Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Gumbo Isn't

July 15, 2008

I grew up with gumbo. It's a staple in Gulf Coast towns; an unusual soup with a smoky, distinctive taste and a mystique all its own. At our house it always contained local seafood -- shrimp and crabs -- along with okra and filé, that powdered sassafras spice that is used in nothing else I ever knew of.

Nowadays my home town is full of trendy restaurants. If gumbo is on a menu it is usually made from a packaged mix and is comparatively tasteless if not downright nasty. We went to a place known as "Jus' Gumbo" and were offered a number of combinations that sounded like anything but gumbo. We settled on the one they said was made with a tomato roux, which made no sense to anyone in our group. Tomatoes can be a componenent of gumbo, but they can't be the centerpiece of it, and there's no way you can get them into the roux.

The roux for gumbo is unlike any other. It is made with fat and flour, but from there it's totally different. In the old days the fat called for was bacon grease, but I don't think anybody does that any more. You can use colorless cooking oil, in an equal amount to flour, but the trick is to cook the two slowly and for a long time, bringing the mixture to a brown color, dark as you like. Most like it a little darker than peanut butter, but you can go as dark as black coffee and it will make a hell of a gumbo.

The soup they brought us in the restaurant was more like cioppino than gumbo. It was bright red, spicy as chili, and I would say that the only thing it had in common with gumbo was that it was served over rice.

The word "gumbo" has come to be interpreted to mean any hodgepodge. This is misleading. Gumbo is a specific entity, requiring certain ingredients and coming up with an expected result. You can have your sausage, your smoked duck, or your seafood -- but unless they're put together in that certain way, don't call the outcome gumbo.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Salad for a Cold

March 29, 2008

Nothing tastes better to me when I have a cold than an orange. Perhaps its the long association -- after all, oranges and grapefruit are forced upon us as a source of vitamin C -- from childhood forward. But the tart sweet orangeness is unmistakably a friend that will surely make the cold go away.

Coming down with a cold last week, I bought six oranges and began finding ways to eat them. Usually a sliced orange at breakfast did the trick, but I also came up with one of the best salads I've ever tasted the other night.

Like everyone, I really enjoy the packaged salad greens, but I tend to augment them with a head of romaine or oak leaf just to add some texture. This time I used about a cup of mixed lettuces and two big leaves of romaine, washed and chopped together into bite-sized pieces. Then I peeled and segmented an orange, eating the connecting membranes and scraping any orange meat off the skins with my teeth. I've heard that the white part of the peel is rich in calcium, and I don't find it has any taste, so I eat as much of it as I can.

To make the dressing, I created a basic vinaigrette using fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar. I start with about a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, salt to taste, a drop of honey, and whisk it with the juice of half a lemon. This much will take a little over a quarter cup of olive oil, and some of the dressing will be left over for another day.

The sectioned orange had rendered a few tablespoons of juice, so I incorporated that into the salad dressing. I tossed the greens with a few tablespoons of juice, added a pinch or two of salt, the orange sections, and had a delicious salad. I'm sure this cold is on the way out.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Eating Things Irish

March 15, 2008

If you're like me and like to bake and are thinking of all things Irish in honor of the upcoming holiday, you'll want to produce this simple and tasty bread.

Irish Soda Bread

Preheat oven to 375°.

1 Cup all purpose flour
1 Cup Whole Wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Whisk the above ingredients together and put into the food processor. Add 6 Tablespoons chilled shortening and process until mealy. Then remove back into the bowl and stir in 1/2 to 1 cup raisins or dried currants or cranberries, 1 Tablespoon caraway seeds, and a few chopped nuts if desired (I don't think the Irish do this.) Gradually add 1/2 to 3/4 Cup buttermilk or soured milk and shape into a round loaf or put into a greased loaf pan.

Brush the top with milk. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Comfort Food, Italian Style

March 8, 2008

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is an Italian specialty of uncertain origin and certain soothing properties. What could be more comforting than spaghetti with eggs and bacon in it?

It's easy and exciting to make too. Exciting because it's hard to believe the pasta will cook the eggs, but it always works. I've seen several recipes for this, some using cream, some white wine, some with garlic or onions, but my original comes from The Romagnolis' Table, based on the old PBS series, and it has none of those things. (Did I ever tell you I learned to cook by watching PBS?) The Romagnolis' book came out before pancetta was widely used in this country, so they substituted salt pork. Go ahead and use pancetta.

Chop up 4 oz. of pancetta and sauté it gently in a few tablespoons of olive oil until translucent. Crack three eggs onto a warm serving platter and beat until foamy. Grind some fresh pepper into the pancetta and into the eggs.

Cook your pasta -- about 1 1/2 lbs. in about 6 quarts of water with 6 tsps. salt -- until it's just al dente. Drain it fast and reserve a little water in case you need it later. Pour the drained pasta into the eggs and toss well until the pasta is coated with eggs. Add the pancetta-olive oil mixture. Grate Pargianno Reggiano cheese on top and add more pepper if desired.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Something Good with Nutmeg

February 27, 2008

Research shows that most of the hits on this blog come with the search words "Health Benefits Nutmeg," with "Garlic Soup Colds" coming in second.

There is an early post about my discovery of chai tea which discusses the health benefits of nutmeg -- and cinnamon and cloves -- in the tasty tea known as chai. You can find this post and the garlic one by browsing the blog. This post is about a wonderful cake with a large nutmeg component.

The recipe, with some tweaking from me, is found in Nick Maglieri's cookbook Perfect Cakes. It has the charming name of "Fresh Apple Cake from Mrs. Appenzeller (5D)." Maglieri got the recipe from the superintendent of a Greenwich Village apartment building who in turn obtained it from the tenant in Apartment 5D. I can't help but love this Mrs. Appenzeller -- after all, I lived in Switzerland for six years, and Appenzel is a quaint canton in the mountains. Besides, the cake, with its high nutmeg content is not only delicious but probably will help with joint pains and indigestion. Obesity is another matter.

For health considerations, I decreased the amount of oil, added some whole wheat flour as well as brown sugar, and for esthetics used Granny Smith apples where Mrs. Appenzeller and Nick Maglieri use Golden Delicious. Applesauce would probably work well too. I do recommend the cake, and admonish the baker to use all the nutmeg suggested.

1 1/2 Cup Unbleached White Flour
1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Nutmeg
1/2 Teaspoon Cinnamon
3 Eggs
1/2 Cup Brown Sugar, 1/2 Cup White Sugar
1/2 Cup Vegetable Oil
2 Teaspoons Vanilla
3 Cups Peeled, Chopped Apples
1/2 Cup Dark Raisins
1/2 Cup Chopped Walnuts

Butter and flour a 12-Cup tube pan and preheat the oven to 350°.

Whisk together flours, baking soda, and spices.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs to break them up, whisk in the oil, sugar and vanilla. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the dry ingredients and apples, raisins and nuts.

Bake for about an hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

The cake is excellent with coffee or tea, or can be dressed up with ice cream. It freezes well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Watching People Eat

February 20, 2008

Maybe there are people out there in television-watching-land who really enjoy the numerous shows and segments of shows in which people stick food into their mouths and then try to describe to the viewers what they're experiencing.

They carefully close their lips over the bite (thank goodness and Emily Post) and then roll their eyes to the heavens and chew. This part gets tricky because they have to get most of the bite down before they start talking. Usually they use this time to make odd "mmmm" sounds, close their eyes, and try to think of something not obscene-looking to do while we wait for them to clear the mouth and talk to us.

Then, food removed, they start saying bizarre things like, "There's this gentle flow of spice followed by a little kick..." which is supposed to enlighten us about the experience of eating.

I cannot understand why there are so many shows that feature this embarrassingly un-entertaining display. There are restaurant shows, where the host, usually an affable enough person, goes to some restaurant, orders something, then goes through the eating-for-the-camera exercise described above, and tells us how to go to a restaurant. Or how to put food in our mouths. Or how to taste it. All of which most self-respecting adults have long since learned how to do.

There are cooking shows in which abnormally slim people demonstrate a recipe and then start eating it for our pleasure.

Two exceptions to the above tirade, in my view, are people I don't mind telling me what they're eating or how the food they cook tastes. These are Anthony Bourdain, whose show is more a cultural exchange than a food show, and Paula Deen, who so obviously enjoys scarfing down that fattening food that she can joke about it.

But a show based on watching people eat is a bad idea. When I catch myself watching such a show, I worry about my life.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Not Fattening Cheesecake

February 16, 2007

First, let me offer this disclaimer: If you like to eat, but want to lose weight, you gotta believe.

Me, I believe mostly in Atkins. That hasn't lost a lot of weight for me, but it helps me believe I'm dieting when I eat the foods I like. The trick is to stop before you want to. That's one I haven't mastered yet.

Here's a trick for a cheesecake that I won't promise will help you lose weight, but you'll hardly notice the artificial sweetener, and you can feel pretty good while you're eating it. In moderation, of course. I've served it at parties and nobody knows. (Or so they say.)

Make your crust using ground almonds instead of graham crackers.

The filling consists of:

3 8-oz pkgs. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 Cup sugar
1/2 Cup Splenda
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon juice
Grated lemon rind (optional)

Pre-heat your oven to 325°.

With an electric mixer, cream the cheese with sugar and Splenda. Add the egg yolks, extract and lemon juice.

Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks and gently fold them into the cream cheese mixture. Turn this batter into a baking pan prepared with the nut crust. If you're using a spring-form pan, wrap its bottom well in aluminum foil to prevent water leaking in. Put the baking pan into a larger pan and fill the larger pan with hot water up to about an inch from the top of the smaller pan. Bake until the cake is lightly browned, about one hour.

Let cool completely. The water bath will prevent cracks from forming on the top of the cake. This can be eaten as is, or topped with sour cream slightly sweetened and with a bit of vanilla added, or with fresh fruit.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dueling Cornbreads

February 13, 2008

My cyberfriend Nan, who publishes a beautiful blog making women all over the world want to move to a New England farm, cook from scratch, and raise a family, recently gave info on how to make a delicious bean stew with cornbread.

On her blog she runs pictures of her dogs, the snow-covered woods, the cozy house, and mouth-watering food, complete with recipes.

Even so, she used a little sugar in the cornbread. I curmudgeonly made the comment on her post that Southerners didn't allow sugar in cornbread. The fact that I know that South Carolina and probably certain other pockets in the South they do serve sweet cornbread didn't stop me from my niggling complaint. Where I come from, the Gulf Coast of Alabama, a hint of sugar in cornbread makes it pure cake.

Here's the recipe I always use for cornbread, from Mrs. S.R. Dull's cookbook Southern Cooking, first published in 1941. Mrs. Dull was the food editor of the Atlanta Constitution for many years.

I have changed her recipe by substituting half unbleached white flour for half of the cornmeal she used. But I do recommend using buttermilk as she does, and I must tell you that that this should be baked in a 10-inch cast iron frying pan.

2 eggs
1 1/4 Cup yellow corn meal
1 1/4 Cup all-purpose flour
2 Cups buttermilk
3 Tablespoons melted butter
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons baking powder

Beat eggs together until light. Add buttermilk, butter and salt. Add meal and flour mixture, being careful putting in, as meal varies and the batter should be a medium batter. Beat smooth. Put about a tablespoon of bacon fat into the pan (vegetable oil can be used) and keep the pan hot. Sift the baking powder into the batter. Dissolve the soda into a spoonful of cold water and add to the mixture and stir well. Bake at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes, until brown and crusty.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Waking Up to Broccoli Soup

February 12, 2004

Due to popular demand, I am reviving this blog. Wake up, blog!

That being said, I add the disclaimer that although I haven't posted here since late November, surfers find the blog when looking for recipes for "fair food," which is not what it's about, or using words on their search engines such as "garlic soup cold cure" or "health benefits nutmeg," which they can indeed find here.

This is the blog of a good home cook who prefers simple, fresh food and enjoys cooking from scratch. Most of the recipes are more like instructions for producing old-fashioned and tasty foods. Sometimes I'm on a diet, but there are a few dessert recipes that will indicate why I have that need.

Today's food is one that comes from that not-too-fattening group. It is a variation of a soup in the cookbook of one Suzanne Sommers, sometime actress and age-obsessed blonde who found a second career in writing about health food and selling exercise devices. Be that as it may, it is a delicious version of vichysoisse (no potatoes!) and filled with vitamins instead of calories.

Leek and Broccoli Soup

Chop and wash one leek and sauté it in a little olive oil for about five minutes. Add about 4 cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil. You'll need about 3 cups of chopped broccoli. Add this, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and process in a blender, food processor or with a stick blender until fairly smooth. To serve, (particularly if you'd on Atkins) you may top with a dollop of sour cream.

If you're not dieting, this soup is excellent with about one cup of cooked brown rice added before the blend. Of course the whole thing is flexible -- tomatoes can be added or any other leftovers if you want to use it as a base for another soup, or if you have any left over and want to extend the life of all the things in little jars in your refrigerator.

Now that you've discovered the revived food blog, come back sometime and explore.