Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pork braised with Surprizing Fruit

A reader of my column accidentally challenged me to create an unusual dish when he referred to the paper I publish in as the "Athens Banana-Herald."

Bananas are used in plenty of sweet dishes from fruit salad to fried bananas to banana bread and, of course, banana cream pie. But what about savory dishes?

I'm not referring to plantains, which must be cooked and are often part of savory dishes, particularly in tropical countries. I was challenged to cook with the sweet, tender fruit that are usually eaten raw.

I checked my fruit cookbooks then online for savory recipes made with bananas, and only found a couple of random stews from places like Sri Lanka. There are also some chutneys made from bananas to accompany curries.

So at that fairly vague starting point, I sought to make a spicy, though not exactly curry-like dish with the meat that seems to cook best with fruit, pork.

My trial produced a dish I quite like. We ate it with brown rice. I need to experiment with it more to see what the possibilities are. It seems most suited for rice as an accompaniment.

I haven't figured out what wines might go, but a rich white wine with at least some acidity would be where I'd start, maybe an Albariño or Chenin Blanc or Viognier.

The recipe will serve six or more.

Pork braised with Banana and Apple

2 1/2 pounds lean pork (butt or country "ribs") in 1 1/2-inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil or rendered pork fat
1 medium onion, diced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 bananas, peeled and sliced
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut up
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups water

In heavy Dutch oven or casserole, fry pork, half at a time until seared on the outside.

With all the meat back in the pot, add and fry onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until onions soften.

Reduce heat and add spices and herbs. Fry, stirring frequently, 2 minutes.

Add bananas, apples, salt and water. Simmer, covered, but stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pot, until pork is tender and fruits have fully broken down. The sauce becomes a little stickier after the fruit disintegrates. Add a little water if sauce is too thick.

Taste as the mixture cooks and add a little salt, if needed.

Homemade cranberry sauce a simple task

Throughout my childhood, my mother made her own cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner. Everything else for that holiday feast, and for most of her dinners, she also cooked from scratch.

To my mother, the boring canned, aspic-like cranberry sauce, which I secretly liked back then, was worthy of the cafeteria steam-table. And we didn’t spend money in those days on “eating out.”

Mum made the classic whole-berry sauce, the one on the Ocean Spray package: boil one cup sugar, one cup water and one bag of berries until berries pop.

The recipe on the Ocean package remains the same. However, the bag that once held a pound of berries has shrunk over the years to contain a mere 12 ounces. Thus the proportions of sugar, water and cranberries in the classical sauce changed.

But no matter. I have edged beyond my mother’s formulas on many dishes, including cranberry sauce.

I typically slip in other ingredients and seasonings to heighten flavors and effects.

Cranberries are a modest, if widespread, woodland and marshland berry. Like their cousins the lingonberries (of Swedish and Ikea fame), cranberries are firm, sour crimson fruits from dwarf-growing bushes or swamp-growing vines indigenous to colder latitudes in North America and Europe.

They are distant relatives of blueberries and huckleberries.

Native peoples have gathered cranberries as food for centuries. In the wild, cranberries are a favorite of bears (how cool is that) but birds, squirrels and chipmunks also eat them.

The fruits are cultivated in watery bogs in a number of U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

As a teenager I saw cranberries growing nearly wild in a small wetland on an old Central Connecticut farm.

Native Americans combined unsweetened cranberries with venison to make their dried pemmican.

The fruits nowadays usually are prepared with sugar to balance their tart taste and mild tannic bitterness.

As sauce, cranberries accompany meats, particularly turkey. Thanksgiving turkey in North America and Christmas turkey in England virtually demand cranberry sauce. Similarly, in Scandinavia, lingonberry sauce traditionally enhances reindeer steak and Swedish meatballs.

Yet sauce is an infrequent use of cranberries, having long been overtaken by cranberry juice and dried, sweetened cranberries. The one-time specialty fruit now is big business.

In addition to their stimulating taste and iconic color, another quality has made cranberries popular in recent decades. The berries, like many red fruits, contain antioxidants, considered beneficial for health.

Here’s my recipe for the sauce. Despite the salt and horseradish, cranberry sauce left over from Thanksgiving dinner goes admirably into “jam” bars and onto Brie or cream cheese for the Christmas party appetizer table.

Make extra. It keeps for weeks in the fridge.

Whole Cranberry Sauce

1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
1 orange, preferably organic
1 cup sugar
7⁄8 cup water
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish

Pick over and rinse cranberries. Set aside to drain.

Rinse and dry orange. With vegetable peeler, cut strips of zest off half of the orange. Place strips in a stainless steel pot along with the juice squeezed from the orange.

Add sugar, water and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes.

Add berries and return to a boil, stirring occasionally. When most of the berries have popped (several minutes), remove from heat. Stir in horseradish.

Let cool. Remove orange zest strips.

The sauce is tastiest if allowed to age for at least a day, refrigerated. It will keep for weeks if stored cold.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Strozzapreti pasta shows wicked Italian humor

The special pasta from North-Central Italy called “strozzapreti” (priest stranglers) is a rolled, then twisted, noodle of irregular length.

Provocatively anticlerical — like some sentiment in Catholic Italy — the name strozzapreti (STROTE-tzuh-PRAY-tee) exemplifies the Italian culinary tradition of fanciful titles for delicious foods.

Consider other pastas like linguine (little tongues), vermicelli (little worms), ziti (bridegrooms) and mostaccioli (little mustaches).

Italy gave the world spaghetti “alla puttanesca” ([filtered word]’s style) and “Fra Diavolo” sauce (addressing the Devil as a Catholic monk).

On the darker side, the small, red-tipped Sicilian cakes “Minne di Sant’Agata” commemorate the severed body parts (I’m not making this up; but I’ll let you do the translation) of Saint Agatha, an early Christian martyr in Sicily who was tortured to death for not giving up her chastity to a lecherous Roman official.

But then, Italy also is where Church tradition designated St. Lawrence as patron saint of chefs.

Laurentius, an educated Roman not known to have cooked, was a third century deacon, friend of the pope and archivist for the early church. Martyred during the Valerian persecution, Laurentius was roasted to death on a gridiron, giving him, apparently, the culinary credentials to become my avocation’s patron saint.

Where were we headed with this? Oh, yes, pasta.

Strozzapreti noodles are hard to find here. But some gourmet shops carry them, as do online vendors — including

However substitutes are available, short of making your own. These include “gemelli” (twins), “campanelle” (little bells) and “rotini” (twists).

Kroger carries more varieties than Publix.

The Dekalb Farmers Market in Decatur sells fresh homemade “radiatori” (little radiators) large enough and complex enough to choke a priest, or maybe even a bishop.

To be fair, they probably could do damage to a minister or rabbi, too.

Strozzapreti is served with a variety of sauces, usually chunky. I’m using a walnut-containing sauce adapted from one created by my daughter and co-restaurateur, Anna.

For Anna’s walnut and kale sauce with gorgonzola (she actually uses blue cheese plus bacon), a medium-bodied dry red wine is the call. Sicilian Nero d’Avola does particularly well. Otherwise, try a Chianti, Tuscan red or Malbec.The recipe serves six.

Walnut, Kale and Gorgonzola Sauce for Strozzapreti Pasta

3⁄4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
8 large leaves curly kale, stems removed, leaves coarsely chopped
1⁄4 teaspoon salt (somewhat less if using bacon)
3⁄4 cup crumbled gorgonzola or 1⁄2 cup blue cheese
1 cup light cream
1⁄2 cup water
3 slices bacon, fried, drained and crumbled (optional)
3⁄4 pound (12 ounces) strozzapreti or other short, twisted pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese for topping, optional

Make sauce before boiling pasta.

Toast walnuts on a plate in microwave, starting with 2 minutes, then 20 seconds at a time until toasted. Or toast them in oven. Set aside.

Heat frying pan to medium hot. Briefly fry garlic in oil, stirring, until fragrant. Add kale. Stir and fry briefly. Add salt plus several tablespoons water. Simmer, covered, until kale becomes tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add toasted walnuts and gorgonzola or blue cheese. Heat to melt cheese, stirring often.

Add cream and water. When mixture bubbles, remove from heat. Add bacon, if used. Taste, and add salt, if needed. Keep warm.

Cook pasta in plenty of boiling, well-salted water, stirring while adding pasta. Boil until just tender to the bite.

Drain and toss with sauce. Top with grated Parmesan, if desired.