Friday, August 15, 2014

Maccharruni con Pesto Trapanese (Sicily)

The wonderful thing about having my daughter visit is that we break out the cookbooks and start planning what we want to cook together within just a few hours of her arrival.  We have been talking about pasta and want to try making ravioli but our first foray together into my new kitchen was to make this Sicilian pesto sauce.  It is an interesting variation on what we know as a standard pesto.

It comes from what is becoming a favorite book, A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright.  I find myself drawn to the simplicity of the recipes and how they are presented with the history of each area.  The types of ingredients appeal to me, too, as I love tomatoes, basil, lamb, mint, chicken, and fish.

ISBN 0-688-15305-4
On pages 468 - 469 he describes life in Sicily in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.  Their cuisine focused on fresh vegetables and seafood, fava beans and chickpeas, eggs and cheese.  Almonds, olives, and bread were available.  Meat, though not common, increased in quantity over those centuries and included beef, castrato (castrated lamb), salt pork, and veal.  Mr. Wright speculates that tomatoes "probably came to Sicily between 1510 and 1540, when Sicily was under Spanish rule."

I have an abundance of basil both inside my kitchen and out on my patio and need to use it up.  The sauce in this recipe caught my attention because it is not your standard basil pesto recipe:  instead of Parmesan or Romano cheese and pine nuts, it uses almonds and fresh tomato puree.

Macaroni with Pesto in the Style of Trapani

1 pound macaroni
4 ounces blanched whole almonds
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small bunch fresh basil (40 to 50 large leaves), stems discarded
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh tomato puree (not canned), without skins or seeds

And salt
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the pasta.  Drain the pasta when al dente.

2. Meanwhile, grind the almonds, garlic, basil leaves, salt, and pepper together in a food processor.  Slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream through the feed tube while the machine is still running and process until smooth.  Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the tomato puree.  Toss the macaroni with the sauce and serve.

My Notes

I felt lazy and did not blanch the almonds.

My four garlic cloves consisted of two big ones and two medium-sized ones while the basil had a lot of small leaves so we used closer to 60 leaves.  I used about 1/2 teaspoon of pepper and less of salt.

The fresh tomatoes were peeled, cut in half length-wise, cored and seeded, then chopped into chunks to make them easier to process.

The puree was a pretty pink and the pesto mixture never got smooth really but the almonds were fine-textured.  Mixing the puree into the pesto lightened the entire mix.


Basil, garlic, almonds, salt, and pepper

With the olive oil added

The final sauce
The Verdict

We were both disappointed in the flavor of the pesto sauce.  It had mostly a garlic bite and we couldn't really get much basil or tomato flavor out of it.  The almonds added body to the whole thing and I liked that very much.

It is a good sauce for macaroni as it sticks to the pasta and coats it well.

I cannot call this a success but I strongly suspect the problem was with my ingredients.  I want to try this again with tomatoes that are mushy ripe, basil that is younger, and less garlic.  I also would add more salt and pepper.  I'm not sure if I would try blanching the almonds or not as I like how robust the unblanched ones made the sauce.

Mr. Wright's notes say, "Traditionally, cheese is not served with this dish."  We found that adding grated Parmesan cheese to our pasta at the table improved the flavor, which we probably would not want to do if the pesto was more flavorful.

One aspect my daughter pointed out was that the dish was visually very dull.  She wanted more color in it.  I wanted to add chunks of fresh, ripe tomatoes, too.

LATER:  While I was eating the leftovers I realized that the flavor was better (the garlic was not as pronounced and the almonds came through more) but what I really wanted with it was olive oil soaked, sun-dried tomatoes.  That would have made it more visually interesting and bumped up the excitement of the flavor.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Potted Beef -- A Very Olde Technique

My new kitchen is nearly complete now.  I was able to use the stove top to cook this post's recipe.  The new oven is installed but needs to be used without food for a while to clean up the manufacturing oils and the like.  At least that is the plan!  My hope is to show off some pictures of the kitchen in the next blog post.

The other day I received a big box of cookbooks from a nice lady who gave them away on Freecycle.  This is a website where people can offer items they no longer want but they must give them for free.  I have used Freecycle for about five years now, often giving and sometimes taking.  I recommend it if you have a group in your area.

One of the books was a 1979 publication called The Epicure's Book of Steak and Beef Dishes by Marguerite Patten, "one of Britain's most highly considered cookery experts."  Many of the recipes look tasty and tempting however the one on page 147 caught my attention.

Too big to fit on the scanner!
Ms. Patten put this in the chapter "Wise Economy" because it is perfect for "any really inexpensive cut of beef."  Why did it capture my attention?  She says "This old-fashioned way of preparing beef has been used for centuries and is a forerunner of today's sophisticated pâtés."  I know from my reading that she is right; the potted meat recipe I am most familiar with is potted shrimp.  It is designed to keep the fragile seafood edible for longer than usual without modern refrigeration; the technique is to embed the shrimp in a pot of melted butter then store it in a cool place.  The fat keeps out the air which would spoil the flesh quickly.

Her recipe is very workable with old-fashioned cooking techniques as she specifies using a grinder and then a mortar and pestle.  I, however, hauled out my trusty food processor and completed the heavy labor in a matter of minutes.

"Potted meat is used as a sandwich filling or served as an hors d'oeuvre instead of a pâté."

Potted Beef

1.  Simmer the meat in a minimum of liquid until tender, adding salt and pepper to taste.  The cooking time naturally depends upon the cut of meat you have chosen.

2.  Grind the cooked meat once or twice until very fine, then put into a mixing bowl, add 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) of melted butter to each 1 lb cooked meat, a pinch of powdered mace, 1 tbsp brandy or dry sherry, and any extra salt and pepper to taste.

3.  Pound firmly; the old-fashioned pestle and mortar is ideal for this purpose.

4.  Spoon into several small container and top with a layer of melted butter.

To serve:  With lemon and hot toast, or with a salad garnish.

To freeze:  This freezes well for up to one month.

To vary: Meat from a roast may be used, but it should not be the outer parts which have become slightly firm and maybe a little crisp.

And salt!
My Notes

I used a beef chuck cross rib steak which weighed about one pound.  I chose to use brandy because I know from previous blog posts that brandy and mace or nutmeg are an excellent flavor duo.

The meat was cut into two pieces so it fit nicely in the bottom of a saucepan with just enough water to go up 3/4 of the height of the meat.  The fire was set to the lowest possible setting and I put the lid on the pan.  It took about 60 minutes before I decided the beef was tender enough.  I did not put any salt or pepper in it at this stage.

Once the beef was cooked, I put the pieces in the food processor and pulsed it until the meat was finely chopped.

Then I added the melted 1/4 cup salted butter, 1 tbsp brandy, pinch of mace, and about 1/2 tsp of pepper with 1/8 - 1/4 tsp of salt.  I pulsed it some more and saw the meat get finer in texture but not to the point of mush.  I tasted the mixture then adjusted the amount of salt and pepper slightly until my taste buds danced with joy at the flavors.  Just a little tang of salt and nudge of pepper highlighted the brandy/mace combination.  The meat was a background flavor that tied it all together and the butter made the texture creamy with an excellent mouthfeel.

This quantity fit easily into a two cup glass container.  I felt it was important to pack the mix down.

Packed but I didn't push out all the air bubbles.
I melted the rest of the stick of butter and poured it over the top.  The whole thing went into the refrigerator overnight.

Melted butter on top.

The Verdict

My first taste was when it was right out of the refrigerator:  too cold to spread or get any flavor.  After I let it sit out on the counter for a while, the flavors really came through!  The brandy and mace duo was not as pronounced as before refrigeration and that actually was a good thing -- they blended with meat, butter, salt, and pepper to make a delightful, lightly meaty spread on a whole grain cracker.  Sometimes I got a little dance of pepper on my tongue and other times I got a whiff of brandy.  The variety of tastes with each bite was intriguing.  Success!

The only problem was the potted beef tended to crumble when I spread it.  If it had been processed to more of a smooth paste, I think that would not have been an issue.  Still, that did not stop me from taking more, and more, and more.  This is definitely a make-ahead item perfect for a potluck or appetizer board.  Just plan on letting it come to room temperature before serving.

I liked the butter coating on top (mmmm!  butter!) but consider scraping it off before serving if you think your guests might not want a bite of pure butter on their cracker or with their spread.

Air bubbles not recommended for long term storage.
I found a nice essay on potted meat by Thehistoricfoodie's Blog that explains well the methods and reasonings:  "Potted Meat and Cheese,  Early Convenience Foods".  I think if I needed to store my potted meat results, I would have processed it until it was like a paste so I could push out the air bubbles.  My first impulse would be to add some water to it but that is definitely the wrong tack.  Water allows air and air is what spoils the meat.  I would add more butter if necessary as the fat seals the meat against the air.  Even if some bacteria was still in the meat, the lack of air would keep it from growing quickly.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Stuffed Dates -- The "No Kitchen" Challenge

The kitchen remodel is moving along well:  the new cabinetry is in along with the improved LED lighting.  All that is needed now is the counter top, touch up paint, some tiling, and the electrical outlets and light switches.

So my challenge for this post was to make something that didn't require an oven or stove, although using the microwave was acceptable.  The problem was lack of preparation space and keeping the number of dirty dishes to a minimum.  (I'm still washing dishes in the bathroom sink.)

After due consideration (honest, it wasn't a total panic!) I realized that I could make something I have made in my historical cooking demonstrations in the past.  Stuffed dates have always been a hit -- sweet, creamy, and with cinnamon.

Normally I make this with the green cheese I posted earlier on this blog.  You should try it, too!  I think it makes a better product.  For my challenge, though, I used cream cheese.

I know this recipe is medieval or Renaissance English.  If I can find it in a book some time, I'll post the reference.  Right now I'm working from memory.

Stuffed Dates

Pitted dates (I used about 1 pound)
Cream cheese (8 ounces was more than enough)
A plain sweet bread or cake (I used a purchased, frozen pound cake)
Cinnamon, ground (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
Pepper, ground (I used about 1/8 teaspoon)

Soften the cream cheese (10 seconds in the microwave was just right).  Mix in the cinnamon and pepper.

Crumble 6 to 8 ounces of the pound cake and mix the crumbs into the cream cheese mixture.  The idea is to make the mixture stiffer and drier than plain cream cheese.  *I had better results with the green cheese.  That turned into a dough-like consistency and the spices stayed as distinct specks. Very attractive.*  The cream cheese remained a bit sticky and the spices turned it light brown.  Still, I'm not complaining!

Taste the cheese mixture:  It should have the slight tang of cream cheese but the cinnamon should be dominant.  If not, add more cinnamon.  The pepper should not be obvious.  It just adds a depth of flavor to the cinnamon.

The cheese filling, complete
Put the cheese into the refrigerator for a little while.  In the mean time, slice the pitted dates lengthwise on one side into the pit opening.  Don't cut them in half!

Using a spoon, put some of the cheese mixture into the date.  Put in enough to have some of it poke out through the slit.  I tried to make mine decorative but was only partially successful.

Once the dates were all filled, I dusted them with an extra bit of cinnamon to give them a visual as well as a flavor boost.

The Verdict

Very tasty, as usual! The dates are certainly sweet enough and the cheese mixture adds a creamy, cinnamon-spicy counterflavor to make them special.  The size is just right for two bites or so.  That keeps it from being overwhelmingly sweet.  It is a good finger food, too, although somewhat sticky.  They could be served at a buffet as a curiosity.  People who like dates tend to enjoy them!

I had some cheese mixture left over, so I spread some on the left over pound cake.  Tasty but too soft for me.  I wanted some chopped nuts with it.  My guest taste tester and assistant preparer, who doesn't like chopped nuts, thought it was good as it was.

In the past when I have had left over cheese mixture, I added chopped raisins and rolled them into little balls.  That is another handy way to serve them.  They might be even more attractive with a dusting of cinnamon, too.

If I were to do this over again, I would probably use ricotta cheese and drain it first.  I like the tang of the cream cheese but mixture was stickier than I really like.

By the way, you can probably cut the dates in half and stuff each half.  There is nothing wrong with that!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Something Different: A Culinary Symposium

My kitchen does not exist right now.  It is four walls with new electrical work and lights but no cabinets, counters, or appliances.  The remodel is moving along well!  For this post, I thought it would be fun to tell you about the culinary symposium I attended last March.

The West Coast Culinary Symposium is an event put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).  Their web page promised "a chance for like-minded and enthusiastic people to get together and share their love and knowledge of pre-1600 period cooking and practices and share the tasty results.  It is also a time to gather as friends, make new ones, share ideas, and teach our skills to others hoping to learn."  All this came true and then some!  Excited historical cooks from all over the United States and some international travelers attended.

First, the Food 

The arrival evening was a "Traveler's Potluck" where we all brought something to share and the symposium supplied a variety of soups.  What an opportunity for showing off our skills! I brought my Deviled Eggs for Dessert, An Illusion Food which I posted on this blog on March 15, 2014.  But oh, the other offerings:  homemade cheeses, meat pies, pickled vegetables, artisan breads and spreads, fruit pies, Roman era gingerbread, and more.  Even taking small portions of these temptations didn't leave me enough room to taste all I wanted to try.

Asparagus Omelet
Onion Relish and Herbed Cheese Spread with pear slices
Meat Pie!  With pork, beef, chicken, and onions.
Meat Pie, the interior
Compost -- a medieval chutney

The groaning table
We also were served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and breakfast over the next two days.  These were cooked onsite by different groups and they all did fabulous jobs.  
Breakfast:  eggs, cheese, bacon, bread, apricot jam with rosewater, grapes, stewed greens
Lunch:  Porridge, cheese, red cabbage, sausages, onion relish, cheese, fruit, shortbread, various sauces
The lunch table:  I like how they served spreads in goblets
The dinner was particularly exciting as it was attended by the King and Queen of the kingdom.  Everyone went all out with the menu!

Elderberry cheesecake -- yum!
Meat pie as a peacock -- a subtlety
A meat stew subtlety, too
Homemade cheeses
One of my servings  : )  The chicken was baked with bacon and there is a nice spinach dish, too
You might have noticed that some dishes ended up being offered at two meals -- a very efficient way to use the leftovers.  But what was particularly nice was having leftover elderberry cheesecake for breakfast the next morning!
A good morning start
Oatmeal with stewed fruit
Next:  The Food Classes

I took three classes but got the benefit of a fourth in that they shared their food creations. 

In the Ottoman Turk cooking class we made several dishes, all tasty!  Most of the time my hands were busy helping out so I don't have a lot of pictures showing the preparation steps.  Also, with the construction going on, I can't find my notes.  Once I do, I'll update this post.

One recipe involved eggplants and gourds.  They were hollowed out, stuffed with a lamb and mint mixture, then steamed.  For serving they were sliced and adorned with a yogurt sauce and chopped mint.

Eggplant sliced open lengthwise and hollowed out
The hollowed gourd
Getting ready to steam
Slicing in anticipation of serving
What a lovely presentation! 
We also used a lamb and mint stuffing to fill up grape leaves.  A special addition to the mixture was "Golden Prunes" which are dried and have a lovely tart taste.  It added a zing to the mixture that I liked very much.  The stuffed leaves were steamed at the same time as the eggplant and gourds.

Stuffed, rolled, and ready for steaming
Steamed and ready for eating!
Another dish, absolutely yummy and a surprising combination of foods, contained cooked chicken that was deboned and shredded then mixed with noodles, grapes, and almonds.  I can't recall the sauce but will look it up later.
The noodles, uncooked
The finished dish
We also made a sweet treat, a type of folded pastry filled with an almond mixture.  There was a professional pastry chef in the class who assisted in the rolling, cutting, and closing the treats.
The dough for the treats
Aren't they cute?
The finished product.  YUM!  Hard to save some for others.
The afternoon class was about outdoor cooking.  The instructor had a neat portable fire pit that assembles from boards and uses sand and bricks to insulate the wood from the fire.  A metal structure fitted around it to provide a place to hang pots and spits.  The advantage of it coming apart is that the otherwise very heavy pit can be broken into easily carried pieces.

The ceramic pots are used as cloches
Notice the spitted roast is off to the side of the fire and has a drip pan beneath it.  The sand you see is only a few inches deep.
There was also a portable all metal fire pit that was fun to look at.  The ceramic pot is being used to help heat the charcoal faster and also to warm the pot up before it is placed over cooking food.

Love the medieval styling
The warmed cloche will go over the chicken, making a little oven and cooking the meat faster and more evenly
The class next door on Roman Empire cooking generously shared the results of their cooking.  I got to try some food items that were entirely new to me!  One item I didn't get a picture of was fried pig's ears.  Yes, you read that right.  They were sliced into strips and fried until they were chewy, tasty treats.  Not exciting from my point of view but certainly fun to try and tell people about.

Another surprise was the grilled pig nipples.  They were marinated in some lovely sauce and then we helped to grill them.  They, too, were chewy but I liked the bacon-y flavor and would definitely try them again.

Heading to the grill.  The specks are seeds in the marinade
Cooking up nicely.
I don't want you to think the pig nipples were the big surprise, though.  No, that honor belongs to the dish containing leeks, pine nuts, and ... wait for it ... pig uterus.  That's right:  sow's womb.  The sauce on the dish really brought the flavors together and made my tastebuds sing:  a taste of olive oil and spices.  The uteri made me think of slightly chewy macaroni, which is what they looked like, too.  In all seriousness, I would eat this dish again.  If I couldn't get uteri, I would use macaroni. 
Very, very tasty!
My last class was on subtleties and illusion foods.  These are foods designed to "fool the eye" into thinking it is something it is not.  The instructor was very knowledgeable, experienced, and creative.  She had brought pictures of some of her past creations and also taught us how to work with sugar paste using a store-bought gum paste mixture and rosewater.

The carrots are made of meat loaf mixture and the shrimp are really marzipan.
This is made of sugar paste!
Adorable hard-boiled egg mice
Tools of the sugar paste sculpting trade
Mixing the gum paste with rosewater to make a smooth dough
More creations
Food Related Fun

The days were packed with good food, good learning, and good people!  We also had a keynote speaker and two competitions.  One was called "Mortal Peril" and consisted of categories with answers to which we had to provide the questions.  Anyone could participate in the first round and the top three winners went on to the final round.  Great fun!  The other competition was a spice identification challenge, where about 30 spices were put in numbered glass containers and the competitors were given a paper listing all the spice names.  We could look at, sniff, and taste the spices to identify them.  It was quite a challenge!  I was pleased with how many I got right.  

The Verdict

Overall it was exhausting, exhilarating, and worth every minute.  I'm so glad I was able to go!  Along with all the knowledge I got from the classes, I learned that I love elderberry cheesecake and anything with rosewater in it.  I came home with cookbooks, spices, a two-hundred year old sourdough starter, a ceramic alembic, and a strong desire to sculpt in sugar paste.  I met a lot of nice and interesting people, had conversations about all sorts of cooking styles and methods, enjoyed the mountain setting, and filled my stomach with tasty and exotic foods.  I am not a member of the SCA but everyone was friendly and welcoming and accommodated my lack of SCA social skills.  

This event has my hearty recommendation!