Sunday, September 22, 2013

Oven-dried grapes

I do some of my best work in the kitchen when I'm in the bedroom. Asleep. For hours. You should try it.

Here's what you do. First, get yourself some seedless grapes (probably best to do this during daylight hours). Just before you call it a night turn on the oven and set the temperature to 200 degrees F. Rinse the grapes, place them on a baking sheet and then toss them into the oven. 

Okay, now here's the tough part, so pay attention: GO TO SLEEP! 

When you get up in the morning one of life's great pleasures will await: not raisins, but dried grapes. Suitable to accompany a cheese plate, a charcuterie or salumi platter, or simply eaten as-is. 

Dried grapes have been a staple at my house for some time now. We've used all varieties and colors and every one of them has worked out great. Drying time does vary, depending on the grapes' size and moisture content, and so you may need to practice a little at first before doing the overnight shift. I'd suggest trying a batch on a day when somebody will be around the house to keep an eye on things. That way you can check on the grapes every hour or so and take them out of the oven when they're ready. 

And they're "ready" whenever you say they are. I really like it when the grapes still have a fair amount of moisture inside, but even approaching raisin territory can be okay. That's the great thing about this: Experimenting is almost as effortless as being unconscious.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The following hasn't a thing to do with food or other topics normally discussed in this space. Apologies to those seeking a recipe. (I was in a mood, okay!) Please check back next week.

Many nights before going to bed, often after a spoonful or two of Italian-manufactured Nutella, I take a good long slug of cold milk. Sometimes in a glass even.

I like the taste of milk and drink it a lot. Always have. My father drank it. It's supposed to be good for you. Calcium-rich milk, I was repeatedly told as a boy, helps to build strong bones. My mother taught me that.

And so you can imagine my surprise when, on the occasion of my 40th birthday, I received the highly disturbing if not life-changing news that my bones were not quite what I had thought. In fact, and because of their weakness, I had become less of a man than I was at 39.

I was shrinking. Already by a whole inch. A little more actually.

This discovery took place at around 7 p.m. While putting on a clean shirt for dinner, in a spare room that serves as my pigsty/dressing area, I noticed that all of the blue jeans strewn about the furniture and floor, four or five pair I'd estimate, were rolled slightly in the leg to create a cuff. I haven't deliberately worn cuffed blue jeans since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and even then I wasn't crazy about the look.

After several desperate attempts to measure my verticality, employing not one but four different instruments, the verdict was in: 5' 11". It was all I could do to rally myself and head out to the birthday dinner which had been planned by others weeks earlier and which this measuring exercise had already made me late to attend.

Two days later I went to see my doctor. I had moved to Maine about a year earlier and so he and I had only seen each other once or twice before.

"So, what's up?" the internist asked looking at a manilla folder which I assume contained my brief medical history under his care. "You look pretty good to me."

In the car driving over I had rehearsed various methods to explain my insistence on an immediate appointment — and refusal to describe the nature of my concern over the phone.

"I'm shrinking," I blurted out, a little shocked at how effortlessly I tossed out my prepared script.

This doctor, whose name is Bill, and who I took a liking to the first day we met, has what I would call a very respectable poker face. And he used it here well.

"You're shrinking," Bill said looking straight into my eyes. "Really, that's why you came in?"

"I'm down more than an inch. I've been a little over six feet since high school but now I'm only five eleven. So, yeah, that's why I'm here. I want to know what the hell is happening to me."

Bill glanced at the manilla folder, likely in order to buy time before choosing his words.

"How's everything else going with you?" he asked, raising his glance out from the folder and back toward me. "Anything else I should know about? Things okay at home, at work, all that?"

"You mean am I a mental patient? No, I'm not a mental patient. I'm a 40-year-old guy who's got a room full of jeans that don't fit anymore because his legs aren't as long as they were when he bought them, that's what I am.

"Nice try though."

Bill smiled, tossed the folder on his desk and, reluctantly I thought, commenced to measuring me.

"Five eleven," he said. "On the nose."

For the next several minutes we sparred over my height loss. Bill kept saying that he had no "baseline" to conclude there had been any loss, as there was no record of my height in his folder. I kept countering that I was his baseline because I know damn well how tall I am supposed to be; at one point I even handed him my driver's license.

"It says six feet there, doesn't it?" I barked. "There's your proof."

In the end it was a standoff. Bill told me that he wouldn't worry if it were him; I said that I wanted some kind of a test to figure out what was wrong.

"Nobody else I know who's my age is shrinking," I said. "This just plain isn't right."

A few days later I was at a medical facility getting a bone density test, the kind of test they give to old people to check for osteoporosis, and a couple days after that, in the evening actually, I got a phone call from Bill.

"Everything's normal so don't worry," he told me, sounding tired. "People do shrink as they get older, you know. Okay, so not always as young as you are, but what are you gonna do? You're tall enough. And healthy. So chill."

I was standing in my kitchen at the time, cooking dinner, sipping a glass of wine and looking at those dumb ass cuffs on my faded Lees.

"Easy for you to say, but now I've gotta go out and buy all new pants," I said. "And just so's you know, if I ever drop below five eleven we're gonna have a real problem with each other."

"I'll keep that in mind," Bill said laughing. "Have a good night, okay, Stumpy."

And just like the inch-plus of my vertical self he was gone.

That was several years ago now. I still measure out at 5' 11" but my driver's license, which has been renewed at least twice, still says 6' 0". I continue to drink a lot of milk, even though it hasn't done me much good. Bill is still my doctor, too, but we haven't talked about the whole shrinking thing in a really long time.

Loss just isn't an easy topic to discuss, I guess. Not even when you're only talking inches.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Joe's "Italian" hummus

My friends and I talk about food a lot. Probably too much, okay, you're right, but who are we hurting?

Just yesterday Joe and I were having a not altogether satisfying email exchange about the New York Metropolitans. (All exchanges regarding the lowly Mets are unsatisfying, by the way, and in no way reflect the conversational skills of those persons involved, in this case the always entertaining Joe B.) Anyhow, right after correcting my spelling of Cal Koonce (don't ask), my food-loving friend inserted the following line:

"Meanwhile, I have perfected a hummus recipe. You want? Only "Italian" angle I could find would be that I use Progresso ceci because they come in 19-ounce cans instead of normal 15-ounce cans..."

I should mention that Joe disapproves of my editorial position on this blog, i.e., focusing almost exclusively on Italian-inspired foods. "You don't only eat Italian," he barks at about every opening I allow him. "And you cook all kinds of food too, so why limit yourself? What sense does this make?"

Oddly, it is always in the middle of these conversations with Joe that I am called away on important matters; during yesterday's rant (sorry, conversation) I remembered that I had neglected to clean out the lint trap in the dryer after running a pair of wet socks through it that morning.

I briefly considered informing Joe that, though the Progresso brand has some Italian roots, it is in fact a subsidiary of General Mills and operates out of Vineland, New Jersey. But here is where my friend and I part ways in the social skills department: I kept my mouth shut and simply said that I would be happy to share his recipe with all of you, if only he would be so kind as to forward it to me.

Actually, I may have made a crack about throwing some Red Sauce on his precious hummus, and how that might get it to belong on this "Italo-centric" blog. 

Okay, so I did. 

But he started it!

Joe's "Italian" Hummus



1 can chickpeas (I prefer the 19-ounce Progresso version)
3 tablespoons of drained chickpea juices
1/4 cup tahini (I prefer the Roland brand in the white container)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic run through a garlic press or minced
2 tables EV olive oil
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper


1) Drain the chickpeas, retaining at least three tablespoons of the juice in which they are packed. Then rinse the chickpeas well.

2) In the bowl of a food processor, add the lemon juice and tahini. Process for about a minute. Scrape the sides and bottom of bowl and add one tablespoon of the reserved chickpea juices. Process for another minute. This step will ensure that your hummus will be smooth and that the tahini will be evenly distributed.

3) Add olive oil, garlic, salt, cumin and cayenne. Process for about 30 seconds. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add another tablespoon of the reserved chickpea juices and process for 30 seconds.

4) Add about half the drained and rinsed chickpeas. Process for a minute. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl. Add the other half of the chickpeas. Process for another 1-2 minutes.

5) Add another tablespoon of the reserved chickpea juices. Process until smooth and mixture is at your desired consistency.

Joe's note

I've tried dried and cooked chickpeas and canned chickpeas. Really can't tell the difference. I've also skinned the chickpeas, an annoying and time-consuming act. Can't tell the difference from when I haven't shelled them.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Roasted tomato sauce II

This summer has been all about the roasted tomato sauce. So far I have cooked and frozen around 20 quarts, and the season isn't over yet.

The whole roasting idea started for me back in the fall of 2011, when my friend Joe sent me his wife Joel's recipe for roasted green tomato sauce. My garden was inundated with unripe tomatoes that year and Joe was trying to help me to make use of them all.

Since then I have adapted Joel's basic method to roast all combinations of tomatoes, often fully ripe ones. Every batch is a little different, but all are rich in flavor and delicious. You can see by the picture above that I've been using mostly ripe tomatoes this year, but the beauty of roasting is that it doesn't really matter which ones you use. Any combination of tomatoes that you can get your hands on, at practically any time of year, will work. Best of all, roasting a large batch of fresh sauce at high heat is faster and easier than simmering on a stovetop.

This batch is a pretty big one (I had to use a giant 13.5-quart dutch oven to fit all the garden tomatoes I had on hand), and so you'll need to make adjustments to cooking times and ingredients depending on how much sauce you're actually making. But don't worry. Play around and experiment as much as you want, because it's really pretty hard to screw up a roasted sauce.

Just core the tops off all of your tomatoes.

Slice off the bottoms too.

Then cut the tomatoes into pieces like this. (I don't peel the skins, if you were wondering, nor do I clean out the seeds.)

In a dutch oven saute some chopped garlic, onion, carrots, celery, hot pepper if you like, plus plenty of fresh herbs. I used rosemary, oregano, thyme and marjoram for this batch. Don't be shy with the olive oil; the more of it the better as far as I'm concerned. Oh, and I'm not shy with the garlic either; there are around 10 cloves in here. (There are also four carrots, four celery stalks and a huge red onion, but as I said, play around and adjust at will.)

I've been making sauce both with and without different types of meats this summer. In this batch I added two pounds of ground pork after the vegetables and herbs had softened, then let the pork brown a bit before moving on to the next step. (You can use beef or veal instead of pork; or, for a plain tomato sauce, just skip the meat altogether.)

Next step is to add in the tomatoes, stir it all up, cover and toss into an oven that's been preheated to 450 degrees F.

At this point the amount of sauce you're making will determine the cooking time. This batch of tomatoes nearly filled my 13.5-quart dutch oven, and so I waited a full hour before removing the cover for the remaining time it took the sauce to cook.

About an hour and a half later (2 1/2 hours total cooking time) the sauce was done.

Once it had cooled I doled it out into sturdy plastic containers for freezing.

As I said, I'm at 20 frozen quarts and counting at the moment, and I'm betting that I'll wind up with a dozen more. Which is to say that, should you find yourself in my nabe at any point during the coming Maine winter, give a knock on the door. Who knows, I may be in a generous mood.

Just bring along something red of your own to go with. If you catch my drift.