Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Summer in May

After weeks of grey, cold, and drizzle, Memorial Day weekend was sunny, hot and humid. Of course, window ACs were not yet installed, so we had to conquer the heat with low-tech methods.

I broke out the rocket pop molds, one of my most-used kitchen items during the summer months. Regular old store-bought popsicles are just sugar, water and food coloring: no flavor, no nutritional value, no point. Homemade are easy, fast and really worth the minimal effort. Starting with a very ripe banana is always a good idea, since it will usually give you enough sugar to ensure both sweet flavor and appropriate texture. I added some pineapple and a little pineapple juice, plus a couple spoonsful of coconut milk, whirred it all up until smooth, and then froze for four hours. Working prep time was five minutes. As you can see, these no-sugar-added treats were a hit with big and small alike. Score one for laziness.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Beyond basic black

(This was my first submission in the food writing class I just finished. My instructor informed me in her final evaluation that it was a "snore" and made her fear I would be "competent, but dull." Fortunately, I improved over the course of the semester. But it does offer some useful information, and so here it is.)

Freshly ground black pepper is the culinary equivalent of the little black dress: always respectable, exceedingly useful, and as predictable as mill-wielding waiter at a white-cloth restaurant. Every roast or chop gets its rub; every plate of pasta is duly sprinkled. But peppercorns come in a rainbow of colors, each with a different personality, and even basic black offers more exotic variants.

This array of pepper choices can inspire new ways of seasoning. Add a fresh grind to foods traditionally finished with salt – roasted nuts, fries, crackers or popcorn.  Quick bread favorites like biscuits and popovers gain sophistication with the addition of some spicy bite. A bit of fiery buckshot has a place at the dessert table too, offering its kick to a deeply spicy gingerbread, warm fruit compote, surprising and addictive lemon cookies, or in the classic Italian combination, to a dish of strawberries anointed with aged balsamic vinegar. Cooks who experiment with other options may discover a whole new wardrobe.

Black peppercorns are the dried, ripe berries of the Piper nigrum plant that most people are familiar with. Varieties are known by their place of origin: the unmarked bottles in the grocery store are generally the classic, bold Tellicherry, but adventurous cooks can also find Sarawak, Singapore or Malabar. These vary in complexity and heat level. Combining several in a grinder will provide a full spectrum of flavors, while using just one will highlight its particular personality. Some specialty merchants have started to offer peppercorns that have been smoked over hickory chips or in bourbon barrels, offering the possibility building layered flavors with a single ingredient.

White peppercorns are stripped of their dark skins and, with them, the characteristic taste of black pepper, revealing a nose-twisting musky aroma, as well as a powerful heat that fills the mouth with a slow-building burn. The French use tiny pinches of finely powdered kernels to give a hint of warmth to cream sauces like b├ęchamel without marring their perfect whiteness, while other cuisines feature the spice front and center. Jamaican and Cajun spice blends both rely heavily on its characteristic intensity, combining it with cumin, cayenne and other spices to make aromatic and tongue-tingling blends. The most surprising use might be with nutmeg and allspice in a traditional English cake mixture.

Green peppercorns are the unripe berry, preserved by drying or brining. The dried version lacks much of the power and depth that ripening brings to its darker sibling, but does offer a clean, bright flavor in a softer shell that can be used whole. Preserved in brine, or rehydrated in water, wine or vermouth, these caper look-alikes can be used in many of the same ways as their doppelgangers: as the basis for sauces for poultry or rich-fleshed  fish, such as mackerel, or in pork terrines or cheese spreads. Just a few atop a deviled egg add zing.

Pink peppercorns are not a true member of the pepper family, but their similar size and shape and their appealingly rosy hue make them the traditional partner of real peppercorns in glass-sided mills. Mild and just a bit sweet, this seasoning makes a marvelous infusion into vodka, producing a genteel cousin to the popular but brash chili pepper vodka. This blushing aperitif manages to be both demure and piquant, like the society doyenne who pairs her pearls with a leopard-skin cape.  Some pastry chefs feature pinks in unusual desserts, such as meringues or compotes.

In the early days of the spice trade, Indonesian long pepper (sometimes called Javanese or Indian long pepper) was considered to be the same as true black pepper. In fact, these long pods come from the Piper longum plant, a close relative to Piper nigrum. Once found almost exclusively in Indian grocers, these fragrant treasures are now available atspecialty grocers and spice dealers.  Resembling tight brown pinecones up to two inches long, these seed capsules need to be ground fresh. An ordinary table mill might not be up to the task, but an electric coffee grinder should yield a fine powder with a strong bite and a nearly floral scent. Try these in a pork rub or a lamb stew.

Monday, May 16, 2011

High on the Hog

Having just read Frederick Douglassm Opie's Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, I was afraid Jessica Harris' High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America was going to be a retreading of familiar material. I was pleasantly surprised. The two authors' styles are very different - while Opie tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to hold together personal reminiscences and academic history, Harris is a natural storyteller who uses the lives of black cooks, eaters, and entrepreneurs to enliven the larger cultural discussion of food and race. She brings to light nearly-forgotten figures who deserve to be widely known: the life of Hercules, George Washington's genius black cook, is just waiting to be turned into a novel or screenplay.

This book is a highly entertaining read, but I admit to wondering how accurate some of the material was. Harris chose not to include a professorial flurry of footnotes, which certainly keeps the book accessible, but also prevents it from carrying a certain authority. Popular history requires walking a very fine line - Harris generally does a good job, but might err a bit on the side of popularity. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, as the quantity of fabulous primary material she draws on tells its own story with clarity, and her lively prose will draw in any reader.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pimento, otherwise known as allspice

Last piece of culinary ephemera I picked up last weekend. The image here is lovely, one of a collectible series of cards featuring the spices sold by Bugbee and Brownell of Rhode Island. The company lasted less than a decade, closing in 1888, so that makes dating this pretty easy. I had no idea that pimento was ever used as a name for allspice, which is a pretty important thing to know if using old recipes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More ephemera

I like this because it encapsulates the romantic aura that developed around the idea of New England - even if the company using the name was based in Chicago. The region came to stand for honesty, traditionalism, Grandma, thriftiness and efficiency (that Yankee ingenuity!). That image remains in some ways - would the Vermont Teddy Bear Company have the same cachet if it were called the New Jersey Teddy Bear Company? I think not. But at the same time, New England is also thought of as the land of wild-eyed liberals, traffic jams, and bad clothing. Of course, both perceptions might be true....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Not exactly mother's bosom

This is a somewhat morbid little piece of culinary ephemera I picked up at the Boston Book and Paper Expo this weekend. Those tubes the babies are sucking were known as infant-killers, and for good reason:

According to Valerie Fildes (1998), ‘it seems likely that the eradication of the long-tube feeding bottle was a major factor in the… fall in infant mortality'. Before 1900 a glass bottle with a long rubber tube attached was popular. The convenience of the tube was that the child could be left to suck unsupervised. The problem was that these tubes, and also the bottles, were difficult to clean. Accumulations of dirt and congealed residues were inevitable and it is no surprise that infections and deaths were much higher for babies fed with this method than with the newer, boat-shaped bottle, which had a rubber teat and was much easier to keep clean. Medical Officer of Health data indicate that tube bottles were used in about 78 per cent of cases of artificial feeding in 1904, where a child had died, falling to nil by 1925.

P.J. Atkins, "Mother’s milk and infant death in Britain, circa 1900-1940." Anthropology of Food, September 2, 2003.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Rox Star

As a frail grey-haired gentleman slowly eases his way out of the booth, the waitress rushing past with a pot of coffee gently lays her hand on his shoulder, “Don’t hurry, dear,” she says. “Take all the time you need.” A toddler fusses at another table, and she offer the parents a bag of oyster crackers to keep him distracted. She fills a half-empty mug and delivers a hot plate of eggs and toast. Another morning at the Rox.

Located on a stretch of Centre Street in West Roxbury, where insurance agents and nail salons give way to bookstores, bakeries, and funky thrift shops, Rox Diner (formerly Auntie B’s) represents a curious blend of 1950s small-town and 2011 hipster locavorism. The waitresses, wearing t-shirts that read “I Was Born a Scrambling Man” or “Bread Zeppelin,” serve a clientele of families grabbing breakfast after Mass at Holy Name, aging bachelors socializing at the counter, and middle-aged ladies from the neighborhood fortifying themselves with gossip and a side of eggs Benedict. The regulars may not be aware that those eggs come from free-range hens in New Hampshire, that the beef is hormone-free and certified humane, that the bread is made at the esteemed Fornax Bakery. But the food tastes great, and so they return often.

All the morning standards are here, cooked with care: over-easies appropriately runny, bacon nicely crisped, orange juice freshly squeezed. More extravagant offerings include thick brioche French toast oozing with bananas and melted Nutella ($9.95) , blackberry, pecan and mascarpone pancakes ($9.95), and omelet with pear, goat cheese and avocado ($9.95).

The pancakes are especially well-executed, with the lightly crisped exterior that marks an exceptional flapjack. Specialty versions come with real maple syrup, but you have to request the good stuff with a basic stack ($4.95, plus a surcharge of $1.50 for the syrup). Unfortunately, Belgian waffles ($4.95) are not up to the same standard, too soft and floppy to merit the indulgence. Stuffed French toasts (stuffed $9.95, plain $7.50) are gloriously decadent, but the plain thick-cut brioche toast could stand a longer soak in the egg mixture. The center remains bready, rather than custard-like.

There are good options for the health-conscious, including the Juliana (named for a waitress’ daughter), a generous bowl of rich plain yogurt topped with ripe fresh fruit, granola, and a drizzle of honey, served with two eggs and toasted peasant bread ($9.95), and the health-nut French toast, made with multigrain bread nearly invisible under a deluge of pecans, blueberries, and bananas ($9.95).

Although the restaurant offers lunch, breakfast is draw here. On Thursdays it reopens for burger night, a favorite event with kids. The ground beef is certified humane and hormone-free, a full-flavored patty to be topped with standard options or some unusual ones, like smoked paprika mayo (basic burger, $6.25). Almost-too-thick-for-a-straw milkshakes and crisp onions rings can’t be beat.

The next time you’re in the mood for an all-American plate of eggs and bacon or a burger with the works, skip the chrome and neon flash of the mall diner chains and experience the real McCoy. Your maiden visit won’t be your last - and don’t be surprised if the waitresses say hello when you return. They’re like that.