Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday dinner party

No pictures, alas - when will I remember my camera again? But I thought I would share the menu. This turned out to be a pretty low-stress, pleasant meal, even though I made a few things I had never tried before. But the ingredients were all things I feel comfortable with, so I wasn't worried. Except for dessert, I only used one recipe. What's funny is that I didn't notice that at all until after dinner. I think I'm finally getting the hang of this cooking thing.


Roast pork shoulder: If you read my cheapskate's guide to the holidays, you'll know already why I picked this. $10, fed seven easily, we ate leftovers for dinner yesterday, and I suspect there's more lurking in the fridge. I marinated the roast in Sam Adams, dark brown sugar and kosher salt for two days, then cooked at 325 for four hours, turning twice and basting three or four times with marinade. About half an hour before I took the roast out, I brushed it with mustard and black pepper. Nice and juicy, well-flavored meat, could have been more generous with the mustard, but the edges were nicely flavored.

Barley pilaf: I loves me some barley. It is cheap, underutilized, keeps its chew even if it has to sit for a while before serving, and its mild flavor plays well with others. I minced an onion and a couple stalks of celery, cooked them briefly in a little oil, added the barley and cooked a few minutes more, and then covered in a good homemade meat stock (mostly chicken, with a few beef bones thrown in). One cup of the stock had been used to soak about 1/3 cup of dried mushrooms, which I minced and added. When the barley was cooked, I added some smoked paprika and fresh parsley, and that was that.

Parsnip and roasted chestnut puree: Be glad there are no pictures, because this looked like gruel. Tasted good, but not good enough to warrant the effort involved in peeling chestnuts. Next time, I'm trying parsnips pureed with apples.

Beets and carrots with a maple-horseradish glaze: Beet bunches are SMALL at the Stop and Shop these days. Didn't make enough, and this was the most expensive dish of the meal, weirdly enough. Provided some much-needed color, though. Glaze was just horseradish, syrup and butter, not too strong.

Marinated mushrooms: From Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. Have made these so many time, I don't really actually use the recipe any more. But this is my recipe dish, and it is good. Should have made twice what I did.

Apple-smoked gouda-onion tart: Still working out the kinks on this one, but the idea is right. Started with a half-cornmeal, half-white flour crust from Nick Malgieri's How to Bake. Caramelized some onions, put those in the crust first, followed by shredded smoked gouda and a layer of thinnly sliced apples. Poured a blend of sour cream/milk/egg over, sprinkled with a little more cheese and baked. Wasn't as pretty as I might have hoped, because the apples were still a little pale when the rest was done, but the flavors worked together well. I'll revisit this.

For dessert, molten chocolate cakes from The Best Recipe. The Cook's Illustrated folk get it right again, although the cakes needed two minutes longer than suggested, and my overn thermometer tells me my temp is fine. I've notices that ramekins can vary a lot in thickness and therefore heat transmission, so that can affect timing. Good anyway.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best locavore presents: New England edition (Boston-centric)

Okay, I'll confess: I haven't given many locavore presents. Mostly because the folks I generally buy for wouldn't be that interested. But I do have definite ideas on the matter, like everything else.

Here's my list:

1) The one I have given, because it's a good all-purpose gift: maple syrup. Who doesn't like the real stuff? Although you can get the tins that look like sugarshacks or the bottles that look like maple leaves, the best choice, gift-wise, are the teddy bears with the little knit hats form Highland Sugarworks of Vermont. Throw in some decent pancake mix, and you've got a good present for families with kids. Pemberton Farms in Somerville carries them.

2) It may be too late to order, but the best mixed dried mushrooms I've ever had were from the Oyster Creek Mushroom company in Damariscotta. Bonus - you get to say "Damariscotta."

3) Sure, local honey is easy to come by, but how local? Massachusetts-local? How about Jamaica-Plain-local? Yup, some nut is crazy enough to keep bees in JP, bless his heart, and you can get the honey at City Feed and Supply in JP.

4) West Country Cider is very good, makes for a nice change from wine for the holidays, and usually fairly widely available. Last time I checked, you could get it at the Wine and Cheese Cask in Somerville.

5) There are too many great local cheeses to pick one. Wait - forget that, I'm going to - Great Hill Blue. Widely available at good cheese shops in the area.

6) Expanding from "locally grown" to "locally made," I would encourage people showing up to functions over the next few weeks to consider bringing: fig-vanilla scones from Petsi's Pies in Somerville, mohnflowers (poppyseed swirl pastries) from Carberry's in Central Square, homemade Oreos from Fornax in Roslindale (the husband loves these), brioche or chocolate-almond bread pudding from Blue Frog in JP, the clove ice cream from Christina's in Inman Square (great for serving with holiday pies).

Now I've made myself hungry.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hard times all around

I am dealing with the current economic crisis by 1) not looking at the statements from my retirement account, 2) holding onto my job like it's a life raft, and 3) panicking about relatively small expenditures, like holiday baking, while blissfully turning my attention away from recent big expenditures, like, ahem, graduate school.

Just in case you're approaching household finances with the same penny-wise, pound-foolish approach I've espoused, I have some suggestions:

1) Make marshmallows. Really not hard, as long as you don't get freaked out by using a candy thermometer; people love them; and the cost is minimal. Gelatin, sugar, egg whites, corn syrup, flavoring. That's it. The $2.00 box of gelatin is the big investment here, because you'll use the whole thing. (You might be able to find a bulk version at a health food store). The corn syrup will run you about $2.75, but you'll get four batches out of it. Sugar is cheap, and you only use two egg whites. A little peppermint flavoring, or vanilla, or coffee, or what have you, and you're there.

2) Make bread. Bread flour, yeast, water, salt. Even if you go for broke and make something with eggs, milk and dried fruit, it's going to be cheaper than cookies or cakes. Make fancy shapes and everyone will be very excited. You can find a video for making a six-strand braid here. If you're baking for kids, teddy bears are pretty easy, as are turtles, and parents will probably be happy to get something less sugary, particularly if you use a little whole wheat flour and maybe some raisins.

3) Go to Trader Joe's, if you've got one. Really, their prices on nuts, chocolate and dried fruit are fantastic. A pound of pecans cost me $6. Whee-hooo. An

4) I have found in the past the my two biggest expenditures for the Christmas baking extravaganza were butter and containers. It's not easy to get around butter, unless you go with bread or meringue-based options (if you aren't up for marshmallows, plain old meringues are always good.) But containers add up fast - baskets, tins, and so one don't come cheap. Really, I believe there are two basic cheap options, neither of which are particularly original, but so it goes. You can go with your basic goodie bag, bought in packs of 10 or 20 for a couple dollars down at the party store. Or you can go for the Chinese takeout container. These are found most cheaply as restaurant supply shops, or you might be able to ask the nice person behind the counter at your favorite Chinese takeout place. The party stores have them in pretty colors, but they're a little more expensive. I know some people are capable of folding paper into charming containers, but I can NOT do this. If you can, more power to you.

5) Speaking of restaurant supply shops, if you want to go all Martha on someone's ass, and do it on the cheap, restaurant supply shops are where it's at. They have dead cheap serving ware of all sorts, which you can put your cheap marshmallows or meringues in IF you're looking to fancy-up your gift so it looks like you're not just giving food. This is good for the person who is hosting a big holiday dinner. For co-workers, neighbors, and distant relations, stick with the cellophane bags.

6) If you're the person hosting the big holiday party, think pork. Pork shoulder or fresh harm or Boston Butt: these are delicious and very cheap cuts that too few people make at home because they require time. Since you're going to spend the day at home cleaning and cooking anyway, just use that long-cooking requirement as an advantage. Trim down on hors d'oeuvres. Olives, cheese, nuts and all the other delectable nibbles can quickly cost more the actual dinner. Pick one thing and stick to it. I like cheese puffs, pate a choux with Gruyere and black pepper and a bit of dry mustard mixed in. They are delicious, everyone seems to like them, you don't need too much cheese, so they aren't terribly expensive, and they freeze
well. Just take them out of the freezer right before serving and refresh in a hot oven for about 10 minutes. Marinated vegetables can be quite affordable, too, as long as you stick to the cheaper veggies. Yes to dilly beans and carrots and pickled beets, no to red peppers and artichokes.

6) Finally, be reasonable. I mean, be reasonable with yourself - how much you want to do, how much you can do. I, um, have some issues with this, as became clear to me last night. I'm having some people over for dinner on Saturday, and I started to plan a menu - not too elaborate (featuring pork, naturally). I was considering what I wanted for dessert and remembered I had some buttercream in the freezer from a cake I made about six weeks ago, plus a little ganache left over from Thanksgiving. My mental monologue went something like this: A bouche de Noel! Easy-peasy - I don't even have to make the filling. I'll just have to make the cake, fill and roll it, make some more ganache for the outside, then make the meringue mushrooms and the marzipan holly, and it will be all set. Of course, I still have to clean the house and make all the sweets for the gift bags and make the actual dinner, and - well, maybe I should. Maybe Yule log is a bit much. Really, the easy thing would be to make something like those molten chocolate cakes that were all the craze about five years ago. Just mix it up, stick the ramekins in the fridge, and bake off after dinner. But so passe! So lacking in holiday spirit! Maybe if I freeze the Yule log on Monday - but Monday I need to do laundry and send Christmas cards...I could finally try those chocolate souffle crepes! Of course, then I have to cook while everyone's there. Finally, my conversation with myself came to an abrupt halt when I realized that making the fancy-pants dessert was all about me, me, me. My guests won't care. Formerly trendy cake tastes great. There's a fantastic ice cream shop up the road. Everything will be fine.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pie in the Sky

The above picture (which is also below, forgive me for repeating myself) is in the way of a credential. I am a true lover of pie. Evidence: my wedding cake was a pie. That's a French silk chocolate pie my mom made, her specialty and my favorite growing up. I also liked pumpkin, a standard at Christmas, and the fall apple pie, and the summer blueberry and blackberry pies. I had to grow up to learn to like mincemeat, and I still have yet to cotton onto lemon meringue, my dad's mother's favorite. But I have been a pie eater all my life.

So you would think I would like American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America's Back Roads.

Instead it pissed me off.

Maybe I'm just cranky, what with the end of the semester and the lack of sleep and all. But this book, which I haven't even finished yet, is just so deeply annoying. The basic thesis seems to be that life used to be slower, it's changed, pie is a metaphor for some sort of idealized American past in which people had time for pie, the pie bakers are dying, and ain't it sad? The woman writing the book asks people for recommendations of great pie bakers, and then essentially shows up at their work or homes without calling first and hovers around, hoping to be asked to dinner. She likes to frame this as a sort of spontaneity born of a spiritual quest, but it basically seems pretty rude and inconsiderate. Would the pie-hunt be less vision-quest-ish if she used a damned telephone? Also, I know plenty of people my own age (37, hardly the "white-haired grandmothers with flour on their aprons" she is so fond of conjuring) make pie. My friends with kids make pies with the apples from their apple-picking; my friends with gardens use up the rhubarb; my baker friends make whatever's in season. Pie is delicious, pie is unpretentious, pie is home-y, but pie is NOT quaint. Damnit.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

So I nearly killed my husband yesterday

I didn't mean to. But this whole "cooking for Crohn's thing is really hard. And yesterday, I just got it wrong. You see, oatmeal is one of the few things that is officially considered a "good choice" for Crohn's sufferers, because it's high in soluble fiber and relatively easy to digest. It's also got some insoluble fiber, but almost everything with a nutrient does, so that can't be avoided altogether. I made oatmeal, but because I have been trying to up the nutrient content of everything we eat whenever I can, I decided to make pumpkin oatmeal. After all, he likes pumpkin and generally tolerates the orange vegetables well. So I cooked the oatmeal with half a can of pumpkin and some cinnamon and clove and topped it off with milk and a little maple syrup, which made for a delicious and balanced breakfast. I was rather proud of myself, really. A few hours later, he was in terrible pain. He spent the afternoon in bed, painfully digesting. We checked the fiber contnet of oatmeal - about 4 grams for the serving he ate, half of it soluble. That's all good, he's not supposed to have 5 grams or more in a sitting, and the more soluble the better. But then the pumpkin. Oh. Three grams of insoluble fiber. Who would have thought? It's all soft and mushy and not in the slightest bit fibrous, and it's cooked, which is supposed to help, but no. Full up of the wrong type of fiber. Shit. Back to plain oatmeal.

For those of you who CAN have all the fiber you like, and indeed probably need more than you get (most Americans don't get anywhere near the fiber they should), can I suggest adding pumpkin to your oatmeal? It's very good.