Monday, September 27, 2010

The Concord—America’s “Grapiest” Grape: Good in a Kuchen, Pie, and Purple Cow

This fall my sister gave me three gallons of Concord grapes, those fragrant, deep purple grapes used in Welch’s classic grape juice and jelly. The vines grow along a fence at the back of her garden, and this year she had a bumper crop. I’m so happy she shared!

I used some of the bounty to make a pie, which was quite yummy, but quite a bit of work. Another batch went into the kuchen recipe here; it’s equally good but goes together more quickly.

I made grape juice with the last of the stash—this required only plucking the grapes from their stems, cooking them with a little water and sugar, and then straining the juice through a sieve. I’ve already had a couple glasses—I think it’s the fruitiest, most intensely flavorful grape juice I’ve ever tasted!

I saved some of the juice to make purple cow milkshakes for my grandchildren. I loved purple cow shakes and sodas as a kid and am eager to see if they like them, too. (Not familiar with these treats? They’re just vanilla ice cream and grape juice frothed together in a blender to shake consistency. They taste best in those tall, old-fashioned soda fountain milkshake glasses, of course!)

The Concord (pictured above) and our most popular white juice grape, the Niagara, as well as the reddish Canadice (pictured right) are native North American grapes, and are part of the labrusca family. I took the photos while visiting the New York Finger Lakes town of Naples during its annual Grape Festival several years ago.

Our indigenous varieties differ from the European vinifera grapes in that they have a boldly fruity, musky flavor and aroma. Viticulturalists describe this as “foxiness” because all labrusca varieties are descendents of a wild purple variety called the fox grape. As a result the Concord and its kin are great for jelly and juice, but not so good for wine—unless you like Manischewitz.

The Concord variety was developed in 1849 by Ephraim Wales Bull, a horticulturalist who experimented with thousands of seedlings on his farm near the Massachusetts town of—yup!—Concord. Our most important white juice grape, the Niagara (which actually looks green; see pic below), was developed in 1868 in Niagara County, NY by crossing the Concord with the white Cassady grape.

If the name of the “father” of the Concord doesn’t ring a bell, the name of the man who started the grape juice industry will. In 1869, New Jersey dentist Dr. Thomas Welch and his family cooked and strained the juice of 40 pounds of Concords into quart bottles. Dr. Welsh knew of Louis Pasteur’s theory of pasteurization, so he boiled the bottles and sealed them airtight with corks and wax to prevent juice spoilage and fermentation.

Dr. Welsh’s product appeared just as Prohibitionist anti-alcohol sentiment was rising (he was a teetotaler himself), so his timing was perfect. His first Welch’s customer was his local Methodist church seeking unfermented sacramental “wine.” Welch’s has been the first name in American grape products ever since.

Concord Grape Kuchen
The following rustically handsome kuchen recipe is adapted from one shared with me by Jeni Makepeace, a Naples, New York, home baker who won the Festival’s “Best Grape Pie” contest several years running. (Her prize-winning pie is in my All-American Dessert Book.) The taste of the grapes comes through clearly in this home-style dessert and will satisfy anyone who’s a fan of their foxy flavor.
2 1/2 cups stemmed, washed, and well drained whole Concord grapes (1 generous pound grape bunches)
6 to 7 tablespoons granulated sugar (use larger amount for very tart grapes)
1 tablespoon all-purpose white flour
Dough and Topping
1 1/3 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup whole or lowfat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
Generous 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar combined with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon for topping

For the filling: Holding each grape over a large heavy non-reactive saucepan (to catch the juice), remove the skin by squeezing until the pulp-seed portion pops out into the pan. Reserve the grape skins as you work. Chop the grape skins fairly fine and thoroughly stir them together with the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon flour in a large non-reactive bowl.

Bring the grape pulp to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat so the pulp boils gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, or until the pulp is very soft and mushy. Let cool slightly. Turn out the pulp into a fine sieve set over the sugar-grape skin mixture. Press through as much juice and pulp as possible; discard the seeds. Stir the filling mixture until blended. Use immediately or, if preferred, store, covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Let warm up before using.

For the dough and topping: Set out a 9-inch springform pan or a very deep-sided, large (9 1/2 to 10-inch) pie plate. Grease the pan or plate, or coat with nonstick spray. Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees F.

Thoroughly stir together the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in a microwave-safe medium bowl for 35 to 45 seconds until mostly melted. Stir until completely melted, then stir in the milk and vanilla and let cool. Using a fork, beat the egg into the milk mixture. Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture just until evenly incorporated; for a tender dough don’t overmix. Turn out the dough into the prepared pan, spreading evenly to the edges. Spoon the grape filling mixture evenly over the dough; don't stir it in. Sprinkle the brown sugar-cinnamon topping evenly over the top.

Set the pan on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake on the middle oven rack for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the center top comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack; let stand until cooled to warm. If a springform pan was used, run a knife around the perimeter and then remove the ring. Cut the kuchen into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature. Dollops of whipped cream may be added but are not really necessary. Makes about 6-7 servings.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Learning Cooking & Cookbooks from a Masterwork, Plus Beef Pot Roast a la Child

I wasn’t hungry when I went to see Julie and Julia. Nor was I planning to run home, grab my well-used, personally autographed copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and start cooking French food!  But that's what I did!

If you're curious about whether the movie Julia was like the Julia I remembered, the answer is yes. She was smart, determined, and demanding of herself, yet always kind to others. I'll never forget that when we happened to be seated next to me at one of my first book signings, she picked up my book and seemed to look through it carefully. "It's lovely," she said in her usual lilting voice, "you must be sooo proud." For more details of how I remember Julia, click here.

The movie reminded me of how wonderful the recipes in Julia's landmark cookbook were. Like the Julie Powell character, I’d worked my way through the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—though I’d spent several years at it and long before anybody ever blogged or heard of e-mail. At the time I hadn’t yet gone to pastry school, and I was just beginning to write articles about food. I aspired (surprise!) to write cookbooks someday. 

Julia’s masterwork taught me loads about French cooking, of course, but, by example, it served up even more priceless information on how to write a cookbook. All the recipes included generous, substantive, truly helpful introductions: They explained the particular role of the dish in French cuisine, detailed any unusual steps, and even suggested substitute ingredients and serving and storage options. It was as if Julia were actually there in my kitchen guiding me along.

Besides that, every single recipe I ever tried from Mastering the Art of French Cooking worked perfectly. Dishes that were completely beyond my cooking experience at that time were so clearly written I could always follow them and succeed. And I came to trust that the finished dishes would taste good—Julia and her co-authors had excellent palates and a well-honed sense of what their readers would enjoy.

As I later learned from others in the cookbook business, the fact that the recipes in the book worked beautifully was no accident. Here’s what Julia had to say about the arduous process of devising just one recipe, the French bread that appears in Volume II. “Two years and some 284 pounds of flour later, we had [unsuccessfully] tried out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find…” Eventually, after her husband, Paul, attempted 60 more loaves, Julia’s long-time editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, says they packed up American flour, yeast, and salt, and went to Paris. There, France’s foremost bread expert, Professor Raymond Calvel, finally provided the information they needed to create a creditable recipe. 

At a culinary conference some years later, Julia actually summed up her approach to writing and testing recipes, a method which I’ve used myself and have passed along to aspiring authors ever since. “Test and hone every recipe as if it’s the one the most critical reviewer around decides to make and judge your entire body of work on.” I’ve never heard better advice for keeping your personal standards high and serving your readers well.

The Julia and Julia movie made me crave the slow-simmered boeuf bourguignon from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But when I got home I decided I didn’t want to just slavishly imitate another cook, even if it was Julia Child. So, I decided to create a beef pot roast instead of a stew. To lighten up my dish, I skipped the bacon, and substituted for it with extra thyme. I also simplified here and there, leaving out the mushrooms sautéed in butter and roasting the onions (as well as other veggies) rather than braising them in stock.

The result was this pot roast a la Julia, which my husband proclaims the best he’s ever eaten.  (I’d be happy to have the caliber my work judged by it, too!)

Hearty Beef Pot Roast a la Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon

In my opinion, this is cool weather comfort food at its best. During several hours of gentle oven braising in red wine and herbs, the chuck roast becomes tender, succulent and infused with flavor, And it permeates the air with a glorious scent.

Unlike typical American beef pot roast recipes, this one calls for a classic French technique that has served me well since I learned it from Julia--adding some beef bones to the pot to “beef” up the broth. The beef bones are oven-roasted first, which further enriches the flavor of the final dish. The step is fairly effortless, and I think nicely doctors the not-so-hot canned beef broth that’s usually around.

Serve the stew with a green salad and bread. French bread, is fine, of course, but if you’re in the mood for homemade bread, check out my sample recipes from Kneadlessly Simple in my recipe archives. Or if you are in the mood for something sweet to end your meal, I've got a great recipe for apple cake in my latest newsletter, here; if you'd like to sign up for my free newsletter here, you'll be sure not to miss the future exclusive recipes I provide my readers.

2 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 1 tablespoon all-purpose white flour
About 5 tablespoons olive oil or other vegetable oil, divided
2 cups full-bodied dry red wine
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 large bay leaf
2 to 3 pounds beef bones, preferably marrow bones
About 3 1/2 cups canned beef broth, preferably low-sodium
9 to 10 cups 1 1/4-inch chunks or lengths mixed vegetables, such as unpeeled red bliss potatoes, carrots, onions, rutabaga, parsnips, and celery
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Pat the roast dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lightly pat with flour on both sides. In a 4- to 6-quart Dutch oven or similar heavy stove-top and oven-proof pot, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil to hot but not smoking. Add the beef to the pot and brown, turning several times, until well browned on both sides. add a little more oil if necessary to prevent burning.
Add the wine, 3 cups beef broth, thyme, and bay leaf to the Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Cover tightly. Transfer to the center oven rack. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F. Braise for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the beef is tender when pierced in the center with a fork.
Meanwhile, in a medium-large roasting pan, stir the beef bones with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil until coated. Roast the bones for 1 hour, or until very well browned. Discard the fat. Transfer the beef bones to the Dutch oven. Add the remaining 1/2 cup beef broth to the roasting pan. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up the browned bits from the bottom, then add the mixture to the Dutch oven. Continue cooking the roast, tightly covered.
Meanwhile, stir together the vegetables, 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, and salt and pepper to taste in the roasting pan previously used. Roast, stirring occasionally, 50 to 60 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender when tested with a fork. Set aside.
When the pot roast is tender, arrange it and the vegetables in a large, deep, heat-proof serving dish or platter. Cover and return to the oven to stay warm. If the broth has not reduced to 3 cups or less, return the Dutch oven to the burner over medium-high heat. Cook briskly, uncovered, until the broth reduces to about 3 cups. (If the broth already measures less than 2 cups, add about 1/2 cup more canned beef broth or water to it.) Discard the bones. Place the broth in a 4-cup measure; let stand until the fat rises to the surface. Skim or pour off the fat. Pour the de-fatted broth over the pot roast and vegetables (reheat the broth to hot first, if necessary) and serve. The pot roast is also excellent reheated. It will keep, refrigerated, for up to 4 days. Makes 5 or 6 servings.

Another hearty, considerably quicker one-pot meal you may like, my kielbasa and veggie stew.
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wanna Write a Cookbook?—Make Those Recipe Intros Tasty

Drizzling icing over a cake.
I'm not the first cookbook author (and won't be the last) to insist that action verbs like drizzle, stir, spoon, flip, pipe, chop, toss and nap can invigorate and power sentences forward in a way that the descriptors called adjectives and adverbs never can. Verbs are the key to powerful prose (whether culinary or not) because they clarify and capture the action taking place.

So, we should conclude that adjectives and adverbs are comparatively unimportant and ought to be used sparingly or avoided—right? Well, no, that's actually not the correct conclusion. After carefully examining some culinary writing samples recently, I realized that adjectives and adverbs can pack a huge wallop in writing, too.
Marbling icing that has been piped.

They can be particularly powerful and effective in what cookbook editors call recipe "headnotes," those appetite-whetting introductory sentences found at the beginning of almost all cookbook recipes (they’re usually required by contracts) today. After all, headnotes are mainly designed to enticingly describe a dish to readers, and adjectives and adverbs are the parts of speech specifically designed to provide extra information and help readers visualize things. (If I sound English "teacherish," you may want to check out my Ms Grammar Lady's Writing Tips!)

Let’s take a look at two headnotes: Both have good, active verbs all right. But they also serve up a whole feast of adjectives and adverbs that I think contribute a great deal to the prose. The first sample is from my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook, the second is from Baking—From My Home to Yours, by my colleague and friend, Dorie Greenspan.

“Puffy, and crusty, and faintly tangy, this big, craggy-topped loaf is such good eating it may become a standard in your repertoire. Since the dough is baked in a Dutch oven, it usually springs up a lot and is light and airy….”

“It’s hard to imagine, but this sorbet offers the same satisfaction as its richer sibling, ice cream, does. It has all the same creaminess, the satiny, melt-in-your-mouth pleasure and the full, no-holds-barred taste, yet it has no eggs or cream….”

 I think you’ll agree that the abundance of descriptors, like puffy, craggy-topped, and satiny in these sentences not only doesn’t detract, but they paint a vivid, enticing picture. They help give a clear idea of the finished dish, and spare the reader from having to wade through the ingredients and instructions to envision it—which is what effective hednotes are supposed to do.

The key is to choose fresh, specific and thoughtfully selected adjectives and adverbs, not the generic “delicious,” and “mouthwatering,” that are too vague and too often used. Noted Houghton-Mifflin cookbook editor, Rux Martin, liked to remind me and her other authors that, "Remember, you only get one "delicious," per book!" And she wasn't kidding! My cookbook author friend, David Lebovitz (who wrote The Perfect Scoop) adds that if you're writing about chilled or frozen concoctions, another word you must avoid overusing is "refreshing." Be prepared to say how the dish is refreshing.

Napping ice cream with maple sundae sauce.
 So, the take away here is not to avoid adjectives and adverbs when rummaging in your wordsmith’s toolbox, but to chose and use them creatively and with enormous care. Tip: Try to focus very hard on exactly what it is that appeals about the dish as an aid to coming up with really meaningful descriptors.

Here are two more sample recipe intros, to show you how deadly the effect of just grabbing the first very general culinary adjectives that come to mind and automatically sticking them in here and there.

This apple crisp is quite mouthwatering and delicious and makes a great dessert.

Just scrumptious for dessert, this apple crisp is a dish everyone will love.

Do these intros makes your mouth water? Probably not, even though, ironically, they actually tell you the crisp is mouthwatering and scrumptious! In both fiction and nonfiction, straight out telling often isn’t the most effective way to go.

These sentences are boring and predictable, plus they provide readers no real information other than that the crisp is a dessert, which they already know! The second example does get a couple points for not falling back on the “This is” construction, which is also grossly overused in recipe intros. To see how I really introduced my apple crisp, check out the recipe below.

If you’re a blogger and used to depending on photos to describe a dish, remember that only words can convey how it smells, or whether it’s tart or sweet, or if it crunches appealingly with every bite. This truth is especially important to keep in mind if you aspire to write a cookbook: In most cookbooks the majority of recipes aren’t pictured (too expensive); it’s your prose alone that makes them come alive. (For some of my more general dos and don'ts of writing headnotes go here. )

Apple Crisp

Full of cinnamon and brown sugar fragrance and the robust taste of peak-of-season fruit, this homespun, nubby-topped crisp celebrates one of autumn’s most abundant and widely appreciated gifts—the apple. Actually, the dessert spotlights the wonderful variety of apples available now by calling for and combining several different kinds.

At the very least, incorporate two types, say, bracing Stayman and juicy-sweet Honey Crisp. But tossing in three or four kinds will round and deepen the apple flavor, lending lovely sweet, tart, mellow, and bold notes all at once.

1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
7 1/2 cups peeled, cored and coarsely sliced tart cooking apples, including at least 3 kinds, such as Stayman, Rome, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, or York
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cups all-purpose unbleached white flour
2/3 cup rolled oats
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup corn oil, canola oil, or other flavorless vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 7- by 11-inch (or similar 2-quart) flat rectangular baking dish with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, stir together, sugar, flour and cinnamon until blended. Stir in apples and lemon juice. Spread mixture in baking dish.

Bake in middle third of oven for 25 minutes, stirring once or twice. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, briefly mix flour, oats and brown sugar. Add melted butter and oil, stirring until incorporated. Sprinkle the topping evenly over apples. Press down lightly. Return to oven. Bake until well browned and bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes longer. Transfer to wire rack. Let cool to warm before serving. Serve with ice cream, if desired.

Makes 6 or 7 servings.
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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Questions You've Wanted to Ask Me--Or Maybe Not

After several very heavy, serious posts the last few weeks, it’s definitely time to lighten up. I’m working up a new grape recipe now (see more on that below), but in the meantime I thought I’d answer a few questions people have asked me. (Well, nobody's ever asked me about the wierdest thing I haven't blogged about, but I wanted to answer it, so that question is here, too.)

You'll also find explanation of why this eggplant is pictured, too.

Q What does a cookbook author actually do?

A In a nutshell, the job involves coming up with a cookbook topic that people might want or need, then creating and testing all the recipes and writing all the text that will go in it. Of course, figuring out how to organize the material into chapters, coming up with a catchy title, and putting together a proposal that convinces a publishing house to buy the book are also important tasks. Finally, when the cookbook comes out, the author has to make numerous appearances to promote it. (Maybe I should mention here that celebrity cookbook authors often hire somebody to create the recipes for them; they only do the promotion part.)

Q Do you ever get tired of all the baking and cooking?

A Every once in a while I do get tired when a recipe I’m developing just won’t work out—too bland, too time-consuming, or maybe just too ugly. (I once struggled with a yummy white chocolate mousse napped with mocha sauce that I finally abandoned because it kept coming out looking like mashed potatoes and gravy!) But most of the time, I think baking and cooking are fun. I’d add that if you don’t think experimenting and puttering with food and recipes is fun, you probably shouldn’t consider writing a cookbook.

Q How do you spend your free time?

A It depends. When I’m on deadline with a book—like right now—I often take little breaks from the computer ( in other words, stall) by working in the garden. For longer breaks I like to go to farmers’ markets or shop for photo props and kitchenware at antique and junk shops.

Sometimes, when I’m very punchy from a deadline I do silly stuff. I saw the eggplant in the pic at a produce store and bought it because it looked like Richard Nixon. Then I decided to name it Eggpert and decorate it. I made it look sad because it’s about to become eggplant parmesan.

Q Where do you get your recipe ideas?

A From anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes ideas come from dishes I taste and think would be better done differently. Sometimes from food editors who have a particular theme or assignment in mind. Sometimes from pressure to use a foodstuff I don’t want to go to waste: Right now I’ve got three gallons of Concord grapes my sister brought me, and I guarantee you I’ll be dreaming up and probably posting some grape recipes soon.

Q What’s a really weird fact you’ve never blogged about before?

A I once had a pet frog living in my front hall. Well, it wasn’t a pet exactly. It just happened to be hiding in a big potted fern I brought in from the garden one fall. By the time I realized Hoppy was there, it was nearly winter and I was afraid he’d freeze if I put him outside.

Everything went fine until he decided to move to the living room. A friend visiting me came into the kitchen, and she was white as a ghost. “I was admiring your very realistic ceramic frog on the coffee table,” she said, “and when I went to pick it up, it jumped.” I’m sorry to say I don’t have a snapshot of Hoppy, but poised on that table he was quite handsome indeed!
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