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Archive for January, 2009

Feb. 1 — Update

I’m such a trend-setter. Over at the New York Times, they’re whipping up my chestnut polenta. Interesting to see the pros wrestling with the same questions I did. Where do you get chestnut flour? Do you eat those proscuitto ends from the ragu?

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This was supposed to be a post about the virtues of
making do with what you have, of cooking with available resources. of stretching the food budget a little bit further in these tough economic times. But, well, something got in the way of all that virtue. Chestnut flour.

So, first, flash back a few weeks to the A16 Ragu Alla Napoletana that filled my kitchen with such fine smells and my freezer with neat little tubs of left-overs. In our dual quest to use up the things around the house and to cook our way through the A16 cookbook, I lit upon the idea of a dinner of chestnut polenta with the ragu and eggs. Defrost the ragu, make sure I have some really good eggs on hand from the market and whip up some polenta. Easy and elegant.

Wait. Whip up some chestnut polenta. So, the means adding some chestnuts to it, perhaps at the end of cooking? Um, no. Chestnut flour, stirred in toward the end of the polenta process. OK, well, Michigan is one of the places in the country where chestnuts are making a significant come-back. Some local entrepreneur must be making chestnut flour, right? Well, not as far as couple of hours of intermittent online research and a couple of inquiries at local purveyors of hard-to-find ingredients indicates. After this investigation, the polenta had moved off the list of “spontaneous ideas for tonight’s dinner” and on to the list of “must make this because it’s a personal challenge.”

Back to the internet. Chestnut flour, it turns out, is available from a few Northwestern growers, Barry Farm in Ohio, imported from Italy and, of course, from Amazon. The native brands run about 7-9 dollars for a one pound bag: Italian chestnut flour costs upwards of fifteen dollars a pound. I settled on Allen Creek Farm for the scientific reason that it came up at the top of my Google search, and I like the kitchy cartoon chestnut guy on their homepage. Eight dollars isn’t so much to invest for dinner, is it, when the rest is leftover sauce, some polenta from the cupboard and a handful of eggs? Oh, well, there’s the eight dollar shipping charge.

Sixteen dollars and three days later, I had a bag of yellow chestnut flour in my possession. A day after that, we settled got down to the business of dinner. Once you’ve got the flour, the hard part is over. You just cook the polenta in the standard way, but late in the process, stir in a quarter cup of the chestnut flour. Yup, all that work for a quarter cup of flour. What it adds is a nutty sweetness, and also, I think, some resistance to thickening, so the polenta stays appealingly creamy. Meanwhile, bring the sauce to a simmer in a wide sauce pan and poach the eggs directly in the sauce. You want to make sure the yolks are still runny enough to break at the touch of your fork, spilling into the sauce and polenta, adding depth and richness. Grate some ricotta salata (or Parmesan is just fine, after all we’re making do with what we have . . . sort of) on top. If, like me, you want to enjoy the fact that you can get chestnuts in Michigan, roast a few and add at the end for both good looks and a nice contrast in textures. The resulting dish is both homey and sophisticated and great fare for a cold winter’s night. Maybe next time to be followed by A16’s Walnut and Chocolate Semifreddo with Chestnut Shortbread and Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce. Because, after all, I’ve got a lot of chestnut flour left over, and I need to be frugal. As soon as I get a line on a good source of tipo 00 flour.

Chestnut Polenta With Ragu Alla Napoletana, Eggs and Ricotta Salata

1 cup coarse-grind polenta

4 cups water

1 t kosher salt

1/4 cup chestnut flour

2 cups of ragu alla napoletana

Fresh basil leaves

Eggs, as many as you want to eat. (We did two per person as this was a main dish).

Extra virgin olive oil

Ricotta salata or other cheese suitable for grating over pasta

Combine the water and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a simmer and whisk the polenta steadily into the water for a few minutes until it comes together and has reached the boiling point. Turn the polenta down to a low simmer (just so that lava-like bubbles come to the surface now and then) and stir often with a wooden spoon. Cook for 30 minutes to as long as you like. The conventional wisdom is that the longer you cook polenta, the better it is, but don’t let it dry out. Add more water as necessary. Toward the end of cooking stir the chestnut flour and simmer for a few more minutes.

Truth be told, you could easily skip the chestnut flour, but I think the dish would lose some of its special quality. I also added some butter because, well, butter makes things better, doesn’t it?

As the polenta is finishing, warm the sauce and combine it with the basil. You may want to loosen it a bit with a little water. Crack the eggs one by one into the sauce, keeping them separate. Cover and cook at a medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, longer if you’re squeamish about runny eggs.

Serve the polenta into warm bowls and then gently slide a spoonful of ragu and the eggs on top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated cheese. Nice with an Italian red wine, some crusty bread and a green salad.

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Snow Day

And the great banana bread round-up

Once upon a time, in another life, when I read books and talked about them for a living, I worked under the benignly neglectful supervision of a self-consciously absent-minded professor (we’ll call him the AMP). The man was a work of art(ifice). He taught English; he smoked a pipe. His enthusiastic scrawlings escaped the bounds of the chalkboard and meandered onto the wall. At least once a semester, usually at the point of maximum sleepiness amongst his students, he, oh-so-carelessly, in the middle of an impassioned sentence, stepped into the waste paper basket in his classroom. He was scrawny and stoop-shouldered, with a furrowed brow and a fine head of hair, shot with distinguished gray. He wore tweed and an air of infinite, long-suffering world weariness. His students and his colleagues all enjoyed him immensely.

One particularly cold night, I sat with the AMP and his wife, Tamara, in a lecture hall that refused to get warm, listening to the words of a visiting poet. After the reading, we walked out into the frigid Michigan evening, pausing for a moment to zip up and to tilt our heads toward the crystal clear, star-littered skies. “Tamara,” moaned the AMP in his most dispirited tone, “why do people choose to live in this climate?”

Fifteen years later, the coldest winter days still evoke in me the memory of that mournful question. Over time, it’s become shortened in my mind to the single, short-hand plaint of “Tamara . . .” It’s sunk in my head, permanently, and sub-zero temperatures bring it bobbing to the surface. This past week? I’ve been stomping around in my long underwear a lot, murmuring “Tamara?” to myself.

Especially Friday, which dawned around here with its usual chaotic shoving of toaster waffles into the children, packing of lunches, finding of mittens, hurry, hurry, hurry, you’re going to be later for . . . but wait, there’s a squeal from upstairs. The girl has received the fateful text message, has verified on the web, indeed, it’s thirteen below with sustained wind chills lower than minus twenty, and school is, yes, closed. And that means preschool is too.

Damn.

What follows is a flurry of email and canceled meetings and comparing of schedules and checking of vacation balances, and I am bitter, at the world, the public school system, the friggin’ wind chill. But then, the sun comes out and fills the house with light reflected off the snow. The kids curl up together in front of a movie, a sweet pile of limbs and pajamas and morning warmth, I put the kettle on, and life slows down. It’s not so bad to miss a conference call or two.

What to do with all that time? Drink tea, eat clementines and choose which banana bread to make. Winter is high banana bread time for me, and I have a number of recipes competing for my loyalty. Here are some variations I’ve made in the past year or so with some success:

The loaf that carried the day on Friday, was also from Orangette (the woman is obsessed with banana bread, btw; I think there are six versions on her blog) was set apart by coconut, dark rum and a crunchy demerara sugar topping. Did her recipe call for chocolate chips? It did not. But my children were home, after all. They had to endure the pain of school being canceled. I couldn’t oppress them with chocolate chip-less banana bread as well. This loaf is great warm, rich with coconut and chocolate, and it’s also great the next day when the flavors have opened up a bit. Eaten with a cup of tea or even, after the kids have gone to bed, a little snort of cognac and a little tropicale music warming the house, it’s at least one good reason to choose to live in this climate.

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2009 will be a good cooking year for me if the past several weeks are any indication. I finally overcame a decade-long fear of baking with yeast, after a baking experiment gone terribly awry in an old boyfriend’s Red Hook apartment, and took the plunge with that No-Knead Bread everyone was talking about, well, forever ago. For any of you who placed “yeast baking” on your list of New Year’s Resolutions or bucket list or what-have-you, I heartily recommend you try this method. For such a teensy bit of effort, such glorious results.

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No-Knead Bread – Shana’s Way
Yield one 1 1/2 pound loaf

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting [I used King Arthur’s all-purpose flour]
¼ teaspoon instant yeast [I used Red Star brand]
1¼ teaspoons salt [I used Baleine fine sea salt]
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed [I used coarse-ground yellow cornmeal]

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. [I let my dough rest at least 18 hours both times I’ve made it.]

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth)–or a piece of parchment paper, if you want to avoid washing extra towels– with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal [as above, I used coarse cornmeal]; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel or piece of parchment paper and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. [I used my Le Creuset 6 quart dutch oven–it’s enameled- coated cast iron and works beautifully for this.] When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. [I notice that my oven runs hot, so I only do 5 minutes with the lid off.] Cool on a rack.

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The other small miracle I’d like to share with you was the side of salmon I roasted over the holiday. Again, it’s a tiny bit of effort with awesome results: my favorite style of cooking. You can easily halve the recipe for an easy weeknight meal, and serve it with some roasted potatoes and a salad. Or you could make the whole recipe for an easy yet elegant dish for entertaining; try it with wild mushroom risotto and braised fennel.

Roast Side of Salmon with Mustard, Tarragon, and Chive Sauce
Epicurious

2/3 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup spicy brown mustard (such as Gulden’s)
6 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
6 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
1 3 1/2-to 3 3/4-pound whole side of salmon with skin (about 1 1/2 inches thick at thickest part)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 450°F. Line large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix first 7 ingredients in medium bowl. Season mustard sauce lightly with salt and generously with pepper. Place salmon, skin side down, on diagonal on prepared sheet. Spoon 1/2 cup mustard sauce atop salmon, then spread over, covering completely. Sprinkle salmon generously with salt and pepper. Roast just until salmon is opaque in center, about 15 minutes. Using parchment as aid, transfer salmon to platter. Cut crosswise into pieces and serve with remaining mustard sauce. Can be served right away or at room temperature.

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I’m on my own this week, as Lenny has gone down to New Orleans to visit family (he’s been posting photos of oyster po-boys and such on his Facebook to make everyone jealous). In any event, that hasn’t stopped me from soothing my post-holiday/return-to-workweek blues with some good eating when I get home at night. Last night, in an attempt to use up items in the pantry and leftover bits in the fridge, I decided I needed to make a Salad Nicoise. I had most of the ingredients (that I wanted to include) on hand, and picked up a baguette and a couple extras at Busch’s. While I had a can of oil packed tuna in the pantry, Busch’s actually had some decent looking vacuum-packed tuna steaks, in small enough portions (1/3 lb or so) that I decided to buy one of those and cook it myself.

I looked at a couple recipes online really briefly before I left work – and there are a lot of slight variations on a pretty standard theme out there – but this is what I came up with:

the leafy parts of romaine lettuce leaves, torn
4 or 5 thick slices of cucumber, cut in half
6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 hard boiled egg, cut into 8 slices
1 white boiling potato, cut into 8 pieces
2 whole artichoke hearts (from a can) chopped
a handful of nicoise olives, pitted
4 rolled anchovy fillets
1/3 lb tuna  – salt and pepper, sear on both sides, slice

I’m not a big green bean fan unless they are pretty much just-picked, summer-y fresh, so I didn’t include, although that is one of the staple ingredients. Oh well.

Nicolas Aliziari Olive Oil from Nice

For the dressing, I made a simple vinaigrette of lemon juice, white wine vinegar, olive oil (the last drops of a liter of Nicolas Alziari olive oil from Nice – a Christmas gift from last year), plus some chopped fresh thyme, salt & pepper, which I drizzled on top of the salad.

It took a bit of time to put it together, but it was especially satisfying after a month of eating a lot of rich and heavy holiday meals.

Anne's Salad Nicoise

Anne's Salad Nicoise

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John and I have spent time separately and together in San Francisco’s A-16 , a place that manages to combine warmth and trendiness and that has never disappointed. Shana and I also went there a while back and wallowed in burrata and grilled pizza with chili oil and a softly fried egg and a number of other good things that have now faded into memory. So when I saw A-16 had come out with a cookbook, it was a natural gift pick this Christmas.

Over the holidays, John and I both spent a fair amount of time curled up with the book, poring over Italian wine tutorials, reading about various pastas and considering whether we were brave enough for the more exotic pig preparations. I actually challenged John to start one of those cook-the-book blogs where he cooked and wrote his way through the entire volume. I thought this was a fine idea (no personal gain in this for me, oh no), but he politely declined. Instead, we resolved to conspire on producing a number of its dishes over the next few months.

We’ll see if our energies match our ambitions, but we started off well, with a table full of friends and family on a cold winter’s night — big bowls of pasta, homemade ciabatta, spiced olives, generous glasses of red wine and lots of conversation.

John, my resident dough expert, manned the pasta production, kneading, rolling and cutting wide ribbons of maracararrona (a more complete post on that process another day). I was the mistress of the sauce. I wasn’t quite suspicious of the sauce, but I was curious about the effect of cooking a sauce with two and a half pounds of meat and then removing that meat. The effect, you ask? Wonderful. Rich, smooth and aromatic, somehow much more than your standard tomato sauce.

I highly recommend the whole experience — a long slow cook for a lazy winter’s day that makes the kitchen smell great and provides you with enough sauce for some meal when time is less in abundance.

And I have to close with a special shout-out to Bob Sparrow, our neighborhood butcher who, in this small Midwestern city could produce pork shoulder, pork belly and prosciutto ends without blinking an eye. He ruefully admitted to being out of pig’s trotters, but quickly hauled out a veal knuckle as a worthy substitute. I was happy to live in Ann Arbor that day.

Ragu Alla Napoletana

1 lb. boneless pork shoulder, cut into large chunks

1 pig’s trotter, left whole (or one veal knuckle), or 8 0z. pork belly cut into chunks

Kosher salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 red onion, halved

2 (28-oz) cans San Marzano tomatoes with juice

8 oz. proscuitto end pieces with skin intact, cut into large chunks

A-16 recommends seasoning the pork shoulder  and pig’s trotter with salt the night before, but if you’re like me you’ll forget to do this. The consequences are not grave.

In a large, heavy-bottmed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat.  Add the onion halves, cut sides down, and brown gently until they are golden brown (this took about 20 minutes, and I had to keep turning the heat down. Remove the onion and discard (or save for some thrifty use; it’s purpose here is to flavor the oil).

Break the tomatoes into chunks and then add them, along with their juices and all the meat, to the pot. Add a few pinches of salt and bring the whole mess to a boil, stirring often.  When the sauce reaches a boil, turn it down about as low as the burner will go and cook at a low, low simmer for several hours. I cooked mine for five, and I don’t think longer would have hurt. Do not be tempted to skim the fat from the surface. It’s a source of great flavor. When it feels done or you can’t wait any longer, turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature with the meat still in the sauce.

Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside An aside here. I was puzzled about what to do withthe meat, but ended up eating it separately as a sort of stew. Some research indicates that in Naples it can also be passed around at the table with the pasta. The texture on the proscuitto is a bit chewy and the veal knuckle had a lot of fat. The pork shoulder was lovely.

Back to the business at hand. The ragu.  Before serving, prepare about a pound of pasta, dry, fresh, or if you’re ambitious tha t night (as we were), homemade. Meanwhile, bring about a cup and a half of the ragu to a simmer (there will be lots of ragu left-over), add a handful of fresh basil and a little pasta water. When the pasta is almost cooked, drain and add to the sauce. Toss well  and  cook for about a minute more.

To serve, add a slash of olive oil and some grated ricotta salata.

Serves 4 as a main course.

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Interested in finding out more about Ann Arbor’s wine bar offerings? Joel Goldberg, editor of the MichWine website and author of the Arbor Vinous column in The Ann Arbor Chronicle, saddled up his wine-tasting posse and set out to review Ann Arbor’s four downtown wine bars–The Earle, eve, Vinology, and Melange. The result is a thorough, informative, and I think fair assessment of the four spots. Check it out!

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The Community Farm of Ann Arbor’s affiliate, the Community Farm Kitchen (see my post from about a year ago), is introducing a new program this winter – the Community Farm Bakery. From Mary Wessel Walker, who runs the CFK:

“… sign up soon for the CFK Bakery, which will be running for the months of January and February.  Bakery pick ups will be Tuesday afternoons at the Ann Arbor Masonic Temple, located on West Liberty.  You don’t have to be part of the Community Farm or the CFK to participate in the Bakery. A two-item subscription to the Bakery is only $96 for eight weeks!”

The offerings will change weekly and will include breads, muffins, cookies, granola and more – and if you’ve ever tasted Mary’s pumpkin bread  – well, that bread alone is worth the price of the subscription! <wink>

To join you can email info@communityfarmkitchen.com. For more information on share options, pickup location, etc., check out the CFK Bakery homepage.

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