October 31, 2015

A Foodie Look at Halloween...

I like to think I look at things from a different perspective than most, at least when it comes to food. It is, I hope, one of the reasons you read me. I'm a why guy and with that question, usually comes good information. Usually. I have found that when I know the why of something, or someone, I understand that person or thing a bit better. Sometimes for good...sometimes for bad. But hey, life's a crap shoot right? You don't gain if you don't risk. What does this have to do with Halloween? Actually, not much, but thanks for listening.

Except maybe to say that I'm going to take a completely different look at Halloween. Culturally, through food. What a surprise. See when I was an Italian kid, in North Jersey, we would go trick or treating in the neighborhoods we grew up in. Neighborhoods with the same neighbors, usually aunts, or cousins or cousin of a cousin. In the same houses, for years upon end. People we trusted and in some cases loved. At Halloween, that meant we used to get home baked pies, fresh from the oven cookies, and treats made by the people from scratch. Real food items from neighbors, friends and family. I always thought that was cool. Even then I was a foodie in training.

Don't get me wrong, I loved all the candy as well, eating it until I was tooth-achingly nauseous. But, the home-made 'treats' we received usually meant sitting down at the table with a glass of milk and questions about your mom and dad and family. You then wiped your face on the back of your hand, kissed Aunt Josephine and raced off to the Aunt Rosina's for the next visit and course. By the time you got home, you were stuffed! I loved stopping by 10 relatives houses, 'making the rounds,' seeing my aunts, uncles, cousins, family and friends on our little three hour tour. It got me thinking about all those treats and I decided to take look at some of the food traditions of Halloween.

Admittedly there are many beliefs, misconceptions and traditions which surround this holiday. I say holiday with an asterisk, like they use in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, when there is a disputed record. Halloween is that kind of day. It's Pagen, it's Christian, It's evil,  it's innocent. It's harmless, it's Mischief Night...it's...well whatever! Trick or Treat! BOO!

Halloween 
Halloween or Hallowe'en as we refer to it now, is also known as All Hallows' Eve, observed around the world on October 31 on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows. Most scholars believe that All Hallows' Eve was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead, with pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. Many ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a festival of the dead. Others maintain that it originated independently of Samhain. I was actually amazed when I started to do the research, that what I thought was a very American holiday, is in fact an ancient ritual dating back centuries. Now we have definitely made it a national pastime here in America, but I was more interested in a look at the traditions around the world.

The majority of our modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles. People took steps to allay or ward-off these harmful spirits/fairies, which is thought to have influenced today's Halloween customs. In parts of Ireland, Mann, the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and Wales, wearing costumes at Samhain was done before the 20th century originating as a means of disguising oneself from these harmful spirits/fairies. In Ireland, people went about before nightfall collecting for Samhain feasts and sometimes wore costumes while doing so.

In the 19th century on Ireland's southern coast, a man dressed as a white mare would lead youths door-to-door collecting food; by giving them food, the household could expect good fortune from the 'Muck Olla'. In Moray, during the 18th century, boys called at each house in their village asking for fuel for the Samhain bonfire. So it's easy to see where Trick-or-treating may have come from. But wait, it also may come from the Christian custom of souling; Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door on All Saints/All Souls collecting soul cakes, originally as a means of praying for souls in purgatory. Making jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween came from Samhain and Celtic beliefs as well. Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them are recorded in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is the baking of a barmbrack (Irish: báirín breac), which is a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other charms are placed before baking. It is said that those who get a ring will find their true love in the ensuing year. Though the origin of the word Halloween is Christian, the holiday is commonly thought to have pagan roots.

North American almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century give no indication that Halloween was recognized as a holiday there. The traditions and importance of the Halloween celebration vary significantly among countries that observe it. In Scotland and Ireland, traditional Halloween customs include children dressing up in costume going "guising", holding parties, while other practices in Ireland include lighting bonfires, and having firework displays. The influence of the American iconic and commercial components of the holiday now extended to places such as South America, Australia, New Zealand, (most) continental Europe, Japan, and other parts of East Asia.

Halloween Food around the World

Barmbrack (Ireland)
Barmbrack is the center of an Irish Halloween custom. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolise going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day

Bonfire toffee (Great Britain)
Bonfire toffee (also known as treacle toffee, cinder toffee, Plot toffee, or Tom Trot) is a hard, brittle toffee associated with Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night (also known as "Bonfire Night") in the United Kingdom. The toffee tastes very strongly of molasses (black treacle), and cheap versions can be quite bitter. In Scotland, the treat is known as claggum, with less sweet versions known as clack. In Wales, it is known as loshin du. The flavor is similar to that of butterscotch, although it is a toffee and never a viscous liquid.

Candy apples/toffee apples (Great Britain & Ireland)

Candy apples, also known as toffee apples outside of North America, are whole apples covered in a hard toffee or sugar candy coating, with a stick inserted as a handle. These are a common treat at autumn festivals in Western culture in the Northern Hemisphere, such as Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night because these festivals fall in the wake of the annual apple harvest. Although candy apples and caramel apples may seem similar, they are made using distinctly different processes.
 
William W. Kolb invented the red candy apple. Kolb, a veteran Newark candy-maker, produced his first batch of candied apples in 1908. While experimenting in his candy shop with red cinnamon candy for the Christmas trade, he dipped some apples into the mixture and put them in the windows for display. He sold the whole first batch for 5 cents each and later sold thousands yearly. Soon candied apples were being sold along the Jersey Shore, at the circus and in candy shops across the country, according to the Newark News in 1948.

Caramel Apples

Caramel apples or taffy apples (not to be confused with candy apples) are created by dipping or rolling apples-on-a-stick in hot caramel, sometimes then rolling them in nuts or other small savories or confections, and allowing them to cool. Generally, they are called caramel apples when only caramel is applied and taffy apples for when there are further ingredients such as peanuts applied.

Caramel Corn
An American confection made of popcorn coated with a sugar or molasses based caramel candy shell. Typically a sugar solution or syrup is made and heated until it browns and becomes thick, producing a caramelized candy syrup. This hot candy is then mixed with popped popcorn, and allowed to cool. Sometimes a candy thermometer is used, as making caramel is time-consuming and requires skill to make well without burning the sugar. The process creates a sweet flavored, crunchy snack food or treat. Some varieties, after coating with the candy syrup, are baked in an oven to crisp the mixture. Mixes of caramel corn sometimes contain nuts, such as peanuts, pecans, almonds, or cashews. The combination of caramel and corn dates back at least as far as the 1890s with the strong molasses flavor of Cracker Jack, an early version of which was introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The lighter, sweet but un-caramelized kettle corn, may be a North American Colonial predecessor to caramel corn.

Candy Corn, (North America)
Candy corn is a confection in the United States and Canada, popular primarily in autumn around Halloween (though available year-round in most places). Candy corn was created in the 1880s by George Renninger of the Wunderlee Candy Company; the three colors of the candy mimic the appearance of kernels of corn. Each piece is approximately three times the size of a whole kernel from a ripe or dried ear. Candy corn is made primarily from sugar, corn syrup, wax, artificial coloring and binders. A serving of Brach's Candy Corn is nineteen pieces, is 140 calories and has zero grams of fat. Candy corn pieces are traditionally cast in three colors: a broad yellow end, a tapered orange center, and a pointed white tip.

Colcannon (Ireland)
Colcannon is traditionally made from mashed potatoes and kale (or cabbage), with scallions, butter, salt and pepper added. It can contain other ingredients such as milk, cream, leeks, onions and chives. There are many regional variations of this dish. It is often eaten with boiled ham or Irish bacon. At one time it was a cheap, year-round staple food, though nowadays it is usually eaten in autumn/winter, when kale comes into season. An old Irish Halloween tradition is to serve colcannon with a ring and a thimble hidden in the fluffy green-flecked dish. Prizes of small coins such as threepenny or sixpenny bits were also concealed in it.

Soul Cakes
A soul cake is a small round cake which is traditionally made for All Saints Day or All Souls' Day to celebrate the dead. The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, were given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who would go from door to door on Halloween singing and saying prayers for the dead. Each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes is often seen as the origin of modern trick-or-treating. In Lancashire and in the North-east of England they were also known as Harcakes.

The tradition of giving soul cakes was celebrated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy. The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows Eve as an offering for the dead, and on All Saints Day and All Soul's Day children would go "souling," or ritually begging for cakes door to door.

Soul Cakes
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes

Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon salt
generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup currants

For the Glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten

Method
Preheat oven to 400 degree. Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork. Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat. Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.

One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup.
Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently. Decorate the soul cakes with currants and then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny.

Bon Appetit,

Lou 
Sources: foodnetwork.com, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

October 29, 2015

Did you know Lox & Gravlax are NOT the same? Well now you do and here's a recipe to make your own Lox.

If you have grown up in a Jewish or Scandinavian household, the tale I am about to tell is a part of your heritage. If not, fellow foodie, "just sit right back and you'll hear a tale..the tale of a fateful........salmon fillet!" Come with me on a journey to discover Lox, and, the common misconceptions that have been foisted on an unsuspecting public, even by supposed culinary luminaries. That, my friends, is why it's a good thing I am here for you; to diligently give you culinary info that is both factual and entertaining. (if I may say so myself.)
First let's start with the definitions. We have Lox, Gravlox, Nova Lox. All share one commonality but, as some of you may not be be aware, they are completely separate and different products.

Lox
Lox is salmon fillet that has been cured. In its most popular form, the one most of us are familiar with, it is thinly sliced, less than 5 millimeters (0.20 in) in thickness and typically served on a bagel with cream cheese, onion, tomato, cucumber and capers. It is traditionally made by brining in a solution of water or oil, salt, sugars and spices (the brine). This was a very important item in Ashkenazic Jewish cuisine, but most are surprised that it was actually introduced to the United States through Scandinavian immigrants, then popularized by Jewish immigrants. The term lox derives from Lachs in German and לאקס (laks) in Yiddish, meaning "salmon." It is analogous of the Icelandic and Swedish lax, the Danish and Norwegian laks, and Old English læx. It may be commonly referred to as regular lox or belly lox, though technically, with belly lox, the flesh on both sides of the stomach of the salmon has a wider graining of fat, is less salty tasting and is more desirable and accordingly, more expensive. Below is a recipe to make your own Lox, which is absolutely fabulous and worth the effort, especially if you are a lox lover.

Gravlax
Gavlax, or gravad lax is a Nordic dish consisting of salmon, cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is usually served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås (also known as gravlaxsås), a dill and mustard sauce. It is served on either bread of some kind, or with boiled potatoes. In the Middle Ages, it was originally made by fishermen. They would salt the salmon, then bury it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which literally means "grave" or "to dig" (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and Estonian), and lax (or laks), means "salmon." Thus, gravlax literally means "buried salmon." Today, the salmon is coated with a spice mixture, which often includes dill, sugars, salt, and spices like juniper berry. It is then weighted down, which helps to to force the moisture from the fish (see recipe below) and impart the flavorings.

Nova Lox
Nova or Nova Scotia salmon, sometimes called Nova lox (or simply "Nova"), is cured with a milder brine and then cold-smoked. The name dates from a time when much of the salmon in New York City came from Nova Scotia. Today, however, the name refers to the more mildly brined product, and the fish may come from other waters or in some cases is raised on farms.

Smoked Salmon
Finally, smoked salmon is NOT lox, though products are sold under the name lox. Smoked salmon is just... well... smoked salmon.

I hope this clears up any misconceptions.While I may be being a bit, nitpicky (if there is such a word), you all know I like my readers to be the best informed foodie at the party, or in this case, brunch. Never let it be said that The Gourmet Guy left you with a schmear on your face.

Recipe for making your own Lox
Ingredients
1~2.5 to 3lb. salmon fillet (I prefer to use a skinless fillet, but if you prefer a less salty version, leave the skin on and remove after brining.)
1 cup Kosher salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
The juice and zest of 1 lemon
The juice and zest of 1 lime

You'll need:
A 15" x 10" x .3/4" cookie sheet. Enough parchment paper to fully wrap the salmon. Tin foil. Something to weigh down the fillet. I use 3 large, 35.0z. cans of tomatoes. You can use bricks wrapped in foil or anything heavy enough to press down the fillet.

Method
~Combine salt and sugar and divide in half.
~Zest lemon, zest lime and combine with the juice from both. Set aside.
~On the parchment paper, spread out 1/2 the sugar/salt mixture and spread evenly to allow salmon to rest completely on mixture.
~Place salmon on salt/sugar mixture and completely cover with the lemon/lime mixture.
~Add the remaining salt/sugar mixture and press into salmon, covering completely.
~Wrap the salmon in the parchment paper, making sure it is sealed and covers the salmon completely.
~Wrap the entire fillet with tin foil, being careful that the foil at no time touches any part of the salmon.
~Place on the cookie sheet, place weights on top and refrigerate for 48 hours.
~Once you remove the salmon, wash under cold water thoroughly to remove brine mixture. Portion in 6-8 oz. portions, seal in freezer bag and use as needed  Slice very thin and enjoy!!

As always, Bon Appetit!

Lou

October 05, 2015

Cassoulet....a dish of the people...

It is one of the classic dishes of the Languedoc and the whole of France. One legend places the birth of cassoulet during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1355. The townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron to nourish and bolster their defenders. The meal was so hearty and fortifying that the soldiers handily fought off the invaders, saving the city from occupation. While this is probably not the actual way it went down regrading the origin of cassoulet, one never knows and what is certain, is the importance of the dish as the symbolic defender of French culture.

But since then, several cities have laid claim to the true recipe. In an effort to quell a growing dispute and in a conciliatory gesture, chef Prosper Montagné decreed in 1929, " Le Cassoulet est le dieu de la cuisine occitane. Un Dieu en trois personnes: Dieu le père est celui de Castelnaudary, Dieu le fils est celui de Carcassonne et le Saint-Esprit qui est celui de Toulouse." ("God the father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse."), making sure all three recipe versions were recognized as equal. Now that's village pride. Over a bean stew.

Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony says, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages.” Much like chili cook-offs in Texas, cassoulet cooking competitions are held, not only in France, but now even in the United States as well.

Julia Child once quipped, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.” And finally, Anatole France claimed that the cassoulet at his favorite restaurant had been bubbling away for twenty years!

While this recipe won't take quite as long as Anatole's, this does require a good amount of time if you truly want to do it right. This is a hearty and great alternative to plain old stew and can be a great way to use up all those leftovers by simply adding some fresh ingredients and some extra TLC in the kitchen. And duck. To me, really great cassoulet has to have duck, but everyone's palate is different. Some really rustic and kicked up versions include rabbit and they are some of the best I have ever tasted as well. This dish requires a little more attention than most , but the outcome is well worth it. Especially if you have the duck.....

Elaine's Rustic Cassoulet
courtesy of Elaine Giammetta
Ingredients
1/2 lb bacon, cubed
1-15 oz can white kidney beans
1-15 oz can pinto beans
1 large Spanish onion, diced
10 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 lb ground pork
1/4 lb shredded duck confit
1 T dried parsley
2 T dried thyme leaf
1 T rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 t rubbed sage
1/4 to 1/2 c sherry (I use dry)
2-3 qts water (enough to cover all ingredients )
salt and pepper
fresh parsley

Method
In a slow cooker, or large heavy bottomed pot, spread the bacon cubes, evenly over the bottom of the pan. This will be the first layer. Drain and rinse the beans.

Mix beans, onion and garlic together and spread over the bacon creating the second layer. Crumble the ground pork and duck over the beans. This is the third layer.

Mix all the herbs together (except the bay leaf) and sprinkle over the meat. Add water and sherry making sure all the ingredients are covered. This is important, so to ensure proper cooking.

Add the bay leaf. Set temperature on very low and cook 6-8 hours or overnight if possible. If you are using a traditional pot, bring to a boil and then lower temperature and simmer on very low for 6-8 hours. After cooking is complete, gently stir in chopped parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.

Plating
Ladle into a bowl and top with a sprig of parsley. Serve with a warm baguette and a hearty glass of red wine. I chose a nice peppery Malbec. I hope you enjoy it.

Bon Appetit!

Lou
Sources:  en.wikipedia.org