Thursday, March 27, 2014

The saddest cookbook in the world?

The Golden Age Cookbook: The Key to Happier and Healthier Golden Years
By Phyllis MacDonald Doubleday & Company 1961.

Don't bother opening me. I'll just bring you down.
Just in case the recent hint of Spring in the air was cheering you all up, The Golden Age Cookbook is here to bring you back down. From the gray-blue cover with its sad wheat ring to its mildly condescending tone this book just screams "Give up!" Well, actually, it more whispers in a despairing tone: "just give…up." While I believe the designer was aiming for dignified, the result 40 years later is just depressing.

According to the jacket copy, this is the first cookbook designed for older people. If that is the case, I applaud MacDonald for seeing a need and tying to fulfill it. Cookbooks for special diets and special populations are now a popular niche, but I can imagine that at some point they would have been innovative. A Kirkus Review entry from the time points out that the book serves a real need. But at least today we acknowledge that people with special needs still have full lives.

MacDonald begins with a list of do's and don'ts--helpfully reproduced on the back cover. The first one is the tip that sold me on the book: "Have at least one hot food at every meal." This made me laugh and shudder at the same time. And a reaction like that means I need to own that book!

As for the recipes, they are a mix of convenience foods and simple cooked meals. Considering the 1961 vintage, the use of canned soups and the like is actually restrained and perhaps realistic, in that it allows for its readers to purchase parts of their meals.

This is clearly a dietician's book obsessed with nutrients over flavor, but its woefully inadequate seasonings (there is little called for besides salt, pepper, paprika, and dried parsley) are also a function of its time and place--America before the ethnic food boom, before hippies and back-to-the-land (at least the 60s version) and before Julia Child had us all hooked on something better than Dried Beef Sandwiches and Baked Stuffed Franks.

Some gems:

Surprise Tomato Meatballs with Steamed Rice The surprise is a can of V8!

Deviled Ham French Toast I admit I am both repelled by and drawn to this idea.

Oyster Milk Toast Evaporated milk, canned oysters and toast.

Escalloped Macaroni and Tuna Tuna, noodles, cream of celery soup, pimento and American cheese. There's just something about tuna in these older books that makes my skin crawl. And I like tuna!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sap season

I have a minor leaning toward learning to live off the grid. I love the Foxfire series of books and the idea of DIY projects like creating a pergola out of repurposed rebar. However, I am not that interested in actually doing the projects--work, friends, books, and other fun gets in the way. Plus, being raised by handy people in farm country teaches you early just how much work is involved in pioneer activities. Thank God for the Rototiller and running water. I may not get any projects done, but my back is still in good shape.
Last of the 2013 vintage. Note I failed to filter it.
But I do like complex cooking/food projects. A couple of years ago I noticed the local natural parks and historic sites were all offering demonstrations on how maple syrup is made. Which got me thinking about the maples around me. Were they sugar maples? Could I get something out of them?

I had always heard/assumed that you could only do sugaring if you had a lot of trees and a sugar shack and boiler, etc. That is, it was a job for professionals. But when a friend showed up for brunch one day with a jar of homemade syrup from her old farmer neighbor, I got interested. A little poking around county extension web sites and I found it was a pretty simple process. The hard part of the information gathering was trying to find instructions for the really small-time hobbyist.

The upshot is that this is the 4th year we've tapped my parents' trees. We don't get a lot of syrup, but it's fun to do and makes me feel like I am getting something for nothing. Plus, we can taste the changes in the syrup as the season goes on, not to mention how it varies from other local producers.

We tapped a little late this year. I don't know what kind of harvest to expect given the unusually harsh winter. But it's nice to go out and check on the trees, see how the sap is running, and listen to the birds chatter at you.

And this is perhaps the ultimate in cook's treats--drinking off a cup of the fresh sap. It's a serious spring tonic when slugged from the collecting jug while surrounded by snow on a sunny day in late February. Crystal clear like spring water, you can taste the light sweetness of sap--but it doesn't just taste like sugared water. There are very slight notes of fruit, flowers, and minerals. I have to stop myself from just drinking it all. Much like when you go berry picking, you have to stop eating the berries already and put some in the bucket.

Most of the homegrown syrup is destined for pancakes, but I like to make buckwheat crepes with sautéed apples at least once--the delicacy of home syrup can really shine through.

Morning Food by Margaret S. Fox and John Bear of Mendocino's Café Beaujolais (Ten Speed Press, 1990) has a recipe that I've been tempted to try for hot cereal cooked in sap. I'm sure it's good, but I don't love hot cereal enough to use the sap on it. Morning Food is a great book that I often flip through on Saturdays for some breakfast inspiration. Café Beaujolais seems like an ideal mix of California's natural foods and indulgent eating. There are Morning Glory Muffins and Waffles with Smoked Turkey Sauce and Birchard Soaked Oats. I always imagine a sun-soaked room with lots of wood and the smell of coffee when I read this book.

I also have The Sugar Bush Connection by Beatrice Ross Buszeck (Nimbus Publishing, 1982), a charming hand lettered book of maple sugar/syrup recipes that I picked up on a glorious lobster- and lupine-filled trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada. This is a book for people overwhelmed with syrup. Many recipes would simply cost too much for most people to make, but I love the ingenuity of these cold-country cooks determined to use up something so hard-won. Her recipe for Spring Tonic sounds like it will cure anything that ails you: 

Spring Tonic
¼ c. maple syrup
¼ c. lime juice
1 c. light rum
1 c. ginger ale

Combine and stir well. Pour over crushed ice. Serving size is not indicated, but I am assuming 1-4 depending on you guests' tolerances for grog.

And in late breaking news. I spotted this at my local health food store (go Arbor Farms!): commercial Maple Tree Water. I don't know whether to be appalled or impressed with their entrepreneurial energy. But this is America, and if you can dream it you can sell it.

It's called sap, people

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

RIP Fat Lady

Food: What We Eat and How We Eat It
By Clarissa Dickson Wright Ebury Press 1999

I was saddened to learn of the death of Clarissa Dickson Wright. As part of the Two Fat Ladies, she and Jennifer Paterson were a hoot to watch riding around the English countryside by motorcycle and sidecar, cooking in improbable locations including boarding schools and army barracks, and quipping bons mots as they basted everything in butter and lard.
Treasure is inside here!

Though they were criticized for their liberal use of fat, I found it historically accurate considering the origins of many of their recipes. They relished the old ways of cooking, of grand dinners, and hunt breakfasts, and the more obscure bits of game cookery. No one cooks like that anymore, though you can see echoes of it in the nose-to-tail trend of today.

It was also refreshing to see two such real, earthy characters on television. This was back in the day when the Food Network was an upstart channel that would throw just about anything on and see if it would stick. A far cry from the slick package we see today--including a show that shows the selecting and packaging of the next food "star." I'm sorry, but I don't think you can manufacture personality.

And Dickson Wright was a personality. Many of the obituaries called her a real English eccentric. And maybe she was, but I think that is reductive. I think she was in on the game and well knew her entertainment value. But she always came across as genuine, intelligent, and witty. I would have loved to have had a meal with her.

Surprisingly, I don't have a Fat Ladies cookbook. But I do have Dickson Wright's anthology Food: What We Eat and How We Eat. It is a collection of favorite food writings in an A-to-Z format (the librarian in me approves). Each entry is introduced by Dickson Wright and you can hear her rich voice by turns informative, amused, vitriolic, and nostalgic.

The cover is pleasant but a bit bland, with no hint of the quirky visual collection inside. The images include standard photos, of course, but also  many period illustrations from advertisements, books, paintings, cartoons, etc.

The entries range over the 20th century and include the expected: breakfast; junk food; haute cuisine and the unexpected: iguana; pong (as in odors not as in Atari); and ubiquitous. By covering the century, the reader gets a sense of the massive changes that occurred in food and cooking during that time, especially from the upheaval of the World Wars, with its changes to the class structure, the role of women, and the shrinking of the British Empire.

I'll end with this passage from the introduction:

"I have tried to capture here all these rites of passage. Food has become the new rock 'n' roll, and is commemorated in song, humour and wit, if not on the table. When I was young people spoke of food being replaced by a pill--and so far they have got that very wrong."

Thank goodness, Clarissa. And thank you for your writing, cooking, and spirit.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pie Manifesto

I want to talk to you about something serious now. Something that weighs on me. Something that everyone likes to eat but no one likes to make. We need to talk to about pie.

I make a good pie. I still occasionally dream about the best cherry pie I have ever made or ate. It was 10 years ago. Somehow I had managed the perfect synthesis of cherries, nutmeg, sugar and pastry. We all shut up while eating it and kind of curled our left hands around our plates, prison style. I didn't even tell my brother that the pie was in the house.

Today's world of boxed pies promises so much but delivers so little. Even very good pie purveyors are just ok compared to a well-cooked homemade pie. And here is why: Pie is ephemeral and maddening and different every time. You have to adjust on the fly and accept that inconsistency is part of the deal.

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Carl Sagan
I have rules about pie.

Pie rule #1

Freshness is everything. No matter how good the ingredients, technique or decoration, pie is not cake. Time does it no favors. Pulling a pie out of the oven is like pulling the pin on a slow-moving grenade. You have a window--and it ain't 3 days. It's a few hours.  Of course, if that's not enough complication for you, a fruit pie needs to cool first--which also takes time. But for the best set you need a room temp or just barely skin temperature pie.

So when someone asks me to make a pie, my first question for them is "When are you going to eat it?"

Pie rule #2

Cook the damn thing! Most pies, commercial or homemade--even in beautiful magazine spreads, look woefully underdone to me. Most commercial ones are underdone--probably because they encourage customers to re-warm them and it gives a little wiggle room on the browning. But I suspect that Hostess and the like have so degraded our sense of what pie should be that we have become accustomed to pallid, doughy crusts. Many recipes call for a mere 45 minutes of bake time. I routinely go over an hour in baking. The fruit can bubble up (one so-called sign of doneness) pretty quickly, but if the crust is not baked, the pie is not done. If you want a flaky pie, you need to keep cooking. I look for a friable texture on the top crust; actually touch the pie lightly to feel it. It should feel flaky.

I am not alone in these feelings about pie. A Hungarian chef I had the pleasure of dining with once barely repressed a shudder at the thought of pie--he clearly had been badly burned. And John Thorne in Outlaw Cook has a great essay on inferior pie and why it exists.

Pie rule #3

Use butter. Not margarine or olive oil or anything healthy. Butter is what the pie wants and it's what you want too. Using a small amount of shortening (1/4 c. for a 2 crust pie) will give you a bit of insurance against overworking the dough. After cutting in the butter, do not overprocess. My flakiest doughs look almost like a mosaic of dough and butter when I role them out. Lard crusts are good for savory pies, like chicken, but I find the bacon-y top notes clash with any fruit other than apple.

Taste the filling--adjust sugar, spice, and lemon juice to the fruit. Yes, it will be different every time. Accept it as part of the process of pie.

Pie rule #4

And finally, don't forget to have pie for breakfast the next day. While most "cook's treats" come during the cooking process and before serving, this is one worth the wait. The pie will have lost some of it's freshness and crispness, but there is something both decadent and nourishing about having a slice of cherry or blueberry pie in a cool kitchen before anyone else is up that soothes the soul. Plus, you will be upholding a grand American tradition. If Daniel Webster hopes there's pie for breakfast--shouldn't you?

Books I use to make my pies:

Julia Child's The Way to Cook  Her pâte brisée is my go-to crust. I have it memorized.

Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book  The 1961 edition has good ratios of fruit to sugar for many kinds of pie and sizes of pie plates. I use these ratios as a starting point. The new editions are useless, IMO.

John Thorne's Outlaw Cook A great book of food writing, the essay on pie dramatically improved my pecan pie recipe when I realized I could make a less sweet pie simply by doubling the amount of pecans.

Cook's Illustrated has a technique for thickening pies with Minute tapioca that works well for fruit pies. I have the original magazine, but I am sure it is in some of their books as well as on their paid website.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dreaming of Spring

How to Eat: The Pleasure and Principle of Good Food
by Nigella Lawson
John Wiley & Sons 2000

It's been over 10 weeks since there wasn't snow on the ground and I am ready to crack. Growing up in Michigan, I am used to a real winter, but this has one truly has been brutal with more snow and more cold days than I remember since I was in elementary school.

I am sick of seeing only white and gray outside. I need some green. And if I can't see it outside, then maybe I can at least eat something green. The seed catalogs have been piling up and I just sorted and tabulated the seeds leftover from last year, so I have gardening on the brain.

Perhaps it is foolhardy to look at veggie catalogs and dream of tomatoes and zucchini that you will not be able to eat for 5 more months, but those catalog writers know what they are doing and they are torturing me.
In response, I have been craving spring vegetables including peas, asparagus, and artichokes. Having just seen Nigella Lawson wrapping up the latest season of the Taste, I remembered that she's a pea-lover and a fun and interesting read.

How to Eat is one of Nigella's more substantial books with no glamor shots of the author and a high text-to-recipe ratio. It is a primer of sort; she works seriously at getting readers to think about cooking as well as teaching basic skills. There are no photos of the food, which may be a detraction in a book for beginners, but it clearly didn't bother me as I didn't even notice the lack of photos until I sat down to write this.

She has several recipes that involve peas, and she points out how useful frozen peas are. I love Nigella, because despite the recent kerfuffle over her lifestyle with the thousand dollar dresses and the expensive drug habit, she really is not a snob at all when it comes to food. She's practical when she needs to be and indulgent when she wants to be.

While I have made her Peas and Avocado Salad before, this time out I made her Pea Risotto. What drew me to the recipe was the use of pea puree in the risotto as well as whole peas--it turns the whole risotto a pale green. Plus, I also happened to have some of the recommended ham stock on hand:

Pea Risotto

4 Tbs butter
1 cup frozen young peas
4 cups ham stock
2 Tbs grated Parmesean
black pepper
2 shallots or 1 small onion, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
½ c. white wine or vermouth

Now, Nigella is a bit wordy in this book, and while I love reading that type of recipe, I don't enjoy typing it out, so I am going to paraphrase. If you are uncertain about risotto making procedures, then I encourage you to seek out the original recipe as she does a good job of walking one through the process. But here is the quick version:

Melt 1 Tbs of butter in a sauce pan and add the peas. Cook for 2 minutes. Remove half of the peas and reserve. To the remaining peas add a ladle of stock (about ½ c.).  Cover and cook for 5 minutes until the peas are soft, but still green. Puree the mixture with 1 Tbs of cheese and 1 Tbs of butter, a little black pepper and a little nutmeg. Set aside.

In a heavy pan, melt 1 Tbs of butter and cook the shallots for about 4 minutes until softened. Then add the rice, stirring to coat with the fat. Add the wine and let the rice absorb it. After that, add the stock in ½ cup increments until the rice is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes--you may need more or less stock. Add the reserved peas and pea puree. Turn off the heat. Taste, add salt and pepper if needed (you may not if you use ham stock) and then stir in the remaining butter and Parmesean. I find all risottos benefit from a little 5-minute rest before serving.

Serves 4 as a side dish; 2 as a main dish if you are not greedy. The color is glorious and the taste is of spring. Not bad Nigella! Too bad we ate it all before I thought of taking a picture.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The New Basics

 The New Basics
By Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Workman Publishing 1989

I loved the Silver Palate books back in the day--they conjured up a lifestyle of sophisticated little parties that weren't stuffy, but fun! Where people actually paid attention to the food! And every day was an excuse to entertain. I don't know why this so appealed to me then--I did not become an adult who entertains regularly--and certainly not with theme evenings.

I realized I hadn't looked (or cooked) from any of the Rosso and Lukins oeuvre in years. When I thought of them at all it was with a slight whiff of embarrassment--and a vague memory that there was some sort of unpleasantness about them.

Some leftover marinated artichokes got me to pull this one off the shelf. I used to make Pasta Sauce Raphael all the time in college and I thought it was time to revisit one of the biggest cookbooks of the 80s.

The first thing I noticed--what great design. They really did change cookbook design--and for the better. The blend of graphics and text are just jubilant--it shows the fun cooking can be. 
When bad things happen to good books
My second thought--the recipes hold up (even if the binding didn't.)  Rosso and Lukins now look prescient to me in their incorporation of ethnic ingredients as part of everyday cooking. Younger readers may not remember a world in which enoki mushrooms, pomegranate juice, and dried cherries could only be found in specialty stores. And pesto could not be found at all. Think about that people--a world in which there was no pesto. Unless you were lucky enough to have a Ligurian grandmother who grew her own basil.

Now, maybe they went a little too far--became a little too trendy. For a while there you couldn't get away from the pesto and the sun-dried tomatoes, and the oh-so-new-but-not-at-all-new use of fruit with savory dishes. And they certainly launched the whole buy-it-rather-than-make-it phenomenon in this country--that was the genesis of the original Silver Palate store.

But I forgive them all that and suggest you dust this one off of your shelf. The New Basics is a good primer on how to cook a whole heap of food--without making it feel like drudgery. The directions are clear, as a primer should be, and just reading it will educate your palate. And I will definitely be looking at this one again the next time I need to bring a dish--it has tons of great party ideas.

Now as for the discomfort--I did a little digging around and found that there was some serious unpleasantness between the two when they broke up the band. Google "Silver Palate feud" and you'll see what I mean. Somehow, I let the memory of that color my impression of their actual work, which stands tall on its own.

Pasta Sauce Raphael My Way
Adapted from The New Basics by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins

There are many copies of the original available online. I make mine a little differently and in a smaller quantity. I also use less oil, since the marinade is basically oil. I'm not a big fan of oregano so I leave that out and I only use a bit of pepper.  I also chop up the artichoke for better distribution. You can play around with the amount of chokes. Last time I made it, I had only ¾ of a jar of artichokes and ½ a quart of home canned tomatoes. Came out fine. Note that the taste will change depending on the brand of marinated artichokes. I find some are sweeter than others.

1 jar marinated artichokes in oil
2 tsp. olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
½ tsp dried basil
few twists of pepper
½  to 1 quart of canned tomatoes, squish down the tomatoes with a spoon if whole.
2 Tbs grated Parmesean, plus more for serving
2 Tbs chopped parsley

Drain the chokes, reserving marinade, and roughly chop them.

Heat the marinade in a saucepan. Add the onions. and garlic and cook over medium high, until most of the liquid from the marinade has evaporated and the onions and garlic are soft. Add tomatoes, basil, and pepper. Rosso and Lukins call for a ½ tsp. of salt. I can't even imagine how salty that would be, so proceed with that at your own risk.

Simmer for 15-30 minutes, depending how loose your tomatoes are and how thick you want your sauce.

Add artichokes and Parmesean and simmer another 5 minutes. Stir in parsley once off heat and serve over pasta with more grated Parm.

Serving size--one very hungry person without any sides. Can serve two if you round it out into a proper meal with salad and bread.

I think this would also be good turned into a casserole and topped with some melty cheese.