March 31, 2014

The Naan Wich

Sandwiches live in a class of their own when it comes to culinary delights. With two pieces of bread, the possibilities are endless, and honestly, you don't even need bread. Pitas, tortillas, biscuits, rolls--even leftover cornbread can serve as a vehicle for holding together any mix of ingredients and fillings.

The Earl of Sandwich has long been credited for inventing the sandwich when he was observed, in the late 1700s by French writer, Pierre-Jean Grosley. Sandwich had sandwiched slices of meat between two pieces of bread and ignited a craze among upper class Londoners who couldn't get enough of the new trend. While the Earl may have been responsible for popularizing the sandwich, this popular food item has been around for as long as man has wandered the planet.

Food history is peppered with examples of  earlier mentions of the sandwich, including among French peasants and nomadic peoples who often used bread (yeast or flat) to 'wrap' meat and transport it from one location to another.

Some poor folks see eating a sandwich as a last resort, but others, such as myself, would rather dine on a sandwich than sit down to a hot meal. Which is a little mind boggling if you think about it, because there are plenty of hot sandwiches--the French dip and an open face turkey with gravy are two of my favorites.

Anyhow, as you can imagine, I'm constantly reinventing the sandwich. My latest creation is a play on the spicy cooling flavors of Indian food that I often crave: spicy, fragrant grilled chicken thighs grilled to perfection topped with fresh greens, a smear of mango chutney, and a dollop of thick Raita, then sandwiched between two pieces of crispy garlic naan. The result: spicy, flavorful, and satisfying--the perfect weeknight supper served with a handful of papadum chips and an ice cold beer!

Another Mother: A Childhood Classic

Tuna Casserole
It may not be what mothers want to hear, but they all know that at one time or another, every kid wishes for another mother. Mr. B and I both wound up with the best mothers in the world, but, interestingly enough, when it comes to that old-school, childhood classic of tuna casserole, we both wished for another mother.

There are only a few things I won't eat: oxtails, fish with their heads still on, sea urchin, offal, and tuna casserole. Unfortunately, when I was growing up, tuna casserole made a regular appearance on the dinner table and while my mom tried to fancy it up by topping it with crushed potato chips and extra cheese, there was no way that I could get a forkful of the stuff down without gagging.

Several states away, Mr. B was dining on broiled chicken and red beans and rice, and, according to him, his mother never made tuna casserole, so imagine my surprise when he confided in me that it was one of his favorite dishes. "But," I asked, "if she never made it, how could it be one of your favorite dishes?" Turns out that Mr. B was friends with a neighborhood kid whose mother made tuna casserole fairly often and when she did, Mr. B would find an excuse to show up at their house around dinner time.

I'm a firm believer in pushing myself beyond the comfort of my culinary boundaries, especially if it will make Mr. B happy, so the first time that he asked me to make tuna casserole for him, I jumped on it. Who knew, however, that he wanted it more than once every decade? Anyhow, when he brought the subject up again last week, I gamely agreed. After all, it is Lent and I needed something to punch up my Friday dinner menu.

So it was that I decided that not only would I make a tuna casserole to beat all other tuna casseroles, but I would make one that even I could eat. I mean, really, when I thought about it, there wasn't a single ingredient in a tuna casserole--boiled eggs, noodles, cheese, peas, mushrooms, canned tuna--that I didn't already like, if not love, so what what was holding me back from savoring it with as much gusto as Mr. B?

I set to work making a traditional B├ęchamel sauce, then decided to go with a Mornay, so I added a couple of fistfuls of cheese. I labored over the toasting of breadcrumbs and the sauteing of mushrooms, carefully selecting the tuna, and making sure that the noodles were perfectly cooked and then, stood as if I were an artist and gazed upon my creation before sliding it into the oven and closing the door.

I poured a glass of wine and mentally penned a few lines of my memoir in which I would praise tuna casserole and lament the lost years during which I turned up my nose and refused to eat it. I would write how I uncovered the perfect balance of tuna and noodles of peas and egg, while reflecting meditatively on the right cheddar and the proper golden hue of the toasted crumbs. But, then, from the little oven that I so loved, came the most awful and fishy odor as I smelled, for the first time in years, tuna casserole!

I was unwillingly transported to the table of my youth and with such uncanny means was able to recall with precision every detail of my mother's kitchen right down to the intricately patterned wallpaper. I turned away in revulsion and with my glass of wine in hand, climbed the stairs and escaped to my room where a short while later, I heard the oven buzz and Mr. B rise from his chair and go off to the kitchen. Plates clacked and silverware clanged; I heard Mr. B open the drawer where I kept the pot holders and then, I heard the sound of the spoon as he dished himself up what I imagined was a hearty serving.

I turned up the volume on the television, emptied my wine glass, and buried myself underneath the comforter. I was not, I told myself, going back to the kitchen until he was finished and then, not until I was certain that he'd put away the leftovers--if there were any.

Hours later, when I felt it was safe, I emerged from my room and went to the kitchen. Sure enough, the casserole was almost entirely gone and when I peeked into the other room, Mr. B was fast asleep in his easy chair, slumbering, I'm sure, while dreaming of leftovers.

I tried not to breathe while I put the leftovers away and then, made myself a peanut butter sandwich. I'd light a few candles to get rid of the smell and while I was at it, I'd say a few prayers, too. Hopefully, Mr. B would get his fill and I would never have to make tuna casserole again.

March 19, 2014

Old School: No Bake Peanut Butter and Butterscotch Cookies

Stacked: Easy No Bake Cookies

Mr. B swears that he's going to give the oven a good slap for me. It's half-working--burners and broiler, but no oven--for over a month now and although he's played with it, the stubborn old girl won't work. According to Mr. B, all she needs is a few good slaps--maybe a kick or two--to wake her up from hibernation.

In the meantime, I've decided to explore the world of no-bake recipes, like today's recipe for no-bake cookies. When I was growing up, the elementary school that I went to was well-known for both their peanut butter and chocolate no-bake cookies and honestly, it really was the best part of lunch--but, wait, wasn't the best part always the dessert?

This isn't a recipe I've made often, in fact, I've only made no-bake cookies once before and that was several years ago, but since it's a sweet that I remember fondly and my toaster oven is too small for a cookie sheet, I decided to surprise Mr. B with a treat.

I added butterscotch chips and was thankful I'd used unsweetened peanut butter--these are sweet--but really good and borderline decadent (think peanut butter fudge) with a big glass of cold milk.

March 11, 2014

Half Crocked

Homemade Sauerkraut
A clever wife can sneak many things past an unsuspecting husband — an impulsive online shopping spree, a trunkful of shoe boxes and if handled correctly, even a kitten rescue can fly under the radar, but when it comes to fermenting a crock full of sauerkraut on the kitchen counter, one is bound to be found out.  

After a few days, the smell of fermenting sauerkraut transported me back to my childhood, every whiff reminding me of my grandparents and the Eastern European dishes that I grew up eating. 

For Mr. B, however, the ever growing intensity of the fermenting cabbage caused him alarm and revulsion. Finally one morning, as our paths crossed at the coffee pot, he said, “Have you noticed the smell? I think we may have a problem with the septic tank.”

Scientists have long been fascinated by what they term Nasal Nostalgia, a process where the olfactory bulb is triggered by a scent, causing us to recall a memory, pleasant or not. Scientists don’t quite understand how the olfactory bulb works in memory recall, but they do know that the bulb is only three synapses from the hippocampus, the place where our brains store long term memories.  Fermenting cabbage was making my olfactory bulb recall all sorts of happy memories around the dinner table, but others had trouble associating the smell with something quite as pleasant.

Suffice it to say, fermenting anything is going to produce an assortment of unusual scents from the pleasant, fruity smell of a sourdough starter and the sweet musty scent of wine grapes to the rotten, almost overpowering smell of fermenting cabbage. These smells are caused by the fermentation process where an ever growing colony of bacteria happily feed off of the sugars and yeasts, then produce off-gasses.

It was Genghis Khan who first introduced sauerkraut to Eastern Europe. On his quest for power, even the Great Wall of China wasn’t a deterrent; he simply led his Mongrel troops around it. While his soldiers plundered riches, they discovered crocks of fermented cabbage. They liked it so well that they packed it into their saddlebags and proceeded to plunder their way across Eastern Europe, where sauerkraut is now considered a side vegetable.

Historically, fermented foods were a source of sustenance and nutrition, especially during the long winter months when fresh food, or even a reliable food source, wasn’t available. Interestingly enough, fermented foods were also a significant dietary component of seafarers. It’s reported that the famous Capitan James Cook, who explored the South Pacific Islands, once ordered up over 25,000 pounds of sauerkraut—enough to outfit two of his ships for a long voyage.

Sauerkraut is one of the original superfoods.  In homeopathic medicine, sauerkraut was used to treat stomach ulcers, digestive tract disorders and even canker sores. Recent studies have discovered a cancer fighting property in sauerkraut—isothiocyanates—a property that’s not present in the cabbage, but is a byproduct of the fermentation process. There may even be a connection between a lower risk of breast cancer in the Eastern European countries were sauerkraut is eaten more often, as opposed to the United States where its consumption is far lower. Sauerkraut is also high in Vitamin C and probiotics—compounds well-known for building up the immune system. It may not be a cure for the common cold, but it could help prevent it.

Making Sauerkraut at home is easy, requires few tools and costs mere pennies. It requires nothing more than a crock—such as one that kitchen utensils are kept in–cabbage and salt. The traditional method for fermenting cabbage requires far less salt than what the USDA recommends. Using more salt creates a more acidic environment that prevents the bacteria known for causing botulism from growing. However, true sauerkraut aficionados frown on using too much salt since it results in a product that must be rinsed prior to eating, and prevents the complex umami flavors from developing.

March 04, 2014

A Little Joy: Pot de Creme

Goat's Milk Chocolate Pot de Creme
Somewhere around the time that I turned 5, my mother gave me a little Betty Crocker oven. In retrospect, it seems a strange gift for I can't recall ever wanting to help in the kitchen. In fact, my mother would rarely let me do more than set the table. Most likely a good call since I was predestined for a lifetime of clumsiness, the first signs apparent by my knack for slopping, spilling, or dropping anything that I was asked to carry to the table.

Instead, of donning a miniature apron of my own and standing on a stool next to my mother, I was directed to 'stay out of the way' and sent to the peripheral edge of the kitchen. By no account was my mother too busy or even disinterested in helping me develop my culinary skills, but rather, she was concerned that my imaginative nature and daydreaming ways would lead to trouble, and really, who could fault a mother for using her highly attuned sixth sense to keep her child safe?

The way I see it now is that the Betty Crocker oven was either given to me to appease her guilt, or to provide me with the barest of skills that I'd need to eventually land a husband. Whatever she was thinking when she bought the oven remains a mystery, but one thing is certain, it resulted in disaster.

She set the oven up in a corner of my room, placing it on top of the little round table that I sat at when I'd read my books and where quite often, she'd serve me lunch. The rules were simple and easy to follow: I wasn't to ever use it without asking and the bedroom door had to stay open, just in case something happened. 

The first few cakes I baked turned out quite satisfactory. Of course, I never thought the accompanying packets of icing made enough to properly frost the cakes and if my memory can be trusted, the cakes were a bit rubbery, but as I baked more, I discovered that it really wasn't about the cakes at all. Instead, I found that left to my own devices, in the solitude of my room, my Betty Crocker oven heating up in the corner, that cooking filled me with absolute joy. I'd lose myself in the process and while I waited patiently for the oven's light bulb to do its work, I'd throw myself onto my bed and let my imagination run wild. I fantasized about baking cakes for parties and weddings, for movie stars and royalty--once my skills were discovered I thought, I'd surely be famous. And then a terrible thing happened: I ran out of the little boxes of cake mix.

When I told my mother that I'd need more, she was only too happy to agree, but later that week when we stopped by the store and she discovered how much they were, she quickly changed her mind. I'd have to find something else to entertain myself she said, because as far as she was concerned, she wasn't going to spend more on the cake mixes than she did on the oven. "Use your imagination," she said. "You'll figure out something to do."

I'm not sure what made me decide to use the real oven, but I knew if she caught me, I'd be in big trouble. So, when my aunt came to babysit, I talked her into letting me bake a pan of brownies and while to her defense, she tried to say no, in the end I convinced her. To my reasoning, if my mother could see how well I baked, then I wouldn't need my Betty Crocker oven anymore--I could use her oven. It would certainly solve my dilemma and soon enough, I figured, I'd be back to feeling that sense of joy.

I preheated the oven and got to work on mixing the ingredients together. After checking on my progress several times and deciding that I looked like I could handle things, my aunt went downstairs to watch television. I'd just cracked the second egg when I first smelled the terrible odor, but since I hadn't been allowed near the oven, I thought it was all quite normal. After all, even my little Betty Crocker oven smelled a little odd when I first plugged it in. I cracked another egg and then I could see the smoke, but before I could open my mouth to scream for help, my aunt came flying into the kitchen and went straight to the oven and when she pulled open the door, a cloud of thick white smoke came billowing out. Quickly, she turned off the oven and opened the windows and doors and once the smoke dissipated enough for us to see in the oven, we saw the terrible mess.

My mother, it turns out, thrifty as ever, had lined two cookie sheets with plastic wrap and covered them with cubes of stale bread. She had thought, I suppose, that by putting them in the oven to dry out, they would be out of the way and safe from any harm. She could have never known that I would come along with a plan to bake brownies and of course, since she never let me into the kitchen, I could have never known that this was the secret to her famous stuffing.

The cookie sheets were ruined, as were the two oven racks since in her haste, she must have left the plastic to drape over the edges of the pan. I'd never finish making the brownies, and even worse, my mother would soon be home and I knew she'd be furious.

I hadn't thought about this story in a very long time, but this past weekend, it slipped back into memory. It was rainy and overcast and cold, just the sort of weather that makes me want to turn on the oven and bake all sorts of things, except my oven is still broken. 

There was a quart of goat's milk in the refrigerator and the previous day, I'd discovered a set of French porcelain ramekins that Mr. B's mother had given me and that were tucked away in a cabinet, just the perfect size for the toaster oven. I grabbed the good bittersweet chocolate, the sugar and the eggs and as the toaster oven heated up, I started mixing things together. It had been a long time since I'd thought about my little Betty Crocker oven, decades perhaps, but there was something inherently comfortable about the moment, a sense of joy, that sparked the memory. I was well past the point of overpriced packaged cake mixes and skimpy quantities of icing. I'd learned how to cook in spite of my illustrious beginnings and that alone was enough to make me laugh out loud. What was I going to make, I wondered, but I already knew--I was going to rock a simple French classic, chocolate pot de creme--the goat's milk was just putting my imagination to good use!