Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Freakin' spheroidal pancakes. Big deal. How does this novelty dish from your local Danish Culture Heritage Society make it into the hallowed pages of Frangykitchen? Well, it's like this.

A few months ago, my sister gave me some chokecherry syrup, which was given to her by Jim, her ex-boyfriend from when they were in their 20s. The jar was dated 2006 and it was one of the last jars put away by Jim's mom before she died. I remember tagging along as the little brother and visiting with Jim's family in Montana and picking baskets of wild chokecherries, which are astringent and scarcely edible when picked but can become indescribably transcendent as preserves—jam, compote, and syrup. "Can become" is the key here because not all chokecherry preserves are so great. Patsy tells me that Jim sends her chokecherry jams every once in a while (he still lives in Billings), but his are nowhere near as good as his mom's. [Don't tell Jim, though, and I'm counting on the dilution factor of one tiny post in the entirety of the blogosphere to keep this our little secret.] And so this is how I came to possess a very special half-pint jar of seemingly irreproducible delicacy. Maybe someday I'll make it my mission to rediscover the secrets of producing good chokecherry syrup, but for now I just need a worthy means of consuming it. That's part one.

Last week, my mom has me and a couple of friends over for a session of hard labor—moving around furniture, cleaning, etc. and we come across an old box with a nearly brand-spanking new cast-iron ebelskiver pan. Apparently Mom picked it up on one of their trips to Solvang, which is apparently something that my family used to do before I was born. Sure enough, Patsy remembers this, but I don't. No big—I've been to Solvang and know that I didn't miss out on much. I'm not a culture nut and never have been. Mom says that she used the pan exactly twice before putting it into storage. I asked if I could borrow it, and she said I could have it. It looked brand new. There's no way that this pan could have produced decent anything. With no seasoning of the bare metal, any food would stick like crazy.

Cast iron is my favorite cookware for many kinds of foods. Properly seasoned, it browns foods forming a beautiful crust that will generally detach nicely from the surface. So it is relatively non-stick, though in order to achieve this property you need to use adequate fat, the pan needs to be hot, and the cook must be patient, allowing enough time for the crust-forming to occur before moving the food. After cooking and while the pan is still hot, a quick wipe-down is all the cleaning that should occur, and if there is anything sticking to the pan, a bit of hot water can be used to loosen the little crusties before wiping them out. Under no circumstances should this pan be scrubbed with detergent, as this will remove the seasoning.

So what exactly is this seasoning? And faced with a brand-new, bare metal pan, how does one put on this seasoning? In my understanding, the coating is derived mostly from fats from the previous several cookings, chemically altered with heat and exposure to the iron surface so that it bonds with the metal and also thickens and semi-hardens to coat the metal. It's kind of a dynamic coating—each time you cook, a little bit of the fats gets incorporated into the coating while a little bit of the coating is lost by burning off.

To season a new pan, there are several methods, and you can find all of them on the Internet. The one that I have used involves washing the pan very well, coating it with oil and baking it, then letting it cool and repeating the process a few times. The result is a very attractive, shiny, orange-brown coating that in my experience has a tendency to peel at real cast-iron cooking temperatures, and is therefore little better (if not worse) than no coating at all.

My philosophy is that you have to develop the seasoning with use. In the case of the ebelskiver pan, I used a little extra oil in both the pan and the batter, and I just accepted that the first batch would stick until it became over-brown (i.e. burnt, but the dogs didn't mind). The second batch would be a little better. And by the time I put on the third batch of ebelskiver the result would be somewhat edible, which is a good thing because the dogs were getting rather sick of them.

After a week of daily use, the pan is finally seasoned and is making pretty nice ebelskiver. For a really good batter recipe, go to Karen's post on pancakes and follow the instructions, but add a generous tablespoon of melted butter for every 2/3 cup of batter, which should be on the thick side. The pan must be pre-heated over a low fire—hot, though not smoking—and about half a teaspoon of oil in each of the cups should be swirled around before adding the batter.

The trick to cooking ebelskiver is the all-important quarter-turn. Once the batter has had a crusted to a light golden color, I use a wooden skewer to help detach the 'skivers from the pan before giving them a partial turn. The cooked hemispheres should now be vertical with one lip straight up and the other at the bottom of the cup. In the meantime the loose batter should run out to fill the half of the cup that was vacated. At this point they kind of look like three-D pac-men. Once you have a nice crust on the bottom of the pac-men, give them another partial turn so that their mouths are straight down. Once crusted and golden all over, they are finally ready to take on the syrup made by the now-deceased mother of my sister's ex-boyfriend.

Thursday, 24 December 2009


* The foie gras recipe is listed under an older posting, which you can look up on the search engine


*this post is dedicated to the memory of Carmen Chavez, who not only made the best tamales in the world, she also shared all her methods with my mom, who imparted them to me.

As much as fried foods are drenched in Hanukkah tradition (see my previous post), no food speaks out the "reason for the Xmas season" as boldly as the tamale. Maybe it's just me. Being neither Jewish nor Christian, maybe I find myself looking for a meaningful anchor in the holiday season other than a baby in a pig trough unknowingly destined to becoming the most insidious icon of zombie worship in human history. Whatever. I just like good tamales, and truly good tamales are practically impossible to come by unless you make them yourself.

A tamale (and I shall use "tamale" for the singular rather than the more proper "tamal," just because) consists of an inedible skin of some kind—I will use corn husk, or hoja, but I've seen banana leaves used to great effect as well as parchment—wrapped around a cylinder of corn-based dough, the masa, which is filled with something truly tasty. There are no constraints on what one can use as tamale filling. Karen's froggy readers may be tempted to incorporate lardons and duck confit, while those in Kiwiland will want to try a lamb concoction or perhaps chopped-up pavlova for a dessert tamale. While I have no problems with innovation, the pork-and-red-chile mixture is both classic and (to me) the best. For anyone crazy enough to jump into the culture of tamale-making from having read just this post, I strongly recommend starting by mastering the red chile tamales. Later on you can do your cherry and foie gras tamale wrapped in fig leaf (which I think could be delicious!).

There are three parts to the process of tamale-making: preparation of the masa, preparation of the filling, and assembly/cooking. Not one of them is particularly easy, although short cuts are available.

"Masa regular" is dough made from corn, water and lye and is available at most Mexican supermarkets (especially during the holiday season) as well as at your local tortilleria. This is what you use to make your own corn tortillas at home—take a ball of the stuff right from the package (it's the consistency of Play-Doh), smash it flat in your tortilla press and cook on a hot comal (I use a cast iron skillet). But for tamales, the cooked masa needs to be soft and fluffy rather than sturdy and chewy (which are desirable qualities in corn tortillas), and so we need a transubstantiation even more profound than the Roman Catholic conversion of communion crackers into the body of the boy in the pig trough. No mysticism is required here, though. This transformation takes place with the addition of prodigious quantities of lard (which is said to work in mysterious ways. Mm hmm.)

Ten pounds of masa to three pounds of lard comes out about right. I'll add a handful of sea salt as well, and then start to mix. This part is a lot of work unless you have some kind of giant machine doing it for you (I don't). You have to mix it really well, and even then the masa isn't quite finished yet—a bit of juice from the roast pork will be added to soften the masa just before the assembly step.

I mentioned that there are short cuts, and the one that might make some sense is to purchase the masa pre-mixed with lard and water, ready-to-use for tamale-making. Personally, I don't go for this, as I want better control over the mixture. I find that the pre-mixed masa cooks up too dry (not enough lard), too salty, and flavorless because they use plain water instead of jus from a roast to soften the dough. Taste just the masa from any large-scale tamale production (even the "home-made" tamale sellers) and you'll know what I mean.

The filling requires a lot of roasted pork and a chile base. I start by cutting a large pork shoulder into slabs and sprinkling the meat liberally with kosher salt and dry rub consisting of cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder. Into a roasting pan and into the oven at 350°F for a couple of hours, turning every so often. When it's kinda brown and has had a chance to braise a bit in its own juices, pull the meat out of the oven and put the meat pieces onto a plate to cool and strain the pan juices—you'll need this to finish the masa.

For red-chile tamale filling the only kind of chile is the kind from New Mexico. Other varieties—California included—are more prone to discoloration and can result in a tamale filling that is more brown than red, which is a visual disappointment. I start by popping the stem end off of the chile, checking for mold, and shaking out most of the seeds—no need to be anal about this. Then a quick toast on each side in a smoking hot iron skillet, and then into a pot with a head's worth of garlic cloves. Just enough water to cover, then simmer for about half an hour, pushing the chiles under continually—the point here is to rehydrate them.

Now fish the chiles out with tongs, letting the water drain back into the pan. Throw out the water, which should have a good bit of dirt that came off the chiles. Blend the chiles with some clean water, the garlic (fished out from the chile water) until fairly smooth. Run this through a food mill to get rid of all those nasty bits of skin as well as any remaining seeds. What you should have now is a chile puree that is thick and beautifully bright red. Put this into a large sauté pan or wok with a slug of lard, and "fry" the sauce for a bit. Add ground cumin and ground oregano (not a lot of either, but about twice as much cumin as oregano) and salt to taste. The flavor should be brilliant.

Back to the pigmeat. I'm assuming it's cooked and cooled by this point. Separate the muscle from the fat, and throw the fat out. Cut the meat into cubes and with your bare hands crush the cubes to separate out the muscle fibers and break the pieces into smaller bits—remember that you can't use gigantic hunks of meat in tamales—and drop the meat into the red chile. Mix it all well and taste it. Add seasonings to make it perfect.

If you're like me, you are dead tired after all this, and so you put off the last (and most time-consuming) step for the day after. Before retiring, however, you should do a final mix on a bit of masa—just enough to make one tamale (complete with filling and hoja) and cook it. There's going to be a lot of time invested into these tamales, and if further adjustment is necessary, now is the time to find out (as opposed to after having made a few dozen). This is also a good time to take the hojas out of their packaging for an overnight soak in hot tap water.

The hojas need to be cleaned of debris, such as dried corn silk, under running water. Toss out any leaves that are mildewy, ripped, holy (I meant as in "with holes," but you can throw out any Holy leaves you find as well) or otherwise defective. Frugal people will try to make use of all the leaves, but hell these things are cheap. Buy an extra bag and throw out the cheesy ones. Put the clean hojas vertically to drain—just make sure to use them before they dry out.

Put some of the masa you worked so hard to mix into a bowl. Add a bit of the meat juice—it helps if you warm this up some—and mix. The idea here is to soften the masa into a more workable consistency so that it's easier to spread onto the hoja. Should be about like a heavy hummus. Or if you do work around the house, like a nice spreadable plaster.

The actual making of the tamale is the part where this whole entire project finally has some meaning. It takes some skill—think of this as a warm-up for the sushi rolls I'll eventually be posting here. You have to spread the right amount and right thickness of masa to completely enclose the filling, allowing for the small amount of oozing that will occur in both directions once you start to shape the roll into a cylinder. After the rolling is complete, put the "seam" up and tuck the tapered side of the hoja under, leaving no airspace between the fold and the masa.

The first ones may come out with too much masa or uneven filling—that's okay. Just steam them up right away and take them to your neighbors, who will be flabbergasted by your industry and generosity. With any luck this may buy you an extra two weeks before they start complaining again about the dogs barking.

Oh—and another thing about the tamale assembly, and this is very important. Don't invite or even allow anyone to help you. It's way more work to oversee someone else's tamale-making than it is to make several dozen on your own. After a brief learning curve, your tamales will become perfectly cylindrical, consistent in size, and beautiful reflections of the person who has had a hand in every step of their creation, unlike what you would get from some last-minute interloper who is joining the party just when it becomes fun. So yeah, humbug, I guess. Ignore this advice at your own peril.

For as long as the masa is raw, the tamales should be kept in a more or less vertical pose. They should also be steamed with the open side up—about 50 minutes—but you can place them horizontally after they are cooked and the masa is set. Tamales are at their best moments after they come from the pot. If you make very large tamales (mine are definitely on the thin side with relatively more filling and less masa than what is typical), additional cooking time may be necessary. Uncooked masa is just gross-tasting. If you're not sure about cooking time, throw in an extra tamale or two to pull out as a tester—be aware that right out of the steamer, fully cooked masa will be softer than what you might expect, but it will still taste cooked.

Uncooked tamales freeze very nicely. Share generously with people you care about, and put away a bunch for later. Steaming hot tamales will be delightful for those days when the weather outside is frightful.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Yet another lunch with Sophie ...

Well, Margo was off in Lyon yesterday and today, so after Carrefour (where, with great restraint, I refrained from killing any of the silly old cows who run over your feet with their shopping trolleys) and the market (where I also managed to avoid doing too much damage, despite the presence of people in festive costumes trying to hand out messages of good cheer to all and sundry) I headed off to Sophie's, where we started off the day with a seriously good Bordeaux, looking out at the wannabe snow that was plooshing sullenly from the clouds about three meters above our heads.

Bloody miserable weather, in fact: cold, grey, damp and dismal. Sort of thing that makes me want to eat a good boeuf bourguignon or fluffy pork croquettes in gravy - unfortunately these are things that you really need to do ahead of time, and it's been fine and sunny all week. Until now, of course. So all I had about my person was a couple of slices of fillet and some veal chops.

Now Sophie's always protested that she doesn't really like red meat: in fact, what she doesn't like is raw red meat. Which means that she's oblivious to the delights of a rare steak, which is rather sad really. On the other hand, she is a Bressane, which means that she's accustomed to vast quantities of cream, so it was a bit of a no-brainer: I decided that the obvious thing to do was re-offend with filet de boeuf Woronoff where, as I've told you before in rather more detail, the meat gets poached in cream. (And other things, but that's beside the point.)

So that was lunch for the adults decided on, now just needed to decide on something for the two walking midden pits (or adolescents, as some call them). Having veal chops, cream and an apple to hand, the answer was pretty clear: côtes de veau Normande.

This is another of those appallingly simple recipes that really don't deserve the name, which is rather embarrassing but here goes anyway.

First of all, turn the oven on. You'll need it for the meat, and you might as well peel some potatoes, cut them into chunks and roll them around in hot oil before sticking them in to roast. If, that is, you prefer that to the more traditional (read "boring") accompaniment of rice or plain noodles. Whatever. Now, get out your trusty frying pan and heat it up: stick in a good chunk of butter and when that's sizzling, brown the veal chops on both sides.

I would strongly suggest that you not use a non-stick pan for this. Nice as they are, they do have one major defect: nothing sticks to them, so there'll be no caramelised sucs (brown crispy bits, if you prefer) to be incorporated into the sauce. Which would be a shame.

When the chops are nicely golden, slosh some calva over and flambé them. Calvados, incidentally, is the Norman apple brandy: if you can't get that ordinary cognac will do, or scotch if you prefer. In any case, and whatever your taste in alcohol, once that's done you should remove the chops from the pan and put them in a baking dish just large enough to hold them comfortably. Then pour about 20 cl of cream into the pan and bring it to a simmer, scraping up all the brown crispy bits with a spatula so that they dissolve. The cream should start to thicken a bit, so slosh in another shot-glass of calva, stir it well and then pour the whole lot over the chops. Cover the dish with tinfoil and bung it in the oven: it'll be ready in about 30 minutes.

Now give the pan to an adolescent, along with a chunk of bread: this will clean it, ready for the next step. Which is where you core and peel an apple (Granny Smith or something similar) and cut it into 5mm slices. Then get some more butter bubbling in the pan and fry the apple slices until they too go golden, at which point you should sprinkle them with sugar on both sides and carry on cooking gently until that caramelises.

When that's done - hopefully about 5 minutes before you plan on eating - remove the chops from the oven and stick a couple of apple slices on each one. Notice how the cream sauce has thickened nicely? Anyway, put the foil back on top and put the whole lot back in the oven (which you can probably turn off now) until you're ready to go. And just before you serve it, it would be a good idea to sprinkle it with heaps of chopped parsley.

Between the beef and the veal we had serious amounts of cream sauce, not that I need have worried. It's rare to see the stuff disappear so quickly, even with the help of a couple of baguettes. And Sophie swore she loved the meat, and for a fact she wasn't sharing with anyone.

And for dessert? Can't do better than a tarte tatin, can you? Especially if you have some cream left over to go with it.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Frying Fun

Tonight is the start of Hanukkah, and one continent + one ocean away, my friend Karen is frying latkes already, because it is evening over where she is (the nether regions of hell), and her original plans of verdure in pastella were scuttled by an absence of decent produce on a December morning in Frangy. I had my fried veggies last night in the mixed tempura at our local izakaya (okay, with a couple of bits of treyf as tasty add-ons), in anticipation of this greasiest of culinary holidays, the festival of fried foods.

Hanukkah eats rival the faire of county fairs in the U.S. in terms of oil-soaked deliciousness. Sufganyiot, bumuelos, and latkes fit right in alongside things like funnel cake and deep-fried avocados. There is some sort of significance of oil in the origins of the holiday, but nowadays it's really just about the frying. Here are a couple of faves from my house.

Wonton. This is crazy good stuff and incredibly easy. Pick up some skins at any market carrying asian stuff, and make ravioloni with pretty much whatever filling you want—anything you pick will taste pretty good inside a fried wonton skin. (I used a filling that was based on ground pork. No, not too kosher.)

Poofy chips. These start out like smallish, plastic-y discs or rectangles of mostly dehydrated rice paste, but when they hit the oil, they curl up and then unfurl into enormous, feather-light crisps of crunchy fried air. Eaten immediately after frying, the moisture content is so low that they crackle when they hit the moisture of the tongue. I've got shrimp-flavored and tempeh-blended ones in the pics.

So whip out the gallon jugs of oil. Now. 'Tis the season to be frying!

Latkas - potato pancakes

Happy Hanukkah!
For those who may not already know this, Hanukkah is an 8 day festival of feasting. Tonight is the first night, and a Sabbath, and I've got my stepdaughters, so obviously I'm making latkas. Every year we have a latkafest: tons of latkas, served with sour cream & homemade apple sauce, accompanied by a green salad.
Latkas are simple to make, although there is a certain art to it. Some people like them soft, some crispy in consistency. Others like them mashed or shredded in texture. Plain or with onions & herbs? Mine are crispy, shredded, chocked with onion & sprinkled with herbs.

Tips: As I write, I'm frying up the latkas, since I actually want to spend time with the family, not in the kitchen frying at the last minute. They can be made ahead of time, then reheated in an oven, even refrigerated or frozen.
Use the following as a guideline. Much depends on the starchyness of the potatoes, so add flour as necessary. For a main course for 6 people I use about 3 lbs of potatoes.

1 lb potatoes
1 onion
1 egg
2 tbs flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
salt & pepper
pinch nutmeg
herbs to taste: parsely, rosemary, thyme, sage...
oil for frying

Shred potatoes. Press into a colander, squeezing out as much water as possible (I do it by hand).
Add thinly sliced onion and all the rest of the ingredients.
Let sit while heating oil in a large pan.
With a slotted spoon, scoop out mixture, trying to drain any excess liquid (this is inevitable: if too liquid, add some flour, but not so much to make the latkas crunchy). Oil should be hot!
Place in oil, pressing gently (remember hot oil tends to bubble!) on the mixture. When edges brown, turn over with the aid of two utensils.
Place fried latkas on a dish lined with paper towels or brown bags to absorb excess oil.
Serve with condiments.

To reheat, place on a cookie sheet in warm oven.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

French-style Chinese rubber chicken ...

Well, this is one I haven't done for a long time. Don't even know why it popped into my head this morning after all these years, if it wasn't that all the chickens I could see as I prowled around Carrefour seemed to be rubber ones.

And what the hell was I doing roaming in a hypermarket in the lead-up to Christmas? A bloody good question, which I shall ignore. Well, actually, not. The parent-teacher meeting at Jeremy's lycée took all morning (and despite arriving on time I still didn't get to meet a single one of his teachers) so I missed the market and was consequently obliged to buy things elsewhere. Which gave me no pleasure, but there you are. The things we do for our kids.

Anyway, I didn't want turkey, nor goose, nor duck, and the only alternative seemed to be these flaccid-looking corpses that seemed vaguely related to chickens, doubtless forking off the family tree a few million years ago - whatever, the sight triggered one of the few remaining neurons in the back left of what we shall charitably call my brain, which duly obliged by bringing forth the memory of what follows. Which is not, let it be said, too foul - and if all you happen to have is, in fact, rubber chicken, it will at least be edible.

I am assuming that you have a large, sharp knife; you will want this to cut the birdbeast up. Like, take the legs off and then cut them in two at the joint, remove the wings with a decent bit of breast meat still attached, then slice the carcasse in two horizontally (giving you back and breast), fling out the back (or turn it into stock if that turns you on) and cut the breast into four chunks.

So far so good, and now would be a good time to get the marinade ready. Luckily this is not difficult, involving as it does no more than mixing together 1 tsp cornflour, 4 tbsp lemon juice, 4 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp honey, and as much garlic, ginger, five-spice powder and Tabasco sauce as you feel up to. Pour all that over the chicken pieces (which I hope for your sake are in a bowl and not still sitting on the chopping board) and set aside for half an hour or so.

During which you're pretty much on your own. Personally, I went down to the garden and poured a bit of diesel down the chimney pipes from the woodburner in the kitchen and set fire to it: not only is it fun (flames everywhere!) but it doubtless contributes to global warming (I would like to actually see some of that, please), increases my carbon footprint, and burns off the accumulated tar which would otherwise cause a chimney fire. Which you don't want, believe me.

Whatever you get up to, and quite frankly I don't want to know, once done it's time to get the meat in the oven. But just before you do that, get some vegetables ready. Some leeks, sliced thinly, would be good, as would be sliced brussels sprouts with scallion and red pepper. Add some broccoli flowerets, why not? And bring out a tin of bean sprouts from the pantry.

This is going to be cooked en papillotte - in this case, in paper. So you're going to need a large plate, and enough grease-proof paper to enclose the chicken bits. After which it's simple enough. Put the paper on the plate and put the chicken pieces on top. Spread the vegetables over and pour the marinade on top, then flip the other half of the paper over to cover, fold the edges over to seal (don't be ashamed to use a stapler. I do) and stick it the oven for an hour.

Despite having started off with something with no flavour and the texture of a six-month's dead otter, the end-result is more or less guaranteed to be delicious. Tender, subtly-spiced, and a vague taste of something that brings chicken to mind. Plain steamed rice with it is perfect, why try to complicate things?