Archive for January, 2012

A Spoonful of Promises

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

T. Susan Chang (courtesy of T. Susan Chang)

I always need a little prod in January. After the novelty of the new year wears off there I am, stuck in winter mode with a craving for comfort food and a slightly fuzzy brain.

I have nothing against comfort food, but it’s not the best thing in the world for the Tinky body, which tends to be … sturdy. (I love euphemisms!) And the fuzzy brain doesn’t do me much good.

Happily, I recently received a review copy of T. Susan Chang’s A Spoonful of Promises: Stories and Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table. It gave me the illusion of consuming comfort food without actually eating—at least until I tried one of its tempting recipes—since it talks about the place of food in the author’s life.

And it reminded me why I love to write about food, thereby removing at least a little of the fuzz from my brain.

Susie Chang lives with her husband and her two children not too far from my western Massachusetts home, in the town of Leverett. She has even heard me sing!

She writes about food a bit more lucratively than I do, contributing cookbook reviews to the Boston Globe and commentary both to NPR’s Kitchen Window and to our local public-radio station, WFCR. (For links to her work, visit Susie’s blog, Cookbooks for Dinner.)

A Spoonful of Promises is her first book. It features a number of recipes—the author is a creative cook—but most of all it shares food memories.

Susie Chang recalls trying to make funnel cake in her family kitchen as a child without much knowledge of frying, with disastrous (although fortunately not injurious!) results.

She talks about learning to love cooking as a young adult in New York, when cooking became her passion.

She discusses her food adventures with family and friends at home in Leverett, where her family raises most of the vegetables it consumes in season.

Her tone is passionate yet humorous; it’s hard not to giggle when reading a chapter titled “Zombie Servants of the Noodle God.” Many of her stories are touching as well.

Having just lost my mother to old age and Alzheimer’s disease, I was particularly moved by an essay in which she talks about trying to grow saffron bulbs, a present from her father, who suffers from dementia.

Her frustration with the delicate saffron is intertwined and infused with her feelings about her father and his illness. Like the saffron, he is a fragile plant that she can’t quite bring all the way to life yet treasures nevertheless.

Reading the book was a tonic and inspiration for me as a writer and a cook. As longtime readers of this blog know, I, too, like to consider food as nourishment for much more than the body.

As T. Susan Chang understands, food connects us to the loved ones in our past, builds relationships for the future, and lets us learn about faraway people and places.

A Spoonful of Promises was published by Lyons Press and sells for $24.95. I interviewed Susie Chang for the Greenfield (Massachusetts) Recorder and will try to link to that article when it is published. Meanwhile, I’m sharing one of her recipes—sort of!

Susie’s book includes a section about her children’s favorite foods—and hers. One of the treasures here is a Swiss chard tart, which her son Noah loves to take to school for lunch. His bewildered classmates all want to know what the heck a “charred tart” is.

When I got ready to make it I couldn’t find my tart pan so I made a chard quiche with a pie crust I had in the freezer instead of Susie’s tart crust. My winter farm share included Swiss chard this week so I did replicate her filling, more or less.

Here is what Susie says of her tart:

[C]hard tart exceeds the sum of its parts. The garlic softens and all but disappears, and the nutmeg is—as nutmeg generally should be—no more than an idea. The eggs and Gruyère fuse around the greens producing spots of cheesy bronzing. For a moment, a dozen ingredients coexist in uneasy harmony in chard tart, contained within the borrowed perfection of its fluted rim. This is what we call le cooking, mes amis!

The quiche my family enjoyed may not quite have equaled Susie’s tart, but it looked lovely and offered a pleasing balance of flavors. And it used up most of our Swiss chard, not to mention some cheese and cream I had leftover in the fridge. This is what we call la frugalité, mes amis!

Chard Quiche (only very slightly adapted from T. Susan Chang’s Chard Tart)

Adapted/reprinted with permission from A Spoonful of Promises, copyright 2011, T. Susan Chang/Lyons Press

Ingredients:

2 to 3 shallots or 3 cloves of garlic
1 small bunch Swiss chard (mine was small, at any rate; I imagine one could use more, but my cheese-to-chard balance was perfect)
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt
1 chunk (about 4 ounces) Gruyère or Emmenthaler cheese, enough to yield 1 cup when grated [Okay, sue me, but I used a bit more; I’m afraid when I start grating cheese I always get carried away.]
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks (I used 3-1/2 because an egg-separation mishap)
1 8-or-9-inch pie crust (Susie uses a 10-inch tart crust)
nutmeg for grating

Instructions:

Susie makes her tart crust by hand and then blind bakes it for a bit before adding the filling, after which she bakes the whole thing together at 350 degrees. I used a more standard pie crust so I just did what I usually do with a quiche—filled the uncooked pie shell and baked it. If you’d like to try her fabulous tart crust, buy her book; you’ll love it!

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Slice the shallots into thin rings or half-rings; if using garlic, slice the cloves thinly pole-to-pole. Strip the green leaves of the chard from the stems. Slice the leaves crosswise into 1/4-inch ribbons (discard the stems or save for soup) and rinse to remove any sand.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it begins to shimmer, add a pinch of salt and the sliced shallots or garlic. Sauté the vegetables until tender and just beginning to caramelize. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the sliced chard all at once. Cook together, stirring, until the chard has wilted and is once again quite dry. Season to taste and remove from heat.

Coarsely grate the cheese. In a measuring cup, beat the cream, eggs yolks, and a pinch of salt together vigorously with a fork.

Assemble the pie: scatter half the cheese in a scant layer over the dough. Layer the cooked chard mixture over that. Pour the yolk-and-cream mixture over the chard, and scatter the rest of the cheese on top. Grate a small amount of nutmeg over the whole thing and place the pie (on top of a cookie sheet or larger pan in case of spills!) in the oven.

Bake the quiche for 35 to 40 minutes, until the surface is golden brown. Let it sit for 10 minutes to set before eating. (If you’re impatient, you’ll have runny but yummy quiche.)

Serves 4 to 6.

 

Funeral Baked Meats

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

No comfort food in the world can compete with macaroni and cheese!

My friend Alice from Dallas and I talk from time to time about writing a book called “Food to Die For.” Like most Americans, Alice and I grew up in communities in which cooking was the natural thing to do when a friend, relative, or neighbor died.

Sometimes there isn’t much one can do for the bereaved other than feed them. Food represents all the love we feel, all the caring remarks we’d like to make, and all the memories we cherish.

And let’s face it: cooking is a heck of a lot more constructive than crying.

Alice grew up in Louisiana so her family brought gumbo, jambalaya, and pralines to the bereaved. I grew up in the northeast so my family tended toward more standard New England-y comfort food—ham, macaroni and cheese, and brownies.

I know people who bring bagels and lox to houses of mourning, as well as stews, soups, cookies, and lasagna. The trick is to identify comfort foods that can be prepared in advance and don’t take much effort to reheat.

My mother Jan often billed herself as a “specialist in funeral baked meats.” When a neighbor died she quickly and efficiently helped relatives, friends, and neighbors organize the feast after the funeral or memorial service. Sometimes this included the favorite dishes of the deceased. Sometimes the menu consisted of any foods that could be prepared in a hurry.

My mother’s funereal feasts were always well received. People liked (and still like) to munch while sharing memories and condolences.

It seems appropriate then, that my mother’s own memorial service on January 7 was followed by copious and delectable food.

Right after the speeches and hymns at the Federated Church in Charlemont, Massachusetts, the church’s pastoral care committee put on a lavish spread of both savory and sweet finger food. It lived up to my memories of the events catered by the now defunct Charlemont Ladies Aid Society.

Later in the day relatives (some by blood, some in spirit) gathered at our house to chat about Jan and life … and of course to eat and drink some more.

Not being my mother, who liked to be thorough and was highly organized, I didn’t make both a turkey and a ham. I made only a ham. (Actually, I didn’t even make it myself since when my neighbors Will and Lisa offered to do something I handed the ham to them for baking!) There was plenty of food, however.

My friend Peter, who considered himself Jan’s third child, brought a huge dish of herbed chicken meatballs. Our neighbors Stu and Cathy prepared the world’s largest bowl of salad. My mother’s honorary goddaughter, Anna, brought fabulous artisan bread. My cousin’s daughter Kyra made yummy cupcakes decorated with snowflakes. And Jan’s aide Pam contributed her dense, delicious applesauce cake.

I had very little to make: a quick appetizer, the salad dressing, my grandmother’s key-lime angel pudding, and a large portion of macaroni and cheese. If I have to be honest, I must say that I didn’t make all of those either since Pam helped A LOT! But I organized them.

Macaroni and cheese was among my mother’s funereal standbys. It is easy to prepare in advance, and it pretty much defines comfort food. So I decided to make it for her.

My standard mac and cheese recipe isn’t elegant and it isn’t rocket science. It’s pretty darn tasty, however. And it comforted me not only to eat it but to prepare it in memory of my mother. She would have enjoyed her party.

The recipe below may be expanded pretty much as much as you like. I hope it graces the table at your next memorial service—or even your next cozy supper party.

Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons flour
2-1/2 cups milk
paprika to taste
salt to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste (optional)
1 cup grated cheese (sharp Cheddar or Swiss or a combination; a little Parmesan is nice in here, too), divided
1/2 pound cooked and drained macaroni (I like seashells or wagon wheels, but elbows are fine, too)
more milk to taste (optional)

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a heavy saucepan melt the butter, and stir in the mustard. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for a minute or two. You want the mixture (the roux) to cook and merge but not to get brown.

Add the milk a little at a time, whisking constantly. Bring the sauce to a boil. Add paprika to give it a pink tint plus salt and pepper to taste. I love salt, but remember that the cheese you are about to stir in is salty; I’d start with 1/2 teaspoon and add more later as needed.

Reduce the heat and cook, whisking, for 2 more minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and use a spoon to stir in 3/4 cup of the cheese. (If you continue to whisk with the cheese, your whisk will get gummy!)

In a 1-1/2 to 2-quart casserole dish combine the macaroni and the sauce. Your casserole should be nice and moist. If for some reason it looks a little dry (this can happen if your cheese is very absorbent), stir in a little more milk. It will evaporate in the oven. Take a tiny taste of your sauce and add more salt if you need to.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the macaroni mixture, and top with a little more paprika. Cover the dish and place it in the oven.

Bake for 20 minutes; then uncover your macaroni and cheese and continue to cook until it is nice and bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes more. Serves 4 to 6.

 

Jan with the faithful Truffle

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