Archive for the ‘American Cooking’ Category

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January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016

 

Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]

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September 27, 2015: Tri-color “Salt” Potatoes

September 27, 2015

Tri-Color Salt PotatoesOne is never sure what will work. Sometimes, what can seem at first mundane, is virtually unheard of to the world at large.

Back in December of 2010, I was stuck for a topic/food/recipe for the blog, and I got a brainstorm: I had never seen a recipe for “Salt Potatoes” in any of the sundry food blogs and magazines I subscribed to. At the time I thought that was because I couldn’t imagine anyone documenting such a common dish.

How wrong I was.

Growing up, salt potatoes were at least a weekly dish. We kids didn’t mind. Salt potatoes are tasty, go well with many meals, and with eight kids to feed…cheap and plentiful! Having an Irish woman as a mom probably added to the frequency with which she added them to the weekly menu.

Writing the original article, what I didn’t consider was how common this dish is to my locale and why. You see, I hail from Syracuse NY, which in an earlier American history was where much of our salt came from. The natural deposits of primeval salt in the local lakes made salt production easy and cheap. One main street of Syracuse is named “Salina Street” due to the impact the industry had for residents.

So, with cheap salt supplies and Irish workers digging the nearby Erie Canal, salt potatoes were pretty common. They are still often sold at open markets and fairs, often replacing french fries as the potato treat of choice.

So, I was pretty surprised when my (to my mind..a very, very basic) recipe was picked up by a national food blog! The recipe was “featured” as best recipe of the day and yielded my best day for the blog, with a total of 125 hits!

My sister Mary Lou, happened to call that day and I was excited to tell her the news. When, knowing my range as a chef, she asked what recipe was featured, and I told her…there was long pause. “WHY?” she asked! Turns out what a native Syracusan considers commonplace was not so for the rest of the world!

Salt Potatoes are indeed so basic, it is hard to improve them, but recently I picked up these tri-color baby potatoes in a local farm stand and these upped the ante! As well as color, each potato had its own individual taste, and I was surprised to find the inner part tinged with a slight color of the outside. The one that appears black, is actually a dark purple like a beet, so the inner potato had light purple color!

A good chef is always looking to improve on even the most basic recipe! Adding this one to my repertoire of cheap, easy, aesthetic, fun, and unusual dishes!

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September 17, 2015: Cucumber Soup

September 17, 2015

Cucumber SoupAs I mentioned in my last article, when my family visited last month we went to the Colonial Inn in Concord, Ma. Cooking for myself like I usually do, I’m very impressed when I go out to eat these days to find almost every restaurant caters to the vegetarian palate to some degree. Sometimes it’s just soup and bread, but I can almost always find something to eat.

Once in a great while I find a restaurant that raises the bar on their vegetarian dishes to the unique and noteworthy. Such was all the dishes we  tried at the Colonial Inn.

My niece ordered the Colonial’s Black Bean Burger. I saw this on the menu as was almost going to order it, but changed my mind at the last second. As she was on the other side of the table, I didn’t hear her order and was very pleased when she offered to share a taste with me.

One problem with black bean burgers, homemade and store-bought, is that they often add just a tad too much cumin in the mix. Cumin is one of those spices that it takes an expert hand (and tasting while tweaking the addition) to keep the balance from interesting that can quickly shift to overwhelming. The Colonial got that balance just perfect. Topped with a tiny corn relish and a fine roll, the taste was easily the best of any black bean burger I’ve ever had. The texture was very close to a meat burger, which shows the skill of the chef, as veggie burgers often fall to pieces when soft like this, but because we’ve never had one with such a delicate texture, both my niece and I agreed that it was rather unfamiliar.

I was pleased to find Truffle Fries on the menu and they were very good at the Colonial and seemed to be fried in truffle oil. But after one taste, I realized the down-side of knowing a master chef like Yoshio. He makes truffle fries and tops them with real grated truffle (which makes the dish far too expensive to make for mass distribution.) Yoshio has forever spoiled me this way, but the Colonial’s fries were a very delicious and welcome second.

I also ordered what the Colonial called their Cucumber Gazpacho Soup. The name was a little confusing (as gazpacho is usually a tomato-based broth and cucumber soup is usually a cream-based broth) so I asked the waitress to describe the soup. She explained that it was a cold, creamy cucumber soup with a topping of salsa. I loved the addition of a tiny bit of heat into the cool, slightly sweet, very smooth, cucumber base and I was inspired to make my version. Again, made for mass-consumption, there was nothing wrong at all with the Colonial’s soup….I just tend to like my soups a bit more on the savory side and I don’t mind a slight amount of texture that the Colonial carefully got rid of.

Cucumber Soup

2 Medium Leeks (washed thoroughly; chopped; green part for stock)

6 Large Cukes (washed; de-skinned (save skins for stock); de-seeded

2C. Baby Kale (washed; chopped)

6 Tblsp. Fresh Dill Weed   2 Bullion Cubes

2 C. Heavy Cream         3 Tblsp. Butter

Make stock of cuke skins, green part of leeks, and baby kale stems. Sauteé veggies in oil until tender. Add 1 Qt. H2O. Add bouillon cubes to fortify. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. Strain.

Sauteé white part of leeks in butter until tender. Add de-seeded cukes (cubed into 2″ pieces) and baby kale. Add stock and H2O to cover veggies. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover until veggies are tender. At the end of the simmer, add dillweed, salt & pepper and grind with an immersion blender. Add cream.

Top with a splash of hot sauce, then sour cream and a dab of mild salsa.

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July 06, 2015: Montcalm

July 6, 2015

Montcalm HeaderB&W

A memory can make an indelible impression on a young mind like that of a potters mark in soft clay. Once fired, that mark lasts as long as the vessel itself.

Montcalm MenuOne evening, when I was around 12 years old, was an evening of many firsts: first “real” restaurant, first link with a living history, and first (and last) lobster. My family was visiting my sister who was attending college in Glenns Falls, NY. To celebrate the occasion, my dad decided to take the whole family out to a “fancy” restaurant in the area called the “Montcalm” that he had heard good things about. Back then, the Montcalm was located on the grounds of what once was Fort William Henry, on the shore of Lake George.

Please LobsterBack in the early 70’s, it was still the style of people to dress up before going to dinner. Now, I’m all for casual Friday’s and such, but I feel we, as a culture, have lost much by giving up this tradition in America. I used to enjoy the preparation and subsequent buildup of anticipation to the special event. There was also a kind of respect for oneself, fellow-diners, the restaurant itself…but mostly for the respect for the family occasion of dining out.

So, resplendent in my suit-coat and tie, I go to my first real dining experience. I remember the Montcalm being large, somewhat dark, with eclectic artwork. My memory is bit fuzzy here, but I believe they attempted to recreate the feel of the fort in the overall decor. The focus of the dining room was a roaring fireplace, over which was a portrait of what obviously was a military man in a light blue uniform. From the clothing, hair style, weapons. etc. in the portrait, I judged the time period to around the Revolutionary War. To my query about the portrait, my dad gave me a history of the place.

B&W-father-smMy dad explained that Fort William Henry was an English fort against the French in a war, that among other things, was the battle over which nation would rule what would eventually become the United States and Canada. As Americans, we call this the “French and Indian War” because that’s who “we” (as we were British back then) were fighting (although the British used Native American allies as well…largely the Iroquois nations against the Hurons, Ottawa, and Abenaki, who were allied to the French.) In the wider European aspect, this conflict was called the “Seven Years War.”

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was the French commander attacking the fort. After several days of bombardment by the French, the British commander of Fort William Henry, Colonel Edmund Munro, met with Montcalm in parley for terms of surrender. Munro was surprised with General Montcalm’s generous terms for the fort’s surrender: all people in the fort were allowed to leave safely, with their arms…an almost unheard of convention, under the condition that they do not take up arms again against France.

As the British were leaving the fort, they were attacked by over 2000 French-allied Native Americans who saw the surrender as robbing them of the spoils of war. They wounded, killed or captured, not only soldiers, but many men, women, and children the soldiers were to protect. Numbers vary, but later research seems to suggest that over 150 people were lost, under the most brutal conditions, in the attack.

When I asked my dad why anyone would name a restaurant after a commander who essentially “beat us” my dad thought for a moment and said that it was probably for the honor and respect Montcalm bestowed upon Col. Munro and the residents of the fort, despite being victorious over them.

I had other questions for my father that night, not all of them about history. Up to this point the only waiters I had ever seen were the ones at Howard Johnsons and Friendlys. These were different: dressed in formal service attire complete with bow tie, vest and a longer-tailed suitcoat. The bussers (which I had never seen before…dad explained their function) were dressed in their own more simple uniform. I remember being amazed and anxious that the waiters could balance huge trays with just one hand. I also asked dad why we were served salad before the meal (at home we always had it after the main course) to which dad told me it was to keep us quiet while the staff could make the main part of the meal. Before we ordered, dad talked me into having a whole lobster, which I had never had before.

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre

Many years later, reading up on the history of the Seven Years War, I came across the Battle of Fort William Henry, and discovered that it was generally accepted that Montcalm himself tried to stop the attack on the citizens of the vacated fort, but the violence had escalated too far by that point. I also found that being on the “frontier” like they were, residents of New York State had more dealings with and trading between, the French and so were a little bit more accepting that the British hard-liners from other areas. More reasons, I suppose, why there would be such a place dedicated to Montcalm in New York State.

Just before the meal came, the waiter helped me on with what I was to discover was a required accoutrement: a lobster bib. I was at an age where I found this all very embarrassing. After the waiter left, I asked my dad if the bib was truly required. With a chuckle, dad told me that I would find it very helpful once I started eating. The next set of tools the waiter gave me was a nut cracker and a small pick. “What am I getting myself into?!!!” I thought to myself. When the lobster came, I had even more reservations. “Looks like a big BUG!” I told dad.  “Yeah.” he said, “That’s pretty much what it is: a big, oceanic bug! But it is also delicious!” Dad proceeded to give a few lesson on how to crack the shells and pick out the meat, told me not  to eat the organs, etc. Dad was right, it was delicious, but all-in-all a little too messy for my tastes! Although I have happily prepared lobsters for others (even professionally…as a chef’s assistant in a French restaurant) I have never eaten lobster since that night.

Cooper's Cave-1917

Cooper’s Cave-1917

So, the lobster didn’t make a big impact, but the history did. Years later, I was reading “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper and realized that the whole story takes place right around the area of the Montcalm, where I had dined so many years previously! In fact, the genesis of the whole story was when Cooper visited the cave under the Glenns Falls. When a friend of his commented on the cave by saying “here was the very scene for romance” Cooper promised the friend that he would write a story worthy of that “romance.” By doing so, Cooper became America’s first internationally recognized novelist.

Cooper’s story begins a few days preceding the French attack on Fort William Henry. The hero, Hawkeye, and his adoptive Mohican father Chingachgook, and brother Uncas, are hunting in the woods west of Albany, when they foil an attack on a party traveling from Albany to the fort. The attackers are Hurons, led by the villain of the story, Magua. The party is led by British Major Duncan Heyward, who is guiding Col. Munro’s daughters, Cora and Alice, along with a singing instructor, David Gamut, to Fort Henry. After the Hurons are either killed or driven off by Hawkeye and the Mohicans, and realizing Magua (who escaped) would return with reinforcements, they lead the group to a secret cave under the falls, where they spend the night in safety before continuing on to the besieged fort.

Hawkeye is just one name for Cooper’s hero, who seems to have more monikers than any other figure in literature. He is also “The Trapper;” “Le Longue Carabine (the long rifle);” “Leatherstocking;” “Pathfinder;” “Deerslayer;” and (oddest of all, what seems to be Hawkeye’s birth name) “Natty Bumppo!” I’m not quite sure what he was thinking with all the names, but perhaps to Cooper, the number of names suggests the varied people Hawkeye comes in contact with and the esteem they hold for him. The “Natty Bumppo” only makes me think of an early “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnnie Cash (as in…with such a silly name he’d just have to grow up a tough tracker!)

“Last Of The Mohicans” is the second of the five “Leatherstocking Tales” by Cooper, all with Hawkeye as each book follows him through different phases of his life. I always think of Cooper and his hero as I travel by the “Leatherstocking Region” sign on the NYS Thruway on my way home, but I never really knew its’ context. Turns out “leatherstocking” is what the Native Americans call boots.

Revisiting Cooper’s writing, I found it a bit uneven: his style can actually be confusing to the point that I often did not know what I just read. I admit, that I tend to race through a book, so when I slowed it down a bit, Cooper’s style became a little more readable. Cooper’s writing style so angered Mark Twain, that he felt compelled to write an essay called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and even started a Huck Fynn/Tom Sawyer parody of  “The Last Of The Mohicans” but gave it up before publishing. There is the occasional historical inaccuracy or confusion in Cooper’s writing, also. Like the name, “Mohican”…no such Native American tribe. Did Cooper mean “Mohegan?” “Morican?” “Mahikan?” Cooper also consistently calls Lake George by “Horican” throughout the book, but that seems to be a name he picked up (yet another Native American tribe is “Horican”) because he liked the sound of it. To the casual reader, there are other confusions. Like why, if the Iroquois are allied to the English does Hawkeye consider them enemies? It could be that Hawkeye is allied to the Mohicans, a subset of the Delaware tribe, and they are enemies to the Iroquois. But Cooper clearly states that the Iroquois are allied with the French! As the group is coming close to the fort, Hawkeye warns them, “Montcalm has already filled the woods with his accursed Iroquois.” A bit of sloppy history research, there. All this may be historical nit-picking, but only if the story holds up. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t.

Glenns Falls-1896

Glenns Falls-1896

At a couple of places, the inconsistencies of character or situation tore me right out of the reading. One instance: while holed up in the cave under the falls, Hawkeye allows the singing instructor, David Gamut, to sing a song, and then proceeds to get a little weepy when he does. All this while they are being hunted by the Hurons! OK. Wrong place! Wrong time! Wrong action! I picture the Mohicans frantically priming their weapons, while rolling their eyes at Hawkeye!

There is also Hawkeye’s treatment of Cora and Alice. So…we have a 40-year-old man…who has spent a lot of time in the woods…with just male Mohicans to hang out with. He meets two attractive, vibrant, young women and after an adrenaline-infused rescue, what does Hawkeye do? He nods, smiles at them and then starts treating them like sisters! I mean, the girls have been around (you know…London, Boston, Albany) I’m sure they have some great stories to tell, but does he engage them? Noooo…not the boyscout Hawkeye!

I can’t help but picture the following conversation:

Cora: “What’s with this guy?”
Alice: “I know. I mean, we’ve been on the trail for a few days…but jheesh!
Cora: “Hey, look. Is dung on my dress? Venison in my teeth?”
Alice: “No..no. Ya think maybe he’s a little…[teeters hand vertically]?”
Cora: “Mm…maybe when you’re in the woods too long, social skills get..um..mossy!”
Alice: “Say, I wonder if his Mohican friends are free?”
Cora: “Yeah! Dibs on the young one!”

The worst offense by Cooper takes place at the start of the massacre of the fort populace. A woman and her baby are slaughtered in an extremely violent manner. Yikes! I only hope that all the high schoolers reading  “LOTM” as required reading are warned ahead of time!

So…a few problems with style and consistency. Still, “LOTM” has good story potential, if one could iron out all the highs and lows.

Luckily, someone has.

Michael Mann’s 1992 version of “Last Of The Mohicans” totally morphs Cooper’s book, smooths out all the story bumps; adds exciting battle scenes (both hand-to-hand and on a large-scale); romances; a villain you love to hate; sweeping panoramas of nature; an near-perfect film score; accurate costumes and makeup; and stocks the film with some of the best actors available at that time.

Hollywood has made four versions of “LOTM” (1920, 1932, 1936, and 1992.) I think it interesting that in the 23 years since Mann’s “LOTM” no one has dared a re-make. I think Hollywood acknowledges that it would be silly to tamper with perfection!

Although I mourn Mann’s choice to substitute my native New York with North Carolina as a setting, I understand that the Adirondacks don’t look quite the way they did in 1757. NC is an excellent stand-in with its majestic forests, steep rocky cliffs, raging waterfalls, and clear rivers. You can tell how much effort went into set design, wardrobe, and makeup (notice the warpaint of each Huron, for instance: no two look like…the way it would have been!)

Daniel Day-Lewis, as the perfect

Daniel Day-Lewis, as the perfect “Hawkeye”

Daniel Day-Lewis has played more challenging and provocative roles before and since, but he is the perfect Hawkeye: what every boy wants to be, yet what every lady likes to look at! Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye as tough and capable, with a bit of a snide humor, and best of all, he has the capability to be sensitive, romantic, and tender. NO wooden boy scout here! Day-Lewis has rounded Hawkeye out into a full figure of man! At the time of filming “LOTM,” Day-Lewis was at the height of his immersing himself in the role part of his career. DDL stayed out for weeks before the shoot in the woods, eating only what he could bring down himself.

“Forget all that ‘Natty Bumppo’ stuff, Miss Cora. Here, I’m called Nathaniel…or even better…just call me ‘Hawkeye'”

Mann has (mercifully) changed Hawkeye’s name to the more dignified “Nathaniel Poe.” Where the book is almost devoid of romance, in the film everyone is in love: Hawkeye loves Cora, and so does Heyward. Uncas loves Alice. I would go as far as to say that Hawkeye and Cora’s love scenes are as smoking hot as a director can show with the leads still wearing clothes!

In fact, all the emotions are amped up in Mann’s film. The best is how he has changed Magua. In Cooper’s book, Magua’s motivation of revenge is because Col. Munro introduced Magua to alcohol and when Magua acts up under the influence, Munro has him whipped. So…Magua is a mean drunk with a grudge. The film Magua, played to perfection by Wes Studi, is a lean, brooding, stealthy, sociopath, always an inch away from violence. This Magua has a real reason for a grudge: Munro has made Magua lose his entire family and had him driven from his tribe so that he has to be adopted by his enemy, the Mohawks, in order to survive. Magua not only wants to kill Munro, he wants to eat his heart, but only before he has killed his daughters in front of him, so Munro knows his whole line dies under Magua’s tomahawk!

Hawkeye and Cora get all swoony on the parapet of Ft. William-Henry

Hawkeye and Cora get all swoony on the parapet of Ft. William-Henry

One other change Mann makes is that of his character of Montcalm. After Montcalm has graciously allowed the English to leave the fort, he clandestinely meets with Magua, and implies that he would rather not meet these English again as he drives his forces towards Albany. Magua picks up on the hint and organizes the massacre, thereby enabling a chance for revenge on Munro.

I began to see that there are as many versions of Montcalm’s actions prior to, and during the massacre in media since 1757. Even Cooper has a more abject version of Montcalm’s actions. After the massacre has begun, Cooper’s characters are observing from a nearby mountain:

“The cruel work was still unchecked. On every side the captured were flying before their relentless persecutors, while the armed columns of the Christian king stood fast in an apathy which has never been explained, and which has left an unmovable blot on the otherwise fair escutcheon of their leader.”

[This being a fair sample of how convoluted Cooper’s writing can be, but what he seems to say is:] “Montcalm stood by and did nothing to save the fort’s inhabitants.”

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm

I think these versions exist as they make good drama. But in actuality, why would Montcalm behave more honorably than just about any military leader known one day, and then behave so dishonorably the next? Not only is not keeping in character, but there is only one way his colluding with the attackers could benefit him: if there was not a single survivor, and that was something he could not possibly guarantee. If word got back to the English of his collusion, the only possible reaction for them would be hatred toward a dishonorable foe. As it was, the outrage over the massacre would never be surpassed in America, until after Santa Anna decimated the Alamo!

I tend to take whatever version of history with a grain of salt. There are many variations of events that have taken place just yesterday. To find the absolute truth in actions taken place 258 years ago, is next to impossible. All one can do is look at the general character of Montcalm. He was brave, a good leader and military strategist. At the very least, he feigned honor in the occasion of Fort William Henry, if only for the sake of good form. Having made this stand, why would he then renege on it when he knew the outcome would only to have history typecast him forever as a scoundrel?

Just when I reached a point of frustration with Cooper’s writing, I read a section from the earlier Leatherstocking Tale, “Deerslayer.” In this tale, Hawkeye is younger and has met an older fellow tracker called “Hurry Harry ” who gives Hawkeye his opinion of the races. He rates the white race as the highest. Blacks he considers “useful.” His opinion of the American Indian is the worst of all. He tells Hawkeye: “You may account yourself as a red skin’s brother, but I hold ’em all to be animals, with nothing human about ’em but cunning….”

One begins to think that maybe Harry is in a “hurry” to judge his fellow-man.

Hawkeye’s response is perfect: “I look upon the red men to be quite as human as we are ourselves…. They have their gifts, and their religion, it’s true, but that makes no difference in the end, when each will be judged according to his deeds, and not according to his skin.”

Sadly, history was not written in the woods of the frontier. History was (and still is) written in the towns of the victors… and History (with all its inconsistencies) chronicles the general movement of us over time:

The British overcame the French. We overcame the British.

The “frontier” of Eastern New York State did not stay still. It was pushed constantly westward until no frontier exists in our United States. Along with this sweeping frontier, we wiped the original inhabitants away. We will never completely know the could-have-been-contributions of a Peoples who might have added much (as did subsequent immigrants) to the textured amalgamation that is America culture.

Montcalm lost his life fighting the British in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham, outside of Quebec.

The falls that covered the real cave that inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write “Last Of The Mohicans” has long since been dammed over…it’s once raging flow restricted and tamed.

The restaurant named after Montcalm, that I dined at so many years ago, moved from the shore of Lake George, to a few miles away in 1984. It was closed in 2013 and now a shopping center exists where it once stood.

It has been some years now, that I have had the joy and benefit of the culinary prodding to adventure and impromptu history lessons from my father.

Times change, but our memories, cemented into words, become what we call “History.” Generation after generation, we put these words down. In a sense, we are all the last of our kind. Best stated by Uncas, who at the end of Mann’s film, finding himself to be “The Last Of The Mohicans” our stories let the world know:

“But once, we were here.”

[Much thanks to Jim Dowrey for his wonderful historical mind and for his memories of what fine dining was like back in the day.]

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March 08, 2015: A Riff On A Classic

March 8, 2015

Riff On A ClassicMost of my adult life I have been prone to slam my mother’s cooking. In recent years, I’ve come to realize how unfair my attitude has been.

Like most children, I suppose, we don’t find the true worth of a parent until it is far too late. My mother had to cook, daily, for ten people. If she sometimes found shortcuts to stretch my dad’s salary and cover what must have been a huge drain on our household…well, now that I am older and perhaps a bit wiser, I realize she did a pretty decent job, all in all.

Like most women of post-WWII, my mom took advantage of popular foods of the day. Many of these included, frozen and canned foods. Some were bland and awful…and a few were pretty spectacular! One dish my mom made often was “her” tuna fish casserole. I seem to remember that it came right off the back label of a Campbell’s mushroom soup can. It was a combination of boiled noodles, a can of tuna fish and two cans of the mushroom soup (plus milk) then baked. It was cheap, fast, fed a lot of hungry kids, and was a no-brainer. Best of all, as kids, we loved it! No wonder my mom made it often!

I thought I could make a healthier, veggie-based, slightly more jazzed-up version of this dish:

Peel skins off 3 large portobello mushrooms (I put these in a sandwich bag and keep them frozen until I make my next broth.) Slice them 1/2″ thick, and saute in 4 Tblsp. melted butter until soft. Add the juice of 1 lemon and a splash of sherry. Continue cooking a little until the shrooms almost absorbs all the liquids.

Chop 1 head of broccoli. (In keeping with my mom’s economy sense, I used the stalks as well, but chopped them a bit finer.)

I set about 4 Qts. H2O to boil while I made my veloute. This is always slightly different, depending on the dish, but this one was:

4 Tblsp. of melted butter+4 Tblsp. flour whisked together on medium heat until it has turned a slightly tawny color. Add 2C. whole milk and 1 can mushroom soup and continue whisking until just thick enough to pour easily. I had some organic mushroom gravy so I added 1C. of that. Normally, I would have used veggie broth instead.

When the H2O came to a boil I added 1 bag (12 Oz.) wide egg noodles. These usually boil for about 7 minutes, but I did them for 6 (knowing I was to bake the dish, a bit al dente is best) adding the broccoli for the last 2 minutes. Drain.

Butter the bottom and sides of a large (18″ X 12″) Pyrex pan and add drained noodles and broccoli. Top this with mushrooms and add veloute. I then topped this with 1/2C. each grated Swiss, Asiago, and Colby Jack cheeses and a sprinkle of each ground pepper and herbs de Provence and baked at 325°F for half hour.

A crunchy, cheesy top with tender noodles and veggies underneath. Best of all was the earthy, tangy, lemony shrooms that accented every bite.

Mom’s dish was more easily made than mine, but with just a tiny bit more effort and time, this classic turned into a real treat!

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November 24, 2014 Colonial Dinner for Friends

November 24, 2014

Dinner PlateMany apologies to WOO readers for my absence in the last few months. In addition to working on my company’s website after hours, most of my free time has been spent working on my article about my reenacting Henry David Thoreau’s trip up the Concord in 1839 with his brother. This will (eventually) debut my new writing blog, “Shyfox.”

I did take time this last weekend to cook a Colonial-themed dinner for friends. I used the cookbook from the nearby “Wayside Inn” (my favorite restaurant) as a springboard for the menu, but then, as always, went my own way.

A couple of years ago, when things were really bad for me, one of the few things that put me in a happy space of mind was designing the first dinner I would cook for friends when I finally had the means to do so. I remember dreaming up this menu between the rare temp jobs I had at the time. Back then, I kept the house freezing cold as I hadn’t the cash for heat and I had to remember to breath away from the computer screen so as to not cloud the screen with my breath. The warmth I derived…then, was from the knowledge that I still had a few generous souls in my life that were kind when I needed it the most. The menu I dreamed up was a hope…a promise to myself…to pay at least a few of them back, when it was, at last, possible.Colonial Dinner-Friends-sm

Colonial Menu:

Corn Chowder with Baked Rolls
Molasses/Bourbon-Glazed Ham
Wild Rice Pilaf
Brandied Wild Mushrooms
Kale and White Bean
Mixed Salad w/Blue Cheese, Toasted Pecans & Fruit
Baked Cranberry-Apple-Blueberry Crisp w/Vanilla Ice Cream
As I was building the meal I was found myself amused and even more blessed when I found at every stage, fragments of friends not present at this particular meal, infused in the very ingredients and even the tools I used: the beautiful knife set and pans given to me by my sister and brother-in-law that I use in every culinary endeavor; top-shelf spices given to my by my former student, Regan; the finest rice from Yoshio; a delightful blood-orange olive oil and cranberry-pear balsamic vinegar as the salad dressing, given by friends Chris and Sara…recently moved to Texas…gone, but not forgotten.
Salad Plate_sm
I was further amused when I remembered…oh, yes…this week is Thanksgiving.  My Thanksgivings (when I’m not actually working) are usually solitary and would seem rather Spartan to most people: a few bites of some soy-based product; maybe some stuffing, a good glass of wine, and I’m set.
As a chef and a lover of fine food, it is almost sacrilege to say, but it’s not the actual making and eating of food I’m most thankful for this Thanksgiving. It is for the honorable people I sometimes get to cook for…and for the ones that make it possible.
[…speaking of which: much thanks to the most able and charming sous-chef in the world-young Katie-for all your help on Saturday. Thanks to Dan Winkler for the photos.]Dessert Plate_sm

 

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September 27, 2013: Harvest Moon Cornucopia

September 27, 2013

Harvest Moon CornucopiaLast week, I got an opportunity to visit my friend Ellen, whom I had worked with at my last temp job. The job was a miserable, dirty one scrounging trough and cataloging old financial records. What made the job palatable were the fine people assigned to get this odious chore done.

Ellen was a particular solace. She is one of those rare individuals who is not only easy to converse with, but who constantly looked out for her fellow workers. To my memory, not a single day went by that Ellen did not supply us with baked goods, either made by her or from various bakeries. She also had a knack for bringing in cleaning supplies, that she had collected from sundry supply centers to repurpose to people she knew. With every penny counted, it was a relief for me not to have to worry at all where detergents were coming from. While reading a story of Lafcadio Hearn, where he cites the particular human quality of “active beneficence” it was a revelation to look beyond my page and recognize a living example of this quality in one of my fellow workers.

Ellen’s active beneficence does not end with her fellow humans. She is very committed to programs that help to neuter abandoned cats and dogs, and even uses her own home as a half-way house to help place strays to willing and responsible owners.

Ellen used to tell me about her husband, Jack and his fine garden. As gardening is one of my  interests that have fallen to the wayside due to hard financial times, I was curious to see his.

And what a garden! Even in late-Summer, Jack’s garden had an obvious bounty of peppers, sunflowers, squashes, eggplants, various greens and tomatoes. Through the blur of my imagination, I could picture how full it looked a month ago, at the height of a home garden. I love talking to experienced gardeners like Jack. They are always full of helpful advice and knowledge, and especially a pride in what they have grown.  I found his use of support of vines by 5′ aluminum poles to be a practical (and perennial) solution. To be truthful, I did not absorb all he told me about the individual pepper plants he had, but one thing stuck: watering peppers well decreases the capsicum (the “heat” element) of peppers.  I found this true when I made a tomato and cheese omelette  and topped it off with not only grilled spring onion and peppers from Jack’s garden but also with Ellen’s wonderful homemade salsa.

Tomato and Monteray Jack Omelette, topped with Ellen's homemade salsa and Jack's grilled spring onions and peppers

Tomato and Monteray-Jack Omelette, topped with Ellen’s homemade salsa and Jack’s grilled spring onions & peppers

Jack and Ellen supplied me with a cornucopia of delicious veggies from their garden:

Garlic; Tomatoes; Spring Onion: Summer Squash; Eggplant(both Globe and Japanese varieties); Swiss Chard; Bok Choy; Various Peppers; Thyme; Cantaloupe; Beets and Beet Greens.

Harvest Stir Fry

Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, Beet Green, Spring Onion, Pepper stir-fry with Black Rice/Orzo and Basamati Rice in veggie broth and Thyme

I also made  fine stir-fry from all the greens, onions and peppers. A splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, plus a grind of pepper was all it needed. I made a combo of black rice+orzo and basamati rice, both cooked in the veggie broth from the green leavings and flavored with Jack’s fresh Thyme.

As Ellen was taking me around to show me her flower gardens, it was clear where she had gotten the habit of repurposing. Generations of her family members had repurposed, what was essentially junk, into quaint, personal, and eclectic decorations for the yard: a huge, brightly colored windmill and the painted planters made from old factory hardware held Ellen’s beautiful late-Summer flowers.

I wanted to meet all the animals, both owned and boarded. I first met “Nippy” a miniature Pincher who, despite his name, did not nip at all, but was quite friendly. He was a bundle of constant energy ‘tho, and did not once stop moving until we had a tug of war with a tennis ball, where his abundant energy was momentarily stalemated by mine.

Next was a beautiful Siamese: clear, crystal blue eyes with soft fur of shades from brown to black. At first skittish, he quickly decided I was the OK sort and cozied up. Ellen said he was most likely abandoned due to the “imperfections” in his markings. Ellen had matched him up with a young Cambridge couple, so he was off shortly to a new, posh life.

Then there was a tiny black kitten. As I picked him up, he was so gentle and content that my first thought was “Oh, here is an old soul.” The poor little thing was suffering from a cold and as soon as my attention was on him, this set off Nippy to rough-housing with him, in a bid for attention. The besieged kitten finally had enough of his ears being chewed on and gave Nippy  a soft bat with a hiss and went up on a table, snuffling out of reach.

As I was heading home, my trunk full of Ellen and Jack’s active beneficence, the tawny Harvest Moon skipped over the bough-tops and I thought of those words we associate with this season: harvest, bounty, cornucopia (the “horn of plenty” representing the harvest bounty.)

HMC-BannerI do admit, in my darkest hours, I consider my own late harvest to be a bitter one: my good and earnest labors left wasted as if a barren field. Still…life is painted by so many forms and is colored by so many sundry good things…so I will take these precious moments: the generosity of the wise and the good (which can never be undervalued); the cleverness of repurposing our resources; the richness of a well-tended garden and the bounty of the good Earth.

Even the little ones had lessons to teach: the friendly comfort of a sultry, posh kitty; the stillness-in-tension from a hyperactive puppy; and the zen-like patience of a beleaguered, snuffling kitten.

By this age, I am supposed to be wise, yet often feel anything but (save if wisdom be the stoic acceptance of one’s ocean of ignorance.) But, the cornucopia of kindness and experience, acquired my Harvest Moon evening west of Boston, is something I can safely say is truly known.  One could not  wish for a better bounty.

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