Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spring? On the back burner in Michigan

Spring fever?  Not until it warms up here in Michigan. 
It’s been unseasonably, if not unspeakably cold here, with temperatures barely climbing out of the 20’s.  In search of signs of life in the garden, I take  (brisk!) walks around the flower beds, only to find evidence of deer and rabbits having a field day nibbling the tender buds of my crocuses and hyacinths.  Under the winter-worn brambles of the blackberry bushes,  one lonely blossom... so sad and brave out there.  
Awaiting Spring, there’s always the market where hope springs.  Eternal.  Here asparagus stalks.   Rhubarb abounds.  And strawberries are always in season. 

Now according the Epicurious Seasonal Ingredient Map, cabbage and broccoli are the go-to produce of Michigan in the month of March. (?)  According to the Michigan Produce Availability Calendar, we’re still in cold crop mode with the offerings of evergreens, mushrooms, onions and potatoes.  
Looking for luscious Spring colors, bending the rules of play for the Open Salon Kitchen Challenge, I throw geography to the wind, and choose produce from every-which-way, starting off with a ruby red head of cabbage from Michigan or who-know-where.  Gorgeous.  

In the basket goes another head of cabbage -- pale green, then a fennel bulb (in season in Louisiana) and bright carrots (in season in North Carolina) Add shallots and leeks, along with a sprig of rosemary, a pound of dried Great Northern beans, and a few slices of pancetta. . . 
Now what to make of this?  Ahh, I know just the thing.  Ribollita! 
“Suppa Toscana,” the classic bread soup of Tuscany.

Talk about peasant stock, ribollita (ree-boh-LEE-tah), literally “reboiled” soup, is thick and yummy, and an excellent use of leftover soup stock, vegetables, canned tomatoes, you name it.  The secret of a good ribollita  is slow cooking.  On low simmer, on the back burner, the mix of vegetables and beans thickens into a heady,  hearty aromatic sort of stew.   I’ve had the real deal in Italy,  on a Trek Bike Tour through Tuscany, and I can tell you, the dish is well worth the sore saddle and 40-mile climb up and down steep hills.    

According to The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (John Mariani) ribollita is traditionally made with cannellini (Great Northern) beans, olive oil, red cabbage and vegetables (of your choosing), bread and cheese, left to stand, and reheated.  It is traditionally served thick enough to eat with a fork.  Sometimes it is referred to a suppa del cane (soup of the dog) because of its simplicity.   

There are many different recipes for ribollita on line.  The method is simple enough and most every combination of greens and beans and tomatoes are fine.  Ribolitta can be reheated or reconstituted with new stock or vegetables the next day for a whole new version.  I’ve taken a sampling of several recipes, so follow the recipe below according to your taste and discretion: 
  • 1 cup dried cannellini or Great Northern beans
  • About 2 cups red cabbage, shredded 
  • About 2 cups green cabbage or chard, shredded
  • 1/4 up extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 leek, sliced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 potatoes
  • 4 ounces pancetta, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 3 to 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 Parmesan, grated
  • 1/2 loaf ciabatta bread, sliced and cubed 
Here’s what you do:
Pre-soak beans in water for 8 hours or over night. Drain and rinse. 
Faster method: Rinse beans and place in large, heavy saucepan with the garlic cloves, bay leaf, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook at a simmer for about an hour or until the beans are tender, adding more water as needed. Remove the bay leaf and let the beans cool. Puree half the beans in a food processor. 
Heat olive oil in a large casserole or cast iron pot with a cover.  
Saute the garlic, onion and pancetta until onion is golden brown and pancetta is crisp.  Add the chopped carrot, leek, potatoes, salt and pepper.  Add tomatoes and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits. Add the cabbage, beans, herbs, stock, and bay leaf.  Bring to a very slow simmer and cook for about 1 1/2 hours.  Add bread cubes and parmesan to the soup, mix and heat in oven for 20 minutes.   
An alternative method for serving soup less thick,: instead of adding bread to soup, drizzle olive oil on ciabatta bread slices, toast in oven. Place in individual bowls and ladle soup over toast to serve. 

First a howling blizzard woke us,

Then the rain came down to soak us,
And now before the eye can focus -
~Lilja Rogers

With memories of Tuscany...
Thanks for dropping by

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What's so special?

She's pretty in pink, at that sweet age where little girls begin to bloom.  He's all guy at that goofy stage, "too cute and too smart" sometimes for his own good.   

Okay, I’m a Jewish mother. As Jewish moms are wont to do, I like to brag about my kids.  Z and L aren’t my kids, but hey, they’re close enough. Z and L are my sister’s grandkids,  my nephew’s twins, which makes me Z’s and L’s aunt - uh, greataunt, to be genealogically technical.

Bragging about Z and L involves high praise for their parents. D and E are devoted parents and fierce advocates for their kids when need be. 

Last October Z & L were "called to the Torah,"  as we say, on their 13th birthday, to celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvah -- B’nai Mitzvot, as we say.   
Together, the studied well to prepare for that day. They learned the Hebrew prayers - the liturgy of the Saturday morning service in which they led the congregation.  They learned "trope"-- how to chant their portion of the Torah reading - (verses from the chapters called Vayiera in Genesis).  They prepared their commentary and wrote their thank you’s, all part of the ritual as it has grown over the generations from a Jewish rite of passage into a major social event.  Over the course of the weekend, we heard the word “special” spoken many times over.  And why not? A double Bar/Bat Mitzvah is special in its own right.  
The words “special” and “normal” have always confounded me when we talk about children in general, and specifically, when people ask me about L and Z.  You see, to me Z and L are both special  - and normal.  Both have needs, albeit different.  As every set of twins are “exceptional,” so too, are L & Z, having been born with the unique benefit of the other.  The fact that L was born with Down Syndrome, no doubt, pushes Z forward.  And the fact that Z is not “Down” pulls L up.  
I can still recall the music of Z & L’s first conversations in baby-babble in which they seemed content and in perfect sync with one another at a Thanksgiving dinner.  At thirteen, pulled in their separate ways, like normal sibs, they can push each other’s buttons. But the two of them together still share a dynamic which continues to be a wonder and miracle to me, and that, too,  has everything to do with their parents, the choices they’ve made as a family, and all the people they’ve let into their lives.  I don’t know a family more open, welcoming and inclusive than theirs.  
Now here comes the real bragging part.  
To visit my nephew’s family on any given day is to jump into a whirlwind of planned activities. There’s the usual extra curricular stuff -- piano, Hebrew, Sunday school, science fairs, summer camp.  And sports. Lots of sports. Z plays hockey. L is a figure skater. With three years under her slim belt, L has competed and won medals in the Illinois Special Olympics. Through that activity the whole family has been involved in supporting L’s additional role as a Special Olympics Global Messenger and speaker.  L has also played the lead roles in four productions of Chicago’s Special Gifts Theatre. 


I love that Z is a chess whiz, (read that chess, not cheese whiz) who can beat the pants off of me, while Lauren can kibbitz with the best of them, spotting the moves I miss. I love that Z is a voracious reader. And I love that L of late has begun to write lyrical “memoirs,” songs and poetry on scraps of paper and notebook pages that her parents have begun to collect and assemble.  I love that Z saves his allowance for a skateboard and video games, and that L spends her allowance on manicures. 
I also love that Z and L are a blending of their parents traditions. How many baby Christenings have you attended where dad recites a Hebrew prayer? Where is it written that potato latkes can’t be on the menu Christmas Day?  Theirs is a Jewish/Catholic household covering the bases, so to speak, and I believe Z and L are all the richer for the sharing and understanding - and gentle negotiation -- that is the fabric of their home life.  
No, I'm not their grandma.  But Z and L have given me 13 years of practice. The best ever.  A special gift indeed. 

In practice
   As always, thanks for dropping by today. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Russian Tea Biscuits: Our Long Lost Family Recipe

This could be my grandmother’s recipe for Russian Tea Biscuits. 
(But it’s not)

Lost.  So what if I have long lost relatives with histories I’ll never know?  Lost forever are the deepest roots of my father’s side of the family tree. How careless we were with stories never told, photographs never taken, holidays never shared, recipes for life never tasted. Hard as it is to imagine, I have first cousins in California I’ve never met.   (Hazel, Rozelyn, Sandra, where are you?
This is not a lament.  Growing up, I had all the privileges of a tight-knit family.  My sister and parents, my grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins all lived in close proximity in Cleveland.  That’s just it. Like so many assimilated Jewish families -- orphans of history -  we had no family history to speak of beyond our grandparents’ generation.    This little I know: my ethnic origin is Russian.  There were pogroms. There was revolution.  There was a great aunt imprisoned in Siberia, and no doubt there was high drama in my grandparents coming to America at the turn of the 20th Century.  After all these years  all I’ve gathered is that my maternal grandfather was around 14 years old when he emigrated to this country with his older brothers. He was a tailor, a Union organizer,  a leader in the Cleveland community.  But I never knew him.  The only grandparent I had was my grandmother who came to America at an undisclosed age, a baby in her mother’s arms.  (The family was from Riga.  Latvia? Or Russia? Who knows what their ethnic origin was.)  In the kitchen? My grandmother broke every kosher rule in the book.  With delicious results.  
So. You want roots?  You plant yourself firmly where you want to grow.  You want tradition?  You start one yourself.  You want memories?  You improvise, you explore, you celebrate and create memories of your own.   Really, isn’t this what all generations must do?  

And so I made my own magic this week: rattling in the kitchen at 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Taking out baking pans. Preheating the oven. Rolling pastry dough.  Chopping nuts and raisins. Slathering jam.  Making Russian tea biscuits to celebrate a birthday.  The birth day of my first grandchild.
Mason.  One day old. Happy in the world so far.      
So now that I’m a brand new grandma, Russian tea biscuits are the most natural “grandmotherly cookies” I know. Not to be mistaken for the more familiar powder-sugared Russian tea cakes, also known as Mexican wedding cakes, Russian tea biscuits look like giant ruggelah. Rolled like a strudel, not as rich, nor as sweet and flaky as the cream cheese pastry of classic ruggelah, the dough is cookie crumbly, almost like a scone. Truly a "hybread," that is to say a hybrid pastry.      
Searching for Russian tea biscuits, you won’t find them just anywhere. 
While their origin may be Eastern European, I’ve found no place that makes Russian tea biscuits better than Lax & Mandel Kosher Bakery in Cleveland, Ohio.   Lax & Mandel opens after sundown every Saturday, to bake through the night for the Sunday morning rush. If you go there around 11:30 p.m. -- you’re in for all manners of treats hot out of the oven.  But the best of all, and worth every bite,  are the tea biscuits, either fruit-filled or the chocolate nut variety.  I’m sure my grandmother made her own version of this scrumptious pastry, but I can't recall it, so wistful and vivid is my memory of Lax and Mandel and the wonders of their Russian Tea biscuits fresh out of their yeasty night kitchen.  
Is your mouth watering?  Based on a recipe I discovered in Five Star Sensations: Compiled and Edited by the Auxillary of University Hospitals of Cleveland -- here’s the best I can do for you:   
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup  (1 stick) margarine melted
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs, plus 1 yolk, reserving white
1/4 cup orange juice 
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 to 1 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 1/2  to 2 cups Golden or Sultana raisins
Raspberry jam or any kind of preserves  
1/4 cup coconut 
lemon juice 
1 egg white
Combine all dough ingredients, except the reserved egg white, and mix well. You should have a golden citrous-y mixture.  Divide dough into six balls and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F
Grease cookie sheets
Combine ingredients for filling and mix well
Working with one dough ball at a time, roll out on a heavily floured board into a 6 to 7 inch square.  Spread raisins and jam, sprinkle with filling and roll up jelly-roll style.
Slice into 1 1/2 inch pieces and brush with beaten egg while.  Bake on prepared cookie sheets 30 to 35 minutes or until light brown. 
Remove from cookie sheets immediately, cool and enjoy.  
As for the batch of tea biscuits I baked last Tuesday morning, they’re in the freezer
(where they keep well). Next week, they’ll make their debut with kugel and bagels at the baby’s naming ceremony. . .a “first birthday party” of sorts.  
(Oh my, isn't he yummy?")   

As always, thanks for dropping by.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nuts About Mandelbrot: Twice-Baked Almond Joy

"Recipes are not assembly manuals. Recipes are guides and suggestions  
for a process that is infinitely nuanced. Recipes are sheet music.”   
   --Michael Ruhlman, The Elements of Cooking

Call it biscotti, if you want to be fancy about it.  Make it with whole pistachios, a splash of orange liqueur. Add coconut.  Dip it in dark melted chocolate, if you must.  It’s all mandlebrot to me.

"Of course you can bake on a weeknight,the oven is usually on anyway.
-Lynne Rossetto Kasper, How to Eat Supper

Mandlebrot (also Mandelbroit) translates from Yiddish as almond bread. Jewish biscotti.   My dessert of choice.  A staple in my mother’s cookie jar, and always on hand in my grandmother’s kitchen - both of blessed memories.   My grandmother’s version was simple, yet sublime.  The ultimate coffee dunker: baked in small loaves, sliced, then returned to the oven for added  crunch.  My mother’s recipe was sweeter, lighter, the dough thinner, almost batter-like.   
I can  channel my grandmother’s recipe for mandelbrot, and when I follow it, it’s out of a jumble of memories: the buttery baking aromas of her kitchen, the fragrance of roses and  tomatoes in her summer garden, her noodle kugel and cheese blintzes ... 
 Mandelbrot vs. Biscotti

Others might beg to differ, but as far as I can tell,  the distinction between the Italian nosh and the Jewish one is in the ratio of flour to eggs and in the amount of sugar. Both start with a sticky, eggy dough.  Mandelbrot recipes produce a denser cookie, not as  sweet, nor as rich as Italian biscotti. Biscotti recipes are usually made with butter. To make mandlebrot parve (kosher for all meals with the exception of Passover), the recipe calls for oil.  Both “brots”  use liberal quantities of nuts,  ground or whole, blanched or with skins-- it all works.   

"Bottomless wonders spring 
from simple rules... which are repeated without end. "
                      -Benoit Mandelbrot (The Fractal Geometry of Nature)

So here you go, best approximation of my Grandmother’s Mandelbrot

  • 3 large eggs 
  • 1¼ cups sugar 
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour* 
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange rine
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup slivered almonds, chopped
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon anise seeds (optional)
A biscotti variation without oil or butter: from Mark Bittman
The Best Recipes in the World

  • 1 cup almonds or hazelnuts
  • 3/4 cup sugar (add more if you like your biscotti sweeter)
  • 2 cups flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons milk
  • Flour for the pans 
For an even sweeter variation add:
  • 1/2 cup sweetened coconut 
  • 2 ounces dark chocolate or more! (chopped) 
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Call me a nut:  Here’s where I begin to experiment (and go wrong.)   In my cupboard is bag of chestnut flour, (purchased in an Italian grocery), an ingredient I’m sure my grandmother never used. Out of curiosity, I chose to reduce the  flour in the recipe by a quarter cup and to add a quarter cup of the chestnut flour.  The result?  A denser cookie, and an "interesting"  flavor (that needed more sugar and perhaps a touch more salt.) My recommendation?  Stick to the recipe as it’s written above.  And if you go the "Almond Joy" route, use plenty of chocolate and sweetened coconut. You might also consider swapping out some of the standard flour for coconut flour for even more coconutty flavor.    

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a baking sheet. Beat eggs, sugar, and oil in a large bowl with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in orange rind and vanilla. Sift flour with baking powder and salt into a bowl. Add to egg mixture. Stir on low speed of mixer just until blended. Stir in almonds on low speed.
2. Shape dough into 4 log-shaped rolls, each about 2 inches. Place on baking sheet. Refrigerate 30 minutes. Use spatula to smooth dough and to push again into log shape if it has spread a bit. Sprinkle top with cinnamon sugar and pat to make it adhere to sides as well.
3. Bake 30 minutes or until lightly browned and set. Transfer carefully to a board and let stand until cool enough to handle. With a sharp knife, carefully cut into diagonal slices about ½-inch thick; dough will be slightly soft inside. Return slices in one layer to 2 or 3 cleaned baking sheets.
4. Bake about 7 minutes per side or until lightly toasted so they are beige and dotted in places with golden brown; side of cookie touching baking sheet will brown first. Watch carefully so cookies don’t brown throughout or they will be too hard and dry. Cool on a rack. Keep in airtight containers.  
Enjoy and thanks for stopping by.

"Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, and lightening does not travel in a straight line. The complexity of nature's shapes differs in kind, not merely degree..." The Fractal Geometry of Nature

Photo: V. Henoch 
Fractal image source: Fractal Geometry and Chaos Theory,