Monday, December 29, 2008

Jewish Penicillin

It is quite possible that there is no other food more authentic to the American Jewish experience than matzoh ball soup. Merely saying the words conjures images of “bubbe” (the Yiddish term for grandmother) standing over a simmering pot of chicken broth.

I often meet non-Jews who have heard of matzoh ball soup but never experienced it. Indeed, they confess, they are puzzled by how a cracker can be made into a ball, and why in G-d’s name it would be served in soup. Those of us who grew up with it never really thought much about the incongruity of this notion because we understand the role of matzoh in our collective Jewish history and culture.

Matzoh is most closely linked to Passover, one of the most important holidays on the Hebrew calendar. The holiday comes from the story of Exodus, wherein the bible says that God inflicted ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh would release the Israelites, who he had been holding in slavery. The tenth plague was the killing of firstborn sons, however, the Israelites were instructed to mark their homes with the blood of a spring lamb, and upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord “passed over” these homes and their sons were spared.

So how does Matzoh fit in here? The story goes that when Pharaoh freed the Israelites they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread to rise. As they traveled through the dessert with the unleavened dough in their knapsacks, the desert sun baked the dough into hard, flat bread now called matzoh.

In observance of our people's suffering in the desert and their exodus from slavery in Egypt, no leavened bread is eaten during Passover, and Matzoh is one of the primary symbols of the holiday.

We are a resourceful people, however, and modern Jewish cooks have found a thousand ways to make Passover’s lack of baked goods tolerable, including making matzoh into cakes and other goodies that pretty closely resemble leavened products. Sort of.

This usually requires lots of eggs, even more egg whites, a lot of beating and whisking...and a whole lot of luck. As any cook knows, soufflé-type baked goods are notoriously challenging and unpredictable. To complicate matters further, no flour can be used; only matzoh meal (ground matzoh) or matzoh cake meal (finely ground matzoh).

Which brings us back to matzoh balls. Since noodles are out of the question during Passover (as are dumplings), Eastern European Jews needed something to put in chicken soup. Hence, the mixture of matzoh meal, melted shortening (usually margarine, but more authentically, chicken fat) and eggs, formed into balls, poached in water, then cooked in chicken stock.

I’m sure you are wondering why I’m bringing up matzoh ball soup during the “Festival of Lights” (Hanukkah) instead of Passover. I actually made the soup about 10 days ago, at the behest of my son. Like most good Jewish boys, he has his mamma wrapped around his little finger, and when he came down with a nasty cold just a few days before his birthday, I asked him what he wanted to eat.

“Matzoh ball soup,” he said, without hesitation.

Generations of Jewish mothers have prescribed chicken soup (Jewish penicillin) for colds, a home remedy that has been passed from mother to daughter over centuries. Turns out they were right; scientists have identified an enzyme in chicken broth that has been proven to relieve congestion. Lesson here? “You should listen to your mother!!”


I could have gone to the deli and picked up an order of soup in a cardboard container, and it would have been tasty. After all, making it is time consuming. But my maternal instincts kicked in, and off to my nearest Hiller's store I went for the basic ingredients.


The soup is always best made with home-made chicken stock, but with a sick boy at home, I didn’t have time to stew a chicken or two (or better yet, the bones of a roasted chicken) so I used packaged chicken broth instead.




The recipe calls for seasoning the matzoh meal with just salt and pepper, but I always add parsley flakes, some shallot salt (from Penzey’s, it’s fantastic), a pinch or two each of marjoram, thyme, and rubbed sage and lots of freshly ground black and white pepper. Matzoh balls shouldn’t be spicy – Jewish food seldom is, and this is comfort food, after all – but I’ve eaten enough flavorless matzoh balls to know that some herbs and spices can make a big difference.



This is the chicken fat (also known as “schmaltz” but that’s covered in another blog) in its solid state at room temp. Available already rendered in little tubs at Hiller's. 


Now melted and ready to be mixed with the eggs and matzoh meal....





Mixing the eggs, water, maztoh meal, chicken fat and seasonings.


The mixture then rests in the refrigerator.

There is great debate (but of course) among Jewish cooks as to whether the matzoh balls should be firm and chewy, or soft and fluffy. My family was always of the “soft and fluffy” school of matzoh balls, so although the recipe calls for resting the dough for 30 minutes, I give it a full hour, often more. This is really what determines the texture; how much time the matzoh meal has to absorb the liquid in the mixture.

After the allotted time, use wet hands to shape the dough into 1” balls. I make mine a little bigger than that since the dough is a little fluffier after resting for over an hour.











The shaped balls are then carefully dropped into gently boiling water, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan before they float to the top.

They simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes, until they are fluffy and have increased in size by about 1/3 or more.










A bowl of finished matzo balls (foreground),
and more waiting for their turn in the stockpot (background).

While the matzoh balls are cooking, I cut up some carrots and celery and put it in a large saucepan with the chicken broth. By the time the matzoh balls were finished, the celery and carrots were tender and had given the packaged broth a sweet, freshly-made flavor.




Comfort…



















…and joy.

(Oy! That hair!)

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Shiksa's Guide to Making Latkes

A Shiksa’s Guide to Making Latkes

Hanukkah--the holiday with as many spellings as Liz Taylor has last names--is early this year, meaning you've just barely finished the turkey leftovers and you're now staring at a 10 pound bag of potatoes and wondering what you did with that kosher caterer's business card.

Although this holiday has less religious significance than many other Jewish holidays it is, arguably, the most fun. We have spinning dreydels, chocolate coins wrapped in silver and gold, candles to light, gifts to open and, most importantly, pounds and pounds of potatoes and onions to shred and fry. And who doesn’t love a holiday that entails spending hours over skillets of hot canola?

So in order to prepare us all for this festive occasion, I thought I would share the proper technique for making latkes, with special instructions for the novice latke maker and any shiksas* among us who might find themselves in the unfortunate position of hosting this year’s festivities.

Please note:  It is important that you not skip any of these steps or you'll be the topic of conversation at next week's mahjong game, and it won't be pretty.
--------------------

Latkes: Preparation, Recipe and Serving Method

Here are instructions and a recipe for real Jewish Latkes; the kind that stink up your house for weeks (especially if you make 90 of them for your family Hanukkah party and leave the next day for two weeks in Boca).

Just ten easy steps.  What, you have something else to do besides fry latkes for 14 people?

Preparation:

1) Argue for months (beginning around Rosh Hashana) over who is making the latkes this year. When you are chosen, casually mutter under your breath that yours are better, anyway.

2) Phone all of the other people involved (namely those who weren't chosen to make latkes and a few of your unsuspecting shiksa* girlfriends) and whine until they agree to come over to help you. (Your shiksa friends will only fall for this once, so choose wisely.)

3) Cover your stove and other work surfaces to protect them from hot oil (foil works well). In fact, draping your entire kitchen in Reynolds Wrap and having a Hazmat team at the ready would not be overkill. (Those guys that cleaned up after the BP spill in the gulf would be perfect.)

4) Put on your oldest "schmatta" (an old rag of an outfit) because the smell will never leave your clothing. Never. Ever. Trust me. Please.

5) Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Open all the windows in the kitchen and turn on the exhaust fan. Close all bedroom doors and put rolled towels underneath. Turn off the furnace so the smell isn't circulated through the house. Buy an extra furnace filter to install after the holiday. Find the fire extinguisher and place it within easy reach, even though it's 20 years old, in need of recharging and you have no idea how to use it.

6) Fill several skillets with about 1/2 inch of oil, tisk-tisking as to "oy, so much fat!" the entire time and loudly debating the merits of sunflower/corn/canola oil with your latke-making partners and insisting that your choice of oil (whichever it is) is best, even if you used something different last year and you're only using canola this year because it was 2/$5 at Kroger last week.

7) Call your mother or grandmother 6 times while you are mixing the batter to make sure you have the proportions right and then cry until she comes over to help you. (Special note for shiksas: under NO circumstances call your Jewish mother-in-law for advice; this would be admitting weakness and it’s all down hill from there.)

8) Loudly yell "oy!" each time a tiny splatter of grease touches your skin and complain that your back hurts after the 3rd batch. (If you'd stand up straight like I told you, you wouldn't have this problem.) Take a motrin. At this point, those of us with shiksa blood begin drinking heavily. I find sparkling wine goes nicely with latke making, although grain alcohol straight from the bottle will do in a pinch. And surely it's no coincidence that "vodka" is the only word that rhymes with "latke".

9) Repeat until all potatoes are fried and your kitchen, clothing, hair and the dog smell like a White Castle restaurant at 2 am. (Only a shiksa would know from that smell.)

And now for step ten.

I'm pretty sure every single latke cook learned to make these crispy delights as a result of having been suckered into helping someone else make them and that no real recipe for them exists.  Now, pay attention because I'm only telling you this once.


10) This is really just one step...be sure to read it all the way through; I wouldn't want you to be the subject of gossip in the locker room at the JCC next week. (It's bad enough they're already talking about you at mahj.)

RECIPE:

Large russet potatoes (many pounds)
medium yellow onions (about a 1 to 5 ratio to potatoes)
eggs (a dozen or more)
matzo meal or flour (many handfuls)
salt (several large pinches per batch)
pepper (smidgens per batch...oy, so spicy!)
oil (more than you can imagine)

a) shred or grate potatoes and put in a bowl of cold water until all potatoes are shredded

b) grate onions and put in a separate bowl (a gas mask is helpful here)

c) beat a bunch of eggs and season them with salt and pepper

Then, using a separate large bowl

d) pull about four or five big handfuls of shredded potatoes from the water and squeeze the moisture back into the bowl of potatoes and water until they are pretty dry (alternately you can squeeze in cheesecloth) and dump into another large bowl

e) add a handful of or so of onion to the bowl

f) add a small handful of flour or matzo meal until the potatoes are very lightly coated, mixing with your hands

g) add enough egg to well moisten the potatoes; the mixture should be wet but not soupy

h) at this point experienced latke makers will take some of the potato starch that has settled to the bottom of the original bowl of potatoes and water and stir this into the mixture, as well

i) fill your palm with some of the potato mixture and pat it to compress it onto a large spoon or spatula; slide it gently into a skillet containing about 1/2 inch of hot (375) oil...cook until browned on one side; turn over and brown on the other side.  (If you're cooking for a crowd, you'll need multiple skillets going at once. In this case, I recommend holding off on the vodka until after the latkes are made. Four skillets of hot oil can strike fear in the heart of even the most experienced latke maker.)

j) drain on a rack or paper towels, transfer to baking sheets lined with brown paper (from grocery bags works great) and set aside. Reheat in a hot oven when ready to serve. Once they are cooled you can freeze them and use a paper bag lined cookie sheets to reheat. They reheat really well.

Serving Method: (What, you're shocked that there are twelves steps in the ten-step process? Silly girl, have I taught you nothing?)

11) Fill two platters with hot latkes; repeat as needed. (It is best for the latke chef to plan to remain standing for the duration of the meal.)

12) Serve with sugar free apple sauce and low fat sour cream and act surprised when your gentile guests find the incongruity of this puzzling.

Happy Hanukkah...Chanukah...whatever.

* unsuspecting Gentile woman


This material is the sole property of the writer and may not be copied or republished without permission.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Salad Days





Nicoise Salad on a summer evening.
A crisp white rhone was the perfect pairing.
Craig did a GREAT job grilling the tuna!
-------------------------------------------------------
If you grew up in the sixties or seventies the term “salad,” more often than not, meant a bowl of soggy iceberg lettuce garnished with some pink tomatoes, swimming in some creamy pink or acidic “Italian” bottled dressing.

Even today, many restaurants still serve a version of this as a “side salad” with a few stale croutons on top. Luckily our salad horizons have been broadened.

There are two basic types of salad: simple and composed.


Simple salads include anything where the ingredients are tossed together. Greek salads with beets, olives and tangy feta; fattoush salad, the middle-eastern mixture of cucumbers, onions, parsley, tomatoes and toasted pita in a tart, minty dressing; spicy Thai salads of chicken, cashews and apples, and the new classic “Michigan salad” of baby greens, apples, walnuts and blue cheese. And of course, the ubiquitous (but usually poorly prepared) Caesar. The possibilities are endless.

The composed salad—a salade composée—is a salad in which an assortment of ingredients are arranged artfully on a plate and drizzled with dressing, usually a vinaigrette. Quite often these salads are intended to be the main course, rather than a side dish or first course. A well-composed salad should have a balance of colors, flavors and textures, and even temperatures (cool veggies and warm meats). Your imagination is the only limit.

The Cobb Salad, a ridiculously fattening combination of blue cheese, chicken, bacon, avocado and egg (oh, sure, there’s lettuce underneath, but what’s the point, really?), became popular in the eighties and is a modern version of a composed salad.

But by far the most famous and classic composed salad is “salade niçoise”, a specialty of Nice, France that made all over the world today. Traditional ingredients should include crisp haricot verts, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, potatoes and tuna, but to say that chefs have taken some license with the ingredients would be an understatement.

Call me “old school”, but I love a classic nicoise a la Julia Child, the doyenne of French cooking. Her recipe is complicated but simple, and a timeless classic, like the lady herself. I do deviate from Julia’s classic in one way, though; by using seared ahi tuna instead of canned. But it’s tasty either way.

Presentation is everything with this salad. Think of the plate as an artist's palate when you arrange the various colors and textures.

Hubby (“The Grillmaster”) did a great job searing the tuna this time. We ate “al fresco” on a beautiful summer evening with a crisp white Cotes du Rhone.

Don’t let the lengthy instructions deter you from making this salad. It’s a perfect summer dinner or patio lunch and worth the time and effort when summer’s bounty of tomatoes, green beans and lettuce make this salad really sing.

Ingredients
• 6 eggs, hard boiled and peeled
• 6 to 8 red-skinned or yukon gold potatoes, of a uniform, medium size (2-inch diameter)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 pound very fresh, crisp, young, string-less green beans, blanched and chilled
• 2 tablespoons salt
• 1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions
• 1/3 cup dry white wine
• 1/3 cup cold water
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 to 4 tablespoons excellent olive oil
• 1 large head Boston lettuce
• Oil and Lemon Dressing , recipe follows
• 3 to 4 ripe red tomatoes quartered through the stem or 12 to 16 ripe full-flavored cherry tomatoes halved through the stem
• 1 (2-ounce) can or bottle anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
• 1 (8-ounce) can oil-packed chunk white tuna, drained
• Fresh lemon juice
• 1 cup good mayonnaise
• 2 tablespoons capers (fine fat ones if possible)
• 1/2 cup small Italian or French black olives, pits in, and packed in brine
• Fresh parsley sprigs

Directions

Scrub the potatoes under running water with a vegetable brush, and place in a steamer basket over a saucepan containing 2 inches of water. Bring to the boil, lower heat to moderate, cover closely, and steam about 20 minutes or until cooked through?be sure they are really cooked through, cut one in half and taste carefully. Peel while still hot, halve them, cut into slices 1/4-inch thick.
I
n a 2-quart bowl, combine salt, shallots, wine, and water. Lift the potatoes gently into a the 2-quart bowl. Using a bulb baster, so as not to break the slices, baste the potatoes with the liquid. Taste for seasoning adding more salt, if needed, grinds of pepper, and several spoonfuls of the olive oil. Baste several times as the potatoes cool.

Shortly before serving so that all elements will remain at their freshest, toss the lettuce leaves in a large bowl with just enough dressing to coat them. Taste the potatoes, adding a little more seasoning if necessary. Halve the eggs. Toss the green beans with a spoonful of the dressing. Lightly salt the cut surfaces of the tomatoes and dribble over a little dressing. Open and drain the anchovies, separating them with a form. Drain the canned tuna, flake gently, and season with lemon juice and pepper. Arrange the largest lettuce leaves nicely around the sides of the serving bowl or platter, and make a bed of the remaining leaves in the center, where you will pile the potatoes. Place the egg yolks against the lower part of the potatoes, spoon a dollop of mayonnaise over each yolk, and decorate with crossed strips of anchovies and a sprinkling of capers. Divide the beans, tomatoes, and tuna into 6 portions, and place at strategic intervals around the potatoes.
Survey the platter, scattering black olives and tucking parsley springs wherever needed. Serve as soon as possible.
Oil and Lemon Dressing:
• 1/2 lemon, zested and juiced (at least 1 tablespoon)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 1/2 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions
• 1/2 cup excellent olive oil
Grate the lemon peel into a screw-top jar, add the salt, several grinds of pepper, mustard, minced shallots, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Shake well to blend, then pour in the oil and shake vigorously again. Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon, salt and pepper if needed.
Yield: about 2/3 cup

Monday, September 29, 2008

Memories in Liquid Form

Memories in Liquid Form
Category: Food and Restaurants


Over the past few weeks, on a local "wine and spirits" discussion board, the group's resident, self-appointed mixology expert posted an eloquent missive in praise of one of America's first cocktails, the Sazerac.



A sazerac is one of the oldest known cocktails and a classic New Orleans creation, with a base of rye whiskey, flavored with a drop of Pernod (in place of the original absynthe) and Peychaud bitters, a type of cocktail bitters that originated in New Orleans. The sharpness of these flavors is cut with a dash of simple syrup and the entire thing is shaken and served straight up, icy cold.

I drank my first Sazerac with my first husband , in New Orleans, and hadn't had one in at least 15 years. So this past weekend, I amassed the ingredients needed for a sazerac and had one the other evening. My favorite liquor store(s) were out of Pernod so I used anisette and it was just fine like that. The bitters are what really flavors the drink anyway; the Pernod is just for scent.

One sip of that lovely elixer and I was back at a white-clothed table enjoying my first taste of New Orleans, at Galatoire's in the French Quarter.

It was the 1980, before the world discovered "blackened" everything and no one had heard of a chef who used the term "BAM!" while cooking.

New Orleans then was less "sanitized for your tourism pleasure". And this was a good thing.

Bourbon street had more strip clubs and fewer storefronts dispensing artificially-colored "daquiri" slushes. You were warned not to step one foot off the Rue Royale or Bourbon. The genteel antique shops on Royal Street were a stark contrast to the debauchery and drunken excess of Bourbon. What New Orelans was in the recent years before Katrina, it was ten-fold 20 years ago.

The cuisine in most places in New Orleans was Creole, not "Cajun". In order to find Cajun food, one had to venture along the River Road and eat at little mom & pop places with grease-stained table cloths. Boiled crawfish and jamabalaya were washed down with Dixie beer and were offered mostly out in peasant country; Creole reigned in New Orleans at Commander's and Brennan's and Galatoires. And Galatoire's, to this day, is the spot where old, wealthy New Orleans families gather on Friday nights to relax after a long week and catch up on the local gossip.

I vividly remember my first creole meal, at a table for two in the middle of Galatoire's brightly-lit bustle. A first course of shrimp remoulade, a dish I quickly learned to cook at home, and ethereal Oysters Rockefeller, a delicacy I knew but had never experienced. Although it was invented up the street at Antoine's, Galatoire's version was as authentic as the original; plump gulf oysters baked with their famous spinach and herbsaint (another absynthe substitute, this made in New Orelans) topping.

I also experienced my first raw oyster on this trip; I grew up eating clams on the half shell, but until this trip, oysters were a bit outside my gastronimical reach. Until I polished off two dozen in one sitting at Felix's oyster house down the street from Galatoires. But I digress.

As we ordered our main course and I sipped my first sazerac (of many on that trip) my ex pointed out the "Yankees" at the next table.

"How do you know they're Yankees?" I asked.

"Only a yankee," he said, "would order coffee before dinner at Galatoire's."

Poisson Meuniére Amandine followed, a crisp piece of the freshest trout in browned butter and almonds. Served with crunchy young green beans and Brabant Potatoes (what we yankees would probably call home fries) seasoned, cubed and fried, sprinkled with parsley.

We had a liquid dessert; Café Brulot; coffee spiced with orange and lemon peel, cloves, brandy and Orange Curacao.

The Yankees, he pointed out, were still drinking plain old coffee.




* * * * * * * *

Summer Evening with Friends

We have a family friend whom I'll call Joe*. Joe is one of my favorite people, but he has a gift for marrying women who are just a little—how to put this politely—high maintenance. We won't go into his previous wife here, but he and his current wife (who I like a lot) have never been to a dinner party at our house. Why? Because "Diane* doesn't eat at people's houses."

Maybe because she herself doesn't cook and fears that she can't reciprocate? Joe says it's because "if she's going to pay a sitter, she'd rather go out." Not like they're impoverished.

Um. Ok. Her loss.

What could be nicer than enjoying dinner and wine with friends in the comfort of someone's home? Most of the time, I'd rather cook and eat at home than be disappointed after dropping $100 or more on dinner (before wine, tax and tip).

So this past weekend, when friends proposed getting together for dinner, I offered to cook dinner for them here. They all offered to bring appetizers, and dessert and, of course, wine.

And it turned out to be a beautiful evening, even though cold and rain were predicted.

Since all of us like eating healthier food, I decided on a menu that would be fresh and light and relatively healthy, with a little "South of the Equator" theme to welcome the warmer weather that's finally arrived.

We started with appetizers and cocktails. Ok, so my appetizer was fried. Not so healthy…but…yummmmm.






Fried plantains waiting for their second dip in hot oil.





These are SO easy; slice them about ¾ inch thick, fry at 350 until brown. Remove and drain on paper towels, then whack with a mallet or skillet to flatten them, and return to the hot oil right before serving. I seasoned these with curry powder and kosher salt, and made a sauce out of lowfat Greek yogurt sweetened with honey and flavored with lime juice and lime zest. It was a great balance for the curry powder.





After the second frying, seasoned and ready to eat. Betcha can't eat just one.



Our friends Michael and Elaine brought a platter of marinated, grilled tenderloin, with home-made guacamole, home-made BBQ sauce and lovely bread. Michael is the chef in their household (and he's an amazing cook) and also sells prime meat and seafood to restaurants. (Everyone should have a friend in the meat business!)












We drank "Pisco Sours" made with a Chilean brandy called "Pisco", lemon and lime juice, simple syrup, egg whites (to make them foamy) with a drop or two of bitters on top. They were great with the appetizers.






Cherie and Gerry (the world's cutest couple) enjoying appetizers and Pisco sours.







Elaine and me. I love my new apron. I bought it in Chicago last month with Elizabeth and Pat. It says, "Nice nose, good legs, great body." You know I had to buy it!







Craig, Elaine, Michael, Cherie and Gerry enjoying appetizers and Pisco sours in the living room.







Our first course; scallop ceviche with avocado. Ceviche is so easy; just super-fresh raw seafood, "cooked" in lime juice, with peppers and onions and scallions. So cool, fresh and delicious!







Our first course is served.











The white wine with dinner was a Torrontes from Argentina. Torrontes has wonderful fruit on the tongue and floral aromas on the nose. We had so many sweet and spicy flavors with this meal, it was really a good choice. Cherie brought a couple interesting zins which were also delicious with the meal.




Next up; jicama and orange salad on baby greens, dressed with citrus juice, vinegar and chive oil (made with chives from my garden). Somehow I forgot to photograph the salad!

Our main course was Jerk shrimp with home-made Jerk sauce and mango/papaya salsa. I've never made Jerk from scratch and have always opted, instead, for the jarred version. This was SO easy, but it's not cheap to make. It took a full quarter cup of ground allspice. But it was really delicious. I only used half a habanero; I think I should have used the whole thing. It was flavorful but not spicy enough for me.





The ingredients for Jerk sauce.











The salsa, before adding the cilantro. I like to add cilantro at the last minute, right before serving.





Skewered shrimp, already marinated in Jerk seasoning, ready for the grill.






Jerk shrimp, mashed white yams with coconut milk, green beans with bacon and caramelized onions.



After dinner we headed to the living room for a few rounds of "Apples to Apples". Love this game.






And then…dessert. Cherie made a stellar key lime pie; tart and sweet and so creamy. A perfect ending for this meal and my husband's favorite dessert. She used the recipe from Joe's Stone Crab and it was outstanding. Sadly, after too much wine, I forgot to take a photo. It was gorgeous!



Too bad Joe and Diane missed out.







* Not, obviously, their real names.


"Comfort Food"

Rainy Evening Comfort Food

"Comfort food".

We foodies like tossing around that descriptor. But what, exactly, IS comfort food? Surely if you asked twenty people, you'd get as many answers.

Most of us grow up with family favorites that became comfort food after we left the nest; simple dishes with silly names and everyday ingredients. There is nothing innately special about macaroni and cheese (home-made or otherwise), or grilled cheese and tomato soup, or that mish-mash casserole that mom made by browning some hamburger and opening about 7 cans wrapped with red and white labels.

My friend Michael's mother is famous for her "Yummy-Yummy Casserole." She makes this for him when they travel to St. Louis for holidays. She doesn't need to be asked; it's just assumed that at some point during their visit, "Yummy-Yummy" will take its place at the dinner table.

Michael got the recipe from his mother and gave it to me but I will probably never make it. Why? Not because it has, if my estimations are correct, about 17,000 calories per serving. And not because it's not delicious; I'm sure it's "yummy-yummy" as promised. But no matter how delicious it is, it probably won't be comfort food to me because it's not MINE. Devoid of the positive association of mom and dad, the home in which we were raised, or family holidays, comfort food is in the end, just food.

My mom's pork roast, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, on the other hand? I'd give anything to have her cook that meal for me just one more time. I'm not sure what I liked best about that meal--the dinner itself or the promise of Pennsylvania Dutch "potato donuts" made with the leftover mashed potatoes. My sister and I would take only tiny helpings of mashed potatoes with dinner to make sure there was enough left for the donuts.

Peggy's Potato Donuts
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup cold mashed potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup milk
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
oil for deep-fat frying

Combine first 4 ingredients in a mixing bowl.
Add potatoes; mix well.
Add eggs and milk; mix well.
Stir in the flour and baking powder, mix well, and then chill the dough for an hour or more.
Flour a pastry board and roll out the dough about ½ inch thick.,
Cut using a donut cutter or two different sized ring cutters. (I like making them small; they fry quicker and are less oily that way.)
Fry at 375*; fry doughnuts until golden on both sides, turning halfway through fying.
Drain on paper towels.
Toss in cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar. I like them just plain.

How I loved my father's "barbeque"! Dad froze leftover meat and ground it up later for stuffed grape leaves or to make his "barbeque". It was not really barbeque in any true sense of the word, because it wasn't grilled or smoked. It was more like a sloppy Joe made with leftover meat and a sweet sauce that he mixed up with on-hand ingredients. I don't remember ever eating "sloppy Joes" as a kid; certainly never the kind from a can. When I was eventually faced with sloppy Joe's on a hamburger bun at a friend's dinner table, they looked at me strangely when I said, "Mmmmm, barbeque."

I also remember begging my grandmother for "schnitz und knepp", a stew of ham, dumplings and dried apples that's probably never eaten outside of central Pennsylvania, the heart of the "Dutch country". I've never made it because it's more effort than I would undertake for something that only I would appreciate, and because I know in my heart it would never taste like hers.

Our versions of comfort food are not always tied to our ethnic backgrounds, but one thing is certain; comfort food and childhood are tightly interwoven.

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, my parents both worked full time so mom had a housekeeper five days a week, who cleaned and did the laundry and took care of my sister and me while my parents were at work or while they were away on conventions.

We had a succession of them over the years. They were all called "aunt". Aunt Marge, Aunt Lelah, Aunt Mildred and Aunt Betty. I remember them all, but I remember Betty and Marge most vividly and I remember them mostly for their cooking.

Marge was the first; she was the one that took care of me when I was a toddler. I was so young that I really don't remember any of her cooking. But my mom, newly married and an amateur cook, learned a lot from Marge. Mom's delicious cole slaw was from Marge's recipe and my sister and I still make it that way to this day. In fact, many of Marge's recipes graced our dinner table throughout my lifetime.

Betty worked for us in our later elementary school years and then into middle school. Betty was the queen of comfort food and in our elementary years we walked 8 city blocks home for lunch each day. What could have been better than a home-cooked meal after a brisk walk on a cold winter day?

One of my favorite fall lunches was one of Betty's best dishes. Fried apples and corn bread. Chunks of apple sautéed and caramelized in sweet cream butter, finished with a touch of cinnamon, and served with a wedge of hot-from-the-oven corn bread and a big, cold glass of milk. We could usually smell the apples and cinnamon from the base of the cement steps that led up to our kitchen door.

This afternoon, as I was cleaning the kitchen, I realized I had an abundance of apples that weren't going to keep forever, and the cool fall weather made me think of fried apples. So I cut two of them into chunks and tossed them in a skillet with some butter. As they cararmelized, I heard my son's footsteps on the stairs and wondered what on earth pulled him away from "World of Warcraft."

"Mom!! What is that SMELL????" he asked.

"Fried apples," I replied.

"Are they as good as they smell?" he wanted to know.

So I shared my small portion with him, and told him about Betty and the cornbread and walking home for lunch and the white German Shepherd on the corner named "Cherry" who I would pet every day on my way home. We chatted about my asphalt schoolyard and our spinster principal while we ate the warm, sweet apples. The rain dripped from the blossomless honeysuckle outside the kitchen window.

I promised him I would make apples and cornbread for dinner.

And so I did. I even made a version of dad's "barbeque" to go with it. I hope he remembers it and that it becomes his comfort food, too.



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"fried" apples

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Cornbread "not from a box"

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"Barbeque" and cornbread

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Melting Pots and Ice Cream

June 21, 2007

Melting Pots and Ice Cream
One of the things I love most about the community in which we live is the ethnic diversity. Because we have a large Jewish population, we have diaspora from Israel, Russia...Jews from all over Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

But unlike many Jewish communities, we also have something really unique; a huge Arabic and non-Jewish Middle Eastern population. Some are Catholics from Iraq (Chaldeans), Lebanese, Saudi, Palestinians of both Christian and Muslim faiths. In fact, it's not unusual in these parts to attend a bar or bat mitzvah and see a girl wearing a full Muslim headcovering in the synagogue. I find this remarkable.

It also amazes me that our local Jewish Community Center, where I teach classes, is so welcoming to the ENTIRE community. In any given class my students are a mix of Chaldeans, Jews, Gentiles, blacks, whites, Indians, Asians.

What got me thinking about this, ironically, is ice cream. I seldom eat ice cream. Don't get me wrong, I love the stuff. It just doesn't love me. I almost always suffer for having eaten it, so if I'm going to take the risk, the reward had best be worth it. No low-fat, Splenda sweetened stuff (so popular in West Bloomfield among the wanna-be-anorexic set) for me.

There is a little middle-eastern pastry shop in West Bloomfield named, appropriately, "Pistachios". It's really more of a "dessert" place than a pastry shop. They sell ice cream, heaveny filo pastries, like the rolled "fingers" filled with ground cashews and those honey soaked pistachio "nests". And wonderful Lavazza coffee, available "Turkish" style, and when you order a coffee or pastry "for here", even if it's to take outside to enjoy at one of 40 or so outdoor tables, it's served on real china. No paper cups or plastic spoons for the ice cream, either. Real glass dishes and real flatware. A small thing, really, but such a nice touch.

But the big draw for me here is the ice cream; it's so good it's actually worth the intestinal risk...intensely flavored, full-fat, European style ice cream, with exotic flavors like mango, pistachio, apricot (studded with bits of fresh and dried apricot) and lemon, to name a few. The pistachio ice cream here is essentially a "nut delivery system"; so loaded with chopped pistachios...so redolent with the smell and flavor of the freshest nut meats. It is simply indescribable and despite the other wonderful flavors they offer, I can't pass up the pistachio.

Fortunately, your $3 gets you a "split scoop" and you can have two flavors in your glass bowl, so I added my other favorite, "Kashta". Kashta is simply a sweet cream base flavored with rosewater. It is the single most exotic, sexy ice cream I have ever eaten. It's like cream colored 800 thread count sheets sprinkled with freshly picked rose petals in the palest of pink; delicate and decadent at the same time. I imagine feeding it to a lover in bed.

We decided to enjoy our treats at their outside cafe tables. All around us old Arab men were drinking coffee and smoking. Some were playing chess or backgammon on boards the shop has available for rent. Behind us, a group of attractive couples were chatting in Portugese. The women next to us were speaking Hebrew and the people to our other side were having an animated discussion in Russian.

We ran into a friend from the gym; she and her husband were enjoying coffee, ice cream and pastries. I was glad they weren't at the "other" nearby ice cream place, eating no-fat, non-dairy, maltitol laced "frozen dessert".

At 11:30, the parking lot was so packed we had to wait for a spot. The air was warm and still. I ate my ice cream slowly, relishing the tantalizing flavors and the exotic sound of lively conversation in a cacaphony of languages, accompanied by the clicking backgammon tiles and the tinkling of spoons against espresso cups and icecream dishes.

I could have had my ice-cream to go. They even sell it in one-pint containers to take home. But it wouldn't have been the same.

Autumn In My Kitchen

Previously published October, 2006

Autumn in the Kitchen
This is my favorite time of year.

The departure of the hummingbirds from my garden is the portent of crisp mornings, azure skies, warm afternoons and the first fire in the fireplace. Crunchy leaves and soft sweaters and blue jeans and boots of burnished leather. Summer dresses hung away in moth balls, replaced with tweeds and cashmere.

But nowhere is fall more apparent than in my kitchen. The big vase of gladiolus in my kitchen turns into a pumpkin filled with mums. The peaches and plums in my fruit basket make way for pears and apples and figs.

I love the veritable cornucopia of fall vegetables in the market right now. Snowy cauliflowers the size of basketballs; squash both mammoth and miniscule, in green and yellow and orange and white and blue.

There's an unwritten rule in my kitchen. Even if the squash show up in the market in August, I don't buy or cook them until October. Doing so any sooner than that would acknowledge that summer has gasped its last humid breath and winter is right around the corner. But by October, I'm ready.

This weekend I halved a large acorn squash and scooped out the seeds. Those I tossed with olive oil and kosher salt and toasted them to snack on later. The squash, though, needed stuffing. Not that all squash isn't lovely with just some good butter, salt and pepper, but I was in the mood for something different.

So I chopped some onion and apple and turkey bacon, and sauteed it all in a little butter...a little cardamom and coriander, because those sweet spices love squash and squash loves them back. I filled the cavity of the squash with the mixture, covered with a little jacket of aluminum foil and baked them until the squash was soft and creamy. They were delicious.

The next morning, I left for work in boots and a sweater, the leftover squash in my little lunchbag. It was even better the next day.

A young woman at the office offered me $5 for my squash as it came out of the microwave, and told me she liked my boots.

I love fall.

Chicken Fat Rules

Originally written April, 2005, published in Strut Magazine (a Detroit women's magazine that published its last issue in September of 2008)


Oy...Schmaltz!!!!
Chicken Fat Rules!

With all due respect to Mr. Legasse, pork fat may rule in the world of Creole cooking, but among aficionados of traditional Jewish home cooking, chicken fat rules the roost.

Rendered, seasoned chicken fat, known in Yiddish as “schmaltz” has its roots in Eastern European Jewish cooking.  Sometimes goose-fat would be used, but as Ashkenazic (eastern European) Jews emigrated to America, chicken fat became the far more common choice.

So, why schmaltz, you ask? First of all, it keeps longer than butter, and chicken fat was often discarded, making it an economical alternative to more expensive dairy fat. Most importantly, it is an acceptable (and surprisingly delicious) substitute for butter in Kosher households, where meat and dairy cannot be combined in the same meal. Before margarine was readily available, chicken fat was used for cooking and even as a dressing for noodles or a spread for warm bread. In many Jewish kitchens today, chopped liver and matzo balls just aren’t the same without it.

As a young girl, I remember my father giving my sister and me $10 and sending us to the deli on Sunday mornings. We walked 10 city blocks for lox, smoked sable and bagels. Yes, in the late 1960s it was still safe for two young girls to walk to the store unaccompanied, and $10 could, indeed, buy plenty of lox, bagels and smoked fish. And we usually had enough change left over for something sweet at the bakery next door. Ah, the good old days!

The deli always smelled of warm rye bread, hot corned beef and barrels of old and new dill pickles, a familiar combination of smells that still transports me back to northwest Philadelphia. On the way home, I carried the bag of fish and cream cheese. Carrying the warm, fragrant bag of bagels was 10 blocks of sheer torture that I delegated to my sister. I was, after all, older.

My first experience with schmaltz came on one such Sunday morning. I must have been about 10 and our table had been set with the usual trappings of a Jewish brunch. Lox, smoked fish, cream cheese, bagels, onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. And set among this colorful spread was a small dish of what appeared to be…well…fat. My father took a small amount of this glossy, creamy stuff and spread it on a slice of cucumber and sprinkled it with salt, as my sister and I (and my gentile mother) watched in a combination of curiosity and mild disgust.

Dad, in his typical fashion, said nothing, knowing our gastronomical curiosity would soon get the best of us…and he was right. Since we were all adventurous eaters, we immediately followed suit, taking a slice of cucumber, applying a light slick of the “schmaltz”, as he told us it was called, a sprinkle of salt…delicious.

Several weeks later, dad showed us how to render the chicken fat; slowly (and with a little chopped onion for flavor and a little water to allow the onions to cook without burning) over low to medium heat until the fat was liquefied and a few solid, crispy-browned pieces remained in the pan. He called these “cracklin’s” but I later learned that the Yiddish term for them was grebenes, and if the schmaltz is a delicacy, then these are manna from heaven. Drained on a paper towel and sprinkled with salt, they're the Kosher version of pork rinds…only way better, and far more precious--because a full pound of un-rendered chicken fat may only yield a few tablespoons of grebenes.

It was a rare treat when dad made "schmaltz and grebenes". I'm not sure which I enjoyed more. The cracklin's or the aroma --the very essence of chicken--that filled the kitchen.

What made me think of chicken fat today, ironically, was the gumbo I had planned for dinner this evening. The recipe calls for 1 cup of lard to start the roux. Since my husband doesn’t eat pork or any other red meat, I’m using shrimp and andouille sausage made from turkey for my gumbo, but wanted to replace the lard with something more flavorful than vegetable oil. I immediately thought of schmaltz. A bit of a twist, I thought, putting something so traditionally Jewish in a dish that calls for pork sausage AND shellfish, two foods that are decidedly NOT kosher!!!

So I’m off to the store. The Hiller’s markets in the West Bloomfield area sell little tubs of schmaltz in their Kosher poultry section. And it’s fine, it really is.

But I’m going to ask the butcher for some chicken fat, and I'm going to render it myself. Why? Because it's Sunday. Because it reminds me of my father. And because I can already smell the sweet onions gently caramelizing and taste the salty crunch of the crackly little grebenes. And if my kids clean their rooms, I might even let them have a few.

And if there’s any schmaltz left over after I make my roux, I'll smear a litle bit on a slice of cucumber and make a little toast to dad.

Tasting Notes: Sparkling....Sake?

Written in 2007


June 26
Tasting Notes: Sparkling (no, I'm not kidding) Sake

I just HAD to try this; I love sake and I love sparkling wine, so what could be bad?

Blue bottle; pretty, about the size of a split of champagne. Thought the top came off like a beer cap, but then I noticed a little pull-tab under the plastic wrapper at the neck...and promptly pierced the tip of my finger with a knife trying to remove the plastic.

Band-aid applied. Bottle opened with a little less hiss than a beer. The label is cute, with a rather cartoon-ish illustration of a Japanese girl, but the choice of font makes it look a bit cheap.

The label says it's imported by Banzai Beverage Corp. for TJ's and bottled by Ume No Yado brewery in Japan. It also says I shouldn't drink it if I'm pregnant (I'm not) or operate machinery after drinking it. Does a computer constitute machinery?

Unfortunately the label does NOT say what sort of glassware is appropriate for sparkling sake. This is anyone's guess, really. A hot sake cup seems wrong, but so does a champagne flute. I'm going for a small wine glass.

Hmmmm. Color is more straw-like than one associates with sake, but very, very pale. Certainly not as deep as a sparkling wine, but definitely not colorless. The bubbles are rather large, in fact, there is a very small amount of foam on the surface of the liquid.

As I'm getting nearer the bottom of the bottle, it is getting decidely cloudy. The nose is...well...starchy. Like the smell of Gold Medal flour. Or uncooked sushi rice.

The flavor is nothing like the nose, although it's hard to separate yourself from the nose as you bring the glass to your lips. The starchiness is pretty prevalent. But the flavor...well, it's really clean;. Oddly it's dry but not dry. It's so clean it feels dry but there is virtually no acid, which is what you're expecting if you're thinking about sparkling wine while you drink this. So don't.

What's really interesting is the finish. It is at first almonds and then toasted rice, with a little lingering sweetness that you don't get at first and then finally, the hit of starch again. Some characteristic sparkling wine flavors here, but no minerals at all.

This is really interesting. Definitely worth trying. Don't remember how much this was. Maybe $9 for the split? Adventure in a glass. Would be nice with sashimi, but not sushi. I think the starchy flavor would be a nice foil for fish, but hold the rice.

Since both sake and champagne give me a crazy buzz (I'm vaguely recalling singing something from Porgy and Bess in a karaoke bar one evening) I wonder, how many I could drink before I start dancing on the sushi bar?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Food, Family and Tradition

This is a piece I wrote that was published in a local women's magazine a few years ago. Enjoy!
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The holiday season is when we bring our family traditions to the table. With my mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch background and my father’s Eastern European, Jewish heritage, there were no limitations to what might be served at our holiday table. To say our seasonal celebrations were “eclectic” would truly be an understatement.

On Christmas Eve, while our friends and neighbors were at church (and our Jewish neighbors were eating Chinese food) we listened to Christmas music and helped my father make blintzes to be served at Christmas breakfast..

While many Jewish families purchased blintzes pre-made at the deli – or frozen in a box – dad always made them from scratch, a labor intensive process that involved the entire family and took the better part of Christmas Eve. Dad sang Christmas carols off key, butchering the lyrics nearly as badly as the melody while my sister and I begged him to please, stop singing. One of his favorites, I remember, was “Deck the Halls with Lox and Bagels.”

Dad made the crepes, flipping them onto our cloth-covered dining room table for my sister and me to fill with a sweet cottage cheese mixture that mom mixed in a big, stainless steel bowl. I remember clumsily rolling my first blintz at the age of 7 or 8. They weren’t very pretty, but they sure tasted good.

As we got older we continued the tradition, later adding Champagne or cocktails as my sister and I became of age (actually, I believe it was a few years before). The tradition died when dad passed away – it just wasn't the same without him standing at the stove, three perfectly seasoned cast iron skillets on the burners, turning out crepes faster than we could fill and roll them. We continue to honor his Jewish heritage at our Christmas breakfast, however, by substituting lox and bagels for the blintzes.

Our “blended” food traditions transcended holiday meals. On the weekends – when breakfast was an event, not just a meal eaten to start the day – my sister and I were as apt to request "matzo brei" (an egg and matzo dish that resembles French toast, and is sometimes called "fried matzo") as we were to request cornmeal mush – the Pennsylvania Dutch version of polenta; sliced, griddle-fried crispy and golden yellow, and served with real maple syrup.

Mom was raised with simple comfort foods, and her Pennsylvania Dutch roots were apparent in many of her family's meals. My grandmother was known for her pecan cinnamon rolls, which she called "sticky buns," and a dish called "schnitz und knepp" (the “k” is pronounced and the dish is a stew of dumplings, ham and dried apples).

But she was most famous for her pies. I recently learned that the Pennsylvania Dutch are credited with having invented the two-crust fruit pie as we now know it. Edna's crust was homemade, with lard. Flaky and tender, it had no equal.

Another favorite meal in our house was a classic Pennsylvania Dutch combination; pork roast, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and applesauce. True comfort food. And while the meal itself was a treat, we knew this particular dinner often promised an even greater treat: fashnachts – homemade donuts made with mashed potato in the dough.

The trick, we quickly learned, was to begin lobbying for them about halfway through dinner…and mom almost always gave in. Rolling the dough, cutting the little circles and watching them turn golden brown in the frying pan is one of my fondest childhood memories. Sometimes we sprinkled them with powdered sugar or sugar and cinnamon, but I liked them best plain, still warm, dunked in a glass of cold milk.

Dad's been gone for 20 years now, and we lost mom two summers ago. I still mourn her loss and the many family traditions she continued or created. Some of which I can carry on, and many others that were lost with her.

This year, as I helped my sister plan the menu her first Thanksgiving dinner, I realized that the holidays are the perfect time to think about the legacy we leave. Memories of families gathered at table. Our legacies are of love, of food, and of recipes scribbled on yellowed index cards. In the end, these are the things that will be remembered long after we're gone. They are the glue that holds families together.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Food, Fitness and Sarcasm

What more do you really need in life?


Oh, yeah. Shoes.

Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.