Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Last of the Wine: Transforming the Bottom of the Bottle

wine biscotti baked 2 copyI know what you’re thinking: who has leftover wine? I drink all of mine. Usually that’s true, but you know how it is: something demands a fresh, or a different bottle, so the one with three-fourths gone sits on the counter, and before you know it, there’s no going back—you’ve moved on, and probably, so has it.
So I make a distinction between cooking with wine, and using the last of the wine. Wine is a wonderful addition to, and sometimes a prominent ingredient in, sauces, poaching liquids and soaking syrups, braises, and soups. For these, those last few inches of counter-sitting vino will not do--with the possible exception of a splash into a tomato sauce. A fresh bottle, suited to the purpose, is best.
But we needn’t resort to pouring our wine odds and ends down the drain: as with the tomato sauce, the ever-ingenious Italians have found a use for them in the form of wonderful wine biscotti. These unusual biscuits are slightly sweet, slightly savory, and altogether delicious. Here in Rhode Island, a tiny state where those of Italian descent make up the largest demographic group (19%), very good ones—handmade, not commercial—can be bought at the Italian specialty stores on Atwells Avenue in Providence. But if you, like me, are still clearing away from the holidays, and your counter collection of partial bottles has grown over the past month to a small forest of green, making our own offers both a guilt-free alternative to disposal, and a nice addition to a mid-winter cocktail tray. Children are generally happy to help with the rolling and twisting.
Last of the Wine Biscotti
These traditional Italian biscuits are a nice accompaniment to wine, dunked or not. You can use any leftover wine in the recipe, and season or not accordingly. I have made them with both dry red and dry white wine, with sauternes, and with tawny port (the ones in the photo); each gives a somewhat more or less assertive, and always interesting, flavor. Makes two dozen or biscotti dough copy
2 ½ cups a-p flour
1/3 cup + 1 T sugar
1 ½ tea baking powder
1 tea salt
¼ tea ground white pepper
½-1 tea other spice of your choice, such as ground caraway (optional)
¼ cup olive oil (on the lighter side)
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup red or white wine, dry or sweet, or fortified winewine biscotti rolled copy
Preheat oven to 350 F. Put everything into a food processor and process briefly, until a somewhat granular but soft dough forms. Turn out onto a board and pat lightly into a square; cut into two dozen pieces of roughly equal size for biscotti that are close to 2” in diameter, or into more pieces for smaller biscuits. I tend to make a mix of sizes because I like the way it looks. With the palm of your hand, roll each piece into a 3-4” finger-thick log; slightly tapered ends are good. Wrap each around your index finger into a ring, pressing the ends together. Bake for 18-20 minutes, depending on size, until lightly firm and bottoms are brown. Remove to a rack and cool. These are best when very fresh, so freeze if you don’t plan to serve them the same day.
P.S. I will be traveling out of the country until February 1, and will be back to posting at Little Compton Mornings that weekend.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Salt Pork: Local Fat of Choice

Salt pork 3 copyEvery region has its traditional cooking fat. In France, it’s butter. In Italy, olive oil, and in Mexico, lard. Here in New England, it’s salt pork.
In colonial New England, salt pork was made from the odds and ends of the pig, tossed together in a pork barrel or crock with a salt cure or brine, and drawn on and replenished on a regular basis. It kept well, making it an ideal ration for sailors and other travelers, and lent richness and flavor to all kinds of dishes, particularly during the winter when butter was scarce. Today, salt pork is generally made from a particular cut, the meat from the tummy and lower sides of the pig, called pork belly or “side pork.” This is a multilayered section of lean and fat, the same that is used to produce bacon, the key difference being that bacon is smoked and salt pork is not. Salt pork is available as “lean” or “fat,” the latter being all white fat from the same side belly area, and increasingly hard to find. It should not be confused with fat back, which is neither salted nor from the belly.
While today’s salt pork is a more standardized product than it was 200 years ago, it is still used in traditional ways. The most common, and emblematic, uses are in clam chowder and baked beans, often called pork and beans. Baked beans and brown bread for Saturday night supper are still a tradition in some parts of New England. Another supper (and sometimes breakfast) dish that still has many fans is fried salt pork with milk or cream gravy; you must try this to believe how wonderful it is. Salt pork is also an ideal fat for sautéing with greens and vegetables; a simple dish of potatoes and onions fried in salt pork, sometimes called “Scootin’ ‘long the shore” in the Cape and Islands area to reflect its popularity as a dish prepared by fishermen on the beach, is a satisfying treat. Salt pork makes a good pie crust, and salt pork cake, a moist, rich spice cake, is a very old recipe that retains a loyal, if small, following. I’ll provide my version soon.
Culinary uses, then, are alive and well for salt pork. What has largely, and thankfully, disappeared—although surprisingly recently—are medicinal uses. Salt pork was once widely used by physicians as an effective “pack” for nosebleeds, reportedly into the 1970s in some parts of the country (one can only wonder where that might have been); apparently, the salt caused swelling and pressure on the blood vessels as the nasal lining came into contact with the pork, thereby stanching the flow. I’m not sure whether this is welcome information or not, but it could come in handy someday. Salt pork was also used as a poultice for sore throats. In the political arena, salt pork was literally used to “grease the palms,” or bribe, officials in Stalinist Russia during the days of deep privation, leaving a lasting legacy to the language of corruption.
Today’s salt pork is sold by a few major packers of pork products, generally in 12-16 ounce blocks; in some parts of the country, you may still be able to find a locally cured product from a pork butcher, and in the South, you can find a similar product, pork side meat, but it is cured with sugar and pepper as well as salt. You might also try making your own, either dry- or brine-cured, from pork bellies, which are increasingly available through Asian markets and online. Commercially available salt pork will keep well, unopened, in the refrigerator for a few months, and may be frozen; I recommend freezing leftover pieces, although they will keep well-wrapped in the refrigerator for several weeks. When buying, go through all the available packages to look for one that has more or less lean, depending on what you are making; if you want more fat than lean, you can often find a piece with a single layer of lean along the edge that can be cut off and saved for another use; just be sure to buy enough to compensate for the loss in weight. Some recipes call for blanching salt pork, but I do not except when making fried salt pork with gravy. Just rinse it well under cold water and pat it dry. Salt pork has a skin that, depending on your recipe, will either be scored or cut off and discarded. Generally, I cut it off when slicing, chopping or grinding the pork, and leave it on when I want large chunks or am using it primarily for flavoring, such as for baked beans or sautéing vegetables. Either way, you will find that salt pork has a silky, melting quality and adds rich, deep flavor.
Scootin’ ‘Long the Shore
Using salt pork as your cooking fat adds a new dimension to the simplest dish, like beans or these fried potatoes. Serves 2.Salt pork diced copy
½ large sweet onion, thinly sliced
4 slices lean salt pork, about ¼” thick, diced
2  medium-large red-skinned or Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large heavy skillet, fry the salt pork over medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes, or until it is turning golden. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until soft and translucent. Distribute the potatoes in the pan, pushing the onion and salt pork aside to make as much contact as possible with the pan bottom. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover. Cook slowly over your medium-low heat, stirring and turning the potatoes occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a knife and some have begun to brown. Remove the lid and cook uncovered, turning, for another 5 minutes or so. They should be partially brown but not crispy, with brown bits of pork and caramelized onions.
Salt pork potatoes dish 4 copy

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Buckwheat: Warm for the Winter

Buckwheat flour 1 copy January in Rhode Island is for settling in and staying warm. To everything there is a season, and in this one, I lose interest in the luxury ingredients, complex menus, and rich preparations that mark the holidays. Like clockwork, I put them away for another year along with the holiday decorations, and begin to crave the cozy satisfaction of simple, homey, rib-sticking New England food.
For me, there is no mealtime so satisfying as breakfast, and none that lends itself so well to the old-fashioned without ever feeling like you want something lighter, trendier, more innovative. It is hard to improve on the idea of a pancake or jonnycake, or to even discuss doing so without sounding a bit silly. By all means, experiment with refining and rarifying dinner, but leave breakfast well enough alone.
An old favorite here in the Northeast is raised buckwheat pancakes. It just tastes like New England, in the same way that jonnycakes—a subject of a series of future posts--taste like Rhode Island. Many old-fashioned New England recipes call for buckwheat because it was widely grown here during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the mid-20th century, however, it largely disappeared from local cultivation. In 1964, the last year for which there are statistics, only 57,000 acres were harvested nationwide, compared with over 1 million just 50 years earlier. One possible reason for this is that buckwheat does not lend itself to “improvement” through plant selection and other breeding techniques; grown primarily without pesticides or herbicides, its principal enemies are deer and other animals, much harder to control. (The upside of this is that when you eat a buckwheat pancake, it may be little changed from the one pioneer women served their families.) Another factor in declined production was likely changing tastes, as bleached white flour took over in mid 20th-century America. In the last 30 years, however, due to increasing demand for health reasons and for uses such as pillow fills, there has been some renewed interest in developing viable buckwheat strains for commercial farming.
Buckwheat is not wheat, not even a grain. It is an herbaceous summer annual, related to rhubarb and sorrel; this means that buckwheat has no gluten, a plus for those with wheat allergies—or those (not me) who have sworn off bread and pasta for the New Year. Some buckwheat is utilized in the form of groats (the crushed, de-hulled kernels); this is the well-known kasha in the tasty Jewish dish, kasha varnitchkes (bow-tie noodles). Buckwheat flour is milled from the hulled triangular seed, and used for noodles (soba), porridge (from a coarser grit), a thickener for gravies and soups, and, of course, pancakes and blini. Buckwheat also is the source of wonderful dark honey (some beekeepers plant it specifically for this reason), which now commands a high price because of the crop’s scarcity.
Nutritionally, buckwheat is the best source of high-quality protein of all plants (better than soybeans), containing all eight essential amino acids. It is also a good source of complex carbohydrates, insoluble fiber, potassium, iron, and B vitamins. Buckwheat has beneficial effects to circulation and may help lower cholesterol and diabetes risk. To benefit from buckwheat’s wholesome profile, be sure your buckwheat is very fresh; buy small quantities and use it as quickly as possible, freezing any extra, because it is high in fat and can go rancid quickly. Also make sure you are buying 100% buckwheat flour, as it is often packed as a mix for pancakes that includes wheat flour.
Rhody-style Buckwheat Pancakes
You may be surprised, from the looks of the batter, how light these are. They have a slightly sweet, slightly nutty taste that is quite unusual. I like the taste of orange with them, and sometimes serve them with my orange-scented fig jam as well as with the tangerine-maple syrup here. Start these the night before; they are traditionally made in a pitcher for pouring out next day. Serves 4.
½ cup Rhode Island jonnycake cornmeal (see sources in left column)Buckwheat batter mixed copy
¾ cup boiling water
1 ½ cups buckwheat flour
¼ tea salt
1 cup whole milk, scalded
2 ¼ tea active dry yeast (1 envelope)
¼ cup warm water
1 T molasses
2 T warm water
scant ½ tea baking soda
extra milk if needed
2/3 cup 100% maple syrupBuckwheat batter raised copy
1 tangerine, peeled and sectioned
In a pitcher or medium bowl with a pouring spout, pour the boiling water over the cornmeal and stir to a mush. Add the buckwheat flour, salt, and scalded milk, and beat well with a wooden spoon to incorporate and remove any lumps. Set aside until lukewarm.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and add to the flour-cornmeal mixture, stirring well. It will look a bit like wet sand or, truth be told, wet concrete, belying its ultimate texture. Cover, and let sit on the counter in a draft-free place overnight. Next morning, dissolve the baking soda into the water and add with the molasses to the bubbly batter, stirring well to combine; you can add a few tablespoons of milk to thin it if you think it is too thick. (If it looks as if the batter fell after rising, not to worry.)
Heat a griddle to medium heat and grease with butter or shortening. Pour the batter into 4-5”rounds. Do not turn until the tops look relatively dry and you can easily slide the spatula under the full breadth of the pancake, or they will break. Turn only once and finish cooking the other side; they will be nicely brown.
While the pancakes are cooking, put the maple syrup into a small saucepan. Squeeze a few sections of tangerine into the syrup, and drop the rest into the pan. Place over low heat for a few minutes. Butter the pancakes and pour the warm tangerine-maple syrup over them to serve.
Buckwheat pancakes 2 copy