Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Yams or sweet potatoes?

Every Thanksgiving, my family has a discussion, no a debate, over one of my favorite vegetables. Are they sweet potatoes or yams?

Everyone wants to weigh in on the question, but no one has done research on the topic. Part of the problem comes from the grocery store labels, which aren’t always accurate and are often confusing. If you resort to canned vegetables, the Bruce’s label reads “Candied YAMS” in large type, followed by “Cut Sweet Potatoes” in much smaller print. Is it any wonder that what begins with curiosity ends in near tears as my family argues over what we should call the dang things?

So this year, I decided to do my homework. Several internet sources all say the same thing. Sweet potatoes can be yellow or orange. They are tapered at both ends, and they are smaller than true yams. What most of us are eating along with our turkey and stuffing are sweet potatoes, no matter what your grandmother may have called them. So why do we call the orange cousins yams? That has been traditional since colonial times, and the USDA has labeled them yams to avoid confusion.

True yams are completely unrelated to the sweet potato. They are native to Africa and Asia and have a black outer bark-like skin and can grow to over 5 feet in length. While both sweet potatoes and yams are tubers, they have a different taste and consistency. True yams are prepared as a sort of porridge, not fried, baked, or candied. The word “yam” itself tells us about this tuber’s history and importance.  “Yam” comes from an African word that means, “to eat.” For many in Africa, the yam is a main food source, important both because of its size but also because it can be stored for a long period of times, ensuring that the people who depend on it will have something to eat during the rainy season.

So next Thursday when my family begins the debate, I can safely tell them that the yellow tubers that my mother fries are definitely sweet potatoes, and that the orange tubers that my daughter likes baked and topped with marshmallows are called yams by the USDA. But if we want to get picky, we should call them both sweet potatoes.

And a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Crepes, part three (the honeymoon)

As much as I love savory crepes, I never paid much attention to sweet crepes until I got married. We travelled to Quebec for our honeymoon, a wonderfully romantic destination. Back in 1982, almost every street had at least one creperie. In the first creperie we visited, the cooking was the show. We watched the chef pour batter on a huge flat griddle where he quickly shaped it into a diaphanous 18-inch disc, topped it with an amazing assortment of fillings, then carefully enclosed the whole thing into a neat envelope that he deposited on a waiting plate. 

The dilemma was choosing just which kind of crepe from the three-page menu. Gary quickly opted for ham and swiss. I debated between traditional (that is, crepes with which I was familiar) or exotic. After much hemming and hawing, I closed my eyes and stabbed at the menu. My choice was an apple-cheddar crepe. I almost, almost decided to reconsider, but it was our honeymoon, and it was time to throw caution to the wind.

Once our order was placed, we continued to watch the chef perform his magic and waited for our crepes to hit the griddle. The aroma of the batter, augmented by the hunger that goes with a day of sightseeing, almost drove us crazy, but eventually it was our turn. When the waiter put our dinners in front of us, we hesitated because they looked too perfect to eat. The exterior was uniformly golden and crisp, extending over the edges of the huge plates. Mine was sprinkled with powdered sugar, Gary's with a sprig of parsley. After a moment's hesitation, we both dug in.

Gary's crepes were good, but mine were out of this world. The cheddar had the perfect degree of sharpness to complement the apples that were tender but still held their shape. The cheese had melted into both the crepe and the cinnamon-scented sauce. 

Most home kitchens aren't equipped with a griddle like the one we saw in Quebec, but it is possible to create an acceptable substitute with a 12-inch non-stick pan. Just make sure that the pan is hot enough that a few drops of water sprinkled on its surface dance before you begin. You might even want to consider offering the first crepe to the kitchen gods so that each one you serve will have that wonderful golden crust that I fell in love with on my honeymoon.

Here is the recipe. If you keep a few staples on hand, you can have dinner on the table in no time. I like to serve these as I make them to preserve the texture of the crepes, but you can also put them in a low (250 degree) oven until you've made enough for your family.

Apple-Cheddar Crepes
1 batch of crepe batter (allow to stand for at least 30 minutes)
1 can of apple pie filling (yep, you read that right!)
cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to taste (I usually go heavy on the cinnamon, shave a nutmeg across a grater a couple of times, and sprinkle a teeny bit of cloves into the apples, but it is not a precise science.)
2-3 cups shredded cheddar cheese (don't skimp on the cheese)
confectioner's sugar (optional, but a nice touch)

Heat the apple pie filling and spices over low heat. Heat a 12-inch non-stick skillet until a few drops of water dance on the surface. I use the same pan for melting the butter for the crepe batter, and I put it in the oven (the oven is turned off!) while I wait so our cats don't lick it.

Pour 1/3 cup of crepe batter into the hot pan, and tilt until the batter covers the bottom of the pan. After about 30 seconds, sprinkle with about 1/2 cup grated cheese and let melt. Add about 1/2 cup of apples to one end of the crepe (the end closest to the handle to make it easier to roll). When you can see the edge of the crepe turning golden brown, pick up the pan and tilt it away from you toward a dinner plate, if serving immediately, or onto a large platter, if you are going to wait until all the crepes are complete before serving. Use a heat-proof spatula to start folding the crepe over the filling. Roll the filled crepe toward the opposite edge of the pan and deposit the crepe onto the plate. Repeat with remaining ingredients. I serve two per person. Use the spatula to neaten up the edges, then dust with confectioner's sugar, if desired.

One batch of crepe batter and one can of apple pie filling is enough to make 6 or 8 crepes. If you have leftover batter, use it to make smaller crepes. I use the same pan, only I swirl the batter into a smaller circle. I use these to put into chicken broth or to fill with other ingredients. Think Nutella and bananas. Use your imagination!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Crepes, part two

So, did you try to make crepes? I sure hope so!  The recipe should make about a dozen crepes, enough to serve four nicely for one meal, or to make a couple of different versions if you only have a couple of people in the house.

Over the past week, I made manicotti and crepes in brodo, two very different presentations. Manicotti are perhaps the lightest of all pasta dishes, mainly because of the crepes. You can fill the crepes and top them with sauce a couple of days in advance if you are serving them for a fancy dinner or if you have a crazy week coming up but still want a home-cooked meal. 

You will notice that I added spinach to the cheese mixture. I like the contrast of colors and the nod to the Italian flag, but you may leave it out or substitute another cooked green leafy vegetable. Think swiss chard or kale. Another good substitution is a generous handful of chopped parsley. I like to sneak in an extra serving of vegetables wherever I can.

Note: This recipe doubles or even triples easily, which makes it especially nice for hosting a crowd. When I'm serving this for my extended family, which can easily include 20 people, I'll make a big batch of crepe batter and cook them all the day before I assemble the trays of manicotti. 

to serve 4 as a main course or 6 as an appetizer

2 cups (one pound, a small container) ricotta cheese (I like Maggio's whole milk ricotta)
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
2 eggs
1/2 cup finely chopped cooked spinach, cooled
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese (I prefer pecorino romano to parmesan)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce
1 recipe of crepes (a dozen)
additional pecorino romano and mozzarella cheese (optional)

Combine the first five ingredients well. Season with salt and pepper. Put about 3/4 cups of tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Put about 1/3 cup of the cheese mixture in a row across the first crepe, about an inch from the bottom. Roll crepe and place it in the dish. To arrange them, plan on making two rows of six crepes each, so you will place the first one with the long end along the 13-inch side of the pan. Repeat with remaining crepes (five more in this row, then begin another row of 6 along the 13-inch side). Top with remaining tomato sauce. If you like, you can grate more pecorino romano cheese on top before putting the casserole dish in the oven. Bake in an oven preheated to 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly. Remove from oven, add optional additional mozzarella cheese (enough to cover nicely), and return to oven until the cheese in melted. Wait a few minutes after removing from oven before plating to make the manicotti easier to serve. 

Next time, I'll give you a very different crepe recipe, one that I found when we were on our honeymoon in Quebec.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Crepes, part one

Crepes sound exotic, sophisticated, elegant. In reality they are easy peasy. In the past week, I visited two different restaurants that featured scripelli in brodo, one of my favorite ways to use any leftover crepe batter and a satisfying first course. Crepes form the base for classic manicotti. Of course, crepes can be filled with sweetened whipped cream and topped with macerated fruit. My point? Crepes can appear as an appetizer, an entree or a dessert. They can also serve as breakfast, lunch or dinner. Talk about versatile!

Crepe batter is easy to make, and the ingredients are staples: eggs, salt, flour, milk, and butter. If you make the batter in the morning before you head out the door and stash it in the refrigerator, it will be rested and ready for your dining pleasure.

Recipe for basic crepes:
2 eggs
pinch salt
1 cup flour
generous cup of milk
1 Tablespoon melted butter (I melt the butter in my crepe pan and stash the pan in the oven until I'm ready to make the crepes so it is ready to go.)

Whisk the eggs with the salt until yolk and white are well blended. Add about half the flour and whisk until smooth, then whisk in half the milk. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. When the batter is lump free, add the butter. Let the batter rest for at least one hour.

Heat a 10-inch non-stick pan over medium high heat until a drop of water dances on the surface. Add a quarter cup of batter to the center, and swirl until it covers the bottom of the pan. Watch for the batter to dry, then flip over (I use a butter knife and my immaculately clean fingers to swiftly do this). It should take less than two minutes for the first side to cook. Cook on the second side for another 30-45 seconds. Transfer the finished crepe to a dinner plate. Repeat.

Look for the next installment for ideas to use your crepes!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

August in the garden

We made our weekly visit to the Growers Market in West Chester this morning. The air was cooler than it was last week, but not quite cool enough for a sweater. The farmers are still selling tomatoes and peaches and corn, peppers and onions and eggplants, cucumbers and melons and plums. It's too early for fall crops, but I did notice some cabbage sneaking into the stalls.

Tonight for dinner, I'm looking forward pan-seared scallops with a salad of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. We can dine alfresco, with a glass of crisp white wine. We can listen to the cicadas chirping and watch the fireflies. Maybe we'll see a few woodpeckers at the bird feeder next to the deck.

We are in the second half of August, so summer is coming to a close. We will certainly have more sweltering days here in the Philadelphia suburbs, but the nights will be cool enough to sleep with windows open under a blanket.

It's a melancholy time. Summer is about youth, but fall is middle-aged. It's easy to forget the calendar in the dog days. The shorter days remind me of my mortality.

But we still have a month of summer. To end tonight's meal, I'm going to make a peach gallette, easier than a pie but just as tasty. We should enjoy the time we have, after all.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Make a wish!

What does a mother do when her little girl who lives in St. Thomas visits for a week? If that mother happens to be part Italian, she cooks. This mother was disappointed that she only had a limited opportunity to coddle her little girl, but thrilled when she made a request.

It was her last night at home, and some of her friends were going to stop by. I had already made pizza and fried dough boys. I had already made manicotti. This time, she wanted pulled pork sandwiches.

Ordinarily, pulled pork requires at least two days, a full 24 hour session with a spicy rub to let it really seep into the muscle of the meat, then a long, slow cooking period, then an hour's rest before finally pulling the pork into shreds and simmering it in a light gravy. Instead, I had six hours to shop, cook, and prepare. I wasn't sure of the results of hurrying the process, but I had to give it a go. After all, she asked.

I found an 8-pound shoulder roast that had a generous coating of fat. I sprinkled it generously with garlic powder, hot paprika, fresh-ground pepper, and salt. I added a few shakes of cayenne pepper for oomph. I coaxed slivers of fresh garlic into slits all over the roast, and I browned all sides.

I crossed my fingers, set the oven to 350 degrees, and put the roast in a large Dutch oven. Before I put on the lid, I added three big sprigs of fresh rosemary and a dash of white wine. After an hour, I adjusted the oven temperature to 325 degrees. The aroma of garlic and rosemary filled the house. After another two hours, the fat on the top was golden brown and the meat was falling off the bone. After it sat for 15 minutes, the meat all but pulled itself into shreds. I strained the jus that was left in the Dutch oven, added another splash of white wine to deglaze the pan, then returned the jus and the pork and let it come to a slow simmer. It was tender and tasty.

Now I know I can make a family favorite in an afternoon.

Original Recipe
This is the rub recipe that I always use. My father asked the man who made pulled pork at his favorite grocery store for his secret recipe. After a little coaxing, the man shared it with my dad.
1 Tablespoon garlic salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon salt
1 Tablespoon fresh ground pepper
Cayenne pepper to taste

Pulled Pork
6-8 pound roast pork (preferably with the bone and from the shoulder--the loin is too lean for this dish)
1 recipe of the rub
1 head garlic
1 cup white wine (divided)
several sprigs fresh rosemary
canned beef broth (optional)

Rub the roast with the spice mixture. Sliver 4-5 cloves of garlic, and insert it into the meat with a sharp paring knife--cut into the roast with the knife, then use the knife as a lever to push the garlic into the roast. Place in a shallow bowl and refrigerate 12-24 hours.

About 8 hours before you want to serve the pork, remove it from the refrigerator. Heat a large skillet (do not add oil) over medium high heat for about 5 minutes, then put in the roast, fat side down. Allow to brown undisturbed for 5-8 minutes. To see if it is brown enough, see if the roast turns easily. If not, continue browning. Repeat on all sides.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Yes, that is an EXTREMELY slow oven, but it works best. Remove the browned roast to a Dutch oven large enough to hold it comfortably. Deglaze the pan you used to brown the meat with 1/2 cup white wine. Add the wine to the Dutch oven along with several sprigs of fresh rosemary and the remaining cloves of garlic (peel them first). Cover the pot and put into the oven. Don't open the oven door for the next 4 hours. Patience is a virtue!

During the 4 hours, the house will begin to smell wonderful and you can go about your business. After four hours, you can peak at the roast. If it looks golden brown and if there is a lot of juice, you can pull it from the oven, take the roast from the pan, and let it sit. If it isn't brown and falling apart, let it continue to cook for another hour. If the pan is dry, add more white wine.

After the meat is sufficiently cooked, let it rest for at least 15 minutes, then pull the meat into shreds, removing fat and bone. Strain the liquid left in the pan, and reserve. Deglaze with remaining white wine. Return the shredded pork and the reserved liquid to the Dutch oven. Allow to simmer until warm.  It can simmer longer if you are waiting for late arrivals, and it can be made a day in advance. If it is too dry, add beef broth.

Serve in crusty rolls with horseradish.  An 8-pound roast serves 12 people generously.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tea Time

The clink of ice in a tall glass of tea is one of the most welcome sounds of summer. It brings back memories of sitting on the glider on the front porch and watching the cars go by on Lincoln Highway, memories of listening to my parents’ friends chatting around the kitchen table, memories of playing endless games of Monopoly with my brothers in the cool basement.

My mother did not make instant tea or buy tea already made and sweetened. She boiled a big pot of water, steeped bags of tea while it was still hot, added a generous mountain of sugar, and then put it in the refrigerator to cool. We had no icemaker then, so she poured water into aluminum ice-cube trays. Does anyone remember carefully transporting the trays into the freezer to avoid spilling water? Back then it made a huge difference because the freezer had to be defrosted when ice built up. When the cubes were hard, Mom pulled the lever to release them—and what a horrid sound that made, like fingernails on a chalkboard. She tipped the cubes into an ice bucket and deposited two in a glass before pouring the chilled tea over them.

Iced tea was more special then, perhaps because it took more time to make and more effort to give it a frosty chill. Maybe that’s why the memories of iced tea from my childhood are so vivid and special.

Now that summer is here, there is always a pitcher of iced tea in my refrigerator. This month’s BonAppĂ©tit has a recipe for making tea without boiling water and another for a peach syrup to flavor it. You really should check it out.

Here’s my version of this summer staple:
 Linda’s Ten-Minute Iced Tea
2 cups water
5 bags of black tea
generous handful of mint leaves
¼ cup sugar
Additional water
Put two cups of water, tea, and mint leaves into a 4-cup glass measuring container. Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Remove from microwave and let sit for 5 minutes to brew. Put sugar into a half-gallon Tupperware pitcher (or other heatproof container). Strain the steeped tea into the pitcher and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add about 3 cups of ice cubes to the container and continue to stir. Fill container with water. Serve.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

April showers bring May flowers—and vegetables!

Last week brought the return of my favorite farmers and artisans to the local farm market. Beautiful spring weather brought out familiar faces that I’ve missed over the winter, even if I don’t have names to go with the faces. At the East Goshen Farmers Market, I was spoiled for choice, both for spring crops and for Mother’s Day presents. Asparagus, kale, leeks, green onions, new potatoes, arugula, lettuces provided inspiration for several banquets. Chocolates and cakes and cookies and waffles and bread satisfied everyone's hunger for sweets and starches. Dog lovers could indulge their favorite pooch with treats or immortalize a pampered pet with a custom portrait. There was even a stand with hand-sewn aprons, potholders and bags.

Grandmom Ancone
While I look forward to going to the market, my great grandmother depended on her own resources to supply her family with produce. The season’s bounty was that much fresher because it came straight from the garden. Grandmom would gather her harvest in her apron and tote it into the kitchen where she would perform her alchemy. The first sign of spring in our house were the fresh greens. She would forage for the first tender dandelions and for broccoli rabe, and her garden produced tiny, tender leaves of spring lettuce long before they became a gourmet specialty. Baby onions were turned into an omelet within hours of being plucked from her garden. The eggs came from her own hens. We nibbled on fresh peas as we shelled them, but she would save enough to add them at the last minute to her veal stew.

My mother continues the tradition of her grandmother-in-law, and she plants a kitchen garden, but much of her harvest goes to the deer that live on her property. She enjoys gardening, though, and doesn’t begrudge the animals their share.

I only dabble. I have a collection of fresh herbs growing in pots on the deck and one lonely tomato plant surrounded by garden lettuce that I look forward to harvesting soon and dressing lightly with my great-grandmother’s vinaigrette. She would drizzle olive oil over the leaves, toss, add a splash of vinegar made from homemade wine and a generous pinch of salt, toss again, and taste and adjust until it tasted right. 

My only change is that I put the dressing ingredients in the bottom of a bowl that I’ve rubbed with the cut end of a clove of garlic. Oh, and I add a dollop of Dijon mustard, which helps emulsify the vinegar and olive oil. You can get fancy and mash in an anchovy or two, or you can add a handful of fresh herbs, or you can substitute balsamic vinegar or lemon juice for the red wine vinegar. Use a fruity olive oil, or experiment with the various nut oils, but don't substitute vegetable oil. Olive oils are heart healthy, and a tablespoon will dress enough lettuce for two to four people. The loss of flavor isn't worth any caloric savings! 

If you feel a need to measure, the ratio of vinegar to olive oil is 1:2 (1 tablespoon vinegar to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, for example). Three tablespoons of dressing is enough to dress a huge salad--you don't want to drown those tender lettuce leaves!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Fairy tales, myths, and chicken stock


Whoever first conceived the notion of a bouillon cube must have been a true charlatan, a charlatan who deprived generations of home cooks of the delight of transforming simple ingredients into liquid gold. In their original conception, bouillon cubes were called portable soups and made from dehydrated vegetables and fat. Now they are made commercially and contain 1200 mg of sodium in a single cube.

Here it is, a rainy spring day, damp and chill, yet my kitchen is warm and cozy because I’m making chicken stock. I’ve always loved the story of stone soup, and this morning life imitated art. When I opened the refrigerator, the meaty carcass of last week’s chicken almost fell into my hands. I pulled out my stockpot, tossed in the carcass, and covered it with water.

While I waited for the water to come to a boil, I found carrot and celery sticks from last night’s cruditĂ© platter, the au jus from the original roast that I hadn’t bothered to turn into gravy, and three lonely cloves of garlic. Each of these items alone could have been discarded easily, but they all were welcomed into the pot.

At this point, I could have left well enough alone. The soup would be fine as is, but I do like to gild the lily. A yellow onion studded with cloves (from Penzy’s, of course), a few whole black peppercorns (also from Penzy’s), a sprinkle of sea salt all joined the bubbling jumble in the pot. In the crisper, I saw the green leaves that topped the organic celery, the part that many home cooks toss without thinking, but today they, too, were added to the soup.

In an hour or two, I’ll strain the liquid and refrigerate it. Tonight we’ll have chicken rice soup, and there will be golden stock left over to use later in the week, in recipes that call for a bouillon cube.

Maybe this is more the story of Rumpelstiltskin, of spinning worthless straw into gold. But the funny little man in that tale didn’t tell how he made the transformation. Instead he used his secret to blackmail the queen. There is no secret to making a pot of soup, not even a real recipe. Use what you find in your refrigerator and you’ll find that you, too, can turn leftovers into something even better than gold—because you can’t eat gold. Ask Midas. But that’s another story.