Monday, November 24, 2008
Last year was supposed to be the year of "Ten-and-out" for the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground Thanksgiving at my brother-in-law's house in Vermont. This year, his house is on the market, so we decided that we'd go "Eleven-and-out", even though there is a very real possibility that we could see "Twelve-and-out" next year with real estate in its current slump, but no matter. As my husband's niece (and, yes, therefore my niece though there are only about 8 years between us) said when surveyed about quitting the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground, "Well, what else would we do? Where would we go?" Though it has only been a tradition for a short time, it is a tradition that none of us are willing to give up easily.
The first turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground Thanksgiving was conceived of in a barroom. Or, more accurately, JR, my brother-in-law, and I learned of it over a few bottles of beer in a barroom. The friend describing it said that his family had done it just once, but the turkey was the best they had ever had, and though they had stood out in a freezing rain to dig it up, they all remembered it fondly. Not so fondly that they would dig another two-foot by two-foot by two-and-a-half foot hole in which to burn a bonfire and bury the bird again, mind you, but they did have fabulous stories as a result of their one foray into firepit cooking the bird.
We explained the plan to the other members of JR's family. Most were skeptical. Plans were made to have plenty of side dishes in the event there was no turkey on Thanksgiving Day. JR's mother was incredulous. Everyone expected dirt in their dark meat. We trekked to Vermont, and on the eve of Thanksgiving, all of us stood around the hole in the ground, anxious about the outcome, as JR and his brother built the fire. And the fire was warming. And the beers were thirst-quenching. And we all enjoyed the fire and hoped for the best when the turkey, stuffed with ice cubes and butter in its cavity, then wrapped in eight layers of heavy-duty foil, was interred under layers of glowing-hot embers. Suddenly, all was black and cold where there had been merriment and frivolity around the fire. Our beers only added to the complete-body chill, so the end of the fire was the end of the night, and off we went to our respective rooms, tossing and turning with alcohol-induced fits of poor slumber.
In the morning - which is to say, around noon, for we had drunk our fill the night before and were a bit slow-moving on the day itself - a crowd gathered to unearth the turkey. Fortunately, noon was the preordained time for turkey excavation as it had gone into the hot coals at midnight and required twelve hours of cooking time. They stood outside in parkas and ski caps with shovels in hand and discarded beer cans in small piles on the ground (I never said we were classy, now, did I?). I say "they" for JR and I were at a friend's house cooking side dishes galore as insurance. While they were poised to dig, a Vermont State Trooper happened by. He drove past, and then, moments later, returned. "We're trained to be curious," he said, "and when I see a bunch of people standing outside with shovels in their hand and no snow, I have to wonder what's going on."
He left amused at our little experiment and with a possible crush on JR's niece, Buffy, and that day, we had much to be thankful for, for the turkey, though quite flat from the pressure of the earth atop it and lacking a crisp skin, was juicy throughout, tasty as any turkey I had ever had, and no one had been arrested for being a public intoxicant in the process.
Over the years, we've acquired many memories from our bonfire celebration, some good, some not so good at the time, but mildly amusing now. JR's brother's English Setter fell in the turkey hole one year; luckily a match hadn't been taken to the kindling just yet. There have been a few wipe-outs which we attribute to snow and ice, though there is a possibility that cocktails have played a role in the occasional loss of balance. One year, JR sliced his foot in the bathtub of the hotel where we were staying, and the hotel owner called the health center where JR and I sat while his foot drained blood into a warm basin of water below his body, and, thinking I was a nurse, instructed me to "have them bring back that hand towel, please. We need that hand-towel back." Thirteen stitches in his foot and eight dollars for dry cleaning the hand towel later, we decided to stay in a different location the following year. We chose a motel that looked fairly clean. Alas, it was not. I wore socks the entire time as my feet had stuck to the carpet when I walked barefoot to the bathroom on our first night. We decided then that it was worth springing for a nice hotel in order to be able to shower for the holiday. I think the entire family appreciates that. We've had nights that we've danced to Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits (yes, he's gross. We still like to dance like idiots to his music, however.) in my brother-n-law's small sculpture studio next to the turkey hole until two in the morning. This Dance Party USA session revealed that JR's sister dances approximately well as Elaine on Seinfeld. Elaine could be a touch better, in fact. I've been reprimanded by JR for signing, "the roof! The roof! The roof is on FI-ERRR! We don't need no water..." with Buffy while her eighty year-old grandmother stood across the fire, me taking the blame for egging Buffy on. I like to think that grandmother Helen was ok with it, and perhaps her one Manhattan for the evening helped dull the noise of our song. And if not, hopefully it dulled the pain of knowing her granddaughter uses cuss words.
We've made improvements to the process, and the second year saw the introduction of a turkey-cooking cage with a handle that JR's brother fashioned at their sheet-metal shop. It serves the dual purpose of keeping the bird from being crushed and also allowing it to be easily located as the handle is over three feet long and protrudes from the dirt covering the hole. We all drink less on the night before now, because we realize that the dinner is much more enjoyable when your head isn't throbbing. And ok, perhaps this pertains most to me - I just get so excited reliving my teen years drinking around a bonfire - so I'll take responsibility for it now, lest I be mocked when I arrive in Vermont this week. I drink less around the fire than I did eleven years ago.
After ten years of putting it on, as JR's mother would say, we all know who's responsible for what part of the meal, and are almost as efficient as a kitchen crew who've been working together for years. Which, of course, we have been. But for only one day per year.
JR's family make traditional dishes that have been part of the holiday since JR and his siblings were children: welsh rabbit, carrot casserole, broccoli pierre, and green bean casserole. My other nieces, also not much younger than me, make some of them, and my sister-in-law makes her specialties. The Thanksgivings of my youth involved more of a simple approach to vegetables, and very few items were ever gratineed or served in cream-and-cheese sauce. A few years into the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground, my sister-in-law said to me, "My family doesn't eat the kind of food you make. I know it's good and all, but we just don't eat like that." Now, in addition to the stuffing I make from scratch, she makes Stove Top to accommodate her family's taste. And I bring a can of jellied cranberry sauce in addition to the cranberry sauce I make. And everyone is happy and thankful for our family and all of its traditions.
Cranberry sauce with honey and orange:
(1) 12-ounce bottle cranberry juice cocktail
3/4 cup honey
zest from one navel orange
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
(1) 12-ounce bag cranberries
Pulp from the one navel orange you zested - (meaning you have to peel the membrane off of the individual sections of orange. This is a bit of a pain, so if you want to avoid this step and have a similar result, use 1/4 cup orange juice with pulp.)
In a large sauce pan over medium heat, bring the cranberry juice, honey, and orange zest to a simmer, stirring frequently. Once honey has dissolved, approximately 3 minutes, add cinnamon stick, pepper, and salt, and simmer for 2 minutes. Add cranberries, and simmer until cranberries have all burst, stirring frequently, approximately 10-15 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in the orange pulp, stirring until pulp is well-incorporated. Allow to cool, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If you are using orange juice instead, still remove from the heat and then stir the juice into the cranberry mixture. I make mine on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and there have never been any food safety issues, but it's so easy to make, you could certainly make it a day or two before the festivities and all would be good. Heck, you could probably even make it on the morning of if you're looking for something more to do that day.
Dinner tonight: It is 5:55pm as I write this, and JR is still on Martha's Vineyard where he has been working today, having left home at 4:30 this morning. It's easy to see that my planned meal of pasta with ricotta and prunes (yes, I am completely serious) might not be quite as satisfying as something with some meat, so I am going to use leftover pancetta to make a second round of pancetta and peas with orecchiette. Estimated cost for two: $7.41. The pancetta was $2.84 for about a third of a pound at Venda Ravioli, my favorite Italian market in Providence. We'll use about half, so that's $1.42. The orecchiette cost $1.79 for a one-pound box, we'll use half of that, so 90-cents. The peas were $1.29 for a bag, we'll use less than half of that, but let's call it 65-cents just the same. I don't have any shallot in the house, so I will use some of the millions of leeks I harvested on the last day of my garden, but I'll estimate 50-cents just the same, and the oil was about twenty cents. The big splurge in this meal is the very fancy Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano, which was $3.74 for two ounces. However, I did just buy pre-grated parmigiano at Venda Ravioli for $12.99 a pound. I needed a shortcut for the meatballs I'm making for the bonfire night, and $12.99 for a pound of actual parmigiano-reggiano is pretty darned good. I'm going to take advantage of this more often when in need of parmigiano. At 81-cents per ounce, you can be more lavish in your sprinkling of cheese over your spaghetti and meatballs, and you have to admit, sometimes you like them to look like a snow-covered mountain, now then, don't you?
Friday, November 21, 2008
As you may know - or then, as you may not know - I have been trying to exorcise my apple-cinnamon demons by repeatedly making apple-cinnamon desserts. My theory is this: I will either become exhausted of eating the ethereal combination of apples and cinnamon (did I say "ethereal"?), or I am meant to be saddled with this demon for all time. Hmmmm. Which do you think it is? Right. Yeah. That's what I'm thinking.
In this journey toward possible exorcism, I'm working my way up to making Apple Pandowdy, which, sadly must now wait until after Thanksgiving to be made. I had pictured the weekly baking of apple desserts as a way to determine which dessert would triumph and be made to share at Thanksgiving, but, alas, I couldn't stop making that cursed (I would appreciate it if you would pronounce this "curse-ID", if you don't mind) apple cake, and it kept me from realizing my goal.
Cursed indeed. We've been out of dessert for nearly a week - ok, just a few days - as we finished Friday's skillet apple pie, for which I am about to provide you the recipe, on Sunday, and frankly, I do love Nutella, but it's a wee bit sad to eat it by the spoonful and call it dessert. The proper term for Nutella by the spoonful is snack.
As I just could not possibly go one more day without a proper dessert, I decided to make the cursed apple cake. I headed to the chicken coop to rustle up the two eggs called for in the recipe. And rustling it is these days. The chickens are four and a half years old. They are tired. They are molting. They would like to retire to a warmer climate, and most of all, they do not wish to lay eggs. We have sixteen chickens, and they produce exactly one egg per day. This is not the way it should be. In fact, when chickens are young and at the height of their egg-producing years, they lay an egg a day per bird. Those were good times: frittata any time we wanted, egg salad, deviled eggs for the Easter buffet, fresh pasta, quick carbonara sauce when we were feeling too lazy to cook but not quite able to deal with driving the fifteen miles to Providence for take-out. Yes, good times indeed.
But these are different times. For us, and for the chickens. And here I was on a quest for two eggs. I opened the door to the coop, which is actually a palatial chicken mansion with a large roosting area, four sturdy next boxes elevated off the floor and lined with hay that JR baled, plenty of room to walk about, and a large fenced-in pen, which might almost pass for a backyard in the city. The chickens even have squatters in their coop - by my estimate, there are fifteen to twenty sparrows also living in there. It appears that they, too, are enjoying the chicken feed and water that JR provides each day, judging by their inability or unwillingness to fly out of the coop when a human such as me enters. I know from experience that the chickens are laying eggs only in the nest box furthest from the wall, so I pushed through the crowd of chickens at the door, went directly to the last nest box, and found one egg. Yet, I needed two. I looked down, and on the floor found another egg. Perfect. I reached down into the feathers and sawdust, clamped my fingers around the egg, and felt jagged edges and the cold wet slime of egg white. Not so perfect. One of the heftier chickens must have been setting on the egg and broke it, thus leaving me with a small dilemma in the making of the apple cake.
If you are unfamiliar with the apple cake recipe - and I certainly don't expect you to be as familiar with it as am I - it calls for 6 ounces of cream cheese, which is two ounces short of the entire package of cream cheese. As I marched back to the house cradling the lone egg in my hand, it occurred to me: cream cheese was the key. The moisture gained by using an entire package of cream cheese made up for the loss of the egg, and resulted in a cake that was more dense. Slightly different than the light crumb of the original recipe, but still pretty darned good. I recommend you try it both ways. Then, perhaps, you'll be cursed (this you can pronounce "curst", which will please me greatly) as I am with this apple-cinnamon addiction.
As I am a known apple-cinnamon junkie, I couldn't help but read with great curiosity about America's Test Kitchen's attempts at Apple Pandowdy in the October issue of Cook's Illustrated. In the end, the tester, Yvonne Ruperti, evolved the recipe into a skillet apple pie, which I decided to make last Friday night as I build my apple-cinnamon stamina in a quest for the eventual baking of the elusive Apple Pandowdy.
Skillet Apple Pie, adapted from Cook's Illustrated:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons very cold vegetable shortening, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
6 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3-4 tablespoons ice water
1/2 cup apple cider
1/3 cup maple syrup
juice of one lemon
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5-6 medium apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch thick wedges
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons sugar - turbinado sugar (sold as "Sugar in the Raw". It works well for extra crunch and sparkle)
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt and stir to blend. Add the vegetable shortening and the butter. Using your fingertips, break up the shortening and butter into smaller pieces while combining it with the flour mixture. The goal is to have pea-sized pieces of fat throughout the flour mixture. For a more in-depth description of this process, please see my savory pie crust post (I'm feeling a little lazy on a Friday afternoon, it seems, and to your detriment, so I do apologize. Please forgive me.).
Once the fats are the size of peas, add ice water by the tablespoon, pushing the dough together with a silicone spatula until the dough just comes together. Gather dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In another mixing bowl, combine the cider, maple syrup, lemon juice, cornstarch, and cinnamon and whisk together until well-blended.
Move oven rack to upper-middle position. Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees.
In an oven-proof skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Once the butter is melted, add the apple slices and cook until they begin to caramelize, approximately 5-7 minutes. You do not need to fully cook the apples as they will be heading into that 500-degree oven shortly. Add cider mixture, stir to coat the apples, and remove from heat.
Once the 30 minutes has elapsed, roll out the dough on well-floured plastic wrap or parchment paper to an 11-inch circle. Place the rolling pin in the middle of the dough circle, and lift the edges of the plastic wrap or parchment paper to fold the dough over the rolling pin. You will be using the rolling pin to transport the dough to the skillet, and it is a sticky dough, so it could be tricky to pull off of the countertop without tearing it, hence, the plastic wrap/parchment paper suggestion. Place the dough over top of the apple mixture. Coat lightly with the egg white and dust with sugar. Using a very sharp knife, slice the dough into 6 rectangular pieces. Bake in the oven until the crust is golden brown, approximately 20 minutes. Allow to cool before serving, and be very careful of the skillet handle - it's easy to forget how hot a metal handle heated to 500 degrees is if you're busy in the kitchen. Oh, but you won't forget afterwards, no you won't. And the pie won't be nearly as enjoyable, so you may want to wrap an oven mitt around the handle to prevent any accidents. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Yield: 6 servings.
Dinner tonight: Bok choy, mushroom, and sirloin strip stir fry with sesame-soy noodles (which are actually linguine). Estimated cost for two: $8.90. Not bad for Chinese food that includes steak, now then, is it? The sirloin strip cost $4.87 for 9 and 3/4 ounces. The bok choy was 92-cents, the mushrooms were $1.95 for the package, we'll use about half of that, so 98-cents, and I will use leeks from the last day of my garden as well. The soy costs around 35-cents, the teriyaki sauce costs approximately 50-cents, and the sesame oil is 78-cents. We're using 1/2 of a one-pound bag of Whole Foods store-brand linguine, which costs 99-cents for the bag, so we'll round up and call it fifty cents. If you slightly overcook this linguine, it becomes more like the texture of udon, and therefore makes a decent substitute for the more expensive fresh udon. It is not udon, however, so if you are a purist, you should splurge and buy the fresh noodles you require.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
This is the third Thursday in November, and while you all may be thinking that marks the one week countdown to Thanksgiving - which is correct, of course - but while you are thinking this, the wine world is flipping its collective lid (or popping its collective cork, however you'd like to think of it) over the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau. Everywhere you go, there are posters and placards outside wine shops screaming "Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" (The new Beaujolais has arrived!!!!); tastings and dinners designed around the release of the 2008's at midnight (so technically this morning); and in private homes, parties over the weekend to highlight their Beaujolais Nouveau purchases.
In my early twenties, I went to one such party at a friend of a friend's house. And it was quite a house for a person in their twenties. A four-story brownstone just outside of Boston, elegantly furnished, and filled with twenty-five year-old prep school-type boys wearing madras pants and bow ties and ladies in cashmere and pearls. Did I mention that this was the party of a twenty-something? Ever so slightly pretentious. Ever so slightly. I think I may have to attribute my disdain of Beaujolais Nouveau to this party, where I sat in a corner, my lack of pearls calling me out as a society émigré - clearly not part of this in-group of revellers in the throes of Beaujolais Nouveau worship. Do I sound scarred? I'm not, really. But I think you all can feel my pain, now, then, can't you?
Beaujolais Nouveau is a young wine made from the Gamay grape, and, as you may suspect, is produced in France. The release-day hype is a marketing tactic which started after World War II as a race to Paris to see which producer could get his wine to market first, and has grown into an international party since the launch of the global "est arrivé!" campaign in 1985. The grapes are harvested in the same year that the wine is released, so it is only three months from vine to your glass. It is meant to be drunk young and is usually consumed during the holidays here in the United States.
Last week, I went to see my friends at Gasbarro's in Providence, and they had a big display of the 2008 Novello from Mionetto, a producer best known for its sparkling wine, Prosecco (and we will talk about Prosecco prior to New Year's as it provides a good value while allowing you to consume bubbly on a budget). The Novello is Mionetto's answer to Beaujolais Nouveau. As it happened, a bottle was open on the counter, and I was in a drinking mood. Never mind that it was only noon on Friday. That's my business. In any event, my friend Frank poured me a fairly generous serving of the Novello and on my first sip, I said, "Wow." Then I paused, sipped, and said, rather profoundly might I add, "Wow." Frank said he understood. In fact, he said that most people who try it come in looking for Beaujolais Nouveau, and end up buying the Novello because they like it better than the Beaujolais Nouveau. I concurred and left with two bottles of the Novello, one which JR and I drank that night, and the other that we tasted again last night so as to be sure my notes were correct. I am all about accuracy, even if it means I have to drink more wine in accuracy's name.
The wine is made from Merlot and Corvina grapes. You are all plenty familiar with Merlot, but not likely so much with Corvina. Corvina is grown in the Verona region of Italy, which is just about eighty miles west of Venice. The Corvina grape is used in some of the great wines of this region, including Valpolicella and Amarone. If you hit the lottery, do yourself a favor and buy a few bottles of Amarone, ok? In fact, if you hit the lottery, would you buy me a bottle of Amarone as well? Please? That would be so nice of you. But I digress. Amarone is produced in a very extracted style, where the grapes are dried somewhat prior to fermentation in order to intensify the flavor of the finished wine, and the end result is rich and almost syrupy; it is a wine to hold, or age. Novello is not that, for Novello is produced to be drunk young, and so the wine is light, with a low alcohol content of 11.5%. As I was "taking notes" on it last night, I told JR that the color was almost magenta in the glass. It's not day-glo or anything, but there is a hint of purple in the ruby color. The wine has a very, very intense aroma, which I thought was sour cherry. The flavor is a bit tangy, but it also had a bit of earthiness to it that I could not for the life of me place, nor could JR, though he swore he almost had it on more than one occasion. It's a thin wine, very easy to drink (have I mentioned I've had it twice in the last week?), but I was having some serious difficulty coming up with the exact flavor - beyond tangy and slightly earthy. And I know that berries are a favorite term, but I couldn't quite place what type of berry. Right around the time I was sauteing the shallot for last night's dinner, I decided to give up trying to figure it out and to just enjoy it. And I'm happy to report that I did both and and am better for it, thank you very much.
I don't like to color my opinion of wine before tasting it, so I try to avoid reading up on the flavor profile until I'm just about to post, so this afternoon, I visited the Mionetto website and shouted, startling my Golden Retriever, Miele (me-ay-lay, it's a bastardization of "honey" in Italian - she's honey colored, we keep bees, you get it now, right?) - now where was I? Oh, right - I shouted, "AHHHHH! STRAWBERRRY! THAT'S IT!" I think I also smacked myself in the head as though I was in a V8 commercial for extra effect. Thank you Mionetto website for clearing up what type of berry, because that would have really bothered me the next time I drank your Novello. For the first sip or two, anyway.
The Mionetto people are also really helpful in telling you what foods go well with their Novello, and as such, they list turkey and cranberry sauce, pumpkin ravioli, and most traditional holiday cuisine. Now how about that? At $12.99 a bottle, it's a good deal, it goes with your holiday dinner, and you won't be asked to any party in its honor where you are obliged to wear pearls or bow ties, which should be such a relief in and of itself that you run out to buy yourself a bottle and cry out to all who pass by as you leave the store, Novello è arrivato! (The Novello has arrived!)
Dinner tonight: leftover meatballs, sauce, and freshly made linguine. Now, what did I say that cost? Oh, right. Estimated cost for two: $5.27. The meatballs consist of 20 ounces of ground meat from the same batch used to make the Untraditional Bolognese; cost per pound was $3.79, so the total for the meat is $4.73. The milk is 25-cents (one cup at $1.99 for 8 cups), the bread was $2.29 for 18 or so slices, and I am going to use 6 slices, so 76-cents. The eggs are also 50-cents, and the parmigiano-reggiano is about $5.62 because I splurged and got the good stuff last week. The sauce is going to be $2.00 for a 24 ounce can of fire-roasted crushed tomatoes, plus around a dollar-fifty for carrot, onion, celery, and garlic, and we'll throw in 50-cents for anchovy paste and tomato paste. So the meatballs cost $11.86, I got fifteen two-ouncers out of this batch; JR and I will have 3 between the two of us, so $2.37 for those. The tomato sauce costs $4.00, and I'll get four servings out of that. The pasta is $1.79 per box, and we'll use about half of that.
And, yeah, I did just cut and paste this math from Monday's post. It's like a mini-vacation from math. What a good reason to have leftovers!
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Approximately one week from now, everyone reading this, and everyone they know, and everyone they know, and so on and so forth, will be standing in a kitchen full of chopped onions, dried bread, poultry seasoning, chicken broth, sweet potato, pecans, butter, canned pumpkin puree, brown sugar, maple syrup, flour strewn about, peeled apples - did I mention butter? - and, quite likely, tears streaming down his or her face, though not from the stink of the onions. Ahhh, the overwhelming joy of preparing for Thanksgiving. I am a pragmatist, and so I like to make as much as possible well in advance of the big day. Add to that, we spend the day before the feast driving up to Vermont for the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground celebration, and the entire night before drinking beer from cans around a bonfire in a reprise of some of our better high school moments, only without the having to run and hide in wet leaves and rabbit droppings when the cops arrive. If you've seen me after drinking beer from cans around a bonfire, you know that it is, in fact, necessity that I prepare my victuals in advance.
For some dishes, you really do want to wait until the last minute - Tuesday night in my case - to prepare, but others improve with time spent in the refrigerator under foil. This is one such recipe. And it has the added bonus of serving as a vegetarian entree that will not leave your vegetarian relative wondering why you people just don't get that she doesn't eat meat because sides are the only available sustenance for her.
Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna:
(1) 3-4 pound butternut, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups milk (you will need to buy a half-gallon rather than a quart if you are buying the milk specifically for this use)
1 sprig fresh rosemary - JR loves rosemary - if you prefer sage, use sage, or if you prefer thyme, use thyme, just up the quantity of thyme to somewhere in the 8-10 sprigs range)5 tablespoons butter
7 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
nine sheets lasagna (this should be a half of a box of lasagna)
3/4 pound grated gruyere cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
In a large bowl, toss butternut squash with olive oil until it is well-coated. Transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet, spreading into one layer. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until squash is fork-tender and beginning to brown.
Now, you are about to make an herb-infused Béchamel sauce. If you have not done this before, do not be intimidated. It is really quite easy and you'll be incredibly proud of yourself (though don't get too big for your britches, now, ok?) when the sauce thickens and you realize that you have mastered a grand French sauce. Let's get started so that you may soon bask in your accomplishment, shall we?
In a large sauce pan, heat milk to a simmer with the sprig of rosemary (or sage, or multiple sprigs of thyme). Allow the milk to simmer for two minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the milk and rosemary to steep for 5-10 minutes. Pour the milk through a fine mesh sieve, or colander lined with cheesecloth, into a bowl. I use a mixing bowl with a handle and pouring spout to make my life easier and thought I'd share that little tidbit with you because I want your life to be easier, and also because it's difficult to be overwhelmed with joy while washing herb-infused milk from the front of your oven, top of your stove, and floor, regardless of how enticing it may smell.
After the milk has been strained, heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and, using a whisk, stir constantly to combine with butter. Continue to cook flour and butter until the mixture is a light golden brown, approximately 5 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking continuously as it is added. This is why I just warned you in the paragraph above to use the bowl with the handle and the spout. If you don't, you may need a little assistance to get this portion done without any cursing. Tell he or she who helps you that the reward of the homemade Béchamel sauce is worth it and not to give you any grief.
Once milk is added to the roux (the cooked flour and butter mixture is a roux), cook over medium heat for approximately 10 minutes until sauce is thick and has a consistency similar to that of pancake batter, whisking constantly and being careful that the sauce does not scald on the bottom of the pan. You could probably get away with whisking frequently rather than constantly, but I like to think of it as a bit of meditation - a little zen exercise in swirling milk, if you will. Much as it is in ice cream making.
Remove pan from heat, stir in ground nutmeg, and reserve approximately one cup of Béchamel for topping the lasagna. Combine remaining Béchamel and all of the roasted butternut squash, salt and pepper to taste, and set aside. Take a moment to celebrate that you are a master of French sauces before moving on. You deserve it.
Boil lasagna according to the manufacturer's directions, undercooking slightly. Rinse under cool water so that noodles will not burn those hands of yours while you're assembling the lasagna. Now, you may be wondering if I've ever heard of no-boil lasagna, and I assure you, I have. If you'd like to use no-boil, you go right ahead, I have no problem with that and it's quite likely that even if I did take issue with the fact, no one would tell me you used no-boil. You are free to do as you like.
Lightly grease a 9x13 baking dish. Spread approximately 1/4 cup of the reserved (no butternut added) Béchamel around the bottom of the dish. Lay 3 lasagna noodles across the dish, then top with one-half of the butternut and Béchamel mixture. Sprinkle 1/3 of the grated gruyere over top, then repeat for the second layer. Lay the last three lasagna noodles over top of the butternut mixture, and spoon the remaining 3/4 cup of Béchamel over top, spreading evenly over noodles. Cover tightly with foil, and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. After 30 minutes, remove foil, sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the grated gruyere and two tablespoons of chopped rosemary over the lasagna, and bake until cheese is browned and the sauce is bubbling around the edges, approximately 15 minutes.
So now, the best part is, you can make this on Monday or Tuesday night, or, if you're feeling really daring, even on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the flavors only become more sublime for the wait. Of course, if you don't make this for Thanksgiving, it makes a fabulous, inexpensive main course with a simple green salad, and the lasagna itself only costs $18.42 for 6 to 8 servings, so on the high end, it's $3.07 per person. The milk is 25-cents a cup at $1.99 per half-gallon, we used 5 cups, so $1.25. The butter is 39-cents, the flour is 9-cents. The rosemary could very well be $1.99, but you only need one of the 4 sprigs, so that's 50-cents. I feel compelled to advise you that if you have a particular herb of which you are fond, you might want to invest in a small plant for $2.99 and nurture it throughout the winter. It will repay you greatly. If not, you don't have to let the rest of the rosemary in the $1.99 package go to waste. If you think you won't use it before it becomes dark, decrepit, and frowzy in your refrigerator, tie it at the cut ends with a bit of kitchen twine and hang it from a hook or even a cabinet knob (you're being practical not letting food go to waste - who cares what people think, right?), let it dry, then harvest it and store it in a plastic bag until you're ready to use it again. The butternut squash cost me a mere 75-cents for four pounds, but not many of you live near the Sousas of 75-cents-for-four-pound-squash-fame, so I estimated 80-cents per pound, which is what it costs at the large farm stand nearby my house. The olive oil is around 20-cents, and the lasagna is half of a box that cost $1.59, so that's 80-cents. The gruyere is your largest expense at $11.99, but with the overall cost of the dish being so low, you can afford to splurge. And splurge, you must, from time to time.
Dinner tonight: Pancetta with orecchiette and peas. Estimated cost for two: $7.41. The pancetta was $2.84 for about a third of a pound at Venda Ravioli, my favorite Italian market in Providence. We'll use about half, so that's $1.42. The orecchiette cost $1.79 for a one-pound box, we'll use half of that, so 90-cents. The peas were $1.29 for a bag, we'll use less than half of that, but let's call it 65-cents just the same. The shallot was less than 50-cents, but I round up, the oil was about twenty cents, and the big splurge in this meal is the very fancy Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano, which was $3.74 for two ounces. However, I could - and you could - select a less expensive parmigiano-reggiano cheese and bring that cost down to somewhere around $2.37 figuring it to be around $18.99 per pound. Or you could forgo cheese altogether and bring the cost down to $3.67 for two. You decide how important the cheese is to you, that's one of the nice things about being an adult, isn't it?
OK, speaking of adulthood, everyone knows that everyone else is having a tough time right now, but those who rely on food pantries for their meals are in particularly dire straits. If you are able - and I'm not lecturing, only suggesting - if you are able, please donate some Thanksgiving goods to your local food pantry this week or next. You'll feel even more proud than when you mastered the Béchamel!
A few helpful Food Pantry links:
Greater Boston Food Bank
Rhode Island Food Bank
Food Bank New York City
If you're not sure how to help, call your local town or city hall, they should be able to point you in the right direction.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
My grandmother owned a red sauce Italian restaurant when I was growing up. I don't mean the chain restaurant here in Massachusetts, Red Sauce, I mean a good, old fashioned Italian-American restaurant with those rough translations from southern Italian cuisine to the mid-twentieth century American idea of Italian food. And I loved it. To judge from the crowds in her restaurant, a lot of other people did as well. She served the best chicken parm, stuffies (it's a Rhode Island thing, you'll need to get your arse up here and try some to understand), clams casino, and, of course, red sauce. Her sauce was smooth and even a little thin, but it was perfection on the side of ziti that came with my inevitable chicken parm.
As I grew older, my understanding of regional Italian food grew, and I began to understand that the Italian food of my youth wasn't "authentic" Italian food, though it is no less a part of the Italian-American experience, and is still rather beloved here in the States, even with our more sophisticated twenty-first century palates. My grandmother passed away when I was fifteen, but her husband, my step-grandfather, kept the restaurant going strong until just a couple of years ago. Before my step-grandfather retired, any time I had a need for the comfort of chicken parm, JR and I would head to "the restaurant", as we called it. And long before JR arrived on the scene, all family events were celebrated there. My surprise sixteenth birthday party was held there, as was every subsequent birthday with the exception of those I was away at college, up through my mid-twenties. It was a home-away-from-home, and even if JR and I were just dropping in for take-out, the bartender, Kenny, who strongly resembled Rod Stewart - yes, the hair-do as well - would drop everything he was doing (sorry, bar patrons) to greet us, kiss my hand, and run around frantically to retrieve our food, as though we were royalty who might be angered by a wait.
Nowadays, my preference really is for regional Italian cuisine, but I am still comforted by the taste of chicken parm, the occasional meatball, and, of course, red sauce, though the version I make at home is chunky rather than smooth and clings to the pasta rather than coating it as though it were a salad dressing as did my Nana's. My meatballs are an interpretation of my mother's meatballs, which are - and I don't say this lightly - the world's best meatballs; super-moist and chock full of real bread - no bread crumbs for us, no-sir-ee. I do apologize for taking away props from your mothers' and Nanas' meatballs, but you'll have to make these and then tell me you're not convinced.
An Interpretation of Jan's Meatballs - and, you know what? I can't believe I'm giving this secret recipe up this easily. I must really like you guys. And be forewarned: there's an awful lot of commentary in this recipe. It's Italian-American, after all, and as you can't see my arms waving around, I have to actually write rather than gesticulate.
1 small onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground meat - Jan uses beef. I use a blend of pork, veal, and beef. Go ahead and try turkey if you don't do red meat.
5-6 slices white Italian bread - you want a soft bread for this, so supermarket varieties are fine. This is old-school Italian-American after all.
1/2 cup milk (or less - you're using this to soak the bread, so you'll only need to use enough to douse the slices you use)
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano - yes, I will forgive you if you use already grated cheese, but please don't use the green jar of cheese if you don't have to.
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
2 large eggs - this is the big secret. Which really shouldn't be a secret because you cook, so you know eggs add moisture. But I will share with you anyway: the extra egg renders the finished meatballs extremely moist.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat; add the diced onion and minced garlic and saute until onion is just translucent approximately 3 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, press the ground meat around the bottom of the bowl making a flat little plateau for the bread to lay upon. Lay 2-3 pieces of bread over top (as many as you are able given the size of your mixing bowl) and drizzle milk over bread until bread is soaked through. Mash soaked bread into meat with a fork or your hands. Don't be afraid to get dirty. That's part of the fun. Maybe play some Pavarotti loudly and let your kids mash the meat up with their hands (washing them before and after, of course). Repeat with 2-3 additional pieces of bread. Add parsley and parmigiano and mix into meat mixture with a fork or your hands. Add the onion and garlic, combining well, then add the two eggs, one at a time. Pepper to taste. You will have a very wet mixture on your hands. This is what you want, trust me.
Lightly oil a large baking sheet. We don't fry meatballs at my house. We bake the bad boys.
Using your hands, form the mixture into rounds that fit comfortably in your palms. They'll be between two and three ounces - a perfect serving size - or a half a serving size, depending upon how you look at it. Place them in rows of three across the baking sheet - you should have between 12 and 15 meatballs when all is done.
Bake meatballs on the middle rack for 35-40 minutes, or until meatballs are lightly browned. Sprinkle a bit of salt over top of the meatballs and either drop them into the sauce for a couple of minutes (not all of them, though - you aren't making enough sauce for 15 meatballs unless you double the recipe. You'll see.), place them atop the spaghetti and top both with sauce, or keep them for some other meatballish use. There's no way you won't love them. I promise.
Not My Nana's Red Sauce:
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, or enough to coat the bottom of your sauce pan
1 small onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced or grated using a box grater
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon anchovy paste (available in the Italian section of the market, or nearby the canned tomatoes or jarred tomato sauce)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
(1) 28-ounce can of crushed fire-roasted tomatoes (such as Muir Glen, or use a good-quality regular tomato, such as San Marzanos)
salt and pepper
Heat oil in a large sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add onion, celery, carrot, and garlic and cook slowly to meld the flavors. This could take between twenty and thirty minutes - you want to have the vegetables combine such that their colors begin to blend together - this is a version of what Italians call "soffritto".
Once your soffritto is sufficiently orange-y (this is the color it most resembles when cooked down. I will get you a picture of it soon, I promise), add the thyme and oregano, and stir to combine. Next, add the anchovy paste (we discussed this yesterday - don't go getting all wiggy on me, you can't taste anchovy in the finished product) and tomato paste. Stir to combine.
Add the tomato, stir well, and let sauce simmer for about twenty minutes on medium heat. Salt and pepper to taste, drop some meatballs in if you so desire and let simmer a few minutes more, then dole it all out over whatever maccheroni (that's Italian for macaroni, ok?) you choose, though I recommend spaghetti for this classic. Top your mountain of meatballs, sauce, and pasta with some additional grated parmigiano, and set it down on a red and white checkered tablecloth in your dining room, crank up the Pavarotti, and there you are in an Italian restaurant circa 1978. Buon appetito!
Dinner tonight: Baked Rigatoni with Untraditional Bolognese Sauce. Estimated cost for two: $3.65. The Bolognese was $8.29 for 8 servings. We've had 4 servings so far, so that leaves half, for which we round up the half-cent and call $4.15. The rigatoni was $1.79 for a one-pound box, and we're using all of that. The mozzarella cheese was $4.11 for the portion being used tonight, and we get at least 6 servings out of it. I'm going to use some of the last-day-of-the-garden lettuce for a simple salad, so that's an additional 30-cents based on the cost of the plants when I bought them. We haven't any dessert hanging around, but I do have one sad looking banana, which I will make into something resembling Bananas Foster using butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and some dark rum which has been hanging around in my liquor cabinet/dustbin for over five years since we hosted our friends' Caribbean-themed wedding shower. Clearly, we're big rum lovers. Clearly. But we do need to go over Bananas Foster sometime soon because it is so easy and is a good alternate use of bananas which would otherwise be destined for bread. I'm thinking you don't need to use rum only, and I didn't flambe the version I made the other night, yet it was still scrumptious. And far less dangerous than with flame. I'd be frightened of me flambe-ing, let me tell you!
Monday, November 17, 2008
Today is the last day for my garden. It's going to be 28 degrees here overnight, and 20 degrees overnight on Wednesday, so this afternoon, I marched out to what's left of the garden with scissors in hand and harvested the remainder of the lettuce - which yielded me an entire plastic shopping bag of greens (and sorry about the plastic bag - I had forgotten my reusables on that run to the store) - then I chopped out enough parsley for tonight's meatballs, and proceeded to extract the leeks from the ground. Extract is, I think, the appropriate word. They had developed such a large sprawling root system that my initial tug lifted up an entire clump of 20 or more leeks and four inches of soil, not to mention some wayward worms who were certainly horrified to see daylight and my chickens just beyond the fence. I wasn't properly dressed for gardening tasks, but I still placed one fancy-shoe-clad foot down atop the pad of roots and soil, and, spilling dark damp soil into said shoes, managed to wrest the leeks free. I did have to give one gaggle of leeks a haircut to remove roots, dirt, and worms even after my efforts, but did succeed in gathering all of the leeks, which, I have to add, are quite a bit larger in number than I had anticipated, and I think that much of tonight will be spent looking for recipes appropriate for fifty leeks. Chicken with fifty stalks of leeks? Leek lasagna? Roasted leeks with boiled leeks with braised leeks? If you happen to be in the neighborhood and have a hankering for leeks, please, do stop by. I can help.
As it gets colder out, and nearly dark now, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we're all craving comfort food. For JR and me, this tends to mean Italian cuisine, so over the weekend, I made an untraditional Bolognese sauce, which should probably be called a meat ragu, but I'm hoping you'll forgive the technicality and help me lend my sauce some credibility. Of course, a proper Ragu Bolognese, or meat ragu in the style of Bologna, has all manner of credibility, right down to its ingredients and preparation being specified in a recipe held at the Chamber of Commerce in Bologna, Italy. My "Bolognese" would not pass muster if held to the standard of that recipe, but JR and I both look forward to having it each winter, and it makes pasta night seem just a little bit special.
Untraditional Bolognese Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into a fine dice
2 stalks celery, cut into a fine dice
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into a fine dice
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons thyme
1 tablespoon anchovy paste
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 pound ground meat - preferably a blend of pork, veal, and beef, but all beef would work as well, or ground turkey.
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup milk
(1) 14.5 ounce can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen, but you can use regular, unroasted tomatoes if you like)
salt and pepper to taste
In a large sauce pot over medium-low heat, warm the oil, and then add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic cloves and cook until the onion, celery, and carrot seem less distinguishable from one another, such that they are all nearly the same color. This part of the process takes a while, because the intent is to cook the vegetables extremely slowly to release their flavors and to meld them together. In Italian, this is called soffritto, and it usually involves pancetta and some herbs in addition to the onion, carrot, and celery, but the important thing to remember here is that the cooking is slow, slow, slow, and may take as long as twenty minutes to a half-hour. Be patient. It's worth it. As is the way with much in life that requires a wait. With the exception of the bus while you stand outside in a wind-whipped snow storm, of course.
Once the soffritto is one amalgamated-seeming ingredient, add the thyme, pepper to your liking, and stir well. Then add the anchovy paste (and do not turn up your nose at it, it is here to bring your sauce depth of flavor, and no one, not even you, will know it's there when you serve it forth) and tomato paste, and stir to combine.
Increase heat to medium. Add the ground meat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon and pushing it down to the bottom of the pan, turning it over itself to insure that it cooks evenly.
Once the meat is cooked through, add the wine, stirring to combine, then add the milk, which also must be stirred in to what? Yes. To combine. Or incorporate. Or unify, mix, merge, or marry. Whichever synonym you prefer.
Now, if you want to keep it real, or at least closer to real, you can stop here and just let the sauce simmer for about twenty minutes to let the flavors meld together. Or, you can be completely unorthodox and do what I do. Add those darned tomatoes. An authentic Bolognese sauce does not have any tomato save for the tomato paste, and the redness of the sauce comes from that very tomato paste, but also from the wine and the carrots in the soffritto. However, at my house, we like tomatoes with our meat ragu, so I add them, darn it. Once tomatoes are incorporated, let simmer on medium-low heat for twenty minutes or more and serve over tagliatelle or paparadelle if you've just hit up the Italian market for fresh pasta, but if not, regular old linguine will work just fine. Shave a little pricey parmigiano-reggiano over top, perhaps drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over top, and ecco, there you have it (ecco means "lo and behold" in colloquial Italian. This is an Italian menu, so ecco it is.). Two days from now, you can make a baked ziti with the leftover sauce and some mozzarella cheese, or you can freeze it up for another time. This recipe will yield approximately 8 cups, so plenty for at least two meals for four people. And it will warm your belly and your heart each time.
Dinner tonight: meatballs and red sauce over linguine. Estimated cost for two: $5.27. The meatballs consist of 20 ounces of ground meat from the same batch used to make the Untraditional Bolognese; cost per pound was $3.79, so the total for the meat is $4.73. The milk is 25-cents (one cup at $1.99 for 8 cups), the bread was $2.29 for 18 or so slices, and I am going to use 6 slices, so 76-cents. The eggs are also 50-cents, and the parmigiano-reggiano is about $5.62 because I splurged and got the good stuff last week. The sauce is going to be $2.00 for a 24 ounce can of fire-roasted crushed tomatoes, plus around a dollar-fifty for carrot, onion, celery, and garlic, and we'll throw in 50-cents for anchovy paste and tomato paste. So the meatballs cost $11.86, and I'll get fifteen two-ouncers out of this batch; JR and I will have 3 between the two of us, I'm sure, so $2.37 for those. The tomato sauce costs $4.00, and I'll get four servings out of that. The pasta is $1.79 per box, and we'll use about half of that. As with the Untraditional Bolognese, both the meatballs and sauce will freeze well if they aren't able to be polished off within the week.
Friday, November 14, 2008
I keep getting distracted from this wine post, and it is a great injustice to the wine, let me tell you. Yesterday it was the savory pie crust, which, I assure you, you cannot live without. Today it's been espresso that's kept me from the blog. I've been out of my favorite espresso for about a month and have been subsisting on some long-since stale espresso that has actually clumped onto itself such that I have to chisel it apart to get it into the espresso maker. Like sugar that sits around for too long and accumulates moisture and then forms those sugar rocks. You know the ones. So I've been contending with the stale espresso-rock coffee for about a month, and then I found a coupon to my favorite Italian market in Providence, which gave me just the reason to head down there and purchase some items for a meat ragu, as well as some mortadella (boy, do I love that stuff), and my favorite espresso, Danesi. Danesi has a bit of a mocha taste, which perhaps makes me an espresso wimp, but it is so smooth that I don't care if you do call me a wimp.
As soon as I got home, I poured the contents of the bag into my coffee jar, and then stood sniffing the bag while waiting for my long-anticipated Danesi espresso to brew. It was so good - both the actual drink and the smell of the bag - I almost couldn't tear myself away long enough to get to the computer and tell you about Putney Mountain Winery's Apple Maple wine, but guilt and the realization that you really do need to know about their wines got the better of me, so here I am. One last thing about the Danesi - and then I'll talk wine, I promise - for just over the cost of one latte in a store, I get a bag of espresso that lasts about three weeks, having two cappuccino-sized cups per day. It cost $4.19, and I save whatever hot espresso I don't drink (refrigerated, of course) and will have iced latte when I don't have time to brew hot. Don't get me wrong, I like the convenience of Dunkie's, but when I make coffee at home, I am always guaranteed that it will be exactly the way I like it. And that's important when one is starting out her day.
Now, let's start out the wine portion of this post, shall we? JR and I had previously sampled Putney Mountain Winery's Apple Maple and Cranberry wines at the Dorset, Vermont Farmers Market. They were surprising in that they weren't cloying, and I didn't immediately dismiss them with my wine snob nose up, as I have been wont to do with other non-grape fruit wines. JR and I decided that on our next trip to Vermont, we would stop at the winery and pick up a few bottles to sample and so we did just that this past weekend.
Grapes seem all but created for the purpose of producing wine. Within each grape are all of the basic components necessary for fermenting into a balanced alcoholic beverage, with tannins in the skin and the seeds, sugars in the pulp that will ferment into alcohol, and yeasts on the skin that assist in the fermentation. Other fruits do not have the advantage of being a mini-fermenting machine that will produce balanced flavors as does the grape, and, in the European Union, at least, wine is defined legally as a beverage made solely from grapes.
Putney Mountain Winery's winemaker, Charles Dodge, has done a remarkable job, then, in creating a smooth and balanced Apple Maple wine. This is a wine that each time I sipped it, I exclaimed, "No - really, I really like this wine!" It was almost as though I couldn't believe that I would enjoy a fruit wine to this degree (she says, with her wine snob nose down now). It is light, refreshing, and though it smells like apple juice (or to be fancy, "has a nose of apple juice"), and then apple pie (which we know I love), it does not at all taste like apple juice. Nor apple pie, for that matter. At one point, I said, still somewhat surprised, "I feel like a jackass even saying it again, but this is really good." And it is. It's just acidic enough, it's bright and refreshing, and I really do think it's a perfect Thanksgiving wine. Particularly with the low alcohol level - 11% - and the fact that it is semi-dry. Which is to say, semi-sweet. So it will cut through the richness of the dinner, which you know you need. Now, I am a red wine lover. And I have had pinot noirs, dolcettos, and the like at Thanksgiving, but I do think it's time for me to accept that a white wine - and an apple wine at that - is the drink of choice for the bird and its accoutrement.
In this month's Wine Spectator, columnist Matt Kramer discusses "rich" wines. Rich wines are wines that are semi-dry, and Kramer speculates that because Americans don't have a means by which to communicate what "rich" means in terms of wine, we don't understand it as a concept (he backs this hypothesis up with a study of the vocabulary of a tribe in the Amazon, conducted by a Columbia University psychology professor, and, if I may be honest, I don't feel qualified to dispute these claims). Let's just say that a rich wine has a certain je ne sais quoi that might not be suited to our everyday American taste, but for a holiday meal where so many flavors are competing for the attention of your palette, I think it's a good bet. And you and your American taste may find yourself surprised as I was and find yourself longing for this very same semi-dry wine on a more regular basis. Who can know if you don't try?
I realize that earlier this week, I promised a review of the Cranberry wine as well as the Cassis wine, but, as you know, I do not spit my wine, and there is only so much wine drinking a gal can accomplish in a week - particularly one during which she didn't feel so great to start out. However, JR and I did have a few sips of the Cassis wine, and it is also quite good, though it is most definitely a dessert wine. The wine is a ruby red color and smells like berry jam. We drank it relatively cold, and I would recommend letting it warm up a bit once you take it out of the refrigerator - maybe take it out a half-hour before you intend to drink it so that the flavors aren't stifled. It has a very concentrated berry flavor, and Dodge has amended it by adding blueberry and raspberry to the black currant to give it more oomph, which it certainly has. It reminded me a bit of Sweet Tarts (first Jolly Ranchers on Tuesday, now Sweet Tarts on Friday - I must have a penny candy jones brewing up here), with a slight tang in the finish, and I found it a bit tannic. JR and I both agreed that it would be excellent drizzled over vanilla ice cream, and I am planning to test it out heated to lukewarm and poured over vanilla ice cream in an effort to create an affogato di cassis, which I think will be fabulous. It would also be great in a pan sauce for game meats, in addition, of course, to its primary purpose as a dessert wine.
Putney Mountain Winery does ship UPS, and there is enough time if you order in the next week or so (provided you live in New England or the Tri-state area) to receive your wine in time for Thanksgiving. I'll be calling my brother-in-law in Vermont tonight to ask him to pick up a few more bottles of the Apple Maple wine so that we have enough for all of the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground Thanksgiving revelers. The Apple Maple wine is $14.99 a 750ml bottle - this is a holiday we're talking about, people, you can do it - and the Cassis is $16.99 for 375ml. If you'd like to order the wine, you will have to call the winery (contact information below), and if you think you can't possibly need enough to have it shipped, consider roping a few friends into the action and splitting the order. JR and I received a 5% discount on six bottles of wine, and the winery offers 10% off a full case (12 bottles), so ordering in bulk could be well worth your - and your friends' - while.
Putney Mountain Winery
71 Holland Hill Rd.
Putney, Vermont 05346
Dinner tonight: So so so excited - it must be the prospect of red meat, even ground red meat - that has me so looking forward to dinner! Meat ragu with pasta and a salad of garden romaine (the romaine should be pretty much dead by the middle of this upcoming week with the cold we have on the way, so we're going to enjoy it now). The meat ragu is basically a bolognese sauce, but we like tomato, so I add tomato to the mix, which is not traditional for bolognese. I was going to make homemade tagliatelle, but I have to pick my battles, so we will probably have store-bought pasta, and I am going to make a skillet apple pie as well. Next week, I take on the pandowdy, so I'm working my way up the apple dessert challenge ladder. In any event the estimated cost for two for the meal tonight is: $5.28, excluding dessert. The ground meat was $3.79 per pound at Venda Ravioli, the carrot, celery, and onion for the soffrito (which is the slowly simmered base of the sauce) were about $1.00, the tomatoes were $2.00, and the amount of milk I'll use in the sauce will be about 50-cents. I'm also using anchovy paste and a bit of tomato paste, so let's call those $1.00, to be generous about it. And don't go all nose-scrunchy on me about the anchovy paste. The purpose of the anchovy paste is to add a depth of flavor to the sauce that is indistinguishable as anchovy, but instead, adds to the savory quality of the sauce. The total cost of the sauce is $8.29 for approximately 8 servings, so $1.04 per person for that. The pasta was $1.79 for the box, and we'll use half of the box. We will not mess around, however, and will use parmigiano-reggiano cheese, which was not on sale, and so that is about $2.00 for the amount we'll use and the type I splurged upon (Red Cow is the splurge variety - I'm living large today, let me tell you!). The lettuce is from my garden, we like to call it 30-cents because that's what I paid per plant when I bought the lettuce-starts, as they are known.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
I interrupt the normally scheduled Thursday wine post to bring you this very important recipe. Very important. People, we need to talk about savory pie crust. And I have to tell you, I'm rather excited about the Putney Mountain Winery Apple Maple wine that was scheduled for this posting, but it is far more important that you know about savory pie crust immédiatement, as the French who perfected and shared it with us (by way of Julia Child) would say.
Let's just say you have some leftovers - perhaps a beef stew, perhaps some chicken in, oh, I don't know, mushroom gravy - and you're thinking, "boring! I can't possibly eat that again." Well, my friends, should this happen to you, get thee to your pantry and whip up a savory pie crust, and in about a half an hour, you will be placing into your oven a dish worthy of company. I kid you not. And if you happen to be company at my house during the winter months, please do not be so gauche as to ask if the meat and gravy part of the pie are leftovers. They most assuredly are. And yet, you will be overwhelmed with the transcendent buttery flakiness of the crust, and will not care that I am serving you leftovers, my dear guest.
So here's the thing: you must not be afraid of making the crust. The crust is your friend. It will work with you. However, should you be quivering now just reading about savory pie crust, I can relate. I feel your pain. I, too, was once afraid. Very afraid. And then, one Valentine's Day, I came home from work, and there was JR with a four-course meal underway. A four-course meal that included a from-scratch pie crust. I don't think I need to tell you that I do most - and by most, I mean all but this one Valentine's Day I am currently describing - of the cooking in my house. And yet, I came home to find JR making pie crust. Now, you might think that I would be agape upon finding him making this incredible meal, and - oh, let me assure you, I was - but more than anything else, I could not get over that he had made a pie crust from scratch. As I ate the roasted squab (I kid you not) and the country pâté, I could not for the life of me stop the little Amy in my head (oh yes, I'm scared of her too) from saying, "he made pie crust from scratch. He made pie crust from scratch. He made pie crust from scratch." Ok. You get the idea. I'll stop with that. You see, unlike you and me, he didn't know that he was supposed to be afraid to make pie dough, and so he just made the pie dough. And it was perfect. And yours will be too. So just forget that you've read anything that implies that pie dough is challenging to craft, and get thee to thy pantry, gather up the flour and butter and vegetable shortening, and let's make a savory pie crust, shall we?
Savory Pie Crust:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup very cold vegetable shortening
1 stick very cold unsalted butter
1/2 to 3/4 cup ice water
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk (any type)
Now, you do not need a food processor for this, but I will provide instruction to make this in the food processor if you are so inclined. My personal feeling is that you can do this with just a mixing bowl and your fingers, or a pastry blender, which is a hand-held tool, and avoid all that washing of the food processor.
The a mano (by hand) method:
Combine flour, salt, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Stir to blend.
Cut the very cold vegetable shortening and the very cold butter into 1/2 inch, or close to 1/2 inch, cubes and add to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, which are the coldest part of your hands (I probably don't need to tell you this, and yet, here I am), blend the butter and shortening into the flour. What this means is, you plunge your fingers into the flour, coating the fats (butter and shortening) with flour, while breaking up the fats until they are roughly pea-sized. It is perfectly ok for some of them to be larger than pea-sized, you just don't want them to be close to the same size as the cubes you initially placed into the flour. Remove your fingers from the flour and fats mixture. Get yourself a fork. Pour 1/2 cup very cold, which is redundant, but I am trying to make a point, ice water into the flour and fats mixture and blend water into the dough with the fork. You are trying to moisten the the dough just enough that it holds together, so if there is still dry mix in your bowl, and I'm pretty certain there will be, add very cold, oh, absolutely frigid, ice water to the dough 1 tablespoon at a time, blending in gently, until the dough is just holding together. As you are adding the frigid, gelid, extremely cold ice water, I recommend that you do use a measuring spoon or one of those very handy OXO liquid measuring cups. On a lightly floured surface, form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Now, let's just say that you're making a chicken with mushroom gravy pot pie from scratch, but let's also say that you decided to use a rotisserie chicken which you had picked up from the grocery store on your way home, and you're going to make a quick mushroom gravy on the stove top. You could pick the chicken clean and make the gravy in about the amount of time it takes for the savory pie dough to firm up in the refrigerator. Now, let's pretend that your grocery store sells rotisserie chicken for $7.99 each. And that your mushrooms cost $3.90. And that the broth you use costs around $2.19. And that the wine you use is from one of those four-packs of wine that are so convenient for cooking, so it costs around $1.25. And you use a shallot, which costs you about 50-cents. And there's such a small amount of flour involved in the gravy that we throw that cost into the pie crust fee. And that the pie crust costs roughly $2.50 to make. And that the pie serves six. Now, how much does that cost us? That's right, people. It costs us $18.33 for the whole thing. $3.05 per serving. With purchased rotisserie chicken.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
So now your gravy is done; it and the chicken are in the pie pan, and you need only to get the savory pie dough out of the refrigerator and, on a lightly floured surface, roll it out to approximately 1/4 inch thickness in some approximation of a circle (or a rectangle, or a square; whatever shape baking dish you're using). As soon as the dough is rolled out, gently lift it and place it atop your baking dish. Push the dough down the sides of the dish to firmly cover the filling as though you're tucking someone you love into a toasty bed, allowing for an inch or so of dough overhanging the edges of the baking dish. Crimp the overhanging dough over itself to create a thicker crust edge. Blend the egg yolk and tablespoon of milk together and brush over top of the crust. Cut five one-inch slits in the dough over the filling - be decorative with it if you like - and place your masterpiece into the oven. Bake for approximately 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. I advise you to put the baking dish on a foil-lined baking sheet in order to prevent spillage on the bottom of the oven, which might result in copious amounts of smoke in your kitchen, and might require you to set the oven to clean the next day. Ahem. Not that this is happening now at my house, or anything.
The number of dishes that can be fancied up with this dough is practically limitless. Ok, so you're a vegetarian. How about a vegetable stew, or a lentil and carrot stew? You there, Ms. Carnivore, let's make a chili con carne and top it off with a layer of shredded pepper jack cheese and then the crust. Or maybe a lamb and carrot stew would be more to your liking. Why not add a bit of goat cheese under the crust for that dish? You see what I mean? Practically limitless.
Now, not to scare you about the dough, because we all know now that the dough is your friend and is infinitely useful, but the reason why the very cold items are very cold is because you need the fats not to be fully blended into the dough in order to achieve flakiness. It is the little bits of fat that create flakiness and give you that buttery crust which we all hold so dear. This is also why you should use your fingers, the cold part of your hands, and not your palms, which are the warm part of your hands. If it makes your life easier, you can put the butter and shortening into the freezer for 5-10 minutes to assure that they are both very cold.
Now, I promised a food processor version of the recipe, so here goes:
In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, add the flour, salt, and baking powder. Then add the cubed very cold butter and cubed very cold vegetable shortening to the flour, and pulse until fats are pea-sized. With the motor running, add 1/2 cup of very cold water to the dough. If the dough does not come together completely, add very cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, being very careful of the metal blade - that thing is sharp - and knead quickly and gently into a ball. Cover in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
This recipe is quite easy either by hand or by machine. It must be due to the fact that I have to hand wash my dishes (that's right. I have no newfangled dishwashing machine at my house.) that I'm not fully embracing the food processor method, but, as you are probably now aware from reading my other posts, I enjoy working with dough a mano. It's soothing, and also gratifying to know your two warm palms and ten cold fingers put it all together.
Dinner tonight: leftover chicken-mushroom pie. We had the option of having leftover butternut squash lasagna, which is also quite scrumptious, but both JR and I voted for the chicken-mushroom pie. I have to revise my math from yesterday's post, however, because it turns out that I was able to make 6 servings from the ingredients listed. The savory short crust actually cost $2.50, rather than the $1.55 I had estimated. I was off by a cup of flour and a little for both the butter and the shortening. The chicken is leftover from the chicken and mushroom meal on Tuesday and this portion cost $2.53. The mushroom gravy is still being considered free for this meal. So, now, the total for SIX servings is $5.03. And like I wrote earlier in the post, even if you did this from scratch with a rotisserie chicken, it's still only $3.05 per serving. That is NUTS. You can't deny it. And if you are invited for dinner at my house, know that you will be eating this. I made it with love for you, so don't be despondent over the relative lack of monetary expense. Oh, and I sure do hope you bring a nice wine to go with it.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Around two o'clock yesterday afternoon, I realized that we were out of bread. If you've been reading this blog since its start, you are aware that I am charged with making a yeast bread per week. Last week's effort was a disaster, so I was filled with trepidation at fulfilling my yeast bread obligation for this week. I was thinking, something simple, something, well, what's another word for simple? Right. Easy. Yes, easy would be good. And The Joy of Cooking was there to accommodate me with this white sandwich bread which not only fulfills the easy requirement that I was looking for - and that I needed to bolster my bread-baking confidence - it also has a solid, crunchy crust that makes movie-perfect crumbs and a chewy interior tasting ever-so-slightly of butter and milk. Perfect for sandwiches or toast, and as of today, in a statistical dead-heat with oatmeal raisin bread for the title of Best Bread at my house. Definitely not boring or soulless at all.
White Bread, adapted from The Joy of Cooking:
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) yeast
3 tablespoons warm water (105-115 degrees)
1 cup lukewarm whole milk (105-115 degrees)
5 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons melted butter for brushing over top of loaf
In a mixing bowl, combine yeast and warm water. If using active dry yeast, allow yeast to dissolve, approximately 5 minutes, before adding other ingredients.
Add lukewarm milk, melted butter, sugar, egg, and salt to the mixing bowl, and mix by hand to blend all ingredients before adding flour.
Add 1/2 cup of bread flour at a time, mixing on low speed until incorporated before adding the next half-cup. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Once all bread flour has been incorporated, add all-purpose flour in 1/2 cup increments, until 1 1/2 cups have been added. If the dough is still sticky, add all-purpose flour by the tablespoon (you can use a regular spoon for this - literally a spoon from the table) until dough is moist but does not stick to your fingers.
Knead by hand or on low speed in the mixer for about ten minutes or until the dough is smooth and silken.
Place dough in oiled bowl, turning to coat all sides of the dough, then cover with plastic wrap or a dishtowel and let sit in a warm area for an hour to an hour and a half, or until the dough is doubled in size.
Punch dough down and knead for about a minute. Return dough to bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Grease an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 loaf pan. Fold the dough over itself in thirds as though you were folding a business letter, tucking short ends under. Place in the loaf pan and cover with greased plastic wrap. Return dough to warm area, and allow to rise for an hour to and hour and a half, until doubled in size.
Just before the end of the second rising, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Before baking, brush the top of the loaf with melted butter, and bake on the middle rack for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top crust is golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Allow to cool on a rack, and serve warm with butter, or let cool completely and make tomorrow's sandwich with a slice or two. I, for one, am looking forward to having White Bread French Toast this weekend.
Dinner tonight: chicken and mushroom pie, made from last night's leftovers with the addition of a pastry crust. Estimated cost for two: $4.08. The short crust will cost $1.55 between the flour, butter, and shortening (salt and sugar are negligible, and water is free), and the half of the chicken from last night's meal cost $2.53. The mushroom gravy was all tallied up last night, so I deem it free for this meal. We have just enough apple cake to have dessert tonight (and for JR to have a slice in his lunch), so tomorrow I must decide: are we dessert-free for a couple of days, or do I make that skillet apple pie that is next on the list of apple-cinnamon desserts for me to make? Hmmmmmm. I'll be sure to fill you in.