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Comfort Food: Escarole and Other Greens

I came home from a long walk and trying to think coherently and I had to cook the Shabbos casserole. My week follows a sechedule of cooking that heats up (if you'll pardon the pun) on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I pick out the menu and plan the meal the weekend before. I'm at the stage where I get to plan again. I'm not up to it. I've been making lots of dresses on Second Life. That is fun. That is about my level of focus. Fortunately, this Shabbos' dinner was all ready planned. I can cook on autopilot sometimes.

Also, my choice was particularly fortunate. It was an old friend: escarole, zipper pea, and egg noodle casserole made with Muller's Hearty Extra-Wide Egg Noodles. These are simply the best, but it's the escarole that brings comfort to the dish. Escarole is another Kramer family heirloom, though my mother never made escarole and noodle casserole. It all started with Progresso's Escarole in Chicken Broth, known in my house as "escarole soup." I don't know how Mom found it. I could ask. I think she was looking for low calorie soups and first courses for Sunday dinner. I remember countless Sunday dinners that began with escarole soup. Escarole soup has also featured prominently in my fiction on Ghostletters.

After a while my mom "graduated" to homemade chicken soup with escarole, and then discovering that she liked the raw product, she used it in salad like lettuce. If I go to Mom's house, I sometimes get escarole salad or cheese and escarole sandwiches. As for me, one of the first meals I foisted on my poor housemates in the Prospect of Whitby was black bean escarole soup which has also become the stuff of fiction. The soup came out terrible because I did not soak the black beans. I continued making "vegetarian escarole soup" and so has my Mom.

Of course the Italians sautee escarole. Greens and beans is a favorite, vernacular, Italian dish which brings me to the present casserole. Field peas are in season. Escarole is often both decent and reasonably priced. I need a casserole that I can eat cold or reheat rather than a soup that I can not eat cold or that takes a long time to warm through and tastes vile lukewarm. Necessity has always been the mother of invention. It is not hard to make a casserole with sauteed escarole, carrots, and scallion bottoms. One cooks the field peas separately after shucking them. One cooks the egg noodles in advance as well. Mix the whole business, stick it in the oven, and go.

I am not sure why escarole is comfort food. I think it falls in the same league as brussel sprouts though brussel sprouts are beautiful and look as good as they taste. They are also trendy, but that is another story. Beets are the big trend now, and beets too, in their own way are comfort food, but escarole is a comfort food because it is a dark, slightly bitter green. There is somethign soothing about strong green vegetables. I'm not sure if it is the way they contrast with mild or sweet accompanyments like noodles, carrots, or potatoes. I'm not sure if it's the way they work well with a variety of seasonings. I'm not sure if it's the way their flavor stands up to cooking. I'm not sure if there is not some promise of renewed health and vigor packed away in that dark green bitterness, that makes it inviting, but the thought of escarole, collards, kale, beet greens, brocoli rabe, or brussel sprouts, hot, dark, and strong is the thought of something strong, flavorful, and soothing, something that will make a casserole anything but blannd, and make a sandwich a meal. That I did not grow up eating some of these foods doesn't matter. That some of them are rich in memories is fine with me. Dark greens and brussel sprouts bring comfort either way.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/30/10

Heirloom Squash Dish

I don't have a lot of dishes I inherited from my mother and grandmothers, but Friday night I made one of them. I made twice baked calabazza with fruit. This is my mother's mother's dish. She used to make frozen mashed squash flavored with orange juice. My version is made with either kobacha, carnival, or hubbard squash, or with calabazza, and usually with some sort of solid fruit. I steam or roast the squash one night because it is easier to handle cold the next day. I scoop it out, sweeten it if necessary, and layer it with fresh, dried, or canned fruit in a greased casserole dish. The lineage on this dish is fairly direct.

Three generations of Senecoff and Kramer women have made winter squash in various forms. Before it was available year around, we bought the frozen product in the summer. We had a variety of excuses for eating the stuff. It was in season and the only decent vegetable available in the winter. It was readily available in Cortland, New York which is squash country. Grandma developed diverticulosis in her forties as I have, and winter squash was one of the foods she could enjoy on what was a much more restrictive diet than I am on now. Winter squash is still good for me for the same reason. Winter squash is also tastey and it goes well with just about any main course, but especially peanut butter sandwiches or peanut butter casseroles. Even when winter squash is out of season, I crave it in the summer, much the way normal folks crave tomatoes in the winter.

I used to think the whole world ate winter squash and craved it. That clearly is not the case. I did not learn that typical Americans did not go anywhere near winter squash on a regular basis, until the time between college and grad school. I was poor, but frozen winter squash was reasonably priced. I fixed myself squash with butter and brown sugar or honey and ate it with a peanut butter sandwich. One of the frat boys in Zeta Psi saw me making supper and he asked me what the orange stuff was that I was eating. He said he never knew any one who ate that stuff.

These days I've been buying calabazza in the summer. I like the price which is frequently cheaper than the Mexican or Californian winter squashes. I also like that the new family size calabazza are big enough to fill a small roaster with twice baked. Sometimes hubbard squash are larger, and I've had to use two casserole pans. That takes up a lot of room in the fridge.

The fruit in twice baked squash changes throughout the year. I've apples and calmyra figs in the fall, oranges in late winter, canned tropical fruit salad, canned pineapple, and lately dried cherries to make a special Shabbos dish. Last Thursday night I made my twice baked with canned pineapple (The pineapple in syrup works better for this dish since it adds sweetness) and fresh mango. Mangoes are in season this summer, and there is a bumper crop of them. I know my grandma never put mango in her squash and sweet vegetables are not really my mother's dishes. Times change and recipe traditions change with it.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/25/10

The Stew in my Dreams

I was disappointed to dream about making stew as I dozed on the synagogue kiddie lounge couch on Tish B'Av. It wasn't much of a dream, and probably just the result of hunger. Still, I did not make pinto bean and vegetable pot pie, because I was too lazy to make a crust. Instead, I made a baked hot and gloppy casserole, broth thickened to a sauce with beans and vegetables. It is good made that way. You can also make hot and gloppy with tomato sauce. I put the hot and gloppy in a big roasting pan to make serving and reheating easier. Ovens are wonderful inventions. I did not realize until I had cooked the dish, that the hot and gloppy resembled the stew of my dreams. True it contained no celery and had two beets in it instead (leftovers from last week), but it was a stew with carrots and potatoes. I don't know what this means if anything.

Last Sunday I thought I was getting a bargain with carrots. They were .99 for a two pound bag. Loose carrots, which are usually the cheapest, and which looked wonderful, were .79 a pound. Beets are .79 a pound so this tells you this is a high price. Long ago when we just got done with inflation, carrots could be as cheap as .20 a pound. They were the poor person's vegetable. So was cabbage which they practically gave away. These days, in high summer, cabbage sells for .39 a pound which is high. This is the plain green cabbage. You pay more if you want red, savoy, or nappa. Cabbage is also the poor man's food. I bought the cheaper carrots, and they are disgusting. They are slimey. Their tips are black. At least they are turgid, but they are scrawny, and half of them are broken in pieces. I wonder what is going on.

Last winter, a cold snap caused a crop failure of snap beans and pole beans. One week there were none in the market and when they returned, they were from Mexico and close to two dollars a pound, and there were only snap beans, no other kind. Now in high summer they are $1.49 a pound, and the pole beans and wax beans have again vanished. I'm not sure why this is happening, but I think the heat has a lot to do with it. It has been weeks since we have had an all day serious soaking rainstorm, and Florida is suffering right along with Georgia. We are not under severe watering restrictions yet, but there are brown spots in the grass.

I always said that if the environment collapsed, we would see it first at the supermarket. Well, you can guess what I have seen. Nearly all my grocery lists are contingent. If something is not good or too expensive, I buy something else and make something else. That is a hard principle to stick to consistently. So far, peaches and field peas are good, but even the field peas looked old this week. Perhaps the heat is getting to them too.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/22/10

A Crazy Notion

I went shopping Sunday and too late noticed that the peanutbutter, beet, and egg noodle casserole was vanishing. I knew the cooked vegetables were not long for this world either. Even with Tish B'av and maybe because of this, I have a logistical nightmare on my hands, a new beta entree on a Wednesday night, and a necessary one because bread is running low. I mused over this and thought I would make soup with rice, but the rice and pasta safe still has the last two helpings of dilled spahgetti squash in it. I have two free roasting pans though. I have plenty of either rye or (if not rye) whole wheat flour. Plan #2 which is the new Plan #1 is to make vegetarian pot pie with a rye crust for the beta entree and South of the Border Pink Eye Pea and Pasta Salad for the Shabbos entree and get that calabazza roasted for calabazza with mango and pineapple which I'll make Thursday.

All this should fall into place, but I was rehearsing the whole business over and over again on Tish B'av. Thinking about food is different from thinking about cooking. It just is. Thinking about this much cooking after work is scarey though the actual work won't be difficult. I tell myself I have it all organized. There are four leftover potatoes, several pounds of carrots, a stray beet, and pinto beans in the soaker. Once the pasta and the pink eyed peas are cooked, I can free up a pot to cook the beans or I can start them early since they may take a while. They were very fresh when I bought them, but that was two months ago. I use mainly fresh shelly beans in the summer, and the field peas came in early.

The rye crust for the pot pie is easy and doesn't require using the pasta safe. I can thicken the casserole's gravy with a butter or an oil roux. Having two complex entrees going on top of eachother could be a great challenge when viewed in the right way. Hey, I get to eat the results of my experiment, but that is only half the point. The fun is in the making this stuff and planning it out. Eating is rather incidental when one thinks of it.

Are You Afraid of Papaya?

I was scaird of papayas on Sunday and with good reason. They looked strange. They were not the usual plump variety from Belize but something called Tinuntung papaya from Mexico. They were scrawny things, half the size of a typical Belize papaya. I bought two of them after summoning my courage. The new papayas are difficult to peel. One of them which was good to go ripe, cracked on the way home, which made seeding it out a nightmare. The papayas also had bitter places. Papaya does not ripen evenly, and these were good to go on the body but not toward the stem end. Fortunately, papaya improves when it sits cut up in the fridge. I put all the papaya pieces in a plastic keeping container and into the fridge they went. Last night, I broke my fast with a bowl of papaya chunks. It was not the best papaya I had ever eaten, but it was certainly as decent as most. I notice papaya prices are going up. In two weeks, when my doctors says I can have papaya again (The fruit has a very high potassium value.) I'll see what variety is available. For all I know the fruit will be a dollar a pound and some variety I have yet to try. For all I know these skinny, Mexican papaya may have been the least of the season.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/21/10

Fresh Figs and Apricots

I must have been feeling sorry for myself because I bought fresh figs and apricots last weekend. The apricots which were a pricey $1.99 a pound were the best I've ever eaten. They were the size of peaches. They arrived ripe. They were not sloppy, and they had a deep rich flavor. I'm glad I still have some left. They have made my bag lunches this week a joy. My only problem with them is that I gobble them down so fast, they are far too brief a treat.

I eat the figs at night. They are black mission figs with an appearance that appeals only to connoisseurs. They are several times the size of their dried counterparts, but still look soft and deflated if not slightly shriveled. They are a dark brownish purple, a bruised color. If you cut them in half and people customarily do this before eating them, the knife slips through their soft flesh like butter. Inside, they are greenish around the edges, and a fleshy rose in the middle where the soft fruit merges with immature seeds. If they are very ripe, they melt in your mouth with a taste like honey, flowers, or Fig Newton filling before it got dry and sticky. If they are not fully ripe, the sweetness has woody undertones. It is a pleasant, mild taste, somewhat aromatic, and still fun. There is something intrinsicly fun about eating fruit you find dried most of the year fresh. I like that fresh figs have a much more delicate sweet taste than canned ones. I've eaten canned figs in syrup. If you go for sweetness, there is a fruit for you! I like that they are utterly soft. There is a novelty to them. They also all but scream that this is high summer. Enjoy the delicaacies while they are here and wait for the new ones. You'll miss them when they are gone.

One Upping the New York Times

The New York Times has been publishing beet recipes. They look good until one reads them carefully. The problem is not that beets are gross or that they taste terrific, depending how you feel about them. I think beets not only taste terrific, but that the fresh variety are a kind of delicacy. This about sums it up for beets in most cities because most cities are in flyover country and those who will fix fresh beets are a minority who will pay what the traffic will bear. When I lived in Columbus, Georgia bunch beets were the only kind of beet available and they were usually raunchy and expensive. I did not have beets very often. It was a shame because bunch beets are excellent for both borsht, borsht en casserole, and beets and greens. In fact, I wanted to make borsht en casserole for this week's Shabbos, but even in Atlanta bunch beets can be finicky things.

Fortunately, here in Atlanta there is a second type of fresh beet available, beet root, large roots with no tops. This is good because you don't always want tops, and the beets are more mature and tastier. Beet roots also come in gold as well as conventional red though be prepared to spend over two dollars a pound for golden beets. I'm not sure where else topless beet root is available. I think New York City and Ithaca, but there may be more food cities out there.

The second problem with the New York Times recipes is that it suggests roasting the beets whole to get around peeling them and cutting them up raw. This does not work for big Atlanta beet root. I tried it and still remember the miserable two hour wait. If you want to roast beets the size of softballs and have it take a reasonable amount of time, you have to cut them into small pieces. This increases surface area, decreases volume, and makes for a timely roast. If you want beets for salads, grated raw beets, blanched beets, or sauteed beets, you not only have to cut them up, you have to peel them. The good news is that beets peel with an ordinary carrot peeler just like rutabega or turnips. And yes, both the red and golden beets bleed. Your hands and the cutting board get stained with the juice. The good news is that beet juice is water soluble. Wash the cutting board and hands when you are done, and you have a nonproblem. And yes, those juicy beets use a bit less dressing in their grated salad then you use in carrot salad and a bit more than shredded daikon salad.

What makes beets so fantastic is that they are at that sweet spot on the taste continuum that works with either sweet, sour, or savory ingredients. Peanut butter like beets is also in that happy middle though it has a strong salty taste too, and probably a meaty flavor with that Japanese word for a fifth taste. This should make beets and peanut butter natural partners.

If you live in a food city where you can get fresh beet root, I urge you to try this recipe. It is not as hard as it looks. Remember, beet juice cleans up with soap and water. Also, when it comes to buying beets, choose rock hard specimens and bigger is nearly always better. There's less peel and more beet. Just remember to cut up your beets, and yes this casserole comes out pink. Consider the color a bonus.

Peanut Butter Beet Casserole

You will need...

8 oz extra wide egg noodles (Please use real egg noodles unless you have health concerns.)
Water for cooking.
4 good size red beets.
1 very large golden beet.(All the beets should weigh about two and a half pounds.)
The white business end of a bunch of scallions. (The green part is usually long gone as salad but if it's not that's what it's for, and yes, you can substitute a medium size onion.)
Oil for sauteeing
2 oz (1/4 cup) peanut butter
Salt to taste (This casserole needs some.)
Bragg Sprinkle (Buy this in your favorite health food store.) to taste
Vegit Seasoning (It's made by Gaylord Hauser and you get it in the health food store) to taste

Oil for greasing the pan

Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain into a collander. Rinse. Put the collander over a small bowl and stick the collander pedestal in the refridgerator. Cooler noodles are easier to work with, and you want a nice clean sink.

Peel the beets. Cut off the stem end and the tail, and anything else that's raunchy. Cut the beets into large pieces and the large pieces into smaller pieces. Put the pieces in a bowl or container. You may want to wash your hands when you are done with the beets. Make sure you use a washable cutting board to cut the beets. Cut the hairy ends off the scallions and peel off any dead growth if they have sat in the fridge for a while. Cut the scallions into little pieces and add to the beets in the bucket.

Coat the bottom of a bit stew pot with a very thin layer of oil. Peanut oil works best since it has a high scorching point. When a piece of beet inserted in the oil sizzles, add the beets and scallions. Cover and let cook until fork tender. Add salt, Sprinkle, and Vegit. Stir. Taste. Adjust seasonings. Add the peanut butter and take the mixture off the heat once the peanut butter is mixed through. It should have a very thick sauce. Let it stand a bit to make it easier to work with.

Mix the noodles into the peanut butter sauced vegetables. Add a few drops of oil if the mixture is too dry. You want this casserole to stand up on the plate so you can eat it as a cold leftover for Shabbos lunch. Taste. Adjust seasonings. Put the casserole mixture into an oiled roasting pan. Cover and place in the oven for preheat plus fifteen minutes. If the oven is all ready preheated, let the casserole cook about twenty minutes. Return the casserole to the fridge if you are not going to eat it right away. Let it stand and serve if you are eating it right away. Otherwise, it does fine reheated or eaten cold. In this heat, this is a late night cooking job with reheating or eating cold the next day. It tastes fantastic.

Note: You can probably substitute carrots for the golden beet, because those are a fairly rare delicacy. It's worth a trip to the health food store to get seasoning blends, and yes, they are addictive.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/15/10

Butter Beans and More

I know nothing about lima beans, or butter beans, or butter peas. If you ask me, they are all the same thing. Some are small. Some are large. Some have speckles. Some are either green or white depending on whether they have dried out or are bought fresh or frozen. It is way too cold in Upstate New York to grow lima beans. The soil just does not get warm enough to germinate them in time. If you want shelled beans you can grow pink eye peas or phaseolus beans instead.

I learned to shuck butter beans this week. They call them butter rather than lima at the DeKalb Farmer's Market. They are hard to shuck because they have no zippers and the pods are sometimes immature. I found quite a few pods with single, barely developed beans inside them. I found very few pods with four beans. Most had two or three, and the beans were green and tiny. They taste delicious, but I expected that. Fresh shelled beans are simply fantastic. The bar is either astronomically high or so low, only the smallest can get through.

Now I am left with a perplexing question. What about Ford Hook limas? These sell for more when frozen, but I always figured that pepole like me esteemed them. People either love or hate lima beans. The New York Times gave them decidedly short shrift some years ago, yet the "large limas" sell for more than the baby ones when dried, just like Ford Hooks sell for more than babies. Are large lima beans harder to grow, or is there a crowd of lima bean lovers out there who will simply pay more for big beans? As I said, I've eaten this vegetable all my life but never thought much about it until I lived in the South and saw several varieties available frozen and now a fresh product too.

Shucking the beans, by the way, did not hurt my hands. They took about ten to fifteen minutes to cook. They cook up green and "pretty." I put the butter beans in Spanish rice along with green olives. This is tonight's Shabbos casserole. For a side dish I made carrot salad wtih pineapple chunks and dried cherries. The Shabbos bride won't fit through the door when she comes to my house or she'll be a very healthy Shabbos bride when I get done with her.

I am taking both my peanut butter cookbooks home over the weekend. I'm going to find something in them to plan for next week's Shabbos casserole. Both of the cookbooks are old school whicih makes the recipes a bit dull. They are also from the era when recipes did not have a lot of fresh vegetables in them. There is no recipe in those books that won't need a thorough reworking. I'm getting good at these smack downs. Alternatively, I could make borsht en casserole with peanut butter.

On another note, I learned after the fact that I've been malnourished. I started taking iron supplement last week and by this week, my IBS cramps are gone and other small complaints have vanished. Of course there are glamorous and fashionable diseases and self inflicted ones that leave you with a moral taint. Iron deficiency anemia falls into the latter group. When I tell people that my doctor recommended an iron supplement, people ask why I don't eat better. They suggest certain foods.

I invite all those moralizers to get over to Nutrition.gov and learn the facts. The facts are that I need eighteen milligrams of iron a day. A man my age needs eight, but I'm in that group with a really high iron need. I need those eighteen milligrams whether I have fibroids and bleed heavily each month or don't have them or don't bleed heavily. Now look at the iron values in foods. The lentils someone suggested I eat come in at 3.3 milligrams per portion. Ooops. Chicken livers provide a whopping twelve milligrams, but I don't want to eat chicken liver, and I'd have to eat it every day. Most foods provide two to three miligrams or less. Put together a day's diet and you end up with well under eighteen. If I were male, this would be fine, but I'm going to need a multivitamin plus iron pretty much no matter what. The iron supplement is to help make up the deficit.

Iron is just not as easy to get as fiber. Fiber is a piece of cake if you'll pardon the expression. It's everywhere, whole wheat bread (100% whole wheat) which you can buy in any supermarket, brown rice, salads, fresh fruit, beans. Iron, in contrast, is really scarce stuff. In short I need those slow release iron pills. And no, I'm not eating an awful diet, and it's just hard to get enough iron if you're my age and sex.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/9/10

More on Cooking with Peanutbutter

The "Disgusting Corn Bread" actually turned out to taste fantastic, so I'm going to make it again. Sometimes substitutes are better than the original.

I did go looking for other peanut butter company websites that listed recipes. Peter Pan was an epic fail. It lists no main dishes, soups, or salads. Skippy was somewhat better, but you had to use a complex seach engine to find the main dish recipes, and the ones I looked at were not that great. They lacked fresh vegeables or even frozen ones. I think any one who is going to bothere to cook with peanut butter, won't mind cooking with vegetables, but I could be wrong. I wonder how many big time peanut butter eaters are also big time peanut butter cooks.

By all rights, I shouldn't be a peanut butter cook. One of my mother's favorite college stories was of how the women who were all on "contract eating" at Cornell in the 1950's refused to go near the dining hall on the night that peanut butter soup was served. It was that gross. Of course when I went to visit the University of Rochester with my mom, one of the items for sale on the menu of the student union was peanut soup. Clearly this food had fans. I never got to try the peanut soup because we did not eat lunch in the union.

Years, after that one winter break when the Prospect of Whitby kitchen was running low on everything, I scraped out the bottom of a five pound bucked of peanut butter and made the Settlement Cookbook's curried peanut soup. My friends told me it tasted great, and I liked it too. For years two varieties of peanut soup (actually peanut butter soup) have been on my menus, a curried variety and a creamy one. What drove peanut soup off my menus was peanut and honey spread. You can make great sandwiches with peanut and honey spread, but you can't cook with it. The same is true of Sunbutter and the sweetened, flavored soynut butters.

Then my friend whom I miss, who left for Israel gave me a forty ounce jar of Jif that nobody wanted, but these days I keep Shabbos and need a savory peanut dish I can eat cold or with an easy reheat. Enter the peanut and noodle casserole.

I suspect that most peanut butter cooks are like me. They were the kids and adults who ate peanut butter on Rye Vita or ants on a log which are semi-savory, and from there, it's a small leap to soup. There are also people who eat peanut in Thai and African cookery, and then there are those who learned peanut recipes in Home Ec or from Cooperative Extension. This last group may have grown up eating them and now passes on a tradition. If I had kids, they would know that peanut butter is more than just for sandwiches. Alas I just write blog articles.

By the way, I ordered two peanut butter cookbooks from the U of Georgia. I'll see what they are like when I get them. This should make for some interesting Shabbos recipes.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 7/4/10

Disgusting Corn Bread?

It's wrapped up in my fridge right now and it did make the kitchen smell good. The whole apartment smelled of it this morning. It may have started out as the Settlement Cookbook's corn bread, but what it became after I got through with it, I'll find out tonight. At least it did not fall back in the oven.

First I had a cold so did not want to cook with dairy beyond buttering a pan. I'm low on oil again. Second, the eggs in my refridgerator are at least six months old. I think they have dried out and need to be pitched. Third, I was in the mood for honey instead of sugar. Fourth, I know whole wheat flour is more nutritious than white. OK, it still had cornmeal in it, but it had whole wheat flour where the white should be, water with three tablespoons of soy flour dissolved in it where the milk should be, three tablespoons of mayonaise where the egg should be, and honey substituted for sugar with the appropriate liquid removed. Yeah, it looks rough on top like moon bread, but it did rise. It will probably taste sweet. The honey may actually give it a good taste. It will probably taste a bit of soy. Most of my bread has some soy flour in it, so that is normal.

On the other hand, it may be totally disgusting. This is what I get for experimenting out of control. At least the Over the Rainbow Marinated Vegetable Salad (featuring blanched carrots and pole beans, cooked zipper cream peas, cooked red skin potatoes, scallion tops, and radicchio with lemon pepper dressing) is fairly ordinary. There is left over grated raw beet salad and leftover zucchini salad too. The zucchini salad has dill in it because they were out of basil at the Farmer's Market. It also has dried toamtoes in it. The grated beets have pinapple chunks in syrup and daikon radish pieces in them. Daikon tastes great with beets, and sweetened pineapple chunks are much better than either crushed pineapple in juice or crushed pineapple in syrup for salads. Just take my word for it, but don't try my disgusting corn bread...please.

Eileen H. Kramer 7/2/10