Friday, September 22, 2006

Committee attends country fair, indulges in agrarian reverie; somehow manages to return to Manhattan without rabbits & chickens tucked under its arms

As we did last year, we went to Connecticut for the weekend to attend the Durham Fair, an agricultural fair that's been held the last weekend of every September since 1916. According to Wikipedia it is "one of the largest agricultural fairs in the world," but the fair's organizers more modestly refer to it as "the largest agricultural fair in Connecticut." There are competitive exhibits of cows, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, sheep, llamas, fruits and vegetables, etc., all lovingly brushed or groomed or scrubbed or polished in hopes of winning a ribbon. Durham is a small, very pretty town about twenty miles north east of New Haven.

There are rides and games, and commercial and crafts buildings where you can buy a super-fantastic squeegee chamois mop-of-the-future, or a kitschy sign for your Winnebago ("A balanced meal is a beer in each hand," and so forth), but the focus is on the animals.

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prize-winning pickles

prize-winning pickles


carrots 1st prize pumpkin


prize-winning apples

It's hard to decide what to eat at the fair. There are all the usual junky treats, but at the Durham fair about half of the stands are run by local groups (volunteer fire departments, little league teams, etc.), and their food is generally more appealing than that sold at the garish trailers that travel around the country peddling corndogs. There's tons of fried stuff but I didn't see any of the grotesque novelties that I've read are popular at other fairs. Unfortunately most of the things we tried smelled and looked better than they tasted. My roast beef sandwich, for example, was marred by flavorless fake cheese that was inexcusably advertised as "cheddar." The fried dough with tomato sauce was ok; I still can't decide if I prefer it that way or with powdered sugar.

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fried dough with tomato sauce


IMG_1490 lime rickey


sleeping on a cow


giant cows


pretty speckled cow


piglet frenzy


IMG_1598 spangled Bantam chicken


silver Sebright chicken

One of my favorite breeds of chicken, a silver Sebright. They also come in a very chic light brown. I would love to have a few of these in a fancy hen house.


cozy
very serious bunny


piglet frenzy


llama llamas

This darling, inquisitive llama sniffed my hair and rubbed her fuzzy nose all over my face and ears. We went back to visit with her again before we left but by that time she was completely asbsorbed in her dinner of fresh hay. Llamas have a very amusing way of munching hay; they have endearing overbites and the bottom of their jaw appears to move in an oval.

llama


sunset at the fair

Delightes for Ladies

A fun link via The Morning News: "international confectionary historian" Tim Richardson lists his favorite sources from the British Library. Delightes for Ladies sounds like it fulfills the promise of its title with a recipe for "a way of candying rose petals on the bush by pouring syrup over them and letting them dry in the sun." Also charming to the Committee is Richardson's description of The Court and Country Cook, a 1698 manual explaining how to produce a memorable dessert course:
The tablecloth would be drawn, so that the shiny sweets and luscious jellies glittered in the candlelight and were reflected in the mahogany table. A few decades later in England, the dessert course had become such a cult that special banqueting houses would be built in gardens (or even on the roof of the main house) so that guests had a little exercise before the fun of the sweets course.

I regret the lack of posts this week — unfortunately I spend only a small portion of each day becoming acquainted with confectionary history, and a large portion of each day toiling in a thoroughly charmless litigation mine in midtown, without so much as a canary to let me know when I've been exposed to dangerous levels of bloated ego. Or distasteful levels of self-important preening. Etc. Sigh.


Will Cotton, "Creamy Dream" 2000, oil on linen, 60" x 72"

Friday, September 15, 2006

breakfast, breakfast, breakfast

Now that it's getting cooler outside, a more substantial breakfast is nice once in a while. An opportune moment for the Committee to report that it has discovered a very good basic recipe for blueberry pancakes —

While we were in Maine I noticed blueberries growing in several spots around the cabin, but most of the berries had been eaten by birds or deer before we arrived.


blueberries growing along the driveway


Hurry up and grow!

A vacation in Maine would not be complete without blueberry pancakes; fortunately the market had some nice berries. I don't make pancakes often enough to look at a recipe and know whether it's likely to be a winner or not, but this recipe for blueberry griddle cakes from Saveur appealed to me instantly because it makes pancakes for two. Perfect. The resulting pancakes were pretty close to perfect, too. They were very basic, which is how I think blueberry pancakes should be — no distracting vanilla extract, and a confident balance of salt to sugar to keep them from turning out too sweet.


If you are going to blog your own pancakes or otherwise commemorate their existence, be aware that they are one of the more maddening foods to photograph. My lens got steamy, and then of course the butter started to slide away; my friend helpfully jabbed it back into place but in several of the photos his fingerprint is prominent enough to permit forensic examination. An adorable illustration à la Kokblog or Lobstersquad is definitely the way to go.


blueberry pancakes


On another morning at the cabin I wanted to make something but realized that we had no eggs, no milk, and not much of anything else — we did, however, have oranges, flour and butter, and that was enough to make delicious, citrus-y biscuits from this recipe, which accompanied an interesting article on community cookbooks in the December 2002 Food & Wine. I made these biscuits once before using grapefruits, as the recipe calls for, and those were great too, but the ones made with oranges and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar were even better.


orange-cinnamon biscuits


They turned out ginormous and fluffy because there was no biscuit-cutter at the cabin and I used a large drinking glass instead. They're best eaten while still warm (and accompanied by strong, very very hot coffee) but they reheat well and the leftovers were still good a couple days later.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

a bit of provincial pride

The Committee is very proud to see its favorite local coffee place, Ninth Street Espresso, featured in this article on "artisanal coffee" in today's NY Times Dining section. I'm not sure I've ever even had their espresso but their coffee is absolutely worthy of heaps of praise. Yay, Ninth Street!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the Committee improvises a curry and finds its knowledge of chile peppers lacking

I have Indian food in mind a lot lately, perhaps because I just started reading David Burton's The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India. I'm only a few pages into it but it appears to be very well researched and so far I find it fascinating.

I had not considered, for example, that there were already some similarities between Indian cooking and British cooking when the first British ships arrived in India in 1608:

It should by no means be assumed . . . that the first British settlers had considered the highly spiced cuisine of India so very outlandish or strange. In 1612, English cooking had itself barely emerged from the Middle Ages, and was still heavy with cumin, caraway, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Indeed, spices had for the first time become affordable to all but the poor in England, due to the breaking of the Arab monopoly of the spice trade by the Portuguese a century earlier. So the 'dumpoked' (dampukht) fowl that the English merchants were served at their first factory in Surat, stewed in butter and stuffed with spices, almonds and raisins, may have been a recipe that came from the Mogul emperor Akbar's kitchen, but it nevertheless echoed the list of ingredients for an English chicken pie given by Gervase Markham in The English Hus-wife in 1615: chicken, currants, raisins, cinnamon, mace, sugar and salt. (pp. 3-4)


There are lots of interesting recipes in the book as well but on Saturday I found myself improvising a curry while we listened to the BBC broadcast of the last night of the Proms — the Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. If you are not familiar with the Proms, they are a series of classical music concerts that have taken place since 1895 (and at Royal Albert Hall since the 1940's) and they are greeted with MUCH enthusiasm. Each concert is broadcast live, and on the last night there are also simultaneous "Proms in the Park" in five other locations in the U.K., giving rise to many excited shouts of "HELLO Manchester!" and HELLO Glasgow!" and so forth. The whole thing is really very cute, particularly if you have any latent Anglophile tendencies. I don't think the program varies much on the last night, and everyone sings along and makes a lot of racket with noisemakers, so much so that some of the audience's favorite bits are repeated. It's sort of like a cross between an American 4th of July celebration and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and naturally such a spectacle is followed by a little self-conscious, amusingly huffy critiquing. According to the BBC's reviews page the London Times was relieved that "[a]t last someone has found a way to stop the Last Night of the Proms seeming so jolly, jingoistic and British," but several commenters disagreed. "As for the 'Hello, Swansea' type nonsense, it's pure Blue Peter which vulgarises the whole broadcast," wrote one. My favorite: "The programme satisfied entirely your gold standard: what will appeal to a Guardian reading woman with halitosis, a pass degree in sociology, and a job as an administrative assistant for a charity. Congratulations Beeb, spot on again."

Well!

Before the curry we had chickpea flour pancakes with not-homemade coriander chutney. These are another Tiny Banquet favorite from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian; the recipe is also on the BBC's site for Jaffrey's show Flavours of India. The version in the book is made with ground cumin, cayenne pepper and tumeric rather than fresh coriander, chiles, onion and garlic; I also used kalonji seeds (maybe better known as nigella seeds), tiny black seeds that are often described as having an oregano scent. Sesame seeds are really good too. If you are using either type, sprinkle them on the uncooked top of each pancake just after the batter is added to the pan.

kalonji seeds

chickpea flour pancakes and coriander chutney

close-up of chickpea flour pancakes


For the curry, I started with 1 pound of tofu that had been fried just until crisp on the outside. It really, really works best if you lightly dust the tofu with cornstarch first; that way it doesn't stick to the pan, and it seems to absorb little oil. I toasted 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds and 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds in a pan until they were starting to brown and smell good, and ground them in my spice/coffee grinder with a small handful of raw cashew nuts. I know many cooks insist that you need two grinders, one for spices and one for coffee, but I have just one that I wash well in between uses, and I have never noticed that my coffee tastes like coriander or vice versa.

I chopped a small onion, a shallot, and a clove of garlic, and then had to decide how many chiles to use. Here's where things went amiss. I thought the pepper below was a serrano, which is quite hot, hotter than the jalapeños that I am used to using. Mindful of past dishes that I made too spicy (I once made Marcella Hazan's Swordfish Sardinian-Style with Mint and Saffron with such an accidentally-generous shake of red pepper flakes that everyone was sweating long before we finished eating) and of Ann's recent preparation of slightly-too-hot-but-still-delicious-sounding chili, I decided I was only going to use about three-fourths of it.

green chile pepper

After sauteeing the onion, shallot and garlic in a vegetable oil I stirred in the spice and nut mixture and let it cook for a few moments; I then added a small can of coconut milk (5 1/2 oz.), some water, the chopped chile pepper, and about half a dozen fresh curry leaves.

fresh curry leaves

The color was very dull so I also added a pinch of tumeric.

I was surprised when I tasted the curry for salt and discovered that it was not the least bit hot — and that my single, lonely pepper must have been something other than the serrano I believed it to be. The finished dish was still quite good (and was improved by a last-minute pinch of cayenne pepper), but the Committee is in need of expert advice on these matters.

tofu curry

Saturday, September 02, 2006

corn season is almost over!

I want to post this recipe for Corn with Ginger while there's still summer corn available. It's from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, which I can't recommend highly enough. I've never been disappointed with any of the recipes I've prepared from it, and it also has incredibly helpful information about basic preparations for just about any vegetable or grain you can think of. This recipe is one of my favorites — aside from being delicious, it's healthy and really easy to make. It's highly seasoned so you could probably use frozen or canned corn without feeling cheated, but as long as there's still fresh local corn by all means use that.

Corn + ginger stir-fry


Before the recipe, a brief note to those people who peel back the tops of the ears of corn at the market: Stop that! What exactly are you looking for, anyhow? If you are looking to see whether there are any creepy-crawlies, or whether the kernels are nice-looking, the top inch or two of the ear is not going to be dispositive. Exposing it, however, will dry out and ruin the entire ear. Bad, very bad. "Exposing the kernels to the air simply dries them and accelerates the conversion of sugars to starch that begins when the ear is harvested." In other words, you are prematurely aging the corn. I'm sure my readers would never do such a senseless thing, so let's move on!

Jaffrey notes that this recipe is "surprisingly good over a bowl of steaming polenta (corn over corn, yes, but very good) or stuffed into pita bread. It goes well with dried bean dishes and green vegetables. The corn may also be served cold, as a salad." I have always meant to try it with polenta, but somehow I end up making rice instead. This time I used a new find, a mixture of basmati rice and green and yellow lentils that I got at Dowel, my local Indian grocer. If you want to try making your own blend I think it's about 2/3rds rice and 1/3 lentils. (Any lentil that cooks in 20-30 minutes should work, and it's nice to add a bay leaf or a couple of lightly-crushed cardamom pods to the pot).

rice + lentils

Corn with Ginger

[comments in brackets are from me]

  • 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) peeled and chopped very ripe tomatoes or canned tomatoes with a little of their juice [red or orange tomatoes are visually the nicest with the corn; this time I used a yellow summer squash because I'd eaten all my tomatoes]
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 cups (1 pound) corn kernels taken from 3 to 4 ears of freshly shucked corn (preferably Silver Queen), frozen defrosted corn kernels, or canned drained corn kernels
  • 1 fresh hot green chile, finely chopped (optional) [I used a jalapeño]
  • 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro [I didn't have any this time but I did have scallions that needed to be used]

Put the oil in a medium frying pan or sauté pan and set over medium-high heat. When it is hot put in the cumin seeds and let them sizzle for a few seconds. Stir in the ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Put in the tomatoes and stir for 5 minutes, letting the tomatoes reduce slightly. Add the salt, sugar, corn, and optional green chile. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring now and then, for 5 minutes, or until the corn is just done. Finally, add the cilantro and toss to mix well. Serve hot, at room temperature, or chilled.

building a better list:
the Committee arrives at its first meme fashionably late

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I was really happy to discover that Ann of the lovely A Chicken In Every Granny Cart tagged me to participate in this project started by Melissa of The Traveler's Lunchbox. Basically, the project is an opportunity for food bloggers to rectify the absurdly general and dull list of "50 things to eat before you die" that was compiled by the BBC, which appears to have been earnestly crafted so as not to arouse many longings amongst prisoners and/or persons residing at polar research stations. Number 5, for example, is "Chinese food." Thanks Beeb; I'll be sure to ask for that next time I order from Grand Sichuan. Those wacky Brits also inexplicably left their own awesomest cheeses off the list — no Stilton, no Double Gloucester, no Shropshire Blue, and no Cheddar!

As I write this, the improved list submitted to A Traveler's Lunchbox has swelled to an amazing 735 items. Here's my 5:

  1. Scrambled eggs made the proper French way. They bear little resemblance to quickly-cooked, typical American scrambled eggs; they are so creamy and elegant that I think they should be considered an entirely distinct dish. Here is a Daniel Boulud recipe for them. It includes black truffles, but if you don't roll that way you can leave them out.

  2. Cultured butter. It has character and a depth of flavor that supermarket butter will never even come close to, and it deserves to be as widely appreciated and in-demand as artisanal olive oil. I am not going to be churning my own anytime soon but Bobolink Dairy has an intesting explanation of how to do so here. They also have adorable cows and some of the best cheeses I've ever tasted.

  3. A hamburger from Harry's Drive-In. Obviously not everyone will get to Colchester, Connecticut in their lifetime, so let's just say a burger like the ones made at Harry's: excellent fresh ground beef, sizzled to a crisp on the outside and just cooked on the inside on a very very hot, preposterously bustling griddle (the photo on the Roadfood site does not do justice to the massive, fragrant piles of burgers, hot dogs, and sliced onions being flipped and pushed this way and that of my childhood memories), and eaten on a paper plate at a picnic table in an out-of-the-way little town.

    Harry's cheeseburger

    Harry's Drive-In

    Both photos are from the Roadfood write-up for Harry's.

  4. An American Thanksgiving dinner. It's hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for this one in August but I can't leave it off my list. I think that the people who claim to not be fans of roasted turkey are doing something wrong with theirs, and I think the essential accompaniments are individually and jointly wonderful. I've noticed a few international readers in my sitemeter (ciao, namaste, etc.!) so I'll explain the components. There should be: (a) A well-browned roasted turkey that was selected with care, preferably ordered from a local farm. When I was little, the week before Thanksgiving meant a ride to Grayledge Farm, where turkeys could be seen wandering around happily doing whatever turkeys do. (I think the farm is in the lower Connecticut river valley - either they keep a very low profile or I'm not spelling it right, because I can't find much information on them). The turkey should be large enough to provoke oohs and ahs, and to provide leftovers for many turkey sandwiches the following week. (b) At least one type of stuffing or dressing. There's a lot of leeway here but I think it should have sage in it. I haven't tried this recipe but it looks like a good one. (c) Mashed potatoes. They should be made with plenty of butter and preferably some family secret to perfect them (e.g., celery salt - so good!), and should not be too smooth if you have a family member who professes affection for lumps (or "potato rocks") in them. (d) A vegetable side dish, or two or three of them - roasted brussel sprouts, roasted parsnips and turnip puree are very nice. (e) Homemade gravy made from the turkey drippings. I've never made this myself because my mom makes an excellent gravy; maybe now that I have a blog I'll finally ask her to show me how. (f) Cranberry sauce. It is somewhat common for there to be two on the table: a homemade version made by simmering fresh cranberries with sugar and savory seasonings, and an ugly, quivering jellied one from a can to satisfy those who grew up with it and developed Thanksgiving Stockholm syndrome. For dessert there should also be (g) at least two pies. Pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie and pecan pie are favorites. Mincemeat pie deserves a larger following, and an apple pie would of course be entirely appropriate.

  5. Spicy chocolate. I am not much of a chocolate fan (my cravings are far more likely to be for something salty, not sweet) but I really enjoy foods that surprise, and the combination of dark chocolate and a small amount of chile pepper is a gratifying one. There are many intriguing combinations I'd like to try — Vosges Haute Chocolate's Aztec truffle with ancho chili, Woodhouse Chocolate's quatre-épice, Dagoba's Xocolatl bar — so far, though, my favorite is a chocolate and black pepper cake that was published in the New York Times a few years ago. I've made it several times since then it has always been a pleasure. I have always served it with a lavender crème anglaise from The Gardeners' Community Cookbook and I'm going to keep doing that until I tire of the combination around age eleventy or so, but a berry coulis or simply a dusting of powdered sugar would be great too.

    Chocolate Black Pepper Cake

    NY Times, Dec. 29, 1999

    6 tablespoons unsalted butter plus more for pan
    10 ounces best quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
    ¼ cup sugar
    ¼ cup honey
    ½ teaspoon kosher salt
    5 eggs, separated
    ½ cup ground almonds
    ⅓ cup flour
    2 teaspoons coarse-ground black pepper
    ½ teaspoon allspice
    ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
    pinch cayenne pepper
    pinch salt, for whipping egg whites
    powdered sugar, for sprinkling
    unsweetened whipped cream, for garnish

    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan.* In a double boiler, melt butter and chocolate, stirring constantly, just until chocolate is melted. Remove from heat. Stir in sugar, honey and salt, then egg yolks. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the ground almonds, flour, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon and cayenne, just until combined. Do not overmix.

    2. In a large bowl, whisk egg whites with a pinch of salt, until they hold stiff peaks. Using a rubber spatula, fold 3/4 of the egg whites into chocolate mixture. Pour chocolate mixture into remaining egg whites and fold gently, just until there are no clumps of egg white. Pour into prepared pan. Bake until firm and springy, 30 to 35 minutes.

    3. Remove cake from oven; cool completely on a baking rack. Remove sides from pan, sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar and serve slices with whipped cream.

    * Note: I've never used a springform pan; I've always used a domed, oval cake pan with a design on it and have never had a problem with the cake sticking.