. Meanwhile I feel like I need another shower.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Entrees and Menus: French Faux Amis

In American restaurant parlance, “entree” is the main dinner dish. Like the pecan-encrusted halibut on a bed of steamed whatevers, or the lemon grass-infused pork tenderloin with frou-frous, or even the Jim-Bob’s meatloaf and gravy. The “menu” is the full listing from which we order our appetizer, entree, dessert, and all. Both culinary terms are from France, the epicenter of cuisine (western, at least) and restaurant tradition.

But something stumbled in translation, maybe after too much wine, en route from Paris and Lyon to New York and San Francisco and New Orleans. When I first went to French-speaking countries, where I’ve spent a lot of time and consumed a lot of calories, I was confused in restaurants.

In French, “entrée” means what the word says. It’s the entrance into the meal, the appetizer or, more recently and more accurately in the US, the “starter”. In France, an “entrée” might be a pâté, a seafood tart, or raw oysters. In French the main dish is called exactly that, “le plat” or “le plat principal”.

If you ask a waiter in francophone country for the “menu” you get the fixed meal of the day, generally with a choice of main dish. What we call the menu is “la carte” in French (with “à la carte” correctly in English meaning an individual item ordered off the list).

A couple other French culinary notes before tackling an actual starter dish. An “hors d’oeuvre” (literally “outside the [main] work”) is the little finger food you nibble before going to sit at the dining table. Hors d’oeuvre often accompany a before-dinner drink, termed in French an “apéritif”. The business of preparing and serving food commercially in French is “restauration” (restoration or rehabilitation). The place where that takes place is, no kidding, the “restaurant”.

Here’s a nice summer-time (or any-time) starter course of California origin, whatever French or American term you want for it. (It could also serve as a light lunch.) I developed it based on a “salad” dish I had in Santa Monica at a friend’s favorite neighborhood deli, a place full of gorgeous and creative dishes. It’s a fruit-laced tuna concoction stuffed into tomatoes, but if the tuna is broken up a little finer and made slightly moister, this also spreads well on crackers or cucumber slices or into a sandwich.

Tomatoes Stuffed with Fruited Tuna Salad Tim (Serves 6 generously as an appetizer, or use for sandwiches)
2 (6-ounce) cans solid white tuna (in water rather than oil)
1/3 cup finely chopped (1/4-inch) Granny Smith apple, including the peel
2 tablespoons dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
2 green onions, green part included, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon horseradish
1-1/2 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
A small pinch of grated nutmeg (optional, but delicious)
2 generous squirts of hot pepper sauce or a pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons mayonnaise, more for a sandwich spread (‘real’ type is best)
Salt to taste
6 medium-large tomatoes for stuffing
Drain the tuna. Break it up coarsely (finer if for a spread) in a bowl, using a fork. Chop the apple and cranberries, slice the green onions, and add to the tuna. Add horseradish, vinegar or lemon juice, pepper, nutmeg if used, hot sauce or cayenne, sour cream, mayonnaise and a generous sprinkle of salt. Mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary, plus a little more vinegar or lemon juice if desired. Let sit to season for a half hour or more, and up to several days in the refrigerator. Mix again and taste, adjusting salt if needed. Stuff into hollowed out tomatoes for appetizer, salting inside the tomatoes lightly before stuffing. Or serve a scoop of the mixture on a lettuce leaf as the appetizer course. Alternatively serve with crackers, sliced French bread, toast points, or on cucumber slices as finger-food hors d’oeuvre. The mixture can also be used for croissant or regular bread sandwiches.