Friday, August 26, 2011

Signs of August
What’s cooking? Chilled Corn Soup with Honeydew Dots

One of the phenomena that I have observed as my children got older was the way I lose track – other than through the weather – of the seasons and the attendant holidays. Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Presidents’ Day, Spring Break, Fall Break ... they come and go with hardly a nod. Absent the monthly notices from school, or the thematic artwork for my refrigerator, or even the need to find child care on days that were observed by the school system but not by my Wall Street employer, I find myself halfway through the fall before I realize I have to start thinking about Thanksgiving. Even the great secondary holidays – Valentines’ Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween – almost escape my notice.

But here in Jersey City, I have a new seasonal marker: I can trace the year’s progress through the activity on the athletic field outside our condo window. I can watch lacrosse in the spring, football in the fall, and various sports camps – primarily soccer – all summer. So how do I know summer is almost over? The football players are finally practicing in full uniform.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Happy 100th, Gladys!
What’s cooking? Apple Pie with Cheddar Crust

Yesterday was my mother-in-law’s 100th birthday. At a two-day celebration last weekend, she allowed as how she thought she was finally ready to offer advice if anyone wanted some. Sure, when she was born, there were no televisions or cell phones or computers. There also were no radio broadcasts (1920), no Band-Aids (1920) or hair dryers (1920), no automobiles with combustion engines (1920), no bras (1913) or Q-Tips (1920) or Kool-Aid (1927), and no penicillin (1928). It’s hard for me to even imagine that world.

Gladys didn’t have anything to do with bringing combustion engines or Band-Aids or Kool-Aid into our lives; but with her husband, she did raise three children to be good and responsible citizens. And I was lucky enough to meet one of them and marry him.

When she was in the 5th or 6th grade, Gladys and five friends established themselves as the Pollyanna Club. They wanted to keep the club small and special, so even when one of the girls moved away, they didn’t replace her. The motto of the Pollyanna Club was “Have a good time”; so, according to Gladys, “We had saved some money and were going to give it to the Red Cross, but we decided to go out to dinner instead.” Now, that’s my kind of group.

Gladys shares her birthday with Davy Crockett, Mae West, writers Ted Hughes and V.S. Naipaul, actors Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn, and the millionaire art collector and philanthropist John Hay Whitney. Lots of accomplishments there, but none of them could make an apple pie like hers.

She never wrote down the recipe, and now it’s been too many years since she rolled one out; but she assures me there was nothing in the filling but apples and cinnamon and a little sugar. The following recipe, which is adapted from the September 2009 issue of Gourmet, is a real keeper, with much the same flavor of Gladys’s pie. I’m particularly fond of the bit of cheese in the crust – it adds to the flakiness, and the combo of cheese with apples is a perennial favorite.

Kitchen Goddess tips on pie-making:

 #1: Be sure to leave small bits of butter unincorporated – unlike the creaming process for cakes, where the mixture should be smooth – to produce little pockets of air in your crust, for flakiness.

#2: To keep the dough from sticking (my major problem in disasters past), follow the directions to chill it well before rolling it out, and throw down plenty of flour on the counter. Rotate the dough a quarter turn after each couple of swipes with the rolling pin. Roll with even, steady strokes all across the dough circle until you get it down to a ⅛-inch thickness.

#3: The milk wash, brushed over the exposed part of the crust, will help it brown and will add to the flavor of the crust because of the natural sugar in the milk.

Apple Pie with Cheddar Crust, adapted from Gourmet magazine, September 2009

For pastry:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound extra-sharp Cheddar (preferably white), coarsely grated (2½ cups)
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into ½-inch pieces
6-8 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon milk (for brushing on crust)

For filling:
1½ pound Gala apples (3 medium)
1½ pound Granny Smith apples (3 medium)
⅔ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

Make pastry dough: 
Stir together flour, salt, and cheese in a large bowl (or pulse in a food processor). Add butter and shortening and blend with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or pulse) just until mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size butter lumps. Drizzle 6 tablespoons ice water evenly over mixture and gently stir with a fork (or pulse) until incorporated.

Squeeze a small handful: If dough doesn't hold together, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring (or pulsing) until incorporated. Do not overwork dough or pastry will be tough.

Turn out dough onto a work surface and divide in half, then form each half into a 5" disk. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour.

Make filling and bake pie: 
Put a large baking sheet in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 450°F.

Peel and core apples, then slice ¼-inch thick. Toss apples with sugar, cinnamon, flour, lemon juice, and salt until evenly coated.

Roll out 1 piece of dough (keep remaining disk chilled) on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 13" round. Fit into a 9" pie plate. Roll out remaining piece of dough into an 11" round.

Transfer filling to shell. Dot with butter, then cover with the 11" pastry round. Trim edges, leaving a ½-inch overhang. Press edges together to seal, then fold under. Lightly brush top crust with milk, then cut 5 (1-inch-long) vents.

Bake on hot baking sheet 20 minutes. Reduce oven to 375°F and bake until crust is golden-brown and filling is bubbling, about 40 minutes more. Cool to warm or room temperature, 2-3 hours.

Note: Dough can be chilled up to 2 days or frozen up to 3 months.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing and Poetry and Food – Perfect Together
What’s cooking? Butter-Baked Rice

Kitchen Goddess note: Poetry has all the antioxidants your soul could need. If you really hate all things poetic, you can skip right to the great rice recipe at the end of this post. There’s just a taste of poetry here, but who knows, you may be inspired to try more.

Writers toss and turn and groan and grind and pace the floor and periodically feel like sticking needles in their eyes just to end the pain of trying to express themselves, and for the most part, it’s a ridiculous, frustrating process, with more dead ends than Lindsey Lohan. But when it works – ah, when the zone opens up and lets you in, it’s pure magic.

The zone has clearly opened up frequently for Philip Levine, who this week was named the next Poet Laureate for the U.S. In the years when my writing group were all NJ residents, we were regular attendees at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and I remember hearing Levine in person more than once. Like Billy Collins, who held the laureate post from 2001 to 2003, Levine is a funny man to listen to, self-effacing and slyly ironic – no chest-beating or railing loud against the fates.

Although he’s best known for his stunning ability to capture both the camaraderie and the pathos of the daily grind in factory life, he manages to work in an homage to food in these lines from the title poem in his 1996 book, The Simple Truth:

“I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt....

...Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Levine, I can taste “the wealth of melting butter.” An image straight from the zone that speaks simply and clearly about a single food. It reminds me of the perfectly satisfying rice dish my friend Claudia made at last week’s pot luck supper. I like it especially because the last stage of cooking it takes place in the oven, so it’s a great dish when you’re entertaining.

And now you must excuse me while I go off to stick needles in my eyes.

Claudia’s Butter-Baked Rice

1 cup long-grain rice
2 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
¼-⅓ cup butter
garlic salt to taste
14-ounce can chicken broth (or 2 chicken bouillon cubes dissolved in 1¾ cups hot water)
chopped parsley for garnish

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add 2 teaspoons salt and pour over 1 cup long grain rice. Let stand 30 minutes. Drain and rinse well with cold water. Drain well.

Melt the butter in a skillet. Add rice and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until butter is almost absorbed – about 5 minutes. Turn into a 1-qt. casserole. Sprinkle with a dash of garlic salt.  Add the can of chicken broth (or 2 chicken bouillon cubes dissolved in 1¾ cups of hot water. Bake covered at 325° for 45 minutes. Top with snipped parsley and fluff with a fork.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Neighborhood Pot Luck
What’s cooking? Magnolia Bakery’s Blueberry Jamboree

I’m always amazed at the results of a pot luck supper. No one is coordinating the menu, no one insisting that all the dishes be low cal or have lemon in them or come from Pakistani cuisine – and yet, somehow we avoid the scenario with four kinds of starch or three fruit salads and no protein, or maybe all white foods.

The one that most boggles me is my book group. Every month, anywhere from 12 to 16 women show up, each with a dish of some sort and no prior planning. Somehow, it always produces a well-balanced selection of foods, from appetizers to desserts. I’m reminded of that ancient joke about the thermos, that it keeps cold things cold and hot things hot – so how does it know?