October 1, 2007

A Cookbook In Every Kitchen

SEASON TO TASTE
(my monthly column for HEARTLAND WOMEN)
October
2007

(expanded and edited from a post on 9/14/07)

When I was growing up, the kitchen was the center of family activity in our home, and my mother always seemed grateful to have company, and especially help, when it was time for her to prepare dinner, or supper, as we called it then. Of course, we were usually just in there trying to hurry up the process of getting food to the table . . . and getting in the way. As it turns out, we all must have learned a thing or two while we were observing, talking, bobbing and weaving. All five of my brothers turned out to be excellent cooks, including one who is a chef. And believe me, none of us goes hungry when left to our own devices in any kitchen.

When I started cooking, the tools in my mother’s kitchen were the conventional ones found in most family kitchens of the day. Pots and pans, mixing bowls, mixer, blender, cake pans, cookie sheets, wooden spoons, rolling pin, The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking - the standard stuff. As the oldest child in the family and the only girl, it was just expected that I would be the kitchen helper and learn how to turn ingredients into tasty meals. I fell easily into the role and discovered I liked to cook, even if I did not enjoy cleaning up.

Even before I left home, I knew I wanted a big, beautifully equipped kitchen of my own someday and I wasted no time in starting to gather my own cooking tools either. One day, while still living at home and going to college, I sifted through the racks at 710 Bookstore, searching for the mountain of novels required for my English class. A slim little volume caught my eye, with its charming drawings and colorful cover. I paused to thumb through it and felt myself being drawn into a world of romantic and delicious possibilities that could be mine for just $1.50. Simple Italian Cookery became my very first cookbook and kitchen tool, and a collector was born.

Today, I am fortunate to have the kitchen I thought would only ever exist in my dreams. It is equipped with all manner of cookware and appliances - all the essentials and a few of those that Alton Brown eschews for their singular function. But cookbooks are still my greatest weakness and my bookcases bulge with a collection of hundreds and hundreds of them. I am still just as easily captivated when I pick one up to read as I am by a good novel. And even though I’m not cooking nearly as much as I used to, I still enjoy the excitement of a crowded kitchen, alive with people cooking and laughing and getting in each other’s way. And I can still taste all the delicious possibilities in the pages of a good cookbook.

Lately, I find myself leafing through my cookbooks a little more often than I used to before I lost my computer. Seasonal recipes already culled and set aside in cyber files for future use are gone, just as summer has changed into autumn and I am craving apples, pumpkin, sausage, and soup. It has been fun spending hours searching through my favorite cookbooks again, and especially some I have overlooked for a while. Finding my first, thin little volume took me way back to the excitement I felt when I first opened it, and made me hungry for an earthy, satisfying Italian dinner like the first meal I cooked for my husband from its pages.

Another great find was a different take on the Italian recipes we tend to go to so often. Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy takes on this food staple, sometimes dismissed as bland and boring, and elevates it to its well-deserved new status as a nutrient rich and satisfying ingredient in all kinds of dishes. Bean recipes are perfect for fall cooking, and especially for crockpot creations like soups and stews. I have grown especially fond of lentils and white beans lately, and have always been a big fan of bean soups.

Just so you do not think of me as an old-fashioned sort of cook who is limited to traditional print media for my research, I have also been surfing up a storm on my new computer. Some of my most interesting discoveries have already found their way into my new cyber food files. My bookmarks now include a site for the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance - a brand new project to research and document the foods and flavors of the Great Lakes and Great Plains states, similar to what the Southern Foodways Alliance is doing across the southern U.S. The first Midwestern food to garner their attentions at a meeting in Chicago last week was sausage, but plans are underway for a second conference titled, Midwestern Nut and Dessert traditions. And, according to Catherine Lambrecht, one of the founders of this new group, there are plans being discussed for a meeting in our part of the state – possibly Carbondale - for next spring.

Another rich source for excellent seasonal recipes is food blogs. I’ve written here before about the wonderful world of blogging and the extensive community of people who chronicle their food finds and creations. My current favorite blog is A Veggie Venture by Alanna Kellogg, from nearby Kirkwood, MO. Alanna has accumulated an enormous and impressive collection of vegetable recipes, organized alphabetically by vegetable, Weight Watchers points, low carb eating, month, and . . . well, just look her up and see for yourself. Alanna has done the work for you – and included nutritional analysis! -- to make it easy to add delicious seasonal vegetables to your daily diet with her site and her food column, Kitchen Parade. She has graciously allowed me to include here her recipe for slow-roasted tomatoes, for those of you who still have a few Roma tomatoes left on the vine. The rest of us will have to be content with plans for preserving next year’s bumper crop, while we check out her recipes for this season’s best foods.

Cooking for just one or two is the biggest challenge I face in my kitchen these days. Recipes I have used for years seem too big for my needs now – refrigerators and freezers only hold so many leftovers, and two people can only eat so many. No matter how good something tastes, after a few days of repeats, my taste buds long for fresh flavors, so I have been looking for fresh ideas to trim the number of servings I make at one time in my empty-nest kitchen. Cooking For Two, by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, has just joined my library of cookbooks and promises to help me conquer the dilemma of keeping meals fresh and exciting and perfectly proportioned when cooking for two.

Open any cookbook today and discover an exciting recipe to nourish you and those you cook with and care for from your kitchen. A reliable old favorite will do nicely. A new way of looking at a special diet or special needs could inspire you to overcome a challenge. But don’t limit yourself to traditional print cookbooks. Check out websites and blogs for creative ways to cook and enjoy fresh seasonal recipes. A good cookbook of your very own is one of the first tools every cook should have in her home kitchen. But a good computer recipe file is like having a world library of cookbooks every time you need a fresh outlook. I have strong connections to both, and find it difficult to work without either one in my “dream” kitchen.

CHICKEN CACCIATORE
Adapted from Simple Italian Cookery, compiled by Edna Beilenson

4-5 lbs. chicken pieces
flour
6 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 lb. mushrooms
1 onion, chopped
1/2 c. white wine
1 can Italian tomatoes
1 tbsp. brandy
a few sprigs fresh parsley, chopped
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp. butter

Rinse and dry chicken pieces, sprinkle with salt and pepper, roll in flour and fry in olive oil until golden brown. Remove chicken from pan, and to the remaining oil add mushrooms and chopped onion, and cook until slightly brown. Add wine and tomatoes. Cook 5 minutes and put chicken back in pan, making sure that it is well heated through again. Add brandy, chopped parsley and garlic. Cover and cook slowly. When chicken is tender, add butter. Delicious with rice. Serves 6.

LENTIL AND SAUSAGE STEW
Adapted from Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy, by Judith Barrett

1 c. small brown lentils
2 ribs celery, 1 cut in large pieces, 1 finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, 1 whole, 1 finely chopped
kosher salt
1/4 c. olive oil
2 lbs. sweet Italian sausage, casings removed, cut into 2-in. pieces, or ground pork
1 c. tomato puree
2 c. chicken or meat broth
freshly ground black pepper
5 stems fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, chopped

Combine the lentils with the large pieces of celery and whole clove of garlic in a medium saucepan with 6 cups cold water over medium-high heat. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes, until the lentils are barely tender. Season with salt to taste and drain. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped celery and chopped garlic and cook, stirring 2-3 minutes, until the celery begins to soften. Add the sausage and cook, stirring, 3-5 minutes longer, until the meat loses it raw pink color. Add the lentils, tomato puree, and broth. Stir well to combine. When the liquid comes to a simmer, cover the skillet and cook slowly, about 30 minutes longer, until the sauce is thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Delicious served with polenta. Garnish each serving with parsley. Makes 4 servings.

SLOW-ROASTED TOMATOES
Recipe courtesy of Alanna Kellogg at Kitchen Parade.com
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Oven time: 10 - 12 hours
Makes about 2 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons mixed dried herbs (Italian seasoning, basil, oregano, sage or thyme)
1 tablespoon fennel seed
4 pounds meaty tomatoes (Cascade or Roma)
Unpeeled cloves of garlic, optional
Freshly ground pepper

Set oven to 200F. Drizzle a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and seasonings.

Halve the tomatoes lengthwise, leaving the stem socket on one side so after roasting, the skins slip off more easily.

Rub each cut side in the oil and herbs, then arrange cut-side down in a single layer, butted together. Tuck in garlic cloves. Sprinkle tomato tops with salt and pepper.

Roast for 10 to 12 hours. If roasting two trays at once, swap racks after 6 to 8 hours. Let cool. Slip off and discard skins. Use within 2 to 3 days or freeze.

NUTRITION ESTIMATE Per Batch: 367 Cal (30% from Fat); 14g Tot Fat; 2g Sat Fat; 59g Carb; 20g Fiber; 164mg Sodium; 0mg Cholesterol; Weight Watchers 8 points

BUTTERNUT SQUASH, SAGE, AND RED PEPPER RISOTTO
Adapted from Risotto, by Maxine Clark

about 6 cups hot light chicken broth
1 stick unsalted butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
1-2 fresh or dried red chiles, seeded and finely chopped
1 lb. Fresh butternut squash or pumpkin, peeled and finely chopped (2 1/2 cups.)
2 1/3 c. Arborio rice
3 tbsp. chopped fresh sage
3/4 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pour the broth into a saucepan and keep at a gentle simmer. Melt half the butter in a large, heavy saucepan and add the onion. Cook gently for 10 minutes until soft, golden, and translucent, but not browned. Stir in the chopped chiles and cook for 1 minute. Add the butternut squash and cook, stirring constantly over the heat for 5 minutes, until it begins to soften slightly. Stir in the rice to coat with the butter and vegetables. Cook for a few minutes to toast the grains. Begin adding the broth, a large ladle at a time, stirring gently until each ladle has almost been absorbed by the rice. The risotto should be kept at a bare simmer throughout cooking, so don’t let the rice dry out – add more broth as necessary. Continue until the rice is tender and creamy, but the grains still firm and the squash or pumpkin beginning to disintegrate. This should take about 15-20 minutes depending on the type of rice used – check the package instructions. Taste, season well with salt and pepper, and stir in the sage, remaining butter, and all the Parmesan. Cover, let rest for a couple of minutes, and then serve.

APPLE-STUFFED ACORN SQUASH
Adapted from Healthy Cooking for Two, by Frances Price, RD

1 medium acorn squash, halved lengthwise
1 medium Granny Smith or other baking apple, cubed
2 tsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. butter
1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scoop out and discard the seed and strings from the squash. Place the squash, cut side up, in a deep 2-cup casserole. Fill the center with the apples, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine the maple syrup and butter. Microwave on high power for 20 seconds, or until liquefied. Remove the foil from the squash and drizzle it with the syrup mixture. Sprinkle with the nutmeg or cinnamon. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the squash and apples are tender. Serve hot.
NUTRITION PER SERVING: 186 calories, 4.2 g. total fat, 2.6 g. saturated fat, 5 mg. Cholesterol, 27 mg. Sodium, 2 g. protein, 39.4 g. carbohydrates, 4.5 g. dietary fiber

PUMPKIN SOUFFLE CUSTARD
Adapted from Pumpkins and Squash, by Kathleen Desmond Stang

3 large eggs, separated
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 c. (packed) light brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 c. pumpkin, canned or homemade
1 c. milk
2 tbsp. butter, melted
whipped cream flavored with chopped crystallized ginger or rum

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 1 1/2-qt. baking dish or soufflé dish. In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in 1/4 c. of the brown sugar. Beat until it holds stiff upright peaks; set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks until light. Beat in the remaining 1/4 c. brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt. Stir in the pumpkin and milk. Fold one third of the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Blend until smooth. Gently fold in the remaining egg white mixture and the melted butter. Pour into the baking dish Place the baking dish in a large baking pan. Pour in water to a depth of 1 inch Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool slightly. Serve with flavored whipped cream. To make the flavored whipped cream: In a small, deep bowl, whip 1 cup of heavy cream until stiff. Fold in 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons of finely crystallized ginger or 2 tablespoon of dark rum.