Archive for December, 2009

The Daddy Snack

 Paper towel sandwiches. There’s something I hadn’t thought about for a whole lot of years. The subject came up Thanksgiving evening as we all lolled after dinner, feeling the tired as the tryptophan kicked in. We were musing about past Thanksgivings and ways to use the leftover food when a memory of Daddy popped out of my mouth. “Paper Towel sandwiches,” I giggled, “That’s what Daddy used to do.” 

I felt five pairs of eyes swing in my direction, all staring with a single look of confusion; perhaps also thinking I might cut back on the wine.

“What are you talking about? That sounds just awful.” I suppose the image of paper towels as a filling for a sandwich or a substitute for bread was rolling in their heads; not the exact idea I had intended to convey. I’d regressed for a moment, forgetting where I was. My family would have known the minute I spoke that phrase, my post Daddy friends would need an explanation.

Daddy was as famous for his sandwiches as the way he chose to eat them and the way they were prepared. His process was distinctive, unwavering and, as I close my eyes to remember, sheer pleasure to recall.

Well after dinner was over, dishes cleared and counter wiped, Daddy would wander into the kitchen. If the lights were dimmed, he wouldn’t raise them. You’d hear the rip of one sheet of paper towel leave the roll. Then the distinctive sound of the refrigerator opening and closing. After that, nothing for several minutes as he worked his magic, he was a quiet man, My Daddy. But then you’d look up and there he’d be…..holding it…that concoction of leftovers stuffed between 2 slices of bread (or a roll if there were any).

The concoction he put together using his fingers (a utensil only if mayo or mustard were required) was easily 3 inches thick and always had one bite missing by the time he reappeared; the bite taken the minute his preparation was complete; a giant bite worthy of a large man who always dug heartily into his food. And wrapped around all of this sandwich magnificence was always a single square of paper towel with its ends and sides carefully cupped up ward: the better to catch any stray crumb or morsel of food that might have the temerity to dare to escape.  The Paper Towel sandwich was in the room and Daddy always finished it with a sigh.

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Remembering Nana

Nana’s kitchen was a long skinny room with the doorway at one narrow end and a window at the other. Down one long wall, going from door end to window, was a metal pantry cabinet with tall narrow doors, a fridge no taller than she was (all 5’ and nothing), a small enamel table and a gas stove with four burners. Across, on the other long wall, going from window back to door, was a porcelain sink with built in drain board, a length of counter and another metal pantry; the same size and look as the other. White metal cabinets topped the sink and the counters all as tall as the 10-foot ceiling.

To walk into my Nana’s house meant encountering her kitchen and the smells that it held the minute you got through the door. Many coursed feasts were prepared in the narrow bright space feeding upwards of 12 or 15. As a young child and then all through my life, I have never stopped marveling at the wonderful food Nana turned out of that cramped and tiny place.

Cooking was effortless for her and every square inch of kitchen was used. There wasn’t a Cuisinart, a blender, or an island for prep. She didn’t own or ever know about non stick.  There certainly wasn’t a dishwasher (if you didn’t count me, my cousin or my sister). The internet, for tips, guidance or how to, was not yet developed.  Recipes were kept in her head and measuring was by eye and by tea cup.

With limited storage and a tiny fridge, shopping was done daily and she walked to the store. Along the streets of Brooklyn there was little parking for cars and an SUV was unheard of. Ladies owned gridded metal shopping carts, narrow and deep with wheels on the bottom and plastic liners in case of rain. Stopping at grocery, bakery, fish store then butcher, Nana collected all that she needed. If the load was too much the store could deliver. No charge for the service, no concern it would show up. No plastic bags then, produce was loose in a bin, fish and meat were sent home wrapped in brown paper.

Back in the kitchen the magic began. Quenelles of fish were prepared, the fish minced and chopped by hand (in a huge wooden bowl) to a silky even fineness no processor could accomplish. Spices were whole and pulverized with a mortar and a pestle. Chicken was roasted to juicy fall-off-the-bone perfection and there wasn’t an instant read in sight; doneness checked by touch and by smell. Her soups, nectar of the Gods, I swear! They’d simmer for hours in a tall enamel pot and when served, not a drop of grease in sight; the skimming accomplished with patience, an old thin towel and a strainer.

Cakes were made from scratch, whites whisked by hand and pans were greased with the paper that wrapped the butter. No sprays from an aerosol can. No mixes from a box. Nuts were chopped in a small glass jar with a four sided blade that went up and down with hand power. And bread…all kneaded with patient muscle on the low enamel table. No bread machine, no dough hook, no pre-measured yeast. Yeast was a cake and you just knew how much.

Things have changed a great deal since Nana cooked and drank tea in her skinny white kitchen. I wonder sometimes if she would approve. I know she enjoyed how the world was changing; she cheered when man reached the moon. But would she appreciate how much we depend on our machines and our gadgets instead of on skill, love and patience. Long simmering pots are not often seen these days. Fast, easy and microwave have taken their place.

I do wonder sometimes, I do wonder a lot. Have we, with our drawers full of gadgets, equipment jammed counters and food plastic wrapped, ready to heat, serve, eat, lost something meaningful along the way?

Nana’s Chicken Soup

  • 1 whole 3-4 pound chicken, washed and patted dry (Kosher or Free Range-Organic)
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in ¼’s
  • 1 stalk celery, leaves on, cut in ½
  • 1 parsnip, peeled and cut in ½
  • 1 leek, light green included, well cleaned, cut in ½
  • 6-8 carrots, peeled and cut in 1½ ” to 2” lengths
  • ½  bunch fresh dill (no stems)
  • ¼  bunch flat leaf parsley (no stems)
  • Seasonings: salt, pepper, garlic powder, dry thyme, paprika, dry dill weed: all to taste

Method:

Fit the chicken in the bottom of a heavy stockpot. The chicken should fit rather snugly on the bottom. There should be no more than 1”-2” of space from the side of the pot to the chicken. Fill the pot with enough cold water to top the chicken by about 4”.

Add the seasonings to the water; season lightly in the beginning. The cold water will deaden taste. You can add more seasonings later if necessary. Loosely cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Turn the light down and keep the heat at a very gentle boil for 1 hour. The water should just be barely bubbling.  

After one hour, re-check and adjust your seasonings. Add all of the vegetables, bring the broth back up to a boil and continue gently boiling for another 2 hours. (Loosely covered). Turn off the heat, adjust the seasonings if necessary and let the soup cool for ½ hour.

Remove the chicken from the pot and put aside. Strain the balance of the soup, saving the vegetables. Pick out all but 2 of the carrot pieces from the vegetables and set the carrots aside with the chicken.

Add all of the remaining vegetables to the bowl of a food processor and puree until smooth. If necessary, add 2-3 TBS. of the soup to the vegetables to make the processing easier. (Nana would use a Foley mill. If you have one, use it and process the cooked vegetables that way. The resulting texture is much better)

Scoop the pureed vegetables back into the soup, stir, cover and chill overnight.

The next day, skim all of the congealed fat from the top of the soup and discard.

This soup will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. It also freezes very well. Make sure, if you’re dividing it into smaller containers, that it’s well mixed so there are equal amounts of the puree in each batch.

Serve hot with the carrots and some of the boiled chicken.

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Lights and Latkes

Today was the first day of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights and Latkes.

The story of Chanukah begins with the Maccabees, a Jewish warrior family dating from Biblical times. After fighting a long war with the Syrians, the Maccabees returned home to Jerusalem to find their Temple vandalized. They cleared the mess, rebuilt the altar and went to light the sacred Menorah—candelabra.  Consecrated pure olive oil was required for the lighting but only one day’s supply was available. Miraculously the one day supply lasted long enough—-eight days—for a new supply to arrive.

To celebrate and commemorate the miracle of the oil, Jews around the world light candles in an eight armed Menorah for eight nights—starting with one candle and adding one more each night until all eight are lit—and serve traditional foods that are fried in oil.

In the US, the Latke has come to symbolize Chanukah food more than anything else. Simply put it is a potato pancake shallow-fried in vegetable oil and served with applesauce or sour cream. It is not a complicated dish and should only be made with grated potatoes, grated onion, whole eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper.

While the Latke is admittedly a delicious and well known version of the fried potato cake, it is not the only way to peel, grate and fry a potato.

The Swedes have given us Rarakor—a lacy version made with chives and served with ligonberry jamand the Irish enjoy Boxty-–finely grated and mashed potatoes mixed with flour.

Sephardic Jews (Jews originating from Spain) serve ejjeh batata for Chanukah: fried potato fritters served in Pita bread with tomatoes, pickled cabbage, cauliflower and cucumber. In Germany baking powder is added and they are called Kartoffelpuffer. Belarus tops all by making the potato pancake their national dish.

I wanted to try an assortment of these wonderful grated potato concoctions to celebrate my (quiet) first day of Chanukah. I’ve been pulling cookbooks from around the world for days now while Google search has been on overdrive. However, like most traditional foods, an “original” recipe was hard to find. I’ve cherry picked from several to come up with what I thought was the best version of each.

There is one thing, however, that all the old, traditional recipes have in common: you must use starchy, russet potatoes and modern gadgets do not turn out the best results. Give up the food processor, put in a little extra effort and shred your potatoes on a box grater. (Have band-aids handy…your knuckles will take a beating).

Sweden: Rarakor med Graslok (lacy potato cakes with chives)

To serve 4

  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled
  • 2 TBS minced fresh chives
  • 2 Tsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 TBS unsalted butter
  • 2 TB S vegetable oil

Method:

Have everything prepared and measured—mis en place—and work quickly so the potatoes do not discolor

  • Peel the potatoes and shred them by hand with a box grater into a bowl. Do not drain off any potato liquid that accumulates.
  • Stir in the chives, salt and pepper.
  • Heat the butter and oil in a shallow 10-12 inch pan over medium high heat.
  • When the foam subsides, drop in 2 TBS of mixture for each cake and flatten each with a spatula. They should be about 3” in diameter
  • Fry 3-4 at a time, 2-3 minutes a side, until golden brown and crispy.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with ligonberry jam on the side

Note: these lovely potato cakes are almost translucent when they are done.

Germany: Kartoffelpuffer mit Apfelmus (potato fritter with applesauce)

To serve 4

  • 2 LBs potatoes, peeled and soaking in ice water
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Method:

  • Pat the potatoes dry and grate them over a clean dish towel or triple thick piece of cheesecloth
  • Wrap up the grated potatoes and squeeze out as much liquid as possible into a clean bowl
  • Let the potato liquid stand for 5-10 minutes
  • Put the squeezed grated potatoes into another bowl.
  • Grate the onion over the grated potatoes
  • Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs and mix well.
  • Carefully drain off the reserved liquid from the potatoes until you come to the white potato starch that has settled on the bottom. Scrape the starch into the potato mixture and mix well.
  • Heat a large (non stick if you have it) pan over medium heat and add about ¼” vegetable oil.
  • Using a ½ cup measure, drop the potato mix into the hot oil and flatten gently with the back of a spoon.
  • Fry 4-5 minutes on each side until golden brown.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve with applesauce and a sprinkle of cinnamon

Nana’s Latkes (traditional potato pancakes)

To serve 4-6

  • 4 medium potatoes
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsps kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 TBS matzo meal
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Method:

  • Peel the potatoes and grate them into a large bowl
  • Peel the onions and grate them into the same bowl with the potatoes (you may want to alternate grating potato and onion to keep tears at bay)
  • Mix in the matzo meal, salt and pepper
  • Swipe your index finger lightly over the mix and check the seasonings, adjust if needed
  • Add the eggs and mix well
  • Heat ¼ “ of vegetable oil in a large shallow pan over medium heat
  • Test the oil: take one piece of shredded potato and toss it into the oil. If it “sizzles” the oil is ready
  • Using a large soup spoon, ladle the potato mix into the oil and flatten each gently with the back of the spoon. Each latke should be about a 3”x2” oval and about ¼ “ thick. Fry the latkes, turning only once, until golden brown on both sides.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve with applesauce or sour cream.

Note: if you are making dozens and dozens like we do this time of the year, keep the latkes warm by placing them, after they’re well drained of oil, on a rack set over a cookie sheet in a 200° oven. They will keep for about 30 minutes.

 

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