Friday, July 18, 2014

Apple Cider Vinegar: What Grandma, and Hippocrates, Knew

I am never without cider vinegar. Because if I run out, I immediately need it again before I can even get to the store (word to the wise: Buy at least a half-gallon; it lasts).  Cider vinegar is that versatile, and that, in my opinion, nonsubstitutable. If that is a word.  You may sometimes see distilled white vinegar suggested as an alternative, but no, too sharp.  Apple cider vinegar is sweeter and more mellow—I’d go for my white balsamic, to which I am equally devoted, before that, at least for dressings and maybe some chutneys. But really, just have it on hand. It’s dirt cheap and always produces just the right subtle result.

Of course we cook and preserve with it. But it has been a kitchen and apothecary staple for many other purposes since ancient times—as a refreshing and healthful tonic (making a come-back today, bottled like water and sold, like water, at high prices to the susceptible); an excellent cleaning product and stain remover; a cool skin astringent; a rinse for squeaky clean hair; a pesticide; a disinfectant; a de-scaler; a weight-loss aid--and Colonial bakers understood that a little bit worked a tender magic on pie crust and bread, and that it was just as at home in a homey dessert as in a jar of pickles, as this unusual—and unusually good--roly-poly attests.

Vinegar Roly-Poly  With Corn

You can’t get more old-fashioned than my version of this old idea: truly, something my Pennsylvania German grandmother would have made, even with what turned out to be a somewhat inspired use, if I do say so myself, of Coll’s corn. I do sometimes think Grandma’s spirit lives on in me.  Serves 8.

For the syrup
¾ cider vinegar
1 ½ c water
1 cup sugar
2 tea cinnamon

For the dough
2 c sifted a-p flour
1 T bp
1 tea salt
1/3 cup (5 T) lard or, if you must, Crisco
¾ whole milk

For the filling 
1 ear fresh corn
4 T butter, divided
¼ c sugar plus a little more
2 tea cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a 9” round pan or pie plate and set aside.

Combine the vinegar, water, 1 c of sugar, and 2 tea cinnamon in small pan over low heat til sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to medium, and reduce by half or so to a light syrup, about 20-30 minutes. Set aside.

While making the syrup, shuck the corn and cut the kernels off; do not scrape the ear yet, but set it and the corn aside.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, bp, and salt. Cut in the lard or shortening. Scrape the milk from the reserved ear into the mixture, add the whole mile, and stir to make a soft dough. Lightly flour the counter or a board and roll the dough into a rectangle ¼” thick, about 9 x 10. Sprinkle the remaining ¼ sugar and 2 tea cinnamon over the reserved corn kernels. Sprinkle a bit of extra sugar over the dough, then distribute sugar-spiced corn over it.  Dot with 2 T butter.

Roll the dough gently from the longer side and cut the dough crosswise 1” thick, first trimming each end by about ½”. Place the slices cut side up, close together, in the pan. Dot with the remaining butter. Pour over all the hot vinegar mixture. I recommend  placing on a nonstick sheet pan or enameled broiler pan. Bake 30-40 min at 375, until lightly golden and dry to the touch, with no apparent liquid: a sauce will have formed on the bottom of the pinwheels.  Let sit for just a minute, then serve very warm, with some pan sauce and then some heavy cream spooned over, as a dessert or breakfast treat.

Note: Don’t be tempted to cut back too much on the 4 tea of cinnamon. It’s a lot, but not too much; it transforms quite a bit in the syrup. If you cut it down, cut a teaspoon from the sugar mixture that goes inside the dough.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Yours for the Taking: Mussels

Gathering shellfish in New England—clams of all sizes, mussels, scallops, oysters—is as close as you can get to a free lunch, especially when someone else does the gathering and gives you the benefit of their labor. I received such a gift the other day. My friend Wayne—a fish spotter and aerial fish photographer—called to ask if I’d like one of the three fish buckets’ full of mussels he had picked up after getting off a pilot boat early one morning in Snug Harbor to find them lying there at low tide, ready to scoop up. Big ones, too. Did I want some? Of course I did: wild shellfish is increasingly hard to get.  A bucket was way too much, but I did fill two bowls to the brim and headed home, thinking what to make. 

That was relatively easy.  While French in origin, the mussel soup Billi Bi shares our New England sensibility of simple elegance, and our fondness for mixing shellfish with dairy­—especially cream.  It has long been at home here, although I must say I don’t see it on menus as much as I used to.  Mussels make a good chowder, good salads, and of course the simplest preparation of all, Moules Marinière—but Billi Bi seemed the right thing to do with this large windfall.

The soup is quick to make once the mussels are cleaned, but cleaning does take a little time. They must be debearded, scrubbed, and checked to ensure that they are alive. Here is the method:

To clean and store mussels

Use your mussels as soon as possible. If you must store them for a few hours before cooking, put them into a bowl, cover with a damp towel, and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator.  You can scrub them, but do not debeard until you are ready to cook them.  When ready to use:

Put the mussels in the sink and rinse with water; do not let them sit in water, however. Sort through the mussels and discard any that are not alive. Mussels should be shut tight. If the shell is open, tap the mussel on the counter firmly near the mid-point; if it is alive, it will close up. A mussel whose shell flaps open and closed when you press it between your thumb and forefinger is dead.

Debeard the mussel. Hold the mussel, hinge down or toward you, in one hand; with a paper towel in the other hand, grasp the fibrous byssus, or “beard,” and pull toward the hinge firmly to remove. Do not pull up. Discard the beard. Debeard mussels as close to when you plan to cook them as possible

Scrub the mussels all over; I like to use one of those stainless scouring pads.  Remove any small barnacles with the inside blade of a pair of scissors or the back of a paring knife.
Storing cooked mussels
Mussels can be removed from their shells and stored in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for a couple of months, ready to be used in salads or pasta dishes. Store in an airtight container with a little broth from the cooking or vinaigrette. 

Billi Bi

You will see that the first step to making this soup is similar to making Moules Marinière. If you want to make this several hours ahead to serve hot, leave out some of the cream and the egg yolk, and then finish it just before serving. Billi Bi can also be served cold; make it a few hours ahead and chill. Serves 8.

2 cups dry white wine
2-3 shallot cloves, peeled and sliced
1 large sweet onion, peeled and sliced
2 large ribs celery, slit in half and roughly chopped
4 T unsalted butter
4 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs thyme (or 1 tea dried)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground pepper

4-5 lb medium-large mussels, preferably wild

4 cups heavy cream
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Put the wine and all the vegetables, herbs, and seasonings in a 6-qt dutch oven or small stockpot. Put the mussels on top. Cover and bring to a boil; then reduce and, with the lid slightly ajar, simmer for about 10 minutes; the mussels should be open but still look moist. Strain through a fine strainer or cheesecloth into a large bowl or directly into a 3-4 qt saucepan.  Taste for salt; wild mussels in particular can be salty, but you can add a little salt at this point if you think it needs it. Set the broth aside. Remove the mussels from their shells and reserve for garnishing the soup. You could remove just some of them, and serve the rest in their shell.

When ready to finish the soup, bring the reserved broth to a boil. Over medium heat, add the heavy cream and let it come to a gentle boil, whisking. Ladle a cup or so of the soup into the egg yolks, whisking as you go. Slide the pan off the burner and whisk the egg yolk liason briskly back into the soup. Taste for seasoning. Keep it warm, but do not allow to boil again. It should be a lovely creamy yellow-white color.

To serve, ladle into small cups or rim soups. Garnish with two or three mussels (they will sink into the soup) and a sprinkling of very finely chopped parsley.

Don’t like mussels or have someone who doesn’t? Not to worry. This delicate cream soup is something almost everyone loves—just leave out the mussel garnish.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Radicalism Revisited: Small Batch Pepper Relish

It is Independence Day, that most American of holidays, and an unwavering tie with Thanksgiving for my favorite holiday. This is not jingoism, this pairing of holidays so associated with the U.S. of A. Rather, it’s about two wonderful days with absolutely no religious association. These days are all about the food and, not incidentally, the perseverance of individuals determined to have what is increasingly disappearing from even the birthplace of it all—personal freedom and self-determination. We need that now more than ever.

So on this 4th, let’s remember that change is good. Things were never meant to be the same, and time does not rewind.  This, of course, goes for our rules of preserving, about as outdated as can be. So I refer you to one of my oldest posts, written on the 4th back in 2007, on radical preserving.  Need a pepper relish for today’s iconic and essential hotdogs?  Make it now, eat it later. Only what you need.  Only what you want.

And speaking of the value of change for the future. It is pouring here in New England today, as a weakening Hurricane Arthur approaches. Everyone has moved their celebrations to tomorrow: the weekend is supposed to be beautiful. And we will celebrate our independence to celebrate when and how we want. With hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato salad—and this relish.

A Little Red Pepper Relish

One pepper, one onion, one hour.  A singularly radical relish. Here, too, is a variation from several years ago. Makes ½ pt.

1 medium red pepper, cleaned and diced
 1 medium sweet onion, peeled and diced
½ c apple cider vinegar
1/3-scant ½ cup sugar
2 T maple syrup
1 tea coarse sea salt or kosher salt

Optional: For hot relish, add a small chopped fresh chile such as a serrano to the vegetables, or a ¼ teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes to the sugar/vinegar mixture.
Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil in a 3-qt and drop in the vegetables. Remove from the heat and let sit 5 minutes. Drain and repeat. Let the veggies drain for at least a half-hour.

Combine the sugar, vinegar, salt, and maple syrup in the pot and bring to a slow boil, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Add the drained vegetables, and cook at a medium bubble for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until a wooden spoon dragged through the center leaves a clear path for a few seconds. Ladle into a clean 8-oz jar.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Local in Rhode Island: Italian Rules

I am back in Rhode Island, and some things never change. This past week, our twice-mayor (6 terms in bundles of three)—and twice-convicted/once jailed-- talk show host, and pasta sauce entrepreneur Buddy Cianci announced he will run for another mayoral term. The legislature voted calamari the official state appetizer. Note the themes: food, corruption, Italian.

So for my son’s birthday I made a typical Rhode Island Italian meal. I was going to do the squid, but forgot to get it on my shopping trip, so for appetizers we had some Italian cheeses, some perfect melon and imported San Daniele prosciutto di Parma, and some wild shrimp with an orange-mustard-tarragon sauce. And Americanos for drinks. For the main course, for a special dinner in Rhode Island Italian world you want to start with some giant veal chops from Venda Ravioli (Costantino’s). I cooked them on the grill and served them with a little roasted garlic and sage butter, accompanied by grilled veggies (red peppers, zucchini, yellow crookneck, and radicchio) with reduced balsamic and thyme, and a very Rhode Island jonnycake polenta. A nice Fossacolle Rosso de Montalcino. Had to buy dessert (horrors) because the cooking equipment I’d ordered to make a cake was inadvertently shipped to Arizona. But it was good. 

So I just said that some things never change, but, you know, some do. I am not in Little Compton this summer. I’m on Conanicut Island—Jamestown—in the middle of Narragansett Bay between Newport and the mainland, or as we say here, between West and East Bay. As master of the neither here nor there, the generally at sea, I am perhaps unsurprisingly right at home. It is, after all, almost as old a Rhode Island settlement as Little Compton, and still Newport County. A short sail away.

Rhode Island Jonnycake Pan-fried Polenta

I used Kenyon’s meal for this; you can use any of our RI stoneground white flint cornmeals. You can, of course, serve the cooked polenta soft, with butter and parm, or tomato sauce and/or some sausage and mushrooms. Serves 4.

1 cup RI johnnycake cornmeal
4 cups water, approx.
2 T butter
2 tea salt
Freshly ground pepper

In a 3-qt saucepan (nonstick is useful if you have one), whisk about 1 ½ cups water into the cornmeal, then whisk in the additional 2 ½ c water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring fairly continuously. It will begin to thicken rather quickly. Be careful not to splatter yourself as it reaches a boil. Stir in the salt, butter, and pepper. Reduce the heat and let it simmer/heave for about 45 minutes; it will have the consistency of mashed potatoes, and pull from the bottom of the pan.

If you plan to pan-fry it, pour the polenta into an ungreased glass pie plate or 8” square pan. Let stand for about ten minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm—a few hours, or overnight. Cut into wedges, squares, or diamonds, dredge lightly in seasoned flour, and fry in a little olive oil or butter or olive oil until nicely golden. Serve immediately.