December 30, 2015

Dear West Point Market,

You were my first love. For years you were my only love, until lesser stores began glamming up, making cheating on you more convenient. But I’ll never forget those heady days of my early love affair with fine food and with you.

I remember you before the 1988 expansion, when a bulbous jar of wrinkled Nicoise olives sat atop the meat case, wordless announcement that this was no ordinary grocery store. In Akron, Ohio, I marveled, I could make authentic salade Nicoise!

Before I became the Beacon Journal’s food writer in 1984, I worried that I wasn’t chic enough or important enough to shop your aisles. People actually dressed up to visit. I overheard discussions at work about the outfits my West Akron friends encountered in the store. Would a bouncer usher me out for wearing tennis shoes and a track suit?

What a laugh. Russ Vernon, the charming owner, put everyone at ease, like the genial host of a party. He fielded questions about unfamiliar foods as if he lived for the opportunity, and carried groceries to cars alongside the bag boys.

Once when I was 34 and a callow California Cellars fan, I scraped together $100 to blow on wine. Russ did not laugh when I asked him to help me select a case – a case! — of reds that would age well. He spent an hour doing exactly that, with the best bargain wines I’ve ever tasted.

I became a West Point regular and cherished the times Russ would round up three or four of us to follow him downstairs to taste some new items crowding his desk. Or he would excitedly open a bottle of wine and pour sips, a gleam in his eye. He didn’t just sell fine food, he was obsessed with it, and sought out those of us who were likewise afflicted.

Saturday I waited outside your doors, fourth in line in a swelling throng of your former lovers. If we had been more constant, you would not be selling your imported butters and triple-crème St. Andre cheese at half price in preparation for your demise.

The thick line roped around the side of the building before heading north through the parking lot to the back fence. By noon the line extended through the east parking lot almost to Hawkins Avenue.

I remember that parking lot in happier times. In 1988 it was filled with white tents, waiters and Perrier Jouet Champagne to celebrate the 10,500-foot expansion, making it the largest specialty foods store in the country. I felt lucky to have gotten an invitation to the party.

I remember the annual free breakfasts in the parking lot, and many summer days when the aroma of brats wafted from outdoor grills.

On Saturday when the doors opened the half-crazed crowd dashed through the store. I wandered into the cheese department and was studying a box of crackers when Russ’ son, Rick Vernon, wished me a Merry Christmas.

I’m going to try to do this without crying,” I said.
“Me, too,” he responded.

Turns out I wasn’t in the mood for bargains. Bags of pasta were snatched from under my nose and I was pushed and prodded in the tea aisle. I had harvested a mere tin of smoked paprika, a couple of tubs of cheese spread and a container of sliced almonds when I eyed the throng at the meat case and gave up.

This was no way to say goodbye. I will do that later with a bottle of Champagne and a good cry. For now, I’ll just thank you, West Point, for some of the most magical hours of my life. And thank you, Russ, for sharing and stoking my passion.

TIDBITS

I finally got around to eating at Sushi Asian Gourmet, the fairly new restaurant on Portage Path in the Merriman Valley, in the revolving-door property that has held at least a half-dozen restaurants beginning with G.D. Ritzy’s.

Asian Gourmet has a little sushi bar and Vietnamese and Thai items on the menu, but go for the Chinese food – specifically, the Szechuan. The chef is from Szechuan province, the owner says.

I believe it, because the Szechuan eggplant with pork that I had for lunch was absolutely tremendous. I will dream about it. I can’t wait to go back and order it again.

My husband, a pho fanatic, says his bowl of soup and noodles didn’t taste especially Vietnamese, but the broth was good and stocked with plenty of good-quality beef that had little fat or gristle. It came with the required selection of herbs and lime wedges to add to the broth.

For more information about the restaurant, including hours, go to http://www.sushiasiagourmet.com and click on “contact.”

THE MAILBAG

From Pat Simons, Hudson:
I recently made Scottish Millionaire Shortbread.  Adopting a Glasgow recipe, I used McEvities biscuit crust for the base, which is a good alternative to shortbread and tasty. However, I tried their method of boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk (2 hours then cooled, making dolce de leche) for the center.  Tasty but it oozed everywhere.

The center layer in the final product should be soft but a bit different from the consistency and taste of melted Kraft caramels or jarred caramel sauce.  Wondered if you have a recipe for a center that is soft but not oozing.

Dear Pat: I don’t, but I do know you should not boil an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk. It could explode. Open, transfer the contents to a pan, and simmer it until golden brown.

Maybe canned dolce de leche, sold in Mexican food markets, would be thicker than homemade.

From Carol Whidden:
The microwave pecan brittle (in last week’s newsletter) is a hit with our friends. They keep munching away! A great recipe to round out the cookie plate! Could you send me the duck with olives recipe? I have a duck waiting in the freezer for a special occasion. Thanks for all your good recipes and hints over the years.

Dear Carol:

DUCK WITH OLIVES CHEZ ALLARD

(“Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells)

1⁄4 tsp. fennel seeds
12 parsley stems
8 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. thyme
2 tbsp. rendered chicken fat (or 1 tbsp. oil and 1 tbsp. butter)
2 lb. chicken wings or backs
1 duck (4 to 6 lbs.), cleaned and trussed, neck and gizzards reserved
Salt, pepper
3 medium yellow onions, minced
1 1/2 tbsp. flour
2 quarts chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
1⁄3 cup tomato paste
1/2 lb. brine-cured, pitted green olives
2 tbsp. butter

Put fennel, parsley, peppercorns, bay leaf, and thyme on a 4-inch square piece of cheesecloth, double thickness. Bring up corners and tie with kitchen string to make a bouquet garni; set aside.

Heat chicken fat or butter and oil in a heavy, 8-qt. pot over medium-high heat. Add chicken pieces and reserved duck neck and gizzards, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, 8 minutes. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add bouquet garni, stock, and wine. Stir in tomato paste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer uncovered for 2 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a non-reactive saucepan.

Meanwhile, bring a quart of water to boil in a saucepan. Add olives and boil over high heat for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse olives under cold water; set aside. The sauce may be made to this point up to a day in advance and refrigerated. Spoon off the fat before continuing. Add olives to the sauce and simmer uncovered over medium-low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 475 degrees. Pierce duck skin all over with a knife. Rub with butter. Place breast side down on a rack in a roasting pan filled with a half-inch of water. Roast for 30 minutes.

Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Continue cooking about 1 hour longer, until skin is crisp and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of a thigh (without touching the bone) reads 160 degrees. Transfer to a platter and let rest for 20 minutes.

To serve, carve duck and arrange on a platter.
Surround the meat with the olives and sauce.

Serves 8.

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December 16, 2015

Dear friends,

It’s mid-December, time to bake like a maniac or give up and buy your holiday goodies. Or you could do neither. You could sail through the late-baking panic with ridiculously simple recipes like this: Stir together a cup of Nutella, 2 eggs and 2/3 cup flour. Spoon into muffin pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

My friend Kathi Purvis of the Charlotte Observer has written a Christmas treats story for people like me.
It’s a genius compilation of recipes and tips for last-minute bits of heaven like the above Nutella Brownie Bites. The recipes are, as she puts it, “… the sweet spot between slice-and-bake Santas and full-on Martha creations.”
Even those organized sorts who start baking and freezing in October may find a cookie or candy they can’t resist among her selection. In addition to the recipe above, Kathi gives directions for making no-fuss Sea Salt Chocolate Wafers, Pretzel Peanut Butterscotch Bark, Microwave Pecan Brittle, Sweet and Salty Thin Mints, Tiger Butter and Peppermint Sandwich Cookies.

They all sound good, and got me thinking about the quick-fix Christmas treats I’ve come across or dreamed up over the years. I remember once creating eight cookie recipes from two kinds of purchased dough. A favorite was date bars made by kneading oats into sugar cookie dough for the crust and crumbled topping, and sandwiching with purchased date filling.

If you’re a laggard like me, you could probably use that recipe about now. I’m sharing it along with two of Kathi’s recipes. Her remaining recipes can be found at http://www.charlotteobserver.com/living/food-drink/article48458670.html#storylink=cpy. Now get baking.

NUTELLA BROWNIE BITES
•    1 cup Nutella
•    2 eggs
•    2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Line a mini-muffin pan with liners. Beat all the ingredients until smooth. Fill lined muffin pan and bake 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Optional: Press a pecan half or a half of a maraschino cherry in each before baking.
Makes about 32.

The following recipe is from “Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook,” by Kathleen Purvis. It has more ingredients but takes hardly any time to make. Kathi writes, “The bowl will get hot, so make sure you have oven mitts. Once you add the baking soda, you need to spread the brittle quickly. Make sure you have the pan prepared before you start.”

MICROWAVE PECAN BRITTLE
•    1/2 cup light corn syrup
•    1 cup sugar
•    1 1/2 cups pecan halves
•    1 tsp. unsalted butter
•    1 tsp. vanilla extract
•    1/4 tsp. salt
•    1 tsp. baking soda

Spray a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray. Set aside.

Combine corn syrup and sugar in a 1 1/2-quart microwave-safe mixing bowl. Stir to blend.

Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Carefully remove from microwave and stir in the nuts. Return to microwave and cook for 4-6 minutes on high, until the sugar is light brown. (The time will depend on the wattage of your microwave. Keep an eye on it, and stop if the nuts start to smell burned.) Stir in the butter.

JANE’S QUICK DATE BARS
•    1 1/2 cups sugar cookie dough (refrigerated supermarket brand or homemade)
•    Hot water
•    1 cup quick-cooking oats
•    1/2 cup canned, commercial date filling
Place dough in a bowl. If dry, sprinkle with a few drops of hot water and knead until pliable. Knead in oats. Press half of dough into the bottom of a buttered, 9-inch-square baking pan. Spread date filling over dough. Crumble remaining dough over filling. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, until topping is golden brown.

If using commercial dough, use three-fourths of a 20-ounce log.

Raspberry-oatmeal bars: Make the same way as for date bars, but substitute one-half cup raspberry jam for the date filling. Sift powdered sugar over the top of the warm bars.

HELP U COOK

Onion juice can help prevent the grated potatoes in your latke batter from darkening. Because both are grated for latkes, an easy way to coat the potatoes is to alternate potatoes and onions on the same grater.

TIDBITS

I love those best-of-the-year lists, especially ones about cookbooks. (Snack lists: not so much. Cinnamon-maple chickpeas? Really?)

Anyway, the big question for consumers is not how to rate cookbooks but how to rate the raters. Who to trust? After years of reading cookbook reviews (and writing a few myself), I am partial to the best-of list from the Chicago Tribune.

Why? Because the reviewers in East and West Coast cities are likelier to get caught up in which author is hot and which publisher or agent or editor on the cocktail circuit shepherded through which book. In other words, too much inside baseball.

Besides, I think Midwestern writers are more cognizant of what the majority of Americans want in a cookbook. And most important, the writers and editors at the Chicago Tribune have a policy of testing at least three recipes from a book before reviewing it.

Prominent on the list – and every other cookbook list I’ve seen so far – is Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. I’ve heard a lot about this book and have even tried some of the recipes because my friend, Nancy, is smitten with Kenji and bought one of the first copies off the press. The 1000-page tome is filled not only with interesting recipes, but explanation of how ingredients and techniques work. Also on the list:

• “United States of Pizza” by Craig Priebe with Dianne Jacob;
• “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations” by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman;
• “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali;
• “Asian-American: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from the Philippines to Brooklyn” by Dale Talde and J.J. Goode;
• “Mastering Sauces” by Susan Volland;
• “The Violet Bakery Cookbook” by Claire Ptak;
• “A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen” by Dora Charles;
• “Made in India” by Meera Sodha; and
• “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix”

THE MAILBAG
Write to me or you will get coal in your stocking!

Please note: If your email address changes, you must re-subscribe to my newsletter in order to continue receiving it. We are unable to change the address for you in  our email list. The procedure is easy. Just click on the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of a newsletter. Then go to  http://www.janesnowtoday.com, to sign up under your new address. Thank you.

Please tell your friends about my blog site (https://janesnowtoday.wordpress.com/), where you can find not only each week’s newsletter but archives of past newsletters.

December 4, 2015

Dear friends,

This is the hardest season of the year for me in the kitchen. Making Christmas cookies has been a holiday tradition for as long as I can remember, but lately I have sworn off sugar. Usually I find an excuse to make cookies for someone else – my sister, my brother or friends. Last year it was my in-laws in Japan, who are in failing health. The year before it was my brother, whose wife was in the hospital. The year before that it was my sister, who is a teacher and was too busy to bake.

Although I’ve racked my brains, I can’t come up with an excuse this year. That’s OK. I’ll start baking and an excuse will materialize. If not, I’ll have to eat a whole batch of chocolate-fig biscotti and that would be a shame.

I’ve already eaten about a quarter of a batch thanks to my friend, Nancy, who toted them along when she brought her dog, Bosco, for a play date. (I must mention that a friend of hers calls Bosco “Young Ovaltine.” I love that.)

Anyway, not only does “chocolate-fig biscotti” sound ritzy, the cookies taste wonderful. The chocolate and dried fig play off each other, amplifying the flavor of each.

CHOCOLATE-FIG BISCOTTI

JANE FOOD

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup diced dried figs

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together butter and sugar until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and beat to combine. Add dry ingredients and beat until dough comes together (it will be dry) then mix in figs.

Divide dough into two equal pieces. Form each piece into a 12- by 2- inch log and place on baking sheets.

Bake until cooked through but still soft, about 30 minutes.

When cool enough to handle, use a serrated knife to cut biscotti into 3/4-inch thick pieces. Place back on baking sheet and bake until dry and toasted, about another 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. From Serious Eats.

HELP U COOK

Northeast Ohio is a hotbed of fudge-making at Christmas time, and almost everyone has not only a favorite flavor but a favorite texture. Do you like your fudge soft and creamy or shiny and firm? Ingredients have little to do with the texture. The way you beat the cooked sugar mixture causes the sugar crystals to align in certain ways, producing different textures. If you want soft, creamy fudge, let the mixture cool to 122 degrees (from the 240-degree soft ball stage) before beating. If you like it firm and shiny, beat it while hot.

THE MAILBAG

From Dorothy G.:
Jane, not to be funny, maybe I am the only one, but pumpkin is only for pumpkin pies (Note: and I think they feed it to pigs, too!). My mother made pumpkin soup (probably from her younger days in Europe). I never would eat it. But enjoy your holiday and your pumpkin cheesecake.

Dear Dorothy: I enjoyed my pumpkin cheesecake to the max, thank you, but I can understand your reticence. When I took the cheesecake to a Halloween party once, a friend from France wouldn’t touch it. She explained that pumpkin was considered a vegetable where she grew up, and to her, “it would be like eating a broccoli cheesecake.”

I’m more broadminded in my tastes. I eat pumpkin every which way, from roasted cubes with butter to pumpkin polenta to pumpkin cakes, custards and pies. Bring it on.

From Robin, Creston:
My daughter is working on a project for her senior Spanish class. She has been assigned the country of Nicaragua and will be giving a presentation on the culture, tradition and food of that country. Do you know of any restaurants that serve or specialize in Nicaraguan food in the area? While she can easily go online and get recipes, etc., she thought it would be especially fun to go to a restaurant that specializes in that food. While we are short on time, I thought you might be an excellent source to determine if there are any area restaurants. It sure sounds like a fun field trip if the option exists! Thanks so much!

Dear Robin: As close as I can get you is an El Salvadoran and Columbian restaurant, El Arepazo Y Pupuseria, in Fairview Park. Does anyone else know of a Nicaraguan restaurant in Northeast Ohio?

From Suzanne Allen:
Reading See Jane Cook makes my day. And it would make my week, perhaps month, if you could remember a recipe for an appetizer (dip) you served years ago. It was a pomegranate, olive, bread crumb tapenade-like dip that used a pomegranate-infused balsamic vinegar (perhaps?). I just remember it was fabulous and now in pomegranate season, it’s all I can think of. So now my question is, can you think of it, too?

Dear Suzanne: I’m happy to say my memory has not totally deserted me. The recipe you crave is from Kitty Crider of the Austin American-Statesman, who found it in “New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan. Kitty published it as one of her favorite recipes before her retirement in 2008. The dip is Middle Eastern – perhaps Syrian, she says. The pomegranate “vinegar” you recall is actually pomegranate syrup, a staple of Arab cooking.

PEPPER, POMEGRANATE AND WALNUT DIP (MAHAMMAR)
2 red bell peppers, piths and seeds removed, quartered
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Dash of cayenne
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. pomegranate syrup (See note.)
1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries
2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup chopped black Greek-style olives, optional
Toasted pita bread

Put the peppers and garlic in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until the peppers are in little pieces.

Add the walnuts, bread crumbs, cayenne pepper and salt and pulse a few times until the walnuts are processed but still have some crunch to them.

Stir in the olive oil and pomegranate syrup. Adjust the seasonings and gently fold in the fresh pomegranate seeds (or dried cranberries), mint and olives.

Place in a serving bowl with a small spoon, accompanied by toasted pita bread or chips for dippers. Makes 2 cups.

Note: Pomegranate syrup is available in Middle Eastern stores.
Please note: If your email address changes, you must re-subscribe to my newsletter in order to continue receiving it. We are unable to change the address for you in  our email list. The procedure is easy. Just click on the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of a newsletter. Then go to  http://www.janesnowtoday.com, to sign up under your new address. Thank you.

Please tell your friends about my blog site (https://janesnowtoday.wordpress.com/), where you can find not only each week’s newsletter but archives of past newsletters.