Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Foreigners From Beyond The Rha

Rhubarb is an ancient plant.  In China it has been used medicinally for thousands of years.  A different variety of rhubarb has grown wild along the River Volga for centuries. The word rhubarb comes to us from the ancient Greeks.  Rha is the ancient Greek name for the Volga region and barbarian is the ancient Greek word for foreigner, or, "foreigners from beyond the Rha."

Marco Polo returned from China with tales of rhubarb.  Its first known recorded presence in Europe was in Italy in the early 1600’s and from there it spread across Europe.  Within 150 years rhubarb was classified as a food plant in Europe. 

Rhubarb is not native to North America.  Exactly how it was imported to this country is unknown, but by the 1820’s it was readily available in farmer’s markets in Massachusetts.  Food historians believe that shortly after the Revolutionary War rhubarb seeds or rhizomes entered this country through Maine and were cultivated by a gardener whose name has not survived in written record.  Although a vegetable, rhubarb was classified as a fruit due to the financial regulatory benefits of such a classification. 

The leaves and stalks of the rhubarb plant contain a powerful toxin—oxalic acid.  It is believed that the leaves contain a second toxin, the identity of which remains as yet unconfirmed.  This second toxin is not present in the stalks, which also have much less oxalic acid making them safe for us to eat.

My personal journey with rhubarb began many years ago, and it is a favorite consumable in our home.  It gets used in many ways--jams, pies, crisps, and kuchens are among the favorites.  It also gets frozen for winter use, which means we eat rhubarb all year long.  When I was baking professionally, rhubarb baked goods were among the most popular.  My customers couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  One of their favorites, Rhubarb Streusel Pie, is also one of my family’s favorites.  This recipe settled into its present form about six years ago.  It is a tried and true favorite, and I am very happy to share it here.  Enjoy!

Notes for this recipe:  Fresh or frozen rhubarb can be used for this recipe.  Frozen rhubarb must be thawed, don't be concerned about extra liquid, it will be thickened successfully by the tapioca during baking.  I turned to tapioca as a thickening agent for pies many years ago due to unsatisfactory results from flour and cornstarch.  Use quick cooking tapioca also known as tapioca granules.  Try to use stalks with a lovely red or rosy color.  Do NOT peel the rhubarb.

Rhubarb Streusel Pie

For the Filling:
½ c. brown sugar
3 Tbsp. tapioca (4 Tbsp. if rhubarb is frozen)
2 tsp. ginger
2 lbs. trimmed rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces (approx. 6 good-sized stalks)

9” single unbaked pie crust (Click for link to my recipe for pie crust)

Streusel topping:
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
¾ c. flour
¼ c. oats
1 tsp. ginger
½ c. brown sugar

In a large bowl combine all the filling ingredients and set aside.  This allows the rhubarb to juice while the crust is rolled out and the streusel topping is prepared. 

Preheat oven to 450.

Roll out the crust and place into a 9” pie crust.  Crimp the edges high.  Set aside.

For the topping:  Place all the ingredients in a medium bowl.  With your fingers rub the ingredients to mix.  The mixture will be crumbly.  Set aside.

Scrape the filling into the prepared pie crust and smooth over.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the filling being sure to cover to the edge.  Place the pie in the oven.

Bake at 450 for 20 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350 and bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until the pie is done.  Filling should be bubbling close to the center.  Remove pie to a rack and cool completely.  If desired, the pie can be served slightly warm. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Favorite Family Food Tradition--Special Breakfast

Archeologists believe that the pancake is one of the oldest grain based foods.  The original pancake was not unlike those consumed in many of today's world cultures.  The pancakes of ancient cultures were made from seed and grain based flours moistened with eggs and milk and cooked on hot flat stones.  Most regions of our world have a pancake-like food in their culinary traditions.  Among them, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Europe, the United Kingdom, North, Central, and South America, and Africa. 

Pancakes can be sweet or savory.  Some are made with a yeast-based batter, but most are classified as quick breads, which means they use baking soda and baking powder as a leavening agent.  The type of flour used also varies—buckwheat, corn flour or corn meal, oatmeal, and “plain” flour are among the most common.  Over the years we’ve tried many different types of pancakes, but always return to our cultural pancake roots.  It is these pancakes that serve as the foundation for one of our favorite family food traditions—Special Breakfast.

The tradition of a special Sunday breakfast began when Bella was very little. Sunday was the lazy day, and a Special Breakfast helped set the tone for our day.  These Special Breakfasts were among Bella’s first adventures in cooking, and how she learned to measure.  Bella remembers having to get off her stool to check the level of the buttermilk in the measuring cup before pouring it into the flour.  Her favorite part was using the egg beater to mix the batter.  Often when DH was away on business, Bella and I would make Blueberry Pancakes for supper. 

Special Breakfast has survived the test of time.  When Bella is home it is a rare instance when we do not have Special Breakfast one morning, which more often than not is Blueberry Pancakes.  It also includes orange juice and/or a half a grapefruit (or some other fruit), bacon and/or sausage, warmed Vermont maple syrup, unsalted butter, coffee and tea.  Often the smell of bacon cooking brings Bella sleepy-eyed into the kitchen to pour herself a cup of tea and help flip. 

Notes for this recipe:  Cast iron skillets and griddles produce the best pancakes, period.  If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, I encourage you to acquire one. (Click here for my article on cast iron cookware.)  We use two skillets instead of a griddle, which works very nicely.  I choose not to fold the blueberries into the batter, but to drop them onto the batter once it is in the pan.  The primary reasons for this:  I prefer the blueberries whole, every pancake has the same number of blueberries, and if the blueberries are frozen, the batter doesn't turn blue.  Do not rush or be impatient with cooking pancakes.  Knowing when they are done takes patience and practice.  Watch the maple syrup carefully during warming, if it boils—what a mess!  Bacon is almost always cooked in the oven, freeing the stovetop for pancakes.  (Click here for the link to the recipe for Oven Bacon.)  

Blueberry Pancakes

1-1/4 c. low fat buttermilk
1 egg
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1-1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 quart fresh or frozen blueberries (do not thaw frozen blueberries)
Additional canola oil
Pure Vermont Maple Syrup
Unsalted butter

Measure buttermilk in a two cup measuring cup.  Add the egg, canola oil, and vanilla.  With a hand beater or fork mix just until blended.  In a medium sized bowl measure dry ingredients.  Stir to blend.  Pour the buttermilk mixture in and mix with an egg beater or fork just until combined.  Do not over mix.  The batter will be thick and slightly lumpy.

Preheat oven to 170 degrees (warming temperature).  Select a large oven-proof plate or platter and place in the oven. 

Lightly moisten a paper towel with canola oil and wipe the cast iron skillet or griddle.  Place on a medium burner over medium heat.  Skillet is ready when a few drops of water “skip” when dropped onto its surface.  Reduce heat slightly.  With a 1/3 c. solid measure, pour batter onto the skillet.  Drop about 12 blueberries over the surface of the pancake.  When the surface is covered with bubbles, flip the pancake.  

The pancake is done when the reverse side is browned and the pancake is firm in the middle when lightly touched.  Using a spatula place the pancake on the platter in the warm oven.  If necessary wipe the skillet with a little more canola oil and repeat with the remaining batter. 

While the pancakes are cooking pour some pure Vermont maple syrup into a microwave safe pitcher, and set aside.  Place the unsalted butter on a dish with a butter knife, and set aside to soften.  Just before serving the pancakes, warm the maple syrup for approximately one minute in the microwave.  Do not boil the syrup.

Makes approximately 8 4 inch pancakes.  Serving size:  3 pancakes.

When Winter Hits Its Stride

When winter hits its stride the crock pot becomes a fixture on the kitchen counter.  Although it is used frequently, I never remember to write down or photograph what goes in or how it comes out.  Unlike many other meals, crock pot preparations come together spontaneously.  The ingredients are usually whatever is in the fridge.  I have no idea what prompted me the other day, when I made this stew, to write down the ingredients and photograph the process.  This is a wonderfully flavorful dish and suitable for company.  Bon Appetite!

Notes for this recipe: It is not necessary to use a high quality burgundy for this dish.  If you like a thicker stew:  about 30 minutes before cooking time ends, mix 3 Tbsp. flour with ¼ c. water or beef stock, add to stew and stir to mix.  Cover and finish cooking.  Serve with a hearty bread or Corn Meal Biscuits.

Burgundy Stew

1 lb. good quality beef, trimmed and cut into 1” pieces
6 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 stalks celery (preferably with leaves), sliced
2 onions, peeled and sliced
1 qt. canned tomatoes with liquid (or 1 14 oz. can)
8 mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 c. burgundy
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. dried mustard
1 Tbsp. finely chopped basil
1 large bay leaf
2 Tbsp. finely chopped flat leaf parsley
¼ tsp. freshly ground white pepper

Place all the ingredients in a slow cooker.  Mix with a rubber spatula to combine.  Cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 until vegetables and beef are tender.  Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Oven Bacon!

We are a bacon eating family.  Special breakfasts require bacon, as do Fried Egg Sandwiches, BLTs, and so many other culinary delights.  Learning how to “fry” bacon in the oven was a revelation to me.  It solved so many problems, chief among them too few burners, so much to cook! 

Over the holiday season we were celebrating with our friends the Flannigans.  Their daughter Jannie and Bella have been fast friends since third grade.  Their friendship was cemented by several memorable bonding experiences while playing on the same softball team. To go with the delicious Onion Soup made by her mother, Jannie had made several quiches, including a Quiche Lorraine sans bacon.  Jannie declared that she was tired of being splattered by bacon fat and had sworn off cooking bacon.  Bella and I looked at each other and said, “Oven bacon!”  Bacon oven instructions were given with a promise to post the instructions soon.  So, Jannie, as promised, here are the instructions for cooking bacon without being splattered.

Notes for this recipe:  The bacon can cook very quickly at the end of the cooking time, to prevent burning check it more frequently.  As cooked bacon is removed to drain, additional slices can be added to the broiler pan, check as needed.  Cooked bacon can be kept in a warm oven (170) until serving time. 

Oven Bacon

Bacon—thin or thick cut.

For thin cut bacon preheat oven to 425.  For thick cut bacon preheat oven to 450.  

Arrange the slices in the bottom of a broiler pan.  Do not overlap the slices.  Place the bacon in the preheated oven.  

Using long-handled tongs, turn bacon every five minutes until bacon is browned and crisp.  Remove slices as they are ready and drain on a paper towel lined plate.