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