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Can chefs change the way we eat? The Chefs Collaborative is taking a stab at promoting sustainability with a new cookbook of recipes gathered from America’s most notable chef-activists.
Celebrity chefs have a long tradition as tastemakers. It began with Julia Child, the French Chef who influenced Americans’ purchasing decisions about everything from pots and pans to whole chickens. More than 30 years ago another Californian, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, introduced us to mesclun. This baby lettuce mix is now available in every supermarket and served in restaurants across the nation. In today’s television food culture, celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang tempt us with their daring and globetrotting to try foods that are ever more exotic. Meanwhile, another group of chefs in America is influencing another, less flashy but significant trend: responsible eating.
These chefs are members of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit devoted to creating a more sustainable food supply. Working in restaurants across the country, they lead by example: celebrating seasonal, locally produced foods on their menus and advocating for farming and fishing communities. For its 20th anniversary, the organization released its first cookbook, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook: Local, Sustainable, Delicious Recipes from America’s Great Chefs.” Few of the 115 chef contributors are celebrities of TV fame. Instead, they are community leaders who are drawing attention to critical food issues by what they choose to put on the plate.
‘Think like a chef’ with Chefs Collaborative Cookbook
The recipes in this seductively photographed cookbook are grouped in four categories — vegetable and fruits, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, and dairy and eggs. While I expected the recipes to be organized seasonally, this approach made page-turning like armchair-traveling through the seasons. Reading through each recipe inspired me to “think like a chef,” considering how each contributor selected ingredients and flavors together with attention to seasonality, yes, but deliciousness, too.
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By Chefs Collaborative and Ellen Jackson
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Another novelty is that this chef-driven book is not cheffy at all. Certainly the glossy pages include luxury ingredients and multiple steps, but this collection is not intended to dazzle or bewilder with culinary alchemy or sleight of hand. Not one to languor on the coffee table, this chef book is enticing, instructive and very approachable.
Take the recipe for turnip soup from Dan Barber. The chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber is the role model of the sustainable chef. Dining at his Upstate New York destination restaurant-farm-education center was dubbed “a life-changing experience” by Food and Wine.
Turnip soup: There may be no flash to this pea-green fall soup recipe, but there is more than meets the eye. For one, the ingredient list is a carefully selected assemblage of leeks, parsnips, purple-topped turnips plus uncommon parsley root (for which Barber offers a substitution). There is also attentive cooking technique: “Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables” and a teaching note about how parsnips and turnips will be sweeter if harvested after the first frost. Though summer had not yet arrived, I yearned for fall immediately.
Helpful color-coded sections
While the recipes keep the teaching light and informal, other sections of this book offer more hard-hitting resources for study. Interspersed throughout the book, robin’s-egg blue pages called “Breaking It Down” deliver encyclopedic listings demystifying the myriad labels for beef, poultry, seafood, eggs and more, delivering essential understanding for making purchasing decisions today. Other goldenrod-colored pages offer nuts-and-bolts information on topics ranging from using every part of the vegetable to understanding grain varieties to exploring various fish-catching methods. It raises serious issues without being overbearing.
The strength of this book is the variety, including all the highly regarded chefs it introduced me to who work and cook beyond my region. In a series of moss-colored pages titled “Straight Talk,” I read many of them muse about their essential pantry items, their favorite bean varieties, and how they decide between local or organic, among other topics. These read like conversations with the chefs themselves, and I would have welcomed more of them.
As a whole, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” offers insights into the complex web of decisions involved in cooking responsibly and eating mindfully. Without great fanfare, these tastemakers — the contributors and chefs in the Chefs Collaborative — are notable for leading the way to a more sustainable and exemplary way of eating.
Serves 4 to 6
If you make this soup with turnips and parsnips harvested after the first freeze, it will be noticeably sweeter. When exposed to cold weather, root vegetables convert their starches to sugars to prevent the water in their cell structure from freezing. Their survival tactic is our reward.
Parsley root, also known as Hamburg parsley, is a pungent cross between celery and parsley. If you have trouble finding it, substitute 1 cup of peeled, thinly sliced celery root and an additional 2 tablespoons of parsley leaves.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, cut into ¼-inch dice (about ½ cup)
1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped
2 medium purple-top turnips (about ¾ pound), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced
1 parsley root, peeled and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or store-bought)
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup picked fresh chervil leaves
¼ cup picked pale yellow celery leaves (from the core)
1. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and leeks, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly without browning, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the turnips, parsnips, and parsley root and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine well with the leeks and onions, cover, and continue to cook slowly for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables become very soft. Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables.
3. Add the stock, bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches, adding some of the parsley, chervil and celery leaves each time. Make sure each batch is very smooth, then combine and strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve. Chill in an ice bath to preserve the soup’s bright color and fresh flavor. Reheat to serve, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.
Top photo composite: “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” and Dan Barber’s turnip soup. Credits: Courtesy of The Taunton Press
I watched a butchery demonstration by third-generation meat cutter Kari Underly at the annual Chef’s Collaborative conference last year in Seattle. One of the attendees was the editor-in-chief from a national cooking magazine. I asked her what drew her to watch a skilled professional divide muscles from bone and fat. “I just love watching people cut up meat,” she said. “I won’t ever use this stuff, but it’s fascinating.”
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Observing a butcher elegantly wield a knife is a spectacle, one I recommend to anybody tempted by the smells of a burger on the grill. Years ago in cooking school, I was rapt by my first butchery demonstration on a lamb, and I wasn’t even a meat eater then. Since there’s no blood to speak of (slaughter and butchery are two vastly different steps in the process), the butcher’s craft is akin to witnessing a master wood carver create an end table from a stump.
Underly is one of several pro butchers to publish a book on her craft, “The Art of Beef Cutting.” Her step-by-step illustrated guide is geared toward professional meat cutters, but is approachable for motivated home cooks. Other recent books are for the general meat eater eager to learn their striploin from their skirt steak. They include San Francisco 4505 Meats butcher Ryan Farr’s “Whole Beast Butchery” and New York-based Fleisher’s owners Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.”
Along with “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” these books aim at the DIY market and the mania for home-cured bacon and assorted salumi. The newest butchery book out this spring is “Butchery & Sausage-Making for Dummies.” Written by San Francisco Chef Tia Harrison, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild and co-owner of Avedanos Meats, this book brings butchery to the masses.
As I paged through illustrations, photographs and diagrams of animal carcasses and cuts in each of these books, I wondered how many people would find it both fascinating and useful.
Butchery is back, but is it relevant for everyone?
By the time I witnessed Underly in action in Seattle, I had years of informal experience cutting up parts of beef, elk, pork and lamb, whole rabbits, chickens, duck and turkey.
Laying my hands on primals and smaller muscle groups gave me firsthand understanding of how those parts related to the whole. I had an intimate understanding of how the composition of the shoulder differed from the leg, right down to the muscle texture and color.
These experiences handling, cutting, trimming, chopping and grinding my own meat not only improved my knife work, they also enhanced my cooking knowledge and skill with anything meaty.
Even if you don’t aspire to break down a whole hog or side of beef, there are surprisingly many transferable skills to be learned from a bit of butchery. Butchery guidebooks such as these are an accessible starting point for seeking out new opportunities to use your knife.
You can also sign up for a class, watch an online video or enlist a more experienced friend.
Here’s what some hands-on butchery experience can do for you:
- Connect with the meat you eat, its source and quality. Once you get up close and personal with your meat, it’s impossible not to ask questions, including how was this animal raised? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered? You become a more conscious carnivore.
- Learn the location and composition of cuts. Carcasses are like jigsaw puzzles. When you take just one piece at a time, you can more easily grasp the whole. You can then translate what you know about beef to pork to lamb, or chicken to duck to game birds.
- Increase your confidence at the meat counter and in the kitchen. Have you felt shy approaching the butcher counter? Or, do you only buy steaks because you know how to cook them? With a little experience, you become the master your favorite meats.
- Understand the reasons for different cooking methods. The proportion of lean to fat in any cut determines whether it needs slow cooking or can be roasted, grilled and sautéed. Demystify the cooking and your options open wide.
- Waste less and use more of the meat you buy. Whether you purchase a whole tenderloin to trim or a pork shoulder to smoke, you’ll find a good use for every morsel of meat, fat and even bone. Stock and sausage making are natural next steps.
5 Butchery Skills for Beginners
With your knives — a boning knife and chef’s knife are all you need — freshly sharpened, here are some beginning butchery skills anyone can try at home:
- Slice your own steaks from a strip loin (or boneless rib roast or top round roast)
- Bone a whole chicken
- Bone a leg of lamb, roll and tie it
- Butterfly pork loin
- Trim a whole tenderloin
Top photo: A butcher Frenching a rack of lamb. Credit: David L. Reamer
I am a casual tea drinker. That’s to say, I am like nearly everyone in the U.S. who enjoys this beverage hot and cold. I am less particular about tea grades than coffee beans, microbrews or wine varietals, and my cupboard holds boxes of Celestial Seasonings herbals and Tazo’s Zen green tea blend, along with loose-leaf black teas in silver tins marked Chai and Assam. Behind them sits a lone white packet of Lipton’s Cold Brew leftover from summer. My tea collection is a snapshot of the evolution of tea drinking in America over the past 40 years. And the man who has single-handedly upgraded all our tastes in tea is tea master Steven Smith.
If you haven’t heard his name, you certainly know the groundbreaking tea companies he’s founded, including Stash Tea Company and Tazo. Recently, I met this Portland, Ore., native as he conducted a tea tasting at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in the Willamette Valley.
Tea at a wine tasting? “Tea is like a fine wine,” Smith explained without pretense. “Chefs and winemakers understand that the quality of tea is on par with Pinots.” I’d hardly expected to be sampling oolongs at this annual July fête, but it turned out to be a wise choice at 1 p.m. and more relevant to my everyday drink choices.
A career in tea
It’s no exaggeration to say that Smith is a brewing visionary. With Stash’s founding in 1972, he made tea special, retailing the brand exclusively to food service outlets. I remember the alluring tea displays and rainbow-colored foil packets that introduced me to my first Earl Grey and herbal blends like Ruby Mist. This was not my grandmother’s cup of black Lipton I sipped from her china cups, and it opened up a new world of tea.
After leaving Stash more than 20 years later in the hands of Japan’s oldest tea company, Smith created one-of-a-kind black, green and herbal tea blends with a start-up named Tazo. This exotic-sounding brand turned tea into an aspiration. I was not alone in being inspired by the clean package design and bags labeled Zen, Calm and the best-selling black tea, Awake. You can also thank Smith for the concept of ready-to-drink teas, cold blends of juice and tea sold in glass bottles. In 1999, Starbucks snatched up Tazo, with Smith staying onboard to create dozens of proprietary tea blends until he retired in 2006.
Within two years, Smith was back in action in the same quiet corner of Portland where he began. Steven Smith Teamaker, his most personal brand to date, is based in a wood-paneled tasting room and workshop crafting small-batch teas with the attention of great perfumers, chocolatiers and winemakers. His newest venture is the convergence of all he’s done before. The company’s ultra blends and signature tea beverages in irresistible packaging are coveted by Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma and other high-end retailers, along with motivated tea drinkers like me.
In his early 60s and slender, the silver-haired Smith favors skinny jeans and dark colors. With nearly a dozen teapots arrayed before him and an expectant audience, he poured hot water over them with the ease of watering plants. Affable, and unassuming, he timed the steeping for each, then dosed the tea into small bowls for tasting with his favorite silver spoon. Rather, it was unabashed slurping, a technique that aspirates the liquor to express its full flavors. Yet, he made it look so unfussy. This was no high tea, just appreciation of all its wondrous varieties. And the one who enjoyed it above all was Smith.
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He escorted us through a personal slideshow trip to tea plantations in China and India, and illustrated the processing of the leaves from picking and rolling to oxidation and drying. How remarkable, I thought, that he has spent his entire career working with a single plant. For Camellia sinensis, the tea plant produces every tea we drink: white, green, oolong and fully fermented black teas from Darjeerling to Keemun. This plant is the ingredient in all but the large family of herbal teas.
Tea tasting like a connoisseur with tea master Steven Smith
Smith slurped his Keemun, “one of the grand crus of the tea world,” called Keemun Hao Ya. “There should be an evolution of flavor in the tea,” he said. He sampled again and commented on flavors including oil and charcoal with winey notes. We were a long way from Stash Earl Grey. I was challenged to tune into my taste buds. Especially captivating was Methode Noir, a Ceylon tea scented in used Pinot Noir barrels. I sensed a hint of the wine, like catching its aroma on a light breeze.
Exploring the bounds of tea with Smith, I recognized how very far we’ve all come — and still can go — with this single-minded connoisseur leading the way.
Steven Smith Teamaker products. Credit: Polara Studios
These days it’s unfashionable to disparage pork belly in any form, but when it comes to chowder recipes I am firmly anti-bacon. Clam, corn, salmon, no matter the variety, too many chowders are marred by flotsam of limp lardons in this creamy stew.
My stance stems from a New England upbringing in an opinionated food-loving family where we routinely taste test chowders while dining out and debate their merits. Is it too thick? Are there enough clams? Too much potato? We rarely agree 100% except on one point: Any chowder is ruined by the overbearing wood-smoked flavor from excessive bacon.
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How did we go so far astray from the original? Long ago, every good Yankee cook depended on salt pork, fat trimmings from hogs preserved, or cured, in salt. This multi-purpose cooking fat flavored thrifty dishes with hints of meat. Bacon took its place. The trouble is that bacon goes one step further, cold smoking the salt-cured pork belly over wood chips to produce a distinctive, versatile and notably addictive foodstuff. These days, conventional wisdom says everything’s better with bacon, right down to dessert. I’m not immune to its allure, but enough is enough: Put more bacon anywhere but in my chowder.
What about the bacon?
Clearly, the chowder I’m speaking of is New England clam chowder, the most popular of the three varieties — the other two being tomatoey Manhattan and brothy Rhode Island. The version that migrated all the way from Cape Cod to Cape Kiwanda in Oregon lost something in translation. Or rather, the favorite Friday soup du jour gained too much of a good thing. Think about your last bowl of chowder: What taste stood out from all the ingredients in the bowl?
I thought so.
What’s the solution? Old-fashioned as it seems, salt pork is still sold and you could hunt down a cube to use for your next pot of chowder. But it’s not really worth it when bacon’s easier to find than a decent bar of soap. Instead, try cutting four strips of bacon one-half-inch wide and cook them in a wide 4-quart or larger pot over medium-low heat until all the fat is rendered and you’re left with pools of golden fat and extra-crispy bacon bits. Use a slotted spoon to remove all the cooked bacon and set it aside to drain on paper towels.
Now, you have a smoky pork-infused essence to make your chowder base, and a side of tempting snacks. I try to reserve them for a spinach salad to serve with the finished chowder. However, even I’ll admit the bacon by-product is a wonderful, crunchy garnish for topping a steaming bowl of chowder.
The makings of great chowder recipes
Dedicated as I am to my East Coast roots, I’ll eat chowder in the middle of a sweltering July day. But for most people, the cold and rainy shoulder season seems the most fitting time to indulge in bottomless bowls of this warming, wintery white soup. Using an all-purpose base (see recipe), I make a satisfying chowder out of anything from canned clams to last summer’s frozen corn to a single leftover salmon filet. A quick and hearty midweek meal for my family, it’s also a surprising hit at potlucks.
Serve the chowder in wide bowls to allow plenty of surface area for oyster crackers. Because when it comes to those little ridged crackers, you can’t have too many. That’s something I believe all chowder lovers, native born or not, can agree on wholeheartedly.
All-Purpose New England-Style Chowder
There are two basic ways to obtain rendered bacon fat:
1. Cook bacon strips cut into narrow pieces in a wide pot or over medium-low heat until all of the fat melts and the lean meat begins to brown.
2. Reserve and cool the fat from frying or baking strips of bacon from a weekend breakfast and store in the refrigerator where it will keep, arguably, indefinitely.
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat, salt pork or butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 pounds Russet potatoes (about 3 large), peeled and diced ½ inch
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups clam juice or vegetable broth
2 cups heavy cream or half and half
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1½-2½ cups milk
1-3 cups (8-16 ounces) of drained canned clams, frozen corn, cooked and flaked salmon or other fish, or baby shrimp
1. Heat the bacon fat in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot, 4 quarts or larger, over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until it turns translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the potatoes, salt and pepper and stir to coat the potatoes in fat. Add the clam juice, bring it to a simmer and cook uncovered until the potatoes are tender to the bite, about 12 minutes.
2. Scoop out 1½ cups of the potatoes and purée in a blender with the cream until very smooth. Stir the cream mixture back into the pot with the thyme. This makes a very thick soup base that you can prepare 1-2 days in advance and even freeze.
3. Add the milk to thin to the chowder to your desired consistency and rewarm the pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it is steaming but does not fully simmer. Add the clams or the other ingredients of your choice to flavor the chowder, using as much as little as you like or have on hand. Stir until heated through and taste for salt and pepper before serving.
Top photo: All-purpose New England-style chowder. Credit: Lynne Curry
If you’re thinking of serving beef this Christmas or New Year’s, you’re probably counting your quarters to see if you can afford a tenderloin or prime rib. Like many people looking for good beef cuts for holiday roasts, you might think that these are the only options. That’s certainly what anyone would assume after shopping the supermarket meat counter or reading the circulars.
Truth be told, there are many more succulent beef cuts for roasting. I discovered this while researching my cookbook “Pure Beef.” Through my recipe testing with an eye toward tenderness, flavor and value, I found many excellent roasts that are overlooked or undervalued, especially those from the sirloin (hip), round (upper leg) and even the chuck (shoulder).
Along with a variety of cuts to choose from, you can now also select the type of beef you buy and serve this holiday. The three main categories to know are natural, organic and grass-fed. Natural brands are generally hormone- and antibiotic-free. Organic meats are raised and processed in accordance with strict USDA organic standards, including feed and animal welfare. Grass-fed beef is growing in popularity due to its higher levels of Omega 3, CLA and other healthy fats and nutrients compared to beef from cattle raised in feedlots.
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After you select your roast cut and type, the only tool you’ll need for stress-free roasting is a reliable instant-read thermometer. There are many styles on the market, and I recommend a digital one from the mid-price range. A modest investment in a good thermometer will safeguard overcooking your roast.
For each roast on my list, I’ve included a general time-frame for cooking, but this will vary depending on your oven, the size and shape of the roast, and other factors. So let the thermometer be your guide. Then let the roast rest (it will continue to rise in temperature from 5 to 10 degrees) while you finish your dinner preparations. To serve these roasts, slice them ¼-inch thick against the grain using a sharp carving knife to preserve all the meat juices.
The very best part of roasting is that once the meat is simply seasoned with salt and pepper and in the oven, you are free to mingle and enjoy the occasion. The roast itself is the centerpiece of your holiday table, and it will bring you the gift of leftovers to enjoy in the days to follow.
My cut list
The roasts on my holiday list are a fraction of the cost of the luxurious tenderloin and prime rib. They are also widely available, but you may need to put in a request to the butcher wherever you buy your beef.
Most tender roast (after tenderloin): top blade roast
This cut is the second most tender cut on the entire beef carcass, but it comes from the chuck (shoulder), which is one of the toughest parts. Request a whole top blade roast, which is suitable for high-heat roasting (450 to 500 F). Plan to roast if for about 8 to 10 minutes per pound until an instant-read thermometer reaches 120 F for rare, 125 F for medium-rare or 130 F for medium.
Most flavorful roast: top sirloin roast
Also known as American chateaubriand, this cut from the top sirloin butt muscle of the hip is renowned for its deep beef flavors, just like sirloin steaks are. Request a center cut portion to roast at high heat (450 to 500 F) for about 8 to 10 minutes per pound until an instant-read thermometer reaches 120 degrees F for rare, 125 F for medium-rare or 130 F for medium.
Most undervalued roast: top round roast
Butchers prize this cut from the round (leg) for its flavor and versatility. This ultra-lean cut is best cooked at medium heat (300 to 350 F) for maximum tenderness and juiciness. Roast it for roughly 18 to 20 minutes per pound until an instant-read thermometer reaches 120 degrees F for rare, 125 degrees F for medium-rare or 130 F for medium.
Most unfamiliar roast: sirloin tip roast
Not to be confused with tri-tip, sirloin tip roast is cut from where the sirloin (hip) and round (leg) meet. It is very lean with fairly tender. Roast it at medium heat (300 to 350 F) roughly 18 to 20 minutes per pound until an instant-read thermometer reaches 120 F for rare, 125 F for medium-rare or 130 F for medium.
Most unexpected roast: beef brisket
The wild card in this list, beef brisket is typically smoked but it can also be roasted at very low temperatures (200 to 250 F) for one to two hours per pound until it registers 185 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer or you can shred it easily with a fork. This versatile cut can also be made into a roast using a combination of high-heat roasting and braising, or pot roasting, as in the recipe for rolled cranberry-glazed beef brisket.
Rolled Cranberry-Glazed Beef Brisket
This recipe transforms a standard beef brisket into a festive garnet-glazed roast worthy of a holiday celebration. The flat cut is the leaner, thinner part of a whole brisket. The technique of rolling and tying allows you to serve handsome round slices of the brisket with sides of butternut squash and wild rice.
Serves 6 with leftovers
1 (3½- to 4-pound) flat cut brisket
1 (12-ounce) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
1 medium onion, chopped
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup low-sodium beef stock or water
1 cup orange juice
1 bay leaf
1. Preheat the oven to 500 F. Cut 5 (14-inch) strands of butcher’s twine on hand. Trim any fat from the underside of the brisket, pat it dry, and season it liberally on both sides with the kosher salt. Roll it up tightly the long way with the fat on the outside and tie it with the butcher’s twine. Put the roast in a Dutch oven or other deep and heavy pot just large enough to contain it. Roast it uncovered in the hot oven until dark walnut brown, about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, mix the cranberries, onion, brown sugar, ginger, pepper, cloves, stock, orange juice and bay leaf in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat.
3. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 F and pour the cranberry mixture over the beef. Cover the pot and cook the beef until you can shred the meat easily with a fork, 2 to 2½ hours.
4. Raise the oven temperature to 400 F. Transfer the beef to a clean oven-safe serving dish and remove the twine or bands. Strain the sauce, reserving the cranberry mixture and pour the sauce over the beef.
5. Discard the bay leaf. Roast the beef uncovered in the oven until it forms a shiny glaze and the sauce is syrupy, 12 to 15 minutes. Slice the beef ½-inch thick and spoon the cranberries all around it before serving.
Recipe reprinted with permission from “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut” © 2012 by Lynne Curry, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.
Holiday roast. Credit: David L. Reamer
Every December, I faithfully recreate my French-German grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe. But to be honest, they don’t hold a candle to the Jewish holiday cookie, rugelach. This two-bite, crescent-shaped pastry delivers so much more than all the candy sprinkles you can stick on a cutout star cookie. The tender flaky dough, the crispiness of cooked sugar at the edges, and on the inside, a surprise of raspberry, apricot or chocolate, cinnamon and walnuts.
Resembling miniature croissants, they are easy to spot, and I reach for rugelach whenever I am lucky enough to encounter them. It was on a recent trip to New York where I found a batch of rugelach to write home about. Not at Zabar’s, the Jewish food emporium on the Upper West Side, but 38 blocks north on a side street in Harlem.
Jewish Cooking Links
Lee Lee’s Baked Goods is a one-man bakery with a candy-cane striped awning on 118th Street. Just a few steps from the re-energized Frederick Douglas Avenue, the place straddles the neighborhood’s old world of the Halal Meat shop and 99-cent store and the new Bier International, Harlem’s first beer garden, Harlem Shambles butcher shop and Levain Bakery.
I was on my way to the subway at 125th street when an acquaintance steered me on a side trip to Lee Lee’s. It was just before 7 p.m., the streets growing dark and the glass-front bakery cast a glow. Alvin Lee Smalls, 62, stood behind the counter with the day’s remaining carrot muffins, red velvet cake and bread pudding.
With a quick greeting, the gentleman handed me one of his cinnamon-raisin rugelach — as he does for anyone who enters his shop, I later learned. Then, he stood by and watched expectantly.
Go-to Rugelachs in New York
“Rugelach by a Brother” is the famous tagline of this veteran baker who’s been making this Jewish specialty in this location since 2001. As traditional bakeries have disappeared on the Lower East Side, Small’s reputation as the rugelach maker of Manhattan has only grown with help from mentions in the New York Times and raves on Yelp. From 5:30 a.m., he bakes them fresh throughout the day, but will often run out and have to close the doors until the next batch comes out of the oven.
His followers are devoted. In May 2010, when the recession forced him to close Lee Lee’s, a band of local fans launched a social media plea for help. He was back in business within a month and hasn’t stopped since.
“I’m tired,” he said while sliding my to-go rugelach into a paper bag. Still, there was a smile in his eyes, and when I asked about his rugelach, pride revived him. “I use real ingredients,” he said. “Real butter, not shortening.”
Smalls continues a long tradition of a filled cheese sweet (“little twists” in Yiddish) served for Shavuot and Chanukah holidays. The version popularized in the United States by cookbook author Maida Heatter combines equal parts butter and cream cheese to produce a tender and flaked dough. Her recipe remains the gold standard among home and commercial bakers.
Smalls mastered his own technique after discovering the recipe in a newspaper. His rugelach come out the right size and texture because he insists on excellent ingredients and mixes the dough and rolls them up by hand. He’ll ship them by the dozen — apricot, raspberry of chocolate — anywhere from his online store in time for the holidays, or anytime you want a cookie that is so very much more than that.
Top photo: Rugelach from Lee Lee’s Baked Goods. Credit: Dave Cook