Why My Family Treasures Culinary Heirlooms

Heirlooms remind us of where we came from, and culinary heirlooms, by their utility, forge a palpable link to that past.

A recent Trib.com article shared the story of 83-year-old Wyoming woman Lucille Dumbrill and her122-year-old sourdough starter. She first obtained the old dough from one of her husband’s students at the University of Wyoming, and that student’s family had traced the starter’s history back to a sheepherder’s wagon. Lucille still makes pancakes with it frequently.

This got me thinking about the many culinary heirlooms within my own family.

My grandma has a 149-year-old piece of cheese…

Read the rest of the piece over at Bites, the Today Show food blog.

In Defense of Cookbooks

A phone or iPad app could never replace my collection of cookbooks, nor would I want one to — even though the The New York Times recently suggested cookbooks are becoming obsolete.

Cookbooks allow readers to skim recipes quickly, offers the tactile and fragrant pleasures of dinners past and help us reconnect after digital overload…

Read the rest of the piece over at Bites, the Today Show food blog.

Italian Foodists of New Jersey, I’m Calling You Out

My husband is a connoisseur of sandwiches. He loves wraps with veggies, baloney and cheese with his secret mustard-hummus tang sauce, clubs, melts and subs of all variety. But his favorite is the Italian sub, which he calls “the holy grail of sandwiches.”

Unfortunately for him, we now live in New Jersey. Despite the state’s reputation as a hot spot for guidos and guidettes (insert snide Jersey Shore reference here), you can’t get a real Italian sub anywhere.

For those who don’t know, here’s how you make one:

Take a roll of light Italian bread, slice it in half, put a little olive oil on it, maybe a little vinegar. Add the “holy trinity of cold cuts” — mortadella, capicolla, and Genoa salami. Layer on provalone and some veggies, preferably sliced white onions, diced pickles, and shredded iceberg. Finish up with a little oil and vinegar, and some optional hot peppers, and toast that puppy up.

According to my husband, “what you get is alchemy, ok? You no longer have a mix of several ingredients, what you have is the best sandwich ever. The flavors do not act in concert where you have violinist over here and the viola over here. What you have is one instrument, playing the most delicious melody of all time.”

So what’s the problem with New Jersey? “The New Jersey Italians are just not aware of mortadella. they apparently forgot that mortadella exists, although it’s one of the most important cured pork products of Italy. And it’s also one of the ones that makes it across the Atlantic intact.”

“I’ve looked for this sandwich across central new Jersey. Any pizza place that I’ve been to, I always look for an Italian sub, and you just don’t find that. They don’t have mortadella, mortadella is missing. And it’s not just the Massachusetts people that like this sandwich. You can get it in New York. In New Orleans they have a related sandwhich called a muffaletta, where instead of vegetables they have a olive tapenade. It’s basically the same sandwich. It’s the best sandwich ever. I’m telling you.”

So what’s up with the mortadella moratorium, New Jersey?

Preserved: Fresh Salmon, Parts of My Body

Anyone who reads my blog is probably aware that I have an unholy obsession with preserving foods, and that in 17 days I will undergo a life-changing operation, a double-mastectomy with reconstruction done on my healthy breasts.

I’ve always cooked, and frankly eaten (hello, new 20-lb gut), to deal with stress, but lately, perhaps because I’m amputating body parts, we’ve taken that to extremes. During a 3-day jag last week we made bread, banana bread, cookies, cured salmon, canadian bacon, chicken gyros, pierogis, spatchcock chicken, poached salmon and tzatziki. I swear I inherited this from my father, who once bought a whole ham for himself and the six-year-old me while my mom was in the hospital with cancer. My marriage’s recent focus on charcuterie, eaten, of course, with homemade pickles, is really a focus on preserving the current moment, which for me means the last few days with my natural breasts.

Last week, my husband and I took this idea of preservation from the metaphoric into the literal. On Thursday we removed the stiff salmon from its cure and set the cured pork tenderloin in a low oven to dry into Canadian bacon, and then I asked my husband to cast my chest in plaster, so I’d be able to remember what my breasts looked like.

With cans of beer in hand, he laid the wet bandages across my chest; in a few weeks they will be replaced with real bandages. I could feel the cool plaster molding to me, but slowly, it grew stiff, and I could no longer feel his hands smoothing the edges of each strip down, just pressure on top of the carapace that had become my chest. I wondered if this is how I will feel after I recover, because the operation comes with permanent loss of nerve sensation in my chest.

When the plaster was as stiff as the salmon we’d taken out of its sugary cure, I peeled the cast off. It’s a nice, light, and rectangular, but looks vaguely funeral, disembodied, like the work of sculptor George Segal, like my breasts are about to be.

*Photo: The Venus di Milo. She’s just like me, except better-looking, harder, proof that beauty can endure despite a double amputation.

The Alchemy of Corned Beef

The idea of magic, of alchemy, of starting with one substance and transforming it into a completely different substance has fascinated me since I was a little girl, and I couldn’t help but think of that as my husband and I used a mysterious solution to transform brisket into corned beef a few weeks ago.

Corned beef is beef cured in a brine for a few days, then braised. The “corn” in corned beef refers to the grains of salt used to cure it.  We followed a recipe in our trusty tome, blending a gallon of water with two cups kosher salt, a half cup sugar, five teaspoons pink salt, garlic, and a spice mixture (containing peppercorns, mustard and coriander seed, red pepper flakes, allspice berries, mace, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, and ginger).

After the brine cooled, we put the brisket in and weighted it down with a plate to keep it under the brine. Five days later, thanks to the pink salt, which contains nitrates, we had transformed a 5-lb slab of beef from something pale pink grey to a brilliant red corned beef ready to be made into a boiled dinner. (Note: it’s called a boiled dinner, but don’t ever boil it. Boiling meat dries it out. Instead, simmer…)

Here’s the odd thing: my husband and I are very adept at braising, so we kept the meat at a simmer, but it failed to loosen up the way a brisket usual would. Instead, the meat stayed firm. We went whole-hog on it, setting it in the oven overnight at 250 degrees in its enameled cast iron. In the morning, it was still tough.

Perhaps the lesson here is that, in cooking and in life, some things stay tense no matter how much time you give them. The resulting brisket, which sliced well but was perhaps a little dry at the edges, went into sandwiches laden with homemade sauerkraut and corned beef hash over the next week.

We still have the other raw half in our freezer, so next time we’ll braise it for 3 hours instead of 10.

My First Pâté

Last weekend, we decided to make pâté with a friend of ours, figuring that he wouldn’t be scooged out by the procedure, since he’s french and would therefore understand the desired result, even if we failed to achieve it.

Our idea had been to make the pâté — what our cookbook charmingly calls “The Cinderella Meat Loaf” — and then eat it, which was, to put it mildly, crazy. Pâté is not something you whip up on the spur of the moment, but like all good cooking projects, it started with a martini and ended with a trashed kitchen.

We made pâté de campagne, a rustic mold of meat that includes chunks of pork as well as the usual forcemeat puree. For the uninitiated, a forcemeat is a suspension of meat and fat that makes for a smooth end product, such as a hot dog, or bologna. A key part of getting a forcemeat to stay together during the cooking period is to keep everything, including your bowls, cold.

Basically, we made three mixtures:

  • boneless pork shoulder pureed with chicken liver, onion, and spices in the food processor, then mixed by hand with coarsely chopped pork. Since we had a lean pork shoulder, we pureed some pork fat in with it.
  • a “panade” of cream, brandy, flour, and eggs
  • chicken livers marinated in brandy — this wasn’t in the recipe, but we wanted to use them up.

We combined the panade and the meat mixture and stirred it until it was thick and sticky, as sign that the myosin protein had developed in the meat, which helps hold the pate together. Then it was time to assemble.

We laid half the puree down into a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap, or rather, I did, because by this point one of my soux-chefs had cut through his thumbnail with a very sharp cleaver while dicing pork. Perhaps chopping before the martinis next time. Then, a layer of chicken livers. And what the hey — some dried shiitake mushrooms that we’re never going to get rid of from the pantry — then, the rest of the meat puree.

The loaf pan was then gently cooked in a mold surrounded by hot water, and weighted down with another loaf pan with cans on top of it. After a day in the fridge, we delivered half of the loaf to our cohort at his house.

The result: It had that undefinable pate flavor. The livery parts were nice and smooth, though next time I’d use the recommended pork liver to see if it tastes less strong. Perhaps a touch less pate spice (a mixture of cloves, nutmeg, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, and pepper ) next time, and a touch less brandy, but the flavors did meld into a delicious, forceful, smooth whole. It wasn’t hard to make, just annoying to keep all the ingredients cold. Definitely a repeatable experiment.

Next up in the Charcuterie adventures: home-made corned beef, a project we’ve long talked about. The pink salt has arrived in the mail, so it’s time.

Charcuterie is Like Child Rearing…

Some couples “practice” for children by getting a dog; my husband and I are evidently “practicing” with charcuterie (tr. “cooked flesh”), the art of making sausage, bacon, terrines, and cured meats.

Like preparing for a child, charcuterie requires:

  • a manual — an authoritative cookbook instead of a parenting tome
  • items that the uninitiated would never have lying around the house — pink salt laced with nitrates, pork fat, chicken livers, and sheep intestines instead of diapers, a crib, or baby formula
  • unsolicited advice from one’s parents, such as my father’s words to my husband — “you are not permitted to give my daughter botulism”
  • a long lead time while you wait for the cure (or the baby) to reach maturity
  • friends to pawn the baby/pâté off on, from time to time
  • endurance to finish eating the baby, I mean, side of corned beef

With our dangerously tempting manual in hand, and a supply of pink salt just arrived by mail, my husband and I have embarked on a journey into curing that can only end with home-made prosciutto.

Silver Gin Fizz

I am in love with a cocktail. My husband and I have recently gotten inventive with our mixology, whipping up a tasty Orgeat syrup from scratch and daring to mix various liquors from our cabinet with mixed results. Equal parts of brandy, gin, and Frangelico do not a delicious concotion make.

But on Saturday night, a rare weekend night at home for me,  as we simmered our chicken and quince tagine and as we pickled lemons with kumkwats, I asked for a gin fizz for no other reason than that it sounded delicious and old fashioned, and devoid of heretical flavored vodkas. I wanted to try something outside my cocktail comfort zone, you know, something with raw egg in it, and the silver gin fizz delivered.

He mixed gin, lemon juice, sugar and an egg white together in a cocktail shaker. Really mixed it. A lot. The noise of ice clacking against the metal shaker filled the kitchen, making conversation temporarily impossible. Then, he poured the mixture into a glass. We didn’t know what to expext. It came out in a slow, unappetizing trickle, a milky white liquid that looked to be separating as if it were a pint of Guinness.  As the stream slowed, a beautiful white, cream froth topped the drink. A glug of soda water and my drink was done.

I sipped. It was sweet and tart, creamy, fizzy, and with a respectable gin-y kick, and a lovely, white wintery, sophisticated appearance. Like I said, I’m in love.

Silver Gin Fizz
from Great Grub

Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 TB sugar, or less to taste
1 egg white
2 oz gin
Chilled soda water  to top

Pour the gin, lemon, sugar, and egg white into an ice-filled shaker and shake. Shake it and shake it and shake it. Make your butt move in a funny way while you shake it to amuse your spouse. The harder you shake it, the better the foam. A towel wrapped around the shaker helps your hands avoid sticking to the cold metal. Pour into a highball glass and top with a splash of club soda. Weep with joy.