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I simply must be her

Date: Mon, Dec 3, 2012

Dear things, I write "in a tearing hurry," as Laurie from Little Women would say, but let us employ a Victorian expression on our way to meet a Victorian lady. I ask you. Is she not most striking?

She is Mrs. Agnes B. (for Bertha) Marshall, late 19th-century English cooking teacher, domestic service agency CEO -- in other words, she helped you hire a parlormaid -- and, with her husband, kitchen equipment inventress and wholesale entrepreneur. She wrote four cookbooks and gave popular lectures at her own school. Her special subject was cold desserts, especially ice cream. No kidding. She patented a machine which froze a quart of ice cream in five minutes, and is said to have been responsible for Victorian Londoners' new enthusiasm for "ices," and therefore, modern refrigeration very much not being what it should have been then, for the importing of large amounts of ice from Norway.

Below, chosen at random from her third book, Mrs. A. B. Marshall's Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes (London, 1891), is her Potato and Onion salad (from "Dressed Vegetables and Meagre Dishes, part 17"). Shall we want to mix cold boiled potatoes, raw onions, olive oil, tarragon vinegar -- surprisingly modern -- and whipped, salted cream? I am not sure. She had a thing about cream.

Mrs. A. B. Marshall's cold potato and onion salad, 1891

"Cut six or eight plainly boiled, cold mealy potatoes into slices, and if the potatoes are not nice round ones, stamp out the slices with a plain round cutter. Take three or four very finely sliced peeled onions, using Marshall's Vegetable Slicer for the purpose, and season them with salad oil, tarragon vinegar, salt, grated Parmesan cheese, coralline pepper and and finely chopped raw green parsley, arrange a layer on the dish on which the salad is to be served, place on this a layer of the potatoes, then another of the onions, and continue this til the dish is full; cover the top entirely with stiffly whipped cream that is seasoned with a little salt, using a forcing bag and large rose pipe for the purpose, sprinkle here and there a little chopped parsley and coralline pepper, and serve as a dressed vegetable or for any cold collation."

And what was coralline pepper? For help we turn right away to that splendid online food history source, The Old Foodie. In the midst of giving us a recipe for spinach with banana fritters from the Times of India in 1914, she too found herself stumped by "coralline pepper." Was it perhaps paprika? Pink peppercorns? One of her commenters suggests referring back to -- you guessed it -- something called Marshall's Coralline Pepper. As follows (and it sounds as though we are playing Who am I?):

A pure natural pepper, of delicious, pleasant, and delicate flavour.
It facilitates digestion and imparts vitality, and is much esteemed by epicures.
Being of a most brilliant red colour, it can be used for decoration in place of Lobster Coral.
It is distinct from Cayenne, and is not much hotter than fine ordinary pepper.
It will be found most delicous to use alone as a Curry Powder.
It can be served at table in cellars as Salt is usually served.
It can be strongly recommended for use in Sauces, Purees, Hors d'oeuvres, Soups, Fish, Hot Entrees, Cold Entrees, and Removes.
It supplies a great want.
Guaranteed free from artificial colouring.

And it cost a shilling a bottle. No size specified. But what was it?

Read more from Mrs. Marshall's book here.

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"Why perpetual and unappetising procession of small rock cakes?"

Date: Sun, Dec 2, 2012

Relentless domesticity

Yes, why? The question is taken from one of my very favorite novels, E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provinical Lady (1931, reprinted by Academy Chicago, 1998.)

Back when I wrote short book reviews for a local newspaper, the Times of Northwest Indiana, this is what I had to say about it:

The Diary opens on a quiet November morning in an English village around 1930. The lady -- whose name we never learn -- is chronicling her attempts to "plant the indoor bulbs" despite interruptions from children, servants, and the officious local peeress, Lady Boxe, who is always ready to drop by with unsolicited advice.

For the next year, we follow the Provincial Lady through her small adventures: running her household, volunteering at the Women's Institute, visiting elderly shut-ins, coping with endless financial difficulties, and helping to bring young lovers together just before suffering a serious bout of measles. All the while she attempts to (as it were) keep her cultural head above water. She enters writing contests sponsored by the county newspaper (and is annoyed at sharing Second Prize). She tries to read the latest books. She goes to London with a younger and admittedly better-looking girlfriend, fully intending to see the famed Italian art exhibition, until her Christmas shopping duties interfere.

The novel closes simply. November has come round again. The lady and her husband have returned from a dismal party at "Lady B.'s." She stays up late writing her diary even as Robert sensibly asks "'Why don't I get into bed?' "

The enchantment of the Diary is its calm, intelligent, almost-loving and just slightly acidic depiction of ordinary life among deeply ordinary people. Some of the Provincial Lady's English references are difficult for the 21st-century American reader to follow. Her husband's occupation is mysterious, for one thing. He is Lady Boxe's "agent," which appears to put them both in a position of some subservience to the grande dame, and yet they are summoned to her country-house parties and seem to have a responsibility for taking the lead in the village's social and fund-raising affairs as well. A hint of the tension is conveyed early on when the heroine writes, "have absolutely decided that if Lady B. should introduce us to distinguished literary friends, or anyone else, as Our Agent, and Our Agent's wife, I shall at once leave the house."

The Provincial Lady's family and financial worries will also strike the modern reader as odd. She considers herself worked to death, yet employs a cook, two housemaids, and a French governess for the children. She pawns family jewelry and sells off old clothes to bring in cash, but sends her son to boarding school and manages to take a trip with friends to the south of France -- albeit, in the off season. " 'But why not go at the right time of year?' " Lady B. scolds.

Nevertheless, the almost relentless domesticity of this country gentlewoman's life, and her droll, engrossed, and un-self-pitying coping with it, ring true -- even nearly eighty years on -- for every reader who has ever complained about the daily grind. Practically everyone and everything in her world takes precedence over her own time and her own "little" plans; this is a part of being human, particularly a part of being a wife and mother, but her reaction to it is what makes this charming anonymous, in fact, a great Lady.
Even further back, I had a professor who re-read Pride and Prejudice, and other favorite novels, every year. The Diary of a Provincial Lady may not quite merit that attention, but when I do think of it and reopen it, it's usually in the gray days of November and December, which is when the story commences. The rock-cake quote specifically occurred to me now, eighty-one years on, because I am planning a tea this afternoon in honor of my daughter's birthday. The milestone has, so far, gone rather unremarked as it fell among Thanksgiving plans and a session, endured by the honoree herself, at the oral surgeon's office. All four wisdom teeth at once.

She wants a tea for her birthday. Delightful, but what does one serve? This will be afternoon tea, not "high tea" which is nothing but a normal 6 p.m. dinner with tea as the beverage instead of wine or beer. I grew up on these "high" teas and never knew it. Perhaps it was a habit handed down unthinkingly from English and Irish ancestors surnamed Smith, Swan, and Foy.

Anyway for hints on service, we turn to this properly English source, our Provincial Lady of the Unappetising Rock Cakes. (She has a wonderful gift for capitalizing Meaningful Things.) Her menu for tea is worth relating in its full context. Here, on "April 2nd," her young neighbor Barbara has come to confide those love troubles.

"...Can she, on the other hand, give up dear Crosbie, who has never loved a girl before, and says that he never will again? No, she cannot.

"Barbara weeps. I kiss her. Howard Fitzsimmons [the manservant] selects this moment to walk in with the tea, at which I sit down again in confusion and begin to talk about the Vicarage daffodils ....

"Atmosphere ruined, and destruction completed by my own necessary enquiries as to Barbara's wishes in the matter of milk, sugar, bread-and-butter, and so on. (Mem.: must speak to Cook about sending in minute segment of sponge-cake, remains of one which, to my certain recollection, made its first appearance more than ten days ago. Also, why perpetual and unappetising procession of small rock cakes?"
So: bread and butter then, and small rock cakes, though we can hope they need not be as unappetising as all that. Judging by the recipe to hand from the British & Irish food guide writing at About.com, "rock" cakes are little more than cookies studded with dried fruit; any drop cookie -- cookie batter dropped from a spoon onto a baking sheet, aren't we clever -- will have a rounded and rock-like appearance. For the sake of authenticity, however, here is the recipe, from About.com's Elaine Lemm.


Rock cakes
  • 8 oz/ 225g self raising flour
  • 1 tsp double action baking powder (US) or 1 tsp baking powder (UK)
  • 4 oz/110g soft butter or margarine
  • 2 oz/ 55g granulated sugar
  • 4 0z/ 110g mixed dried fruit
  • 2 oz/ 55g currants
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1 - 3 tbsp milk
  • Demerara sugar for sprinkling
  • Oil for greasing
  • NOTE: Some reviewers of this recipe have suggested adding 1 tsp mixed spice**


  • Heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6
  • Sieve the flour and baking powder into a large baking bowl, add the softened butter or margarine, and lightly rub together with fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  • Add the sugar and the dried fruit and mix so all ingredients are well incorporated.
  • Add the egg and 1 tbsp of the milk and mix to create a stiff dough. If the mixture is still dry add milk a tbsp at a time until required consistency.
  • Lightly grease two baking sheets.
  • Using a tablespoon divide the mixture into 12 mounds evenly spaced on the 2 baking sheets. Sprinkle with the demerara sugar.
  • Bake in the preheated oven for 15 mins or until golden brown and well risen.
** Some reviewers have suggested adding a tsp of mixed spice. I like the addition but it really is optional. Try both and see which you like. If you cant find mixed spice outside of the UK am told pumpkin pie mix is a good substitute. Enjoy.


Now, a tiny word of warning. If, after you make and enjoy tea with rock cakes, your life eerily follows the pattern of the Provincial Lady's, you will next get a "curious and unpleasant form of chill" which will turn into measles. But have hope. You will survive of course, and upon recovery -- helped along by the hiring of "expensive hospital nurse" -- you will be given "champagne, grapes, and Valentine's Meat Juice." It sounds most comforting, though the identity of this last product is a bit of research we shall have to put off to another day.
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2009 Rodney Strong reserve chardonnay

Date: Wed, Nov 28, 2012

A sweet, sweet, sunny gold, caramel-scented, California butter bomb of a chardonnay. What do I mean by "butter bomb"? my daughter sensibly asked. It's like drinking a cup of melted butter. Almost no exaggeration.

It is very delicious, but you might just as easily enjoy this as a dessert wine rather than as an accompaniment to even the richest meal. No exaggeration at all.

Retail, about $30.

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2011 Two Princes riesling

Date: Mon, Nov 26, 2012

Delightful as rieslings always are, though this one was just plain sweet, and did not have the startling, sophisticated lemon cake-and-cinnamon effects that more exalted rieslings do. I must confess, I chose it for the label. And the provenance (Germany, specifically Nahe.) And the price -- retail, about $9.

Customer story: middle aged, in the act of taking a pinot grigio from the shelf, says she brought the same to her family's Thanksgiving and her elderly mother didn't like it. "I can't drink this!" "Mom, it's a Robert Mondavi pinot grigio. It's delicious."

"I can't drink this. Look in my refrigerator, there's a bottle of wine in there. I'll have that. It's a riesling."

"Mom. That one is from last year."

"So? It was never opened."

Middle-aged daughter dutifully opened the riesling that had been in the fridge for a year. Elderly mother sipped it happily, pronouncing it far finer than the fresh pinot grigio.

Telling me the story, middle aged daughter rolled her eyes and laughed. "I'm convinced it's the taste buds." She meant that old age wreaks havoc on them.

I weighed the story in my mind as I watched her depart. A very reputable but mass-produced California pinot grigio, not a grape to go tiger shooting with, versus a riesling -- unknown to be sure, but still -- a grape admired for age-worthy sugars and acids, that had been abundantly chilled for a year.

"Convinced it's the taste buds"? Yes. Yes, it may have been just that.

More on Two Princes here.

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Figuring out spaghetti squash (with Mrs. J.J. Pickle)

Date: Sun, Nov 25, 2012

Ah, Cucurbita pepo. The easiest way to treat it is to hack the vegetable in half, scoop out the seeds, and place it, cavity down, in a glass baking dish along with a very scant one-quarter cup water. Cover the dish loosely -- I balance a microwave-safe plate on top of it, remaining unsure whether this actually aids in cooking or is psychologically helpful only -- and put it in the microwave to cook on high power for eight to ten minutes. It is done when you pull it out, steaming, turn it over, and scrape out great forkfuls of tender-crisp yellow flesh from the collapsing rind. (A very satisfying chore.) Pile them into a plate. Anoint them lavishly with butter and salt and pepper, and you have a simple, and most comforting, accompaniment to any meal.

I say all this required "figuring out" because one can, you know, make mistakes even with kindergarten-level zapped spaghetti squash. The original instructions, from a gold foil sticker on the actual spheroid itself, required one to cover the squash-bearing, microwave-safe dish with plastic wrap before cooking. This seemed to smother the vegetable, and to cause it to come to the table all watery and flaccid. Of course one could simply bake it, scooped and seeded, in a preheated 350 F oven. While this might help concentrate the yellowy squashy flavor, it also takes forever -- up to an hour and a half -- and unfailingly conflicts with other uses for the oven. Let's say that on a lazy Sunday afternoon one wants to bake a chicken or a pot roast at 325 F for a few hours, plus serve spaghetti squash and have all ready at the same time. No, no, better to zap it, as I have figured out how to do. Thank heaven I'm fairly bright about things.

Our spaghetti squash, you must know, is botanically Cucurbita [of the cucumber family] pepo [a "particular form of berry with a protective rind and a mass of storage tissue containing many seeds" -- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking]. It is a winter squash, meaning that it is kept on the vine to mature and develop a hard skin and dry interior flesh before going into storage. Summer squash such as zucchini are picked immature and used right away, retaining thin edible skins and succulent flesh. However "the differences between summer and winter squash thus correspond to differences in use, not to divisions between the four principal botanical species of squash," the Oxford Companion to Food explains. Strangely enough, botanically speaking the summer squashes, the hard dark green, ribbed round acorn squash, and most pumpkins are C. pepo, just like our spaghetti squash. The other familiar grocery store type, butternut, is its own species, C. moschata. The old-fashioned-sounding Hubbard squash, very large, grey-green, and "warted" in appearance, is also another species, C. maxima.

If a squash variety can be said to be conspicuously absent from older cookbooks, then spaghetti squash is it. I have a collection of about fifty books (small by professional standards), not counting the seven devoted to baking and sweets. Most are from the 1950s and '60s. "Squash" is indexed and cooked in them, certainly. Often it is Hubbard. It's never spaghetti. Perhaps the reason is that it's a "recent variety," as Marion Cunningham attests in her 1986 Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Even when one moves forward into the 21st century and finds it for example in Ruth Reichl's Gourmet, still one sees it prepared as simply as above, dressed only with butter, garlic, and "Moroccan spices" (cumin, coriander, and cayenne). It's as though professionals haven't had enough time to think complex thoughts about it. Perhaps once we have forked it out of its shell and piled it into a serving bowl, there is little else to do but treat it as, well -- spaghetti.

Shall we be adventurous anyway? In one of the books of my retro collection, The Congressional Club Cookbook (1970), there is a squash recipe contributed by Mrs. J.J. Pickle, "wife of Representative (Texas)." We will have a look at it presently, but first the history behind this Club deserves a nod.

The Congressional Club was founded in 1908, at the suggestion of Congressman Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, to serve as a non-partisan social center for the wives of U.S. Representatives and Senators. The women who swiftly took up Mr. Lowden's idea wanted the club officially incorporated by an Act of Congress, but they only got that done because one of the Club's vice-presidents inveigled her husband, Congressman John Sharp Williams, to take her out to lunch on the afternoon of the vote. This gallant Southern gentleman, who would and did drop everything when his wife knocked on his door and expressed a wish to dine, opposed the notion of women's clubs at all. He had to be escorted out into the fresh air and away from his filibuster on immigration ....

All went according to plan. The resolution passed, Williams-less, and the Club was officially incorporated in May 1908. At first it met in the "historically important" home of former Senator Gorman of Maryland, at 1432 K Street. In 1914 a house was built for it at 2001 New Hampshire Avenue, which still serves as its venue. Members are the wives of present or past U.S. Representatives, Senators, or Supreme Court Justices, as well as the wives of members of the president's cabinet. "Once a member, always a member, upon payment of annual dues." The Club still publishes a cookbook. My 1970 edition happens to be the eighth; you may log on and purchase the newest, the fourteenth (2006), from the Congressional Club's website.

But let us return to Mrs. Pickle, member. She was the second wife (married in 1960) of a legendary Texas Congressman and protege of Lyndon Johnson who served in the House for thirty-one years, from a special election December 1963 to his retirement at the age of 81 in 1995. Beryl Pickle's recipe is called El Paso Squash. I would think the two pounds of "yellow" squash called for could just as well be our C. pepo as anything else. Spaghetti squash's slightly crunchy texture and interesting form would make a nice foil to the simplicity of onion, chili peppers, and "Longhorn cheddar cheese" (Longhorn refers only to a shape of American, processed, cheddar-ish cheese. Surely any nice cheese would do. Even cheddar.)

El Paso Squash
2 lbs. yellow squash
1 onion, chopped
1 can chili peppers -- (by all means be modern, and substitute fresh)
grated cheddar cheese
Cook and drain the squash. Saute onion [in butter or perhaps olive oil?] and place it in the bottom of a buttered casserole. On top of the onion, place layers of squash, canned green chilies, and cheese. Repeat layers n this order, ending with cheese. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 F.

Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Pickle, departing for Washington in December 1963. Image from "James Jarrell Pickle," www.austinschools.org; image originally from Austin American Statesman.
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Turkey leftovers: just add cream ...

Date: Fri, Nov 23, 2012

"I'm a cream fan," Simone Beck wrote in one of her cookbooks -- I think it was Food and Friends -- explaining that a spoonful or two of cream adds flavor and body to all kinds of sauces and stews, without overwhelming anything else (as olive oil might) or adding exorbitant calories (as butter would).

I'll take her up on her enthusiasm, and offer to you today a dish rich with cream plus a few of cream's best friends -- then again, what is not a friend of cream? -- apples, cider, and poultry. The original comes from The Gourmet's Guide to French Cooking by Alison Burt, published by Octopus Books in London in 1973. This was another library book sale cast-off, as you may guess. The recipe is called poulet à la vallée d'Auge, chicken in the style of the Auge valley (in Normandy). It asks us to braise chicken pieces with apples in butter and then finish them in a cider and cream sauce in the oven. All fine, but we'll use your Thanksgiving turkey leftovers in place of chicken, thus achieving the point of putting cooked poultry into a sauce, because apart from other reasons the Miss Burt's concoction is, to my mind, overfussy with multiple sautéeings of multiple apples, and multiple separate simmerings of cider-and-apples, when one doing of each task would have sufficed

So let us begin. You have ready -- and you are ready to adjust the proportions of, so that neither apples, soupy cider sauce, nor meat predominate --
Leftover holiday bird of your choice, dark meat or white, whole pieces or diced meat
4-5 Tablespoons butter
5-6 firm tart apples, peeled, cored, chopped
3 Tablespoons flour
2 cups hard cider -- the good alcoholic stuff, not sweet cider
2/3 cup heavy cream
bouquet garni -- a bundle of herbs tied together and allowed to float freely in a sauce, the bundle to include bay leaf, thyme, and parsley

So simple.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the apples, salt and pepper them lightly, and fry until they begin to soften and brown a little. Add the flour, and stir and cook until the flour bubbles up into a paste and begins to color slightly. Stir in the cider, bring to a boil, add the bouquet garni, and simmer for about half an hour, allowing the flavors to meld. If you happen to have any drippings from your roast turkey, or any chicken or turkey broth on hand, a quarter cup or so of either would not be amiss in the sauce.

Pour in the cream, and stir and return to a gentle simmer. Add the leftover turkey. Continue simmering until everything is heated through. Fish out the bouquet garni, adjust the seasonings, and serve.
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Bring a sour to Thanksgiving -- Ichtegem's Grand Cru

Date: Thu, Nov 22, 2012

Because it's delicious, as Flemish sours are. (I am always so pleased to find a flavorful beer without bitterness that I can't understand beer geek-reviewers only giving a Flemish sour like this a score of "3.15" out of 5 at Beer Advocate, for example. What's not to like?) The Ichtegem's people might just consider stepping up their marketing a little, however -- the label art is not all it could be. See "Best beer packaging, ever."

Retail, about $4 for an 11 ounce bottle.
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Best beer packaging ever -- "Sour Power"

Date: Wed, Nov 21, 2012

Naturally, the packaging is for a selection of delicious Flemish sour ales. Leave it to the kids to wrap their thick, sweet, quadruple-hopped and high-alcohol monsters around with coarse references to dogs or tragic shipwrecks or prostitution. Adults brewing fine old things restrict themselves to bright colors and cheery images of old movie stars. That is, I think they do -- I recognize David Niven here, but not the woman or the other man. A co-worker suggests Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, but somehow I don't see the resemblance.

In this six pack we find two bottles each of Monk's Cafe, Petrus Oud Bruin, and Petrus Aged Pale. "The key to heaven," the label on Oud Bruin says, and if in fact the key to heaven would be a beer, I entirely concur it would be a sour. The deep clear brown-maple color, the gigantic spun-brown-sugar head -- the rich sweet-sour flavors of caramel, nuts, and cola -- bitterness almost non-existent -- and even the Oud Bruin is a tad bitter for me. (Drink it with food, to avoid a long-lasting bitter aftertaste.)

And I don't see why it must always be dogs associated with beer marketing. (We are back to complaining about the kids again.) Why not cats? Herewith, I offer these two images to any micro-brewer in need of ideas for his newest label. Bright colors, grace, repose, regality -- shouldn't some beer say that about itself? Note how the two cats share the same corner of the couch, at different times of the day of course. And Nicholas must have his blue pillow.

There. Half a dozen ideas already. "Blue Pillow" ale, "Shared Couch," "Sleepy Nicholas," and so on. "Martha's Glare." Please make that one a sour.
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Klipfel Crémant d'Alsace brut

Date: Tue, Nov 20, 2012


Delicious. Crémant means sparkling; Alsace is the region of eastern France which produces this sparkling wine, in the style of Champagne, that may not be called "Champagne" because it is not actually made in, etc., etc. You know the drill. The grapes permitted for the Crémant d'Alsace AC -- it is an appellation, a place guaranteed to make a wine a certain way -- may include chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot noir, riesling, and the little known Auxerrois blanc.

So one night we ate polenta and garlic, mushrooms and tomatoes, green peppers and spicy Italian sausages. This Klipfel happened to be in my refrigerator. I asked the daughter's boyfriend whether he would like a glass of wine with dinner, and he in turn asked, "I don't know -- what wine goes with this?" And I said, "Whatever is in my refrigerator." He laughed. So we drank Klipfel Crémant d'Alsace. Why not?

And might it also pair well with Thanksgiving? Why not?

Retail, about $16.
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Perfecting pie crust, and politics -- regardless

Date: Sun, Nov 18, 2012

How many times, dear things, have we bought and eaten a fruit pie that was only a glum approximation of a pie? You'll recognize the symptoms: a flat, thick, greasy brown top crust, a filling of sweet sludge in which possibly five or six pieces of underripe, undercooked peach or apple, or a few cherries, glumly float. A bottom crust of which the less said the better. And we know pie can be better than this, if only because we have seen gorgeous photographs of flaky light pastry the color of spun gold trembling to contain an orchard's worth of delicately spiced and juicy fruits, in the pages of gourmet books and magazines. And only there. Too often, even professional bakeries cannot do what they should.

If you love pie you might think of attempting the miracle at home. More power to you, but be warned. Cookbook and magazine authors who reassure you that pie-making is not difficult are being kind. It is tricky, and you will only get a "knack" through practice and, in my case, through the consulting, at long last and by sheer chance, of an authority which finally laid down some new and sensible rules. It was an "Aha!" pie making moment. And don't we all want those?

It's kind of like, you must know, an "Aha" political moment. If the briefest of digressions is permissible, I'll ask -- do you think the recent election was such a moment? Is it true, as some people maintain, that the victor of two weeks ago, liberalism, is a religion more than anything else? If so then that is bad news for the Republican party, and for people who wish their conservatism somehow to enjoy political representation in the public square. For of course, a campaigning religion will paradoxically not respond to political argument. Try it. For example: "What is Solyndra?"

I had a professor who startled me when I was nineteen by saying that a society can have either freedom or equality, but not both. "If people are free, they are free to be unequal. Equality has to be enforced," he said. Freedom is a focused status -- either I can do what I want, or I can't -- which may be seen and grasped and lost and fought for and argued about through politics. Equality is a kaleidoscopic abstraction -- "life isn't fair, and that's wrong" -- to be yearned for, mourned over, imposed, believed in, defined and redefined with every passing day. Political voters go to the polls thinking of tangibles like unemployment and entitlement spending. The liberal faithful, devoted to equality and above argument, go to the same polls uninterested in anything except the chance to assert right thinking and to poke the infidel beast in the eye.

This time, he was "Mitt the Shit." (Check your blithe young relatives' Facebook pages if you doubt me.) In four years, his shape will have changed but the faithful, gnostics to a man and to a woman, will know him and hate him. And if they are the country's majority, then their religion may be ever unbeatable in the mere political arena. Piling up the votes for a heavenly abstraction would tend to weed out non-believers from the ballot, and to chloroform quaint old fashioned things like "political wrangling." Imagine! "Wrangling!" -- when folks are suffering.

Yet we all still need to eat. (If I were an acerbic dowager à la Maggie Smith's Lady Grantham, I would at this point say, we need to find a way to live a meaningful life even though our leaders and our fellow citizens wreak havoc on us through their heavenly foolishness. Though that seems harsh.) Because we must eat I begin to understand, just perhaps, why old civilizations make such a to-do about food. In illustration I remember the story, in the strange classic cookbook The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, of the young French girl, one of the Auberge's later owners -- Mademoiselle Ray I think -- despondent because the Nazi occupation of her country looked to be making it impossible for her to collect the necessaries for her family's traditional Christmas terrine. March had already come, and where on earth was she to get I don't know what, the calves' feet for the decorative aspic, the brandy to soak the raisins, and so on.

Her father saves the day. He comes home one lowering afternoon, that very March, leading a cow. "She was a pregnant cow." A pregnant cow meant a calf near Christmas, therefore calves' feet, therefore calves' foot jelly. "My terrine was saved." The stout patriot safely removed from the fray might ask, why on earth weren't you out in the woods with the partisans circa 1942, instead of worrying about holiday treats? But who knows? Whatever that family's tale of imposed havoc, they had to eat. Denizens of an old civilization, perhaps they were wise and human, humane, to think especially about that terrine. Or, perhaps it's merely mathematically true that old civilizations, suffering much and responsible for much, also happen to have accumulated a lot of recipes.

Regardless. We were talking about needing to eat and about pie, wasn't it? Allow me to shade in a few details.

For years I trusted, tried, and raged against a basic recipe for a 2-crust pie from my most-used kitchen bible, Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Are you ready? It goes like this. Combine:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
Cut in with a pastry blender or two knives:
  • 2/3 cup shortening
When the mixture resembles coarse meal or tiny peas, sprinkle over it:
  • 1/3 cup ice water, 1 Tablespoon at a time.
Mix lightly only until the dough holds together when pressed gently into a ball. After this, you are ready to roll it out and fill and bake the pie.

Blessings on Marion Cunningham, and may she rest in peace. She died in July 2012, at the age of ninety. But my response to this is "Um, not likely." I have never been able to conjure these ingredients in such a way that a scant 1/3 cup of water moistens 2 cups of flour. And, sprinkling in the water 1 Tablespoon at a time, mixing after each addition, would seem to directly contradict the other important instruction she and all authorities give, namely not to overhandle pie dough lest it grow tough. "Treat it firmly, not timidly, but don't fuss with it."

Oh, I stopped fussing with it. I almost stopped trying to make pies at all, and the few times I did, I kept extremely calm and simply picked up the dry pieces of dough as they shredded there on the table, or fell off the rolling pin. I layered them into my pie plate and carried on with the fruit and the baking. The results were glum.

Then came my Aha! pastry moment. By sheer luck I discovered Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia [Child, of course]. And there I found my new pie crust recipe. "If you could have only one pie dough in your repertoire, it would have to be this one," she writes. A lot of cookbook authors say that about a lot of things, but here the lady happens to be right.

Baking with Julia's perfect pie dough
  • 5 and 1/4 cups pastry or all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs. salt
  • 1 and 1/2 sticks cold butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1 and 1/4 cups chilled vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup ice water
Note: the recipe makes enough for two double-crust pies or four single-crust tarts. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the butter either with a pastry blender or your fingertips, and then cut in the shortening in the same way. When the dough looks like crumbs or "small curds," use a wooden spoon to stir in the ice water all at once. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, knead it only slightly, then wrap it in plastic wrap and and put it in the refrigerator to chill for at least two hours. Then it will be ready to roll out and use as desired.What you don't immediately need will keep well-wrapped in the freezer for about a month.

Here are our "Aha" pie making moments: the use of butter (for flavor) as well as shortening (for flakiness), and proportionally a lot of both; the stirring in of what seems a properly copious amount of ice water -- no dribbles and drops, no delicate tossing after each addition of a scant Tablespoon; finally, the long chilling of the dough. During that time of course you will prepare your filling, which is nothing but fruit and sugar, and you will have time to marvel at how simple the concept of fruit pie is after all. It requires fewer ingredients than cake- or cookie-baking, and there is no fuss over nut-chopping, preparing pans, adding liquid ingredients by thirds, the whipping of egg whites or the boiling of frostings. Small wonder that biographies of pioneer women tell us Mrs. Wyoming or whoever routinely had time to "bake a dozen pies before breakfast."

One more thing. Absent a pastry cutter or a fork, professionals seem obsessed with only permitting us to handle pie dough with the tips of our fingers. (I defy you.) The reason seems to be to avoid warming the dough with our whole hand, melting the chilled butter and ruining the chance for a delicate result (since it is the little crumbs and pieces of butter and flour that bake up to flakiness). I say, use your whole hand, just as you do when making shortcrust doughs you don't "fuss with." Think lemon bars. Getting in there and tussling with the dough enables you to feel it start to turn moist and crumbly as it should. I find the speed obtained from this handling avoids the toughness that comes from too much fiddling with a fork. Professionals will smile, but I give you permission to sacrifice a little spun-gold perfection thereby.

And now you know all. Get out there, dear things, and make a pie, and live that meaningful life. Regardless.
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Wines of Chile -- 2010 Carmen gran reserva carmenere

Date: Sat, Nov 17, 2012

It's pizza in a glass --
green pepper
thick sauce
and yes, even sausage ...

Delicious. Enjoy it with, oh I don't know, pizza?
Carmen wines here; Retail, about $16.
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Culinary hall of fame: Ruth Berolzheimer (and Your Sautéed Liver)

Date: Wed, Nov 14, 2012

Among my collection of retro and downright antique cookbooks, I am glad to possess a monster called the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer and published in 1950. The Culinary Arts Institute, not to be confused with today's Culinary Institute of America set on its gorgeous New York campus, seems to have been at one time the pride of Chicago, and Miss Berolzheimer its alpha lioness. Many of the enticing little retro cooking pamphlets to be picked up, just as I did the monster, at antique malls and castoff library book sales -- Cooling Dishes for Hot Weather, Entertaining Six or Eight -- also bear this editress' name, and the name of her institution. Who knows what mid-twentieth century avalanche of long-forgotten hostess, bridal, and housewarming gifts these little remainders represent?

If you want to learn more about Miss Berolzheimer and the Culinary Arts Institute, and how it all began in the 1880s with the Butterick sewing pattern company's PR-and-dress patterns magazine, The Delineator (and how Miss Berolzheimer's surviving nephew in Evanston remembered her as a good organizer -- founded the first Jewish day school in Chicago Heights at the age of seventeen, was only the second woman to graduate from the University of Illinois with a chemical engineering degree -- but not a very good cook -- plus she was "tall, intimidating, crusty, and critical"), if you want to learn more, I say, you can do no better than to consult Mike Sula's article in the Chicago Reader ("The Cookbook Queen," Sept. 11, 2008)..

But perhaps she was not as crusty and intimidating as all that. Every chapter of our monster Encylcopedic Cookbook is titled, endearingly, "Your [topic]." Your 2,000 Facts about Food, Your Egg Dishes, Your Sauces, Gravies, and Dressings, Your Quick Dinners for the Woman in a Hurry. And on and on. We get the impression in glancing over all these titles that Miss Berolzheimer was anxious to soothe and encourage inexperienced young things in the kitchen. Don't fret, her posture seems to say. All this is already "yours."

All right. Let's take her at her word. Let's say we are a Woman in a Hurry. We just worked a ten-hour day. Our "prove up" court date is set for late December. We're worried about what both divorce and Obamacare are going to do to our finances. Leave it to fool men to take away perhaps a third of our income on a kingly whim. Our harassed ancestress circa 1950 lived in a freer time, and would not have had to worry about that. To top it off, our dear gentleman friend faces jury duty and a kidney stone.

Hurry? Yes, please -- but we are only allotted six pages out of an encyclopedic 974 for our rush. We can choose our menus on these six pages from "For the woman who lives alone" and "For the family of 3." That's all. Instructions are even spelled out to the very day: Ms. Berolzheimer, crusty as she may be, seems to think that because we're pressed for time, we may forget things, and will need the week entirely planned out for us. All right. It's Wednesday. On Wednesday she allows us to eat:

Sautéed liver with onions
Buttered potato
Radish roses
Grapefruit salad
Fudge squares

I like the fact that she thinks we have taken the trouble to make Fudge Squares preparatory to this evening, precisely as she thinks we are going to cook apricots tonight, for tomorrow's permitted Thursday dessert (Apricot Whip). Here is everything we need to know for Wednesday's dinner, or, "How to go about it (requires 30 minutes)."
Scrub 2 potatoes and cook, covered, in small amount of water. Pare grapefruit, cut out sections and arrange on lettuce. Add French dressing. Chill
Set table. (For the woman who live alone! This is most civilized -- we must all do it.)
Sauté liver and onions.
Peel potato and reheat in butter.
Keep other potato for Friday (You will gash its top and cover it with shredded cheese, then pop it under the broiler to reheat -- it will accompany your pan fried perch.)
Only -- when have we made the radish roses?
Preparation for Thursday.
Cook apricots for whip. Rub through sieve, cover and place in refrigerator.

And the liver itself? Here is "how to go about it:"

Sautéed liver with onions
1/4 pound beef liver, sliced
2 Tablespoons cracker crumbs
1/4 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
3 Tablespoons bacon fat
2 small onions, sliced
Wash liver and drain. Dip into crumbs; season. Fry liver slowly in bacon fat in preheated frying pan until browned on both sides. Add sliced onions and fry slowly until onions are tender.

At just this moment, I want the detective from Laura to stroll in to the shadowy and lace-bedizened apartment, shotgun in the crook of his arm. I want him to smirk about our Career, and about how Dames look when they Get Killed. And I -- the Heroine -- want to drag on my cigarette coolly and say, "I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don't do of my own free will."

Take that, O kingly men.
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Apple and root vegetable soup

Date: Mon, Nov 12, 2012

When the weather cools down for good, after a burst of very windy late summeriness you might have enjoyed a week ago -- a day ago -- you might in turn be very ready for Apple and Root Vegetable Soup. This comes courtesy of the "Cooking with Bon Appétit" series volume French Country Favorites (The Knapp Press, Los Angeles, 1987). The soup is simply leeks, potatoes, carrots, and apples -- and an onion and celery, if you feel adventurous --

-- plus a whole teaspoon of coriander seeds. The use of coriander gives us a chance to recall our friend Sylvia Windle Humphrey, whom we ushered into our Culinary Hall of Fame as a thanks for introducing us to so many herbs and spices, and to revisit that pleasant book of hers. Remember A Matter of Taste?

In it, she describes coriander, Coriandrum sativum, thus:
"The manna of the children of Israel, the Bible says in Numbers 11:7-8, 'was as coriander seed .. . and the people went about and gathered it ....'
"Delicately perfumed and plentiful, coriander has served man since he first learned to season his foods. On early Egyptian papyruses one can read about it in hieroglyphics... ancient Greece also, one learns from Athenaeus, a scholar of the second and third centuries, liked coriander as a seasoning ....
"Today coriander is grown and used all over the world. The Chinese think it especially good in soups. One of the most common seasonings in Mexico, it is cooked in rice, lentil, and meat dishes. The Arab cuisine leans heavily on it ....
"How have we in America lost track of this mild, inexpensive way to give spirit to our foods?"
How indeed? We have also in a way lost track of parsley, and as luck would have it not only does Sylvia Windle Humphrey tell us more about that herb too, but our soup recipe from this French Country Cooking finishes with a persillade, a combination, frequent in southern French cooking, of minced parsley, minced garlic, and olive oil. It makes a robust little miniature salad to be stirred by the spoonful into each bowl of soup at serving.

But first, let us listen to Mrs. Humphrey, on Petroselinum crispum:
"When Parsley Pies were popular in England, in Good Queen Bess's time, then Britain really ruled the waves. None other than whole pastures of parsley were good enough for the horses of the Greek gods, who evidently knew the dietary secrets of keeping their steeds swift and spirited, for parsley is nature's own vitamin pill ...
"For thousands of years parsley has been nourishing man as well as horses. ... Parsley doubling as a flower, or mixed with flowers -- Homer is said to have been fond of a parsley-and-rose motif decorating his banquets -- has gone out of style, as have the parsley crowns such as Hercules wore after conquering the Nemean lion. But no one doubts that dainty bouquets of parsley make many a plain dish feel wanted."

To get everything started, you will need:
10 cups water
1 pound leeks, trimmed, chopped, well washed
1 pound baking potatoes, peeled and diced
1/4 pound carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound sweet apples, peeled, cored, chopped
1 Tablespoon salt
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
For the persillade:
2 cups fresh parsley
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
Combine the water, leeks, potatoes, carrots, apples, salt and bay leaves in a large pot. Tie the coriander seeds and peppercorns in cheesecloth [or fold them into a coffee filter and staple it closed], and add to the pot. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables to a blender or food processor Purée them, and put the purée into a saucepan over medium heat. Add enough of the vegetable cooking liquid (about 2 and 1/2 cups) to make a thick soup, and heat through.

Mix the parsley, oil, and garlic. Ladle the soup into bowls. Swirl some of the persillade into each bowl and serve.(The next day, any leftover parsley mix will be delicious dabbed into spaghetti sauce, a pan of sautéed mushrooms, etc.)

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Moroccan preserved lemons

Date: Sun, Nov 11, 2012

At First Glass will mark its fifth anniversary this coming New Year's Eve, so it plans to celebrate by launching a new theme for the new year. What better than to do a sort of practice run now, and feature a simple recipe on the theme?

At First Glass, you must know, likes -- I like -- lemons. Consider: they are pretty to look at, they go with practically every other basic eatable and drinkable (butter! garlic! sugar! olive oil! cream! gin! and so on!). Stuck with cloves they smell heavenly in a linen closet. Once upon a time they lent their antiseptic and freshening properties to our great-grandmothers' skin and hair care routines. Once upon a time, Mrs. Beeton made them into Lemon Wine (recipe no.1823 of The Book of Household Management -- if you want to make it you will have to lay in fifty lemons and sixteen pounds of sugar, plus have four gallons of water and a "cask" ready). On wallpaper they make a cheerful motif in kitchen decor. They will serve as a battery in sixth-grade science fair projects, though I must admit I am not quite sure why that works.

In any case, let us take our practice run, and stock our virtual pantry today with an abundance of Citrus limon. Because, you know, the things can also be pickled. (Mrs. Beeton did that, too.) Let's make Moroccan Preserved Lemons.

This recipe hails from what is fast becoming my new kitchen Bible, The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine (Condé Nast, 2004). She in turn credits "Mediterranean food authority Paula Wolfert" for what she has adapted.

Moroccan preserved lemons

You will need:
10 to 12 lemons, 6 to preserve, and the rest for their juice
2/3 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
You will also need a 6 cup glass jar with a lid (although I got by with a 32 ounce ex-pickle jar).

First, bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch the 6 lemons to be preserved, whole, for five minutes. Drain. When they are cool enough to handle, cut each into 8 wedges, discarding the seeds. Toss with the salt in a large bowl, and pack them into the jar along with the salt.

Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemons to measure one cup. Pour enough juice into the jar to cover the wedges, and screw on the lid. Shake gently to mix everything. Let stand at room temperature for five days, shaking gently once a day.

Finally, add the olive oil to the jar and refrigerate. The lemons will keep up to a year.

What Gourmet didn't very forthrightly explain was how we use this pickle in cooking. All you want is the rind. When ready to try your new creation you will fork out a wedge or two from your jar, hold the wedge steady on a cutting board with the fork, and with a spoon scrape away the pulp clinging to the wedge. Then you will thinly slice the rind and add that to whatever stew or soup you are making. (I put the slivered rind of two wedges into a quickly made pork meatballs-and-sauce dish, and found that they lent a certain depth of flavor that was hard to identify, but seemed somehow -- professional.) This should help clarify Ruth Reichl's confusing assurance, at the very beginning of her recipe, that we may "save the pulp for bloody Marys or anything else enlivened by a little juice and salt."

The recipe seems to be a sort of training-wheel version of preserved lemons. From David Lebowitz and Nourished Kitchen, to name just two, we learn a different, slow-food way, in which we skip the blanching, only partly quarter the lemons, pack their interiors with salt and reshape them into wholes again, and then press them tightly down into a jar. Over days and weeks of repeated pressing and weighting, they soften, give off their own juice, and so preserve themselves. They are ready for use in a month, and should be refrigerated then.

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