Gourmet Grilled Cheese

Dear Friends,

As winter lingers like a bad case of chronic indigestion, we need of the kind of comfort only a couple of pounds of cheese and half of a ham can bring. Easter dinner will leave most of us with plenty of leftover ham. Now all you need is a few slabs of bread, some Cheddar and Swiss cheeses, apples, walnuts and onions. With that, you can make the mother of all grilled cheese sandwiches.

I made a couple last week and they were glorious. Imagine inch-thick slices of crusty bread toasted with butter and thickly layered with cheese. Snuggling in the center of the gooey melted cheese are a layer of ham and a layer of sautéed apple slices, a sprinkling of toasted walnuts and a mound of balsamic-glazed onions.

It’s a nutritionists nightmare but sooo good. When you bite into the sandwich all the flavors flow together into a salty-sweet-crunchy mouthful.

The sandwich is over the top and it’s meant to be. My inspiration was the eats at Melt Bar & Grilled, the quartet of Cleveland-area restaurants that has been featured on the Food Network, the Travel Channel and BBC. Friends recently introduced me to the restaurants’ two-fisted gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches (often referred to as “epic”), and I was entranced. Chef-owner Matt Fish slaps everything from sushi to corned beef between bread and surrounds it with melted cheese. Some choices: the Cuban, a grilled Swiss stuffed with ham, pulled pork and fried pickles; and Mom’s Meatloaf Dinner, a muenster cheese sandwich layered with meatloaf, mashed potatoes and fried onion straws. The fillings alone are at least an inch thick, and the cheese does not take a back seat. Throw in thickly sliced bread and you have a sandwich that could feed a family of four.

I created an original version to take advantage of leftover Easter ham. Admittedly, it is not a quick-fix sandwich. The onions must be caramelized, the apple must be peeled, sliced and fried in butter, walnuts must be toasted, and bread must be sliced, buttered and browned in a skillet before the sandwich is assembled. But the steps may be done one at a time up to a day in advance and the result is worth it. If you want easy, have a cold ham sandwich on Wonder Bread. See if THAT gets you through the tail-end of an Ohio winter.

 

GOURMET GRILLED HAM AND CHEESE SANDWICHES WITH APPLES, TOASTED WALNUTS AND BALSAMIC-CARAMELIZED ONIONS

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  • 1 1/2 cups sliced onions (1/4-inch thick)
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 to 2 apples, peeled, cored and cut vertically into 1/2-inch-thick slices (12 slices)
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. broken walnut pieces
  • 4 tbsp. softened butter
  • 4 slices sturdy white bread, cut ¾-inch thick
  • 8 oz. sliced ham (about ¼-inch thick)
  • 4 oz. sliced Cheddar cheese
  • 4 oz. sliced Swiss cheese

To prepare onions, cut onion in half vertically, peel and cut the halves crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Heat a medium (9-inch) sauté pan over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When hot, reduce heat to medium and sauté onions with a dash of salt, stirring occasionally, until mostly golden. Stir in vinegar and continue cooking until deep brown but not burned, about 30 minutes total. Remove from skillet and set aside.

Toss apple slices with sugar. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the 1 tablespoon butter in the same pan. Cook apples slices over medium-high heat until browned on both sides. The apples should be soft but not mushy. Remove from pan and set aside.

Stir walnut pieces into oil and juices left in pan. Raise heat to medium high and cook, stirring, until nuts are brown. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Butter both sides of each piece of bread with the softened butter. Heat a large oven-proof skillet over high heat. Brown bread on one side only in the skillet. Place two pieces on a plate, browned sides up. Top with half of the Swiss and half of the Cheddar. Divide the apples, nuts, ham and onions between the cheese-topped pieces of bread, mounding the fillings evenly. Top with remaining cheeses. Cover with remaining two slices of bread, toasted sides down.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat the large skillet over medium-high heat. Place sandwiches in skillet and cook for 2 minutes. Transfer to middle oven rack and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn controls to broil and cook until tops of sandwiches are golden brown. Makes two very large sandwiches.

 

BOOKS FOR COOKS

Please share your recommendations.

 

From Cindy Ederer:
I just finished reading, “Life, On the Line,” by Grant Achatz.  I highly recommend it.  You can find it at the library. Enjoy!

Dear Cindy: That’s on my list. A little background for those unfamiliar with the story: Achatz, owner of Alinea in Chicago, was among the hottest chefs in the country when he was diagnosed with  cancer of the mouth in 2007. The book details his struggles and triumphs. He eventually conquered cancer and Alinea went on to win three Michelin stars.

 

THE MAILBAG           

From Patti:
Jane, my mom made her scalloped potatoes the very same way as you do and I still think they are the best.  As very young children, we got to help by layering the potatoes around the casserole dish…something about that circle of potatoes that still brings fond memories of Mom in her kitchen.  So you have stirred up a dish to savor this weekend. My hubby will be very happy!

Dear Patti: And don’t forget the chocolate bunnies and pickled eggs.

 

From Pennie:
I have to echo Molly’s recommendation for Nate’s Deli on West 25th Street in Cleveland next to West Side Market. I CRAVE their beef shawarma hummus plate. I have never had shawarma that good, and their hummus is excellent. I can’t get past that to even try anything else. One caution, I took a friend of mine there who was not familiar with Middle Eastern food and she ordered a corned beef sandwich. It was very disappointing, the kind of corned beef you get at a supermarket deli.

Stick to the beef shawarma or the dishes Molly recommends and you will be pleased!

Dear Pennie: A throw down! I can’t imagine better shawarma than Continental Cuisine’s. I’ll have to check out Nate’s and compare.

 

From Molly:
Jane, I had forgotten to mention that I buy creamy garlic sauce (in a large container) at Nate’s Deli, too.  They make it in-house. Most things are made fresh.

Dear Molly: Woo hoo! This is good news, because that garlic sauce is a bear to make.

 

From Tami:
I saw a request for salad dressing for fatoosh salad in this week’s newsletter. I am a huge fan of Wafa’s Restaurant in the Chase Bank building plaza in downtown Akron. Wafa’s food is incredible. The hummus is without a doubt the best I have ever eaten. Wafa made a great fatoosh salad and I was able to replicate it at home including the dressing. The company I work for moved to the Montrose area so I don’t get to eat at Wafa’s anymore. I’m planning to try Continental Cuisine. Keep up the great newsletter!!

 

FATOOSH

  • 2 small pita breads (4-inch size)
  • 2 hearts of romaine (chopped)
  • 1 small sweet onion (chopped into larger pieces)
  • 1 cucumber (peeled and sliced)
  • 3 plum or large cherry tomatoes, cut into wedges
  • 2 tsp. sumac powder (a spice found at Middle Eastern markets)
  • 1 clove garlic (chopped)
  • 3 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut pita breads into bite size pieces; spread on a baking sheet and  toast them in the oven until very crisp (mine took about 20 to 25 minutes).

Place  romaine, sweet onion, cucumber, tomatoes and pita pieces in a large bowl.  Sprinkle the sumac powder over top and toss gently.

Mix garlic, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a separate bowl. (I made my dressing the night before so the flavors had a chance to come together). Pour over salad fixings and toss gently.  Wait about 5 minutes for the flavors to blend and then serve.

Note: Very important – don’t add sumac to the dressing. It makes it pasty. Be sure to sprinkle it over the dry greens to get it evenly distributed.

 

Dear Tami: I loved Wafa’s, too, when I worked downtown. So nice of you to share your recipe.

 

From Joanne:
Do you have a good rule of thumb for onions in recipes? Usually, a recipe gives the amount and the texture (1/2 cup, chopped) but doesn’t specify the type, such as yellow, white, Vidalia, etc.

Dear Joanne: To be honest, I usually use whatever kind of  onions I have on hand. Using the “wrong” onion won’t ruin a dish. I’ve even subbed green onions for regular and vice versa. The exception is when I’m cooking something grand. In that case, I’ll run to the store for the exact ingredients needed.

Basically, though, when a recipe calls for simply “onions,” regular yellow or white onions are wanted. If a specialty onion should be used, the recipe will specify. Some examples are sweet onions (Vidalia, Walla-Walla, Maui, etc.); green onions (scallions); cippolini (little flattened things); purple (also called “red”); and spring onions (those bulbous onions that look like overgrown scallions).

Although I’ve lumped together regular yellow and white onions (both are also known as “storage” onions),  onion experts swear there’s a difference. White onions are generally considered more pungent than yellow onions, although I’ve met some wicked yellows in my time. I think the growing conditions have more to do with pungency than does the color of the skin.

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Incredible Scalloped Potato

Dear Friends,

I don’t know exactly when I had my “aha” food moment. It could have been while I was tasting fabulous seafood at Atlantic City’s top restaurants in the early 1970s, when I dated a suave  man-about-town there.

Maybe it was even earlier, when I discovered the one cookbook in my parent’s home, hidden in a dark closet as if it were forbidden erotica. The banana-chocolate cake I made,
I recall, was a revelation.

Probably, though, it was in my mid- to late-20s, when I began watching The Galloping Gourmet, trying magazine recipes, and buying cookbooks of my own. At some point I realized that with the right recipe I could make the best version of a food I’d ever tasted. The best meatloaf, the best chocolate pudding, the best Thanksgiving turkey.

I remember setting out on a quest to upgrade all of my favorite foods. Some transformations were more astounding than others. Near the top of the list was good old scalloped potatoes. Here’s how my mother made them: peel a bunch of potatoes, slice them and pack them in a casserole dish, sprinkling each layer with  flour, salt and pepper and dotting with butter. Pour milk over the top and bake.

I’m serious.

I was such a scalloped potato hound that I even liked Mom’s. And when we went to Southern Park Mall in Youngstown and ate at Woolworth’s Harvest House Cafeteria, I’d get the scalloped potatoes with ham. Not AND ham. It was scalloped potatoes with little cubes of ham mixed right in.

But even scalloped potatoes can be improved upon, I figured, so I found a recipe that called for simmering the sliced potatoes in milk, then layering in a casserole with cheese, nutmeg and a milk-egg mixture before baking. The potatoes were fabulous, but I remember thinking they were a lot of work.

Last week I again made Gratin Daphinois – fancy scalloped potatoes – but I simplified the recipe. I peeled the potatoes and nuked them in the microwave for about 1 minute each, until they were about half cooked. I then warmed the milk in the microwave and stirred in half the cheese, a combination of provolone and Parmesan that I bought pre-grated in a tub in the dairy case. I sliced the potatoes and layered them with dabs of butter and the rest of the cheese, poured the milk mixture (scented with nutmeg) over all, and baked it for just 30 minutes. It tasted incredible. I’m calling this Incredible Scalloped Potatoes. Serve it with your Easter ham and  you’ll be a hero.

INCREDIBLE SCALLOPED POTATOES
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  • 9 russet potatoes (about 3 lbs.)
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • Fresh-grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (gruyere if you have it)
  • 1 cup shredded (not grated) fresh Parmesan
  • Salt, pepper
  • 3 tbsp. butter

Peel potatoes, pierce with a fork, and microwave them two at a time for two minutes per batch, until about half cooked. Set aside.

In a 4-cup microwave-safe measuring cup or a bowl, heat milk  with garlic until very hot in a microwave. Place flour in a custard cup and add some of the hot milk, stirring rapidly with a fork until smooth. Add more milk, stirring, until about one-half cup milk has been added in all. Whisk the mixture into the milk in the large measuring cup. Microwave 1 to 2 minutes longer, whisking every 30 seconds, until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from oven and stir in a couple of pinches of grated nutmeg and half the cheeses.

Cut the potatoes into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange a layer of potatoes in a buttered gratin pan or casserole dish. Season with salt and pepper and dot with about 1 tablespoon of the butter. Sprinkle with one-third of the remaining cheese. Repeat with another layer of potatoes and toppings. Finish with remaining potatoes and toppings. Pour milk mixture over potatoes. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender and top is crisp and golden. Makes about 8 servings.

TIDBITS

If you don’t have any dinner plans for Saturday, I hope you’ll join me at a really neat chili and dessert cook-off at Copley High School. I won’t be judging, just sampling and enjoying myself. It will be a fun time, and proceeds will benefit teens at Akron Children’s Hospital oncology unit.

The seventh annual Lauren Audrey Braman memorial Chili Cook-Off and Dessert Bake-Off will be from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Copley High School commons. Tickets are $7 at the door (children 5 and under free).
Lauren’s mother, Christine, sent this note of explanation:

“I should probably mention that a big difference with this event from other chili events is that it was started by Lauren’s classmates six months after she died.  They were only in their junior year and wanted to start a scholarship in her name.  After four years of the event we raised $20,000 and endowed her scholarship at $1,000 per year in perpetuity.  The Copley High School students required each entry to have a theme and decorations. It has made it a festive and fun event.”

What a beautiful tribute from Lauren’s friends.

BOOKS FOR COOKS

Please share your food-book recommendations.

From Lauri:
Speaking of books, I found “Sadness of Lemon Cake” strange, unreadable, and the premise just plain weird.  Wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

We love Ruth Reichl at our house.  She spoke a year or two ago at the Cleveland Public Library and we loved it so much.  We’ve read, among others, “Garlic and Sapphires” and “Tender at the Bone.”  Great writer, great tweeter, and an all-around nice person.

We also love any of Anthony Bourdain’s books. He’s a fantastic writer, snarky, sarcastic and funny. All of his food-related non-fiction books are among our favorite all-time reads.

Dear Lauri: I liked that strange Lemon Cake book, but then, I also liked “The Man Who Ate the 747” by Ben Sherwood, about a guy who ate an airplane bite by bite.


THE MAILBAG

From Mary:
I’ve been meaning to email you and I’m finally doing so since you talked about books in your last newsletter. I, too, love reading “foodie” books and memoirs (although I’m not a cookbook reader or peruser). Matter of fact, I often sneak a peek at the book club selection for the culinary book club Stephanie Paganini hosts at her mom’s cooking school. I wish there were one on the west side of Cleveland. 
I couldn’t put down “Apron Anxiety.” Yes, it was too drama-filled at times; however, I loved her free spirit. So I’ve been meaning to tell you about a documentary I watched a few weeks ago: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was captivating and I thought you and Tony might enjoy it. It’s probably available at your local library.

Dear Mary: Please share your future foodie book finds! “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is indeed excellent. Tony and I bought a copy of the Japanese-language documentary (with English subtitles) as soon as it was available. Many of the exacting techniques shown in the film are familiar to Tony, as was Tokyo’s gigantic fish market, which Tony visited daily for three years with his Itamai (sushi master) while in training. It was fun watching the film with him, because he expanded on things (such as taking a core sample from the tuna’s tail) that flashed across the screen too briefly for me.

From Cindy:
Re: Continental Cuisine in Fairlawn — I’m with you. I don’t care if Continental’s chicken shawarma is traditional or not – I LOVE the crunch of the toasted pita and the pickle MAKES the meal. I ALWAYS get that when I go there. Their lentil soup is good but too much can produce undesirable physical reactions  for some people. A little spoonful goes a long way. I love Continental’s fresh tabbouleh and often get that with my shawarma, and save half of it for the next day. 
 
When my kids lived at home they liked Continental’s chicken tenders and the pizza.

The best baba ganouj  I have found anywhere is at Aladdin’s in downtown Cleveland. It is smoky and creamy goodness. SO good. I miss working downtown — I used to go over there at lunch and get their spinach and feta pies (heated up), the fresh pita, baba ganouj, tabbouleh, bean salads, Middle Eastern style mozzarella with black sesame seeds, etc.

Dear Cindy: Now I’m hungry for baba ganouj. By the way, I forgot to give credit last week to Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen (www.mamaslebanesekitchen.com) for much of the information I culled on the shawarma and garlic sauce, including the basic recipes – modified – for both.


From Molly:

I’ll have to check out the pizza/Lebanese restaurant in Fairlawn if I’m ever down that way. If you’re ever at the West Side Market in Cleveland, you would love Nate’s, a deli that is a few doors down from the market on West25th Street. I crave their stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and shish tawook sandwiches. Sounds similar to the chicken shawarma at Continental Cuisine but without the dill pickles. Since it is a deli there are lots of menu options but I’ve only ever gotten the Lebanese food. Fantastic fresh, fresh, fresh tabbouleh salad too; I could go on and on.

Dear Molly: Thanks for the recommendation. I do go to the market occasionally, and will check it out.

From Betty in Florida:
Thank you so much for the recipes from Continental Cuisine.  I don’t miss  winters, but I do miss that little restaurant. My goal is to find the secret to the salad dressing they use for their fatoush.  I’ve tried, with the help of my Lebanese cookbook, but something is missing.  Would you give it a try?

Dear Betty: Sometimes I order a half fatoush salad with chicken. I’ll refresh my memory the next time I visit and give it a try.

Shawarma and Egyptian Lentil Soup

Dear Friends,

One of my favorite lunches is the lentil soup and chicken shawarma sandwich at Continental Cuisine in Fairlawn.  The modest place is half pizza shop and half Lebanese sit-down restaurant. The pizza reportedly is good, but I am enamored of the Mid-Eastern and Greek food served in the comfortable, quiet dining room. I keep meaning to try  the kibbee, tiropita (cheese and phyllo pie) and baba ghanouj, but every time I visit, the lentil soup and shawarma lasso me. I’m hooked.

Even though I know I can eat only one or the other, I usually order both, eat the soup, and end up taking the sandwich home. The red-lentil soup is thick and porridge-like, deeply flavored, and with a faint note of spice. The  shawarma consists of marinated, grilled chicken pieces slathered with a powerful garlic sauce and rolled in a pita with dill pickle and cubes of tomato. The tight pita roll is then crisped up in the oven.

Last week, in one of my foolish “how hard can it be?” moods I decided to make the soup and sandwich myself. Hey, I could have this meal anytime!! Without leaving home!!

First I researched the recipes, then hit  the store for pickle slices, lemons, lots of garlic and pita. Then I had to figure out how to modify the recipes I had found so they tasted like my favorites from Continental Cuisine.  At about 8 p.m. I had lunch.

The process will be easy the next time I make this, though. The ingredients are in the pantry and fridge, the recipes are figured out, and I know what to do now when the garlic sauce separates, as it surely will unless I make a quart of it at a time (one and a half heads of garlic simply cannot be pureed to a paste in the food processor, a necessary step for the sauce to become creamy.)

Anyway, if you marinate the chicken overnight and make the sauce in advance, you can knock out this meal in less than an hour. The soup, in fact, is ridiculously easy to make – just simmer a pound of lentils in chicken broth and stir in some cumin and cayenne. I was amazed at the rich flavor considering the paltry list of ingredients. It was so good I found myself eating the cold leftovers for breakfast.

I  was surprised to find in my research that the shawarma eaten all over the Middle East is considerably different from the sandwich served at Continental Cuisine. Traditionally,  thin slices of marinated chicken or beef are jammed together on a big upright skewer and rotisserie cooked, ala gyro meat. The shaved meat is served in soft pita bread with chopped tomatoes, garlic sauce (or sesame sauce if using beef), chopped tomatoes, parsley and perhaps cucumber. The vegetables vary.

The sandwich I like is filled with little nuggets of grilled chicken, dill pickle instead of cucumber, and has a crisp rather than soft wrapper. To me, the dill pickle slices are a brilliant addition. The puckery note, juxtaposed against the rich garlic sauce, practically makes the sandwich. Also, I’m obsessed with the thin, crackly baked pita wrapping of Continental’s version, so I rolled and baked mine, too. My garlic sauce tasted very much like the restaurant’s, even though I cheated by stirring in mayonnaise at the end to repair my broken sauce and prevent it from separating during storage.  The extra garlic sauce will keep for a long time in a lidded jar in the fridge, and would taste great on grilled meats and all kinds of sandwiches. It’s powerful, though, so go easy until you decide how much garlic you can take.

 

CHICKEN SHAWARMA

shawarma with chicken

  • 1 lb. boneless chicken breast
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. ginger powder
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • Oil for frying
  • 3 8-inch pita loaves
  • Dill pickle chips

Rinse and dry chicken. Slice across the grain into ¼-inch thick ribbons. Place in a large zipper-lock plastic bag with the lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, olive oil, salt, paprika, ginger and nutmeg. Seal. Knead the bag to mix and distribute the marinade. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or preferably overnight, turning bag occasionally.

Heat a large skillet or griddle over high heat. Gloss with oil. In batches if  necessary, cook chicken strips quickly on both sides until they begin to brown. Set  Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Cut around the edges of each pita loaf and gently separate without tearing. If bread is prone to tearing, heat for 10 seconds or so in a microwave.

On a counter, line up the meat, mayonnaise mixture and dill pickles. Heat oven to 350 degrees. One at a time, microwave each pita half on high powder for about 10 seconds, until until bread is soft. Quickly spread some garlic sauce over the cut side of the pita, place some chicken in a line down the center of the pita, and top with one or two pickle chips. Roll pita around chicken cigar-fashion and place seam-side down on an ungreased baking sheet.  Continue until all chicken is used up. Bake at 250 degrees until pita is crisp, about 15 minutes. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

 

CREAMY GARLIC SAUCE

  • 1 head garlic
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup cold mayonnaise

Separate and peel the garlic cloves. Remove the greenish center germ if present. Puree garlic with salt in a food processor, scraping down sides several times until mixture forms a paste. With the motor running, drizzle in about ¼ cup of the oil. Continue processing until the oil has been absorbed. With motor still running, drizzle in 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Repeat until all oil and lemon juice have been used. The mixture should be thick and creamy. If it breaks, as mine did, stir in the mayonnaise by hand and chill.

 

EGYPTIAN LENTIL SOUP

eggplant lentil

(From “Mediterranean Cookery” by Claudia Roden)

  • 1 lb. red lentils
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • Salt, pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • Pinch of cayenne

Garnish:

  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 tbsp. oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • Chopped parsley (optional)
  • Lemon wedges

Wash lentils, discarding any debris. Place in a large saucepan with the broth and bring to a boil. Remove any scum and simmer for 30 minutes, until the lentils disintegrate. Add salt, pepper, cumin and cayenne when the lentils begin to soften. Add water if necessary to thin the soup to a light, creamy consistency.

To make the garnish, fry the onion in oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until the onion is very brown, almost caramelized. Watch carefully and stir often. Add garlic and coriander and fry until the aroma rises.

Garnish each serving of soup with some of the onion mixture and parsley and accompany with lemon wedges. Makes 6 or more servings.

 

THE MAILBAG

From Cheryl Puster:
I’m reading a book that I wondered if you’ve read.  It’s called “Cakewalk,”  a memoir by Kate Moses.  It’s an interesting book with a lot of classic baking recipes throughout (after each chapter).  I haven’t tried any yet (gave up desserts for Lent), but they are sure tempting!

Dear Cheryl: I’m so glad you brought up the subject of good food reads. I’m a ferocious reader and I love a good food-centered book, whether memoir or fiction. I’ll put “Cakewalk” on my reading list along with a memoir my friend, Susan,  recommended last week, “Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes” by Elizabeth Bard.

I just finished “The Particular Sadness  of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender, a lyrical novel with a quirky premise: The main character can taste the mood of the cook (and the provenance of the ingredients) in whatever she eats.

After becoming weary of food mysteries a few years ago, I’ve been on a food memoir kick. In the last couple of years I’ve read and loved a number of them, including “Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton, “The Sweet Life in Paris” by David Lebovitz and “Born Round” by Frank Bruni.

Less successful but still worth reading was “Apron Anxiety” by Alyssa Shelasky, the former girlfriend of Master Chef hottie Spike.

Books on my wish list are “Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson,” “Life, On the Line” by Grant Aschatz and “Fresh Off the Boat” by Eddie Huang. While looking up spellings and complete titles of some of the books I’ve mentioned, I found another memoir I must read immediately: “Puglia: A Culinary Memoir” by Maria Pignatelli Ferrante, translated by Natalie Danford. I’m crazy about Italy (after visiting three times), and my dream is to spend a couple of months there soaking up the culture, inhaling the food and learning the language.

I would love to hear other food-book  recommendations. In fact, I’d love to start printing one-paragraph reviews of food books – cookbooks, memoirs or novels –from readers in my newsletter. Bring ‘em on!

 

From Judy in Arizona:
After searching many sites, my best guess on achieving a sauce close to the original Escoffier Diable Sauce  would be mixing  Heinz 57 sauce with Dijon mustard. You might have to play with the amounts a bit to make it work.

Dear Judy: I think you’re right. Although I’ve never tasted the sauce, that’s what it sounds like to me, too. Check out one more suggestion, below.

 

From Ellen Otto: Re: the Akron City Club Seafood Sauce … I, too, had spoken with Russ Vernon at West Point Market about finding it (the Diable Sauce) and he told me as well that it is no longer made.  I make the sauce and just omit the Diable Sauce.  It is still pretty good, but I think using some anchovies could be great.  I’m going to try that.

Dear Ellen: Thanks for the idea.

French Onion Soup from Scratch

Dear Friends,

In addition to me, there are two foodies in my family – my niece,  Heidi, and my nephew-in-law, Phillip. Heidi has been at it for years (her cakes look professional), but Phillip is just starting to explore cooking. I love his enthusiasm and envy the discoveries that are yet to come.

Remember the first time you tasted French onion soup and wondered whether you could make it at home from scratch? I was reminded of that when Phillip shot me this email: “My next mission is French onion soup…in a bread bowl. Any tips for either of those things?”

As a restaurant critic in the early 1980s, when “Continental” cuisine was still rampant, I ate dozens if not hundreds of bowls of French onion soup. The ones I remember most fondly are those I ate in France and California and, of course, the ones I made at home.

I learned that homemade stock is essential for great onion soup, and that the sliced onions must be caramelized (cooked long and slowly) before adding them to the pot. Nice but not essential is toasting the crowning croute in the oven until bone-dry so it floats long enough to hold up the cap of cheese. And I learned that the cheese (Gruyere, not mozzarella) should be shredded rather than sliced so that the melted cheese may be spooned up more easily.

The most surprising thing I discovered, though, after downing all those bowls of beefy soup, is that French onion soup sometimes is made with chicken stock rather than beef. After tasting a bowl at a French restaurant in Los Angeles once, I actually came to prefer the chicken version.

It’s easier, too. Although homemade stock is better, a credible version may be made with canned chicken broth. My favorite recipe, from “Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells, is below, followed by Julia Child’s comprehensive beefy version from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

About that bread  bowl: Just buy soup bowl-sized  round loaves of sturdy bread such as sourdough and cut one-half-inch off the tops.  Hollow the middle, leaving one-half inch of bread  around the walls. Brush the insides with melted butter or olive oil and bake the empty bread bowls at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. This will help prevent the soup from soaking through the bread too quickly. If you plan to fill the bread bowls with Julia Child’s soup, skip the 20 minutes of baking at the end and just melt the cheese topping under the broiler.

SOUPE L’OIGNON PIED DE COCHON
(From “Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells)

  • 1 very large white onion (not sweet), thinly sliced (about 6 cups, Jane estimates)
  • 2 cups dry white wine such as Chardonnay
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 6 slices crusty baguette
  • 2 cups freshly grated imported French or Swiss Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine the onion, wine and butter in a 9-by-12-inch baking pan and braise uncovered in the oven until the onion is very soft and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Remove onions from oven and increase the temperature to broil.

Meanwhile, bring the stock to a simmer in a large saucepan.

Evenly distribute onions among six deep, round soup bowls. Pour in the simmering stock. Place a round of bread on top of each. Evenly top with the grated cheese. Place soup bowls on a baking sheet and slide under the broiler. Broil just until the cheese is melted and nicely gratineed (browned), 2 or 3 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.


SOUPE A L’OIGNON GRATINEE

From “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”

  • 1 1/2 lbs. (about 5 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. sugar
  • 3 tbsp. flour
  • 2 quarts boiling beef stock
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
  • Salt, pepper to taste
  • 3 tbsp. cognac
  • 2 oz. Swiss (Gruyere) cheese, cut into very thin slivers
  • 1 tbsp. grated raw onion
  • Rounds of hard-toasted French bread Croutes; see below)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Swiss (Gruyere) cheese
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil or melted butter

Croutes:

  • 12 to 16 slices of French bread, 1-inch thick
  • Olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, cut

Combine onions, butter and oil in a heavy, 4-quart saucepan. Cover and cook slowly for 15 minutes. Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep golden brown. Sprinkle in flour and stir for 3 minutes.

Off heat, blend in the boiling beef stock. Add wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.

For the Croutes: Place bread in one layer in a roasting pan and bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes, until thoroughly dried out and lightly browned. Halfway through baking, each side may be basted with a teaspoon of olive oil; and after baking, each slice may be rubbed with cut garlic.

Just before serving, preheat oven to 325 degrees and bring the soup to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the cognac. Pour soup into six to eight individual soup pots. Stir in the slivered cheese and raw onion. Float the rounds of toast on top of the soup and top with the grated cheese. Sprinkle with the oil or butter. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes, then brown for a minute or two under a boiler. Serve immediately.


HELP YOU COOK

Those adept at chopsticks should consider buying a set of jumbo chopsticks at an Asian grocery store. They’re one of the handiest tools in the kitchen. My Japanese in-laws keep a set of foot-long chopsticks by the stove and use them to stir soups, lift foods from water or broth, turn chops and chicken while frying, and on and on. A set of long tongs is almost as useful for those who haven’t mastered the technique.


THE MAILBAG

From Cindy:
Regarding grapefruit and drug interactions — I take statin drugs, so took to heart the popular warning not to indulge my love of all things grapefruit. That was until I spoke to my doctor about the particulars of my drug interaction risks. With his guidance, I am able to enjoy a small grapefruit (or half of a larger fruit) for breakfast every few days during their season because I take my drug in the evening. However, I am to avoid grapefruit juice because of the volume of the problem compound in a 6-ounce or larger glass. Please recommend that grapefruit lovers ask their doctors for specific advice before giving up this delight entirely. I am ever so glad I did.

Dear Cindy: Thank you so much for this information. Grapefruit lovers – talk to your doctor before giving up this seasonal pleasure.

From Jane Schopper:
My husband and I have lived in Texas for over 30 years but grew
up in the Akron area.  I wondered if you by any chance have the Bavarian Haus recipe for Pork a la Bavarian?  I see where the
sauerkraut ball recipe is in your book.  I’ve been using one from a
long-closed Chicago restaurant for years that is excellent, but I’ll give the Bavarian House one a try.  Thanks for your response and happy eating!

Dear Jane: Sauerkraut balls in Chicago? I thought they were purely local. Sorry, but I don’t have the pork recipe you’re seeking. If someone who does have the recipe sees this and shares, I’ll pass it along.

From Fran:
My favorite thing at the Akron City Club was the house salad. The light dressing and cheese topping were great but not filling.  Any chance of getting the dressing recipe? Thanks.

Dear Fran: We can ask. If anyone has that recipe, would you share?

From Becky R.:
I would love to have a recipe for Dirty Rice (mentioned in last week’s newsletter). Whenever I’m in the mood, I have to pick up a box at the store; homemade would be so much  better.

Dear Becky: As I wrote last week, Paul Prudhomme’s recipe is the gold standard. On his website, www.chefpaul.com, the New Orleans chef writes, “This recipe was named not for real dirt but for all the little bits of ground meat that give it its color. If I had to list the dishes in my very favorite meal, this wonderful Louisiana specialty would definitely be included…”

Here’s the version I use (he has several), from his first cookbook, “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”:


DIRTY RICE

Seasoning mix:

  • 2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

Rice:

  • 2 tbsp. chicken fat or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 lb. chicken gizzards, ground
  • 1/4 lb. ground pork
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped green bell peppers
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/3 lb. chicken livers, ground
  • 3/4 cup uncooked converted rice

Combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Place fat or oil, gizzards, pork and bay leaves in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat; cook until meat is thoroughly browned, about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the seasoning mix, then add the onions, celery, bell peppers and garlic; stir thoroughly, scraping pan bottom well. Add the butter and stir until melted.

Reduce heat to medium and cook about 8 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping pan bottom well. Add the stock and stir until any mixture sticking to the pan bottom comes loose; cook about 8 minutes over high heat, stirring once.

Stir in the chicken livers and cook about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir well. Cover pan, reduce heat to very low and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat and leave covered until rice is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and serve immediately.

Makes 6 side-dish servings.