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Archive for the ‘Ingredients’ Category

A Fresh Newport Steak from Florence Meat Market

Tucked away on a small street in New York City’s Greenwich Village there is a butcher shop called Florence Meat Market which opened in 1936 and doesn’t seem to have changed much since. There is sawdust scattered on the floor and all the meat is cut to order on big cubes of butcher block. These expert butchers know every cut and preparation, including some you’ve never heard of.

Florence Meat Market was opened by Jack Ubaldi, an Italian immigrant who learned the art of butchery at his father’s knee. He owned the shop until about 1975 when he sold it to Tony Pellegrino, a man he had trained himself. In 1995 Mr. Pellegrino passed it on to another Florence-trained expert, Benny Pizzuco, who still owns it today. It is this apprenticeship system that has allowed Florence to maintain such a high quality. According to Mr. Pizzuco they don’t hire butchers at the shop, everyone starts out wielding a broom and works their way up.

Obviously, Mr. Ubaldi knew his animals and how to break them down into any number of component parts. In fact, he knew them so well that he went so far as to invent a new cut of steak. In the 1940s Greenwich Village was a magnet for artists of all kinds. Then as now, they didn’t always have a lot of money left to buy food after paying the rent. Mr. Ubaldi hit upon a small, flavorful steak cut from the bottom butt of the cow. The bottom butt is an inexpensive cut and so these steaks could be sold relatively cheaply. They are shaped a bit like the crescent moon, but with the two tips folded towards each other. It is nicely marbled and comes with a lovely layer of fat around the outside.

In addition to being a good butcher, Mr. Ubaldi was a smart businessman. He knew that for this new steak to sell it had to have a good name. One day, while watching an ad for Newport cigarettes he realized that the steak (especially before it is folded together) looked a lot like the Newport logo. Thus was born the Newport Steak.

Some say it is simply a tri-tip steak which is a very popular cut in California. However, Benny Pizzuco insists that it is more than just that, but of course he would never reveal the secret. That said, some other New York butchers sell Newport Steaks, but none know the secrets of the Florence way of cutting and trimming them, so maybe they’re not real Newports? Or maybe it’s just good marketing. I suppose we’ll never know.

The Newport Steak is the perfect New York steak for several reasons. Many New Yorkers live alone and cook for one. The Newport is small, weighing only about a pound or less, well marbled, and since all of Florence’s meats are dry aged for up to three weeks, it’s very flavorful. While I’m sure Mr. Pizzuco’s Porterhouse steaks are amazing, it’s also nice to be able to get a small high quality steak for a good price.

The Newport is also very well suited to my favorite method of cooking steak in a New York apartment. If you live here, you most likely have a tiny, ill-ventilated kitchen, with a smoke detector right nearby. That means that cooking steak is an exercise in opening windows and positioning portable fans, and perhaps explaining to the neighbors that no, you are not on fire, just cooking steak.

Through consultation with my fellow Gothamites and the advice of the supremely helpful discussion boards over on egullet.org, I’ve developed a way to avoid all of that and still wind up with a pretty good steak. You’ll find full instructions below, but the important parts are heating your pan in the oven so it doesn’t smoke, searing the steak on the stove top for a minimal amount of time to avoid the smoke detector, and then finishing the steak in the oven for the same reason. The result may not be quite what you’d get in a restaurant, but if you start out with a $7.99 per pound Newport and cook it yourself, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.

New York Apartment Steak

Serves 2

2 Newport Steaks from Florence Meat Market
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Cooking twine

Season your steaks liberally with kosher salt and black pepper. Allow them to stand on the counter until they come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Place a large cast iron pan in the oven for at least 15 minutes before beginning to cook the steaks.

Tie a piece of cooking twine around the circumference of each steak. This will help it hold it’s shape during cooking, and it will cook more evenly.

When the cast iron pan is good and hot, carefully (!) move it to the stove top over medium-high heat. Place the prepared steaks in the pan and cook them for 2 minutes per side.

Move the cast iron pan with the steaks in it back to the oven and cook them there for 4½ minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, move the steaks to a plate, and let them rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

You could make a pan sauce if you like, or serve each one with a pat of homemade tarragon butter on top. Me, I like them as is, with a side of buttery mashed potatoes.

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Wild chestnut trees have flourished in southern Europe since the ancient Greeks brought them from Asia Minor and the Romans spread them throughout their empire. For thousands of years poor subsistence farmers in that part of the world extended their crops with wild foods like chestnuts. In addition to roasting or boiling them, chestnuts were dried and then ground into a flour which was mixed with wheat flour to help it go further. Before maize (corn) became a common crop in Europe in the 16th Century, Italian polenta was made with chestnut flour. When famine threatened, it was often chestnuts and other foraged foods which stood between the people and starvation.

There are many traditional foods in Italy and Corsica made with chestnut flour including a flat bread known as necci, and chestnut flour fritters called fritelli. In the late 1940s an anthropologist interviewed some elderly people in Corsica who said they had never eaten wheat bread, only bread made from chestnut flour. The villages in mountainous Corsica are isolated and at that time there was little trade with the mainland. Corsicans also call the chestnut tree arbre à pain or “the bread tree.”

I’ve made chestnut soup in the past and of course eaten roasted chestnuts while listening to Mel Torme, but to get in touch with the medieval food traditions of southern Europe I chose to make a Tuscan chestnut flour cake called castagnaccio. Many of the ingredients are forageable, it’s really easy to make, and as an extra bonus it is both vegan and gluten free.

Castagnaccio is very rich so you only need a small piece, especially after all that turkey. It has a deep, earthy flavor, punctuated by the sweet raisins and a slight bitterness from the rosemary. The cake’s consistency, and the fact that it is not overly sweet, reminded me of Asian desserts made with red bean paste.

I, for one, am grateful to be using the lowly chestnut to celebrate abundance at Thanksgiving, rather than as a stop-gap to prevent famine.

Castagnaccio

Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine, if you can’t get it, use a dry sherry instead.

Chestnut flour can be found in Italian specialty stores where it may be labeled farina di castagne. You can also order it from Amazon.com

⅓ cup Vin Santo or dry Sherry
1½ ounces raisins
10 ounces chestnut flour
1½ ounces sugar
a large pinch of salt
1½ – 2 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 ounce pine nuts

Put the raisins in a small dish and pour the Vinsanto or sherry over them. Leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Mix the chestnut flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. Gradually whisk in water until a batter with the consistency of pancake batter is formed. It should be pourable, but not too thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, it should be about 1 inch thick. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the top of the cake. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven. Drain the raisins and squeeze as much liquid out of them as you can, then sprinkle the raisins over the top of the cake. Also sprinkle the chopped rosemary and the pine nuts over the top of the cake.

Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until it is a dark brown color and the top is cracked like parched earth. The cake does not rise as chestnut flour contains no gluten.

Allow the cake to cool completely before turning it out onto a plate. Serve with a glass of Vin Santo or dry Sherry.

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Farmers' Market Celery, top; Supermarket Celery, bottom

Until I started shopping regularly at my farmers’ market I was never a big fan of celery. Sure, it’s important as an aromatic vegetable to build a flavor base for soups or sauces, but on it’s own I always found it pretty insipid; pale and watery in both appearance and flavor. All that changed when I bought my first farmers’ market celery. I had a little trouble finding it at first because it looked completely different! Instead of the almost white stuff you get in the supermarket, this was a deep dark green and smelled delicious. I actually felt like just pulling off a stalk and eating it right there. When I got home, I did try some, and from that day on, I was a converted celery lover. The farmers’ market celery takes you on a flavor journey with each bite. It starts with a bright, wet sweetness, moving into a deep satisfying earthy green taste and then finishing with a little cleansing bitterness. The stalks are narrower than supermarket celery and it is a little stringier, but if that’s a problem, you can peel it a bit with a vegetable peeler.

In addition to handling all of the usual celery duties, this celery makes the best cream of celery soup I’ve ever had, try Julia Child’s recipe, it’s a little fussy but you won’t be disappointed. I was inspired to seek out more recipes starring celery and in my research I found a bunch of braised celery recipes. In the past, I had always wondered why anyone would braise celery, I could only imagine that it would become completely flavorless. But with my new best friend, farmers’ market celery, braising made a lot more sense.

So how did this happen? Obviously, if people were braising celery in the past, then it can’t have always been so wimpy tasting as the stuff we get in the grocery store. Celery leaves were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (d. 1323, BCE), so it has a long history with humans. The word in English comes originally from the Ancient Greek selinon which actually means parsley. This makes sense because celery and parsley are botanically related. In ancient times, celery was mainly used as a medicine, and some believed it to be an aphrodisiac. As with many plants taken up for cultivation by humans, we started out with the wild variety of celery, also known as smallage. It was quite bitter which may account for its primary use in medicine. I guess they’ve always thought medicine should be hard to swallow.

In the 16th Century French and Italian gardeners began to grow it, and cooks used it as an herb to flavor dishes. By the 17th and 18th Centuries growers had created a slightly less bitter version through selective breeding, but it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that celery came into its own as a vegetable. Gardeners continued to breed for a sweeter varietal, but more importantly, they discovered that if soil was banked around the base of the plant as it grew, it would “blanch.” Covering up the plants caused them to form much less chlorophyll and so they were a much lighter green and they tasted sweeter.

We’re not sure exactly when celery came to America, but in 1856 a Scottish immigrant named Taylor, brought celery to Kalamazoo, Michigan. At first, it wasn’t too popular, but then a Dutchman named Cornelius De Bruin, began growing it in the rich bottom lands of the Kalamazoo river. He is also said to have made some improvements through breeding to the original variety that Taylor had brought from England. Whatever Mr. De Bruin did, it worked, celery took off and after that Kalamazoo was known as Celery City.

I recently tried to contact the farm from which I buy my super-green, delicious celery, to ask what variety they are growing and if they bank their plants, but I haven’t heard back yet. I suspect their celery is not banked, otherwise it wouldn’t be so green. Have our palates changed since the 19th Century when celery was considered too bitter and had to be made pale and sweet in order to be tolerable? We certainly eat more “bitter greens” like arugula, endive and broccoli rabe, than we did say, 20 years ago. If you think celery is boring, I urge you to find some of the strong dark green stuff and try it out. Below is a fairly simple braised celery recipe from Italian food maven, Marcella Hazen. It reminds me of concentrated bites of cream of celery soup, but with pancetta and Parmesan cheese — far from boring.

Braised and Grantinéed Celery Stalks with Parmesan Cheese

Adapted from Marcella Hazen

Serves 6

2 bunches fresh celery (use the good dark green stuff)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped pancetta or prosciutto
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium store bought stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat your oven to 400 F.

Separate the stalks from the base of the celery and cut off the leafy tops. If you like, save the leaves and use them as you would parsley.

If you find the celery too stringy, use a vegetable peeler to peel the outside layer. Cut the stalks into pieces about 3 inches long.

In a saucepan bring 2-3 quarts of water to a boil, add the celery and allow the water to return to a boil, after one minute of boiling, remove the celery and set it aside to drain.

In a large skillet or saute pan, saute the onion in the butter until it becomes translucent, add the chopped pancetta or prosciutto. Cook for about 1 minute. Add the celery, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken broth, and bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and simmer until the celery begins to become tender but is still a little firm when pierced, about 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pan, turn the heat up, bringing the liquid to a boil. Cook in this manner until all of the liquid has evaporated.

Use tongs to gently move the celery to a baking dish, then spoon the onion and meat mixture over the top of the celery. Finally, sprinkle on the grated Parmesan. Bake it in the upper part of your oven until the cheese melts and turns a little brown and crusty. Remove from the oven, let stand for 3-5 minutes and then serve.

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A 1947 ad for the very popular Silex vacuum coffee pot / photo by Flickr user jbcurio

This is part II of an article exploring the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century. Part I can be found here

We last met in 1838 Paris where the French Balloon style vacuum pot was patented. This high-tech, theatrical method of brewing coffee was developed further in Britain in 1850 and eventually exported to the US where it became the basis for the famous Silex vacuum pot.

Another innovation in coffee preparation emerged in France around 1850, a pot with a fine mesh screen attached to a plunger, which would be pressed down when brewing is complete to prevent the depleted grounds from pouring into the cup. This was a great improvement over cloth or paper filters which absorb the coffee oils and hence much of the best of coffee’s flavors. In hindsight this seems like an obvious thing to try, however, the technology to create fine wire mesh screens was not really available until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.

Again, it is the French who are forging ahead with coffee innovations. Messrs. Mayer and Delforge received the first patent for this “infusion coffee maker” in 1852. The only drawback to the design was the fact that it was difficult to make a mesh filter that would hug the sides of the pot tightly enough to keep all of the grounds out. This was improved in the 1930s when Italians Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta redesigned it with a spring coiling around the edge of the filter. Finally, in 1959 Mr. Fallero Bondanini of Switzerland hit upon the solution we see in the modern version of the press pot, with the mesh screen extending out beyond the coiled spring and turning up at the edges. The official name for this style of coffee maker in French is cafetière à piston filtrant, the word cafetière simply means coffee maker. In English it is often referred to as a French Press, or a Plunger Pot.

A French Press or Plunger Pot / photo by Flickr user illustir

It is only in 1901, 256 years after that first coffee house opened in Venice, that we get an inkling of espresso. In the late 19th Century there was much experimentation happening with steam pressure. Naturally, people were curious to see what effect this could have on making coffee. The idea was that if the water could be put under a pressure higher than 1 atmosphere (the normal pressure here on Earth), it might extract more flavor from the coffee.

The first success at this was achieved by an Italian factory owner named Luigi Bezzera who thought his employees spent too much time on their coffee breaks. So he built a machine that forced steam and boiling water at 1.5 atmospheres of pressure through the ground coffee and directly into a cup. All of the coffee preparation methods we have discussed so far take a minimum of 4-6 minutes to complete (depending on how you like your coffee). Bezzera’s new method was fast taking only seconds, which is how it got it’s name espresso is Italian for “fast.”

By all accounts, even though Mr. Bezzera was a skilled inventor, he wasn’t very good at marketing and he didn’t have a lot of spare money to promote his new creation. In 1903 he sold the patent for his espresso machine to Desidero Pavoni who popularized it, eventually shipping it all over the world. If you’re in New York City, stop by Cafe Reggio on MacDougal St. to see their original La Pavoni machine, which dates from when the cafe opened in 1927. It is supposedly the first espresso machine to reach America.

An original La Pavoni espresso machine / photo by Flickr user ohskylab

While these early machines produced a richer, more complex cup of coffee than previous methods, they were fairly difficult to operate and often produced bitter coffee because the water and steam was too hot. Also, the La Pavoni could not produce enough pressure to generate the rich crema that is seen today as the hallmark of a high quality shot. Even so, espresso became very popular, especially in Italy, where every man made a home away from home at the espresso bar.

The fact that espresso could only be obtained outside the home gave an idea to another Italian inventor, Alfonso Bialetti. In 1933, he created a variation on the pumping percolator of 1819. It is made of aluminum, in three sections. The bottom piece holds the water, and a filter basket with a tube extending from the bottom holds the coffee above the water. This bottom assemblage is then screwed into the empty upper container, in the bottom of which is found a rubber gasket to ensure a tight seal, and second metal filter. The pot is then placed on the stove and heated until a pleasant gurgling noise indicates that the hot water under pressure has been forced upwards through the ground coffee and into the upper container from where it can be served. Higher manufacturing tolerances and the presence of a safety release valve in the water reservoir meant that levels of pressure similar to the La Pavoni machine could be achieved, right on the stove top. Bialetti called the coffee pot the Moka Express and used the slogan “in casa un espresso come al bar” or “at home, an espresso just like the one at the bar.”

Alfonso Bialetti's Moka Pot, circa 1933 / photo by Wikipedia user Imm808

The Moka pot sold reasonably well, but mainly locally in Milan. Production was then interrupted by World War II, and did not resume until Mr. Bialetti’s son Renato, who had been a POW in Germany, came home and took over the business. Renato Bialetti succeeded in marketing the Moka Express nationally and by the 1950s the company was making four million coffee pots per year! To this day, most Italian households have a Moka pot tucked away somewhere, even if it’s just for when grandpa comes over and wants to make coffee.

During the rise of the Moka pot, changes were also coming to Italian coffee bars. In 1947 Giovanni Achille Gaggia, a coffee bar owner in Milan, filed a patent for a new style of espresso machine which used a spring-loaded, lever-operated piston. The operator pulled down on a large lever which released hot (not boiling) water, and no steam, from the boiler into a chamber between the piston and the coffee. He then slowly released the lever, expanding the spring which pressed down on the piston and forced the hot water through the coffee at very high pressure (about 3-4 atmospheres). The ability to more finely control the temperature and pressure of the water resulted in a much superior cup of coffee, with a rich, dappled froth on top which no one had seen before.

At first, Gaggia’s customers were suspicious of this “crema di caffe or “coffee cream” as he named it. If there was no milk, then where was the “cream” coming from? A smart man, Gaggia marketed it as a natural cream, extracted from the coffee itself by his new process. He was more correct than he may have realized. The water under the higher pressure achieved by Gaggia’s system, was able to emulsify otherwise insoluble oils and volatile compounds in the coffee, creating the highly flavorful crema. Once people discovered how tasty it was, everyone wanted crema on their espresso and Gaggia had the slogan Crema Caffe Naturale engraved right on his machines.

An original Gaggia spring and piston espresso machine / photo by Flickr user Ciccio Pizzattaro

The final change which brings us into the age of truly modern espresso, occurs in 1960 when Ernesto Valente of the FAEMA company, created a machine which used an electric pump to pressurize the water and force it through the ground coffee. And so the final curtain fell on the mesmerizing scene of a trim Italian barista theatrically pulling the levers on his machine to create that special brew. On the plus side, while baristas still need training to make good coffee, FAEMA’s E61 machine was easier to learn than the lever and piston style machines. It was also capable of 9 atmospheres of pressure which is pretty much the pressure at which modern espresso is made today.

FAEMA's E61, the first truly modern espresso machine / photo by Flickr user Ciccio Pizzattaro

Some of the coffee preparation methods discussed above have fallen out of favor (good riddance, pumping percolator!), while others are very much in use. Naturally, there is much argument on coffee enthusiast web sites, but there is no one way to make a good cup of joe. Home espresso machines are getting better and better, but are expensive and require quite a bit of skill to approximate what a good barista can create with a top of the line La Marzocco. The Bialetti company has a new version of the Moka Express called the Brikka which supposedly with some practice, can create crema. If you’re more of a minimalist, go with a French Press or make the time jump to 1645 with a Turkish cezve. However you brew it, here’s mud in your eye.

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Café Procope since 1686, one of Europe's oldest coffee houses / Photo by Flickr user Sergei Melki

A two part article in which we explore the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century.

Europeans have been drinking coffee since about 1615 when Venetian traders obtained it from the Ottoman Turks. The first European coffee house outside of Istanbul opened in Venice in 1645. But if you were to hop into that secret time machine I know you’re working on in the basement for a trip to Venice in 1645, you might be surprised at the equipment being used by the baristas.

Here in the 21st Century we associate Italy with espresso, that intense potion that clears your foggy head even after the most dissolute of nights out. But back in 1645 coffee was being made the way the Turks still do it today. Finely ground coffee is boiled together with water and sugar in a small copper pot with a long handle called a cezve, and then poured into a cup for you to drink. If it’s done properly the grounds will settle to the bottom, but be careful of that last sip! Turkish coffee is a fine beverage, but it’s quite different from espresso.

Turkish style coffee shown here with the cezve in which it was prepared / Photo by Flickr user blhphotography

How did we get from a Turkish-style preparation of coffee to the more complex and machine-dependent ritual that is today’s espresso culture? About 50 years after coffee first entered Europe through Venice, it could also be found in the Netherlands, England, France, Vienna and Germany. The Dutch had even begun farming it in their colony of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). For the next 285 years or so, the French were the taste-makers in new and fashionable coffee preparation methods. In the first move away from Turkish-style coffee, the French placed the ground coffee in a linen bag and infused it in the water, thus eliminating that final gritty sip. Around the same time, aficionados also discovered that making coffee with boiling water destroys the delicate, volatile essences where much of coffee’s flavor resides. A temperature just below boiling, makes for a vastly more flavorful cup. At this time a “coffee pot” was just a serving vessel, not the container in which you prepared the coffee.

Archbishop Belloy's drip coffee pot circa 1800

In about 1800 Jean Baptiste de Belloy, Archbishop of Paris, invented the first drip coffee pot. This French drip pot had two parts, the ground coffee was placed in the upper container which was then stacked on top of an empty lower container with a cloth filter placed in between. Then hot (not boiling) water was poured over the grounds in the upper pot and the coffee would slowly drip through the cloth filter into the lower chamber from which it was then served. The main problem with this method was that it took quite a while, and by the time it was finished the coffee might only be lukewarm.

While doing research for this article, I discovered that the French drip pot is still widely used in Louisiana where it is called une grégue. This page has some lovely reminiscences from people who grew up drinking coffee made that way.

A French drip coffee pot still used today in Louisiana, virtually unchanged in design from 1800

An eccentric Anglo-American inventor by the name of Benjamin Thompson stepped in at this point to solve the temperature issues with the original French drip pot. Thompson fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War and moved back to London afterwards where he became a minister in the government and knighted by King George III in 1784. Beginning in 1785 he worked for the Bavarian government where he helped the military with everything from food to explosives. In 1791 he was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire and from then on is referred to as Count Rumford. He left Bavaria around 1799, after which he lived in both England and France.

On one of his sojourns in France, Count Rumford improved on the Archbishop’s drip coffee pot by enclosing it in an insulating jacket which could be filled with hot water, keeping the pot warm throughout the dripping process. Sometimes Rumford is credited with creating the first percolator, but this is a bit of a misnomer. The verb “to percolate” describes what happens when a liquid passes through a permeable substance. In that sense, the first drip coffee pot was a percolator. Modern usage of the term “coffee percolator” usually refers to the “pumping percolator” — more on that later.

Up until now you needed two containers to make coffee, one for boiling the water, which was then poured into the coffee maker proper containing the ground coffee and a filtering device. That changes in 1819 when two different Frenchmen came up with a way to do it all in one pot.

A Parisian tin smith by the name of Morize made a clever design innovation to the drip pot. He created a pot with three chambers instead of two. The water goes in the bottom section, the ground coffee in the middle, and the top chamber is left empty. The pot is placed on the stove, when the water boils you take it off the heat and flip it upside down. The now no-longer-boiling water drips through the coffee grounds into the empty pot, which is now on the bottom of the apparatus, and from which the coffee can be served. This design was taken up with great enthusiasm in Italy where it became known as the Napoletana or Neapolitan pot.

The Napoletana or flip pot / photo by Wikipedia user Csant

In that same year of 1819 a French patent for the first pumping percolator is given to a man named Laurens. This design was improved upon in 1827 by his fellow countryman Jacques-Augustin Gandais, resulting in a two-chambered pot with a tube connecting the top and bottom. The pot was placed on the stove with water in the bottom part and ground coffee in the top. When the water boiled it was forced up the tube and would spray over the grounds in the top chamber and drip through them back down into the bottom chamber (which was now empty). It is important to note that this cycle happened only once. In future, modifications were made to the pumping percolator so the coffee could be cycled through the grounds multiple times. This is a recipe for insipid coffee that has lost all of its volatile aromas and flavors. Some people blame the ubiquitous use of pumping percolator machines in America during the 1950s and 60s for the destruction of American coffee culture.

Fourth from the left, an early pumping percolator

Improvements in the manufacture and availability of glass, along with scientific advances in the understanding of fluid dynamics and vacuums paved the way for the next innovation in coffee preparation methods, the glass vacuum pot. The first patent for such a device was granted to a Frenchwoman, Mme. Jeanne Richard in 1838. Mme. Richard based her design on an existing German pot made by a company called Loef in Berlin. In 1841 another French woman, Mme. Vassieux of Lyons, made some important improvements which solidified what became known as the “French Balloon” design. These pots were not meant to be hidden away in the kitchen, instead they were proudly displayed in the dining room where guests could witness the spectacle of the coffee being made.

The glass vacuum pot consists of two globes, one on top of the other, which are connected by a tube that reaches almost to the bottom of the lower globe. There is a filter at the top opening of the tube. Water is placed in the bottom globe, and ground coffee in the upper one. The water is then heated (for dramatic effect it can be done with a candle or spirit lamp). As the water heats it expands and is forced up through the tube, where it mixes with the waiting coffee grounds. When most of the water is gone from the bottom globe and the coffee has been steeping in the water for an amount of time that suits your taste, the candle or lamp is extinguished. As the water vapor cools, a partial vacuum is created which draws the coffee through the filter and down into the lower globe, from which it can be served.

Several examples of the French Balloon style of vacuum coffee pot / Photo by Flickr user Bradley Allen

Around 1850 the design of the vacuum pot changed and the two glass containers were placed side-by-side and connected via a siphon tube. Britain’s James Napier in particular is well known for this design. The principle of how the coffee was made however, remained the same. Interestingly, the French Balloon style vacuum pot was revived in the United States in the early 20th Century where it became the basis of the famous Silex coffee pot. As in France, the double globe vacuum pot design was promoted and improved by women. In 1915 two sisters from Massachusetts, Mrs. Anne Bridges and Mrs. Sutton had it manufactured from Corning’s newly invented heat resistant Pyrex glass which made it much more durable than the previous incarnations of this almost century-old design. The Silex pot became so popular in America that it became a generic name for any glass vacuum pot. The company was sold to Frank Woolcott in 1924. It then merged with Proctor to become Proctor-Silex in 1957.

An advertisement for the Silex vacuum pot circa 1917 / credit: Flickr user Joan Thewlis

Stop by Comestibles next week when we will continue our investigation of coffee preparation techniques through the ages in Part II of this article.

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Greengage and Pistachio Crumble Cooling on the Windowsill

Somehow foreign names for ingredients always sound exotic. Wouldn’t you rather make aubergine Parmesan, than just plain old eggplant? Or creep away after leaving baskets of excess courgettes on your neighbor’s doorstep in the middle of the night instead of secretly gifting them with zucchini?

One mysterious ingredient I always wondered about in British cookbooks was the greengage. Despite sounding like a sort of lab equipment for measuring chlorophyll, it turns out to be a particular varietal of plum very popular in the UK and not at all well known on this side of the pond. After reading of their preternatural sweetness which is coveted in Britain for desserts and jams, I really wanted to try some. Alas, through the fruit was grown in America when we were but colonies of mother England, it is rarely found here now. Greengages can be difficult to grow and even harder to get to market as they do not ship well, so American farmers switched to less persnickety types of plum.

The greengage (Prunus domestica italica) is originally a French varietal where it is called Reine Claude after Queen Claude (d. 1524), wife of King Francis I of France. Around 1725 Sir William Gage, 7th Baronet of the name, introduced these succulent sweeties into England. An unsubstantiated story tells us that during shipping the labels came off the plum trees. Since they were green and owned by Gage, they became known as greengages.

Greengages?

You can imagine my excitement when I ran across greengages for sale at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers’ Market in Brooklyn last Saturday. When I got them home and started to do a little research into where they came from and how they got their name, I found that in the US other types of green plums are often labeled “greengage” even if they are not. I tasted them and honestly, they didn’t strike me as any sweeter than other plums I’ve had, so I’m wondering, are they real greengages? Or perhaps they were picked a little too soon? I read that they don’t really ripen well after picking. British readers, please have a look at the photo above and weigh in about their authenticity in the comments. For reference they are about the size of a golf ball and the flesh inside is golden.

Whether or not they are actual greengages I decided to make a dessert with them anyway. I chose a Greengage and Pistachio Crumble from a British book called Healthy Fruit Desserts by Christine McFadden which is full of not-too-sweet dishes containing unusual ingredient combinations. I loved the idea of putting green pistachios together with their plum cousins. The crumble was pleasantly tart and I really enjoyed the crunchy topping which the oats made quite substantial. This is one of those desserts that also makes a great breakfast, containing far less sugar than most of what you find in the cereal aisle.

Greengage and Pistachio Crumble
adapted from Christine McFadden

Serves 3-4

¾ lb. ripe greengages
2 oz. sugar (about 4 tablespoons)
2 oz. unsalted butter (about ½ tablespoon)
1 oz. shelled pistachios
2 oz. all purpose flour
2 oz. rolled oats
Demerara sugar for garnish

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Pour boiling water over the pistachios and let them stand for about 5 minutes. Drain the pistachios, squeeze them out of their papery skins and chop the nuts finely.

Cut the greengages in half and remove the pits. Place them in a saucepan with ¼ ounce of the butter and 4 teaspoons of the sugar. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and very gently, until the butter and sugar melt and the greengages start producing juice. Pour the cooked greengages into a 9 inch pie plate.

Stir the flour and rolled oats together. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and use your fingers to rub it into the flour and oat mixture until the result looks like breadcrumbs or peas. Add the chopped pistachios and the remaining sugar and stir. Next, add water 1 teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together into a crumbly mixture.

Scatter the dough over the greengages in clumps and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.

Bake the crumble in the center of the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

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Photo by Wikipedia user Grcampbell

In the past, I have expressed my withering disdain for single-use kitchen gadgets like garlic presses, shrimp de-veiners, and pineapple slicers. Today I’m adding another one to the list, the Raclette Machine. I’m bowled over that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an appliance that makes a dish created by Swiss livestock herders who had nothing but a campfire, some cheese and a chunk of bread. I guess the idea is that doing the cooking at the table preserves the fantasy that we’re all sitting in front of a fireplace in our Swiss chalet? Come on.

My love of history leads me to do my best to make dishes the way they were (or are) traditionally made by the people who first thought them up. Consequently, I think I’ll take some Raclette along on my next camping trip. Meanwhile, I’ll enumerate below several ways it can be made easily at home without fancy, expensive equipment

Raclette is the name of the finished dish and the name of the cheese which is the main ingredient. The semi-firm cheese is partially melted in front of a fire and then scraped (“racler” means “to scrape” in French) onto a plate filled with freshly boiled new potatoes, cornichons, pickled pearl onions, and crusty bread. Other popular accompaniments include thinly sliced cured meat such as the Swiss air-dried beef called Bündnerfleisch. To drink there is usually beer, tea or kirsch, although a nice dry Swiss white wine won’t go amiss either.

But before we start cooking let’s talk about the most important component of this dish, the cheese. There are lots of cheeses out there labeled “Raclette” and they are certainly not equal. If you have access to a good cheesemonger who will discuss the cheeses and allow you to taste samples before cutting a piece the size you desire, go have a chat with them about Raclette. If you’re stuck buying pre-cut cheese from the case in an anonymous supermarket, learn to read labels. Good Raclette is a raw milk (au lait cru), semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese made in Switzerland or France and aged for three to six months.

The Swiss Canton of Valais is particularly known for the high quality of its Raclette. So much so that the Swiss Department of Agriculture registered “Raclette du Valais” as an AOC (controlled designation of origin) product. If you have a chance to look at the whole or half rounds of the cheese, you might see the name of the village where it was made imprinted on them. Names to look for include Bagnes, Conches, Gomser, or Orsières. Raclette made in other parts of Switzerland might be labeled “Raclette Suisse.” These are not necessarily bad, but beware of industrially produced cheese made from pasteurized milk, it won’t be as good.

Because Switzerland is not in the European Union, the AOC status for Raclette only applies within its own borders. That means that anyone from outside the country may make a cheese and call it Raclette. For example they have been making Raclette in the eastern part of France which borders on Switzerland (Savoie and Franche-Comté) for a very long time. It is done in a slightly different style which makes it softer and milder than its Swiss cousin. I’ve also had very nice Raclette from Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne region of France. Try a few and see which you like best.

This gooey comfort food does cry out for a chilly autumn night in front of the fire with friends, but new potatoes are in the farmers’ markets of the Northeast right now, so I couldn’t resist making it in Summer. I used a milder French Raclette which was warm and cuddly, sliding like a lava flow over my plate of potatoes and pickles.

Raclette with a Fireplace or Oven

Adapted from James Peterson

This is a fun dish to serve to a large group. Everyone can take turns heating up the cheese and scraping it onto their plates.

Serves 6-8 people

1½ – 2 pounds Raclette cheese in a half-round or wedge shape.
3 pounds new potatoes
sea salt or fine Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 jar good quality French cornichons
1 jar of pickled pearl onions
2 good quality French baguettes

Method for a fireplace or campfire (see below for several other methods including using the oven):

Build a good fire. Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind from the cheese. If it is too thick, cut it off with a sharp knife. Put the cheese on an oven proof plate or a stone. Put the plate or stone right next to the fire with the cut face of the cheese (not the part where the rind was) facing the heat.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan with salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit, and remove their peels. Keep the potatoes warm by putting them near the fire or in a 200 F. oven.

When the potatoes are ready and the cut face of the Raclette is soft and gooey, put a few potatoes on a serving plate, carefully pick up the cheese (use oven mitts if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape along the cut face, pushing melted cheese onto the serving plate. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Put the cheese back in front of the fire so it will be soft for the next round. Any leftover cheese can be wrapped and chilled to be used another time.

Method for Oven:

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan of salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit and remove their peels.

Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind off of the cheese. If it is too thick, use a sharp knife to cut it off. Slice the Raclette into ¾-inch thick slices.

Place the potatoes in a baking dish and arrange the sliced Raclette on top of them. Bake until the cheese is totally melted and covering the potatoes (about 10-15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon some potatoes and cheese onto serving plates and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Other alternative methods:

As above, for either of these methods you first must scrape or cut the rind from the cheese. Then prepare your potatoes.

If you have a gas stove, you can remove the grate and put your cheese on a fireproof plate or stone with the cut face as close to the flame as you can. I tried this, and it works pretty well. Make sure it is good and hot before you start scraping because it cools rather quickly.

I haven’t tried this last suggestion but I think it would work. If you decide to give it a shot let me know how it turned out in the comments. Put nonstick pan over high heat on your stove top and put the cut face of the cheese facing down in the pan. When the cut face becomes soft and gooey, carefully remove the cheese from the pan (using gloves if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape it over your serving dishes as above. Repeat as necessary when guests request further helpings of cheese.

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