Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to Make Every Meal a Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the US is steeped in nationalistic mythology and patriotic nostalgia. From images of early European settlers breaking bread with the Native tribes after a long, harsh first year to our modern family gatherings, Thanksgiving is our national day of gratitude. President Lincoln set aside the fourth Thursday in November in 1863 as a national day of thanks, and the tradition has continued to this day.

The best part of Thanksgiving is that it is primarily about the large family meal. Add the annual football game, and you have a family gathering that runs for most of the day. Then the following day the Christmas shopping begins. Only now it is beginning earlier and earlier, whittling away at our family time and shifting our focus from gratitude for what we have to the urge to go out and get more. This year, many major stores opened on Thanksgiving Day itself, pulling employees (and, sadly, many shoppers) away from their families before the holiday was even over.

I'm not going to go on about the negative impact of this trend, or what this bodes for our society as a whole. Enough other, better writers have already expounded  upon that in the last week. I'm going to share some tips about how to maintain the gratitude attitude and keep our attention trained on all we have to be thankful for.

1. Buy Raw Ingredients
This means purchasing fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs rather than canned or frozen. And buy them whole. The same goes for meats, poultry and fish. Basically, if you stick to that outer ring of most grocery stores, you will find everything you need with the exception of pastas, cereals and grains found in the center. What else you find in those center aisles are prepackaged, pre-made meals of questionable nutrition and dubious origin. If you stick to that outer ring, you're also more likely to find meats and produce from local farmers if your grocery store partners with them (and many chain groceries do). Purchasing the local goods gives back to the community and makes the local economy stronger.

2. Then Learn How to Cook
If you have been eating the prepackaged, pre-made meals, you'll need to relearn how to cook. It's not as difficult as you think. A balanced meal of meat, veg and starch can be prepared in about 30 minutes - the same amount of time it takes to heat up a frozen entree or navigate the fast-food drive-through. And by preparing your own meals from scratch, you're taking control of your own destiny. There's no better preventative medicine than fresh produce full of vitamins. Plus, by prepping your veg, skinning and boning your meat, you reduce the amount of waste associated with your consumption.

3. Respect the Life You are Taking
Really, everything we eat was alive at one time, whether it's carrots or cow. My faith places a great deal of importance on respecting this. The best way to show respect is to use everything. Skin and bones left from prepping meat can be made into stock. Some parts of herbs and vegetables that are not appropriate for dinner can also be stocked. Giblets and other parts can be added to soups and sauces, or made into a simple pate with a few other ingredients. By using everything (or as close to everything as possible) and limiting what you discard, you are ensuring that the life that went into your meal is not wasted.

4. Only Take What You Need
The ultimate show of respect for the world we live in is to be grateful enough for all that we have to only consume what we need. Over-consumption is often described as the by-product of over-abundance. People who don't cook for themselves and rely on pre-packaged meals or restaurant fare may not know what an actual portion of meat looks like. If they are not getting sufficient nutrition in their food, it is difficult to recognize when to stop eating. This makes it difficult to know how much is enough. Shifting our reliance to raw food that we prepare ourselves helps restore some balance to our diets. We can then exercise accurate portion control and further reduce the amount of waste we generate.

5. Pay Attention
Many of us multi-task while we eat, dining over work, TV, games (myself included - I eat two of my three daily meals at work). This lack of attention to our food encourages mindless grazing and also interferes with our ability to detect when to stop. If you're buying raw ingredients and cooking for yourself, stopping all activities and paying attention to what you eat shows additional respect for the life that has gone into the meal and helps ensure you only take what you need. Plus you'll enjoy what you're eating a lot more.

Most of us in the First World are blessed with more abundance than we know what to do with. Even our standard of poverty is rich compared with those in the Third World. We take the ready availability of fresh, quality food for granted, often choosing over-processed meals that have been assembled in factories over the many fresh, real choices we have. The very best way to show gratitude for all that we have is to treat food preparation as a craft and each meal as an opportunity to connect with others and give thanks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Holiday Baking: Lefse

Lefse is a Scandinavian flat bread made from potatoes and flour. Every holiday of my childhood included home made lefse and butter (and sometimes sugar, and the "sugar on lefse" debate is as foreign to non-Scandinavians as the dish itself). It's one of those traditional recipes that is learned by doing. I learned from my mother, who learned from her Norwegian mother-in-law. She learned how to make it on the cast iron top of the old farm cook stove on my father's farm. She taught me using a cast iron skillet in our old house on Quincy Street, the same skillet we now use to teach my nieces in her condo.

Ingredients: Potatoes, milk and flour.

Start with mashed potatoes.

Add all-purpose flour.

Knead the dough until it is similar to soft bread dough.
Do not over-work the dough or it will get tough.

Shape the dough into small balls
about the size of ping pong balls.

Flatten the ball onto a floured surface.

Roll each ball into a thin sheet using a lefse rolling pin.

Use a long, narrow spatula to gently lift.

Gently shake off excess flour.

Cook on a dry cast iron skillet,
flipping when air bubbles appear.

As one sheet is cooking, roll out the next one.

It works best if one person rolls and one person cooks.

Scrape flour build up off the skillet between sheets.

Layer cooked lefse on a plate to cool.

Use the edge of the spatula to clean the rolling pin.

Finished lefse.

When cooled, layer with waxed paper to store.

Company's Coming Chili

Chili is always the first meal of the holiday season for me. One of the great holiday traditions in my family is having a pot of chili on hand the day everyone arrives for the holidays. My grandmother started this when I was little. If you were among the first to arrive, you got to enjoy the company of a small gathering of extended family in relative quiet before the holiday got into full swing. If you arrived later, you got my grandmother's undivided attention and a bowl of chili that had been simmering on the stovetop since mid-afternoon. I was the last to arrive one Christmas, rolling in from Madison at about 11:00 PM. My grandma was waiting up for me, and she and I watched Johnny Carson together over a bowl of some highly concentrated chili goodness that warmed my heart.

My mother carries on the tradition as me and my siblings and our families gather in Madison for Thanksgiving. My mom has her own recipe and has dried beans cooking already for tonight's dinner when my sister arrives from the north-western Chicago suburbs. This recipe is committed to her memory, and hers alone. My grandmother's recipe was made available to all on her cooking show "5 Minutes with Dolores Allen" on WDOR radio, and was then published in her 1989 cookbook "Door County Recipes Old and New and a Little Local Lore". Here it is verbatim:

Dolores's Chili
This may not be the way Mexicans or Texans make chili.....but ti's the way I like it!

2 lbs ground beef
3 large onions, chopped
Salt & Pepper

Brown the meat with the onions and cook for about 30 minutes.

1 qt. canned tomatoes (or a large can of tomato juice).

Simmer, covered, about an hour.

3 cans chili beans or kidney beans, drained
1 package chili seasoning

Simmer 15 minutes more.

I like to make this ahead of time, and let it stand for the flavors to blend, and then reheat when ready to serve. If you want "Chili Mac", add cooked macaroni or spaghetti.

Here is the recipe as it appeared in her cookbook. Artwork provided by my mother in her youth. "Door County Recipes Old and New and a Little Local Lore" is still available throughout Door County, WI. You can also find used copies on Amazon.

If you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share, please email me at and let me know how you would like to be identified (ie "a reader in Ellicott City" vs your actual name). Include any stories or traditions if you like.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Note About Cranberries

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and many of us will spend the next five days buying and prepping food. Before I get caught up in my own family gathering, here's a quick note about cranberries.

Some people love them, some people hate them. I was in the latter camp until I had some that did not come out of a can. And, really, they are so easy, there is no reason not to make your cranberry sauce with the real thing.

When we host Thanksgiving dinner, I make a simple cooked relish. Put the fresh cranberries in a heavy saucepan and cover with water. Add about 1/2 cup of sugar per each bag of berries. Add a little (and really just a little) Gran Marnier and a handful of dried cherries. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer on the back burner until the gravy is made. Hit it with the immersion blender for a few seconds to smooth it out. The cherries enhance both the tartness and the sweetness of the relish so you get a very full-bodied relish.

My sister totally trumps me, though. She's got a knack for the uber-traditional menu items. One year she brought roasted chestnuts in a maple sauce which were so good I insisted on taking some back to Maryland with me. Her cranberry relish is raw and crisp with a nice zing to it. She explained it to me last year, and hopefully I've gotten it right here.

Start with fresh cranberries but run them through the food processor to make a fine mince. Add some sugar, grated orange zest, and (this is the key) grated ginger. Chill for a few hours so everything gets well acquainted. You'll end up with a light, fresh relish that cleanses the palate. After all the rich creamy flavors of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, this is really a very nice accompaniment, and probably much closer to what it was when it was first invented.

Here's a link to the epicurious site for more fresh cranberry recipes.

If you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share, please email me at and let me know how you would like to be identified (ie "a reader in Ellicott City" vs your actual name). Include any stories or traditions if you like.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Holiday Baking: Bread Pudding

My first holiday recipe is bread pudding. Thanksgiving is just a couple of weeks away, and this seems like an appropriate thing to serve the day after Thanksgiving. You can use any extra bread that didn't make it into the turkey dressing and any leftover dinner rolls from the dinner. Total prep time is about three hours, but it's a lot of waiting. You can make it the night before and reheat it after the Black Friday sales. Or if you're among The 99%, you can take some meaningful action against corporate greed, skip the mall altogether, and fix it up for brunch while all the family is still in town.

One of the girls I shared my first apartment with in college has a killer bread pudding recipe. Once we became adults, I was fortunate to have her and her family living close by for far too brief a time and had the pleasure of enjoying it on a couple of occasions.

While bread pudding is traditionally served with a hard sauce or a caramel sauce, I pulled out a hazy memory from childhood of a lemon sauce my mom used to serve over yellow cake. It certainly dressed up the cake, and the light, lemony flavor strikes me as a nice contrast to the density of the pudding.

While  I do not have either recipe, I do have The Joy of Cooking cookbook thanks to my mom. They believe that there is a lot of room for variation in bread pudding, and I planned on finding out just what I could get away with. Any type of bread will do so long as it is a yeast bread - no soda bread or biscuits. I used an old loaf of sourdough bread with a little bit of a multi-grain loaf added for character. Even though this was my first bread pudding and I didn't really know what I was doing, it seemed to come together fairly well, although not anywhere near the bread pudding perfection of my former roommate. Maybe with practice.....

For the pudding you will need:

  • 3 tbsp butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 to 2 loaves of bread
  • 1 cup of raisins (you can substitute another dried fruit if you prefer. I considered dried cherries, but then thought fresh raspberries would work better with the lemon sauce.)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tbsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 baking pan, about 13 x 9 inches, preferably glass. I used my large Corningwear casserole. This made an enormous bread pudding that did not go without comment from the real cook in the house.

Step 1
Spread all of the butter - yes all of it - along the inside of your baking pan.

Buttered baking pan

Slice the bread into 1/2 inch thick slices and place in the pan upright and tightly packed. Then insert your choice of fruit in between the slices.

Bread and fruit before egg is added

Step 2
Whisk the eggs until they are frothy.

Frothy eggs ready for remaining ingredients

Then add the milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon and whisk until well-blended. Pour this mixture over the bread and let it sit for about an hour, pressing the bread down into the egg mixture periodically. This will help the bread absorb the egg.

Egg mixture added to bread and fruit

Bread pudding after 30 minutes

Bread pudding after 1 hour - ready to bake

Preheat the oven to 375

Step 3
Bake the pudding for about an hour. It will be lightly browned when fully baked. About 45 minutes into baking, make your sauce.

For the sauce you will need:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp corn starch (I substituted potato starch. It dissolves more quickly, is less prone to clumping, and lends a far less starchy flavor to food. You can get it at the Asian market. For Baltimore area readers, this means a trip to the H-Mart and some authentic Korean lunch at the adjacent Hanoori Town.)
  • 1 cup water or unsweetened apple juice (Apple juice? This didn't sound right to me, so I used water)
  • 1/4 cup strained lemon juice - this is about 3 lemons
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 to 2 tbsp butter, cut into pieces (optional, but makes for a richer sauce)

1 heavy sauce pan and a rubber silicon scraper

Step 4
Combine the sugar and corn starch until well mixed and there are no lumps in the corn starch. Then
add the water, juice, zest and salt and stir until mixed.

Cooking the sauce and waiting for potato starch magic

Step 5
Cook over medium-low heat, continuing to stir until the sauce comes to a boil. Continue to cook until thickened. If you're using potato starch, the sauce doesn't need to come to a boil. Keep an eye on it because once the potato starch hits the right temperature, you've suddenly got your sauce. Add the optional butter if you like and continue to cook until the butter is melted. I added the butter and got a sauce that was rich and creamy yet still very light and fruity.

Adding the optional butter

Step 6
When the bread pudding is done, take it out of the oven and set it on a wire rack to cool. Immediately pour the sauce over it.

Fully assembled and cooling

The sauce will gradually be absorbed into the pudding. Let it stand for 30 to 60 minutes before serving.

The sauced pudding will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days, but really won't last much beyond the holiday weekend. To reheat, bake in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes.

If you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share, please email me at and let me know how you would like to be identified (ie "a reader in Ellicott City" vs your actual name). Include any traditions or memories associated with the dish if you like.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Holiday Baking

The end of Daylight Savings Time always feels like the beginning of the holiday season to me, and not just because that's when the Christmas sales start. I know there are many out there who feel it does not actually start until the day after Thanksgiving, and if "holiday" is a euphemism for "Christmas" that sounds about right. While secular Christmas certainly takes center stage this time of year (whether we like it or not) there's actually a lot of stuff going on in the winter.

It starts with Halloween and the remembrance of ancestors and loved ones who have died. After that, there's All Saints Day, Reformation Sunday, Thanksgiving, St. Nicholas Day, Islamic New Year, Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's, to name a few. And, if you observe religious Christmas, there's also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the four Sundays of Advent in December, plus Epiphany shortly into the New Year -  all good reasons gather together with friends. 

I enjoy the thought that there are so many opportunities to celebrate during the cold, dark hours of winter. So, from now until Epiphany (or maybe even Candlemas), I'll be featuring favorite holiday recipes, starting this weekend.

If you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share, please email me at and let me know how you would like to be identified (ie "a reader in Ellicott City" vs your actual name).

Christmas Cats - 2009

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Crossing a Culinary Threshold

The truffle is one of several varieties of edible mushroom. Its culinary usage dates back to the early Roman Empire where they were considered a rare delicacy created when lightning struck warm, wet soil. Truffle hunting continued in Europe past the Fall of Rome with the wild mushroom gaining vast popularity among the aristocracy during the Renaissance. Resistant to cultivation efforts, pigs were used to sniff them out in the vast forests of Italy and France. The 18th century French lawyer and foodie Jean Anthelem Brillat-Savarin dubbed them "the diamond of the kitchen".  Now I know what all the fuss is about.

The Wegman's in Abingdon carries truffles. Sometime while I was in Italy, my counterpart decided that one day we would venture into this new world of true delicacies, price be damned. And the per pound price is pretty hefty - usually between $300-$600 per pound. But truffles are fairly light, and at the high end of the price spectrum, you can still get them for about $10 each. A little goes a long way, so one or two at a time should be sufficient.

Last night we took the plunge and have now joined the limited population who have had cooked with actual truffles. They are truly unique in flavor and texture. If saffron tastes like sunshine, truffles taste like the forest. They are dark and woody and bitter and add something mysterious to the food. I don't think they are ever the main course, but as a flavor enhancer, they are really quite amazing. For our first truffle experience, Gareth prepared duck breast and eggs with a hollandaise sauce. About half a truffle was grated into the eggs at the very end of cooking. While it was indeed superlative, we both agreed that perhaps eggs weren't the best vehicle for the truffle. We used up less than half of one of them, so we have plenty of opportunity to try again.

The price tag is a little intimidating.......
........But the actual cost per seems reasonable enough

Proper storage of truffles is important - rice absorbs the
excess moisture

Pan-seared duck breast - my favorite

Reserve some of that nice duck jus to cook the eggs in

A little brie for the eggs

Lemon zest for the hollandaise

The finished sauce

Nice and rare - just the way I like it

Adding the truffles to the eggs

Dinner - cheffy eggs with brie and truffles, seared duck
breast, sauteed leeks, and hollandaise sauce

Friday, November 4, 2011

What's New in Harbor East

With October's travels behind me, I started November by returning to my regular work routine only to discover that there had been some changes in the neighborhood. Before I left, the Curbside Cafe - home of the curried chickpea burrito bowl - had closed and The Silver Platter had re-invented itself to mixed reviews. GrrChe and Souper Freak had also made limited engagements and seem destine to never return again (they both set up shop on Fleet Street almost directly in front of one of the neighborhood's established restaurants. I posted a recommendation to go around the corner to Central Street to no avail). This week I discovered that The Silver Platter had broken camp altogether and had left their Central Street lot for Timonium. It appears that the Summer of the Food Truck in Harbor East has come to an end.

But all hope is not lost as two venues have expanded their offerings.

October 20 saw the opening of the long awaited Manchurian Rice Company Asian Grill. Located at 1010 Aliceanna, it occupies the space vacated by Harbor East News where I used to get my photography magazines. They offer a modest selection of Chinese take-out with the claim that each order is fresh and made to order. After several days of soup and juice, I was feeling more like myself on Thursday, so I gave them a try.

The space is actually a two-story space with the counter, grill and a few seats on the first floor, and most of the seating upstairs. And the grill is not actually a grill, but a line of about half a dozen woks with their own individual heat source and water tap. And the food really is made to order. The area is open so you can watch them if you like. There is also a television showing Asian game shows, a nice touch and bizarrely entertaining.

Also behind the counter is the welcome, smiling face of the proprietor of the short-lived Elevation Burger franchise in the neighborhood and the Harbor East Deli currently in its place. With a wide variety of pizza and sandwiches, he brought a staple of the America culinary scene to us in a straight-forward, no-nonsense manner that is much appreciated in an area known for its pretension (many of us remember when it was a vacant field strewn with broken bottles and used paraphernalia and now every restaurant around here is gourmet dining.). His deli and pizzeria has the liquor license he wanted for his Elevation Burger location and has become quite the after work hang out as well. What he did for pizza, he appears to be trying to do for Chinese take-out, another one of America's dietary cornerstones. I always find it easy to trust a restaurateur with one successful endeavor to his credit, especially one who seems to enjoy what he is doing.

This week, I selected what looked to be the spiciest dish on the menu - Topan Shrimp with white rice. It's interesting to note that white rice is free, but fried rice and lo mien are upgrades and are priced as such. I am a fan of neither. I also got a side of the Crab Rangoon, my litmus test for Chinese. The shrimp was indeed hot. I grabbed some extra hot sauce to go but ended up not needing it. The sauce was spicy and rich with a slight flavor of rice wine, but just a little. The vegetables - carrots, onion, broccoli and cabbage - were cooked just enough so that there was still some crispness left in them. The mushrooms and shrimp were also still firm and not tough or chewy (or "swamped" as one of my professional friends says). The more I ate, the saltier it tasted, which is why it is nice to have white rice on the side. It's also where the Crab Rangoon came in handy, although these were sadly inferior to what I have been getting a Wok To Go. The wrapper was tough and the filling was thick and tasted more of cream cheese and barely of crab. Still, it helped absorb some of the salt from the shrimp and was an adequate complement.

The other opening is a new venture by the Bagby Restaurant Group, owners of another pizzeria - the Bagby Pizza Company located in the old Bagby Furniture Factory on Fleet Street. Their latest is the TenTen Bistro at 1010 Fleet Street in the former location of the Dutch Connection florist. I was their first take out customer.

If the guys at Harbor East Deli are unpretentious, the guys at the Bagby Restaurant Group are only slightly more so. Bagby Pizza emphasizes fresh, local, organic ingredients, and so does TenTen, although their menu is more focused on high-end salads and sandwiches (including a bistro burger and an interesting take on the cobb salad), plus a quiche of the day. They also have a full bar with a short list of designer cocktails developed by their bar master.

I ordered the crab cake with fries. It tasted broiled, not fried, and came on one of the best rolls I've had in Maryland. It was dense and chewy and very hearty and was the first time my crab cake has been paired with a roll that could support it. And the crab cake was thick and meaty with crab meat and very little spice or filler. It came with a couple of slices of plum tomato and a leaf of butter lettuce, both very good choices, plus a ramakin of mild horseradish sauce that was a fine partner to the sweet crab. The fries felt and tasted hand-cut. They were lightly dusted with Old Bay and not at all greasy.

I was satisfied with both lunches and an glad to see a couple of local teams expanding.

Topan Shrimp from Manchurian Rice Company with Crab Rangoon

Crab cake from TenTen Bistro with the saddest pickle ever served.