Dear New York Times "Recipe Redux"

My short love affair with the “Recipe Redux” column in the New York Times Magazine came to an end on Sunday. Fascinated as I am with old recipes, I was thrilled to find a column that dug up ancient treasures like Chocolate Caramels (1881) and this 1904 bouillabaisse swimming in olive oil. The old recipe is followed by a modern update created by a chef, with only one rule, according to Amanda Hesser, the column’s author: “the chefs can improvise with flavors and techniques as much as they want, as long as they can later explain how they got from A to B.” Thus Chocolate Caramels have been transformed into Black-Sugar-Glazed Medjool Dates with Pecorino and Walnuts, while the bouillabaise becomes Olive-Oil Poached Cod with Saffron-Blood Orange Nage.

It’s not the painful inventory of each esoteric ingredient, or the exacting specifications that demonstrate you’re in the know (“dates” aren’t good enough anymore; only Medjool dates will do!), that pushed me over the edge. I’ve grown accustomed to that, since you can’t go to a bar without being forced to order not merely roast lamb but Happy Meadow Farms Lamb with Organic Creek Merlot Reduction and House-Grown Rosemary. And reading ingredients is fascinating to me.

What I can’t abide is “updating” that turns a perfect, simple recipe into a complicated production.

Things started to go downhill with June 6’s Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse (1989). I’ll let the description of the modern version speak for itself:

As with many old desserts, the beauty of the dish is its simplicity. Yet without fail, whenever I’ve sent chefs a dessert recipe from the paper’s 159-year archive, they’ve found this very simplicity troubling. Modern desserts seem to require acid playing against sweetness, crunch jarring the suppleness, bitter challenging creaminess — a flood of contrasting elements that manage to divert our 140-character-length attention span, even if just for a fleeting moment.

So it was no surprise that after making this six-ingredient mousse, Melissa Perello, the chef and owner of Frances in San Francisco, returned with a modern, layered delight: a 12-ingredient, three-part dessert, made up of a ricotta mousse, a strawberry-rhubarb broth, garnish and cookies

Why? Why? Why take a dish whose beauty is in its simplicity and turn it into a “12-ingredient, three-part” monstrosity? It’s one thing if you’re a chef trying to woo customers. It’s an entirely different matter if you’re a home cook trying to put a meal on the table or host a dinner party after work.

Last week’s Saratoga Potatoes (1904) were the end. Saratoga Potatoes are potato chips. (Who knew that’s where they came from?) For the basic recipe, you slice potatoes as thinly as possible, fry in olive oil, and salt. That’s it.

We are told that the updated version, Crackery Potato Bugnes, are “so easy to make and . . . turn out so professionally that you’ll soon be whipping them up for every dinner party.” My version of “easy,” however, does not involve two bowls, chilling dough “for at least one hour and as long as overnight” and . . . well, this:

Using a ruler and a pastry wheel (one with a zigzag edge is nice for this job) or pizza cutter, cut long strips 1 to 1½ inches wide, then cut the strips at 2-inch intervals. (Again, size isn’t really important and the shape is flexible — you can make long strips, triangles or squares.) Using the tip of a paring knife, cut a lengthwise slit about ¾ inch long in the center of each piece. Lift the pieces onto the baking sheet. When you’ve filled the sheet, just cover the dough with another piece of wax paper and keep going. Roll and cut the other half of the dough and place these pieces on the baking sheet as well, separating the layers with wax paper. You should have about 60 bugnes. Chill for at least 1 hour or for as long as overnight.

I won’t be spending two hours chilling and God only knows how many agonizing minutes cutting up 60 slices of dough into cute little shapes for my next dinner party unless a fairy brings me a maid with far more patience and time than I possess.

Ms. Hesser needs to send those recipes to me. As God is my witness she will get an updated version for those potato chips: Britt Farms Yukon Golds Fried in Real North Carolina Pork Fat with Roasted Garden Jalapenos and Garlic.

Hmmm–I need to work on that . . .

Green Tomato Salsa

Earlier this summer, I described the avalanche of  produce that nearly overwhelmed the tiny congregation of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, where Fred serves as a parish associate for the arts and I now serve on the garden committee. God was blessing our efforts. He (or She) was returning me to my farming roots, though it would have been nice if He (or She) had not caused me to look quite so much like an ancient mountain woman in the process.

But now He (or She) has decided to bless us with weeks of bright sunny days without a rain cloud in sight. We were also blessed with an abundance of tomato plants along with a generous helping of ignorance. Thus, close planting, a failure to prune, and the lack of rain all combined to produce plants that eked out only green tomatoes, which brooded on the vines until, depressed by their own failure to ripen, they flung themselves to the ground and rotted in despair.

Next door, however, the peppers were having quite the merry fiesta. They lived in a flourishing village that basked in the sun and was clearly up to something in the evenings, judging by the abundance of baby peppers that popped up with alarming regularity. (The proximity to all this merriment probably contributed to the tomatoes’ demise.)

What were we to do? Earlier in the summer we’d dreamed of tomato sandwiches, of winter shelves lined with rows of home-canned summer tomatoes, of freezers packed with homemade tomato sauce. But our hopes were dashed along with those of the pitiful green tomatoes who could not bring themselves to turn red.

I found a solution recently in this salsa, just in time for the green tomatoes that other gardeners with happier plants will soon be harvesting. It’s roughly based on a tomatillo recipe from Rick Bayless’s Salsa That Cook. While I’m not sure about the wisdom of substituting tomatillos for green tomatoes regularly, it worked quite well here. The salsa packs quite a bit of heat, but you can adjust that by using fewer peppers.

After one day, the brightness and the heat of the salsa had mellowed and the roasted flavor came to the forefront. If you want the salsa hot, I recommend serving it the same day; if you’d prefer a more mellow version, wait 24 hours before serving.

The salsa is wonderful with fish or shrimp as well–a serving suggestion is below. I can only hope the little green tomatoes have found their purpose in life now.

Green Tomato Salsa

Makes about 4 cups

A dozen small green or partially red tomatoes
6 serrano or other hot green peppers (more or less to taste)
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced
Kosher salt
Sugar (about 1 tsp., or more to taste)
Cream, sour cream, or any kind of South American cream (Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran) (optional)

Place oven rack about four inches below the broiler flame. (For me, this is the second slot from the top–do not place too close to the heat.) Set tomatoes on baking sheet. Roast with broiler on high about six minutes on one side, then turn and roast for an additional six minutes. The tomatoes will be dark brown to black. Set aside to cool, about 20 minutes.

While tomatoes are roasting, place a sturdy skillet on a medium high flame (no oil). Remove stems from the peppers. Place peppers in skillet and roast until blackened in spots, about 10 minutes.

Cut up onion while peppers are roasting and set aside. Once tomatoes are done, remove them to a bowl. Lower oven rack to the middle level. Set oven temperature to 425. (It should already be preheated from broiling the tomatoes.) Scatter the onions over the baking sheet (no need to wash it) and bake, stirring every few minutes, until translucent and blackened or dark brown in spots, 10 – 15 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes.

Place whole peppers and onions in food processor and pulse, scraping down sides of bowl regularly, until ingredients are minced. Add whole tomatoes (peels, cores, and all) and pulse until finely chopped. (Add water if it is too thick.) Add plenty of salt and sugar to taste. Serve immediately with chips for a very hot salsa or wait 24 hours for a more mellow version. Add cream if desired–it will mitigate the heat.

Shrimp Tortillas with Green Tomato Salsa

Serves 2 — a good way to use the extra salsa!

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp. olive oil
2 – 3 cups Green Tomato Salsa, above
3 – 6 tbps. half and half
Grated mild cheese to taste (we used plain old cheddar, but Mexican queso seco might be better)
6 small corn tortillas

Heat oven to 350. Place tortillas on baking sheet and set in oven to warm. (You will need to check on them frequently to make sure they don’t crisp up–once they are warm and soft, turn off oven and let them sit.) Heat olive oil on medium high heat for a few minutes. Add salsa and cream. Heat, stirring frequently, until mixture begins to bubble, about 5 minutes. (Add more cream if it looks like it might burn.) Add shrimp and cook just a few minutes, stirring frequently, until shrimp have just pinkened, adding more cream if necessary. Remove tortillas from oven. Spoon shrimp mix into tortillas, top with spinach and cheese, fold over, and serve.

Concord Grape Pie

In the spring of 1991, my reputation as a pie baker was born, emerging out of a strawberry-rhubarb pie I made for my roommate, Carol.

Until that point, Carol believed that pie crusts were available only in the freezer section of  your local supermarket. Though her parents were both French, living in Wisconsin had apparently sapped away every vestige of their culinary heritage, leaving them only with the knowledge of how to brew coffee and cook sausage. I, on the other hand, took great pride in my crusts and my recipe, taken straight from the back of the Crisco can.

The strawberry-rhubarb pie, made from ingredients picked up at the legendary Madison Farmers’ Market, was apparently a revelation to Carol. It seemed a bit on the watery side to me, but she talked about it non-stop for nearly a week. “That was the best pie I’ve ever had,” she said. Twin Peaks was running at the time; she sounded like Agent Cooper at the counter of the R & R Diner.

So thrilled was she that she gave me this copy of Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook as a birthday present that year.

Written in 1965, this book chronicles a lifestyle that was already under siege by the agricultural industrial complex the moment it hit the shelves. I know this; I was born on a farm in 1965, and by the time I was in kindergarten my life was considered so exotic that it was turned into a field trip for my class. Thus a herd of five-year-olds was shepherded from the safety of suburbia to our farm, just a few miles outside the “city” of Cleveland, Tennessee. They looked at cows. They wisely ran in fear from the chickens. They stepped in little piles of manure dotting the fields and probably littered the freshly mopped floors of their homes with fecal matter within hours.

But I digress. I love the way that Farm Journal’s Pie Cookbook evokes a fantasy farm life, where green fields stretch out into the summer evening while swallows twitter overhead. Some samples:

“Peach pie is a reward tired and hungry men who have worked late in the field trying to finish a job really appreciate,” one farm woman says.  

Early summer mornings,  when the air’s still dewy, farm children gather ripe, juicy berries for Mother’s superb pies.

We certainly had moments like this on our farm. But we also had these:

Farm women think canning beans in August is about as much fun as a colonoscopy, but they know that both things need to be done.

Farmers are the kind of people for whom “vacation” means waiting till the next day to fix the tractor.

The book also contains recipes for pies that never appeared on our table–not surprising, given regional differences in American cuisine. Of course, I was drawn first to these more exotic pies (at least to me)–elderberry, currant, mulberry. One of these, Concord Grape Pie, has become a fall favorite. The filling reminded me of the juice and jams Mammaw made a few times from the grapes in our orchard. Just imagine the best homemade grape jam you’ve ever had, a grape jam with rich earthy undertones that’s not overly sweet–then you’ll have an idea of how this pie tastes.

Greed prevented us from getting a better photo. 
By the time I thought to get the camera, this was all that was left.

When the grapes come in this fall (September and October), you have only a few weeks to make this pie. It’s like those farms in 1965–their time on this earth is, sadly, too short.  

Concord Grape Pie

Unbaked 9″ pie shell
4 1/2 c. Concord grapes
1 c. sugar, or less to taste
1/4 c. flour
2 – 3 tsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt

Wash grapes and remove skins by pinching at end opposite stems. Reserve skins.

Place pulp in saucepan and bring to a boil; cook a few minutes until pulp is soft. Put through strainer or food mill, while pulp is hot, to remove seeds.

Mix strained pulp with skins. Stir in sugar, flour, lemon juice and salt.

Place grape mixture in pastry-lined pie pan. Cover with crust, cut vents, dust sugar on top, and flute edges. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and cook an additional 50 – 60 minutes.