Saturday, October 28, 2006

Move over, Red... Blond Chili is here

In Boston a few weeks ago, a friend of my daughter and son-in-law who likes to cook mentioned he was entering a chili cook-off. I asked what his “hook” was. To win you have to have something different, catchy. Something cute to get you noticed. Good old “Three-Alarm Chili” bores judges. You have to have ostrich or maybe reindeer chili with chipotle, that sort of thing.

I once won a contest in Athens for my “red and black” (for UGA, of course) turkey chili with black beans in the “unusual” category. But it turned out every single entry won something. And the contest, organized by my Athens son-in-law, turned out to be his way of scoring free food to serve the volunteers on their Recognition Day at the nature center where he was the volunteer coordinator with a small budget.

To this friend of L&J in Boston I suggested a white chili, for example with turkey, white beans, no tomato or red chile powder, and cream. He made a more traditional chili full of fine beef. And got lost in the shuffle. So, since he didn't do it, here’s my entry. I think it’s exciting and delicious, hook or no hook. A more objective guinea pig, André, who tried it today said it was excellent. Of course, the day was cold and wet and he was working for me in the yard pulling weeds and raking leaves and got to take a break for free hot food. But seriously, this one is joining my repertoire. Now I need a chili cook-off to enter it in.

Note: The heat comes from habañero peppers, which are among the hottest in the world, over 200,000 Scoville units (jalapeños, by comparison, range up to 8,000 Scoville units).
One small habañero makes a whole pot of zesty “one alarm chili”
Two make “two alarm chili”
Three make “prairie fire chili”
Four make “emergency room chili”.

Blond Chili (Chile Blanco) Tim
(serves 4-6)

1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
2 thick or 3 thin slices hickory-smoked bacon, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 small whole orange habañero chile pepper, or more to taste
1 pound ground turkey, chicken, or pork
Water as needed
1-1/4 teaspoons salt
2 (16-ounce) cans navy or great northern beans, drained and rinsed
3/4 cup sour cream
Grated “queso blanco” (Mexican style crumbling cheese) for topping
Coarsely chopped cilantro for topping

Fry the onion, bacon, and olive oil together until the onion is softened and just beginning to turn golden. Lower the heat and add the garlic and the four spices plus the habañero pepper, and stir and fry gently one minute. Add the ground meat, raise the heat again, and break up the meat as it fries. When the raw color is fully gone, add a quarter cup of water, and simmer covered until the meat is becoming tender. Add a bit of water as needed, so there is always a little liquid with the meat. Mix in the salt. Add the drained and rinsed beans, and heat together about five minutes. Taste and season with salt if needed. Stir in the sour cream and simmer a few more minutes. Taste one last time for salt and add a little if needed. It’s best to make the chili ahead and store it to let the flavors mellow. Reheat to serve. Sprinkle generously with grated cheese and chopped cilantro.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The World's Best Red Cabbage

In a college cafeteria (sigh) many years ago I had an exciting dish that permanently changed my view of cabbage. Called “Belgian Red Cabbage”, this previously low vegetable was braised with apples and was sort of sweet and sour. Over the years (while I came to recognize that green cabbage can be elegant if fixed right, too), I’ve learned that red cabbage with apples is not just Belgian, but is also German and appears in many northern and central European cuisines. Traditionally it is an autumn and winter specialty, given when the key ingredients are available, and accompanies rich meat dishes. In Berlin one December I had it with fragrant roast goose and potato dumplings – at a Czech restaurant.

Through trial and error I’ve arrived at my favorite rendering of red cabbage. It has a gorgeous ruby color, tangy sweetness, and warming fragrances of orange and spices. I do not use oil or fat in the cabbage (where do you find goose grease these days, anyway?) so it’s even healthy as well as beautiful. The cabbage is best made ahead, allowed to mellow, and reheated to serve.

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage with Apple (Rotkohl mit Apfel) Tim

1 medium red cabbage
1 large apple
4-inch strip of orange zest, peeled from an organic or well-scrubbed orange
10 whole allspice berries
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Salt to taste
1/2 cup water
4 tablespoons cider vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar

Quarter the cabbage, cut out and discard the core. Shred cabbage finely. Peel, quarter, and core the apple and chop the quarters into small pieces. In a stainless steel or enamel (not aluminum or cast iron) pot bring the cabbage, apples, orange peel, allspice, pepper, about 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 cup water to a boil. Simmer, covered, stirring from time to time until cabbage is tender and the apple has broken up (about 20 min). Remove orange peel plus the allspice berries as you see them. Add the vinegar and sugar plus salt to taste. Simmer about 5 minutes, then taste and readjust sugar, vinegar, and salt. The color will become a bright crimson red. The flavor should be delicately sweet-sour. The dish is best if made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated to serve. Recheck the salt before serving.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A True, Delicious Transylvanian Dish for Halloween

I first encountered this fabulous traditional pork dish at one of my favorite eating places when I was a medical student. The “Budapest Restaurant” in New Haven was run by a mother and daughter who had been refugees from Hungary after the revolt against the Soviets was crushed in the 50s. Their specialties, some of which I can virtually still taste 40 years after I enjoyed them, was topped by what they called “Transylvanian Goulash”, or in Magyar, Székely Gulyas. Because it really is Transylvanian, I am sharing it here shortly before Halloween.

Hallowe’en (meaning in Old English the “Eve of All Hallows” -- the night before All Saints Day, which is Nov. 1 in the Roman Catholic calendar) is an early Christian festival with many pagan overtones, but is not particularly associated with Transylvania. However, with ghosts and goblins and vampires now part of secular, Hollywoodsy, American Halloween, Transylvania creeps in because of its unfortunate historical connection with Vlad Tepes Dracula (“the Impaler”), a ruthless Romanian despot whose grisly signature was slowly skewering his many enemies upright on huge sharpened poles. He may be the origin of the bloody vampire legends, but more importantly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Victorian novel “Dracula”, which was set in Transylvania.

Transylvania (Latin for “across the woods”), a multi-ethnic, multi-religious province for a thousand years, was part of Hungary until the early 20th Century, when after World War I it was ceded to Romania. The ancient province was repeatedly ethnically cleansed in the 20th century, losing the Jews and Gypsies under the Nazis, then the Saxon-Germans who were expelled after World War II, and many ethnic Hungarians since. The wonderful Székely Gulyas is named for the Seklers, later called the Székelys, a term applied to descendents of one the ancient Hungarian immigrant tribes who settled in Transylvania.

What distinguishes this dish from more typical Hungarian goulashes or stews is that it is made with pork, it contains sauerkraut, and it has sour cream stirred in at the end. The flavor is richly intense yet refined, as if all the stronger flavors marry into each other. It should be accompanied with something mild flavored as a foil, such as boiled potatoes or noodles, not with anything complicated that would clash. A simple salad on the side and warm crusty bread (black rye bread in central Europe) are all that this one needs. A cold fruity white wine with a little acidity, like a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling, or a good hoppy beer like Pilsner Urquell or Sam Adams, would accompany this dinner to advantage.

Transylvanian Goulash “Budapest Restaurant” (Székely Gulyas)

1 large onion, diced
2 strips bacon, finely diced
2 pounds lean pork (from shoulder or “butt”), in 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon marjoram or oregano
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds, bruised with a mallet or rolling pin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste (or 2 tablespoons ketchup)
1 (28-ounce) can shredded sauerkraut*, juice well squeezed out
Salt to taste
1/2 cup sour cream mixed with 1 tablespoon flour

In a heavy pot (stainless steel or enamel, not iron) gently fry the diced onion and bacon until limp and beginning to turn golden. Add the pork, raise the heat, and stir frequently until the meat has lost its raw pink color. Reduce the heat again and stir in the next five spices and herbs. After several minutes, as the mixture is becoming fragrant, add the tomato paste and enough water to come just below the surface of the meat. Simmer, stirring occasionally for 1/2 hour. Add the well squeezed sauerkraut, plus enough water to moisten. Simmer another half hour, stirring occasionally, or until the meat is tender. During this cooking, taste and begin adding salt, as needed. When the meat is done, check again for salt, and adjust. Then stir in the sour cream-flour mixture. Let simmer, with frequent stirring 5 minutes. The flavor is mellower if the goulash made in advance and reheated briefly before serving. Taste, and adjust salt if necessary. Serve with parsleyed boiled potatoes or noodles.

*If using fresh, uncanned sauerkraut, rinse it with water then squeeze it out, and add it earlier in the cooking process, just after the tomato paste and water are added to the pork.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Crazy: Bourbon and Coke Marinade

It’s harder to spot insanity in public these days. The person talking to himself and gesturing at thin air may not actually be in mid hallucination but rather has on the other side one of those hideous phone buds protruding from his ear like a metallic tumor. Either way, he’s one to avoid.

A seemingly crazy idea, seasoning serious food with Coca Cola, has been around in Georgia for a long time. I’m not aware that cooking with Coke has ever really been in vogue, but rather it’s a sort of low-grade perennial. Coke of course was the mixer for rum in the old “Cuba Libre” until Cuba was no longer libre. And half-strength Coke was a Southern country remedy for vomiting and diarrhea for decades. But these potions, one for social lubrication and one for the reverse, aren’t what I mean. There are actually family recipes for pot roast simmered in Coke (along with the ubiquitous onion soup mix) and for Coke in cakes and barbecue sauce. Many of these, I’m confident, have graced Wednesday night church suppers. Though probably not the Cuba Libres.

Being a Georgian, at least by adoption, and living in Atlanta in the belly of the Coca Cola beast, I couldn’t resist trying this venerable extract in cooking. After all, Coke has spices (cinnamon, among others, seems to be in its fragrance), citrus, caramel color, sweetness, and mild acidity, all of which are certainly used in cooking. It also has caffeine from (or at least in memory of) the COLA nut that is part of the drink’s name. (The other original ingredient that influenced the name, cocaine (from COCA leaf), was removed in the 19th century before Coke emerged from being a dubious regional “tonic” into the universal drink that made Atlanta and many Atlantans rich and built a major university and school of theology.)

Below is my “contribution” to culinary Coke lore, enhanced by another Southern favorite, bourbon, plus some other things to create those “layers” of flavor that foodies rhapsodize over. This goes well, in my opinion at least, as a marinade for chicken for the grill or broiler, but also for pork tenderloin or ribs and for salmon. Let the meat or fish marinate for at least two hours, but preferably for eight or more before grilling or roasting. For barbecued spare ribs, before marinating simmer the ribs in lightly salted water until tender. Drain (save water for great soup stock), and then marinate the ribs for a number of hours before grilling.

Coca-Cola Bourbon Marinade Tim (enough for 2 pounds of meat or fish)

1/2 cup Coca Cola
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon molasses or 2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Large pinch cayenne or a few squirts hot pepper sauce
1 small-medium clove garlic, minced or put through a press

Mix all ingredients well. Marinate pieces of chicken (leg or thigh are juicier), pork tenderloin, pre-boiled spare ribs, or salmon for at least two hours before grilling or roasting.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Easy Delicious Apple "Pie" (or Torte), but is it Swedish?

I’ve been making, and occasionally teaching, a wonderful apple and nut torte that became a repertoire item of several medical student friends who like to cook. It is shamelessly simple, has no crust, and you virtually throw everything into the dish and bake.

And it’s not “mine”. Rather it’s something I adapted from a “Swedish Apple Pie” learned from my sister-in-law Carol, and called it “torte” since it is not a pie in the traditional sense. But who knows if it is actually Swedish. My sister-in-law, who grew up in Massachusetts, has Japanese and German ancestry on her father’s side and her mother is from Vienna. No Swedish there.

I have not found anything like it as a Swedish dish in the eight Swedish and Scandinavian cookbooks I consulted. (Swedish “apple cake” repeatedly shows up, but it’s made typically with zwieback or rusk crumbs, and very different from the dessert we’re discussing.) On the other hand some internet searching reveals dozens of basically similar American recipes for “Swedish Apple Pie” which are characterized by no pie crust, a simple batter spread on top of sliced apples in a pie pan and topped with nuts. None of those show a credible connection with Sweden. In fact one Swedish cookbook viewed on line attributed a similar recipe to Switzerland.

But who cares? With an easy, almost fool-proof, yet totally rich and luscious dessert made with the apples which are now plentiful, just worry about how good the vanilla ice cream or the fresh whipped cream is that you eat with it and not where the torte originated. For greatest elegance and to care even less, make heavy whipped cream, beating in a little powdered sugar, and then at the end fold in – don't beat in – a little dark rum or bourbon.

“Swedish” Apple and Nut “Torte” Carol

4-5 cooking apples (Rome or Granny Smith), peeled, cored, in 1/2-inch slices
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/3 cup butter, unsalted preferred
1/3 cup oil
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
Large pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch pie pan.

Put the apples in the pie dish as you slice them. Mix the tablespoon of sugar with the cinnamon and grated lemon zest. Sprinkle it evenly over the apples. Melt the butter (in a glass or stainless steel bowl in the microwave, for example -- yes, you can use a stainless steel bowl in a microwave). Add the oil, flour, sugar, egg, salt, and nuts. Stir with a fork until combined. Spoon the batter over the apples, and spread it out evenly.

Bake for about 50 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature, either alone or topped by whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.