Brussel Sprouts Parmesan

Thanksgiving 2008 is a memory and my home is again quiet. Sometimes I like it, sometimes not. Our holiday dinner was a huge success even with a small disaster in the kitchen. Well, OK. It did not seem a small disaster at the time, but as always, in retrospect, it was not without its amusing side. If we can't laugh, what else is there? The sink chose a perfect moment to clog up and not drain at all about one hour before dinner was served. We weren't worried about dinner, because it was ready to be served. Unfortunately, all I could think about during dinner was: how will we manage the clean-up without running water? And I mean in the sink AND the dishwasher. Unfortunately, this drain also housed the garbage disposal which was working fine if indeed the water would not back up into the sink. With the "use no chemicals in your garbage disposal" ringing in our ears, we tried a plunger; we called neighbors who just might have a more workable and recently purchased plunger, one with a flange that would create a better seal ; most people were out for the holiday but one kind soul came over with his plunger, only to discover it was the same as ours. Old. One of my sons tore himself away from football long enough to get in the car and search for anything open where a plunger might be found. No dice. So we relaxed and had a dinner to be thankful for; we ate and drank (we can be forgiven for perhaps imbibing a bit more than usual knowing what was to come), enjoyed our food and family and put off the final moment: pots, pans and dishes.

We scraped out what we could and the boys came up with the idea of going outside to use a hose to rinse out the pots and pans. It is compost, after all. After refrigerating what we could, we washed glasses in a pan and dumped the remains in a toilet and put as much in the dishwasher as we could, optimistically assuming it would be usable the next day. We left things to soak overnight; I sprayed for ants liberally around the kitchen. And then we shut the door and put it out of our minds until we could call a plumber the next morning. Yes, all's well that ends well. Potato peels were the culprit and I received a brief lecture on running water long enough when using my disposal.
I hope your dinner was as delicious as ours. Surprisingly, one of my sons had asked what I was serving for dessert and when I said I had decided on a pumpkin flan, he asked if I would make a bread pudding. Not something I would normally do when I am serving cloverleaf rolls AND stuffing, but saw no reason to say no. He had it recently at a restaurant and wanted to taste mine- which had to be better, right? It was. It has an interesting history and I will give you the recipe next week as I took a super photo of it.

Anyway, I have mentioned before that every Thanksgiving my family asks me to include a brussel sprout dish that has now become a tradition. I have no idea where I originally found the recipe, probably some cookbook or magazine and I have even less of an idea why I would ever serve this dish as my family is not overly fond of brussel sprouts. But back in the days when I would have 12 to 16 people for dinner every holiday that came along, I was desperate for new ways to make vegetables. It was such a hit now my family insists upon it.

It has lots of Parmesan, garlic, prosciutto and cream and is altogether delicious. You can get the kids to slice the sprouts and then turn on the kitchen fan full blast as it emits a strong odor while cooking. What I like is I can make it the day before, let it cool a bit, cover and refrigerate and the next day bring it to room temperature and bake. Trust me, you will adore this.

Brussel Sprouts Parmesan

Ingredients:1 stick unsalted butter
5 cloves garlic, crushed
4 ounces prosciutto, cut in slivers
2 pounds brussel sprouts, trimmed and shredded
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1 cup light cream
1/2 cup sweet Marsala
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan

Method:Preheat oven to 350°.
Melt butter and add garlic and prosciutto. Cook 4 minutes. Add sprouts and cook 4 minutes. Stir in the flour, both creams and the Marsala. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in 1 cup of the Parmesan and mix until it is melted. Pour into a casserole and top with the remaining Parmesan.
You may refrigerate overnight at this point.
Bring to room temperature before baking. Bake for 20 minutes.
Serves 8-10


Denison Chocolate Squares

We all met in new York City last week for my daughter's birthday. There is nothing quite like the Big Apple in November. It snowed the morning we left to come home, a treat for a Florida transplanted Michigander. Of course, I do remember this: there are only two times snow is beautiful: the first snow, when it really doesn't stick, and the first really heavy snow which makes everything clean and fresh. The rest of the time, yuk, no thank you. Slush, black ice, salted roads leaving you with dirty cars, treacherous driving, layered clothing and cold houses.

But right now, the trees are golden yellow and the air is brisk, making window shopping a treat. Someone ought to tell everyone up there that the economy is bad! The city was packed, the restaurants were jammed and everywhere we went people were shopping and carrying a multitude of shopping bags. In Florida, the malls are empty and you have no problem getting reservations at restaurants. That might change when the snowbirds arrive, but I doubt it. My daughter said: "These are probably not New Yorkers, they are visitors- coming to do their Christmas shopping." She may be right, but the economy is bad everywhere. It was a puzzle. The last hurrah?

Getting there was not easy either. Spirit canceled my son's flight from Detroit for some unknown reason and they had to hustle to find another, making them waste an entire day when they only had two days to begin with. It was their daughter's first trip to NYC. What a shame; she really missed some important landmarks in the city, but we crammed in as much as we could. They had actually boarded and were told to get off. The pilots marched off too. And our flight from Florida was delayed by 2 hours, making us arrive midway through the first family "reunion" dinner. Something about the FAA delaying flights so too many aren't landing at the same time. It's no fun to fly anymore.

My Michigan family is to coming to Florida for Thanksgiving this weekend. (I am keeping my fingers crossed because they booked on Spirit again- many months ago.) They always insist upon having Denison Chocolate Squares in the freezer for snacks. These are bar cookies I named after my good friend Mary Denison; we both enjoyed cooking and took some fun classes together at what was then the Wilson estate- Meadow Brook Hall- in Rochester, Michigan.

An interesting story worth telling, Meadow Brook Hall actually is the fourth largest historic house museum in the United States and is renowned for its superb craftsmanship and architectural detailing. It was built between 1926 and 1929 as the residence of Matilda Dodge Wilson (widow of auto pioneer John Dodge) and her second husband, lumber broker Alfred G. Wilson. The 110-room, Tudor-revival style mansion is complete with vast collections of original art and furnishings. In 1957, the Wilsons donated their residence, its collections, the estate's 1,500 acres and $2 million to found what would become Oakland University.

The kitchens of Meadow Brook Hall were old world charming. A fun and perfect setting for a series of cooking lessons! This little gem was one of two recipes given to us during a session on bar cookies. No baking, kids would love to help make them and they freeze beautifully.

Denison Chocolate Squares

Ingredients:1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons good quality cocoa
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups crushed graham crackers
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons instant vanilla pudding
4 squares unsweetened chocolate
1 tablespoon butter

Method:Melt the butter and add the sugar, cocoa, egg and vanilla. Cook over medium heat like a soft custard, stirring constantly. This will only take a few minutes. Remove from heat, add the graham crackers and nuts. Press into a rectangular pan and cool completely. Cream the butter, sugar, milk and vanilla pudding mix. Pour onto the graham cracker crust and spread evenly. Refrigerate until just set. Touch your finger to the top; if the topping does not stick to your finger, it is ready. Melt the chocolate with the butter and spread over the topping. Refrigerate until the chocolate is barely set (use the finger test again) and then cut lightly into squares. If you wait too long the chocolate will crack when you cut it. Refrigerate again, cut deeper into squares, refrigerate or freeze.


Frozen Fruit Salad

Does everyone already have this recipe? I bet everyone over 50 does and those younger probably got it from their mothers. I would love to tell you this recipe came from a great, great grandmother, but no doubt this frozen fruit salad recipe was in a newspaper or a magazine in the 50's. Or at least that's what someone told me years ago. So often companies like Kraft or Pillsbury printed recipes in magazine or newspaper ads to tempt you to use their food products. (I still give these a glance because some are really good.) At any rate, my mother made this salad every Thanksgiving and Christmas as far back as I can remember. So I really think it might be older than the 50's because I have photographs of this salad on our holiday table when I was a teenager and who knows how long Mother had the recipe before then?

Now it has become a family tradition for my family as it has in many other households. My father adored it, my children insist upon it to this day and no doubt their children will eventually ask for the recipe. It's a cliched old thing; corny even. It looks as though it would be sweet, but surprisingly, it isn't. What with the whipped cream, cheddar cheese and mayonnaise, I would hate to see the calorie count. (I have MasterCook, a food program that figures that all out for me, but I am afraid to check and ruin Thanksgiving dinner for myself.) Serving it twice a year is not all that bad and we all splurge on foods during holidays we would never eat any other time of the year.

Most of us have a recipe for something called Ambrosia; while the ingredients in Ambrosia are somewhat similar (there is more fruit), it's not frozen. I wonder which came first? They came from the same era for sure. I was surprised to discover some frozen fruit salad recipes call for other fruits which really don't freeze well -like bananas, strawberries and even dates; some suggest adding a pink food coloring. I much prefer the recipe exactly the way it was passed on to me: à la natural- kind of pale yellow probably because of the crushed pineapple and pineapple juice. Why would anyone want it to be pink?? That's akin to putting green food coloring in a key lime pie, a gastronomic faux pas of extreme proportions, especially to a southerner. Which I am, sort of.

Well anyway, here it is: the second of my make-ahead Thanksgiving dishes. (The first was the Butternut Squash Soup) This recipe makes enough for 2 small loaf pans (I like the 4" by 8" size) which I find the most convenient way to freeze this; you can fit the smaller pans in the freezer neatly and when you're ready to serve it, just cut the frozen salad into slices. You can get about 6-8 slices per loaf pan, depending on how generous your slices are.

Frozen Fruit Salad

1 can drained crushed pineapple
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
20 maraschino cherries, cut in half
1 cup miniature marshmallows
1/4 pound (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
2 ounces grated cheddar cheese

1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup pecans, ground
1/2 to 3/4 cup whipping cream, whipped
dash cayenne pepper, dash salt

Mix pineapple, confectioners sugar, cherries and marshmallows. Beat cream cheese until smooth and add the grated cheese, then mayonnaise. Beat until well blended. Add cayenne and salt, then fold in the pecans. Add the fruit and then fold in the whipped cream. Pour into wax paper-lined loaf pans, cover and freeze. Serve over lettuce.


Please Pass the Salt

Recently I watched someone making caramels. When she was ready to twist them in wax paper, she sprinkled them with Fleur De Sel De Camargue French Sea Salt. I hate to admit being out of step with the most current condiments but I had never heard of it. I am not a professional chef, just a basic home cook but I read a lot, love good food and try to keep up with the trends.
What makes this salt different? Should I buy some? Is it better for some reason?

I did some reading, some Googling, found all these questions answered and then some! I never dreamed there would be so much information out there just about salt. When to use which kind, flavor tests of all brands, detailed descriptions of the differing harvesting methods and price comparisons. What makes my writing this little salt essay really amusing is (much to the chagrin of my family) I have to force myself to salt things sufficiently to begin with, let alone be fussy about which brand of salt I am going to use.

Let's start with my pantry: I stock two kinds: regular old fashioned Morton table salt which I use mostly for baking and filling my salt shakers and a coarse grained Morton kosher salt which I use in my salt mill and for the rest of my cooking. Never really considered I needed anything else. I have never compared my salts nor have I ever considered getting a group together and doing a salt tasting. I don't even remember having a discussion with anyone about which salt they use. And now it won't be necessary because results of various salt testings are available online and in magazines.
After much consideration I narrowed a list down to four and will give you a brief description of each, allow you to compare photos of them, tell you where each come from, how they are made, how much they cost, how and where to use each one and how they differ in taste.

Some basic facts: All salts we consume are made from sea salt or mined from inland salt deposits. There are four common varieties: table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, and fleur de sel (a type of sea salt).
The difference in taste between sea salt and table salt is a matter of texture and time. The flaky crystals of sea salts make them dissolve on the tongue more quickly. That's why some people think they are saltier.

Morton Table Salt:

Table salt is made by sending water into salt deposits and then evaporating the mixture until only salt crystals remain. It's a very fine salt. Use for: baking, salting water for pasta, filling salt shakers and a helping hand around the house. About 4 ¢ per ounce. (Don't you love the little girl with the umbrella?)

Morton Coarse Kosher Salt:

Kosher salt gets its name because of its role in making meat kosher. Although kosher salt is harvested like table salt, it is raked during evaporation to give the grains a block-like structure that allows the crystals to better absorb blood from animal carcasses. This turns out by far to be the most popular salt; most chefs use this in their everyday food preparation. It is good on fries, shines on the rim of a margarita glass, enhances pasta dishes and in general is an all purpose salt. About 6 ¢ per ounce, a bargain considering everything it does. ( The little girl with the umbrella got smaller and seems to be taking a back seat to a mass of vegetables.)

Maldon Sea Salt:

The British coastal town of Maldon, Essex, has been a salt-producing center since the Middle Ages. The flakes of this salt are "evaporated in large stainless steel pans, using many of the traditional skills handed down by generations of salt-makers. The salt crystals are hand harvested daily using traditional long handled rakes, a process known as 'drawing the pans.' "
The crystals give a wonderful crunch and glitter to almost any food. This was a favorite with chefs for finishing dishes: sprinkling on meats and vegetables and believe it or not, dusting your ice cream with this salt enhances the flavor. (I always have liked salt on my watermelon and cannot wait to try this particular salt on my next wedge.) Cost: 65¢ per ounce.

Fleur de Sel:

Often regarded as the world's finest salt, it is texturally superior to any other. When sun and wind conditions are ideal, fleur de sel, "flower of salt," blossoms on the surface of salt ponds. It is hand-harvested, collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans. Traditional French fleur de sel is collected off the coast of Brittany. It is slightly damp, has a vague ocean smell and is a little greyer than the other salts. Uses: topping off steak and vegetables. Cost: a whopping $2.16 per ounce! It's lovely, really, but is it worth that price?

So to conclude: use regular old fashioned table salt for baking etc.; use kosher salt for sauces, in soups and stocks and in seasoning liquid mixtures. As for the specialty salts, you probably don't need to rush out and buy them, but if a food fanatic is kind enough to present you with one, use it for the finishing touches on just about everything, desserts included.

I hate to say I told you so, but I guess my pantry was stocked correctly to begin with!


Fennel On My Mind

Did you like licorice as a child? I didn't and when I see Twizzlers in the candy section I wonder who on earth buys this candy? Because fennel's aromatic taste is strikingly reminiscent of licorice/anise I have avoided experimenting with it in my cooking always figuring I would dislike the flavor. However, everyone except me seems to be using fennel in their salads, as a side vegetable, in gratins along with potatoes and even with fruit for dessert. I have an Italian friend who said, and I quote: "We Italians LOVE our fennel! It was on every dessert table along with pastries." Everywhere I turn, I see fennel listed in ingredient lists. I see it used on the Food Network. I see it used in recipes in magazines and newspapers. I decided to put my licorice prejudice aside and find out what this love affair with fennel is all about.

For one thing I learned anise and "sweet anise" are two very different things. Anise is a pungent pint-sized herb, while "sweet anise" — or fennel — is a hearty vegetable with a thick, bulbous base and celery-like stems that grow upward to 5 feet tall. It has a sweeter, more delicate flavor than anise and its texture is similar to that of celery, having a crunchy and striated texture. Need I say it is also loaded with vitamins and antioxidants and everything that is good for you. Oddly enough, it is also supposed to ward off fleas in kennels and stables (Hmmmm. Sometimes there is too much information!) And in Medieval times, to ward off evil.

How to buy and store fennel? First of all, it is readily available everywhere. Good quality fennel will have bulbs that are clean, firm and solid, without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The bulbs should be whitish or pale green in color. The stalks should be relatively straight and tight around the bulb. Both the stalks and the leaves should be green in color. There should be no signs of flowering buds as this indicates that the vegetable is past maturity. Despite rumors to the contrary, there is no distinction between male and female fennel. The rule to remember is: choose a bulb that is firm, round and fat over one that is elongated and flat. Store fresh fennel in the refrigerator crisper, where it should keep fresh for about four days. It is best to consume fennel soon after purchase since as it ages, it tends to gradually lose its flavor.

Fennel is a versatile vegetable that plays an important role in the food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy. It appears that fennel's strength may be its ability to blend and enhance other flavors. In other words, tuna tastes more tuna-like when cooked with fennel. Just about any salad has more zing with the addition of crunchy, raw fennel. Grilled fish becomes symbolic of Mediterranean cuisine when stuffed with lemon slices and fennel fronds.

Well, OK. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So I pulled out some recipes and tried them; I am now completely won over. I'm even going to experiment with other recipes. Please don't let your dislike of anything licorice stop you from trying the following recipes. The taste is milder than you would expect and I tried it in both a fresh salad and roasted in the oven, which has turned out to be my favorite way to serve fennel and oh so simple to make. Remember my Italian friend said it was always served with dessert- as a digestive. If you like ice cream and have a churn, don't hesitate to make the fennel ice cream. It is extremely mild and what a surprise and treat to serve your guests along with an apple or pear crisp. Better yet, look up a recipe for pear clafouti. Fennel ice cream would be perfect with that.

Fennel Salad with Avocado
Adapted from Lyon in the Kitchen, Nathan Lyon
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 apple, thinly sliced
1 large ripe avocado, seeded and diced
2 cups baby spinach or mache (lamb's lettuce)
1 tablespoon plus a splash sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup crushed toasted pecans
1/2 cup cherry/teardrop tomatoes, halved
Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved, for the top
In a large bowl, combine sherry vinegar with salt and pepper and whisk in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil until it thickens. Cut fennel in half and then lengthwise into very thin slices. (use a mandoline if you have one.) Add fennel, shallots, tomatoes, avocado, apple, and pecans. Season and toss. Add some baby spinach or mache. Serve on a plate with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and cheese slices.

Roasted Fennel
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten

2 large fennel bulbs
1/4 cup good olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan shavings

Preheat the oven to 375°.
Cut off the stems of the fennel and slice the bulb in half lengthwise. Slice the bulb vertically into 1/2-inch-thick slices, cutting right through the core.
Coat a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the fennel slices out on the baking sheet, sprinkle them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Roast the fennel slices for about 45 minutes to an hour, checking first at 40 minutes. The edges should be crisp and brown. Remove from the oven and cover with Parmesan shavings.

Fennel Ice Cream
Gourmet Magazine, October, 2007

1 2/3 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar, divided
4 large egg yolks

Bring cream and fennel seeds just to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan, then cover and let steep about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring milk, 1/2 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring.
Whisk together yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a large bowl, then add milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Return mixture to medium saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 175°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil). Immediately strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl, then quick-chill by setting bowl in an ice bath and stirring occasionally until cool, about 15 minutes.
Serve with pear crisp or pear clafouti.


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