Hack #5: Finally, The Best Salad Dressing Ever

In our family, birthing babies and salad dressing share a story. It began three and a half years ago after the birth of a first grandchild and my small role in helping feed tired and hungry parents. Babies and Rice So Very Nice

still tired but photogenic several weeks later [2016]

Recently, I learned something new about dressing a salad from an article about an Italian restaurant in New York City. With a surprise ingredient [warm water] and a special twist in the assembly, there is now a best-ever-homemade-green-salad-dressing to have on hand in the home refrigerator. This one tops them all. So dump those bottles of preservative laden grocery store sludge.

Full disclosure: I have poached and improved a recipe from Via Carota resto in Manhattan’s West Village. The New York Times article stated that people who ordered the “Insalata Verde” swore the dressing was delicious enough to eat on its’ own by the spoonful. I had to see what the fuss was about.

Via Carota, NYC

Via Carota is a charming Italian restaurant featuring exposed brick, cozy wood, and ambient decor. There are no reservations. Since the article appeared in the newspaper, it is always packed. Plan on waiting for a table or try to slip onto a stool at the bar.

I invited my Manhattan based sister-in-law to join me for lunch. We decided to split the “Insalata Verde” as it is a veritable mountain of fresh greens, enough for two, or more, people. We were deep in conversation when the salad arrived.

the infamous green salad at Via Carota

Digging in, we continued talking until I finally blurted out, “Let’s debrief this dressing. All I taste is oil and salt. Where are the other flavors? I wouldn’t eat this with a spoon, even metaphorically.” 

Too much oil, too much salt, but an inspiring blend of other ingredients is the reason a well-publicized recipe from a popular NYC restaurant became an even better one in my own kitchen.

The ingredients are common. And usually found in most home pantries. Well…except, perhaps, for aged sherry vinegar and shallots.

There are a couple of quirks in assembling the dressing. The first is to rinse minced shallots in cold water. Second is to add one tablespoon of warm water to the vinegar and shallot mix and let sit briefly. And third, the greens should be slightly damp before dressing them. For this, a salad spinner is handy.

Use any amount of the freshest greens you can find. A hearty combination of butter lettuce, endive, romaine, red leaf lettuce, watercress, spinach, arugula, and/or the jumbo mixed box of salad found in every supermarket.

The recipe makes enough for more than one use, unless you are preparing salad for a crowd. Stored in the refrigerator it tastes even better the next time. And the time after that.

The tweaks I made to the Via Carota recipe are minimal. Cut the oil, double the garlic, adjust the salt. Modify to your own tastes. Get creative and spoon it over vegetables, or meat, or inside a sandwich as the bread spread.

This dressing is loaded with substance in the form of solid bits of shallots and mustard seeds. The small addition of warm water softens the vinegar edge and smoothes the blended flavors harmoniously, making it sublime.

As a final editorial, here are the three reasons you never need store bought dressing.

  1. Ten minutes of delicious homemade dressing preparation is a good use of time.
  2. Dinner guests and family will rave about a simple green salad. Every single serving.
  3. With a jar already in the refrig, meal planning is simplified.

At the very least, make the Best Green Salad Dressing Ever, just once. Then you will understand the urge to dip in and eat it off a spoon.

BEST GREEN SALAD DRESSING EVER

Ingredients:

  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 2 T. plus 1tsp. aged sherry vinegar 
  • 1 T. warm water
  • ½ C. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 ½ tsp. whole-grain mustard [with seeds]
  • 1 ½ tsp. honey [optional, but I always use it]
  • 2 sprigs thyme, washed and stripped [or use dried thyme leaves]
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely grated 
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
E-V olive oil, aged sherry vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, S & P, garlic, shallot
minced shallot and grated garlic

Preparation:

  1. Wash the greens in cold water and discard any stems or brown pieces. Spin in salad spinner, wrap in clean dishtowels, and set aside.
  2. Rinse finely minced shallot in mesh strainer under cold water. Drain. Place in a bowl.
  3. Add sherry vinegar and the tablespoon of warm water. Let sit for two minutes.
  4. Whisk in oil, mustards, honey, thyme, grated garlic, and a pinch of salt.
  5. Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as needed. [Using these measurements, I have not found it necessary to adjust anything.]

Serving:   

Place prepared greens in a large serving bowl and drizzle dressing over, tossing to lightly coat. [I don’t like a heavy coating of dressing, so drizzle to your taste.] Generously grind black pepper over the top. Toss again. Taste and serve.

Refrigerate remaining dressing in a glass jar. If the refrigerator temperature is very cold and the olive oil has slightly solidified when you want to reuse, let sit at room temperature for a couple minutes, shake it up, and it’s good to go. 

leftovers for another day

A Guest Room Under the Porch

Summer at our cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains began in June this year. 

A guest I wasn’t expecting had already arrived. Stepping onto the covered front porch, a young deer with budding antlers leapt out from underneath my feet. He had moved in below the decking, among rocks laid down years ago.

The buck didn’t venture far, sticking close to nearby pine trees, pretending to graze and glance silently at me. Over the course of days, I became familiar with his routine and he with mine.

Buddy as a youngster

I began calling softly, “Hey Buddy, it’s just me”, when he startled awake with my footsteps above him. If it was late afternoon, nocturnal foraging began and he wandered away.

My husband arrived one week later. We have our morning coffee here, on the porch that faces north, with a view of craggy rock knobs and towering Ponderosas. Rays of rising sunlight are welcome when the air is cool.

We began to see Buddy meandering “home”, well after sunrise, having pulled the typical all-nighter for a mule deer. Sometimes there were two younger bucks with him. When he angled down the hill toward his sleeping space the others strolled on down the road.

Because we were often sitting on top of his semi-concealed den, he began lying down in the grassy weeds off the porch, awake and relaxed. He saw us. We saw him. He heard our voices as we talked. An unusual compatibility formed. When we left our chairs he would ease back into his rocky enclosure and bed down. One day led to the next…

Mule deer are indigenous to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. They differ from their whitetail cousins with a larger body build, oversized ears, a black tipped white tail, and white patch on the rump. Males prefer sleeping among rocky ridges while females like bedding down in meadows protected by trees and shrubbery. Life span can approach ten years, but only if they avoid mountain lions, bobcats, and packs of coyotes.

the corner room with hard pillows

Antlers are shed and re-grown every year. In the beginning, they are covered in hairy skin called velvet. Velvet supplies blood to protect and nourish them while they are still soft and fragile. As they grow, [as much as half an inch a day] a deer’s antlers branch forward and “fork”, then fork again. When full size is reached, the velvet dies off and bucks remove it by rubbing on trees and bushes. This also strengthens their neck for sparring with other males in the fall rut.

Days turned into weeks as we watched Buddy’s frame fill out. His antlers seemed to grow visibly overnight, forking once, then twice into an impressive display. He was going to be a player in this season’s rut.

antler growth one half inch per day

In late July, we left Estes Park heading northwest on a road trip to visit friends. In contrast to dry, grassy, wildflower meadows and granite-rock mountains, our friends summer near water–a large lake in the Idaho panhandle, and the Methow River valley in northern Washington State.

leaving buddy home alone

Sometimes we wondered about our under-the-porch guest back in Colorado. Husband surreptitiously placed a web cam to observe activity while we were away. Feedback went to his phone, but only for a short time. Within days, Buddy stuck his face into the camera lens and apparently kicked the whole thing over. We could only guess whether he abandoned the den…or simply triumphed over unwanted technology.

dozing
resting
and spying the web cam

Spending time with friendships that began in Taiwan in the 1990s was the highlight of our days on the road. In northern Idaho, on our friends’ boat, we enjoyed a scenic tour of Lake Pend Oreille followed by a sunset dinner al fresco. The next day, in a two-car caravan, we drove to Mazama, Washington where the Methow River runs through the property of our friends.

Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
Methow River valley, Mazama, Washington

Important activities take place along this strip of rocky, sandy riverbed as the Methow flows by. Cooking over fire in a circular rock surround, lumberjacking dead trees for winter firewood, sleeping in teepee or tent, sharing meals, talking and story telling, watching clouds, the sunrise or the sunset, reading with the soothing background noise of water sounds. Rhythms of a summer lived outside play daily here. It is the spiritual landscape of our friends. While sharing their space we moved within its’ cadence and felt it, too.

to teepee island with the Methow running through on the other side
symbolic exchange of antique tins when we make home visits

A circuitous route took us back to Colorado after saying good-bye in Mazama. When we pulled off the dirt road onto the cabin driveway, it was still light enough to note the sleeping den was empty. The web cam was upside down near rocks about fifteen feet from the porch steps. Buddy returned the next morning, noting our presence by plopping down and waiting for us to finish breakfast and move off the porch.

Our cabin was built to house a crowd. Family and friends pile upstairs and bunk in rooms with multiple beds. Less than a week after we returned home there were rounds of guests–more footsteps, new smells, even a baby’s babbling voice. Buddy moved out.

It’s been several weeks now since he left. A woman mentioned that her husband saw a deer sleeping in an unused barn on the property they are renting. It is just below us. Visiting sister-in-law saw a buck with good-sized antlers walking with a doe early one morning. We ran into Buddy, grazing one evening, as we walked home from a neighbor’s cabin. He started to walk toward us, then turned and kept his distance. There is a return to natural order on the hillside.

These days the morning air smells of approaching autumn. The temperature at sunrise can be nippy in that put-on-your-sweatshirt-to-sit-outside kind of way. Sunlight has shifted its’ arc. The bugling chorus of bull elk, signaling the start of the rut, is only days away. Change of season in the mountains propels the notion of moving on.

Yet, for a short while this summer we shared an uncommon acquaintance with a young deer as he grew into strength and maturity. We liked his quiet presence. He tolerated ours. We didn’t invite him, so I guess he chose us…because he found a guest room that suited him under the porch.

CLICK HERE to view a short video of Buddy coming home

Long’s Peak sunrise
and sunset
lounging by the fire ring

[Our own spiritual geography described here: Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

My Favorite Kind of Teenager

My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one.  –Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter

Prune Restaurant, 54 E. 1st St, New York, NY

Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.

The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.

waiting for train on NYC day

The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in New York balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching a favorite TV series.

Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.

On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.

It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!

When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.

Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.

In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”

I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.

The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in italics:

m.f.k. fisher, 1908-1992

“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”

Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look  at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.

“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’” 

Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”

“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.

It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’

I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.

 ‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’

I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too. 

 And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **

It doesn’t necessarily matter when  a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way. 

showtime!

That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique, fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered. 

where we sat

Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. [“Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!]

Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.

But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, mixed with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.” 


**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.

Becoming a Casual Animal

…Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times, to start a new lifeto embrace one possibility after another…that is surely the basic instinct…

Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

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In 1989 Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to define an essential zone separate from home and the people you live with [“first place”] and work [“second place”]. Third place is your hangout, an informal social space with no dress code and a welcoming vibe that invites you to return again and again.

A third place is also one’s anchor to community life. You are drawn to it because it is socially fun, playful, and light-hearted. It’s where you go to chew the fat, discuss issues, ventilate, play games, or get to know someone.  It is “…where you relax in public, encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.”

Third place is like pitching a tent in your back yard. It is home away from home.

When life opportunities create a geography change and your third place is left behind, it’s important to find a new one. And if what you are looking for can’t be found after searching, a creative instinct might emerge “…to start a new life…to embrace one possibility after another”.

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This is Kyle’s story. He grew up in Kansas, in the heartland of America. From the age of five, he began drawing images–people, animals and made up characters. Riding in the car during family vacations, he drew the storylines from books-on-tapes while the rest of the family listened. While still a high school student, Kyle knew he would pursue an artistic course of study at university. He graduated in Fine Arts and Graphic Design.

In 2006, Kyle’s first job took him away from home and long-term friends to Fort Collins, Colorado. He started out living in the basement of a relative’s house. It was isolating for a young man. He needed friends his own age and a place to socialize with them.

A booming craft beer industry was the catalyst for many microbrewery openings in Fort Collins. Kyle found his “third place”, along with a friendly social circle, in the evolving scene.

Later, in a widening circle of mutual friends, Kyle met Lara. They enjoyed camaraderie in the breweries, but also shared a strong sense of community service. Together they coached Special Olympic basketball and softball for disabled adults.

When Lara accepted a new job in another state, Kyle’s mother said, “I thought he would never leave Colorado. So when he followed Lara to Kansas City, I knew she was the one he would marry.” They did.

In 2014, the craft brewery scene in Kansas City, Missouri was not as mature as the one left behind in Colorado. Lara and Kyle searched but couldn’t find the social environment they were looking for in their new hometown.

Creative “can do” instincts took over. Kyle had experimented with beer making in the past. Now he became serious, bought equipment, and began home brewing in the basement. He went to weekend fairs, gave away samples, and won some tasting competitions, too. Feedback was consistent and positive.

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He read book after book about the chemistry of beer making, industrial brewing equipment, hops and grains and flavor additives as well as how to open a small business. He enrolled in the American Brewer’s Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program. The final weeks of coursework were on site brewing in Vermont.

Kyle befriended local KC brewers by cold calling them. He volunteered to work one day each week to help them brew commercial batches. He gained knowledge and a warm welcome into the community of micro-brewers. By now an idea was actively fermenting.

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official logo, designed by kyle

Over the next couple of years, Kyle and Lara drafted a business plan, found real estate property to buy, cultivated investors, and a bank loan. In a former commercial garage space, Kyle designed a back-of-the-house brewery with a front-of-the-house taproom. Doing most of the interior construction, alongside family members who pitched in time and expertise, Lara and Kyle founded a craft brewery on the principle of creating a social community space and then giving back to it.

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kyle and his dad building the deck

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lara after new equipment installation

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In early February 2018, Casual Animal Brewing Company opened its’ doors at 1725 McGee Street in the Crossroads area of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their signature motto is: “Laid back beers that tap into your wild side.”

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1725 McGee St, Kansas City, Missouri

Casual Animal runs eleven full taps. Each has its’ own beer style, name, and an original logo of Kyle’s design. Animals are a recurring theme. Names are metaphorically linked to the style of brew. Customer favorites include Chaos Monkey [a banana cream pie ale], to Honey Wheat light ale, Nomo Rhino IPA, Branch Out Stout, and Hop The Fence IPL.

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one “flight” is 5 tasting choices

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menu changes by popular requests and brewer’s creative recipes

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full house

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front door opens weather permitting

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casual animals hanging out

Tying into Kyle and Lara’s commitment to community service, Casual Animal taps into the ethic of “giving back” by designating a rotating beer called Local Motive. The beer style changes quarterly along with the charitable organization the staff votes on to support. Two dollars of every pint of Local Motive sold is donated. In-house events promote the spirit of the current charity.

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brut IPA featured for one local motive promotion

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designed by kyle–graphics and artwork for quarterly local motive tap

The most recent charity promotion was the Kansas City Pet Project, a nonprofit pet shelter that guarantees every stray animal a home. Kittens and puppies were brought into the brewery for customers to play with and cuddle. A completely contagious combination–adorable baby animals plus eleven beer styles equals fun AND donation success!

Unless you are a real brewer, all there is to know about the process of grain and hops and water turning into deliciously drinkable beer is the basics of what happens in Casual Animal’s back room. Inside a series of huge shiny stainless steel tanks,  Kyle’s chemistry know-how is mixed with the help of fermentation, time…and recipe magic.

Hot Liquid Tank water is piped into the Mashtun Tank where grains are mixed together and cooked. Next, this mash up is transferred to the Brew Kettle where hops [and sometimes other flavors] are added. After time in the Kettle, the liquid is piped into the Fermenting Tank, leaving behind all the grain residue. Now yeast is added and fermentation begins. This takes approximately two weeks depending on the kind of beer. From the Fermentation Tank, beer is transferred to the Brite Tank for carbonation and clarifying. And finally, kegs are filled and stored in the massive walk-in refrigerator that feeds the taps at the front-of-the-house. 217 gallons of beer per brew.

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walk in refrigerator with full kegs

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keg feed from refrigerator to taproom

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looks like this on the other side

Cycle complete. As for the magic? Well, every time I sip Casual Animal’s velvety dark nitro stout, it’s easy to believe in magic.

When I asked Kyle to talk about his favorite beer tastes, he said, “Well, it depends on the day. On cold, snowy days, I would say smooth, slight malty sweetness, and roast-y to describe a tasty pint of Nitro Stout. Other days it might be an IPA with resin-y, fruity, and bitter characteristics imparted by the hops. Now, is anyone thirsty?”

There is passion and precision in Kyle’s word selection that describes every beer Casual Animal makes. That same passion speaks of a man who dreamed of possibilities and pursued them with intense preparation. And labor. And love.

The truth is, when Kyle couldn’t find his “third place”–he built one.

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…Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

Casual Animal Brewing Company, 1725 McGee St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108

www.casualanimalbrewing.com

Instagram and Facebook: Casual Animal Brewing Co.

On 10-10-18, Lara and Kyle produced a new brand of casual animal sweetness and introduced her to the world. Welcome Sloan Kasey!

Hack #4: Care About Cast Iron

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cast iron skillet with lid–before seasoning

A solid Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and an excellent knife with a fine blade–the good life.Anonymous

Cast iron cookware is one of the things to have in your life–but only if you love it.

An iron skillet is a link to the past [one of the oldest cooking tools in any kitchen], relevant to the present and can be passed into the future. It connects you to the people who used it before–to the everydayness of their lives.

Cast iron is durable on top of the stove and inside the oven. It retains the flavor of foods cooked in it and is considered to be superior for cooking in general. Cast iron grabs heat and holds it. It is not Teflon, something you throw away when it becomes scratched and used. Cast iron will outlive you and begs to be passed on.

There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful. –Ronni Lundy, historian of Appalachian food

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vintage cast iron, seasoned to the sheen of glass

Older cast iron is considered by purists to be superior. It is made with higher quality raw materials and the interior surfaces are smoother. A good vintage pan will be completely black in color and almost glassy in the texture of its’ interior surface. Seasoned right it becomes nonstick. Pitted surfaces on newer cast iron allow food to stick. It’s also more difficult to season.

Several summers ago, I met “Cast Iron Don” in an antique mall in Saugatuck, Michigan when my daughter and I were on a mom/daughter getaway. Don is a consummate collector of vintage cast iron, owning more than 100 pieces. He uses two.

Don offered a wealth of cast iron history and information when he spotted my interest in a marked “Griswold, Erie, PA” skillet for the reasonable price of $17.00. He said it was the best-priced-name-brand-cast-iron-piece in the whole market.

Cast iron cookware was made in the U.S. from the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century. Griswold, Wagner, and Sidney were brand names casting pans in foundries, which also made farm tools and weapons. Each piece was poured and polished by hand which took hours of human labor, but produced a notable difference. They were lighter, thinner, with a smoother interior.

Today, some cast iron pans are being made this way but, with labor costs as they are, prices are in the hundreds of dollars for a contemporary artisanal skillet. For the fun of a treasure hunt you can find vintage cast iron in your relatives’ kitchens, garage sales, estate auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of anything new. Many of them will already be seasoned.

Well-seasoned cast iron is the equivalent of a broken in pair of well-loved jeans. This is what makes it both beautiful and utilitarian.

Cast iron is porous. To make a nonstick cooking surface it needs oil for protection. Seasoned correctly, oil bonds with the iron pores. When exposed to heat, the polymer chains link and form a durable, slick coating surface.

Back in Michigan, “Cast Iron Don” has refined his own techniques for rehabbing antique ironware. However, I don’t recommend any of his rather dangerous methods. Vats of lye, boiling water, hoses, and protective wearing apparel require a lot more time and caution than most consumers need to muster.

Rusted or mistreated skillets can often be restored with a simple steel wool scrubbing before re-seasoning. Or, use coarse salt mixed with oil and rub mixture around with a paper towel. For a super tough buildup of dirt and grime, place pan in a self-cleaning oven for one cycle. Sediment flakes off and can be wiped away.

After cleaning, the important next step is to season cast iron.

  1. Animal fat! Use lard, bacon grease or Crisco. [Do not use vegetable based oils because they leave a sticky residue and you have to start over.]
  2. Coat the entire surface including edges. Place upside down in 500 F. or 260 C. oven over a piece of foil. Bake 1 hour 15 minutes.
  3. Cool gradually in oven with door ajar. Once thoroughly cooled, wipe off any excess oil.

Cast iron always needs to be cleaned properly.

  1. Do not soak in water, put in dishwasher, or use soap.
  2. A hot water rinse using a stiff brush to clean off residue will keep seasoning intact. If necessary, use a small plastic scraper first.
  3. Dry completely. I always air-dry, but my daughter puts her cast iron on the stove over a low flame, briefly, to evaporate water.
  4. If necessary, wipe with a thin coat of oil and buff with paper towel.

Use your cast iron often. For everything! Consider it an heirloom to be passed on and on and on from generation to generation. Embody it with your own family’s cooking lore. Someone else may get a taste of it down the road…

Two classic cast iron skillet recipes:

DUTCH BABY, SWEET

  • Start with ingredients at room temperature.
  • In a bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs.
  • Then whisk in ½ C. flour, ½ C. milk, 1 T. sugar, ½ tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
  • Melt 2-3 T. butter in 10-12 inch cast iron skillet by placing in oven at 425 F. [220 C]. Watch so butter doesn’t burn! As soon as butter melts, pour in the batter.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden.
  • Cut into wedges and serve immediately with choice of toppings: maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, confiture [jam], cinnamon sugar, or fresh berries.
  • Makes an excellent, light, breakfast pancake.

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with confectioner’s sugar topping

DUTCH BABY, SAVORY

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dutch baby savoury ingredients in kitchen window with a view

  • In a large bowl, whisk together 1 C. + 2 T. flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. pepper.
  • In a separate bowl, combine 8 large eggs and ¾ C. whole milk.
  • Whisk wet ingredients into dry until just combined.
  • Stir in 2 T. fresh thyme, 2 T. minced chives [or parsley or tarragon].
  • Melt 2-3 T. butter in 12-inch cast iron skillet until it smells nutty and brown. Swirl to coat sides and bottom of pan.
  • Pour in batter. Scatter ¾ C. freshly grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese over top.
  • Bake 15-20 minutes at 425 F. [220 C.] until puffy and golden.
  • Serve with lemon wedges and Siracha sauce. Both add a lot of flavor!
  • Perfect brunch or hors d’oeuvre dish.

The Grown-Up Table

Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”

Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.

The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher

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dinner for six, chez bentley

Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.

I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher

 During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.

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sunday pizza night–courtyard oberursel, germany

When we first began to invite guests for dinner, I needed guidance to learn and perfect one decent dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.

Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.

Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads randomly, to reflect the candlelight.

Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order, listening to favorite tunes. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.

My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.

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Prune Restaurant, East Village, NYC

I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too. It is a highly desirable life skill to embody the role of a good guest.

Gabrielle’s words from a NYT series of articles published October 2017 are in italics preceded by her initials, GH, followed by my thoughts and experiences.

GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…

WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts or our friend Alec’s chronic clumsiness [Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, this is the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.

Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi, we laughed long and hard about an awkward departure where we were suddenly offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.

GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.

WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.

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GH: I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…

WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.

GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still, always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.

WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was a 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but a bit tragic, too. This old vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.

At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients or preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.

A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]

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family style, at the cabin, estes park

GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.

Our children are adults now and the best ones to tell what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults well known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.

I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is imprinted forever–the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

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Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party]Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant

 

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the best dining room view in the world

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dinner chez tennis/hewitt, athens, greece

Love and Layers of Lasagne

There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who simply prepare meals.

Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, combine, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food from scratch. From a very young age she watched and learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.

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The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking didn’t inhabit me either.

Because I care about nutrition and eating well, I put in the time required for meal prep during the years when everyone was living at home and hungry. Friends who loved stirring up tasty concoctions everyday were a regular source of inspiration. I copied their easiest ideas. One-dish meals, everything mixed together-protein, veggies and carbs, were my best efforts. This was also efficient because meals could be made in large enough quantities for leftovers.

I have never lusted for or spent any time making lasagne. To my taste, béchamel sauce is like eating wallpaper paste, bolognaise sauce so heavy with meat and thick chunks of canned tomatoes. Then, those layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.

One December, several years ago, Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for our Christmas Eve dinner. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as circumstances in her life changed. Each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.

The Beginning Episode:

In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. While there, she bought a book for one pound Sterling called Simple Pasta. She found her bolognaise recipe and cooked it many times for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over different kinds of pasta or ate it as a hearty stand-alone meat and vegetable main course.

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The Second Episode:

There was a German boyfriend for a few years. His mother was a wonderful cook who took enormous pride in her meals. Anna enjoyed many excellent dinners in their home. One time, lasagne was served. But, it was a disaster. The green colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce too dry and tasteless. All three sons complained loudly. There was drama as their mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand on the table, stood up and left the room, taking a bottle of wine with her.

Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already perfected bolognaise sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.

The Final, Most Important Episode:

A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her his mother said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. Then he suggested a bit more cheese might enhance the final result. This became his special part of the assembly. Collaboratively, they improved the recipe to its’ final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia

It was during that Christmas Eve dinner several Decembers ago that my taste buds took serious notice. This was lasagne I wanted to eat again. It wasn’t ponderously heavy. It was slightly sweetened with the addition of bacon, flavor-enhancing vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly, beautifully, yet distinctively. You couldn’t help but comment on the wonderful combination of flavors. Everything worked in this dish. I wanted to know how to cook it.

November 2015, in the days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, Latvian Lasagne offered me respite from the shock waves that followed. Planned attacks on several cafes and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw after the devastating events. Friends from the U.S. were arriving on vacation. We had already arranged to take them out to a restaurant for dinner.

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la belle equipe memorial after paris shootings november 2015

Eating out socially in a public setting was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet market street and spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. Then I went about setting a formal dining table, assembling and baking Anna’s lasagne to share with our guests. It was an activity I needed, focused and calming, to cook for friends we love and hadn’t seen in many years.

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That evening, six of us sat around the table, warmed by candles, nourishing food, friendship, and conversation. It was the right blend of the right ingredients and the right recipe. I can’t forget it, even now, entwined in the world circumstances…

This month we are approaching a holiday season where family and friends gather in celebration and familiar food is often featured. Traditions in our family have benefitted from each overseas location where we have lived. Merging ideas from other geographies and people who became part of our extended family have contributed to our own evolving traditions.

With our dual culture family with us in Paris this holiday season, we will chop, stir, and assemble the layers of Latvian Lasagne together on Christmas Eve.

Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this is one of the very best cold weather comfort foods to cook for family or dinner guests.

Everything about the end result is worth the mess in the kitchen!

LATVIAN LASAGNE

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Some of the basics: flat sheets of pasta, spices, canned tomatoes in juice, white and red sauces, red wine, milk

 Ingredients for Bolognaise:

  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 stalks celery, chopped
  • 6 large mushrooms, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 300 gm bacon, chopped [In France, I use lardons which are already chopped chunks of bacon]
  • 500 gm [1 pound] lean ground beef [5% fat]
  • 600 gm or 1 large can of tomatoes in juice
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] red wine
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] milk
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1 T. dried basil
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Red pepper flakes [optional]

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spinach, mushrooms, celery, carrots, onion, garlic, grated cheeses, fresh basil

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chopped and ready to cook

Ingredients for the Layers:

  •  Red sauce of choice, ~400 gm [This is approximate, but use an amount that when mixed with the white sauce covers the casserole to the edges.]
  • White Alfredo or lasagne sauce of choice, ~300 gm [As above.]
  • 250 gm mature salty cheddar cheese, grated
  • 250 gm mozzarella cheese, grated
  • Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
  • Fresh basil leaves [optional]
  • Fresh or dried lasagna noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Do not use wavy edged noodles. Anna says these are ugly. Use thin, flat sheets of pasta.]

Making the Bolognaise Sauce:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery and cook until softened.
  4. Add bacon and cook until it turns pink.
  5. Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
  6. Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
  7. Add milk and do the same thing.
  8. Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, garlic, fresh ground black pepper, mushrooms and dried spices.
  9. Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
  10. Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to one hour, cooking until mixture is thick.
  11. Take off heat and set aside.

This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.

Assembling the Layers:

  1. Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
  2. Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
  3. Spread one layer of bolognaise sauce over noodles.
  4. Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
  5. Add a layer of fresh spinach [and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.]
  6. Add 5 leaves of fresh basil, optional.
  7. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  8. Repeat layers one more time.
  9. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  10. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  11. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  12. Bake 180 C. [350 F.] 30 minutes for fresh pasta, 60 minutes for dried. [Noodles must be cooked all the way through. No crunchy pasta like German mama!]

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first layer of noodles, sauce, light cheese, spinach

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mushrooms sprinkled in

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grating salty english cheddar

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pouring red and white sauces over top layer and spread to edges

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adam fine tunes the cheese layer

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out of the oven and straight to table

Serve immediately with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a Volnay red wine from Burgundy or serve Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Savor everything and everyone around the table for a long, relaxing evening.

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latvian lasagne dinner chez nous, recently, for friends

Final notes:

  1. Purists will note this is not Italian style lasagne. Anna describes it more as a “pasta cake”. She believes cheese is what makes the whole thing extra delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it always turns out great.
  2. You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty “red-only-pasta-cake”.
  3. You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. I don’t actually know how that would taste. The bacon adds something subtle and sublime.
  4. There is no added salt. Bacon and salty cheddar are enough.

There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other people’s preference for spiciness, but sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.

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anna jerofejeva ulfers

Other stories about Latvia and Anna’s family: Begin With Russian DumplingsShrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia