Food Friday: Holiday Latkes

We love potatoes. I imagine most quasi-normal people do. It is my life’s goal to find the world’s best French fries. Long ago I read a Calvin Trillin book about his travels in Italy one summer with Alice, where they wandered from village to village and market to market, sampling many foods, but primarily experiencing pommes frites and gelato. What bliss. Then I spent months trying to create the perfect pommes frites, as idealized by reading an entertaining book about travel and eating. I don’t know if I choose the wrong potatoes, or lacked basic Fry-o-later skills, but nothing ever seemed to capture the delight in eating fresh, blazingly hot, crispy double-fried frites as described in the book.

I have also tried for years to re-create Buffalo Chips, the deep-fried, British-style, thick slices of potato, that we had years ago at the Spring Garden Bar and Grill in Greensboro, North Carolina. The chips were the perfect side dish with their incredibly memorable Philly Cheese Steak sandwich, which is another dish I have never been able to repeat at home. I use a mandoline now for slicing the potatoes, so they are thinner and a little more uniform, and pleasant to look at, but they are never quite crispy and plumped-up as the ones we had years ago. (I have just visited the website, and find the steak sandwich is still on the menu, but no mention of the Buffalo Chips. This could be tragic news. If any of our Gentle Readers venture to Greensboro, please stop by and do some vital research for us… http://springgardenbarandpizzeria.com/) Perhaps the Buffalo Chips will be my madeleines…

We prepared vats of mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, because it is the American thing to do, and because they would be repurposed for a few more days: as a significant component of the legendary Pilgrim Sandwich, as potato pancakes for a nice, leisurely breakfast to have with the Sunday paper, and they make a nice pie crust topping for the inevitable turkey pot pie. We are actually planning ahead when we boil up a bunch of extra taters for the holidays.

With Hanukkah starting next week, we threw ourselves into exhaustive research for latkes, which are a more forgiving variation on crispy, fried potatoes. It is easy to fry up extras, and then freeze them for future use. That way, if you have company for a Hanukkah meal, you are not stuck in the kitchen, while everyone else is enjoying your light touch and handiwork. Or, you can keep a stack or two in a warm oven, if you want to prepare them ahead of time and serve them in one fell swoop. French fries would never stand for that.

I appreciated the extra hint this time around to wring the grated potatoes in a dish cloth, twice, before mixing them with the egg, onion and the flour. That step made for lighter latkes. And I do not have a food processor, which I think would have reduced the time spent preparing the potatoes – but I did have a willing assistant who manfully grated the potatoes on the box grater, and managed to do it without scraping his own knuckles. There is nothing like holiday ritual meal for bringing everyone into the kitchen.

https://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/crispy-panko-potato-latkes/

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/2012/12/adam-and-maxines-famous-latkes

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Potato-Latkes-104406 This is a good recipe for the gluten-free folks.

Happy Hanukkah!

“Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious psalm; the mystic lights of emblem, and the word.”
– Emma Lazarus

Food Friday: It’s Fruitcake Weather!

“Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and on, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings.”
-Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

Fruitcake weather! It is an ineffable moment when the air cools, the leaves are falling and the light changes from summer golds and yellows to winter whites and grays. The slant of the light is different; more oblique. Truman Capote’s cousin Sook could tell us for sure. Sunsets speed across the back yard. Their dark flat shadows race over the fallen leaves and the sad pumpkin I have tossed out near the birdbath, hoping to lure squirrels into Luke the wonder dog’s line of sight. Dark falls abruptly.

Earlier this year we moved into a little house that has 5 towering pecan trees in the back yard. Luke and I wander around, picking up windfall pecans. We toss the ones tested and deemed unworthy by the squirrels into the yard of the vacant house next door. And now we have collected a big old bucket o’pecans. And what exactly are we going to do with them?

It is time for the great fruitcake experiment. Though we have never been a fruitcake family. When I was small my mother kept a fruitcake on the dining room sideboard with the ancestral tea set, just in case someone came calling and asked for fruitcake. She might have been ahead of her time, and it might have been the same fruitcake, wrapped up with the Christmas ornaments, and hauled up to the attic every January, and brought down again the following December. I don’t know. It is a great mystery, lost to the ages.

We were a family who glommed onto other families’ traditions. Cinematic families, that is. I feel sure we didn’t decorate our Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, because that was what the Bailey family did in It’s a Wonderful Life. Also, the Brougham family in The Bishop’s Wife. We did not have a business-suited angel who helped decorate, however. Instead, my mother employed child labor. Merrily I strung garlands and tinsel up the banisters, over the mantels and on windowsills waiting for a miraculous transformation of silvered ornaments and a Hollywood designer’s vision of domestic perfection to appear.

My introduction to Truman Capote’s family Christmas traditions came when we watched and (my mother wept through) A Christmas Memory, a filmed version of Truman Capote’s short story. And even though my mother had bravely attempted fancy cooking because of Julia Child’s benevolent television presence, she was not moved to try baking fruitcake. Instead we continued to bake sugar cookies and gingersnaps at Christmas.

This year I need to find some justification for the time that Luke and I spend out in the back yard, kicking up leaves and hunting for pecans, while we are really bird watching and taking a break from the drawing board. And maybe we will find a field for some kite flying.

Fruitcake Inspired by Truman Capote’s Cousin Sook

Ingredients
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped candied orange peel
½ cup chopped candied ginger
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup pecans that have been lightly roasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup walnuts that have been lightly roasted and coarsely chopped
1½ cups white sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon orange extract

Directions
Preheat oven to 325° F. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
2. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add orange peel, ginger, raisins, pecans and walnuts and toss to coat.
3. In electric mixer beat sugars and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts.
4. Add dry ingredients and fold until just combined. The batter will resemble chocolate chip cookie dough.
5. Spoon batter into pan. Smooth the top. Bake until cake is golden and tester  —  I use a long, very thin wooden skewer  —  comes out clean. Start testing after 1½ hours. Cool cake on rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pan and cool completely.

http://zesterdaily.com/cooking/capote-inspires-a-fresh-take-on-christmas-fruitcake/

“If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”
His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too.
“Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”
“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking.”
This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”
― Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory: http://www.sailthouforth.com/2009/12/christmas-memory.html

The Bishop’s Wife: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039190/

It’s a Wonderful Life:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Food Friday: Love Those Leftovers!

We have taken the Spy Test Kitchen on the road this year, so we are recycling a column that seems to run almost every Thanksgiving. NPR has Susan Stamberg’s mother-in-law’s cranberry relish, we at the Spy have The Tall One’s Pilgrim Sandwich. Gobble, gobble!

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish: https://food52.com/recipes/38994-mama-stamberg-s-cranberry-relish

I hold Calvin Trillin in very high esteem, as my friends who have often been buttonholed with me badly re-telling his witty food and family travel tales, can tell you. But I think he is way off the mark when he posits that the national dish for Thanksgiving should be spaghetti carbonara. Really? Where is the fun in that?

http://www.rlrubens.com/Thanksgiving.html

Thanksgiving at our house was an exclusive affair this year, as my Gentle Readers know. There were just the four of us, and a 23.59 pound turkey. And here we are, the day after Thanksgiving. Post-parade, post-football, post-feast. Also post-washing up. Heavens to Betsy, what a lot of cleaning up there was. And the fridge is packed with mysterious little bundles of leftovers. We continue to give thanks that one of our visiting college students is an incessant omnivore. He will plow systematically through Baggies of baked goods, tin foiled-turkey bits, Saran wrapped-celery, Tupperwared tomatoes and wax papered-walnuts. The Pesky Pescatarian dispatched her piece of swordfish with efficiency and aplomb, which is mysterious, since she had a tuna sandwich for lunch and the Tall One abstained from a mid-day meal…

It was not until the Tall One was in high school that his abilities were honed and polished with ambitious zeal. His healthy personal philosophy is, “Waste not, want not.” A sentiment I hope comes from generations of hardy New Englanders as they plowed their rocky fields, dreaming of candlelit feasts and the iPhone 8s of the future.

I have watched towering constructions of food rise from the plate as he constructs interesting arrangements of sweet, sour, crunchy and umami items with the same deliberation and concentration once directed toward Lego projects. And I am thankful that few of these will fall to the floor and get walked over in the dark. Of course, there is the dog, Luke, so nothing much makes it to the floor.

I read that swan might have been the main course at the first Thanksgiving. How very sad. I have no emotional commitment to turkeys, and I firmly belief that as beautiful as swans are, swans are mean and would probably peck my eyes out if I didn’t feed them every scrap of bread in the house. Which means The Tall One would go hungry. A veritable conundrum.

The Pilgrim Sandwich is the Tall One’s magnum opus. It is his turducken without the histrionics. It is a smorgasbord without the Swedish chef. It is truly why we celebrate Thanksgiving.
This is a pretty feeble Pilgrim Sandwich recipe. 
http://cbsop.com/recipes/the-pilgrim-sandwich/

This is way too fancy and cloying with fussy elements – olive oil for a turkey sandwich? Hardly. You have to use what is on hand from the most recent Thanksgiving meal – to go out to buy extra rolls is to break the unwritten rules of the universe. There are plenty of Parker House rolls in your bread box right this minute – go use them up!
 http://www.rachaelray.com/recipe.php?recipe_id=4202

And if you are grown up and sophisticated, here is the answer for you. Fancy Thanksgiving leftovers for a grown up brunch: http://www.saveur.com/article/Menu/A-Brunch-For-The-Day-After-Thanksgiving
Here are The Tall One’s ingredients for his signature Pilgrim Sandwich:
Toast (2 slices)
Turkey (2 slices)
Cranberry Sauce (2 teaspoons)
Gravy (2 tablespoons)
Mashed Potatoes (2 tablespoons)
Stuffing (2 tablespoons)
Barbecue Sauce (you can never have too much)
Bacon (if there is some hanging around)
Mayonnaise (if you must)
Lettuce (iceberg, for the crunch)
Celery stalk (more crunch)
Salt, pepper

And now I am taking the dog for a run before I consider making my own.

Dan Pashman, who hosts the highly amusing and informative podcast, The Sporkful, thought that the run-of-the-mill Pilgrim Sandwich was a little too bready, and he has a brilliant alternative notion: fry up some of the leftover stuffing, à la hash brown patties, to make a new vehicle for holding all the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy together. Brilliant! I do not believe that spaghetti carbonara would taste as good today, unless perhaps, it was enclosed in some fried stuffing patties…
http://www.sporkful.com/thanksgiving-is-for-eaters-with-amy-sedaris-2/

“The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the Pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
-Calvin Trillin

Food Friday: Thanksgiving Blast Off!

Here we are, poised on the cusp of Thanksgiving planning, and the countdown is blithely ticking away. The grocery store is going to be nuts this weekend, so if you have been assigned a Thanksgiving task, you better get out there early on Saturday and stake your claim on the mixed nuts, the fancy crackers, the yams, or the organic, farm raised green beans. I hope to high heaven that you have reserved your bird! Otherwise you will be stuck with a frozen Butterball, which you will need to start thawing on Monday.

Are you hosting this year? I was poking around in a kitchen drawer the other day and found the still-wrapped-in-cellophane package of festive holiday cocktail napkins I had bought for last year’s Thanksgiving, and never remembered to use. At least I am still prepared on that level of middle class etiquette. Though no one noticed the lack of finger bowls last year, either. I must have raised a pack of wolves.

Have you thought about a centerpiece? I am always a big fan of using what is at hand, instead of getting fancy with flowers. I always think you can never have too many candles – which puts us in the camp of people who eat Thanksgiving as dinner, and not as a football halftime event. I use an apple corer to make hole in apples, pears, pumpkins,cabbages and squash. I like using low candles so we can see each other across the table. Candlelight can be so flattering. I know I look better in the golden glow, and the shadows mask all our wobbly bits. There is so much to be thankful for!

This year we are traveling, as our Gentle Readers may remember from last week. We have been assigned to pick the turkey up on Wednesday. We will be bringing wine and years of Thanksgiving cooking expertise. This is the first time our daughter has cooked Thanksgiving. I was telling a visiting carpenter about our plans earlier this week. His personal cautionary tale was not the usual rhubarb of turkey woe. For his first Thanksgiving as the chef, he conferred in the kitchen with his experienced grandmother, who inspected the turkey for offending giblet packages. She said that the bird was ready for stuffing. A few hours later, once the turkey had been roasted and basted and brought to the table to be carved, they found the turkey neck still inside the bird. Granny had not been as thorough as she thought. Let that be a lesson to you! It was a teachable, memorable moment and it was better than the textbook case of trying to cook a frozen turkey. I promise to be alert to potential disaster. I will check both ends of the bird.

Since it is my job in the venerable Spy Test Kitchen to keep up with cooking trends and Thanksgiving hints, I have been rooting around the internets looking for helpful ideas to pass on to you. I hope you have been paying attention:

1. Buy your crucial Thanksgiving ingredients this weekend – Thursday morning is no time to go shopping
2. Have your parents buy the fresh, organic, free-range turkey and a case of wine
3. Remove the giblets AND the turkey neck
4. Buy lots of flattering candles
5. Cocktail napkins and finger bowls are optional
6. Buy a keg of beer – it makes perfect sense
http://www.thekitchn.com/why-you-should-get-a-keg-for-thanksgiving-250994?

Have a fabulous Thanksgiving. Play nicely. Give sincere thanks. Blast off!

Here are a few Thanksgiving toasts.

“Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” – Henry David Thoreau
“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy. They are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
– Marcel Proust

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
– John Fitzgerald Kennedy

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” 
― Oscar Wilde

Food Friday: We Say Potatoes

I’ve confessed before that my favorite part of Thanksgiving is the leftover turkey sandwich. After burning through all that cooking energy, and surviving peril-fraught gavotte with relatives and siblings and in-laws, I like walking into the kitchen alone, and making a nice turkey sandwich. It is a total WASP sandwich – with none of the embellishments that my son, the Tall One, enjoys. Give me two slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread, a small swipe of mayonnaise, and a scattering of salt and pepper. A little handful of Ruffles potato chips and the last dregs of the Beaujolais. Yumsters. It is as enjoyable to assemble and devour as any comfort food that someone else could lovingly prepare. It never disappoints. It is bland and consistent.

The Tall One trowels anything that been on the dining room table onto his leftovers sandwich. He has even been known to smush a crescent roll between the slices of bread, where it pads out the turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, pickles, limp lettuce leaves, a couple of green beans and a generous schmear of mashed potato. I don’t think he has ever added after-dinner mints or pumpkin pie slivers, but he is young and hungry and has a passion for out-doing himself every year. Excelsior, Tall One!

We have always been a mashed potato family at Thanksgiving. We have looked askance at sweet potatoes, except as pie ingredients. But this year our former nuclear family is scattered. The Tall One is spending the holiday with his new in-laws, where he is sure to astound and amaze with his capacity to consume Pilgrim Sandwiches. We are traveling to visit the Pouting Princess, who will be cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner. She is a former vegetarian and pescatarian, and now consumes many seeds. It will be a memorable meal.

We all lovingly remember her first Thanksgiving coming home from college. She was newly vegetarian – not yet vegan, so we tried to be sensitive. We did not use chicken broth when we made the mashed potatoes. I can’t recall all the restrictions, but I am pretty sure we were allowed to use milk and butter in the mashing process. Imagine our surprise, then, when we sat down at the table, crammed with heirloom silver and wine bottles and candles and extra elbows, as we gazed with amazement as she poured a steaming lake of turkey gravy into her Richard Dreyfuss-inspired mountain of mashed potatoes. Yes, Thanksgiving stories like that are golden memories that we love to recall year after year.

Mashed potatoes are good hot the first time around, lukewarm on sandwiches, and reheated as potato pancakes on Saturday morning.These mashed potatoes from Bon Appétit can be prepared the night before Thanksgiving. It is always a good bet to have one steaming hot dish squared away before plunging into the kitchen battlefield. Another thing these potatoes have going for them is that you do NOT have to peel them. If you have a potato ricer. Quick – get on line with Amazon right now! Though adding garlic is something we won’t do – we are purists, but you might be more open-minded than we are. Go for it. We are the Blandings. https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/ultra-creamy-mashed-potatoes

Another recipe calling for a ricer – yet insisting that you peel first – is from our friends at Food52. To them, the mashed potatoes are a canvas on which you can paint dreams of lusciousness. Surely those pipe dreams are better spent on dessert? https://food52.com/blog/11703-how-to-make-mashed-potatoes-without-a-recipe It is a good recipe to re-read in case you are separated from your smartphone and need to improvise making the potatoes to prove to your Aunt Regina that you are indeed a grown up, and know how to do more than order take out. As I said, Thanksgiving can be fraught.

If you have your own vegan coming home from college this year, try this recipe: https://minimalistbaker.com/the-best-damn-vegan-mashed-potatoes/

A long time ago, when my brother was the family mashed potato person, he peeled the potatoes, quartered them, and cooked them in boiling water until tender. The he dropped the cooked potatoes into a big yellow ware bowl, added several tablespoons of butter, and mashed them with the electric hand mixer. Once the biggest lumps were smashed he would pour in a dribble of fresh whole milk, a little at a time, mixing at a low speed until all the lumps disappeared. He was the mashed potato whisperer. Milk, butter, salt and pepper and potatoes. Simple, bland, delicious. No garlic. No potato ricer. Classic stuff.

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
― A.A. Milne

Other potato ideas from Bon Appétit: https://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/slideshow/thanksgiving-mashed-potatoes

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls

Food Friday: Portable Pears for Thanksgiving

Countdown to Thanksgiving! 20 days!

Since there is a still a large bowl brimming with Halloween Baby Ruths, Butterfingers and Nestlé Crunch bars in our front hall, it might be a little early to start thinking about Thanksgiving. Or is it? Over at Martha’s, her cowering staff is probably tinkering with Easter jelly bean recipes. But in the venerated Spy Test Kitchens we are grappling with the weighty questions of dessert and wine for our contribution to Thanksgiving. These are two of our favorite problems to solve. Obviously.

We are taking a road trip with half of America for Thanksgiving this year. And since we will not have access to a kitchen en route, our dessert must be made ahead of time, and it must travel well. Desserts are pretty hardy, and remain delicious even if they get a little shopworn after spending six hours on I-95. I think it best not to count on bringing something with a beautiful glistening flawless surface, or towering and multi-layer. Admittedly you could reassemble your creation at the last minute just when the green beans beans are losing steam and the gravy is getting cold and the hosts are worn to a frazzle. Not good guest behavior, though.

Starting with the mundane – we could bring a traditional pumpkin pie. Or we could stop at Trader Joe’s and pick one up; they have a deft hand with pie crust, and I surely do not. But store-bought doesn’t scream love, or paying attention to detail. What I could do instead, is stop at Trader Joe’s for some heavy cream to whip up while the stuffing is being prepped. And then at the proper moment I can bring out the bowl of lovely sworling peaks of deliciousness, and apply generous lashings to plates of homemade dessert. There is almost nothing that whipped cream can’t improve.

I am thinking about pears this year. Pears always seem autumnal. They come in such a beautiful variety of colors. A few pears in an orderly line on the mantle piece, or up the middle of the dining room table, make a lovely simple decorations. And when the meal is finished, and the last coffee cup has been whisked away, a pear makes an effective palate cleaner. A light, juicy non-alcoholic digestif.

There are many kinds of pears: Green Anjou, Red Anjou, Bartlett, Red Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Concorde, Forelle, Seckel and Stark Crimson. Feel free to research the more obscure. https://www.thespruce.com/pear-varieties-2216839

Anjous, Bartletts, Boscs and Asian pears are deelish eaten raw. Bosc and Anjous are excellent for holding their shape when cooked. Bartlett pears are perfect for sauces, or butters. Vivian Howard, who never wastes the tiniest bit of food potential, has an excellent recipe for the otherwise unloved Keiffer pear: Kieffer Pear Preserves: http://www.pbs.org/food/features/a-chefs-life-season-5-episode-4-food-truck-pear-tree/

This is a delightful dessert that should travel well: https://www.marthastewart.com/1165261/pear-cranberry-tart It will echo the cranberry jelly already on the table, only without the Ocean Spray trademark of can ridges along the surface. It is elegant.

Depending on your relationship with your family, you can bring this version of flourless chocolate cake. It does not call for a shimmering skin of chocolate ganache, but it does require for cricket flour. Won’t you be a hit with the youngsters! http://usapears.org/recipe/chocolate-cricket-decadence-cake/ (There is not enough whipped cream in the world for me to eat this cake.)

The easiest-peasiest: pear-blueberry crumble. It is the most likely to shine with heaps of whipped cream and it has no delusions about holding its shape. https://www.thespruce.com/fresh-pear-cobbler-3053813

Here is the most labor intensive, but absolutely delicious pie that would be a hit at Thanksgiving. It also doesn’t have any hard-to-find ingredients, a major plus in my cooking book. I do not want to drive for 45 minutes to find an obscure (and expensive) spice. Gingered Cranberry-Pear Pie: https://food52.com/recipes/24820-gingered-cranberry-pear-pie It is fun to roll the pie dough out on the crumbled gingersnaps, though! Mostly because you need to test some of the smashed gingersnaps. Lots and lots of testing…

And what if your assignment and contribution to Thanksgiving should be a cocktail? Fabulous! Lucky you! Here is a pear nectar and tequila cocktail that should burnish your reputation for being a great guest: Pear Nectar and Reposado Tequila Cocktail

INGREDIENTS
1 ½ oz reposado tequila
3-4 ounces pear nectar
Tiny dash of cinnamon
One drop vanilla extract
Light drizzle of honey
Half of a lemon, juiced
Cinnamon stick, to garnish (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS
1. Fill a double old-fashioned or high ball glass with ice.
2. Pour in the tequila and pear nectar. Add the cinnamon, vanilla and honey to the glass. Squeeze in half a lemon’s worth of juice.
3. Mix by pouring into a cocktail shaker or another glass, give it a shake or stir well, then pour it back into the original glass. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
https://cookieandkate.com/2011/holiday-cocktail-pear-and-resposado-tequila/

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
– P.J. O’Rourke

Food Friday: DIY Mac & Cheese

It is time to get a grip on our ridiculous expectations. Do not give into temptation. There are so many slippery slopes on which we can easily glide. You know me – I hate to set foot in the kitchen during the summer months, except on my way to the refrigerator. I encourage my over-worked partner in his grilling enthusiasm, because I am basically lazy. And I firmly believe that food prepared by other people inevitably tastes better.

When I read that Whole Foods is planning a new, self-service macaroni and cheese bar I had to stop and take a deep breath. I do not normally shop at Whole Foods, but I was visiting family recently, and stopped in to get a handful of flowers and some breakfast items. Already deeply ashamed that I had forgotten to bring my own reusable, organic, hand-made shopping bag, I stood in line, clutching my hydrangeas and a large plastic container of blueberry muffins. The mommy in front of me, clad in stylish yoga leggings, with an enviable balayage-streaked hairdo, swiped her sapphire credit card through the card reader for her triple-digit tab. I wasn’t that nosy that I was looking at the precious organic foods that she had hunted and gathered, but I was rather taken aback by her snarling at the store clerk. She demanded the credit for having schlepped in her own bags. At about 5¢ a bag I really couldn’t see her savings. Or see the spirituality guiding her after her yoga session. I wanted to hand her a quarter. But that would have called attention to my sleep-tousled hair and my rather shabby Old Navy leggings. I was a poseur at the fancy grocery store, but at least I was nice to the clerk when my time finally came to check out. $12 hydrangeas were looking fine to me.

Am I going to sashay into Whole Foods and buy enough pre-cooked macaroni and cheese to feed a family, just because they have gone and cooked it, and surrounded it with a variety of amuse bouche taste sensations? Never! I will, however, go in and steal all their ideas. Because, as Pete Seeger once said, “Plagiarism is basic to all culture.” You read it here!

The new mac and cheese bar is being installed at a new Whole Foods in Denver in November. With six varieties of macaroni and plenty of add-ons, including pulled pork BBQ and roasted tomatoes. http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/whole-foods-mac-n-cheese-bar-tower-denver-12299853.php#photo-14022231 At $9.99 a pound, about par for the Whole Paycheck scale, I say we can do this at home and save a little money, as well as our dignity. Comfort food is best eaten in your jimjams. And look – Whole Foods even has a recipe for our “nostalgia favorite”. https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipe/macaroni-and-cheese

Ingredients: 
8 ounces dried small whole wheat or spelt elbow macaroni
1 (12-ounce) jar red and yellow roasted peppers, drained
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cloves garlic
2 cups low-fat (1%) milk
2 tablespoons wheat or spelt flour
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cook macaroni according to package directions and drain well. Meanwhile, cut peppers into quarters and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add mustard, cayenne, and garlic and process until smooth. 

Transfer mixture to a small pot and whisk in milk and flour. Cook over medium high heat, whisking constantly, until thickened. Stir in cooked and drained macaroni and 3/4 cup of the cheese and season with salt and pepper.

Transfer macaroni mixture to a 9×9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the top and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until browned and bubbly. Serve hot.

Now, you might be from the macaroni and cheese casserole side of the universe, and you like to have a little traditional crunch in your hot cheesiness: http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/mac-and-cheese-cracker-crumble

To make your DIY Mac & Cheese shine, consider a couple of these add ons:
Bacon
Ham
More cheese – how about some freshly grated Parmesan?
Jalapeños
Broccoli
Cauliflower
Tomatoes
Scallions
Roasted red peppers
Fried onions (not just for Thanksgiving green bean casseroles!)
Shredded BBQ (steal from the best)
Chili
Lobster
Hot sauce
Truffle oil
Sour cream
Potato chips (just imagine the crunch!)
Crab
Sliced steak
Hot dog slices
Old Bay
Peas
Mushrooms
Artichoke hearts
Cilantro
(Don’t forget to rummage around the fridge and assess your leftovers.)

And now you will need to re-invest in draw string pants. Yumsters!

And if you live in New York City, you have a variety of mac & cheese restaurants from which to choose!
https://www.villagevoice.com/2013/10/30/the-10-best-macaroni-and-cheeses-in-nyc/

“‘You don’t make a friend,’ Jacob said with a scowl. ‘It’s not like they come with directions like you’d find on a box of macaroni and cheese.'”
-Jodi Picoult

Food Friday: Avoid the Pumpkin Pie Spices

With falling leaves come clattering acorns and thumping pecans. Fall also heralds the marketing of all things pumpkin spice-y. It is much too early to consider the pumpkin, or the pumpkin pie spices, now a seasonal meme. Wait for November. As a matter of fact, wait for Thanksgiving. We’ve got another month before we have to bake pumpkin pies, pumpkin breads or anything vaguely related to that large orange gourd, except Halloween. Until then, lets just eat cake.

Once again the New York Times provided the temptation: Lemon Spice Visiting Cake
https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1018963-lemon-spice-visiting-cake (recipe in full below)

I topped off our warm slices with a generous schmear of lemon curd, which should be a required condiment placed on every table, right next to the catsup bottle. Yumsters.

Our cake lasted through the work week, with slices for dessert for lunches and dinners. Toward the end I even had a nice slab toasted for breakfast one morning. It is the perfect cake for a week of fine dining, as well as being a good traveling cake, if you are inclined to bake one and bring it to share it with anyone.

Martha has a recipe for a lemon pound cake, which make two loaves. So you can keep one at home for those midnight snacks while chilling and watching Netflix, while still selflessly giving one away. If you are that kind of person. Martha’s recipe also doesn’t have the expensive spices found in the New York Times recipe. I was shocked, shocked at how expensive the cardamon was at my grocery store – and I was NOT shopping at Whole Paycheck. There were two from which to choose, and I picked the less pricey, $7.79 tiny, little bottle. I will have to find a lot of uses for cardamon this holiday baking season.

https://www.marthastewart.com/344409/glazed-lemon-pound-cake

Epicurious has a nice and easy recipe for Honey and Spice Loaf Cake – with spices we all have on hand, like cinnamon and ground ginger and ground cloves; perilously close to being pumpkin pie spices. If you are anything like me you will reconsider the wisdom of including raisins. (In our house we don’t bake healthy oatmeal raisin cookies, we prefer the much more palatable oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. To each their own!)
https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/honey-and-spice-loaf-cake-102698

Consider what is really in your pumpkin pie spices. Not pumpkin. According to Wikipedia, pumpkin spice contains:

18 parts ground cinnamon
4 parts ground nutmeg
4 parts ground ginger
3 parts ground cloves
3 parts ground allspice

And now take a gander at this NPR story from 2014: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/11/19/365213805/just-what-is-in-pumpkin-spice-flavor-hint-not-pumpkin

My $7.79 bottle of cardamon is looking good!

Lemon Spice Visiting Cake

Butter and flour for the pan
1 ½ cups (204 grams) all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 ¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
1 large (or 2 small) lemons
4 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup (120 ml.) heavy cream, at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
5 ½ tablespoons (77 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
⅓ cup marmalade (for optional glaze)
½ teaspoon water (for optional glaze)

1.Center a rack in the oven, and preheat it to 350. Butter an 8 1/2-inch loaf pan (Pyrex works well), dust with flour and tap out the excess. (For this cake, bakers’ spray isn’t as good as butter and flour.) Place on a baking sheet.

2.Whisk the 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, cardamom, ginger and salt together.

3.Put the sugar in a large bowl, and grate the zest of the lemon(s) over the sugar. Squeeze the lemon(s) to produce 3 tablespoons juice, and set this aside. Using your fingers, rub the sugar and zest together until the mixture is moist and aromatic. One at a time, add the eggs, whisking well after each. Whisk in the juice, followed by the heavy cream. Still using the whisk, gently stir the dry ingredients into the batter in two additions. Stir the vanilla into the melted butter, and then gradually blend the butter into the batter. The batter will be thick and have a beautiful sheen. Scrape it into the loaf pan.

4.Bake for 70 to 75 minutes (if the cake looks as if it’s getting too dark too quickly, tent it loosely with foil) or until a tester inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a rack, let rest for 5 minutes and then carefully run a blunt knife between the sides of the cake and the pan. Invert onto the rack, and turn over. Glaze now, or cool to room temperature.

5.For the glaze: Bring the marmalade and water to a boil. Brush the glaze over the top of the warm cake, and allow to it to set for 2 hours. The glaze will remain slightly tacky.

6.When the cake is completely cool, wrap in plastic to store. If it’s glazed, wrap loosely on top.

“Debbie had to get up and slice me a thick piece of cake before she could answer. And I do mean thick. Harry Potter volume seven thick. I could have knocked out a burglar with this piece of cake. Once I tasted it, though, it seemed just the right size.”
― Maureen Johnson

Food Friday: Quick Pickles

It is finally starting to cool down, at night at least. I have artfully stacked a couple of festive pumpkins on the front steps, hoping that they do not rot before Halloween. I have replanted the window boxes with chrysanthemums and some decorative kale. I doubt if Martha is going to come inspect our neighborhood, but I will be ready for her just in case. We are ready to greet fall, whenever it finally shows up.

We had a good summer, even it it refuses to depart entirely, and I can look back on it fondly. I have readjusted my thinking, and am getting used to being back in the kitchen after a lovely hiatus of a summertime of backyard-grilled veggies and meats. One way to revisit the golden haze of summer is by pickling vegetables.

I like the immediacy of quick pickling, which reveals my dependence on shopping at the grocery store instead of relying on the CSA or the seasonal foods at the farmers’ market. Forgive me my fondness for cucumber pickles. Load me up with some thin-skinned Kirby pickles. Yumsters!

My mother favored a small butcher shop just around the corner from our house. It was the kind of place that stocked bread and Saltines and penny candy as well as the hanging slabs of meat kept cold in an old-fashioned wooden cooler at the back of the store. While we waited for our pound of cubed steak and a pound of sliced American cheese, we were sometimes allowed the great treat of selecting a pickle out of the large barrel located near the front door. They were huge, manatee-sized pickles, which we ate sitting on the step of the shop, with juice running down our arms and onto the sidewalk. In retrospect I wonder how my mother decided they would be a treat for us, because she didn’t like pickles. Every year she would put out a tiny WASPy bowl of sweet gherkins for a relish dish at Thanksgiving, but I never saw her eat any.

I enjoy a cool cucumber salad, with slices of sweet Vidalia onion, and a scattering of Maldon salt is the perfect summer meal. Quick pickles are almost as good as a summer salad, or sitting on Benny’s Butcher Shop front step, chowing down on a big, honking pickle, watching the neighborhood parade by.

We all have such busy lives that few of us can spend a day learning how to ferment pickle the slow, traditional way. I am always afraid of ptomaine poisoning or exploding jars. Quick pickles can give us a little sunshine on the dinner table when fall’s cooler temperatures and darker nights make us long for summer’s warm sunshine.

Cheater’s Pickles – From the New York Times

2 English cucumbers
2 tablespoons sugar
Handful of ice cubes
¼ cup rice vinegar, Champagne vinegar, apple cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar
Several pinches of flaky salt, such as Maldon
Several grinds of black pepper, optional
2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill, mint or chives, or a mixture, optional
½ Vidalia onion, sliced into thin half-moons, optional

1.Cut off the ends of the cucumbers and use the tines of a fork to draw long stripes down their lengths. Slice the cucumbers like bread-and-butter pickles, about 1/8-inch thick, and pile them into a large shallow bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over the cucumbers and stir in well. Scatter the ice cubes over the slices and cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Chill in the freezer for 1/2 hour.

2.Drain the cucumbers in a colander and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. Put the cucumbers back in the bowl, sprinkle the vinegar over them evenly, and stir well. Add the salt and pepper, if using, and stir well to combine. Toss in the herbs and the onions, if using. Refrigerate until ready to serve. They will still be good the next day, though not quite as crisp.

https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017680-cheaters-pickles

Vivian Howard knows busy. Here is her recipe for quick pickles from PBS’s A Chef’s Life:
http://www.pbs.org/food/recipes/quick-pickled-cucumbers-onions/

https://www.lecreuset.com/vivianhoward

Of course, our friends at Food52 have the answer for quick pickles, too: https://food52.com/recipes/18162-spicy-dill-quick-pickles

And here is a super quick recipe from Alice Waters for a medley of cucumbers, radishes and watermelon meant to be consumed immediately. Hurry up! Get going!
https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/salt-sugar-pickles-363479

“The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.”
― Wallace Stegner

Food Friday: Squirreling Away

This is a story from the Spy Test Kitchen’s venerable Way Back Machine. I’ll be back with pickles next week!

Luke the wonder dog and I have been enjoying our daily walks around town quite a lot these days. I am thrilled not to be sweating and panting from the merciless heat of summer. He, being a happy kind of guy, is just glad to be out of the studio and in a world of swirling smells and sights. And then there are the squirrels. The squirrels are everywhere!

Luke is a mutt of indeterminate parentage. We adopted him from the Humane Society four years ago when he was just a wiry black, brown and white pup. Since then we have learned that he sheds about a bale of fur every day, his favorite spot in the house would be smack in the middle the white sofa if he were allowed on it, he does not like the UPS man, he loves to play ball, and his heart’s desire is to catch a squirrel.

Luke is a short hair something. Passersby often comment that he looks like a blue tick. Or a short Doberman. Or a tall beagle. Or something else with papers and lineage. We think he is a true American mongrel – our own mid-sized mélange of a dog. He is not a water dog, although he loves to swim – but only if he is retrieving his ball. He is not a retriever, until you hurl his ball though the air, and then he goes tearing across the field like a race horse, intent upon catching his ball. He is a snob. No common tennis balls for him. He is not a Lab. Only orange and blue Chuckit!® balls for Luke.

Luke is not nearly as fussy about squirrels. He is pathetically comical when he sees a squirrel. Suddenly he assumes his cloak of invisibility and cartoonishly slows his pace, as he tiptoes, silently, toward his intended. The squirrels will sit, unblinking, staring back at Luke, munching on their nuts, until the dog is inches away. Then, in a tiny furry flash, the squirrels pivot and exit the scene, often vertically. Keep in mind that I am part of this scenario, every time, as Luke and I are attached by 6 feet of heavy duty leash. In the cartoon that is our life, I am the dust and debris behind Wiley Coyote and the squirrels are the Roadrunner.

Fall is a marvelous time for the squirrels. There are acorns and pecans and dogwood berries pelting down from the trees. We squashed our way through some ripe-smelling ginkgo fruit yesterday. But the best part of fall for the squirrels (and for Luke) seems to be enjoying the Episcopal church pumpkin patch. We walk by the pumpkin patch a couple of times a day. This morning it was swathed in a cool wispy fog. Yesterday it was sunny, and before the church ladies arrived to set up their cash box, the church yard was buzzing with busy squirrels, grazing on the pumpkins and gourds. We saw one squirrel who was enjoying the buffet with a dinner plate-sized slice of pumpkin while sitting on a flat gravestone. It was a tasty looking breakfast. The squirrels had nothing to fear from Luke, because they were behind the wrought iron fence, and Luke was on this side. He paused often and poked his nose through the rails, sniffing, willing his luck to change. Luke is ever vigilant and ever hopeful. With almost a dozen squirrels to consider, surely the odds would tip in his favor eventually.

Back in the real world we are enjoying the notion of fall. As we turn back into the kitchen to prepare warmer meals for the cooler days, I am like Luke, and always hoping for a tasty schmackeral or two. I’m not hanging out at the churchyard, hoping to catch a squirrel for dinner, but I am always looking for something deelish and easy. Fall means the return of root vegetables. Get down to the farmers’ market this weekend, and load up on some local produce. Squirrel some away for an easy dinner (or two) this week. Roasting vegetables fast and easy, and you can take a little leisure time walking through the fallen leaves, watching the squirrels stock up for winter.

http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017703-roasted-vegetables

http://www.eattheweeds.com/ginkgo-putrid-perfection/

“Experiment to me
Is every one I meet
If it contain a Kernel?
The Figure of a Nut
Presents upon a Tree
Equally plausibly,
But Meat within,
is requisite
To Squirrels,
and to Me”
-Emily Dickinson