A Memorial Spread

June 29th, 2020

I just realized that I haven’t posted anything here this month … so here is a quick recipe from my next cookbook, Pot Luck. The book will share essays and recipes I have created over many years, as well as a few new recipes (because I keep coming up with new ideas!).

This particular recipe is new to me, but it goes with an older story. It was inspired by my late neighbor Harrison Parker. Harry was a larger-then-life figure with a heart of gold and a wealth of arcane knowledge at his fingertips. He was the official historian of my town, Hawley, Massachusetts, and he was active in local politics. He died 20 years ago, but he was so famous in our county that people still ask me whether I knew him.

My book includes an essay I wrote after his death that highlights many of his contributions to our community and to our immediate neighborhood. It also mentions one of Harry’s less endearing habits (one to which all of his neighbors were accustomed!).

Harrison was inclined to show up at our houses just as we were sitting down to cocktails in the evening. He would happily sit down, request a drink, and share the news of the day. He almost always stayed through dinner.

Harry didn’t want to take complete advantage of his hosts so he frequently brought a small appetizer as an offering … either a chunk of cheese or a tin of smoked oysters. He loved to construct little cocktail sandwiches of crackers, cheese, and oysters.

His sandwiches aren’t really a recipe … so a couple of weeks ago I created a smoked oyster spread in his honor. I’m sure Harry would have loved this spread if he had had a chance to taste it!

I made this recipe for my friends at Mass Appeal. See video below!

Smoked Oyster Spread à la Harry

Ingredients:

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese at room temperature (leave it out for at least a couple of hours so it really softens)
1 can (3 ounces) smoked oysters, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 pinch cayenne pepper
a bit of the oil in which the oysters are packed
1 tablespoon chopped chives

Instructions:

Place the cream cheese in a bowl, and mash it well. Add the other ingredients in order. Serve with celery or buttery crackers. Makes about 1 cup.

Making a spread is serious business! Thanks to Peter Beck for taking the photos for this post.

Art Week at Home: A Divine Dip

May 10th, 2020
I’m not really cross-eyed, but this was a selfie, and I was trying to keep both eyes on the camera. Sigh….

I was scheduled to teach a hands-on cooking workshop today for Art Week, a culture-filled annual event here in Massachusetts. Obviously, no one will be coming to my home to cook and tell stories this afternoon, but I’m sharing one of the recipes we were planning to make as part of Art Week at Home.

I wish I could do the cooking online, but the internet here is weak. So please just pretend that you’re with me, singing and cooking and telling stories around my great-grandmother’s old oval table. I’m going to walk you through one of the recipes I planned to make today.

In this crazy time, I am grateful every day for the natural beauty around me. Each time my dog Cocoa and I walk down the road, it seems to me that we observe a new sign of spring … another flower in bloom, another tree starting to bud, another tuft of grass springing up greener than the one before it.

We actually had a little snow yesterday, but it has fortunately departed, leaving everything even greener than before.

The color green is my theme these days. It’s a color of hope and renewal. It’s a theme indoors as well as out. Spinach is coming into season, bringing with it vitamins and minerals and that gorgeous deep color.

I eat spinach and cook with it a lot … in quiches, in quick sautés, in salads, in scrambled eggs. Like the cartoon character Popeye, I feel “strong to da finich ‘cause I eats me spinach.”

A few years back, I devised an onion-dip recipe loosely based on my mother’s formula for French onion soup. I love commercial dips and dip mixes, but I feel a little queasy when I read some of the ingredients on their labels. I don’t like to put foods in my body that I can’t pronounce.

My dip contained only normal foods. And caramelizing the onions for it made my house smell delicious.

With spinach on my mind, I recently decided to add a little spinach to the onion dip. The addition was a success. The spinach adds vitamins, a hint of flavor, and a lovely green color.

The recipe takes a while, between caramelizing the onions and letting the dip’s flavors meld in the refrigerator. Most of this time isn’t hands on, however, so you’ll have plenty of leisure to do other things while you’re cooking. Just make sure to keep your nose active while you’re caramelizing the onions.

Make the dip early in the day, and honor your mother with it by evening. My mother isn’t with me anymore, but I love to remember her on Mother’s Day. Making a dip inspired by one of her recipes gives my family a delicious way in which to enjoy the memories.

My Mother in 1968


Spinach and Sweet Onion Dip

If you happen to have fresh parsley and/or dill in the house, you may add sprigs of them before blending the dip at the end.

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, cut into thin slices, with each slice cut in half (sweet onions are best, but any onion will do in a pinch)
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 generous splash dry sherry
3 cups fresh spinach leaves
salt and pepper to taste (start with 1 teaspoon sea salt and three grinds of the pepper mill)
1-1/2 cups sour cream (half of this could be Greek yogurt if you want to be healthier, and if your onions are really huge you may increase the amount to 2 cups)

Instructions:

Combine the butter and olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. When the butter melts stir in the onion slices. Cook them slowly over low to medium-low heat, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes or so, until they are reduced and turn a lovely golden brown. This will take at least 1/2 hour and may take as long as an hour; they will be ready when they are ready. Add a little water from time to time if burning seems likely.

When the onions are almost ready stir in the mustard, and continue to cook, stirring, for at least 5 minutes. Add the sherry and the spinach and cook, stirring, until the liquid disappears and the spinach wilts.

Sprinkle salt and pepper over the vegetables and remove them from the heat. Allow them to cool to room temperature.

Place the vegetables in a food processor and combine them briskly; then add the sour cream and mix well. If you don’t have a food processor, an electric mixer will do, but you will have bigger chunks of onion and spinach. My food processor is broken so I used my mini-chopper. I had to chop the vegetables a little at a time, they were chopped.

Place the dip in the refrigerator, covered, and let the flavors meld for several hours. At least an hour before serving taste it on a neutral cracker to see whether you want to add any additional flavors (more salt and pepper perhaps?). Bring the dip to room temperature, and serve it with raw vegetable strips or chips. Makes 2 to 3 cups.

Cut into wedges or slices. Serves 6 to 8.

Pantry Staple Comfort

April 5th, 2020

In the months following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I went through a career crisis.

With the world experiencing so much grief and anxiety, I asked myself, what on earth was I doing writing about food: making up recipes, blathering on and on about my delights and failures in the kitchen? Shouldn’t I be saving the world instead?

Then I attended the Fancy Food Show in New York. This giant exposition shows off popular and emerging specialty foods in the United States and abroad, from salsas to cheeses to chocolates.

I nibbled my way through the thousands of booths at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and soon identified a trend. In an effort to counteract the prevalent cultural malaise, most of the food purveyors that year were displaying wares that embodied tradition and comfort.

They reminded me reminded that food can nourish our spirits as well as our bodies.

I came to a realization, one that still guides my work. I may not be saving the world literally in my kitchen. In difficult times, however, reaching out to other people with nourishing foods and stories reminds me and others that the world is worth saving.

Now that Americans are practicing a regime of social distancing, I am grateful for my well stocked pantry and the opportunity it gives me to share foods with neighbors. Even if we can’t get together to eat, I can deliver carefully prepared dishes.

And we have plenty of time to talk on the telephone, about food and also about other things that matter: family, love, books, music, films, television programs, and the increasing daylight that reminds us that the earth keeps moving through its cycle of growth and renewal.

We may not be making a lot of money these days, thanks to COVID-19. We can still make simple, inexpensive foods, however, and nourish our families, neighbors, and community with them.

Food can comfort us both physically and emotionally. I imagine I’m not the only person who has felt a bit overwhelmed by the cascade of events in the last couple of weeks as the closing down of public life has accelerated.

Preparing something that cooks for hours and hours and takes shape little by little, like my red beans and rice, can slow down our lives and our heartrates.

I made this dish recently with that good old standby, cornbread. Non-employees are not allowed in the studio at my TV home away from home, Mass Appeal, so I phoned in the cornbread recipe to share with the co-hosts. Even without seeing each other, we had fun.

I hope to see many of you soon. Meanwhile, stay well, take care of each other, and cook your hearts out.

Yankee Cornbread

Ingredients:

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning (or 1/2 teaspoon salt)
1 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons melted butter or bacon fat

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously grease a 9-inch cast-iron skillet (or an 8-inch square baking dish) with butter or bacon fat.

In a bowl combine the flour, the cornmeal, the sugar, the baking powder, and the seasoning. Mix together the remaining ingredients and blend them into the dry mixture. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Cut into wedges or slices. Serves 6 to 8.

Unlikely Inspiration

January 23rd, 2020
Tyler Hines and Lacey Chabert (with strudel!). This and other Hallmark images copyright 2019 Crown Media United States LLC, Photographer: David Brown

One of the reasons that I love writing about food is that ideas for my writing can come from just about anyone or anything I encounter. People, books, films, television shows: all are grist for my food mill.

Last week I found a new source for fictional recipes. My sister-in-law and I made strudel based on a film I viewed on … I blush to admit it … the Hallmark Channel.

Hallmark movies are one of my guilty pleasures. As a writer and a sort-of intellectual, I critique them for their focus on young, heterosexual, single-race romance, as well as for their frequent factual errors.

As a viewer, I get sucked into them all the same. They abound with light and color. Their heroines often have glamorous and fun if unlikely careers. The films solve everyone’s problems in the space of two hours (including ads).

Early this month I watched Winter in Vail, a typical Hallmark offering. Its heroine, an event planner from Los Angeles, inherits a spacious chalet in Colorado and decides to move there in January to reinvent her life.

She shortly finds community, a boyfriend, and a new focus for her party-planning expertise: organizing an event called Strudelfest. The festival reinvigorates the center of town and gives her a chance to show off her long dormant pastry-making skills.

Like many Hallmark movies, “Winter in Vail” features what might kindly be called improbabilities … or might unkindly be called gross factual errors.

First, when the heroine arrives at her chalet for the first time, she is dismayed to find that there is no heat. There is running water, but it is potable only in one bathroom.

Anyone who has ever lived in a cold place in winter (this category does not include the film’s writers, apparently) knows that an unheated house with running water ends up with frozen, often burst, pipes.

Second, the hero and heroine spend their first date sledding down a mountain at 5 p.m. The sky is suspiciously bright.

I know that Vail, Colorado, is located at a slightly lower latitude than my home in Hawley, Massachusetts. It’s not far enough south to have a bright sky at 5 p.m. in January, however. The writers clearly know little about geography and astronomy.

Third, the heroine’s chalet is a mess when she arrives in town; it needs new flooring, new plumbing, better heat, and fresh paint on all the walls. The hero (who is also her contractor) manages to fix all of these issues in a few days and charges her next to nothing.

I wish I could find a contractor like that! I’m pretty sure I never will.

Despite these and other conflicts with the world as most of us know it, the film is appealing. The actors portraying the heroine and hero, Lacey Chabert and Tyler Hines, are attractive and throw themselves into the fiction with gusto. And naturally as a food writer, I was captivated by the idea of a Strudelfest.

Strudels lined up at the fictional Strudelfest.

After watching Chabert and Hines learn to make strudel in the film, I decided to try my hand at this classic Viennese pastry. I have long needed a recipe related to Colorado for a project on which I am working.

I quickly confirmed that people in Colorado do indeed make and eat strudel (one cannot always trust the Hallmark Channel on such matters) and then got to work on my own mini-Strudelfest.

I enlisted the help of my sister-in-law Leigh, whose hands are lighter than mine when it comes to pastry … or anything else for that matter. I adapted the dough recipe for the strudel from King Arthur Flour and the filling from a variety of sources.

Our strudel didn’t quite match the one in the film in terms of looks. We (especially I) clearly need to work on our pastry skills. The end product was absolutely delicious, however.

“Winter in Vail” Strudel

Ingredients:

for the dough:

2-1/2 cups sifted bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons Canola or another neutral oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice

for the filling:

1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup dried cranberries
3 large apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons melted butter, divided
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs (if you don’t have these, crumble up bread into small pieces by hand and pulverize them in a powerful blender or food processor; then toast the crumbs at 300 degrees until they crisp up a bit, about 15 minutes)

for the glaze:

1-1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
about 2 to 3 tablespoons orange juice

Instructions:

Begin the day before you wish to serve your strudel. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour and salt on low speed. In a liquid measuring cup whisk together the water, the egg yolks, and the oil; then whisk in the lemon juice.

With the mixer running, add the liquid to the dry ingredients in a slow, steady stream. Mix on low speed for 10 minutes. You may need to stop the mixer from time to time to rearrange your dough.

At the end of the 10 minutes the dough should have formed a relatively smooth ball around the dough hook. It should be slightly tacky, not sticky but not dry; if it does seem dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing for a minute before checking the texture.

Raise the mixer speed to medium and continue to mix for 10 minutes more. Transfer the dough to a medium-sized oiled bowl and turn the dough over a few times to coat it lightly with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for an hour or so to take off the chill. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Set up a table for your strudel preparation: a folding card table; a kitchen table; an island; or any small, flat area around which you can walk completely.

Place a tablecloth on the table, and place a wooden board on top. Lightly flour the board. Gently roll the dough out on the board, aiming for a rectangle that is about 13 inches long and 10 inches wide. Flour the tablecloth lightly, and oil your hands.

Using your fists rather than your fingertips (that is, the tops of your hands folded), stretch the dough in the air, trying to keep it rectangular. When it becomes a little hard to handle, place it on the lightly floured table.

Leigh at Work

Use your closed fists to stretch the dough one corner at a time, working outward from the center. The goal is to get the dough so thin you can see through it. Don’t be alarmed if the dough tears; you’ll be rolling it up, and the holes will be hidden inside.

Again, aim for a rectangle. The shorter sides of the rectangle should be about the length of your cookie sheet.

Once you have achieved the desired size, pull gently around the edges of the dough to make sure they aren’t too thick. If this is too hard, cut off the edges so you have a more-or-less uniform thickness.

Prepare your filling. Heat the orange juice to lukewarm, and place the dried cranberries in the warm juice. Let them soften for a few minutes while you slice your apples.

In a bowl, stir together the brown sugar, the cinnamon, the salt, and 3 tablespoons of the melted butter. Stir in the apple slices, followed by the drained cranberries.

To assemble the strudel, place the bread crumbs on one half of the strudel (lengthwise), leaving an inch or so of crust on three sides with no crumbs. Cover the crumbed area with the apple mixture. Drizzle butter (don’t spread it; it might tear the dough) over the other half of the dough.

Fold the extra strudel dough on the three sides over the filling, and begin rolling gently at the end with the filling and continue to roll until you have a long roll ending with the butter.

Gently roll the strudel onto a piece of parchment paper, seam side down, and slide the parchment onto your cookie sheet.

Bake the strudel until it is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes, turning it around in the oven after 15 minutes.

Place the baking sheet with the strudel on a wire rack to cool for 1/2 hour; then gently transfer it to a serving dish or platter and prepare the glaze.

To make the glaze, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and 2 tablespoons of orange juice. Add a little more juice as needed to make the glaze drizzle-able but not liquid. Drizzle it on top of the strudel, and slice. Serves 8 to 10.

Easy Comfort Food

November 23rd, 2019

As we start planning and cooking for Thanksgiving, I’m serving my family simple dishes that don’t take a lot of work. I figure we’ll have plenty of work in the kitchen this coming Thursday.

This dish, featured in my Pudding Hollow Cookbook, is one of my mother’s standbys when she wanted an easy, warming meal. Make it with the best ingredients you can, and enjoy the way the dill and the sour cream go together with the meat and vegetables.

I made it recently on Mass Appeal, and it was a big hit.

Happy Thanksgiving! I wish you joy … and delicious dishes along with your turkey like cranberry chutney, biscuits, Brussels sprouts salad, and harvest salad.

Hamburger Stroganoff

Ingredients:

1 cup minced onion
1 clove minced garlic
a dab of sweet butter
1 pound ground beef
1/4 pound mushrooms, sautéed in sweet butter (or a lot more!)
1 can (6 ounces) ripe olives
a generous splash of chicken broth or stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream, plus a little more if needed
a sprinkle of fresh or dried dill

Instructions:

Sauté the onion and garlic in the butter. Stir in the beef and brown it. Drain off the fat if it looks excessive. Add the mushrooms, olives, and stock (the latter should pretty much cover the mixture), plus the salt and pepper.

Partially cover and cook for 20 minutes to half an hour, until the liquid has almost evaporated. Stir in the sour cream and heat but do not boil. Sprinkle dill over the Stroganoff and serve over rice or noodles. Serves 4.