31 December 2009


I end this year with a big pot of ph simmering on the stovetop.  The slow gurgle of stock wafts upward like an Old Testament offering.  What happened to food offerings?  We now put money in a collection basket, but I think that’s a poor substitute; maybe we’ve got to put a little more skin in the game.  As much as I love to cook and be with my family, when I look at the past year I also see food and my traditions as an impediment.  What’s the point of a tradition if it’s got no soul?  I grew up with lots of traditions and habits and over time I’ve come to call all of them traditions; it’s important for me to distinguish between the two.  And when I married, I joined with my wife, and her past became part of my present and future, and the weave of our two lives (and pasts) is a complex one.  I’ve rather heavy-handedly called all my habits traditions, which has the effect of putting them off-limits for change and discussion and evolution because I can be rigid about things.  But traditions are organic and alive and the way we keep them real is to actively engage with them and let the new replenish the old.  So, I offer up a pot of ph to the old year and new, recognizing that it is now part of my tradition, and that my traditions extend beyond my own past – our traditions keep the present alive, and nourish the future.

28 December 2009

Pork roast ravioli

We stayed in on Christmas, leaving the house only to shovel.  Today we stayed in, too, but went sledding and took a walk after dinner, climbing over huge snow-plow mountains.  On Christmas we ate a delicious pork roast, and with leftovers in the fridge I thought we should use it up.  I cut a few thick slices of the roast and minced it with a big knife on my cutting board, added a little cottage cheese, an egg, sage, salt and pepper.  I wouldn't normally make ravioli with already-cooked pork, but we were really in the mood for ravioli and the pork was sitting there.
I made the pasta dough and let it rest while we puttered around doing a few things.  When it came time to roll the dough I got out the pasta machine, expecting my eight-year old daughter and I would follow our usual routine - I feed the dough into the rollers while she cranks the handle.  As we got ready to start, my daughter said she wanted to roll the dough out herself and didn't want any assistance; once she started she wouldn't even let anyone else near the machine.  She did everything - she cut hunks of dough, fed them through the rollers, she cranked the handle, and handled the flattened dough gently. Once she laid out the long strips of rolled dough, they were mine to use.
The pasta strips were 3"-4" wide and anywhere from 16"-24" long.  I used about a teaspoon of filling for each ravioli, and we crimped the pieces with a chopstick.  I put them into boiling water 10-12 at a time, and cooked them for about three minutes.  I immediately transferred them with a slotted spoon into a large pan with sizzling butter, added more sage, a little salt, pine nuts, and a little more butter to keep everything sliding smoothly.
The texture of the cooked  ravioli was perfect - the pasta had just a little bite to it, the pine nuts added crunch, and the minced pork blended nicely with the sage and butter.  Ravioli is turning into a pasta we love to make because it always comes to the table looking good and tasting delicious.  And now, with an eight-year old who's taken over the pasta machine, we might be eating it more often.

19 December 2009

The Loveless Cafe

On a dark highway on the far edge of Nashville’s influence, next to a gas station, sits the Loveless Café. Its old neon sign reminds us of the days when travel lacked the chain store monotony of today’s restaurants and lodging. People used to cook and serve food to people. No promotions from corporate headquarters and no market-research-tested food – just food. A sign on the door said they were closing at 6:15 for a staff party and when I looked at the clock just inside the door it was almost 630. The hostess looked up at the clock – just tilted her head a bit – looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said “Just one?” She sat me at a square table in a corner, out of the way of the few remaining tables with customers, giving the bus staff and others space to clean up and be done.
There’s no need to gush over the food, but it’s necessary to commend the restaurant for continuing to serve traditional, unadorned southern food, almost untouched by the recent decades of bad food offered up by chain restaurants. I don’t know if it’s the burden of health department regulations or the staggering cost of insurance, but it seems difficult to open up a restaurant that serves good, plain, inexpensive good. The entrepreneurial spirit has been largely squelched by the fear of litigation, the threat of a food-borne illness, and the prohibitive cost of addressing those two concerns. One of the things I love about traveling to Asia is seeing the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit surrounding food. If someone wants to open a noodle shop in Vietnam, they do it. Put out a few low, plastic chairs and hang a sign. It was a lot easier to do that in the USA fifty years ago, and the Loveless Café is an enduring legacy of one’s ability to “serve food to travelers.” Maybe it’s easier for an enterprising young couple to take jobs managing a chain restaurant these days. How many banks are will to loan money to a restaurant that plans on serving fried chicken and good biscuits? And will private equity put its money into a place selling baked ham for $9.95?
Macaroni and cheese, green beans, creamed corn, hush puppies, sweet potatoes, cole slaw, baked beans, stewed tomatoes – these are the sides of old that ensured a diner would leave a meal full and content. And biscuits, good, plain biscuits. And when I ate my biscuits with gusto, spreading thick preserves and sorghum molasses on them, the waitress brought a few more. The biscuits were small, hot, and light, less flaky and a little more billowy than a hand-rolled one I’d make, and they were fresh and good. The fried chicken dinner (choice between light or dark meat – I chose dark) was hot, crispy, and juicy on the inside. Good fried chicken doesn’t taste greasy – it’s a delicate combination of texture and taste, held together by the coating on the chicken. Dinner came with two sides – the fried okra was hot, crisp on the outside, and fresh with a light batter coating, fried in oil, and heaped in a small bowl. The sweet potatoes were okay, but not as good as my lunchtime serving earlier in the day at Vanderbilt’s University Club, where the brown sugar, butter and salt were in such perfect proportion that I had to go back for seconds. The pie selection was broad, but I settled on blackberry cobbler. Southern desserts are a bit sweet for me, but this delicious blackberry cobbler was balanced with a depth of flavor that seemed to be a combination of orange zest and ground clove. Served in a ramekin with a shortcake topping, the cobbler was stained and thick with whole fruit, sweet to a point that nearly sent me into a sugar coma, but the small scoop of vanilla ice cream luckily prevented that!
I ate quicker than I normally would when dining alone, knowing that when the last few tables cleared out the restaurant staff would begin their holiday party. I left the restaurant in a good mood, content after a nice Southern dinner. The old neon sign still shined in the night, beckoning travelers to stop and refresh themselves with old fashioned food and hospitality.

09 December 2009

Cholent and cassoulet

Looking at the similarities between cholent and cassoulet, I think cholent gave birth to cassoulet as cooks and housewives in medieval France (or Aquitaine or Languedoc) took cholent from its specifically Jewish roots and absorbed it into the regional gastronomic culture of southwestern France.

Before Columbus brought beans from the Americas back to Europe, our common bean - Phaseolus vulgaris - was found only in the Americas. While chickpeas and lentils were available, a "bean" in pre-Columban Europe typically meant a fava bean. Both cholent and cassoulet are old dishes, and each was originally made with fava beans, the first important point of a shared past. Cholent is enriched by beef bones and meat, while cassoulet relies on a variety of meats, ranging from lamb or sausage to preserved duck and goose. Beef is the only meat not usually associated with cassoulet, and I wonder if that’s deliberate? Did non-Jews look at cholent and substitute other meats to make a point that they weren’t preparing a Jewish dish? In times of anti-Semitism or explicit persecution of Jews, adding a piece of confited pork would make a visible statement about one's dietary restrictions. Cholent was also made on occasion with lamb, an important meat throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Cholent used to be made in a pot and sealed with a flour and water paste to keep in moisture. That’s identical to the medieval French daubiere, a slow-cooking clay pot with a raised lip that allows a flour-water paste to seal the pot completely. Cholent was always started on Friday and cooked in a low oven or placed at the edge of the fire and covered with hot ashes through the night and into Saturday, allowing Jews to eat a hot meal on the Sabbath without having to cook or light a fire.

I made cholent last week, piecing together fragments of recipes old and new. I started with fava beans, the small dark ones – minor types – known sometimes as horse beans or tick beans. After soaking them I added a meaty beef bone, onions, garlic, potatoes, and salt and pepper. I also added a small rack of lamb ribs and before the stew went into the oven I carefully slipped a few eggs into the mixture. I poured water and turkey broth over the beans and meat, and put the lidded, cast iron pot into a 200 degree oven.

When I pulled the cholent from the oven late Saturday afternoon, the long-simmered stew smelled beautiful in its hues of onion, brown, beef and lamb. I pulled out the eggs, whose white shells had turned tan during the long night of cooking, and cracked one open. A caramel-colored white steamed pleasantly and the now-hard egg left stains of taste on my now-tingling tongue. A bit of lamb fat floated on the surface and the plumped beans nestled with beef and translucent onions.

Cholent shares the same architecture but lacks the complexity of taste we find in a traditional cassoulet; as I prepared it, I thought it was a simpler dish. But it’s not hard to see how Jewish cooks laid the foundation for what we now think of as a quintessential French dish, and I’m going to keep exploring the connection between these two living cultural treasures of Jewish and French cookery.

02 December 2009

Sweet potato ravioli

Turkey wasn't the only leftover from Thanksgiving.  This evening was a typical hurry up and wait evening, so I took advantage of a few time gaps to make a delicious ravioli with leftover sweet potatoes.  Two of my kids had swimming and I had to drive, so when I got home from work I had to think about a split dinner: they can't eat a full meal before swimming or they'll be uncomfortable in the water, but it's close to bedtime when they get home, so I don't want them eating too much afterward, either.
As is typical on swimming nights, my daughter made a big bowl of corn and they also ate a piece of fruit.  While they ate their pre-swim snack, I made a two-egg batch of pasta.  We talked as I kneaded the dough and they wanted to touch it; everyone loves the feel of well-kneaded pasta dough; they rubbed it gently and marveled at the five-minute transformation from eggs and flour to this. I also popped the potatoes out of their skins and into a pan on the stove.  I added a little sage, butter, and brown sugar and mashed it all together.

I put the ball of dough in a plastic bag and we all piled in the car and we made the rounds for our carpool.   After dropping the kids off, my youngest and I returned home to make the ravioli.  We took turns feeding the dough through the machine and brought it down to setting number three on the rollers.  We laid the long, lasagna-like noodles on the counter and added spoonfuls of the sweet potato mixture to the pasta.  I carefully put a top sheet on and hand-pressed the basic shapes before cutting them.  After that, my daughter used fork tines to seal the edges.
They cooked in about three minutes and I drained them with a slotted spoon and added them to a large pan with melted butter in it.  Our timing was perfect, and the last ravioli were going into the pan when the kids walked in.  I heated up a few chunks of turkey and gravy, grated a little parmesan cheese on the ravioli, and and we ate like kings.