Sunday, October 26, 2008

Poblanos: Chile Charmer


There are absolutely gorgeous poblano peppers available now: just the right size—about 4” long and 3” wide at the shoulder--, perfectly conical or heart-shaped, glossy dark green-black. You might not go out looking for them, but they will charm their way into your shopping basket anyway, they are just so fresh-faced and spotless.

And you know that their beauty is more than skin-deep; there’s real substance there. Poblanos are meaty and rich-tasting with a mild-to-moderate flavorful, never raw or grating, heat. They have a medium-thick wall that holds up well when grilled, stuffed, or fried, but that allows them to be at home in gentler preparations, like stir-fries and soups. While I love the small, hotter Serrano for seasoning, the poblano is my idea of the perfect all-around chile pepper. It also is the source of my favorite (and again, the most versatile) dried chile, the ancho, an essential for earthy sauces.

SM Poblanos copy To prepare poblanos, broil or grill them, taking care that they don’t burn, until the skins are lightly charred and blistered all over; I use my toaster oven when doing just a few. Put them in a plastic bag or towel to steam for a few minutes, then pull and rub off the skins, and gently pull out the stem and attached seeds; it can be helpful to do this under running water, and to let the water flow into the chile to remove any escaped seeds. Pat hem dry or set them to drain between paper towels, and then they are ready to use. One of my favorite supper dishes is chiles rellenos, so I tend to make them over and over—and will share my recipe soon. I have already told you about the divine chile-relleno burger. And I often make corn soup with rajas de chile poblano (strips of poblano). But in a pinch I just lightly dust them with cornmeal, fill them with a little cheese, and sauté and serve them with an uncooked fruity and creamy sauce that sets off the heat. It makes a quick appetizer.

Poblanos with Pineapple Cream

Use white or yellow cornmeal; I use my jonnycake meal. Serves 4.

4 medium perfect poblano chiles, skins and seeds removed
2 oz firm mozzarella or soft goat cheese 
1 tea water
1 tea corn oil
pinch salt
2 T unsalted butter
1 T corn oil

¼ buttermilk
¼ cup light cream or half and half
½ cup fresh ripe pineapple

finely chopped cilantro or parsley

Divide the cheese into 4 portions and insert gently into the chiles. Spread a cup or so of cornmeal on a board or sheet of wax paper. In a shallow dish, beat the egg with the water, oil, and salt. Dip the chiles into the egg mixture, turning, and then coat them with cornmeal. Set aside to dry a little.

In a blender, combine the pineapple, buttermilk, and cream or half and half. Puree till smooth; strain if you wish (I don’t), and refrigerate until needed.

Melt the butter with the oil in a 9” sauté pan. Cook the chiles two at a time, turning once, over medium-high heat until golden and the cheese has melted (keep the first batch warm in a 250 F oven while you cook the second). Serve hot with a little of the cold sauce and some chopped fresh coriander or parsley.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Eureka: The Elusive Stayman Winesap


Late last summer in my post about apples, I listed the Stayman Winesap as one of my grandmother’s favorite cooking apples, and how unusual it is to find it these days. I am happy to report (mostly for myself, as it doesn’t much help you) that I am presently, and of course fleetingly as with all earthly gifts, in possession of this wonderful apple. My grandmother loved it for pie, as I do as well. It is a late season, October apple, so look around for them and you too may find them, if you are lucky. They are not grown commercially much anymore in these days of the perfect-looking (if tasteless or over-sweet) apple, as the skin is prone to cracking if conditions are not right. But mine, locally grown, look beautiful.

The Stayman Winesap is a cross between two distinct apples, a Stayman and a Winsap, that appeared by chance in the late 1860s; by 1895 it had been introduced by Stark Brothers, the famous seed nurserymen, and from a timing standpoint it would have been in its heyday when my grandmother was a young woman. It is crisp but not dry like some crisp apples; tart and spicy; and yes, has a winey, or sort of honey-nectary, taste. This makes Stayman Winesaps good for eating as well as pies and other desserts, and their texture  and color--a sort of yellowy gold--also suits them nicely for applesauce.

My grandmother was one of those women who baked as regularly and naturally as she breathed; it was part of the continuous motion of her presence in the kitchen, seamless with the washing of dishes, the cleaning out of the refrigerator or straightening of the pantry shelves, the taking out of the trash. So routine and low-key were her efforts that it was sometimes a shock when, though you’d been sitting right there talking with her when you got home from school, some favorite treat appeared on the counter before you like a conjurer’s trick. This might be an apple, chocolate cream, or lemon sponge pie, or her inimitable yeast coffeecake. But more often than not it was this Dutch Apple Cake, which, like any good magician, she could produce in the blink of an eye.

Grandma’s Dutch Apple Cake

I have never seen this cake anywhere but home. It is plain and delicious, and was a family weeknight standby and favorite. It is best served the day it is made; in our large family, we rarely had leftovers, even though my grandmother made this in a big rectangular pan twice the size of here. Serve it alone, or with a little heavy cream or ice cream. Serves 6-9.

10 oz. butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
¼ tea pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups a-p flour
¼ tea salt
1 ½ tea baking powder
3-4 medium Stayman Winesaps or other tart, firm apple such as CorlandsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1/3-1/2 cup sugar
½ teaspoon fresh ground cinnamon
2 T butter

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9” square pan. Mix the 1/3 cup sugar with the cinnamon and set aside.

In a 2-3 qt saucepan, melt the 10 oz of butter and remove from the heat to cool slightly. Stir in the sugar, and then the eggs, until combined and viscous; stir in the vanilla. Sift the flour, salt, and baking powder into the pan and stir well to form a batter. Pour into the prepared pan.

Peel and core the apples, and slice about ½” thick. Press the slices into the batter, curved side down, in neat rows (truth be told, I don't know why I did not put a fourth row in--I had the apples all cut--as the apples should be close together, and it is all right for them to intersect somewhat). Sprinkle generously with the cinnamon-sugar, dot with the remaining butter, and bake for about 35-40 minutes. Let cool on a rack at least 10 minutes before cutting into squares. I happen to like the slightly chewy end piece.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pole Beans: A Wonder


Those of you who are home gardeners, or who are old enough to remember “when green beans were green beans”—stringy, large, and grown vertically rather than in bushes—will remember the Kentucky Wonder. I remember my father, a suburban dweller and an occasional gardener with a country man’s heart, raving about them.

Originally called “Old Homestead,” the Kentucky Wonder has been around for over 150 years and is enjoying renewed interest as an heirloom variety. While the venerated Blue Lake variety is more popular, especially in the East, the Kentucky Wonder is being rediscovered. In the South, it was never lost, and remains the choice bean for stewing with a little smoked pork.

While not nearly as smooth, straight, and beautiful and deep green as Blue Lakes, Kentucky wonders certainly take the prize on size. This is a major reason for their name, but another is their wonderful true green-bean flavor. Yes, they can be stringy (unlike Blue Lakes) or a bit tough, but only if they are old. If you grow them, or locate them very fresh, you will find they have a beautiful snapping quality—hence their other moniker, snap beans—and may not need stringing at all. The fresh-picked beans pictured here did not.

Look for beans that are long (curvaceous is fine) and bulging with seeds, but flexible (not leathery) to the touch; snap one as a test of its freshness and taste it. A good pole bean is tasty raw, not fibrous or tough. They will only need breaking off the stem end. Cook them as soon after buying them as you can, as they will toughen and lose flavor with storage.

Coming across these beans at the farmer’s market took me back. I am accustomed to cooking my green beans uncovered for four minutes—and serving them bright and crisp-tender with butter and salt. But these beans call for something slower and more old-fashioned. They are still cooked this way in the South. And they are delicious.

Pole Beans with Smoked Ham Hock

If fresh, these beans could technically be eaten after 30-45 minutes of cooking. But if you double that amount of time, you will have greater depth of flavor—and a wonderful “pot liquor” in which to dunk some cornbread—and still have good texture. The directions are general, as this is not precise cooking. Have old, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         somewhat overgrown Blue Lakes or other beans? Try them this way. You can also add some small potatoes for the last half-hour of cooking for a nice one-pot vegetarian meal. Serves 4.

1 lb pole beans, such as Kentucky Wonder
½ lb lightly smoked ham hock (with bone) or 1/3 lb slab bacon
1 small onion
big pinch salt
1 cup or more light ham or chicken stock, or water
half a mild chile, such as Hatch, Anaheim, or Poblano

Remove the stems from the beans and snap them into pieces about 2” in length. Set aside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cut the meat off the hock and chop it into small pieces, or dice the bacon. Render in a Dutch Oven or other heavy pot. Slice or chop the onion and add it to the rendered fat; sauté over medium heat until both the pork and the onion are lightly brown. 

Add the snapped beans and sauté for a few minutes. Add a big pinch of salt and add stock just to cover the beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 45 minutes. Add the chile and cook for another 15-30 minutes.



Sunday, October 5, 2008

Store Cheese

Store Cheese wrapped         OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You don’t hear the term “store cheese” too much anymore because, well, most of the stores are gone. The general stores, that is, where giant wheels of cheese sat out on the wooden counter, usually the meat counter, waiting to be cut to order. These wheels weighed some 40 pounds, maybe more, and they were a beautiful, reassuring sight. As long as that sturdy wheel sat there, you knew that some things, at least, could be relied upon. Its sheer size, its magnificent presence, was a kind of guarantee. Whether you bought some or not—which usually you did--it was there if you needed it. Without the store, there’s no cheese, and life in places where the store and the cheese have disappeared is less secure because of it.

Store cheese is always cheddar, but very fine cheddar—one that is well-aged, white, meltingly creamy, ideal at room temperature—indeed, almost warm. To describe it as extra sharp would be an injustice; its mouth-filling flavor is more aptly expressed as intensely rich with a saliva-producing edge. Its texture is firm but not hard, and it should fracture or break nicely when cold. Because a well-aged cheddar will soften considerably as it warms, be sure it is cold when you grate it, and keep grated cheese cool until you are ready to use it so it doesn’t mush together.

Cheddar’s origins are English, and New Englanders remain deeply committed to their ancestral cheese. The store cheese that I know and love comes from Cabot Creamery in Vermont, and for years it was sold at Wilbur’s Store in Little Compton. Actually, it still is: Wilbur’s is still there, and the cheese is still sold there. But Wilbur’s changed hands, and now the store cuts it up in advance rather than to order, and sells pieces already wrapped and marked. It’s the same cheese. But it’s not the same.

LCM Store Cheese Soufflé

Bread forms the “base” of this soufflé, eliminating the need to make a white sauce. You could serve this for lunch with a big plate of sliced tomatoes or as a side dish at dinner, especially with ham. Serves 4.

1 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs plus additional for topping (see Note)
1 cup grated best-quality store cheese or well-aged white cheddar, packed
2 cups whole milk
2 large eggs, separated
½ tea salt
1/8 tea cayenne pepper OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1-2 T cold unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter a 1 ½ qt soufflé dish or 4 1-cup ramekins or small bowls; tapered bowls seem to encourage a nice mound.

In a medium bowl, place the bread crumbs and cover with the milk; allow to rest for a minute. Drop in the egg yolks and beat. Add the cheese and stir. Beat the  egg whites until stiff and fold them into the other ingredients in two stages.

Using a ladle, fill the dish or distribute the batter among the ramekins or bowls. Sprinkle the tops with additional breadcrumbs, and dot with butter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until puffy and nicely browned. Like all soufflés, these will fall soon after removing from the oven. By all means send them to the table, but wait ten minutes or so before cutting into them or they may throw some liquid. They will still be hot, and their texture excellent, after the wait.


Note: Fresh bread crumbs can be made from any fresh or day-old but not dry or hard bread, crusts removed. A food processor is the perfect tool for this; a few pulses with give your coarse crumbs, and few more, fine ones. If you don't have a food processor, your can tear the bread into small pieces for this recipe.

I keep a bag of fine dry bread crumbs in the freezer at all times, and replenish it whenever I have a few leftover pieces or an odd bread end. They have endless uses as toppings and thickenings, and for breading meats and fish. There is nothing so alluring as a casserole topped with a crunchy golden crown or a plate-size veal schnitzel with lemon, and having crumbs always on hand makes them everyday options.