Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Candied orange peel (with chocolate)

Thanksgiving is over. The turkey's been roasted and eaten (or perhaps you tried a duck?), the festive harvest plates have been washed and put away for another year. And now everything in America is telling us it's time for the winter holidays: the pharmacies selling mechanical Santas, the radios playing nothing but Elvis, the twinkle lights and pine garlands draping storefronts.

It's all going a little too fast for me. How is it the holiday season already? We just got into fall! (It doesn't help that my school is rehearsing and producing a play in the three weeks before winter break. December's going to go like lightning.)

I like to move slowly into winter, preferably with something delicious to ease the transition. There's hot chocolate, of course, and mulled wine (more on that soon). But lately I've been craving something tangy, a treat with zip.

This candied orange peel fits the bill. I first learned how to make it a few years ago when my mom decided to bake stollen, a traditional German holiday bread studded with dried and candied fruit. Her grandmother (intimidatingly nicknamed "TuTu") used to bake stollen every winter, and my mom decided that she was ready to take on the baking challenge. So we spent a long, cozy morning cutting up oranges and simmering the peel in a thick syrup, then chopping those candied peels to mix into the bread. It was one of those lovely surprises of the holiday season, when you learn that your parents have these hidden traditions they never told you about.

Personally, I prefer the candied orange peel just as it is, maybe with a bit of chocolate to really make it decadent. The French call these chocolate-dipped gems orangettes, and you can learn more about them from Molly Wizenberg's blog of the same name. They're shockingly easy to make. And they're just the thing to wake up your senses as you settle into a long, cold winter.

Candied Orange Peel (Orange Sticks)
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

1 orange, scrubbed
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar, divided
1/4 cup hot water
optional: 1/4 - 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

To make the orange peel:
Score the orange lengthwise into four sections. Carefully remove the peel from the orange, making sure to keep each section in one piece. You should have four sections of peel. Carefully cut each section into narrow  slices, about 1/4 inch wide.

Place the slices in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then drain off the water. Repeat process four more times. This will blanch the bitterness from the orange peel.

Set aside the orange peel. In the same saucepan, mix 1/2 cup of sugar and the hot water and cook over low heat, stirring often, until sugar is dissolved. Place the blanched orange peel back in the pan with the simple syrup and stir to coat. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until the syrup is mostly evaporated, about 20 minutes.

Remove the orange peel from the saucepan and drain off the excess syrup (or pour it into your tea, as I did). Sprinkle the remaining tbsp of sugar over a flat surface and carefully roll the orange slices in the sugar, using tongs or a spoon, until coated. Place on a wire rack to cool.

For chocolate dip:
Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler over medium-low heat. When the chocolate is just melted, dip the ends of the orange peel in the chocolate. Let cool on a piece of wax paper. 1/4 cup of chocolate chips will be sufficient for about half the slices.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The "First" Thanksgiving (III)

Last week we looked at some of the myths surrounding the original Thanksgiving. We've explored how the Pilgrims were not, in fact, Pilgrims, and how the First Thanksgiving wasn't the homey, pastoral scene we're taught in school. Today we'll look at the final piece of the puzzle: the idea that the Native Americans and the English colonists got along splendidly.

The Myth of Anglo-Native Cooperation

In 1621, the English colonists wanted to give thanks for surviving a terrible First Winter in the New World. Governor William Bradford ordered his men to hunt some wildfowl to cook at the feast. Massasoit, one of the sachems (leaders) of the local Wampanoag tribe, heard about the feast and brought a tribute of five deer to present to the governor. This was a sign that the Wampanoag respected the governor, and, by extension, the colonists he governed. Then Massasoit and many of his tribe members joined the English in their feasting, which lasted for 3 days.

Sounds perfectly cordial and lovely, right? Unfortunately, this feast was probably more like a wary meeting than a jolly mixer between ethnic groups. It was probably difficult for the colonists and Natives to communicate with each other, and the colonists were famously nervous about Native American dress, behavior, and habits. Even their methods of cooking food were different.

Similarly, the Wampanoag were probably suspicious of the colonists. In their first few months in the New World, the English hadn't treated the Wampanoag very well: members of their colony had "borrowed" corn and stolen personal items from the Natives. So this meeting between Massasoit and Governor Bradford may have been an attempt towards cordial relations between the two groups.

That's not to say that all interactions between the Natives and the colonists were negative. Earlier that spring, the Wampanoag had helped the English plant corn. This is where Squanto, the one Native we do learn about in elementary school, comes in. He taught the English how to deal with American soil and how to fertilize the corn, as well as what plants would grow well with it. After a long, harsh winter, the English were most likely relieved to have a friendly guide to this new land.

In the end, this 1621 Thanksgiving did not create peaceful relations between the colonists and the Wampanoag. It did not lead to annual feasts between the two groups--we've already seen that the colonists didn't approve of annual holidays. What's more, things steadily deteriorated between Natives and colonists until 1675, when King Philip's War broke out. After a bloody, vicious war, the English soundly defeated the Wampanoag forces and enslaved many of their women and children. The colonists then became the undisputed rulers of the Massachusetts Bay region.

The early conflicts between Natives and colonists were some of my favorite topics when I taught US History. They're a sobering example of how two groups were absolutely unable to understand each other, and therefore declared war on each other. It's heartbreaking to study the true history of the early colonies, because there are so many other stories like this one.

And though the Natives and the colonists were ultimately unable to cooperate with each other, their foodways still influenced each other. Colonial cooking bears the marks of Squanto's early efforts. Whenever colonial recipes call for cornmeal, they call it "indian meal," probably because they associated corn with the Natives who taught them how to grow it. So this pudding is a mixture of Old World and New, of English pudding and Native ingredients.

our full historical Thanksgiving feast (pudding in the foreground)

Indian Pudding
(slightly adapted from Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie)

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 cups milk
1 large egg
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Grease a medium ovenproof dish.

Whisk together the cornmeal and water in a small bowl until smooth. Scald 1 1/2 cups of the milk in a medium saucepan (heat until bubbles form on the surface) and whisk in the cornmeal mixture. Boil for 15 minutes until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat.

Beat the egg in a small bowl, and add several spoonfuls of the cornmeal mixture to the egg until it's smooth. Stir the egg mixture back into the saucepan. Add the sugar, molasses, butter, salt, and spices. Pour into the prepared dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and pour the remaining 1/2 cup of milk over the top. Don't stir it; just let it cover the top of the pudding. Bake for 2 more hours, until the pudding is set. Serve warm.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The "First" Thanksgiving (II)

This week and next, I'm exploring some of the myths about the First Thanksgiving. We've discussed how the Pilgrims were not, in fact, Pilgrims (they had much fancier terms for themselves back in 1621). We've looked at a bizarre recipe for sour stewed pumpkin. Today let's talk about the biggest myth of all: the story of Thanksgiving itself.

We like to think of the original Thanksgiving as a homey, elaborate feast out on the grounds of the new Plymouth colony. There are colonists and Native Americans dining together at long wooden tables, and little English children playing games with the Native children in the woods. The tables are groaning with pies, mashed potatoes, and roast turkeys. And at some point during the feast, the colonists thank God for their good fortune and count their blessings.

But that's not how it really went.

The Myth of Thanksgiving

Having survived a dreadful first winter, the English focused on building their village and planting crops. By the fall of 1621, they had a decent harvest of corn and other crops. It was an English tradition to celebrate the harvest with a big feast, so the English colonists probably decided to hold a similar, secular feast. Governor William Bradford decided to mark the successful harvest with three days of feasting somewhere between September and November of 1621. He sent some men out to hunt "wildfowl," or geese and ducks. Massasoit, a sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag, brought 90 of his men and other members of his tribe to join in the feasting at Plymouth, which lasted for three days.

However, this didn't become an annual event for the colonists. Remember, the Separatists didn't believe in traditional holidays. They did believe in the concept of "thanksgiving," a day where they thanked God for sparing them from some specific, dreadful fate, like a flood or a drought. They celebrated by reciting psalms, praying, and listening to sermons. There was probably food involved, but no special emphasis on feasting. So there were probably few Christian undertones to the harvest feast that took place in 1621.

The first religious "thanksgiving" to mark God's favor didn't occur until 1623, when the Separatists thanked God for ending a drought. But there was no feast mentioned in this account.

The original 1621 feast had a stronger spiritual undertone to the Wampanoag, who believed in thanking the Creator for food and good fortune throughout the year. The time between September 21 and November 9 was known as Keepunumuk, or the Wampanoag harvest time. So interestingly, "Thanksgiving" as we think of it today may have had its annual roots in Wampanoag tradition.

But it took some time for Thanksgiving to actually become a formal holiday for Anglo-Americans. It wasn't until the late 18th century that it had become an annual holiday, celebrated regionally. And not until 1863 did Thanksgiving become a national holiday, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. Though well-intentioned, poor Mrs. Hale based her campaign on the erroneous assumption that the 1621 harvest feast was the "First Thanksgiving."

So at the heart of one of America's favorite holidays is a giant misconception.

Similarly, no one's certain that the colonists ate roast turkey at the 1621 feast. Yes, they ate "wildfowl," but that meant geese and ducks in the lingo of the day. There were turkeys in the Wampanoag lands at the time, so most historians think it's okay to include turkey in a recreated 1621 meal.

But I'm stubborn, so I cooked the fowl more likely to be at the feast: duck. I'd made duck only once before, and it had come out dry and tough, so I was hesitant. But this recipe, which involves boiling the duck in water before finishing it off in the oven, makes for a tender, juicy meat, mildly flavored with pepper and onion. The red wine sauce adds a sweet note to the rich taste of the duck. If you've never cooked duck before, this is so the recipe to start with.

Roast Duck with Cranberries and Wine
(slightly adapted from Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie)

For the duck:

1 4- or 5-pound duck
2 1/2 tsp salt
10 black peppercorns
1 onion, quartered
1/2 cup parsley leaves and stems, roughly chopped
2 onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

For the sauce:
2 cups red wine
1/3 cup parsley leaves, chopped
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 cup raisins, chopped
1/2 tsp ground mace
1/4 cup cranberries, chopped
1 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter, divided

Rinse the duck and remove any giblets and/or the neck from the inner cavity. Place the duck in a large pot (6-8 quarts) along with 2 tsp of the salt, peppercorns, quartered onion, and parsley. Pour in enough cold water to cover and bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover and simmer the duck for 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Place the sliced onions in a roasting pan and remove the duck from the pot. Reserve the broth.* Sprinkle remaining 1/2 tsp of salt and the ground pepper over the duck and place it on top of the onions in the roasting pan. Roast at 400 F for 25 - 30 minutes, until clear juices run out from the duck when pricked with a knife.

Place 1 cup of the broth in a saucepan, along with the wine, parsley, ginger, raisins, mace, and sugar. Boil over medium-high heat until reduced to a syrupy mixture, about 20 minutes. When sauce is ready, stir in the cranberries. Add the butter one tbsp at a time. Serve the duck with the sauce at the table.

*Department of Not Wasting Food: You can reduce the remaining broth and freeze it as a stock to use later.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The "First" Thanksgiving (I)

With Thanksgiving little more than a week away, I've had cooking on the brain. No wonder--it's the only national holiday entirely devoted to food (plus, well, giving thanks). Is there anything more wonderful? I decided to honor the holiday by investigating its historic roots.

(And, as you know, I can't leave well enough alone.)

The results were fascinating. There are so many myths built up around this holiday that when you strip it down to its historical truth, there isn't much that's recognizable. We might as well call it The Thanksgiving that Wasn't. This week I'll be examining some of the bigger myths, along with recipes I used to cook a historical Thanksgiving for me and Josh (brave man).

The Myth of the Pilgrims

The English colonists who settled on Massachusetts Bay in 1620, the ones who famously landed the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock, weren't Pilgrims. They didn't call themselves Pilgrims at all. Instead they thought of themselves in two separate groups: Separatists, the religious ones who just wanted to worship freely, and "Strangers," the secular ones who wanted a fresh start in the New World. What's more, the Separatists wanted to be so separate from the English church that they refused to celebrate traditional holidays. So they began building Plymouth, their first village, on Christmas Day.

That First Winter in the New World was so awful that half of the original Mayflower passengers died. (There's an excellent portrayal of the harsh New World winters in Terrence Malick's The New World, which is about Virginia.) In the spring, the Native Wampanoag took pity on them and helped them plant corn. Squanto, a Native who'd been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain before making his way back to the New World, had learned English during his captivity and helped the colonists communicate with the Wampanoag. With the help of the local tribes, the colonists planted native crops like corn, squash, and pumpkins (called "pompions" back then), as well as English crops they'd brought with them.

Not surprisingly, most of the native crops fared much better than the English crops.

The colonists were actually intimately familiar with pumpkins; the vegetable had been introduced to Europe following the Columbian Exchange. They were sort of obsessed with pumpkins. They even wrote songs about how dependable pumpkins were. I am 100% serious. Stewed pumpkin was a staple in England, and the English just kept on cooking it in colonial New England.

Therefore, stewed pumpkin was definitely served at the 1621 harvest feast, and I replicated a traditional recipe for our own dinner. This version is sort of cheating because you use canned pumpkin rather than stewing a pumpkin over a fire all day, but you get the same effect. However, the strangest thing about this recipe is its liberal use of apple cider vinegar, which lends the pumpkin a sour sort of flavor. Josh and I were not at all sure about this. But you'll have to tell me what you think.

Stewed Pumpkin
(adapted from Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie)

2 cups canned pumpkin
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt

Heat all ingredients in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring to incorporate. Cook until the pumpkin is heated through, about 5-7 minutes.

Works Cited: Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James W. Baker.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Luisa Weiss' My Berlin Kitchen

You know how there are books that grab you from the first page? You think to yourself, This is me. I see myself in this story. This was my experience with Luisa Weiss' memoir My Berlin Kitchen. I was so enthralled that I actually read the book as slowly as possible rather than zipping through it, in hopes of soaking up every word and turn of phrase.

Weiss is the creator of the popular Wednesday Chef blog, and in this memoir she recalls growing up in Boston and Berlin, splitting time between her divorced parents. Her childhood gave her a perpetual sense of homesickness, and as she learned her way around a kitchen, she began cooking as a way to reconnect with the people and places she loved. She writes simply and beautifully about trying to find her way in the world after college: her difficulties living in Paris, settling down to a publishing job and a fiance in New York, only to realize that she really wanted to be back in Berlin, where her life began. With incredible courage she said goodbye to her fiance and returned to Berlin. There she rekindled a relationship with Max, a former love who truly understood how torn she was between cultures.

My Berlin Kitchen tells a sweet and heartfelt love story, but at its core it's about belonging and how food can help create a sense of place. I recognized Weiss's decision to make Depression Stew when she felt so alone in Paris, a sort of home remedy against loneliness. I smiled at her dilemma over what to make for breakfast--cereal, pastries, or open-faced sandwiches? (Though my dilemma is not brought on by a jet-setting childhood, merely the inability to choose between so many delicious options.) And when she bought a goose for her first full German Christmas, I cheered along with her when she roasted a perfect bird.

Sometimes I feel torn between my Ohio hometown and my adopted home on the East Coast, and I've spent plenty of time working out strategies to prevent homesickness in one city or the other. My first year out of college, spent in New York City, was particularly brutal. But like Luisa Weiss, I found that cooking actually helped assuage some of that loneliness. For me it was less about recreating the tastes of home and more about keeping myself company; I could put on a DVD and cook an elaborate dinner, just for fun. Since I've started this blog, though, I've been discovering the ties between family and food. Baking a pie will remind me of my dad's stories about exploding pumpkins, or frying fish will make me think of my grandmother's careful instruction on gutting fish. Making something delicious in the kitchen can bring you closer to the people you love.

I had the great pleasure to see Luisa Weiss in person when she did a book signing in Boston, and she's just as charming and genuine as her writing. If you have a chance to pick up her memoir, do. It's one of the best books I've read all year.

(Plus, she learned how to cook by working her way through The "Settlement" Cook Book, and she grew up reading Little House on the Prairie! It's kismet.)