Pleasures of the Picnic

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by MELorden

woman-kissing-man-on-picnic-blanket-illustration

Whenever I see a red checkered tablecloth, I can’t help but think of a picnic. Turned into a colorful blanket, the symbol of eating al fresco is the classic canvas for a spread of old-fashioned American culinary delights. Add a green hillside dotted with daisies and a woven wicker basket. Now toss in a bottle of wine accompanied by plates of cheese, bread, and fruit. For good measure, bring along a few large brimmed hats, and the picture is complete.

9631361-picnic-basket-and-bottle-of-white-wine-on-red-gingham-blanket-beside-lake With summer now in full swing, the desire to picnic is picking up. This portable and often impromptu outdoor meal is a wonderful option with the increased selection of fresh, seasonal local produce at farm stands and regional cooperatives.  Browsing the produce and prepared food sections of  your grocery store or the stalls of local farmers markets inspires a seasonal picnic menu.

 History

Victorian-Picnic The ideal picnic has a certain romantic elegance. Victorian style picnics came into fashion in America by the 1860’s and were often very elaborate affairs. Designed around lengthy menus and elegantly outfitted hampers, Victorian picnickers filled them with every tool and gastronomic delight imaginable:  Dishes included timbales, stuffed eggs, pressed chicken salad, aspics, jellied roasts, fish balls, and the ever-popular baked bean sandwich. Desserts featured puddings, prune and other fruit whips, custards, and cakes. By the 19th century, the American picnic was a sort of English high tea en plein air.

This stylish “informality” in dining came to America via Great Britain, by way of the French. The origins of the word piquenique, according to Michael Quinon at World Wide Words, describe an outdoor gathering with food, where participants bring a little something to the party. The French piquer enjoyed this leisurely pot-luck meal where attendees gracefully picked at delicious trifles of this and that. Historians find references to the word in the17th and 18th century (the period of Louis XIV – XV), and by 1800 it appears in English.

71eWMl9A-FL._SL1500_ I like to imagine the French nobility at these affairs joyously poo-pooing the cumbersome rules of formal dining at Versailles while eating finger food and romping about in nature days before the French Revolution.

The American Picnic

It is this mildly rebellious spirit of the picnic that makes it such a great match for Americans. Picnics are a collaborative, resourceful approach to enjoying the fruits of one’s labor in the wild.  Busy as bees and as industrious as the ants that march across their picnic blankets, Americans found ways to eat outdoors:  clambakes, the old box social, Texas BBQs, and Louisiana shrimp boils. There’s backyard grilling, tailgating at athletic events, outdoor concerts, the Old-Fashioned July 4th family reunion. Don’t forget the hiking trails, seaside vistas, mountain tops, and national or state parks where picnic tables beckon. Given the cornucopia of fresh food from the American landscape, the options for what to pack in the picnic box are limitless.

Picnic Fare

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to American picnic foods– there are just traditions. Many of us fall back on the reliable cold chicken with potato salad, cole slaw, and rolls, or ham and cheese sandwiches with chips and pickles followed by brownies or fresh fruit salad. Hamburgers, hotdogs, and beans are also perennial favorites for noshing out of doors, and for many folks, cookouts simply feel incomplete without them. On the other hand, there is that extreme form of outdoor dining typical of the professional and competitive picnicker: NFL tailgaters or sophisticated diners on the lawn at Tanglewood light torches and enjoy champagne, entire roast pig, coq au vin, escargots, and chocolate mousse served on real china, eaten with sterling silver and accompanied by linens that are actually made of linen (no folksy red-checkered tablecloths here).

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Indeed, today’s picnic venues and menus are getting an extreme makeover, but there is no need to go to such lengths to amp up your picnic experience. What we eat at a picnic can be more than a box lunch but need not be a gourmet tour de force. A picnic can be a break from mealtime routine, a chance to commune with both nature and your company. Most importantly, a picnic can be an opportunity for tasting a number of small portable plates that, once consumed in the fresh air, become memorable culinary experiences and part of your own picnic food traditions.

High on my list of excellent picnic foods are cold soups and tortes, pickled foods, slaws, local cheeses, and crusty breads. Chilled roasted vegetables and salads travel well and offer that refreshing crunch as well as hydration in the hot weather. Grain-based salads (quinoa, couscous, farro, and barley) are nice replacements for traditional pasta-based and mayonnaise dressed salads. Sliced baked ham, or marinated chicken and beef make wonderful contents for wraps or are great rolled around asparagus and red peppers.  Food eaten with your fingers adds to the convenience of the fun we associate with summer picnics.  And you can leave the clean up to the ants.

Planning a Picnic

Regardless of the equipment used to package, transport, or eat picnic fare, you can plan a quality dining experience that is both smart and simple. Pick up a used basket at a thrift store, or drag out that old Scotch Plaid cooler if you want to be stylish or retro.large_PicnicLunch-basket  With the advent of lightweight insulated bag coolers, you can easily hike to your picnic destination and not worry about bringing along ice cold dishes on a summer’s day.

If you are looking for a more intimate and personal picnic experience, and the sound of distant thunder looms, plan an indoor picnic. Move over breakfast in bed! Why not picnic on the porch, or on the floor?  Bring out the basket, the ground cloth, the picnic plates and cutlery and treat yourself to a great picnic menu under your own roof.  Add a few flowers as a centerpiece, and enjoy your own picnic paradise at home.

Sometimes the best picnics are those that are not extensively planned. Beautiful weather beckons, friends are free, and with a destination selected, the meal comes together in a collaborative fashion. Great expense of time or money is not needed for a sophisticated and satisfying picnic adventure. However, with a little planning and a few good picnic-worthy recipes by your side, you can assemble a simple smorgasbord of samplings that are in tune with the available produce of the summer season.

When I got married, a very popular wedding gift was a woven wicker picnic basket. Somehow, that basket with its nestled cups and plates and its snaps and straps for cutlery, a bottle opener, and linens represented the idyllic adventures my husband and I were going enjoy together for the rest of our lives.  As someone once said, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can never predict the weather.”  Now that we are both retired, I’ve dusted it off.  For us, eating on the road these days is actually more of a fast food picnic, but I still believe that the stylish wicker suitcase is nothing short of romance in a box.

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RECIPES

These refreshing cold soups are two of my favorites, and they are just as delicious when served from a paper cup as from a wine glass.  The roasted vegetable torte is an Ina Garten gem.  I was served this elegant but simply prepared layered vegetable dish at a recent luncheon.  It can be served either cold or hot and holds up well.  Top it with a spoonful of your favorite yogurt or tangy vinaigrette.     

Summer Gazpachos

Adapted from Company’s Coming Soups by Jean Paré (2006)

Combine the following ingredients in a bowl; toss.  Then pureé in a blender till smooth.

4 large hothouse tomatoes (peeled, seeded, and chopped)

1 English cucumber (peeled, seeded, and chopped)

1 cup chopped red pepper

1/2 cup chopped red onion

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove (minced)

1/2 teaspoon lime juice

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar

2 dashes Tobasco

Salt and pepper to taste

Serve with chopped cucumber, sliced avocado, croutons, or a dollop of sour cream.

Yellow Summer Squash Buttermilk Soup

Adapted from the Whole Living website

Ingredients:

Curry powder (1-2 teaspoons)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium sweet onion coarsely, chopped

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds yellow squash, cut into 1/2” thick rounds

1 large Russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2” cubes

3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1/2 cup buttermilk

Chives, chopped for garnish

Directions:

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Cook onion, garlic, squash, and potato, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften (but not brown), about 5 minutes.

Add curry powder and combine.

Add 3 cups stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, stirring occasionally until potato is tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from heat; let cool slightly.

Puree soup until smooth.

Pour through a fine sieve into a clean large saucepan. Set pan over med.-low hat.

Stir in remaining 1/2 cup stock; stirring constantly for 5 minutes. Slowly pour in buttermilk.

Serve chilled.

Roasted Vegetable Torte

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cooks (1999) by Ina Garten

Ingredients:

2  Zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch slices

1 Red onion, sliced

1 Garlic clove, minced

2 Red bell peppers, halved, cored, and seeded

2 Yellow bell peppers, halved, cored, and seeded

1 Eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/4 inch slices (1 1/2 pounds)

1/2 Cup grated parmesan

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In large sauté pan, cook zucchini, onion, garlic, and 2 tablespoons olive for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Brush the peppers and eggplant with olive, season with salt and pepper and roast on a baking sheet for 30-40  minutes until soft (not browned)

In 6 inch round cake pan, place each vegetable in a single, overlapping layer, sprinkling Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste between each of the layers of vegetables:

  • Begin with half of the eggplant, then layer half of the zucchini and onions, then all of the red peppers,then the rest of the zucchini and onions, and then finally the rest of the eggplant.

Cover the top of the vegetables with a 6 inch round of parchment or waxed paper.  Place another cake pan or bottom of a tart pan on top and weight it with a heavy jar. Place on a plate or baking sheet (it will leak) and chill completely.

Drain the liquids, place on a platter, and serve at room temperature.

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The Possibilities of Pizza

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by Martha Esersky Lorden

Doesn’t every city in America have a Tony’s Pizza Parlor? Mine did. I have no idea if the proprietor was actually named Tony, but the restaurant was a fixture in my home town for decades. The pies were big and chewy rubber platters sporting a layer of glistening grease atop industrial mozzarella cheese. Heavy tomato sauce and dried oregano were also applied liberally. And I loved every bite. Frankly, everything at Tony’s tasted the same— the gummy spaghetti and meatballs, the soggy fried eggplant parmesan, and each variety of pizza. A favorite family restaurant, Tony’s was the only game in town when it came to pizza.

My pizza IQ rose significantly when I moved to Italy. The neighborhood pizzeria had a large glass window through which a tiled wood-fired oven glowed. The pizzaiolo put on a show while preparing the dough every morning. I watched him through the restaurant window regularly, and it was love at first sight. Our eyes met over clouds of flour as I watched him knead the soft spheres of fresh dough for their numerous rises. It’s difficult to say whether I was moony-eyed over the adorable Enzo or if it was the yeasty perfume that had simply gone to my head. His pizza was delicious, as was most all pizza I ate in Italy. I was particularly touched when one evening he brought a heart-shaped pizza to my table. I have a photo of it somewhere.

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Pizza Margherita:  Classic Simplicity

The Appeal of Pizza

Romance aside, pizza is an iconic Italian dish, but today pizza pie is as American as apple pie. The statistical evidence is overwhelming: on average, individuals in the US eat about 46 slices per year—that’s 23 pounds of the stuff. Americans are piggy for pizza. With nearly 65,000 pizzerias in the nation, Americans are gulping down 350 pieces of ‘za every second. The national pizza market, according to Ezine, is a $30 billion industry. Americans are simply obsessed with pizza, which is no surprise. It fits in nicely with that popular American idea of food as fun and fast, as road food or weekend take-out party grub that goes down perfectly with beer or coke. It’s the ideal accompaniment to sports television and makes for easy clean-up in the dorm or man cave.

Culinarily speaking, however, pizza’s place in the American diet has been elevated from this stereotype. While the first pizza parlor opened in America in New York City in 1905, pizza today is no longer just a specialty food made by dough-tossing dudes in classic pizza joints. Fashioned by professionally trained chefs, stylish bistros, and home cooks, pizza is currently a highly adaptable food style, a culinary foundation for very good eats. On careful examination, pizza can be the perfect vehicle for nutrition, creativity, and artisanal quality dining.

Vince Guiffire Makes a Pizza

Pizzaiolo at work in NYC Pizza Parlor Circa 1950

Culinary History

pizza_historyIn its most basic form, pizza is a flatbread made of flour and water with Mediterranean origins. Bronze Age people ate pizza in the Veneto region of Italy. While on military campaigns in Phoenicia and Greece, Roman soldiers consumed a simple seasoned flatbread. 3215391860_0de82f93ac_oDuring the Middle Ages, peasants topped yeasted dough with herbs and olive oil, and Renaissance pizza eaters experimented with the newly arrived tomatoes from the Mondo Nuovo and cheese made from the milk of the imported Indian water buffalo. By the 18th century, peasants in Naples incorporated the tomato on their flatbread base, selling pizza as street food and eventually in shops along the streets. In time, the dish made its way to the Italian aristocracy when, 120 years ago, a pizza vendor by the name of Rafaele Esposito of Naples created the popular pizza Margherita for Italy’s Queen with its tri-colori of the nation’s flag in green basil, white cheese, and red tomatoes. Soon the various regions of Italy created their own signature versions of pizza celebrating local ingredients.

                                                                                                                                                                                


Queen-Margherita

With the return of American GI’s after World War II, their penchant for pizza led to parlors in most every Italian-American neighborhood. Styles of pizza reflected a multitude of American regional preferences. So, who is to say what “real” pizza is? With so many genres, it is difficult to know. East coast cities like Boston boast a pizza that rivals the thin-crusted New York style. Many prefer Greek-style pizza with its thick, puffy, and chewy crust served in rectangles or as pies topped with feta, olives, green pepper, and onions. Sicilian style pizza, or sfincione, a doughy square-cut bread pizza topped with cheese and tomato, is baked on a sheet and requires two rises, not the one typical of most American pizzas. Then there is Chicago’s Deep Dish casserole pizza layered between a top and bottom crust and stuffed with pounds of sliced ham, sausage, several cheeses, vegetables, pepperoni, and a rich tomato sauce. Today, nearly every restaurant has a pizza or flatbread selection on the menu. Modern Italian restaurants in America have exquisite pizza ovens that reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit and are fired by carefully selected hardwoods that deliver the charcoal-flavored, thin and crunchy crust desired by today’s gourmet pizza diners. Rustic at heart, pizza is now a culinary tour de force.

Pizza has a global fan base that is growing, too. Many nations have adopted their cuisine to include pizza. International variations feature a Mochi-crusted Japanese pizza, a Turkish pizza on a round shell with meat sauce called lahm bi’ajin, and a Korean adaptation with kimchi and bolgogi toppings. In Europe there is the French Provencal pissaladiere with cooked onions, anchovies, and olive oil, along with a popular German flammkueche, a thick circular dough topped with crème fraiche, onions, and bacon.

Build Your Own Pizza at Home

The potential combinations of bread-based crusts and toppings is stupefying. And home cooks can now leap right into the fun. No need to rely on pre-made frozen pizza, delivery, or take-out. The resources to make a quality pizza in tune with individual dietary preferences and tastes is infinite. There are really just three parts to pizza creation— crust, toppings, and heat source.

Crust

If you don’t care to make a pizza dough from scratch (see recipe below), there are fabulous options in the grocery store. Consider the potential of the following items as the base of a quality home-cooked pizza:

  • Fresh made pizza doughs (whole wheat and white flour) are found in the prepared foods section
  • Numerous flavors and sizes of pre-baked, fresh-frozen, and gluten-free pizza shells from artisanal bakeries in Vermont and New Hampshire such as Stonefire, Little Red Hen, Green Mt. Flour, and Mama Mary’s
  • Naan flatbreads
  • Tortillas and wraps of every variety
  • French bread and baguettes
  • Frozen puff pastry
  • Pita bread
  • Broad, crunchy crackers like lavash or Torte de Aciete by Ines Rosales from Spain

Naan-Pizza

Pre-packaged Naan Indian bread  makes a fine option for a quick home-crafted pizza

Toppings

In selecting toppings, consider the meal. Are you making an entrée or an appetizer? Or perhaps you want to stretch a meal of salad or soup with a crusty slice. And how about breakfast? Not the usual cold leftover slice, but a fresh pizza adorned with scrambled eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, and some crispy potatoes. The leftovers from last night’s BBQ chicken work well, too. Go vegan and make seasonal vegetables like asparagus, leeks, and snap peas the stars. Take your inspiration from international cuisines and think Mexican with taco-themed toppings or Indian Tandoori curried chicken and paneer pizza. For a dessert pizza, top a pate brisé crust with sweet pastry cream, seasonal berries, kiwis, and powdered sugar. If you love cheese, combine feta and lamb, a local goat cheese with baby spinach and arugula, or fontina with mushrooms. Smear shells with pesto, truffle or chile oil, anchovy paste, or a spicy salsa.

Heat Source

Bake fresh pizza at home at the highest temperature your oven can go. Commercial ovens bake at well over 500 degrees, and wood-fired ones crank at nearly 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the pizza in the top of the oven on a pre-heated pizza stone, and it will cook in 10-12 minutes.

An excellent way to enjoy pizza is to use the outdoor grill for the best direct heat delivery. Bake dough directly on the rack for 5-10 minutes, then flip. Fill the shell with toppings. Close the lid and grill another 5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Pizza also cooks well in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop or inside the oven, and if using pre-baked crusts, just stick the pizza under the broiler for 2 minutes.

Pizza is a perfect food with universal appeal. It is an attractive and creative option for home cooks who want to prepare a convenient meal. Sink your teeth into a great crust loaded with flavor, texture, and nutrition. Bring the elegance of pizza into your own kitchen—without the box.

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Classic Pizza Dough Recipe

(from the Cooks’ Illustrated Cookbook, America’s Test Kitchen, 2011 )

This is an easy, shortcut pizza dough that produces a crispy crust when made on a pizza stone and can “practically be made in the time it takes to heat the oven.” Bread flour works extremely well, but you can substitute all-purpose flour if you wish. The bread flour, however, promises a somewhat chewier texture.

This recipe makes 2 pounds of dough, enough for two 14-inch pizzas.

4 to 4 1/4 cups bread flour
2 1/4 teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups water, heated to 110 degrees

Pulse 4 cups flour, yeast, and salt together in food processor (fitted with dough blade if possible) until combined, about 5 pulses. With food processor running, slowly add oil, then water; process until rough ball forms, 30 to 40 seconds. Let dough rest for 2 minutes, then process for 30 seconds longer. (If, after 30 seconds dough is sticky and clings to blade, add remaining ¼ cup flour 1 tablespoon at a time, as needed.)

Transfer dough to lightly floured counter and knead by hand into smooth, round ball. Place dough in a large, lightly greased bowl; cover bowl tightly with greased plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours, before using.

Fontina, Caramelized-Onion, and Pancetta Pizza

(from Cooking Light, October 1998 )

For a mellow and melt-in-your-mouth cheese pizza with a sweet and salty bite, try this simply prepared topping. It’s bursting with flavor.

1 1/2 ounces pancetta (Italian-style bacon) or Canadian bacon, chopped
8 cups sliced onion (about 3 large)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded fontina cheese, divided
Thyme sprigs (optional)
Cracked black pepper (optional)

Preheat oven to 475°F.

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; add pancetta, and sauté for 2 minutes. Add onions, thyme, salt, and white pepper; cook 25 minutes or until onions are browned, stirring frequently.

Brush each prepared pizza crust with 1½ teaspoons oil; top each with half of onion mixture. Sprinkle half of cheese over each pizza. Bake at 475° for 9 minutes or until crusts are crisp. Cut each pizza into 8 wedges. Garnish with thyme sprigs and sprinkle with black pepper, if desired.

Atomic Cake: An Explosive Confection

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From the 1950’s, here’s a birthday cake that mom can make even while the family is cowering in the fallout shelter. Bless her heart.

301968_10150899306145051_668891930_nPhoto by ME Lorden

Evaporated milk, crisco oil, powdered eggs, and 3 boxed cake mixes are used to make this  chocolate and vanilla pudding-filled cake with canned fruit layers. Slather the pudding between the  triple golden, vanilla, and chocolate cake layers with maraschino cherries and canned pineapple. Wrap the entire chemical wonder with Dream Whip and then—KABOOM! Atomic cake.

Heat source to bake the cake? Gas stove or electric if generator is running. Candle power won’t do.

Nothing like eating a sculpture of a hydrogen bomb.  It was all the rage.

e70063f96dc9e413ab94d30dd62a4b20 Who knew that this horrific technology which gave the United States an atomic monopoly would also inspire new culinary tastes?

Better living through chemistry, I suppose.


HBomb

Light-as-a-(radiation)cloud Confection.

Atomic Cake-lo

New fad of celebratory cake among the military elite.

Enjoying atomic pastry along with their atomic cocktails.

The Soviets were offended by this publicity photo and the idea of an Atomic Cake altogether.  US clergymen found it obscene. The newspaper headlines of the day reported on the indignation.  The atomic bomb was clearly best kept off the list of fun food themes with the great cake controversy that began in 1946.

Check out the following link:

Atomic Cake Media Controversy

Soviet Cake


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These creamy sweet layers are pretty luscious.

 You can substitute sliced bananas in one of the layers for the pineapple if you aren’t stuck in the bomb shelter.

This clever cake explodes with flavor.  Might as well eat up before you kiss your fanny good-bye.

Spirits of New Orleans? We’re Talking Cocktails!

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Forget taking a ghost tour when you go to New Orleans.  If you want to get in touch with the real spirits that inhabit New Orleans, try some of the original cocktails that were born in The Big Easy.

Guest poster, Kit Wohl offers a peek into her newest book from her Classic series called New Orleans Classic Cocktails. 

 

“CIVILIZATION BEGINS WITH DISTILLATION”       —WILLIAM FAULKNER

THE FIRST COCKTAIL

by Kit Wohl

The oldest known American cocktail is credited to an enterprising pharmacist, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, who devised Peychaud’s bitters. Not surprisingly, it became an ingredient in his 1870s concoction. The French native established a pharmacy in the Vieux Carré, serving his libations in a coquetier, a French egg cup. Localization of the word resulted in mispronunciation — cocktail. This tale could be true, perhaps not.

The word cock-tail was noted for prior to 1870 in a newspaper north of the Mason-Dixon line. Earlier it had been used in a different context, and rudely so, in London. It didn’t refer to our spirited coquetier. There, it was simply a word. Here it’s a tradition.

peychauds

A coffee bar down the block from Peychaud’s pharmacy was quickly renamed The Sazerac House to toast the cocktail. On everyone’s lips, the new drink was wildly popular, creating grins and new Sazerac bars around the city.

While the Sazerac was our first, it was certainly not the last in an ever-evolving array of fancy mixed drinks and cocktails. We’re still smiling.

~ Kit Wohl

SAZERAC  

 SAZERAC BAR, ROOSEVELT HOTEL

sazeracMakes one cocktail

sugar cube

dash Peychaud’s bitters

3 ounces rye whiskey

1/2 ounce absinthe

lemon curl, for garnish

Many Sazerac bars emerged when Peychaud’s bitters was introduced, with only one surviving. The fanciful bar is in residence at the restored Roosevelt Hotel. Ingredients in the original recipe included cognac, absinthe, sugar and Peychaud’s bitters. Pernod and Herbsaint replaced absinthe when it was banned in America in 1912. Absinthe is once again back on the shelf after an evil scheme that labeled it as a poisonous hallucinogen.

In a cocktail shaker, saturate the sugar cube with the bitters and crush. Add ice, the rye and absinthe and stir. Strain the shaker into a chilled Old Fashioned glass. Garnish by twisting the lemon curl over the drink to release the oil then place it over the side of the glass.

OLD ABSINTHE HOUSE

RAMOS GIN FIZZ

One of New Orleans’ most revered cocktails, the drink was created by barman Henry Ramos in the 1880s. As governor of Louisiana, Huey Long often traveled with his bartender so he would always have his cocktail prepared just so. It dates to the Old Absinthe House at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville where a secret room was created to harbor pirate Jean Lafitte. Pirates still hang out in the bar, usually on Friday afternoons.

The Ramos Fizz needs to be shaken like mad, sometimes five minutes or more to properly emulsify the cream, egg, and spirit, producing an exquisitely frothy drink.

gin fizz closeup with fleur de lis

11/2 ounces gin

2 ounces half and half

2 ounces whole milk

1 large egg white

1 tablespoon simple syrup

2 drops orange flower water (available in the baking section of supermarkets)

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice


 Using a shaker half filled with ice, combine all the ingredients. Shake as long as you can stand it. Pour into a chilled glass.

Photos by Kit WohlNOCC_jacket

It’s Mardi Gras! Time for Tastes and Toasts

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Are you ready for Fat Tuesday?

The great rite for “letting it all hang out” centered in New Orleans— the mecca of Mardi Gras celebrations–  is arriving February 12. The famous carnival days when the world turns topsy-turvy and the rules of social decorum go right out the window and tumble onto Bourbon Street are fast approaching. How will you celebrate?

 beads

Food is  a focal point for any festival, and a great tradition of eats dominates Mardi Gras celebrations.  At the crossroads of the Spanish, French, and  African people, the regional cuisine of New Orleans is a wonderful combination of  immigrant traditions.   Cajun and Creole worlds come together to create a spectrum of spectacular cuisine.

The Mardi Gras celebration has its roots in the worship of Dionysus, or Bacchus, an ancient religious ritual from classical culture that placed wine, women, and song at the center of intoxicated partying.  Masked revelers engaged in disorderly behavior, and an assumed alter-ego communed ecstatically with the frisky gods and goddesses. That certainly sounds a lot like what goes down in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.bourbon

Historically, during the rise of the Christian era in the third and fourth century, church leaders were wise to dovetail their religious traditions and festivals with those of the pagan world. Unruly behavior was tolerated by ecclesiastical leaders and became part of the holy days celebration leading to Easter.

Mardi Gras is a last hurrah to the life of temptation and sin. What better way to say goodbye to indulging the flesh (carne) and eating of meat on the day before Ash Wednesday than with a big party?  With the start of the Lenten period, it may be time to renounce worldly pleasures and get down to the salvation of the soul, but not before the ritual slaughter of the fatted cow and going whole hog with The Great Binge in The Big Easy.

While the Mardi Gras carnival sounds like a total free-for-all, there are plenty of traditions to make the proper party.  In New Orleans, balls, fund-raisers, social clubs, and parades are formalized ways to celebrate. Neighborhoods in the city prepare all year and re-enforce the importance of community as a result. The history of Mardi Gras is also rich in tradition and symbols. Music, costumes, and spectacle characterize each coalition of revelers as the big soiree and countless parades gets underway. In the weeks before Mardi Gras, the whole city is possessed and poised for the Bacchanalia.

Sacred clowns and feathered strummers and all the bead-gatherers along the parade routes undoubtedly will be thinking about their king cake and cocktails, red beans and rice, étouffee, jambalayas, and gumbos rich in oysters, shrimp, catfish, and andouille sausage.  There’s plenty to eat and lots of Cajun and Creole cuisine to explore.king cake

Plan to get fat on Fat Tuesday.  After all, you’ll have the rest of the year to eat in moderation.  Laissez les bon temps rouler!                 –MELorden

 What are you cooking for Mardi Gras? 

What Mardi Gras merrymaking are you planning?

(You’ll find  two terrific recipes called  Seafood Okra Gumbo Classique and Chicken and Andouille Sausage Étouffee  under  OTK’s Featured Column called Recipes.

 2 MARDI GRAS RECIPES 

And for a great cookbook series presenting an entire range of cuisine from New Orleans, please visit OTK’s Good Books For Cooks column to learn about Kit Wohl’s New Orleans Classics series. )

 

Dining With Da Vinci

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leonardo-da-vinci-self-portrait-detail

DINING WITH DA VINCI

by MELorden

110807_davinci

We are all familiar with the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Not only was he fascinated with drawing plants, he may have preferred eating them.

For its time, to be a vegetarian was somewhat uncommon as well as controversial. It was said that Da Vinci was such a lover of animals that he often strolled through the bird markets, purchased the caged creatures, and promptly set them free. Da Vinci’s vegetarianism may have been the result of his contact with travelers like Greek humanists and painters from the East who came to Renaissance Florence and Milan.

There are records of what he consumed in the courts of popes and patrons.  He ate greens, fruits, mushrooms, pasta and cereals, and all manner of vegetables.  In particular, a hot chickpea minestrawas a favorite. This recipe is found in one of the first cookbooks of the Renaissance entitled Platina de honest volupatate (1475) written by the Venetian Bartolomeo di Sacci (Batali in Fedele, The Artist’sPalate). Among Da Vinci’s library books was a 1487 copy.  The authentic chickpea recipe follows:

La Minestra (Luis in Cecere Rubeo) from Platina    

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 2.30.37 PMWash a pound or more of chickpeas in hot water.  After being washed they should be put in a pot to simmer without water.  With your hands mix half an ounce of meal, a little oil and salt, and twenty grains of coarsely ground pepper and ground cinnamon, and then put this near the hearth with three measures of water, and add sage, rosemary, and chopped parsley roots. Let this boil so that it is reduced to eight saucers full.  When it is nearly cooked, drop in a little oil; but if it is juice for sick persons, only add a little oil and spices. (Platina in DeWitt, Da Vinci’s Kitchen)

Who is to know what amount was contained in Platina’s saucer, or in a measure of water?  And the meal required for mixing is unknown, though some scholars believe that Da Vinci was familiar with corn meal (maize) which had been introduced to Italy around 1494 by the brother of Ludivico Sforza, the great Duke of Milan and patron of Leonardo Da Vinci.  Dave DeWitt, in his book Da Vinci’s Kitchen (2006) makes note of shopping lists Leonardo made (while working on The Last Supper) which include red and white maize– quite remarkable considering the recent return of Columbus from the New World. Some research suggests that corn was already being cultivated in Africa. Is there a connection here between Da Vinci and Lombardy’s polenta-centric diet?

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While the great Leonardo invented a heat propelled spit for turning meat as well as a meat smoker and sausage grinder, he was a confirmed vegetarian, though he may not have been one in his early life. This rejection of meat in later life is referred to by a courtier in a letter to the Medici as somewhat heretical.  Da Vinci was recognized as odd in his desire to avoid hurting any living thing let alone feast on anything that had blood coursing through its veins (DeWitt).  In the true spirit of Renaissance humanism, his respect for life seems to have informed his diet–  though one wonders if he simply lost his taste for flesh after all those cadavers he dissected.

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 2.45.46 PMIn his notebooks, Leonardo delights in the vast and infinite variety of simple vegetarian foodstuffs and the endless manner in which they can be combined as shown in the recipes of Platina.  There are recipes in Da Vinci’s notes for a bright and herby salad dressing with spearmint, parsley, and thyme as an excellent dressing over a salad of fennel and bitter greens. He makes reference to anise cookies and light suppers of egg tarts.

For his students, Leonardo advocated a well-ordered life and a diet of moderation.  In a poem he summarizes his principles for culinary happiness:

If you be healthy, heed this advice,

Eat only when hungry, and let light fare suffice.

Chew all your food well, and this rule always follow.

Well-cooked and simple, be all that you swallow.

On leaving a table, a good posture keep,

And after you luncheon, do not yield to sleep.

Let little and often be your rule for wine,

But not between meals or when ready to dine.      –L. Da Vinci

Stand up straight, don’t be a glutton, and remember– you are what you eat.   Here, Da Vinci suggests all things in moderation, especially when it comes to food.  Sounds like reasonable advice for feeding body and soul from the world’s ultimate Renaissance dude.

(For more information about Da Vinci and the diet of the Renaissance:       What Did Leonardo Da Vinci Eat?)

 

Baking with Grandma Duck

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Baking with Grandma Duck:  Apple Cakenonnapapera

An Italian interpretation of Nonna Papera’s apple pie is translated here below by the wonderful Francine Segan (Dolci: Italy’s Sweets). Francine has been a major fan of  Grandma Duck’s manuale of recipes since childhood, and now she has written a few of her own.  One of her favorites, and certain to be one of yours, is this rich and simple-to-make apple cake.  If you put it on your window sill to cool, attenzione!  It might just disappear.

NOTE:  Click on the sidebar menu under RECIPES for more cooking with Disney!

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photo by Ellen Silverman

Pareva la torta di Nonna Papera!
Looks like Grandma Duck’s cake!
Said of a particularly pretty cake or pie

A classic! At first glance it may seem like a huge ratio of apple to dough and you’re going to be tempted to cut down on the apples. Don’t! It looks like a lot of apples, but they magically meld into the batter. You’ll love the result. The top half of the cake is chock full of tender apples that float over sweet moist cake.
Deceptively simple, exceptional results.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, plus more for the pan
7 ounces, about 1 1/3 cups, whole wheat or all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
2/3 cup, plus 1 tablespoon, granulated sugar
2 large eggs or egg substitute
1/2 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Zest of 1 lemon
4 large or 5 medium apples, about 2 pounds total

Preparation
:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan. Beat 2/3 cup of sugar and the eggs in a large bowl, using a whisk or electric handheld beater, until creamy and light yellow. Beat in the flour, milk, baking powder, baking soda and zest. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.

Peel and core each of the apples. Dice one of the apples and stir the dices into the batter. Cut the remaining apples into thin slices. Spread the slices over the diced apples in the pan in a neat pattern. Press into the batter. Scatter thin pats of butter or drizzle olive oil over the apples and sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake for about 75 minutes, until dark golden and cooked through.