December 31, 2014

Dear friends,

The flu got me.  Just a couple of hours after I plunked a glorious pot roast on the table in front of my brother and sister-in-law Sunday, I went to bed with a box of tissues and a bottle of Nyquil.

For this week’s newsletter I intended to retry and tinker with a curry recipe from a new cookbook I got for Christmas, but I have barely enough energy to make tea. Forgive me. I’ll be back in form next week. Meanwhile, here’s my favorite pot roast recipe. I’ve printed it before, but a repeat is warranted, flu or not.

Those new to the recipe shouldn’t be put off by the dill pickle spears. They add an acidic note to the rich sour cream gravy. You may eat them or not. Personally, I think the cooked pickles are delicious.

PENNSYLVANIA POT ROAST
1 blade pot roast, 2 inches thick (3 to 5 lbs.)
Salt, pepper, paprika, flour
1/2 lb. bacon, diced
4 to 6 dill pickle spears
1 large onion, sliced
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 cup water
1/2 cup sour cream

Rub pot roast all over with salt, pepper, paprika and flour. Fry diced bacon in a Dutch oven until crisp. Remove bacon with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but three tablespoons of bacon fat.

Brown pot roast in remaining bacon fat. Add pickles and onion slices. Stir in tomato sauce and water.

Cover and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, adding water if needed. Liquid should come halfway up the side of the roast.

When meat is tender, remove to a platter. Add bacon bits to broth. Stir in sour cream and heat gently. Pass sauce in a gravy boat.
HELP U COOK

As the year ends, it’s out with the old and in with the new. But while you’re sweeping your life clean, don’t go crazy with your spice cabinet. Although many “experts” recommend pitching dried herbs and spices that are more than a year old, I think that’s insane, especially given the number of jars and plastic baggies in my double-wide spice storage area. Here’s my guide to spice storage:

Buy as many spices as possible in whole form because they remain fresh indefinitely. I keep a miniature grater in the spice cabinets next to a bag of whole nutmeg, which I bought at least five years ago. Buying spices such as cumin, cardamom and cloves in seed or whole form is less convenient, but you could grind them in an electric spice grinder if desired. Some recipes call for whole spices, so it’s smart to keep the ones you use a lot on hand. Remember, you need never throw them away.

Pre-ground spices and dried herbs do lose potency over time and if I were the mistress of Downton Abbey I would have the cook dispose of them after one year. I can’t afford such wanton waste, though, so I just use more of the spice or herb if, after tasting, I think a dish requires it. I would buy fresh spices and dried herbs only when a recipe is so wonderful and time-consuming to make that using old ingredients would be foolish.

THE MAILBAG

From Ellen:
I have my bread dough for your cranberry-raisin-pecan bread proofing for its overnight stint, but it took almost 2 cups of water to make the dough cohesive.  I’m hoping you meant 2 cups rather than the 1 cup you said you used.

Took while to get all those little ‘goodies’ incorporated, too.

Dear Ellen: I’m glad you realized I had goofed, and I hope others did, too because the bread is delicious. My directions called for 1 3/4 cups water. I should have noted that I used almost 2 cups water to produce a sticky dough. Even that amount could be too much or too little, though, depending on how the flour measures on any given day.

A tip on incorporating the dried fruits and nuts: The last time I made the bread, I stirred in the goodies while adding the water, which was much easier than waiting until the dough was mixed.

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December 23, 2014

Dear friends,

This is for all of my eggnog-deprived kindred who have sworn off that velvety-rich, nutmeg-scented cup ‘o cellulite we crave this time of year.

Remember those halcyon days before you found out the stuff has about 350 calories per cup? Remember those devil-may-care years when you knew but drank it anyway because calories slid right off your hips? And remember the January you swore off eggnog when the waistband of your pants threatened to bob you like the tail of a dog?

Me, too. That’s why, like an alchemist trying to turn lead into gold, I’ve spent years trying to turn skim milk into silky, rich eggnog. I actually succeeded once in making a decent skim-milk version of Starbucks’ eggnog latte but lost the recipe. I’ve printed several recipes for skim-milk eggnog and some were OK, but no cigar.

Last week I tried again and produced an eggnog that may put the merry back in Christmas. As in the past I used sugar-free instant pudding to create a thick, rich texture, and lots of vanilla extract and rum flavoring to make up for the eggs I omitted. I also was free with fresh-ground nutmeg, a spice I love.

A new ingredient in this year’s version is a drop of yellow food coloring. Don’t judge. It gave the eggnog a golden ivory color that helped trick my mind into thinking I was sipping the hi-cal stuff.

I think this is my final, perfected version of sugar-free, low-fat eggnog. With its luxurious texture, copy-cat flavor and just 115 calories a cup – not much more than skim milk by itself – I’ll be drinking a lot of this. Ho, ho, ho.

JANE’S SKINNY EGGNOG
•    4 cups nonfat milk
•    1 box (1 oz.) sugar-free white chocolate instant pudding mix
•    1 tbsp. vanilla extract
•    2 tbsp. rum flavoring
•    1/2 tsp. fresh-grated nutmeg plus more for garnish
•    2 tbsp. Splenda Granulated or other sweetener to taste
•    1 scant drop of yellow food coloring
Combine all ingredients in deep bowl or pitcher and whisk for about 2 minutes to dissolve pudding mix and sweetener. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or until flavors have developed and mixture is slightly thickened. Stir again before pouring into glasses or mugs. Top each portion with a spoonful of sugar-free whipped topping, if desired, and a pinch of nutmeg. Makes 4 servings.

Per 1-cup serving: 115 calories.
MORE NOG

Here’s an eggnog recipe for those who are still in their calories-be-damned years, or who can drink just a smidgen of eggnog and be satisfied, or who have simply given up. The eggnog base is cooked to eliminate potential salmonella bacteria present in some uncooked eggs.

CLASSIC COOKED EGGNOG
•    6 eggs
•    1/4 cup sugar
•    Pinch of nutmeg
•    4 cups milk
•    Rum (optional)

In a saucepan combine the eggs, sugar, nutmeg and 2 cups of the milk. Stir over medium-low heat until the mixture registers 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Do not boil or the eggs will scramble. Chill, then stir in 2 cups cold milk and rum, if desired. Ladle into cups and top with a pinch of nutmeg. Makes 6 servings.
HELP U COOK

Here are three recipes to help you put Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner on the table.
How to cook a ham:

Most hams sold in supermarkets are labeled “fully cooked” and in theory may be eaten directly from the wrapper. But you’ll want to cook it anyway to bring out the flavor and kill any lingering bacteria. First, cut off any tough skin. If the ham has a thick layer of fat, cut off all but 1/4 inch. Bake it in an uncovered pan (add a small amount of ginger ale or other liquid if desired) at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes per pound, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Glaze, if used, should be brushed on the ham in the last 30 minutes of cooking. Otherwise, the sugar in the glaze may burn.
How to cook a standing rib roast:

HERBED ROAST BEEF IN SALT CRUST
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated onion
1 tsp. garlic salt
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 beef rib roast, 4 to 6 lbs.
1 (3-lb.) box Morton Coarse Kosher Salt
1  1/4 cups water

Combine oil, onion, garlic salt, basil, marjoram, thyme and pepper in a heavy plastic bag. Mix well. Add roast; coat well with marinade. Marinate in refrigerator 2 hours or overnight. (Marinating is optional; if desired, eliminate this step, along with the marinade ingredients). Line a roasting pan with foil. Combine coarse kosher salt and water to form a thick slush. Pat 1 cup of mixture into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle in pan. Pat roast dry with paper towels. Insert meat thermometer.

Place roast on salt layer. Sprinkle roast with a thin layer of the salt mixture, then pack remaining salt mixture around meat. Some of the salt may fall off the ends; this won’t affect the final product. Place roast in a 425-degree oven and roast 16 to 18 minutes per pound for rare (140 degrees), 20 to 22 minutes per pound for medium (160 degrees) or 25 to 30 minutes for well done (170 degrees). Remove roast when thermometer registers 5 degrees below desired doneness.

Let roast stand 5 to 10 minutes in salt crust. To remove crust, you may need to use a hammer. After removing crust, whisk away any remaining salt crystals on roast with a pastry brush. Makes 8 to 12 servings.

Note: Use a roast that is at least 4 pounds. Smaller roasts will overcook before the crust hardens. For larger roasts, cooking time will not be much longer than for smaller roasts. Use a meat thermometer. Use only coarse kosher salt, not table salt or rock salt.

My favorite cold-weather vegetable dish:

WINTER VEGETABLE HASH
•    1 small celery root, 3/4 lb. (2 3/4 cups diced)
•    1 large turnip, 1/2 lb. (1 3/4 cup diced)
•    1 lb. parsnips (3 1/2 cups diced)
•    2 medium carrots (1 1/4 cups diced)
•    1 medium potato (1 cup diced)
•    2 cloves minced garlic
•    1/2 cup chopped onion
•    3 tbsp. olive oil
•    Sea salt
•    1 tsp. dried thyme
•    1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
•    1/4 cup white wine vinegar

With a good-quality vegetable peeler, peel vegetables. Cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes. Combine in a large bowl with garlic and onion and mix well.

Heat olive oil in a large, deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Add diced vegetables and sauté for 15 minutes, turning occasionally with a spatula. Stir in salt, thyme and rosemary. Add vinegar and toss with the vegetables, turning rapidly with a spatula until vinegar has evaporated.

Place pan of vegetables in an oven preheated to 350 degrees. Roast for 45 minutes, or until vegetables are soft and top begins to brown. Serves 6 to 8.

A HEATFELT THANK YOU

The Mailbag will return next week, but I want to use the space this week to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. Tony and I have had a happy and peaceful year and that’s what I wish for you, along with joy to balance the rough spots. Thank you for your continued interest in this newsletter.

December 10, 2014

Dear friends,

Once a month three women and I gather around a table (usually mine) to discuss the books we are writing. My friend Lin Amstutz and I started the group about five or six years ago. I wanted to hear how others were dealing with agents and self-imposed deadlines. Also, I needed a kick in the pants to get going on a second book.

Except for an editor I had worked for, Lin and I barely knew the authors we invited to join us, and in fact barely knew each other then. We didn’t know whether the personalities would mesh or whether the shared advice would be valuable; we all were writing very different types of books.

It’s safe to say our writers’ group has been a success. The women have become dear to me and are indispensable to my work. I know they feel the same way. When Lin moved to France last spring, we mourned.

We have resisted turning these hours-long meetings into social occasions, but it’s difficult. We spend more and more time catching up on personal news. The snacks have become more and more plenteous. Occasionally – when Lin left, when the holidays near – someone will break out a bottle of wine.

I have been a holdout, trying to keep the agenda focused on our writing, but this week I caved and served a little holiday lunch. Little but lovely, I think. Knowing my friends would load the table with cookies, I served soup and a cracker. The soup, described by a reader who had had a similar soup in a restaurant, was Potato-Parmesan Truffle and the cracker was a Crispy Frico, or Parmesan crisp.

The smooth, rich soup with a gentle echo of Parmesan cheese was easy to make and fits the reader’s description. I patterned the recipe on Julia Child’s potato-leek soup, swapping onions for the leeks, replacing some of the water with chicken broth, and adding grated Parmesan at the end of cooking. Just before serving, I swirled a half-teaspoon of truffle oil into each portion.

The salty-crisp frico was a crunchy counterpoint to the smooth soup. The crisps are made by spooning tablespoons of grated Parmesan onto a lightly oiled baking sheet and baking for 10 minutes. That’s it. Although they are fragile fresh from the oven, don’t wait for them to cool and firm up to remove them from baking sheet because they’ll stick like glue.

Both the soup and the crisps may be made a day in advance, although the cheese and truffle oil shouldn’t be added until just before serving. After cooling, the Parmesan crisps may be stored in an airtight container, separated by squares of waxed paper.

POTATO-PARMESAN SOUP WITH TRUFFLE OIL

  • 1 ½ to 2 lbs. peeled and diced potatoes (about 5 medium potatoes or 4 cups)
  • 2 cup diced yellow onion
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. softened butter
  • ¼ cup half and half or cream
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4 tsp. truffle oil
  • Parsley leaves for garnish

Place potatoes, onion, water, chicken broth and salt in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 40 to 50 minutes, until vegetables are very tender and liquid has reduced by about one-fourth. Puree soup until smooth with a stick blender or in batches in a food processor. Taste and add more salt if needed. Return to medium heat and stir in butter and cream. Soup may be made to this point and refrigerated.

Just before serving, warm soup over medium heat. When hot, add cheese and stir until cheese has mostly melted. Ladle into bowls and swirl ½ teaspoon truffle oil into each portion. Garnish with a parsley leaf. Serve each with a Crispy Frico (recipe follows). Makes 8 servings.

CRISPY FRICO

(Parmesan crisps)

  • ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese (use the large holes of a box grater)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Very lightly oil a large baking sheet. Place heaping tablespoons of the Parmesan on the sheet about 2 inches apart. Flatten and slightly spread the cheese into rounds. Bake at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until the Parmesan is bubbly and a light golden brown. Remove from oven and immediately transfer the fragile crisps to a wire rack with a spatula. When completely cool, store in an airtight container, separated by squares of waxed paper. Makes 8.

TIDBITS

Last week a Virginia woman won $1 million in this year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off with a cookie/candy concoction of chopped pie crust, peanut butter, white chocolate and toffee bits. It sounded awful until I saw the photo at http://www.pillsbury.com/recipes/peanutty-pie-crust-clusters/ba989003-b1dc-4b27-9e9b-c93853f91285. Now I crave it in that embarrassed-I-ate-it kind of way.

This year’s winners were decided by judges’ scores and an Online vote. The only Ohio recipe in the running was a gluten-free ginger cookie from a Columbus cook.

Here’s the winning recipe from Beth Royals of Richmond, Va.

PEANUTTY PIE CRUST CLUSTERS

  • 1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, softened as directed on box
  • 1 12-oz. bag (2 cups) white vanilla baking chips
  • 1 tbsp. butter-flavor vegetable shortening
  • 1 tbsp. Jif® Creamy Peanut Butter
  • 1 cup salted cocktail peanuts
  • 2/3 cup toffee bits

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with waxed paper or parchment.

Unroll pie crust on work surface. With pizza cutter or knife, cut into 16 rows by 16 rows to make small squares. Arrange squares in single layer on large ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 6 to 8 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove squares from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 5 minutes.

In large microwavable bowl, microwave baking chips, shortening and peanut butter uncovered on high power 1 minute to 1 minute 30 seconds, stirring once, until chips can be stirred smooth. Add pie crust squares, peanuts and toffee bits; stir gently until evenly coated. Immediately drop by heaping tablespoonfuls onto lined cookie sheets. (If mixture gets too thick, microwave 15 seconds; stir.) Refrigerate about 15 minutes or until set. Store covered.

THE MAILBAG  

From Jan Cramer, Uniontown:

I made the pear tart for Thanksgiving.  Did up the pears and the dough a day ahead and baked it next morning.  Fantastic.  Best crust ever. I did make two additions:  I toasted a cup of sliced almonds and put them in the pan before the pears so they came out on top.  Also I added about ½ teaspoon of almond extract to the pear mixture.

I am going to try it for company this weeknight using toasted walnuts and apples with a few dried cranberries and a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Re chili beef.   In San Antonio, they sell chili beef in the grocery.  It is a very coarse grind about 80/20 fat.  Bits are about ¼-inch in size.   It makes a wonderful, less soupy chili.  Don’t know if you could get it ground at one of the meat markets here or not.

Dear Jan:

Your additions to the pear tart sound excellent. When you make it with apples, add some vanilla and be sure to use apples that retain their shape during cooking. I always use yellow delicious. The apples may have to be cooked in the syrup longer than the pears. For classic tarte tatin, peeled and cored apple halves are cooked in the butter-sugar mixture for about an hour before baking.

I’m familiar with chili beef. After I wrote about it years ago, one or two local supermarkets said their butchers would grind it to order. That’s back before most beef arrived pre-cut, in cryovac packages. Few supermarkets grind their own hamburger anymore, but I bet butcher shops would do it.

From Debbie Minerich:

With the holidays quickly approaching, I’d like to remind your newsletter readers who are considering an end-of-the-year charitable donation to consider the Jane Snow Fund for Hunger at the Akron Community Foundation. Since I retired nearly two years ago, I’ve volunteered in a local food pantry. While I sincerely enjoy how I spend my time, I am humbled beyond words by this experience. We live in a community where hunger is a daily occurrence, especially in children whose only meals might be consumed during school hours. In addition to Jane’s hunger fund, contributions could be sent to the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank or a multitude of organizations that feed the hungry in the greater Akron area. Thanks and happy Holidays!

Dear Debbie:

Thank you for reminding all of us of the need to help those who are hungry and hurting. Donations to the Jane Snow Fund for Hunger may be made by clicking on this link: Donate to the Jane Snow Hunger Fund. Please designate the Jane Snow Hunger Fund in the appropriate blank.