THE PRIZE

The Prize

The 1980’s found me doing a lot of cooking.  In 1987 Bonnie and I hosted twenty-four dinner parties – let’s be less formal – friends joined us for dinner twenty-four times.  Doing the math that comes out to a lot of cooking, setting the table and washing a lot of dishes just about every other weekend.  It was something, and still is something, that I need to do, want to do.  Entering a cooking contest wasn’t something that I needed to do, but for whatever reason I did.  I must have been feeling pretty damn confident about the dish that I entered.  Part of that confidence was born in ignorance.  There are most certainly revisions that I’d make to the recipe today.  Regardless, the dish was successful.

Yes, I did win an award for a recipe that I submitted to a cooking contest.  What contest was this?  Was it The Pillsbury Bakeoff or Bon Appetit?  James Beard?  The Food Network?  Something else on a national level?  No, Nothing on a national, or regional, level.  The contest was held in 1987 and sponsored by the local town paper and Princeton University (why on earth was the university involved?).  We’re talking a very local level.

I’m still thrilled that I won the category and I still think that it’s a pretty damn good, and imaginative, dish.  So here’s the story of winning that award as told through several of the Dinner Diaries.  Many of my friends got to sample the dish – whether they wanted to or not.

 

Dinner Diary                                                                         January 13, 1987

 

Boy, is this a “WHITE” meal or what?  WHITE fish, WHITE sauce and WHITE rice.  I’d like to think that I was so excited by my new creation that all other considerations fled.  However, herein is presented my sole (get it: sole/ flounder) claim that I am worthy to enter the bastions of Chef Greatness.  The “Turbans of Flounder Stuffed with Sea Urchin Roe” was in fact created by me and me alone.  Obviously, I tried this on Bonnie and myself before foisting it on any friends that I wanted to remain friends.   Forget about the white rice and the anchovies versus flounder.  Concentrate on the Turbans. Beautiful fillets of flounder, or grey sole, cut lengthwise.  The sea urchin roe mixed with the smallest bit of beaten egg.  The roe is than nicely spread on the fillet, the fillet is rolled pinwheel fashion and placed on edge on an oiled baking sheet or pan.  Pour enough vermouth and clam juice to just cover the bottom of the dish.  

Yes, the prize winning dish.  The award being a silver chafing dish.  A chafing dish that has never been used.  A chafing dish that, for a small fee, is available.  Door prizes included meals at good restaurants.  Something that I’d rather have than a chafing dish. 

 

Dinner Diary                                                           January 30, 1987

  

 

Cover the dish with foil and, “bake until it’s done” – maybe 10 minutes or so.  The vermouth cream sauce is just that.  Today I’d do things a little differently. Hey, I’m older – a fair amount older – I supposedly have more wisdom and experience.   The roe is so delicate I’d mix it with just the barest hint of egg yolk to hold it together.  I’d sprinkle the top of the turban with fresh, largish, buttered bread crumbs and touch it with the broiler for color.  Or, instead of the crumbs, a beautiful golden-orange roe to dress the top.  A nice white wine cream sauce.  All that I want to taste in the fish, the roe and a little sauce.

 

In taking top billing I beat out some ‘interesting’ dishes: Cinnamon Spice Veal (that sounds like it could work in the right hands – maybe, maybe not. I’ll have to try it my way.), Garden State Turkey Lavish (not as horrible as you might think: turkey and Courvoisier on phyllo with cranberry relish), Poulet En Phyllo Avec Sauce Dijonnaise (I mean really: chicken in phyllo with mustard sauce), Scallops Primavera, Rosemaried Scallops, Marilyn’s Pork Cordon Bleu and on, and on.  It was a big year for Phyllo dough.  

At one point in time this newspaper had a food critic that, in my opinion, should have found another way to make a living.  Her highest praise in her restaurant reviews was, “there was so much food that I was able to take enough home in a doggy bag to make a meal of it the next day.”  Her review would also rate the food on how good it was when it was re-warmed the following day.   Now, that’s the level of competence and knowledge that you want a food critic operating on.  It makes it so easy to choose a restaurant, “Gee honey, do you think that we should go to that restaurant that SHE reviewed, Bust Your Gut?”  “Yeah honey, SHE said we could eat for three days on the leftovers!”    Ambiance – who cares?  Imagination – who cares?  Good wines – who cares?   Good service – who cares?  Finely prepared food – who cares?   Just so long as –  THERE WAS A LOT OF FOOD!  Her reviews would note that a dish had arrived at the table cold, a dish had been inedibley over-salted, the waiter had picked his nose while taking her order, but just so long as there was a huge quantity of food, good or bad it didn’t matter, lots of food and the restaurant got four stars. This particular food critics name doesn’t appear in anything having to do with the contest so, I’ll assume that she wasn’t around at that time.  The contest category was actually judged by the executive chef of a very good area restaurant, so I accepted the prize with gratitude and elation.

It was great to win and this prime win was coupled with the fact that I had Bonnie submit a recipe of mine under her name for “Saffroned Seafood Bisque” to the “New Jersey Fishing For Compliments Cookbook”.  AND IT WON A PRIZE TOO!!!!!  Am I a freakin’ wonderboy or what?  Ignore the “or what”.   This toothsome creation is not actually a bisque but, a stew.  If the New Jersey Fisheries Development Advisory Council and State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture doesn’t know the difference who am I to tell them?  The prize for this win?    No silver chafing dishes.   Just the pure satisfaction of having the recipe published in a cookbook under Bonnie’s name.

Dinner Diary                                                          February 14, 1988

  

 

Many of our friends have been ‘fortunate’ enough to enjoy the Turbans of Sole with Sea Urchin Roe (kinda’ sings when you say it out loud) at our dinner table.  A few of them had expressions of surprise on their faces when I announced what the main course was.  I’m certain that the look of surprise was based on their gratitude in being judged worthy to be served such an imaginative dish, an award winning dish.  It couldn’t be that not everyone loves sea urchin roe.  My brother Kev and his wife Shawn are good sports and always eager to try something new when it comes to food – I’m sure that they loved it.  I hope they did.

 

Dinner Diary                                                               May 9, 1987

 

I swear that I’m getting better at controlling my tendencies to have an excessive amount of dishes on the menu, this is 1987 – it’s now 2010.  This menu is a showcase of excess worthy of Caligula.  I mean really – “Good Menu”?  You could eat for days on the food that I served in one night!  Shrimp wrapped in Lox AND prusciutto sounds vaguely interesting.  I still like the idea of the asparagus with the pureed pimento (roasted red peppers) lemon sauce.  Wild rice does not go with EVERYTHING.  Repeat.  Wild rice does not go with EVERYTHING.  The soufflé wasn’t “chocolaty” enough?  How could you even tell with all the food that preceded it?  Maybe I should give in and say restraint be damned.  I like the sound of that.

Poor Joan and Erwin.  Whenever I’ve read this entry I picture them having a very long and unpleasant night ahead of them.  Not because the food was bad, but because there was just too much of it.

 

 

Long Ago And Far Away

STUFFED SQUID AND SCALLOPS WITH THE ROE

 Dinner Diary                                      July 2, 1987

Yea stuffed squid!  I think that I’ve stuffed them with just about everything that makes sense, also some things that don’t.  Again, just the two of us for dinner, Bonnie and me, we very much like it that way.  I can sometimes get the squid with the ink, a very special treat, from my most favorite seafood store in the whole world, noted before,   Nassau Street Seafood in Princeton, New Jersey.     

Squid are a versatile ingredient and easy to cook.  I have yet to have mine turn rubbery, but there’s still time for that to happen.  There is an old saying that goes, “you cook squid for either two minutes or two hours.  Anything in between and they come out rubbery”.  OK, I cooked these for 4 minutes a side.  That’s allowable seeing as how they are stuffed.  I save the tentacles to close the bottom opening of the squid, a very attractive presentation.  

This is a good menu. I honestly don’t think that the squid filling needs to be pureed, as I’ve written.  Just get the filling to the point where you can nicely stuff the squid with it.  All the dishes work together, though I might serve a Pommes Anna rather than the wild rice.  Pommes Anna? More simple than it sounds.  Very thinly sliced potatoes are layered in a baking dish and drizzled with butter or pats of butter, salt and black pepper between the layers.  The dish is baked and the and when the potatoes are a wonderful very deep golden brown the baking dish is inverted onto a plate, the potatoes slide out and are then put back into the baking dish with the ‘bottom’ , the as yet to be golden brown potatoes, up.  The dish is returned to the oven until what used to be the bottom is now golden brown.  The potatoes are unmolded onto a plate and served.  The end result is a wonderful buttery concoction with a crispy top and bottom and creamy center.  Potatoes kicked up to the point where they’re fit for the Gods.

 

 

Yes, I know what they look like

 

At Nassau Street Seafood the offerings are always fresh fish, seasonal – you won’t find soft-shell crabs in November. God bless them, they will get me fresh sea urchins, good smoked trout, cockles and real prawns.  I think back on all of the wonderful seafood that I’ve gotten here and my thoughts latch on to scallops with the roe attached.  The rarest of rare – scallops with the roe attached.  My thoughts also skip to Hatch’s on the Cape who also carries these whenever they can.  I don’t see a lot of folks leaping to buy these; supposedly they are more popular in Europe than they are here.  But when Bonnie and I walk in to Nassau or Hatch’s and see these in the case it’s like surprise presents on Christmas morning.  These shellfish are beautiful: good size, glistening, creamy white scallops with a pink or creamy-rose colored crescent moon of roe nestled to the scallop along the inside edge of the crescent, the crescent moon snuggling the sun, you and your love snuggled front to back in bed on a lazy morning.  Beautiful sublime taste of sea, flow of the tides, warm sun, cold water, summer soft salt breezes, cries of the gull and terns and eternity stretching before you.  You’ve got to ’listen’ to taste all of this but, it is all there, all in a single bite.

 

TODAY

In preparing this posting I decided to revisit the recipe. The squid in the photo were stuffed with scallops and shrimp and seasoned with herbs.  Stuffing them would have been easier if the stuffing wasn’t as coarse as I had chopped it.  I wouldn’t puree the stuffing as I’d written, but a fine dice would make the job easier.  And by the way, you don’t need the eggs and the breadcrumbs.  The squid were served with squid ink pasta finished in garlic infused olive oil with parsley and asparagus with lemon butter.  While the dish looks OK, I think that it’s lacking something.  The squid needs more of a visual sauce than beurre blanc provided.  Maybe a creamed sauce with a spinach, sorrel or chard base – something nice and bright and green that works with the herbed squid stuffing.  Not withstanding my criticism the meal was tasty.  I’ll go for tasty and better looking next time.

  

 

Scallops with the Roe attached

 

I know that the scallops aren’t the main course of this diary entry, but let’s wander a bit.  Let’s muse on the scallops.  These shellfish have to be just about the sweetest, creamiest, richest things that come from the sea.  OK, lobster’s up there too, but these take first place in those combined categories.  When you’re buying scallops you have to tell your fishmonger that you want to smell them.  Don’t be embarrassed because these aren’t cheap.  Put your nose right next to that scallop and inhale deeply.  Let the scents roll around your mouth as if you’re tasting a fine wine.  Chew on them and think about what you’re discovering.  The scent and taste should be sweet and rich, almost scallop ice cream, with delicious undercurrents of beach sounds and scents.  As I wrote in the diary entry, “Beautiful sublime taste of sea, flow of the tides, warm sun, cold water, summer soft salt breezes, cries of the gull and terns and eternity stretching before you.”  If you smell any other scents than these you should run like hell from that fishmonger.  The roe has different tastes and textures than the scallop proper (actually the scallop proper is the adductor muscle; the mussel that opens and closes the shell) and that difference works very well.  The roe is firmer, much less sweet even verging on savory.  It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of flavors and textures: soft/firm, sweet/savory.   Please, please, please cook the scallops only about 3 minutes a side if you pan sautéing them over high heat.  There are a lot of fancy recipes, Coquille St. Jacques, is a classic, but if I’ve got really nice scallops that’s just about all that I want to taste.  Maybe some butter and lemon juice or a little butter and wine reduced.  For me, culinary heaven.

I’ve been thinking about my cooking of late.  Not the, “What’s for dinner?” cooking thoughts or the constant thinking about what can I try that I haven’t done before or the what can I do that I haven’t done in a while.  Nope, not those thoughts. 

On one level I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with working to be the best cook that I can be.  I want my cooking to be perfect. I want it to be imaginative and/or I want that simple, single, ingredient to be the essence of that ingredient.  For example, I’ve become obsessed with roasting a chicken perfectly – absolutely crispy skin, meat just falling from the bone and dripping with juices.  I want this chicken so perfectly freakin roasted that all the other chickens are lining up to get in that roasting pan!       

 On another level I have been thinking of the solace that cooking brings me in these tough times.  When everything else is going to hell the cooking is still there for me.  When everything else is going to hell I can still make dinner for friends, enjoy the comfort in those friendships, enjoy the compliments and, in those moments, the tough times disappear.   So, there’s no need to thank me for inviting you over to join us for dinner. 

I thank you.  Hope to see you at our table soon!

Next Week:  May we’ll get to ‘The Prize’ diary entry.  Then again, maybe not.

 

1980’S DINNER DIARIES, A WAITRESS IN DISTRESS, A WAITER FROM HELL AND NEW ENGLAND BOILED DINNER AND RED FLANNEL HASH

Dinner Diary                                      March 28, 1987

 

Actually, this isn’t as bad as it looks on first glance.  Though to be truthful the, the curried grape and shrimp really don’t work with the rest of the dishes in the menu.  Other than those pesky shrimp the menu hangs together.  Hindsight, I’d serve a light pasta dish rather than potatoes, but all in all not too bad.  There are the questions of how “light” the frittata filled veal roll is (I’m guessing not very), whether or not it had a sauce.  It’s another recipe in a long list of recipes that I’ll have to go back and resurrect.        

Crème Bruleé.  If there’s anyone out there, professional or amateur like me, whose Crème Brule turns out perfectly every time let me know and I will nominate your for sainthood in the pantheon of cookdom.  My success in making this dish has become pretty consistent (pretty consistent – not entirely consistent) simply because I’ve made it a lot, but there are still those times, always when you’re running out of time, where you take it from the oven and you KNOW, no question in your mind that it didn’t set up, that you’re either going to:

  1. A.     Put it back in the oven and see if a few more minutes do it.  Praying to the Gods as you do this.
  2. B.      Serve it with a straw on the side of the plate so that people can suck it up.
  3. C.     Start over and serve it 3 hours after the entree has been eaten.
  4. D.     Plead with the wife to go the store and hope that there’s some kind of Entennman’s Crumb Cake left.

It is a classic dessert and if you have folks over to dinner at all you should know how to make it.  Part of its learning curve is the wonderful brown sugar crust.  Sure, the cookbooks tell you to put it under the oven broiler to form the crust, but they have to worry about things like liability insurance.  If your broiler isn’t up to snuff you run the possibility of the Crème Bruleé going liquid on you; losing that wonderful custard texture that you worked so hard for.  William Sonoma will have you believe that you can make the crust with one of those mini gas blow torches.  And they do work – if you want to spend a more time than you have with that pencil lead size flame.  Nope.  There’s no avoiding the truth.  If you want a nicely browned crust in a reasonable amount of time you need to buy a regular size propane torch from the hardware store.  Sure there’s a learning curve with this torch, but its one hell of an exciting learning curve! You’ll find excitement in the force of the flame blowing the brown sugar off the custard and all around your kitchen.  As you apply the flame to the brown sugar you’ll find excitement in having forgotten to put something that is heat resistant beneath the ramekins that hold the custard – and seeing the burn marks appear on you kitchen counter (use a baking pan).  And you’ll certainly find excitement when, while holding the lit torch, you turn around to talk to your loved one – burning any hair that may have been exposed on their arm.  Don’t ask.  You don’t want to hear any more of that story.       

 Orange and Campari always sounds good to me.  Bonnie loves Campari and Soda in the summertime, as do I.  Most people can’t abide it, saying that it tastes too bitter and medicinal – they’re wrong.  Right for them but wrong none the less.  I, and Bonnie to a lesser degree, really enjoy the Campari-Gin-Sweet Vermouth cocktail, the Negroni.    It’s a superb and lethal concoction combining equal parts of all of the above.  Squeeze a hint of orange juice in the glass and squeeze the orange peel over the served drink to coat the surface with orange oil.  I could drink these all day, well, I’ve tried to drink these all day and have yet to succeed but I will continue in my endeavors.  My heart is strong and my thoughts are pure – I have the strength of ten.

 

 The Waitress Drops The Tray And A Waiter From Hell

Ah, yes.  Another truly memorable meal in a restaurant involving the whole Grunwald family, with wives and girlfriends.  We brothers and significant others, six of us, seated at a table looking forward, with greater or lesser degrees of trepidation, to the meal.   We six were on edge just because you never know what the parents were going to do or say.  Knowing the Grunwald family as you now do, you too should be on the edge of your seats wondering exactly how this disaster will play out this time. 

Our apprehension started long before we even entered the restaurant.  At about ten o’clock that morning my father had stated asking all of us, “What are you going to order for dinner?”  Despite all of us saying that none of us will know until we see the menu, his question was repeated continuously throughout the day.  So, the foundation had been laid and history was against us.  I know that all of us were offering up prayers beseeching the Lord to let us get through this meal without incident.  My father is not the only one that we are concerned about because my mother has had her moments when conversing with our girlfriends and wives.  Her rather wicked comments are not done to intentionally hurt a person’s feeling.  They are statements that simply pour from her mouth unedited and certainly unrestrained (hmmmm, I recall doing this myself on one or two occasions – sorry).  Statements made to our wives and girlfriends such as:

– “Oh, you’re a stewardess?  When I was young you had to be pretty to get that  job”, or,

– “I had a girlfriend with a complexion like yours – she died” or,

– “Oh my!  I see that I’ll have to buy a larger size if I get you any clothing for Christmas.”

Time passed and the meal was proceeding without incident.  The exception being the, “Garçon – bread basket over Dad’s head” action.  Nothing out of the norm there.  However, we knew that trouble was coming, but we just couldn’t deduce exactly what it would be or from which direction it would spring from.  The six of us, brothers and significant others, heads swiveling and sweeping the horizon like radar antennas. 

And then, of course, IT happened.  A waitress was carrying a huge serving tray, with all the courses on it for a party of way more than two people and – she dropped it. 

TREMENDOUS bang, clatter, sound of broken dishes, glasses of liquid spilled on people at adjacent tables, the waitress falling to the floor, the works.  The entire restaurant talking about it, looking at her and pointing fingers at her.  Aside from getting a poor tip, no tip or drunken idiots at your table, I’ve got to think that dropping the serving tray ranks pretty high on the serving staff’s ‘Please God don’t let this happen to me’ list. 

At this moment the poor waitress wanted to disappear.  She was absolutely, beyond belief, mortified.  The look on her face said, “Please God let me die RIGHT FREAKIN’ NOW and disappear from the face of this earth forever.  Let a hole open in the earth and swallow me NOW or I will give my first born to Satan.” 

Dad looked upon the waitress’s situation from a far different perspective than that evidenced on the waitress’s now near to tears face.  He wanted to help, to show support, to have the troops rally round her, to Have the entire restaurant NOTICE her.  Above all the voices, all the hubbub, rushing to her side was – Dad – saying in a very loud voice, “she’s going to be OK!  Miss, Miss, you’re going to be fine”.  And then “let me help you clean this up” and finally, to all assembled, “Let’s give her a big round of applause everybody!”  Unbelievably, the room broke into applause.  The look in the waitress’s eyes showed that she was praying for death, pleading for death – certainly hers, possibly this guy trying to help her up.  You may look upon my Dad’s actions as noble and helpful.  While I guess that you can argue that the waitress’s expression as she visibly shrank from my Dad and the applause said otherwise.   

The manager came over to the now quietly sobbing waitress, who will forever wonder, “Who was that nut?” helped her to her feet and led her from the room.  She did not return.  Dad returned to our table (all of us had been paralyzed by the unfolding incident and, consequently, did not have the presence of mind to flee the room ourselves before familial associations were known to all) and said to the family, while happily waving the empty bread basket above his head and yelling Garçon!, “I’m glad that I could help her.  I think that the applause was just what she needed.”

                                                                                       

 This is the place

 

Fast forward in time to that same restaurant.  Is our family suicidal in regards to restaurants or totally oblivious to what we may encounter?

One fall my brothers and a friend of ours actually had the nerve to go back there.  It was later in the season and not a lot of restaurants were open.  This isn’t a ‘bad’ restaurant, just unimaginative, uninspired food, decorated in fake country.  The kind of place that if you’re on a ‘really good bus tour’ (there’s the prize winning oxymoron) you might stop here.  On reflection maybe it is bad.  It was a lazy weekend for us and we just felt like going out for a no fuss dinner.  Well, they got back at us for the Dropped Tray Incident, unintentionally, but get back at us they did.  Our server was – the Waiter From Hell.  You’ve had him at your table before: “nice jacket, what did it cost?”  “You’re going to order that?  Looks like you could stand to lose a few.”  “So, leave the wives home and going after a taste of the locals?”   The kind of waiter that’s coarse, too inquisitive, and too omnipresent and gives the impression that he thinks that he should be invited to sit down with you, rather than bringing you your dinner. 

The Waiter From Hell finished his special recitation, took our drink orders and asked if we’d be having wine with dinner.  We did want wine and asked that he leave the wine list with us for my oenophile youngest brother to peruse and make a selection from. So far, so good.  Not even a tingling of the ‘Grunwald Restaurant Vibes’.  Spirited conversation, having fun, kinda’ nice to have a guys weekend.  We hadn’t done much that day; we’d walked in the moors and on the foggy beach and we didn’t plan to do much tomorrow either.  Wine ordered, dinners ordered and our waiter returns with the wine glasses and the wine.

My wine loving younger brother, who truly knows and cares about his wines, almost went into cardiac arrest when he saw the waiter approaching our table.  As our waiter became visible to the rest of us we could understand my brother’s state.  We could see that he was carrying the four wine glasses by sticking his four nose-picking fingers deep into each glass so that he could carry the four of them in one hand.

To finish my brother off the waiter from hell did not pour the wine for my brother to taste.  To spit on my brothers grave the waiter then proceeded to fill each of our wine glasses almost to the rim and upon seeing that there was very little wine left in the bottle,  he completely, straight up and down, upended the bottle into each of the glasses completely draining it.  Whereupon he said, “Well, there’s one dead soldier!”  All of this found each of us staring at the almost overflowing wineglasses, and each other, in total disbelief.  We were so appalled at this waiter’s skill, so astonished, that we couldn’t immediately react.  My oenophile brother looked as if he didn’t know whether he should throw up, break down in tears or strangle the waiter – or all three.

When the meal was finished, the four of us tipped him a whopping $1.00.  I do that when that’s the amount of tip that the waiter deserves; once I tipped a nickel.  Sometimes I explain why and other times not – it depends on how homicidal I’m feeling toward the waiter for spoiling my meal.  In this case we did not explain. 

The last thing that I heard of the waiter was that he had become the sommelier at a national chain restaurant.

Dinner Diary                                      September 28, 1990

 

And so my love affair with the Red Flannel Hash began on September 28, 1990.  Well, food slut that I am, ONE of my food love affairs. 

 Some cookbooks can be so absolutely good, with either the imaginative or the wonderful traditional recipes or somewhere in between.  Recipes that are spot on about ingredients, the amounts the sequence and the timing.  And then there are the other cookbooks where the recipe sounds good, but when you really look, it falls apart into nothing.  The magazine that I have the love/hate relationship with is, in my opinion, famous for bestowing incredibly high falutin’ and complex names on dishes that are basically nothing, ‘Tuna Mediterranean with Olive Compote’ – open tuna can, drain the tuna, place it on a plate, pit and chop olives, put olives on top of tuna mound with a sprig of rosemary (See note), drizzle olive oil around the edges of the plate.  Serve with bread and wine. (note: rosemary is an herb that can be obtained at your local Mediterranean Store or by calling Rosemary at 1-800-555-1212).        

 Of course if you’ve cooked for long, and had your share of disasters, you begin to understand how it should go and what should be done. You begin to understand what recipes are bogus and which are worth your effort. You learn all the little common sense rules: always reserve the liquid (if you don’t use it now it will be good for something else later – you should see our refrigerator); add the liquid a little at a time – not in one big pour; NEVER leave anything sautéing in a pan on the stove unattended – the second that you turn your back it will burn to a crisp; are you really sure that the 5 pound roast is done after having been in the 325° oven for 15 minutes, (corollary:  if it’s been in there for 5 hours you might as well throw it out); if the gratin takes an hour to cook, why are you putting it in when the chicken is 5 minutes from being done and don’t you dare break that one, literally, bad egg over the same bowl that contains the fifteen egg whites that you just separated from the yolks.  Love to do it – want to do it.  If that’s not the case, your food it will show.

There are many really good cookbooks.  In my Top 10 cookbooks (my Top 10 containing actually about 50 or 100 books) there are those cookbooks that contain recipes that I find myself coming back to time and time again.  There are probably about ten or so of these, one of them being ‘Jasper White’s Cooking From New England’.  This cookbook is a wonder of clarity, enthusiasm, information, history and wonderful recipes.  This man LOVES food and cooking.  Among the many recipes that I often use two stand out: ‘New England Boiled Dinner’ and ’Red Flannel Hash’.  So simple are the ingredients, yet when they all get together and ‘wed’ with each other, the taste is something else again.  The ingredients of the hash are leftovers from the New England Boiled Dinner:  boiled beef brisket, onion, cabbage, parsnip, carrot, turnip, potatoes, red beets and the reinforcements: parsley and bacon. 

These humble ingredients rise from their individual stations and meld to become A FREAKIN’ CULINARY EXTRAVAGANZA!  You have to make the New England Boiled Dinner first; it’s another suck-it-all- down-and-ask-for-more dish, but, hey, the boiled dinner’s just the wonderful start.  The hash looks good before adding the red beets.  But, when the beets are added, they color the dish so that it looks like a New England hillside in fall.  The dark purple of the beets, the orange/red/orange of the carrots, the dark mahogany color of the corned brisket pieces, the hint of green in the cabbage, the potatoes now turned pink, the parchment color of the parsnips, dark color of the brisket AND you put it in the oven and it gets a wonderful crust on it.  Make it!  Cook up a few pieces of bacon, reheat the hash in the bacon fat to get it warm for the oven and crumble the bacon into the hash. Go ahead, gild the freakin’ lily!  Before you put it in the oven make depressions in the hash large enough to hold an egg, break an egg into the depression and bake the egg while you’re baking the hash.  I put ketchup on my hash, so take that!  Jasper White, King of New England!

The ‘New England Boiled Dinner’ and the ‘Red Flannel Hash’ satisfy both soul and palate.  Two more dishes in my compendium of classic winter dishes.  The recent forecast for snow gave me time enough to pick up the ingredients in time to be able to make these dishes as the snow was flying.  Nice to be able to look out your dining room window on the snow covered and moonlit ground while enjoying the boiled dinner and a day later the hash. 

Both of these dishes have been around forever, claimed as their own by many regions of the world.  That as it may be, I’m not aware of a lot of variation on the recipes.  Sure, you can make a hash from many different ingredients, but as for a boiled dinner it’s usually meat, potatoes, onions and your variations.  The hash has a million ways to go, but if it didn’t start with the boiled dinner and red beets it sure isn’t ‘Red Flannel Hash’.  As for the photos …….. yeah, I know, the eggs look pretty sad.  I broke the yoke in one and managed to brown the yolk on the other.  Next time – perfection ……. Maybe.

New England Boiled Dinner – Before

 New England Boiled Dinner – After

 

 

Red Flannel Hash

 

Next Week: More Dinner Diaries from the 80’s (busy decade), the Prize and who knows what else

THE CASSOULET DINNER DIARIES AND GROUNDHOG JUICE

The Cassoulet Dinners 

Cassoulet dinners are very special events in our house.  This is a wonderfully hearty dish and should be served in the cold of winter for it truly warms body and soul and fills (perhaps ‘stuffs’ is the proper word) the belly.  It’s not a particularly complicated dish, nor does it require extraordinary culinary skills.  However, you don’t approach the making of this dish casually, nor can you do it justice by making it in a day.  Just follow the recipe, taste, taste, taste again and you’ll be fine. 

To make it properly is to truly understand the value of the friends that you’ll be joining with at the dinner table.  When you serve this dish you have to be joined by as many people as your dining room table can hold. You want a warm, raucous, bonhomie atmosphere to envelop all.  The cooking of the Cassoulet is finished in a single bowl and served from that bowl so, in that way, to me, it represents a more communal dining experience than other dishes might have.  Such a wonderful dish and again, as simple as it is, you can screw it up – I’ve seen recipes where it’s made with hotdogs.  As you know, I believe that hotdogs are superb – in their place.  Their place is not in a Cassoulet.  When it is the star of the dinner menu magic happens, as shown in the following Cassoulet Dinner Diaries.

March 16, 1996

 

This was probably my first time with Cassoulet.  En France, ‘Cassoulet de Porc de Mouton’.  A dish that I have come to love, have much reverence towards, is a winter staple in our house and that tastes so good that, as I’ve been known to say, I would roll in it like an animal.  So good that it’s like getting a nice big hug from your lover and best friend.  Another of my top 50 or 100 God-I-Love-This-Dish, dishes.  In this diary entry I wrote, “Fatty pork is fine without additional fat.”  Get real! 

How dare you say that it’s just beans, lamb and pork!  Let Julia and I tell you about this; make it for yourself or wrangle an invite to one of our Cassoulet dinners and you will no longer make that statement.  In her classic I think that Julia has presented us with one of the best recipes for this dish.  As with so many other dishes its peasant roots show in the variety of ingredients that one can use in assembling this dish.  However, any Cassoulet worth the name must be built upon the foundation of beans, pork and lamb.  If these rules aren’t followed a big bad wolf will come along and blow your Cassoulet down.

Howard, Micelle and Andrew were our neighbors once upon a time.  Good neighbors and good friends who are, as many of our friends, no longer closeby.  Andrew was very young at the time of this dinner.  I hope that he’ll always remember his first taste of Cassoulet.  Well, I can hope can’t I?

 

January 25, 1997

 

This is one of those dishes that take more than one day to make.  I start with the pork loin.   The loin is herb seasoned in accord with ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ and marinated in its seasoning rub overnight.  By the way, this is a very flavorful rub (I love fragrance of the bay leaves as they’re pulverized in my old coffee bean mill-now spice grinder) and works well with both feathered and fin-ed ingredients.  I’ve found that the sausage cake recipe that Julia provides as a substitution for ’Saucisse de Toulouse’ is also well served by marinating overnight.  Ah, the preparation of the ingredients and the assembly, the ceremony of it all: roast the pork loin, sauté the sausage cakes, braise the lamb, cook the beans, make the brown sauce and finally assembly and cook this gift from the Gods.  It’s one of those dishes that drive Bonnie crazy.  She’ll say, “Honey, can you help me with this or that?”  And I’ll scream in reply, “NOT NOW!  I’m busy with the Cassoulet!”   

Yes, I have learned things over the years.  I make more pork sausage than the recipe calls for, I add the cooking juices with each layer, always reserve the water that the beans were cooked in until the last of the leftovers are finished,  leave room beneath the rim of the huge beautiful dutch oven that I bake and serve this in for the crusty topping.  Sometimes I add duck, sometimes a good kielbasa.  Always the foundation of bean, lamb and pork and as I’ve repeated and repeated in regards to so many dishes – in the end it’s more than the individual ingredients, more than the sum of its individual parts.  A magic trick of the first order.  

Rick and Brenda, Alison, Bill and their daughter Amelia.  They’ve appeared in the diaries before and will again.  Do I remember the particulars of this dinner?  No.  Do I have any doubts that all of us enjoyed ourselves?  No again.

 

November 12, 2002 

 

My menus are usually pretty good with the Cassoulet dinners.  Usually.  Appetizers are nice to warm up the guests but all you really need for dinner is a good bread, salad and something with apples for desert.  It’s a winter hearty dish and that’s when I serve it.  Simple appetizers are fine.  While puff pastry with smoked trout and snails in garlic cream sauce was memorably good, it was unnecessary.  Soups are unnecessary, but also good; best if they’re on the lighter side.  Julia’s onion soup is superb.  ‘Thelma’s Coconut Cake’ , despite the fact that I wrote, “OK”,should be avoided as a dessert, door stop, night-light or anything else.  A nice little palette cleanser, Melon Granite (melon in November?) is very nice, but I prefer just the apple pie or an Apple Tarte Tatin to pumpkin AND apple pies.  

 

February 3, 2007 

 

DO NOT EVER mess with Maida’s Lemon Mousse recipe – unless you can do it right.  My dessert did not come out well this time.    I was trying to riff off of a lemon mousse recipe using caramelized apples instead of lemon and layering the mousse between sugared-crusted-baked Phyllo dough.   I have to keep trying – the caramelized apple mousse concept has merit.   

For better or worse, the Dinner Diaries are now on the computer rather than handwritten.  Feel lucky, you probably couldn’t read my writing.  As I’ve written previously, for the best Cassoulet experience you’ve got to have a house full of freinds.  The guests’ experience begins at the door.  They cross from the winter cold, hopefully snowing a bit air, into the warm house to be enveloped by the mélange of aromas of lamb, pork, beans, garlic and apple pie and breathing red wine (trust me, the garlic and apple pie work).  You’ve got to have lots of wine, some good strong reds, and prepare to get a little louder than you might normally.  Prepare to laugh a lot, hug a lot, drink more wine than you usually would, tell ‘secret’ stories that you might not normally tell and – eat lots of Cassoulet – two helpings – and the Tarte Tatin or apple pie with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for dessert.  At this 2007 Cassoulet Dinner Party one of the guests related an absolutely hilarious story about him and his brother crossing an honest to God mountain range in a two wheel drive car: the car breaking down, the car being fixed, almost going over the side of the mountain, arguing which of them was crazier, near freezing to death at night – and finally making it over the high pass and getting to the valley below.  The story had everyone laughing until they cried and rolling on the floor with enjoyment.  As funny as it was I don’t believe that anyone wet themselves – we’re all pretty mature folk ………. most of the time.   

To this day I can’t remember the details of the story, but the fact that I remember it at all, that “a good time, with a lot of wine, was had by all”, and that the Cassoulet was almost finished is enough.  The perfect Cassoulet Dinner Party.

 

January 9, 2010

 

 

This was a very special Cassoulet Dinner Party because my two brothers, Kev and Mitch and their wives, Shawn and Chris journeyed down from New England to our home in rural New Jersey.  It had been a long time since they’d been down here and we were looking forward to seeing them for the weekend.

We’re brothers and strong willed to boot.  Consequently we don’t see eye to eye all the time.  There have been periods where we’ve been each others best friend and times where it was hard to even talk to each other.  Our wives understand this and are smart enough to stand back when it’s warranted and let the situation play itself out.  I know that many siblings and families are like that, especially if they’re independent-stand on your own two feet-kind of folks.  Well, regardless of the falling outs we are brothers, we know that fact and it is important to us.  We were together this weekend and it was, as I wrote, a hoot.

As for the dinner, I didn’t consider my efforts my best.  Not bad, just not the best.  The mussel in an aromatic broth was very good.  The pears had not ripened enough and therefore were less flavorful than I had wanted.  Some chef out there.  Please tell me how to get pears and avocados to ripen on demand.  The Cassoulet had more liquid in it than I wanted and consequently the crust didn’t form perfectly – the broiler fixed that.

On the other hand Chris’s appetizers were spot on, the Asagio Stuffed Dates with Bacon and Smoked Paprika especially so and Shawn’s dessert, though it may not have been up to her standards, was engulfed by the hordes.

My Dad took a lot of photos of the family.  The time span runs from the day that he and my Mom got married until he could no longer do so.  So we’re talking form the late 1940’s until, I’m guessing the early 1990’s.  A whole lot of time and a whole lot of  family history on film.  So, after dinner it was a trip through the family photos.  The trip back through time found us laughing a lot, a lot of ‘ “Oh God! I’d forgotten about that”, some melancholy and a few, “Does anyone know who that person is?”  Digressing only a bit we’ve got the black and white movies of Mom and Dad’s wedding circa 1947.  They are particularly interesting, and amusing to everyone except my Mom, because they show the happy couple walking out of the church, approaching several flights of hard granite stairs leading to the street and Mom, in full wedding dress regalia, falling on her butt down that first long hard flight of stairs.  Yes, after the fall she stands up, plants a smile on her face, waves to the crowds and continues down those steps.  In the places in my mind where I shouldn’t go I imagine the conversation that night, “Don’t you dare touch me I’m black and blue all over my backside!” 

So, we look at our shared family history and reminisce and talk of things that were, where we are now and we wonder with individual degrees of anxiety what the future holds.  Obviously, my brothers and I have shared many meals and as lives were lived there have been many times that the six of us could be found together at the dinner table.  Food has always been a centerpiece for our family, the shared common ground, but it is not the core.  Through my cooking I’ve discovered that the core is indeed family, friendship and love.

 

With Crust Unbroken  –  Leftover Cassoulet

 

 

Dinner Diary – Groundhog Day                                                        February 2, 2008

Groundhog Day Cocktail Party at Paul and Amy’s!

 Paul and Amy were nice enough to invite Bonnie and me to a Groundhog Day Cocktail Party. Not a lot of our friends throw parties (or maybe they just don’t invite us) so we were thrilled to accept the invitation.  I’m usually thrilled (usually, not always) when someone is good enough to invite us to a dinner, or party, where someone else is cooking.  I’ve even learned new recipes and ingredients.  I’ve had very good times.  In this case I very much appreciatedthe fact that there was gin and vermouth available (usually I have to bring my own martini in a ‘Snapple’ bottle).             

Paul and Amy did a nice job with the party; a nice mix of food drink and friends.  I particularly liked the mini-cocktail shakers for martinis. 

Do you ever think that there could be a humorous side to my culinary effort, to any part of my life?  There is!  I find many incidents, facts and happenings in life to be humorous and of course this carries on to the culinary field.  Once Bonnie was knocked down by a huge wave on the Cape, tumbled in the wave as if she were a rag doll in a washer and spit back onto the beach.  I thought that was pretty damn funny for a short while.  Well lookee here. I didn’t want to arrive at the party empty handed so I mixed up a container of, what else, Groundhog Juice! 

I created the front and rear labels and stuck them on a bottle.  The bottle was then filled with Dave’s Long Island Ice Tea and it was ready for presentation.  Paul and Amy thought that it was hilarious.  Some partygoers thought otherwise.  Well ….. they’ll just have to get a sense of humor. 

 

 

Front Label

 

GROUNDHOG  JUICE

A SOUTH JERSEY TREASURE

SINCE ….. YESTERDAY      

BREWED FROM THE FINEST NATURAL JUICES OF RIPE AND MORE RIPE ‘FOUND’ GROUNDHOGS! 

THE PERFECT EARTH FRIENDLY BEVERAGE – NOTHING IS WASTED EXCEPT YOU! 

BASED ON A TRADITIONAL PINE BARRENS RECIPE HANDED DOWN FROM DAUGHTER TO FATHER TO MOTHER TO BROTHER TO SISTER TO FATHER TO DAUGHTER TO UNCLE JOE BOB 

INGREDIENTS: AREN’T YOU THE BRAVE ONE TO ASK!

IF WE COULD GUARANTEE THAT IT WOULDN’T KILL YOU WE WOULD

BOTTLED BY EARTH FRIENDLY ROADKILL

FIND US WHERE YOU CAN – WE MOVE AROUND 

According to the Surgeon General women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.  Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.

SHOW ‘EM THAT THEY’RE WRONG!  

Rear Label

 

  Groundhog Juice Ready To Go!

 

As it is the day before Groundhog Day there was no way that this was not going to make it into this posting.

It was a great party with a nice group of folks, Amy’s a good cook and there’s always something fun – in this case the miniature cocktail shakers.  I’ve mentioned those before haven’t  I.  I was very taken with them.

As for the groundhog on the cover shot, the cover girl as it were – she’s not dead she’s just resting.  No groundhogs were harmed in the making of this beverage.  I guess that depends on how you define harmed. 

 

Next week: More Dinner Diaries from the late 1980’s, a waitress in distress and a waiter from Hell