Of Grenadines and Rose’s

There was a time when grenadine was made from the fruit the French call le grenade — the pomegranate.  The historic recipe was pomegranate juice, sugar, and perhaps the small addition of other fruits and aromatics.  In most quarters now, certainly in the United States, “grenadine” always means Rose’s Grenadine produced by the self-explanatory beverage conglomerate Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPSG), based in Plano, Texas.  The company has a near monopoly on the grenadine market in North America and the Caribbean.

grendadines

Rose’s “grenadine” (I will drop the quotation marks around the DPSG product in subsequent mentions for readability) is, unfortunately, the standard corporate chemical concoction.  Its eight unappealing ingredients — components really — are, in order by volume, (1) high fructose corn syrup, (2) water, (3) citric acid, (4) sodium citrate, (5) sodium benzoate, (6) FD&C Red #40, (7) “natural and artificial flavors”, and (8)FD&C Blue #1.

The taste is thin and over-sweet, with a gruesome chemical bite.  Rose’s grenadine can dye antique porcelain near-permanent red, and we can only wonder at what the “natural” bit of the flavors might be. It’s worth noting that DPSG also produces Hawaiian Punch®.

Even in France, modern grenadine is sometimes red, containing little or no pomegranate.  But it is made with real (various red) fruits.  Natural vanilla is often added.  Middle-eastern suppliers produce deep-purple varieties rich in pomegranate and flavor.

In the US, pomegranate juice concentrate, available from the POM company, is very close to historic and actual grenadine.  As is the company’s POM juice, available at most convenience stores.  Excellent artisanal grenadines can be purchased on Amazon.

If you want that intense red color you get with the DPSG Rose’s grenadine, then add red food coloring directly to your drink or punch — and cut out the middleman.

Ingredients listed on Rose's "grenadine"

Ingredients listed on Rose’s “grenadine”

blueberry_cover

Blueberry Cake (or not)

As made with fresh blueberries and cherries

For me, dessert is a surface phenomena.  I like flat, low crèmes brûlées (more caramelized crust), baked apple tartes over thicker pies, and the smallest mini-cannolis (please).  Save the triple-layer cake for someone else.

My blueberry favorite from my mother’s considerable dessert repertoire has always been what, in my childhood, was so legendary we simply called it “The Blueberry Cake”.  Just an inch or so tall, the cake is not a quite a cobbler, a clafoutis, or a proper streusel — though it involves elements of all of these.  Modest in appearance, and easy to make, the taste never fails to dazzle.  The cake aroma reminds one, rather strikingly, of blueberry pancakes.   Fresh summer cherries can be used in combination with the blueberries.  Renegade readers might even make an all-cherry version.

A well-known food editor (and good friend) argues that this is not really a cake at all:  at an inch or so in height it’s too short, and the “cake” is made in a jelly roll pan, which did not help its case.  Sizes of jelly roll pans, by the way, can vary maddeningly from 15 x 10 x ½ inches up to 16 x 10 x 1 ¼ inches.  If you have a smaller pan, just (sadly) retain a bit of the batter.  You should have at least ¼ inch of space at the top before baking.

The presentation of the recipe below is a compromise forced by the currently-clunky tools available to support Google’s new “rich snippets” for recipe writers.  If only Google understood the need for undefined quantities: you need some extra butter and flour (for the pan).

Recipe: Blueberry “Cake”

Summary: Too short, maybe. But too good to resist.

Ingredients

  • CAKE BATTER:
  • 2 cups flour, sifted
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp real vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 1/2 pints fresh blueberries
  • STREUSEL:
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp real vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a jelly roll pan.
  2. In a bowl, mix all the streusel ingredients until thoroughly blended. Set aside.
  3. In a second bowl, sift the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla extract with a hand mixer, then beat in the eggs one at a time until smooth. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture alternately with the milk, a bit at a time, until fully incorporated. Do not overmix.
  5. Pour the batter into the jelly roll pan.
  6. Put the blueberries in now-empty mixing bowl, and swish them around until they are lightly coated with residual batter (this helps prevent the blueberries from sinking in the pan). Scatter the blueberries evenly over the batter in the pan.
  7. Scatter the struesel evenly over the batter in the pan.
  8. Bake at 350ºF for 30 – 35 minutes.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time: 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 12

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)


Note to baker: The cake will have an even surface, the streusel-like component semi-blends into the cake.

 

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On Chicken Piccata

 

Bucatini is a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a tiny hole in the center.

There are lots of ways to ruin (or just complicate) chicken piccata: garlic, white wine, or peperoncino (red pepper flakes) to name a few.

The word piccata in Italian means an irritation or offense, and such ingredients can do just that to this subtle dish. Nowadays in Italy, the word piccata has also come to reference the dish, there usually made with veal.   To me the most appealing of the word’s purported origins is as an Italianization of the French piqué, meaning something like “stung” in English, a possible reference to the unexpected (and delightful) bite of the lemon when the dish is made properly.

It is part of the magic of a blog that when readers write in, you can add to the post and blithely fail to credit the commenter (sorry Stephen M.).  So it goes in this paragraph, where I now (and newly) mention the occasionally served menu-pun “chicken peccata mundi,” a dish so good it purports to take away the sins of the world.  It apparently does at Angelina’s Restaurant in West Seattle.  Yes Angel-ina’s.   Hopefully there is never a lamb version.

As for the secular chicken piccata, here’s how to do it right.  I developed this recipe from my mother’s version, which involves few measurements but is, of course, excellent.

Recipe: Chicken Piccata with Bucatini

Summary: The best version of an Italian-American classic.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound organic, boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded to 1/2 inch flat
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup capers (preferably nonpareil), rinsed
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon corn starch
  • 1/2 pound imported Italian bucatini (pasta)
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper, freshly ground
  • Semolina flour (sufficient to dredge chicken)

Instructions

  1. Cook the bucatini in plenty of salted water, about 10 minutes (or as directed on the package). Set aside.
  2. Salt and pepper the flattened chicken thighs to taste, and dredge in semolina flour.
  3. Heat the olive oil and butter a large, deep skillet (say, 14 inches x 3 inches) over medium high heat until the butter has melted.
  4. Place the chicken thighs in the pan, and cook 3 minutes or until one side is brown. Lower the heat to medium high.
  5. Turn the chicken in the pan, and brown the other side (about 3 minutes).
  6. Remove the chicken, and set aside.
  7. Pour half the liquid (chicken stock and lemon juice) into the pan. Deglaze (scrape all the browned bits into the liquid) for one minute.
  8. Add the rest of the liquid, the cherry tomatoes, and the capers. Reduce the liquid for about 5 minutes, until somewhat thick.  Add a bit of the corn starch for thickness if desired.
  9. Turn the heat up to high.  Add the pasta to the pan, and stir or toss with tongs for 3 minutes.
  10. Turn off the heat, add the parsley and give a quick stir.  Serve with a good, dry white wine.

Preparation time: 15 minutesCooking time: 15 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 3

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

g_rec2

Google’s Extra Step for Recipe Writers: Programming

So last year, there was a lot of buzz about tech nerds in the kitchen, and scientists in haute cuisine.  This year opened with food bloggers who will need to learn some computer programming — if they want anyone to find their recipes on Google.  I wrote about this in today’s Boston Globe.

To drive its “Recipe View”, which appears automatically on searches that appear to be for recipes, Google has created a whole language of hidden “tags” that, in the non-visible part of the web page, describe the recipe in great detail.  With this information, the Google results page can do whizzy things like sort chicken picatta recipes by prep time, or exclude those that involve sherry (please!). Google tries to make this sound simple to recipe authors by giving the language the cute name “rich snippets.”  For the technically brave, Google describes the how to do it here.

As clever and useful as these codes are, they’re not simple to include just yet.  As some point, WordPress and other publishing platforms might provide a nice recipe-entry interface and inject the codes into the page for for you.  For now it’s a very manual and programmery process, but one that the biggest recipe sites are already quite diligent about following.  They live on the oxygen of Google search traffic.

 

 

 

Golden Beet Salad with Pickled Red Onion and Parsley

In February, I wrote up a recipe for the Boston Globe for pork belly tacos with rooibos-pickled red onion.  That recipe’s creator is a young chef named Austin Banach who works in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.  Several factors have contributed to turning the those excellent pickled onions into a fantastic beet salad.

  1. Whole Foods now has excellent golden beets all the time.  They are one of my favorite vegetables.
  2. All this talk about a “bacon bubble” is making me worry that it soon will be not-fashionable to make pork belly.  We could be in a “pork belly bubble” (which would at least have some alliteration) whose burst is imminent, so I am making pork belly tonight, while we still have time.
  3. The salad has sweet, salty, and acid elements that are great with the roasted pork belly.  The crisp (onion), firm (golden beets), and varied textures of the roasted pork belly (crispy, meaty) are perfect alongside the salad, or rolled with it in a toasted flour tortilla.

The pork belly is made as described in the original recipe.  Serve it with crusty Italian bread, and the salad below.

Golden Beet Salad with Pickled Red Onion and Parsley

  • 4 large golden beets
  • 1 red onion, sliced and quartered
  • 1/2 cup Japanese rice wine vinegar (the sweetened and salted kind)
  • 1 teabag, rooibos or other red-colored fruity tea
  • olive oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C)
  2. Cut the stems off the golden beets, rub them with olive oil, and roast them in the oven, , cut-end down, on a cookie sheet for 80 minutes (or until a knife easily pokes through).
  3. Set the golden beets aside to cool.  (They can even be made the day before)
  4. Mix three tablespoons boiling water with the vinegar and the tea bag.  Let steep 5 minutes and remove the teabag
  5. Place the onions in a medium sized bowl, pour in the tea mixture, and mix to coat/soak all the onions.  Chill the result (in the fridge or freezer).
  6. Peel and slice the beets into pieces a bit larger than bite size. In a large bowl, mix the chilled onion mixture, chopped parsley, and sliced beets.
  7. Toss gently and pour into the serving bowl.  Serve warm.

Serves 5

With roasted pork belly in a toasted tortilla

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Dutch Oven Chicken with Thai Chilies and Garlic

This chicken dish is brilliantly spicy, but not at all overpowering. The taste complexity seems impossible from just 5 ingredients.  And it’s easy to make.

The ingredients

The results

The secret here is to de-seed the Thai chilies before you chop them.  With seeds left in, the quantity of chilies used would be unbearably hot.  The red flesh of the Thai chili has a less forceful and more complex heat that works well with garlic and black pepper.  The Dominican Republic has become a major exporter of these (and other) fresh chilies, and of many exotic Asian vegetables.

  • 2 pounds (1 kg) chicken thighs, peppered and lightly salted.  (bone in, skin on preferred)
  • 12 fresh Thai chilies, de-seeded and roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup (200 ml) dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup (50 ml) olive oil
  • 1 cup (200 ml) vegetable stock
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
  1. In a wide cast iron dutch oven, heat 1/4 cup olive oil (medium flame) and place the chicken in one layer, skin side up.
  2. Let the chicken cook in this position until brown, about 8 minutes over a medium flame.
  3. Turn the chicken, and brown the skin side, about 8 minutes.  Take care not to scorch the chicken (or burn the oil) on a too-high flame.  Also, do not crowd the pan.  If necessary, brown the chicken in batches.
  4. When all the chicken has been browned,  remove it from the pan, set aside, and turn off the heat completely.
  5. Immediately add the chilies and garlic to the hot oil  in the pan.  The cast iron will be hot enough to nicely cook the garlic and chili in about 4 minutes without burning.  Stir occasionally.
  6. After 4-5 minutes, turn the flame back on, at medium-high, and deglaze the pan with a cup of white wine.  Boil for 2-3 minutes so the alcohol can evaporate off.  Some may enjoy adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice here to brighten the flavors a bit.
  7. Put all the chicken in the pan, skin side up, and pour in the vegetable stock.  Cook on medium-high heat for 12 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by half.
  8. Serve in a wide bowl, with generous spoonfuls of the sauce.

Demystifying the Blossom: Squash & Zucchini

Zucchini blossoms (soaked in cold water for an hour)

Food reader, you have no doubt been enticed by the delicate and intricate recipes — and their accompanying carefully-styled photos — for squash blossoms that involve stuffing them, breading them, and other impossible tasks that will cause anyone to never prepare squash blossoms again.

Stuffing the blossom is an activity best reserved for brain surgeons and those suffering from various obsessive-compulsive disorders.  The blossom tears apart easily as you try to stuff it, and easier still in the pan.  Those enticed to bread the blossoms and fry them will enjoy the result as much as anything that’s breaded and fried, but the delicate taste is diminished.

Just sauté them for a couple minutes in a bit of olive oil and butter, salt and pepper.  The result is beautiful, the taste is vegetable-floral and delicate, and the texture will be firm.

Sadly, you may never even get to try.  Even at farmers markets, vendors don’t want to sell them. “They wilt less than a day after they’re picked.  No one will buy wilted blossoms,” says my neighborhood farm-to-overpriced-market owner.  Yes, they may look wilted when you buy them.  Just soak them in cold water for an hour, and they miraculously revive (see photo, above). The same applies for the blossoms of zucchini plants (whose vines produce blossoms in even greater abundance).

I’ve prepared some food-porn, complete with a bit of over-saturated color, to emphasize the point.  Below, the versatile and supple blossoms are shown solo, and lavished on a pork roast.   White wine of course.

with pork roast

blossom-as-hero shot

The Negroni Sbagliato

The search for a fashionable drink has led some to the Negroni, one part each of gin, vermouth, and Campari. I capitalize the “N”  here because the drink is the invention of one Count Camillo Negroni, who, in 1919, was bright enough to fortify the limp and then well-known Americano by replacing the soda-water with gin.  An orange slice was added to distinguish it visually from the Americano.

The OED sites Orson Welles comment on the drink in 1947: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

The Negroni Sbagliato (“spal-yacht-oh”  translates as “wrong”, “mistaken”, or “misbehaving” ) has become so popular in Europe the drink is sometimes just called a “Sbagliato” for short. This latest twist is another substitution, prosecco instead of gin (maybe not as bad for you).

This time they have it right. The prosecco sweetens up the too-bitter Negroni traditionale, and lowers the total alcohol level so you can enjoy more of them.

Usually in a rocks glass, occasionally served in a wine glass:

The Negroni Sbagliato
1 ounce vermouth
1 ounce Campari
2 ounces prosecco
→ Stir over ice and garnish with the traditional orange slice.

Here, a Campari-produced ad recommends sparkling Pinot Chardonnay. I recommend a good dry prosecco.  For the vermouth, the barman here is using Cinzano Bianco, an Italian mid-sweet vermouth made by Gruppo Campari.

Baked Cod with Cannelini Beans and Roasted Tomato

With wild, local cod now around $15/pound in Boston, I want to do something more interesting than just fry it up in a pan.

My friend Sheryl brought me some fabulously fresh ground sumac from her vacation in Jordan. (I’ve since found sumac to be great on boiled yuca — a very underrated starch. Added to the requisite mojo de ajo it yields a zesty, citrus-like flavor, and a a nice speckling of color.)

In this dish, the sumac is playing a more subordinate role, but it adds a pleasant complexity to the overall taste.

Baked Cod with Cannelini Beans and Roasted Tomato

1 pound fresh cod, cut into 6-inch filets
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp high quality extra virgin olive oil (good for you if you use your best olive oil for all 4 tbsps)
1 large onion, halved then sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 large can whole plum tomatoes
3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon rind, grated
1 tbsp orange or tangerine rind, grated
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp ground sumac
2 bay (laurel) leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
1 can (16 oz.) Italian cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
sea salt (to taste)

Preheat the oven to 375º F.

Drain the tomatoes — and retain the juice for Bloody Marys or vegetable stock or some such thing.  You”ll find the juice tastier than canned tomato juice (so heavily salted and often reconstituted).  Cut each tomato in half, just once, and set aside in a bowl.

Heat a large sauté pan with the 3 tbsps of olive oil, and cook the onions until just soft.  Then add all the ingredients except the cannelini beans and parsley.  Yes, really, all of them all at once.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for  about 20 minutes — until the tomatoes are soft but not falling apart.

While the mixture is cooking, take the drained, rinsed cannelini beans and stir in a bowl with the one tbsp high of quality extra virgin olive oil.  Add a bit of fresh-ground pepper  to the beans if you like, and set aside.

Salt and pepper the cod, and arrange  in a 3 quart (on similar-sized) glass baking pan so that there is a bit of space in the center for the cannelini beans.  A bit of olive oil under the fish will keep it from sticking to the pan.  When the contents of the sauté pan are done, turn off the heat, mix in the chopped parsley, and pour the contents of the sauté pan on the fish.  Then pour the cannelini beans on the small space you left in the center of the baking pan.

Bake for 15 minutes, at 375º F.  Do not overcook.  Remember the glass stays hot, and will continue to cook the fish a bit even after you remove it from the oven.

Serve with good, crusty Italian bread and a dry white (a white Beaujolais, Vermentino,  or Chardonnay, would work well).

Rosettes, other cookies, and the Italian-American Christmas

Each year, for Christmas, my mother makes rosettes. Rosettes have only 5 ingredients, yet they are nearly impossible to make. The recipe (if there were a standard one) is different for each particular oven. Timing when combining and mixing the ingredients is so critical that a single minute in either direction before cooking can result in collapsed, inedible discs after cooking.

Even if you manage them to bake the rosettes correctly (congratulations), frosting the cookies is another gauntlet. Frost too early, and the hot cookie will ruinously liquify the frosting. Frost too late, and the cold, hardened frosting will rip the cookie apart as you spread. About 30 seconds separates these two states, so make sure to frost each cookie as it comes out of the oven individually. What fun!

Additionally, the process often fails, partially or completely, for no discernible reason. Witness my 10-year-old niece (the assistant cook) crying over a suddenly and inexplicably gluified mass that cannot be extracted from the mixing bowl.

In short, rosettes are the perfect holiday cookie.

Growing up in our small Italian-immigrant community, I had always believed the traditional set of holiday cookies (wand, pizzelle, dischi, rosettes, taralle …) were the pinnacle of taste and artistry in Italian baking. It seemed that, as such, these marvels of taste-as-pleasure should be enjoyed at most once a year (imagine you are Catholic and this might make sense).

Now I know the truth. The rosettes, for example, are good but are simply one cookie-type. There are certainly many easier-to-make, better-tasting, and festive Italian cookies that come out wonderfully for the first-time maker. Why make rosettes, wand, dischi, and the other half-dozen Italian-American Christmas traditionals?

Making rosettes is a yearly trial for even the most experienced cook. It took my mother (a rosette expert) two discarded batches this Christmas to produce an acceptable third batch of rosettes. The first was destroyed by the Northeastern ice storm that cut her electricity in mid-bake. A few days later, the second batch was flattened by a forced substitution of butter for margarine due to closed roads between her and the supermarket. (butter can collapse the rosettes)

Ok. Why even try? Isn’t there a toll house recipe somewhere on the Food Network web site?

Each Italian woman in my family (or naturalized-Italian wife) has a specific cookie she makes every year. In most cases the same cookie her mother (or mother-in-law) made. The arcane subtlety of preparation that results in an acceptable cookie is passed down from mother to daughter through years of pre-adolescent cookie-bonding in the kitchen.

The tradition is the desired result, the cookie is a side-effect.

With this in mind, I give you a full year to try to master the rosette. My mother’s recipe is below, with her quite valuable but certainly incomplete advice unedited in parentheses.

Ironically, the most colossal failures provide the best memories. Who can forget the 2001 rosettes when she accidentally added salt instead of sugar. Miraculously the right shape, a few rosettes were grabbed by 6-year-old Sarah before anyone else could taste them. Every year, we do an impressions of little Sarah’s shocked face: “Aaack! They don’t taste right!”

Brave readers, let us know how you do.

Rosettes

3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tbsp vanilla (some people use anise)
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine (don’t use butter)

mix to medium softness
shape into balls (use a spoon and flour your hands)
place on a greased sheet pan
bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes

frosting
mix confectioners sugar and milk. keep a fairly stiff consistency. dip or spread (and add sprinkles immediately or frosting will harden).