Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Long Neglected Easter Celebration

Easter has been a neglected holiday in my family in recent years.  The problem is nobody is around to celebrate anymore.  My uncle and his wife moved to Florida.  My brother's in-laws moved to Florida and he and his family use spring break to visit them.  That doesn't leave too many people left to enjoy the kinds of dinners and I used to prepare or participate in.  For a brief time we used Easter as an excuse for a fancy brunch, but eventually just ended up going out to the diner for dinner.

I decided this year I needed to shake things up.  There are still 7 family members left in New York. Maybe they would like to get together.  Kevin and I have been so busy with our theater activities that we don't have much time for family.  On top of that, my stepmother lost her mother (a wonderful woman whom we all miss terribly) back in February.  Kevin and I also have had no time to celebrate my stepmother's birthday in March.  The family was in need of a gathering and a celebration.

I didn't create any original recipes, but this post will give credit to the recipes and services I did use.

Since nearly half the family in attendance are Jewish, I jokingly called this "Eastover".  Years ago Kevin and I considered doing a Sedar for our Jewish friends and family.  The idea was too impractical though.  There is no way I could do a truly kosher meal.  I have no dishes that haven't had meat and dairy touch them.  That would be easy to get around with paper.  However, my cooking pots have all been vessels for meats (including pork) and dairy.

I understand devout Jews don't like this sort of holiday combination.  The Nicene Council of 325CE decreed that Jews were guilty of the sin of killing Christ and therefore the Passover meal should have no connections to Easter.  Of course more enlightened Christians believe the synoptic Gospels indicate the Last Supper was a Sedar and Passover should be part of Easter as an acknowledgment of Jesus's Jewish faith, so from that point of view, it seems fairly harmless to combine them. No one is my family is that devout.  My combination holiday is all a matter of convenience.  Being with family and sharing a meal is more important that the religious symbolism behind it.

With so few people, most of whom don't have big appetite, I kept the meal small and simple.  I didn't even make the Easter Pie.

I started with matzah ball soup.  I simmered some homemade stock on Friday night and then used my previous matzah ball recipe.  I made one change with this that isn't part of my standard soup.  I used leeks instead of celery and onions.  Leeks are a nod to the spring season and they gave the soup a subtle new flavor profile.

Dinner was traditional.  I bought a delicious ham from Heritage Foods.  You may remember I bought a ham from them for Christmas two years ago.  They kept me on my toes that year with the late delivery.  Despite the somewhat unreliable delivery and the high price tag, the ham is the best I ever ate.  It's worth the cost and the headache now and then.

Side dishes were roasted asparagus dressed with a bit of balsamic vinegar and cheese grits.  If you are a long time follower of TERP, you know the grits are a time-honored holiday tradition in my family even though I'm not sure why.  To save myself some trouble, I had Mom make the grits.  (I believe she uses this classic recipe you can find on the side of the can.)  She also brought Easter bread from one of the local bakeries.  For a moment that almost felt a bit like Passover since Easter bread is a lot of challah. Then I realized challah would be forbidden on Passover.

Dessert was a homemade vanilla cake with raspberry white chocolate buttercream frosting.  Since time was at a premium this weekend, I stuck with simple recipes and didn't try to invent any wacky new desserts.  Normally I like my frostings to not be straight butter (I generally use Swiss or Italian buttercreams fortified with egg whites) but I appreciate the simplicity of plain, American, buttercream when I'm in a rush.


 One of the guests bought a fruit tart.  I purchased some macarons from the farmers' market as well.  I served the former ringed by the latter.

Cocktails were proseco with pomegranate juice - one of my favorites.
It wasn't fancy, but it was a fun family holiday and I think I may do it again next year.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Literary Inspriations: Under a Scarlet Sky

It's a busy season here in the Disordered Kitchen.  Once again SPP and I are back in the theater, working on a spring production of Mame.  Mostly we are doing our best to make what is turning out to be a disastrous rehearsal schedule not kill us.  Weather, cast member absences, and power outages have caused more rehearsals to be canceled than completed. When we do end up rehearsing, it's a mess due to cast absences creating a constant shift of blocking.  The closer we get to performance time, the more the push feels stressful.

Even with my busy schedule, I do my best to find time to read.  I read on the train as I travel to and from work.  I read for a few minutes before I go to bed.  I read in the park at lunch time weather permitting.  Reading is to my soul what eating and breathing are to my body.  I need it.  It is a form of self-care for me.

Despite these stressful times, I am also determined to cook my meals.  It would be easy to rely on takeout when I'm in rehearsal almost every night, but that's both expensive and unhealthful.  Cooking is a part of my physical self care.  

My slow cooker is becoming my best friend.  Lately I have been using my Instant Pot more on slow cooker mode than as a pressure cooker.  I had hoped the pressure cooker would reduce my cooking times on busy nights, but I find it falls short of those expectations.  The time it takes for the pot to come up to pressure and then depressurize adds far too long of a wait to the seemingly shorter amount of time it takes for the food to actually cook.  When I have rehearsal, I put that sucker on slow cook mode. Dinner is ready when I come home.

I wasn't expecting to find a literary inspiration for my slow cooker, but my most recent read gave me some ideas.  I read Under A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan.  It is based on the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian boy during World War II who at 17 was escorting Jews through the Alps to help them escape to Switzerland and then joined the army at 18 and used his connections as a driver to a prominent Nazi general to spy for the resistance. 

I did not expect to find inspiration for slow-cooker-friendly foods in a book about Italy in World War II, but I had a few surprises.  Like many of the books I have read recently, there were few specific dishes mentioned in the story.  At one point Pino stays in a monastery where the brother who does the cooking is an excellent cook.  Specific dishes were rarely mentioned other than a chicken stew and fresh bread.  Pino's love interest often cooks for him, but the dishes she makes seem basic (although extravagant for wartime).

When I read That Month in Tuscany, I used the region to inspire me.  Under a Scarlet Sky takes place in Milan and the surrounding region (the Alps and the lakes).  Food in this area tends to be heavier than the food of Tuscany and also a bit more cosmopolitan.  Milan is a major business and cultural center.  It is closer to the norther borders of Austria and Switzerland and takes on some of those food influences.  Rice and polenta often replace pasta in this region.  Veal "milanese" seems to be an Italian take on Austrian weinerschnitzel.  Stewed dishes like osso bucco (slow-cooked veal shank) are common here.  To the south of Lombary is Emilia-Romagna, home of Bologna and it's famous ragu`.

Slow cooked dishes like pasta bolognese or osso bucco are perfect for the slow cooker, although they aren't always well received at my house. The tough cuts of meat do best with this kind of cooking, but this doesn't make Sir Pickypants too happy.  I give him credit for being far less picky than he used to be. He tries new flavors and recipes more often.  He also doesn't complain about an upset stomach every time there is even a slight suspicion that one of his formerly forbidden foods touched his plate

That doesn't mean he takes much pleasure in eating some of them.  He may eat a hamburger and even a piece of beef tenderloin at a steakhouse, but he freaks out at the sight of bones, fat, and connective tissue.  When I cook one of these cuts, I have to make sure I cook it well enough to dissolve as much of these offending bits as possible and carefully excise anything that might possibly remain after cooking. I do what I can to make it palatable and cook a lot of side dishes.  He eats it.  His only other choices are to cook himself or order takeout.  He doesn't want to do the former and he is too kind to offend me by doing the latter.  He may be picky, but he's a good man.  Even if he doesn't like the food, he's going to eat it to make me happy.   He appreciates the effort even when he complains.

So I love pork and he doesn't.  (He's Jewish, so he has an excuse for that one.)  Unfortunately pork is a great meat for the slow cooker.  I recently tried cooking some thick pastured pork chops in red wine (inspired, but not exactly copied from Thyme for Cooking), carefully removing as much fat as possible before cooking, and slicing the cooked meat off the bones before serving.  I wanted to work with an even more slow-cooker-friendly pork.  The obvious cut for the slow cooker is pork shoulder, but a typical shoulder or butt roast is about 5 pounds.  That's way more meat than I need for just two people.  Leaner cuts can dry out in the slow cooker (loins and tenderloins do well in pressure cook mode though if you have time). I decided to try using hocks.

I cooked hocks once before and they were delicious.  I decided in honor of the cuisine of northern Italy I would cook them in a ragu`and served it over polentaI took my inspiration from two of my previous recipes.  The first was my recipe for lamb shanks.  The second was my pork shoulder  ragu` which I also served over polenta. Once the hocks were cooked, I blended the vegetables into a sauce and removed the fat , and pulled the meat from the bones and chopped it up.  This made a uniform sauce wihtout too many scary parts in the meat and without the chunks of mushy vegetables I hate.  I cooked the hocks for eight hours, but in the future I might let them cook an hour or two more.  I wanted them to be shredded, but they didn't pull apart so easily.  I had to use a knife.  

My camera battery was dead and I didn't have time to take a good photo with the light box and it was too late for natural light.  You get a photo taken on the stove top with the phone. 

Although the meat could have cooked a bit longer, the dish was delicious.  The fennel gave it an unexpected unique flavor.  This would also be good on pasta.

Instant Pot Slow Cooker Pork Hock Ragu`

  • 2 fresh pork hocks
  • 1 Tbl olive oil 
  • 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • 2-4 carrots, finely diced (Quantity depends on size of carrots.  Mine were small.)
  • 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup strong red wine
  • 2 bay leaves
Put your Instant pot in saute mode and brown the hocks on all sides for several minutes.  Add the oil to the pot and soften the onions. Add the fennel seeds and stir into the onions until fragrant.  Add the fennel and carrots and cook until fennel is soft.

Mix together the wine and tomatoes.  Place the hocks on top of the vegetables and cover with the tomato-wine mixture.  Add the bay leaves.  Put lid on the pot and cook on slow cook mode for 8-10 hours.

At the end of the cooking, pull the hocks from the pot and set aside.  Remove the bay leaves and discard.   Optional Step: Blend the sauce to a smooth consistency with a stick blender or blend it in batches in a food processor.  Chop or shred the meat and return it to the sauce.

Serve with pasta or polenta.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

In Squash We Trust

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm not a fan of squash.  I don't hate it the way I hate peas or olives.  It's not inedible, but it's not something I enjoy.  I have written extensively about how much I hate pumpkin.  I'm also not a fan of the well-loved butternut squash.  The same goes for acorn or pattypan or most hard-shell squashes.  Their taste is nothing special and I can't stand the texture.

Are any squashes edible to me?  I can name two.  The first is zucchini.  The taste is mild and the texture is more vegetal than mealy. I have also found that I like spaghetti squash.  Both varieties have mild enough flavors that can be covered with the right sauces.

Squash with sauce was quite important in the past six weeks because I was participating in the Whole Life Challenge.  You can read more about it in the link for the specific rules, but there is one thing I had to do for six weeks.  I had to cut out pasta and noodles of all kinds.  If I wanted pasta that badly I either had to lose points, or find a substitute.  The most common replacement for pasta on a grain-free diets are the two most tolerable members of the squash family. I hoped I could use them to make me miss pasta less.

For much of the challenge I didn't crave pasta, but last week I had a craving for sesame or peanut noodles.  I was thinking of pad thai or the sesame noodles you get at Chinese restaurants as an appetizer (that are usually mostly peanut butter).  I decided to try making something similar out of spaghetti squash.

My dilemma was whether or not I wanted the noodles to be peanut or sesame.  Peanut butter can be heavy and gloppy and sesame paste can be bitter.  I decided to use a mix of both sesame oil and natural peanut butter.  I balanced that with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and lime juice.  In the end it was probably a tad too acidic, but not bad.  I would probably go with only one type of acid the next time.

I learned a trick online.  If you put a spaghetti squash in the microwave for a few minutes, you can cut it in half more easily for roasting.

Spaghetti Squash in Sesame Peanut Sauce

  • 1 spaghetti squash
  • 2 Tbl sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup natural peanut butter
  • 2 Tbl soy sauce*
  • 2 Tbl rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 Tbl coconut sugar**
  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • Sesame seeds for garnish
  • Scallions for garnish
Gently score score a slit around the squash with a sharp knife along the lines where you want to cut it.  Prick it all over with a fork.  Place it in the microwave and cook on high for 6 minutes.  Remove and let cool for a minute or two.  Carefully cut it in half, lightly coat it with oil. and place on a cookie sheet.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Scoop out the pulp of the squash.  Cook for 45 minutes.  Cool until it's cool enough to handle and use a fork to scoop out the strands.  Set aside.

Mix together the peanut butter, sesame oil, vinegar, lime juice, salt, sugar, and ginger.  Toss with the squash.  Garnish with scallions and sesame seeds.

*  You can also use fish sauce.  I find the fishiness in fish sauce is too pronounced in cold dishes, so I don't use it.
**You can also use brown sugar or palm sugar


Another popular substitute for pasta is "zoodles" or noodles cut from zucchini.  This has become so popular, you can now buy special tools just to turn your vegetables into spaghetti.  I admitted I cheated and bought pre-spiralized zoodles in the produce section for my next recipe.  I don't think I will use a spriralizer enough to justify purchasing one.

One of my favorite pasta sauce in the world is pesto.  As I have said many times before, it just tastes like summer to me.  The Whole Life Challenge doesn't just forbid pasta and flour-based products.  It also forbids dairy.  That means my pesto can't contain parmesan.  I decided to take on the challenge of pesto pasta that was compliant with the challenge and still tasted somewhat authentic.

Vegans and paleo dairy avoiders often use cashews as a substitute for cream or cheese.  I decided to let them stand it for the cheese and the pine nuts in my  sauce.  Vegans use yeast to get a more cheese-like flavor, but I just used vinegar for the acidity.

This didn't taste like a summer pesto, but it made a flavorful side dish.

Zoodles in Dairy Free Pesto

  • 2 cups spiralized zucchini "noodles"
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup basil leaves
At least an hour in advance, soak the cashews in water.

When you are ready to make the sauce, drain the nuts and reserve 1/4 cup of the water

Place the water, cashews, basil, garlic, salt, and vinegar in a food processor.  Blend until you have a creamy green mixture.

Cook the zoodles in boiling water for two minutes.  Drain and serve with the sauce.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Literary Inspirations: The Address

For this post I made my most ambitious recipe yet.

A common literary trope today is the story of two or more women (and occasionally men) from different time periods who are somehow linked together through a particular location.  Usually the character from the present finds some kind of artifact from the past and decides to look for clues as to what it's all about.  The story then shifts to the past where the reader learns the story of what happened.  Usually the character from the present needs to deal with the mess of her current life and finding out these clues gives her focus and purpose.

The Address by Fiona Davis fits this formula nicely. The story takes place in one of New York's most famous residences, The Dakota.  The story shifts between a young English girl who leaves her job as a hotel maid to help manage the newly-built Dakota building, and an interior designer in the 1980s who is a recovering alcoholic trying to salvage her life and career by taking a commission to redecorate a friend's Dakota apartment.

I was hoping the book might provide some descriptions of fine dining in NYC in the 1880s (or even the 1980s), but like every other book I have read in 2018, it failed to bring me any direct inspiration.  I imagined chapters that would feature dinner parties at the Dakota or meals eaten at Delmonico's.  To my dismay, this book decided not to put any focus on what the characters were eating.  I have learned some authors don't think food is important.  What is wrong with them?

I decided to do some research once again and see what was commonly on fine dining menus from 1884-1886 (the years the historical parts of the book took place).  I found the New York Public Library has an archive of menus from clubs, restaurants, and private parties from almost every era.  I looked for common elements throughout the different menus offered.

The food on the menus was rarely anything interesting or unique.  The most most frequent dishes were roast meats and fish along with vegetable accompaniments, all made to sound fancier by writing them in French.  I had to run some of the options through a translator.  I often found once I was beyond the French name, I was looking at an ordinary dish.  I'm sure many of these fine cuts of meat were considered fancy enough as they were.  The average American most likely couldn't afford the kinds of cuts of meat offered in high-end restaurants. There were also more adventurous cuts that tend to be overlooked by Americans today such as rabbit, offal, and  terrapin.  At first I thought I would not have to work very hard to create the kind of meal the characters in The Address might have eaten at a dinner party.  I could cook a leg of lamb and a side of peas and call it a day.*

After reading way too many menus, I began to notice that timbale was a popular method for presenting food.  I saw meat themed timbales (or should I say timbali?) and vegetable timbales, but the one that caught my eye was one called Timbale Ris Milanese.  Ris Milanese?  Would that be like risotto milanese, the arborio rice dish flavored with saffron?   What if I made a molded risotto and filled it with a delicious meat filling?  How about a duck ragu`?  Duck, including duck timbale, was featured regularly on the retro menus.

My usual brain mushing ensued as I came up with how I would do this.  I made a basic risotto, but without the onions (for the sake of texture).  I flavored it with wine and saffron.  I mixed it with eggs and parmesan, molded it into a springform pan, and filled it with a duck ragu´

I made the ragu´ with store-bought duck leg confit (even though I had to bite the bullet and pay $12 per leg).  I started with slow-cooked some onions.  I layered that with mushrooms and garlic.   I add some Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste for a deeper, richer, and more intense flavor.  Finally I added brandy to give it a kick.  I simmered it all together and nestled it in with the rice.

I didn't want to waste the skin, so took the skin off and made cracklings in the microwave to sprinkle over the finished product and the greens beneath it.

I had a little bit of an issue getting the top and bottom out in one piece when I sliced it, but it didn't look too bad.

How did it taste?  The duck ragu` was delicious (although the brandy taste was a bit strong).   I want to use the recipe again.  Maybe the next time I make duck ragu` pasta, I will use this recipe instead of my previous one.  I think the rice coating made a nice presentation, but made the dish unnecessarily starchy and heavy.  It tasted fine, but it was a bit too filling.  I think Kevin might disagree.  He loves his starches and he loves risotto, and I think he probably would have eaten a cake made entirely of risotto.  (Maybe I should make the dish again as is and eat the duck myself and have him eat the rice?)

Risotto Timbale with Duck Confit Ragu`

  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 2 Tbl butter
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • 1 Tbl tomato paste
  • 2 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 duck confit legs,** skin removed and meat shredded
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Heat a large frying pan or saute` pan over medium heat and add the oil when hot.  Add the onions to the pan.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes.  Watch them carefully.

Place the duck skin on a paper-towel-lined plate.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Try not to eat it all.

In a small saucepan, heat chicken stock. If it is low-sodium, add a pinch or three of salt to taste. Crush the saffron into the stock and keep it all warm on the stove, just at a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven.  Add the rice to the pot and stir to coat.  Cook 2-3 minutes or until you start to smell the rice toasting.  Add the white wine and stir until it is absorbed into the rice.

Keep watching and stirring those onions in other pan.  Turn down the heat if they brown too quickly.

Add a ladleful of hot stock to the rice.  Stir until absorbed.  Taste and adjust salt as needed. Continue to add stock and stir until absorbed until you have used all the stock.

Are you keeping an eye on those onions?

Once the risotto is done, spread it out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Increase the heat to medium and add the sliced mushrooms to the pan with the onions.  Cook until softened.  Add a little more olive oil and the garlic letting it cook until fragrant.  Stir in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce and make sure the onions and mushrooms are evenly coated.

Stir in the duck pieces until well combined with the onion-mushroom mixture.  Add the brandy and let it evaporate a bit.

The risotto should have cooled by now, so place it in a bowl and stir in the eggs and parmesan.

Pour the risotto into a buttered springform pan.  The rice should cover the bottom of the pan and go about halfway up the sides.  Place the duck in the middle of the pan.  Top with more rice so it is completely covered.

Bake for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool 10 minutes and unmold carefully.  Give it another 5 minutes before you cut it.

Serve over a bed of lightly dressed mixed greens and sprinkled with crumbled duck crackling (assuming you haven't eaten it all).

*And I would have eaten all the lamb and my husband would have eaten the peas and neither of us would have been satisfied.

**I might have liked a fourth leg, but duck confit is so expensive, I decided I could do with three to stay in budget.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Literary Inspirations: Before We Were Yours (Instant Pot Recipe)

When I decided to take on the project of creating a recipe inspired by every book I read, I didn't realize just how difficult it would be.  It seems I have two problems.

I read too much.

I don't read the right kinds of books.

I am not the first book-and-cook blogger out there.  A quick internet search showed me bloggers who devote their entire blogs to edible literature.  They seem to do a much better job of finding books with a strong food focus.  It seems logical to me that writers would be foodies.  Readers are foodies aren't they?  (Where did I get these stereotypes from?) I make this strange assumption every book I read will somehow be about food. This hasn't happened lately and I come up empty.  Then I struggle to find that food connection in all everything I read.

It's also a difficult project because I devour books with the same passion I devour my meals. I finished three books just last week.  That meant I had to create three blog posts (including this one).

In that spirit, I don't think I will be creating a recipe inspired by every book I read.  I read too much to ever be able to put all the books up on this blog (and since I deleted Facebook, I read even more).  Since not every book automatically inspires a recipe, I shouldn't have to work so hard to push out posts for all of them.  I will be making posts with my current reads, but in the future, I won't be posting a recipe for every book.  I will only post recipes from books that truly inspire me.  Don't worry.  That doesn't mean the project is abandoned.  I simply won't have quite as many.  I will also make non-book food posts.

Now let's get down to business and talk about my recent book.

Before We Were Yours is the story of a family of shantyboat people in Depression-era Tennessee who live happily on the river until the mother has a complicated delivery of breech twins.  The midwife refuses to get involved and the mother is rushed to the hospital.  Unbeknownst to the children, the parents sign away the rights to their remaining five children in exchange for payment of their hospital bill.  Police raid the boat, round up the children, and bring them a miserable orphanage where children are starved, beaten, and sexually abused.  We learn they are part of a covert baby selling ring.

Although the book is fiction, it is based on real-life events.  For three decades Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society.  She used many unethical practices to take children from poor families.  She bribed nurses to tell poor parents their babies were stillborn.  She had police officers take kids off the street and tell them their parents had died or that they no longer wanted them.  She enlisted the help of a family court judge who would deem parents unfit to keep their children.  The children were sold to rich families for outrageous adoption fees.  Tann covered her tracks by changing the names of the children once they were taken so they could not be traced back to their parents.  She made up histories of these children to make them sound more appealing to their adoptive parents.  The children starved in her orphanages while she made millions for herself.  (How many other book lovers out there are now making comparisons to Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre?)  Officials were bribed to stay silent and even aided her efforts.  Tann died of cancer before she could ever be brought to justice.  It is a sad piece of American history that few of us know much about.

The story, like so many other novels these days, alternates between two points of view.  Part of the book is narrated by eldest daughter, Rill Foss.  The alternating chapters focus on a modern-day senator's daughter who is trying to establish a connection between herself and a confused elderly woman she meets in a nursing home.  The search for answers and the need for secrecy illustrates the aftermath of the horrible practices of the TCHS.  Families have a strong desire to find each other after being torn apart, but they also feel a sense of shame and want to hide their pasts. 

The book provides a happy ending, but no inspiration for recipes.  The shantyboat chapters of the book talk about foraging and fishing in the river, but don't provide too many specifics (and I'm not going to be cooking fish anyway).  Once the kids were pulled from the river, they ate nothing but cornmeal mush at the orphanage.  I considered making cornmeal mush, but that didn't sound too appealing.

The shantyboat moves through the rivers of Tennessee and the Children's Home Society is based in Memphis.  In the modern day chapters, our history-hungry senator's daughter lives in South Carolina.  What are some of the specialties of these areas?

Well, when I think of Tennessee, I do think of this.

When I think of Memphis, and the south in general, I think of barbecue.  I also think of grits and biscuits.

I decided to do a mock barbecue (since I don't have the necessary smoker).  I would make a pulled chicken sandwich cooked in a Jack Daniels sauce and serve it on biscuits.

The Instant Pot makes a great shortcut for pulled chicken.  Just make the sauce, throw some chicken breasts and some sauce in the pot, and 15 minutes later you have tender chicken breasts that shred easily.

I refined my biscuit recipe a bit lately.  I think it's pretty good.  These biscuits tasted the most like what I feel biscuits should take like (in other words, kind of like canned biscuits).  They are also good with fried chicken sandwiches.

The coleslaw on the side was a bit sweet and sour with cider vinegar, honey, a bit of mustard, and some finely diced onion.

How did it all taste?  I liked the chicken despite my using a bit too much hot sauce.  I had to make the sauce a bit on the thin side so it would create steam in the pot.  I would have liked it a bit thicker.  I tried reducing a bit while the chicken rested, but it never quite got to where I wanted it.  That's the trade-off when working with a pressure cooker I suppose.

My literary inspirations are all over the place lately.  We went from the Italian countryside to the American south.  My next recipe will go in yet another direction.

Jack Daniel's Pulled Chicken in the Instant Pot

  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 Tbl oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 cup Jack Daniels
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1Tbl Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbl dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 Tbl hot pepper sauce*
  • 2 tsp salt
Mix together the whiskey, tomato paste, sugar, vinegar, mustard, and spices.  Heat the olive oil in the Instant Pot on saute´ mode.  Add the onion and cook until transparent.  Add the sauce ingredients and add them to the pot with the chicken.

Close the pot and set the valve to sealing.  Set it on manual to cook for 15 minutes.  Allow pressure to go down naturally for 5 minutes and then quick release the rest. 

Remove chicken from the pot and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  Keep the sauce in the pot warm so that the liquids reduce a bit more.  Shred the chicken with two forks and mix with the sauce in the pot.  Serve over biscuits.

*I used sriracha because that was the only hot sauce I had.  I also thought the heat was a bit too aggressive.  If you have Frank's, use that and perhaps scale back the amounts a bit.

Buttermilk Biscuits

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 Tbl baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
6 Tbl cold butter, cut into pieces
1 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 450 degrees.  Mix the dry ingredients together and place in a food processor with the butter.  Pulse until the butter is integrated into large crumbs.  Place the dough in a bowl and gently stir in the buttermilk.

Turn out onto a floured surface and gently pat to 1/2" thick.  Fold dough over 5 times and then pat to 1" thick.  Cut to your desired size.

Place on cookie sheet and bake 10-12 minutes or until browned.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Literary Inspirations: That Month In Tuscany

I'm a sucker for anything Italian.  If I could only travel to one foreign country for the rest of my life, I would choose Italy.  I have been to Italy three times in my life and each time it revealed a new face to me.  It never fails to surprise me with what beauty it will present.  Italy has beautiful cities filled with dazzling architecture, charming countrysides, and stunning coastlines.  In the past I explored the Roman ruins and Florentine art.  I galloped a horse through the vineyards, olive groves, and cypress lanes of Chianti.  I hope to return sometime so I can  explore the south and experience more of that gorgeous Mediterranean coast I was only able to witness briefly.

My most cherished Italian memory, and perhaps my most cherished travel memory, was my 2011 trip to a Tuscan agriturismo.  What could be more magical than a restored nineteenth century farmhouse, horses, gorgeous countryside, homemade food, and plenty of local wine?

With this in mind, all I needed was to see the title to make me download That Month in Tuscany onto my iPad.  Anything that would remind me of Italy, and remind me of that special region of my favorite foreign country, was enough to make me want to read it.

The book is hardly grand literature.  It's a Mary Sue fantasy (in the sense that it seems to be a manifestation of the author's wish fulfillment).  Our heroine Lizzie is a frustrated housewife who books an anniversary trip with her disinterested husband in hopes of saving her marriage.  Her husband decides at the last minute he can't go (or doesn't want to go) and asks her to cancel.  Instead she surprises everyone and goes by herself.  She meets a rock star who is trying to hide out from the world to recover from burnout and battle personal demons.  The two of them have an adventure evading her angry husband.  Unfortunately, tragedy strikes at home and she has to make some tough decisions about her life. If the book were a romcom, I would likely have never watched it unless I was home sick and curled up on the couch with a cup of Baileys-spiked hot chocolate and a box of tissues.  Reading the book wasn't much of an intellectual exercise.

I can't believe anyone would write a book about Tuscany and not spend any time at all discussing the food.  Occasionally the narrator would mention a delicious pasta dish or a salad, but the reader never learns what is in that pasta or that salad.  It was frustrating for me because I had hoped a book about Tuscany would have to contain references to food. (I guess I should have tried Eat Pray Love).

That left me with trying to decide for myself what would be an appropriate Tuscan meal. I wanted a dish that would reflect the simple, homemade nature of Tuscan cooking and be seasonally appropriate.

I took my inspiration from this book.  My mother bought it for me after hearing me talk so longingly about the food we ate on the farm.

It's all about local and seasonal cooking from the Tuscan countryside.  It is about as appropriate for this post as a book can be.

Some of the ingredients are hard to source (what's local for Italians isn't always local for those of us in the US) and some contained ingredients from another season (and that seems like the antithesis of Italian cooking).  I needed something with accessible ingredients that was easy to make on a weeknight.

The book contains a recipe for Gnudi.  These are ricotta dumplings.  They are called gnudi (literally naked) because they are like ravioli without the outer wrapping.  I swear I made them on this blog before, but I couldn't find the post.  I used that as an excuse to make them again.  The recipe from the book is a spinach gnudi recipe.  Spinach is not exactly in season this time of year, but I rationalized it that I can still get hothouse spinach at the farmers' market, so it's not technically not in season.  I used frozen spinach anyway to save time.

I made a basic tomato sauce to go with them.  The one element of my sauce that is a little time consuming is that I put whole tomatoes in a food mill.  I read recently that whole canned tomatoes have the best flavor and it's best to crush or mill them yourself for maximum deliciousness in pasta sauce.  The difference is subtle though.  If you don't want to bother crushing your tomatoes yourself, use crushed.  Just please don't ever use sauce from a jar.

Because this is a copyrighted recipe, I will not provide the actual gnudi recipe on the blog.  Email me if you would like to know it.  It's a simple mix of flour, spinach, ricotta, egg yolks, and parmigiano-reggiano.

I will provide this simple tomato sauce recipe.  I know I put a lot of tomato sauce recipes on the blog, so you probably saw a version of this before, but I won't make you search for a past recipe.  This is my simplest version.  It's a really good basic sauce that takes little time to make (so no excuse to use a jarred sauce).  One of the issues I have with jarred sauce is that it contains too many ingredients.  True Italian tomato sauce isn't filled with a dozen spices and onions and garlic.  It is meant to make the tomatoes the star and simply enhance them with a few complementary flavors. 

Basic Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28 oz canned whole plum tomatoes put through a food mill
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1-2 cloves minced garlic
  • 3-4 fresh basil leaves cut in chiffonade
  • Salt to taste
Heat the oil in medium-low pan.  Sprinkle in the pepper flakes.  Stir in the garlic and watch it carefully so it doesn't burn.  Gently cook until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes and cook for about 30 minutes, allowing the sauce to thicken and the flavors to meld.  After 25 minutes, stir in the basil.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Literary Inspirations: The Rules of Civility (Instant Pot Recipe)

I think I read the work of Amor Towles in the wrong order.  The first novel of his I read was A Gentleman in Moscow earlier last year.  That would have provided me ample ideas for a blog post.  The book takes place in a high-end hotel and its protagonist is always dining in one of the hotel's fine restaurants.  At one point in the story his companion is a little girl who eats mounds of different flavored ice creams.

Unfortunately for this blog, I read the book before the Literary Project.  It would not count as current inspiration.   I set my sights on a new book.   I enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow, so I would try Towles's earlier work, The Rules of Civility.

The Rules of Civility is about a young American woman with Russian immigrant parents (Towles had to get that Russian reference in there somewhere).  She is a working class girl in New York City in 1939, but her life is not unlike a young single woman in New York today.  She likes to drink and barhop as much as an Sex in the City character (or Girls character, or a character from whatever single-in-the-city TV show is popular right now).  On her travels across the seedier side of the city, she meets a wealthy young man and befriends him and he introduces her to the upper echelons of wealthy New York society.  (There is way more to the story than that, but we won't get into it here.)

I had hoped a story of a woman making her way through wealthy New York society and dining at parties in elegant homes and eating at fine restaurants would contain a wealth of food inspiration.  Sadly, this was not the case.  Our heroine Katie seems to care more about drink than about food (she loves her gin) and she eats a lot of seafood when she does mention her meals.  There was little in the book that made me want to head to the kitchen and recreate the experience.

I finally found my inspiration when I reached the end of the book.  There was one scene where Katie attends a dinner party at a posh New York apartment and one of the courses served was a black bean soup with sherry that the guests seemed to find remarkable.  At the time I didn't think much of it.  What's so special about black bean soup?  At the end of the book, Katie is reminiscing about that dinner and mentions the black bean soup again.  Obviously there can be something special about black bean soup.  I realized the only way I would know what would make a black bean soup so memorable would be to make one myself.

There are so many black bean soup recipes out there that have a Mexican or other Latin American flair.  They are seasoned with tomato and hot peppers and cilantro.  The characters in The Rules of Civility would never eat a Mexican soup.  Such a soup would never even be on their radars.  My soup would need to reflect the food sensibilities from another era.  Besides, I don't see sherry combining well with hot peppers.  My soup needed garlic and fresh herbs.  If I was going to simmer any meat in it, I would avoid hot sausage like chorizo.  I needed something traditional like a good old-fashioned ham hock.

I made my soup in an Instant Pot.  If you want to make it in a slow cooker, cook the beans on high for 8-10 hours.  If you want to use the stovetop, just soak them overnight and bring them to a boil and simmer two hours.

What did my literary recipe look like?

It wasn't much to look at, but it was tasty enough.  The ham hocks gave it a smoky richness and the sherry and vinegar gave it a savory tang.  It was a bit too salty though.  As hard as I tried to make a memorable black bean soup, I'm not sure if dinner guests would remember this a year from now if I served it tonight.

Civilized Black Bean Soup

  • 1 bag of black beans, sorted and rinsed
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 6 cups of chicken broth
  • 4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 1 Tbl red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
Set your Instant Pot in saute mode and heat the olive oil.  Soften the onions and then add the pepper and cook until soft.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two until fragrant.

Add the beans, broth, herbs, and ham hock to the pot.  Put on the lid and seal it.  Cook your beans on manual for 25 minutes.  After they have cooked, let the pressure release naturally (about 20 minutes).  Carefully remove the lid and add remove the bay leaves, thyme springs and ham hock.  Remove the meat from the ham bone, discard the bone, and return the meat to the pot.  Stir in sherry and vinegar and season with salt as needed.

Optional Step (if you prefer a smoother consistency):  After you remove the bone and herbs from the pot, remove one cup of the beans.   Blend the remaining soup with an immersion blender until smooth.  Add the whole beans back to the pot along with the meat.