October 27th, 2011 § § permalink
Rainy days and crisp, fall nights can only mean one thing — it’s time to break out the wassail! Derived from the Norse phrase “ves heill” or “be in good health,” wassail can be a toast to good health, the alcoholic drink with which one is toasted, or the festive event where drinking and toasting occurs. In my household it’s all about the hot, mulled drink. Yet, for my English ancestors, it was all about the apples.
During medieval times the English believed that if they toasted their animals and crops with drink, prosperity would be theirs in the upcoming year. Eventually this tradition focused specifically on apple production with British farmers dousing the roots of their oldest or most prolific apple tree with cider. Some went so far as to place cider-soaked bread in the tree limbs to ward off bad luck and encourage good crops. Others simply sang songs to the health of their trees. All imbibed in the warm, punch-like drink known as wassail.
By the 17th century wassailing had moved beyond crops. Folks left the fields and instead drank, caroled, and spread good wishes in their neighborhoods. Just think of the song “Here We Come A Wassailing” and you’ll understand the transformation that wassail underwent.
Since my caroling days ended long ago, I focus instead on the warming drink. Although wassail can be made with ale or wine, I look to the past and go with a seasonal brew of apple cider and white rum. Whole cloves, cinnamon sticks and ground ginger spice up the tart cider while an ample amount of sugar sweetens the mix.
Traditionally, this toasty beverage was placed in a large, goblet-shaped bowl and garnished with small apples. Since I lack an authentic wassail bowl, I pour my concoction into a punch bowl and dole out the fragrant libation in matching punch cups. Any leftovers I refrigerate and then gently reheat on low before serving it again from a decorative pitcher.
The following wassail recipe originally appeared in a January 2008 blog entry on community cookbooks. However, as it’s such a simple yet delectable recipe, it deserves yet another mention.
WASSAIL from Cook’s Choice (Junior Guild, 1978) and Nancy Williams
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 1/2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon ginger
2 cups orange juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 quart cider
1 cup white rum
Combine the sugar and water and boil 10 minutes. Add the cloves, cinnamon sticks and ginger. Let stand at least 1 hour. Strain. Add the orange juice, lemon juice and cider and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add 1 cup white rum.
October 21st, 2011 § § permalink
Growing up, I had little respect for the pumpkin. Blame it on lack of exposure. It showed up once a year in my mother’s Thanksgiving pie and then quickly disappeared from our menus and my mind. If I did see it more than once, it was usually at Halloween. At that time it was carved up, stuffed with a candle and dumped unceremoniously on our doorstep only to be forsaken after the holiday. It’s no wonder I now feel a bit sorry for pumpkins.
A part of the gourd family, which also claims cucumbers and melons as members, the pumpkin hails from the Americas. Sensitive to cold in spite of its tough skin, it requires temperate weather, regular watering and lots of space to flourish. As evidenced by a predicted pumpkin shortage in the Northeast, it does not fair well in floods or hurricanes.
What to do once a hefty, blemish-free pumpkin had been bought from a local farm stand or plucked from my parents’ garden used to baffle me. Cleaning and chopping this unwieldy ball without severing a finger, well, that seemed next to impossible. Then there were the quantity questions. How much pumpkin would I get from a whole pumpkin? What was the weight/quantity difference between raw versus cooked? Fresh versus canned? No wonder my mother stuck with dessert recipes calling for canned pumpkin.
To answer these pressing questions, I consulted my dog-eared copy of The Joy of Cooking (Scribner, 1997). According to Rombauer, Rombauer Becker and Becker, one pound of pumpkin provides 13 ounces of trimmed meat. Cooks should allot 8 to 12 ounces of untrimmed pumpkin per serving.
That left the mystery of what to do with my pumpkin. Much of the world uses it in savory and sweet dishes. The French put it in soups and in bread, pain de courge, which is consumed at breakfast or as a snack. For breakfast, Cypriots may choose kolokotes, a small pie resembling a Cornish pasty, filled with chopped pumpkin and golden raisins. Caribbean cooks pair it with chilies and legumes and use it in hearty, fragrant stews. Moroccans dine on couscous dotted with chunks of pumpkin, and Turks end their dinners with bowls of pumpkin poached in a simple syrup and topped with pistachios or walnuts.
Me? I like to put it in curries, breads, puddings and, of course, soup.
I find this works perfectly without the addition of cream but if I feel like dressing up or stretching the soup, I will add a few tablespoons right before serving and claim that tonight I’m featuring “pumpkin bisque soup.”
Serves 6 to 8
4 tablespoons butter
1 white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1½ tablespoons dried thyme
½ cup apple cider
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
2 large potatoes, washed, peeled and chopped
1 pound, 13 oz can of pure pumpkin
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons honey
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ to ⅓ cup whipping cream, optional
Creme fraiche, optional
Melt the butter in a medium-sized saute pan. Add the onion and saute until soft. Add the garlic and thyme and cook until the onion becomes translucent and the garlic golden but not dark brown.
Pour the cider, stock, potatoes, pumpkin, onion powder, garlic powder, honey and garlic-onion-thyme mixture into a large stockpot. Bring to a boil then lower the temperature to medium-low. Simmer for 40 minutes, adding water if soup boils down too much.
Using a blender or food processor, puree the soup in batches, placing the finished soup in a clean stockpot. Once it has been pureed, add salt and pepper to taste. If adding cream, do so at this time, then simmer over low for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Ladle into warmed bowls and top with a dollop of creme fraiche.
October 14th, 2011 § § permalink
There’s very little that I can say about chocolate that hasn’t been said many, many times before. As you probably know, it comes from the seeds of the cacao tree. This evergreen hails from Latin America, from the area between southern Mexico and the northern Amazon basin. Once collected, the cacao seeds are roasted, fermented and ground to make the heavenly treat that we know as chocolate.
The ancient Mayans were probably the first to enjoy hot chocolate. Archeological evidence shows that they even buried their dead with the bowls and jars used to drink it.
The Mayans weren’t alone in their love of a good chocolate beverage. The Aztecs consumed it cold and sweetened with honey. Both cultures held chocolate in high esteem, using it as an offering to the gods and serving it at ceremonial feasts.
It took until the 16th century for Europeans to encounter chocolate. Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés came across these ‘black almonds,’ as they called the cacao seeds, at Tenochtitlan. At first repulsed, they grew to appreciate the Aztec’s dark, sweet drink. Credited with introducing Europe to chocolate as well as to causing the fall of the Aztec Empire, they also reputedly started the rumor that chocolate acted as an aphrodisiac.
Fast forward five centuries and you’ve got our current chocolate craze. You name the dish. In all likelihood chocolate has been incorporated into it.
I’m old fashioned about chocolate. Give me a rich chocolate cake, cupcake, cookie, brownie, pie, ice cream, gelato, sundae, muffin, bread, truffle . … I’m not as keen on adding it to pastas, meats or other savory dishes. As a result, l’m sharing a favorite sweet. Enjoy!
BAKED CHOCOLATE PUDDINGS
Occasionally these individual puddings get confused with that restaurant favorite, molten chocolate lava cakes. Unlike the warm cakes, which have runny, chocolate centers, these are puddings with light, cake-like crusts. Enjoy these with cold glasses of milk or tall iced coffees.
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 egg beaters (for a richer dessert, use 3 large eggs)
3/4 plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour six (5-ounce) ramekins.
Put the chocolate and butter in a large, microwave-safe bowl or spouted pitcher. Microwave on high, stirring frequently, until the chocolate has melted, about 3 to 5 minutes.
In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, granulated sugar and flour. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the melted chocolate to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Stirring the entire time, slowly pour the egg mixture into the warm chocolate.
Spoon or pour, if using a spouted pitcher, equal amounts of chocolate pudding into each ramekin. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet. Bake until the puddings have formed a light, cake-like crust on top and around the edge, about 8 to 11 minutes. Note that they should still be jiggly and pudding-like. If they’ve set and hardened, they’ve baked too long. Remove, place the ramekins on individual dessert plates and dust with the powdered sugar. Serve immediately.
October 6th, 2011 § § permalink
Whenever I see mussels, I think of Belgium, specifically its capital, Brussels. No matter where you go in this medieval city, you invariably come across someone selling these succulent bivalves. Whether served with fries, as in moules frites, or in an herb-white wine broth, as in moules marinière, mussels are a common treat in this land.
Belgians aren’t alone in their love of mussels. Archeological evidence indicates that Europe has been consuming these dark blue- to black-shelled mollusks for over 20,000 years.
Unlike Europeans, I was a bit of a late comer to this shellfish. Now, though, I’m hooked on its creamy texture and mildly sweet flavor that’s slightly reminiscent of lobster. I also love its eco-friendliness. Take, for instance, the North American blue mussel. It grows in abundance, is low in contaminants and doesn’t adversely affect the environment. Plus, it’s both inexpensive and delicious. Can’t ask for more than that!
Although dozens of species exist, I most often see the aforementioned blue mussels. Found on the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, blue mussels range from two to three inches in length and have a dark blue shell. Unless otherwise indicated, recipes will normally call for this species of mussel.
In terms of quality, the tinier the mussel is, the better the dining experience will be. As always, avoid those with broken or damaged shells. Steer clear of overly heavy or lightweight and rattling ones. The former may be weighed down with sand. The latter may contain a dead mussel.
Before cooking mussels, I consider what foods go well with them. Their juicy meat marries nicely with celery, clams, garlic, lemon, onions, pasta, potatoes, shallots, spinach and tomatoes. They are complimented by such herbs and spices as chives, curry powder, mustard and tarragon. In terms of cooking liquids they respond beautifully to Belgian or Belgian-style beer, cream, olive oil, Pernod, red wine vinegar, vermouth and dry white wine.
Serves 4 as an entrée; 6 as an appetizer
When cleaning mussels, discard those with broken shells or that don’t close up when tapped on the shell. These are already dead and should not be cooked with the live mussels.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, washed and diced
11/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes and its juices
1 cup white wine
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 pounds mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, washed and chopped
toasted baguette or batard, for serving
In a medium stockpot heat the olive oil. Add the onion and salt and sauté until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic, bell pepper, thyme and basil and sauté for another 5 minutes. Tumble in the tomatoes, white wine, and black pepper, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasonings before adding the mussels. Cover the pot and allow the mussels to cook until opened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t overcook the mussels as this will make them tough. Add the parsley and toss to combine. Spoon the mussels into a large bowl and pour the sauce over top. Serve alongside toasted baguette or batard.