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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Traditional American Food and Recipes Old and New

In between other projects, I’m researching background for a culinary mystery, and I find myself reading a lot about James Beard. In fact, I’m browsing through one of his memoirs, Delights and Prejudices. For all his broad-ranging knowledge of international food and his snobbishness, Beard was a proponent of traditional American cooking. He despised French fries, calling them soggy, greasy, and tasteless—but he relished a good pan of cottage fries, those potatoes sliced thin and fried until crisp. To read Beard is to rediscover some old favorites—and the right way to fix them.

I’m also a devotee of Sam Sifton’s New York Times cooking column, but reading it—what? five times a week? —I sometimes feel bombarded by recipes calling for ingredients I’ve never heard of and probably can’t get easily and dishes I’ve never imagined—maqluba, Baharat, gojuchang, pad kee mao. And recipes that sound outrageous to me, like charred strawberry ice cream—do you char the berries on the grill before making the ice cream? (I think that one is not Sifton’s fault but came from a “cutting edge” food magazine). Or Oaxacan hibiscus foam—I’m not sure yet if that’s a topping for a margarita or a flower (the web offers pictures of both). Sometimes I long for good old-fashioned meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

But it is spring and, as I said before, time to think about salads. Buried in the research material I inherited for the Alamo book was a folder of vintage recipes.  For now, I’ll spare you the ones dealing with liver and tongue sandwiches and offer instead the advice on spring salads.

“The greatest possible discrimination must be exercised in the selection of the salad at this season of the year. For a luncheon salad, the fancy may be permitted to move at will [you can include nuts, berries, and other fruit] … but for a dinner salad, simplicity itself must be the rule. It may be composed of lettuce or endive or romaine or cress, and it must be dressed in the only perfect way such a salad can be dressed, with the mixture of oil and acid of the ancient Latins and Greeks. To be absolutely without fault, the dressing should be mixed at the table, just as it is to be served.”

The article recommends placing ¼ tsp. each pepper, salt, and paprika in the bowl, followed by a Tbsp. olive oil. Then, impale an ice cube on a fork, stir the ingredients until well blended. Add a tsp. of vinegar, and then alternate oil and vinegar, always stirring, until you have added three Tbsp. of oil and one of vinegar. Taste and add salt and paprika as needed. Apparently, the moisture from the melting ice aids in the vinegar/oil emulsion. That ice cube would make a showy presentation, but it reminds me of a family favorite recipe.

Rub a salad bowl thoroughly with the split sides of a garlic clove. Discard garlic and rub bowl with salt, dry mustard, and a bit of pepper. Crumble blue cheese in the bottom of the bowl and add vinegar. Mash blue cheese into vinegar, with a fork, until it dissolves in the vinegar. Add olive oil. These days the ratio is considered two parts oil to one of vinegar (it always used to be three-to-one). The amount of vinegar you put in determines how much dressing you make. (I frequently end up with way too much dressing, so I simply save it in the fridge for another day; I believe salads should be lightly dressed.) Add torn greens, toss and serve.

And on the subject of dressings, I just made a batch of Chuy’s creamy jalopeño dip and dressing. There are several versions on the web, and I believe any of them will do—except that I used pickled jalopeño slices and a bit of the juice. And do use cilantro and lime juice.

Happy spring salads everyone.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

A spring salad

Spring is here, and it’s time to turn our kitchen thoughts to lighter dishes and more salads. My freezer has several small containers that combined will make one last pot of soup, and I’m wondering—almost wishing—for a cold snap so I can use them. But otherwise, my mind is on lighter eating.

And here’s a salad that is refreshing and different, but it requires a bit of dexterity. It means hollowing out a head of iceberg lettuce, so you can stuff it. Whatever you say about iceberg—tasteless, all water, etc.—you have to admit it is lovely in its crispness.

Get a good, firm head of lettuce and wash it thoroughly under cold running water. Peel off the outer layer of leaves and then core it. You can dig the core out with a paring knife, but there’s an easier, faster way. Hold the lettuce in your hands, core end down, above a cutting board. With all your might, slam it on that cutting board so that the core takes the brunt of the force. It should sleep right out. (This is also useful for making wedge salads.)

Scoop out as much lettuce as you can without threatening the integrity of the shell. If you want, chop a bit of the extra lettuce fine and mix it into the filling.

Separately, mix the filling:

1 pkg. cream cheese, softened to room temperature

2 Tbsp. soft, creamy blue cheese

2 Tbsp. grated carrot

2 Tbsp. fresh tomato, diced fine

1 large scallion, diced fine

Salt and pepper to taste but be cautious—it’s easy to overdo here.

Pack the filling into the center of the head of lettuce. You will think you have way too much filling but keep packing, pushing down into all the spaces, You’ll be surprised at how much fits in.

Wrap the finished salad in clear wrap and chill for an hour before serving. Slice to serve. Serves four.

Makes a nice change from a tossed salad. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A weird day of food, some avocado ideas, and a list of dislikes

Dinner tonight
Admittedly, my eating habits today were a bit weird. I started the day with a biscuit with butter and honey—good wild honey, straight from the hive. Good but not nutritious, nor the balanced breakfast nutritionists recommend.

For lunch today I met two friends—how we know each other is complicated, but one is the mother of kids my kids went to school with and the other is the aunt of yet another schoolmate. We met at Carshon’s deli, and I ordered something I’ve been wanting—pickled herring with sour cream. Turns out I was eating with a picky eater who said it almost turned her stomach to watch me eat herring. Surely, she was joking—you think? Then she mentioned sweetbreads, which I’ve never tried and apparently, she thought were revolting. She even made a face at the server’s suggestion of butterscotch pie. I must learn to be more sensitive to other people’s finicky tastes. Often at the deli, I have a tongue sandwich, and I know that’s hard for some people to watch me eat it.

Today my friend said, “Who taught you to eat like this?” and I said, “A little bit my folks. We had tongue when I was growing up”—though I think of it as British and not Jewish. But the real culprit or benefactor, interpret it as you will, was my Jewish ex-husband. From him I learned to eat herring, and lox and bagels, and chopped liver, and other delicacies. I’ve always said he gave me two wonderful gifts: four beautiful children and a taste for Jewish food. But a balanced meal, my lunch was not.

I did better at dinner, with hamburger Stroganoff (the recipe is in Gourmet on a Hot Plate) and a green salad with leaf lettuce, avocado, croutons, blue cheese, and Paul Newman’s Own Vinaigrette, because making the Stroganoff took a while, and I was too lazy to make my own dressing. If you want to talk about Jewish food, Stroganoff would not be on the list. I have known adults who, having put their religion aside, still cannot eat Stroganoff because it violates the old kosher law against mixing meat and dairy. Fortunately, I have no such baggage and love it. Tonight, I had a half pound of ground sirloin left, for a recipe that requires two pounds, so I kind of guessed at the amounts, but it came out fine.

Avocado toast
I am loving avocados lately. I’m not sure if they’re in season or I have just happened on good ones and finally learned how to treat them—refrigerate at the first sign of softening. But I fix them every which way. Jordan’s version of avocado toast is more elaborate, but I simply butter a piece of toast, done medium, and put chunks of avocado on it, mushing them with a fork until they turn into a lumpy mess. Then I sprinkle lemon or lime over them and enjoy. Sometimes, as in this picture, I put a little smoked salmon under the avocado. Or try scrambled eggs on top of it.

My favorite avocado salad is so easy: chunk up a half or whole avocado, depending on how piggy you feel, in a bowl with a sliced scallion, some halved cherry tomatoes, and a generous crumble of blue cheese. Dress with lemon juice. With the oil in the avocado, you don’t need oil in the dressing.

Finally I saw a thing on the internet tonight about foods some celebrities won’t eat. To my delight, bell peppers were on the list for two chefs, and one said, “They ruin everything they touch.” That’s what I’ve been preaching for years. Mayo made the list for Rachel Ray because the idea of eggs in shelf-stable mayo bothers her (that’s a mild translation of what she said), Ina Garten doesn’t like cilantro (a lot of folks don’t, and some are allergic—it was an acquired taste for me), Martha Stewart and Alton Brown are united in opposing truffle oil which they say is nothing but chemicals and has nothing of truffles about it. Anne Burrell—remember her from America’s worst cooks—can’t eat salmon or blue cheese but wishes she could. I don’t blame her—they’re both favorites of mine. And finally there was a man I didn’t recognize who said he can’t eat okra because of the slime factor. Now there’s a man after my own heart.

Happy cooking everyone!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Meat loaf and the millennials

Millennials seem to be setting the standard for us in a lot of areas, from fashion to food. But I am particularly bothered that I keep reading about things that millennials won’t eat. Foods that are passé now. Many of them are my favorites. I don’t mind giving up American cheese, that plastic substitute for cheddar, and I won’t miss chain restaurants, but I will kick and scream when you tell me it’s not fashionable to eat meat loaf.

Other things on the list of foods that are “out” include chicken pot pie, mayonnaise, canned tuna, big turkeys, sloppy Joe, and an entire meal—brunch. Really? Have you had chicken pot pie made with cream cheese in the sauce? So good. And mayonnaise and canned tuna? What  do these people eat for lunch? How do you celebrate Thanksgiving without the biggest turkey you can fit into your oven? As for sloppy Joe all I can say is that the writer who made that pronouncement never had my sloppy Joe made with red wine. Even Jacob loves it. And brunch? That most delightful of meals—I’ve often found it an easy way to entertain. My menu includes sliced ham, egg casseroles, fruit salad, some good Danish, and, of course Bloody Marys. Do away with that? Never.

But the abolition of meat loaf really got me. When my kids were little, I made a lot of meat loaf. It wasn’t always popular. Megan called it “gelatinous,” a word she manages to infuse with unbelievable disdain; Colin complained that it was too much filler and not enough meat. I happily made meat loaf sandwiches with mayo the next day—see? Where would the world be without mayo? I confess in those days I rarely followed a recipe.

Somewhere along the way I discovered Hunt’s canned meat loaf fixings, and things got better. Then I found a recipe in Texas Electric Co-op magazine that had all that meatloaf should—onion, celery, ketchup, mayonnaise, I think even Worcestershire, everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. I also learned that if you shaped meat into a loaf on a larger pan, you didn’t get as much gelatinous stuff as you do if you make it in a loaf pan. I’ve never tried those special meat loaf pans with faux bottoms so the juices drain, but they might be the solution too.

I made a lamb meat loaf recently, and we loved it. I realize not everyone likes lamb, but this mixes lamb and beef, and it was really good. Here’s my take on it:

2 eggs

½ c. breadcrumbs

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

1 lb. ground beef

1 lb. ground lamb

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. dried basil

½ c. ketchup

1 Tbsp.  Worcestershire

            Sauté the onion, garlic, thyme, and basil in olive oil.

            Use a medium bowl to beat the eggs until light and frothy. Then add the bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Add the onion and garlic mixture, the ground meats, and the ketchup and Worcestershire.

The only way I know to mix meat loaf is to wash and dry your hands thoroughly and dig in, Mix until no streaks of egg show and you’re quite sure everything is blended..

Shape as you wish—either round or loaf-shaped—on a greased jelly roll pan or roasting pan, something with a lip to catch the juices.

Bake at 350o for at least an hour, probably a little more. Let it sit to “collect itself” for ten minutes before slicing and serving. This works well in your toaster oven.



Friday, March 1, 2019

All thing salmon

I goofed. Yesterday was supposed to be my cooking blog day, and I wrote a regular, every-day Judy’s Stew post. Mostly because I keep getting the days of the week mixed up and am chronically a day ahead of myself. So yesterday was Friday to me, and I have no idea what I did with Thursday. So please pretend today is Thursday, and let’s eat some smoked salmon. In case you haven’t noticed, I love all things salmon. Today smoked salmon is on my mind—and my taste buds. In case you haven’t noticed, I love all things salmon. Today smoked salmon is on my mind—and my taste buds.

Hot smoked

A word about smoked salmon: because I love lox, I ordered smoked salmon on my first trip to Oregon. What I got was totally different than what I expected. It was hot smoked salmon, which means it had been brined and then cooked in a smoker, probably over wood coals. It has the texture of broiled salmon but a distinctive flavor according to the brine used to prepare it.

Cold smoked salmon, however, is really raw fish. It is smoked by brining it. The texture is quite different from hot smoked salmon. I prefer cold smoked, and that’s what I used in the following recipes.

Not too many years ago, cold smoked salmon (or lox, which is salt cured) was a treat to be gotten only at the deli. Now it comes in four-ounce packages in many groceries. A butcher behind the deli counter at Central Market once told me that the packaged smoked salmon was fresher than the so-called fresh in his display counter.

Cold smoked
Last week I had a delightful visit from an old friend. We decided to eat lunch in the cottage because it would mean more visiting time. Besides, she always liked my cooking. So I prowled around and tried to decide what to serve her—something simple and easy but distinctive. No tuna or chicken salad stuffed in an avocado. I made a salmon-and-potato-salad platter, and it got raves.

Smoked salmon and potato salad platter

1 lb. new potatoes, cooked and peeled (this might be one of those rare cases where canned sliced white potatoes work best).

Salt and pepper

Juice and zest of one lemon

A splash of white wine vinegar

Olive oil

Capers, rinsed and drained

2 tsp. horseradish

¾ cup creme fraiche (substitute sour cream if you must or make your own crème fraiche: see note in Condiments section)

2 Tbsp. red onion or two scallions, chopped fine

¾ lb. smoked salmon, separated into bite size pieces
1ripe avocado, sliced

Boil potatoes until just cooked; peel and dress while still warm (if using canned, perhaps heat in microwave or toaster oven just a bit—warm potatoes absorb dressing better).

Mix all of lemon zest and half the juice, vinegar, and olive oil (remember the 3:1 proportion of oil to acid) and whisk to mix. Pour over warm potatoes.

Separately mix horseradish into crème fraiche.  Stir in remaining lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste.

Lay out salmon pieces on plater. Spoon any dressing left over. Artfully add potatoes, mounding them in the center of the platter. Randomly arrange avocado slices.Drizzle crème fraiche dressing over all and sprinkle with chopped dill and whatever form of onion you choose. Nice served with baguette slices and a glass of white wine.

Another easy but showy dish is smoked salmon pizza. Years ago there was a restaurant that served individual pizzas, using tortillas as the crust. The topping was spinach, with tomatoes, onions, and, I think, cheese. Delicious and an idea to remember. But when I was trying to copy a picture of a smoked salmon pizza from a magazine, I remembered the tortilla trick. Great way to serve two.

Smoked salmon pizza

Two flour tortillas, lightly toasted

3 Tbsp. crěme fraiche or sour cream

3 Tbsp. chopped chives or the green parts of 2 scallions

4 oz. sliced smoked salmon

2 heaping Tbsp. black caviar

Mix the 2 Tbsp. chives and crěme fraiche and spread generously over tortillas. Top with salmon and spoon one Tbsp. caviar into the middle of each salmon tortilla. I used black caviar for color contrast, but you could use golden. I’d advise against red. A tiny jar of caviar really isn’t that expensive. Garnish with remaining chives and serve immediately.

I’m not through with salmon yet. Coming another week: salmon burgers vs. salmon croquettes.