Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Terror, Oops, I Mean UTTER JOY that is Thanksgiving

Or at least the preparation leading up to Thanksgiving. First of all, who in hockey sticks decided that children need to have the entire week off from school? We started school August 4th, for goodness' sakes. So, instead of a peaceful week reading Gourmet and Food & Wine and Fine Cooking, choosing recipes, shopping for ingredients and assembling the meal of the year, I'm making bologna sandwiches and picking up clothes (or yelling at my kids to pick up their clothes). I can't even send the little darlings outside to ride their bikes - this November cold snap gives us a sunny, but windy and chilly 45 degree high for the day.

Deep breath. Here's what I need to accomplish for the day: Cheddar-Cayenne Coins from FC's "How to Cook a Turkey," and a double batch of Crescent Rolls from a long-ago Cook's Illustrated. I've already made the Maple & Ginger-Glazed Walnuts from "How to Cook a Turkey" and my great battle will be keeping my mitts off them throughout the day.

Tomorrow will be Cleaning Day, because it doesn't matter how gorgeous and delicious the feast will be, if my oak floors are grody and the bathrooms need refreshing, that's all anyone will remember. I must point this out about every jaw-dropping T-Day spread in the food magazines. They may emphasize planning ahead, but not a one mentions how to entertain the kids while you're cooking, and who will scour the house so it's presentable for family and friends.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I can return to the kitchen. I may even be out of my pj's by lunchtime. Or not.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Glory of Muffins

I received a phone call from the room mom the other day, asking me to send in a bag of chips for the kids' class party before the Thanksgiving break. The teacher will allow her fifth grade students to watch a movie and have a special snack. I laughed when my room mom friend asked me for chips. I said that if she wanted something homebaked, I'd be happy to oblige. To myself, I was thinking, "please, if you care at all for me, don't force me to make a third trip in three days to the supermarket!"

Fifth grade certainly is different from kindergarten and first grade, when daylong Thanksgiving feasts were celebrated and the children wore pilgrim hats and collars. Of course, the children always preferred to be Indians, with pasta beads around their necks, brown felt dresses and feathers in their hair. I treasure those years and probably still have at least one cardboard native headdress in the closet.

Back to fifth grade and my all-purpose home-baked goodie: morning glory muffins. Sort of a carrot cake muffin, these are loaded with fruit and love. They are a bit time-consuming to make, mainly due to assembling all the fruit. But they keep well and most children like them. You will get more praise from the teacher, however, because they have an aura of healthiness about them probably due to the fact that they're not covered in blue frosting like so many other sent-in treats.

My go-to recipe began with one in Susan Purdy's The Family Baker, which is probably my favorite baking book. Her recipes are true blue and never fail to please. Here is my adaptation of the recipe.

Morning Glory Muffins

1 cup packed Craisins (sweetened, dried cranberries)
1 cup crushed fresh or canned pineapple, drained
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, chopped
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
4 large carrots, peeled and grated to yield 2 cups
3 large eggs, at room temp
1 cup canola oil
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
demerara or sparkling sugar for topping

1. Preheat oven to 350 and coat muffin tins with baking spray or use paper liners.

2. In a large bowl, combine all the fruits, coconut and carrots. In another large bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla. Place the sifter over this bowl, measure into it the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon, then all at once sift these ingredients directly onto the wet mixture. Stir everything together until just blended; do not overbeat. Stir in the fruit mixture.

3. Divide the batter among the muffin cups, filling almost to the top. Sprinkle the topping sugar on each muffin. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the muffins rise, are crusty brown on top, and the top of the muffin springs back when touched. Remove the muffins from the oven and let cool in the pan for five minutes or so, then remove to a wire rack. Try to keep your mitts off the muffins for at least another 10 minutes - hot fruit can burn your mouth (voice of experience). Totally optional, yet heavenly: a dab of softened cream cheese on a warm muffin half.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Favorite Sandwiches

Lunch most days is a sandwich. Here are my favorites, and a few that I just want to think about:

1. Multi-grain bread, swiss cheese, sliced Fuji apple. grilled

2. White sourdough bread, steamed asparagus tips, cream cheese. This is my honeymoon sandwich.

3. Turkey breast, cherry relish, ciabatta. I heard this described on the radio last week and can't wait to try it.

4. Peanut butter & granola on multi-grain. When I'm too busy to think about what I should be eating.

5. Whole wheat bread, buttered, thinly sliced radishes and egg salad. Halcyon days of summer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Good Gravy

With Turkey Day a week away, I'm pleased to report that the gravy, she is done and in the freezer. This was quite easy to accomplish because I roasted a bone-in turkey breast for a weeknight supper and after slicing off the extra meat for sandwiches, was left with a carved-up carcass just crying out to be used for a higher purpose. The lovely bones of the turkey were enhanced with the remains of two roast chickens from the deep freeze, a few roasted vegetables and a bay leaf or two or three.

The broth was chilled overnight, the yellow fat skimmed off the next day and then clarified with an egg-white raft, and it really worked! The resulting caramel-colored broth was rich with collagen and ready for its turn as gravy, (known in my household as the sixth block of the Food Pyramid).

Here's how I made the broth:

1. I took three poultry carcasses and cleaned them of any nasty looking bits. A smidge of meat is ok, but skin isn't necessary. I hacked the carcasses into several pieces, to make them fit better in the stockpot.

2. Into my largest All-Clad Dutch oven, I poured a glug of canola oil. I suppose you could use olive oil, but that seems like such a waste. In went the veg, all roughly chopped: one carrot, one onion, one stalk of celery. The barest amount of salt to aid the vegetablees in releasing their liquid. Caution is the rule with salt in stockmaking: remember that the liquid will reduce considerably. After about 10 minutes of judicious stirring, add the poultry bones and then cover with cold water from the tap. Do not be tempted to use hot tap water, it may speed the process, but hot tap water may have more minerals in it which could alter the taste of the broth.

3. Toss in a bay leaf or two or three, and let simmer away on stovetop for at least one hour, and not more than three. Be careful to monitor the liquid level and refresh if it gets too low. If a scummy film appears, use a spoon or small sieve to scoop it out. It's always a good idea to skim frequently while stockmaking.

4. When the broth is finished, remove from heat and let cool. The easiest method is to fill a sink with water and ice and place the stockpot in it, accelerating the cooling time. Place the cooled broth, covered in the fridge and the next day, skim off the fat. While the container is still cold, pour three egg whites into the cool broth and set the pan over low heat. Gradually, the broth will heat and the egg whites will cook and gather all the scummy debris from the broth. This may take up to a half hour, so be patient. Occasionally and very gently, use a spatula to pull the egg white off the bottom of the pan. When the broth is clear, remove the pan from heat and scoop out and discard the cooked egg. Let the broth cool.

5. The cooled broth can be further clarified by pouring it through a strainer lined with paper towels. (I tried coffee filters, and my goodness, wasn't that a waste of time.) Take the resulting amber nectar and save for gravymaking at a later time.

Ok, it's gravy time, and here's what you need to do:

1. In a small saucepan, pour a glug of canola oil. This sounds a bit familiar. Add these vegetables, all roughly chopped, one carrot, one onion, one stalk celery. Toss in a bay leaf or two or three. Maybe a pinch of salt, but be vewy careful.

2. Stir the vegetables until they are nice and caramel-colored, about 10 minutes, then add 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Stir this into the vegetables for an additional 5 minutes or so. Then gradually add 4 cups of warm broth. Strain the broth through a sieve, discarding the solids. Cool and store the gravy in the fridge for a day or so, or place in the freezer until Thanksgiving Day.

3. On Turkey Day, stand by the stove, lovingly stirring the gravy, adjusting the seasoning and admiring your kitchen skills. Homemade gravy without lumps, and not requiring a packet or a pocket or a jar. Just a few essential items from the fridge.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shirley Corriher is a Purple Crayon

Monday night, I managed to get out of my house, dodge the dishwashing and kid-washing, and go to an actual book signing event and talk with actual adults. The Margaret Mitchell House and Literary Center featured "Good Eats" host Alton Brown and cookbook author Shirley Corriher discussing her new title "Bakewise."

"Bakewise" is the long-awaited follow-up to "Cookwise: the Secrets of Cooking Revealed," which was published more than 10 years ago. I guess you could say that "Bakewise" has been in the oven for a long time. I guess low and slow does the trick.

Corriher's premise, much like Harold McGee's, is that once you know the science behind baking and cooking, your creativity can take over and your cooking life will be all that much more exciting. Sort of like Harold, the imaginative crayon-carrying boy in Crockett Johnson's "Harold and the Purple Crayon." Of course, you know this book, "One night, Harold decided to walk in the moonlight..." There wasn't a moon, so Harold brought along his purple crayon and drew the moon. Harold and his purple crayon are an expression of the power of creativity. If your world doesn't feature a moon, use a crayon and put it in there. The same goes for cooking: if you want to make the best pound cake, use the best tools, ingredients and techniques. And take along "Bakewise," your purple crayon, the scientific knowledge you need to be creative.

The book signing event was a giddy night for Atlanta baking and Food Network geeks. The audience chuckled over Corriher's animated explanations of proteins and acids. Alton Brown, whose show frequently features Corriher as a food science expert, kept the night light with questions both technical ("diastatic or non-diastatic malt syrup?") and relevant (his daughter's pursuit of a spherical chocolate chip cookie).

And for those FoodTv fans who just haaaave to know: Corriher is as giggly and animated as you would expect; Alton carries a manbag, dresses like a law student from "The Paper Chase" and is engaging and witty with both children and adults.

Now that I'm home with my copy of "Bakewise," I'm determined to figure out how to make a ginger cookie that is truly tender and chewy while still as flavorful as my favorite (see below). I'm even considering trying Shirley's "Even Greater American Pound Cake," although I'm very attached to my classic pound cake, for ease of preparation as well as superior texture and taste. I think some serious scientific experimentation is in order.

Green Bean Soup: Color Me Convinced

Thanksgiving is near and as I reflect on all that I'm thankful for in 2008, things as varied as change coming to the White House, no more diapers, and low gas prices, I must say that joining a CSA program has been a highlight of the year. Each week since May, my kitchen has been filled with fresh, organic produce, provided by Farmers Fresh Food. The glorious summer bags loaded with juicy sweet blueberries and homely but heavenly heirloom tomatoes were bookended with the greens of spring and the greens of fall. Chard and spinach filled the spring bags, while kale, arugula, turnips and lettuces came in the past couple months.

A consistent player throughout the late summer and fall has been the weekly one pound bag of green beans. Before this year, I only made green beans one way: cooked to death in pork stock, like any true Southern cook should. This method works very well for the flat, hearty Romano or pole beans that came in the summer. But what about the skinny, delicate haricots verts that are available now? Here's my latest discovery, and what a revelation it is, because it combines a technique and a vegetable that don't get much play in my house: green beans pureed into a soup. If you're still with me, then you're braver than I. Green bean soup sounds like baby food to me. Blech. We don't do those little jars in my house anymore. The kids eat real, whole foods, just like the grownups.

Facing an abundance of green beans and knowing that more would be in my near future, I made the soup and now I'm hooked. Try it. And if you think of a clever name to tell the kids, let me know. Both of my girls pronounced the soup delicious, although they weren't crazy about the name "Green Soup."

Green Bean Soup with Lemon Scallion Butter

Lemon Scallion Butter

1/2 cup chopped fresh scallions
1/4 cup unsalted butter
grated peel of one lemon
Two tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 pounds green beans, trimmed and chopped
4 cups chicken broth, or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup cream or half-n-half, optional
Freshly ground pepper

1. To make lemon scallion butter, combine the first five ingredients in blender or food processor until well blended. Set aside.

2. To make the soup, cook the onion in the remaining butter until translucent. Add the beans and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken or vegetable broth and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook until the beans are tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Puree the soup in the blender, food processor or food mill. When using a food processor, I find it easier to remove the green beans from the broth with a slotted spoon and puree them until smooth. Put the pureed beans in a separate pot, adding broth until you get the consistency that you like. Warm the soup over low heat and add the cream, if you're using. The dairy is nice, but it mutes flavor and I like my soup intensely green and lemony.

4. Find your nicest soup plates and pour out a portion of the soup. Place a spoonful of the lemon butter in the middle of the soup. Makes about 4 reasonable servings.

In fall and winter, this soup is perfect with homemade buttermilk biscuits with shavings of good quality ham. In spring, I'd go with a chicken salad sandwich on white bread, cut into triangles.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Of Cookies and Proust

Perhaps no literary reference is appropriated as much as Proust's consideration of the madeleine in "Remembrance of Things Past." Go ahead, the next time you're browsing baking books at Borders, you will find that nine out of 10 recipe headnotes for madeleines will mention Proust. Considering that "Remembrance" is seven volumes long, I have doubts that so many food writers have truly read the book. I'm not a dilettante, I will not pretend that I have read Proust, although I have a copy of the first volume, "Swann's Way," somewhere in my home. However, I've read the allusion enough to submit my own substitute for the madeleine: the soft ginger cookie, a chewy disc, crackly with sugar, fragrant with cloves, cinnamon and the eponymous ginger, anointed with a puddle of raspberry jam right in the epicenter.

These cookies come from Becker's Bakery in Nashville, Tennessee, the Bakery of My Childhood. Bear with me as I reveal a bit of family history: my mom is a Nashville native, specifically of Brentwood, now a cornucopia of conspicuous consumption, but 60 something years ago just a small farm town near Music City. My mom likes to describe Brentwood as horse country, before all those country music stars built (really big) houses there. Although Dad's an Alabama native, he moved to Nashville in the early 60s for work, and then met and married Mom. My parents lived across the street from Mom's parents for several years, during which time my brother and I were born. Beginning in the mid-60s, better jobs called my parents to move to Texas and then South Carolina and finally, in 1978, Georgia. For me and my brothers, (two more would eventually come after me), the twin highlights of our childhood summers were a weeklong trip to the beach over the 4th of July holiday, and a week visiting my grandparents in Nashville. That visit always included a trip to Opryland, the Nashville Toy Museum, some really cool old folks, and Becker's Bakery at (I think) 8th Avenue.

I still remember the wood floors, wood display cases and fake wedding cake. Mom remembers the screen door in the back. While my brothers and I plastered our sticky hands on the display cases and shouted out the names of the treats, Mom would purchase the butter cookies, spritzes of pastel stars, in green, yellow and pink. We could each pick out a waving gingerbread man, one arm up and one arm down, sprinkled with red sugar. And no fewer than 2 dozen ginger cookies would come home with us. Or at least make it to the car, because I doubt they lasted more than 15 minutes with my sugar-crazed brothers (and me).

Every few years, we make a pilgrimage to Nashville, and that visit always included a trip to Becker's, until about 5 years ago when the store on 8th Avenue closed. There's still a Becker's in Donelson, on the north side of town, but the sentimental favorite near my mom's former home is no more. My daughter cried real tears when we told her. She was more upset than when I gave away her dog.

I have searched on top shelves and low shelves to find a recipe to equal Becker's, and this is the closest. It includes ground walnuts, which I don't think are in Becker's, but it makes for a tasty cookie. The texture is not quite as soft as Becker's, either, and I find that they are better after sitting for a day. These cookies are lovely on an autumn day, when you can sit with a cup of chamomile tea and curl up with a book, Proust perhaps, in a chair by a window with a clear view of the scarlet maple dropping its leaves.

Ginger Cookies

2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup Grandma's molasses
1/2 cup granulated sugar for coating the unbaked cookies
1/4 cup (approximately) seedless raspberry jam

1. In a bowl, stir together flour, walnuts, soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves; set aside. Preheat oven to 350.

2. In mixer bowl, combine butter and brown sugar; beat until well blended. Beat in egg, then molasses. Gradnually add flour mixture, beating until blended.

3. Spread granulated sugar in a shallow pan. Drop cookie dough by heaping tablespoons (I use a scoop for consistency) into sugar. Roll cookies to coat well, shaping them into balls as you roll.

4. Place about two inches apart on lined cookie sheets (I use Silpats, but parchment will work, too). With your thumb, make a small depression in the center of each cookie. Fill each thumbprint with about a 1/4 teaspoon jelly. I find that a baby feeding spoon, the narrow kind with the long handle, is just perfect for scooping the jelly and placing it on the cookie.

5. Bake the cookies until they are brown and feel firm when touched lightly, about 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Makes about 30 cookies. Which means doubling is probably in order because these cookies go fast!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Abundance of Riches

(Above) A sink of pure green: collards.

I was seduced by something green this week. Not a winning lottery ticket, sadly, but a 2 for $5 special on collard greens at the market. Big, fat bundles of the most perfect, clean greens I've ever seen. No slime, no grit, no half-eaten yellow leaves, just beautiful, cabbage-y collards ready to take home.

Here's a fact: you will never find recipes for collards in a Rachael Ray 30-minute meal cookbook. Cooking greens from scratch is a labor of love, which as another way of saying, a boatload of tedious work. But it is love for me, because, just like changing a newborn's nappies, cleaning and chopping collards, is a way to show your family you love them. That is, if your family likes greens, which mine don't. But someday they will, I just know it, which is why I bought the two humongoid bundles of drab green love and brought them home.

Not only are Rach's cookbooks devoid of greens recipes, so is my other fave ckbk, America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I forged ahead with making standard Southern-style greens in smoked pork stock, a la Gift of Southern Cooking. Only after I cooked the greens did I think to look in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and where I spied a half-dozen collard recipes, all of them worthy of trying. Maybe next time.

This is what I did:

1. I pulled out my two largest pots and filled them half-full with water. Into each, I chunked a smoked turkey leg. I buy these in the supermarket, in the shrink-wrapped packages, and keep them in the freezer. (A good Southern cook should never be without porky or smoky seasoning, so, so I also buy smoked turkey wings, and country ham scraps or seasoning cubes, and freeze those, also.). I let the turkey legs boil while I washed and trimmed the collards.

2. In my vegetable sink filled 3/4 with water, I rinsed the collard leaves then began pulling off the stems. This is the tedious part, but a child can be taught to help, all you do is fold the leaf in half and pull out the tough stem, which should then go in your compost bowl. As Elle says, Rinse and Repeat with the remaining collards.

3. I took the clean greens and bundled them, something like a cigar of basil to be chiffonaded (is that a word?), and then sliced them into inch-wide ribbons. I let the chopped greens boil for at least an hour, covered for most of the time. When I left the house for the afternoon carpool run, I covered the pots with foil and placed them in the convection oven on 200 for about two hours.

Notice that I have not seasoned these greens yet. In my mind, greens take much less salt than you would imagine, and I never know how much they're going to cook down and how salty the seasoning meat is, so I wait until the end to sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt.

Now, to serve the greens. Some folks use pepper vinegar, and I always keep a bottle on hand, but I personally like red wine vinegar, just a splash. A perfect autumn supper would be a big bowl of collard greens, swimming in pot liquor, a wedge of warm buttermilk cornbread and a side of fresh black-eyed peas. My kids would take one look at that meal and request cornflakes, the if-you-don't-like-the-meal default, so here's the rest of the menu:

Autumn Menu

Roasted Cajun-Spiced Turkey Breast

Southern-style Collard Greens

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Macaroni and Cheese