Cheese Böreks

This recipe is another from novelist Ellen Douglas, a.k.a. Josephine Haxton, author of the National Book Award nominated Apostles of Light—a heart-wrenching read—and many other luminous works of fiction. Böreks are a type of filled, baked phyllo pastries very similar to spanakopita, and indeed spinach is an often-used filling, as are other vegetables, cheeses and meats. This recipe will make many dozens, depending on the size, is easily doubled and can be frozen after the pastries are formed or after cooking.

Take a half pound each grated mozzarella and feta cheese, mix will a pint of cottage cheese, two large well-beaten eggs and a tablespoon or so of chopped parsley. Brush each of a dozen sheets of phyllo pastry with melted butter, cut into strips an inch or so wide and three or four inches long. Place a spoonful of the cheese filling at the top edge of the strip and fold “like you fold a flag” into triangles or fold into squares and pinch the edges. Brush with an egg white beaten in a half cup of water, sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds and bake twenty minutes or so at 375.

The Trout Whisperer

Among anglers along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, David Lee Odom is a legend. Fellow sportsman and neighbor Dan Vimes, noting Odom’s impressive knack for hooking the fish that Howard Mitcham called “the Gulf Coast’s own”, the speckled trout, calls him “the trout whisperer”. Odom himself says, “The quest for the elusive speckled trout is a salty coastal religion. Ask any inshore fisherman on the Mississippi coast if they could either catch a trophy marlin or a state record speckled trout there would be a unanimous answer and it ain’t marlin.”

Odom explains that “specks” actually are not a species of trout but a type of drum and a cousin to the redfish. The male specks make an audible drumming sound when caught. “There are two types of stubborn speck fisherman,” Odom said. “Those that only use artificial lures or those that rely on live bait and are too lazy to be chucking lures over and over and over. It divides us like some smelly civil war. My wife Kim and I are in the live bait camp: brown, white and pink shrimp directly from the Mississippi Sound are like candy to speckled trout.”

“If you are on the Mississippi coast in the winter and traveling over the Biloxi or Bay Saint Louis bridge look inland … the specks are in the river, and if it’s summer look out to the Mississippi Sound and know those tea-stained waters are chock full of schools of speckled trout waiting for you to catch them. From late April through early June specks transition from freshwater rivers into the salty Gulf of Mexico to spawn. This is when Kim and I try and fill the freezer with fresh filets.”

“Our strategy, like any saltwater fishermen, starts with knowing what the tide is going to do and heading out when the water is flowing the fastest. Our rig is simple: rod and reel, 15 lb. test fishing line and starting at the cork going down the leader length is adjusted to the depth of the water. The leader material is a thicker line attached to the fishing line that is tougher to bite through and withstands the abrasions from oyster beds. If it’s rigged just right the shrimp is wearing a small treble hook for a hat and swims freely making a popping noise about a foot above the oyster reef as it drifts near the bottom. We fish the Pass Marianne Reef. It’s positioned 5 miles due south of the Pass Christian Harbor. Originally called the Merrill Shell Bank, the base of the old lighthouse built in the 1800’s still sits above the water and marks the spot for hundreds of anglers each year hoping to fill their coolers.”

“The flesh of speckled trout is prized because it doesn’t taste ‘fishy’. Freshness is the foundation for any recipe to prepare this delicate white meat fish, but it takes planning and work. If done just right the filets will have bright pink hue even 6 months after freezing. Once the fish is caught it’s immediately immersed in iced ocean salt water. This ensures clear eyes at the time the fish will be cleaned. The filets are thoroughly washed, blotted bone dry then vacuum sealed. We always save a few filets to eat before freezing. This is a Gulf-to-ice-to-plate freshness that only speck fisherman get to experience.”

“So how do my wife and I cook speckled trout? “Heat da grease!” Fried in corn flour (a.k.a. “fish fry”) to golden brown perfection leads the charge on our coast but fresh blackened speck tacos topped with seasonal with fresh seasonal salsas or hot fanny trout or are our preferred methods of preparation. Freshness allows for the simplest of ingredients, so let’s go with so let’s go with:

Hot Fanny Trout

Take your fresh filets and brush them lightly with olive oil, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, squeeze on some fresh lemon juice and broil till just firm. Heat 1/4 cup of Worcestershire, two tablespoons unsalted butter, the juice of a lemon and mix well. Then toast a handful of fresh chopped pecan halves in a skillet till dark brown and blister a fresh chopped jalapeño (seeded and deveined). Top the filets with the pecan/jalapeño mix and ladle on the sauce. A little more fresh-squeezed lemon never hurts.

Pork Saltimbocca

Slice a 12 oz. pork tenderloin into 6 medallions and pound thinly. Have on hand 6 thin slices prosciutto and 6 large fresh sage leaves. Dredge pork in all-purpose flour seasoned with salt and black pepper. Arrange 1 prosciutto slice over pork. Top with 1 sage leaf and spear with a wooden pick. Heat about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan, add pork and brown lightly. Remove pork; add about a tablespoon of finely chopped shallots and a teaspoon of garlic. Add about 1/4 cup each white wine and chicken stock to pan, cook until reduced by about half, finish with about a tablespoon unsalted butter. Arrange pork on a warm plate and drizzle with pan juices. Serve immediately.

saltimbocca2-1-1

Basic Caponata

Not long ago a friend said that he who ate the first eggplant was much more courageous than he who ate the first oyster. (Yes, they were both guys; Urk, the Australopithecus I channel to know such things told me so). Oysters, after all, are mere mollusks while eggplants are noxious nightshades. Since eggplant must be gussied up quite a bit before I’ll make a meal with it, I agreed with fervor. Fortunately, the eggplant, like Cher, has so little character that it’s a pliable basis for dozens of really good dishes such as this Sicilian nosh which itself has many variations, served hot or cold, as a side or a spread. A friend makes vegetarian muffalettas with it, and while purists may wail, there’s nothing to stop you from using caponata instead of olive relish on a meat muffaletta. It’s simple to make, keeps well, and the flavor improves with age. This recipe makes about a quart.

Peel and cube one large eggplant, stew in olive oil with a finely-minced clove of garlic and about half a cup each of chopped celery and sweet onion. This is one of the few recipes you’ll find me recommending a sweet onion; caponata is a sweet/sour concoction, and I prefer to use vegetables and dried fruit for the sweetness instead of sugar. You’ll add maybe a rind of smoked sweet red pepper (a ripe pickled cherry is a nice touch, too), a scant handful of chopped olives and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste to round out the (somewhat) savory elements along with a jolt of strong red wine for both you and the pan. For out-and-out sweetness, use a half cup of dried fruit, figs being excruciatingly appropriate, but don’t let that stop you from using the raisins, dates or apricots you have on hand. A heaping teaspoon of capers (the eponymous and therefore compulsory component) gives enough salt. and a measure of herbal vinegar will set the tartness. With seasonings you’re on your own, but don’t use too much of anything; let the meld define the flavor.

Grilled Cheese: An International Primer

Naturally I had every intention of entering the contest in Laurel Street Park, but I was advised by a dear friend that as a food professional I am tacitly eschewed from entering such cordial amateur competitions, even to the point of my neighborly offering of a random preliminary judgement free of charge. So in lieu of more active and visible participation and in the utmost spirit of concord and rapport, I here offer a modest backstage contribution.

As stipulated by the contest rules—and yes, I did solicit (and receive) a copy—a grilled cheese is in some form or the other heated bread and cheese, and while starches are a widespread culinary commodity, cheese is not for the simple reason that the greater part of humanity is lactose intolerant. Most of the cheese-eating peoples are in the ‘northwestern’ quadrant of the globe, which has led some geneticists to theorize that the gene governing lactose tolerance is linked to that of blue eyes. This in turn has led other species of scientists to speculate both characteristics are evidence of sexual congress between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, but if you ask me that’s sheer projection on their part.

Let’s start at ground zero, the American grilled cheese. The classic American grilled cheese is simply a piece of American cheese layered between two pieces of white bread and then griddled with butter. In 1916, James L. Kraft obtained a patent for processed cheese that was easy to transport without spoiling or perishing. Soon slices of the cheap processed cheese was being grilled between slices of mass-produced white bread (Wonder bread was a frequent choice), and the dish became an essential companion to heated canned soups, particularly Campbell’s tomato. Though like any mass-produced/processed product the American grilled cheese has multitudes of detractors, it remains a favorite staple in households across the country.

Across the Pond there’s Welsh rabbit, which is made not with conies but bread, cheese in a sauce and the always-welcome option of beer. The most basic version involves thick slices of bread slathered in a thick cheese sauce made with Cheddar or some other substantial firm, off-white cheese with a slosh of your choice of beer (a good stout is excellent) and broiled. No one really knows any more how cheese on toast came to be called ‘rabbit’ or ‘rarebit’ (the variations in spelling seem to be arbitrary), but both Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin gave a recipe for ‘Lapin Gallois’ and a ‘Wouelsche Rabette’ first appeared in Antoine Beauvilliers’ L’Art du Cuisinier in 1814. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

Traveling east across the Channel you find in France the croque monsieur, which is Gruyere cheese melted inside a ham sandwich, topped with a Bechamel sauce, more Gruyere and broiled. A version called croque madame is topped with a fried egg. The dish originated in French cafés and bars during la Belle Époque as a quick snack, the name based on the verb croquer (“to bite, to crunch”) and the word monsieur (“mister”). The sandwich’s first recorded appearance on a Paris café menu was in 1910 and the dish is actually mentioned in volume two (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919) of Proust’s epic À la recherche du temps perdu, a profound work which also happens to be a culinary mother lode.

Then you have raclette, a semi-hard cow’s milk French cheese usually fashioned into a wheel of about 3 lb. that’s heated, either in front of a fire or by a special machine—you can buy a Swissmar KF-77045 Classic 8 Person Raclette (with granite stone top: red) for $120 on Amazon—then scraped onto diners’ plated bread. The term raclette itself derives from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape”. Raclette was mentioned in medieval writings in texts from Swiss-German convents dating from as early as 1291. The cheese was originally consumed by peasants in the mountainous Alpine regions of Valais (Switzerland), Savoie and Haute-Savoie (France). It was then known in the German-speaking part of Switzerland as Bratchäs, or “roasted cheese”. Traditionally, cow herders carried cheese with them when they were moving cows to or from mountain pastures and the cheese would be placed next to a campfire for melting.

In Italy you have what is called mozzarella in carozza, which translates as “cheese (okay, mozzarella) in a carriage”. Sliced mozzarella is placed between sliced, crust-less white bread, dredged in a milk with beaten eggs and either pan- or deep-fried. If you ask me, it’s the mozzarella in carozza—NOT the croque monsieur that’s the undoubted precursor of that classic old diner specialty, the Monte Cristo sandwich, which employs the exact same procedure and ingredients with Swiss cheese and sliced ham or turkey. I substantiate this claim for the simple reason that the Monte Cristo’s origins can be traced to New York City, which has always boasted a great many people of Italian descent and Monte Cristo itself happens to be in Livorno.

So there.

A grilled cheese in Sweden (sounds like a Vonnegut title, doesn’t it?) is called a varm macka, which simply means “warm muck”. Some of you might recoil at such nomenclature, but let me be the first to assure you that when it comes to culinary terminology, “muck” is small potatoes indeed. For the most part, Swedish sandwiches—called smörgås—are open-faced, and even most simple cheese sandwiches are made open-faced and eaten cold. But a varm macka is cheese, not Grevé or Herrgårdsost as you might suspect but rather Gouda (Dutch) or Swiss, sliced, placed on buttered bread and heated in the oven.

Back to the New World and across the Rio Grande is the quesadilla, a tortilla, usually a flour tortilla but sometimes corn, filled with cheese and grilled. A full quesadilla involves two tortillas filled with cheese, stacked and heated, halves are a single tortilla filled with cheese and folded into a half-moon shape. Mexican quesadillas are traditionally cooked on a comal, which is also used to prepare tortillas. They are usually cooked without oil, but quesadillas can be fried to make quesadillas fritas, While Oaxaca (or string) cheese is the most common filling, other ingredients are also used in addition to the cheese, including cooked vegetables, such as potatoes with chorizo, squash blossoms, mushrooms, epazote, huitlacoche, and different types of cooked meat, such as chicharron, tinga made of chicken or beef, or cooked pork. Avocado or guacamole, green or red salsas, chopped onion, tomato, chiles, and cilantro are the most common toppings.

Farther south in Venezuela is the arepa de queso, a stuffed corn cake made from masa flour and then cooked on a cast iron skillet. The arepa is filled with local farmer’s cheese (mozzarella is a viable substitute) and then griddled again. Thee word arepa comes from “erepa” which means corn bread in the language of the indigenous people of Venezuela and Colombia. Early arepas were made with cassava (or yucca) flour as well as corn.

Finally, in Brazil you have a fascinating dish called the bauru. The traditional recipe calls for cheese (usually mozzarella) melted in a bain-marie, slices of roast beef, tomato and pickled cucumber in a French bun with the crumb (the soft inner part) removed. The bauru’s origins are actually well documented. In 1934, a student at the Faculdade de Direito do Largo de São Francisco, in São Paulo, Casemiro Pinto Neto[2] (known as Bauru for coming from the city of the same name in São Paulo state), entered Ponto Chic, a traditional eatery and student hangout, and asked the cook to prepare a sandwich from his specifications. “Bauru’s Sandwich” was an immediate hit, and eventually became the best-selling dish at the place. Many other eateries offer sandwiches named bauru with different combinations of ingredients—using sliced ham instead of roast beef or sliced bread instead of French bread. The city of Bauru eventually named the traditional bauru as the city’s official sandwich, codifying the recipe in a municipal law and instituting an official certification program.

In closing, I do hope the weather proves fair enough to hold the competition and wish the best of luck to all the contestants.

 

The Practical Primavera

Once touted as “America’s grandest contribution to the pasta repertoire”, pasta primavera was invented in New York at Le Cirque in 1977, and according to the ineffable Craig Claiborne soon became “by far the most talked-about dish in Manhattan”. The dish remained popular throughout the Eighties and today is almost cliché, but for all its snooty pedigree is still a good standard for the home kitchen.

A simple dish, primavera is pasta with spring vegetables from the kitchen and garden along with what’s fresh in the market, all cooked with a cream reduction. A reduction simply means that you simmer the cream until thickened to a consistency that will coat the pasta and vegetables as in an alfredo, and quite frankly a primavera is little more than an alfredo with vegetables. Most often a dry hard cheese such as Parmesan or Romano is grated into the cream for added flavor and a heavier consistency. You’ll have to blanch most non-leafy vegetables beforehand, and while some people will advise you to assess vegetable ingredients before making a decision about the type of pasta you should use. I can’t begin to express how over the top this is, and thankfully spaghetti noodles are the norm.

Sauté cooked pasta and blanched vegetables along with a bit of minced garlic and scallions in enough butter to coat, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper, then add heavy cream along with a light sprinkling of your choice of cheese. Simmer until cream begins to thicken, adding enough to coat both vegetables and pasta. It helps if you’re practiced in tossing the mixture, but a spoon or (better yet) tongs work in a pinch. I used fresh spinach, tender young summer squash, carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and angel hair pasta.

Roadkill Salad

At Clancy’s in Yazoo City, one of the best barbecue joints in central Mississippi, they serve what they call a ‘Roadkill Chef’, with the usual greens and vegetables along with your choice of four meats: turkey, ham, pulled pork or smoked chicken.  Now, you can order a roadkill salad in damn near any restaurant in the western hemisphere under the name ‘chef’, but viaphagia (much as geophagia) has become something of a Southern in-joke, and the good folks at Clancy’s offer it in the same jocular spirit restaurants in Oregon might offer a Sasquatch salad with fruits, nuts, roots or sprouts.

 

Watergate Cake

While those of an age should remember Watergate as a by-word for illicit, illegal political intrigue and machinations, those younger will simply find this amalgamation of pistachio, coconut and pudding a pretty cake for St. Paddy’s Day. Such are the lessons of history.

1 box white cake mix
1 cup oil
1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1 cup lemon-lime soda
3 eggs
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut

2 (3 oz.) envelopes Dream Whip
1 1/2 cups milk
1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut

Pour cake mixture into two greased and dusted 9-inch round baking pans, bake and cool completely. Whip Dream Whip and milk into peaks, gradually add pudding mix and keep beating into a fluff. Assemble cake, frosting between layers then frost completely, sprinkle with pistachios and coconut. Refrigerate before serving.

 

Vieiras Veracruz

Mexico has almost six thousand miles of coastline—about half of the estimated total for the U.S.—but mollusks don’t seem to play a proportionate role in the country’s cuisine. Kennedy includes only one recipe for scallops in her classic Cuisines of Mexico, a cebiche, and not a single one for oysters. This is not to say that oysters and scallops aren’t eaten in the country, simply an observation that no single indigenous recipe for them has become familiar to the world at large. However, recipes for salt-water fish abound, one of the most distinctive being red snapper Veracruz (huachinango a la Veracruzana), a rich, colorful dish with dozens of variants, but all using tomatoes and chilies in various proportions.

This scallop recipe is a riff on that staple, though lighter and more intense. First, if you’re using frozen scallops, you must thaw them and squeeze out the excess water that inevitably makes its way into the meat. Even after doing this, you’ll find the scallop muscles will exude a lot of moisture when exposed to heat, so a preliminary sauté is necessary. Once the scallops are firm, coat them with pepper a bit of salt and the lightest dusting of plain flour. Brown in the least bit of oil possible, then add by spoonfuls this salsa, along with jolts of fresh lime juice and perhaps a bit of garlic. The scallops should be pungent, piquant, highly aromatic and served with cucumber or melon.