Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Summer cool


With summer weather at last here, my culinary challenge is once again to think of three months' worth of family dinners which will not heat up the kitchen, or overtax what I might call the summer stomach, too much. The daily round of sandwiches, pastas, and grilled meat and potato salads will become a bit tedious by early July. I had, therefore, the brilliant idea of going to the library to hunt up a cookbook from a hot-climate country, to search for new ideas there. Why not, for example, Spain?

Alas, my public library owns no Spanish cookbooks, or perhaps they were all checked out by people already thinking along the same lines I was. I did find The Food of Portugal, by Jean Anderson, published in 1984. Wouldn't Portugal, Spain's neighbor, also be a hot-climate country with a great repertoire of interesting, refreshing summer recipes?

As it turned out, at least by the evidence of this book, No. It is an excellent book by the way, but as I thumbed through it and noted down recipes that I will be glad to try next fall, it occurred to me that perhaps our ancestors didn't bother worrying about whether or not a summer meal would heat up the kitchen unbearably, or be "too much trouble." Of course I know that people living in sweltering countries have always taken refuge in dishes of cucumbers, yogurt, melons, or chilled salad-soups, but the following passage, on a boy making pao (bread) in summer, caused me to reflect that our ancestors' thinking may also have been "after all we must eat, what difference does it make if we get a little hotter preparing food?"

One reason the country breads of Portugal have such thick brown crusts and moist, chewy interiors is that they are baked at intense heat in brick or stone ovens filled with steam. I shall never forget visiting a village bakery, on a
blistering summer's day, just as the baker's apprentice was pouring cold water into a vent in the oven wall. It vaporized on contact, sending great clouds of steam into the oven -- and raising the humidity of the bakery to near sauna proportions.


Or rather their thinking may have been, what difference does it make if the baker's apprentice gets a little hotter preparing food. When we read old cookbooks, we probably don't credit just how much of the work of cooking in past eras was done by professionals and their apprentices as well as by household servants, if not slaves. Little details tell. In Victorian London, cooks for aristocratic families suffered (and drank) in windowless basement kitchens, because windows were taxed and the well-to-do felt no compulsion to pay the freight for yet another window just to air and light the kitchens. Then again, one of the most splendid recipes I have ever come across -- and prepared -- is Rice and Pecan Loaf with Onion Sauce from Marion Cunningham's 1986 revision of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. "An old Southern tradition, utterly simple and delicious," she comments. Indeed it is, although the simplicity is in the mixture of ingredients, not in the preparation. After several tussles with it, all of them successful I am glad to say, I broke the recipe down into five steps and penciled them in the back flyleaf of the book: 1) make white sauce, cook rice, chop pecans; 2) blanch onions, cook in butter; 3) grease loaf pan, assemble rice and pecan loaf, preheat oven; 4) bake onions in white sauce, bake loaf; 5) finish onion sauce. I forget how long the whole process takes.

It is a wonderful and rich concoction, and something that I have not prepared in years. My guess is that the old-fashioned Southern lady of the house, say Scarlett O'Hara's mother in 1850 (or 1950), was not slaving away in the kitchen making this herself. No more was the Portuguese lady slaving away helping the baker's boy make pao. When we modern American women clamor after recipes that are EASY and QUICK and DELICIOUS and NEW, as all the magazine articles blare excitedly at us, we forget that three of those words tend to be non-sequiturs (or would it be oxymorons?) in the kitchen. Most old and fine recipes still carry about them the whiff, the savor, of a time when either the cooking was done by servants for masters, or the cooking was done by the ordinary (farm) family for itself -- and the farm family had a lot of native help and God willing, supplies on hand.

In either case, time and effort were not a problem. It is surprising how many old recipes call for a food item to be cooked twice. The rice and pecan loaf is like that; so are Julia Child's French green beans blanched to keep their color and then sauteed to finish cooking. So is The Food of Portugal's "Arroz de Pato," duck simmered and then the meat pulled off the carcass and roasted crisp while the duck broth is used to boil rice -- which is then packed on top of the duck meat, and the whole covered with an egg sauce, dotted with sausages, and baked again. Being frugal, re-using broth, was also natural. The cookbook has a lovely recipe called Carrots Sintra-style, Cenouras a Moda de Sintra. You boil chopped carrots in beef broth, and then make a sauce for them from a roux combined with the broth/carrot cooking water. The sauce is further enriched with beaten egg yolks. Meals featuring dishes like this and the duck would have been simpler, all-day but not terribly onerous processes in the farm kitchen, where beef scraps, garden vegetables, and poultry were at hand, and perhaps grandma was there to supervise everything while minding the baby or washing pig entrails. Today, carrots Sintra gives rise to the immediate thought: oh God, I would have to make beef broth. That takes hours. In July. Or, oh God, thrice-cooked duck. In July.

That all the cooking chores should fall upon one person in a servantless household, while we know nothing of farming but our markets overflow with rich out-of-season food, is a situation at which our ancestors probably would have goggled. In her post World War II-novels, English writer Angela Thirkell's mature female characters look gravely at the young married women of a new generation, who want to do all their own housework, plus cook, plus look after their own children. This is considered a specifically American innovation, and an exhausting one. (Possibly it just took a while for the innovation to cross the Atlantic. Readers familiar with the Little House on the Prairie books may remember that they are almost plotless because they are so taken up with loving descriptions of Ma's work -- her huge daily breakfasts and her fall preserving chores, and her butter tinted gold with carrot juice and made in a special mold unlike anyone else's.)

At some point in our cookbook reading we'll be told that the French, of course, have the answer to the easy-new-quick-delicious and even summer-cool conundrum figured out. One buys one's bread, and a perfectly made dessert, some fruit, or a perfect cheese; and then dinner is simply a matter of a quickly seared fish, a vegetable terrine. Voila. Let the baker and his apprentices work for you, and the pastry chef and so on, a la portugais so to speak. One eats to live, loves to eat, but does not necessarily live to cook. Our French friend Madeleine Kamman noticed some time ago that she had to adjust her cookbook writing and her expectations to a new world, in which the American woman is simply not willing to spend all that much time in front of the stove. Perhaps an Old World innovation -- oh God, I'm not grandma washing pig entrails -- crossed the Atlantic, in its turn, longer ago than we realize.

So most of the recipes of The Food of Portugal will have to wait until cooler weather prevails. There is a simple one, though, Morangos em Porto, which will take advantage of the seasonal strawberries that so many food bloggers are writing about now. It sensibly combines -- remembering how sour they are -- strawberries with sugar and ruby port. You let the mixture steep in the refrigerator for a few hours, and then serve it in clear glass goblets with a sprig of mint. What came before, your summer-cool dinner, is something I'm afraid I can't advise about with much confidence.

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