Archive for December, 2008

Year’s End (or Year’s Beginning) Peanut Soup

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

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I don’t see New Year’s Eve as a time for complicated cuisine. (Of course, I don’t actually see ANY holiday as a time for complicated cuisine. I’m a pretty basic cook!) I like to make something simple and spend the evening with friends and family.
 
It often snows on New Year’s Eve in Hawley, Massachusetts. In fact, it did today! Very small groups gather on my quiet street, grateful for congenial company and a wood stove. And no, we don’t always stay up until midnight. As my mother is wont to say, it’s always nearly midnight SOMEWHERE.
 
My simple new dish this New Year’s Eve is creamy peanut soup. Peanut soup is a classic dish for Kwanzaa, which ends on New Year’s Day. Like many Kwanzaa dishes and traditions, this soup is part African and part American: although peanuts are native to South America, early Spanish traders took them to Africa, and they returned to the Americas with slaves.
 
My version of peanut soup is adapted from a recipe from Colonial Williamsburg. It offers just a little spice and makes a cozy supper when served with cornbread near a warm fire.
 
Happy New Year–and Joyous Kwanzaa!
 

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Creamy Peanut Soup
 
Ingredients:
 
2 tablespoons sweet butter (plus a bit more if needed)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1-1/2 tablespoons flour
4 cups chicken stock, warmed in a saucepan
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1 /2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)
3 splashes half and half (about 1/4 cup)
chopped peanuts or crumbled bacon to taste for garnish
  
Instructions:
 
In a 4-quart pot, melt the butter. Sauté the onion and celery pieces over medium-low heat and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft (3 to 5 minutes).
 
Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes more. If the flour begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a bit more butter.
 
Pour in the chicken stock. Turn up the flame, and bring the stock to a boil, stirring. Reduce the heat to medium, and boil gently, partly covered, until the soup reduces and thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid from time to time during this process, and stir frequently.
 
The next step depends on how you feel about the consistency of your soup. Several peanut soup recipes I saw (including the one from Colonial Williamsburg) asked the cook to strain the soup at this point, being careful to extract as much flavorful liquid as possible. If you are set on serving a smooth soup, you can also pulverize the soup carefully in a blender or food processor.
 
Personally, I rather like having little pieces of food in my soup so I bypassed this step altogether. My friend Raymond tells me that he has tried the soup both ways (he works hard in the kitchen!) and much prefers the blended version so I will probably try that next time, but I enjoyed the soup the way I made it.
 
Whisk in the peanut butter and the pepper flakes. I found that 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper added a lovely tang to the soup. If you love spice, add more; if you are not a spice person, leave it out. Continue whisking until the peanut butter is mixed into the liquid and the mixture comes just to a boil.
 
Whisk in half and half to taste, and continue to heat the soup just until it is warm; do not bring it to a boil.
 
Ladle the soup into bowls, and top with peanuts or bacon. Serves 4.

 

Our Apple Tree

Hawley on New Year's Eve: Our Apple Tree

Truffle in the Snow
Truffle in the Snow

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A Snappy Christmas (or New Year’s!) Menu

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

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          A few years ago I taught a recipe-writing workshop during reunion weekend at my college, Mount Holyoke. The participants worked during the workshop on linking memories to recipes. After the workshop ended, they were all supposed to e-mail me their finished recipes so that I could share them with the whole group.

          The weekend (and life!) got busy, and hardly anyone sent in the recipes. One exception to this rule was Mary McDowell of the Class of 1971. (Mary, I hope you don’t mind my giving away your graduation year!) I fell in love with her brisket recipe, possibly the easiest dish I’ve ever made! Chop onions, pour some stuff into a pan, and you’re done.

          Of course, I tinkered with it a bit. I do have trouble making recipes without tinkering. Mary bakes her brisket, covered, in a 250-degree oven for 8 to 10 hours (or more!). My sister-in-law Leigh and I were anxious to try out the All-Clad slow cooker, and the brisket seemed an ideal recipe for that pot. It was! We also cut back on the recipe. Mary originally called for a 10-pound cut of meat, but we have a small family. We used the full amount of beer and barbecue sauce she called for, although we might cut back on those a bit in future; the brisket was strongly flavored!

Mary wrote that this dish is a Christmas Eve tradition for her family. She caps it off with brownies topped with peppermint-stick ice cream, hot fudge, and crushed peppermint. We stopped after the ice cream, but the brownies à la mode did make an ideal (and snappy) finish. Add some noodles and a little green salad or vegetable, and the meal is just the thing for busy cooks who are tired from shopping, baking, partying, wrapping presents, and trying to be extra good for Santa!

I know I’m posting this too late for readers to prepare my menu on Christmas. I recommend it for New Year’s Eve as well, however. The tangy brisket and extra chocolaty brownies will keep you warm and start your year off deliciously.

Merry Christmas!

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Mary’s Cousin’s Overnight Brisket (Adapted by Tinky and Leigh)

Ingredients:
1 3-pound slab beef brisket

2 onions, sliced into rings

12 ounces beer

12 ounces high-quality barbecue sauce

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced in half

Instructions:

          The evening before you wish to eat the brisket, place it in the bottom of a slow cooker. Throw the onions on top, and top with the beer and barbecue sauce. Cook on the low setting overnight.

          The next morning, stir the carrots into the stew. Continue to cook all day, still on low. Two hours before you want to eat, turn the heat up to high. Serve with noodles.

          Serves 6 to 8. 

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Fabulous Fudgy Brownies (Adapted from King Arthur Flour)

Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon vanilla

4 eggs

1 -1/2 cups flour

12 ounces (2 cups) chocolate chips

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with foil, and grease the foil.

In a good-sized saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. (The saucepan should be big enough so that it can double as your mixing bowl.) Add the sugar, and stir to combine.  Return the mixture to the heat briefly—until hot but not bubbling.  (It will become shiny looking as you stir it.)  Remove it from the heat, and let it cool briefly while you assemble the other ingredients.

Stir in the cocoa, salt, baking powder, and vanilla.  Add the eggs, beating until smooth; then add the flour and chocolate, beating well until combined.  Spoon the batter into your pan.

Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry (it may have a few crumbs). Remove them from the oven.  After 5 to 10 minutes, loosen the edges of the foil.  Cool completely before cutting and serving.

Makes about 2 dozen brownies, depending on how large you cut them.

Michael REALLY likes these brownies!
Michael REALLY likes these brownies!

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The Festival of Lights (and Latkes!)

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008
Chic Cousin Jane Shows Off the Latkes

Chic Cousin Jane Shows Off the Latkes

Sunday evening my family celebrated the first night of Hanukkah. Our cousins Jane and Alan joined us for a laughter-filled evening, and we made latkes, something we do only once a year. (They’re too fattening and too special to make more often.)

Because we make them so rarely I have to recalibrate my potato pancakes each time I make them. The recipe that appears below is therefore a little vague. Adjust your latkes as you need to; I always do!

It’s traditional to use vegetable oil in these cakes, but I love the flavor that good olive oil imparts. The oil should, after all, star since Hanukkah celebrates oil that burned for eight days and eight nights more than 2000 years ago.

You may ask why I’m mentioning both Christmas cookies and Hanukkah pancakes on this blog. I was brought up doing a little bit of everything by my Jewish father and Unitarian mother. Even if I weren’t a religious mutt, I think I’d probably want to make foods for many different holidays. I love learning about different culinary traditions–and I embrace any excuse for food, fun, family, and friends.

Once a Year Latkes

Ingredients:
2 large baking potatoes

1 large onion, more or less finely chopped

1 egg, beaten (you may use another if you really need it)

2 to 4 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

freshly ground pepper to taste (we like lots)

extra-virgin olive oil as needed for frying

Instructions:

          Wash the potatoes well and peel them if you want to (the skins are nutritious so don’t feel you have to). Grate them. This takes a really long time with a box grater so we prefer to use the grater attachment of our food processor. We only get it out for latkes, and we never quite remember how it works, but luckily my sister-in-law Leigh kept the instruction book. Even more luckily, Sunday night Cousin Alan remembered how it works!

          Do not use the main blade of the food processor as it will make the potato pieces small and wet.

          Wrap the potato shreds in a clean dishtowel. Carry it to the sink, and wring out as much liquid as you can. Leave the wrapped shreds in the sink to drain while you prepare the rest of the ingredients (and maybe have a cocktail or two).

          In a medium bowl, combine the potato pieces, onion, egg, 2 tablespoons flour, salt, and pepper. In a large frying pan, heat a few tablespoons of oil until the oil begins to shimmer. Scoop some of the potato mixture out of the bowl with a soup spoon, and flatten it with your hand. Pop the flattened potato into the hot oil. It should hiss and bubble a bit; if not, wait before you put more pancakes into the oil.

          It’s just fine if your latkes are a little ragged around the edges; the potatoes are the main event, after all, and you don’t want them too homogenized. If they don’t hold together and are hard to turn, however, you may want to add a little more flour and even another egg to your batter.

         Fry the potato cakes a few at a time, turning each when the first side gets golden. Drain the cooked latkes on paper towels; then pop them into a 250-degree oven to stay warm until their cousins are finished cooking. When you run out of batter (or feel you have enough for your family!), light the menorah and serve the latkes. Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish.

Michael and Cousin Alan Light the Menorah

Michael and Cousin Alan Light the Menorah

 Here are a few more photos of our evening:

At the Food Processor

At the Food Processor

Sister Leigh at the Stove

Sister Leigh at the Stove

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Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Hanukkah!

Illumination

Friday, December 19th, 2008
Serra Root illuminates the Hawley Meetinghouse (Photos on this post Courtesy of Lark Thwing)

Serra Root illuminates the Hawley Meetinghouse (Photos on this post and the next Courtesy of Lark Thwing)

Colonial Williamsburg stages a Grand Illumination early each December. This weekend-long celebration includes bonfires, fireworks, and candlelit dinners. Visitors amble along the streets of the town, sipping mulled cider and enjoying the gift of light in this season of growing darkness.

 
Four years ago, the historical society in my small western-Massachusetts hamlet inaugurated its own Illumination tradition. On a Sunday evening in December, members and friends of the Sons and Daughters of Hawley gather in the Hawley Meetinghouse, the former East Hawley Church.
 
This Little Illumination doesn’t pack the punch of the one at Colonial Williamsburg, where the weekend draws the season’s largest crowds. This year on December 7 a whopping 12 people showed up at the old church in Hawley. The Meetinghouse has no heat so activities were necessarily brief.
 
Those gathered decorated an outdoor tree with bird treats. They lit the church’s elderly chandelier with lamp oil. They placed battery-operated candles in each window. They sipped a bit of warm cider, hot chocolate, or wine. They sang a few carols (a cappella since no one wanted to lay fingers on the frigid piano keys). They then swiftly departed for home.
 
Nevertheless, the two Illuminations—northern and southern, Little and Grand—have a lot in common. They both warm the heart if not the body. They both give their participants the feeling of living in the past, if only fleetingly. Standing in the Meetinghouse as it grew dark outside, enjoying the glimmering lights, we Illuminators felt as though we had been transported by magic into another era.
 
Above all, both Illuminations celebrate light.
 
Light is meaningful on a number of levels at this time of year. As we learned last week when many of us in New England lost our electricity, light is perhaps most highly valued when we don’t have it. In our complicated homes, light is synonymous with power—the literal power to talk on our electric telephones, type on our electric keyboards, cook on our increasingly (alas!) electric stoves.
 
Illumination and light are also symbols. Illumination was the term used in the Middle Ages for the creation of books that were transcribed and decorated, then passed on to posterity, spreading knowledge. Illumination also means understanding, figurative light that shines on some idea.
 
Light can stand for thought (the hackneyed light bulb that shouts “idea” in cartoons). It can stand for deity (the burning bush of God in the Old Testament). Above all, light stands for hope.
 
Christmas falls at this time of year not because Jesus was necessarily born in late December but because he is viewed as a symbol of hope, of light in the darkness. The December festivals of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa also focus on light, burning candles that celebrate a variety of positive attributes but hope above all.
 
Light is a central theme of the musical Big River, which won several Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1985. Big River is an adaptation of what may be the most American of novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Young Huck’s signature song in the show, “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” sums up much of his character just as Mark Twain’s novel summed up much of the American character. It is at once cynical and hopeful, kinetic and focused, pragmatic and idealistic.
 
“I have lived in the darkness for so long,” sings Huck to a country tune written by Roger Miller. “I’m waiting for the light to shine.”
 
At this time of year, we are all waiting for the light to shine. We find that light whenever we celebrate a holiday, whenever we gather with neighbors to sing or talk or feed the birds, whenever we start a fire and blow on it ever so gently to encourage the flames to rise.
 
I share my light by cooking; my most frequent holiday gifts are edible. In the posts immediately below this one I’m highlighting a few of the nibbles I’ll be giving out this year. I hope they bring a little light and a little fun to readers. Happy solstice!
 
To hear my fellow New Englander Jason Brook sing “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” visit this link. 

 

Hawley Illuminators work to stay warm in the old church.

Hawley Illuminators work to stay warm in the old church.

Melanie’s Super Rich Pecan Plus Bars

Friday, December 19th, 2008
Ray and Melanie Poudrier with Melanie's Bars

Ray and Melanie Poudrier with Melanie's Bars

          Melanie Poudrier of East Hawley brought these treats to our Illumination party on December 7. She told me that everyone to whom she serves them asks for the recipe, and I understood why as soon as I tasted them. They’re lovely and extremely buttery; slice them very small! I had a little trouble extracting them so next time I make them I plan to line the pan with aluminum foil.
Ingredients:

for the crust:

2 cups flour

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter, softened

for the filling:

1 to 1-1/2 cups pecan or walnut halves

2/3 cup sweet butter

1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

for the topping:
1 cup chocolate chips (or half chocolate and half butterscotch chips)

Instructions:

          Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the crust ingredients, beating them at low speed until you have fine particles. Press the crust into the bottom of an ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

          Sprinkle the pecans over the crust.

          Next, make the remainder of the filling. In a 1-quart saucepan, combine the butter and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil (4 to 5 minutes). Boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Pour over the pecans.

         Bake the bars for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the filling is bubbly. Remove the pan from the oven, and immediately sprinkle the chips over the bars. Allow them to melt for a minute or two; then swirl the chips a bit as they melt. Cool the bars completely; then remove them from the pan, and slice them into bars. Makes about 3 dozen, depending on how large your slices are.