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Recipes and Stories

15 August 2019: An Old Dog Relearning Old Tricks

A Quick Sauté of Beef is done in less than tweny minutes, start to finish.

 

I am having to relearn how to cook on an electric range, and the one on which I am learning is working my nerves.

 

Crowded into the end of our apartment's galley kitchen, the thermostat of its large front burner is defective and will suddenly make it surge to high heat when it's set anywhere between high and medium-low. From medium-low to low, it practically turns itself off and is barely warm.

 

That can be fixed, but the undercabinet microwave that hovers a mere thirteen inches above the cooking surfaces (five inches less than standard upper cabinet height) cannot.

 

Tall pots won't fit on the back and if there's anything on a front burner, that has to be moved before even low pots can be moved at the back. Since the large front burner is unreliable, less than half the cooking surface is really usable, and slow simmers (the one really good property of an electric range) have to be done on a small front burner in a pot that's almost too small for it.

 

Suddenly, I'm getting a sharp, unpleasant reminder of what it feels like to be a complete novice in the kitchen: Browning things without scorching them has become a challenge; rice that's uniformly fluffy and separate and not half-grainy-half-mushy is unpredictable.

 

The good things are that water comes to a rolling boil in half the time it took on the old gas range from our last place and I get really intense heat for a stir-fry or sauté. Oh, and the oven works reasonably well, but then who wants to be baking or broiling in this weather?

 

What all that means is that, while I'm relearning how to manage electric heat and wait for the necessary repairs on that front heat source, we're eating a lot of pasta, quick sautés, and stir-fries with so-so rice.

 

That relearning ought, in theory, to be simple: after all, I learned to cook on an electric range and have used one for more than half my life. But while I've never put much stock in that old saying about how an old dog can't learn new tricks, I'm finding out that it really is hard for this old dog to relearn old tricks, especially on equipment that has such added challenges built-in.

 

But what can one do? We still have to eat and even if we could afford a steady diet of restaurant food, that would be tedious at best.

 

Fortunately, sautéing is a perfect cooking method for hot weather. It's simple, fast, and requires no special skill from the cook. Sure, tossing the food as a professional chef does requires the mastery of a technique that takes practice and finesse, but, after all, there's nothing that says a home cook needs to master something that was developed by line cooks in a hurry. Steady flipping with a spoon or spatula will most of the time do the job nearly as well.

 

A Quick Sauté of Beef for Two

 

It seems appropriate, on the indomitable Julia Child's birthday, to celebrate her memory with a quick sauté of beef inspired by her recipe from The Way to Cook. The basic technique is the same regardless of the kind of protein, whether it's red meat or poultry, so you also use it for chunks of chicken or pork loin or tenderloin. It's done start to finish in less than twenty minutes, including the back-prep.

 

Because this is fairly rich, serve it with steamed potatoes and simple green vegetable or salad.

 

Serves 2

 

12 ounces beef filet tips, sirloin tips, or rib eye, cut into 1½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced shallot

3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

½ cup beef broth

1 tablespoon cream

1 tablespoon minced flat leaf parsley

 

1. Wrap the meat with several layers of paper towels, gently pressing to dry it. Unwrap it and heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a 10-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the beef, raise the heat to medium high, and brown it well on all sides, about 3 minutes tossing it often. Remove the meat to a plate with a slotted spoon or spatula and season lightly with salt and pepper.

 

2. Return the pan to medium heat, add the shallot, and sauté until golden, about 2 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and deglaze it, stirring and scraping the bottom to loosen any cooking residue. Let it cook until its aroma is no longer alcoholic and add the broth. Bring it to a boil and let the liquid boil until it's reduce by a little more than half its original volume. Whisk in any juices that have accumulated in the plate holding the meat.

 

3. Whisk in the cream and let it thicken slightly, then take the pan from the heat and whisk in 2-3 tablespoons of butter a few bits at a time. Return the beef to the pan, add half the parsley, and gently toss until the meat is coated. Divide the beef among two warm serving plates, spoon the sauce over it and sprinkle it with the remaining parsley.

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27 February 2019: Melted Butter and Butter Liaisons

Bourbon Shrimp is just one of the hundreds of variations on sauces thickened with melted butter

 

When we talk today of "culinary heroes," we all too often forget the real heroes in cooking: the thousands of unassumingly genuine, curious, and clever cooks of the past who first discovered the techniques that we take for granted. It's on the shoulders of these forgotten souls that our modern culinary knowledge has been built.

 

Among one the greatest of them was the cook who discovered a simple technique that, over just the right amount of heat would—seemingly like magic—make butter melt in a way that kept it suspended in a liquid, creating a thick, sumptuously silky sauce.

 

The technique was well known by the time Europeans began to migrate to America, and has been around in Southern cooking from the very beginning. One of the very first published records of it is Mary Randolph's lucid recipe in The Virginia House-Wife in 1824.

 

To Melt Butter.

 

Nothing is more simple than this process, and nothing so generally done badly. Keep a quart tin sauce pan with a cover to it exclusively for this purpose; weigh one quarter of a pound of good butter, rub into it two teaspoonsful of flour; when well mixed, put it in the sauce pan with one table spoonful of water, and a little salt; cover it, and set the sauce pan in a larger one of boiling water, shake it constantly till completely melted and beginning to boil. If the pan containing the butter be set on coals, it will oil the butter and spoil it.

 

– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife (1824).

 

To echo Mrs. Randolph, there is no sauce more simple or lovely than this melted, but thick butter; yet it is seldom seen in modern American cookbooks, properly executed or otherwise.

 

Melted (sometimes called "drawn") butter is the same idea as a classic Beurre Blanc in French cooking: the fat is barely melted so that it stays suspended in the liquid. Though when properly done, it doesn't need flour to help with that, most old Southern cooks like Mrs. Randolph followed eighteenth century English practice of adding a little for stability.

 

Later in the nineteenth century, this unhappily began to change. The proportion of flour and water (or milk) to butter increased, and most recipes titled "drawn" or "melted" butter were essentially heavy white sauces with barely enough butter in them to justify the name.

 

In Mrs. Randolph's day, whisks were rare in home kitchens, hence the technique of preparing the butter in a small saucepan that's set over a larger pan of simmering water and gently agitated. The one quibble I would have with Mrs. Randolph is that this is much easier to accomplish without a lid over the pan, so one can watch what's happening. The lid was probably intended to keep water from accidentally splashing into the butter, but if the pan is held just above the water or right on its surface, the lid isn't necessary.

 

By its nature, a sauce in which melted butter is the thickener can't be hot, since overheating will cause the fat separate, or, as Mrs. Randolph put it, "to oil." That's also why it can't be made too far ahead and held over heat, but is served at once in a sauceboat that's been warmed by rinsing it with hot water. It should be warm but not so hot that one couldn't handle it with bare hands.

 

To Melt Butter by Mrs. Randolph's Method

 

Before we begin, a few notes on Mrs. Randolph's recipe are in order. Measuring spoons had yet to be regularized in her day: a table spoon was a large serving spoon, roughly twice as large as our modern tablespoon measurement (which corresponds to a soup spoon in historical recipes). Her tea spoon, however, is roughly the same as our modern measure. The proportion of flour usually given is about 2 teaspoons. I find that one is plenty for half a cup of butter, although it actually doesn't need any flour at all. The sauce is lighter and more delicate without it.

 

One addition that will help is acid of some kind, which enhances the emulsification and stabilizes it. It will also boost the flavor. Allow about a teaspoon of lemon juice or wine vinegar for the quantity given here.

 

For little more than ½ cup, you'll need 4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, a teaspoon of flour, 2 tablespoons of water, and a little salt.

 

First, choose a small (no larger than 1 quart), heavy-bottomed saucepan for the butter and half-fill a larger, 3-quart pan with water. Bring the water to a boil over a medium heat and then reduce the heat to a steady simmer.

 

Meanwhile, put the butter and flour in the smaller pan and rub it together with a wooden spoon it's well mixed, then add the water and a healthy pinch of salt. Now hold the saucepan just over the simmering water so that it's not quite or barely touching the water. Shake it gently in a swirling motion until the butter melts and is beginning to bubble at the edges, about 4 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, pour into a heated sauceboat, and serve at once.

 

It's easier to accomplish with a whisk: Unlike Mrs. Randolph's method, the butter for this technique should be cold and cut into small bits. Omit the flour, which is superfluous and even intrusive in this technique. Warm the 2 tablespoons of water in a 2 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over the lowest possible heat.

 

When the water is just beginning to bubble at its edges, add a pinch of salt and whisk in 2-3 bits of butter to the pan until almost melted. Add 2-3 bits more and continue whisking until they, too, are almost melted and emulsified, and continue until it's all incorporated. If at any time the sauce seems to be getting too warm and the butter begins to look at all oily, remove it from the heat and whisk in 4-5 bits of butter at once to bring the temperature down. When all the butter is incorporated, taste and adjust the salt, pour it into a heated sauceboat and serve at once.

 

Another lovely way that melted butter is used, both in historical and modern cooking, is as a thickener and enrichment, either by whisking or shaking it into a reduction of cooking juices. The example that follows is a recipe I recently developed for a group of Southern ladies in Savannah who call themselves Southern Comfort.

 

Bourbon Shrimp

 

Here, the butter thickens a reduction that has a little lemon juice to boost the flavor and stabilize the emulsion. It's lovely as an appetizer served as-is, with crusty bread for sopping the sauce, but you can also offer it as a main dish with bread or over hot cooked rice or fettuccine.

 

Serves 6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main dish

 

1¼ pounds large shrimp

4 ounces (½ cup) unsalted butter, cut into bits, divided

¼ cup finely chopped shallots (about 1 large)

2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

2 teaspoons finely chopped anchovy filets or anchovy paste

1½ ounces (1 jigger or 3 tablespoons) bourbon

½ cup shrimp stock (see step 1)

Louisiana hot sauce, to taste

2 large lemons, 1 halved and 1 cut into 6-8 wedges

1 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano

Crusty bread such as a baguette

 

1. Peel the shrimp, reserving their shells to make stock. If you're making it ahead of time, cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells in a saucepan with 3 cups of water. Bring it slowly to a boil over medium-low heat (watch the pot—it tends to boil over). Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Strain, cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months.

 

2. Put 2 tablespoons of butter and the shallot in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté until the shallot is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes, then add the garlic and anchovy. Sauté, stirring, until the anchovy dissolves and the garlic is fragrant, about 10-15 seconds. Add the shrimp and toss until just curled and pink, but not quite firm and opaque, about 1 minute.

 

3. Remove the shrimp from pan and carefully add the bourbon. Let it evaporate and add the shrimp stock. Bring it to boil, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooking residue, and cook, stirring often, until reduced and syrupy.

 

4. Return the shrimp to the pan, squeeze in the juice from one of the lemon halves, and add a couple of dashes of hot sauce. Stir, taste, and season with salt and add lemon juice and hot sauce as needed. Add the herbs and, tossing constantly, let the shrimp heat through until completely done, about ½ minute. Off the heat, add the remaining butter and shake the pan until it's barely melted and the sauce is thick. Serve warm with lemon and crusty bread.

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21 April 2018: Of Spring Peas and Thyme

Fresh Spring Pea Soup with Spring Onions and Thyme

Whether you call them garden, green, sweet, or, as we often do in the South, “English” peas, you probably take the plump, round seeds of the trailing plant pisum sativum for granted. You may even think of them as ordinary and a bit boring. Yet, once upon a time, these little orbs were celebrated as a precious commodity and a rare harbinger of spring.

Thomas Jefferson even carried on a friendly competition with one of his neighbors for the first pea harvest of the season. Read More 

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14 March 2018: A Gratin of Spring Leeks

A Classic Gratin of Spring Leeks

We rarely think of giving leeks in a starring role in cooking. More often than not, this kitchen workhorse is expected to retire into the background, lending its subtle, fresh flavor to the more showy main ingredients of a soup, stew, sauté or occasional casserole.

But leeks are a lovely vegetable and when they’re given the center of the stage (or plate or pan if you will) they really do shine, especially in the spring.  Read More 

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19 December 2016: Simple Holiday Entertaining

Soft-Scrambled Eggs, or to put a French spin on it, Oeufs Brouillés aux Fine Herbes, are a perfect dish for intimate, impromptu entertaining.

Big Christmas parties can be a lot of fun, with their crowds of folks filled with holiday cheer (never mind that it came from a bottle), festive decorations, and endless arrays of rich, fancy party food.

But they do require a certain amount of planning and work. And as we come into the last stretch before Christmas, if you’ve not already planned one, it’s a little late to start now. That does not, however, mean that it’s too late to do anything at all.

There’s no perfect-host rule mandating that the only way to entertain your friends at the holidays is in herds. Read More 

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6 October 2016: Fall Omelet

A classic French-style omelet with mushrooms

In all of cooking, the one thing that never ceases to fascinate, amaze, and comfort me is the little bit of culinary alchemy that makes an omelet. Using a hot, well-seasoned pan and a very simple technique that even a child can master, anyone with any coordination at all can turn a couple of eggs, a lump of butter, and a little salt and pepper into pure gold. Read More 

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26 March 2016: Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter III—Classic Potato Gratin

Classic French Potato Gratin with caramelized onions, cream, and Gruyere cheese

The classic French potato gratin with sliced potatoes, cream, and good cheese has been my Easter potato dish for years. The ingredients are simple, its preparation requires almost no skill on the part of the cook, and yet nothing is more elegant or satisfying to eat.

Best of all, it can be made today, and reheats beautifully.  Read More 

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26 March 2016: Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter Dinner IV—Butterflied Leg of Lamb

Roast Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Herbs, Garlic, and White Wine

If you’re doing a ham for Easter, you’re pretty much home free from here, but if you like to have lamb for the feast, as I do, you can’t cook it ahead unless you just want to have it cold on purpose.

Fortunately, a boned and butterflied leg cooks quickly with a minimum of last minute fuss.  Read More 

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25 March 2016: Make-Ahead Easter I, Carrot Puree

Carrot Puree, a simple yet luscious beginning for Easter Dinner that can be made well ahead of time

My favorite beginning for Easter dinner, or, for that matter, any other spring celebration meal, is with a simple puree of fresh, spring carrots.

It’s so easy to make: though they were originally pureed by rubbing them through a wire mesh sieve, a process that took no particular skill but a fair amount of elbow-grease, if your kitchen is equipped with a blender, food processor, or that favorite modern chef’s tool, the hand blender, there’s nothing to it.

Best of all for the busy host, it can not only be made ahead, but is actually improved by it,  Read More 

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15 February 2016: Sunny-Side-Up

Perfect Sunny-Side-Up Eggs are, like all simple cooking, a matter of finesse

Yesterday, a regular reader asked me to devote one of my newspaper columns to the proper way of cooking a sunny-side-up egg. My first reaction was that it’s a very simple process that even a big mouth like me could not stretch out into an entire newspaper story.

My second reaction was to recall that, like all simple things, a properly fried egg does take a little finesse—and finesse is a virtue that is far too often overlooked in the kitchen, especially when the process is a simple one.

Sunny-side up is actually just another name for the classic American-style fried egg. And the real secret to success with it lies in understanding that “fried,” in this instance, is a misleading moniker.  Read More 

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29 August 2015: Mary Randolph’s French Beans

Mary Randolph's French Beans, here finished with a little of her Melted Butter.

A couple of weeks ago, I revisited one of the loveliest and most misunderstood dishes in all of Southern cooking: pole beans slow-simmered with salt pork. With small new potatoes laid on top to steam during the last part of the simmer, it remains one of my all-time favorite ways of cooking these sturdy beans.

But pole beans are not the only ones that I, and many other Southern cooks, bring to the table. While researching for a lecture on the indomitable Mary Randolph, whose 1824 cookbook was one of the earliest printed records of Southern cooking, I was once again taken by her lucid and careful directions for French beans. Read More 

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8 May 2015: The Glory of Pan Gravy II – Pan Gravy for Pan-Fried or Sautéed Meat and Poultry

Pan-fried Quail with Onion Pan Gravy as photographed by the great John Carrington for The Savannah Cookbook

When “la nouvelle cuisine” swept the culinary world in the latter part of the last century, roux-thickened pan gravy got shoved aside for sauces whose body was derived from reductions, purees, and butter liaisons. (They were really, by the way, nothing more than “la cuisine ancienne” rediscovered, but never mind.)

There was nothing wrong with those sauces—when we have the time to properly execute them and can serve them immediately, but there’s also nothing wrong with well-made pan gravy, especially for home cooks.  Read More 

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6 May 2015: The Glory of Pan Gravy, Part I

Cream Pan Gravy, the quintessential accompaniment for Southern fried chicken. Photography by John Carrington Photography.

The acquisition of a handsome antique gravy ladle has made my mind wander to one of the world’s oldest and greatest culinary inventions: pan gravy.

One of the most under-appreciated elements of any cuisine, but of Southern cooking especially, when well-made and carefully seasoned, pan gravy is also the best sauce imaginable. Rich with the browned essence of the food it will accompany, it enhances without smothering, and can partly redeem indifferent or accidentally over-done food.  Read More 

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4 April 2015: Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter V

This Classic French Potato Gratin can not only be made ahead, it's even better warmed over, and can be dressed up with herbs or bits of country ham or prosciutto

This classic, easy-to-assemble French gratin has been the potato dish for my household’s Easter for years. The ingredients are simple, its preparation requires almost no real skill on the part of the cook, and yet nothing is elegant nor satisfying to eat.

Best of all, it can be made today, and reheats beautifully.  Read More 

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4 April 2015 Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter Dinner IV

Boning and butterflying makes it possible to roast a leg lamb more quickly and evenly without the tending required of a bone-in joint

For the last couple of days, I’ve been looking longingly at this beautiful whole leg of lamb that I bought and wishing it could be left that way. I kept rehearsing the impossible: Surely there was some way I could miraculously roast it whole and still have Easter Dinner done shortly after we got home from church. Well, there really isn’t.

This morning, I finally took the thing out, took one last longing look at it, and said “Get over yourself and get this job done.” Read More 

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1 April 2015 Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter Dinner II (No Fooling)

Spring Carrot Puree is a perfect make-ahead first course for Easter Dinner.

Once you have the menu fixed, today or tomorrow shop for the things that will keep: pantry staples, dairy products, the meat, potatoes, onions, and anything that you’ll need for the next make-ahead—in this case the soup.

My own menu: Puree of Spring Carrots, Butterflied Roast Leg of Lamb, Potato Gratin, Asparagus (the jury is still out on the sauce for this), and chocolate pots-de-crème. Read More 

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28 October 2014: Mastering the Art of French Onion Soup Gratinéed

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée (Classic French Onion Soup Gratinéed)

One of the most enduringly popular dishes of fall and winter’s table is Gratinéed French Onion Soup. It’s one dish that we call “French” that actually is; “soupe à l’oignon gratinée” is a standard found in bistros and home kitchens throughout France.

This time of year it begins to turn up on menus throughout our country, too, from New England to South Florida without regard to outside temperatures. Unfortunately, what comes to the table is more often than not as indifferent as it is popular. Read More 

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27 May 2014: The Art of Balance

Butter-Braised Spring Vegetables, an exercise in judicious balance

Marcella Hazan’s husband, Victor, recently reminded us that his late wife liked to say, “If I could persuade someone to cook for six months without a single herb or spice, I’d have a chance to make a cook out of her.” Read More 

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19 April 2014: Easter V—Asparagus Hollandaise

Classic Hollandaise begins as a Sabayon and should be fluffy and light

Over the last few years, there’s been a big fad for roasted asparagus. There’s nothing wrong with cooking this lovely vegetable in the oven, but it has become so commonplace that it’s in danger of being—no pun intended—overdone.

The preoccupation with one method has also made us forget that it’s not the only good way to cook asparagus.  Read More 

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19 April 2014: Easter VI—Chocolate

Dean’s Blender Pots De Crème are drop-dead easy and never fail to impress.

For many families, Easter dessert must be a fluffy coconut cake topped with seven minute frosting, lots of flaked coconut, and often jelly bean “Easter eggs.” Or it might be trimmed into shapes that are arranged on a platter and decorated to look like an Easter bunny. If that’s your tradition, then have at it.  Read More 

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18 April 2014 Easter IV—The Potatoes

Classic French pommes de terre gratinée (potato gratin)

Regardless of whether you choose lamb or ham (or neither—or both) for your Easter feast, nothing will make the dinner seem quite as special as will this classic French gratin. The ingredients are simple and few, and the preparation requires almost no real skill on the part of the cook, but you will not finding anything more elegant and yet elementally satisfying to eat. Read More 

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14 April 2014: Easter II Spring Purees

Spring Puree, in this case made with fresh young carrots.

One of the nicest ways of beginning an Easter dinner (or any other spring celebration meal) is an old-fashioned French puree. These are not the thick, mashed-potato like “purees” that have become so fashionable lately, but fresh vegetable soups that have been pulverized to a suave, elegant cream.

Not only do purees show off the fresh, full flavors of the season’s produce, they adapt beautifully to the unpredictability of the weather, being equally as good cold as hot. Read More 

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6 July 2013 French Potato Salad

Classic French Potato Salad
The perfect accompaniment for any grilled meat, poultry, or fish, an indispensable component of classic Salade Niçoise, and almost as simple to make as a tossed salad with oil and vinegar dressing, this French version of potato salad is one of the great dishes of French home cooking. It’s also one of the greatest of all summer salads. Read More 
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2 May 2013: Asparagus Season

Newly gathered asparagus, kept fresh for the table in a vase of water.

A glance through cookbooks of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might give the casual reader the impression that our ancestors played a one note theme when it came to asparagus. Read More 

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30 October 2012: Autumn Apple Tart

A Simple Apple Tart

Now that we’re finally getting a little bit of a nip in the air, here’s another simple apple tart that is just the thing to warm and soothe.

The most important part of a good pie or tart is good pastry, which is fortunately a snap to make, especially if you own a food processor. Read More 

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26 February 2012: Of Leeks and Potatoes, Potage Parmentier

Potage Parmentier, a Lenten Discipline worth rediscovering

One of the benefits of observing a Lenten discipline at the table is the discipline it imposes on us as cooks in the kitchen. A Lenten table isn’t just about doing without: simpler food is not merely an exercise in restraint; it actually commands more from the cook, asking us to pay closer attention, to think more carefully about what we’re doing.

Simpler food, stripped of artifice and flavor-enriching fats, is more exposed, its flavors more direct. Simpler, understated preparations likewise leave the cook more exposed, with very little margin for error. The simpler the cooking is, the less the cook can afford to let his attention waver.

Nothing more fittingly illustrates the point than that old mainstay of the French kitchen, Potage Parmentier—or, as we know it, leek and potato soup. It’s the perfect dish for a Lenten table, and once was very popular during the season; unhappily, it is nowadays sadly overlooked and neglected.

The classic soup is nothing more than its English name implies: fresh, young leeks and potatoes thinly sliced and simmered together—and that’s about all. There’s no broth and its only seasonings are a little onion and salt. The finished soup can be enhanced with a splash of cream, a handful of crisp croutons, a sprinkling of bright, freshly snipped chives, and sometimes a whisper of white pepper, but even those garnishes become superfluous when the soup has been well made from first rate ingredients. And if it hasn’t been, well, there’s not a garnish in the world that will make it palatable.

The leeks must be vibrant, fresh, and carefully handled—well cleaned without that misguided technique of slicing and then soaking it in ice water (which may take away the sand, but unhappily will take a good deal of the flavor along with it), thin-sliced, and slowly sweated in a little butter to draw out its flavors without caramelizing it.

The potatoes should likewise be selected with care—mature, but still firm, snapping crisp, and fresh tasting, then thinly sliced so that they cook quickly and evenly without taking on that heavy, almost sour aftertaste that overcooking can bring to them.

The onion, salt, and (if they’re even used) the garnishes play only a supporting role.

In short, Potage Parmentier is not a complicated dish nor do the techniques involved require any particular skill from the cook. But to be done well, it does require a good deal of thoughtfulness and finesse, and it never hurts to be reminded of that.

Potage Parmentier, or Leek and Potato Soup

Though not classic, one of my own favorite variations for this soup is to save a couple of cups of the tender leek greens, stir them into the pureed soup, and gently simmer until they are barely tender. They lend both texture and a bright, fresh flavor.

Serves 6-8

1 pound leeks
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound Russet or mature Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cups water
Kosher or sea salt
¼-to-½ cup heavy cream, optional
Croutons (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons minced chives or tender leek greens
Whole white pepper in a mill

1. To clean and prepare the leeks, lay them flat on a cutting board, slice off the root tendrils without removing the root base altogether, then, with the knife parallel to the board, carefully cut them in half lengthwise. Holding each half root-end-up under running water, fold back the leaves and wash away the sand and dirt that is caught between the leaves. Drain and thinly slice both the white and pale tender greens. You should have about 3 cups. Lay aside the other greens for the stock pot.

2. Warm the butter in a heavy-bottomed 3½-to-4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. Add the leek and onion and let them sweat until softened and translucent, about 8-to-10 minutes. Add the potatoes, toss well, and let them heat through.

2. Add the water and raise the heat to medium high. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a simmer, and season with salt. Cook gently until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in batches with a food mill, blender or food processor. (It can be made several days ahead up to this point: let cool, cover, and refrigerate.)

3. Return the soup to the pot and reheat it slowly over medium low heat, stirring often. Stir in cream to taste (if using), taste and adjust the seasonings, and heat for a minute to let the flavors meld. Serve garnished with a few croutons on each bowl, a sprinkling of chives or leek greens and, if liked, a light grinding of white pepper. You may also add another spoonful of cream to each bowl, or opt to use the cream only as a garnish.

Croutons

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Put 2-3 tablespoons of butter (or olive oil) on a rimmed baking sheet and heat until it is just melted (or in the case of the oil, fragrant). Cut 2 cups of stale home-style bread into small cubes. Put them on the baking sheet and quickly toss to evenly coat them with fat. Bake, stirring occasionally, until the croutons are evenly golden and crisp, about 20 to 30 minutes. For soups, I prefer to use butter, but olive oil is better for salad croutons. Read More 

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2 February 2012: The Wisdom of the Ancients

Sauce Hollandiase: Whether from the past or present, it doesn't need for the cook to be clever, just careful.

One of the biggest challenges for food historians is battling the arrogant notion that cooks of the past were more ignorant and naïve than we are today.

Perhaps it seems logical that the natural progression of knowledge in the kitchen is upward, with each succeeding generation learning from and expanding on the wisdom of the previous one. This would seem particularly true given the technological innovations that revolutionized kitchens in the last century and a half.

Sadly, the progression of knowledge has not always been vertical, and those innovations have done little to improve wisdom; in fact, there are many instances in which they’ve had the opposite impact and left us more ignorant and naïve than ever.

Worse yet, our present generation has had an unfortunate tendency to by-pass the knowledge of the past as a quaint inhibition to creativity. What this usually leads to is not true creativity, but a lot of time wasted either re-inventing something that already existed, or a kind of wanton culinary vandalism in which a perfectly good dish is spoiled by doing things to it that are just plain incompatible.

Modern cooking equipment will not improve such a cook’s knowledge or skill; it only takes away some of the time and effort that might have forced that cook to pay attention and actually think about what he is doing to the food.

While a food processor will make a passable mirepoix in a fraction of the time and effort required of a skilled hand and sharp knife, that mirepoix will never be as even nor react to heat in the same way as one that has been carefully diced by hand.

And while a blender will make an adequate Hollandaise without the cook turning a hand to a whisk or using any real judgment, it can never equal the fluffy, silken texture lent by a whisk in the skilled hand of a cook who is thinking and paying attention.

The least improved equipment of all is the oven of a modern range. A woman once bounced up to me at a book signing and, citing the range with its “reliable ovens,” said she thought cooking had just come into its own in the last fifty years. Sadly, she could not have been further from the truth.

To begin with, few modern range ovens can be called truly reliable. They’re more convenient, yes; we no longer have to constantly stoke the fire or know what kind of wood to feed it for the lively heat required for bread or the gentle one needed for custard.

When it comes to performance, however, a range oven is decidedly inferior to the brick and cast iron ovens of the past. To begin with, its thin steel walls almost guarantee uneven heat distribution because they simply can’t hold and radiate heat as brick and iron will. And while convection baking partly amends that problem, it still can’t match the perfectly even radiant heat from brick or iron.
To compound the problem, oven thermostats, which are only as reliable as their calibration, have made us all lazy: we’ve lost the ability to feel the heat and know when the oven is at the right temperature. When the calibration is off (and more often than not, it is), we’re left scratching our heads and scrambling for an oven thermometer.

The range’s only real improvement is the cooktop, which no longer needs the careful stoking and constant supervision of an open fire or wood stove. But while the range makes the job easier, we still need our ancestor’s knowledge of how to do it well if we want the results to be more than passable.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we abandon modern equipment, but we do need to be aware that we’re not smarter than our ancestors, and don’t in fact know more than a cook who could turn out the same meals that we do under conditions that were a lot more taxing. If we really want the progression of knowledge in our kitchens to be vertical, we have to go back and learn the lessons that they took for granted.

Sauce Hollandaise

Though the prototypes of this sauce are Medieval, Hollandaise as we know it evolved in the early nineteenth century. Properly made, its base is a Sabayon (Zabaglione in Italian), which is really more of a technique than a fixed recipe. Early Hollandaise (also known as Dutch Sauce) was often flavored with a vinegar reduction rather than lemon juice, and in the English and American kitchens, where whisks were not as common, the Sabayon technique wasn’t used.

This recipe owes much to James Peterson, a modern cook who is very wise indeed.

Makes about 1½ cups

6 ounces (¾ cup or 12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt
Ground cayenne or whole white peppercorns in a peppermill

1. Melt the butter over medium low heat, then turn off the heat but keep it warm.

2. Off the heat, whisk the eggs and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until frothy, then put the pan over medium heat. Whisk until it has tripled in volume and thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove it from the heat and continue whisking for about half a minute.

3. Gently whisk in the warm butter a little at a time, then gradually whisk in the lemon juice, tasting as you go: you may not need all of it; the lemon flavor should be subtle. Season to taste with salt and cayenne or white pepper and serve as soon as possible. Read More 

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25 September 2011: Christ Church Episcopal Potato Gratin

Today was our Parish's old-fashioned picnic, and a lot of friends asked for the recipe for the potato gratin that I always bring to it. It's just a classic French gratin of potatoes with cream and Gruyere cheese, kicked up a notch with country ham and sage. It's the perfect dinner party dish, because it's easy, elegant, can be served in its baking dish, and is a real crowd pleaser.

Here's the recipe.

Christ Church Episcopal Potato Gratin, A.K.A. French Potato Gratin with Country Ham and Sage
Serves 10

2 large yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds russet (baking potatoes, about 4 large)
2 cups (1 pint carton) heavy cream
1 ounce country ham (1 slice) or prosciutto, cut into fine julienne
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 ½ cups (8 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and whole white or black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400° F. Generously butter a 10x15 2½-3 quart gratin or baking dish (I use a Le Creuset enameled iron 3-quart gratin dish.)

2. Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until tender and evenly colored a deep gold, about 10-15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, peel and thinly slice the potatoes with a sharp knife, mandoline, or food processor. Mix the potatoes with the onion, cream, prosciutto, sage, and 2 cups of Gruyere in a large bowl. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste and toss well.

4. Pour into the prepared casserole, pressing down and leveling the top, and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake 15 minutes and reduce the heat to 350°. Bake about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until potatoes are very tender and bubbly at the center and the top is golden brown. Serve hot or warm. Read More 
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4 July 2011 Mr. Jefferson and My Mother's Green Bean Salad

My mother's "pickled green beans" or green bean salad, in her cut glass relish dish
On this Independence Day, it occurs to me that my imagination probably spends way too much time wandering in the garden and kitchen at Monticello, the iconic home of founding father Thomas Jefferson. One has only to visit it once to understand why—or to comprehend the deep love for it that inspired him to write, “all my dreams end where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”
But today, with other, more stirring, words from his pen in the air, it is probably inevitable that my thoughts should turn to that hill again, and in a funny way, thinking of Jefferson’s garden and table always brings me home.
Now, Monticello is a world apart from the small-town life of my childhood, but my mother and Jefferson have a lot in common—at least, when it comes to dinner.
All her life she has shared his passion for growing things and experimenting with new plants. (Who else in the deep South was growing kohlrabi in the sixties?) She has also shared his famous diet, which consisted mostly of freshly gathered vegetables, simply dressed.
Nothing illustrates that better than a defining element of my mother’s summer table: slim, immature green beans, cooked but dressed with vinaigrette and served at room temperature, which is the very same way Jefferson himself enjoyed them. James, Peter, Edy and Fanny (the slaves who governed Monticello’s kitchen) probably could not have counted the number of times they sent up that from the kitchen during the season.
Mama called her version “pickled beans,” and they came to our table mounded on a rectangular, cut glass relish dish, neatly aligned like chord wood and garnished with finely minced onions—as lovely to look at as they were to eat.
I just happen to have one of her cut glass relish dishes, and though the slim little haricots verts that filled it did not, sad to say, come from her garden, they still seemed just the thing for celebrating Independence Day.

The beans you want for this salad should be as young as possible, very thin and small—preferably no more than three inches long—such as true young French haricots verts. Once again, Mary Randolph captured the way they were cooked at Monticello:

French Beans.

Cut off the stalk end first, and then turn to the point and strip off the strings; if not quite fresh, have a bowl of spring water, with a little salt dissolved in it, standing before you, as the beans are cleansed and trimmed, throw them in; when all are done, put them on the fire in boiling water with some salt in it; when they have boiled fifteen or twenty minutes, take one out and taste it; as soon as they are tender, take them up, and throw them into a colander to drain. To send up the beans whole, when they are young, is much the best method, and their delicate flavor and color is much better preserved. When a little more grown, they must be cut across, in two, after stringing; and for common tables, they are split, and divided across; but those who are nice, do not use them at such a growth as to require splitting.

– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824

Most modern haricots verts will not take as long as Mrs. Randolph suggests here, and at any rate, she wanted her reader to watch the pot, not the clock. In my youth, good olive oil was hard to come by in the farming communities and small towns where we lived, so the oil was mostly peanut or some generic “salad” oil. Now that she can get it, she often dresses even warm vegetables with a good fruity olive oil.

Serves 4
1 pound thin, immature green beans
3 tablespoons minced mild onion, preferably Vidalia Sweet
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
About 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar, optional
Extra virgin olive oil

1. Have ready a basin of cool water. Snap off the stem end of the beans, pulling off the strings (if there are any) as you go, then snap off the pointed tails and make sure that all the string has been removed (if it’s a stringless variety, don’t tail them—it’s not necessary). Drop them as they are trimmed into the water and let them soak for at least 15 minutes to freshen them. Prepare a basin of ice and water.

2. Put 4 quarts of water in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Throw in a small handful of salt.

3. Lift the beans from their soaking water and add them to the pot a handful at a time. Cover, let it come back to a boil, and remove the lid. Cook until al dente— still bright green and firm to the bite but no longer crunchy, about 4-to-6 minutes. True haricots verts may require a minute or so more. Drain and immediately immerse them in the ice water to arrest the cooking. Let them get cold and then drain well.

3. Put the beans in a bowl and strew 2 tablespoons of minced onion over them. Season with salt, a few grindings of pepper, and a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar. My mother often adds a teaspoon or so of sugar for a sweet-sour note. Toss well, taste, and correct the vinegar and seasonings—going easy; the flavor will intensify as they marinate. Cover and marinate for at least a thirty minutes or up to an hour.

4. When you are ready to serve the beans, drizzle them with olive oil—just enough to give them a nice gloss—and toss until evenly coated. Arrange on a shallow serving dish, sprinkle the top with the remaining spoonful of minced onion, and serve at once.

Now, that is how my mother does it. Nowadays I always reverse the oil and vinegar, adding the latter just before serving so that the beans retain their bright color, but admit that they taste better Mama’s way, even though the acid dulls them to army-fatigue olive. Read More 
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22 May 2011_History in the Hands of Clever Reporters

One of the vagaries of having published a cookbook that involves a famous historical figure is that one will eventually have to talk to reporters about that figure.

Now, having worked as a journalist myself, let me quickly say that I have every respect for those whose job it is to pave our glutted information highway. Our society is inordinately curious about celebrity, down to the most tediously boring detail of their lives, and someone, I suppose, has to satisfy that curiosity.

Witness the recently published private correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, which has been my bedtime reading over the last few weeks. At best, about a quarter of these letters are interesting to cooks and culinary historians, chronicling as they do Child’s growth as a cook and teacher and the development of her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The rest of it is, even for historians, about as interesting as watching paint peel.

Is what Mrs. Child thought of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover really important? Not really, no. But because she was famous, someone thinks it ought to be.

Well, regardless of that, the historian who compiled and edited these letters at the very least maintained a healthy respect not only for both these women’s privacy but also for the truth. Unhappily, not all journalists take that much care.

For many of them, being clever, it seems, is more important than being factual.

Recently, because of my work as recipe developer for Dining at Monticello, a collection of essays and recipes that chronicle the food culture at Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home, I spoke on the subject at a nearby public library.

The following day, the local paper published an on-line video about the event that was introduced by a young woman who reported that Jefferson was not only a founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, he was “also a very good cook.”

Clearly she did not hear my lecture, and subscribed to the time-honored Southern theory that facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good line.

Now, Jefferson was a lot of things, but he was no cook. Those were, in fact, just about the first words out of my mouth that evening. Yes, he’s an almost iconic figure in American culinary history, right up there with Mrs. Child, but unlike that lady, it is not because he mastered the art of French cooking—or, for that matter, any other kind.

He didn’t even know how to cook in theory, and never so much as lifted a pan, turned a spit, or cracked an egg. Jefferson was a gentleman farmer, and men like that simply didn’t do such things back then. Oh, to be sure, there were male cooks, even in the kitchen at Monticello, but he wasn’t one of them.

What set Jefferson apart for us was not his active participation but his catholic curiosity. While he was not the only man in his position to care about the quality of his table, he was the only one who cared enough to find out how a thing was done, and to copy out that how for those whose job it was to actually do it.

Unfortunately, he knew so little of actual culinary practice that he would often get the method hopelessly wrong. Luckily, his cousin (and daughter’s sister-in-law), Mary Randolph had a knowledge of cookery that went well beyond theoretical. She made sense out of Jefferson’s culinary scribbles in her lovely cookbook, The Virginia House-wife, published just two years before Jefferson died.

Were it not for Mrs. Randolph, my job translating the recipes that survive in Jefferson’s hand would have been a challenge. One can only imagine the hilarity with which that lady would have met our intrepid reporter’s pronouncement.

Well, what else could I do but follow Mrs. Randolph’s lead, laugh it off, and head back to the kitchen, where I happened to have some fresh, locally grown shiitake mushrooms and a pint of premium 40 % milkfat cream from a local organic dairy.

While it was not the season for the common field mushrooms that Mrs. Randolph used, nor are shiitake found in Virginia, even among the horticultural curiosities at Monticello, I still looked to her exquisitely simple recipe for inspiration.

Stewed Mushrooms.

Gather grown mushrooms, but such as are young enough to have red gills; cut off the part of the stem which grew in the earth, wash them carefully and take the skin from the top; put them into a stew-pan with some salt, but no water, stew them till tender, and thicken them with a spoonful of butter mixed with one of brown flour; red wine may be added, but the flavour of the mushroom is too delicious to require aid from any thing.

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.

It was the perfect foil for misunderstood history, but it wasn’t, unfortunately, the perfect recipe for wood mushrooms like shiitake. In keeping with the spirit of her cooking, Jefferson’s fondness for French style, and perhaps because I’ve been reading about Julia Child, I instead got out a sauté pan and made

Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms with Cream
Serves 4

¾ pound Shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
¼ cup heavy cream
4 thick slices buttered and toasted baguette

1. Clean the shiitake, cut off their tough stems and thickly slice them.
2. Put the shallot, butter, and olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté, tossing often, until golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to medium high and add the shiitake, quickly tossing them so that they evenly absorb the butter. Like most mushrooms, they will immediately suck up the butter, but after they’re thoroughly heated, will release it once more into the pan. Sauté, tossing almost constantly, until they are wilted and coloring, about 4 minutes.
4. Splash in the cream and let it lightly thickened, about a minute more. Season liberally with salt and pepper, turn off the heat, and immediately pour them over the buttered toast. Read More 
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