Monday, December 31, 2007
For it’s not just the end of the year, it’s the end of lobster season. Come January, the vast majority of lobstermen pull their pots until spring, repairing them and their boats until the water warms enough to bring the lobsters, pretty much too cold to move from the bottom, back to the surface. Although they are scarce and therefore expensive—not that they are ever cheap—now is the time to have a fresh-caught lobster before they disappear for the winter months, and nothing is available but “held” lobsters, caught previously and kept in tanks or other special holding areas for who knows how long and under what conditions. Eating lobster, accompanied by its perfect match, champagne, seems a fitting way to send off both the year and the winter-torpored arthropod.
My favorite way to cook lobster is to grill it over charcoal, but the season, at least here, is not conducive to outdoor cooking. And maybe, just maybe, the preparation is a bit summery anyway; certainly boiled lobster with drawn butter doesn’t attract the way it does on the 4th of July, when bright sun, a pile of steaming lobsters, drawn butter, lobster bibs, and wooden picnic tables overhanging the pier are akin to a holy tableau. You could bake and stuff your last lobster of the year, a favorite New England preparation, and certainly a warming one. But for New Year’s Eve, one must approach the uncertainty of the turning point in Time’s relentless march—will it be a good year? A bad year? A same old, same old year?--with the defiance, confidence, and dignity so well-represented by the luxurious splurge: lobster bisque and champagne. As you head into the unknown of 2008, only the best will do.
Jane’s LC Lobster-Corn Bisque
This soup is my Rhode Island variation on the classic French haute-cuisine lobster bisque, made with the addition of corn and simplifying the steps a little while preserving the intensity and fineness of the finished product. While not quite as complicated as the original, it still takes a bit of time; I suggest making it over two days, dealing with the lobsters one day, then actually preparing the soup the next. Westport Lobster in Westport, MA, was kind enough to provide me with scarily huge extra lobster carcasses for the stock. Ask your own lobster purveyor or fish market to save you some. If you do not have corn stock (shame on you!), you may substitute a light homemade chicken stock or use all lobster stock. Serves 6.
A 2# lobster
12 cups water
About 2-3 lbs lobster bodies (torsos)
2 large bay leaves
¼ tea red pepper flakes
6 sprigs parsley
6 sprigs cilantro
4 T unsalted butter
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 ½" piece fresh gingerroot, minced
½ large sweet onion, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
1 large stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 ½ cups corn off the cob, thawed if frozen
¼ tea saffron, coupe grade
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup homemade plain tomato sauce or, if not on hand, imported ground tomatoes
1 quart corn stock, or use all lobster stock or light chicken stock
2 cups strong lobster stock
3 T converted white rice
2 T cognac or brandy
¼ cup or more heavy cream
Reserved lobster meat for garnish
Chopped parsley for garnish
In a small stock pot or other pot of at least 16 cups capacity, boil the water and plunge the lobster in head-first, covering with the lid. Boil 15 minutes, remove the lobster with tongs to a colander (reserving the water), and rinse well with cold water. Cool until you can handle it, then remove and refrigerate the meat, reserving the body with the others (see Note).
Preheat oven to 400 F. Clean the lobster bodies of any tomalley, roe, and head sac (you may keep the tomalley for stirring into the soup, but I do not); place them into a buttered roasting pan and roast for about 40 minutes, or until they smell lobster-y. Add ½ cup of water to the hot pan to deglaze, then add the bodies and the deglazed liquid to the pot of lobster water, pressing them down to submerge as well as possible; add the bay leaves, peppercorns, pepper flakes, cilantro, and parsley. Bring to a boil, skim, and then reduce and simmer for about 2 hours. Near the end of the cooking time, add a little salt and taste. It should have a deep lobster flavor. Remove the bodies with tongs, letting them hang over the pot for a minute to drip their juices, and discard; you should have about 2 ½ quarts. Remove two cups broth and freeze the rest for future soups or chowders. At this point you can either proceed or refrigerate the 2 cups broth, covered, until next day.
In a Dutch oven or other pot of at least 16 cups capacity, melt 3 T of the butter. Add all the aromatics and vegetables except for the corn and cook over moderately high heat, stirring so they don’t scorch, for about 8-10 minutes, or until the vegetables are brown. Add the corn and the other T of butter and cook, stirring, for about 5-6 minutes. Dissolve the saffron in the wine and add to the pot along with the tomato sauce; let it boil 2-3 minutes.
Add the corn and lobster stocks to the pot (6 cups total). Bring to a boil, skim the foam from the edges, and reduce and simmer, lid ajar, for 1 ½ hours. Add a large pinch of salt and a few twists from the pepper mill; taste and correct seasoning. Add the rice and simmer for an additional 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Using a food processor or an immersion blender, puree the broth and vegetable mixture. Strain through a conical strainer (a “China cap”) or other fine sieve into a 3 qt saucepan. Refrigerate until serving time.
To serve: Reheat the pureed soup base over medium heat. Heat and ignite the cognac, and pour it into the soup. Stir in the heavy cream; this is one of the unusual instances where less is more. Serve in shallow bowls (the classic is a white two-handled cup or shallow, rimmed dish), garnished with the reserved fresh lobster meat and a little finely chopped parsley or other compatible herb. Don’t forget the champagne.
Note: In Rhode Island, as along most of the New England coast, children learn how to remove the meat from a lobster before they know how to tie their shoes. If you are, as they say, “not from here,” you can follow these directions. I use minimal water when making stocks; just cram the bodies into the pan, crushing the shells down if needed.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Luscious, fat, and exotic, dates are favorites at the holidays. They are a stone fruit or “drupe” like olives or peaches, with a central seed surrounded by a fleshy wall. This makes them excellent for stuffing—with cream cheese, almonds (whose shape fits nicely into the elongated cavity left by the pit), or glacé orange peel; you can roll them in coconut or, of course, dip them in dark chocolate. Date puddings (including steamed puddings), cakes, and ice creams are other popular uses. But the primary way I use them is in a seemingly endless quest to replicate Thomas’® Date Nut Loaf. Those of you of a certain age know exactly what I’m talking about, as you, too, think longingly about date-nut and cream cheese sandwiches, made as a snack after school or, if you were incredibly lucky, sent to school with you as your lunch when there was nothing else in the house. The Thomas’® loaf was very small, perhaps 10 ounces, baked in a crinkly paper liner like a muffin cup (yellow, I seem to recall), and wrapped in pre-plastic cellophane. It was very, very dark, and very, very moist, and the top—ah, the top!—was very, very gooey. It was heaven. Somewhere along the way, probably in the misguided 1970s or cost-cutting 1980s, Thomas® stopped making it except for a month or so around the holidays, and ultimately stopped making it altogether. It is now food history, and we can only, with hope and perseverance, try to remedy this egregious error of branding judgment by seeking to recreate it on our own.
Almost-Thomas® Date Nut Bread #1
This is one of several variations I’ve developed in my quest to clone the quintessential Thomas’® date-nut loaf; another adds a little graham flour and has no egg. I'm still experimenting, but for now, this one will do. Use at least a pound of best-quality dates, or you will not come anywhere near the real thing. Makes 1 loaf; may be doubled.
1 lb giant Medjool dates, pitted and quartered, halved if on the smaller side
¼ cup finely chopped glacé orange peel (optional)
3/4 tea baking soda
1 T unsweetened cocoa
1 tea instant espresso powder, such as Medaglia D’Oro
½ cup boiling water
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup dark molasses
1 tea vanilla
2 cups a-p flour
1 tea baking powder
¼ tea salt
¼ tea each ground cinnamon and cloves
1/8 tea freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup sour milk or buttermilk
½ cup shelled walnuts, broken
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a small bowl, sprinkle dates with baking soda, cocoa, and espresso powder. Pour boiling water over all, toss, and let stand while you prepare the batter.
Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer, scraping the bowl well from time to time. Add molasses, egg, and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Sift together dry ingredients and add very slowly on low speed, alternating with the milk. Fold in the nuts and the date mixture by hand, turning it over and over until the dates are well distributed. The batter will be thick; spoon it into a buttered standard 8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½ loaf pan, smooth the top, and rap the pan on the counter a few times. Bake about 50-55 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and the top is brown. Turn out of the pan. And now, the secret to having any chance at all of achieving the genuine article: While still warm, double-wrap tightly in foil. Let it stand two full days on the counter before cutting to allow it to settle and densify, and the top to turn gooey. Slice thinly with a thin bladed slicing knife and serve with good cream cheese.
Friday, December 14, 2007
1 cup sugar
1 cup sweet rice flour (see Note)
4 cups a-p flour (or less—see instructions)
½ cup finely minced fresh crystallized ginger (optional)
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Fat is the miracle worker of the dessert world. All fats contribute richness, flavor, and melting quality in the mouth; some have special properties for making products more or less flaky, firm, tender, delicate, or earthy. One can debate the relative merits of butter for cakes, lard for pies (and one does). But for steamed puddings, especially of the holiday variety, there can be little argument as to the fat of choice: beef suet.
The suet used in dessert cooking is the protective fat around the kidneys of beef cattle. It has a relatively high melting point, which means that it doesn't melt until the product is structurally sound; this results in a moist, airy grain in a cake or steamed pudding (which is really an unleavened cake) and crisp pastry. Suet is a primarily saturated fat, but it's the holiday season of forgiveness, when we try to overlook faults. Moreover, the rich but clean taste it creates cannot be duplicated with shortening or even butter; in a pudding, such substitution would make it taste greasy.
Like many things in today's era of agriculture on a massive scale, it is increasingly difficult to find good or even real suet. If you live near a farmer who raises beef, let him or her know that you would like some--although you should probably put this request in well in advance. If no farmer is hard by, your next best chance of getting suitable fresh suet is a butcher shop--but of course those scarcely exist anymore. You can buy suet in many markets at this time of year--indeed, you may have to--but you will have to buy more than you need to get a usable amount, because what's available is likely not all true suet and what is may have been frozen for long periods as well, resulting in a loss of quality. Fortunately, suet is relatively cheap and buying a lot in order to sort through it is possible. For the recipe below, buy at least a pound. Look for suet that appears to be smooth, creamy white to slightly pinkish and somewhat glossy, and in clumps rather than chunks or strands. Choose a package that contains as little fat with a powdery or sawdusty look as possible; this is either old/over-frozen, or not true suet. At home, you will need to pick it over. First, brush or wipe off any loose powder, and begin to pull it apart; it is held together by fine, papery connective tissue that comes right off, leaving you with clean, creamy bits. These are the pieces you want to use. The rest is for the birds, literally. You can thread it on a skewer, securing the end with a small apple to prevent it sliding off, and hang it outside. Recently, a suet product cut in small pellets or shreds has become available, but I have not tried it.
Steamed puddings made with suet include the famous "Spotted Dick," Sterling pudding (a molasses pudding), and a lovely carrot pudding that makes a nice winter dessert. Not only are steamed puddings easy and quite fun to prepare, they make successful, welcome gifts: many people have never tasted one, and are pleasantly surprised by their rich, moist, fragrant crumb and undeniably festive serving ritual. You can make small ones in mini bread pans, small coffee bowls, or even muffin tins (use paper liners). A little goes a long way.
The classic, of course, is Plum Pudding, sometimes called Christmas Pudding or Suet Pudding--all slight variations on a theme. I am a little late this year, but generally try to make my plum puddings the Sunday after Thanksgiving to let them ripen for Christmas. In England it is customary to have every family member stir the pudding once as it sits, and this is sometimes called "Stirring Sunday." Plum puddings do not absolutely need to age--they will be very good if you don't get around to making them until a week or even day before--but on the other hand, some aging is beneficial, and even a lot doesn't hurt. I have occasionally found a small, neglected pudding in the back of a cabinet or the freezer from the year before, nearly indistinguishable from the carefully tended. If you want to keep an extra on purpose for Easter or just because, remember to unwrap and douse with brandy from time to time.
Universal Plum Pudding
Though Mrs. Cratchit did confess that she had her doubts about the quantity of flour after her ever-supportive husband declared her pudding "a wonderful pudding"--"not at all a small pudding for a large family"--the fact is that plum pudding is fool-proof: the recipe is completely flexible, the cooking relatively insensitive. So I have written this recipe for plum pudding, which I have been making according to this basic formula for more than 30 years, in a manner that reflects that easy-going quality. Don't for one minute hesitate to try it.
In my family, we eat plum pudding with dinner, served alongside what was the turkey when we were young, and the prime standing rib roast as we became more prosperous. This was yet another of my grandmother's ways: plum pudding is usually served as dessert (we had pies). The sauce is also "her" sauce, at least as close I have ever been able to come to replicating it. Which is pretty close.
Start these a day ahead of steaming (two days won't hurt if things get hectic). Makes enough for molds totaling about 8 cups capacity (although you won't fill them all the way), and to serve a small portion (which is what you want) to 12-14. The recipe may be doubled.
1 3/4 cups beef suet, chopped or ground fine
2 1/4 cups fine fresh white bread crumbs
1 1/2 cups seeded muscats or, if unavailable, another large chewy raisin such as Monukkas
1 1/4 cups other dried fruit, mixed in any proportion or alone (such as currants, cranberries--preferably unsweetened--, apricots, figs, and/or pineapple)
1 cup mixed citron, orange peel, and crystallized ginger, in any proportion (my preference is for about half ginger)
1/2 cup a-p flour
1 large apple or pear, peeled and chopped (optional)
1 1/2 T Vietnamese cinnamon
1/2 tea ground cloves
1/4 tea cardamom
1/2 tea freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tea salt
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses (dark or "full flavor," not black strap)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup good but not great brandy, whiskey, or bourbon
Another 1/2 cup or more brandy for soaking and igniting.
For the crumbs: trim crusts of bread, tear into large pieces, and process 'til fine. Use a fine-grained, plain white loaf, not a sourdough or chewy-textured bread.
For the suet: After cleaning and picking over as described above, put in the food processor with a large pinch of flour and process until it looks like your bread crumbs. Don't overdo or it will begin to form a paste; you want it to distribute well into the batter.
To prepare molds: Butter the insides well, paying special attention to crevices. Using the mold as a tracing guide (turn the mold upside-down), cut out a piece of clean white cloth (I use old sheets) to fit the opening. Butter and flour the cloth on one side.
Put all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and toss well. Pour the molasses into a 2-cup glass measure to the 1/2 cup line; add the brandy to the 1 cup line, then beat in the eggs. Pour over the dry ingredients and stir in well. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit on the counter overnight (two is fine). Stir from time to time, adding a little more brandy or some apple cider to maintain a thick but still somewhat fluid texture if it becomes too stiff; do this once more before cooking.
Fill the prepared molds about 2/3 full; with your fingers, press it lightly into any corners, and try to have batter, not fruit, touching the sides. Lay the buttered and floured cloth upside down on the batter, smoothing it down gently. Cover the mold with its lid (if you have pudding molds) or, if using bowls or pans, with aluminum foil secured with kitchen string or double elastic bands (I use elastics, which can break part-way through cooking, but not so soon or often as to matter).
Boil a large kettle of water. You may steam your pudding on top of the stove on a rack in a Dutch oven or other large, deep pan with a lid, or in the oven; this is useful when you are making a lot of small puddings, which you can place on a rack in a big roasting pan and cover with its lid or heavy duty foil. Pour the boiling water around the molds until it reaches half-way up their sides. If using the oven, find the temperature that will keep the water at a simmer--350-400 F. Steam about two-three hours for small-medium puddings and six hours for medium-large; the pudding surface should swell a little, feel firm to the touch, and will pull just slightly from the sides, like a cake; the suet particles will have disappeared. Remove to a rack, remove and discard foil, and gently peel back the cloth and discard. Cut cheesecloth large enough to wrap the puddings and place on the
counter; put about a half-cup of brandy into a shallow dish. Turn the puddings out smartly onto the cheesecloth while they are still hot; they should be very dark, almost black, a sign of good quality, with no visible traces of the suet, all of which should have melted. If any pudding bits remain in the mold, simply lift them carefully and press them down onto the pudding where they belong, smoothing the edges; they will blend right in. Wrap the cheesecloth around the pudding, and immerse into the dish of brandy, turning it over and over until all the cloth is saturated but not drippingly so (press gently to drain excess). Wrap in foil. Once every week or two up to the time of serving, open the foil and douse the pudding lightly; its should be kept moist but not wet.
To serve: Place the cheesecloth-wrapped pudding into a steamer and steam for about half an hour (although I confess to having simply microwaved them 'til steaming hot). If you are not the ceremonial type, unwrap, place on a serving plate with a shallow rim, and serve with the sauce. If you are a traditionalist, top with a sprig of holly, pour a shot-glass of brandy around the pudding, ignite it, and send blazing to the table. Applause is likely (and de rigueur): take a bow.
Grandma's Pudding Sauce
There are many wonderful sauces to accompany steamed puddings. The traditional sauce for plum pudding is hard sauce, which is creamed butter, confectioners' sugar, and flavoring; it goes on "hard" and melts. I don't particularly like it, and neither did my grandmother. Here is the one our family likes--as I have managed to recreate it. I don't think my grandmother used an egg, but I can't get close enough without it; the rest, and the taste, is about right. It's rather boozy (although not nearly as boozy as my grandmother made it); you can cut the liquor in half if you wish--or add more.
1 T unsalted butter
1 T flour
1 cup boiling water
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar (10x), generous, or scant 3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup bourbon or whiskey, more or less
1/4 tea or more freshly grated nutmeg
1 large brown egg
In a one-quart saucepan, melt the butter and stir in the flour (i.e., make a roux), being careful not to let it color at all. Let it bubble nicely and then gradually stir in the water
until thick. Add the bourbon or whiskey and let it bubble for a minute or so, stirring. In a small bowl, beat the egg and beat in the sugar and a pinch of salt. Take the pan off the heat and slowly whisk in the egg/sugar mixture; stir in the nutmeg. Put the pan back on the heat and, over moderately low heat, let it bubble again for another minute or two. The sauce should remain smooth and the egg should not cook. It should look translucent, speckled, and pale beige. Taste, and add more nutmeg or liquor if you like. Remove and pour into a small pitcher or bowl; if all goes well, no need to strain. Refrigerate if you make it the day before; it will keep nicely for several days. Reheat slowly to just barely warm/to restore fluidity.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
The ingredients are as exciting and abundant, in their own pantry way, as summer's earthy produce. If sour cherries and currants are summer's gemstones, surely glacé fruits are winter's. And if glacé fruit weren't so sticky, you just might string it up and wear it, or pin some to your winter coat. It sparkles, like all good jewelry.
If you're wondering whether glacé fruits are the same as candied fruits are the same as crystallized fruits: well, sort of. All will have been cooked in sugar and water to start with, and the terms glazed and candied are often used interchangably. They may be finished differently, however. Crystallized fruit is generally sugared after being cooked in a syrup; though a root, not a fruit, ginger is the classic example. Very fresh crystallized ginger is a hot and sweet treat that I always have on hand to satisfy that after-dinner sweet craving. True glacé fruits are just-ripe fruits cooked in water and then preserved in a sugar syrup in a multi-stage process. Over the course of several days, weeks, or even months, the fruit is heated and steeped in syrup of increasing sugar concentration, gradually replacing a significant percentage of the water content of the fruit, and then dried.
Sensitive to the vagaries of timing, technique, and moisture, glacé fruit qualifies as an artisan product. Historically, glacé fruit falls into the category of luxury food items, traditionally reserved for holiday eating and baking; indeed, the heavy cake of fruit barely held together by other ingredients was nothing so much as a demonstration of bounty, sort of like having a clutch of black truffles or pound of best beluga on your table. Today, quality glazed fruit still commands a premium price, and a fine fruitcake is still a splurge. Indeed, the price can seem like a barrier because it is hard to buy good quality in small amounts--certainly not in the quarter- or half-cup amounts that some recipes might call for. Fortunately, because glazed fruits are essentially preserved fruits, they keep extremely well, and can be frozen. While you may not use cherries much after the holidays (although they are surprisingly good folded into vanilla ice cream or plain white bread for toasting), peels are versatile in the kitchen year-round, in baking, candy making, Asian cooking, and just to nibble on. Another strategy is to divide and conquer: buy a pound, and share the cost with a friend.
Working with glacé and sugared fruits is a sticky job. I use a sharp chef's knife for slivering or fine chopping, and use scissors when I want larger pieces--e.g., to cut cherries in half or apricots into quarters. Keep a damp cloth at hand as you work and wipe the blade of your knife or your scissors frequently.
Maple Ginger Orange Peel Bread
Recipes for orange peel bread are in some of my early 20th century cookbooks; my adaptation is richer and denser, with a more complex flavor. Use the finest and freshest fruit you can find and afford; as always, quality makes a huge difference (see note for sources). This tight-crumbed, moist bread is suited to the paper-thin slicing that makes fruited products satisfying rather than overwhelming. It makes great sandwiches with cream cheese, butter, or a little homemade deviled or plain ham (see note below).
1 ¼ cups glazed orange peel
¼ cup crystallized ginger
2 T unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
½ cup sugar
Scant ½ cup 100% maple syrup
3 ½ cups a-p flour
5 T baking powder
¼ tea cardamom
1 ½ cups sour milk
For glaze: 2 T apricot jam, 1 T water
Preheat oven to 325 F. Butter a 13x4.5x2.5 loaf pan; line with waxed paper, butter the paper, and flour the bottom and sides of the pan. You could also use a standard 8.5x4.5x2.5 bread pan plus one mini bread pan.
Slice the ginger and the peel into fine slivers; pack lightly to measure, and set aside. In a large bowl (use a standing mixer if you have one), beat together the melted butter, eggs, sugar, and syrup. Gradually add the dry ingredients and the milk alternately, beginning and ending with the dry. Beat a good four minutes until well combined, scraping the bottom of the bowl if necessary to incorporate all flour; the batter will be thick. Fold in the orange peel and ginger, distributing well.
Pour the batter into the pan and let it sit on the counter for 15-20 minutes. Just before putting it in the oven, decorate with a few thin slivers of orange peel, laid diagonally on the batter. Bake until a toothpick in the center comes out clean; for the long loaf pan, this is 50-55 minutes. Start checking after 40 minutes. The top will split near the end of the cooking (one aggressive old recipe even tells you to slash the top part-way through in a pre-emptive move). Surface will be dry and pale.
Remove to a rack. Melt 2 T apricot jam with 1 T water in a small saucepan and brush over the top of the cake while warm. When cool enough to handle the pan, turn the bread out and allow to cool completely on the rack. Wrap well. If you bake a standard and a mini, you may consider the latter an extra and eat it all.
Note: If you live in a city, you can probably find good quality fruit at this time of year: try the Italian, Eastern European, or German neighborhoods or look for specialty nut and candy shops. In Boston, I used to go to Dairy Fresh Candies in the North End (they don't carry quite as much as they used to); in Philadelphia, Nuts to You; the stores generally have a more comprehensive selection than is sold online. Other online sources include www.nutsonline.com, in New Jersey.
To make deviled ham: Cut a 1/2 lb slice of smoked ham into chunks and toss in the food processor with 1 tea mayo, 1 tea minced onion, 1-2 tea Dijon mustard, a T each of golden raisins, maple syrup, finely chopped dill pickle, and cider or orange juice. Add a dash of salt, white pepper, and allspice. Whiz a few minutes until it forms a loose, spreadable pate.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
When I was in college, we used to stuff whole small pumpkins with mashed potatoes and seasoned ground beef, and roast them until the flesh was soft and the outsides glazed and mahogany brown—cheap, hearty, and initially impressive, but ultimately rather dull, in the shepherd’s pie tradition. Some years I just roast and mash them, or make soup. Ho-hum. Not that these aren’t good, but really, what’s so pumpkin-y about them? They may just as well have been made with butternut or acorn squash. Pumpkin is a little sweeter and denser, and seems to ask for something that showcases their difference. The Italians of course make the wonderful ravioli de zucca, bathed in sage butter; it’s fabulous, and I have made it, but I’m happy to use canned pumpkin for that purpose as well—or to save eating them for dining out, and let the restaurant do the work. The Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latino and Hispanic cultures use pumpkin a lot too, both in main dishes and desserts, particularly custards. But again, canned is fine. How to really showcase the taste and texture of the fresh item had eluded me.
Then about five years ago during a conference in Baltimore, our large group ordered a pumpkin appetizer at an Afghan restaurant run by a member of Hamid Karzai’s family. It was the house specialty, but arrived looking astoundingly uninteresting— chunks of ostensibly plain cooked pumpkin sitting unadorned in a big bowl (for our crowd it was served home-style, with a another big bowl, this one of yogurt, alongside). Looks were deceiving: it was exotically sweet and tender, with a true pumpkin taste. I asked our waiter how it was made, and he said it was just pumpkin cooked in the oven with water and honey, served with a savory seasoned yogurt. There is a well known Afghan pumpkin dish made with tomato sauce and served with yogurt, but this was not it, but rather something altogether different and delicious.
As I think these fritters are—inspired by that Afghani appetizer but pushed into the dessert category with New England ingredients, and fried (thinking about Mexico made me do it, but fritters are classic New England fare). For me, they capture the sweet, fruity taste of pumpkin as pumpkin, not pumpkin as squash. Be sure to use a nice hard specimen, and if you like the seeds, clean, dry, and roast them with salt: they’re full of minerals. Pumpkin itself is an extremely low-cal, low-fat food, high in vitamin A, calcium, and potassium.
New England Pumpkin Fritters via Afghanistan
These are a bit of work, but as I always say when rationalizing excesses during the holidays, whether of the pecuniary or laborious kind, “It’s only once a year.” And you can spread it out over two days, preparing the pumpkin on one and frying them on the next; extra hands, of course, make preparation light. These are a nice dessert, and a better breakfast. Even a small pumpkin makes a lot, so if you don’t fry it all, you can eat any leftover sweetened pumpkin pieces plain with the yogurt, or mash them up as a side dish. As fritters, serves 15-20.
Preparing the Pumpkin (see safety note below)
1 small sugar pumpkin, about 7” in diameter
1 cup fresh sweet apple cider
¼ cup honey
½ tea Vietnamese cinnamon
2 T unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut the pumpkin into quarters and, with a large spoon, remove as much of the pulp and seeds as possible. Cut each quarter in half lengthwise, then further trim the flesh of all remaining fiber. Peel the rind with a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Cut each of the now eight pieces in half crosswise, then cut into 4 or 5 pieces of ½” each, taking care not to break them as they are curved. As you cut them, put them into a non-metal baking dish (a 15x10 “lasagna pan” is good) into which you have blended the cider, honey, and cinnamon, giving them a toss. Dot with the butter. Cover with a sheet of foil and oven-stew them for about 35 minutes, until they can be pierced with a knife and the smaller pieces are starting to turn translucent. You are looking for what might be called al dente—tender, but definitely holding shape; they will cook further when fried. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the juices. If frying the next day, refrigerate, covered.
Fritters—Batter and Frying
2 cups a-p flour
1 ¾ cups sparkling sweet cider
¼ cup strained cooking liquid from pumpkin
2 eggs, separated
Mixture of corn oil and lard for frying
Heat 2” of oil and lard to 375 F. A deep, heavy frying pan of at least 12” is good for this.
Combine the flour and salt. Separate the eggs and beat the whites until just stiff; drop the yolks into the flour. Strain the juices from the pumpkin into a 2-cup measure; you should have about 1/3 cup. Remove 2 T and reserve for the yogurt sauce, below. Fill the measure to the 2-cup line with the sparkling cider. Gradually add about 1 ½ cups of the liquid to the flour, first stirring with a wooden spoon and then whisking to remove lumps; I don’t bother to strain for this. When reasonably smooth, gently fold in the remaining liquid and the beaten egg whites. With this amount of liquid, the batter will make a relatively light coating; if you want it heavier, cut the liquid by ¼ to ½ cup.
Drop a half-dozen pumpkin pieces into the batter at a time to coat, then lower them into the hot fat. Cook, turning once, until they are a uniform golden brown. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve as you go, or keep them warm in a 200 F oven while you fry the rest. The pumpkin will now be perfectly tender. After it has cooled, strain the fat into a large spouted cup or bowl, pour it into a bottle or jar, and save it in the refrigerator for another use.
Yogurt Sauce and Serving
8 oz Greek-style plain yogurt
¼ cup 100% maple syrup
2 T strained cooking juices
Powdered (10x) sugar mixed with cinnamon-sugar for dusting
Blend the yogurt with the maple syrup and reserved cooking juices in a small bowl; garnish with a dash of cinnamon. Sprinkle the fritters generously with the 10x-sugar-cinnamon mixture, and serve with the yogurt sauce and some good, strong coffee.
Safety Note: Pumpkins are hard and unwieldy, so take great care when cutting. Use a small, sharp knife with a rigid blade such as a good-quality 4” parer or an inflexible 6” boning knife; a chef’s knife or cleaver, while perhaps your first instinct, is dangerous for this. Cut the top out first, making small connecting cuts all around; remove, then cut down each side until you can pop it apart. Rinse/dry your hands frequently while cutting; they get slippery. When peeling, be sure to direct the peeler or knife away from you while holding the pumpkin firmly, flesh-side down, on a cutting board.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Friday, November 16, 2007
2 generous cups fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 hard pear or apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
¾ cup chopped onion
2 T finely minced fresh peeled gingerroot
Zest of a large navel orange
¼ cup fresh sweet apple cider
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 tea chocolate extract (optional)
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
¼ tea salt
¼ tea red pepper flakes
1/3 cup walnut meats, broken into small pieces by hand
10 oz very sharp, well-aged white cheddar
1 T flour
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
2/3 cup cranberry chutney, approximately
Photo of cranberry harvest in NJ by Keith Weller, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service
Sunday, November 11, 2007
We knew it couldn’t last. Warm days begat cool nights and finally, inevitably, one morning you walk out to find your thumping-hard pumpkin collapsed on the deck: first frost. So comes the end of late-fall lettuce and tomatoes, tender beans. It’s over. Not that there won't be some brocolli, or a few root vegetables. But the thrill is gone.
I’ve been traveling this past week, and have been nowhere near a kitchen. I’ve eaten quite well, though: fat pancakes, the kind I don’t usually care for, fluffy, tender, and good. A mess o’ pork barbecue with greens, slaw, spicy beans, corn cakes, potato salad; we happened by when the owner was there, and because I was from out of town, I got a free sampler plate of every smoked meat the house made: large pork ribs, pulled pork, short ribs, chicken, kielbasa, and pigs feet. It was dandy. On from Nashville to Louisville, I had, hands down, the best steak I have ever had, with the best classic sides I’ve ever had (including a pristine iceberg wedge with Maytag blue cheese dressing and flavorful little red and yellow tomatoes), at the amazing Jeff Ruby’s. The place bears no physical resemblance to traditional New York houses Peter Luger, Keen's, or the original Smith & Wollensky. It’s glitzy, even shiny. But the steaks, house-aged like Luger’s, are better. They come to table looking charred and black; sitting at the bar, I could see them arriving all around me, wondering if people had ordered them well done, perhaps "burnt." My strip arrived looking the same. Under that blackened crust—an edge, really—was the most perfectly, evenly cooked steak of my long steak-eating experience. It had been placed on a generous amount of absolutely fresh and sweet Worcestershire butter, which had melted across the plate and offered the ideal sauce to every rich and flavorful bite. The meat was so well seasoned it didn’t need a speck of salt. Truly, you could live anywhere as long as they had steak like this, and a good bakery.And it makes the passing of summer sweet sorrow; we know there are other, soul-warming pleasures ahead. Nevertheless, in tribute to the gifts of summer, here is a final salute, a visual if not veritable feast, of the Rhode Island growing season. Each photo was taken the day of harvest, and each item was eaten at peak flavor, a taste memory that will tide me over through a winter that, carried on the shoulders of a great steak, need not be one of discontent.