Archive for November, 2009

Berry Good

We ate cranberries today. Everyone in America ate cranberries today. Anyway, mostly everyone ate them. There may be one or two out there who won’t even take a bite but Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without some kind of cranberry concoction gracing the harvest table.

I wonder about cranberries. I’d like to meet the first person who looked at a squatty bush and decided that the berry it held might be something good to eat. What did they think when they took that first bite?

“Oh yikes, this is too sour! Maybe we should mix lots of them with handfuls of sugar and boil the whole mess until the berries burst. Then they’ll certainly be good to eat.” 

And what about that sugar? Did they have sugar hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago? I don’t think they did, not in the wilds of what we know as New England…..or anyway, not the refined sugar we enjoy today. What did they have to make that sour berry sweet? Did that person then look at the tall tree with the yellow leaves and think, “Aha! I bet that tree has something for my cranberries. I’ll just drill a hole in the bark, hang a pail and let the juice from the pulp drip out.”

Hmm, I wonder…..Nope. That’s not the answer. Someone did grab one of those little guys and take a tentative first bite. Who it was and when, we just don’t know. But we do know it is a food uniquely American and the first taste had to happen here.

Cranberries are native to the Americas, specifically the Northeast, were eaten by Native Americans and those indigenous people did introduce the berry to the newly arrived Europeans. But the cranberry relish we eat today is not how the Pilgrims used this food. Instead, the early settlers took their new cranberry friend (which they called craneberry) and mixed them into stews—most likely venison, game and squash—-and fire-roasted breads, much like their helpful Wampanoag neighbors.

It would take another two hundred years, when the cranberry went into commercial production and refined sugar was easy to get, for the cranberry to turn into the jellied, canned, orange flavored bowl of wiggly sweet goodness we all ate today.

Now, I have to add, the Pilgrims did not have Thanksgiving. They did eat with Squanto and some of his tribesman after their first harvest because the Native Americans came bearing game. They dined together several times over a period of days. But it was certainly no celebration. The stuffy Puritans weren’t into holidays or anything festive and had even quit doing anything special for Christmas or Easter other than going to church.

The earliest attested Thanksgiving in America was instead at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. The first officially proclaimed Thanksgiving was celebrated by English settlers at Berkley Plantation, Virginia in 1619 (a full two years before the Plymouth settlers, who eventually disappeared). The Charter of Berkeley Plantation specified the Thanksgiving service: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Ordained, certified and official, the earliest tables most like had sweet potatoes, probably a roasted wild turkey, definitely lots of beer. There were definitely no cranberries. It was too far south.

Mother’s Cranberry Relish

1  12 ounce bag of fresh cranberries

¾ cup of sugar

¾ cup of water

1 cinnamon stick

1 small orange cut into bite size pieces, skin left on, stem removed

½ cup roughly chopped walnuts or pecans

 Method

  • Put cranberries, sugar, water and cinnamon stick into a deep pot
  • Stir to combine
  • Set over medium high heat and bring to a gentle boil
  • Lower heat and boil gently (uncovered) until the berries burst
  • Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts and orange
  • Cool to room temperature, then remove cinnamon stick.
  • Cover and refrigerate overnight or until set

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Fowl

The chicken sat there on the platter shedding its skin like some evil snake, daring me to put it on the table. After all, I had made a great deal about its preparation: buying buttermilk, doing a 24-hour soak, mixing up a special coating. What was I gonna do now? Say it was a disaster or suck it up and serve?

I sucked it up. I served. I watched everyone as they ate. Compliments abounded. I was not at all pleased. Besides the molting crust, the bird on my plate was dry, not juicy and full of flavor. If I were a Top Chef contestant Padma would be telling me to pack my knives and go home. Instead, I chewed….not sitting up proud basking in success but slumped in my chair wondering what I had done to displease the elusive Fried Chicken God.

It all started innocently enough while The Visit was being planned. The expected phone call had come. The expected question was asked, “What was I planning to cook while I was there?” I gave the usual answer, “What do you want me to make?”

It’s a tradition we have, Best Friend’s Husband and I. He likes to eat. I like to cook. We know that about each other. He throws out menus. I get excited. I happily pack my knives. For aside from the fact that I enjoy time with Best Friend, I also relish Husband’s culinary challenge. “What will he want me to prepare this time? Can I pull it off?” I was smug. Of course!

Best Friend? Well, she usually just looks on; she frequently seems amused. She wisely leaves us alone.

Southern Fried Chicken was the first night’s order (with a double crusty crust). I skewed up my courage and cooked.   The Gods weren’t with me. You know the sad results. My smug had melted away.

So what is the key to yummy fried fowl?  

“The Key to Fried Chicken”, I am being told, “is in the oil, the pan that you use and a bird that is DRY before it goes in to fry.”  “Aha”, I answer, still feeling confused. “I did use hot oil, I floured my fowl and the pan was brand new non stick.”

“You don’t understand.” My friend explains with great patience. “Do flour your fowl, but then let it rest. Fifteen minutes should do it. But not too much more. The fat should start solid, use the stuff from a can. Let it melt slowly, then raise the heat. And please, fry with a pan that’s heavy. The best is cast iron….well seasoned, well used.” 

Did someone once sing about dawn’s early light and wow, was I ever there. I learned…again, Basic Cooking 101. Read directions, follow directions, do not think you know it all. Learn from errors. Move On.

Very Good Fried Green Tomatoes

(use a cast iron skillet, start with the fat that comes in a can, melt it slowly to a depth of 1”, bring heat up to 350° before frying)

  • 4 large green tomatoes, cored and sliced ½ inch thick
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup of butter milk seasoned with hot sauce (to taste), S&P
  • 1 TBS garlic powder
  • ½ Tsp dried thyme
  • Dash of cayenne
  • S&P to taste

 Method:

  • Combine cornmeal, flour, garlic powder, thyme, cayenne, S&P in a shallow dish. Using a fork, mix well
  • Pour buttermilk/hot sauce, S&P mix into another shallow dish
  • Dip tomato slices in buttermilk mix, then into cornmeal-flour mix
  • Make sure slices are well coated
  • Fry until golden, about 3-4 minutes per side
  • Do not crowd the pan
  • Drain on paper towels
  • Serve with more hot sauce on the side

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