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Archives for Cooking

Outside the Food-Shed

Apr
17
2009

I’m a great fan and promoter of eating food produced locally: something called eating in the “food-shed.” A food-shed isn’t one of the wooden buildings that I helped my father build while growing up on a farm, it’s more akin to a watershed, which refers water flowing through a specific geographic area to on its way to the ocean. “Food-shed” is a bit more arbitrary in that it’s usually defined as a set of geographical coordinates (say, everything within a 100- or 200-mile radius of a given home) as opposed to a natural topographic feature.

The concept of a food-shed was created to promote the idea of eating locally, and as I said, I think this is a good idea. Local food is usually fresher and so it tastes better. Growers don’t have the incentive to pick under-ripe fruit or veggies to give them more leeway in shipping and so time-to-market is minimized. The ultimate in local eating at this time of year visiting a pick-your-own strawberry or asparagus farm, coming home, and eating the fruits (or stalks) of your harvest for supper that night. The difference in flavor between asparagus picked and cooked immediately and asparagus cooked a day later is an order of magnitude.

Then there’s the industrialization issue. Producing animals and vegetables on an industrial scale requires some use of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Probably not to the degree Big-Ag uses them, but some. Small, local production requires much less external input because harvesting is hands-on – the farmer inspects each fruit or vegetable to at least some degree. It’s less demanding of soil nutrients because crop/animal rotation is feasible.

For lack of a better work, I really have a “belief” in the importance of agriculture as a personal instead of an industrial endeavor. I like the idea of rewarding people who’s names I know by buying from them and by telling them what I did with those Cherokee Purple tomatoes or that Maine Musk canteloupe. We both, buyer and seller, benefit from that genuinely personal exchange of value for value. Commerce can and often should involve far more than handing over greenbacks for green beans.

However, in planning my Easter dinner this year I called MarxFoods in New Jersey and asked them to send me an evaluation package of their Wild Produce Sampler that is harvested in the rain forests of Oregon and Washington. Not exactly local. But, I’ve had contacts with MarxFoods before and I think they are believers in offering something special to their customers – I went outside my food-shed to get something special. It’s not unlike me buying shrimp here in land-locked Knoxville.

Frankly, the idea occurred to me because I had a hankering for some fiddlehead ferns. I’ve had fiddleheads before when I lived near their native habitat and almost liked them, I wanted to try a new approach to flavoring them. The sampler includes stinging nettles and miner’s lettuce so it offered an opportunity to try some new things as well as revisiting an old one.

The wild veggies were shipped overnight and arrived absolutely fresh. The next day I fixed them as a feature of my Spring/Easter dinner. One of my guests had eaten fiddleheads and nettles before but the other four guests were eating something brand new. When I cleaned up on Monday morning there were a few leaves of miner’s lettuce on a couple of plates – a true complement. If the people you’re feeding say the food is good it’s one thing but when the plates look like they were licked clean, you know they meant it.

The Kenny Rogers song goes, “Know when to hold them, know when to fold them.” When it comes to cooking, know when to stay close to home, and when to step outside of your food shed and munch on the wild side.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:03 AM | Permalink

DIY – Making Lard That Lasts

Apr
6
2009

My stomach is rumbling. Well, not really rumbling so much as gurgling, burbling, growling, and I could swear it just made a barking kind of noise. (Frankly, the barking has me a bit worried.) You see, my house is innundated with the smell of porcine protein and fat – and has been since 9:00 this morning, five hours ago. It’s got about two hours to go.

I’m rendering lard.

Once or twice a year I get some pork fat, render it down, and freeze it. Then come fall I can make an apple pie crust worthy of the effort of making the crust from scratch, or fry to-die-for chicken for a summer picnic, or roast some fresh green beans that will make your mouth sing.

But in the process I get a few puzzled looks. The first time I approached Laurel Creek farms owner Tracy Monday about getting some pork fat was weirder than I expected. I’d been buying from Tracy for awhile and this was right after I’d bought Charcuterie and learned that the best lard, something I’d made once before, is made from what’s called “leaf fat,” the fat found around the pig’s kidneys.

First, the idea that I wanted to buy pork fat was weird to Tracy. This was about five years ago and the concept of making one’s own lard or sausage was still unusual here in Knoxville (it probably still is for most people). Also, he had no idea what leaf fat was and given that I’d never seen it I had trouble describing it to him. I eventually ended up with about a pound of fat that, if I remember correctly, rendered down to about a cup of lard.

These days Tracy knows what leaf fat is and his commercial customers get most of it. So I make do with trimmings which make fine lard and are completely suitable for sausage. But the odd looks don’t really stop. When I picked this lard up at Tracy’s new retail outlet the poor young tattooed clerk was as puzzled as Tracy had been years ago.

Why make lard? I can cruise into the nearest Latin American mercado and buy a pound or a gallon of Armour Manteca. That’s what the wife of the guy mowing my condo’s lawn does and then she uses it to make gorditas just like her grandmother’s and the tamales her husband swears by. But that lard is processed; it’s adulterated with preservatives and partially hydrogenated to make it shelf-stable. It’s nowhere near as good as lard can be.

Today’s rendering will produce about four cups of which I’ve promised two to friends. The remainder I’ll use mostly in the four or five pie crusts I make a year. I’ll likely roast potatoes in some of this rendered lard and sauté greens in some more. Try brushing a chicken with lard and then roasting it – beats butter by miles. With potatoes (and anything else you might deep fry) add a quarter cup or lard to the oil for a richer flavor. And spread a bit of melted lard on a grilled cheese sandwich instead of butter for an obscenely good treat.

Making lard isn’t hard, but it takes a strong stomach. You begin by cutting the fat up into 3/4-inch square chunks – more or less. This should fill your pot by about two thirds- figure a four quart pot for four pounds of fat. Then add an inch of water and place the pot over a burner on low.

For the first couple of hours, as the fat stews in the water, the odor is funky. It doesn’t smell bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. This is the easy part. After a couple of hours the water has all evaporated and the fat is melting in fat and it starts smelling good. Crazy good. Mouth-watering good. Chew your arm off good. It’s torture. You sit there, trying to ignore that wonderful pork aroma so that some evening you can make a wonderfully flakey, richly flavored shells for Cornish pasties or make Maine Fries that even John Thorne would relish.

And you start thinking, “I should add some salt to that,” or, “A few sprigs of rosemary would be perfect,” or, “Maybe a few juniper berries would help.” In short you start wanting to cook. But you’re not cooking, you’re producing an ingredient. Anything you do now will come back to haunt you in later pie crusts, french fries, or turnip greens.

The lard isn’t a painting, it’s the white gesso on a canvas – the foundation the painting relies upon – and if you color to the white the final painting will suffer.

Lard

4 pounds pork fat, cut into 1/2 – 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups water

Pour water into a 4 quart soup/stock pot. Add fat. Place over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 hours until fat browns. (Note: Water will evaporate, don’t replenish.) Filter through cheese cloth, cool and freeze. Keeps 6 – 9 months in freezer.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Rain in Spain

Mar
30
2009

About this time ten years ago I had little stickers all over my house giving the Spanish word for various things such as lamps, tables, and the toilet. By far, though, the preponderance of stickers were in the kitchen labeling such things as pasta, canned tomatoes, pork chops, and shrimp. Each evening I’d spend some time reading travel books and making notes on places to see. I was going to be in Spain for two weeks, celebrating my parent’s 50th anniversary, and I planned to absorb every ounce of the experience – and the food.

Click for larger image.My sister, parents, and I flew over on the same plane, but my sister was in coach, I was in business, and my parents were in first class so we didn’t really get together until we reached Madrid. On arrival we picked up a rental van, checked into a hotel, and crashed. We didn’t feel like going out for dinner that night, so supper was an impromptu picnic of cheese, bread, sausage, fruit, and wine that we bought at a market and ate sitting on the beds in my parent’s room

The next day we drove south to the villa we’d rented on a mountainside overlooking the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean – arriving some eight hours later in a pouring rain. For supper that night I made a tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet) and baked some baby artichokes. We ate them in front of a fire in the sitting room. We had set two of the food themes for our visit – picnics and home cooking using brilliantly fresh and flavorful Spanish foods and recipes.

To our great surprise and delight, the kitchen in the villa was adequately equipped with cooking gear. Even better, the villa boasted an herb garden – rosemary, marjoram, mint, chives, sage – and a pair of lemon trees. We all took turns making lunches and dinners on the days we didn’t go out exploring. A few days later one of my brothers and his wife joined us, and several friends of my parents came for a few days here and there. Everyone had a chance to cook and we had some amazing, creative meals.

On the days we played tourist we usually had a picnic lunch in an olive or cork grove, or near a ruined castle, or at the base of a coastal watch tower. Dinner (and sometimes lunch) we’d eat at a restaurant. These restaurant meals were almost never fancy, we’d just stop into roadside tavernas when we got hungry, but they were often astoundingly good.

Click for larger image.I think the best meal I’ve ever had was in the touristy town of Rhonda where we had lunch at a café hanging over the gorge. I had slow-roasted piglet that took pork to a level I hadn’t even imagined could exist in an equally stunning setting.

The trip wasn’t purely about food. We did make that visit to Rhonda. We also drove up to tour the Alhambra palace one day – a stunning piece of architecture – and visited a cave featuring some of the oldest Paleolithic art in Europe. We saw our share of Roman ruins, great cathedrals, castles, and famous art.

But the part of the trip I enjoyed most were the days we spent at the villa between site-seeing forays. We’d begin such days with a bit of bread, cheese, fruit, and coffee on the patio – each according to his or her own schedule. Then a few of us might make a quick trip down the hillside to the city markets or up the hillside to the village market. If it rained (as it often did) we’d read or play games inside and if it was sunny we’d read or play games lounging by the small swimming pool or on the patio under it’s arbor of grapes looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. Around four on these days we’d open a couple of bottles of wine and put together a collection of tapas and gather on the patio. Eventually someone would start cooking supper, which we’d eat on the patio.

There was almost never any hurry, and although all families have their frictions, ours only became unpleasant when we were packed in the van. And even then a glass of wine and handful of olives at the end of the day did much assuage hurt feelings and remind us that, at least for now, all was right with the world.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Seriously Good And Simple Food

Mar
16
2009

I recently spent some time in the hospital. I’d forgotten just how bad food can be. Among other things I was served scrambled eggs with the texture of soggy cardboard and flavor of feathers, pork loin cooked until it was barely suitable for making shoes, and frozen vegetables seasoned only with water. I lost ten pounds and if I hadn’t persuaded a visitor to smuggle in some salt I would have lost even more.

When you’re passionate about some activity, it’s sometimes easy to focus so much on the “how” that you lose track of the original “why”. These days I choose what I cook to match the needs of catering clients or cooking classes. I also cook to develop article ideas and make decisions based on a dish’s photographic potential. And I eat with a critical tongue: Too much rosemary? Too little pepper? Need something to add brightness? Is the texture right? I get so caught up in the details and craft of cooking that I forget why I began cooking: To eat.

A casserole I made the other night is a good example of this. I needed a new recipe for a web site where I write. It needed to be an inexpensive dish, somewhat low-calorie, easy to make, using leftover meat. I spent around an hour planning the dish (including writing out a starting recipe) then another hour making it, adjusting seasonings, and making notes. While it was cooking I planned the photographs and then I plated it and shot it. Finally I sat down and ate it, again making notes. The casserole was good, which I duly noted.

Too often I eat as a critic. Judging the tastes and smells and textures against existing expectations, prejudices, and history. Too often, my efforts meet these criteria.

I say “too often” because even if a dish – or entire meal – is exceptional in some sort of absolute sense, it’s no better than I expected. Occasionally something does turn out better than expected and that’s both revelatory and great fun. Such events are one of the reasons I cook and judge my cooking (and other’s) so critically. But ironically, the better I get as a cook, the less often I’m pleasantly surprised and these days it often takes such surprises to get my complete attention.

The day after I got home from the hospital I was dying for a good meal. Something quick and simple because I was sore and standing for very long wasn’t in the cards. So I made a sandwich, specifically a panini using thin-sliced country ham, raclette cheese, and sourdough bread – all of which I had on hand. It was a meal with no other purpose than tasting good. And boy did it taste good.

But after a week off from the kitchen (a week notable for its lack of decent food) I was ready to eat purely for enjoyment’s sake. As I picked up my sandwich I noted the grill marks and delightful golden color of the rest of the bread. Biting into it had a satisfying crunch and there was a light note of carbon from the grill marks. The ham was sweet, salty, and almost meltingly tender while the cheese was pungent and unctious. I resisted my urge to wolf the sandwich down and made a point of enjoying each bite. A great meal needn’t be fancy, it only needs to be thoughtful in the choice of ingredients, the preparation, and the dining.

As much as I enjoy developing recipes, preparing them, photographing them, and writing about them, the reason for cooking so is ultimately to eat – and eat well. When I become too caught up in the minutiae, focus too much (and not “just enough”) on good technique or choosing the right olive oil, I lose track of why I set out to become a cook in the first place. It is my intellectual centers, not my pleasure centers, that are in charge of such meals. Fortunately, something usually comes along about then to remind me that the more genuine pleasure isn’t cooking but eating. Especially if, like my sandwich lunch, the food is seriously good.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

For Appearances’ Sake

Mar
6
2009

My personal cheffing business has pretty much dried up with the economic downturn, but, interestingly, cooking classes continue to hold their own and occasional small parties still offer catering opportunities. Frankly if I could get a bit more catering I’d happily forget about the regular meals I prepared for clients that were my bread (if not butter) a year ago.

Click for larger image.Because the catering is for special events, there’s more room to stretch and experiment in the menus, which I like. Also, I get to be on hand when the meals are eaten and so get to observe the reactions to the food. It’s hard to beat standing in the kitchen and listen to “oohs” and “ahs” from the dining room. But perhaps most enjoyable is that when I cater an anniversary or birthday party I get to do “plating.”

Plating is the process of arranging food on a plate to look as appetizing to the eye as it smells to the nose and tastes to the palate. It may seem beside the point to most day-to-day cooks, and it’s certainly been carried beyond the bounds of reasonableness in many expensive restaurants that arrange towers of food rivaling the Chrysler Building. And yet appearance matters.

Presentation and plating, is not a task personal chefs do. Everything we cook gets stuffed in a plastic box and frozen for transport and eventual consumption by our clients. There’s no opportunity to arrange a plate or to add garnishes and sauces in an appealing way.

I started my blog, Seriously Good, back in 2003 and when I got serious about it – and started comparing what I was doing to other Web food publications – I realized that the most popular food blogs featured photographs – sites like Lucullian Delights, La Tartine Gourmande, and Souvlaki for the Soul. What’s more, I realized they featured really good photographs. And not only was the photography technically good, but the food was presented thoughtfully, carefully, artfully, and, yes, tastefully. Meaning you wanted to taste the food just because of how it looked.

So I hauled out my cheap point-n-shoot digital camera and started pointing and shooting. I produced a lot of pictures that could best be described as “table kill.” But I kept at it and eventually learned to use the camera effectively. Then I started learning presentation – the art of making the food look good enough to eat. I’ve always paid attention to presentation, but photography forced me to concentrate on maximizing appearance alone.

I’d always considered colors when planning menus, but I began devoting a good deal of thought to other presentation elements for catered events and even the classes I taught – even to the extent of making drawings of plates. The effort is fun and challenging, but more so, it actually does make my food seem to taste better. And perception is all.

Even when I cook for myself appearance made a difference. A panini with cross-hatch marks from the grill may not actually taste better than one without them, but the marks make the eating experience more enjoyable by evoking memories of panini I ate in Italy. I avoid garnishes that don’t fit the dish -however pretty parsley might be it doesn’t belong on a bowl of ice cream. Typically I use garnishes and sauces that feature ingredients already in the dish. I also avoid overly fussy constructions. Food should look like food, not abstract art.

Tomorrow I’ll be cooking a birthday dinner for my mother. She loves lamb so I’m grilling lamb steaks, which I’ll top with gremolata – a highly flavorful mixture of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest. On the side I’m serving Cauliflower Puree Parmigiano and it will be garnished with celery leaves – a particularly tasty and visually appealing combination – and glazed baby carrots. Dessert will be a simple gingerbread cake dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with a bourbon/cream sauce. It’s a meal driven by flavor, but with some thought given to appearance, after all, she’ll only turn 85 once and it should be a special meal. A feast for the palate, nose, and eyes.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

St. Valentine Prep: Aphrodisia

Feb
9
2009

Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me. ~ Sarah Bernhardt

It’s nearly St. Valentine’s Day when a young chef’s thoughts turn fondly to foods that will spike the libido. In fact, Valentine’s Day is one of the two biggest days of the year for restaurants (the other being Mothers’ Day). If you’re planning on going out to dinner next Saturday and haven’t made reservations yet, it may be too late. Personally I prefer the intimacy of preparing (or sharing preparation) with my loved one. Then pile the dishes in the sink, toss a towel over them, and settle in for an evening for two.

It’s not surprising that we associate food with love. Eating is second only to sex in it’s sensuality, because like sex it involves our senses of taste, smell, touch, and sight. That being the case, it’s not surprising that over the centuries humans have turned to various foods to arouse and stimulate. The Romans considered asparagus and eggs to be aphrodisiacs (separately, not together).

For the most part, reputed aphrodisiacs fall into one of three categories of magic. The first group are what you might term spiritual aphrodisiacs. By eating a Tiger’s penis you take on the strength and virility of the tiger, the same applies to eating a pig’s testicles.

The second group are associative, the Aztecs associated chocolate with the fertility goddess, Xochiquetzal and the Greeks considered sparrows to be stimulating because they were favorites of the goddess Aphrodite (the root the word “aphrodisiac”).

But by far the most common aphrodisiacs are forms of sympathetic magic – foods presumed to have an effect because of their resemblance to human sex organs. Oysters, figs, strawberries, peaches, and epithelial orchids are all said to resemble female genitalia (you have to slice the fruit open to get the effect).

On the male side, I mentioned asparagus above as a symbol of the phallus, but in that same category also fall leeks, carrots, ginseng, bananas, and parsnips. Avocados are said to resemble testicles – in fact the name “avocado” comes from the name of the tree, Ahuacuatl, which means “testicle tree.” Nutmeg falls into this same category.

There are a few genuine aphrodisiacs. Testosterone affects the libido of both men and women. Anything that increases dopamine levels increases libido – cocaine falls into this category. Chocolate contains caffeine, a stimulant, and phenylethylamine, which does have a mild libidinal effect, as well as theobromine, which affects the pleasure centers by emulating serotonin.

So, if you’re planning on cooking your own romantic dinner this Valentine’s Day, here are a few suggestions from my cooking and recipe site, Seriously Good. Bon Apetit!

Oysters Shooter
Rack of Lamb
Glazed Carrots with Mint and Lemon
Leeks with Anchovy Butter
Pots de Crème

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 11:10 AM | Permalink

The Trouble with Truffles

Jan
26
2009

Editor Chris Nolan recently sent me a link to a contest being conducted by MarxFoods, a gourmet mail-order company specializing in fresh foods. They’re giving away 1/4 pound of fresh truffles – worth about $250. Nolan’s subject heading on the email was, “…while Rome burns?”

As it happens, I was arranging a visit to a truffle farm. Was I fiddling while Rome burned? Nolan’s snark aside, I don’t think so.

Click to enlarge.

The farm/orchard belongs to Dr. Thomas Michaels (Dr. Tom as his customers call him) is a fanatical fool for fungi and, in particular, truffles. He spent most of his professional life as a professor at Oregon State University studying truffles – figuring out how to cultivate this supremely wild and uncooperative (and therefore outrageously expensive) organism. In 1999 he moved to upper East Tennessee (because of it’s climate and soil) to try his hand at making a commercial venture of his obsession.

I learned of Michaels two years ago in a New York Times article and immediately called him, but by then the harvest season, which runs from December through January, was over so we chatted and discussed a visit the following season. For various reasons that trip didn’t pan out, but this year – last Monday in fact – it happened.

I’m a pseudo-chef, a genuine food lover, and someone who is as fascinated by the details of raising a great tomato as by a recipe for Ciopino or the history of the Dutch oven. Who cares if Rome is burning? I arose especially early on Monday morning and drove for two hours through flying snow to freeze my ass off tramping around chasing a bunch of curly-haired dogs who were cuckoo for truffles – or at least the treats their trainer fed them with each success.

Truffles are ugly, knobby little things. Fresh from the soil and covered with mud you might wonder how anyone could imagine eating one. But even fresh from the soil and covered with mud the smell is deeply sensuous – to me they smell like sex. Musty, musky, and deeply desirable. So deeply desirable that in 2007 a Macau casino owner paid $330,000 for a huge 3.3 pound specimen (over $6,000 an ounce). Now, admittedly, the size of the “truf” (as we pseudo-chefs sometimes call them) was the primary reason for the outrageous price, but even a one-ounce French Perigord truffle sells for about $90 an ounce. Outrageous? Perhaps.

But a one-ounce fresh Perigord truffle will make an unmistakable mark on a dish that serves eight people. It’s still an expensive ingredient, but nowhere near as bad as it sounds; a little goes a long way. Dr. Tom’s truffles sell for half that price and, according to the (genuine) chefs I’ve spoken to and who have more experience with this ingredient than I, the Tennessee Truffles are superior to the French variety because they’re only days, instead of a week or more, old.

Does this sound like a sales pitch? In the interest of full disclosure, I did come home with a free truffle, but I was quite willing to buy it. Having tramped around in the snow and having my olfactory nerves assaulted with that miraculous scent every time one of the dogs found a nubbin there was no way I was going to come home without a sample.

In my first column here, “Belly Battles“, I began with Brillat-Savarin’s statement: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” As I noted then, this isn’t the common misquotation which is, “You are what you eat.” Instead Brillat-Savarin is noting that what we eat describes our cultural and personal background, our economic circumstances, and even our religion and philosophy.

I can feed myself six to eight extraordinary meals for $40 and yet I was willing to pay that much money for a single ingredient (albeit for multiple dishes/meals). I do hope to earn some income in articles from the trip, but that’s still speculative. No, the main thing this says about me is that I love exploring food – Rome afire or not. But it also reflects my upper-middle-income/academic background, my general openness to foreign foods, and the lack of any personal religious or philosophical objections to any food. Some may well turn up their noses at the idea of a truffle that’s not logged a few miles on trans-Atlantic flight but, well, those are the same folks who wouldn’t touch domestic caviar either, I’ll bet.

The opportunity to see Dr. Tom’s efforts to make this rarified treat more affordable and available appealed to the populist in me; even firemen have to eat. How could I not go? And by the way, the truffles are awesome.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Christmas Past

Dec
22
2008

It was still dark when I woke up for the third or fourth time that night. I reached under my pillow and pulled out my mother’s little folding travel clock with the fake alligator hide and opened it to view the green-glowing hands and numerals: 4:45 a.m.!

We were under strict instructions to not wake my parents before 5:00, so I lay there. Christmas was hell.

tourtierreA few minutes later my sister came into the room and I got down from my bunk bed. We sat on the floor whispering until it was one minute to 5:00. Then we woke my little brother and headed for my parents’ bedroom.

Dad got up and went to make sure “Santa Clause was here” while we waited impatiently on their bed. He returned with good news and we dashed for the living room.

About 8:00 the folks started making breakfast. Dad made biscuits while Mom made cream and chipped beef (for some reason this was a common Christmas morning breakfast). There was certainly jam to go on the biscuits, and hot chocolate. We may have had cheese grits as well. And then we returned to our toys and books.

Everyone took a nap and then we started getting ready for the party. Mom and Dad always had an open house on Christmas Day and they put out an impressive buffet. There was roast turkey from Christmas Dinner the night before along with two or three mustards, two or three breads and rolls, mayonaise, cheeses, and similar sandwich fixings. Dad had cooked a ham earlier in the week and he sliced that up too. I don’t recall when it began, but for years my job was making sausage balls and there would almost certainly have been spiced nuts, Chex mix, and crudities. Mom filled a large glass bowl with Ambrosia set out the leftover cranberry relish. I seem to recall a Waldorf salad as well.

Then, of course, there was Dad’s eggnog that he began making on Thanksgiving weekend and then finished (by adding the cream) on Christmas day. This was always a major hit. Mom’s Bourbon Cake and Dad’s fruit cake would be crammed onto the now-groaning board somewhere, and about 2:00 people would begin arriving. For the next four to six hours the house would be filled as people arrived and left and the food gradually disappeared.

My parents continued the open house tradition long after we’d grown up and moved away, but eventually it devolved to just family and then sort of petered out.

Although none of my immediate family is religious and the event is now much lower-key than in erstwhile years, we all still celebrate Christmas every year as a time when as many of us as possible gather together and remind ourselves that we’re a family. We still usually have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. This year I’m hosting it and my sister is coming down from Virginia.

I’m planning to serve a Quebecois (French Canadian) savory pie known as a tourtière that is traditionally eaten at Christmas. My mother has quit making the Bourbon Cake, it simply became too much effort for a woman in her late 70s (now 80s), but I took over the tradition and so we’ll have that for dessert.

I also mailed each of my siblings a huge slice of Bourbon Cake. It’s not the same as having all of us gathered for the holiday, for the open houses of my childhood, but at least we’ll all be able to share a taste of our Christmases past on Christmas Day.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Yo! Nick! – A Cook’s Christmas List

Dec
1
2008

Polls are indicating that people are eating out less, and when they do it tends to be at fast food joints. For example, Applebees sales are reportedly down about 15 percent while McDonalds are up by eight. But people are also doing more of their own cooking in order to economize. So this Christmas, I thought I might offer some suggestions for practical gifts to make home cooking more economical, easier, or both.

Few of the items mentioned below are actually inexpensive, but they cover a gamut of prices points and degrees of economy and I’ve either used or own most of them. So I know where-of I speak.

CrockpotFirst on my list is to reduce costs by eating less meat and eating tougher (cheaper) cuts of meat. A great tool for this approach is a slow cooker. Toss a chuck roast, some red wine, and a few vegetables and herbs in a Crockpot in the morning, set it on low, and come home to the most marvelous pot roast you can imagine. Or mix some dried beans, canned tomatoes, a smoked ham hock, and a few herbs and vegetables in a slow cooker and again, you come home to a meal packed with flavor. The trick here is the slow cooking, a technique that gently teases the flavors out and melds them. You can do the same thing using a Dutch oven (which is what I use).

Gelpro matNext on my list is a Gelpro kitchen mat. I spend way too much time standing on a tiled kitchen floor and not only do my feet get sore, but at the end of a full day of cooking everything is sore and stiff. I’d settle for one, but a couple of these would make my life far less painful – and I think making my life less painful is a good idea. At $125 for a small mat or $150 for a large one, they’re not cheap, but they are cheaper than the commercial mats. And if a mat like this makes you more inclined to cook then it’s a good idea.

Food LoopsFood Loops are a home cook’s substitute for kitchen twine. They’re made of silicon and are used to tie up rolled roasts. I’ve used them and they don’t hold as tightly as properly tied twine, but they’re a good substitute for someone who doesn’t know how to tie a roast and they make a nice stocking stuffer.

Vacuum SealerWhen the vacuum food sealers first came out the reports on them indicated they were expensive and not particularly effective. But since then the prices have dropped and the reliability improved. I just threw away a couple of pork chops that had migrated to the back of my freezer and avoided my notice for six months. Despite double-wrapping in plastic and storage in a zippered freezer bag, they were badly freezer-burned. A vacuum sealer solves this problem by eliminating air from around the food. Less wasted food means lower food costs.

Stock PotThere is no one more cognizant of food costs than a chef. Chefs waste nothing if they can avoid it because food costs are the bane of a chef’s existence – well, one of them. A great way to use up things like carrot peels, leafy celery tops, onion skins, bones, shrimp shells, and so on – stuff that most of us would think of as garbage – is to make this detritus into stock. Homemade stock is not only cheaper than anything you can buy, it’s usually far better-tasting as well. So I think a good, big stock pot is a great investment in better and cheaper meals.

Elements of CookingI spent last week answering questions by panicked home cooks about their Thanksiving meal. In many cases I had answers from my own experience on tap such as “How do I cook a beef tenderloin?” But in other cases they were facing difficulties I hadn’t personally encountered like, “I burned Food Lovers Companionthe turkey gumbo, how do I fix it?” In these cases I fell back on both personal experiences and a general knowledge (book-learning) of food and cooking. Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking is a great source of information on fundamental cooking techniques and processes, if all you own are cookbooks, you need this book. I also highly recommend Food Lovers Companion, an essential reference I can’t imagine living without – my copy is almost worn out.

So far I’ve remained practical in these recommendations, but I have a contrarian nature and when I know I should economize my inclination is to splurge (on the other hand, when I know I can splurge my inclination is to splurge), so I have a couple of suggestions along those lines. After all, Christmas is a celebration and some festivity is called for. How better to celebrate than enjoying a special treat?

TrufflesThe first treat is domestic truffles. These come from Tennessee and are the famed Perigord black truffles of France. They are reportedly an excellent alternative to European imports at a fraction of the cost. The second splurge is domestic caviar. I recently tried this product and wrote a review.Caviar

I’ll be reviewing both of these foods before Christmas so if you want to hold off on ordering I’ll be providing more information to go on, but for the right person caviar from the Great Lakes, country ham from Tennessee, or truffles from Oregon are a wonderful gift.

If you’re short on cash this Christmas, you’re short on cash and there’s probably little you can do about the fact. So I’ll be cooking up gifts again such as my grandmother’s Bourbon Cake and the pancetta I sent out last year. But if you have a little flexibility in your budget some of these gifts can go a long way toward making economizing a pleasure, not a curse.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Traditions, Again

Nov
24
2008

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but I’ve been concentrating on Christmas for over a week.

It isn’t that I’m particularly enamored of Christmas, in fact I prefer T’day, but even as a cook and a writer and a food writer I have to plan for holidays. I had to create, test, and write up Thanksgiving recipes for my CookingforTwo site back in early October and I’m finishing off Christmas now. I also have to consider my blog, Seriously Good, and how it relates to the holidays. Then there’s my work as a consultant with ChefsLine, and this column.

RecipeEven as a kid Thanksgiving was the beginning of Christmas for me, as it is for so many families. For us it wasn’t a mad battle with traffic and shoppers on the day after, but rather preparing the first three items in our Christmas feast: Eggnog, Fruitcake, and Bourbon Cake.

One of my earliest memories is of standing beside my father in the kitchen as he made his eggnog base of eggs, whiskey, and sugar. I must have been six or seven at the time, because I remember the silvery bowl was almost as big as I was. The bowl shrank over the years, as I grew, but in the beginning it was huge. I also clearly remember the tintinnabulation of the metal beaters against the metal bowl.

The base, once made, was poured into a small, antique, terracotta butter churn, covered with cheesecloth, and placed at the back of the pantry to age and mellow. On Christmas Eve my father would mix a portion of the base with whipped cream and we would have a toast – even we kids were permitted a small punch glass of ‘nog although, of course, these days my parents would likely end up in jail if anyone found out.

Dad also made the fruitcake on Thanksgiving weekend. It was actually a pretty good fruitcake as such things go. But when it came down to it everyone, except possibly my father, preferred the Bourbon Cake my mother made that same weekend.

The Bourbon Cake was passed down from her mother and my guess is the recipe is at least 100 years old. It could well be older. It’s a dense butter cake with raisins, nuts, and spices and like Dad’s eggnog and fruitcake it ages for a month and gets a weekly dose of bourbon. As children we were permitted a small slice, as adults we limit ourselves to a small slice: It’s that rich and that alcoholic.

The Bourbon Cake has become too much work for my mother. The batter is thick and heavy and she no longer has the strength, suppleness, or stamina to make it: I’ve inherited that task (made much easier with a stand mixer) and this coming weekend I’ll be making the cake using my mother stained note card. Between now and Christmas, I’ll carefully tend the cake, providing weekly does of bourbon, before finally cutting it into sixths and mailing the huge slices to my family and, if she’s lucky, my editor.

I’ve made Dad’s eggnog on occasion, but he also continues to make it sometimes so eggnog at Christmas is less predictable but always welcome. As for Dad’s fruitcake… well it’s gone if not forgotten.

Our traditions link us to each other and the past we share with our family, our friends, our ancestors, our culture. Whether those traditions are religious or sectarian, familial or cultural, they provide context for our lives and a framework for defining our selves. The acquisition of new traditions , the modification of those we know and love connects us to our current reality.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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