Archive for the ‘ food ’ Category

In the land of the olive orchards

I’ve been visiting the cave of the Sun Goddess in the land of the Olive Orchards. Vikings do things like that. Spend time. Get to know the natives. Borrow their best recipes. Learn the language. But this time, it’s a language made up of throat-clearing. Hairballs, and microscopic curly squiggles where some tidy angles would do nicely, and the like. My phlegm can’t get organized around the language at all.

The cave is snug, and I feel like Leif Eriksson. Need to set my legs and head aside in order to get through openings intact. Everywhere I turn is a door-knocker waiting to take out my forehead, a low passageway ready to bang my skull, a stack of chairs ready to grab my long, ski-like feet. The wine glasses hold four tablespoons, and the mugs are colorful, delicate things that hold barely enough water for me to gargle.

Everything’s dark and red and layered. Textiles everywhere; on the floors, on the walls, piled on the furniture, under the other textiles; the doors wear tassles, and the table gets a rug, a schmatte, a placemat, and another placemat. Mediterranean eclectic or with a capital E as well. Humble, worn, and warm. Layers of paint, and blood. Even the leather is green, and purple. Speckled porcelain tin plates.

Vikings love such places. New lands to conquer, new peoples to seduce. Cultural identity on every surface. And in the fridge and freezer. The Sun Goddess knows who she is. She celebrates her identity. Maintains it in this Jewish Diaspora, and then goes and learns a few strains of Arabic besides—they’re all dark and warm and hairy and short, right? Even her tattoos speak to her identity. The alphabets on her divine hand. Her—well, her everything.

In this, she’s just like me.

But I’m a tall Nordic person. With sleek Scandinavian modern in my house. And beige Nordic foods. Like lefse (potato flatbread) and bockwurst (pork and veal sausage). Doesn’t get any paler than that.

We both eat gravet laks, however.

So. Here’s the deal. Vikings are committed for the long haul, despite the impossible throat-clearing. But what we want is to immerse in the other in her native ecosystem. That would be: delight in the warmth of the dark-haired, dark-eyed ones. Participant/colonization in the cave of the Olive Oil Peoples. I mean, how lucky can you get to have a gig like that? I myself am used to shoveling snow. Tall skiers. Not that dissimilar from me.

While we Vikings have long observed that there are no pure cultures (or not any more, at least) (and likely never were) (other seafarers, and all) (and trade) (etc etc) this comes as close to anywhere I’ve been to studying an intact culture.

And, miracle of miracles—she’s basically doing the same with me.

Mutual exotification.

She laughs when I call her exotic. She’s more used to hegemonic. Brunette and brown eyes and olive skin and olive oil and all that goes with it. Brass trays and ibriqs and gardening and harvesting. And long black sleeves and long black legs no matter how hot it gets. And Jewish of a certain persuasion. In my book, she’s a rare species of a fish.

I laugh when she calls me exotic. I feel more the snow-belt norm. Pale. And blonde. With good akevit. We Vikings ought to stick together, right? But no. I’m drawn to the Sun Goddess.

You know the old adage. It’s straight out of the sagas. Kristin Lavransdatter. Get the lilting tones right; they sound like your boat pitching and rolling and yawing in the wintry seas.

It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.

Because:

Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution.

We’re okay, if she’s the native and I’m the Viking. We’re okay, if the Sun Goddess’s making her yaprakas to bring along whither the tall Nordic adventuring goes.

But not build a home together?

Preserve and weaken pure systems?

The only way to even approach life is with an understated sense of humor. Wry, inscrutable grins, and a mischievous appreciation for the dramatic, exotic, differently-neurotic ones. Celebrate diversity and all that. Syncretism. Heterosis. Mix it up and depurify.

It’s the dream I had when I first learned about charoset and matzohbrei. College, as I recall.

All the people of the world would blend together. No more pure-blooded high foreheads. No more this-sea-is-my-sea/that-sea-is-your-sea. Hoist the sails, get rowing, mix it up. And we’d all be merely human.

But that would mean no more zaftig olive oil farmers with audacious noses, no more Sun Goddesses, and no more tall, pale, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Vikings.

I’ve never been able to figure it out. Have appreciated those who know their own identity. Who celebrate the intactness of their heritage, the chosen-ness of their people, the tribal identification of their spices. How wonderful, right? But I’ve admired more those who have the courage to set sail. Not the ones who misunderstand indigenous recipes and make everything beige and sweet. But those who bring together the best of multiple ways—and live it.

I’m balled up inside the argument. Patient at best. Syncretism leads to impossible conglomerations of furniture and way too many tchochkes. But pure systems lead to blandness and alcoholism.

a kaddish for everybody i have eaten

A response to Mira’s latest, “of gummy-worms and larger creatures.”

Let’s start with the easy part: I love gummi worms.

While I was running along Skyline with Kjersten tonight, I got to thinking about how I’m actually thinking about taking a pheasant-hunting lesson in November.

I don’t hunt. Never have. I trudged alongside my dad once after pheasants. It was a cold fall morning, and my six-year-old stride couldn’t keep up. He didn’t slow down for me, nor did he explain much of what was going on. The only punctuation in the long, hard, all-day march (he probably remembers it as a few hours, but this is my story) was a lunch that was too brief and featured not nearly enough hot chocolate. And a moment when a weird flapping sound to our prompted him to grab up his gun and point, only to drop it again. The pheasant had flushed too quickly.

I don’t have any desire to hunt. Never have.

I don’t know if I could actually pull the trigger on an animal. Never have.

And yet.

I eat meat. My hunting dad still stocks my freezer with wild game, and I love cooking it, eating it, sharing it with friends. Recently I served our mutual friend a beautiful Viennese-style pheasant, seared off and then roasted in little bacon boxer shorts, disassembled into parts over wild rice, and drizzled with a gravy made from deglazing the dutch oven with chicken stock and thickening with roux. Her pleasure at the new flavor tasted even better to me than the pheasant itself. I enjoyed her delight at hearing it was a bird that Flicka, the dog Mom and Dad got after Candy retired to live with us in California, had helped hunt.

Kjersti is an exquisite young chocolate lab in the tall, athletic, high-spirited, intelligent Canadian labrador retriever style. This is not to be confused with the English lab style that we mostly see around here: dopey, mellow, short, pudgy, block-headed barrels with paws. Kjersti comes from a long line of field trial champions. She was bred to hunt, and I see her hunting intelligence every day—how she freezes into a quiet point at the sight of the wild turkeys that wander through our neighborhood, and holds it until I acknowledge them and she knows I know. How she tears after a fallen tennis ball, carries it back to me at top speed, and drops it at my feet. How when I walk her off-leash at Redwood or Sibley, she fans the area, running quietly ahead of me and sweeping from one side to the other, looking back frequently to check my progress. How she holds our youngest Siamese cat’s head in her mouth, ever so gently—dampening her fur, but not frightening or injuring her—not mangling any fur or feathers, not bruising any meat.

Meat.

I eat animals all the time. I don’t mind cleaning and butchering them, when they’re already dead. But can I hunt them myself? Kill them myself? I doubt it. But because I love my dog, my beautiful brown animal who works the brush ahead of me with such intelligence and enthusiasm, I’m actually considering it. It almost feels like an obligation to her, my animal, to go kill animals with her. I don’t begin to know how to unwind this conundrum, so I am likely to convince myself that I’m too busy even to consider it and then move on quickly.

I suppose it should be an obligation of my carnivorous ways to join in the violence of my reality. Dad always talks about the sacred connection he feels with the game as he kills it. I have spent much of my life thinking that’s a creepy, horrible cop-out, but when I buy my meat already dead, nicely sliced and wrapped on hygienic-looking white styrofoam trays, my complacency is shaken. If I’m even paying attention. Usually I am not.

My Japanese friends are good at mindful reverence at the table. They say “itadakimas” before starting to eat. Translations vary, but the way my favorite translators, Masako and Tomoko, explained it to me, it means thank you to the animals and plants, the farmers and ranchers and fishers and butchers, the truck drivers, the grocers, the cooks, and everyone else who brought the food to us. At the end of the meal, they say “gotso sama deshita,” which thanks the food directly, using the same respectful particle, sama, that is used for addressing the Shinto gods.

A kaddish for everybody I have eaten. Gotso sama deshita.

Tuna noodle hotdish

My recent Multilingual column mentioned tuna noodle hotdish. For those readers who aren’t familiar with this snowbelt classic, here’s a recipe.

This is an old standard for Norwegian-Lutherans in the USA snowbelt—it’s what we make when our neighbor’s recovering from surgery, or when a friend has just had a death in the family, or when we need to bring something for the church potluck, or if it’s a cold night and we’re hungry.

It’s not a fancy recipe—and that’s the whole point. It’s cheap, easy comfort food.

  • one can of tuna
  • one 12 oz bag of egg noodles
  • one can of cream of mushroom soup
  • a few slices of Velveeta
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oregano
  • potato chips

Prepare one package of egg noodles in boiling, salted water according to directions on the bag. Drain. Add tuna, cream of mushroom soup concentrate, about half a soup can of water, Velveeta, salt and pepper, and oregano. Stir, return to heat, and heat through. Correct seasonings. Top with crumbled potato chips. Serve with kosher dills, preferably made from your gramma’s recipe.

Variation: instead of heating on stovetop, top with potato chips and heat in oven-proof casserole at 350˚F for about 30 minutes.

An original cocktail: Montmartre

Montmartre is a hill (the butte Montmartre) which is 130 meters high, giving its name to the surrounding district, in the north of Paris in the 18th arrondissement, a part of the Right Bank. [Wikipedia]

A few years ago I was staring at the lovely bottle creme de cassis in our liquor cabinet I’d hand-carried home from Paris and thinking what a shame it is that I don’t like Kir Royales all that much.

Kir Royales (Kirs Royale?) are fine. It’s just that if the Champagne or sparkling wine is good enough, I don’t want to ruin it with sweet black currant flavors, and if it isn’t good enough, sweet black currant flavors aren’t going to help much. Another worthy option is to use it in a Rouge Gorge–add a dollop of creme de cassis to a glass of red table wine that needs some help. But here again, same problem.

I decided it was time to develop a new cocktail that would take the creme de cassis out of the back of the cabinet and put it on proud display. My starting point was a sweet Manhattan: bourbon, sweet red vermouth, Angostura bitters (or as our friend Jane calls them, “Agnostic bitters”), and a maraschino cherry. A lovely drink.

My concept was to substitute creme de cassis for the sweet red vermouth, but the combination of sticky cassis and sweet bourbon is just too much–I knew that without needing to taste it. My solution: rye! An under-appreciated cousin of bourbon, rye is basically the same stuff, but it’s made with a bigger proportion of rye than corn or other grains. If you don’t like members of the brown liquor family, you’ll think rye tastes the same as bourbon, but if you do like them and are paying attention, rye has a much brighter taste. The perfect foil for cloying cassis, I thought.

I kept the dash of Agnostic bitters, and I added a dash of West Indian Orange Bitters, again for brightness in contrast to the cassis.

But now the dilemma: what to do about the maraschino cherry? In early versions of the Montmartre, I attempted to keep them, but they’re a hideous color, and they taste as artificial as they look. They were horribly outclassed by the cassis.

I tried a few variations on the citrus theme, but they were all too bright, losing the specialness of the cassis and burying the subtle brightness of the rye.

Eventually I hit upon the ideal garnish: sour cherries. Whole Foods sells a brand called Zergütt that are, despite the name, pretty good. However, their syrup is too sweet and thick. My solution? Pour off about half the syrup (save it for Old Fashioneds–trust me on this), replace it with rye, and stick it back in the fridge for at least a few days. Use a splash of this rye/juice in the cocktail, too.

So here it is, the final draft. This has become a favorite at our house and also at our friend Jane’s house. Jane’s much better about writing things down, so every so often when I forget a detail on one of my cocktails, I call her to ask. With thanks to Jane for her service as cocktail archivist, here is:

Montmartre

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with crushed ice.
  2. Add an 8-to-1 ratio of rye whiskey and creme de cassis, i.e. 4 shots rye to 1/2 shot cassis. If you like your drinks sweeter, go 4-to-1.
  3. Add a dash each of Angostura bitters and West Indian Orange Bitters.
  4. Garnish martini glasses with three sour cherries soaked in half the syrup and half rye.
  5. Splash a little of the rye/syrup from the cherries into the cocktail shaker.
  6. Shake well and strain into the cocktail glasses.
Notes:

Blood Orange bitters or Regan’s Orange Bitters are worthy substitutes for the West Indian Orange Bitters, but there is no substitute for the Angostura Bitters, which are essential.

Many people would tell you cocktails should be mixed with large, hard, super-cold cubes of ice. They are right in many cases. Harder, larger, colder ice gives you a colder cocktail with less water diluting the spirits. However, some drinks benefit from some ice-melt, and in my opinion, the Manhattan family and the martini family are two such categories. Both gin and whisky can keep their flavors buttoned-up, and adding a small amount of water unbuttons their shirts and reveals glorious cleavage and alluring scents.

“Bruising” is the term some people use, and although it sounds pejorative, bruising is in some cases exactly what the liquor needs. When you add a few drops of water to the room-temperature spirit and you see oily swirling reactions taking place, what’s happening is that certain oils and esters are being disturbed, releasing their aromas (thus flavors) to your noise and tongue. Scotch whisky afficionados intentionally add a very few drops of “branch water” to their single malts for this very reason.

For the Montmartre in particular, using crushed ice accomplishes several things: it increases the surface area of ice available to the liquid, thus cooling it faster or further; it increases the melting and dilution, thinning the potentially goopy texture of the creme de cassis; and it reveals the subtle flavor dimensions of the rye whiskey.

Santé!

A Bloody Mary recipe for people who think they don’t like them

Here, by popular demand, is my recipe for a Bloody Mary that even Bloody Mary-haters are likely to like. I should know, because I was one of them. I thought the Bloody Mary was a pretty disgusting drink, but I had friends and for a time a partner who liked them, so I tried to accommodate their requests but also create something I could enjoy with them. I succeeded a little too well–now I crave them myself from time to time, I’m disappointed when other people’s still suck, and I end up having to recreate my recipe for a lot of people. Some people have described this is an alcoholic cold tomato soup or a pureed gazpacho with a kick, and those are pretty valid descriptions.

My usual recipe caveat: I don’t use or write recipes. I have a vague method that changes a bit each time, and I’m probably forgetting a few things. I’ll try to post corrections if I figure out what, and please feel free to raise your concerns in this regard in the Comments section below!
The most important thing is to recognize that a Bloody Mary is not V8 with vodka in it. It’s also not Mr & Mrs T’s with vodka in it. It’s spicy tomato juice with a whole bunch of good stuff and gin in it. Trust me on this–if you do your research, you will learn that the traditional Bloody Mary is made with a London Dry-style gin, not vodka–that’s a later variation, same as martinis.
Now, I suppose you could start with V8 if you happen to like it, but I happen to hate it–the carrot flavor is way too dominant for me. Yuck. I start with a quart jar of spicy tomato juice, and a brand that I’ve found to be pretty good is Knudsen’s. There are others, I’m sure, and Spicy V8 is a reasonable choice if you do actually like V8. Whatever you get, taste it before you start, so that you have a sense of how salty and spicy it is already and you can adjust the rest of the process according to your taste.
Next, an essential, traditional ingredient is–believe it or not–beef stock. Yes, indeed. Sorry, but this is not a drink for vegetarians. You could experiment with vegetable stocks, or maybe a good dashi without the miso, though; the goal is an umami (savory, meaty) flavor, and for my money, beef stock is where it’s at. I like Farmer Brothers “Special Soup Base Beef Flavor,” which comes as a glossy brown goo in ginormous tubs and has a lot less MSG than most options. I take a heaping tablespoon of that goop and mix it in a 2Q mixing bowl with just enough almost-boiling water to dissolve it, no more–say, 3-4 tablespoons.
(The plan here is to mix up a one quart batch of Bloody Mary base that you’ll store in your refrigerator. To serve, you’ll shake some of it with booze in a cocktail shaker.)
To this I add several hefty squirts of every kind of Tabasco sauce and similar product that I can find in our refrigerator. Currently we have:
  • red Tabasco
  • green Tabasco
  • chipotle Tabasco
  • Frontera Grill Red Pepper Hot Sauce
  • Cholula Hot Sauce
I’d be happier with a few more. Now add:
  • several cloves of garlic, crushed (and “several” could be a lot, really)
  • a hefty scoop of fresh grated horseradish, or a heftier scoop of the pregrated stuff that comes in a little jar
  • a dash of Liquid Smoke if you have it (or an extra squirt of chipotle Tabasco, if you don’t)
  • a squirt of extra virgin olive oil (because most of the flavors are fat-soluble)
  • kosher salt (you get what you deserve if you substitute iodized table salt–feh!)
  • ground cumin (really can’t overdo it here)
  • ground coriander
  • ground cayenne
  • ground Spanish smokey hot paprika
  • oregano
  • celery seed (not too much)
  • ancho chili powder, if you have it
  • any other chili-esque variations on the theme that you can think of
  • a dash of the brine in your jar of green olives (see below)
  • juice of half a lime
  • freshly ground black pepper (I like Telicherry)
Mix all this up and then add it to your spicy tomato juice. Now taste, adjust, and add what you think is missing. If this is way too strong for you, then you’ve made enough base for two quarts of your favorite tomato juice.
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with crushed ice. Add a shot or two of a good London Dry gin (I like Beefeater for these, but there are many good choices. I think Tanqueray is too fruity for a BM). Add your tomato juice mix. You want approximately a 4:1 juice-to-booze proportion. Shake well, because these liquids have very different viscosities and they need to be persuaded to play nicely with each other.
Strain into a highball or lowball glass half-filled with more crushed ice, several stuffed green olives, a hand-squeezed lime wedge, and an optional narrow, leafy stalk of celery.
An excellent alternative to gin is a good akevit, preferably with strong caraway flavors, such as Ålborg’s standard akevit in the green bottle. (The Jubilæum is good too, but I don’t think it’s as good a choice here.) When you make a Bloody Mary with akevit instead of gin, it becomes a Danish Mary.
Another good alternative is Hangar One Chipotle Vodka. I know, I said vodka’s all wrong, but that stuff if so good, it’s the exception to prove the rule. I wouldn’t bother with any old brand’s pepper vodka, though–the Hangar One Chipotle stuff is a multidimensional, rich, savory, picquant, difficult vodka.
Please note a few things that you do not want to add under any circumstances, at least not if you’re planning to serve these to me:

  • Worcestershire sauce
  • celery salt
  • vodka
  • Clamato (Yech! That stuff is disgusting, and if you like it, the drink goes by a different name–for a reason! It’s a different drink!)
That’s my method, best I can remember. Please enjoy it, let me know what you think, and by all means raise an alarm in the Comments if you think I might have missed something.
Salut!

Expiration Date Soup

Many of my family and friends have gifts for foraging–recognizing all the funky greens, vegetables, mushrooms, and so forth in their habitats, and knowing when and how to harvest. I don’t have the gift–or rather, my repertoire is rather limited. I know cress, dandelions, and other basics, and most of the Rocky Mountain region edible berries, but that’s about it. I think I recognize some mushrooms, but then I remember the great care with which my biologist mother examines mushrooms (spore patterns and all), the most recent headlines about mushroom poisonings flood in, and I let braver souls have the harvest.

I do, however, have a gift for pantry and refrigerator scrounging. I remember with pride an ex remarking, “Wow. You’re really good at making whole meals out of nothing.” Where she saw an empty refrigerator, I saw enough odds and ends for a soup, a funky salad, a crossover stir-fry, or whatever.
Today’s lunch is a good example. I’m calling it “Expiration date soup.” I just threw together several quarts of a hearty, yummy miso soup using almost nothing but food that was supposedly due for the dump:
  • several quarts of water (nearly the only ingredient that was not expired)
  • two packets of bonito stock powder dating back to the Clinton administration (I also have ancient konbu and hana katsuo and I am not afraid to use them, but starting my dashi from scratch adds twenty minutes and some risk, which is not ideal for a quick lunch break from work)
  • the bottom of an ancient bag of wakame
  • the bottom of an ancient bag of black fungus
  • a tub of tofu that expired three months ago (but was unopened and fine), diced
  • a few sad cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • the dried-out sludge at the bottom of an ancient tub of red miso (I had to mince it and whisk it inside a strainer to get it to dissolve into my broth)
  • a slug of semi-ancient sesame oil
  • three eggs from an urban farmer friend of who knows what age, lightly mixed and stirred into the soup, off the flame (egg-drop soup style)
  • several shakes of sesame seed/bonito flakes/mystery ingredients “rice topping” stuff that I think I bought when I lived in Chicago, which is to say before 1994
I prepared the soup by dumping these things into a pot over a medium-high flame roughly in the order listed above, as I found them, and by the time I had everything in the pot, it was ready to eat.
Yummy. Probably not something any self-respecting Japanese chef would acknowledge as food, but I liked it, and I’m going to enjoy it for several more lunches.

Smørgåsbord Step 14: Make meatballs

Two years ago, we started blogging about how to throw a smørgåsbord in several thousand easy lessons, and recently a loyal smørgåsbord attendee, our good friend Katja, asked me where to find the meatball recipe on the blog.

Well, the sad truth is that we never quite got that far in our smørgåsbord blog. Meatballs are always something we make either that day or the day before, when we’re just too swamped to do any journalism. But it’s a great recipe, so herewith, Norwegian meatballs!

“Not Swedish meatballs?” I hear you gasp.

Nope, Norwegian meatballs. These are the meatballs that came down to me from my grandparents and great-grandparents, and they’re Norwegian, not Swedish. They’re probably not too different, though–it’s not like the border between the two countries kept food traditions on each side. If they’re different than your Swedish meatball recipe, it’s probably because they’re also different from other Norwegian meatball recipes, and you’ll probably find a Norwegian version of your Swedish meatball recipe, too, if you look hard enough.

That said, we did have a Norwegian vs. Swedish meatballs contest one year, because V is Swedish, and her recipe is different from mine. Still, it probably would have been more accurate to call it Vang’s vs. Williams’s. If you’re curious, the big differences are that mine use a mixer and heavier spicing, and hers use cream.

This is an amalgam of Beatrice Ojakaangas’ recipe and what I remember from my gramma’s recipe. It’s a pretty forgiving recipe, so certainly you should free to mess around with it, resting assured that nothing will go too terribly wrong. The recipe is for a massive party-sized batch, and since my measurements are vague anyway, you shouldn’t have any trouble scaling it down. It’s more of an approach than a recipe, really. 

Norwegian Meatballs, jultide smørgåsbord edition

Start with a very large mixing bowl. This batch feeds several dozen people at a smørgåsbord, or probably a large family as the main attraction of a normal meal. I usually double or triple it, depending on how many people we’re expecting. When in doubt, go larger; we have rarely had leftovers.

Preheat oven to 400˚F.  

  • 2 c breadcrumbs (I use matzoh meal, or I buzz actual matzohs up in my Cuisinart; a gluten-free alternative is to buzz up dried shiitakes and then rehydrate them in hot water)
  • 2 c milk

Let stand. Add:

  • 2 large onions, minced (coarsely chop, then use the Cuisinart)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2-1/2 t salt
  • 3/4 t nutmeg
  • 3/4 t allspice
  • 1/3 t cloves
  • 1/2 c flour
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork

Using an electric hand-held mixer (or a gigantic stand mixer), beat at high speed until light and fluffy. The idea is that you’re stretching the fats around everything else, and the result is cohesive, tender meatballs instead of tough meatballs that fall apart. 

You could melt butter in a hot skillet and fry the meatballs, but when you’re making this big a batch, it’s much easier to oven-fry them. When you pan-fry them, it’s boring to wait for one pan at a time, but it’s hard to keep up with more than one pan at a time. If you get the slightest behind, the result is a tremendous amount of smoke, and even an 1800 cfm vent won’t be able to keep up with it. This means that your smoke alarm is going to start blaring and keep blaring, your security service is going to phone you, you’re going to have to open every window, and still you’re going to be dealing with a smoke alarm for quite some time. You’ll have to explain to the security people that your house really isn’t on fire, even though the alarm won’t stop, and they’ll only dimly understand why meatballs are a perfectly sensible explanation for the problem. Meanwhile, dealing with windows and alarms and phones will cause you to burn at least half a pan’s worth. Ask me how I know this. 
To oven fry them, lightly oil (or spray Pam-like substances on) 3-4 large jelly roll pans or similar. You definitely need a pan with a lip, because these puppies express. Using a small ice cream scoop, several spoons, your hands, or whatever, make small meatballs, say 1″ diameter. Squish them into tight rolls on the pans. Roast 10-15 minutes until nicely browned and firm. Use a large, stiff spatula to lift them from pans into a crockpot (or large stockpot). Scrape and drain any drippings into a large saucepan that you have standing by. Repeat until done. Once done, use a scant amount of beef stock (see below) to deglaze the pans into that saucepan of drippings. 
Next, make gravy: 
  1. Have healthy pinches of all the meatball spices (see above) mixed and standing by. 
  2. Heat about 3-4 c beef broth to a boil and then hold at a gentle simmer. (I use a high-quality beef stock base, but bouillion would probably do the job)
  3. Bring drippings and 2 sticks butter in the large saucepan almost to a sizzle, over high heat. 
  4. Slowly stir in 1-1/2 c (or more) of flour and your spice mixture. Ideally you will have made lefse earlier and saved all the browned flour that you brushed off the lefse griddles and lefse. If not, you might consider browning the flour in a separate pan in advance of this step. My grandmother swore that browning the flour is crucial, but I’m not sure I agree. My aunt learned that the answer to the question, “How long do you brown the flour?” is “Until the smoke alarm goes off.”
  5. You’re making a roux. Cook and stir continuously with a large, long-handled whisk, until what you’re seeing is a dark, shiny, smooth glop. You might need to add more butter or more flour to reach the perfect balance. Making roux is a bit of an art; you might want to learn more about it before attempting this recipe. Be careful, because making roux is also a self-burning hazard. 
  6. Once your roux is beautiful and perfect, slowly start dribbling the hot beef stock into the roux, whisking furiously. The goal is to end up with gravy, not roux-lumps in broth, and this requires slow, steady addition of nearly-boiling liquid to the roux. When you’ve gotten at least a third of the broth into the roux, you can switch directions and dribble the roux-mixture into the rest of the stock, continuing to whisk furiously—again, this is because you want to make gravy instead of roux-lumps in broth. 
  7. Once all the roux and broth are combined, continue to cook while stirring until the gravy is clear and smooth. The goal is to cook out any starches, and the way to tell is you’re done yet is by tasting it. If you taste flour or feel flouriness, keep going. When it’s smooth, rich, beefy, and yummy, you’re done. 

Pour the gravy over the meatballs in the crockpot or large stockpot. If serving immediately, heat through and call people to the table. If serving the next day, cover, refrigerate, and turn the stockpot on high about two hours before serving time. 

If you try this recipe, be sure to leave a comment here about how it works out for you. I hope you enjoy it! 

Breakfast in SFO, dinner and breakfast on LH, lunch in FRA, dinner in OSL

Mom and I flew to Oslo yesterday and today, hence the complicated meal plan. Our flight took off early Sunday afternoon from SFO, where we killed time with brunch at Andale–Mom had yummy chili verde and I had a pretty good burrito carne asada.

We flew Lufthansa to Frankfurt, and I am trying to figure out how it is that American airlines are all going bankrupt and can’t afford to give us meals or drinks, but Lufthansa can provide two decent hot meals and lots of wine and booze on basically the same ticket pricing structure. Dinner was pretty decent–I had pasta with mushrooms and marinara, and Mom had some kind of chicken rice dish. We both got edible rolls, okay salad with good dressing, and a tiny triangle of chocolate cake with whipped cream and a strawberry. There were good Ritter chocolates available in the galley overnight when I went up to get us drinks. For breakfast we had another good roll, an omelet that wasn’t great (when are eggs ever good in an airplane?) but was at least a lot better than some of the eggs I’ve had in United Business lately, and fruit salad just like every other airplane fruit salad: red grapes and pieces of underripe melon; oh, well. But still–two hot meals and plenty of free alcohol, on a route that United would have given us one hot meal, one disgusting breakfast snack, and drinks for $5.

We had lunch in the Senator Lounge at Frankfurt airport, which has a pretty nice buffet, including Frankfurters, chicken meatballs and Shanghai noodles, a funky tuna salad, some beautiful Christmas breads that I didn’t try, some serviceable minestrone (perfectly good but not a knockout like some German airport lounge soups I’ve had), olives, After lunch I enjoyed a campari-gin-bitter lemon and some Jelly Bellies. I wish we could buy bitter lemon in the States. Maybe I can figure out how to make it, now that I’ve got a CO2 tank and am not afraid to use it.

The unhappy part of our stay in Frankfurt was that my new AT&T mobile account didn’t seem to include international roaming after all–the guy I talked to when I switched said I was all set, but that turned out not to be the case. This wouldn’t be that big a deal, except that I needed to check my email and voicemail right away to find out whether I had an appointment with a natural horn or not. It turns out I didn’t. But what I had to go through to get AT&T to fix things is absurd. Since my phone didn’t work, I couldn’t use it to call them. I can’t remember the last time I saw a pay phone anywhere, so that meant I had to buy an hour of wifi and $10 of Skype credit so that I could use Skype and wifi to phone home, whereupon I reached an agent who said I’d have to call back after 7am Eastern when a certain department opened up–which was when we were boarding our flight to Oslo. In the end I couldn’t get it all straightened out until we got to the hotel, where I connected on the free wifi and again used Skype to call AT&T. Naturally just as we were getting things working, the call dropped and I had to call in AGAIN and finally got things working–and got the news that it’s $1.29 a minute for anything, including receiving but not answering calls, receiving voicemails, or actually receiving or placing calls. It’s highway robbery. Of course, when getting or missing a call means getting or missing a gig that pays $100ish or more, it’s worth it, and calculations like that are why wireless companies get away with charging so darned much. Argh!

Back to food, it was a good thing we ate in the airport, because SAS charged for everything on the connection to Oslo, with prices starting around three euros for coffee or soda. We were happy to pass.

We landed in Oslo at 3:45, collected our bags, got cash and airport express tickets, and were in downtown Oslo by 4:30. Our first order of business was to pick up our train tickets, which was only partially successful. Now that I’ve got email access again, though, I’ve got the various confirmation numbers I’ll need to get the rest of them. After that we searched out a vinmonopolet (literally “wine monopoly”–other than weak beer, all alcohol in Norway is sold by the state) and picked up some provisions for our hotel room so that we’ll be equipped to cope with any jet lag, and as I type this Mom and I are enjoying a lovely, fruity juleakevitt by Linie. Since we were tired and only vaguely hungry, we ate supper in “Erwin’s spiseri” right in the same food court.

So for our first Norwegian meal, Mom had “husets kremefisksuppe” or the house special cream fish soup, which we both thought was quite yummy. I had the “julelunsj tallerken” or “Christmas lunch plate” (I think) of gravet laks and sweet mustard sauce (yum), pickled herring (ick), a slice of ham, a slice of brie, a pile of the most iodine-y bay shrimp I’ve had in a long time, bread and butter, and a mound of–of all things–Waldorf salad. The Waldorf salad was good but I think it’s the first time I’ve had Waldorf salad since I was in the hospital with pneumonia during second grade. Somehow I remember eating a lot of Waldorf salad in that hospital, and for me it’s a dish lost to time. It’s kind of a perfect Norwegian salad, though–white, bland, sweet, and everything from a can. “Except the apples,” Mom pointed out, but I can’t say that I found any apples in there. I washed it all down with a pretty good juleøl (dark Christmas ale) by Ringnes.

After dinner, we walked the rest of the way to our hotel, which isn’t fancy but seems decent enough and has free wifi.

In electronics sadness, somehow I managed to erase everything from my iPod before we left, so I couldn’t do language immersion learning by zoning out to Norwegian podcasts during the long flights as I’d hoped. Not exactly tragic, but how on earth did I do that, and how will I make sure I never do that again? Fortunately we had decent movies on the long flight: “Happy Go Lucky,” a diverting but pointless Mike Leigh film (someone please enlighten me if there was a plot) and “Nanny Diaries,” which wasn’t as good as the book but was entertaining enough.

I’m still a little stuck on the Sunday NYT crossword but I’m not ready to give up and seek help from Rex Parker’s blog yet.

How could I have forgotten the wine?

Well, we didn’t–I just forgot to write about it. 

We repeated something fun from last year’s Thanksgiving, was that we had an informal contest to see who could come up with the best wine pairing for the meal. The prize is bragging rights, and the fact that all the dishes were departures from tradition made this year’s contest extra challenging. 
Pretty much everything we had was really good, but one wine did eke out a victory–the Navarro pinot noir that Noel and Ayse brought. David the Violinist brought a wonderful New Zealand sauvignon blanc by Isabel, along with a late harvest sauvignon blanc that we enjoyed with dessert. David the Bassist also went white, with two bottles of Chateau St. Michelle riesling. Victoria and I served two champagnes, one a yummy Scharffenberger and the other an even yummier Dampierre that Katja had given us at last year’s smørgåsbord. We also entered a white table wine from Hagafen called “Don Ernesto’s Collage” and a Tayerle pinot noir. 
They were all good, and most of us agreed that each wine was optimal with a certain dish, but the Navarro pinot noir won as the best overall match for the meal.  

A radical take on Thanksgiving menu traditions

I inherited a gluten intolerance from my mom, which means I’m not supposed to eat bread or anything else made from wheat, rye, oats, barley, or malt. Fortunately, I don’t have celiac disease, the most extreme form of gluten intolerance where consuming gluten slowly destroys your intestines, so when I cheat, the immediate suffering is the only consequence. I am generally willing to cheat if it’s for a good enough reason; the bread Hayes Street Grill served with our pre-opera dinner on Wednesday night, for example. My mom’s Thanksgiving stuffing is another worthy exception, and I probably would have been willing to cheat for it again this year–since Ayse was making dessert, we knew to expect baking miracles, so I knew I was going to be eating some gluten anyway, and she didn’t disappoint us. Still, I decided to make a breadless stuffing.

Let me back up.

We’d decided that this year’s potluck Thanksgiving should have radical takes on all the classic menu items.

Dessert

Starting from the end of the dinner and working backwards, Ayse came up with a brilliant replacement for the traditional pumpkin pie: an amazing peanut butter pound cake baked in the shape of a turkey (who knew that turkey-shaped cake pans even exist?), surrounded by an assortment of cookies, including crunchy-gooey meringues and an absolutely brilliant update of the classic peanut butter with chocolate kiss cookie: peanut butter cookies with integrated Reese’s peanut butter cups! We served this with espressos and lattes. Noel gave me a much-needed refresher lesson in making espresso and got me back on my espresso game.

Potatoes

Instead of mashed potatoes, we had Noel’s scalloped potatoes, which featured a secret. They were incredible, and nobody could guess the secret: he’d deep-fried the thin potato slices before assembling the casserole, which he finished under the broiler. I have no idea what else was in them. Radical and fabulous.

Vegetable

Instead of some traditional gloppy cooked vegetables, David brought a tossed salad with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, microgreens, a classic vinaigrette, and a surprising key ingredient: figs! Wonderful, and the acid/sweet contrast was a welcome palate-cleanser in such a rich meal.

Cranberries

Victoria wouldn’t let Thanksgiving go by without her favorite cranberry sauce, so I did make a batch of cranberries according to what I think of as Mom’s recipe (the one from the back of the bag where you run cranberries and whole oranges through a Cuisinart, then stir in a pile of sugar, a couple slugs of Triple Sec, and a dut of Kirschwasser), except that I had run out of sugar and substituted 1/4 C of Splenda where I was supposed to use 2 C of sugar. That turned out well. The key to working with Splenda seems to be to use about an eighth of the sugar amount–or at least start with that, taste, and increase slowly until you’re satisfied. Remember that anything served cold needs to be a little sweeter than you want it to be while it’s still warm. I couldn’t find my Kirschwasser, so I used some German apple-pear brandy that was right in the front of the liquor cabinet instead, and that added a nice, subtle extra dimension. Serve cold. 

To keep the radical rule, though, I also made the most unconventional cranberry sauce recipe I know of, which is the classic Mama Stamberg recipe that Susan Stamberg has recited on NPR every year since the beginning of NPR. As she admits, it sounds disgusting–cranberries, sour cream, onions, horseradish, and sugar?! in the freezer?!–but it’s actually quite good. Kind of a Jewish chutney, if you will. 

I guess if horseradish is good on a Hillel sandwich (matzoh crackers, the chopped-apples-and-walnuts mixture called charoset, and fresh grated horseradish), why not in cranberry sauce? Our next door neighbor, Jaryn, serves horseradish with just about everything, including her St. Patrick’s Day corned beef, and I have to admit it’s what corned beef has always needed.

Yams

Okay, I broke the rule with the yams and made the same yams I’ve made just about every year since Josie first brought them to my Thanksgiving back in the 90s: they’re her mashup of two different recipes, and my version of them is basically to roast and peel a mess of yams, then pour a mixture of melted butter, orange juice, and bourbon over them, add pinches of your basic sweet spices, and bake. This year I made a slight twist by adding cardamom to my usual choices of cinnamon and mace. However, we did do something a little bit radical when it came to serving them: the pot was really hot, and we were out of room on the table for anything requiring a trivet, so I set them up on the window ledge instead. And there they sat, forgotten, until we were clearing for dessert. Can you believe nobody had yams with Thanksgiving, and nobody noticed they were missing? We all had a token serving as a separate pre-dessert course.

Turkey

I’d tried to talk folks into having a goose instead of a turkey (the ultimate radical menu change!), but everybody insisted we had to have turkey. Victoria especially insisted, and I know better than to disappoint her on something fundamental. 

Our turkey was pretty straight-ahead. It was your basic bargain-basement non-orgasmic cage-raised boringly-fed bird, seventeen pounds, brined since Monday in Emeril Lagasse’s brine (at John Watkins’ suggestion), but with the addition of juniper berries (from Barbara Kafka’s brine). As usual, I followed Barbara Kafka’s instructions for roasting at 500 degrees (actually I set the oven for 450 with the convection fan on) for only two hours. This method puts out a lot of smoke, so we had the hood running pretty much the whole time. It also results in a very darkly-browned skin with some crunchy bits.

Another twist was that this year, instead of attempting to carve the bird the way my dad does, I decided to try the method recommended in a New York Times’ article I’d read the day before, “The Butcher Carves a Turkey,” which was accompanied by a helpful video demonstration. The basic idea is to part the roasted bird off its carcass first, then slice it, and to arrange it all on the platter a certain way that keeps the white and dark meat separated but still looks attractive. I did this for two reasons. One, even though he’s tried to teach me several times, I suck at trying to do it Dad’s way, but I’m pretty good at butchering raw birds, so I figured I’d be better at butchering and then slicing a roasted bird than I’ve ever been at trying to carve the traditional way. Two, I agree with all the points the butcher makes about why it’s a better way. Dad manages to make the traditional way work out really well, but as the butcher points out, the big problem with the traditional way–besides that it’s difficult–is that you end up slicing with the grain of the meat instead of across it.

I’m completely sold. I had the entire thing neatly sliced and plattered in the time it would usually take me to make a mess of half the bird. I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to carve around all the weird shapes; I was just slicing hunks on a board. The slices were coherent and tidy. The light and dark were nicely separated. The platter looked good. I could throw all the weird bits into my gravy pan, which was simmering away while I was slaughtering. We had a platterful of sliced meat to put away after dinner instead of a big, messy carcass. It was easy to pack our guests off with leftovers. Noel had a tidy carcass to take home for making stock, something I won’t be having time for this weekend, since I’m making a mileage run to Frankfurt and back, Saturday-Monday.

However, I would add two tips to the butcher’s instructions: one, wear a full-length apron, not a waist-down one like I did; two, if you have two boning knives, use the one you don’t like to get the chunks off, then use the one you do like to do the slicing. That way, you can save the good knife’s slicing edge for slicing after the dirty work is done by the more expendable knife, and if you’re working one hunk at a time, you simply switch knives instead of having to steel your knife repeatedly.

Gravy

My gravy was only a little off from tradition. I always make a stock from the odd bits of the turkey, celery, onion, and herbs. This year I used the spent herbs from my unstuffing custard (see below), cream and all, along with chicken stock (since our bird had almost nothing on the way of odd bits), onions, garlic, and celery. That simmered away all afternoon. After pouring off the turkey fat from the roasting pan, I deglazed it with the strained stock, then kept tossing in the weird and fatty bits from my carving process as it simmered away on the burner, reducing to about half while I carved, and then straining out the chunks before thickening. As usual, I added several slugs of marsala and a bunch of salt and pepper, then thickened it with a gluten-free cornstarch slurry, and I broke with tradition by adding a dash of Pernod pastis to finish it. I don’t think you could quite taste the pastis’s anise in the gravy, but it did have a more complex flavor. Also, since I’d roasted the bird at 500 degrees, the pan drippings were nearly scorched, resulting in a wicked-dark brown gravy that miraculously didn’t taste burnt.

Stuffing

Which brings me to the main point of this blog post: my “unstuffing custard.” The goal was to make something that would be as satisfying and delicious as my mom’s classic breadcumb stuffing, without the bread or any other gluten. Since I’m better off with low-carb eating, it ideally wouldn’t have carbs at all, but I wasn’t going to be stubborn about that in a meal that’s already hopelessly carby. 

My version of Mom’s stuffing is to make a huge bowl of bread cubes from at least three kinds of bread–usually a dark pumpernickel, white sourdough, and something medium-brownish like a whole-wheat. Saute onions and celery in a lot of butter. Drizzle over the bread cubes. Add salt, pepper, and a ton of crumbled sage leaves–enough to make Dad sneeze, and then a little bit more. Moisten with boiling water, stuff into bird, roast, extricate, and serve with a ton of gravy.

The miracle of Moms’ stuffing is the wonderful, overpowering sage flavor. I figured the key to my unstuffing would be to do something with enough fat to draw out the celery and sage flavors, and I’d need to come up with some kind of base that would have the rich, puddingy texture of a traditional breadcumb stuffing. I thought maybe some kind of savory custard recipe would be the starting point, so I googled a bit and found this one from the New York Times: Baked Savory Custard with Cheese. This looked close to what I was hoping for, so I decided to use it as the skeleton of my new recipe. Since I haven’t made a lot of custards but know that they can be tricky to get right, I also did some reading on the science of custards from both Cookwise and Harold McGee’s latest book. My particular question was whether adding a lot of fat, such as butter or olive oil, would interfere with the thing setting up. I couldn’t find any commentary on that, so I just decided to plunge in. What else is new? I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that it all worked out, and if I say so myself, it was pretty fabulous. So, here’s the recipe that I developed and why I did things the way I did. Most of the measurements are approximations from memory, because I’m really not a measurer, and somehow I seem to get away with that.

Unstuffing Custard

  • 2 C cream
  • several springs fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary
  • almost a whole bunch of sage sprigs
  • 3 large cloves of garlic
  • 4 stalks celery
  • 1/2 stick salted butter
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 C dried shiitakes, rehydrated with boiling water
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1/3 package of cream cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 C finely-grated Emmenthaler, parmesan reggiano, pecorino romano
  • 3 eggs plus 2 yolks

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and put a kettle of water on to boil.

Put all the herb sprigs and the cream in a small saucepan and bringly slowly up to a simmer. The original recipe just wants you to scald the cream, but I wanted to simmer it for a while to extract as much herb flavor as possible, so I let it “simmer” just below a simmer the whole time I was doing everything else. At some point it did start to boil because of my inattention, but I got it off the heat right away and then continued with the sub-simmer simmer. 

Pour boiling water over the dried, sliced shiitake mushrooms to rehydrate them. (Or use fresh.)

Chop the onion and celery into hunks and run them through the Cuisinart, not quite to a puree but close. (It’s about juice, as I’ll explain in a bit.) Melt half a stick of butter in a small saute pan, then add the onion-celery glop and let simmer over medium heat–just high enough that you’re not sweating the vegetables, just low enough that you’re not browning them much, either. Run several large cloves of garlic and a shallot through the Cuisinart and add those to the pan. Add a pinch of cayenne (a few taps-worth from the shaker jar), kosher salt, and freshly ground black telicherry pepper. You want all this to cook gently for quite a while, so that as much juice as possible steams off. I think adding the salt to this part of the recipe also helps with the water-dispersal, but I’m not certain about that. The kitchen scientists warn about the danger of water from vegetables seeping out and making the custard have runny bits, so that’s why I took all these juice-minimizing precautions.

Crack three eggs into a medium casserole (I used a deep souffle dish). The original recipe has you use ramekins, but that didn’t seem right for a Thanksgiving stuffing. Crack two more eggs over the dog’s food dish, separating the whites into her food dish and the yolks into your casserole. The dog also gets the egg shells, and if you’re lucky, she sticks around to clean up any other little messes that arrive on the floor. Back to cooking, lightly beat your share of the eggs.

Strain the shiitake juice into the stockpot that’s going to end up in the gravy (see “Gravy” above). Just about wring those suckers out–get all the extra moisture out, as explained earlier. Buzz the cream cheese up with the shiitakes in the Cuisinart, then stir this mixture into the eggs. I don’t think the cream cheese ended up being very important, especially given the next step, but we had some sitting around, and I wanted to give my custard every chance of setting up. I was worried that all the water in the celery, onion, and mushrooms would make my custard a watery mess, as the scientists had warned, but as it turned out, my custard set up quite well, so I probably could have skipped the cream cheese. 

Grate about 4 cups of semi-hard or hard cheeses. We had a hunk of Emmenthaler, a smaller hunk of parmesan reggiano, and a tiny hunklet of pecorino romano, so that’s what I used. Stir about two-thirds of this into the egg mixture, and reserve the rest.

Slowly stir the sauteed vegetables into the egg mixture. Strain the cream slowly into the egg mixture while stirring constantly. Toss the used herbs into the stockpot, cream-coating and all. (Why not?) I had Victoria pour the cream slowly through a mesh strainer into my mixing bowl, while I was folding the mixture with a silicone scraper. I’m not sure how you’d accomplish this without a Victoria; I suppose you’d have to pre-strain the cream into a convenient pouring container and then pour with one hand while stirring with the other. The key in this step (and the steps above) is that you’re never shocking the eggs with a sudden influx of heat, which would cook and curdle them; instead, you’re first diluting them with all the other cold ingredients, and then you’re slowly stirring in the hot veggies and finally the hot cream.

Place the souffle dish in a somewhat larger pan that’s at least as deep and at least half an inch wider–an inch all the way around would be better still. Fill the larger pan up to the level of the glop in the souffle dish with boiling water. Try not to splash water into the custard as I did, but if you do, use a paper towel to soak it up and out. Baked custards need to bake in a water bath, so that the heat is gentle and consistent, and the custard can set up slowly. Too hot, and you get scrambled eggs in runny slop; too cool, and you get wobbly goop. At least that’s what the kitchen scientists say. I decided not to use the convection fan on my oven, reasoning that it would make the top of the custard cook too quickly.

Bake uncovered until it’s almost done, then scatter the reserved grated cheese over the top and let that melt and brown while the custard finishes. “Done” is defined as the point where most of it has set up, but the center is still a bit wet and wobbly. The center will finish setting up from carryover heat while it rests and cools. The kitchen scientists say to have courage about taking it out before you’re convinced it’s done, because if it cooks any longer, the eggs will curdle and the fluids will weep out and form runny rivulets. Ish kabibble, as my great-gramma would have said. I had mine in about half an hour, plus ten more minutes with the cheese, but apparently the shape of the dish and its bain marie (hot water bath) can both affect cooking time, as well as all the usual variables that affect cooking times for anything you bake. (My ex the chef pointed out that any good pastry chef will tell you the temperature but not the time for baking anything, because you can never count on the time, no matter how much you try to control all the variables. Therefore, the correct time for any baking recipe is always “until it’s done.”)

The original recipe said to serve it warm, at room temperature, or cold a few hours after baking. I made it just before putting the turkey in to roast, so two hours later it wasn’t very warm, and I think stuffing ought to be warm or even hot. So, while the turkey rested, I threw the yams in to bake (about 30 minutes), and I put the custard in for the last fifteen minutes or so, covered, just long enough to warm it through but not long enough to risk more cooking.  

Serve with lots of gravy, just like a real stuffing. 

That’s the recipe, best I can recall. Please leave a comment or email a question if you think I’ve missed something important in there–I might have, and I don’t want to be one of those people who publishes recipes that haven’t been tested and don’t work.

Our guests loved it. We did, too! I think it was a success. The cheeses were a great addition to Mom’s stuffing’s flavor profile, but I think it would have tasted good without the cheese, too, or with about half as much cheese. The catch is, I’m not sure what would happen with the custard if you changed the cheese factor in the recipe; I just don’t have enough experience with custards to guess. If anyone experiments with that, please report your results in the comments!