Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dumas Celebrates Pork Month

Alexandre Dumas is best known for the Three Musketeers (at least 29 different film versions listed on IMDB, as one measure of its popularity) and The Count of Monte Cristo (at least 18 versions) but he also wrote a gigantic work called the "Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine." I just bought the little tiny abridged version, recently republished. It's not exactly a cookbook but he does give recipes, so in honor of Louise's Cookbook Game at Months of Edible Celebrations, I'm going to share a recipe in honor of Pork Month. That's what we do in this game: we pick a current MONTH, like Apple Month or in this case Pork Month, which is celebrated in October, and we find a recipe in a cookbook we like.

The recipe in the tiny version of the "Grand Dictionnaire" which is titled From Absinthe to Zest: An Alphabet for Food Lovers, doesn't just have any old entry for pork: it has "Young Wild Boar," which in French is "marcassin." The recipe is for "Quarter of wild boar with cherry sauce." You would surely want to make it, if you happened to have a "fresh tender quarter of a young wild boar." Dumas suggests that you start by dealing with the bone -- his description is detailed, on how to do this so that the bone protrudes properly from the meat. Then you put the meat in a litre of marinade, and let it macerate for two or three days, you cook it and baste it, drain it and "mask it with a thick layer of breadcrumbs (from black bread) which have been dried, pounded, sieved, mixed with a little sugar and cinnamon, and then dampened with some good red wine, but only enough to make them stick together." There are a few more instructions on cooking it, and finally putting "a paper frill around the protruding bone."

The Cherry Sauce for the meat is made separately, from dried, unpitted cherries, softened in water and then pounded in a mortar. Additional ingredients include red wine, cinnamon, cloves, salt, and lemon zest, all thickened with starch.

Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Pomegranate Soup" by Marsha Mehran

I just read the novel Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran. The book features descriptions of food and cooking, including one Persian recipe in each chapter. However, these descriptions are really the only feature of the novel that I find truly strong and enjoyable. The recipes for chicken with walnuts and pomegranates; various soups, yogurt drinks, and deep-fried pastries sound wonderful.

The premise of Pomegranate Soup is like a well-known recipe. Take an insular village somewhere in northern Europe (here, Ireland). Invent some quirky inhabitants (quite a few here). Bring in an immigrant or two to found a restaurant or cafe (here, three sisters from Iran and an elderly Italian widow who had already been the outsider in a village for 40 years or more). Introduce the villagers to exotic cooking. They like it (a bit too fast here). Create some jealousy, greed, adolescent pranks, rivalry, and love interest (maybe a little contrived). Yup, yup, yup, a kind of a melodrama.

The portrayal of the sisters and how they fled the revolution in Iran is interesting and plausible. The portrayal of the Irish villagers and the Italian widow is pretty plausible too, at least at first. The events of the story start out not too bad. But as things progress, the story goes out of control -- spoiler coming.

The ending, where all the evildoers and mischief makers see the light, repent, and swear to be good, doesn't do much for me at all. Also, throughout the book the descriptions are often a bit over-written, sometimes with rather odd word choices that overreach to try to make it more vivid. In sum, it's a rather weak novel with really good food writing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's School Lunch and Chili Month

October is School Lunch Month and also Chili Month. For me this is quite appropriate, because my first taste of chili was in the school cafeteria at Delmar Harvard Elementary School in University City, Missouri. This was exceptional: I normally brought a bag lunch consisting of a sandwich, an apple, and sometimes a treat like a cookie or a piece of candy. My mother made our lunches almost every day, so I can't remember how I was able to try the chili in the cafeteria instead of my sandwich. I'm sure it wasn't in the least hot, as no children in Missouri at that time would have been expected to eat spicy food. It was served in a heavy white china bowl with a little cellophane packet of crackers. I was always curious to try things that were different from what my mother made, and this was really different.

I did have chili once at home -- that was later, when I was in high school. My Aunt Florence brought us some of her home made chili. I remember her describing what she put in: ground beef, canned beans and tomatoes, bell peppers, chili powder, and probably a couple of other things. Compared to my mother's cooking it was exotic.

Later when I had a kitchen of my own, I found the very bland taste of Campbell's Chili Beef Soup to replicate my school-cafeteria memories. (I put the Andy Warhol soup can image in this blog post to reinforce that memory.) By that time, I was living in California and trying out the inexpensive and maybe even somewhat authentic California Mexican restaurants in Berkeley (which was not yet the gourmet paradise that it later became). The familiar school cafeteria flavor didn't seem exotic at all.

Then I got adventurous and began to make chili from recipes that I found one place or another, most likely starting with the recipe "Chilly-Night Chili" on page 16 of the I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. Instead of going right to the Campbell's Chili Beef can, it uses a can of tomato soup along with onion, beans, hamburger, and optional olives. Aunt Florence did it better, but pretty soon, so did I.

Here's a chili recipe that I posted a few years ago. This time I know where it came from, but it's not from a cookbook, it's from real people who at the time they gave me the recipe were really living in Texas. Alec, in fact is a native.

Ellen and Alec's "Texas Red" Chili
2 to 3 lb. lean beef cubes: trim off fat if necessary
2 chopped onions
3 cloves chopped garlic
Several fresh chopped chilies (such as jalapenos) or 1 can Old El Paso chopped chili peppers
1 to 4 tablespoons of chili spice (recipe follows — blend of spice is essential)
8 oz tomato sauce and 8 oz water
1 lb can of tomatoes, cut in pieces

Brown onion and garlic. Add fresh peppers (if using fresh). Remove from pan. Add beef and brown. Drain excess fat. Return meat to pan. (Add canned peppers.) Add spice, then tomato sauce, water, and tomatoes. Simmer several hours on top of stove or in 275 degree oven, until meat is soft.

One heresy is to add a can of corn, a can of black beans, and/or a can of red beans towards the end of cooking. I'm not enough of a heretic to make the beans or corn dominate the chili. That would be a different recipe.

Chili Spice Blend

In a mortar or spice grinder blend 1 crumbled bay leaf with 1 tablespoon of each of the following spices: Whole Cumin, Dried Oregano, Chili Powder. Optionally add 1 tablespoon each of onion flakes, parsley flakes, and dried basil. Add at least 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, dried hot pepper, or hot pepper flakes.

Thanks again to Louise at Months of Edible Celebrations for inspiring me and so many others in new areas of food blogging this month. I celebrate all the huge number of chili recipes and variations that I've ever tried, and the rather pathetic memory of the school cafeteria.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Really Retro

I just read about a tasting menu at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles that included American food representing several decades. It's arranged in chronological order from starters to desert. I'm unusually impressed by the right-on choices:
  • 1940s -- chicken liver and bacon paté with brandied cherries, watercress and pecan raisin bread
  • 1950s -- poached lobster and asparagus casserole with crispy potato, shaved truffle and American caviar
  • 1960s -- steak Diane with fingerling potatoes, caramelized onion, wild mushrooms and Bloomsdale spinach
  • 1970s -- "Brie fondue" (puff pastry baked Brie) with brioche, orange marmalade and balsamic
  • 1980s -- "mud pie," a coffee sabayon with chocolate crust and dark chocolate ganache.
A random photo of a mud pie:

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Louise's Cookbook Party Game

At Months of Edible Celebrations Louise is having a fun month, challenging her readers to post a recipe in honor of one of the special foods of the month. Among the commemorations she lists for October is Cranberry Month. Great idea -- I hope cranberries start to show up in the markets soon.

I love cranberries. I substitute either dried or fresh for walnuts in chocolate chip cookies or even in brownies (shown above). I have made cranberry cornmeal cake, cranberry bread, and above all, cranberry chutney. I make it early so it will be aged enough for Thanksgiving dinner, so my celebration has to be deferred -- later, I make ordinary cranberry sauce for those who like it more traditional.

Louise requested that we specify what event we made our recipe for. She also asked where I got the recipe: good question. I don't remember, I've been making it for years. I hope these details don't disqualify me from her game!

Here's the recipe -- which I've posted before.

Cranberry Chutney
Use a total of 2 packages of cranberries -- 6 cups
Combine the following in a large pan and boil until sugar dissolves:
1/2 cup cider vinegar        2 and 1/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 tsp. curry powder 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves 1/4 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. cinnamon 1 and 1/2 cups water
Add and simmer 10 minutes:
1 apple, peeled, cored, chopped
2 lemons and 2 oranges, prepared as follows
Use the orange and lemon rind and the fruit -- pare rind with a vegetable peeler and chop or grate it. Discard the pith. Section and chop the fruit.

Add and boil 40 minutes:
1/2 cup golden raisins       1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
3 cups cranberries
Add 3 cups more, that is the rest of the cranberries. I fool around with this recipe a lot. Sometimes I just put everything together and cook until it looks thick and done. Sometimes I use candied ginger.

Store in jars in refrigerator. Age this chutney about a week before using. It keeps for several months in the refrigerator. It's good as a side dish for chicken, turkey, or duck, or as a filling for halves of acorn squash, or as a relish on a cheddar cheese sandwich -- among other uses.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

"Being inauthentic is a fact of America"

In an article by an immigrant from Thailand with evolving views of Thai restaurants in America, I read this thought-provoking paragraph about the emotions created by differences between the food in those restaurants and the food from childhood in Thailand:
"It’s a hard reality to swallow, but I’ve learned to live with it, because being inauthentic is a fact of America. To become American means to have been, at some point, uprooted from an ancestral world and reinvented free-style. I sometimes find myself counting in Thai, but most of my thoughts now bubble out in English. I go back and forth between the Thai way of eating in tandem with fork and spoon and the American way of picking at foods with a lone fork. What love I have for fish sauce equally goes to butter. If I can feel neither wholly Thai nor wholly American, how can I ask the same of a bowl of duck green curry? Now, when I look at a Thai restaurant menu, I don’t fume and think in expletives as much. I just breathe in and out, and let the food be what it can be." -- Learning to Love Thai-American Food by Pitchaya Sudbanthad