7.29.2009

Grits Roulade, Almost Meatless



A half-hour into a three-hour train ride from Rhode Island back to New York last night, I was making a meal out of gummy bears when I had a clear yet untimely craving for a warm bowl of grits. It’s an admittedly strange craving for an 89-degree Tuesday evening in July {particularly after downing a handful of corn syrup disguised as colorful little bears} but it seemed to me a craving I shouldn't ignore.

Just then the alarm on my calendar rang out with a reminder that made sense of my craving: Almost Meatless Potluck, 12 hours.

Of course, the potluck! And I was responsible for making a Grits Roulade.

My craving was like a sixth sense, an inner alarm that told me I was dangerously on the verge of missing a party, a party populated with passionate cooks and writers around a subject I care deeply about—eating (and cooking) food that’s better for you and the earth. The party, the potluck and the food on the table come from the pages of Almost Meatless: Recipes That are Better for Your Health and the Planet, written by friend Tara Mataraza Desmond and Philadelphia restaurant critic Joy Manning.

The concept of Almost Meatless is simple. Love your meat, just love it on moderation (as a flavor component, for example, rather than the star of the show). I started cooking Almost Meatless accidentally after college, in the interest of saving time and money, and almost completely meatless at home since I met András, my animal-loving, vegetable-eating husband. The truth is, it’s usually easier, cheaper and much faster to cook this way. Compare the cook times for an omelet or a vegetable stir fry (even with a little crumbled sausage) to say, a chicken breast, broiled, grilled or pan-seared. Veggies win, hands down. I still love the nourishing aroma of a well-made chicken broth, the flavor-packed fat-pockets of cured European sausages and delicate little lamb chops eaten by hand off the bone. But like Tara and Joy, I have learned that when it comes to meat, less really is more.

So the book was an easy sell for me. And my assigned dish, Grits Roulade, an even easier one. For starters the head note reads like this: “Roulade is the soufflé’s less-exacting sibling. It is similarly constructed, beginning with….” Okay stop, you had me at soufflé. I usually prefer mine in the chocolate variety, but anything that puffs with pomp and circumstances in the oven is definitely for me. Secondly, I have a deep affection for eggs. They are cheap, fast, filled with nutrition and are always waiting for me in their little crate in the fridge, ready to welcome me back with a feast no matter how often I’ve overlooked them for seemingly more glamorous ingredients. And, if I had needed any convincing, Tara explained the dish to me like this, “It reminds me of you, elegant and down-to earth.” Flattery will get you everywhere.

In truth, it was the grits that got me good. There’s a southern girl deep inside me who expresses herself best through what is fast becoming my Anthology of Grits, a collection that includes Caramel Peach Upside Down Cake and Grits with Roasted Vegetables and Hazelnut Butter. She squirmed with delight and burst forth to accept her latest commission.

Back on the train, I scanned my memory for the ingredients I needed to make Grits Roulade, and did a mental walk-through our kitchen. Grits. Check. A cherished bag of stone-ground grits from our last trip to the Carolinas in the fridge. Eggs and Milk. Used the last of both to make András breakfast before I left town. Quick text to loving husband for aid. Smoked gouda and scallions. Not a chance. Another text to loving husband. Honey Ham. That might be pushing it, but it was a risk I had to take. Final text to loving husband.

I sweated out the next two hours, getting no word from loving (did I mention patient and handsome) husband. Two hours later, a text arrived.

“I have food supply. Come baby, come.”

András welcomed me home with open arms, then walked me straight to the fridge and through the shopping list. Organic milk and eggs. Check. Two beautiful bunches of scallions. Check. Smoked Gouda. Check. The man is good.

“Oh, and this!” He said holding out a plastic package of perfectly pink squares with rounded corners. Honey Ham the package advertised.

Oscar Meyer. Quality Meats. 96% Fat Free, Water Added. Hmm, somehow, I don’t think that’s what Tara and Joy had in mind.

When Tara assigned me this dish, she made the suggestion to roll ham into my half of the roulade, leaving the other half ham-less for András. Her smart suggestion was overruled by quality control. This time, we’d both go ham-less. Better to arrive at the potluck late and totally meatless than not at all.

The dish was quick to pull together (recipe here), based on simple techniques, like whipping egg whites, and breezy conversational coaching from Tara and Joy. Soon our kitchen was perfumed with the homey, punchy flavors of smoked gouda and scallions, and in about 35 minutes, we sat down to a midnight meal of puffed, pale-golden Grits Roulade with a bit of zucchini from our garden, sautéed crisp. The roulade was a perfect welcome home meal, both light and filling with the subtlest characteristics of grits, and a most welcome addition to my collection. And with or without ham, Grits Roulade is a clever illustration that life after going Almost Meatless is full of delicious surprises.


7.04.2009

Prize Plums

veszprem, hungary

Most days, I take for granted the fact that András is not an American citizen, and that to become one, he’s been working diligently since he came to the United States 12 years ago, earning his green card, his status as an alien resident, and hopefully, in January of next year, full citizenship. I also never imagined that on the eve of the fourth of July, the anniversary of independence of my country, I’d be on the other side working toward my citizenship in the old country.

When we married, András and I investigated the idea of my attaining dual citizenship, an idea I took to keenly, particularly when he had made the process seem quite simple. Fill out a few papers and 6 months later you’ll be a Hungarian citizen, he said. Easy enough, I’m in!

András’ and his family members have a way of making everything sound easier than it is. Perhaps its because they don’t sweat the small stuff much, or because they have the stamina to get the job done every time, no matter the task. As it turns out citizenship in Hungary, does in fact, require stamina, and patience, not to mention a working knowledge of the Hungarian language, one of the two toughest on the planet to master.

But I would not be deterred. This morning we gathered my passport, birth certificate, and marriage license and set out for the office of immigration and citizenship in Veszprem, the town of András birth. On the way in I spotted, a large, round ruby-leafed tree with low hanging branches full of rosy plums. Szilva! I stopped to take stock of my finding, but András and Apa hurried me along into the office.

Inside, I sat quietly through 30 minutes of Hungarian conversation with the immigration officer. I had never been such a good {or quiet} wife, waiting for Andras next move, smiling and nodding in an effort to conceal my total and utter lack of language skills. When the conversation ended, András whisked me away to another office, and then another, gathering every piece of the citizenship puzzle. In the next hour, we raced from the real estate office {to get proof of residency} to the photo shop {to get passport photos} to the post office {to buy stamps, the currency with which to pay for government} and back again. I kept handing over forint and for the first time in my life, obeying without explanation, knowing we had only 24 hours to reach the finish line before departing for the US. We returned to the first office to file the documents, and review our checklist of outstanding documents.

In the end, we learned, that all of these papers could help me attain the status as resident. But citizenship, like in any country, takes dedication. It requires three years of residency and marriage to a citizen, followed by an examination of Hungarian history, culture and language.

“Let me review. In the next three years, I have to learn a large number of very difficult words and get up close and personal with Atilla the Hun, Correct? “ I asked András.

“Correct.” András said.

“So I don’t get anything today?”

“No, sorry love. You’ll have to come back in a few weeks or so to pick up your residency papers, but for today you just get the satisfaction of knowing we’re on the right track.”

My heart sunk. All that work and I didn’t even get a gold star in my passport. I had hoped to be going home with the promise of EU citizenship and a simple six-month wait and instead, I had an arduous task ahead of me.

I considered the challenge. And then I considered that by comparison to what András had already been through in my country, this process was still relatively easy.

As we left the office, the plum tree caught my eye again.

“As a future Hungarian citizen, do I have the right to pick plums off of government property?”

Persze!” András and his dad said in unison. Of course.

I collected two dozen plums in my hat, my consolation prize for my patience and perseverance. On the way home, I plotted the plum upside down cake I would make with them, swatting away András hand as he dipped back into my hat eating plum after plum. But when we got home, we found Anya had beaten me to it. There waiting for us was a meggys pita {sour cherry pie}, practically a national food, and perfect sustenance for the journey ahead.













7.01.2009

The Hunt

bakony forest, hungary

I’m prone to romantic notions, and since so far they haven’t gotten me in too much trouble, I haven’t been inspired to change. Mushroom foraging as a hobby is one of my long-held romantic notions that started back when I first read Thomas Keller and Michael Rhulman’s account of the mushroom hunter in the French Laundry Cookbook 10 years ago.

My friend Robyn at King Arthur Baking Center in Norwich, Vermont, where I sometimes teach, is a mushroom forager and promises to teach me what she knows, but so far most of my visits there have been under piles of snow. The closest I’ve ever come to mushroom foraging is a wild goose chase around Italy in pursuit of truffles after a lead from a stranger, in Italian, led me to three tiny towns before I found myself staring at a shelf lined with preserved truffle products. Clearly my conversational Italian could use some work, but that’s another story.

I first got the idea for mushroom hunting in Hungary from a pack of wild boars. On our first trip to Hungary together, András and I were hiking in the Bakony forest where he spent his boyhood summers, when we discovered oak trees whose roots had been ravaged by wild boars. What little I did know about mushrooms told me one thing—this was a truffle hunt. Since we don’t have a trained pig, nor a trainable dog {yet another story}, I decided I would settle for less exotic mushrooms, any mushrooms; preferably not poisonous, and hopefully tasty.

On my second trip to Hungary, last May, I began each day with a request for him to take me on a mushroom hunt, something his mother claims he loved to do with his Aunt Klari as a child. Each day when we’d ask Klari, she would stroke my cheek with the back of her hand, and tell us, in Hungarian, to wait until it rained. That was a dry year.

This year it rained each and every day of our trip except for Saturday, the day of our wedding. So today, when the sky finally did clear, I saw families walking towards the fields, forest and hills swinging their baskets, in search of loot. Sure that all the rain had bestowed good fortune for my hunt, I ran to get Klari, who I found gathering peas with Anya in the field behind the house. András and Apa were busy building a frame for our old farm sink. If I wanted fresh peas for dinner that night, and a working sink, I would have to go alone.

I knew the danger involved. Mushrooms can be poisonous, or worse, deadly. When foraging, nothing beats a local expert, but in a pinch, a handy mushroom guide with full color photos warning me what to and what not to pick would do. Instead, I got two rules from Apa, who had also grown up foraging mushroom in these same woods.

  1. Don’t pick anything with a red or brown skirt on the stem
  2. Wear gloves

They pointed toward the far fields that bordered a creek leading to the woods. Start with field mushrooms, he instructed, and look near the piles of manure. Set out into the field hot sun, feeling smart in my little fedora confident that my large empty basket would be at least half full by the time I came home.

Before long, I had company. Two dragonflies buzzed incessantly around my head, following me no matter how far or fast I walked. And the field was producing nothing, so I detoured toward the creek where I found an opening through stinging nettles that sloped down straight into the center of the clear, shallow creek. They’ll never find me down here, I thought. I walked the creek, ducking below the low hanging branches feeling a bit like Indiana Jones.

Within minutes in the creek found a dozen small white mushrooms with gently sloping caps at the root of a tree, perfectly white, no skirt. I put on my gloves and picked them. Beginners luck, I thought! I was sure there would be many more to come. I walked on. The water quickly got deeper and murkier, and soon I was up to my knees. As I lost sight of my legs below me, I wondered what kind of killer snakes might live in these waters. And then, the dragonflies found me again.

Never once during my mushroom hunt did I worry about dying from touching or eating a potentially deadly fungi, but the list of other ways I could go suddenly consumed me. Killer Hungarian Dragon Flies, Stinging Nettle Overdose….quick sand.

My feet sunk into deep wet sand and I was stuck.

In seconds my mind went to the dark places, wondering how long it would take them to find me beneath the canopy of trees. Would they wait until dark? Find me two days later, dehydrated with cracked lips and flies swarming around my eyes? Or would they find my basket floating along in the water with a tiny handful of mushrooms like Moses on the Nile?

Stay calm, I thought. Wet sand sucked at my sneakers but I resisted its pull, securing my loot on a high branch before pulling myself out. The taste of surviving such peril left me hungry for more, so I pressed on. I found a tree with hundreds of mushrooms too young to pick. I marked the location in my mind and moved on. But the deeper I pressed on, the more hopeless my case became. My feet were muddy to my calves, I was beginning to get hot and hungry, and the only sign of edibles I’d seen in the last 100 km was snails, hundreds and hundreds of snails. If there were glory in snail hunting, I’d surely be legendary.

I have years to learn this land, I told myself, and returned home, swinging my basket to find András, Anya and Apa picnicking under a plum tree on fresh, tomatoes and raw onions from the garden.

I flashed my basket in front of Apa.

Jo,” He said. Good. He popped one in his mouth and smiled.

I waited a few minutes, checked his pulse, and followed. They were beautiful, but tasteless. I took them inside and weighed them. After our tasting, they yielded just .08 ounces—hardly enough for a meal, but just enough to leave me hungry for more.

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.