Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dressing Up Your Dog for Summer

The fourth of July is just around the bend, which means it is time to brush the now-antique layer of dust off your bbq tongs and fire up your warm weather friend, your trusty grill.

Put away that Dutch Oven, used during the chilly months to braise heart-warming, stewed meats. It is the time of year when the focus shifts from the interior of the encapsulated kitchen to the open sky and fresh air, where fragrant grill smoke is free to billow overhead, languidly floating above us, filling every corner of the atmosphere, and our nostrils.

You know you can picture (and smell) the scenario. You are driving in your car across the horizon, windows down, and the smell hits you like a ton of bricks: burgers and dogs grilling, the scent permeating the air, seducing the nose with an aromatic, charred perfume.

Carnivores rejoice! It’s the dog days of summer!

Although we can trace the hot dog’s roots to the sausage, and most likely to Germany, it has become a global snack of choice in countries such as Iceland (pylsa), Mexico (perrito caliente), and France (chien chaud), to name a few.

However, we Americans like to claim the summery snack as our own, and eating your first hot dog is a veritable right of passage in America. The hot dog has become an all-American entity, a historic favorite, even appearing on a festive presidential picnic menu in 1939 (for a party thrown by the esteemed FDR to welcome King George to America).

And as diverse as our national geography, hot dog condiments and toppings vary, representing a true melting pot of regional tastes and flavors. Dodger Dog devotees and Fenway Frank fanatics opt for classic ballpark combinations: ketchup, mustard, relish, sauerkraut. Coney Island goers and Nathan’s enthusiasts (with the exception of Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut, who eat them by the dozen soaked in an unpleasant tonic of pure water) tend to love the same. Then there’s the winning Chicago combo, which sounds inherently wrong, but is innately right: mustard, onion, neon green pickle relish, tomato slices, pickled hot peppers, celery salt, and a lip-smacking dill pickle. The Texas dog involves the heartburn inducing combination of chili, cheese and jalapenos. Many Southerners enjoy sweet-tart coleslaw slathered on their dogs.

I had never tried Southern-style dogs before, so I decided to go for it, whipping up a quick slaw, as well as a homemade relish. Ultimately, in our head to head relish versus slaw showdown, the slaw dog won, and I’m a huge relish fan! It is a logical, yet little seen in the Northeast, combination of crispy, steaming hot dogs drowned with chilled, creamy slaw. I served mine on slightly toasted, buttered buns: a taste marriage made in heaven.

A great, dressed-up dog transcends ballpark fare, although there's something beautiful about the simplicity of a bare bones grilled dog: the charred, almost caramelized exterior, the audible snap of the casing, the squirt of the juicy, spiced meat.

Homemade Pickle Relish
Adapted from Bobby Flay

Makes 8 servings

1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
8 large dill pickles (sour, not half-sour), finely diced
1 small red pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small yellow pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Bring vinegar, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds to a boil in a medium non-reactive saucepan on the grates of the grill; cook until reduced by half and slightly syrupy.

Remove from the heat, add the remaining ingredients, and gently toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

Active time: 25 min
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hr
Makes 8 servings

2 1/2 pound green cabbage, cored and cut into 3-inch chunks, then finely chopped or shredded
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 large carrot, coarsely grated
1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar

Toss all vegetables in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Whisk together mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar, then toss with slaw. Chill, covered, stirring occasionally, at least 1 hour (for vegetables to wilt and flavors to blend).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Key Lime = Summertime

*Dedicated to Gus and his bbq smoker

Key lime pie is the official state pie of the Sunshine State. The velvety and tangy dessert is to the Florida palate as Don Featherstone’s kitschy birds are to the southern state’s lawnscape.

It goes without saying that a trip to the Florida Keys is not complete without at least one slice of key lime pie (despite the fact that most Key Limes are now grown by our neighbors in Mexico). I admit, however, I’ve never been to the Keys, despite a childhood obsession with the short-lived Fox show “Key West.” I’m not a Jimmy Buffet fan and I’ve never wasted away in Margaritaville, but my summer is not complete without a ceremonial key lime pie bake-off.

Supposedly, the pie came to fruition in the Keys due to a lack of fresh cow’s milk. Innovative bakers utilized condensed milk, eggs and the juice of the local limes to fabricate a dessert that mirrors lemon-meringue. According to John Mariani, author of “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the birth of the key lime pie was as early as the 1850’s. He states: “The original pies were made with a pastry crust, but a crust made from graham crackers later became popular and today is a matter of preference, as is the choice between whipped cream and meringue toppings.”

Personally, I believe a key lime pie sans a graham cracker crust is criminal. I like the crunchy graininess of the slightly sweet crust in contrast with the tart, silken filling. Simply put, it works. And it works well.

In the days since its advent, recipes for key lime pie have disseminated north, east and west. This often necessitates the use of the larger Persian limes, which do not pack the punch of their smaller cousins. Although there are many decent recipes that utilize Persian limes, nothing beats the tangy, effervescent taste of fresh squeezed key limes.

I admit that the tedious process of wringing tiny amounts of juice from the Lilliputian citrus can be draining. The process will no doubt dangle you on the precipice of insanity, but one morsel of pie will surely stifle the now-faint memory of your Herculean efforts.

For an authentic pie, the filling must be a pale yellow, like the juice of the key limes themselves. Never add green food coloring, which enthusiasts and traditionalists frown upon. When the pure, acidic lime juice is combined with rich, sticky condensed milk and smooth, gelatinous egg yolks, you get a combination of flavors made in heaven- a dessert that tastes of the quintessential essence of summer.

Despite the painstaking nature of hand squeezing the limes, the pie itself is effortless to make. The tart, acidic undertones and sweet overtones meld to form a beautifully harmonious, supple, dessert.

And because I'm of the "waste not, want not" school of cooking, I whipped up a few batches of merigngues with the leftover egg whites.

Key Lime Pie (Adapted from

Active time: 20 min (not including lime juicing)
Start to finish: 10 hr (includes chilling)

Makes 8 servings.

For crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For filling:
1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled Key lime juice (if using bottled, preferably Manhattan brand)

For topping:
1 cup chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Make crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate.

Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on.

Make filling and bake pie:
Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly).

Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.

Make topping:
Just before serving, beat cream, vanilla extract and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie topped with cream.

*Pie, without whipped cream, can be chilled up to 1 day.


Active time: 1 hr
Start to finish: 4 hours

Makes about 50 small meringues

3 large egg whites
3/8 teaspoon salt
1 cups superfine granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 175°F.

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Beat whites with salt in a standing electric mixer at high speed (or with a handheld mixer in 2 batches) until the eggs just hold stiff peaks. Gradually add sugar, beating at high speed until whites hold stiff, glossy peaks.

Spoon half of meringue into pastry bag and pipe 1-inch-wide “cookies” onto 1 baking sheet, about 1/2 inch apart. Pipe more onto second sheet in same manner.

Bake meringues in upper and lower thirds of oven until crisp but still white, about 2 hours.

Turn off oven and cool meringues in oven 1 hour, then cool completely on sheets on a rack.

*Meringues keep in an airtight container at room temperature 3 days.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Wine by Any Other Name- Brunello in Crisis

Brunello di Montalcino, my favorite wine in the world, the wine that I wish I could afford on a regular basis, a wine that has a taste worthy of its price, a wine that conjures big dreams, is involved in a humiliating scandal the Italian press has christened “Brunellopoli.” It is a sad day in vino-land when that wine you have perpetually held sacred is revealed as corrupt.

Brunello di Montalcino has always been thought of as the gold standard of Italian wine. High in tannins, Brunellos are perfect deep cellar wines, ideal for aging. In order to be considered a Brunello di Montalcino, it must be made from 100% Sangiovese grape (locally known as the Brunello grape). No ands, ifs, or buts. No two ways about it. 100% Brunello. Period.

How is it that these winemakers have been sneaking other grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon into their prized wines and assuming that the adulteration would go unnoticed? Isn’t it obvious that if they were discovered, anarchy and nothing less would ensue? It is enough to not only damage an individual winery’s reputation but to ruin the credibility of the varietal as a whole.

According to the New York Times, “The prosecutor has impounded more than a million bottles from some of the most prominent Italian winemakers — including Antinori and Frescobaldi — while he determines whether they used unapproved techniques or grapes other than brunello… supposedly to give their idiosyncratic wine a broader international appeal.”

Furthermore the sale of the 2003 vintage is suspended until a system of checks and balances is implemented to guarantee the integrity of the wine.

The situation is bad for the economy and morale of Italy and winemakers in general. Some see the investigation as a witch hunt, intended to hurt the Brunello image, to disgrace the producers, especially smaller businesses. And it is a sad time for the people who have put Brunello di Montalcino on a pedestal.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cheese of the Month- Batch 35

I have been trying really hard to localize the contents of my refrigerator. We all need to change our shopping habits if we are going to alter the state of the world from the ground up. It takes an excessive amount of fuel to get most foods to our tables. I’m not saying we should wholeheartedly boycott the products we have grown to love, just put a little more thought and care into our purchases.

On that note, I have become a Sprout Creek Farm groupie. Their outlook on responsible agriculture, cheesemaking, and humane animal husbandry sets a gold standard for farming, a standard by which other farms should abide.

According to their website, the purpose of the farm is to “enhance awareness, foster informed compassion, and evoke the desire to become an agent of change in our troubled global society.”

Small farm, big dreams.

With proper care of the land and animals, their cheese is wholesome in body and spirit, something you can feel good about eating. The cheese is, of course, hormone and antibiotic free.

One of my favorite SCF cheese is their Batch 35. Colin McGrath, the gifted cheesemaker, told me that he had to work through 35 batches (and that's many, many gallons per batch) of milk in order to perfect his recipe for the washed-rind, subtly pungent cheese. It is aged at least 60 days, yielding a firm, orange rind. The cheese’s “meat” is soft but not gooey, earthy but not overly yeasty or biting. It is the kind of cheese even stinky cheese naysayers could love (albeit this cheese is not really that stinky). I even slipped it, shredded, onto some pasta, and my hubby Mike slurped it down with a big grin. (let’s just say he’s not a fan of my stinky cheese habit).

This is good stuff, kids. Made with pride in Poughkeepsie, NY.