Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving: The Immutability of the Menu


I’ve had a lot of change in my life.  Confronted the bad, seized the good, walked away from indifferent and dull.  Far from afraid of change, I am someone who embraces it—maybe even a little too much.

So it is interesting, even curious, that the Thanksgiving menu never, ever changes. Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July: all are reconsidered, reconfigured, revised, reinvented every year.  But Thanksgiving’s only concession in thirty-five years has been to hold back on the number of dishes when the group is smaller—as it is this year.  That means, with some regret, one less vegetable, and one less pie.

In our house, the most essential dish—after the turkey of course—is the Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling that has been on our Thanksgiving table since I was a child. My grandmother made it every year, then my mother, now me. We sometimes refer to it as stuffing, but it is never put in the turkey, but rather baked separately.  A cross between stuffing and mashed potatoes, properly made it is moist, rich but fluffy, smooth but textured.  Leftovers are prized, hot or cold.

Given its reliable presence this time of year, I was surprised to find that I have never provided a recipe for it in a Thanksgiving post.  Most likely because it was decimated for picture-taking before I even thought of it. Or maybe because there really isn’t a recipe, in the sense of one written down. It’s something that is made largely be feel. Even so, that’s an oversight that I hereby correct. You likely have your own immutable menu, but if not, I do think this is worth a try if you like mashed potatoes or stuffing. And really, who doesn’t?

The Family Potato Filling

Other than the potatoes and bread, add the ingredients gradually (as indicated) to get the taste and texture you want. I always make this up to the point of baking the day ahead. Serves 12 or more.

5 lb russet potatoes
2 lb traditional good-quality white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm original
12-16 oz unsalted butter for sautéing bread
1 cup milk, approx., heated
1 large onion, medium dice
4-6 celery stalks, medium dice (be sure to string the celery first)
1-2 tea or more fresh dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
3-4 T additional butter

Early on the day or the night before you make it, cut the crusts off the bread and lay out on a sheet pan to dry out a bit, turning occasionally; bring the crusts out to the birds immediately so you don’t eat them all dipped in soft butter (who does that??).  Cut the bread into cubes, 4x4 and leave spread out to dry.

Peel and cut the potatoes into even chunks.  Bring to a boil in a large pot of  salted water and cook until tender, or they slip off an inserted knife.

While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the bread cubes. If you have them, use two large frying pans; melt 4 oz butter in each, add the bread in an even layer (do not crowd the pan), and cook, tossing occasionally until crisp and golden, adding butter as needed. You will need to do them in perhaps 4 batches; remove to a bowl as you cook them, sprinkling them lightly with salt, pepper, and thyme as you go, and set aside.
When the potatoes are done, drain them and place in your biggest bowl; the upside-down lid of a Tupperware cake keeper works well. Mash the potatoes, adding warm milk (start with ½ cup), salt, and pepper to achieve a smooth consistency.  I prefer to use an old-fashioned potato masher or a ricer; if you use a mixer, be careful not to overbeat or they will be tough. There is so much butter in the bread that you don’t have to add any.

When the potatoes are smooth and still very warm, fold in the sautéed bread and about ¾ (to start) of the diced celery and onion, or about 1 cup each. Taste for texture, distribution of veggies, and seasoning; mixture will be very firm but should not be super stiff or dry—it should still feel creamy. Add a little more milk and additional salt, pepper, and thyme as needed; the thyme should be clearly present but not dominant.

Butter two baking dishes; if you distribute the filling among a large (say, a glass lasagna pan or a 3-qt soufflé dish) and a small (e.g., a 9” baker or 1 ½ qt gratin), you may be lucky enough to have one untouched for next day, and even defer heating it until you see if it is needed. Spread the mixture into the pans evenly and dot generously with butter. Cover with foil and refrigerate.

Remove from the refrigerator a good 4 or 5 hours ahead to bring to room temperature. Bake in a 375 F oven—you can put it in after your remove your turkey if you have a single oven—still covered with foil, for about 30 minutes (a deep dish takes longer to heat than a shallow one, so plan for that), or until hot in the center (I plunge in a finger to test). Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or so until browned and heaving. Serve in generous spoonsful with the turkey gravy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Transition: Little Compton Poblanos Make A Southwest Classic

One of the first gifts from Little Compton farmers markets—namely, Young Farm—that I received when I returned from my years in Tucson was poblano peppers. As you know, these are a favorite of mine, and the only choice, in my opinion, for chiles rellenos.. I promptly roasted, peeled, and froze them (although, yes, I did make one chile relleno for myself), in part so that I might use them in the future to make something for the person who brought them to me, my friend Anne.

Some weeks later, when Anne was coming for dinner, it seemed that putting them into a Southwest favorite of mine, pork green chile, known simply as “green chile” in most locales, would be nice. I usually use Hatch chiles for green chile, having come to believe that this dish is Hatch chiles’ true calling—but figured poblanos would be just as nice.

For those who don’t know, green chile is a kind of very soupy, minimalist stew. It is important, I think, to honor that, and not be tempted to put in potatoes or other common stew ingredients--even onions are controversial. A good green chile is an intense, rich, and hot-but-mellow marriage of pork and chile.  That is its essence, and its glory.

Green chile is versatile. In the Southwest, you will see it topping all kinds of things, from eggs to tacos and burritos to chicken.  I like it in a bowl, pure and on its own.  Some toritllas or even good white bread on the side for the heat if needed, sort of like serving chile.  I am not averse to having it over rice, as long as there is lots of delicious gravy.

The green chile I made with the Little Compton poblanos was fine. Good, but not great. The poblanos simply do not meld and mellow into the pork in quite the same way as their thinner-walled, differently flavored Hatch cousins do. It seems that this is another instance where a substitute really alters a dish, at least for those who have a basis of comparison. So: poblanos for chiles rellenos, Hatch for green chile. I think you—and also I, now that I am back home—will have to mail order Hatches from New Mexico next season if we want to savor the true taste of a great green chile.

(Pork) Green Chile

Start with a few chiles, and add more to taste; chiles vary in hotness from season to season, and planting area. You will likely use 1-2 cups, chopped. Please use only a pork shoulder/Boston butt, preferably with bone in (increasingly hard to find) so you can get the depth and complexity of flavor that characterizes the best examples of this dish. Serves 8.

4 lb Pork shoulder or Boston Butt, preferably bone-in (which may weight a bit more). This is often labeled as a half a butt.
3 T Lard or vegetable oil
3-8 Hatch (or poblano) chiles, roasted, seeded, peeled, and chopped
3-4 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
3-4 large tomatillos (around a pound or a bit more), husked and halved, or 1 16 oz can prepared tomatillos
6 c light chicken stock or water (if water, add 1 envelope Goya pork seasoning)
salt to taste
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

Trim and cut the pork roast into small cubes, about 1.”  In a heavy Dutch oven, sear the meat  (and the bone if you have it) in the lard or oil over medium-high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and add the garlic and tomatillos; cook a few minutes til softened without browning. Taste your chiles for heat; if quite hot, add just a few of the well-chopped  (nearly mushed) chiles and the broth  or water; bring to a low boil then reduce the heat, partly cover, and simmer for an hour.  Remove the bone. Taste, and add additional chiles if more heat is desired. Continue to cook another ½-hr to 1 hr until you have a largely homogeneous but fluid chile-gravy and very tender pork. Season with salt as needed. Serve in bowls with chopped cilantro and tortillas.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Return of the Near-Native: Back in Rhode Island


As I’ve had food-related reason to mention over the eight and half years (!) of this on-again, off-again blog, I was born and spent my childhood in New Jersey, but almost all my adult life in New England, dividing my time between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where I went to college, had a second home, and have spent every summer for many decades.  I consider myself a Rhode Islander.

As you also know, for the past 7 years I have ranged South and Southwest, but that long absence (like the long first sentence of this post) has finally come to an end. My itinerant days are over. I am back in Rhode Island. For good.

The bad year I mentioned in my last post got worse—really, and there is no point in discussing it except to mention that it involved, as a small but somewhat painful part, disposing of a lot of vintage port from some of the very best 20th century vintage years (alas! the 1963s and 1970s!), and every other ingestible thing in my kitchen. Considering that I normally am in a position to cook most any cuisine in the world for a small army at the drop of a hat, that is a lot of trash. With the cupboard (and the house) bare, the only conclusion I could come to was that it was time to come home. Forgive what might seem a logical leap, but to me it made perfect sense.

So I returned to Rhode Island at the end of September to a spectacular welcome: the most beautiful, balmy, bounteous Fall in memory. Seriously, the hydrangeas are still blooming, and “the last rose of summer” turned out to more aptly be the last rose of Fall—it was last week.  The ocean is available every day. It is good to be back.

I can’t say for sure whether having returned means I will also return to writing the blog on the consistent basis of the years before I left (2007-2008), when I hear tell it was actually pretty good. We’ll see. For now, here are a few pics of things I’ve made since coming home (and a pic of the kind of fresh roast turkey and ham club that childhood memories are made of). It’s been the year of the giant mutant apple, as big as grapefruits or melons. Something about the dry, sunny summer, it seems. So lots of apple desserts, like this pie and pandowdy. And pumpkin pie, of course. Like coming home, it was time.