Tag Archives: home cooking

James Beard’s Scalloped Potatoes and Celery Root

Yeah, I know. Though technically it was less than two months ago, Thanksgiving already feels like a faint memory from months gone by. So I won’t dwell on details of that day’s feast that we enjoyed here at my house. The ginger-and-orange brined turkey that I grilled over mesquite-enhanced charcoal out in the garage. The mashed potatoes with fried sage. Stuffing with chanterelle mushrooms. All I’ll say is that it was, as usual, one of my very favorite meals of the year. And for days after, my garage smelled enticingly of mesquite-grilled turkey….. I am SO doing that again next year!

One other item on the dinner table that night was particularly well received. It took the already-beloved scalloped potatoes to a whole new level with the addition of celery root. The recipe came from the recently-reissued James Beard’s American Cookery, a book that I have in its original 1972 form, one that’s been a standard go-to reference for many years. Beard’s larger-than-life culinary persona blended with his proud Northwest roots has long drawn me to his books for ideas, inspiration, perspective. He’s made me wish–in Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés–that I could traipse back in time to one of those 1940s cocktail parties in New York where cocktails were made by the pitcher and delicate canapes were decked out with chilled veal and dainty shrimp with chopped egg. And long for one chance to picnic James Beard style à la Treasury of Outdoor Cooking, with wicker hamper that turns out lobster newburgh, a thermos of chilled martinis, bermuda onion sandwiches and strawberries in kirsch. Lord but that man lived the good life!! And he shared plenty of good food, fond memories and inspiring menu plans along the way…..

The new edition of Beard’s signature cookbook is fully true to the original, all content’s the same aside from a new cover design and the addition of a brief foreword by Tom Colicchio. When it came to picking a recipe with which to break in the newly released version, I landed on this one in part because I was surprised by his note about celery root having a Northwest connection. Of all the ingredients I’ve come to association with my Northwest home, celery root has never been one of them. But as an intro to this recipe, he says “This is a purely Pacific Northwest dish… We never really liked scalloped potatoes in the classic style, and when celery root was at its peak we often had this combination instead.”

My first introduction to the knobby, ugly, deliciously nutty vegetable was during my culinary training in France and I became an instant fan. So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use Thanksgiving as an excuse to try this recipe.

True to much of Beard’s style, it’s a simple preparation. His recipes may occasionally rely on rich, exotic or expensive ingredients but they’re rarely fussy. For this tasty side dish,  first butter an oblong baking dish (I used my 9 by 13 Le Creuset baker). Thinly slice trimmed celery root and russet potatoes. Layer them with more dots of butter, sprinkles of salt and pepper. Pour beef broth over (I used vegetable broth to accommodate my vegetarian sister), cover with foil and bake. When all the goods are tender, off with the foil, on with a generous sprinkling of Emmenthal or similar cheese (such as Gruyère) to bake just until melted. It’s an easy recipe that boasts pure flavors that meld together beautifully. Pure Beard, all the way.

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Microwave, Schmicrowave

I FINALLY bought my first microwave.

Nah.

Just kidding.

April Fool’s!! A day late.

I’ve never had a microwave. And I plan to live the rest of a full and satisfying life without ever owning a microwave. This week’s piece in the Wall Street Journal about microwave manufacturer’s trying to breathe some new life into the ubiquitous appliance only renews my feeling that I’m making the right choice.

I’m not old enough to remember when the first microwave oven was released (apparently first developed in 1947, home versions started hitting stores by the mid 1960s). But I am old enough to recall the plethora of microwave cookbooks that came out throughout the 1980s. Never did any of that hoopla make me in the least bit anxious that my family should get a microwave (we never did in the family home, I think everyone but me has one now). I was excited about cooking back then, very much so. But I was excited about making food from scratch, creating doughs, simmering stocks to make onion soup, dipping beautiful vegetables in batter and frying them for tempura, making sauces for beef fondue. Nothing about the microwave excited me as I was discovering cooking. And nothing about it has ever excited me in the days since then.

Yes, yes, yes. I hear across the web-o-sphere, “but you can melt butter so quickly!” “coffee reheats like a dream!” “What about leftovers?!?!” “Did ya know it will soften ice cream?” I’ve heard those arguments a thousand times.

1. I have small pans I put on the stove in which to melt butter nearly as quickly. Very old-school but works like a dream.

2. Who the hell wants reheated coffee? I make mine one cup at a time and it’s delicious. (Also no coffee maker in this house, just a simple cone filter and ground-to-order coffee beans. Wouldn’t want it any other way.)

3. I have a wonderful small pyrex lidded baking dish that’s ideal for heating leftover pasta, curry, enchilada, whatever came home with me from the restaurant the night before. I pop it in the oven, go work for 15 more minutes and it’s hot and ready to go.

4. Take ice cream from freezer and set on kitchen counter. Go watch 7 or 8 minutes of Damages or Dexter or M*A*S*H reruns and then the ice cream will be perfect for scooping.

While I was editor of Simply Seafood magazine, we did run a few feature articles about cooking fish in the microwave. The less dense texture, often smaller pieces/thin fillets and other magical characteristics of seafood do seem to make it one of the better selections when it comes to cooking raw proteins on the microwave. But even that never persuaded me since fish is, for those same reasons, incredible quick to cook in a skillet or 400 degree oven. For 2 or 3 minutes’ saving of time, I’m going to get a microwave oven? Kind of ironic, but in most other facets of my life the last thing I am is patient. When it comes to cooking, however, I feel the time invested is time well spent. And we’re talking minutes, not hours. I just don’t get it!

I found it kind of funny to read that a new development in the microwave world is adding steam, “aimed at people who are in the market for an oven with special features but not necessarily a microwave.”  See?? Even the manufacturers are realizing the limitations of the box of waves that go micro. I think of the microwave as a wholly unnecessary use of kitchen real estate, and much as folks have tried to convince me otherwise, I’m pretty strong in that conviction.

Just a week or so ago, a friend told me–after having read through many of the recipes in my new book–that I really needed to get a microwave because some of the tasks in the book could have been done in a microwave. To which my answer was (a) “no, nuh-uh, no way” and (b) if a microwave owner reads my description of putting chopped chocolate in a medium bowl and setting it over a pan of warm water to melt and thinks “duh, I can do that in the microwave” more power to them!! Happy if they find ways to use the microbox to shave a minute off the prep time. But I’m not going to be the one to tell them how to do that. It’s a shortcoming of mine as a food writer and I’m willing to accept that.

It does pain me to read that this past year there was a nearly 10% jump in the number of meals “prepared” (I think they mean “opened the box and heated”) using a microwave oven last year. The first sizeable jump in decades, they say. Is anyone really prepared to consider this “cooking”? I–for a second–was willing to concede that if a microwave oven got someone interested in cooking to the degree that it set the stage for them to pull out a skillet or bake something in an old-fashioned oven now and then…well that there was something to getting people to “cook” in whatever form it takes. But I’m not sure the microwave is a gateway to home-cooked meals from scratch. Am I out of line thinking that way? Does the average microwave user nuke burritos for dinner one night and make chicken and dumplings from scratch the next? Is it a crutch just used now and then, rather than a means to the end of most meals in the house?

But I was likewise surprised to read that only “93% of households have a microwave oven.” I’d have thought it much closer to 100%, given the plethora of products being created just with the microwave oven in mind. (Oddly, I just realized that this household has 3 Easy Bake ovens…. and no microwave. An anomaly in many ways.)

Oh, and about that new steam capability for the microwave oven…. Wait until I tell you about the bamboo steamer baskets you can buy for less than ten bucks.

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On Cooking Quick: Pork Piperade

A few months ago a walking buddy mentioned that she’d just checked out my blog for the first time and enjoyed poking around it a bit. “You sure make cooking sound fun,” she said. Thoroughly unconvinced. 

After a few minutes of chatting with her about cooking at home, it became clear she’s simply one of the non-cooks who roam the planet amongst us who live to cook. With holidays having just passed, it became clear to me again how  purely happy it makes me to putter around the kitchen. I approached most of our Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s meals with a general plan of action, a menu of sorts. But in all cases I ended up tweaking things as I went, amending plans, adding a new dish or two. I never tire of that creative process, the satisfaction of producing tasty food, the pleasure of the hands-on craft of cooking. 

So I may have a hard time relating to folks who really just can’t stand to be in the kitchen. But I try not to forget that the non-cooks are out there. I’ve taken my friend’s admission as a motivation, of sorts, to share more often the quickie dinners I make many nights here at home. Just because I’m a cookbook author, recipe developer, food writer — doesn’t mean it’s all stuffed veal roasts and cassoulet every day. I’m a working stiff like the rest of you. And while I do benefit from working at home–which means I can toss a few ingredients together mid-afternoon and set it on the stove to simmer while I keep working–it doesn’t mean I devote a whole lot more to weeknight cooking than do most others. 

The first few paragraphs of this post describe a very quick braising option for lamb shoulder steaks that is a new personal favorite. It can be varied by using different herbs and spices, maybe orange instead of the lemon. A nice staple to fall back on frequently. And this post with its description of a yogurt-marinated chicken I do quite often has become one of the most-viewed posts in the lifetime of this blog! Clearly everyone’s on the lookout for easy, quick-to-assemble, delicious food that’s still made from scratch. 

I’ve got nothing at all against canned and frozen foods. As ingredients. I go through plenty of canned tomatoes (extra-delicious San Marzano, for a splurge). We love chickpeas so I always have a can or two of them on hand (good for everything from hummus to stews). Chicken broth (old-school canned Swanson’s or more flavorful organic Pacific, depending) is a standard. I might toss frozen green beans into a stir-fry.  A rare “just add water” meal might be falafel, in a pinch. But we don’t have anything on hand that includes instructions like “peel back the plastic and ….” I don’t even own a microwave!! 

I realize the non-cooks out there, like my pal Judy, may not believe me when I say this, but it is easier than you think to serve a tasty, easy, quick dinner that you’ve made from scratch. This does presume that you have basics. Pots and 

Before......

 pans. Staples like oil, butter, garlic, onions, maybe a lemon and a bunch of parsley? A few good spices on the shelf (salt and pepper of course; I also love cumin, dried thyme, coriander, red chile flakes, herbes de provence). Just a few fresh things to pick up at the store. You’ll get in the swing. And the flavor’s  outstanding. More vibrant. More distinct. 

Here’s what’s on the stove tonight. A simplified version of the Basque pipérade, a condiment/side dish that usually involves onions, fresh bell peppers and tomatoes. (A) I’m not a huge fan of fresh bell peppers and (b) I didn’t have any on hand. Plus, (c) a few days ago I’d received in the mail a jar of pickled Calabrian peppers from chef Dustin Clark at Wildwood restaurant down in Portland. He uses them on slow-cooked pork belly with fresh shell beans, and tossed with ricotta cheese gnocchi. Those weren’t on the menu tonight at my house, but I knew the peppers would add some zip to an otherwise standard cut of meat. 

I had a pork tenderloin on tap for tonight, a longtime favorite quick-dinner choice for me. Many nights I just slather it with Dijon mustard and pressed garlic (or rub it with equal parts ground cumin and coriander) and pop it in the oven to roast. Which would make this a 2-minute prep dinner instead of the maybe 15 minutes it’ll take you to work on this before it goes in the oven.  

First I took stock of what’s on hand. Onions (it’s a dark day when I look down and don’t see onions in their basket). Garlic (ditto). Celery (nice fresh flavor and crunch). Those aforementioned peppers. Reliable can of diced tomatoes on the kitchen shelf. Good to go. 

Slice 1 onion and 2 to 3 stalks of celery. Crush and coarsely chop 4 to 5 cloves garlic. Open can of tomatoes. Have a sip of martini, if you have one handy. 

Salt and pepper on the tenderloin, quickly brown it  in olive oil on all sides in a deep skillet. Set aside on a plate. 

... and after. Tasty! And easy.

Add onion, celery, garlic to skillet. Sauté a few minutes until partly browned and beginning to soften. Add tomatoes with all their juices and cook a few minutes more . Scatter 1/2 cup or so of some variety of pickled peppers in the pan. Chef Clark doesn’t (yet) make his available outside the restaurant, but I’m also a huge fan of Mama Lil’s peppers, they’d be an awesome choice here too. (And a local Washington company, to boot!) 

Return the pork tenderloin to the pan, nestle it down into the vegetables and spoon some of them over to cover the pork. Add the pan’s lid and put it in a 275°F oven for about 35 minutes. This is a lean cut of meat and doesn’t hold up well to the extended braising time of other meats. It should be only barely pink in the center of the thickest part. Transfer the meat to a clean plate, cover with foil to keep warm and just set that skillet on medium-high heat to boil away much of the excess liquid, creating a wonderful topping for the meat. (Hey, remember that the skillet was just in the oven, be sure to use a hot pad to handle it!! this is experience talking.) 

Slice the meat, arrange it on 2 plates, spoon the onion/tomato/pepper mixture over and that’s quite a meal you have! I’m serving it tonight with simple steamed rice and a salad of sliced cucumber tossed with plain yogurt and minced garlic. 

If anything coming out of the freezer section tastes as good as that, I’ll eat my hat. Which is made with hand-spun alpaca and merino wools, with a bit of milk fiber tossed in, so I might survive if it comes to that.

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