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 . . .

Wilted Lettuce Update

The more I seek to uncover the mysterious origins of wilted lettuce salad, the further they disappear into the murky depths of culinary history. Over the weekend, I found a reference to the dish on Thyme for Cooking, a very nice blog with some lovely recipes. Sadly, I’ve mislaid the direct link to the post itself. But the upshot was that Katie, the blog’s author, had included the dish in a list of recipes that she characterized as typical of Midwestern church cookbooks.

“Midwestern!?” I thought. “That can’t be!” I mean, when I see bacon fat and vegetables nestled together in a pot, I assume we have Southern cooking on our hands–a mishmash of African and English food that somehow migrated from black cooks to the poor whites who lived nearby.

So I wrote to Katie to see if she could shed some light on things. Did she know when the wilted lettuce salad recipe first appeared in the church cookbooks she was describing? Would she have any clue about the dish’s origins?

Katie wrote back quickly and said she’s posed my question to her mother. According to Katie’s mom, wilted lettuce salad is an ‘old German’ recipe and is a “standard,” traditional among the older people in her home state of Wisconsin and especially the first generation immigrants.

I was in shock. My ten years in Madison, where those immigrants did not typically live, did not prepare me for this. And yet, it might make sense. Growing up, I’d always heard from my grandfather that one of my Appalachian ancestors had come from Germany–so perhaps this “Southern” dish came from there. But I still don’t know.

And there’s another twist: James Beard’s American Cookery, which I should have checked in the first place, calls wilted lettuce salad “the oldest and probably most functional of salads” (p. 39). And he offers an Italian version made with dandelion greens.

The plot thickens.

Wilted Lettuce Salad

I just sent in my monthly column for my (Atlanta) neighborhood newsletter, The Leafletanother excuse for neglecting this poor blog. In it, I offered a recipe for wilted lettuce salad, one of those old-fashioned dishes that flies in the face of modern sensibilities. It’s basically hot bacon fat poured over fresh lettuce.

What puzzles me now is where the heck this recipe came from. I had thought, given the bacon fat, that it originated in southern Appalachia–from some woman like my grandmother who needed to spruce up the spring lettuce, looked at the bacon drippings in the jar next to the stove, and thought it would be a good combination. But in poking around on the Internet, I’ve found it mentioned from folks who’d eaten it in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

I’ll just have to keep looking. I wonder if they teach these kinds of things in cooking school?

Wilted Lettuce Salad

For two people: Tear 2 – 3 cups Romaine lettuce into one to two-inch pieces, including spine. Slice two scallions (include some of the green section.) Place in serving bowls. Fry four pieces of bacon in skillet until very crisp. Remove bacon from skillet and place on papertowels to drain. Drizzle hot bacon fat over lettuce, stirring frequently, to coat lightly. Salt generously. Top with crumbled bacon and serve immediately.

Variation: Add ¼ cup vinegar and 2 tbps. sugar to bacon fat. Heatuntil mixture just reaches the boil and pour over lettuce.

Why There’s the Internet

Two minutes after finishing the post on cranberry beans below, I thought, “Why not see what the Internet has to say about this?” Here’s what I discovered:

“Cranberry beans are rounded with red specks, which disappear on cooking. . . . According to the USDA, the American ‘cranberry bean’ is the same bean as the Italian ‘borlotti’ and, as a matter of fact, a large percentage of the ‘borlotti’ beans sold in Italy are actually ‘cranberry beans’ imported from the U.S. Another name for this bean in the U.S. is ‘French horticultural bean’. If you can’t locate cranberry beans, an acceptable substitute is the pinto bean, and a second (but not as close) substitute would be red kidney beans.”

Someday, I will learn to read instructions.

Ragu a la Claudia

Ragu, as you know, is NOT the jarred spaghetti sauce you got in your school cafeteria in the 1970s, or that your mother–and now maybe even you, if you have children–opened up to pour on spaghetti a la East Tennessee (i.e., cooked to mush).

But what IS it? There are about as many recipes for ragu as there are internet sites. In short, though, ragu is a meat sauce with tomatoes and finely chopped vegetables served over pasta. I’ve seen recipes with lamb and pork and sausage as well as beef. Too many recipes claim to be authentic even to list here, but I’m proud to say that this one is fairly close to the one from the Italian Culinary Institute (or so the web site claims) and that of the great Mario Batali.

I guess this one has some authenticity because it comes from Claudia Mantovani, an Italian friend from Milan.

Fred would eat this every day if I were willing to cook it.

1 lb. ground beef
Olive oil and/or butter for sauteeing
1 minced onion
2 – 3 minced carrots
2 stalks minced celery
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. “magic cube” (Claudia’s word for “beef bouillon”–I use Better than Bouillon, which does not come in cube form)
2 bay leaves
1 can tomatoes (Debate rages over whether or not to use whole or crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce or paste. I’ve tried it all, and except for the paste, it works. And Mario likes the paste, so that probably works too.)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. cream (half and half will do)
Grated fresh Parmesan

Saute onion, carrots, and celery in olive oil and/or butter. Cook about 10 minutes over medium heat, or until soft. Add beef, breaking it up as you cook it, and cook until just brown. Add tomatoes, vinegar, bouillon, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Cook, half covered, for about half an hour. Add cream. Cook another half hour or more. Serve over spaghetti or linguini. Top with Parmesan.