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A few days ago, Beloved Spouse and I went shopping for fish for that night’s dinner. With two excellent fish markets nearby, we have many good choices. This day, his eye fell on a display of fresh smelts. He loves them, knows that I don’t, and heroically offered to bypass them. But smelts only appear here occasionally in winter, and this was He Who Must Be Indulged (at least, sometimes). I insisted that we buy them.

smelt-school

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He was content to have the little fishes simply batter-fried, and perfectly willing to do the slightly messy work of heading and gutting them. For my part I dug out the recipe for fish-and-chips batter in the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. This is a fairly elaborate batter, which I chose because it makes a thick but light, stick-to-it-ive coating.

We needed only half a recipe’s worth for our small school of swimmers, so the first thing I had to do was separate out half an egg yolk and half an egg white. The half yolk got mixed into half a cup of flour, along with a tablespoon of milk (it should’ve been beer, but we didn’t have any in the house) and a pinch of salt.

That produced a dense globular mass. Next I was to “stir” into it 1½ tablespoons of milk and the same amount of water and keep stirring until the batter was smooth. No way: I had to whomp it with a whisk and loosen it with additional milk and water, but it finally smoothed. Then I beat my half egg white into stiff peaks and folded it into the batter. It rested on the kitchen counter for a couple of hours.
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three-batters

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At dinnertime the two of us worked together. I dunked the smelts in the batter

dipping

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and he managed the frying, in small batches.

frying

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The batter clung nicely. It made a thin crunchy crust with a gently cushioned interior.
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served

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Even I, the non-smelt-fancier, enjoyed picking up the little beasts by the tail and biting my way into them. You truly can’t notice the bones! Beloved Spouse, who ate 8 to my 5, was in a state of bliss. Here’s what he has to say about the meal:
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I plain and simple loved it. Here in New York, smelts are a strictly seasonal treat, usually coming onto the market in late December and hanging around until early February at the latest, so we have to grab ‘em whenever they appear. Most of them, I gather, are caught in fresh water as they come in from the oceans to spawn, and I’m told that in California smeltophiles can take them from the beaches with hand nets during their run. Californians have all the luck! Smelts are always tasty little devils, with a slightly fishy flavor that falls on the scale as strong for a freshwater fish and mild for a saltwater species. Frying, whether deep or shallow, seems to be the fate they’re born for. Many people insist on drinking beer with smelts, but ours were very happy – as were we – with a Paumanok Vineyards Minimalist Chenin Blanc, which turned a simple fish fry into an elegant dinner.
                                                                            – TM, a.k.a. BS, a.k.a. HWMBI

I like the Italian tradition of eating lentils on the first day of the new year. It’s supposed to bring good luck – and as the world seems to be heading, luck is going to be in great demand in 2017. Moreover, because they look a little like coins, lentils also signify prosperity. We can hope for that too.

lentils

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Most often, the centerpiece of our New Year’s Day dinner is a cotechino sausage on a bed of lentils, a classic dish that I’ve written about before here. We like to use an imported, fully cooked cotechino from Levoni, which has great depth of flavor and a wonderfully gelatinous character. And when we can get them, we use Castelluccio lentils – a special, small, golden brown variety from Umbria.

This year I decided to unbundle the traditional combination, using the cotechino in a small bollito misto for two and the lentils in a soup. I found a soup recipe that I liked in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It’s simple; it’s made with reliably flavorful ingredients, and there wasn’t a single one of them that I didn’t already have in pantry or refrigerator. Here they all are (half a recipe’s worth):

ingredients

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To begin, you lightly brown chopped onion in olive oil and butter; add chopped carrots, celery, and pancetta; and sauté those for a few minutes. Next, stir in chopped canned Italian-style tomatoes with their juices.

soup-base

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That mixture simmers, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Then you add the lentils, stirring them around a bit to coat with the soup base. Then salt, pepper, and broth – in our case, Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. About 45 more minutes’ cooking, covered, and the soup is done.

A dab of butter and some grated parmigiano garnish each bowl.

lentil-soup

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It was a simple, satisfying soup. The lentils, so tasty in their own right, were gently enriched by the flavors of the other ingredients. A very pleasant prelude to our little new year’s bollito.

bollito

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Incidentally, this post marks the beginning of my eighth year of writing this blog. I’ve very much enjoyed doing it, and I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking. I hope my readers will continue to find my culinary adventures and excursions interesting. Buon Capodanno e buon appetito!

No, I don’t mean the goose from last year’s Christmas – only the one from three days ago. But cooking it so traumatized me that I swear it’s the last goose I’m ever going to make. Let me tell you about it.

There are many opinions on how to roast a goose, all meant to confront the problem of the truly enormous amount of fat a goose has under its skin. This is a plus in one sense, because the fat makes a splendid cooking medium for many other foods (not least potatoes). But separating that fat from its native bird is a serious undertaking.

Some recipes say to start with a very hot oven for a while, then turn it down to low heat. Others say use only the high heat, while still others say only the low heat. How to choose? I’d only ever roasted one goose before in my life, some way to cookyears ago, and I can’t remember how I did it or how it turned out. This time I decided to rely on the ever-trustworthy Julia Child. In The Way to Cook, she has a recipe called Steam-Roasted Goose, which she says renders out the most fat and gives the most succulent flesh of any technique she’s tried. I can’t say she’s wrong, but what a production number it was!

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Beloved Spouse and I started working on our 11-pound goose a whole day in advance, since there was a lot of other cooking to be done for our 5-course Christmas Day dinner. I cut off the wing tips and added them to the giblets and neck to make stock for the eventual gravy. I pulled all the loose fat out of the bird’s cavity and rubbed it all over with lemon juice. I pushed two long skewers through the body, one to secure the wings and the other the legs. I tied the drumstick ends together against the tail. And I made shallow, angled stabs all over the fatty parts of the skin.

trussed-bird

Thus trussed, the goose went onto a rack in my biggest roasting pan, into which it just barely (whew!) fit.

close-fit

I poured in two inches of water, covered the pan tightly, and steamed the goose for an hour, checking several times on the water level. The goose rendered quite a lot of liquid, much of which was fat. It also stiffened and tried to stretch, but the skewers and string held fairly well. After the pot had cooled I lifted out the goose on its rack, poured off the liquid, rinsed the pan, and returned the goose to it. That was all the cooking it got that day.

steamed

There was no room for that big roasting pan in my refrigerator, so I turned off the heat in my study, opened both windows wide, closed the door, and left the covered pan there, hoping for a good cold night.

The next day the goose was fine. In the late afternoon I unskewered its legs to access its cavity and put in a stuffing. Rather than Julia’s suggested stuffings I made my own, softening onions and mushrooms in a lot of melted butter and squeezing them into a bowl of shredded bread, along with salt, pepper, and chopped pecans. Then I sewed up the vent and neck cavities and re-skewered the legs.

Back into the roasting pan the goose went, breast down, its rack lined with a double layer of foil. I strewed chopped carrots, onions, and celery around the pan, and poured in a few cups of the goose’s steaming liquid.

ready-to-braise

I covered the pan again, brought its liquid to a boil on top of the stove, and put the pan in a 325° oven for 1½ hours, basting every 20 minutes. By this time the dinner party was under way, with other cooking and serving tasks interleaving in the usual hectic manner. And there was still one more cooking stage for the goose: 30 minutes in the oven, uncovered and breast up, after which it had to be kept warm while its gravy was made.

Turning the goose breast-up was the fiendish step. How do you turn over 11 pounds of hot, wet, slippery, legs-jutting-out bird that’s lying in a deep roasting pan? I don’t know how Julia did it, but we could think of only one way: I gave Beloved Spouse my two heavy oven mitts and held down the foil and the rack while he heroically lifted the goose out and turned it over, without causing either of us third-degree burns or precipitating the bird onto the kitchen floor.

I can’t show you a photo of that action because we were both too fully occupied to take one, but here’s the finished bird ready to be carved. It’s quite ungainly looking. I could only get a quick snapshot, because the dinner guests and the scalloped potatoes, red cabbage, applesauce, rolls, and gravy were waiting.

done

It was indeed a very tasty goose, though the skin hadn’t really crisped. But, in our somewhat rattled state by then, both Beloved Spouse and I completely forgot about the stuffing. We never took it out of the goose, so nobody ate it. Too bad, because it was probably pretty good. We’ll find out when we can work up our courage to tackle the leftovers.

Despite all the Sturm und Drang, I call the evening a success, but I never want to have another like it! Cooking a goose that way almost cooked my goose: It just takes too much time and energy in the context of all the other components of a major holiday meal. Next Christmas maybe just a simple standing rib roast of beef. Beloved Spouse says “Yes, please!”

Christmas is the only time of year I ever bake cookies. And then, in keeping with the spirit of holiday abundance, I bake a lot of them! This year I did four kinds of nut cookies: one each with almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and walnuts. Two are old favorites I make almost every year. One is a recent addition to my repertoire. And one is totally new to me.

Peanut Butter Cookies

peanut-butter

For me, these are the Ur Christmas cookie, going back to my earliest childhood. I don’t recall what recipe my mother used, but I love one that I clipped from an issue of Saveur magazine in 2000. With chunky peanut butter and dark brown sugar, it makes rich, luscious cookies that we look forward to every year.
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Toll House Cookies

toll-house

Another “wouldn’t be Christmas without” kind of cookie at our house – always from the recipe printed on the Nestle’s Toll House Morsels bag. This year I boldly tried one of its suggested variations, which is to add grated orange rind. A mere 1½ teaspoons of clementine rind made a surprisingly strong presence in 50 two-inch cookies. I found it a pleasant change, but Beloved Spouse – even more of a traditionalist than I – still prefers the classic version.
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Hazelnut-Brown Sugar Cookies

hazelnut

Two Christmases ago I tried this recipe from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. It was very good, so I did it again this year. It’s a typical nut cookie procedure: You cream butter and brown sugar, beat in egg and vanilla, stir in flour, baking soda, and chopped nuts. Drop onto greased pans and bake in a moderate oven. This time they came out even better than last year’s – crisper and more delicate – possibly because I used light brown sugar instead of dark. Something to remember for next year.
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Granadinas

spanish

This was my new Christmas experiment. They’re almond cookies, a specialty of the Andalusian city of Granada. The recipe is from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain, and it’s the oddest cookie I’ve ever made. It starts with heating a cup of flour in a skillet for several minutes, not letting it brown. Cooled, the flour is mixed with ½ cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, and ¾ cup ground almonds. Add an egg and ½ cup of lard, and work the whole mixture into a dough. Shape it into one-inch balls, lay them on a baking sheet, and flatten the center of each one “with your index finger.”

three-stages

I did all that, baked them as directed, and they came out very well. You can’t actually taste the lard, but it provides a hint of savoriness underneath the almond nuttiness. Granadinas are supposed to be dusted with powdered sugar, but for us they’re sweet enough just plain.

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christmasdivider7

tins

So here are this season’s cookies in their tins, ready to make a sweet contribution to the year-end festivities for Beloved Spouse, our holiday guests, and – let us not forget – me.

A few times a year, I get an urge to try cooking pork tenderloin. This is strange, because in the past I’ve hardly ever achieved a successful dish with that cut of meat. I don’t know why; I’ve just assumed it was “not in my skill set,” as a work colleague of mine once said when he was asked to take on a task. But I keep trying, and this time I think I succeeded.

1000 Italian RecipesThe recipe I used was Balsamic-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Arugula and Parmigiano, from Michele Sciolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. I liked the look of it because it had enough other flavorings to be attractive but not so many as to turn the dish into a big production number. And it was extremely easy to prepare.

condimentsThe main – almost the only – effort it took was to stir together a glaze of minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, honey, salt, and black pepper, a combination of tastes that promised interesting results. I happened to have some very fine balsamic and a jar of good acacia honey to use for that.
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I laid the tenderloin in a snug baking dish, brushed the glaze over it, and roasted it in a very hot oven, pouring a little water into the dish after the first 15 minutes. The pork was ready after 20 more minutes, without any basting.
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tenderloin-cooked

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While the tenderloin rested in its pan for 10 more minutes, I tossed a bunch of baby arugula with a balsamic vinaigrette. Then I placed the meat on a platter for slicing, drizzled the pan juices over it, spread the arugula around it, and sprinkled grated parmigiano over the salad.

tenderloin-served

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(Actually, the recipe calls for making cheese shavings with a vegetable peeler, but I didn’t have a chunk of parmigiano available. The grated cheese was fine.)

The result was the excellent medley of flavors I’d hoped for. The meat was only gently imbued with the glaze, but it had created a very nice, light pan sauce. I love arugula even just plain, and dressed as it was here, it made a sparkling foil for the sweet, succulent pork.

Science has shown that you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Sometimes kitchen arts can do that too. It worked, this week, for me.

Beloved Spouse had innocently brought home a new variety of bread to try – a large baguette-style loaf listed by our usually reliable market as Italian Bread. It looked reasonable, though it felt a bit hefty. When sliced into, it proved to be essentially commercial white bread: The dense, fine, slightly sweet crumb had to have been due to more ingredients than the flour, yeast, and salt that a proper Italian loaf uses.

loaf

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When we want white bread in our house I make the White Bread Plus recipe from Joy of Cooking, and it’s a very different animal. So this travesty was going to be useless unless I found something decent to do with it. Resourcefully (she modestly said), I did: Bread pudding.

From a few unfortunate restaurant experiences, I know it’s possible to produce a boring bread pudding, but all the ones I’ve ever made are wonderful simple desserts – easy enough for everyday use, interesting enough to serve to guests. So I set to work on this one, using only ingredients that I had on hand.

My bespoke knife man (a big bread pudding fan) cheerfully reduced the loaf of bread to cubes. It made almost six cups’ worth.

cubed

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The next thing I needed was two cups of milk. I didn’t have any fresh, so I made up some with nonfat dry milk powder, boosting its butterfat with a leftover half cup of heavy cream. I scalded that liquid, melted in half a stick of butter, stirred in ⅓ cup of sugar, poured it over the bread, and left it for 15 minutes to be absorbed.

Then I considered fruit for the filling. My fruit bowl contained several bananas, a pear, and an apple. Any of them would have been good. I chose the apple, peeled and chopped it, and added ¼ cup of raisins to it.

fruit

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When the bread was thoroughly moistened, I mixed in the fruit, along with two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

mixture

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The pudding mixture went into a heavily buttered baking dish and then into a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the top was lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

baked

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It was a delight, as always – warm and fragrant, lightly fruit-sweet, moist enough not to need a sauce (though it never objects to a ladleful of crème anglaise). Of course, there was far more than two of us could eat at a sitting, but one of the beauties of bread pudding is its resilience. It keeps well, reheats well – even freezes well, though mine rarely lasts long enough for that.

served

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Best of all, in any of its homely or elegant variations, bread pudding is a thoroughly comforting thing to eat. And given the way things have gone this fall, we all need as much comfort as we can get. Beloved Spouse and I may eat a lot of bread pudding this winter.

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

As Thanksgiving approached last week, I had to decide on a dessert that would be my contribution to the festive dinner we have every year at the home of friends. What should it be this time? I’m a traditionalist, so my mind turned to pie – a dish that’s both generally popular and easy to transport.

pie-fixes-everything

Apple pie is always nice, but a little ordinary. Mince pie is too heavy after a rich meal. I make a very good pumpkin pie (using butternut squash), from a recipe in Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry, but that’s almost too obvious. Then I remembered a recipe for pumpkin gelatin chiffon pie that I’d tried once from Joy of Cooking. Just the thing – familiar but also slightly unusual, and with a filling lighter than the dense custard of a typical pumpkin pie.

The recipe calls for a fully baked pie shell – kind not specified. With soft, moist fillings I like to use Clayton’s hot-water crust. For this type of pastry, rather than cutting chilled shortening into the flour and then adding ice water, you dissolve butter or lard in boiling water and mix the flour into the resulting cream. You lose the flakiness of a regular short crust, but the crisp shell never gets soggy from the filling, which is particularly useful for a pie that must be refrigerated.

I made the pastry the day before Thanksgiving. Also, that evening I took a pie’s worth of previously baked, strained squash from the freezer and left it to defrost overnight. The next morning I rolled out the crust, baked it, and let it cool.

baked-shell-2

(No, it wasn’t all gray on the left side. My camera was doing some strange things with light.)

For the filling I first soaked a tablespoon of unflavored gelatin in ¼ cup of water and let it hydrate while I stirred ½ cup of milk, ½ cup of sugar, 3 egg yolks, salt, and spices into my squash. Actually, I increased the recipe’s spice mixture. Rombauer calls for ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. I doubled the cinnamon, went a bit heavy on the nutmeg, and added ½ teaspoon of ginger and a pinch of cloves. The mixture cooked in a double boiler until it thickened, which took only a few minutes.

double-boiler

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Off heat, I stirred in the soaked gelatin and stirred until it dissolved. Poured that mixture into a bowl and put it in the refrigerator to chill. When the gelatin began to set, whipped three egg whites and folded them in. And that was all the “cooking” it needed.

pumpkin-egg-whites

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I filled the pie shell with the light, cushiony curds and put the finished pie into the refrigerator.

It’s only a mile walk from our home to our friends’, so in the cool late afternoon the pie traveled along with us serenely in its plastic carrier. It had another brief stint in the hosts’ refrigerator, while everyone around the table tucked into several courses of an excellent dinner, and then appeared – a perfect (if I do say so myself), spicily rich but palatally light conclusion for the feast.

pumpkin-chiffon-pie

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The tiny portion left over we took home and happily consumed the next day. It tasted just as good. I should make this excellent pie more often (enthusiastic yesses in the background from Beloved Spouse).

last-slice