Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reaganomics Redux: My search for a 'more perfect Union' through pumpkin pecan pie

Early in our marriage, when Rice-a-Roni Spanish Rice with hamburger crumbles was a key feature of my fancy dinner repertoire, I stumbled across a Thanskgiving recipe that seemed to combine the best of two worlds: creamy pumpkin pie and gooey pecan pie.

Unlike many Thanksgiving classics, the pie's pedigree was linked not to Plymouth Rock but to another icon of Americana, the White House kitchen. It was easy to assemble and the slices yielded gracefully from the pan, a grand visage of layered perfection and rich flavor that, sadly, has never been matched.

That's because it came from a newspaper clipping, and that little slip of paper apparently was pitched with the rest of our holiday detritus. After that one public glimpse, it seemed to have reverted to the classified White House files.

I continued hunting without success for its yellowed ghost in all the places I normally stash such things. Years later, after Al Gore invented the internet, I looked to see if it was floating somewhere in digital recipeland. But the internet just said no. Alas, we have made do with the more humble back-of-the-can pumpkin pie even since.

You can imagine my surprise when I threw caution to the wind again this year and optimistically typed the phrase White House Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pecan Pie into the browser. It instantly delivered a link to eBay for a recipe card signed by none other than Nancy Reagan. I was briefly horrified, but the math did seem to match. In my mind, I heard those immortal words: There you go again.

I checked with the menfolk to see if they wanted this for dessert - Graham was several years from becoming the pumpkin of our eyes at first bake - and, Reagonomics be damned, we all cast our vote in the affirmative.

The recipe is simple and calls for ingredients most bakers keep in their holiday kitchen. I don't normally use dark corn syrup but have a vintage jar of the light version of it on hand, so I substituted instead of buying a bottle of dark just for a half-cup of sticky sweetness.

It may not have been the right choice for Ronnie, but I used a store-bought crust. The ingredients lushly filled it to the brim. I carefully tucked it into a 350 degree oven and set the timer, as directed, for 40 minutes.

When the buzzer rang I returned to the kitchen to find my men - and a bonus man, a schoolmate of Graham's - who seemed drawn to the aroma as if by a cartoon hand and snake charmer's song. We opened the door with heady expectation, only to find it still extremely sloshly. "Bitch," I said, as a string of invectives poured forth at our frail former First Lady, who surely had nothing to do with the recipe other than autographing the card - which you still may be able to snag for a $5 bid.

I took another look at the recipe card. There it was, clear as day, a conditional codicil, the sort found in most all government contracts: "or until set."

I think I finally understand trickle-down math, at least as it applies to pie. It took slightly more than an hour until the filling, now inbued with the glossy sheen that high fructose corn syrup reliably provides, was done. The crust was golden and the aroma heavenly, kind of like a big jar of pumpkin and pecan pie Jelly Bellys. It cracked a bit as it cooled, but that little crevass opened a window into temptation that had to be hidden overnight in the back of the fridge.

I'm still not quite certain this is the same recipe I made years ago. I remember it in a honeymoon glow as having distinct layers - pumpkin on the bottom, topped by a slim but intense pecan goo on top. This is more like the love child of each, creamy and crunchy, sweet and substantial. It may not be that "more perfect Union" our forefathers described, but it is pretty damn good.

Monday, November 19, 2012

For vegetarians, a welcome seat at the Thanksgiving table

For those who don’t eat anything that can walk or squawk, Thanksgiving amid a family of carnivores can be a challenge.

“The idea of a vegetarian Thanksgiving used to make a lot of people pretty nervous,” said Kim O’Donnel, author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. “A lot has changed in the last few years. People are expanding their definition of what vegetarian is. Thankfully, it’s no longer the weirdos against the rest of us.”

The veteran food journalist and sometime meat eater writes in her good-humored introduction that the memory of a slightly combative Thanksgiving dinner inspired her second collection of meatless recipe. Competing with the burnished turkey that year was a pitiful boxed tofurky that skewed the Norman Rockwell image of culinary communion so many hold dear.  

“There are 96 percent of us at this point that are still eating meat, but up to 40 percent are exploring how to eat less meat,” said O’Donnel, a leader of the Meatless Mondays movement. “It’s a mash-up. The fact is, we’re not all eating the same thing anymore.”
O’Donnel credits the Meatless Mondays campaign as a major contributor of the nationwide conversation about putting more plant-based meals on the table. “When I found out about it in 2007, it was this fledgling nonprofit teaming up with schools of public health around the country. It was not a mainstream phenomenon.

Kim O'Donnel
“They did research in June 2011 and found that 50 percent of people contacted knew what it was,” she said. “It’s not to say that they agree with it or not. But the conversation is not going way. People are waking up to the fact that they have to change their diet.”

O’Donnel cites abundant research that shows health benefits from making more room on the plate for vegetables and grains. “It doesn't have to be all or nothing. It’s more about incremental change and readjusting your notion of what makes a meal.”

She encourages fledgling vegetarians and those who want to enjoy the benefits of vegetables to avoid the highly-processed vegetarian foods found in the freezer case – not just the dreaded tofurky but also a wide range of convenience foods that tend to be very high in sodium. Additionally, a lot of these products are made by the same Big Ag companies that promote risky genetically-modified foods.

“It’s one reason why I made a definitive decision to not include meat facsimiles in the book,” she said. “For some people it’s a great gateway, but if you really want to get close to the source of your foods, that’s not the way.”

By cooking your own food, and knowing where your food comes from, you become part of the change process, O’Donnel said. “If we don’t cook, we don’t ask questions. We make going through the drive-thru window a way of life. We remain passive and disconnected – and in the dark about our food system. If we don’t get in the kitchen and get the cutting board out, we’ll never change things.”
Delicata Boats with Red Rice Stuffing
Her suggested options for Thanksgiving, let alone the recipes for year-round celebrations, should convince most meat lovers that veggies deserve another chance. One she  particularly recommends, and plans to contribute to a friend’s holiday gathering, is the simple to prepare Delicata Boats with Red Rice Stuffing.

“It’s the first time in several years that I’m not hosting dinner, and it’s kind of a relief,” she admitted. “We’ll bring things from the new book for dinner.  I’ll make the Lentil Pate, which really tastes a lot of chopped liver. I’m doing the Apple Rosemary Walnut Pie with Enlightened Pie Dough. And I’ll probably  bring the Raw Kale Salad.”
O’Donnel includes several recipes using kale in the book, notably the savory Sweet Potato-Pesto Gratin in the Thanksgiving chapter. The versatile kale pesto has become the condiment of choice in O’Donnel’s home. “I used it on a spread with sandwiches, serve it on rice – and it’s great on pizza dough,” she said.

Kale’s status as a super food among knowing vegetable lovers is having an impact among even the most ardent doubters.
“I was doing a demonstration in a grocery story in Arkansas a few weeks ago and people were blown away by the Raw Kale Salad,” O’Donnel said. “That made my day. I love changing the tunes of vegetable haters.”

Raw Kale Salad
Reprinted with permission of Kim O’Donnel from The Meat Lovers Meatless Celebrations (DeCapo Press/Life Long Books 2012).
1 bunch lacinto kale (also sold as Tuscan and dinosaur kale), middle ribs removed (about 5 cups)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 to 2 lemons, depending on size)
¼ cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup unsalted almonds, chopped

Optional add-ons:
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese
¼ to ½ cup dried bread crumbs
Wash the kale leaves and dry thoroughly in a salad spinner. Stack several leaves in a small pile and cut into thin strips (also known as chiffonade).

Place the chopped kale in a medium-size bowl and add the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and salt. With your hands, massage the seasonings into the kale; this not only ensures even coverage but also helps to tenderize the raw greens. Allow the greens to sit and marinate for at least 20 minutes.
Toss in the almonds and taste. There is usually so much flavor that the cheese and breadcrumbs are unnecessary, but they are terrific extras that really gild the lily.

Keeps for 2 days in the refrigerator.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Jean Anderson’s ‘Preserving Guide’ reissued by UNC Press

Jean Anderson will participate in Fearrington Village's "Cooks and Books" series at 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15. For information or to purchase tickets, call 919-542-3030.

Jean Anderson is one of the Triangle’s most prolific cookbook writers. She’s earned several prestigious James Beard and International Association of Culinary Professionals awards for her wide-ranging work. And when she leaves her Chapel Hill home to sign books or oversee a feast featuring her recipes, she attracts crowds of breathless devotees.

Anderson greets fans warmly, but she is as famously reticent to talk about her own books as she is to have her photo taken. Of the handsome new reissue of her 1976 Preserving Guide by UNC Press, she shared only that “a particular fave of mine” in the 100-recipe collection is Yellow Squash Pickles, which she termed a “Raleigh recipe.”

UNC Press hails the work, a groundbreaking volume for its time, as a classic of the “back-to-the-land movement.” The original edition was named by New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne to his list of books for the well-chosen cookbook library.

Still beloved by seasoned canners, it finds a welcome place today in the abundance of preserving titles on bookstore shelves. It’s even revered by nouveau leaders such as Sean Timberlake, founder of the online canning community Punk Domestics.

“In recent years, the topic of canning and preserving has enjoyed a huge renaissance, as new generations discover the joy of learning the nearly forgotten craft of putting food by,” said Sean Timberlake said. “A wealth of books has bubbled up in the wake of this trend, many quite beautiful and interesting. But Jean Anderson's Preserving Guide stands among a canon of never-fail go-to volumes that canners of all ages and skill levels turn to for clear, no-nonsense information. It truly is a foundational work, one without which today's trend-forging books could never be.”

Jean Anderson (undated)
Virginia Willis, author of Basic to Brilliant, Y’All, agreed. She said the reissue will find a welcome place on her bookshelf.

“I love to conserve and preserve and have sought out past issues of canning guides, but I’ve yet to find the much-praised original edition,” Willis said. “Jean Anderson’s Preserving Guide is a thorough guide to old-fashioned canning and preserving recipes. It's straightforward and clear with no-nonsense instruction. It's like your favorite Southern aunt is in the kitchen - admittedly teaching her favorites.”

One word of caution: With the exception of a new introduction by the author, the text is unchanged from its 1976 debut, when it was first published as the Green Thumb Preserving Guide. Anderson maintains her confidence in the paraffin-sealed canning method she learned from her mother and aunt – it “has never failed me,” she writes, adding later that she “recommends only what I consider to be the best ways of conserving” fruits and vegetables.

As such, Preserving Guide is not entirely consistent with contemporary USDA standards. Home canners with process questions, especially novices, can check USDA recommendations posted online and make simple tweaks if needed.

Anderson’s enduring influence is keenly felt by cutting-edge chef Paul Virant, whose book The Preservation Kitchen was released early this year. He credits Anderson with helping to “launch my career to can, with confidence and enthusiasm.

“The Preserving Guide continues to influence my style of cooking, which has made preservation the main focus of my restaurants, Vie and Perennial Virant,” said the Chicago-based chef.

Anderson writes that her tart and crunchy Cranberry and Almond Conserve “is especially good with roast turkey, chicken, duck and goose, venison, pork ham and lamb” – making it a welcome addition to virtually any holiday table.

Cranberry and Almond Conserve
Reprinted from Preserving Guide by Jean Anderson, © UNC Press (2012).

2 medium-sized oranges, halved, seeded and chopped fine (rind, pulp and all)
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 quart water
3 cups granulated sugar
3 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
2 quarts cranberry, stemmed
½ cup seedless raisins
½ cup dried currants
1¼ cups chopped blanched almonds

Places oranges, lemon rind and water in a large, heavy enameled or stainless steel kettle, set over moderately high heat and boil uncovered for 25 minutes or until run in tender.

Meanwhile, was and sterilize 8 half-pint preserving jars and their closures; keep closures and jars immersed in separate kettles of simmering water until you are ready to use them.

When rind is tender, add granulated and brown sugars to kettle and as soon as they are dissolved, stir in cranberries, raisins and currants. Let the mixture come slowly to the boil, then boil hard, uncovered, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, 5 minutes. Mix in almonds. Continue boiling rapidly and stirring 5 to 10 minutes longer until mixture is thick and jelly-like (about 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer).

Ladle boiling hot into hot jars, filling to within 1/8” of the tops. Wipe jar rims and seal jars. Process for 10 minutes in a simmering water batch (185 degrees F).   Remove from water bath … and cool to room temperature. Check seals, then label and store on a cook, dark, dry shelf.