Monday, February 22, 2010


Give me a wisp of smoke in a dish, and you've just served me bliss. A subtle smolder weaves good memories through each bite, making them infinitely, sentimentally better: our wood stove in Connecticut, roadside redneck barbeque joints down south (the best kind), sleepaway camp, springtime shad bakes on the banks of the Potomac. A happy montage plays through my head each time I take a delicious, haunting taste. 

We smoke our share of meats in the summertime, a primal rite that has evolved into epic feasts. These, too, wind through that halcyon, mind's-eye filmstrip. Our trusty smoker, borrowed taken from my brother-in-law, works overtime on country weekends, most often transforming pork shoulder and spices into a tender, shredded treat (more on that in a few months). 

Right now, it's not so easy standing around a giant metal canister for hours on the New England tundra. No amount of whiskey can make that fun. And, our kitchen just doesn’t have the ventilation for indoor smoking. So this winter, I’ve contended myself with other ways of adding smokiness to food and stoking the–ahem–glowing fires of memory. I guess you could make anything smoky with a sprinkling of smoked sea salt or liquid smoke–but to me, there's something empty in that (and in the latter case, fake). A couple of posts ago, I cooked black beans with dried chipotle peppers; I like this delicate infusion for some vegetarian dishes. You can buy various smoked peppers in powdered form, too, the most familiar of them being smoked paprika. Speaking of which, I love this recipe for smoky fried chickpeas from Food 52.

But let's just cut to the chase–unless we keep kosher, or are vegetarian (hell, maybe even in spite of it), it's bacon we crave. Bacon, and related smoked pork products, are the most intense, most bang-for-your-buck way to add a little fire–and voluptuousness–to food. A bit chopped up, rendered, and crisped (I pour off excess grease and save it under the sink in a jar, simply because my mother and grandmothers did the same) goes a long way toward elevating pastas and savory tarts to the next level. The bacon we get, from an excellent farm upstate called The Piggery, is generously peppered and heartily smoked–just the way I like it. Plus the pigs lead healthy, free-roaming idylls, and I'm positive that comes through in the flavor. 

This brings me back to our summer smoke-a-thons, and to a traditional winter recipe that captures their essence in the most literal way: smoky split pea soup. We always save the meaty, smoked bones and use them later in the winter. I'm a big advocate for not wasting a thing, and as a result my freezer makes a great Halloween sideshow. This past Labor Day, we smoked our last pork shoulder of the season, trying to ignore the chill that was elbowing out summer. We enjoyed it with all the sides, and once we had finished every last shred, I wrapped up that bone and nestled it in the freezer among parm rinds and stocks. I took it out when I was in the mood for the soup, simmered away, and enjoyed. Slowly, if only for a moment, I caught a whisper of warmer days.  
Vegetarian friends: are you still here? check out this clever recipe for a meat-free smoky split pea soup, from 101 cookbooks

Smoky split pea soup
  • 4 cups dried split peas, rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 small yellow onions, peeled and diced small
  • 3 fat cloves garlic, peeled and minced, or pressed
  • 1 bay leaves
  • 1 smoked ham hock or other meaty pork bone or generous strip of smoked slab bacon (*note: ask your butcher–they may not be on display. Some grocery stores, especially in the South, stock them in the meat case)
  • 4 medium carrots or the equivalent, chopped into 1/2" rounds
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped into 1/2" rounds
  • water
  • 1 splash sherry vinegar, to taste
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat a sturdy pot or dutch oven over medium heat and add oil. Stir in onions and bone (or slab bacon) and cook for 5 minutes or so, until fragrant. Add garlic and bay leaves, and cook for a couple more minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour in peas and then cover with water until peas are covered by an inch or two. Give a stir, then raise heat until soup comes to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for the next hour, checking and stirring with a wooden spoon occasionally, scraping the bottom so peas don't stick. You'll probably need to add a bit more water as peas drink it up. 

After about an hour, add carrots and celery (I put them in a bit later so they don't get mushy) and simmer soup for another 30 minutes or so, until the peas have fallen apart and become smooth. Give a few vigorous stirs and decide if you need to add a little more water. Once the desired consistency has been reached, add seasoning: splash in a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar to taste, salt, and add a few cranks of pepper. I like a lot of coarsely ground pepper in this soup. Remove bay leaves and bone/bacon before serving.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dates and good will

One frigid morning in January, our heat broke, and the house fell eerily quiet–and cold–without its background hum. Stranded at home waiting for the furnace man, I enticed a couple of friends over. And I baked. Those brave friends donned heavy sweaters, and in return I cranked the oven and made them coffee and warm date-walnut scones.

Dates, because that’s what we had. My husband, Ben, equates a big bowl of them with Christmas hospitality, which I've never understood (they are for him what clementines are for me), so we had leftovers–because of course no one's going for the dates when there are plates of pretty cookies everywhere.

Something I would like to say about dates is that, for the longest time I had no idea what one looked like–I knew them only as those dusty pellets loitering at the bottom of trail mix. Momo changed that. After college I worked in Paris, as a serveuse in a wine bar, and Momo was one of the cooks there, a lanky, brooding Moroccan who mostly kept his head down amid a battery of couscous jokes from the French chef. The Tamil cooks eyed him suspiciously, and they all worked alongside one another in their crazy, disconnected way.

Afternoons were slow, and the bar backed up to the pocket kitchen, so Momo and I found ourselves chatting comfortably during that idle stretch each day. He told me about his home back in Morocco, his family, and the meals his sister cooked for them. What he didn't tell me–but I always wondered–was what it felt like living as a Muslim immigrant in Paris. It cannot have been easy, judging by the dynamics where we worked, and the general anti-Arab fervor that flared up around the city at intervals.

Ramadan came, and Momo fasted each day. He looked thinner than ever–downright ashen, sometimes, as he headed into a double on an empty stomach. At dusk, he took out a package of dates and ate. "Les dattes!" he would proclaim, raising his arms in rhapsody, conveying how heavenly they must have tasted on the heels of a fast. The dates also took the place of the meal his family was sharing, one he missed most nights because of his job. We chuckled at the irony of his working in a restaurant, surrounded by food, but forbidden to even taste it. 

I was curious about these dates I had never seen before, and my questions unlocked a flood of enthusiastic memories: the sprays of ripe dates in the souks, the statuesque date palms so sorely absent in this city of gray monuments. I could relate, as a disconnected Virginian who had bitterly missed the sight of dogwoods and azaleas blooming that spring. 

One day, he brought me a bag of them. They still clung to their branches, golden and plump: fresh dates. I've never found them that way since, only the soft kind that has darkened and grown sticky, cured to a candied state. Those fresh ones tasted fruity and crunchy, and although I wasn't fasting (far from it), they made a lovely afternoon snack.

Ben, it seems, had the right idea all along; maybe there is something to the humble, wrinkled date that inspires good will, and perhaps I unknowingly stumbled upon it later, that January day, trying to make amends for my frozen house. 

As for the scones, they turned out far better than I could have imagined they would, and this is the first scone recipe I've actually wanted to make again. The outsides are unbelievably crispy, the interiors creamy and sweet. I found the base formula in the Gourmet Today cookbook (originally for raisin-orange scones), and I tweaked it. Here’s what resulted: 

Date-Walnut Scones:


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup dried Medjool dates (about 10 dates), chopped into blueberry-sized bits
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped small
  • ¾ cup half-and-half 
  • 1 large egg, separated
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 375ยบ. In a food processor, pulse together flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add butter and pulse until it is incorporated into coarse, pea-sized lumps (work quickly so butter doesn't melt).
  2. Transfer mixture to a big bowl and stir in dates and walnuts. Whisk together cream, yolk, maple syrup, and vanilla. Stir gently into flour mixture.Dough should be shaggy, but if you feel it is just not coming together, add a few drops of milk or cream until it does.
  3. Move mixture to a floured surface and gently knead until it forms a unified mass (do not overwork). Fold over like a book, then again, then pat into a circle about 7 ½ inches across. Transfer to a lined baking sheet.
  4. Lightly beat egg white with fork and brush some of it on top of the dough. Next, sprinkle remainder of sugar on top. Cut round into eight evenly sized wedges (like a pizza), but don’t separate.
  5. Bake scones about 30-35 minutes, or until they are golden brown on top and underneath. *Important*: carefully separate them to check interiors, and if they still look underdone, separate scones and bake for 5 more minutes or so. They should be tender and moist but not soggy inside.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Farewell, it's bean nice

Sigh. Here it is, the last of our summer CSA–which officially means we’re deep into winter now. In case you’re wondering what the heck a CSA is, it’s community supported agriculture–a share in a local farm, delivered once a week during the growing season. For us, that farm is Green Thumb, and Farmer Bill’s our guy.

We get what we get, and we don’t get upset. It might be huge, ruffled heads of lettuce, baby turnips smooth as beach stones, or a bouquet of flowering thyme, all pink and green and fragrant. Some weeks it could, frankly, be wormy corn or nonexistent tomatoes–but usually the produce is abundant and sparkling. At the bitter end, in December, the dusty sweet potatoes roll in and multiply, and we get creative. Usually, for the season’s final delivery, we receive a mess of dried black beans still in their papery pods. 

I get excited about these little beans, scraggly as they look–that's the kind of geek I am. They’re fresh by the standards of what you find in stores, and oh, are they tasty. Labor-intensive, maybe–but that’s what little helpers are for. 

This year, I wanted to depart from the usual black bean soup. Scouring my cabinets and fridge, I came up with this simple, wintry dish from what I found there. Since so many of the ingredients were dried or preserved from the summer, I felt kind of pioneer-ish and Little House putting it together.

The pickled onions are key–they’re worth the easy extra step, and if you’ve never pickled anything before, here's the place to start. They keep well and add puckery brightness to grilled cheddar sandwiches or smoked fish. If you aren't into pickles, though, sliced scallions do the trick. 

I like to lighten up the beans with a bit of summery greenness during these dark months: avocado, cilantro, and lime. Roll it all up in a tortilla with some rosy pickled onions and grated queso fresco, and it's dinner.

The groundhog had his say last week, so let's brace ourselves for five more weeks…

Winter Black Beans

  • 4 cups cooked black beans (2 15-oz. cans), some of the cooking or can liquid reserved
  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1 cup sundried tomatoes, soaked for about an hour in warm water and chopped into small bits
  • 3 dried chipotle peppers, or other small dried peppers, soaked along with tomatoes but not chopped (note: if you like the smoky chipotle taste you can also cheat by using chipotle chili powder or chipotle Tabasco sauce–*sparingly*) 
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • Hot sauce to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Garnish: pickled onions (below) or sliced scallions


Heat a medium-sized saucepan over moderate heat for a few minutes, then add oil. Throw in garlic, cumin, oregano, and chipotles and cook, stirring, for a few minutes. Add sundried tomatoes and cook a few more minutes, splashing in a bit of the reserved soaking liquid. Put in the beans with some of their liquid (just enough to create a bit of a sauce) and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender (even among canned beans time will vary) and cooking liquid is nearly absorbed. Season with lime, hot sauce, salt and pepper until they taste the way you like them. Remove chilis before serving, and scatter pickled onions or scallions on top.

Rosy Pickled Onions

  • 1 medium red onion
  • 3/4 cup vinegar, either white vinegar or a combination of white vinegar and red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds (optional)

Cut onion in half longways, then slice each half into thin slivers longways, discarding skin and ends. Place slivers in a clean, medium-sized jar.
Put all other ingredients in a pot on the stove and bring to a boil for 2 minutes or so. Pour over onions to cover. Top with lid and allow to cool. Refrigerate–they're best if left overnight or longer.