Saturday, April 28, 2012

Toast, That's My Jam Right There. Plus Nuts.

Toast with chestnut puree, mushrooms, scallions and herbs
Toast with chestnut puree, chives and prosciutto
Toast with two savories, forcemeat of sweet sausage, porcini
mushrooms, shallot, Greek yogurt, thyme and parsley with
pickled onions, and saffron-infused potato-apple-garlic
skordalia with braised beef short ribs and fennel 

A rare few things in life are properly rated. Babe Ruth, properly rated. John Bonham, properly rated. Laying around on your day off doing fuck all, under-rated. Stealing bases, over-rated, catcher defense, under-rated. Backing vocals, probably number one most over-rated thing ever on earth. If there is a great celestial price/performance curve for every artistic endeavor, backing vocals are way out there on the continental shelf next to southern accent vocal coaches and gold plated toilets. Toast, the food item, is sadly under-rated. It may be the most under-rated food.

Toast is bread made delicious and useful. Un-toasted bread is okay for children's sandwiches and sopping up barbecue sauce, but for pretty much all other uses, toast is better than bread. An exception is when the bread is fresh from the oven, piping hot, with butter melting all over it. Then it's fantastic, but I would argue that bread fresh out of the oven is a kind of toast. Because I'm an asshole and I refuse to be wrong about something.

Toast is perhaps best used as a vehicle for sweet preserves, cheeses or savories, which can be overwhelming on their own. There is a bit of a trend in high class eateries to serve rich savory items, foie-gras, gelee, confit, ratatouille, monkfish liver or cooked mushrooms nude, accompanied only by some greens or herbs. I am generally opposed to this trend, as these items are hard to eat loose, and can taste strong enough to actually be unpleasant on the palate. I'd make an exception for monkfish liver. Monkfish liver should always be served by itself, as scraping it into the garbage untouched is slightly easier if there's nothing else on the plate. Maybe olive oil.

I ended up with some chestnuts, not sure how that happened*. I think maybe I walked by a big bin of chestnuts and thought, "fuck me, chestnuts." Maybe I'm a Dickensian rascal. No, that would be "fuck, me chestnuts!" Whatever, there were chestnuts. I'll admit to knowing next to nothing about chestnuts, except that cooking them would make them soft enough to puree, and chestnut puree is a classic element in Italian and French cooking, so I asked google for methods. The simplest seemed to be to poach them until the skins softened, then peel them and mash them, so I set to work.

The first step in poaching chestnuts is to cut through the outer hull, partly so the hot water can penetrate into the nut and partly so the nut doesn't explode from pressure. I found a third reason though. The market apparently knew nothing about chestnuts either, because cutting into the nuts exposed grey-blue mold on about a third of the nuts, indicative of... mold I guess. They had a big bin of moldy nuts. Having neither the confidence nor looming starvation of a caveman, I tossed the moldy nuts. Not even going to bother with a joke there.

The non-moldy nuts seemed fine, and I boiled them forever, like two episodes of Colbert Report plus an Antiques Roadshow where I skipped through all teapots. The google said to peel the nuts while hot because then the shells come off easier, so I did that. I had never handled hot nuts before** and was not really prepared for how hot they were. Painfully hot and awkward to handle. The hot nuts were hot*** both in and out of their jackets, and the skins, while softer than uncooked, were still tough to get through. About like carving through a wiffle ball to get at the wiffle. If you've ever done that. I tasted a nut**** and it was pretty good. Sweeter than I imagined and less oily than most nuts***** with a hint of dirt like a root vegetable.

I mashed the nuts****** with a fork for a while, then gave up and threw them in the food processor with some butter, cream, garlic, salt and pepper. I tasted the puree and it was good and rich but needed something green to lighten it. I had bought some Chinese celery leaves at Andy's on a whim, and figured this was as good a spot as any to try them out. I chopped them fine and folded them in and they were perfect. I could have used parsley or cilantro, but the celery leaves were less intrusive and added a nice chlorophyll accent.

So now I had some chestnut puree. Perfect to spread on things. But what? Oh, right, toast. Success with the chestnut puree put me in a frenzy, my mind electric and alive with excitement over what I could plop on top of it. Maybe it was the mold, but I went on a tear. I sauteed some mushrooms with shallots, I sliced scallions, I chopped chives, I peeled slices of prosciutto off the parchment where the butcher put it. Before long I had an attractive plate of toast with savory toppings, all anchored in a mortar bed of chestnut puree.

The chestnut madness evolved into a kind of toast madness, wherein I spent inordinate time making savory toppings, partly as an excuse to use chestnut puree and partly because what the hell toast is awesome.

I made skordalia from saffron mashed potatoes by adding garlic, olive oil and chives, then crowned it with braised beef torn from spare ribs. I made a forcemeat in the food processor out of sausage, yogurt, shallots, porcini mushrooms and thyme, then grilled it into the toast before topping it with some sliced pickled red onion. The toast frenzy lasted a week or so, until I exhausted either the bread or the chestnut puree.

I have since found a packaged chestnut puree, but at $9 a jar, I'm inclined to search for a mold-free supply of chestnuts from a different grocer and roll my own again.

Despite having set it up on a tee, I should get some credit for not using Rudy Ray Moore's "Dolemite for President" chestnut joke. The one that concludes with, "That means you got my dick in your mouth baby!" That old chestnut. I'm not doing that.
** Come on. I mean, you people aren't oblivious.
*** Seriously, I feel like a douche even entertaining the notion.
**** Oh for Pete's sake.
***** Okay that one's not bad.
****** Bush league. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Food Friday: Wine Soup

Yes, you did read the title of this post correctly. Today's recipe is for wine soup. Who knew that pretty much anything could be made into a soup?

Today's recipe is from the Improvement Society of the Second Reformed Church. New Brunswick, New Jersey (1890), page 6. I just love one of the quotes found on the title page. "Bad dinners go hand in hand with total depravity, a properly fed man is already half saved." Boy, did that make those women in that congregation nervous? I can just see the gossip, "Did you see Mrs. Smith's husband, he's a heathen. Well, you know his wife can't cook."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Food Friday: American Women's ORT

From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega

In some cases, a community cookbook represents a much larger community that is outside the boundaries of a city or even county. In the case of A Portfolio of Cookery. From Traditional to Modern by the Women's American ORT. District XI (1975) that community includes several western states.

The introductory page of the cookbook explains "Women's American ORT is an organization dedicated to the philosophy that vocational education can give constructive direction and secure productive lives for those who receive it. This concept has been its guiding light since 1880 and, as a result, over one million men, women, boys and girls have been graduated from ORT schools." ORT is an acronym for Organization for Rehabilitation through Training. You can read more about the Women's America ORT on the Jewish Women's Archive website.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Food Friday: School Lunch

Do you have fond memories of school lunches? No, not the ones your mom made and you  brought to school in your plain brown bag or themed lunch box. I'm talking about the ones prepared by the lunch ladies and served to you on plastic-molded trays where every food item had its place.

In elementary school I rarely ate in the cafeteria. My mom prepared my lunches and though today I will admit I was lucky she did that for me, as a young child there was a certain allure to the lunch ladies' school lunch. Now in those days the lunch ladies really cooked the lunch. They didn't microwave foods and they didn't heat up the food sent to them. They cooked the lunch.

When my kids were in public school, the school lunch was quite different. The only fresh food was the salad bar. All other foods were bought prepared and  then heated except for the one day a week that the local pizza chain brought in pizza.

I knew the school lunch had gone down hill when a week before school was to go on summer break, all the food that needed to be used up was brought out. This was a child's idea of a feast since the only things they had in abundance were chocolate muffins, doughnuts, and pastries. Oh you could get something from the salad bar, but really what kid is doing that when it's an all sugar menu?

In honor of the 1940 Census, I thought I would post something found in a 1940s cookbook this week. The American Woman's Cookbook had several printings but for those purchasing it during the World War II years you could get The Victory Binding of the American Women's Cookbook, Wartime Edition. Edited by Ruth Berolzheimer.  This edition included "victory substitutes and economical recipes for delicious wartime meals." Being a Wartime Edition, very fittingly it was dedicated to General Douglas MacArthur.

This cookbook also includes menu suggestions. One set of suggestions involves the school lunch. Why not celebrate the 1940 census in a big way and pack one of these lunches for your children or grandchildren?