Articles in Holidays

Sour cherry pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

In our house, asking for cherry pie means one thing: sour cherry pie. Just as there are “eating apples” and “cooking apples” that differ in acid level and sugar content, these same differences exist between cherries. Sweet cherries — like eating apples — are delicious raw. Sour cherries, with their higher acid level and lower sugar content, will make you pucker if you pop them into your mouth straight off the tree. While a pie made with sweet cherry varieties (such as Bing or Rainier) can be cloying, a pie made with Montmorency or North Star cherries has the perfect balance of sweet and sour.

It’s been my experience that people who say they don’t like cherry pie have never tasted a sour cherry pie. Surprisingly few folks know that sour cherries exist, partly because it’s hard to find sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) in many parts of the country. Sour cherries, also called tart cherries, are thought to have originated in the region between the Caspian and Black seas. Cherry trees still grow wild in that area, which includes part of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Greeks were cultivating sour cherries by 300 B.C. and the popularity of these tart cherries spread quickly to Italy and throughout Europe.

French colonists brought sour cherries to North America and by the mid-1600s cherries were plentiful in Virginia, my home state. Today most sour cherries commercially grown in the U.S. are produced along the Great Lakes in western Michigan, as well as in parts of Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania.

My love of cherry pies came early courtesy of my mother. She truly is famous for her pie baking skills — at least in her Virginia town where the local paper has profiled her and her homemade pies. She has forged some deep relationships with local sour cherry growers, who reserve gallons of cherries for her each summer. Even in a bad winter –  like this last one, which killed off much of the cherry crop — my mother somehow leaves a supposedly “sold out” orchard with brimming boxes of cherries unavailable to the typical customer.

The harvest season for sour cherries is short — just a few weeks at the end of June and early July. This delicate fruit doesn’t ship or store well, so the first step in making pies for the rest of the year is preserving the fruit. Sour cherries may be canned in the traditional way, but it’s even easier to freeze them.

Although my mother often gets gallons of cherries at once, she freezes them in small batches. Seeding cherries is no small effort and it’s nice to spread the work out over a longer period of time. But the biggest advantage to this method is that you can freeze the precise amount of seeded and sugared cherries you need to make one pie. My mom actually prefers making pies from frozen cherries because it’s easier to control the amount of juice that goes into the pie filling if you separate the liquid from the cherries during the thawing process.

How to preserve sour cherries

To freeze, wash and seed four cups of cherries and place them into a large bowl. Sprinkle cherries with ½ cup of sugar, stir to combine, and let rest for 30 minutes. Freeze sugared cherries in 1.5-pint freezer containers or quart-sized freezer bags. Be sure to label your containers with contents and dates. Frozen cherries can be stored for up to one year. When taking frozen cherries out to thaw, put them in a colander with a bowl underneath to collect the juice.

If dealing with fresh sour cherries seems like too much work or sourcing them is an impossibility, you can often find jarred or canned sour cherries at Trader Joe’s or Middle Eastern markets. These canned sour cherries are usually Montmorency cherries and they’ll work fine. Just be sure that you’re not buying cherry pie filling, which is usually more sugary goop than cherries.

The hardest part of making a sour cherry pie is finding the cherries, but making cherry pie does require a certain amount of practice. The following recipe comes straight from my mother. I cannot guarantee that it will make you the focus of local newspaper profiles or will make your kitchen a place where neighbors drop in simply on the off-chance they can get some pie. But it will make you a convert to sour cherries.

Mom's Sour Cherry Pie

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: 1 (9-inch) cherry pie, plus an extra round of pie dough

Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 cups plus an additional 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1½ tablespoons butter

Directions

  1. Wash and seed cherries.
  2. Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
  3. Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
  4. To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
  5. Measure 1 cup vegetable shortening and add in small pieces to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the shortening into the flour mixture until the flour-covered fat balls are the size of slightly flattened peas.
  6. Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
  7. Slowly pour liquid into flour mixture, stirring gently with two fingers until all liquid is added. Have a light touch with dough to keep it flaky. Stir no more than is necessary to work dough into a ball.
  8. Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
  9. Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
  10. In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
  11. Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  12. Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
  13. Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
  14. Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
  15. When the round of dough is about half its needed size, use fingers to pinch any cracked edges back together. Continue rolling dough until it’s large enough to cover your pie pan. Dough should be no more than ¼ inch thick, but a generous 1/8-inch thick is even better.
  16. Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
  17. Pour cherry filling into pastry lined 9-inch pie pan. (My mother prefers a glass pie dish so she can see how the bottom of her crust is browning.) If filling appears too thick at this point, add a bit of water before pouring filling into pie crust.
  18. Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
  19. Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
  20. Cover the outer edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil or a metal pie edge protector to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
  21. Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. If top crust seems to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the crust for the last 10 minutes. Let pie cool before serving.

Notes

You can use up to 1½ cups sugar, but we like cherries pies tart. Extra round of pie dough can be frozen for future use. Keep dough round in plastic wrap and place in a freezer-safe plastic bag. Pie dough will keep in the freezer for several months.

Main photo: Mom’s Sour Cherry Pie is always a crowd-pleaser. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Worth the trouble: a pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

The invention of the s’more was a landmark in American culinary history, comparable to the equally simple and classic root beer float. Neither s’mores nor floats can really be improved.

But the s’more can be made bigger, lots bigger, as you might want to do as a salute to the return of camping season. This isn’t the sort of s’more you make over a campfire; it’s definitely more of a s’more on the scale of a pizza, made (but not cooked) on a pizza stone. It is a bit of trouble to make — you have to start it the day before and you need a good thermometer — but your guests will be amazed.

The best part is, you may very well have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator right now. The main things you need are unflavored gelatin, graham crackers, bittersweet chocolate and cream.

It’s very similar to marshmallow pie with chocolate ganache frosting, which was really conceived of as a plus-size Mallomar rather than any variety of s’more. The pizza shape results in a higher proportion of frosting and crust to filling — in particular, there’s more of the graham crust, with its toasty, buttery aroma and cinnamon perfume. The filling is still that incomparably creamy homemade marshmallow, which does not need to be melted to be luscious.

The traditional s’more (and Mallomar) filling has a vanilla flavor, but you might want to try coffee liqueur instead. Of course, that would technically make it a … s’mocha.

Let me call your attention to National S’mores Day, which is coming up on Aug. 10. Study this recipe (and marshmallow pie too). You have plenty of time to practice.

Oh, I know! Put fresh marshmallow on them and dip them in ganache! What to call them, I wonder? S’lesses?

S’mores alla Pizza

Prep Time: 5 hours

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 16

Ingredients

    For the crust
  • 20 graham crackers, 9½-10 ounces
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Optional: dash nutmeg
  • 5 ounces butter, melted
  • For the filling
  • 1 cup water (half for step 1, half for step 3)
  • 2 (1-tablespoon) packets unflavored gelatin
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee liqueur
  • For the ganache frosting
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces cream

Directions

    For the crust (prep time: 1 minute; cook time: none; total time: 30 minutes)
  1. Break up the crackers and put them with the sugar and cinnamon (and nutmeg, if using) into a food processor. Process until fine, about 20 seconds. Pour in the melted butter and pulse about 10 times, until just amalgamated.
  2. Pour the crumbs onto a 12- or 13-inch pizza stone (the cheap metal kind with a rim actually works fine for this) and spread with your fingers almost to the edge. Crimp a low pizza-type rim around the edge between the edges of your hands and flatten the center with your palms. Refrigerate at least half an hour before filling.
  3. For the filling (prep time: 20-25 minutes; cook time: 10 minutes; total time: 5 hours)
  4. Put ½ cup water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle 2 packets of gelatin over the surface. Allow the gelatin to sit until it forms a rubbery mass, about 5 minutes, then set the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave without stirring until the gelatin is entirely dissolved (no floating layer), 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer (if you have used a mixing bowl to dissolve the gelatin, scrape the gelatin into the bowl of a mixer) and whip the dissolved gelatin, as if it were egg whites, for 1 minute.
  6. In a small saucepan, mix the corn syrup, sugar and remaining ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the walls.
  7. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking (the sign is that if a bit of syrup is dropped into cold water, it forms a firm ball), pour the syrup into the gelatin, scraping out all the syrup you can with a spatula. Beat on high until the temperature of the mixture is just warm, 20-25 minutes.
  8. Beat in the vanilla or other flavoring and scrape the warm marshmallow onto the pizza crust. With a spatula, working carefully but without wasting time, spread it over the surface as evenly as possible, making the center slightly lower than the edges. Return the pizza stone to the refrigerator and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
  9. For the ganache frosting (prep time: less than 1 minute; cook time: 5 minutes; total time: 1 hour, 6 minutes)
  10. Chop the chocolate into small pieces, put into a food processor and process to the consistency of coarse sand.
  11. Put the cream in a small pan or saucepan and bring to a full boil. Pour the hot cream onto the chocolate and process until smooth, 10-15 seconds. Spoon onto the marshmallow with a spatula fairly close to the edge, allowing drips here and there. Refrigerate until the ganache hardens, at least 1 hour.
  12. To serve, cut the “pizza” into wedges with a warmed sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Slide a warmed knife or pie server under the slice and carefully remove it.

Notes

Monroe Boston Strause, who invented the graham cracker crust in the 1920s for his famous Black Bottom pie, wrote that you can make the crust stiffer by adding 2 tablespoons water and 5 teaspoons corn syrup to the graham crackers and baking it at 425 F for 5 minutes. I’ve never tried this, because, frankly, I like a crumbly crust, but if you want a stiffer crust, that’s what Strause said, and he was nationally known as the Pie Man in his day.

These days Nabisco is marketing its graham crackers in a box with three packets of nine crackers each, but I think this crust needs a total of 20, so you’ll have to think of some use for the remaining seven crackers.

Main photo: A pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

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Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton,

Is there any more American a dish than fried chicken? Each succeeding wave of immigrants has brought it in some shape or form, and it is woven throughout our gastronomical fabric. The first were the Scots, who were prone to cook it before dipping it in egg and crumbs, then cook it again in boiling fat. West African slaves transplanted their version, by all accounts more tantalizing, to the American South. Not only did they fry the birds for their masters, they were allowed to keep chickens of their own. Hogs were free-man’s food, but they were the compost engines of the colonial kitchen and their rendered fat was plentiful. If Martha Washington’s cooks fried chickens for her lavishly in butter, they dipped theirs in a spicy flour coating before frying them in lard.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, African-American women, renowned for their fried chicken prowess, became vendors for live or cooked poultry. Even before Emancipation, they cooked it up in big iron frying pans and peddled it on the streets. During segregation, they sold it from their home kitchens or opened establishments black folk could eat in. Once fried, chicken was a portable meal. “In days when traveling meant hazarding the vagaries of racial laws on Southern roads and being hungry without having a place to eat, a shoebox of fried chicken became a virtual talisman against starvation on the road for many blacks,” wrote Jessica B. Harris in “Iron Pots &  Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking.”

Black or white, Southerners proudly claim they eat 10 times as much fried chicken as everyone else. In his book “American Taste,” James Villas contends that to know about fried chicken you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Having grown up on Italian fried chicken, I could quibble with that. Fried chicken has other roots. Pollo fritto, scented with garlic, traveled to Ellis Island with Sicilian immigrants. Austrians brought their schnitzel ideas to the Midwest, converting from veal to chicken and utilizing the whole bird, not just the breast. In 1858, Lizzie Black Kander, a Jewish emigrant in Milwaukee, recorded three recipes for “Fried Spring Chicken” in the “Settlement Cookbook” among single entries for reindeer steak, mud hens, partridge and goose.

If turkey is supposed to be the emblematic American bird, it gets no more than a perfunctory write-up. Recipes call for using 1½-pound chickens. One prescribes dredging the youngster in flour and ginger, and frying it in plenty of butter or chicken fat. A second calls for coating it in cracker crumbs, followed by an egg bath, then the crumb treatment again before frying. A third says to massage it with plenty of butter and seasonings (we are left to wonder what those were), roll it in fine bread crumbs and oven-fry. Such tender young birds as she describes, raised to peck and scratch in the barnyard, make the most delicious-flavored fried chicken.

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

American humorist Calvin Trillin would eventually write “Fried-Chicken War,” an account of the fierce competition in Crawford County, Kan., between two local fried chicken establishments. When the owner of Chicken Annie’s moved to have the road on which both stood named “Chicken Annie’s Road,” Chicken Mary took umbrage.

Overall, though, the fried chicken revolution was peaceful. It has my vote for Independence Day. Is there any food more emblematic of the people who built America than this evocative bird, its skin enticingly crisp, its meat moist and juicy? Leaving behind the grim associations with slavery, fried chicken is in the best sense American, a dish originating at a time when we were farming people, a dish of merged continents and mixed heritage, one that spanned our nation from bayous to prairies to the vast expanses beyond.

Many ways to fry a chicken

Pan-fried, deep-fried or oven-fried; batter-dipped or breaded; dredged first in flour — or not; dipped in egg — or not; rolled in breading or cracker meal instead; fried in oil or lard, butter or schmaltz? Bacon or ham thrown into the skillet for added flavor? What is best? As Villas wrote in 1982, “Without question, the most important secret to any great fried chicken is the quality of the chicken itself, and most of the 3 billion pullets marketed annually in the U.S. have about as much flavor as tennis balls.”

Two great Southern cooks have taught me how to make sublime fried chicken. One, the late legendary African-American chef Edna Lewis; the other, her protege, Joe Randall, who runs a cooking school in Savannah, Ga. My primal memories of fried chicken are of the dish as prepared by my mother in the Italian way, and accompanied by apple fritters made from the leftover batter. There are as many ways as there are cooks, and here’s one of mine, adapted for chicken wings. You can make it the evening before if you like and have it all ready for the picnic basket or the backyard get-together the next day. Serve the wings before the hamburgers, or with the hamburgers, or even instead of the hamburgers.

Peppery Fried Chicken Wings With Garlic and Rosemary

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

This is adapted from a recipe for fried chicken that I learned to make from a Tuscan cook I knew. The wings are my favorite part, perfect as finger food and with all that surface for crisp coatings to stick to. The chicken becomes crispy outside and at the same time, succulent inside, redolent with rosemary and fresh garlic. Cayenne pepper gives them a terrific little kick; if you like it hot, add more. To make it in the traditional Tuscan way, omit the cayenne and serve the cooked chicken with lemon quarters for squeezing at the table.

Ingredients

  • 16 chicken wings, preferably organic and free-range, at room temperature
  • 8 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves, or 2 tablespoons dried crushed rosemary leaves
  • About 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • Grape seed, safflower, peanut or other vegetable oil for frying

Directions

  1. Wash the wings and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Keep the wing tips intact and cut the wings at the joint to separate the drummettes. In a bowl, combine the wings with the garlic and rosemary and massage the herbs into the meat.
  2. Spread the flour on a sheet of waxed paper. Season with salt to taste and plenty of cayenne pepper. Beat the eggs in a wide bowl next to the waxed paper. Line a large platter with a double layer of paper towels, keeping additional paper towels on hand.
  3. Pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet and warm over medium heat until sizzling hot. Just before you are ready to begin frying, lightly dredge each piece of wing in the flour. Dip the wing piece into the beaten eggs to coat then dredge lightly in the flour once again. (Keep in mind that if the chicken is coated in flour and egg and left to sit for even a few minutes, the coating will become soggy and the chicken will not be crisp and light.)
  4. Slip the chicken wings into the hot oil, piece by piece. Do not crowd the pan with too many pieces at once, or they will not cook evenly. Fry until golden and thoroughly cooked through to the bone, about 10 minutes in total for each piece, depending on the size. Transfer to the paper towels. Turn each wing piece over on the paper to ensure that excess oil is absorbed from both sides, using additional paper towels as necessary to drain thoroughly. Sprinkle them with sea salt while they are still hot.
  5. When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.

Notes

Recipe is from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

Main photo: Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

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Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.

Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.

Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.

Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.

The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Black-Eyed Peas Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup orzo pasta
  • 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
  • 1 cup sweet corn
  • 1 chopped bell pepper
  • 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
  • 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • ½ cup champagne vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped

Directions

  1. Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
  2. Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
  4. Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
  5. Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry

There are many good reasons to make your own homemade corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day this year. If you’re already a devoted pickle maker, corned beef is just another product of brining. If, like me, you’re conscientious about the source of your food, selecting grass-fed beef is the most healthful and sustainable option available for this March holiday feast.

Let’s start with the simple culinary adventure of “corning” beef. This archaic term just means salting, and it’s one of the most ancient methods for preserving meats. For today’s cooks, the brining process transforms the flavors and textures of the beef by expelling excess moisture and infusing it with salt and seasonings.

I was intimidated about making my own corned beef until I understood that it was just a matter of soaking meat in salted water and then simmering it until tender.

What could be easier?

Most of the “work” involves waiting four or five days for the beef to cure in the refrigerator, then waiting again while it simmers very slowly. For your patience — with only about 15 minutes of active work time — you get a classic corned beef supper with all the trimmings of cabbage, carrots and potatoes plus leftovers for grilled Reubens, corned beef hash with poached eggs for brunch or sliced cold corned beef on dark rye with mustard.

Any way you use it, corned beef is the best entry into the wide world of cured meats, known officially as charcuterie.

The cut: Beyond brisket

Brisket is the classic corned beef cut, and deservedly so. You can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true favorite. But, in the grass-fed market, brisket is a smaller cut due to the generally smaller frame size of these cattle, and there are only two on every animal.

Given its lack of abundance, brisket can be either hard to find or relatively expensive. So, I’ve learned to use other cuts that are well suited to corned beef. For example, hard-to-use bottom round roast, also known as rump roast, in this recipe below, in particular, is remarkably good and very lean. Other inexpensive cuts, including sirloin tip and chuck roast are easy to find and will save you money. Tongue is another traditional choice with rich meat that brines wonderfully.

Step 1: Brining:

The technique of soaking meats in a salt solution — brining — is a common method to maintain moisture and add flavor to pork and chicken. The science behind this is simple, according to French food scientist Hervé This: when meat is submerged in a salt solution, the water in the cells leaves the muscle until the concentration of salt inside and outside the cells is equal. The result is more tasty protein inside and out.

Salt, sometimes used in combination with curing salt or sodium nitrite (also known as pink salt for the color it is dyed to prevent confusion with table salt), is the main agent used to prevent the growth of bacteria in preserved meats. When the meat is fully cooked as in this corned beef recipe, the curing salt is optional.

Another function of the brine is to convey other seasonings into the cells, including the cloves, allspice and coriander in the classic pickling spice, plus peppercorns and bay leaves. When you start with more flavorful grass-fed beef, then this works all the better.

Step 2: Simmering

After a quick rinse, simply cover the meat in a tight-fitting pot with fresh water. Bring it to a simmer and cook at a low and steady heat for several hours. When you can easily slide a skewer in and out of the meat without any resistance, it’s done. Or, you can slice of a piece to taste and make sure it’s tender to the bite. Cool and store the meat in the cooking liquid to keep it moist and your homemade cured deli meat is ready to eat.

The grass-fed difference

If you’ve heard that grass-fed beef cooks quicker than conventional beef, you will be in for a surprise. Although meat science states that heat penetrates the leaner muscle fibers of grass-fed faster than conventional beef, my experience is that grass-fed corned beef will take longer to cook — up to three and a half hours at a slow simmer. Moreoever, the texture of the meat will be firmer, not the melt-in-your-mouth texture some corned beef lovers expect.

For everyone who finds satisfaction in DIY creations, your own corned beef will be a triumph to share on March 17. I like to invite friends over to indulge in a generous platter of corned beef with a bounteous display of vegetables, including traditional choices of cabbage, carrots, potatoes or unconventional ones like kale and parsnips, garnished with good mustard and a strong craft ale.

Grass-Fed Corned Beef

Unlike store-bought corned beef, which is pink from curing salt, this homemade corned beef turns out pale red-brown with all the flavors of traditional corned beef.

Serves 6 with leftovers

Ingredients

½ cup kosher salt

¼ cup sugar

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons pickling spices

3 bay leaves, crumbled

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

1 (3½ to 4 pound) bottom round roast

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long rounds

Directions

1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil over high heat in a small saucepan. Remove it from the heat, add the kosher salt and sugar, and stir until they dissolve. Pour the salt mixture into a 4-quart or larger glass, ceramic, or plastic container. Add 4 cups ice-cold water along with the garlic, pickling spices, bay leaves, and black pepper. Add 1 cup ice cubes and stir to chill the brine rapidly or put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

2. Pierce the beef all over with a wooden skewer to help the brine penetrate, submerge the beef into the brine, and refrigerate for 4 to 5 days.

3. Drain the beef along with the garlic and spices in a large strainer and rinse it briefly in cool running water, reserving the garlic and spices. Discard the brine. Put the beef in a pot that fits it snuggly and fill the pot with cool water to cover the beef by 1 inch. Add the reserved garlic and spices.

4. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat then reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently, partially covered. After about 2½ hours, add the onions and carrots, and continue to simmer until a skewer slides in and out of the beef with ease, 3 to 3½ hours total.

5. Serve the corned beef warm in thick slices moistened with some of the cooking liquid and with the vegetables on the side. To store, transfer the corned beef into a container, add enough cooking liquid to cover it, and refrigerate it for up to 4 days.

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.

Top photo: Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.

The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.

As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.

The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition

What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.

The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.

This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997,  reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.

A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence

Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.

We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.

After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.

 

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Crepes celebrate the sun as the winter days finally begin to get a little longer. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.

If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe,  thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.

Mastering crêpe-making technique

Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.

When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.

We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.

Crêpes

Makes about 12 crêpes

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ tsp salt

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)

1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)

1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)

Oil  and paper towel to oil pan

Directions

1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.

2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.

3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.

4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!

Tips and variations:

  • To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
  • For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
  • To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
  • Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
  • You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
  • Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.

Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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Purple sweet potato gnocchi with hazelnut butter, adapted from “Pasta Classica” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Anyone who grew up like I did, making gnocchi at her mother’s knee, knows that the sight of dehydrated potatoes sets off a reflex to take out the pasta board. Old potatoes that have lost some of their moisture are best for making gnocchi (pronounced nee-AWK-key) because the dough formed with them absorbs less flour than dewy fresh potatoes do. Whether using Yukon Golds, Russets or sweet potatoes, the same principle applies for any variety of potato gnocchi: the less flour, the lighter the dumpling.

So one fine December day in my New York kitchen, faced with a basket filled with sweet potatoes that had never made it to the Thanksgiving table the month before, I set to work making gnocchi using the “sweets.” The recipe — a trail blazer, as far as I can tell — appeared in my first cookbook, “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking.”

Despite my intention to faithfully represent the pasta cuisine of Italy in that early volume, it was, in effect, an original. Sweet potatoes are not a traditional ingredient in the Italian culinary repertoire. Pumpkin dumplings, a staple of the Veneto and other regions of the Italian north, are reminiscent in flavor, but the sweet potato gnocchi recipe is a perfect example of Old and New World fusion.

I liked the newly invented dish so much that I decided to include it in my cookbook. Every Italian recipe, after all, started with someone just like me, inspired by what was at hand and guided by that particular Italian sensibility lodged in my genes that craves harmonies.

The sweet potato gnocchi, anointed with almond and butter pesto, became a Christmas and New Year ritual in my family. Following the Italian tradition, the dumplings were served after the appetizer but preceding the roast – usually duck, pork or ham. It is one of those recipes that always elicits raves and that everyone asks for once they have tasted it.

Over the years, I have tweaked my original recipe, inventing different butters and experimenting with various varieties of sweet potatoes. It is gratifying to see more and more vegetables not only in the farmers markets but also, on grocers’ shelves today. The sweetest of all the tubers by far is the deeply hued Stokes Purple, developed by North Carolina grower, Mike Sizemore, and introduced to me by Frieda’s, an innovative California specialty produce grocer. It has the driest flesh of them all, perfectly suited for gnocchi.

 

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Pass the potatoes through a ricer. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

The proportions for the dough are classic — about a cup of flour to a pound of potatoes, depending on the potatoes’ moisture content. I spiked the puréed “sweets” with orange zest and nutmeg before working in the flour, and formed the dough into ridged curls on a butter paddle.

Into the boiling water they went, floating effortlessly to the surface after a mere minute or two, little indigo puffs ready for a warm butter bath. The brilliant purple flesh delivers not only the lightest and most sugary, but also the most spectacularly colored gnocchi. Although slightly exotic, the indigo dumplings are a most beguiling first course, with the charm of the unfamiliar. A touch of melted butter, a scattering of true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and if you like, a shower of almonds or hazelnuts, makes a festive dish for a New Year celebration.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Hazelnut Butter

Adapted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking” Makes about 40 purple or orange gnocchi, first course portion for 2 to 3 people

I’ve written separate formulas for purple and orange sweet potato gnocchi to account for slightly different proportions of flour-to-potatoes, depending on the varieties. The orange types will absorb more flour, but they, too, will be delicate and fluffy as long as the potatoes are not freshly harvested and have had a few weeks to age. When making sweet potato gnocchi for the first time, prepare a small batch as described here, and practice forming the dough and rolling out the dumplings once before making a larger batch. No doubt it will occur to you to make both types for a dramatic two-colored effect, certainly a lovely  presentation.

For purple sweet potato gnocchi dough:

¾ pound purple-fleshed sweet potato

¼ cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface

Zest of one navel orange

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

For orange sweet potato dough:

½ pound orange-fleshed sweet potato, such as Covingtons

½ cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface

Zest of one navel orange

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

For cooking:

kosher salt

For serving:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup lightly toasted hazelnuts, skins rubbed off, chopped finely

2 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Place the sweet potatoes on a rack positioned over a baking pan to allow circulation of heat, and roast until they are collapsed in appearance and soft inside when pierced with a knife.

2. While the sweet potatoes cook, set up your work surface with the necessary ingredients and have extra flour on hand should you need it. Line a baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel.

3. Allow the sweet potatoes to cool only enough to be able to handle them comfortably. They must be warm to form a successful dough. The flesh of the purple variety doesn’t peel off easily, so best to scoop out the pulp with a spoon; discard the skin. If cooking the orange variety, peel off and discard the skin using a paring knife.

4. Pass the sweet potato pulp through a ricer onto a floured work surface, forming a mound, or mash it finely using a potato masher or fork. Never put cooked potatoes in a food processor or blender.

5. Scatter the orange zest, nutmeg, and sea salt over the potatoes. Sprinkle the mound with some flour and gradually work it in. Working quickly, keep adding the flour until you form a fairly smooth dough that no longer sticks to your hands. If necessary, add more flour to prevent stickiness. Scrape the work surface frequently as you work to keep it smooth and free of dried bits of dough as you work. You can sift any dried out bits of dough and flour back onto the board to keep the surface powdery and ease kneading. Once you have formed the dough, stop working it and cut it in half. Cover the remainder with an inverted bowl to keep it from drying out.

6. Form the dough into ropes about ¾ inch thick and as long as you like for ease of rolling. Use the dough scraper or a knife to cut it into cylinders as wide as they are thick. Use a butter paddle, the side of a box grater, or a fork, take each little piece, dip it in flour on the cut ends to prevent sticking, and roll it against the paddle, grater, or tines of a fork, pushing your thumb into it as you do so to form a hollow, concave dumpling with a pretty ridged surface. Place the gnocchi onto the prepared towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process with the remaining dough to form the remaining gnocchi, lining them up on the towel without touching.

7. Have ready a spider strainer or a slotted spoon with which to scoop the cooked gnocchi out of the cooking water. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water. Select a shallow serving platter and spread the butter in it. Bring the water to a rapid boil and add 2 tablespoons kosher salt.

8. Lift the towel with two corners in the grasp of each hand, and position it over the boiling pot. Release your hold of the bottom two corners of the towel and drop the gnocchi at once into the water. Cook over high heat until the dumplings float to the top, allowing them to bob on the surface no longer than 1 minute before you retrieve them with the spider strainer or slotted spoon.

9. Transfer the gnocchi to the warm, buttered serving platter, shaking the dish to toss and coat them all over. Scatter with the hazelnuts and grated cheese and serve at once.

Note: Once formed, the gnocchi can be left out at room temperature, uncovered, for up to two hours, or frozen in place in an ample deep-freeze. Once frozen solid, slide the gnocchi into freezer bags and freeze for up to three months. To cook, drop them, frozen into boiling salted water and proceed as described in the recipe.

Top photo: Purple sweet potato gnocchi with hazelnut butter, adapted from “Pasta Classica” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Breakfast casserole with eggs, bacon, French bread and cheese. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

I no longer drink and therefore no longer need to deal with hangovers, but plenty of revelers do have to manage that problem on New Year’s Day. A dish you’ve made ahead will be a welcome sight.

If you were like me you could barely make the coffee, let alone a breakfast that your fat-seeking taste buds believed was your hangover salvation. There always was a solution lurking in the back of your mind, but unfortunately you needed to have prepared it before New Year’s Eve.

I’m referring to the modern American miracle known as the breakfast casserole. It’s simple enough: You basically get everything compiled the day before and then bake it in the morning. It’s as easy as pie or as casserole.

Egg and Bacon Breakfast Casserole

This strata casserole is a delight for a Sunday brunch with a few friends or a New Year’s Day breakfast. The first time you make it you will immediately start dreaming up alternative fillings. No problem, it’s a versatile casserole.

After you make this version with bacon you can start replacing the bacon with, let’s say, a cup of diced ham and a half cup of sautéed sliced mushrooms. Or you could use Swiss cheese and diced cooked chicken, or cooked broccoli and Gruyère cheese, tomatoes and cooked pork sausage, or, well, you get the idea.

Serves 6

Ingredients

Butter for greasing dish

4 cups ½ -inch cubes hearty white bread or French bread, with or without crust

2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded mild or sharp cheddar cheese

½ cup finely chopped onion

8 large eggs

¾ cup half and half

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 thick-cut bacon slices, cooked and crumbled

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 10-by-12-by-2-inch or similarly sized baking casserole.

2. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes, cheese and onion together, then arrange this mixture evenly over the casserole.

3. In the same bowl, beat the eggs, half and half, mustard, salt and black pepper to blend. Pour this egg mixture over the bread cubes.

4. Sprinkle the bacon over.

5. Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the strata comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.

Top photo: Breakfast casserole with eggs, bacon, French bread and cheese. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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