Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The gift of family - and the friendship of a cook

Tonight marks the last night of Hanukkah, and we've already lit candles and opened our final gifts - an experience made all the more special by the company of our "other boy," Graham's best friend, Ryan. But I actually received one of the best gifts ever back in August when Facebook made a suggestion that has proved to be one of my life's great understatements.

Jennie Schacht, Farmer's Market Desserts
Under the usually not-extraordinary heading "People You May Know" was an especially interesting name: Jennie Schacht. I'd noted it previously in posts by other culinarily inclined Facebookers, but for some reason I felt compelled that evening to learn more.

I clicked on her page and studied the friendly face and hands that lightly clutched a bounty of farmer's market fruit. I gazed at pictures of delicacies from her kitchen and was instantly reminded of my great aunt Yetta -- who I don't think I ever met but know as the legendary sister of my grandmother, the one who was so gifted in the kitchen that she could bake a cake in a hat box. My grandmother, not so much.

I never knew if Yetta's hat-box miracle was a sort of Depression-era compliment or a statement of fact, but it got me wondering. Here is another baker .. one with her name on three published cookbooks ... and the same last name as my grandparents. Was it possible that she and I were related?

Stranger connections have been made through social media, so I took a chance. At 11:33pm on August 14, I sent this message:

My grandparents were Lou and Ella Schact, who owned businesses in NYC when they were young and later retired to NJ, where I grew up. There also was family in Connecticut, I think. It's an uncommon name anymore -- I don't suppose we have a connection?

I shut down the computer and started to wonder if I'd made a mistake. Perhaps the Jennie on the other end would send the equivalent of a sorry-wrong-number reply, or just ignore me.

But she didn't. Her enthusiastic response, fired back just minutes later but not seen until the next day, was so fabulous that thinking of it still gives me goosebumps. Her grandmother was indeed the famous Yetta, sister to my grandmother Ella. And to make the connection more complete, her grandfather Ben was the brother of my grandfather Lou. Two brothers married two sisters, all long gone -- and now two cousins, happily connecting over decades and miles and a long-buried family dispute that took weeks of sleuthing to finally figure out.

Jennie, named for our grandmothers' mother, promptly sent a treasure trove of old photos and a family tree created by younger cousins for a bar mitzvah project. I can hardly describe the thrill of seeing my name on the tree, full of leafy branches I knew virtually nothing about. I quickly updated our twig and sent it back, thus staking a claim on seeds that took root and flourished mostly on the west coast.

This has been a joyous discovery, one that has connected me with other Schachts and their kin in the months since. I have especially enjoyed the fact of Jennie's celebrated cooking skills, which blossomed as a second career -- an accomplishment I likewise hope to enjoy. Knowing that it contained a chilled plum soup that remains a favorite of her 96-year-old dad, I quickly added her Farmer's Market Desserts (Chronicle Books) to my collection. If you enjoy seasonal cooking, you should do the same.

I've baked several entries from this beautifully illustrated and affectionately annotated book, which features a positively swoony endorsement from David Leibovitz and has earned raves from reviewers in various publications since its release in April 2010. I'm especially keen on her Cornmeal Cake with Fresh Corn & Berries, which seemed the perfect choice when my brother David and his girlfriend Michelle visited for Labor Day weekend.

I decided to use it as my guide once again for Tim's Dec. 24 birthday. We're not traditional birthday cake eaters here, so there's always an opportunity to hunt for something scrumptious to make. We settled on Apple & Honey Bundt Cake, a recipe Jennie suggests as a Rosh Hashanah dessert. Sticking with the seasonal theme, we tweaked it by substituting Harry & David Royal Riviera pears -- an annual and much appreciated Hanukkah gift from Tim's brother -- and even used pear cider for the glaze, creating the ideal birthday-Hanukkah-almost-New-Year's celebration cake.

Jennie shared the above recipe on her blog, Jennie in the Kitchen. Since she welcomes (and even sugggests) creative substitutions, I made a unplanned change by using yogurt when I realized I'd forgotten to buy buttermilk. The resulting cake was rich and moist, with shiny chunks of pear dotting every slice.

It's a delicious if untraditional birthday treat and, factoring in the bonus of being related to the chef, an unexpected sweet. Both are things to be savored.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A kugel and a cocktail! L'chaim!

Grandma Ruthie, my mother, had little interest in lite or reduced-fat products but might have been swayed by some of the flavorful options available today. This updated version of her high-octane Hannukkah classic is just as satisfying but causes less guilt -- well, just enough, considering it's creamy roots are definitely Jewish.

If you have access to fresh ricotta (check Trader Joe's), ignore the calories and use that instead of the processed reduced-fat type. Also, feel free to substitute your favorite jam (but not mixed berry, trust me) or crispy cereal, or add handful of golden raisins or other dried fruit.

A special tip regarding golden raisins from my friend Norma Kessler, baker and pastry chef at the highly-regarded Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, paired with related a cocktail suggested by me: 

  • Plump golden raisins by simmering them for a few minutes in a small saucepan with equal parts dry white wine, orange juice, white rum and simple syrup. Drain and reserve liquid, stirring raisins into kugel mix before baking. 
  • Add a jigger of rum to the remaining liquid, pour into shaker with crushed ice and shake vigorously. Strain into glasses with a few ice cubes; top with ginger ale and an orange slice for a festive sip.

16 oz. reduced-fat cottage cheese (such as, Light 'n Lively)
16 oz. fresh or reduced-fat ricotta
8 oz. reduced-fat sour cream
4-6 tbps. butter, melted and cooled, divided
12-15 oz. jar less-sugar apricot jam (or whatever you like)
1/2 cup golden raisins, optional (see above)
3 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 16 oz. bag egg noodles
4 cups Frosted Flakes (or similar crispy cereal), crushed
vegetable oil spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook noodles in salted water 8 minutes or until al dente. Drain and rinse lightly with cool water.

While noodles are cooking, mix cheeses, sour cream, eggs and half of the melted butter in a large bowl until well blended. Add jam, salt and golden raisins (if using), stir again until jam is mostly incorporated -- a few blobs here and there are not only fine but also desirable (if you're lucky enough to get that slice). Add cooled noodles into mixture and fold until well blended.

Coat 9x13 baking pan with vegetable spray. Pour in mixture and lightly smooth top. Put cereal in zip-top bag and crush coarsely with mallet or rolling pin. Sprinkle evenly over mixture then drizzle with remaining melted butter. If you like, gild crumbs with a spritz of vegetable oil spray to make sure it's all coated.

Bake 45-50 minutes or until tester comes out clean and top is crispy and lightly browned. Let cool at least 10 minutes before slicing.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sweet satsumas yield intense seasoning

I've been a fan of oranges for a long time. As a child, while visiting my snowbird grandparents in Florida, I remember eating them fresh picked. Years later they became a pregnancy obsession, when for nearly nine months I'd eat several juicy globes daily. More recently, I've transferred my allegiance to petite clementines, whose fresh scent often attracts curious co-workers when I devour them at my desk.

In the past few weeks, however, I've become acquainted with the satsuma, the much sexier cousin whose deep flavor, abundant juice and shimmery zest has assumed a starring role in my kitchen -- where I often can be found eating them over the sink. I've made luscious curd and will soon sample homemade triple sec. I've used their juice to glaze roasted beets. I've also made satsuma dust.

That's right. Dust.

I got the idea from Pen & Fork, which recently posted a blog on Mandarin Orange Dust. I made some tweaks -- most notably, I had no luck slicing the satsumas with my mandoline, which tore these precious gems into shreds and wasted juice. The food processor fitted with a medium slicing blade yielded consistently wafer thin, glistening slices.

Making satsuma dust is a time-consuming process, but most of that time is hands off waiting for the slices to slowly dry in the oven. Depending on how thin the slices are, expect a minimum of two hours and up to about three. The slices need to be fully dried and cooled for effective processing in an electric grinder. The addition of kosher salt and sugar helps to achieve a fine grind as well as balance any bitterness from the peel.

About 2 pounds of fruit made a generous batch of powder, much of which I've packaged in 1 ounce containers to share with friends as holiday gifts. It would be good sprinkled on shortbread or sugar cookies, blended into a vinaigrette or used to punch up just about anything that could stand a citrus kick. Mixed with an equal amount of mild smoked paprika, I've used it to make a terrific dry rub for pork loin. Rub liberally on the meat, then seal in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour. Let sit on the counter about 20 minutes to loose its chill before grilling.

Satsuma Dust
2-2 1/2 lbs. satumas (or other variety)
Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

Wash and dry satsumas. Place two at a time in feed chute of food processor fitted with medium slicing blade. Use light pressure to ensure even slices and minimal juice loss. Arrange in single layer on parchment paper over baking sheets and place in oven.

Start checking after about 90 minutes but expect the drying to take two to three hours. Slices should be dry to the touch and deep orange or lightly browned. If necessary, pluck out quick-drying slices and let the rest continue cooking.

When all slices are dry and cooled, mound by the handful in bowl of a spice grinder. Top each load with 1/2 tsp. sugar and about 1/4 tsp. salt. Pulse until broken into bits, then grind to a fine powder. Transfer mix to a bowl and continue until done.

You may need to adjust salt/sugar at the end to ensure an appealing balance of flavor. The dust should pack an explosive orange punch without bitterness. If you need to add more salt or sugar, return a few spoonfuls of mix to the grinder to ensure consistent texture, then blend well into balance of dust before packaging.

Tiny California satsumas with big flavor have been available lately at our local Whole Foods store, which recently ran a special for $4.99 a bag -- plus one free if you bought three. They're wonderful, but they've got nothing on the bigger ones grown in Louisiana and sold by L'Hoste, the state's largest provider of organic citrus.

Sadly, the season has passed and this family-run operation will not have more satsumas until next year, but I was lucky to get one of the last boxes. The price sounded steep at $38, but they were packed with care and are almost shockingly delicious. They were sent with a handwritten invoice -- a sign of confident trust from a farmer that surely sees a lot of return business. I can hardly wait for next fall to get more.

Clockwise from top: Navel orange, L'Hoste
satsuma and smaller California variety.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Would Judah Maccabee Eat? Like all good food, latkes should be local and seasonal

This blog first appeared on Culinary Historians of Piedmont.

Passover is the Jewish holiday known for its Four Questions, but Hanukkah has a few of its own, and they are serious enough to tear families asunder at a time of togetherness.

Apple sauce or sour cream? Shredded or mashed potatoes? Potatoes or not potatoes? What about sweet potatoes, roasted beets, carrots or zucchini?
Marcie Cohen Ferris

The annual obsession to reinvent the traditional latke – broadly defined as a potato pancake – is a hot topic for culinary magazines, blogs and family dinner tables. The December issue of Bon Appetit, for example, features Celery Root and Mushroom Latkes with Onion Applesauce.

“Wow. It sounds kind of wonderful,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, UNC Associate Professor of American Studies and author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (UNC Press). “I might make it, but not at Hanukkah. I’m kind of a traditionalist. If I made that for family, it would be like, ‘What’s wrong with the latkes?’”

Familiar tastes and smells are essential aspects of family traditions, Ferris said, and the latkes one savored in childhood tend to be the same sort they later serve as adults. While delicious any time of the year, these bites of golden-fried goodness will return to tables the world over when the eight-day celebration begins at sundown on Dec. 20.

Just as the Jewish tribes scattered, latke recipes traveled the globe and generated considerable variation. The Sydney, Australia-based blog Monday Morning Cooking Club last week posted a version elegantly topped with crème fraiche, smoked salmon and salmon roe. On Food52, the online food community led by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, posts range from more humble, traditional options to Korean Latkes and Methodist Latkes. Even Emeril Lagasse has a latke recipe posted on his website, and it’s surprisingly Bam!-free.

Still, some recipe mishigas leaves one scratching one's head. Southern Living, hardly the bible of Jewish cookery, this year suggests a sweet potato version that’s a close cousin to the one favored by Ferris and featured below. But in past years, it promoted ones with savory sides of salmon-olive or lemon-date “relish.” Go figure.

Then there are those who favor the packaged mixes, such as the ubiquitous Streits or Manischewitz boxes that appear in stores this time of year. “I’ve never had a box-mix latke,” Ferris said. “Holidays should make you slow down a little and enjoy things. It really doesn’t take much more effort to make them from scratch.”

Alan Adler of Streits, whose wife uses the family brand, said the company introduced its popular potato pancake mix in the late 1950s or early 60s – the same era in which Peg Bracken of “The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book” fame became a pitchwoman for Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables. Such products were part of a new convenience marketing concept that encouraged tired housewives to embrace pre-packed products as a means to escape the drudgery of daily cooking. Ferris decries the era for “de-skilling women” and minimizing the inherent health benefits of fresh food.

So at Hanukkah, should Jews tear open a box of mix, visit the frozen aisle at Trader Joe or roll up their sleeves, pour forth the oil and scrape their knuckles on rough box graters? Or, to put it another way: What Would Judah Maccabee Eat?

It's a question that may stump many a rabbi or bubbe, but not Ferris. It’s all good, she said, so long as you start with local and seasonal ingredients.

“I think my favorite, because we live in North Carolina, is the sweet potato latke,” said Ferris, acknowledging North Carolina’s time-honored status as the national leader in production of sweet potatoes. “And I like them with applesauce and sour cream.”

Ferris sometimes bakes her latkes in a super-heated cast iron skillet, “but this time of year you really need to cook them in oil.” Oil is meant to recall the time when the Jews reclaimed their temple from invading Syrians and rededicated it by lighting the one remaining vial of oil that should have lasted a single day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days and nights, allowing the ancients to make more – and us moderns to fry these crispy nuggets without guilt.

Currently on sabbatical to write "The Edible South," which will trace the historical basis of Southern foods, Ferris said she discovered little variation in latke recipes when conducting research for "Matzoh Ball Gumbo."

"There is an American trend of adding whatever vegetable is on hand – kale, zucchini, carrots – and that’s certainly true in the South,” she said. “Southern cooks also tend to pep them up a bit. It wouldn’t be unusual to find Cajun spices in latkes made in New Orleans.”

If you really want to be Southern, she added, “You could run over to the Krispy Kreme and get some jelly doughnuts,” apparently giving the OK to skip making scratch sufganiyot so long as you keep things ‘old-school’ with your latkes.

No matter what recipe you choose, the bottom line for Ferris is that making latkes is a great excuse for a party. “Whether you’re making them for children or adults, it’s all about having a good time,” she said. “It’s a process, and that’s a wonderful ritual.”

North Carolina Sweet Potato Latkes with Apples
Recipe by Miriam Rubin, provided by Marcie Cohen Ferris

1½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled
1 large Granny Smith or Honey Crisp apple, unpeeled, cut into quarters and cored
1 large carrot, peeled (optional)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
4 large eggs
¾ cup matzoh meal or all-purpose flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil for frying

Fit a food processor with the grating/shredding blade. Cut the sweet potatoes into pieces that will fit in the food processor's feed tube. Using the food processor (or by hand, with the coarse side of a box grater), coarsely shred sweet potatoes and apple – and carrot, if using.

Transfer to a large bowl. Add the scallions, eggs, matzoh meal, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands, until mixture is cohesive. Using a rough ¼-cup mixture for each, make 2½-to 3-inch patties, shaping them firmly yet gently, so they don't compact too much, yet don't fall apart. Place patties on a sheet of foil or baking sheet. Heat the oven to 200°F to keep latkes warm.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, warm 3 tbps. oil until hot. Add 4 to 5 latkes; don't crowd the pan, and cook, turning once or twice, until nicely golden and crisp on both sides. (Watch carefully as these scorch easily.) Transfer cooked latkes to paper towel to drain, and then transfer to a platter to keep warm in the oven. Repeat frying latkes, adding more oil to pan as needed. Serve warm.

Makes 20 to 22 latkes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Links to Two Previously Posted Blogs...

I enjoyed writing two blogs that ran Thanksgiving week on Durhamfoodie and then lost track of linking them to my home base. The first was A Thanksgiving Toast to Eugene Walter, whose vivid writing about southern foodways is celebrated in “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink” (University of North Carolina Press).

It's a wonderful book whose broad appeal extends well beyond the fall festivities -- indeed, it would make an excellent holiday gift for anyone who enjoys colorful and insightful writing, southern fare and the occassional tipple. Take for example his recipe for mint julep, which reads like a love letter to the cool clear waters that make Kentucky bourbon de rigueur for any well-stocked liquor closet.

The other blog was Have Jars, Will Travel: Building Sustainability, One Jam at a Time, a feature on Ben Filippo and Ali Rudel of This & That Jam, who have since celebrated the birth of their daughter Esme. They conduct community workshops with the goal of demystifying canning and encouraging support of local growers. Participants, who trim and chop ingredients -- some of which they have either never seen before or never seen in their fresh-from-the-dirt state -- all leave with a jar of still-warm jam they helped to make.

The couple relocated to Chapel Hill last summer from Brooklyn, where they sold such intoxicating flavors as Honey Pepita Butter and Tangerine Sea Salt Curd at the popular Brooklyn Flea Market. In January, their will launch their North Carolina enterprise using the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. Jam Supporting Agriculture (JSA) canned goods will be made with seasonal ingredients and provided monthly by six-month or yearlong subscriptions. For details, visit their website.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mussels with Artichokes and Capers

This has been the weekend of North Carolina seafood. Last night we devoured a mountain of briny clams. Tonight, mussels.

We have a good-bad habit of almost always cooking mussels the same way -- the Mario way, with tomatoes and sweet red vermouth. Which is great. But tonight I decided to punch it up a little with some pantry staples. The dish went from the refrigerator to the table in under 15 minutes, but the good flavors linger longer.

1 cup red onion. diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 tbsp. capers, drained
1 can petite diced tomatoes
1 can artichoke hearts, drained
1/2 cup sweet red vermouth
2-3 lbs. fresh North Carolina mussels, scrubbed
salt and pepper

Sautee onion in olive oil 2 minutes, add garlic and continue until tender. Add artichokes and capers, stir to coat. Add tomatoes with juice and bring to a boil. Add vermouth and boil 1 minute.

Add mussels and cover. Shake pan occasionally until mussels open, about 4 minutes. Scoop out mussels and vegetables; transfer to serving bowl. Boil remaining stock to reduce, adding salt and pepper as needed. Pour over mussels and serve.

Excellent over sauteed greens with crusty bread. If greens are not your thing, consider pasta or polenta.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What’s on the menu? For Randy Fertel, it’s got to be local

This blog was first published by Durham Foodie.

As the son of one of America’s best-known fine dining entrepreneurs – Ruth Fertel of Ruth’s Chris Steak House – Randy Fertel is understandably choosy about eating at restaurants.

“My mother always avoided the word ‘chain’ and called Ruth’s Chris a ‘family’ of restaurants, but chains pretty much are a deal breaker for me,” Fertel said during a recent call from his New York home. “It’s important to me that a restaurant sources its foods in a local and sustainable way.”

Randy Fertel’s memories of family meals and a flourishing restaurant business – and a life sometimes soured by the eccentric behavior of his charismatic parents – is chronicled in The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University of Mississippi Press).

He will talk about the book in two local appearances: Nov. 15 at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, and Nov. 16 as the guest of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

The global Ruth’s Chris empire is no longer family owned, but it did make good use of the abundance of the bayou when his mother bought the 17-table Chris Steak House in 1965. Fertel said New Orleans’ post-Katrina restaurant scene has inspired a resurgent interest in locally-sourced foods – not only among the Crescent City’s best-known chefs, but also its home cooks and youngest diners.

“We lost so much with Katrina, and the impact is far from over, but today chefs and communities are reconnecting with the land and have a real appreciation for what it provides,” Fertel said. “Through the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which supports education, I’ve been able to bring Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard to New Orleans. We have five projects and will add another soon. It’s as important that children and families understand where food comes from as it is for top chefs.”

Fertel believes the farm-to-table movement is more than a hip dining trend as it has deep roots in family traditions. “My mother would talk about her great-grandmother, who would send the men out at Thanksgiving to dig up 17 bags of oysters from the bayou,” he said. In turn, the elder cook would create “the best, richest oyster stuffing in the world” – which still graces his groaning holiday table every year.

While familiar with the top spots in New Orleans and New York, where he divides his time, Fertel said that no matter when he eats he seeks out the elements that made the original Ruth’s Chris a legendary success.

“Of course people knew they’d get a great meal, but they also got great service,” Fertel said. “The trend at the time was for the best restaurants to be very formal, and they all had male servers only. My mother hired people like herself: single mothers with spunk who she could count on to work hard. Her dining room was friendly and warm.”

Knowledgeable servers not only see to a diner’s comfort but also ensure that they “see the chef’s hand on the menu.” The deft assistance that helps to define a chef’s inspiration – as well as suggest a satisfying appetizer-to-dessert experience – is the best way to cultivate regular customers, he said.

As for the dishes created in his own kitchen, Fertel described himself as “a typically male cook.” “I love to make classic New Orleans-style foods and things that cook in pots: braises and roasts. There is nothing quite like a good roast chicken,” he said. “I’m an intuitive cook but I find myself using cookbooks a lot more lately. I’ve realized I can stretch myself if I have a great book as a guide.”

There is only one recipe included in Fertel’s memoir, and it’s not a dish made famous at Ruth’s Chris. Instead, it was a meal prepared by the maid he interviewed and hired at age 10, when his mother was too busy to get home for the appointment. Earner (“er-nah”) Sylvain worked for the family for 42 years.

“My mother liked to say she taught Earner how to cook, but she was a terrific cook when she came to us,” Fertel said. “Her crawfish bisque was the best I’ve ever had.”

Fertel shared Earner’s Crawfish Bisque for @Durhamfoodie followers, but be warned: you’ll need about 40 pounds of bayou-fresh crawfish, which is not exactly local or sustainable. This recipe will feed your family plus everyone in your neighborhood.

Recipe Courtesy Randy Fertel, from The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir

1 sack crawfish (about 40 pounds)

Scald crawfish in almost boiling water for about 15 minutes. Drain and cool. Peel crawfish and save the fat in a separate bowl. Grind the crawfish. Clean about 200 heads to stuff.

For the Gravy:
2 large onions
4 ribs celery
¼ bell pepper
4 cloves garlic
10 sprigs of parsley
1 cup cooking oil
2 cups flour (about)
4 tsp. tomato paste (heaping)
1/2 of crawfish fat
9 cups hot water
2½ cups ground crawfish tails
5 tsp. salt
2 tsp. red pepper
6 green onions

For the Heads Stuffing:
2 large onions
3 ribs celery
¼ bell pepper
4 cloves garlic
10 sprigs parsley
rest of ground crawfish tail
¼ cup cooking oil
rest of crawfish fat
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups dry bread crumbs (or more)
4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. red pepper
6 green onions

To make gravy:
Grind onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and parsley. Make roux with oil and flour. Stir constantly until browned. Add ground seasonings. Cook on low fire about 30 minutes. Add tomato paste and crawfish fat. Cook about 30 minutes. Add hot water and let cook on low fire. Add ground crawfish tails, salt and pepper. Cook on high fire about 20 minutes.

To make stuffing for heads:
Preheat oven to 400º F. Grind onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and parsley. Fry crawfish tails and ground seasonings in hot cooking oil; cool. Add crawfish fat and eggs. Mix in bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Stuff heads. Dip the stuffed part of head in flour and place on cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.

Add baked crawfish heads to gravy. Cook on low fire about one hour. More hot water may be added if too thick. Stir carefully.

Serve in soup bowls over rice.

Garnish with green onions.

A jelly good enough for Jean!

This has been a damn good weekend. On Saturday, I drove up to A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, where Jean Anderson -- the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame goddess who happens to make her home close by -- was appearing for a book signing event.

I was fortunate to meet her a few weeks ago at a swank event to launch Sandra Gutierrez's wonderful "The New Southern-Latino Table." I'd had a brief exchange with Jean earlier that same day on her Facebook page, where she had posted a photo of a baked sweet incorporating wild persimmons, which will be featured in a book scheduled for 2012 release. I told her that I had been foraging wild persimmons at the time and used them to make jelly, and she kindly wrote back.

I first realized the reach of Jean's influence when her name was reverently dropped by Sara Moulton, on whose live show she occasionally appeared in the early glory days of the Food Network. I was happy to hear Sandra also credit Jean as a gracious mentor and immediately told Tim that I had to find a way to say hello. I eventually made my way to her table, where she was engaged in a lively conversation, and waited for my chance.

Andrea Weigl, Beard-honored food writer for The News & Observer, saw me and asked if I was waiting to meet Jean. "You'll wait a long time," she joked. "She knows everyone."

Andrea leaned in, hugged Jean like a favorite aunt and introduced me. The timing could not have been better. I grabbed a chair and wound up chatting with her for so long that Tim, who had driven separately, decided to head home and let me savor the moment.

I had planned on ordering her new and highly regarded "Falling Off the Bone" for Tim as an anniversary gift -- braising is his favorite style of cooking -- and, on Jean's recommendation, decided to hunt for a copy of her out-of-print "Green Thumb Preserving Guide" as well. I brought both with me to the book signing on Saturday, as well as my stained copy of "The New Processor Cookbook," which I bought in the early '80s when it really was new after buying a gizmo called a Cuisinart.

I also brought a little jar of wild persimmon jelly, which I decided to give her in thanks for the many great meals and inspiration she has provided. She accepted it and allowed me to get a photo.

About an hour ago, I checked my Facebook page and found that she had sent me a lovely message:

Jean:   Great to see you yesterday at A Southern Season, Jill. Your wild persimmon jelly is PERFECT! Had some this a.m. on whole-wheat toast. DELICIOUS! Thanks so much for sharing! ja

Me:  You are awesome! Thank you so much for these kinds words. You can't imagine how stunned and happy I am to read them. Tim was thrilled to have his copy of "Falling Off the Bone" personally inscribed. He made your succulent slow cooker pork shanks today. Can't wait to work our way through the book!

So here I am, giddy with the knowledge that my jar of jelly was on Jean Anderson's breakfast table this morning. Tim turned in early and doesn't know yet, but Graham has been high-fiving me with shared joy. I believe I'm going to have some wild persimmon jelly on whole-wheat toast for breakfast tomorrow.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A life in food: Sustaining tradition and fostering fine dining

This blog was first published by Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC).

Randy Fertel
The notion of sustainable, farm-to-table eating is the hot trend in home cooking and fine dining, but it’s nothing new. It’s how Randy Fertel grew up in New Orleans, and how his parents and their parents – indeed, the whole extended family – made its indelible mark on modern dining.

“My mother was a child of the Depression, but she always said she never realized they were poor,” he said of Ruth Fertel – the Ruth of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the international chain that his mother established in the Crescent City in 1965. “There was always food available at arm’s reach. Their larder was the most unbelievable Eden. Oysters were there to be grappled from the swamp. Duck, rabbit, red fish, shrimp. It went on and on.”

Randy Fertel’s memories of family meals and a flourishing restaurant business – and a life sometimes soured by the eccentric behavior of his charismatic parents – is chronicled in The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University of Mississippi Press). He will talk about the book as the guest of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC) at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Fed up with working as a poorly paid lab tech at Tulane, his mother cemented her reputation as a bold risk-taker when she bought the 17-table Chris Steak House – which later became Ruth’s Chris – after seeing it offered in a three-line ad. She parlayed a $22,000 mortgage on the house won in a bitter divorce settlement into one of the most successful “families” of restaurants, a term Fertel always said she preferred over “chain.”

She created a sort of fusion dining experience that paired the abundance of the bayou with the Old World techniques already in use at the restaurant. Its former owner taught her his methods of cooking steak, including a finishing technique that became an icon of the Ruth’s Chris empire.

“The guy she bought it from was from Plaquemines Parish, where she was from, but his family was from Croatia,” Fertel said. “I imagine in Croatia they used oil, but at the restaurant they switched to the butter culture in New Orleans. This tradition of steak with butter poured over it was probably a transformation of an Old World treatment. That became a signature: steak that sizzled with butter.”

Another enduring hallmark of the Ruth’s Chris menu – its decadent creamed spinach – tracks directly to Fertel’s great-uncle Martin. “I was told only recently by a cousin that this was his recipe,” said Fertel, who is as generous about crediting others as his mother was stingy. “If you got sick, that’s what would be made for you. It was our family’s chicken soup.”

Ruth Fertel added another special element to the dining atmosphere that was missing from the era’s high-end haunts. “She hired people like herself: single mothers with spunk who she could count on to work hard,” Fertel said. “Unlike Galatoire’s and other more formal restaurants, her dining room was friendly and warm.”

The promise of excellent food and discrete service proved immensely popular. Regular customers could count on finding their favorite cocktail waiting at their table. Romantics at curtained banquettes could signal a call for seclusion by turning on a tiny light – a classed-up sock-on-the-door, if you will. And politicos regularly booked private rooms to conduct what ordinarily would be termed the public’s business.

“There’s a famous story about Gov. Edwin Edwards – who was known as the Ragin’ Cajun – bringing his entourage in one night and asking for Shirley, a waitress who was famous for telling jokes,” Fertel said. “She joined him at the head of the table and asked him to put his hand in a doggie bag, and Edwards obliged. ‘I told them in the kitchen that once I got you into the sack you wouldn’t know what to do,’ Shirley said. It was typical of the sort of thing that would happen there. You could tell his entourage all looked at him for permission before laughing.”

Not everything at Ruth’s Chris or the Fertel household was so good humored, however. Fertel writes about his parents’ ugly divorce, his mother’s obsession with work over family, and his father’s famous campaign for mayor, which was based on a single-topic platform of getting a gorilla for the local zoo. The so-called Gorilla Man suffered an embarrassing defeat but later made good on his pledge with a pair of gorillas named Red Beans and Rice.

After working his way up from busboy to manager, and watching the family-owned business turn into an international conglomerate, Fertel eventually made the heartbreaking decision to sue his mother after a multi-million dollar business deal went bad. The resulting rift took years to heal.

Fertel said he came to a new, if different, appreciation of his parents in their waning years. He now oversees two foundations bearing the family name: The Fertel Foundation, which celebrates whistleblowers and investigative journalists, and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which supports education in New Orleans. Through the latter, Fertel worked with another legendary female in the food world – Alice Waters of Chez Panisse – to bring the Edible Schoolyard to New Orleans.

“I write in the book about my belief that my mother and Alice Waters are the two women who have had the largest impact on the way we eat in America,” Fertel said. “They did it in different ways, but they both had strong messages and refused to compromise.”

While the Ruth’s Chris empire grew horizontally, and eventually out of control, Fertel said he admires Waters for “expanding vertically.”

“She went down into the real depths of what food means and what it means to use it,” he said. “There’s only one Chez Panisse, but she’s seeded the universe with chefs. Why do we know today where a piece of pork comes from? It’s because Alice started listing it on her menus in the early 1970s.”

Working with Waters, Fertel planted the first Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a way to help feed and reconnect communities. Five such projects are now flourishing, with another on the way.

“We are going to add one at a school that’s being built with FEMA money. It means a lot to me because it replaces the school I attended as a child,” Fertel said. “It’s all very moving to see what’s grown from the little seed I helped to sow.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cranberry Apple Chutney

One of the first recipes I remember clipping and saving was for Cranberry Apple Chutney. I don't know much about its origins, other than it likely ran in the early 1980s in the food section of The Indianapolis Star, where I was hired as a reporter after college. It has been my must-have Thanksgiving side ever since -- except for the bleak years when the recipe went missing.

Those were dark, pre-internet days. I begged for copies from friends with whom I enthusiastically shared the recipe and tried several variations -- one boasting the endorsement of the White House kitchen. Nothing was quite right. Even my mother-in-law, who politely ate an annual dab even though it's not her thing, was heartbroken on my behalf.

Last year, however, when my husband declared that it was time to clear the attic of long-ignored boxes and install additional insulation, I experienced one of those moments of cosmic bliss where I was reunited with this now yellowed bit of newsprint. I made a batch right away, and several since. I have even enshrined the recipe in a frame that sits in a place of distinction in my kitchen.

Other that that one spontaneous batch, this remains a creation I needlless indentify expressly with Thanksgiving. Its tangy sweetness would be just as delicious slathered on a turkey or grilled cheese sandwich today, or in the middle of summer. And, preserved in small jars, it could be the enjoyed and emptied instead of spoiling amid the forgotten excess of post-holiday leftovers.

I made a triple batch (two full bags of fresh cranberries) for canning purposes, making just a few amendments to the original: I skipped the cloves, because I despise them, and while I've always used Granny Smith apples in the past I used honeycrisps because they are awesome. To extend safe shelf life, I also added a half-cup of cider vinegar and 2 cups of white sugar, neither of which resulted in a significant flavor variation.

When done, the cranberries should be mostly popped, or easily crush with light pressure from a spoon. The texture will be similar to jam or conserve. The mix will appear a bit wet when hot but, trust me, will set up nicely when cooled.

Process in prepared jars for about 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Remove to heatproof surface and leave undisturbed until fully cooled. Be sure to bring some if you are traveling for Thanksgiving -- you never what sort of suspect cranberry concoction you'll find on even the most elegant table -- but don't wait until then to enjoy. I brought a jar to a canning workshop this weekend and spilled it over a block of cream cheese. Serve with crackers and be sure to grab a bite for yourself before it's gone.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Part II: Pear Sage Jelly

In addition to the bounty from this weekend's excellent pear-pumpkin butter, I had the good fortune to think ahead and save the pear peelings and cores to produce an impressive yield of stock. Its pale color and potent aroma was just the stuff to make jelly.

I wanted to pump it up with something and eventually settled on sage from our garden, which has flavored countless meals all summer. I made a simple infusion with 1 packed cup of fresh-picked leaves and a cup of fruity white wine, which yielded about 2/3 cup of heady sage-pear stock. I then used the Sure-Jell insert's directions for apple jelly, which seemed a reasonable equivalent.

The resulting jelly finished with a fairly soft set that firmed up perfectly in the fridge. The only change I'd make is to add a handful of the smallest sage leaves you can find in the last few minutes of boiling instead of dropping them into the prepared jars just before filling. I had hoped the leaves would scatter and "float" in the clear jelly, but instead they gathered on the surface. Live and learn.

Pear Juice
peel and cores from about 6.5 lbs pears
16 cups water

Bring mix to a boil the reduce to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cover, allowing to steep for another 30 minutes, or longer if you got busy doing something else -- like make pear-pumpkin butter. Pour into jelly bag over a large pot. Leave it alone for about an hour. Resist the urge to squeeze the bag.

Ditch trimmings and refrigerate stock until ready to use. I used about half of the stock to make the jelly.

Pear-Sage Jelly
1 cup fresh sage leaves, packed
1/4 cup tiniest sage leaves, reserved
1 cup fruity white wine
6 2/3 cups pear stock (more or less*)
9 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. butter
1 pkg. Sure-Jell pectin

Coarsely chopped 1 cup sage leaves and place in small pot with wine. Bring to a boil then simmer 3 minutes. Take off heat and cover, allowing to steep for 30 minutes. Strain and pour stock into measuring cup. You should have about 2/3 cup.

Add enough pear stock* to measure 7 cups. Add package of pectin and butter to juice and bring to a boil. When it hits a full rolling bubble, add sugar all at once and stir until incorporated.

Bring mix to a second boil; just before the lava-like bubbles erupt, add the reserved handful of tiny sage leaves. Stir often until it reaches a boil that cannot be stirred down. Give it 1 full minute then remove from heat. Skim foam well before ladling into prepared jars.

Finish in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and leave in water for about 5 minutes, then remove to heatproof surface to cool completely. Made about a dozen half-pints.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pear-Pumpkin Butter

I've been planning to make pumpkin butter this year but wanted it to be a little different -- a little lighter and fruitier, but with the same undeniable taste of fall. My pear-pumpkin butter turned into a two-day process, but it was time well spent.

I hadn't intended for this to get so involved, but when I asked Tim to bring me two small pumpkins from the farmer's market I expected little orange globes and not the voluptuous baking variety he delivered. The 8-pound orb I used had a dull exterior but bright flesh that filled the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma. I roasted it into tender submission.

Tim helped me peel and core about 6 1/2 pounds of firm pears, a mix of green D'anjou and red Bosc, chosen because they happened to be the varieties on sale. I reserved the trimmings to make pear stock for jelly; more about that later. The chopped pears joined the pumpkin pulp in a stock pot -- use your biggest one with a heavy bottom -- along with a quart each of pear nectar and water, spices and sugar. The rest takes patience and a lot of time, but a lot of that time is unattended. Indeed, I slept through much of it. I didn't even both with a food mill, opting instead to buzz the brew with a stick blender.

Because the process of making fruit butter is more forgiving than that of jam or jelly, consider the directions below more a recommendation than a carved-in-stone recipe. And have lot of jars ready because it will reward you with plenty to savor and share.

1 8 lb. baking pumpkin
6 1/2 lbs. pears
1 cup cider vinegar, divided
1 cup water, divided
1 quart pear nectar or juice (such as Loozo)
1 quart water
1 tsp. fresh ground cardamon (about 20 pods)
1/2 tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
1-2 vanilla pods
3 cups sugar, divided
2 cups brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut pumpkin in half and scoop out seeds; reserve to roast later. Cut each half into four pieces and arrange in two baking dishes. Pour 1 cup of cider vinegar and 1 cup of water into measuring cup; distribute evenly over pumpkin in both pans.

Cover with foil and roast about 45-50 minutes or until tender. Remove foil and turn pumpkin pieces; return to oven and continue cooking uncovered about 20 minutes or until most liquid is absorbed. Remove pans from oven. When pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scrape flesh into a large heavy-bottom pot.

Peel and core pears; reserve trimmings for jelly stock (details to follow). Chop pears coarsely and add to stock pot with pear nectar, remaining water, spices and vanilla pods. My stash of pods were fairly dry so I used two and snapped each into inch-long pieces before tossing them into the pot.

My standard jelly pot (the base of my pasta pot) turned out to be too small for the job so I transferred about half of the mixture into my crockpot. To each container add 1 cup sugar and 1 cup brown sugar; mix well. I set the crockpot to high and used a medium-high flame under the rest to cook at a more aggressive boil.

Stir every 20-30 minutes, especially the pot over the burner, being sure to sweep the bottom of both to prevent scorching. When the pears are soft enough to crush with the back of a spoon, use a stick (immersion) blender and process for several minutes. It doesn't need to be perfectly smooth, but let it rip until no pear chunks are obvious.

My goal was to reduce both batches enough to combine it all for an overnight simmer in the uncovered crockpot. After about three hours of mostly unattended cooking, the mix filled the crock to the brim. I left it on the low setting overnight to minimize the chance of scorching. Return to high in the morning and stir every half hour, or whenever you get curious. Be warned that the lava-like mix may spit while bubbling.

How long it will take to be "done" will depend on how thick and/or sweet you like your fruit butter. I added the remaining cup of sugar in the last hour to boost the sweetness, which also helped to boil out the remaining liquid. Place a few spoonfuls in a small bowl and refrigerate 5-10 minutes to check if you like the texture.

Leave about a half-inch of head space in prepared jars -- try to include a bit of vanilla pod in each jar -- and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and leave in water about 5-10 minutes to settle, then remove and set jars on heatproof surface to cool undisturbed.

I used a variety of jar sizes but the batch yielded about a dozen pints, with a little leftover for the fridge. My first use was to dollop on fig bread and make sandwiches with ham and thin slices of honeycrisp apple. It tasted like something you'd spend too much on for lunch at a nice cafe. 

I suggested to our favorite mostly-vegetarian neighbor that it also would make a delicious grilled sandwich with apple and cheddar. She apparently imagined a whole apple in a sandwich and dismissed the idea as crazy. Apparently, after she had time to think it over, she changed her mind.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Carolina Shrimp Burgers

Last week, Whole Foods ran a special on fresh shrimp -- fairly large, sweetly plump specimens for $7.99 per pound. I dispatched Graham with my credit card and directed him to arrive early to snag about three pounds.

We sauteed about half the bounty that night with tender green beans in a house-style piccata sauce that employs variable amounts of capers, butter, white wine and my all-time favorite condiment, Gulden’s Zesty Honey Mustard. Sure, we pass the Grey Poupon now and then, but this golden stuff is too good to limit to the occasional ham sandwich.

The whole thing took about the same time to prepare as a pot of couscous steamed in vegetable stock. It was fabulous, and proof that really fresh seafood can be prepared simply and quickly -- with a fairly fancy results -- for a minimal amount of money and effort.

I planned to save the other half to make shrimp burgers the next day, but Olive’s culinary curiosity exerted itself. Turns outs that about a cup’s worth of raw shrimp – consumed standup style like chic countertop dining in a nice tapas restaurant – is the simplest preparation of all.

The remaining shrimp, perhaps just more than a pound, was transformed into sweet, crispy sandwiches for lunch. I had planned to use fresh bread crumbs but my bread of choice had gone stale and resisted my Cuisinart’s mighty effort to slash the chunks into feathery bits. Instead, I used about a half-cup of moist leftover couscous, but use a similar amount of whatever you’ve got on hand should work.

Makes about 5

1-1¼  lbs. fresh shrimp, peeled½ cup cooked couscous
¼ cup sweet onion, diced
½ small jalapeno, diced (or more, to taste)
1 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 egg white
2-3 tbps. canola oil
Soft potato rolls
Tartar sauce

Place first seven ingredients in work bowl of food processor. Pulse-chop into coarse blend; shrimp should still be chunky and not ground into a gummy paste. Use ice cream scoop to measure about 5 balls of shrimp mix. Set on a plate and chill in refrigerator at least 15 minutes.

Pour oil into nonstick skillet and warm over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmery, add shrimp mix, flattening lightly to burger shape and size. Cook undisturbed about 3-4 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Turn carefully and finish cooking.

Serve on toasted potato rolls with a generous smear of tartar sauce.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Late season tomato tart

My neighbor has pulled the tomato plants from her farm, leaving just a few trays of late-summer globes left to enjoy. I grabbed a handful this weekend with the goal making fried green tomatoes, but instead thinly sliced a mix of green and red to make a beautiful brunch tart.

1 pie crust
8 large eggs
2 tsps. herbes de provence, divided
1 tsp. kosher salt
4 tbsp. creme fraiche, divided
8-9 medium firm tomatoes, green and red

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

If using a ready pie crust, let sit on counter about 15 minutes to become pliable. Dust surface with flour and roll to smooth dough and stretch just enough to fit into a fluted tart pan with removeable bottom. Tuck into pan, pressing into fluted sides. Crumble a sheet of parchment paper then smooth and lay over crust. Fill with pie weights -- I use a mix of mix of beans and rice that can use saved and resued -- and blind bake for about 7 minutes.

In the meantime, core tomatoes and slice thinly; use a food processor or mandoline, if available. Transfer to colander and let drain about 5 minutes, then blot dry. Set tart pan on a baking sheet. Arrange tomato slices in concentric circles atop blind-baked crust. Set tart pan on a baking sheet.

Break eggs into a mixing bowl. Add a teaspoon of herbes de provence, salt and 2 tablespoons creme fraiche. Whip until frothy then pour over tomatoes. Transfer tart pan on baking sheet to oven. Bake about 35-40 minutes until well set but still a bit wet on top.

Remove to cooling rack. After 10 minutes, lift tart from pan ring. Continue cooling another 10 minutes or until it looks like it will slice cleanly.  Top slices with a dollop of creme fraiche and sprinkle with herbes de provence.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

It's still summer in my coffee cup

Yes, I am well aware that if is officially fall. I wore pantyhose last week and the menfolk in my house already have twice set the fire pit ablaze in our backyard.

This time of year I usually, reluctantly, stop my ritual of freezing coffee cubes for my daily fix. Usually, I return to hot chai. But not this year. Not yet.

I have given up freezing coffee cubes, but I am still firmly entrenched in my morning routine. The difference, and perhaps the reason for my continued interest, is that I've learned how to make a cold-brew concentrate that reduces the acidity while producing a bountiful exilir that's about as simple to prepare as it is to enjoy.

While I didn't deploy Larry's Beans for this batch, I did learn the trick during a recent tour of the company's uber-sustainable business near downtown Raleigh. Their site-roasted coffee is terrific, their ethic is responsible, and their staff -- led by the charismatic Larry himself -- makes you feel even better about buying local. Whether you're local or not, next time you need coffee, consider Larry's Beans.

That said, since Tim has been enjoying Larry's rich Ethopian and Mexican blends for breakfast -- and I still had an unopened tin of Trader Joe's respectable fair-trade Bolivian Blend, which I've used before and like, that's what I used.  I followed the simple ratio they used at Larry's to make a massive cooler of cold-brew coffee for the open house: 1 pound of coarsely ground coffee to one gallon of water.
Larry enthusiastically shows off the repurposed
cooking oil that fuels their delivery vehicle.
Since I'm the only who likes iced coffee here, and I only consume one travel-mugful daily, I halved that sum to use 8 ounces of freshly-ground coffee to a half-gallon of water. Make sure the container you choose is large enough to accommodate the grounds; I barely made it with the jar shown.

Use a funnel to make sure every crumble of coffee all gets into the jar; I found a canning funnel is perfect for the task. Stir between grinds to incorporate and make room for the next addition.

When done, refrigerate at least 24 hours, swishing the jar a few times whenever you get curious enough to check on progress. Next day, strain well into a clean jar. I use a jelly bag to catch all the grounds, then rinse and repeat. If you don't have a jelly bag, use several layers of damp cheesecloth or, if all else fails, damp white paper towel (avoid colorful printed varieties) in a colander. The resulting concentrate is decadently aromatic and lusterous.

Use about 1 ounce of concentrate per 6 ounces of water. I use an old measure saved from expensive chai mix to transfer 2-3 scoops into a tall travel mug filled about a third of the way with ice, then top with water -- be sure to leave room for a good glug of milk. I also add a generous shake of stevia per mug to sweeten.

I got creative with my first batch of concentrate and hope to share a success story in a few weeks. I had about two-thirds of a bottle of a middling brand tequila leftover from a canning project. I read that Patron recently introduced a coffee-infused brand, so I figured, why not? I added 4 ounces of concentrate and 3 tablespoons each of coarsely ground coffee and sugar. I shook it faithfully for a few day then tucked it away to do its thing. If anyone I know receives some as a holiday gift, you'll know it worked,