Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Food Watch: Ratatouille

I discovered that I posted this elsewhere but never here, where food counts! So, a blast from our past which may be more worth watching than some of the new movies out now.


When "Fin" came up on the screen, I suppressed an impulse to applaud. No need. The audience around me, without my reservations, burst into applause anyway.

We watched Ratatouille under unusual circumstances. It was a 4:00 movie but the theater was full. Perhaps the rest of the audience, like us, had tried in vain to get into an earlier showing only to find it sold out. More unusually, in a movie marketed to children, this audience was three-fourths adults, adults of all ages. In fact, we ourselves were part of that demographic. Hannah, 18, had rearranged a date in order to make the movie with us. We were at the 4:00 movie specifically because Rose, 17, would not be able to make it over the weekend due to work schedules. Such is the power Pixar can induce in those who have learned that they have that most special of talents, the ability to make a good general audience movie that pleases everyone on many levels. Obviously they did not fail to please this time. I thought that nothing could equal The Incredibles, Brad Bird's most recent offering, but he has matched that, if not surpassed it.
Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet.
Julia Child
Remy, the rat, has a love and appreciation for good food that is not shared by the rest of his family who see nothing wrong with eating garbage in all stages of decomposition. Circumstances team him up with Lingune, a hapless plongeur (dishwasher and kitchen assistant), who is trying hard to hold onto his job. Together the two begin to amaze diners at the Parisian restaurant of the late chef, Auguste Gusteau. Conflict arises not only from Remy's need to be hidden and yet guide Linguine, but from the animosity of the head chef, Linguine's romantic interest in the the kitchen's one female chef, the need for the restaurant to regain their five star rating which depends upon the approbation of food critic Anton Ego, and Remy's desire to be understood by his family while being able to express his art.

This is a far from simple set of conflicts, especially for a children's movie, and yet my desire to avoid spoilers leaves the list incomplete. Suffice it to say that the story is told simply and well enough to be thoroughly enjoyed by children while carrying complex food for thought that adults may well ponder long after the movie is finished. As well, this movie is a complete delight for anyone who has an interest in the food world. I will say more about that below, but if you are a "foodie," don't miss this movie. There are many subtle jokes that will delight you.

This movie didn't have the fast paced jokes we have come to expect since Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles. There was a lot of verbal, situational, and physical humor but much of this, while appreciated, didn't result in laughs. However, when the laughs came they were big. Interestingly, when I noticed this, I noticed that the audience was silent the rest of the time. Everyone, including the children, some of whom were quite small, was engrossed by the story and giving it their complete attention. As die-hard movie fans who have attended many movies with large audiences of children, we know how unusual that is. Other than during Finding Nemo and The Incredibles (during which one young boy was so caught up in the movie he was shouting advice to the heroes), the only other time I have seen that was during Two Brothers.

There was a deft blending of living by "real world" rules with fantasy. It is fantastic enough that Remy and Linguine will work together, however, it is made clear that Remy cannot talk except to other rats. This is made clear in several scenes where we hear Remy's expostulations and then are switched to a human's point of view to hear only a rat squeaking. Remy's father constantly reminds him that to become close to humans is to live in danger of being killed as vermin. Yet at the end of the movie when the question of running the kitchen in a moment of extreme crisis must be resolved, a scene evolves that forcibly called to mind the Disney classic, Cinderella.

As always, the technical elements are handled perfectly. Voice work is flawless and not dominated by the big name stars we have come to expect. I followed the advice I read in a review and avoided knowing who was doing which voice so that I would not be playing "spot the voice" through the movie and I pass that same advice to you. Upon finding out who did voice work we were surprised that much of the time we never would have guessed, especially for John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) who has done a voice for every Pixar feature to the extent that it was a joke used in the credit scenes for Cars.

As one would expect, the animation is amazing. Remy scuttles up pipes and underfoot in the kitchen looking very like a real small animal, frightened in an unfamiliar world. When the rat colony is on the move, one automatically feels a bit of natural revulsion at the prospect of that many rats in an enclosed area. Unlike the early Pixar days of Toy Story, human movement is now mimicked on such a good level that we watch an entire kitchen of chefs moving deftly and are never jolted out of the movie's "reality" by motions that don't seem right. The scenes of Paris are so evocative of the real "City of Lights" that, as some critics have mentioned, I wished for more outside scenes. All this was done with "100% real animation" we are reminded in the end credits with wicked humor, with "no motion capture or other shortcuts" used in making the film. (To learn more about the debate raging in the animation industry about what constitutes "real animation," go here.)

A Few Themes
Warning: SPOILERS, please read this after seeing the movie
"I dare say it is rather hard to be a rat," she mused. "Nobody likes you. People jump and run away and scream out, 'Oh, a horrid rat!' I shouldn't like people to scream and jump and say, 'Oh, a horrid Sara!' the moment they saw me. And set traps for me, and pretend they were dinner. It's so different to be a sparrow. But nobody asked this rat if he wanted to be a rat when he was made. Nobody said, 'Wouldn't you rather be a sparrow?'"
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
ART AND OUTCASTS
First and foremost, there is the concept of being naturally drawn outside of one's accepted environment in order to express one's art. Obviously, this is shown in the concept of a rat cooking, which is continually being offset by showing Remy's concern with cleanliness around any sort of food preparation. We also see it in Collette's description of the chefs' backgrounds. She tells Linguine that people think of haute cuisine as snobbish but that the cooks are more like "pirates" who have found a way to express their inner creativity through cooking. (Anthony Bourdain was thanked in the credits and we see his influence in this. As a side note, read his Kitchen Confidential Updated Ed: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly for more about this.)

The idea of being societal outcasts is carried on more subtly, in details about the rat colony. Remy's father's name is Django, evocative of famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Having just heard an admirer discuss him, I also strongly associated him with gypsies. It is quite easy to see the association between Django's warnings about outsiders to Remy, their nomadic lifestyle, the constant assertions about "not stealing" and gypsies.

HOW WE LIVE
There is a strong theme of criticism in how people approach food, which can be naturally extended to other areas of life and society (such as the movie industry, perhaps?). One group, represented by the rats, view food as fuel. They are uncritical about what they eat and pay only enough attention to make sure they are not poisoned before they unthinkingly stuff themselves with whatever is available. Tellingly, the dastardly head chef's evil scheme is hawking Auguste Gusteau's good name after his death on a line of frozen foods. The opposite group, represented by critic Anton Ego (The Grim Eater), loves food so much that they will not eat anything that is not perfect. This elevates food far beyond its proper place in the scheme of things. Clearly Remy shows us that savoring pure, fresh ingredients and thoughtfully combining them is more satisfying than either of the other approaches. On a side note, we wondered how many people watched this movie and then went home to frozen dinners. Certainly, as I was flavoring the hamburgers while Tom fired up the grill, I found my thoughts drawn back to the movements we saw the chefs' making in the restaurant kitchen.

This approach is further emphasized by the cookbook Gusteau wrote, "Anyone Can Cook." The theme is emphasized over and over again, with the point being made in the final analysis, that not everyone need be a great chef to do so. Seeing the line of everyday people in front of Anton Ego's bistro underscores that theme and it is comforting to me that this emphasis was probably reinforced repeatedly to the Pixar team by their chef consultant, Thomas Keller, who is one of our country's finest chefs himself.

SEE IT WITH A FOODIE YOU LOVE
The Pixar team's thoroughness in understanding their subject, as has been noted before, extends to investigating the food world. This local food critic was not the only one pleased by the attention to detail. I couldn't wait to call my mother and share some of the details that no one else in the family caught. Poor Rose. I was continually poking her and whispering information that she just didn't care about. fact that Thomas Keller of The French Laundry had a voice credit ... no one cared. The five star French restaurant that was credited? No one cared.

Most of all, the most evocative food moment was one that explained a question I began wondering halfway through the movie. Why call it Ratatouille? Other than a clever play on the "rat" connection there seemed no reason to name the movie after that peasant vegetable stew. Until the supreme moment of revelation, which was done so perfectly that it brought howls of laughter ... and more whispering in Rose's ear from me. Later on, I asked, "Did anyone get that reference to Proust and the madeleine?" They all looked at me blankly. I felt just as I did when I took Hannah to see Beauty and the Beast, her first movie in the theater, and was the only member of the audience laughing because Lumiere was channeling Maurice Chevalier.

That moment of revelation in the movie's title refocused and redefined the entire movie in a new way around food, identity, and self.
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ...

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Food Watch: Mostly Martha

Mostly Martha
Germany

Martha is a chef who has a great deal of discipline, an obsession with food although she never seems to eat, and little joy in her life. When her sister dies, Martha is forced into facing unknown situations after her orphaned niece comes to live with her. Then a new chef is added to the staff and Martha's loss of control seems complete. Suddenly Martha's life is no longer under control at all with the expected growth of character resulting.

This is a slow and deliberate movie but the acting and dialogue are great and a lot of the scenes are very funny. Naturally, as this is about a chef, it is a major "foodie" film. Mostly Martha is a German movie with subtitles but don't let that scare you. Actually we liked listening to the German and picking out words that were almost the same as in English ... but that's the kind of thing our family does for fun.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant KingdomVegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant Kingdom by Deborah Madison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This is a beautifully written book which nicely weaves gardening and cooking anecdotes with factual information. Having read several other books which fill a similar niche I was interested to see how this one stacked up.

I really liked the writing and author's voice. However, none of the recipes appealed to me. To be fair, Madison is speaking to vegetarians whenever she writes and I am not in that group, though I do enjoy a good vegetable recipe as much as the next person. These recipes may all be quite stellar but the titles and descriptions never looked enticing. I tend to enjoy vegetable recipes coming from ethnic sources, especially Asian, and there is something about her recipes that always looks a bit forced in the way that many vegetarian cookbooks have done in the past.

I should add that there are some very basic recipes for most vegetables which anyone would enjoy, however, I have been cooking long enough that many of these are in my regular repetoire. Thus I must depend on the other recipes to make a cookbook valuable.

Chalk it up to a disconnect between Madison and me. Others with different taste will probably get a great deal out of this book, not to mention the basic vegetable family knowledge which Madison conveys. I'll stick with Nigel Slater (Tender) and Bert Greene (Greene on Greens) as well as various Asian and Middle Eastern recipes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tips & Tricks: Frozen Coffee Cubes

A few years ago I gave y'all a great recipe for iced coffee.

For a while I made it and then my interest in iced coffee took a nosedive.

Recently my interest revived, but not to the point of all that planning ahead. I'll admit it. I just save the leftover black coffee from that morning and dose it up with a bit of milk and some sugar.

To my palate it is just about the same. Which may say more about my lack of discernment about iced coffee than anything.

What I could discern though was that the cold milk wasn't getting the coffee "iced" enough and adding ice cubes watered it down. Ugh.

I have begun using a little trick that I read about decades ago in a mystery novel, The Innocent Flower by Charlotte Armstrong. Some frozen cubes of coffee provided a neat twist in the mystery solution and also powerfully grabbed my imagination.

I began keeping a stash in the freezer and lo and behold! No more diluted iced coffee!

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Food Watch: Spinning Plates

It's not what you cook. It's why.

Spinning Plates
(documentary)


This was a fascinating comparison of three very different restaurants - one high concept where the chef is like an artist, one Iowa restaurant that holds the community together, and one Mexican restaurant where the family has placed their hopes for a better life on its success. The flow is masterful between the places as their stories progress and we get to know the main restauranteurs.

It was also interesting in that none of these were about going somewhere to get a bite to eat. All these places were the focus of hopes, dreams, and fulfillment on an entirely different plane than mere sustenance. It compares well with Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, in fact, I liked it better.

We found ourselves afterward in terms of our own business, our own hopes and dreams, and our own lives. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Grilled Salmon with Chili-Lime Sauce

This is from Quick & Easy Vietnamese by Nancie McDermott. McDermott has become a real favorite of mine for simplified but authentic Asian meals.

This could not have been easier or more delicious. 'Nuff said. Get out there and cook it!

Grilled Salmon with Chili-Lime Sauce

STEP 1

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped shallots or onion
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1-1/4 pounds thick salmon, tuna, halibut, or other meaty fish filets

Combine all the marinade ingredients, dissolving sugar. Marinate fish for 20-30 minutes at room temperature or refrigerate for up to 1 day.

STEP 2 — Chili-Lime Sauce

1/4 cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice or white vinegar
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce
1 tablespoon thinly sliced green onions

Combine sauce ingredients, dissolving sugar. Place on platter on which fish will be served.

STEP 3

Grill fish for about 5 minutes each side or bake at 375° for 15 minutes. Transfer to serving platter alongside Chili-Lime Sauce and serve hot or warm.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tips & Tricks: Side to Side Whisking

I like to whip cream using a whisk instead of my Kitchen Aid mixer.

There's something tactile about watching the cream change as I whisk it around. And to my mind it makes less to wash up after. Though that's probably not really true. But it's stuck in my head, so there you go.

I was interested when the July/August Cook's Illustrated has a piece on The Best Way to Use a Whisk.

It turns out that "side-to-side" works best. Much better, in fact, than the standard beating action we've all been taught. There's a lot of scientific talk about "shear force" and suchlike, and you can pick up a copy to get all the scoop.  I made a Pavlova last weekend and whipping up that cream with a back and forth action was definitely easy.

I also must put in a word here for Trader Joe's heavy cream. They've got really great dairy products, including a cottage cheese that is better than any of the regular stores. And their whipping cream is a nice thick and delicious product.

More about that Pavlova to come ...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pavlova with Strawberries

This is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. The Pavlova is a meringue based dessert which was created in honor of the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. Like her, as the story goes, it is light, airy, and elegant.

I'll tell you this. It is absolutely delicious. Everyone had two helpings.

It is also much, much easier than you might imagine. If you've got a mixer for whipping the egg whites it will be a real breeze. If not, however, hand whipping will do just fine. It will just take a little while. I'd say that more important than a mixer would be the superfine sugar which blends so easily into the egg whites.

I've worked with meringue cookies enough that when I realized I didn't have an 8" springform pan, I didn't panic. Instead I experimented and it worked out just fine (details of that are in the recipe). The guest of honor whose visit inspired this dessert production doesn't drink so I didn't use any liqueur on the strawberries. It was delicious anyway, of course.

This is from Wikipedia because
I forgot to take a photo of mine, which looked just like this,
except it had sliced strawberries.
PAVLOVA

4 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup superfine sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2-3 cups strawberries, sliced and sprinkled with sugar and Grand Marnier

1. Preheat oven to 275 F. Butter and lightly flour an 8-inch springform pan. [I didn't have a springform pan. I traced an 8" circle on parchment paper, using a cake pan and pencil. No buttering or flouring needed that way. Put the parchment on a cookie sheet.]

2. Beat egg whites, salt and cream of tartar together in a bowl until the whites hold a stiff peak. Add the sugar a few tablespoons at a time, beating until the mixture is stiff and glossy. Beat in the cornstarch, then the vinegar, and the vanilla.

3. Gently fill the pan with the meringue mixture, spreading it higher around the edges than in the center of the pan to form a depression. [If using my "panless" method, spread the meringue over the circle and build the edges up ... or conversely, gently put a depression in the middle of the meringue so that one has a hollow shell form.]

4. Bake until the meringue is firm and lightly browned about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. [I baked it for 1-1/2 hours.] Pavlova will remain moist inside. Cool slightly, unmold, slide onto a serving plate, and cool completely.

5. Lightly whip the cream. Just before serving, spread the pavlova with whipped cream and then with the strawberries. Serve immediately.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Mom's New York Cheesecake

My very favorite. The one I always requested for birthdays when I was growing up.

And I can't believe I never shared it with y'all! Well, that is now remedied. Enjoy!

Mom's New York Cheesecake


Step 1:
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1cup sifted flour
1/4 teaspoon lemon rind
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Make the crust: Preheat oven to 400°. Cream butter and sugar, add egg yolk. Then add other ingredients. Pat 1/3 of dough in bottom of springform pan. Cook for 6 minutes, cool completely. Meanwhile, raise oven temperature to 475°. Butter sides of pan and put remaining dough around the sides of the pan. Crust will only come up 1/3 of the sides of the pan.

Step 2:
2-1/2 pounds cream cheese
5 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
1-3/4 cups sugar
1 lemon rind
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup cream

Make the filling: Beat cream cheese until soft. Mix in all remaining ingredients. Pour filling into crust.

Bake at 475° for 7 minutes, lower temperature to 200° for 2½ hours. Turn off oven and let cake sit in oven with the door slightly ajar for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool, refrigerate overnight.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Story Cookies

This recipe is from a friend whose small children look forward to making these every year. Not only do you get delicious meringue cookies but a delightful way to really help children connect with the main points of the Easter story.

Ingredients:
1 c. whole pecans
1 tsp. vinegar
3 egg whites
Pinch salt
1 c. sugar

also need: Zipper baggie, Wooden spoon, Tape, Bible

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Place the pecans in a zipper baggie and let the children beat them with the wooden spoon to break them into small pieces. Explain that after Jesus was arrested, the Roman soldiers beat him. Read John 19:1-3.

Let each child smell the vinegar. Put 1 tsp. vinegar into a mixing bowl. Explain that when Jesus was thirsty on the cross he was given vinegar to drink. Read John 19:28-30.

Add the egg whites to the vinegar. Eggs represent life. Explain that Jesus gave His life to give us life. Read John 10:10-11.

Sprinkle a little salt into each child's hand. Let them taste it and brush the rest into the bowl. Explain that this represents the salty tears that were shed by Jesus' followers, and the bitterness of our own sin. Read Luke 23:27.

So far, the ingredients are not very appetizing. Add the 1 cup sugar. Explain that the sweetest part of the story is that Jesus died because He loves us. He wants us to know and belong to Him. Read Psalms 34:8 and John 3:16.

Beat with a mixer on high speed for 12 to 15 minutes until stiff peaks are formed. Explain that the color white represents the purity in God's eyes of those whose sins have been cleansed by Jesus. Read Isaiah 1:18 and John 3:1-3.

Fold in broken nuts. Drop by teaspoons onto wax paper covered cookie sheet. Explain that each mound represents the rocky tomb where Jesus' body was laid. Read Matthew 27:57-60.

Put the cookie sheet in the oven, close the door and turn the oven OFF. Give each child a piece of tape and seal the oven door. Explain that Jesus' tomb was sealed. Read Matthew 27:65-66.

GO TO BED.

Explain that they may feel sad to leave the cookies in the oven overnight. Jesus' followers were in deep despair when the tomb was sealed. Read John 16:20 and 22.

On Easter morning, open the oven and give everyone a cookie. Notice the cracked surface and take a bite. The cookies are hollow! On the first Easter Jesus' followers were amazed to find the tomb open and empty. Read Matthew 28:1-9.

HE HAS RISEN!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter and Food


Easter foods are primarily those of Easter Sunday, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, a day of special rejoicing for Christians, who rejoice too at reaching the end of the long Lenten fast. This time also marks the beginning of spring, the season of renewal, and a cause for general rejoicing. The concept of renewal/rebirth is responsible for the important role played the by egg in Easter celebrations, a role which no doubt antedates Christianity...

In Europe, there is a general tradition, not confined to Christians, that Easter is the time to start eating the season's new lamb, which is just coming onto the market then. For Christians there is the added symbolic significance that Jesus is regarded as the lamb of God. In Britain, a leg, shoulder, or saddle is roasted at this time and served with new potatoes and mint sauce. For the French, a roast leg of lamb, the gigot pascal (pascal and the English paschal refer equally to the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter), is the traditional Easter Sunday lunch. In Italy, too, and Greece baby lamb or kid, plainly roasted, is a favourite Easter dish.

Easter breads, cakes, and biscuits are a major category of Easter foods, perhaps especially noticeable in the predominantly roman Catholic countries of S. and C. Europe (and in E. Europe where the influence of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches hold sway), but prominent too in N. Europe and in Christian countries or communities outside Europe. Traditional breads are laden with symbolism in their shapes, which may make reference to Christian faith -- crosses, fish, and lambs -- or be relics from pagan practices -- hares, eggs, and the cylinder shapes of E. European breads. In general they are not as rich as the Christmas breads, using less butter, sugar, and fruit, although eggs are freely used.
No mention here of the chocolate bunny or the Easter basket which I suppose aren't technically Easter foods but definitely are special foods for Easter! In years past, when we have had to resort to providing an extra bowl of jellybeans, chocolate eggs, and malted milk eggs to keep dinner guests out of the family Easter basket.

For this year's feast we are serving about 10 people. One year I had ham instead of lamb and was given mournful looks from a variety of regulars. Never again, I promise!

Pimiento Cheese
Crackers

Grilled Lamb
Creamed Jalapeno Spinach
Mom's Tortellini Salad
Green Salad with a Dijon-Anchovy Vinaigrette
Deviled Eggs
Potato Rolls
Red Wine
(we won't go into how many bottles)

A bowl of fresh strawberries and a plate of chocolate truffles
Coffee

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Filets Mignons with Mushrooms

This is what I selected for our New Year's Day dinner. It had been forever (almost literally) since we'd had that American standard, a steak and a baked potato. In particular, for this meal we also added a serving of  Creamed Jalapeño Spinach (we are in Texas, after all).

It was scrumptious and seemed to bode well for the New Year.

In particular, these mushrooms are simply wonderful and would complement any steak. I am not a big filet mignon fan but could foresee a nice grilled ribeye with these alongside.

This recipe is from the latest Cook's Country magazine (March 2014) from their 30-Minute Supper section.

I used regular button mushrooms. I also used a pinch of dried thyme, instead of fresh, add with the mushrooms so it could soften up over the cooking time.

Filets Mignons with Mushrooms
Serves 4

4 (6-8 ounce) center-cut filets mignons, trimmed
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1/2 cup Marsala
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons lemon juice

1. Pat steaks dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in  12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add steaks and cook until well browned and meat registers 125 degrees, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer steaks to platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil.

2. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in now-empty skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, cover, and cook until mushrooms release their juice, about 5 minutes. Uncover, increase heat to medium-high, and cook until moisture has evaporated and mushrooms are brown, about 5 minutes. Add shallot, garlic, and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

3. Stir in Marsala and Worcestershire, scraping up any  browned bits, and cook until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and any accumulated meat juices from platter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over steaks and serve.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Second Verse, Same as the First: Thanksgiving Cooking

I'm rerunning this because Thanksgiving means much loved favorites that only get trotted out once a year. This year both girls will be home for Thanksgiving and that is a reason for much rejoicing ... as well as feasting!

These dishes, for us, represent the perfect versions of their oeuvre.

Our day-after-Thanksgiving meal also is mandated by tradition. Chef salad featuring turkey (of course), blue cheese dressing and crumbled bacon (the real thing please!) on top. Mmmmmm, crumbled bacon ... except that since we do meatless Fridays, this feast actually comes on a Saturday.

Here are a few links to recipes I've posted before.

Herbed Thanksgiving Stuffing
This is the best stuffing ever and cooks in a slow cooker. I have made this five times now and never been disappointed. It really frees up the oven for other things and, if you happen to have a problem with sticking your hand up a turkey (no problemo here) then you're set free from that as well.

Skillet Cornbread
If you happen to like cornbread stuffing (which I do not), you may want to make this for your base. I've never found a better recipe.

Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Crumble
The funny bone in the menu is the sweet potato selection which in the past I have always played around with. Here is my current favorite.

Cranberry Ginger Relish
I also used to change up the cranberry recipe from year to year. No longer. This relish is practically perfect in every way!

Perfect Piecrust
This is not a misnomer. Very easy and very delicious. It is long but that is because of the detailed directions. You can't go wrong with this.

Pecan Pie
This is non-negotiable. Gotta have it.

Pumpkin Pie

Are you allowed to have Thanksgiving without this? Or watch the Cowboys play without having some? Nope.

AND Afterward ...
What do you do with the turkey carcass? I used to toss it, until being given a fantastic recipe for Turkey Bone Gumbo.

It is fantastically simple, especially if you fear not the roux which has been given a bad rap as far as I can tell. It does take some time but I do it in steps here and there so that on Sunday we have a delicious bowl of gumbo that hasn't been much trouble at all.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sweet Potato Casserole With Pecan Crumble

What?

I didn't share this recipe from Saveur which we tried out for Thanksgiving in 2011? Shame on me. It is simply delicious, just sweet enough to enhance the sweet potato flavor without obscuring it. Until Rose, far from home and providing the basis of Thanksgiving dinner for her friends, asked me about it yesterday I didn't realize I'd not put it on the blog.

Note: I skipped the mini marshmallows, not being a marshmallow appreciator.

Also, I feel positive that I make this to the point of adding the crumble and then refrigerate it until the next day, Thanksgiving, when I let it come to room temperature and bake it while the turkey is resting. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

Sweet Potato Casserole With Pecan Crumble

Step 1:
3 pounds sweet potatoes

Heat oven to 425°. Place sweet potatoes on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake until soft, about 1-1/2 hours; let cool for 30 minutes, and then remove skins. Pass potatoes through a food mill into a large bowl.

Step 2:
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1-inch piece ginger, finely grated
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Stir in sugar, butter, cream, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, eggs, ginger, and pepper. Pour mixture into a 1½-quart baking dish and smooth top; set aside.

Step 3:
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1/4 cup mini marshmallows

Reduce oven temperature to 350°. Stir together flour, oats, sugar, pecans, and salt in a bowl; add butter and, using your fingers, rub butter into flour mixture until large crumbles form. Mound crumble mixture over filling, dot with marshmallows, and bake until filling is hot and crumble and marshmallows are browned, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 6-8.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sichuan-Style Orange Beef with Sugar Snap Peas

This is from the latest Cook's Country magazine. They always have a center section of 30-minute recipes printed on card stock, perforated so you get the photo on one side, the recipe on the other, and it makes a nice recipe card that I punch holes in and put in my kitchen binder. These have been consistently good and simple whenever I've tried them.

I think next time I'd use more sugar snap peas but since I also steamed some broccoli (dressed with a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce) we had plenty of vegetables.

It was delicious with the beef tender, the snow peas crisp, and the flavor bright from the orange and red pepper flakes. Also, we had plenty left over for a second meal. In fact, I think the flavor was improved on the second night.

The obvious pairing is to serve this with steamed rice, although I could see it being a good match with pasta or rice noodles.

My only beef (ha!) with this recipe is that there weren't enough peas. A second time I made it with double the amount and that was just right. 

Sichuan-Style Orange Beef with Sugar Snap Peas

2 teaspoons grated orange zest plus 1/2 cup juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon honey
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-1/2 pounds flank steak, trimmed, cut into thirds lengthwise, and sliced crosswise into 1/4" thick pieces
8 ounces peas, sugar snap, strings removed (I double this)
2 scallions, sliced thin

Combine orange zest and juice, soy sauce, honey, garlic and pepper flakes in a bowl.

Combine beef and 1/3 cup orange juice mixture in a 12" non-stick skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until liquid has evaporated and beef is caramelized, about 15 minutes. Transfer the beef to a plate and tent loosely with aluminum foil.

Add the remaining orange juice mixture and the snap peas to now-empty skillet and cook, covered, over medium heat until the snap peas are bright green, about 2 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and the snap peas are tender, about 1 minute. Return the beef to the skillet and toss with the snap peas to combine. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with scallions. Serve.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Quick Asian-Style Dumpling Soup

This came from Cook's Country magazine, which I actually prefer quite a bit to Cook's Illustrated, though both tend to go on and on about how they got to their eventual recipe. C'est la vie. One can easily skim or skip and see what the darned recipe looks like.

An exception to this tendency is the eight recipes that are always on cardstock in the middle of the publication, perforated so one can easily detach them and have a ready made recipe card with picture on one side and recipe on the other.

I'm a sucker for Asian soups of all sorts and this one looked tempting with dumplings, green onions, and mushrooms poised in the bowl of broth. My one fear was that it wasn't hearty enough for a main dish.

This recipe delivered on both flavor and filling ability, especially when accompanied by a baguette and salad (dressed with Balsamic Vinaigrette). I made a half recipe for the two of us which was a hearty meal. I think next time I'll make a full recipe up to the point of adding the dumplings, saving half the soup base for adding dumplings a second evening.

I'll be making this one again, definitely.

Quick Asian-Style Dumpling Soup

Serves 4

4 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 scallions, white and green parts separated, sliced thin on bias
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced thin (I used regular mushrooms, so sue me)
6 cups chicken broth
16 ounces frozen Asian-style dumplings or potstickers
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice

Cook bacon in large saucepan over medium heat until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan and return pan to medium heat. (Conversely, if you don't have 2 tablespoons of fat, then add vegetable oil to achieve that measurement.)

Add scallion whites, ginger, and pepper flakes and cook until scallion whites have softened, about 2 minutes.

Add mushrooms and cook until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add broth and bring to boil.

Add dumplings and simmer over medium-low heat until dumplings are cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in fish sauce and lime juice.

Serve, sprinkled with scallion greens and bacon.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz

A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith Throughout the Christian YearA Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith Throughout the Christian Year by Evelyn Birge Vitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


At Pentecost a few years ago the usefulness of food for teaching religious ideas really became apparent to me. I was trying to explain to my children what Pentecost was, and their eyes were getting that glassy look that mothers know so well. I was losing them fast. Then (providential inspiration?) I declared, "We are going to bake a cake to eat on the great feast of Pentecost. How shall we decorate it?" Now, as it happens, my children love to decorate cakes and cookies. Their eyes brightened and their ears pricked up. We made a pretty wild-looking bakery item, with flames and doves and rays of light, but we all had a wonderful time, and they certainly knew what Pentecost was by the time we were through.
Evelyn Vitz goes on to give a recipe for making and decorating the Pentecost Cake, but as we can see, this is much more than a cookbook. As the subtitle says, it is: "A cookbook to celebrate the joys of family and faith throughout the Christian year." This book is perfect for the family who wants to reflect the joy of their faith in every part of their lives, including the kitchen and dining room.

The first half of the book focuses on "All the days of our lives" with meals for celebrations, daily dining, and hospitality. This is also where the section on fasting and meat-free meals is included. As Vitz points out, abstinence from meat is still required of American Catholics unless they replace it with some other form of penance or good work. And that puts it squarely in the regular part of our meal planning lives.

"The Christian Year" is the focus of the second half which is organized according to the liturgical calendar. Vitz gives good explanations of the evolution and meanings of different customs and rites. She includes sections on days of fasting and abstinence and saints days, which I know is something that families often struggle to incorporate into their busy lives. Aimed primarily at Catholic and Orthodox families there is still a lot of information for exploration by Protestant families interested in tradition. The recipes in this section include a big section for saints days and special feast days, organized by season.

Lovely drawings and food-faith quotes are scattered throughout the book in pertinent spots. Some of the recipes are simple, some complex, and they are drawn from countries around the world. All were obviously chosen a lot of care and I was impressed with the range. Most of all, though, Evelyn Vitz's warm personality and love of faith come through in every headnote for each recipe.

Here's a sample recipe that caught my eye since autumn is upon us, which means All Souls Day looms ever nearer (November 2). I want to try these.
Beans of the dead
Fave Dei Morti

Here is a recipe for Italian "soul" cookies called Fave dei Morti, "Beans of the Dead." The theme of beans suggests, among other things, the idea of burial in the ground and rebirth. Sometimes "soul" cookies are called Ossi de Morti--"Bones of the Dead"--and are made in the shape of bones. In fact, the central ingredient in all the forms of this cookis is ground or crushed nuts, which are understood to suggest bones. (This theme is also common in bakery items for this day in other countries, such as Mexico.) These perhaps morbid considerations notwithstanding, Fave (and Ossi) dei Morti are delicious.

2/3 cup blanched almonds
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces and softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated rind of 1 lemon

Place the almonds on a baking sheet and dry them out for 10 minutes or so in a slow oven: 200°. Reset the oven for 350‚.

Grind the almonds very fine. Place them in a large bowl. Add the sugar, and blend the mixture well with a fork. Add the flour and the cinnamon, then the butter, and finally the egg, the vanilla, and the grated lemon rind, mixing well with each addition. With a fork or floured hands, work the mixture to a smooth paste.

Break off large-bean-sized pieces of paste (about 1 inch long), and place them about 2 inches apart on a greased, floured baking sheet. [My comment ... I would use parchment paper here.] Squash each bean slightly to produce an oval shape like a lima or fava bean.

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until they are a golden color.

Yield: about 100 one-inch beans.

Variation:
Form pieces of dough into the shape of bones, 1 or 2 inches long.
Please Note:
I received this review copy of A Continual Feast from the good folks at Catholic Family Gifts. They've got a lot of great items there, including this cookbook and several others.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Curried Cream of Chicken Soup

This is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. It is simple, delicious, and a touch out of the ordinary, both because of the curry flavor and the "cream" method which calls for half-and-half but is just as good with regular milk!

Step 1:
6 tablespoons butter (I use 2 tablespoons)
2 cups minced onions
2 carrots, peeled and chopped

Cook over low heat, covered, until tender.

Step 2:
2 tablespoons curry powder
5 cups chicken stock
6 parsley sprigs
1 chicken, quartered
½ cup rice
Salt and pepper to taste

Add all. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer until chicken is done. Cool chicken in stock. Remove meat from bones and dice it.

Step 3:
1 cup half and half (I use milk, either whole or 2%, depending on what I've got around)
10 ounces frozen peas, defrosted

Remove fat from broth. Strain soup through strainer.

Put solids and 1 cup stock in food processor and puree. Return to pot and add milk. Stir in reserved stock until soup reaches desired consistency. Add chicken and peas and simmer for 15 minutes or until peas are done. Season to taste.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Foodie Art Friday

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Woman Cleaning Turnips, ca. 1738
via Wikipedia

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson

The Oxford Companion to FoodThe Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I've had this book for some time and have had a lot of fun randomly dipping into it now and than. Being the sort of family that we are, we have also spent a lot of time looking up answers to food-related questions in it.

In search of breakfast reading (and possibly inspired by the fellow who read the OED in a year), I recently began flipping through the alphabet. Reading whatever caught my eye on the next letter's page has been amusing, educational and surprisingly literary given the sometimes wide-ranging references.

I have no time limit but am going to see how long it takes me at this leisurely pace to read the whole thing. I'll update when I've finished a letter of the alphabet (Q or U will surely be one of the first, won't they?).