Monday, May 14, 2012

Friends and Food

Two of my favorite things are friends and food. This post brings those two together. Recently two friends provided me with some good food. One had been to the nearby Amish settlements and brought me back some (sugar-free) apple butter. My family rarely bought apple butter, but it always reminds me of childhood. It was very thoughtful of T.A. to think of me that way. The other friend had discovered No-Knead Bread and has already provided us two loaves.

He says,

Do you have a good cast iron enameled Dutch oven? That's the key piece of equipment. I hear you can use a ceramic or earthenware container as well, as long as 
1) You preheat it to 450 F for 30 minutes before you drop the dough in and
2) CRITICAL: you have a tight lid that keeps the moisture in.

The opening photo brings these two gifts together.

The No-Knead Bread has a firm crust and a moist interior. It looks very rustic when it comes out of the oven, but the most wonderful thing about it is its versatility, going well with gooseberry jelly, honey, or peanut butter & nutella. It also turns out to be an excellent supplement to a traditional Saxon dish I cooked up last week for some other friends of ours.

Leipziger Allerlei is a spring dish that pairs crayfish with fresh young vegetables like asparagus, cauliflower, kohlrabi, morels, carrots, and peas. At the farmers market I substituted turnips instead of kohlrabi and oyster mushrooms instead of morels. Even though I found crayfish at the grocery store, in the end I decided I didn't want to pick them all myself and went with crab claws. The packaging company had very considerately scored the claws at strategic places, so it was pretty easy to pull out the meat.

Then it was time to cook up a batch of crab butter. I decided to go to all that trouble because one of the things that stood out to me from my research with old cookbooks is the effort housewives used to expend preparing all the little things in the kitchen that we can take for granted in an era of prepackaged condiments. Just open your refrigerator and look on the door: all those pickles, mustards, relishes, butters, mayonnaises, salad dressings, and vinegars were once homemade. So, I gave crab butter a try.

Reserving the meat, I threw the shells into melted butter. The instructions called for breaking the shells with a mortar and pestle and later straining the mixture with a hair sieve. I don't have one of those and settled for mashing them up a bit with the potato masher. Then I popped the pot into the fridge to cool. Oops. Having forgotten to strain it at all, and not wanting to reheat the mixture because dinner guests were coming in one hour and it wouldn't cool in time, I ended up picking the broken claws all over again--this time for butter instead of meat!

Then it was time to chop the vegetables. The original recipe from 1901 says each one is to be boiled separately in salted water (and the carrots in beef broth), but my stove only has four burners, and since I learned to cook after the vitamin revolution (in the 1920s), I steam vegetables to prevent the loss of their nutrients. (I'm actually writing a chapter on this concept, hopefully the second one I draft this summer, right after the one on rationing I'm working on now.) To be more economical about it, I put each of my steamer baskets in a large soup pot and filled them from bottom to top with denser vegetables (carrots or turnips) to softer ones (mushrooms, snow peas, asparagus). By the way, did you notice the carrot on the left of the bunch in the photo above? While I was peeling it I could think of nothing else except that I was skinning an anencephalic baby. Thank you, medical school, for messing with my head.

Finally, finally, it was time to make the crab meatballs. Because meatballs were last year's It-Food--they succeeded cupcakes--I assume someone out there knows how to make little cannonballs out of meat that isn't ground beef, but as yet the skill eludes me. I had dutifully left out some bread heels overnight to represent day-old bread from a cooking culture before plastic bags and twist ties. Almost too late I remembered I was supposed to soak them in milk (to soften them!), which I did, for a few minutes. Then I squeezed them out and tore them into pieces to mix them with some of the crab butter and two egg yolks (maybe 1 too many?). But the little lumps I pressed in my hands didn't stay together very well, even with the addition of some commercial bread crumbs, so I never even got around to using the egg whites I had beaten. Still, J.G.D., J.D., and N.D. had arrived, so I forged on, dropping the crab balls into the boiling broth leftover from making the butter--where they promptly disintegrated.

As you can see from the photo, we improvised, serving our "all manner of vegetables" with a ring of crab, salvaged from the broth with a slotted spoon, instead of with crab balls. In the background are a tossed green salad, courtesy of our guests, and--in the upper right--a wedge of Gouda and the rest of one of those loaves of No-Knead Bread. It was a delightful, light, spring meal. Friends and food: a great combination, indeed.

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