Friday, July 26, 2013

An appreciation of Southern cooking

I've just returned from a food- and scenery-rich family reunion in South Carolina. I was fortunate to spend a week on a lovely beach in the low country, with big sky, dolphins, and a much warmer Atlantic Ocean. One of the best aspects of the trip was, of course, constant access to Southern food.

Southern food may represent everything that is wrong with American cooking to some people. To be sure, pork and mayonnaise (Duke's only, thank you very much) are in heavy rotation. Portions are big. I may or may not have had pimento cheese at every meal. But fresh ingredients abound. We ate delicious and local shrimp, peaches, corn, tomatoes, and peanuts. Legumes and greens play a prominent role in many dishes. And cooking from scratch is still revered. 

One night some of the relatives took on dinner for our large crowd, and turned out some beautiful ceviche and gazpacho. Dinner was delicious, but the crowning glory of that meal was dessert: they secretly concocted up a banana pudding from Miss Edna Lewis, a famed southern chef. Banana pudding, with its roots in the English trifle, is quintessentially Southern. And even if dessert that night did fall on the indulgent end of the spectrum (24 eggs anyone?), it was scrumptious.

Uncle Frank's and cousin Laura's creation

When I got home, I set out to make a slightly healthier version of this classic. And while I love food cooked from scratch, there is a time and place to incorporate pre-made items. Such is the case here with the Nilla wafer. You can use other kinds of cake or cookies in this dessert, but the Nilla just feels right. That being said, the recipe for banana pudding on the side of the Nilla box was depressing--it relied on boxed pudding and store-bought whipped topping. If you make it as instructed by Nabisco, the only whole food ingredient is the banana.

The irony of so many "convenience" foods is that they don't really replace something that is particularly inconvenient to make. Homemade pudding takes 6 ingredients and about 10 minutes to make. Homemade meringue takes 3 ingredients and again, about 10 minutes to make. In fact, a recipe like this that uses pudding and meringue is quite convenient, since you use the egg yolks in the pudding and whites in the meringue. Start to finish, this recipe took about 30 minutes to complete. Pretty convenient to me. So while I embrace the Nilla wafer itself, don't follow the recipe on the box. Use this one instead.

My version. 

Southern Inspired Banana Pudding

Makes 6-8 servings.

For the pudding:
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. cornstarch
1 t. salt
2 c. whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2 t. vanilla extract

For layering:
Nilla wafer cookies
3-4 ripe bananas

For the meringue topping:
4 large egg whites
1/4 t. cream of tartar
6 T. sugar

To ensure this recipe goes quickly, be sure all ingredients and equipment are at the ready:

  • Separate the egg whites and egg yolks. Place egg whites in a large bowl of a stand mixer, and place in the fridge.
  • Place yolks and vanilla near the stove. Place a thermometer and fine mesh strainer on a bowl near the stove.
  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  • Measure out cream of tartar and 6 T. of sugar and place near the stand mixer.
  • Place 6-8 wide mouth 1 cup mason jars on a baking sheet (you can also use an oven proof 8x8 glass dish). Place 4 wafer cookies in the bottom of each jar. Keep the bananas and a knife nearby.

Now you can start cooking.

For the pudding, place 1/2 c. sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Add a small amount of the milk and whisk to make a paste. Add the rest of the milk, whisk together, and turn on the heat. Heat the mixture, whisking, until it starts to boil. Once it reaches a boil, lower to a simmer and cook for one minute until it thickens.

Turn off the heat, and scoop out about 1/4 c. of the mixture into the egg yolks. Mix together, and return to the pan. Cook on medium heat until the pudding reaches 160 degrees, about 1-2 minutes, then take off the heat and strain into the bowl. Add vanilla and stir.

Cut about 5-6 pieces of banana into each jar on top of cookies. Ladle about 1/4-1/3 cup of pudding into each jar.

In the bowl of the electric stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat together the egg whites for about one minute, then add cream of tartar. Beat on high, and once the foam is established, gradually add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until the whites are glossy and have structure.

Spoon meringue evenly into each jar (it's okay if it overflows a bit). Make sure the pudding is completely covered. Place baking sheet with puddings on it in the oven and bake for 4 minutes, until meringues are browned. Allow jars to cool for 15 minutes, then refrigerate for 2 hours.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Are You Overwhelmed by Summer Vegetables Yet?

My CSA started a few weeks ago. I definitely frequent the many farmers' markets in my area, but a CSA farm (Community Supported Agriculture) is something special. Essentially, you become a shareholder in a farm, pre-purchasing in the winter whatever the harvest has to offer the following summer. My CSA provides a robust mix of organic fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, starting in mid-June and continuing through mid-October. If I play my cards right, I have CSA produce in my freezer long past the last pick up. Some CSAs deliver, but we go to our farm to pick up. Even though that's sometimes a chore, I like the experience of seeing where my produce is grown.  

I'm going to admit, some weeks the amount of produce overwhelms even me. I've been participating in a CSA for thirteen years now, so I've had a lot of time to develop strategies for dealing with the weeks when I find myself staring blankly at, say, four or five overflowing grocery bags. I am sharing my ten best pieces of advice with you: 

1) Prioritize. If it's perishable, eat it first. Lettuces, herbs, and berries go down the hatch as soon as possible. But there's a limit to how many salads one family can eat.

2) Keep it simple! I've done the stuffed tomatoes, gratins, and cabbage rolls, but on the heavy harvest weeks you may start feeling resentful towards your food if you get too ambitious. 

3) Freeze where you can. Some items, like corn kernels or tomatoes, can go right in raw.  Many others need a fast blanch, but I queue them up and do them all sequentially in the same water. The freezer is your best friend on the high volume weeks. 

4) Items like cabbage, zucchini, hearty greens, carrots, green beans, onions, garlic, roots, and radishes will all last for a while in the fridge. Later in the week, I use these to make a slaw

5) Or a fritter

6) Or a sauté. A few days ago I sliced and softened four shallots in my cast iron skillet, threw in a cup of shelled peas, and gave them a three minute trip in the hot pan. I then added salt, pepper, a squirt of lemon, and chopped mint from the garden. Heavenly. This would work for green beans, snap peas, or zucchini. 

7) Hearty greens like chard always benefit from being cooked in a little bacon fat and garlic.

8) Roots and cauliflower are fantastic roasted. Of course, this is also the time of year when I often don't want my oven blasting away at 400 degrees. So when the grill is going, I toss these in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, wrap them in two layers of aluminum foil, and nestle the packet directly into the coals.

9) Tomatoes are a special beast. I try to eat as many as possible right away. Mostly in a simple caprese salad with mozzarella and basil. Or in a bread salad (more on that in future post). But there is at least one week a season when I am faced with somewhere north of 15 pounds. Then I spend the time slicing the tomatoes, crank on the oven, and roast them. Then I freeze them. Which then in turn makes the best marinara and soup ever come January. 

10) When in doubt, I make soup. I take anything that may be languishing in the fridge, like carrots, beets, or squash, and cook them with some broth and onion until soft. Then I puree the soup and stick it in the freezer. The soup I made this week included a large haul of summer squash, plus some potatoes. When I use it, I plan to add some milk and herbs.

Once I learned to embrace the glut, I found that I could reduce the amount of withering greens in the fridge and truly appreciate the brief growing season. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Liebster Award

I've been nominated for a Liebster Award. What is this award, you say? I must admit, I didn't know anything about it until recently, and it's still a bit of a mystery how it all began. It's essentially an award by bloggers for bloggers, sort of a virtual chain letter. I love that it's based on peer-to-peer recognition, and it's a way to help introduce great blogs to a larger audience. To accept the award, there are a few rules I have to follow:

  • Pass the award on to 11 bloggers (and let them know)
  • Pose 11 questions to these chosen bloggers
  • Answer 11 questions posed by my nominator (and let her know)
  • Post 11 random facts about me.

So I send my heartfelt thanks to Christina at Greek Cooking for nominating my blog, and I will now return the favor. I am looking forward to following these 11 fantastic up-and-coming blogs:

My 11 questions for these bloggers are:

  • Why do you blog?
  • What is your favorite vegetable?
  • What is your favorite utensil in the kitchen?
  • What's your closest grocery store? 
  • What were the last three things you cooked?
  • Are you a baker or more of a savory cook? 
  • Chocolate desserts vs. fruit desserts: discuss. 
  • What is your favorite place to visit? 
  • If money were no object, what restaurant would you most like to try?
  • Best food movie?
  • Last meal: what would it be?

Here are my answers to the 11 questions that Christina posed to me. Some of these were challenging, but I hope I did my best:

  • Where were you born and where do you live today? I was born in New York City and I live in Massachusetts.
  • What is your favorite cuisine? This week it's Indian and Mexican, but next week I am sure it will be different.
  • Do you believe in zodiac signs? What is yours? I am a Cancer but I don't much believe in signs.
  • What is the urge that makes you cook something in the first place? I usually have two sources of inspiration: seeing a great ingredient at the market, or reading a great recipe.
  • Do you dare try something different than your culinary spectrum? I do try to push my limits, but the joy of cooking is that there are still endless possibilities within whatever limits you set in terms of ingredients or cultures.
  • How many hours per week do you spend blogging? At the moment, it's around five or ten hours a week, depending on my teaching schedule (I teach cooking for kids and adults).
  • Do you believe we actually shouldn’t be eating any meat at all? I don't think we should all give up meat, but I do think we should be eating fewer meat-centric meals. That way we can all afford to support the meat producers who provide better tasting meat, who treat animals humanely and who think about how animal farming impacts our environment.
  • Are restaurants your favorite place to meet with friends? I love eating out, but I love eating at friends' houses more (except that now some friends seem to have the need to apologize when they cook for me, since I've been to cooking school and all).
  • What is your hobby (except cooking)? Driving my kids around. No time for anything else.
  • Who is your favorite actor or actress and in which film? Another hard one. I'll go with Meryl Streep, but only because she's played Julia Child.
  • Do you believe that we eat to live or that we live to eat? Yes!

And finally, here are 11 random facts about me:

  • I don't like snails.
  • But I've eaten sea slugs in China.
  • One of my greatest food experiences was a 13 course meal on New Year's Eve in Venice. 
  • I live next to a river.
  • I never stop being proud of my mother for being in the first class that included women at the Culinary Institute of America.
  • I have a weakness for musical theater.
  • My first concert was Men at Work.
  • I've never seen the Godfather, Jaws or Rocky. 
  • I was a practicing attorney for 12 years before I went to cooking school.
  • I have the worst oven of anyone I know.
  • I love to write.

So that was fun! Good luck to all the bloggers I nominated. I hope you accept the award, and pass it on. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Strawberries and Camp and Kids

I've been out of the blogging world for about a week now. Last week I taught a cooking camp with Kids Cooking Green, and frankly, I felt like the rest of my life was on hold. It was intense and time-consuming, but also incredibly rewarding. The format of the camp was simple: the students cooked their own lunch every day. But lunch meant a multi-course meal from scratch, often with a homemade drink or dessert. Thirteen kids aged 9-12 came every day ready to learn and taste, which made hauling the boxes of equipment and ingredients worth it.

The camp coincided with strawberry season here in the northeast, which is short but oh so sweet (I can happily report that my own family picked almost 20 pounds this weekend to stash in the freezer for winter jam making). At camp, we made sure several recipes featured local strawberries, which taste so different from the big berries that get trucked in from far away. When I work with kids, I like using a popular food like berries as a gateway to introduce topics like how to buy seasonally and locally, and how food tastes better and is better for you when it's cooked from scratch.

By far the best strawberry recipe of the week was something I called Pink Bruschetta. We made a quick berry sauce, toasted a quality baguette, and then topped the toasts with mascarpone cheese and the sauce. It was fun to make, and even though we cooked the berries, the sauce still tastes like eating a berry just picked from the field.

So get out there and grab some local strawberries before they are gone. And then make this dish. Because if a 9 year old can do it, you can too. 

Pink Bruschetta

3 c. strawberries, washed, hulled, and cut in half
2 t. lemon juice
1 t. lemon zest
6 T. brown sugar
1 c. mascarpone cheese
One baguette, cut into 1/2 inch pieces and toasted

In a saucepan, combine the strawberries, lemon, lemon zest and sugar. Cook on medium heat until the strawberries are soft, about 10 minutes. Using a potato masher, break up some of the strawberries in the sauce. Set aside. (Strawberry sauce will keep in the refrigerator, for one week.)

In a small bowl, whisk together mascarpone with 3 tablespoons of the strawberry sauce, enough to turn the cheese a pink color.

Spread cheese mixture on a piece of toasted baguette. Top with strawberry sauce.