Accept no substitutions: Chocolate pudding

Along with a number of indignities that arrived with middle age–poochy stomach, sagging eyelids, graying hair, and the inability to remember my children’s names–I also acquired an intolerance to lactose.

After experiencing the seven stages of grief over the loss of my beloved dairy products, I emerged with a new hopefulness. It seemed that eliminating the daily ritual of the after-dinner dish of butter-pecan ice cream resulted in a small weight loss.

Alas, like all dreams, this was temporary.

The faux dairy products available, like tofu ice cream sandwiches and soy cheese, were not only totally unsatisfying, but downright nasty. It seemed as if the manufacturers of these products had overcompensated for the lack of butterfat with excessive amounts of sugar and guar gum. The pounds returned, and for what? A cloyingly sweet, gritty cup of soygurt? No thanks.

Then, I made a startling discovery. One can avoid lactose and still have fun. Butter, for example, contains only trace amounts of lactose. Pie–with a butter crust–was an option, I just couldn’t have it a la mode. Hard cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, also were very low in lactose. Welcome back, pasta carbonara.

So, you’ll find those products in my recipes. But for the most part, you won’t find milk or cream, which is where the motherlode of lactose resides. I avoid them like the plague.

Well, for me, they are the plague.

But sometimes the kids request a dairy bomb. This is a really good one. Or so they tell me.

Chocolate Pudding
Adapted from Bon Appetit

2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups lowfat milk (you could substitute soymilk, I suppose, but I would adjust the sugar)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cocoa powder, cornstarch, and salt. Slowly add half the milk, whisking the whole time. Add the remaining milk and continue to whisk. Turn on the heat to medium high and whisk constantly until the pudding comes to a boil. It will start to get very thick, but not pudding thick. Whisk like crazy to prevent lumps. Boil and whisk for another minute, then turn off the heat. Add the vanilla and whisk.

Pour the pudding into four small bowls and refrigerate for one hour until set and cool.

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National Pie Day

According to the National Pie Council, January 23 is National Pie Day because “celebrating the wholesome goodness of pie is as easy as 1-2-3.”

In case you were wondering, there is indeed a National Pi Day, which is celebrated on March 14 (3.14, get it?). Unfortunately, there is not much to celebrate about a mathematical constant, except that pi does represent the ratio of a circle’s circumference to it’s diameter. And a pie is a circle, so I’ll probably make a pie on National Pi Day, too.

Not that I need any excuse to make pie.

As you know, it was only a year ago that I overcame my fear of piecrust, with my father’s 80th birthday as incentive. Since then, heady with my first success, I’ve churned out numerous pies of all sorts. Today’s version is a compromise: one kid wanted apple, the other wanted blueberry. So, we’ve invented Bloobapple Pie. Or Blapple Pie. Don’t expect them to agree on anything.

I’ve discovered that it is indeed perfectly fine to double the recipe for Mark Bittman’s Flaky Piecrust, which you need to do to make a double-crust pie.

While the dough was chilling, I preheated the oven to 450 degrees and made the filling.

Bloobapple ingredients
4 cups peeled and sliced Macintosh apples
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
large pinch kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Milk

Toss the apples and fresh blueberries with the lemon peel, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cornstarch. If using frozen berries, it is better to add them last. Do not thaw them. Unless you like a uniformly blue pie filling. Toss with the lemon juice and turn the fruit into the prepared piecrust. Cover with the top crust, crimp the edges, and brush the top with a little milk to help it brown.

Put the pie plate on a cookie sheet and place in the bottom third of the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350 degrees and bake for another 35 to 45 minutes.

–♥–

I learned this from my Mom, Part 2:
Take the piecrust scraps and roll them out on a floured counter or board. Cut them into 2-3 inch isosceles triangles (a pie-wedge shape). Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon sugar and put a tiny dot of butter in the center. Roll up the triangle from the base to the point. Brush the cookies with a little milk. Put them on a baking sheet lined with parchment (see above for what happens if you don’t use parchment). Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Also see above for what happens if you don’t take the picture immediately. I’m lucky there were any left.

–♥–

By the way, there is no National Isosceles Triangle Day, but isosceles triangles are featured on the flags of St. Lucia, East Timor, Guyana, and Djibouti. Clearly, these are countries that also appreciate the wholesome goodness of pie.

A winter storm’s cooking: Red lentil soup with red kouri squash and coconut milk

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” William Shakespeare, King Lear, 3.2.1

It’s angry weather out there. The first real snowstorm of the winter finally hit, just when we were thinking we would sail through to spring with barely a freeze. With close to six inches on the ground by mid-afternoon and no sign of the storm slackening yet, the rest of the family headed out to shovel and play in the powder.

Me? I’m making soup.

My favorite winter meal is a hearty soup and fresh bread. A soup based on beans or lentils can usually be put together with pantry staples and, if you use canned or pre-cooked beans, you can have soup in under an hour. Red lentils are a particular favorite of mine as they take well to a variety of spices and cook in just 20 minutes. I happened to have a red kouri squash lying around, but I could have used butternut or buttercup. Or sweet potatoes.

Years ago, I learned the South Indian technique of  making onion-garlic paste or ginger-garlic paste for flavoring dishes and often use it when I don’t want chunks of those aromatics in my food. The mini-chopper attachment for my immersion blender was perfect for this task, but I burned out the motor a couple of months ago and haven’t yet replaced it. A full-size blender worked just fine in this case.

Ingredients
1 large onion
1-inch piece of gingerroot, peeled
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup carrot, diced
2 cups red kouri squash, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch dice
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup red lentils
5 cups water or vegetable stock
1 small (5.46 oz.) can coconut milk
1 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce, or to taste

Hack the onion into 8 pieces, the ginger in four, and smash the garlic to remove the peel. Heave the lot of them into a blender with 1/2 cup water and punch the button. Puree until smooth. Now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, you can be a little more gentle with the rest of the process.

Heat the oil in a large soup pot on med-high. Add the pureed aromatics and saute until translucent and mellowed, about 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrot, and squash, and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, cumin, and turmeric, stir and cook for 1 minute. Add the lentils, stir, and cook for 1 minute. Add the water, stir, and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes, or until the lentils have broken down and the squash is soft. Add the coconut milk and sriracha. Simmer for another 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve with toasted coconut or chopped cilantro.

Craving Chana Masala

Chana Masala, chickpeas with masala spices, is a food I crave often. We are blessed with some excellent Indian restaurants in Providence, but it’s not necessary to spend money on a restaurant meal for this indulgence. This deliciously complex-tasting dish is easy to make, requiring only a few not-too-difficult-to-find exotic ingredients. It also falls into the virtuous category, requiring a small amount of oil and no meat. If you can find whole cumin seeds and garam masala and grind them yourself (I use a coffee mill), you won’t regret the trouble. Serve it with basmati rice and confettied with cilantro–another craving. I would serve this with my favorite, very austere salad made with just lettuce and a light dressing of lemon juice and good-quality walnut oil.

I wish I could remember where I got this recipe, but it was handwritten on a sheet of notebook paper, so I can’t properly cite the creator. My apologies.

Chana Masala
1 teaspoon olive or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 large onion, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped, or 1/2 cup tomato puree
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas
Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime
Chopped cilantro, for garnish

Heat the oil in a pan and add the mustard seeds. When they pop, add the cumin, garlic, and onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato and mix well. Add the garam masala and salt and mix well.

Stir in the chickpeas and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water. Lower the heat and cook, covered, until the sauce becomes thick. Squeeze on the lemon juice and garnish with cilantro.

Lettuce salad
1 small head butter lettuce, baby lettuces, or arugula
Salt and pepper to taste
The other half of the lemon you used above
Walnut oil

Wash and dry the lettuce and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a salad bowl large enough to toss the leaves. Sprinkle the lettuce with kosher salt and grind on some pepper. Squeeze some lemon and toss well. Add a splash of the walnut oil and toss again. Taste and adjust for seasonings or add more lemon or oil.

New Year’s Irresolution: Minestrone Soup

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions long ago, about the same time that I stopped pretending that waiting around for the ball to drop was worth the loss of a precious hour or two of sleep. This lack of enthusiasm for New Year festivities may or may not have coincided with the arrival of one or both of my children, although it could have happened earlier, like around the time I started to earn my living at a day job.

No, I tell myself as I pour my pre-dinner cocktail, there’s nothing special about the advent of the New Year that would compel me to be a better person. If I wouldn’t change my self-indulgent ways in July, why would I do it in January? No, no, no. There isn’t one good reason other than symbolism and the fact that I’m a little bloated from all the holiday baking (not to mention from the cabbage soup you’ve read about in my Christmas Eve posts). My on-again, off-again vegetarianism is not so much resolution as whim: I’m just not feeling meat right at the moment.

I’m looking for something substantive, yet light and healthy. If the kids will eat it, too, I get extra virtue points.

This recipe has been adapted from The Classic Italian Cook Book. Sadly, Marcella Hazan’s book–which is falling apart from use but still holds premium real estate in my cookbook library–is out of print. It has been reissued, with her second book, More Classic Italian Cooking, in a volume entitled Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It is worth reading for the perfect techniques, and especially for Marcella’s stern, yet warm, instructions on how to cook her way, i.e., the right way. She never lacked resolution.

Minestrone soup
Adapted from Marcella Hazen’s Classic Italian Cooking

2 tbsps. olive oil
3 medium leeks, white and light green parts, sliced crosswise and rinsed well
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
2 cups peeled, diced potatoes
2 cups broccoli florets
2 cups diced zucchini
1 cup diced green beans
3 cups shredded cabbage or kale
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen green peas
1 1/2 cups cannellini beans (optional)
6 cups stock or water
The crust from a 1-lb. piece of Parmesan cheese*
2 bay leaves
2/3 cup canned tomatoes, with their juice
The Secret Ingredient**, ¼ teaspoon or to taste
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

This is a prep-as-you-go recipe. You start by washing and slicing  the leeks (and then washing them again; they can be very sandy). In a deep stockpot large enough to hold all the ingredients, heat the oil and add the leeks. Cook on medium-low heat until the leek starts to soften. Meanwhile, peel and dice the carrots. Add them to the pot and cook for two or three minutes, stirring occasionally. This gives you enough time to wash and dice the celery. And so on; you get the idea.  Repeat this procedure with the potatoes, zucchini, and green beans. Add the cabbage and cook for about 6 minutes, giving the pot an occasional stir. At this point the vegetables are basically stewing in their own juices, which will not evaporate too much if you use a deep stockpot.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.

Add the cheese crust, tomatoes and juice, the water or stock, bay leaves, and a little salt. Cover and cook at a low simmer for about three hours. Fifteen minutes before the soup is done, add the peas. Add more water or stock, if desired.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese on top.

*I always have a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese in the fridge to grate over pasta, or for Crocque Monsieur sandwiches, or just to eat with some olives or prosciutto. If you hang on to the rind, you will find that it adds flavor and body to tomato sauces or soups, like this. Throw it in at the start of cooking and fish  it out when you are ready to serve. Waste not, want not, people.

**Rooster brand, please. My Secret Ingredient. I strongly doubt that Marcella would approve.

New Year’s Day Tourtière: Grandma Rose’s Pork Pie

Tourtière, or French-Canadian pork pie, is another of those iconic family recipes that has been handed down for generations. My great-grandmother used to sell them at the bowling alley the family owned on Market Street in Warren, RI. It was a specialty of my grandmother Rose Dallaire Fortier, and she always served it for New Year’s Day dinner. My 81-year-old father was delighted when I brought a freshly-baked pie over this afternoon.

There are many recipes for tourtiere, some including beef, veal, and/or pork, but of course the best is always the one you grew up with. Apparently, the pork-only version is native to Montréal. Grandma Rose’s family was from the area around Québec City, just across the St. Lawrence River. Many years ago (she died in 1995 at the age of 95), I spent a day with Grandma Rose to learn the secret of her tourtière.

The most important thing to remember is to forget about buying commercial ground pork from the market. They throw whatever odds and ends of pork in there, and for this, you need to choose a fresh pork butt and ask the butcher to bone, skin, and grind the meat to order. A pork butt yields about 4 pounds of ground meat, which is enough for two large pies. You cook the ground meat gently with the onions and spices for 2 hours. Rather than including chopped celery, which has a strong flavor, Grandma would just take the inner stalks with leaves and lay them over the top of the simmering meat. She did not add garlic, but I added one lightly smashed clove and fished it out with the celery when I was done cooking.

Various recipes for tourtière will suggest that you bind the meat broth with potatoes, breadcrumbs, oatmeal, or saltine crackers. Grandma always used Nabisco Crown Pilot crackers, which were designed to be served atop chowder. When Nabisco discontinued them in 1996, the citizens of Maine staged a protest and the company continued to manufacture them until 2008 when they were again taken off the market due to dwindling demand. Check out this article: The Crown Pilot Cracker Escapade, from The Working Waterfront. Anyway, I used a Ritz-type cracker. It works fine.

Grandma served her pork pies with ketchup on the side, and this condiment appears to be traditional. She also offered a “relish tray” with celery sticks, pickles, and olives, on the table. Frankly, it’s a pretty hearty dish, and you probably can’t eat much else besides a salad or some crudités.

Grandma Rose’s Tourtière (recipe makes filling for one pie)

2 pounds lean ground pork
1/2 cup water
4 medium onions, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 clove garlic, lightly smashed with the flat of a knife
The center stalks of celery with leaves
1/3 cup cracker crumbs (Ritz-type)

Combine the first 8 ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Lay the celery on top of the meat and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, for about 2 hours. When the meat is cooked, there should be a small amount of liquid covering the meat. If you find that there is too much, you can skim some of this fat off the top. Combine the cracker crumbs with a little of the liquid from the pot, mix together, and add to the meat. Cool the meat mixture.

–♥–

While the meat is cooling, make the piecrust. (Not Grandma Rose’s technique; this comes from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.)

Flaky piecrust (makes enough dough for a two-crust 9-inch pie)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, each cut into 16 pieces
6 tablespoons ice water, plus more if necessary

Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade tool. Pulse once or twice just to mix. Add the butter and process until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal, about 10-12 seconds.

Put the flour and butter mixture into a bowl and add the ice water. Mix gently with your fingers until you can form the dough into a ball, adding a little more ice water if necessary. Form the dough into two balls, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Sprinkle a clean tabletop with flour, put one of the dough balls on it, and sprinkle the top with flour. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough (always working from the center out). Roll and turn the dough to form a circular shape, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the table or rolling pin.

When the diameter of the dough is about two inches larger than the diameter of the pie plate, transfer the dough to the plate, by folding it in quarters and unfolding in the plate. Press the dough firmly into the plate. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Pour the meat mixture evenly into the pie shell and cover with the top crust. Cut off any excess dough with a knife or kitchen shears. Crimp the edges together with your fingers. Prick all over the top of the pie with the tines of a fork and brush the top with milk.

Put the pie on a cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven 45 to 50 minutes, or until the top of the pie is golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.

The austerity plan: Lentil Soup

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After all of the rich foods, libations, and sweets of the last few weeks, something simple, almost austere, seems in order for the week between Christmas and the New Year. Soup is my favorite meal and an excellent way to recover from holiday excesses of all types. If you spent a little too much remembering your loved ones with gifts, you can also comfort yourself with the thought that lentil soup is cheap!

A pound of organic lentils cost $2.49;  a little onion, garlic, celery, and carrot made the base; I used up some leftover tomatoes and ham (waste not, want not!) for flavor. You could just as easily omit the ham for a vegetarian–and more virtuous–version.

Lentil Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, with leaves, diced
2 large cloves garlic, lightly smashed with the flat of a knife
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces green lentils
1 cup ham, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (optional)
1 cup canned tomatoes
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
Secret ingredient: Sriracha hot sauce, to taste (optional)

Heat olive oil on medium-high heat in a medium soup pot. Add onions, carrots, celery, and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add the cumin and pepper, and stir. Add the lentils, and saute for 2 minutes. Add the ham, tomatoes, and stock. Simmer for 45 minutes, until lentils are tender. Add Sriracha to taste.

Serves 4. Some fresh bread or a simple salad are all you need to accompany this soup.