A Look Back and Forward (Plus a Recipe)

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dear Family, Friends, and Readers,
As we close 2011, I look back on the year with great appreciation that you have found my little corner of the cyberworld. And that you have stuck with me these past eight months, through errors I’ve made in recipes, my sometimes rabble rousing on food issues, and perhaps (I think) one too many soups. I hope you have tried some of my recipes, and I’m always appreciative when someone comes back with a tip or comment. Please know, I, too, learn from your experience as well!

I always get excited with the start of the new year; the landscape seems so open to possibilities. At the end of each year, I sit down and write not necessarily resolutions, but what I call goals on things I’d like to work on in the coming year. Stepping out of my box is what I say, and 2012 will be no different. Along with life goals, I also have goals in the kitchen so, fingers crossed, once a month I will do a recipe I’ve been wanting to try and which will be a challenge; something out of my usual realm. A couple of years ago I did this and had a blast. The first month I made Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon (rich and delicious), the next month a five-course Chinese New Years dinner for four (total success except for one dish!).

So in that same vein, remember the saying, “be careful what you wish for?” One of my wishes this holiday was to have The Essential New York Times Cook Book, by my idol, Amanda Hesser, under the Christmas tree. Santa heard my wish. With more than 1,000 recipes and about 20 pounds (following my surgery, I’m not supposed to be lifting anything more than a milk jug; this is very close to my 20 pound limit; to read, I have to prop it on a pillow!), you won’t be following “Chris and Amanda” this year, but I am going to tackle dozens of these recipes, all except veal and lamb. Chapter One is “Drinks, Cocktails, Punches, and Glogg,” so this can’t be anything but fun! I am making a pledge, though, to be faithful and follow the recipes to a T, none of my usual straying. Stay tuned, I’m sure you’ll see some recipes from this cookbook in 2012!

And so ends another year. Again, my heartfelt thank you for everything this past year. And for a little something extra, enjoy the recipe for Tortiere. This French Canadian holiday meat pie is a New England staple, Vermont and New Hampshire in particular, at tables this time of year. I take no credit for this pie; I asked my friend, Kathie Glasserman, for her mom’s recipe. This is authentic, really delicious (it got lots of compliments!), and extremely easy. Listen or read the story on National Public Radio that they did on Tortiere last Friday if you are interested. Serendipity, I was making my pies when the story was on!

Enjoy and Happy New Year!

Tortiere (a la Mom Burke)  
If you are pressed for time, you can do this in two steps like I did; make the mashed potatoes the night before, and the pies the next day. And also, this is easy to double, which I did.

3-4 large potatoes
1 small onion, diced
½ pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
1 ½ cups water
Ground sage, cinnamon, and/or cloves, to taste
Pie crust, two, for top and bottom

1. Wash and peel the potatoes. Cook them up as you would if you were making mashed potatoes. Place in a large bowl, mash, adding nothing, and set aside.
2. Heat a little bit of oil in a large skillet and add the onion when warm. Add the water, then meat. Make sure there is enough water to cover the meat. Bring the meat mixture to a boil. Cook 20 minutes or until the water is mostly absorbed. Add the mashed potatoes and stir. Add the seasonings, plus salt and pepper, to the taste you like. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have any ground sage, so I made it with just cinnamon and cloves and it was delicious.)
3. Add to the prepared pie crust, place the top crust, and add some vents to allow the steam to rise. Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees, lower the temperature to 350 and bake for 40 minutes.

Cook’s note: I made these Friday evening, baked them, then had them in the fridge for a couple of days. Heated at 300 for about 30 minutes on Christmas day, they were perfect. You can also freeze, then bake.

Eat More Kale!

You may have heard about the fight with Vermont artist, Bo Muller-Moore, who is being sued by the fast-food company Chick-fil-A over his phrase, “Eat More Kale,” which is similar to their slogan, “Eat mor chiken.” (Don’t even get me started on the non-sensical, incorrect grammar of that slogan. Apparently cows wrote it. Seriously.)

I’ll be honest, I’ve seen the Eat More Kale bumper stickers for years and thought it was a band. Anyways, kale is one of those “miracle greens” in my opinion. I always feel healthy after I eat it, although I’ll admit sometimes it can be incredibly bitter. But if you pick that just right bunch, it can be wonderful and sweet.

The other night, I pulled out some local kale and cooked it up to serve with some cod and brown rice. It was perfect.  It even got a thumb’s up from the picky kale eater in the house!

Sauteed Kale with Garlic
This recipe is one you can substitute any dark green: Swiss Chard, beet greens, even spinach. Even if the greens are looking a bit sad, you can still follow this and they will be tasty. It can be served as a side dish, or if you prefer, mix it with some pasta, mashed potatoes, or even some chicken or other protein. It’s very versatile, so adding it to anything you decide will be delicious!

1 bunch dark leafy green (kale, chard, beet greens), chopped into bite-size pieces
Some good olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
Crushed red pepper
Squirt of lemon or vinegar
Salt and pepper

In a wide pan, saute the garlic in olive oil. When they are just the hintest of blond, add the greens. It’s helpful if you’ve just washed these, don’t worry about the extra water. This may also take two steps, depending on the size of your bunch of greens. With a spatula or tongs, move the greens around in the pan, until they start to “melt.” Add the rest of the greens, if necessary. Add a little bit of water to the greens, about a quarter cup, cover, and cook at low heat for about ten minutes or so. (You can even leave them longer, if you like. Nothing will go wrong with cooking them even longer, unless you are using spinach, which is more tender and cooks more quickly.) By the time you come back, the large bunch of greens will now be reduced considerably. Add crushed red pepper and/or additional olive oil to taste, if desired, and a squirt or two of lemon juice. Salt, pepper, and serve!

“Food” for Thought

I thought I would share this little tidbit that was published the latest newsletter from my co-op. Despite my love of cooking, it is not beneath me to buy a frozen meal for lunch or the occasional frozen pizza when I’m home alone for dinner (this is one of my indulgences).

Eat Food
These days this is easier said than done, especially when seventeen thousand new products show up in the supermarket each year, all vying for your food dollar. But most of these items don’t deserve to be called food–I call then edible food-like substances. They’re highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted. Today, much of the challenge of eating well comes down to choosing real food and avoiding these industrial novelties.
Michael Pollan, Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual

Finally . . .

I wish everyone the happiest of holidays with you and your families! 


Back in the Kitchen Again: It’s Christmas!

Good morning, dear readers, it’s time for true confessions and some recipes. In June I was diagnosed with gallstones, and by October, this had developed into gallbladder disease. For weeks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were bland, innocuous foods as to not upset the tummy. A couple of days before Thanksgiving I had surgery, and since that time, my life, especially the cooking life I adore, has slowly returned to normal. You know I’m not feeling well when my Thanksgiving cooking magazines come in the mail and by the holiday, I still haven’t cracked the spine!

I remember reading an op-ed piece in the New York Times a week or two after 9-11 that has stuck with me these ten years. The theme was what it meant to get back into the kitchen and cooking again; having your life go back to “normal.” For me, six days after surgery, I slowly crept back in the kitchen and made a hearty soup. Each day, I cooked more and more, walking a little farther and a little faster, each making me stronger both physically and emotionally. Being unable to enjoy food and its preparation was an interesting “life course” for me, yet one I would prefer not to take again.

So I knew I was really feeling better when I decided to make Christmas cookies for my co-workers last weekend. I’ve taken a hiatus from making cookies for several years; it seems like every where I turn there are sweets, so I figured why add to the mix and waistline? But after looking over a cookie catalog, I knew my Christmas cookies were better than anything made in a factory, so I thought it was time to share, just two batches. With Christmas music in the background, the stove on, mixer in hand, the kitchen was humming again. It’s good to be back.

Butter Balls
This is a family recipe that everyone in my family has made at one point or another. The original recipe calls them Butter Fingers, but to be easy, we always formed them into balls, hence their “new” name. A Christmas didn’t go by growing up that we didn’t have these in the house. Butter, flour, and nuts, you can’t really go wrong. I recommend a nice cup of coffee with a cookie or two. They are moist and yummy! Like all “older” recipes, the directions are sparse!

Butter Balls
14 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 Tablespoons confectioner sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup ground nuts (I usually use walnuts, but pecans are good, too)
2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 teaspoon water, mixed
Confectioner sugar for rolling

Mix all ingredients together and shape with hands. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Watch to make sure they don’t get too brown. When cool, roll in confectioner sugar when cool.

Sugar Cookies
When I was growing up, every December we would receive a tin of homemade cookies from my Czechoslovakian great-grandmother. Of the variety of probably seven or eight different kinds of cookies (which she made well into her 90s!), one of my favorites were the sugar cookies. These cookies weren’t like other sugar cookies, these were soft and moist instead of crispy and crunchy.

I was at a Greek food festival earlier in the year and when I was waiting to have dinner, I perused the sweets table and bought a small package of sugar cookies. They were EXACTLY like Grandma’s! Regrettably, the baker had left by then, so I consulted a cookbook I have, Cherished Czech Recipes, and found one that is close to it. I bought two bags of cookies that afternoon, finishing them up the next morning. When I decided to make cookies this year, I wanted to try a recipe similar to Grandma’s. Upon eating these, they don’t taste exactly like them, but they are close substitute!

Czechoslovakian Christmas Sugar Cookies
From Cherished Czech Recipes, collected by Pat Martin, Penfield Books

1 cup sugar
½ cup butter
½ cup lard (I used all butter)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
½ cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups flour
2 eggs
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla or grated rind of orange or lemon (I used vanilla)

Cream sugar, butter, and lard. Dissolve baking powder in buttermilk; add to creamed mixture. Stir in flour, eggs, salt, and flavoring. Roll out thin on lightly floured board and sprinkle generously with sugar. (Note: I decorated with red and green sugar after they were cut into shapes and on the cookie sheet.) Cut the cookies into different shapes with cookie cutters. Bake at 350 degrees until slightly colored.

Cook’s note: It might be easier to before rolling out the dough if you pop it in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes. I had a hard time with it being sticky, since it was quite warm in the kitchen.

The Wonders of Miso

When a friend and reader asked me to do a post on miso paste, I happily obliged; miso was on my grocery list and miso soup was on this week’s menu!

Miso paste is used in Asian cooking that is made from rice and/or soy and can be used as the base for soups and dressings. A 13 ounce tub can be on the pricey side, I paid a little more than $6, but I buy a tub one about every two years, so you never have to worry about it going bad. It adds a nice nutty flavor to whatever you are cooking. It is fairly salty, so be sure to taste before adding any additional salt. You can buy it in white or brown rice; I usually buy white or yellow, but this time I bought brown, since the only difference on the label was a lower sodium content.

I used miso in my recipe for Asian Chicken Salad, found here. It adds a really nice flavor to the chicken, pasta, ginger, and scallions.

Another recipe I make with it is salad dressing. Many a summer evening when we’re starving and need to eat NOW, I place some cooked steak or chicken on top of some greens with tomatoes and scallions, and whisk up the dressing to put on top. Mince some garlic and place in a bowl, add about a teaspoon of miso paste, and the juice of a lemon until it is thin. Add freshly grated pepper and taste test to make sure the flavors are all balanced. Serve and eat!

But of course, the most popular way to use miso is to make soup. Here is a recipe given to me by a co-worker years ago. It’s always been my go-to recipe when I’m in the mood for this soup. This recipe is incredibly inexpensive, flexible,  and forgiving; I usually mince my ginger, and frequently leave out the seaweed. You can add other veggies if you want or leave out the veggies and just add onion and tofu. Or leave out the tofu completely and just have veggies. Any way you make it, it’s going to be delicious and warm on a cold December’s day! And this is the last soup recipe, at least for a couple of weeks!

Miso Soup
Place two or three strips of wakame (or other kind of seaweed) in very hot water to soak. Gently simmer 6 cups of water and two tablespoons of tamari (soy sauce can be substituted. Use gluten-free tamari if needed). Add 1 carrot julienned (you can cut baby carrots into fourths), 1 teaspoon of grated fresh ginger, and 1 cup thinly sliced onion. Add diced tofu, if desired. Drain wakame, chop, and add to broth. Gently simmer for 30 minutes.

Using two tablespoons of miso, make a paste with a small portion of the broth. Add the paste to the soup and stir. Continue to simmer gently for a few more moments. Added touches: chopped fresh scallions, roasted sesame seeds just before serving.

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Any of you who have read the page about my favorite cooks know I adore Mark Bittman. So imagine my surprise when I read he was in Vermont on Black Friday! He was in Burlington with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at the Intervale, a community supported farm. He writes about his experience here. A dream of mine is to cook for Mr. Bittman, so maybe next time he’s in town, he can come south about 30 minutes!