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.