Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cast Iron: Gems

When I moved a few years ago, one important box, out of all the arguably negligible boxes, never made it to my house. It contained my entire collection of plain and enameled cast iron cookware, plus countless heat-proof serving pieces, many of them (like the cast iron) near-antiques, and several of them gifts with sentimental as well as culinary value. Common items such as large cast iron skillets are easy to replace (although, of course, anyone who has owned one for a long time will tell you that their seasoned pan is irreplaceable). Other things are harder to re-acquire. Good enameled cast iron and decorative bakeware are, for starters, expensive; thoughtful, well-heeled friends have used holidays and other opportunities to help me rebuild my collection with generous gifts. But some pieces are just not available anymore: a shallow round enameled cast iron paella-type pan with integral cut-out handles, for example, a gift in the early 1970s; the first piece of enameled cast iron that I ever owned, a blue and cream small gratin, that I purchased on my first trip to Europe; a Victorian-era ceramic mold, bought for me by my mother when I saw it in an antique shop. Don’t even get me started about true cast-iron popover pans, with their odd number of 11 deep compartments, designed to leave room on each side of the pan for picking it up. Mine had been an Erie pan of my Pennsylvania German grandmother’s, so I estimate that it was nearly 100 years old or more when I lost it. My large skillet was hers, too. For me, such losses are far more painful than, for example, the loss of a favorite gold ring a number of years ago. I never think about that ring. But I think about these pans all the time.
One item that I recently was able to replace, however, was a little cast iron gem pan with six ¼-cup compartments, called a muffin pan by its manufacturer, Lodge, the cast iron king, probably so as not to confuse modern buyers. I call this a gem pan because little muffins (and this is a little pan that makes little items) used to be called “gems,” especially those that were very plain and sturdy like the ones this pan is perfect for. Nowadays a muffin is more apt to be a big, sugary piece of muffin-shaped cake, and indeed muffin tins are the equivalent of cupcake tins. They hold more batter than a gem pan, and their aluminum construction is suited to the lower-temperature baking and higher-sugar content of the modern muffin.
I found my gem pan quite by accident while shopping at Chaves, the Portuguese market mentioned in last week’s post. I knew Lodge still made a pan like this, but had never seen it in a store and had resisted paying more for shipping than for the pan itself. And there it was, on an aisle I had passed by numerous times without stopping to look at the assortment of pots and pans. I’m not sure what the Portuguese use these pans for—I’m guessing little corn muffins or perhaps some of their dense, filled confections—but I was happy to see them and snatched one up.
Cast iron is an ancient, nontoxic, easily molded metal that is an outstanding heat conductor, and particularly good for cooking or baking at high or moderately high temperatures and where even browning and crispness are valued—hence the reason it is prized for fried chicken, popovers, or waffles, as a few examples. Cast iron weighs a ton. For this reason, cast iron pans have often been portrayed in comedies as weapons, but this is pure fiction: you could never actually lift them high enough to hit anyone. But do look for handles on both sides when you buy a large frying pan or you will never even be able to pick it up off the stove.
All new pans should be scrubbed with soap and hot water to remove factory coatings, dried thoroughly, and then seasoned. To season, use solid shortening or animal fat, never oil. You may melt it, however, to ease coating the entire surface of the new pan—inside and out—with the fat. Place the pan upside-down in an oven preheated to 350 F for one hour; a rimmed cookie sheet beneath the pan will catch any dripping fat. Store it in a dry area where it will not get scratched: on the stove, hanging, or unstacked in a cupboard. Normal use will keep your pan seasoned, but if it ever rusts or begins to seem brittle, or if for any reason it needs a thorough scrubbing with soap and water, season it again from scratch. After using, wipe out thoroughly with a paper towel; if it needs a bit of scrubbing, use hot water only and a plastic or straw pot scrubber, followed by a thin smear of shortening. When at a friend’s house, or even in your own, my advice is to never touch another’s cast iron pan, or at the very least be willing to subject yourself to supervision by its owner if the question of your cooking with it comes up. Never, however, wash it or otherwise involve yourself in cleaning it. It’s just safer that way for all concerned.
Date-Graham Gems
These are so dense, spartan, and healthful that they may not be indulgent enough for your taste. They are about as old-fashioned as you can get. I find them very satisfying and stick-with-you for breakfast. Makes 6.
¾ cup graham flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 T unsweetened cocoa
2 T brown sugar, packed
¼ tea salt
scant ½ tea baking soda
½ cup sour milk (or ½ cup whole milk with 1 T sour cream stirred in and set aside)
1 egg, beaten
generous 1 T butter, melted and cooled
¼ cup chopped dates
2 tea turbinado sugar
Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease the gem pan with a little butter or shortening.
Combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl, breaking up any lumps in the sugar and cocoa.
In a measuring cup, beat the milk and cooled butter into the egg until thoroughly amalgamated. Stir into the dry ingredients until just wet; there should be a sort of foaming of the batter. Gently fold in the dates.
Spoon the batter into the pan, dividing evenly. Sprinkle the tops with turbinado sugar for a little sweet crunch. Bake 18 minutes. Turn the gems out immediately, loosening the tops if needed. Serve warm or at room temperature, with or without butter.
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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chouriço: Another Portuguese Gift

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         In Rhode Island, where the Portuguese are second only to the Italians for largest immigrant population, Portuguese food (like Italian food), is truly part of traditional Rhode Island cuisine. In addition to loving our Portuguese pao de milho and sweet bread, we eat Portuguese chouriço alongside eggs as readily as bacon or ham. Outsiders sometimes think our chouriço is like Spanish chorizo, or even Mexican, but it is not. As you know by now, I adore Mexican chorizo, but it is a different animal. Actually, it’s the same animal, the pig, but a different item altogether, despite surface similarities. All three are distinct in taste, with the Mexican being more finely ground and vinegary, as well as seasoned with chili pepper, and the Spanish containing more paprika and smoked to a harder, drier, finish.choricochaves
Portuguese chouriço is a lightly smoked sausage made with coarsely ground pork shoulder, garlic, paprika, vinegar, pepper, salt, and sometimes red wine, and stuffed into natural casings. Most come in mild, which is standard, or hot versions. “Gourmet” versions, including lower-fat and chicken sausages, are now available (and they are very good), as are finely ground and skinless sausages, and ground meat and patties. Several area sources with different offerings are Sardinha’s, which is carried primarily at upscale stores and which you may need to order online, and Amaral’s, Gaspar’s, Furtado’s, and Michael’s, which are widely available in stores locally as well as online. If you live in Rhode Island or the part of Southeastern Massachusetts that injects itself between Rhode Island towns, you can make a pilgrimage to Chaves Market on Columbia Street in Fall River for the store’s own chouriço—mild,  hot, or extra fat, and so good that they don’t bother to carry any OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         packaged brand. Chave’s chouriço is a true artisan product, and well worth the trip. In case you’re wondering, the extra-fat chouriço is preferred by some Portuguese cooks for the richness it gives to soups and stews.
Chouriço is a common ingredient in Portuguese dishes, from feijoado to kale and clam soup, clam and chorizo stew, chorizo with beans (especially favas), and egg preparations of all kinds. Sometimes it is just set on fire to cook (“flamed”) and sent to the table. Here is a recipe for a familiar Rhode Island classic.
LCM Portuguese Chouriço and Pepper Sandwich
The Portuguese dish Chouriço and Peppers is commonly a stewed dish of crumbled choriço with red wine and tomatoes served over rice, and used also as a sandwich filling. In college, my Portuguese suite-mates referred to it as “shittiesandpeppers,” its popular moniker. It is a favorite of all Rhode Islanders. My version is closer to a sauté of sliced rather than crumbled sausage, without sauce, and I serve it on a Portuguese sweet bread roll, which I have come to love for hamburgers and deli sandwiches as well. You could serve yours more traditionally with tomato sauce and on a soft torpedo-shaped plain roll, if you wish. And you can also prepare the entire thing on the charcoal grill, omitting the wine. Makes 3 good-sized sandwiches.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
½ lb, generous, hot, mild, or mixed chouriço
1 small red pepper
1 small green pepper
½ medium onion
1 fat clove garlic
Salt, pepper
1 tea-1 T olive oil (see NOTE)
Big splash (about 2 T) red wine
Portuguese sweet bread rolls
Slice the garlic into thin slivers. Cut the peppers in half horizontally and slice them vertically into ¼” slices. Slice the onion into ¼” slices, and slice the chouriço into ¼” rounds, leaving the skin on. (You can also remove the skin after cooking sausages whole; see below).
Put about a teaspoon of olive oil into a large heavy skillet and heat it to medium-high, rotating the pan so that the oil coats the surface. When the pan begins to smoke, turn the heat down a little and toss in the choriço; cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the fat renders; do not over-brown. Remove from the pan and set aside. (If you want your chouriço skinless, cook it whole before cutting; remove it from the pan and pierce the skin with a sharp knife; draw the knife down lengthwise; remove the skin; and slice into ¼” rounds).
Restore the heat to medium-high and toss in the peppers. Cook for about a minute, stirring, then toss in the onions; cook another minute, then toss in the garlic, salt, and pepper to taste. Cook another minute, return the chouriço to the pan, splash with the wine, toss around, and cover loosely, letting steam escape, to let the vegetables soften a bit—about 5 minutes cooking time total from when you throw in the peppers. (NOTE: If you are using a commercial brand like Michael’s or Gaspar’s, the sausages will yield enough fat and you will need only a little oil; if an artisanal or lower-fat brand, you will need to add more oil to cook the peppers.)
Toast Portuguese sweet bread rolls lightly, pile with the chouriço and peppers, and enjoy a taste of Rhode Island.
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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Leeks: Spring’s Salad Substitute

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         We really are stuck in the ‘tween months, aren’t we? It’s still unseasonably cold, it’s still rainy and windy, and many parts of New England still have snow on the ground. But I’m done with winter, and with winter vegetables, ready to move on. Each time I approach Steve‘s farmstand on my way over to Westport, I look with misplaced hope to see if by chance or miracle the little wooden “asparagus” sign is up. Nope. Not yet. Not for another month, I’m afraid. The daffodils are just barely up, the asparagus way behind.
So I content myself with leeks, a small salvation from vegetable limbo. Though leeks have been around for much of the winter, they are really nice now, with long, substantial white bulbs that make for generous cutting. They are a nice bridge vegetable between salad-free winter and the light crisp greens and tender veggies of early summer, both comforting and elegant. In the right preparation, they give me a sense that winter is dying down, and that the lightness of being that is summer is inevitably, thankfully, rising ahead. Perhaps that is why leeks are sometimes called “poor man’s asparagus”—although, like so much else, they are cheap no more.
Leeks are cousins of onions, shallots, scallions, and garlic—all members of the allium family—but they are gentler and more delicate in flavor. At the same time, physically they can be tough and fibrous, so need to be chosen and cooked with care. I prefer leeks of medium girth—not too skinny, not too fat. Select leeks that look fresh and young, with sprightly, clean root hairs and pliable but straight green stalks; they should look like giant scallions, with as much white as possible. Try to buy them loose so you can choose leeks of the same size, rather than in the mismatched bunches that so defy logic that they must be a product of grocer passive-aggressiveness. You will sometimes hear leeks referred to as “ramps,” a name for a wild leek, generally stronger in flavor than the cultivated variety and so really a different variety than we are talking about here. Like other alliums, there is evidence that leeks may balance cholesterol and blood sugar, and reduce the risk of certain cancers.
The most famous use for leeks is the classic vichyssoise, a pureed soup of leek, potato, stock, and cream served cold and sometimes, by another name, hot. One of those oft bastardized dishes, vichyssoise made in the classic manner is very good and quite elegant, and makes a lovely early spring or summer starter or light lunch. Leeks can also be used the way you would use scallions or onions: as a basic aromatic in salads, sautés, and stir-frys; chopped as a garnish; in a quiche; even grilled or deep-fried. When braised in a little veal stock, they take on a melting quality and depth of flavor that makes for an excellent accompaniment to roasted or grilled meats, especially beef and lamb. All these are very nice. But one of my favorite ways to eat leeks in the spring is as a kind of salad, served at room temperature with a flavorful vinaigrette.
To prepare leeks whole, cut off the root and cut vertically up the white part of the leek; if large, cut a cross in the white part and make a single cut down the center of the leaves. Fill a clean sink or bowl with water and swish them around. Do this twice, rinsing well under the tap: leeks trap sand, soil, and critters. If you are cutting your leeks across the bulbs into slices, cut them first and then soak them a bit in a bowl of water and drain in a colander under running water.
Spring Leeks Vinaigrette
This is provincial cooking at its best, the whole leeks served simply with a dressing alongside a nice grilled steak or paillard, or perhaps with a plain parsley omelet, a favorite of mine. Or alone for lunch. Serves 2.
3 medium leeks, about 1 ½” diameter
A few peppercorns and whole allspice or clovesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A generous splash of white or rosé wine
A few parsley stems
1 egg yolk
½ tea Dijon mustard
½ tea, generous, finely minced shallot
2 T white balsamic vinegar (or regular white wine vinegar)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ tea salt and 3 or 4 twists of freshly ground pepper
Snipped chives or chopped parsley (optional)
Finely chopped hard-boiled egg (optional)
Cut the leaves to about 4” long and trim and clean the leeks in two changes of water, as described above. In a pot or sauté pan large enough to lay the leeks flat, bring them to a boil in salted water seasoned with the salt, peppercorns, wine, allspice, and parsley stems; reduce the heat to a still-bubbling simmer and cook until tender, 8-10 minutes. Drain. Slice the leeks through lengthwise into halves or, if large, quarters. Wrap them in paper towels, squeeze gently, and set aside to continue to drain.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk the egg yolk, mustard, white balsamic, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil, and correct for seasoning. Put the sliced leeks into a shallow dish, such as an au gratin, pour half or more of the dressing over the still-warm leeks, and toss gently; reserve any extra dressing for another use. Let stand for about 5 minutes. Serve on plates, garnished with chive/chopped parsley and/or sieved hard-boiled egg if desired.
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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Great Jonnycake Debate, Part II: Thin

Jonnycakes thin frill3 copy On the other side of the Bay from thick jonnycake country—my side—the thin jonnycake reigns. As is the case with so many things, it’s the same, but different. The thin jonnycake is made from the identical stone-ground white flint cornmeal—although over here we use a different brand—and it too is served with butter and maple syrup. But instead of a plopable fried mush made with boiling water, it is a pourable fried batter made with cold milk. It is largish and round rather than oval and small. It has a smoother, lightly crisp rather than rougher, crunchier surface—I suppose you could say it is more refined (although still down-home)—and has a lacy frill at the edge. People are very particular about the lace, which provides the thin jonnycake’s pleasant contrast of crispness and tenderness.
These differences in preparation do result in a different taste. The bittersweet tang is still there, but less density means less intensity. Eating thin jonnycakes is like eating breakfast pancakes that taste like nothing else you’ve ever had: they look similar, until you take a bite. Jonnycakes are, in fact, the pancake substitute in another unique Rhode Island tradition, the May Breakfast (at least, in those where tradition is inviolable—some have replaced them with the less-temperamental standard pancake).
In a state that loves controversy, there is disagreement over the origin of the May Breakfast. One theory is that it was first started to celebrate Rhode Island’s declaration of independence from the British crown on May 4, 1776—two months before the official declaration of the colonies. Another is that it began in the mid 19th century with a “May Day” fund-raiser for a new building for the Quaker meeting house in Cranston. I lean toward the first explanation, although it is true that nowadays most May Breakfasts are sponsored by churches or civic organizations to raise money, serving up good food for a good cause.
Like the public clambakes that are held all over Rhode Island throughout the summer, May Breakfasts are held all over the state, usually between the first and seventh of the month, although a few have resorted to late April in a crowded field. Check your local papers, as most are not widely advertised. In addition to jonnycakes, there is usually ham and bacon (sometimes chorizo), eggs, clam cakes (I’ll get to those eventually), baked beans, pie, juice, and coffee; at some, there are the more modern additions of home fries, muffins and other baked goods, or the aforementioned alternate of pancakes. Food is served family style and a filling time is had by all. If you start practicing now, you will have perfected the de rigueur lacey edge in time to hold your own May Breakfast. That is, if you decide to align with my side of the bay.
Having trouble choosing between thick and thin? Like Switzerland, you can remain neutral, welcoming and eating all, no questions asked. There is even what some call a “middle-of-the-bay” jonnycake, the ultimate political compromise, which uses both boiling water and cold milk; indeed, you may discover that many contemporary recipes for thin-style jonnycakes are written this way. You start with making a boiling-water mush, and add cold milk to thin. It is not traditional, but it is easier to cook, as is the faux or near-jonnycake, which contains flour and sometimes egg, that is sometimes passed off in restaurants as the real thing. To say nothing of the fancy ones, flavored with juice, liqueur, spice, or other new-fangled additions.
Me, I like jonnycakes in any guise. But I hew to the old ways when I make them at home—through thick or thin.
East of Bay Jonnycakesjonnycake grays 1 copy
The local cornmeal on this side of the water is Gray’s, from a small grist mill in the village of Adamsville on the Westport, Massachusetts/Little Compton, Rhode Island line. For a brief, shining moment (actually, a few years) during the 1990s, Gray’s milled an amazing coarse-grain yellow meal that made the most sensational polenta I have ever had. When they stopped making it, I bought up as many bags as possible and hoarded the final one in the freezer for—I’m somewhat embarrassed to say—years, even twice moving house with it. Alas, I was compelled to use it up at a certain point when it was starting to yield a slightly off taste, and it is now gone forever. But the memory lingers on. Serves 4 (about 12 5” cakes).
1 cup Rhode Island stone-ground white flint cornmeal
½ tea saltjonnycakes batter1 copy
1 ½-2 cups whole milk
Use a spouted bowl or pitcher (preferably with a handle) to mix the batter. Warm the cornmeal in the oven and stir in the salt. Very gradually, stirring all the while, add the milk until you have a thin, soupy batter; start with between 1 ½ and 1 ¾ cups. Generously grease a medium-hot griddle with bacon fat or lard, and pour batter onto the griddle to make cakes about 5-6” diameter. If the temperature is right and the batter of proper consistency, the batter will immediately spread and bubble and holes will appear. Do not panic.
Jonnycakes thin griddle2Jonnycakes thin cooked2 Jonnycakes thin underside2 copy
Cook undisturbed until the thin edges are brown, the surface has begun to dry, and you can easily slide a sharp, clean metal spatula beneath it. This will take 3-5 minutes, depending on your heat. Turn, revealing an evenly golden cake of crepe-like thinness with a frilly edge. Cook another 2 minutes or so; the bottoms will have the appearance of a perforated golden network.
The trick to cooking these is the thinness of the batter and the proper temperature. Too thick, and it will not spread to frill at the edges; add more milk, and do so throughout the cooking if the batter thickens will sitting. Too hot, and the cakes will burn; too low, and they won’t cook through. Test one before making a full batch, and adjust the heat as needed (usually, lower). Keep your spatula edge wiped clean.
You can hold jonnycakes warm in the oven while you cook the rest. Serve them on their own with butter and maple syrup, or alongside eggs and/or bacon, ham, or sausage.
Jonnycakes thin plate copy
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