The Corn Chronicles

A Story of Corn and Friendship

bowl of cooked corn

If there is one quintessentially American vegetable it would be sweet corn. The French—who eat everything with a knife and fork (including McDonald’s hamburgers)—would scoff at the idea of picking up an ear of corn with two hands and gnawing at it like some old groundhog. (But it would be fun to watch a Frenchman do it!) I’m a Francophile at heart—and have even taken up the practice of eating my hamburger with a knife and fork (egads)—but corn is where we part company.

I love corn and I come from a long line of corn lovers. Born and raised in the Midwest, how could I not be? I can remember driving along the country roads of eastern Ohio with my grandfather who would point out the difference between field corn and sweet corn as we drove. “You see that corn growing by the side of the road?” he would ask. “That’s sweet corn. It’s shorter than field corn and the tassels are finer.”  Then we would pass some field corn and he’d start to quiz me. I got those lessons every time we visited when the corn was in tassel.

For most of us Americans, sweet corn is one of the pleasures of summer. It is something we anticipate eagerly once the weather starts to warm up. It is also something that spawns heated debates among the corn-loving set. If you are a true corn connoisseur, you have an opinion about everything corn: preferred variety, how to cook it, how long to cook it and whether this season’s crop is as good as last year’s.

My maternal grandfather grew sweet corn in his vegetable garden. He grew tomatoes and beans and cucumbers as well. My grandmother was a superb country cook and I looked forward to eating her food whenever we visited. In the summer, she’d make sides of creamed green beans, sliced cucumbers and spring onions dressed with apple cider vinegar, thickly sliced beefsteak tomatoes with salt, and, of course, corn. It was so fresh and such a welcome departure from my mother’s frozen vegetables and tossed salads made with iceberg lettuce and hard, store-bought tomatoes. It always seemed so strange to me that my mother, having grown up eating fresh vegetables, eschewed them in her own kitchen.

Still, when it came to corn, even my mother bought it fresh. In the suburbs of Chicago where I grew up we lived far enough from the city that there were still a few small farms here and there. We bought our corn at Ethel’s farm stand (Ethel no doubt being the farmer’s wife). When the corn started coming in, my sisters and I would pile into the car and we’d drive out to Ethel’s for the corn we would eat that night.

farm stand corn

When we got home, my mother would put the water on to boil and we’d all go out to the patio and shuck the corn. Sometimes one of us would leave too much silk on the corn and our mother would tell us to do it over. In my memory, it seemed like the whole family got into the act, making corn on the cob something of an event at our house.

unhusked corn

The act of eating the corn was its own event. The bowl of steaming ears plucked from the boiling water would arrive at the table and we’d all start grabbing and shouting about how many ears of corn we were planning to eat. And then there would be a mad dash for the butter. (You can’t eat corn without butter and it is best to slather it on while it is still piping hot.) We couldn’t pass the butter fast enough. Or the salt. Butter and salt and corn. Whatever else my mother served along with it was beside the point.

corn with buter

By the time dinner was over, there was little left other than the denuded corn cobs piled up in the serving bowl and a wad of greasy napkins thrown helter-skelter on the table.

Once I moved to New York in my twenties, eating corn in the summer was more problematic. I knew enough about corn to know that the corn you buy in the grocery store or corner market was probably picked days ago. As soon as that corn is picked, the sugars start to break down into starch and after a few days the crunchy sweetness has already given way to something chewy and dull. No self-respecting corn lover is going to eat that corn. I had moved to a corn desert.

Fortunately, I had a friend who hailed from upstate New York and every summer in those early years, a small group of us would make a pilgrimage to her childhood home. Even more fortunately, her mother served us corn.

Ostensibly we made those annual trips to take in a performance of the New York City Ballet at their summer residence in Saratoga Springs, but in truth I suspect we were all looking for a respite from the demands of the city and our nascent adulthood. It was nice to be taken care of by someone’s mother.

Like everything else at that time in my life, my friendship with Lauren was new and evolving. We met through a mutual friend and we had an instant rapport. In the beginning we were bound by our common interest in ballet, our parallel experiences as year abroad students in France and our emerging careers in finance. We took ballet classes together and shared a season’s subscription to the New York City Ballet. I became part of her extended group of friends who had all known each other since high school. I marveled that they had all ended up in the city together and had such a rich history. I felt fortunate to be included.

Those trips upstate were one of the highlights of my summers. There were times when we rented a car and drove, but in the earliest days, we took the Amtrak train from Grand Central to Albany along the Hudson. The tracks hug the river just about all the way up to Albany with breathtaking views of unspoiled escarpments that run along the western side and charming little towns that dot the eastern side. The train ride alone made the trip seem like a big adventure.

We had such fun on those trips. Not only did we go to see a ballet performance, but we often took a day to go to the spas at Saratoga Springs. Back in the 1980s the spas were run by the parks department and they were anything but trendy. They were from another time and badly in need of repair, but we went anyway just for the experience of sitting in a tub of smelly, hot spring water. It was part of our ritual.

In the evenings (if we didn’t go to a ballet performance) we played games around the kitchen table with Lauren’s mom. Boggle and Uno were among our favorites and we played and laughed well into the night. It was fiercely competitive.

On one of my first visits upstate, Lauren’s mom served us fresh corn on the cob for dinner. My corn-loving foundation must have really kicked in. Before you knew it, we got caught up in a debate about whether that year’s corn was as good as the prior year’s, how best to cook it and for how long. I wanted to start an annual video series and call it The Corn Chronicles, which would feature all of us each year opining on the corn.

What made it all so memorable was that Lauren refused to eat any corn at all. We cajoled and teased and practically begged her to take a bite of corn but she would have none of it. Who doesn’t like corn, I wondered. I think I became almost indignant.

There is always a moment when you are first beginning to know someone when you discover that your tastes or values are not completely aligned. It feels jarring at first and—depending on the gravity of the subject—there is a fleeting moment when you wonder if the relationship will go on.

Honestly, I cannot tell you to this day why Lauren doesn’t like corn. She has no doubt told me numerous times, but it hasn’t stuck. It is unfathomable to me that someone would not like corn and so it is better just to tune her out. We both love foie gras and truffles and so I will forgive her for not being a corn enthusiast.

Besides, I won her over on tomatoes when I brought her a beautiful, red, ripe beefsteak from my grandfather’s garden one summer. Like corn, up until then she refused to eat them. But on the strength of a true tomato, grown with love, she has eaten tomatoes ever since.

Of course, over the years our friendship moved past ballet and annual trips upstate New York. And discussions about corn. I was there for her when she had to be hospitalized while pregnant with her second child. I visited her nearly every day for three months, bringing her food from the outside to break up the monotony of institutional cuisine. I was there for her when she got her divorce, patiently talking with her by phone nearly every day in the early stages.

And when my husband and I managed to have our wedding celebration on the night of the great Northeast Blackout of 2003, Lauren was there for me. She drove in to the city from Larchmont because the trains weren’t running and didn’t let a few scary intersections with no traffic lights deter her. She told me nothing was going to stop her from celebrating with us.

Only forty guests out of one hundred made it to our celebration that Thursday night of the blackout in 2003. And Lauren was one of them. She was the only guest who came who was not already in the city at the time of the blackout. She won the prize for most intrepid traveler that night and her effort touched me deeply.

I’m not going to let corn come between us.

Now I live in the Mid-Atlantic in a house that is a mere mile or so from a farmer whose bi-color corn is known far and wide as being the best in the area. My love of corn has grown accordingly.

I may have married a man who only tolerates corn, but his mother is a corn-lover to her bones. Before my in-laws commit to visiting us during the summer, they ask if the corn is abundant and good. We eat it every night of their stay (with plenty of butter). When they are ready to drive back, they stop off at the farm stand as soon as it opens and pack up as much as twelve dozen ears to take back with them so my mother-in-law can cook and freeze them. That’s true corn devotion in my book.

When I met Lauren, I was a solid corn enthusiast, but now I’m a corn snob. If my local farmer has a gap in his harvest and trucks in other local corn to take its place I go without. I tried the Jersey corn he substituted one year and was so disappointed that when there was a sign out last week that read ‘local corn’ I walked away empty-handed and then proceeded to do a slow drive-by for the next couple days on my way to someplace else to read whose corn was on offer. I felt like a veritable burglar out casing the joint.

bite of corn

And yes, I still partake in the annual ritual of rendering a verdict on the quality of the first corn. I don’t record it, of course, but in my heart I am still true to the Corn Chronicles. When it is a particularly good year (like this one) I often wish Lauren were with us. Maybe then I could convince her to try some and finally convert her into a bona fide corn-loving American.

But as with the French, I can still like her even if she doesn’t care for corn. We aren’t parting company.

 

How I Cook My corn

Keep the time from when you buy your freshly picked corn to when you cook it to a minimum. Later in the season when the corn is being picked twice a day, I wait until late afternoon to run down to my farm stand to buy corn for dinner that evening.

My preferred method is to steam the ears for 2-3 minutes and no more. If I am cooking for more than four, I cook the corn in a large pot of boiling, salted water for the same amount of time. Corn that is cooked longer is just mush.

Make sure you have plenty of softened butter and salt on hand for serving!

 

The Cookbooks that Define Us

Plated Tomato Arugula Provencal

Tomato Arugula Provençal

When family was visiting us recently, my niece and I eventually got around to talking about recipes (as is my wont). I believe we were talking about a Middle Eastern dish and I naturally asked her if she had any of the Ottolenghi cookbooks. “Oh no,” she replied. “I get most of my recipes from the internet.”

I have heard that refrain from other home cooks of the Millennial generation. As someone who reviews cookbooks, as someone who cherishes a handful of her own well-worn cookbooks, and as someone whose mother amassed a large collection of cookbooks during her lifetime, I can’t help feeling that my niece and her ilk are missing out.

Like recipe cards that will soon be extinct, a person’s cookbook collection tells a story about the cook’s life. Embedded in their pages are handwritten notes that sometimes include dates, minor adjustments to the recipe, and often splatters. The more notes and grease spots, the more valuable the cookbook is to both its owner and her progeny. Taken together, cookbook collections also serve as guideposts offering clues as to a person’s age, where they might have lived or traveled and even certain personality traits.

One of my greatest regrets is that my mother let my father donate nearly all her cookbooks before I had a chance to go through them. It irritates me still, six years later. The one I wanted the most was her falling-apart copy of the Joy of Cooking that she probably received as a wedding or bridal shower gift. Anyone lucky enough to have her mother’s copy of Joy of Cooking knows what I am talking about. I have searched high and low for the exact edition my mother once had, but haven’t yet found it. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be the same. My mother was embodied in that cookbook and without her notes and splatters, it would be an empty vessel.

Recently, I attended a small dinner party where one of the guests brought a lovely tomato-based spread for little rounds of toasted baguette. It seemed so fresh and different and everyone gobbled it up. I turned to my friend and asked her where she got the recipe. “Oh, one of the Silver Palate cookbooks—maybe The New Basics,” she replied. “It’s on page 8. “

Lucy is a new friend, having moved here about a year ago, but the connection I felt to her through a recipe from a Silver Palate cookbook made me feel as if I had known her forever. I think I may have squealed a little in delight.

Once in a blue moon there are cookbooks that seem to define a generation—or at least a decade. The Silver Palate cookbooks (The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, The New Basics Cookbook and All Around the World Cookbook) defined the 1980s—at least for those of us on the East Coast.

Long before the Food Network and celebrity chefs, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins undertook to change the way a new generation cooked. From their tiny food shop on the Upper West Side that opened in 1977, they introduced New Yorkers to bold new flavors and a way of entertaining that was unfussy and (largely) non-French.

It is not a stretch to say that The Silver Palate Cookbook (first published in 1979) was for many of us the cookbook that separated us from our mother’s generation. When I moved to New York in 1981 I had two cookbooks: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the revised 1980 edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Both felt like they came straight from my mother’s kitchen. The Silver Palate Cookbook, on the other hand, belonged to me and my generation.

I had a wonderful group of close-knit friends during my early years in New York. There were eight of us and at the core were four who had known each other since high school in upstate New York.  The rest of us were there as add-ons from college.

Back then, as newly minted adults with the untraveled road before us we did not yet know who among us would move into the fast lane and who would get stuck in traffic. It was a level playing field and we all enjoyed gathering at each other’s apartments on the weekends to cook big, elaborate meals that were nothing like the food we grew up with. We learned to make pesto and Raspberry Chicken and Pasta Carbonara. Together with the Dining section of the Times, The Silver Palate pushed us along to become the adventurous cooks we are today.

Thumbing through The Silver Palate Cookbook is like taking a walk down memory lane. This was the cookbook that gave us Cheese Straws and Layered Mozzarella and Tomato Salad (an early version of the perennial favorite, Caprese Salad). And there on page 93 is Lemon Chicken—who can forget how ubiquitous that dish became? (Lemon Chicken was trotted out dozens of times on the popular sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond as the only company-worthy dish Debra was capable of making—and that was a couple of decades after the publication of The Silver Palate Cookbook.) And who hasn’t heard of Chicken Marbella, the dish for which the book is best known.

I have a very distinct memory from my early years in New York when the eight of us were together at someone’s apartment howling with laughter (at the expense of our mothers) at the dishes we grew up with. With all the smugness of youth, we took turns rattling off all the Campbell’s soup-based casseroles, Jell-O molds and meatloaves of our childhood. I suggested we write a tongue-in-cheek cookbook that included all the atrocities we were served as children. We must have thought of it in a final fit of cutting the apron strings and asserting our grown-up independence.

When we all shared a house together on Cape Cod in those early days, we did still more cooking and eating together. Most of the cooking we did was casual but competitive in a way that New Yorkers tend to make everything. I remember making potato salad dressed in vinaigrette with bits of crispy bacon and shallots to go with some barbecued ribs that someone else prepared. It was a recipe I learned in my French cooking classes and it felt so sophisticated to be eating French potato salad with all-American barbecued ribs.

Those were the halcyon days before adulthood took a firmer hold on all of us and we became frazzled by careers and children and mortgages.

The eight of us are all dispersed now. Half of us have moved from the city entirely and those that remain commute from the suburbs. In my case at least, the ties that once bound me to the others over meals and vacations have been broken. I went my separate way for reasons I can’t explain. I guess it was mutual. Friendship is a two-way street after all. Still, propinquity has a lot to do with it. Friendships need shared experiences on a regular basis to thrive.

So when my new friend, Lucy, showed up at the dinner party with an appetizer out of a Silver Palate cookbook I felt a rush of nostalgia for when I was still unformed and everything seemed new. I can’t help thinking that Lucy would have been my friend if she had lived in New York back in the 1980s and we might have cooked together from one of the Silver Palate cookbooks.

After the dinner, I rushed home and pulled out my copy of The New Basics Cookbook, turned to page eight and there it was, Tomato Arugula Provençal. It was so reassuring to me to know that the Silver Palate cookbooks had stood the test of time, even if some of my friendships have not.

Finished Tomato Arugula in pan

Tomato Arugula Provençal

Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

The title of the recipe doesn’t seem to mean much other than it comes from Provence (which in my book means it must be something good).  Calling it Provençal Tomato and Arugula Spread would be more descriptive since it is a fondue of garlicky, plum tomatoes to which is added arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Spread it on grilled bread with a drizzle of good olive oil and serve it as an appetizer or use it as a topping for grilled or toasted good bread smeared with fresh goat cheese and call it lunch. As it turns out, it also makes a mean topping for a burger in lieu of ketchup.

Burger topped with tomato arugula

This is one of those dishes where the quality of the ingredients makes all the difference. It is best made when fresh arugula is in season (spring and early summer or fall when the weather is cooler). I imagine this dish being made in Provence when the first green garlic starts to show up at the markets. To me, that infuses the dish with an authentic Provençal taste. Green garlic is slightly less pungent than the drier garlic later in the season. It is probably also why you add the garlic to the tomato mixture after the tomatoes have cooked down. I thought about sautéeing the garlic in olive oil before adding the tomatoes, but then I realized, no, in Provence it would undoubtedly be made with raw green garlic as is used in pistou and aioli. The taste is altogether different so if you can find green garlic at your farmer’s market, use it.  If you don’t have fresh plum tomatoes available, use canned, San Marzano plum tomatoes—they are more expensive but the taste is worth it. As for the sun-dried tomatoes, buy the ones in extra-virgin olive oil rather than just ordinary olive oil. And of course, use freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

 

Yield:  4 Cups

May be made up to two days in advance of serving.

Ingredients

20 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced or 2, 28 oz. cans San Marzano plum tomatoes, drained and diced.

¼ Cup extra virgin olive oil

10-12 cloves fresh, green garlic or 8-10 cloves ordinary garlic, finely minced

4 Cups roughly chopped arugula, stems removed

16 sun-dried tomatoes packed in extra virgin olive oil, roughly chopped

¼ Cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

If using fresh plum tomatoes, plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain, let cool and then peel the skin and remove the seeds. Cut into dice.

If using canned tomatoes, drain thoroughly and chop into dice (or use diced tomatoes and chop them up a bit more).

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high and add the tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally for about fifteen minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the raw, minced garlic and continue cooking for five more minutes.

cooked tomatoes

Remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Stir and let cool in the pan.

Finished Tomato Arugula in pan

Once cooled, store in an airtight container the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to two days. Remove from fridge and allow the tomato spread to come back to room temperature before serving.

Tomato Arugula Provençal Recipe Printable Version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strawberry Shortcake for Dinner

Plated Shortcake

When I think of strawberries I think of summer, but really strawberries are a springtime fruit. They are the fruit that marks the end of the fallow period when we are reduced to eating nothing but clementines and last season’s apples. With their bright red color and sweet perfume, they break the dullness of wintertime and announce that better times lie ahead. They are the fruit that are the harbingers of summer.

And yet, my memories of strawberries are planted firmly in summer. Growing up in the Midwest, I remember strawberries arriving on the scene later than here in the Mid-Atlantic. Or maybe it’s just my memory playing tricks on me. To a child, of course, the late spring of early June is indistinguishable from the official onset of summer towards the end of the month. Once school is out, it is summer, no matter the calendar.

BasketofStrawberries

 

Strawberries—and here I am really talking about Strawberry Shortcake—marked the beginning of summer. In our house, they were cause for their own special day of celebration.

Whether it was a feast born of the lean times of the Depression era or just merely an excuse to eat dessert for dinner, my mother carried over her childhood tradition into her own family and once a year announced that we would have nothing but all-you-can-eat Strawberry Shortcake for supper. Imagine the childhood delight on hearing that pronouncement every year. To me, it always seemed unplanned—a surprise that was revealed at the last moment for maximum effect. It worked every time.

With our eyes as big as saucers, my sisters and I would sit down to bowls piled high with whipped cream on top of shortcake made soft by the juices of strawberries that had been macerating in sugar. Those syrupy juices were essential to a perfect bite of shortcake, strawberry and whipped cream. (The perfect bite being the goal of the entire endeavor.)

And because there was nothing else to eat, we always had seconds and left the table with our stomachs aching from our gluttony. For my sisters and me it was the closest we were ever going to get to the proverbial Christmas in July.

I have no way of knowing whether our annual all-you-can-eat Strawberry Shortcake suppers delighted my mother or not. My mother was not the focus when I sat down to my bowl of strawberry happiness. Did I have enough strawberries and whipped cream to go with every bite of shortcake? The perfect bite is serious business and my attention could not be diverted to record my mother’s mood. Still, she must have enjoyed turning out a relatively drama-free meal—no one was going to have to be urged to clean her plate.

I can still see the five of us, seated at our round, colonial-style wood table in the kitchen eating from the summer dinnerware my mother always dutifully trotted out once the weather turned warmer. The square-shaped plates and bowls came in mix and match solid shades of gray, burgundy and forest green plastic. The strawberries were served out of her large stainless steel mixing bowl with a little ring on the side that clanked every time the bowl was picked up. (That set of nesting stainless steel bowls with the little rings on the rim survived well beyond my childhood and I never could figure out the purpose of those rings other than to add to the cacophony of my mother in the kitchen.)

I have never met anyone who doesn’t like strawberries (and by extension Strawberry Shortcake). Unlike it’s spring cousin, rhubarb, strawberries are a sure bet. Especially when served with whipped cream. And shortcake of course.

Now about that shortcake. I grew up with shortcake made from Bisquick. There I have said it. My mother made her shortcake biscuits from a box. Now here comes the even bigger confession: I do the same. Call it laziness or call it a desire to recreate my childhood taste memories, but that’s what I do. That said, I have discovered (by accident when I had nothing but heavy cream on hand) that shortcake biscuits made with cream instead of milk paradoxically make for a much lighter texture.

Of course I redeem myself by making homemade whipped cream. And again, I follow my mother’s example by adding a ½ teaspoon of vanilla and a rounded teaspoon or so of powdered sugar to the cream before I whip it.

Sadly, though, I never serve it as a standalone meal, which is a shame. Most likely it’s because I married in mid-life and never had children of my own. The idea of eating dessert for dinner is just not the same without kids.

We recently had family visiting us and I made Strawberry Shortcake for dessert. The two little boys, both under the age of six, made short work of it, even after a decent dinner with all the requisite components of protein and (at least) a bite of something green. They barely looked up from their plates as they shoveled in the shortcake, strawberries and whipped cream. And we didn’t hear a peep out of them the whole time. In fact, it was the adults who were making all the noise as we screeched with laughter at how quickly they gobbled up their dessert.

Eating Srawberry Shortcake

Huh, I thought to myself, my mother (and hers before her) may have been on to something. Strawberry Shortcake for dinner makes up for a whole lot of food that you were otherwise forced to eat against your will.  Maybe it’s one of those secret insurance policies mothers keep in their back pocket to ensure their kids will always carry fond memories of them into adulthood. When your mouth is full of Strawberry Shortcake, it’s hard to be mad at your mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Worthy Trout

Plated Trout

Rainbow Trout in Court-Bouillon

After a difficult few months helping my mother at the end of her life, my husband and I promised each other we would get away for a few days to completely de-stress and unplug after the initial grieving and memorial service were behind us. For a quick fix, there is nothing like a spa retreat. Surprisingly, we found a highly-rated spa in the Poconos, a mere three hours from where we live.

When you read about the European spa experience—let’s say the kind that James Beard sought out when his health began to fail and he needed to follow a slimming diet with strict oversight—it seems a bit grim. No one ever went because they were hoping to indulge in a rich culinary experience. People went to slim down, take mineral baths day and night and lay off the alcohol. This is what they called “taking the cure”.

Maybe the European spa experience has changed since the days when James Beard checked himself into one hoping to set himself on a more moderate dietary course, but in any case, it was our experience that there was a tacit understanding that improving one’s mind-body balance ended at around 5:30 each evening when the bar and restaurant opened for guests. After a long day of yoga, meditation, spinning classes or a massage, what one needs is a decent martini or glass of wine.

The gastronomic offerings notwithstanding, The Lodge at Woodloch, nestled in the woods by a small lake, looked like the kind of mountainous retreat the Europeans might have frequented for “the cure”. Maybe that’s why I kept thinking about M.F.K. Fisher who wrote many stories about her travels in Europe and the food she ate. In a collection I read recently, entitled As They Were, it seemed as if everywhere she went she describes a marvelous meal which featured trout. And since I was in the Poconos, by a lake (and probably near a stream) I figured trout would certainly be forthcoming. I couldn’t get the idea of trout out of my head.

When I lived in Europe, I only remember eating trout once in a restaurant in the Ardennes, a short hop by car from Brussels. I went there one day with our elderly Belgian neighbors and their adult daughter who was my age. It was a lovely outing in the countryside that included a stop for lunch where we all ordered the trout. I recall that it had been pan fried and was swimming in a pool of good butter with a few boiled potatoes on the side (or maybe it was pommes frîtes—it was Belgium after all). I can still taste the flaky flesh of the trout enhanced by all that delicious butter.

Still, it was not the truite au bleu that M.F.K. Fisher described in her story, “I Was Really Very Hungry” about an enormous quantity of food she consumed at a little inn in Burgundy one day while she was out on a long walk by herself. I have read that story several times in different collections over the years and I still can’t quite figure out how she managed to eat and drink so much in one sitting. After a series of eight starters that included pickled herring, broiled endive, a little salad of herbed green lentils, and some baked onions, Fisher was pressed to eat “a good slice of [the chef’s] pâté before moving on to the main course, the trout. (All while working on an entire bottle of vintage Chablis I hasten to add.)

Finally, it was time for the trout, which the earnest and solicitous waitress produced to Ms. Fisher tableside, alive and swimming in a bucket, before Monsieur Paul (the chef) worked his blue magic on it.

“Here is the trout, Madame. You are to eat it au bleu, and you should never do so if you had not seen it alive. For if the trout were dead when it was plunged in the court bouillon it would not turn blue. So, naturally, it must be living.”

Contemplating the method, Fisher inquires, “What about the trout? Do you take out is guts before or after?”

“Oh the trout!” [The server] sounded scornful. “Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul. His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over. And it is the curl you must judge, Madame. A false truite au bleu cannot curl.”

Our earnest and solicitous server then returns in a flash “with the trout correctly blue and agonizingly curled on a platter, and on her crooked arm a plate of tiny boiled potatoes and a bowl.”

(Let us pause for a moment to consider the trout’s final moments. The French can be exquisitely nonchalant about their food preparation.)

The meal—as you might have guessed—did not stop there, but for me it was the trout that stuck with me. It was that I was thinking of the first day we dined at our Pocono retreat. So eager was I to tuck into a well-prepared fresh trout that when I glanced at the dinner menu that first evening I missed the word ‘salmon’ before ‘trout’ and was sorely disappointed when the dish arrived looking pink (and not at all blue).

Of course, I had been introduced to trout long before I lived in Europe. One of my most memorable meals of trout comes from my childhood. It was considerably more humble than anything M.F.K. Fisher would have eaten—more camp-style than spa-like—but certainly among the best trout I have ever eaten.

It took place on a family vacation in Colorado Springs where we had rented a modest cabin within a vacation compound. One day my father, who used to spend his boyhood summers up in Canada at his family’s cabin, offered to take me and my sisters trout fishing. I stood next to my sister in ankle-deep water for several hours while she pulled in trout after trout and I came up completely short. I got madder and madder as the day wore on and ended the outing in a complete stew of sibling rivalry.

But what made it all go away was my father who made short work of cleaning and gutting the fish and then effortlessly went on to prepare a simple meal of pan-fried whole trout with onions and bacon. All was right with the world. It was one of those childhood moments when you observe your father doing something out of his daily routine at which he proves absolutely expert and in wonderment you begin to question, “Who is this man masquerading as my father?” Maybe it was the freshness of the trout or maybe it was just a swelling love for my father who stepped out of his usual role to cook us a meal, but it has remained one of my fondest food memories.

The rainbow trout I finally ate at the spa in the Poconos didn’t even come close. As it turned out, the local trout I was craving was on the lunch menu, not the dinner menu. When it arrived, it was meager and sad looking, despite the colorful plate decorations. And it was overcooked, which is the death knell for fish.

Spa Trout

Once home, I was on a mission to create my own memorable trout dinner to wipe away my disappointing meal in the Poconos. All the while M.F.K. Fisher was trailing me in my quest.

My first inclination—as is my wont—was to pull out my well-worn copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was surprised to learn she was silent on the subject. Nor did she touch on it in Mastering Volume II. Huh, I thought. Is trout a dish that Julia really felt was either too tricky to master or not worthy of the effort?

From there I went straight to my copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (after all Elizabeth David—in my mind at least—was the English equivalent of Julia Child, not to mention her contemporary). And there it was, an unequivocal dismissal of trout.

She begins by quoting Jean Giono, author of La France à Table who wrote, “With the exception of truite au bleu nobody knows how to cook a trout. It is the most unfortunate fish on earth.” And then for good measure, Elizabeth David adds her own withering commentary: “…I must admit I would never go out of my way either to buy these fish or to order them in a restaurant.”  Ouch!

Still, she provides a recipe for Les Truites à la Manière Alsacienne (she translates this as Trout in Court-Bouillon) which set me on my course to a very happy meal that left me wondering why anyone would think trout an unworthy fish.

I managed to find some good, fresh Pocono rainbow trout at my local specialty grocery store, made my own version of a court-bouillon (a quick broth of white wine, water, bay leaf, parsley and lemon peel that serves as an aromatic bath in which to poach the fish) sautéed some fresh breadcrumbs in good butter and a sprinkling of fresh parsley to serve on top of the fish (in the Alsatian manner) and voilà, a meal so delicious I felt M.F.K. Fisher herself would have given me a nod of approval.

The combination of the crunchy, buttery breadcrumbs atop the delicate, perfumed trout was superb. Even better, it took very little effort. When I finally looked up from my plate after I took my last bite I smiled widely at my husband and said, “We’re having this again!”

And so ends my trout odyssey.

 

Trout in Court-Bouillon

When I read Elizabeth David’s loosely written instructions for this dish that was lifted directly from the cookbook, La Table by Gaston Thierry written in 1932, a lightbulb went off in my head. Cooking fish in a court-bouillon I knew to be dead easy. I was taught how to do it years ago when I studied cooking with Henri-Étienne Lévi in New York. I always thought cooking a trout was complicated. Sure, my father did it, but I had never cooked a whole fish before and was unsure how to judge for doneness. I figured it was a skill best learned from someone who has done it before and my father is now well beyond teaching me. But a filet cooked in a court-bouillon, now that was something I did understand. The mystery of cooking my own trout had been revealed. I will also say that the notion of serving the trout with a good coating of fresh breadcrumbs browned in butter and parsley gives the feeling of pan-fried fish flavored by butter without the mess. It is the perfect enhancement for a fish as delicate as trout.

For my version of Trout in Court-Bouillon I consulted my notes from cooking class all those years ago and read my notation that when making a court-bouillon, white wine should never be more than 1/3 of the liquids.

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 Fresh filets of rainbow trout, about 1 pound total (from one whole fish—deboned, head and tail removed)

For the Court-Bouillon:

1 Cup dry white wine

3 Cups water

½ small onion, thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

3 strips of lemon peel

1 small bunch fresh parsley tied with kitchen string

1 sprig of fresh thyme

½ teaspoon coarsely crushed black peppercorns

For the Breadcrumb Topping:

1 Cup fresh breadcrumbs from a good sourdough or French country loaf

2 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

Salt to taste

Special Equipment

A sauté pan wide enough to hold 2 filets. (Mine is a 12-inch pan.) If you don’t have one, you can poach the fish in a pan in the oven at 300˚. The idea is to cook the filets in a single layer whether on the stove or in the oven.

Directions

Make the court-bouillon by combining all the ingredients in a sauce pan (or the pan you will use for poaching the fish on the stove). Bring to a boil and continue to boil for ten minutes. Let cool and then strain the solids out.

While the court-bouillon is cooling make the breadcrumb topping. Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. When the butter is foaming, toss in the breadcrumbs and stir frequently until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Add the parsley and mix again. Salt to taste. Turn off the heat and cook the fish.

When you are ready to cook the fish, pour the court-bouillon into the cooking pan, slip the filets in the pan, skin side down and cover the fish with waxed paper coated with butter. (Trace the wax paper with the lid from your pan to get it to fit properly.) The court-bouillon should just barely cover the fish—about ½ inch up the side of the pan.

Cover the pan turn the heat to medium high and bring the court-bouillon up to a simmer. Adjust the heat and continue to simmer the fish for about five minutes. Remove fish immediately to a platter or serving plate and place a few slivers of unsalted butter on top of the flesh, then sprinkle the browned breadcrumbs on top. Serve immediately. Boiled new potatoes are a good accompaniment to the fish. As is a good, cool white Burgundy (just like M.F.K. Fisher drank ).

Trout in Court-Bouillon Printable Version

 

 

 

 

 

 

Onion Soup for the Soul

Onion Soup

French Onion Soup

There are certain dishes in a cook’s repertoire that are there for comfort. When times are stressful, when tragedy strikes, when you lose someone close to you, when there is a storm brewing, these are the times when we need reassurance in the form of something good and comforting to eat—and cook.

When I need soothing, I turn to French onion soup. With its piping hot liquid underneath a crouton topped with bubbling Gruyère cheese oozing down the sides of the bowl, it is the perfect antidote to all manner of storms both figurative and literal that might be raging around you.

My connection to French onion soup has deep roots that I didn’t even know were there until one day a few years ago I read an article in the New York Times about what to cook during a winter storm. I had been busy planning my own menu in preparation for the storm and had decided to make French onion soup, but was curious what others thought of cooking.

The food staff at the Times came up with several suggestions, but the one that struck me came from Julia Moskin, who offered up a mushroom lasagna recipe that ran in the Times shortly after 9/11. Huh, I thought. French onion soup is what I made after 9/11. I hadn’t associated it with that terrible time until I read the article and there I was planning to make it again when looking for comfort during the storm.

Now, of course, I carry the memory of 9/11 with me into the kitchen whenever I make French onion soup and it is what I turn to most frequently when times are hard.

At the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 I was a single woman in my early forties living alone on the Upper West Side. French onion soup—which makes enough for a small crowd—isn’t the first thing you would think a single woman would be inclined to make for herself. It was the Friday after 9/11. I know it was a Friday because my weekly appointment with my therapist was on a Friday and I remember planning to make French onion soup when I got home from my session—something to look forward to after all the grieving and sobbing that tumbled out of me that week.

The world didn’t make sense anymore, but somehow French onion soup did. It’s not like I made it frequently. In fact, I may have only made it once before, years ago when I was in my Julia Child phase. Maybe that’s why I chose to make it at that particularly awful moment—it shuttled me back to an earlier time when the Twin Towers were still standing and the ground seemed firm beneath my feet.

It’s hard to overemphasize what a culinary touchstone Julia Child is for so many of us home cooks of a certain age. I don’t know exactly where I fall in the generational spectrum of women whose interest in cooking blossomed during episodes of The French Chef or any of her subsequent cooking shows, but she was certainly my first introduction to serious cooking. I used to sit down with my mother in the afternoons after school to watch Julia during her original black and white broadcast run of The French Chef in the 1960s.

The first Christmas after I returned from my junior year abroad in France, I pored over Mastering the Art of French Cooking searching for a recipe to make for my family on Christmas Eve as if I were cramming for a final exam. I finally decided on Steak au Poivre. It was my first attempt at cooking a French dish and I read and reread the recipe until I had practically memorized it. It is absolutely true that the instructions in Mastering are so well done it is practically foolproof. The meal came out perfectly and decades later my family still talks about that Steak au Poivre.

So whenever I am in need of culinary grounding, I reach for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s no real surprise then that it was Julia’s version of Soupe à L’Oignon Gratinée I made on September 14, 2001. She uses beef stock and 1 ½ pounds of onions which you sauté for a mere 15 minutes before adding the liquid. Today my go-to French onion soup comes from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent cookbook, Around My French Table. She uses 4 pounds of onions and chicken stock and her advice is to cook the onions slowly for an hour or more to get the rich caramelization that will both flavor and color the stock when you add it.

The smell of onions slowly breaking down in a pool of butter is one of the most comforting smells I know. It’s the smell of home with your mother standing over the stove preparing dinner: we will gather around the table in an hour or so and all will be right with the world. It is probably why I find making onion soup so comforting. Cooking the onions down slowly over a long period of time ensures the soul-sustaining aromas will linger in your kitchen for hours.

But like all experienced cooks, I have tweaked Dorie Greenspan’s recipe to make it to my liking. Her recipe calls for 8 cups of chicken stock (a standard amount of liquid based on a half dozen recipes I cross-referenced in my cookbook library). But since my husband likes his soup thick (more stew-like so he feels like he isn’t just having soup for dinner) I cut the amount of liquid down to 6 cups.

What I also love about Dorie Greenspan’s recipe is that she has you pour a splash of Cognac in the bottom of each bowl before serving. Most recipes call for Cognac to be added to the pot as it is cooking, but to my mind, a splash of Cognac seems more bracing and just the kind of thing you would expect a Frenchman to do as a kind of pick-me-up after a long night of carousing or an even longer nightshift.

Now that I employ the slow-cooked method of making French onion soup, I can’t imagine preparing it any other way. Onions will not be rushed. The difference between onions that have cooked for fifteen minutes and onions that have been slowly breaking down and concentrating their flavor for over an hour is day and night. Maybe that’s why Julia Child used beef stock—beef stock became the dominant flavor, compensating for her under-cooked onions. (No disrespect to Julia—I am still a huge fan.) When you use chicken stock and cook the onions slowly, it’s the onion flavor that dominates. If you truly don’t have the time, don’t bother.

Making onion soup is both a leap of faith and an act of love. You also need a sharp knife. Slicing four pounds of onions with a dull knife will put you off the recipe for life. But once you slice the onions and put them into your pot you will probably wonder how all those onions will ever sweat down and whether or not there is a mistake in the recipe. This is where the leap of faith comes in. That, and the right pot.

Use a heavy-bottomed pot. The bigger the better because there will be more surface area for the onions to spread out allowing them to cook down faster. I use my Le Creuset cast iron pot that I have owned for years, but I could use a bigger one. It takes my onions nearly two hours to release all their liquid.

Uncooked Onions

 

Keep the flame on low to medium low and don’t leave the kitchen. Those onions need attention and frequent stirring so as not to burn them. This is the act of love part. When the onions have released all their liquid, that’s when the brown bits of caramelization start to occur and the onions begin to take on a rich golden color. At this point you can add the liquids.

Carmelized Onions

Good cooking is a big time commitment. We don’t always have it, but when we do there is no better way to show your love for both yourself and your family or friends than to take the time to cook something delicious.

Even when I was single (and I was single for a long, long time) I took the time to cook for myself. True, I like to cook. But maybe I like to cook because the act of cooking makes me feel whole. It is utterly satisfying to me to bring together a bunch of disparate ingredients and turn it into something good to eat.

Which is why, after 9/11 I needed to cook. Even if it was just for myself. And it is why I turn to cooking still—for a little comfort when times are hard.

 

French Onion Soup

Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan

Serves 6

Ingredients

4- 5 Large Spanish onions (about 4 pounds)

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

3 cloves garlic, minced

Kosher salt

1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 Cup dry white wine

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

For Serving

6 slices country bread, toasted

6 ounces grated Gruyère, Comte or Emmenthal cheese

Cognac (a splash in the bottom of each bowl before serving)

Directions

Slice off the top of each onion, cut in half vertically leaving the root section intact for easier handling. Peel the skin and slice very thinly.

Heat the oil and butter in a heavy bottomed pot on medium low until the butter and oil are hot. Add the onions and garlic, sprinkle with salt and stir as best you can to coat.

Lower the flame or heat to the lowest setting. Leave the pot uncovered. What you want here is for the liquid from the onions to bubble vigorously. Keep an eye on the pot and stir from time to time as the onions begin to lose volume. This will take up to two hours depending on the size of your pot (less for larger pots, more for smaller pots).

When almost all the liquid is gone, and the onions have turned golden, sprinkle the flour on top and stir the onions to coat. Let the flour cook for a couple of minutes then raise the heat a bit and add the wine, reducing the liquid again.

Add some good chicken stock (preferably homemade from roasted bones—the darker the stock the more flavor and the richer the color).

Grind the white pepper into the soup to taste. (Freshly ground white pepper has a real kick to it so be sure to taste.)

Cover the pot and bring to a simmer on the stove. Cook for 30 minutes.

To Serve

If you are using a traditional onion soup crock to serve, you will have to trim the bread to fit the bowl. Invert the bowl over a slice of bread and trim with a knife.

Toast the bread on both sides.

Place the individual serving bowls on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour a splash of Cognac into the bottom of each bowl. Ladle the onion soup in each bowl leaving just enough room for the toasted bread to float on top. Sprinkle the grated cheese on top.

Set the oven to broil. Place the oven rack on the second highest level below your broiler and then slide the baking sheet into the oven. The cheese will melt quickly so don’t stray too far from the oven. Let it bubble and spill over the sides a bit for a little drama.

Serve with a simple green salad dressed with vinaigrette. This is a surprisingly filling meal all by itself.

French Onion Soup printable version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Father’s Workbench

Pasta on Workbench

Penne with Mascarpone and Toasted Walnuts

When my sister came up recently to help me begin the process of clearing out our parent’s retirement cottage after we moved them to assisted living, we powered through three days together, pausing only occasionally to have a bite to eat or a short visit with our parents. The task at hand was to sort through their papers, cull the boxes of photographs into a manageable amount to be digitized and to select a few items as keepsakes for either ourselves or my sister’s children. The rest would be managed by a professional.

I was so grateful to have my sister by my side as we went through the process of revisiting so many family memories. It was the first time she and I had spent time together without marital or other family appendages in a very long time. With only seventeen months separating us, we grew up sharing the same bedroom. In fact, before my younger sister was born seven years later, we adamantly declined when our parents asked if we would like separate bedrooms. To us, being able to talk and giggle together after the lights were turned out at night was a benefit we were not disposed to relinquish. Working across from one another as we shuffled through old family photos was like having the room to ourselves with the lights turned off again. It reminded both of us of what we once meant to one another.

My sister and I worked well together going through old photos and playing detective with vintage photos of relatives we had never known. We also worked well when it came time to surveying my parent’s belongings for items we wanted to keep. She selected some artwork and a few pieces of furniture for my nephew and his wife and we divvied up the few remaining pieces of jewelry my mother had not already given away, and that was about it. It was utterly without strife—we had, of late, exhumed all the buried resentments and there was nothing left in the graveyard to unearth.

There are few possessions in a person’s life that truly embody their spirit. Of course, what I consider important is not necessarily what someone else would find meaningful. Most of the time, they are of little monetary value. Some years ago, my mother gave me the string of opera-length pearls my father had given her one Christmas when I was a child. I still remember the look on her face and the tears that followed when she opened the box. Years later, whenever my mother asked me what jewelry of hers I would like I always answered, “Just the pearls.” I borrowed them to wear on my wedding day.

Apart from her necklace, though, what I truly treasure is my mother’s recipe boxes. I’ve written about them before, but to me, they are more valuable than any piece of jewelry she owned. I can trace the arc of her life, and sometimes even her moods whenever I dip into them. Her mother, her sister, her (dreaded) mother-in-law and many of her friends and neighbors are all represented in those boxes bearing witness to her life. Those recipe boxes are where I find my mother. Like her, they were in a state of disarray but over time I have managed to put them in order, coming to understand my mother in the process.

As for my dad, I have a watch that was given to him as a college graduation present in 1950. It’s a vintage Rolex (not worth very much I hasten to add) that I wear nearly every day. It’s an old fashioned wind-up watch with a leather band I chose myself. I’ve had it restored at a cost that was nearly as much as the watch is worth. My father’s initials are engraved on the back. It is very dear to me.

But what is dearer still, has very little value. It’s my father’s workbench.

My father’s workbench is something that he has carried with him all his life. It was given to him by his father for Christmas when he was just a boy. He says it came as a kit (which I believe because I have recently seen an identical vintage workbench used as a potting bench in a gardening magazine). What is so touching about the gift is that it came from a father who had so little aptitude or inclination for handyman work, that even changing the lightbulbs fell to his wife. Yet he saw that his son had different interests and so he bought him a good workbench so that he could tinker and build shortwave radios.

My dad had a great regard and love for his father who did most of the parenting in their family. When my father was sick, it was my grandfather who took him to the doctor. And it was my grandfather who rescued him one day from the train tracks where he was playing just minutes before a train came barreling down the tracks.

My grandmother was an emotionally distant mother; a privileged only child who married my grandfather—a man with an eighth-grade education from modest means—when she was a spinsterly thirtysomething. My father was born when she was thirty-five and his sister was born two years later. My grandparents shared the same room, but slept in twin beds.

The story of my grandparent’s marriage in an upper middle class enclave of Cleveland will always be confounding to me. It is the stuff of a Dawn Powell Ohio novel, shrouded in mystery and forever unknowable. My father doesn’t even know the story of how they met.

None of us escapes childhood without a few scars. Maybe my father tinkering away at his workbench in the basement provided a kind of refuge from the ice storm upstairs. Or maybe he was just a curious boy who wanted to know how things worked. Whatever the reason, the workbench his father gave him remained a constant in his life. When I picture my father as he was when I was a child, I see him standing at his workbench with all his tools carefully arranged on a pegboard behind it the way Paul Child hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine in her Cambridge kitchen that now resides in the Smithsonian.

Some seventy-five years later the workbench is still standing, bearing all the nicks and paint splatters of decades worth of home maintenance projects and electrical engineering experiments. Like my mother’s recipe boxes, the workbench tells the story of my father’s life.

As we began to dismantle my parent’s cottage in the retirement community where they have lived the past six years finding a good home for the workbench became my cause. There is an invisible string which goes directly from my heart to that workbench, which is the embodiment of my father. I used to stand next to him as he stood at the workbench explaining to me how to fix things. When I moved to my first apartment, he bought me a toolbox and filled it with some of the tools from his own collection. Some of them came from his boyhood.

I have always said that someday I wanted to take possession of his workbench when he no longer needed or wanted it, just as I used to ask for my mother’s pearls. Now, though, I find I have no place for it in my home. Or at least, I see it as something I will have to decommission sooner rather than later as my husband and I contemplate a move back to an urban center once my parents are gone. Letting it go after my dad is gone, or no longer remembers my name will be that much harder.

On a whim, I sent an email inquiry to my husband’s nephew and asked if by chance he might like to have it as he seemed the kind of person for whom a good workbench that has seen a thing or two in its long life would mean something. When he wrote back less than an hour later that he would be honored to take it, I burst into tears. Our nephew grew up without a father and to jump from one branch of the family tree to another to give him what was once the gift from a father to a son seemed especially meaningful. (He also has sons of his own who may also one day like a good workbench.) When I told my father, he was very pleased.

But finding a new home for my father’s workbench is not the end of the story. At the suggestion of a friend, I had a professional photographer take some photos so that I would always have my father’s workbench with me wherever I go. The results are spectacular; he managed to capture every inch of character embedded in the bench. (The photos I have included in this post are my own, not the photographer’s.)

Workbench photoshoot

Now what, you might be asking, does this have to do with a story about a recipe? Dear Reader, I have only the thinnest of threads to pull on to unravel a culinary connection. In fact, it is more alimentary than culinary. But there is this: When we were children we used to go down to the basement at Christmas and crack nuts in the vice that is attached at one end of my father’s workbench. That vice made short work of cracking nuts—we probably cracked more than we ate just for the fun of it. I’m sure it was my father’s idea. As an inventor and engineer, he had a way of solving many nuts that otherwise seemed too tough to crack.

Vice

And so, before I send the workbench off to begin a new tour of duty with our nephew, I decided to take one last turn at the vice and crack a few nuts to use in one of my favorite weeknight pasta dishes that was inspired from a recipe in At Elizabeth David’s Table, a cookbook I reviewed some years ago. Penne with Mascarpone is quick, delicious and something that is almost a pantry meal if you remember to always stock a tub of Mascarpone cheese in your fridge. It is finished with toasted walnuts. My ode to my father’s workbench.

 

Penne with Mascarpone and Toasted Walnuts

Serves 2

6oz. penne pasta

1/4 Cup toasted walnut pieces

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tsp. butter

1/3 Cup mascarpone cheese

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

lemon zest from half a lemon

freshly ground pepper

Directions

Cook penne in boiling salted water according to directions (about 10-12 minutes).  Drain.  Meanwhile, toast walnuts in skillet over medium heat.

When penne is nearly done, melt butter in sauté pan, add garlic and cook over low heat until fragrant.  Add mascarpone and melt until heated, but do not boil.  Add drained pasta, and Parmesan and toss until heated through.  Add lemon zest from half a lemon and freshly ground pepper.

Serve in bowls and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.  Pass Parmesan if more is desired.

Note:  This is a quick go-to meal after a busy day.  Mascarpone unopened keeps a couple of months in the fridge so is a good pantry item to have on hand.

You can also make this an all-in-one meal by adding some braised Swiss chard to the pasta instead of serving a side salad.

Pasta with Swiss Chard

Braising Swiss chard:  Wash Swiss chard in plenty of water and spin dry.  Roughly chop (your choice to include stems or not—I prefer just the leaves for this dish).  Heat large pot over medium heat with 1-2 tsp olive oil.  Add Swiss chard when oil is hot.  Toss frequently with cooking tongs to wilt and then cover for a few minutes until tender. Add to penne and mascarpone mixture and toss gently before serving.

Printable Version Penne with Mascarpone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocolate Sauce is a Group Project

Dame Blanche
Dame Blanche

One of the benefits of reviewing cookbooks is that it stretches my cooking horizons, often taking me into new territory that I probably wouldn’t have explored on my own. Recently, for instance, I made a dish called Cod Fillets with Cacao Nib Crust from Pierre Marcolini’s wonderful new book, Chocolat: From the Cocoa Bean to the Chocolate Bar. Before I reviewed this book I never even knew there was such a thing as cacao nibs, let alone where to get them and how to use them in cooking. You can read about this dish in my review—it was an overwhelming success and it will make its way into my permanent repertoire (as long as I can keep a steady supply of good cacao nibs going).

But what really struck me as I was working with the book was the way that it unspooled so many chocolate memories from my time living in Brussels. I suppose it is why I agreed to review the book in the first place. When I lived in Brussels, Pierre Marcolini was my favorite chocolatier. And like many new discoveries/experiences I have enjoyed during the last fourteen years, I have my husband to thank for it.

Before we moved to Brussels from New York in 2005, my standard for what was considered good chocolate came down to Teuscher’s Champagne truffles after I was introduced to them by a co-worker and friend from London. That was in the late 1980s and my forays into the world of chocolate didn’t go much beyond that point. (Funny how some experiences get stuck in time for such a long while.)

Then, in 2004, my husband started flying back and forth to Brussels on business. He has a kind of internal GPS that helps him navigate the world of sweets, most especially ice cream and chocolate. He always manages to find the best places to go no matter where he is. So when after his first or second trip he came home and presented me with an elegant box of Pierre Marcolini assorted chocolates, they were a revelation to me. In fact, they were so good and so sophisticated with their subtle herbs and spices and varying percentages of cacao content, that when he forgot to bring some home after one of his many trips, he substituted a box of chocolates from a satellite store of the French chocolate maker, Maison du Chocolat, located in Rockefeller Center where he worked. I took one bite, looked at him and declared, “Don’t ever bother buying these again. If you’re not bringing home Pierre Marcolini chocolates, don’t bring home any chocolate at all.”

I have no idea how Belgians became known for their chocolate. Given that they import their cacao beans just like any other country where you will find chocolate makers, it has to be their particular technique. I’m guessing it has a lot to do with the machines that grind the beans into cacao paste. The finer the grind, the smoother the chocolate.

In any case, Belgians are absolutely mad for chocolate. Before Nestle’s bought them, Côte d’Or, was a national Belgian brand that was carried in all the supermarkets. In Belgium, the chocolate aisle is a wonder to behold with Côte d’Or still being the most prominent brand (even if it is no longer strictly Belgian). After experimenting with a few different varieties I eventually settled on Côte d’Or Noir de Noir as my preferred bar. Just like the locals, I’d buy one or two bars every week and eat an ounce or two every night after dinner. There was no mystery to unravel in that local custom.

But what I was curious about was the chocolate sauce that was served in a little pitcher next to the bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream whenever we ordered a Dame Blanche in a restaurant. Belgians must consume more Dames Blanches than any other nationality. I’d seen Dame Blanche on menus in France before, but in Belgium they are ubiquitous. And far, far, better than an American chocolate sundae. Of course, it’s all about the chocolate.

In Belgium, they use dark chocolate and the consistency of the sauce is just a few shades thicker than hot chocolate. In other words, it pours more like heavy cream than honey. (And I appreciate the way it is always served on the side, acknowledging that some people like more chocolate sauce than others.) And the whipped cream on top of the ice cream? Well, it’s what you call gilding the lily, I know, but the cream serves to soften the collision of the warm sauce on cold ice cream. I wouldn’t do without it.

Being a novice chocolate consumer and used to—dare I say—the bottled or canned American chocolate sauce from my childhood put out by Hershey’s or Smucker’s, I wasn’t sure how to make chocolate sauce the Belgian way. It took an afternoon discussing sauce au chocolat with a group of Belgian women to set me on the right course.

When you think about it, cooking is always a collaborative endeavor. From old family recipes to those you find online or in a favorite cookbook, you are never alone in the kitchen (to borrow from Julia Child). Recipes are meant to be shared and each of us has something to contribute to a dish. And we certainly all have opinions.

Which brings me back to the chocolate sauce. When my husband and I moved to Brussels I had spent the previous twenty-four years working and living in New York. Suddenly I found myself untethered in a foreign country playing the role of a trialing spouse with no job, no children and no social network to anchor my days.

It didn’t take long before I found a conversation group to join. The Group (Le Groupe) was made up of roughly half Belgians and half Anglophones (mostly Brits whose spouses worked at the European Commission). We met once per week at a member’s home and spent one hour speaking French and another speaking English, taking turns helping each other perfect her foreign language. My husband called us The Ladies who Talk.

The Belgian women were the anchors of The Group. They had been meeting continuously for over thirty years by the time I joined them and had seen a lot of Anglophones come and go over that period. What struck me, of course, was the long arc of their friendship. They had seen each other through children, the death of spouses, illnesses, retirement and divorces and still they carried on. As with any group, though, there was the occasional tension between some of the longtime members. I mostly found their squabbles amusing.

One week I asked the Belgians to explain to me how to make chocolate sauce. It was quite a spirited debate. One said to melt the chocolate with butter, one preferred to mix in some cream and a third insisted that all you need is a little water to thin out the melted chocolate. When I asked the woman how much water she shrugged her shoulders and then said “psshht”, mimicking the sound of the water from the tap that is added to the bowl of chocolate for as many seconds as required. I tried all three versions and much to my surprise (given my penchant for fat) I preferred the one with water.

Long after we returned from Belgium I still make my chocolate sauce with water. And every time I do I hear the sound “psshht” in my head as I stand at the tap adding water. For me, chocolate sauce will always be a Group project, with all of the Ladies who Talk in my kitchen.

Dame Blanche

Dame Blanche

Serves 4

3 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao or less depending on your taste)

2 – 4 tablespoons tap water

Best vanilla ice cream

1 cup heavy cream

Directions

Beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream with 1 teaspoon powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon vanilla extract until it forms soft peaks.

Break up the chocolate into medium-sized pieces and place in a microwaveable small bowl.

Add the water and then heat for 30 seconds in the microwave on high. Mix with a spoon until smooth. Heat another 10 seconds if the chocolate is not yet fully melted and add more water as needed until it is the desired consistency.

Scoop ice cream into individual serving bowls, top with a generous amount of whipped cream and then pour over the chocolate sauce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rouladen: Riding the Gravy Train

plated-rouladen

Back when I was growing up in the ‘60s incomes were flatter and neighborhoods were, if not ethnically diverse, at least professionally diverse. In our subdivision in a northwest suburb of Chicago, there were small business owners, engineers like my dad, an airline pilot, a school teacher, mid-level executives, a couple of doctors and three professional athletes including the catcher for the Chicago Cubs.  Think about it—there was a time when a professional baseball player lived in a modest house in a middle-class neighborhood whose house wasn’t any bigger or nicer than the school teacher’s.

In the suburbs, what was a level playing field economically was also reflected in our food world.  The food we ate was uniformly the same with a few exceptions for old family recipes that our mothers carried with them into their marriages. Back then, when you looked into somebody’s recipe box, you knew what their ancestral make-up was—in many cases our mothers were only one or two generations away from their immigrant roots.

My mother collected recipes all her life and amassed four, 12-inch deep recipe boxes to hold them all.  I can tell exactly which ones she began married life with.  They are the ones that have been carefully typed onto 3 x 5 plain, lined index cards that are yellowed and stained from years of use.  They were the workhorses in our weeknight family dinners and my mother didn’t stray from them for many years.

She says she doesn’t remember typing them up, but they came straight from her mother, who never learned to type, so she must have spent an afternoon with her mother at some point before her wedding day collecting recipes for married life.

Both my mother and father have German ancestry that found its way into my mother’s recipe box from both sides of the family.  My mother collected multiple recipes of the same dish over the years (did she forget she had already had them, or were they just given to her multiple times and she didn’t have the heart to toss them?).

As it turns out, though, this is how I knew that the recipes belonged solidly in her repertoire. I found four different copies of a German dish called Rouladen in her boxes.  One probably came straight from her mother because it is part of the typed, yellowed and stained collection; one is the same as the original that my mother probably re-typed later on in order to preserve the recipe before the original became too stained and yellowed to read; one is a variation in her sister’s handwriting and the last one is from my father’s mother, but is called Beef Roll-ups (to make it sound less foreign?).

Rouladen (my mother’s version) is thin strips of round steak, pounded and dredged in flour that are wrapped around sliced onion and bacon, held together with a toothpick, browned in a skillet then placed in a Dutch oven adding water to come ¾ up the sides of the meat, covered and baked in a 300° oven for three hours(!).  And here’s the best part, the notation at the end that lets the cook know, “it makes its own gravy”.

My paternal grandmother’s Beef Roll-ups also include slices of dill pickle in them, which, I am sad to say, is an authentic German version of the dish after having looked it up on the internet.

If only we had been French instead of German. Just think what we could have been eating.  Instead, we ate Rouladen, Calves Liver with Bacon and Onions, Swiss Steak, Stuffed Cabbage, Pepper Steak (not the French version but more like a stir fry with green peppers), Beef Stroganoff and Stuffed Peppers—all vaguely Germanic or Eastern European. Good, hearty food that hued to the same flavor palate, namely beef, onion, a bit of tomato sauce, green peppers and bacon.  Not to mention gravy—if ‘it makes its own gravy”, you had a real winner.

 

What are some of your mother’s iconic family recipes from your childhood? Leave me a comment below.

Rouladen

After a little research I discovered that Rouladen was a dish that was still being widely cooked in the ‘60s. Craig Claiborne featured a version in his iconic The New York Times Cookbook (not to mention two more versions tied to Claiborne in the Times cooking archives). The Times version calls for thinly pounded round steak spread with mustard and then rolled around bacon, onions and pickle then browned and braised in whatever was available—water, tomato sauce, beef broth, wine or some combination.

The rolled beef packets (once sliced) look more fancy than a plain pot roast so my mother used it as a meal for company. I remember it looking a little sad and dry sitting on her fine china, but since Julia Child had not yet changed the way my mother cooked, that was as fancy as it got.

I’ve tweaked the recipe to make it more to my taste using Dijon mustard and cornichon—and of course wine. It is actually quite good. Company worthy even. (And it still makes its own gravy.)

Serves 4

For the Beef roll-ups:

4      slices round steak, sliced ¼ inch thick, about 1 ½ pounds total. (Each slice will measure about 4 by 11 inches.

4      slices bacon (preferably double or triple smoked, which is authentically German).

1      small yellow onion finely diced

8      cornichons, finely diced

4      tablespoons Dijon mustard

salt and pepper

For the braising pot:

2      tablespoons olive oil

1      tablespoon unsalted butter

2/3  cup diced carrots

2/3  cup diced celery

2      slices thick bacon cut in lardons

1      cup diced yellow onion

1      tablespoon flour

1      cup tomato purée

1      cup beef broth

½     cup red wine

1      teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1      bay leaf

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°

Working one at a time, pat the steak dry with paper towel and place on a clean work surface.  Lay a piece of plastic wrap on top to cover and using the smooth side of a meat mallet, gently pound the meat evenly until it is about 3/8 “ thick.

Sprinkle the steak with salt and pepper and then spread 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard all over one side. Lay a slice of bacon in the center and sprinkle with diced onions followed by the cornichons.

Working from the narrow end, fold in the outer edge of the steak and begin to roll up the meat into a packet. Tie securely at each end with kitchen string.

rolling-beef

Heat the oil and butter at medium high in a Dutch oven or cast iron casserole that will hold the beef packets easily without crowding. When the foam from the butter begins to subside, begin browning the packets, turning to brown evenly all over (about 10 minutes). Remove the meat packets and set aside in a dish.

browning-rouladen

Reduce the heat to medium low and toss in the bacon lardons until they are just beginning to crisp. Add the diced onions, carrots, and celery, stirring often until they are softened (about 8-10 minutes).

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring for 1 minute.

Return the heat to medium high and add the red wine, scraping up all the brown bits at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Then add the beef broth, tomato sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, stirring to incorporate. Add the bay leaf and return the meat to the pot along with any liquid that has collected while the packets have been resting.

Spoon some of the braising liquid over the meat to moisten. Cover the casserole with a tight fitting lid and when the liquid begins to simmer, transfer the pot into the preheated oven and cook for one hour and 15 minutes.

braising-rouladen

When the Rouladen has finished cooking, remove each packet of meat and place on a carving board. De-grease the braising liquid, adjust the seasoning if needed and keep warm. Remove the string from the meat and gently slice into ½ inch pinwheels. Gather the entire sliced packet onto your carving knife and plate individually on top of cooked egg noodles, mashed potatoes or mashed celeriac. Spoon over some of the braising liquid and vegetables and serve.

(If you prefer to serve this family style, place the meat packets on a serving platter whole and spoon over the braising liquids. Sprinkle with a shower of chopped parsley.)

rouladen-recipe-printable-version

 

Life on a 3 x 5 Card

recipe-cards

 

If you were born during the post-war baby boom years, you already know that mid-century, American cooking reached a kind of nadir when companies like Campbell’s Soup and Kraft took over our mothers’ kitchens.  In their eagerness to fulfill the image of the modern housewife, women happily hopped aboard the Big Food train to mediocrity with dishes that were made with canned or dried soup, processed cheese, mayonnaise, Jell-O, soft drinks and even potato chips.

And yet, go through your mother’s recipe box and a flood of memories will start to soften your dismissive thoughts about the food we grew up with.  Those boxes filled with index cards tell a story.  Not quite a journal, a woman’s recipe collection is more like a scrapbook, each card a memory of a certain time, place or event in her life that spills over to incorporate her family as well.

Family recipes are a treasured part of our past and the actual cards on which they were written become valued artifacts.  I know a woman who handles estate settlements for a large trust bank who recounted a story about a not insubstantial estate whose settlement was delayed because the family was locked in a bitter feud over who would get their mother’s recipe box. I’m guessing a few million dollars were being held up over a box of 3 x 5 cards.

It’s not so much about the recipes, but what they represent.  Sloppy Joes or Chicken Casserole made with three kinds of Campbell’s soup are not likely to make an appearance on my family table, but yet those recipes cards written in my mother’s hand or typed up by one of her neighbors with the attribution at the top:  “From the Kitchen of…” are still dear to me.

When my sister was in town a few years ago she started rummaging through my mom’s recipes in search of some in my grandmother’s handwriting.  She went through desserts and found Mrs. Weikert’s “Quick Dessert”.  The recipe meant nothing to us (9 graham crackers rolled fine, ¾ Cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, salt, 3 unbeaten egg whites and ¼ Cup nut meats.  Mix well and bake at 350° for 40 minutes.  Serve with whipped cream), but looking at the yellowed index card with a small grease stain in the corner written in my grandmother’s hand was as powerful to us as gazing at a photo of her.  There she was again, alive on the card, with Mrs. Weikert (her one-time neighbor) peeking over her shoulder.

That’s the thing about recipe cards—they are a link to the past and to every person who passed the recipe to a friend or family member along the way.  It’s like playing six degrees of separation, building a family tree and engaging in a kind of crowd sourcing all rolled into one.  It really is a pity that recipe cards are on their way out.  There is so much humanity packed onto one 3 x 5 card that can never be replicated in the cloud.

The great New Yorker writer, A. J. Liebling in his excellent  memoir about Paris, Between Meals, wrote:

“The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book…In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite.  On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”

Liebling, a great ‘feeder’ as he referred to himself (with the girth to back it up), was suggesting that the only food memories worth writing down are the ones that involve well-prepared, sumptuous feasts cooked with the freshest, finest ingredients available that will set you back either a small fortune, several hours out of your day or a few pounds in added weight—and often all three at once. Those are the food memories that come along only a handful of times in our lives if we are very lucky. The rest of the time our food memories are less about the food than where the memories actually take us: someplace that we no longer inhabit but can now briefly revisit. Food as a kind of time travel with the recipe card as your boarding pass.

When my sister came in town again just this past week to help me begin the decommissioning process of my parent’s home after we sadly had to move them to assisted living, I felt compelled to revisit my mother’s recipe cards.  My sister and I had just spent a good portion of our time together combing through boxes of old photographs. It was a whirlwind tour of our family history packed into a few short days which got me thinking about the recipe cards where so many of those memories are stored.

As my mother nears the end of her life, I will be writing about some of her more iconic recipes from time to time, like The Meatloaf Odyssey that I wrote about a few months ago. I will not post about her every time, but when I do I hope they will spark some memories of your own beloved family meals.

For me, recipes are a way into our stories. My mother’s recipe cards give voice to hers.

 

Stepmother Cookies

plated-stepmother-cookies

 

In last week’s post, Recipe Magic, I told my friend’s story about Stepmother Cookies to illustrate the sometimes mysterious way that certain recipes enter our lives and then become a part of us. I also used the story as a way into my own story about a recipe that might have easily passed me by but somehow got stuck inside me only to bubble up to the surface many years later.

I thought about posting the recipe for Stepmother Cookies along with my recipe for Alsatian Salad but decided against it because it wasn’t my story and the recipe isn’t part of my repertoire. I have since been asked to share the recipe and of course I will. I am not the gatekeeper for Stepmother Cookies. They are a terrifically good cookie and deserve a wider audience.

While I was making a batch of Stepmother Cookies this week to share with you in this post, I thought more about the circumstances behind them. There’s a lot that’s baked into them (wink, wink) that is worth exploring.

What has always interested me in the narrative—as I wrote in last week’s post—is what it revealed to me about the big-hearted nature of my friend who, in the simple act of asking for a recipe for the cookies that her children brought home from their stepmother, signaled to her daughters that it was okay to have two families and that the two could get along. Think about how reassuring that must have been to her children.

But what I realized I also love about this tale is that in naming them Stepmother Cookies, my friend had neutralized any lingering negative connotation associated with the label ‘stepmother’. Labels can be so powerful. This was no evil stepmother out of some fairytale who set out to poison her stepchildren. This was a stepmother who cared enough to make cookies, send her stepchildren home with them, and then share the recipe with their mother. The story says as much about the stepmother as it does the mother. Instead of modeling rivalry they were both modeling cooperation and goodwill.

So yes, by all means, make these cookies. All I ask is that you continue to call them Stepmother Cookies. It is such a touching story that serves as a reminder to all of us who make them that there are small ways that signal big messages when it comes to bridging divides or opening dialogues. No one doesn’t like cookies. Use them as your own way in.

(They also make for wicked good comfort food as we enter into these unconventional times.)

Share Your Stories

If you have a story to tell about bridging divides or opening a dialogue after you make a batch of Stepmother Cookies, please share them in the comments section.

 

Stepmother Cookies

Ingredients:
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar

2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

2 cups oatmeal
2 cups Rice Krispies
12 oz. chocolate chips

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350˚

Cream together the butter and sugar in a stand mixer at medium speed until smooth.

Add eggs and vanilla and beat until well-incorporated.

Lower the speed to low. Whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda and then slowly add to mixing bowl until well-incorporated.

Remove mixing bowl from stand and by hand, with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, mix in the oatmeal, Rice Krispies and chocolate chips. The batter will be quite stiff and it takes a bit of elbow grease to get the chocolate chips and Rice Krispies incorporated.

Drop by the spoonful onto a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper and bake 10 minutes (12 minutes if you like your cookies crispy).

Remove cookies from baking sheet and place on wire racks to cool.

Note:  I used both a silicone mat and parchment paper and discovered that the cookies that baked on parchment paper baked more quickly and were crunchier.

stepmother-cookies-recipe-printable-version

plated-stepmother-cookies