Beets and potatoes (and grandmothers from Russia)

beetspotatoes1A few days ago, I was talking on the phone with my cousin Yael–an Israeli, though she’s lived in the United States for decades now–about the traditional foods we had on Passover.

Our grandmothers were sisters — from the village of Shumsk (or Szumsk) in Russia (though sometimes the region was part of Poland and currently it’s part of the Ukraine) — and Yael and I discovered that both of us grew up with potatoes on the seder plate, either instead of parsley or alongside it. Why? Because in Russia (or Poland or Ukraine or whatever) there were no fresh vegetables growing in April.

raddishes

I found radishes at the farmers market here, but it might still be too early for them in the Ukraine. Or Russia. Or Poland.

Passover foods generally involve a lot of potatoes, but beets are also traditional, especially for Jews from Eastern Europe, as it was another root vegetable available in early spring.

Yael told me about a sweet-sour beet salad she makes for Passover, and that reminded me of beet borscht. On Passover, my mother always served it a special way with an egg whipped in the soup tureen, turning the borscht from wine-red to a frothy deep rose color. Yael’s family made it that way too, she said.

Baba (Edess Kanfer Arshack)

Baba (Edess Kanfer Arshack)

My mother told me that her mother (my Baba) always made rossel (or rossl or rosel), which is sour or fermented beets, a kind of starter for genuine beet borscht.  She started the fermentation six weeks before Passover, putting cleaned and peeled chunks of beets in an earthenware crock and covering them with water, checking every few days. The women neighbors in Rock Island, Illinois, where my mother’s family lived, would come to the house and take a cupful of Baba’s rossel so they could make their own borscht.

Looking around the Internet, I noticed a couple of things about rossel. For a long while it fell out of favor as it takes quite a bit of planning and some attention. (Even my mother, who kept so many food traditions, never made it.) Plus people’s tastes had changed and sour fermented beets didn’t sound so appealing –although kosher dill pickles, which are fermented cucumbers, never lost their fans.

But recently, it’s having a bit of a come-back (though one couldn’t exactly call it a resurgence) as fermented foods are becoming more popular. Now I am seriously thinking of making rossel next year (my Jewish cookbook says three or four weeks ahead is sufficient), and perhaps some of my trusty readers will try it too. As Levy‘s bakery famously said, “You don’t have to be Jewish . . .”

In the meantime, I tried Yael’s beet salad with lemon juice and a touch of sugar, which captured the flavors of our shared history.

It made me think of the freedom our grandparents found when they left the Old Country, and that, along with the marvelous color, made me happy.

Ship postcard

The ship that my grandmother took to America

Sweet-and-sour beet salad

beetinfoilYael boils the beets. I baked them, wrapped tightly in tin foil, on a cookie sheet. Either way, if they’re large, they’ll take a while.

(By the way, I first removed the beet greens and steamed them, for another use. Don’t throw them away!)

gratingbeets2When the beets are cool, you peel them and grate them. I think next time, I will under-bake them just a little. These were a bit too soft.

Once they’re grated, add lemon juice, sugar (I’d go easy on that) and a little salt, to taste.beetsalad
There are many ways you could serve this salad, of course, but I thought it looked nice against the green of romaine lettuce leaves. You could fold the leaves around the salad and eat it as a finger food. It looks like a new Passover tradition for me!

For more on beets: A valentine vegetable

For more about Passover:
Edible, tangible memory
A cake for all seasons
Time for quinoa

 

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Pleasures of baking

oatmealbreadSome days it’s seems as if we’re living in a bread-phobic culture, but regardless — I love to bake. Bread, challah, pizza, cinnamon rolls, scones and biscuits, are all regular visitors to my kitchen.

In the week before Passover, I’m appreciating them even more as I contemplate the eight days of doing without both the eating and the baking of bread (though I may try baking my own matzo this year).

Ah, the baking. The magic of creating something that can grow and transform, the thrifty satisfaction of turning such basic ingredients into appealing and sustaining foods, the fragrance in the kitchen. . . .

Yes, it takes time, but most of that is not active hands-on time (though the hands-on part is fun), and, besides, it’s a good way to slow down and be productive at the same time.

I’ve heard it said that many people are afraid of yeast (yeast-phobia?) and that’s a shame. It is really not so scary! If you are new to bread baking, you do not, repeat NOT, need a bread machine. What’s the worst that can happen? Your bread doesn’t turn out? You haven’t wasted a lot of money or time, and some birds in the neighborhood might be grateful for your efforts. Anyway, we learn by mistakes — don’t we?

I’ve been making bread doughs with yeast or sourdough starter (whether knead or no-knead) for a long time, so I’m pretty confident that I know how the dough should feel, and I rarely look at a recipe.

I know if I start with a cup of water, for example, how much I will need of yeast or starter, flour and salt, and what approximate ratio of whole grains I should use (Yes, I’ve had a few brick-like breads, when I overloaded the dough with whole grains, but the bread was still edible. More or less.)

Or if it is a dough for challah or sweet rolls, I may add an egg and a little oil and honey to the dough, depending on what’s on hand.

mini challah

I often make miniature challah (rolls, really) and put a few in the freezer

cinnamon rolls

I shaped part of the challah dough into cinnamon rolls and let them rise slowly in the fridge overnight. Next day, I popped them in the oven, for Sunday morning freshly baked rolls!

Of course, if you haven’t baked much before, recipes are useful guidelines. Professional bakers weigh their ingredients for consistency, but for the home baker, that’s not necessary.

When it comes to quick breads (scones, biscuits, muffins, etc.) I do look at measurements a bit more carefully, though there is still room to play around.

bigbiscuits Last week I followed my tried-and-true biscuit recipe (which you can see here) with my new, and bigger, biscuit cutter. This informative New York Times article on tender biscuits and scones offered some tips, and I wanted to see whether cutting my biscuits with a sharper cutter would make them better. I also learned that placing biscuits close together would make them rise up rather than spread. Makes sense.

biscuitsonplateThe biscuits were delicious. But were they actually better than the smaller ones? Not really. Either way, these are great and go with nearly everything.

biscuitsandfreshjamP.S. I know it looks as if we consume an unconscionable amount of baked goods. So let me just say that these photos were taken over the last month or more. Really.

 

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Luck and a dream

shamrockbread

Saint Patrick’s Day is my family’s day to celebrate my father’s “Irish luck.”

Immigration ID 3.17.39Seventy-five years ago, my father arrived in America, having escaped Nazi Germany.

Please read more of the story here, published online in Tablet Magazine.

shamrocks

Shamrocks growing outside my apartment

I don’t make anything fancy for the day (though I have been known to make S-cookies with green sparkling sugar) and I’m not a corned-beef-and-cabbage fan, so I’ll probably just make a variation of my emerald green parsley soup (thought I’d add some leeks to it this time) along with some Irish soda bread or maybe oatmeal scones.

And if there’s a beer around (it could be root beer or ginger beer or practically anything)  I’ll make a toast to my dad and all those who helped him and his family come to America.

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That in-between season

crocusinsnow

It tried to be spring here, but apparently it’s just too soon to let go of winter.

minestroneagainI’ve still been making my old everyday standby, minestrone soup — with white beans and canned tomatoes and kale and whatever else is around. Essential, in my soup pot, is a little rind of Parmeggiano or Romano and some basil.

redlentilsoupAnd this was a red lentil soup with red peppers, which was seasoned with cumin and sumac and thickened with a little ground bulgur. I adapted it from this recipe by Ana Sourton, though hers looks completely different…Mine had lemon (of course), hers had pomegranate seeds on top.

popoversSomething great to serve with your soup (or salad or for breakfast, for that matter) is a popover (or three or four). Popovers are rather humble with their simple ingredients, but they delight me with their “lofty”magic. A relative of the oven pancake (Dutch baby), popovers will make you appreciate the rising power of the egg!

Eggs courtesy of Rob McManus

Eggs courtesy of Rob McManus

They’re amazingly simple to make and the only trick to them is not to open the oven until the time is up! It’s also important to heat up the pan with a little butter or oil in the bottom to give the tender popovers a nice crisp crust.

Here’s a good recipe for 12 popovers, made in a muffin tin. You could buy a special popover tin for big popovers, but there’s no need. If you want them to be bigger, just use 8 or 10 cups of a muffin tin.

  • 1 cup milk (I used 1 percent and it was fine; probably any will work)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Whisk together the milk, eggs, flour, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter together in a bowl and let the batter rest while you heat the oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Put the muffin tin in the oven for a couple minutes to warm it up; divide the 2 tablespoons of butter between the muffin cups. Sometimes I heat it up again until the butter is sizzling (but it’s only a moment away from burnt butter — if that happens, it’s okay too)
  3. Give the batter another couple whisks, and pour into the cups, about halfway. Bake for 15 minutes.
  4. Without opening the oven (this is important!)  reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes.
  5. Now you can open the oven. Your popovers should be puffy, golden brown and hollow on the inside. If they don’t look quite right, they will still taste good. Remove them from the tins, prick with a fork to let steam escape and put them in a cloth lined basket to keep warm.They’re delicious served with butter and honey or jam.

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Feast for the eyes (and more)

Ventura farmers' market

Ventura farmers’ market

Well, I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately. It’s not that I don’t cook — with all the farmers’ markets here in Southern California, there’s always fresh inspiration — but I’ve been too involved in other things to write the blog. Such as walking on the beach, volunteering for Carpinteria Seal Watch, watching surfers and dolphins and gray whales, going to farmers markets, eating at taquerias….etc.

annashousecitrus

Anna Thomas’ citrus display

If you’ve read my blog long enough, you know that I’m crazy about citrus. It’s local food here in the winter and a great reason to bend the rules about local if you live anywhere else. After all, people have been importing citrus for hundreds of years!  Its bright colors and tastes bring sunshine to any winter day.

annashouseannaSpeaking of brightness and color, one of the bright spots of our month here was a generous invitation to lunch at the home of Anna Thomas, known to many as The Vegetarian Epicure. She has an intuitive sense of combining color and flavor for dazzling effect, a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. (You can find out more about the wonderful kitchen she designed in a recent issue of Fine Cooking).

annashouse1She had gone shopping at the farmers’ market early that morning, and red kuri pumpkins (a type of squash you don’t need to peel, she told me), green tomatoes and onions were tossed with some olive oil and salt and roasted for a delicious healthy dish.

This was served atop her “tweed” pilaf (which I don’t seem to have a photo of), composed of farro and black rice, cooked separately and then combined with sauteed onions. Another visually pleasing as well as tasty dish. What a good idea!annashouselunchAnd then there was a lovely salad of dandelion greens, radicchio, Asian pear and toasted pecans. Yum! It all tasted as good as it looked or visa versa, and kept us smiling the rest of the day. Thank you, Anna.

annashousepomegranate

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Filed under Praise for other cooks, salad, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter

Bread therapy

When I wrote the last post, more than three weeks ago, I was looking forward to getting my cast off and getting back to work in the kitchen. But  those first days out of the cast were discouraging.  My hand was so stiff and weak it was basically useless.

Fortunately, I soon met with an occupational therapist who showed me how I could slowly but surely train my hand to work again. One of the things he had me do was to knead and grasp and pull a wad of therapy putty.

kneading2I brought some putty home to work with, but I also thought that bread dough might be a nice alternative material. So I have been kneading dough ever since, and the results have been quite tasty.  Here’s some of the baked goods I’ve been making the last few weeks.

cinnamonrolls

Cinnamon rolls

oatmealbreadhalf

Oatmeal bread

applebluecheeseLast weekend I made a kind of pizza with a cornmeal-y crust, topped with roasted apples, red onions and blue cheese. It was inspired by Melissa Clark’s apple tart in The New York Times (but I substituted red onion for the shallot and didn’t use all that oil in the dough). Very nice for dinner or hors d’oeuvres.

lavashAnd today I made lavash crackers, with a recipe that came originally from Yvette van Boven’s Home Made cookbook. I kneaded the dough for a good 8 minutes (my right hand helped just a little) and rolled it out into sheets in my pasta maker. My goodness — what nice crisp crackers!

Usually, I love to knead bread dough and find it relaxing, almost meditative.

But it hasn’t been like that at all lately.  I make my weak left hand do the work and it hurts. But it is therapeutic. And the results are doubly appreciated.

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Notes from a one-armed cook

onionlines

When I returned from Italy with my arm encased in a huge plaster cast, I had a pretty good attitude. But it wasn’t long before I was brought to tears — by an onion.

No, it wasn’t the onion’s irritating juice that was making me cry. It was the reality that without the use of my left hand to hold down the onion, there was no way I could cut it. I had been enjoying other people’s cooking in Italy, but now I wanted to cook for myself and Steve. And without onions — well, what kind of cooking would that be? In my book, onions are as essential as lemons!

Yes, Steve offered to chop the onion, but it was an ordeal. Let’s just say, he is extra sensitive to the onion irritant, and a lot of cursing was involved . Anyway, he was doing so many other tasks (including a total clean-up of the kitchen)  that I didn’t want to ask him again.

I don’t know that I ever before fully appreciated the marvel of hands, especially two of them. Or the pleasure of doing even menial tasks for myself — or for someone else.

With a little research, I discovered there are special single-handed cutting boards, which range from simple ones with spikes and corners to hold food down to the fancier Swedish cutting boards with suction feet, more spikes and a vise. These are especially helpful for amputees or stroke victims. But I figured it wouldn’t be worth buying one for my remaining month in a cast.

purplecast

The purple cast is the latest in a series

Thank goodness my disability is more temporary — and that I also discovered that Trader Joe’s carries bags of chopped onions! Before long,  I was sauteeing onions (with celery and carrots that I chopped myself using the cleaned ‘baby-size’ carrots) for minestrone . . . and I only had to ask Steve for help in opening the can of tomatoes.

onions plus

minestoneI’ve cooked quite a few dishes during this arm-healing period — several batches of minestrone soup, wild mushroom risotto, polenta, spinach-and-feta frittata, oatmeal scones, cornbread, etc. — but it hasn’t all been easy. Over the last 44 days, I’ve had to develop some advice for myself — and then remind myself of it along the way. So here are the basics :

Be patient– and lower your standards. Plan extra time, because everything will take longer than it used to (or than it does for others).  Your frustration will lower in proportion to the extent that you accept this reality. Also, your diminished abilities may mean that you are messier and less precise than you used to be. It helps if you are not a perfectionist.

Adapt when you can — There’s no shame in holding a zipper-lock bag with your teeth so you can open or close it, or clasping a jar in the crook of your damaged arm so you can use your functional hand to open it.  Maybe you have to carry jars of water to the heavy cooking pot rather than bringing the pot over to the sink. Maybe you or your friends will come up with creative tools to help with tasks (Steve’s brother Duane had made a wooden holder for the Microplane grater, which I relied on.) A lot of times, there really is an alternative method, even if you don’t get a specialized cutting board.

Stop making yourself crazy. So you can’t do everything. Who can? Adapting can only go so far. My DIY mode had to go. I gave up baking bread in the cast iron Dutch oven (way too heavy) and enjoyed bread from a wonderful local bakery. I tossed out my snooty attitude about  buying vegetables in bags (so wasteful and expensive, I’d thought) and gave in to packaged pre-cut butternut squash and triple-washed lettuce in bags (since Steve won’t use the salad spinner.) Also, I decided there was no harm in the occasional frozen food or even (heaven forbid!) using the built-in microwave which I’d formerly relegated to skillet storage.

Ask for help. No matter how independent you are, you will not be able to do everything yourself. If you are lucky, there will be someone around or next door or down the street or even across town who won’t mind helping — and may even be glad you asked.

Still, asking for help — and accepting it graciously — is a lot harder than it seems it should be.

When friends ask, “What can I do to help?” it helps to have something specific in mind — that is, if they really mean it (but do give them an easy out, so you don’t strain the friendship).

For example, when Jennifer asked what I wanted for my birthday, I told her: “A fresh pineapple. If you would cut it for me.” I’d been eyeing the new shipment of pineapples in the store but there was no way I could cut one myself.

So… lo and behold! — I got exactly what I asked for. And it was one of the best pineapples I ever tasted. Thank you, Jennifer!

Allow for mixed emotions –The accident made me contemplate how much I have to be grateful for, from the fact that I didn’t break my right arm or my leg (or both arms, for that matter) to the loving support of Steve and friends. But I wouldn’t be honest if I said it was all gratitude all the time. Every now and then I needed to whine a little about the pain or the disability. I was glad that Steve would (usually) just listen sympathetically without telling me to shape up. Then I could get over it and go on.

oatmealsconesIt’s surely a minor problem being a one-handed cook — as Cathy says, remember the big picture — yet  I won’t deny that sometimes it’s just a drag. That’s why I’m really  looking forward to tomorrow, when the cast comes off!

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Those amazing tomatoes

In the early days of November, we finally pulled out the Sun Gold cherry tomato plants that I wrote about at the end of August. We enjoyed those delicious little tomatoes through September and into October, but now, battered by cold, wind and rain, the plants were certainly, undeniably, dead.

No more of these delights until next summer, I thought.

And then I remembered the amazing tomatoes I’d encountered in Italy — fresh tomatoes that last all winter long.

amalfi tomatoes_0001Cathy and I were staying on the Amalfi Coast,  at Serafina, a wonderful agriturismo (a working farm with lodging) high in the terraced hills above the Mediterranean. Every night at dinner, we were served fresh pasta with the most delectable tomatoes.

But how was it that these tomatoes, which had been picked in June or July, were still fresh in October?

tomatoesrosaRosa Fusco, the extraordinarily hard-working and knowledgeable daughter of Serafina’s proprietors, told us that these  special small tomatoes, called piennolo, are grown in the area around Mount Vesuvius. They are dry farmed and are lower in moisture than most tomatoes.

After they’re picked, the piennolo tomatoes are hung in clusters to conserve them (like all the products of the Fusco’s farm, the process is traditional and labor-intensive). The special room at Serafina where the clusters of tomatoes are hung from the ceiling has just the right amount of humidity, Rosa said.

tomatoes2These tomatoes are not dried, Rosa emphasized, but conserved, and they will keep through winter — an astonishing 8 or 9 months after harvest!

And the taste? Well, simply delectable, a concentrated tomato-y sweetness that gave a depth of flavor and texture to the simplest pasta.

The Fusco family of Serafina’s farm describe themselves as “deeply tied to the history of this earth suspended between sky and sea,” giving as an example the piennolo tomato  “patiently collected in clusters, hung and conserved for months, until making them to become concentrated of scents and tastes.”

Short of a trip to Southern Italy, we are unlikely to taste any winter tomatoes with even a hint of such flavor, but here’s a great video that shows and explains more about these remarkable tomatoes. And we can dream about such wonders.

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Tea and toast

cast from naplesI returned from my trip to Italy (with dear friend Cathy Mihalik) with a new ‘Frutta di Italia’ apron — and a very heavy full-arm plaster cast!

amalfi trailHiking down a steep and beautiful trail (Sentiero Pennino, part mule track, from the wonderful agriturismo in the hills, Serafina, to the town of Bomerano), I slipped on some loose gravel by la grotta di Santa Barbara.

I stuck out my left hand to cushion the fall and — BAM! — broken wrist and a displaced radius bone. (In orthopedic jargon, this very common route to a wrist fracture is nicknamed FOOSH for Fall On Out Stretched Hand).

boneThe next day, in a hospital outside Naples, the orthopedic doctor pulled the bone into place without anesthetic (ouch) and gave me a plaster cast from above the elbow to below the first joints of my fingers.

Still, we continued the trip –fortunately for me, Cathy is a registered nurse–and had a great time. After I got the cast we went to eat cheap and delicious pizza at Sorbillo, the genuine article. Here we are in amazing Napoli the day after the hospital/cast experience:

galleria, napoli

Galleria, Naples

About that cast: “Positively medieval,” my friend Nia called it. The orthopedic nurse in the U.S. updated the description a little, but said she hadn’t seen the like since the 1970s. She cut off the cast, plaster dust flying, and discarded it with a look of disgust. “Some things are better left behind,” she said. The only thing I miss about the cast is the charming picture Cathy drew of a shepherdess and lamb.

castpic

The worst part? When  I met with the orthopedic physician at home two-and-a-half weeks after the fall — and learned that the bone had not healed at all. In fact, it looked worse than the day I fell!

I was scheduled for surgery subito (immediately).

*

Well, I plan to write a post about the frustrations, challenges and amusements of one-handed cooking soon.

But today I am just lazing about, recuperating from yesterday’s surgery and thinking about what a delicious duo Steve made for me when we came home from our 9-to-5 day at the hospital.

I’d had nothing to eat or drink all day and I was a little weak and woozy.

It was very simple but Steve made it perfectly: tea. just how I like it (PG Tips with milk) and buttered toast (multi-grain from our excellent local bakery, Breadfarm).

toastteaMaybe it was because of the trauma or the hunger or the appreciation of Steve’s kindness, or all those things rolled into one.

All I know is, that tea and toast was so delicious it seemed like the best thing I had ever eaten.  And perhaps it was.

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The fruit garden

greengageMy dream has always been to have a home with a garden full of fruit trees — a fruit garden, if you will (In German, obst means fruit and obstgarten, or fruit garden, means orchard). Ivan Doig,  at a reading last week, made a comment that resonated with me.  Doig writes a lot about Montana, where he grew up, but he lives in Seattle. “It’s not where you live that matters,” he said, “but where your imagination lives. Mine lives in Montana.”

My imagination lives in a fruit garden.

scottandtree

Scott McManus with greengage plum tree

But back to reality, it really helps to have friends with fruit trees — especially if those friends have a whole orchard full of fruit.

Scott and Maggie invited us to Cashmere to sample the greengage plums of fall. This was a trip that had been long postponed, as wildfires and thick smoke in the area last September had forced us to cancel our greengage trip.

These plums (not to be confused with the green Japanese plums) are very special and delicious — and rarely grown in the U.S. In France they are called Reine Claude.  The tree is finicky and the fruit must be absolutely ripe–to the point of softness– to be truly enjoyed, so they are difficult to market.

greengagehalf

A ripe greengage plum is golden inside

The ripe plums have a golden-honey flavor balanced with enough tartness to keep them from being cloying.

In this excellent article, fruit aficionado David Karp explains all about greengages, and I learned that the type Scott was growing, Reine-Claude de Bavay, is a “half-sister” of the original greengage plum,  widely grown and respected in France.

greengagebowl

Reine-Claude de Bavay plums

Of course they ripened nearly all at once, but we had the perfect solution. We had told Georgiana, the friendly clerk in our local pharmacy, that we were making a trip over the mountains for greengages and she nearly swooned.

“I love those,” she said. “We had a greengage  tree when we lived in the country, and when we moved to town I had to leave that tree. It was the saddest thing.”

We brought Georgiana a bag of ripe greengage plums when we returned, and she was ecstatic. “Those were just wonderful,” she said when we saw her a couple days later. “They brought back so many good memories.”

bowlwithfruitIt’s the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkos, a time to enjoy the wonderful fall fruits and vegetables. The last of the fall peaches are ripe — Scott and Maggie gave us some of those as well as pears and apples. We had a lovely bounty of fruit, even enough to share. And of course, the kitchen has been full of fruit flies. It’s all just part of the season.

Today, as I’m writing this, it is September 21, the feast of San Matteo. I know nothing about the feast or the saint, except for this excellent Italian saying (which I saw on this site on Italian language).

Per San Matteo, piangi
le ultime pesche che mangi

peachypieFor San Matteo’s feast, you weep
For the last peaches you will eat

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