Wednesday, March 30, 2011

End of an Era

Madame Renee was an avid animal rights advocate.  She adopted stray cats, fed the seagulls and squirrels, and could often be seen in City Hall Park feeding the pigeons. Every year Renee sponsored a bazaar to benefit Save the Seals, one of the many animal rights organizations she supported.  My job at the bazaars was to run the kitchen, which I did with my most able assistant—Laura, Renee’s niece.  The menu was always simple, well-prepared fare of sandwiches and salad.  It always contained two of Renee’s many specialties—her mushrooms and her salad dressing.  I can not count the number of times someone would come into the kitchen, pull me aside and ask if I knew how to make these specialties.  A vow of secrecy kept me mum about the salad dressing, but I truly did not know how to make the mushrooms. One afternoon Madame Renee invited me to her home and told me with great sadness over a cup of tea that she would no longer be holding her annual bazaar, “Sweetie, it is too much for me now.”  It was the end of an era.

A year or so after Madame Renee died her niece Laura and I were having lunch.  Our conversation meandered as it always does when good friends chat.  We had covered quite a bit of territory, including our shared kitchen duty at Renee’s bazaars.  Laura asked if I knew how to make Renee’s mushrooms.  I told Laura that I thought I knew how to make them, but that I never actually had.  I explained that one day when I was visiting Renee, she was cooking some mushrooms she had just finished preparing.
And that Renee had then proceeded to explain how she prepared the mushrooms and how they needed to be cooked.  This was a great privilege for me as these mushrooms were one of Renee’s great secrets. 

Laura has asked several more times since then about Renee’s Mushrooms, and each time I’ve explained that I wasn’t ready to begin recreating the recipe.  Last fall when Laura and I lunched together, I promised that the recipe would be ready when she returned to Vermont in the spring.  The better part of the winter was spent giving the recipe tremendous amounts of head time. Relying on my taste memory, and what I remembered of Renee’s instructions (I never did write them down), I began recreating Renee’s mushrooms.  As he’d eaten Renee’s mushrooms many times, DH was my primary taster for this project.  On the second go round we nailed it!  My promise to Laura has been fulfilled and Renee’s mushrooms will live on.  It is with great pleasure that I post here Renee’s Mushrooms.

Renee’s Mushrooms can be used as garnish, sliced and put in salads, or as part of an antipasto platter.  They can also be sliced and put in sandwiches, pasta salads, or eaten by themselves.

Notes for this recipe:  Renee always peeled her mushrooms.  Although the peel can be left on, Renee said peeling produced a more tender mushroom.  Rolling the peeled mushrooms in lemon juice prevents them turning brown.  The cooking liquid from the mushrooms can be used in soup stock or sauces.

Renee’s Mushrooms

10 to 15 white mushrooms
2 lemons
Italian parsley (flat leaf parsley)
Kosher salt
White pepper

Select a non-reactive saucepan with a lid large enough to comfortably hold the mushrooms.  Juice the lemons into the selected pan, reserving one of the juiced lemon halves.  Gently brush any dirt off of the mushrooms.  Remove the stems and set aside for another use. Peel the mushrooms.  

Gently hold the mushroom with the cap facing your palm. Place the blade of a paring knife against the lip of the cap where it curls towards the gills.  Pick up the skin with the edge of the blade and pull it towards your palm.  It will probably come off in a wedge-shaped piece.

Roll immediately in the lemon juice, and leave in the saucepan.

When all the mushrooms are peeled and acidified fill the saucepan with enough water to cover the mushrooms.  Add the reserved juiced lemon half, about six good-sized sprigs of parsley, a healthy pinch of Kosher salt and a good grind of white pepper.  Place the pan on the burner and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and gently simmer the mushrooms until they are cooked through and tender, about 20 minutes. The mushrooms will reduce in size considerably during cooking.  

Remove the mushrooms from the liquid to an airtight container with a lid.  Cool completely.  Store the cooled mushrooms, covered in the refrigerator.  Use within 2 days.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nix the Jalapeno

I’m a late comer to chili.  For many years it held a distinguished place on my scary food list.  In my culinary world food with enough heat to sear the flesh off the roof of one’s mouth is not consumption worthy.  Food is about flavor and texture, and heat is not a flavor and it is definitely not a texture.  This was the primary reason for chili earning a spot of my scary food list.  Secondary reasons--too much beef and a tomato sauce that had far too much in common with ketchup.

Then one day I stumbled across a low-fat cookbook with some very creative “facelifts” for classic foods.  It contained an impressive array of ideas.  The recipe for chili had distinct possibilities.  So I decided to give it a whirl.

The first thing I did was to nix the jalapeno.  For me, this pepper has no flavor and its only purpose is to add heat.  At the time of my chili experimentation, DH was growing some interesting pepper varieties, which we were enjoying grilled and sautéed.  So, out went the jalapeno and in went Hungarian Hot Wax and Poblanos!  The result was delicious.  The chili had a smooth flavor with a hint of smokiness and a mild to moderate heat that complimented, but did not dominate or overwhelm it the flavor.  The addition of kidney beans and corn helped round out the texture and added another dimension of flavor.

Notes for this recipe:  The higher the quality of ground beef, the better the chili will taste.  Use only the freshest spices.  I purchase my spices from Penzey's.  (Do not be fooled by the labels on the bottles in the picture, I buy my spices in bulk and reuse bottles.)  Adding the flour is optional.  It is added to thicken the chili and shorten the cooking time making this dish suitable for family meal preparation.

Chili Con Carne

1 lb. lean ground beef
Olive oil
6 good sized cloves of garlic, peeled & chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 large green pepper, seeded & chopped
1 small Poblano pepper, seeded & chopped
1 Hungarian hot wax pepper, seeded & chopped
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. flour (optional)
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. oregano
2 bay leaves
2 quarts tomatoes or 2 14 oz. cans
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 15 oz. can dark red kidney beans, rinsed & drained
2 c. frozen corn
Grated sharp cheddar cheese to garnish

Select a 2 quart non-reactive pot and pour in about 2 Tbsp. olive oil, or enough to lightly cover the bottom of the pan.  Turn heat to medium and heat oil to hot, but not smoking.  Add the garlic, onion and peppers.  Cook until the garlic is fragrant, the onion is translucent, and the peppers are softened, about 3 minutes.  

Add the ground beef.  Break it up with a wooden spoon and stir to mix in the peppers, onion and garlic.  Cook until beef is no longer pink.  Add the spices and flour, and stir to combine.  Add the tomatoes breaking them up with the wooden spoon.  Stir to combine.  Bring to a boil, stirring frequently.  Reduce heat to medium.  Stir in the kidney beans and corn.  Cover and simmer until the chili is heated through and slightly thickened, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.  Adjust
seasoning.  Serve with grated cheddar and  corn bread sticks or a hearty bread.