Wednesday, February 29, 2012

a tasty memoir

On a whim last week, I picked up a small hardback at the library called "Mrs. Blackwell's Heart-of-Texas Cookbook: A Tasty Memoir of the Depression." Two minutes in, I was wholly charmed.

While only a bit of narrative (co-authored by two sisters) links a slew of resourceful farmhouse recipes for all kinds of biscuits, potato dishes and gravies, it reads pretty much as if Laura Ingalls Wilder had been bumped forward about half a century and relocated to a part of East Texas where Corsicana was considered the big city. The book is the sisters' compilation of the recipes their mother used to feed their family of 11 day in and day out, and her secret seems to lie in leaving nothing behind. With the right treatment on the stove, Mrs. Blackwell seems to have found, any old scrap can nourish — as well as earn its place in lore. John Henry Faulk, the famed Texas storyteller, opens the book with the once-widespread belief that fried chicken gizzards "had magical powers: they made boys good-looking and girls' bosoms grow spacious."

Naturally, the section on holiday turkey starts with, "First, catch the turkey."

The 1930s quaintness continues:

• A caramel dessert is listed as "Burnt Sugar Pie."
• In harder times, brownies were a great luxury with only a quarter of the chocolate in my favorite supernatural brownies recipe.
• Dessert recipes call for vanilla, cinnamon, the usual. But these were available to Depression-era families only by way of a door-to-door condiment salesman.

Also, some recipes depend not on the calibration of your oven, but the reliable heat of Texas in August. Instructions for drying peaches or apples begin this way: "Select a place on the tin roof of a barn, smokehouse, or any building which is leeward to the outhouse." At the end of the summer, this should take 10 to 14 days. And make sure to account for any rain or heavy dew.

I put one super-simple recipe to the test and baked cookies that turned out thin but chewy and not much to look at but tasty, as the memoir's title suggests. Mrs. Blackwell's Scotch cookies seemed like the sort of plain tea snack Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle would have referred to as a "cooky," a spelling that I used to think referred to something entirely different from the Oreos and Tollhouse cookies I knew.

I think she must have meant something like this. Sometimes quaint is quite nice.

Scotch cookies

1/2 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Cream butter and sugar. Stir in eggs, then dry ingredients. Drop on greased cookie sheet and bake in moderate oven (I took this to mean 350 degrees) for 8 to 10 minutes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

the basil makes it

About 7 p.m. on Valentine's Day, my neighborhood grocery store was nowhere near empty of metallic red balloons, chocolate-dipped strawberries or cordate (thanks, V-day-themed Word Of The Day) boxes of candy. But the two rows that usually hold fresh basil were totally barren. So Miguel stopped by Whole Foods on his way home to grab the ingredient that tops and simply makes a dinner of skillet lasagna, probably our kitchen's most-repeated recipe. That store was out of basil too, so I called Farm to Market down the street, and they (again) saved the day.

The message here, if Feb. 14 grocery store shoppers are indeed onto something: ladies don't care about the stuff that'll get thrown out tomorrow. Cook us some Italian food!

A few years ago, I tore a page out of Cook's Country magazine with a recipe for skillet lasagna, and it's held with a magnet on the side of our refrigerator next to postcards from friends' travels to Puerto Rico, upstate New York and a national park in Utah. While it's not the most perfect-looking specimen (I leave that to Deb, my guru of precision and sharp corners), it's comforting and homey and takes under an hour to make — a feat when it comes to homemade lasagna. That means it tastes like something special, but you don't have to wait for a special day to make it.

For dessert, I made Food52's latest genius recipe, which takes only two ingredients and lots of science. Hervé This' water+chocolate+stirring=chocolate mousse recipe took about 10 minutes but produced a treat of the fanciest, shmanciest kind. It's as superlative as the genius title promises, but I'd add two bits of warning. 1) Wear an apron and not your favorite pale gray, easily spattered button-down shirt. 2) The line that says "This all happens fast as the mixture cools" means that the transition from a batter-like consistency to mousse is sudden, not fast in the sense that the whole process takes only a few turns of the whisk. Psyche yourself up to really use your biceps for a few minutes. It's worth it.

Skillet lasagna
from Cook's Country magazine
serves 4 to 6

one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 pound meatloaf mix (I always use ground beef)
10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 2-inch lengths
one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
several basil leaves, torn

Pour tomatoes with their juices into 1-quart liquid measuring cup. Add water until mixture measures 1 quart.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1/2 tsp. salt and cook until onion begins to brown, about five minutes. Stir in garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground meat and cook, breaking apart meat, until no longer pink, about four minutes.

Scatter pasta over meat but do not stir. Pour diced tomatoes with juices and tomato sauce over pasta. Cover and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat and stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Dot with heaping tablespoons ricotta, cover and let stand off heat for five minutes. Sprinkle with basil and remaining 2 Tbsp. Parmesan.

Hervé This' chocolate mousse
Serves 4

3/4 cup (6 ounces) water
8 ounces chocolate (pick one toward the bittersweet end of the cocoa spectrum)
ice cubes

Simply pour water into a saucepan. Then, over medium-low heat, whisk in the chocolate. The result is a homogenous sauce.

Put the saucepan in a bowl partly filled with ice cubes (or pour into another bowl over the ice
it will chill faster), then whisk the chocolate sauce, either manually with a whisk or with an electric mixer (if using an electric mixer, watch closely it will thicken faster). Whisking creates large air bubbles in the sauce, which steadily thickens. After a while strands of chocolate form inside the loops of the whisk. Pour or spoon immediately into ramekins, small bowls or jars and let set.

Note: Three things can go wrong. Here's how to fix them. If your chocolate doesn't contain enough fat, melt the mixture again, add some chocolate, and then whisk it again. If the mousse is not light enough, melt the mixture again, add some water, and whisk it once more. If you whisk it too much, so that it becomes grainy, this means that the foam has turned into an emulsion. In that case simply melt the mixture and whisk it again, adding nothing.

Serve immediately, or refrigerate. Top with whipped cream if desired.