April 15, 2008

Brief Hiatus

I won't be blogging for a few days - our daughter, Molly Kate has just returned from the hospital and she's fighting an infection that we sure hope doesn't go much further...she has hydrocephalus and it would be very bad if it was in her shunt (a system that drains cerebral fluid from her brain). She has very bravely and graciously gone through 53 brain surgeries in her 20 years and we believe that the infection has been "caught". But I'm so distracted and behind in everything, that I need to focus on other things - so just felt I needed to put this "out there", because you all are so wonderfully supportive of my blog. I"ll be back with a vengenence soon, (I'm thinking of beating the living daylights out of some chicken and chopped the crap out of some unsuspecting vegetables - and then maybe punching some freakin' bread dough!) so stay tuned! And thanks in advance for what I know will be very nice and kind comments.

April 11, 2008

Big Fat White Man

I found this 1953 Pillsbury Cookbook featuring all the 1952 “4th Grand National $100,000 Recipe and Baking Contest” contestants and winners. Back then the grand prize was $25,000 and the cookbook cost 25 cents. It was my Grandmother’s and I found it with my Mom’s collection of cookbooks. Sadly, my Mom has Alzheimer’s and isn’t doing any cooking or baking these days, but she was a very good baker and taught me, with only the patience a Mother can have, what she could about baking. I wasn’t much in the mood for measuring cups, wooden spoons, and rising dough, being the ruffian I was. Hang out in the kitchen for an afternoon?? No way - there were far too many bugs, cats, baby birds, lizards, and little brothers to round up and play with. Then have funerals for them. (Not my brother – I would have been grounded forever… though I did manage to get a long fake braid attached to his head).

I’d play with/train/dress up/do surgery on all these hapless creatures until they finally just gave up and expired, then I would empty my Mom’s shoes from their boxes, wrap the bodies in paper towels, nestle them in the shoe boxes with grass for pillows, and have a proper funeral service for the recently departed. Our yard was studded with the many burial mounds. My Dad couldn’t mow the yard without cursing the bumps and caved in grave sites. “J.H.C. on a half shell, can’t you kids go play in the street or something?” Making my sisters line up in their shorts, Easter hats, and patent leather Sunday school shoes, I’d deliver a eulogy that included much crying, poetry (“fly, little bird…fly, to heaven…fly, and…eleven!”), ordering everyone to stand still, even if it was 112 degrees and they had to go to the bathroom, and then host a lovely reception with Frito's and Kool-Aid, graveside. My Mom would come out and yell at us for digging up the yard, taking all her shoe boxes, and why, dear God, WHY, had she raised a pack of savages?

So, no…not much baking during those years. I was very busy with my veterinarian/animal training/funeral business.

The 1953 Pillsbury cookbook is enlightening. I’m particularly astounded by the $2,000 2nd prize winner of the Junior Contest….”By Cracky Bars”….by a Miss Yvonne M. Whyte, New Bedford, Mass. Now, Miss Whyte was a young black woman….and I’m just wondering about that name….“BY CRACKY”???? Rosa Parks was two years too late.

And how about “Peppy Apple-Cheese Bread”….peppy? I don’t see any caffeine products in this one. What’s so peppy??? Is that a euphemism for the diet pills/speed that kept frustrated 1950’s housewives from burning their husbands alive? Then I found “Surprise Zookies”…it appears to be a simple butter cookie with an apple butter filling...."Zookie"? Did people in 1952 bite into a cookie and when tasted saw apple butter, yell out, “ZOOKIE!”????

Lots of recipes with “merry”, “dreamy”, “fluffy”, “dandy”, and, of course “surprise” in the title.

But there are some simple, direct, “don’t mess with me in the kitchen or I will stab you with a hat pin” recipes – like, the very basic,“Liver and Onion Dinner” by Mrs. Robert Wellman, of Kenosha, Wisconsin. That’s right, by cracky, eat your damn liver and onion dinner, you kids, or it’s off to the barn for a strappin’ and a milking session! There’s “Parisian Sophisticates” by a Mrs. Warren H. Thorpe, of Macon Georgia. Oh, I bet she was an uppity one, wore a cardigan with a poodle broach and didn’t mingle with the ladies from “up north”.

I imagine that cook-off kitchen in 1952 was one hot and steamy mess of extremely competitive women (I counted two men….poor guys). I know that both my grandmothers held very strong opinions of how things should be done in their kitchens. Back then, maybe cooking and baking was THE one and only area where women could be extremely competitive and be rewarded for it. These ladies absolutely were the hotshots of the culinary world. There were no celebrity chefs or anything even close to Food Network…the Pillsbury Bake-Off was the equivalent of Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Next Food Network Star all rolled into one juggernaut. It was the first time amateur cooks were recognized for their baking and cooking prowess on a national level with huge prize money and notoriety. People (like me) often make fun of the down homey-ness of these old recipes, but these gals (and a few guys) were true pioneers for all of us that blog about food or enter cook-offs and contests. Can you imagine what a BIG DEAL it was to go off to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NYC to actually have a shot at $25,000, back in 1952? Some of these women had probably never been 25 miles in any direction from the family farm.

So toques off to ladies like Miss Lettie Spencer, Mrs. Clara Walker, and Mrs. Maude Dietrich! They help propel cooking into national entertainment and a prize worthy endeavor that blossomed into food careers for many and gave inspiration to others. They were amongst the first “foodies” who swerved this nation toward inventive cooking that was purely American. While it wasn't classically French or even approaching "gourmet", it was their “Orange Upsidaisies” and their “Pork and ‘Tater Pie” that got the average cook to be creative and excited about cooking.

There are 100 wonderful bakers and cooks gathered in Dallas as I type, readying their nerves and their Kitchen-Aids to compete for the grand prize of $1,000,000. I wish them luck. There’s a long list of previous contestants that paved the way for them.

Here’s link to recipes for the Cook-Off:

2008 Pillsbury Bake-Off Finalists

April 9, 2008

Polenta Gratin with Bison and Mushroom Bolognese

I’m sorry, but this is not seasonally correct. And the pictures majorly suck. It’s supposed to be with wild mushrooms, but I used some dried morels (reconstituted first) and your run-of-the-mill-grocery-store-button-mushrooms, because it’s obviously not the season for fresh wild mushrooms. And polenta, to me, has always been associated with snowstorms, flannel, and re-runs of “Bones”. And bison – if ever there was an animal that just LOOKS like winter, it’s the woolly bison. Hanging around Old Faithful, breathing steam out their great heads, and giving me a look like, “I will gore you, girlie, if you take more step toward me.”

So don’t go all farmer’s market on me, ok??? I just needed some hearty fare, something that smelled this good, and would involve a hot skillet, a steamy pot, and some baking with cheese. I love all the spring recipes going around the bloggy world, but it’s still cold around here, and nothing much looks green and juicy. And, well, standing at the meat counter, looking at that package of organic, hormone free (it’s against the LAW in the US to even THINK about putting hormones into bison…maybe it’s because they have enough testosterone…), I just wanted some buffalo. And did I mention the pictures are horrid? That’s what you get when you get all close-upy on some meat and corn mush!

And this is Tom Colicchio’s recipe. From a book by some guy interviewing chefs about what their moms and grandmas would make for them. I found this at epicurious.com and did very little change with the exception of the addition of bison and messin’ with the mushrooms. This is what Tom’s grandmother would make. I like Tom. He’s wildly attractive (well, to me, at least…I like a guy with a shiny head!), and even though I want to strangle most of those Top Chef people, I think he’s a pretty good judge. I love his expressions when he asks those bozos if they’re “really going to do that?” It’s like he just saw them shoot heroin in their eye.

Polenta Gratin with Bison and Mushroom Bolognese

Serves 4

For the Bolognese Sauce:
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 pound fresh ground bison
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, peeled and diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
8-12 ounces mixed wild and cultivated mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and diced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tomato, seeded and diced
1 cup chicken stock

For the Polenta:
Kosher salt
1 cup polenta (coarse yellow cornmeal)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese

1. To prepare the sauce: heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it moves easily across the pan. Add the bison meat, breaking up with a spoon and cooking until meat is beginning to brown. Remove with slotted spoon to plate and cover to keep warm.
Add the onion, carrot, celery, salt, and pepper to skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms and thyme leaves. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushroom are almost tender, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato, cook about 2 minutes more, then add the stock, 2 tablespoons at a time, bringing the pan to a simmer before each addition. Add the bison meat back into pan, and simmer the Bolognese until it is concentrated but not yet dry, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. To make the polenta: Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan over high heat.
Add a pinch of salt and gradually whisk in the polenta. Stirring constantly, bring the polenta to a boil, then adjust the heat to low. Cook the polenta, stirring occasionally, until it is no longer grainy, about 30 minutes. Whisk the oil and salt to taste into the polenta and remove it from heat.
3. Assemble the gratin: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spoon half the polenta into a medium baking dish (an 11 inch oval dish works well) and cover with half of the sauce. Spoon in the remaining polenta, spread it evenly, then sprinkle with the cheese. Transfer the remaining sauce to a small saucepan and reserve.
4. Bake the gratin until the top is golden, about 40 minutes. Just before serving, warm the reserved sauce over low heat. Divide the gratin and sauce among 4 plates, and top with sauce, and serve.

My Very Important Notes, so pay attention:
1. Too much olive oil in polenta – use about half of the recipe amount
2. Too many mushrooms with the meat that I added – if you do meat, half the mushrooms
3. Use more cheese. Always more cheese.

April 6, 2008

Why Is This Man Smiling???

This is my man, Mr. Buddha. My garden Buddha. He keeps the peace amongst the marigolds, the basil, and the squirrels. He is always blissfully happy and when I pat his head in passing, I’m pretty sure he winks at me. He knows I have a conflicted interior. From a 5th generation Mormon family, who was raised Methodist, but went to Catholic school, who begged my parents to let me convert to be Jewish when I was 12 years old – it’s like the United Nations in my soul. I pray/meditate every day until something shiny catches my attention, which is about 10 seconds into it. When the bad stuff happens, I’m on my knees, making bargains, promises, and deals…when I have good things come to me, I forget to say “thank you” and just assume it’s because I’m so cool.

But my garden Buddha knows what’s up. He’s on to me, big time! That’s why he’s smiling. He’s knows what a rascal I am, how selfish and silly I can be. So he smiles at that nonsense. I think he thinks I’m the biggest hoot ever. It’s very humbling to think that a stone Buddha is laughing at your myriad efforts to be spiritual. So I decided to make a dessert while contemplating my confusing spiritual paths. Cooking has always been my best meditation. “Soften to room temperature” is a nice mantra.

This is my humble homage to my garden Buddha. I just wish he’d quit laughing at me.

Heavenly Spiced Chocolate Cakes with Ginger Whipped Cream and Toffee Topping

Makes 6 Big "OM" Cupcakes

½ firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 large egg
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons honey
2 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon ground ginger
About 1/3 cup powdered sugar or to taste

6 ounces Heath bars, roughly chopped into lengths for “stacking” on cakes (see pics)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare 6 hole over-sized muffin tin by lining with paper cups or greasing with butter.

2. In a large bowl, stir together with a fork the brown sugar, flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and ginger. Add the butter, egg, whipping cream, and honey, and beat with electric mixer at slow speed until well combined. Increase speed to medium and continue beating until caramel colored and smooth. Stir in chopped chocolate.
3. Divide mixture between the muffin cups. Batter will be stiff, like soft cookie dough.
4. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until dark golden brown and springy to the touch. Cool completely before topping with whipped cream.
5. Whip the cream until peaks form. Add the vanilla, ginger, and powdered sugar. Beat a bit longer until well-incorporated.
6. When cakes are cool, slather on the whipped cream, and arrange the Heath bar slivers on top. Scatter any little pieces of toffee over the tops.

Say “Shalom”, “Om”, and “God Bless You” as you pass them around to others – because, you know, it’s important to give to others. Without expecting a nice baked treat in return.

April 1, 2008

Salt....that's all I can say.

I must be out of the culinary sundries loop. Did you guys know about smoked salt? Not me! How utterly embarrassing! Maybe I did know...you know how old I'm getting (see previous post)...and I just forgot. I'm mortified. How could I have possibly missed this? Am I spending too much time with the butters? The chocolate? The bloody berries????

I saw my first jar and just about went ballistic. SMOKED SALT. Brilliant! I immediately dropped my bag of wasabi potato chips and rushed to check out with my bottle of alder smoked salt.

First off, I opened her up right in the car and took a taste. Criminy! Campfire in fall, first snow, my favorite elk hunting gun by my side. Another taste (the woman parking by me is just staring at me licking salt), and I taste flat iron steak on the grill, Argentina Shiraz, chewing tobacco, my college sweatshirt, stained with God knows what, and a leather bridle on a Grand Canyon mule (don’t ask, I like to lick stuff...cow salt licks too, although those are terrible).

Twitter, twitter, my mind is in a whirl.

I figure I better come up with some food to put this on, otherwise, I’ll OD on smoked salt and won’t that be a story for the emergency room! The best my refrigerator could do last night was to offer up some pork chops. Alrighty then, that will work just dandy. I mixed the salt (which has it’s own special shelf now)

The Patron Saint of Salt, St. Joseph (ok, I just made that up...)

with some rubbed sage, and black pepper…rubbed those suckers down with the mix, and seared them, about 4 minutes each side. Then I had some beautiful beef stock on hand, so poured about 1 cup over, covered the skillet and let the chops simmer for about 12 minutes. In another pan, I pan roasted some sliced button mushrooms in some butter and olive oil and added to the simmering chops after they browned. Served this with a nice arugula salad with tomatoes, pine nuts, Parmesan, and a very light slip of olive oil, rice vinegar, lemon juice, pepper and SALT. Oh, how I love this salt.

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"The Dish" by Catherine Wilkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.