Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Luck Favors the Prepared, Dahling

There are a lot of New Year's traditions bouncing around here in America. This morning, I read about one town that lowers a taxidermied opossum instead of a crystal ball to harken in the new year. I love local flair more than most people, but that's pretty weird.

My family has very few New Year's traditions because few of us are late-night types. One evening in the 1980's, my father, who would go to sleep around 7:30 every night if he could, excused himself from a dinner party hosted at our house with a cheerful invitation to the guests to carry on without him; he was going to bed. My mother felt that this crossed the line of acceptable behavior and brought it up as recently as last night.

I am truly my father's daughter: I rarely stay up past midnight. When we rang in 1990, I sneered at my parents' total lack of interest in celebrating the dawn of a new decade and assured them that I would do them a favor (in my mind) by waking them up at midnight. That didn't happen. I was snuggled under my flowered comforter by 10:45 and woke up around 5:30 with my lights still on.

We do have one New Year's tradition that we'd never think of skipping. For as long as I can remember, my mother has made black-eyed pea salad for New Year's Day. She has fed me platefuls of it at her house, and once she even gave me a spoonful of it on my way to the airport to catch a flight home. "For good luck," she always insists.

Black-eyed pea salad is a Southern New Year's Day tradition. How these funny little spotted peas became lucky is beyond me, but lucky they are meant to be. Traditionalists soak dried black-eyed peas overnight, then simmer them for hours with ham hocks, bacon, or fatback. When the tradition began back in the South's pre-Costco days, all of the ingredients were inexpensive and available during the winter.

Perhaps that's the secret to believing in good luck; the lucky item should be something everyone can have, even during lean times. If we can't even get near our talismans, how could we be expected to believe in them?

Tomorrow morning, I will eat my share of black-eyed pea salad and hope that the new year brings good luck. I hope that you will consider doing the same, and that you have a safe, prosperous and above all, happy and lucky New Year.
Black-Eyed Pea Salad
A Fritter Original

My family eats black-eyed pea salad on its own, but for this recipe, I've served it over arugula, which compliments the buttery taste of the peas. If you don't want to hassle with dried peas, you can substitute 2 15-ounce cans in this recipe, skip the first two paragraphs of the recipe and pick up with the third paragraph. Just make sure that you rinse the peas well first.

For the black-eyed peas
1 pound of dried black-eyed peas, soaked for 8 hours and drained
1 smoked ham hock
2 large carrots, peeled and trimmed at the ends
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 small yellow onion, peeled and halved
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 of a small red onion, peeled, trimmed, and cut into narrow half-moon slices
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored, and finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped, reserving the celery leaves (if available)
10-12 pickled jalapeno slices, chopped (fewer if you don't care for heat)
1 bunch of arugula

For the salad dressing
1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of coarse-grain mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

Place the drained black-eyed peas in a stockpot with the ham hock, carrots, garlic, yellow onion, and bay leaf, and cover with two quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 1 1/2 hours until the peas are tender but not falling apart. Stir every now and then to prevent sticking.

Once the peas are tender, drain them well and remove the ham hock, bay leaf, carrots, and onion. Place the black-eyed peas in a container and refrigerate for 30 minutes, until the peas are slightly cooler than room temperature.

In a salad bowl, toss together the red onion, red bell pepper, celery, and jalapeno. When the black-eyed peas are cool, add them to the bowl and gently toss to combine with the other ingredients.

In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the salad dressing until emulsified. Drizzle over the black-eyed pea salad and gently toss to coat. Arrange the arugula on 8 small plates and scoop the black-eyed peas on top in 1/2 cup amounts. Garnish with the celery leaves if they are available, and if not, don't worry; the good luck is all in the black-eyed peas.
Makes: 8 side servings

The outdoor photographs in this post were taken on the snowshoe trails in Solitude Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, where Steve and I mushed around on Monday afternoon. I'm sorry to report that I did not see any meese.

*With thanks to Edna E. Mode of The Incredibles for the title of this post.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cranberry Muffins

As I sit here, writing, a foot of snow has settled outside our kitchen window. It's still dark, but I know that snow has crusted on the lower halves of the screens of our dining room and there are long icicles hanging from the branches of the tree outside. The icicles' tapered ends curve northward from the wind that we had on Christmas Day.

I am in Salt Lake City for the holidays. And it is cold.

Every year, I try to pack the right clothing for Salt Lake. Living in Florida (and not actually having grown up in a cold climate) means that I win some and lose some in this regard. That's part of what I love about coming home for the holidays, though: the complete change of scene. This is a vacation and every vacation, even visits to family, should have a tinge of the unfamiliar.

Winter is a foreign season to me in so many ways, even though I went to college in New England and have spent the last six or seven Christmases in Salt Lake. I still don't quite get winter.

As we were preparing to leave my parents' house for a Christmas Eve party, my mother stared at my python-printed, three-inch heels in disbelief and was silent for a moment as she considered what to say to me about my footwear. The little bushes that line the walkway in front of my parents' house stooped under a hood of snow. The streets had been ploughed and the sidewalks cleared, but inch-deep crevices of ice will stick to the concrete until next April.

For me, shoes are decorative items which I value for appearance, not utility. I've never had to think of them in any other way. When Mom proposed that I wear a pair of boots--the big, lace-up snowboot kind--I declined. I was able to wobble over the ice to the party and back while leaning on my husband's arm, but I questioned my judgment a little while executing a two-stepped scramble over the driveway's snow-ploughed edges.

Yesterday, we went east to Park City for an afternoon of gallery-browsing. The sun was out and as we drove up the canyon on I-80, I could see thousands of meandering foottrails on the slopes; deer, probably, or elk, picking their footing through the fresh snow. If I'm lucky, I'll see a moose before we leave. After all, I have the right gear now; I rented a pair of snow boots and snowshoes yesterday afternoon.

Cranberry Muffins with Pecan Crumb Topping
Adapted from this recipe at Food and Wine

For the pecan crumb topping
1/4 cup pecan pieces
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the muffin batter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

For the glaze
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
3 teaspoons of water

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease a 12-muffin tin and insert liners into each space.

To make the crumb topping
In a small, dry skillet, toast the pecan pieces over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until they are browned. Set them aside to cool. In a large bowl, mix the flour with the granulated and brown sugars, baking powder and salt. Stir in the butter, then add the pecans and pinch the topping mixture into clumps.

To make the glaze
Combine the confectioners' sugar with the water in a small bowl, stirring until smooth. Set aside while making the muffins.

To make the muffins
In a medium bowl, mix the 2 cups of flour with 1/2 cup of sugar, the baking powder, baking soda and salt until well-combined. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix the yogurt with the egg and butter until smooth, then stir in the dry ingredients in 3/4-cup batches. The batter should be fairly moist; if your dough seems dry, add 1/4 cup of water to loosen the consistency.

Toss the cranberries with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and fold them into the muffin batter. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups in 1/2 cup amounts and sprinkle the pecan crumb topping over each muffin, gently pressing the crumbs into the muffin batter.

Bake the muffins for 20 minutes, or until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack set over a baking sheet.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of glaze over each muffin and let the glaze set for a few minutes before serving.

Makes: 12 muffins

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Something Other Than Ourselves

I read a wonderful op-ed yesterday morning. In mid-December, 1933--the grimmest of the Depression years--an anonymous individual in Canton, Ohio posted a piece in the local paper encouraging those in need to write in their requests and explain why they needed money. In return, the donor, who called himself "Mr. B. Virdot," would mail them a check for their needs, enough to get them through the holidays. Men, women, and even children sent hundreds of responses, requesting items as basic as a pair of shoes.

In the week that followed, checks began arriving at the homes of needy families all over Canton. The anonymous donor never revealed his identity, and no one bearing the name of B. Virdot was ever found.

Think about that for a minute. How incredible is that? When is the last time that you did something without hoping for a little recognition? Okay, I'll go first. I can't recall when that was. I like to be noticed for doing good things. I think that we all do.

I also cannot keep a secret to save my life. If I had been Mr. B. Virdot and had possessed enough self-control to keep the secret until I died, I would have paper-clipped a little note to my will: Oh, by the way, I selflessly gave away hundreds of dollars to strangers in December 1933 when no one had a dime. You're welcome.

Yet Mr. B. Virdot chose to remain anonymous.

I won't spoil the rest of the story, because you should read it yourself. The donor's grandson, who authored the op-ed (and who discovered his grandfather's secret by chance), writes that his grandfather experienced enough hardship early in life to make him truly understand the value of kindness. Having "been robbed at night and swindled in daylight," by others, he chose to treat other people much more generously than he had been treated.
Try it for yourself. In the next few days, share some of your holiday spirit with someone who will never know who you are, and don't tell a soul about it. You will learn something about yourself.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Potato Latkes with Homemade Applesauce
Adapted from Gail Simmons' latke recipe and Gale Gand's pear-applesauce recipe, both featured in Food & Wine

For the pear-applesauce

4 large apples, such as McIntosh or Ambrosia, peeled, cored, and quartered
2 Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, and quartered
2 cups of water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon of honey
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

For the potato latkes
4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and quartered
1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Canola oil, for frying

To make the applesauce
In a large, heavy saucepan, bring the apples, pears, water and lemon juice to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until the fruit breaks down to a thick, chunky puree, about 30 minutes. You may need to mash the fruit with a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey and cinnamon. The applesauce may be served warm or chilled.

For the potato latkes
Set a large strainer over a bowl. In a food processor fitted with the shredding disk, shred the potatoes and onion in batches. Add each batch to the strainer and let stand for 5-10 minutes, then squeeze dry. Pour off all of the liquid in the bowl and add the shredded potatoes and onions. Stir in the flour, eggs, dill, salt and baking powder. Scrape the mixture back into the strainer and set it over a bowl; let stand for another 5-10 minutes to drain.

In a very large skillet (not the non-stick variety), heat 1/4 inch of canola oil until shimmering. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the potato mixture into the canola oil for each latke, pressing slightly to flatten. Fry over moderate heat, turning once, until the latkes are golden and crisp on both sides, about 7 minutes. Drain the latkes on a paper towel–lined baking sheet. Serve the latkes hot with a spoonful of applesauce on top.

You should know (if you didn't already) that raw potatoes turn black in a matter of hours and fried latkes only stay delicious while they are crisp and hot. This means that latkes are not really a "make ahead" food. Someone out there may have a good suggestion for making them in advance of your event, but I don't really have any pointers to offer in that respect.

Makes: 40 small latkes and 4 cups of applesauce

Monday, December 15, 2008

With a Bow on Top

Whew! 'Tis the season for overscheduling.

My apologies for my absence on Thursday. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I'd missed my regular post during the week and was well on my way to cramming today's in late. This forced me to take a look at my calendar, and I've got to confess that I'm pretty booked for the next few weeks. For good reasons, may I add, such as holiday parties and volunteer engagements with causes like this. Couple these obligations with a trip out of town to visit my family for Christmas, and you've got one busy person.

Therefore, I've decided that it's a good idea to reduce my posts to one per week until the New Year. I hope that you will continue to stop by early each week during the remainder of the holiday season to catch up and have a little slice of something tasty. I'll be back to my regular schedule during the first week of January.

Today, I would like to offer you a cranberry-raspberry tart to make up for it all. It's even got a sprig of pastry holly on top, which is sort of like a bow on a present.

Cranberry-Raspberry Tart
Original source has been lost in the mists of time

For the almond pastry dough
2 1/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 cup cold shortening (put the can in the fridge for 1 hours before using)
1 egg, yolk and white divided
2 tablespoons almond extract
1/4 cup of ice water

For the cranberry-raspberry filling
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (thawed if frozen)
1 16-ounce package of frozen raspberries (thawed so that they are still somewhat firm, but pliable)
3/4 cup of sugar
4 tablespoons of instant tapioca (the fine variety, not the large pearls)
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of almond extract

Make the filling
Pulse the cranberries in a food processor for a few seconds, until the cranberries are coarsely chopped. Scoop the chopped cranberries into a large bowl and gently fold in the raspberries, sugar, tapioca, salt, and almond extract until blended. Set aside to rest while preparing the pastry dough.

Make the pastry dough
Sift together the flour, salt, and sugar in another large bowl. Cut in the cold shortening using a pastry cutter or two knives, until the mixture is finely crumbled. The crumbs should be pea-sized.

In a separate small bowl, beat the egg yolk, almond extract, and ice water together until blended. Sprinkle over the flour mixture and fluff the flour with a fork. Gradually, you will see the dough starting to come together. Add additional drops of water if the dough does not hold when you pinch a bit between two fingers.

When the dough holds, take 2/3 of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface; this will be the tart shell. Roll out the remaining 1/3 on another floured surface; this will be the lattice topping. When the dough is evenly rolled out to 1/8-inches thick, lift it into a buttered fluted tart ring and gently press the edges against the fluting.

Pour the cranberry-raspberry filling into the tart shell until it is almost level with the top of the tart ring.

Turning to the smaller rolled-out pastry dough ball, cut 12-inch long strips measuring about 1-inch wide. Place over the filling in a criss-crossing pattern to create a lattice top. Beat the reserved egg white in a cup, then brush over the lattice top with a pastry brush.

Nestle the tart pan onto a cookie sheet to guard your oven from any spillage during baking. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 for 40-45 minutes. The tart will be done when the lattice pastry top is golden brown and the cranberry-raspberry filling is bubbly.

Serves: 8-10 pieces

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Little Green Balls of Death?

Did you grow up eating Brussels sprouts? I didn't. In fact, I never tried Brussels sprouts until my mother-in-law, Merri, roasted them with a little brown sugar a few Thanksgivings ago. Forking up a mouthful, I was charmed by the nutty flavor of this funny little knobby vegetable.

Why does conventional wisdom tell us that Brussels sprouts are horrible? What forms of this vegetable did your mothers inflict upon you that you hate it so much? I've heard rumors of boiled mounds of slime: is this true? My own mother never prepared Brussels sprouts in any form. Perhaps she had to eat too many servings as a kid, or perhaps her years in the Army turned her off any cruciferous vegetable that she did not prepare with her own loving hands. That'll do it, I hear.

In any event, I approached my first Brussels sprout dish with the dewy innocence of a novice and the arrogance of a freshman. How hard can this be, I thought to myself, hefting a bag in my hand.

Well, the answer is that it's not hard at all, if you shred the Brussels sprouts into a slaw and roast them under high heat. As you can see in my photos, I let the Brussels sprouts sit a tad too long in the oven, resulting in some deep caramelization. However, over-roasted Brussels sprouts still aren't awful enough to merit the kind of dissing this veggie gets. It just ain't fair, people.

So, I'm telling you: roast 'em, top 'em with some good Parmigianno-Reggiano and a squeeze of lemon, and you're in business.

Shredded Parmesan Brussels Sprouts
From this Melissa Rubel recipe in Food and Wine

3 pounds of Brussels sprouts, trimmed
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano
Squeeze of lemon

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a food processor fitted with a slicing blade, coarsely shred the Brussels sprouts. On two large rimmed baking sheets, toss the Brussels sprouts with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper and spread in an even layer. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, until the Brussels sprouts are tender and browned in spots; rotate the pans and stir the Brussels sprouts halfway through roasting. Sprinkle with the cheese, toss and bake for 1 more minute, or until the cheese is melted. Transfer the Brussels sprouts to a bowl and serve with a squeeze of lemon.

Serves: 8 side portions

The title of this post comes from the the blog Acorns, in which the author interviewed a Brussels sprouts vendor who described his own product as "little green balls of death" and opined that his customers only buy Brussels sprouts if they really dislike their neighbors.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Buco Osso


Cooking. . .
Saute-ing. . .
Searing the veal shanks.

And that is dinner, prepared in reverse.

Osso Buco with Toasted Pine Nut Gremolata
Adapted from this recipe, originally printed in Mario Batali's Babbo Cookbook.

For the osso buco
2 2-inch thick veal shanks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch-thick coins
1 small Spanish onion, diced
2 celery stalks, cut in 1/4-inch slices
Leaves from 1 bunch of fresh thyme, chopped
2 cups crushed tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine

For the gremolata
Leaves from 1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted at 400°F. for 2 minutes
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup freshly grated horseradish
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Season the shanks all over with salt and pepper. In a heavy-bottomed, 6- to 8-quart casserole, heat the olive oil until smoking. Place the shanks in the pan and brown all over for 12 to 15 minutes, turning with long-handled tongs to sear every surface. Remove the shanks and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium, add the carrot, onion, celery, and thyme, and cook, stirring regularly, until golden brown and slightly softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, chicken stock, and wine and bring to a boil. Return the shanks to the pan, making sure they are submerged at least halfway; if not, add more stock. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid of aluminum foil. Braise in the oven for 2 hours, then remove the cover and cook another 30 minutes, until the meat is nearly falling off the bone.

Just before the meat is done make the gremolata. In a small bowl, combine the parsley leaves, pine nuts, lemon zest, and horseradish and mix well by hand. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and set aside.

Remove the casserole from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before plating. Top each shanks with the gremolata and serve.

Serves: 2 slightly backwards people