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Model train madness. November 26, 2012

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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben are pretty maniacal when it comes to collecting. Between the two of us, we collect stamps, marbles, Pueblo pottery, cookbooks, quilts and coverlets, even antique chesspieces (and much, much more). Our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders has never met a book or magazine on Colonial and Federal America that he didn’t have to have. Even if we don’t share someone else’s collecting passion, we find it fascinating. What drives someone to choose to collect? What causes them to narrow their collection into a particular specialty?

All of which is a long-winded way to explain why OFB and Silence joined our friends Rob, Gary and Carolyn yesterday to see a lavish model train exhibit in the basement of the Kutztown Historical Society. No, we don’t collect model trains (and please don’t call them “toy” trains, unless you’re specifically referring to Thomas and friends). But Rob and Gary do, and as a result, we’ve seen a number of elaborate model train setups over the years.

Rob will only buy antique model trains made by one company in Germany. Why? Because he inherited some beautiful antique engines made by that company from his grandfather. Gary has devoted the upstairs room of his workshop to a train room, with tracks running around the walls and up to the ceiling. (We think his trains are Lionels, but are afraid to ask for fear of setting off a brand war with Rob.)

Rob’s trains are metal rather than plastic, but he’s not a purist when it comes to the buildings and accessories he buys for his train setups. Plastic’s okay, as long as it looks aged. However, he does specialize in Southwestern buildings and sets. This strikes us as a bit incongruous given the German trains, but it certainly makes for an interesting display: German trains in the wild, wild West?! But it combines Rob’s love of the West and his love of model trains, so it makes perfect sense to him, and that’s what counts for any collector. 

Getting back to the Kutztown model train display, it’s by far the best one OFB and Silence have ever seen (we know Rob and Gary agree). The buildings and settings are incredibly detailed: huge, completely realistic bridges, mountains, lakes, wildlife, elaborate town scenes. And amazingly, though the buildings and sets must have been plastic, they don’t look plastic: They look real. Someone must have spent decades creating that level of detail, then had the civic-mindedness to donate their life’s work to the Historical Society, which had the good sense to appreciate it.

If you enjoy model train displays and live within driving distance of Kutztown, we urge you to see (and judge) for yourself. Admission is free. There are other items of interest, too, including turn-of-the-century schoolrooms, World War I displays, and original Keith Haring artwork (he was born and grew up in the house, still standing, next door). And if you have a passion for collecting, please let us know what you collect, and what drives that passion! We can certainly relate.

A secure investment. November 24, 2012

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As we stare over the precipice of the so-called fiscal cliff, our friend Ben is reminded of a marvelous quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Goodness is the only investment which never fails.” (Okay, it should have been “that never fails,” but let’s give Thoreau a break.)

Goodness is a rare and underappreciated quality. My beloved Grandaddy was a good man, and my adored Mama, his daughter, who was incredibly bright, made a point of telling the youthful Ben that my intelligence rated a very low second compared to character and moral principle. “Lots of people are bright, but very few are good or kind,” she told me repeatedly. The lesson sank in.

I can’t say that I grew up to be a good person, but I did grow up to revere goodness above all other qualities. As my Mama pointed out, anybody can be intelligent, even brilliant. But it takes a truly special person to be good. This Thanksgiving weekend, let’s all make a point of celebrating the good people in our lives.

Great new cookbooks. November 23, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. The library at the tiny town near me and our friend Ben, scenic Kuztown, PA, got in two great cookbooks recently that I checked out and loved. (I loved one so much that I asked OFB to get it for me for our anniversary at the end of this month, and of course he did. Yum! Can’t wait to get cooking.) To take my mind off the nightmarish commercialism that has destroyed one of my favorite holidays, Thanksgiving, I’ll tell you about them so you can check them out.

The first is Salads: Beyond the Bowl by Mindy Fox (Kyle Books, 2012, $19.95). I was put off rather than intrigued by the title, which I thought was too precious, but OFB and I love salads so much that if we don’t have at least one a day, we feel horribly deprived. So I checked the book out of the library, and I’m so glad I did. The recipes are just extraordinary, the photography ultra-inviting. As a vegetarian, I rarely buy cookbooks that contain recipes for meat unless they’re of historic interest, but if I find myself dying to make more that ten recipes from a book, as in this case, I’ll make an exception.

Check out Mindy’s Pimiento Cheese with Cucumber, Scallion and Celery Salad, Roasted Beet and Blood Orange Pico de Gallo, Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Olive Oil, Lemon and Peppered Sheep’s Milk Cheese, Asparagus Mimosa with Capers, Radishes and Chives, Red Cabbage, Green Apple and Sweet Currant Slaw, Shaved Fennel and Arugula Salad with Lemon-Olive Pesto and Toasted Pine Nuts, Cress, Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Tarragon-Shallot Vinaigrette, or, say, Green Oak Lettuce, Fried Green Tomatoes and Goat Cheese with a Chimichurri Vinaigrette. Wow. And we haven’t even added any of the numerous grains and beans, or eggs, potato and pasta, or any of the other variations Ms. Fox so deftly weaves into her salads.  

Then there’s John Schlimm’s Grilling Vegan Style (Da Capo Press, 2012, price sadly obscured by library tags, but unlikely to be more than $19.95). Not being an expert on all things grilling, I felt somewhat adventurous when I picked up this book. And okay, what about grilling had anything to do with vegetarians, much less vegans, beyond grilled veggie kabobs, frozen veggie burgers, corn on the cob, or pizza? (Let’s please not discuss the horrors of pseudomeats like Tofu Pups, aka vegetarian hot dogs. Spare me, please.)

Having been served grilled zucchini and cherry tomatoes as the “vegetarians’ alternative” at way too many friends’ barbecues—I wish they’d try to eat these horrors for themselves, tasteless, mealy zucchini and unspeakable exploding tomatoes—I was ecstatic to discover a world of grilled delights in John Schlimm’s book. Dishes like Golden Tandoori Seitan. Mushrooms & Peppers over Minty Pesto Triangles, Cedar-Smoked Mushrooms, Midsummer Night’s Asparagus with Mandarin Oranges and Pimiento Sauce, Crackling, Kale, Swiss Chard and Red Bell Pepper, Flame-Glazed Eggplant with Hoisin Sauce, Artichokes with Cumin Dipping Sauce, Grilled Corn on the Cob with Lime & Pepper Sauce, Mexican Tortilla Burgers, Slip-N-Sliders, Italian Herb Burgers on Focaccia, and Flame Day Fries. Plus grilled pasta, pizza, desserts, and cocktails (er, the cocktails aren’t grilled, they’re simply meant to enhance the food).

Our friends Chaz and Delilah are experts at grilling, like our neighbors Steve and Bill. We’re complete idiots, watching, drooling and eating.  But Grilling Vegan Style has inspired us to try to fire up our grill and get beyond the boring veggie kebabs. Thanks, John Schlimm!

I suggest that you check out these books, whatever your dietary habits. You’ll be glad you did!

                 ‘Til next time,

                               Silence

Vegetarians, hooray! No gelatin in Marshmallow Fluff! November 21, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. If, like me, you grew up with peanut butter and marshmallow cream sandwiches, and marshmallow cream on your hot fudge sundaes—or, say, marshmallow cream on the revered Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole—and became vegetarian at some point, you were probably horrified to learn that marshmallows, and marshmallow cream, contain gelatin.

Gelatin is made from calves’ feet, which means that Jell-O, marshmallows, and such unlikely products as Goo-Goo Clusters and Altoids are off-limits to vegetarians. Rats!

Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and I grew up with Thanksgiving sweet potatoes roasted and served with butter, salt, and black pepper, so we never had to contend with the iconic marshmallow-covered sweet potato casserole. But those peanut butter sandwiches and sundaes were favorite treats, even if we don’t really eat them now. So I was thrilled to read in today’s Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) that Marshmallow Fluff doesn’t contain gelatin. Vegetarians, rejoice! Nobody’s going to say the stuff is good for you. But at least you can enjoy it on Thanksgiving or when you’re craving a peanut butter sandwich or sundae, and not have to worry about gelatin.

             ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

Cranberries: cooked or raw? November 21, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. It seems to me that there are two kinds of people when it comes to Thanksgiving cranberries, those who like them cooked in cranberry sauce, and those who like them raw in cranberry relish. (There are also all of us who love dried cranberries, aka “craisins,” and folks like our friend Ben who grew up with the cranberry jelly in a can and have remained faithful, serving up a big slice for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fortunately, he also likes my from-scratch cranberry sauce.)

I also started out with cranberry jelly in a can; real cranberry sauce, which my Mama made every year, was considered too bitter for a child’s unsophisticated palate. I have to agree: To this day, I cringe every time I see a recipe for cranberry sauce that simply includes cranberries and sugar or cranberries, orange rind and sugar. It’s enough to make your teeth ache just thinking about it.

But worse still, from my perspective, is cranberry relish, that ground-up concoction of raw cranberries, oranges and sugar. Yikes!!! It’s so bitter, and the texture is all wrong. Cooked cranberry sauce made right is succulent and delicious, the perfect complement to turkey and dressing. Raw cranberry relish is harsh, the absolute opposite of what Thanksgiving cranberries should be. (I’d make an exception if you made raw cranberry and horseradish relish, so it was a spicy, savory accompaniment to the rich Thanksgiving fare. Otherwise, eeeewwwwww.) And yet raw cranberry relish has innumerable fans.

For me, cooked cranberry sauce is king, and I’ve modified a recipe by Dorie Greenspan to make the most luscious cranberry sauce known to man. It’s so easy, and so good, it would be a sin not to at least try it. So here you are:

                Silence’s Ultimate Cranberry Sauce

2 12-ounce bags fresh cranberries

1 12-ounce jar apricot preserves

16 ounces orange juice

1/2 cup diced dried apricots

1/4 cup Grand Marnier

2 cinnamon sticks

heaping teaspoon ginger paste or 2 slices diced crystallized or minced fresh ginger

Rinse and drain cranberries and put them in a large, heavy pot (I love my LeCreuset Dutch oven). Pour in orange juice and Grand Marnier. Add diced apricots, apricot preserves, cinnamon sticks, and ginger. Stir well to mix, then cook over low heat until cranberries “pop” and mixture thickens. Allow to cool, then pour into containers and refrigerate until needed. Keeps very well. Serves 12.  

No bitterness here, but it’s not cloyingly sweet, either. Everyone should love this sauce, from toddlers to centenarians.

As for those who fall in the raw-cranberry camp, I invite you to speak up and defend yourselves! I’d as soon eat raw cornmeal or raw okra as raw cranberries. Why does raw cranberry relish hold appeal for you? Inquiring minds would really like to know.

                  ‘Til next time,

                               Silence

Thanksgiving persimmon salad. November 20, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. For years, we’ve been trying to grow persimmon trees here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the middle of nowhere, PA. And basically, we’ve been failing, our poor little ‘Meader’ American persimmon still hardly coming much past my waist, and a new American persimmon we found this year at Meadowview Farm in Bowers, PA, no taller than my knee.

American persimmons, like Brussels sprouts, need frost to sweeten up. This is also true of the Japanese Hachiya persimmon. But it’s not true of the Japanese Fuyu persimmon, which is available in grocery stores now and is the star in Chef Marc Vetri’s Persimmon and Arugula Salad, featured in the past weekend’s Wall Street Journal (check it out at www.wsj.com). I was really thrilled by this salad, since it looked absolutely delicious and perfect for fall, and I happen to love arugula, Parmesan, lemon juice and persimmons.

Best of all, it’s so easy! To make the salad for four, buy 3 Fuyu persimmons, 4 cups baby arugula, Parmesan shavings, and 1 or more lemons. Chef Vetri suggests trimming the persimmon tops and ends, and peeling them if you choose, then halving and thinly slicing them. Toss the persimmon slices with the juice of one lemon, a pinch of fine sea salt, and 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Give them five minutes for the fruit to release its juices and the salt to dissolve, then taste and add more lemon juice or salt to taste.

Now it’s time to plate your salad. Put a cup of baby arugula on each plate, then top with 1/4th of the sliced persimmons. Drizzle with the sauce from the fruit bowl, garnish with plenty of shaved Parmesan, top with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly ground black pepper, and sit back and watch your guests wolf down the most amazing Thanksgiving salad ever! So good, so easy. Yum!!!

            ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

America’s founding foodies. November 19, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. All of us at Poor Richard’s Almanac are fans of America’s Founding Fathers, especially our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. So I was thrilled to find a book on a recent shopping expedition that combined my love of the Founders with my love of cooking. It’s Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee (Thomas J. Craughwell, Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2012, $19.95). The subtitle says it all: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.

Jefferson is revered by many as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and viewed by many as the most intellectual of the Founders. (We think they’ve somehow forgotten Dr. Franklin.) He’s seen by others as the Founding Hypocrite, the man who preached liberty for all while holding (and selling) slaves. He is widely believed to have fathered six children on his slave, his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemings (a claim hotly disputed by his legitimate descendants), yet he freed neither Sally nor her children. He was so addicted to personal luxury that at his death, his descendents had to sell Monticello to settle his debts.

This is hardly the profile of a man who lived by principle. And yet it is Jefferson, his Louisiana Purchase, his Lewis and Clark Expedition, who made America the great nation it became. (Credit also goes to Jefferson’s old political rival, Alexander Hamilton, who envisioned the strong central government that forged the United States rather than a federation of individual states.)

James Hemings, another of Martha Jefferson’s half-siblings, was Sally Hemings’s older brother. Thomas Jefferson thought all the Hemings family were unusually talented, and when he was appointed ambassador to France, he took James Hemings with him. He made a most unusual deal with James: If James learned to cook French cuisine and taught the skill to another Monticello slave, Jefferson would grant him his freedom. It was a promise that Jefferson, if belatedly and reluctantly, kept: James was the only slave he ever freed.

In France, James Hemings learned fluent French and apprenticed with France’s finest chefs. He was chef de cuisine at Jefferson’s mansion in Paris and later at his home in New York (then the capital of the U.S.) when Jefferson became Secretary of State. He taught his brother Peter Hemings the art of French cooking, and after gaining his freedom, cooked professionally in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

James’s story, and his role in bringing French cuisine to America, is given as much play in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee as the author could give them, drawing on every surviving account to sketch a portrait of the man and his times. The book is obviously also about Thomas Jefferson’s years in France and his lifelong love affair with French food and wine. (One of the most interesting passages is about Jefferson’s tour through France and northern Italy, seeking out and spending time with the great wine producers and wine merchants, and learning everything he could about wine.)

But ultimately, Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee is about French cooking during the reign of the ill-fated Louis XVI, the 32-course dinners, the delicate fare. (A specialty of the time was disguising dishes so they looked like something else, creating an apparently delightful surprise for diners when they cut into a peacock and discovered it was actually a rabbit or fish.) The author’s discussion of the presentation of food (by the time it was ceremoniously paraded to the upper-class table, it was invariably cold) and table manners (forks weren’t adopted by most Americans until the mid-1800s) is the real heart and hook of the book.

If you’re thinking of cooking a la Jefferson, you won’t find much to go on here. You’ll discover the dishes Jefferson and James Hemings introduced to America, such as French fries (known simply as fried potatoes, pommes de terre frites, in France), macaroni and cheese, creme brulee, and a recipe for making coffee. But to find usable recipes, you’ll need to refer to Marie Kimball’s Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book (1938, reprinted Garrett and Massie, Richmond, VA 2004). 

When we think of French food today, we don’t tend to picture mac’n’cheese, French fries, and coffee. Rather than picturing McDonald’s fries, Cracker Barrel’s mac’n’cheese, and Starbucks’ or Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee, we’ll at least imagine Julia Child and her boeuf bourguinon, famous Michelin-starred French restaurants or their American cousins like The French Laundry and Le Bernardin, baguettes and croissants, or luscious French cheeses like Roquefort, Camembert and Brie.

But clearly, while potatoes may have originated in the Americas, those pommes frites dished up by the ton at Mickey D’s, and their trans-Atlantic cousins of fish and chips fame, originated in pre-revolutionary France and were served to royalty at Versailles.

Strange but true: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were responsible for popularizing potatoes in France. They not only ate potatoes, they wore potato flowers in their lapels and hair, creating a rage for all things potato. Fried potatoes really were French fries. If Marie Antoinette had said “Let them eat potatoes” rather than “Let them eat brioche” (an expensive, “refined” bread; she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake”), perhaps the French revolution would have been averted.

But I digress. If you love food history or early American history, you’ll enjoy a romp through Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee. And if you’d like to see at least one Hemings get his due, this book is a great place to start.

             ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Four best things for cold weather. November 18, 2012

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Your faithful bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, aren’t fans of cold weather. We all hate frigid, bitter weather almost as much as we hate hot, humid, steamy weather. If we didn’t need regular intervals of rain for our gardens, we’d all opt for clear blue skies and 70-degree weather all year (but we all love fall, so we’d need to have regular autumn leaf displays). We love the cold-weather holidays (Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas), but hate the weather itself. Hey, who wants to be cold?!

Over one of Silence’s excellent brunches this weekend, we challenged ourselves to think of four things we really loved when the weather dropped below freezing. Here are our top four:

Silence: Beautiful yarn to knit, a roaring fire in the woodstove, a warm cat cuddled up beside me on the sofa and the dog sleeping on the rug nearby, and of course, I love to cook (and eat) all the hearty, comforting, delicious winter fare. 

Our friend Ben: Yes to the fire and dog (and, of course, to Silence’s delicious cooking), and how about some bourbon on the rocks or hot cider and dark rum? Let’s not forget classic jazz or vintage rock on the CD player.

Richard Saunders: I love feeding the birds and watching their antics at my feeders. I’ll take hot buttered popcorn with that drink and fire, and the newest book on American Colonial history and/or the Founding Fathers to read between watching the flames.

Mind you, we’re not talking about four best things for Christmas here. We’ll get back to that when the time draws nigh. Meanwhile, what do you love about winter?

           Your friends at Poor Richard’s Almanac

Salad dressing goes green. November 17, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. When I was a child, a thick, creamy salad dressing called Green Goddess was all the rage. But I have to say I’ve never tasted it. My beloved Mama adored all things French and chic, as well as Julia Child and Jackie Kennedy. Our salads were dressed with classic vinaigrette: extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, fresh-cracked black pepper, salt, an assortment of herbs. To this day, my favorite dressing combines extra-virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, fresh-cracked black pepper and salt, with the most robust horseradish I can find and some fresh-squeezed lemon (I prefer to add my herbs, fresh-chopped, directly to the salad).

But, while I adore all things Julia, I also have a rabid interest in culinary history. Green Goddess dressing is, well, green. What would make a dressing green? Avocado, I thought. And why on earth would Green Goddess dressing have been one of the most popular dressings in America, and then simply disappear? (Try to find it in your local grocery.) What did it taste like, anyway?

It turns out that Green Goddess dressing is a lot more complex than I assumed, starting with its name. Yes, the dressing is green, but it was made green to honor a 1923 play called “The Green Goddess.” It became a hit in San Francisco and throughout the West Coast, but avocado never played a part in its ingredient list. Instead, it was made from mayonnaise, sour cream, chervil, tarragon, chives, anchovies, lemon juice, and pepper. The chervil, chives and tarragon gave Green Goddess her classic green hue.  

Green Goddess reigned supreme among salad dressings until ranch dressing came on the scene in 1954, created by Steve Henson to serve his guests at his dude ranch, Hidden Valley Ranch. Hidden Valley Ranch dressing was born, and it’s been ranch dressing ever since. According to Wikipedia, Mr. Henson made his dressing with buttermilk, mayonnaise, onions, garlic, salt, black pepper, paprika, ground mustardseed, chives, parsley, and dill. Home cooks have added sour cream or plain yogurt.

So, if green goddess dressing was green because of tarragon, chives, and chervil, why isn’t ranch dressing green from chives, parsley, and dill? Maybe the green goddess dressing simply used a lot more of the herbs, but I suspect that the clincher was that green goddess was made with fresh herbs and ranch contained dried herbs. (And maybe dude ranch guests of the Fifties didn’t like their dressing green.)

By the time ranch dressing came along, it was clear that salad dressings could become big business if they could be made shelf-stable. At first, ranch, like green goddess, had to be refrigerated—a status symbol for today’s dressings, look for the expensive brands in the produce section, conveniently placed next to the salad greens. But tinkering with the recipe eventually resulted in bottled dressing that didn’t need to be refrigerated until it was opened.

And then the marketing geniuses behind the Rise of Ranch take shelf-stable one better and made packets of dry ranch ingredients that could be turned into dressing at home. (Clearly, they recognized the convenience and appeal of Good Seasons’ Italian dressing packets, conveniently sold with a cruet pre-marked with lines for oil, vinegar and water. No-fail dressing that said “homemade,” not purchased!)

But popular as ranch dressing became, it would probably have never become America’s #1 selling dressing if its marketers (let’s hope they’re all now living on their own private islands) hadn’t also begun selling ranch as a dip. A rich, creamy dip for everything from crudites to chicken wings. Dip and salad dressing, bottles and packets: Ranch overtook Italian to become America’s favorite dressing in 1992. As for Hidden Valley, the brand was purchased by Clorox in 1972. Let’s hope their bleach factories are far, far away from the dressing department.

But let’s return to the poor dethroned goddess. I still wondered why you’d make a green dressing without avocado, the obvious choice to turn a dressing green. The answer lies in the date when green goddess dressing was introduced: 1923. Although it originated in San Francisco, at the Palace Hotel, avocados has yet to make their way much farther north than L.A. by then; they were still a novelty North of the Border, unappreciated by most non-Hispanic citizens. Unattractive, bumpy fruits with slimy interiors? The market wasn’t, let’s just say, ripe.  

Not that adventurous chefs hadn’t been giving them a try. I have a 1919 copy of The Hotel St. Francis Cookbook. The chef at the hotel, also in San Francisco, features two recipes for avocado, the first calling it by a name some misguided marketer came up with based on its appearance: alligator pear. Eeeewww!!! I can bet that housewives everywhere were rushing out to buy them.

At any rate, the “Alligator pear salad” involved cutting ripe avocados in half, removing the pit, and filling each half with French dressing, then serving them on cracked ice. Or scooping out the avocado flesh, mounding it on lettuce leaves in a salad bowl, and covering it with French dressing.  This actually isn’t as hideous as it sounds, since for the chef, “French dressing” was a vinaigrette, not sweet, orangey glop, as he makes clear in the second recipe, “Avocado, French dressing:” “Split the avocado, remove the pit, and fill half full with a dressing made with salt, pepper, a little French mustard, and one-third vinegar and two-thirds olive oil.” This was clearly cutting-edge. Guacamole didn’t really come into its own in the U.S. until the 1970s. 

Longtime readers will know that I don’t give up on an idea easily, and by now, I had an avocado-based green goddess dressing on the brain. Avocado is oily enough to replace the original mayo in the recipe, but, to my mind, it still needs an allium punch. And clearly a mix of herbs is essential, even if you can’t find fresh tarragon and aren’t a fan of chervil. So I’m thinking half guac, half sour cream, with minced scallions (green onions), shallots, chives, and basil (for the licorice kick of the tarragon), lemon juice, lots of fresh-cracked black pepper, and Trocamare (hot herbed salt). More guac if it isn’t green enough, some crushed red pepper if it needs a little kick. A little fresh-squeezed OJ wouldn’t hurt, either.

Good? I’ll let you know after supper tonight.

              ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

The perfect Thanksgiving salad. November 16, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. As every cook knows, Thanksgiving dinner is a rush. And not in a good way. You’re racing like a thoroughbred in the Derby, but while they only run for a couple of minutes, you’re zigging and zagging through the kitchen for hours. True, you can make some things ahead, like your cranberry sauce, roasted veggies, casseroles, and dressing. You can buy desserts and dinner rolls and hold them. But some things have to be made last-minute, and one of them is salad.

It takes me a good half-hour to make a yummy salad, combining greens and chopping all the veggies, adding nuts or pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) and shredded or crumbled cheese, dicing apples or pears and sprinkling on golden raisins if I go that route or mixed olives if I don’t, adding herbs, making a quick, delicious dressing. Normally, I don’t mind: I’ll make the salad while the pasta water comes to a boil or the veggies cook or whatever, while I’d be standing around in the kitchen anyway.

But that’s not the case on Thanksgiving. The last thing I have time for is spending a half-hour making a salad while I’m trying to pull Thanksgiving dinner together. But fortunately, there’s a can’t-miss salad that you can put together in less than five minutes, and it’s so luscious that it might be the dish your family and friends can’t stop talking about after the meal. It’s the Wedge.

The Wedge is a retro salad. It’s based on a wedge of—gasp!!!—iceberg lettuce. Its return to fame began in steakhouses and has spread like wildfire. Iceberg lettuce has been dissed by chefs, nutritionists and foodies for decades as the salad equivalent of white balloon bread (think squishy Wonder bread). And it’s certainly true that iceberg can’t compete for flavor with arugula, radicchio, frisee, mustard greens, kale, and the like. It also can’t compete for nutritive value with darker greens like spinach, Romaine, or, say, a mesclun mix. Nutritionists are correct when they note that iceberg is lacking in vitamins. But they always fail to point out that iceberg is high in fiber.

If you happen to be eating a Thanksgiving spread including broccoli or green beans, sweet potatoes, some form of corn, and cranberries, you’ll be getting plenty of vitamins. Fiber-rich iceberg lettuce is exactly what you need to top off your meal. And you’ll be getting the flavor and nutritional goodness of onions, tomatoes, and blue cheese on top of it.

Making a Wedge couldn’t be easier. Take a head of iceberg lettuce, wash it, dry it, and then cut it in wedges. I’ve been served whole fourths to thirds of a head of iceberg when ordering the Wedge at restaurants, far more than anyone could eat. I suggest that you cut a head in sixths. Put each iceberg wedge on a salad plate, add diced red onion, followed by sliced cherry and/or grape tomatoes (I like to mix yellow, orange and red tomatoes for drama and flavor).

To finish the salad, crumble blue cheese over the lettuce wedge. Grind on fresh-cracked black pepper. In every restaurant where I’ve ordered a Wedge, it’s come with blue cheese dressing over the crumbled blue cheese. I myself prefer extra-virgin olive oil and a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice over the crumbled cheese, but it’s your choice. Some restaurants add crumbled bacon as well; as a vegetarian, I obviously skip that part, but your guests might find it rave-worthy.

That’s all there is to it. You cut iceberg wedges, add onion, tomato, blue cheese, and (if you want) bacon, pour on some dressing, the end. Your guests get a luscious, crunchy, creamy, flavorful salad. Retro chic and super easy. Serve with hot, soft breadsticks and dipping sauce or hand around the hot dinner rolls and butter, and your Thanksgiving dinner will be the talk of the town.

                ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

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