Holy Guaca-Latke!

December 1st, 2021

I have a Ph.D. and can talk about such intellectual topics as literary theory and Marxism. At heart, however, I have tastes that are distinctly middlebrow. I read tons of mysteries. I happily munch on popcorn while gazing at movies made for the masses.

And at this time of year, I watch an awful lot of Hallmark Christmas movies.

Although they are generally Christmas themed, these films have surprisingly little Christian content. A Martian might infer that the holiday was about singing, trees, and a guy in a red suit rather than the birth of a special baby.

The films have a little romance, a little humor, and a lot of pretty people. Over the past few years, Hallmark has been introducing more diverse casts. This year has featured Asian-American, African-American, and Latin protagonists.

Hallmark hasn’t managed to bring in any LGBTQ+ heroes and heroines. Nevertheless, it is slowly creating gay supporting characters. I have a feeling one of them will eventually become the focus of one of the stories.

I love these films because I’m a food writer, and they feature food galore. The protagonists prepare holiday meals, bake more cookies than I have seen in my life, and put together an astonishing number of gingerbread houses.

In the world of Hallmark films, everyone can cook, there is no pandemic, every town lights up a huge Christmas tree annually, and every lonely person finds a soul mate. What’s not to love?

A couple of years ago, the Hallmark Christmas movie lineup was expanded to start including other religions, principally Judaism. My father was Jewish, and I light the menorah he inherited from his parents ever year, so I was happy to see Hanukkah featured in these films.

The one with the most interesting food content (to me, at any rate) is called Love, Lights, Hanukkah!

I believe that it actually first aired last year, but since the Hallmark Channel and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, run holiday content nonstop from late October until the New Year, it can still be found on the lineup.

In this film, heroine Christina is going through a rough time. Her adoptive mother recently died, leaving Christina in charge of a bustling Italian-American restaurant. She has no other family and has just broken up with her boyfriend. Lonely during the holiday season, she decides to take a DNA test to find relatives.

To her shock, she finds several DNA matches living near her. One of them turns out to be the mother who gave her up for adoption. And they are Jewish. Catholic Christina gets a new family and learns about Hanukkah in one fell swoop.

Her birth family is also in the food business; her half-siblings run a sports deli. (I didn’t know there was such a thing, but it makes more sense to me than a sports bar.) For the eight days of Hanukkah, her half-brother is introducing “eight crazy latkes” to his customers.

He doesn’t get to name all of the latkes in the course of the film. There’s a lot of plot to get through, after all. He does mention a few, including (shudder) the “Choco-Latke.” My favorite idea was the “Holy Guaca-Latke,” a potato pancake topped with guacamole. I set out to make my own version of this treat.

My recipe appears below. I found it delicious.

By the way, this Saturday, Dec. 4, at 3 p.m. pianist Jerry Noble and I will offer a holiday concert at the Federated Church on Route 2 in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

The concert will feature mostly Christmas songs, but there will be some Hanukkah content. And because I can’t resist food in any form, I will sing the song “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake.”

The concert is free, although donations for Mohawk Trail Concerts will be gratefully accepted. If it snows on Saturday, the concert will take place the following day at the same time.

Whether I see you or not, happy Hanukkah! Have a lovely holiday season.

Holy Guaca-Latkes

Ingredients:

for the latkes:

2 large baking potatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
chopped fresh chives to taste if available
1 egg, beaten (you may need another one!)
2 to 4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
lots of freshly ground pepper
extra-virgin olive oil as needed for frying

for the guacamole:

3 scallions (green onions), white and some green parts, chopped, or 2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 small jalapeño pepper (more if you like spicy foods!), with the stem and seeds removed, finely chopped
5 sprigs fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
the juice of 2 limes
3 small, ripe avocados
1 teaspoon salt

for garnish (optional):

sour cream and/or pico de gallo

Instructions:

To make the latkes, preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Wash the potatoes well. Grate them with a box grater or with the grater attachment of a food processor. Wrap the potato shreds in a dish towel.

Carry it to the sink, wring it out, and allow the potato pieces to drain while you get out the rest of the ingredients and maybe have a cocktail or two.

In a medium bowl combine the potato pieces, the onion pieces, the chives (if you’re using them), the egg, 2 tablespoons of flour, and the salt and pepper. In a large frying pan heat a few tablespoons of oil until the oil begins to shimmer.

Scoop some of the potato mixture out with a spoon and flatten it with your hand. Pop the flattened pancake into the hot oil.

The latkes should be a little ragged. If they don’t hold together and are hard to turn, however, add a little more flour to the batter or even another egg.

Fry the latkes a few at a time, turning each when the first side becomes golden. Drain the cooked pancakes on paper towels and pop them into the oven until you have finished cooking the rest and made your guacamole.

To make the guacamole, combine the scallions, the garlic, the pepper pieces, the cilantro, and the lime juice in a medium bowl.

At this point, you may leave the mixture for a few hours. You don’t have to, however. A few minutes before you want to eat the guacamole, get out your avocados. Slice them in half lengthwise, stopping at the pits.

Separate the avocado halves from the pits, and use a spoon or fork to scoop out the flesh of the avocado. (If there is brown flesh, don’t use it; aim for the light green stuff.) Put the flesh in the bowl with the onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice.

Mash the avocados into the mixture with a fork, adding the salt as you mash so that it is stirred in. You don’t have to mash them too much; a few chunks add to the flavor.

Decorate each latke with a generous dab of guacamole; then throw on some sour cream and pico de gallo if you want to. Serves 6 to 8.

To see videos of this recipe, visit these links: Part I and Part II.

Easy as Pie?

November 17th, 2021

Pie probably wasn’t served at the so-called first Thanksgiving 400 years ago, but it has been a must-eat for this holiday since at least the 19th century if not before.

Pie dresses up produce—squash, apples, nuts, etc.—inside pastry and always delivers the feeling of fullness Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In my family, we always have at least two pies, and one of those is always pumpkin.

I try in vain to suggest a crisp or a crumble or (heaven forbid!) no dessert at all, but like most families mine believes that tradition is paramount on this special day. In the end, I always bow to the will of my relatives when it comes to the Thanksgiving dessert menu.

Here’s the problem: I’m not really a pie-crust person. In my experience, pie-crust creation is a skill honed by practice. My grandmother grew up on a farm where pies were on the menu almost daily. My mother spent a lot of time on that farm.

Both possessed the proverbial dab hand with pastry, producing flawless pie crusts. I make pie a couple of times a year at most so I have never had a lot of practice. For much of my life, my lack of pastry experience bothered me. I no longer worry about it. My pie crusts don’t look perfect. They are usually patched together a bit. They always taste good, however.

The secret to making pie crust, I have learned, is to do it without fear. And (as with most cooking) to create your pie with love in your heart.

I realize that many readers won’t have a problem making pie crust. In case you’re not quite ready to wield a rolling pin without fear, however, I offer a couple of suggestions.

First, purchase your pastry. Pillsbury crusts don’t quite match homemade in terms of flavor, but aren’t bad. Furthermore, they look homemade, and using them allows you to take most of the credit for the pies you create.

Another way to get around the pastry issue is to make a pie that requires a Graham-cracker crust: a lemon or key-lime pie, a custard pie, a chocolate pie. Just melt butter, add Graham-cracker crumbs, and press the resulting mixture into your pie pan. No rolling required!

Finally, of course, you may purchase pie or ask one of your guests (if you’re having them) to bring dessert. Your feast will feature lots of homemade goodies. You will be forgiven for outsourcing a little of the cooking.

For those of you who want to make pie crust but are feeling a bit wary, today I am sharing one of the easiest pie-crust recipes I know. It was given to me my late neighbor Bob Stone. Bob maintained that the vinegar and egg in the recipe make the pastry easy to manipulate. I concur.

Bob’s recipe makes enough pastry for two two-crust pies. Feel free to cut it in half. The only trick is dividing the egg in half, which I do by eye.

Because pie crust is no fun on its own, I’m also including a recipe for a fairly easy pie that will be on my own Thanksgiving menu this year, my friend Denis’s French apple pie. This tasty offering with a crumb toping takes only one crust so you can freeze your leftover crusts for future use.

Bob Stone’s Fullerville Pie Crust

Ingredients:

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1–3/4 cups shortening
1/2 cup ice water plus a bit more if needed
1 tablespoon white vinegar (cider vinegar works as well)
1 egg

Instructions:

Combine the flour and the salt in a bowl. Cut in the shortening, using a pastry blender or two knives, until it is crumbly. Do not over mix. Whisk together the water, the vinegar, and the egg, and stir them gently into the flour mixture. If the dough seems too dry (this is rare), add a tiny bit more cold water. Be careful not to add too much water; this will toughen your crust.

Divide the dough into four even segments, and pat each segment into a rounded disk. If you have time, it helps to refrigerate the dough for an hour or so to make it easier to roll out. If you don’t have time, go ahead and roll the dough into circles. I do this on a board covered with a silicone matt that I then flour. (Call me paranoid!)

Makes enough crust for 2 double 9-inch pies.

Apple Pie à la Française

Ingredients:

3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch salt
5 medium baking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix together the sugar, the cinnamon, and the salt. Add them to the apples, and combine delicately. Place this mixture in your pie shell.

Combine the flour and the brown sugar. Cut in the butter. Cover the apples with this crumb mixture.

Bake for 10 minutes; then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for another half hour, or until the apples are completely cooked. Serves 8.

The related videos may be viewed by clicking on the links below. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tinky Makes Pie Crust

Tinky Makes the Pie

Slumping with Louisa May Alcott

October 8th, 2021
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This month I feature a dish that was frequently made by a woman who would have called it a “homely receipt.” American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) used what are now archaic definitions of both words.

“Homely,” which now generally means unattractive, was then interpreted as homey or simple. And “receipt” was the 19th-century term for what we now call a recipe.

I have been a fan of Alcott since I first read “Little Women” when I was eight. Hooked, I went on to read most of her other books for young readers: “Little Men,” “Eight Cousins,” “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” “Jack and Jill,” and so forth.

When I was an adult a number of the sensational tales she wrote under pseudonyms were discovered by scholars. I was lucky enough to be able to review some of them.

At that time, I also discovered one of my favorite Alcott books, “Work.” Published in 1873, this novel for adults tells the story of a young woman named Christie who has been brought up by her uncle and aunt.

She is welcome to remain in their house when she turns 21, and she has a reliable (if not exciting) local suitor. Nevertheless, she decides to leave home and make her own living. “Aunt Betsey,” she announces, “there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.”

Christie in the Original Book

Christie wants to escape from the feeling of being a burden to others, but even more than that she wants to strike out on her own. She is excited by the prospect of exploring a world larger than the small town in which she has grown up.

She embarks on a series of jobs that reflect the occupations available to middle-class white women in 19th-century America—among them domestic servant, actress, governess, companion, seamstress, and nurse.

Some of these jobs are depressing in the extreme, particularly her work as a servant to a woman who denies Christie not just autonomy but also the use of her own name. The woman makes Christie answer to “Jane” because that is what this rigid employer is accustomed to calling her maids.

Alcott herself worked at all of the jobs in the book at one point or another. She was the main breadwinner for her family, in part because she believed, like her heroine Christie, that women could find fulfillment in work. She also sought work outside the home because her father was a terrible provider.

Bronson Alcott was a Transcendentalist educator and philosopher. An idealist, he would never take a job if it interfered with his principles. He took this admirable quality to extremes that made life difficult for his family. The Alcotts often had trouble finding enough to eat and paying their rent.

Those of us in Massachusetts can go to the town of Harvard and visit Bronson’s most disastrous experiment in living according to his principles, Fruitlands, now a museum.

Fruitlands

In 1843 he and a number of like-minded friends decided to try to create their own Utopian community. One of the friends, Charles Lane, was wealthy. Lane purchased a home and land, and the group moved in. They called their new home Fruitlands.

The residents of Fruitlands didn’t believe in hiring labor so they intended to engage in subsistence farming. Unfortunately, few of them knew much about farming. Most of them spent more time discussing philosophy and religion or trying to find new residents for the place than trying to grow food on the land.

They drank only water, used no products from slavery or animals (they dressed in homemade linen garments and canvas shoes, which offered little protection as the temperature fell), and practiced sexual abstinence.

Although technically the group endorsed gender equality, women ended up doing most of the work. Abigail Alcott, Bronson’s wife and 10-year-old Louisa’s mother, was the lone woman at Fruitlands after the only other adult female, a teacher, was expelled for breaking down and eating a piece of fish.

Abigail was supposedly once asked by a visitor whether there were any beasts of burden on the farm. “Only one woman!” was her reply.

The Alcotts abandoned the venture in the cold, hungry month of January 1844.

Their life didn’t become financially stable until Louisa’s books began to make money a couple of decades later. Bronson managed to eke out a living of sorts until then through odd jobs and handouts from relatives and friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What does this have to do with food? In 1873 Louisa penned a tale called “Transcendental Wild Oats” about a family engaged in a Utopian experiment like Fruitlands. In fact, the aspirational community in the story is also called Fruitlands.

At the end of the story, after the family has abandoned its temporary home just as the Alcotts did, the patriarch sighs, “Poor Fruitlands! The name was as great a failure as the rest!”

In a “half-tender, half-satirical tone,” his wise wife replies, “Don’t you think Apple Slump would be a better name for it, dear!”

Apple Slump was the name of a favorite dessert in the Alcott home. It’s a simple dish perfect for this season of year when apples are everywhere. As its name might suggest, it’s not precisely exciting looking. Nevertheless, it’s tasty. It resembles a cobbler with nuts added.

It would never have been served at Fruitlands as it contains milk, egg, and sugar. Nevertheless, it was frequently served at the Alcotts’ future home in Concord, Orchard House. In fact, Louisa Alcott often referred to Orchard House as Apple Slump. The recipe below comes from the Concord Museum.

Louisa May Alcott’s Apple Slump

Ingredients:

for the Apple Base:
6 pared, cored, and sliced tart apples (or whatever apples you have)
the juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I love cinnamon with apples so I added a little more)
1/4 teaspoon salt

for the Slumpy Topping:
1-1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled a bit
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

First, make the apple base. In a large bowl, gently mix the apple slices, the lemon juice, and the vanilla. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, the spices, and the salt. Add the sugar mixture to the apple mixture and toss to coat it. Spread the apple base evenly in the pan and bake until it is soft, about 20 minutes.

While the apples are baking make the topping. Sift together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. Blend the egg and the milk together with a fork; then stir in the melted butter. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir gently.

Pour the flour mixture over the baked apples, doing your best to spread it evenly. Sprinkle the walnuts on top. Continue baking for 25 minutes, or until the top is brown and crusty. Cool for 5 minutes. The Concord Museum recommends serving it with your favorite ice cream. (I served it with caramel sauce.) Serves 6.

 

Celebrating the End of Summer with Corn

September 9th, 2021

We are still eating corn in western Massachusetts. Corn is the perfect late-summer vegetable. Its color reflects the hues of the sun and the goldenrod-filled fields. Its subtly sweet taste reminds us to savor summer’s beauty while we still have it.

Along with most Americans, I believe that fresh corn is best enjoyed boiled or steamed briefly and then slathered with butter, salt, and pepper. In recent years, I have learned to skip the butter, but I keep it on the table for corn-consuming guests.

Unfortunately, I am seldom able to restrain myself from buying more ears of corn than I need at local farm stands. This can be a problem. As readers probably know, corn is ideally cooked and consumed the day on which it is picked.

What’s a cook to do? I tend to cook corn briefly as soon as possible and then save some of the cooked corn in the refrigerator or freezer for future use. I can make corn fritters, corn salad (it goes with lots of other vegetables), corn chowder, and so forth.

I recently used leftover corn in a risotto. I share that recipe below. Risotto can sometimes seem daunting because it requires the cook to pay attention throughout the cooking process.

I handle the challenge of risotto in a couple of ways. First, I invite my guests to come into the kitchen with me to sip cocktails or whatever beverage they choose. That way, I don’t miss out on any scintillating conversation while I stir my risotto.

Second, I remind myself to let the risotto talk to me. The process of making it entails adding liquid a little at a time as needed. If I monitor the bottom of the pan for dryness as I chat with my friends and relatives, this is fairly easy.

The risotto tells me when it is done by creaming. This is a magical process. The cook has to taste the rice grains frequently. Suddenly, the risotto will reach a point at which it still has a little chew but also tastes rich and creamy. I promise, if you keep tasting (the proverbial tough job that somebody has to do!), you’ll know this point when you get there.

 

Sweet Corn Risotto

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup chopped onion
1-1/4 cups Arborio rice
3/4 cup white wine (approximately)
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
2 cups lightly cooked corn kernels
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (plus a little more if you like)
4 cups simmering chicken or vegetable stock (or as needed; you may use water if you run out of stock)
2 tablespoons diced fresh tomatoes
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (plus a bit more if desired)
a little more chopped parsley or tiny basil leaves for garnish

Instructions:

Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter and the oil. Stir in the onion. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the rice. Cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add 1/2 cup of the wine plus the chopped bell pepper and a little of the corn, and stir. Add 1 cup of stock and keep stirring.

As the mixture cooks and dries up, add the remaining stock a bit at a time. Stir frequently but not constantly. Cooking will take quite a while—somewhere between half an hour and 45 minutes. The corn is done with it suddenly tastes creamy.

Just before serving, add the tomatoes; the parsley; the remaining wine, corn, and butter; and the cheese. Serves 6.

Here’s my video for this recipe:

Tinky Makes Corn Risotto

https://youtu.be/-518nFR08j8

 

 

Let’s Hear It for the Girls! Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins

August 4th, 2021

Last week I got my wild, low-bush blueberries from Heath, Massachusetts. I immediately thought of Senator Margaret Chase Smith.

In case the connection isn’t immediately apparent to readers, let me explain. Recently, my friend Peter Beck lent me a 1961 edition of the Congressional Club Cookbook.

I love the book’s cover with its image of an elephant and a donkey getting ready for a party. This copy was presented to Peter’s mother by Smith, who stayed with the Beck family from time to time and inscribed the book to her hostess.

I was intrigued. I knew Smith had been a senator for many years. I didn’t know until the cookbook inspired me to do a little research that this politician from Maine ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 … or that she was a notable promoter of foods from her home state.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) grew up in a working-class family in Skowhegan, Me. Margaret Chase couldn’t afford college and held various jobs before going to work at a local weekly newspaper, one of several enterprises owned by a businessman named Clyde Smith.

More than two decades older than Chase, Smith dated her on and off for years; he was apparently quite a ladies’ man. The pair married in 1930.

Smith insisted that his bride give up working after they married so she could devote most of her time to acting as his hostess. Nevertheless, she remained active in a number of women’s organizations she had joined during her single years.

More than two decades older than his wife, Clyde Smith had political ambitions. He was elected to Congress in 1936. Margaret Chase Smith accompanied him to Washington and learned the ropes by working as his secretary.

When he became ill in 1940, he asked her to run for his seat in his stead. He died in April of that year. His wife won a special election to complete his term and then ran successfully for her own two-year term.

She stayed in the House of Representatives until 1948, when she was elected to the Senate. She would serve there until 1973.

Smith in 1963. Courtesy, Senate Historical Office.

In both branches of Congress, Smith was known for her support of the military, for her civility, for her care for her constituents, and for her independence. She didn’t always agree with her fellow Republicans, and she quietly but firmly made her views known.

Perhaps most famously, she delivered a 1950 speech called the “Declaration of Conscience” in which she lambasted the activities of her fellow senator, Joseph McCarthy. She was violently anti-communist, but she found the tactics of McCarthy and his red-baiting colleagues disgraceful.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear,” she announced.

In 1964, Smith put her name forward as a Republican candidate for the presidency. Her chances weren’t strong. She didn’t get her name on the ballot in all 48 states, and she accepted no campaign contributions. An exception to the no-contribution rule was a gift from Peter’s father, a large bouquet of roses. “He thought she would make a great president,” Peter told me.

Although she lost to Barry Goldwater, Smith made history as the first woman to run for the presidential nomination of a major American political party. She even had a female-centered campaign song performed by Hildegarde called “Leave It to the Girls.”

Smith arrives at the 1964 Republican Convention. Courtesy, Senate Historical Office.

What does any of this have to do with blueberries?

Margaret Chase Smith actively promoted Maine’s foods by hosting events and sharing recipes. When she ran for president, her blueberry muffins played a part in her campaign.

One of her campaign photographs depicted her holding a sign that said, “Barry stews, Rocky pursues, Dicky brews, but Margaret Chase Smith wows and woos with Blueberry Muffins!” Her rivals were Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon.

The senator’s association with food is so strong that in 2018 the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine launched “Making Margaret,” a recipe-research collaborative.

Through this group, food-oriented students, faculty, and staff in different disciplines explore the connections between food and public life.

I was unable to talk to anyone in the group for this article. (It is, after all, the university’s summer vacation.) I hope to learn more about “Making Margaret” in the future, however.

I’m always interested in the ways in which food connects people. In the case of Margaret Chase Smith, food was a way to spread the word about her state.

According to her biographer Janann Sherman, it was also a way to reassure voters and her Congressional colleagues that this female—for years, the only woman in the Senate—didn’t represent a threat to the status quo because she was essentially “feminine.”

Her baking thus became form of self-protection as well as a form of self-expression, part of a dance she performed over and over again for her political audience.

The recipe below appeared in the “Congressional Club Cookbook” and was also sent to me by the Margaret Chase Library in the late senator’s hometown of Skowhegan.

The muffins are not unlike their original baker. They appear quite simple at first glance; they don’t contain a lot of sugar or butter, and they include no spice. Yet they are chock full of flavor. I highly recommend them.

Margaret Chase Smith circa 1940, courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library

Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) baking powder
1 egg
3/4 cup fresh milk
3 tablespoons melted shortening (I used butter)

Instructions:

Wash blueberries, and drain thoroughly. Mix and sift flour with salt, sugar, and baking powder. Beat egg and mix with milk. Stir egg and milk mixture into the flour mixture, then add the berries and melted shortening (or butter).

Mix well and pour into greased muffin pans, filling each three-fourths full. Bake in a hot oven, 400 degrees, for 20 minutes. Makes eight to 12 muffins depending on size.