Friday, November 8, 2013

Deck the halls with lox and bagels....

Food, Family and Tradition

Lately I've been wondering about the origins of Food Snobbery. Genetic or environmental? I wonder if anyone's studied this? Hmmm. Something to explore in a future post, perhaps.

I've also been thinking a lot about the food in my household when I was growing up. Both my parents were excellent cooks, although I suspect my father taught my mother a thing or two after they were married. He was 22 years older than she, and he was a bachelor for many years before they met, and had traveled fairly extensively. His tastes were far more sophisticated than hers, but she was a quick study.

And they were from diverse food backgrounds, as well, my mother favoring the comforting food of her Pennsylvania Dutch family and my father bringing to our table the flavors of his travels and of his Eastern European, Jewish heritage.

There was no greater example of this blending of culinary traditions than our holiday meals. It quickly became a tradition in our home to include matzo kugel along with the ham at our Easter dinners (since Easter usually falls around Passover, this was highly least to my parents) and blintzes with our Christmas day brunch.

Making the home-made cheese blintzes became a Christmas Eve tradition at our house. While most families partook of their blintzes from a box in the frozen section, dad always made them from scratch, a labor intensive process that involved the entire family and took the better part of Christmas eve.

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 we were actually legal...). Sadly, the tradition died when dad passed away; it just wasn't the same without him standing at the stove, 3 perfectly seasoned skillets on the burners (no non-stick surfaces for dad, he was a purist), turning out crepes faster than we could fill and roll them.

The blintzes have since been replaced with two other Christmas classics: Chinese food and lox and bagels. All Jews know that the ONLY places open on Christmas day are Chinese restaurants. On Christmas Day, whether you're in New York or Boca, you are eating Chinese food and going to the movies. Well, we take a little twist on that and usually have Chinese food on Christmas eve (in deference to the more traditional Christmas dinner we enjoy later in the day). And lox and bagels on Christmas morning. As dad used to sing (off-key) while flipping crepes for blintzes, "Deck the halls with lox and bagels...fa la la la la...."

But our crazy, mixed-up food traditions weren't limited to holidays. 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 PA Dutch-country version of polenta; sliced, griddle-fried crispy and served with real maple syrup.

Mom was raised with simple, comfort foods, and the Pennsylvania Dutch influences were apparent in much of her family's fare. My grandmother was famous for her "sticky buns," "schnitz und knepp" (dumplings stewed with ham and dried apples), apple pies (the PA dutch are credited with inventing the 2-crust fruit pie as we now know it. Hey, if Alton Brown says so, it must be true). Edna's crust was home made. With lard. Flaky and tender, it had no equal.

Another favorite meal in my house was a classic Pennsylvania Dutch combination; pork roast, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and apple sauce. True comfort food. Mom would roast the pork on a rack in a roasting pan and, toward the end of its time in the oven, she would add the sauerkraut to the drippings in the pan. Another 1/2 hour in the oven while she mashed the potatoes with melted butter and hot milk.

And while the meal itself was a treat, we knew this dinner often promised an even greater treat: "fashnachts". Home made donuts made with mashed potato in the dough. We usually started lobbying for them about halfway through dinner, and mom usually relented. 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 30 years now (wow), and we lost mom in 2004. Even after ten years,  I miss her every day. But I am grateful for the many family traditions she continued or created. Some of which I can carry on...and others she took with her.  I hope, wherever she is, she's standing over a big Viking stove with a spoon in one hand and a martini in the other.

As we move into the holiday season, I contemplate the traditions that I have created for my own family...and wonder whether I have honored those of my mother and father.  I think I have.

But maybe now is a good time to start thinking about the culinary legacy we leave...the tastes and smells that will be remembered long after we're gone and that will always--instantly--evoke a memory of a bygone holiday or loved one.

And I wonder...what would my son or daughter write in this same space, 30 years from now?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Scrapple....Just Don't Ask What's In It.

When it comes to scrapple, people fall into one of three camps: 

1. Never heard of it. (You clearly didn’t grow up anywhere near the Philadelphia/New Jersey/Deleware tri-state area.)
2. I’ve heard of it but would never eat it…do you have any idea what’s in that stuff?
3. Can’t get enough! 
And then there is the “syrup” vs. “ketchup” debate, and the great brand divide (Rapa vs. Habersett's) which creates factious battles resembling the Hatfields and the McCoys.

As for me, I fall into the "can't get enough" camp.  

But you’re probably reading this and wondering why you should care about any of this, or maybe you’re wondering “what the hell is scrapple?”

Scrapple is a delicious and slightly spicy loaf made with pork (and sometimes beef) and cornmeal. You slice it, fry it until it’s brown and crispy, and eat it with (depending on which camp you’re in) syrup or ketchup.  We usually ate it for breakfast but some fans like it in a sandwich. Not me. Real maple syrup, and only at breakfast!

If you live or grew up on the east coast, there’s a good chance you will have encountered scrapple at some point. You might even be a rabid fan of it, as I am. (Always Rapa, never Habersett’s...don't even go there.)

So what’s in it?  You really don’t want to know.  Let’s just say that those industrious American colonists, who are credited with its creation, don’t really like throwing away any parts of a pig.  But if it makes you feel any better, there’s probably no “part” in scrapple that isn’t found in most commercial hot dogs.  

Historians believe that scrapple is arguably the first pork food invented in America.  Wiki also tells us that the first recipes were created by Dutch colonists who settled near Philadelphia and Chester County, Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries.  That’s why scrapple is strongly associated with rural areas surrounding Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and the Delmarva Peninsula. In fact, it’s so popular on the Delmarva Peninsula that they hold an annual "Apple Scrapple Festival" in Bridgeville, Delaware, where Rapa scrapple is made. (And there is no other kind worth eating, you know.)

Now you’re wondering what it tastes like.  Sadly, the best comparison the folks at Wiki could come up with is that, “In composition, preparation, and taste, scrapple is similar to the white pudding popular in Ireland, Scotland, and parts of England and the spicier Hog's pudding of the West Country of England.”  That really clears it up for you, right?

Let’s go at this another way.  In texture, it is a bit like fried polenta or cornmeal mush.  Crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside. The flavor profile is a little spicy (black pepper spicy, mostly) and has about the amount of saltiness you would expect in a breakfast meat.

But the aroma when it’s cooking?   Positively mouth-watering. Like a cross between frying bacon and making Thanksgiving dinner. Ketchup is ok, I guess, but the sweetness of real maple syrup in contrast to the salt and spice is heaven on a breakfast plate.

Of course, part of my love of scrapple comes from the strong associations with my childhood in Philadelphia, and our summer vacations on Chincoteague Island, Virginia (just off the Delmarva Peninsula).  It was almost always on the breakfast table in some rented cottage or efficiency motel kitchen. We’d get up early and eat a big breakfast of eggs and scrapple, then go crabbing with chicken necks tied to lengths of twine to catch our dinner.

This past summer I received a text from my sister, who was on vacation. It said, “I just bought scrapple and chicken necks…I must be in Chincoteague.”  Tradition is a beautiful thing.

My husband and grown kids fondly remember the smell of scrapple frying in my late mother’s big, cozy kitchen, the morning sunlight slanting through the leaded glass windows, filtered by the smoke from her cast-iron griddle.  

A few years ago, on a Sunday morning, I fried up some scrapple. We hadn’t had it in a long time, since it’s quite difficult to find in the Midwest, and that just makes it even more special.

Shortly after those thick slices of deliciousness hit the surface of the skillet, I heard my son’s size 13 feet hit the floor in his room above our kitchen.

And as he hurried down the stairs in his robe, he said, “It smells like grandma’s house in here…are you making scrapple???”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kale is the new black.  

Yes, that dark, green, leafy, good-for-you veggie is now fashionable, and being served in a fine restaurant near you, as a side dish, a salad or even as chips to accompany a well-crafted cocktail.

If you’re like most Americans, your first encounter with kale was a sloppy looking mess of soggy, dark green. And if that first experience was also your last, it’s time to give kale another chance .

I love this recipe. It uses kale raw, so it’s crunchy, not soggy.  And the dressing in this salad is light and fresh and takes full advantage of kale’s crunch and naturally nutty flavor.

This goes together quickly and can be prepared a day ahead of serving.

·         1 large bunch kale
·         One generous cup of good, homemade coarse breadcrumbs (or you can crush store-bought croutons in a plastic bag until they are the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs)
·         1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
·         ½ cup dried currants, soaked in a cup of warm water for 10 minutes and drained
·         1/2 garlic clove
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus a pinch
·         1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese, plus additional shredded cheese for garnish (you can substitute parmesan)
·         3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for garnish (use the BEST oil you have!)
·         Freshly squeezed juice of one lemon (just about 1/4 cup)  Tip: Squeeze your lemons into a cup through a tea strainer so you don’t have to pick out seeds.
·         1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Trim the bottom inches of the kale stems and discard. Slice the kale into 3/4-inch ribbons; this should yield about 5 cups. Place the kale in a large bowl.

Mince the garlic and mix it in a small bowl with 1/4 teaspoon of salt until it looks like a paste. (You can also do this with a mortar and pestle or on a cutting board with the side of your chef’s knife). 

Combine the garlic paste with the 1/4 cup cheese, 3 tablespoons oil, lemon juice, pinch of salt, pepper flakes, and black pepper and whisk to combine.

Pour the dressing over the kale, add the pine nuts and currants, and toss very well (the dressing will be thick and need lots of tossing to coat the leaves).. Let the salad sit for 5 minutes, then serve topped with the bread crumbs, additional cheese, and a drizzle of oil.

Adapted from the Raw Tuscan Kale Salad with Chiles and Pecorino recipe in Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Pretty in Pink

There may be no vegetable prettier than a bunch of fresh radishes, all preppy hot pink and green and piled up in a colorful tumble at your local farmer's market. They're almost impossible to resist, so I always end up buying a bunch, cutting a few up into a salad and feeling like they really didn't live up to their looks. (Sort of like that hot guy that you lusted after for months, only to discover he was completely devoid of personality.)  I also hate that I always throw away those beautiful green tops...surely there must be some way to use those? And I wondered, could I cook the radishes? Would that mellow their flavor?

The radishes in the market this year have been particularly gorgeous...large and round and perfect, with crisp, fresh greens attached. So I've been on a quest to find new ways to prepare them, with great success, I am happy to report.

 Radish, cucumber and edamame salad with fresh mint.

This is SO simple:
 English cucumber, diced
shelled edamame, thawed
radishes, chopped
lemon juice, EVOO
fresh mint, chives chive blossoms salt/pepper to taste

 Do you really need measurements here? I think not. Just wing it. So pretty!

 Steamed radishes with sauteed greens, lemon chive butter and chive blossoms

Cut the radishes from the bunch and trim. Wash the greens well. Sautee the greens in a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Steam the radishes in a covered dish in the microwave with about a cup of water, until they are just getting tender. Set aside and melt 1/4 cup of butter, stir in a handful of minced chives and a healthy squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Pour over the radishes and toss well. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange greens and radishes on a plate and scatter chive blossoms over them. (If you don't have chive blossoms, you can just skip this. They look pretty but are only available for a few weeks in the spring. You could substitute other edible blossoms.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Comfort Cocktails: New Orleans Bourbon Milk Punch

Curl up with a good book and one of these creamy lovelies...

2 oz. Good Quality Bourbon (I used Bulleit)
1/2 oz. Vanilla Extract
1/2 oz. Simple Syrup (I confess, I used splenda)
1 oz. Heavy Cream
2 oz. Whole Milk
1/4 of 1 Egg White (I used the packaged pasteurized eggwhites, about 2 tbs)

Add the contents to a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake until good and frothy.

Serve in a frosted old fashioned glass. Garnish with:

Freshly Grated Nutmeg

Pear Vodka 3.0

Vodka...not my favorite drink. Not by a long-shot. But I absolutely love pear vodka. It was at the base of one of the most ethereal cocktails I have ever had; an "Orchard Pear", served at the since-closed Allison II in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. Its intoxicating (no pun intended) fragrance was reminiscent of an orchard in full bloom. Pear vodka, St. Germaine, a squeeze of lime, with a float of champagne.

I've tried both Absolut Pears and Grey Goose la Poire and honestly, they don't even belong in the same league. Absolut Pears tastes like a pear Jelly Belly. Grey Goose Poire tastes like...pears. Fragrant, with just a hint of sweetness, it's crisp and delicious. But if you've priced it you know that all that quality doesn't come cheap.

So I've been on a quest to make my own pear infused vodka, with only limited success. I don't want to resort to adding extracts or flavoring, but I've been at a loss to get the true flavor of the pears to infuse the base vodka. But my last foray, my third attempt, has been my most successful to date. Here's what I did. Note: You'll need TWO WEEKS for this process.

Week 1

2 750 ml bottles of Tito's Handmade Vodka
4 large bosc pears, peeled, stems removed and cut in half lengthwise
2 oz dried pears (with no sugar added)

Put the fruit in a large jar with a lid (I used a sun tea jar with saran wrap under the lid) and pour vodka over the fruit. Cover tightly, and shake gently every day for a week.

Week 2
Drain the liquid into another jar or bowl. Dump out the spent fruit.
Add 2 more peeled, halved bosc pears.
Let steep for another week, shaking gently every day.

At the end of week do, drain the vodka into a container of some sort. Using a strainer lined with a coffee filter, strain the vodka into another vessel. You might need to replace the coffee filter halfway through the process, as the small particulate matter will coat the filter pretty quickly.

You can then pour it back into the empty vodka bottles or whatever other bottles you have handy.

I'm really happy with this batch. It has just a touch of fruity sweetness and the aroma reminds me of poached pears.

Ok, it's not Grey Goose Poire but lovely in its own way.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving. A day of gratitude. The day that signals the official start of the holiday season. A holiday marked by traditino and symbolism. For many of us, it’s a chance to spend time with our families and be thankful for each other and for the bounty that is laid before us at our dining room tables.

And for most of us, this holiday has become very much about food. Food and lots of it. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is “a good thing.”

Nowhere are family food traditions more evident than at our collective Thanksgiving celebrations. Perhaps for this reason Thanksgiving always makes me nostalgic; I fondly recall large gatherings with family members who have long since passed, in homes that are no longer standing or at least, no longer occupied by the familiar and the familial.

Our Thanksgivings were almost always spent in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, in a little slate-mining town nestled in the hills of central Pennsylvania. Slatington (aptly named) is, even today, pure small-town America.

The drive to Slatington from our home in Philadelphia always seemed interminable. The stretch of the Pennsylvania turnpike that goes north out of Philadelphia hadn't been built yet, and most of the trip was on four-lane roads with traffic lights every few miles As we got closer to Slatington, the four lanes became two, then twisting country roads through small hamlets, with streets lined with modest homes and always, a fire house, a single grocer and a gas station. A fine old brick church and its ancient graveyard marked the point at which we knew we were only minutes away from our destination.

My aunt and uncle lived in a big (or so it seemed to me as a small child) old stone home on Main Street. (No, I’m not making that up.) The Kern homestead sat at the corner of Main and Kern Street (I’m not making this up, either) and is forever seared in my memory. It was a deep, narrow, two-story affair, originally built with an outhouse. The outhouse became a tool-shed when the home was eventually modernized to include a single bathroom on the second floor, above the kitchen at the rear of the house. With a single staircase at the front of the house, a trip from the kitchen to the loo entailed climbing a long, wooden staircase and a trek down a long, narrow upstairs hallway paved with well-worn rag rugs over ancient wood flooring…and no small measure of planning ahead. Sometimes the walk to the bathroom seemed longer than the drive to Slatington.  I am sure there were several occasions on which I barely made it.

On the ground floor, one had to walk through the dining room and the living room to get from the kitchen to the staircase, which was off the “parlor”, a formal living room that faced the street and opened onto a lovely, covered porch. There was a sofa in that room; they called it a “davenport.” I loved the smell of old wood and the muffled sound of Main Street traffic in the otherwise quiet room, motes of dust floating in the slices of filtered afternoon sunlight.

The kitchen was just large enough to eat in, but clearly not laid out with cooking in mind. Lovely, thick quarter-sawn oak cabinets, darkened with the patina of age, went nearly to the 14 foot ceilings, making cooking a bit of a physical challenge for my petite aunt Pauline. The sink was “all of a piece,” as the Pennsylvania Dutch would say, a one-piece sink/counter/backsplash carved from a solid slab of slate.

Pauline eased her cooking woes by fueling herself with my uncle Stummy’s infamous whiskey sours while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The Dutch have a curious habit of giving everyone nicknames, especially the men. Stummy’s real name was Stuart, and he actually had a friend whose nickname was “Johnny Chicken Shit”. As for the whisky sours, I suspect they contained more whisky than sour. (For true Dutch-country authenticity, pronounce it “whiskeysahrs.” Imagine the movie “Fargo,” and sing the last syllable as three distinct notes. “Whisky sah ah ars”, accent on the second “ah”. Perfect.)

There was a porch on the side of the house, as well, with doors to both the dining room and the kitchen. I loved that porch. Unlike the one in front, which was covered and shaded most of the day, the side porch was open and warmed by the pale autumn sun in the afternoon. There was a clothes line in the back yard and a big patch of rhubarb. Behind that a narrow alley and then a huge, tree-covered mountain. (In hindsight it was more of a hill, and we were young adolescents before we gathered the nerve to climb it. By then it didn’t seem nearly as big.) My sister and I would spend hours on the porches and in the yard, enjoying the smell of leaves burning somewhere nearby and the crisp, fall air, while we waited an eternity (and worked up huge appetites) for the mid-afternoon meal.

Pennsylvania Dutch meals are always a celebration of plenty (read: gluttony). My mother always said that her great uncles ate until they were full, pushed their chairs away from the table, loosened their belts a notch, and bellied up to the table again for another round.

A favorite side dish in the Dutch country is the locally produced and naturally sweet “Cope’s Corn”. Made for over 100 years by the John Cope company, Cope’s Corn is dried, roasted sweet corn. ( Reconstituted, it has a caramel color and flavor that is unlike anything else. Served either stewed, creamed or in a corn pudding, it was a staple at all of our Thanksgiving meals. Shortly after my husband and I started dating, I brought it to one of his family Thanksgiving celebrations and now his family asks for it, as well.

There were all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings: several kinds stuffing, which the Dutch call “dressing”, including my late grandmother’s chestnut stuffing which my husband now requests each November; sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and the like. And there were cranberries and molded Jell-o salads.

But one dish that was unique to our feast was my aunt’s “hot lettuce” salad. The lettuce isn’t actually hot; it’s simply iceberg lettuce dressed with a warm, creamy sweet and sour bacon dressing.  I've never tried making it. Maybe this year?

Pauline and my grandmother were also known for their creamed pearl onions. This was long before those pearly little gems were available pre-peeled in your grocer’s freezer, so it was no small feat bringing them to the table. It took an hour or more to peel enough onions for a crowd and prepare them for braising and a healthy dose of heavy cream. And on more than one occasion, perhaps because there were too many dishes to serve—or too many whiskey “sahrs” consumed--Pauline made the onions and forgot to serve them. “Oh, goodness, Stummy,” she’d laugh, “I forgot the pearl onions!” It was a testament to her good nature (or good whiskey) that she found this oversight amusing despite all the effort she had put into them.

Dessert is a specialty of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The German settlers in this part of the country have been credited with inventing the two-crust fruit pie as we now know it. (I know this is true because Alton Brown said so.) And while “Shoofly” pie is a tradition among the Amish, it is less popular among the secular inhabitants of the region. However, mincemeat pie is a favorite and was something I always looked forward to at Thanksgiving. My grandmother always made the mince pies—her crusts were legendary—and Pauline did the pumpkin pie. My mother often made mincemeat cake; three layers, a mile high and slathered with cream cheese frosting. I wish I still had the recipe.

My cousin Jeff was in the Slatington High School marching band, and there was always a football game on Thanksgiving day. I remember Jeff coming in an hour before dinner was served, dressed in his band uniform, cheeks rosy from the crisp fall air. After dinner, my cousin Jane and my father sat together playing the old upright piano, while the women cleaned up the dishes (by hand) and the rest of the men fell asleep in front of a football game. The Kerns had cable TV back when it was cooler to have an antenna.

Pauline always sent home a care package of leftover turkey and my grandmother’s yeasty dinner rolls. There was no better sandwich than leftover turkey and real mayonnaise on an “Edna roll.”

It was dark by the time we headed home, mom at the wheel. Bundled up in a blanket in the back seat of our station wagon, my sister and I were usually asleep by the time we reached the old brick church on the outskirts of town…with visions of turkey sandwiches dancing in our heads.

Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.