Friday, December 24, 2010


Some people like sausage, some like scrapple, those often delicious, often intimidating mixtures of unidentifiable ingredients where you're probably better off not knowing exactly what you're eating.  I love mincemeat, which in England just means (hamburger) but in the US means a sweet melange that is most often found in pies.

When I was a kid I remember mince pie as standard fare (i.e. you could buy it at the store if you didn't feel like baking) although maybe my memory is wrong.  Today it seems to be an exotic relic prepared and eaten only by aficionados.  Of which I am one.

I hadn't baked a mince pie in many years for one reason or another -- too rich, too many desserts on the menu already, people wanted pumpkin, etc.  But as I was taking requests for Thanksgiving dinner my son mentioned mince pie and that seemed like a wonderful idea.  My husband, who loves to poke around in the back of cupboards and remind me of all the goodies I bought ten years ago and haven't served yet, found not one but two little boxes of mincemeat and delivered them with a flourish.  "These are probably so old we can't eat them any more," he announced, in terms that were guaranteed to make me take up the challenge.

So how old were they?  I don't know.  They looked a little beat-up, as might be expected from having been in the back of the cupboard for a decade.  They didn't use the nutritional labeling format we're familiar with now, so several years at the very least.  I know they were less than 18 years old, because the label said copyright 1992.   But I thought mincemeat is probably similar to fruitcake (which I also love) in that its mystery ingredients probably include some industrial-strength preservative.  I forged ahead. 

The Thanksgiving pie was wonderful, and nobody died from old age or botulism, so yesterday I pulled out the second box of mincemeat and made another pie for Christmas.

If you didn't love mincemeat in advance, you would never proceed past the opened box (much like the old story marveling about the first person to eat an oyster).  It reveals a cellophane-wrapped brick of dark brown composite that smells glorious but resists arrest. 

I don't recall the texture of a fresh box of mincemeat, but the texture of my box was dense and a bit sticky.  The package said to "finely crumble" the stuff but I used a fork and plenty of elbow grease to break it into bits, then added water and brought it to a boil.

You could make a pie with just mincemeat (although that would require more than the single package I had left) but I have always added apples to cut the richness just a bit.  This pie required two big apples to fill it snugly.  I didn't bother mixing, just layered the apples and mincemeat.

Now comes the part where I channel my grandmothers -- the official way to trim piecrusts is to heft the pie in your left hand and wield the knife with your right, cutting downward as you twirl the pie around.  Yesterday I opted to seal the crusts by pressing them together with the tines of a fork, but meanwhile I was watching the movie of my grandmother pinching the crust into raised zigzags with her elegant fingertips.  And finally you must cut a flowing tree shape into the top crust so the steam, and a bit of juice, can escape.

I had a tiny sliver of pie last night, which along with the sliver I ate at Thanksgiving constitute the only desserts I have eaten in almost two years.  They were both worth the wait!!

Merry Christmas to everyone -- may your goose be fat, your pudding full of plums and your mincemeat pies delicious, now and in the new year.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

My other favorite homemade condiment

My husband loves really hot mustard, hotter than he has ever been able to find in a store. Fortunately it’s easy to make our own – and wow, it’s really hot!

Start by buying “Regular Canadian Mustard Powder (medium)” from Penzey’s.  Or you may be able to get Colman's Mustard powder at your supermarket, which is almost as hot as Penzey's.  For ordinary hot mustard you could reconstitute this with vinegar, wine or water. But that’s not hot enough for Ken, so we reconstitute it with a concoction we call hot vinegar.

Hot vinegar is made not on the stove but by putting hot peppers into a glass jar and covering them with plain white vinegar, then putting them on a dark shelf at room temperature. A couple of weeks (or years) later the vinegar has become infused with lots of pepper heat. After you pour off some for a batch of mustard, add more plain vinegar; you may be able to keep the same peppers producing heat for several batches.

To make the mustard, put powder in a pint mason jar to fill it a little more than halfway. Pour in hot vinegar (hot refers only to the flavor; do this at room temperature) and stir it, adding more vinegar as the powder dissolves to a paste. It’s important to get all the powder incorporated into a uniform slurry and not lurking in dry pockets at the bottom of the jar. Lift the jar and peek at the bottom to make sure there are no dry areas; you can use a chopstick to get into the corners and mix everything.  I think from this photo that I have one of these pockets at the bottom of my jar, and I will go stir it up right now.

Reconstituted mustard will thicken up as it sits in the fridge after mixing, so you want the slurry to be more liquid than the finished mustard. If it gets too thick, stir in a little more vinegar or white wine. I haven’t tried this, but if you’re a fan of sweet mustard you could stir in some honey or brown sugar.

Make sure to store the mustard in glass. It’s better to use a plastic cap than a regular metal Mason jar lid, because the mustard fumes will eventually rust the metal.  And make sure you don't rub your eyes until you've scrubbed all the pepper/mustard off your hands.

This much mustard in one bite (the part on the bread, not on the knife) is about as much as I can take without having steam come out my ears. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sodium in a can -- bean division

Sometimes I think reading the nutrition labels in the grocery -- or worse yet, in your pantry -- is a sure route to depression.  So many foods that seem healthy are full of things you'd rather not eat, and sodium is probably the worst and most ubiquitous.

In fairness, some of that is inherent in the process.  Salt retards the growth of microbes, so adding it to preserved foods is one way to cut spoilage, extend shelf life and maintain quality.  Food scientists call this the "multiple hurdle" strategy -- salt, plus refrigeration, plus chemicals, plus various other techniques or additives each reduce the likelihood of your food going bad.  In addition, salt in the hot liquid required for canning improves the consistency of vegetables.  Unfortunately, food processors tend to use considerably more salt than they strictly need for quality, because they know that salt makes things taste better.

Of course you can always buy the raw ingredients and cook your own, but that certainly removes much of the appeal of having those canned goods on the shelf ready for the last-minute meal.  I have always kept canned beans on my staples list, great for making chili and adding to pasta and soups.  But since I've gotten on my kick of checking sodium content, those beans suddenly look a lot less appetizing.

The good news is that you may be able to find equivalent products with far less sodium.  At the grocery I found that among the canned Great Northern beans, you can buy Bush's Best with 460 mg of sodium or Kroger Private Selection organic with 125 mg.  Among the kidney beans, Kroger has 440 mg, Bush's Best has 260 mg, and Kroger Private Selection organic has 120 mg.

So I'm going to keep buying canned beans, but sorry, Duke, it won't be Bush's Best.  And I'm going to be sure to get rid of the canning liquid.  You can reduce the sodium by 36% if you simply drain the beans, and by an additional 5% if you rinse them for ten seconds in running water.

Meanwhile, we visited our favorite ethnic grocery yesterday and loaded up on Goya dried beans.  (Dried beans, of course, have zero sodium.)  Goya has varieties not found in the ordinary supermarket and the quality is excellent.  I'm particularly enamored of Goya's canellini, which cook up rich and creamy.  The last time I made them, instead of adding a teaspoon of salt, or a tablespoon of Penzey's Galena Street seasoning, as I would normally do when cooking bean soup, I simply added a lot of black pepper and garlic.  At the table we used a pinch of sea salt but a lot less than would have been there in my regular cooking method.  (It may be time to change my regular cooking method!)