Monday, December 27, 2010

A Sparklemas Pig

It was love that made me ask. Not chauvinism, not disrespect or failure to acknowledge, understand, or embrace my vegetarian friends. But the pork shoulder was so transcendant and amazing; I simply could not bear the notion that another person might live in the same world with such flavors and miss tasting them.

Thinking it through, I decided the risk of offending them was pretty slight; and, anyway, less weighty than the opportunity to bring this potential experience to their attention.

I called their names. “Are you sure you don't want to expand your definition of ‘vegetable’ to include pigs just for tonight?”

They didn't. They were plenty blissed out on the oven-roasted tomatoes (from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Italian Country Table) and the raw kale salad with walnuts, mandarin oranges, and dried cranberries (from the "A Year to Eat Freely" calendar from Kim Christensen's

Eh, more for me.

There are, possibly, as many slight variations on this roast as there are families who cook it. My grandmother dictated the instructions to be over the phone many years ago, and I still have the notes I scrawled in red felt-tipped pen on the back of a research request form from the Geography Department at Lerner Publications, where I worked at the time.

Porchetta is pork stuffed with fennel, garlic, and black pepper. How much, you ask? “Some,” I answer. A bunch. Just the right amount. Whatever you think is good. This is a food I know in my heart, not in my head. I chopped up garlic until it looked like enough, ground pepper until I was satisfied. Earlier this year I chopped up and froze the fronds from Harmony Valley fennel. I could have used less, but I felt bad for it because it had been frozen. I wanted it to feel loved. So I broke up the entire quart container I’d preserved. I mixed in the garlic (say about a head of it? Maybe two?) and half the pepper (A handful. Perhaps a quarter cup) and some salt (I dunno. A few tablespoons?).

The dish is made with a pork shoulder or a Boston pork butt. This is the roast made from the thick end of the shoulder. This year, our fabulous 18” snowstorm prevented Tollefson, my favorite pork farmer, from procuring a fresh pork shoulder for me. Instead I chose a pair of roasts to piece together.

A Boston butt (hee hee hee! “Boston butt”) weights three to five pounds; the whole shoulder weighs eight to ten. One pound of this weight is the shoulder bone, which must come out. The flat part of the bone is a piece of cake; one straight slice across the width of the roast and it’s done. The other side, though, is much trickier. Viewed side-on, the bone is shaped like a triangle. From the end, though, it is a T-shaped affair that swoops and curves through the muscle, fat, and connective tissue that make the pork shoulder an incredibly flavorful and tender cut when cooked long and slow.

I finally cajoled the bones out of the roasts. Normally I’d cut two or three layers across the width of the meat, but boning had left me with four big pieces. I butterflied the thick pieces and flattened out the thinner ones. Then I spread my herb mixture over it all. I folded over and shoved together , cramming herbs into every crevice and cut surface. I used four yards of butcher string to tie up the meat any which way I could, ending up with a seven-pound roast.

I mixed the other handful of pepper with some more (another couple tablespoons?) salt and rubbed this mixture all over the porchetta. I wrapped it up tight in foil and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I allowed two hours for the roast to come to room temperature; then started it, still foil-wrapped, in a 300° oven. I used a meat thermometer, since I was planning to cook it for five hours or more. But if I didn’t have one, I simply would have worried less and trusted more. Pork shoulder is so forgiving of overcooking. It is so well marbled and shot through with collagen. I’m not sure what it would take to dry one out. Maybe a volcano. Or someday when the earth consumes the sun. Not my partner’s little gas oven, that’s for sure.

For the last hour and a half, I peeled back the foil and cranked the temperature up to 350° so the meat would brown. I pulled it out of the oven at the five-hour mark, tented it, and let it rest a half hour. At this point, six or eight people suddenly needed to come in the kitchen. Where was the ice? Could they have some water? Did I need any help?

I had to insist, three times and increasingly loudly, that everyone get the hell out of my kitchen.

Finally, we carve. Another fun thing about pork shoulder is the grain: it is meaningless. You can start out cutting across it, but a) it doesn’t matter – the meat is falling-apart tender; and b) it is just going to change direction in about three slices. Do what you can. It doesn’t matter if you are a good carver or a poor one. Everyone is going to have one taste and forget everything except how delicious the meal is.

Buon Scintillina, e mangiamo!

(Happy Sparklemas, and let’s eat!)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Kung Fu Is the Best

Check out how small my cookie scrappins is.

Aww, that's right. The one in the center is all that was left. The rest of the dough got rolled out and made into Sparklemas cookies.

My recipe is here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gluten-Free Sparklemas Cookies

I feel a little bit sick to my stomach from eating 15 square inches of mistakes, and I’m wondering what kind of gastrointestinal hell there will be to pay later. But overall, I’m going to declare a success of my first foray into gluten-free baking. Yay!

Last weekend I made the season’s first gingerbread cookies to share with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family. A small but growing number of people in my life are eating gluten-free. Many are trying to avoid refined sugar, dairy, and other animal products. I want to include these people in my cookie plans, but who wants to get a cookie they can’t eat?

Thanks to Kim Christensen, who pointed me in the direction of The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen blog, where I found a recipe for Spiced Teff Cookie Bars. I dialed down the vanilla to 1 teaspoon, the cinnamon to 2 teaspoons, and the ginger to the full 2 teaspoons. Well, I measured the ginger kind of sloppy because I like ginger.

This recipe tasted great—just like traditional gingerbread. The texture was a little bit gritty, as gluten-free baking is wont to be. Once the bars cooled, I could make fairly clean cuts using a sharp knife. The bars held their shape well, too.

I thought I’d use my deep metal cookie cutters to make Sparklemas shapes, which I would then decorate with nuts and dried fruits. Pushing the cutter into the pan was easy, but convincing the cookie—like a very soft brownie—to pop out of the cutter in one piece was more of a challenge. Cutting the bars warm definitely did not work. Cutting them cold was better, and cutting them slightly frozen was best of all. The larger and simpler the cutter, the easier a time I had. (No gingerbread people shapes, alas.) I used the side of a knife tip to push down on the corners a little at a time, and soon my cookie slid free.

I set out to make a dozen or more cookies, but I only got eight usable ones. I screwed several of them up while learning the principles outlined above. There was a high ratio of trimmings to cookies as well. I think I will make these again, but perhaps I will cut them into squares or diamonds and decorate each one with a dried cranberry, a slivered almond, a sprinkling of coconut flakes, or a dusting of cinnamon. They will not be as cute, but they will still taste great. And as my overfilled belly will attest, you don’t really have to eat very many of them to feel like you’ve had an abundant amount of gluten-free Sparklemas cookies.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Zucca Due Colori

It’s that time of year again. Sparklemas is on its way, and I’m experimenting with what we should have for dinner. Last year I made a giant porchetta and pumpkin ravioli. This year, I want to mix it up a little. I like the flavors of squash and sage, but I don’t want to paint myself into the corner of making labor-intensive ravioli every year.

I tried a pan-fried squash dish and served it over gnocchi. Gnocchi are a favorite of mine: pillowy little dumplings of potato and flour, chewy and surprisingly filing. They’re comfort food and just the thing for me on a deep, dark winter night.

Problem, though: the softness and blandness of the gnocchi do not make much of a contrast for the squash. And, as it turns out, not everyone likes their texture. (Cough. Beth. Ahem.) I felt the sweetness of the dish needed a little something… perhaps a splash of balsamico.

Overall, I’d call the squash a win as a side dish. The squash is sumptuous and sweet; the savor of onions, garlic, and sage complement it well.

Zucca Due Colori
That is, two-color squash. Butternut and Festival are what I happened to have in the fridge. Who knew they were going to look so pretty together?

1 butternut squash (orange flesh), peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 Festival squash (yellow flesh), peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
12 dried sage leaves
3 T butter
Salt and pepper
A pound of cooked pasta, if you want
A fistful of Italian parsley, chopped
A sprinkling of grated Parmesan

Heat the butter in a large sauté pan and fry the onion until it is translucent. Toss the garlic and sage in after it and fry a minute more until they start to give off scent.

Throw in the squash cubes. They should fit in one layer; if they are too crowded, you may need to do this part in two shifts. Stir and toss the squash constantly until they start showing sear marks. If your pan is getting too sticky, throw in a tablespoon or two of water to release the caramely bits and keep things moving.

When the squash shows evidence of browning, add a quarter cup of water to the pan, turn down the heat, and cover. Let the squash cook until soft, ten or fifteen minutes. You should start the pasta during this time if you are going to serve the squash on top of it.

Turn the squash into a serving bowl, deglaze the pan with a little more water, and pour all the browned delicious bits over the squash. Toss with pasta if you are going that route. Sprinkle the bowl, or each serving, with the parsley and cheese. A splash of balsamic vinegar might brighten things up, too.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


Clockwise from bottom center: Concorde (large yellow), Bartlett
(large yellow), two Forelles, Bosc, two Seckels. Center: D'Anjou

Oh, jeez, sorry about that title. I really am. But… but… but it’s just that I’m comparing pears! And as I write this, it is STILL FUNNY!

OK, OK, OK. Down to business. So, this holiday coming in December: Beth and I have renamed it Sparklemas. Neither of us considers herself Christian, but we still want to celebrate the holiday of our childhoods. She likes the decorations. I like the food. And we know the reason for the season: it’s midwinter, the darkest time of the year, the time when we turn the corner. For thousands of years, people have celebrated because even though we might still starve or freeze to death this winter, at least we will do it during increasingly longer periods of daylight.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be getting ready. Beth will ornament her home with light and music. I will immerse myself in experiments of scent and flavor. On the big day, we’ll bring it all together: with sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, we’ll welcome light, hope, warmth, joy, and comfort into our own hearts and offer these gifts to those around us.

To do that, we’re going to need some pears.

But what kind? To find out, I bought a selection from the grocery store on Wednesday and let them ripen in a bowl until today, Sunday. They were beautiful: all sensuous curves, glowing colors, and perfume. It was almost a shame to eat them. But we tried each kind and we settled on our favorites.

Each of us agreed on our second favorite: good old Bartlett, the standard canning pear. Its classic shape and flavor, plus its cheerful yellow color, would make it a welcome guest on any fruit plate.

My favorite was Concorde. I think it’s the prettiest. It has a musky, almost melonlike flavor redolent of vanilla.

Beth’s favorite was Bosc. “Hands down,” she said. This pear is sweet with plenty of fragrance, but with a clean taste that appeals to her.

Here, in no particular order, are our tasting notes. Click on them to make them legible. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tiramisu as Big as You!

Last night was Big Goddamn Steak Night. It’s a time to celebrate, to gather with friends, to reflect, and to eat a really high-fat meal. Well, all except for the part about reflecting. Big Goddamn Steak Night would sum up everything that’s wrong with America if it weren’t all done ironically.

Except for dessert. The “Tiramisu as Big as You” course is in deadly earnest. And this year, when eggs are filled with salmonella and the world’s chocolate supplies dwindle, nothing could be a better reminder of how precious and fleeting our lives really are.

And because life is short, BGDSN tiramisu is special. For one thing, there’s a ton of it. For another thing, it does not have ladyfingers. Who wants to eat some stale-ass, nothing-flavored cookie the size, color, and texture of a tongue depressor? Not me. That’s why I make my tiramisu with chocolate cake.

If, before you leave this world, you want to eat a holiday dessert as spectacular—and as big—as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, then I have here just the thing for you.

Tiramisu as Big as You
There are four steps to tiramisu: cake, zabaglione, cream, and assembly. This dessert takes four or five hours to make and dirties up every bowl you own. When you’re done, though, you can serve twelve people.

Why take a perfectly good, made-from-scratch chocolate cake and tear it down? Trust me. Everything the cake lost shall be restored a hundredfold. It’s like the cake is Job.

I cut this recipe in half and changed the pan from a 9" × 13" because I always have too much cake left over.

½ c milk
2 t lemon juice or vinegar
1 c sugar *
¼ c butter
1 egg
¼ c cocoa powder
1 ¼ c flour
¼ t salt
1 ½ t soda
½ t vanilla
½ c boiling water

Stir the lemon juice into the milk and set aside. Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar; beat in the egg.

Beat in half the dry ingredients, then half the milk, then the rest of the dry stuff, then the last of the milk. Stir in the vanilla.

While the batter isn’t paying attention, dump in the boiling water all at once and blend it in! AIIEEEEE!

Pour into a greased, floured 8" × 8" pan and bake at 350° for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool the cake for 10 minutes, then turn it out of the pan and cool some more until you can handle the cake. Cut it in half and cut each half into 12 to 16 slices. Lay each slice on its side on a cookie sheet and pop those back in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the slices over and toast them for another 10 minutes. Lay the cake-toast-slices on the cooling rack until perfectly cool. They will be crunchy. This is a good thing.

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Next up: you are making a super-eggy-licious traditional Italian dessert (or breakfast, depending on whom you ask). Zabaglione is quite fine in its own right, rich with eggs and the raisiny-caramel flavor of Marsala. But stay strong and keep going. This is going to be fantastic!

10 eggs
⅔ c sugar
⅔ c Marsala wine
2 T water

Get yourself a heat-proof bowl, a candy thermometer, a whisk or hand mixer, a rubber scraper, and a pan of not-quite-simmering water.

Separate 10 eggs and put the yolks and the sugar together in a heat-proof bowl. Beat until lemony-yellow and thick, maybe three to five minutes. Beat in the Marsala and water.

Now the tricky part. Plunk your bowl in the pan of simmering water and start beating those eggs. As you beat them, they will cook and thicken and turn amazing. You are in a race against the hot water: you want the eggs to reach 160°, which is safe eating temperature. But you don’t want to work so slowly that the eggs stick to your bowl. So beat like crazy, scrape down quickly if you need to, and periodically check the temperature.

If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you might want to resign yourself to the fact that life is dangerous. You might want to use trustworthy eggs from a known-to-be-safe source, either way.

When you have achieved the proper temperature and your egg mixture is the consistency of softly whipped cream, you can stop. You did it, rock star! Take the bowl out of the water and set it aside to cool for at least 15 minutes.

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This part of the recipe seems pedestrian, but everything’s about to come together. You’ve done the hard parts! Now it’s time to torture an appalling amount of dairy fat into behaving like a solid instead of a liquid.

1 c heavy whipping cream
1-2 t vanilla
16-24 oz mascarpone cheese

Combine the vanilla and heavy whipping cream and beat at least to the soft peak stage. Maybe you could stop just short of stiff peaks.

In another, much larger bowl, beat the mascarpone until smooth. Blend in the whipped cream and the cooled zabaglione. You may need to pop this in the refrigerator while you get ready for…

1 c strong coffee, cooled
2 T sugar
3 T brandy
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, grated
2-3 T cocoa powder
In a shallow dish, mix the coffee, sugar, and brandy until sugar is dissolved.

Assemble your friends: cake-toast, booze-spresso, vat of creamy cream cream, and the two kinds of pulverized chocolate. Find yourself a glass bowl, too. There are at least two schools of thought on bowls. Some people like to use a wide, shallow bowl. They divide the cake and cream in halves and just do two layers. I have a tall V-shaped bowl that allows me to make many layers. Think about what kind of drama you want to create and how you will manage to serve the dessert, then make your choice.

Dip pieces of cake in the coffee mixture and arrange them in the bottom of the bowl. It’s OK to leave some space between and around the cake. Cover the cake with a layer of cream, burying it maybe a half inch thick. Sprinkle the cream with grated chocolate, covering up the surface.

Repeat layers of cake-cream-chocolate until you reach the top of the bowl or you are going to run out of something. The topmost layer should be grated chocolate.

Put the cocoa powder in a sieve and dust the top of the dessert artfully. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate overnight, or at least 6 hours, to give the cream a chance to set up.

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On 12.23.2010 the quantity of sugar was corrected to 1 cup from 2 cups. I am so very sorry, Amy Rea.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Ballad of Mr. Turnip

This here’s a story about a giant turnip, the woman who destroyed him (that would be me), and his ultimate redemption (I hope).

I was looking for someone else when I found Mr. Turnip at a Minneapolis Farmer’s Market stall. I’d never seen anything like him: a giant turnip almost as big as my head. He was grotesque… yet magnificent. He only cost a dollar! How could I pass him up?

And once I got him home, well, what the hell was I going to do with him? I put him on my kitchen scale, but I did not have enough weights to measure him. I stacked up a package of gnocchi; cans of coconut milk, tomato paste, and Amy’s brand lentil vegetable soup; two bars of Ghirardelli unsweetened chocolate; a bag of Bob’s Red Mill oat bran cereal; and a stray ounce of bittersweet chocolate. Mr. Turnip weighed slightly more than all of it put together. That put him at around five pounds.

Hmm… five pounds. If Mr. Turnip were a cabbage, I could make a gallon of sauerkraut out of him. I’d read that turnips, if given the same treatment, turn into sauerruben: reputedly even better than kraut. We’d just see about that.

As I peeled him, Mr. Turnip released a sulphurous odor that stung my nose and made my eyes water. Had I made a huge mistake? Maybe I should have left him whole and gone as Zaphod Beeblebrox for Halloween. But when I cut him in half, my fears were quelled: Mr. Turnip’s heart was clean and sweet.

With a few minutes’ work, he was a mound of snowy white shreds. I tossed him with three tablespoons of canning salt and packed him into a bag.
“There you go,” I told him. “Get to work.”

I left him alone for a few days. He made plenty of brine, but I didn’t see many of the bubbles that would tell me he was fermenting. This I didn’t like: he turned brown. What was he doing in there?

Ugh, who wanted to know. I left him alone until this afternoon, when I hauled him out into the light of day. I plunked him on a table, opened up his Ziploc, and had a taste.

Mr. Turnip—Herr Sauerruben, I should call him now—still has the faintest whiff of sulphur about him. But fermentation has turned him complex and flavorful. He is milder than sauerkraut, but he has a hint of the same bite as horseradish. There’s a meaty umami flavor to him. He reminds me of daikon pickled in soy sauce.

So here we stand. Mr. Turnip has emerged from his ordeal a transformed being. But I am asking the same question: What the hell am I going to do with him?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Creative Waste of Food

Usually I don't carve a jack o'lantern. I think it’s a waste of a perfectly good, delightfully edible pumpkin.

But this year one of my decorative-until-I-kill-and-eat-you pumpkins developed a soft spot. Eh. Why not. I’ve been threatening to do this for years. I just hope my house doesn’t get egged.

Of course, I can still eat the seeds:

* Separate the seeds from the goop as well as possible.
* Soak overnight, then rinse. This helps get rid of any remaining innards.
* Toss with salt and olive oil.
* Spread the seeds in a shallow pan. Make one layer.
* Toast in the oven at 350° for about 30 minutes. Stir and/or shake up the pan once or twice during toasting so everyone gets a chance to turn golden and delicious.

Happy Halloween, everyone. And you kids: get off my lawn!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beer/Pie Pairings with Amy and Joe

Did you know Curran’s Restaurant has Pie Happy Hour? I kid you not. From 2pm to 5pm and from 7pm to close, you can waltz in there and have a slice of pie for a dollar.

This is the kind of friendly customer-centric, get-‘em-in-the-door promotion I’d expect from Curran’s. They have been a neighborhood standard for more than sixty years. Think of a homegrown Perkin’s or Country Kitchen with career waitstaff. The clientele is a mix of families, elders, and high school couples on weeknight dates. So it is a little bit of a surprise to learn that Curran’s also has a long list of foreign, domestic, and craft beers in bottles.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

My friend Joe and I headed over for a flight of beer and pie. We ordered two beers and two slices of pie each. We split each beer and managed to eke out eight bites from each slice, eight sips from each half-beer. Our tasting notes are transcribed below. We were, in spite of ourselves, surprised by what we learned.

The worst beer overall, to my chagrin, was my own longtime favorite: Summit EPA. It performed poorly with every pie we tried, although it was tolerable with apple. Apple, we found, was the all-around good beer companion. While it did not excel with any beer we tasted, it made an acceptable sidekick to all of them. “The Will Smith of the pies,” remarked Joe.

The worst pie was blueberry. Curran’s blueberry pie is nothing to write home about in the first place; it’s an uninspired assembly of canned blueberry filling and pale crust. But had it been a better pie, it would only have been a bigger shame to eat it with beer. Time after time, flavors clashed like a pair of second-rate drag queens angling for the same spot on the dance floor. The Summit EPA and blueberry pairing was a complete loser.

The overall best match was Blue Moon and pumpkin. Curran’s tremblingly tender custard tastes strongly of fresh pumpkin and nutmeg. When that flavor combines with smooth, clean Blue Moon, it’s a magical moment.

So what’s next for beer/pie pairings? Curran’s has other beers to try, other pies to probe. Maybe a beer/pie potluck, where everyone brings either a six-pack or a pastry?

Beer and Pie Tasting Notes
Click to enlarge!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cardoons: Once is Enough

Note: There is an F-bomb in this post. You were warned.

Cardoons! Limited supply! Only take some if you can experiment with them and report back! So said the CSA announcement this week. Cardoons! I’d heard of them and been hoping for years to try them.

According to a British gardening book that I have somewhere in my house but can no longer find, cardoons are a tall and dramatic-looking member of the thistle family, a relative of artichokes, and a back-of-the-garden oddity. It used to be a common vegetable but fell out of favor sometime before the invention of the combustion engine. I’d filed the bit of information away in case I ever met this plant. And now, thanks to Harmony Valley, it was staring me in the face!

Cardoon looks like celery crossed with an iguana. It is flocked with grayish-green fuzz....

....and studded with quarter-inch spines. It’s as if aliens planted a Jurassic-era garden; or some mild-mannered vegetable got blasted with gamma rays and then got pissed off. Wow! This was going to be so cool!

A little checking around revealed that cardoon should be de-leafed, de-thorned, and cleaned of tough strings; then boiled for fifteen minutes to an hour. It can then be made into things like crudités or salads. Joy of Cooking suggested it might taste like artichoke. I decided on a gratine. This was going to be great! I’d serve it as a surprise treat to Saturday’s dinner guests.

As I prepared the cardoons, excitement soured into doubt. These stalks were awfully big and stringy. That gray bloom turned out to be a layer that sometimes peeled off like onionskin. I cut them into the two-inch lengths that Joy suggested and set them to boil in water spiked with salt and lemon juice.

Beth arrived to help with dinner preparations. “What can I do?” she asked. “Oh,” I tossed back breezily, “how about if you make the Mornay sauce?” I rattled off the directions over my shoulder as I poked the boiling cardoons with a spoon. “Like this?” she asked, some minutes later. I looked into the pan. Beth had made a textbook sauce. It was perfectly smooth, white, and uniform. The sides of the pan weren’t even dirty. Damn!

I drained the cardoons. They looked as if they had lost an election of some sort, or perhaps as if they owed money to the Mob.

I poured Beth’s beautiful sauce into a buttered dish and started laying cardoon pieces in, grumbling all the while. “You don’t sound too confident. You’re going to serve this to guests?” Beth demanded. So, drums rolling, I tasted a cardoon.

A high note of baking soda sang above a base taste of overcooked silage, followed by a convulsive sourness. “Oh, try this,” I gasped. “No way,” said Beth, backing away. I snatched the pieces out of the Mornay, horrified that they would taint it. And then I looked down at them, all sauce-smeared in the colander.

I never until this day met a vegetable I didn’t like. And I hate to waste anything. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and picked up one of the sauced pieces. This one was tenderer. The silky Mornay smoothed away most of the bitterness. The flavor and texture were like a mild, soft artichoke heart. I saw how this might have worked: tender inner stalks broiled up with sauce and cheese could have made a not too unattractive presentation, and they might even approach enjoyable.

But you know what? Fuck it. Cardoons are a lot of work for something only a little bit delicious. And a lot of people, my guests included, don’t even like artichoke. I dumped the whole mess straight in the trash. Sorry, cardoons.

I can see why people stopped eating these things. What I can’t see is why anyone ever decided to eat this in the first place. Maybe some feudal peasant saw her donkey munching a roadside thistle and shoved him out of the way to grab it for herself. Maybe when the choices were cardoons or nothing, cardoons were worth the fuss.

Even though I didn’t like them, I’m thankful to Harmony Valley for the opportunity to try cardoons. It had been a longtime dream, and now I can mark it up as a lifetime achievement.

Don’t try this at home
Here’s what I was going to do, had my initial bite not been so shatteringly unpleasant.

1 lb de-thorned, de-leafed, de-stringed cardoon stalks, cut in 2" pieces
2 T lemon juice
1 t salt
2 T butter
2 T flour
1½ c whole milk at room temperature
¾ c grated Swiss cheese, divided in half

Put the cardoon pieces in a pot with 8 cups of water, the lemon and salt. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes and drain.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and whisk in the flour. Whisk until very smooth. Add the milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Whisk and whisk over medium heat until the sauce thickens. Take it off the heat and whisk in half the cheese.

Butter a glass or ceramic baking dish and pour in half the sauce. Lay the cardoon pieces in the sauce, overlapping each other slightly, and cover them with the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake in a 375° oven until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is toasty and just browned, about 20 minutes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

There’s a country song in here somewhere

I had a notion I was going to get my heart broken when I walked up to him in the lunchroom.

“John,” I said, twirling the kitchen knife in my hand, “would you help me out with something?”

John looked up and smiled—not at the knife, but at the two large apples I held in my other hand. When John’s not at work, he’s an epicure with a well-trained palate. He was exactly the person I needed. I sat down, arranging the objects on the table between us. “We’re going to do a little experiment,” I said.

“As you know, this is the second year of SweeTango—the controversial new apple from the University of Minnesota. It’s touted as even better than my beloved favorite, Honeycrisp.”

“I have here two apples,” I continued. “One is a Honeycrisp. One is a SweeTango. We’re going to try them, talk about what we taste, and decide which one is better. Then I’ll tell you which is which. I’m too biased to be objective, so I’m interested to hear your opinion.”

John was in.

We started by looking at the apples. They were lovely, their rosy red skins striated with yellowish green. The only way to tell them apart was by size. “Not much difference,” John said.

I cut each in half. One of the apples had yellower flesh than the other. The second apple had a hurt spot in the center, but we dismissed that as unimportant. Texture appeared otherwise identical.

We tasted the first apple. Good crunch! We both found it very sweet, but it also had a contrasting acidic kick. “Nice tang,” John remarked. The flavors were high, sharp, and bright, with a cidery undertone. John gave his approval, and I agreed.

On to apple number two. Upon biting in, John exclaimed, “This has a grapey flavor to it.” He was right. Though sweet and equally crunchy as the first apple, the flavor was more muted and rounded. It was a softer, fruitier taste. Another very good apple, we concluded.

“So,” I asked, “which is better?”

John guessed that the first apple was Honeycrisp and declared that he liked it better.

I smiled sadly. I agreed with John’s judgment. The bright, tangy apple was indeed the tastier of the two. But he guessed wrong: it wasn’t the Honeycrisp.

Cue the music:

Dang you, SweeTango, I hate you
Like I hate the sun in the sky.
I hate you so bad, I hate your mom and your dad,
I hate you so much I could cry.

Dang you, SweeTango, I hate you
Like I hate the stars up above.
They don’t have to flaunt you, I hate you ‘cause I want you
Even more than the one that I love.

Monday, September 27, 2010

¡Vivan Chiles Rellenos!

If you’re all wondering what to do with a poblano pepper, then you should go stuff it.

Har har har! No, really. And then you should batter it and fry it and serve it with a bunch of its friends.

Perhaps once a year I make chiles rellenos (say “ray-YAY-nohs.” Do not call them “reh-lennowz” unless you are still eating tor-til-ah chips.) from Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking. To me, they epitomize the complexity of Mexican food. Even the most seemingly simple Mexican dish can involve multiple cooking methods and several iterations of processing. Making rellenos is like making four different dishes: roasting, peeling, and seeding the chiles; making the stuffing; making the sauce; and, finally, battering and frying the chiles. Add some side dishes to the meal, and you could be cooking all day a la Like Water for Chocolate.

This time, though, I tried to keep things simple. I used a good brand of canned refried black beans, and I used cheese for the filling. I made a very quick and easy tomatillo salsa for an appetizer and an even quicker and easier red tomato sauce to nap on the chiles. I rounded out the meal with a pot of white rice and a simple stewed zucchini with yellow cherry tomatoes and oregano. I forgot to set out the corn tortillas I’d bought, but nobody missed them. Dessert was vanilla ice cream or muskmelon, a cup of coffee, and a sliver of chocolate spiced with cinnamon and cayenne.

Chiles Rellenos
There are four stages: the chiles, the sauce, the filling, and the frying. Finally, we eat!

The Chiles
You can stuff any pepper, but traditional cooks use the poblano. These dark green, glossy triangles are relatively mild and about the size of a fist. Start with more chiles than you’re planning to serve; I promise at least one of them will end up in shreds while you are preparing it. Roast them on a grill or under a broiler, then peel them (here’s how). Find the weakest part of the chile, slit it open lengthwise, and sweep out the seeds and veins, being careful not to tear the flesh. You may need to wipe off your fingers, or your chile, with a towel as you work. Put the cleaned chile on a plate or cookie rack. You can do this a day ahead.

The Sauce
According to Kennedy, rellenos are traditionally heated up in a sauce—essentially, a very simple tomato reduction thinned with chicken broth. I opted to skip the broth and ended up with a tangy and fresh-tasting tomato sauce. You can make this ahead of time.

2 or 3 tomatoes
2 T chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
1-2 T oil
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a blender and liquefy. Heat the oil in a well-seasoned skillet. Dump in the tomato mixture and fry until reduced, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. (At this point Kennedy has you add 2 ¼ cups of chicken broth and cook 5 minutes more.) Salt to taste.

The Filling
Recipes abound for the relleno, or stuffing, part of chiles rellenos. You can use seasoned meat, or maybe potatoes and chorizo. I found queso Chihuahua, the quintessential Mexican melting cheese, at the Wedge. Muenster would be the next best choice. I cut it in strips about the size of my index finger. A large poblano will take two or three of these pieces; for a tiny chile, I cut one in half.

Put cheese inside the chile, being careful not to tear it. The chile should be nice and full, but the sides of the hole should overlap a bit. If you opt to close the slit with a toothpick, be sure to warn your guests.

The Frying
Cover a plate with several layers of paper towels and put it in the oven at 200° F. Get out a big frying pan and pour in about an inch of oil. Canola is nice. Put the pan on a medium-high burner.

Now make the batter. For every four to six big chiles, get these things:

3 eggs
¼ t salt
⅓ c flour

Separate the eggs. Beat the whites until they are stiff and turning dry. Beat in the yolks, one by one, and the salt.

OK, here we go. It’s showtime. I always get very scared at this point. I’m convinced that the chiles will come apart, stick to the pan, catch on fire, splatter everywhere, or burn black. But not one of those things has ever happened. They always fry up like magic.

Plan to work with one or two chiles at a time. Dredge a chile in flour...

then hold it by its stem and dunk it in the batter.

Gently lay the chile in the hot oil and let it cook golden brown. Use two spatulas to turn it on its side (or flip it right over if it is very small). Fry each chile on all sides...

then remove to the plate to drain.

Hey, look at that! It worked!

Let’s eat!

If you did the broth thing, you can put the rellenos in the sauce and heat them up for five minutes or so. Otherwise, plate ‘em up! Serve each guest one big chile or two smaller ones. You can pool the sauce under them or nap it on top.

¡Buen provecho!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beef Soup: True Enough

My friend John Reimringer has just published his first novel, Vestments. John has called it his love letter to the city of St. Paul. Indeed, the city’s presence is strong throughout the book, shaping the characters’ daily lives, their choices, their reactions to each other—just as cities do in real life.

After listening to him read from Vestments, I decided John should have some soup and it must be of beef. For this man, a steer should be hewn down in its prime and laid low with long simmering. And so I’d make stock. As an homage, the ingredients would come from the St. Paul Farmers Market.

I got beef shanks from Farm on Wheels. I put them, together with cubed beef chuck, in the oven to roast while I prepared the aromatics. First, the strong leaves of an unblanched celery plant. Yellow onions and sage would bolster John and his wife, poet Katrina Vandenberg, with their pungency. But I added bay and rosemary, black pepper and sweet carrots, too, to soften and round out the flavors; I wanted my friends to be happy. Oh, and a bit of garlic, too. They would get no less than the best.

I put the bones to bed in a crock pot, their vegetable friends tucked in all around them. Then I let slow heat work its magic, easing subtle fingers into the hearts of marrow bones, smoothing out collagen and fat, drawing out essences; leaving the souls of vegetables and meat suspended in cooking liquid.

Finally, when I tasted a bit of meat, there was nothing beefy about it anymore. I strained the broth, defatted it, and cooked it down until it was strong, velvety, and satisfying. In went a half cup of pearled barley along with the beef cubes I roasted earlier. It would take about forty-five minutes for the grain to cook. In that time, I diced some more carrots and sliced shallots, then chopped some green beans for color and fun.

The weird thing about being friends with a novelist and a poet is this: I worry that I know a lot more about them than they can possibly have deduced about me. Their jobs are to make art, and art is emotional truth. A poem, the characters in a novel: they are shards of the author’s self caught and pinned onto the page like an entomological specimen. It’s published and out there, for better or for worse. Little bits of their truths are available on for anyone in the world to buy and read in black and white.

I brought two quarts of my emotional truth, still hot from the stove, to another of John’s readings on a rainy night last week. Soup can’t say everything. I hope it said enough.


What am I supposed to do with all these little peppers that Harmony Valley keeps sending? The neighbors with whom I share the CSA don’t want to deal with them, so I have been inheriting entire paper sacks full of thin-fleshed red, orange, and yellow jewels not much bigger than a thumb.

I’ve been stacking them up like a miser with gold coins. But no more. You can’t hoard food; you have to spend it, however precious and rare it may be. I know just the thing to do with these dear ones. If you want to show a pepper to full advantage, you roast it.

This would be better done over a wood fire or on a charcoal grill, but my stove’s broiler works just fine. I have cookie sheets that are specially designated for roasting peppers. They are blackened with the unctuous pepper juices that ooze out and burn to the pan, never to be scrubbed free. These sheets will not bake cookies again.

Regiment your peppers, rank and file, leaving an inch or two between them so the hot, dry air of the broiler or grill can reach everywhere. Put them on the heat and go do something else until you hear them squeal and pop. Be brave; leave them until their skins are blackened and blistered. Then turn them. For large bell peppers, you may have to char four sides plus top and bottom. For these little dolls, one flip did the trick.

When the peppers are well charred, dump them into a paper bag and close them up. You can also use a bowl and cover them with a dish towel. The idea is to let them sweat their skins off. The hollow center of the pepper is filled with steam that will continue cooking the flesh and make the peppers easier to peel.

Finally, fish the peppers out of their sweat lodge. Pull off their skins, then pull out their caps. Tear them in half, dodging steam and hot liquid. Scoop out the seeds with your thumb, if the heat doesn’t bother you, or with a spoon or the back of a knife. It helps if you keep a small fingerbowl of water while you fillet your peppers. Rinse your fingers if you need to, but avoid rinsing the pepper flesh. You will wash off all the roasty deliciousness.

When you are finished, then perhaps more of the afternoon will have passed than you intended. Maybe your fingers will be pink and tender from the steam. But you will have a bowl of riches that no one can buy any other way.

What to do with your newmade treasure? You can make a mighty fine sandwich from roasted peppers, sprouts, your favorite cheese, and maybe a dab of olive oil and fines herbes. You can purée them into a cream soup that will make people drop their nets on the shore and follow you for the rest of their lives. You can pickle them in white wine vinegar with a little salt and sugar, then get them out some horrible February day to remind yourself that there is such thing as summer.

I put some of mine on top of a focaccia.

Whole Wheat Focaccia with Shallots and Roasted Red Peppers

1 package yeast
¾c lukewarm water
1 T sugar
½ c flour
Another 2 c white flour
And 2c whole wheat flour
1 t salt
1 c water
1 c olive oil
2 or 3 shallots, sliced thin
Another 2-3 T olive oil
1 cup roasted peppers, skinned and seeded
Sea salt to taste

Mix up the yeast, the lukewarm water, and the sugar. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes in a warm place. When you return, the solution should be foaming like gangbusters. This “proves” the yeast, i.e. demonstrates that it is alive and ready to do its job. Congratulate the yeast on its virility and add the ½ cup flour. Go away for about a half hour.

When you return, the yeast will have made a hell of a job with that flour. You will have a bowl of oatmeal-colored gloop shot through with bubbles from the action of the yeast. You may wish to signal your appreciation with a low whistle. This gloop is called the “sponge.”

Mix the flours and the salt in a big bowl. Make a well with your fist or a spoon. Pour in the remaining water, 1c oil, and the sponge. Use a rubber scraper to mix this mess up until all the flour is incorporated and the dough ball is starting to look a bit raggedy. Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until it is smooth. Put it in an oiled bowl; the big bowl you were just using will probably work. Put a little oil on your palm and slather it across the dough surface to keep things from drying out. Cover the bowl with foil, plastic wrap, or a cloth and set it in a warm spot. (If your kitchen is drafty, preheat the oven to 200 and turn it off. When you open the door, you’ll lose 100 degrees anyway. Put the bowl in there.) In about an hour to 90 minutes, the dough will have doubled in size.

While that’s happening, put the sliced shallots in a small pan with the last bit of oil. Sweat them in there at low heat until they are golden or until you get sick of it. This should take around 20-30 minutes.

When you’ve finished washing the dishes and calling your friend Betty, then turn the dough out of the bowl and onto a greased cookie sheet. If you prefer, you can divide the dough into two loaves at this time. Spread it out with your hands until it is about an inch thick. Scatter the shallots and oil across the dough, then add the peppers in artful arrangements. Preheat the oven to 350°. Allow the dough to rise again, around 20-30 minutes. Bake the bread for 20-35 minutes, until the crust is browned and makes a hollow sound when you tap it. Sprinkle sea salt on top of the loaf. Make it look pretty.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

These Beans Are Greek to Me

How Greek is this dish? Heck if I know. I had it on vacation two weeks ago in a restaurant called Ethos. The hostess had a large swooping mane of platinum-colored hair and a flowy tiger-striped blouse. She kept the waiting list in her head and seemingly knew what every single person in the restaurant, whether staff or customer, was doing and what they needed next. She was born to be a maîtresse d’hôtel.

That staff of hers is great, too. Our server knew not only every dish, but every one of a dozen fish on the menu by their Greek and English names. Some of them were catch of the day. She knew all those fish well enough to have a favorite.

She brought a green bean dish with a sharpish-tasting tomato sauce. There was a subtly sweet, woodsy undertone to it, though, that I could not place. Finally I found and identified the culprit: whole allspice. Who would expect to find that at a Greek restaurant?

Well, when your mouth is full of something good, you don’t need to know what’s Greek. You just need to enjoy.

Ethos Green Beans
The allspice berries at Ethos were nearly tasteless, their deliciousness having escaped into the sauce via stewing. My guess is that the chef starts a batch of the sauce in the afternoon and then keeps it on the back burner all night. When the kitchen receives an order for this dish, maybe Chef scoops up a dollop of sauce, tosses in the beans and dill, and then simmers them tender while he or she makes the rest of the meal.

2 T olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups chopped tomatoes (I used a pint of cherry tomatoes plus one small beefsteak tomato)
½ cup white wine
3 allspice berries
A sprig of oregano
1 lb green beans
2-3 T chopped fresh dill
Salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a wide-bottomed, deep pan. Sauté the garlic and onion until translucent. Toss in the chopped tomatoes and fry them a bit until the pan starts to dry out. Add the wine, allspice, and oregano. Turn down the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for fifteen or twenty minutes. Check the pan often and throw in some water if things are getting too dry. It would be best if the dish could simmer on low heat for a long time, but if there isn’t time for that, cook it harder. The idea is for the tomatoes to break down into a thin sauce.

Throw in the green beans and the dill, stir, and cover the pan again. Let the pot stew, stirring occasionally, until the beans are quite tender, perhaps ten minutes or more. They will not be the bright green of steamed beans; they will start to turn olive-colored.
For the last minute or two, take the cover off the pan and check the thickness of the sauce. It should be thin but with some body, like gravy. You may need to let some extra water steam off.

Season to taste. Yum!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Open Letter to Target

It’s my blog, so I get to go off-topic sometimes. Fellow food lovers, I have to get something off my chest.

Dear Target:

I’ve been your loyal customer for literally all my life. As a kid growing up in Minnesota, I formed some of my earliest shopping-related memories in the speckled white linoleum aisles of Duluth’s Target store. In college, that store was my go-to place for everything. Now that I’m climbing onto the bottom rung of middle age, I can’t think of a store I like better. That’s why it breaks my heart to tell you I’ll never shop at Target again.

There are so many reasons why I love your brand and your stores. There’s the merchandise, of course, and the prices. I’ve smugly identified with your cultivated image of the Target shopper: smart and fun; stylish, yet approachable. Yes. I am soooo much cooler than people who shop at discount stores.

I can’t tell you how many times I have defended you to opponents of big-box retail. “Target is different,” I’d say. “They treat their employees like people.” (I know this because as a cash-strapped young adult, I had a second job at the Knollwood Mall store in St. Louis Park.) I have advocated for you to people who think you are corporate drones. “Target cares about communities,” I’d argue. “They give a percentage of their profits to local charities. They send cadres of volunteers.”

And of course, your support for queer people and their causes is legendary. Target has long been a presence at the Minnesota AIDS Walk; AIDS is still popularly, though wrongly, thought of as a gay disease. Target takes up a big corner of Loring Park at Pride every summer. And no queer Target corporate employee needs to work in the closet, as you (inexplicably, still) have a 100% rating from HRC.

Over the years, you’ve made it clear your queer customers and employees are important to you. It’s just as clear that they are not as important as the possibility of an economic climate that might be a little more conducive to your financial growth. For me, your $150,000 campaign donation to a homophobe belied all the good you’ve ever done. I believed you when you said you’re sorry you gave the money. But I can’t help but notice that you did not ask for it back. And I cannot help but wonder if you’re planning to make another such donation in the future.

I have one political dream for my lifetime: to live in a country where I am not a second-class citizen. To live in an America that holds good to the promises in our Constitution: that full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. That Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. That no state shall make or enforce any law which shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

If I shop at Target, Target will make a profit. And I have no indication that Target will not give some of that profit to politicians who work to defeat my dream. That’s why I cannot spend another cent with you. I will be paying a lot more for prescriptions, for shampoo, for patio furniture and sunscreen and snow shovels and antifreeze and socks and dish soap and alarm clocks. But I won’t be helping you fund my demonization and continued marginalization. That’s what you bought with the money you made while we were doing business together. You’ve betrayed your own policies and you’ve betrayed me.

Honestly, I did expect more.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Swoon

Like a fool, I went on vacation. Why did I do it?! August is my favorite food time of year in Minnesota! Everything is ripe to bursting. All my favorite fruits and vegetables are peaking: corn, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, eggplants, cherries, berries, melons, peaches, and on and on and on.

I came home to an enormous CSA farm share full of impossibly lush corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, basil, melons, and raspberries. I’m equal parts frantic and ecstatic, so the only reasonable thing to do is faint.

When I pick myself up off the floor, I will go straight to the kitchen and cook this stuff. Summer cooking should, in my opinion, be fresh and immediate. You should be able to march out to the garden in the middle of a recipe and pick something to put in the dish. The prep should be simple and the cooking time short.

Today’s blog is a twofer because I’ve been neglecting you all. I have here a pair of dishes with summer vegetables and their good friend olive oil.

Corn and Radish Salad
This recipe came out of the Southwest Journal a couple of years ago, and I tweaked it a bit. It’s a great thing to do with leftover corn on the cob. Ha! As if there’s ever anything left over of THAT.

Dressing for 4 cups of corn
A jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
Juice of ½ lime
1-2 t honey
¼ t ground cumin
¼ c olive oil
Salt and fresh ground pepper

Put these in the food processor or blender and liquefy them as you prepare the other ingredients.

The salad: Make it by the ear!
4 or 5 ears of cooked corn
6 radishes, halved and sliced (1 or 2 radishes per ear)
¼ c coarsely chopped Italian parsley (1 or 2 sprigs per ear)
1-2 T sliced or minced onion (a scant teaspoon per ear)

Slice the kernels off the cob. You do this by holding the cob on end and sawing a sharp knife down the side of the cob. Don’t dig too deep or you’ll cut into the cob; aim to cut off around three rows at a time.

Put all the salad ingredients in a bowl and toss them with the dressing. That’s all!

Zucchini Stewed with Tomato
Stewing a zucchini is not the same as stewing a chicken. It takes minutes, not hours. You can start this dish and throw it on the back burner while you toss a salad, and they will be done at the same time.

1-2 T olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
A pound of zucchini and/or pattypan squash, sliced into thick rounds
One or two large fresh tomatoes, chopped, or 1 to 2 cups of canned tomatoes (I found one jar left from last summer)
A handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and stir it around for a minute.

Add the squash and sauté until it begins to get tender, about four or five minutes. Add the tomatoes and, if needed, enough water so that the squash pieces are swimming just a little bit. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover, stirring occasionally, for five minutes.

Have a look: the squash should be tender and the tomatoes should be thickened, not watery. If it is too soupy in there, uncover and cook off some of the water. Add the basil for the last minute of cooking, then season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Figs: Pure Romance

I ducked into the Whole Foods to buy dip, and what should appear before my eyes but a display of fresh turkey figs? They were perfectly ripe and they were on sale. When the universe is speaking to you this clearly, ignore it at your own peril.

Soft, fragrant, and curvy figs are among our most sensuous fruits. Bite or cut into one: the dusky skin just barely offers resistance, then yields to reveal white flesh and glistening pink jelly. The taste is as delicate as a caress.

Match the sweet murmur of figs with a nibble of black pepper and a nip of goat cheese. Soften the cheese’s bite with a little dollop of honey. Serve these to your sweetheart as a light dessert, maybe with a moscato or a glass of lemonade, as the sun slips out of the summer sky. Breathe in the scents of figs and summer as evening fades into night. Draw your lover gently into your arms, place your lips close to her ear, and whisper:

“Are you going to eat that last one?”

Figs with Honeyed Goat Cheese
Sometimes you can find goat cheese with honey in the schmantzy cheese section of the grocery store. If you don’t see it, just get some chevre and put it in the blender with a couple of tablespoons of honey. Taste and add as you go until it is a nice balance of goat-tart and honey-sweet.

Fresh ripe figs
Honeyed goat cheese (see note above)at room temperature
Fresh ground black pepper

Trim any stems off the figs. Slice them in half the long way. Lay the fig halves cut side up.

Stir up the cheese so it is soft. Using two spoons, drop ½ to 1 teaspoon of cheese on the center hollow of each fig half. Arrange the figs smartly on a serving plate.

Grind a little black pepper over the figs. Bat your eyes a little as you serve them.