Monday, April 08, 2013

Venezuelan Arepas - When Food Is Home

Lately I no longer find my day starting with the smell of the Handsome Venezuelan's "cafetera " wafting its espresso aromas toward my snoozy schnoz.  Rather, it's the perfume of toasting corn that greets me most mornings since the New Year.  No, it's not any sort of caffeine free New Year's resolution... we have a blessed addition to our home.....
Please welcome to our Brooklyn abode my petite and lovely Fairy God Daughter Aku.  Actually she's the Handsome Venezuelan's Grand Niece, yes he is that old....  But Big Mary is ever young and feels more like a Fairy Godfather than any other possible relation, so there you are.
Born equally from the dreams of cinematic success and the desire to be somewhere other than Venezuala, Aku has taken up residence in what we always referred to as the "baby's room", (thank you Mr Albee.)  Pretty much my only responsibility is to see that she is sufficiently sustained without allowing her to succumb to the Freshman 15, those 15 pounds (7 kilos) that students often add when leaving home for college...
There's been no problem there, she's not a pizza and potato chip sorta girl.  For Aku it's all about the arepa.  For those of you who've never indulged, which is likely most of you... I default to Wkipedia:

The arepa is a flat, round, unleavened patty made of maizemeal which can be grilled, baked, fried or semaed, etc.  The characteristics vary by color, flazor, size and the food with which it may be stuffed depending on the region.  Breakfast egg or cheese are the most common fillings.

As the proud husband of the Handsome Venezuelan I have been familiar with arepas for pretty much as long as I've known the guy.  We bought our weekend Poconos getaway hut based on the local grocery store display of Harina Pan (more on that later) which signaled a welcoming place to settle in!  But it's only been the last few months that have taught me so much about the power of food to identify "home".


Much as the Handsome Venezuelan and his kin seek the liberation of soul from Latin political frustration that was/is home, sometimes a boy (or girl) just needs to exhale and remember where they came from.  Seems an arepa or three is the fastest path to that soul satisfaction.  And for the Fairy God Daughter that has become a daily breakfast tradition.  I'm not naive enough to ignore that this may also be a well played hedge bet against whatever Big Mary may have planned for dinner; often a culinary challenge for the daughter of a non kitchen focused working mother.  But truth is.... Arepas are HOME for both her and my husband.  They are a part of Venezuelan culture as much as a corner pizzeria is here in NYC.  A go to place for a quick meal, snack  or post bar crawl sustenance.


And so our "Presto Arepa Pronti" is fired up on a daily basis.  Arepas are so ubiquitous to Venezualan life that there is even a home machine to facilitate quick production of these corn cakes.  Similar to a waffle iron they form circular cakes or even snack size cakelettes in a "Caracas Minute".  The Handsome Venezuelan had earlier repurposed a yard sale "Snack Master" sandwich maker to create irregular shell shaped arepas to his fellow ex-pats delight, scorn and amusement.

But why I wonder do I find myself tearing up as I write this?  Our food memories are deep and soulful, and comforting, that's why.   What's your arepa?  Southern BBQ?  Grandma's Sunday Tomato Gravy on Spaghetti?  Vernor's Ginger Ale? Falafel? Sticky Toffee Pudding?  Arroz con Pollo? Macaroni & Cheese? Not just anybody's, but Mom's?  Or Kraft?  Ha!  I've never been able to recreate my  Mom's Pecan Pie.  And truth be told I'm happier missing it that perfecting it.  She could never recreate her Mom's Rice Pudding, even after 40 years of trying. And that's not a bad thing in my book.  But sometimes there's nothing better for the soul than being able to go back home, no matter how far removed by time or travel, and settle into a dish of home.


Venezuelan Arepas

makes 5 arepas

In Venezuela, arepas are made at home and are also easily available as street food at "Areperas" and also less formal corner stands.  At Areperas they are sold with a variety of traditional fillings: "Domino" - Black Bean and White Cheese; "Pabellon" - Shredded Beef, Plantain. Beans and Cheese;  "Reina Pepiada" - Chicken Salad with Avocado; "Pata Pata" - Black Beans, Cheese and Avocado, and on and on.... including La Viuda "The Widow" - a simple arepa  - no cheese, no butter, no love at all.....

In my home they are always served with salted butter and Feta cheese ( the closest thing to Venezuelan "Queso Fresco").  Ham, Fried Egg, Avocado, any other cheese available, Natas (a puree of cream cheese, feta and milk) are additional options when available...

2 cups Harina Pan (a pre-cooked corn flour available in Latin American markets or via Internet. Goya produces a much inferior product called Masarepa if that's all you can find.....)

2 1/4 cups Water
1/2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
1 Teaspoon vegetable oil, plus more for coating pan.

Stir all ingredients together and knead by hand until smoothly combined into a dough.  Let rest 5 minutes to re-hydrate.  Form into small patties about 3" round by 1/2" thick.
Preheat oven to 350*.  Heat a large skillet over medium high heat.  Brush skillet liberally with oil and place the arepas in the pan.  Lower heat to medium high and saute until golden brown, about 3-5 minutes.  Flip over and brown on the other side. and after 3 minutes place in oven for 12 - 15 minutes.  
Serve immediately with the accompaniments of your choice




Thursday, March 14, 2013

Vegetarian Won Ton Soup & Mushroom Tofu Dumplings

A few weeks back I had the unique pleasure of leading a cooking class for children.  It's one of my favorite things to do.  I appreciate any chance to affect young people's perspective on eating, and they are such honest students.  They always approach a class with a healthy dose of suspicion. "Will this really be worth my time and attention?"  I so love when that question gets answered in the affirmative and they "click" in and decide to get involved.

So I wisely started with the class by making Brownies.  Yes chocolate and sugar does tend to trend positive among the 10 year old set. The rest of the menu was:

Won Ton Soup
Oven "Fried" Chicken Fingers with Buttermilk Chive Sauce
Classic Macaroni and Cheese
Roasted Broccoli 

Pretty kid friendly I thought, with lots of easy and fun kitchen skills to learn. And then I received an email from the hostess of the party... "One of the children is a vegetarian, can we make sure the soup is vegetarian?"

Well so much for my lingering doubts that children wouldn't eat the broccoli!  I was naively surprised at this news and I felt every pound the meat and potatoes midwestern boy that I was raised to be.  But why wouldn't I expect a vegetarian kid among the mix.  I happily include vegetarian options at all my catered events, many of my friends are vegetarian and I'm always striving to make several of our own weekly meals vegetable based.  Did I somehow imagine vegetarian parents cooking up rib steaks and lamb chops for their kinder folks? Sometimes Big Mary amazes himself with obtuseness...

And so, the results of my re-thinking are presented here.  As is usually the case, when required to think outside the box, something newly delicious has presented itself.  The challenge was to make vegetarian won ton soup that would please the meat eaters as much as the vegetarians.  For the stock I turned to lots of roasted root vegetables, heightened by mushrooms for that satisfying umami base note and accented by spices used in Vietnamese Pho Soup (cinnamon, star anise, ginger and coriander).  The dumplings also relied on mushrooms for a meaty texture, augmented by mashed tofu for consistency.

I am happy to report that the result received thumbs up, both diminutive and full grown, across the board.  While the recipe for the broth takes some time, it's mostly non active time while the broth simmers.  Feel free to make it a few days ahead, or weeks ahead and freeze it.  The filling is pretty easily made by adults, and making won tons, of any style or flavor, is a great hands on, kid friendly activity.


Vegetable Won Tons
Makes Approximately 24 Won Tons

Ingredients:

Vegetable Oil              1 Tablespoon
Cabbage                    ½ cup, finely chopped
Shiitake Mushrooms   1 ½ cups, finely diced (approx 12 large shiitake 
                                  caps)
Carrot                          1 small, shredded
Fresh Ginger               1 teaspoon finely grated
Water Chestnuts         1 Tablespoon, finely chopped
Med or Firm Tofu        ½ cup finely diced
Sesame Oil                 1 ½ teaspoon
Garlic                          1 medium clove, minced
Soy Sauce                  1 Tablespoon
Hoisin Sauce               2 teaspoons
Scallions                      ¼ cup white and some green, sliced
Cilantro leaves            2 Tablespoons, chopped
Salt                              1/8 teaspoon

Wonton Wrappers
 1 Egg                          Beaten with 2 Tablespoons of water

Heat oil in a medium skillet.  Add cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrot and ginger.  Sauté over high heat  3 – 4 minutes until vegetables are cooked.  Add remaining ingredients (except won ton wrappers) and transfer mix to the work bowl of a food processor, fitted with the knife blade.  Pulse several times until mixture is broken down to a very fine chop.

Lay out several wonton wrappers on a cutting board with the point facing up (like a diamond shape) Paint the top two edges of the wonton very lightly with the egg wash.  Place a rounded teaspoon of the filling in the center of the wrapper.  Fold the bottom corner up to meet the top corner of the wrapper.  Press down the edges to seal and force out any air in the wont ton.  Paint one of the bottom corners of the triangle with some egg wash and press it into the opposite corner, forming the wonton.

Boil gently in salted water for 3 minutes.  Serve in the roasted vegetable broth.  Garnish with fresh cilantro or scallion slivers.

Roasted Vegetable Broth
Makes about 1 ½  QT

Ingredients:

2                                  Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
Carrots                        4 medium, well washed and chopped into inch 
                                   pieces
Celery                         3 stalks, well washed and chopped into inch 
                                   pieces
Onion                          1 extra large, cut into chunks (unpeeled)
Parsnip                        1 large, well washed and chopped into inch 
                                   pieces
Button Mushrooms     10oz , brushed clean and cut in halves or quarters
Cinnamon Stick          2
Star, Anise                  2 stars
Fresh Ginger               5 slices about the size of a quarter
Coriander Seeds         2 teaspoons, crushed under a heavy pan
Garlic                          5 small cloves – smashed with the side of a knife
Soy Sauce                  1 Tablespoon
Parsley                        A small handful, stems are fine
Fresh Thyme              3 large sprigs
2 1/2 quart water

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  In separate bowls, toss carrots, celery, onions, parsnips and mushrooms  with some of the oil.  Scatter these vegetables on several aluminum foil lined baking sheets.  DO NOT CROWD THE VEGETABLES, LEAVE PLENTY OF ROOM.  This will allow them to brown some and not steam.   Roast for 8 – 10 minutes, letting them get some color. 
 
While the vegetables are roasting, place the whole spices in the stock pot.  Warm them over medium heat until they begin to release aroma.  Turn off heat and add water, herbs and soy sauce.  As vegetables are roasted, add them to the stock pot as well.  When everything is in the stock pot, bring to a boil over medium high heat.  Once the water comes to a boil, lower heat to maintain the stock at a gentle simmer for 75 minutes.  Let cool and strain well. 
Press gently on the solids in the strainer to release excess stock.  Measure stock, you should have about 6 cups.  If you have more or if the flavor is weak, return stock to the pot and reduce until the flavor is as strong as you want.  Adjust seasoning with salt & pepper as desired.

Copyright Big Mary’s Kitchen 2013

Friday, March 01, 2013

CONJURING SPRING - 
SHREDDED BRUSSELS SPROUTS with CELERY and MEYER LEMON

No, I don't have access to some magical calendar that has moved the Vernal Equinox to March 1st.  But I would love to have the customer service number for whomever is responsible for setting March 20 as the beginning of Spring.

Sorry... I know it's all about planets and the sun and history and druids and perhaps even the Mayans as well, but there's just no way I can respond to any day in March as winter.  I am fully aware that by putting this on paper (or cyber, or whatever...) I am sending up fireworks of red flares to all the gods daring them to smack down my audaciousness with 8 inches of snow or so.  If it happens, I'll cope... but with a SPRING blizzard, and no other term will apply.

So this may clue you in as to why I was prowling the kitchen today in search of something deliciously green and bright to bring some sunshine into the grey day I was seeing outside my window.  Yet, I am fully on board with seasonal eating, at least when it comes to my home.  Witness the bounty of kale, winter squash, cauliflower, parsnips and carrots my patchwork family has smiled through since October.  And so I honorably approached the refrigerator in search of a new perspective with some all too familiar inspiration.

O happy morning.... there in all their verdant glory were some brussels sprouts.  Don't let me see that look!  It's not Big Mary's fault if your Mama always cooked them to the consistency of grey green pudding.  Stay strong and hang with me here reader...  And some celery I spy, certainly green and bright, a bit of a dowdy step sister, but always under appreciated... and oh YES, that Meyer Lemon I couldn't resist buying.

If you are not familiar with Meyer Lemons, they are the dazzling citrus debutante that every chef wants to dance with.  A cross between a mandarine orange and a lemon, it is infinitely more interesting than either of it's parents.  Don't we all secretly aspire to the same claim?  With a maternal sweetness overlaying the tartness from papa lemon it also has a floral perfume uniquely it's own.  Happily they are becoming more and more available in regular markets.

And so I offer a recipe to tide you over until Spring closes the gap between nature and instinct.  Something to relish until Mama Earth send us ramps and asparagus, morels and rhubarb, and assures us of the bounty that will return to us again.  In the words of Thorton Wilder.... "Oh Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you!"

Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Celery and Meyer Lemon
Serves 4

2     Tablespoons  Herbed Olive Oil (or Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
3     large       Shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
1     large       Celery Rib, peeled
12   ounces    Fresh Brussels Sprouts
1                   Meyer Lemon ( or regular Lemon)
Salt & Pepper
2     Tablespoons  Fresh Parsley Leaves, finely chopped

Holding the stem end of the brussels sprouts, slice thinly on a kitchen mandoline, V-Slicer or Benriner slicer.  (Alternately you could thinly shave them with a sharp knife).  Cut the celery into thin julienne strips about 2 inches long.  Zest the Meyer Lemon and reserve.  Juice the lemon and reserve. (If using regular lemon, use only juice from half a lemon.)
Heat the oil in a large saute pan. Add the sliced shallots and saute over high heat for 1 minute.  Add the Celery and cook an additional minute.  Add the shredded Brussels Sprouts, lemon zest and salt and pepper.  Saute until sprout leaves are beginning to wilt and slightly brown.  Add lemon juice, stir well and serve.

Copyright Big Mary's Kitchen 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013



CABBAGE ROLLS AND KITCHEN THRIFT

I'm always torn between embarrassment or pride...Am I a cheap SOB or a resourceful thrifty individual? If I was going to dive into complete disclosure I think I would have to claim bi-partisanship. It totally depends on the space and time. If I'm feeling particularly flush, dropping serious coin on a dinner in a fine establishment can bring me joy, soul satisfaction and inspiration. The 90's had a lot of those moments.... Lately, ethnic “dives” in shady neighborhoods resonate more precisely to my pleasure points.

And while I personally would never pay more than $20 for a haircut, I could completely justify shaving my head and selling my hair to afford an original piece of art that I fell in love with. Can I really tell the  difference between a $100 Italian Barbera and a $12 Chilean Carmeniere? I'd like to believe I could. But can I justify the expense? I'm feeling a lot less self confidence on that... It's just me.

What I do know is how smugly self-satisfied I get when I make “something from nothing” in the kitchen. This is nothing new. Grandmothers and professional chefs have relied on this perspective for years. That’s why they buy whole chickens and whole fish instead of parts and filets.  They want the bonus of the bones, backs and giggly bits that go into making stock.  But in our contemporary home kitchens, most of us don't take the time, and convenience becomes our thru-line.

I've written in the past about the intelligence of saving scraps to make stocks, especially vegetable and chicken stocks. It's so much common sense and given the stupid high price of canned stocks, it's basic home economics. I've also sung out with my exuberance of making asparagus soup from the woody stems of asparagus destined for the trash bucket. Similarly broccoli and cauliflower trimmings and leftovers can be soupercized into a winter cup or bowl of comfort food.

Equally important to getting the most out of a food budget is holding onto leftovers.  Whether it’s an uneaten ear of corn or the remainder of a package of tofu, creative thinking on how to re-purpose the bits and scraps that can accumulate in your pantry can go a long way to stretching a budget.  Plus I hate, hate, HATE wasting anything. It’s a part of our American lifestyle that makes us look spoiled and ungrateful.

Today I am singing the praises of stuffed veggies as a way of cleaning out leftovers.  Following is what I came up with facing the flotsam and jetsam of my particular refrigerator.  FEEL FREE TO IMPROVISE!!!!! That’s kind of the point!    That said, I also sing the praises of this recipe as both a lightened up version of comfort food, as well as a way of squeaking tofu into a meal. 

Here I’m setting forward cabbage leaves. Most Central and Eastern European countries have their own version.  Gołąbki, Holubky, Golubsty, Töltött Káposzta, Holubsti are all names that may linger on the tables of your family trees.  My stuffed cabbage are a more modern twist on Grandma’s.  If the rolling of cabbage rolls seems too labor intensive for your schedule, roasted sweet peppers, eggplant or zucchini boats would be other quicker options.

STUFFED CABBAGE ROLLS – NOT YOUR GRANDMA’S
Makes 12 - 18
Ingredients:

1  Large Head of Cabbage

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Onion – peeled and finely diced (about 1 cup)
1 Small Red Pepper  –  (seeds & stem removed) finely diced ( ½ cup)
1 Small Jalapeno  - (seeds and stem removed) finely minced
2 cups  Thinly Sliced Mushrooms – white, cremini, shiitake, or whatever
2 Medium Garlic Cloves – minced
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 medium/large carrot – peeled and shredded (about ½ cup)

20 ounces Ground Turkey
1 cup cooked rice  - brown or white
½ pound firm Tofu – shredded on large holes of a box grater
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
¾ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
5-6 scallions – thinly slice, white and some green (about ¾ cup)
1  14.5 ounce can Petite Diced Tomatoes
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½  teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ cups water
1 cup Sauerkraut (drained and rinsed) – OPTIONAL
1 small apple – peeled and grated (avoiding seeds and core) - OPTIONAL

DIRECTIONS:
Core the cabbage and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan and add the oil. Add the onion, red pepper, jalapeño, mushrooms and garlic.  Sauté for several minutes until onion and peppers start to soften.  Add salt, pepper and carrot.  Cook one more minute, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
Put the cabbage in a very large pot.  Add enough water to cover well.  Remove the cabbage, salt the water and bring it to a boil.
While waiting for the water to boil…    Put ground turkey, rice, tofu, Worcestershire Sauce, salt and pepper in a large bowl.  Add cooled vegetables and mix well.  Set into the refrigerator.
In a large sauté pan, warm the butter until bubbling.  Add scallions and sauté for 1 minute.  Add tomatoes, paprika, salt and water.  Bring to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes.  Add the sauerkraut and / or apple if using.  Warm through. Remove from heat.
Carefully put cabbage in the boiling water.  As the outside leaves cook, pull them loose from the head and remove to a bowl of cold water.  Continue removing the leaves as they cook until you have 20.  They only need to be cooked enough to make them pliable for folding.  Trim the bottoms of the leaves and shave away some of the tough rib.
Remove filling from the refrigerator.  Put a cabbage leaf in front of you with the base at the bottom, the leaf curling up on the edges naturally.  Place about 1/3 cup of filling an inch or so above the base.  Roll the leaf forward, tucking the base in.  Fold the right and left sides of the leaf in and continue to roll forward, forming and enclosed package.  Set aside and continue until all the filling is used.
Line a large Dutch oven with some left over cabbage leaves.  Layer the cabbage rolls on top of the leaves, spooning some of the tomato sauce over each layer.  When all the cabbage rolls are in the Dutch oven, cover with remaining tomato liquid.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and place over medium high heat.  Bring to a boil and then lower heat to keep the rolls cooking at a low simmer.
Cook 60 – 75 minutes depending on the size of your cabbage rolls.




Friday, February 08, 2013


THAI GREEN CURRY CHICKEN

I’m curious what determines a person’s palate.  Certainly location.  Even in this world of cultural cross pollination, a child in Nagasaki or Adis Ababa is likely to come of age with a different frame of gustatory reference than I did in Springfield, Ohio.   Economics of course would come into play in a similar way.  Deep pockets could certainly lead the way to depth of cuisine and all the variety therein.

Family of origin…  and probably to a certain degree the culinary capabilities of whoever was in charge of feeding said family.   Or culinary proclivities…  Growing up under the influence of a militant organic vegetarian would have as significant of an influence as a home cook who depended on Hamburger Helper, canned spaghetti sauce and take out menus.  I also had the pleasure of growing up in a family with little tolerance for finicky eaters.  You ate what was on the table, or waited until the next meal.  That will broaden a child’s tastes.

Sophistication … or just the desire to seem sophisticated is another factor.  I know a few people who might never have ventured to try sushi or caviar had they not been offered it in public, and from the hand of a lovely one they hoped to impress. Personally I am still “jonesing” for those caviar-luscious parties of the 1990’s, and proud to be someone privileged to reminisce about that kind of indulgence!

But I’ve come to believe that the major determining factor is how much joy one derives from feeding themselves.  Big Mary has the potential to derive A LOT of joy! Too much my doctor might say.  I’ll concede I have much to learn about control, both portion and self….  But I would SO rather deal with the frustration of extra pounds than be one of those food phobic folks with a litany of foods they never eat.

In the years following my 1980 arrival in New York City, I have found a lot of culinary G spots, flavors and aromas that opened my unschooled Midwestern eyes wide.  Who had ever heard of Pad Thai before I found that Chinatown dive?  Pastel de Choclo?  I barely knew where Peru was, but I knew I loved this corn custard casserole I found in Hell’s Kitchen! And I continue to be drawn to these much less expensive,  endlessly inspiring centers of culinary pride for the enterprising immigrants who open their kitchen to NYer’s, always on the prowl for the next new thing.

Here is a recipe inspired by those flavors that’s so easy to make it should become a regular event in your kitchen.  That’s why I encourage you to go the extra distance to source out the unusual ingredients.  Something this delicious deserves a little effort!  And these Thai kitchen staples will keep refrigerated for a very long time.  (The lime leaves freeze well for more than a month.)  But once sourced, this is an exotic yet accessible dinner that can be thrown together in less than 30 minutes.  As one of my private cooking class clients said last week… “My friend is very a very picky eater, but she would love this…. I’m going to make this for her. I just won’t mention the ingredients.”

THAI GREEN CURRY CHICKEN - Serves 3 - 4

Ingredients:
1               Tablespoon Vegetable Oil
5               Small Shallots, peeled, halved and slivered - 
                 approx 1/2 cup
1 - 1 1/2     teaspoons Thai Green Curry Paste 
                 (depending on desired spiciness), 
                 available in Asian grocery stores
3               Large Kaffir Lime leaves - stems removed
                 and finely chopped, (3/4 teaspoon), 
                 available in Thai or Asian Grocery stores or
                 substitute 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1 - 1 1/4     Pounds boneless Chicken Breast - cut into
                 1 inch pieces
1               Medium Red or Yellow Pepper, stemmed, 
                 seeded and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 1/2          Tablespoons Thai Basil, chiffonade cut -
                 available in some Greenmarkets, many 
                 Thai/Asian groceries or substitute equal
                 parts mint and regular basil


Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat.  Add oil.  Add shallots and cook a minute or so until they begin to soften.  Add Curry Paste and stir continually for 30 seconds.  Add chicken, red pepper and chopped lime leaves.  Cook over high heat for 1 minute.  Add 1 1/2 cups of coconut milk, reserving the rest for final seasoning.  Lower heat to medium. Cook for several minutes until chicken is cooked through, about 4-6 minutes.
Add Lime juice and basil.  Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings as desired ...
Too spicy?  Add remaining coconut milk.  Needs salt?  Add another 1/2 teaspoon of fish sauce.  Needs acidity?  Add another 1/2 teaspoon of lime juice.

Serve with steamed jasmine rice.


Copyright 2013 Big Mary's Kitchen


Friday, February 01, 2013

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

I've recently developed a recipe for Apple Butter to both keep up with my handsome husband's bottomless appetite for homemade jams and preserves, and winter's lack of variety for canning jams and such.  I've also adapted the recipe to use Splenda artificial sweetener...  Another nod to that same husband's "bottomless" appetite for sweet jams.  I know there is plenty of arguments against artificial sweeteners.  YOU take it up with him!

I've added this recipe to a revised edition of one of my early blog posts about apples and making apple butter.  There's plenty to be said for the more organic and traditional process outlined in the original post.  There's a LOT to be said for letting your Crock Pot do the work overnight while you sleep!

And so, please enjoy the following.  When Big Mary was taking baby steps... October 2006


Apple Glory

I've bellyached before about the year round availability of way too many fruits and vegetables that years ago had specific seasons.  It holds true even for apples.  Let’s face it, Granny Smiths and Red Delicious apples have become as ubiquitous and expected as fake eyelashes on drag queens.  That's  why come  September till November or so I’m constantly of the prowl at our Greenmarket.  Every year I’m seduced by more and more varieties as local farmers feed our fascination with heirloom and specialty apples.

A local newspaper tallied up 34 varieties at a recent Greenmarket; including some very old and rare cultivars like the Newton Pippin (George Washington’s favorite),  the very pale fleshed apple known as Winter Banana, as well as the less rare but no less cherished  Macintosh, Jonathan, Macoun, Northern Spy, Cortland, and some newly crossbred varieties like my favorite the Honeycrisp.  Each one has a unique blend of distinct sweetness or tartness, crisp crunch or soft melting bite. Some are puckeringly acidic, some are pure honey sweetness, and some heirloom apples even carry the tannic dryness of a big red wine.   And of course that’s part of the glory of apples.  Some excel in pies, some are bound for sauce and others just deserve to be enjoyed out of hand.

It's easy for a North American to take these red, pink, yellow and green beauties for granted. Partially because the storage and foreign grown apples we endure January through August deserve to be taken for granted. Most are one dimensional and flavor challenged. However on the plus side, they are damn convenient. They keep for a week or more if the heat's not too high, they are versatile, they are easy to eat, and most apple recipes fall into the realm of "comfort food".  But like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and other "comfort foods", a lot of the time these dishes aren’t very comforting.

We also undervalue apples because they are so omnipresent in our lives.  They're just everywhere from lunch boxes to deli counters to teacher’s desks.   My partner, “The Handsome Venezuelan” is always reminding me that this is not nearly so true in warmer regions, where apples and pears are considered quite exotic, much like we view guavas, mangoes, or passion fruit. And in the same spirit with which he dismisses the flavorless mangoes in our markets, I suspect there are damn few tropical tots who have ever tasted something as crisp and heady as a fresh picked Winesap apple.

When my dear Mama Gladys passed away in September, we drove back to Ohio to celebrate that lovely lady and wish her a sweet journey over. The nine hour return trip to NYC was sweet, not only due to reflections on my Mom's long and happy life, but also sweet with the crisp cidery smell of a bushel of apples from my middle sister's ignored apple tree. Before the horses and dogs grabbed the entire harvest, I threw a ladder up high and pulled down a few bags full. According to my eldest sister, they are Jonathan apples. I've learned not to question because she's usually right in such matters.
Yesterday, I spent a long aromatic day producing about 12 pints of old fashioned apple butter, so good my Mama almost came back for a taste. So good in fact, the Venezuelan proposed to me... Again.  Then ordered me to hide them from him and portion the jars out judiciously.  

Here's my typically brief outline of how you can share the love.  As well as a time saving more modern recipe…
Old Fashioned Apple Butter
Wash a big bunch of apples. A mix is a good option (perhaps McIntosh, Winesap, Macoun & Gala), though I succeeded with one variety that was tartly sweet. Roughly cut the unpeeled apples into eighths or quarters and put into a large heavy bottomed stock pot. Do not core or seed the apples. Add Apple Cider (or water, or a mix of both) until it just covers the apples. Place over medium high heat and simmer, uncovered, until the apples are completely collapsing. The timing will vary depending upon variety. A McIntosh will go quickly; a Granny Smith will take much longer. Cool the mixture and then pass it through a food mill.
Measure the puree and place in another heavy bottom stock pot (or the same one washed out)and add sugar at a rate of 50% of the puree. In other words, for 8 cups of puree, use 4 cups of sugar. I optioned for a little less sugar and was happy for it. Then stir in ground spices (I like a lot, so I used cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and ginger), a few pinches of salt and a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. Bring to a simmer, stirring often, and then cook until it is thickened and condensed. This will take several hours, and you need to stir it often, about every 10 minutes at least, checking for sticking on the bottom of the pan. A good test for when the apple butter is done is this: chill a china plate in the freezer. Drop a tablespoon's full of the apple butter on the plate. Wait a minute or two. When liquid no longer seeps out from the mound of puree, you're there.
Proceed with standard water bath canning procedures which can be found in any canning book or online.

Here is a method I tried in the time since I made my first batch and I was pretty happy with this as well.  I’ll admit, it’s not quite as deep in flavor, but given the trade off of convenience, I still recommend it.

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

6          Pounds of Apples    A mix of 3-4 varieties, Peeled
1 1/2    Cups                       Granulated Sugar (or Splenda - See Note*)
1 1/2    teaspoons                Ground Cinnamon
1/2       teaspoon                  Ground Ginger
1/2       teaspoon                  Ground Nutmeg
1/4       teaspoon                  Ground Cloves
1          medium                    Fresh Lemon

Grate the apples, using the large holes of a box grater, directly into the slow cooker.  Add sugar and spices.  Add zest on the lemon, then squeeze lemon juice into the apples, discarding pits.  Stir everything gently and cover.  Cook on Low for 12 - 14 hours.  Remove lid and whisk thoroughly to smooth out the apple butter.  Cook an addition hour to hour and a half to dry out the mixture.  Stir occasionally.
Makes 6 - 7 half pints
This can also be canned with the traditional water bath canning process.  Please check any reliable canning website.  Ball Jars maintains a great one.

Let me just say, if you've never tried canning, it's just a big hoot and a holler.  Very safe in my experience  as long as you follow instructions carefully, and you've got the right acid and sugar content provided by jams, jellies, or the acid in tomato sauces and salsas.  And it just makes you smile with accomplishment.  Besides it impresses the hell outta people who don't know how easy it is!

*NOTE - I don't know the kitchen science of canning with artificial sweeteners well enough to guarantee the safety of caning this recipe using Splenda to replace the sugar.  It WILL keep in the refrigerator for several weeks and freezes very well.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Spaghetti with Caramelized Onions, Roasted Cauliflower, Parmesan and Pine Nuts

Well, in true Big Mary style I have fretted and 2nd guessed myself for more than a month over this recipe.  It's an old favorite of mine that I developed years ago trying to revitalize the vegetarian pasta offerings at an old kitchen best left unremembered.  Trouble is I was always making it for around 50 people or more at a time, and we just never got around to writing up a recipe for it.

And anytime I've made it at home, it was casually thrown together based on a mix of how much cauliflower I had and a generous supply of tried and true kitchen instinct.  When I got around to dragging out the scale and measuring spoons, back in ... oh Lord was  it February????  I came up with a version that was tasty, looked great, but was just a little too sweet from the caramelized onions.  

This was followed by a month of ponderous introspection, depleted motivation and significant self doubt.  About many things not just pasta.  Good sense returned though, as it typically does, and I decided to give myself the benefit of the doubt, strap on Big Mary's apron and post this pasta ASAP.  After all, it's not my job to decide whether I'm worth reading.  I just need to get the damn words on the page, er screen, er... whatever.  Note to reader, this is NOT a shameless plea for praise.  Though patronage in the Renaissance manner might lift anyone's mood!

Which brings us to March 30 and the sprouting of the earliest Spring on record.  So before it's impossible to tempt anyone with a Roasted Cauliflower recipe let me toss this really tasty dish your way.  And if indeed the thought of more roasted cauliflower is causing the edge of your lip to curl involuntarily....  I bet this would be damn tasty with Roasted Asparagus also.....

So for those curious few, what I did to address the sweetness issue was to reduce the length of time the onions are caramelized, and de-glaze with a more generous amount of dry Vermouth.  I also think it's important to use the best quality of Parmesan you can afford.  Preferably freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano.  The nutty flavor of good parm will help to balance the sweetness of the onions.  And finally, hit the finished dish with a few fresh grinds of Black Pepper.



SPAGHETTI WITH ROASTED CAULIFLOWER, CARAMELIZED ONIONS, PINE NUTS & PARMESAN

Chef's Note: For further discussion on caramelizing onions, please see Big Mary's blog post of Feb 6, 2012.

2      XL                     Yellow Onions,, sliced thin (about 2 lbs. total)
3      Tablespoons       Olive Oil
½      Cup                  Dry White Vermouth (or Dry White Wine)
½     large head          Cauliflower, cut into small florettes
2      Tablespoons       Olive Oil
½     Cup                   Pine Nuts, toasted in oven
12     Ounces              Spaghetti
½     Cup (or to taste) Parmesan Reggiano, freshly grated
                                Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper
                                Freshly chopped parsley (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a extra large sauté pan.  Add onions and mix thoroughly.  Sauté onions over low heat, stirring often until caramelized to a golden tan.  About 15 – 18 minutes usually. Watch carefully during final 5 - 8 minutes of caramelizing.  Raise heat to medium high and de-glaze pan with vermouth or white wine.  Cook for a minute and the remove from heat and set aside.


Preheat oven to 350*.   Lay pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 3 – 5 minutes.  They should be golden and aromatic.  Remove from oven and cool.
Raise oven temperature to 450*.  Toss cauliflower with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, S & P, and lay out on a baking sheet.  Don’t crowd the florettes, see picture. When oven is preheated, roast until lightly browned and cooked.  Remove from oven and set aside.

Cook spaghetti until al dente.  As spaghetti is cooking, return onions in their pan to low heat.  Add cauliflower.  When spaghetti is 1 minute from being ready, drain (reserving some cooking water) and add to onion cauliflower mix.  Raise heat, add about 1/3 cup of the cooking water and mix pasta together. Adjust seasonings, add toasted pine nuts and Parmesan, and toss again.

Serve garnished with parmesan cheese, freshly ground black pepper and parsley.


© Big Mary’s Kitchen 2011