Friday, May 28, 2010

Visiting the Past

We all do this. Some of us take up permanent residence there and some take a short stay from time to time. A vacation from present day worries or boredom.  The reasons we do this are as varied as there are individuals in the world. Searching for answers, perhaps reliving a moment of sheer happiness, sometimes in search of comfort, we dig through the dusty, musty, memories, and papers, photos and books looking for something long ago relegated to the realm of memory.

The "proper" cook in my extended family was our Nana, my maternal grandmother. She took great care in her cooking, worked with a food scientist on some projects; she even sold her Orange Toast to Bloomingdale's for heaven's sake.  I once asked her for the recipe and in a rare moment (of what seemed like cynicism to me) said. "You don't want it, really, it's too much trouble". She was the Grande Dame de Cuisine in our family and one of my greatest role models, but that's not the memory lane we find ourselves on today. Nope.  It's a dusty trail we're on today. Think Tumbleweeds.

Manny. Just typing her name makes me feel loved. My paternal grandmother and I share many genes that dictate physical appearance. I didn't get the tiny waist gene, though, I am sorry to say. Manny. My earliest memories of her were from her apartment with Papa Frank where they used Endust to keep the dust down on the hardwood floors and they had these cool venetian blinds! The next memories I have are from Tucson Arizona where she moved with our Uncle Bruce after Papa Frank died, because she suffered terribly from asthma and Arizona was the place to be back then for people with respiratory problems. We went to visit in the summer when we were all out of school. (The futuristic item there was inground sprinklers!) A bunch of kids, 2 adults, cross country with no airconditioning. But that's another post.

In the realm of my memory, everything Manny did was born of love. Her comforting hugs, her stories, her smile, her laugh. She was a down to earth, practical, and immensely loving woman; it's fair to say she had a twinkle in her eye. I remember to this day, 50 years ago, the smell of the gum-drop cookies baking in the oven. (In Tucson, in the summer, if that ain't love I don't know what is.) It was a heavenly waft of ginger and cinnamon and sugar. I remember the outer crunch and the chewy sweet goodness of the insides mixed with the gumdrops. I have never had gumdrop cookies since, and frankly, gum-drops themselves don't appeal to me at all. It was the love that went into them that made them so good. I will never try to make them because the experience can't be re-created, it's best left as a memorial in my mind.

Right about now you are wondering if  I've gone off the track... where's the food? It's coming, I promise. In the form of one of the most comforting comfort dishes ever made. Spoonbread. Now if you're not from a certain region of the South, you may not know what this is. I think the making of Spoonbread was concentrated in the mid-Atlantic areas like Virginia and Maryland, sometimes Kentucky and North Carolina. As opposed to the deep south where people were much poorer. Although Mrs. S. R. Dull in her classic "Southern Cooking" (1928) has several recipes for Spoonbread, including one entitled "Southern Spoonbread" haha I think that means Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.  Spoonbread is basically a souffled cornbread, and the dairy products to make it were extremely perishable in the deep south of old.. older than 1928 even. Before Iceboxes.

Manny made the best Spoonbread I've ever had. Period. That includes my attempts at her recipe, which are still good but not the heavenly cloud that I remember. I must say, as this is a tribute to food as a labor of love, our late sister Jenny made an excellent Spoonbread as well. The difficulty for her in whipping egg whites to peaks (even with a handheld electric mixer) must have been far worse than anything I have tried in The French Laundry. You see, Jenny had debilitating Rheumatoid Arthritis, holding a mixer was not an easy task.  As my labor of love, I shall press onward and try it again, just so you can see its wonderfulness. Back to the future...err present we go.

Manny's Spoonbread
(Thank God Jenny had the foresight to record this recipe! Thanks Jenny!)

1c fine yellow corn meal
2c milk (scalded)
1/2 c butter
1t salt
1t sugar
4 eggs (separated)

This recipe makes enought to serve at least 6 so I am cutting the ingredients in half for this post.

Add the cornmeal slowly to the scalded (heated) milk in a double boiler. I don't have a double boiler so I'm using a bowl set over a pan of water. Cook, stirring constantly.

Remove when it starts to thicken and add butter, salt and sugar.  Stir until butter is melted.

Let the mixture cool slightly and add the beaten egg yolks.

Gradually fold in stiffly beaten egg whites

Pour into a buttered pan  and bake at 375 for 30-35 min.

Serve immediately. With spoons and butter.

Try it.
I hope you love it as much as I do and who knows, you may be creating memories for your loved ones.

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, Remember those who died for our freedom.
See you soon.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ad Hoc at Home Steak and Creamed Spinach -- I promise it isn't as boring as it sounds!

The Ad Hoc restaurant came into being as a temporary use of a property Thomas Keller bought  near his other restaurants in CA. On page 102 of the cookbook is a copy of the memo Chef Keller sent to members of his team. As the name implies, it was meant to be a temporary solution to the question of how to use the space. He has wanted to open a restaurant featuring burgers for 15 years, but at that time his entire team was busy with all the various projects he was into at the time and thus were unavailable to develop a whole new concept. He thought of the simplest restaurant style he could, and that was one cooking a simple family meal, like the staff meal they served at each of the current restaurants each day.
FUN, Simple, Affordable, 1 Service, No Menu, 4-5 nights a week. Maybe supper on Sunday 4 courses, Salad served family style, Protein Starch and Vegetable, old style SIMPLE
To make a long story short, the restaurant was such as success, no one wanted to close it. This style of cooking is so much more accessible than The French Laundry (to say the least). As an afficiando of cookbooks, I have to say the difference in style between the two cookbooks is striking. The first set of recipes in the book, preceded by a reflection from the chef, is the meal he cooked that was his ailing father's last meal. It shows a warm and human side that must be what T. Keller is like on his days off, or outside The French Laundry.  Thomas Keller in regular clothes as opposed to his Chef's whites, playful poses with food, chalkboard diagrams of recipes... it IS fun. But it is still refined cooking, and very tasty indeed.

This is a classic steakhouse combination, but I've never taken the time to do the "extras's" that really make this meal stand out.

For the Steak:
1.5 in thick Porterhouse or T-Bone steak
canola oil
salt and pepper

Shallot and Herb Butter (this makes enough for 3 steaks at least)
12 T unsalted butter at room temperature
2/3 c minced shallots
minced Italian Parsley
Sweet Paprika
a little salt
1 T fresh squeezed lemon juice

For the Spinach
2 lb baby spinach
2 T butter
minced shallots
grated Comte or Emmentaler cheese
salt and pepper

Mornay Sauce
1.5 T unsalted butter
1/4 c diced onion
1.5 T all purpose flour
1 c whole milk
1/2 c heavy cream
1 small bay leaf
2 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground white pepper
3 T grated Comte or Emmentaler cheese

Mornay is a a bechamel sauce into which you whisk some cheese at the last minute. It's great paired with broccoli, cauliflower, or here with spinach. My Mom used to make Shrimp Mornay for very special dinner occasions and it was fabulous, but it had far more cheese in it than this lovely sauce.

I think I will go in order of execution here, as you want to have as much done as possible before you grill the steak. You don't want to overcook a beauty like that because you are checking the browning on the cheese in the creamed spinach! I say this from experience. I was flustered not knowing whether to make the mornay first or the spinach, but I figured it all out and am laying out here, just for you, dear reader. I do this ALL for you, it's a sacrifice, I know, but you're well worth it. : )

First: take the butter and the steak out of the refrigerator as they both need to come to room temperature.

I started with the butter. I have made compound butters before and they really make a huge difference in finishing a dish. In fact, I love compund butters! They are great with meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, potatoes name it.  Let your imagination fly! Butter+Apricot Jam + Thyme for use on pork or chicken. Butter+ Blue cheese crumbles + salt and pepper for steak.  There are as many combinations as there are ingredients at hand, and don't freak out about the fat. A very little bit goes a long way toward boosting flavor.

First cook the shallots in 1 t butter over med low heat, just enough to soften them (but not to brown) about 10 min.  Set aside and let cool. Set the remaining butter in a bowl and combine the lemon juice, parsley, paprika and salt and finally the shallots.

Roll into a log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. If not using it all, freeze what's left.

On to the Mornay!
The recipe says to use a heat diffuser as temperature is of critical importance here the sauce cannot scorch on the bottom of the pan. I usually use my cast iron skillet as a diffuser but I didn't feel the need for it this time. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook a few minutes until the onion is translucent, then add the flour. Stir to incorporate and cook for a few minutes, but take care not to let the flour (roux) brown. Add the milk and cream and whisk constantly, bringing to a simmer. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf, and cloves. Move the pan to one side of the diffuser or turn the heat to very low and whisk occasionally, you want the mixture to just barely simmer for 30 minutes. After this time, Strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and season the with a grating of nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste, then whisk in your cheese and set aside, but keep it warm.  **Sorry no pictures of this** See what flustering can do to a person?

Now the Spinach -- we are cooking in batches here!
In a large skillet melt half the butter and sautee half the shallots until soft. Add the a few handfuls of spinach and using tongs or a spatula, stir and flip it around to coat. When it is wilted add a few more handfuls until you have used about half the spinach. Season with salt to taste. Remove that half  to a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl and let the excess liquid drain. When drained, remove to a separate medium sized bowl. Repeat the process with the second half of the ingredients.

The marriage:
 Add the Mornay to the wilted spinach in the medium bowl. Stir to incorporate. Then place the mixture in a 9X9 baking dish and sprinkle with the grated cheese. This is a pre-cheese picture.

Place into a preheated 350 oven until the spinach in slightly brown around the edges and the cheese is melted. If desired turn on the broiler at the last minute to brown the cheese on top. You will want to time this with the grilling, get the grill started and the steak prepared, perhaps aiming to remove the casserole before flipping the steak. Or if you are a super-multitasker, like my Sis, do it all at once.

The steak!
Be sure the steak has come to room temperature. Coat each side lightly with canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Prepare the grill with 2 temperature cooking, one side medium high heat, the other medium. Grill over medium high heat 2-3 minutes to get a good sear, the rotate 90 degrees for a crosshatch pattern, grill 2-3 min more.  Flip the steaks and at the same time move to the medium side, repeat the searing only on the last piece, cook for 8-12 min or until a thermometer reads 128-130 (that's my range - the book says 125-128). Remove from heat add your coumpund butter to melt and swipe it around on the surface. Let the steak rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.  (Yes, I need courses in food styling LOL ) Props to WSH for grilling expertise! He makes it perfect every time.

As you can see from the first picture in the post, the raw picture, this was an excellent steak. Perfectly marbled, great texture and huge flavor. The quality of ingredients makes all the difference. Once grilled, the juicy meat and the compund butter combined to make an extraordinary taste. The savory meat and the touch of smoky sweetness from the paprika and the tang of a gorgeous Meyer lemon, it was just fantastic. Every single ingredient held its own note in this steak symphony.

The creamed spinach was the same way. You may wonder how much difference 2 cloves, 2 peppercorns and 1 small bay leaf can make. Let me tell you.. all the difference in the world. The only word I can think of to describe this sauce is Elegant. The additional flavors were definitely there but subtley so, this was not a thick gooey, pasty white or cheesy creamed spinach. It was truly a thing of beauty. If you think I am going overboard, try it yourself and see.

Have a wonderful weekend.
See you soon.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Drifting through May, not yet at June, it's a bit past Spring, but it's not quite Summer, one of those in between times of the year. The early spring vegetables are past their prime but the corn, tomatoes and okra haven't reached their fullness. I've been perusing the T. Keller books for inspiration and most of TFL and Bouchon are very seasonal recipes. Trust me when I say perusing, poor Jim lugs the darn things upstairs each evening and downstairs each morning; I think they weigh at least 5 lbs each. I have found a couple of candidates from Ad Hoc at Home for this week, but I am unprepared for that today and will shop tomorrow. Today we have an easy meal, Ribs and Cole Slaw.

I use a dry rub with only the slightest touch of a sauce at the end, and sometimes no sauce at all. Afrer all, you want to taste the pork first and the sauce as a complement, not the other way around. Take your ribs out of their wrapping , rinse them and cut the membrane from the rib side. Trim any excess fat and let them dry and come to room temperature.

My dry rub, which is really an amalgamation mix of many recipes I've read, is as follows (I decided I didn't really know what amalgamation meant and didn't feel like looking it up because that would lead to a jungle vine-ful of word choices and I'd never get this posted):

3T chili powder, the fresher and darker the better
1T garlic powder
1T onion powder
1T ground cumin (preferably freshly ground)
1t ancho chili powder
2t kosher salt (or to taste)
2t freshly ground pepper
1t sweet paprika
1t dry mustard (optional)
3 T light brown sugar

Mix it all up and this should give you enough for 2 slabs of ribs I'd bet it would be good with skin on chicken too.. cooked low and slow.

Place the ribs on a very large sheet of aluminum foil and sprinkle the top side liberally with the rub. Sprinkle lightly (because it wont stick as well) on the underside. Wrap your foil into a package and place into a preheated 250 oven for 2 hours. Check at the 2 hr mark and if you want sauce spread it on the ribs and keeping the foil open put back into the oven for another 20-30 min. If you don't want sauce, just open the foil and continue cooking 20-30 min.

For the cole slaw, shred 1/4 cabbage (remove the heavy white core before shredding) on a mandoline or cut into very thin slivers with a knife  (about 3 cups). You want the pieces to be fork-friendly so you may have to cut into lengths as well. Run a few carrots over the coarse holes of your grater and mix with the cabbage. I also added some green parts of scallions for color.

For the dressing mix all these in a bowl and adjust proportions to your liking:
3/4c mayonnaise
1/3 c milk
2 T creme fraiche or sour cream
1 tsp lemon juice or vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp celery seeds (I didn't have any)

Combine the cabbage, carrot mix with the dressing and add salt and pepper to taste. Let it sit in the fridge at least an hour before serving. This will make more dressing than you need, but makes a nice green salad dressing too.

When the ribs are ready, plate 'em up and eat!  These were good ribs, not too fatty. And at 2-3 ribs per serving this will serve 4 easily. Or, in our case 2 dinners for 2. The cole slaw changes character in the fridge, the dressing and the salt pull the moisture from the cabbage and carrots so they shrink a bit and become really crunchy and their flavors intensify. It's a nice textural counterpoint to the ribs.

See you soon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Personal Post

As if they aren't all, in some way, personal....

I meant to take my camera..but I was kind of flustered. I'm not a morning person but we woke up at 6:30 am. I don't do crowds well, but there were about 5,000 ppl there.. yikes  (and they all exited through ONE GATE!!!). I'm not kidding.

We had spent a lovely evening on the deck with Liz and Bruce the night before and everyone was up and ready, blowdried and tucked in (shirts that is). Morning came and we drove to Ga. Tech. We found our seats with Meg's parents Hubbard and Kathy and our fun lunch friend and brother John, (who you may remember from Farmhouse). It took FOREVER for the program to start but once it started, it moved rather briskly. There were speakers, of course, and then the hopeful grads were called name by name, within colleges. Science was last (of course).  I say "hopeful grads" because they were given a photo of the Tech Tower, not a diploma, because their final exams were taken on Thursday.

It is hard to describe the powerful emotions that roll over a parent's body and mind during this type of graduation. It is High School x 20 -- at least for me. Georgia Tech is  very very difficult academic program. It is a world class institution. To have your son or daughter graduate, furthermore with Honors or High Honors, and even furthermore with two degrees within 4 years (as both Meg and Ken did), to a person of ordinary intellect as I am, it takes my breath away.

Anyway, other than the rather obnoxious speech from the Alumni Assn. head, it was a great ceremony. The balloons didn't release properly, but if my Sister Liz had been in charge, (as she used to do) they would have been perfect.

We had lunch with about 15 people at Varasano's Pizzeria and it was perfect! We all ate and drank and  visited with each other as if we owned the place. The service was phenomenal (our server was the young lady working the bar), the food was great! We got 3 salumi plates, 5 pizzas and 3 desserts. The fried pizza-doughnuts were awesome!  All the pizzas were great, except the white clam... not a crowd favorite. The coffee was a crowd favorite too!

I have invited Ken and Allison, and Ken Brown (his mentor and boss at GT) and Christine to a TFL dinner, we'll see if that works out. Dr. Brown was in California recently and unable to secure a reservation at TFL, hopefully I can show some of my gratitude by cooking a Keller inspired meal for him... never ever thinking I would meet the standards of TFL just perhaps give a glimpse of the wonderfulness.  Also, we are hoping that Meg and her friends will come to a Keller inspired dinner soon.

Sorry for the lack of pictures, It was really sort of the end? reverse? opposite? of labor (and equally intense). He was brought into this world through pregnancy and now goes out into the world with our love and support and prayers. God Bless all the graduates, all over the world.

See you soon.  More food on the way, I promise !!