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