Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Chanukah Postponed

Mid December I broke my anti-socializing standard, and schlepped my holiday butt to suburban New Jersey for a supremely rewarding Latke Fest at the home of my inspired and hunky former sous chef and his bombshell brilliant food writer wife. What a good choice this was. In addition to being well fed and lubricated with fine food and well chosen wine, I was reminded of the brilliance of Jewish people around the world at choosing fried food as a focus of Chanukah celebrations. I'll give them a pass on the jelly donuts, also a Chanukah tradition, and move directly to potato latkes (Do not pass Go, do not collect $200).

There are few pleasures more simple, especially in urban American society, than fried foods. As a catering chef, I can swear to this. If you fry it they will come. Fritters, chicken chunks, beignets, crab cakes, tempura, it makes no matter, there's always room for one more.

As a chef, latkes are my high on my list of favorite fried foods. For the uninitiated to the latke experience, latkes are very simple potato pancakes, held together as lightly as possible with egg and flour (or matzoh meal). What I enjoy most about these simple pleasures is how easily they adapt to different situations and pantry possibilities.

In my kitchen, we serve three sizes. Mini's can be used as a vehicle for hors d'oeuvres. Either passed as they are with bowls of sour cream and apple chutney for guests to garnish to taste, or as a base served with smoked trout, smoked salmon, corned beef etc. We also prepare them a little larger, about 3 inch diameter. These are usually served specifically as "latkes" for Jewish holiday celebration. The third option are larger 8 inch or so, full skillet versions. These we make and then cut into wedges as a side dish on main plates.

Potato Latkes
Using a box grater or shredding attatchment of a food processor, coarse grate two pounds of Russet potatoes (or so). Place in a clean dish towel and squeeze dry, you are trying to get rid of the excess starch to make them extra crispy. Grate a small onion into the squeezed potato mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Add a few tablespoons of flour (or matzoh meal during Passover), one whisked egg and mix with your hands. You want the mixture just cohesive enough to hold together slightly before frying. When ready, drop teaspoons (or tablespoons or cups, etc) of the potato mixture into hot oil in a saute pan. Use enough oil please. You want them crispy. When brown on one side flip them to finish. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.
Note: These freeze perfectly!!!! When cool, freeze and pack in airtight container. Rewarm in a moderate oven.

No matter what size we make, the best part of latkes are their versatility. You can add in so many ingredients that create nuances of flavor which can fill the perfect niche of whatever you are pairing your latkes with. Some of my favorites follow.

Sweet Potato - substitute about 2/3 sweet potato and 1/3 Russet potato for potato in the main recipe.
Potato/Parsnip - substitute 1/3 fresh grated parsnip for 1/3 of the potato in the original recipe.
Potato/Celery Root- follow same procedure as parsnip
Potato/Shiitake - add 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh shiitake (or button) mushrooms to the potato mixture
Soba Noodle - substitute buckwheat soba noodles for all of the potato, substitute chopped scallion for the onion, season with soy sauce, add mushrooms and sesame seeds if desired.

These are simply some starting points my friends. I know once you get the idea, the options are unlimited, herbs, lo mein noodles, artichokes, olives, pine nuts...somebody stop me....

Happy New Year dear readers. I appreciate your time in checking out Big Mary's Kitchen more than you can know. Please tell your friends.
Until then,
Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Monday, December 18, 2006

I Am Missing Me Some Christmas Cookies

I can't hone in on why I'm so nostalgic for Christmas Cookies this year, but whoa sister, I am. Truth be told, I'm betting it has a lot to do with my Mom's passing this year.

I have to laugh at myself. There's been several times in this blog's short life that I represented dear Mama Gladys' kitchen skills as marginal. And I still wouldn't hedge my bet ... Except for desserts. Skillfully made pies and cookies were miles closer to godliness than the lack of dust bunnies for Gladys.

So it should come as no surprise that Christmas cookies are a cherished part of Big Mary's sugarplum dreams. There were two standards... the early years and the later years. The constant core were Mexican Wedding Cookies and Thumbprint Cookies with Red Currant Jelly. In addition, my early childhood savored Mincemeat Bars with Royal Icing Glaze and Date Bars. I still wince at the many years those incredibly delicious date bars went by underappreciated by this prematurely jaded, and then, less than Big... Mary. By the time I was 16, these last two had been supplanted by a significantly less inspired Chocolate Graham Cracker Toffee Bar.

On the plus side, the appearance of these Chocolate Graham Cracker Toffee Bars coincided with my appreciation of marijuana as a recreational drug. This was a divinely inspired syncronicratic moment. Gladys marveled at the way the graham crackers fit so perfectly in the cookie sheet. I marveled at how the intense sweetness of the brown sugar filling and the milk chocolate glaze could provide such pot fueled "munchy" comfort. Truly there was no place like home for the holidays.

Definitely "not" the Christmas spirit my Mom hoped to inspire, but the real charm of homemade cookie exchanges and pleasure in filling cookie tins for neighbors took root early on. Rarely were anyone else's Mom's cookies as good as Gladys'... but then there was neighbor Harry Steele's peanut butter fudge.

And so it was a smooth transition, once I was out of college, to carrying on the tradition of making and gifting Christmas cookies to my adopted family of loving souls. I'm really missing those years when I made the time to bake Christmas cookies for this inner circle. Hopefully it won't be too many more years before I can return to the spice warmed air of a home kitchen, covered in confectioners sugar, chocolate glaze and caramel.

Here's a great cookie dough for cutting into Christmas shapes and decorating. It's a little fussy and needs to be kept very cold, but worth the hassle

Walnut Spice Holiday Cookies
1/2 cup finely ground walnuts
1 1/4 cup AP flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 large egg

Combine ground walnuts, flour, baking powder, salt and spices in a bowl. Mix well and set aside.
In an electric mixer, beat butter until lightened, add sugars and continue beating until fluffy. Add egg. Reduce speed and gradually add in dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Divide dough into four sections, wrap in plastic and chill well for several hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 325*. Place parchment paper on baking sheets. On a well floured board, roll out dough to 1/8" thickness and cut into desired shapes. Place on prepared baking sheets and place in preheated oven for 7 minutes. Rotate pan and bake for 7 minutes more.
Cool slightly, remove form baking pan and decorate cookies as desired.

Apologies to any and all of my reader's for the lack of postings lately. Hopfully the Holiday demands will lessen, and I can get another posted soon.
Enjoy the Season and Contented Cookie Eating...
Big Mary

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cocina de las madres

The vast majority of the food that comforts us is homestyle cooking. I love how in Europe and South America these foods are often translated as "Grandmother's Kitchen" or "Mama's Cooking", because everyone's Mama or Grandma SHOULD be a wizard behind the stove. Back in the real world though, only a few of my friends have been so universally blessed.

The handsome Venezuelan husband seems to have enjoyed an exceptionally glorious and vibrant woman as his mother, though her glories are rumored to have stopped at the kitchen door. We laughed together over our Thanksgiving dinner at how both of our mothers had scammed us into believing that their opus magnus of the kitchen could only be conceivably prepared at it's designated once a year celebration.

As you may suspect, for me it was my Mama's stuffing. She had me convinced for all the years I enjoyed childhood, that stuffing was a labor of love only warranted on Thanksgiving. It was just too much to consider on any normal day of the year.

For the Venezuelan husband, hallacas were the labor of love limited to Christmas time. For those of you unhappily denied the pleasure of unwrapping and relishing an hallaca, let me describe the treasure.

Venezuelan Hallacas in the Style of Valencia

It's similar in style to a tamal. First you make a dough of pre-cooked cornmeal (traditionally Harina Pan), annato seasoning, stock and lard (or butter if real lard is as unavailable as it is for most of us). The dough is ready if you squeeze some in your hand and it doesn't crack. It's important to find the balance of moisture and fat.

Then you make a "guiso" or stew of chicken, pork tenderloin and beef (brisket or chuck)
with onions, sweet bell peppers, mild chilies, garlic and your own special seasonings. Maybe some tomato, maybe chickpeas, depends on regional and family traditions. The meats need to be shredded or chopped fine and then added back into the stew. Limit the broth in the final product. It should be a dry stew or "sopa seca" in the Spanish tradition.

Cut banana leaves (which can usually be found frozen in latin/carribean ethnic markets, into approximately 10 x 12 inch rectangles. Roast the banana leaves very briefly over an open flame.

Spread some of the dough onto the dull side of the leaf, forming a rectangle
and leaving a border of several inches all around the leaf. Drop a small amount of the stew on one side of the dough. Add two or three small green stuffed olives and a teaspoon or so of golden raisins. Fold the side of the leaf with the dough over the stew. Fold in the sides to completely enclose the package and tie the packet firmly with kitchen twine.

You can freeze these packets for months if well wrapped. When ready to serve, boil the hallcas in well seasoned stock for 20 minutes or so, more if cooking from frozen state. Cut stings and serve letting the guests unwrap and savor the hallaca.

Should this entice you to try out this delicious ethnic treat, Google a real recipe to guide you. It's time consuming, but not overly challenging.

Happily in Venezuela, Christmas lasts from December 24 through January 6. Three days emerge as mandatory for hallacas consuming, December 24, January 1st and 6th. Even more happily, there exists the tradition of sharing your hallacas with neighbors. So as Christmas approaches, your freezer will swell with the neighborhood's bounty. Each hallaca labeled with it's creator's signature. Maria's halacas, Lupe's hallacas, Anna Maria's hallacas, well you get the picture. Sort of a county fair's bounty of hallacas with a American Idol sensibility of judgment. There's some you covet, and some that end up thrown out in February.

Years ago, when he and I were just "enamorados", I threw a birthday party for the handsome Venezuelan. Knowing that hallacas were a special food tied directly to his heart, I announced I would make hallacas in April, a suspicious endeavor to any Venezuelan. As if to heighten his suspicions, I acknowledged that to make real hallacas was beyond the time allotted to create this soiree, so I was going to make "Hallacas en Cazuela", truncating the labor intensive wrapping of individual hallacas in favor of making several enormous hallacas in copper gratins. I lined the gratins with prepared banana leaves, laid in a layer of the corn "masa"/dough, generously ladled in the guiso, topped with more corn masa, and folded more banana leaves over the top. I then placed the cazuelas in the oven with a big pan of simmering stock on the floor of the oven.

When I announced "Dinner is ready!" I was succinctly quieted by the handsome Venezuelan, who politically suggested he should try the "experiment" to assure quality. I smiled and handed him his fork. When he sampled my wares and quickly took another taste before announcing "Dinner, (indeed) was served", I knew I had scored an enormous coup.

And so friends, I encourage you to embrace tradition with the equal fervor that you challenge and experiment with it. Today's inspiration may become your next tradition, however you define family.

Until the next time, which I really hope will be sooner than the past few posts...
Contented Eating,

Big Mary

Monday, November 20, 2006

Does this feel comfortable to you?

Comfort Food. It used to be such a ... "comforting" term. Then came 9/11 and suddenly it was an emotional and politically charged menu listing, which at it's most heinous level led off with "Freedom Fries" garnished with the obvious and bizarrely deserving "American Cheese Sauce". It's just so frightening when satire becomes a nation's leitmotif.

A few years ago I surveyed friends and family as to what was comfort food to them. There were a few common threads. Temperature had a lot to do with it. Not chocolate chip cookies .... WARM chocolate chip cookies. Indeed, outside of ice cream, almost all comfort foods claimed were warm. Familial provenance was also a consistent identifier. My Mom's meatloaf, her macaroni and cheese, my Dad's burgers in the summer. And of course, emotional connection. There are more than few out there who swore they'd never eat another ramen package after college, or who would starve before swallowing another bite of 5 for a dollar store brand mac & cheese. Yet, this same purist might just sneak a bite of either from their own children's plate. Those precious towheads starting off on establishing their own food memories...

Probably no emotional food connection rings louder than what connects around holidays. There's my Italian friends with the Christmas Eve Feast of 7 Fishes, the Greek's Easter Lamb, my Venezuelan husband's Christmas Hallaca, or the Ohio sister's Cryovac Roasted Easter Hams (Yes, she roasted the Easter ham in the grocery store's plastic wrapping.... in 1978 AND in 1996!)

All of which leads us logically to the Thanksgiving at our doorstep this week. My personal all time comfort food is stuffing. Mama Gladys didn't have a large repertoire, but what she did well, could slap you hard and make you go sit in a corner. Her stuffing was one of these in my memory. I'll never forget a few details.

First you have to understand my Mama cooked strictly from recipes, not instinct. If her stuffing recipe said you needed "one packet of vegetable seasoning from a package of Mrs. Grass's dehydrated vegetable soup", you could be damned sure we'd be driving that Chevy from one end of Springfield to the other, starting somewhere in the middle of September, in search of the elusive Mrs. Grass. And as time marched on, Mrs. Grass seemed to me overtaken by Knorrs and Liptons. Mama Gladys would truck no substitution. I remember one July afternoon, while on vacation, when she stormed into the cabin, proudly bandishing a few years worth of Mrs's Grass’s packets she'd stumbled upon in a grocery store in Gaylord, Michegan.

The next unimpeachable ingredient was sausage. Not spicy, not overly sagey. Clean, bulk, pork sausage. Here, I have to hang tight with the lady. That porkiness is just what that grand bird deserves. Her final commandment ... stale bread cubes, good stuff (which in those days meant Pepperridge Farm), cut by hand at least four days ahead, and laid out to dry. Never over toast. Again, she was right on. There's a chewiness you achieve from stale bread that toasted bread never gives you.

My Mama's Sausage Stuffing
Now I tell you flat out, this is my version of the grand lady's dish. First off, I don't hold any commerce with Mrs. Grass, may she rest in peace. Second, it's just stuffing dammit. Use this as jumping off point.
Cut up your bread into 1/2 inch cubes several days in advance. Lay the bread cubes out on sheet pans or place in large bowls, but be sure to toss frequently to achieve even dryness and no mold (especially if using natural breads). Gladys always used white bread, occasionally a bit of whole wheat if I could persuade her to be rambunctious. My personal choice is a mix of a 7 grain and Sourdough. The nuttiness of the grains and the chewiness of the sourdough provide a toothsome integrity that gets me exactly where I want my stuffing to go.
When you're ready to make stuffing, chop up bunches of celery, onion, carrots and garlic. Set aside. (Now understand I'm a bit of a purist. I'll discuss options at the end.) Chop up a little bacon and start to brown it in a large skillet. When the fat begins to render, add a generous amount of bulk pork sausage. Stir it around and begin to brown the sausage. Add the vegetables and continue to cook the sausage and vegetables until the pork looses its pinkness. I'll burn in the seventh ring of dietician's hell for this, but sometimes I add a big knob of butter here. Toss in some fresh chopped herbs - marjoram, rosemary, parsley (sage if you like, I don't), and set aside to cool. Remember that the star ingredient of stuffing is the bread. You want to be generous with the meats and vegetables, but don't overwhelm the leading lady.
Now, combine your stale bread cubes and the sausage vegetable mixture thoroughly. Slowly ladle a rich turkey or chicken stock into the mix as you stir. Keep tossing and adding stock until the whole conglomeration is evenly damp. Walk away for 10 minutes.
Come back and give the mix a squeeze. It should not form a doughy ball in your hand, but it should attempt to hold it's shape. Odd's are you'll need to add a bit more stock. When you think you are there.... either stuff the bird loosely, leaving room for expansion, or gently load the stuffing into a well buttered casserole or two. As for Big Mary, I don't like stuffing that's been stuffed, but that's just me. Drop the stuffing in loosely so it will roast toasty and crunchy and moist. In casserole, cook at 375* until well browned. If it looks like it's drying out excessively, ladel a bit more stock over it midway. If roasting in the bird, follow your normal holiday traditions or consult a good cook book.

Now, as I said, there are loads of possibilities outside my box. Chestnuts, mushrooms (wild, exotic or domestic), dried fruit, fresh apples, pears, wild rice, cornbread, chilies (poblano, jalapeno, ancho), sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pecans, walnuts, sun dried tomatoes, fennel, grilled corn, well .... you get the picture. It's all about maintaining a textural balance and not obscuring your star, the stale bread.

Next time we'll talk more comfort food, especially Venezuellan Hallacas. Some good stories there, just you wait.

I apologize for the long absence. Blame it on this nasty flu/virus/cold/vague feeling of unease that has visited my work kitchen the last few weeks. But I'm on the mend, and never once forgot about you. No really, I mean it. Not that any of you made me a cup of tea, or brought me Kleenex, or some soup, a diet Coke ...

Now get out of here and give some thanks for your blessings. Friends, health, wealth, a dry bed, a dry hump, heat, hot water, family, a job, a job you like, a working car, public transportation, dreams, faith, love, a turkey and hopefully some stuffing. I wish you a minimum of three.

Contented Eating and Happy Thanksgiving
Big Mary

Thursday, November 09, 2006

It was bright green, and orange and bumpy?

Hard winter squash can be another sweet surprise beneath a monstrous exterior. Piled high in the market, attractive and colorful squash sing out a siren's song of soups, roasts and gratins; but those mysterious turban squashes still put my knife to rest. However, I have had my way with the likes of kabocha, delicata, sweet dumpling, hubbard and buttercup, and keep coming back for more.

Take advantage of the gorgeous selections available now. Even though these vegetables as a group are known as winter squash, the supply of many of the more interesting varieties dries up by Christmas time. Butternut and acorn are pretty much available anytime but you'll see a big drop in taste and texture outside of the September - January window.

As with apples, the more common varieties, acorn, butternut, calabaza, tend to be the least rewarding. Look for delicata and sweet dumpling in early fall. When their stripes are still green you don't even need to peel them if roasting. The edges crisp slightly and add great texture to the smooth flesh. As the squash mature in holding, the stripes become more yellow ochre and peeling is required.

I would most enthusiastically encourage you to explore kabocha squash. The name's a bit confusing as it applies to several varieties of Japanese developed squash. The two most common being the drum shaped green skinned Hokkaido, and the rounder orange Hokkaido. Its meaty flesh is beautifully balanced by its deep sweetness. Really a great squash.

Next I need to introduce (or reacquaint) you to a spice mixture called Garam Masala. It is a spice blend, similar in style to curry powders which typically includes cinnamon, black pepper, clove, cumin, coriander. etc. To my palate it has an incredible affinity for squash and sweet potatoes. I worship the blend available at More on this phenomenal store later.

OK, moving on ...

Roast Winter Squash, Yams and Green Apples with Maple and Eastern Spices
Preheat oven to 425* Prepare, peel and seed squash (you choose, though early delicata is a personal fave). Cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes or wedges. Toss with mild oil, pure maple syrup, salt and ground garam masala. Set aside.
Peel and cut yams into 1- 1 1/2 inch shapes. Toss with mild oil, pure maple syrup, salt and ground garam masala. Set aside.
Quarter and core Granny Smith apples (or another hard, tart apple that stands up to cooking). Cut into large chunks. Toss with mild oil, pure ma... OK you get the idea.
Please note that you don't want to over do the maple syrup. Think of it as a perfume, not a glaze.
Roast the squash, the yams and the apples on separate baking sheets. The squash and the yams should time out pretty similar. The apples will only take a deep warming before they break down. When finished, toss together and serve. It's so tasty too!

Here's one more, bound to piss off the vegetarians...

Butternut Squash, Apple, Pancetta and Port Wine Bisque with Apple Herb Salad

I know there are those who will choose to make this without the pancetta (Michael of NOT among them) Too bad for you.

Make the soup a day or two ahead. Peel, seed and cut up your squash. Feel free to substitute others for the butternut. I do. Set the squash aside. Clean and rough chop onions and a few cloves of garlic. Set aside. Peel, core and chunk a few great apples. Keep a tart, sweet mix. Set aside. Chop pancetta finely. You don't need too much to add the rich porkiness to the soup. Put the pancetta in a soup pot over medium heat and cook it slowly to medium crispness. Add some oil and butter as needed, and then add the onions and garlic. Saute to a limp translucence. Add some chopped fresh thyme with a generous dusting of ground garam masala and saute 2 minutes. Dump in the reserved squash and apples. Add a very healthy pour of Port Wine and chicken stock to cover. Season with a bit of salt and pepper, and simmer until the squash is tender.
Drain the solids and reserve the liquids. Using a food processor, puree the solids with a bit of the liquid to make a smooth puree. Continue to stir in the liquid until the soup is at your desired consistency. You'll probably use all the liquid.
Either chill the soup down now or proceed to serve. When ready to serve, add a touch of heavy cream to the soup while warming. It doesn't need any , but go ahead and gild that lily.
Reduce port wine until it has a syrup consistency. Set aside. (Can be done days ahead)
On a mandolin slicer, julienne an assortment of apples, toss with a touch of herb vinegar, chopped parsley, tarragon and chives. Set aside.
To serve, ladle the soup into warmed soup bowls. Dribble reduced port wine here and there in the soup. Garnish with the apple herb salad in the center of the bowl.

Very well my pretties. Looking back (always a dangerous move...), I see I might have subtitled this entry an ode to garam masala. Well, don't say I never take you new places. And if you are currently smirking, saying "I've known about Garam Masala for years...." Check out that Kalustyan's Website. They have some things you've never imagined.
Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Friday, November 03, 2006

Tres bizarre to downright ugly ...

Have you ever seen brussels sprouts growing in a garden? Very "Little Shop of Horrors" ... Three to four feet tall, a center stalk covered with little knobs of green (the sprouts) and a top knot of big green leaves like a tropical crown. It’s easy to imagine a brontosaurus nibbling on it as some Neolithic Crudités.

I was helping with end of summer harvest at the Ohio sister's patch of garden. M'shell, domestic diva and caterer to small town Ohio's elite, had asked my sister to plant some brussels sprouts. Shell's son Thom and I were armed with a saw to take down the monster stalks. Thom, being highly suspicious about any vegetable that required a saw to bring it down, took some serious convincing that there was anything worth consuming on this gnarled oversize trunk. Had we cut the stalk a few weeks earlier, I suspect the process would have been a little less intimidating for Thom. Not to mention less of a challenge for Shell's formidable skills in the kitchen.

Purchasing fresh, small brussels sprouts is a key to avoiding all the bad reputation that this vegetable suffers from. That, and avoiding both under and over cooking the little critters. Currently I have two favorite ways of approaching brussels sprouts.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
This is as easy as falling off a bar stool. Oops, did I actually write that?
First make sure the brussels sprouts are pretty much the same size. Unless they are baby sized; split or quarter them. Next you need to make a judgment call. If you enjoy that burnt edged flavor of roasted veggies, just toss them with some oil, salt and pepper. Throw them into a hot (450*) oven and pull them out when roasted and tender. At this point, season them further with herbs, lemon or reduced orange juice, roasted garlic or any other inspirations that come over you.
If you like a milder effect, drop the prepped brussels sprouts into salted boiling water for 30 seconds, blanch 'em and shock 'em in ice water. Then roast 'em as described above.

Sauteed Brussels Sprout Leaves
OK, this is my current fave. Not really a recipe, more a jumping off point.
First, clean and core the brussels sprouts and break them up into leaves. Imagine they are tiny heads of iceberg lettuce. By the way, this is a great use of the larger, more mature brussels sprouts. Alternately, shred them thinly on a mandoline or V-Slicer. In either case you should end up with a great product for a stir fry. Combine them with leeks and chestnuts. Or try snow peas, ginger and shredded carrots. It's just an unexpected treatment of an old friend.

Monday, October 30, 2006

In this twisted market of year round asparagus in which we shop, it's so very easy to get lazy and ignore the root vegetables and hard squash that's brimming over on the green grocer's shelves as the days get shorter. Parsnips, Beets, Turnips, Celeriac (Celery Root) and Parsley Root are sure to surprise most American palates with their subtlety and/or depth depending on how they are used.
I tend to mix these vegetables with each other, or with the more everyday potatoes and carrots. Roasting, as with all vegetables, tends to deepen and sweeten the flavors. Pureeing them seems to shift the focus onto aroma and texture.
Gurfren Sue reminds me that the greens of the beets and turnips you buy are a great bonus and should always be saved. I love balsamic beet greens with roasted beets or sautéed turnip greens in root vegetable purees.

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips with Lemon and Marjoram
Set a baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and preheat it to 450*. Choose slim carrots and parsnips if possible. Peel them, split lengthwise and quarter if necessary. I find most parsnips need their center woody core cut out, but if they are small and tender enough, you might get by leaving the center in. Toss the prepped vegetables lightly with oil, salt, pepper and chopped marjoram. Remove the hot baking sheet from the oven and pour parsnips and carrots onto the hot sheet. Distribute them evenly over the pan, do not crowd the pan. Return to the oven and roast until they are tender. Sprinkle the vegetables with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and serve warm.

Fettuccini with Roasted Beets, Pancetta and Cream
Inspired by an over order of beets when I was a chef at Rosemarie's in Tribeca, NYC
Preheat oven to 350*. Clean beets well and wrap them individually in foil and bake until a skewer passes easily through the beet. This will take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on size and freshness of your beets. When done, remove them from the oven and let them cool in their aluminum foil party dresses.
When cool, cut away the tops and bottoms and remove the peel. Cut into small 1/4 inch dice. Set aside. This can easily be done a day ahead.
Thinly slice small onions and dice pancetta, about equal portions. In a warm skillet begin to brown the pancetta. (Big Mary says you may substitute bacon, but she'll think less of you) Meanwhile begin to bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When the pancetta has begun to release its fat, add the onions and sauté them with the pancetta. Keep the heat moderate. When the onions are caramelizing slightly and the pancetta has crisp edges, increase the heat, splash some white wine into the pan, deglaze and add some beet cubes. When the wine has reduced, add a generous pour of heavy cream. (Do not attempt this dish while attempting to get back into that swimming suit for the holidays in La Isla Mujeres.) Raise the heat to a simmer and gently stir. The beets should shed a glorious magenta color to the cream as it bubbles and gently thickens. When it has, give it a few grinds of fresh black pepper and lower the heat.
Drop the fettucine (and you know it should be fresh, not dried...) in the boiling water, stir well, and pour yourself a glass of that white wine. You see now, why we never cook with the bad stuff. It should only take a few minutes for the pasta to float to the top, which means it's done. Drain it, toss it with that mind blowing sauce, generously sprinkle it with freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano and garnish with fresh chopped parsley.

I'm starting to see another trend in these recipes. They are Damn Fattening! Even though I've never been known to break into a cold sweat at the thought of cheese with butter and a touch of cream, I know there is a huge sea of my fans that are a little more cautious about throwing their waistlines to the wind. So, moderation my pretties. But, I have to admit I love how it all plays into a natural cycle of harvest, eating and the seasons. I really don't believe its all coincidence that these harvest vegetables pair so soothingly with the aforementioned trinity of butter, cream and cheese. Our great grandpappies and mommies were getting ready to settle in for a long winter's struggle with the elements. At least my Germanic and Anglo relatives were. Those extra pounds in November would be sweet memories come March and April. So, in honor of those tired, poor, huddled masses... yearning to eat cream...
I offer these last ideas.

Yukon Gold and Celeriac Gratin
Follow any proud, indulgent French recipe for potato gratin. Substitute thinly sliced peeled celeriac for 1/3 of the potato. If you feel indulgent, throw some truffle butter or oil, or even truffle shavings into the mix. (If you use all three, invite Big Mary for dinner) You'll love this, and amazingly it even lightens the dish.

Autumn Root Vegetable Puree
This is just an encouragement to lighten your mashed potatoes by including some other vegetables into the mix. Parsnips, Turnips, Parsley Root, Celeriac and Carrot are all great candidates for a mix in. Just remember to cook them separately and then mash together. You'll also find the lightened starch content a help with the aforementioned caloric issues. Think about using buttermilk instead of whole milk to add a refreshing tang to these purees. Then there's roasted garlic, horseradish, herbs, mustards, you get the idea. And remember, no food processors here. You'll end up with wallpaper paste.

OK my pretties, once again I've gone on too long. Next time I'm seeing visions of Brussels Sprouts done right and hard squash that’s NOT Acorn!
As always,
Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cornmeal as Comfort Food

The fact that an inexpensive bag of cornmeal can be the beginning of so much delicious pleasure is just one of those fabulous things about food that gives me such enjoyment. With the addition of an egg, some milk, a touch of sugar and some flour, you're 20 minutes away from warm cornbread. That, some honey or maybe that homemade apple butter and baby, you won't hear a word outta me for awhile. On the rare occasion when you have leftovers, stuff some chicken breasts.
Just cut the cornbread up in cubes and toast them off in the oven. Then sauté some onion, garlic, celery and carrots in plenty of butter, add some fresh thyme & rosemary and a handful of dried cranberries. Continue to cook, add a splash of wine, maybe Madeira to plump up the cranberries, and add to the cornbread croutons. Mix it up and add chicken or turkey stock to moisten well. Butterfly and pound out some chicken breasts (or turkey cutlets), season and place stuffing on the meat. Roll them up, tie them, and sauté to give a golden color. Finish in the oven and serve with a light stock and Madeira reduction.
And let’s talk polenta, better yet let's eat polenta. Especially soft polenta, rich with a generous spoonful of mascarpone, a few swirls of melting gorgonzola dolce and chopped toasted walnuts. Oooooh baby, baby. OK, I'm already ahead of myself.
First a question, did any of you eat cornmeal mush? And, whether you did or didn't, can you imagine a less appealing name for something? I'm not sure if it's a regional dish... I remember it from vacations in Michigan. It came in a plastic tube (like slice and bake cookie dough) and my Mom would slice and sauté it. Sorry, Mom never sautéed anything, she fried it... and then served it with pancake syrup. This chubby boy was all over that.
What I realize now, is that was polenta. Granted, nothing any Italian would recognize, swimming in Mrs. Butterworth's. But even at that tender age I knew I'd bitten into something worth eating. And something with plenty of possibilities.

Soft Polenta with Mascarpone, Gorgonzola and Walnuts
Based on a dish at Union Square Cafe in NYC
Combine 3 cups milk and 2 cups chicken stock in a pot and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of instant polenta. Stir thoroughly to avoid lumps. Lower heat. With a LONG wooden spoon or heat resistant spatula continue to stir and cook according to package directions. (As polenta cooks and simmers it can send up small blobs of polenta that will burn you like the molten lava that it is, so gloves are not a bad idea.) When finished, remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup mascarpone. Serve immediately, garnished with chopped toasted walnuts and crumbled gorgonzola.

Another polenta dish comes out of my catering years, when I am always looking for first courses that could be done in huge numbers and preset. I came up with the idea of a polenta terrine, enriched with Asiago cheese and garnished with grilled artichoke hearts and roasted tomatoes. These days I grill off a top quality canned stemmed artichoke hearts and slice purchased roasted red and yellow tomatoes. You can follow the above recipe and mold it in a loaf pan, chill, slice and serve. Sometimes I stir kalamata olives into the polenta.
Experiment and enjoy my pretties. Gurfren Sue mentions that Indian Pudding is a worthy dessert using cornmeal that I need to explore. So much gruel, so little time...
As always,
Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Monday, October 16, 2006

The best shave of my life...

It was 1989 and I was about 12 years late to explode on the European continent. But I was determined to make my debut memorable, if not timely. The Goddess aligned my stars, and through some sort of karmic reward for past lives lived well, I arrived in Firenze in late September. Cool nights, sunny afternoons, and all the visual, scenic and masculine delights mentioned in my initial blog. Slather this with a thick layer of the Uffizi, Il Duomo, Plaza Republica, La Acadamia, Il Bargello, and the fabulous retail therapy available; this young queer(relatively) had his eyes bitch slapped open, and had no choice but to sit back, dazed and contented.
Traveling solo was my style at the time, and I'm oh so glad it was. I had no reason not to chat to the handsome man next to me, take a bus to Fiesole with him, and wander the Roman ruins there. And then a personal guided tour after sundown through the history drenched neighborhoods of Florence.
"What do you enjoy about living in New York? Oh, by the way, this was Dante's house." .........
But fine dining alone, was another table to conquer. Happily my tour guide was the lean and hungry type, Italy by way of Shakespeare. And I'd never want to be the ugly American.
Restaurant Le Fonticine had been recommended by the executive chef whom I worked under at this time. He was my mentor, so who was I to question? The white truffle from Alba was the second notch on my passport I'd hoped to accomplish. With notch #1 in front of me, it was time to sit back, relax and mangia.
When the waiter informed us that the first truffles of the season had arrived and that the chef's fettuccini al tartufo bianchi was available that evening, it took massive self restraint to prevent myself from giggling like a schoolgirl. I'm sure the rest of the meal was exquisite, but the pasta that night was spiritual. 17 years later and I still remember how the aroma wafted up as the truffle shavings landed on the hot fettuccini. And I still laugh at my moment of naiveté, wondering if I was supposed to signal the waiter "enough" as he shaved the precious knob onto my pasta. As if he was grinding black pepper over a salad. I knew I'd have been emotionally incapable of stopping the supply.

White truffles are high on the list of precious ingredients for several reasons. Primarily because they remain one of the very few truly seasonal ingredients, available generally from mid September through December. They have so far eluded all attempts at domestication. Like caviar, the demand for truffles has far outpaced the harvest which has pushed the price far beyond most people's realm of possibility, except of those once or twice in a lifetime's exceptions.
When confronted with my young kitchen crew's open mouthed disbelief that any food could cost $2,500 a pound, AND that it could be worth it, I'm hard pressed to be able to justify it myself. When they ask me what it tastes like, I smile and say "Well, mushrooms, and the earth, and ..., and Sex. To me, it smells like flat out, sweaty, balls to the wall sex."
And you do taste truffles by smell. Somehow it passes from your mouth right up to your nose and mingles, does a little tango on your tongue and then you just have to smile.
Next I'll warm a little pasta, or scrambled eggs or potato, drizzle a little truffle oil over it and give my crew a taste. "This is as close as I can come right now. Not the same, but it'll give you an idea." Some get it, especially the ones who cook from passion, and not from paycheck. And of course, some don't get it. "This is not Sex to me!"
Back in the day when I used to cook for the wealthy and wannabees, I'd get to play with fresh white truffles every other autumn or so. But those days have passed me by, and that's not all bad. These days I need to content myself with lesser forms of the tuber, as I suspect do most of you. For me, truffle oil and truffle butter are the best ways to introduce the sexy muskiness of Tuber Magnatum Pico to your cooking. When I was in Bologna this year, I was also able to pick up a salt with black truffle that is a great product, though I haven't seen anything of its quality here in NYC. Also note that there is enormous variety of quality in truffle products. Once you have a brand you enjoy, stay loyal to it. I've always been disappointed by truffle "bargains".
Since we're going to be playing with truffle "products", we're not limited to the seasonality of truffles, but it's amazing how truffle flavor has an affinity for other autumn ingredients; wild mushrooms, nuts, duck, etc.
Here's one hors d'oeuvre idea and a soup.

Cured Duck Breast with Truffled Chevre and Fig
Clean a duck breast magret, remove and reserve the skin. In a bowl, combine equal parts sugar and salt, with any other seasonings you want, I use chopped garlic, bay leaf, thyme and crushed juniper berries. Coat both sides of the duck breast with the mixture, return scored duck skin to cover breasts and store, covered in refrigerator for 24 - 36 hours. Scrape seasonings from duck breast, cover with duck skin and roast at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until internal temperature is 125 degrees. Discard duck skin and set aside to cool
Stir a tablespoon or so of truffle oil into 5 oz of good Montrachet style goat cheese. Set aside
Cut 6"-8" crepes crossways into quarters. In one piece of crepe, spread a small amount of the truffled chevre near the center. Place a thin slice or two of duck breast and a sliver of fresh fig. Fold the tip of the crepe over the filling, and then roll tightly leaving the curved edge on top. Repeat.
Left over duck meat is great in salads.

Truffled Wild Mushroom and Hazelnut Soup with Madeira Foam
This is inspired by a recipe by Joyce Goldstein
Clean and roughly cut a mixture of white, wild and exotic mushrooms. Set aside. Warm olive oil and truffle butter in a small soup pot. Sauté chopped shallots. When shallots are translucent add the reserved mushrooms, some chopped fresh thyme, a bit of salt and pepper and chicken stock to cover. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes. While soup is cooking, toast a handful or so of hazelnuts. When toasted, cool slightly and then rub in a clean kitchen towel to remove skins. Cool completely and then grind as finely as possible in a food processor. When mushrooms are completely cooked, strain, reserving liquid. In a good blender (the better the blender, the better this soup comes out), blend the mushrooms, ground hazelnuts and a few cups of the reserved broth. When the mixture is smooth, begin to add more of the stock until it is all incorporated. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Soup may be made 1 day in advance of serving.
When ready to serve, rewarm the soup, adding additional stock if necessary, and a few spoons full of sour cream or creme fraiche. In a separate bowl, lightly whip heavy cream with a small amount of Madeira and a few pinches of salt. It should just get foamy, beginning to hold a shape but no more.
Pour soup into bowls. Drizzle lightly with truffle oil, and garnish with Madeira foam. Garnish with fine chopped chives and serve

Hope this gives you some ideas and inspiration my pretties. Soon we'll be finishing up on autumn's flavors. What's next? You'll have to come back.
Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lions and Tigers and Pears, Oh MY!
All the great autumn colors are really coming on at La Casa Amarilla in the Poconos. A heady reminder that I'd better get on with thoughts about autumn flavors, while there's still some time to try them on.
Much like apples, grapes are such a market standard that it's easy to forget they truly are seasonal. But then as you open that 1994 bottle of Chateau Talbot you are reminded that it was a crisp autumn afternoon when that whole glorious process began. Personally I'm hard pressed to come up with a better use for grapes than a Grand Cru Bordeaux. However, coming out of my haze I would urge you to think boldly. I have pickled seedless black grapes for a day or two and used them in salads, especially when a Farmhouse Cheddar or pungent Chevre is involved.

Pickled Black Grapes
Wash the grapes and remove them from the stem. Then just bring some red wine vinegar, (diluted with water by about 35%) to a boil. Add some sugar, a few whole cloves for spice, maybe a bay leaf and any other flavors that head in the direction you're thinking. Add the grapes, cover and remove from the heat. When cooled, transfer them to a clear glass or plastic jar and refrigerate 24 - 48 hours.

Pears are yet another treat. There's really a special sweetness to a perfectly ripe pear eaten out of hand, with tones of honey, date and vanilla. It's also a fruit that can be creatively used when it's less than ripe. Pear chutney is a delicious addition to sandwiches. And poached pears are an old classic that's due a revival. Red wine poached pears are what most people think of, but I prefer this lighter version.

Rose Poached Pears with Ricotta Stuffing and Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce
One day before you want to serve this dish, peel 6 slightly under ripe pears, leaving stem attached. I prefer Bosc, but any pear will do. Slice the bottom of the pear flat so that it will stand up on a plate. Place the peeled pears in water with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Meanwhile pour one 750 ml bottle of rose wine and 1 quart of cold water into a medium pot, filling it a little over halfway full. Add granulated sugar to taste. This will depend entirely on the sweetness of the wine you use. Then add one half vanilla bean, split, with seeds scraped into the wine, the zest of one lemon and 1 tablespoon of rose water essence. Bring the liquid to a boil; add the pears and lower heat. The pears should simmer lightly. Place a clean side towel over the pears, touching the liquid and then place a heat proof plate on top of the pears to keep the fruit submerged. The pears need to cook until a knife point or skewer easily pierces the pear to the center. When the pears are finished, remove from heat, leave the plate and side towel in place and refrigerate until cold.
The following day, mix together about 2 cups of ricotta cheese. Add confectioner's sugar to taste and stir until smooth. Using a melon baller, clean the seeds from the poached pears by scooping them out from the flat base. Fill the resulting cavity with the sweetened ricotta mixture. Place the finished pears on a plate and refrigerate.
Make the sauce. Warm 1 cup of half & half to near simmering. Remove from heat and add 4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate. Stir until chocolate is melted and sauce is smooth. Stir in a pinch of salt and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. Chill.
To serve, pour a pool of sauce on a small plate. Place pear in the center of the plate.

While Mama's not supposed to have a favorite child, Big Mary is happily free of such restrictions. And the ruby jewel closest to my hirsute bosom is the pomegranate. Finally, I can celebrate one of the few items that remain seasonal. You just can't find these beauties in July! Yet... But let's not go there. Let's just admire the almost Jurrasic beauty of this tough skinned player. The tart burst of crimson juice is just impossible to ignore wherever it shows up, and the newly developed enthusiasm for pomegranate juice gives some options for enjoying when the supply of the real thing dries up. Pomegranate molasses is another way to provide a jolt of pomegranate personality. This is the thick, tart reduced juice of pomegranates available in specialty gourmet and Middle Eastern stores. So splash that "Pom" juice over your vodka rocks and brush a little pomegranate molasses over that grilled chicken at the last minute, but please don't forget to scatter some fresh pomegranate over tonight's salad, or fold some into Sunday Brunch's fruit salad. Try to buy fruit that feels heavy for its weight, and check out the trick for releasing the seeds in the following recipe. This chutney is great with chicken or turkey. At work we sell it with a Moroccan Fried Chicken Paillard, and as a garnish for a chicken hors d'oeuvre on tiny popadum. My friend Margaret swears by it with duck breasts. Lots of options out there.

Walnut Pomegranate Chutney
Cut a nice fat pomegranate in half at its equator. Cradle the cut side down in your hand, hold it over a large bowl, and with a wooden spoon spank it thoroughly until all of the seeds have fallen out. Pick through the seeds for any white membrane and discard it. Measure out 1/2 cup of seeds and place in another bowl. Toast 1/2 cup of walnuts in a 350* oven for 4 - 5 minutes. While walnuts are toasting, place 2 tablespoons of currents in a small pan, add 2 teaspoons of wine vinegar and warm gently to plump the currants. Reserve and cool. When walnuts are cooled, roughly chop them and add to pomegranate seeds. Drain currants and add them as well. Next, add 2 prunes, finely chopped, 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses and 2 tablespoons of strongly flavored dark honey (I prefer buckwheat). Mix well and taste for salt.

And there, my pretties, is all I'll be saying about autumn fruits. Gotta move on ya know? But I still have much to say about autumnal eating and cooking when we get together here again.
Contented eating ...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Here Come the Fall Fruits...
And before any unwelcome slander slips in, I'm talking about apples, grapes, pears, pomegranates, etc., not the sequined queens in the Halloween Parade.
I've bellyached before about the year round availability of way too many fruits and vegetables that years ago had specific seasons. And while it's true that Granny Smith's and Red Delicious' have become as ubiquitous as fake lashes on drag queens, it's only during September through November that we here in the Northwest are blessed with varieties such as Stayman Winesap, Jonathan, Macoun, Northern Spy, Cortland, Rome and on and on. Each one with a distinct sweetness ot tartness, crisp crunch or soft melting bite. Some are puckeringly acidic, some are just honeyed sweet; and the best, to my mind, balance the two. Hopefully some of you reside in equally apple blessed areas.
It's easy for a North American to take these red, pink, yellow and green beauties for granted. Partially because the storage and foreign apples we endure January through August deserve to be taken for granted. Most are one dimentional and flavor challenged. However on the plus side, they're 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 almost fall into the realm of "comfort food". But like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and other "comfort foods", a lot of what we taste isn't very comforting. We also under value apples because they are so omni-present in our marketplace, they're just everywhere.
My partner, the handsome and newly thin 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, sapote and other tropical fruits. And in the same spirit with which he dismisses the mangoes in our markets, I suspect there are damn few island boys or girls who have ever tasted something as crisp and nectar filled as a ripe, fresh Stayman Winesap apple.
When my dear Mama Gladys passed away in September, we drove back to Ohio to wish the beautiful lady 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. 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 I started searching for county fair's open for canning competition. So good in fact, the Venezuelan proposed to me... Again. Then ordered me to hide it from his Weight Watcher self. Here's my typically brief outline of how you can share the love ...
Old Fashioned Apple Butter
Wash a big bunch of apples. A mix is best (perhaps McIntosh, Stayman 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. Alternately you could pass it through a chinese cap strainer or a wire mesh strainer.
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. Some folks use brown sugar, but for me the long cooking caramelizes the sugar plenty. 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 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.
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 we're talking high sugar creations like jams, and jellies or high acid tomato products. And it just makes you smile with accomplishment. Besides, it impresses the hell outa people who don't know how easy it is!!!!!
That's it for now my pretties. Next time a quicker investigation of pears, grapes, pomegranates, and a few additional apple ideas.
Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

It's Autumn Children,
Well it is, and it's going to feel like it soon, and even better, you will see it at the market for the next two or three months. Now, those of us lucky enough to shop at a farmer's market will see it most dramatically; but even if the closest you come to a farmer is Pepperidge Farm, there is a lot of variety out there if you only look for it.
I feel like every season has a flavor "profile". By this I mean, the flavors ripe and ready to be exploited, used and abused. And really why not abuse them a bit. If you sign on to my theory, come Spring, you're not going to be serving them anyway.
To my mind, the flavor profile of autumn is made up of of the following:
Wild Mushrooms, Nuts, Grapes, Apples, Truffles, Game, Pomegranates, Winter Squash, Root Vegetables, Pumpkin and Cornmeal.
Here's some thoughts on how to use them ...
Wild Mushrooms
It's important to recognize that a lot of what are called wild mushrooms (Shiitake, Oyster, Cremini, etc.) are not wild mushrooms. They are better classified as exotic mushrooms. Wild mushrooms are truly that. Mushrooms harvested in the wild, and the difference is both mind and wallet blowing. Wild mushrooms for the fall include porcini, chanterelle, black trumpet, lobster and hedgehog, however many others may appear locally. Of course it's important to stress the importance of purchasing wild mushrooms from reputable purveyors. They really call kill you, and even easier, make you sick as an orphan on trick or treat night.
One really delicious and relatively economical way to incorporate wild mushrooms into your autumn repetoire is with dried wild mushooms. They can be rehydrated whole, or ground dry into a powder in your spice/coffee grinder. Porcini mushrooms are especially available, and often at an econimical price if you have access to Costco or Sam's Club shopping clubs.
Here's one idea for using dried porcini:
Orreichette Pasta with Exotic Mushooms, Leeks, Asiago and Porcini Demi Glace
Saute a mixture of exotic or wild mushrooms (whatever the market or budget allows) and deglaze the pan with madeira or dry sherry. Set aside.
Clean leeks and slice. Wash thoroughly. Sautee in oil or buter, being careful not to add color. Feel free to deglaze with a little white wine. When soft and tender, remove from heat and set aside
While cooking the mushrooms and leeks reduce homemade chicken or veal stock with madeira (or sherry) and porcini mushroom powder, until it has some viscosity. You may add some purchased demi glace to speed the process (For the record, you will rarely receive specific measurements here. I rely on your cooking instincts to make these recipes happen. If you need extra insight, email me.) When the liquid coats a spoon, remove from heat and set aside.
Shred asiago cheese, mix in 2/3 of the cheese and set aside. If serving this dish room temperature, chop flat Itlian parsley and set aside.
Cook orreicchette until al dente, drain and chill. Combine pasta, mushrooms, porcini reduction, leek and asiago. If serving hot, put in prepared cassreole and bake at 350* until crisp outside and hot inside. If serving room temperature, place in bowl and garnish with parsley and reserved asiago cheese.

There you go my pretties. Next post we'll move ahead on the fall flavor profile.
Contented Eating
Big Mary

Sunday, September 24, 2006

I wanted to re-visit Italy for many of the obvious reasons; the history, the incredible flavors, the beautiful people, terra cotta roofs against clear blue skies and those great yellow ochre walls of Italian buildings. However, the best souvenier I brought home was a renewed respect for honest, seasonal ingredients used simply to produce vibrant nourishing meals.
Each city boasted at least one glistening market, or in the case of Bologna, a whole district of stores, stalls and stands, with cured meats, fragrant cheeses and blood red tomatoes, cherries, basil, chilies, eggplant and zucchini. Was it coincidence that the cherries we sampled were the epitome of cherry, or was it just the romance of the setting. I still don't know. Maybe it was the the lowered expectation when told these blond, blushing beauties were Maraschino Cherries. (Side note: turns out the processed, plasticified, red dyed cherries at the bottom of my Manhattan, DO start out as Ranier cherries, an American similar variety) In any case, their tart sweetness has entered my permanent sense memory beside my Mom's pecan pie, my first taste of frais de bois, the smell of shaved white truffles and Iranian Imperial Blond Oessetra Caviar.
What we didn't see this stiffling sunny July afternoon was asparagus, blood oranges, porcini, brussels sprouts or artichokes. All of which I could find in a local high end NYC gourmet shop. What the Italian nonnas know that so many of us don't is that food has seasons, and you just shouldn't be eating asparagus in Italy in July.
And I'm more guilty than the least offender, providing asparagus in the barren snowscape of winter to my highly opinionated, and more highly uninformed corporate clientel of paper pushers, secretaries and junior executives that my catering company serves. But let's set that aside for now, as it's clearly the 2000 pound gorilla in the room.
To my mind, we lose out the most in ignoring the tightly focused bounty of fall and winter vegetables. Parsnips, turnips, kale and mustard greens, chanterellle, brussels sprouts, carrots and the wide array of autumn squashes, kabocha, delicata, sweet dumpling to name a mere three. It' so easy to toss out a summer vegetable array with tomatoes, sugar snap peas, corn, summer squash, sweet peppers and eggplant. More challenging and rewarding is to celibrate the richer, deeper flavours of autumn. Goddess be praised, if only for the annual rebirth of white truffels.
In my next post I hope to dive deeper into some thoughts on autumn flavors and ingredients. Until then...
Contented Eating,
Big Mary