Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Cookies



At some point in my early adulthood I decided there were several things that I needed to start gathering from my grandparents' generation before it was too late – in no particular order, the negatives of old family pictures, tea cups and Sicilian cookie recipes. The negatives turned out to be easy - both grandmothers and a couple of aunts had surprising stashes and were happy to let me take them. The tea cups I'll leave for another time. It's the cookies that interest us here.

For me, no childhood memory of family holidays is complete without homemade Sicilian cookies – sesame cookies (good for dunking in coffee), spiced chocolate balls, the strange and mysterious anise-flavored "bones of the dead," and the glorious and glorified Cuccidatti (think fig newton for grownups.) When I started making these cookies myself, it was usually during the Christmas holiday season when I had the time and the inclination.
Over the years I have come to associate all of these Sicilian cookies with the holidays but in reality only the Cuccidatti are traditionally served during Christmas.

Nothing sums up the history of Sicily quite like a Cuccidatti. The mash-up of figs and raisins and chocolate and citrus represent all the occupiers, conquerors and rapists
who have spent any appreciable time on the island – the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish. They're all there, wrapped snugly in cookie dough and sweetly drizzled with icing.





Cuccidatti
modified and adapted from Gourmet magazine

These cookies can be quite heavy (and in Sicily quite sweet) so over the years I've tried to lighten them up a bit. I'll use white figs (Calimyrna) in equal proportion to black figs (Mission) or substitute dried apricots for some of the black figs. I've seen recipes that won't say to chill either the filling or the dough but I think both are a good idea - the filling should have time to come together and the butter-dough should chill and set. Make them in the evening and then let it all sit overnight in the fridge.

Filling

4 oz almonds - toasted

3 oz pine nuts - toasted

4 oz Calimyra figs (or dried apricots)

4 oz Mission figs

4 oz golden raisins

zest of half a lemon

zest of half an orange

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

2 oz dark chocolate

3/4 cup honey
1/4 cup brandy (or grappa)


Put everything in a food processor and pulse until it's broken up and more or less uniform but not whizzed into a paste - you should be able to make out bits of nuts and chocolate etc. Refrigerate overnight or at least 8 hours covered in plastic wrap.


Dough

4 cups flour
1 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter - cubed

2 large eggs

1/2 cup whole milk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

zest of half a lemon
zest of half an orange


Put all the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the cubed butter and pulse again until the butter is roughly pea-sized. Empty into a large mixing bowl. Combine the liquid ingredients into the food processor and mix. Add the liquid mix to the dry ingredients and stir with a fork until everything starts to come together. Switch to your hands and quickly knead it all together. Cut in half and form each half into a thick, rough, rectangle shape. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours.

Making the cookies
Preheat the oven to 350˚

Measure 1/3 cup of the filling at a time and roll into logs about an inch wide and 10 inches long. The filling is quite sticky and a little hard to work with, so a tiny bit of flour on your hands can help. I've taken to using plastic wrap and my sushi roller and just squeezing the 1/3 cup of filling to the width of the bamboo roller.

Working with one piece of dough at a time (leaving the other in the refrigerator) roll into a 15"x14" rectangle, an 1/8" thick. With a ruler or straight-edge trim to 13"x10", then cut into 4 (10"x 3 1/4") strips. Lay a log of filling in the middle of each strip and then bring up the dough on each side and pinch the seam together. Roll the log over, seam side down, and press gently, flattening it slightly. Cut the log into 1 1/2 - 2 inch cookies with a sharp, floured knife and then arrange on a large baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat mat.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 15-20 minutes, until lightly golden around the edges. Transfer to cooling racks for at least 10 minutes before icing.

Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

Icing
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons lemon + orange juice (you didn't throw them away after zesting, did you?)
sprinkles (more or less depending on the degree of your inner child)

Whisk together the sugar and vanilla with enough citrus juice to make a thick, pourable icing. Drip the icing onto the warm cookies and shake those sprinkles. Let cool and store in an airtight container. Alternatively you could pour yourself a mug of coffee and consume the entire batch standing at the counter.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Magic




It's been funny to watch the child learn how to use a camera phone. Taking pictures, for her, will be second nature - like eating or breathing. She's on her second decommissioned iPhone and has no problem turning it on and going to the camera app. I'll hear the click of the "mirror" and the whine of the "motor drive" and then she'll announce the subject of the picture: "Papa" or "Sadie's foot!" She's currently working on a couple of "series" – the ceiling fan in her room (whilst having her diaper changed) and an abstract, Rothko-esque series of black and orange (her finger over the lens.) I think to myself that if she sticks with it over the next 15 or 20 years she'll turn out to be a much more accomplished photographer than her father, who waited into his thirties before taking up a camera with any real seriousness.

But I also realize how different taking a picture is now compared to when I was teaching myself photography. There is an immediacy to taking snaps with a phone that is at once literal and at the same time virtual - looking at a tiny screen to frame the shot. It is akin to all the other screens we stare at every day of our lives (computers, televisions, DVD players) – life-like but not completely real. And disposable. The image itself (if you can actually call it that) is what? Is where? Bits of electronic information? A series of ones and zeroes? Even as a professional photographer, you simply trust that digital images are there... somewhere.

Shooting film was an altogether more precious affair. It wasn't just the care and precautions you took in handling such light sensitive material but the care and caution you took to make sure each frame was exposed properly – or at the very least, adequately. You had to know or be reasonably sure because there was no little picture on the back of the camera. And for anyone who processed and printed their own black and white film, taking a picture became an exercise in thinking in negative. "Expose for the shadows - develop for the highlights" was the mantra you lived by. Holding up a freshly developed roll of film to the light, you knew if you had succeeded or failed. Were the highlights so dense and black that you'd never be able to see any detail in them? Was there absolutely nothing in the shadow areas? Would making a decent print prove to be impossible? And every image was precious because of the time or effort or expense involved. But at the end of the day it was something you held in your hand or hung on the wall.

Perhaps I'll set up the darkroom some day and stand in the strange, warm orange light and watch my daughter's wonder as images appear from nothing in the developing tray, as if by magic.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Birthdays



Sorry about that. It's been a wild several weeks here. For starters we had our second child. I say "we" in the loosest sense of the word. As the father-to-be you try to act important and useful but of course you have no medical training and all the real work is going to be done by your wife. If I learned anything from the birth of my first daughter, it was to do my best to not pass out during labor – it drains resources and manpower better spent on the mother. But all went well and the newest member of the family is home and happy.

Of course it's been a steady stream of friends and family and in the midst of it all our first daughter had her second birthday which has meant a steady stream of gifts and presents that puts your average Christmas to shame. And I say "had" although it seems to still be going strong a good week after the actual day. My wife and I could easily have gotten her nothing and she wouldn't have missed it. But we're not part of the solution – we're definitely part of the problem.




The wife had had it in her head for some time that we were getting her a toy kitchen. We had been around and around about what to get and driven the length and breadth of greater Boston to look at the various options. The choices seem to fall into one of two categories: shoddy and cheap, or nice and expensive. And for me there's an added aesthetic dimension: garishly bright or pink versus stylish and natural. And all the while you're asking yourself (and your spouse), "how much do we really want to spend on a toy stove?"

As I'm loathe to bring more cheap Chinese crap into the house, we had decided upon an Ikea stove (the only discernible difference between cheap Chinese crap and cheap Swedish crap is that at least the cheap Swedish crap has style.) But I had begun to notice the stuff they have at day care – clean, natural, varnished, furniture-grade plywood. Sturdy, well-built and with a minimum of fussy (and breakable) parts. So I finally looked to see who the manufacturer was –Community Playthings.

Now I don't want to get to up on my political horse and ride all over the blogosphere, but this little company in upstate New York is what America and it's economy should look like. The quality maple they use is grown within a small radius of their woodshops – their woodshops, as in, made-in-America. Local, sustainable and friendly as hell. When we realized we had ordered a stove too big and called to get a different model, they cheerfully shipped the new one and return-shipped the first stove, all at no charge. Every time my wife got off the phone with the customer service woman she was warm and fuzzy for at least several hours.

So we paid more for the beautiful and well-built toy stove. I know that when my daughters are finished with it that someday my grandchildren (and perhaps their grandchildren) will get just as much enjoyment out of it as they did. I feel so good about it that I'm not the least bit resentful that they have a better stove than I do ... I think.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Rainbow Cherry Tomato Marmalade



So I was going to start out with a meditation on the end of the gardener's year and the melancholy for a surplus of tomatoes that won't ripen and my noble and bucolic attempts to use all the fruits of my garden.

Yeah. Let's just state right off that making jam is a tricky flippin' business. This is perhaps my second or third full-blown attempt at making preserves, and although the end product tastes great, the journey to get there is a bit more like something out of Don Quixote. I don't know if every novice makes the same mistakes that I keep making, over and over again, but here's a short list of what I think goes wrong:

1. I wasn't using a wide and somewhat shallow pot.

2. Boiling at too low a temperature.

3. Not stirring enough toward the end.

As anyone who has been reading this blog from the start will already know– I've got too many damn cherry tomatoes. The colors range from green to light red, but everything is unripe and hard. What to do? I had pickles in mind (and even made an unsuccessful batch) but I bumped into Ana Sortun one afternoon and she advised making green tomato jam. I didn't take very good mental notes of everything she told me, so I cobbled this together from a few things online. I wound up boiling this for so long (and too long) that in the end it's closer to a marmalade than a jam. It's tasty as hell though, and it looks pretty.




Rainbow Cherry Tomato Marmalade

3 lbs unripe cherry tomatoes, halved
5 1/2 cups sugar
2 large lemons, juice and zest
2 inch piece of ginger, microplaned
handful of basil
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 cinnamon sticks

Combine the halved tomatoes and sugar in a large non-reactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight to allow the tomatoes to macerate.

Pour the tomatoes, liquid and undissolved sugar into your cooking pan. Add the lemon juice, zest and cinnamon sticks. Wrap the basil leaves and coriander seeds in cheesecloth or a tea sachet and add to the pot.

Bring to a boil and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how quickly the water evaporates. Once the bubbles begin to slow and the jam begins to thicken and get glossy, periodically check small portions of jam on a chilled plate or spoon (I keep several in the freezer). Once a cooled test begins to thicken and set after a minute in the freezer, put the jam into sterilized jars and seal.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Will Tweet for Meat



I'm a professional photographer. I have two digital cameras, two computers and innumerable portable hard-drives. I have an iPhone. Bluetooth. MobileMe on a cloud. I'm digital. I'm connected, right? I just don't tweet. In fact, my inner Luddite is already troubled by all the time I spend emailing, surfing, online shopping and photoshopping (it hasn't spoken to me since I started this blog.) Do I show my age by admitting that I find most social media a little bewildering? Having always been a somewhat private person, I don't understand the compulsion to have everyone in the world know my every thought, or see pictures of me half-naked and drunk at a keg party.

So, needless to say, Twitter hasn't held out much interest for me. If most people's thoughts are relatively uninteresting, then abbreviated or mundane thoughts would be ... well, mundane. And I'm not very curious about up-to-the-moment activities of celebrities and entertainers. I'm just not sure how much more spare time I have for tweeting and re-tweeting (my inner Luddite isn't too sure either.) I should be in the garden weeding.

But the other day, I had one of those momentous epiphanies, like Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I didn't exactly fall off my horse and there wasn't a strong beam of godly light, but an interesting application for Twitter did became clear to me.

I was doing some photography at a fabulous butcher shop (Concord Prime & Fish) for an upcoming story in Edible Boston. In the course of a conversation with the owner, Mike Dulock, I discovered he tweets when he has some interesting or limited offering—a whole lamb that he just got in, or the first bay scallops of the season, for example. Rather than trying to keep track of which customers like lamb sausage, and calling or emailing them all individually, he just tweets. And since I'm nuts for homemade sausage, veal bones, pork fatback and all other manner of interesting butcher bits—I get this. Literally and figuratively.

Although, for the time being, I think I'll just listen. Like the great 20th century English novelist, Evelyn Waugh, who in his later and eccentrically pugnacious years would scream at his kids through an ear trumpet (even then a charmingly outdated piece of Victoriana) but refused to actually listen through the device—I imagine myself a social media contrarian. I won't tweet that I'm weeding in the garden, just know that I am.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Achilles and Kale



There is a Chinese aphorism—at least I think it’s Chinese, it could be eastern-European gypsy for all I know—that goes something like, “A successful thief does not look like a thief”. Which leads directly and obviously to a question that has been bugging me for a little while, “What the hell do you feed a two-year old?"


I worked on a children's cookbook several years ago and the constant refrain from the Art Director was, “foods can’t touch each other.” As I obediently complied with this directive, I thought silently to myself, “Sadie will never take such a ludicrous attitude (I believe she was still breastfeeding at the time.) Real food touches and my child will eat real food!"


So here we are in the terrible twos and I get this fairly often: head turned slightly to the side, eyes closed to the offending plate, and with a haughty sweep of her arm, she pushes the plate to edge of her high-chair tray. And just in case I’m still unclear, she punctuates it with a simple and disdainful, “no!" Or just dumps it on the floor.


Now the only strategy that a parent finds readily at hand is what I’ll call the Separation & Confinement Policy. The basic metaphor is the wall (much like the United States’ Immigration policy along the Mexican border. Or Palestine, say. Or post-war Berlin.) Kids' plates in the store are steeped in the policy – little Berlin walls separating one part of the plate from the others, so that little Timmy’s peas don’t touch his mac-and-cheese which in turn doesn’t touch his chicken nuggets—fundamentally a TV-dinner. Or astronaut food.


But I’ve found myself yearning for a different policy, something that would turn the tables and put me back in charge of my two-year old's eating habits. I’m the man of house for god’s sake. I AM PAPI-WHAPI!


And so I’ve come up with what I call the Integration & Obfuscation Policy (sort of like forced busing or Beirut in the old days.) The metaphor here would be the Trojan Horse. The whole objective of the Integration & Obfuscation Policy is to render the child’s meal completely unrecognizable as to both form and content. I’ve found that her ability to exercise autonomous will hinges on the ability of her tiny brain to identify what’s in front of her. Remove her ability to identify say, kale, because it’s hidden inside a frittata, and she’ll happily shove cube after cube into her grinning little face. That rice she wouldn’t eat last night and is currently in a tupperware container in the back of the fridge—throw that in too. Day-old peas—absolutely. A leftover drumstick—certainly. You get the idea.


All you need is a food processor to whiz things beyond recognition and enough egg to bind it all back together. There is simply no end to what you can put in a frittata.


Then again, it may be the ton of cheese I slip into the recipe or the mountain of ketchup I put on the side, which she greedily “dips." Maybe the Integration & Obfuscation Policy isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.




Savory Kale Tart
Adapted from Bistro Cooking, by Patricia Wells


I know I was talking about frittata, but this tart is nothing more than a frittata in a pasty shell. I'll make it from scratch and we’ll have it for dinner with a salad. Frittata is more of a leftovers affair. Patricia’s recipe uses Swiss chard although I tend to use kale, but any leafy green will work. The great thing about this recipe is that the pastry uses olive oil instead of butter so there are no tricky methods or refrigerating.


Pastry
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup water

Filling
1 pound (500g) kale
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4-5 large eggs
1 cup (100g) grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400˚


Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and then blend in the water and oil. It should form a wet crumble. Dump the pastry into the center of a 10 ½ inch tart tin or dish. Form it into a ball and then press it out into an even layer. I usually press it up the sides of my tart dish, but I don’t know that it’s necessary.

Remove most of the hard stem from the kale and then roughly chop into 2 or 3 inch ribbons. Wash but don’t spin or dry the kale. In batches, coarsely chop the kale in the food processor.
Saute the kale in a large pan with a little oil and salt and pepper until the moisture has evaporated.

Combine the eggs and cheese in a medium bowl and mix until thoroughly blended. Mix in the kale. Pour into the pastry shell and bake for 40 minutes or until the filling is firm and has browned a little on the top.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Great for Children



When summer finally begins to turn to fall in New England and the evenings start to cool and you begin to catch the faint odor of wet leaves and wood fires, it's time for apple picking. So last Saturday morning we packed Sadie into the car and set out through the crisp, bright morning in high spirits and eager anticipation, the child chanting "apoo pickin'" from the back seat. We were something out of a Martha Stewart dream.


We had decided to forgo the simple apple farm we usually go to in favor of a place recommended by friends (who also have small children) as a place "great for kids". Was there a faint warning in the promise of hay rides? Or the barnyard animals? Heedless, we drove on towards our destination with fun.


Surely when we were greeted at the parking area by a platoon of parking attendants, equipped with safety-vests and walkie-talkies, directing us to the far end of a giant field, past the five empty school buses - surely then we should have known what were getting in to. Or when we realized we didn't have the $30 in cash for the two tiny bags we could fill to our hearts content. Or when we had to beg our way onto the hay ride because we had failed to buy tickets, in order to get to the ATM at the other end of the farm … surely then.


No, the totality of the theme-park nightmare that we had stumbled into didn't completely hit me until I encountered the jumbo-inflatable-kiddie-jump-o-rama; then I knew.


It took us nearly an hour and a half before we were actually in an orchard picking apples. By now we regretted not bringing Sadie's lunch (although she was blissfully overdosing on cider donuts) and I lacked the enthusiasm to even fill our two little bags. We simply evacuated before one of us had a melt-down (I was the closest.)


What's a parent to do? Why, make rustic apple tarts of course.





2 little Rustic Apple Tarts

This is about the simplest tart you can imagine and I've always had the impression it's pretty hard to screw up. I've kept it to just apples and spices, but any number of things can be added: raisins or currents, cranberries, raspberries, pears, quince. The only two caveats I would make are; keep the dough cold (refrigerate for at least an hour after mixing) and let the apples macerate for a good 10 minutes before assembling the tarts to let them throw some juice. The technique for the dough may seem a little screwy, but I think I got the basic idea from Jacques P├ępin or Julia Child many years ago - so there.

Filling
5 medium-sized apples
3/4 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon allspice
pinch of salt
a few twists of black pepper
zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons of calvados (or brandy)

Crust (a recipe and a half)
2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups (240g) of all-purpose flour
10 - 11 tablespoons (160g) of unsalted butter - cubed
3 teaspoons of sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
enough ice-water to bind the dough

For the dough: combine the flour, salt and sugar in food processor and completely pulse in half the butter. Add the remaining butter and drizzle the ice-water, pulsing as little as possible to get the dough to just ball up (the objective being to keep the remaining butter from being completely processed). Quickly form into a ball and wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Meanwhile, peel and core the apples and cut them into whatever size dice you prefer. Zest and squeeze the lemon onto the diced apples. Add all the sugar, spices and calvados and stir it up good. Stir it periodically over the next 5 or 10 minutes. It should throw a fair amount of juice which I think helps to cook the apples later.

To assemble the tarts, cut the dough in half and roll out two crusts (approximately 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick - I like the crust a little on the thick side for these tarts) and one at a time place them on baking sheet lined with parchment. Spoon in a generous amount of apples and juice into the middle of the crust, leaving a couple of inches of dough on the edges. Then, quick before the juice runs all over the place, fold over the outer edge, crimping as you go. Brush with some of the remaining juice.

Pop into a 350˚ pre-heated oven for about 45 minutes or until the tops of the crust and apples are a nice, dark, golden-brown.


Friday, October 1, 2010

A Tangled Web



Let me say straight-off that is my first time planting cucumbers. Let me also add that any book about gardening will tell you, somewhere in the first few paragraphs, not to put plants too close or overcrowd. I read it and I know it, but I just chose to ignore it. But the story actually starts before the cucumbers. It begins with the tomatoes (see previous post). Do you think it would be advisable to put two cherry tomato plants per cage? It would not. Not unless your goal is to have your raised-beds resemble Vietnam or the Brazilian rain-forest. But after last year's pathetic and comic attempt at a vegetable garden (the fava beans never got more than 3 or 4 inches tall - I'll leave it at that) the galaxy of problems and disasters I was imagining did not include a picture of success run amok.

Enter the cucumbers - Parisian Pickling (a.k.a. gherkins or cornichons) and Japanese Climbing. Did I mention I'm not very good about reading user-manuals, instructions, etc. Oh, never mind - a quote from the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue should suffice:

Vigorous growth, strong grasping tendrils, the best variety we offer for trellises.

"Strong grasping tendrils" would be an understatement. I fully expect to see the cat, lifeless on the ground, with a cucumber vine lashed tightly around his throat. They wrap and strangle anything in a rather disturbing manner. And as for "vigorous growth", the things have obviously wound their way through the cherry tomatoes (who have returned in kind) and one particularly prodigal vine has traveled from one end of the bed to the other, leaped over the gravel path between the beds and into the yellow-pear tomatoes of the adjoining bed. I can't be certain where one thing begins or the other one ends. At this point they're locked in a futile wrestling contest, neither willing to give up or admit defeat, simply dragging each other to the ground in a giant, over-weight, over-wrought heap.

What's a gardener to do? Why, make pickles of course.





Nookie's Pickles

Adapted from Spice, by Ana Sortun

2 pounds of cucumbers
1/2 cup salt
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon brown mustard seed.
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1/2 cup whole garlic cloves, peeled and smashed (≈ 1 head)
1 large bunch of summer savory or fresh thyme, roughly chopped

If you have large cucumbers, slice them into thick sticks. Or better yet, use smaller cucumbers, and keep them whole.

In a large saucepan over high heat, combine 8 cups of water with the salt, vinegar, and all the herbs and spices and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Cool the brine for 3 hours at room temperature before pouring over the pickles into sterilized jars and refrigerate for 1 week. At this point they are "half sours". You can replace half the brine with water and keep these "full sours" up to a month in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tomato Tart





Drowning in cherry tomatoes. Back in July, the plan had been to stick with smaller, more salad-friendly varieties because I wasn't sure how much time and energy I would have for stewing, jarring and preserving. Now, after what seems like weeks of tomato-basil-balsamic salads, it's time for something a little different.

There was some cream and ricotta in the 'fridge left over from the weekend and I thought there must be some kind of Provencal-style tart-thing in all that. So while that's all kicking around in the back of my head, I'm thumbing through my recently arrived copy of Breakfast, Lunch, Tea, and there it is:


Ricotta, Tomato and Thyme Tart
Adapted from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini

cherry tomatoes (enough to fill a 10 inch tart tin)
salt and ground pepper
100g (1 cup) grated Cheddar or similar cheese
1 blind-baked tart shell (10 inch)

Cream Mixture
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup ricotta
4 eggs
pinch of salt and pepper
pinch of ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh thyme

Preheat the oven to 350˚.

While you're blind-baking your tart crust (whatever recipe you like or use), spread the tomatoes out on a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake for about 45 min or until the tomatoes have shriveled and lost some of their liquid.

Scatter the cheese over the base of the tart crust and then spread the tomatoes on top of that. Pour the cream mixture as high as you can without spilling over the crust.

Transfer carefully to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes until the filling has set and is lightly golden.