Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Grown-Up Appetite

Thirteen also means you don't recognize your mom in public anymore!
 My oldest son, James, turned thirteen last week and a remarkable thing happened – he started eating.  Now he has always “eaten” but up until very recently only from that all too familiar menu of American children everywhere : chicken nuggets, applesauce, goldfish crackers and the very occasional nibble of a baby carrot if he’s feeling especially adventurous. 
    I cook dinner almost every night and I can say in my defense I only break down and serve the prepackaged chicken nuggets when I’m either feeling terribly desperate or terribly guilty.  Terribly desperate nights are when I look up and it’s already 5:30 and there’s nothing in the freezer but a strange foil lump labeled “fish heads” and we have Scouts at 6:30.  Terribly guilty nights happen when I decide to spend the afternoon with a recipe experiment that includes eleven spices and a handful of habanera peppers so hot that the smell scorches your eyes. My boys will consider eating that dish child abuse.
    Turning thirteen in our family must involve cosmic crossroads for the taste buds. When I turned thirteen I begged my dad to take me out to eat my first lobster.  Before that day the most adventurous thing I had eaten was spaghetti.   But becoming a “grown-up” meant eating weird food and I could think of nothing more exotic.    My dad, genuinely interested in food and eating, humored me in grand style.  We drove directly to Red Lobster.  
    I ate every morsel of lobster that I could dig out of that creature and I never looked back.  Raw oysters – delicious!  Baba Ghanoush  - how soon could we visit Egypt?  From that day on I never skipped trying what the adults enjoyed eating and drinking (although I wasn’t welcomed to a wine glass). 
    So, a few evenings after James’s birthday (we feasted on hamburgers and chocolate cake for the actual event), Paul and I were busy in the kitchen adapting a chicken recipe to showcase three perfect pears and a spectacular handful of fresh figs.  We were seasoning a reduction, talking of possible additions, crushing fresh garlic and thyme into goat cheese and debating wine - white or red – to accompany what was shaping up to be a delicious dish.  The children’s plain chicken was already baked unadulterated by spice and their pears sat cut into pieces in small glass bowls.  James, having wandered into the kitchen, talked to us while we cooked and as we seasoned and plated dinner he asked, eyeing the three plates we were preparing for him and his brothers, “is that my plate?”. 
    “Yes, do you want more of something?”
    “It’s just that… I don’t think I want that for dinner.”
    “You don’t want what?” I asked. “I thought you liked chicken?”
    “I do,” he explained. “It’s just that I don’t like it that way anymore.”
Puzzled I looked carefully at the chicken thinking perhaps he means he doesn’t want me to cut his up anymore.
    “I can give you a piece that isn’t cut up,” I suggested.
    “No, what I mean is…what I mean is that I want to try the chicken you and Dad are eating.”
    You learn not to raise even an eyebrow.   Without hesitating I put down the plate, pulled a new one from the cabinet and plated him a serving of Balsamic and Fig Glazed Pear Topped Chicken Breast.  We then sat down together and everyone happily ate dinner sharing the day’s news.  When dinner was over I noticed that James had eaten everything.
    “How did you like the chicken?” I asked casually.
    “It was ok, I guess.”
High praise from a thirteen year old.

Balsamic-Fig Glazed Pear Topped Chicken BreastBalsamic and Fig Glazed Pear-Topped Chicken Breast adapted from usapears.org

4 ounces goat cheese
¾ teaspoon dried thyme (a little more if fresh)
¼ teaspoon fresh minced garlic
3 pears, cored and cut in half
1 1/3 cups chicken broth
1 package (about 12) fresh figs, diced – reserving ¼ cup for garnish
¾ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup sugar
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts halves
2 teaspoons salt
ground black pepper

Mix goat cheese, thyme and garlic until blended. Fill center of each pear with cheese mixture.  Puree chicken broth, figs, vinegar and sugar until smooth.  Pour into strainer press sauce into small saucepan.  Discard solids and reduce sauce by half.  Pour half of sauce in bottom of 13X9 pan and place chicken breasts over sauce in pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Place filled pear cheese side down over chicken.  Cover with foil and bake at 375 for 35 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until internal temp is 160 degrees. 

Cut chicken breast in half to serve and spoon remaining reduced sauce over pears. Garnish with remaining fresh figs.  Serves 6.
   

Monday, August 29, 2011

Joining the Club

I come from a long line of joiners; my grandmother, who is ninety-three, still belongs to clubs she joined over fifty years ago.  My earliest memories include going with her to club meetings and visiting with her friends.  Back in the days when most clubs met in the morning, the ladies would all arrive bringing covered dishes for the ladies luncheon.  It was a point of pride to bring a dish that was “theirs”.  Miss Vinyard’s Coconut Cake.  Jane Ann’s Chicken and Dressing, Cousin Edna’s Layered Salad; they each brought a signature dish in a special basket or in Tupperware and they fussed over all the food and recited recipes to one another as they ate.  I have never since tasted so many ways to use Jello.

 My mother still tells stories about growing up under the watchful eye of the  Christianburg Ladies Bridge Club. They held monthly evening club meetings that no one wanted to miss; there was too much gossip at stake.  At home when hosting, the silver flower bowl was always filled with freshly cut roses from the yard and a set of special hand embroidered towels placed in the bathroom along with little, fancy flower shaped soaps to adorn the sink.  If the club met during the summer, my grandmother picked the best vegetables from her kitchen garden and turned them into chilled aspics and fancy ribbon sandwiches.  At each seat sat a small nut cup and a tiny basket of sugared mints. “Party Flourishes”, my grandmother called the treats.

About an hour before the ladies arrived, my grandfather left.  No one ever knew where he hid, but he would not run the risk of meeting an early arrival.  The Bridge Club was a dressy occasion; the ladies always arrived dressed to kill.    There was no such thing as pants for ladies back then.  Sunday dresses were de rigueur with pantyhose and high heels, fur stoles at even a hint of chill, and oh, the perfume!  Taboo, Joy, Evening In Paris, the women all smelled like boxed gift sets from the Tinsley Bible Drugstore. 

By now, three card tables were set up in the front parlor, each with a deck of playing cards, a score pad and, at each place, a fancy little bridge tally with a tassel and an ash tray shaped like a heart, club, diamond or spade. After all the guests arrived the game started and even though the ladies were serious players, they managed to talk and gossip as they bid.  Most of them smoked and soon the parlor seemed as smoggy as a pool hall.  At the break, it was time for refreshments and that’s the part my mother loved best.  Dressed in her fancy Sunday dress complete with wide satin sash, she would carefully carry flat saucer shaped coffee cups filled with percolated coffee to each of the ladies and bring each of them a slice of dessert.  Most of them said, “Oh, I shouldn’t”, but they all did.   After the game was over, hostess prizes were awarded and everyone went home.  My grandfather would magically appear after the last lady left, finish up the dessert and then everyone would go to bed, worn out from all the excitement.

Gone are the days of dressing up in hose and heels for club meetings with friends.  These days, cobbling out a evening to play anything with twelve friends once a month seems nearly as impossible as offering them aspic and coffee instead of chips and margaritas.  Most of the old recipes have faded away as tastes have changed and people have grown too busy to be bothered.  But there are recipes from earlier times that, while old-fashioned, are easy, delicious and worth rescuing from the past.  For a simple summer club meeting or gathering of female friends bring out ribbon sandwiches.  All sorts of fillings can be combined and leftover spreads are great for dips too.  Here are two of my favorites but Pimento Cheese, Chicken Salad, Cucumber and Cream Cheese are also quite satisfying.



Ribbon Sandwiches – Serves 10-12 people
Note:  Allow three ribbon sandwiches per person.  You will need 1 pound of bread for every 2-3 cups of filling.  I use a mixture of dense white bread and whole wheat bread.  Trim all crusts from bread and in stacks of three cut in half for “ribbons”. Spread one side with spread of choice, top with bread spread with next choice to create layered “ribbon” look.

Vegetable Spread
1 large ripe tomato
1 cucumber, seeded
1 bell pepper, seeded
½ small onion
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 ½ packages plain gelatin
juice of one lemon
1 cup mayonnaise
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika

1.    Grind vegetables in food processor. Place vegetables in colander resting over a saucepan.  Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice.  Allow to drain.  Remove colander.  Sprinkle gelatin over drippings in saucepan.  Cook over low heat while stirring until gelatin is dissolved.  Blend in remaining ingredients and add ground vegetables.  Cover and chill until firm. 

Spinach Spread
1 (10-ounce) box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and water squeezed out until dry
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup minced dried onion
3 Tablespoons dried parsley
juice from one lemon
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Combine all ingredients except spinach

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Licking Windows on Rue Caulaincourt

I was so hungry in Paris that I licked the windows.

Not really.  But translated from English to French, “window shopping”  translates to “licking windows” and if you don’t exactly taste the glass, you do find yourself pressing up to as close as you can for the best look.   The moment I stepped onto Rue Caulaincourt in Montmarte my first thought was “how can I choose?”.   Here is the window I passed first:


 This was  one of a thousand windows filled with food.  We chose to rent an apartment in Paris in an area where tourists visited but did not stay.  After 4 p.m.  we neither heard nor saw another English speaking tourist on our street or in the local café for the entire week.  And yet, our street had three bakeries, three chocolate shops, 4 green groceries, a butcher, a cheese shop, a wine shop and 3 small grocery stores.   Each day we stood in line with the locals to buy fresh croissants for breakfast and then stood in line again to buy hot baguettes for dinner. Men in their suits on their way home from the office for dinner walked down the street carrying home baguettes tucked under their arms.  I watched the neighbors with their children shopping for supper and pausing at the café not for a quick drink, but for maybe an hour’s rest,  visiting with neighbors and friends as they wrapped up their day.  As Julia Child once said and the French lifestyle attests “Life itself is a proper binge”.
Chocolate Chickens and Bunnies in Hot Air Balloons
You get out of bed in the early morning, fling open your window to street below and the air smells of fresh bread.   Bread crackles with freshness when you bite into it; I spent the whole week brushing off crumbs.  Perhaps that is why many French women eschew bras – the crumbs itch.  

Just as delicious as the bread is French yogurt.  It comes in tiny glass pots with all sorts of amazing flavors: fruits rouges, coconut, ginger, apricot, cassis.  In Paris, I would wake in the night and think about the yogurt flavor I would chose for breakfast.  My choice was important,  I only had seven days so I had to choose carefully.   Finally,  our green grocery was directly across the street.  At 6 a.m. a van would arrive and the produce man would begin to build the fruit displays.  Perfect pyramids of  blood oranges, grapefruits and lemons sat next to tiny wooden boxes of strawberries and raspberries holding a perfect handful.  I walked across the street and in broken French gestured to the raspberries – you would never touch the fruit yourself – and the man would package it gently like a little gift.  Such respect for food.  For life. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sister Knows Best Strawberry Jam

Freshly picked strawberries for jam
When I heard about my sister’s trip to the strawberry farm the other day,  I said “Twenty pounds of strawberries!!! What in the world were you thinking?!”
“I was thinking how much I love strawberries,” she said justly.
“Well, I love them too, but picking twenty pounds is picking fifteen pounds more than reasonable.  What are you going to do with them all?  They’ll go bad so fast,” I chastised in my big-sister known-it-all way.

She’ll raise an eyebrow at me when she learns I picked 22 pounds today.

It is nearly impossible to quit picking strawberries when they are as big as a hen’s egg, sun warmed, and as sweet and juicy as a ripened peach.  I took Tommy and Charlie with me, and as I filled my baskets they ran down the long rows pausing to pick and eat the biggest berries they could find, juices running down their chins even down to their socks.  They’d dash back again to tip my basket into theirs, “stealing” my berries, run off to examine a ladybug or grasshopper all the while wondering out loud unnerving things such as “do snakes like strawberries?”

I sure hope not.

It must go back to our origins.  It’s a primal pleasure to be in a sunny place surrounded by ripe, delicious food with one’s children close at hand playing and eating.  What mother doesn’t enjoy watching her children eat? What child doesn’t enjoy picking food from vines or trees?  I remember being very young and the compulsion I felt to pick anything I saw growing.  My grandmother would take me into her garden and point to the ripe tomatoes and I would happily pick and whatever she would let me.  I was desperate to pick every tomato –ready or not.   When I was just a little bit older, my Aunt Penny would dress us in old, soft men’s long sleeve cotton shirts with the cuffs rolled up and our blue jeans, hot and scratchy in the July heat, and take us to the edge of the dark woods to pick raspberries.  The woods led back into the great Cherokee National forest that we thought was scary and haunted.  Bears and bobcats and Indians, oh my! We were always happy and extra loud as we picked buckets of raspberries gulping many mouthfuls and avoiding the Japanese beetles that inadvertently fell into our buckets.

There is practically nothing that smells better than fresh strawberries cooking down into jam.   When we made jam at home, my grandmother would skim the foam off the berries and dab it into a saucer to cool. I thought the strawberry foam was a delicious treat.  There is not much to making strawberry jam.  You use the best fruit, add sugar and lemon juice and cook it until it reaches 220 degrees which seems like will take forever. While it is cooking you skim off the foam.    I like smooth jam so I puree mine with a stick blender while it is cooking.  The best pan to use for jam making is a Mauviel copper jam pan as copper is such a great conductor of heat and the jam pan is very wide allowing the extra water in the fruit to evaporate quickly.   It is also a very beautiful piece of equipment and I am a sucker for kitchen bling.

When the jam reaches its temperature, I immediately can in a hot water bath for ten minutes and then remove it to cool but not before I have ladled hot spoonfuls over vanilla ice-cream for everyone.   Our family likes to pick at Kelly’s farm outside of Cross Plains, Tennnessee.  There are plenty of strawberries left to pick this week so I’ll have to plan to back when my little sister won’t catch me.
Jam is ready at 220 degrees

Strawberry Jam

8 cups strawberries, hulled
2 cups sugar
¼ cup lemon juice

1. Toss strawberries in sugar and place in the fridge overnight. This releases the juices.
2. In a copper jam pan (or non-reactive saucepan), bring to a boil and stir.  When berries have softened, crush or puree.  Stir in the lemon juice. Cook over simmer, stirring frequently until the jam reaches 220 degrees, skimming off foam as it develops.
3. Ladle into jars and either refrigerate for  up to 3 weeks or can using boiling water bath method.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Cake for My Mother

Strawberry Sponge Cake

My mother is, perhaps, the most disciplined eater I have ever known.  She can bake dozens of homemade chocolate chip cookies and eat only one. She can open a bag of potato chips before dinner and eat a small handful, place the bag back into the pantry and not think of going back for more. I have found stale chocolate in plain sight in her kitchen cabinet and I have never seen her take a second helping of anything.  This would be a sore trial to my green-eyed greedy guts self except for my witnessing her one food addiction.  I’ve caught her on more than one occasion eating large spoonfuls of sweetened whipped cream straight from the mixing bowl before dessert is served.

There are those of us who are purists when it comes to whipped cream and those who don’t mind a little dessert topping from a plastic tub.  My mother is a heavy cream stickler and avowed denigrator of dairy substitutes.  I cannot recall a day in my life when she did not have at least one pound of butter and a pint of heavy cream in her fridge.  Some of us squirrel away a bar of emergency chocolate.  She keeps a stockpile of emergency whipping cream.  You just never know when you might need a fix.

We eat the most whipped cream in May around Mother’s Day.  It happens that strawberry season coincides with the day we celebrate Mom and overlaps her late May birthday and so we always go together to pick local strawberries by the flat that are so sweet and delicate that they must be eaten or made into jam that same day.  Sun warmed and scenting the air with heavenly perfume, we share and eat pints together while driving home, staining our fingers and planning dessert.  Strawberry pie, strawberry shortcake, strawberry layer cake,  strawberry soufflé, each of these a beloved springtime treat but none loved more by my mother than strawberry sponge cake.  Our family recipe calls for a full pint of heavy cream.

It is a tradition in our family to bake a sponge cake in a half- sheet pan, turn it out while warm onto a powdered sugar dusted kitchen cloth and roll it up to cool.  When cool, we gently unroll the cake and spread it with 1 pint of heavy cream, whipped and sweetened and fresh sliced strawberries and roll it back up and chill for a few hours.  When you are ready to serve, cut crossways with a piece of dental floss for a very smooth slice to show off the swirl.

 Strawberry Sponge Cake:

5 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup all purpose flour
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease and line a half-sheet pan and cover with parchment paper.  Grease the paper and lightly flour.  Beat the egg whites and add the salt and continue to beat until soft peaks form.  Slowly add the sugar and beat until stiff but not dry.  In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks until foamy and add vanilla: set aside.  Spoon the whites over the yolks and sprinkle the flour and corn starch on top. Fold gently until blended and then spread in pan.  Bake for about 10 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bad Food Mood

My view on Caulaincourt - very soon.
I’ve been on the road 21 days in the past month – much of it work related- and with so many planes, trains and automobiles in my life, I have grown unfamiliar with thoughtful contemplation of meals to be cooked and instead I’ve plundered my notoriously overstocked pantry and freezer and managed to cull the contents down to such a sorry assortment that instead of vociferously yowling about what I might be cooking for supper, my children just lie on the floor and pant. 

About twice a year I reach the point where I just hate having to think of what we are going to eat next. The second worst time is in late August when the heat is so awful that you break a sweat when you chew.  But the worst time is right now.   I wander into the grocery store and examine the tasteless white fleshed strawberries that have the spirit of turnips and scoff at the display of unscented imported peaches.  Peaches in March?  Whom do they think they’re kidding?   I scowl at the overly solicitous produce manager.  He averts his gaze and goes back to straightening bananas. 

 I’m in a bad food mood.

There is a remedy for my bad food mood but it is very expensive. It involves exports, complicated maps and lists, conference calls and a serious amount of lurking around on the web.  It also involves logistical tactics, paperwork and copious amounts of wheedling and begging.  It has me counting down.  The days.  Until.  Paris.

Paris in April.  

I have been making a grocery list of a different sort on a little journal I keep at hand. While here I pour the ends of three opened boxes of pasta together into the boiling water to toss later with the children’s most beloved canned spaghetti sauce that must contain taste bud dulling chemicals - it is such miserable slop- I jot down “Pate De Campagne" and think of France.  Heating up the end of the giant Costco bag of frozen French fries I think “frites” for me very soon.  I think of Paris and I glower a little less.   Soon. 

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