Sunday, September 28, 2008

Remembering Rosemary

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Rosemary is for remembrance, so as the nights cool and fall is officially upon us, we should not forget her. It’s not quite time to bring in the herbs for drying before there is a sudden frost, but it’s getting close enough that we should probably put our fresh herbs to use as often as we can, while we can. It’s easy enough to use up the basil and parsley; one scarcely needs, or even wants, to think beyond pesto for the freezer, to be taken out in the dead of winter, or a hearty tabouli that has the additional virtue of using up the last of the tomatoes. Even the abundant sage lends itself to treatments that quickly utilize its production: frying up the leaves produces a wonderful crunchy salted appetizer or garnish for a rustic plate. But rosemary presents a little more of a challenge. It is very strong and astringent, almost piney, and its leaves are stiff and stems are woody. It always seems easiest to dry the branches, shred off the leaves, and save them for what we normally would use the fresh branches for: stuffing into a chicken, or using sparingly in a marinade for lamb or poultry, or to scatter over the grill to scent the smoke as we cook.

But there are other uses for this assertive herb, and they fall into the category of preserving their fresh taste for a punch of summertime flavor when we most need it, in the dark days of winter. Rosemary makes wonderful jelly for serving on muffins or biscuits or as an accompaniment to lamb, veal, or poultry. It can be used to infuse oils and vinegars for salads, for dipping bread, or for pickling or marinating bright vegetables such as carrots. Another nice way to use it is to make this syrup, which is pretty versatile. You can use it in drinks calling for simple syrup for an unusual cocktail; every time I try one of my preserves in a drink recipe (I have used rose hip syrup and pickled sour cherries, among others), I am always pleased. Rosemary syrup is excellent over cheese, alone or with fresh or dried fruit; try it with parmesan, gouda, or a tangy goat cheese. And it makes for a nice dessert, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         simply poured over pound cake or vanilla ice cream and, if you have it, a little fresh grilled fruit such as figs or pears, or some lightly sautéed apples. 

So remember rosemary as you put your herbs away for the year. And of course, if you forget, she will be back, loyally popping up out of the ground next year to remind you of her virtues.

Rosemary Syrup

In keeping with the Mediterranean roots of Rosemary, I use honey; you can use all sugar if you like. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

½ cup rosemary leaves, stripped and firmly packed
1 cup boiling water

¼ honey, preferably from fruit or wildflowers
2/3 cup sugar
3 dime-size pieces lemon zest
1-2 drops pure orange oil (optional)
1 T white balsamic vinegar
2” piece fresh stick cinnamonOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Make an infusion: pour the boiling water over the rosemary leaves in a small bowl. Cover and let steep about 10 minutes. 

In a small saucepan, put the honey, sugar, lemon rind and orange oil if using, vinegar, and cinnamon. Strain the rosemary infusion into the pan, discarding the spent leaves, and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce somewhat, and let bubble for 5-10 minutes, until it forms a light syrup; you can boil it down to be a little thicker if you wish, but it is more versatile if it is thin.

Strain into a measuring cup or small bowl, transferring the cinnamon stick from the strainer to the syrup; leave it in while the syrup cools. Store in the refrigerator.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Indian Meal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I was rearranging my cookbooks recently and as usual, got sidetracked. It is always my collection of old pamphlets and antique cookery books that draws me in the most. Inside one I found some notes I had taken at the Brown University archives in Providence a few years ago. I was supposed to be working on something else at the time, but of course I got sidetracked again—to their own collection of old cookbooks. That’s one of the lovely problems with libraries.

The notes I found were all on various recipes using corn and Indian meal, which is the old term for stoneground white-cap flint cornmeal, or jonnycake meal, discussed in this blog in the context of Portuguese bread and thick and thin jonnycakes. The recipes came from books with titles like The Indian Meal Book: Comprising the Best Receipts for the Preparation of That Article (1847). I’ve yet to try many of them, but looking them over reminded me of how long it had been since I’d made Indian Pudding.

Indian pudding, like jonnycakes, is a bit of an acquired taste. It’s old-fashioned enough that it has disappeared from the majority of restaurant menus, but, for the same reason, remains firmly on the menu of many a Rhode Island and Massachusetts country or traditional restaurant. It is made with cornmeal, so has an unusual, slightly grainy texture. Some versions are strongly flavored with molasses, to which some people are partial, some are not; and some are very (I think overly) sweet. All versions qualify as nursery food—soft and comforting.

Here is a version of Indian pudding that is a little less sweet and more delicate than some, as it is made with a modest amount of maple syrup and only enough molasses to give it a good color and characteristic flavor. It uses the trick of pouring cold milk over it partway through cooking to create a softer texture—and a more authentic one—than those puddings that more closely resemble a baked custard. Both types are good. Vanilla ice cream is more often than not the accompaniment, with whipped cream a fine alternative.

Indian Pudding

If you like raisins, you can put some in with the milk when you scald it, or you can stew some in a little brandy or rum and pour them over the ice cream when OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         you serve. Serves 6.

3 cups whole milk
2 T butter, lard, or chopped suet
½ cup Grade B pure maple syrup
2 T molasses
1 ¼ tea ground gingerOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
generous dash cinnamon
½ tea salt
½ cup RI stoneground white flint cornmeal
3 large eggs, beaten
1 cup cold whole milk

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter a baking dish, about 9” square or about 2 quarts.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Scald the milk together with butter, syrup, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and salt. Add the cornmeal and stir constantly until it is about as thick as a thin cake  batter, about 10 minutes. Pour a little of the hot cornmeal-milk mixture into the eggs to temper them, then stir the eggs into the cornmeal-milk mixture in the pan. When well combined, pour into the prepared pan and bake for about a hour. Open the oven door, stir the pudding (which will be quite firm), smoothing the top with the back of the spoon, and then pour over it the cup of cold milk. Continue baking for another hour. You can serve the pudding warm (cooled for 20 minutes or more) or cold.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pie for Lunch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         My preference for eating pie for breakfast is near-congenital, as I grew up at a time, and with a familial background, that viewed a big slice of apple pie before school not only as normal, but darn good for you. I maintain this view, and am hard-pressed to think of something I’d rather, or even just as soon, have with my morning cup of coffee.

Of course, by pie for breakfast I mean the same pies you’d have for dessert, at least in summer and fall when fruits are abundant, and you are joining their ripe and juicy nutrition with just a little sugar and a nice complement of flaky pastry. At lunch, my idea of pie is of something more savory, with a hint of richness instead of sweetness. Beginning in the 1950s, as soldiers brought back a little continental awareness from the war and ordinary Americans began to travel, quiche Lorraine became all the rage. While it has been distorted beyond belief and is often served abysmally old, cold, and watery, this lunchtime pie, made well, remains a wonderful dish. But long before quiche hit our shore, another kind of lunch pie was popular in New England. Pie is, after all, what we do. tomato boxes

I speak, naturally, of the tomato pie, which appears to be making a comeback of sorts. Tomato pie is and always has been a way that frugal or desperate farmwives have found to use up a seemingly never-ending supply of tomatoes. After a magnificent August, what is usually a bumper crop of September tomatoes is more of a bumptious crop: aggressively asserting its insistent presence everywhere one turns, demanding to be used, demanding to be eaten. So, tomato pie for lunch it is—and we wonder, with the first bite, why we don’t make it more often.

New England Tomato Pie

If you make the crust the night before, this goes together quickly. Butter in the crust both complements the tomato and gives it a firm base. Children seem to like this as much as adults do. Serves 6 for lunch, with a salad on the side, or 12 as a cocktail appetizer.


1 ¼ cup a-p flour
1/3 cup stoneground RI white flint cornmeal
¼ tea salt
1/8 tea ground white pepper
6 T cold unsalted butter
4-5 T ice water
1 egg white (save the yolk for your salad dressing)


½ large sweet onion, generous, sliced 1/8” thin
1 T olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
½ tea kosher salt
8 or so twists of the pepper mill

2-3 medium-large, perfectly ripe tomatoes, sliced ¼” thin (heirlooms or beefsteaks are good)
5 oz extra-sharp white cheddar, such as Cabot’s, coarsely grated
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
2-3 T finely grated parmeggiano reggiano
additional chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

To make the crust, combine the dry ingredients and cut in the butter until the mixture is like coarse, pebbly sand. Add the water gradually; because of the cornmeal, it will require more than a standard pie crust. When the dough comes together, form it into a flat disk, wrap, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. I generally use a food processor to make pastry these days because it saves time and mess.

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator to soften enough to roll.

On a floured surface, roll the dough out to a circle of 11-12". Fit it loosely into a 9" fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing gently with a finger along the bottom rim. Roll the pin across the top of the pan, which will cut the excess pastry off (see Note, below). Brush the surface of the dough with egg white, and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Heat the butter and olive oil together over medium-high heat, and add the onion. Sauté a few minutes, and as they begin to soften, add the salt and white pepper. Cook them until they are soft and translucent, but do not let them shrivel and brown. Set aside to cool.

Slice the tomatoes; holding the slices over the sink, shake and gently press out most of the seeds. Lay the tomato slices between paper towels to absorb excess juice. Grate the cheese, chop the parsley, and loosely combine them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Remove the chilled tart shell from the refrigerator, and distribute the cheese and parsley on the bottom of the tart pan, then the onions on top of the cheese. Arrange the sliced tomatoes over all, overlapping the slices no more than two layers deep. Press down gently with the palm of your hand. Sprinkle with the remaining cheddar and the parm.

Bake for about 50 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes or more before removing the tart ring. Slide onto a platter, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: You can make crackers out of the strip of pastry that falls off. Cut leftover scraps (don’t re-roll) into 1 ½-2” pieces. Dust with caraway powder and sprinkle with caraway seed. Put them on a cookie sheet and bake about 8 minutes, or until golden. Sprinkle with kosher salt on removal from the oven. Serve with cocktails.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sweet Potatoes: They’re Not Just For Thanksgiving

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         As the growing season winds down along the East Coast, some crops are at their peak in other parts of the country, and are available now in the market. The sweet potato, not widely grown in New England because it likes reliable warmth, is cultivated throughout the South and right now the sweet potatoes you see in the market from down South are as close as you may get to freshly dug.

So there’s no reason to wait until Thanksgiving, and good reason not to. They’re at their best, and they have many uses beyond the sweet potato casserole that you may not even like anyway if the one you know is sicky sweet or gloppy with marshmallow. It is just such casseroles, sampled at the homes of friends when I was a child, that put me off sweet potatoes for many years. Only when I finally tried a plain, buttered, salt-and-peppered sweet potato (at my grandmother’s insistence, I recall; she used to eat them on their own for lunch) did I come to appreciate their particular natural charms of rich taste and fluffy texture.

Sweet potatoes are a member of the morning glory family, native to South and Central America; they are not related to the white potato we New Englanders know—and love—so well, nor are they related to the yam, a tuber grown only in tropical regions. Sweet potatoes are essentially the edible root of a vine. They are a really outstanding source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, and a good source of vitamin C, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and several B vitamins. Buy firm potatoes with no signs of softness at the ends, and store them in the driest part of the refrigerator; they will keep for a couple of weeks, and should probably be baked rather than boiled after they have been stored. Sweet potatoes are thin-skinned, and if you find new ones, their skins will rub or scrape off as with any other new potato. If you boil or bake with skins on and want to peel them afterward, do so while they are still very warm.

Because of their nutritional value, sweet potatoes have become more popular in recent years and are becoming relatively common in restaurants, often in the form of sweet potato fries or chips. In addition to frying them, you can bake, boil, grill/sauté, or stew them, and in general treat them as you would a potato: roasted wedges with olive oil and herbs; mashed, buttered sweets; plain boiled sweets; sautéed or hash-browned sweets. Just take care because of the high sugar content, and use slightly lower heat, including for frying or sautéing, than you would for regular potatoes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The high moisture content and natural sweetness of sweet potatoes make them nice candidates for items you might otherwise use pumpkin for, such as sweet  potato pie, pickled sweet potato, sweet potato pancakes, sweet potato butter (the reduction of sweet potato and sugar or brown sugar and spices to a jammy consistency), or sweet potato cakes and quick breads. Because cooked sweet potatoes keep well in the refrigerator and can be very successfully frozen after cooking, it is relatively easy to pull out a leftover baked sweet potato or two, or a cup or two of leftover mashed sweets, and transform them into a dessert or, as here, a morning muffin. Just make sure that if you freeze mashed sweet potatoes for later use, you do not season them first. Baked potatoes kept in the fridge do not, of course, have to be thawed; they can be mashed on demand right in the measuring cup. The perfect tool for this is the tamper from an espresso machine.

Sweet Potato Pepita Muffins

You can make these with either boiled or baked sweet potatoes. Makes 12.

1 cup packed mashed sweet potato
½ cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B
¼ cup melted sweet butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 tea spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove), mixed to your preference
½ cup buttermilk

1 ¼ cup a-p flour (or substitute half whole-wheat for half the a-p)
2 tea baking soda
1 tea baking powder
pinch salt
¼ cup pepitas or nuts of your choice (optional)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a standard muffin tin.

In a medium bowl, stir the syrup, butter, egg, and spice into the sweet potato with a wooden spoon. Stir in the buttermilk until incorporated.

Sift the dry ingredients together, toss in the pepitas, and blend into the sweet potato mixture.

Quickly distribute the batter into the muffin cups with the spoon. Bake about 18 minutes; watch that they don’t overbrown. Serve warm with butter.

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