November 14, 2018

Dear friends,
I saw a bumper sticker last week that I have GOT to get. It said, “I used to be cool.” In truth, though, cool was never my style. I’ve always been one beat too early or too late.

I first visited New York City in the early 70s, when it was horrifyingly filthy and Times Square was a sea of sex shops. Not cool.

I knew South Beach in Miami Beach as an ultra-cheap place to stay while on union business until it was slowly transformed into an ultra-hip location for fashion shoots. By the time my $60 room at the Edison Hotel soared to $250 a night, I was gone.

On the other hand, remember the fascination with Tuscany, which was ragingly hip in the 1990s. I finally got there in 2000.

The only good thing about this trend is that I still hold out hope of getting my hands on a cronut.

With food, I’ve usually been ahead of the curve. I had to be a trend-sniffer in my job, and it was easy when word of almost every new cookbook, menu item and grocery store product landed on my desk.

People are still discovering warm goat cheese salads, for example. I see it on restaurant menus and in magazine food features. I printed a recipe for Alice Waters’ original version in about 1985.The salad is one of the few dishes I didn’t passionately embrace and then discard. It shows up on menus today because it is still cool.

It is also delicious, with just the right heft to ease you into a multi-course dinner. I made the salad for my brother and his wife on Sunday, followed by roast beef with sour cream gravy and my perennially cool sugar-free pumpkin pie for dessert.

Classically, the salad is a lush plate of baby greens centered with a marinated, crumbed disk of goat cheese that has been baked just until it begins to slump. Crisp, thin croutes are served alongside. The warm cheese is spread on the croutes and eaten in rich, alternating bites with the palate-cleansing greens.

Of course, I updated the recipe. From laziness (and because it never seemed to matter), I skipped marinating the inch-thick disks of cheese. I didn’t roll them in crumbs, either. Nor did I dress the greens with French vinaigrette. I subbed a lip-smacking caramelized apple vinaigrette that was as good as it sounds, and scattered toasted walnuts and crumbled bacon over the greens. The vinaigrette was a happy discovery in “The Food52 Cookbook, Volume 2” by Amanda Hesser.

Like the classic warm goat cheese salad, my autumn version is timeless. Still, if I see it on a restaurant menu in 10 years, I’ll scream.

WARM AUTUMN GOAT CHEESE SALAD

6 cups mixed baby salad greens
1/2 of a French baguette, sliced thin
Butter
4 1-inch-thick rounds of chèvre cheese, about 6 oz.
Caramelized apple vinaigrette (recipe follows)
4 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
1/4 cup toasted walnut pieces

Gently wash greens, roll up in a clean kitchen towel and return to refrigerator.
Spread both sides of bread slices with a scant amount of butter. Place on a baking sheet and toast in a 400-degree oven until edges begin to brown and bread is hard. Remove from oven and set aside.

Place cheese rounds on a baking sheet covered with parchment. Bake at 400 degrees just until cheese starts to slump, 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile, transfer greens to a medium-sized bowl and toss with just enough of the dressing to gloss the leaves. Divide among four salad plates. With a thin spatula, transfer cheese rounds from the baking sheet to the center of each plate of greens. Scatter bacon and walnut pieces over salads. Place 3 or 4 baguette croutes on each plate. Makes 4 salads.

CARAMELIZED APPLE VINAIGRETTE
(From “The Food52 Cookbook, Volume II”)
½ cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 Gala apple, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup canola oil

Combine ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons of the vinegar and the brown sugar in a small skillet and cook over medium heat. Stir and cook until the mixture turns a dark caramel color and begins to thicken. You will start to see big foamy bubbles on the surface. Add the apples and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are tender, about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and put in a blender, along with the remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, the thyme, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Whoosh until blended. Then, with the motor running, slowly add the oil, blending until the dressing is emulsified. Taste and season with salt and perhaps a splash more vinegar. Refrigerate unused dressing.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Pan-grilled strip steaks with crushed pepper, butter-roasted baby potato halves, roasted dumpling squash wedges dusted with Parmesan; Szechuan stir fry with tofu, green beans, carrots, bell pepper and scallions over rice; roast chicken thighs withTony’s homemade hot sauce, roast baby potatoes, sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic; warm goat cheese salad, roast beef with sour cream gravy, mashed potatoes, baked butternut squash chunks with dried cranberries and butter, sugar-free pumpkin pies.

What I ate in/from restaurants this week:
A grilled Thanksgiving sandwich of turkey, munster cheese, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pureed butternut squash at Melt in the Montrose area of Bath Township; crispy chicken and bacon salad with warm pita wedges at Alexandris in Wadsworth; pineapple and ham pizza from Rizzi’s in Copley; Greek souvlaki (marinated pork skewers), rice pilaf, coleslaw and half of a pumpkin cookie at Farmer Boy Restaurant in Springfield Township.

THE MAILBAG
From Beth B.:
Brimfield Bread Oven (mentioned last week) also has a stand at the new Countryside Public Market in the Northside Lofts building on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. I’ve enjoyed traveling vicariously with you through France!

Dear Beth:
Thanks. That’s just the push I need to check out the new Akron farmers’ market. More information can be found at http://www.cvcountryside.org/announcements/countryside-public-market-is-now-open.

From Pennie:
Regarding grits/polenta, they are some of my favorite foods. I have had much success with reheating solidified grits and polenta in the microwave. Amazingly, the original texture comes back. One of my current favorite restaurant dishes is the three ginormous meatballs on a bed of cheese polenta at Bravo! in Summit Mall in Fairlawn. Because eating that would use up pretty much my whole day’s calorie allowance, I just have half and bring the rest home for later. Reheats beautifully.

Regarding Stouffer’s restaurants, I have fond memories a homecoming dinner at Top of the Town in the new Erieview Plaza on East Ninth Street in Cleveland, near where the Galleria is today. The wind and rain dragged us by our umbrellas across that large, open plaza. Later, when I worked in downtown Cleveland, the restaurant was a spot for a very special occasion. Stouffer had another location in the same office building — a bustling basement cafeteria with good-quality, reasonably priced food.

When I moved to Richfield, one of the most beautiful spots was the Stouffer farm at the corner of Broadview (Wheatley Road) and Brecksville Road.This was where the family lived and made their butter. The view from the farmhouse was as idyllic as the picture on the menu you posted. Overlooking the Cuyahoga Valley, there were apple orchards, a picturesque lake and a barn. The orchards are now overgrown, the buildings are gone and the property is now filled with a large office park. The sweeping view of the valley remains. I could never understand why Stouffer didn’t preserve it, as something like Bob Evans’ Farm in southern Ohio.

Ah, well. Thanks for the memories.

Dear Pennie:
No, thank you.

From Dorothy:
Years ago I worked in the Federal Building in downtown Cleveland. We would go to Stouffer’s in Erieview for special birthdays, etc. It had good food and atmosphere. Also, about 65 years ago my sister-in-law and husband had a small wedding dinner at Stouffer’s on the Square. The service and food were very good. I miss Stouffer’s restaurants.

Dear Dorothy:
Thanks for sharing your memories of an era long gone.

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November 7, 2018

Dear friends,
The aroma made me nuts. That’s the only explanation I can think of for buying $16 worth of bread for two people Friday. Two carb-restricted people.

I can’t remember how I found The Brimfield Bread Oven on my iPad, but when I showed Tony a photo of the bakery’s brick oven, he reached for his coat. We were off to Brimfield. The last time we had crusty, brick-oven bread was in September in France. That oven was 200 years old. The Portage County oven was built just a couple of years ago, but it is no less effective.

The Brimfield Bread Oven looks like a French boulangerie. Burnished, brown loaves in a variety of shapes are stacked higher than your head on wire racks that face you as enter. There are batards, baguettes, boules and substantial, crisp loaves studded with black olives. There are loaves crusted with seeds and soft Pullman loaves and sandwich buns in plastic sleeves.

Genevieve and Jud Smith raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter to help open the bakery — why did no one tell me?! — in 2016. Jud learned serious baking techniques at The Great Lakes Baking Co. in Hudson and the King Arthur Flour Bakery in Vermont, where Genevieve joined him to study pastries.

I bought a croissant for Tony, a cookie for me, a big loaf of sourdough Kalamata olive bread (made only on Fridays) and an equally big loaf of white sourdough with a killer crust. The breads were $6 and $5 respectively and tasted incredible.

The Smiths advise patrons to call ahead to reserve favorites. The breads and pastries on hand vary throughout the day as the brick oven cools. High-temperature items are baked first and cool-temperature items last. There are a few tables in a connecting room where customers can sip coffee, tea, beer or wine and nibble croissants, scones and cookies. Pizzas are available from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

We did our best, but the olive bread alone took us three days of toast, sandwiches and snacks to polish off. On day two when we hadn’t touched the other loaf, I knew I had to use it or lose it. Because it was slightly stale at that point (criminal, I know), I turned it into bread soup — really, really good bread soup.

My soup, variations of which are common in many cultures, is a comforting winter bowlful of chicken, mushrooms, onions and provolone cheese cushioned with pillowy-soft slices of bread. Everything is drenched in chicken broth. It is like a savory bread pudding, and — maybe this is the carbs talking — is one of my favorite things in the world to eat.

The preparation is so easy that the soup almost qualifies as fast food. If you use good-quality rotisserie chicken and canned broth, you can make the soup in minutes, simmer it for a while longer, and let it bake while you do other things.

Save these directions. If you visit Brimfield Bread Oven (www.brimfieldbreadoven.com), you’ll probably leave with too much bread, too.

CHICKEN-MUSHROOM BREAD SOUP

6 tbsp. butter
1 1/2 cups rough-chopped onions
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
Pinch of grated nutmeg
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt, fresh-ground pepper
6 cups chicken stock or broth
2 cup cubed cooked chicken
6 thick slices (at least 1 inch thick) crusty bread
6 oz. chopped provolone cheese

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large, deep skillet. Sauté onions and mushrooms over medium-high heat until both have softened. Add nutmeg and white wine, crank heat to high and boil until reduced by half.

Season mushroom mixture with salt and pepper. Stir in chicken stock, partially cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in chicken and simmer 5 minutes longer.

After adding chicken, toast the bread in a toaster and butter one side of each slice with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Arrange three slices in the bottom of a deep (4 to 5 inches) casserole dish large enough for the three slices to fit in a single layer. With a slotted spoon, transfer all of the onions, mushrooms and chicken from the broth to the casserole, covering the bread evenly. Scatter half of the cheese cubes on top. Top with remaining three slices of toast and the rest of the cheese.

Ladle the broth over the layers in the casserole dish. The broth should barely cover the top layer. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until the bread is swollen and puffy and the top is golden brown. To serve, scoop out with a large spoon. Makes 4 servings.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
French onion soup; chicken fricassee with white wine, apples, potatoes and shredded cabbage; sugar-free pumpkin pie; Szechuan stir-fry sauce; chicken and mushroom bread soup.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Cheese panini with peppers and onions at the Eye Opener in Akron; Nashville hot chicken and coleslaw at the Parkview Nite Club in Cleveland; chicken shawarma sandwich and hot tea at Continental Cuisine in Fairlawn; a Jane roll and edamame from Sushi Katsu in Akron; and an egg roll and beef with tangerine peel at Szechuan Gourmet in Kent.

THE MAILBAG
From Susan R.:
(Regarding last week’s newsletter), the easiest way to cook polenta is Paula Wolfert’s oven method at https://www.finecooking.com/recipe/oven-roasted-polenta. Thanks for your newsletter. I always enjoy it.

Dear Susan:
What could be easier than combining corn meal and water in a pan and shoving it into the oven? No stirring! Thanks for bringing this recipe to my attention.

From Martha K.:
I’m pretty confident you subscribe to Epicurious newsletters, but in case you missed it, here’s a nifty polenta recipe and easy prep method. Google: oven polenta with roasted mushrooms and thyme.

Dear friend:
No, I don’’t subscribe to the Epicurious newsletter. I’m afraid if I read any more recipes or food tips my head will explode. Only partly kidding. Thank you, though, for this baked polenta recipe, which Epicurious got from the October issue of Bon Appetit magazine. I like the lagniappe: “…if you’re feeling indulgent, top with a little heavy cream mixed with a finely grated small garlic clove.” Oh, yeah.

From Alix:
Your dinner party experience reminded me of what I did last year. I called a friend and said, “Let’s have a dinner party.” We were on! We are two widows, 60- and 70-ish. We ordered beautiful invitations, a lovely centerpiece and dry cleaned the gorgeous tablecloth. We had 12 guests that had all been friends for at least 40 years. There was PLENTY of conversation. So glad we went through with it.

I still love to entertain and am actually planning a Christmas cocktail party for my neighbors. One of my guests jumped on the train and had a really lovely dinner party on a winter night. Maybe this kind of entertaining will come back but I doubt it.

Dear Alix:
I think the younger generation, with their energy and stamina, are the only ones who can save this kind of entertaining. I won’t hold my breath.

From John, Norton:
I am retired and I never, never recall ever going to a dinner party. Would not be interested at all.

I never recall my parents going through this to have a dinner party. Ok, relatives very very rarely came over for a turkey dinner but that is it.

My aunt told me years ago that slaving in a kitchen to fill others’ mouths is slavery. Plus they are often not grateful. I am a bachelor and would never be interested in a dinner party. Some of my aunts, after years of kitchen slavery, told me decades ago that company are people with nothing to do, and they come over to your house and do it, for long hours. My aunts tried to eliminate it as best they could. And they did.

Dear John:
Well, alrighty.