A Basic Braise

January 14, 2021
winter dinner

Finally the red bow’s off the wreath and ornaments boxed up for another year. We’ve sent out all the holiday cookies and are back to basics of winter fare. We’re still hunkered down, but we have to put food on the table, and in these times good food carefully prepared may be our best defense against illness. During these gray, cold winter days there’s nothing more satisfying than a hearty stew, or what I’m here calling a basic braise. A meat that will stand up to slow cooking, an assortment of aromatic vegetables, a splash of wine and some good stock will take a little time to prepare and reward you with several nourishing portions.  You can choose a shoulder cut of beef, lamb or pork or chicken leg/thigh pieces for your protein.

I’m still speaking up for local, pasture raised, grass fed meats. These farming practices sequester carbon and the smaller amount of methane produced is dissipated quickly in contrast to the fuel and chemicals used to create plant based meat and dairy substitutes. The fully plant based diet has neither proved healthy or sustainable but is promoted and funded by big corporate cereal producers. We forget that a great percentage of the earth’s landscape is not suitable for crop agriculture. These grasslands have minimal top soil easily drained off in grain farming which, alas, has been promoted and given undue government subsidy. Thus there’s too much corn and corn sugar is most prepared food and many meat products. For too long in this country we have felt food should be cheap and we have squandered our land and our health to make it cheap. 

We have used too much fossil fuel, too much chemical fertilizer and pesticide; we have treated animals inhumanely locking them in putrid feedlots and closed containment. Some pigs and chickens never see the light of day.

No matter how tempting and tender the prime steak is, when you realize that the cattle producing that steak have been fattened by corn/soy feeds that give them belly aches, suddenly it’s not worth its savor. Whereas fat from a pastured, grass fed animal is healthy fat equivalent to fish oil. Pastured animals produce a fraction of the methane than what comes from landfills and transportation. Let’s stop blaming the humble cow.

Personally I feel close to the farm and farm animals. I want them to be in our universe. I want them to be allowed to eat the food they are meant to eat and to feel the land beneath their feet and the sun on their backs. Throughout the world’s grasslands, animals have sustained populations for generations providing food, clothing, warmth and wealth. To take the zebu cows from an African pastoral community is to take away their very life. Plants are vital, but let’s not forget that plants and animals together form a perfect union when nurtured regeneratively. Animals eat the plants humans can’t digest and in turn give us their gifts of milk, eggs, meat, leather—it’s a life-giving cycle.

It’s getting easier to find pasture-raised meats. Most communities are near a local farm supply, a farmers’ market or a direct from the farm home delivery service. Larger supermarkets are offering grass fed meats and smaller shops will provide local farm direct products. Yes, eat less meat, and choose what you eat more carefully.

ingredients

Now back to the braise. . . This isn’t really a recipe but a process. First select a stewing piece. This will be less expensive than steak and will cook slowly giving you a rich flavor and generous sauce. This sort of dish is best made in advance, cooled, allowing the flavors to develop and then reheated for serving.

I’m braising here only a pound of lamb shoulder but it will give me four luxurious senior meals. I can reheat each portion with different vegetable additions or freeze part away for later dinners. Whether we call it a Beef Bourguignon, Navarin,  Coq au Vin or Carbonnades, all are basically stews made to stretch a piece of less tender protein into a glorious repast–the best of winter foods.

Braised Beef or Lamb

1 lb. lean shoulder meat cut in large cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil or good dripping*

1 medium onion chopped

1 carrot sliced or chopped

1 branch celery chopped

2-4 cloves garlic minced

a Few sprigs fresh thyme or pinches of dry thyme

1 bay leaf

sprinkle of crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon tomato paste

½ cup red or white wine**

1 cup chicken stock preferably homemade

additional stock and roux if needed

*dripping is the fat drained from roast chicken or pork. Keep it covered in the refrigerator to flavor soups and stews. Remember pastured animals produce good for you fats to be used with discretion.

** wine or beer is traditional in these preparations, but if you don’t use alcohol in your cooking, substitute tomato juice (omit the paste), or more stock and add a tablespoon of wine or apple cider vinegar to the cooking.

Check the photograph to note the balance of meat and aromatics. You can then scale up keeping this balance with whatever amount of meat you are using.  It’s odd to braise just one pound of meat, but that amount is sufficient here.

First trim the meat and cut into large chunks or leave chicken pieces whole.

Salt the meat carefully and if possible store in the fridge overnight or a few hours. This allows the surface of the meat to dry and the seasoning to penetrate for better flavor. 

meat browned
spatter screen

Heat half of the dripping or olive oil in a heavy cast iron frying pan. Brown the meat carefully. (A spatter screen will protect your cook top.) Place the browned meat in a heavy heatproof casserole such as an enameled cast iron pot with a tight fitting lid. (A slow cooker could also be used.) Lower the heat; add remaining dripping or oil plus the chopped onion, carrot and celery to the skillet with the browned residue.  Cover with parchment or butter wrappers and gently sweat the vegetables until softened. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper and tomato paste cooking a few more minutes until the garlic is fragrant and the tomato caramelizes a bit. Stir in the wine and bring to a boil to release alcohol. Add half of the stock. Pour the vegetables and liquid over the browned meat. Tuck in the herb bundle of thyme plus bay leaf or add pinches of dry herbs. (If you have an herb patch, your thyme should be good even through the winter; shake off the snow and trim a few sprigs. It may not be bright green, but it still has good flavor.) Check the level of liquid. You don’t want the meat and vegetables to be swimming in broth; they should be poking out of the liquid like little icebergs. Add more stock if necessary or save for the finish. Sprinkle with salt; cover with parchment or butter wrappers. Set on the lid and slowly simmer the stew on a very low flame, in a 300° oven or in a slow cooker. 

flavorful residue
sweating vegetables
cover with butter papers
ready to add wine

ready to cover and cook

Depending on the meat used, the heat and the cooking vessel, the stew will take from 1 to 3 hours to produce fork tender morsels.  Once the meat is tender, remove the paper, add more stock to increase the sauce. Remove the herb bouquet and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning adding more salt if needed. If you’d like the gravy to have more consistency, it may be thickened by whisking in a teaspoon or two of roux. You may serve the braise straight away with boiled potatoes and green vegetables or save it to reheat the next day. This amount will serve 4 seniors or 2-3 younger diners.

dinner

alternative flavors

Here are a couple ideas to vary the flavor: Add sautéed mushrooms and diced red pepper to the sauce before serving and top with frizzled bacon. Or add a couple prunes, a spoonful of grated ginger root, strips orange peel and a diced half or quarter of preserved lemon to the cooking stew for a Moroccan influence.

Mary Jo’s Cookbook is available on Amazon

Christmas Pudding Alone

December 4, 2020

Somehow the traditional holiday plum pudding took a tumble on its journey  across the Atlantic. This warm fruit studded steamed spiced cake still a Christmas staple in Ireland and throughout the UK can scarce find a home here in America where everyone fawns for chocolate and more chocolate.

Back in the dark ages of my youth, we had plum pudding for Christmas dinner. This preparation was my dad’s domain as it had been his father’s before him. On the morning of our big dinner, out would come a big bowl with breadcrumbs, sugar, spices and an assortment of raisins—big sticky, seeded Muscats (the likes of which we can’t find anymore), golden raisins, brown raisins and currants. On a large cutting board heaped a mound of ivory lumps of beef kidney (another item not to be found now) to be chopped to smithereens with a massive chef’s knife. After the suet was feathered into the crumb mixture, in went beaten eggs to bind the pudding into a soft ball which was turned onto a clean flour-sack tea towel, tied into a lose hobo’s bundle and settled into a metal colander for it’s long, slow steam bath in a big kettle on the back of the range.  The air would ring with the scent of cinnamon for hours, as hard sauce was whipped with brandy and nutmeg. Just before dinner, the pud would be lifted from the steam, the tea towel untied and the giant puffed pudding rolled on to a platter to rest in a low oven until time for dessert.

My grandfather’s faded, handwritten recipe

My cousins still recall anticipating the plum pudding with hard sauce and everyone around that table would easily resist a second helping of turkey to hold space for the pudding. Sometimes we set it ablaze with a generous tot of warm brandy, and soon everyone was tucking into thick slices of plum pudding trickled with melting brandy butter. Oh, where has it gone. . .

The evolution of plum pudding tells a story of cooking and eating. It most likely began as a porridge studded with fruit and possibly meat before sugar and spices caravanned into northern Europe. Dried plums or what we know as prunes were so popular than soon the dried dark fruits were all lumped together as plums; hence when raisins, figs, etc came into the pudding they were all plums. With the development of white flour and white bread for crumbs, the porridge became more of a cake, a cake that could be steamed in a pot over an open fire before kitchen ovens appeared. Plum pudding for Christmas marked the best of all good things with spices, sugar, fruits and brandy!

Throughout the now almost sixty years since I last had a Christmas in Colorado, I’ve not had a partner nor a child nor a grandchild willing to join me for plum pudding. It was a favorite dessert during December in my Ohio restaurant, and we sold many for take away, steamed in the wide 28 ounce  cans that had been emptied of pumpkin for Thanksgiving pies. My immediate family only wanted the Yule Log Cake, so for lo these many years, I fancy a little plum pudding alone. This year I’m following an idea from Darina Allen and The Ballymaloe Cookery school, steaming my tiny puddings in smallcups, ramekins or jam jars making way for my solo treat.

find assorted containers

Now that it’s impossible to find beef kidney suet, I’ve turned to using butter in my pudding. It doesn’t give quite the same silky richness, but it works in a pinch. Suet from a grass fed animal is not only nutritious, it has the advantage of a slow melt to maintain moistness in the pudding though the long steam bath. Fats from grass fed animals are far safer for us than chemically processed vegetable oils. 

gather ingredients

You’ll find the following recipe a good project for another day locked at home. It can be a pantry treasure hunt scrambling together the bits and pieces. The stirring up is quick and easy and a long slow simmer in an assortment of small vessels will give you a selection of little puds to tuck away for days when  moments of nostalgia sweep you into a Christmas wonderland of times past. . . 

Tiny Plum Puddings

1 ounce raisins

1 ½ ounces currants 

1 ounce dried brown figs (2 large)

¾ ounce candied orange peel (optional)

1 ½ ounces prunes (3)

1 ounce pitted dates

(You need 7-8 ounces mixed dried dark fruits; use what you have)

2 tablespoons sherry, port, brandy or fruit juice

½ small apple grated

½  teaspoon grated orange rind

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

generous pinch each of cloves, ginger, allspice and salt

1 ½  ounces brown sugar (1/4 cup packed)

3 tablespoons all purpose flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 ½ ounces soft white bread crumbs (1/2 cup)

1egg

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 ½ ounces melted butter (3 tablespoons)

Cut all dry fruits in small pieces (a heaped cup) and combine in a pint jar. Add the sherry or juice, cover and shake to moisten. Allow the fruit to macerate several hours or a couple of days.

chopped fruit

Gather six small containers (proper Mason jam jars, espresso cups or porcelain ramekins) and lightly butter. 

In a mixing bowl combine orange rind, spices, brown sugar, flour, baking powder, bread crumbs. Mix in the macerated dry fruits. Beat the egg with orange juice, melted butter and stir into the fruit mixture to form a soft dough. Divide the pudding mixture among the buttered cups and jars. Top each with a circle of waxed paper; twist on the lid or top with a square of foil secured with a rubber band.

ready to steam

Place the puddings on a wire rack or trivet in a large pot. Add water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover, bring to a simmer and steam the puddings for 1 ½ to 2 hours, making sure the water doesn’t boil away. Turn off the heat and allow them to cool.  Store the puddings zipped in a plastic bag in a cool place such as a shelf in the garage or basement until ready to use.

To reheat steam each cup in a small saucepan of simmering water for half an hour. (The longer the puddings steam, the darker they will be).  Tip the hot pudding onto a dessert plate and serve with hard sauce  and/or pouring custard (crème anglaise) and a touch of freshly grated nutmeg. This amount makes 6 small puddings.

so delicious

Happy Christmas to all. . .

Sweet Potatoes and Apples

November 13, 2020

North wind’s blowing in and it’s time for sweet potatoes. Most of us won’t be going over the river and through the woods this Thanksgiving day, but we’ll bring family traditions to our tables, dining alone or with those in our small bubble. Grim though it sounds, we are up against a Goliath this year and it’s up to all of us to follow the guidelines that will one day bring us back together.

All this makes me think back . . .back to the time when families had to survive alone and off their land. We remember reading Little House On The Prairie where they celebrated a simple family Christmas in the one room cabin. And I think of my grandparents living in a farming community freshly forged in the West where they, too, lived almost completely off the land. Although the big house burned before my time, I’ve poured over old photograph albums and can imagine the setting. There was a small dairy herd providing milk, cream, butter and cottage cheese; a flock of hens for eggs and chicken; a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, and grape vines. During the summer they canned peaches, pears, apricots, tomatoes, jams, pickles and preserves. Each fall they’d butcher a hog fattened on kitchen scraps and windfall fruit. Neighbors would pitch in. They’d make sausages, render lard, salt pork, prepare bacon and ham for RF’s smoke house.  

In the cool root cellar just a few steps from the back kitchen door winter provisions would line the walls. Groaning shelves of mason jars (also including canned fish from the local river, venison from the nearby mountains, and mincemeat made with meat). From the ceiling there’d hang cleaned cotton flour sacks filled with dried sweet corn or pinto beans. On the dirt floor bushels of onions, winter squash, potatoes and apples. Carrots and turnips would wait covered with earth. For a good while there’d be fresh cabbages and later crocks of sauerkraut. From the bounty of this cellar with the daily gifts from their animals, this family and countless others dined well keeping healthy and strong through the cold winter.

Now as California’s Central Valley floods our supermarkets with strawberries and lettuces year round, we almost forget what’s seasonal. During this time of isolation, we can learn skills from those who came before us. 

One of the things I remember, even from my own childhood, when we didn’t have a lot of fresh green produce in the winter, were apples served as a savory. Fried apples came to the table as a common companion to pork or cheese dishes. Apple salads spiked with raisins and celery or bowls of applesauce took the place of a vegetable. Apples keep well in a cool garage and even though the skins wrinkle, they cook perfectly. Try to recognize your cooking apples from the eaters. The sweet eating apples don’t soften easily when cooked, so it’s best to stick with McIntosh, Winesap or Jonathan for cooking.

Mounds of sweet potatoes on market shelves bring us to Thanksgiving and I’m ready for a plate of sautéed apples and caramelized sweet potatoes– a good combination for brunch, lunch or a supper side dish. The tartness of the apples plays off the sugar of the sweet potatoes and a sprinkling of shallots and pomegranate seeds add a dazzle of holiday flair. Add some grilled sausages or frizzled ham, or sliced smoked turkey, a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds or pecans. Serve the combo warm or at room temperature with crumbled goat cheese. Stick with the season:  it’s time for sweet potatoes. 

Fried Apples and Sweet Potatoes

2 medium sweet potatoes baked in their jackets and cooled*

1 ½ -2 tablespoons butter, coconut or olive oil

2-3 tart cooking apples (Jonathan recommended)

2 tablespoons minced shallots or red onion (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pomegranate seeds and parsley or mint for garnish

*By far the best way to precook sweet potatoes is to roast them in their skins. Add a shallow pan of sweet potatoes to the oven when you’re baking bread, roasting a chicken or most anything. The oven temperature doesn’t really matter. When the sweet potatoes are tender, they will collapse. Cool and store them in a plastic bag until ready to use. They will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Peeled raw sweet potatoes tend to discolor and raw sweet potatoes often shatter when cut. A cooled baked sweet potato will literally slip out of the skin and cut as easily as soft butter.

First sauté the apples. Core the apples and cut each into 8 wedges. Melt half the butter or oil in a cast iron skillet and sauté apples gently until browned and softened, turning as necessary. This should take 8-9 minutes. During the last couple of minutes, sprinkle over the chopped shallots and season with salt and pepper. Set the cooked apples aside in a warm oven. Wipe the inside of the skillet with a paper towel.

Peel and cut the cooked sweet potatoes into half inch slices. Melt the remaining butter or oil in the warm skillet and when it sizzles, add the sliced sweet potatoes. Cook 3-4 minutes on a side turning as needed to take on a glistening caramelized surface. Season with salt and pepper. 

When ready to serve, mound the sweet potato slices in the center of a shallow dish; surround with the warm apples. Sprinkle over pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley or mint. Such a simple treat!  Enough for 3-4 

Spiced Scalloped Squash

October 7, 2020

It was years ago at the Glenview Farmers’ market that I bought a perfect butternut squash. 

Hoping for regeneration, I scraped some of the seeds onto a paper towel, let them dry and wrapped them for my seed box. The next spring I decided to plant something around the unsightly patch I’d been using as a compost heap in the back yard. I rigged up a fence with some shabby staves and old wire and planted the saved squash seeds in six hills around the inside of the fence. Little seedlings emerged in the warm spring, and before I knew it, the eyesore in the back became a jungle verdant giant squash vines. They climbed into the neighbors backyard., crept across the lawn and twisted themselves into a major tangle. It wasn’t until the vines started to die back in the late summer that I could even estimate my crop–plenty of butternut squash for autumnal meals.

And so each year I save some seeds and plant them in the spring. These descendents from my market find keep on coming. Their shapes morph from round to long necked to oval and they’re all good.

everything ready to cook

By late September I’m ready for the baked squash repertoire. Not a fan of sugar with squash, I much prefer to add its natural sweetness to something savory. I begin with the Tian or squash, tomato and onion bake (https://mjcuisine.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/fill-the-oven-with-butternut-squash) move to butternut squash soup  (https://mjcuisine.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/butternut-squash-soup/ ), then save a space for decadent cheese and bread  stuffed squash (https://mjcuisine.wordpress.com/2019/11/06/stuffed-pumpkin-butternut-squash ). 

This year I keep longing for fresh ginger and North Indian spices. Maybe it’s all the news about boosting our immune systems and some of the warm spices, especially garlic and ginger, have been used for centuries to protect us through seasons of invading viruses. Modern medicine is miraculous, and traditional defenses have stood the test of time. We can draw on both. We like the zip of fresh ginger and the punch of chili, but if these seasonings seem too strong for you, choose the smaller measurement for a milder touch.

The following recipe is ideal to slide in the oven alongside a roast chicken or a tray of vegetables. It can be prepared in advance and the parts combined just before cooking. I’d suggest it even as a contender for your Thanksgiving table.

Spiced Scalloped Squash

1 2 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into large dice  (4 generous cups)

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil 

l medium onion (6 oz.) peeled and cut into small dice (1 ½  cups)

1 -1½ oz fresh ginger peeled and grated (use microplane) 1-2 tablespoons

4 cloves garlic peeled (½ oz.)  finely chopped or grated

½ to 1 teaspoon chopped Serrano chili (including seeds)

½ teaspoon each garam masala, turmeric, ground coriander, and curry powder*

½ cup cream or full fat coconut milk

½ diced sweet red pepper

*use all the listed dry spices or select from what you have on hand.

Melt the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan. Add prepared onion and sweat under butter wrappers or parchment until softened. Remove paper and cook gently until golden. 

Add the holy trinity of fresh Indian spices—ginger, garlic and chili. Saute gently stirring constantly until the ginger smells fragrant and cooked. Add the dry spices and stir a few seconds to warm. Add half a cup of water and boil up stirring with a wooden spoon to release any bits that have stuck to the bottom of the saucepan. Turn off the heat, add cream and season with salt.

onions ready
sauce ready

When ready to cook, butter a 6-cup shallow baking dish. Fold the squash into the cream mixture, adding the red pepper and turn the mixture into the baking dish. 

oven ready

Bake in a 375° oven for an hour or until the squash is tender and lightly browned. Feel healthy!

Serves 4-6

bring to the table

 

Scampi Style Shrimp with Tomatoes and Corn

August 19, 2020

Summer Shrimp

Now it seems ages ago that I bought a little box of tomato seedlings. I slipped them in my garden patch along with some organic fertilizer, compost and plenty of water. I set on the cages, pinched the suckers, watered and waited. The plants grew so tall I had to add stakes inside the wire cages. In time blossoms arrived and little fruit globes set on.  One day I saw a yellow blush and two weeks later the tomatoes took on their ruby glow. I hadn’t tasted a fresh tomato for months and waited with anticipation for that first bite. The day finally came when two tomatoes were ripe. I sliced them alone and ate them with flaky salt, a drizzle of olive oil, some torn basil and toast for lunch. A mini panzanella on a saucer of summer glory!

After a fresh tomato everyday for a while, I was ready to cook some. I purchased a farmers market box to add fresh tomatoes to sauces, braises and sautés along the way for the daily three square. Corn is still coming in abundance and the corn/tomato combo always rings true in summer when both are fresh from the farm.

The sweetness of corn countered with the acid in the tomatoes makes a winning team. To turn this pair into a summer supper, I felt prompted to add some scampi style shrimp.

supplies

If you had asked me a week ago about scampi, I’d have said shrimp, but actually scampi are langoustines or spiny lobsters otherwise known as Dublin Bay Prawns (which if you have the opportunity to taste them freshly caught off an Irish bay, you are in for an exceptional treat). Since real scampi are seldom seen here, we think of shrimp in the Italian scampi style.

This dish isn’t quite a one-pot wonder or a sheet pan meal, but it’s a two-pot special and quick to put together. I don’t recommend cooking the cut corn with the tomatoes since the sweet milky juice from the corn will make the tomatoes look muddy. So to keep the color bright, simmer the tomato base in one skillet and barely cook the corn in a small saucepan.

The food world at the present is intoxicated with cooking cherry tomatoes. Yes, they are cute and readily available, but as they burst in a sauce and look most tempting, they leave the skin which is tough and somewhat unpleasant. Instead, I recommend cooking with plum tomatoes if possible, but they need to be deep red from a local farm market. Plum or Roma tomatoes from the supermarket are often a pale disappointment. It’s best to remove the skin by slipping the fruit in boiling water or spearing the fruit with a cooking fork and turning it over the gas flame a few seconds. Yes, it’s another step, but it’s worth it.

prepared tomatoes

For the shrimp, choose shell on for the best flavor (and save the shells in a freezer bag to make shrimp stock). In a dish like this smaller shrimp give the best flavor. We add here the usual scampi suspects: olive oil, butter, garlic, red pepper and parsley— summer delight!

 

Scampi Style shrimp with Tomatoes and Corn

2 ears fresh corn

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 ½ tablespoons butter

½ medium onion thinly sliced (1 cup)

2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped and chopped (optional)

¼-½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

4 large plum tomatoes, peeled and sliced (2 cups)

or 2 cups cherry tomatoes halved

8 oz. shell on shrimp, rinsed (if frozen), shelled and sprinkled with salt

parsley, chopped

lemon

salt

Husk the corn; rub off silks and cut kernels from the cob. Take care not to cut deeply and scrape the ‘cream’ from the cob with a paring knife. In a small saucepan, gently warm the corn with ½ tablespoon butter and salt. The corn basically just needs to be heated through. Set aside.

softened onions

Seasonings

useful butter papers

 

In a skillet or sauté pan, melt ½ tablespoon butter with the olive oil and sweat the onion, covered with butter papers or parchment. Once the onion has softened, remove paper and add minced garlic, thyme and crushed red pepper.  Continue to sauté, stirring a few seconds until the garlic releases fragrance. Add the prepared tomatoes, salt, stir. Return paper cover and cook briefly until the tomatoes break down. Boil up if the sauce is watery. Taste for seasonings adding salt to taste and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice if desired. (Up to this point everything may be prepared in advance.)

tomato base

Shortly before serving, reheat the tomato base and the corn. Add drained shrimp to the simmering tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally for just a few minutes until the shrimp turn pink and are cooked through. Add the final ½ tablespoon butter as the shrimp cook. (Small shrimp take no more than 3 minutes.)

When ready to plate, place a shallow circle of creamed corn in the center of each plate and mound the tomato/garlic infused shrimp on top. Sprinkle with parsley and add a seasonal green vegetable to complement.

Summer Shrimp

Serves 2 memorably.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corn Salad

July 28, 2020

Corn Salad

During these past months, many have cleaned every closet, tidied the garage and pulled all the flowerbed weeds. I finish one book and pick up the next; cook one meal and start planning the next, and I wait. I waited for the asparagus, the strawberries and then I waited for corn. Corn arrived in its glory in our farmers market this past weekend; tomatoes and peppers are dribbling in. With these golden ears, we have reached high summer. The heat bears heavy, the humidity thick; fireflies flit in the darkness and cicadas climb to a deafening pitch. Cooking slows down; meals lighten up but everyone still gets hungry.

There’s nothing like that first taste of summer’s corn lifted from a boiling caldron, brushed with butter, lightly salted and nibbled straight from the cob. “Roasting Ears” my Grandpa Lapp called them as he hauled a big gunny sack full up to the house. Was there ever a better summer supper than a platter of steaming corn, freshly churned salted butter and sliced red tomatoes? Those flavors will never leave my memory and each summer again I wait.

Once I’ve had my fill of corn from the cob, I’m ready for those sweet kernels to make their way into other dishes. There’s something so special about fresh corn that frozen or canned corn can never duplicate. And by fresh I mean fresh from the farm, not something sitting in a grocery store cooler for days before it’s sold. Get thee to your nearest Farmers Market as soon as you can while the summer sun is high.

vegetables for salad

Since we’re in a siege of hot weather and I’m trying to keep heat from the kitchen at a minimum, corn salad seemed like a good idea. I looked in the fridge and pulled out some farmers market items to combine. I had a small fennel bulb, some celery, a sweet torpedo shaped red onion, Serrano chili along with some fresh garlic, basil and nasturtium flowers from my own patch.  All of these savories were calling for the sweet pop of fresh corn kernels, and a light vinaigrette dressing. The only thing needing cooking was the corn, and that’s a 2-minute boil.

Basically this salad is more of a suggestion than a precise recipe. You can use what you have. If you don’t have red onion, use green onions or some sweet onion; if you don’t have fennel, just stick with celery. If you don’t like the idea of green chili and pickled ginger, leave them out, or add some chopped preserved lemon or Indian lime pickle. If you have a pepper, green or red, put it in. Two tools that make quick work for something like this salad are a Japanese mandolin and a small sharp paring knife.

kitchen essentials

Fresh Corn Salad

3 large, full ears of sweet corn

1 medium torpedo red onion or 3 green onions

1 small fennel bulb

2 branches celery

1 teaspoon finely chopped Serrano chili (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped pickled ginger (optional)

1 teaspoon finely chopped and mashed garlic

handful shredded basil, parsley, cilantro or mint

1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt

 

Pull husks from the corn and rub off the silk. Half fill a pot big enough to hold the corn with water. (I break the ears in half). Bring the water to a boil, add a generous pinch of salt. Add the corn, cover and boil steadily for 2 minutes. Immediately lift the ears from the water and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile wash and thinly slice the fennel, celery, onion. Finely chop chili, ginger and garlic. Gently mix all these in a salad bowl. In a glass measuring cup combine lime juice, vinegar, mustard and salt. Whisk in olive oil. Set aside.

chopped ;and shredded

When the corn is cool enough to handle, stand each ear upright and cut down on the cob using a very sharp, small knife. Try not to cut all the way to the cob. Once you have cut all the cobs, go back with the knife and scrape off the corn cream still left on the cobs. The combined cut corn and scraped cream should come to 2 cups.

cut and scraped corn

Mix the cut corn into the shredded vegetables in the salad bowl, pour over the reserved dressing, fold all together and taste adding more salt, lemon juice or pepper as necessary. Chill until ready to serve. Makes 4 cups of salad; enough for 5-6 servings.

Corn Salad

This would be a great salad to serve alongside some sliced tomatoes and chilled roast chicken or poached salmon. Or simply enjoy with toasted sourdough bread and a wedge of Cambozola cheese. This salad will keep for three days in the fridge, and the flavors will improve after it has chilled a few hours.

 

Mary Jo’s Cookbook
available on Amazon

English Muffins

June 11, 2020

Homemade English Muffins

So you’ve got your sour dough starter going and the home baking courses along. But it’s getting hot and we don’t want to keep the oven on any longer than necessary for our weekly loaves. At this time when flour occasionally seems to be in short supply, especially bread flour, we also don’t want to discard any extra activated starter. Inevitably with each feeding and scaling off, there’s a bit more starter left than we need to save for next week. Rather than dumping it, the starter can go into almost any flour and liquid mixture headed for baking. You can use your starter in pancakes, waffles, muffins or scones. When you need a bread for morning toast, but don’t want to turn on the oven, consider making a batch of English Muffins. These can be cooked in a cast iron frying pan on the stovetop. English muffins are one of America’s favorite toasted breads and they’re even better when home made.

 

Ingredients

If you have some restless children who would enjoy a simple baking project, here’s a great idea. The dough is best prepared a day ahead, left in the fridge overnight, then shaped and baked the following morning. It’s a useful plan with a few simple ingredients and good lessons in kitchen know how. Even at tines when the power fails and the gas is still on, English Muffins will give you bread baked right on the cook top.

 

heavy cast iron

A few historical notes: English muffins are an American tradition. They began from some dough scraps in a New York bakery opened by an English emigrant A similar roll meant for toasting in England is a crumpet. And of course lest we forget, long before people had ovens, even in coal fired ranges, and did all their cooking in iron pots over smoldering fires, simple cakes and breads were baked or steamed in covered pots—thus the Dutch Oven. In most of our lives we’ve never imagined a kitchen without an oven, but there are still many parts of the world today where an oven would be almost an unthinkable luxury.

 

soft kneaded dough

ready for overnight rest

For some simple summer baking, almost camp style, turn out some home made sour dough English Muffins

 

English Muffins

4 oz. (1/2 cup) active sourdough starter

4 fl. oz. (1/2 cup) lukewarm milk

4 fl. oz. (1/2 cup) water

½ teaspoon dry yeast

1 tablespoon soft butter or olive oil

12 oz. bread flour  (include 1 oz. of whole wheat flour if desired)*

1 teaspoon salt

* All-purpose flour may be used for these muffins, but you may need a bit extra.

In a mixing bowl combine the starter, milk and water. Add yeast and allow it to dissolve. Add butter or oil and flour. Stir to form a rough dough. Sprinkle salt over the top. Cover and let the dough rest 20-30 minutes. Knead using a dough hook or by hand 6-7 minutes. Cover and let the dough rise for half an hour. Fold the dough down and cover or place in a plastic container; refrigerate overnight or for 12-16 hours.

 

rolling dough

cut out circles

The next day remove the dough from the container and roll into a circle ½ inch thick; cut the muffins using a biscuit cutter. Reroll and cut the scraps. Alternatively shape the dough into a thin log and cut into 10 equal portions. Let them rest a few minutes before shaping each piece into a smooth ball and flatten slightly. Place the balls or cut circles a couple inches apart on a sheet pan dusted with cornmeal. Cover the sheet pan with a split plastic bag and a kitchen towel.  Let the balls rise 20-30 minutes at warm room temperature. Use gentle fingertips to flatten balls slightly if they have grown too tall.

 

 

cut dough log

rolled and covered balls

flattened balls

Heat a heavy cast iron frying pan with a tight fitting cover. The pan needs to heat to approximately 350 degrees. To check the temperature, place a teaspoon of flour in a small pie pan or on a piece of foil and place it in the covered Dutch oven. After 5 minutes if the flour is light brown the internal temperature is 350 degrees. If it’s dark brown it’s 450 and too hot. Dutch Oven baking will work best at 350 degrees.

 

test Dutch oven heat

muffins in heated pan

When the cast iron is ready and the dough balls look puffy, place 4-5 of the muffins in the skillet spacing them an inch apart. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Uncover, turn the muffins over, cover and bake another 5 minutes. If the dough has scorched in places reduce the heat. Cool thoroughly before fork splitting and toasting. Enjoy with butter and jam or use as a base for poached eggs. Makes 10-12 muffins

 

cutie with pup and muffin

 

 

 

 

Chickpea Stew with Coconut Milk and Turmeric

April 30, 2020

 

lunch

Now you have time. No more need to depend on cans and packets. There’s no way a bean stew is a quick fix. For authenticity and the best flavor, a bean stew is something that works best when it has time to simmer low and slow.

Ingredients

Canned beans are handy and inexpensive, but the flavor of beans from a can can’t hold a candle to beans cooked from scratch. Beans take no special skills, only time. Time to soak the beans, time to slowly simmer the beans or to hurry them along in a pressure cooker. On top of the succulent result, you have bean broth that can stretch out a soup or sauce. It is usually advised to discard the liquid from canned beans that tastes of preservatives. Cook your own; return to old fashioned goodness.

foam rising

Several months ago The New York Times published a recipe for Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut Milk that went viral in the food world. Two cans chickpeas, two cans coconut milk. . about 40 minutes cooking time. Such a tempting quick fix and many loved it. I’ve taken the basic concept into my own dimension using dry chickpeas and techniques from Indian cooking that I first learned in East Africa almost 60 years ago. I suggest making the stew a few hours or even the day before serving to give the spices a chance settle into more harmonious flavor. This stew once prepared will keep for several days in the fridge or freezes well. Fresh greens may be added at the last minute.

aromatics

On the subject of fresh greens, they’re abundant now for foraging almost everywhere. Of course you can use spinach or kale from the supermarket, but since I’m not going to the market these days, I just walk around my backyard each afternoon and collect handfuls of edibles. Mint is coming up all over the place, so is the wild arugula. Chickweed is edible and so is the humble dandelion.

cooked peas and broth

Have we forgotten the benefits of the dandelion? This plant now considered a noxious weed in the past was honored for its medicinal qualities. The dandelion’s deep roots pull calcium from the soil and the leaves are more nutritious than most garden vegetables. They’re loaded with vitamins A and C plus iron, calcium and potassium. They probably came over on the Mayflower, not by accident. We should all be collecting a few dandelion leaves each day at this time of year to cut into our dinner salads.  When I was young, each spring we gathered dandelion leaves to wilt with fresh bacon dripping and a dash of cider vinegar. Little did I know then about the spring tonic.

Here’s a delicious chickpea stew to delight almost anyone who enjoys a few spices and the generous benefits of turmeric. It asks for little attention, just time on the back burner.

A Chickpea Stew with Turmeric and Coconut Milk

12 oz. dry chickpeas (1 ½ cups)

2-3 teaspoons turmeric

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion (generous 2 cups chopped)

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger* (use a microplane)

1 tablespoon finely chopped or grated garlic

½ – 1 Serrano chili sliced or 1 teaspoon chili flakes

1-2 cups chickpea broth

1 cup diced carrot or sweet potato (optional)

1 14oz. can full fat coconut milk

fresh lemon or lime juice

2-3 cups chopped fresh greens

plain yogurt

 

mortar and microplane

*It’s nearly impossible to chop fresh ginger finely enough to allow it to fully infuse a stew. I always thinly slice ginger then bash it to puree with a pinch of salt in a stone mortar. Since most people don’t have a mortar and pestle, I here recommend the microplane, but if you have the mortar, use it for the ginger, garlic and green chili—the basic Indian green masala.

onions reduced and golden

Cover the chickpeas with cool water in a deep bowl and allow them to soak overnight or at least 12 hours. The chickpeas will double in size after soaking. (I don’t recommend using baking soda with chickpeas, though that idea has been currently popularized. The unpleasant residual flavor of the baking soda lingers even after rinsing, and it may remove vitamins.) Drain the peas. In a heavy cooking pot or pressure cooker, cover them with 6 cups of fresh cool water. The peas will cook in 15 minutes under pressure, or they may simmer slowly for 1-2 hours. When using the simmer process, skim the white foam that rises to the surface at the beginning of the simmer. After the foam has been skimmed a couple of times, add 1 teaspoon turmeric, and continue to simmer until the peas are creamy and tender. When the peas are fully cooked, season with a teaspoon of salt and cool. Drain to separate peas from the liquid. You will have 4 cups of cooked peas and a generous 2 cups of broth. Use 3 cups of peas for the stew and save a cup to add to soups or salads-a definite fridge bonus.

seasoning base

Meanwhile sweat the onion in olive oil in a heavy stewing pot. It will help to cover the onions initially with butter paper wrappers until the onions are tender, 10-15 minutes. Remove the papers and continue to sauté the onions until they are well reduced and golden.

stew cooked

At this point add the ginger, garlic and green chili. Stirring constantly cook until the ginger smells cooked. Stir in 2 teaspoons turmeric and 1 cup of bean broth. Scrape up all the seasonings from the bottom of the pan. Add the optional sweet potato or carrot, 3 cups drained chickpeas and enough bean broth to almost cover them. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the sweet potato is almost tender. Add the coconut milk and simmer another 20-30 minutes.Uncover for the final simmer if you want a thicker stew. Taste for seasonings adding more salt if necessary. You may add a few drops of Vietnamese fish sauce for a flavor boost.  If possible allow the stew to stand for a few hours or overnight before serving.

wild greens: chickweed, mint, arugula, dandelion

For each cup of chickpea stew heated for serving add ½ cup of chopped fresh greens. Wild greens or spinach will just need to wilt. Kale will need to be blanched until tender before adding. At the last minute add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, extra chopped green chili if desired and serve the stew with a spoonful of plain yogurt, chopped fresh mint and a twirl of olive oil. Add a slice of sourdough toast for lunch or steamed Basmati rice for dinner.

 

lunch

Note:  The antique brass thali in the background of the photos was a gift from my first Indiancooking teacher—Mrs. Postmaster Singh, Songea, Tanganyika, 1963.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available on Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tempt Children with Champ

March 26, 2020

 

 

Champ

Kids in the kitchen, Oh, yes. More cooking at home, more hands on deck. Young ones eager to bake brownies or chocolate chip cookies, as no doubt you’re wondering how to tempt everyone with more vegetables. Here’s a trick from the Irish; hide the greens in mashed potatoes; make Champ. They’re not really hidden, but with mashed potatoes an all time favorite, a few peas, some tender cooked kale or cabbage and a few slivers of green onion folded into the mash make a tempting dish for all ages.

 

ingredients

Two nutritional benefits to keep in mind at this time while maintaining good health is most important: use plenty of butter and boil the potatoes in their skins. Now is the time to use butter freely, since it carries vitamin A, the main vitamin to protect our lungs. Vitamin A is fat-soluble and comes mainly in saturated fats (butter, cheese, eggs, oily fish, etc). This current virus attacks the lungs, so in keeping our lungs healthy, an extra slather of butter can do no harm.  Secondly, most of a potato’s nutrition lies close to the skin, so by boiling  potatoes in their skins and then whipping off the paper thin skin while they are still hot leaves you with most of the nutritional benefits of potassium, vitamin C and B6 intact. Boiled in their skins, potatoes absorb less water and turn into a soft fluff. For mashing it’s important to use the proper potato. You need a floury potato, and in our supermarkets that is the russet potato. Yukon Gold and red potatoes will not give exceptional mashed potatoes.

 

potatoes snug in pan

dry cooked potatoes

peeling knife and fork

cooked and peeled

The green vegetable part of champ can be any leafy green, and as my stash is quite limited at the present, I dipped into my supply of green cabbage nicely cool in the garage. Shredded green cabbage quickly cooked with butter, a little water and salt is absolutely delicious and if you are not one to cook cabbage, you are missing a delicious winter vegetable! Sweet, tender and cooked in 5-8 minutes, it’s packed with vitamins and fiber– your inexpensive pantry treasure. Some chopped, boiled, drained tender kale would also be a good addition or even a few handfuls of steamed frozen green peas. chopped scallions or green onions make a special addition.

 

cut cabbage

cooked cabbage

Why the funny name “champ”? Although it’s somewhat of a mystery, it most likely derives from the process of crushing the potatoes into a mash. In the thick, antique Webster’s dictionary with print so small I need a magnifying glass, “champ” means to crush with vigor, and chomp is a variation. So the name must come from the tradition of mashing potatoes. When potatoes were the main meal in lean times, the addition of cabbage, kale, onion or other greens enriched a humble offering. Even today bowl of warm champ with a pool of melted butter in the center is indeed sublime.

 

Any leftovers make lovely sautéed potato cakes for breakfast or supper.

 

Cabbage and Potato Champ

 

1 lb. russet potatoes (3 medium)

1 lb. green cabbage

3-4 green onions

3-4 tablespoons butter

4 fl. oz. (1/2 cup) half and half, milk and cream mixed or whole milk

salt and white pepper

 

Scrub potatoes; place them snugly in a heavy saucepan; add a generous pinch of salt and cover with cool water. Add lid. Bring to a boil; boil 10 minutes. Tip off all but about a half-inch of water; cover and return to the heat. Continue to steam/boil the potatoes for about 15 minutes or until very tender when pierced with a cake tester or a toothpick. Pour out all the water; return to very low heat and steam dry 5 more minutes.

 

Meanwhile prepare the cabbage. Thinly shred and chop the cabbage. You will have about 4 cups. Place 1 tablespoon butter and 2 fl. oz. (1/4 cup) water in a heavy saucepan. Melt the butter over moderate heat, add the cabbage and a generous pinch of salt (plus a tiny pinch of sugar), turn the mixture with a tongs. Cover and cook somewhat briskly for 5 minutes, checking from time to time, turning the cabbage with tongs. Continue to cook until the cabbage is just tender and in no way soggy. Taste for seasoning adding more salt if needed.

 

sliced green onions

creamy milk and butter ready to heat

In a third small saucepan heat the milk or cream with 2 tablespoons of butter, the chopped green onions, some freshly ground pepper (white if possible) and a pinch of salt.

 

seasoned mash

When the potatoes are fully cooked and steamed, the cabbage hot and the milk at a simmer, tip the potatoes out of their saucepan into a bowl; cover with a tea towel. Rinse the hot saucepan and wipe dry. Spear each hot potato with a three pronged fork or hold with the corner of a tea towel and quickly score and pull off the skin. Drop each peeled potato back into the now clean, still hot potato-cooking pan. When all the potatoes are peeled, crush them with your potato masher and blend in the hot scallion laced creamy milk and melted butter. Once the potatoes are mashed and seasoned to your taste, fold in as much of the warm cabbage, kale or peas as you would like. (I used about 2/3 of the cooked cabbage).  Scoop the champ into a warm serving bowl, add a slice of butter on top and enjoy!

 

Champ ready to serve

To make cakes out of any leftovers, portion the cool champ with an ice cream scoop and shape into small patties. Lightly dust each side with flour or fine cornmeal and sauté in a mixture of melted butter and olive oil, about 5 minutes on each side– a delicious remainder.

champ cakes

 

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon

 

Refried Beans

March 18, 2020

Refried Bean Dip

Refried Bean Taco

Refried Bean Lundh

Here we are hunkered down, hopefully cooking more at home and dipping into our pantry staples. When you did your emergency shopping last week, I hope you remembered dried beans, lentils and rice. These basics can take us a long way with good nutrition, minimal expense and storage space. Nothing beats the flavor of home cooked dry beans; canned beans are handy but they never even come close in flavor. Now that you need to be home anyway, get out the pressure cooker or the bean pot and join our communal history.

 

Through difficult times and in many vegetarian cultures, the bean family has given the protein backbone to countless meals and classic dishes. Just think of Cassoulet, Boston Baked Beans, Chana Masala, Frijoles Refritos.  As kids we learned the jingle “Beans for breakfast, suppertime; beans to chew on all the time. And if you’re hungry meals between just help yourself to another bean!” Now as we need to stretch the fresh vegetables and meats we have at hand, let’s not forget the beans.

 

Ingredients

A few days ago I returned from my annual working holiday at my favorite spot away from home, the Ballymaloe Cookery School. I’ve noticed in years past that there are as of yet no good corn tortillas in Ireland, so I always tuck in a few packages of the excellent El Milagro corn tortillas to char toast and serve up as tacos for the students. For a simple taco filling to show the students the goodness of the humble black bean, I prepared a large pot of refried beans, a crunchy salsa and a drizzle of crema for the swooning crowd.

 

Soaking Beans

Soaked and ready to cook

All beans ask for is some time, not much attention, but time. Beans need an overnight soak to make them cook evenly and become more digestible. They cook quickly and perfectly in a pressure cooker or they take a long slow simmer in a heavy pot with a tight fitting lid. Whatever method you choose, make sure the beans are cooked to the point of melting softness–14-15 minutes under pressure or 1-3 hours on a simmer. No Stirring, no checking, just let them be until they are SOFT.  Unfortunately canned beans will never be as soft as the ones you cook yourself, due to preservative additions.

 

Beans in the pressure cooker

My method for preparing refried beans is to haul out a cast iron skillet, sauté a little onion with garlic and crushed cumin in good bacon grease, then to add the warm beans along with some of the bean broth and mash away until a pillow-like mass forms. There you have it– tasty beans for tacos, dips, lunch or a dinner side. Refried beans keep well refrigerated for several days and may be frozen in plastic tubs. Frijoles Refritos—always a favorite.

 

Refried Beans

1 pound dry beans, black or pinto

3-4 cloves garlic

2 rounded tablespoons good bacon grease, pork dripping* or olive oil

1 heaped cup finely chopped onion, 1 medium onion

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, coarsely ground

few sliced fresh green Serrano chili (optional)

salt

hot sauce (optional)

*Ideally the best pork fat comes from pasture-raised pork. Make sure the reserved bacon or pork dripping is not burnt or stale. It should smell and taste good. Pork dripping, bacon grease or lard will give the true Mexican taste.

The night before you plan to cook the beans, rinse and cover them with cool water in a deep bowl. The next morning they will have doubled in size, see photos. Drain beans from soaking water (use this nutrient filled water for your house plants). And place in a pressure cooker or other heavy pot with a tight fitting lid. Cover with 5-6 cups of fresh water. Add a rounded teaspoon of bacon fat or olive oil and one unpeeled clove of garlic. Cook under pressure for 14-15 minutes or simmer for 1-3 hours or until beans are butter soft.  (mash a few on a plate; they should be creamy) Add a generous pinch of salt, cool slightly and then strain beans from the broth (be sure to save this richly flavored broth to add to the refried beans, to soup or to sip.)

Beans cooked until soft.

 

Cooked beans plus broth

In a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, melt the 2 tablespoons bacon fat, pork dripping or olive oil. Gently sauté the chopped onion until translucent and soft. Add crushed cumin, chopped garlic and some chopped green chili if desired.  Once the garlic gives off fragrance begin to add the beans, a large ladle at a time. Crush the beans with a potato masher in the skillet. Continue to add beans and bits of broth as needed to make a creamy mixture. Season with salt and a dash of hot sauce as desired.

 

Crushed cumin

Softened onion

Mashing Beans

For a quick fresh salsa, chop some cabbage, onion, green chili and cilantro or parsley (use radishes, cucumber, peppers or whatever you have). Season with salt, lime juice or a few drops of cider vinegar.  Jarred salsa is optional.

Use the refried beans for a dip, to fill softened tortillas for tacos (add grated cheese) or serve with steamed rice and yogurt for lunch.

Refried Bean Dip

Everyone enjoys Frijoles Refritos.