Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Salade de Concombres Tante Marie

My Aunt Mary (the youngest sister of my late grandmother, so really my great aunt) would be very amused to find her recipe -- or herself -- with a French title. She is an extremely good natured and unpretentious person of nearly ninety years. She and my great uncle (who is ninety or ninety-one) have lived on the same farm for over fifty years. They don't actively farm the land any more, but they are still very active. When I was a child, we would frequently go and visit them on the farm, where we always had a terrific time and a lot of good food.

She brought this cucumber salad to the most recent family reunion, and it was quickly devoured. It is very much the sort of recipe that I would expect from my Mennonite relatives: fresh vegetables and a lot of sugar. (The Mennonite diet in general, one might say, is not especially health conscious, but my aunt is almost ninety, and you're not, so there.) A number of my relatives would likely have added sour cream as well, which might have been tasty but would still have been an abomination. Abominably good. Anyway, I've actually used half the sugar her recipe calls for, and that's still a whole lotta sugar. I was doing the recipe from memory, and I was pretty sure it called for a cup of vinegar and two cups of sugar, but I couldn't be absolutely sure that it didn't call for a cup of sugar and two cups of vinegar. So I used one cup of each and left a message for my mother. Mom didn't get back to me until after the party I was serving it at, but when I tasted it with the 1:1 ratio, it was a)very good and b)clearly less sweet than the version Aunt Mary served. Brutal honesty requires me to say that hers is even better, but you'll enjoy mine more because you'll have less guilt. No, really.

I have one of those little Japanese slicers that's plastic with an incredibly sharp ceramic blade. It makes slices in four different widths, none of which is very big. For the cucumber salad, I use the next-to-largest size to slice the cucumbers and the smallest size to slice the onions.

I worried that perhaps I should salt and drain the cukes for a period before proceeding with the recipe, but I didn't, and the result was splendid. Once you have everything sliced, it's an almost embarrassingly simple recipe. I suppose you can always tell your guests that you harvested the celery seed by hand. One by one. Sort of like the beerenauslese of celery seeds. Somebody might believe you. Trochenbeerenauslese would be overkill, however.

In essence, this recipe is a rudimentary form of fresh sweet-and-sour pickles. It's very good after four hours in the fridge, and it's even better a day or two later. If you don't have at least two hours for it to marinate before you're going to serve it, don't bother.

The amount of cucumbers called for in this recipe is just the amount that comes in the pack of long, unwaxed cucumbers that you can get at Costco. It's a large recipe, so take it to a potluck, or enjoy the fact that it'll keep for a good long while in the refrigerator.

Salade de Concombres Tante Marie

Three English cucumbers, thinly sliced (about 7 cups)
1 cup thinly sliced onion
4 t. salt
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 t. celery seed

Toss the sliced cucumbers and onions with the salt. Add the vinegar and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the celery seed. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours and preferably overnight.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cast Iron Peach Cobbler

I spent this past week in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, in the tiny, tiny village of Springs, just a mile north of the Maryland border in Somerset County. It is a heavily Amish area, so that driving down the highway often involves waiting behind a buggy until you reach a spot where the road straightens sufficiently to let you pass. It's gorgeous up there, and it's a great place to decompress for a week and either think about nothing or try not to dread the fact that in two short weeks you'll be driving your oldest child off to college. You know, as the case may be.

Anyway, I was up there with the girls and my parents, who live there during the summer. Time being a thing that moves in only one direction, my parents are not as young as they were, and this fact becomes more noticeable with each passing year. And with each year it becomes less and less clear that they'll continue to make the trek northward for the summer. I will not be overly surprised if next year they decide not to leave Florida, though I continue to hope that they'll defer that decision for a few more years.

We spent a fair amount of time sitting around the table, all playing cards. I tried not to overburden my mother with cooking, so we most often ate breakfast out (if you're in that area of the country, breakfast is really the meal you want to eat out; you can find a good breakfast almost anywhere there; the other meals, not so much), then I took the girls off to do something during the day, and we'd come home for dinner. On Friday, my mother made breakfast because we were planning to go out to an all-you-can-eat (always a mistake) fish fry (always a mistake in the mountains). But later in the day, they were feeling too unwell to go out, so I volunteered to make dinner.

Part of making dinner involved reheating corn on the cob that had been cooked days earlier yet was (miraculously!) still delicious. And another part involved slicing some cucumbers and dicing some tomatoes and mixing them with mayonnaise and garlic powder and salt and pepper and vinegar to make a messy but delicious salad. And yet another part of dinner involved defrosting some large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, slicing them into thinner pieces, salting and peppering them, and browning them in a bit of olive oil. Then I finished off the dish by (I am not making this up) deglazing the pan with balsamic vinegar, adding a can of cream of mushroom soup, adding a half-can's worth of milk and another half-can's worth of water, and then stirring in a couple of cups of leftover mashed potatoes. When it was all bubbling nicely, I put the chicken breasts back in to finish cooking through. I am officially prohibited from endorsing any recipe that involves a can of cream of mushroom (or any other, really) soup, but the result was undeniably delicious. And, you know, sometimes you've got to work with what's available.

Also available were some peaches that were destined to go bad if I didn't use them up. My father had bought several pounds before we arrived, and we'd done our best to get through them, but they were only good peaches, not the sort of peaches that one dreams about. Mom had been planning to make a pie, but she wasn't going to get around to it (she'd made other pie during the week; her crusts are so good that I weep with envy). On Friday morning, Dad took me to the wholesale produce auction that happens twice a week about a mile from their house. Some of the white peaches there looked like the sort of thing one dreams about, but I would have had to buy four pecks, which seemed, well, optimistic.

Anyway, I'd been staring longingly at my mother's three cast-iron skillets (I've written about my cast iron envy before) all week, and I thought that a peach cobbler was just the thing to combine my desires to cook with a skillet seasoned over decades and to use the ripe peaches. This particular cobbler is a bit of a cross with a tarte tatin. As it happens, the bottom was sufficiently caramelized and the filling sufficiently solid that I could have unmolded the whole thing and made upside down peach cobbler, but that seemed needlessly showy.

The amount of milk added to the dough here is really very much your preference. You could add less and roll the dough out like rolled biscuits, or you could add more and just pour it like batter. I opted for something that was just a bit too wet to roll out, and I spooned blobs of it over the simmering peaches, figuring (correctly) that the heat from the pan and the oven would even it out. The dough layer may have been a tad thicker than I would have liked, but it was light and tasty, so I didn't mind. If I'd had more peaches, I would likely have used the same amount of dough to cover a cobbler made in a ten-inch skillet.

You want to serve this cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Served thusly, it will comfort anyone who can be comforted.

Peach Cobbler

Four or five ripe medium peaches
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 t. ground cloves
2 t. tapioca
Pinch salt

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 T. granulated sugar
Pinch salt
4 T. butter, melted
Milk, approximately 1/2 cup

2 T. butter
2 T. brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Peel and slice the peaches. Put them in a bowl with the 1/4 c. sugar, the cloves, the tapioca, and the pinch of salt. Mix and let sit while you prepare the dough.

In a separate bowl combine the flour, oats, 2 T. sugar, and another pinch of salt. Mix well. Pour on the melted butter and mix again. Stir in milk until you have something that is the consistency of drop biscuits.

In an eight-inch cast iron skillet, melt the butter, tilting the pan to coat the sides. Add the butter, and stir to distribute evenly across the bottom of the pan. Cook over medium heat until the sugar begins to caramelize. Pour in the peaches and let cook for a minute or two. Spoon the batter over the peaches, then transfer to the oven.

Bake until well browned, about twenty-five to thirty minutes.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Oatmeal Spice Cookies

If there's anything a man loves to hear on a Saturday night, it must be, "I signed you up to bring cookies to the bake sale tomorrow." Especially when the words are coming from his ex-wife, but let's just not go there, okay?

L. is appearing as a fairy (and probably other things: she has three different costumes) in the local civic ballet company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream tomorrow, and one of the responsibilities of a ballet parent is to contribute to the bake sale. Many parents do this by purchasing rather than actually baking the baked goods, but the only time I ever did that was when I only had two hours of notice. Then I went to the supermarket and bought some chewy oatmeal cookies and some pre-packaged German chocolate cake frosting and made sandwiches. The kids loved them, but I felt unclean, somehow. After all, I like to bake, and I like to bake for bake sales. I'm not so thrilled with the requirement that the cookies have to be individually wrapped, but what are you going to do?

Anyway, I wanted to make something gingery. I adore the gingersnaps recipe in Joy of Cooking (I double the spices, though), but while they're delicious and the texture is just right for, say, shipping cross country, I thought something a bit larger and more delicate would be better for the bake sale. So I decided to cross the gingersnaps recipe with an oatmeal cookie recipe. Well, actually, I took an oatmeal cookie recipe and made some modifications and additions. Another time, I'd like to try starting with the gingersnap recipe and adding oatmeal, but I needed the cookies to be good on the first try, and the oatmeal cookie recipe was clearly the safer starting point. Mostly I just added spices and molasses and adjusted the other ingredients accordingly.

The cookies are very good. I wimped out a bit on the ginger, and I wish I hadn't. Usually when I make spice cookies, I take a no-prisoners sort of approach and end up with something very gingery. I was timid here, and why some people may like the result better, I'd like a bit more of a bite. Still, they're delicious. (Also, I forgot the vanilla extract, but don't tell anyone, okay?)

If you were making these for the cookie jar instead of a bake sale, you would just go with a smaller cookie scoop (or drop by teaspoons) and a shorter baking time. And, obviously, you'd get a larger number. Using the larger cookie scoop, you get about four dozen.

Ginger Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. salt
1.5 cups all purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 T. ground ginger
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cloves
3.5 cups rolled oats
1 cup currants

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Measure out the dry ingredients (starting with the salt and going all the way through the cloves) and mix them together.

In the bowl of your mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. With the mixer running, add the molasses and the sugar, and mix until well incorporated. With the mixer still running, add the eggs -- one at a time -- and the vanilla extract. Turn the mixer off and scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula to make sure everything's well incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and mix on slow until thoroughly mixed in. Do the same thing with the oats and then the currants.

Using a large cookie scoop, put mounds of the dough on a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper. The cookies will spread out quite a bit, so if you're using a half-sheet pan, you won't want to put more than a dozen mounds of dough on a sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees until done (the tops will no longer feel wet when you touch them lightly), which takes seventeen minutes in my oven.

Let sit for a few minutes on top of the oven, then remove the cookies to racks to cool thoroughly.

These cookies end up thin and crispy rather than thick and chewy. Perhaps another time I will add more rolled oats to keep them thicker if, say, I want to sandwich two of them with some lemon curd or raspberry buttercream. But they're awfully nice as they are.