Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Which Came First Salad

Flash: the bane of my existence.
I considered calling this creationist salad, but I didn't want anyone to think that I was turning proponents of intelligent design into a lunch product. Especially since V. recently ordered the DVD of the original production of Sweeney Todd, and we watched it last week. Someone might think that I'd gotten ideas. Cannibalism is, of course, a natural subject for musical comedy, but I do not approve of it. Just in case you were wondering.

Anyway. Those of us who believe in natural selection and evolution will tell you that the egg preceded the chicken. Yes, something laid the egg, but it was not a chicken, though one supposes that it must have been very much like a chicken: perhaps it had lips. There was a fortunate mutation, and the egg opened up and out came a chicken.

Creationists, on the other hand, will tell you that the creator made the chicken, which then proceeded to lay eggs. I am not really after a scientific or religious debate here. The chicken comes first in this recipe because it chops very cleanly in the food processor. The eggs should really be chopped last (after the chicken, the cornichons, and the bacon that I did not use but should have used) because they're the hardest to scrape out of the bowl. You might not have to use your spatula until the very end if you process the eggs last. I wrote this recipe the way I actually made it, and that's why the eggs are in the middle. So far as I know, there is relatively little scientific or religious controversy over the origin of cornichons, but I didn't look very hard. It is entirely possible that cornichons had their own patron saint until the end of the nineteenth century when dark forces within the Church had St. Verjus uncanonized (or whatever they do to saints who are no more), but that a small band of true adherents still meets in secret and holds communion ceremonies involving country pate and really good mustard, but I'm probably better off not knowing.

There is no effort at all involved in this recipe if you already have cold chicken and hard boiled eggs in the refrigerator (and you have a food processor). You don't want to throw chicken that's just been cooked and is still warm or hot in the food processor, or you might get a mess, and you will separate the chicken from its moisture, which would be impolite. I did boil eggs just for this salad. I put them in a saucepan of cold water, put them over a medium flame, brought the water to a boil, turned the heat off, put a lid on the pan, let them sit in the very hot water for fifteen minutes, drained the hot water, filled the pan with cold water, and let them sit until they were completely cool, while L. and I watched a movie. Then I dried them off and removed the shell, which came away easily.

I designed this recipe specificially for sandwiches, so I wanted a spread. As a result, everything is chopped pretty fine, though not quite so fine that it turns into a paste. It becomes a spread when you add the mayonnaise.

Chicken Egg Salad

8 ounces cold cooked chicken breast
3 hard boiled eggs
8 cornichons
2 t. dijon mustard
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
1/4 t. celery seed
Ground black pepper

Cut the chicken into chunks, then put it into the food processor and pulse until it is finely chopped. Remove the chicken to a bowl, put the hard boiled eggs in the food processor, and pulse until they are finely chopped but have not turned into a paste. Add the eggs to the chicken, then process the cornichons until they are finely chopped. Put the chopped cornichons in the bowl with the chicken and the eggs.

Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and fold everything together until it is well combined and spreadable.

I am not proud of having used light mayonnaise here, but nobody's perfect. If you're not engaging in some ultimately futile attempt to control your fat intake, then go ahead and use the high-test mayo. (I didn't bother to run the numbers for the recipe as a whole, but a half-cup of light mayo has about 400 fewer calories than a half-cup of regular mayo.) You may want to cut back on the mustard a bit if you do that. The extra mustard is in there to make up for light mayo's rather pedestrian flavor. If you don't have any cornichons lying around, you can use dill pickles, baby or otherwise. You may want to use slightly more pickle in that case, but remember that baby dills are usually larger than cornichons, though they have less flavor. I think that if I were using the baby dills, I'd add some smoked paprika. The cornichons add a lot of flavor, so you might want to compensate.

I think the light mayo works perfectly well here, and I like this spread a lot, but if I had not been making it late at night, I would have made it more wonderful still by frying two or three strips of bacon very crisp, draining them, and letting them have their turn in the food processor.

If you did not season your chicken before cooking it, you may need some salt, but keep in mind that both the dijon and the cornichons are heavily salted, so taste carefully before you decide to add any.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Chercher les Pommes

I imagine that the difference between dedication in the pursuit of one's goal and batshit insanity can sometimes be a fine line. This is probably not one of those cases, however. People will also tell you that knowing that you have a problem is the first step towards solving it, but, here again, I've always been happy to live with my obsessions when it means that I get what I want.

The particular towards which my perambulations are, however gradually, working their way is that it's entirely ridiculous to spend four hours on the road in order to pick fourteen pounds of honeycrisp apples, but I would rather be without sanity than without the apples, and I've got the apples.

I had, until yesterday, never tasted the elusive honeycrisp. I've been reading Lindy's effusions about them for some time, and I've done a bit of research, but as of now, one is no more likely to see honeycrisps in any of my local markets than one is to see fresh truffles, marked down to three pounds for a dollar. Apparently, honeycrisps require a combination of coolness and warmth that mainly exists north of the Mason-Dixon line, and if you look for pick-your-own honeycrisps in, say, Pennsylvania, you'll find a number of good options. I have, however, been able to find only one pick-your-own orchard in the otherwise vastly superior state of Maryland (I know that I write occasionally about wanting a very small orchard in Pennsylvania, but that's mostly because of the far greater availability of affordable and arable land. Pennsylvania may yet come around, but for the moment, I much prefer to live in a state where if someone asks me "And who are your senators?" I can respond without having to cross myself and spit.), and it is in Elkton. You want to know how to get to Elkton? Drive to Delaware and then go back a mile. According to google maps, it's 92.8 miles from my driveway to Milburn's Orchards in Elkton. So one could very well say that it's less than a hundred miles away and in the same state and it would sound as if one didn't really have to go all that far, but that would be true only if one were good at picking out not-so-easy-to-see street signs and did not spend, after having driven sevnty-five miles on the mind numbing expanse that is I-95, half an hour discovering that the University of Delaware has a pretty campus.

Anyway. I'm not showing you a picture of the orchard because I forgot to take my camera, and I'm not showing you a picture of the apples because they really are not very pretty. In fact, when I was riding in the wagon out to the apple fields, the woman sitting opposite me told me how she had brought two honeycrisps with her back from Washington State and given her teenaged son, who was sitting beside her and who loves apples, one, and he had initially refused to eat it because it was not pretty. (Here, reader, you may, if it pleases you, spend some time reflecting on how appearances can be misleading. Pretend that I have written several thousand words upon the subject and that you have considered them and have been duly edified.)

I had called the orchard on Friday to make sure that the honeycrisps were indeed to be harvested on Saturday and Sunday as was listed on the webpage. The man who answered the phone said that they were but that because of some sun damage, the crop would be lighter than usual and the apples would be less attractive than usual, so that I should probably come on Saturday if I wanted to be sure to get some apples, which, he assured me, still tasted good.

I had intended to arrive at the orchard at 10, when it opened, which meant being up and dressed by 8 on a Saturday morning. Those of you who regularly complain that I am not sufficiently dedicated to cuisine will please take note of how I have suffered. I didn't actually get out the door until a little after 8, and between needing to stop for gas, my unscheduled tour of UD, and what might be considered inadequate signage at the orchard, I didn't park my car in the appropriate place and walk to the pick-up spot until nearly 11. As we were loading into the long, narrow wagon behind the tractor, the driver told us why the honeycrisp pickings were somewhat meager this year. Apparently, Japanese beetles bothered nothing at the orchard except for the honeycrisps. And because the beetles ate the tops off the honeycrisp trees, the apples were not adequately shaded from the sun, and many of them "opened up" before they should have. When we got out to the apple fields, it was easy to see which trees had suffered beetle and sun damage. It was also easy to smell them as the spaces under the trees and in the rows between the trees were littered with rotten apples and apples that had been picked and then rejected because they had great cracks in the skin. The hornets seemed very pleased with the situation, but actually picking the fruit -- normally an activity in which can take unfettered delight -- was decidedly difficult and unpleasant. It was difficult to walk without treading on rotten apple, and it was very hard to find unblemished apples on the trees. Fortunately, the apples are very large, so it did not take too many to fill my bag, and after a quarter hour or so of grimacing, I was ready to head back. I had had to accept some apples that I would rather not have taken, but I reasoned that they would be fine if they were eaten in fairly short order. I set aside two of the worst and rinsed them off so that I could eat them on the long drive home.

I was feeling a little tired and disgusted when I finally pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the highway, but the first bite into the first honeycrisp put me right back into good spirits. It really is an unparalleled eating apple. What sets it apart is the texture and the juiciness. Eating a honeycrisp is almost as dangerous as eating a peach. Napkins are advised. The flavor is very well balanced, too.

Would I make that same trip again for those apples? Perhaps not. It was certainly well worth the effort for my first taste of them, but I think that I would rather go slightly farther to one of the Pennsylvania orchards and be assured of a larger supply (Milburn's grows many varieties, and there are only a few long rows of honeycrisps) and a more pleasant drive. Then again, V. said that if he had not had a volunteer commitment Saturday afternoon, he would have been willing to go with me, and that means that he would have been driving. On the other hand (yes, I get as many hands as I like: don't you wish you were me?), V. would probably also drive if we took the more scenic route to one of the Pennsylvania farms. A long drive through the country on a beautiful September morning is a fine thing, especially when someone else is driving.

I think that the better option is to encourage one or more of the local orchards to start growing some honeycrisps, or, failing that, to go through with plans to get my own piece of land and grow some of my own.

I haven't figured out exactly what I'll do with all of my honeycrisps. I've read that they keep well for months in the refrigerator, but I may just eat them all out of hand over the next week or so. (There aren't that many of them, really.) Our big fig bush/tree in the backyard is pretty loaded with not-yet-ripe figs, though, so if they start to become ready in abundance next week, I might have a very nice fruit salad.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

September 6th Chicken Salad

I must confess that I don't really follow the cookbook world these days. If Lindy raves sufficiently about a cookbook, I will often order it, read it, and cook something from it, but the days when I read cookbook reviews and bought a lot of cookbooks have left me with enough cookbooks to keep my busy pretty much forever, so if I buy something these days, it's more likely than not to be something old that's been rediscovered and reissued or something that I can't pass up at a used book sale. Like that hardcover Larousse Gastronomique in nearly pristine condition that I got for two dollars three years ago, which may very well have been my best culinary buy ever, though the two Le Creuset white au gratins that I got for $20 might have been even more impressive since I found them at a consignment store where the kitchenware is (almost) universally overpriced.

Anyway. My point is that I don't know a lot about what's going on in the cookbook publishing world these days, but ten or so years back, there was an absolute epidemic of books entitled 365 Ways to Cook [insert food here], the idea being that if you wanted to have chicken (for example, because that's the only book of its type that I was ever foolish enough to purchase) every night of the year, you could do so and have a different dish each night. I suppose that after the year was up, you either repeated (one envisions entire families looking forward to that really great chicken casserole that they get every March 3rd; one further envisions a mock chicken dish on April 1st, but one is almost certainly deluded) or moved onto another food for the next year, though it was never anything really cool like 365 Ways to Cook Truffles or 365 Ways to Cook Plain Boiled Rice. Perhaps there was some sort of Chinese zodiac tie-in so that you'd get 365 Ways to Cook Boar in the Year of the Boar, though one suspects that cultural biases, environmental concerns, and scarcity would have made the years of the dog, tiger, and dragon (respectively) less than entirely workable.

I don't know what people were expected to do on February 29th. Eat out, perhaps, but you have to imagine that the prospect of not having your assigned chicken, beef, or pork dish would have elicited so much anxiety that adherents would have simply ended up fasting.

Anyway. I love plenty of foods enough to eat them 365 different ways, and I don't love any food so much that I could eat it every day for a year, but if some publisher were foolish enough to ask me to write a 365 ways book, I'd want to write it about chicken salad. When presented with a really good chicken salad, I have been known to eat it with embarrassing (to my fellow diners that is; it seems foolish to me to be embarrassed about enjoying one's food so much that one's companions cannot tell whether they are witnessing gluttony or lust) glee. And chicken salad is, effectively, infinitely versatile. There is a good chance that I could gather half of the 365 recipes just by checking the lunch menus of the many, many restaurants in Bethesda, where I work. And I could certainly get the rest from various and delightful junior league-style cookbooks at the local used book store. (Don't worry: I would not pass these recipes off as my own. I would give credit where it was due, test the recipes, and develop my own completely inscrutable rating system: "While the flavor is good overall, I find the texture to be somewhat lacking in diversity. Worth a try for a box lunch. I give it two-and-a-half capons.")

This is the chicken salad that I brought for lunch today. I made it yesterday, but it is really better the next day when the flavors have had a chance to develop and intertwine. I did not take a picture of it because it is seriously ugly: adding a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to your mayo really helps the flavor, but dark tan is really not an attractive color for a salad. Alas, I was in something of a hurry to finish before the start of Project Runway (go, Laura!) last night, so I didn't have time to search for the white balsamic vinegar, which I may have already finished, anyway. I named it after the date that I made it rather than the date on which I first planned to have it for lunch. 9-6 is the American convention for September 6th. If you're in Europe, you should invert the digits, which is all to the good: it's high time that gluttony and lust were unified.

9-6 Chicken Salad

3 cups cubed cooked chicken breast
4 ounces blue cheese
1 apple
A squeeze of lemon juice
1 stalk celery
1 cup toasted walnut halves
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 rounded tsp. dijon mustard
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 T. honey

Finely dice or crumble the blue cheese. Core but do not peel the apple, and cut it into fine dice. Toss the diced apple with the lemon juice. Finely dice the celery. Coarsely chop the walnut halves. Combine the chicken, blue cheese, apple, celery, and walnuts in a bowl.

In another bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Whisk together until well blended.

Put as much of the dressing as you like on the solid ingredients. Stir to combine. Refrigerate.

The blue cheese that I used was gorgonzola bel gioso that I got from Costco. I assume that "bel gioso" is Italian for "without conviction." Don't get me wrong: it's a perfectly delicious cheese. It's great on bread, and it goes very well in the salad, but when I was first introduced to gorgonzola twenty years ago, I had something very, very different: an assertive, almost angry, cheese that was creamy where bel gioso is crumbly. My then-roommate R.'s mother used to say that gorgonzola was the culinary equivalent of an onomatopoeia because when you tasted it, you could not help exclaiming "gorgonzola!" It was a cheese that wouldn't be ignored. I should really track down some of that gorgonzola, though it would be disastrous in this particular salad.

Given what I was going for with this salad, I felt it important to cut everything in fairly small pieces, so the chicken is cut much more finely than in most of my chicken salads. Coarsely chopping the walnut halves gives mostly pieces that are about the same size. I believe that this salad would be equally good either on a bed of greens or in a sandwich, but I'm having it straight up for lunch.

Some raisins or currants and/or pineapple would be a happy addition here, though of course, then it would look a lot like the 10 February chicken salad, and I'm sure that my notional editor wouldn't be pleased about that.

[Update: I originally forgot to mention that the walnut halves were toasted before they were chopped. Appropriately enough, I toast my walnuts two or three cups at a time in our toaster oven. I set it at 325 degrees, and it usually takes about fifteen minutes. Your salad will be much tastier and crunchier if you toast the walnuts. As SpongeBob would say: don't forget it!]

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Plum Coffeecake

The difference between a cake and a coffeecake is not, I believe, well defined. In part that's because most cooks are a live-and-let-live lot. I may (and do) care very passionately about my own culinary idiosyncrasies, but if you want to call your whatever a whatever, it's nothing what(so)ever to me. There are, of course, notable culinary curmudgeons (and I'm not going to mention names because then I'd either have to remember or go look up the name of Karen Hess' husband so that I could name both of them) who will insist that a whatever is not a whatever unless it has all six of these whatevers and none at all of those four whatevers in it. By and large, however, the cooks are not like the astronomers. There's not likely to be some large convention where there's an official pronouncement that turducken can't properly be considered poultry, regardless of how much merit such a pronouncement might or might not have. The French, obviously, are exceptions, but I think we all have to acknowledge that their culinary attention to detail has largely been a force for good and just let them be who they are, so long as they keep producing good wines and cheeses.

(For the record, I really don't care whether Pluto is a planet. I know that some people have very strong opinions on this matter, but I believe that such people should redirect their energies towards more important matters, such as the proper use of the apostrophe.)

Anyway. Despite the lack of a consistent culinary taxonomy, I believe that most people think of a coffeecake as something breadlike (either a yeast bread or a quick bread) which has had sweet matter worked into it and which has then been baked in the shape of a cake. In this case, however, I'm calling my cake a coffeecake for no reason other than it seems a bit coarse to qualify as a cake.

I expected it to be coarse, of course. (If reading that last phrase made you start humming the theme from Mr. Ed, then you are now officially my bff; also, kindly get out of my head.) I have, of late, been thinking a good bit about things like carbohydrates and the glycemic index. I have a family history of diabetes, and while I don't appear to be diabetic myself, I have noticed that eating substantial amounts of sugar late at night has a tendency to make me feel somewhat blah (that's the medical term: I asked) the next morning. To a certain extent, I deal with this by eating less sugar and eating it earlier in the day, but it seemed like a good idea to develop some different strategies, and since I happened to have just bought a five pound clamshell box of Italian prune plums (the box actually calls them "Italian Prunes," but when I tried calling them "prunes," V. wanted to argue with me, and since he's Italian, I decided to just back off [the Mediterraneans are feisty, you know] and compromise with "prune plums."), I figured that a plum cake was a good idea. I decided not to use white flour but to use a combination of whole wheat flour (King Arthur white whole wheat flour, in this case), rolled oats, and walnuts. I further decided to bake it in a springform pan. I also substituted Whey Low for the granulated sugar, but I do that with all of my baked goods now. It seems to me that it works better for baking than does granulated sugar, but that is probably a bias on my part to make myself feel better for spending the extra money on the Whey Low. If you use plain old granulated sugar, you should get the same result, I think.

The result seems like coffeecake to me. It is undeniably good and very moist, but the cake is not so much cakelike. I can't do much better than that with a description, I'm afraid. It is good with coffee, though.

The moistness is a bit of a worry to me, since I'm afraid that it might grow mold before I eat it all, which would be a shame since it appears to be getting better with time. The Italian prune plums are very small, so despite there being forty-eight plum quarters in the cake, they are mostly on the bottom and not as present as one might expect. In fact, if and when I try this cake again, I might use half again as many plums and only two-thirds as much batter. Or I might just go with prunes marinated in a little bit of some potent potable or other. Then again, I might just return to my excellent prune cake, whose name is so long that I can't remember it (I cannot bring myself to look it up, any more than I could be bothered to look up John Hess). So many choices, so little time: story of my culinary life.

Plum Coffeecake

12 prune plums
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup whole rolled oats
1 1/2 cups toasted walnuts
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 pound butter, at room temperature
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut each plum into quarters, discarding the pits. Toss the plums with about half the sugar in a bowl and let them sit for fifteen minutes.

Put the flour and oats in a food processor and process until the oats are finely ground. Add the walnuts and pulse until the walnuts are finely chopped, but not ground.

Put the flour mixture into your mixer bowl and add the remaining sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. With the whisk attachment, mix for two minutes. With the mixer running, add the butter a tablespoon at a time until it is well incorporated. Add the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla and milk. Whisk until smooth, scraping down the bowl if necessary.

Pour the plums and sugar into the batter and fold in by hand. Turn into a prepared 8- or 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let sit for ten minutes, then remove the side of the springform pan and invert onto a rack. Remove the bottom of the springform pan and let cool completely. Serve with coffee, just so I won't be a liar. Well, about this, anyway.

What I'm calling prune plums are the small, dark purple plums that have a sort of white dust on the skin. They are shaped sort of like tiny brains, except that the skin is smooth where a brain would be wrinkled (I am trying really, really hard here to avoid saying that they're shaped like testicles, even though they really are). You could probably use any plum, but since most plums are larger, you might want to use fewer and/or cut them into more pieces.

As far as the glycemic index and all that goes, I didn't really follow up by calculating how this coffeecake stacks up against my other cakes. I think that this recipe ought to be more friendly to your blood sugar than one made with regular sugar and regular white flour, but how much friendlier is certainly an unresolved question.