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Grandmothers

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food entreats us to not eat anything our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food. But just what did Mr. Henry’s grandmothers eat?

Was your grandmother exotic, bohemian, or fresh off the boat? Or, like Ensign Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, was she “as corny as Kansas in August, as normal as blueberry pie?” (Did she look like Kelli O’Hara, too?)

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Sadly, Mr. Henry has no recipes from either of his grandmothers. Grandmother Eunice used to say: “If you don’t learn how to cook, you won’t have to.” Armored with this impregnable Irish logic, she lived a life blissfully unperturbed by dishpans. (But she danced a terrific Charleston.)meissen.jpg

German Grandmother Mae baked a marvelous potatoes au gratin. She was admired for roasts, puddings, and especially for wilted lettuce salad made with a warm vinaigrette of red wine vinegar and bacon bits.

At Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, in a notable departure from Mother Henry’s rules, Mae served the children a small glass of white grape juice spiked with white wine. Giggle fits arrived soon after. Cautioned to steer clear of the Meissen figurine, children were excused from the table so they could play on the carpet and wrinkle their Sunday clothes.

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In her spirited blog, Casey Ellis tells of finding her grandmother’s recipe book written sometime before 1918. It is a captivating story of how a woman’s personality survives through her kitchen notebook, a moving testament to the way identity and food are inextricably bound.

Regarding his preference for the dessert spoon, Bronwyn derides Mr. Henry for renouncing the humble teaspoon. Don’t fret, Bronwyn. The Henry household is not wanting for spoons.

Grandmother Mae’s wedding silver service presents a remarkable picture of the 19th century table. In addition to two sets of 12 teaspoons, there are 12 cream soup, bouillon, dessert, iced tea, and coffee spoons. Just for show, there are 12 gilt silver demi-tasse spoons, too.

Dear readers, please don’t tell Mr. Henry’s siblings that he snagged the silver service. At the ancestral Henry manor, silver candlesticks remain up for grabs.

Vermouth romance

In the thrall of his own remembrances, Mr. Henry set out to prepare a proper Moroccan dinner for the family. Unfortunately, however, he could not devote half the day to the task, nor had he prepared pickled lemons 30 days ago. What to do?

He telephoned Nadia for help. She recommended a one-hour stovetop tagine (stew) of chicken with grated onion, saffron and ginger. In this tagine there is a curious trick common to Moroccan cooking: you load the ingredients upside down.
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Nadia uses Cornish game hen but Mr. Henry prefers skinless chicken.

In the bottom of a heavy stew pot, place the chicken without oil or butter. Grate two normal sized onions in the food processor and pile the onion on top of the chicken. Add a teaspoon or more of ginger, a half package of saffron, salt, pepper, touch of cooking oil, and tablespoon of butter. With low heat the meat will brown slightly, release juices, and steam the onion. Once the covered pot is leaking steam, stir the tagine and continue cooking on low until meat is falling off the bone. If you want more sauce, add a touch of stock early on.

In Morocco this is served over couscous accompanied by prunes stewed in sugar and cinnamon. A crusty bread, however, serves equally well.

Mr. Henry inhaled the simple but exotic amalgamation of flavors redolent of ancient Andalusia and, despite Nadia’s express rejection of this idea, poured in a good half cup of dry white vermouth. Was it anathema? Well, so what if it was. The result was excellent.

Mr. Henry rarely makes a sauce without adding some spirit or other. More often than not, however, he pours not from the bottle but from the chef’s personal glass.

Lately Mr. Henry has been on a something of a vermouth binge, the dry white French version, mind you, not the sweet red Italian version. A fortified and spiced wine, vermouth adds magic to any dish that includes the flavors of Provence or the Piemonte. Think of herbs de provence, garlic, and rosemary – all rather intense flavors that can easily become too insistent. How do you force them to blend so that one does not predominate? Any white wine will work, but vermouth’s spices yield an aroma less sweet and more woody.

One of the forty or more spices in vermouth is juniper, hence its walk-on role in the dry martini. Wormwood (the origin of the word vermouth) adds another woody note, an aroma that recalls the dusty hillsides of Provence.draguignan053.jpg

In the 1980’s outside Draguignan in the Var, a forest fire destroyed much of the old growth forest on either side of the autoroute that follows almost exactly the ancient Roman via Domitia. Setting out from Gawain’s castle one sunny morning Mr. Henry climbed a long hill through waist high bushes vigorously sprouting from the charred earth. For no apparent reason he kept dreaming of roast lamb. Covered in fine pungent dust, he realized he had just hiked through two miles of rosemary.parsnip_gladiator.jpg

Last week he found some firm parsnips in the market and decided to roast them with garlic, shallots, olive oil, herbs de provence, and fresh rosemary. In the LeCreuset oval gratin dish, beautiful for serving, he roasted his parsnips covered for 45 minutes. The dish was nearly done but seemed, like Winston Churchill’s pudding, to have no theme. A liberal pour of vermouth and another 15 minutes in the oven was the coup de grace.

On Saturday night after Little Henry returns from fencing class, Mr. Henry usually set up place mats in front of the TV to watch reruns of Monk and to eat hamburgers. Mushrooms sautéed with bacon and onion provide a savory accompaniment. Here again a dash of vermouth brings it all together. Be sure to add it when the pan is hot so that the alcohol evaporates more completely and the food does not absorb it too deeply. Otherwise you get vegetables that taste of little else but vermouth. There is such a thing, after all, as too much romance.

Nagging questions

Radical changes in routines are afoot in the Henry household.

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Over Christmas at her vacation ranch in the Catskills, Pepper picked up an intestinal bug prevalent in beaver scat (Who knew?) and began losing weight. Saintly Dr. Brown, font of veterinary wisdom and love, promptly and permanently removed raw chicken from the Pepper Food menu because of the possibility of salmonella poisoning. Until the system re-boots, Pepper eats Hills canned “prescription diet W/D.” To his dog-savvy readers Mr. Henry asks: What is the best dog food?

More distressing was Mr. Henry’s breezy abandonment of principles with regard to mixed drinks. He has long maintained that the classic dry martini is the one and only mixed drink that passes muster or, in this lifetime, passes his lips. The flu’s choke hold on his head and chest sent him ransacking the refrigerator for anything to sooth his sore throat, and ransacking the whiskey cupboard for anything alcoholic to suppress his cough. Lurking behind the buttermilk was a lone bottle of tonic, an odd lot leftover from summer.

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Tonic water, it turned out, acted as a tonic to the malaise. Somehow this came as a surprise to Mr. Henry, another example of flu-induced woolly-headedness, perhaps, or his long-standing prejudice against mixed drinks and their drinkers. With the last Meyer lemon added, a cold glass of bitter tonic tickled his numb palate and set his heart a-race.

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Furtively adding a dash of Hendrick’s gin before 5:00 p.m., he settled back to enjoy the successes of British colonialism, to lay down the white man’s burden, and to watch the televised make-believe that passes for frank political debate in this country. To tonic drinkers out on the information highway, Mr. Henry asks: Does tonic make your heart race, too? (And might it color your political views?)

For those interested in an excellent prècis on how to use the Meyer lemon, by the way, take a look at Cooking with Amy.

The real vehicle of betrayal came at Naughty Mary’s house in the guise of an exquisitely delicious orange aperitif of three parts Hendrick’s, one part Lillet, and a dash of orange bitters. Now that he has become a drinker of aperitifs, of flowery-colored aperitifs, no less, Mr. Henry can no longer hold up his head at the club. It comes as a comfort, therefore, that he holds no club membership.

Order and Sequence

Though not a fussbudget, Mr. Henry likes order. He likes first things to be first and fair to be fair. He may admire the rugged wild, but he prefers his personal world to be tame.

In matters of style, he likes things to look like what they are, hence his preference for Art Deco over Art Nouveau. In language, he likes things to be called by their real names, hence his abhorrence of “the war on terror,” yet another pernicious Orwellian locution that has gained common currency through mindless repetition.Ludwig_Van_Beethoven.png

Having spent all last week trying to untangle the spindly white cords of his new Apple earbuds, Mr. Henry finds his tired mind benumbed by software tutorials and Lilliputian iPhone keypads. He yearns for order, for routine, for the comfort of homey, established habits.

He longs for a day when each morsel of food and each sip of drink follow one another like the swelling dum-dum-dum of a Beethoven crescendo.

Wine experts discuss “pairings” with food, but what about sequence throughout the day?

Mr. Henry finds that what he ate for lunch influences his choice of wine for dinner.

Since he does not drink wine for lunch, the alchemical advantage that an appropriate wine provides to the digestive process must await the dinner hour.

Like a hunting hound, the initial dinner sip races down Mr. Henry’s eager gullet tracking faint scents of lunch far, far down the tract. Thus, Mr. Henry does not want to throw an earthy red from the Languedoc onto a sushi lunch, even with six hours of distance between them.

In daily routines he strives to achieve chords of harmony spiced by notes of dissonance – the organic order of music.

In traditional societies, rigorous rules of order apply, although sometimes these remain hidden from foreign eyes. Fausta regaled Mr. Henry with a Thousand and One Nights tale from India:

At a princely home in Jaipur for lunch she was presented with a dozen dishes, a dozen sauces, and a dozen pickles. Before Fausta could begin, the lady of the house carefully schooled her in the meal’s subtle order.

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Naturally enough, mild flavors were to be enjoyed before strong ones. Other pairings were more unexpected. While coriander still lingered on the palate, for example, a certain chutney was recommended. With Indian food especially, a cuisine overwhelmingly complicated both to prepare and to enjoy, a road map to proper order and sequence can be enormously helpful.

Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, a book that has been staring down from Mr. Henry’s cookbook shelf for nearly three decades, lists recipes that require two days of preparation, a trip to Queens Boulevard for ingredients, and two prep chefs. From the cook they demand perhaps too much order.classic indian cooking-thumb.jpg

In this Orwellian world, orderliness itself has become a luxury – not the “law and order” kind, mind you, in which law is bent to better impose order. No, Mr. Henry is speaking of the luxurious order of solitude at breakfast, a companion at lunch, and a family at dinner. Mr. Henry would like to place his order for more of this kind, if you please, and pronto.

And what about the little strings running the length of a banana which usually break when pulled away? Cannot scientists address this affront to order? banan02.gif

Mr. Henry pulls pork

It all starts, as things do, with one small misstep, a minor oversight that unwinds balefully into tragic chorus.

Even though he saw that the husk ends were dry, Mr. Henry bought some corn. He knew Mrs. Henry would feel compelled yet again to deliver her lecture, “How many times must I explain to you about fresh ears of corn?,” a well-argued and convincing thesis. But he had been beating the Manhattan streets all day. His feet were growing corns of their own, and back home his noble hound Pepper needed walking.

Oh where is fresh corn to be found? Where are the sweet ears of yesteryear? To buy fresh corn must he always take subways to foreign climes? Must he buy exclusively from farmstands in parking lots?

How many food miles these dry cobs had traveled Mr. Henry shudders to think. What became clear to him, however, was that he needed a quick-witted solution.

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Cornbread! He hadn’t indulged in a good corn bread since winter. This week’s cold snap made cornbread a practical choice. Yes, all would be alright. Then, his nimble imagination galloping ahead of his vaunted sense of practicality, he smelled the cornbread together with its empyreal helpmeet – pulled pork with barbecue sauce. He imagined brioche buns oozing with sloppy joe. He imagined crunchy, vinegary cole slaw. His tongue became heavy with desire to pronounce each menu selection with a southern accent.

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His bona fides as arbiter of fine food notwithstanding, Mr. Henry had never before slow-cooked a great slab of pork. Every recipe he found called for baking 10 hours at a tepid 225º. Could there be a shorter route?

Undeterred by inexperience, Mr. Henry bought five pounds of blade roast, slapped it on the kitchen counter, and massaged it with his own concoction of dry spices: brown sugar (lots and lots), cumin (a good heaping), cayenne (a smidge), paprika, (a smidge more), dry mustard, a big pinch of herbs de provence (why not?), ground black pepper, mixed whole peppercorns, whole cloves, and kosher salt (has nice granulation). No time for marinating or resting.

After searing the meat in canola oil, he covered it in two coarsely chopped onions, two whole cloves of garlic, and two cups of water. With the lid on, the dutch oven went into the stove at 350º for seven hours, all the time there was. The house smelled like Jimmy’s pit Bar-B-Q back home. Poor Pepper was pacing and licking her chops all day.

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Mr. Henry is not ashamed to reveal the trepidation he felt as he lifted the lid, hoping against hope he wouldn’t burn his fingers once again on its handle. The liquid was gone! The browned meat sat nobly proud of a viscose, inky mystery. Four dinner guests were set to arrive. Mr. Henry placed the lid back on top and prayed for juices to settle.

Sensing that hesitation at this crucial moment would be fatal, Mrs. Henry rose from her yoga mat and stepped into the breach. With the assurance of a battlefield colonel she added more mayonnaise (!) to the cole slaw and punched up its brightness with a sprinkling more salt and a dash of sugared white sushi vinegar. To the mysterious dark pot liquor she added apple cider vinegar and ketchup.

We few, we happy few! We pulled and we slathered. We went WAY down South. Because others were too busy eating, holding a glass of cold Vouvray Mr. Henry toasted his signal victory against overwhelming odds.

Borrowing the idea from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Mrs. Henry tossed kale in olive oil and veggie salt, and baked it at 350º for about 12 minutes. All its bitterness disappeared. The result was an intensely green, somewhat shriveled, crunchy leaf. “Hey kids,” Mr. Henry slyly asked, “who wants green potato chips?” They couldn’t get enough of them.

Fresh pineapple, a deliciously stinky aged hard cheese called toma persa, and Lorna’s beautiful pastries ended the feast.

Beaten by a bean

When Mrs. Henry decided on a whim to hop a flight to San Diego, the Henry household was left to its own devices, that is, with Mr. Henry firmly, if temporarily, in command. Trying not to be alarmed by this sudden absence of leadership in battle, Mr. Henry swore a silent oath to provide Little Henry with first quality hot dinners each and every night. ground beef 1.jpg

The first night Mr. Henry bought his ultimate quick fix solution – grass-fed, organic, Australian ground sirloin at Citarella – the world’s best hamburger. Served on a toasted brioche roll alongside baked new potatoes and Ceasar salad, accompanied by a glass of Dolcetto, all was bliss.

His more serious efforts the following evening succeeded remarkably well. A whole roast chicken rubbed with butter and salt, stuffed with apple and fresh sage, and after 30 minutes basted with Madeira emerged succulent and aromatic. Plain baked yams provided a colorful accompaniment as did toasted okra and sauteed French string beans topped with chopped cilantro. A chunky apple sauce made with fresh orange juice in lieu of water won the evening. For wine Mr. Henry chose a cold, tart Vouvray.

The next night Mr. Henry bought fat lamb chops longing for a rub of herbs de provence and gray sea salt. Broiled and allowed to rest for a good 20 minutes, they were divine. A salad of Israeli cucumbers, dill, yogurt and sour cream sat up perkily on the plate. Pears poached in wine from the Languedoc were the perfect finish.

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However, in the thrill of finding such perfect lamb chops, Mr. Henry over-reached and met with tragedy. He is accustomed to using canned flageolets. (Fresh ones have always been hard to find.) At Citarella he stumbled upon some dried ones. Rushing home after lunch he threw them in a pot of water to soak. After an hour they had swelled by at least one third. Mr. Henry made the fateful decision to use them that very evening.

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A survivor of many an undercooked chili from his college days, he knew that dried beans need to soak overnight. Yet here were flageolets already deceptively green and seemingly compliant. Despite hours on the stove that night and the following night as well, however, they never yielded.

Beaten by a bean. Next time he’ll stick to lentils. They don’t need to soak so long.

A note on grass-fed beef: Less fatty than corn-fed, it consequently cooks more quickly. The best way to tell if it’s cooked is to poke it with your finger. When it begins to resist your touch, take it out of the skillet and let it rest. The taste improves dramatically when the juices have stopped running.cucumbers2.jpg

Cucumber salad

8 Israeli cucumbers, cored and coarsely grated
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
½ cup plain non-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon sour cream

Mr. Henry prefers to use the food processor. It grates them coarsely but uniformly. He adds several pinches of salt, covers and refrigerate for several hours.

When ready to serve, squeeze all the water from the cucumbers and mix everything together.

Codfishing

Like The Manolo, Mr. Henry has been traveling, holed up in a Cape Cod rental bungalo without internet access.cod fish

He tried to eat locavore. He made a real mental effort. But as a citizen of the world he believes no neighborhood is truly so far removed from his acquaintance that he cannot partake of its proudest fare. And where, he asks, is the local food exit off Interstate-95?

In the spirit of a summer share, therefore, he would like to offer a few travel tips:

On the highway, don’t drink the iced coffee at Starbuck’s. It’s a guaranteed stomach cramp. Try Newman’s Own Organic at MacDonald’s instead. It’s delicious, neither watery nor burned, and costs half as much as the Starbuck’s one.

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As for eating roadside fast food, just don’t. Pack a picnic you can enjoy at the rest stop. Pretend the sound of roaring cars to be Niagara Falls. (Mrs. Henry added a dollop of sour cream to her chicken salad which rounded out the mouth feel and slightly disguised the mayonnaise — altogether a nice picnic choice.)

Don’t go to Cape Cod for codfish, which in every case will be an anodyne, frozen, white fish filet caught months ago far, far away — the very same filet you might get in Peoria or Topeka.

Don’t eat oysters on the half shell in Wellfleet. They are OK, but the clams are far sweeter, especially the littlenecks.
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If stuck shopping at the local superette, a quick and easy barbecue sauce can be made from three parts ketchup and one part worcestershire sauce. Slather it on AFTER the ribs come off the grill. (Please don’t even pretend you’re going to do a dry rub marinade. Be reasonable. It’s summer. In the morning, dinner always seems to be a long way away.)

Boil your corn until underdone, a mere seven or eight minutes. Let it cool and slice it off the cob. Mixed with chopped tomato, celery and cilantro (or whatever pungent fresh herb you can find). Splash it with oil and vinegar and you will have a marvelous crunchy salad on hand for snacks or for meals.

For the best possible dinner, take Little Henry and posse out to the marshes. Let them loose in the shallows with buckets to dig fresh cherrystone clams, littleneck clams, razor clams, and mussels. (Rubber gloves are a good idea because clam shell edges can be sharp.)

Sautéed in a big fry pan with onion and white wine, each variety will cook at a different rate. Pluck them out when they open so as not to render them rubbery. Reduce your sauce a touch and add a dab of thickener to help it grab hold of the pasta. (Mr. Henry likes heavy cream but sour cream works fine, too.) Serve over linguine with a chilled bottle of Sancerre close at hand.

Rainwater Madeira

In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the unctuous Lord Beckett offers Captain Jack Sparrow a small glass of honey-colored liquid that must surely have been Madeira, the preferred drink of 18th-century British and Americans alike. (It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite drink.)

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Least expensive of the fortified wines, Madeira bears the singular virtue of being utterly still like whiskey or eau de vie. Uniquely aged in heat rather than cool, the sweet wine oxidizes slightly and thus after opening retains its flavor even in hot climates.madeira.jpg

Riddled with flu on his return from Italy, Mr. Henry repaired to his favorite apothecary, Nancy’s Wines for Food. Though his head was full of cotton, his reasoning was not occluded. Mr. Henry decided that the purchase of a subtly aromatic libation would be money wasted. Consequently he threw himself on the mercy of a young apprentice with shaven pate and satyric smile who recommended an $11 bottle of Rainwater that Mr. Henry dutifully drank every evening for a week.

The cure was thorough and complete. Rainwater is the cough syrup of the gods.

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With newly-acquired curiosity for the mysteries of Madeira, Mr. Henry detected traces of it in a mascarpone cream dessert served by Cipriani at the McKim, Mead & White designed 55 Wall Street, one of Manhattan’s greatest rooms, former site of National City Bank, the Merchant’s Exchange, and the New York Stock Exchange.

The dessert is one that itself must be very resistant to decay because the cream is principally composed of stiffly beaten egg whites with some mascarpone and a splash of Madeira. Sandwiched between pastry layers and sprinkled with shaved coconut, it was light and toothsome. (Best of all, it can be prepared without cooking!)

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