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Posts Tagged ‘baklava’

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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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Very Big Fat Greek Wedding. And they had two twirling around. One might have been a goat. Hard to tell for sure at this stage.

I park my car in the school lot and jump into a van with an 8 1/2 x 11 paper Greek flag on the dashboard. And I’m the sole passenger, which means I can ask the driver lots of questions about the Greek festival at his church without irritating everyone in the backseat, not that that would have stopped me.

I don’t know from Greek food. Well, I mean I know Greeks love their lemon and thyme and mint, and their lamb and seafood. But I haven’t eaten a lot of Greek food. Baklava, I guess. Feta cheese. The very nice guy said there would be plenty to eat, and that it was all cooked by the parishioners. That last bit was the magic part. When you see a church festival flyer on the hair salon window downtown and they promise great food, you really hope they don’t have it catered. Even if the caterers were good—even if they were spectacular—I would much, much rather have someone’s Ya-Ya make the moussaka. And Greek food aside, this ideology has never gotten me disappointed. When regular people who care about heritage cook, it’s the real bloody deal. It’s authentic flavors and quality and experience. And it’s getting more and more rare these days, so I run toward it whenever I find it. A Greek Orthodox Church festival? Sold.

We pull in and I hop out. I pay the 2 bucks to get in, and a chipper woman hands me a program, raffle card and an ‘Opa*!’ sticker to wear. I read that the church property was designed to emulate a Greek village, with a courtyard and outlying buildings, and the church at its center. Pure white tents are scattered here and there, and underneath are dozens of parishioners in equally pure white slacks and blue polos, manning grills and cash registers. I take a lap to get the lay of the land, food-wise, and settle on a souvlaki. It’s served by a young guy who sees my eyes pop out when it arrives (it’s massive) and assures me, ‘It’s good for you! That’s why Greeks live so long.’ I do like a guy who doesn’t see a meal fit for three Marines who skipped breakfast. He sees it as healthy.

The woman who rings me up says all of the parishioners working under the tents know each other from the parish, but many have never worked together before, and they are making it up as they go. Everyone is calm and friendly. The sense of community—that everyone has something to contribute and that they are a team—sort of spills out of the tent to us goyim**. It feels peaceful.

I intend to eat half of the souvlaki and take half home, but decide to go with efficiency. After all, it’s a warm day. I should let it go bad on the 10-minute drive home? Shameful!

And yum.

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Lettuce, tomato, raw onion, tzatziki (yogurt dressing) and a little bit of sizzling pork peeking up out of a big, chewy, warm pita.

Next I go under one of the pastry tents (there were two) stacked high with something like eight kinds of pastries and half a dozen assorted Ya-Yas behind them.

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Greek pastries are purportedly legend. I wanted something way out of my format of biscotti and sponge cake, and choose galaktobouriko. Never heard of it, let alone tasted it, so bingo. The program describes it as ‘layered filo pastry filled with delicate custard and drenched with homemade syrup.’

I sit down with it and a plastic fork and promptly shovel half into my face before remembering that I should take a picture of it.

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It was prettier before. Had everything else going for it, though.

I taste very fresh sweet egg and milk (I was told ‘gala’ means ‘milk’ in Greek), and the syrup was caramel-like. It was almost nursery food in its perfection; like homemade vanilla pudding, it was simple, unimproveable goodness. And I save the rest for breakfast this morning. Don’t think I’m virtuous or anything. I went back to buy another kind of pastry.

Mid-shovel, the Ya-Ya who sold it to me walks by and says, ‘I see you’re enjoying your galaktobouriko***!’ I offered a helpful ‘Mmmllph,’ and she continued, ‘Be sure to get a lamb shank! Last year we sold out in an hour!’ Another thing to admire about the Greeks: apparently there’s nothing wrong with having your dessert first.

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Here’s how it looked. Mesmerizing, I could almost hear it falling off the bone, but didn’t go for it.

I tell the the lovely lady under the second pastry tent that I am a food writer and don’t have an awful lot of experience with Greek food. She says if I have any questions about the pastries to ask, and she would be happy to answer them. I liked how she pronounced ‘phyllo’ as ‘phylla.’

Chose karidopita, below, because it had such a resume to recommend it: ‘Honey-soaked walnut cake with a hint of Cognac.’ This the lady packed up for me in a bag with the first pastry. I nibbled a piece off the end with my fingers when I got home.

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Okay, so it was more than a nibble.

Karidopita tastes like crumbly gingerbread with a little happy boozy warmth underneath it. Awesomeness. Another breakfast contender.

Then I watched ‘Mamma Mia,’ which was shot on location in Greece. Honest.

*About.com translates this as ‘more than a word–a lifestyle.’ Feeling a little left out. All I had was the food.

**A little Yiddish never hurt anyone.

***I totally copied and pasted that from above. Stand by. I’m about to do it for the second pastry.

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Classic adage:

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.

-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, lawyer and epicure

Modern adage and same thing:

Walk me through your checkout line and I’ll tell you who you are.

-Elinor Lipman, novelist and presumably epicure

Some say the surest way to learn about past cultures is not by examining their history books, but by examining their cookbooks. Point well taken: The food on your great-grandparents’ table was a manifestation of their priorities, skills and resources. From planning it to growing, harvesting, cooking and serving it, their world and worldview were distilled down to a particular bread and soup. And it’s no different for us today. The food we choose to eat reflects who we are, how we live and what matters to us.

I’ve written before about my mom’s incredible banana bread above. I love it because my mom made it, because it’s said incredible, and because it’s a scratch recipe. That tells you I value 1) caring effort (especially when, in her case, the smell of raw bananas turns her stomach) 2) good food 3) integrity. I still make it today because all of those points matter to me. They are at the heart of who I am.

Think about what you eat and what it says about you. Maybe you have to have your cherry pie with whipped cream because that’s how it was always served at your aunt’s July 4th barbecue. You miss her, and eating cherry pie this way brings her close to you. Maybe you love fried conch. It’s your dream to live in Bermuda, and fried conch transports you to those pink beaches for a few moments. Or maybe you avoided your uncle’s killer yummy baklava until you were 30 because you knew it all but floated in a pound of melted butter and you were afraid you’d love it and bloat up to manatee levels. This shows you loved good food but you were body image conscious.*

Recently I met an Australian in his early 60s. I asked him what he grew up eating, and suddenly he lit up like a firefly, telling me about the fish he and his family caught—speared, actually!—when he was young. And although he had lived in the States for a very long while and had not eaten some of those varieties of fish in decades, he told me he could still remember how they tasted. His love of adventure, fresh food, his homeland, and his family came through with every word and gesture.

It’s a good rule of thumb, actually: Just met someone new and want to get to know him? Ask him what dinnertime was like at his house. Watch his expression and listen carefully to the words he chooses to describe it. His answer will reveal a lot about him, I promise you.

Let’s go one step further: I read about a food historian who could compile a family’s story—its heritage, its strengths and weaknesses, even its dirty laundry—with astonishing accuracy, simply by hearing what that family ate every Thanksgiving. Food and culture are hardwired.

That godawful string bean casserole with the onion topping makes it onto your Thanksgiving every year even though you hate it. You make it because your family loves it, and you love them. That says a lot about you, doesn’t it?

What dishes, flavors and ingredients are essential components of what make you, you?

***

project: you, me and the world: Reminder, everybody—the deadline for your recipes is June 27, 2013. I’m getting some fantastic stuff. Keep them coming 🙂

* My obscure references aren’t always about me!

/okay, fine, this one is too.

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