Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I made this- and James Beard taught me how.

Last fall a woman I worked with gave me a bread maker. It had been in solitary confinement in a closet, and she only remembered it because I said I wanted one.

At first the bread maker worked. It kneaded, then baked several loaves of white bread and honey bread. Then it balked. The kneading blade refused to run when I put the flour, the yeast and the liquid in the metal bowl. Empty, it worked just fine. Now it sits in my closet until I decide what to do with it. I had to find another way to make bread.

For a decade I have had a $300.00 white Kitchenaid mixer. It was decorative. And unemployed until I used a recipe from James Beard's book "Beard on Bread" for plain white bread. Now I make this bread every week, and the mixer's dough hook kneads for me. This is a most excellent loaf.

I found "Beard on Bread " at the estate sale of the late Mrs. H-. It cost two dollars. And yesterday I spent three dollars for "James Beard's Simple Foods" at the used book store.

I love James Beard , for he knows how to teach. His books are far more than recipes. And his opinions are a joy to read. Here is what he writes about the lunch my mother tried to feed me every day of my youth:

"-I consider the jelly-and-peanut-butter combination the lowest ebb to which eating can fall".

I consider it the lowest ebb as well. I hid my sandwiches in the little roll-top desk in my bedroom. When it was safe I took them outside and threw them away. Some I forgot, and they mummified and permeated the wood with their smell-

Beard is at the top of my list of admired cooks. Julia Child, Richard Olney, James Peterson, and Craig Claiborne follow him. Old-fashioned I know, and all but Peterson are dead. But to read them is to be included in a most delightful conversation. And if James Beard says that sliced onions dressed with mustard and sandwiched between two slices of his salty, crispy white bread is good, I know he will not lead me astray.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Nine Dollar Chicken on a Two Dollar Roaster

I bought a Spanek Vertical Roaster at an estate sale last fall. I paid two dollars for it. This was a bargain, for it sells for $19.95 these days. My roaster is also an antique from 1997, and I have the worn box to prove it. The late Mrs. H-, who owned it, passed it on in pristine condition , for she seems to have been a woman who bought things and then forgot them.

When I told a friend about the roaster she told me that some people used an empty beer can to achieve the same end. I think there might be some logistical problems with that-

I basted my little chicken with butter before I pushed it onto the roaster. This might have been superfluous, for the roaster comes with a baster. One puts 4 pats of butter on the baster plate ,and it greases itself.

I was pleased with the results. The skin was crispy. The chicken was delicious. Was it the roaster, or was it the $9.00 Whole Foods Yuppie chicken raised in Poultry Nirvana and fed certified organic barnyard bugs? I guess the true test will be roasting a chicken with a less exalted provenance-

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Estate Sale Diaries

With the exception of underwear and pantyhose, almost everything I own is second-hand. I buy at consignment shops, junk shops, the Salvation Army Store. I buy at garage sales and estate sales, though as I grow older I drive to more of the latter than the former. Some see no difference between garage sales and estate sales. But I do. Garage sales sell what people no longer want. Estate sales sell what they leave behind. They are a momento mori, reminding us that our painted cabinets, our Limoges, our cookbooks, our lamps and rugs will outlive us and be touched by other hands.

Picture a garage or yard sale: three young matrons sitting outside a carport on a quiet street ending in a cul-de-sac. It is a Friday in May. It is 8 am, and already too warm. Three Kurdish women drive up. They are here for the children's clothes. Everyone who parks now is here for the clothes. Two Hispanic couples in a red truck. Mothers- to- be from poorer neighborhoods. Someone will buy the golf clubs, and the computer monitor. They will ask if the lamp works. No one will pay 50 dollars for a treadmill, so rather than push it back inside, one of the young women sells it for a ten dollar bill. A buyer is looking for the mate of a girl's red satin ballet shoe. She is too late. The house Boston Terrier has taken it under the crape myrtle and is tearing it apart. Now the women fear the afternoon thunderstorm. Everything goes for a dollar. And when an older woman in a old truck arrives looking for flower pots, the women give them away for free.

And then there is the estate sale, advertised a month in advance. It starts at 9am, and as always the dealers are first at the door. The sale's organizer may fear a crush, and may limit the people in the house to 30 at a time. One has to park blocks away and walk. There might not even be a sign, for the monied neighborhoods forbid them.

I know this from experience, for many a weekend I have left my apartment with a little money and my old companion Whim. It is he who convinces me to spend two dollars on a vintage "Spanek Verticle Roaster". Or a china goose soup tureen. I will stand in the kitchen of an empty condominium in River Plantation wondering, along with four other women, why the late owner has 12 old electric coffee percolators in a lower cupboard.

"She must have done a lot of church work", someone ventures. We all nod, for it is as good an explanation as any. I buy her china canister set. When I bring them home I find she stored her cigarettes in them. That smell lingers. I found it too late on a pair of gloves I bought. But I was lucky. How often does one find a 12 inch Made in America Revere Ware skillet in good condition? With a lid-

Yet, as I stood in the line in the once living room, waiting to pay up at the table, I see something no one will buy. A framed montage of photos of the late owner's fat old beagle. Lying on a couch. Playing with a stuffed animal. Looking up at its owner.
At thirty I would have seen this and been indifferent. But at sixty- there is sadness and the chill of time passing-

Note: More on the Verticle Roaster in a future post. Was it worth counterspace and two dollars?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Dignified Portrait of a Nurse in "Downton Abbey".

Nurses do not fare well on page or screen. They run the gamut, as the wit once said, from A to B. A drug addict such as "Nurse Jackie" on cable. An ornament, like the beautiful young thing in the immortal hospital novel "The House of God", described as a "rainbow in a waterfall". I am certain there are exceptions such as Audrey Hepburn's nursing sister in "The Nun's Story", but they are rare.

I am heartened then to see Mrs. Crawley in Masterpiece Classic's "Downton Abbey", which has two more episodes to go on PBS. Mrs. Crawley is the mother of the new heir-by-accident to this great house, In contrast to the other women of her family, she seeks a purpose in life beyond being decorative and procreative in her youth or being a snobbish scold in old age. Nor has any man used her as a bank, as the Lord of Downton Abbey has used his American heiress wife. Mrs. Crawley,"trained as a nurse" wants to be "useful", and wins a place on the local hospital's Directors Board, after her quality is seen and recognized. And though she is a minor character, she shines above all others in this story.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Some thoughts on cookbooks

I was looking at photos of small kitchens on Apartment Therapy's site "The Kitchn" (their spelling) this week. One they featured had a counter top computer,ready to search for recipes from all over the Internet. Interesting, thought I, but not for me. Nor do I want my recipes squeezed onto an e-reader, I want to hold my cookbooks, to leaf through them, to annotate them. I also want cookbooks that would never appear on a Nook or a Kindle because they are sixty years old and out of print and out of fashion.

Perhaps I am writing this to justify my latest trip to the stacks at McKay Used Books yesterday. I admit that when one owns over 300 cookbooks, it seems superfluous to add more. Yet when I shop now I am looking for the vintage, the unique, and the exceptional.

And that is what I found at McKay. A 60 year old book on Romanian cooking by an accomplished woman named Anisoara Stan, who was a "nationally renowned folklorist and folk artist". And "The Settlement Cookbook" compiled by Mrs Simon Kander and published by The American Crayon Company of Sandusky. This book is a fourth edition, published in 1910. 100 years old. A collectible. I paid $4.00 for it.

I also bought Leon Galatoire's Cookbook. The author is of the Galatoire clan who ran the famous New Orleans restaurant of the same name. It was signed by the author in 1995 for "Wende and Riley", who he hopes will come and visit him soon in New Orleans.

And next- another gem from 1954. "Jesse's book of Creole and deep South Recipes", by Edith and John Watts. Mrs Watts, a matron from Gulfport, was a daughter of Mr Marshall Ballard, editor of the "New Orleans Item". Mr Ballard loved food and set an illustrious table with the help of his black cook Jesse Willis Lewis, a gentleman praised by the likes of Henry Luce, Dorothy Dix, and H.L. Mencken- luminaries undoubtedly unknown to the Twitter Generation. This book is also a collectible.

Lastly- is the hyper-opinionated James Villas's " The Glory of Southern Cooking". It is not a collectible and it is not vintage, but it was a find for $17.00. Mr Villas lives in New York, and once wrote for "Town and Country". He is very much the defender of all things traditional. He wants no one tinkering with the sacred recipes of his memory. This book even has a recipe for a frozen tomato concoction called "Belle Meade Frozen Tomato", served at the Belle Meade Country Club in this city. I have always wondered what went on at the Country Club, a place I will never be invited to in this lifetime.

As always I wonder who sent these books to McKay I can only conclude that they were people who did not know any better. And how thankful I am to them. And in the future I hope there are more of them, ready to discard Jane Grigson's cookbooks, or books on Austrian and Scandinavian cookery. I want a Russian cookbook. A Portuguese cookbook, and anything from Sicily-

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A cooking lesson for children

Had I a grandchild, and if she (or he) wanted to help me cook , what would I choose to make for dinner that would teach her more than one lesson? That would teach her to boil water, to set a timer, to peel, dice, and saute an onion , to mince or press garlic, to brown meat, to add seasonings, to grate cheese, to cook and drain pasta,to see that cooking is enjoyable ,and to be pleased and proud of a meal made by her own hands.

A simple platter of pasta with a home made sauce of diced tomatoes and mild Italian sausage provides all these lessons. It is the door that opens to the world of cookery. Learn to conquer the onion, and you conquer the kitchen. Tame garlic- and you will have no fear. Any child can learn this. More of them should.

Simple pasta with simple sauce.

1 pound of spaghetti,linguine, angel hair pasta, or even orzo if you are feeling adventurous

1 lb mild Italian sausage

1 28 oz can good quality diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Sea salt- to taste

2 cloves of garlic- diced or crushed

1-2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

1 yellow onion, diced

Put the olive oil in a saute pan or deep skillet. Turn to medium high heat, wait, then tilt the pan. When the oil streaks, add the diced onions. Lower the heat a bit, sprinkle the onions with 1/2 teas. of sea salt and saute them till they are soft, golden and sweet. Now add the crumbled mild Italian sausage and saute it until it is lightly browned. Add the crushed garlic, the diced tomatoes, the Italian seasoning, and the vinegar. Cover and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, Taste to make sure the seasoning pleases you. 8 minutes before the sauce is ready you can cook your pasta, following the package directions. And remember that these directions are directions. Not guidelines. Pasta needs precision. Another lesson for the child, who by now should be searching the refrigerator for the Parmesan or the Romano. Micro plane or grater in hand , set her to work on the cheese.Let her drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the sauce ,or if you prefer, spoon it onto each individual plate of pasta. Let the child sprinkle the cheese .

Let all enjoy the meal- but do not forget the last lesson. Boy or girl. Someone must do the dishes. And wipe the counters, and clear the table.

January Sunset-Nashville

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

At the Bookstore

Note: I wrote this after a visit to Davis-Kidd Booksellers here in Nashville. This bookstore, plagued by a bad location in a snooty mall with awful parking, by e-books, and, closed in December. I dug out this old bit of doggerel after reading that romance novels are among the most popular e-books.

At the Bookstore

Should we pity

The Un-Pretty?

The nervous prey of sad crushes

Of infatuations beyond their means.

They creep through the romance paperback aisles-

Until they see-

Startle! In surprise! At who

Beside them standing buys:

All the Pretty.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Snowy Day in Nashville

Do children still sing along with their elementary school teacher? I did. Fifty years ago in my school in Plantsville, Connecticut. Here are the words of "The January Song". I remember it as though it was yesterday:

Snowy world and low hung cloud

Snowflakes whirling in a crowd-

Winds a-whistling long and loud

Make up January!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Anatomy of a Grit

I have lived in the South for thirty years , and have eaten grits only a handful of times at a few bed and breakfasts. Last week I cooked my own for the first time, for I have read that shrimp have an affinity for grits, and any friend of the shrimp is a friend of mine.

Let me say first that I loathe hot breakfast cereals, especially oatmeal. I associate them with my 11th year when my family moved from a prosperous, comfortable existence in a historic salt box house in Plantsville , Connecticut to near poverty in an old hill farmhouse on the Little Sugar River in North Charlestown New Hampshire. There every breakfast was oatmeal, every lunch peanut butter sandwiches, and every supper green beans and tomatoes from a crock pot. And the oatmeal was always burned onto the bottom of the pot, and I was always the designated pot scrubber. Aversions are born this way.

I thought grits were the oatmeal of the South. I avoided them. But they are merely hominy- a food I love- pulverized. And they are more versatile than oatmeal. Not only can they cavort with shrimp, but also mix with eggs and cheese to make the casserole pictured above.

To study the history of grits, I opened John Egerton's " Southern Food", written in 1987. Much of the book was dated- in the way any food book will be dated when it talks about restaurants. For what is more ephemeral than a restaurant? What has a shorter half life?

I was surprised to read that Mr Egerton believed that grits " were on the wane", and he dated this to the year the voters sent Jimmy Carter back to Plains, Georgia.

Grits are not on the wane. They, like possums and armadillos, are on the march. North. My mother reports that grits are on the shelves of the Claremont, New Hampshire Walmart.

And they are mainstream. Did I buy Aunt Minnie's or Mee-Maw's genuine country grits?

No. I bought Quaker "Old-fashioned" grits, and I made four servings using the package instructions. I added sea salt to taste and a cup of cheddar cheese. I put the bowl of grits in the fridge because that is what the Lee Brothers. Southern Cookbook told me to do. Chill the grits overnight it said, and in the morning shape them into flat cakes and cook them on a griddle. I sauteed 6 jumbo shrimp simply in butter and a bit of clam juice to accompany my anticipated grits.

But what a battle it was to try to shape cold grits into flat cakes. The grits were rebellious. They did not want to go. They went to pieces from grief at leaving their MotherLump. I did manage two fragile cakes, lightly browned, but the other two fractured cakes sizzled away in shapelessness. But some of the little grits, free at last, began to hop around all over the griddle like Mexican jumping beans. They were entertaining and entertained right up to the moment I ate them.

I thought another frigid night might tame the last two servings of grits, but I was wrong. Frustrated, I tossed them into a bowl, mixed in two eggs,poured them into a small casserole dish and baked them at 350 degrees about twenty minutes . I tested the middle with a skewer, and when it came out clean they were done. It was a good casserole, though if I make it again I will add more cheese. I ate half of it , then gave the rest to a hungry friend. She said it was good. I hope she was not just being polite.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Shrimp Broth

I collected two pint zip-lock baggies of shrimp shells from the many bags of frozen shrimp I buy. When I had a day off I defrosted the shells, ground them up in the food processor, and simmered them for 3 hours in a saucepan with 5 cups of water. I did not add herbs or vegetables. I wanted pure shrimp broth. When the simmer was done ,I strained then shells out in a colander, then strained them again through a funnel lined with a coffee filter. I used several coffee filters because of very persistent shell sediment. I was left with 4 cups of yellow-pink shrimp fragrant broth that I will use to cook rice or poach fish. I froze some of the broth in metal molds. Then I ran the molds under hot water for a moment to loosen them, then put them into freezer storage bags.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Lamb and Veal Meatballs with Feta, Pine Nuts, and dried Apricots.

Note: Anyone else posting this photo might have photo-shopped out the fat on the foil around these meatballs. I could have arranged them on a plate and posted that. But I have chosen to present them, lipids and all. Let it comfort you, if you fear fat, that the fat here has left the meatball. It cannot hurt you. You will throw it away.

In the first 50 years of my life I had but one chance to eat lamb. I turned it down. I was a nursing student, in line at the Mary Hitchcock Hospital cafeteria, searching for supper. The lamb was gray and greasy, with a glob of green jelly offered up as a condiment.

Later in life, as I studied cookbooks from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, I let go of my prejudice. Given a choice now between lamb and beef I choose lamb. I choose leg of lamb, lamb chops, shoulder cuts (very cheap), and ground.

I rarely talk to anyone else who eats lamb. Middle Tennessee believes that Man's best friend is the pig, followed closely by the steer. One can find lamb at the better groceries, but the farther out into the provinces one goes the less chance one has to buy even a lamb chop.

Our disdain for lamb is not global, for sheep may safely graze where cattle would starve or wander off a cliff. That means mountains and arid places everywhere- from the Sudan to Iceland to Turkey to the barren islands of Greece. This gives steady employment as well to shepherds and sheepdogs who in the words of Daniel W Glade in his chapter on sheep in The Cambridge World History of Food states:

"Shepherds and dogs remain indispensable, for they protect their defenseless charges not only from predators but also from the sheep's own mimetic behavior and innate stupidity."

Sheep may be dim-witted, but that is neither here nor there for our purpose, which is to make a delicious meatball from ground lamb, with veal included for contrast. I also added pine nuts, which many lamb meatball recipes call for. More unusual are the chopped dried apricots, the panko crumbs, and the Feta cheese. I confess I did not sauce this dish. If I had ,I planned to invent something with pomegranate molasses, yogurt, and honey. This will be a future project. Here is my recipe-

1 pound ground lamb

1 pound ground veal

1 cup panko crumbs(or breadcrumbs)

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

1 medium yellow onion, diced

1-2 teaspoons sea salt

olive oil to saute onion- 1-2 tablespoons

3 cloves garlic- minced or put through a garlic press.(Julia Child was not too good to use a garlic press.)

2 eggs

3-4 tablespoons pine nuts

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 1-2 teaspoons sea salt.

1/2 to 3/4 cup diced dried apricots.

Saute the diced yellow onion in the olive oil until it is soft and golden.

In a large bowl combine all the ingredients. It will be mushy work but you must knead the meat as though you were making bread to spread the ingredients evenly. When you have accomplished this ,you are ready to shape your mixture into meatballs. I chose to make the three inches wide. Then line them up in a foil lined baking dish of good size- 9 by 12 or 9 by 15 would work. Bake them in a 375 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes. As always , be attentive to keep them from over-roasting. This recipe would feed at least six. I, being but one ,will freeze my extras.

Roasted, thinly sliced potatoes, coated with olive oil, dusted with sea salt and layered with rosemary, diced garlic, and diced pancetta go well with this!

A New Year

Our sky this morning was painted by Magritte- a painterly start to a day of benign weather. Cool, but not cold, with safe, dry roads to get me to work tonight- This afternoon I will take the dogs to the park, and we will count our blessings.

It has been a year since I began this blog, and I see that a year can be an eternity in Blogdom. I have been surprised to see how many sites I read are folding their tents and stealing away. Their authors have no time. They are moving on. They have other projects. That is what they say in their farewells. Who has not thought from time to time that their efforts were pointless and minor. Unappreciated. Unread. All of us I would guess. One of my best friends told me recently she had not looked at my blog in months.

That gave me pause. If one's friends are indifferent, what is the point? Yet- another friend is my cheerleader, and she urges me on.

And onward I will go. I will finish "The Annals of Nursing" this year. I will write " Before Ivan", a memoir of time spent in Coastal Alabama, in the spring before Hurricane Ivan- the disaster that presaged Katrina and Deepwater Horizon. There will be recipes, and and an essay on Estate sales, and on the wearing of hats. And memoirs of time spent on Cedar Key and points west along the Gulf Coast. I will tell you about Shell Mounds at the Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge, and of the Zebra Long wings that live there. And once again excerpts-. from a work of fiction I want to finish. More poems.

Yet having said this I must caution that good writing takes time. Thoughts and ideas incubate. They cannot be written daily. They wait for their moment. Photos, ruminations, recipes and what I saw today are for every day. More thoughtful pieces require waiting.

Happy New Year to All!