GLUTEN-FREE COOKIES

I love a homemade cookie.  So, I assume everyone else does, as well.  How can one resist that tempting texture and flavor combination that it seems only a homemade cookie can provide? 

There are several people in my life who are unable to eat anything with gluten. 

This makes cookie baking a bit challenging. I decided to try baking three different types of cookies that would be gluten free to give as Christmas presents to these loved ones. 

It turned out to be so much easier and more satisfying than I had anticipated. 

First, I chose a flourless cookie, a peanut butter and chocolate sandwich cookie recipe I found in the December 2007 Fine Cooking magazine. It reminded me of the famous peanut butter cookie with the Hershey Kiss in the middle, a classic holiday cookie that brings warm memories of childhood celebrations. 

It was easy to prepare and delicious. 

Next, I chose a Ghirardelli Ultimate Double Chocolate Cookie recipe that called for only 1/3 cup flour. I’d made this cookie before using wheat flour and can vouch for its delightful chocolate flavor and chewy texture.  Instead of the wheat flour, I substituted a gluten-free flour consisting of a combination of white and brown rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca flour that I purchased at Anello’s Gluten Free Cafe in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The gracious owner gave me the needed xanthum gum product that “binds” the flour ingredients. You can buy off-the-shelf products in most grocery stores that have similar mixtures, but I love this shop and make local purchases as often as possible. (After the holidays, I went to Portsmouth and found that Anello’s had closed. I hope it is going somewhere else and not folding.) 

Using the same gluten-free flour, I went out on a limb and prepared a slice and bake shortbread type cookie that called for 3 1/3 cups of flour.  This recipe was found in the same December 2007 Fine Cooking magazine, and I added the ginger and cinnamon it suggested as a flavor variation. 

I packaged the cookies for a family of five, four of whom have Celiac’s Disease and must not eat wheat flour. They have a traditional family party on Christmas Eve Day with several extended family members. 

I received a text message in the midst of their party, “My family is LOVING your cookies!”

Merry Christmas to me!!

HAPPY NEW YEAR AND A FEW RESOLUTIONS

The holidays are over. I made more chocolate chip cookies than it’s even decent to consider, plenty of peanut butter balls, and lemon-frosted shortbread as well as tourtière pies and potato cheese soup. Clif made—not once, but twice—some of his wonderful waffles. Then there were the home fries and French toast. Our daughter Shannon, who is really getting into the cooking spirit, made us some treats from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. These included roasted chickpeas and pistachios (oh my, they are good!); stuffed mushrooms; an olive tapenade; and a chickpea soup with tahini and cumin. Well done, Shannon! Give this young woman a gold star, says her proud mother. 

A few short years ago, Shannon’s claim to culinary fame was limited to scrambled eggs. Now, there is nothing wrong with scrambled eggs. I like them, too, but they can get a bit tedious if served every night for dinner or supper or whatever you want to call it. But things can change, and so it has with Shannon. She’s gone from being an indifferent cook to someone who fervently hoped that Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything would be waiting for her under the Christmas tree. (It was, courtesy of her sister, Dee.) 

This ability to change, in turn, brings me to New Year’s resolutions. Some people dismiss them as unrealistic, nagging goals that can never be attained and whose only purpose seems to be to induce guilt. Certainly, resolutions can have this effect. But taken in the right spirit, New Year’s resolutions also can be seen as guidelines that encourage us to grow and to become more creative, more mindful. And here’s the good thing about resolutions: whatever progress we make is more than we would have made if we had done nothing. If we fall short—which, being human, we probably will—then there is always next year. 

So in the creative, mindful sense, here are my New Year’s resolutions: 

Buy more in bulk
This can be tricky when there are usually only two people to feed, the way it is in our household. However, nuts, beans, rice, popcorn, oatmeal, and spices are much more affordable when bought in bulk. In fact, so much so that it is often possible to buy organic, even with a frugal food budget. With careful planning and organization, a small family can take advantage of bulk prices. Unfortunately, because I am right-brained and rather disorganized, this one will be a real challenge for me. But this year I am determined to buy more in bulk, use what I buy, and thus save money. 

Cook even more from scratch
Yes, I know. I cook a lot from scratch, probably more than many people do. However, I still have some weak spots, so to speak. The most glaring one is salad dressing. With all the meals I make, you might think that salad dressing would be a snap, but for some reason it isn’t. Somehow, I always turn to the bottled ones, which are loaded with ingredients that can hardly be pronounced and are certainly not good for you. Crackers are another weak spot. Mark Bittman has assured readers that crackers are a cinch to make. Not only that, but they taste better, are healthier, and are much less expensive than boxed crackers. Plus, they keep a long time. Crackers and salad dressings, I will master you in 2010.

Used dried beans rather than canned ones
This corresponds to my buying in bulk resolution. Canned beans have many advantages. They are quick, and they don’t have to be soaked. They can be a last-minute choice, say, when you are really craving black bean burritos. But compared with dried beans, the canned ones are very expensive, and I am a cook with a modest budget. 

Eat less meat
While my husband and I don’t want to become vegetarians, we both want to reduce our meat consumption. The junk that is fed to commercially-raised cows, pigs, and chickens is the stuff of horror stories, and if people really dwelled on this, meat consumption in the United States would plummet. (For graphic descriptions about how our meat is raised read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watch the documentary Food, Inc.) There are, of course, healthier ways to raise animals for meat, but this meat is much more expensive, and, as I have mentioned previously, we have a modest food budget. Finally, there is the environmental impact—-the resources and the land that go into producing meat are far greater than they are for growing vegetables. When you consider that Earth’s population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, this is no small matter. How are all the people on the planet going to eat? By a happy coincidence, Mark Bittman, in his New York Times blog Bitten (http://bitten.blogs.nytimes.com/?ref=dining), has recently written about ways to fix lentils, and there’s a recipe for curried lentils with cashews that I’ll soon be making.

Waste Less Food
We all do it. No matter how conscientious we are, food gets shoved to the back of the refrigerator. By the time we come across it, this food has turned an alarming shade of green and has such a horrific odor that it nearly makes us pass out when we open the container. This year, I resolve to have more diligence when it comes to leftovers. Throwing them away is just like throwing money into the trashcan. Then, there is this to consider: According to a recent article in the New York Times, “One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children.” In this light, throwing away food seems, well, worse than wasteful.

The quest for true spaghetti carbonara in Maine
I added this somewhat lighthearted one because I didn’t want readers to think it was all resolve and no play for A Good Eater. I love spaghetti carbonara the way my husband, Clif, loves turkey—with a zeal that goes beyond human reasoning. I could eat it once a week, maybe even twice. But here’s the thing. What most restaurants in Maine call spaghetti carbonara is, in fact, spaghetti Alfredo. Instead of being an egg-based sauce, it is made with cream. Now, there is nothing wrong with Alfredo, and I like it very well. But Alfredo is not carbonara, which should consist of eggs, garlic, some kind of cured pork, black pepper, and grated cheese. (I’ll be writing more about carbonara later.) So, do any restaurants in Maine serve true carbonara?  In the course of the year, I’ll be going to Italian restaurants in Maine. I’ll order the spaghetti carbonara and then determine whether it’s true carbonara or usurped carbonara. I’ll be sure to keep readers posted.

A TOURTIÈRE CHRISTMAS

This time of year in Maine, when you go into a grocery store and see people looking at the ground pork, it can only mean one thing—tourtière, the meat pie so beloved by Franco-Americans. The English have turkey or goose for Christmas. We Francos have our tourtière, and the holidays just wouldn’t seem right without them. Because Francos are a gregarious bunch, unlike the more taciturn Yankees, it is very easy to strike up a tourtière conversation with complete strangers in the grocery store. This I have done, and in each conversation, we have all marveled at the tourtière variations—all pork, ground pork mixed with ground beef, ham, potatoes, no potatoes, and for those who yearn for that 1960s touch, potato flakes. There are lots of variations, and some of them are better than others. However, I think a comment from the website Chowhound got it exactly right. That is, the best tourtière pie is the one your mother made. 

This past October, I wrote a fairly long post about tourtière—its history and my unsuccessful attempt to make a healthy tourtière. Interested readers should go to my “A Tale of Two Tourtières,” posted October 8th, 2009. 

I do want to add a little about the pronunciation. Franco-Americans who settled in central Maine call it “toochay” pie. However, the correct pronunciation is “tor-tē-yā,” and the first time I heard it said that way, I had no idea what the word meant. I have also read that in some parts of New England it is pronounced “tout-care.” 

However it is pronounced, tourtière can be made ahead and frozen (unbaked), which is a real blessing this time of year, and right now there are three tourtières in my freezer—two for Christmas Day and one for a gift. However, there is still time to make a tourtière or two, and below is the recipe my mother and I developed over the years. 

Joyeux Noël and bon appétit! 

Rochelle’s Tourtière Pie 

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried sage
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 cup water
1 cup plain mashed potatoes, with no butter and no milk

Pastry for a 2-crust 9-inch pie 

In a saucepan combine beef, pork, seasonings, onion, and water. Cover and simmer for one-and-a-half to two hours. Uncover and cook ten minutes. The mixture should be moist but not runny, and if it isn’t, then drain the excess liquid. Add the mashed potatoes.

Heat oven to 425° F. Put meat mixture in crust and then bake for about 30 minutes. (Foil wrapped around the edges of the piecrust helps prevent excessive browning.) 

As I mentioned in the piece above, these pies can be frozen, unbaked. Then, in a 350º oven, bake unthawed pies for an hour, or longer, until the meat is bubbly and the crust is brown.

ALICE’S ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS, DELICIOUS SPICED NUTS

Alice Johnson brought these spiced nuts to our Christmas party last weekend, and when the nuts were gone well before the party was over, I wondered if there would be trouble. Paul Johnson got the last handful, and there were baleful glares in his direction. Fortunately, in keeping with the Christmas spirit, nobody mugged him for that handful.

Seriously, though, these nuts are incredibly good, sweet and spicy at the same time. Make some to eat, and if you can bring yourself to part with them, make some to give. That’s what I’ll be doing this weekend.

Spiced Nuts

Preheat the oven to 350 F °

8 cups of nuts: such as whole almonds, lightly salted dry roasted cashew and whole pecans
2 tablespoons margarine
1 ½ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon each ground  cumin, ginger, and coriander
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water

1.      Line a roasting pan with foil.  Bake nuts for 10 minutes, stir after five minutes.

2.      Melt margarine and stir in spices, sugar, salt, and water.

3.      Pour mixture over nuts stir to thoroughly coat them

4.      Bake until nuts are brown. I check every 10 minutes to stir the nuts. This should take between 20 and 30 minutes. 

5.      Take out of oven, and cool completely in the roasting pan.

6.      Some of the nuts may stick together. Stir to break apart. Store in dry containers.

Addendum: Paul Johnson, the man who got the last handful of nuts, is not Alice’s husband, whose name is Joel. It seems I have quite a few friends with the last name of “Johnson.” A very good name indeed!

A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

For the past couple of years, my husband, Clif, has struggled with high blood sugar, which, as I’m sure readers know, can lead to adult-onset diabetes. Mostly he’s been able to control it with diet and exercise, and often when Clif goes for his checkups, he gets a “gold star” from his doctor. Clif’s weight and blood sugar are exactly where they should be. However, occasionally Clif backslides, and if I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that it’s partly my fault. After all, what’s a husband to do when his wife gives him a sidelong glance and whispers, “Do you want to go to Bolley’s for fish and chips and donuts?” Does he take the high road and refuse? Of course he doesn’t. He succumbs every time. And who can blame him? No man worth knowing is immune to the siren call of Bolley’s, to those hand-cut potatoes, deep fried to perfection, crispy on the outside with just the right amount of give on the inside. To the fresh, flaky fish in a crumb batter so good that we eagerly eat the crumbs left behind. Then, there are the donuts, those tender, sugared circles of fried dough, which taste as though they’ve been fried in lard, even though the owner assures us that they have not. 

When Clif backslides too much, he gets a “wag of the finger” from his doctor as well as a stern lecture about the evils of high blood sugar, which, of course, are very real. Chastened, Clif turns to salads, at least for a time, and brings his weight and blood sugar down to where they should be. 

As every foodie knows, we are now in what might be called the “High Holy Days of Eating,” a time of sweet and savory excess where the appetite is fondly and shamelessly indulged. No sensible person tries to diet in December.  After all, New Year’s Day, with its emphasis on penance and resolution, is just around the corner. Until then, bring on the eggnog and cognac. 

For some inexplicable reason, Clif has chosen to have one of his frequent blood tests and doctor visits in December, and not surprisingly, this is when the wag of the finger usually comes. Last week, Clif went for the blood test, and yesterday he went to his doctor. We had both prepared ourselves for the usual holiday lecture. Instead, what Clif heard was so astonishing that at first neither of us could really believe it. Blood sugar, bad cholesterol, and weight were down. Good cholesterol was up. How could this be? How could this be happening in December, when sugarplums are dancing into our mouths as well as in our heads? 

We thought about what had changed over the past few months, since Clif’s last appointment, and we both came to the same conclusion. The biggest change is that we started this blog, which means that local, made-from-scratch food is absolutely at the center of things in our household. Now, we’ve been heading in this direction for some time. We didn’t, say, go from Little Debbie Snack Cakes one day to homemade carrot ginger soup the next. It’s been a gradual process that has spanned many years. But with this blog—the cooking, the writing, the thinking, the talking, and the photos—everything clicked into place, and intent and practice have finally combined to become a way of life for us. 

Very little of what we eat comes from a box. Bread, muffins, and biscuits are made by my hand and baked in my oven. I don’t buy skim or low-fat dairy products, but they all come from New England, indeed, mostly Maine, including Kate’s butter, which we now swear by. No margarine or butter substitutes for us. Our eggs come from a small farm, and the yolks are nearly orange. In the summer, we buy almost all our vegetables from the farmers’ market or a wonderful farm stand just up the road from where we live. Winters are harder, but we do what we can, and our emphasis is on soup, which we never seem to get tired of. How we love soup—warm, nourishing, economical, delicious, and, again, made by me. 

This posting could go on and on about the various implications of cooking from scratch, eating locally, and their effect on health, both on a personal level and on a national level. There are issues of time, which Americans never seem to have enough of; money spent on food; the advertising and subsequent pull of highly processed food; misconceptions about healthy and unhealthy food; and the role of joy and pleasure in food and eating. The list is long, and no doubt I’ll be returning to these issues over the next year. 

But, in brief, the food writer Michael Pollan is right when he advises, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. For more about this, read Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  He writes at great length about the health benefits of food that is grown locally, organically, and naturally. As he puts it, we are what our food eats.

Then, for heaven’s sake, if you aren’t already (and I suspect most readers already are) buy as much local food as possible, and go forth and cook from scratch. Your body will thank you.

THE PARTY’S OVER

DSC08892We had our big party on Saturday night. The weather was clear but cold, the steps were scraped clear, and the driveway was salted enough so that nobody slipped and fell. Halleluiah! Guests started arriving around 3:00, and by 4:00 our “little house in the big woods” had over twenty people spilling from the dining room to the kitchen and to the living room. The house, shall we say, was very cozy and was noisy with conversation and laughter. In short, it was just great.

Then, of course, there was the food. I made potato cheddar cheese soup and my “award-winning” chili (more on that in a future posting). Both went into crockpots, which were then left on the counter so that people could serve themselves. Fortunately, I have a lot of small white mugs, which I arrayed by the crockpots, and by the end of the evening, the crockpots were nearly empty, and there were a lot of dirty mugs. (Thank God for the dishwasher!)

DSC08897To make more room, we pushed our dining room table into a corner, and onto that table went the appetizers—hummus, cheese, little quiches, a cream cheese torte, crackers, corn bread, spiced nuts, celery stuffed with cream cheese, and more, I’m sure, that I’ve forgotten. As guests came, more dishes were added to the table.

Drinks and desserts were spread out on a counter and a table in the kitchen, and the sweets were just as abundant as the appetizers—chocolate cookies, walnut-filled bread, mincemeat squares, fudge, peanut butter balls. Well, you get the picture. Again, guests contributed much of the food.

The conversation ran the gamut from family to movies to politics to football. Joel Johnson and Chuck Marecic (and perhaps Mike Mulkeen and Bob Johnson) were fairly certain that by the time the evening was over, they had solved many of the world’s problems. My daughter Shannon and I got to discuss one of our favorite books—Pride and Prejudice—with Roger Carpentter. Alice Rohman and I talked about what we were doing on Christmas Day. Food and recipes and this blog were discussed. (Cheryl Harrington commented on my, ahem, enthusiasm for writing about food. It is a charge that I cannot deny.) Alice Johnson, seeing the nearly empty crockpot of cheddar cheese soup, suggested I use the rest as a sort of rarebit over the cornbread. What a great idea, and one I wouldn’t have thought of. And so it went, for over five hours.

After the party was over, Clif and I talked about how grateful we were to have such a wide and interesting assortment of friends who would come out on a cold afternoon and evening to spend time with us. What a blessing!

And, as an added bonus, a number of friends have pledged to send me recipes. If I’m lucky, I might even get some of them before Christmas. I’m especially working on Alice Johnson and her spiced nuts, which would make wonderful presents to nut lovers on anyone’s gift-giving list. In fact, Alice has promised to send the recipe as soon as her Christmas packages are mailed. So stay tuned.

CHRISTMASTIME IS HERE! AND SO IT BEGINS…WITH PEANUT BUTTER BALLS

In the Good Eater household, Christmas is our favorite holiday, and we really don’t understand why some people like to grouse about it so much. What’s not to like about a holiday that brightens the darkest month of the year? About a holiday that encourages generosity (gift giving), cooking (food), and eating (more food)? Then there are the movies, ranging from A Christmas Carol to Elf to A Christmas Story to A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We watch them all. In fact, we usually watch several versions of A Christmas Carol, and a little eggnog and cognac makes the viewing even more enjoyable.

It must be noted that we are not a religious household, but that doesn’t matter at all. While the practice of Christianity has often been ugly and violent, the Christmas ideal of “Peace on Earth” is not. Unfortunately, the divergence of practice and ideals is all too common, and Christianity is hardly the only belief system where this has happened. And if you are not moved by the story of the nativity—the plight of Mary and Joseph—then you should ask yourself why.

DSC08885We are also not an affluent family, and at times we have been quite poor. But we have never let this interfere with giving presents, and we do it without going into debt. How do we do this? With creativity and prior planning. All through the year, we are on the lookout for sale items that might appeal to family and friends. Library book sales are a favorite place for us to shop for presents. We also like Daedalus Books, which has a broad range of remaindered books, DVDs, and CDs. Finally, we make presents—jewelry, cards, calendars, framed photos, and, of course, food.

We also like to host a big party, which we will be giving this Saturday, and I have begun making goodies for it. Yesterday, it was peanut butter balls, and I have a big tin of them in the kitchen. It’s a good thing I made a lot because resistance is futile, and I have been “nipping” a peanut butter ball from the tin from time to time. (If I’m not careful, I’ll have to make another batch.)

Today, I’ll be making pie knots. I’m also going to make a potato, ham, cheese, and tomato galette, which will be an experimental dish (no recipe), and if it comes out well, I’ll be making a couple for the party. In the next two days, I’ll be moving on to chili, cornbread, cheddar cheese soup, and several other dishes. Then after the party will come the cooking for Christmas itself—breads, tourtière, and ice cream pies, to name a few. Oh, the list is long and delicious, and I will be writing about what I make.

To sweeten the mood of Grinches and non-Grinches alike, here is my recipe for Peanut Butter Balls.

Peanut Butter Balls

Note: This recipe originally called for paraffin to be added to the chocolate, and in our innocent past, we blithely did this, not only with peanut butter balls but with Needhams and other candy as well. Nowadays, we know that ingesting paraffin is not exactly the thing to do, and we add a bit of Crisco to the chocolate. We also realize that Crisco is not high on the list of health foods, but we figure that it’s at least a little higher than paraffin, which has even been labeled as “evil” by one foodie. When you come right down to it, nobody would dream of putting peanut butter balls on a list of healthy food. But remember, Christmas comes but once a year, and really the best place to put those sweet, little peanut butter confections is right in your mouth.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls

Mix:

2 sticks melted butter
¾ cup of peanut butter
2 cups crushed graham crackers
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 pound of powdered sugar

Roll teaspoonful of mixture in small balls and place on cookie sheet lined with wax paper.

In double boiler, melt 2 tablespoons of Crisco with 2 cups of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate. Be sure water simmers but does not boil.

With a fork (a long-handled one is best) and a looped candy dipper (use another fork if you don’t have one) roll the balls in the chocolate and then put them back on the wax-paper lined cookie sheet. Chill in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes, and then take them out. When they are hard, store in an airtight container. And remember, you want to save at least some of these for friends and family.

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