Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Swedish Chef

I have been feeling culinary inspiration after a recent trip to the predominantly Swedish (and German) town of Lindsborg, Kansas. In February, I travelled to the prairie with my boss Molly and in a few brief days, several of us ate our way through what felt like dozens of Heirloom chickens (we were there investigating antique chicken breeds, their humane farmers, sustainable farming, and of course, recipes).

In between bites of poultry, we decided to go the way of the cow. We sampled plenty of Swedish traditional food, including puffy, soft Beiroks- salty cabbage, onion, and beef filled pastries- and of course, Swedish meatballs. In light of a souvenir, I brought home a jar of Lingonberries, a cranberry-like berry, swimming in a glazed sauce, which have been idle in my cupboard since the trip.

After meeting the jar eye to eye every time I opened my cabinet, I decided not to waste another moment and to let them meet their maker, or at least the walls of our stomachs. And what better way to celebrate the ruby berries than cook up enough juicy Swedish meatballs and a rustic gravy to feed an army?!

Instead of going with a Swedes’ rendition of the dish, I deferred to the gourmet ladies known as the Two Hot Tamales. Yes, their food is often Latin inspired, but they obviously do Scandinavian eats as well. Go figure!

The recipe calls for less than two pounds of meat, which in my mind isn’t that much for a duo of eaters- I am fully capable of consuming a pound of meat without breaking a sweat. However, with add-ins like bread soaked in milk, the recipe makes enough meatballs to feed a ravenous family of 6. I ended up making half the recipe and of course, Mike and I consumed the whole kit and caboodle- my dining room isn’t for nibblers!

These Swedish meatballs are seasoned with red onion and ground ginger, allspice, and cardamon. Since I did not plan ahead, I used canned beef broth to make the creamy gravy. Next time, I will use homemade broth- canned broth has a slightly tinny flavor. Since the gravy is such an essential part of the dish, the taste of the broth is of the essence. Overall, though, the Tamales offered a charming rendition of the Swedish classic.

I served the meatballs with simple boiled new potatoes, which I peeled and cooked with 5 sprigs of dill in salted water. Of course, the dish would not have been complete with a spoonful of the sweet, slightly crunchy Lingonberries.

Swedish Meatballs
Adapted from Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken

2 slices white bread, without the crusts, torn into pieces
1/4 cup milk
3/4 pound ground beef
3/4 pound ground pork
1 small red onion, grated or very finely chopped
1 egg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Butter and vegetable oil for frying meatballs

2 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh parsley, for garnish

1.In a small bowl, soak the bread in the milk until soft. In a large bowl, combine all the meatball ingredients except the butter and oil, and add the soaked bread. Mix thoroughly until smooth, it's best to use your hands for this. Shape into small, golf-ball size meatballs (by dipping your hands in cold water, the meatballs won't stick to your hands.)

2.Heat butter and oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs, about 8 to 10 at a time, and gently brown on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes. Shake the skillet now and then so meatballs stay round and brown evenly. Place them on a heated baking pan in a low oven to keep warm.

3.To make gravy, deglaze the skillet with 1 cup of the stock, letting it simmer for 5minutes while scraping the bottom of the skillet with a spatula. Strain the gravy into a clean saucepan and add the remaining 1 cup of stock. In a small bowl, mix the flour with 1/4 cup of cold water until smooth. Whisk flour mixture into warm gravy, and let simmer, whisking constantly to prevent lumps, until thickened slightly, about 3-5 minutes. Add the cream and season with salt and pepper.

4.To serve, arrange the meatballs on a serving platter, pour hot gravy over them, and garnish with parsley. Serve with boiled new potatoes and lingonberry sauce.

Monday, April 14, 2008

My Bubby's Passover

I recently wrote up an emotional piece on my grandmother and my family's Passover traditions. In honor of my wonderful bubby in all of her natural, emotional glory, here is my profile (which includes some fine, flavorful Passover recipes!):

Eighty five year old Shirley Cohen of Albany, New York is a Passover Seder pro, having hosted the holiday for family and friends for the past four decades. She has experienced a lot of changes in her family in that time- including the birth of nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and the death of her husband Sam two years ago. Yet, through the ups and downs of family life, one thing always remained constant: the joy of her annual Passover Seder.

The daughter of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to New York in the early 1900’s to escape anti-Jewish riots, Mrs. Cohen poured all her energy into planning and carrying out her annual Passover menu, just as her mother had when she was growing up. To her, events were always about the food. When friends came over, out came the food; when a meeting was held in her home, out came the food; even when her kids’ stomachs ached, out came the food.

“My life’s experience is that so much good stuff happens around food,” says Mrs. Cohen.

The teaching in the Cohen household took place during the Seder, rather than in the kitchen. Her grandchildren sat and learned about Jewish history, history that finds symbolism in the consumption of the food. Her view was that this was the learning experience.

“With my food, I want to add to the good feeling of life, to share my cooking with my family, to have my grandchildren get that special feeling by eating my food.”

Her husband, whom she met at a Zionist rally during World War II when he was a young soldier soon to be shipped off to the Pacific, led the Passover rituals, and engaged in an annual Passover speech: an offering about his love of his wife, his three daughters Mira, Naomi, and Paula, and his grandchildren. He also focused upon his love of Jewish culture, and his appreciation of religious freedom all families found in America. And of course, he always remembered to praise his wife’s cooking, always naming her grandchildren’s Passover favorites: her fluffy matzo balls, her sublime chicken soup, her tender brisket, her silken lemon meringue pie with matzo meal crust.

For the Cohens, both intellectuals with a strong sense of identity, Passover Seders became a cornerstone of self-expression.

Mrs. Cohen, a vibrant woman with short, wavy grey hair and pensive eyes, continues to love Passover for the opportunity it affords for individualism. “It’s a good holiday. Every Seder tells an interesting story about a family. You can make it anything you want,” she says.

Over time, she altered some of the culinary traditions of her mother’s Seder, an evolution that includes a tangy, sweet picked carp to replace gefilte fish, a dish she never enjoyed. She has also recently incorporated an orange onto the Seder plate; this represents women’s growing equality in the Jewish faith. One year, she also switched to reading a Haggadah, the written order of the Passover story- the history of Jewish liberation from slavery in Ancient Egypt- written in a feminist bent.

“My Seders always had meaning on a male level, but now also on a female level, another positive step towards freedom in Judaism,” says Mrs. Cohen.

There have been other changes too. Following Mr. Cohen’s death, for the first time in forty years, this year, Mrs. Cohen’s will celebrate Passover outside her home, at her daughter Paula’s house in New Jersey.

Mrs. Cohen’s feels sure her daughter can create a holiday like her own, one that conveys “the feeling of warmth and enthusiasm that went into our Seders.”

Shirley’s Sweet and Sour Fish
“I’m not a big gefilte fish fan,” says Shirley Cohen, “so I like to make this instead.” Carp is a traditional Jewish food and often served at a Passover Seder, or as a component of dishes such as gefilte fish. Ask your fishmonger to slice the fish for you, to avoid a big mess at home.

3-4 pound whole carp, cut into 3 inch pieces, heads and tail removed, with bones.
3 medium onions, sliced thickly, in rounds
3 stalks celery, with leaves, cut in 3 pieces
8 whole cloves
2 tablespoons purchased pickling spice mixture
1 1/2-2 tablespoons salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup white vinegar
1 lemon, sliced thinly
Enough water to barely cover the fish

1. Line a heavy bottomed soup pot with onion, celery, cloves, and pickling spices. Arrange fish in one layer on top. Pour sugar, vinegar, and salt on top of the fish, add the water and bring to a boil.
2. When the water begins to boil, add lemon slices and simmer for 25 minutes, uncovered. Refrigerate in liquid, until cold.
Serves 6 to 8.

Shirley’s Floating Matzo Balls
“Some people cook their matzo balls in chicken stock, but I cook mine in water. It makes them much lighter,” says Shirley Cohen. Light and fluffy matzo balls are the crowning glory of a good chicken soup and Mrs. Cohen says, “there’s no excuse for hard matzo balls, which we call “sinkers” in our family.”

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs
1/2 cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons chicken stock or water

1. Mix together vegetable oil, eggs, matzo meal, salt and chicken stock or water. Mix well. Refrigerate mixture for 30 minutes. While the mixture is chilling, fill a 4 quart stockpot three-quarters full of water, add 1 tablespoon of salt, and bring to a rapid boil
2. Roll mixture into golf ball sized balls. When the water comes to a rolling boil, simmer matzo balls at medium heat for about 30 minutes. Remove matzo balls with slotted spoon and store on cookie sheet until ready to add to chicken soup.
Makes about 8 matzo balls.

Shirley’s Sure-Fire Chicken Soup
A lot of traditional Jewish chicken soups do not use tomatoes. “My mother never did this,” says Shirley Cohen, “but I find it gives the soup a nice, round flavor.

3-4 pound whole chicken, washed and cut into 8 pieces
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
3 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 3 inch pieces
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 3 inch pieces
1 medium white turnip, peeled and quartered
5 medium tomatoes, diced
10 dill sprigs
4 quarts water
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

1. In a 5 quart soup pot, add chicken and 4 quarts water. When the water begins to boil, add onion, parsnips, carrots, turnips and tomatoes. Simmer for an hour and a half over medium heat.
2. Remove soup from heat and add dill, salt and pepper to taste. Let the soup cool in refrigerator and once cool, skim off fat.
3. Reheat soup and serve broth with the cooked carrots and matzo balls.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

2004 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel

Mike and I recently took our horse and buggy down the road to Rhinebeck to try Terrapin, a stylish restaurant housed in an old church. We each ordered bloody red meat and a lavish gnocchi appetizer sautéed with juicy duck livers, shitake mushrooms and leeks in a creamy sage sauce. We were thrilled with our food selections, yet we couldn’t manage to choose a wine. The wine list demonstrated a veritable schmorgesbord of delectable reds and crispy whites, including many pricey offerings. We perused until we could peruse no more. Not wanting to break the bank but still craving the roundness and depth of a show-stopping red, I asked our server for his expert opinion.

He suggested one of his personal favorites, a 2004 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel. I couldn’t get enough of this wine and even took the empty bottle home as a souvenir. I love affordable wines that taste this sublime, this balanced, this lush! It perfectly paired with the gnocchi and the red meat and sold for just $50, which suggests a retail price of about $35. It is made from 75% Zinfandel, 18% Carignane, and 7% Petite Sirah- marketing as a zin, but really a field-blend. Although still developing, it was pretty close to perfection. On the nose, it smelled of berries, chocolate and some oak. It tasted of opulent berries and cherries with a hint of spice, each property demonstrating depth and complexity.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Solomon’s Passover Haikus for Jews, Food edition

Every time a holiday peeks through the curtain, the first thing that instinctively comes to mind is food, of course! I’ve been thinking a lot about Passover this season, as my Bubby Cohen is passing the torch of holiday flavor to her daughter, my aunt Paula. My grandmother has faithfully tended our annual Passover dinners since what I consider the beginning of time.

Looking back, I remember the “oohs” and the “aahs” as she served forth her tangy, tart, and sweet brisket, so tender it would fall off the bone (if it had bones, which it doesn’t). We’d weave and bob in excitement, anticipating her light-as-air matzo balls and richly flavored chicken soup. Although, oddly enough, nothing held a candle to that first bite of egg dipped in salt water, no matter how boring and anonymous a morsel; the egg- a symbol of mourning, the salt water -the tears. Boy, that’s just chuck full of irony!

I suppose I could do the expected and post a whimsical selection of versatile Passover recipes. Or, I could leave you with this: another installment of Haikus for Jews, Passover edition. So, grab your sacrificial lamb, a glass of Elijah’s Zinfandel, and a fragrant bouquet of Karpas and enjoy:

Search under the couch
The afikomen hidden
Now pay me money

Don’t open the door
Or the prophet Elijah
Will drink all our wine

Sinkers or floaters
“There really is no debate”
Says my dear bubby

Blood on my front door
The sacrificial lamby
On our Seder plate

I love matzo brei
Put it in my tummy now
With maple syrup

Karpas and Maror
Symbolize the holiday
A Passover feast

Let my people go
But when do we eat dinner?
Bring on pickled carp!

Gifelte Fish swims
Macerated bits of fish
In a pool of slime

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Cheese of the Month- Meyenberg Cheddar

I usually feature stinky cheeses in this here blog, but this month, I’m giving the people what they want. I’m going with a mild cheese! I know what you are thinking: “This here princess of stinky cheese, the proprietress of stench, going with a cheese that doesn’t rouse the masses from olfactory latency?” Yeah, I’m going there, fast and furious. I’m not saying I’m not going to return to days of yore and pepper my blogging months with the smelliest cheese I can get my hands on, but this month, I’m going zen. This here wild child of cheese is goin’ mild!

That isn’t to say that this month’s cheese isn’t edgy. I’m in love with Meyenberg’s aged cheddar. In fact, I can’t get enough of it. I need to have a hunk of this zippy standby in the fridge at all times. It is so versatile- glistening between two crispy pieces of buttery grilled bread, wonderfully zesty when sprinkled on al-dente pasta. It is also yummy in my fiery scrambled egg whites. It helps round out an otherwise Tabasco-heavy concoction. It’s your everyman’s cheese, but with a twist. Most cheddars I’ve imbibed are made from cow’s milk, but this is a lovely goat’s milk cheddar, robust and complex, but very accessible. After all, it’s cheddar, and who doesn’t love a good cheddar?! It tastes like an Asiago. Its texture is dryer and less waxy than your average cheddar, however, much like a moister pecorino.

Meyenberg is made in California. Once Swiss immigrant Mr. Meyenberg himself realized that goat’s milk is more easily digested than cow’s milk, he began marketing his milk and was even the first American to evaporate the milk. Meyenberg produces fabulous cheese with a gourmet European sensibility.