Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rum Rhubarb Chess Pie

Chess pies are custard-based pies, "the essence of Southern cooking," says Southern Living. Nobody seems to know why this pie is called chess pie. Perhaps it was served to some gentlemen who were playing chess. Perhaps not. Perhaps because it was very sweet, it was stored in chests, and the t in chest got lost in the Southern drawl, and the pies moved from being chest pies to chess pies. Really, nobody, or at least the editors of Southern Living, knows.
We do know that they are good and relatively easy to make. This particular pie contains rhubarb, as the title would indicate. Rhubarb originated in China, according to Wikipedia, and moved west on the Silk Road during the Middle Ages. It was used as a laxative, and was highly prized by traders. It came to the United States around 1820 to New England. It was known as pie plant because it was so often used in pies.
Rhubarb by itself is quite bitter. It comprises the long, pinkish stalks of the rhubarb plant, kind of like burdock.  It is usually stewed with sugar. Stewed rhubarb is either eaten as is, or is made into a pie filling. It seems to have passed out of usage in New England sometime in the 1950s or 60s. I remember being served stewed rhubarb at Center School in Sheffield, Ma. sometime between 1956 and 1960. I  also remember pointedly not eating it. I was a pretty tolerant child when it came to food, but if I didn't know what it was, and it didn't smell good, I wouldn't eat it.
However, rhubarb seems to have made something of a comeback with the blossoming of the farm to table movement. I bought mine at the Bethesda Women's Farm Market in downtown Bethesda. Sometimes it is available at Safeway or Whole Foods, and sometimes not. It is a seasonal vegetable, available in the spring. Wikipedia says it is grown in greenhouses which makes it available all around the calendar, but this does not seem to be true, at least in this area. Readers who have more familiarity with rhubarb, please write in and tell us your memories of it.
I made the pie for a Sunday barbecue requested by my daughter who had come back from the UK for a week. I had to make two pies because my husband Bob despises rhubarb in all its forms. His mother used to serve it stewed and it was "stringy and disgusting." We actually ended up with three pies, Rum Rhubarb Chess Pie, Apricot Pie and a lemon meringue pie brought by Allison, one of my daughter's friends from Girl Scouts.
This pie is easy, as pies go. I never used to consider pie particularly easy because I had problems with pastry. (I still do have problems with pastry. Hence, I am one of the world's biggest advocates for refrigerator pastry.) But this one, with its unbaked pie shell from the freezer case and its baked pie filling that does not require endless stirring and cooking over a double boiler, is pretty much a cinch. The rhubarb really does not have much taste. The raw rhubarb is just cut up and mixed in with the other ingredients. The rum and nutmeg predominate in flavorings. If you want to try a new vegetable in a neutral setting, go for it.

Rum Rhubarb Chess Pie

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs separated
1 cup rhubarb, cut into one half inch lengths.
3/4 cup plus two tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons dark rum
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 partially cooked nine-inch pie shell from the freezer case

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a mixing bowl and using an electric beater, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the flour and then the egg yolks. Stir in the rhubarb, milk, rum, salt and nutmeg.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them into the rhubarb mixture. Pour this into the pie shell and bake 45 minutes. Let cool before serving. Makes six to eight servings.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

French Potato Salad (Gluten Free)

I have firm opinions about potato salad. It should be firm. An ice cream scoop of potato salad should hold its shape. It should be eggy and scattered with chopped celery. A sprinkling of vinegar over the cooked potatoes helps pick up the flavor. Unfortunately, I have been unable to produce such a potato salad. The people who can produce it seem to be primarily African American cooks. A friend of mine had an African American household employee who used to give us containers of potato salad to take on our campouts in the fields. Even though we had a full menu of main course, vegetables, potatoes baked in the coals and sometimes even soup, I insisted that we take Minnie's potato salad.
I ran into it again 25 years later at a picnic I organized for a group of people at my primarily African American church. We had all been either confirmed or baptized together, and I wanted us to have a social event. I remember exclaiming over some potato salad, "Wow. This is delicious. It's just like my friend's .....mother, used to make." Major embarrassment avoided in the nick of time.
This recipe is not for that kind of potato salad. This is naked potato salad. It has a wine based dressing, and a sprinkling of herbs. No mayonnaise, no celery, no green onions. Nonetheless, it is not without charm. The dressing brings out the flavor of the potatoes, which are especially good served with cold beets in French dressing. It is lighter than mayonnaise based potato salad.
I served it last Saturday night when my son and daughter-in-law came over for a barbeque. Son is barbeque king. Their backyard, slightly larger than a postage stamp, contains a grill that would serve the survivors of a shipwreck to float several hundred miles to their rescue. He immediately took over the grilling of the boneless pork shoulder strips. I had already made the potato salad since it had to chill.
The biggest issue in this dish is the Pernod or Ricard used to flavor the potatoes. Pernod and Ricard (pronounced Ree-kard) are anise, or licorice flavored drinks from France, known as aperitifs. I am pretty much on board with all of French culture, especially its cuisine, but the rage for the aperitif escapes me. The idea is great. Everyone sits down before dinner, has a drink and perhaps cheese and crackers and talks over their day. It's what they drink that I don't like. In my somewhat limited experience, aperatifs might be wine, but generally are not. They are, shall we say, wines made from something other than grapes. They have an unusual taste.
According to the Pernod Ricard corporate website, Pernod is known in the south of France for its thirst quenching properties. It tastes alright. I like some other licorice flavored drinks, such as ouzo from Greece and Sambucca from Italy. It's major problem is, 1. We don't drink it, and 2. It is expensive.
With the dog in tow, I went to my little neighborhood liquor store, which is run by some tired looking Chinese gentlemen  and asked them for a small bottle of Pernod. He brought out a standard size bottle. Together with a bottle of Bulgarian wine he talked me into buying (Hint: don't) the bill came to $53. I told the proprietor to put the Pernod back on the shelf and took the dog six blocks north to the larger liquor store across the street from Starbucks. It turned out that Pernod costs around $40 a bottle, whether you buy it at tiny Sheffield Liquors or great big Circle Liquors. With a sigh of resignation, I paid Circle Liquors and trotted home with my coffee and my expensive bottle of aperitif.
My son and his wife were polite about the naked potato salad. They ate it, but did not wolf it down in the quantities consumed this Sunday at our barbeque for our daughter. (Any wolfing would have been done by my son. Daughter-in-law does not wolf.) If you find traditional potato salad heavy but enjoy cold potatoes, this dish might be for you.

French Potato Salad

8 medium sized potatoes
boiling salted water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Pernod, Ricard or other anise-flavored liqueur
2 tablespoons beef broth
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 tablespoon chopped tarragon
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 cup oil

1. Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender but still firm.
2. Peel the potatoes while still warm and cut into slices one-quarter-inch thick. Place in a salad bowl.
3. In another bowl, combine the salt, pepper, vinegar, Pernod broth and wine. Mix until the salt dissolves.
4. Add the tarragon, parsley and oil and mix well. Pour over the potatoes and toss gently but thoroughly until all the liquid is absorbed. Makes four to six servings.

Trifle Pudding

Trifle Pudding is one of three trifle recipes in the Southern section of the cookbook. Was a time when trifle was beloved of southern hostesses. This is a day before kind of a recipe, since it has a couple of steps and has to chill.  The novice cook would be advised to practice before trying this one at a dinner. The base is custard, mixed with whipped cream in a bowl lined with ladyfingers and almond macaroons.
 Call me an old fart, but I would hazard a guess that many cooks today have no idea what custard is, let alone have made any. British readers, assuming there are any, know about custard sauce, which I suspect is made from a dry mix, but nobody in America even eats custard anymore.
Custard is a dessert made from eggs, sugar and milk. In the 1920s, 30s and even into the 40s, it was fed to small children and the elderly. It was supposed to be nutritious and easy to digest. The nutritious part was probably true. Milk contains vitamin D and calcium. Eggs contain protein. As far as the easy to digest part, I can't say, never having had any issues with digestion. When I was a kid, homemade custard was supplanted by Jello Pudding and Pie Mix. My mother had neither the time nor the inclination to stand over a stove stirring a custard for her little children. Beechnut baby food for her.
Irma Rombauer Becker devotes half a page in The Joy of Cooking to custard.  There are two kinds, baked and cooked on top of the stove. Becker suggests always cooking top of the stove custards in a double boiler, a metal or glass mixing bowl set in a saucepan over boiling water. This method prevents the custard from cooking too quickly and scrambling the eggs. Becker, who is usually above the unexplained clich├ęs of cooking (cook until done) (Huh?), uses a phrase that sets my teeth on edge, "cook until the mixture coats the back of a spoon." Well, this is completely unhelpful, given the fact that many custard based pie mixtures coat the back of a spoon as soon as they are placed on the stove. In my experience, these mixtures have to be cooked at a low heat (3.5 on a gas stove) for ten to twenty minutes. And yes, stirring constantly is necessary if you don't want to have a pan full of orange-flavored scrambled eggs. Stirring over low heat results in the creamy consistency we love in chilled pies.
My advice to a novice cook, or even someone who has plenty of cooking experience but has never made a custard before is to invest in a dozen eggs and make custard before attempting a fancy dessert for a party. Make it, eat it, and see how it turned out. If it isn't the way you want it, (watery, perhaps) try again and turn the heat down.
Once  you have gotten past the custard, you have the ingredients. I got all the unusual ingredients at my local unusual store, Rodmans, on Wisconsin Avenue in DC, a combination gourmet food shop and electronics store. Almond macaroons are also known as amaretti, and can be purchased on the internet at Apparently there are two different kinds of ladyfingers in the world of cuisine, hard and soft. Hard come from Italy. They cannot be split in half, so if you get those, just smear the jelly on the outside of the ladyfingers. Soft are baked here. I have never noticed soft ladyfingers in my local Safeway. If one looks on the internet, apparently they are available at Walmart.  That is not really a good reason to shop at Walmart, in my opinion, but what the hell.
   The amaretti and the ladyfingers are sprinkled with dry sherry. Sherry is a wine from Spain that is a rich brown in color with a sophisticated taste. Do not, under any circumstances, buy cooking sherry. That is sold in the grocery store and has salt in it to make it undrinkable. You don't want salt in your fancy dessert, now do you? Go to the liquor store and invest $18 on a decent bottle of sherry, like Dry Sack or Gonzalez Byas. Then, when the weather gets cool in the fall, sit down in the evening and pour yourself a glass of sherry. You will be glad you did. One does not drink it with ice.
If you don't drink, leave it out. That is preferable to cooking sherry.
I churned this out in the morning for dinner with our friends, Rich and Mary Alice. They seemed to like it, and I sure did.

Trifle Pudding

1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/4 pound (four ounces) candied cherries
1/4 pound ladyfingers
1/4 cup tart currant or beach plum jelly
1/2 pound almond macaroons (amaretti)
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch
1 1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons sugar
2 cups heavy cream

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the almonds on a baking sheet and bake until they are toasted, stirring occasionally. Do not let them burn. Turn off oven and let almonds cool.
3. Chop the almonds and chop the candied cherries.
4. Split each ladyfinger in half and smear the split side with jelly. Arranged layers of jelly-smeared ladyfingers and the macaroons over bottom and side of a round glass mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the sherry.
5. Place the cornstarch in a saucepan and gradually add the milk, stirring with a wire whisk. Beat the eggs and add them along with half the sugar. Bring gently to a boil, stirring constantly, to make a custard. Do not cook over high heat or too long or the custard will curdle. Let cool and fold in chopped cherries.
6. Whip the cream and, before it is stiff, beat in the remaining sugar. Fold the whipped cream into the custard and pour the mixture into the prepared bowl. Chill. When ready to serve, sprinkle with chopped almonds.
Makes six servings.

Chilled Red Snapper Appetizer (Gluten Free)

The red snapper fillet simmering on the stove.
Chilled Red Snapper Appetizer is what it says it is. Red snapper, poached in the aforementioned court bouillon, chilled, with a wonderful eggy, mayonnaise sauce lived up with scallions, (or in my case, chives) capers, etc. It is easy to make, but definitely a morning of recipe. Having made the court bouillon and hard boiled the eggs the night before, I poached my snapper in the big frying pan Friday morning, covered it with plastic wrap and set it in the refrigerator to chill. Friday afternoon, I made the sauce and put the fish on lettuce leaves on salad plates which went back in the refrigerator to await the guests.
I invited Mary Alice and Rich to dinner because we were going to see a play together, and I at least was broke and not up for another restaurant dinner. We ate outside, on our newly rebuilt terrace. The garden, where my husband Bob has been sweating every afternoon, looked great. The peonies were blooming and the vegetable garden was amazingly free of weeds.  The red snapper, as well as the rest of the dinner, was a real hit.
The novice cook could easily reproduce this dish and impress the hell out of his or her guests. The only thing to watch is the cooking time on the fish. Poach means to cook in water, like poached eggs. This time, you poach the fish in the court bouillon. Simmer means boiling gently, with a few bubbles, not dozens. The directions say poach about 15 minutes, so set the timer as soon as you put the fish on the stove and light the burner. On a gas stove, set the dial for the number 4 or between 3 and 4. On an electric stove, start with low heat, and see if things start bubbling. If they don't, turn it up to medium heat. You will know when the fish is done when you can flake a piece off the main bit with a fork.
It helps if you have a wide spatula to get the fish out of the pan.
There is nothing special about the sauce. Other than boiling the eggs, the sauce is not cooked so there is nothing to worry about.
There is one more thing, how much fish to buy. I found that a pound and a quarter was more than enough to feed four people. The two pounds this recipe called for would feed at least eight. So, since snapper is not cheap, cut back accordingly.

Chilled Red Snapper Appetizer

2 pounds red snapper fillets (see narrative.)
4 cups court bouillon (See previous entry.)
4 hard-cooked eggs
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup finely chopped scallions, including green part
1/3 cup drained capers
2 teaspoons Creole mustard, or to taste. (If unavailable use Dusseldorf mustard and add Tabasco sauce to taste.) (I used French mustard. For some reason Dusseldorf mustard seems to be the  go to condiment of "adventurous" cooks of the 50s and 60s. I have actually never seen it in the store.)
Lettuce leaves

1. Simmer the snapper in the court bouillon until fish flakes, about fifteen minutes. Cool the fish, bone and skin. Chill.
2. Mash the yolks of three of the eggs and add the dry mustard, lemon juice and salt.
3. Add the mayonnaise, scallions, capers and Creole mustard. Chop or sieve the whites of three of the eggs and stir in.
4. Arrange the chilled fish on the lettuce leaves and spoon the sauce over. Garnish with remaining egg, cut into slices.
Makes four servings.

Court Bouillion

The Berkshire Farmer is very impressed with the
size of the fish head
Court bouillon is fish consume, or fish broth, if you will. It always seemed to me like one of those immensely complicated and exotic dishes that populated Craig Clairborne's iconic New York Times Cookbook. It needs fish heads and fish bones and other items not readily obtainable in the 21st Century. So you think. Or, more correctly, so I thought.
Well, wrong. Court bouillon is neither exotic nor complicated. You just throw all the ingredients into a pot and simmer. Even though this recipe calls for stuff like cheesecloth, which I have sometimes, don't bother with that. You can, as I said, just throw all the ingredients into a pot and strain the soup through a colander.
Fish heads are obtainable no further away than your local fish store, or at least my local fish store, the Fishery, on Connecticut Avenue. I zoomed up there on Thursday evening, 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave for the theatre to buy the red snapper required for Chilled Red Snapper Appetizer. After the man behind the counter handed me my pound and a quarter of snapper, I tentatively inquired after fish heads.
"What kind do you want?" he asked. I thought, you mean there's a selection? I asked for two red snapper heads, assuming that red snapper were the size of trout. Imagine my astonishment when he came out with two fish heads each larger than our dog's head, individually frozen in plastic bags. We have a corgi, which is not a terribly large dog, but he would make a good size fish. The heads glared through glassy, frozen eyes and the mouths looked like beaks.
"One's fine," I said weakly.
I carried my booty home and stuffed it into the refrigerator so we could leave for the play. At 11:00 pm when we wandered back into the house,  I started taking stuff out to begin the court bouillon. The court bouillon was to poach the red snapper in. We were having our old friends, Rich and Mary Alice to dinner on Friday night, so I wanted to get this sucker done before I went to bed on Thursday.
I quickly identified one major problem, viz. that the fish head was too big for the small stockpot. It had been a while since I had done any serious large scale soup cooking, but I remembered my large stock pot, stainless steel, nine inches high and 11 inches in diameter, lurking up in the cabinet over the refrigerator. I hauled out the little black stool built by my father in law back in the depths of time, and hooked the pot out with the handle of a wooden spoon.
The recipe called for four cups of water. Given the size of the pot and the size of the fish head, I put in six cups of water, feeling sure that the amount of fish product on the head would more than compensate for the extra water. The recipe is also full of finicky details such as sprinkling thyme on the celery stalk, covering it with the bay leaf and tying the whole thing up in a bundle. Well, this ain't Escoffier, I can tell you that. I just threw it all in the pot as it came out of its component spice jars, and drained it the following morning in the colander.
The directions say to simmer the broth for twenty-five minutes. Given that the fish head, which is floating around on Facebook as "our new pet," was frozen solid, I simmered for 45 minutes, turned it off and went to bed.

The next morning I awoke to a rich, salty, essence of fish broth in my pot. Also a shapeless, floppy fish head that I rapidly discarded in the trash can in the alley. Don't put fish leavings in your trash can. You might have to move, or fumigate at the very least. So, the mysterious and exotic court bouillon is a piece of cake.

Court Bouillon

1 cup white wine
4 cups water (or six, depending on the size of the fish head)
bones and head of snapper or other white fish ( I skipped the bones.)
6 peppercorns, bruised (I imagine this means tapped gently with a hammer. I skipped the bruising.)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 small onion
1/2 rib celery
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/2 bay leaf (Be serious. Whoever heard of half a bay leaf? Put in the whole thing!)
2 sprigs parsley

1. Place the wine, water, fish bones and head, peppercorns, salt and onion in a saucepan. (Or stockpot, depending on the size of the fish head.) Sprinkle the inside of the celery with the thyme, cover with the bay leaf and parsley sprigs and tie into a bundle. (See narrative.) Add bundle to the pan.
2. Bring to a boil and simmer twenty-five minutes. Strain through a double thickness of cheesecloth (or a colander.) Makes about one quart.