Tuesday, December 30, 2014

TRADITION & HOLIDAY SURVIVAL - Are family traditions just too much work?

Get the decorating done right away
As much as I hate to say it, making time to enjoy a meal with family and friends, especially during the holidays, is a tradition that just might be slipping from families due to our hectic or sedentary life styles. Keep in mind that air, food and water are three functions that a human body must have to survive. We should strive to master these three vital functions. If you have to eat, why not learn to cook well? You just can't beat homemade scratch cooking.
Get in the mood
People will give you many reasons why they don't like gatherings of friends and families, but most of them are invalid. Oh they'll come to your party, just don't want to host one. In my opinion, left to our own designs, family gatherings as we know them just might be pushed aside in favor of buying complete holiday prepared meals from the local grocer, or going out to eat for holiday’s and special occasions at your local restaurant. I actually enjoy getting together with family and friends.
Chicago Botanic Garden
This year, just before Christmas, I sprained my knee and ankle limiting my ability to help with the meal preparation. I was left to sit and do table prep rather than standing and actually cooking. This perspective gave me a unique insight into why parties are considered by many to be just too difficult to even consider. My family didn't care having a dictator in the room.
Had the butcher prepare (French) a pork crown roast
This year I had time to think about how to throw a stress-free party, if that's possible. These are my thoughts on the subject. Everything that can be done in advance should be. Your education begins today and learning just one phrase will greatly reduce your stress levels.
Season the roast
Mise en place
According to Wikipedia, Mise en place is a French phrase which means "putting in place," as in set-up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g. cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift. The practice is also effective in home kitchens.”
Stuff that roast
Food Safety
The next thing that you must consider is food safety. Every home kitchen should have a good quality, accurate kitchen thermometer. It should be properly calibrated by you on the day of your party, or anytime you cook meat, poultry or fish. You don't want your guests to go home, or to the emergency room sick because you served undercooked food.
Make a plan and work your plan
Create a custom music play list appropriate for the event. It should be ready to begin as soon as the first guest arrives and finishes when the last guest departs.
Crown roast ready to serve
What time should your guests arrive? If you plan on serving dinner at 6:00 pm, then you’re guests should arrive at 5:00 pm, unless they are needed to help earlier. Only those guests that will help create a stress-free party should be invited early.
Do you want a slice?
In our house it’s almost impossible to get more than 6 place settings that match. I often will buy one plate or dish just for a photograph. If it’s really special occasion, get new glassware and china, or rent it. Any decorating and house cleaning can and should be done days before your event or party. Last minute touch-ups are permitted. If you like your linens fresh, iron them in advance or RENT THEM.
Steamed cauliflower
Break up the families or friends. Assigning seats is a great ice breaker for getting people to talk to each other. Often when we go to a dinner party there's one family on one side of the room talking to each other, and the other family is on the opposite side. Tear down that wall!
Cauliflower gratin inspired by John Besh's cauliflower puree recipe
Deciding if all of the food preparation will be done in house or outsourced to your relatives or friends can make your party go easier, or harder, depending on the circumstances, equipment available, counter and dish washing facilities. If you don’t have enough refrigeration, plan on assigning someone (not you) to bring coolers and ice. 
If a family member, friend, or guest is bringing food, they should bring it completely prepped at their home and ready to serve if possible. If the dish requires any cooking, re-heating, or refrigeration once it arrives, that needs to be scheduled into your kitchen plan if space is available. If not eliminate it from your menu. Whatever you do, don't break out the cookbooks, or search the Internet for a new recipe that you've never tried before. While I try to avoid it, even recipes on this blog might have a mistake, just like the famous celebrity chef's recipes.
Dinner time
Write out your entire menu and how long each menu item will take to cook, rest, finish and serve. As an example, we were making a Pork Crown Roast, with stuffing and gravy (3 hours). Since we were eating at 6: 00 pm, the roast had to be in the oven by 2:30 pm. That gave us 3 hours to do other things in an almost stress free environment.
One half hour before your guests arrive, relax, meditate and set your mood, since it's your mood that will make or break this party. Have fun!
I know, right!
What can I say about parties and drinking? The people responsible for food prep, cooking and serving the dinner should have their first drink when they sit down at the dinner table, pop the cork on the first bottle of wine, thank their guests for coming and ask them to enjoy their meal. You also don't want your guest drinking and driving. Encourage responsible drinking. For a dinner party, have it at your home. If it’s a drinking party you’re after, meet at a bar.
Flan! A new tradition...
Now for my original thought. Who will carry forward the recipes that have been handed down for generations, if fewer young people today are not wanting to learn to cook? When we're gone whose going to make the Kartoffelklösse, or Mom's plum kuchen?
Any thoughts, on family traditions, vintage recipes, or giving young people the motivation to learn recipes from the past would be appreciated. 
Tim’s Rumaki Appetizer
I was considering entering a contest using fillo dough cups. I missed the deadline and thought that it was good enough to be on my table and in my blog for New Year's Eve.

1 box (15pc.) Athens mini-fillo shells
5-6 whole water chestnuts, diced
15   1/2 tsp. Braunschweiger, liver sausage, or mushroom pate
1/2 lb. bacon, crisp, drained, chopped
as needed chives, fresh, minced, for garnish.
2 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ginger, fresh, minced
1 tsp. sesame seeds, toasted, optional
NOTE: Add crushed pineapple for an interesting variation.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.     
In a small bowl mix together the soy sauce, brown sugar, and minced ginger. If you are using the toasted sesame seeds add them to the soy sauce mixture. Set this to the side. 
Cut and dice the water chestnuts into small pieces. Add the water chestnuts to the soy sauce marinade.
Pan fry the bacon until crispy but not burnt. Drain the bacon and chop coarsely (1/4” pieces) so that the bacon is small enough to fit several pieces into each fillo cup. Set the bacon to the side.
Add Braunschweiger to cups
Place the 15 fillo shells on a baking sheet. Using a 1/2 tsp. measuring spoon, place one scoop of the Braunschweiger into the bottom of the cups. Gently press the Braunschweiger into the bottom of each cup. Stir your marinade mixture to mix well. Using a spoon, scoop out the water chestnut pieces and place them into each of the cups. Repeat the process with the bacon pieces until all of the cups are filled. Finally, drizzle some of the marinade over the bacon in each cup.
Drizzle marinade on cups
Place the sheet into the center rack of a preheated 350°F oven for 7-8 minutes, being careful not to overcook the shells. Remove from the oven and garnish with chives. Serve immediately.
Serve rumaki cups
NOTE: Traditionally “rumaki” is made with chicken livers and can be made that way using chopped chicken livers if you like. You may also use mushroom pate, cooked shrimp or scallops instead of the chicken livers or Braunschweiger.
Traditional rumaki
Happy New Year! Why not sign up to follow this blog above, or leave a comment below? I also have a request to cover Chicago style Italian roast beef. Any comments or thoughts, or reviews of electric slicers would be appreciated.
What's your beef?
© TMelle 2014-15

Monday, November 17, 2014

Virginia Country Ham & Biscuits

The Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance
Whenever my job took me east to Virginia, I was amazed by two things—one was the number of people I met who worked for the government and the other was the Mason Dixon line. The government jobs are easier to understand for me than the fact that Virginia is located on the Atlantic coast along the line that divides the northern and southern halves of the United States. When I think of Virginia, I never consider it to be in the South, since it really is the middle of the eastern United States. The fact that many Virginians speak with a Southern accent just blows me away. I could go on forever, but this story is about food.
Cracker Barrel Country Ham, Grands Biscuits, sweet pickles
Recently I met a woman who grew up in Virginia. I was talking to her about sausage gravy and biscuits one day and asked if that was a common food for her, being that she was from the “South?” She said that sausage gravy and biscuits were not a part of her family’s history, but biscuits and ham, on the other hand, was. “Do you mean with red-eye gravy,” I asked? “No, just biscuits and ham,” she replied. It didn’t take long for her to tell me that it was made with a salty Virginia ham.
So what is it and why would I want to eat it? According to Wikipedia, "Country ham is a variety of cured ham, typically very salty. Country ham is first mentioned in print in 1944, referring to a method of curing and smoking done in the rural parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky and other nearby Southern states."

Make some biscuits first
She told me that whenever her father made a Virginia ham, he would save the fat to use when cooking other things. I asked her to explain about the biscuits and ham. She said that Country Ham was less salty than the Virginia ham and had to be sliced extremely thin, since it was so salty. The ham is piled on the biscuits and then topped off with sweet pickle slices. The sweet pickles add another layer of flavor and balance the saltiness of the ham. Then I saw it! The fact that we were talking about food that she grew up with in her family, triggered, as it often does, a nostalgic memory, or as I like to call it that warm and fuzzy feeling. It almost never fails.
Country ham, sweet pickles, parsley butter
So I immediately went to work doing a little research on "biscuits and ham." The first thing that I had to do was find a "Country Ham." Undoubtedly, the Smithfield Ham is the most popular brand out there and is available online, as our many other brands, but generally you have to buy multiple 8 ounce packages, or a half or whole ham. Next I began a search for Country Ham in local and national grocery stores. I was unable to find it at local stores. Then my search brought up Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and  Restaurant. Their breakfast, lunch and dinner menu's all had Country Ham on them.
I called them and said that I noticed that they sold hams too. After explaining that I was looking for a smaller quantity of ham, she said that they sold a one pound package of sliced Country Ham at the restaurant. I called my wife and told her that it was date night and that I was taking her out for dinner. Little did she know we were going to Cracker Barrel.
Grands biscuits, County Ham and Wild Maine Blueberry Jam
Back to the research... I came across several serving suggestions for biscuits and ham, other than sweet pickles. Many of them referred to the use of sweet jams, like wild berries, blackberries, blueberries, etc. Some people use a combination of sweet jams and Dijon mustard mixed together.
Country Dijon, biscuits, Country Ham, pineapple slices, orange honey
I decided that I should put my own spin on this Virginia classic. What about swapping out the fruit jams and mustard with slices of grilled pineapple for the sweet component and honey Dijon for the more savory component?
Cut slits in skin and fat

I would not be giving this ham justice if I didn't include Country Ham and Eggs with Red-Eye gravy for breakfast. For the biscuits and ham, or the ham and eggs the first step is the same. You're going to need the following:

1 lb. Country Ham, thinly sliced
1 cup coffee, to deglaze the pan 
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon butter, melted
NOTE: When we got to Cracker Barrel, our waitress told us that the 1 pound packages of Country Ham were $10.00 each. We later learned that there were two, 8 ounce slices of ham in each package.
Can you hear that sizzle

Cut large ham slices in half so they fit  your skillet. Using paper towels, dry the ham of any surface moisture, so that you cook it rather than steam it. Cut slits in the skin and fat around the ham edges to prevent the ham from curling while cooking. Place the vegetable oil and butter into a medium hot skillet (cast iron) and when the butter has melted and blended with the oil lay the ham pieces in the skillet gently. You should hear it sizzle immediately if the pan is hot enough.
Ready to flip to side 2
Don't touch the ham for at least 1-2 minutes to allow a nice crust to develop. Carefully turn the ham slices over and allow the second side to cook as well. The temperature of the ham should be 165ºF. When finished, remove the ham slices to a platter and cover with foil.  Set to the side until needed.

For the biscuits and ham you're going to need:
as needed, prepared biscuits (buttermilk, or sweet potato)
as needed, butter, softened
as needed, fruit jam or preserves (optional)  
as needed, Dijon mustard (optional)
as needed, honey, to mix with Dijon (optional)
as needed, horseradish cream sauce (optional)
as needed, pineapple slices, fresh, or canned, drained
Let's make some gravy

NOTE: If you are using the pineapple slices, place a teaspoon of brown sugar in the pan where each pineapple slice will go in the pan. Lay the pineapple slice directly on the brown sugar and let it caramelize on the first side. Carefully turn it over and caramelize the second side too.

To serve, split your biscuits in half and spread both halves lightly with softened, or compound butter. Lay slices of ham on the bottom half and top with your choice of condiment from the above list. Serve immediately.
Loosen the brown bits on the bottom of the pan

If you're making a country ham and eggs breakfast, you're going to cook the country ham exactly as described above. To make the red-eye gravy you're going to need the following:
1 cup strong black coffee, room temp
Red eye gravy

After removing the ham from the skillet, pour the coffee into the skillet, scraping pan as you go to deglaze it and loosen any browned ham bits. Continue stirring and let the gravy simmer and reduce for about 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper to taste. Serve red eye gravy with country ham slices, over grits, or sop some up with your biscuits. As they say in the south, "put some south in your mouth."
Fried eggs, country ham, grits, red-eye gravy and biscuits

Country ham dinner
If you're making grits, follow the directions on the package. The grits will take about 15-20 minutes so you should know when to get your eggs cooking.
Follow up: After I posted this story, I showed it to the woman from Virginia. I explained that I probably didn't have the right sweet pickles on hand. She explained that they used sweet pickle watermelon rind instead of sweet pickles, although either would work.
If you have any traditions, or special foods, or recipes that are unique in your family, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years, leave  a comment below.
© TMelle 2014