Saturday, February 23, 2008

Comiendo in San Miguel: ¡Qué Rica!

Really, I couldn't not go. Delta was having a special promotional fare from Boston to Querétaro for $350 round-trip inclusive of fees and taxes, and I had a lovely little casita in which to stay, attached to my sister's house, for free. Another one of my sisters was going to be there, too. So really, I had to go. It had nothing to do with the fact that Mexican is both my favorite and, in my estimation, the greatest of the world's three or arguably four great, fully distinct cuisines (the others being French, Chinese, and--the arguable--Italian). Really, nothing at all.

But of course I ate. And ate. My sister had arranged a round of dinners and cocktails (tequila the drink of choice) at friends' houses, and we also had breakfasts (there's nothing so satisfying as chilaquiles in the morning) and lunches out. San Miguel de Allende is a Colonial city with cobbled streets and uneven sidewalks (where they exist), forcing one to stop frequently for a restorative bebida and a quick taco, sope, or pastel. Everywhere, the little doorway stands (an open door, a vestibule-sized space with a cook, a comal, and a single table for patrons) selling a single specialty item--gorditas, menudo, carnitas, tamales, chicharrones--beckon. At the vast Tuesday market, acres of stands run by families and individuals compete for the trade of demanding and equally hardworking locals. To avoid la turista, one must choose carefully, perhaps avoid. But they offer a visual feast even if caution wins out.

Among the many eating occasions was a sisters viewing party my sister-in-residence threw for us visitors, to which were invited some 60 of her closest friends (I marvel at this: I have about 3). She's an artist, as are many of the ex-patriots living in San Miguel de Allende, and thinks in terms of shows. Fortunately, she did not hang us; we were more like performance art, I guess. It was great fun, and I in particular enjoyed planning the menu and helping a bit to prepare the food with the incomparable Maria, my sister's housekeeper. Maria has ten (10) children--not a typo. She caters; she helps her daughter in her restaurant; she cleans; she shops and manages; she is muy amable. And she is increíble.

The food was a simple spread of antojitos, made from the finest ingredients--queso fundido with chorizo made in her son's carnicería; flautas de pollo (we had a serious and lengthy discussion about the proportions of oil and lard in which to fry them) with salsa verde and all the trimmings; little albóndigas (meatballs) in chipotle sauce; and jícama with chile, lime, and pickled ginger. There were also chicken tamales, a gift from a neighbor's housekeeper in honor of the visitors. Maria and her daughter handled everything--after catering for a dance and a film crew from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. the previous night. Did I mention she is amazing?

The next morning I sat at my sister's flower-covered table eating a leftover chicken tamale with green sauce for breakfast. It was yet another brilliant, 80-degree day. I had absolutely nothing that I had to do. Qué rica, indeed.

Salsa Verde
This is a quick, versatile, tangy sauce of the “cooked” category of Mexican salsas. It is fabulous with scrambled eggs, tamales, and chicken tostadas, and is the ideal accompaniment to a true quesadilla made with fresh masa. If you cannot find fresh tomatillos, generally available in large markets, the canned tomatillos available online, if not in your neighborhood, are a very good product; they are already cooked, so you can skip that step. Makes about 2 cups.
1 ¼ lb fresh tomatillos
1 medium-large clove garlic, peeled
½ tea salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 chile Serrano, chopped, seeds removed or not
Choose firm, medium-large fruit that are beginning to pop through their papery husks; their skins should be smooth and bright yellowy-green. Remove the husks from the tomatillos and wash them to remove the normal gumminess from their skin. Boil until their skins burst, and they are very soft and just begining to lose their shape, 10-15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a food processor, reserving the water. Add the garlic, cilantro, chile, and salt to the food processor and process until smooth. The sauce should be slightly fluid; add a few tablespoons of the reserved hot cooking water if needed and taste for salt. Serve at room temperature.
Salsa verde keeps well in the refrigerator for up to a week, and can be frozen. After refrigeration it will be somewhat jelled; thin it again with a little hot water if needed.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Graham Flour: Where Goodness Meets Godliness

Graham flour copy One of the after-school snacks my grandmother used to give me, when it wasn’t the divine sugar bread, was graham crackers spread thickly with soft butter. My grandmother wasn’t a religious woman—she had her own supreme power—but turns out that graham crackers were meant to be divine in their own way. They were the invention of the Reverend Sylvester Graham, a deeply repressed 19th century Presbyterian preacher in my home state of New Jersey, who developed the flour from which they were made in a crusade to fight sin and promote temperance through sound bodily health. The underlying theory was, sort of the like the theory that sugar creates hyper kids, that white flour leads to drunkenness and fornication. Whole grain breads (and vegetarianism) would be the road to clean-living salvation.
Whole grains haven’t made a saint out of me, or anyone else in the more than 175 years since Graham introduced his graham flour and “graham bread,” but he did have a point about general health. We have the last laugh, though, because some things made with graham flour can be, well, sinfully delicious.
Graham flour is essentially a super version of whole wheat flour: the true article is coarser than regular whole wheat and contains more of the bran and germ, which are ground separately from the endosperm (the basic fine flour component) and added back into the flour after it is ground. It has a naturally sweet and nutty taste that comes through in baked goods ranging from the traditional graham cracker to pie crusts. Graham flour is also used for graham nuts cereal (similar to the commercial brand Grape Nuts®), which you can easily make at home. I most often use it for rich but nutritional quick breads, such as muffins, date-nut, and Boston brown bread, the favorite accompaniment to baked beans for a New England Saturday night supper. If you make some now, freeze a loaf for next week or the week after, when I’ll provide a recipe for those beans.

My Boston Brown Bread
Brown bread is a rich, moist steamed bread, traditionally made in a can and sliced into rounds. It is excellent spread with butter or cream cheese, and also makes nice ham or ham and cream cheese sandwiches. Makes 2 loaves.
½ cup raisins—dark is traditional
2 T whiskey or brandy
1/3 cup boiling waterBrownbread batter 1 copy
¾ cup graham flour 
½ cup RI jonnycake cornmeal
½ cup rye flour
¼ cup a-p flour
½ tea salt
¾ tea baking soda
1 large brown egg
½ cup dark molasses (sometimes labeled “full flavor”)
1 ½ cups sour milk or buttermilk
½ cup walnuts, broken into pieces (optional)
Liberally coat the interiors of two 20-oz cans (a standard size for canned fruits and vegetables) or mini bread pans with oil or cooking spray. See the post on plum puddings for instructions and photos related to covering and steaming the containers.
In a small bowl, pour the brandy and boiling water over the raisins and set aside while you make the batter.
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. In a 2-cup measure, beat the molasses, milk, and egg until well blended. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the liquid, and stir until just combined; the batter will be fluid and a little foamy. Drain the raisins, discarding the liquid, and gently fold them into the batter together with the walnuts.
Using a preserving funnel if you have one, spoon the batter into the prepared cans, leaving an inch or two of space. Cover tightly with foil secured with rubber bands. Place in a Dutch oven on a rack and pour boiling water about half-way up the sides. Cover the pan with a lid and steam, either on top of the stove or in the oven, for 2 hours. Remove the foil and test with a clean skewer by inserting it the full depth of the bread; it should come out completely dry and the exposed top should be springy. If not, steam an additional 20-30 minutes. You are seeking a fully cooked but still very moist crumb, so timing may take a bit of experimentation to avoid either a too wet or too dry product. Let cool in the cans for about 10 minutes, then remove the bottoms of the cans with a can opener; the bread will push out easily. If using mini bread pans, loosen around the edges with a knife and turn out. Serve warm; a thin slicing rather than a serrated knife works best. To store, cool on a rack and wrap tightly; reheat gently in a microwave or serve at room temperature.

Brownbread 1 copy                brownbread butter2 copy
P.S. I’m off to Mexico for a week; I’ll try to post a food note from there, but if not will return to regular posting March 1.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Pears: The Shape of Good Things to Come

Pears 1 copyPears are one of the few reliable fruits for winter eating and baking. Only citrus competes for availability and quality during the winter months, and depending on the weather in Florida and California, often loses the contest.
On the American market, four varieties of pear are readily available: Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc, and Comice; you may also see the smaller Forell or Seckel, which is popular for pickling. As a generalization, Bartletts are a good all-purpose pear; Comice are luscious, fresh dessert pears; Anjou are buttery, juicy pears excellent for eating, poaching, and cooked desserts; and Bosc pears are good for baking or grilling as they are drier and tend to hold their shape better. All are flavorful and aromatic in their own ways, so the crucial difference is texture and juiciness. In particular, if you use Anjous for pies, be sure to use enough starch to compensate for their juiciness.
When buying, think about when you want to eat them. Pears are best ripened off the tree to avoid the grittiness that is a property of pears, so they are generally sold hard so that they may be ripened at home and used at peak perfection. Leave them, covered, at room temperature, periodically checking for ripeness by pressing gently around the neck, or stem end—the color they are when you buy them is pretty much the color they will stay. When they yield or soften under this pressure—usually 2-3 days— they are ready and should be used right away. You can put them in the refrigerator after they are ripe to keep them a few days longer if you must. Nutritionally, pears are a good source of dietary fiber, especially if you leave on the thin, edible skin, and of potassium and vitamin C.
Pears and apples are kissing cousins, coming from the same subfamily. As with apples, there are thousands of cultivars, and you can use their fruit in similar ways, although it is surprising how rarely pears are used in pies, or apples for poaching. But you can do either with either. Pears make great crisps, butters, chutneys, and sauces, and, like the wonderful baked apple, pears too can be roasted. They are a perfect match for cheese, especially blue and other salty, strong cheeses. Pears, caramelized walnuts, and blue cheese are popular as a topping for pizzas or crostini or as a salad with bitter or peppery greens; the affinity for salt means pears also are a good winter fruit to match with prosciutto, ham, or even some nice salty Chinese food. Like most of us, pears also love chocolate and eggy custards. As a garnish for a chocolate cake, baked in a tart in a pastry cream filling or served poached with crème anglaise and a thin chocolate sauce, they make a lovely dessert. Here is one to try.
Roasted Pears with Maple Glaze  Pears for oven 1 copy
These pears are really cooked by a combination of braising and baking, based on the cooking method given by Kate Zuckerman in her cookbook, The Sweet Life. Although these take no skill at all, they do take time and attention—but they are delicious and impressive. Choose blemish-free pears with their stems intact. My usual maple-cardamom fixation suits the pears well. Serves 8.
8 Anjou or other pears, stems on, of roughly uniform size
½ cup 100% maple syrup
¼ cup raspberry or other fruity, dark honey
¾ cup sugar
¼ tea ground cardamom
4 or 5 strips orange peel
2 T unsalted butter
2 ½ cups water
Optional accompaniments: chocolate sauce or vanilla custard sauce, orange tuiles or other simple, crisp cookie
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Put the water into a large shallow roasting pan such a lasagna pan.
Hold the pears upside down and peel them from the bottom, blossom end to the stem with a vegetable peeler; turn them around and remove any remaining peel in a downward motion from around the stem. Cut a small slice off the bottoms so that they can stand upright later. As you peel them, put them in the pan of water on their sides and turn them around to wet them.
Pears roasted 1 copyStand the pears up in the pan and add the remaining ingredients, sprinkling the sugar over the pears; no need to mix. Put them in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the pan and, with a soft rubber spatula to prevent injury to the pears, push them on their sides. Return to the oven for 20 minutes; remove and turn the pears, and return them to the oven for another 20 minutes. Test for doneness by piercing the bottom of a pear; if they are not yet tender, return them to the oven for another 20 minutes. This is likely.
Remove the pan from the oven and stand the pears upright, using the rubber spatula and the stems to assist. Spoon some of the liquid, now forming a syrup, over the pears and return them to the oven. Roast, basting every 15 minutes, for another 45 minutes to an hour or until the pears are glossy and caramelized. The syrup will continue to thicken and bubble, and the stem ends will become very dark, almost black. When they are done, baste them once more and transfer them to a plate to cool, reserving the caramel sauce in the pan. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the core from the bottom with a small melon baller or knife.
These are best served slightly warm (reheat them gently in the oven; if the caramel has stiffened too much, reheat that as well). Sit them on a shallow plate in a little pool of the reserved caramel, garnish with a cookie, and drizzle with a little of your best chocolate sauce.

Pears syrup 1 copy                 Pears choc 6 copy

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Notes From A Swiss Canton

cheese at Bern marketYou probably didn't know that you could go to Switzerland to escape New England's frigid temperatures, but I discovered over the past weeks that you can. Sun, and temperatures in the 40s and 50s, reigned, and there was not a drop of snow on the ground--only, in picture-postcard fashion, on the distant Alps seen comfortably from city bridges. There were days when it was too warm to wear a coat.
The capital city of Bern's outdoor markets can thus proceed biweekly year-round. The quality of the offerings at this time of year is remarkable. Special to the locale is the huge selection of cheeses and cured and smoked meats and sausages that never find their way out of the country. I was particularly fond of the dried venison, first sampled on the flight over and a favorite while I was there. The produce, however, was the big surprise. Considering it was late January, the quality and variety (such as some 7 or 8 kinds and colors of carrots) were Lettuce at Bern marketimpressive, and it appeared that much of the product was local. For such a small country, Switzerland is substantially self-sufficient in food production, thanks to a strong, although declining, system of protections for farmers.
Regrettably, I did not have access to a kitchen while I was there, but I was able to sample the excellent local cheese, meats, bread, wine, and chocolate. Swiss restaurants reflect the country's multilingual, mixed culture: French, Italian (the best food in the country, perhaps), and traditional Swiss, the latter serving simple, good food based on cheese, potatoes, and meats. Homey dishes like rosti, fondue, and raclette are easily replicated in American kitchens and are suited to the winter months. I particularly like raclette, an ostensibly dull combination of melted cheese, boiled potatoes, and pickles that makes for a satisfying assemblage of flavors.
Raclettecararaots at Bern market
Traditionally raclette is made by holding the cheese close to an open fire and scraping it onto a plate as it melts. A romantic image, but nowadays it's generally made on top of the stove or under the broiler. Raclette makes for a rather colorless plate (I use red-skinned potatoes for that reason), but resist the temptation to fancy it up. It's plain food that tastes good.
For each person:
1 slice raclette or other flavorful, semi-firm cheese such as Italian Fontina or Emmental, about 3/8" thick (5 oz/person)
3-4 fingerling or 2-3 other small all-purpose potatoes, boiled
4-5 cornichons or small gherkins
Cheese at dept store2
5-6 small pickled onions
freshly ground pepper

Place the cheese in the center of an oven-proof dish and season with a few twists of the pepper mill. Place the dish under a preheated hot broiler until the cheese melts and begins to brown but not burn. Surround by the pickles, onions, and hot potatoes, and serve immediately with dry white wine. Chocolate for dessert adds a touch of luxury to this otherwise homely meal.
Cheese cut 3 copy Ch Raclette 3 copy Chocolates copy