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.