Saturday, July 30, 2011

Corn off the cob

I don't remember why my mother started offering to cut the corn off the cob for her pampered family;  perhaps it was when one of us kids had loose teeth, but pretty soon it became a permanent menu option.  I am embarrassed to recall that I was always willing to have Mom do it for me, but in fairness, when Mom wasn't around not only did I do it for myself but I offered to do it for anybody else in sight.  In sharp contrast to my dad, who if Mom wasn't around made anybody else in sight do it for him.

I've always been on the fastidious side when it comes to eating.  Given a choice between grabbing that barbecued sparerib or trying to cut the meat off the bone with knife and fork, I'll always try the silverware first.  I'll eat watermelon with a spoon and order ice cream in a cup rather than a cone.  I'll slice the peaches into a bowl in the kitchen and then wash up before eating.  I just don't like getting my hands wet, greasy and sticky at the table (next thing you know, that ick has transferred itself to your newspaper!).

My husband, on the other hand, likes his corn the traditional way, eaten off the cob.  So when the corn is ready, we enter into a choreographed kitchen ballet.  He gets the first ear out of the pot, dried off in a towel and outfitted with little plastic corn-shaped holders.  He applies butter, salt and pepper and then takes his plate to the table, where he starts right in eating.

Meanwhile I get the next two ears, slice the kernels into a bowl, and apply my own butter, salt and pepper.  By the time I get to the table, he's almost done eating his first ear.  While I eat mine with a fork, he returns to the kitchen to get his second ear ready.  Surprisingly, we often finish eating at almost the same time.

No matter which way you do it, eating corn is a big production, and we've decided it just doesn't mix with eating anything else.  If possible, we get the rest of the meal underway so that after the 10-minute corn course, what's left can be served out immediately onto clean plates.  If not, we take a brief intermission while the second course is prepared and served. 

This has been the best corn year in our memory.  We've had excellent corn from springtime on, starting with the Florida crop and heading north.  Tonight we had local corn and it upheld the high standard of excellence.  My husband thinks that corn in general has improved, with new varieties, and that it's been better across the board for several years now.  I'm not so sure; I think this year has been exceptional thanks to some climatic perfect storm that may not happen again.  In either case, we're taking advantage of it.

PS -- there are lots of ways to cook corn.  My favorite is to cover the corn with about an inch of cold water, put a wire rack on top to keep the ears submerged, cover the pot and bring it to a boil.  After a minute of boiling, it's ready!


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A chicken in every pot

Every now and then it pays to review your recipe files.  You may find something delicious that hasn't made it into your mental recipe file.  The other day I came across a chicken dish that I forgot I ever made, although I must have liked it enough to type it in to my cookbook document.  So I made it and yes, it was good enough for company.  You might like it too.

This is one of these dishes where you spend a half hour in the morning or early afternoon chopping and slicing and sauteeing, getting the stove and the counter and yourself all greasy, but then you leave it to simmer by itself while you wash up and take a walk or work on your quilts or read a book until dinner.  Particularly nice in summer when you want to get your hot work out of the way early in the day.

This is a recipe that doesn't require much measuring or precision, since I don't like either one.   I call it Chicken With Onions, Garlic and Lemon.  In addition to the name partners, you'll also need some fresh herb (I used rosemary) and some wine.  And of course you can substitute if you want, with broth instead of wine, olives or capers instead of or in addition to garlic, and whatever else might strike your fancy.

Start with a package of chicken thighs, although you could use other parts.  Strip off the skin and put it into a big covered pot or dutch oven over high heat until it has rendered off some fat in which you can brown the chicken.  When the chicken is nicely browned on all sides, take it out of the pot and put it on a plate. 

Meanwhile slice two or three onions, which you will cook in the same pot after the chicken is out.  There should be a little fat left in the pot so the onions don't burn; if not, put the chicken skin back in for a bit and render off a little more.   Turn the heat down and let the onions cook for about 15 minutes till they get brown.  Stir every now and then so they don't stick.  Throw out the chicken skin.

While that's going on, dice some garlic.  I used five cloves and it didn't seem overwhelming, but we are garlic lovers; you may want more or less.   Finally, take the peel off a lemon and cut it into small pieces, cut the lemon into two or four pieces and remove the seeds.

Add the garlic to the pot when the onions are just about finished.  Then add a good schluck of marsala, sherry or vermouth to deglaze the pan, and stir everything around for a bit.  Lay a couple of big sprigs of your chosen herb on top of the onions, then put the chicken back into the pot, along with any juices that have leaked out onto the plate.  Rinse the plate but keep it around for a later step.  Squeeze the lemon into the pot, and throw it in, along with the peel. 

Now add about a cup of wine.  I used white, but red would do.  Cover the pot and adjust heat so everything is simmering.  Go away and have fun for at least two hours.

Then return to the kitchen and check whether the chicken is falling off the bone.  If it is, take each of the chicken pieces out of the pot and put on your work plate.  Separate the meat from the bones, and also pick out any nasty bits of gristle.  Put the meat back in the pot, and throw out the bones and other debris.  Also look at the lemon chunks; the pulp may have already cooked itself into liquid and disappeared, but if it hasn't, separate the pulp from the white pith, stir the pulp into the sauce and throw the pith away.

If you like, you could take the pot off the stove right now, stow it in the fridge and warm it up tomorrow.  Or put it back at a simmer and hold till dinner.

Do check every now and then  that the liquid in the pot hasn't boiled away.  You will want a good half cup or more of rich brown sauce to serve with the chicken, so if the liquid is getting low, augment with some water or chicken broth.

I had my sous chef make mashed potatoes to go with, but you could also serve with noodles, rice or bread. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fancy beans

In the ethnic market the other day we picked up a dozen bags of Goya dried beans in varieties that don't appear in our suburban grocery store.  Feeling flush and adventurous, I popped for a couple of bags that mysteriously cost three times what the others did -- what magic could they provide? 

The most expensive of the bunch were red cargamanto beans.  I fell in love with the name; they seemed totally exotic.  When I did some research later, I learned that cargamanto is the name for an heirloom variety from Colombia, but its virtual twin is the familiar cranberry bean.  I'm not sure I agree -- my cargamantos were fatter, more cuboid than kidney-shaped, and dark red, unlike the paler, slimmer cranberry.

I planned to cook just the bag of cargamantos but absentmindedly put too much water in the pot, so I added a bag of plain red beans.  You can see the difference between the pale, plain, small red beans and the larger, far more beautiful cargamantos!

The traditional South American recipe for cargamanto beans includes a plantain, which you can either serve on the side or cook in with the beans and puree when it's done, stirring the goop back into the soup.  Not having a plantain on hand, I cooked mine as I would make black beans: with a hunk of pork, some ginger and a bit of barbecue sauce, as well as the obligatory garlic and onions.  Then I served it as I would serve black beans: with rice on the side.  We even had an avocado, which is another part of the traditional cargamanto meal, but we put ours in the salad rather than on top of the rice and beans.

I rate this bean a great success, even if it did cost $4 a bag.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mystery pricing

Last week we went to a hip, new restaurant for the first time and everybody drank beer.  There were six of us and at least five different beer selections, all excellent, lubricating our equally excellent conversation.  But at the end of the evening, the conversation took an edgy tone, as the checks came and we contemplated the widely varying prices of the beers. 

This isn't the first time that we've been surprised at the price of beer in a restaurant.  While many places are willing to print the price of bottled beer on the menu, draft beers are customarily subject to mystery pricing, just like the special of the day.  I suspect this is a high-profit area of the business operation, because there's no other reason to avoid telling people what they're going to pay.

But if they did tell you, maybe you wouldn't order the medium-sized glass of high-end, high-alcohol craft brew for $8.25.  Or maybe after the first glass, you'd switch to the $3 less fancy (and larger) microbrewery draft, or even the Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Or maybe you'd order a bottle of wine instead.

It's a mystery to me why restaurants that put prices on the wine list won't do so on the beer.  And why customers put up with it.

Meanwhile, Prost!

Sunday, July 17, 2011


As cucumbers are starting to come into the farmer's markets, thoughts turn to pickles.  Our great-grandmothers all pickled up a storm in the olden days, putting up cukes that were a welcome source of fresh taste and Vitamin C through the winters.  I used to can pickles in my early self-sufficient-housewife days, in between baking bread, but decided not only that it was a lot of work, but the pickles weren't all that delicious. 

Now when I get the urge to pickle, I'll make a small batch and stow them in the fridge rather than going through the big production with the boiling water bath and the sterilized jars and caps to render the stuff shelf-safe.  Pickles are more a taste treat for summer than a store for the winter.

The best years of my pickling life came in the late 90s, right after my resident farmer spent a month in Poland.  He made friends with a local teacher who shared his gardening enthusiasm, and came home with two varieties of cucumber seeds, one from Poland and one from Belarus.  They grew enthusiastically in our garden, every day a new bumper crop, and were delicious.

When we got tired of eating them raw we might make a small batch of pickles.  I made up a batch of brine and used only what I needed for a jar or two of dills; the rest went back into the cupboard in an old milk jug or vinegar bottle until we needed it again.  Sometimes I might even reuse the brine for a second batch.

The brine:  3 cups water, 2 3/4 cups vinegar, 1/4 cup salt

The pickles:  pack cukes into glass Mason jars, as tightly as possible.  With big cukes we might cut them lengthwise for a tighter fit, although that makes the pickles more sour.  Put a handful of dill into the jar; it's OK to use just the leafy fronds, or to add the flowers and stalks.  Add a half-dozen peppercorns and a clove of garlic to the jar.  Bring the brine to a boil and pour it into the jars to cover.  When the jars cool, cap them and put them in the fridge.  You can start eating the pickles as early as the next day, if you like them half-sour and crunchy, or keep them for weeks.

Alas, the European cucumbers petered out in a couple of years, despite efforts to save the seeds and replant.  Either our garden became infested with some kind of cucumber blight or the seeds lost their vigor.  Now we get our cukes from the market, but there's still plenty of dill in the garden in case we want to get into a pickle. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tiny tomatoes

We always write down on our calendar the date of the first tomato from our garden.  In the past, we've generally anticipated that tomatoes will be edible toward the end of July.  Once we had a tomato on the Fourth, but that was a one-time phenomenon -- until this year. 

Thanks to hot weather and plenty of rain throughout the springtime, my resident farmer got the tomato plants into the ground earlier than usual, and we actually had a couple of tiny tomatoes on July 1.

Now they're coming in more prolifically, so that you can eat a half-dozen or more out of the snack bowl on the dining room table.  This variety is Sun Sugar, which we've been growing and loving for several years.

We're still at least a week away from any big tomatoes, although we have lots of green ones on our plants.  Meanwhile, we've had some nice local tomatoes from the farmer's market, but there's nothing so delicious as one from your own garden, still warm from the sun.  I'll let you know when that happens!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The secret ingredient you never heard of

Reading the New York Times food section this morning I found an article that referred to mastic, a flavor of ice cream, which the writer described as "a kind of natural gum used in the eastern Mediterranean."  Wow, did that bring back memories!

A few years ago we visited Chios, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey, and learned more than we ever wanted to know about mastic.  To hear the locals tell it, mastic was an appropriate additive to any sort of food, cured anything that ailed you, was the foundation for the prosperity and spread of the Greek civilization, and induced the evil Turks to invade and rape the island on more than one occasion.

Quite a resume for the sticky, herbal-tasting resin from a small tree.  Collect it, refine it, and use it for whatever your heart desires, from caulking ships to make them watertight (thus enabling the Greeks to venture throughout the Mediterranean) to serving in many medicinal compounds.  We got to see mastic trees in the wild

and how they are slashed to let the resin ooze out.  They called it "tears of Chios," because the trees weep resin. 

We all took beads of resin from the bark and chewed them, after which you couldn't get the sticky stuff off your teeth for what seemed like days.  In fact, mastic and masticate come from the same root, Greek for "gnash the teeth" (exactly what we did when even our toothbrushes didn't work very well).

Our hotel room had a little dish of mastic candy, which I had some of immediately upon arrival, before I'd heard the mastic infomercials and knew what I was eating.  It tasted like grass, not very sweet, and had been processed somehow so that it got off your teeth in a matter of hours rather than days.

After our total mastic immersion lectures on Chios, we reverted back to total absence of mastic from public discourse.  Until today.  It will probably be many years before I hear about it again, unless I go to New York for a nice bowl of mastic-flavored goat's milk ice cream.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Good idea

So here's my good idea for the month.

We own a set of glasses that are technically for sekt, which is the appellation for champagne in Germany, where the glasses came from.  They're great for sekt, champagne, ginger ale -- and parfaits.  Except for the part about getting the parfaits into the glasses.

Every time I've made parfaits in these glasses, over the course of decades, I've spent as much time trying to clean the inside of the glass above the food level as I did actually assembling the dessert.  I just can't get ice cream or other semi-solid materials into a skinny little glass without them brushing against the top on the way down.

But my good idea was to make a collar of wax paper to protect the inside of the glass before filling it with ice cream and fruit.

There are still a couple of bugs to be worked out of this plan.  The trick, I learned, is to make the inside depth of the collar only a bit shorter than the space left above your contents. 

If the collar doesn't extend far enough down, you still risk bumping the food against the inside of the glass.  If it extends below food level, you'll have a bit drawn up onto the clean glass when you take the collar out -- as in the photo below.

Still, it took only a second with a damp paper towel to clean off the inside of the glass.  And the glasses where I accidentally got the collars exactly right were perfect.  I'll use this method again, only measuring the paper more carefully.