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[Your Name Here]’s Butternut Squash Soup

For Elaine

No one in their right mind makes soup in the summer, unless it’s Vichysoisse or gazpacho or a fresh tomato with saffron and rice (Julia Child & Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Volume Two – p. 20, “Potage Magali”).

Ha-ha-ha!  You thought I was going to say, “except me” but, no, even I don’t make soup in the summer.  I will pull it out of the freezer and reheat it.  And on this hot summer day, I have pulled out one of the heartiest, Butternut Squash.

I only make it once a year, in the fall, in time for Thanksgiving, because it seems so Martha Stewart-y to serve my guests the first festive course in tiny little demitasse cups in front of the fire in my living room.  I only give you a miniscule serving and pour the remainder into zippered freezer bags to enjoy throughout the winter.  I’m selfish that way.

When you make something only once a year and don’t use a recipe, you have to rely on your sense memory to get it just right.  But much of cooking is sense memory, isn’t it?  How did it smell?  How did it taste?  How thick was it?  Creamy or chunky?  Tart or sweet?

I can still taste a dessert that I had at the Hôtel Albert Ier in Chamonix in 1989.  I’ve never had anything like it since.  I was so delirious from the experience that I stole the menu and had to dig it out to get the name.  The hotel and restaurant are still there, but the website doesn’t offer current dessert features.

I saw the words “vanille,” “glace” (ice cream), and “miel” (honey), but when I tasted it, I was transported to every Christmas of my life.  I said to the waiter, “What kind of ice cream is this?  It tastes like Christmas!”

“Madame, it is from the Christmas tree, the juice of the pine tree.”

Being frozen, it had no scent, so I was completely dazzled that the taste and not the aroma brought up the memories. (Yes, I understand that smell and taste are linked, thank you.)  We’ve all smelled Christmas trees and candles and potpourri and soap, but I’ve never put them in my mouth.  Googling the phrase “miel de sapin” from the menu, I see that it more accurately means “fir” or “spruce,” and my family always had a blue spruce tree.  So, there you are!  Although I have never seen it on a menu again, I can still taste it.

So, now I’ve been asked to share my recipe for Butternut Squash soup, and I must give you my disclaimer.  I remember what I put in it and the process, but I’m not certain of the exact quantities, because I only make it once a year.  I know, I know what you’re saying, “I hate those people who say, ‘oh, I just throw in a little of this and a little of that.’”  But it’s true.  Give it a try, taste as you go along, and adjust it to make it your own.

How often do you make something and think, “What’s not-quite-right?”  If the Granny Smith apples make it too tart, add a little more brown sugar.  If you don’t like spicy, omit the chipotle and/or cool the heat with a little extra cream.  Don’t use alcohol?  I use it to add depth and richness.  Maybe another parsnip.

[Your Name Here]’s Butternut Squash Soup with Chipotle – makes 4-5 quarts

[Chipotle powder lends a sweet, smoky flavor to the soup, but use it sparingly.  I once used too much and had to pour heavy cream into the soup every time I reheated it.  What a shame!]

2 pounds peeled butternut squash chunks (I buy 2 pounds already peeled and cut into chunks.)
2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
½ cup coarsely chopped sweet onion
2 quarts unsalted, fat-free chicken stock
¼ cup dark brown sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon powdered cloves
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
pinch of ground chipotle powder (or to taste, a little goes a long, hot way)
2 Tablespoons dark rum
1 Tablespoon very dry sherry
1 Tablespoon Armagnac or cognac
1 cup heavy cream
Optional garnish:  toasted, chopped pecans; crumbled, fried & drained Andouille sausage; duck confit

Butternut squash soup 1In a 6-quart stock pot, combine squash, apples, carrots, parsnips, onions, and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until parsnips are tender, about 20 minutes.  Using an immersion blender, blend the apple-vegetables until smooth, making sure that any “strings” of parsnips are removed or blended.  (Alternatively, you can remove the apple-vegetables from the broth and blend in a food processor or blender, with a little of the broth, until smooth.)

Over low heat, stir in sugar until well-blended, then stir in nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cayenne, and chipotle (to taste).  Stir in rum, sherry, and Armagnac.  Simmer 10 minutes.

Stir in heavy cream and heat without boiling.  Adjust sugar, alcohol, spice, and salt to taste.

Ladle into individual containers and garnish, if desired.

And if you’re into wine, I always serve it with a Gewürztraminer.

When cool, ladle into freezer bags or containers.  Reheat and then garnish.


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Dining Hazards

IMG_0529 (2)Blog writers take a lot of flak for writing self-indulgent nonsense, sort of like people who post photos of everything they eat on Facebook.  I uniquely am guilty of both.  On a day when I am still somewhat homeless (I made it home from Grand Cayman but cannot get to my house for the 33” of snow that clogs my lane — you and I aren’t done yet, Karma), I offer photos of food that crossed my path on vacation and a lame little explanation to go with them.

I have waxed poetic about my weird food fetishes. For example, I don’t eat fruit, except Smucker’s grape jam (not jelly), Key Lime pie, and the occasional raspberry coulis, provided it has been seeded, strained through a fine sieve, and adequately sweetened.  And wine.  I drink wine, fruit of the vine and all that.

One of my big taboos, which I know others share, is food touching other food on my plate.  I should clarify.  Food that is supposed to touch other food is acceptable; eg, gravy on mashed potatoes, Béarnaise on steak, the aforementioned raspberry coulis under (not over) a fine dark chocolate dessert, aged Balsamic drizzled on pan-roasted salmon (I’m really craving at the moment).

But I get nervous when cole slaw runs onto my fries or guacamole slips onto my refried beans or a Kosher pickle spear touches the rye bread on my corned beef brisket sandwich.  I am the kid at the party who won’t eat the birthday cake, if the ice cream touches it.

Someone once told me to push my last pea into my mashed potatoes so I could pick it up.  Sure.  I could pick it up that way, but I would never put it in my mouth, much less swallow it.

Buffets are a nightmare.  I don’t take anything “runny” that might infect another, unrelated item on my plate, so I’m one of those guests that the waitstaff hates because I use too many plates.  I want my bread in its own space, so it doesn’t get mushy on one edge and so the butter doesn’t come into contact with a potential pollutant.

Traveling is always a culinary adventure, unless I’m going to France, where I’ve never seen a French chef put something on a plate that didn’t make sense (except the rognons de veau, veal kidneys).  The Veterinarian would eat anything (except rognons de veau), so he was the perfect dining companion (except the day I accidentally ordered rognons de veau).  If I couldn’t eat something, he almost always could.  The Daughter is a little pickier, but her culinary adventurous beau was a welcome dining companion.

Here’s a visual chronicle of dining in the quiet East End of Grand Cayman, including a buffet hazard at one of our favorite Caymanian restaurants.

Nothing revives me after an arduous day of traveling like an adult beverage.  With a healthy dose of Cuban rum, I don’t even care that my hair is frizzy and about to stand on end in the warm breeze.  On our first night, we only had the strength to sit on the deck at the resort’s Eagle Ray’s bar and grill and order ribs and lionfish tacos.  Lionfish are that beautiful, multi-spined fish native to the Pacific that has invaded the Atlantic and Caribbean, from Maine to South America, where it has no predator.  Not even sharks will eat them, so they are reproducing and gobbling up native fish with abandon.

Geared to scuba diving and sensitive to the health of our oceans, Ocean Frontiers, our resort, and many others in the Caribbean, now cull them by spearing and selling them to restaurants.  Once they are dead and their spines are removed, they are benign, their meat pale white, very mild, and not especially firm.  It is popular in ceviches and tacos.

The Daughter opted to treat us to Sunday brunch at Tukka, a “native fusion” restaurant, whose owner and head chef, Aussie Ron Hargrave, brings together kangaroo and crocodile meat and local seafood with Caribbean influences.  Right over the beach, it’s been a favorite of ours since it opened and boasts a lavishly painted chair in honor of celebrity guest Taylor Swift.

You can see the dilemma on my appetizer plate.  At “one o’clock,” the lion fish “lollipop” (lightly battered with a nice little garnish to give it flavor) hugs the rim, well away from the Caesar salad below it (I shudder to have salad on the same plate with the appetizers), which nudges two potstickers filled with ground pork and bathed with a soy-and-sesame sauce, avoiding the potato salad above.  Sitting primly at “noon” is a tuna roll, with accompanying wasabi, pickled ginger, and a dollop of wakame (seaweed salad).

Of course, since there was enough Champagne to wash it all down, I didn’t notice that my excellent ribs nudged the roast beef and the delicate Mahi Mahi.  As for the rice, it doesn’t matter what it touches.  Rice is rice.  Oh!  And I just had to have another potsticker, this one with a chili sauce.

I never have trouble picking a dessert.  I chose these two little dishes because I liked the blue color of the glass and porcelain.  On the left is a white pudding dotted with yellow corn kernels, that was lightly sweetened and topped with chopped nuts.  On the right is a traditional cake made from cassava, a root which, when ground, is the source of tapioca.  Here, it is grated and mixed with coconut milk, brown sugar, butter, and spices into a dense cake topped with grated coconut.  Yummmmeeeee!

For breakfast, we trekked to a funky little place, the Over the Edge Café, whose deck is, indeed, over the edge of a reef at Old Man Bay, just before the ocean plunges thousands of feet.  Not a big breakfast eater, I always have the French toast.  The Daughter opted for a scrambled egg, cheese, and salsa-filled quesadilla.  But the adventurous eater amongst us won the prize when he ordered a “traditional Jamaican breakfast of Codfish and Ackee.”  Bless his heart!

It turned out to be a plate of eggs scrambled with codfish, bell peppers, onions, and ackee, a tree fruit from West Africa that was imported from Jamaica to England by Captain William Blighe, that same ill-fated commander of HMS Bounty.  We found the ackee tasteless and a little chewy.  Accompanying it were some cooked greens and a lot of starch, plantains, a little sausage-shaped banana pudding, and some delightful fried dough, reminiscent of beignets, especially when I dragged mine through the mound of powdered sugar from my French toast.

One of my favorite pizzas is topped with arugula, and the Italian Kitchen, which brought brick-oven pizza (and more fine wine) to the East End, adds prosciutto.  They also serve upscale Italian food and fresh seafood, including a fabulous risotto with lobster and shrimp that was just beyond this year’s vacation budget (once we had to spend four extra nights on the island, thanks to the blizzard of 2016).

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Yes, I cooked.  I made The Daughter’s favorite lasagna.  I made a Key Lime pie.  I made Chicken Tarragon salad on croissants.  I made caramelized onions to top the cheddar cheeseburgers that the “kids” grilled.  And on our last night, I turned the broth from cooking the chicken for the salad into chicken noodle soup.  I used the last of the onion, celery, and carrots to flavor it and cracked up unused, uncooked lasagna noodles into the broth.  It was fabulous, but, on vacation, everything tastes better, and nothing has any calories, right?

Finally, as I changed planes in Charlotte, I had my favorite airport meal, Brookwood Farms’ “real pit-cooked bbq,” pulled pork on a great toasted bun with the cole slaw safely on the side. I ate every bite with my hands and licked the “Carolina vinegar sauce” off my sticky little fingers.  I can see why it’s “the Official Barbeque of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.”

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All in all, it was a good vacation; four extra days of sunshine and good eating, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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Happy Pi or Pie Day!

photo (25) Note:  When I was in Grand Cayman last March, I made this pie on Pi Day.  Stranded this weekend (no hate mail, please) in my favorite place on Pie Day, without a functioning laptop, I’m republishing that same post.  Sorry to be redundant, but typing on this iPhone is a real pain.  By the way, I made Key Lime Pie earlier this week in Paradise for The Daughter and her beau but didn’t think to photograph it.  You’ll just have to take my word for it; it was delicious.  Hope it brings a breath of the tropics to your snowy day!

I am nearly useless at two things, pie crust and math, but even I know what pi means. It’s how I learned to make circle dance skirts.  In honor of Pi Day (3.14.15) and National Pie Day (1.23.16), I am sharing my recipe for the only credible pie that I can make.  Oh, I make a great pumpkin pie (with freshly ground black pepper) using pre-made crust.  I make a great apple tart using Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry (aka Grease City) or phyllo dough.

I actually receive requests for my Key Lime Pie.  I have seen grown men swoon over it, so I added it to my list of accomplishments in my online dating profiles.  I can make it in my sleep.

When I first had it, back in the 70s in the Florida Keys, I was told that the recipe was on the Borden’s Sweetened Condensed Milk can.  I also learned that if it was green, it was bogus.  Of course, I couldn’t leave it alone and improved on it.  I added almonds to the crust and whipped egg whites to the filling to lighten the custard.

While I have made it in drafty sailboat ovens, in triplicate, and in too many vacation condos to count, the best that I ever made was in the 1980s, when my late mother-in-law and her husband moved to Naples, Florida and had a Key Lime tree in their backyard. Key limes are smaller and more bitter than Persian limes, which makes them the perfect foil for the sweetness of the meringue.  It takes an entire bag of Key limes (and squeezing) to make 1/2 cup of juice, but the flavor is the best.  I would rather use a bottled brand of Key lime juice (such as Nellie and Joe’s) than Persian limes and never “Real Lime.”

About five years ago, in Key Largo, for dessert, I had an amazing “Key Lime Cocktail” with graham cracker crumbs around the rim.  I’m still trying to perfect that recipe and will let you know when I’m successful.  Practice, after all, makes perfect.

In a deep dish pie plate, combine:

1-1/2 cup crushed graham crackers

2 Tblsps. melted butter

2 Tblsps. granulated sugar

¼ cup crushed sliced almonds

Press crust on the bottom and up the sides of the pan.  Refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Meringue:

4 egg whites (more, if you like a lot of meringue)

¼ tsp cream of tartar (omit, if using a copper lined bowl)

2 Tblsps. granulated sugar

In a glass, grease-free bowl, whip egg whites and ¼ tsp of cream of tartar until foamy.  Add sugar and whip until stiff peaks form.  Set aside.

Filling Ingredients:

4 egg yolks

¼ tsp grated lime peel (green portion only)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

½ cup Key lime juice

In a separate bowl, beat eggs until lemon-yellow.  Stir in lime peel and condensed milk until blended.  Thoroughly mix in lime juice until blended.  Fold ½ cup of the beaten egg whites into the custard mixture and pour into chilled crust.

Bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until filling just starts to brown around edges.  Remove pie from oven and increase heat to 500°.

Pile remaining meringue over filling completely, and bake until peaks are golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Note:  If you won’t be serving the pie for several hours and do not want to see the meringue “weep”, you can refrigerate the “un-meringued” pie, covered, until needed.  Just before serving, cover with meringue and brown in hot oven.

 

 


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Tuna Noodle Casserole? Seriously?

A sFullSizeRender (5)mart cook always has certain staples in the pantry or freezer.  Besides the obvious, like flour, sugar, onion, garlic,  celery, carrots, butter, and milk, there are some things that I always have on hand: tomato sauce, tomato paste, French onion soup and various broths (chicken, turkey, Thai), dried pastas and rice, frozen peas, frozen hamburger, steaks, and chicken breasts, frozen puff pastry, frozen nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, and pine nuts), shredded cheeses, and albacore tuna in water.  Always.  I can concoct a gazillion recipes from that combination.

Tuna noodle casserole seems to have been a staple of everyone’s childhood.  Everyone but mine.  I don’t remember My Mother making it, because, in most households, it involved Cream of Mushroom soup, a staple in many pantries, but never in My Mother’s, because my family wouldn’t eat it.  Instead, she made Tuna Burgers, what we now call a “Tuna Melt.”  We’ll get to that some other day.

Tuna is a tricky thing.  There was a time when I didn’t eat it, and some people still won’t, for a variety of reasons (yes, I’m pointing a finger, and you know who you are).  I only eat albacore, the white tuna, packed in water.  The Veterinarian didn’t understand that.  He was perfectly happy to eat that dark stuff packed in oil, when we were newly-married college students.

“Look at how cheap it is!” he would insist.

“Yeah, but it’s no bargain, if I’m not going to eat it.”

We compromised with light tuna packed in water.  Mixed with a (very) little mayo, spread on white bread and consumed at football games with a Thermos of whiskey sours (one can lemonade, one can water, one can whiskey).

One day, I discovered a recipe using Rice-a-Roni to make “Tuna Jambalaya”  (ok, ok, don’t judge me or the recipe until you’ve tried it), which used enough sweet pepper to camouflage the taste of the tuna, but, eventually, I concocted my own tuna casserole recipe.

I rarely eat pasta any more (since I created my own stupid diet that omits pasta, rice, and potatoes — it worked for me, but I hate it), so I rarely make this.  In the bleak mid-winter, it does warm my tummy and my heart, especially with a glass of white wine.

Tuna Noodle (Pasta) Casserole

2 cups uncooked farfalle (bow-tie pasta), cooked, drained, and set aside

2 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons minced onion

2 Tablespoons flour

Salt & cayenne pepper to taste

2 Tablespoons white wine or dry Vermouth

1 cup fat-free milk

½ cup frozen peas, thawed

1 5-ounce can of albacore tuna, drained

½ cup finely shredded Swiss cheese

Preheat oven to 375°.  Butter a 2-quart casserole dish and set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat.  Add onion and stir for 30 seconds.  Gradually stir in flour, whisking until smooth.  Cook and whisk for 30 seconds.  Very gradually stir in the wine or Vermouth until smooth.  Very gradually stir in the milk.  Continue to stir until the white sauce (roux) has the consistency of a milkshake that slides effortlessly through your straw.

Stir in the thawed peas, the tuna, and the cooked pasta.  Gently toss to coat; spoon into prepared casserole dish.  Top evenly with the shredded Swiss cheese.

Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes to heat through and melt the cheese.  Increase heat to “Broil” until the cheese browns lightly.  Remove from oven and serve.

Notes on making roux:

A roux is a wonderful base for so many dishes.  It can run from a thin sauce that is the basis for gravy or crème anglaise through the medium sauces for pot pies and scalloped potatoes to a thick, dark base used in Cajun and Creole cooking (that roux that the late Chef Paul Prudhomme called “Cajun napalm”).  I never use a roux to thicken a soup.  I prefer reduction of stock, a purée of vegetables, or a touch of sweet or sour cream.

Two things are important in a roux, that it be smooth, which takes slow incorporation of the flour into the fat, and that it is cooked enough to dispel the “raw flour” taste, without burning it (unless you’re making a dark roux).

 


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Chilly Chili Days

Winter finally arrived this week.  I’ve pulled out my fleecy pullovers and leggings, and even the BFF won’t stay outside very long.  This is the time of year when I’m glad I’ve stored up hearty soups and stews in my freezer.  I’ve got French onion, beef barley, broccoli, butternut squash, and potato-corn chowder.  Today, I want something with a little extra heat, the kind that comes from chiles. The kind that heats up your mouth as well as your bones.  Today, I’m making chili with black beans and chopped lean chuck, so it’s extra hearty, too.

Chili is one of those syncretized American foods, like pizza, whose closest origins are in Italy but became an entirely different type of food when it got to our shores.  Chili began in the southwest, borrowing flavors and ingredients from indigenous people (beans, chiles, spices) and was adapted for mainstream palates.  Certainly, Spanish settlers in the area brought stews with tomato bases, garlic, onions, meat, and, the most important ingredient, peppers, much as Creole cuisine developed in Louisiana and the Caribbean with Spanish, French, and African influences.  See what wonderful flavors we get when we share?

“Tomato or no tomato?” is the question in some parts of the country.  “Meat or no meat?”  is the question in others.  Even the 1930s editions of Joy of Cooking, that bastion of 20th century American cooking, recommends both, albeit in the form of tomato soup. (Can you imagine anything more pedestrian?)  It also recommends that you use either onions or half of a garlic clove!  (Can you imagine anything more tasteless?)

Chili is an opportunity to use all kinds of meat, because, with enough other vegetables, herbs, and spices, who knows what you’re eating?  Once, when visiting The Veterinarian’s grandmother in Florida, she served us an intensely-flavored chili, sitting back and watching us with a smirk on her face.  After we had finished cleaning our bowls, she revealed the secret ingredient, ground elk meat, which his grandfather had shot on a trip to South Dakota.

This is my syncretized version of American chili, using black beans, chiles, garlic, onion, and spices, garnished with corn tortilla chips and cheese.  I recommend that you start with one jalapeño and add the chili powder gradually.  While I like considerable heat in my chili, The Daughter and others do not.  I don’t believe in hot for hot’s sake; the flavors should only be enhanced by the heat, not overpowered by it.

And how do you temper that heat?  Sour cream is good, but my favorite is that syncretized beverage, the frozen Margarita, or a frosty beer.  Stay toasty, my friends!

Black Bean Chili with meat

½ pound dried black beans, rinsed  (see “Note 1” below)

1 quart water

½ pound raw chopped or ground lean beef chuck, or raw ground turkey

1 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 large jalapeño, seeded and minced, use two, if you like a lot of heat (see “Note 2” below)

1 small can tomato paste

1 Tablespoon good quality chili powder (I sometimes just use a pinch of chipotle powder.)

½ Tablespoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Cover beans with water and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.

Add meat, onion, garlic, jalapeño, tomato paste, chili powder, oregano, salt, and cumin.  Simmer 30 minutes, until thickened.  Adjust seasonings.

Serve with any of these garnishes on the side: chopped sweet onion or scallions, shredded Monterey Jack or sharp Cheddar cheese, queso fresco, sour cream, tortilla chips, shredded lettuce.

Note 1:  This recipe saves you from soaking the beans overnight.  Yay!  You also can substitute 2 cans of undrained black beans for the dried beans, and use 2 cups of water, but I like the texture of freshly cooked beans.  If it is too thin, you can simmer it until thickened, or, if too thick, add a little water.  You can also omit the meat entirely.

Note 2:  Take care when handling hot peppers.  A pair of disposable gloves are helpful.  Lay a sheet of paper towel on your counter.  Over the towel, slice off the stem end and slit the pepper lengthwise.  With the tip of a paring knife, flick the membrane and seeds (where most of the capsaicin — the volatile irritant in peppers — is contained) onto the towel.  Roll up and discard, where children and pets can’t get into it.  Still wearing the gloves, mince the pepper and add to the chili.  Clean up your cutting board and knife, then discard your gloves.  I recommend the gloves, because I, invariably, forget that I’ve cut up a pepper without them, and, even hours later, will touch my eyes or nose and burn myself!  Maybe you won’t, but I thought I’d pass it along.

How to chop beef:  Slice into strips, then whack with a cleaver until it resembles very coarsely ground hamburger.


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Casual Glam

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Here’s a toast to an exciting, safe, and glamorous New Year’s Eve for us all!  I will be on the sofa with a bottle of Champagne, in my Sparty yoga pants, watching my team in the Cotton Bowl, instead of doing the lotus position or planking or whatever it is that people who do yoga do.  (I wouldn’t know.  I just own the pants.)

While most people think of celebrating bowl games with chili or nacho cheese dip, I prefer to be a little more “casual glam” on New Year’s Eve.  You know what “casual chic” is, I’m sure, which, as a hotel in Bermuda once told us, “casual but elegant.”  Well, I’ve coined the phrase “casual glam” to describe enjoying fine French wine with fancy snacks, while wearing casual, but glamorous, clothing.

As a multilinguist[1], I had to look up the word “glam” to ensure that I wasn’t misleading you, Dear Reader.  The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “glam” with two meanings:  “1. extravagantly showy glamour” and “2.  Glitter Rock.”  [Glitter Rock is also known as “glam rock.”  Think Abba, Elton John, David Bowie.]  A search of the word on Urban Dictionary turned up their usual snark.  But they’re people born a long time after the 1970s, so, what do they know?

In the spirit of “glam rock,” my nails are painted a chic shade of silver, which my friends (who all survived the 70s) have commented on, favorably.  So, that’s how I’ll be “glamming” up my New Year’s Eve.  [Note to Urban Dictionary:  It is not erroneous to say “glamming” if you’re coining a new word.  Stick that in your dictionary of snark.]  I’ll be the most glamorous woman in my living room, although the BFF will come a close second.

Happy New Year!

Smoked Salmon Mousse

This recipe has been adapted from the late, great chef and writer Pierre Franey.  Tonight, I’ll just be smearing mine on toasted and buttered croutons (pre-sliced baguettes from Wegman’s that I brush with softened butter and toast on baking sheets in the oven).

8 ounces smoked salmon (I like to use thick pieces)

8 ounces cream cheese (not whipped)

1/4 cup fresh dill (without stems)

1/3 cup chopped scallions or very sweet onion

½ teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Tabasco to taste

2 Tablespoons vodka

Garnish:  Snipped chives, capers

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse just until blended but chunky.  Adjust seasonings.  Transfer to a serving bowl and chill.  Before serving, bring to room temperature, so that it is spreadable.  Serve on or with buttered toast points or croutons or toasted mini-bagels (nice for brunch).

If you want to be really fancy and have more time on your hands than I usually do:

Preheat oven to 450°.  Grease a baking sheet or line with a silicone baking mat.

Thaw a sheet of frozen puff pastry for 20 minutes.  Open onto floured board and pat out flat. Cut out shapes with a cookie cutter (stars are perfect for New Year’s Eve; fish are cute; hearts are romantic for Valentine’s Day) and transfer to baking sheet.  Bake in preheated oven until puffed and golden, about 8-10 minutes.  Remove to cooling rack and bring to room temperature.  Split figures in half.  Fill a pastry bag with softened mousse and pipe onto cooled pastry, using a large cylinder tip or large star tip (if you are really fancy).  Garnish with any combination of dill, capers, and/or chives.

[1] Actually, I had to look up “multilinguist” to find out if it’s a real word, but the online Merriam-Webster is not certain, either, and asked me to explain why I was looking it up.  I know.  That sounds weird, even to me.  I told them I was trying to be pretentiously humorous.  I am fluent in English, get by in French and Spanish, can order in Italian, and sing in German.


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Tastes like Christmas Spirit(s)

It’s Christmas Eve!  And, for my family, that means three of the major fattening holiday food groups; a 1950s version of Beef Stroganoff served over canned chow mein noodles, 1960s Layered Green Salad, and My Grandma’s Boiled Custard.  In my immediate family, I am the only one who knows how to make it, and, at least two weeks ago, My Mother, My Sister, and The Daughter started asking me, “You’re making the custard, aren’t you?”  Yes, not to worry.

Never heard of Boiled Custard?  It isn’t actually boiled, and, well, if you aren’t from Kentucky or Tennessee, let me explain.

My maternal grandmother was a tee-totaler, a hard-working woman who was uprooted from her hometown in (very dry, alcohol-wise) eastern Kentucky and moved to Detroit in the 1920s, where jobs were plentiful and generally safer than working in a coal mine.  She brought with her a love of quilting and family and cooking.  Having corroborated her stories of our heritage at Ancestry.com, I wonder which of her recipes trace back to our ancestors who came through the Cumberland Gap from Virginia and North Carolina into Kentucky in the late 18th century.  Most people have heard of chicken and rolled dumplings and cornbread (sugarless and made with white cornmeal, of course), hams cured with salt and vegetables cooked to death with every imaginable cured pork product, but outside of the area, few have heard of “boiled” custard.

Every Christmas Eve after my grandfather died, she came to our house to spend the night and to make boiled custard.  This is not the custard that you might think of, baked in little cups in a bath of hot water.  This custard was drinkable.  And it was spiked.  Spiked by a woman who did not drink alcohol.  Ever.  Except on Christmas Eve.

I suspect that it was originally made with good Kentucky bourbon, but, in the mid- 20th century, in Detroit, it was made with my dad’s blended Canadian whiskey.  Grandma would stand at the stove, beating sugar into eggs and milk in the top of a makeshift double boiler.  As the mixture thickened, she would gesture for My Dad to add a little of the whiskey.  She would stir it for a minute, then taste it, and, invariably, gesture for Daddy to pour in a little more.  The process took several minutes, during which my tiny little tee-totaling Grandma consumed enough uncooked whiskey to bring a little extra Christmas cheer into her life.

When Grandma died in 1981, I decided that I needed to make it.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a recipe.  I took some eggs, beat in some sugar, milk, and vanilla and used her double boiler.  As the mixture cooked, I tasted it and added sugar.  As it cooked, I stirred in the whiskey, as she did.  When it was as thick as I remembered, I removed it from the heat.  Alas, the eggs had over-cooked and curdled.

I tried it again and didn’t overcook it, but it still had a weird, lumpy texture.  Over time, I learned to strain it after cooking. I measured the ingredients so that I could reproduce it accurately every year.   Instead of whiskey, I tried Southern Comfort and dark rum.  Eventually, I went to bourbon, a Kentucky bourbon, of course.  Oh!  And in my version, the bourbon goes in just before I remove the custard from the heat.  It’s still hot, but most of the alcohol is retained.  Unlike Grandma, I like a lot of Christmas cheer at the holidays.

Yes, we drank this as children, because, ostensibly, the alcohol had “burned off.”  Tee-hee-hee!  Naughty children, we never let on that it was potent.  Of course, we were also children whose mothers rubbed our gums with whiskey when we were teething, so we were already ruined by the Demon Spirits.  I don’t recommend my version for children because it isn’t nearly as benign as Grandma’s.  Ladle some into a heat-proof measuring cup for the kiddies.  Keep the good stuff for yourself.

Kentucky Boiled Custard             makes a little over ½ gallon

Why did they cook it?  Perhaps it was to ensure safety on the frontier.  Salmonella can be killed at 145° F.  Perhaps just to thicken it.  Why didn’t they use cream?  Who knows?  Let me know, if you do.

Don’t get chintzy on the quality of the vanilla, because it adds to the flavor, significantly.  I keep three different vanilla brands (plus vanilla beans and paste) in my over-stocked larder.  One of the three is clear, artificial, and used in decorator’s icing, where the color is more crucial than the flavor.

You can speed up the cooking process by warming all but two cups of the milk.  If you add hot milk to eggs, they will cook.  Use a clean candy thermometer (I have a separate deep frying thermometer to avoid grease contamination).  Technically, you can cook the mixture until it just coats the back of a spoon (you can see a trail when you run your finger through it), but I find that an imprecise way to cook and too “frontiersy”.  It may have worked for Grandma, but it doesn’t always work for me.

This looks like a LOT of bourbon, but, consider that the recipe makes about 70-ounces.  This translates into one ounce of bourbon for every 8-ounce cup of custard.  Surely, you wouldn’t put less than a shot (1½ ounces) in a drink, would you?  Why do you think Santa is so jolly when he leaves my house?

Note:  If your double boiler is smaller than mine (which holds the entire ½ gallon), make it in two batches.

6 eggs, beaten until foamy

¾  cup granulated sugar

½ gallon whole milk (lower fat won’t do)

2 teaspoons real vanilla extract

1 cup bourbon

Freshly grated nutmeg

Whisk the sugar thoroughly into the eggs.  Whisk in 2 cups of cold milk and pour into the top of a double boiler, sitting over simmering water.  Whisk in remaining cold or warm milk.  Stir constantly, until the mixture reaches 160°.  Pour in the bourbon and stir until the mixture reaches 170°.  Immediately remove from heat and pour into a heat-proof container (I use three, to speed up the cooling process) through a very fine sieve (I use a Chinois) or a strainer lined with cheesecloth, to remove any coagulated egg whites or yolk.  Cover and refrigerate until cold. (It thickens as it cools, so don’t overcook it.) Uncover and whisk the mixture.  Re-strain into serving container.  (I save the plastic milk container so that I can shake it up.)  Top each serving with a fresh grating of nutmeg.

Grandma’s 1930s double boiler fits snugly into my 1980s stock pot.  In the photo at bottom right, you can see the coagulated egg remains strained through the Chinois.